Chomsky’s Meta-ethics

Noam Chomsky’s response to the recent antifa actions were prepared well in advance. They are ingrained within his latent meta-ethics, which he both takes for granted and explicitly invokes. Here is a snippet from a book I wrote more than ten years ago:

“By way of example, Noam Chomsky, a noted libertarian anarchist, has argued on more than one occasion, that ‘one of the, maybe the most, elementary of moral principles is that of universality, that is, if something is right for me, it’s right for you; if it’s wrong for you, it’s wrong for me. Any moral code that is even worth looking at has that at its core somehow’ (Chomsky, 2002). Chomsky’s adoption of the universalist ethical discourse is nowhere more apparent than in the response he has provided to his critics regarding his participation in what has come to be called the Faurisson Affair. Chomsky, who allegedly supported the ‘right’ of Robert Faurisson to publicize his questionable thoughts on the holocaust—as Chomsky (1981) has put it, ‘he denies the existence of gas chambers or of a systematic plan to massacre the Jews and questions the authenticity of the Anne Frank diary, among other things’ —had this to say in his defence:

[…] it is elementary that freedom of expression (including academic freedom) is not to be restricted to views of which one approves, and that it is precisely the case of views that are almost universally despised and condemned that this right must be most vigorously defended (ibid.).

Kant’s categorical imperative rests upon this axiom of generalizability and as a consequence it bounds the ethical subject to the shared duties illuminated through practical reason (cognitivism): ‘This harmonizing with humanity as an end in itself would, however, be merely negative and not positive, unless everyone also endeavours, as far as he can, to further the ends of others. For the ends of any person who is an end in himself must, if this idea is to have its full effect in me, be also, as far as possible, my ends’ (Kant, [1783] 2007: 181). Thus, for Kant, the universalizing principle takes the form of an imperative resulting from objective reason.

Adherents of the semantic theory associated with ethical universalism have typically presumed an objective place that is illuminated by the reasoning capacities of the mind as in deontological ethics, or empirical observations as in naturalist methodologies, etc. Overall, the popular criticism against ethical universalism has been that adherents have been insensitive to the unique cultural codes of diverse social groups and that they have therefore judged the ethical actions of these groups according to the standards of only one hegemonic social group. As Todd May has put it, ‘[t]he threat posed […] in articulating a universal conception of justice is that of allowing one linguistic genre (namely, the cognitive) to dominate others’ (May, 1994: 129). Mackie’s critique of utilitarianism has stood the test of time and has proved to be a useful critique in this respect:

People are simply not going to put the interests of all their ‘neighbours’ on an equal footing with their own interests […] Such universal concern will not be the actual motive of their choice, nor will they act as if it were (Mackie, 1977: 130-1).

Yet the question is inevitably raised: why do ethical actors utter these statements, love thy neighbour, and so on, if they do not believe them to be true? Mackie’s response has alluded to the psychoanalytical understanding of the role of fantasy in everyday life:

It encourages the treatment of moral principles not as guides to action but as a fantasy which accompanies actions with which it is quite incompatible […] To identify morality with something that certainly will not be followed is a sure way of bringing it into contempt—practical contempt, which combines all too readily with theoretical respect (Mackie, 1977: 131-2).

This logic has close affinities with that of the superego in Lacanian thought, which succeeds in garnering control of the id by way of the subject’s encouraged transgressions: Enjoy! Moreover, the Lacanian interpretation of Mackie’s statement would be that fantasized ethics are the very stuff of the imaginary order—an order of presumed wholeness, synthesis, similarity, and autonomy.


Adherents of ethical universalism have posited that there is a shared objective essence that grounds all normative principles irrespective of the stated values of independently situated subjects or social groups. Many times, this essence has arrived as a consequence of the a priori assumption of a static and/or natural human nature. It should not go unnoticed that Todd May’s post-structuralist anarchist critique of classical anarchism constitutes a gross reduction of the classical anarchist response to the question of place. However, his critique does serve as a useful example of a strong tendency within traditional anarchist discourse toward humanist naturalism:

we can recognize that anarchism’s naturalist view of human beings plays an ethical role in its political theory […] Moreover, the naturalist justification allows anarchists to assume their ethics rather than having to argue for them. If the human essence is already benign, then there is no need to articulate what kinds of human activity are good and what kinds are bad (May, 1994: 64).


Read the whole book/argument here:


Jeffrey Alexander’s “Cultural Sociology”

Jeffrey Alexander’s wonderful book The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology (2003) argued that “cultural sociology is a kind of social psychoanalysis.” He continued, “[f]or Freud, the goal of psychoanalysis was to replace the unconscious with the conscious: ‘Where Id was, Ego shall be.’ [Wos es War..] […] Its goal is to bring the social unconscious up for view. To reveal to men and women the myths that think them so that they can make new myths in turn.”

We should return to Lacan by rereading Freud’s dictum on the Wos es War… Recall that Strachey’s translation was inadequate, perhaps even incorrect. It is not that it should be translated as “where it was, ego shall be” or “where id was, there we should become conscious.” The difference: it is not that one should increase the sphere of consciousness, the sphere of human knowledge regarding social reality. Rather, more essentially, one must be prepared to confront the truth and let it speak as an intervention through the domain of consciousness and truth. It is not that the ego should capture and confine truth but that it should release it and let it pass through itself.

Slavoj Zizek once put it like this:

Therein resides Lacan’s version of Freud’s motto wo es war, soll ich werden (where it was, I shall become): not “the ego should conquer the id”, the site of the unconscious drives, but “I should dare to approach the site of my truth”. What awaits me “there” is not a deep Truth I have to identify with, but an unbearable truth I have to learn to live with.

