NOTES – LACAN’S SEMINAR ON ANXIETY (X): 22 MAY 1963

In this seminar, Lacan discusses and expands upon Theodor Reik’s work concerning the shofar. In a sense, Lacan aims to extract the descriptive work that Reik provided without reducing his own analysis to one of ritual. There is something else about the shofar which is of interest to us: it represents the object in the field of the ear. It seems basic, but it is worth pointing out that the shofar is an object. It is an object that serves a very important function within the Jewish faith. The fact that the shofar is an object of ritual does not lead us any closer to understanding its essential function from a psychoanalytic point of view. Lacan puts it all on the line at the very beginning: the shofar gives substance to the object a at that point where desire and anxiety are bound together.

Shofar used in Jewish Ritual

What does it mean to say that shofar gives substance to the object a at that point where desire and anxiety are bound together? I hazard a guess: in the previous class Lacan was at pains to demonstrate that anxiety is always on the side of lack and the Other – but desire on the other hand is on the side of the barred-subject. Moreover, object a was on the side of the subject as well. All of this was outlined in the table of long division. So – when desire, the subject, and anxiety, the lack in the Other, are bound together, the distinctions between them cease to be operative. This must be none other than the field of perversion, the field of play wherein the subject makes an attempt to conjure up the lack in the Other, to make the Other exist as such through anxiety.

So now we bring our analysis to the field of the ear. The shofar is none other than a horn – a real horn inasmuch as it is the horn from an animal, a ram or wild goat – which can be blown to make a sound. I’ve included a short video so that you can hear it for yourself, below:

You can see that it is used in synagogues during ritual Jewish festivals that follow the new year rosh hashanah which ends the great atonement yom kippur. What we see in many rituals today is a short horn, however I’ve been told that longer horns were more common at one time. I believe that the length was an important aspect of the ritual, not because of its spatial dimension but because of the sound that must have found its way out of the larger horn. The resulting sound seems to have a real effect on people who are capable of hearing it. We’ve seen this, for example, written in the bible. What Reik failed to do – according to Lacan – was link Yahweh himself with the object, as if the horn was itself the voice of God.

There are a few passages which are worth replicating here. The first is Exodus 19:16-19, which reads:

16. And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled.

17. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount.

18. And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.

19. And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice.

What do we notice here? We notice that all those who were capable of hearing the horn “trembled” – these people were at the base of the mountain. And the horn grew louder and louder, and “God answered him by a voice.” Could it be, then, that the voice is the horn itself? This seems to be what Lacan is going on about. Lets look further into Exodus 20:1819, which reads:

18. And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off.

19. And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die.”

Lacan does not include verse 19 in his citation, but I believe that it is essential. We see that in the first case, the horn made everybody tremble and in the second case the horn – God’s voice, if we can be so bold – could make everybody die. The people were afraid of the voice. [I do not want to even begin to explore the question, which is no doubt relevant, as to how, in verse 18, the people could see the noise of the horn].

What could provoke such trembles, such anxiety, among the people if not the substantialization of the object a via the shofar? The object a in the field of the ear is always something like the shofar. So, its function within ritual, and within the bible even, seems to be, according to Reik as well as Lacan, as a way to remember or reintroduce the covenant. It was used, for example, when Spinoza was excommunicated in 1656 at the Amsterdam synagogue, when he was declared a heretic.

At this point I want to merely make mention of something that seems slightly out of place: Lacan dedicates a considerable amount to time to establishing a basis for the shofar as being the voice of God. It is truly much more than necessary. In fact, it seems to me at least, Lacan more often makes a point – such as one linking the shofar to the object within the field of the ear – quickly, and then he leaves it to us, his students, to assess the validity of the claim. Why does he here take such pains to spell it all out for us? I do not know the answer to this. However, Lacan does explain why it is that he turned to the shofar rather than any other instrument (the tuba, trumpet, drums, etc). It is simply because it is somewhere at the beginning of a tradition, and not just one tradition. At the beginning of a tradition, in the bible, the shofar is the “roar of God”.

