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Summary of Chapter XXIV in Lacan's Seminar VII: Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1959-60)
paradoxes of ethics or Have you acted in
conformity with your desire? The comic dimension
An ethics essentially consists in a judgment of our
action, with the proviso that it is only significant if the action implied by
it also contains within it, or is supposed to contain, a judgment [choice],
even if it is only implicit. The
presence of judgment on both sides is essential to the structure.
If there is an ethics of psychoanalysis it is to the
extent that analysis in some way or other offers something that is presented as
a measure of our action. In the
past some thought that it offers a return to our instincts as the measure of
our action. In constructing the
instincts, in making them the natural law of the realization of harmony,
psychoanalysis takes on the guise of a rather disturbing alibi, of a moralizing
hustle or a bluff, whose dangers cannot be exaggerated.
Analysis progresses by means of a return to the
meaning of an action. That alone
justifies that we are interested in the moral dimension. Freud's hypothesis in relation to the
unconscious presupposes that, whether it be healthy or sick, normal or morbid,
human action has a hidden meaning that one can have access to. In such a context the notion of a
catharsis that is a purification, a decantation or isolation of levels, is
immediately conceivable. In what
goes on at the level of lived experience there is a deeper meaning that guides
that experience and one can have access to it. Moreover, things cannot be the same when the two layers are
This is the embryonic form of a very old gnvqi seauton (gnuthi seauton) though it
has its own particular emphasis, related to inner process. But it is enough to situate the sharp
difference that is introduced by Freudian thought. What does this difference consist of? It can be measured in the response
given to the question: once it is over, once the return to the meaning of an
action has been accomplished, once the deep meaning has been liberated,
separated out through a catharsis in the sense of decantation, will everything
work out all right by itself? Will
there be nothing but goodness?
A very old question – a certain Mencius, as he was
called by the Jesuits, tells us that it can be judged in the following
way. In the beginning, goodness
was natural to man; it was like a mountain covered with trees. Only the inhabitants of the surrounding
area started to cut the trees down.
The blessing of the night was that it gave rise to a fresh growth of
suckers, but in the morning the herds returned to eat them and in the end the
mountain was denuded, so that nothing grew on it.
The goodness in question is so far from being
confirmed in our experience that we start out from what is modestly called the
negative therapeutic reaction, a malediction assumed or agreed to in the me funae (rather not to be) of
Oedipus. Not that the problem
doesn't remain whole; that is decided beyond the return to sense.
I suggested an experiment this year, that we adopt
the point of view of the Last Judgment, and choosing as the standard of that
reconsideration of ethics to which psychoanalysis leads the relationship
between action and the desire that inhabits it. To make you understand this relationship, I had recourse to
tragedy. The ethics of
psychoanalysis has nothing to do with speculation about prescriptions for, or
the regulation of, the service of goods.
Rather, the ethics of psychoanalysis implies the dimension that is
expressed in the tragic sense of life.
Actions are inscribed in the space of tragedy; also this is the sphere
of values; also the space of comedy.
The relationship between action and the desire which
inhabits it in the space of tragedy functions in the direction of a triumph of
death, a triumph of being-for-death that is formulated in Oedipus's me funae (rather not to be), a phrase in
which one finds that me, the negation
that is identical to the entrance of the subject supported by the
signifier. There lies the
fundamental character of all tragic action.
The space of comedy is less a question of a triumph
than of a futile or derisory play of vision. There too it is a question of the relationship between
action and desire, and of the former's fundamental failure to catch up with the
latter. The sphere of comedy is
created by the presence at its center of a hidden signifier (in the Old Comedy
it is there in person), namely, the phallus. Who cares if it is subsequently whisked away? What makes us laugh is not so much the
triumph of life as its flight, the fact that life slips away, runs off, escapes
all those barriers that oppose it, including those that are the most essential,
those constituted by the agency of the signifier. The phallus is nothing more than a signifier, the signifier
of this flight. Life goes by, life
triumphs, whatever happens. If the
little fellow trips, he nevertheless survives.
