Revolt! Act I
A filmed 1972 encounter between Jacques Lacan and a Situationist student occasioned prophetic comments from the analyst about the relationship between revolt, knowledge acquisition and the evolution of communications technology. The historic exchange here serves as the narrative scaffold for a palimpsest in which fragments of found text, italicized throughout, compose a larger fabric assaying the current stakes for psychoanalytic praxis.
Norms were contested, at times to the benefit of other norms, at others in the interest of abolishing the very notion of norm. But behind the fragile curtain of that authentic breach, a readaption of modern thought to a pragmatic space in which the civilization of the book and of writing were being subverted by the ideals of communicative transparency could already be perceived. The priority accorded the realms of ‘experience’ and of the nonverbal would impose itself with such force that the movement would be devoured by the very individuals who were its artisans.
…distress of the same kind as my own, but only greater, deeper and perhaps more real and ancient than mine. A suffering rendered sacred by its age, its fatalism, its mysterious nature, compared with which my own suffering was only human, new and without any deep roots in my own age. A suffering bereft of despair and lighted by a great, beautiful hope, compared with which my own poor and small despair was merely a puny feeling that made me feel ashamed.
…the keenest of human torments is to be judged without a law… we are in that torment.
It surprises me that the good order [right proportion] of one’s body desires the kind of ticklings and noises that make up a sneeze.
Catholic University of Louvain, 1972: Tableau—
Another time. Audible hubbub in the lecture hall; you see slim dark figures lined up against its whitewashed walls. The eminent analyst, outfitted in a mod shirt with voluminous cravatesewn from the same sprigged fabric, puffs with vigor on a crooked cigar; comically it takes a zigzag shape, as if earlier crushed and then fished, nearly broken, out of some pocket. Minor confusion with a tiny microphone—I’m not very keen on this object, so I’ve placed it under my tie… The space crowded with bodies: boys black-jacketed, girls with lank, dark hair. Horn-rims, fountain pens, bobby pins; everybody smokes.
A boy in boots, cloth coat heavily flapping and poufs of tumbling dark hair, has just poured a quantity of water from a carafe over the analyst’s papers. In a gesture striking for its elegance and economy, he has with palms of hands intently spread the substance over the low lectern’s surface. What appear to be suds or clumps of something. Gesticulating broadly he’s declaimed to the room with a moue, a grimace of pretty, pouty lips (pouty lips and pretty teeth, tongue, all muscular and strenuous) a grimace or moue so particular that, watching, a watcher would know without a doubt—without sound even—that what he was watching could be nothing other than the successive shapes of a mouth speaking French. Boy:
The composite body which up to fifty years ago could be called ‘culture’—that is, people expressing in fragmented ways what they feel—is now a lie, and can only be called a ‘spectacle,’ the backdrop of which is tied to and serves as a link between all alienated individual activities. If all the people here now were to join together and, freely and authentically, wanted to communicate, it’d be on a different basis, with a different perspective. Of course this can’t be expected of students who by definition will one day become the managers of our system, with their justifications, and who are also the public who will, with a guilty conscience, pick up the remains of the avant-garde and the decaying ‘spectacle…’ That’s why I chose this precise moment to have some fun… to be like those guys who express themselves authentically.
Then with even gaze, directly at the older man: “I didn’t do it to annoy you but I did choose this particular moment.” (Smatter of applause.)
Soon the analyst’s turn. Unfazed, puffing, he listens. Smoking he listens; he listens with something approaching virtuosity. Then with light touch on the student’s arm: Shall I carry on from there?
—What do you mean, “carry on”? I want you to reply!
—But I am going to reply. Stand there peacefully. That’s right, stand where you were…. I might have an answer. Why not? With a near-imperceptible fluttering or lowering of lashes, the boy in his turn: Shall I sit down? (The crowd’s titter at the abruptness of his volta.)
—Yes, fine. Very good idea. So… let’s see what we can do. (Titter again.) By expressing yourself in this way, in front of this audience—which is more than ready to hear these insurrectional statements—what was it, exactly, that you wanted to do?
His interlocutor rearing now, inflamed and again declaiming. —That’s the question which parents, priests, ideologues, bureaucrats and… the cops always ask the growing number of people who act like me! Now executing a sort of pseudo-fouetté with leg extended, adagio, this step almost pensive in quality… —My answer is: I want to do just one thing—make revolution? (Why the word inflected, strikingly, as an interrogative.) It’s obvious that, at the step we’ve reached at this moment, one of our main targets will be exactly these moments when people like you are bringing to people like these justification for their miserable lives—that’s all you do. Then a silence, signifying (…) And now the analyst’s intervention: But not at all! (Why this line eliciting a little gale from the mass. Why here this smatter of applause.)
Jump cut— On the soundtrack, strings strike harshly a single, atonal chord. The student advancing now in frontal motion (the older man stepping back), hand darting forward with rhythmic flicks towards the analyst’s face. As if spurts of liquid ejecting from his tips. Muted growling from the crowd; another slashing chord. Wide-brimmed under a dark hat, a skirted and belted girl rushes in smoking. Without taking the object from her lips she with two solid men jostle the boy out; still declaiming his volume diminuendo. A man’s voice cries out: Disgusting! Then a woman cries: For shame!