Cultural Sociology ought to be about making cuts or interventions precisely within the field of thinking known as sociology.

If we return to some of the first perspectives on sociology we shall see the extent to which this was their important function. For example, there is the “sociological imagination” of C. Wright Mills, the “sociological perspective” of Peter L. Berger, the feminist perspectives (“the personal is political,” or “from margin to centre,” etc), and so on. These were interventions into taken-for-granted ideological meanings regarding social reality. To provide another convenient example: Durkheim’s widely influential work on suicide was to demonstrate that suicide was not simply the result of personal troubles. He opened up another reality and let it speak. This other reality intervened dramatically into the taken-for-granted meanings pervading social intercourse. This explains why so many sociologists want to encourage a certain type of thinking, rather than a certain methodology.

Today there is a sort of datapolitik at play within political reality. The sociology of Durkheim and others is now incorporated into the taken-for-granted infrastructure of politics and culture. Thus, cultural sociology needs to make new cuts, new interventions. It needs to return to the Freudian dictum with the seriousness of Lacan.

It must, more than ever, (if I may use the expression of the former conservative Prime Minister of Canada) be ready to “commit sociology.”

Trump’s “many sides”

A bit on Trump and number theory.

When Trump claims that there are “two” sides, or “many” sides, he invites us to understand multiplicity consistently (as if all multiples are equal to one another; i.e., 1 is not equal to 0). Radical and revolutionary thought invites us to understand that a multiplicity always has within itself an inconsistent multiple, where multiples are not all treated as if they are the same. Trump does not know the meaning of the phrase “many sides,” he knows only the meaning “1 equals 0.”


Recently, I have been in conversations with people who either have Complex Primary Motor Stereotypy (CPMS) or else have children who have it. I have noticed the following: those who have had CPMS for a significant period of time (e.g., twenty or more years) seem less likely to describe it as a problem that ought to be cured. I would not go so far as to describe this as ‘resistance,’ but it is striking how their discourse demonstrates a certain contempt for a cure. It seems rather that CPMS becomes increasingly a vehicle for self-identification, and, moreover, for their unique talents to be exhibited. CPMS becomes the place for poetic expression, for the invention of language to describe the phenomena, and so on. No doubt, it is beautiful. It seems to me that this is what Lacanians refer to as the synthome. I invite you, if you are so interested, to look into the way those who have CPMS express themselves about the experience and to investigate the way that they describe their sensations and excitations as well as their relations to the Other.

On the other hand, those who love somebody who has CPMS (e.g., parents) are much more likely to feel frustration as a result of it. Parents of those with CPMS are much more likely to indicate that this is something they want ‘fixed’ or ‘treated,’ while, at the same time, adding that it is what makes their little one unique and special. Parents constantly try to walk a confusing and challenging tight rope between acceptance and frustration. I have found increasing evidence of parents or relatives who have had similar conditions, or if it is not directly CPMS that they have had then they seem to show evidence of eating disorders or panic attacks or something similar.

Here, psychoanalysis demonstrates again a unique contribution to any understanding CPMS: the underlying structure is what is important. Children tend to inherit the unconscious baggage of their parents. (I have mentioned my own eating and panic disorders in relation to my son’s CPMS.) In other words, while the parental structure may appear to be relatively stable, the underlying structure, upon inspection, might actually reveal a similar structure to the child. This is why so many parents remark upon the apparent “genetic” aspect of CPMS. More research should be done in this area (e.g., more research should be done on parents of children with CPMS). This is a highly neglected area of research. Moreover, we should try to find out the role of the father in cases of CPMS. I can not speak to this question as well as I would like.

In any case, it strikes me that all of this is consistent with what Paul Verhaeghe has described as the ‘new symptoms’ (e.g., panic attacks, eating disorders, etc). I invite you to see his article in the book Madness, yes you can’t for more on this. CPMS is not a classical ‘conversion symptom’ in the strict sense because its underlying meaning can not be revealed. I have tried to see if the CPMS has anything to do with earlier trauma (e.g., divorce, etc) and I can not be sure that it does. Soren does clearly have some problems with the separation of his parents (often, at times, remarking that he wished his parents would still live together, and so on), but I can not link it to the CPMS symptoms. Soren often says: “my body just does it.” Those are his own words, and not mine. He can not find any further words, usually, to describe it. I have to introduce the words to him and then he accepts them.

Thus, there is at the root of CPMS (unlike conversion symptoms) a radical void of meaning. I can not be sure that this is the case for all people who have CPMS. So far, however, this seems fairly consistent.

This clinical feature (the void of meaning) is absolutely not accounted for in any current research on CPMS and it is the unique contribution of psychoanalysis. Verhaeghe’s work sheds light on CPMS in a way that all other so-called ‘evidence based’ approaches simply haven’t and can not. Contemporary psychoanalytic research is at the fore in this area but has not addressed the specificity of CPMS. Instead, it treats CPMS as if it were simply a part of the ‘ordinary psychosis,’ ‘borderline,’ and so on, structures. This might be the right way to think about it, after all.

I want to be clear that I am only provisionally accepting the label “Complex Primary Motor Stereotypy,” and that my usage of that phrase is only to facilitate a connection to those who as of yet find no other “name” to describe the experience. I also do not want to settle on whether or not this is something that needs to be cured or something that is a problem. I am trying to be indifferent about that. I simply want to better understand it. The point is that those who have CPMS seem to be indifferent to the Other (and his wishes to cure it, or whatever) or else radically opposed to the Other. In both cases, treatment, if it were possible, seems fairly difficult. Transference and the sujet-suppose-savoir can not be easily established.

