Adventures in Transcendental Materialism: Lacan, Our Hegel

This will be the reading for Saturday, November 14th.  A printable copy is here, though a few further edits may be made.  We will meet at the usual location in the sidebar.

Roughly speaking, there are two broad ways to characterize consciousness: either all thought is is entirely immanent to matter, or there is some sort of transcendence.  Fichte would call this the idealism v.s. dogmatism conflict.  Adrian Johnston calls his position transcendental materialism.  We can roughly nutshell this as a position which attempts to combine the scientific attitude of paying close attention to the life sciences with the transcendental position that consciousness is not reducible to matter.  He is not arguing for a “weak” concept of consciousness, either: the axiom of all his work is “no illusions”.  In this chapter of his book Adventures in Transcendental Materialism, Johnston mines the work of Jacques Lacan to find an account of a category of thinking which, while wholly embodied, is autonomous from the body and actually affects conscious thought in ways irreducible to brain patterns.  This category of thinking is the unconscious, and it is made of semblances, or autonomous signifiers.

Before approach his main argument, an all-too-brief and hopefully uncontroversial description of Lacan’s work might be helpful.  Lacan was concerned with three broad categories: the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real.  The symbolic is basically language; importantly, all the rules that go along with language.  Learning to speak is how you learn to become a real boy and enter society.  The imaginary is how one relates to that symbolic order; the narratives that the symbolic order coherent (the two work together to create something like the ethical order in The Phenomenology of Spirit).  Finally, the “real” does not refer to brute empirical reality, and interpretations of what the real is are varied and controversial.  For example, some take the real to be what escapes the symbolic – the irrational underside of the social world.  Others take it to be created by the symbolic – the normative order tells you not to eat the cookie, and the thrill you get by breaking that rule is a little piece of the real.  I think Johnston’s interpretation is a little closer to the first, and I do not think we do too much hermeneutic damage if we just think of it as something like the world outside conscious thought (which includes unconscious thought).

Johnston begins by quoting one of Lacan’s seminars.  Lacan insists that he is neither a nominalist nor a metaphysical realist “in the medieval sense”.  The relevant notion of metaphysical realism here is that there is a real, mind-independent category of chair, while a nominalist would insist there are only particular chairs, and the category of chair is an artefact of language use.  Instead, Lacan declares himself a dialectical materialist, going so far to label nominalism a variety of idealism (which, despite nominalism’s common alliance with empiricism and a “scientific” outlook, makes a certain amount of sense).  Lacan says that “the point is to emphasize that our discourse, the scientific discourse, can only find the real.” (65-66)  (Let’s keep in mind the difference between science and wissenshaft)

One significant thing about his philosophy of science is that he downplays the Baconian empiricist aspects and focuses much more heavily on the Galilean mathematization of nature; he thinks formalization is the real key to understanding the non-conscious world.  With this in mind, let’s move on to this long Lacan quote:

The articulation, and I mean the algebraic articulation, of the semblant – and because of this we are only dealing with letters – and its effects, this is the only apparatus which enables us to designate what is real.  What is real is what opens up a hole in this semblant, in this articulated semblant which is the scientific discourse.  The scientific discourse progresses without even worrying if it is a discourse of semblance or not. (66)

Only an actually articulated formalization allows us to designate what is real; the articulation of that formalization is science.  It is about formulas rather than prose.

As for the word semblance: we tend to think of words, i.e. linguistic symbols, as having connections to their objects.  That connection is a kind of resemblance; the easiest example is onomatopoeia.  Lacan calls symbols semblances because he wants to break any inherent connection of a signifier to its signified — this is where we first see the “autonomous signifier” mentioned in our introduction.

In the previous sessions of this seminar, he says that the discursive context of speaking beings is a detotalized, disunified multiplicity without set limits.  This is contrasted with the universe as One-All.  Then, he says “the truth is only a half-saying”, and “for discourse, there is no fact, if I can speak thusly, there is only a fact from the fact of saying it.  The stated fact is entirely a fact of discourse.”  Despite the foregoing paragraphs, Lacan is not guilty of socio-symbolic constructivism, linguistic idealism, or boogeyman postmodernism.  To properly explain these gnomic sayings, we need a detour into clinical practice.

In the clinical context, the analyst is not concerned with truth-as-correspondence.   It is psychical reality, the unconscious, rather than empirical reality, that is of interest.  The patient creates a web of associations, and the analyst listens for “cross-resonating consistencies” and inconsistencies in the monologue.  It is a question of coherence rather than correspondence.  Even better: because there is an emphasis on mistakes like slips of the tongue, it is more like “truth as incoherence”.  In the moments of incoherence, the unconscious speaks.