Sensible anticipation now in the hall. The silence will lengthen, ramify. Finally the analyst will speak. With a half-smile: Let’s hope for a new organization. It’s not at all impossible… relighting the stub of his cigar, cherry pulsing red (smell it). “We see it being born… in the form of a regime which goes by the name of their supreme aspiration. That is… the whole. We should all be a part of it. We should close ranks to achieve, well what exactly? What does organization mean if not a new order? A new order is the return of something which… is of the order of the discourse of the master, simply that. It’s the one word which hasn’t been mentioned, but it’s the very term which organization implies. It’s quite conceivable that there will be a lot of progress, in this sense—if we can call that progress.”
This analyst is a model of equipoise. Yet what astonishes is less his manner than his response to the student’s appeal for revolt. For rather than supporting or refuting the call to join together, freely and authentically, he is going to assert that the regime here summoned will bring with it not liberation, but a new twist on an age-old form of tyranny; what’s more, he’ll go on to suggest that what had by that time already taken root was perhaps something much worse.
Then and in that part of the world, as today, university students were busy staging dramatic interventions in the business as usual of their education. They demanded autonomy and accountability. They called for a refashioning of language, a restructuring of curricula, a renovation of social ties in service of equity and in service of the good. Shouldn’t we seek, they asked, congruence—congruence between our vicissitudes and the mode and manner with which our education answers them, congruence between our desires and the vocabulary with which we should be properly addressed, congruence between the composition of our student bodies and those of our faculties? Who’s teaching us, anyway? Shouldn’t our teachers look like us? Shouldn’t our exigencies be made visible? Shouldn’t our identities be named, our passions represented, affirmed, legitimized by our schools? Shouldn’t our schooling answer our demands?
These and similar power plays hinge on the technics of knowing and the high stakes exercised in any transmission of knowledge. They are displays of will enacted in the theater of institutions, organizations governing social bonds and economies, by speaking animals—creatures subjected to the laws of language, of kinship and the state, and so subject to the prohibitions or dictates regulating all currencies and exchanges (words, objects, bodies, money…). The eminent analyst knows that although such stagings may appear to be about ideas, or about power, they are composed always of feelings—sentiments and sensations both—and take root in the shadow zone lying at the frontier between words and the enjoyments or anguishes of the human body, the body’s sense of itself as body, or the body as such—enjoyment or anguish of its neural networks, its organs, its orifices. The analyst knows that the very condition of this drama is one of revolt.
What would it mean then to seek a different perspective—etymologically an alternate optic, or drawing, or way through—by which people might join together, communicate freely and authentically? The boy has invoked what he refers to, in disarmingly abstract terms, as a composite body, culture, within which people have come to express their feelings in fragmented ways—individual, alienated, refracted ways. He professes that the coming revolution, encapsulated in his impromptu act in the lecture hall at Louvain, will reveal the true state of affairs: the figure is false; the image of this body, this only apparent whole—culture—will be revealed to be a lie, a simulacrum, a display or show projected onto a backdrop of disparate human activities which have become estranged—become, literally, foreign to their actors. According to the insurrectional rhetoric of this boy, culture—that is, the consecrated institutions which, through education, tend, sustain or guard the collective customs and achievements of a people—has become (or maybe ever was) nothing more than a kind of figment or fig leaf, a mirage linking and justifying human activities, conditioned or routinized actions which themselves have merged to come to serve as nothing less than a backdrop for its sick show, or a screen for the graphic projection of its decomposing body: decaying spectacle.
His syntax is convolute; the imagery baffles. You might struggle to get any kind of a grip on just what it is that, using the jargon of his epoch and his milieu, this boy is aiming to convey. Culture as body, as projection, as malady, as show? The absurd, spontaneous act as medicine, as measure taken to disrupt or distance, to reawaken or restore the rudimentary, organic integrity of a society riven by the exchange of commodities, atomized by their consumption or hypnotized by opioid spectacle? The singular, spontaneous, improvisatory act as, paradoxically, pure expression of a free and authentic joining together?
You might sense that something about the rhetorical architecture seems structurally “off” here. Within its wordscape, opposed terms slide or collide; their links elude. Two aggregated figures superpose. Each on each: first, the composite unity of culture is presented, a decomposing, projected body or spectacle (the figure here portrayed as an uncanny hybrid of rotting biological matter and technologically screened simulacrum); then another (revolutionary) unity looms, the organic totality of authentic expressions of collective will. At the same time and in the same speech-field, two disaggregated sets criss-cross, as if to form a kind of chiasmus or conceptual net: alienated individual activities (masked by the ideological spectacle of culture) interlace with the free performances of particular subjects, the subversive “happenings” or targeted moments made possible by any given situation; any tangle with parent, priest, ideologue, bureaucrat or… cop a pregnant possibility for creative subversion. It doesn’t quite add up.
Within the dodgy semantic math of the encounter, a question emerges between student and analyst about the role of psychoanalysis itself. Does analysis bring to people, as the boy says, the justification for their miserable lives? Or can it, true to the etymology of its word, engender a loosening, an unfastening, unbinding or unleashing of something; a setting free, a dividing or cutting up of all the projections, pictures, phantasies and figures, of all the phantasmatic bodies ever hallucinated, ever at play—with an effect that will be, precisely, the inverse of synthesis?
