Navigation – Plan du site
1. Figures in the Lacanian Field

Figures in the Lacanian Field: Reading Literature, Theatre and Cinema with the Later Lacan

Jennifer MURRAY

Texte intégral

I would like to thank Sylvie Mathé and the editorial committee of the journal for accepting to open E-rea’s pages to this project, and to gratefully acknowledge the help of the numerous colleagues who have given of their time and competence to read and engage with the proposals for this volume.


  • 1 All references to Lacan’s seminars are indicated by the notation S followed by Roman numerals; wher (...)
  • 2 The Lacanian Real needs to be clearly distinguished from the current dominant use of the term ‘real (...)
  • 3 I am thinking here of poststructuralism and gender theory which deal with language in its Imaginary (...)

1In the Lacanian field, the enigma, or rather, the mystery, at the core of subjectivity goes by the name of the Real. “The Real” says Lacan, “is the mystery of the speaking body,” and he adds, “the mystery of the unconscious” (SXX 131),1 such that speech, the body and an “unthinkable” dimension (Lacan SXXII Dec. 10, 1974), are invoked conjointly, and in some sense, inextricably, in a redefinition of the unconscious as Real.2 This Real is very much at stake in Lacan’s later teaching, and has far-reaching implications which have not, on the whole, been taken into account in other contemporary theoretical practices.3

  • 4 Where no translator is indicated in the list of works cited, the translation is my own.
  • 5 Lacan’s neologism, fixion conjoins ‘fixation’ and ‘fiction’ to suggest the way in which jouissance, (...)
  • 6 Ginette Michaux, commenting on Lacan’s “Lituraterre,” refers to this furrowing, gullying effect in (...)

2Originally posited as a limit signaling the beyond of signification, as “that something that resists symbolization absolutely” (Lacan SI, 17 Feb. 1954),4 the Real later takes on density in its relation to the jouissance – the irruption in the body of an ‘enjoyment’ which is an intense, paradoxical, “almost intolerable excitation” outside the capture of language (“Jouissance”) – through which the one who is subject to speech, is set on particular paths of being, in certain ‘fixional’ directions5: thus, rather than ‘beyond’ language, “it is more accurate to say that jouissance insists in language” (Hoens and Pluth 10). It insists, firstly, as lalangue; as the furrowing of the jouissance of the pre-Symbolic letter, which remains active as the unconscious, inherited, treasury of ambiguities of meaning, specific to each subject, and which produces “all sorts of affects that remain enigmatic” (Lacan SXX, 139).6

3The Real finds its place clearly affirmed in Lacan’s later seminars through his ‘discovery’ of the figure of the Borromean knot. I will briefly explain how I understand this less familiar aspect of Lacan’s work and some of its implications before introducing the contributions to this collective volume which offers readings of literature, theatre and cinema in dialogue with the later Lacan.

The Borromean Knot

  • 7 Three is the minimum, but not the maximum number of rings necessary for a Borromean knot to hold to (...)

4A Borromean knot is composed of three rings7 which are linked in such a way that if any one of the three is missing, the other two cannot hold together:

  • 8 See also, “Contrary to what I have said ... the signifiers S1 and S2 do not make a chain’” (qtd. in (...)

5Lacan uses this figure to explicate the linking of the subjective registers of the Symbolic, the Imaginary and the Real. A central figure in Lacan’s later seminars, it is implicated in his revision of an earlier, major, theoretical proposition: qualifying as “an error” his well-known model of language as a signifying chain (SXXI, Dec. 11, 1974),8 he turns instead to this Borromean knot (affectionately called the Noeud Bo) and delights in the good fortune that led him to it:

It is a historical fact that – put it this way: you don’t come across a Borromean knot every day. ... When I got wind of this thing, this Borromean knot... I was certain that it was something that would be precious for me – for what I had to explain. ...

So these Borromean knots fitted me like a glove and I saw straight away that they had a relationship that put the Symbolic, the Imaginary and the Real in a certain configuration to each other... (SXXII March 18, 1975).

6Thus, the consistency of the subject finds a new topological figure: “My good old structure – if structure there must be – turns out to be the Borromean knot” (SXXI Feb. 19, 1974). Whereas the signifying chain took into account the signifier-Symbolic, and the signified-Imaginary, the Real was only subsidiarily acknowledged, as the excluded/suppressed term. In the figuration of the Borromean knot, the Real, the Symbolic and the Imaginary stand equal in consistency, without primacy of order, each being capable of functioning as the linking term for the two others, the main point being that without the knotted structure of the three, subjectivity does not hold together.

7Moreover, what makes the knot knot, is the emergence of a primary signifier, a signifier of cohesion emanating from the Symbolic; in its earlier version, this was designated as the Name-of-the-Father, and later, “the Father as Name” or even, “the naming Father” (SXXII April 15, 1975) as the principle of a naming that knots. While implicit as the knotting principle in the figure, the ‘naming that knots’ function, when it fails to emerge from the parental Other in the form of the Name-of-the-Father, may find itself supplemented by an invention, a sinthome (represented below as the smaller dark ring):

[T]his fourth element, the sinthome as Symbolic nomination, marks the limits of metaphor ... For it turns out that nomination, the act of the naming Father, is no longer bound up with metaphor, which is, fundamentally, paternal. (Harari 48)

  • 9 As the figure of the knot shows, the sinthome links the Symbolic and the Real within the sphere of (...)

