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  • Why the Family is Beautiful (Lacan Against Badiou)
  • Eleanor Kaufman (bio)

The theory of ethics that can be distilled from the work of Jacques Lacan and Alain Badiou bears no resemblance to many commonly received notions of the ethical, especially any that would link ethics to a system of morality. In fact, ethics is not necessarily the central concept in their work, even in Lacan's The Ethics of Psychoanalysis or Badiou's recent Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. If anything, it is defined vicariously and in relation to other more central concepts, such as the workings of desire for Lacan and the fidelity to an event—or truth-process—for Badiou. Nonetheless, an examination of the network of concepts held together under the umbrella of the ethical allows for a sharp distinction between the work of Lacan and Badiou, one that Badiou—himself avowedly indebted to Lacan—is hesitant to make. Where Lacan elevates the beautiful over the good in his reading of Sophocles's Antigone, Badiou elevates the truth-process over the evil betrayal of such an event, drawing on examples ranging from National Socialism to the love relation between two people. A truth-process is a situation-specific adherence, or fidelity, to the revolutionary potential of an event that may take place in one of the four realms of politics, art, science, and love. Perhaps Badiou's best example of a truth-process—what I will also refer to as fidelity to an event—is one not described in the text under consideration here: the apostle Paul's proclamation of and fierce loyalty to the event of Christ's resurrection. It is in the particular form in which the ethical fidelity to a truth-process may be hard to distinguish from evil that I will take issue with Badiou, for both his political examples and his evocation of love as one of four conduits to a truth-process reflect a difficult inflexibility in his extraordinarily lucid and provocative system. Lacan, on the other hand, uses Antigone's strange family values to suggest a more flexible model of ethics, one that is focused on the encounter with the inhuman and the fragile boundary between life and death.

Lacan's most sustained discussion of ethics occurs in his seminal Seminar Seven from 1959-60, entitled The Ethics of Psychoanalysis.1 Not only does this seminar register a gradual shift from an earlier emphasis on desire to a later focus on the real and the drive, but it is also a crucial articulation of what might seem for some to be an oxymoronic conjunction—psychoanalysis and ethics. Such a conjunction, as opposed to a Sartrean or Levinasian model that would situate ethics in relation to the Other,2 takes as its [End Page 135] touchstone Freud's stinging critique in Civilization and Its Discontents of the biblical injunction to love the neighbor as oneself. Here it is not merely a question of understanding why the neighbor may be equally an object of hatred, but of understanding how contradictory sentiments are also to be found at the heart of the self, and hence why a viable system of ethics must take this into consideration.3 In other words, ethics is not to be thought primarily as a relation to the other so much as a nonrelation to the self.4 Thus, when Lacan opposes the good to the beautiful, it is precisely the relational aspect of the good that he denigrates.

Lacan links the good to the dialectic and to the power to deprive others, situating it squarely in the realm of morality. The beautiful, by contrast, marks a space of nonrelation where it is not so much a matter of two distinct selves but rather of a single self whose desire is not its own. In Seminar Six from the previous year, Lacan analyzes Hamlet and suggests that the reason Hamlet does not kill Claudius is that he is traversed by his mother's desire. He emphasizes that Hamlet's desire is "the desire not for his mother, but of his mother."5 Between Seminars Six and Seven, Lacan shifts his focus from desire to ethics, from...