The student asks how what he calls feelings might be expressed in an unfragmented way, in a truly authentic or integrated way. He holds out the promise that, through the creative enactment of sentiments or sensations (that is to say, by “acting on one’s feelings”) in the discursive space of any number of institutional settings, built environments or moments of verbal or material transmission, the decaying spectacle of culture might come to be swapped out with something else: the people’s will in the form of a collective body, no longer foreign or fragmented or false, no longer estranged or thing-like (decaying) but familiar and sane—which is to say clean, sound, healthy and logical. As if revolt were to hold out the promise that institutions might be remade no longer alien but intimate, “on a family footing.” It would be a kind of healing, or even a hygiene, a “making sane” which would at the same time be also a making sanitary.
You might be forgiven for detecting in these insurrectionary words something like a longing or nostalgia for a sane body, a whole body—body politic, self-image, loved object or institutional ideal type—an occult longing for a figure: a unified form unmarred by gaps, cracks, decay or pathology of any kind; a kind of seamless, integrated whole, sound and uninjured (Old English hal), that would come as a harbinger of salvation (Old High German heil). The analyst has said as much: he’s made the odd comment that the boy’s apparently anarchic, Situationist act of revolt heralds the birth of a new organization, a new regime embodying what he characterizes as the students’ supreme aspiration. What is it that these rebels pant after? They long for a true whole.
Four years earlier (in his seminar of 1968-9, subsequently published as The Other Side of Psychoanalysis), he had responded to a series of questions called out by a crowd of rebellious students at an experimental university in the eastern suburbs of Paris. There, at Vincennes—the site of a former royal dungeon where, in cell number 6, up to the neck, as he put it then, in garbage and filth, devoured by lice, fleas, mice and spiders and fed like a pig, Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, had from 1775-83 been locked up for the crimes of sodomy, flagellation and the poisoning of young women with sloppily dosed pastilles à la Richelieu, anise-seed bonbons impregnated with cantharides, the toxic substance prepared from the crushed, dried bodies of the brilliant green blister beetle of central and southern Europe, the reputed aphrodisiac known as Spanish Fly—the analyst spoke about the ways in which the practice of psychoanalysis puts knowledge in the dock (a dock being, of course, the place where an accused person stands in a court of law.)
There at Vincennes he had advanced the idea that all acts, doctrines and institutions which might be considered political share one underlying belief: the credo that knowledge—the promise of more knowing, better knowing or a more complete corpus of learning—has the capacity to make a whole. He linked this (quintessentially political) faith in the potent power of acquired information to the captured, captivating image of a body, in point of fact one’s own—each human subject’s—once glimpsed and, in an instantaneous view taken in in a jubilatory or traumatic, originary infantile moment as a reflection on glass, in a plane of still water or imputed in the shining orbs of a mother’s eyes. This imaginary body, he said then (assumed in a flutter of jubilant activity by a being still trapped in his motor impotence, his nursling dependence) … satisfies.
The university may be its institutional ideal type. In fact the etymology of the word itself (meaning both institution of higher learning and body of persons constituting a university) derives from a Medieval Latin word (universitatem) meaning whole or “aggregate,” in Late Latin signifying “corporation” or “society,” from universus signifying “whole, entire” (as in universe). And the word corporation, of course, means united in one body, from the past participle of a Latin verb (corporare) meaning to form into a body. The salient feature of this educative effigy, according to the analyst, is that it constitutes a closed form, perfectly orbicular; he even describes its shape as that of a sphere: The imaginary idea of the whole… given by the body… drawing on the good form of satisfaction, on what ultimately forms a sphere, has always been used in politics… what is more beautiful, but also what is less open? What better resembles closure of satisfaction?
Yet more discomfiting talk: the analyst’s speech, unfolding over the little time-span of its utterance, links as in a knotted chain that which is good to that which satisfies, that which satisfies to that which is beautiful, tying up all of these sets with the peculiar assertion that there is something spherical about them. Sliding around this verbal concatenation, infiltrating its nouns, enduring as a kind of latent potential in the movement from one articulated term to the next and only revealed finally, at the statement’s end, as having been there all along, lies something that he claims has been put to use by politics since time immemorial: the state of closure, or at least its image—the specter of satisfaction, conceived as a closed form; satisfaction, or at least the promise of it.
We’re confronted with something weird and inexplicable. How might a body—with its trunk, its limbs, its face and digits and organs and orifices—its biological structures big and small, its human-animal shape—be said to form a sphere? What could be more unnatural than that? How might such a sphere epitomize beauty? And why emphasize closure and satisfaction as the key features of everything political? How are these terms even related to each other—and what might be gleaned from this line of questioning, without slipping into a lather of abstraction?
I’ve spent the last few weeks stuck like glue on it. So much so that until this moment my writing has ground to a halt. I’ve generated chains of association (conceptual, sensory); progressions (eccentric, theoretical) with no apparent endpoint (page after page of notes following on from each of these terms); the arguments link, each to another, but they’re stubborn: the terms (etymologically, at once phrases, phases, periods, limits) resist integration, refuse condensation into an image, refute all futile attempts to order them into a coherent explication that I might grasp so as to offer you. They rebuff all my efforts to subjugate them, to order them in a path, a line (a cable, a cord, a string; a lineage or descent; a series, row, rule or direction) by which I might teach something about the matter at hand and you, listening or reading, might come to learn it.
