5 September 2008

Kant+Sade = The Lacanian Ethic

Filed under: Ktismata, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 4:01 pm

There’s one more thing I wanted to note in Subjectivity and Otherness (2007), Chiesa’s book about Lacan. I’d forgotten what it was, but now it’s come back. It has to do with the primeval energy force that for Lacan is the source of creation of everything, including the unconscious: the immanent “sprite of the current” that’s perpetually active behind the scenes, assembling and setting everything in motion, including the unconscious from which human subjectivity emerges. Here Chiesa shears off from Lacan and starts linking him to Kant and Sade in a way that I found intriguing.

I’ll quote at some length from Chiesa (p. 170):

I have repeatedly pointed out that what one finds in the place of the real object that cannot be refound is not just the self-conscious representation of the objects of everyday reality, but also the unconscious Real-of-the-Symbolic (the object a); Seminar VII primarily associates the latter with the superegoic jouissance of the commandment, which is something “intemperate” in itself — since it paradoxically becomes “crueller and crueller as we offend it less and less” — and constitutes the other “obscene” side of the positive moral law. More importantly, Lacan shows how the “inner voice” of the superego which “substitutes itself” for the primordial Real — negatively represented in the Symbolic by the “dumbness” of das Ding — is its “opposite and the reverse,” yet, unexpectedly, taken at its purest, it is also “identical” to it.

(Allow me to pause briefly to let the reader savor not only the density of Chiesa’s language in explaining the already-abstruse Lacanian texts, but also the relative clarity of my own summaries (lol). Though Chiesa seems impatient with his readers’ dull-wittedness (“I have repeatedly pointed out…”), I still find his writing difficult to parse — which of course gives me liberty to rewrite his text as it suits me without anyone being the wiser.)

In his first sentence Chiesa repeats himself but he also seems to contradict himself. Earlier he said that the undead Real as a “hole” in the Symbolic is not the same as the always-already missing objet a, which acquires its meaning inside the Symbolic itself and which represents that which has been cut off (castrated) from the self through socialization (I see my clarity is already getting muddied). My understanding was that the hole in the Symbolic isn’t the lost object that’s always being sought in the Other, but rather the void through which the undead archaic Real occasionally irrupts. The void doesn’t induce the desire to find or to be the lost objet a; rather, it stimulates new creation in the Symbolic, which simultaneously swallows up and makes forever inaccessible another part of the Real. But we move on…

According to Chiesa, Lacan associates objet a with “the superegoic jouissance of the commandment.” To be embedded in the Symbolic order, the self has to be castrated from the primeval Real, a Real that is “killed” by being drained into the Symbolic. But the self derives pleasure from this painful excision, because by it the self is assigned a place the social order, an order that’s “commanded” by language imposed by the Other on the self. The command becomes “crueller and crueller as we offend it less and less,” says Lacan: this is because the more we embed ourselves in the Symbolic the more we’re cut off from the Real. Symbolic castration is a continual trauma to which we voluntarily subject ourselves. So the “law,” defined in the broadest terms as the Symbolic order itself, the “Word,” the psychosocial reality defined by language — the law claims virtue in embedding us in society, but its “obscenity” is its cruelty in leaving us cut off, with some part of us always missing or “holed.”

Chiesa says that, for Lacan, the superego substitutes for the primordial Real, both as the absence of the Real thing in itself and as the opposite of this absence. This absence and its opposite can’t be equated with the positive and negative features of the commandment, which operates within the Symbolic. Is it equated with the pleasure-and-its-opposite nature of jouissance? That doesn’t seem quite right either, since jouissance is the self’s emotional response to the bipolarity of the Symbolic commandment — which means that jouissance has to come after the Real has already been killed by the Symbolic. But “substitute” doesn’t necessarily mean “representation” or “trace”: the superego occupies the empty place that’s been vacated by the Real. So the superego needn’t resemble the Real-as-void any more than the Symbolic description of a thing resembles the thing-in-itself (see preceding post on this lack of correspondence between Real and Symbolic in Lacan).

But then we get the phrase that seems to overturn all that preceded it:

yet, unexpectedly, taken at its purest, it is also “identical” to it.

