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Lacan, likewise, encounters the problem of the semblant at a crucial moment of his teaching, in particular in his seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, in which he sets out to forge new conceptual tools to treat the real at stake in the analytic experience. More particularly, Lacan broaches the question of semblants at a point in his teaching at which he seems to be turning away from the problematic of truth, that is to say, from that which previously constituted the focal point of psychoanalysis and its specificity in relation to the discourse of science. Indeed, it is under the guise of fiction, a concept borrowed from Bentham, that Lacan first tackles the question of the semblant. What Lacan emphasises here is a conceptual knotting between the Benthamite fictions and his notion of the symbolic. Crucially, he insists that what he means by fiction is not to be confused with its commonly accepted sense: illusion. “Fictitious is not,” he claims, “in effect, in its essence that which deceives, but is precisely what I call the symbolic.”5 Moreover, the very fact that Lacan situates fiction in the symbolic order involves the displacement of the notion of truth: it is not enough to state with Freud that the opposition between fiction and truth is untenable since truth itself has the structure of fiction.6 One might say that, from the outset, the semblant is conceived by Lacan as a paradox of the relation between the symbolic and the real.
On the contrary, semblance, as conceived by Lacan, is intended to designate that which, coming from the symbolic, is directed towards the real. This is precisely what characterizes Bentham’s fictions. Indeed, as a fact of language, made of nothing but the signifier, Bentham’s legal fictions are nonetheless capable of distributing and modifying pleasures and pains, thereby affecting the body. What held Lacan’s attention in reading Bentham’s Theory of Fictions was precisely that something which is ultimately an apparatus of language— Bentham defines fictions as owing their existence to language alone—is capable of inflicting pain or provoking satisfaction that can only be experienced in the body. It appears as if with Bentham’s fictions Lacan found at last a missing link, a quilting point between the signifier and jouissance. This is why in Seminar XX, in a period of his teaching in which the notion of the semblant is well established, he can still remark, in referring expressly to the Benthamite fictions, that the whole purpose of using “old words” is their ability to capture jouissance.7 On the Path of the Semblant There is yet another aspect to the Benthamite fiction that Lacan brought to light, although rather late in the day, in his seminar D’un Autre à l’autre.
In Lacan’s reading, what sets apart Bentham’s approach to fictions from the usual understanding of this term is that, with remarkable lucidity, Bentham reveals how all human institutions have as their ultimate aim jouissance. Hence by openly stating that fictions are nothing but an artificial device, “a contrivance,” to use Bentham’s proper term, designed to provoke either pain or pleasure, Bentham brings into question all human institutions insofar as they are an apparatus destined to regulate the modes of jouissance by dressing them up in the virtues of the useful and the good.8 Bentham’s concept of fictions can be seen as an effective manner of denouncing the moral and social ideals of the epoch, of exposing them as being nothing but a semblance, a makebelieve, precisely to the extent that the human institutions are nothing but semblants, i.e., the means and the modes of jouissance. This hardly concealed cynicism, reminding us of the primacy of jouissance, is precisely what is scandalous about the Benthamite conception of fictions; and it is from this perspective of the cynicism of jouissance that a crucial feature of semblants can be brought to light: the constitutive role of belief. Destined to cover up the economy of jouissance, semblants can only succeed in their task inasmuch as we believe in them, that is to say, take their make-believe at face value.
With Bentham’s fictions, by contrast, we are dealing with a semblance which openly declares that it is nothing but make-believe. Indeed, in order to be operational, Bentham’s fictions, unlike the rest of human institutions, can do without the masquerade or, more precisely, without the belief in moral or cultural ideals. Bentham’s fiction—in itself a fallacy, a make-believe, a semblance, yet a semblance which presents itself as semblance, a reflexive semblance, as it were—thus presents us with the paradox of lying truly. As semblant hostile to semblants, the fiction contributes to the unmasking of moral virtues as semblants in the service of jouissance, while still touching the real.
The lesson to be drawn from Bentham’s cynical use of fictions is therefore the following: it is possible to use fictions in order to attain the real without believing in them. It is precisely in view of this double capacity of the Benthamite fiction—as a means both of denouncing, exposing semblants and of attaining the real—that the question of the semblant is posed to Lacan above all as the question of how to put semblants to good use.
The question of know-how with fictions is, indeed, of paramount importance to Lacan once it is admitted that fictions can be considered as a symbolic apparatus destined to intervene in the real of the body. Hence, from the moment fictions are conceived by Lacan as the very means with which to modify the subject’s relation to jouissance, his whole elaboration of the analytic practice changes. But this emphasis on jouissance also demands a radical reorientation of psychoanalysis in which the role of the structuring principle is attributed to the opposition between the real and semblants. In fact, it is 204 Penumbra Lacan’s redeployment of Bentham’s concept of fiction that made it possible for the real at issue in psychoanalysis, the real of jouissance, to emerge as such.
In view of this shift in Lacan’s teaching, which defines psychoanalysis not in its relation to truth but in its relation to the real, it may appear odd that the notion of the semblant did not find what might be called its proper place until the seventies. There is one further consideration about the Lacanian concept of the semblant that should be mentioned. The fact that this notion, which could truly serve us as a key to Lacan’s later teaching, did not receive the attention it deserves until recently, can be attributed in large part to the fact that the seminar which was specifically intended to address the issue of the semblant, D’un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant (Of a Discourse Which Would Not Be of the Semblant), occupies a transitional place between Seminar XVII, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, and Seminar XX, Encore. Unlike these two landmark seminars which, because they discuss two issues of general interest—power and sexual difference—have taken up a prominent place in contemporary debate across an impressive range of disciplines, Seminar XVIII and, consequently, its key concept have passed largely unnoticed.
