The Other Wants More. Review of:
Lacanian Antiphilosophy and the Problem of Anxiety: An Uncanny Little Object
(Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)
Brian Robertson’s new book Lacanian Antiphilosophy and the Problem of Anxiety: An Uncanny Little Object is at once a close reading and exposition of portions of Lacan’s (2014/1962-63) recently translated Anxiety Seminar and an effort to resituate that text within the broader philosophical discourse of existentialism and phenomenology and, particularly, to establish a Lacanian exchange with Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre. His central thesis, perhaps controversial given Lacan’s frequent criticisms of the phenomenological method and the typically adversarial relationship of structuralist and post-structuralist thought to Sartreian-Heideggerian existentialism, is that Lacan’s aim was not to abandon a phenomenological approach to anxiety but, rather, to create a phenomenological account of anxiety’s uncanny object (a), which cannot be apprehended by ordinary sense perception or eidetic analysis. Whether or not this is an accurate assessment of Lacan’s actual intentions is, to my mind, unimportant. The dialogue, no doubt, holds out innumerable possibilities.
Robertson’s project raises interesting questions about the nature of exegesis. On the one hand, his text is engaged in relatively straightforward exposition of Lacan’s often baroque and allusive style of transmission much in the same manner as a writer like Bruce Fink. In this respect, the text has a particularly close affinity, in its specific focus on the Anxiety seminar, to Fink’s (2004) Lacan to the Letter, which similarly provided close readings this time of papers from the Écrits (Lacan, 2006/1966). However, the more novel and more valuable contribution, in my opinion, is in its effort to create a dialogue and productive tension between Lacan’s thought and that of the existentialists and phenomenologists. This more novel project, however, often proves difficult to sustain. Sometimes struggling against the authority of a controlling and litigious Lacanian hyper-orthodoxy that has not authorized his endeavor and at other times against the simple density of Lacan’s text, Robertson often seems to give way on his dialogic project in his own tendency to remain beholden to Lacan and to the faithful exposition of his thought. Perhaps it is for the exegete as it is for the analyst: he derives his authorization only from himself (Lacan, 1967/1995, p. 14). In any event, my greatest wish for Robertson is that he might have taken his desire yet further, been perhaps less faithful to Lacanian explanation and more willing, to paraphrase and displace the text, to twist our perceptual threshold to Lacan back on itself (Robertson, 2015, p. 24).
It must be said that the title of Robertson’s text is curious, and particularly in the context of this wish for him to have taken further his desire to place Lacan within a broader context. There is a relative dearth of explicit discussion within the text of what precisely Robertson has in mind with this term “antiphilosophy,” the signifier itself only appearing in four pages of the text’s introduction and concluding remarks. Given his focus on Tenth Seminar in 1962-1963, it is perhaps not surprising that Robertson does not examine Lacan’s own rather offhand proclamations of his position as antiphilosopher some fifteen years later (Lacan, 1977, 1980). But antiphilosophy has achieved a rigorous conceptual status in the more contemporary work of Alain Badiou, whose intellectual masters included Lacan, from whom he took and elaborated the signifier “antiphilosophy,” and another of Robertson’s primary subjects, Jean-Paul Sartre, so the absence of any reference to Badiou in Robertson’s work was a rather striking omission.
In a concise definition given in a public debate, Badiou (Badiou & Žižek, 2010) defined antiphilosophy as “any system of thought that opposes the singularity of its act to the philosophical category of truth.” Bosteels (2008) in a thorough review of Badiou’s work on antiphilosophy has identified four invariant traits:
… the assumptions that the question of being, or that of the world, is coextensive with the question of language; consequently, the reduction of truth to being nothing more than a linguistic or rhetorical effect, the outcome of historically and culturally specific language games or tropes which therefore must be judged and, better yet, mocked in light of a critical-linguistic, discursive, or genealogical analysis; an appeal to what lies just beyond language, or rather at the upper limit of the sayable, as a domain of meaning, sense, or knowledge, irreducible to any form of truth as defined in philosophy; and, finally, in order to gain access to this domain, the search for a radical act such as the religious leap of faith or the revolutionary breaking in two of the history of the world, the sheer intensity of which would discredit in advance any systematic theoretical or conceptual elaboration. (p. 161-162)
The antiphilosophical “act”, absolutely specific in its radical destitution of truth is sharply contrasted with the philosophical “event” as the condition for the emergence and unfolding of a universal truth procedure. Badiou includes in his list of antiphilosophers Heraclitus, Saint Paul, Pascal, Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Lacan (Hallward, 2003).