I’ve labored to map these strings or rules of my thinking about this text, to draw out their partially submerged or inaccessible roots and the webs of their associations, to create metaphors which might represent them spatially or visually, to arrange them into a big shape or to discover a structure which might render them graphically. I’ve sniffed around, hoping to dig up material which might demonstrate or embody them; tried to ground them in an object or form; searched to locate an exemplum or metaphor which might transmit their connections. To no avail—these rules won’t cohere. They prefer to remain incoherent.
One thought recurs: my running aground on these baffling words is, like my listening to the insurrectionary boy’s soliloquy, akin or sympathetic to the strange, intimate-alien feeling generated by my encounters with the verbal runs of analysands—those heard words issuing from the couch. Same shock of a presence, some thing signifying within the folds or furrows of a saying; same sense of an implacable integrity lying on the underside of its (dizzying) logical or syntactical surface. The same desire to grasp it.
It just hovers. I feel again that the elements gleaned don’t quite add up, that a critical piece is still missing, that the links—links which may prove to have been essential, links upon which the entire verbal edifice might come at some future point to be revealed to have rested from the beginning—will continue to elude. I feel again, with the same sense of doom (impending judgment or condemnation) that any traces of the most essential material I’ve managed to grasp will be lost or obliterated by the end of the run, relegated to a void of forgetting. There’s a kind of excitement buried in the anguish of this encounter, or an anxiety coursing through the enjoying of it, palpable in the iron wall of angst rapidly rising when you find yourself, speaking or listening, skirting something at once crushing and elusive, or stepping into a place, improbably, both arid and teeming; you butt up against an absence at once privative and generative, grasp after or flee a presence that both terrifies and, unaccountably, arouses you: something proximate or exoteric; something unsayable, something (in point of fact) impossible.
But what if the anguish this thing engenders might be conquered? What if it took the form of a good that I might actually obtain or use to some end? What if it might be somehow apprehended, translated, deciphered, re-membered, transmitted? What if I could come to understand it, to master it, to express it in writing, to “teach it in”? I envision a fulsome future knowing; a state of grace, embodied in a shining form.
What the revolutionaries demand and what the university is already peddling will prove to be, in point of fact, one and the same: a particular brand of (painful) enjoyment, predicated on the promise of future satisfaction—a particular brand of rejoicing in the promise of satisfaction as (tracing the etymology of the words themselves) an apparition of atonement, expiation or reconciliation (“at-onement”); an assurance of a future cancellation of all debt; a declaration that all errors and deficiencies will one fine day be made up for good. Something beautiful lies in wait, something beneficent, which might be reached, acquired, only through more knowing. As if the pursuit of knowledge might make anxiety vanish. As if anguish might be closed off, walled in, banished or conquered via the relentless pursuit of ever more knowing, the passionate search characterizing our own historical (scientific) age, an epoch in which people seek tirelessly to see through everything, to know, enter and master anything and everything real, to treat every surface as an exterior to be penetrated, a barrier to be transgressed or a veil to be removed.
Against this spectral satisfaction, this closed image of knowing as a beautiful and good body, the analyst pointed to something real which elides the language mesh at every point. Always some element gone missing, always some part left over. Something unnamable will subsist in its perpetual escape from my tireless efforts to specify or seize it. It will engender sneezy tickling pleasure; it will engender looming horror. It will not be contained. It cannot be mastered. Never to be learned or represented or explained, it will persist always as a question, as the analyst says, still attached to whatever is open, lacking or gaping at the center of our desire.
At Louvain, he’ll speak to the student’s summons, his appeal for a new organization, a renovated institution, in its relation to this very question. And he’ll characterize the question as an amatory one: What is this appeal, this call, which is so familiar to him? It’s love! It’s love preaching to you. If we were all like that, all together, all loving one another, my God—it would herald the dawn of a new Jerusalem. We’ve seen it at various times in history, but never at just any old moment. There is something spherical about love. As early as 1960 he’d spoken about it, essaying at length on Plato’s Symposium, a founding text in which love and the quest for knowledge are conceived, specifically, as the desire for the whole in the form of an orb, a vision of future satisfaction holding out the political promise of human flourishing, predicated on the restitution of past injuries and losses.
In the Symposium Plato has Aristophanes telling an origin story about a mythical race of ancestral humans, perfectly round beings with four arms, the same number of legs, and two faces exactly alike set on a round neck. There was one head for the two faces (which looked in opposite ways), four ears, two sets of genitals and everything else as you might guess from these particulars… Whenever they wanted to move fast they pushed off from the ground and quickly wheeled over and over in a circle with their eight limbs, like those acrobats who perform cartwheels by whirling round with their legs straight out. These creatures were sexed, and of the sexes there were three: male, female and androgyne, children of the spherical sun, the orbiting earth and its moon respectively. Because they resembled their (stellar, planetary, lunar) parents the offspring themselves were round and their movements were circular also. Awesome in strength and might and voracious in ambition, these people—our forebears—dared to stage an assault on the gods. At which point the gods were stumped. What to do? Annihilating the whole race with thunderbolts would put an end also to the worship and sacrifices of goods they received from these humans. So, after much deliberation, Zeus came up with a plan that would allow humans to exist but at the same time put an end to their shameless behavior by making them weaker. He proceeded to cut everyone in two, just as people cut up sorb-apples for preserving, or slice eggs with a hair. As he divided them he told Apollo to take each separated half and turn round the face and half-neck to the cut side, so that each person, by contemplating their own cut surface, might behave more moderately. He also told Apollo to heal their wounds. Ever since that far-off time, love of one person for another has been inborn in human beings; its role is to restore us to our ancient state by trying to make unity out of duality and to heal our human condition. For each of us is a mere tally of a person, one of two sides of a filleted fish, one half of an original whole. We are all continuously searching for our other half.
