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In this regard, it is perhaps not without reason that Lacan, starting with Seminar XVIII, preferred the term “semblant” to that of “fiction.” However, this final choice cannot be justified by saying that the semblant, as a concept, is broader and can include fiction; nor is it enough to insist on a distinction between discursive and non-discursive semblants, semblants in nature, since Lacan is primarily interested in discursive semblants. On the contrary, what justifies the substitution is Lacan’s re-examination of the nature of the semblant and the function attributed to it. Thus one could say that it is the inversion of perspective that makes Lacan downgrade the semblant. More particularly, a term is denounced as semblant insofar as it responds to the function of the quilting point. What downgrades the semblant is precisely its function. From this inverted perspective, which takes as its departure point the non-rapport of the symbolic and the real, all these instances of the quilting point are seen now as being but a mere make-believe, a cover-up.
220 Penumbra Indeed, the semblant is essentially make-believe: by pinning down the imaginary, the quilting signifier makes us believe that it is the thing itself. In other words, the semblant is a symbolic construct which, by quilting, makes us believe that it is the other of the symbolic, namely, the real. This is why, for Lacan, the father is by definition a semblance. The father only exists in the form of the signifier and he exists as long as this signifier, the Name-ofthe-Father, produces certain effects. The phallus, from this point of view, is also seen as a semblant since, strictly speaking, it is but a supporting piece of evidence for the semblance of the father. And there is yet another, third figure of the semblant, more delicate than the other two, the object a, invented by Lacan to designate the remainder of jouissance which is not converted into the signifier and which remains outside the signifier’s quilting function. If the object a, from this perspective, is yet another name for the semblant alongside the father and the phallus, this is because it is strategically positioned at a place where, instead of the expected jouissance, one only encounters its loss. The object a is the semblant which effects the conversion of the loss of jouissance into a surplus, one which curiously is not to be found on the side of the real jouissance but on the side of the symbolic. Hence the equivalence, established by Lacan, between jouissance under the guise of plus-de-jouir, and sens-joui [enjoy-meant]—the only jouissance that a speaking being can attain is precisely sens-joui.
In fact, we might say that with the quilting point thus exposed, the affinity of the semblant to the hole, the void, is also brought to light. From such a perspective, all these various names of the quilting point have something in common: their only function is to veil, to cover up with their flimsy materiality, a hole, a void in the structure. Indeed, we would argue that there is a structural, constitutive relation between the semblant and the hole. The question of the semblant is essentially the question of the relation between void and veil. By following Miller, we could propose the following succinct definition of the semblant: the semblant is a mask of nothing.36 As a matter of fact, the semblant is only encountered where something is expected but one only encounters a hole, a void, an emptiness, an absence. The function of the semblant is solely to cover up, by its very presence, the empty place of a term which is constitutively lacking; but in so doing, the semblant at the same time reveals that this term ex-sists only through this empty place.
In this regard, psychoanalysis seems to be inverting Leibniz’s famous question: instead of asking why there is something rather than nothing, the question with which psychoanalysis is preoccupied is rather: why is only a void, an absence, an emptiness encountered where something is expected?
All semblants deployed by Lacan (from the phallus to the Other and Woman) are as many deceitful answers to this question. Semblants, in the final period of Lacan’s teaching, are therefore all designed to veil, to mask the nothing: the phallus covers up castration, the Name-of-the-Father is a mask concealing On the Path of the Semblant the hole in the Other of language and, finally, Woman is nothing but a veil which disguises that there is no such thing as a sexual relation. The semblant can then be understood as an envelope of nothing, one which conceals precisely that, behind the semblant, there is nothing but the void.
Indeed, it is precisely in throwing into relief the dialectics of void and veil that the concept of the quilting point comes undone. This conveys a profound switch in the line of Lacan’s elaboration of the relation between the symbolic and the real, one which implies a renouncement of any kind of quilting point. In fact, this question of the articulation between the symbolic and the real, while giving up the quilting of these two orders, offers a guiding thread through Lacan’s seminar D’un discourse qui ne serait pas du semblant. Indeed, we would argue that he poses this question precisely in order to overcome the impasse left over at the end of his seminar on the four discourses, in which the revolving circle of the four discourses leads to a somewhat unexpected and certainly unwanted conclusion: if there is no discourse which is not of the semblant, this only means that any attempt at converting the real into the signifier brings about the emergence of the semblant. By paraphrasing Miller, one could thus say: what is signifierized is by the same token “semblantified.” This is why Lacan in “Lituraterre,” the published part of Seminar XVIII, proposes as a possible solution for holding together that which does not hold together a new concept, that of the letter insofar as it is itself identified with the litoral: “Is the letter not […] more properly littorale [coast-line], figuring that one domain in its entirety makes for the other a frontier, because of their being foreign to each other, to the extent of not falling into a reciprocal relation. Is the edge of the hole in knowledge not what it traces?”37 To propose the littoral as a solution consists in nothing other than to propose the void itself as the mediator, the “void-median,” as Lacan calls it. The operation involving the littoral is the inverse of the quilting operation since, with the littoral, the void holds together by keeping the heterogeneous instances apart: “between knowledge and jouissance, there is a littoral that only turns towards the literal on condition that this turn may be taken likewise at any instance.”38 Littoral, by activating the void itself as a mediator, is certainly a way of relating to jouissance, which can do without the semblant. On the other hand, when Lacan posed a rhetorical question—“Is it possible for the littoral to constitute such a discourse that is characterised by not being issued form the semblant?”39—his answer is clearly no. The littoral can only testify to the fracture of that which it is itself an effect. But it is unable to effect the cut. Only a discourse can produce a cut. One can see in what sense the theory of semblants constitutes a clearing gesture: indeed, it is only after bringing into question any instance of quilting that something like a littoral can be established, an empty plane in which something new can be inscribed. In the seminar D’un discourse qui ne serait pas du semblant, Lacan still seems to be harboring the hope of writing the formula of the sexual relation, a hope quelled with the seminar Encore. But 222 Penumbra just as the formula “there is no sexual relation” does not abolish the contingency of the encounter, the littoral proposes itself as a virgin canvas on which new combinations of knotting the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic can be inscribed.
