Note: It is important to point out at the beginning that these notes should not be read as independent blogs. They are to be read in order, beginning at the first set of notes for the first class of this seminar on anxiety.
Who’s afraid of object a? Lacan seems to intimate that there is a relationship between the void and object a. The English word “void” has a close relationship to the word “vacuum” (vacuus in Latin, for “void”). It makes sense, then, that Lacan finishes the seminar by mentioning Blaise Pascal’s courage when faced with the void. Indeed, it seems that Pascal carried out his experiments on the vacuum precisely because he was interested at some level in his own desire. I called his pursuit “courageous” for two reasons. First, because it lends itself to a Badiouian analysis of the subject’s relationship to the void:
We must also have an affect which goes against anxiety, and this affect is courage. Courage gives the human animal the means to go beyond anxiety. There is a dialectical relationship between courage and anxiety and it is at the very core […] [of subjectivation]. Anxiety is something like a new subjective knowledge of the situation, and courage is the affect that goes against anxiety in the direction which exists by the anxiety itself. […] Only when anxiety exists can the therapy for anxiety provide us with courage (Alain Badiou, The Subject of Change).
Courage, as a political, existential, and, indeed, clinical category was developed with considerable energy by Alain Badiou. I find this compelling and I want to pursue it in the Lacanian context. Second, I use the word “courage” here because it brings us back to Lacan’s discussion of Freud. Recall that Lacan described Freud as “courageous” precisely because he, unlike Breuer, made use of his anxiety (it was in 5th of December 1962 seminar). Pascal’s courage was therefore the courage to go beyond the anxiety that others had when faced with ‘nature’. Okay, okay – but what is this “nature”? Lacan adopts a broader definition of nature (broader than the standpoint of physics). “Nature abhors a vacuum,” Pascal famously stated. Lacan groups all of human civilization into “nature” such that Pascal was up against everything and everybody in his articulation of the void; nature, then, is something like the reality principle. It pressures us to change our path of pleasure. The abhorrence of the void – which, to be sure, is a desire – came from all learned men surrounding Pascal. Indeed, there is always atmospheric pressure when faced with the void.
The same pressure exists within the psychoanalytic community – and, indeed, within the academic community. There is a tremendous anxiety concerning the void. Rather than face the void, rather than face the “spare part” as such (Lacan called object a a “spare part” in the previous class), scholars obsess themselves with scholastic junk. I recall an article from a high impact journal that made a distinction between the “museum of ideas” and the “garage sale of junk”. At the time I thought this was displaced snobbery (a resurgence of the “high art” / “low art” division). However, now, after having spent more than 14 years in the world of higher education, I notice the prevalence of junk scholarship. It brings to mind Baudelaire’s rag-picker: we pick up the refuse of our times and with so much passion we “pour our hearts out into stupendous schemes”. Similarly, and more to the point, students of culture today promote, with excessive pride and principle, the virtues of bricolage research (eg., the students of Denzin & Lincoln, and Levi Strauss): the aim is to pick out spare parts from the junk pile of theory and collect them into a bag that sits atop our frail backs, until the weight is too much to continue to bear. And then what?: we turn to our masters for support, because we become the spare parts of higher education and, indeed, neo-liberal capitalism.
Are they not surprised when they find exactly what they’ve been boasting for so many years, namely that there are no masters to be found? The point is that there is no cure for anxiety. Lacan states this as a provocation. Indeed, he extends the principle: a cure is an “additional bonus” of treatment. This troubled people considerably, but only because they missed the crucial point: the longing for a cure is sometimes precisely the principle by which the subject can avoid his truth, namely that the pill – the easy way out – is his way of escaping from the study of that which matters most: his anxiety. Lacan does not want the subject to turn back after consuming the pill and say to himself: how easy it all was, was it worth it? The point is that the methodology, our style of writing/teaching/analyzing must ensure that the subject can not cheat (his) truth.
We now have a certain congruence of concepts: anxiety is occupied by minus-phi and constitutes a certain void. And if, through our methodology, we replace an encounter with the void for an encounter with the pill, we by necessity allow the subject to avoid the route of proper subjective advancement – until the weight is too much to continue to bear. I write “we” here because it is we, as analysts (teachers, writers, etc) who are implicated in the possible route around anxiety that the subject takes. Lacan is very clear at this point: we can not write ourselves out of the experience of analysis. Analysts occupy the position of the big Other – we are a part of that which provokes anxiety in the analysand (and also in ourselves through the analysand). We need to make sure that our desire does not make this dimension, the dimension of the big Other, shrink such that the analysand can cheat truth.
