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)?

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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.

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“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.

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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)

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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.

RSI

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.

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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.