A Different Subject, A Subject of Difference
We are subjects. As such, we are subjected to the world. Our experience, our knowledge, our very thought is inseparable from this subjection. Must we then resign ourselves to despair, for being hopelessly imprisoned within subjectivity, only ever capable of glimpsing the Real with the forlorn eyes of a prisoner glimpsing the light of day through the barred window of a cell?
We are subjects, but first and foremost, we are.
We are subjects, and as such, our way of being is subjectivity. The Real, for us, is constituted through this way of being; it is constituted as subjective. By speaking in this way, we shift the problem: it is no longer the case that we are limited by subjectivity, trapped within it as its denigrated essence. We no longer think of ourselves, our very being, as in principle capable of attaining the Real in itself, though denied this perfection by the immobilizing chains of our subjectivity.
Rather, we must begin to think otherwise. What could it mean when we say that the Real is constituted, composed, created for us in this way? The Real can no longer be thought to preexist, as transcendent and apart from our existence – adrift in a world of change, of production and dissolution, life and death. The Real is no longer a world apart from our own, apart from the cruelty, the violence, the precariousness of our situation; untouched, pristine, divine. We should no longer dwell on an impossible desire to escape this precarious existence into the eternal, into a direct relation with the Real.
Subjectivity is our very way of being, it is in this way that we exist, that we are something that exists. Our existence maintains a certain minimum of consistency and stability, a ground or condition. Condition here does not mean an extrinsic form imposed upon some inert docility, securing dependence and limitation, like shackles and chains. Condition must obtain the sense of a mode of being or of life, a way of being and living. It relates immediately to the process of genesis of existence, which is the ground which any form whatsoever presupposes, as the foundations of a structure presuppose the earth upon which they are lain.
Subjectivity is the very constitution of our existence, be it a fragile constitution. This 'something', this ground or support, this composition or 'makeup', must itself be thought in terms of the process of its genesis, and no longer as some extrinsic and preexistent form of possibility such that any direct experience of the Real is excluded as impossible. We said above that the Real is constituted for us, and this remark will only make sense if we understand ourselves, 'we', in terms of this constitution: the minimum support necessary for the process through which the Real is constituted, which is ultimately inseparable from the process itself.
In this sense, we are able to think ourselves and our relation to the Real such that we are the modes, the conditions, the ways in which the Real is constituted as such. The constitution of my existence is rendered by virtue of the process through which my relation to the Real is constituted, and I am ultimately nothing more than this processual relation. As the Real is constituted for us, we are this constitution and nothing else.
If one thinks of the concrete constitution of one's existence, this implies many things. We think of the body, itself nothing more than a multiplicity of organs, tissues, cells, fluids, systems, signals, etc., arranged in a certain way. One thinks of one's social situation, inseparable from a multiplicity of other people, family members and friends, acquaintances and strangers, enemies and lovers; inseparable as well from a multiplicity of physical elements, geographic, ecological, and man-made structures; and of course, sociality is inseparable from concrete discourse, which depends upon the enormous multiplicity of differential elements of articulation and designation that make up language. One thinks of one's so-called 'inner experience', which is inseparable from a multiplicity of sensations, memories, thoughts, passions, prerogatives, shifting relations with the 'outside'.
All of this points to one thing: there is no 'one thing' that is one's self; rather, oneself is itself generated in and of a multiplicity of things belonging to various registers, brought together and agglomerated, composed, constituted in a certain fashion, such that a minimum of stability and consistency endures. 'Oneself' is only ever said of several things. This coherence or consistency is then what we will call subjectivity; even prior to consciousness, conscious experience, the subject is said of the unconscious as that which grounds any experience, but which is irreducible to that which, in us, is inert and incapable of experience, the bare materiality of our makeup, the objective dimension of our existence. In fact, the unconscious, as this minimum consistency, is the condition, the ground, of the 'objective' or 'material' dimension no less than of consciousness and the faculties of cognition.