It should be noted that although “semblant” as a term may well have been a late entry into Lacan’s vocabulary,9 that which appears to be essential in the question of the semblant—the articulation between two radically heterogeneous if not antinomic registers, the symbolic and the real—is, on the contrary, a persistent problem throughout his teaching. As a matter of fact, Lacan never stopped inventing new terms destined to hold together that which does not hold together: jouissance and the signifier. In the course of his teaching, he explored the different ways of capturing jouissance via the signifier. Starting with the phallus, also designated as the signifier of jouissance, Lacan inaugurates an extraordinary series of terms that replace one another
as the anchoring point, the nodal linkage between the symbolic and the real:
the phallus, the Name-of-the-Father, the master signifier and, finally, the object a. Each of these terms will come, in the course of Lacan’s teaching, to fulfil the quilting function, provided that it responds to the structurally necessary demand of building a bridge between two antinomic registers: language and the real. But how exactly, one might wish to ask, do these operators of quilting respond to the notion of the semblant?
One could risk the following thesis in order to link the semblant to the quilting function of these terms. As a matter of fact, each of these terms can be considered a “detached piece,” to borrow Jacques-Alain Miller’s formulation,10 an element of the real which, through the operation of significatization, is elevated to the dignity of the signifier, acts as a signifier, in order to stitch together that which does not hold together. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that the operation of significatization makes an element of the real ex-sist as a signifier. Not of course as an ordinary signifier but precisely as a signifier that is at odds with all the others, since it is only as such On the Path of the Semblant an exception among signifiers, a signifier that marks an exception, that it can assume the function for which it was designed: to be the place-holder of the real within the symbolic. However, it is important to properly situate this place-holder of the real in relation to the real itself. Strictly speaking, what we are dealing with here is a paradoxical movement that goes from the real to the real via the symbolic. Indeed, it is only insofar as these “detached pieces” are converted into signifiers that they can be operational. Thus one could say that Lacan remains within Bentham’s paradigm as long as he can conceive of the real solely in terms of the symbolic.
However, the very fact that Lacan invented a new category, that of the semblant, and introduced it into psychoanalysis, along with his major categories of the real, the symbolic and the imaginary, testifies to the fact that all these various attempts at solving the problem of the disharmonic relation between the real and the symbolic—in the final analysis, the relation of the subject of the signifier and the real of jouissance—proved to be unsatisfactory.
They are unsatisfactory precisely to the extent that the only real with which Lacan was preoccupied before Seminar XVIII is the symbolic real or, more precisely, the symbolic as the real.
Yet it is precisely in the context of Lacan’s preoccupation with the question of the proper use of some artful devices as a means for handling the real in the analytic experience that, in the seventies, the question of the semblant as the opposite of the real posed itself so acutely. This is also why one finds only then a shift in Lacan’s theory of the semblant and a break with the Benthamite paradigm. While one of our aims is to briefly outline the development of the Lacanain concept of the semblant and to draw attention to some difficulties that highlight the ambiguous status that the semblant has in psychoanalysis, we also wish to emphasize the relation between the real and the semblant as being the crux of Lacan’s later teaching.
It should be noted that, for Lacan, these two terms, semblant and real, constitute a couple—an odd couple to be sure, since, in order to make it possible for the real to appear in the analytic experience, it is necessary to vacillate the semblant. The very expression, “vacillation of semblants,” such as it was elaborated in Lacan’s last teaching, is clearly governed by a dichotomy between the real and the semblant.
But does this not amount to saying that, by advancing the orientation towards the real, an orientation that implies both the traversal of the imaginary and the vacillation of semblants, Lacan simply translates, for the proper ends of psychoanalysis, the classic Platonic opposition between appearances and reality? In accordance with this thesis, Freud, in one of his last texts, “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” marked out the aim of the psychoanalytic treatment exactly from the perspective of this opposition. Defined in terms of a pursuit of truth, psychoanalysis is from the outset situated beyond the zone of the “Schein und Trug,” appearance and deception, which are 206 Penumbra precisely Freud’s names for semblants.11 That is to say, the analyst must follow the trace of the real in the unconscious, although the latter is swarming with semblants, i.e., delusions, lures, etc., which are but ersatz satisfactions according to Freud, thus making it difficult if not impossible to attain the real. Lacan seems to be subscribing to this program because, in his seminar, D’un discourse qui ne serait pas du semblant, he recommends the rejection of “all sham (fauxsemblant) and deception.”12 Without being entirely unfounded, this alliance between philosophy and psychoanalysis is nevertheless misleading. Here it will suffice to say that, far from being unanimous, the condemnation of appearances has from the outset caused great controversies in philosophy itself—from Plato’s adversaries, the sophists, to Nietzsche, who never tired of exposing the real that is operative in philosophical discourse, thus showing the fictional status of truth—there have constantly been attempts to rehabilitate appearance. Lacan’s subversion, on the other hand, goes beyond the simple binary of appearance and reality.