And of course we’ll never find it. We’ll never find it because the parts don’t match up. As much as we humans might try, the analyst says, via even the most precise of pathways—the scientific pathway, the pathway of little equations—we’ll never gain access to what is completely missing, to what we are altogether separated from. This fundamental disjunction he described as the impossibility of sexual rapport: the fruitlessness of any effort to get to the bottom of the relationship between those speaking beings we sex as male and those we sex as woman. He called it a serious muddle, and he said there is no chance that it will ever succeed—in other words, that we will have the formula, something that can be scientifically written.
To what alien landscape has the analyst led us? We find ourselves on an erotic terrain, where our hungry regard of beautiful forms impels us to try to know, drives our faith in what we’ve learned and our ability to impart it; now we are citizens of a country where our belief in the methods by which we seek to acquire mastery has been revealed as an amatory bond, or an amatory bondage. As citizens or other members of such a polity might move from the contemplation of a beloved form to a love of wisdom, then on to some kind of right action (a passage spelled out in the Symposium as, in the words of Giorgio Agamben, an amorous trajectory from a vision of a beautiful body to a science of beauty to the beautiful as such), so I might pursue the whole first in a desired figure, then transfer my lust to a veneration of wisdom—Greek philo-sophia: pursuit of knowledge, systematic investigation or system for the conduct of life—so as to grasp ultimately for something which is now neither body nor science but a state of grace, a final reward, God’s unmerited favor, God’s succor, God’s love.
Except the parts won’t fit. To Aristophanes’ the desire and pursuit of the whole is called lovethe analyst replies: something remains open, lacking or gaping at the center of our desire. He would claim, time and time again, that this wound or caesura is coincident with the very impossibility of the simple relationship between man and woman (those humans sexed as male and those sexed as woman), the same absence of rapport that the founder of the psychoanalytic field, Schlomo Sigismund Freud, placed at the very forefront of ethical inquiry.Freud made a radical leap: he emphasized the angst engendered by the cut surface over the satisfaction promised by the fantasy of the sphere, and the eminent analyst used to dilate often upon the revolutionary effects of this singular rupture in the history of Western thought, cause of a rippling prefigured by Aristophanes’ jokey ridicule in the Symposium, his derision of this whole form tending to perfection and evoking—in Plato, in the pre-Socratics—a mythical being, as the analyst once said, self-identical on all sides… which takes the form of a ball, reigning in its own solitude, full of its own contentments and of its self-sufficiency.
This shape sticks in the mind. In his 1960-‘61 seminar on transference (the übertragung of the analysand to the analyst, a singularly analytic transit which, as the German word suggests, translates, transcribes, transmits and passes on an unknown knowing), the analyst referred to the Greek sphairos as a figure haunting ancient thought; he called it a Gestalt, the whole or good form which gives the optical nerve the most pleasure, the shape taken by the phase of unification… characteristic of… love. It’s a closed form forever uniting, agglomerating (gathering into a rounded mass, a confused jumble or heap), assimilating, agglutinating… We find this sphere, the analyst claimed, everywhere…situated at the center of a world in which the earth has (as it turns out) an eccentric position (a fact already suspected as early asPythagoras’ time). It has installed and perpetuated a revolving prejudice as solid as the perfection of circular motion. Throughout history, he said, it has continued to work its charms on dupes because mental philia stuck to it, and dirtily, like a strange kind of glue. He asked: what is the mainspring of our fascination with this shape that one is not supposed to mess with, or contest in any way? For centuries it left the human mind in error.
I become enamored with the sphere because I can’t countenance the cut. The affective attachment to shapes in which nothing sticks out or can be latched onto is in point of fact an imaginary one, he claimed audaciously, almost a kind of hallucination by which, rather than take account of my own break or breach or injury, that tear or thing I’m ever unable to articulate or conceptualize—ever-present gap between the satisfaction I anticipate and whatever it is I’ve managed to get my hands on—I find myself bumping into a whole. It pops out of the world or rears up, as if it were real, as if it were fully formed, right in front of my face.
Arrayed before us, a panoply of tangible goods and processes: a whole world to be apprehended and used, studied and learned, recorded, mapped, imagineered; a universe to be mastered. If we proceed empirically—via experimentation, via evidence, via experience, via rigorous adherence to what is verifiable and true—we can achieve anything: astounding feats of engineering, from space travel to artificial intelligence, from gene splicing to quantum computing, capabilities whose material effects appear in and of themselves to verify the truth of the scientific discoveries giving rise to them.
This then is the promise. At Louvain, the analyst will make the audacious claim that scientific know-how itself—the entire, efficacious regime based on this body of empirical knowledge—functions as nothing less than a kind of hallucination: (spherical) embodiment of love as the promise of satisfaction, the promised satisfaction of a true whole. Years earlier he had termed it a foreclosure of the signifier, because of the relentless way its elision of its own limits and failings makes knowledge into a shut thing, and he saw it as a threat: as with the reflected image of my own infant body—the jubilatory, formative gestalt which, he had once written, prefigures my alienation even as it symbolizes the mental permanence of my ‘I’—there is something problematic about this mirage, in spite of its allure, despite its libidinal dynamism.