I am writing in haste, but I do want to point out one more detail. I have become privy to a new aspect of CPMS that I had not hitherto been made aware. Many of those who have CPMS describe an intense ‘imaginary’ experience. Some even gave that the dignity of a concept (which I will not repeat here). The imaginary experience is intense and yet it is something that they willingly do and that they find a lot of benefits from doing. For example, some with CPMS will indicate that they feel more energy and awareness after an intense imaginary fixation. A lot of those with CPMS describe keeping it for ‘at home,’ or in the privacy of their bedrooms, etc. These are describe often in visual terms: ‘its like watching a movie,’ and so on. You can see here once again that we are dealing with surplus stimulation, something that pours out of the body. Witnessing the behaviour reveals also that it is as if the fingers are being stimulated intensely by electricity. It is a too much which is not necessarily problem for he or she who feels it. Typically the too much of the clinic leads to a demand for a ‘cut’: “stop all the extra excitation doctor!” In the case of CPMS, I can not say that I have found a single demand (except from the parents) for a ‘cut.’

Incidentally, when my son was younger I believe that he may have been watching a disproportionate amount of television during the time of his parents’ depression. It is still difficult at times to remove him from a television or video game.

Complex Primary Motor Stereotypy (2)

One of the most interesting things about Complex Primary Motor Stereotypy is that children find it difficult to explain, that is, to put into words, the experience. This is not necessarily a symptom. It is, rather, the crux of the problem. Behavioral psychology, which has been at the fore of treating (with some minimal relative success) Complex Primary Motor Stereotypy, remarks about the importance of creating an “awareness” of the excitation (“excitation” is my word for it). This is where Behavioral therapy falls short: it is not awareness at stake but rather signifiers, and the appearance of key signifiers which would inhibit some of the jouissance.

Soren was introduced to several signifiers: (1) the shakes, (2) flapping, and, moreover, (3) “Can I shake?,” and (4) “No Shaking now,” then the shaking subsided ever so slightly. When these signifiers are missing, his shaking emerged at an exponentially accelerated rate.

Behavioral psychology has only taken the surface level insight of psychoanalysis, ignoring the essential underlying insights. For example, recent research in the field of behavioral psychology (out of John’s Hopkin’s University) has found that variability in the “blocking” technique – which analysts know refers ultimately to the “blocking” of real jouissance, of the drives – increases the likelihood of treatment success. This is what a signifier does: it blocks jouissance.

The behavioral psychologists believe variability introduces some choice for the subject, and that subject’s prefer choice, prefer freedom. This is incorrect. Psychoanalytic research finds that variability on the part of the “blocker” (the paternal function) establishes the function precisely as an external agency, and, moreover, as a function that works. The only way that a subject can be sure that a father is independent and powerful is to test that out. Variability is a test of the limits of the subject’s freedom.

The behavioral psychologists are making progress treating complex primary motor stereotypy only because they have taken some of the insights of psychoanalysis without realizing it. However, they have done so in ways that will not move as far as they could if only they would turn to psychoanalysis. For example: they are incorrect on the nature of “awareness,” (which is really about “signifiers”), “blocking” (which is really about inhibiting jouissance), and “variability” (which is really about the quest toward establishing a limit to freedom).


Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book V: 1957-1958

The Formations of the Unconscious

(Cormac Gallagher, Translation)

Seminar 2: Weds 13 November 1957

Lacan begins this seminar by returning to Hirsch-Hyacinth’s statement: “And as true as God shall grant me all good things, I sat down quite as an equal, quite famillionairely.” At this point Lacan (like Freud) has already characterized this as a witticism, and an examination of the statement will shed further light on the relationship of the signifier and the unconscious.

It is surprising, claims Lacan, that neurology has accepted developments in linguistics in advance of psychoanalysis. Neurology at the time of Lacan’s seminar already made use of linguistics for understanding aphasia and other speech deficits. However, psychoanalysis, which is a field most prepared to advance and make use of the discoveries of linguistics, has been less prepared to receive these insights. This is particularly surprising since it is clear – and Lacan goes at length to spell this out for us throughout his work – that Freud’s work (all of it!) presupposed the modern field of semiotics, and presupposed the logic of the signifier. Lacan puts a challenge to us: read Freud’s essay on jokes and try not to find therein support for the argument that the jokes related fundamentally to “language-technique.” We shall see that by “language technique” Lacan has in mind the particular linguistic operations of metaphor and metonymy, which, in their own way, compliment Freud’s discussion of condensation and displacement.

As we move further into this class we can see the extent to which the operations of metaphor and metonymy, “language techniques,” are not themselves taken from linguistics but rather are less developed precisely within that field. It seems, increasingly, that these language techniques are rather techniques of the signifier and that, moreover, the natural dwelling place of the signifier is psychonanalysis. Why, then, did linguistics usurp this position? One possible explanation is that Saussure gave his course on general linguistics, though, if you read his work, it certainly seems to have a foot in the world of linguistics and a foot in the world of psychology. For example, one of Saussure’s most cited diagrams consists of two speaking, hearing, and thinking heads chatting with one another.


It is not my aim to pose two fields of study against one another when they are animated by differing urges: while the one cares exclusively about the written word though moves increasingly to consider all sorts of subject matter worth exploration, the other, namely psychoanalysis, has from the very beginning worked the two poles in tandem. In any case, it so happens, according to Lacan, that the entire technique of a joke finds its bearings in the Freudian operations of condensation and displacement. Lacan repurposes these, bringing them in line with the various nuances of linguistic study, as “metaphor” and “metonymy.”

