Michel de Certeau: Lacan – An Ethics of Speech (1983)

The Jesuit priest Michel de Certeau was a collaborator of Lacan and a director of one of the Lacanian Schools. He is also an anthropologist; in the following essay, he provides a perspective on Lacanian theory as an intimate outsider to the Lacanian movement. The following essay is quoted from the journal “Representations, No. 3 (Summer, 1983), pp. 21-39. Published by: University of California Press.”  It can also be found in Heterologies: Discourse on the Other, 1986 by Michel De Certeau (Author), B. Massumi (Translator). Chapter 4, p. 47ff.

(Numbers throughout the text refer to the footnotes at the bottom.)

Lacan: An Ethics of Speech

HE SPEAKS – TO HIS PATIENTS, to the members of his School, to the semi­nar’s audience, a bit everywhere. Such, he says, is his profession as an analyst. He turns this speaking into a way of withdrawing. It is the very act of his theory, the gesture which formulates this theory; it is also a lifetime’s paradox. He attracts because he withdraws. Departures are scattered throughout his career: in 1953, he leaves the Societe de Paris; in 1963, the Association Psychanalytique Internationale; in 1980, the Ecole Freudienne de Paris, the “School” which was formed sixteen years earlier by the “act” which created it in the name of an aloneness: “I establish – just as alone as I have always been in my relationship to the psychoanalytic cause….”1 Even his strategies are inspired by a detachment which often excludes even his closest companions (a characteristic evidenced by Freud, who preferred what was distant, as if a separation created the analytic space). According to the legend (and not without reason), “Lacan” designates a rhetoric of withdrawal. This proper name cuts out the silhouette of a scandalous character: in the small world of intellectuals, this character disdains the social code which impels these intellectuals to run to the media in search of a wider presence; in the field of research, he violates the rule which bases the saleability of knowledge upon the readability of its statements. What he sets forth he will not allow to be understood. His audience contravenes the apparent laws of publicity. He did not want that publicity. That all came upon him like a sickness; it seized him when he was over sixty. One does not start life over again at that age. In any case, this is not it. “I realized that what made up my path was the realm of I want to know nothing about it.” 2 No compromise, neither on television nor in the good years at Vincennes nor during the series of lectures outside France. A coyness perhaps (for isn’t this too a game?), this withdrawal is the violent gesture which constitutes his thought and which gives birth to all its brilliance. He grounds speech just as he theorizes about it and just as he upholds its act.
Lacan belongs to no one. He is not situated, not entrapped in his own discourse, where certain faithful think they hold him, not chained to an institution and to a genealogy, not even to his own. He speaks and he is alone: both are aspects of the same battle. He is Other, as he signs in this final declaration of 1980: “If it should happen that I leave, you may say that it is only in order to be at last Other. One can be happy being Other like everybody else after a life spent, in spite of the Law, trying to be Other.” 3 It happened. The passing figure has left. He never stopped leaving, replac­ ing his body (physical body, doctrinal body, social body) by the inductive signifiers of a “speech” which is called “Lacan.” Such a politics of substitution is completed just when he becomes “Other like everybody else.” His name remains with the stormy School where it is embalmed, like Empedocles’ sandals on the banks of the Etna. 4 The “writings” are but the sandals of this passing figure, the result of the withdrawal which upheld his speaking. I am not concerned here, then, with the tomb (“theoreti­cal” or not) which a group might raise for its own benefit by using these “writings”- the “good of the city” is the imperative from which Lacan withdraws. 5 I don’t care to repeat the lesson, but rather to distinguish the act which turns his discourse into the ethics of a speech.

