On the logical use of the Sinthome, or, Joyce with Freud


The following was presented as an introduction to the first chapter of Lacan’s Seminar 23 at the Lacan Circle of Melbourne, 18/2/2017:

The first things that stand out when you open chapter one of Lacan’s newly translated Seminar XXIII are the three-twist knots that Lacan drew on the blackboard for his presentation. What is it that justifies this use of topology, this attempt to imaginarise the Real? One way of answering this is to look back at the origins of Lacan’s deployment of topology, which was certainly in earnest by Seminar X. Psychoanalysis, beginning with Freud, has tended to make much of the ‘inside/outside’ distinction. Sometimes, this distinction was not developed very dialectically, as when certain schools made use of the notion of projective identification. In any case, for Lacan the inside-outside division was always problematic. From his earliest seminars, for instance, he objected to the idea of setting up introjection and projection as symmetrical opposites, as inside to the other’s outside. Rather, they occur at different levels. Introjection is introjection of discourse, whereas projection, characteristic of paranoia, assures a consistency at the level of the ego. For example, consider this passage from Lacan, which arose in Seminar VIII:

The concept of an “inside” serves a major topological function in psychoanalytic thinking, since even introjection refers to it. The organised field was understood quite naively, inasmuch as no distinction was made at the time between the imaginary the symbolic, and the real. In this state of imprecision and indistinctness regarding topological notions, we are truly forced to say that we must, in general, imagine this field in a spatial or quasi-spatial way.

Moreover, the inside-outside binary becomes questionable when so many of the bodily zones of particular interest in psychoanalysis are situated at the liminal areas, the rims dividing inside and outside. (I am alluding here to the list that includes the mouth, the anus, the genitals, the eyes and the ears). The binary is undermined by other concepts, such as the subjection to language that occurs by way of an unconscious, and the identification with one’s mirror image, both of which involve an ‘outside’ becoming an ‘inside’. In view of this, Lacan used the Moebius Strip as a topological device that literally twisted the inside-outside distinction upon itself, and, around the same period, coined the term extimacy. A subject’s supposed inner depths contain something irreducibly foreign in them. And, to borrow from Žižek, the unconscious is something which has the same status that ‘truth’ holds in the X-Files, namely, it is ‘out there’, on the surface of the materiality of speech. When topology turns up in Lacan’s teaching, it is not there merely as an ornament, but relates to something specific in psychoanalysis.

In Seminar XXIII, that the knots we see have three-twists is a clue that we are dealing with a triadic structure, and the most important of these in Lacan’s teaching is that of the Real, Symbolic and the Imaginary. In some ways, a key point of this chapter of the seminar is to consider how a fourth element – a sinthome – might be added to this triadic structure. We will see shortly what Lacan does with this sinthome in this seminar, but for now, I would like to remind you of the notion of symptom. Classical psychoanalysis and classical psychiatry may have developed contemporaneously, to some extent, but by the time of this seminar they had long since parted ways. (The DSM-III was in progress at the time of Seminar XXIII, and this was the document that largely purged psychoanalytic remnants from mainstream Anglophone psychiatry). Accordingly, a symptom for Lacan has nothing to do with a symptom as we find it in the rest of medicine, and whilst Lacan’s relatively early teaching posited the symptom as the inverse of a discourse, namely, as something whose meaning was to be found in the Other, this definition quickly changed. By Seminar VII, for reasons that we have previously discussed at length, a symptom was not so much the inverse of a desire that required interpretation and articulation but rather, was something which produced jouissance. Since there is no question of a life devoid of jouissance, there is likewise no question of a ‘cure’ in the sense of jouissance falling away altogether. At best, as Lacan has it in Seminar X, ‘cure is an additional bonus’.

None of this is to imply that after Seminar VII, psychoanalysis is without purpose. Some psychoanalytic phenomena are addressed to the Other for interpretation, with ‘acting out’ being the clearest example. And the particular mode of a subject’s jouissance is often of great importance, especially to the subject herself. It is around this period of the early 1960s that Lacan begins to reflect a great deal on the function of art, sublimation, and courtly love. As a mode of love, courtly love has its problems, but considered as a method of sublimation it appears very differently. I mention this as whilst the sinthome is an innovation of the so-called ‘late Lacan’, like so many ideas from this period, it has precursors from many years earlier. In any case, rather than psychoanalysis becoming a project for the abolition of symptoms, it is rather a matter of looking at the function of symptoms and their effects, of examining what sort of Name-of-the-Father a given subject has, or how she might get by without having a Name-of-the-Father at all. Once psychoanalysis starts operating along these lines, a very broad range of things can come to be a symptom. Lacan can say that ‘woman is the symptom of man’, for instance, which is a phrase that you are not very likely to find in the psychiatric manuals. In addition to this great breadth as to what is symptomatic, the symptom itself is a kind of equaliser, discernible across clinical structures.

This tends to lead to a different clinical paradigm to that which we find in Freud, or in Lacan’s teaching of the period of Seminar III (and the corresponding paper in the Écrits). For Freud, repression was synonymous with neurosis, and disavowal was variously associated with fetishism and psychosis. Lacan schematised this further, with the presence of the Name-of-the-Father in analysis indicating that the subject in question is neurotic. The absence or foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father is characteristic of psychotic structure. However, even in the ‘structuralist’ period of Lacan’s teaching, things are not as schematic as all that, as foreclosure can take on various forms, or occur at differing moments in the failed metaphorisation of the Desire of the Mother. Lacan does not seem to intend for the sinthome to be a total repudiation of these earlier teachings, which may be one of the reasons why he chose to focus on James Joyce in particular in this seminar.

Lacan’s opening move in this seminar is to state that the sinthome is an old way of spelling what was subsequently spelt symptôme. This neologism is, he says, part of his lalangue, which Adrian Price translates as ‘lalingua’, in contrast to Bruce Fink’s ‘llanguage’. Like Joyce, Lacan is moving between languages here, which is fitting, since ‘Joyce wrote in English in such a way that the English language no longer exists’ (3). This is especially true of Finnegan’s Wake, which Lacan associates with mania (4). What follows is a brief discussion of naming and the differentiation it introduces into ‘Nature per se’, as well the place of naming in the Creation myth of Adam and Eve. Naming – and nomination – has come, in part to occupy the position in psychoanalysis formerly held by interpretation. This is replicated, in a sense, in Lacan’s own discourse, which was never merely a re-interpretation of Freud, but a bringing into language (via naming) of jouissance, object a, the discourses, among others. From naming, to Creation, and then to Original Sin, from which we have the first three letters of sinthome. Then Lacan moves from the truth that can only be half-said, to the Woman who does not exist, to Socrates. As he says:

Woman is not all but in the equivocal form that takes on its piquancy from this lalingua of ours, in the form of but not that, as when one says, anything, but not that. This was precisely Socrates’ position. The but not that is what, under this year’s title, I’m introducing as the sinthome. (6).

In the French, this ‘everything, but not that’ is tout, mais pas ça. It is possible to hear some resonances here of the French rendering of Freud’s famous Wo es war, soll Ich werden, namely, that where ‘it’ was, there shall the sinthome be. From here, Lacan moves directly to the main subject of this seminar, the Irish write James Joyce. Why, of all possible candidates, did Lacan choose to focus on Joyce? There is good reason to believe that Lacan was very familiar with Joyce’s biography, as well as his writing. As Lacan says of Joyce, ‘one couldn’t get off to a worse start than he did’, namely, to be ‘born in Dublin with a boozing father who was more or less a Fenian, that is, a fanatic’ (7). In other words, Joyce was somebody who might be expected to have some difficulties as far as the paternal metaphor is concerned. Immediately, Lacan links this with Joyce’s writing, saying that ‘it is in this respect that his art is the true guarantor of his phallus’. Lacan does not elaborate at this point, but perhaps a couple of inferences can be drawn from his remarks. If Joyce’s art can function as a supplement or guarantor to the phallus, then it follows that it could play a stabilising role in terms of meaning-effects, and it also implies that Joyce himself has (rather than is) the phallus, this latter tending to put one in a precarious position regarding the Other’s desire.

There are numerous puns on Saint Thomas Aquinas at play here, and the term sinthome is homophonic with his name.  If one reads the work of Joyce, one finds many references to Thomas, the Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church. It might strike us as curious, since our philosophical saint was not exactly in vogue among avant-garde artists and writers of the early twentieth century. If Lacan draws attention to Thomas, I think it is because that Joyce was able to pass through an intense period of Catholicism and Jesuit education able to both separate from and recuperate these influences in his art. Saint Thomas, in this view, is a support for Joyce’s art, but not in the sense of being an unquestioned influence, and nor as a target for hysterical rebellion. The use of Saint Thomas in Joyce’s literature suggests that he was able to salvage something from the difficulties of his upbringing, and put it to use in his art.

Joyce gives an autobiographical account in his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Lacan emphasises that it is a book of ‘the’ artist, the artist as singular (8). This point has some bearing on psychoanalytic interpretation, which Lacan discusses in light of his concept of the ‘equivoque’, which appears in several seminars from XXI onward. The equivoque belongs to speech and, as Lacan says, it ‘is all we have as a weapon against the symptom’ (9). Furthermore, ‘interpretation operates solely through equivoques. There has to be something in the signifier that resonates’. Interpretation is a kind of speech act then, but on which has effects on the body, which is to say, effects in the real. In a sense, the ear is the most sensitive of all the body’s orifices since it is the one which is the most difficult to seal. We could perhaps paraphrase Joyce here, and invoke the ineluctable modality of the audible. To arrive at these sorts of bodily effects involves an ‘arbitration’ among signifiers, which in turn implies the existence of an imperium over the body. Or, as Lacan puts it, there is only an umpire on the basis of an empire (10).

In topological and Borromean terms, the three registers of Real, Symbolic and Imaginary must be given a tetradic structure by the addition of the sinthome. Lacan plays on the term ‘perversion’ as the version vers le père, the version towards the father (11). As he says, ‘the father is a symptom, or a sinthome, as you wish’. In Freudian terms, this symptom is the Oedipus Complex, and in Lacan’s transfiguration of Freud it is the Name-of the Father, which Lacan says is now also the ‘Father of the Name’ (13). This return to the Name leads Lacan to his central question of this seminar – ‘In what way can art…foil, as it were, what imposes itself as a symptom?’ (14). Lacan answers that art and artifice can operate at the level of truth, even if this truth is, for structural reasons, only ever half-said, and further, that this truth can produce a reorganisation of registers such that there is a ‘hole in the real’, which is where things are left for this chapter.



1 thought on “On the logical use of the Sinthome, or, Joyce with Freud

  1. Fantastic read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing a little study on that. And he actually bought me lunch because I discovered it for him smile So let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch!

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