So here is a seemingly irresolvable paradox: the superego both substitutes for the primordial Real and is identical to it. This identity suggests that the Real possesses the bipolar properties of the superego: it both incorporates and cuts off; it induces both pleasure and pain. We already observed in the prior post that, per Chiesa, Lacan regards the Real as something like the Holy Spirit, an immanent force that’s integral to the world itself. Does this mean that the Holy Spirit manifests this bipolarity of the superego? We move on to Chiesa’s next two paragraphs:

This is where Kant’s philosophy and Sade’s novels come on the scene, and reveal their utmost ethical significance and danger. According to Lacan, both Kant and Sade attempt to force their way to the Real of the Thing — and thus return to the pure jouissance of the primordial Real — precisely by radicalizing the ambivalent nature of the superegoic commandment in opposite ways, by transforming it into a universal maxim to be understood as “pure signifying system.” Indeed, such an (asymptotic) purification of the Symbolic, the complete symbolization of the Real, can eventually achieve a real-ization of the Symbolic, its disappearance…

More specifically, Kant’s ethics and Sade’s “anti-ethics” similarly endeavor to exacerbate and final break with the dialectic between law and desire as inherent transgression which Saint Paul expressed in the following way: “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin [transgression].” The lack of mediation between law and desire in favor of one of the two should hypothetically give rise to either a pure jouissance of the Law, in the case of Kant, or an — ultimately indistinguishable — pure law of Jouissance, in the case of Sade. In other words, the Kantian categorical imperative “Act in such a way that the maxim of your action may be accepted as a universal maxim” is nothing but a reduction of the law to its pure form; the Sadean imperative “Let us take as a universal maxim of our conduct the right to enjoy any other person whatsoever as the instrument of our pleasure” is nothing but the reduction of the law to its object, to the “right to jouissance.”

The idea is this: Kant regards his ethic as intrinsic to the universe, a natural universal law, so it’s natural for a human to act in accord with this ethic. Because the ethic is intrinsic to human nature, following the ethic brings pleasure in its own right — the pleasure of being at one with the universal — regardless of whatever other benefits the person might derive from ethical behavior. The Kantian ethic valorizes the kind of middle way of Aristotle and Confucius, along with the communal Golden Rule — in other words, it’s an ethic that’s familiar and sort of comforting. But Sade, whose ethic is very different indeed, shares something with Kant: he too believes that his ethic is a law of nature. According to Sade, because self-gratification naturally produces pleasure, it must be a natural law and therefore good. The forces of violence and destruction clear the way for new creation, so to act as an agent of these forces is to resonate with the universal spirit of creativity. Inflicting violence on others, or even to have violence inflicted on oneself, would therefore stimulate a natural pleasure of being in tune with the universal forces.

What’s important from Lacan’s perspective is this: the person who subscribes to the Sadean ethic derives pleasure from violating Kant’s ethic, while the follower of Kant is pleasured by violating Sade’s ethic. So what would be the result of combining the Kantian and the Sadean natural ethics, polar opposites of one another but both intrinsic to nature itself? Presumably whoever acts in accord with this bipolar ethic would simultaneously experience both pleasure and its opposite. This pleasure-antipleasure admixture would result from ethical action regardless of whether the actor is following the mandate of the Kantian pole or the Sadean. This for Lacan is the pleasure-pain of jouissance. It arises whether a person follows a law or violates that same law, because violation too operates according to law. The universal law of the real is bipolar, and so is the natural affective response.

So, to summarize (sort of): By being inscribed in the Symbolic order, the individual experiences loss of the Real. The Symbolic order operates according to a Law by which the individual becomes more and more fully incorporated into the Symbolic, more closely connected in communal bonds with others. But another Law is at work: the other who subjects the individual to the Law derives pleasure from exerting power and destroying something in the individual, and the individual derives pleasure from violating Law. To seek one kind of lawful pleasure is, paradoxically, to seek the pain of violating the inverse law. Desire is thus always infused with this ambivalent affect of jouissance. Fully pursuing this bipolar pleasure-pain of desire, becoming more and more fully inscribed in a Symbolic order that simultaneously includes its own opposite, paradoxically brings the person into closer and closer contact with the bipolar Real. Law and jouissance, emerging as replacements for the Real as the Real is progressively killed by the Symbolic, paradoxically transform themselves into a new Real that pushes through the Symbolic. It’s like a Möbius strip: you walk along one surface until eventually you find yourself on the other side.



