Seminar II – The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis

1954 – 1955

Chapter IV – A Materialist Definition of the Phenomenon of Consciousness

(All quotations refer to The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954 -1955, Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, translated by Sylvana Tomaselli, with notes by John Forrester, WW Norton: 1991)


One of Lacan’s most significant contentions in this chapter is that what Freud teaches us is that the essence of subjectivity is not simply reducible to the ego or the individual, but that it is something primarily constituted as an effect of the symbolic. In opening the sesison he makes an intriguing suggestion, that, “Freud discovered in man the substance and the axis of a subjectivity surpassing the individual organisation considered as the sum of individual experiences, and even considered as the line of individual development” (p.40, my italics).

In discussing resistance in analysis Lacan’s claim is that it is always the ego that resists. “What corresponds to the ego, is what I sometimes call the sum of the prejudices which any knowledge comprises and which each of us has as individual baggage” (p.41). If Freud dealt a truly Copernican blow to our sense of self by showing that the ego was not master in its own house, that there existed ‘another stage’ which was instead the ‘core of our being’, nevertheless we feel a strong reaction against it, a tendency to want to slip back into the old, comfortable notions of self-hood. As Lacan puts it, “When you are shown a new perspective, in a manner which is decentred in relation to your experience, there’s always a shift whereby you try to recover your balance, the habitual centre of your point of view” (p.41). This is a resistance.

He refers specifically to encountering this kind of resistance in “the radical relativisation of familial reality” (p.41). Taking his cue from a discussion of the subject by Levi-Stauss, he says that rather than looking at the experience of the child, his or her particular affective relations to the caregivers, “What we analysts have to deal with is the relation of the child to the parents” (p.41). Amusingly, Lacan suggests that to do otherwise would be to overly psychologise analytic experience. The examples that he gives illustrates that it’s not about the subject’s experience as an infant with its parents, but how the same relation of child to parents is reconfigured or ciphered into something that is less the stuff of individual, historical experience. Lacan discusses two dreams that manifest this, both in which he claims to know that the protagonist in the dream is none other than the subject himself. In the first, the dreamer sees the image of the child on its back with its legs kicking in the air; in the second, the dreamer is swimming in a sea that contains numbers that refer to his age and date of birth. The backdrop to this second dream is a concern the dreamer brings into analysis about whether he might be the father of a child about to be born.

What the dreams show is not “the concrete, affective dependency of the child in relation to supposedly more or less parental adults” (p.43). It is rather that,

“The relations in which he is caught up are themselves brought to the level of symbolism, that the subject questions himself about himself. For him, when it occurs it is as a problem of the second degree, on the plane of the symbolic assumption of his destiny” (p.42).

This is a point that Lacan refers to at the end of this session – that realising subjectivity requires a symbolic assumption. Studying clinical phenomena on this level, the symbolic level, is the properly psychoanalytical approach, distinct from what we might think of as a more ‘psychologising’ level.

So what is the analysis of resistances? For Lacan, analysis of resistances means being focused on the symbolic level and, like in the example he gives above, how the subject finds a place in the symbolic:

“It doesn’t mean intervening with the subject so that he becomes aware of the manner in which his attachments, his prejudices, the equilibrium of his ego, prevent him from seeing. It doesn’t mean persuading him, which leads pretty quickly to suggestion. It doesn’t mean reinforcing, as they say, the ego of the subject, or to make an ally of its healthy part. It doesn’t mean convincing. What it means is at every instant of the analytic relation, knowing at what level the answer should be pitched” (p.42-43).

The target of his attack is obviously the ego psychologists of his time, those who believe the technique of analysis to be one of strengthening the ego and the emotional maturation of the ‘instincts’, but also to a lesser extent Lacan is critiquing a behaviouralist doctrine, which was starting to gain currency. Lacan is arguing that you cannot understand a symptom by reference to a deviation from a normative, prescriptive narrative of the development of the individual. Rather, the symptom is to be found at the level of speech, which is”decentred in relation to individual experience, since it is that of the historical text which integrates it” (p.43). Intriguingly, he even goes as far to say that that “the subject’s life is oriented according to a problematic which isn’t that of his actual experience” (p.43). It is not your experience that matters in clearing up a symptom, not looking at what might have ‘gone wrong’ in your childhood and the early memories you have about your mother for example, but how you have assumed your history symbolically. We might understand Lacan’s reference to a “historical text” to refer to the signifying elements explored in an analysis, regardless of whether or not you are aware of their influence, and to which you become reconciled (in the sense of the “symbolic assumption of his destiny” (p.42)). This could be totally unknown to you because “the unconscious is the unknown subject of the ego, that it is misrecognised by the ego, which is der Kern unseres Wesens” (p.43). Lacan adds that in the Traumdeutung Freud recognises this ‘core’ or ‘kernel’ corresponds to the mechanisms of the primary processes.