The unconscious is not simply that which is 'not conscious' within us. Rather, it is that element of the subject, of subjectivity, which grounds the subject's conscious experience, and subjectivity thereby takes on a more profound sense than simple consciousness. Consciousness must be unified in space and through time, depending on the identical self-relation of the one who is conscious, such that I know I am the one who has different experiences, and I know it is the same 'I' that endures throughout the flux of experience. Yet the unconscious is inseparable from a multiplicity that has no preestablished unity, and so rests on an original division, a split or scission, a 'relation of non-relation' as Kierkegaard says.
Lacan is a thinker of the utmost profundity if only because he was able to think of this scission as such, as the ground of any experience, without relating it back to some preestablished unity. For Lacan, the subject is always split, divided against itself, and the minimal consistency that relates different registers across a schism – for him, primarily the register of the body with the register of language – is precisely that of the unconscious. By drawing on Freud and Saussure, he develops an account of the process of genesis of this consistency, of the unconscious, which is inseparable from the consistution of the Real as such. In this way, we essentially relate to the Real through the structuration of the unconscious which constitutes the Symbolic register of language, and through the mediation of Imaginary doubles. The Real has no sense apart from these registers, and we are only in the sense that we are constituted in and through these registers, maintaining thereby a primordial relation to the Real. Though it may be inaccessible to conscious experience, apart from the brief glimpses we receive when there appear cracks in the facade, subjectivity in a more profound sense is the way in which, for us, the Real is constituted as such through the Imaginary and Symbolic registers. This way of existing, this way in which we are capable of existing at all, this genetic mode of constitution, is the unconscious.
For Lacan, the unconscious is itself inseparable from language, that is, from the signifiers or sound-images that make up language. This 'make-up' composed of signifiers is itself entirely differential, that is, signifiers are only related through their difference from one another, they exist only insofar as they are articulated.1 In this way, concrete discourse is always made up of a multiplicity of signifiers, strung together in statements as 'signifying chains', that are meaningful only by virtue of the differential relations between them. The meaning of any given statement or series of statements is thereby intrinsic to the differential structure of the signifying chains that compose them; meaning insists in the chain as the differentiation that defines it. “Whence we can say that it is in the chain of the signifier that meaning insists, but that none of the chain's elements consists in the signification it can provide at that very moment.”2 The consistency of the chain, the very linking that holds these differences together and in which meaning insists, does not derive from a correspondence with the concepts signified; we must look elsewhere.
What is the source of the consistency of the differential elements of language, if not the fundamental consistency of the natural world of which we speak? What allows meaning to insist in signifying chains, if not a logical consistency that derives from reference to the empirical world, already itself wholly consistent? The problem with these questions is they fail to recognize that, for us, the 'natural' world signified in concrete discourse is inseparable from its signification: the signified is produced as such through the action of signifying chains that enter it and structure it, endowing it with an intelligibility by introducing a differentiation or disjunction. “[I]t is Freud's discovery that gives the signifier/signified opposition its full scope: for the signifier plays an active role in determining the effects by which the signifiable appears to succumb to its mark, becoming, through that passion, the signified.”3
Lacan demonstrates this differentiation of the signifier that shapes the signified with the example of restroom doors, being on all accounts identical until a signifier, 'gentlemen' or 'ladies', enters into its material constitution to make it what it is. “The point is not merely to silence the nominalist debate with a low blow, but to show how the signifier in fact enters the signified – namely, in a form which, since it is not immaterial, raise the question of its place in reality.”4 If the signifier shapes the signified by introducing disjunction, it is through this function that it grants meaning to the experience of the situation signified. The meaning that insists in the signifying chain itself is thereby attributed or ascribed to the signified it shapes, but not without first being inscribed in the signified. This inscription constitutes the signified as such by enabling a disjunction, in other words, by making material reality 'differ from itself', so to speak, and it is this function that produces meaning (sens) in the structure of signification. The disjunction produced by this inscription is precisely what endows signifying chains with their consistency, and more profoundly, what endows the structure of signification itself (signifier/signified) with the consistency of meaning (sens).
