REFRAMING PSYCHOANALYSIS presents the first in a series of SPEAKING LACANESE posts by Will Greenshields that will seek to make legible Lacan’s various aphorisms and neologistic puns. If you disagree with the interpretation offered, have a suggestion as to how it might be improved, or would like to see a particular Lacanian phrase discussed here, please don’t hesitate to contact Will, or leave a comment below.
By Will Greenshields
Our first bit of Lacanese comes from the fifth session of Seminar XIX: …ou pire (1971-1972) (the unofficial English translation by Cormac Gallagher is available here:
I demand that you refuse what I am offering you… because: it is not that.
Je te demande/ de me refuser/ ce que je t’offre/ parce que: c’est pas ça. (SXIX 9/2/72)
At first glance this statement appears to be little more than a playful reiteration of a familiar Lacanian theme: the satisfaction of desire is impossible, the purpose of the analyst (present in this aphorism as ‘I’) is not to annul the subject’s lack in the fashion promised by today’s quasi-spiritual self-help books, ‘that [ça]’ – the extra-discursive object-cause of desire that would bring the divided subject ontological oneness – is impossible to attain, etc. The aphorism twice relays between ‘I’ and ‘you’ before abruptly concluding that nothing final and definitive can come of the communion between two desirous subjects.
Lacan seems to encourage this interpretation when he refers his audience to the famous aphorism that closes Wittgenstein’s Tractatus logico-philosophicus (‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’), commenting that ‘it is very precisely… what one cannot speak about that is at stake [when I say]… it is not that’ (Ibid). However, rather than aligning himself with what he calls Wittgenstein’s ‘admirable asceticism’, Lacan makes a quite different claim about the function of his own aphorism: far from being just another pithy précis of the human condition, it instead does something (Ibid). This ‘formulation’, he would later reflect in Seminar XX, ‘is carefully designed to have an effect’ (111) – an effect that goes beyond the production of meaning, an effect that exceeds the sum of the aphorism’s constituent parts: ‘What I am leading you to is the following. Not to know… how meaning arises, but how it is from a knot of meaning that the object arises, the object itself’ (SXIX: 9/2/72). In other words, the aphorism somehow makes present that which cannot be spoken about. How exactly does it accomplish this?
Here, Lacan’s object (a) or ‘that [ça]’ should be thought of less as a ‘thing-in-itself’ that exists beyond or prior to language and more of a structural impasse that is very much internal to language, a consequence of language’s formal properties. The signifier is differential, the desirous subject cannot achieve self-identical meaning in language; whatever he asks for and whatever another subject understands that he is asking for is always ‘not that.’ Later in Seminar XIX Lacan remarks that the object (a) ‘is always between each of the signifiers and the one that follows’ – a structural fault that leaves the spoken and speaking subject, as that which one signifier represents for another signifier, ‘gaping’ and unable to merge these differential signifiers together (to produce signification without gaps) by immaculately articulating his desire (SXIX: 21/6/72). The object is not simply beyond language; it is really more of a beyond produced by language, an impasse created by the fact that signifiers cannot signify themselves. It is for this reason that Lacan argues that ‘[w]e are confronted with it at every instant of our existence’ (SXIX: 9/2/72). That is to say, we are confronted with it as absent. If it were simply non-existent or beyond language it wouldn’t bother us; instead, it exists as that which is missed by language.
Lacan is not suggesting that his aphorism has achieved the impossible by circumventing the logic of signifier and closing the gap but that the object ‘arises’ from it as missed, thereby demonstrating how the object is not absent from language but is instead an absence internal to language. In other words, Lacan is not seeking to make the impossible possible but to better demarcate the impossible. Now, all this talk of structural gaps seems to imply that a certain visualisable space is at stake and Lacan fiddles about with several figures in order to show the paradoxical space that the object occupies. Remember that whilst it is not assimilated into the signifying chain it is also not definitively excluded:
The above figure shows the object dropping out of the aphorism’s matrix of verbs and pronouns. It does not, however, sufficiently testify to the way in which the object is both the structural ground of Lacan’s aphorism – it literally being this aphorism’s object, the ‘something’ that this aphorism is about, the motivation for Lacan to demand that we refuse what he is offering – and its gap. If we assume the object’s straightforward absence, the three-verbed construction collapses. With the ‘it is not that’ removed, there would be no reason for Lacan to demand that you refuse what he is offering. It is through its absence that the object is present as the aphorism’s support. Furthermore, if the negatively denoted object is the necessary support of this construction, the latter is also the necessary support of the former: if we lose any one of the verbs, ‘that’ becomes completely non-existent because the construction supporting it collapses (e.g. what would it mean for Lacan to demand that you refuse if he had not made an offer?). Far from pre-existing the statement, the object instead arises as its effect.
It is in this fashion that the aphorism perfectly captures the structural paradox of language – i.e. that language’s beyond is internal to language and that, as any psychoanalyst would doubtless testify, the subject cannot stop speaking about that which he cannot speak about. The failure of diagrams, such as the one reproduced above, to adequately present the structural ‘place’ of an object that is neither completely excluded nor an assimilated part of the chain, forms the prelude to the introduction of a topological structure that will dominate Lacan’s later seminars: the Borromean knot:
Like the aphorism that it represents, the Borromean knot requires three components to hold together. It is knotted in such a fashion that no two of its rings can remain together when one is removed; it either subsists as a three or not at all. The effect of this knotting is to produce a hole – a hole that disappears when one of the components is lost. It is in this hole – that is both beyond the materiality of the knot and integral to it – that Lacan places the object (a).