So, why does Lacan rename “condensation” as “metaphor” and “displacement” as “metonymy?” The question seems obvious and yet it never has received a very good answer. It seems to me that the movement from the former name to the new names brings with it a metaphorical effect: it transposes the debate into one that has more nuances, more hiding places, more pockets of misunderstanding, while also, it is true, bringing new meanings on the scene for psychoanalysis. We shall see that it is not a one-to-one correspondence: “condensation” and “metaphor” are not equivalent terms. Something is lost and gained in the movement from the one name to the other, and, I would say, it was important that Lacan make this move. I will return to this argument in a moment.

I want to return to an open question from my last blog post. I asked how we can be sure that the neologism “famillionaire” is not holophrasis, is not, in other words, part of a psychotic ‘discourse’ (if I may use that word). Lacan’s answer is that there is a “witness” present in the statement: “As true as God shall grant me all good things,” indicating, here, that the subject is in some relation to a witness.  “God,” here, is the big Other, and this Other is observing the subject of the statement, that “I,” which, in this statement, I think, comes out in the form of “shall grant me.” The “me” is close to the shifter, “I,” and does not necessarily refer to the self as an object. Rather, the object of the sentence is “Solomon Rothschild;” derived, we are told, from the following statement: “I was sitting beside Solomon Rothschild, quite as an equal.” This is part of the ego and its ideals. Finally, there is a code in the word “quite” since it demonstrates an uncertainty of actually being an equal to the object. A disjunction appears among object and subject, and another scene is opened up here with the word “quite.” This other scene opens up the word “famillionaire.”

This “other scene” is no doubt the unconscious. The code “quite” and “famillionaire” open us up to the unconscious and to the message which has not been entirely revealed: “what happens when ‘famillionaire’ appears? It can be said that something is indicated there that we experience as a perspective opening out towards meaning …” But there is also something that is less evident, something that has an “after-effect” and which is “propagated from here into the world as a consequence.” Lacan says that what is propagated is the “emergence of an object,” and that, moreover, is an “absurd” and “non-sensical” object. A moment ago I wrote about a disjunction among object and subject. I now refer to this as the infamous objet petit a.

Objet petit a is an object in some relation to the “real.” The signifier, according to Lacan, functions with the real by “evoking it, making it emerge, manipulating it, engendering it.” It Lacan repeats a number of verbs here then it is probably because the real is difficult even for him to express. It is not that Lacan means that the signifier evokes and emerges and manipulates, etc., but rather that each signifier functions as a bit of a parallax on the real, offering imperfect vantage points which produce their own disjunctions. Well, then, this is how it works: the signifier makes use of the logic of metaphor and metonymy precisely to relate to the real. Does this not explain Lacan’s own difficulty, then? Lacan remarks upon the “difficulty” of his style here, openly confessing to the Other that other people find it difficult. He apologizes for this and admits that there may be deficiencies in his style. We see Lacan open up before a witness, which, for him, is no doubt “as true as God shall grant him all good things.” The difficulty of his style is a difficulty of explaining the mechanisms of the signifier while being forced at the same time to use them within the explanation. He wishes to demonstrate that his style also allows his listeners to glimpse the very object that the style aims to help us understand. In other words, we see, once again, that his style makes use of metaphor. Moreover, Lacan makes himself the subject of a style or a fashion, and, moreover, he props himself up as the one who makes-use of a technique of the signifier to present himself within the field of the Other. This means that there are creative functions of the signifier: “if it is in fact a question [that is, if his style is in question] in connection with the creative functions that the signifier exercises on the signified […] perhaps the subsequent teaching this year will show you that there are internal necessities of style, conciseness for example, allusiveness, even some sting are perhaps essential, decisive elements necessary to enter a field of which they control not only the avenues, but the whole texture.”

Conciseness and allusiveness. These are the two words he chose, perhaps even on whim. It is not by chance that the one presents meaning in an isolated and near-pure form while the other attempts to hide the essential core of that meaning. Conciseness of signifier, allusiveness of signified.

Who is the “they”? He admits that his style allows him to break from the whole texture or fabric of the field of his listeners, the field of the Other. His style provides him with an emergence of subjectivity, the difficulty for which he can only apologize. He refers to his style as “mannerism,” which has a “great tradition” and an “irreplaceable function.” Mannerism was a style of European art that exaggerates proportions of figures while presenting instability and tension. Moreover, one of the early and notable traits of the art was to imitate previous respected artists while making those art pieces better by introducing something new. Presumably that which was introduced was the lack of perspective, exaggeration, and instability of figures.

Next, Lacan invites us to imagine that signifiers link together in various ways through the operation of metaphor and metonymy, thereby producing chains or rings. I can not help but think of the Borromean ring which is supposed to represent the symbolic, imaginary, and real as separate and interconnected rings. However, in this description we can see that the signifiers themselves make up the rings which form the imaginary precisely through the technique of metaphor and metonymy. The imaginary therefore emerges from the symbolic. However, we also know that the symbolic – signifiers – do not touch but remain parallel to the real. This leaves open a question, then, since we have not established yet in this seminar the possibility of the real as a construction of the limitation of the symbolic. Rather the real is there strictly parallel. This is an altogether more novel and interesting position, I would say. However, the “parallel” version of the real, of the signified, is Saussure’s invention. Lacan’s is rather one of disjunction.