8Rather, detached from the Oedipal structure, “we can make use of the Name-of-the-Father as a way of naming on the path of inventing new signifiers” (Harari 55); thus the Name(s)-of-the-Father becomes pluralized, and takes on a new designation to refer to its function: the sinthome, or the particular (symptomatic) way in which any given subject organises her/his jouissance.9 The theoretical shift from the ‘subject of the signifier/desire’ of the earlier period, to the ‘subject of the drive/jouissance’ implies that all registers of subjectivity – the Symbolic, Imaginary and Real – are saturated in jouissance, now proliferating into jouissances (phallic jouissance, jouis-sens, and Other jouissance), even as they are distributed around the remnant of mythical excluded jouissance, the object a, the intimately foreign, or extimate object-cause of desire.

The Field of Jouissance

9In 1970, Lacan claimed the field of jouissance – “this other field of energetics” ­– as the privileged terrain of his theoretical path-clearing (frayage), lamenting at the same time the unlikelihood of his being able to take it as far as he hoped:

Concerning the field of jouissance

– which, alas, will never be called,

–because I will probably not have the time even to sketch out its foundations,

–which will never be called the Lacanian field

... concerning the field of jouissance, there are some remarks to be made. (SXVII 11 Feb. 1970)

  • 10 The five-hundred-page volume entitled La jouissance au fil de l'enseignement de Lacan, published in (...)

10It could certainly be argued that the inroads Lacan made into the field of jouissance merit its association with his name.10 In this regard, one might usefully turn to Nestor Braunstein’s illuminating chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Lacan entitled “Desire and Jouissance in the Teachings of Lacan,” where the author deftly traces some of the marking aspects of jouissance, situating it in relation to desire, drive and libido, and judiciously quoting Lacan to explicate the concept: “What I call jouissance – in the sense in which the body experiences itself – is always in the nature of tension, in the nature of a forcing, of a spending, even of an exploit” (qtd. 103). This proposition does not eradicate the fundamental resistance of jouissance to understanding: “The problem involved is that ... jouissance presents itself as buried at the center of a field and has the characteristics of inaccessibility, obscurity, and opacity” (qtd. 104). It is indeed important to recognize that the effectiveness of the concept of jouissance is neither exhausted by nor can it do away with its constitutive opacity.

11In the field of Anglophone criticism, the later Lacan has found its most popular and effective exponent in Slavoj Žižek, who, as Jagna Oltarzewska argues, puts the Real at the centre of his reflection on culture in its artistic, political and ontological dimensions:

the Real [is] that pivotal Žižekian philosopheme which stands for the permanence of social antagonism, the impasse of sexual difference, the trauma resistant to phrasing, the pre-ontological substance which grounds, through its self-exclusion, the social and the historical—our “reality.” (Oltarzewska)

12The excluded-within, or extimate, status of the Real is to be understood as the pre-condition of subjectivity: cut from originary jouissance by the intervention of the signifier, we, as speaking beings, are subject to loss and to the fantasy that a fullness of jouissance has escaped us:

Primary jouissance is therefore lost and there exists no plausible representation. What does remain is a trace of dissatisfaction, letting us suppose the existence of the mythical jouissance Freud talks about in the Project and of which Lacan says that it is “prohibited to whoever speaks.” (Canellopoulos)

13The Law, in all of its socially existing forms, is the Symbolic barrier to this only-ever mythical fullness of satisfaction.

As we know from Lacanian psychoanalysis, the ultimate guarantor of the “neutral” stature of the symbolic function [is] the Name of the Father, what Lacan calls the “paternal metaphor”: Master Signifier, the “empty” signifier without a signified. The law which is “in running order” is by definition “blind,” ignorant, raised above particular passions: a community is ultimately held together through a signifier which “means everything” insofar as it does not mean anything in particular and thereby enables everyone to recognize himself/herself in it. (Žižek, Enjoy 178)

  • 11 Žižek most often uses ‘enjoyment’ to translate jouissance.

14But what if the Law, guarantor of the social bond, is ineffective; is no longer ‘believed in’? What happens when the barrier falls, when the place of the gaze of “the bearer of shame,” the site of the “signifier that matters” (Espinoza) has been left, or is revealed as, empty? Access to unrestrained jouissance fills the space of the lacking law, but does not bring satisfaction, only an empty fragmented drive-compulsion to repeat; in the place of the social bond, appears “the obscene, uncanny, shadowy double of the Name of the father” (Žižek, Enjoy 180) divested of its moral dimension, but not of its imperative voice, which enjoins, directs, commands us to enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.11 Žižek locates the literary emergence of this figure historically in the turn-of-the-century work of Joseph Conrad, taking the figure of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness as emblematic of the “‘master of enjoyment,’ a paternal figure that comes closest to the impossible representation of what Kant called ‘radical evil,’ evilness qua ethical attitude” (Enjoy 180). The argument here is that this obscene father, who no longer guarantees the neutrality of the law, is a modern figure, the product of the decline of the force of the Symbolic order: “the allegedly archaic figure of the ‘primordial father’ is actually a thoroughly modern entity, a result of the decline of the paternal metaphor” (181). In this light, the contemporary railing against patriarchy aims at an empty target: patriarchy, as the neutral law of the paternal metaphor, is already dead: only obscene jouissance rules, as the unlawfulness of the culturally, financially, socially privileged fittest.