Lacan rails against the error analysts of his time make in undoing the uniqueness of the Freudian discovery and its Copernican decentreing by making the ego identical to the unconscious – like some kind of ‘real’, authentic ego. If you only go as far as accepting that “The core of our being does not coincide with the ego” (p.44), that the I of the subject (the unconscious) is not the moi (the ego) then you can end up in a position where you, as he puts it, “force the ego back into this I discovered by Freud – you restore the unity” (p.44). His point is that you cannot think of the unconscious as being somehow at a deeper level in the subject, deeper than the ego, as if, (to use Freud’s archaeological metaphor), you dig a bit deeper than the ego and you unearth a core of your being that is full of unconscious sexual and aggressive instincts. Instead, we should see the unconscious as radically Other to the ego, the me. In this sense, Jacques-Alain Miller’s notion of ‘extimicy’ is useful: the idea that at the very heart of your being, the very core of your selfhood, there is an exteriority, an intimacy that comes from outside.

So if that is the unconscious, what is the ego? Lacan says, “Literally, the ego is an object – an object which fills a certain function which we here call the imaginary function. This thesis is absolutely essential to technique” (p.44). Whilst Lacan claims that “Freud’s research on the second topography was undertaken in order to put back in its place an ego which had begun to slide back to its old position”, perhaps this is not strictly true. Nothing in the second topography should lead us to think of the unconscious in this radical way. Indeed, Freud is clear that a part of the ego resides in the Id. But nevertheless the point we should take from Freud, according to Lacan, is that of “the exact perspective of the excentricity of the subject in relation to the ego” (p.44).


We think, with Descartes, that,

“However partial the apprehension of consciousness, hence of the ego, may be, even so that is where our existence is given. We think that the unity of the ego is, if not explored, then at least apprehended in this fact of consciousness” (p.45).

That is, even if, with Descartes, the ultimate proof of our being resides in the simple fact that we think, we have to be conscious of this thinking, and that this has the effect of making us automatically assume an ego. But Lacan makes the case that Freud does not see the correspondence of ego with consciousness as being quite so transparent. He argues that Freud cannot locate consciousness in 1895 in the Project, that he cannot give it a place in the metapsychology and instead reserves for it some “special laws” (p.45), and of course that Freud fails to write the metapsychological paper on consciousness. So if Freud has a problem with “the transparency of consciousness to itself” (p.45), why don’t we? As Lacan puts it, we tend to think that,

“If there is consciousness of something it cannot be, we are told, that this consciousness does not itself grasp itself as such. Nothing can be experienced without the subject being able to be aware of himself within this experience in a kind of immediate reflection” (p.45-46).

So the ‘Gordian knot’ that Lacan says he is trying to break is the view that the Cartesian cogito ergo sum of presents a consciousness transparent to itself, that it produces a sense that “the I is immediately grasped in the field of consciousness” (p.46). And Lacan says that the mirror reproduces this transparency – “here [in the mirror] there’s a phenomenon of consciousness as such” (p.46).

Then Lacan comes to introduce his apologue on consciousness: if all men were eliminated from the world, would the image of a mountain in a lake still exist? Yes, says Lacan, for the very simple reason that a camera could be set to record the mountain, and the image of the mountain in the lake, as a picture. And if at some point in the future men were brought back into the world after having disappeared they would be able to see this picture of the mountain and its reflection in the lake.

The camera, for Lacan, is a consciousness without an ego, a consciousness without the ability reflect on it as being a phenomenon of consciousness or apprehend itself as consciousness. The record of the mountain and its reflection in the lake is,

“Essentially a phenomenon of consciousness, which won’t have been perceived by any ego, which won’t have been reflected upon in any ego-like experience – any kind of ego and of consciousness of ego being absent at the time” (p.47).