Even Pavlov demonstrates that dogs react to a stimulus which belongs in a different register. Lacan called this a “different register” because it is distinguished from the register of reaction. That which reactions is distinguished from that which provokes the reaction. The big Other is in a different register than the subject. If you press the system hard enough it will no longer respond – this occurs even with animals. This is why we need to be away of our relationship to the analysand. The big Other is there in every dimension. This is a radical claim. Lacan is not claiming that somehow we as human animals are there at all dimensions. Rather, it is the function of the big Other, of that which provokes anxiety – the possibility for change itself – in a subject, which is always there. It is there at the level of animals, of Pavlov’s dog, but also at the level of objects, of plants, trees, particles, etc. To summarize this point: we must note our own presence in the experiments of animals. And wasn’t this the break-through of the ‘observer principle’ derived from Heisenberg in quantum mechanics during the late 1920s? This might be refuted by stating that the animal or rock knows nothing about the dimension of the big Other. Lacan’s response is powerful: it is the same for us as subjects, we do not know anything about what constitutes us.
This is why the subject-supposed-to-know position is always a deceptive one. This states nothing about its necessity. The point is that there is no subject radically transparent to itself, that knows its own object, its own anxiety, enough to master it and to, therefore, master another subject’s object. Something always remains, something is always impossible to imagine, and this is the object of anxiety. Lacan makes a giant step and asks why it is that psychoanalysts rarely discuss nightmares? He hazards to suggest that nightmares involve the anxiety felt as the Other’s jouissance. We note this in the figure of the incubus or succubus, which is, as Lacan puts it, “the creature that bears down on your chest with all its opaque weight of foreign jouissance, which crushes you beneath its jouissance.” What’s more, Lacan claims that the incubus weighs down on the subject via the asphyxiating imposition of a question (and, moreover, a question that can not be answered, a riddle).
The incubus thus constitutes the overwhelming dimension of the Demand of the big Other, when it is too much to bear.
Next, Lacan discusses the signifier as that which represents a subject for another signifier. He names it an “effaced trace.” I tried to figure out why these words were chosen: effaced means “erase a mark from a surface” but it also could imply “effacement” as if the process through which the cervix prepares for delivery. All of this concerns the signifier. On the other hand, there is a sign. A sign is what represents something for somebody.
signifier: what represents a subject for another signifier
sign: what represents something for somebody.
You can see the difference between a signifier and a sign. Whereas a signifier involves displacement, a sign involves condensation. The sign presumes to represent something for somebody. Things are coherent and in their place. A signifier represents a subject but only for another signifier. The subject is represented by something which came before for something which comes after. What is at stake in all of this is the following: the subject is anxious because he has a relationship to something lost, something which came before.
The effaced trace is something that animals do – not just humans. Cats, for example, are involved in complex behaviors surrounding their shit. They bury it as if ritualistically. Lacan says: “one part of animal behavior consists in structuring a certain field of its umwelt [environment], its surroundings, by way of traces that punctuate this field and define its limits for the animal. This is what is called the constitution of territory” Thus, to “efface a trace” must mean something like erasing (by presuming to give birth to) one’s own desire. I am presuming, then, that Lacan means by “trace” that “spare part” which he has more formally named object a.
How do we distinguish between animals/objects and – without necessarily giving primacy to – humans? Even here, we are distinguishing between only certain humans, namely, neurotic humans [otherwise referred to as ‘normal humans’]. Lacan does something very clever here. He notes that animals can not lay “false traces” that make us believe they are false. To provide an example: a cat can not cover his shit so that we will see his shit. But humans can do this: very often we cover ourselves up in a mask precisely so that we can hide from the fact that the mask is of our actual face. As Lacan puts it: “that’s where the limit is [between neurotic humans and the rest of the world].
At the beginning there is an object, object a. There is also a big Other. The subject, via his birth through the signifier, is barred and produced. All of the subject’s life he will attempt to conquer what has been lost, the unknown dimension. He will do so with the help of the big Other. He makes a demand to the big Other and this demand always carries some anxiety with it. Any false response to this demand also has some anxiety to it. Every demand carries with it a void which is neither positive nor negative, but simply void. The source of anxiety occurs when this void is filled in.
Finally, Lacan introduces the matheme of the drive: $<>D [to be read: barred-S in relation to Demand]. We also have the matheme of fantasy: $<>a. There is some relationship between the two mathemes. The matheme of drive or demand is privileged in neurosis somehow. We can quickly see that this is a topic to which Lacan will now spend considerable time. He will most likely keep returning to the topic of the drive for, minimally, the next few years. First of all, it is important to distinguish drive [triebe] from instinct. Some translations have incorrectly conflated these terms. Lacan has no problem with the concept of instinct, but rather with the way in which the dimension of drive has been occluded. Drive has nothing to do with instinct.
We see the dimension of drive in Hegel when he claims, in the Phenomenology of Spirit, that language is work. It is precisely through language that the subject makes his “inside pass outside” (as Hegel put it). But it is clear, Lacan claims, that Hegel means “inside-out”. One imagines a glove turned inside out. Lacan points out that at each stage of inverted the glove there is always a residue, a part of the glove, which can not be turned inside out. These are “partial” elements of the glove, like partial drives. The object a is also this partial drive. We see it similarly in the mouth and the anus: it is the ring itself. Object a as the ring itself secures the enjoyment of the cut. The decisive function of the sphincter is that it “cuts the object” – and this is on the side of identity itself, the subject’s identity.
Playdough Sphincter as Object “a” of the Drive