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Obviously, there is something shaky in this argument. The claim that there is a distinction between “pure” proper names and others is only required by the demands of the thesis. Plainly, it has no justification. It is difficult to distinguish psychological sensations from what belongs to the logic of the signifier and its semantic effect and borders on the psychologism that, as Frege has shown, we have good reason to reject.

Lacan doesn’t hesitate to express his disagreement with the psychologism of Gardiner, considering that his account founders on a major difficulty.

Gardiner’s thesis miscarries because he doesn’t articulate the function of the subject in any other than a psychological manner and fails to define the subject in its reference to the signifier.

More precisely, Lacan insists that what is lacking in Gardiner’s approach is the function of the letter, and more particularly the function of the unary trait—“there can be no definition of the proper name except insofar as we perceive the relation of the naming utterance to something that is, in its radical nature, of the order of the letter.”5 The sound structure is not dismissed by Lacan, since it possesses a singularity that must be respected across translations. Thus, if the proper name preserves its sound structure, it is “by reason of the affinity of the proper name and the mark.”6 Why this insistence on the letter? Two reasons. There is on the one hand the affinity between the proper name and the letter that arises because neither possesses any meaning. Thus the proper name has the particularity of being the “signifier in its pure state.” On the other hand, there is something to the fact that proper names pass directly from one language to another—“I am Lacan in any language,” he tells us, while making the same observation about the names Cleopatra and Ptolemy, which played a key role in the deciphering of hieroglyphics.

How all this concerns the signifier as letter is not clear. What is incontestable, though, is that from the fact that the proper name is untranslatable, one can conclude that it has no sense—with few exceptions. The exceptions are, on the one hand, place names and, on the other, the names of celebrated persons whose celebrity rests upon a common description that serves to determine the referent for everyone. By choosing very well known 48 Penumbra names—Socrates, Cicero—as examples of his theory of descriptions, Frege thus concealed the fact that the proper name lacks meaning.

Five years later, in his seminar, Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis, Lacan revisits the question of proper names. Once again, he refers to Gardiner’s book. But this time, instead of appealing to the ins(is)tence of the letter in the translation of proper names, he emphasizes what he calls “the significative

effects” of the proper name:

If I present myself to you as Jacques Lacan, I say... something that... for you entails a certain number of significative effects.... From the moment that I introduce myself to you as Jacques Lacan, any possibility of my being a Rockefeller, for example, or the count of Paris is already eliminated.” From this, he concludes, “To say that a proper name... has no meaning is grossly inadequate.”7 There is a difficulty here that arises from the fact that what Lacan says in this context evokes the Fregean theory of descriptions. For what distinguishes proper names other than the descriptions—“author of the Écrits,” “famous French psychoanalyst,” etc.—that determine that it just happens to be a matter of Jacques Lacan and not the count of Paris?

Before renouncing the thesis—which to me seems to be justified—that the proper name is the signifier in its pure state, it is necessary to take into account what Lacan says elsewhere in Seminar XII. It is Saul Kripke’s concept of the “rigid designator” that can serve as a compass here.8 Kripke maintains that the Fregean theory is unprovable. His insight is to see that if the sense of “Socrates” is a description such as “Plato’s teacher,” then “Socrates is Plato’s teacher” would be necessarily true. If “Plato’s teacher” is the sense of “Socrates,” then Socrates just has to be Plato’s teacher. However, it is obviously contingent that Socrates should ever have become a philosopher. Or, to take a more convincing example, if by “Thales” we signify “the philosopher who believed that all things are made of water,” and no one ever maintained such a thesis, it is necessary to conclude that Thales never existed.

To whom, then, does Aristotle refer? A person, according to the theory of descriptions. For, it must be possible that Thales was a mason, for example, and that Aristotle was deceived as to what this person did and thought.9 It follows, therefore, that one could refer to Thales by using the proper name “Thales” even if it turns out that the only description we have of him is false.

That the proper name is a rigid designator therefore means that, contrary to the theory of descriptions, no meaning is essentially tied to the proper name.

The term “rigid designator” implies therefore that no signification, no description, belongs to the proper name. And this is what Lacan seems to confirm a little later in the same seminar when he says, “I am called Jacques Lacan, but as something that can be missing, for which the name will tend to cover over another lack. The proper name, therefore, is a movable function.”10 On the Proper Name as the Signifier in its Pure State We better understand this “other lack” and this “fluctuating function” in the context of the concept of rigid designation of the proper name taken independently of all identifying descriptions.

It is possible to carry all of this over into the clinical context. Without going into the details—which could be developed at another time—it is very suggestive in the case of Joyce, for example, for whom the use of proper names is inscribed against this thesis of the proper name as “signifier in its pure state.” Isn’t it all the more striking that Joyce never stops playing on the function of the letter in the proper name? For example, he has only to think of the three great names of European letters, Gouty, Doughty, and Shopkeeper, in which his idea seems precisely to be the flooding of the signifier with an abundance of sense. On the other hand, we must wonder about the meaning of wanting “to make a name for oneself ” in which all the effort consists in filling the emptiness of the essence of the proper name.

Translated by Daniel G. Collins


1. The French version of this essay was originally published in La Cause freudienne 39 (1998), 125-8. See Jacques Lacan, Seminar IX, Identification (unpublished, 1961-62).

2. Alan Gardiner, The Theory of Proper Names: A Controversial Essay, 2nd ed.

(London: Oxford UP, 1954).

3. Bertrand Russell, “The Philosophy of Logical Atomism,” in Logic and Knowledge (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1956), 200.

4. J. S. Mill, System of Logic (London, 1843).

5. Identification, session of 20 December, 1961.

6. Ibid.

7. Jacques Lacan, The Crucial Problems of Psychoanalysis, Seminar XII (unpublished, 1964-65), session of 6 January, 1965.