Despite the lack of Badiouian reference, Robertson hit upon a number of insights in his relatively untheorized conception of antiphilosophy that are ripe for bringing into dialogue with Badiou and other theorists who have worked on this topic (Johnston, 2010; Milner, 1995; Regnault, 1997; Sharpe, 2015; Soler, 2006; Žižek, 1993): the topological relationship of philosophy and antiphilosophy, the connection of anxiety to the act as opposed to meaning, and the centrality of Lacan’s conception of the Other (and its banishment from philosophy) to an understanding of anxiety and of truth. At the most superficial level, Robertson’s recognition of the affinity between Kierkegaard and Lacan, as antiphilosophers, against the philosophers Heidegger and Sartre is highly suggestive. Much in the same manner that Bosteels (2008) points to the extimate relationship of antiphilosophy to philosophy or, as Johnston (2010) describes, a slant or paraphilosophy, Robertson recognizes that antiphilosophy is neither a critical philosophy nor something that exists radically outside of philosophy. He writes:
If anything, the ‘anti’ that I see at work in his antiphilosophical study of anxiety needs to be understood along the same lines that Orthodox Christians tend to read the ‘anti’ in Antichrist: What interests him is much less direct, sustained, and fully visible assault on established philosophical doctrines than the subtle replacement of the latter with something new and imperceptibly – but undeniably – different. (pp. 12-13)
It is fitting that in his focus on Lacan’s Tenth Seminar, delivered five years before Lacan himself had formulated the psychoanalytic act (Lacan, 1967-1968), Robertson does not theorize an act as such, but he is, nevertheless, sensitive to the central relationship of anxiety, not to meaning as it is for Heidegger and Sartre, but to action as it is for Lacan and Kierkegaard, and this action is integrally connected to the symbolic universe. Robertson (2015) writes, “Rather than drawing attention to the subject’s lived experience or the affective quality of the mood itself, both of their accounts home in on the notion of a larger social/symbolic order in which the subject, like Kierkegaard’s petrified chess piece, can no longer freely circulate” (p. 85-86). As Badiou and Bosteels have theorized, for the antiphilosopher, the being of the world is a mere game of language, and we are but anxious, petrified pieces. Only a radical and utterly contingent act, without guarantee and undertaken in fear and trembling, might break this stalemate.
Robertson has little to say about the category of truth, though he does seem to be approaching something fundamental about a psychoanalytic conception of truth in his reflections on an act (acting out, passage to the act) that wrests its certainty from anxiety over against a knowledge that might come from philosophical reflection and a search for meaning (Robertson, 2015, p. 102, 212-214). As Badiou well recognizes, Lacan is unique in his list of antiphilosophers, for unlike a thinker like Nietzsche, the category of truth remains essential for him and cannot be reduced to “a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms” (Nietzsche, 1977, p. 46-47). But Badiou is quite right, and Robertson seems to be making a similar point, that there nevertheless remains an insurmountable gulf between a psychoanalytic truth-as-cause and the philosophical search for a truth-as-end (Badiou, 1994-1995; Johnston, 2010; Lacan, 2007/1969-70). Numerous productive tensions remain to be further explored and acted from. What might an examination of the concept of truth across and between these thinkers—Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, Lacan—have yielded, or what might it yet yield? Truth seems to confront us with a similar question to that of Robertson’s central topic, anxiety: what can we do with this uncanny thing that we cannot think and seems instead to do things with us? As Lacan well knew, anxiety and truth maintain a constant pact with one another, for anxiety is that which never lies (Lacan, 2014/1962-63).
There is a final way in which Robertson seems to be on the same scent as his fellow theorists of Lacanian antiphilosophy, and this is the centrality of the locus of the Other in Lacan’s thinking about anxiety and truth alike. As Sharpe (2015) compellingly outlines, Lacan’s antiphilosophy is aimed first and foremost at the figure of Parmenides:
From Parmenides’ enigmatic poem to Hegel’s ‘the real is the rational,’ Lacan claims, philosophy’s founding commitment to reason’s ability to make the world transparent to its terms rests on a founding presupposition: that there is a fundamental, mirroring identity between thought and being. (section 2.2, para 4)
With the birth of psychoanalysis, a founding split, dehiscence, or cut between subject and being is recognized. This is the truth Freud bestowed upon the world with the discovery of the unconscious. And Lacan added to this Freudian truth that this split is inaugurated in speech.
Against the philosopher’s truth-versus-falsity or error, with the element of speech comes truth-versus-deceit, and so Socrates will banish stories of lying Gods from the Republic, and Descartes, to assuage his interminable doubt, must prove the existence of a non-deceiving God. Sharpe (2015) concludes:
And it is this precise dimension of truth-versus-deceit, and of a presupposed good faith in the Other—the dimension of what Lacan famously calls the symbolic order—that Lacan contends is more or less systematically sidelined in the philosophical heritage. (section 3.3, para 4)
Robertson points to this same sidelining again and again: from the Parmenidean One and its schizoid existentialist elaboration in abandonment, authenticity, and the “errancy of Being” to the Two of master and slave in Hegel-Kojève-Sartre who fail to recognize the distinction between an other and the Other. Anxiety, for Lacan and as explicated by Robertson (2015), is this “radical loss of bearings before the Other’s desire as such” (p 43). And it is this naked confrontation with our place in the desire of the Other that is anxiety’s formative lesson, that is its truth. And if an act is to be wrested from anxiety rather than petrification, this truth will have been its cause.
As we “understumble” our way towards some end, I wonder, where does this leave us? Robertson has no doubt made a valuable contribution to Lacanian scholarship as well as a useful supplement to the Anxiety Seminar. But the Other always wants more. Keep going. Do not give way. The question of antiphilosophy and the pathways of thought and action it opens up still have much to teach us about our proper place as analysts.
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Badiou’s position, in this regard, is quite complicated, however, for while he acknowledges that truth remains a category that Lacan makes very frequent recourse to, he also argues that the final Lacan of the matheme does, in fact, fully destitute truth with his conception that a knowledge of the real is a possibility while a truth of the real is not (Badiou, 1994-1995; Badiou & Žižek, 2010).