The Tragi-Comedy

I shall begin where it all ended: the last years of the Seminar. It was then said that the old man was declining. What ever happened to the Seminars of the old days, begun at the Sainte-Anne Hospital (1953), limited to a few analysts-students? There we were among our own kind. From the Freudian texts, the Master was carving the blocks of a psychoanalytic organon (Ego, psychoses, object, unconscious, transference; 1953-1964), before focusing on the question of the Other and on the corollary concepts of the “objet petit a” and the “crossed out subject” (1964 – 1974).6 During this second period, things are already deteriorating. Into the hall of the Ecole Normale Superieure, which provides a theater for the proceedings after 1964, the audience spreads, grows, overflows, increasingly beyond control. The “proper” place, i.e., the Ecole, fills up with anybody and anything. But in 1968, the administration no longer puts up with the “dirtiness” which reigns, and uses the physical disorder as a pretext to banish the intellectual disorder. Once again, Lacan moves. He then must carry the crowd which plagues his speech. He leads it like the pied piper to the Pantheon (the land of the dead), but at the same time he seeks to restore “proper” places by rearranging the department of psychoanalysis (Vincennes), by establishing a “headquarters” of the School (69, rue Claude-Bernard), and by strengthening the initiatory procedures of membership (the “permit”). In a strategy responding to its broader appeal, the Lacanian apparatus, which formerly articulated a public speech on a discipline’s silent labor, now undergoes a geographical mapping which sets in different places, on the one hand, a speech, devoted to the scientific “immorality” of a “free speech,” and, on the other hand, the professional and didactic choice of a School set on a street: both elements carry the same label, “Lacan.” The isolation and thus the visibility of the institutional conditions of analysis provoke, within the School itself, a series of surprises, destructive revisions, and tensions which have continued to grow. Exposed, the power behind the “free speech” must nonetheless be itself taken in hand by the theory based upon it. But first, what happens to this speech dislocated from the professional circles … unleashed, released in the crowd?
This is the period of the “Borromean links.” With bits of string, the Master would produce a metatheory in terms of topology: a possibility. The demonstration is not conclusive, even if it puts into play the encounter of two polar extremities of language (the scriptuary statement of the most formal kind and the oral misunder­standing of the dialogue) and even if it offers a general theory of space for thinking out metonymy (a psychoanalytic and literary process more fundamental than metaphor). These two points are so intriguing that I, like many others, would like to believe in them; but the essential is not here. Lacan goes on to a theoretical rite: the slow erosion of conceptual content releases the theatrical act which built it. The gesture which reorganized the field of analytic practices and categories repeats itself, slowly freeing itself from the elements which it delineated and carrying only aphorisms and frag­ments, relics and seashells, the debris of the successive stages which guided its trajec­ tory. All the work pursued through the thesis on La Psychose paranoiaque (1932), the “Discours de Rome” (1953), the Seminar (after 1953), the Ecrits (1966), and so on­ all this work was needed so that the teaching, which emerged late, after years of practice, could end at last in a purified form which offers little more to grasp and which reduces the psychoanalytic exercise to its essence of being identically act and theater … a speech.
Serious people are kindly requested to stay away. In the depths of the revered Faculty of Law (1968-1980), there re-emerges the ancient alliance (“relatives in joking”) between a wisdom beheaded of its knowledge and a curiosity not yet handi­capped by power. Here nothing useful is produced; for the public, there is no required preparation, no entry fee, no permanent check. But the actor is at work. In this commedia dell’arte, where the art of the analyst takes the stage, a starring role is assumed by the speaking body, and especially by this body’s throat. Coughing, slightly grumbling, clearing the throat-like tatoos on the process of phonation-punctuate the chain of words and indicate all their secret of being “for the other” and of produc­ing for the listeners the effects of meaning, of the signified. The signifiers are all the more understood in so far as there is misunderstanding about what they designate. Another emblem of the speaking body, the sigh, introduces into the discourse some­thing which troubles this body (the price of a pleasure?), which interrupts discourse (the time of another story) and which pulls back (”Are you still there?”). These corporal indicators bring speech to what they do not know. They reappear in the work of many Lacanians, and rightly so. These criteria of belonging are more trust­worthy than a theoretical or clannish policy of exclusion. In the current confusion, their use must be extended, with the didactic strings remaining the Master’s property.
In fact, this mimicry is only part of the repertory of a theatrical art which consists of the loss of the body in order to speak and which holds a place close to the art of Artaud. Like his “patient,” the analyst lets his discourse recount that part of his story which “escapes” him and which “flushes” (like a hare is flushed) the Other, repre­sented by all those anonymous and scattered listeners. But he also knows that the swarming of interpretations engendered in the crowd will never confer a meaning or an acceptable image upon the word games or ramblings received from the Other whom he does not know. And, indeed, he does not ask for this result. He is speaking for the Other, as one would speak in one’s hat, fruitlessly. But he is speaking “thanks to” that iconoclastic crowd which shatters and disperses the image of himself, an image which he might expect to be sent back to him in return for what he brings about. Aa an analyst, he “expects” from this audience, he says, “nothing more than to be the object thanks to which what I teach is not self-analysis.” 7 Otherwise, this theater would be reduced to a hysterization of the actor (assuming a body for the other); this process calls forth a paranoid interpretation by the listeners (a prolifera­tion of signifieds born of the question, “What then does he want from us?”). He thus “operates” only insofar as the actor does not take pleasure in his public.8 The analyst is dependent on listeners from whom, supposedly, he hopes to get neither his pleasure nor his own identity. By stepping back (“I want to know nothing of it”), he holds the difference separating the speaking (symbolic) from an identification (imaginary).
This exercise resembles a prayer to which and for which nothing would answer. A midrash once said, “Praying is speaking to the wall.” 9 Lacan turns speech into a conception close to this rabbinical austerity. The Other is there, but we can expect nothing from it except the desire which is produced by being deprived of it. Perhaps the sharpest expression of speech is to be found in one of those “formulas” which, in Lacanian language, appear to be quotations and fragments from an original dis­ course: “I am asking you to refuse what I am giving to you because that’s not it.” 10
Speech as comedy: a “fundamental failure” of action in order to return to the desire which resides there, a ceaseless fading of the object, a scorn for knowledge, an ambiguity of meaning in witty words, mutual misunderstandings among the charac­ters on stage. Lacan the actor pulls out all the gimmicks through which a theory of desire unfolds. The use of these classic tricks and the secret of the theory mold the same gestures and the same cuteness. What takes place there is something like the laugh provoked by the undefined misfiring of the action and of the things themselves. Such a smile appeared on the faces of gods who were not tricked. But, in order to become human, Lacan identifies himself with the “tragic dimension” of the “being­ for-death.” For him, the art of laughing is an art of dying. This art is constantly reborn from the impossibility which brought it forth. It is even haunted by a fury against those presences whose quiet stability hides their destiny of disappearing in order to nourish desire. One must die in order to speak, as one dies of pleasure, “finally Other.” Sometimes the actor dies, sometimes he gargles. The “Lacanian mass” is a tragi-comedy which tells us exactly what it does: it speaks.

“The Artist Goes On”


