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)


Lacan Guided Reading Group \ Berlin

Dear readers,

I am happy to invite you to our new reading session starting Tuesday (29/05), 19:00, at our round table at Stillpoint Spaces, Berlin (66, Hobrechtstraße, 12047 Berlin). This time we are going to tackle a chapter from Lacan’s 11th seminar. This is exciting because the topic of “alienation and separation” is central in Lacan’s teaching (as well as fascinating), and also because we are going to read a seminar and not a printed paper for the first time. Seminar XI is one of the most “approachable” seminars provided by Lacan, and I hope we will enjoy reading it together.

Here is some information from the Facebook Event:


Jacques Lacan was a French psychoanalyst who has been regarded to as the most controversial psychoanalyst since Freud. Teaching in Paris in the 20th century, his ideas had a significant impact on post-structuralism, critical theory, linguistics, French philosophy, film theory, and clinical psychoanalysis up until this day.

In 1964, Lacan introduces the concepts of alienation and separation, indicating a break with his previous mapping of the unconscious. Introduced in his seminar as logical operators, they provide a deeper understanding of Freud’s notion of sexuality and the drives. Incorporating some of his most fundamental concepts such as “lack”, “object petit a”, and “jouissance”, Lacan’s account of alienation and separation provides one of his most comprehensive elaborations of human subjectivity.

Join us for our guided reading group, in which we will read the 16th chapter in Lacan’s Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, entitled: “The Subject and the Other: Alienation”.

The Format:
The reading will be done together as a group, and will be guided by Leon Brenner. No reading is required (nor recommended) before our gatherings. We are going to read the text slowly, trying to delve into each paragraph, deciphering Lacan’s unique style, and extracting very straightforward and non-metaphorical ideas. Other than leaning about the psychoanalysis of Lacan, we will also be learning how to read and tackle Lacan. We will read the English version of the text, but people capable of reading Lacan’s French are encouraged to bring the original French version. Make sure to come with a receptive and light-hearted mood – the goal is to enjoy this reading together (if we want to).

Groups will be held on Tuesdays (May 29; June 5, 12, 19, 26; July 10, 17, 24, 31), 19:00 – 20:30. More dates may be added during the process.

Hope to see you at our round table.



Autistic Sameness: Lacan with Amanda Baggs

Leo Kanner, an American psychologist, was one of the first practitioners to differentiate what we know today as “autism” from the field of childhood psychosis. Assessing a variety of characteristics in the behaviour of his autistic patients, he went on to identify two main behavioural categories – aloneness, and sameness. Aloneness is characterised by Kanner as the autistic child’s non-communicability, avoidance of eye contact, and general disinterest in others. Kanner reports that autistic children often spend the day in solitude, ignoring and excluding anything situated outside their closed-off inner world. Sameness is defined by Kanner as the autistic child’s anxious and obsessive preference for order and repetition. Kanner reports that any change in routine can lead the autistics to experience a surge of unbearable anxiety. Thus, in the aim of warding off this anxiety, the autistic child meticulously keeps the world in the same state, situating things in the same place, and in the same order they were discovered in the first place.

In today’s clinic of autism these two diagnostic categories have dissipated into what is defined as Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This “spectrum” is demarcated by two diagnostic categories, that of the low functioning and the high functioning autistic. These categories are determined in accordance to a list of behavioural and sensory criteria, accumulating into a person’s exact designation on the spectrum. Be that as it may, the Lacanian clinic of autism refuses to adopt this quantitive approach and offers a variety of qualitatively distinct diagnostic criteria for autism. Taking into account the subject’s relation to language, and accordingly, the way in which the subject utilises language in the mediation and treatment of jouissance.

Jouissance, which could be translated to English as “enjoyment” (yet it shouldn’t), is a well established Lacanian notion, complexifying Freud’s account of the libido, and his economic model in general. For the sake of our discussion today we will just view it as an excess of excitation which is rooted in the subject’s body and mediated by language. Because one of the most basic Lacanian characterisations of autistic subjectivity is a limited access to language, in the Lacanian clinic we say that autistics have a hard time regulating their jouissance. Without access to the signifier, jouissance runs wild, it has no limit, no border; invading the body from the outside, and tormenting the subject with unbearable bursts of excitation. Two strategies autistic subjects employ in order to protect themselves from such invasions of jouissance can be associated with Kanner’s account of aloneness and sameness. First, through their radical division from the outside world (aloneness), and their encapsulation in what Margaret Mahler had defined as the “autistic shell”, autistics protect themselves from the anxiety accompanying their unbridled jouissance. Autistics solely disposed to aloneness are usually diagnosed by clinicians as low functioning autistics, as they barely behave in ways which can be defined by psychologists as “adaptive”. Sameness, on the other hand, can be better discerned in the autistic use of language. Through their use of different signs they pickup from their environment – usually signs entailing a specific and constant patterns – autistics signify their world, providing it with a sense of predictability and order.