15The articles collected in this volume of Lacanian readings of literature, theatre and cinema all deal with cultural objects from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (indeed, seven of the nine contributions analyse works produced after 1990); all are therefore historically situated well after the emergence of the figure of the ‘obscene’ father; all bear the traces, ranging from vacillation to utter desolation, of the loss of consistency of the Symbolic order as neutral Law, and of the loss of “a signifier that matters” without which subjectivity falters, without which the social bond is undermined by the competing jalouissances of late capitalism:

The capitalist discourse of the postmodern era aims to introduce all instances of jouissance into the machine of production-consumption. The subject becomes almost useless, dependent on the objects of his needs, to which he conforms and which organize his jouissance. ... [Yet] we are no longer living in either modernity or postmodernity, but rather in an era of hypermodernity, a hypertrophied version of postmodernism, combining hyper-capitalism, hyper-class, hyper-power, hyper-individualism and hyper-narcissism, enabling us to cling to the scientist fantasy of omnipotence and provoking an inflation of “hyper-” everything and of individual jouissances. (Canellopoulos)

16Canellopoulos notes that under present-day forms of capitalism, the very notion of symptom and of its value as political dissidence, in the sense of a position within the social bond (recognized by Freud in the context of war neuroses), is not registered as such:

The symptoms which the capitalist state is concerned about are symptoms which put life and competition in danger, i.e. symptoms which contest the imperative of competition in both production and consumption: on the level of clinical work with individual subjects, depression makes one unable to work and leads to suicide, anorexia ... can lead to death... Still, the state does not consider these symptoms as signs, it denies them all political sense and rather considers them as illnesses. ... Psychoanalysis continues to give the symptom a value of truth, which itself always refers to jouissance. In this sense, it is opposed to biopower, which reduces the symptom to a meaningless obstacle simply to be eliminated. (Canellopoulos)

17Artistic production is one of the places in which the antagonism between the capitalist state, and the psychoanalytic discourse which attends to subjective truth, is staged, made visible, and articulated so as to enter, and affect, the social bonds of the times. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising, although it remains a distressing sign, that much contemporary cultural production offers the failure of the signifier, and the impossibility of enunciation to cohere into meaning, as a major symptomatic effect.

The Unspeakable

  • 12 Quotations from the articles in this volume and indicated simply by their authors’ names.

18The authors of the articles in the first section of the volume highlight the failure of language to establish a social bond between characters: the texts studied here bear witness to the inefficacity of the signifier in the Symbolic. The first of these is marked by the howl that marked the peak of American modernism, resonating in the disconsolate voice of Benjy in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. In a reading of the classic text of 1929, Maurice Ebileeni revisits the critical argument that Benjy’s howl is “a novelistic leitmotif referring to the Compson brothers’ menacing obsession with their sister Caddy” (Ebileeni);12 for Ebileeni, the vocal eruptions of Benjy take on the value of a sinthome, as a subject’s particular organizing matrix of jouissance. Based on, but distinguished from the symptom, the sinthome short-circuits the Symbolic dimension: The sinthome is not the symptom; it is not ‘the coded message to be deciphered by interpretation,’ but the meaningless letter that immediately procures jouis-sense, ‘enjoyment-in-meaning,’ ‘enjoy-meant’” (“Sinthome” No Subject). Therefore, “far from calling for some analytic ‘dissolution,’ the sinthome is what ‘allows one to live’ by providing a unique organisation of jouissance (“Sinthome” No Subject). Whereas for the common neurotic subject, the Name-of-the-Father knotting regulates libidinal organization, for each speaking being, nomination retains an existential function: “each subject has at least two proper names: his patronymic name, which obviously has major subjective resonances, and his private name, that of his being of jouissance” (Soler, Lacan Ch. 10). Ebileeni retraces the emergence of this concept of the later period through Lacan’s engagement with James Joyce’s work, notably in SXXIII: Le Sinthome, and puts forward the case for seeing Benjy’s inarticulate cry as the sinthomatic organizing principle of the novel. Benjy’s howl, in this view, may be understood as the minimal name which gathers together and gives voice to the ‘being as lack in the Symbolic,’ which is arguably the guilt and loss-ridden tragedy of the South, taking form as the trace of the furrowing effect of jouissance in Faulkner’s writing.

19Contemporary texts, in the field of British theatre, register a further degradation in the field of the Symbolic. Benjy’s original howl, full of force and longing, still minimally attached to a fading Symbolic universe, has lost its moorings, and has drifted into the disjuncted syntax of Dennis Kelly’s theatre and the rattling of the Real in the plays of Edward Bond.

  • 13 This brings to mind Lacan’s reflection on Christianity: in modern times, “The problem is that the O (...)

20Julien Alliot’s study of Kelly’s theatre explores the failure of the signifier through the inoperancy of the function of naming which is precisely to insert the human subject into the weave of social discourse. Throughout Kelly’s plays, names are mishandled (i.e. reduced to the status of a number, or left unspoken), and in their place, only fragmented images, figured by “the proliferation of television screens, as well as riveting, ‘in-yer-face’ ... stage images” (Alliot) prevent the subject from being engulfed by the unspeakable Real. This over-proximity of the Real disturbs language structures, as attested by instances of interrupted speech, disruptions in syntax, and the agglutination of words into nonsensical clusters. As Alliot demonstrates, it is a world in which the father’s place has been left empty, and is present only in vestigial form through ironic subversion, as in the line quoted from Debris: “My son, my son, why have you forsaken me?”13 The father, in the contemporary world of Kelly, is a pathetic figure.