Lacan takes Freud at his word: “famillionaire” compresses the signifiers “familiar” and “millionaire.” Metaphor is “the operation of the substitution of one signifier for another,” which secures “the possibility of the emergence of ever new meaning.” We can see how “millionaire” was substituted for the natural ending to “familiar,” thereby generating the new meaning: “famillionaire.” But this is the important part: metaphor “[always goes] in the direction of ratifying, of complicating and of deepening, of giving its sense of depth to what in the real, is only pure opacity.” This last part is interesting because metaphor operates so that the new meaning emerges half hidden. In other words, the word “famillionaire” hides a bit of the word “family” from the meaning. We can see the signifier buried a bit into the real, but not totally out of sight. This is what metaphor does: it produces a new meaning by allowing a bit of the real out, a bit of what was out of sight emerges into sight. This leaves us to think about the signifier as itself parapraxis, which, when understood through the logic of the signifier (metaphor/metonymy): the signifier is “the original slip of the tongue.” Why? Because the signifier is always at odds with the signified, and, moreover, the signified always hollows out the signifier.

Lacan asks us to think about the Freudian experience of forgetting a name (a proper name). Lacan adds that all proper names are “foreign names.” This helps to explain why, above, he claimed that the signifier is the original slip of the tongue. If the proper name is the signifier par excellence then we can see that it is foreign from the standpoint of the real, of the signified. It is an imposition, a coup-de-force. Rather, when we speak about a proper name we are locating it within a message. A proper name is what authorizes the speaking subject, precisely to speak, or so it would seem. This is the message, and this is what is most foreign to a discourse. It is what authorizes a discourse but always from another scene, from a distance, and this, finally, is what makes it a foreign proper name. The proper name, the signifier, is the “original slip of the tongue” perhaps because it is closely linked to the real. And forgetting a name is a slip because it falls out of view, it becomes hidden. What happens next? Names, in the plural, emerge. They emerge “in place of the forgotten” proper name.

We shift into the logic of metonymy: that which is metonymical is already broken up, though it appears as combination. Lacan said: “Because it is metonymical it is already broken up.” The combination is therefore “only a fragment of the reality that it represents.” Metonymic deals with objects that already have a break within them.

Lacan cautions us, and I do not know why: “[m]etaphor is produced within the level of substitution, that means that substitution is a way in which the signifier can be articulated, and that metaphor operates there with its function as creator of the signified at that place where substitution may be produced. There are two different things. Likewise metonymy and combination are two different things.” Why is this important?

Lacan invites us to look at the operation of substitution in the work of translation: “the substitutive liaison in question is a substitution which is called heteronymic. The translation of a term into a foreign language on the plane of the substitutive act, […] is called heteronymic substitution.” It is not necessarily a metaphor, but it is nonetheless a substitution.

Well, all of this has something to do with our confrontation with death. Lacan says that we use metaphor to tame death, “to tame the confrontation with death,” through language-technique. This implies that all language techniques, all techniques of the signifier, are efforts at taming confrontation with death. We can see that this complies with Lacan’s early Heideggarian claim that being is always a being-toward-death. We get to the point that I was mentioning in the last blog. With every witz, with every parapraxis, there is a limit-point. Lacan now calls it a “hole.” It is related also to “death.”

“Famillionaire” has something to do with forgetting a name, for Freud. The word is ambiguous and, according to Lacan, it is on the same level as “the production of a symptom.” It is the symptom of a forgetting of a name – it has a double function: “(1) its function of aiming in the direction of meaning,” and (2) “[its] confusing, upsetting, neological function” The latter is more like a “dissolution of the object.” There are also two functions of metaphor in a joke: (1) the sense of meaning, the meaning that a joke “stirs up” for us, or produces, and it is a akin to “poetic creation;” (2) “a reverse side that is not necessarily immediately perceived by him [the joke maker or sayer], [concerning the] combinations that we could extend here indefinitely […].” In other words, “the creation of meaning of ‘famillionaire […] also implies a loss, […] something which is repressed.” This is the relation between “code” and “message,” since, the message that other side, that “other scene,” or, if you borrow Lacan’s words, “[that] reverse side.” We can see the topological significance of these statements.

The witz is a “particular example of the formation of the unconscious.”

Seminar 1: Weds 6 November 1957

Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book V: 1957-1958

The Formations of the Unconscious

(Cormac Gallagher, Translation)

Seminar 1: Weds 6 November 1957

It has been some time since I last blogged about a seminar. The last time I did so I was reading the new translation of seminar X by Adrian Price (you can find links for each class of that seminar above). As it happens, there is a new translation of The Formations of the Unconscious out with the same publishing company, Polity. The translator for this volume is Russell Grigg.

I was encouraged by numerous colleagues to continue to produce blog posts about Lacan’s seminars. I am thankful for such encouragement but I want to put it out there that the motivation for doing these overviews has nothing to do with the recognition that the posts receive from others. I also do not produce these blogs so that I can advance the cause of Lacanian psychoanalysis to those who are struggling through the material. I do not believe that my blogs make Lacan’s seminars easier to understand. It is rather quite the opposite: my confusions contribute to further misunderstandings, no doubt. What I put on display here in my blog is the way I myself struggle through the material and make sense of it. It is by writing a little bit about each class that I am able to make some headway and orient myself.