Speech, like dreams, would be an “act of homage to missed reality.” 12 If we were to follow Lacanian speech from its theatrical conclusion back to its psychiat­ric beginnings, we would find that speech traces the history of a “style.” In fact, this theory of the psychoanalytical act develops an aesthetics, if we understand this to mean that the signifiers “operate” by doing without the things which they seem to signify. My first thesis is: Lacan is first of all an exercise of literature (a literature which would know what it is). Maybe it is a scandal within the discipline, but why will literature always be labeled “not serious”? If we follow Lacan where he leads, towards a “speaking” [dire] whose nature is revealed by its analytical experience, he points towards the “truth” of literary practice.
Freud opened up this perspective as early as the Studies on Hysteria (1895), with a gesture which joined the discovery of psychoanalysis with the necessity of betraying scientific discourse and of moving into the camp of the “novelists” and “poets.”13 Throughout his life, he took models, conceptual figures and key examples from litera­ture; the discipline he created remains colored by the “authority of the poet.”14 And “the poetics of Freud’s work” constitutes the “first entry way into its meaning.”15 Far from forgetting this lesson, Lacan stresses it with research which, even in his early publications, probes into “style.” Thus, even before his dissertation, in 1932, his study of a “schizography” is directed towards defining, within pathological writing, the procedures “related to procedures uniformly present in poetic creation.”16 In 1933, Lacan’s thesis opens onto “the problem of style,” that is, onto a group of questions “forever unresolvable for an anthropology which is not freed from the naive realism of the object”: 17 here begins his “literary” polemic against the object.
Except for Freud’s writings (and especially the most “literary” among them, such as The Science of Dreams, On jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, and the Psychopathology of Everyday Life), Lacan comments particularly on literary master­ pieces: Sophocles, courtly poetry, Marguerite de Navarre, Shakespeare, Sade, Joyce. His discourse is punctuated with bits of poems (Eluard, Aragon, etc.) which implant in the language something which, in the absence of setting out a said, open up a speaking [dire]. Those links which attracted him to the Surrealist movement between the two wars (Breton, and others) refer back not only to the “literary” reception of Freud in France, but also to a theoretical alliance.18 Moreover, Lacan adds rhetoric, dialectics (in the Aristotelian sense), grammar and especially poetics to the Freudian list of “auxiliary sciences” (a list already including “literary history and criticism”), sciences which allow for the thinking-out of psychoanalysis.19 This addition is charac­teristic: it signals, between literature and psychoanalysis, a crossroads which hence­ forth carries Lacan’s name.
This coincidence is astonishing. For example, does not the relationship to the text remove from the analysis the entire relationship of analyst to analysand? Does one read a text as if it were lying on the couch? Indeed, Freud himself did not hesitate to cross this Rubicon again and again, from his analysis of Schreber, made exclusively on the basis of the text, to the examination of numerous literary, historical and anthropological documents. Yet, these movements from cure to reading question the analytic “reception” of the literary work and, conversely, the passage from oral experience to the scriptuary production of the psychoanalyst himself. The writing is the result and the fiction of the oral relationship. At issue is, finally, the psychoanalytic tradition itself; for Lacan, this central question stands between Freud’s texts (to which he calls us back) and the psychoanalytical disciples (whom he wishes to train). This question deals with how to read Freud. The interaction between Freudian readings and literary readings will bring forth, between them, the relationship of a voice to the text. The shifter of this interaction is the Seminar (a “lectio” in the medieval sense of the term) through which the equivocal relation between two kinds of text mediates the oral relation between the Master and the disciples.
A questioning of precisely what Lacanian practice draws from the literary text brings out three elements. First, “literary” describes the return of the voice in the text. In the vocabulary of Jakobson, priority is given to the “poetic function,” which “promotes the palpability of signs” and which seeks in them that which “sounds better.”20 This valorization of sound, the key to paranomases, alliterations, rhymes and other phonic games, seeds an oral transgression through the semantic organization of the discourse, a transgression which displaces or cuts the articulated meanings and which renders the signifier autonomous in relation to the signified. This sonorous wave spreads across the syntactic landscape; it permeates it with leeways, charms and meanderings of something unknown. The analyst’s ear practices precisely on hearing the murmurs and the games of these other languages. It makes itself attentive to the poetics which is present in every discourse: these hidden voices, forgotten in the name of pragmatic and ideological interests, introduce into every statement of meaning the “difference” of the act which utters it. The signifiers dance within the text. Loosened from the signified, they multiply, in the gaps of the meaning, the rites of inquiry or response – but to which Other are they directed? From this point of view, “literary” is that language which makes something else heard than that which it says; conversely, psychoanalysis is a literary practice of language.
If the literary text displays the stirrings of the enunciative act in a system of statements, it also exhibits the procedures which articulate these two terms, that is, the diverse circuits which alter the statements by imprinting on them what the speak­ ing subject wants of the other. At issue here is rhetoric, and no longer poetics. But this rhetoric could not be reduced to a descriptive catalogue of “manners” (or tropes) of ornamenting the discourse. It is rather (as already in The Science of Dreams or in On jokes) the logic of “displacements” (Verrschiebungen) and of “distortions” (Entstel­lungen) which the relationship to the other produces in language. Among these alter­ing relationships, which are presented in a particular combination in each literary text and which contain a logic to be elucidated by a rhetoric, Lacan preferred the metaphor and the metonymy.21 I wonder, however, if the metonymic “displacement” (or, as he translates, the “swerving”) may have asserted itself for him as more funda­mental insofar as the topology to which teaching of recent years refers would be a development of the spatial problematic suited to metonymy: Lacanian topology would then represent an effort to elaborate a new rhetoric in contemporary discourse and, more particularly, a “metonymic” logic. In any case, a “literary” question once again defines the way in which a psychoanalytic theory sets forth the formalities of its practices.
More broadly, through mutual misunderstandings induced by the “letter” (iden­tified to the signifier), literature explores the realm within which the entire human journey unfolds – the realm of trickery. It works within this trickery; it traces there a “truth” which is not the opposite of error, but, within the lie itself, is the symboliza­tion of the impossibility at play. Now it is striking that Lacan sees in one of Freud’s most remarkable stagings – or rather he hears there – the Moses of psychoanalysis dedicating himself to leading his people: “Whatever it is, I must go there.”­ Where? – To the realm of trickery…. “There is the country where I lead my peo­ple,” and this takes place “through thirst for truth.” 22 Whoever goes into this region is a psychoanalyst, like that solitary being (a monk) who in past times ventured into the desert. But even there “the artist always goes ahead” and “opens the way for him.” 23 Thus did Marguerite Duras, opening with Jacques Hold the “field of the lie, im­mense but with iron limits,” the “kidnapping” of Lol V. Stein. But where is Lol V. Stein? “There she is naked. Who is there on the bed? Who, does she believe ?” 24 The novel introduces “this image of the self in which the Other clothes and dresses you, and which leaves you when you are stripped of it, to be what underneath ?” 25 Lacan compliments Marguerite Duras for this lie, for “proving to know, apart from me, what I teach”; in a unique instance, he invokes “what (she) witnesses for me” – he quotes this voice – in order to authorize the “support” which he finds in her novel.26
With a different theoretical apparatus, the psychoanalyst proceeds in turn in the steps of the “artists” who went before. Is it astonishing that he has recourse, just like his “sick patient,” to the “ever constant procedures of poetic creation”? Studies of Lacanian procedures themselves are, of course, now numerous; their wide range includes genres ranging from the polemics of serious linguistics to the jocularity of friendly stylistics.27 It would be pointless to review these studies here. What is essen­tial is to recognize in them the grouping of operations brought about in language by the “speaking subject.” These literary traits are a theory’s gestures, its ways of going forward. They may outline the “linguistics of speech” which Roland Barthes believed still impossible and which constituted a “new way of thinking.” 28 In any case, it appears impossible to reduce this linguistics to, or to measure it by, the linguistic systems from which it has constantly distinguished itself (“language is not the speak­ ing subject”), while still borrowing concepts from these systems and nonetheless using them as metaphors. 29 Only an inversion of image, a mutual misunderstanding in itself quite revealing, can explain that Lacan appears as a “psycholinguist” on American posters. His very endeavor requires a questioning on the internal necessity which leads analytical speech to a poetic writing and which turns this experience into the elucidation of what constitutes the practice of literature.

