[This is the third and probably last in a series on Chiesa’s 2007 book Subjectivity and Otherness: A Philosophical Reading of Lacan.]
In his immensely helpful A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis (1997), Bruce Fink asserts that, for Lacan,
The real… is what has not yet been put into words or formulated… This real, according to Lacan, has to be signified through analysis: it has to be spoken, put into signifiers. As Jacques-Alain Miller has put it, analysis involves the progressive “draining away” of the real into the symbolic. (Fink, p. 49)
By Fink’s account, then, the analysand’s experience while undergoing Lacanian analysis is quite compatible with relational psychoanalyst Donnel Stern’s fine 2003 book Unformulated Experience (see link in prior post). But Stern, whose representational understanding of language is influenced strongly by Gadamer’s hermeneutics, separates himself from Lacan, who disconnects truth from direct human experience of the real.
Truth for Lacan is found in error, misapprehension, nonsense, word-play, and the weird juxtaposition of dreams. (Stern, p. 9)
For Lacan truth need have no connection whatever to the Real, because the Symbolic order “kills the Real.” It’s in these unplanned and unexpected lacunæ within the Symbolic that the Real is able to irrupt, however briefly, before being absorbed in language or repressed again. This is “the Real of the unconscious,” the main focus of Lacanian analysis. (It’s also, I think, the basis for Zizek’s parallax and Badiou’s event.)
But it’s not clear in what way the unconscious contains or connects to the Real, if the unconscious consists of a loosely structured assemblage of linguistic signifiers disconnected from the signifieds to which they are sutured in consciousness and by which they are assigned meaning in the Symbolic order. Signifiers are Real in the trivial, non-linguistic sense of being material entities comprised of physical marks and phonological elements. The more important question is this: are the signifiers of the unconscious connected, on the back end as it were, to the primordial Real, the things-in-themselves, a connection that is severed by crossing the Symbolic threshold into language? Or, to say it another way: The Symbolic order castrates the unconscious subject from the Real in order to embed it in a social reality defined in terms of the Other of language. Is there an “Other of the Other,” by which the Symbolic retains some trace of a connection with the structured order of the Real?
At first Lacan answered in the affirmative. The name of the Father, around which the Symbolic is organized, pointed beyond all those who occupy the role of father in actual families to a primordial Father who validates the Symbolic order. The Symbolic Other of the Symbolic Other is like Descartes’ non-trickster God who assures us that our understanding of things corresponds to God’s understanding. Later, though, Lacan disavowed this idea of a God-the-Father of the Symbolic. But though the Other of the Other was no more to be found in Lacan’s psychological cosmogony, there remained the primal creative energy from which everything springs, a Real and absolute Other. However, the individual cannot know this Other directly; its existence must be inferred only after it has already been “killed” by the Symbolic. All that remains of this primal Real is the hole in the Symbolic where it used to be: the Real as already-dead, as undead, as “not-One.” The pure primal Real remains forever barred to sentient humanity. This undead Real isn’t the always-missing objet a of the Symbolic that results from castration, from the self being cut off from the Real and incorporated into the Symbolic, but rather a hole in the structure of the Symbolic itself, a no-thing rather than a missing thing.
Though the primal Real remains forever inaccessible to humans, it is the engine that generates everything in the world, including humanity. The unconscious, being something like a language but not actually embedded in the Symbolic, maintains contact with this pre-sentient animal Real. Not only that, but this Real generates and energizes the unconscious itself. So if the unconscious is structured like a language, does its structure correspond to or emerge from the primal Real? Apparently so. Chiesa says that, for Lacan, the primal Other is the Holy Spirit, the immanent elan vitale, the “sprite of the current” that creates everything, including the unconscious, ex nihilo.
This Real as primal force isn’t the object of empirical scientific knowledge, which is a Symbolic investigation of the Imaginary appearances of the world rather than of the Real world itself. The only contact with the primal Real occurs outside of and prior to both the Imaginary and the Symbolic, in the unconscious. As Lacan once said, “God is not dead; God is unconscious.” Though the Symbolic in effect kills the Real by absorbing it into itself, the undead Real continues to make itself known through the hole in the Symbolic, a hole that can only be entered through the unconscious. The primal Real thus constitutes a void, a non-thing in the unconscious, that occasionally makes itself evident within the Symbolic. It is from this unconscious void that all new Symbolic knowledge emerges, a creative disjuncture that can only glimpsed after it has already been closed up again within the Symbolic. (This idea of the creative void of the unconscious Real corresponds, I believe, to Badiou’s idea of the void and the event.) What breaks through the void is something like the Holy Spirit, the not-One, the pure multiple of inchoate creation. Says Chiesa:
for Lacan, the creation ex nihilo of the signifier on which human thought depends is truly materialistic; Lacan’s creationism is a form of antihumanist immanentism… the Symbolic emerges as an immanent consequence of the primordial Real. Yet the point of creation ex nihilo is also the point of infinity: what precedes it can only be thought as impossible (to think) — one cannot think the primordial Real, or the point of creation. (p. 137)
Lacan says in Seminar VII that the Symbolic
has been functioning as far back in time as [man's unconscious] memory extends. Literally, you cannot remember beyond it, I’m talking about the history of mankind as a whole.
Concludes Chiesa on this issue of Lacan’s primal Real:
the points of creation and destruction (of history) are a strict logical “necessity,” but they can be posited only through retroactive or anticipatory mythical speculations. This is how the finitude of man as parlêtre engendered by creation ex nihilo opens a “limited” space of infinity, the “absoluteness of desire” that must be opposed to the eternal immortality of the undead — that is to say, the primordial Real, pre- or postsymbolic “nature” as not-One. (p. 138)
This summative statement clears up some things while muddying others. Briefly, though, with respect to Meillassoux’s agenda, Lacan doesn’t believe it’s possible to touch the Real either before or after human finitude, nor is it possible to assert that what sentient humans understand about the Real has any correspondence with what the Real is like in itself.
[ADDED 4 SEPTEMBER] As I said in my last two posts about Chiesa, Lacan’s inversions and convolutions about the Real seem not just unnecessarily complex but counterintuitive and at odds with empirical research. Lacan and Stern share the underlying psychoanalytic perspective that an individual’s conscious awareness expands by formulating in thought and language what remains unformulated in the unconscious. Stern probably preserves too much of the Real by retaining the representational view of language, whereby the content and structure of the Symbolic order can be directly mapped onto the content and structure of the Real which it formulates. But to contend that conscious formulation kills the Real, which continues to haunt the Symbolic as an undead hole or non-thing, goes too far in the other direction — it’s kind of like saying that flour and eggs and sugar are killed by the cake into which they’ve been baked. Language and thought are essential to human survival in the Real — they are, one could say, integral to the human Real. The perceptual and cognitive tools by which the human mind apprehends and structures information presented to it by the Real need not correspond directly to the thing in itself, but it must, I think, describe characteristics of the thing if it’s to be pragmatically useful — characteristics that exist in the Real independent of human apprehension. But now I’m stepping dangerously into the philosophical territory of speculative realism, about which I know barely enough even to be slightly dangerous to myself.