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

1954 – 1955

Chapter VII – The Circuit

(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)

This chapter opens with Lacan’s remarks on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s lecture the previous evening to the SFP entitled ‘Philosophy and Psychoanalysis’. Merleau-Ponty, Lacan tells us, is a humanist, but as Lacan has already told us in the previous chapter, psychoanalysis is not a humanism.

In his brief critique of Merleau-Ponty’s presentation, Lacan accuses Merleau-Ponty of always looking for the kind of totality or unitary form that is found in the gestalt. A drop of water, for instance, might well be circular in form but it is physically circular; and this is the reason we perceive it as circular, rather than because we have a tendency to see gestalts everywhere and to impose a circular form on the image of the raindrop. We may very well impose some form or totality onto images, but Lacan warns us to be wary of confusing physics with phenomenology just because we feel we need to suppose a unitary image, form or functioning to work with.

Mannoni appears to want to avoid confining the gestalt to the imaginary order, and interjects with the suggestion that it might be possible to find a herald of the gestalt in Darwin’s work, in the sense that adaptation through natural selection might be considered to produce “a nature that yields good forms” (p.78). Lacan is quick to remind his audience that Freudianism has nothing to do with a teleological Darwinism – that “to explain the world with a natural tendency to create superior forms is quite the opposite of the essential conflict such as he [Freud] sees it played out in the human being” (p.79), regardless of whether Mannoni is thinking specifically of a perfected form or just a particularly well-adapted one.

Beyond the Pleasure Principle, according to Lacan, takes us even beyond the organism. “It is as if Freud were hurled into Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which is an incontestably metaphysical category, he steps outside of the limits of the domain of the human in the organic sense of the word” (p.79). Rather than being, as it is popularly labelled, ‘speculative’, Beyond is rather the high point of Freud’s metaphysics.

Lacan accepts the idea of a tension or conflict between the life and death drives that Freud describes (even if it is at a level beyond the organism itself). But when Hyppolite says that we should remember that Eros has a unifying tendency Lacan adds that Eros “is only ever apprehended in its relation to the contrary tendency…. These two tendencies are strictly inseparable” (p.79). So Lacan seems to be describing a model in which these two drives that work in opposition nonetheless co-occur. A good approximation for this relation might be the figure of the Moebius band, the defining property of which is the inability to distinguish between its surface and its underside, even if you run your finger along it.

Lacan returns to discussing the restitutive tendency and the repetitive tendency that he has introduced in the previous sessions. If the pleasure principle aims to reduce excitation to a point of equilibrium, it can do so both via a restitution (to a previous state of affairs) and by repetition (for example, by repeating unpleasant experiences in order to master them). However, if restoring an equilibrium means “a tendency to lower the excitation to a minimum” (p.80), as Lacan characterises the pleasure principle, how should we interpret this ‘minimum’? What would a minimum be? It could be an absolute minimum- death – and indeed some analysts have interpreted Freud to mean as much. But Lacan believes that would be “to confuse the pleasure principle with what we think Freud designated under the name of the death instinct” (p.80). Lacan is sure that “when Freud speaks of the death instinct he is, thank God, designating something less absurd, less anti-biological, anti-scientific” (p.80). Lacan’s view is that Freud means the death drive to be something distinct from the pleasure principle but that “tends to reduce all animate things to the inanimate – that is how Freud puts it” (p.80). The twist however is that Lacan believes we can locate this tendency not in biology but in intersubjectivity:

“What does he [Freud] mean by this [the death drive]? Not the death of living beings. It’s human experience, human interchanges, intersubjectivity. Something of what he observes in man constrains him to step outside the limits of life” (p.80).

‘Life’ here would presumably refer to the biological, the organism as homeostat. Something from a different register (the intersubjective register) works on a different level. So the death drive and the life drive are not two opposing, warring tendencies within the organism. The implication of Lacan’s point above is that the death drive is something external to the organism, though experienced as part of it in the way that it experiences intersubjectivity. Death drive is not therefore a striving for death; Lacan seems to say that although it is the opposite to a life drive, as noted above in the allegory of the Mobius band, it is only through life (being lived) that we see the death drive appear:

No doubt there is a principle which brings the libido back to death, but it doesn’t bring it back any old how. If it brought it back there by the shortest paths, the problem would be resolved. But it brings it back there only along the paths of life, it so happens. The principle which brings the living being back to death is situated, is marked out behind the necessity it experiences to take the roads of life – and it can only take that way. It cannot find death along any old road” (p.80- 81).

Again, this ‘road’ is like the surface of the Mobius band – as  you trace it you realise that what your thought was its upper side is actually simultaneously its underside, that the two are the same. Life and death drives, whilst perhaps opposed, nonetheless co-occur in life as it is lived intersubjectively.

After a discussion on entropy and the first and second laws of thermodynamics, Lacan makes use of information theory with a little story about the Bell Telephone Company on page 82. The point of this analogy is for him to show that something can be communicated even if it is not understood. If a telephone company wants to be efficient it has to be able to pass the most amount of information down the least amount of wires, and over the furthest possible terrain. On the other end of the phone, far away, you will recognise what is passed down these wires as message (a human voice) even if you don’t understand that message. To be more precise, the system that transmits your message doesn’t understand it, but it will transmit it all the same. The telephone company simply passes electrical signals; the system does not know what it is passing, but if you are able to hear it produced on a phone at the other end as a voice you might understand it as a message, and then might understand its meaning. But for the apparatus that transmits the message it is not understood, it lacks a meaning. The system communicates it regardless of its meaning. As Lacan puts it, “It is a matter of knowing what are the most economical conditions which enable one to transmit the words people recognise. No one cares about the meaning” (p.82). A message can be transmitted at the phonic level, at the level of signifiers, but meaning is totally out of play.

Fink brings out the radical implications of this for how we conceive the unconscious: “To Lacan’s mind, the unconscious consists in chains of mathematical-like inscriptions, and – borrowing a notion from Bertrand Russell, who in speaking of mathematicians said that the symbols they work with don’t mean anything – there is thus no point talking about the meaning of unconscious formations or productions” (Fink, Bruce, The Nature of Unconscious Thought in ‘Reading Seminars I and II’, edited by Fink, Feldstein and Jaanus, State University of New York Press, 1996, p.184).

In Seminar XI Lacan makes some further remarks which help us on this point. He says that, “Meaning survives only deprived of that part of non-meaning that is, strictly speaking, that which constitutes in the realisation of the subject, the unconscious” (Seminar XI, p.211), and that this has “a quite direct implication that passes all too often unperceived” (p.212). This implication is that, “Interpretation is directed not so much at the meaning as towards reducing the non-meaning of the signifiers, so that we may rediscover the determinants of the subject’s entire behaviour” (p.212). Rather than meaning as such what is transmitted by the machine is precisely the same as what the unconscious transmits “in is irreducible and senseless character qua chain of signifiers” (p.212).

Therefore, as Lacan goes on to say in the chapter of Seminar II, you can minimise the apparatus involved in transmitting the message (economising on the number of wires in a telephone network, for example) and the message itself will still be transmitted well enough that it will be understood at the other end. Whilst you might be able to understand the meaning of the message you receive, the machine does not have to understand the meaning of the message it transmits.

Now, this illustrates the kind of inter-human relationship that Lacan refers to when he talks about the repetitive tendency of the pleasure principle. Repetition looks like this very process, which is why he tells us that “You must get acquainted with this symbolic system, if you want to gain entrance to entire orders of reality which very much concern us… And you’ll see that this is essential in relation to the death instinct” (p.83).

Lacan caricatures the pleasure principle as a trend that seeks out stimulation, specifically libidinal stimulation. But at the same time Freud conceives of it as something that seeks to reduce this excitation, to bring it to an equilibrium, and in practice this entails the cessation of pleasure. Lacan notes this contradiction:

“You can see that the direction the theory takes at this point goes exactly in the opposite direction to that of subjective intuition…. The pleasure principle – the principle of pleasure – is that pleasure should cease” (p.84).

This contradiction is important to Lacan who even goes as far as to say that, “ if you don’t think of the pleasure principle in this register, it is useless to introduce you to Freud” (p.84). That the pleasure principle wants pleasure is clearly not the whole story. If it was there would be no need for psychoanalysis – life would just be about finding a proper balance between the pleasure principle and the reality principle (if we caricature the latter, as Lacan does, to have the role of “husbanding our pleasures” (p.84)).

What we find with repetition is something that does not aim at learning or becoming better at something, like you would become a better pianist if you played the piano more often. Neither does it aim at adaptation – learning and the maturation of instinct are not the same thing, Lacan tells us. On the contrary,

“What does analysis uncover – if it isn’t the fundamental, radical discordance of forms of conduct essential to man in relation to everything which he experiences? The dimension discovered by analysis is the opposite of anything which progresses through adaptation, through approximation, through being perfected. It is something which proceeds by leaps, in jumps. It is always the strictly inadequate application of certain complete symbolic relations, and that implies several tonalities, immixtions, for instance of the imaginary in the symbolic, or inversely” (p.85 – 86).

Lacan suggests that there is an inclination in man to return things that have not been completed, to return to half-finished tasks and actions. His reference here is to the ‘Zeigarnik effect’, posited by  Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik in 1927. Where there is a failure, something missing or left incomplete, it is remembered better, it ‘sticks’ in the mind better than if it were completed successfully. So if it is legitimate to ascribe a developmental, teleological tendency to adaptation to animals we find the something quite the opposite in humans: in animals a task is achieved and sticks, and this produces a kind of learning through memory; in humans it is what fails that sticks, what is incomplete that is remembered. The Zeigarnik effect can be employed in analysis to bring into question things. Just as “the more abject the failure, the better the subject remembers it” (p.86), the thing the session ends on is the thing that does not fit. So Lacan tells us that the difference between humans and animals is that for humans, “everything which pertains to an advance essential to the human being must take the path of tenacious repetition” (p.88).

Returning to his discussion of information theory and the transmission of a message to elucidate his thoughts on repetition, Lacan brings in the notion of ‘feedback’ on page 88. Feedback is the way that “the machine’s first experience circulates inside it in the form of a message” (p.88). In a circuit, like the kind he tells us a message sent across France would trace, there is a feedback that brings the message back and continues its circuit, but nonetheless it is because of this feedback loop that the circuit is not closed. Rather, it kind of open and shuts on itself.

Feedback is a mechanism akin to a reply, and Lacan specifically draws the parallel to the symbolic  on page 89. Moreover, feedback also entails a kind of memory. We might even say that feedback expresses the inherent tendency of symbolic systems to generate replies. For Lacan it is this movement, this animation, of feedback that “comes very close to what we can conceive of as Zwang, the compulsion to repeat” (p.89).

Lacan seems to be painting a picture of subjects that are effectively caught in, or even used as, the wires or circuits that messages pass through:

“… It is through being links, supports, rings in the same circle of discourse, agents integrated in the same circle of discourse, that the subjects simultaneously experience such and such a symptomatic act, or discover such and such a memory” (p.89).

Lacan thinks this explains what happens in what we experience as telepathy. His comment on Freud’s interest in telepathy are there to make the point that you can experience something yourself,  as being yours or coming from within you (a memory, an action, a symptom, for example), when it actually operates independently of you, even coming from outside you.

This explains his famous remark, which he restates here: “that the unconscious is the discourse of the other” (p.89). But it is important for us to know that by this he does not mean that the unconscious is the discourse of other people, but “the discourse of the circuit in which I am integrated. I am one of its links” (p.89). It is thus not only impersonal, it is almost inhuman in that it is not required to make sense to the subject him or herself. The way that it is transmitted and the way that it is assumed is different how we usually assume the transmission of a message from one to an other to work. It is not, for example, the subject’s knowledge that his father loved him because his father told him so on his death bed. It is rather something that goes beyond what is consciously assumed, registered, or expressed, something that operates independently. And it is because of this independence that Lacan believes the way that it is assumed makes it weigh heavy with us, and condemns us to repeat it – we are “absolutely condemned to reproduce” (p.89) it; we are “obliged to pick up” (p.89) this discourse; and “it is precisely my duty to transmit it in its aberrant form to someone else” (p.89).