21The breakdown of the Symbolic is even more radically figured in the work of playwright Edward Bond, notably in Born as read by Kate Katafiasz. Here, the social bond is hollowed out, “haunted by the sound of a recurring rattle” (Katafiasz). As pure sound-signifier, detached from any object-cause, the rattle commands rather than represents, compulsively drawing attention to the place where death seeps into and contaminates the social sphere. Emanating from inanimate objects, it is the reminder of the Real as the place of the gaze of the bearer of shame, but here, unsupported by the bodily presence of a significant other, it is a radically empty gaze, which threatens life. Katafiasz contrasts the presence in the play of the rattle with that of the howl emanating from the character Luke, emphasizing that while both “evade the linguistic signifier” ... “the howl directs our attention to Luke’s body” (Katafiasz), thereby maintaining an index of the suffering subject. When the howl fades, and only the rattle remains, the question of a naming-that-knots is properly unthinkable.

The Fallible Father

22If the father is not the only agent of nomination possible, he continues to haunt the margins of contemporary literature and film almost as a figure of nostalgic yearning. Everything advances in such a way that the impotence of the father to sufficiently incarnate the Symbolic function is acknowledged, but with regret, and the past is called upon for the traces of what might still be recalled of a mythical time when the father’s name sufficed to give identity a semblance of coherence. In the two articles presented in this section the central masculine characters incarnate postmodern positions, building their social existence on their reputation as sports heroes, taking their public image as the grounding for their being, such that Guy Maddin’s protagonist, in Cowards Bend the Knee, is indifferent to social bonds, casting them off at will, whereas Philip Roth’s ‘Swede’ in American Pastoral is so at ‘one’ with his self-image that he cannot conceive of any point of obscurity in his life or being: “All of his life he had this ability to imagine himself completely. Everything always added up to something whole. How could it not when he felt himself to add up, add up exactly to one?” (Roth 191). Forms of the ‘unspeakable’ persist in these two works: as the semi-silence of Maddin’s film, a film without speech but supported by music, and as the stuttering voice of Merry, the Swede’s daughter, which re-emerges explosively into the narrative of American Pastoral.

23In Maddin’s film, an unconventional comic-melodramatic film analyzed by Anne Combarnous, there is an almost inextricable mixing of fantasy, desire, and jouissance, which translates visually into a sort of joyful rummaging around in the family closet, a pulling out and trying on of incestuous desires; a refusal of and a subsequent submission to Symbolic castration. The film’s subtitle, The Blue Hands, points towards the metaphorical crux of the subjective conflicts being staged. Having shucked off his commitment to his wife, abandoning her at the abortionist’s table, and thereby refusing to assume the role either of husband or father, the main character, Guy, turns to a new lover, a woman named Meta, whose sexual jouissance is conditional on her lover accepting to have his hands removed and replaced by the ‘blue’ hands of her dead father. By accepting this condition, Guy unwitting fulfills what Lacan defines as implicit in a woman’s jouissance, beyond the desire it addresses to the sexual partner: “Why not admit, in fact, that if there is no virility that castration does not consecrate, it is a castrated lover or dead man (or the two in one) who, for woman, hides behind the veil in order to call her adoration to it” (“Guiding Remarks” 617). Yet the amputation/castration that Guy undergoes in this radical fantasy is feigned, and is a response to a woman’s desire, rather than to the law of the Symbolic order. Combarnous proposes a reading of the film that relates the question of jouissance and, more centrally, its filmic representation, to that of Symbolic castration.

  • 14 Les Noms-du-Père” is the name of a series of talks given by Lacan in 1963-64 after his seminar was (...)

24The sports hero complex, present in Maddin’s film, is also a structural component of the central character, Seymour Levov, in American Pastoral, read here by Béatrice Pire. Pire bases her analysis on Lacan’s Seminar XXI entitled Les Non-Dupes Errent (‘Non-dupes’ are mistaken, or doomed to wander, or to follow a certain path...) which is a homophone of “Les Noms-du-Père” (the names of the father)14 such that what may occupy the father-function, that of linking the three psychic registers, is brought into dialogue with the contrary effects of being excluded, or excluding oneself, from the constraints of the social law: as mentioned earlier, this law always includes a part which is inherited as history. The reading that Pire produces demonstrates that Roth’s novel proposes the figure of the non-dupe, the wide-awake self-excluded from the Symbolic ‘Merry’, to reveal the fault/faille in her father’s image, and his idealized version of American society: Merry, Levov’s daughter, a stutterer, takes it upon herself to make the father see the repressed of his own life, and the history to which, as an American Jew (in spite of his nickname, ‘the Swede’), he belongs. As the wandering/mistaken non-dupe of the fiction of her father’s life–position – the all-American hero, a pure image, detached from his family history – Merry’s radical actions lead her father to self-questioning.

