Being is Desire *
The metaphysics of analytic action
From recognition to the cause of the desire
Jouissance as cause of psychical reality.
I have been trained by Lacan’s teaching to conceive of the subject as a want-to-be, nonsubstantial, which has a radical incidence in the practice of analysis. In Lacan’s last teaching, with these increasingly fragmentary and enigmatic indications being asked to pull a lot of weight, the viewfinder of the subject as want-to-be vanishes. Instead of this category which is, strictly speaking, ontological, since there is question of being here, there then comes the category of the hole, which is not without rapport with the want-to-be but is nevertheless from a register other than ontology.
This obliges me to think the rapport, the filiation, and nevertheless the difference between the want-to-be and the hole by which Lacan wanted to define the symbolic itself in his last teaching. The recourse to the knot has only served to render this category all the more insistent since each round of string by which the knot takes hold can be spun around a hole. The renunciation of ontology led him from the want-to-be to the hole. And this remains to be thought.
My first practice was calibrated to desire, to be understood as what it’s making be. In this, interpretation is creationist. It institutes a certain power of speech that, undoubtedly, has to be learnt how to be acquired, just as this is taught in the supervisions.
What’s essential in this teaching is not the art of diagnosis, even if this is what the beginner, who wants to know what type of subject he is dealing with, is concerned about. What one attempts to transmit to him is the method permitting his speech to acquire power. It is easily reduced to this – he must learn how to remain silent. Speech bears and holds the patient’s attention only on condition of being rare, even if it conducts him to the side of the formations of the unconscious. As Lacan says, in his last published text in the Autres écrits, page 571– “[...] it is enough that attention be focused on this for one to be outside [the unconscious].” It is nevertheless what it is a question of obtaining through interpretation. There is a term which you may not make be, that of jouissance. There, you must desist from any creationist intention, must make yourself humbler.
To interpret, the word here fails, and it would be necessary to substitute another word for it, such as to circumscribe, to note. I am not satisfied with this vocabulary and would like to say better what is at stake for the analyst with regards to what goes beyond (outrepasse) ontology. “[...] I have my ontology,” said Lacan, and he added “why not? – like everyone else, however naïve or elaborate it may be.” I am quoting here from the Seminar The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, page 72. Lacan’s teaching remains at the level of ontology and, when he desisted from it, we got lost! That’s why I want to remain on this point before trying to advance.
Lacan inscribed his ontology within Freud’s attempt to give body to psychical reality without substantifying it. To not substantify psychical reality is precisely to not psychologize it. None of the diagrams proposed by Freud for articulating psychical reality, including the egg-shaped diagram of his second topography, is obliged to lend itself to a differentiation of apparatus. The idea that what’s at stake here is not substance, i.e., some apparatus differentiated in the organism, leads us to challenge the attempts to base Freudian theory on an investigation of brain functioning. There is no dearth of researchers today who, thanks to the imagery to which the technology developed in the last decades gives them access, try to validate Freud’s intuitions by seeking to locate the agencies that he was able to distinguish. What’s in question there is an attempt to give body to psychical reality by substantifying it.
In his first teaching, Lacan attempted, on the contrary, to elaborate a being without substance. What do I want to make understood by this expression? I designate a being which does not postulate any existence. As it is not certain that the term of existence is any clearer than that of substance, let us specify that it is a question of a being without real, that of the subject which is inscribed only by being differentiated from it and by being posed at the level of meaning. It is at this level that Lacan’s ontology, which is a semantic ontology, holds up.
Lacan is led to draw upon Freud for that by which to support the term of being. He had to consult Freud’s work, which is not very prodigious in such a reference, in order to find it in Chapter 7, Section E, of The Interpretation of Dreams – where Freud deals with the primary process, the secondary process and repression – in the form of the expression Kern unseres Wesens, “the core of our being.” Lacan seized upon this hapax – to my knowledge this expression was never used by Freud save this once – to say that the action of the analyst goes to the heart of being and that, in this capacity, he is himself implicated there.
Let us refer to this passage from Freud that you will find on page 631 of the latest translation of Die Traumdeutung by Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, which I find eminently recommendable. Where exactly is this expression inscribed? It is inscribed in the difference between the two psychical processes, primary and secondary, distinguished by Freud. He recognizes the fictive character of his construction by indicating that a psychical apparatus which would only possess the primary process does not exist. This character of fiction does not prevent our thinking that secondary processes – passing to the plural – are developed afterwards. It is the idea of a temporal orientation: there is an initially and there is a next. Between the two, there resides a lacuna, a gap. The secondary processes inhibit, correct, dominate the primary processes. Let us keep the idea that there is something primary, and that, next, there comes to be implanted an apparatus operating on it. That explains why the unconscious is not like an open book.