Something, he says before the assembled students, manifests itself which is not strictly within the order of discourse, because there has been a discourse which is proliferating and is engendering innumerable little ones, which makes all of you, and me too, terribly uncomfortable. There is a scientific discourse whose very presence threatens us with the idea that things will be resolved in terms of mechanics, ballistics, equilibria, currents, and the more we understand the better. We’ll soon be like products. A certain type of individual who’ll fit in with everyone and everything. He found something deeply troubling in this regime which, as he had warned decades earlier with respect to the infantile imago, inaugurates an ontological structure of the human world akin to paranoiac knowledge… uniting human subjects with the statue onto which man projects himself, the phantoms which dominate him and the automaton with which the world of his own making tends to achieve fruition in an ambiguous relation.
In 1968 he had even coined a term for this zone of scientific efficacy. He called it the alethosphere, to get at how the sticky, mirage-like properties of the sphere fuse with or commandeer a phantasm of truth (Greek ἀλήθεια). He coined another term, “operception” (combining the French verbs opérer, to operate on, and percevoir, to perceive), to describe the way in which know-how or operational capacity tends to exhaust any given field of inquiry, appearing as truth pure and simple when varied simulacra and renderings—seeming to apprehend and reproduce real phenomena via sophisticated imaging and recording techniques, empirically and experimentally verifiable—come to circumscribe the very horizon of knowledge, or even themselves to assume its vanishing point.
I was speaking before of these spheres with which the extension of science—which, curiously, is found to be very effective at determining what a being is—encircles the earth, a series of zones that science describes as being what it finds. Why not also take account of the place in which these fabrications of science are located, if they are nothing more than the effect of formalized truth? What are we going to call this place? You could call it the alethosphere…the alethospheregets recorded. If you have a little microphone here, you are plugged into the alethosphere. What is really something is that if you are in a little vehicle that is transporting you towards Mars you can still plug into the alethosphere…we suppose that what I have been calling formalized truth already has, sufficiently, the status of truth at the level at which it operates, at which it operceives. But at the level of the operated-on, of what moves around, the truth is not at all unveiled…. the human voice… does not unveil its truth at all.
Joan Copjec has written about how, in counterpoint to the student rebellions flowering in May of that year, the analyst had in his seminar sketched out a technocratic vision of the future, what she calls a new ultra-modern myth. In his scenario the scientific truth-sphere would come to engirdle the planet, and prosthetically enhanced, plugged-in subjects would be patched into networks of social circuitry, suited with wearable computers and fitted with artificial, remotely monitored and controlled organs, implants. All that would remain of the world, all that would lie beyond the circuit of each individual subject, would be a kind of high-tech heaven…a ‘disenchanted’ space filled… with every technoscientific marvel imaginable: space probes and orbiters, telecommunications and telebanking systems…and so on. In this alethosphere, this world built on the demonstrable truths, rigorous and mathematical, of modern science… an originary absence, lack or gap—the difference between satisfaction anticipated and satisfaction obtained—would materialize magically as a tangible presence, embodied in objects with a certain sheen which we no longer simply want, but want more of. With the aid of commodities and servo-mechanisms, technological implants and psychopharmacological or hormonal props, each subject would experience the remodeling of their fantasies by the market into mise-en-scènes of the postponement of desire… superegoic urgings to ‘Keep on yearning.’
In this world the apparatus would be master. Devices—gripped in the hand, captivating the eye—circulate incessantly in an economy or ever-expanding household (Greek oikonomia) defined by Agamben as a set of practices, bodies of knowledge, measures and institutions aiming to … orient or manage—in a way that purports to be useful—the … gestures and thoughts of human subjects. The active agent in this orbit is the dandy little thing with the capacity to intercept or capture, to secure, to determine and ultimately govern the … behaviors, opinions or discourses of speaking beings. It’s a new form of tyranny, the analyst warned, a new tyranny of knowledge: the all-knowing has moved into the place of the master. This makes truth all the more obscure. Under this regime, which he was later to describe as pestilent, truth is not to be found in the place of the dispossessed, nor yet owned by a subject presumed to know: the sign of truth is somewhere else entirely. It is now produced not by ancient slaves, not by a proletariat or subaltern, but by consumables, themselves products.
Agamben paints the scene in stark strokes. We are witnessing “nothing less than a general and massive partitioning of beings into two large groups or classes: on the one hand, living beings” and with them all the substances that make up the world; “on the other, apparatuses in which [they] are incessantly captured. On one side…. lies the ontology of creatures, and on the other side, the oikonomia of apparatuses that seek to govern and guide them towards the good.” The apparatuses face off, en masse, against living beings and their multiverse of instances, essences, material. From the relentless struggle between the two camps a third class, human subjects, emerges as a kind of product.
And of course this is where we now find ourselves. Agamben: The extreme phase of capitalist development in which we live takes the form of a massive accumulation and proliferation of devices… today there is not even a single instant in which the life of individuals is not contaminated, modeled or controlled by some apparatus.” Today we are subjected less to the law or to symbolic dictates (language, culture, caste or genealogy) than to scientific knowledge in the position of truth, built now directly into material objects which, in the words of Néstor Braunstein, are auto-correcting, disposable, anonymous. Produced, consumed, destroyed, they serve the body—but the body must obey the uses provided. The agent, the prime mover in this world, is not now a human or a mythic ancestor or a “subject” but a being without a face, an objective entity that doesn’t say a word; a set of nomadic cybernetic jugglers, outside of space or time—the markets themselves, in eternal fluxus. The commodity itself (no one, nobody, the French ne… personne) has replaced the master.
And yet. Astonishing in his prescience, the analyst went on to remind his interlocutors that, as creatures who both speak and are spoken, we human subjects are born into and live always within a mesh or weave: warp of language (itself an apparatus and perhaps the most ancient), woof of sensations, matter, happenings—the real—which inform it, which elude it, which drive always and surpass it. We’ll soon be like products, he says at Louvain. A certain type of individual who’ll fit in with everyone and everything. But, he continues, “experience shows us that things aren’t like that. What experience shows us is that it is one language, the one you’ve all grown up with, which you received from your family… something which couldn’t be transmitted to you without bringing with it a whole vibrant, confused reality, trembling and unsteady, formed of the desires of your parents. So, an individual’s upbringing is influenced by the mother, by the maternal language, by that fundamental something. That is where love turns, to that kind of trembling call, to that union with… what? With something… which is obviously very alienating: what is really incredible is that he imagined that by breaking the sky with his fists, that this alienation which was exactly what he was telling you about, is a sort of a call, for what? For more of what? For more of truth?”
Truth, he would insist, can always ever only be half-said; we can never say it all. Truth will insinuate, ripple, pullulate in dreams or in riddles, in poems, in slips of the tongue… and love, the trembling call for union, for knowing—ever and perpetually alienated, split, longing—will butt up time and time again against the enigmatic truth embedded in the concrete singularity of any event (or any analytic session) unfolding in real time, in the volutions of a paradoxical recollection, in the contradictions of a case in all its irreducible specificity, or a poem in its essential, defining isness—necessitating, and ever eluding, progressive advances in economy, technology, know-how, speed, jargon, craft; evading the satisfactions promised by theory, engendering the impossible necessity of transmission. Love will go on, pining and calling for something which ever flees capture in any unambiguous meaning. Aristophanes: No one would suppose it to be only the desire for love-making that causes one person to yearn for the other so intensely. It is clear that the soul of each wants something else which it cannot put into words but it feels instinctively what it wants and expresses it in riddles. Badiou: How can we know without knowing? The answer is an enigma: the truth can only be said by halves.
What then of revolt? Standing by his sodden papers, foam lying in drifts across the table, the analyst continues: “I mean, what we discover from getting close to what is happening… something invaluable, which he referred to just now as will, subjective will… this subjective will, if we look at it in an absolutely permanent sense, can only manifest itself through its own division… since it is doubtless meant to suggest something to us. It is not, however, our image of the achievement of total harmony, finally realized. You have heard an appeal, one familiar to me. It was very touching, despite the fact that it led to a few problems with my tie” (flicking suds, to laughter).
Psychoanalytic practice enters the picture as a method for working at the limit-point where knowing founders, where the image no longer obtains, where satisfaction fails or division becomes manifest. In place of the quest for spherical certainty, this method cleaves to a nimble absence. It only formalizes a transmission which predates its invention and which will outlast its institutional withering away: a speaking being addresses an imputed master, or a mother, or a totemic animal or murdered father or a God—a subject presumed to know—only to discover, over the course of the telling, that all its words have been directed to is the seat of an absent power. It’s a practice which catalyzes (dissolves, loosens, cuts) speech via a discourse surpassing the historical emergence and vicissitudes of our, or any, field: the detour, the zigzag path…on which the misunderstanding that sexual rapport constitutes in the human species rests. For speaking beings—thrown or divided by language, fallen as an effect of discourse and animated by the desire to know—the sexual rapport he referred to, variously, as perfection, as harmony, as copulation, will remain an impossible relation. Making a whole, a sphere, is not nature’s intention.
At Vincennes he declared that the only thing motivating the function of knowledge is its dialectic with enjoyment. The absolute knowledge sought by what he termed the historical machine, the project of the schools, would mark only its annulment, its failure, its disappearance. The danger is that, standing before the podium, what I say will fall under the influence of the university discourse. There is that ever-present risk of error, of refraction: the difficulty translating me into academic language will… blight anyone who, for whatever reason, tries their hand at it.
A bitter irony: Vincennes was to become the site of a university program in psychoanalysis, home to what would be put forward as the definitive curriculum derived from his teaching.
The eminent analyst put knowledge in the dock. In his seminars he produced an enigmatic discourse which threw his interlocutors for a loop, placing them in the position of witnesses to a baffling speech, baroque in form, implacable in structure: listening, they became themselves analysts. He worked tirelessly to avoid capture by reflections, seduction by semblances or statues, traps posed by meaning. Ever attentive to the slippery ties between knowledge and doctrine, he looked for ways to transmit psychoanalytic knowledge which would circumvent imaginary, mythical or mystifying incursions of faith—including the faith inhering in explanations based solely on empirical evidence. He aimed to create institutions which would insure that analytic work would be a source of renewal and debate, and to develop, in place of “training,” modes of transmission which would lend dynamism to analytic know-how, rather than letting it sluggishly coalesce into a dogma. 
—the analyst’s names? Jacques Marie Émile Lacan.
— (2017) Taste, transl. by C. Francis (Calcutta: Seagull Books).
