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  • Without Ground: Lacanian Ethics and the Assumption of Subjectivity by Calum Neill
  • Susannah Wilson
Without Ground: Lacanian Ethics and the Assumption of Subjectivity. By Calum Neill. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. xiv + 256 pp., ill.

Originally published in 2011, this new paperback edition of Calum Neill’s impressively incisive study of a series of Lacanian concepts relating to ethics and subjectivity will be a welcome addition to scholarship on the subject. It is a densely theoretical tome and, while no concrete applications to art and literature are offered, its conception of the unconscious will be of interest to scholars working on material that raises pressing ethical questions, from life-writing to film and contemporary literature. The book seeks to trace how the ideas of individual autonomy and agency are conceptually linked to ethics, broadly conceived. It does this by working through a range of key Lacanian ideas and demonstrating the various ways in which these ideas problematize the assumption of the self-aware subject, the cognizant individual at the centre of an ethical (or not-so-ethical) act. Following a ‘Brief History of Ethics’ from Plato to Kant, Neill offers a four-part examination of the problem of ethics in relation to Lacan that in turn focuses on the subject, Lacanian ethics, the Other, and the social. For anyone seeking clarification of Lacan’s notoriously arcane prose, this book may not help; but simplification is not its aim. Neill’s prose is considered and precise, and he frequently pauses to re-tread conceptual ground in order to securely assert a concept; though ultimately rewarding, it is a book that demands a great deal of its reader. The first section focuses on the subject, perhaps the most troubling of all concepts when considered in terms of ethics and responsibility, and here Neill traces Lacan’s return to Descartes not simplistically as a refutation of the cogito but rather as a recognition that the central notion of the split subject is already anticipated in Cartesian thought. As Lacan himself insisted on a return to Freud, this volume may be read as a return to Lacan through which Neill takes issue with a number of previous interpretations of Lacan, most notably the meaning of two ethical injunctions. The first, ‘the only thing of which one can be guilty is of having given ground to one’s desire’ (p. 75), leads to lengthy discussions on the law, judgement, guilt, and the Other. The second concerns James Strachey’s (mis)translation of Freud’s [End Page 413] ‘Es war, soll Ich werden’ as: ‘Where id was, there ego shall be’ (Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans. Strachey (London: Penguin, 1973), p. 112); in Lacanian terms this works, rather, as the injunction: ‘Where the subject was, there must I come into being.’ The central insight here is that — as problematic as it may be — psychoanalysis offers the subject the possibility of assuming responsibility for the uncontrolled productions of the unconscious through sublimation. Hence, for Neill, ‘[i]t is, then, in the sublimation of desire — in the process of recognising and changing the aim of desire, in giving meaning to desire — that an ethical position, however fleeting, becomes possible’ (p. 248).

Susannah Wilson
University of Warwick


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pp. 413-414
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