Ethic 231
The Ethics of Psychoanalysis

Jacques Lacan


The function of the beautiful





It seemed to me this morning that it wasn’t inappropriate to begin my seminar
by asking the question, Have we crossed the line?


I don’t mean in what we are doing here, but in what is happening out there
in the world in which we live. It isn’t because what is occurring there makes
such a vulgar noise that we should refuse to hear it.


At a time when I am speaking to you about the paradox of desire – in the
sense that different goods obscure it – you can hear outside the awful language
of power. There’s no point in asking whether they are sincere or hypocritical,
whether they want peace or whether they calculate the risks. The
dominating impression at such a moment is that of something that may pass
for a prescribed good; information addresses and captures impotent crowds
to whom it is poured forth like a liquor that leaves them dazed as they move
toward the slaughter house. One might even ask if one would allow the cataclysm
to occur without first giving free reign to this hubbub of voices.


Is there anything more disconcerting than the transmission via those little
machines that we all possess of what are known as press conferences? Or, in
other words, questions that are stupidly repeated to which the leader replies
with a false casualness, while he calls for more interesting questions and even
on occasion engages in witticisms.


There was one somewhere yesterday, in Paris or in Brussels, that told us
about our gloomy future. I swear it was absurd. Don’t you think that the
only way to adjust our hearing to what is proclaimed may be formulated along
the lines of “What does it mean? What is it aiming at?” Yet everyone falls
asleep on the soft pillow of “It’s not possible” – whereas, in fact, nothing is
more possible, the possible is above all that. That’s possible because the possible
is that which can answer man’s demand, and because man doesn’t know
what he is setting in motion with his demand.


The frightening unknown on the other side of the line is that which in man
we call the unconscious, that is to say the memory of those things he forgets.
And the things he forgets – you can see in which way – are those things in
connection with which everything is arranged so that he doesn’t think about
them, i.e., stench and corruption that always yawn like an abyss. For life
after all is rottenness.


And it is even more so recently, since the anarchy of forms, that second
destruction that Sade was talking about the other day in the quotation I read
you – the destruction that calls for subversion even beyond the cycle of generation-
corruption – are for us pressing problems. The possibility of a second
destruction has suddenly become a tangible reality for us, including the threat
of anarchy at the level of the chromosomes of a kind that could break the ties
to given forms of life. Monsters obsessed a great deal those who up to the
eighteenth century still attributed a meaning to the word “Nature.” It has
been a long time since we accorded any importance to calves with six feet or
children with two heads. Yet we may now perhaps see them appear in the


That is why when we ask what is beyond the barrier erected by the structure
of the world of the good – where is the point on which this world of the
good turns, as we wait for it to drag us to our destruction – our question has
a meaning that you would do well to remember has a terrifying relevance.


What is beyond this barrier? Don’t forget that if we know there is a barrier
and that there is a beyond, we know nothing about what lies beyond.

超越这个阻碍之外是什么呢? 不要忘记,假如我们知道有一个阻碍,有一个超越之外,我们对超越以外的东西一无所知。

It is a false beginning to say, as on the basis of our experience some have,
that it is the world of fear. To center our life, even our religion, on fear as a
final term is an error. Fear with its ghosts is a localizable defense, a protection
against something that is beyond, and which is precisely something unknown
to us.


It is at the moment when these things are possible but wrapped in the
injunction “Thinking about them is prohibited,” that it is appropriate to
point out the distance and the proximity that links this possible to those
extraordinary texts that I have chosen this year as the fulcrum of my proof,
namely, Sade’s works.


One doesn’t have to read very far for this collection of horrors to engender
incredulity and disgust in us, and it is only fleetingly, in a brief flash, that
such images may cause something strange to vibrate in us which we call perverse
desire, insofar as the darker side of natural Eros enters into it.


In the end, any imaginary or indeed real relationship to the research appropriate
to perverse desire only suggests the incapacity of natural desire, of the
natural desire of the senses, to go very far in this direction. On this path, this
desire quickly gives up, is the first to give up. It is no doubt understandable
if modern man’s thought seeks the beginning, the trace, the point of departure
there, the path toward self-knowledge, toward the mystery of desire,
but, on the other hand, all the fascination that this beginning exercises over
both scientific and literary studies – witness for example the revels to be
found in the works of the not untalented author of Sexus, Plexus and Nexus1
-founders on a rather sterile pleasure-taking. We must be lacking in the
proper method, if everything that has been elaborated on the topic by writers
or scientists was outdistanced in advance some time ago, was rendered thoroughly
outdated by the lucubrations of someone who was only after all a
country squire, a social example of the degeneration of the nobility at a time
when its privileges were about to be abolished.


It is nevertheless the case that Sade’s extraordinary catalogue of horrors,
which causes not only the senses and human possibilities but the imagination,
too, to flinch, is nothing at all compared to what will, in effect, be seen on a
collective scale, if the great and very real explosion occurs that threatens us
all. The only difference between Sade’s exorbitant descriptions and such a
catastrophe is that no pleasure will enter into the motivation of the latter.
Not perverts but bureaucrats will set things off, and we won’t even know if
their intentions were good or bad. Things will go off by command; they will
be carried through according to regulations, mechanically, down the chain of
command, with human wills bent, abolished, overcome, in a task that ceases
to have any meaning. That task will be the elimination of an incalculable
waste that reveals its constant and final dimension for man.


Let us not forget that that has, in effect, always been one of the dimensions
in which we can recognize what a fond dreamer once charmingly referred to
as “the humanization of the planet.” There’s never any problem in recognizing
man’s passage through the world, his footstep, mark, trace, touch; there
where one finds a huge accumulation of oyster shells, only man can have
manifestly been. The geological ages have left their waste, too, waste that
allows us to recognize order. But the pile of garbage is one of the sides of the
human dimension that it would be wrong to mistake.


Having sketched the outlines of this sepulchral mound at the limit of the
politics of the good, of the general good, of the good of the community, we
will pick up again where we left off last time.


What is the sphere of the search for the good composed of, once it has been
undeceived of the error of judgment that I cited by way of example in Saint


His reasoning is as follows: it is by the mental process of the subtraction
°f the good from the good that one ends up refuting the existence of anything
else but the good in being, given that that which remains, since it is more
perfect than that which previously was, can in no way be evil. Saint Augustine’s
reasoning here is calculated to surprise us, and we cannot help wondering
what the historical emergence of such a form of thought signifies. It’s a
question I will leave open.


Last time we defined the good in symbolic creation as the initium that is
the point of departure of the human subject’s destiny in his coming to terms
with the signifier. The true nature of the good, its profound duplicity, has to
do with the fact that it isn’t purely and simply a natural good, the response
to a need, but possible power, the power to satisfy. As a result, the whole
relation of man to the real of goods is organized relative to the power of the
other, the imaginary other, to deprive him of it.


Let us recall the terms around which, in the first year of my seminar devoted
to Freud’s Technical Writings, I organized the ideal ego and the ego ideal,
terms that I represented in my graph. The big I designates the identification
of omnipotence with the signifier, with the ego ideal. On the other hand, as
image of the other, it is the Urbild of the ego, the original form on the basis
of which the ego models itself, sets itself up, and operates under the auspices
of pseudomastery. We will now define the ego ideal of the subject as representing
the power to do good, which then opens up within itself the beyond
that concerns us today. How is it that as soon as everything is organized
around the power to do good, something completely enigmatic appears and
returns to us again and again from our own action – like the ever-growing
threat within us of a powerful demand whose consequences are unknown?
As for the ideal ego, which is the imaginary other who faces us at the same
level, it represents by itself the one who deprives us.


At these two poles of the structuralization of the world of goods, what is it
we see outlined?


On the one hand, starting with the unveiling with which the revelation of
classical philosophy terminates, that is to say, starting with the point at which
Hegel is said to have been stood on his feet, the social conflict proves to be
the thread which gives meaning to the enlightened segment of history in the
classical sense of the term.


On the other hand, at the other end, there appears something that looks to
us like a question offering hope.


Scientific research conducted in what is problematically referred to as the
“human sciences” has revealed that for a very long time, outside the domain
of classical history, man in non-historical societies has, it is believed, invented
a practice conceived to have a salutary function in the maintenance of intersubjective
relations. In my eyes this is like the little stone that was miraculously made to inform us that not everything is caught up in the necessary dialectic of the competition for goods, of the conflict between goods, and of the necessary catastrophe that it gives rise to, and that, moreover, in the world we are exploring, there have existed signs that positively show how men have thought that the destruction of goods as such might be a function expressive of value.


I assume you are all well enough informed so that I don’t have to remind
you what a potlatch is. Let me just note briefly that it concerns ritual ceremonies
involving the extensive destruction of a variety of goods, consumer
goods as well as luxury goods and goods for display. The practice is found in
societies that are now no more than relics, vestiges of a form of human social
existence that our expansion has tended to wipe out. The potlatch bears witness
to man’s retreat from goods, a retreat which enabled him to link the
maintenance and discipline of his desire, so to speak – insofar as this is what
concerns him in his destiny – to the open destruction of goods, that were
both personal and collective property. The problem and the drama of the
economy of the good, its ricochets and rebounds, all turn on this point.


Furthermore, as soon as that key is given us, we clearly see that it is not
simply the privilege of primitive societies. I couldn’t find today the piece of
paper on which I noted that at the beginning of the twelfth century – that
through courtly love marked the rise to the surface in European culture of a
problematic of desire as such – we see appear in a feudal rite the manifestation
of something wholly analogous. The rite in question occurred at a festival,
a meeting of barons somewhere in the region of Narbonne, and it involved
huge destruction, not only of the goods that were consumed directly as part
of the festivities, but also of animals and harnesses. Everything occurred as
if the foregrounding of the problematic of desire required as its necessary
correlative the need for ostentatious forms of destruction, insofar as they are
gratuitous. Those who in the community claim to be privileged subjects,
feudal Lords, those who set themselves up as such in this ceremony, throw
down challenges to each other, rival each other in attempting to destroy the


This is at the other extreme the only example we have of the order of
destruction that is carried out consciously and in a controlled way, that is to
say, in a very different way from that massive destruction which we have all
witnessed, given that we belong to generations that are relatively close to it.
This latter destruction seems to us to be an inexplicable accident, a resurgence
of savagery, whereas it is rather necessarily linked to the leading edge
of our discourse.


A new problem arises for us, one that even Hegel found obscure. For a
long time in The Phenomenology of Mind, Hegel tried to articulate the problem
of human history in terms of conflicts between discourses. The tragedy of Antigone especially appealed to him because he saw the clear opposition there between the discourse of the family and that of the state. But in my opinion things are much less clear.


As far as we are concerned, we find in the discourse of the community, of
the general good, the effects of a scientific discourse in which we see revealed
for the first time the power of the signifier as such. That question is our very
own. As far as we are concerned, the question raised is subsumed beneath
the order of thought that I am trying to present to you here.


The sudden, prodigious development of the power of the signifier, of the
discourse that emerged from the little letters of mathematics and that is distinct
from all previously existing discourses, becomes an additional alienation.
In what way? Insofar as it is a discourse that by reason of its structure
forgets nothing. That is why it is different from the discourse of primary
memorization, which carries on inside us without our knowledge, different
from the memorizing discourse of the unconscious whose center is absent,
whose place is identified through the phrase “he didn’t know,” that is precisely
the sign of that fundamental omission in which the subject is situated.
At a certain moment in time, man learned to emit and place the discourse of
mathematics in circulation, in the real as well as in the world, and that discourse
cannot function unless nothing is forgotten. It only takes a little signifying
chain to begin to function based on this principle, for things to move
forward as if they were functioning by themselves. So much so that we even
wonder if the discourse of physics, as engendered by the omnipotence of the
signifier, will reach the point of the integration of nature or its disintegration.


This fact strangely complicates the problem of our desire, even if it is
doubtless no more than one of its phases. Let us just say that, as far as the
man who is talking to you is concerned, it is there that one finds the revelation
of the decisive and original character of the place where human desire is
situated in the relationship of man to the signifier. Should this relationship
be destroyed?

这个事实奇特地让我们欲望的问题复杂化,甚至无可置疑地,它仅是它的其中一个部份。让我们仅是说: 就正在跟你们谈论的这个人而言,就在那里,我们发现这个启示,这个位置具有决定性与原创性的特性的启示。在那里,人类的欲望被定位在人跟能指的关系。这个关系应该被毁灭吗?

I take it that you might have heard in the report we had on the contribution
of one of Freud’s disciples – an open-minded and cultured man, but not
exactly a genius – that it is in that direction that the question of the meaning
of the death drive lies. It is insofar as this question is tied to history that the
problem is raised. It is a question of the here and now, and not ad aetemum.
It is because the movement of desire is in the process of crossing the line of
a kind of unveiling that the advent of the Freudian notion of the death drive
is meaningful for us. The question is raised at the level of the relationship of
the human being to the signifier as such, to the extent that at the level of the
signifier every cycle of being may be called into question, including life in its
movement of loss and return.


And it is this that gives a no less tragic meaning to something that we
analysts are the bearers of. In its own cycle the unconscious now appears to
us as the field of a non-knowledge, even though it is locatable as such. Yet in
this field where we have to function everyday, we cannot fail to recognize the
following fact that every child could understand.


The desire of the man of good will is to do good, to do the right thing, and
he who comes to seek you out, does so in order to feel good, to be in agreement
with himself, to identify with or be in conformity with some norm.
Now you all know what we nevertheless find in the margin, but also perhaps
at the limit of that which occurs on the level of the dialectic and progress of
the knowledge of the unconscious. In the irreducible margin as well as at the
limit of his own good, the subject reveals himself to the never entirely resolved
mystery of the nature of his desire.


The reference the subject makes to some other seems quite absurd, when
we see him continually refer to the other – and we certainly see more than a
few of these others – as if he were someone who lives harmoniously and who
in any case is happier than the analysand, doesn’t ask any questions, and
sleeps soundly in his bed. We don’t need to see this other come and lie down
on our couch, however solid and together he may be, to know that this mirage,
this reference of the dialectic of the good to a beyond that, by way of illustration,
I will call “the good that mustn’t be touched,” is the very text of our


I would even add that this register of a jouissance as that which is only
accessible to the other is the only dimension in which we can locate the strange
malaise that, if I’m not mistaken, only the German language has managed to
point to – along with other psychological nuances concerning the gap in man
– with the word Lebensneid.

我甚至要补充,「欢爽」jouissance的这个铭记,作为是仅有他者能够接近的东西。它是唯一的维度,我们能够找出这个奇怪的病痛的位置。假如我没有弄错的话,仅有德文的语言成功地指出它—带有其他的心理的细微差别,关于人身上的这个差距。那就是 lebensneid (妒忌)这个字词。

Lebensneid is not an ordinary jealousy, it is the jealousy born in a subject
in his relation to an other, insofar as this other is held to enjoy a certain form
of jouissance or superabundant vitality, that the subject perceives as something
that he cannot apprehend by means of even the most elementary of
affective movements. Isn’t it strange, very odd, that a being admits to being
jealous of something in the other to the point of hatred and the need to destroy,
jealous of something that he is incapable of apprehending in any way, by any
intuitive path? The identification of this other virtually in the form of a concept
may in itself suffice to provoke the movement of malaise concerned; and
I don’t think one has to be an analyst to see such disturbing undulations
passing through subjects’ behaviors.

Lebensneid 并不是普通的妒忌。它是出生于主体身上的妒嫉,由于他跟一位他者的关系。因为这个他者被认为是享有某种形式的「欢爽」jouissance, 或是丰沛澎湃的活力。主体感受到这个活力,作为是某件他无法理解的东西,甚至凭借最基本的情感活动。这难道不是很奇特,很古怪的吗?一个生命实存承认妒嫉某件在他者的东西,甚至到达妒恨与需要毁灭它的程度。他妒嫉某件他无论如何无法理解的东西,凭借任何直觉的途径?对于这个几乎是观念形态的他者的认同,它本身就足够引起相关的病痛的运动。我不认为我们必须是一位精神分析家,我们才会看出如此令人困扰的波浪起伏,在主体的各种行为中通过。

Now we have reached the frontier. What will enable us to cross it?


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