  1. In the preceding post Parodycenter objected to my contention that Lacan is pessimistic. Says PC of Lacan, “his mission is to allow the subject to pursue his own jouissance – that’s not pessimistic, he merely acknowledges the fact that this is a very hard and demanding road.”

    In a sense the Lacanian outlook is oddly optimistic for the individual subject. There is no pure pleasure to be had: the pleasure of formulating Symbolic knowledge in consciousness is attained at the price of the pain of losing contact with the Real; pursuing a Kantian good-pleasure means simultaneously renouncing a Sadean good-pleasure. But, if you can come to grips with this inevitable admixture of pleasure and pain that is jouissance, you stop having to worry about suboptimizing your life. If you feel pain you can surely discover the pleasure that accompanies this pain; if you feel that your pleasure isn’t perfect you can accept that this feeling of incompleteness is also a kind of pleasure-in-pain. One can come to a place of self-acceptance knowing that whatever one is feeling, one is surely also feeling the opposite at the same time. No guilt, no striving for improvement, no disappointment — or rather, each of these painful feelings comes with its own compensating pleasure. It’s a kind of Taoistic go-with-the-flow in which everything always contains its opposite.


    Comment by ktismatics — 13 September 2008 @ 11:03 am

  2. You and I have had many discussions on Paul’s view of the Law and the Flesh. In light of your most recent research and posting on Lacan, do you have any updates to your interpretation of Paul?

    As we’ve discussed: Paul seems to recognize the connection between the Flesh and the Law. The Flesh almost seems to define itself in terms of Law. And yet in Galatians 5, Paul seems to suggest that we can go beyond the Law-Flesh dialectic. Paul’s idea is to live a life of freedom through the Spirit: “walk with the Spirit and you will no longer satisfy the desires of the Flesh” and “If you live by the Spirit, you are no longer under law.”

    Any thoughts on Paul’s vision of Spirit-Freedom?


    Comment by Erdman — 13 September 2008 @ 5:00 pm

  3. Certainly when we were discussing this before, Erdman, I thought our reading of Paul fit well with Lacan’s ideas on law and freedom. My posts on Badiou reflected a similar outlook, which isn’t surprising since Badiou is in a sense Lacanian as well. I’m curious about what Affect is associated with freedom. We tend to think of it as jubilant or lighthearted, but if it’s jouissance then there might always be some degree of pain mixed with the pleasure. I think that’s certainly likely if one were to adopt the Pauline ethos of freedom-to-love. I’m not sure one would ever evade the pain of self-limitation mixed with the joy in satisfying the other’s well-being. I.e., “desiring the desire of the Other” almost has to leave one a bit hollow, unless the other desires your desire as well. I wonder also if there’s any pain associated with dying to the Law; i.e., is there a sense of loss of security that accompanies this freedom?


    Comment by ktismatics — 13 September 2008 @ 7:29 pm

  4. It should be remembered too that for Lacan the Law refers not just to moral injunctions but to the whole Symbolic order. All of language functions as a law in the sense of assigning meaning — to the world and to the self — in ways prescribed by the Other. We’ve discussed how the Law provokes the desire to violate that which is prohibited. But this occurs not just in morality but in all these ways in which society and language constrain us to be who the Other tells us we are. There is no getting out of Symbolic order and this lawlike function of language that defines us from outside ourselves. What Lacan regards as the breakthrough is attaining the realization that there is no Big Other — no actual entity behind language who assures us that the societally-accepted meanings are objectively true. This realization enables the individual to explore freedom without having constantly to rebel against this constraining Other. But freedom doesn’t take the individual beyond the Symbolic, beyond language. Rather it lets the individual start speaking his world and himself using his own meanings. In a sense the self doesn’t get completely beyond Law, but is freed to experiment with personally meaningful laws of his own discovery/creation. So if you’re dead to the Law it means that the Big Other no longer stands behind the externally-imposed structured codes. You are free not just to ignore these codes but to decide whether you are prepared to endorse some or all of them according to your own standards. I think this is the implication in Lacan world, though it surely needs more investigation and thought. I.e., I’m thinking that Lacan’s “no Big Other” formula doesn’t mean lawlessness but rather self-defined codes freed from societal mandate and threat of punishment for violation.