Feminine Persistence

25The role of the female character as the site of questioning moves from peripheral to central in the articles dealing with Alice Munro’s short story “Boys and Girls” and Debra Granik’s film Winter’s Bone. The heroines of these narratives are looking for answers: to know what it means to be a ‘girl’ for the first, and to discover the whereabouts of her dead father’s body, for the second. The narratives and the protagonists on which they centre give form to the question, “Who am I?” that defines the neurotic’s position and which presupposes an Other who knows. Within the neuroses – the socially predominant form of subjectivity – the obsessive and the hysteric “come to grips with the question of being in different ways. ... The hysteric’s primary question related to being is “Am I a man or a woman?” whereas the obsessive’s is “Am I dead or alive?” (Fink, Clinical 122). If this is but one of the innumerable aspects of subjectivity, it allows us to situate the resolute questioning of the unnamed female protagonist in “Boys and Girls.” In my analysis of the story, I articulate the girl’s perplexity in relation to her sexual identity through the Lacanian concept of sexuation, a process that confronts the subject with the necessity of encountering Symbolic castration and assuming a sexed position within the logical universe of ‘man’ or ‘a woman’. This is a thesis Lacan had begun working towards in Seminars XVIII and XIX, but which is elaborated most fully and forcefully in Seminar XX, Encore. While the early parts of ”Boys and Girls” reach towards the more accessible explanatory categories of (biological) sex and (social-constructivist) gender, the story brings to light the inadequacy of these perspectives to situate the speaking being as sexed, or to answer the hysterical riddle of her being. The Lacanian reworking of Freud’s Oedipal proposition allows the function of the father to take on density, up to and including his role as the (Imaginary) embodiment of the (Symbolic) law with its semblance of neutrality, even as his (Real) enjoying shadow is menacingly close. For the girl, but also for her brother, there will be a confrontation with the law of the father that situates them on the side of man, or of a woman. In narrative terms, the key moment of the girl’s sexuation is represented as an act – an unforeseen but wholly coherent refusal of the father’s imperative voice or Symbolic injunction; the meaning of this act escapes the girl’s understanding, but it nonetheless names her place within the Symbolic field, momentarily leaving her speechless.

26The feminine refusal to submit to the injunction of father, king, or other notable authority, has its paradigmatic figure in Antigone and her ‘no’ to King Creon. In her reading of Winter’s Bone, Ellie Ragland, author (amongst other titles) of From Aristotle to Lacan: The Logic of Sexuation, suggests that Ree Dolly is another such character whose persistent commitment to the law, not of the community, but of her being – of her named lack: she repeats that she’s “buttered and bre(a)d Dolly” – is what gives the film its emotional force. As Ragland argues, Ree will not give up on family, including her mad mother, her young siblings, the land she was born on, and her place within the larger circle of the outlawed meth-cooking Dolly Clan; she has made of her bloodline her signifier-that-matters, and she sticks to it. There are, as Ragland shows, numerous ‘fathers’ in her way: her own father is dead, the clan leader – the Big Man – refuses to reveal what has happened to him, and the police let Ree know that if she cannot prove her father’s death, her house will be taken from her family. The primary injunction of the clan is ‘don’t ask questions’; faithful to her feminine, hysterical position, Ree refuses to keep quiet. Ragland comments,

The hysteric is always, Lacan (and others) maintain, subversive. She does not mean to be a troublemaker, but her identification with the lack-in-being in the place of conscious agent of speech and perception puts her on the side of the question, rather than on the side of the answer which seeks to avoid conflict. Strangely, this puts the hysteric not only on the masculine side of identification with the men, but also on the feminine side of sexuation.

  • 15 Not only in Maddin’s and Granik’s films is there a question of a man’s hands being cut off for the (...)

27In order to both remain true to her being and restore her family’s place, she will have to ‘touch the Real’ and bring it back into the Symbolic by literally cutting off her swamp-bound father’s hands and taking them to the police as proof that he is dead.15

Post-Symbolic Strategies

28The final section of the volume brings into dialogue two articles dealing with works that include post-Symbolic cynicism in their structuring propositions: in neither Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996), nor in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012), is there any space for a functioning paternal metaphor, that without which no “viable, temperate relation of one sex to the other” may be established (Lacan, SXI 276). In both articles, the question of the relationship between men and women is central; the works studied configure the deadlock in the sexual relationship in terms of violence, and more specifically, in terms of consenting subjection to violence on the part of women. What is at stake here?

29Erica Galioto examines Gone Girl precisely in the context of a society in which the Symbolic is a “poorly-articulated field with no laws and no prohibition on enjoyment.” This is the subjectively bereft world of the late-capitalist “I-cracy” that, as Galioto points out, Lacan had foreseen in his seminar of 1969-1970, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. Indeed, the discourse of capitalism, which dominates today’s ideological landscape, has particularly destructive effects: whereas the four types of discourse (the master’s, the university’s, the hysteric’s and the analyst’s discourse) defined by Lacan in SXVII all produce a type of social bond,

there is no such possibility in the scientificised capitalist discourse. It is not a variant of the discourse of the master, and can only constitute a single, barely social bond between the individual and products. Indifferent as it is to “the business of love,” it moves towards an increasing fragmentation and instability of social bonds, and leaves individuals always more exposed to insecurity and loneliness. ... [Moreover], capitalism is not only hard, but it fails at another point. It destroys what Pierre Bourdieu called symbolic capital [which] includes the ways of the world and with them, what we call values, whether they are aesthetic, moral or religious. They allow meaning to be given to the tribulations of subjects or act as compensations for them; thus, they offer them support in organising their innermost defences. (Soler, Lacan Ch. 19)

30Gone Girl is situated fully within this capitalist discourse in the aftermath of the economic crisis of 2008, and sees a couple at pains to find an organizing signifier, an S1, a gaze that would be “the bearer of shame” that produces a signifier that matters. In Gone Girl’s universe, there is nothing but surface appearances, infinitely manipulable. Galioto examines the central couple, Nick and Amy Dunne, who “appear to have it all” including wealth, health and good looks, and no impediments to their pleasure.

