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Against AdaptationReview - Against Adaptation
Lacan's 'Subversion of the Subject'
by Philippe Van Haute
Other Press, 2002
Review by Adrian Johnston, Ph.D.
May 31st 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 22)

            Due to what is commonly referred to as Lacan’s “notorious difficulty,” the vast majority of secondary literature produced by Lacanian scholars is aimed at providing a comprehensive introductory overview to the typically cryptic writings and oracular pronouncements of the French Freud.  Commentaries on Lacan generally seek to highlight the most important theses traversing his theoretical developments, thereby furnishing a streamlined presentation that enables readers to get a sense of the fundaments underlying the Lacanian approach to psychoanalysis.  Such scholarly works are necessary components in initiating the sustained effort to come to terms with Lacan’s legacy.  The very best of these sorts of commentaries make an articulate case for taking Lacan seriously as a thinker of the human condition, rather than dismissing him as yet another vapid postmodern obscurantist.  Without them, his critics’ dismissals of him as a nonsense monger risk appearing justified, and, consequently, Lacan’s texts might well be promptly relegated to the dustbin of intellectual history.

            At the outset of his project, Philippe Van Haute directly acknowledges the value of introductions to Lacan (i.e., macro-level surveys of an entire range of Lacan’s texts).  However, Van Haute senses that the time is ripe for a turn in Lacanian studies, for a shift towards what could be called “micro-level” investigations into specific facets of the Lacanian corpus.  Lacanian scholars should indeed cooperate along the lines of a division of labor.  Once the exegetical foundations for engaging with a given figure’s oeuvre have been laid by a series of solid overviews, other scholars should feel themselves free to pursue more detailed and complex investigations into specific sub-constellations of concepts.  Van Haute offers his study of Lacan’s 1960 essay “Subversion of the subject and the dialectic of desire in the Freudian unconscious” (the final essay selected for inclusion in Alan Sheridan’s 1977 English translation of the Écrits) as a “close reading.”  He presents his book as part of a turn towards Lacanian scholarship beyond the introductory level, beyond the stage of constructing comprehensive summaries of an entire series of works.

However, for a variety of reasons—his wise choice of text, his solid overall understanding of Lacan, his grasp of the philosophical issues at stake, his explanatory skills—Van Haute succeeds on both the micro-level as well as the macro-level.  His close reading accomplishes nothing less than showing readers how to see the Lacanian universe in a textual grain of sand.  In the “Subversion of the subject” essay, Lacan discusses his theory of the point de capiton (i.e., the “quilting point,” a notion introduced in the third seminar of 1955-1956):  central signifying units are, in terms of their capacity to signify and their assumption of a concrete meaning, shaped or conditioned by other such signifying units situated in a shared network of significance; but, in this network of signifiers, certain select signifiers (i.e., the quilting points) are absolutely pivotal in governing the dynamics of this system.  Not all differentially defined signifiers are equal.  One could say that Van Haute properly identifies this 1960 piece by Lacan as itself just such a point de capiton in his theoretical system.

            Several aspects of “Subversion of the subject and the dialectic of desire in the Freudian unconscious” make it a paradigmatic example from Lacan’s writings.  Not only is it excessively baroque and overly dense in terms of the writing style, but it also is organized around the explication of an intricate visual graph (Lacan loves such quasi-mathematical models as illustrations of his theories).  Consequently, even readers who are familiar with Lacanian ideas sometimes have trouble making out exactly what is transpiring in the course of this particular essay.  Furthermore, the “Subversion of the subject” is situated right at the cusp of a major turn in the course of Lacan’s intellectual itinerary:  it’s contemporaneous with the seventh seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, a seminar in which the Lacanian register of the Real starts to receive sustained attention (instead of the Symbolic being the key focus, as in most of the seminars throughout the 1950s).  Finally, this essay exhibits Lacan’s premeditated placement of himself at the interstices of psychoanalysis and philosophy (this piece served as a lecture in a colloquium on Hegelian dialectics).  Thus, Van Haute’s strategic choice of textual object in his exercise of careful exegesis is well suited to enable him to address a wide array of issues and topics in Lacanian theory without, for all that, losing the thread of his close reading.