In Lacan’s terms, a discourse is a social link.  The four discourses – master, university, hysteric, and analyst, are four different permutations of how socio-symbolic or discursive beings can be positioned in relation to one another.  Each one involves four positions: agent, other, product, and truth.  Each discourse involves the structure of a rapport between agent and other.  Now we can talk about what “a fact is only a fact within a discourse” means.

Lacan does not use the word facts to refer to states of affairs in the extra-mental world, “but as propositions and judgments stated in language claiming that something is the case, that such-and-such holds as ‘true’.” (68) Remember, the quote was “for discourse, there is no fact. . . there is only a fact from the fact of saying it”.  The fact is embedded in a social link between an agent and an other, so the analytically relevant questions are not about correspondence, but: “Why are you stating this fact right now? Why are you stating this fact to me right now?  What investment do you have in this fact being true, and being true to me as well as you?  How does affirming the truth of his fact fit with other things you have (or have not) said?” (68-69)

Those questions illustrate why the truth is a half-saying: every statement of fact immediately brings up all those questions.  It is why facts are discursive; they cannot be disassociated from these questions. A discourse is always detotalized because each new fact added to the already articulated set of facts not only expands, but also retroactively modifies the network; it is an open-ended, nonlinear dynamic.

Lacan presents the Oedipus myth as illustrating that idea that analytically-relevant truths have the “future anterior” (the will have been tense) status of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  E.g., the prophecy is what causes Oedipus to do all that stuff.  Analysis is about how words, thoughts, and fantasies – all sorts of representations – are semblances, but not inconsequential fictions.  They are like Hegelian real abstractions; they are not epiphenomenal because they are causally efficacious, shaping the lives of subjects: “The coherence truths of intra-psychical reality tend to become the correspondence truths of extra-psychical reality.  As Lacan puts it, semblance intrude into the real, signifiers fall into the realm of signifieds.” (70)

Three of Lacan’s famous one liners are important here: “there is no meta-language,” “there is no Other of the Other,” and “there is no truth about the truth.”

The first, about there being no meta-language, has a practical, clinical implication. Patients often think some of their behaviour is bracketed off, e.g. what they say just before or just after sessions.  Or even during sessions, patients sometimes indicate what they are about to say is “off the record”.   These are defences; the pretence to off the record speech is a pretence to meta-language, so saying nothing is off the record is to say there is no metalanguage.  Second, people tend to think dreams, mistakes, fantasies, etc. as just being trivial froth; analysis is basically founded on the rejection of this idea of them being, again, metalanguages.  Johnston explains,

“This rejection not only is captured by and reflected in principle of no illusions—the reciprocal, back-and-forth influences running between intra- and extra-psychical realities blurs, without totally dissolving, the distinction between truth-as-correspondence and truth-as-coherence.” (71)

The denial of an “Other of the Other” has several meanings.  Neurotics and psychotics often think there is an inaccessible authority running their lives, or that impersonal transcendent guarantees underpin their way of life, or that the ultimate meaning and purpose of their existence is “vouched for” somewhere.  Through transference, the analyst assumes this sort of authority – the analyst is an expert who can figure out all your secrets.  All these posit a second-order big Other as a foundation.

Now he’ll interpret “there is no truth about the truth” as part of Lacan’s opposition to portraying psychoanalysis as a depth-psychological hermeneutic; the end of analysis is always the patient discovering the meaninglessness of their unconscious.  Basically, there is no quasi-religious “deep meaning” to what is uncovered; there is no truth about the unconscious.

Lacan identified “semblance” with “the signifier in itself” and says that the semblance “is not the semblance of another thing”. (72)  Another way to put this is to say that Lacan’s signifiers are not meta-level redoubling of a first-order reality.  The signifiers are real in themselves, on their own terms.  They are not epiphenomenal or illusory abstractions with respect to concrete reality.  Further, signifiers in their coherent networks can “become parts of” or “fall into” the “register of the objective signifieds with which they presumably are intended to correspond (as ‘resemblances’ qua representational reflections).” (73)

Lacan also says “Truth is not the contrary of semblance”.  As formations of the unconscious, analytically relevant truths are also semblances – that is, the representations of fantasies.  These semblances become “true” as causally efficacious forces shaping patient’s lives. Finally, semblances as abstract formalizations and models are required for “psychoanalysis and the sciences of modernity” in order to reach the Real.   Turning to modern science (in the English sense) Johnston says that Lacan, in all his statements about science, holds to a Galileo-centric view of science as the mathematization of nature, downplaying the Baconian empiricist aspect.  This is part of why Lacan says “the discourse of science. . . started very specifically from the consideration of semblances”.