With no prohibition on enjoyment, the ego, the “I,” pretends – and indeed believes – itself to be identical to itself. For Nick and Amy, this single-dimensional “I” provides them with the illusion that there is no unconscious and that there is no more beyond what they can think, buy, or eat. There is no “wound of privation” or “presence of a lack” (Lacan, SXVII 73, 76); there is just imagined fullness, completion, and coincidence. ...

[Yet, their] material possessions and unrestrained desires appear to have stymied them individually and as a couple; they experience again and again merely the ‘semblance of surplus jouissance,’ not the failure of discourse that initiates the barred subject and installs objet a. (Galioto)

31In order to bring about the emergence of an organising signifier, Amy disappears, subtracting herself, staging her ‘goneness’ in a theatrics of abduction; as Galioto puts it, “she puts herself in the place of lack,” a lack which functions as “something added and not merely missing.” It is the addition of lack to an otherwise purely Imaginary landscape of fullness that allows desire to circulate and Symbolic (castrated) jouissance to re-enter the field.

32In Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, the Other is equally absent, or is a space occupied only by the anal father, the enjoying, phallic, or as Tamas Nagypal argues, cynical, male gaze which forecloses the feminine Other of sexual difference. Nagypal’s article engages clearly and in detail with the debates around Von Trier’s controversial film, primarily through its widely-diffused interpretation by Žižek in “Femininity between Goodness and Act.” While finding no argument with Žižek’s understanding of the notion of feminine jouissance, Nagypal disagrees with Žižek’s contention that it is this jouissance that is in question in the film. As Nagypal notes, feminine jouissance is the “non-phallic jouissance on the feminine side [of the sexuation tables] which [Lacan] calls the ‘jouissance of being” (SXX 70) through which women relate to the big Other “insofar as it is barred” (80), without this lack being mediated (represented) by the phallus.” Yet, according to Nagypal, the female protagonist, Bess, is never situated outside the economy of phallic jouissance, either in terms of her characterization, or in terms of the directorial stance of Von Trier. Invoking the concept of the ‘post-feminist masquerade,’ the article suggests that Bess’s ironic face-making at the camera is not an existential act subverting the Symbolic fabric of her subjectivity, but simply a return “to old forms of patriarchal subordination with an ironic distance.” It remains an acting for the Other, rather than an encounter with the Real, opaque, place of being.

The Inheritance of Potentiality

33An interview with Joan Copjec concludes this dossier. Copjec, the author, notably, of Imagine There’s No Woman: Ethics and Sublimation, is an influential Freudian-Lacanian scholar; the value of her work on sexuation and on the articulation between theory and cultural analysis is widely recognized. In March 2013, Copjec participated in a study day at the University of Franche-Comté that focused on readings of literature and film in relation to Lacan’s Seminar XX; there, she presented her most recent work on sexuation, entitled “The Sexual Compact,” published in the journal Angelaki. The interview, conducted by email between June 2013 and March 2014, emphasizes the constancy and force of Copjec’s theoretical engagement, not only with psychoanalysis, but also with the debates and criticisms it encounters, and with the contemporary political and cultural issues of our times. One of the persistent directions of her work is the theory of sexual difference: “Much of my current work is focused on salvaging sex and sexual difference (as they are understood by Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalysis) from the threat of extinction.” This necessarily involves a stance in relation to the currently dominant gender-focused perspective on sexual difference: Copjec addresses this question along lines she had previously established in “Sex or the Euthanasia of Reason” from which I quote here:

When we speak of language’s failure with respect to sex, we speak not of its falling short of a prediscursive object but of its falling into contradiction with itself. Sex coincides with this failure, this inevitable contradiction. Sex is, then, the impossibility of completing meaning, not (as Butler’s historicist/deconstructionist argument would have it) a meaning that is incomplete, unstable. (206)

34The radical unfamiliarity of a theory that asserts that speech, language, and reason are not separate from, but intimately affected by jouissance (Copjec, “The Sexual Compact” 43) makes it resistant to easy adoption by the scholarly community. Thus, over thirty years after Lacan’s death, it is still relevant to assert the novelty of this critical approach, as Copjec does in the interview: “One of the main tasks I’ve set myself is to demonstrate that psychoanalysis is not a regional discourse or private language spoken by a few initiates but a major new genre of critical thinking.” None of the contributors to this volume would say otherwise.


  • 16 Moreover, there is no guarantee of progress in the shift from the Name-of-the-Father to the Father- (...)

