Realism in Psychoanalysis


Many recent philosophical discussions have been marked by the rather stunning re-launching of the question of realism, triggered by Quentin Meillassoux’s book After finitude (Après la finitude, 2006), and followed by a wider, albeit less homogeneous, movement named ‘speculative realism’. This paper raises the question of whether the conceptual field of Lacanian psychoanalysis is concerned with this debate, and if so how. The central argument scrutinizes the status of the ‘real’ in science, and its implications for psychoanalysis in view of the Lacanian identification of the subject of the unconscious with the subject of (Galilean) science. Taking seriously Lacan’s claim that ‘If I am anything, it is clear that I’m not a nominalist’, the present paper aims at sketching out a psychoanalytic version of realism.

Many recent philosophical discussions have been marked, in one way or another, by the rather stunning re-launching of the question of realism, triggered by Quentin Meillassoux’s book Après la finitude (2006), and followed by a broader, albeit less homogeneous, movement of ‘speculative realism’. Indeed it seems that we are witnessing a powerful revival of the issue of realism, with new conceptualizations or definitions of the latter, as well as of its adversary (‘correlationism’ in the place of nominalism). I propose to take this opportunity to raise the question of whether or not the conceptual field of Lacanian psychoanalysis is concerned by this debate, and if so, how. With the Real being one of the central concepts of Lacanian theory, the question arises as to the status of this Real, especially since Lacan relates it to the impossible. What could this rather strange realism that identifies the Real with the impossible amount to?

By way of a quick general mapping of the space of this discussion let me just very briefly recall Meillassoux’s basic argument. It consists in showing how post-Cartesian philosophy (starting with Kant) rejected or disqualified the possibility for us to have any access to being outside of its correlation to thinking. Not only are we never dealing with an object in itself, separately from its relationship to the subject, but there is also no subject that is not always-already in a relationship with an object. The relation thus precedes any object or subject, the relation is prior to the terms it relates, and becomes itself the principal object of philosophical investigation. Contemporary (post-Cartesian) philosophies are all different philosophies of correlation. As Meillassoux puts it:

Generally speaking, the modern philosopher’s ‘two-step’ consists in this belief in the primacy of the relation over the related terms; a belief in the constitutive power of reciprocal relation. The ‘co-’ (of co-givenness, of co-relation, of the co-originary, of co-presence, etc.) is the grammatical particle that dominates modern philosophy, its veritable ‘chemical formula’. Thus, one could say that up until Kant, one of the principal problems of philosophy was to think substance, while ever since Kant, it has consisted in trying to think the correlation. Prior to the advent of transcendentalism, one of the questions that divided rival philosophers most decisively was ‘Who grasps the true nature of substance? He who thinks the Idea, the individual, the atom, the God? Which God?’ But ever since Kant, to discover what divides rival philosophers is no longer to ask who has grasped the true nature of substantiality, but rather to ask who has grasped the true nature of correlation: is it the thinker of the subject-object correlation, the noetico-noematic correlation, or the language-referent correlation? (Meillassoux 2008, pp. 5-6)

The insufficiency of this position is revealed, according to Meillassoux, when confronted with ‘ancestral statements’ or ‘arche-fossils’: statements produced today by experimental science concerning events that occurred prior to the emergence of life and of consciousness (say: ‘The earth was formed 4.56 billion years ago’). They raise a simple and, still according to Meillassoux, insoluble problem for a correlationist: How are we to grasp the meaning of scientific statements bearing explicitly upon a manifestation of the world that is posited as anterior to the emergence of thought and even of life – posited, that is, as anterior to every form of human relation to that world? From the correlationist point of view these statements are strictly speaking meaningless.

One of the great merits of Meillassoux’s book is that it has (re)opened, not so much the question of the relationship between philosophy and science, as the question of whether they are speaking about the same world. Alain Badiou has recently raised or, rather, answered a similar question in the context of politics: ‘There is only one world’. Yet this question is also pertinent to the issue of epistemology’s, or science’s, relation to ontology. It may seem in fact as if science and philosophy have been developing for some time now in parallel worlds: in one it is possible to speak of the real in itself, independently of its relation to the subject, whereas in the other this kind of discourse is strictly speaking meaningless. So, what do we get if we apply the axiom ‘There is only one world’ to this situation? Instead of taking the – on the side of philosophy – more common path, criticizing science for its lack of reflection upon its own discourse, Meillassoux takes another path: the fact that certain scientific statements escape philosophy’s ‘horizon of sense’ indicates that there is something wrong with it. It indicates that, in order to ensure its own survival as a discursive practice (one could also say: in order to ensure the continuation of metaphysics by other means) it has sacrificed far too much, namely the real in its absolute sense.