It was not long after completing the blogs for seminar X that I began a private practice in Lacanian psychoanalysis (Mississauga, Ontario). I have also taken a few steps toward the establishment of the “Centre for Lacanian Psychoanalysis,” which shall provide a unique orientation in the Greater Toronto Area. My understanding is that there are two prevailing orientations (I will not include those who do not take Lacan serious): the affiliated working groups Lacan, which is largely molded by the work of Bruce Fink and his colleagues – and widely respected (I include myself into this category since I also respect their work and have a lot to learn from it), and there is the smaller “Speaking of Lacan” orientation aligned with the Apres-Coup group out of New York. The latter is closer to my orientation but in my understanding nonetheless takes the “late” Lacan (the Lacan of the real) a bit less serious than my Millerian colleagues. The new centre is aligned much closer to the Miller orientation in that it believes in the new real (both in theory and within the clinic). It has been my experience that only Miller’s group can respond adequately to the so-called “new symptoms” which I encounter daily within my clinic. In any case, my practice has been in existence for roughly two years. I encourage those of you who use Lacan academically to seek out the benefits of a clinical Lacan as well, that is, to seek out a personal analysis. On the one hand, belief in the unconscious is more difficult to attain but also more authentically possible to attain through personal analysis. On the other hand, belief in the unconscious is more easy to attain but also more authentically impossible to attain through scholarship.

I preface today’s discussion by setting the scene: we are dealing with the Lacan of the 1950s, which is, in many ways, radically opposed to the Lacan of the 1970s. However, the keen reader will notice similarities, and will, without effort, find the buttons that might be quilted. This is half of my project: half of my project is to demonstrate that Lacan had foresight but was limited by his theory and by his conceptual apparatus. The other half of my project is to allow the confusion and limitations of Lacan’s work to come out, and to not allow my own confusion to stand in the way of moving through the work. Indeed, that is what we mean when we speak about working through. As I wrote above, I am working through the material.

I will admit that I find less enjoyment in reading these seminars than in reading the later seminars. This is because I feel that the early seminars are staking out a new orientation, they are an attempt to set a firm foundation. This means that the work is more delicate and careful, but also more monotonous and tedious. The later work is more innovative and exciting because it is more experimental and it tests the foundation. One wonders the extent to which I have mixed things up: the later work increasingly seems to me to be foundational for understanding the former, and yet, it would seem, nobody seems yet prepared to accept this thesis. It is the real, the semblant, and the sinthome that serve as the foundation of the Lacan’s work, and yet, it would seem, it took him a number of years of bumping into it to finally realize that there is a way to leave it unsaid and yet to still retain its central importance.

Lacan began this seminar with the claim that he will speak about the “function” of the unconscious and its relation to the “role of the signifier.” My immediate curiosity: why does he describe the unconscious as a “function,” and, moreover, why is the signifier in a “role” ? If he is to place the unconscious in the position of a function then he is granting it a certain level of supremacy over that which is merely is content or concept. It seems to be the foundation of other concepts or components of the mental apparatus. Perhaps the signifier is here reduced to its “role.” But this can not be right because Lacan repeated his claim too often that the signifier is also a function. Thus, we read about “the signifying function,” a synonym, in a way, of “the phallic function” since the phallus is the signifier par excellence!

The signifier has a “role” to play for the function of the unconscious, but what is that “role?” We should note the definite article: the signifier, which distinguishes it from signifiers (in the plural, that is, the body of signifiers or the signifying chain). Lacan is here discussing the signifier, whose role is no doubt also a functional one. Thus, Lacan claims that he wants to continue to teach us “about the function of the signifier in the unconscious.” This seems to imply that we are dealing with a function within a function, with the function of the signifier within the overarching function of the unconscious. This seems important because it seems to provide some insight into a later claim from this class that Lacan does not develop: that there is a “radical limit-point” to the unconscious. This, I believe, is a hint in the direction of the real unconscious, which remains, of course, undeveloped and largely unsaid.

Lacan values Freud’s book on jokes very highly, believing that it provides the best entry-point for thinking about the formations of the unconscious. I have yet to understand what Lacan means, precisely, by the word “formations” in this context. I can only speculate that it is not leading in the direction of “techniques,” which he is at pains to distinguish throughout this class in particular, but rather that it has something to do with clinical types: there are various formations of the unconscious and these are perhaps related to the various clinical structures. I can not be certain, having not read this seminar before. In any case, Lacan highlights the following: witticisms, witz, provided Freud an understanding of the relationship of the unconscious to the signifier.

Lacan thought it was important to provide a very quick overview of his previous seminars. He seems to want to demonstrate some consistency among them, as if they were all heading in this direction and moving along a natural path (rather than one filled with obstacles, tangents, and deviations). He begins by reminding us that the symbolic order is the most important aspect of the Freudian experience, it is, in a word, the dimension of the unconscious. I want to introduce my own version: I believe that the symbolic is closer to what Freud described as the pre-conscious. It is unconscious, but it is nonetheless operation, to some extent. I believe that the pre-conscious is to varying degrees closer or further from the unconscious or the conscious. Freud wrote:

“[I] distinguish two kinds of unconscious — one which is easily, under frequently occurring circumstances, transformed into something conscious, and another with which this transformation is difficult and takes place only subject to a considerable expenditure of effort or possibly never at all.”

It is possible that the pre-conscious and the unconscious are not in a position of being ‘hard distinctions,’ but rather are in gradation with one another, with the consequence that the unconscious becomes increasingly submerged within the real and the pre-conscious is the movement toward greater clarity regarding the message and its relation to the symbolic. We might think of the real as the envelope for the symbolic, which is, finally, the envelope for the consistency of the ego and the imaginary.