35It was an unexpected discovery, on reading the articles that were submitted and accepted for publication, to find that the father figure would occupy such a central place in the theoretical elaboration and textual analyses of the works studied, all the more so as the times are unfavorable to fathers. While the articles, taken individually, visit a range of intersections between cultural discourse and Lacanian theory, it is clearly the persistence of the question of the father that provides something akin to sinthomatic coherence to this dossier, including the question of how to accede to the naming signifier without passing through the paternal metaphor. This is perhaps another way of acknowledging the acuity of the crisis of nomination in the fragmented identity-spaces of today’s globalised culture. Free to name him/herself, the subject is nonetheless at the mercy of the encounter of the name in the Symbolic: there is no pure auto-nomination – the name needs to be recognized by the Other.16 The choice, as Lacan saw it, was between the accession to the naming function through the assumption of a master signifier, or “separation from the symbolic community” (Žižek, Enjoy 89), the most radical form of which is psychosis. Some, in their attempts to make sense of culture, subjectivity and the times we live in have taken up and made theirs Lacan’s offer of nomination, which is also an inheritance bequeathed in his final public address: “You can be Lacanians, if you wish. For my part, I’m a Freudian” (“The Caracas Seminar”). 

Haut de page


Bond, Edward. Born, Plays: 8. London: Methuen, 2006. Print.

Braunstein, Nestor. “Desire and Jouissance in the Teachings of Lacan.” The Cambridge Companion to Lacan. Ed. Jean-Michel Rabaté. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. 102-15. Print.

Canellopoulos, Lissy. “The Bodily Event, Jouissance and The (Post)Modern Subject.” Recherches en psychanalyse. 10 (2010). Cairn. Web. 10 Feb. 2012.

Copjec, Joan. Imagine There’s No Woman: Ethics and Sublimation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002. Print.

---. “Sex and the Euthanasia of Reason.” Read My Desire: Lacan against the Historicists. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995. Print.

---. “The Sexual Compact.” Angelaki 17.2 (2012): 31-48. Print.

Espinoza, Tania. “Sur l'hontologie chez Lacan.” Conference: 24 Aug. 2011. Video. Web. 9 May 2014.

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. 1929. London: Vintage, 1995. Print.

Fink, Bruce. A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1997. Print.

Flynn, Gillian. Gone Girl. New York: Crown Publishers, 2012. Print.

Granik, Debra. Winter’s Bone. Winter's Bone Productions LLC, 2010. DVD.

Harari, Roberto. The sinthome: Turbulence and Dissipation.” Thurston. 45-57. Print.

Hoens, Dominiek and Ed Pluth. “The Sinthome: A New Way of Writing an Old Problem?” Thurston. 1-18. Print.

Jadin, Jean-Marie and Marcel Ritter, eds. La jouissance au fil de l’enseignement de Lacan. Toulouse: Érès, 2009. Print.

“Jouissance.” No Subject: An Encylopedia of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. Web. 20 Aug. 2014.

Kelly, Dennis. Plays One (Debris, 2004; Osama the Hero, 2005; After the End, 2005; Love and Money, 2006). London: Oberon, 2008. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. [Seminar XI, 1964] Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Penguin, 1977. Print.

---. “Guiding Remarks for a Convention on Female Sexuality.” Écrits. 1966. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York: Norton, 2006. 610-20 Print.

---. “Lituraterre.” 1971. Autres écrits. Paris : Seuil, 2001. 11-20. Print.

---. Encore, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX: On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972-1973. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York: Norton, 1999. Print.

---. “Les Noms-du-Père.” 1963. Espaces Lacan. Web. 1 Aug. 2014.

---. Le Séminaire, livre I: Les écrits techniques de Freud. 1953-54. Staferla. Web. 20 Aug. 2014.

---. Le Séminaire, livre XVII: L’envers de la psychanalyse. [1969-70]. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. Print.

---. Le Séminaire, livre XXI: Les non-dupes errent, 1973-74. Staferla [French] LacaninIreland [English]. Web. 10 Aug. 2014.

---. Le Séminaire, livre XXII: RSI, 1974-75. Staferla Web 10 Aug. 2014.

---. Le Séminaire, livre XXIII: Le sinthome, 1975-76. Staferla Web. 10 Aug. 2014.

---. “Le Séminaire de Caracas.” Opening Address. 12 Jul. 1980Le Seminaire, livre XXVII : La dissolution, 1980-81. Espaces Lacan. Web. 3 Aug. 2014.

Maddin, Guy. Cowards Bend the Knee (Canada, 2003). E.D. Distribution, 2007. Web. 18 Jun. 2014.

Michaux, Ginette. De Sophocle à Proust, de Nerval à Boulgakov: essai de psychanalyse lacanienne. Ramonville-Saint-Agne: Eres, 2008. Print.

Munro, Alice. “Boys and Girls.” Dance of the Happy Shades. 1968. London: Vintage, 2000. Print.

Oltarzewska, Jagna. “‘So Much Depends on Circumstances’: Žižek in France.” Études anglaises 58.1 (2005): 53-67. Web. 17 Apr. 2014.

Ragland, Ellie. From Aristotle to Lacan: The Logic of Sexuation. Albany: SUNY Press, 2004. Print.

Roth, Philip. American Pastoral. New York: Vintage, 1998. Print.

“Sinthome.” No Subject: An Encyclopedia of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. Web. 2 Aug. 2014.

Soler, Colette. Lacan, The Unconscious Reinvented. 2009. Trans. Esther Faye and Susan Schwartz. London: Karnac, 2014. Kindle version.