One should perhaps stress, nevertheless, that this less common path is becoming a kind of trend in contemporary philosophy, and Meillassoux shares it with several authors, very different in their inspiration. Let us just mention Catherine Malabou and her philosophical materialism, which aims to develop a new theory of subjectivity based on cognitive sciences. In her polemics with Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis she opposes to the ‘libidinal unconscious’, as always already discursively mediated, the ‘cerebral unconscious’ (the auto-affection of the brain) as the true, materialist unconscious. [1] Yet, if Malabou’s materialism moves in the direction of a ‘naturalization of the discursive’ or, more precisely, if it represents an attempt to reduce the gap between the organic and the subject in the direction of finding the organic causes of the subject,[2] Meillassoux takes the same path in the opposite direction, namely, in that of the discursiveness of nature, although he does not go all the way. His realist ontology, differentiating between primary and secondary qualities of being, does not claim that being is inherently mathematical; it claims that it is absolute, that it is independent of any relation to the subject, although only in the segment which can be mathematically formulated. Meillassoux thus preserves a certain gap or leap (between being and its mathematisation), without addressing it. The possibility of certain qualities to be mathematically formulated is the guarantee of their absolute character (of their being real in the strong sense of the term). Meillassoux’s realism is thus not a realism of the universals, but – paradoxically – a realism of the correlate of the universals, which he also calls the referent:

Generally speaking, statements are ideal insofar as their reality is one with signification. But their referents, for their part, are not necessarily ideal (the cat on the mat is real, although the statement ‘the cat is on the mat’ is ideal). In this particular instance, it would be necessary to specify: the referents of the statements about dates, volumes etc., existed 4.56 billion years ago, as described by these statements – but not these statements themselves, which are contemporaneous with us. (Meillassoux 2008, p. 12)

There seems to be no way around the fact that the criterion of the absolute is nothing else but its correlation with mathematics. Not that this implies something necessarily subjective or subjectively mediated, but it surely implies something discursive. And here we come to the core problem of Meillassoux’s conceptualizations, which is at the same time what is most interesting about them. I emphasize this as opposed to another dimension of his gesture, a dimension enthusiastically embraced by our Zeitgeist, even though it has little philosophical (or scientific) value, and is based on free associations related to some more or less obscure feelings of the present Unbehagen in der Kultur. Let us call it its psychological dimension, which can be summed up by the following story: After Descartes we have lost the great outdoors, the absolute outside, the Real, and have become prisoners of our own subjective or discursive cage. The only outside we are dealing with is the outside posited or constituted by ourselves or different discursive practices. And there is a growing discomfort, claustrophobia in this imprisonment, this constant obsession with ourselves, this impossibility to ever get out of the external inside that we have thus constructed. There is also a political discomfort that is put into play here, that feeling of frustrating impotence, of the impossibility of really changing anything, of soaking in small and big disappointments of recent and not so recent history. Hence a certain additional redemptive charm of a project that promises again to break out into the great Outside, to reinstitute the Real in its absolute dimension, and to ontologically ground the possibility of radical change.

One should insist, however, that the crucial aspect of Meillassoux lies entirely elsewhere than in this story which has found in him (perhaps not all together without his complicity) the support of a certain fantasy, namely and precisely the fantasy of the ‘great Outside’ which will save us – from what, finally?  From that little, yet annoying bit of the outside which is at work, here and now, persistently nagging, preventing any kind of ‘discursive cage’ from safely closing upon itself. In other words, to say that the great Outside is a fantasy does not imply that it is a fantasy of a Real that does not really exist; rather, it implies that it is a fantasy in the strict psychoanalytic sense: a screen that covers up the fact that the discursive reality is itself leaking, contradictory, and entangled with the Real as its irreducible other side. That is to say: the great Outside is the fantasy that covers up the Real that is already right here.

The core of Meillassoux’s project does not consist in opposing the real to the discursive, and dreaming of the break-through beyond the discursive; on the contrary, the core of his project is their joint articulation, which would escape the logic of transcendental constitution and hence their co-dependence. This joint articulation relies on two fundamental claims: the already mentioned thesis about the possible mathematisation of primary qualities, and the thesis about the absolute necessity of the contingent. Needless to say, both of these theses are philosophical, and aim at laying the foundations for what modern science seems to simply presuppose, namely, and precisely, a shared articulation of the discursive and the real. It would thus seem that they try to adjust the naïve realism of science, replacing it with a reflective, philosophically grounded ‘speculative’ realism.

Yet, the first really interesting question already appears here, namely: what is in fact the status of the realism which science’s operations presuppose? Is it simply a form of naïve realism, a straightforward belief that the nature which it describes is absolute and exists out there independently of us? Meillassoux’s inaugural presupposition indeed seems to be that science operates in the right way, yet lacks its own ontological theory that would correspond to its praxis. Considering the framework of his project, it is in fact rather astonishing how little time Meillassoux devotes to the discussion of modern science, its fundamental or inaugural gesture, its presuppositions and consequences – that is to say to the discussion of what science is actually doing. Contrary to this, we can say that Lacan has an extraordinarily well elaborated theory of modern science and of its inaugural gesture (to some extent this theory is part of a broader structuralist theory of science), in relation to which he situates his own psychoanalytic discourse. And this is where one needs to start. The relationship between psychoanalytic discourse and science is a crucial question for Lacan throughout his oeuvre, albeit it is far from simple. For, on the one hand, it presupposes their absolute kinship and co-temporality (marked by countless explicit statements like ‘the subject of the unconscious is the subject of modern science’, ‘psychoanalysis is only possible after the same break that inaugurates modern science’…). On the other hand, there is also the no less remarkable difference and dissonance between psychoanalysis and science, with the concept of truth as its most salient marker, which involves the difference in their respective ‘objects’. In short: the common ground shared by psychoanalysis and science is nothing else than the real in its absolute dimension, but they have different ways of pursuing this real.

What is the Lacanian theory of science? In the context of a similar debate and relying on Jean-Claude Milner, this question has been recently reopened, and given all its significance, by Lorenzo Chiesa,[3] to whom I owe this entry into the discussion. According to this theory, Galileanism replaced the ancient notion of nature with the modern notion according to which nature is nothing else than the empirical object of science. The formal precondition of this change lies in the complete mathematisation of science. In other words, after Galileo, ‘nature does not have any other sensible substance than that which is necessary to the right functioning of science’s mathematical formulas’.[4] Even more strongly put: the revolution of the Galilean science consists in producing its object (‘nature’) as its own objective correlate. In Lacan we find a whole series of such, very strong statements, for example: ‘Energy is not a substance…, it’s a numerical constant that a physicist has to find in his calculations, so as to be able to work’.[5] The fact that science speaks about this or that law of nature and about the universe does not mean that it preserves the perspective of the great Outside (as not discursively constituted in any way), rather the opposite is the case. Modern science starts when it produces its object. This is not to be understood in the Kantian sense of the transcendental constitution of phenomena, but in a slightly different, and stronger sense.

Modern science literally creates a new real(ity); it is not that the object of science is ‘mediated’ by its formulas, rather, it is indistinguishable from them; it does not exist outside them, yet it is real. It has real consequences or consequences in the real. More precisely: the new real that emerges with the Galilean scientific revolution (the complete mathematisation of science) is a real in which – and this is decisive – (the scientific) discourse has consequences. Such as, for example, landing on the moon. For, the fact that this discourse has consequences in the real does not hold for nature in the broad and lax sense of the word, it only holds for nature as physics or for physical nature. But of course there is always, says Lacan,

the realist argument. We cannot resist the idea that nature is always there, whether we are there or not, we and our science, as if science were indeed ours and we weren’t determined by it. Of course I won’t dispute this. Nature is there. But what distinguishes it from physics is that it is worth saying something about physics, and that discourse has consequences in it, whereas everybody knows that no discourse has any consequences in nature, which is why we tend to love it so much. To be a philosopher of nature has never been considered as a proof of materialism, nor of scientific quality. (Lacan 2006a, p. 33)

Three things are crucial in this dense and decisive quote. 1) The shift of the accent from a discursive study of the real to the consequences of discourse in the real; related to this 2) the definition of the newly emerged reality, and 3) the problem of materialism. Let us first briefly stop at the third point, which we have already touched upon in passing with the question of the ‘cerebral unconscious’.  At stake is a key dimension of a possible definition of materialism, which one could formulate as follows: materialism is not guaranteed by any matter. It is not the reference to matter as the ultimate substance from which all emerges (and which, in this conceptual perspective, is often highly spiritualized), that leads to true materialism. The true materialism, which – as Lacan puts is with a stunning directness in another significant passage – can only be a dialectical materialism, [6] is not grounded in the primacy of matter nor in matter as first principle, but in the notion of conflict, of split, and of the ‘parallax of the real’ produced in it. In other words, the fundamental axiom of materialism is not ‘matter is all’ or ‘matter is primary’, but relates rather to the primacy of a cut. And, of course, this is not without consequences for the kind of realism that pertains to this materialism.