So for Lacan, science is about formal modeling as the privileged route of access to the material Real in itself:

“Empirically observed reality presents, as per nominalism, always-unique spatio-temporal particulars, namely, entities and events as absolutely singular thesis, thats and others.  But, as per scientific method, abstraction from these particulars through the construction, on the basis of carefully gathered empirical observations, of ideal mathematical models of the phenomena under investigation is an underlying possibility condition for but the initial designing of experiments as well as subsequent interpretation of their results.” (73-74)

Basically, a nominalist, who insists that only unique spatio-temporal particulars are real, is a “non-dupe who errs”.  They cut out the possibility of the real truth of modern science because science relies on abstract modeling.  You can not just directly grasp the real via empirical methods; “fictional mediation” is required.

Returning again to Lacan’s statement “The stated fact is entirely a fact of discourse”; this is related to his philosophy of science just as much as to his ideas of clinical practice.  In Bacon’s New Organon, Bacon repeatedly insists that he is not trying to make the human mind a passive receptacle, but an engaged agent of praxis, intervening in nature and extracting facts about it.  Methodologically guided subject activity is necessary for gaining objective knowledge.  This is what makes sense of the statement that scientific facts are discursive facts.  Also remember that “discourse” for Lacan is a social link, not a strictly linguistic issue; a discourse, broadly speaking, is a socio-symbolically mediated practice”, and the scientific discourse is a mediation between formal modeling and experimental activity.

To further tie together a lot of these quotes: discourses and their facts do not stand over their referents (e.g. in the case of science, natural objects).  Science is immanent to nature itself; it is an open-ended socio-historical process that detotalizes the material universe, making it a not-All – “and this through repeatedly and perpetually adding, via its signifier-mediated practices, supplementary facts and truths to the thereby mutating and expanding expanse of the one-and-only Real.” (76)

Because there is no meta-language, the symbolic activities of science are not transcendent or meta with respect to nature.  Because of the statements “there is no truth about the truth” and “no Other of the Other”, the natural world is disenchanted and desacralized; it is the “stupid immanence of senseless material being.” (76)

Consider technological devices; these devices are enabled by scientific knowledge, and are “quite literal materializations in the lone register of physical existence of the discourses and facts of the sciences, putting the ‘real in the real abstractions of these disciplines.  Technologies are incarnations of scientific signifiers falling into, and thereby transforming, the plane of signifieds.” (76)  These are the reasons why Lacan does not take sides in the nominalism/realism debate.

With this frame in place, we can go back to the long quotes about the dialectical material vs nominalism debate.  The only real materialism can be a dialectical one; the Lacanian version of dialectical materialism “is not grounded in the primacy of matter nor in matter as first principle, but in the notion of conflict, of split, and of the ‘parallax of the real’ produced in it.  in other words, the fundamental axiom of materialism is not ‘matter is all’ or ‘matter is primary,’ but relates rather to the primacy of a cut.” (77)  This cut is the incisions in the Real made by the Symbolic – that is, the way that signifiers have causal effects.   

Hegel’s dialectic of universality and particularity undermine the impasse between nominalism and metaphysical realism.  Saying that signifiers affect the signified does not lead us into linguistic idealism.  On the contrary, contemplative realism (like Meillassoux’s allegedly is) actually harbours the possibility of an anti-realist subjective idealism because of its failure to include subjects and discourses in its realist picture of the world.  That move is tantamount to saying that contemplation stands on a transcendental meta-level above that which is material/real, thus making contemplation something immaterial/ideal.

Elsewhere, Lacan says, “The picture is certainly in my eye.  But me, I am in the picture.” (78)  This is the move from Kant to Hegel; it is “the move from transcendental constitution [Kant, Fichte] to the dialectical self-inclusion of the subject into substance [Hegel].” (79)  Transcendentalism is the subjective idealism of Kant and the early Fichte, in which the “I” makes possible the sphere of its experience.  The I cannot appear to itself as one object among others within the same sphere it makes possible.  There is a level distinction that bars the constituting from showing up on the side of the constituted.  Zizek’s thesis is that Hegel and Lacan sublate this level distinction; key aspects of the transcendental and the ontic are preserved and complicated.  Subjectivity emerges out of a substantial, asubjective ground which pre-exists it.  The transcendental and ontic (i.e. empirical) levels are sublated under a failed absolute; the absolute’s self-finitization comes first, producing the subject.  

Lacan is attempting to further the project of seeing substance as subject (and vice versa); “the desubstantialization of substance. . . is linked to the move of rendering psychical subjectivity an immanent and internal part of substance itself.” (83)  Some sort of naturalism is important, though, because the unconscious needs to be both embodied and de-substantified.

Lacan denies the idea that there is no reality pre-existing subjectivity. But he distinguishes “reality” from “knowledge” (savoir), and knowledge from connaissance/understanding/familiarity.  The issue is “whether subjects, phylogenetically and/or ontogenetically, fabricate socio-symbolic second natures that can and do ‘fall into’ asubjective ‘first nature’.” (84)  Johnston thinks Lacan “posits a dynamic of the becoming-Real of the Symbolic.” (84)

This is supposed to be the key to how Lacan’s dialectical materialism moves between and beyond the realism/nominalism debate: the causal efficacy of signifiers through technology upon nature amounts to the becoming-patio-temporally-real (the particulars of nominalism) of the ideal generalizations (the universals of metaphysical realism), which is essential to natural science as distinct from nature. The real abstractions of idealized models and universal equations making possible the experimental testing of savoir/knowledge and the technical applications of savoir-faire.  Any realist ontology missing this is incomplete.

Lacan makes a connection between Marx and Freud concerning the idea of the symptom.  In both Marx and Freud, a symptom is not a sign of something wrong – like smoke and fire.  Rather, symptoms “are truth, being made of the same wood from which truth is made, if we posit materialistically that truth is what is instated on the basis of the signifying chain.” (91-92)

Symptoms are not like smoke (indicating fire); they are themselves a cause which is internal to the “known planes” they disrupt as foreign bodies.  The symptom is itself the problem?  A medical symptom indicates something hidden affecting the surface; a psychoanalytic symptom is internal to the surface. For Lacan, Marx’s inversion of Hegel means that Hegel would treat symptoms as medical, as evidence of the cunning-of-reason, whereas Marx takes them to be the historical dynamic itself, with no hidden profundities underneath them.  A symptom is not a meta-level sign of a deeper meaning which grounds it; rather, a symptom is a contingent, meaningless truth entirely on the surface, misunderstood because it is taken as a sign of something deeper.  The goal of all this is to see how Hegel’s abstractions become real and gain causal efficacy through Marx’s writings.  The idea of causally efficacious signifiers is meant to fill in an explanatory gap: how does theorizing change the world?

So what sort of ontology comes from a metapsychology of the libidinal economy?  Lacan says “there is no jouissance except for that of the body”, which indicates that Lacan’s quasi-naturalism comes from his insistence that there is no enjoyment except that of the body.  It’s a physical process.  Even the Symbolic order is a collection of bodies, but cannot be reduced to atomistic individuals.  Graphic symbols and sounds are material, as opposed to meaningful.  The quote: unconscious thought is tied to the meaningless materiality of thoughts; rational thought is subverted by the unconscious process of senseless signifiers bouncing around in associative groups.  It is a different process from conscious thought, but affects it deeply.

“In this instance, Lacan’s materialist realism is extimate vis-a-vis the subjectivity of subjective idealism.” (100-101).  Basically, the subject is not in control; thoughts are partially changed into an “intimate externality”, the foreign body of a contingent, nonsensical, material Real.

In hybrid Hegelian-Lacanian parlance, thinking the subject [as Speaking being] also as substance [as being speaks] and vice versa involves the dialectical-speculative notion of the substantial imminence of the subjective transcendence of substantial immanence itself (i.e., the subject-qua-$ as a transcendence-in-immanance, as both continuous and discontinuous with substance-qua-S). (101)

Lacan’s materialism does not fall into a reductive Spinozist naturalism, the “night in which all cows are black”.  This dialectical materialism “supports itself” in that it does not rest on an transcendent meta-levels, like subjective idealisms do, or as contemplative non-dialectical materialisms do.  A materialist realism of enjoyment connects the libidinal subject to the body, de-idealizing subjectivity and heavily qualifies whatever transcendence it achieves with respect to the body.  This gets us the hypothesis that subject-formation involves a partial transcendence of the body; an uneven and incomplete denaturalization.  A materialist realism of language in general and writing blocks crude reductionism; it also blocks the immaterial thinking subject of idealism, and implies a dialectic between the “nature” of human organisms and the “nurture” of the socio-symbolic orders around them.  A materialism of fantasies shows us an anti-nominalist theory of real abstractions.

The upshot of all this is that Lacan “ups the ante” for any realist position; realists must exclude nothing, including themselves as thinking subjects, including even the apparently “unreal” structures:

For both a proper Lacanianism as well as transcendental materialism, those who believe that ‘illusions’ are just illusions (i.e. causally inefficacious fictions, unrealities, etc.) and nothing more are the non-dupes who err.  A Lacanian transcendental materialist has no illusions about illusions. (103)


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