It is here that Freud introduces the expression the core of our being by situating it at the primary level, before the intervention of an apparatus or a configuration susceptible to retain these processes, to deflect them, to orient them. According to Freud, this core is to be situated at the primary level in the sense that this one would be constituted from unconscious desiring movements – following Lefebvre’s translation – regarding which he will specify that they derive from the infantile. We can locate a Freudian ontology in these terms – the core of our being is of the order of desire, a desire impossible to grasp and to refrain in spite of the secondary process. Psychical reality is thus forced to bend to unconscious desire.
There is here an impossible mastery that will be echoed by Lacan even in his four discourses, where he will inscribe the master signifier as powerless to dominate unconscious knowledge. Impossible mastery, the secondary process is only allowed to cause the primary processes to deviate towards what Freud calls higher goals and which he will later designate by sublimation. I retain only this – for Freud the core of our being is at the level of unconscious desire, and this desire can never be mastered or annulled, but only directed. This is what Lacan was aiming at in thinking his practice under the title of “The Direction of the Treatment.”
The first teaching of Lacan – which made such an impression with “The Function and Field of Speech and Language” – culminates in the desire constituting the subject’s being. As I try to specifically shake up this Lacanian ontology – as Lacan himself was led to go beyond it – I will go so far as to extract from these considerations an ontological definition according to which being is desire.
That’s why in punctuating Freud’s expression, the core of our being, Lacan can say, as an interpolation, that we are not to be concerned “at the thought that I am exposing myself here once again to adversaries who are always only too happy to dismiss me for my metaphysics.”
Lacan braves these adversaries while parading with his metaphysics. I find the same expression, which shows that he assumes it, in the talk whereby he presented his Rome Report. He evoked, then, the beginner analyst: “that his personal analysis [he employed this expression] does not render it easier for him, than to whomever, to make metaphysics of his own action.” Here, it is necessary to hear the statement of his ambition, namely, to make metaphysics of analytical action, i.e. to assign being onto the one who carries this action. I will even say here that the term action implies the term cause. Starting with what I do as analyst, how can I be the cause of a transformation touching upon the core of being?
He let it be known from the start that to abstain from making metaphysics of analytic action would be a thorny issue because that would come down to making metaphysics despite everything, that is, without knowing it. This evokes the argument according to which it is necessary to philosophize because if one should not philosophize, it is still necessary to philosophize in order to show that one should not philosophize. Thus, at the very beginning of his teaching, Lacan would conceive that one cannot not make metaphysics of psychoanalysis.
How to understand this? What is the being on which one claims to act through analysis? It is in the vein of this interrogation that one encounters the function of speech, the medium of psychoanalysis. The intensity with which Lacan promoted the function of speech and the field of language holds in that, for him, this linguistic summons is inscribed within the framework of the metaphysics of psychoanalysis. People have wished to reduce it to an exploitation of linguistics, whereas the question which animated Lacan was metaphysical – what is the being on which this operation claims to act?
It is at this point that he applies an axiom according to which one term cannot act on another if they are not homogeneous. There must be homogeneity between the action of the analyst and the being to which it applies, their reality is of the same ontological order.
What is this action? Lacan centers it on, even reduces it to, interpretation, namely, to give another meaning to what is said. If one isolates interpretation as the core of the analytic action, we must consider that this action operates within the order of meaning. Analytic metaphysics thus entails that being is from meaning. In other words, psychoanalysis implies a semantic ontology. What Lacan calls the subject is precisely this correlate of interpretation, a subject which has being only through interpretation, a being that varies as a function of meaning. Nothing there which would be of the order of substance, nothing there which would have its permanence.
How to think the order of meaning if not as distinct from the order of the real? I am going to speak in terms of intuition as Lacan formulates it in the Autres écrits,page 136 – “that there is a distance between the real and the meaning that is given to it.” This distance is the one that resides between two orders, the real and meaning, upon which Lacan will not cease commenting. To use a term from Saussure, there is here something of the arbitrary in the manner in which Lacan will want to sometimes see a freedom of the subject. In any case the real does not decide the meaning, nor does the meaning decide the real: these two dimensions do not communicate between themselves. If Descartes would distinguish the soul from the body and propose their union, Lacan would separate the real and meaning but without ever joining them.
The pivot of analytic action being the donation of meaning, it initially requires that you be attentive to the semantic modalities by which the analysand communicates to you what he experiences. Interpretation gives also some meaning, but in order to allow for the coming into being, to make be that which was not; from which one can infer that it wants to be even if the subject does not avow it. The analyst would be, to some extent, the midwife of unaccomplished being! There Lacan would find the poetic and creationist powers of speech contrasting with its realist value.