This brings us to the points 1) and 2) of the above quote, which we can take together since they refer to two aspects of this new, ‘dialectically materialist’ realism. The distinction between nature and physics established by Lacan does not follow the logic of distinguishing between nature as inaccessible thing in itself and physics as transcendentally structured nature, accessible to our knowledge. The thesis is different and somehow more radical. Modern science, which is, after all, a historically assignable event, creates a new space of the real or the real as a new dimension of (‘natural’) space. Physics does not ‘cover’ nature (or reduplicate it symbolically), but is added to it, with nature continuing to stay there where it has always been. ‘Physics is not something extending, like God’s goodness, across all nature’.[7] Nature keeps standing there not as an impenetrable Real in itself, but as the Imaginary, which we can see, like and love, but which is, at the same time, rather irrelevant. There is an amusing story about how some of Hegel’s friends dragged him to the Alps, in order for him to become aware of, and to admire the stunning beauty of the nature there. All Hegel said about the sublime spectacle that was revealed to him is reported to have been: Es ist so. Lacan would have appreciated this a lot. Es ist so, no more to say about the mountains. This is not because we cannot really understand them, but because there is nothing to understand. (If we say that the stone we see is of this or that age, we are talking about another reality – one in which consequences of discourse exist.)

Lacan’s definition of this difference is indeed extremely concise and precise. What is at stake is not that nature as scientific object (that is as physics) is only an effect of discourse, its consequence – and that in this sense physics does not actually deal with the real, but only with its own constructions. What is at stake is rather that the discourse of science creates, opens up a space in which this discourse has (real) consequences. And this is far from being the same thing. We are dealing with something that most literally, and from the inside, splits the world in two.

The fact that the discourse of science creates, opens up a space in which this discourse has (real) consequences also means that it can produce something that not only becomes a part of reality, but that can also change it. ‘Scientific discourse was able to bring about the moon landing, where thought becomes witness to an eruption of a real, and with mathematics using no apparatus other than a form of language’.[8] To this Lacan adds that the aforementioned eruption of a real took place ‘without the philosopher caring about it’. Perhaps we can see in this remark a problematisation of a certain aspect of modern philosophy, which tends to miss a crucial dimension of science at precisely this point of the real, and keeps reducing it to the logic of ‘instrumental reason’, ‘technicism’, and so on. We could also see in it a hint at the contemporary coupling of philosophy with the ‘university discourse’, the minimal definition of which would be precisely: the social link in which discourse has no consequences.

To return to the starting point of this digression: in regards to the question of realism in science, Lacan’s diagnosis could be summed up in the following way. Although it may be that naïve realism constitutes the spontaneous ideology of many scientists, it is utterly irrelevant for the constitution of scientific discourse, its efficiency and its mode of operation. As we have already seen, this means: modern science did not arrive at the absolute character of its referent by relying on the presuppositions of naïve realism, that is, by naively assuming the existence of its referent ‘in nature’, but by reducing it to a letter, which alone opens up the space of real consequences of (scientific) discourse. And the word ‘reducing’ is not to be taken in the sense of reducing the richness of sensible qualities to an absolute minimum, yet a minimum in which we would be dealing with the continuation of the same substance; it should be taken in the sense of a cut, and of substitution. What is at stake is also not the classical logic of representation: the letter does not represent some aspect of sensible nature, but literally replaces it. It replaces it with something that belongs to discourse (to the semblance), yet something that can be – precisely because it belongs to discourse – formulated in the direction of the real. Which brings us again to the point formulated earlier: ‘It is not worth talking about anything else than the real in which discourse itself has consequences’.[9] This is not an argument about the real only being the effect of discourse. The link between discursivity and the real (which is, after all, also what Meillassoux tackles in his polemics with contemporary obscurantism[10]) finds here a much firmer foundation than in the case of simply stating that the referent (a ‘natural object’) is absolute in, and only in, its mathematizable aspect. Meillassoux does not see the mathematization of science as a cut into reality that (only) produces the dimension of the real, but as the furthest point of a continuum, of a continuous sharpening of the ways in which scientists speak about reality; in his case, the real refers to the purely formal/formalizable segment of a thing remaining in the end in the net of this sharpened form of scientific speech. Let us recall: ‘…the referents of the statements about dates, volumes etc., existed 4.56 billion years ago, as described by these statements – but not these statements themselves, which are contemporaneous with us’. The ideal character of a scientific formula catches in its net, here and now, a fragment of the thing that is in itself absolute (that is to say which existed as such and independently of this net 4.5 billion years ago). Or, put in another way: the real is that portion of a substance that does not slide through the net of mathematizable science, but remains caught in it. Lacan’s metaphor, and with it his entire perspective, is quite different in this respect: the real is not guaranteed by the consistency of numbers (or letters), but by the impossible, that is by the limit of their consistency. This is why science does not operate by catching in its net the real as an absolute object, but rather touches upon the real by means of the coincidence of the holes in its net and the holes in reality. If it is not worth talking about the real or Nature outside of discourse, the reason is that we necessarily stay on the level of semblance, which means that we can say whatever we like. The real, on the other hand, is indicated by the fact that not all is possible. Here enters the other crucial component of the Lacanian real, binding the realism of consequences to the modality of the impossible. Together they could be articulated as follows: Something has consequences if it cannot be anything (that is, if it is impossible in one of its own segments).