The Lie and Its Truth

In order to join in the dance which brings together the lie and the truth (as once were the living and the dead), we must return to the psychoanalytic cure and proceed from there to the analytical discourse, which is “the social link determined by the practice of an analysis.” 30 This practice starts out as a mutual trickery, a general postulate of a “psychoanalytic” cure, that is, one founded exclusively on the treatment of language. At the beginning, the analyst is “presumed” by his patients to “know”; he functions as object of their belief. As for these patients, they expect from him what at heart they do not want to know (the secret of their “trouble”) and they instead want only an ear to hear their symptoms. This locus brings the “medical” relationship back to the status of an ordinary conversation, but, when the social codes respect, and impose respect for, this game of trickery, the cure begins with the way in which the analyst separates himself from this respect.
What, then, is an analyst? Lacan answers that, “Whoever it may be,” he is put in the position of “supposed knowledge,” he has grasped and does not forget the state of this knowledge; thereafter, he becomes capable of “operating” with this hand of cards, if and only if he does not identify with this position and does not turn what is given to him into an object of pleasure. His formula would be: “there is only that,” the lie, but it deceives my desire, “which is not that.”
On his part, the analysand constantly keeps his concern for protecting the knowl­edge which he supposes resides in the other. He fears less being tricked than tricking his analyst. He arranges his admissions in order to preserve what he believes about the other: “If I had told it to you earlier, you would have believed….” His narrative works at fostering and maintaining the belief which makes his interpretation possible. It is, after all, the patient who interprets. The analyst coughs slightly, mumbles “Hum, hum,” says “Do you think so?” while the analysand wonders endlessly about the meaning of these clues. What trials am I undergoing? What does he want of me? What truths are hiding in this enigma? The patient is in the situation of a jealous person whose interpretations of the other proliferate. He formulates his tales. Then, what “returns” to him from his suppositions about the other is something else in himself; here is a part of his own “forgotten” story, about which he learns, little by little, that, constituted by relationships to others (parents and so on), it does not come from the analyst’s knowledge. At last, there is here nothing to believe, except that each person’s historicity is founded on what the other makes believed. The locus of the supposed knowledge is but the stage on which the other’s lack of knowledge plays. But here again, the ghost appears only if the analyst does not take the stage on his own account, if he does not take himself as the image of the self which is addressed to him, if he accepts the “abjection” of being merely the representative of what he knows not, and finally if he upholds the “vanity” of a discourse which takes its operativity from a fiction. 31
This “abjection” is nonetheless an art. Like the tightrope walker whom Kant holds up as the paragon of the art of doing, 32 the analyst seeks, by imperceptible comments, to remain balanced between a corporeal presence (a fondness) supportive of the analysand’s assertions and the necessary separation (Lacan refers even to a “disdain”) which evokes or signals the ambiguity of these assertions. In Freud’s words, it is a “matter of tact.” This “tact” consists in drawing out from the other what is unknown. It is the art of slipping the gamble of words’ meaning into their own chain so that the analysand unearths a signifier (a “small bit of truth” in Freud’s words), like a bone deposited by the past, from which he now fashions his speech, that is, the (ethical) act of upholding alone his desire in the very language of the trickery imposed on him by his history.
The fundamentals of this truth were set down by Lacan from 1936 onwards in analyzing what he calls “the mirror stage.” This childhood drama is not only, for him, a developmental stage (between six and eighteen months), but also an “exemplary function.” 33 While the child has only bodily experiences, dispersed, consecutive and changeable, he obtains from the mirror the image which makes him one, though in terms of a fiction. In a “flutter of jubilant activity,esthetic” he discovers that he is one (a primordial form of the self>, but this discovery occurs through that alienation which identifies him with what is other than him (a specular image). The experience can be put into the formula, I am that. The self takes shape only in self-alienation. Its capture begins at birth. From this exemplary episode emerges the matrix of an “alien­ating identity” to be reaffirmed in secondary identifications. From its origins, this matrix sets the self up as the “discordance of the subject with its own reality,” and it calls forth the workings of the negative (“it isn’t that”) through which the subject is marked off within the lie of its identity (“I am that” ).34
The movement from the “specular self” to the “social self” by way of language renders the effects of this matrix more complex, but does not modify its structure. Here is not the place to trace stratification and intertwinings which have been the subject for many years of teaching. It is enough to say that by formulating the analyti­cal experience on a theory of the subject, this matrix furnishes a password for the interpretation – aesthetic ranges favored by Lacan: the iconic and the literary. This matrix makes it possible to examine anew the issues it raised: the images which awaken the “flutter of jubilant activity” of the child caught up by the appearance of his enigmatic identity; the literature which produces, with a text, the narcissistic scene of an interminable discordance; the myth itself, which makes “one” from a group (sym-bol) by giving it the fiction which presupposes and denies its social practices; and so on. In all these fields, the lie is the element in which its truth can emerge, the truth that the Other always institutes the subject by alienating it.