Thurston, Luke. Essays on the Final Lacan. New York: Other Press, 2002. Print.

Von Trier, Lars. Breaking the Waves. October Films. 1996. Film.

Žižek, Slavoj. Enjoy Your Symptom: Jacques Lacan, in Hollywood and Out. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

---. “Femininity between Goodness and Act.” The Sinthome 14 (2013). Web. 6 Aug. 2014.

---. “Whither Oedipus?” The Ticklish Subject. London: Verso, 1999. Print.

Haut de page


1 All references to Lacan’s seminars are indicated by the notation S followed by Roman numerals; where an unpublished version has been consulted, the date of the conference is given in lieu of page numbers.

2 The Lacanian Real needs to be clearly distinguished from the current dominant use of the term ‘real,’ notably in France (le réel) which gestures towards some sort of ground zero of materiality, or bottom-line of experience, conceived of as more authentic than mere ‘reality.’

3 I am thinking here of poststructuralism and gender theory which deal with language in its Imaginary-Symbolic co-ordinates, occulting the Real; but also with neuro-cognitive or behavioral directions of analyses which make no place for the singularity of the subject.

4 Where no translator is indicated in the list of works cited, the translation is my own.

5 Lacan’s neologism, fixion conjoins ‘fixation’ and ‘fiction’ to suggest the way in which jouissance, fundamentally related to repetition, is inseparable from the subject’s Symbolic-Imaginary sense of ‘reality.’

6 Ginette Michaux, commenting on Lacan’s “Lituraterre,” refers to this furrowing, gullying effect in the following terms: “Man, the language-being, lives under the universal hold of the signifier which rains down upon the world, but from this downpour results a singular gullying effect that Lacan compares to a marking (rature) in which the singularity of the subject may be read.” (Michaux 11)

7 Three is the minimum, but not the maximum number of rings necessary for a Borromean knot to hold together.

8 See also, “Contrary to what I have said ... the signifiers S1 and S2 do not make a chain’” (qtd. in Soler, Lacan Ch. 1).

9 As the figure of the knot shows, the sinthome links the Symbolic and the Real within the sphere of the Imaginary, itself held in place by the other two. We might rephrase this by saying that the name, as S1, is tied to jouissance and has fixional effects in the sphere of the ego, allowing for the possibility of subjective consistency.

10 The five-hundred-page volume entitled La jouissance au fil de l'enseignement de Lacan, published in 2009, testifies to the persistence of Lacan’s effort in this direction.

11 Žižek most often uses ‘enjoyment’ to translate jouissance.

12 Quotations from the articles in this volume and indicated simply by their authors’ names.

13 This brings to mind Lacan’s reflection on Christianity: in modern times, “The problem is that the Other, the locus of the Other, knows nothing. One can no longer hate God if he himself knows nothing, in particular, of what is going on. When one could hate him, one could believe he loved us, since he didn’t hate us in return.” It follows from this that the “misfortune of Christ is explained to us through the idea of saving men. I find, rather, that the idea was to save God by giving a little presence and actuality back to that hatred of God regarding which we are, and for good reason, rather indecisive” (SXX 98, translation slightly modified).

14 Les Noms-du-Père” is the name of a series of talks given by Lacan in 1963-64 after his seminar was interrupted by the institutional conflicts taking place (cf. “Les Noms-du-Père.” Espaces Lacan.)

15 Not only in Maddin’s and Granik’s films is there a question of a man’s hands being cut off for the sake of a woman, but also, in Roth’s novel, we read of Merry’s fascination with a similar image: “the men shaped and pressed each and every glove by pulling it carefully down over steam-heated brass hands veneered in chrome. The hands were dangerously hot and they were shiny and they stuck straight up from the table in a row, thin-looking as hands that had been flattened in a mangle and then amputated, beautifully amputated hands afloat in space like the souls of the dead. As a little girl, Merry was captivated by their enigma” (122).

16 Moreover, there is no guarantee of progress in the shift from the Name-of-the-Father to the Father-of-the-Name. What this narrative of postmodern emancipation obscures are “the new forms of domination generated by the ‘decline of Oedipus’ itself’” or stated more directly, “the obscene need for domination and subjection engendered by the new ‘post-Oedipal’ forms of subjectivity themselves” (Žižek, “Whither Oedipus?” 440).

Haut de page

Table des illustrations

Fichier image/jpeg, 20k
Fichier image/jpeg, 13k
Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Jennifer MURRAY, « Figures in the Lacanian Field: Reading Literature, Theatre and Cinema with the Later Lacan », E-rea [En ligne], 12.1 | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2014, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.3947

Haut de page


Jennifer MURRAY

Université de Franche-Comté,

Jennifer Murray is Associate Professor of North American literature at the University of Franche-Comté. Lacanian psychoanalysis, the short story form, and twentieth century North American literature number among her research interests. Recent and forthcoming publications include articles on works by Harper Lee (The Southern Literary Journal, 2010) Alice Munro (Journal of the Short Story in English, 2010; Annales Littéraires de l’UFC forthcoming) and Margaret Atwood (Literature Interpretation Theory, Winter 2015). She is currently working towards the completion of a volume of Lacanian readings of stories by Alice Munro.

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page
  • Logo Laboratoire d’Études et de Recherche sur le Monde Anglophone
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals