Papers and articles
Contribution de Jean-Luc Nancy au webinar
Soggetto e Masse / Le sujet et les masses
Pour le Centenaire de la publication de “Psychologie des foules et …
This is the transcription of Otto Kernberg’s lecture on “Narcissistic Personality Disorders”, delivered in Urbino, ltaly, June 6, 1992 under the sponsorship of tbc Psychiatric Service at the Ospedale …
First published on Journal of European Psychoanalysis, Number 15 – Fall-Winter 2002
The aim of this paper is to provide some insights on the discussion about …
The aim of this paper is to show how psychoanalytic work may be formalized starting from the six modal categories and the laws that regulate their relations …
Happy birthday to you my dearest Jean-Luc!
I do not know the name of my relation to you as it evades capture while its births never cease to …
25 May 2020
Through the words of the English translator of Agamben’s “Requiem per gli Studenti” (“Requiem for the Students”) we come to know that Italy is the exceptional …
In her column in “Le Monde”, the historian E. Roudinesco deplores the loss of prestige suffered by the discipline, and argues in favour of returning to so-called “humanist” psychiatry.
The aim of this paper is to show in what terms reality can be considered as a stratification of surfaces by developing Mario Perniola’s philosophy of transit. The …
The Absolute Feminine-Animal Other
With the help of the 1942 film by Tourneur, “Cat People”, the author hypothesizes, from a Lacanian and zooanthropological perspective (which thinks of …
To Paola Carola
«I should like to be Alcibiades for one day and one night, and then die!»
W. Goethe, from a letter to Herder, July 1772.
At what conditions is it possible to do philosophy today? This question has obsessed Alain Badiou for over fifty years and since his early work Manifesto for Philosophyhas found at …
La vie avec Lacan (The Life with Lacan)
Paris : Gallimard, 2016 (coll. « L’infini ». 105 pages).
An analyzing life
“Life with Lacan”. …
The aim of this paper is to show in what terms reality can be considered as a stratification of surfaces by developing Mario Perniola’s philosophy of transit. The first part will deal with the etymology of the word transit, in order to explain its meanings and uses. As it will be clarified, the development of the notion of transit goes together with the conception of reality as deep in the sense of full, available, rich, as the realm of “difference” and “enigmas”. The second part will explain the particular conception of temporality implied in the transit. Together with Perniola’s analysis, Nietzschean and Deleuzian reflections about “amor fati” and “eternal return” will be further explored. This concept is crucial to understand not only Perniola’s overall philosophy by clarifying his position against postmodern thinkers; it also provides a theoretical framework from which the task and the challenge of the philosopher in the contemporary world emerge.
- Reality as Stratification of Surfaces
The objective of this section is twofold. On the one hand it will clarify the notion of transit, to which the Italian writer and philosopher Mario Perniola devoted the volume Transiti. Come si va dallo stesso allo stesso (Transits. How to go from same to same); on the other hand, it will show the peculiar revaluation of the notion of depth developed by Perniola. In fact, according to the Italian philosopher, among the postmodern thinkers there is a commonplace for which the concept of depth belongs to metaphysics (object of criticism by postmodernism), and because of this it is refused and rejected. On the contrary, Perniola argues that depth has other significant meanings, not taken into account by postmodern theory, that enable us to rehabilitate this notion. As will be made clearer further on, Perniola’s considerations over the concept of depth can help better understand the notion of transit. At the end of the paper, it will be clear why Perniola understands reality as a stratification of surfaces.
The word ‘transit’ comes from the Latin transitus, meaning “passage”, “transfer”, “transition”, which also refers to the verb transeo, “to go across”, “to pass through”, “to transform”. Different uses of this term have arisen from its Latin etymology: in its daily usage, “transit” can mean carrying people from one place to another, or passing through a place; philosophically speaking, different conceptual declinations are involved. On the one hand, the idea of transit refers to a certain specific literature based on the transience of life – that is, on the precariousness and the shortness of our earthly passage. A telling example of this literature is expressed by Asai Ryōi in the novel Ukiyo Monogatari(Tales of the Floating World), written in 1661:
living only for the moment, savouring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake, and diverting oneself just in floating, unconcerned by the prospect of imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo(qtd. in Hickman 6)
Perniola’s philosophy takes a different direction on the concept of transit.
The first to dwell on the nature of transit in Western tradition, according to Perniola, was Heraclitus, for whom the things of the world share the essential characteristic of the so-called enantiodromia—the coincidence of opposites. This implies considering every reality as always-becoming, as everything is susceptible to turn into its opposite. For instance, the famous aphorism, “You cannot not step twice into the same river,” implies that one may apparently be immersing oneself into those same waters, yet at the same time the river flows on and thus changes unceasingly. This is “at once a process of passing from the same to the same and the persistence of what is in itself different” (Perniola,Enigmas 17). Enantiodromiaand transit share a fundamental feature, namely they imply the atopiccharacter of every reality. The adjective atopic, from Greek atopos, both means “a-topos” (“devoid of a place”; “placelessness”) and “singular”, “unusual”, “unclassifiable”. The very history of philosophy, for Perniola, can be understood through this concept. Why many philosophers, from Thales to Socrates, Boethius, Giordano Bruno and Heidegger, were denigrated, hated or persecuted? Because of the “atopic nature of philosophy” itself: “the hatred of philosophy has deep roots, unmentionable motivations, surprising manifestations: what actually animates it is the philosopher’s avoidance of a definitive collocation, his/her staying in transit” (Perniola, Transiti2). The philosopher, according to this view, does not follow any utopiaor topicalitybut is oriented toward the atopia. These three terms share the same Greek etymological origin, namely the word “topos” (place). However, where utopia means “no-place”, and topical means “actual” in the sense of a “deposit of stereotypes” (Perniola, Transiti2), only atopia, according to Perniola, has a privileged relationship of affinity with reality. The utopia is considered by Perniola as a non-existing representation that revolves around an ideal community or society only imagined, without a proper consistence and significance: a “motionless and perfect republic of the spirit” (7); on the other hand, the topical is that particular, ordinary dimension of thinking, which dissolves reality in the ephemeral actuality. In contrast with these two notions, Perniola sees philosophy as that particular and unique kind of thought that can account for reality, understood as multi-layered and enigmatic. Here reality is used in a broad sense because Perniola develops the transit as a wide-ranging and multifaceted notion: from an “erotic transit” (69-83), to a “transit ritual” (189-203), from a “telematic transit” (217-229) to an “artistic transit” (150-158). Even if at first glance the subtitle of Transiti(“How to go from the same to the same”) seems to imply a sterile movement terminating with the state of a certain thing or phenomenon remaining unchanged, the actual meaning is the opposite, namely the flourishing of difference within each reality:
to think of the richness of changes implicit in the same phenomenon, at the same time, in the same reality. Not to claim that A is equal to B, C, D [...] and ultimately, that one thing is as any other—but indeed to show that B, C, D [...] can derive from A through minimum distinctions, subtle slips, imperceptible declinations. (Transiti1)
To clarify this passage, it is necessary to understand the re-evaluation of the concept of depthdeveloped by Perniola. In an article devoted to this concept (“Per una rivalutazione della nozione di profondità”), Perniola argues against the postmodern conception of depth and praises the idea of “depth as stratification”, as will be clarified further on. In Ihab Hassan’s table of differences between modernism and postmodernism, Perniola highlights the opposition between “depth”, which falls under modernism, and “surface”, belonging to postmodernism. The postmodern opposition, according to Hassan, lies between cause, substance, truth, origin, metaphysic, on one side, and, on the other, flexibility, lightness, ephemerality. The weakness of this dichotomy, according to Perniola, can be seen in the undue match between depth and metaphysics. Postmodern thinkers, in their crusade against every concept gravitating around the notion of metaphysics, have also wrongly addressed their critique over “depth”. Hassan’s table is a clear example of this perspective, in which there is a direct link between these two notions. This inclusion, for Perniola, misleadsthe very concept of depth, as will be made clearer shortly.
In order to develop his perspective, Perniola addresses the semantic expansions of the words profundusand báthos(respectively Latin and Greek terms for depth) as the English word “depth” has its semantic roots in the Indo-European dheu-b, from which the Latin word fundusoriginated. Pro-fundus– “far [is] the bottom” – had two principal meanings: in the Roman age it used to indicate something immeasurable, without an end, in a pejorative and negative sense (for instance:profunda avaritia, deep avarice). With the advent of Christianity, and particularly with the works of Augustine of Hippo, it shifted to a positive connotation. In fact, even though indicating the boundless depth of human sins, at the same time it implied its overturning, namely the salvation through God’s love: “the soul is deep not only because it reproduces in itself the abyss of sin, but especially because in that abyss the premises for its redemption are already present” (Perniola, “Per una rivalutazione” 97).
The Greek word báthos, in its archaic use, expressed the idea of fullness and richness, both physically (the deep sea) and metaphorically (a deep affect, sentiment or thought). Philosophically, Perniola quotes Diogenes Laertius who referred to Heraclitus as a “sea-diver” who immerses himself into the depths of thought. From Plato on, Perniola continues, a decisive turning point occurred. True knowledge started to be conceived as an ascentto the hyperuranium and not a descentinto the profound and earthly world. Báthosbecame pejorative and hypselós(the Greek word for “sublime”) emerged. This spiritualistic element marginalized the semantic spectrum of depth (báthos). An example of how báthoslost its importance by acquiring negative meanings can be seen in Neoplatonism. Indeed, the father of Neoplatonism, Plotinus, considers “depth” the sinfulthings of the world (matter, bodies…) whereas, on the contrary, the spirit, the soul and the ideal can be reached only through a vertical movement of transcendence.
Perniola’s aim is to re-evaluate the notion of depth by avoiding the postmodern commonplace for which “depth” is closely related to interiority, authenticity, truth and eventually metaphysics. By showing the etymological uses of the words profundusand báthoshe reaches the conclusion that the spiritual element (transcendence, totality, absolute) is not necessarily present in the notion of depth. As the Greek báthosand the Roman’s first use of profundusindicate, these terms used to have an earthly connotation and not a transcendent one. For Perniola, in addition, the Augustinian conception of depth should not be considered spiritualistic but dialectic, as it consists in the awareness that something is deep when it is susceptible of changing into its opposite. Thus, when postmodern thinkers argue against the notion of depth, they wrongly include it within the wide range of metaphysical concepts, by erroneously taking for granted that depth means transcendence and ultimately metaphysics. This is the reason why Perniola disengages from postmodern critique by re-evaluating the very notion of depth within the perspective of the transit. The development of the concept of transit goes together with the conception of reality as deep in the sense of full, available, rich—and not deep because transcendent, as postmodern thought incorrectly claims.Reality, according to this view, is paradoxically made of deep surfaces:
This possibility opens up when I think depth as a stratification of surfaces, that means something full, instead of empty. This idea seems to me particularly close to archaeological depth, in which what is ancient emerges layer after layer, surface after surface, in the context of a philosophical perspective that eliminates emptiness. (“Per una rivalutazione” 95)
Surface layersbecause nothing appears underthe surface itself. In other words, there is not a dualism between an interior which is covered by an exterior. On the contrary it is all surfaces and exteriority. This is why Perniola argues that “philosophizing is like peeling an onion” (Enigmas 7), namely because under every ring there is still another ring. Precisely here lies the link between Baroque thought and Perniola’s philosophy. In fact, Baroque theory conceives reality as sinuous, rich, full, wrapped and enveloped by itself. This perspective should not be understood in negative terms, on the contrary, it implies that the philosopher’s task lies precisely in explaining and developing what is complex, enigmatic, labyrinthine, if not uncanny. Philosophy, according to Perniola, proceeds through a spiral-like movement: it does not investigate its objects of study in their immediacy as if they were simple and transparent objects; rather, it explores them trying to understand their opacity and thickness, namely their richness and complexity. Moreover, here lies a theoretical distinction between postmodern perspective and Perniola’s thought. According to Perniola, when postmodern thinkers define postmodernity by marking it as a passage and a rupture with modernity, they actually carry on the very same argument of modern thinkers against pre-modernity. In other words, both modern and postmodern thinkers share the same attitude of considering themselves within a new era brought about by a fracture with what preceded them. The paradox—underlined by Perniola—is that postmodernity can be considered as a new epoch only insofar as it is not understood as a break with the past, but as a minimal shift, a transition, a transit.
Reality, according to this view, cannot be understood in terms of polar oppositions (such as true / false, substance / appearance), but as a dynamic set of never-ending micro-changes. Instead of judging reality through the meter of an ideal truth (eternally fixed), reality itself should be understood in its continuumof mutations and variations, namely in its perennial transit. The very idea of a substantial truth, Perniola argues, mystifies the labyrinthine nature of reality by simplifying it in a once-and-for-all formula: “knowledge is not simply the revelation of a secret, nor the illumination of something that was obscure, nor lastly the expounding of a concept given a priori, but the drawing out, the unwinding, the ex-pression of something that is tangled, wound up, gathered in” (Enigmas 5). It is no accident that one of the recurrent themes in Perniola’s works (20thCentury Aesthetics;Art and Its Shadow;Enigmas; Ritual Thinking; Sobre el pensar barroco;The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic) is the Baroque period, as it fundamentally mirrors a declination of the transit: from a Baroque perspective, in fact, the world teems with matter coiling, writhing, tangling and developing on itself, exploiting its own inexhaustible subtlety and richness. Importantly, here also lies the post-nihilistic tonality of Perniola’s overall thought. His thought does not deal with Being or Nothingness, but, more modestly and at the same time more complexly, with the concept of “something”. If the world exists, Perniola writes commenting on Leibniz, it is not because it is the best one, “it is rather the other way round: it is the best because it exists, because it is what there is” (Enigmas 9). This world is made of endless combinations of “something” (and never monolithic entities), for which one thing is susceptible of becoming-something-else.
This section focused on the relation between the transit and the spatial element (reality as a full inexhaustible presence); the following one will deal with the temporal experience of the transit.
- Transit and Different Repetition
The concept of transit is influenced by a series of philosophies and thinkers who have developed the notion of repetition. Perniola links together Stoic thought, Roman religiosity, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Freud, Kubler, and Klossowski. Despite the historical (but also conceptual) gaps between them, Perniola individuates a common thread: the notion of “different repetition”. To have a closer understanding, Nietzschean philosophy will be addressed in this paper. There are two main reasons for choosing the German philosopher. First of all, Perniola himself relates Nietzschean thought with the transit (Transiti16-20; La societàdei simulacri48-51); secondly, Nietzsche can be considered among the leading modern philosophers to have delved into the very experience of transit. His entire philosophy can be considered atopical, together with a thinking attitude of “different through the same” which permeates his work (what Deleuze called the “difference through repetition”). The key concepts to understand how Nietzsche can be considered a transit-thinker and—more importantly—what typology of temporality the transit implies, are “amor fati” (love of fate) and “eternal return”.
Perniola argues that the notion of transit is affirmed in the Nietzschean concept of amor fati, as by loving one’s own fate, life is experienced in its “present-ness” and availability. On the contrary, metaphysics privileges a time that has yet to come (the world beyond the world, that is, the ideal). The objects of Nietzschean critique are the great metaphysical narratives: morality, Christianity, truth, substance. These narratives essentially imply an entry into an ideal dimension, detached from reality and its actuality. In other words, they attempt to fully mould reality, while also emptying it by means of creating a “world beyond the world”—that is, a product of the human mind disguised as eternally existing and true. If the concept of “ideal” orients an individual’s life, this means that this very individual shapes his/her life around how things should beand not on how things are. Ultimately, at the very rise of each metaphysic, an “ought” (Sollen) judgment arises too. According to Nietzsche, this imperative dictating how things ought to be produces an unfixable distance between human beings and their own lives, and between thought and action. This distance emerges because for Nietzsche life is an unceasing becoming in which there is no place for a fixed conceptual entity. Thus, an imperative regarding how things ought to be, in his perspective, is an arbitrary crystallization that can only pervert the movement of life itself. Metaphysics, subsequent to this argument, is at its very core nihilistic. In fact, to judge reality according to an “ought” implicitly corresponds to a declaration of powerlessness over reality itself:
This super reality is nihilistic in its very substance, because it knows very well that it cannot be affirmed and maintained at a factual, empirical, vital level: it sells itself for idealbecause it is not real, it poses something beyond because it has no strength to be here and now, it speaks of a transcendent or future life because it was defeated in the only existing one. (Transiti17)
At odds with this perspective there is Perniola’s concept of amor fatiborrowed from Nietzsche and defined as the “experience of unconditional and passionate loyalty to what is” (Transiti19, italics mine). Nonetheless, in what terms should the experience of amor fatibe understood? On the one hand, through amor fatithe past is appropriated by the choice of its infinite repetition; on the other hand, life is not procrastinated into a time that is yet to come (an ideal world, a utopia, a paradise…). However, Amor fatishould not be understood as a fatalistic law dominating history, or a theological assumption for which one should passively adapt to life’s events provided that there is a God behind Fate or Providence: it corresponds, instead, to an actively chosen lifestyle, which sees life as an experience of endless affirmation. Several questions may arise here: how can one “passionately” affirm events or things that he/she normally despises? How can sadness, death, misery and unhappiness be accepted and “chosen” in one’s own present? How can one love, and not merely bear, the necessaryof life? Developing the concept of eternal return, which is strictly connected to amor fati, might be of help.
Eternal return is linked to a reconsideration of time, especially of its understanding as a linear configuration, where three main moments can be clearly marked out: past, present and future. These three moments are marked by their mutual difference and by their continued deprivation. The difference indicates the resolution of each event in its uniqueness, so what one experiences now, as far as one can try to repeat it, will be experienced one time only. Deprivation then follows, since all accomplished actions, once acted, are lost in a past, so to speak, already remote “ontologically”. The eternal return is at odds with this perspective. It is the thought of the possibility of a circular time, that is, of the time that preserves itself and which perpetually shows the same combinations of events.
