- Lacan and the Subject
Lacan, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, Sass, subjectivity
This important essay helps us to situate Lacan within the context of phenomenological thought, and to outline both convergences and divergences with his contemporaries in relation to the phenomenological tradition. The key question which Sass focuses on is of interest here not only to the history of ideas, but also to the clinical practice of psychoanalysis. In the very disparate field casually referred to with the misnomer ‘post-structuralism,’ are the cries of ‘the death of the subject’ to be taken seriously? Is there really a rejection of subjecthood and subjectivity or rather a reformulation and reframing of these notions?
Via a discussion of Lacan’s three registers of real, symbolic, and imaginary, Sass focuses on the dimension of ‘experiential life,’ not in the sense of what he describes as ‘a realm of absolute clarity and certitude,’ but as subjective life with all its ‘limits, constraints and realms of blindness.’ Once subjectivity is construed as neither transparent to itself nor as self-grounding, it can be equated with the very impasses of such realizations, which Sass then links to the Lacanian registers. So, in Sass’s formulation, experience as illusory (the imaginary), as epiphenomenal (the symbolic) or as blind (the real). This is a Kantian procedure, which invites, in turn, a Kantian commentary.
From this perspective, it is difficult to identify the imaginary and the symbolic as modes of experience. Rather, they are grounds of experience, in the sense of categories necessary to account for it, and which, at certain moments, may seem to emerge in purer form than at other moments. Psychosis offers an example of what can happen when these registers become disengaged, yet, as Lacan emphasized, it is less a question here of evoking simply the real, the symbolic or the imaginary than a quasi-algebraic articulation of them: for example, the symbolic, the real of the symbolic, the imaginary of the real of the symbolic, and so on. The logic here is relational, and the very tempting reification of these registers should probably be resisted, lest one end up as the dinner guest who insists that reality is divided into three orders.
Diacritical definition often works against reification, and we could make a few remarks here about Lacan’s registers. The symbolic cannot really be opposed to a more ‘authentic’ or ‘immediate’ level of experience which it cuts us off from. Certainly, it can help to create the actual idea of such a level, which emerges only after an incorporation of symbolic structure, a process which Lacan models using stoic physics. As for the real, it can be an ‘unknowable and unattainable beyond,’ but this is also an effect of the symbolic. The real is generally not beyond enough, submerging us with an invasive proximity which we may do our best to extract from the body or distance in whatever ways are possible for us. [End Page 367]
To follow Lacan’s conceptualization, examples could range from the point of horror in a nightmare that wakes us up to Newton’s laws of gravitation. The first fractures imaginary and symbolic processing, the second incarnates both an impossibility to imaginarize (the mathematical formalization shedding empirical garb, like Galileo’s frictionless planes or Kepler’s perfect ellipses) and, arguably, an emptying out of signifying content (although not to Newton himself). The real here cannot be understood as an ‘overall way in which one can (and does) experience the world and oneself’ because it is, in contrast, a condition of both the possibility and impossibility of experience. The same could be said for the imaginary and the symbolic registers. In that sense, they are not modes of being but ways of indexing failures or impasses of being.
These failures were theorized by Lacan in different ways at different moments in his work: the psychical, neurological and motor prematurity of the infant in relation to the mirror image, the want-to-be established by the structure of the signifier, and the repetitions engendered by a failed encounter with the real, for example. That there is something distinctly human here, as Sass argues, is undeniable, but...