Ethic 105

Ethic 105

The Ethics of Psychoanalysis

Jacques Lacan


The object and the thing





It is not just a matter of drawing close to das Ding, but also to its effects, to
its presence at the core of human activity, namely, in that precarious existence
in the midst of the forest of desires and compromises that these very
desires achieve with a certain reality, which is certainly not as confused as
one might imagine.


The demands of reality, in effect, present themselves readily in the form
of social demands. Freud cannot not consider them seriously, but one has to
indicate immediately the special approach he adopts; it permits him to transcend
the simple opposition between individual and society, in which the
individual is straightway posited as the eventual site of disorder.


Note right off that it is quite unthinkable nowadays to speak abstractly of
society. It is unthinkable historically, and it is unthinkable philosophically,
too, for the reason that a certain Hegel revealed to us the modern function of
the state, and the link between a whole phenomenology of mind and the
necessity which renders a legal system perfectly coherent. A whole philosophy
of law, derived from the state, encloses human existence, up to and
including the monogamous couple that is its point of departure.


I am concerned with the ethics of psychoanalysis, and I can’t at the same
time discuss Hegelian ethics. But I do want to point out that they are not the
same. At the end of a certain phenomenology, the opposition between the
individual and the city, between the individual and the state, is obvious. In
Plato, too, the disorders of the soul are also referred to the same dimension
– it’s a matter of the reproduction of the disorders of the city at the level of the psyche. All of that is related to a problematic that is not at all Freudian.


The sick individual whom Freud is concerned with reveals another dimension
than that of the disorders of the state and of hierarchical disturbances.
Freud addresses the sick individual as such, the neurotic, the psychotic; he
addresses directly the powers of life insofar as they open onto the powers of
death; he addresses directly the powers that derive from the knowledge of
good and evil.


Here we are then in the company of das Ding, trying to get along with it.
What 1 am saying should in no way surprise, for I am only trying to point
out to you what is going on in the psychoanalytical community. The analysts
are so preoccupied with the field of das Ding, which responds so well to the
internal necessity of their experience, that the development of analytic theory
is dominated by the existence of the so-called Kleinian school. And it is striking
to note that whatever reservations or even scorn another branch of the
analytic community may express for that school, it is the latter that polarizes
and orients the whole development of analytic thought, including the contribution
of our group.


Let me suggest then that you reconsider the whole of Kleinian theory with
the following key, namely, Kleinian theory depends on its having situated
the mythic body of the mother at the central place of das Ding.


To begin with, it is in relation to that mythic body that the aggressive,
transgressive, and most primordial of instincts is manifested, the primal
aggressions and inverted aggressions. Also in that register which currently
interests us, namely, the notion of sublimation in the Freudian economy, the
Kleinian school is full of interesting ideas – not only Melanie Klein herself
but also Ella Sharpe, insofar as on this point she follows Klein completely.
Recently, an American author, who isn’t at all Kleinian, has written on sublimation
as the principle of creation in the fine arts. In an article that I shall
come back to later, entitled “A Theory Concerning Creation in the Free Arts,”
after a more or less exhaustive critical examination of Freudian formulations
on sublimation and of Kleinian attempts to explain its full meaning, the author,
M. Lee, ends up attributing to it a restitutive function. In other words, she
finds there more or less of an attempt at symbolic repair of the imaginary
lesions that have occurred to the fundamental image of the maternal body.

首先,这个侵凌,逾越,与最原初的本能,被展示在跟神秘的身体的关系,这个原初的侵凌性与倒错的攻击性。我们目前感到興趣的那个铭记,换句话说,升华的观念, 在弗洛依德的力比多,克莱恩学派充满有趣的观念。不是梅兰妮、克莱恩自己,而是艾拉、夏普,因为在这一点,她完全遵循克莱恩。最近,一位美国的作者,她根本不是克莱恩学派,他曾经写到探讨升华,作为是高雅艺术的创造的原则。有一篇文章,我等一下会会头谈论,标题上「关于高雅艺术的创作理论」。这篇文章钜细靡遗地批判性检视弗洛依德的阐述升华,与克莱恩的企图解释升华的意义,作者,李先生的结论是归功于它具有一种恢复的功用。换句话说,她在那里发现相当多的企图,要用象征修复想象的病变。这些病变曾经发生在母亲的身体的基本的意象。