Freud’s Return

In the matter of the relationship to the other, the manner in which Lacan refers back to Freud provides, as indeed it should, a model. “Return to Freud”: such is Lacan’s plan. By this return, Lacan aims at a text whose author he never knew. A dead man is there only through his discourse, just like Sophocles and Shakespeare, but the only dead man who truly counts is the father. The central role which Lacan gives to the “name of the father” and to the setting-up of the law through the father’s death already indicates the weight of this reference-or gives this reference its weight.
Even more can be perceived on another scene, in the commentary where Lacan analyzes “the tragedy of desire” which constitutes, in his view, Shakespeare’s Hamlet (a work haunted by the importance already given to it by Freud and by Freud’s interpretation). 35 In this locus of the father, the ghost of Freud rears up at the same time as that of the king assassinated by those close to him. The law the king imposes demands the death of whoever reigns in his palace in his place. As Lacan emphasizes, Hamlet does not encounter a dead man in this ghost, but rather death itself, and the action he is commissioned to undertake can be accomplished only if it is fatal, an achievement of the being-for-death. Nonetheless, however determined Hamlet may be (he does not hesitate about the justice of the murder he must commit and he is entirely guided by it), he takes oblique paths, he “dawdles.” This grace period, the length of a lifetime, is a time devoted to the mother. More precisely, he creates an interspace for the “interventions” to which, on the ghost’s commands, Hamlet must respond, by precious words, literary conceits, slipped in between his mother and the love which binds her to the traitor Claudius: “O, step between her and her fighting soul, Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works, Speak to her, Hamlet.” 36

Avenging me while waiting death, speak. Put “precious” words between her and the object with which she identifies. The commentator’s voice adds, ” ‘Between her and her . . .”: it’s our work, that. ‘Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works’: to the analyst is addressed this appeal.”37. By whom, if not by Freud; and to whom, if not to Lacan? Is it appropriate to decipher what is said about Lacan through the discourse of Shakespeare? It would be fruitless, because the essential is spelled out in its entirety, literally, in the Shakespearean “dream.” Yet, two corollaries allow us to specify the functioning of the name, on the one hand, and of Freud’s work, on the other hand. The first such corollary deals with the intransigent unicity of the Freudian reference in Lacan’s discourse. Why speak of a single reference? Where does this unique reference, among many others, come from? It is not enough merely to invoke the discipline which carries its founder’s name. We know, after Moses and Monotheism, that the preservation of the name (Name) goes along with the betrayal of the “reality” (Wesen) which it designates, and that, by a customary exchange in traditions, this very “reality” returns under other names.38 The history of the Freudian current tells us much about the correctness of the Freudian thesis, a history which is precisely what Lacan seeks to rethink. For him, the name of the lost one is unique, as, in monothe­ism, only the Separated is one. Just as unique is the name of what psychoanalysts hate and seek to forget. Only the Other, this repressed, is the unique. Behind the work which consists, with the “conceits,” in separating the fighting subject, the “fighting soul,” from its alienating identifications and thereby reinstating the desire for the absent, there is in Lacan, just as in Hamlet, a fury alternately ironic and violent. This fury runs through the entire range of the discipline which spreads and prospers thanks to this loss. The leitmotiv? Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. To avenge the father eliminated by his horde, Lacan turns Freud’s name into the foreign signifier by which the unique returns, forever inseparable from death.
But in relation to the irreparability of this separation, what positive form will the interpretation of the Freudian work take? How can one remain “faithful” to Freud? This point is strategic for Lacan, whose first preoccupation was always to train analysts and thus to ensure the transmission of the analytic experience. He talked everywhere of “my teaching,” and he tested its progress, its achievements and the “remainder” which he held back as an impregnable future. But is not the very possi­ bility of a conformity with Freud forbidden to whoever can lean only on someone absent? The debates engendered by this suspicion have led, in the Freudian School, to increasingly rigorous supervision (the institution always has to take the deficits of theory in hand). But the questioning also carries a theoretical response: the relation­ ship to the absent already molds the Freudian discourse, so that the position in which Freud’s departure leaves us reiterates what he elucidated in his writings and can then become the guide for their reading. In this respect, the after-Freud may be conceived as a return of Freud, and not only as a return to Freud. His texts do not designate a past to be rediscovered. They articulate what, in different scenes in the psychic struc­ ture, does not cease being the return to that Other which constitutes the subject as a relationship to an impossible object. According to this hypothesis, the “patients,” like ghosts, still breathe what is articulated in Freudian discourse.