Among the interpretations provided on this notion, the one elaborated by Gilles Deleuze will be highlighted in this section. Deleuze’s argument sets apart the cosmological-probabilistic perspective, that in a finite space, given an infinite time, all possible combinations are eternally reverting, making the return a process identical to itself. This perspective, Deleuze writes, is reinforced by the fact that Nietzsche, in Thus SpokeZarathustra, gave two different expositions of the eternal return:
One regards a sickZarathustra, the other, a convalescent,almost healedZarathustra. What makes Zarathustra sick is the very idea of the cycle: the idea that Everything returns, that the Same returns, and that everything returns to the same. [...] What happened from the moment Zarathustra is convalescent? [...] Zarathustra understands the identity “eternal Return-Being selective”. How could what is reactive and nihilistic come back, how could the negative come back, since eternal return is the being that can be predicated only for the affirmation, for the becoming in action? [...] Eternal Return is Repetition; but the Repetition that selects, the Repetition that saves (Nietzsche 39-40).
Deleuze means that Zarathustra himself criticizes the idea of the eternal return at first, as it was conceived by his travel companions—the eagle and the snake—since they reduced it to a banal “organ song”, namely to a sterile and identical repetition of what happens. On the other hand, this idea would not be consistent with the discourse on the transvaluation of values, for then the last man, Christian morality, metaphysics and, not least, nihilism would all return. Eternal return is instead “selective”, both as thoughtand as being: as thought, since all one wants is wanted according to amor fati. On the other hand, it is selective as being, since only what can be affirmed comes back. Deleuze compares the eternal return to a spinning wheel, which, turning faster and faster because of centrifugal force, expels from its centre all that contradicts its rotation. The being expels from itself, so to speak, all that contradicts its affirmation. Nihilism and reactive forces are encountered only once, since they return transformed from the eternal return’s centrifugal wheel. As Daniela Angelucci points out: “this repetition that saves us is a choice, a selective act, a staging of an element that turns out, however, each time moved, masked, different, without there being an original principle, a final term of the series” (“Situazione e ripetizione” 47). The “heaviest burden” Nietzsche writes about in The Gay Scienceconsists of engraving the instant with the seal of eternity, for it is only by deciding to live again every moment as it has been that the past does not crush man under its unbearable weight. Only the transformation of each “It was” into “I wanted it thus”, keeps the possibility of the eternal return from being the most terrifying of possibilities. It is precisely for these reasons that Nietzsche defined the doctrine of the eternal return of the same as “the highest formula of affirmation that could ever be attained” (Ecce Homo67). This affirmation consists precisely in the ability to bestow value also on repellent objects. Only in this way, according to Nietzsche, it is possible to make things beautiful:
I want to learn more and more how to see what is necessary in things as what is beautiful in them—thus I will be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love from now on! I do not want to wage war against ugliness. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse the accusers. Let looking away be my only negation! And, all in all and on the whole: some day I want only to be a Yes-sayer! (The Gay Science157)
It is crucial to understand that this statement should not be read with a vitalistic emphasis. The affirmation highlighted goes together with the (different) repetition brought about by the choice of eternal return. This repetition, according to Perniola, leads closer to a ritual thinking than to a vitalistic one. Through repetition, the formal element is preserved, which implies continuation, prosecution, transmission. On the contrary, Perniola considers vitalism nihilistic and iconoclastic as in its effort to satisfy the drives and the instincts of the individual, it dooms each form into dissolution. What Perniola suggests is that in the traditional philosophical dichotomy between formand life, Nietzsche has to be understood within the former. Precisely in this link between form, different repetition and rituality, Nietzschean thought meets Perniola’s concept of transit. Maintaining the same conceptual register, transit is a philosophy of the present but it is not vitalistic. That is to say, it does not imply an acephalous and unoriented present where the individual lets him/herself go to his/her desires and impulses. It is not a hedonistic present in which insatiable hunger for pleasure guides existence. On the contrary, the present of the transit, through amor fati, is loadedwith the past which is always “redeemed” by a choice of the will. This choice consists in appropriating one’s own entire past; if all the past is “ours”, nothing can happen which does not belong to us. Indeed, it is through this attitude towards existence that, according to Perniola, one can master his/her own condition.
The philosophy of the transit, elaborated by Perniola, is a philosophy of the presentand of the presence, precisely because it does not deal with metaphysics and eternal ideals but with earthly historical phenomena. In other words—as was already pointed out in the first paragraph—it does not privilege a time that has yet to come (a utopian future), nor the metaphysic’s conception of time which in turn suspends time by elaborating and believing in timelesstruths. On the contrary, the transit allows precisely a dwelling with the present and its atopicality, namely with its richness, availability, presence and depth (in the meaning given to this word over this section).
A philosophy of the present and of the presence as the transit cannot complain about the absence of something, nor regret the lack of anything: it is not in mourning for the loss of some values or ideals, nor of any positive entity. Firstly, because values and ideals have always been too unrealistic and abstract; secondly, because it appropriates, it bears on its shoulders, it makes live in the present what is positive that the past conveys. Contrarily to the image of an empty world, of a kénosis, which would characterize the present society, my research is animated by the image of a full world, of a plèroma, in which everything is at hand. (Transiti3)
There is no fatalistic resignation in the transit thought. It is both distant from metaphysics (by avoiding traditional metaphysical concepts such as “ideal”, “truth”, “morality” and so on) and from postmodernism (which praises notions like precarious, ephemeral, flexible—nowadays also the key words of economic neoliberalism). Transit’s thought, on the other hand, draws closer to a present where nothing is missing as everything is present (though folded and wrapped).
The philosopher, in addition, being an atopical figure par excellence—according to Perniola—is thus a privileged reader and actor of the contemporary age. In fact, by avoiding ideologies and metaphysical truths, he/she is in the position of “listening” to the present time in its continuous becoming without obstacles (being those disordered affections or pre-given beliefs). In order to understand the uncanny events that happen not only in one’s own life but also in the broader social framework, the philosopher becomes “nothing but an intermediary, a transit zone, a gatewayfor phenomena that, because they present themselves in an unexpected and unpredictable way, surprise, disturb and astonish” (Enigmas 43). Only in this way can the philosopher be in “direct connection” (presa diretta) with the social-historical reality.
To sum up, this paper explored Perniola’s notion of transit by developing it in relation to spatiality and temporality (respectively first and second section). In the first section I highlighted Perniola’s re-evaluation of the notion of “depth”, which according to him can be defined as a “stratification of surfaces”. More specifically, by following Perniola’s enquiry over the semantic expansion of the word “depth” back to its Greek and Latin origins, it was shown how this concept only recently gained a meaning connected to the spiritualistic and metaphysical spectrum of “interiority” and “profundity”. Instead, its ancient uses showed how depth can indicate “fullness” and “richness” linked to the earthly world and more generally to effectual reality. Perniola’s concept of transit can be inscribed into this re-evaluation of reality intended as a full available presence. In order to clarify the notion of transit, the second section underlined its connections with Nietzschean philosophy. In particular it revolved around the ideas of amor fatiand eternal return. I claim that these should be considered as mutual concepts: the former provides the temporal framework that allows one to move away from the Western-linear conception of time (past, present and future); the latter provides, through the acceptance of this temporality, a propulsive energy through which the very thought of an eternal repetition can be loved (as it will never be a sterile repetition but a different and selective one).The transit can be related to them as it has to be understood as the experience of an “absolute present”, in the etymological sense of ab-solutus, namely “untied” (from linear time) in which nothing is missing because everything is at hand, available. This does not mean that data and events in their immediacy are what to look for. Transit does not imply a vitalistic experience of reality in its immediacy but, as stated in the first section of this paper, it conveys the idea of a deep world made of layers of surfaces. Surface, thus, should not be confused with superficiality, immediacy, or banality. The “polemical objective” of Transiti, as Perniola points out in the Preface to the Second Edition, is the very notion of banality: “the opposite of the transitis the banal, what is perfectly adequate to itself, what is incapable of transformations” (Transiti1). Transiting means going beyond banality without falling into spiritualistic or ideal conceptions by, paradoxically, praising this peculiar perspective of the surface.
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- (2011)La società dei simulacri(Milan: Mimesis).
- (2013a) “Per una rivalutazione della nozione di profondità.” Agalma 25: 93-99.
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- (2017)The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic(London-New York: Bloomsbury).
 For this reason Perniola does not actually criticize postmodernity tout courtbut some perspectives that have developed within it (such as Vattimo and Baudrillard), while his philosophy is closer to other postmodern thinkers (namely Lyotard and Deleuze).
 It is precisely for these reasons that, according to Perniola, there is a strong connection between society and thought, and this is why the notion of transit can be considered as a sort of helpful lifebelt in the agitated waters of the current world. Perniola explains how the concept of transit “fits” appropriately into contemporary society, better than the key concepts of modernity, namely “tradition” and “innovation”, since they seem to have vanished in a present unquestioning about “neither past nor future, neither a homeland nor a utopia” (Transiti7). Transit is not the diachronicity of a present continuously transcending itself towards the future, but the place where space becomes time in the unlimited availability of presence. The orbital centre of contemporary experience should then be localized in the present. Internet developments provide an indispensable framework for placing the transit experience inside contemporaneity. Massimo Di Felice’s research investigates precisely Perniola’s notion of transit and its contribution to a new theory of network ecologies (see Paesaggi post-urbani)
 In English in the original text.
7 February, 2019
The Absolute Feminine-Animal Other
With the help of the 1942 film by Tourneur, “Cat People”, the author hypothesizes, from a Lacanian and zooanthropological perspective (which thinks of animals as an addition to the human animal and as an opportunity to question some aspects of the human animal), that both the feminine position and the real presence of the animal offer themselves to the subject as absolute Other; this is determined by the fact that both relate to it in the order of the real and constitute an opening to it. An “ethics of the uncanny” is thus formulated, which praises the need to maintain an absolute otherness in the life of human beings. Feminine jouissance, beyond the phallus, is seen in relation to the disruption of the captivated animal (Heidegger, Agamben) and to the ecstatic practice, which share the surrender to the condition of Hilflosigkeit. The access to this condition entails the experience of mourning of the Thing.
It is evident that I will not speak of animals from an ethological or biological point of view, nor will I attempt to trace distinctions or similarities between human and non-human animals, or to identify their “specificities”, indeed the anthropological machine has already spoken too much, and has been deconstructed in an extraordinary way by Derrida. I will instead speak as a psychoanalyst, with an eye to animal studies – we could say perhaps from a zooanthropological perspective, which thinks of animals (their real presence) and of the relationship with them, as something constituting an addition to human animals, and as an opportunity to question some aspects of the human. Having said this, I do not believe that any living being, human or non-human, should or can be put at the service of someone, however “noble” the purposes may be; on the contrary, I perceive an obligation to protect, by any means, the living species that are less able to protect themselves, on the part of those who are. As a psychoanalyst I perceive the need to maintain a dimension of absolute otherness in our human lives, and I would like to speak in praise of a sort of ethics of the uncanny, all the more necessary in the light of a contemporaneity that is increasingly oriented toward the exclusion of differences, with the dramatic consequences we are familiar with. The theme of animality and that of femininity lend themselves well to this purpose.
I would like to begin with a film, a good starting point because it combines animality and the feminine, although in this instance what we have is a human/animal, literally both human and animal, a being that undergoes a metamorphosis from human to animal and vice versa. There is a significant literary, filmic, popular tradition, that revolves around not only men/wolves (werewolves) but also men/cats, tigers, etc., (were-panthers in this case). The animals in question are certainly not meek, and I will try to hypothesize the reason for this. Cat people is a 1942 film by Jacques Tourneur, a masterpiece of the horror-noir genre and not only. Irina, the protagonist of the film, a descendant of a family of were-panthers, turns into her Other animal when she experiences feelings, so naturally when she falls in love or when she hates. (See the swimming pool scene). This is obviously a problem, because while making love she turns into a panther and kills the unfortunate man (it’s beyond herself!) and then turns back into a woman. Irina does not control her transformation, and for this reason she is no witch; indeed popular belief claims that witches can transform themselves into a cat or feline intentionally, according to their own desires or needs. Irina instead undergoes this transformation, she suffers it (in the Greek sense of pathos, which is to undergo, suffer – English words that derive from the Greek pathos are, ‘empathy’, ‘compassion’ etc.) it is beyond her. Precisely this element well represents the Lacanian concept of not whole.
1) Not-wholly there
In Seminar XX Lacan hypotheses the existence of a feminine jouissance that is supplementary to the phallic one, of those subjects who place themselves, from the point of view of the unconscious, in a feminine position, (see the formulas of sexuation), experienced beyond biological sex. The fact that it is a supplementary jouissance underlines its non-complementarity with the phallic one, and in general the dissymmetry between the sexes, which Lacan translates into the formula “there is no such thing as a sexual relationship”. A paradoxical formula because what takes place between man and woman is precisely the sexual relationship as such, i.e. the contact between sexual organs. But, Lacan tells us, the jouissance (phallic, naturally) of the body of the Other is not the sign of love, which, reframed more radically, means that sexual intercourse is basically masturbatory jouissance, idiotic (Greek etymology: lacking, private). Phallic jouissance, until that moment the only one possible, becomes the encumbrance that does not allow the relationship with the Other to take place. The abused aphorism – “there is no such thing as a sexual relationship” – is in fact a decisive blow to the myth of the loving oneness that Freud takes from Plato’s Symposium making it the mythical inspirer of Beyond the pleasure principle, the text in which he illustrates the disturbing paradox that links Eros and Thanatos. Lacan, who in the Seminary VIII had already derided the myth told by Aristophanes (the comedian, not by chance) in the Symposium, in Seminar XX irretrievably shatters the model of complementarity of love. The achievement of oneness as an end to which love by definition tends, is an illusion. The encounter between man and woman not only is not harmonious, symmetrical, but is marked by a non-encounter, by the non-relationship between the sexes. Following Freud, oneness achieved in love is an imaginary myth, or it takes the form of repetition. The polemic with the International Psychoanalytical Association is evident with respect to a supposedly mature, genital love acquired through “natural” development. According to Lacan, instead of harmonious love, there is a wall dividing man and woman, termed l’a-mur. No matter what biological sex, what Lacan focuses on is the heterosexual couple as a couple that practices difference, and this may also be a biologically homosexual couple. The same is true for the contrary. Position and biological sex do not necessarily coincide. In the context of this difference, man, despite this illusion, will never be able to merge, become one, with the feminine eteros. According to Lacan, the phallic register is the one that counts against the Oedipal triad and it represents the radical attempt to de-psychologize psychoanalysis. The phallus acts operationally as a signifier even when it is not there, we could say precisely because it is not there. For man it is a matter of identifying with the symbolic phallus to exercise a sufficient masculine function. As for women, according to both Lacan and Freud, things are more complex. Already in the Seminar XVIII Lacan had begun to differentiate the feminine position from the position of the hysteric (“the hysteric is not woman”), and finally, in the Seminar XX, he states the existence of a feminine jouissance. The apparent paradox of Encore (anticipated to a certain degree in the two previous seminars) consists in claiming that the wall against which love breaks is the same that simulates it and tries to disguise its unattainability, that is to say the phallus. Precisely what is necessary to interpret all the variations of the play (Lacan 1998) performed by human beings, even and above all the one of love, now for Lacan prevents sexual intercourse, that is, encounter. If the phallus is a third term, it is not however a medium (Di Ciaccia 2013). For love to occur, it is not enough to “enjoy” (indeed “the jouissance of the body of the Other is not a sign of love”), unless one is content with a simulacrum of love, like the one illustrated by Freud in Contributions to the Psychology of Love, in which women remain in the shadow of the mother’s ghost, divided between ideal and fetish, that is more important than woman herself. On the one hand we have the idealized and untouchable mother-Madonna, on the other the erotized and despised woman-dirne. “The act of love, is the polymorphous perversion of the male. In the case of the speaking being, there is nothing more assured, more coherent, more strict as far as Freudian discourse is concerned”. There is no relationship, therefore, but only jouissance of the body in the register of the phallus, solitary jouissance, unable to reach the Other. This is the true revolution of Lacan’s thought: phallic jouissance, up to this moment the only one possible, because it is marked by the law of the father, leads nowhere but to a jouissance of the organ, not even to that of its bearer, Lacan ads, “even when a he puts it inside a she who is supposedly desolate not to be the carrier herself” and who therefore claims it, taking it as best she can. On the man’s side it is possible to enter into relation only with the objet petit a, which, in the form of a phantom, is in place of the Other. On woman’s side things are more complex. Contrary to the male position, inscribed in the coordinates of the structure, a universal one, the feminine position can be articulated only individually, and there will be as many position as there are women. “Woman does not exist” the other abused and historically misunderstood Lacanian enunciation, means that woman exists in the unconscious only quoad matrem, that is, where man places her and where she “assumes her function in the sexual relation as mother”. Taking this to a more radical stance, the feminine Other is always addressed by man on the side of the maternal phantom (of the objet petit a) and is therefore unreachable as such. The alternative would be to put at risk what human civilization rests upon, symbolic order itself. In the formulas of sexuation the matheme of Woman (La femme) is a barred La. It is not possible to write the subject woman because in the unconscious Woman does not exist, only Mother exists. Because of a curious paradox, since mother is such in the register of the phallus, that is, on the part of man, whereas woman is mother, that is in the sexual non-relationship, she is reduced to being a man. Lacan states: “(…) it is only from where the dear woman is whole (toute), from the place from which man sees her, that the dear woman can have an unconscious” (Lacan 1998), which “helps her exist only as mother”. Woman’s unconscious, therefore, is where she offers herself to the man who takes her wholly, wholly there, wholly referable to the phallic law. It is precisely this that does not satisfy Lacan, and that leads him to the formulation – anticipated by the drastic shift in perspective in the Seminar X – of a hypothesis in the Seminary XX that resumes and restates the Freudian question: “What does a woman want?” What is her jouissance? Woman is not only Mother, there is something in her that escapes phallic signification. And it cannot be Woman but only women because what makes her not-whole, not all there, cannot be given in a universal and general form, it and can exist only as something particular. A mother as such can only be Mother, inscribed as a phantom in the structure, a universal one. Woman is women, each one unique in her own way. There is something in woman and in her jouissance that exceeds her (as happens to Irina) and that does not fall into the solutions provided by the phallic register, and that therefore is not satisfied in the child as a substitute for the phallus – the desired solution according to Freud. Indeed for Freud to become woman means to become mother; the daring premises of his texts on female sexuality (Freud 1931, Freud 1933) and the discovery of the dark continent are resolved in this way, with a rejection of the feminine, which will culminate in his Analysis Terminable and Interminable, the work in which Freud states the impossibility of going beyond that rock wall all therapies run into, castration anxiety, of taking a first step in the direction of the subjectification of the feminine. If woman in Lacan is not mother, she is not even the hysteric who chooses to become phallus for her man in the most varied forms, all known and recognizable: a lover to show off, a muse, an inspirer, a devotee. Or a woman who in order to exist must continually rekindle the desire of the Other, of man, without being able to “enjoy” herself, rendering him hollow so as to not come into contact with her own lack. Or continuously embarking on the search for the perfect Other, the phallic Other that is never up to par. Or who treats her man like a child, like a phallus. According to Lacan Woman can only be women, also when entering into relation with the phallic function, because the fact that she does not wholly enter into relationship with it (not-whole) does not mean that she does not at all, but that there is a jouissance (of the body) that is beyond the phallus. Even Don Giovanni cannot but conquer women “one by one”, which points to the rather sinister perverse cataloguing in which the Other disappears behind seriality, despite his way of proceeding one by one. Every woman possesses a detail, a trait that sparks desire and that will turn her (for man) into an objet petit a, a cause of desire, but otherness as such is another thing (Thing). The Other will always retain something of the first Other, of the Freudian das Ding, and for this reason it will be sought and shunned, again and again, desired insomuch as it is inaccessible, at least on the male part. Feminine jouissance, in its noticeable articulation, creates a relationship between the feminine ‘one by one’ and the Other without the Other, the barred Other as the carrier of a non-guarantee, truly absolute, in a bond that is made and undone and that, in its contingency, can cease to be written, sometimes. This jouissance is that of mystics. In this register of non-sexual jouissance but of body, open to infinity, beyond the structure, women are placed on the divide between the symbolic and the real. What can be said (and written) is merged with the impossible (with the Real), with that for which there are no words and that, however, occurs, despite language, or through language, depending on the point of view. The mystical, ecstatic opening is fully oriented toward the outside, toward the Real.