Lacan explicitly argues that autistics are “rather verbose”. That is, they are subjects of language. But, lacking access to the domain of the signifier, they are strictly disposed to the logic of sign. Now, the difference between a “sign language” and a language composed of signifiers is accounted for by Lacan, but yet again will not be deliberated today. We can simply say that there’s a big difference between the two. A difference which effects the nature and composition of the language used by autistic subjects, but more than anything, has a big effect on the capacity of language to mediate jouissance. While the signifier “quantifies” jouissance – it gives it meaning, which can be conveyed in words, and transmitted between subjects – the sign does not quantify jouissance, but can only “frame” it. Thus, we see how a language composed of signs can keep jouissance at bay, providing some solace for the autistic child, but cannot attribute transmittable meaning to his or her jouissance. In this sense, Jean-Claude Maleval argues that in autism there is an essential split between jouissance and language.

Nevertheless, there is way for autistics to use sign language in the exploration of their relation to jouissance. Through a language which “frames” jouissance, but cannot transmit it. This would be a “private language”, which “treats” jouissance, without making sense out of it; a language which provides the subject with an immediate access to jouissance, but not with its articulation. Similarly to the phenomena of synethstethia, it intersects emotional and sensory excitation, with a language composed of repetitive movements, sounds, tastes, etc. Through this language, the autistic gains a sense of mastery over jouissance, but is still disposed to a solitary state, as he or she cannot transmit this language to others.

In a very famous and moving youtube video, autistic subject and advocate, Amanda Baggs, attempts to explains her unique relation to language. Making sense of the world under her terms – “in my language” – she provides herself with an access to jouissance which seems alien to the unsuspecting eye. I suggest you spend nine minutes and watch this youtube clip. Try and view it as an utterly inventive language, through which Baggs opens a channel to her internal emotional and sensual world. Constructing a language which “frames” her jouissance, but does so at the price of cutting her from the people she loves as long as she drifts off into it.

Pain, Memory, and Commemoration

Only a week ago, in Berlin, Germany, the memory of those devastated by the gruesome and calculated extermination carried out by the Germany of National-Socialism has been commemorated. As in every international Holocaust remembrance day, I come to ponder the memory we are commemorating. For most of us have not witnessed, nor survived, nor fought against, nor died while fighting, these forces. We are witnesses of these memories only in their re-writing, in their annual repetition. I also ask myself if these memories can retain their importance for the ones who are only the descendants of the humanity of that era? If in our commemoration, we are not only able to sketch the contours of what can never be truly recollected again?

In his book, Tashach (1948), gifted writer and holocaust surviver, Yoram Kaniuk, provides us with a definite answer. He argues that even he himself, a surviver, a fighting partisan, does not remember the “horrible pain” but only “remembers that he has pained”.


Yoram Kaniuk (Photograph by Marcel Molle)

The Wunderblock:

In his attempt to describe the mechanism of memory, Freud uses the metaphor of the Wunderblock. The Wunderblock (known in the 1980’s, in its developed version, as the “Etch A Sketch”) is an old children’s game composed of a board made of wax and a cellophane screen. The child draws on the screen with a plastic pencil leaving marks on the wax board. The Wunderblock is so “Wunder-ful” because it enables the child to pull off the screen from the wax board and make the drawing disappear. Nevertheless, when describing the Wunderblock, Freud insists that the drawings on the wax board is never fully erased, but carries a “remainder” which is indefinitely carved on the board. Freud argues that the mechanism of memory functions in the same way. The child’s etching on the cellophane screen akin to the conscious experience – constantly processing sensual stimuli. The wax board akin to the unconscious, the place where these experiences are copied and indefinitely preserved.


While Freud’s Wunderblock metaphor seems to be quite relevant for the description of the mechanism of memory in simple organisms, and even more developed animals, Lacan argues that it is not sufficient for the description of the memory of human beings (speaking-beings). For example, it is quite evident that my cat still acts in accordance to an exact copy of her experience of “horrible pain”. She was adopted after going through the hardships of the life on the street, and thus usually reacts with an immediate attack/flight whenever she experiences the tiniest of unidentified noises or movements in her surrounding. Every time she does so, it seems she is experiencing (in a concrete and unmediated way) that “horrible pain” at the root of her traumatic past. Nevertheless, when we talk about humans, memories do not function in the same exact way. That is because for us memory is not a mater of imprinting but of converting – the conversion into a signifier. Or in other words, the conversion of the “horrible pain” to the signifier that has “pained”.

What Keeps on Not Being Written:

For each one of us, the “horrible pain” at the root of our traumatic past can only be considered in terms of an object already lost. A Thing of the real, which was not directly inscribed in the unconscious, but converted to a signifier and only then retroactively inscribed. Accordingly, when Yoram Kaniuk argues that he “remembers that he has pained”, he represents that “horrible pain” with a signifier – he instates a signifier in the place of the real Thing. A Thing which was lost, which could have never been directly inscribed, but is only inscribed through its conversion.

Therefore, the memory of the holocaust can never be the memory of the Thing itself, but only its conversion to a signifier. For us, those who did not directly experience the “horrible pain”, it is a conversion of a conversion – an inscription of an inscription. A two-fold process, which is sometimes at the risk of losing its touch with the original traumatic core. That is why the commemoration taking place in the international Holocaust remembrance day is so crucial. It represents our collective insistence to inscribe that un-inscribable trauma, to find it a place in between the signifiers – in between ourselves. This is the only way the collective traumatic experience can find its place in the course of history. Through this paradoxical attempt. For the real can be made present, only in its absence, when it is eclipsed by the signifier.


Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

* Great thanks to the brilliant teacher, Gavriel Dahan, which gave a lecture on the 24.4.2015 on which this post is based upon.

