Notes on Lacan’s Seminar at Sainte-Anne [1] – Nov. 4th, 1971

Lacan opens his first seminar at Saint-Anne by addressing the “interns” within the audience, of which there were unfortunately few in number. It would be a worth-while exercise to sort out why it was that Lacan dedicated such precious words – paragraphs of his delicate speech – to spotting the interns from his audience. To begin speculating: those who are in-terns are those who are  turned-in to the ‘trade secrets’. Interns are formally admitted to the ‘inside’ ring of skilled workmen, albeit with suspicion. The word intern is very close to the word apprentice, and so, in either case, the point is that a certain threshold has been passed by the candidate. Now, having been permitted, they, still with so much obscuration, are departed sensitive knowledge. You can see clearly Lacan’s mysticism.

Lacan made a passing reference to the noted mystic Nicholas of Cusa who, like Augustine of Hippo, defended de docta ignorantia, “learned ignorance” or “scientific ignorance”. For Lacan, ignorance is indeed linked to knowledge. The question is the extent to which this link is maintained. Augustine of Hippo wrote: Est ergo in nobis quaedam, ut dicam, docta ignorantia, sed docta spiritu dei, qui adiuvat infirmitatem nostram” [“There is in us a certain, so to speak, learned ignorance that is the Spirit of God, who helps us in our weakness”]. Put differently, the working of the holy spirit, the working of men among men [sic], is the working of learned ignorance. (Lacan does seem to care about work in this seminar. Indeed, he opened it with a claim that he is working very hard this year.) One wikipedia article puts this rather well: docta ignorantia means that since mankind can not grasp infinity through rational knowledge, the limits of science need to be passed by means of speculation. Finally, Augustine of Hippo’s claim, then, is that learned ignorance is the very highest form of knowledge.

The question then turns toward the concept of revolution. Lacan distances himself from such a notion precisely because revolution is always, from the standpoint of enjoyment, the affirmation of man’s knowledge. We have a roundabout way of arriving at this claim. Through Lacan’s style of speech he demonstrates the effect of revolution: all revolutions are forms of returning/repeating something primordial. Knowledge, then, as form rather than knowledge as content (eg., knowledge of this or that), that is, knowledge as such, is always made up of a correlate of ignorance. This is because, clearly, knowledge never gets outside of itself.

And neither do revolutions.

Certainly, there are concepts that account for such ignorance: for example, “non-knowledge”. Georges Bataille, during a lecture on “non-knowledge”, did not utter a single word. Lacan claimed that this was a good display of non-knowledge. But then the people who attended seemed somewhat self-satisfied, as if non-knowledge was itself a transgression. But “they were wrong because now non-knowledge is chic.”

To return to the point, non-knowledge is there within the teachings of mystics as ignorance. Perhaps it even came from the mystics.  But we must distinguish between knowledge and truth: truth is not knowledge, and so truth is, then, non-knowledge. This is basic Aristotelian logic: everything which is not black is not-black. Where does this leave us? Non-knowledge is truth, and non-knowledge, as ignorance of the content of knowledge, is high knowledge (knowledge as knowledge).

Analytic discourse is therefore situated on the frontier between truth and knowledge. It is not necessarily non-knowledge, but neither is it, strictly speaking, knowledge. It seems to me that the best way to understand this is to draw up a continuum of concepts:

truth/non-knowledge  <–> analyst’s discourse / knowledge of knowledge (non-knowledge of content) <–> knowledge of content / non-truth.

If this continuum confuses, please ignore it.

The point is that non-knowledge is not inherently a bad thing. But it can rally those who are improperly ignorant, those who are lazy, and so on. It is as if there are two types of non-knowledge. There is non-knowledge as such, but which is still truth. And there is an awareness of non-knowledge, which is an awareness of truth – and this is the analyst’s discourse.

But there is another threat which comes from the institutionalization of non-knowledge. Lacan says:  “And then there are certain forms of institutionalisation, the concentration camps of the good Lord, as people said in the past, within the University, here these things are well received, because it looks chic. In short, a whole dumb show is carried out, is it not?” In any case, for analysts and University dwellers alike, non-knowledge is discovery. But the truth is different for each (as those familiar with the four discourses will no doubt note).

From this point on Lacan will write lalangue as one word. This is to clarify an important point: Lacan did not claim that the unconscious was structured like the dictionary but rather that it was structured like a language. What is at stake for the unconscious is precisely grammar which has to do with repetition.

This returns us to the question of revolution. Freud made a mistake in one of his articles from the late 1910s: against resistance we ought not think revolution. It is not revolution of knowledge which is at stake but the bringing into play of a function of knowledge. And so we can amend our understanding of the analyst’s discourse. The analyst’s discourse is further distinguished from base non-knowledge on the basis of its knowledge of the function of knowledge. Revolutions do not operate according to this base-knowledge. The Copernican revolution, for instance, was and still is commonplace within University knowledge, even at the time of Freud’s writing. University textbooks have stated that Copernicus made a revolution by putting the sun at the center and by putting the earth at the periphery.

But we have gone from geo- to helio- centrism! This was supposed to have given a blow to cosmological narcissism, but it has, in effect, recharged it.

So what is the knowledge of psychoanalysis? The knowledge of psychoanalysis, that is, the profound novelty of psychoanalysis, comes from its expression of unknown knowledge (knowledge we do not know that we know, i.e., unconscious knowledge). We have knowledge of this form of knowledge: it is in the form of a language but is not itself language. Revolutions are designed to mask the unconscious: in any revolution man is still at the center precisely because of knowledge – all revolutions are designed to encourage man to invent a new discourse.

We can see that knowledge, which is of the order of enjoyment, is still at the center of revolution. But, in a striking passage, Lacan maintained that “[i]t is in no way sufficient to understand something for anything whatsoever to change.”  This position, which is the topic of Fink’s recent two volumes, is said to be prominent in Lacan’s later period. I’ve been drawn to this position for quite some time and yet I’ve always found myself a Lacanian of the earlier period. Finally, we can claim that the knowledge of the analyst has to do with a knowledge of what place one must be at to sustain knowledge. And what type of enjoyment is the enjoyment of revolution if not the enjoyment of inventing the new discourse so that one might usher in the new master: “What is striking in what Freud sketches out about pre-Copernicus, is that it imagines that man was quite happy to be at the center of the universe and that he believed himself to be the king of it. This is really an absolutely fabulous illusion! If there was something that he got an idea of in the eternal spheres, it is precisely that the last word about knowledge was there. […] And this is indeed why knowledge is associated, from its origins, with the idea of power.” We’ve seen this with the Enlightened who had as their goal a knowledge unencumbered by power but who, through terror, instituted a new race of masters more ferocious than all that one had seen at work up until then (the French Revolution).


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