This disjunction is precisely what we have already called the unconscious. “Starting with Freud, the unconscious becomes a chain of signifiers that repeats and insists somewhere (on another stage or in a different scene, as he wrote), interfering in the cuts offered it by actual discourse and the cogitation it informs.”5 Wherever there appear 'cuts' or inconsistencies in signification, the unconscious presents itself, it insists as the disjunction that itself produces meaning. Yet these sights of disjunction do not simply involve a signifier (in the above example, 'restroom door') whose signified remains indeterminate (as regards gender) without reference to another signifier (either 'gentlemen' or 'ladies'). Prior to the actual disjunction between, say, the differently gendered restrooms, there is a purely formal or 'virtual' disjunction that is not between two terms or things, but which is presupposed by such actual cases of disjunction. This formal or formative disjunction is that from which the actual things in disjunction are differentiated as such, that which thereby shapes and structures the signified, granting it the attribution of meaning, and which gives consistency to the signifying chains in which that meaning insists. Thus, the formal or formative disjunction is primarily that between the signifier and the signified as such, determining their relation as the consistency of meaning that produces them both.
Hence, the 'cuts' in the signifying chain that correspond to a differentiation in the signified, and that realize the formative disjunction of signifier and signified, are the source of the consistency of meaning or sense (sens), in that it is here that the unconscious asserts itself. This is thus where we find the unconscious subjectivity of which we spoke at the outset. “The cut made by the signifying chain is the only cut that verifies the structure of the subject as a discontinuity in the real. If linguistics enables us to see the signifier as the determinant of the signified, analysis reveals the truth of this relationship by making holes in meaning the determinants of its discourse.”6 Subjectivity is thus a 'discontinuity in the real', an original and formative disjunction, from which the consistency of sense and the continuity of signifying chains in concrete discourse derive.
How then do we account for the genesis of this subjectivity? Lacan does so by reconceiving Freud's own account in terms of linguistics. He locates this disjunctive relation between signifier and signified as the effect of a 'bar', a signifier without a signified that separates all signifiers as such from any direct relationship with the signified, and this function is precisely that of the Freudian 'phallus'. “For the phallus is a signifier...the signifier that is destined to designate meaning effects as a whole, insofar as the signifier conditions them by its presence as signifier.”7 This function is conceived in terms of the child's introduction into language. The child, confronted by the speech of the Other, usually exemplified in the mother, knows this other as the source of satisfaction of its every need, and hence is driven to articulate its need to the Other. “'Other' [designates] the very locus evoked by recourse to speech in any relation in which such recourse plays a part.”8 Yet the signifiers the Other provides do not yet have any significance; they are without signified. So the child can only articulate its demand through the signifiers it imagines that the Other desires to hear. Language does not serve originally to signify a specific need, but rather to articulate the primordial need for the love of the Other, that is, to be the complete object of the Other's desire, and thereby to have every need satisfied. “Demand already constitutes the Other as having the 'privilege' of satisfying needs, that is, the power to deprive them of what alone can satisfy them. The Other's privilege here thus outlines the radical form of the gift of what the Other does not have – namely, what is known as its love.”9
This formulation of the demand alienates the child from its needs. In the signifiers it articulates as the demand, it is not any need that takes precedence, but rather the alienated form of need itself as the need for the Other to satisfy every need, the need to be the object of the Other's desire. “In this way, demand annuls (aufhebt) the particularity of everything that can be granted, by transmuting it into a proof of love, and the very satisfactions demand obtains for need are debased (sich erniedrigt) to the point of being no more than the crushing brought on by the demand for love...”10 Yet there is no demand the child can make that will fulfill this primal need for love, and so it takes on the repressed form of desire. Just as the child is unable to articulate itself such that it would become the object of the Other's desire, hence rendering this desirable unarticulable, the primal need the subject is unable to formulate as demand becomes its own desire. “What is thus alienated in needs constitutes [a primal repression], as it cannot, hypothetically, be articulated in demand; it nevertheless appears in an offshoot that presents itself in man as desire.”11 The phallus is thus that signifier without a signified, that impossible articulation of desire; both the impossible articulation that is the object of the Other's desire, and the impossible demand that would articulate the subject's own desire.