The Significance of the Phallus

What do we know of Oedipus? We know he was a tragic hero in Greek mythology. We know he unavoidably fulfilled a prophecy that brought him to kill his father and marry his mother, eventually bringing destruction to his city and family. We also know that Freud used the myth of Oedipus to convey some very deep truths about the underlying structure of the psyche.

But what do we know of Oedipus and the phallus? In Greek mythology, not much. In Freud, quite a lot. For in the Oedipus complex the phallus plays a central role in what Freud calls the “phallic stage” of psychosexual development. In this stage, children of both sexes are predisposed with questions revolving the possession of the phallus. In this stage children firstly discovers that their mother doesn’t have a phallus, raising several concerns as to their own impending or prior castration.


Tyrone Guthrie’s production of Oedipus Rex

According to Freud, the phallus functions as the biological marker of the duality of the sexes. He equates the phallus to the actual male organ we all know as the penis, and claims that it is the actual encounter with its presence or absence that has great repercussions on the child’s psychical development.

In his reformulation of the Oedipus complex, Lacan adopts Freud’s notion of the centrality of the role of the phallus in the course of the child’s development. Nevertheless, unlike Freud, Lacan does not strictly equate the phallus to the male organ, but claims that it is in fact a signifier. More specifically, Lacan argues that the phallus is the signifier of lack – something that sticks-out, and stands-in the place of a lack in the psyche.

Drifting a bit from the original coordinates of the Oedipal myth, Lacan divides it into three instances in which the phallus is situated as the signifier of lack in the place of its three starring figures – yes, you’ve guessed it – the mother, the child and the father. Interestingly enough, each of these instances corresponds with Lacan’s account of the three registers of the psyche – the real, imaginary and symbolic.

The Real Lack of the Penis:

Lacan’s version of the Oedipal myth begins with the sudden introduction of the most initial lack in the history of the child. Let us imagine a hypothesised state (preceding the Oedipus complex) in which all of the child’s instinctual needs (hunger for example) are satisfied at the exact moment they are engendered. The Oedipus complex beings at the moment where one of these needs is not satisfied, introducing a lack where there was once constant satisfaction. According to Lacan, this primordial lack, situated on the level of the instinct, can be considered to be the first designation of the phallus in the course of child’s psychical development. Lacan names this exact manifestation of the phallus the real phallus, and situates it in the place of the mother (the figure of the mOther which takes care of the child). According to Lacan, it is the real lack of the phallus in the place of the mother which is a necessary condition for the initial division between the child and the mOther and the beginning of the Oedipus complex. It marks a gap where there was once continuity, enabling the apprehension of the interior and exterior of the psyche.

The Imaginary Lack of the Real Phallus:

Once divided, the distancing from the mother becomes a source of a great frustration for the child. As it expands, it accentuates a part in the mother which does not directly correspond with the child’s needs – a part which is not given to the child, but given to someone else. Therefore, at this stage of the Oedipus complex, the child is very much preoccupied with it, trying to retake its place as the soul object of her desire. In order to be that object for the mother, the child constructs a montage of images corresponding with whatever he deems as desirable for the mother beyond itself. Lacan would call this montage, or Gestalt, the imaginary phallus. The child then goes on to feverishly attempts to identify with the imaginary phallus, to wholly assume its image on itself. This stage in the Oedipus complex could be associated with the classical Freudian interpretation in which the child is in love with the mother, and by aggressively identifying with the father, attempts to take his place as the one receiving that part of the mother which is not given to it.

The Symbolic Lack of the Imaginary Phallus:

Nevertheless, according to Freud, one of the main points of the Oedipus complex is the prohibition of incest. Meaning, the Oedipus myth is all about fate, about a prophecy that cannot be undone. In Freud this fate is the fate of the phallus, of lack, of a part of reality which is initially cut out and can never be regained. Accordingly, in Lacan’s reinterpretation of the Oedipus complex the child’s attempts to correspond with the real lack of the phallus in the mother through his identification with the imaginary phallus inevitably fail. The realisation of this failure brings about the third and last shift in the position of the phallus in the Oedipus complex to the place of the father. The child, now situating the phallus in the place of the father (“So he’s getting what I wanted all that time… and there’s no way around it…”), realises that its narcissistic identification with the imaginary phallus is not going to cut it. Moreover, the child realises that its real phallus (weather it has one or not) cannot compensate for that as well. Accordingly, the child goes on to identify with the position of the father as the bearer of the phallusAt this stage it is not the child’s attempt to be the imaginary phallus which is at stake, but the child’s identification with the symbolic authoritative standpoint of the father as the one that has it – as the bearer of the symbolic phallus. The identification with the symbolic aspect of the phallus bestows on the child access to a dimension of psychical reality which exceeds the real lack of the organ, and its imaginary signification. This reality, according to Lacan, is symbolic reality, rooted in language and the knowledge it provides for deciphering ones sexuated position in the Oedipus complex and ones own role in society. It’s the end of this story, but the beginning of a whole new story – that of neurosis.


To summarise briefly, Lacan argues that the phallus cannot be strictly identified with the real organ (the penis), nor with its biological role in copulation, or with its turgidity and the image of the vital flow. Rather, Lacan claims that the phallus is a shifting signifier representing lack in the three registers of psyche; A signifier whose function is to give the child access to intersubjective symbolic reality which exceeds the narcissistic fantasy of the child as the sole object of the mother’s desire, as well as the solipsistic existence of a being so complete it has never been touched by lack.

