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  • A Pound of Flesh: Lacan’s Reading of The Visible and the Invisible
  • Charles Shepherdson (bio)

This cut in the signifying chain alone verifies the structure of the subject as discontinuity in the real.

—Lacan, “Subversion of the Subject”

This moment of cut is haunted by the form of a bloody scrap—the pound of flesh that life pays in order to turn it into the signifier of signifiers, which it is impossible to restore, as such, to the imaginary body.

—Lacan, “Direction of the Treatment”

A philosophy of the flesh is the condition without which psychoanalysis remains anthropology.

—Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible

1. The Limit of Language

When The Visible and the Invisible was published in 1964, Lacan was teaching for the first time at the École normale supérieure. In the fall of 1963, the previous semester, the French Society for Psychoanalysis had excluded Lacan from its list of approved training analysts, which also meant his rejection from the society founded by Freud himself, the International Psychoanalytic Association. 1 As a result, Lacan cancelled his seminar at Sainte-Anne [End Page 70] Hospital, where it had been running for ten years, and began teaching for the first time before a university audience (at the invitation of Fernand Braudel, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Louis Althusser, and other supporters who had arranged for him to continue his teaching). Philosophers like Jean Wahl and Jean Hyppolite had of course taken an interest in his work for many years, but this was the first time that participants in his seminar no longer needed the special credentials required to enter the psychiatric clinic at the teaching hospital. The seminar was now open to the public, was considerably larger than it had ever been, and its participants came mainly from the university. Lacan was now obliged to make a case for his work before the academic world.

The seminar he had planned for that year was called Les noms-du-père (The Names-of-the-Father), but only one session took place. 2 When he moved from Sainte-Anne to the École normale, he offered a different course, which was published as Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, although it was originally entitled Les fondements de la psychanalyse (The Foundations of Psychoanalysis). 3 It is clear, therefore, that this seminar constitutes a new beginning of sorts, a return to fundamental principles. It also involves a concerted effort, on Lacan’s part, to prove himself.

If we begin with these historical details, it is not because of their intrinsic importance, or because a theoretical text can be reduced to its historical milieu, but because Lacan’s remarks on The Visible and the Invisible can be grasped only if we recognize the specific concerns that occupied him during this course. 4

Before we turn to that course, however, let us sketch its horizon more precisely. The ill-fated session from the Names-of-the-Father seminar, which has been published in the English (but not the French) edition of Television, contains an analysis of the “voice” which is very close to the account of the “gaze” that organizes his discussion of Merleau-Ponty [see Salecl and Zizek]. The session on the “voice” develops through a reading of the biblical account of Abraham and Isaac [see Derrida], which is in turn elaborated by reference to Caravaggio’s depiction of the sacrifice of Isaac and Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling—the entire session providing a brief summary of Lacan’s course on anxiety from the previous semester (the unpublished Seminar X: L’angoisse, 1962–63), in which Heidegger is never far away. 5 The context for his treatment of Merleau-Ponty is therefore extremely complex and overdetermined, opening in many directions, but at the same time it is extremely precise, in the sense that Lacan’s purpose in exploring these materials is not primarily philosophical, but concerns the development of a fairly narrow and technical point within psychoanalytic theory, namely, the problem of the drive. 6 [End Page 71]

We thus have an initial orientation: as objects of the drive, the “voice” and the “gaze” are not properties of the subject (the...