About half way through his fifteenth Seminar on The Psychoanalytic Act, Lacan suggests to his audience that Freud’s contribution to a psychoanalytic theory of subjectivity can be summed up in the latter’s idea of castration. Rather than getting hung up on the old Freudian term ‘castration’, for Lacan this simply means that the subject does not have a means of making his enjoyment, his jouissance, cohere:


“The task to which the psychoanalytic act gives its status is a task which already implies this destitution of the subject…. It has a name, and Freud did not soften it for us, which is something all the more to be highlighted because as subjective experience this was never done before psychoanalysis. It is called castration, which is to be taken in its dimension of subjective experience in as much as nowhere except along this path can the subject be realised…. The subject is only realised exactly qua lack…. The subject realises that he does not have, that he does not have the organ of what I would call unique, unary, unifying enjoyment (jouissance). It is a matter, properly, of what makes enjoyment one in the conjunction of subjects of opposite sex.” (Seminar XV, 17.01.1968.)


When we refer to the subject in psychoanalysis we must remember that it is fundamentally a ‘castrated’ subject, meaning that the subject is only realised qua lack, a minus phi. The idea that Lacan expresses towards the end of the passage cited above – that there is something leftover in the process of sexuation, something that fails to unify jouissance – is later elaborated in his formulas of sexuation given in Seminar XX:

Without providing too comprehensive a reading of these formulas (as has been done by others) we can just note that the formulas on the left and right hand sides above state that ‘there is a subject that is not subject to the phallic function’ (top line, left hand side), and ‘not all of the subject is subject to the phallic function (second line, right hand side).


So, starting with this idea of castration being the bedrock of subjectivity, how does Lacan ‘think together’ the notions of the unary trait that we discussed in the previous article in this series, and a unity of jouissance. And what can this tell us about human subjectivity?


In the previous article in this series we tried to justify a notion of subjectivity that would amount to more than just the epiphenomenon of the signifying chain. If we take Lacan’s reading of Freud above seriously – that the subject is fundamentally castrated and so will fail at any attempt to unify jouissance – we face a similar problem. Just as the subject experiences a constitutive lack in the symbolic (the fact that signifiers refer not to the subject him- or herself but to each other), so the subject faces a constitutive lack in the real (the fact that castration leaves him with a fundamentally curtailed enjoyment which Lacan labels phallic or ‘paltry’ jouissance).


A crucial reference in the previous article was to Freud’s ein einziger Zug, translated by Lacan as ‘unary trait’. All the references we looked at there were from Seminars IX and XI, but Lacan returns to this concept right at the end of his teaching in Seminar XXIII, R.S.I., in 1976.Here he introduces, by way of a discussion of the Borromean knot, a different support to the unary trait, which he calls DI – droite infinie, or infinite straight line:


“The infinite straight line in question, this is not the first time that you have heard me speak of it, it is something that I characterise by its equivalence to the circle (XI-1), it is the principle of the Borromean knot. The fact is that by combining two straight lines with the circle, one has the essential of the Borromean knot (XI-2). [Note: it is not clear why Lacan refers to two straight lines here – he refers to just a single straight line in all later references]. Why does this infinite straight line have this virtue, this quality? It is because it is the best illustration of the hole. Topology indicates to us that in a circle, there is a hole in the middle. And even that we start to dream about what constitutes the centre, which extends into all sorts of vocabulary-effects: the nerve centre, for example, which no one knows exactly the meaning of. The infinite straight line has as a virtue having the hole all around. It is the most simple support of the hole. So then, what does this give us if we refer to practice?” (Seminar XXIII, 11.05.1976).


Lacan is saying here that if you draw a circle you draw it with a straight line. What is the easiest way to make an ‘infinite’ straight line of the kind that Lacan is describing? Quite simply, to draw a circle, because with a circle you can’t determine the start or end point. This might remind us of another of Lacan’s topological references – the Mobius band, which also has this property of an ‘infinite straight line’ because if you were to trace your finger along its surface it can never be determined which is the top and which is the bottom.


Lacan continues by positing a trinitarian conception of the subject (the Borromean knot, which Lacan was obsessed with at this time in his work, is one such trinitarian form) with the unary trait as a unifying element:


“The fact [is] that man, not God, is a trinitary compound; a trinitary compound of what we will call elements. What is an element? An element is what makes One. In other words, the unary trait. What makes One, on the one hand, and what, because of making One, initiates substitution.” (Seminar XXIII, 11.05.1976).