The articulation, and I mean algebraic articulation, of the semblance – which, as such, only involves letters – and its effects, this is the only apparatus by means of which we designate what is real. What is real is what makes/constitutes a hole [fait trou] in this semblance, in this articulated semblance that is scientific discourse. Scientific discourse advances without even worrying whether it is a semblance or not. What is at stake is simply that its network, its net, its lattice, as one says, makes the right holes appear in the right place. It has no other reference but the impossible to which its deductions arrive. This impossible is the real. In physics we only aim at something which is the real by means of a discursive apparatus, insofar as the latter, in its very rigor, encounters the limits of its consistency.

‘But what interests us, is the field of truth.’ (Lacan 2006b, p. 28)

The absolutely crucial point of this ‘psychoanalytic realism’ is that the real is not a substance or being, but precisely its limit. That is to say, the real is that which traditional ontology had to cut off in order to be able to speak of ‘being qua being’. We only arrive at being qua being by subtracting something from it – and this something is precisely the ‘hole’, that which it lacks in order to be fully constituted as being; the zone of the real is the interval within being itself, on account of which no being is ‘being qua being’, but can only be by being something else than it is. One can ask, of course, how can it matter if one cuts off something that is not there to begin with? It matters very much not only because it becomes something when it is cut off, but also since the something it becomes is the very object of psychoanalysis.

In order to situate this in relation to the previous discussion, we could say: The curving of the space that constitutes the dimension of the real has a cause, and a consequence. Its cause is the emergence of a pure signifier, and its consequence is the emergence of a new kind of object. Yet this is also to say that there is no such thing as a pure signifier, because the purer, or the clearer its cut, the more palpable and irreducible – or simply real – the object it produces. This, for example, is the fundamental lesson of the psychoanalytic notion of Verneinung, negation.

Freud’s short essay with that title is one of his most interesting and complex; it deals with a signifier par excellence, ‘no’, or negation. And if, as Freud is reported to have said once, ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar’, the point of this article is that ‘no’ is never just ‘no’, and that the more ‘instrumental’ its use (that is the more it functions as a pure signifier), the likelier it is that something else will get stuck onto it. Freud’s most famous example is of course:  ‘You ask who this person in the dream can be. It’s not my mother [Die Mutter is es nicht]’. In which case, adds Freud, the question is settled, we can be sure that it is indeed her. Yet, what becomes more and more obvious as we follow Freud’s arguments further, is that what is introduced by this negation is precisely something else besides the alternative: ‘It is my mother’ / ‘It isn’t my mother’. So let us take this step by step. Without being asked who played a part in his dream, the patient rushes forward and volunteers the word mother, accompanied by negation. It is as if he has to say it, but at the same time cannot, it is imperative and impossible at the same time. The result is that the word is uttered as denied, the repression coexists with the thing being consciously spoken of. The first mistake to avoid here is to read this in terms of what this person really saw in his dream, and then, because of a conscious censorship, lied about in the account he gave to the analyst. For – and this is crucial not only for the understanding of Verneinung, but also of the Freudian unconscious as such – what is unconscious in the given case is first and foremost the censorship, and not simply its object, ‘mother’. The latter is fully present in the statement, and introduced by the subject himself, who could have also not mentioned her at all. The unconscious sticks here to the distortion itself (the negation), and is not hidden in what the subject supposedly really saw in his dream. It could well be that another, known or unknown person actually appeared in the dream, yet the story of the unconscious that is of interest to psychoanalysis begins with this ‘not my mother’ that takes place in the account of the dream. But things become even more interesting, for Freud goes on to say that even though in analysis we can bring this person to withdraw the ‘not’ and accept the (content of the) repressed, ‘the repressive process itself is not yet removed by this’.[11] The repression, the symptoms persist after the analysand has become conscious of the repressed, which could also be formulated as follows: we can accept the (repressed) content, eliminate it, but we cannot eliminate the structure of the gap, or crack that generates it. We could also claim that what the patient wanted to say is precisely what he said: that is, neither that it was some other person than the mother, nor that it was the mother, but that it was the not-mother or the mother-not.