A Christian Archaeology

But what is, after all, this Other whose irreducible brilliance streaks through the entire work? “The Other is there precisely as it is recognized, but as it is not known.” 39 “This Other [is] that I call here the dark God.” 40 Such formulations, and a thousand others similar to them, like the analyst’s apparatus, gradually bring the strange impression that the house is haunted by monotheism. This monotheism resides in the concepts scattered throughout the discourse, concepts whose theoretical (and/or mythical) promotion is most often marked by a capital letter: the Word [Parole] is articulated on the Other by the Name of the father, the Desire, the Truth, and so on. Repeated throughout is the monotheistic form of the capital letter singular, an index of something which, under the signifier of the Other, always amounts to the same.
All this is not something which Lacan would render hidden and mysterious. On the contrary, he reiterates that “there is a One” which is always the Other. 41 On condition that one “never have recourse to any substance” nor to “any being,” 42 “speaking [dire] brings God” and “as long as something will speak, the hypothesis God will be there.” 43 Such a hypothesis, such a “song” (an expression of the mystics) does not come from a void. In Lacanian discourse, it has its history, its narratives and its theoretical loci: it is Christian. Trailing its apparitions, one is impressed by the corpus which is there quoted and commented upon: Biblical and evangelical texts; theological texts (St. Paul, St. Augustine, Pascal, of course, and also authors of a theological inclination like Nygren and Rousselot); and especially mystical texts (Hadewijch of Antwerp, Master Eckhart, the Imitation of Christ or Internal Conso­lation, Luther, Theresa of Avila, Angelus Silesius, etc.). They punctuate the Lacan­ ian space where they figure as exordia (where does it begin?) or as exits (where to end?). To this fundamental grillwork is added the central figure of the speaking analyst, “Master of tr uth,” 44 even “director of conscience,” 45 a “saint” who “wastes away,” 46 one whose speaking, devoted to the price which the body must pay for having access to the symbolic, is a speech structured like that of the person praying.
Certain indications point to an even more precise identification. Let us remem­ber, for instance, the strange dedication introducing Lacan’s thesis of 1932: “To the Reverend Father Marc-Francois Lacan, Benedictine of the Congregation of France, my brother in religion.” 47 Lacan knows what he says. “Religion” here means the “religious congregation,” and “brother in religion” points to a brotherhood based not on blood but on a common sharing in the Order. This statement, which is, like the “purloined letter,” placed in the most obvious place and for this very reason obscured from view, highlights “Benedictine” characteristics which I had not before noted: Lacan’s conception of the “master” (according to the rules which characterize “spiri­tual guidance”); the definition of a “work” which is essentially “speech” (like the Benedictine Opus Dei); the practice of literature as an exercise of desire (in conformity with the monastic tradition of lectio divina );48 and the very idea of a School of truth where membership is determined by an experience involving the subjects and where the abbas (elected) holds both the authority of discourse and the power of manage­ ment. In Lacan’s circle, the “monk” (monos) and the ascetic of the speech which he upholds (with humor, even with a ferocious irony found in monastic speech patterns), the founder of a “congregation” in a desert labeled as “worldly,” all gather together the practitioners of a desire whose truth can liberate those alienated from their identi­ty. Even the militancy of the spiritual warriors of other times (at war with which demons?) and even their rebellious freedom from public authorities are indices of the Freudian School of Paris.
No more than Freud does Lacan underestimate the religious belief to which he does not adhere. What can be done today with this weighty history, if one rejects giving the illusion of repressing it? The West has for three centuries been concerned with the question of what to do about the Other. Georges Bataille is a witness to this for Lacan himself, whose analysis concerns equally his relationship to Freud and his relationship to Christianity.
We know what value Freud placed upon allegiances likely to extend psychoanal­ ysis to non-Jews. In this respect, under the figure of what Lacan would represent as “spiritual,” does Christian history introduce into Freudian theory a gap narrower than under the “theological” figure so characteristic of Jung? What are the effects of Lacan’s “spiritualism” on the Jewish tradition as articulated in Freud’s work? It is probably too early (before the publication of all of Lacan’s texts) and too daring to follow these celestial battles into sidelines of theory. If we consider only what touches on speech, an “archaeological” divergence still appears determinative. The Jewish tradition is rooted in the biological, familial and social reality of a present and identi­ fiable “body” distinguished from others by “election,” a body persecuted through endless wanderings, a body transcended by Scriptures marking on it an unknowable sign. But Christianity received its form of being apart from its ethnic origin, with a break from its heredity. The “separation” giving rise to the Christian Logos has as an index the very loss of the body which should hold the place of all others, that of Jesus, so that the “evangelical” word, born of this disappearance, must itself take charge of the creation of ecclesiastical, doctrinal or “glorious” bodies destined to be substitutes for the absent body. The word itself becomes the source of a “sacrament” in place of the body. Perhaps Christianity also receives, from its relationship to this absence, its way of rebelling against history in the name of the Logos-a style of “defiance” which hardly belongs to the Jewish tradition. The residue of this “detachment,” through a defiance of the word and the trials which it brings against the “biological” element, can be used to gage, in Lacan’s theoretical, professional and social determinations, the difference which a Christian history has introduced into Freudianism.
Such an archaeology emerges from Lacan’s work only as it is transformed by what he does. The transformation consists in rethinking, in terms which are no longer those of the past, the return of religious history. This is the task for a theory. In Freud, it leadS’to Moses and Monotheism, a work he “simmered” for years (“after Totem and Taboo, he thought only about this story of Moses and the religion of his fathers” ).49 To this masterwork, Lacan offered a counterpart in his Ethique de la psychanalyse (1959-1960) which he consistently held to be the strategic point of his teaching, the only Seminar which he really wanted “to write.” 50 These two confrontations gave birth to major works, but it is quite revealing that the first opened on to a theory of writing (the heart of the Freudian work), while the second produced an ethics of speech (the springboard of Lacanian thought).
A non-Freudian discourse, which held sway during the post-War years, shared in the genesis of the Ethique: Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Mind. In Kojeve’s com­mentaries (which profoundly marked the content and the style of the Seminar), in Koyre’s or Hyppolite’s analyses, Lacan founded the theoretical model of an historical development whose successive “figures” manifested the movement of absolute knowl­edge which ultimately emerges from its last positivity, religion. In his Ethique, he rethinks both the Moses and the Phenomenology. The original path he blazes between them favors ethical figures like Aristotle, St. Paul, poets of courtly love, Sade, Kant and others, through whom a thought of desire is led through to the ambiguous rela­tionships of reality and pleasure as Freud elucidated them. In limiting oneself to what concerns Christianity, one has access to ethics when, instead of identifying oneself with one’s object, belief rejects the illusion and, thereby, speaks its truth. Ethics is the form of a belief removed from the alienating imagination where it would guarantee the real and shed into speech that which is said by the desire instituted by this lack. Like Beckett’s Godot, the Other is not only the ghost of a God removed from the history where the passage of his believers remains nonetheless engraved, but also the general structure whose theory is made possible by the erasure of the religious positiv­ity and by acceptance of its mournings.
Freudian analysis operates as the instrument which enables Lacan to localize, within an erotic or esthetic framework, an ascetic practice for supporting a desire which cannot be identified with an act. Already for Kant, the categorical imperative does not deal with the possible: it is unconditiona l.51 For Lacan, it is the very relation­ship to the impossible that determines an ethics. The ethics meets in man “this last request to be deprived of something of the real,” or “this speaking essence” which weds him to death. 52 “The only thing of which one can be guilty,” finally, “is having given in to one’s desire.” “There is no other good than that which can serve to pay the price for access to desire,”-that which can only do so without “breaching not only every fear, but also all pity.” 53 This ethical anarchism constitutes the way of taking the question of the subject seriously, a question inherent in the history of Christianity. In contrast, the commentary on Sophocles’ Antigone sets forth an ethics based upon “the good of the city.” Creon’s morality, which in essence recalls that of Aristotle, always rests on a “morality of the master.” It requires the sacrifice of desire for the benefit of the city. Every new power, however revolutionary it might be, repeats Creon’s law: “Keep on working…. Leit be well understood that there is, in any event, no occasion to show the least bit of desire.” This “morality of power,” empha­sizes “civil requirements,” and repeats in a hundred ways whatever smashes speech: “As for desires, you will have to forget them.” 54

A Politics of Speech?

