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.