2) The captivated animal and ecstasy
The Real is not what is tamed, known, which accompanies and shapes our daily life, indeed it is precisely the opposite. The Real is not reality, it is that which of reality is foreign, unknown, disquieting, which insinuates itself in the Heimliche. The Real is not, therefore, what habitually surrounds us, that contributes to making the spaces and places in which we move familiar, domestic, which makes it possible for us to immediately recognize them. On the contrary, it is the Unheimlich element of reality, the rest that is not included in daily life. Already in his Project (1895) Freud speaks of the Thing (das Ding), that is, the foreign, non-assimilable element, Fremde, of reality. Later, in a complex and arduous essay (The Uncanny, Freud 1920), coeval with Beyond the pleasure principle, he conceives of the Unheimliche as that which, within this extraneousness, contains a nucleus of deep and hidden familiarity. In going back to the Thing (Lacan 1997) and making it pivotal in his system of thought, Lacan likens it to the primordial real that always “suffers from the signifier”, and therefore can only present itself to us as a hole, as emptiness. Otherwise said, as an object always (and forever) lost. Its nature, for Lacan, is that of extimité: although it is excluded from language, it can only be thought by means of language. It is what is most foreign to us, yet it is intimate and desired. Language separates us from the real and of the real it cannot say everything. However, if the real cannot be said entirely (because what can be said is not-whole), this does not prevent it from being without effects. The real of Irina (her Other jouissance) escapes her, but has a devastating effect on her human self. Here we encounter the divide between real and symbolic, to which women and their jouissance are closer, in their utter openness. When Heidegger (Heidegger 2001), in line with the a metaphysical tradition that aims to identify the “specificity” of what is human (and naturally its superiority), compared to other species, defines the animal as being “poor in world” he uses the term captivation. This mode places the animal in a condition of total absorption towards the disinhibitor (eg. food) but prevents it from “encountering it as such”, which means animals cannot be “world-forming”, which is what characterizes humans. Captivation is thus constituted by a mode of being on the basis of which “the animal fundamentally lacks the possibility of entering into relation”. Here we are dealing with the epitome of the human as “world-forming”, drawn to order, catalogue, dominate. As Agamben (2003) notes in his reading of Heidegger, “it is precisely because this possibility – apprehending as something that to which it relates – is withheld from it that the animal can be so utterly taken by something else”. In disclosure the entity is not revealed, it is not disclosed, although it not even closed, “captivation stands outside this possibility”. It does not constitute the mode of a true relation, of a having-to-do-with, which renders the animal poor in world; at the same time it is, also, an extreme openness which does not, however, reveal the disinhibitor as an entity. Thus the entity is for the animal open but not unconcealed, open but inaccessible. The captivation that disrupts the animal in its every fiber acts, for us humans, as a paradigm that is the opposite of the exercise of sovereign power of the life of individuals, according to Agamben, of the illusory exercise of phallic mastery, according to the perspective of psychoanalysis.
The image that Derrida gives us of the hedgehog rolled up in a ball on the highway is unforgettable. I must say that also my cats, on some occasions, render the idea very well. I will highlight the fact – should there be any need – that our perspective on animals will always be marred by our being human animals and therefore will be anthropocentric – at best we will be aware of this, unless we too want to run into the risk of going in search of what we have in common (human animals and non-human ones) and what makes us different, in order to exercise a more or less explicit supremacy. It is true that keeping in mind that humans share a good percentage of their DNA with species such as fruit flies and corals does no harm, though it might make us uncomfortable, and this was clear to Freud himself, a fervent Darwinian. We know almost nothing about these beings and it will probably continue to be like this. However, like Derrida’s cat, that with its mere presence led him to question shame – of whom, of what? My own, of the cat, of shame itself? – and to move into territories where awareness and knowledge become unsuited weapons, animals challenge us, if we allow them to, on capital issues that have to do, by definition, with the feminine articulated as Hilflosighkeit, passivity, the ability of not being able, as assumption of one’s castration, renunciation of mastery, vacillation. The same as when during treatment we really step beyond structure, and language becomes a stutter. We will never know if an animal is captivated but it seems that its presence is able to raise, in us humans, a question about a condition that Heidegger called captivation, in which the animal does not open itself, as does Dasein, in a world, yet it is nevertheless ecstatically (my italics) draws outside of itself in an exposure which disrupts it in its every fiber . There is something in the jouissance of women, in their jouissance beyond the phallus, which disrupts them, Lacan says in Seminar XX, and of which they know nothing except that it occurs. The mind can falter and become ek-static under certain conditions and certain propensities that push us beyond a threshold. It takes an apparent courage that is none other than not being able to live otherwise. (Raparelli 2018) In what way? I will try to explain it.
3) Mourning the Thing
I have the impression that some subjects have privileged access to the Real, they are somehow experts, professionals in this. That they have the (sublime) privilege of seeing the world, the entity, before any possible attribution of meaning or disclosure, where it is still unsaturated, foreign, indeed, real. They abandon themselves to it, “let it happen to them” at the risk of being overwhelmed, but it seems that they cannot do otherwise. Psychotics, experts not of reality but certainly of the real, devote a lot of effort to building a sort of alien domesticity around themselves, in the self-healing forms of delirium, which are all but domestic and familiar for the so-called sane. There are, however, other conditions (which are not related to either a diagnostic frame or to its absence, indeed I call them conditions) in which access to the real seems to me to be privileged. Conditions in which the contact with the unassimilated, with the extraneous, with what insinuates itself in the Heimliche are almost the norm. This “extreme proximity” (to use the words of Agamben) becomes an equally extreme form of knowledge, acquired in unusual ways. I believe that some subjects have the ability to experience the real with a sharpness that I would say is immediate, keeping in mind all the semantic ambiguity of the term. It clearly refers to a mystical quality that orients the relationship with the real that originates in the attempt to reabsorb the object, and whose matrix can only reside in Thanatos (Cimino 2015). As if the barrier of language were less permeable than the Real, making it possible to entertain a more fluid relationship with it. In this exposure – which is necessity, one cannot act otherwise – the real is the site of a radical openness that allows a basic, original access. Some conditions seem to be characterized by the possibility of experiencing an ecstatic receptive passivity, which allows one to see things that others do not see. This is the aspect that I intend to emphasize here. This derelict life suffers the real, both in the sense of suffering it, of undergoing it, and in the sense of bearing its trace, the imprint of that which is unassimilable, of the original Fremde. The psychotic does not give in, does not accept the fact that he/she is not able to recover the object that has always been lost, that is, accept that he/she will be able to find only another different one (an Ersatz), and because of this seeks it indefinitely. He/she continually acts out the impossible attempts to annul the abysmal distance from the object, because its presence is literally vital. The Thing is not dead, words have not killed it nor has the jouissance bound to it. But to what extent has is died for each one of us?
In the essay “On Transience” (1915b) Freud addresses the impossibility of the process of mourning as the cause of the feeling of transience, which affects the protagonist of the essay whom we know to be Rilke. This paradigm works if we consider the mourning of Rilke (or rather, his non-mourning) as the refusal of a definitive renunciation of the primary object (“that door is closed!”) and of the imaginary union that supports the “illusion of eternity”. What he refuses to do is, in fact, to shift the bond towards a barred Other, which is inconsistent, and offers no fictitious yet consolatory guarantees. The refusal to renounce is accompanied by a painful but not subjectivized awareness of one’s own limit (of one’s own death), which translates into the feeling of transience. The real of the limit/death is constantly present, not distanced enough. I believe that Rilke suffered from precisely this feeling of “transience”, despite his knowledge of language. The inability to exercise that essential act of “feigning not to know” (of the limit), exposes him fully to the world. It is not difficult to identify here the work of the death drive which, by its very nature, tends towards the elimination of all tension and discontinuity. Despite the deviations imposed by Eros, the quality rooted in the “magnet” orienting everything works more or less silently, in some subjects (such as Rilke, or Antigone) more clearly, it would seem. “Death exists” Freud writes in the essay, against the more watered-down interpretations, and it is to this real evidence that Rilke should submit, mourn the end of the illusion of eternity. Yet this total exposure to the real, at the mercy of a necessity, of “not being able to live otherwise” opens up to – too much, we could say – hidden and unsuspected recesses of the human condition, which in the case of Rilke are all too evident. But poets, it is known, are in a privileged position.
I consider the real as being constituted by the non-human animal (we should not think only of our kittens or pet dogs, but also of mice, panthers, and why not ?, also of spiders and grasshoppers; let’s think of Kafka’s fish, and of the axolotl of Cortázar) necessary for us human animals to build a form of life that bears a compassionate and open gaze on the world, a gaze that is perhaps the only truly human gaze. This extreme openness that is not revealing allows some subjects an absolute (ab-solutum) contact with the world, although these subjects are, in a certain sense, exiled from the world. I do not know if they are world-forming, to quote Heidegger, but they are open to it in a condition of radical passivity that renders them able to resonate in a similar way to the essential disruption of the animal in its Umwelt. We could say that exposed life suffers from the Real, both in the sense of suffering it, of undergoing it, and in the sense of bearing its traces. The brutal exposition to that Real which is by definition irremediably extraneous, alien, untamed, devoid of meaning, not unconcealed – not inscribed in the symbolic – is something that everyone, from time to time, experiences, albeit fleetingly. Its original core is naturally attributable to the condition of Hilflosigkeit. And if for some existences this trace entails, on one side, the experience of horror and desperation without end, brought on by a radically alien world, or by transience, on the other side there resides that openness that comes before any possibility of saying and that places those who experience it in a position of ek-static, centrifugal, openness.
An acquaintance of mine, not really a patient, his identity always in an unstable balance, endowed with an extra amount of precariousness compared to so-called sane people, which makes all the difference, recounted the following experience. He was wondering aimlessly through the streets of a foreign city, as a true flâneur, which he is, constantly undecided between the desire to find a certain familiarity and the wish to lose it, when he experienced an event which was certainly not new for him. While entering a semi-peripheral neighbourhood, where more languages can be heard along with the already foreign one of the place, (it was obviously a multi-ethnic neighbourhood), one of those places that can be commonly found in many of our contemporary metropolises, he suddenly experienced what psychiatrists would call a fleeting and violent episode of derealisation. The curious and remarkable aspect is that together with the experience of disorientation, unreality and anguished Unheimliche, he also experienced a condition of absolute joy, exaltation and freedom, as if he had touched something for a moment or seen something that is not always available to be perceived. Something provided with a character of exceptionality and essentiality, he added later, while describing what immediately appeared to me as the other side of the Unheimliche, that of an ecstatic openness to the world. In this extreme point, necessarily close to the Thing, the Real is caught for a moment, both on the side of horror, of absolute and alien extraneousness, and in that – no doubt less frequented – of immaculate sharpness that precedes any domestication, or its failure.
The perception of this state – I say perception because there is nothing “extrasensory” in it – is extreme, radical, it comes before anything that may be said, and before any removal or denial may occur. This is precisely the other side – dangerously and inevitably contiguous to it – of the death drive. In that no-man’s land, beyond the call to reunite with the Thing, beyond nostalgia and the attempt to continue indefinitely in oneness, in a territory to be explored, the possibility to grasp the bare Real opens up, and, albeit for one moment, to sustain it. I believe that the possibility of attuning to the basic coordinate of the human being that is ecstasy, entails a radical opening towards the outside, towards a subjectivized desire of life devoid of guarantees, as weak as it is powerful, transient by definition. In other words, by assuming an actively passive position, with an exercise that allows borders to become fluid, in the form of an extreme openness between oneself and the world. Elvio Fachinelli (1989) pointed in this direction: that of an exit from oneself, from one’s proper identity (a very ambiguous term, especially for psychoanalysts), that is well defined, in order to assume a centrifugal, ek-static position. It is necessary to give up – as far as possible – our defences, renounce our “compact” identity, an operation that transcends the de-subjectivisation required of the analyst to exercise his/her function, in favour of a form of abandonment which allows to be penetrated by the Other. If, instead of exercising control over this uncanny, it were possible to enhance this sort of receptive passivity that allows us to see things we usually cannot see, this would be the beginning of an emancipation from the ethics of domination and oppression, in which someone is always subjected, made slave, and in which someone is always master, in favour of an ethic of exposed life, marked by a bare and compassionate gaze, which looks at the other and at his/her existence, a derelict and open one, an “unconcealed” one. The Freudian uncanny would thus become the germinating source of the new.
4) Pure love and mysticism
Women occupy a position which is that of the Radical Other: bearer of all the disorienting force of those who arrive Derrida, Roudinesco (2001), of those who do not cross a threshold, who are not located in any place that is more identifiable than another, equally identifiable, but remain suspended and extraneous, inassimilable, who involve us in the infinite balancing of love, of the encounter with the Other that takes place in contingency, which must be invented moment by moment. It is precisely this unstable balance that seems to effectively put women in the condition of experiencing and becoming the object of true or pure love (Le Brun 2002), of that something which is an addition through which it is possible to make up for the lack of sexual intercourse. It would be naive to mistake this for a romantic idea. The supplement that makes woman produces her elusiveness, that something of her which embarrasses, which is uncanny because it cannot be set in the context of the oedipal (phallic) law. Woman can be only the multiplicity of women. There is something more in the jouissance of woman that goes beyond structure and that makes her exposed to what is limitless. That additional jouissance does not pertain to the one, it escapes, nor is it satisfied in the child as a substitute of the phallus. It renders woman radically Other in the eyes of man and of herself, exposed to a real that exceeds the signifier. This step goes well beyond the Lacanian renunciation of the imaginary phallus – that, with all the aporias of the situation, is recognized as being responsible for the claim that “there is no such thing as a sexual relationship” – and beyond the illusion of power and mastery it represents. Already this passage that necessarily entails the loss of the coordinates orienting us and therefore the consequent experiences of impotence – precisely Hilflosigkeit – must certainly not be underestimated. Lacan, in fact, not only declared the need to go beyond the rock wall that, according to Freud, every analysis is destined to come up against, (the rejection of femininity), but envisages it as a fundamental indicator of the conclusion of therapy, and as the purpose of this therapy. Giving up the aspiration to an imaginary pseudo-virility and submitting to the laws of castration, are according to Lacan, unlike Freud, not only possible but also necessary and indispensable in order to find a position in the world. It is precisely virility that involves the relationship with the limit marked by castration. Without castration there would not even be the jouissance of the organ, which is not, however, what makes up the relationship. Lacan had already gone as far as saying that “woman lacks nothing” in Seminar X (Lacan 2014), distancing himself from Freud, for whom the feminine position is marked by lack. A lack that always returns as a phantom in the most varied forms, it will suffice to look around: the woman that must be saved, or moulded, the woman to despise, sometimes the woman that must be killed. One becomes a woman, and this is not easy, indeed to Freud it seems impossible, one can only become mother, and acquire the object in the register of the phallus in which it acts as a substitute of the missing organ. In Lacan we witness a radical shift: castration, and the anxiety connected to it, are no longer inscribed in the register of Oedipus and prohibition, but in the body itself and in its mechanism; we are no longer dealing with the phallus, but with the real of the male penis which undergoes detumescence following sexual intercourse. It is precisely here that the anxiety originates, and all the imaginary countermeasures aimed at keeping it at bay. Man must camouflage his real deficiency, while woman does not have to, because she “lacks nothing”. The importance attributed to structure is already here very much diminished; in the place of the imaginary body and its perfection we have the miseries of the real body, of which the penis’s detumescence is well representative. The praise of femininity begins here, at this point of Lacan’s work, in the illustration of the advantages of a feminine position, here linked to woman’s anatomy. The relevant aspect of this shift in perspective is the hypothesis that there is a place of femininity that is not immediately inscribed in the laws governing structure, but that is a place of suspension, open to the unforeseeable. As opposed to an all, in the context of which woman does not escape, does not exceed, where she is again all for the man and for herself, we have a place of jouissance articulated in a feminine mode, which is not universalizable, as opposed to the phallic one which is normative, the same for everyone, already written. A jouissance that is Other, of which we cannot say anything, Lacan tells us, and not even woman knows anything about it, she simple experiences it when it occurs. Exactly like Irina. This statements, on the one hand, seems to constitute an injunction to leave experience bare and open, untamed, outside the coordinates that would frame it so as to render it an object of knowledge – even those of language. On the other, it denounces all the limits of language, which is unable to say the sexual relationship – all it can speak of are its simulacra, that is, where it does not exist. “Women don’t know what they’re saying” (Lacan 1998), not because they are fools, but because Lacan, with his propensity for boutades, which in this case must be taken literally, claims that there are no words to say what women should say (their jouissance, the Other jouissance). The “one by one” does not dispose of preformed signifiers which would allow it to be said, unlike Woman, which implies the signifier in the capital W (phallic, the same as language that pertains to the phallic order), which because of this can be said, but does not exist because she is not-whole, she is (utterly) Other. Saying Woman does not grasp her, it “defames” her (“Lacan is here playing on words: “on la dit femme” and “on la diffâme”), because there is a supplement. What women should say is entirely of the order of the real. To erode pieces of the real, find the words in that precise moment. This position of openness is configured as a “mystical” position, insomuch as it is an absolute being exposed to the Other as, Lacan says, one of the faces of God. In the writings of mystics such as Margherita Porete, Hadewijch of Antwerp, Angela da Foligno, the theme of subjective experience is used to speak of the relationship with God. We cannot say what happens but we can say when it happens, the moment it happens, Lacan ads. Yet these women and others, and even some men, for instance Catherina da Siena, Julian of Norwich, Giovanni della Croce, were able to speak of their ecstatic experiences in a very effective way, and of their conception of mysticism. Perhaps in a non-systematic way, that cannot be categorized, but in an effective one. In Explication Des Maximes Des Saints Fénelon attempted to render “pure love” intelligible, explainable, the type of love theologians could not conceive or justify, that characterizes the mystical dimension in its practise of abandonment to God, to the point of non-being. Fénelon’s text was condemned by a papal bull in 1699 which meant it was excluded from theological contexts only to reappear in others. It is no surprise that the ecclesiastical institution wanted to scotomize an uncomfortable, subversive theme, which escapes the dispositifs of power and only secondly a philosophical categorization (assuming that these are not the same thing). A theme that is by definition linked to singularity, and which exceeds that form of extreme mastery that is knowledge. Mystical experience and the knowledge connected to it have more to do with that captivation in which a subject is taken and by which it is disrupted, in an absolute bond with an entity, beyond any expectation or attempt of mastery. Why not think of this condition in terms of pure immanence, of passivity, without it being a form of degradation? The feminine position exceeds the laws that guarantee structure, with all the risks involved. Its atopia (so close to the real) is an extreme vacillation and a tyche for the ecstatic exit from oneself. Even that “gem nestled in the human” which is the bare animal life (Agamben 2003) of the human, as we can think of it, appears to us as a limit point in which being experiences pure abandonment, the ability of not being able, close to that absolute disorientation that is the condition of Hilflosigkeit.
