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)


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.

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,


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”.