We can pause on this last line and note that Lacan’s comments here support Miller’s thesis in ‘Suture’, that by the very fact of making a one (of making a zero count as one) a substitution is able to be initiated (the movement of the signifying chain, discussed in greater depth here). Lacan continues:


“The characteristic of an element, is that one proceeds to a combinatorial of them…. What I am trying to introduce with this writing, is nothing less than what I will call a logic of sacks and of cords. Because obviously, there is the sack, there is the sack whose myth, as I might say, consists, consists in the sphere. But no one it seems, has sufficiently reflected on the consequences of the introduction of the cord. And that what the cord proves is that a sack is only closed by tying it. And that, in every sphere, we must indeed imagine something which, of course, is in every point of the sphere and that knots this thing into which one blows, and which knots it with a cord.” (Seminar XXIII, 11.05.1976).


These passages seems quite esoteric so let’s recap what Lacan is saying with an explanation. Firstly, the trinity corresponds to the three registers and constitutes the sack. Secondly, the cord corresponds to the infinite straight line which is equivalent to the einziger Zug or unary trait, and this knots the sack. The sphere is a representation of unity, but Lacan is here proposing that we think instead of a sack, because a sack is something which only attains its unity or coherence when it is tied with the cord.


With this in mind, Lacan then moves to talk about Joyce, his muse throughout Seminar XXIII, promising to relate this abstract theorising to a concrete instance of human subjectivity.


“People write their childhood memories. This has consequences. It is the passage from one writing to another writing. I will speak to you in a moment about the childhood memories of Joyce, because obviously I have to show how what is described as a logic of sacks and cords is something that can help us. Help us to understand how Joyce functioned as a writer.” (Seminar XXIII, 11.05.1976).


Lacan goes on to recount an odd tale from Joyce’s childhood. One day the young author was tied to a barbed wire fence by another child and severely beaten. Despite this ordeal Joyce recounts that he bore the perpetrator no malice. What Lacan takes from this is that Joyce “metaphorises something which is nothing less than his relationship to his body. He notes that the whole affair has drained away. He expresses this by saying that it is like a fruit skin.” (Seminar XXIII, 11.05.1976). For Lacan, this indicates to us something about “the relationship between a body which is foreign to us which is a circle, indeed an infinite straight line, which in any case are one and the other equivalent, and something which is the unconscious” (Seminar XXIII, 11.05.1976). Rather than being worked through, the affect from this brutal experience is simply dropped, discarded like the skin of an orange or apple peel, to use Lacan’s simile.


Lacan says that this would be very suspicious for an analyst because it would indicate that there is no unity between the real, the imaginary and the symbolic for Joyce. The latter’s willingness to forgive the perpetrator is due to a missing link between the register of the imaginary (the loss of bodily unity in getting beaten up) and the real (the experience of pain at the level of the body). As Lacan suggests in this seminar, it is through his later writing that Joyce can link these two registers with the symbolic but in this reminiscence the link is yet to be established. There is no knot – or cord/infinite straight line, as Lacan calls it here – which can bind these three registers together. For Lacan, this indicates a different subjective experience, a different quality of subjectivity produced for Joyce by a different configuration of the three orders than we might usually expect to encounter.


This is a very different type of subjectivity to that which we usually find with non-psychotics. In these ‘neurotic’ cases, so the theory goes, the three registers are sufficiently tightly bound such that only some catastrophic moment of crisis in a subject’s life can unknot them. These moments, where there is an unknotting of the imaginary from the symbolic and the real of the body, indicates that the subject has lost some bearing, and they may report the sensation of not knowing who they are (for the other), having lost their place in the symbolic (the big Other) or had it changed irrevocably, producing the estrangement of themselves from their bodies, even to the extent of a neglect of their vital functions.


There’s an example of this is in the film Crazy, Stupid, Love. At the very start of the film Steve Carrell’s character finds out, over a fairly innocuous dinner with his wife, that she wants a divorce. Sitting dumbstruck from her admission in the car while she drives them home, she then admits that she has been sleeping with someone else. He tells her that if she doesn’t stop talking he’ll throw himself out of the car. She doesn’t, so he does.


When the subject experiences his imaginary or symbolic co-ordinates being thrown into question there is an impact at the level of the body – a certain ‘de-phallicisation’ of the body follows (to hijack Lacanian terminology), a loss of all narcissistic libidinal investment (to use Freudian terminology), which is illustrated in this clip by the jump from the car moving car. We can also think of the way that many people lose their appetite at particularly stressful moments – the death of a loved one, some tumult at work. A disregard of the body follows this kind of symbolic or imaginary rupture in the subject’s sense of self.


