Thoughts on Seminar VII

Yesterday, Stephen Keating and I had a great discussion of Lacan’s Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. There is much that is impressive about this seminar, which seems to me to operate at a higher level of ambition and reach than the first three, but there is also much that is puzzling — most notably the central question of the sense in which this is an ethics.

As Stephen suggested, perhaps Lacan was not so much putting forward a normative ethics as performing a kind of thought experiment, asking what ethics would look like in light of psychoanalysis. After working through all the relevant materials (including a highly counterintuitive reading of the Entwurf as a fundamentally ethical text), it seems that the “truly” ethical act (truth being the only one of the three transcendentals that survives the psychoanalytic critique) is a self-destructive adherence to a signifier detached from its discourse, bring the subject into contact with something like the founding moment of the symbolic order, the violent imposition of the signifier.

We both linked this notion to the Schmittian state of exception, which reveals the sheer violence that founds law and that law exists to keep at bay (parallel with the pleasure principle’s goal of keeping jouissance at a safe distance). I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the idea of doing some serious writing bringing together Lacan and Agamben, and here I wonder if we could say that Lacan has not yet attained the level of Agamben’s messianic “real state of exception,” which he will perhaps reach in his later thinking with the logic of the non-all or non-whole as an alternative to the logic of the master-signifier.

Certainly it seems clear that some kind of profound deadlock is involved in this seminar — the only “beyond” of the pleasure principle is precisely that which founds the pleasure principle as such (i.e., the knot that ties together the primordial signifier with the death drive). We can’t get “out” of the symbolic order, we can only get as far as its threshold. And that threshold is precisely not an ethos, not a sustainable or livable space — we must either return to “normal” life (compromise our desire) or court self-destruction, Antigone-style. But perhaps this is precisely the point: if this is where ethics winds up, if this is the way ethics maps itself out over psychoanalysis, then we need to do something other than ethics.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Seminar VII

  1. I posted this on Facebook the other day and thought it was quite relevant here: “Psychoanlysis can accompany the patient to the ecstatic limit of the “Though art that,” where the cipher of his mortal destiny is revealed to him, but it is not in our sole power as practitioners to bring him to the point where the true journey begins”. This is perhaps why Lacan never went into an emancipation project of his own even more similiar to Agamben. Also when you wrote we can’t get “out” of the symbolic order this is exactly where both of these figures find their intellectual precursor which of course is Martin Heidegger. Both thinkers are seeped in Heidegger, wet with Hegel and language is both one of the main concern for both thinkers. Do you feel their goals are different? The Agambian project seems thus far to escape the existing symbolic order by ‘killing the Other’. What do you think? I agree some good work putting these two thinkers would be fascinating.

  2. It seems to me that Zizek is trying to take Lacan in a direction similar to that of Agamben — but it doesn’t seem like Lacan himself wants to go there, at least from what I’ve been able to study so far. Heidegger (and to a lesser extent Hegel, in my view) forms the “point of contact” that for me makes the comparison more than just an arbitrary juxtaposition, but there’s still a lot of detail I’d need to work out.

  3. I was in a seminar with Zizek recently at EGS ( after I had done a lot of work on the Ethics of Psychoanalysis and he made it clear over and over how he despises the Ethics period of Lacan’s work. JA Miller in his crucial essay, the “Six paradigms of Joiussance” locates this period of Lacan as the “Impossible Jouissance” period, and frankly I think that some of the main reasons he abandoned it is because of his disenchantment with the May 68 crowd and what the Deleuze and Guattari project was seeking to do to psychoanalysis. This is also why his next period following the Ethics seminar where he returns to the subject and models jouissance over the subject itself, this is what Miller calls his period of “normal jouissance” prior to Encore. After the Ethics Seminar, the object a becomes the Thing, and the Thing is totally outside of the symbolic. The signifier of jouissance is given up after the Ethics seminar, and the object a does not represent the subject for another signifier, but is endowed with a signifying attribute, namely the fact of appearing as an element.

    And Zizek’s favorite Seminar is Lacan’s Logic of Fantasy – if you don’t have it, there is a great translation of it in English by the Irish Lacanian Circle.

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