Accordingly we see that Lacan provides us with a refreshing take on Freud’s well known claim that “anatomy is destiny”. For the phallus punctures our existence weather we want it or not. It stands-in the place where lack sticks-out in the psyche, eventually prompting a destiny from which we certainly have no escape.

The Lacanian Real

One of Lacan’s most intriguing conceptualisations is that of the “Real“. Distinct from the “symbolic” and “imaginary” registers, the Real has been accompanying Lacan’s teaching from the  very beginning – gaining centre stage in the later years of his seminars.


But what is the Real? First of all, let us acknowledge that it is not at all what we conceive of as “reality”. “Reality is psychic reality”, it is always already mediated by the mental domain. That is not to say that it is completely subjective, on the contrary, reality gains its “objectivity” in relation to our shared symbolic representations of the objects in our world. Accordingly we conceive of reality as always already engulfed by meanings, by concepts which “make sense” in an intersubjective way.

This idea is not new, nor is it so contemporary. We can easily identify its roots in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. According to Kant, any phenomenon in reality is already mediated by human intuition (that is, our sense of time and space), as well as by the human categories of reason. Thus, according to Kant, every object in the world is inherently constituted in relation to our rational categories and sense of time and space. Kant’s ingenuity – and what he called his awakening – was situating these human coordinated as an inseparable part of any objective phenomenon in reality. Claiming that time and space, as well as attributes such as quantity, quality, causality etc, are both subjective and objective at the same time – both conditioned by human existence and convey objective truth preceding human perception. Heidegger, and many phenomenologists after him, have taken this idea a couple of steps further. Claiming, for instance, that any encounter with an object is already embedded with meanings which are not necessarily rational but are “ready-to-hand”. For instance, when we see a hammer and initially conceive of it through the contexts of its use.

In Lacanian terms, we claim that any encounter with an object is already embedded with previously determined symbolic meanings. Or in other words, that things “exist” in reality as long as they are symbolically significant. Without having a symbolic attribution a “thing” cannot be an object, and thus cannot exist.

The Real, therefore, can be characterised as that aspect of an encounter with an object which does not have any symbolic designation. It is exactly that which does not “exist” in our reality. It is that part of our symbolic reality which is not signified. Nevertheless, That is not to say that it does not exist in the strictest of senses, but that if it does, it does so in a different way then the objects in our reality. This conception of the Real can be partially accredited to Heidegger’s use of the term “ek-sistence” – a unique form of existing from within which is utterly exterior. The Real ek-sists, and thus can be somehow discerned within our symbolic order, and even named, but its logic nevertheless remains ineffable, unsignifiable.

How then do we know that the Real ek-sists? By witnessing its determining effects on the symbolic order – on our reality. These usually take form in the limitation of the capacity of our symbolic imagination to traverse certain limits in our reality. In the way some inexplicable – and sometimes malevolent – order takes control of our psychic reality. The grandest example might be the inescapable limitations of death. It doesn’t matter how imaginative we would be in our attempt to avoid it, how many years scientists might work on overcoming it, death is inevitable. It is an unfathomable part of any human’s life, and even the cosmos. The Real of death – thus we name it – has an extensive effect on our life, on our reality, the way we conceive ourselves and the world (not to mention it’s capacity to put an end to all of these), but yet we cannot make sense of it.


Death and the Maiden (1915-16) by Egon Schiele

Let us, for one last moment, venture into the field of mathematics in order to tell a story that might shed more light on this relationship between the Real and reality. Let us briefly explore one of the most famous unsolved problems in number theory and all of mathematics named the Goldbach’s conjecture.

The Goldbach’s conjecture states a very simple mathematical truth – that every even number greater than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two prime numbers. Quickly reviewed, even numbers are numbers that can be divided by two – like 4, 10, 220 etc – and prime numbers are numbers that can be divided only by one and themselves – like 7, 13, 89 etc. Here are some examples:

8 = 3 + 5

10 = 3 + 7 = 5 + 5

100 = 3 + 97 = 11 + 89 = 17 + 83 = 29 + 71 = 41 + 59 = 47 + 53

You can try this at home with larger numbers, but I must warn you that mathematicians have already tested this conjecture with very strong computers up to the number of  4 × 10^18. Doesn’t matter what even number they chose, the conjecture always remained true. The big problem is that up to this day Goldbach’s conjecture remains unproven despite considerable effort. In other words, Goldbach’s conjecture unmistakably shapes the way numbers work, but on the other hand cannot be positively designated, except by name and by the effects it has on the interaction between numbers.

Let us consider the Real yet again. Like Goldbach’s conjecture, it has a permanent effect on the way the signification of our world functions – on the way we construct our world symbolically. Just like Goldbach’s conjecture, its effect can only be discerned in the patterns through which objects (or signifiers) compose our reality, but its underlying logic cannot be explained by symbolic means – it resists symbolisation. It can only be discerned in its effects and by the name we give it. It does not “exist” as a formulated or proven principle, but “ek-sists” as an unbreakable limitation to the way principles and formulas function. This is one way to address the Lacanian Real, through its relation to the uncompromising Truth of our existence. A truth only manifesting negatively in the order of things.