8. Saul A. Kripke, Naming and Necessity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1980).

9. Keith Donnellan, “Proper Names and Identifying Descriptions,” in Semantics of Natural Language, eds. Donald Davidson and Gilbert Harman (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1972), 374.

10. Lacan, Ibid.

The Splendor of Creation:

Kant, Nietzsche, Lacan Alenka Zupančič In his Critique of Judgment, Kant approaches the question of the beautiful in four steps, with four paradoxical definitions, which all revolve around the “signifier of the lack”—the word without or devoid of. Beauty is a “liking without interest,” “universality without concept,” “purposiveness without purpose,” and “necessity without concept.” Kant’s basic operation in these definitions consists in what one might call essential subtraction: in each of the definitions quoted above, Kant deprives the first notion exactly of that which is considered to be its essential characterization. Is it not the essence of every liking or pleasure (Wolhgefallen) that it is bound with interest? Is it not the essence of universality and of necessity that they are based on concepts? Is it not the essence of purposiveness that it has a purpose? The beautiful thus becomes the quality of something organized around a central void, and it is this very void which somehow dictates its organization. “Purposiveness without purpose,” for example, does not simply refer to something that, while having no purpose, nevertheless strikes us as if (the famous Kantian als ob) it had one. The question is not simply that of the comparison or resemblance, and the opposition is not that of the appearance of a purpose versus the actual absence of any purpose. The mystery of the beautiful does not reside in the question, “How can something that has no purpose produce such a striking effect of purposiveness?” The point is rather that the absence of the purpose in the “center” and the purposiveness of what is organized around this central absence are intrinsically connected. It is not that we detect some purposiveness in spite of the absence of any purpose;

that is, it is not that the relation between the two elements is that of contradiction, but rather the relation is that of a specific form of mutual sustaining.

52 Penumbra What we called essential subtraction can be expressed even better in terms of extimité, defined by Lacan as the “excluded interior,” as something which is “excluded in the interior.” This is precisely what Kantian definitions aim at: the beauty names the effect of this excluded interior. Where the excluded dimension remains included as excluded, it is via its exclusion that it becomes operative as the organizing power of its “surroundings.” It is quite remarkable that in his discussion of art in relation to the question of sublimation, Lacan accentuates almost the same structure as Kant. He stresses that in every form of sublimation, emptiness (or void) is determinative, although not in the same way. Religion consists of avoiding this void, whereas science and/or philosophy take an attitude of unbelief towards it. As for art, “all art is characterized by a certain mode of organization around this emptiness.”1 (Of course, the emptiness at stake is not just any kind of emptiness or void, but precisely “that excluded interior which... is thus excluded in the interior.”2 The other name for this void or emptiness is das Ding, the Thing.

Previously we took the example of “purposiveness without purpose,” which might be slightly misleading since we encounter the same term (purpose) on both sides. A better example is that of “pleasure without interest,” or, in another translation, “liking devoid of all interest,” which will help us to clarify in detail how this “interior exclusion” actually works and what its consequences are. The notion of “pleasure devoid of all interest” also has the advantage of becoming, since Nietzsche’s critique, the emblem of the Kantian conception of the beautiful and the topos of contemporary philosophical debate concerning the notion of the beautiful (and of art in general).

Nietzsche’s attack on Kant’s notion of “pleasure devoid of all interest” is famous enough. Nietzsche identifies Kant’s position with that of Schopenhauer’s (which is, in itself, a very problematic identification) and sees in it a “reactive” approach to art. According to Nietzsche, disinterested delight is an absurd notion resulting from the fact that we approach art exclusively from the standpoint of the spectator, and a non-creative spectator at this. Art and its appreciation are in no way “disinterested operations.” To Kant’s definition of the beautiful, Nietzsche opposes Stendhal’s, which defines the beautiful as “a promise of happiness” and implies, according to Nietzsche, the recognition of the power of the beautiful to excite the will (and thus the interest).3 As appealing as this critique might seem, it very much misses Kant’s point, which is in fact quite close to Nietzsche’s own views.4 But what exactly does the formula “pleasure devoid of all interest” aim at? Kant calls the pleasure that is still linked with interest (or need) “agreeableness.” If I declare an object to be agreeable, this judgment “arouses a desire for objects of that kind.”5 This does not mean that with the next stage, the stage of the beautiful, or “devoid of all interest,” this desire disappears—the point is that it becomes irrelevant. Let us clarify this with one of Kant’s own examples, the “green meadows.” The Splendor of Creation The first stage is the objective stage: the green color of the meadows belongs to objective sensation. “Meadows are green” is an objective judgment.

The second stage is the subjective stage: the color’s agreeableness belongs to subjective sensation, to feeling: “I like green meadows” is a subjective judgment, which also means, “I would like to see green meadows as often as possible.” This is a “yes” to the object (green meadows) which is supposed to gratify us (Kant’s term). The third stage is a “yes,” not to the color, but to the feeling of the agreeable itself, a “yes” not to the object that gratifies us but to the gratification itself, i.e. a “yes” to the previous “yes.” Here it is the feeling itself, the sensation that becomes the object (of judgment). “Green meadows are beautiful” is a judgment of taste, an aesthetic judgment, which is neither “objective” nor “subjective.” This judgment could be called “acephalous” or “headless,” since the “I,” the “head” of the judgment is replaced, not with some impersonal objective neutrality as in statements of the type “the meadows are green,” but with the most intimate part of the subject (how the subject feels itself affected by a given representation as object). “Devoid of all interest” means precisely that we no longer refer to the existence of the object (green meadows), but only to the pleasure that it gives us.

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