The articulation of specific needs is possible only after this essentially insatiable demand, this signifier that 'designates meaning effects as a whole'. This structure, which divorces all signifiers, all articulations, from that which they articulate, separating them through the unsurpassable gap of desire for love, makes any signification, and thereby language itself, possible. “For the unconditionality of demand, desire substitutes the 'absolute' condition: this condition in fact dissolves the element in the proof of love that rebels against the satisfaction of need. This is why desire is neither the appetite for satisfaction nor the demand for love, but the difference that results from the subtraction of the first from the second, the very phenomenon of their splitting (Spaltung).”12 Desire as this difference, this remainder, is what constitutes the subject as such. It splits the signifier from the signified, as that unavoidable gap, that original discontinuity or disjunction that constitutes them and holds them together in their very difference, inscribing the signifier in the signified itself. Because the child has learned that it cannot possess the phallus, it cannot eliminate this remainder of desire, it is able to constitute itself as the source of the disjunctive tension of language. This desire forms the unconscious, which asserts itself in the cuts, gaps, breaks, inconsistencies in signifying chains, paradoxically holding them together and assuring their consistency in disjunction.
It is thus the desire constitutive of the subject that is the source of the disjunctive consistency of its multiplicitous components, both the material elements signified and the signifiers that differentiate them and structure them as such. The multiplicity of signifiers, always gathered in signifying chains, have two modes through which they become consistent and thereby constitute the signified.
What is at issue is to refind – in the laws that govern this other scene (ein anderer Schauplatz), which Freud, on the subject of dreams, designates as the scene of the unconscious – the effects that are discovered at the level of the chain of materially unstable elements that constitutes language: effects that are determined by the double play of combination and substitution in the signifier, according to the two axes for generating the signified, metonymy and metaphor; effects that are determinant in instituting the subject.13Metonymy and metaphor are the two dimensions of the multiplicity of signifiers arranged in signifying chains, the dimension of combination or conjunction of signifiers and the dimension of substitution or disjunction, respectively. Metonymy is literally the contiguous connections of several associated signifiers that thereby constitute the fleshed out identity of the signified. Lacan uses the example of signifying an unknown number of ships by referring to them as 'thirty sails'. The signifier of a part ('sail') is intelligible only in terms of its conjunction with the signifier of the whole ('ship'), and it is this conjunction that makes the signifying chain consistent. “This shows that the connection between ship and sail is nowhere other than in the signifier, and that metonymy is based on the word-to-word nature of this connection.”14 Metonymy thus functions by relating a signifier to other signifiers with which it is associated, thereby involving an implicit combination of signifiers.
Metaphor, on the contrary, involves a substitution of one signifier for another where said signifiers do not bear any direct association. “Metaphor's creative spark does not spring forth from the juxtaposition of two images, that is, of two equally actualized signifiers. It flashes between two signifiers, one of which has replaced the other by taking the other's place in the signifying chain, the occulted signifier remaining present by virtue of its (metonymic) connection to the rest of the chain.”15 When a signifier is thus replaced by another unassociated, dissimilar signifier, they enter a relation of disjunction such that the replaced or occulted signifier persists as an empty place in the metonymic chain of connection, while the substituted signifier 'stuffs' the signified, constituting it purely through the differences it introduces. The displaced signifier thereby leads to the revelation that the signified itself was only ever blank, a void, an empty space, given form exclusively by signifying chains connected to its signifier. The substituted signifier can thus 'cross the bar' between signifier and signified, entering the void to disguise it with a difference. This void is the sight of the pure disjunction of the subject's desire, a pure difference that is not yet the difference between terms. The difference is only bound, realized, when a metaphor effectively disguises the void with an unassociated signifier, thus constituting the subject as the difference between itself and this signifier. “Thus it is between a man's proper name qua signifier and the signifier that metaphorically abolishes it that the poetic spark is produced... We see that metaphor is situated at the precise point at which meaning is produced in nonmeaning...and at which it becomes palpable that, in deriding the signifier, man defies his very destiny.”16
Metonymy functions through the conjunction of associated signifiers, whereas metaphor functions by revealing the originary disjunction of the subject as the source of all signification. The former explains the consistency of necessarily finite signifying chains, whereas the latter exposes the source of consistency for any chain whatsoever. We can see these function demonstrated in some examples from literature. Take, for instance, Marcel's encounter with a sleeping Albertine in The Prisoner. When she is awake, Marcel is mercilessly consumed by jealousy, paranoia, and distrust, obsessed with discovering the 'real' Albertine, the one she hides from him, the one involved in worlds, relations, loves, that he will never access. Yet when he finds her in his room, already sleeping on his bed, his disposition changes entirely.