October Lecture Series in Stillpoint Spaces, Berlin

Dear readers,

I am happy to invite you to a lecture series I will be conducting at Stillpoint Spaces, Berlin, this October. The series revolves the conception of the subject in Freud’s and Lacan’s work. The lectures will take place every Tuesday, starting at 19:00, at Hobrechtstrasse 66, 12047 Berlin. You are all very much invited.

Please see a brief introduction to the materials deliberated in the lectures:

Many times in our lives we want to do or have something so bad, but something inside of ourselves seems to stop us. But who is it that stops us from, “finishing a degree”, “finding love”, “parting with our lovers”, or “finding a job”? Jacques Lacan offers us an intriguing answer to these questions – it is the subject of the unconscious. In this lecture series, we will try and understand who is the subject of the unconscious in psychoanalysis. Through the mechanism of repression, and the initial split between conscious and unconscious, through ego and libido development, the mirror stage, and the differentiation between neurosis and psychosis, we will try and see what Lacan says about the subject.

A learning module with Leon Brenner

Tuesdays (October 10, 17, 24, 31), 19:00 – 20:30

Lecture I: Repression and the subject of the unconscious
Tuesday, October 10, 19:00 – 20:30

Repression might be the most fundamental mechanism in the history of psychoanalysis. More than defining it as a defense mechanism, it is considered to constitute the structure of our subjectivity by marking a division between the conscious and unconscious. In this lecture, we will try and understand the progression of the concept of repression in psychoanalysis. From Freud’s initial definition of repression as a neurotic defense to Lacan’s analysis of repression in the constitution of the subject of the unconscious. How can the subject be split between the conscious and the unconscious and yet not be divided? What is repressed in repression? Does every subject repress? What is the “return of the repressed”? We will try and see the function of repression in everything that is human experience.

Lecture II: Ego, Libido, and the Sexuated Subject
Tuesday, October 17, 19:00 – 20:30

The theory of the subject in psychoanalysis is accompanied by the theory of ego and libidinal development. Freud has described several stages in this development of the ego, and attributed them to several stages in the development of the sexual drive. In this lecture, we will try and understand the theory of ego and libidinal development and its relation to the constitution of the subject in psychoanalysis. From auto-eroticism to narcissism and object love, we will try and understand the ways in which the subject is situated in the world as a sexuated being. We will demonstrate how a fixation on a specific stage of ego and libidinal development can foreshadow the subject’s unique mental structure, and define its personality and capacity for love.

Lecture III: The Mirror Stage
Tuesday, October 24, 19:00 – 20:30

The mirror stage is Lacan’s most famous conception in the English speaking world. Based on a subversive lecture given at the Fourteenth International Psychoanalytical Congress in 1936, the mirror stage has developed along Lacan’s teaching up to his latest seminars. The mirror stage conveys Lacan’s attempt to reconceptualize a large portion of the Freudian theory, especially in relation to the initial constitution of the subject and the stages of ego and libidinal development. It incorporates Lacan’s unique elaboration of the three registers of the symbolic, real and imaginary, and emphasizes the role of the symbolic Other in every person’s initial subjective structure. In this lecture we will try and understand the intricacies of this conception, emphasizing its explanatory strength in our understanding of the subject in psychoanalysis.

Lecture IV: The Subject in Neurosis and Psychosis
Tuesday, October 31, 19:00 – 20:30

Lacan’s theory of the subject does not only deal with the constitution of the subject, it also offers several structures through which the subject can be related to clinically. Taking root in Freud, Lacan offers three such subjective structure in the clinic of the 20th century – the neurotic, perverse and psychotic subject. In this lecture, we will try and elaborate on two of these structures – the neurotic and psychotic structures. Branching from the theory of repression and the understanding of ego and libidinal development, we will try and differentiate the two, providing a clearer picture as to their way of being. Through their relation to language, to the Other, and the mirror, we will mark a structural distinction that will put the many symptoms – neurotic and psychotic – in a new perspective.

All the best,



Do you also have an elderly uncle which, at family gatherings, keeps on telling you “I feel I’m withering away, you’ll see, a couple more month and its cancer for me!”. Or maybe its your grandfather, which keeps a blood pressure monitor next to his bed, checking his stats three times a day, never forgetting to check online on every mysterious ache or pain affecting him at least once a week. If so, your analyst or practitioner would probably tell you that you are dealing with a hypochondriac.


Similarly to paranoia, the hypochondriac is a victim of a persecutory power. But for the hypochondriac this power is strictly embodied in the terrifying organismic dimension of the body. The hypochondriac will describe the body as uncontrollable, as a deathtrap hijacking his soul, eventually sentencing him to death. He will suffer from obsessive thoughts revolving illness, and the deterioration of the body, as well as compulsive pains and other physical symptoms. Accordingly, we see the hypochondriac regularly disposed to constant pre-emptive attempts at the discovery of disease.

Nevertheless, before having anything to do with the body, hypochondria is an affliction which revolves the desire for knowledge. It is an obsessive attempt to know what our body hides from us, what goes on inside of it, and how it affects us. Some might even call it an academic endeavour, attempting to articulate something of the inarticulability of our inevitable death.

Accordingly we should view Hypochondriac delusions, such as phantom pains, as pieces of knowledge provided in the hopes that somebody could make sense out of them – like a doctor for instance. Through the interaction between “bodily-knowledge” (pain) and the knowledge of practitioners, the hypochondriac hopes to learn something of this aspect of the body which can only be mastered in actual death.

Wrongfully identified as fearing death, the hypochondriac is actually constantly in a state of contempt in regards to the enigma of dying. At the price of his own body – inflicted with pain, sacrificed as a piece of “bodily-knowledge” – the hypochondriac’s desire stands strong, demanding to know something of the twilight, even if only its exact time and place.

The Hypochondriac - William Sharp

The Hypochondriac – William Sharp

It is common to mistake the hypochondriac as latching to life, refusing death for the sake of living. But the hypochondriac laches to life only as long as knowledge about death has not been achieved. Accordingly, the hypochondriac can be considered as a worshiper of death, sacrificing his own body for the sake of some of its knowledge. He does not want to die before knowing, he lives for the sake of this knowledge, and embraces death as a partner.

Nevertheless, as Freud puts it quite bluntly – the object of the death drive is always already lost, that is to say that there is nothing to know about it. Thus, the only way to know it is as nothing – as a true place holder for the aim of the subject’s desire. The tragedy of the hypochondriac is not being aware that this knowledge can only be achieved retroactively, as well as by mistake.

This point is summarised quite delightfully in an ancient Mesopotamian tale that first appeared in the Babylonian Talmud called “The Appointment in Samarra”.

“The Appointment in Samarra” as retold by W. Somerset Maugham (1933)

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to the market to buy provisions. In a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, “Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.” The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace, and he saw death standing in the crowd, and he came to it and said, “Why did you make a threatening gesture at my servant when you saw him this morning?” Death then replied, “That was not a threatening gesture, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”


This story teaches us so much, but for now let it teach us that in the end we must accept Truth as our limit point, and that in our errors and mistakes, we inevitably take part in it. Much to the hypochondriac’s dismay, his desire then might as well be reversed, for it is not in knowing, but in the process of forgetting, that we can inevitably raise death to the dignity of life.


“In Voluptas Mors,” photograph by Philippe Halsman (in collaboration with Salvador Dalí)

Demand (minus – ) Need (equals = ) Desire

 Babies and cats are spoiled and selfish creatures. That is why, whenever I am faced with my cat’s selfish narcissistic tendencies, I ask myself – “can these creatures even have the capacity to love?” Faced with this predicament, while taking into account that babies and cats are also quite silly creatures, I find myself truly doubting that they are able to comprehend such a complex concept (a concept that for some of us is even incomprehensible) like love.

This makes me a little paranoid, and so I wonder – “if these silly creatures don’t really ‘love’ me, what kind of relationship do we have? Taking into account the fact that in their limited developmental stage babies and cats have no capacity to comprehend the concept of love, what do they feel towards me?” Thinking of my cat, I come to one conclusion – what she feels is the need to be fed.

And indeed, humans (we’ll put cats in parenthesis for now) are born with a variety of organic needs which are necessary for their survival. Furthermore, because we are born way before we are developed enough (physically and mentally) to fulfil these needs on our own, we are dependent on our adult caretakers to fulfil them. This physiological fact – rooted in the baby’s helpless undeveloped (but cute) starting point – entails something very real about us humans – the fact that we are originally and necessarily dependent on the care of others.


These others, or more precisely, these adult caretakers, are the ones who surround the child from birth and take care of his or her needs whenever they randomly spring out of somewhere. Nevertheless, as some of us know too well, it is hard to understand what exactly the baby truly needs and when. And indeed, after a terrific time in mommy’s womb – a place where all needs are immediately satisfied – in the first days in the outside world, the baby is faced with a bunch of unfulfilled needs and a group of naive humans that can’t telepathically understand what he or she whats when he or she wants it. Accordingly, in order for their needs to be satisfied, young humans must be quite resourceful in taking on themselves a new relationship with signifiers, with the language of the adult world in which they are engrossed, and to articulate – in one way or another – a demand.

And indeed, just like that, through trial and error, we see babies starting to adopt the ways of the others and communicate with them using signs, movements, and sounds. In this way the baby’s needs are transformed into a demands, as they are symbolically articulated by the child in order to be satisfied in a timely and efficient manner (“blink once if you are hungry”). It is through this early relationship with language that the organic body composed of the child’s primal instinctual needs is re-appropriated by the signifier, and is utilised in the creation of demands which are framed by signs or language.


Jon Beinart, Toddlerpedes, 2006

Nevertheless, when the child’s need is transformed into a demand – mediated by language – a new set of worries and repercussions which are alien and external to the domain of the original physiological need arises. For when needs are directed towards the others as demands, they are not only composed of the basic physiological need, but (as some of us know too well) also come to satisfy the desire for the attention and love of the caretakers to which the demand is directed to.

Parents find very quickly that when they wake up at night to the cries of their baby (or cat) and run quickly to their room, they find them – quite timidly – just lying there not physically needing anything. But do they not need anything? Well, yes, they do not need anything speaking in a strict physiological sense – they desire something beyond need. And indeed, according to psychoanalysis, when a demand is articulated in language it always entails an additional dimension which is not included in the domain of the original need. This is the domain of the desire of the others – their affection and love; a domain which, undisputedly, reaches beyond the limited sphere of the satisfaction of the particular physiological need.


Accordingly, Lacan insists that every demand – when it is subtracted from the original need – is in fact a demand for love.* More precisely, he claims that whenever an original need is articulated in language as a demand, we are faced with a uniquely human side effect – the formation of the demand for the attention and affection of the other to which the demand is directed.

Listen to your children and cats! Whenever a young child calls out to his mother, “I’m thirsty!”, it is possible he in fact means that he would like her to bring him his water bottle, but beyond that, it is quite possible that he also actually wants her to bring it to him – that she will give him her attention and affection by doing so. In other words, that she will see him as her object of desire.

It is therefore not surprising that one Lacanian definition of desire is: the remainder of the subtraction of the need from the demand articulating it in language. According to Lacan, desire gains it consistency from the fact that when a child articulates his need in a demand, something is left out. Something in language is not able to grasp the full scope of the child’s original need. That part of need is what, according to Lacan, is primally repressed, and in turn engenders the place of Desire.

But what is exactly the love of the other which the child desires? Lacan gives us the following answer – the desire for the love of the other is in fact the demand for the others desire (read that again). Meaning, the other’s capacity to desire – the part in the other which desires. In other words, we can say that when the child demands something from the other he also desires the part in the other which is desiring.

This initial form of desire is also manifest in our adult life, in our relationships with the ones that we love or that love us. It appears in the demand for love, not as the satisfaction of a need, but as a satisfaction of the desire for the desire of the loved one.

If we are lucky enough (and this is a discussion for another time), we find out quite early in our lives that this demand is impossible to fulfil. That is because human beings, like you and me, don’t really have a specific part in our bodies or minds which is desiring, and can be cut out and given to another person as a present. Non of us are really the practical owners of our capacity to desire. Accordingly, in the face of our lovers demand, we are left helpless – for there is no way we can truly satisfy it. There is no pleasure, nor promise, we can bestow on our lovers that can be equivalent to the thing they demand in the first place. All we can do as lovers is in actuality – lie. Providing our lovers with these accepted artificial signs that signal we really do love them; repetitively giving out indicators which simulate or even falsify our giving them what we cannot give them in the first place.


If we are truly truthful in to our lovers we should tell them – “my heart is not really mine to give”, or “I do not want to give you promises which I know I cannot fulfil”. That is why Lacan claims that only liars can truly answer the demand of their lovers with a straight face – “my love is yours!”.

Let us briefly conclude that the very familiar indicators of love that we so gladly enjoy in our romantic comedies and novels, are exactly the ones that make us forget or ignore what makes love so singular. These indicators are beautiful lies which stimulate our desire; unattainable fantasies which aspire to fill in an ‘un-fillable’ void. We must remember that, quite on the contrary, love is exactly the acceptance of this void, the forfeit of the words that will explain and promise what is to come; it is the movement from the desire-of-a-‘thing’, to the love-of-the-‘subject’.


Salvador Dali, Tristan and Isolde, 1944


* Please see Lacan, Jacques. Écrits, “The Signification of the Phallus”.

“Life After Trump”: Imaginary and Symbolic Identification in the U.S.A

We are witnessing the populist decline of our democracies. As Angela Merkel put it quite bluntly, we have entered a “post-factual” age, where the anonymous votes of the masses are conducted by collective convergences of affective identification. Enlightenment and scientific scrutiny have become dull, the numbers useless beyond garnishing straightforward rewarding messages (“We’re great!”). Nevertheless, we must not be fooled. It was not sheer foolishness that drove us to vote for these ‘Brexits’, but something deeply rooted in the way we invest ourselves in the social domain.

And now the Americans have demonstrated it quite as well again. Of course, not to be blamed for the apparent lack of choice they had (as the creators of the animated series, South Park, have put it – “between a giant douche and a turd sandwich”). Just like Russia, Turkey, Poland, Hungary, Israel, and many other ideological contemporaries, the American elections have demonstrated yet again, that in our current political climate – a  corrupt and conservative form of parliamentary plutocracy – the populist-right always has the crucial advantage of at least outwardly expressing the obscene repressed desires of the masses.

In the Berlin coffeeshops we are regularly appalled: how can these racist, misogynic narcissists gain the trust and support of their voters? How can an American woman vote for a man calling to “grab women by their pussy”? Well, Jacques Lacan once said that in politics there are only “fools and knaves”. Unfortunately, it seems that the knaves of the populist-right have quite intuitively grasped the structures which mediate our investment in the social domain. By very efficiently, but most probably unknowingly, utilising the well founded Lacanian distinction between two forms of identification – ‘imaginary identification’ and ‘symbolic identification’ – they keep on gaining power.


Kena Betancur, 2016

We tend to characterise ‘identification’ as the act of adopting a nobler quality, value, or distinct characteristic, of a prominent role model. For instance, in the identification with Beyonce’s unique form of feminine demeanour, or queen Victoria’s table manners. We believe that identifying with these figures necessarily revolves what is good in them by becoming similar to them. Nevertheless, philosopher Slavoj Žižek suggests that this approach is misguided on two crucial levels, a mistake which, to my opinion, stands behind the crucial political errors furthering us from progressing our democracies to a place beyond corruption and capital.

1. Identifying With the Abominable:

First of all, we must understand that the character or quality with which we identify with in a person is quite occasionally not so positive or glamorous and not necessarily conspicuous but is usually hidden. For instance, in the charming 70’s of British Punk-Rock, many Britons chose to identify with wild and dirty musicians such as Johnny Rotten – lead singer of the Sex Pistols. And indeed, Mr. Rotten did represent something that was surly “rotten” in the British culture of that time.

