Lacan and his Animals

While Lacan’s demeanor, and the general atmosphere in his seminars at the Sainte-Anne hospital, can be said to characterize a zoo, it is Lacan’s explicit reference to animals that will be our main interest today. Being a loving dog owner himself (naming his beloved dog Justine after the eponymous sex slave of the Marquis de Sade book), Lacan relies on the help of a variety of animals when addressing some of Freud’s most intricate psychoanalytical models. These would include: cats, dogs, birds, fish, turtles, lions, giraffes, lobsters, and many more. But what does Lacan really think about his animals? And more precisely, where does he situate animals in relation to speaking beings (i.e. humans)?


Žižek with Cat

Do Animals Speak?

According to Lacan (1953-1954), many animals can be considered to “speak” (in a sense) when they are in pain, or call out for help when they are in need. “You have only to observe a pet to see that a being deprived of language is quite capable of making calls on you, calls to draw your attention to something which, in some sense or other, it lacks.” (p. 84). Nevertheless, Lacan insists that while animals are disposed to use the call, or in other words, to articulate a demand, they still lack access to the dimension of the signifier, and thus to the symbolic means through which human reality is constructed.

In his early paper on the Mirror Stage (1949), Lacan relegates animal-language to a correspondance between images hardwired on the level of animal instinct. In this sense, the mere encounter with the figure of an adult pigeon – even as a reflection in the mirror – can bring to the sexual maturation of a female pigeon (p. 77). In his seminar on The Psychoses (1955-1956) Lacan develops this idea and argues that, in the same way, when a female robin sees that red of the male robin’s breast, she undertakes a series of actions and behaviors that “link the bearer of this sign to its perceiver” [i.e. she goes cuckoo for her mani] (p. 167). This time Lacan adds that this kind of linguistic correspondance is not achieved on the basis of signifiers, but is based on signs and more specifically iconic signs.

In a previous post, I have argued that while signifiers engender meaning through the dynamic and differential relationships they establish with other signifiers, the sign has only one referent to which it is rigidly linked alongside any context through which it was acquired. In this sense, the sign “cat” would signify a specific cat, met on a specific rainy day, while on a sunny day the sign “cat” would not refer to the same individual cat met on that same rainy day. Or in the case of laboratory rats, pressing the level only means food when the light bulb flashes. Accordingly, we see that animal-language is very sensitive to the qualities of its signs. It can be used by animals in acquiring crucial knowledge, but this knowledge must be meticulously orchestrated in order to convey a clear message.


“How you doin’?”

“War is War”:

A crucial distinction between a language composed of signifiers (i.e. human language) and animal-language can be found in the way we interact with out pets – especially those disposed to our use of language (some of us talk to our cats…). It was B.F. Skinner (1904–90), one of the fathers of behaviorism, which articulated something that many pet owners knew quite a long time before his experiments with boxes. That is, that animals have the capacity to learn equivalences – “bad boy!” means punishment, “good boy!” means treat. This way we can gain common grounds in our household – using signs. Nevertheless, it is exactly the fact that some equivalences convey no equivalence at all which evades the reach of animal-sign-language. This point is clearly marked out by Lacan in his seminar on Identification (1961-1962), when he argues the equation “A is A” does not represent a simple equivalence (tautology) when A is taken to be a signifier. When I teach a dog that “good boy!” means a treat, I do not have to go to great length in order to make sure that he knows that a treat is a treat (and not something else). Nevertheless, while some of us might be prosaically moved by such phrases like “war is war”, I am pretty convinced that a dog will keep his composure when faced with such a notion – taking it as a simple tautology (a treat is in fact equivalent to itself). But when I say, “war is war”, or “Lacan is Lacan”, I do not aim to convey a simple equivalence. “War is war” means that it is brutal, unfair, that people die in war. “Lacan is Lacan” means, well… more than Lacan is himself, or exactly that he is what he is, which is… (fill in the blank). While we humans – creatures of the signifier – can grasp that we can mean a lot more by saying the same, for animals, the same remains the same – repetition retains no difference (in contrast to what Deleuze would say).

This unique symbolic capacity is captured in the very human aptitude to lie by telling the truth. An ability which is perfectly depicted in a joke Freud tells about two Jewish people talking in a train station. This joke is worth being quoted at length – after which I will leave you to ruminate on the Kantian notion that dictates that one should always tell the truth.


Hitchcock, Strangers on a Train (1951)

The Joke:

“Two Jews met in a railway carriage at a station in Galicia. ‘Where are you going?’ asked one. ‘To Cracow’, was the answer. ‘What a liar you are!’ broke out the other. ‘If you say you’re going to Cracow, you want me to believe you’re going to Lemberg. But I know that in fact you’re going to Cracow. So why are you lying to me?'” (Freud, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, p. 115)