At this point we can begin to ask about the place of the shofar in Lacanian schemata. The shofar is a voice that is separated from us, made complete inside of an object. The sound that is made from the shofar happens only during those moments when a pact or covenant is to be renewed. It is a sound-form of the pact itself, and it returns us, within the field of the ear, to that sacrifice made by Abraham – the ram. Now we can move a bit further and ask about this covenant, this memory of the pact. We would presume that the sound is made to memorialize the pact made by Abraham onto God, but this has it entirely in reverse. The pact is really made so that God can remember the sacrifice that Abraham made for him. It is as if by blowing the horn one is demonstrating one’s pound of flesh, one’s sacrifice, to the God so that the God can then approve of one’s good work. So we can say then that the sound is made to bring the Other, namely God, into existence – and this is what signals anxiety among the people.

We return to the field of the eye – the dimension of space. We are dealing with space as it relates to desire when we discuss the eye. Later, in another seminar, Lacan will go so far as to claim that the field of the eye has nothing at all to do with eyes. A person without eyes can just as easily map space using his cane. Space has some strange relation to the eye which we are finally coming to understand. The eye is something like an exception within space. It is not like the body of physics. Within everyday (naive) physics, we deal with bodies as points. A body is a point in space, localized. Yet it is localized in space by something which is exceptional to that very space.  This is why, in one of the earlier classes I went back to Euclid – because it seems to me that a point is worth rescuing as a concept precisely because it has this property of exception. Indeed, it seems to me that this is what Alain Badiou picks up in his work as well (on the concept of the “point” ; a point is for him something like an exception, minus temptation, to the prevailing order of the world).

A body, or a point, is irreducible, it can not be divided any further. It is like our object a. The philosopher Democritus described an atom in much the same way: everything in the world is composed of atoms which can not be broken down any further. The problem, of course, is that many centuries later physicists adopted the term atom and then broke it down. We all know the story about Einstein’s letters to the president during the second world war. Lacan says something truly profound, which, on first read, seems naive: an atom can not be in two points at once. Here, we are using the classical definition of an atom, which is akin to the point. This type of atom, this point, stands resolute. It can not be in two places because it remains irreducibly tied to its own place. A point can not be in two worlds, it can only be in one world. A point is not tempted by other worlds or other positions. But, of course, there can be more than one point. At this point, object a no longer remains tied to the concept of a point. The object a can be in more than one place at a time.

This is why the point seems to be closer – in the Lacanian perspective – to the imaginary. We can see that the specular relation is similarly in that it appears to not be reducible. In the i(a) the is bracketed and the image presumes to be coherent, closed in upon itself, without any remainder.At this point Lacan points us to a diagram on the blackboard – unfortunately, the diagram was not reproduced in the book. He says that the diagram grounds the function of the ideal ego and the Ego ideal, to show us how the subject’s relation to the Other functions when the specular relation is dominant there, a relation that on this occasion is being called the mirror of the big Other. So the image is a lot like the atom. The only difference, and it seems that Lacan fails to mention this, is that the atom, the point, occur as a symbol. The point, put differently, can be quilted. In any case, if we remain within the visual field of the i(a) we now see the possibility for something to blur our vision.

Whatever blurs our vision is called a “stain”. This will not be the first time that Lacan uses this concept. The stain is the place of the object a. Yet, it can be quickly overcome by the beauty spot. I know this. As a child I had a large mole on my right ear. I remember asking my mother about it. I asked her if it was ugly. She responded: “no, no.. it is a beauty mark!” I could detect the sarcasm in her voice. The stain, the mole, is something from which you can not look away, once you finally see it. And when you see it a choice is made: either you accept the disfigurement, transforming it into something “beautiful” – or else you feel the signal of anxiety. From that point on there can only be slips…

The beauty spot, the mole, the stain, looks at me. It looks at me but it also makes itself “my business”. Here we see the development of a theory of the gaze. There is something behind the image which gazes at me – we know this if ever we encounter a truly blind individual. There is something behind the eyes, looking, judging perhaps. In the visual field, our desire conceals the anxiety of this gaze, of this stain [the two concepts seem to be equated with one another at this point].