Another very relevant example is the case of Donald Trump’s 2016 run for presidency. It was Trump’s problematic personality – an indecent vulgar speaker, an advocate of xenophobia and misogyny, and more – which has been used as a direct target for the competing American parties. These were convinced that directing their propaganda on the abashment of Trump’s character – on his dubious corrupt past, or his inability to admit to any wrong doing or lack of experience – would hand them the presidency on a silver plater. But what these parties did not take into account was the fact that Trump’s obscene features are exactly the ones that will make so many individuals identify with him.

American culture is deeply rooted in the repression of its dubious corrupt past, on an inherent xenophobia, and an inability to admit to any wrong doing in its capricious military adventures. Accordingly, it was exactly Trump’s brute and shameless character – set on the background of a story of an actually unaccomplished businessman with simple desires, vulnerable in his attempt to portray himself as a success story – that was the site for the identification of the american masses sharing that standpoint. These actual features, and their centrality in both the Republican and Democratic debate, were a big factor in Trump’s being elected to be, maybe quite astonishingly, the 45th president of the United States of America.

The first lesson learned here is that the strength of identification is not necessarily rooted in a positive and glamorous disposition of a character, but can also be rooted in pathetic, crude, and mundane nature of an individual. Therefore we should not be surprised in November 2016 that focusing the campaign on the abominable qualities of Trump did not limit the capacity of our identification, but strengthened it.


2. Imaginary Identification is Conditioned by a Symbolic One:

The second mistake is rooted in ignoring the distinction between ‘imaginary’ and ‘symbolic’ identifications. Simply stated, ‘imaginary identification’ is an identification with an ideal or a characteristic of an individual – somebody we would have wanted to be. ‘symbolic identification’ is the identification with the place from which we perceive this person as valued; the perspective from which we see ourselves as loved, or as deserving love.

Different people have different ideals. For instance, some see the patriotic soldier as the manifestation of a universal good, while others see the ascetic, peace-seeking pacifist as taking that same place. Some will define the patriotic soldier as a cruel oppressive figure which signifies self destruction and despair, while others will define the ascetic pacifist as the personification of blind and childish idealism. There are different types of ideals, which entail different standpoints or perspectives from which to be judges as ideal. The critical point which cannot be ignored is that every ‘imaginary (ideal) identification’ is always preliminarily rooted in a perspective from which it is perceived. This perspective rules and defines our ‘imaginary’ form of identification, it is from these perspectives that we can see ourselves as deserving to be loved and thus choose to identify as someone which deserves that love. The identification with a certain perspective, and not an ideal character, is called ‘symbolic identification’.

Accordingly, whenever we are trying to asses the identification with an ideal figure we should always ask ourselves what is the perspective which is taken into account when the subject identifies with this figure?

This point was not taken into account by the American Democratic party and its notorious delegate, Hilary Clinton. They have failed to supply the political domain with an alternative symbolic platform from which a different form of ‘imaginary identification’ can take place, but were only relying on Clinton being a better object of ‘imaginary identification’ judged from the same perspective.

American politics have always been rooted in the domain of ‘imaginary identification’, it is this stagnation in political dynamism of the symbolic domain which has dictated the repetitive reelection of charismatic and easy-to-relate-to figures. Some times figures like Barak Obama, which are identifiable thanks to their very elegant and admirable conduct (being a talkshow star and sometimes a standup comedian), and other times like the vulgar Trump. But because ‘Imaginary identification’ relies on its symbolic designation, Americans can hope to see real change in its conduct only when its politics start to address the symbolic grounds that enable these identifications to thrive, and provide a different one.

clowns trump clinton copy.jpg

Tony Pro, 2016

This gap between the way I perceive myself as loved (imaginary identification), and the place from which I am perceived as deserving love (symbolic identification), is taken under great scrutiny in the course of an analysis. Žižek gives us the example of the case of the obsessive-neurotic (and here we might deal with a confession as well): for the obsessive-neurotic ‘imaginary identification’ conditions the masochistic logic of his compulsive behaviour. He humiliates himself, prevents his our success, prearranges his failures, etc. The critical question asked in the course of analysis is where can this cruel oppressive tendency (super-ego) be located? How can the obsessive prearrangement of his failure gain him pleasure? In other words, from where does his ‘symbolic identification’ function?

When considering the surprising success of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign we should take into account these two factors. One, that identifying with an individual does not necessarily rely on him or her being a positive or admirable person, on the contrary, it is sometimes the very decadent negative aspect of an individual that will make us identify. Two, that identification does not only manifest on its ‘imaginary’ level; that every ‘imaginary identification’ is rooted in a ‘symbolic’ perspective from which it is scrutinised. While ‘imaginary identification’ leaves us in the place of the obsessive – of an impossible and oppressive identification – the psychoanalytical clinic teaches us that ‘symbolic identification’ is the one that enables living. Accordingly, when assessing the causes of the massive identification with Trump we must take into account the place which enabled it, the symbolic site from which it is evaluated in the American cultural domain. Maybe the direct and brave interrogation of that ‘symbolic’ perspective in its cultural history and contemporary politics might enable “life after Trump”, even in the traumatic and grotesque U.S of A.