Hystory in Lacan’s later work

The latest edition of the Lacanian Review features an updated translation of Lacan’s preface to the English edition of Seminar XI. What follows if a brief reflection on the preface, initially presented at a study day for the Lacan Circle of Australia on October 20th, 2018.


One of the interesting things about Lacan’s preface is the pun on hysteria and history. He says that ‘an analyst is only hystoricised by his own account’.

The references to history in the later teaching of Lacan are not as frequent as in certain of the earlier works. In particular I think that we can hear in this pun a possible allusion to the 1953 Rome Discourse, also known as ‘The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis’. This text was the great proclamation of Lacan’s use of structural linguistics in the praxis of psychoanalysis, and he says:

‘The unconscious is the chapter of my history that is marked by a blank or occupied by a lie: it is the censored chapter. But the truth can be refound; most often it has already been written elsewhere.’ (Lacan, 2006, p. 215)

This ‘elsewhere’, Lacan goes on to write, includes a number of phenomena, but particularly involves the body, insofar as it is hystericized in neurosis. Symptoms can ‘join in the conversation’, and symptoms in this paradigm are in the order of a metaphor, a displaced truth. The unconscious, as Lacan articulates it during this relatively early period, is structured like a language.  The dream ‘has the structure of a sentence’ (221), and dream interpretation is a matter of reading the rhetoric of the dream, its displacements, repetitions, synecdoche and so on. The Freudian processes of condensation and displacement are transposed into the linguistic devices of metonymy and metaphor.

All of this presupposes a fundamentally hysterical subject, in the sense that we find hysteria in the case of Elisabeth von R, for instance, in Freud and Breuer’s Studies on Hysteria. Without going into the case in its entirety, Elisabeth suffered from various pains, particularly to her legs. Freud was able to trace these pains to the precise spot where Elisabeth’s dying father would rest his legs on her, as she bandaged him. This care for her dying father constituted an essential part of the aetiology of Elisabeth’s symptoms. Further, Elisabeth had a secret, and necessarily transgressive desire, namely, she was in love with her brother-in-law. When this desire was interpreted by Freud, Elisabeth’s symptoms disappeared. You can see a clear relation here between the symptom and truth, and when the latter is articulated in the form of a desire, symptoms produced by the unconscious, and which were essentially discursive in nature, clear up.

Things did not remain this way forever, however. By Seminar X, Lacan quipped that, in psychoanalysis, ‘cure is an additional bonus’. The symptom may well be the bearer of an unspoken truth, but beyond any truth, it also functions to produce jouissance, namely, a satisfaction that is often disguised as dissatisfaction. In other words, the symptom, and the unconscious that gives rise to it, is not only symbolic but also – and perhaps primarily – real. A real unconscious is one oriented to jouissance, and is not so much structured like a language but by lalangue. The opposition between the signifier and jouissance loses some of its sharpness, and no amount of articulation of desire via the signifier will be capable of draining jouissance from the speaking-being completely. Another dimension of a real unconscious is that which is constructed by a speaking-being in the face of trauma. Fantasy, including the fundamental fantasy, is necessary to provide consistency vis-à-vis the real, and to protect the subject from anxiety, and to form a bridge, however temporary, across the abyss of the sexual non-rapport.

Thus, the impossibility of a complete ‘cure’ by the signifier led to a reorientation in the clinic to a handling, a savoir-faire, of jouissance. This is not only a problem of the clinic, but also reflective of changes in both history and hysteria. The transgressive, repressed desire of hysteria has not disappeared altogether, but is seldom manifest as it was in the case of Elisabeth von R. The tragic dimension of psychoanalysis was tied to the rule of the Father, and the Father’s era is in decline, through the rise of formal equality between the sexes, the ubiquitous rule of capital, and the encroachments of technology. This is a fundamental reorientation of the clinic. There is a brief poem by Louise Gluck which I think encapsulates the kernel of the paternal at the heart of hysterical proton pseudos:



Long ago, I was wounded. I lived

to revenge myself

against my father, not

for what he was—

for what I was: from the beginning of time,

in childhood, I thought

that pain meant

I was not loved.

It meant I loved.


This is the aspect of hysteria tied to love of the father. Once the father is in the decline the paternal metaphors goes with him, and we end up with a pluralisation of the Names-of-the-Father, and finally, a rendering of structure in Borromean terms. Lacan’s pun in the Preface also suggests that the historisication at stake is not in the analysis per se, but in the analyst’s account, thereby pointing toward the procedure of the Pass. I wonder – and I raise it as a question rather than as a definite conclusion – whether this leaves open the possibility of the procedure of the Pass functioning as a sinthomatic self-hystoricisation distinct (but related to) the analysis proper. In this light, the Pass would be less a form of public credentialism but rather a mode of idiosyncratic, even idiotic jouissance proper to the analyst. This is especially plausible when we consider Lacan’s later teachings which hold knowledge and speech to be modes of jouissance, as well ass and at the same time as being treatments for it All that said, I think that Lacan and Miller would encourage readers to handle with a light touch the distinction between structure/topology on the one hand, and history on the other. If such a distinction were to be made too rigidly it would be confounding and eminently deconstructible, since the history is in the structure, and vice versa. It is worth acknowledging that some analysts in the Lacanian tradition are sceptical that hysteria has changed all that much. The papers collected by Grose (2016) testify to this.

There is also a shift in Lacan’s Preface, I think, from a hysteria in which there is a forbidden object of desire (as in the case of Elisabeth) to an object cause of desire, namely, the object petit a. It is ‘that which lacks’, as Lacan puts it, and ‘the lack of a lack produces the real, which emerges only there, as a stopper’. Again, this remark has resonances with Seminar X, in which anxiety is the affect called into the place of a lack of lack, and is therefore the one affect which does not deceive. In Miller’s commentary on the Preface, this is a shift from ‘truth’ holding ‘primacy’ over the real, to the reverse. From the perspective of hysteria, a symptom is something addressed to and deciphered by an Other, whereas a hallucination, for instance, is Otherless. It is not that truth as a category falls away in Lacan’s later teaching, but it becomes something clearly distinct from the real, particularly in the seminar on Joyce, where the true-real distinction is made to correspond with speech and writing respectively. In a way, one can see this distinction as different aspects of the Pass, with the truth on the side of a subject’s self-hystoricisation, pun intended, and the real as the subject’s separation from an object cause of desire, and nomination of a mode of jouissance.


Grose, A. (2016). Hysteria today. London: Karnac.

Lacan, J. (2006). The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis. Écrits. (Trans. B. Fink). New York, NY: Norton.


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