So the lesson of this story for our study of subjectivity is that there is a difference between subjective structures (chiefly, neurotic or psychotic) at the level of the unity (or lack of unity) of the three registers. And in psychoanalysis – indeed, in any type of psy- therapy, Lacan is adamant that it is crucial for the practitioner to know how the subject has managed to knot these three registers together (or not) and therefore how to orientate the direction of the treatment.


How do these three registers come to co-exist with a relative degree of stability?


At the start of this post we touched on how the operation of symbolic castration forces jouissance to be evacuated to the margins of the body – henceforth becoming the classical Freudian erotogenic zones. We also saw in the previous article in this series how an identification with the unary trait can help the subject to separate from the fixations, traps and lures of the imaginary. Let’s look at another way that Lacan formulates this, which he calls separation. In the previous article we looked at the way in which the identification with the unary trait or einziger Zug allows the subject to avoid a total alienation in the imaginary, to move from the imaginary to the domain of signifiers (even at the expense of trading an alienation in the former for an alienation in the latter). Now we will look at how separation, a process of appeal to a partial object, allows the subject not just to escape a total alienation in the signifying network but, moreover, to provide a grounding to his particular mode of enjoyment, hooking the experience of jouissance to an object.


The process of separation involves an appeal to a partial object that provides a degree of libidinal fixity or coherence. To avoid the experience of total alienation in the big Other, the signifying universe, the subject ‘separates’ from the signifying network to a partial object. This object therefore gives the subject a refuge for his jouissance as a relief from the experience of alienation he undergoes when barred as an effect of the signifier. It is a refuge in the real away from the symbolic. The subject appeals to a partial object – an object linked to one of the four drives (oral, anal, scopic or invocatory) – to cope with the overbearing alienation of the symbolic.


Whilst appearing very abstract, this idea is actually very simple to find in everyday life. Many people feel a compulsion to turn to an oral object (a stiff drink, or even heavy drinking) when something goes wrong at work, for example. Or search for a certain gaze (the scopic object) or tone of voice (the invocatory object) in their partner as recompense for a sensation of encumberment when facing the weight of the symbolic in some way. All these objects provide precisely the kind of libidinal fixity, the unity of jouissance, that Lacan believes was so manifestly lacking in the story related by Joyce above, or in the scene from Crazy, Stupid, Love.


Lacan gives another example of a method for providing the same form of stability, a practice that achieves the three ends of unifying the real of jouissance, the imaginary corporeal body and the symbolic: tattooing. In Seminar XI, Lacan says that the tattoo has the double function of materialising the libido and giving the subject a place in the Other:


“One of the most ancient forms in which this unreal organ [the libido] is incarnated in the body is tattooing, scarification. The tattoo certainly has the function of being for the Other, of situating the subject in it, marking his place in the field of the group’s relations, between each individual and all the others. And, at the same time, it obviously has an erotic function, which all those who have approached it in reality have perceived.” (Seminar XI, p.206.)


Much earlier in his work, in Seminar V from 1958, Lacan wonders a great deal about the function of tattoos, or more widely the marking of the body, as they relate to the subject’s place in the Other and how they might help him give stability and coherence to bodily jouissance. Let’s conclude this article by looking in depth at some of the speculative thoughts Lacan shares with his audience at that time:


“We can say that at the very least a minimum should be retained in what the castration complex is in its essence, the relationship to a desire on the one hand. And on the other hand to what I will call on this occasion a mark.


“In order that desire, Freudian experience and analytic theory tell us, should successfully traverse certain phases, should reach maturity, it is necessary that something as problematic to situate as the phallus, should be marked by this something which ensures that it is only maintained, conserved, to the degree that it has traversed the threat of castration properly speaking, and this must be maintained as the essential minimum beyond which we go off into synonyms, we go off into slippages, we go off into equivalences, we go off at the same time into obscurities.


“We literally do not know any longer what we are saying if we do not retain these characteristics as essential, and is it not better first of all and above all to direct ourselves towards the relationship of these two poles, we say, of desire to the mark, before trying to go searching for it in the different ways in which this is incarnated for the subject in the reason for a liaison which from the moment that we leave this point of departure, is going to become more and more enigmatic, more and more problematic, and soon more and more evaded? “ (Seminar V, 26.03.1958.)