I will bring the texts involved, if you don’t know them. But I can tell you
right away that the reduction of the notion of sublimation to a restitutive
effort of the subject relative to the injured body of the mother is certainly not
the best solution to the problem of sublimation, nor to the topological,
metapsychological problem itself. There is nevertheless there an attempt to
approach the relations of the subject to something primordial, its attachment
to the fundamental, most archaic of objects, for which my field of das Ding,
defined operationally, establishes the framework. It allows us to conceive of the conditions that opened onto the blossoming of what one might call the
Kleinian myth, allows us also to situate it, and, as far as sublimation is concerned,
to reestablish a broader function than that which one necessarily arrives
at if one accepts Kleinian categories.


The clinicians who do on the whole accept them end up – I will tell you so
now and explain why later – with a rather limited and puerile notion of what
might be called an atherapy. All of that which is included under the heading
fine arts, namely, a number of gymnastic, dance and other exercises, is supposed
to give the subject satisfactions, a measure of solution to his problems,
a state of equilibrium. That is noted in a number of observations that are still
rewarding. I am thinking especially of Ella Sharpe’s articles, which I am far
from depreciating – “Certain Aspects of Sublimation and Delirium” or “Similar
and Divergent Unconscious Determinants, which Subtend the Sublimations
of Pure Art and Pure Science.”


To read these papers is to realize how such an orientation reduces the
problem of sublimation and yields somewhat puerile results. The approach
involves valorizing activities that seem to be located in the register of a more
or less transitory explosion of supposedly artistic gifts, gifts which appear in
the cases described to be highly doubtful. Completely left out is something
that must always be emphasized in artistic production and something that
Freud paradoxically insisted on, to the surprise of many writers, namely,
social recognition. These objects play an essential role in a question that Freud
doesn’t perhaps take as far as one would like, but which is clearly linked to
the championship of a certain progress – and God knows that such a notion
is far from being unilinear in Freud – to the celebration of something that
achieves social recognition. I won’t go any further for the moment. It is enough
to note that Freud articulates it in a way that may seem completely foreign
to the metapsychological register.


Note that no correct evaluation of sublimation in art is possible if we overlook
the fact that all artistic production, including especially that of the fine
arts, is historically situated. You don’t paint in Picasso’s time as you painted
in Velazquez’s; you don’t write a novel in 1930 as you did in Stendhal’s time.
This is an absolutely essential fact that does not for the time being need to be
located under the rubric of the collectivity or the individual – let’s place it
under the rubric of culture. What does society find there that is so satisfying?
That’s the question we need to answer.


The problem of sublimation is there, of sublimation insofar as it creates a
certain number of forms, among which art is not alone – and we will concentrate
on one art in particular, literary art, which is so close to the domain of
ethics. It is after all as a function of the problem of ethics that we have to
judge sublimation; it creates socially recognized values.


In order to refocus our discussion onto the level of ethics, one could hardly do better than to refer to that which, however paradoxical it may seem, has proved to be pivotal, namely, the Kantian perspective on the field.


Alongside das Ding, however much we may hope that its weight will be
felt on the good side, we find in opposition the Kantian formula of duty.
That is another way of making one’s weight felt. Kant invokes the universally
applicable rule of conduct or, in other words, the weight of reason. Of course,
one still has to prove how reason may make its weight felt.


There is always an advantage to reading authors in the original. The other
day I brought to your attention the passage on the theme of Schmerz, of pain,
as a correlative of the ethical act. I observed then that even some of you to
whom these texts were once familiar didn’t pick up on the reference. Well
now, if you open up The Critique of Pure Reason, you will see that in order to
impress upon us the influence of the weight of reason, Kant invents for his
didactic purposes an example which is magnificent in its freshness. A double
fable is involved that is designed to make us feel the weight of the ethical
principle pure and simple, the potential dominance of duty as such against
all, against all that is conceived as vitally desirable.


The key to the proof lies in a comparison between two situations. Suppose,
says Kant, that in order to control the excesses of a sensualist, one produces
the following situation. There is in a bedroom the woman he currently lusts
after. He is granted the freedom to enter that room to satisfy his desire or his
need, but next to the door through which he will leave there stands the gallows
on which he will be hanged. But that’s nothing, and is certainly not the
basis of Kant’s moral; you will see in a moment where the key to the proof
is. As far as Kant is concerned, it goes without saying that the gallows will
be a sufficient deterrent; there’s no question of an individual going to screw
a woman when he knows he’s to be hanged on the way out. Next comes a
situation that is similar as far as the tragic outcome is concerned, but here it
is a question of a tyrant who offers someone the choice between the gallows
and his favor, on the condition that he bear false witness against his friend.
Kant quite rightly emphasizes here that one can conceive of someone weighing
his own life against that of bearing false witness, especially if in this case
the false witness is without fatal consequences for the person bearing it.


The striking point is that the power of proof is here left to reality – to the
real behavior of the individual, I mean. It is in the real that Kant asks us to
examine the impact of the weight of reality, which he identifies here with the
weight of duty.


To follow him onto this ground is to discover that he misses something. It
is after all not impossible that under certain conditions the subject of the first
scenario will not so much offer himself up to be executed – at no point is the
fable taken to this point – but will at least consider doing so.


Our philosopher from Konigsberg was a nice person, and I don’t intend to
imply that he was someone of limited stature or feeble passions, but he doesn’t
seem to have considered that under certain conditions of what Freud would
call Ubersckatzung or overevaluation of the object – and that I will henceforth
call object sublimation – under conditions in which the object of a loving
passion takes on a certain significance (and, as you will see, it is in this direction
that I intend to introduce the dialectic through which I propose to teach
you how to identify what sublimation really is), under certain conditions of
sublimation of the feminine object or, in other words, the exaltation we call
love – a form of exaltation that is historically specific, and to which Freud
gives us the clue, in the short note I spoke to you about the other day, in
which he says that in the modern period the emphasis of the libido is on the
object rather than on the instinct (which is in itself something that poses an
important question, one that, with your permission, I will be introducing
you to, one that requires you to spend a few sessions on something in German
history whose form I referred to the other day in connection with Hamlet,
namely, the Mime, or, in other words, a certain theory and practice of courtly
love – and why wouldn’t we spend some time on that given the time we give
to ethnographic research? – especially if I assure you that it concerns certain
traces within us of the object relation that are unthinkable without these
historical antecedents), under certain conditions of sublimation, then, it is
conceivable for such a step to be taken. After all, a whole corpus of tales
stands for something from a fantasmic, if not from a strictly historical point
of view; moreover, there are a great many stories in the newspapers that are
relevant. All of which leads to the conclusion that it is not impossible for a
man to sleep with a woman knowing full well that he is to be bumped off on
his way out, by the gallows or anything else (all this, of course, is located
under the rubric of passionate excesses, a rubric that raises a lot of other
questions); it is not impossible that this man coolly accepts such an eventuality
on his leaving – for the pleasure of cutting up the lady concerned in
small pieces, for example.


The latter is the other case that one can envisage, and the annals of criminology
furnish a great many cases of the type. It is something that obviously
changes the facts of the situation, and at the very least the demonstrative
value of Kant’s example.


I have outlined then two cases that Kant doesn’t envisage, two forms of
transgression beyond the limits normally assigned to the pleasure principle
in opposition to the reality principle given as a criterion, namely, excessive
object sublimation and what is commonly known as perversion. Sublimation
and perversion are both a certain relationship of desire that attracts our attention
to the possibility of formulating, in the form of a question, a different
criterion of another, or even of the same, morality, in opposition to the reality
principle. For there is another register of morality that takes its direction
from that which is to be found on the level of das Ding; it is the register that
makes the subject hesitate when he is on the point of bearing false witness against das Ding, that is to say, the place of desire, whether it be perverse or sublimated.



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