Lying at full length on my bed, in a pose so natural that it could never have been adopted deliberately, she seemed to me like a long, flowering stem that had been laid there; and that was what she was: normally I could dream only when she was not there, but at these times the power of dreaming returned as I lay next to her, as if in her sleep she had turned into a plant. In that way her sleep realized, to a certain degree, the promise of love; when I was alone, I could think about her, but she was not there, she was not mine. When she was there, I could speak to her, but was too removed from myself to be able to think. When she was asleep, I did not have to speak any more, I knew that she could not see me, I did not have to live on the surface of myself. By closing her eyes, by losing consciousness, Albertine had put off, one by one, the various marks of humanity which had so disappointed me in her, from the day that we first met. She was animated only by the unconscious life of plants, of trees, a life more different than my own, stranger, and yet which I possessed more securely.17Marcel is incessantly disturbed by Albertine when she is awake, unable to 'possess' her completely; she is never his, she is always removed from him. Yet when she is asleep, Marcel is able to 'possess her' securely, not because he has finally gained access to her whole and complete self, but rather because he can understand her 'real self' as empty, as no more than a void or incompleteness. Thus he is able to compose her anew, as a plant, a flowering stem, disguising this empty space with an unassociated chain of signifiers that thereby shape her substantial being. Through this becoming-plant, this metaphorical substitution, Marcel realizes that Albertine has no 'real self' apart from the disguise itself; she is no more than this empty place that is revealed in when the signifier 'plant' replaces the signifier 'Albertine'. Only through the function of metaphor does he truly obtain her, the Real of Albertine; “Her life was subject to me...”18
Of course, Albertine's (empty) place is still construed in relation to the metonymic conjunction of associated signifiers, such as the parts of her body, and even her body itself. This empty place, this pure disjunction that is the subject, subsists in the constellation of multiple material elements signified: her breath, her hair, her face, her eyelids, her lips, her hand;19 but she isn't any of these elements, which bear only a metonymic connection to her subjectivity. Her unconscious subjectivity is revealed to Marcel, and he is able, if only fleetingly, to possess the Real Albertine, only through the metaphoric disjunction. This disjunction that precedes the alternating terms and that endows their dissociative connection with a consistence sense, revealed in metaphor, is precisely the unconscious subjectivity that we have been pursuing. Marcel is able to possess her not simply because he has unbarred access to her body, but rather because he is able to grasp that she is no more her body and its multiplicitous worldly associations than she is a plant, a watch, an animal, or a musical instrument:
I could take her head, tip it back, place it against my lips, put my arms round her neck, she went on sleeping like a watch that never stops, like an animal that goes on living whatever position you put it in, like a climbing plant, a convolvulus that goes on throwing out branches whatever kind of support you give it. Only her breathing was affected by each of my touches, as if she had been an instrument I was playing and from which I drew new chords by producing from one and then another of its strings a variety of notes. My jealousy was being calmed, for I felt that Albertine had become a creature of respiration and nothing more, as was shown by her regular breathing, the expression of this purely physiological function, which in its fluidity lacks the consistency of either speech or silence; lacking all knowledge of evil, this sound, which seemed to be drawn from a hollow reed rather than a human being, was truly heavenly for me who at those moments felt Albertine removed from everything, not just materially but morally; it was the pure song of the Angels. And still in this breathing, I would suddenly say to myself, human names, the residue of memory, must be suspended.20When asleep before him, she is 'removed from everything'; her materiality, her name, memories of her, all must be suspended; she becomes no more than that empty place disguised by a body, a name, or traits of a plant, a watch, an animal, a song; the Real Albertine shines through as only the disjunction between the various disguises, with nothing beneath these masks but a pure difference, “a life more different” than Marcel's own.