5) The Drive of The Real
The feminine not whole is generally associated with madness, with destruction. The film is no exception: here the Other (feminine) jouissance, what escapes Irina (more than this…) is beastly (in a Derridean sense), homicidal. This articulation is also very effective in order to illustrate the mechanism that explains why men kill women: what we have no grip on, (because it is not-all inscribed in the symbolic), can only be eliminated in the real. The protagonist of the film limits herself to shifting her attention from Irina to the more reassuring but less exciting Alice, which is also a typical mechanism. Indeed the couple Alice/Irina very much embodies the Freudian one mother/Dirne. In it we also find the theme of the other woman, namely the phallic (hysterical) side of femininity. In my practice I have found that many men, in their lust for domination, are potential stalkers, even when they do not act it out. The phallic dimension requires, to various degrees that depend on the relationship with one’s castration, control, mastery, a sense of belonging. In the film we find something that is well known relating to not whole: Lol, Antigone, if you like, Medea, Irina, have in store a tragic end, and it is not hygienic to remain in their company. The non-whole is articulated (and liquidated) essentially as amour fou (Adèle H), or as madness tout-court (Lol). Which leads us towards a commonplace, not entirely gratuitous, however, as proximity to the real is a risk, evidently. The other hypothesis regarding the feminine non-whole, love that kills, depicted in the film, is, from my point of view, that of an ecstatic opening. The feminine position is open to the absolute Other and to itself insomuch as it is the absolute Other. Other is absolute by definition, because it cannot be known prior to the experience and even then it will never be truly known. It is not only Other from words, it has in itself, structurally, the dimension of extraneousness that subjects tend to domesticate, render similar, familiar. If the signifier Other retains its reach, it is absolute. Of the Thing, absolute Other, there is always a trace, as we have seen. From another point of view, we can say that Irina’s animal being is pure drive, love and homicidal hate. Freud spoke of ambivalence to indicate the double affective tension of love/hate that imbues all investment in objects and that emerges in all its power in the work performed by mourning. Hatred is more ancient than love (Freud 1915a), it goes back to the original introduction of a foreign element that is therefore hated (“spat out”), an operation that inaugurates the construction of the subject (Freud 1925) and, paradoxically, its ability to recognize otherness. What, therefore, institutes this recognition is rejection (the Freudian no) that corresponds to the non-assimilable element of the subjective drive that is therefore placed outside us: no! Even in love the relationship with the object retains this original and irreducible nucleus of rejection. Hate for what is extraneous constitutes an attempt to expel something that is ours, precisely the exceeding element of the drive, an operation that is by definition destined to fail, and thus to be continuously repeated. This is the underlying mechanism of racism, of fundamentalism, and of any form, more or less macroscopic, of hatred of the Other motivated by its diversity. The more difficult it is for the subject to recognize that the stranger is (in) him or herself, the more powerful the tendency to reject any form of diversity, which ultimately becomes paranoia, a condition in which the idea of an uncontaminated and untainted Ego is mirrored by an idea of Other viewed as the bearer of all evils and impurities. This would explain the choice to locate this exceeding element of the drive in “fierce” animals (were-panthers, etc.): they simply – from the point of view of imagination – lend themselves well to carry out this operation effectively, and for this reason they are classified as “fierce” by us humans. The presence of a certain degree of subjective assumption of that exceeding element that one cannot eliminate may lead to the emergence of a sense of guilt, maybe only as the sign of the work performed by the drive; or it can introduce, from another perspective, the possibility of sustaining the real.
Transl. by Emma C. Gainsworth.
Agamben, G. (2003) The Open: Man and Animal, Palo Alto, Stanford University Press.
Cimino, C. (2015) Il discorso amoroso. Dall’amore della madre al godimento femminile, Latalpa Manifestolibri.
Derrida, J. & Roudinesco, E. (2001) De quoi demain, Paris, Galilée.
Di Ciaccia, A. (2013) “Versi il Seminario Ancora”, in La Psicoanalisi, n. 53-54.
Fachinelli, E. (1989) La Mente Estatica, Milano, Adelphi.
- (1985) A Project for Scientific Psychology, SE, I.
- (1915a) Instincts and their Vicissitudes, SE, XIV.
- (1915b) On Transience, SE, XIV.
- (1925) Negation, SE, XIX.
- (1931) Female Sexuality, SE, XXI.
- (1933) Femininity, SE, XXII.
Heidegger, M. (1929-30) The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphisics, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2001.
- (1997) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-60, Book VII, New York, W.W. Norton and Company.
- (1998) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972-73, Book XX, New York, W.W. Norton and Company.
- (2014) Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, 1962-63, Book X, London, Polity Press.
- (2017) The Formations of the Unconscious, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book V, 1956-57, London, Polity Press.
Le Brun, J. (2002) Le pur amour de Platon à Lacan, Paris, Seuil.
Raparelli, F. (2018) “Not Being Able to Live Otherwise. Kafka, the Animal, the Artist”, in Vestigia, Journal of International Network of Psychoterapeutic Practice, Vol 1(2), Summer 2018.
1 November, 2018
To Paola Carola
«I should like to be Alcibiades for one day and one night, and then die!»
W. Goethe, from a letter to Herder, July 1772.
«Love, love that never gives us respite»
A. Boito, Falstaff
In the 1960-61 seminar, where he faces the question of transference love, Jacques Lacan uses Plato’s Symposium to thematize the nature of erotic desire from a psychoanalytical point of view. What ultimately emerges from this debate between the science of psychoanalysis and love on the one hand and a classic of philosophical thought on the other, is the subversive nature of erotic desire: Eros, more than acting as an intermediary between the gods and men, and hence as a protector of relations in general, becomes the third wheel throwing into crisis and breaking up links and unions. As a median, Eros is rather a broken one, which blocks the regular course of human actions. Eros is tragic more than it is sentimental.
The Metaphor of Love*
The scene is well known. Socrates has just finished speaking. All are applauding. But not Aristophanes. The comic poet asks to speak, he wants to reply: Indeed, Socrates, caring little for historical plausibility, has involved him, with Diotima as his mouthpiece. But suddenly a loud noise gives the guests a start. Someone, obviously with no manners or discretion, is knocking at the court door, there is a clamor of people in the mood for revelry as even the sound of a flute can be heard. After a moment Alcibiades walks in, stone drunk, staggering, a flute-girl sustaining him. Around his head he is wearing a garland of ivies, violets and ribbons, infinity of ribbons. He has come, he says, to celebrate Agathon and to drink. Without even noticing, he is so drunk, he sits right next to Socrates. On realizing this he flies into a rage: You again—he shouts—forever lying in wait for me. Having said this he elects himself symposiarch, dictates the new rules and decides: instead of praising Eros each shall praise the person to their right. He himself will begin and, as chance would have it, the man sitting on his right is Socrates.
A philosophical commentary would end here, having abandoned the text of the Symposium long before and, to continue the exposition of Plato’s theory of love it would have gone on to analyzing another work, Phædrus for example. What happens in the Symposium after Diotima’s speech is, according to philosophers, no longer pertinent. To them Alcibiades’s tale may at the most be of some use to sketch Socrates’ character, to stress his temperance, his power to resist, his contempt for the pleasures of the senses, all the qualities befitting the philosopher and that make up the ideal of the form of philosophical life. But the last word on the Eros of Socrates-Plato goes to Diotima: the rest is literature or historical information.
But is it really conceivable that in a text with Eros as its declared object what takes place between Socrates and Alcibiades is there only by pure chance or simply because in the intentions of Plato as writer—the second letter, in actual fact, proclaims him as the only one—there is also that of rehabilitating in the eyes of his contemporaries and in those of posterity the unique figure of a philosopher who, due to his eccentricity and for refusing to write anything in his own hand, exposed himself more than any other figure to detraction and calumny? This is undoubtedly one reason. But the problem lies elsewhere: in the question of whether there actually exists a relationship, no matter if direct or conflicting, between what is usually referred to as the Platonic theory of Eros and the salacious scene, which could almost be something out of Boccaccio, of Alcibiades seizing Socrates underneath the blankets and Socrates resisting impassive as if the thing didn’t concern him. A further question is whether within the very conceptual economy of the Symposium there is a relationship between the noble style of Diotima’s speech and the far more concrete, even pedestrian, style of that authentic shift to action which Alcibiades’ rigmarole amounts to. Which is also, as Socrates notices at the very end, a masterful example of coded speech, rhetorical performance, because, while he is explicitly addressing Socrates, Alcibiades is actually aiming at Agathon. Unless one wants to reduce this phantasmagoric blend of styles typical of the Symposium—from epical to comical, from tragic to medical, from philosophical to sophistic and sapiential—to a mere virtuosic exercise.
These questions may also throw new light on past arguments in Socratic and Platonic historiography; not only on the age-old and unsolved issue of the so-called ‘historical Socrates, but above all on the issue of attribution. If, on the one hand, what Socrates actually said will probably remain forever inaccessible to us, on the other a greater attention to the textual strategies may lead to the drawing up of a boundary of some sort, however weak, between Socrates’ position and Plato’s, without this necessarily implying an acceptance of the theses of the Tübingen school. For example—and this is one way Lacanian commentary intervenes on the text of the Symposium—one could observe that the dialectical interlude Socrates subjects Agathon to is the mark of a very different philosophical style from that which transpires from Diotima’s words. The former is entirely formal, busy building a plot of pertinent oppositions, of radical differences, one could say it is structural in an ante litteram sort of way. The latter, on the other hand, plays entirely on mediation, almost concerned with softening the other’s radicality, with returning to a human dimension a speech such as Socrates’, which risks, as usual, of confusing the interlocutor without offering any answer of sorts, any solution. And if it is true that Socrates himself abandons the position of Maître for an instant, appearing before the stupefied audience in that of pupil—it is he at last who answers questions and listens—almost as if he were publicly atoning for youthful mistake, one could also say that this changeover between Socrates and Diotima is only a trick of Plato’s to slyly join in the debate himself. With this rhetorical tour de force, Plato manages to credit Socrates, through the mediation of Diotima (whose speech, just to further mix things up, is among other things described by Socrates as ‘sophistic’) his conception of love. This is of course nothing but a hypothesis, but one which, with the necessary precautions, may be of use to better disentangle the complexity of Plato’s works. It is a hypothesis that would defer, or even permanently exclude, that result which is proper to a philosophical and academic commentary, which, aiming at extracting the concept or the essence of something, love in the case of the Symposium, tends to ignore the profusion of rhetorical figures and narrative functions that arrange the text and on which it is ultimately built.
Indeed, if it is true, as Derrida writes, that a style never lets itself be distinguished by intention, it never, in other words, allows that act that makes up the primary violence of every commentary—i.e. the prosaic disembodiment to a conceptual pattern—it is also true that before the violence with which Lacan inevitably risks reducing the text of the Symposium to his psychoanalytic theory, there is already the violence imposed by the institutional philosophical commentary. And Lacan ought to be credited with, even if this were his only merit, having got round this danger inherent to an academic philosophical interpretation. The fact that he reads the Symposium thoroughly and up to the very last word, that he attaches to the figure of Alcibiades a far more relevant function than that of swinging between the apologetic and the documentary, which is characteristic of the more traditional commentary, and the fact that he finds Alcibiades decisive to the understanding of Plato’s theory of Eros at least proves the following: he does not disembody the Symposium within a conceptual pattern, but adopts it primarily as a text. Hence his meticulous highlighting of the style; beginning with the discursive contexts: mythological, medical, sociological, comical-tragic and tragic-comical, scientific, philosophical-idealistic; then of the narrative structures, of the dramatic patterns, the witticisms, even in the game of the pure signifier; and again of the distinction between uttering and utterance (énonciation and énoncé), decisive to understanding, for example, the speech Alcibiades makes which could be summed up in the common saying: «Talk to a daughter in law so as a mother in law will understand».
Lacan basically pays very special attention to the rhetorical dimension of the philosophical text. He reads it slowly, using both axes of language, syntagmatic and paradigmatic, thus avoiding the type of reading that rushes headlong towards the identification of concept or essence, that rushes in other words towards finding a stable and univocal meaning where to file the complexity of a textual plot. This does not mean that Lacan believes the theory of Eros that Plato puts in Diotima’s mouth to be false and replaces it with another that may be more coherent and truthful, but equally one-dimensional and rigid: it simply means that he puts Diotima’s speech back inside the overall rhetoric and dialectic of the Symposium. This act, violent like all interpretational decisions, does however have the effect of showing how the Symposium deconstructs itself from within, that is to say, it shows how Alcibiades’s sudden entrance is not random, but, and this is Plato’s ultimate irony, goes to making up the immanent critique of Diotima’s theses and thus rightfully belongs to philosophical discourse.
A general thesis we could extract from the Lacanian commentary is the following: there is no virgin unprejudiced approach to philosophical texts (but the thesis may be extended to include all texts). It always reaches us as ‘pre-understood’, first of all through the institutional apparatus that Lacan identifies with academic discourse. To put it another way, whatever interpretation of the Symposium one wishes to give, whatever effect of misunderstanding is produced by the Wirkungs-geschichte, the Platonic dialogue will always be read as the inscription of a certain supremacy of knowledge over desire, of the ideal over the empirical, of reason over sensibility. Indeed, the Symposium will always reproduce the hierarchy on which the institutional interpretation of philosophical discourse ultimately rests. Hence the necessity of the act of violence of tearing the text away from the mechanism of self-reproduction of academic discourse, for which what counts is not so much the stiffness of an interpretation but rather the reaffirming of a supremacy, that of the ideal of knowledge.
There is a part of the seminar regarding transference where Lacan proves he has a clear idea of the general program of academic discourse. If the eternal aim of all university professors—i.e. getting rid once and for all of the proliferation and excessive determination of signifiers, reducing the terms of philosophical vocabulary to a univocal signification—he says, the effect would be the silencing, the very disappearance of philosophy. As if for Lacan all the conceptual effectiveness of philosophy rested on the presence of multiple linguistic voices. Hence the conclusion that a philosophical text, in the same way as a dream, should be interpreted more as the effect of a rhetorical strategy than of a conceptual deduction: it is the displacements and the condensations, the metonymies and metaphors, that produce the shifts of meaning, the semantic short-circuiting, which can in the end become actual conceptual innovations.
Let’s return, then, to the question we started off with: what has the drunken Alcibiades got to do with the ideal essence of love inferred in Diotima’s speech? This question implies another: who is Alcibiades? To find the answer we simply have to read, as Lacan suggests, the relevant pages in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives: Alcibiades is a young ambitious politician, prepared to go to any lengths, even betrayal, to achieve his dream of glory and power, and above all he is handsome, with a beauty that “bloomed with him in all the ages”. Lacan wittily compares him to a president Kennedy with a James Dean face. In a page of the écrits, contemporary to the seminar, he thus portrays him:
But Alcibiades is by no means a neurotic. In fact, it is because he is the epitome of desirousness, and man who pursues jouissance as far possible, than he can thus (though with the help of an instrumental drunkenness) produce before everyone’s eyes the central articulation of the transference, when in the presence of the object adorned with its sparkle. The fact remains that he projected onto Socrates the ideal of the perfect Master.
And in The Seminar:
Let us observe that in the attitude of Alcibiades there is something, I was going to say sublime, in any case absolute and passionate which is close to something of a different nature, of another message, the one where in the gospel we are told that the one who knows that there is a treasure in a field – it is not said what this treasure is – is capable of selling everything he has in order to buy this field and enjoy this treasure. It is here that there is situated the margin of the position of Socrates with respect to that of Alcibiades. Alcibiades is the man of desire.
The first thing we notice is that Lacan, by promptly dismissing the possibility of Alcibiades being a neurotic, can immediately reject the objection that a psychoanalytic commentary of a philosophical text is necessarily a wild analysis of sorts where the individual characters or authors are forced to lie in the couch. None of all that. To Lacan the only form of applied psychoanalysis, if this expression still means anything, is clinical practice. What takes place in the seminars when texts, whether by Freud, Plato or Shakespeare are discussed, is theory, psychoanalytic theory or theory tout court.
At this point a digression is necessary: if there is one thing that characterizes Lacan’s teachings, this must be the idea that psychoanalysis is an integral part of the field of science. A thesis already upheld by Freud and of which Lacan keeps the essentials, perhaps just shifting the focal point from neurology to linguistics. It is just as true, however, that psychoanalysis’s inscription into the theoretical horizon implies a change of the model of reason that has come into being in the western tradition. But this very revision becomes possible only under the condition that psychoanalysis be preventively removed from the psychological field, from the sphere of life experience, removed basically from the field of the ‘human sciences’ and led back to its place of origin. What is the subject of psychoanalysis if not the very subject of science, the Cartesian subject of the certainty of the self, re-inscribed this time in the field of the unconscious, reinterpreted beginning from an archeology of desire? So, among the motives that led Lacan to imposing a commentary on Plato’s Symposium upon an audience that must surely have been crammed with psychological knowledge but reluctant towards ‘the patience of the concept’, there must have been the following: Socrates is the prototype of the subject of science, the archetypal Maître. And that Lacan’s intention was to interlace psychoanalysis and science is proved by the bewildering theory—who knows whether more so for the philosopher or the analyst—that in the Symposium, and not only in the Symposium, Socrates behaves as a quasi-analyst and that his reply to Alcibiades’ speech resembles interpretation.
Thus, according to Lacan, this is the reason why the presence of Alcibiades on the scene of the Symposium becomes necessary. Who is Alcibiades? He is l’homme du désir, he who goes all the way on his quest for pleasure, up to the possible and the impossible. He who to pursue desire not only accepts all the good but also all the evil that may derive from it. Someone who has been elected by desire in turn elects his disciples, like Jesus, and is therefore prepared to betray father and mother, sell out his country, undergo suffering and death, to simply enjoy the treasure he has been able to glimpse. Nothing could be further apart from that education to the desire of immortality that is the backbone of Diotima’s speech; nothing could be further apart from Socrates’ call of «know yourself», which implies the appeasement of desire in the possession of the ideal object, the idea of good. And one may want to find out the reason for this obstinacy of Plato’s in wanting to act out this strange relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades, why his insistence on showing Socrates engaged in the ever failing attempt to educate Alcibiades. As desire is by definition uneducable, it resists any orthopedic practice. Perhaps in the Socratic check Plato has projected his very same experience, his disappointment with the impossibility of educating the politician, and in the name of this failure his project to put the government of the state directly into the hands of the philosopher gathers momentum.
But there is something else Lacan is more concerned with: the fact that l’homme du désir opposes the subject of science, that he damages its certainty. But do bear the following in mind: if it is true that the only categorical imperative which psychoanalysis recognizes as its own is the demand not to give up on desire, for Lacan this does not imply acquiescence towards that strange emphasis that makes desire a tool of human liberation. If on the one hand Alcibiades, as the incarnation of l’homme du désir, checks the pedagogical attempt of the subject of science, on the other hand it is he who projects Socrates as the ideal of the perfect Maître. Lacan means several things by this: that the science-desire subject pair is primal, or rather co-primal, to the emergence of scientific discourse; that the episteme is the specific modality with which the West has attempted to think about desire, to inscribe it in a plot of signifiers to allow its articulation, even if science, which has ethics among its relations, were to try to turn into pedagogicy; that the passion most peculiar to l’homme du désir, which amounts to saying the human subject, is the passion for knowledge, this being the reason why desire places the subject of science in the ideal of the perfect Maître, i.e. of the subject who is supposed to know more than anyone on desire; a passion for knowledge, finally, which, as Socrates knows only too well, always tends to overlap with learned ignorance.
Was it not indeed Socrates who first combined the desire for knowledge with the passion for knowing nothing? Is it not he, in other words, who always states at the beginning of each dialogue, as a preliminary to any possible type of research, that he knows nothing except the fact that he knows he doesn’t know? And is not this proposition that performs him into the position of subject of science, which distinguishes him, the result of an actual epistemological breaking point from the sapiential poets and philosophers, from the physiologists and sophists, united in their claim to the possession of knowledge and to their ability to transfer it? Instead Socrates’ operation consists in stripping value from all those propositions whose criterion for legitimization lies in authority, whether that of nature, divine inspiration or of rhetorical and sophistic ability, and in subjecting them to the test of the pure game of signifying oppositions, as already mentioned and as we shall later see in more detail. In other terms, the Socratic non-knowledge is the refusal—the hysteric refusal, Lacan suggests—of information that has been passed down, of empirical content, of experience, of the doxa in general, in the name of a knowledge of knowing—the episteme—which is merely formal, empty, brought into play as it is only because of the power of the signifier.
However, there is one thing Socrates is an expert in, something he can claim to be wise about with no embarrassment: love. This he claims in the Theages and repeats in the Symposium (198 c-d). Socrates, therefore, has knowledge of desire, he knows, in other words, what he’s aiming at and where he’s leading to. This thus explains why Alcibiades, alongside many other handsome ambitious young men like himself, is seduced by Socrates. Alcibiades sees Socrates, by the latter’s admission, as possessing the knowledge that really interests him, that actually concerns him: the knowledge of desire. Alcibiades doesn’t need masters to teach him how to run the state, gather riches or persuade the people: this, as his history shows, he knows instinctively, in this he is led by desire. What he wants to know, rather, is what this desire guiding him, acting inside him beyond his own self, actually is; Alcibiades’ question is: I want, but what is it I want? And is what I want what I really want? The paradox, or one might say the tragedy, of l’homme du désir is precisely this: he desires, but lacks knowledge of his desire. And an even greater paradox is that he asks the other, as if his desiring, his wanting what he really wants, didn’t depend on him but on the desire and the will of the other. And Lacan’s thesis: not only does every ‘what do I want?’ turn into a ‘what do you want?’ addressed to the other for the person who utters it, but the ‘what do I want?’ is in turn the inversion of a message that, unwittingly or not, the other addresses to us. The mere presence of the other, indeed, summons us, draws us in. The other is a question that keeps us hanging in the balance that puts us in crisis: what do you want? What’s the object of your will? What is your desire? An excruciating agonizing position we get away from by resorting, fully unconsciously, to an imaginary solution: it seems to us, in fact, that if he is asking us this means that he knows, indeed that he is the only one who knows. In other words, we send that ‘what do you want?’ he summons us with back to him with return receipt, hoping that by the end of this correspondence we will be given a single, clear and univocal answer: «Yes, this is what you are».
Socrates must have had such an effect on his fellow citizens: a question mark placed in the heart of the polis. In short, Socrates was ‘the other’. And if this may come across as a Lacanian twist, how to deny that nearly all accounts agree on attaching to Socrates an eccentric atypical position, even to the point of theorizing atopia? In the first place he is ugly, as ugly as Alcibiades is handsome, plus he goes around barefoot with a ragged cloak and never washes. Conversely, he is impassive; he can drink as much as he wants without getting drunk; he withstands the heat or the cold with indifference; he fancies young boys but behaves with Alcibiades as if he couldn’t care less. But the most striking thing, something that coincides with his lifestyle, is of course his way of dealing with issues: he does not teach, he questions. Those who go for him, or those he himself provokes are thrown into desperation: they thought they knew but discover they knew nothing. Yet it is enough to give oneself up to his game even for an instant to be seduced by it. And what is his game? Pronouncing to be an expert, he who knows he knows nothing, in the concerns of love. The question now becomes: what relationship is there between his knowing he knows nothing, a knowing and not knowing that qualify him as a subject of science, and the possession he claims to have of mathemata of love? What does his only knowledge basically consist of? In the awareness of the absolute insubstantiality of the object of will. When debating with his conversation partners what good is, whether it is wealth, health or military glory, or what virtue is, whether courage or temperance, on who one should love and how, on what, in short, the purpose of will should be, what Socrates knows even before the dialogue has become is that desire has no object. An even minimal analysis is enough to notice that what was believed to be the object of one’s will, what had been destined to it by instinct, by family tradition or public convention, turns out to be provisional, replaceable and even lacking any value.
His call to his interlocutor—the «know yourself»—consists precisely in the acquisition of this non-objectuality of desire. It is a call for impassiveness or indifference. In other words, in terms of action, the only terms he is really interested in, Socrates knows that there is nothing to know. He knows that no knowledge, no constative statement will ever say what the will really wants to say. Virtue is knowledge, of course. But the problem then is: what knowledge? Not that of the physiologists, not of the sophists and much less so of the poets: only a certain type of ideal knowledge, i.e. a knowledge that places desire in a plot of signifiers.
All this implies that the relationship between l’homme du désir and the subject of science is necessary on the one hand—there is no episteme without a knowledge of desire—while, on the other, it is marked by a degree of enmity. This is because l’homme du désir ultimately rebels against this Socratic precept, albeit being seduced by it: he wants to pursue desire to the end, even though this may cost him abjection and perhaps even his own life. He does not want to sublimate it in the universe of ideas. In actual fact those of the subject of science and of l’homme du désir are two undoubtedly different but symmetric ways of recognizing the impossibility of desire: the former through the thought and anticipation of death—and the issue of immortality is something we will go back to—and the latter through action. It’s no big deal for l’homme du désir if the object reveals to be inconsistent, but what is important is that his position as desiring one be preserved in any case, and if desire is the impossible to pursue it will at all costs be the maxim guiding his behavior.
What is certain is that their relationship is one of love—and this is, after all, the Leitmotiv of Diotima’s speech: More than a desire for bodies Eros is a desire for knowledge. But, if it is a love relationship, Lacan sees—in opposition to certain contemporary ideologies that see in the sentiment of love the paradigm of an intersubjective relationship finally founded on reciprocity and equality—that according to the Symposium love rather generates asymmetry and disparity. Though linked to each other by erotic strength, this does not make Socrates and Alcibiades a couple. In other words, they never meet, their relationship is characterized not by good chance but by bad encounter. When Socrates looks for Alcibiades the latter escapes and when Alcibiades is after Socrates this time it is he who remains impassive. After all, and Lacan insists on this, the entire tradition of love theory, from the Symposium right up to the humanistic/renaissance treatises, including of course Freud, agrees in assigning to the actors of the erotic relationship positions that are not only distinct but above all unequal. Two are never both lovers, one is the lover the other the loved one: one is active, the other passive. And on this point love treatises feature an inflexible akríbeia, precision: they codify behaviors, meticulously establish what is due to the one and what to the other. The erotic relationship is not one between two people of equal strength. In short, the love relationship is not, unlike some modern humanism would have us think, a relationship from subject to subject, but rather from subject to object, it is ultimately an unequal relationship.
All this explains why a commentary on the Symposium becomes part of a seminar devoted to transference. We shall not retrace the Freudian itinerary on the problem of transference love, on its ambiguous status as an unavoidable condition in the analytic relationship and resistance activated by the subject against the emergence of the unconscious, nor shall we dwell on the issue of counter-transference, which by the way is for Lacan the main issue regarding the analyst’s desire, i.e. of the position an analyst, to be defined as such, has to take on with regard to his own desire. What interests us is the fact that if the analytic relationship is a dialogic one—a talking-cure as many say—it involves a general theory of intersubjectivity. One of the main issues seems to have been cleared up here: Lacan’s possible reading of the scene from the Symposium as a quasi-prototype of the analytic relationship lies in the fact that the libidinal investment tying the analysand to the analyst—transference—is due to a passion for knowledge that verges on a longing for ignorance. Someone suffers and doesn’t know why, desires and is ignorant about what he really wants. There is then a knowledge of this suffering of which, however, one knows nothing, or rather, of which one wishes to know nothing. And this is why one ascribes it to the other: even before crossing the threshold of the analyst’s room or lying on the couch, the analyst is projected in the position of the subject of science, of he or she who is supposed to know what the other is suffering from. Transference begins here; what follows—love—is a seduction strategy—a sexual parade—with which the analysand tries to snatch away from the analyst the knowledge he or she is supposed to be the subject of. But the analyst, on the other hand, knows he/she doesn’t know a thing, knows, just like Socrates in the scene from the Menon, that knowledge lies repressed at the bottom of the analysand: so, leaving spatial metaphors aside, which are too tied to the surface-depth opposition—the unconscious is actually entirely and exclusively surface, nothing more, according to Lacan, than a signal chain—the analyst knows that knowledge is unconscious and that the only one to know that is not the subject of science but what Freud referred to using the neutral personal pronoun.
But to what extent does the problem of transference force us into revising the concept of intersubjectivity? To understand this, let’s take a step back. From Hegel’s Phenomenology—read, as is well-known, via Kojève—Lacan drew the thesis that human desire is the other’s desire. Let’s develop the following formula: when one says that the subject desires the other this means that he/she desires another desire, i.e. he/she wants in turn to be desired by the other. The result is that what the desiring subject really desires is to become the object of the other’s desire. In other words, the statute of desire is alienation: the subject turns into object. As we can see, the proposition «desire is the other’s desire» is twofold: on the one hand it establishes the other as the object of my desire, and on the other it makes me the object of his/her desire. In this early phase of the Hegel-Kojève argument we would find ourselves facing the illusion of reciprocity in full arms: both self-awarenesses would be at once subject and object. Self-awareness seems to behave like a lover when he declaims ‘I love you’ and expects a ‘me too’ in return; but, clouded over by love as he is, he fails to notice that the ‘me too’ nearly always means ‘me too… I love myself’. This comparison, which may sound a bit irreverent, is probably the key to understanding propositions of an entirely different ethical caliber, such as the following: «love thy neighbor as you would love yourself». What brings them together is that both place the intersubjective relationship in a narcissistic and mirror-like dimension, or, according to the Lacanian linguisterie, they conceive the intersubjective relationship starting from the imaginary register. To love my neighbor, i.e. the other, as I would love myself implies for Lacan, as for Freud before him, that love is always and exclusively narcissistic, that the other is nothing but my mirror image. But, mutually, it also implies that I am nothing more than an image of the other. Feelings, Lacan says, are always mutual: if I love the other, the other will love me, if I hate the other, the other will attack me, and so on. And this happens because the other and I are both like two virtual images, each functioning as a mirror for the other: like the gag where the clown, after shattering the mirror in a million pieces, mimes the image of the other who must be prevented from noticing that the reflecting surface is missing.
But what is the result of this game of mirrors? According to Hegel-Kojève, the struggle to the death. If the other is only an image of myself and I am only its shadow, my identity is put into question: who am I? If what I want is what the other wants, what do I then really want? Mutuality ends up as a disjunction: either me or the other. But exactly at this point Hegel-Kojève impresses a dialectical turning point on the intersubjective relation: death—the absolute master—from being the final conclusion of the struggle turns into what puts a halt to the process of mutual destruction: for fear of losing its life one of the two self-consciences gives up and makes a slave of itself. To Lacan the dialectical reversal that leads to the ‘dominion-bondage’ spiritual figure can be summed up as follows: the intersubjective relation, dual at first, has become a triangle. A third party has intervened between the two self-consciences, which were initially one the pure mimesis of the other. This third party is death, which has brought the subjective positions back to their constituent dissymmetry. There is no mutuality between lord and servant but only difference, and, although they constitute a pair, the subjects are not on the same level.
It is obvious that under one aspect love corresponds to the first phase or moment of the Hegelian model of intersubjectivity. But in reality disparity becomes the rule—Alcibiades and Socrates, the analysand and the analyst—whilst love is the strategy that the subject puts into play to reduce the anguish of death. To clarify the nature of love Lacan invents, on the Platonic model, his own Mythologem, which he calls «metaphor of love». Imagine—he says,—a hand reaching out towards a fruit or a rose, or a glowing log; imagine its gesture whilst it is trying to reach the fruit, attract the rose, stoke the log. This gesture is closely sympathetic with the maturation of the fruit, the beauty of the flower, the shining of the log, it grows with them. Now, if from the fruit, flower or log another hand comes to meet yours and at that very moment your own hand fixes on the closed fullness of the fruit, on the open fullness of the rose, on the explosion of a hand in flames, the product is love. And he concludes: this hand appearing from the other side is the miracle, the miracle of love. This is the myth. But, Lacan adds, ever since the advent of science, the myth no longer exists, only mythology: so, it is not a question of producing miracles, but knowledge. What, then, does the metaphor of love mean? It means that love is a metaphor. Replace the fruit, the rose, the log, with the loved one. What is it you expect? You expect the object to suddenly come to life, to turn, as if by miracle, from what you desire into what desires you. And you become the object of its desire. Love is a substitution: to take the place of the loved one, of the eromenos, the lover, the erastés, must emerge. In other words, what is especially desirable, which has so far been placed in a passive position, as a mere termine ad quem of my question, must become active, must give me a sign of its love, must metaphorize itself to become a desiring subject. Through the metaphor of love Lacan shows the structural illusion that envelops the intersubjective relation when it is thought of as a relation from subject to subject: love, which in this case acts as a paradigm, turns a lover-loved one relationship into a relationship between two lovers. But what is not taken into account is the fact that, once the metaphorization has taken place, he or she who was the lover has in turn turned into loved one. More precisely: from the very beginning in the relation the lover occupies the place of the object, and love is that unconscious strategy through which the desiring subject may surreptitiously offer itself to the other as the only thing worthy of its love. The love metaphor inscribes, in other words, the fact that in the love relationship the desiring subject has already given up on its desire, it has already turned itself into the object of the other’s desire.
Thus the love relationship remains asymmetrical, from subject to object; except that, in Hegel’s words, this is not known as such by the subject, who can rather revel in the illusion of having achieved a total equality of itself with the other and vice versa. The result of love, at this point, can only be what had already been foreseen by Hegel-Kojève with regard to the figure of recognition: a real fight to the death. And even if one does not wish to reach the catastrophic theses of a Sartre, who thought that the relationship with the other must necessarily lead to sado-masochism, it would still be difficult to deny that in the balance sheet of love the bottom line is always in the red, that the woes, to abandon the metaphor, outnumber the joys. And the reason for this is precisely this constituent asymmetry of love, which implies that the more the lover asks the other to admit him/her as the privileged object of his/her love, the more the message is returned reversed: the other denies himself. A situation that can lead to a break-up, unless a third party intervenes to break the perverse spiral of the mirror-like illusion.
In other words, Lacan uses the metaphor of love to remind us that the intersubjective relationship is never mutual, that, on the contrary, it is essentially unbalanced, and that as such it implies a third party, one that Hegel called death or the absolute Master. Love is that strategy acted by the subjects to keep death at bay, to prevent it, like an opponent in bridge, to call the subject’s bluff: the subject, while declaring a wish to be the lover, the desiring subject as such, actually tends to miserably alienate itself in the other’s desire. This explains Freud’s remark that there is always a time during analysis when the patient, mystified by the fact that the analyst, faced with her/his love request, turns a deaf ear, is seized by the temptation to abandon treatment, gives up trying to heal her/his suffering through analysis and tries to heal it through love: there isn’t a single subject who, when faced with the disenchantment of analytic discourse, fails to give the miracle of love a try. But the choice of a miracle doesn’t drive out the difficulties, it actually even makes them more acute, as for the homme du désir, even in the climax of love ecstasy, the problem remains knowledge: to know what he wants and if what he wants really is what he desires.
On the other hand, if we reduced the love metaphor exclusively to the imaginary horizon we would be betraying its conceptual range and the very role Lacan assigns to it. Thus, to capture the symbolic interface of metaphorical substitution, let’s grant ourselves a brief rhetorical digression: unlike metonymy, which is the part for the whole, the ship’s sail, according to the canonic example of every text book, metaphor is the figurative use for the meaning of a term that already has its own literal meaning. Indeed, it could be said that metaphor is the improper use of a proper meaning. Let’s take the following example: «That policeman is a fox», a sentence that when broken down means: in his profession that policeman proves to be as cunning as a fox. Being cunning is the proper and literal meaning of being a fox, or cunning belongs to the concept of fox, whilst assigning it to the policeman is a figure of speech. But against any attempt at reducing metaphor to an improper use of meaning or concept, by which it is allegedly always possible to trace language back to its proper and literal meaning, which is always stable and univocal, so to speak—i.e. metaphor as the tinsel or ornament, or worse still as the distortion and concealment of concept—it must be stressed that in this example, and it is always true in all cases, if not according to metaphor the fox remains cunning, but by antonomasia. Thus, even if cunning weren’t in the fox’s nature, it still is entirely so in the nature of language. No fox is really cunning if not insofar as it is a fox-within-language. In other words, what is often called proper meaning is already improper, it is already the effect of a metaphor.
Let’s now try to apply the principle of metaphorical substitution to the Hegelian figure of struggle for recognition. The first thing to concentrate on is the positive function that Hegel himself assigns to the first phase of the formation of self-awareness, what we have already described in Lacanian terms as the metaphor of love or the moment of imaginary identification: without it the subjects would never have been put before the Absolute Master, i.e. death. But what follows is also made possible by the power of metaphorization: the softening of the struggle to the death of self-awareness in the ‘Lordship-serfdom’ relation derives, indeed, from the substitution of physical death that self-awareness, which claims to be a servant, implicitly makes with a quasi-spiritual death: slavery means relinquishing recognition. But there’s more, there’s yet a third moment: work. With an immediate abdication from recognition, self-awareness can keep the power of death away, it can do so by working, and in this way return it to knowledge, that is to say remove it from its character as a silent and unmentionable event.
If we return to the metaphor of love, we see that Lacan’s itinerary is similar to Hegel’s; for Lacan too it is a question of understanding that love puts us, despite our ‘natural’ tendency towards self-deception, before the reality of the intersubjective relationship: the fact that it is essentially asymmetrical and unbalanced. But in this case too the transformation of a mutual and equal relation—similar to the Hegelian model where every self-awareness is like the other and does what the other does—into a relationship between unequal parties, beyond being sensed on the plain of experience as a dead loss of one’s own emotional tone turns out instead as being the necessary condition for the negative, which for conscience has wedged itself without reason into the relationship with the other, to be returned to knowledge. This is where, according to Lacan, the power of metaphorization lies: in allowing the passage from love to knowledge or, better still, from love to the knowledge of what makes love impossible. This impossibility is death and the negative, nothingness. And nothingness can only be expressed through metaphor.
The metaphor of love, therefore, has a double valence: on the one hand it expresses the illusion of mutuality and on the other the reality. In the end one could say that for metaphor to carry out its job fully it must go back to itself, make a double turn, metaphorize its own metaphorical power. In terms of the Symposium, the metaphor must not only turn the loved one into lover, eromenos into erastés, but it must also metaphorize the fact that the position of erastés reveals itself as the position of death. Once my loved one has become lover and I in turn have become the object of desire, I can only find myself, like Hegelian self-awareness, at his mercy: as the object of his desire the other’s only wish can be to incorporate me, i.e. to destroy me. The power of metaphor must transform the other, who for me has become a harbinger of death, into a benevolent other, into another who instead of inflicting destruction upon me will give me the knowledge of death. In other words, this passage from love to knowledge, against which the resistance of subjects runs riot, subjects who, as Freud said, prefer the neurotic symptom to recovery, is still part of the metaphorical register. Indeed, knowledge is by definition metaphorical: where there are only unknowable, inscrutable and obscene things, and therefore things removed by right from any possibility of representation, knowledge provides the words. And words are the only help the subject is given to live her/his human existence.
Ménage à trois
As we know, Alcibiades’s entrance changes everything: the convention that had regulated the discursive exchange is declared void. Not only can the guests drink to drunkenness, indeed they must, but the object of discourse is also changed: no longer Eros, but the people themselves, first and foremost Socrates. But not only this: from his very first lines, even before plunging into his praise of Socrates, Alcibiades draws in a third man. As soon as he notices Socrates he charges him not only with harassing him but also with having lain down next to, of all people, Agathon. So, if Socrates lives up to his love for handsome young men on this occasion too, Alcibiades must at least have his doubts on who is the object of desire. In short, for whose benefit is this jealous scene acted out, for Socrates’ or Agathon’s? It is this ménage à trois that must guide us through interpreting the final part of the Symposium.
But let’s go in order. Socrates, who has already understood everything, asks for peace. To this Alcibiades replies that there can never be peace between them. He defiantly grabs the ribbons covering Agathon to crown Socrates, who thus cannot rebuke him for preferring the tragic poet.
Then he asks for wine, and when Eryximachus informs him that until then they had in turn been praising Eros, he takes no notice. Instead he continues to taunt Socrates: Has everyone actually taken Socrates’ words seriously? They’ve let themselves be mocked; and if he dared commend anyone else, it would be Socrates laying hands on him. Socrates tries to defend himself, but Alcibiades continues. Then, Eryximachus tells him, do praise him. But to Alcibiades praising Socrates means making him pay for something. But making him pay for what? For a rejection.
We will now only isolate the essential features of his praise for Socrates. First and foremost the dialectics underlying the metaphorical transformations of the subjective positions. At the beginning Socrates is the lover and Alcibiades the loved one. Socrates charms like Marsyas, he is like those statues of the Sileni, which when broken in two reveal in their insides simulacra of divinity, his speeches have a strange effect: they leave you in dismay and possessed. Alcibiades confesses that Socrates’ speeches even had the power of making him ashamed of himself: something that had never happened before. Imperceptibly, the loved one begins to feel the metaphorizing power of love: Socrates isn’t particularly handsome, he resembles a Silenus, but just seeing his hidden agalmata is enough to be dazzled by him, divine, precious and wonderful as they are. How can they not be desired?
Alcibiades decides to speak: Socrates, he says, is the only lover worthy of him and asks him to pronounce himself. He wants to improve himself, and to achieve this he is prepared to please him in anything. Alcibiades hasn’t yet noticed that he is abandoning the position of loved one and taking on that of lover. What he asks of Socrates is indeed rather strange: he knows full well that Socrates loves him. So, what does he want? A sign? Of what, may we ask? Not a sign that he loves him, but rather that he loves him from a different position than the one he occupied before. According to the dialectics of recognition regulating intersubjective relations, the sign Alcibiades asks Socrates for must testify to the fact that the latter has accepted the position of loved one, of desirable one, and that he will respond to Alcibiades’ desire from this position. Alcibiades requests the metaphor of love to make a complete turn: he has first metaphorized Alcibiades from loved one to lover, now he must transform Socrates from loved one to lover. One could object: isn’t this going back to square one? Socrates was the lover from the very start. But just because this is a dialectics it becomes necessary, in order to reach the truth about the position of being lover, to have gone through that of loved one. A lover who has never been loved is a half lover, a lover about whom one may at least say that he has shirked the game of love, shirked the law of recognition.
The seducer must be seduced if he wants to be a full-scale seducer, a subject must become object of the other’s desire if he really wants to be a subject: alienation is the royal road to truth. But Socrates’ reply is quite the opposite: with the strength of Diotima’s education, which has allowed him to acquire the knowledge of love, he makes it short and sweet. If it is true that Alcibiades has seen an irresistible beauty in him, his request is an unequal one. Trading his beauty with the infinitely superior beauty which Socrates is supposed to hold inside him, his advantage would be so superior as to be unfair: he would, indeed, be trading the appearance of beauty with the reality, and beauty itself, as we know, is not there to be traded. Alcibiades must be very careful: where he thinks he is seeing the agalmata there is actually nothing. His gaze is still too sensitive, but time will sharpen it, it will become a gaze of thought. In short Alcibiades has been hallucinating, he saw where there was nothing to see, he saw nothing. But if he lets himself be guided by Socrates he will gradually learn to see with the eyes of the mind, and if he manages to give up his dreams of glory and hunger for wealth, he will perhaps one day see eternal and immutable beauty.
There then follows the seduction scene where Socrates shines with his impassibility. Why does Socrates refuse to give Alcibiades a sign of his love? What does he hope to gain by refusing to take on the position of loved one and as such requite Alcibiades’ desire? First of all he wants Alcibiades to reach the position of lover once and for all and subsequently run through the path pointed out by Diotima that from beautiful bodies leads to beauty itself. In short, Socrates wants Alcibiades to repeat the crossing of the phantom exactly as he himself has done. Three conditions are necessary for this: 1) that Alcibiades become a lover, that is to say that he take on pleasure, i.e. a lack known as such—this is the definition of Eros attested by Diotima; 2) that to achieve this Socrates refuse to be something desirable, that he proclaim himself a cipher: in so doing he throws back on Alcibiades the lack the other’s desire was still lacking and adds it to it; 3) that once desire is recognized as a lack, it turn in the direction of its valorization.
Alcibiades, Lacan states, is like the doxa, a truth without knowledge, and that is why he loves and wants to be loved. While Socrates, who is the Maître and knows what love is, cannot, precisely in virtue of this, love or be loved. Yet Socrates’ pedagogic attempt fails. As the guests of the Symposium immediately notice when Alcibiades has finished his speech, the young man is still in love. The story of a failed seduction attempt is in turn a sexual parade. Alcibiades hasn’t moved one inch, he continues to ask Socrates for a sign. The thing is that from the very beginning Alcibiades has introduced a question on which Socrates is totally unprepared: the question of agalma, the object of desire. With his answer Socrates proves his inability to do anything before this object and that Diotima’s teaching was worthless. By saying in reply to Alcibiades that within him there is nothing, that he is nothing and that therefore the other can only have seen nothing, Socrates misses what is essential: the Maître of science himself is deceived by the game of the signifier. In his own utterance: «Be careful, dear, that I do not hide from you that I am nothing» (219 a), he takes that «nothing» as a simple nothing, as the exact opposite of ‘something’, and not as the ‘nothing’ that in some way, an impossible one of course, does however show itself, it gives itself to be seen, it is there.
What did Alcibiades see when he saw nothing? He saw just that, nothing, the nihil negativum, the impossible. He saw the object of desire. But from then on any attempt to lead a triadic relationship—Socrates, Alcibiades and the object—back to a purely dual relationship can only be thwarted. L’homme du désir will not allow himself to be educated, there can be no peace between the subject of science and him. And indeed, just as Alcibiades does not budge from his position, Socrates too does not move one inch. His answer to the new seductive rite is, if not exactly the same, at least on the same wavelength as Alcibiades’s. Socrates mentions the final part of Alcibiades’s speech where, after accusing him of forcing his attention on handsome boys with the single aim of making them his lovers, had warned Agathon not to end up like them. This is proof, Socrates says, that his entire speech had only one objective: to stir up trouble between Agathon and himself. And he adds: Alcibiades wants me to love him and not to love anyone else and that Agathon be loved by him alone. What he absolutely does not want is that Agathon and I may love each other.
At this point Lacan’s insistence on the need to take Agathon’s speech seriously becomes clear; and not only because the tragic poet is revealed to be the matter at issue, but above all because it his just here that his praise of love undergoes a test. In relation to Agathon’s speech we had stressed that Eros comes out as the figure that gets in the way of human actions and makes them go haywire. And according to Socrates this is exactly what Alcibiades is doing. L’homme du désir gets in the way, acting as the unwanted third party: he gets in the way between Socrates and Agathon. The exact opposite of what Eros, of which Alcibiades is the only true epiphany in the whole Platonic dialogue, is supposed to do according to Diotima’s model: in both cases Eros is the intermediary, that which lies between the two, but in Diotima it should work as a link or participation between the empirical and the ideal, but in reality it splits the extremes apart, it displaces them one far from the other, in other words it prevents their encounter and union.
To Diotima-Plato Eros is the mediating power between gods and mortals and, by permutation, between ideality and empirics, sense and sensibility, the eternal and becoming. By transmitting the messages of the gods to men and the prayers of men to the gods, Eros fills the abyss separating the two poles of the world and keeps the whole in all its parts tightly connected: Eros occupies a void and fills it. As member of both natures he transfer the one to the other and ties together again those links that always tend to break. But to fulfill its office it is necessary for it to be in turn mediation in action: i.e. Eros must preliminarily be a bearer of division in order to then be capable of putting its mediating powers to use. Indeed, Eros is the median between poverty and expedient, i.e. between the two sides of desire: a radical lacking that desires knowledge and a knowledge that doesn’t realize it’s poor. Already in this way Eros comes across as straddled with difference: its mediating function, its literally transferential power, in a word its logical-rational valence, cohabits with the reaffirmation of the distance separating desire as an unfillable lack from totally idealized knowledge. With Alcibiades’ appearance, indeed, Eros’s intermediation changes: Eros no longer unites, it separates. It’s what’s in between, the unwanted third party, the deconstructing agent of reconciled difference.
Undoubtedly Diotima-Plato’s speech concentrates entirely on the bright side of erotic power, the spiritually cleansed side: as desire of knowledge, far removed therefore from sensitive appetites and bodily seduction. Eros seems ‘naturally’ fated to be appeased with possession of the ideal object, of non-ephemeral beauty. But the very persistence of the divide makes this result impossible. What the Symposium states, through and against its manifest statement, is that if Eros is the median, it is a shattered one: divided in itself and therefore incapable of undertaking the task metaphysics has assigned to it, the task of mediating between the extremes of the opposition and taking them back to a stable and univocal meaning. Alcibiades’ appearance on the scene of the Symposium is not therefore the empirical counter evidence, albeit negative, to DiotimaPlato’s didactic and pedagogical program, but is rather its necessary accomplishment, the proof that desire had broken the banks built by knowledge even before the controlling process had begun. The overturning produced by analytical discourse that transforms the object of desire from what fills the void into the cause of the subjective divide makes the metaphysical damn overflow. Furthermore: the presence of a commentary on the Symposium, within the context of a seminar devoted to transference, points to a general thesis on the function and role of metaphysics. To Lacan metaphysics seems to be no more than a great transferential machine with a program to transducere (lead across) or transferre desire under the control of an ethics of good, sensitivity under rational control and becoming under the control of the eternal: in a word, to transducere difference to the identical.
No wonder, then, that at this point Alcibiades catches the object of desire right in agalma. And no wonder that Socrates still doesn’t see it. Undoubtedly Socrates’ reply is largely a noteworthy example of interpretative skill and refinery; first of all Socrates catches in Alcibiades’s utterance the level of the enunciation: talking about Socrates and for Socrates, Alcibiades is actually addressing Agathon. Beyond this, Socrates, with unbending critical rigor, unravels the tangle of subjective positions implied in Alcibiades’ speech and unfolds it into a highly precise syntagmatic chain: Socrates Alcibiades Agathon, which must be read as: Socrates loves Alcibiades as Alcibiades loves Agathon. Which shows that Alcibiades’s request to Socrates is not, as everyone believes, to have an erotic relationship with him, but to identify with his position and thus have a relationship with Agathon: in other words, Alcibiades wants to love Agathon by occupying the same position Socrates loves him from, he wants to love as Socrates loves. The distinction between identification as such, i.e. identification with the other’s subjective position, and the relationship with the object, is essential to the articulation of the dialectics of inter-subjective relationships. Indeed, this distinction implies that in a dual subject-object relationship there must always be a third party, another subject holding a position that the subject of the object relation is identified with.
The structure of intersubjectivity is always of the following type: subject subject object. This means that, before any object relation, an identification with the other subject is necessary. The result is that our relation with the object will always be exactly the same as that of the other: taking up the example of the Confessions once again, Augustine’s relationship with the object milk is similar to that of his small rival’s. The intersubjective rule does not change even if we replace the object with the alterego, i.e. another subject like us. We would merely write the sequence as follows: Subject Other alterego. We refer here to the stratagem with which Lacan, to distinguish graphically or conceptually the other of identification from the other of the object relation, writes ‘Other’ with a capital ‘o’ in the first case and ‘other’ with a small ‘o’ in the second. The ‘other’ is the alterego of the dual relationship, the imaginary relationship, the other of the mirror image. The ‘Other’ is the signifier’s treasure, what the subjective signifier derives its signification from. L’homme du désir asks the subject of science for the knowledge of his own desire, the signification he is lacking, to know what he really wants and if what he wants is really what he desires: like Alcibiades he wants a sign. In terms of the dialectics of Eros, he wants the metaphor of love to go full circle, because only when the ‘Other’ gives him a sign will he know what to desire and how. Let’s reconstruct the structure one more time: Alcibiades, the desiring subject, is identified with Socrates, i.e. with the ‘Other’, and is in an object relation with Agathon, the ‘other’ or the ’alter-ego. If Socrates gives Alcibiades a sign, i.e. the signification of his desire, he will know how to love Agathon, but, since the sign belongs to Socrates, he will love him as Socrates loves him.