The pathetic (comic) side of this dimension is
exactly the opposite, the counterpart of tragedy. They are not incompatible, since tragic-comedy exists. It is here where the experience of
human action resides. It is
because we know how to recognize the nature of desire which is at the heart of
this experience that a reconsideration of ethics is possible, that a form of
ethical judgment is possible, of a kind that gives this question the force of a
Last Judgment: Have you acted in conformity with the desire that is in
you? This question can only be
posed in the analytic context.
(Demonstrate the opposition between the desiring
center and the service of goods.)
Opposed to this pole of desire is traditional
ethics. The antithesis of the
tragic hero in a tragedy, who nevertheless embodies a certain heroic quality,
is Creon, with reference to whom is the service of goods that is the position
of traditional ethics. The
cleaning up of desire - modesty, temperateness, the middle path - articulated
so remarkably in Aristotle: we need to know what it takes the measure of
and whether its measure is founded on something.
Examination demonstrates that its measure is always
marked with a deep ambiguity. In
the end, the order of things on which it claims to be founded is the order of
power, of a human power. It
can hardly take two steps in expressing itself without sketching in the
ramparts that surround the place where the signifiers are unleashed, or where,
for Aristotle, the arbitrary rule of the gods holds sway, insofar as at this
level gods and beasts join together to signify the world of the unthinkable.
It is not the prime mover (God), but the mythical
gods. We know how to contain
the unleashing of the signifiers, but it is not because we have staked almost
everything on the No/Name-of-the-Father that the question is simplified. Aristotle's morality is wholly founded
on an order that is no doubt a tidied-up, ideal order. But it corresponds to the politics of
his time, to the organization of the city. His morality is the morality of the master, created
for the virtues of the master and linked to the order of powers. One needs to know their limits.
Of interest to us, that which has to do with desire, to
its array and disarray, the position of power of any kind in all circumstances
and in every case, whether historical or not, has always been the same. Alexander's proclamation when he arrived
in Persepolis or Hitler's when he arrived in Paris? "I have come to liberate you from this or that. Carry on working. Work must go on." Which means of course: "Let it be
clear to everyone that this is on no account the moment to express the least
surge of desire." The
morality of power, of the service of goods, is: "As far as desires are
concerned, come back later. Make
Recall the line of demarcation with reference to which
the question of ethics is raised for us; it is also a line that marks an
essential end in the development of philosophy. Kant introduces the topological milestone that
distinguishes the moral phenomenon, the field that is of interest to moral
judgment. It is a limited
categorical opposition, purely ideal, but it was essential that someone
articulate it by purifying it of all interest, that is, sensible, vital human
interests. None of our interests
must be involved for it to be valorized as the properly ethical field.
Traditional morality concerned itself with what one
was supposed to do "insofar as it is possible". What is the point on which that
morality turns; nothing less than the impossibility in which we recognize the
topology of our desire. Kant's
breakthrough is when he posits that the moral imperative is not concerned with
what may or may not be done. To
the extent that it imposes the necessity of a practical reason,
obligation affirms an unconditional "Thou shalt." The importance of this field derives
from the void that the strict application of the Kantian definition
Analysts recognize that place as the place occupied
by desire. Our experience gives
rise to a reversal that locates in the center an incommensurable
measure, an infinite measure that is called desire. One can substitute for Kant's
"Thou shalt" the Sadean fantasm of jouissance elevated to the level of an imperative, a pure and
almost derisory fantasm, but a potentially universal law.
If Kant had designated this point for us, everything
would be fine; but we can also see that which the horizon of practical reason
opens onto: to the respect and the admiration that the starry heavens
above and the moral law within inspires in him. Why? Respect
and admiration suggest a personal relationship. That is where everything subsists in Kant, though in a
demystified form. Kant claims to
find a new proof of the immortality of the soul in the fact that nothing on
earth satisfies the demands of moral action. It is because the soul remains hungry for something more
that it needs an afterlife, so that the unrealized harmony may be achieved
somewhere or other.
That means that respect and admiration for the
starry skies had already grown fragile at that moment in history. Did they still exist in Kant's time?