            Against Adaptation defies being easily summarized in terms of the gradual unfolding of its content.  This volume is simply too rich in details to be encapsulated in a short review of only a few pages in length.  The primary reason for this is Van Haute’s admirable fidelity to the letter of the Lacanian text: he spends almost three hundred pages guiding readers through “Subversion of the subject” paragraph-by-paragraph, sentence-by-sentence, and even phrase-by-phrase.  No word in Lacan’s essay is left untouched.  By the time he’s finished, one has the impression that this particular piece of writing has been virtually exhausted, unreservedly decanted in terms of its significance.  This isn’t just a reading of Lacan.  It functions as an invaluable demonstration of exactly how to set about reading Lacan.  However, a few of Van Haute’s guiding interpretive principles and underlying assumptions about Lacan can be highlighted and commented upon here.

            From the very beginning, Van Haute makes it clear that he views Lacan as a committed “ontological” dualist.  Numerous commentators questionably claim that Lacan, like every good twentieth-century “continental” theorist, is interested in overturning the old, hackneyed philosophical dichotomies (along with the notion of dichotomy in general) governing the Western tradition.  Such a perspective can only be sustained through an almost deliberate neglect of the plethora of places where Lacan subtly presses conceptual schemes from the history of philosophy into the service of elucidating his own metapsychology; Lacan is far from hostile to many of the divisions and distinctions structuring the systems of thinkers like Descartes, Kant, and Hegel.  For Van Haute, the central opposition operative, according to Lacan, at the very heart of human subjectivity itself is the split between language and the body—the latter decisively shapes the human relationship to the former, while, at the same time, resisting unproblematic integration into the former (this isn’t an exact reduplication of the bifurcation of the individual into res cogitans and res extensa, but Lacan undeniably intends for his own theory of subjectivity to resonate with that of Descartes, with the sheer volume of his references to Descartes adding textual substantiation to this claim).  In more concrete terms, Lacan’s (basically Hegelian) position is that the individual’s “corporeal” condition (i.e., needs, urges, wants, requirements, emotions, etc.) inevitably propels him/her to enter into a socio-symbolic order organized by (primarily linguistic) trans-individual systems of representation and exchange.  And yet, this embodied point of departure, this bodily origin of mediated subjectivity, is worked over and irreversibly transformed in its very being by this “anatomically destined” propulsion into the Geist of human collective existence.  However, this same body continues to cause difficulties for the more-than-corporeal subject, thwarting total and complete identificatory fusion with the mediating representations establishing the subject’s status (one should note in passing that accusations to the effect that Lacan entertains a strictly social constructivist model of embodiment lack any plausibility).  This is a dialecticized dichotomy, but, indeed, a dichotomy nonetheless.

            Following from his construal of Lacan as dualistic, Van Haute advances his underlying thesis as reflected in the title of the book:  Lacan’s most important idea is the assertion that human beings are fundamentally and constitutively maladapted in relation to their “reality,” to their natural/material as well as social/cultural Umwelt.  The antagonisms hindering “adaptation” subsist on several levels: language fails to function as a transparent medium for the flawless communicative coordination between bodily needs and intersubjective responses to the articulated demands motivated by these needs; the Real of excessive jouissance continually threatens to disrupt the carefully negotiated balances and compromises between the pleasure and reality principles by overriding the self-interests of the ego-guided organism;  and, the mediating system of representations structuring subjectivity contains its own set of impasses, contradictions, and instabilities that make it ill-suited to provide the individual with a lasting set of stable “existential anchors” introducing order into corporeal chaos.  Hence, Lacan’s dualistic conflict-models aren’t limited simply to a division between body and language.  In addition to the split between corporeal materiality and disembodied structurality, Lacan posits the existence of deadlocks within the body as well as within the symbolic order:  not only is there a body-language conflict, but also an intra-body conflict (for example, the lack of coordinated and harmonious integration between the drive-sources, the sensory organs, and the functioning of mnemic inscriptions from past perceptions) and an intra-language conflict (as theorized by Lacan’s post-Saussurian musings on the dynamics associated with signifiers—see, for instance, his well-known distinction between the subject of the utterance and the subject of the enunciation from the eleventh seminar, in addition to his later reflections from the seminars of the 1970s on the Real as related to internal inconsistencies within the fabric of the symbolic order).  The relevance of the above for understanding the “Subversion of the subject” resides in the fact that the “graph of desire” around which Lacan’s essay is organized can be deciphered as a meticulous delineation of this whole series of multiple conflictual levels, as a provisional explanation of how necessarily maladapted subjectivity is produced in and through the dialectical vacillations set in motion by this thus-delineated framework.