From the beginning Lacan would evoke being as held in the gear-mesh of the laws of blablabla which he would then spell out with the schematism of metaphor and metonymy, the arborescence of his graph of the desire, etc. But the doctrine of the unconscious subjacent to it makes for a phenomenon of meaning. In his initial discourse Lacan employs this term of phenomenon in connection with the unconscious. I add, semantic.
I have spent much time articulating and disarticulating Lacan’s constructions concerning his linguistic gearings, but I am aiming here at the more elementary level of what, in practice, supports them – the unconscious as the subject has to be. It’s a question, of course, of a very restricted intuition but which is likely to support the analytic experience in its unfolding, in the material sequence of the sessions. Freudian desire, qualifying the core of our being, thus takes on an ontological scope.
What is it that can confer being upon the desire to be? Lacan’s first answer is recognition. Desire as desire to be is a desire of recognition in as much as only recognition can confer being upon it. Recognition means that it is approved by the one to whom it is addressed and who interprets it. This recognition – term inherited from Hegel – is the satisfaction of desire. In this sense, once recognition is obtained, analysis can be completed in the satisfaction of recognition. Lacan will also say, much later, in his last published writing, that the end of analysis has to do with satisfaction, but at a great distance from that which I am pointing out here.
In Lacan’s first teaching, a breakthrough towards a beyond of recognition already occurs, which can be located in “Direction of the Treatment.” He does this at the moment when he distinguishes desire from demand. He observes that recognition is what desire demands, but since desire also carries over beyond demand, no satisfaction of this, even if it were to be recognition, is likely to satisfy desire.
Thus, a displacement occurs that goes from the recognition of desire to its cause. The term
of cause is substituted for that of recognition. This is the moment at which Lacan is no longer satisfied with defining the core of our being by unconscious desire, against the grain of what he had fished out from one of Freud’s first great writings, the Traumdeutung. It is a matter of an ontological displacement, properly speaking.
This displacement happens when it appears that desire is not the ultima ratio of being, but an effect of signifier held in the connection of signifier to signifier, in the rails of metonymy. The text “The Instance of the Letter” with its definition of desire, contradicts the dialectic of recognition. This construction inscribes desire at the level of meaning, with its return value (valeur de renvoi), which Lacan transcribes in this formula, S (–) s, where between signifier and signified there is no emergence of a new meaning. The signified is retained there, which he writes with a minus sign within parentheses. In this metonymic effect – to be distinguished from the metaphorical effect which is inscribed in the same way but with a plus, S (+) s, to imply the emergence of a meaning – Lacan finds the want-to-be by which he would define desire. But what’s at stake here is a desire incompatible with speech because it runs under what is said (les dits), and which no recognition can extinguish. It is a desire that cannot be interrupted by being avowed, it is a phantom of speech.
In passing from recognition to cause, Lacan also displaces the point of application of analytic practice from desire to jouissance. The first teaching leaned on the desire to be, and prescribed a certain regime of interpretation, that of recognition. It is this interpretation that recognizes and exhibits the desire that is implicit – each time that one tries to decipher a dream, one practices the interpretation of recognition. There is another regime of interpretation that bears not upon desire but upon the cause of desire. It is an interpretation that treats desire as a defense, the want-to-be as a defense against that which exists.
Contrary to desire which is want-to-be, that which exists was approached by Freud through the drives, and Lacan named it jouissance. Freud attributed to the drives a problematic existence by calling them mythical, a term improperly translated as irreal, but which Lacan denies by interpreting Freud. To say that the drives are mythical is rather to consider that they are a myth about the real. There is some real under the myth, and this real is jouissance.
Of this break, Lacan gave the following formula: desire comes from the Other, jouissance is on the side of the Thing. Desire holds to language and calls out to the Other. The Thing is not the chatty Freudian truth, but the real to which we give meaning. Beyond his first teaching, Lacan came to this: that the first real over which the donation of meaning is practiced is jouissance. This slope of the Thing, where jouissance is inscribed, is the symptom, namely, that which remains when analysis ends in Freud’s sense. It is also what remains in Lacan’s pass, that is, after the denouement of meaning.
The metaphysics of the analyst’s action, its semantic ontology, aims at desire as the core of being, that is, at a meaning. This core reached by the pass is essentially designated by the appearance of a want-to-be that Lacan calls castration. When he indicated that this core was susceptible of a positive notation, small a, even then, for him it took its function only from the want-to-be, as a stopper for the want-to-be. The pass here is still dominated by the affair of the want-to-be, but cut off from the aim of recognition since, with desire conceived as a metonymy, its recognition is therein devalued.