When we look at the vast universe it seems to us that we are in the middle of a
huge construction site with one funny little corner, the one we live in, a
watch that someone forgot. Apart
from that, it is easy to see if there is no one there, if, that is, we give a
meaning to what might be construed as a presence. There is no other articulatable meaning to give to this divine
presence except that which functions for us as a criterion of the
subject, namely, the dimension of the signifier.
Philosophers can speculate on the Being in whom act and
knowledge are one and the religious tradition is not misled. Only that which can be articulated by
means of a revelation has the right to be recognized as one or more divine
persons. Only one thing could
convince us that the heavens are inhabited by a transcendent person and that is
a signal. What signal? Not the one that defines the theory of
communication, suggesting that one can interpret the warning rays that traverse
space in terms of signs. (Distance
creates mirages. Because these
things come from far off, people believe that they are messages from stars
three hundred light-years away.
But it would only be a message if some explosion of a star at these
immense distances corresponded to something that was written down somewhere in
the Great Book, something that would make a reality of what was happening.)
The fable of the cash register
In Jules Dassin's film, "Never on Sunday", the
character starts to beat up those who are sitting around because they haven't
been speaking properly, in conformity with moral norms. On other occasions, in order to express
his immense excitement and his happiness, he picks up a glass and shatters it
on the ground. And every time a
glass is shattered, we see the cash register vibrate frenetically, a beautiful
touch. That cash register defines
very clearly the structure that concerns us.
The reason why there is human desire, that the field
can exist, depends on the assumption that everything real that happens may be
accounted for somewhere. Although
Kant managed to reduce the essence of the moral field to something pure,
nevertheless there remains at its center the need for a space where accounts
are kept. It is this that is
signified by the horizon represented by his immortality of the soul. Part of eternity is given over to the
keeping of accounts.
In these fantasms, one finds projected the
structural relationship indicated on the graph with the line of the
signifier. It is insofar as the
subject is situated and is constituted with relation to the signifier that the
break, splitting or ambivalence is produced in him at the point where the
tension of desire is located. In
the film, the character who plays the satirical role, the role that is offered
for our derision, Dassin as the American, finds himself to be as the producer
and creator of the film in a position that is more American than those whom he
makes fun of, that is, the Americans.
He is there in order to undertake the reeducation of a good-hearted
whore. The irony of the
screenwriter is to be found in the fact that in carrying out this pious mission
he is in the pay of the one whom we might call the Grand Master of the
brothel. The deeper meaning is
signaled to us by the placing before our eyes an enormous pair of black glasses
– he (the Grand Master) is someone whose face is for good reason never
shown. Naturally, when the whore
learns that it is the character (Grand Master) who is her sworn enemy who is
paying the piper, she eviscerates the beautiful soul of the American in
question, and he who has conceived such great hopes is made to look very
If there is a dimension of social criticism in this
symbolism – what one finds hidden behind the brothel are the forces of order –
it is somewhat naïve to make us hope at the end of the screen play that all
that is needed to solve the problem of the relations between virtue and desire
is to close down the brothel.
There runs constantly throughout the film that old fin de siecle ambiguity which involves identifying classical
antiquity with the sphere of liberated desire. It is not to have gone beyond Pierre Louys to believe that
it is somewhere outside her own situation that the good Athenian prostitute can
focus all the light of the mirages she is at the center of. That is, Dassin didn't have to confuse
what flows from the sight of this attractive figure with a return to
Aristotelian morality, which he fortunately doesn't spell out in detail.
Desire and guilt
This shows us that on the far edge of guilt, insofar
as it occupies the field of desire, there are the bonds of a permanent
bookkeeping, and this is so independently of any particular articulation
that may be given of it.
Part of the world has resolutely turned in the direction of
the service of goods, rejecting everything that has to do with the
relationship of man to desire.
This is the postrevolutionary perspective. People don't seem to have realized that by formulating
things in this way, one is simply perpetuating the eternal tradition of power,
namely, "Let's keep on working, and as far as desire in concerned, come
back later." But what does it
matter? In this tradition the
communist future is only different from Creon's, from that of the city, in
assuming – and it's not negligible – that the sphere of goods to which we must
all devote ourselves may at some point embrace the whole universe.