— (2009) What is an Apparatus? And Other Essays, transl. by D. Kishik and S. Pedatella (Stanford: Stanford University Press).
Badiou, A. (2005) Handbook of Inaesthetics, transl. by A. Toscano (Stanford: Stanford University Press).
Camus, A. (1991) The Fall, transl. by J. O’Brien (New York: Vintage International).
Copjec, J. (2006) “May ’68, the Emotional Month” in Zizek, S. (2006), Lacan: the Silent Partners (London and New York: Verso), pp. 90-115.
du Plessix Gray, F. (1998) At Home With the Marquis de Sade: A Life (New York: Simon & Schuster).
— (1997) History of Structuralism, Volume 1: The Rising Sign, 1945—1966, transl. by D. Glassman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).
— (1997) History of Structuralism, Volume 2: The Sign Sets, 1967—Present, transl. by D. Glassman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).
Johnson, A. (2005) Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive (Evanston: Northwestern University Press).
— (1992) Seminar: Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-1960, transl. by D. Porter (New York: W.W. Norton and Company).
— (2006) “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the ‘I’ Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” in (2006) Écrits, transl. by B. Fink (New York: W.W. Norton & Company), pp. 75-81.
— (2007) The Other Side of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book SXVII, transl. by R. Grigg (New York: W.W. Norton & Company).
— (2013) The Triumph of Religion Preceded by Discourse to Catholics, transl. by B. Fink (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Polity Press).
— (2015) Seminar: Book VIII: Transference 1960-1961, transl. by B. Fink (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Polity Press.)
Laplanche, J. and Pontalis, J.-B. (1973) The Language of Psychoanalysis, transl. by Nicholson-Smith, D. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company).
Malaparte, C. (2005) Kaputt, transl. by C. Foligno (New York: The New York Review of Books).
Plato (2008) The Symposium, trans. by Howatson, M.C. (New York: Cambridge University Press).
— (2001) Why Psychoanalysis?, transl. by R. Bowlby (New York: Columbia University Press).
— (1990) Jacques Lacan & Co.: A History of Psychoanalysis in France 1925-1985, transl. by J. Mehlman (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press).
 Roudinesco, 1990, Jacques Lacan & Co.: A History of Psychoanalysis in France 1925-1985, p. 478.
 Malaparte, 2005, Kaputt, p. 416.
 Camus, 1991, The Fall, pp. 117-18.
 Plato, 2008, The Symposium, p.21.
 The following quotations transcribed from the documentary film Lacan Parle, 1972, dir. Françoise Wolff.
 Letter from the Marquis de Sade to his wife Pélagie, July 27, 1780. Cited in Francine du Plessix Gray, 1998, At Home With the Marquis de Sade: A Life, p. 216.
 Lacan, 1948, published in Écrits (Lacan, 2006, p. 76).
 Copjec, 2006, published in Lacan: The Silent Partners (ed. Zizek, 2006, p. 111).
 “The question of das Ding is still attached to whatever is open, lacking or gaping at the center of our desire.” Lacan 1992, p. 84.
 Plato op. cit. 2008, p.23.
 Lacan, 2013, The Triumph of Religion Preceded by Discourse to Catholics, p. 78.
 Agamben, 2017, Taste, pp. 13-14.
 Plato op. cit. 2008, p.26.
 Lacan, 1992, Seminar: Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-1960, p.84.
 Lacan, 2015, Transference: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book VIII, p. 89.
 Ibid., pp. 90-93.
 Ibid., p.118: “…Plato, who one can also call a poet, [shows] us that what is at stake in shapes in which nothing sticks out or can be latched onto, has its foundations in the imaginary structure. But what is our attachment to such shapes due to, insofar as it is affective, if not to the Verwerfung of castration?” See also Laplanche and Pontalis, 1973, The Language of Psychoanalysis, pp. 166-168.
 Ibid., p. 76.
 Lacan op. cit. 2006, p.76.
 Lacan, 2007, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, p.162, emphasis added.
 Copjec op. cit. 2006, pp.96-7.
Agamben, 2009, What is an Apparatus? And Other Essays, p.12.
 Lacan, op. cit. 2007, p.32.
 Agamben op. cit. 2009, p.13.
 Ibid., p.15
 Néstor Braunstein, lecture delivered at the Lacanian School of Psychoanalysis, California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, September 9, 2013.
 Agamben op. cit. 2009, p. 14.
 Plato op. cit. 2008, p.25.
 Badiou, 2005, Handbook of Inaesthetics, p. 36.
 Analysis is “the structural introduction, under artificial conditions, of the hysteric’s discourse.” Lacan op. cit. 2007, p.33.
 Lacan op. cit. 2007, p.34.
 Ibid., p.32.
 Ibid., pp. 35-41.
 Johnson, 2005, Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive, p.67. See also Roudinesco, 2001, Why Psychoanalysis?, pp.95-108.
 Dosse, 1997, History of Structuralism, Volume 1: The Rising Sign, 1945—1966, p. 249; see also Dosse, 1997, History of Structuralism, Volume 2: The Sign Sets, 1967—Present, pp. 196—7.
Benjamin Davidson is a faculty member and research psychoanalyst of the San Francisco Lacanian School, and maintains a private practice in Palo Alto and San Francisco. Since 2010 he has led a seminar on Lacanian psychoanalysis at Stanford University, where he works as a dean.
November 24, 2019