However, Lacan stills holds onto the belief that the symbolic is the dimension that needs to be uncovered from the méconnaissance or misfiring/misunderstanding of the ego. Yet, again, we can see the unsaid or unsayable real dimension lurking: Lacan describes words that are at a distance, that are “empty discourse,” and which “drone on beneath human actions.” It is possible that he is referring to the drives, the empty discourse of the drives, which are made all the more impenetrable by the ego and its attempt at understanding. At a fundamental level the ego misunderstands the drives, it must, by necessity, misunderstand the real unconscious. The ego is linked to the “synthetic functions” of the symbolic, to the cleft of the symbolic and imaginary. It is the level of meaning and is related, quite fundamentally, to the “captivating mirage.” The images we have of ourselves, of the world, of the way the world views us, and so on, all stand in the way of understanding the unimaginable drives. This is also what necessitates the imaginary: it steps in because of the “prematurity of birth,” the “gap” introduced by “death” within the life of the human animal.

We have been introduced to the signifier, but not to signifiers, that is, we have not been introduced yet to the signifying chain. Lacan reminds us that he has already covered this ground in previous seminars. He wants to highlight the importance of the repetition or insistence of the signifying chain within the unconscious. The chain repeats itself, its formations repeat themselves.

Lacan also wants to remind us of his work on psychosis in his third seminar. He claims that psychosis is based on a “signifying lack.” This is an interesting way of putting it, and then he continues: psychosis involves a reduction of the big Other to the imaginary other. By this he simply means that the big Other is not operational, its function fails. The imaginary other therefore steps in to perform the function of the signifier. In other words, the symbolic is replaced with a hole, and, more often, with an imaginary hole.

At this point, Lacan jumps to a discussion of the relation of the signifier to the signified. He wants to remind us of the importance of Saussure’s work. Recall, for example, the famous diagram of the signifier and signified: it is a “double parallel stream.” The signifier and signified are distinct and “slide perpetually one over the other.” In other words, they do not touch each other. There is a non-relation at the heart of the signifier-signified duality. Lacan claims that this allowed him to conceive of the analogy of an upholsterer – each signifier is a thread that buttons itself down into a signified, and this, finally, is what stops the perpetual sliding of the signifier over the signified.

I pause here: a button stops the slippage of the signifier, and introduces a signified. We return to this often within Lacan’s work, and especially within the early and middle Lacan. It is in some sense the cornerstone of Lacan’s work during this period. Yet, we can begin to see the way that this cornerstone is itself the possible result of psychotic technique. I’ll demonstrate what I mean in the paragraphs that follow.

Lacan goes on to introduce the key Jakobson arguments and their importance for his psychoanalytic theory: metaphor and metonymy. Metonymy is the logic of objects and metaphor is the logic of meaning. He says: “there is no object that is not metonymical, the object of desire being the object of the other, and desire always being desire of something else, precisely of what is lacking in the object that has been primordially lost, in so far as Freud shows it as something that has always to be rediscovered. Likewise the only meaning that exists is metaphorical, a meaning that only arises from the substitution of a signifier for another signifier in the symbolic chain.” Lacan then reintroduces his formulae of metaphor and metonymy, which I will not examine here. All of this was meant as review, and Lacan explicitly states this.

Lacan wants to focus on the button, and indeed so do I. His claim is that discourse is something like a fabric or texture. However, the fabric, its dimensions or extensions, are to be understood as the material of time. All discourse is situated within the material of time. And the “retroaction of the signifier” is what makes the button on that fabric, what punctuates time, what gives it some consistency. Lacan seems lost in the symbolic – he wants to position his theory of the symbolic here, by claiming that signifiers are what make up the material and what button themselves down into the signified, and so on.

I break for a moment to observe something. All this talk about fabric, about psychosis, about buttons, leads me to an observation. Lacan asks the question: who is it that buttons the fabric? Or, put another way, who is the upholsterer? The answer, he claims, is infantile, which is a witty way of stating that it is the child himself, somehow. But what part of the child’s mental apparatus is responsible? Lacan states very explicitly that he believes that the Other is responsible, the Other within the field of the signifying chain and the chain of discourse; the Other within the field of the symbolic. However, I am led rather toward a more literal path: if, within this seminar, he places himself as the subject of the sentence (“I think it is something that you have grasped […] I re-emphasized it in my article […] in a very precise fashion, [and so on]”) in such a way as to claim, as you can see, that he is the one producing the fashion for us. Lacan is here in fashion. He is demonstrating that he has what it takes to cut the Freudian material into something beautiful, so that, finally, he might make a name for himself.

I remind you of Miller’s extraordinary claim that the ordinary psychotic invented fashion. Miller said that it is clear and decisive. And today, more than ever, we see fashion at the centre – it is a modern invention, and it is on centre stage. Lacan was in fashion within the modern age, but, without knowing it, he was here producing a discourse whose truth gave him some credibility but whose eventual impact will render his early work obsolete: unless, of course, we can cut him from a different cloth the same way that he did to Freud. On the heels of Lacan’s seminar on psychosis, and, of course, of Lacan’s doctoral dissertation on psychosis, I can not help but wager that psychosis always forms the background of Lacan’s work. Moreover, I can not help but claim that Lacan is here fashioning a theory of the signifier, a theory on the formations of the unconscious, from the position of the escabeau. I’ll leave that for you to think about. I do not care to develop my arguments or to provide background or education on what any of these concepts might mean for you, if they are knew for you.

Lacan claims that it is impossible to represent the signifier, signified, and subject on the same plane. Lacan then turns to his graph of desire [reproduced below]. You can see the way he is trying to produce a topology out of his graph. He is using the form of an image to demonstrate the way that the signifier, signified, and subject button themselves together.

Screen Shot 2017-07-12 at 12.22.22 PM

The problem is that the diagram can not actually represent the signified. Lacan admits this. We have the button ties but we do not actually have any representation of the substance behind those buttons, of the signifieds. We only know that these points localize them, put them into a particular place, so that we know where to find them.

So they are actually completely outside the schema.

We have two dimensions: first there is the the dimension of the signifying chain – of the unconscious – which has all the effects of metaphor and metonymy already present, carved in stone, as it were. Second, there is the dimension of the synthetic function, the fixity of the ego, the fixed points or buttons. In other words, one of these dimensions or discourses goes in the “opposite direction.” However, it is clear that the two dimensions coincide at particular points. It is possible to reveal one dimension through the other dimension which conceals it. Lacan refers to this point as a “code.” “This code must be somewhere if discourse is to be heard.”

Key concept: code.

A code is an entry-point into the Other dimension, it is an entry into what Freud referred to as “the other scene.” It occurs when the circuit of the signifying chain is intercepted. However, there is another point of convergence: it is when a message is revealed from that Other dimension or discourse.

Key concept: message.

It is the second interception at the signifying chain, and it reveals the point of the Other and the message that relates the subject to the Other (otherwise referred to in the form of the matheme not introduced in this seminar: S<>O). This is the dimension of Truth, for Lacan. We can see that Truth has nothing to do here with the interception of the real or referent and the signifier, the dimension of truth is intimately related to the matheme of fantasy. It has to do with the interception of the symbolic through the imaginary. The value is clearly placed on the symbolic framework buried beneath the imaginary méconnaissance of the ego, as we’ve seen in the L Schema.

Lacan wants to make a simple point: the subject is always inhabited by language, words do not come naturally to him, they are given to him through the field of Other. Through the field of the symbolic Other, and against the distortions of the ego’s consistency or méconnaissance.

The witticism is discovered in the relationship from code to message and from message to code. Lacan claims that witz, or joke, can also mean l’esprit, or mind. We are dealing also with the spirit. All of this is there between code and message. And Lacan wants to retain the ambiguity of all I just wrote regarding witz and l’esprit. Lacan claims that it is in the Jokes essay that Freud introduces the word spirit with a capital “S.” Lacan believes that this is significant. I’m not sure why.

Freud saw clearly the relationship among witz and the unconscious. But he limited himself to only a small part of the literature, mostly scholastic, and did not consult the poets or the historians, which would have, according to Lacan, borne fruit. It was nonetheless in this direction that Freud could have been led, according to Lacan. And he would have approached a radical limit-point in the witz. Here we have the “radical limit-point” thesis: Lacan claims that Freud did not see the limit-point. But what is it? Lacan has only this to say:

“The decisive point is this. The fact is that whatever you read on the subject of the problem of Witz or of ‘wit’, you will always come up against very real impasses, which I cannot expand on for you today due to lack of time — I will come back to it.”

I jump forward, then.

Freud discusses the technique of joking. Lacan believes that this is linked to the technique of the signifier. This is not to be confused with the technique of the analyst, as if it has something to do with analytic technique. We are rather discussing the technique of the signifier, the technique of the mental apparatus itself. This is why Lacan claims that “Freud starts with the signifying technique.” Recall, of course, that Freud did not have recourse to semiotics, but that it has been Lacan’s belief that Freud was nonetheless a semiotician avant-la-lettre. A significant part of Lacan’s project during these early years of his work consisted of simply demonstrating the value of bringing Freud into an alliance with Saussure and Jakobson. This is what Lacan pursues for a bit here. I consider it only review, again.

Lacan refers to the Reisebilder, by Heinrich Heine. He refers to something Freud discussed in relation to a passage in that book. Hirsch-Hyacinth makes the following statement: “he treated me quite famillionairely.” I do not want to get into the context of the passage now, but the point is that Freud wanted to know whether it was a neologism, a parapraxis, or a witticism? There is something funny about the word, which implies that it strikes a chord at the level of a witz, but it is also most obviously an invented word. Freud uses it to demonstrate the technique of “condensation,” a key feature of the dream-work and of distortion. But, more important, it is a key ingredient for neurotic repression. The line from Heine is: “Solomon Rothschild treated me quite familiarly” (the root to “family”) and then there is the other dimension, the joke dimension, which is a play on the word “millionaire,” because, the “millionaire” is, of course, the “family of Rothschild.” [See diagram I drew below]

Photo on 2017-07-12 at 1.30 PM

We can see that the message being returned is in this case exemplified again in the matheme of fantasy, $<>O (the relation of the subject to the Other.) Thus, we can see that the statement reveals a question for the subject of belonging vis-a-vis the Other. Lacan said: “the outline of the message is going to be reflected onto the metonymical object which is ‘my millionaire,’ because the metonymical object of ‘my belonging’ schematized here is what concerns Hirsch-Hyacinth; it is his millionaire who at the same time is not his millionaire, because it is much more the millionaire who possesses him, so that things do not turn out as planned.” This demonstrates effectively the use-value of the graph Lacan presented.

The question we should ask – although Lacan, it seems to me, did not tackle it here – is how we can be sure that this is truly a witz and not a neologism. Is a pure neologism, if we might put it that way, a holophrasis? The question of belonging is a question of the dominance of the Other. But the question of a pure neologism is rather the question of the existence of the Other: is “famillionaire” a word invented purely to produce an Other whose power over the subject brings him precisely into being as subject? The reason Lacan and Freud were forced to ask whether the word is a neologism or a joke is because it seems like a conscious invention rather than a slip, something that forced its way into the discourse of the subject through the field of the symbolic Other.

“The difference is sanctioned as a witticism by the Other.”