This operation is only justified insofar as the
Universal State is on the horizon.
Yet nothing indicates that even at that limit the problem will
disappear, since it will persist in the consciousness of those who live with that
view of things. Either they imply
that the properly statist values of the State will disappear, that is
organization and policing, or they introduce a term such as the Universal
Concrete State, which means no more than supposing things will change on a
molecular level, at the level of the relationship that constitutes the position
of man in the face of various goods, to the extent that up till now his desire
was not there.
Whatever happens to that point of view, nothing is
structurally changed. The sign of
this is, first, that, although the divine presence of an orthodox kind is
absent, the keeping of accounts certainly is not and, second, that for the
inexhaustible dimension that necessitates the immortality of the soul for Kant,
there is substituted the notion of objective guilt, which is precisely
articulated as such. From a
structural point of view nothing is resolved.
This has sufficiently outlined the opposition
between the desiring center and the service of goods. Now we come to the heart of the matter.
Giving ground relative to one's
Formulate the following prepositions as paradoxes.
Propose that from an analytical point of view, the
only thing of which one can be guilty is of having given ground relative
to one's desire. Whether it is
admissible or not in a given ethics, in the last analysis, what a subject
really feels guilty about when he manifests guilt, at bottom always has to do
with the extent to which he has given ground relative to his desire.
He has often given ground relative to his desire for
a good motive or even for the best of motives. This is not astonishing for guilt has existed for a very
long time, and it was noticed long ago that the question of a good motive, of a
good intention, although it constitutes certain zones of historical experience
and was at the forefront of discussions of moral theology in the time of, say,
Abelard, hasn't enlightened people very much. The question remains – why Christians in their most routine
observances are never at peace?
For if one has to do things for the good, in practice one is always
faced with the question: for the good of whom?
Doing things in the name of the good, even more in the
name of the good of the other, is something that is far from protecting us, not
only from guilt but also from all kinds of inner catastrophes, for example,
from neurosis and its consequences.
Analytically speaking desire is that which supports an unconscious
theme, the very articulation of that theme that roots us in a particular
destiny. The destiny demands insistently that its debt be paid, and desire
keeps coming back, keeps returning, and situates us once again in a given
track, the track of something that is specifically our business.
Last time I opposed the hero to the ordinary
man. They are not two different
species. In each of us the path of
the hero is traced, and it is as an ordinary man that one follows it to the
end. (The fields which I sketched
- the inner circle to which I gave the name being-for-death, in the midst of
desires, renouncing entry into the external circle – are not in opposition to
the triple field of hatred, guilt and fear, as the ordinary man is in
opposition to the hero. That's not
the point.) That general form is
definitely traced by the structure in and for the ordinary man. It is to the extent that the hero
guides himself correctly there that he experiences all the passions in which
the ordinary man is entangled, except that in his (the hero's) case they are pure
and he succeeds in supporting himself there fully.
The zone between two deaths
In Sophocles, we encounter the dance between Creon
and Antigone. To the extent that
the hero's presence in the zone indicates that something is defined and
liberated, the hero bears his partner into that zone along with him. At the end of Antigone, Creon speaks loudly and clearly of himself as someone who
is dead among the living; this is because he has literally lost all other goods
as a result of the affair. As a
consequence of the tragic act, the hero frees his adversary too.
There is no reason to limit the exploration of this
field to Antigone. In the example
of Philoctetes we learn that a hero doesn't have to be heroic to be a
hero. Philoctetes isn't much of a
man. He went off excited and full
of enthusiasm to die for his country on the shores of Troy and he wasn't even
wanted for that. He was dumped on
an island because he smelled so bad.
He spent ten years there consumed with hatred. The first fellow who comes looking for him, a nice young man
called Neoptelemes, cons him like a baby, and in the end he nevertheless goes
off to the shores of Troy because Hercules appears as a deux ex machina to offer a solution to all his sufferings. This deux ex machina isn't nothing, but everybody has known for a long
time that he simply serves as a frame and limit to tragedy.
What makes Philoctetes a hero? Nothing more than that he remains fiercely
committed to his hate right to the end, when the duex ex machina appears like the curtain falling. This reveals to us not only that he
has been betrayed and he is aware that he has been betrayed, but
also that he has been betrayed with impunity. This is emphasized in the play by the fact that Neoptelemes,
who is full of remorse because he betrayed the hero, thereby demonstrating his
own noble soul, comes to make proper amends and gives Philoctetes back the bow
that plays such an essential role in the tragic space of the play – because it
operates there like a subject that is spoken about and addressed. It is the space of the hero and for
"Giving ground relative to one's desire"
is always accompanied in the destiny of the subject by some betrayal. Either the subject betrays his own way,
betrays himself, and the result is significant for him, or, he tolerates the
fact that someone with whom he has more or less vowed to do something betrays
his hope and doesn't do for him what their pact entailed – whatever that pact
may be, fated or ill-fated, risky, shortsighted, or indeed a matter of
rebellion or flight, it doesn't matter.
Something is played out in betrayal if one tolerates
it, if driven by the idea of the good – the good of the one who has just
committed the act of betrayal – one gives ground to the point of giving up
one's own claims and says to oneself, "Well, if that's how things are, we
should abandon our position; neither of us is worth that much, and especially
me, so we should just return to the common path." You can be sure that what you find
there is the structure of giving ground relative to one's desire.
Once one has crossed that "giving ground"
boundary where I combined in a single term contempt for the other and for
oneself, there is no way back.
It might be possible to do some repair work, but not to undo it. That is a fact of experience that demonstrates
how psychoanalysis is capable of supplying a useful compass in the field of
I have articulated three propositions.
First, the only thing one can be guilty of is giving
ground relative to one's desire.
Second, the definition of a hero: someone who may be
betrayed with impunity.
Third, this is something that not everyone can
achieve; it constitutes the difference between an ordinary man and a hero, and
it is, therefore, more mysterious than one might think. For the ordinary man the betrayal that
almost always occurs sends him back to the service of goods, but with the
proviso that he will never again find that factor which restores a sense of
direction to that service.
The field of the service of goods exists, of course,
and there is no denying that. But
turning things around, I propose this
isno other good than that which may serve topay the price for
access to desire, given that desire is understood here as the metonymy of
our being. The channel in which
desire is located is not simply that of the modulation of the signifying chain,
but that which flows beneath it as well (the signifieds); that is, properly
speaking, what we are as well as what we are not, our being and our non-being –
that which is signified in an act passes from one signifier of the chain to
another beneath all the significations.
With the metonymy of "eating the book"
(from St. John, the man who placed the Word at the beginning) we have a most
extreme metonymy. It confronts what
Freud said as not susceptible to substitution and displacement, namely, hunger,
with something that isn't made to be eaten, a book. This book brings us into contact with what Freud means when
he speaks of sublimation as a change of aim and not of object.
The hunger in question, sublimated hunger, falls in
the space between the two because it isn't the book that fills our
stomach. When I ate the book, I
didn't thereby become book any more than the book became flesh. The book became me so to speak. But in
order for this operation to take place (which it does every day) I definitely
have to pay a price. Freud says:
Sublimate as much as you like; you have to pay for it with something. And this something is called jouissance, a pound of flesh.
That's the object, the good that one pays for the
satisfaction of one's desire. It
is there that the religious operation lies. That good which is sacrificed for desire (i.e. also, that
desire which is lost for the good), that pound of flesh, is what religion undertakes
to recuperate; this is the single trait common to all religions. Two applications: in a religious
service the flesh that is offered to God on the altar, the animal sacrifice or
whatever, is consumed by the people of the religious community and usually
simply by the priest. It is just
as true of the saint, whose goal is access to sublime desire and not at all his
own desire, for the saint lives and pays for others. The saint consumes the price paid in the form of suffering
at two extreme points: the classic point of the worst ironies relative to
religious mystification (such as the priest's little feast behind the altar),
and the point of the last frontier of religious heroism as well. There too, we find the same phenomenon
It is in this respect that great religious work is
distinguished from what goes on in an ethical form of catharsis such as in
psychoanalysis. Catharsis has the
sense of purification of desire.
Purification cannot be accomplished (it is in Aristotle) unless one has
at least established the crossing of its limits that we call fear and pity.
It is because the tragic epos doesn't leave the spectator in ignorance as to where the pole
of desire is, and shows that the access to desire necessitates crossing not
only all fear but all pity, because the voice of the hero trembles before
nothing, and especially not before the good of the other. All this is experienced in the temporal
unfolding of the story (of, for example, the tragic spectacles of the Greeks),
and the subject learns a little more about the deepest level of himself than he
knew before. If Aristotle's
formulations mean anything, it is that one knows what it costs to go forward in
a given direction, and if one doesn't go that way, one knows why. One can even sense that if, in one's
accounts with one's desire, one isn't exactly in the clear, it is because one
couldn't do any better, for that's not a path one can take without paying a
The spectator has his eyes opened to the fact that
even for him who goes to the end of his desire, all is not a bed of roses. But he also has his eyes opened to the
value of prudence which stands in opposition to that, to the wholly relative
value of beneficial reasons, attachments or pathological interests, as Kant says,
that might keep him on that risky path.
Catharsis may not be pacificatory for everybody, but my emphasizing this
aspect was the most direct way of reconciling what some have taken to be the
moralizing face of tragedy with the fact that the lesson of tragedy in its
essence is not at all moral in the ordinary sense of the word.
Of course not every catharsis can be reduced to
something as external as a topological demonstration. When it is a matter of the practices of those who go crazy
through a trance, through religious experience, passion or anything else, the
value of the catharsis presupposes that, in a way that is either more-or-less
directed or wild, the subject enters into the zone described here, and that his
return involves some gain that will be called possession or whatever. Plato pointed this out in describing
the cathartic procedures.
Will the science of desire belong to the field of
the human sciences? I do not
think, given the way that field is being laid out, that it will amount to anything
else but a systematic and fundamental misunderstanding of everything that has
to do with the whole affair that I have been discussing here. The fields of inquiry that are being
outlined as necessarily belonging to the human sciences have in my eyes no
other function than to form a branch of the service of goods, a branch of the
service of those powers that are more than a little precarious. In other words, politics is politics
and love is love.
As for the kind of science that might be situated in
that place I have designated the place of desire, it is what we commonly call
science, the kind that you see cantering gaily along and accomplishing all
kinds of so-called physical conquests.
Throughout this historical period the desire of man, which has been
felt, anaesthetized, put to sleep by moralists, domesticated by educators,
betrayed by the academies, has quite simply taken refuge or been repressed in
that most subtle and blindest of passions, as the story of Oedipus shows, the
passion for knowledge. That's the
passion that is currently going great guns and is far from having said its last
At a time when scientists and alchemists begin to
run out of steam they address the powers that be thusly: "Give us money;
you don't realize that if you gave us a little money we would be able to put
all kinds of machines, gadgets and contraptions at your service." The powers that be let themselves be
taken in, science gets its money, and we are left with a vengeance. The scientists are not unaware that they
have their backs against a wall of hate.
They are themselves capsized by the turbulent swell of a heavy sense of
guilt. But it's not very important
because it is not in truth an adventure that Mr. Oppenheimer's remorse can put
an end to overnight. It is
moreover there where the problem of desire will lie in the future.
The universal order has to deal with the problem of
what it should do with that science in which something is going on whose nature
escapes it. Science is animated by
some mysterious desire, but it doesn't know, any more than anything in the
unconscious itself, what that desire means. The future will reveal it to us.
Mencius explains that what we are most ignorant
about is the laws that come to us from heaven, the same laws as Antigone's. The laws of heaven in question are the
laws of desire.
Of him who ate the book and the mystery within it,
one can, in effect, ask the question: "Is he good, is he bad?" that question now seems
unimportant. The important thing
is not knowing whether man is good or bad in the beginning; the important thing
is what will transpire once the book has been eaten.
Lecture given July 6, 1960.