Picking up on our discussion of tattoos above, in this passage Lacan is saying that at a most basic level the tattoo is a mark on the body. And, as we have seen already, the mark is another term for the signifier – it functions just like the strokes on the cave wall or the notches on Sade’s bedpost that we saw in the third article in this series. But Lacan says we have to look at the more fundamental relationship of desire to the mark. The example of this marking par excellence in analytic theory is the mark of castration on the phallus. But for Lacan the mark itself is more fundamental – castration is secondary to the function of this mark to desire. This is quite surprising – Lacan isn’t saying that the mark is just a manifestation of castration, in fact he’s saying the opposite. It doesn’t matter what type of mark it is, it’s the mark as such that matters.


Lacan continues:


“I insist on this character, this character of a mark which moreover has in all the other manifestations as well as the analytic, interpretative, significant manifestations, and quite certainly in everything that is embodied ceremonially, ritually, sociologically, this character of being the sign of everything that supports this castrating relationship whose anthropological emergence we began to perceive through the mediation of analysis.


“Let us not forget that up to then the religious signs, incarnations, for example in which we recognise this castration complex, circumcision for example, to give it its name, are again one or other form of inscription, of mark in the rites of puberty, of tattooing, of everything which produces marks, impresses on the subject, in connection with a certain phase which in an unambiguous fashion is presented as a phase of accession to a certain level, to a certain stage of desire. All these things make their appearance always as a mark and an impression.” (Seminar V, 26.03.1958.)


The mark denotes some kind of change in desire, an “accession to a certain stage, a certain level of, desire”, as he puts it in the passage above. We might think for example of the way in which in classical analytic theory castration marks the stage of genital maturation, or how a tattoo marks the beginning or end of a relationship, the accession to membership of a tribe or group. But it does more than just mark the subject out (as reaching a certain point, as becoming a member of a group, etc), as Lacan goes on to develop:


“And you will tell me: there you are, we’ve got it! It is not difficult to encounter the mark. Already in our experience, when there are flocks, every shepherd has his little mark in order to distinguish his sheep from those of others, and it is not such a stupid remark. There is indeed a certain relationship, even if it is only because of this: it is that in any case we shall already grasp in this that the mark presents itself all the same with a certain transcendence with respect to the constitution of the flock.


Should this satisfy us? It is quite true in a certain fashion, for example that circumcision presents itself as constituting a certain flock, the flock of the elect, of the sons of God.


Is all we are doing here rediscovering this?


Surely not. What analytic experience, and what Freud from the beginning contributes, is that there is a close, intimate relationship between desire and the mark. The fact is that the mark is not there simply as a sign of recognition for the shepherd, whose position we would find it difficult to know in this instance, but that when we are dealing with man, this means that the marked living being here has a desire which is not without a certain intimate relationship with this mark.


It is not a question of advancing too quickly, nor of saying what this mark is which modifies desire. There is perhaps from the beginning in this desire a gap which permits this mark to take on its special incidence, but what is certain is that there is the closest relationship between that which characterises this desire in the case of man, and the incidence, the role and the function of the mark. We rediscover this confrontation of the signifier and of desire which is that on which we should here bring all our questioning to bear.” (Seminar V, 26.03.1958.)


If it is something about the mark as such which denotes desire, what is this something? Lacan’s remarks are very careful here – he is simply suggesting to his audience rather than proposing a theory – but in the context of his later work we can see his comment on “a gap which permits this mark to take on its special incidence” as heralding the future elaborations we have noted in the other three articles in this series. The mark, like the einziger Zug of Freud, or the unary trait that Lacan is later to elaborate a theory of from Seminar IX, has the character of singularity that allows the subject’s desire to be assumed more as his or her own and less as the desire of the Other proper. Whilst many Lacanians might retort immediately with the famous Lacanian aphorism that ‘man’s desire is the desire of the Other’, is this enough to end the question? In his Seminar VII on ethics, which bridges the comments above from Seminar V and the introduction of the unary trait in Seminar IX, Lacan clearly leaves room for agency in subjectivity. The subject cannot merely be thought of as an epiphenomenon of the signifying chain or the sum of alienating imaginary identifications. Maybe we cannot say more than this, and it is clear that Lacan is reluctant to grant the subject the ability to determine itself by attributing to it a psychology. But if there is no agency to subjectivity what possibly could an ethics of psychoanalysis – which Lacan strove so hard to articulate – look like? And why would he conclude that this ethics amounted to the duty to be speak well of one’s symptom  (“du devoir de bien dire”, Television, p.22), if the subject lacked the agency with which to do it? Finally, and perhaps most crucially, how would an analysis have any effect if there was no agency to subjectivity?


By Owen Hewitson, LacanOnline.com

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