An excellent joke from Ernest Lubitsch’s Ninotchka can help us here to get a better grip on the singular object ‘mother-not’ that we are talking about.

A guy goes into a restaurant and says to the waiter: ‘Coffee without cream, please’. The waiter replies: ‘I am sorry sir, but we are out of cream. Could it be without milk?’

This joke carries a certain real, even a certain truth about the real, which has to do precisely with the singular negativity introduced or discovered by psychoanalysis. A negation of something is not pure absence or pure nothing, or simply the complementary of what it negates. The moment it is spoken, there remains a trace of that which it is not. This is a dimension introduced (and made possible) by the signifier, yet irreducible to it. It has (or can have) a positive, albeit spectral quality, which can be formulated in the precise terms of ‘with without (cream)’ as irreducible to both alternatives (cream/no cream).

When mother thus appears in this singular composition with negation, that is, when she appears as ‘not-mother’, it looks as if both terms irredeemably contaminate each other. As if the ‘not’ marks the mother with the stamp of unconscious desire (‘like made in Germany stamped on the object’, as Freud puts it), and ‘mother’ no less contaminates the formal purity of the negation with – as we sometimes read on the packaging of certain kinds of food – some ‘traces of elements’. But we should be even more precise and say that the mother we start with (just before the negation hits her) is not the same as the object-mother produced through this negation, via the work of the unconscious. It is another mother, a mother – why not put it this way? – with consequences, not a mother as an element of Nature. Which is precisely why admitting to the analyst that it has been your mother, after all, does not help in the least, and why in spite of this admission the essence of the repression persists. For what we get in this way is of no use to us, it refers only to mother as something factual, as an ‘element of nature’, and it does not bring us any closer to the dimension of the real.

This brings us back to the core of our discussion, to the question of realism and of the real that psychoanalysis shares with science, and this is how one could sum up the main point of this discussion.  If the subject of the unconscious is the subject of (modern) science, this is precisely in so far as it is essentially linked to the field in which discourse has consequences. Without the latter there is no subject, and certainly no subject of the unconscious. This is how one should understand Lacan’s statement that the subject is the ‘answer of the real’, la réponse du réel. Which is something else than to say that it is an effect of discourse or discursively constituted. The subject, or the unconscious, are not effects of language, let alone linguistic entities, they belong to the field of the real, that is to the field that only emerges with language, but which is not itself language, nor is reducible to it (say as its performative creation); the real is defined by the fact that language has consequences in it. And we could perhaps say: if science creates and operates in the field where discourse has consequences, psychoanalysis is the science of this singular field, of the surprising ways in which these consequences work, and of the peculiar ontological status of the objects of this field.

It would not be appropriate, however, to conclude without accepting the challenge of Meillassoux’s initial question in its estimable directness and simplicity. That is: what does the Lacanian realism of consequences, combined with the impossible, imply for the status of so-called ancestral statements? Does the statement ‘the earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago’ make any sense independently of us, that is: does it refer to a specific object which did in fact (although according to our way of counting and based on radiometric dating) exist 4.5 billion years ago?

Why not venture an answer? In order to formulate it I will draw on a very fascinating story, which revolves precisely around fossils and which – if taken in its speculative dimension – can give to the notion of arche-fossil a very intriguing Lacanian twist. In his book Meillassoux does in fact at some point hint at this story – but this remains an utterly cursory hint, serving only as a rhetorical argument for mocking the absurdities that correlationism would seem to be compatible with, and it entirely misses the true speculative potential of the story in question.