Virginia Woolf's The Waves provides another exemplary case. Not only is every character composed solely through his or her articulations in signifying chains, but nearly every paragraph reveals the constitution of the subject through the play of metaphor and metonymy. Take the character of Susan. She is made consistent throughout the book through the repetition of multiple themes that make up metonymic connections with her environment and situation: the earth, burial, hardness, juxtaposed against light, birds, flight. “I looked between the leaves and saw her. She danced in flecked with diamonds light as dust. And I am squat, Bernard, I am short. I have eyes that look close to the ground and see insects in the grass. The yellow warmth in my side turned to stone when I saw Jinny kiss Louis. I shall eat grass and die in a ditch in the brown water where dead have rotted.”21 Jinny is metaphorically disguised as light and dancing, against which Susan distinguishes herself, metaphorically “turned to stone”.
Later, she expresses her frustration at time in school through her destruction of the pages of a calendar: “I have torn them off and screwed them up so that they no longer exist, save as a weight in my side. They have been crippled days, like moths with shriveled wings unable to fly.”22 It is not simply the days themselves, but their existence as instances of her subjectivity, that is disguised as “moths with shriveled wings”, unable to attain their imperative of flying toward the light. Susan never ceases to draw herself through metaphors with ever greater complexity. As she grows older and develops a strong distaste for the city life she had in school, she begins to find herself in the countryside and life without that rigid segmentation and regimentation: “At this hour, this still early hour, I think I am the field, I am the barn, I am the trees...I am the seasons, I think sometimes, January, May, November, the mud, the mist, the dawn. I cannot be tossed about, or float gently, or mix with other people. Yet now leaning here, till the gate prints my arm, I feel the weight that has formed itself in my side. Something has formed, at school, in Switzerland, some hard thing.”23 Susan literally has no existence in the novel apart from the play of metaphors, the disguises she takes up, be they of the cold, damp, hard earth, the passing seasons and the countryside, the crippled moth, or the hardening source of light in her side. It is the disjunction of her unconscious subjectivity, and the repetitions of its metaphoric disguises, that maintains the consistency of her character throughout the story.
Proust and Woolf provide exemplary instances of the play of metonymy and metaphor, and are among the finest examples of 'the poet' as Lacan conceives this figure. “[I]f you are a poet you will make it into a game and produce a continuous stream, nay, a dazzling weave of metaphors.”24 More importantly, they demonstrate the way in which subjectivity in the most profound sense is nothing more than such a “dazzling weave of metaphors”, the consistency of which is the effect of unconscious desire as an originary and formative disjunction or discontinuity, a pure difference which endows the most diverse and dissociated terms with a minimum stability or ground. It is on the ground of discontinuity that signifying chains become consistent and sense can thereby insist in them. Sense is the pure effect of the 'empty place' of the subject, the genetic disjunction that conditions every metonymic conjunction. It is precisely this empty place, this 'desire as lack', that is the Real. When we said that the real is constituted through subjectivity, that the Real as such is subjective, this should not be taken to mean that everything exists only in our conscious experiences and contingent conceptions. Rather, it means that the unconscious core that grounds every conscious experience, the primordial lack or loss that is desire, the 'empty place of the subject', is the Real as such, and there is no sense of the Real other than this. The Real is thus 'meaningless', nonsense, but that nonsense in which all sense, all meaning, is produced as the subjectivity of a life.
E - Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits, A Selection.
P - Proust, Marcel. The Prisoner.
W - Woolf, Virginia. The Waves.