By taking up the question of the semblant in its relation to the real, Lacan’s Seminar XVIII is therefore, from the beginning, quite radically a question of defining a new type of articulation separating jouissance and the signifying articulation. In the context of Lacan’s project thus outlined, the theory of semblants, insofar as it breaks with his previous assertion of the primacy of the symbolic, can be perceived as a “vanishing mediator,” a necessary step on the path to the final solution: the Borromean knot, this being exactly the perspective in which all three registers—the symbolic, the imaginary and the real—are considered to be independent and autonomous registers, absolutely equivalent at the level of the knot. Lacan’s project thus becomes that of separating the three orders, while at the same time exploring the many different ways in which it is possible to produce a new kind of knotting at the level of jouissance. The issue here is of course that of jouissance and the different ways in which it is elaborated at the level of the knot. In fact, we would argue that it is above all in order to explore this transformative aspect of knotting that Lacan explores jouissance as an enigma that drills a hole in sense. It is obvious that such a project has many consequences for the way in which psychoanalysis tries to situate the real from the perspective of the outside-sense. But it is also from this perspective that the notion of the semblant assumes its full value.
1. Jacques Lacan, Les non-dupes errent (1974), unpublished seminar, 23 April 1974.
2. Alain Badiou, The Century, trans. Alberto Toscano (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), 48-57.
3. Alain Badiou, Ethics. An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, trans. Peter Hallward (London and New York: Verso, 2001), 69-71.
4. Sigmund Freud, “Letter to Fliess #69, 21 September 1897,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (hereafter SE) ed.
and trans. James Strachey et al. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974), 1:
5. Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1959-1960), ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Dennis Porter (London: W.W.
Norton, 1992), 12.
6. “‘Fictitious’ means ‘fictive’ but, as I have already explained to you, in the sense that every truth has the structure of fiction.” Ibid.
7. Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book XX: Encore, On Feminine Sexuality, On the Path of the Semblant The Limits of Love and Knowledge (1972-1973), ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans.
Bruce Fink (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), 58.
8. Lacan, Le séminaire, livre XVI: D’un Autre à l’autre (Paris: Seuil, 2006), 190.
9. The genesis of Lacan’s notion of the semblant has been outlined by PierreGilles Gueguen in the 17 December 1997 session of Jacques-Alain Miller’s course “Le partenaire-symptôme,” 1997-98. He also pointed out that, at the beginning, Lacan used both terms, “semblant” and “fiction,” practically as synonymous. To account for this equivalence of both terms, Gueguen proposes the following hypothesis: if “semblant” and “fiction” are in Lacan’s view interchangeable, this is because both concepts were perfectly capable of effecting the knot between the symbolic and the real and therefore of accounting for the manner in which a mere signifying device is able to distribute jouissance. Nevertheless, in the seventies, the term “fiction” practically disappears from Lacan’s vocabulary. One reason why he finally gives up the notion of the fiction is no doubt that the concept of the fiction is too restrictive: whereas the fiction is strictly speaking language dependent, the semblant, insofar as it exists in nature, does not owe its existence to language. Actually, all the examples used by Lacan to illustrate the notion of the semblant in his seminar D’un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant, are exactly non-discursive semblants, semblants in nature, such as rainbow, thunder, and meteors. This very fact indicates that the concept of the semblant, while partly overlapping with that of the fiction, is nonetheless irreducible to it. There is yet another aspect of this substitution that should be noted here. In fact, this replacement coincides with the change in value of the term concerned: while the status of the Benthamite fiction was undoubtedly valorised, that of the semblant was on the contrary downgraded.
10. Consider the title of one of Miller’s recent courses: Pièces détachées (2004unpublished seminar.
11. See Freud, “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” SE 23: 216-253.
12. Lacan, Le séminaire, livre XVIII : D’un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant (1970-71) (Paris: Seuil, 2006).
13. Lacan, Encore, 92.
14. Freud, “‘Civilised’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness” (1908), SE 9: 181.
15. Lacan, Encore, 55.
16. Jacques-Alain Miller, La fuite du sens (1995-1996), unpublished, 31 January 1996.
17. Lacan, “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in
Psychoanalysis,” Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (London:
224 Penumbra Routledge, 1977), 72.