A further difference and complication that the Symposium introduces in this pattern is that Alcibiades has put in the place of the ‘other’, agalma, the object ‘a’ or object of desire. The sequence must now be written as follows: subject Other ‘a’, which must be read as: Alcibiades loves Socrates as bringer of the object of desire, i.e. of the truth of desire as such. The sign, or signifier, that Alcibiades expects from Socrates is therefore the signifier of the object of desire, the signifier of the impossible. At what condition could Socrates respond to Alcibiades’s desire? Only if he accepted to take on the position of the object of desire and from here threw back to Alcibiades the sign, i.e. the signifier of radical lack. But Socrates, a disciple of DiotimaPlato, is a nonentity, he cannot be loved, he cannot stand being the object of someone else’s desire and, therefore, cannot even take on the position the other wants him in of object of the desire. Like an analyst who interprets transference merely as a resistance and not also as the vehicle of the analysand’s desire.
Socrates continues to refuse the metaphorizing power of love and his reply is in fact metonymical, it moves entirely on the syntagmatic and metonymical level of language failing to see the paradigmatic and metaphorical level. Articulating the sequence of subjective positions syntagmatically: Socrates Alcibiades Agathon, it is as if he were saying: I have no agalma, agalma is nothing. Once again your gaze is not pure, it sees where there is nothing to see. I don’t come in to it, you want Agathon and after Agathon you will fall in love with someone else and yet someone else after that, until you realize that there is another kind of beauty beyond the ephemeral transient beauty of beautiful bodies, an immortal everlasting beauty. Again Socrates sends Alcibiades back onto the metonymical procession that must lead the lover from the body to beauty in itself. Why metonymical? Because any body, idea, argument, institution, law or type of knowledge will always be a part for the whole: As Aristophanes said, and whatever Diotima thought, they will always be one half of a double, they relate, in other words, to the total, spherical and perfect object.
Only metaphor, on the contrary, can introduce the object of desire into signification in general. Indeed, the object of desire has no meaning of its own and can consequently only be spoken of using metaphor. It is therefore a question of shifting from a strictly metonymical use of the signifier to its metaphorical one: and as each signifier as such has no meaning, all signifiers are necessarily signifiers of the object of desire, signifiers of lack. But indeed, one must at the same time play on the double axis of language, syntagmatic and metonymical and paradigmatic and metaphorical. It’s obvious that Socrates stops only on the metonymical axis; his constant and repeated refusal of the metaphorizing power of love prevents him from responding to Alcibiades’ desire, from giving him what he’s asking for: the signifier of lack. Socrates only gives him the lack, not the signifier through which l’homme du désir could finally live out his human existence. And Alcibiades will continue to look for it in objects, he’ll go to any lengths, even betrayal, but to no avail: he’ll lose his way without ever finding it. His encounter with Socrates will have turned out to be nachträglich, a bad encounter.
This scene of the Symposium ends here: more people arrive, the confusion becomes indescribable and everyone, engrossed by the ‘Bacchic delirium of philosophy”, gets definitely drunk. Only Socrates resists: as the others fall asleep he continues to converse with Aristophanes and Agathon about drama genres and the dramatist’s ability to shift from tragedy to comedy: this is not incidental, if the Symposium, as we saw, has shown the tragic in comical discourse and the comical in tragic discourse. But the last two interlocutors are now practically falling asleep too. Like a good father, Socrates tucks them in under their blankets and leaves the room. He heads off to the Lyceum, he tidies himself up and spends the rest of the day there as if nothing had happened and only towards the evening does he return home and give himself up to Morpheus’s arms.
Those who dwell among the immortal know not fatigue. Not so for l’homme du désir: to desire wears you out.
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6 June, 2018
At what conditions is it possible to do philosophy today? This question has obsessed Alain Badiou for over fifty years and since his early work Manifesto for Philosophyhas found at least one answer: philosophy today is possible upon condition that it is compossiblewith Lacan, the “educator of every philosopher to come”, as Badiou describes him. Lacan represents a condition of possibility for philosophy because, according to Badiou, a (contemporary) philosopher worthy of this name is someone who “has the courage to traverse, without weakening, the antiphilosophy of Lacan” (Badiou 1995, p. 196). However, only a few are capable of this and Badiou does not hesitate to recognize it at every opportunity. Nevertheless, the conditions remain valid: to be considered a serious and important philosopher, in other words one that can be clearly distinguished from media pundits or “nouveaux philosophes”, so rampant on the contemporary scene, it is necessary to measure oneself with the Lacanian interpretation of philosophy, hence with the anti-philosophical identification that Lacan gives of it, venturing, if possible, to take one step beyond. According to Badiou, really doing philosophy always implies doing antiphilosophy, for several reasons, including the divided origins of philosophy, its “original duplicity”. Philosophy was born divided:if on the one hand, Badiou explains, it incarnates the temptation of sens(sense, meaning), on the other it has also always represented the resistance to this temptation.Philosophy’s condition of possibility, Lacan is one such condition, as conditio sine qua nonfor its resistance or rebirth, i.e. of its return, unvitiated by the search for ultimate guarantees or, least of all, by the dismantling of its specific task – capturing the real –, which too often leads to the failure of that search. The other condition is mathematics, which, significantly, Badiou has often praised in various parts of his works. Philosophy – the philosopher of Being and Eventtells us – must confront itself with psychoanalysis and mathematics, though in this confrontation it must also prove that it has something that allows it to continue being what it actually is, i.e. philosophy. Otherwise, Badiou states, it capitulates, it becomes opinion, chatter, “a patient collection of imbecilities” and non-sense. But what must philosophy do to prove its worth? What must it prove it is capable of to carry on calling itself by that name?
The seminar Badiou dedicated to Lacanian antiphilosophy in the early 1990s is one on Badiousian philosophy, in other words a seminar on what Badiou thinks philosophy should be and ought to achieve. Reason why, when reading it, the philosopher, far more than the analyst, cannot help feeling called into question. The reason for this is undoubtedly the question of the act. Is philosophy – we ask ourselves leafing through these pages – capable of performing an act? In other words, does philosophy contain anything similar to the analytical act? Indeed, being compossible with Lacan means performing acts. Philosophy must prove that it is capable of performing acts, because this is what philosophy must prove to the antiphilosophy that questions it. Yet, precisely because the burden of providing evidence is entirely on its back, Badiou does not take it for granted that philosophy will succeed in doing so, that it will win: indeed, in philosophy we do not find the subjective trait that recurs in antiphilosophy and that Badiou calls “anticipated certainty of victory as subjective disposition with regard to the discourse being held” (Badiou 2013, 2016). Philosophical subjectivity is not a “subjectivity of victory in the present” (ibid.), philosophers do not know they are winning and therefore, Badiou seems to be saying, they will not win.
There are good premises to suppose that it is this very conviction that determines the fact that in the “Lacanian” seminar these questions are not explicitly articulated. Badiou does not formulate them, nor does he supply answers: he leaves them pending. Yet, only a positive answer to these issues would secure a future for philosophy; a future that would not be exclusively mathematical, one before which philosophy would not stand in a daze, helpless and befooled, before mathematics (“bouchée” is Lacan’s diagnosis: a French word meaning at once blocked, stuffy and dim-witted). In other words, only by proving that there is such a thing as a philosophical act may prevent philosophy from falling under the shots that Lacanian antiphilosophy inflicts on it. The latter risk being lethal because, in just one move, the analytic one, Lacan managed to disarticulate the three great postulates that philosophical discoursestands upon: 1) that there is a truth of the real; 2) that there is a knowledge of the real; 3) that there is a knowledge of the truth. And he succeeded, proving that these postulates are the result of an improper segmentation of the triad truth-knowledge-real by philosophy, which, when it is poor and insincere, works towards “the illicit dismantlement of the triad”, towards “a subversion of the three with the two” (Badiou 2016, p.134). When it is a prisoner of what Lacan called the discourse of the Maître(the master and teacher), philosophy claims to “elude the rotation of discourses” in the hope of acting as “a stop point of their dynamics” (ibid, p.126), i.e. of the discoursive disposition in general. But the effect of this operation and of this claim, Badiou says, is “a false thought of the One”: the One is. In the deviation between the latter and a true thinking of the One – there is (such as thing as) the One, or, as Lacan affirmed towards the end of his teachings, y’a d’l’Un – lies the whole difference between philosophical activityand analytic act. And it is for this reason that “if the analytic act exists, philosophy is displaced” (ibid, p.135).
The category of “antiphilosophy” is not new. Nor was it by any means invented by Badiou or Lacan, who grabs it from the 18thcentury and uses it for his own aims: to warn analysts of the danger philosophy represents. Philosophy is dangerous, it is harmful because it threatens to “transform the cure into condescending chatter” (ibid, p.73 – and this, incidentally, is the accusation the so-called “analytic” antiphilosophy makes against the so-called “continental” philosophy). The temptation of philosophy is “forgetting the analytic act in favor of the philosopher’s hermeneutic position” (ibid.), i.e. sacrificing clinical practice to hermeneutics on the altar of Sense and Truth. “Ultimately – Badiou comments – Lacanian antiphilosophy exists because something in philosophy endangers the analytic act” (ibid.) and it does so – this is Lacan’s thesis – in a measure directly proportional to “how far outside we are from the condition of being able to identify philosophy” (ibid, p.72). This is why in Lacan, “the antiphilosophical identification of philosophy” (ibid.) is directed exclusively at analysts. Indeed, if “an authentic antiphilosophy is always an apparatus that must snatch someone away from philosophers” (ibid.), this someone, that Badiou calls the “counter-character”, is in Lacan’s case the psychoanalyst. It is, in other words, on the backdrop of an essential appeal to analysts that Lacan “rises up against philosophy”: like the libertine for Pascal, the analyst too is from his point of view the lost man, the man that needs to be freed from the enchantment of philosophy.
According to Badiou, therefore, what characterizes an antiphilosophy is the fact that it is something therapeutic: “it is not a question – he specifies – of criticizing philosophy, but to heel man from the philosophy he is suffering from terribly: purely and simply heeling humanity from the disease of philosophy, which consists in the inclination to producing absurd senseless propositions” (ibid, p. 33). In other words, “antiphilosophy” is not just the category we use to indicate any system of thought that opposes the singularity of one’s own speculation, based on experience, to the philosophical category of Truth. “Antiphilosophy” is also the name of a therapy philosophy must undergo. As long as, like religion, it offers accommodation to sense, the philosophical intellect must be amended, but the emendation, in the case of antiphilosophy, materializes in the form of a challenge that philosophy must accept and win if it wants to survive. Not because there is a risk that it may die, but because philosophy is either philosophia perennisor it is not. Badiou is absolutely convinced of this. Here surviving simply means “healing”. But healing means continuing to be what it is, hence próte philosophia, a science of principles, without delegating to others, for example to mathematics, the task that belongs to it; without, in other words, giving up its constitutional vocation – the absolute – which Badiou never fails to recognize even in his lessons on Lacan of 1994-1995. Philosophy, he argues there, either deals with the real – the ab-solutus – or it is not. But as philosophy has decided to do without it, i.e. to relate to it, it is not in good health today. Sick and weak, philosophy therefore risks succumbing to the attacks that from Pascal to Wittgenstein, antiphilosophy has launched against it and that have become lethal since Lacan.
Generally speaking, we can say that what the various antiphilosophical positions have in common is their affirming the impossibility of capturing the real through the discursive, resulting in the absurdity and senselessness of saying. The real – this is the mainstreamantiphilosophical thesis – is only accessible through an extra-logical point out-of-discourse, be it that of Pascal’s conversion, Rousseau’s passion, Kierkegaard’s anxiety, Nietzsche’s Noon that splits the history of the world into two, of Wittgenstein’s mystics or Saint Paul’s grace, to whom Badiou dedicates the seminar after the one on Lacan. Yet, far from resolving itself in a pure and simple rejection of philosophy, antiphilosophy instead proposes traversing it. Its aim is identifying an excess point with respect to the logo-centric apparatus philosophy used, a point that, especially in contemporary antiphilosophy, coincides with an act: a political one in Nietzsche, an aesthetical one in Wittgenstein and a scientific one in Lacan. Antiphilosophy essentially consists of three operations: 1) a linguistic and logical critique of philosophical propositions aimed at overthrowing the reactive category of “truth”through which philosophy tries to establish itself as a theory of the real; 2) a clarification of the nature of philosophical activity that the discursive appearance tends to dissimulate and that according to Badiou consists of three operations: deploring mathematics, the occlusion of politics, promoting a love, the love for truth, which is its deviation; 3) a call for a radically new act that, it were it to be called philosophical, would risk generating misunderstandings.
And yet the antiphilosophy elaborated by the French analyst interests Badiou for two reasons that make it something irreducible to the antiphilosophies that preceded it. Lacan’s is the first example of immanent antiphilosophy, and for this one reason it is capable of launching the most radical challenge yet against philosophy. Its being immanent means that it is neither prophetic nor mystical. Proof of this, Badiou specifies, is the existence of its founder: Freud. That the challenge being launched is the most radical yet depends on the fact that “the analytical act is the real of the philosophical act” (ibid, p. 21) and only with Lacan, therefore, the opposition of the former to the latter is capable of producing effects: the crisis or rebirth of philosophy. The analytic act, which Badiou judges to be ultra-scientific insofar as he places the real of Lacan in knowledge, as a hole in knowledge, as animpasseof symbolization, is neither expected, nor promised, nor programmed. The analytic act has occurred and “nothing can be argued against its having-occurred” (ibid, p.85). Freud is the name of this accomplished act that we must face with no guarantees of the moral, institutional or religious order, because in Lacan “immanence” means that the act is not a long way off, confined in an unfathomable messianic transcendence. Though it cannot present itself, as such, in a proposition; indeed, the act is not even silent, unutterable. On the contrary, its enunciative strength is such, according to Lacan, that it foils any attempts to establish a priorithe conditions of its production.
With Lacan antiphilosophy ceases to be the identification of the possibilities of the act: there is a place of the act, true, a site to be built and of which the act determines, at the appropriate time – the logical – the rupture, but there are no norms for its construction. “The act is the act” (ibid, p.82), Badiou writes, and this means that it is self-normed: it no longer refers, in its signification of truth, to an exterior norm, but “takes place in its place” (ibid.): the couch. The divan replacing the divine – for Wittgenstein the latter was still the place of the act – is what keeps Lacan from asking analysts, like Lenin asked, “What is to be done?”, because when the act takes place in its place, it creates its own conditions by itselfand automatically settles in knowledge. Not, therefore, in truth, which has an incestuous relationship with the real, but in knowledge, because it is knowledge that, according to Badiou, touches the ab-sens(ab-sense/absence), the real, the absolute. But how? The fact that the act settles in knowledge, Badiou explains, means that it is decipherable in knowledge itself: a knowledge that is unsupposable but wholly transmittable, it doesn’t matter to whom. The “stupidity” of the passe, the practical organization invented by Lacan, that the French philosopher judges to be the definitive expression of of antiphilosophy. Indeed, what counts in the passeis not the sense, but the passage. What counts is thatsomething passes, not whatpasses. The passeis indeed a machinicapparatus, insofar as it a quodditativeone: it is not interested in essence (the quid), but in existence (the quod); an existence, though Badiou does not say so, that is entirely Platonic, because “being”, according to a too frequently forgotten Plato, means to produce effects, even minimal, at least once (Soph. 247D: “…to produce a change in anything or any nature or to be affected even in the least degree by the slightest cause”).
With regard to Freud, Badiou invites us to imagine something like a “powerful historical passe” (ibid, p. 85) in which the Freudian act has made a passage to knowledge interrupting philosophy’s discourse. The name Freud is the name of an act and an act is a cut, a rupture: something in which there is no passage, nor could there be. When it is a question of producing knowledge, one can only return to the act, and this is why, in contrast to science, the history of which can be reconstructed without “the need of the watchword of a return to Euclid” (ibid, p. 84), psychoanalysis has ultimately done nothing other than return to Freud, i.e. to the foundation, to the evidence, as Badiou writes, “that there has been analysis” (ibid, p. 85), once and for always. But the return to Freud is also the formula of Lacanian antiphilosophy, because in Lacan rising up againstphilosophy means proceeding towards he who broke it. Freud, Badiou explains, opened something, and this opening is the existence of an act “of which everyone knows that it concerns sex in its effects on thought” (ibid, p. 86) and that, according to the French philosopher, can be summed up as follows: “the ab-sense/absence (ab-sens) designates sex, thus discovering a central point of the Subject, a real point in which a transmittable knowledge can sustain itself” (ibid.). Lacan reminds us in L’étourdit(from étourdi, “dazed” or “scatterbrained” with an added final “t” that allows us to read the title as “le tour dit”: the said turn) that “Freud puts us on the track of the fact that lack-of-sense (ab-sens) designates sex (…) Starting from the expression: ‘it does not go without saying’ (ça ne va pas sans dire), one seesthat this is the case with many things (…) including the Freudian Thing (…) Not to go without is to make a couple which, as they say, ‘is not all that obvious (ne va pas tout seul)’” (Lacan, L’étourdit, www.lacaninireland.com/web/translations/ecrits).The couple is not right, it cannot be made, because Freud showed that something comes undone and fizzles out. There is (some) Onemeans that there is some real, some real outside the symbolic, some real detached from the knowledge of which philosophy, under certain aspects even Badiou’s, seems to want to know nothing about. Philosophy, when it is bad or inauthentic, ignores that the real is the ab-sense/absence of sexual relationship (rapport sexuel), i.e. that the One – the real – is not something that is, but something that does, that operates, and that truth is nothing but a function: the function of the real in knowledge. Philosophy is built on the repression of this point because, according to Badiou, there’s always a moment in the activity of philosophy when non-relationship (the triad) is forced into relationship (the couple).
Philosophy is what doesn’t pass. Of this Lacan is profoundly convinced. But that it does not pass does not mean that it is eternal or immortal, at least not in the sense of philosophia perennis. This non passing is not a positive quality, or even less so the brand of philosophy’s superiority compared to other sciences. There is no Cartesian Tree to hang on to help justify it: for Lacan philosophy just does not pass. It does not pass but should do so because the fact it does not pass means that it does not pass onto knowledge and remains a discourse, chatter, bla bla bla. “The écart[gap/discard/distance] of a passe– Badiou comments in some finely written pages – is entirely philosophical” (ibid, p. 83): if we could look inside the garbage bin of the passe,we would find “the most brilliant interpretations, new sparkling concepts, the most refined psychological explanations. The postures and impostures of the analyst. And all this is philosophical” (ibid, p. 84), because philosophy, when it fails to generate mathemes and aristocratically disdains formulas, remains stuck on Sense, on Truth and on their correlation within the couple. This is however its doom, not its glory. Sense and Truth are the imaginary guarantors of the possibility of a meta-language “projecting on the rotation of the four discourses” (ibid, p. 126), hence of a fable (Nietzsche), a lie (Wittgenstein), a roguery (Lacan). Such is philosophy: when it is sick it does all it can to find “a point of arrest to allow its discourse to be self-sufficient” (ibid.). This is the Fundament. But this enterprise exhausts it; insofar as it confuses the impossibility of sexual relationship with its provisional powerlessness, philosophy, when it is a false thought of the One, sighs, agonizes (“s’oupire”, Lacan says, sighs/self-or-worse), falls ill. When it is a false thought of the One, philosophy loses itself, because that of meta-language, or to use Lacan’s words, of a complete Other, a non-lacking Other, is only a supposed thought, hence one that is non-transmittable, aristocratic instead of democratic:it inhibits the act instead of giving the philosopher the opportunity to deal with it.
If philosophy is what does not pass, this is because the Other is what remains. It remains and produces mud. Where there is the act there is no Other and, vice versa, where there is the Other the act is impossible. Where there is the Other, there’s comfort, safety, jouissance:therefore no act, but relationship, a stretching of the ab-sense/absence to sense, even in the form of non-sense. Where there is an act, on the other hand, there’s horror, horror and no Other. But then how can philosophy pass the test of the act and establish itself as something else in respect to its reiterated exorcization? According to Badiou, in the light of Lacan’s antiphilosophy, the trial against philosophy can be instituted with completely new accusations: 1) by ignoring the register of ab-sense/absence, philosophy remains in the snares of the opposition between sense and non-sense; 2) by ignoring ab-sex/abscess (in French there is a pun here between “ab-sexe” and “abcès”) it cannot reach a position in the real of knowledge; 3) by persisting in putting before the mirror sense and truth, the speculative is condemned to remain specular. The victim of a triple repression, philosophy blocks up and becomes blocked up (bouchée), dim-witted, and for this reason it believes it can make do with a love for truth, which is always love of its power (ibid, p. 123) instead of a love for its weakness, of the fact it can only be half spoken of (mi-dite). In this way, more than in knowledge, as knowledge, philosophy settles as ignorance, as a passion for ignorance. And so, not too slowly, it gathers up inside the antiphilosophical machine to which Lacan entrusted the evidence that, on the contrary, knowledge has been produced, in other words that “there has been analysis”. In virtue of its automatism and of a certain fundamental dose of anonymousness, the passecan, in other words, function as an antiphilosophical apparatus capable of sorting and discovering “the philosophical dirt” (ibid, p. 83) locked in the body of the beautiful soul. Following Badiou, it would even seem to possess the necessary characteristics to force philosophy into honesty: it is in the absence of the candidate (the voluntary future analyst) that the passe occurs, an absence that Badiou acutely interprets as the scenic metaphor of the absence of sexual relationship. But is it really to institute something similar to the passein philosophy? Is it possible, to use words that are not Badiou’s, to identify a Freud of philosophy to return to with one’s own act in order for a knowledge to be produced?
Returning to Freud, according to the Badiou of these pages, means making philosophy undergo the test of the analytic act, a test that makes any lie impossible. Concluding on an antiphilosophy means concluding on its act and on the ethics of this act. The 1994-95 Badiou’s Seminar deals just with this analytic act, i.e. the act “the place of which is precisely the singularity of a psychoanalytic cure and the evidence of which is the real of a Subject” (ibid, p. 162).For the Lacan of Seminar VII on the ethics of psychoanalysis, the ethical question, insofar as Freud’s position helps us make progress, “is to be articulated from the orientation of the location of man in relation to the real” (Lacan 1986/1997, p. 11), a relation that is in the order of the act and not of sense, because clinical practice, when it is a clinical practice of the real, is a clinical practice of the act. In other words, Badiou’s, “analytical discourse has value uniquely insofar as it allows to free a possibility of facing the analytic act, to assume its horror (…) Were it not for this chance being offered to face the act (…) ultimately it would only be philosophy in disguise” (Badiou 2016, p. 130). The analytic act makes it possible to unmask the founding pretense of philosophy, insofar as its “place” is a rigorously extra-temporal point, and therefore, according to Badiou, also an extra-philosophical one (“it could be shown that in antiphilosophy the unprecedented/unheard of the act always has as an attribute something like the non-temporal assurance of time” – ibid, p. 172), in which a precipitating thrust towards formalization converges with something like a “retention of affection that deceives not” (ibid, p. 162): this is anguish. This is why the act as “intemporal essence of time” (ibid, p. 172) represents the most radical challenge ever launched to philosophy: indeed, can philosophy do without time? Without the time that, according to Hegel, the mortal enemy of all antiphilosophers in Badiou’s opinion, is “being-there [Dasein] of the concept” (ibid.)? Can philosophy, in other words, do without the sense of which time is the eponym, revealing the trick that makes many philosophers “virtually content men” (ibid, p. 128)? Does anything exist in philosophy that deceives not? Something like a certainty capable of nailing the shoulders of the Ego cogito to the wall of the Id cogitat building constrictions for its enunciations? In other words, is it capable of proceeding, like mathematics, “without a consciousness”, leaving the said to be fuelled only by the saying and not also by reality, which is linked to consciousness like a synonym is linked to another? In short, is philosophy capable of touching the real and proving that it can succeed in doing so?
Realizing the impossible. This is what analysis and philosophy deal with. And ‘realizing’ must be understood literally: it is a matter of producing the impossible, of accomplishing it, because theact in Lacan is nothing other than the accomplishment of an impossible action, impossible for the Ego cogito. The act is the accomplishment of the impossible for every conscious action. This is why it is inscribed in the register of the real, that real of which Lacan, for a good part of his teachings, has preached the identity with the impossible: the real, Lacan said for a long time, is the impossible to know, the impossible to symbolize, the impossible to say. Yet, in the later years of his activity, Lacan collided with a real that is, so-to-speak, an impossible in itself and not only an impossible with reference to knowledge, namely an impossible for us. And for Lacan the impossible in itself coincides with the necessary. For the spinozan Lacan, necessity is the only mode of the real. This means that there is (some) One: there is something that one does and one enjoys everywhere, incessantly, whether we want to or not, whether we are aware of it or not. What is then to be done? What is to be thought? In this real, which Lacan already significantly defined in Seminar IIIas the entirety of what actually takes place, the entirety then of what produces effects, the relationship, this is true, is impossible. There is no relationship with the real if relationship means correlation, determination, knowledge. There is a demonstration of thereal only if we intend the genitive in its double sense of subjective and objective. The real, Badiou writes,shows itself, it happens, because demonstrations, as Spinoza teaches, are the eyes things look at us with, the eyes of the sardine can staring at Lacan in Seminar XIand nailing him to the real of his gaze. In analysis, then, it is a question of making this sardine can, which means making the real happen within a demonstration. The demonstration lays the table on which, if all goes well, the sardines will have waited for us. They will have waited for us to eat us.
Situate and elevate, interpret and formalize, intuit and demonstrate: these are the two phases that convoke the analysand to non-exit, i.e. to the point where the act will discover the real as a discarding (écart) of the symbolizing operation: if this operation is correct, it means that it is interrupted, interrupted by the act, because when you are put with your back against the wall of the impossible, “nothing but the act will be capable of attesting you as a subject” (ibid, p. 151). The second time, however, in contrast to the first, implies a true art of singularity. It is – Badiou says – “an ad hoc formalization” (ibid, p. 153), because there is no standard formalization, there is no formal theory of the impossibility of logical enunciation that is valid in all cases. In other words, in the second time, a truly crucial “time”, we are dealing with the act, the act of creation of the sardine-can matheme. There is no doubt that it is an act: no one knows in advance what to do. Not even the analyst. That the matheme is its result is instead assured by the fact that what is at stake in the logical end of an analysis is the identification of something like the cypher of one’s jouissance – it is a localization – and the possibility of embracing it – it is the sinthome as “passage” from the third to the first person of jouissance. Badiou, however, proves to be more Kantian than Spinozan when, situating Lacan’s real in knowledge, and hence turning the triad into a couple, judges as fundamental above all the determining, through knowledge itself, of a place of the act, a place where the real, freed from the act, may produce a hole. Badiou blames Lacan for not saying ‘what is to be done?’, for not saying ‘what else is to be done?’. Lacan, he says, is silent regarding thought; he does not supply rules for building the place of the act and leaves the cure enshrouded in a mystery. “Everyone in his nook gets by as he can”, and this, from Badiou’s point of view, “is one of Lacan’s irreducible weaknesses” (ibid, p. 165). Badiou is sure of this and even proposes a hypothesis to explain this lack of determination: “Lacan provides no clear answer to the question ‘what is to be done?’ and hence, more precisely, to the question ‘what is to be thought?’, because he fears that taking such a direction would mean returning to philosophy, in this way filling the hole opened by antiphilosophy” (ibid.). But can we be sure that the absence of determination, which according to Lacan always risks being prescriptive, is the sign of a weakness rather than of a strength, of a confidence, for example, in winning?
“It has been a month since I broke up with everything” and “’I found, alone as I have always been”. Badiou judges this mixture of founding and breaking up to be the testament of the thinking of Lacan, which apparently has written itself; it has been. “Je dissous” and “je fonde” are the two ethical times, the former antiphilosophical, the latter philosophical, of the only act that gave Lacan the certainty of victory: the analytic act. The early certainty of victory as a subjective trait of antiphilosophy belongs to “the order of the act (…), because of the act we cannot be certain, if not for its effects” (ibid, p. 19). Whether we will have won, whether the demonstration is good, is something we will only know afterwards, after the effect of the act, because in the act the object is active and the subject is subverted. This shows us the après-coup,that temporality of the elevated order, elevated because atemporal, with which Lacan translates Freud’s greatest invention: Nachträglichkeit, afterwardness (according to Laplanche’s proposal). Surprisingly, Badiou doesn’t mention it. But when in his last lessons he laments the absence of a theory of the time of the act, hoping for the construction of such a theory by antiphilosophy, he betrays the fact that he is not acquainted with it, or, if he is, that he neglects its importance. Pity, because there actually is, has been, and will be, a theory of the time of the act. And it is a philosophical theory before being a psychoanalytical one. Plato, the philosopher admiring mathematics,was its founder, he to whom philosophers keep going back to, as Whitehead, another mathematician philosopher, has well captured. The Seventh Letter: first the laborious work on the lógoi– which is the demonstration, diànoia– and then, suddenly, exaiphnés, the stroke of intuition, the leap into the real. But “the before” is caused by “the then”. The “after” is a cause of the “before”: this is the meaning of Nachträglichkeit. Lacan shrewdly picks it up, connecting to Freud as much as is needed to invent logical time and calling it “the real”. The Freudian Cause, as he wrote in 1980, is not a School, but a “Champ”, a “Field” or “Camp”, which makes us deduce that it will only be temporary (Lacan 1980, p. 40). If it will have won is something we shall only know in the after, but that it has passed we sense now and forever.
- (2010) L’Étourdit, http://www.lacaninireland.com/web/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/etourdit-Second-turn-Final-Version4.pdf
“Life with Lacan”. This rings for me as: with Lacan, life. Catherine Millot does not speak of “my life” with Lacan. And yet, this is a highly personal text, revealing the man, Lacan. Catherine Millot runs her script through the elementary reduction of traits, without voyeurism but not without humour.
The author does not recount her life with Lacan. It is not so much a narrative as rather an act of writing that operates a second turn, giving its signification to the first turn of life with Lacan. Marguerite Duras in Les derniers des métiers (Paris: Seuil), said that “all books are about the same subject, writing”: this is so when writing is an act. Then can one speak of sublimation: an object is raised poetically to the dignity of the Thing, and the satisfaction is that of a two-fold repetition, inherent to the act that engenders the subject. It is a repetition according to the incommensurable measure of the average and extreme reason. It is not surprising that Catherine Millot quotes Etienne Gilson’s book, L’école des muses [The Muses' School], in which it is a question, amongst others, of the love between Petrarch and Laura: “The carnal violence of passion that Petrarch feels for Laura is one of the characteristics of his love that he most insisted upon” and “his morals were troubled from the moment he discovered his love for Laura, in 1327”. Sexual desire is a part of courtly love.
There is something similar to courteous love in this love that Catherine Millot speaks about. I think she was a muse for Lacan, in particular when he was absorbed in the construction of “Joyce the symptom”. As for Millot, did she not complete the journey with the writing of her return to “life with Lacan”, in this way placing him, in turn, in the (feminine) position of muse?
The act of writing is an act of saying, that like every act, establishes a before and after, and the writing of her book is registered in the time of haste, which is that of the act, a time, according to Lacan, that is linked “to the very depths of logic”, where too early is the avoidance of too late. A haste present in Lacan’s life and work, a haste in the writing of this book, as in its reading.
It does not leave readers indifferent, those who were part of the years the book covers, but also the others. So it is, the love Millot speaks of is a woman’s love for her analyst, who admittedly was not just any analyst and who always incited transference. It is a love to which she committed her whole being and her desire to grasp Lacan’s being. “I played ‘all in’ when I went to him, and the stakes were a matter of life or death”, she says (p.102). It implies that this entwining of analysis and love cannot be reduced to conventional notions of transference and passage à l’acte. For our part, it is not a question of justifying this passage, but of acknowledging the questions Millot’s book raises on the complexity of love in transference. The same questions arise today, under the same terms Lacan formulated, all throughout his teachings.
Is it not this that Lacan refers to when Millot speaks of her anxiety at the idea of not being able to complete her “analysis under such particular conditions”? He answers enigmatically, as only he can: “Yes, something is lacking” (p.102). What? Catherine Millot does not give us her interpretation of this phrase. She likewise invites us not to answer in her place, nor in place of Lacan, but just simply to risk certain interpretations. And, in this way, to realize that particularly in this type of phrase, but actually throughout the whole book, Millot positions herself at the (topological) juncture of psychoanalysis in intension (analysis) and extension (the transmission), and that this place is a place of vibrations, of waves, that summons the avid reader of psychoanalysis. I would therefore suggest that this phrase is linked, in my opinion, to the lack of relation from 1 to 0 of the empty set, when there are two. It lacks the 0, as marker of the lack, which renders inaccessible the 2 as the sum or product of smaller numbers, (one cannot obtain 2 from 0 and 1). “The matter is particularly of interest concerning this 2, since regarding the relation of 1 to 0, I have sufficiently pointed out that the 1 issues from what the 0 marks as lack.” In other words, the 2 of the sexual relation lacks.
Through her act of writing, Catherine Millot invites us into a zone of logical paradoxes that Lacan also encounters in love “when it becomes serious and incites rigor, like with mystics, to the point where nothing can be said without contradiction, and loss and salvation are the same”, as Catherine Millot had already written in La logique et l’amour [Logic and Love]. It is to re-situate the place of love in analysis within a logical perspective that gives the means to consider what is paradoxical about this place, within the context of a singular experience where the stakes were and remain vital.
This explosive mix is part of the transmission of analysis in that, in many ways, Lacan’s conduct indicates an analytic position that does not in fact claim to be one. It is perhaps not so surprising to admit, as we do, that this book is at the juncture of psychoanalysis in extension and in intension. Two traits are proof of this. Firstly, the recognition that a form of love does not necessarily disappear with the fall of the subject supposed to know (Millot bears witness to this in her analysis). At the minimum there remains a love of gratitude. But there is also the desire to pay homage, in the way Lacan does in his “Hommage to Marguerite Duras for the ravishing of Lol Stein”. “Like honoring an appointment, a way of finding him again…” Whatever it be, the distinction must be made between a love lodged in the subject supposed to know and other forms of love knotted to a real, that is only possible to name with the topology of the Borromean knots. At one moment Lacan interpellates Millot with an “it is you”, designating a complex Borromean knot (which one?). Of course this could be to indicate to her that she is complex, as is his relationship with her. But does it not also indirectly signify that the love specific to transference can only be interpreted by separating the different forms of the articulation of love and transference with the triple Borromean of R.S.I.: transference-love symbolically imaginary, imaginarily real, really symbolic…?
The book furthermore gives an illustration of what Lacan called “intermediary lockage” (l’éclusage intermédiaire) of “an analyzing life” between the public and the private (Seminar XV, L’Acte analytique, 28 March).
In this way, what comes forward is Lacan’s determined, driven personality (skiing, driving…) in his private and public life, measured against the haste in analysis. Similarly, his refusal of psychology in social life was in agreement with his positioning in collective logic when he said: « The collective is nothing but the subject of the individual. » Finally his ever-wakening curiosity, for example in his visits to museums, served to enrich and refine his research in psychoanalysis. In his seminar L’insu que sait de l’une-bévue c’est l’amour (December 14, 1976), he admitted: « I only consist of an unconscious which of course I think about day and night… »
Throughout the book is a portrait of Lacan who does not play the analyst, and who is fully committed to life, a life spiraled by psychoanalysis, like his culebra cigars. He lives as a man who is perseverant, determined, concentrated and unafraid (p.104), who does not shirk his responsibilities and acts according to prior and subsequent consequences that he fully assumes. When faced with attacks, adversity and betrayal, he knows to remain silent. It is a position not without its share of solitude, incomprehension, even hatred from others. The same others by whom, in spite of or because of this, he needs sometimes compulsively to be surrounded. Like a five-year old child, Lacan says of himself.
These individual traits of Lacan had therapeutic effects on Millot (p. 103) and on many others. I testify to this with this praise for the book. One can herein read, if it is written, the indication that if the analyst is in a position of the object a in analysis, it is by means of sustaining the existence of his desire (itself sustained by a fantasy, let us not be mistaken) that follows a particular line. It is a line between awakened intellectual curiosity and active available passivity, between moments of forcing and patience, of silence and speech, of tact and severity, of acceleration and stagnation, of isolated and shared solitude.
Published by I.S.A.P. - ISSN 2284-1059
Scientific Journal in the List 11 by the ANVUR (Italian Agency for Evaluation of the University System and Research)