Even if you (in the sense of your ego) was not there to perceive it, it would still persist as an image. So Lacan’s story shows that you can have a consciousness without an ego recognising it as such; a consciousness that unlike Descartes’ cogito is not transparent to itself. The story shows how consciousness does not necessarily imply an ego (the ego as the presentation of consciousness transparent to itself, a ‘consciousness’ of consciousness).

Lacan here is essentially reminding us of the blow to man’s narcissism that Freud revealed with the assertion that the ego is not master in its own house. The moral of his story is that the ego should not be the object of study in analysis – “I am explaining to you that it is in as much as he is committed to a play of symbols, to a symbolic world, that man is a decentred subject.” (p.47). The camera is of the same order – it is something that registers or records phenomena in the symbolic, without the men that would know how to read the image it records having to be there. As Lacan puts it, “The machine is the structure detached from the activity of the subject. The symbolic world is the world of the machine” (p.47). So we have a correspondence between:

Men that have disappeared = the ego

Camera = consciousness without an ego.

But it might be worth asking whether, given his use of the word ‘subject’ in the passage quoted above, is Lacan not perhaps going further and implying not just that the image does not need a man to see it for it to be recorded, but that the symbolic does not need a subject, that the subject is just an effect of the symbolic?

In any case, the story allows Lacan to “speak of phenomena of consciousness without reifying any kind of cosmic soul, nor any presence in nature” (p.47).

One other question arises over the following passage, in which Lacan argues against “making consciousness the high point of all phenomena… The masterpiece of masterpieces, the explanation for everything, perfection” (p.48). But he then goes on to say, “However we do know that consciousness is linked to something entirely contingent, just as contingent as the surface of a lake in an uninhabited world – the existence of our eyes or of our ears” (p.48). But surely this is not what Descartes is saying about consciousness? Descartes’ argument is instead that I think demonstrates a consciousness transparent to itself which serves as proof of existence.

Lacan moves on to make some brief comments about behaviourism. As a philosophical approach to consciousness and subjectivity, behaviourism is against the notion of a psychology based on subjective introspection. The focus of behaviourists like Watson and Skinner is on behaviour rather than on your own consciousness of your subjectivity (in other words, against a consciousness that is transparent to itself). The infamous ‘Skinner box’, for example, was an experiment designed to produce what Skinner referred to as ‘operant conditioning’ of rats through ‘positive reinforcement’ of behaviour patterns: the rats in Skinner’s box continued to push the lever in the box regardless of whether or not it administered food. For behaviourists, and their philosophical adherents, a consciousness transparent to itself is simply, as Gilbert Ryle put it, a “ghost in the machine”.

Lacan characterises the behaviourist position thus: “Behaviouralism says – As for us, we’re going to observe total behaviour, we’re not going to pay any attention to consciousness” (p.48). But Lacan’s attack on behaviouralism is not from the direction of consciousness – he does not say that we should preserve and cherish the notion of consciousness; in fact he says the opposite. Lacan’s argument against behaviouralism is from the direction of the intersubjective relation:

“It isn’t any the less the case that in the very notion of behaviour there is a certain castration of human reality. Not because it doesn’t take into account the notion of consciousness, which, in fact, is of absolutely no use to anyone, neither to those who use it, nor to those who don’t – but because it eliminates the intersubjective relation, which is the foundation not only of behaviour, but of actions and of passions. That has nothing to do with consciousness” (p.49).

Lacan then defines what is referred to in the title of this session, ‘A materialist definition of the phenomenon of consciousness’. He says that consciousness occurs whenever “there’s a surface such that it can produce what is called an image. That is a materialist definition” (p.49). But what does he mean by this? Is consciousness nothing more than the capability of a surface to produce an image? By ‘materialist’ does Lacan mean ‘physical’, and by ‘phenomenon’ is he referring to ‘what it feels like’, subjectively, to be conscious of something?

Lacan clarifies – any image reflected onto a surface behaves like a mirror,

“All that’s needed is that the conditions be such that to one point of a reality there should correspond an effect at another point, that a bi-univocal correspondence occurs between two points in real space…. In this way you can realise that everything which is imaginary, everything which is properly speaking illusory, isn’t for all that subjective” (p.49).