            According to Van Haute’s reading, Lacan’s “Subversion of the subject” gradually builds towards the conclusion—this is evident from the closing sentences of Lacan’s essay—that jouissance is impossible.  An ultimate and exhaustive sating of the desire characteristic of the human libidinal economy, a fully satisfying “living out of the drives” that finally quells the incessant clamoring of various insistent urges, is unattainable for the human subject (save for, perhaps, at the cost of the subject’s own destruction and disappearance).  Alongside Lacan’s famous dictum that Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel, one could add that Il n’y a pas de jouissance or Jouissance n’existe pas.  Van Haute faithfully rehearses the familiar Lacanian thesis that the individual’s entry into the symbolic order unavoidably introduces a sort of “loss” or “absence” into the libidinal life of the subject, that one’s rapport with the experiential field is decisively and permanently altered by the settling into place of a thereafter irremovable linguistic lens.  Das Ding, the primordial, archaic focal point of the drives, is both negated and preserved (in Hegel’s parlance, “sublated” à la the Aufhebung) in being representationally transubstantiated into die Sache, the Imaginary-Symbolic object related to as an always-inadequate substitute for the forever lost “Real thing.”  The barring of the Thing of jouissance creates, almost ex nihilo, what Lacan calls “desire” (the same desire referred to in the title of the essay here under consideration).  This notion can most easily (although somewhat inadequately) be defined as the tension of the libidinal economy’s perpetual striving towards an indefinitely receding horizon of full satisfaction.  And, this tension is sustained exclusively on condition that the subject either does not or simply cannot directly obtain what it’s ostensibly after; the object of desire must be some sort of “lack,” as anyone acquainted with the Lacanian objet petit a knows.  Van Haute favors the stronger interpretation of desire here, arguing that the lack catalyzing and sustaining desire is constitutive (and not accidental), an irreducible aspect of symbolically established subjectivity.  Just as Lacan elsewhere proclaims that “Jouissance is forbidden to him who speaks,” so too does Van Haute assert, in line with a growing trend among Lacanian theorists, that loss, absence, lack, and so on is inherently impossible to overcome for the subject as a parlêtre.  The desiring subject is faced with nothing short of a two-pronged forced choice:  either desire as the sustainable-yet-unsatisfying inaccessibility of the fundamental locus of the libidinal economy, or, alternatively, an overwhelming, almost psychotic process of self-annihilation in the attempt at directly seizing the jouissance-laden Thing.  What isn’t an option is simply “pure enjoyment.”  In fact, Lacan can be portrayed as undertaking a critique of pure enjoyment in the same way that Kant attempts to rob pure reason of its alluring powers.

            Based on this strong interpretation of the negativity underlying desire, Van Haute proceeds to explain some of the basic features of a Lacanian diagnosis of various classic psychoanalytic pathological categories.  For example, he refers to Lacan’s distinction between the “object of desire” and the “object of demand.”  An object of desire is some (fantasmatic) entity towards which the subject strives, but which it’s impossible for the subject to ever attain.  An object of demand, on the other hand, results from the neurotic individual’s misrecognition of the unattainable objet a as a particular item or status which he/she has been unfairly deprived of by someone or something; a formal, structural impossibility is mis-recognized as a material, empirical fact.  A standard refrain recited by neurotic analysands is “I would be happy, if it weren’t for contingent factors ‘x,’ ‘y,’ and ‘z’ standing in my way.  Once those matters are settled, then I’ll finally be content and able to unproblematically enjoy life.”  In other words, and to shift into a slightly different set of Lacanian concepts, neurotics are always at risk of misconstruing the necessity of “symbolic castration” (i.e., the inevitable loss of das Ding resulting from the introduction of Imaginary-Symbolic mediation into libidinal life) in terms of a series of arbitrary, contingent frustrations.  Thus, a “grass is greener on the other side” fantasy—basically, “Everyone else except me is able to obtain satisfaction”—is at work in the neurotic’s unconscious as what Van Haute calls a “defense against desire.”  This provides a useful hint as to one facet of what Lacan means by the phrase “jouissance of the Other”:  the neurotic clings to the belief that, even if he/she is denied access to “pure enjoyment,” someone, somewhere is able to have “it.”  Necessary loss is deceptively turned into the appearance of contingent deprivation.  According to Lacan, a crucial component in the psychoanalytic cure is the process of bringing neurotics face-to-face with the fantasies complicit in sustaining this evasion of an essential aspect of their very being as subjects.  As Van Haute nicely summarizes it, “Humans are... an ‘in-between-being’ whose existence is carried on in a dialectical relation between two antithetical terms:  jouissance and castration.  Human being is desire” (pg. 280-281).  Any therapy that gets caught in the trap of endlessly trying to console patients for the supposed wrongs that their life histories have dished out merely ends up reinforcing the fantasies underpinning neurotic symptoms, as well as being guilty of buttressing a denial of the human condition itself.