In one of his superb essays, entitled ‘Adam’s Navel’, Stephen Jay Gould draws our attention to a most astonishing, ‘ridiculous’ yet extremely elegant theory suggested by the important British naturalist Philip Henry Goss.[12] Goss was Darwin’s contemporary and he published the work that interests us (Omphalos) in 1857, that is only two years before Darwin’s On The Origin of Species. He was a most passionate naturalist, and one of his greatest passions was fossils, which he studied and described with particular devotion. At that time the nascent science of geology had already gathered evidence for the earth’s enormous antiquity, which bluntly contradicted its age according to Genesis (6000 years). And this was Goss’s principal dilemma – for he was not only a dedicated naturalist, but also a deeply religious man. The core of his theory thus consisted of an attempt to resolve the contradiction between the (relatively recent) creation ab nihilo, and the real existence of fossils of a much more respectable age. He came up with a rather ingenious theory according to which God did indeed create the earth about 6000 years ago, but he did not create it only for the time to come, for the future, but also retroactively, ‘for the past’ – at the moment of creating the earth he also put the fossils in it. One should not miss the beauty of this self-effacing gesture: God creates the world by effacing the traces of his creation, and hence of his own existence, to the benefit of scientific exploration. And it is probably no coincidence that the theological world rejected this theory even more passionately than the scientific world did. Immediately, the consensus appeared that God could not have ‘written on the rocks one enormous and superfluous lie’.  According to Gould, modern American creationists also mostly and vehemently reject this theory for ‘imputing a dubious moral character to God’.

The interest of Goss’s theory for our discussion consists above all in pointing to the insufficiency of a simply linear theory of time in respect to the question of the real. Also, the patina of bizarreness that surrounds Goss’s story should not blind us to the fact that structurally speaking his dilemma is exactly Meillassoux’s. It suffices to replace God’s creation with human creation (nature as subjectively/discursively constituted), and we get a stunningly similar question: does science only study something which we have ourselves constituted as such, posited (as external), or is this exteriority independent of us and has it existed exactly as it is long before we did? The Lacanian answer would be: it is independent, yet it only becomes such at the very moment of ‘creation’. That is to say: with the emergence – ex nihilo, why not? – of the pure signifier and with it of the reality in which discourse has consequences, we get a physical reality independent of ourselves. (Which, to be sure, is not to say that we do not have any influence on it.) And of course this independence is also gained for the time ‘before us’. The reality of arche-fossils or objects of ancestral statements is not different from the reality of objects contemporary with us – and this is because neither the former nor the latter are correlates of our thinking, but are instead objective correlates of the emergence of a break in reality as homogeneous continuum (which is precisely the break of modern science, as well as the break of the emergence of the signifier as such). This is the very reason why Lacan’s theory is indeed ‘dialectically-materialist’: the break implies nothing else but a speculative identity of the absolute and of becoming. They are not opposed, but need to be thought together. Something can (in time) become absolute (that is timeless). The absolute is at the same time necessary and contingent: there is no absolute without a break in which it is constituted as absolute (that is to say as ‘necessarily necessary’ – whereby this redoubling is precisely the space in which discourse has consequences), yet this break is contingent.

Contrary to this, Meillassoux’s gesture of absolutizing contingency as the only necessity ultimately succumbs, not to speculativity, but to idealism: all is contingent, all but the necessity of this contingency. By claiming this Meillassoux actually absolutizes the absent cause (the cause which, if present, would ground the necessity of the laws such as they are). His argument in this respect is well known: there is no higher cause on account of which natural laws are such as they are, no higher necessity. Therefore they can change at any moment – contingently, without any reason, which is to say ex nihilo (he does not back down from this notion here). But we can see what happens here: we get an atheistic structure which cannot do without the absolutization of the absent Cause, which thus guarantees the contingency of all laws. We are dealing with something like a ‘God of atheists’, a God guaranteeing that there is no God. In the conception that we are drawing up here with the help of Lacan the configuration is different. Lacanian atheism can only be the atheism of the absence of (any) guarantee or, more precisely, the absence of an external (or meta-) guarantee: the guarantee is included in, is part of what it guarantees. There is no independent guarantee, which is not to say that there is no guarantee (or no ‘absolute’). This is what the notion of the not-all, as different from the notion of constitutive exception, aims at: that which can disprove one discursive theory, and confirm another, comes from within the discursive field. (In science this means that an experiment confirms or disqualifies a certain theoretical configuration within the framework in which it takes place; an experiment can only confirm or disprove a theory by being performed on its own grounds; there is nothing simply outside a theory with which the latter could be measured.) Instead of the logic of exception and of the meta-level which totalizes some ‘all’ (all is contingent, all but the necessity of this contingency), we are thus dealing with the logics of not-all. Lacan’s axiom, which could be written as ‘the necessary is not-all’ does not absolutize contingency, but posits it as the point of truth of the absolute necessity in its becoming such (at some point in time).

And in the end this also brings us to the one important point of difference that nonetheless exists between psychoanalysis and science, and which Lacan keeps relating to the question of truth. In a few words: what science does not see, or does not want to know anything about, is the fact that one of the consequences of discourse is also the dimension of truth. Truth as an objective dimension of discourse. Not the truth about a given configuration, but truth as an irreducible element of this configuration, as an essential by-product of the cleavage of the immanence which makes the latter not-all, that is to say which makes it include within itself its own criterion of the real.  As element of a given configuration – that is as element of the real – truth can only speak in the first person – which is where Lacan’s idea of the prosopopoeia of truth comes from: ‘I, the truth, am speaking’. And insofar as this field of truth is what interests psychoanalysis, this is the point where another story starts, another chapter of its realism, and where a certain distance in respect to science steps in.  It would not be all together wrong to call this distance a political one, for with the dimension of truth there necessarily enters the dimension of conflict. [13]


Chiesa, L. (2010) ‘Hyperstructuralism’s Necessity of Contingency’, in S: Journal of the Jan van Eyck Circle for Lacanian Ideology Critique, 3.


Freud, S. (1925h), ‘Negation’, in SE, 19.


Gould, S. J. (1985) ‘Adam’s Navel’, in Flamingo’s Smile (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books).


Lacan, J.:

–       (1990) Television. A Challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishement (New York & London: Norton & Company).

–       (2006a) Le séminaire, livre XVI. D’un autre à l’Autre (Paris: Seuil).

–       (2006b) Le séminaire, livre XVIII. D’un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant (Paris: Seuil).


Malabou, C., (2007) Les nouveaux blessés (Paris: Bayard).


Meillassoux, Q. (2008) After Finitude (London: Continuum).


Milner, J.-C. (2008) Le périple structural (Lagrasse: Verdier).


Žižek, S. (2010) Living in the End Times (London & New York: Verso).


[1] Malabou 2007.


[2] Which is why Slavoj Žižek is right in pointing out that the cost of this kind of materialism might well be a re-spiritualisation of matter (see Žižek 2010, p. 303). Needless to say, however, that our cursory reference to Malabou here fails to do justice to her argument in its entirety, as well as to some most valuable points that she makes in presenting it.


[3] Chiesa 2010, pp. 159-177.


[4] Milner 2008, pp. 287-288.


[5] Lacan 1990, p. 18.


[6] ‘If I am anything, it is clear that I’m not a nominalist. I mean that my starting point is not that the name is something that one sticks, like this, on the real. And one must choose. If we are nominalists, we must completely renounce dialectical materialism, so that, in short, the nominalist tradition, which is strictly speaking the only danger of idealism that can occur in a discourse like mine, is quite obviously ruled out. This is not about being realist in the sense one was realist in the Middle Ages, that is in the sense of the realism of the universals; what is at stake is to mark off the fact that our discourse, our scientific discourse, only finds the real in that it depends on the function of the semblance’ (Lacan 2006a, p. 28).


[7] Ibid., p. 34.


[8] Lacan 1990, p. 36.


[9] Lacan 2006a, p. 31.


[10] His argument in this respect is that correlationist philosophy, precisely since it claims that we can know nothing about things in themselves, forces us to admit, at least as possible, even the most irrational obscurantist nonsense said about things in themselves.


[11] Freud (1925h), p. 236.


[12] Gould 1985.


[13] See Lacan 2006a, p. 38.


Alenka Zupančič is a full-time researcher at the Institute of Philosophy of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts and a visiting professor at the European Graduate School (EGS) in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. She has written extensively on psychoanalysis and philosophy. She is the author of numerous articles and several books, including Ethics of the Real: Kant and Lacan (Verso 2000), The Shortest Shadow: Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Two (MIT Press 2003), The Odd One In: On Comedy (MIT Press 2008), and Why Psychoanalysis: Three Interventions (Aarhus University Press 2008).

Publication Date:

July 12, 2017

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis