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Amphibologies of the real
by Leonardo Gorostiza

Leonardo GorostizaWhat is the real? This question, which at a first approximation could be considered the necessary and indispensable point of departure for the investigation towards our next Congress of the WAP, is precisely the question that should not be formulated. Indeed, many years ago now, Jacques-Alain Miller warned about the difficulty of approaching the interrogation about the real from this perspective.[1]

He indicated that "this is the question that should not be formulated, because the very form in which it is presented is not appropriate to the elaboration of the real as it imposes itself in the analytic experience...". This is because "the very procedure of definition" is one that "is appropriate to the search for a truth, whereas the real does not adjust to this."[2]

Properly understood, the real does not adjust to the truth, and neither therefore to a question that seeks the truth about the real in the form of a definition. On the contrary, its elaboration has to be pursued by way of approaching the responses of the real.[3]

In a certain way, this was the same route taken by Lacan, who gave various characterisations of the real in the course of his teaching, underlining the very instability of the concepts with which, in his aspiration to scientificity, he tried to localise the real proper to the analytic experience.

More recently, Jacques-Alain Miller highlighted these variations with a illuminating formulation: "the amphibologies of the real".[4]

Thus, in February 2011 he indicated that in order to focus the ideas around the term real, "...we should write a chapter that would be entitled the amphibologies of the real." Because "...the real does not always mean the same thing, whether in our use or in that of Lacan. There is an equivocal here that is necessary to delimit."[5]

If we proposed to establish, even at the risk of a certain simplification, the variations worked by Lacan in the course of his teaching around the term real, we could situate the following.

The first variation is when the real is situated outside the analytic experience. In this case it involves a real prior to and exterior to the effects of the signifier, that is, to the signified and its relations. Nevertheless, this prior and exterior real is not then confused by Lacan with the psychoanalytic real, which, at the beginning of his teaching, is nothing other than the signified itself.[6] Thus, from this perspective it could be affirmed that "...the teaching of Lacan begins, precisely, with the real as meaning."[7]

The second variation is when Lacan displaces the real of the signified or of meaning in order to situate it in relation to the signifier. This is when, as Miller indicates, "the wedding of psychoanalysis and science is celebrated; it is as if the unconscious gave evidence that there is a knowledge in the real, that the real is presented in the form of knowledge."[8] It involves, at this moment, a real that, in as much as it is identified with a knowledge, is a real regulated by a law.

The third variation is the one that – already sketched in Seminar 7 – receives a more precise formulation in Seminar 11 by linking the real to the inassimilable of trauma, to the function of tyche as essentially failed encounter with the real.[9] From then on, in separating the real from the signifier and its laws, Lacan opens a perspective that towards the end of his teaching will lead him, by way of numerous modulations, to formulate that "the real is without law".[10]

This formulation, arising from a characterisation of the real as something distinct from the signifier and from knowledge – that is, from the semblant – will be accompanied for Lacan with a constant interrogation of psychoanalytic practice. Because what would be a practice such as that of psychoanalysis that operates by no other means than speech, when the real is conceived as that which evades speech itself, as something that rebels against its powers and which, fundamentally, excludes meaning?

It is at this point that is situated Jacques-Alain Miller's indication when, in the Presentation of the theme for our next Congress, he indicates:

"We should remember that at the end of his teaching Lacan did not hesitate to ask whether psychoanalysis – when he no longer had the ambition to make it scientific – was not a sort of magic. He only said it once, but it is an echo to consider."

An extreme echo, but one that cannot be disregarded, given that Lacan himself ended up questioning the risks that psychoanalysis, from this perspective, could slip into becoming a swindle. He formulated this as follows:

"Contrary to what is said, there is no truth about the real, given that the real is outlined as excluding meaning. It would nonetheless be too much to say that there is the real, because to say this is to suppose a meaning. The term real itself has a meaning, and I myself have played at one time with evoking the echo of the word reus, which in Latin means culpable – one is more or less culpable of the real. This is why psychoanalysis is something serious, and it is not absurd to say that it could slip into becoming a swindle."[11]

How are we to understand this risk that Lacan warns us against? In some previous paragraphs he himself situates the co-ordinates of the problem when he says that if psychoanalysis is a swindle, it is to the degree in which it falls at the exact point with respect to what the signifier is, that is, something very special that has effects of meaning. And in this it is no more of a swindle than is poetry itself which is based on a double meaning.[12]

It is clear therefore that the swindle would be – if I can put it like this – that of passing off false goods[13], in other words, passing off the signifier and its effects of meaning for the real. We are not far from the considerations about magic. Not simply because in magic the hare – or the rabbit - that is taken from the hat was placed there beforehand and thus – whether hidden or revealed – maintains its condition as hare, but also because magic supposes "signifiers responding as such to signifiers".[14]

That is to say that the intervention of the magician or of the shaman is of an order homogeneous to the order to which such an intervention would respond: a very particular order that has effects of meaning, the signifier order.

But, and this is the nub of the problem, how to make something that is heterogeneous to the signifier, that is a remainder disordered by structure, that is to say, the real, respond to the action of the signifier?

One can understand at this point Lacan's obsession to find what he called a new signifier, a signifier which, like the real, would have no kind of meaning.[15]

Thus, in a sort of radicalisation of that which in 1965 – still looking for a link with science – he had defined as the incidence of the signifier as material cause, that is, the signifier acting apart from its signification, Lacan will advance decidedly towards the consideration of the effects of the signifier in its unicity.

It is here that the variation of the title of our next Congress which puts the accent on 'a real', rather than on 'the real', acquires its whole dimension.

Far from the idea that there could be an 'all' of the real for psychoanalysis, the title declined as 'A real for the 21st Century' also introduces a relation between the real and time. That is, that it does not only object to the conception of an all of the real, but also – by introducing the reference to this century – puts in question the illusion of a supposed immutability or eternity of the real.

This is what, in a certain way, is deduced from one of the variations that scan the amphibologies of the real. I am referring to the following considerations of Lacan in 1974, more precisely in 'La Troisieme', where he emphatically affirms:

"The real, therefore, is not universal, which signifies that it is only all in the strict sense that each one of its elements would be identical to itself, but without them being able to be said to be all. There is no all of the elements, there are only sets to be determined in each case – and it is not worth adding it is all. My S1 has no meaning other than of punctuating this no matter which, this signifier – letter that I write S1 – which is only written by doing so without any effect of meaning."[16]

From this we can gather that it is always a case, for psychoanalysis in the way opened by Lacan, of a real, singular and to be considered each time, of that which is situated in relation to a temporality that implies a before and an after, but which is located outside of any idea of regularity (the eternal recurrence of the same according to a law) and therefore of any idea of eternity. Because when a real – by way of a contingency – ceases to not write itself, it can do so only "by force" ["a la fuerza y por la fuerza"] and this "is what is called counter-nature".[17]

Well then, having arrived at this point, we could ask ourselves: Why did Lacan say that one is more or less culpable of the real? Why, at a moment in his teaching where he had already advanced beyond Oedipus, does he recur to the term 'guilt' and link it precisely to the real?

I will sketch a response to this question, which I understand as resonating against the background of the words with which Jacques-Alain Miller concludes his 'Presentation of the theme...', when he mentions what he calls "this irremediable zone of existence', the very zone of Oedipus at Colonus, that the search for a real devoid of meaning leads us to.

Each one of us is always 'more or less culpable of the real' because we can do no more than always 'badly say' this real

Paraphrasing one of the last tales of Samuel Beckett[18] we could say that the real, always of the order of an event, would always be not only 'ill seen' but also 'ill said'. 'Ill seen' because something that arrives suddenly, in so far as it is unforeseen, is situated outside the laws of vision. 'Ill said' because the words of the established discourse can also not name it. And even the new words, invented each time, although they can perhaps say it better, cannot for all that avoid failing – even if 'failing better' – in their attempt to name the unnameable of the real.

For this reason, in this zone of the search for a real devoid of meaning, there only remains the option of responding, trying each time to 'ill say' better. Perhaps in this way one could be "less culpable of the real". While if one 'ill says' badly – that is, by nourishing meaning – one would be "more culpable of the real".

At a certain moment, Jacques-Alain Miller characterised psychoanalysts as unfortunate wretches who are always struggling with a real whose powers always exceed them and drag them down.[19] This is a characterisation that supposes a lesson in humility in the face of this real that does not depend in any way on the psychoanalysts but which we have to face up to.[20]

The great part of our work towards our next Congress will probably be concentrated on this question of how to face up to this real that in its multiplicity is already announcing itself in the 21st Century.

Various axes and questions to orient our investigation have already been situated with precision by Guy Briole, Director of the IXth Congress, in the text available on this site. One of these, the conception of the real unconscious in relation to that of the transferential unconscious, has already begun to provoke an interesting debate in one of the Schools of the WAP.

I am referring to the Xth Congress of the members of the Brazilian School of Psychoanalysis (Escola Brasileira de Psicanálise) where an animated conversation took place on the 27th of April of this year under the title 'Investigations into the real'. The debate that took shape there could be summarised as follows: Is it perhaps possible to try to reach, to localise, the original troumatism of lalangue, with the effect of jouissance that this supposes, without passing via the installation of the transferential unconscious, that is, something that is at the same time a defence against the real without law and the outside meaning? Put in another way: Does the promotion of the real unconscious perhaps invalidate the operative dimension of the transferential unconscious?

The debate, the work towards the IXth Congress of the WAP in Paris, is already underway. We will attempt, during the time that still lies ahead of us and then in the Congress itself, to 'ill say well' the real. In this way we could perhaps be consequent with that which was the permanent wager of Lacan: to explore incessantly the impossible juncture between the true and the real.

Buenos Aires, 23rd June 2013.

Translated from the Spanish by Roger Litten

  1. Miller, J.-A. L'expérience du réel dans la cure analytique, Cours L'orientation lacanienne, 1998-1999. Published in Spanish as La experience de lo real en la cura psicoanalítica, Paidós, Argentina, 2003.
  2. Idem., Lesson of 18th November 1998.
  3. Idem.
  4. Miller, J.-A., L'orientation lacanienne, 2010-2011, cours 2 février 2011 (unpublished).
  5. Idem.
  6. Op. cit., note 1.
  7. Idem.
  8. Idem.
  9. Lacan, J., The Seminar Book XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, transl. by A. Sheridan, Penguin, 1994.
  10. Lacan, J., Le séminaire livre XXIII, Le Sinthome, Seuil, Paris, 2005.
  11. Lacan, J., Le séminaire livre XXIV, L'insu que sait de l'une-bévue s'aile à mourre (1976-1977), lesson of 15th March 1977, published in Ornicar?, no. 17/18, Paris, Lyse, 1979.
  12. Idem.
  13. TN. Literally 'hacer pasar gato por liebre', ie 'pass off a cat for a hare'.
  14. Lacan, J., 'Science and Truth', in Écrits, the First Complete Edition in English, transl. by B. Fink, W. W. Norton & Company, New York/London, 2006, p. 739.
  15. Op. cit. note 11, Lesson of 17 May 1977.
  16. Lacan, J., La Troisième, in La Cause freudienne no. 79, texte établi par Jacques-Alain Miller, Navarin, Paris, 2011, p. 16. [In the original – "Mon S1 n'a de sens que de ponctuer ce n'importe quoi, ce signifiant -lettre que j'écris S1 — qui ne s'écrit que de le faire sans aucun effet de sens."]
  17. Op. cit., note 11, Lesson of 19 April 1977.
  18. Beckett, Samuel, Ill Seen, Ill Said, first published in French as Mal vu mal dit in 1981, translated into English by the author in 1982, published in the volume Nohow On in 1989.
  19. In Pourquoi l'École respire mal (AMP – La conversation de Paris). Archives de Psychanalyse, 10/1997, p 3.
  20. Op. cit., note 15, p. 19.