In place of the recognition of a desire that had come into being, with the pass Lacan installed the recognition of the want-to-be, and especially the recognition of the want-to-be of desire. This is why he noted a deflation of desire in the pass, where one ends by circumscribing this minus between parentheses (–) and by giving it the value of castration. There, one equally circumscribes that which made it possible to make the soldering between signifier and signified – the object little a. What Lacan called the pass remains lodged in his ontology. Only in his last teaching will there be a renunciation of this metaphysics.
Lacan will break through the limits of this ontology at the moment when he says Yad’lun, which is neither of the order of lack nor that of being. He will seek out his references well upstream of Descartes and modern metaphysics – in Plato and the Neo-Platonists. He abstains from saying the One is, as they do. He says y’a, dropping the il. This jaculation designates a position of existence and, if you will, a retelling of the function of speech and the field of language reduced to their root, to the pure fact of the signifier thought outside of the effects of the signified and outside of the meaning of being.
This is huge because we have learned with Lacan to reconstruct the story of the subject based on the adventures of the meaning of his being. I am not saying now that we can abstain from this in practice, but that beyond this, there is still an y’a. There is the primacy of the One, whereas what one believes one has learned from Lacan is the primacy of the Other of speech. Desire passes over into second place because desire is the desire of the Other. The truth of the pass gives us the key to the deflation of desire, namely that desire has only ever been the desire of the Other. It is thus that this Other, which has only ever been supposed, is evacuated along with the consistency of desire.
It must be noted that the subject was grappling with the Yad’lun once he had disinvested his desire. This Yad’lun, as I take it here, is precisely the name of what Freud isolated as the symptomatic remainders. With the primacy of the One, it is jouissance that passes to the forefront, jouissance of the body that is called one’s own body and which is the body of the One.
What’s at stake is a primary jouissance in the sense that its being prohibited is only secondary. Lacan even went so far as to suggest that it was religion that cast a prohibition upon jouissance, which Freud had ratified. He also went so far as to think that philosophy had panicked in the face of this jouissance for want of thought about its permanence: its existence rebels against dialectic. For Lacan, it was up to psychoanalysis to circumscribe this enjoying substance (substance jouissante).
Lacan was able to write a sentence that I can explain only now, Autres écrits page 507: “[...] jouissance comes to cause that which is read as the world [...].” This means that jouissance is the secret of ontology, the ultimate cause of the symbolic order from which philosophy has made the world. There is an opposition between ontology and jouissance. Ontology makes space for itself in what wants to be, and also includes the possible, while jouissance is of the register of the existent. That is why Lacan was able to say, in his last teaching, Autres écrits page 565, that psychoanalysis contradicts the fantasy of metaphysics – perhaps it is me who adds this – a fantasy which consists in making being pass before having, in so far as having is above all to have a body.
Can we say that up to this point the Lacanian subject had no body? No, but it had only a visible body, reduced to the pregnance of its form. With the drive, with castration, with the object small a, did the subject re-find a body? Yes, but a sublimated body, made transcendent by the signifier.
It goes quite differently starting out from the jaculation Yad’lun, because, from then on, the body appears as the Other of the signifier in as much as the signifier causes an event in it. The body event that is jouissance appears as the true cause of psychical reality. I use this expression, wondering since when we have a psychical reality. It is not certain that Pythagoras, Plato or Plotinus, references for Lacan’s Yad’lun, did have one. The scholastics were interested above all in the divine Other, and it was only with Descartes and his cogito that they set themselves into existence.
This leaves in suspense the definition of the desire of the analyst. Lacan invoked it to make unconscious being, that is to say repressed being, pass to the achieved state. The repressed, as what wants to be, would call out to the desire of the analyst so as to come into existence. The position of the analyst, when confronted with the Yad’lun in the after-pass (l’outrepasse), is no longer marked by the desire of the analyst, but by another function that we will have to elaborate in what follows.
May 11, 2011
Text prepared by Christiane Alberti and Philippe Hellebois
Translated from the French by Samya Seth. Reviewed by Pamela King.
- Jacques Lacan, “Preface to the English Edition of Seminar XI,” translated by Russell Grigg, The Lacanian Review, no. 6 (Fall 2018), 23.
- Sigmund Freud, Standard Edition, Vol. 5, 603.
- The Standard Edition at this point reads “unconscious wishful impulses.”
- Jacques Lacan, “The Direction of the Treatment and the Principles of Its Power,” Écrits, translated by Bruce Fink (Norton: London/ New York, 2006), 491.
- Jacques Lacan, Autres Écrits (Éditions du Seuil: Paris, 2000), 134.