How, then, are we to understand the history of the School in which Lacan appeared, in turn, as Master of Truth, as Maffioso hatching his plots in the arcane circles of the “family,” and as a dying Sardanapalus wiping out his seraglio? It is not a matter of meddling, once again, in the recent episodes (1980) which repeated, in a violent way, the tragi-comedy of the Pantheon within the Freudian School, nor of outlining, as an indiscreet and grotesque enterprise, the psychology of a character whose strong friendships, and even tender attachments, had their consequences in tricks and hatreds. One must instead analyze the politics to which this speech gives rise since, in the form of an institution, it is wrought within the game of power plays. Its charter (1964) defined the School as “the organism in which a work must be accomplished – a work which, in the field opened by Freud, restores the cutting blade of the plough to its truth, whic! brings the original praxis which it instituted under the name of psychoanalysis back to its proper duty in our world and which, through assiduous criticism, denounces the deviations and compromises which slow its pro­gress while degrading its work.” An “added note,” in specifically stating some proce­dural modalities, affirms, moreover, that “this charter holds as naught simple habits,” that is, the legal apparatus of a common right, independent of the task which specifies a particular association. 55 In this superb exodus, a “spiritual” model is recognized, with its “monastic” archaeology. A challenge sets it up. From the start, it does not obey the law of possibility. To the “world” it opposes a “duty.” Speech must create its own body, a body missing in the “world” in which the truth is misunderstood. The institution is thus a “School.” It even has the very form of a teaching facility: speech must give birth to a body which it defines in its entirety. To return to the past which structures it, this “genesis” appears to be supported by a provocation of “Christian” style. While, in the “genesis” of the Jewish Bible, speech does not create, but instead separates, producing some distinction in the initial chaos and effecting thus an “ana­lytical” distribution of space, in the Christian “genesis” of the New Testament, speech gives birth to a body, it is the word which becomes flesh, a.fiat. It is from this difference that the Lacanian project already takes its bearing.
The School is characterized by its fascinating and haughty ambition to regulate all institutional actions upon the ethics of the speaking subject. It is the School of desire set up by an object which is never an “it.” The School therefore functions in various ways. The relationship to the only Master always escapes being fixed. Through the groups or “cartels” are pursued, among four or five psychoanalysts, the processes of transferance liberated from the dual relationship. The “permit,” or initi­ation into the place of the analyst, to revive the terms already proposed by the charter, consists in testing and controlling the analytic style of the candidates. The meetings and the establishment of the “headquarters” aim at thwarting on stage and by public confrontation the tribal law of the sectarianism formed among colleagues of the same generation, or among “descendants” of the same analyst. Finally, the Seminars and the congresses extend the schooling of the members of the School (as if these theaters of knowledge served as an erudite and social alibi for the “alleged” knowledge of the analytical practice) and, in fact, make possible the symbolizing, in a tragi-comic, theoretical and quasi-choral speech, of the solitary asceticism of the daily exercise. Within, the School is thus the course of treatment insofar as it never “ends” and will never be ended until human energy is exhausted.
Viewed from the outside, the institution has a double function. On the one hand, it publicly “represents” the subject who is supposed to know (the institution is its address)-that is, it takes up socially the belief whose demystification is the precise goal of the cure. On the other hand, it provides legal accreditation (in the name of a profession and of a serious establishment) for the price to be paid for this access to the symbolic supposedly handled by analysis. These two functions uphold each other: a belief is founded on that which it takes away, it is reinforced by that which it with­ draws and, finally, it works because one pays it.
All this was forcefully articulated and thought out. Why then the violence, the tensions and ultimately the failure? Simply because history does not obey the speech that challenges it. Certainly the radical authoritarianism of the Lacanian truth struck the heart of a societal disease, of the pathogenic and uncritically accepted moment created by the substitution of the individual for the subject. It aggravated as much as it explained the problem. But the difficulties did not come from the outside. The success instead revealed a fundamental (founding) impracticability of the undertaking. Once beyond the threshold of the “primitive” intimacy among first participants of the same experience, once also the legitimacy which the School received by opposing itself to the ruling psychoanalytical Associations was lost (this opposition endowed the institution with the very function of speech and concealed its own problems from it), then the School of truth appeared for what it really was, an institution like the others, commit­ ted to debates concerning the “position” of the analysts, to the power plays among them and, also, a problem that is just as political, to their “fantasm of omnipotence.” The activities at the University of Vincennes (1968), which required the confronta­tion with legal structures independent of the analytical experience, marked the begin­ning of a divisive reconsideration destined to bring the School out of its rootedness in speech, that is, out of itself. Practice and theory had to tear themselves away from the isolated double scene of the School and the couch. But how could we have dealt with these questions in the name of experience which had held “for naught” the legal means for their regulation?
The tactics remained: playing tricks with history; trying to betray history in order not to “give in to one’s desire.” These are Lacan’s subtleties, founded on a radicalism of speech. From this point of view, Lacan is the anti-Machiavelli, if one recognizes the work of Machiavelli for what it is, an ethics of the “good of the city” and a theory of political ethics. What Lacan himself did not betray could end only in failure. His institutional adventure, this trip of his desire, must have itself terminated by this “failing”: this is not that. Fundamentally, the retreat of 1980, as surprising as it was in its outcome, was inscribed in its ethics. It still “spoke” in separating itself from this love object, which became in turn an alienating identity. From there it reiterated, forty years later, the gesture which it called forth in 1946: “I have removed myself for many years from every resolution of expressing myself.” 56
In Les petites annonces, Catherine Rihoit recalls the following words of Lacan on Freud: “I think he missed the mark. Like me, in a very little time, everyone will have had his fill of psychoanalysis.” Whatever is the future of the psychoanalytical institu­tion, Lacan, by his “misfiring,” will hold on to his speech. Like the texts which he did not cease to awaken, his writings, tortured and broken in conceits, concetti, by this speech, keep this speech loud enough to be heard. But if it is true, according to Freud, that the tradition does not stop cheating on its founder, will Lacan still be heard in those places where one claims possession of his heritage and his name, or will he return under other names?