    Comment by ktismatics — 13 September 2008 @ 8:33 pm

  5. Thanks for these thoughts. I continue to glean some value from your perspective on Lacan.

    K: What Lacan regards as the breakthrough is attaining the realization that there is no Big Other — no actual entity behind language who assures us that the societally-accepted meanings are objectively true. This realization enables the individual to explore freedom without having constantly to rebel against this constraining Other.

    I appreciate your explanation here. I’m wondering, though, whether this would really constitute a “break through” for any and all. Doesn’t common observation teach us that most people are happy not to be free? That they prefer law to tell them what to do and how to think? This certainly seems to be the thinking of the Grand Inquisitor: radical freedom is too much of a burden for most people. The GI is complaining against Jesus b/c he feels Jesus came to save the few, while the GI cares about the masses of mankind. Nietzsche had comments about “the herd,” Kierkegaard had thoughts on “the crowd”…..all along these similar lines.

    K: But freedom doesn’t take the individual beyond the Symbolic, beyond language.

    Yes, this is kind of where I find myself asking questions. What does freedom look like after the “break through.” From what you describe here, the Lacanian freedom is a bit different from the Pauline idea of freedom. The Pauline vision ushers the individual into a new dimension, of sorts; one moves beyond the law-desire dynamic. This seems more radical than Lacan, but it all hinges on whether there is something external (“the Spirit”). In Lacanian terms (as I understand our discussion thus far), “the Real” might be that external reference point; however, I’m not clear as to whether it is realistic to expect to actually experience the Real…..but then again, I’m also wondering about the possibility of truly experiencing what Paul describes as “walking with the Spirit.”

    K: I’m thinking that Lacan’s “no Big Other” formula doesn’t mean lawlessness but rather self-defined codes freed from societal mandate and threat of punishment for violation.

    This sounds like a lot of French thinking in Lacan’s time, no? Experimenting with the idea of anarchy?


    Comment by Erdman — 15 September 2008 @ 5:32 pm

  6. “Doesn’t common observation teach us that most people are happy not to be free? That they prefer law to tell them what to do and how to think?”

    Following Lacan, Law goes beyond moral imperative to practically everything in human existence: social relations, identity, understanding of the world. All of it is mediated by language, and the meaning of language precedes your and my appearance in the world. Per Lacan, this means that language itself defines us and our relationships to the world and to each other. The moral law is just a special case of this larger principle: by embedding us in the social order of human society, language cuts us off from the Real and embeds us in a socially agreed-upon matrix of signifiers and signifieds. You are Erdman not by virtue of who you are Really, but as that empty space left by all other words which are not-Erdman, as well as by all words others have used to describe you from their perspective. I think there’s some truth to this.

    Morality works like this as well: resistance to the Law can be an act of rebellion against the Big Other who established the Law and against the Father in whose name your own father laid down this Law to you. But in so doing you’re still acting as if there is a Big Other who verifies the eternal Truth of this Law. It’s just societal convention, a structure of signifiers floating free from the Real. But freedom from this structure entails freeing oneself from the Symbolic order — from language and conscious thought — which means psychosis. Freedom is limited, says Lacan, to operating within the Symbolic order in a way that recognizes that no final authority stands behind any of it other than societal convention, which is a formidable constraint in its own right. To attempt to define yourself and your relation to the world without the social conventions of language and thought, and with the possibility of returning to the primeval Real forever barred, is likely to meet with only limited success. It’s not just an existential burden to be free of the Symbolic order; it’s an impossibility. Lacan, to my knowledge, never describes what it’s like, partly because he’s never seen a successful example of it, partly because by definition it’s beyond description by conventional language. Maybe that’s why Lacan’s writing is so elliptical and impenetrable — he’s trying to find his own Real, his own Symbolic order. Still, it’s the goal of Lacanian analysis: to loosen up the unconscious signifiers from social convention as to what they signify, to open up the possibility of the occasional irruption of the primeval Real that persists behind language, behind the unconscious.

    I don’t see how Paul can be regarded as more radical than Lacan in this regard. While Paul isn’t the one who equates Jesus with the Word, he still seems to be writing both descriptively, in terms his audience can understand, and persuasively, to embed them in yet another Symbolic order — of which there have been many through history.

    Going beyond the law-desire dynamic is what this particular post is about. It’s not just that law stimulates the desire it prohibits, which is the way we’ve been talking about it. Rather, every law also has an inverse law, so that following the one results in violating the other. So, e.g., “do unto others” is one universal law, and following it brings a kind of pleasure from being in touch with the way the universe works. But there’s another universal law which says to do as you please even if it hurts others, and following this law also brings pleasure because it’s in keeping with the way the universe works. So doing unto others means violating this inverse law of doing as you please, while doing as you please violates the inverse law of doing unto others. Therefore there is no pure pleasure to be had, says Lacan: there is only jouissance, pleasure-pain. This takes you beyond the law-desire-violation dialectic not by fully freeing oneself from law but by coming to some recognition that everything you do is bound by diametrically opposed Laws. So if you freely choose a course outside of Law you will not find unadulterated pleasure, because these mutually contradictory Laws continue to impinge on you through others, through your own habitual superego, and perhaps through the self-contradictory multiplicity of the Holy Spirit whose force propels itself through the world.

    Does this make sense, Erdman? I think I’m just starting to get it myself.


    Comment by ktismatics — 16 September 2008 @ 6:31 am

  7. to open up the possibility of the occasional irruption of the primeval Real that persists behind language, behind the unconscious.

    hm, I don’t think it’s he wants to open up the irruption of the Real (he did not advocate the psychotization of his clients), rather, he wants to patch up the network that got tangled up in that suturing point where the Unconscious is decoded into the Conscious – it’s a translation job, really. When the unconscious thought gets ”decoded” back into the conscious, the client will be free of NEUROTIC confusions, bad feelings and upset coming from his misrecognition of the ”true” motives for his behavior, but he won’t be allowed entrance back to the womb. As I underlined many times before, psychoanalysis is no deliverance; it will not make you happy and it won’t make you feel better about yourself. If anything it will make you less rigid, more flexible in pursuing your confusing desires, but the desires themselves, where and how they come to be, remains beyond the grasp of PA and is the territory of religion – which has nothing to do with PA, except in Colonel Chabert’s imagination. (all these concerned Communists who were frowning on Freud for his alleged frolicking with Jesus)

    I think a lot of the misunderstanding related to this comes from the melodramatic representation of PA in Hitchcock’s films (which Zizek only exacerbates) as something with a ”climax” and ”a catharsis” and ”deep feelings” involved. The typically hackneyed version would be ”Marnie”. No small amount of blame is to be put on hacks like Janov (”the primal scream”) or A. Loven who confabulated all these peak experiences and orgasmic climaxes – witness how sadly their thoughts bombed when all this tearjerker industry collapsed with the defeat of Communism.


    Comment by parody center — 16 September 2008 @ 7:21 am

  8. “As I underlined many times before.”

    This frustration must be an occupational hazard suffered by every Lacanian interpreter — maybe it’s part of the jouissance of knowing more than other people about something. I sent the Chiesa book back to the library already, but as I remember it he interprets Lacan as saying that things like Freudian slips constitute a kind of slippage in the tectonic plates of the Symbolic, revealing gaps in the structure. Through these gaps one can glimpse, however briefly, the Real, and through the gaps the unformulated Real can slip into consciousness where it can be formulated verbally and absorbed into the Symbolic. But I think in both of these cases the analysand can never directly engage the Real on its own terms: as you say, to do so requires a psychotic break from consciousness and a full immersion in the prelinguistic unconscious realm of signifiers floating free of signifieds.

    The analysand never confronts the Real on its own terms, but the Real can make its presence felt — in symptoms, in cognitive-linguistic slippage, in jouissance — yes? These appearances reveal the need for further “translation,” for realigning the signifiers and signifieds, for loosening up overly rigid structures and making possible new arrangements. Does that seem right based on your experience, PC? Or can the analysand only hope to align himself consciously-Symbolically with the fixed structures that since early childhood have already established themselves in the unconscious? No, I think that’s not what you’re saying: “If anything it will make you less rigid, more flexible in pursuing your confusing desires.” But the desires, and the specific trajectories toward which they aim for the analysand: are these rigidly fixed for Lacan? And overcoming neurosis is becoming willing to acknowledge one’s own unique trajectory of desire, rather than trying to reorient that desire? Or is desire a congeries of aimless vectors shooting through the self which the self can direct or deflect at least to a certain degree, as per somebody like Deleuze?

    You mention Zizek, but Badiou also focuses on the sudden unprecedented appearance of the Real, which he calls the Event, irrupting through the empty hole in the Symbolic structure, which he calls the Void. And it is evident that through human history people have become conscious of more and more phenomena, have extended the network of language farther and farther. So the Real must periodically appear and get progressively incorporated into the Symbolic. Lacan acknowledges as much by saying the Symbolic “kills” the Real: this couldn’t happen if the Symbolic never contacted the Real. This happens within children as well: they progressively become conscious of more and more things.


    Comment by ktismatics — 16 September 2008 @ 9:03 am

  9. you might have more use of a direct account, so i will say here – though for reasons of privacy violation i can’t tell you exactly who the persons invovled were – that the kernel of my problem was something related to abandonment, and at one point in the analysis, which i feel retrospectively to have been its success, i had this totally overwhelming rush of exasperation and sadness; it was very unusual and not merely an emotional flood, as you’d have it when someone dies, but a kind of an existential insight into this condition of abandonment. once i was able to EXPERIENCE this horror, it became less detrimental and paralyzing to my communication with people. in the sense that i was later more able to deal with the concept of being abandoned.


    Comment by parodycenter — 18 September 2008 @ 11:24 am

  10. Having never undergone an analysis it’s hard for me to recreate what it must feel like subjectively by reading theoretical accounts. It sounds as though you weren’t reliving through memory the trauma of an early historical experience of abandonment. Rather, you were experiencing what it’s like to live here and now a life that’s always tainted — haunted you might say — by the immanence of abandonment. This wasn’t an insight expressed in words, but maybe something like an affective tone or mood that precedes and shapes language. But you also refer to it as an insight, so there must also have been some conscious component to the experience. Having undergone this profound existential experience, your interpersonal communications subsequently change for the better — so somehow this insight either precipitated or reflected a reorganization not just of your past experiences but of the way you participate in new experiences. Really interesting. Do you remember what it was in the analysis that precipitated this insight, Dejan, if you don’t mind my asking? Was it triggered by memory, or by something in your relationship to your analyst, or some new insight into a general pattern in your life?


    Comment by ktismatics — 19 September 2008 @ 12:36 am

  11. Was it triggered by memory, or by something in your relationship to your analyst, or some new insight into a general pattern in your life?

    there was a love affair that I never quite recovered from, an instance of unrequited love, one of those fateful things. the insight i gained is that i don’t have to be so affixed (obsessed) by a single object.


    Comment by parodycenter — 20 September 2008 @ 2:29 pm

  12. I’m glad this went well for you, PC. I must say, though, that it sounds juicy. Being the sensitive type who doesn’t pry into other people’s affairs, I shan’t ask. However, if you feel the need to share…


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 September 2008 @ 10:02 pm

  13. I take it back — I shouldn’t make light of your experience, since I was asking specifically about something you said you’d rather not reveal too much about. Your experience reveals by way of contrast the shallowness of cognitive behavioral therapy. Of course it’s irrational to obsess on someone who doesn’t return your love — you already knew that when you walked in the therapist’s office. Coming up with an action plan for responding rationally to the situation is to repress the inner conflict in the name of getting back on your feet as quickly as possible. But beyond this failure of the CBT there remains this sense of looking for THE ONE, which it sounds like you foresook as a result of your existential insight.


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 September 2008 @ 6:57 pm

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