Through his use of words like ‘condemned’, ‘obliged’ and ‘duty’ Lacan is here clearly trying to bring out the almost ethical imperative that is forced on us by having our subjectivity integrated into these rings of discourse. Even if we do not know what it means we nonetheless carry it with us, like the Greek messengers unaware of the message tattooed on their heads. This is what Lacan means by “The circular form of a speech which is just at the limit between sense and non-sense” (p.90).

Repetition is a mechanism that works without the subject’s knowledge or involvement. For Lacan at this stage of his work, he seems to be suggesting that the subject is one of its rings, one of the roads that a message unbeknownst to the subject passes along as it traces its path. As he puts it in the Ecrits,

“If what Freud discovered, and rediscovers ever more abruptly, has a meaning, it is that the signifier’s displacement determines subjects’ acts, destiny, refusals, blindnesses, success, and fate, regardless of their innate gifts and instruction, and irregardless of their character or sex; and that everything pertaining to the psychological pregiven follows willy-nilly the signifier’s train, like weapons and baggage” (Ecrits, 30)

But it is by virtue of this very impersonal aspect that Lacan believes Freud detects something in the subject that exceeds life. It is because repetition is just such an extra-subjective phenomenon (an intuition of which Freud gets when he turns his attention to telepathy) that “the human being himself is in part outside life, he partakes of the death instinct. Only from there can he engage in the register of life” (p.90).

What is repeated in the subject’s life is something unfinished, something left unresolved, which poses a question for the subject. Therefore Lacan is precisely not talking about a repetition that allows you to learn, improve or adapt, as is all too evident in animals. For Lacan rather, repetition is something that upsets the normal course of things, something excessive and disruptive:

“It vacillates beyond all the biological mechanisms of equilibration, of harmonisation and of agreement. It is only introduced by the register of language, by the function of the symbol, by the problematic of the question within the human order” (p.90).

Notice also how in this passage Lacan insists that it is only through language that this kind of disruptive, anti-adaptationist repetition is produced. He stakes his entire reading of this phenomena of repetition that goes ‘beyond’ the pleasure principle on a theory of the subject as being a subject of language. Why?

Corresponding to the feedback mechanism produced in a machine, the Ziegarnik effect demands a response. This is why associations flow more automatically with uncompleted activities. Lacan’s mantra about the autonomy of the signifier means that the signifier is not hinged to a particular representation, but can float around and create new significations, new meanings, even if the signifiers themselves (the phonemes, for instance) are the same. The meaning of a particular sentence, for example, will depend on the punctuation given to that sentence, or its scansion, marking where it begins and ends. Clinically, these are all tools at the disposal of the analyst to disrupt, dislodge and unbind significations simply by using the material of the signifiers that the analysand gives them in their free associations. Thus it becomes clear to the analysand that meaning is not fixed, that it is something that can be brought into question. The same memory, for instance, when put into words, can undergo a change purely by suggesting a different signification from the signifying material the analysand offers in narrating that memory, and following the associations thereby produced. Another meaning suggests itself of which the analysand was unaware, even if the analysand has used the same words.

The lesson of the Zeigarnik effect for the psychoanalyst is that it almost automatically produces, even demands, a reply or response. This can be used clinically to overcome the malevolent effects of repetition. A machine will circulate the same message in its circuit; this circuit corresponds to the symbolic order or the Other. If it returned in the exact form, this would be homeostatic. But what the Ziegarnik effect shows is that when a message is in circulation you cannot pinpoint its beginning or end and see a total return, where the same thing comes back. The metonymy, the re-signification, is what Lacan refers to on p.89 as a “reply”, and as he says here this reply means it is not an “isolated and closed circuit” (p.89).

By Owen Hewitson,

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