Sublimation Thing (1993)


…the Trieb implies in itself the advent of the signifier.1

♦ In writing I would like to make myself heard, to have the reader hear my voice in the tourings of its particularity, its style. In Encore Lacan writes:

If there is something that can introduce us to the dimension of writing as such, it is our perceiving that the signified has nothing to do with our ears, but only with reading, the reading of what one hears/understands (entendre) of the signifier. The signified is not what one hears/understands; what one hears/understands is the signifier. The signified is an effect of the signifier.

Whatever meaning might accrue in writing, whatever pertinence writing might have to the register of truth, these can only be approached at the level of the material condition of writing itself: that is to say, at the level of the disposition of the signifier.

♦ This as a way of broaching the difficult question of the difficult pleasure, let’s say the excessiveness, of Lacan’s style (to the fragmentary extemporized digressiveness, the poetic and often parodic tenor of his spoken seminars, and the density of the Écrits, we could risk adding his legendary public histrionics, his personal relationships, his sartorial choices 3). Lacan has been designated opaque and magisterial, and either condemned for this (a “conscious charlatan” according to Chomsky) or subjected to attempts to render his thought accessible through some clarifying translation. This latter effort usually admits the danger of truncation, and warns against its effects: the problem is (as it always has been with psychoanalysis) that every effort to “popularize” a conceptual discourse, even within the relative narrow terrain of the cultural and intellectual, necessarily burdens that discourse with the prevailing idiom which in this case contains features (common sense, utility, empiricism, etc. – even clarity) utterly inimical to it.4

♦ Against this, let’s say that the point of emission of the Lacanian discourse is not some theory or system, some activity of thought, that (logically) precedes anything Lacan says or writes, but rather the speaking subject itself. I mean that the discourse is itself the conceptual activity, and is emitted only in the speaking subject, in the subject speaking. 5 This requires, then, that such a discourse be marked both by the contradictory character of subjectivity, and by the particular, uniquely destined subject which utters it. A subject under the constraint of both contradiction (division) and singularity.


♦ And a subject who, like the analysand (and maybe in concert with at least the ambition of the present writer), says just what he wants, in just the way he wants. A subject whose speaking is in the thrall of the peculiar disposition of his pleasure, his enjoyment, which aids and hinders discourse, and which determines style. For Lacan, a style characterized both by sublime elegance and halting impediment.

In the dream, in parapraxis, in the flash of wit – what is it that strikes one first? It is the sense of impediment to be found in all of them.
Impediment, failure, split. In a spoken or written sentence something stumbles. Freud is attracted by these phenomena, and it is there that he seeks the unconscious… that peculiar accent… namely surprise, that by which the subject feels himself overcome, by which he finds both more and less than he expected – but, in any case, it is, in relation to what he expected, of exceptional value.
Now, as soon as it is presented, this discovery becomes a rediscovery and, furthermore, it is always ready to steal away again, thus establishing the dimension of loss…
Discontinuity, then, is the essential form in which the unconscious first appears to us as a phenomenon – discontinuity, in which something is manifested as a vacillation.6

This passage inscribes a number of key notions around which the present discussion will circulate: the necessity of self-impediment, of the failure of the subject (il faut – it must/it fails 7); the dimension of loss upon which the subject is constituted; the surprise with which the subject rediscovers that which it had lost, without having been looking for it, without ever having had it in the first place; the discontinuity, the equivocation, contradiction and fragmentation Lacan finds (without having looked for it) everywhere in Freud, the speech of the analysand, and which insists (I am saying) in the drift of Lacan’s discourse.

♦ Drift, drive. The Triebe are precisely not instincts, which are linked indissolubly to a particular object of satisfaction, an object which is possible, which exists. Drives are not so linked to their conditions of satisfaction; they are instead characterized by the plasticity, the substitutability of those conditions. This plasticity (in respect of object, in respect of aim) is analogous to metonymic displacement; it conforms to the logic of the signifier.

Besides the more familiar pulsion, Lacan offers dérive (drift) as a translation of Freud’s Trieb. 8 In addition to indicating the plasticity of the drives in respect of their aims (Ziele), whose potential for deflection or drift opens the way for sublimation, 9 dérive suggests derivation, descent, geneology and thereby finds relation to sexuality as such, that is to say, sexuality inextricably linked to mortality:

…the living being, by being subject to sex, has fallen under the blow of individual death… You will now understand that – for the same reason that it is through the lure that the sexed living being is induced into his sexual realization – the drive, the partial drive, is profoundly a death drive and represents in itself the portion of death in the sexed living being.10


1. Écrits, p. 236. Full references to the works of Jacques Lacan will be given on the last page of this paper.
2. Encore, p. 34.
3. See the amazing book of photographs, Visages de mon pére, published recently by Lacan’s daughter Judith Miller: besides the quasi-quilted double-breasted suit familiar from the cover of the seminar on the psychoses, Lacan sports truly bizarre affectations of costume ranging from pseudo-clerical shirtcollars to western string ties.
4. What seems to precipitate from this is the tendency on the part of the captivated toward sloganeering, and on the part of the resentful to scorn the slogans. Another problem that arises is the ordination of a Lacanian “orthodoxy” (virtually an oxymoron, as I hope to indicate) which while preserving a certain version of complexity, attempts to fix conceptual material precisely within a field of (scientific?) knowledge. Ragland-Sullivan seems to me particularly susceptible to this.
5. Precisely not a “thinking subject,” a Cartesian cogito. Instead of “I think, therefore I am,” Lacan offers “I am the one who says: ‘I think, therefore I am.’”
6. Seminar XI, p. 25.
7. Lacan makes considerable use of this pun in Encore: see for example p. 55.
8. He does so in several places, eg. Sem. VII P. 110; Ecrits p. 301.
9. Plasticity of the drives in respect of objects is a little different: the objects of the (partial) drives do not exist for Lacan; they are not part of reality. They are theobjets a, and belong to the order of the Real. What are subject to displacement are the imaginary substitutes for these objets a. The objets a are only the voids, the nothings, around which the (partial) drives circulate. (See Sem XI pp. 161ff.)
10. Sem. XI, p. 205.