            Although he doesn’t spend as much time discussing psychosis in this light, Van Haute does furnish readers with interesting remarks on perversion (in particular, sadism and masochism).  Again, the crux of these descriptions of general kinds of analytic clinical cases hinges on the above theme of an “impossible jouissance” and the never-unproblematic human (non-)relationship to it.  The “pervert” is convinced not only that jouissance exists, but that he/she has a special sort of knowledge enabling others to access this special enjoyment.  Lacan describes perversion as a position wherein the subject attempts to become the “instrument of the Other’s jouissance” (without, for all that, obtaining jouissance for themselves—the pervert can only fantasmatically conceal the absence of pure enjoyment from themselves by catering to another’s supposed enjoyment, and this inadvertently testifies to a fundamental impotence of sorts that perversion is one attempt to flee from).  So, what about the two most familiar perversions, namely, sadism and masochism?  For French psychoanalysis (as influenced by, for example, Gilles Deleuze’s famous study of these notions), sadism and masochism aren’t simply inverted-yet-parallel positions, nor is there such a hybrid phenomenon as the popular notion of “sadomasochism.”  In Van Haute’s view, the sadist fantasizes about individuals capable of engaging in unlimited debauchery and experientially sustaining infinite sensual intensities (the main characters in the Marquis de Sade’s novels obviously illustrate this).  Similarly, the victims of the sadist’s concocted protagonists are able to endure limitless amounts of abuse and torture.  But, don’t some sadists really act out their fantasies?  If so, how does this fit in with the claim that fantasized jouissance is constitutively inaccessible?  One might anticipate Van Haute arguing that the sadist, in the process of acting out, runs up against certain innate barriers to sustaining unlimited enjoyment (such as the limits of one’s body and its inability to indefinitely sustain or prolong various sensations).  Instead, Van Haute speaks of the sadistic torturer as identifying with his/her victim, so that, even during the intensive height of the concrete actualization of the sadistic fantasy scenario, jouissance is elsewhere (in this case, attributed to the victim-other).

The analysis of masochism here is a bit clearer and more original.  The full-blown masochist, although perhaps initially appearing to be someone who voluntarily de-subjectivizes themselves in order to undergo an overwhelming amount of jouissance qua pleasure-in-pain, is actually stuck in a scenario that involves repeatedly staging the mythic encounter between “the Law” and jouissance.  The masochist sets things up so that his/her punishing authority-figure is eventually forced to stop the game.  The person cast in the master/mistress role feels that “things have gone too far” because of an anxiety or fear aroused when the masochist wants the punishments pushed to the point of risking serious injury or death.  Van Haute claims that the masochist is looking for an authoritative Other, not as a tool for his/her capricious whims for self-abusive gratification, but as the agent for imposing boundaries and parameters around jouissance.  The masochist covertly seeks to cause anxiety in this Other so as to provoke the imposition of a rule or prohibition forbidding transgression beyond a certain threshold.  The basic upshot here is that, despite their differences, neither the sadist nor the masochist, even in the most extreme versions of their perverse practices, gain access to jouissance.  On the contrary, both sorts of perversions involve evading it while preserving the illusion that it exists and can, in principle, be accessed.   

            For those interested in Lacan and/or the philosophical dimension of psychoanalysis, Against Adaptation is a fabulous volume.  Van Haute has produced a masterful piece of Lacanian scholarship.  For years to come, this will be the study to consult for anyone grappling with “Subversion of the subject.”  In fact, little else like it (i.e., book-length examinations of a single essay by Lacan) exists at the moment.  Unfortunately, this review has only managed to selectively highlight a few of its worthwhile and interesting features.  In the bibliography, Van Haute lists another earlier book of his, Psychoanalyse en filosofie:  Het imaginaire en het symbolische in het werk van Jacques Lacan (1990).  Dutch isn’t exactly the lingua franca of Lacanian theorists.  Therefore, someone should definitely undertake translating this other work, assuming it’s anywhere near as good as Against Adaptation.  A wider audience of Lacanian theorists is impatiently waiting. 

 

© 2002 Adrian Johnston

 

Adrian Johnston recently completed a Ph.D. in Philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook. His dissertation was Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive


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