If consciousness is like the camera capturing the image of the mountain reflected in the lake, this is precisely not a subjective phenomenon, in the sense of it being consciously experienced; it is enough that it is simply registered by a device like a camera. “There are illusions that are perfectly objective, objectifiable, and it isn’t necessary to make the whole of our distinguished company disappear for you to understand that”, he says (p.49). One such illusion could be the image in the lake, which is objectifiable via the camera and which will capture the image even without men (an ego) being there to apprehend it. A similar phenomenon might be taking a picture of a rainbow – it is an illusion, it is an image produced on a surface, but it is not subjective. So these examples show us that by a ‘materialist’ definition of consciousness Lacan means one that does not rely on an ego being the seat of consciousness, or the ego being interchangeable with consciousness, or with consciousness being a purely subjective phenomenon.

Lacan’s innovation here is in detaching the phenomenon of conscious from the realm of what is mental. It is in radical contrast to a position of someone like Bishop Berkeley, for whom there is simply only consciousness, there is no material world. For Berkeley, ‘Esse est percipi’ – ‘to be is to be perceived’. This is Berkeley’s way of getting round the problem of thinking of the mental as on one side, and reality on the other. But Lacan’s proposition is to detach what we usually think of as constituting subjectivity (an ego) from consciousness altogether, or better, to detach consciousness from the realm of what is mental.


So what exactly is the nature of the ego, if in the examples that Lacan has used here it has been put out of play? “The ego really is an object” (p.50), he claims. This is because the nature of the ego is fundamentally that of an alienating identification, hence why Lacan uses it so frequently as interchangeable with the imaginary other (for example, on the Schema L or the graph of desire). Moreover, rather than giving us the experience of consciousness the ego actually produces a tension. Restating this mirror stage thesis in its barest form, Lacan asserts that this is because of the tension in the mirror stage between the corps morcele, the real body fragmented, and the unity of the image of the other, or the image in the mirror. Rather than unify the ego with consciousness, “it is in this unity that the subject for the first time knows himself as a unity, but as an alienated, virtual unity” (p.50).

Lacan compares this predicament the infant finds itself in – between the fragmented body and the illusion of unity given by the ego – to a joke Freud tells in ‘Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious’:

“’How are you getting along?’ [literally, ‘How do you walk?’] the blind man asked the lame man. ‘As you see’, the lame man replied to the blind man” (Freud, SE VIII, p.34).

Lacan uses this joke to illustrate the insufficiency of the ego as a unifying agency:

“The subjective half of the pre-mirror experience is the paralytic, who cannot move about by himself except in an uncoordinated and clumsy way. What masters him is the image of the ego, which is blind, and which carries him…. The paralytic, whose perspective this is, can only identify with his unity in a fascinated fashion, in the fundamental immobility whereby he finishes up corresponding to the gaze he is under, the blind gaze” (p.50).

A second analogy is then brought forward, that of the little machine, an automaton whose movements depend on that of another machine, Lacan shows the kind of bind that is involved in an imaginary relationship that can never be a true autonomy, in the sense of a separate and distinct subjectivity: “An ego which hangs completely on the unity of another ego is strictly incompatible with it on the plane of desire” (p.51). What the machines demonstrate is that there is a kind of impossibility of recognition of the other’s desire (because they are machines), but Lacan implies that at this level the situation is akin to that of humans, because insofar as we desire the same thing we are essentially the same, locked into dependence on other other. As such, all desire is essentially a transferential desire:

“Admitting that there is an I would immediately turn it into you desire that. I desire that means – You, the other, who is my unity, you desire that” (p.51).

The only access to a recognition, he says, is via a third party, which he locates as the unconscious. This might amount to saying that the unconscious (or the Other understood as the discourse of the Other) is the condition for intersubjectivity, and that desire only arises with an appeal to the Other.

Lacan says that “The subject sets itself up as operating, as human, as I, from the moment the symbolic system appears. And this moment cannot be deduced from any model of the order of individual structuration” (p.52). We might interpret this to mean, not that the subject has to find a place in the symbolic, but that true subjectivity only appears as an effect of the symbolic. This symbolic dimension is the difference between the human and the machine in Lacan’s second analogy – “for the human subject to appear, it would be necessary for the machine, in the information it gives, to take account of itself, as one unity amongst others. That is precisely the one thing it cannot do” (p.52). This could remind us of the example Lacan gives elsewhere, a story about a boy who fails a grammar test by stating ‘I have three brothers, Ernest, David and I’. In the same way, the machine lacks this ability to recognise itself as part of a symbolic framework – its unity hangs on the (imaginary) movements of the other, its semblable.

By Owen Hewitson,

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