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Summary of Chapter XXIV in Lacan's Seminar VII: Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1959-60)

XXIV The 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 separated.   

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 them wait."

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 leaves there.   

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 foolish.

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 desire

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 good reason.

"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 ethical guidance.   

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

fourthproposition: There 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 of recuperation.    

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 price.

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 word.   

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.   

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