  1. Jacques Lacan, Acte defondation de L’Ecole Freudienne de Paris, June 21, 1964. The Charters appear in the Annuaires published by the Ecole Freudienne de Paris. [I have provided references to available translations of Lacan’s works. Unless otherwise noted, all other translations are mine.-Trans.]
  2. Lacan, Encore: Le Seminaire, Livre XX (Paris, 1975), p. 9.
  3. This declaration, dated January 15, 1980, figures as an epigraph in a special issue of Liberation (September 11, 1981), the best among a number of periodical issues devoted to Lacan since his death.
  4. The figure of Empedocles haunts Lacan’s texts at key moments. See, for example, Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, 1977), pp. 102-104.
  5. Lacan, “Ethique de la psychanalyse,” an unpublished seminar from the academic year 1959-1960.
  6. The paths taken by Lacan’s thought have been the object of much study and interpreta­tion: see particularly the schema outlined by Jacques-Alain Miller, “Jacques Lacan, 1980-1981,” Ornicar? (September 9, 1981), 7-8.
  7. Lacan, Television (Paris, 1974), p. 10.
  8. Ibid., p. 29.
  9. In the Ecrits: A Selection, p. 77, Lacan quotes Antoine Tudal: “Between man and the world, there is a wall.”
  10. Lacan, Encore, p. 101.
  11. Lacan, “Hommage fait a Marguerite Duras, du Ravissement de Loi V. Stein,” Cahiers M. Renaud et J.-L. Barrault, 52 (December 1965), 9.
  12. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, 1978),p. 58.
  13. Freud, Studies on Hysteria, trans. James Strachey (New York, 1966), p. 299ff. Cf M. de Certeau, “The Freudian Novel: History and Literature,” Humanities in Society, 4:2-3 (1981), 121-41.
  14. See Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (New York, 1961), p. 22.
  15. Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, p. 102.
  16. Lacan, “Ecrits ‘inspires’: Schizographie,” De la psychose paranoiaque (Paris, 1975), pp. 365-82.
  17. Lacan, “Le Probleme du style,” ibid., pp. 383-88.
  18. See David Steel, “Les Debuts de la psychanalyse dans les lettres francaises, 1914-1922,” in Revue d’histoire litteraire de la France (1979), pp. 62-89.
  19. Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, p. 76.
  20. Roman Jakobson, “Closing Statements: Linguistics and Poetics,” in T. A. Sebeok, ed., Style in Language (New York, 1960), pp. 350-77.
  21. Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, pp. 146-78.
  22. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts, pp. 32-34.
  23. Lacan, “Hommage fait a Marguerite Duras,” pp. 9-10. Lacan echoes Freud’s comment in his analysis of Jensen’s Gradiva, “The novelist has always gone before the scholar.”
  24. Marguerite Duras, Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stem (Paris, 1976), pp. 106, 187.
  25. Lacan, “Hommage fait a Marguerite Duras,” p. 10.
  26. Ibid., pp. 9, 14.
  27. These studies range from Georges Mounin’s first analysis to Francois George’s L’Ef­ fet’yau-de-poele (Paris, 1979). See especially the semiotic presentation of the “rhetorical games” in J.-B. Fages, Comprendre Lacan (Paris, 1971) and the philosophical study of P. Lacoue Labarthe and J. -L. Nancy, Le Titre de la Lettre (Paris, 1972).
  28. In Communication, 16 (1970), 219,223.
  29. Thus the rigorous study of Gilbert Hottois, “La Hantise contemporaine du langage: Essai sur la situation philosophique du discours lacanien,” in Confrontations psychiatriques, 19 (1981), 163-88, evaluates Lacan in the context of linguistic philosophy. As Wittgenstein would have said, “It misses the point.”
  30. Lacan, Television, p. 27.
  31. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts, pp. 136-46; Television, pp. 28-29.
  32. Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft, s 43, in Werke, ed. W. Weischedel (Insel-Verlag, 1957), V, 401-402.
  33. Lacan, Les Ecrits techniques de Freud: Le Seminaire, Lwre I (Paris, 1973), p. 88.
  34. See Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” Ecrits: A Selection, pp. 1-7.
  35. “Le Desir et son interpretation: Seminaire de 1958-1959,” TS, pp. 376-577 (lectures from March 4 to April 29, 1959). After Freud’s interpretations, Hamlet became a center of “family” interest, with the commentaries of Jones (1910), Rank (1919), and others.
  36. Hamlet, Act III, Scene iv. Lacan translated this passage in “Le Desir et son interpreta­tion,” lecture of March 11, 1959. [See Lacan, “Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet,” trans. J. Hulbert, Yale French Studies, 55/56 (1977), 11-52.-Trans.]
  37. Ibid.
  38. Freud, Moses and Monotheism, trans. Katherine Jones (New York, 1967), pp. 4-7. See M. de Certeau, L’Ecriture de l’histoire, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1978), pp. 337-52.
  39. Lacan, Les Psychoses: Le Seminaire, Livre III (Paris, 1981), p. 48.
  40. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts, p. 275.
  41. Lacan, Encore, pp. 25, 63.
  42. Ibid., p. 16.
  43. Ibid., p. 44.
  44. A recurrent eponym of Lacan; see for example, Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, p. 98.
  45. Lacan, “Ethique de la psychanalyse,” Seance XXVII.
  46. Lacan, Television, pp. 28-29.
  47. This dedication was corrected in the second edition (1975) of the thesis: “To my brother, the Reverend Father Marc-Francois Lacan, Benedictine of the Congregation of France.” The “Congregation of France” designates the group of Benedictine abbeys subject to the Abbey of Solesmes.
  48. See for example Dom Jean Leclercq, Le Desir de Dieu et l’amour des lettres (Paris, 1957).
  49. Lacan, “Ethique de la psychanalyse,” Seance XIV.
  50. “It is perhaps today, among all the Seminars which ought to be published by someone, the only one which I will revise myself, which I will turn into an essay [ecrit].” Encore, p. 50; see also pp. 9, 54, 65. There are in Lacan’s work numerous references to “the ethics of psychoanalysis”: see for example “Hommage fait a Marguerite Duras,” p. 13.
  51. See Lacan, “Ethique de la psychanalyse,” Seance XXIV; Ecrits: A Selection, p. 321.
  52. Lacan, “Ethique de la psychanalyse,” Seance XI; Lacan calls this request the “vacuole.”
  53. Ibid., Seance XXVII.
  54. Ibid.
  55. See note 1 above.
  56. Lacan, “Propos sur la causalite psychique,” Ecnts (Paris, 1966), 151.

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