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The (Lacanian) unconscious: structure and negative ontology

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As I pointed out in the last post, Lacan’s successful juxtaposition of a psychoanalytic model of the subject with (post)structuralist approaches to meaning and linguistic organization has contributed immensely to the contemporary understanding of the subjective as political. At the same time, however, a significant aspect of Lacan’s ‘structural’ conception of the subject which has fundamental relevance to our discussion is that it is constructed around a notion of negativity (or to put it in terms more familiar to Lacanians, of lack), and thus offers a privileged place to ‘fantasy’.

Given the exceptionally rich and confounding nature of Lacan’s body of work, there are a host of possible directions for approaching the question of political subjectivity in a discussion like ours, and let me be quick to confess that I have no specific one in mind as I start to write. I can, however, be specific enough to say that these two features of his approach, i.e. a (post)structuralist linguistic turn, and a (Hegelian/Kojevian) incorporation of negativity at the center of subjective being, will be the basic points of reference for my discussions, as non-linearly as it may all unfold.

Ernesto Laclau
Artwork by Bob Row

While a fundamental implication of the Lacanian model of the unconscious for our discussion is his irreversible introduction of structure into the working models of human psychology, it is also as fundamentally important to always perceive his ‘structuralism’ in the light of his unique ontology of the negative (if one may take the liberty of using such a combination), by which I am referring to the fact that at the center, both of the Lacanian subject and of his linguistic structure one does not encounter the good old logos, but rather an absence, a ‘lack’ that bears the function of holding together the fantastic structure of reality.

I remember someone once asked me to articulate my stance on what she called “the phallocentrism of Lacanian psychoanalysis,” to which I responded that as a matter of fact I believe if Lacan has done one great service to psychoanalysis, it is that he has removed the phallus from the center and has replaced it with a big hole. While Lacan may not be a typical post-structuralist given that he does not break the edifice of ‘structure’ into a center-free set of ebbs and flows, one can certainly not consider him a ‘structuralist’, given that at the center of his structure lies not the logos, but a big nothingness. This notion has indeed given some (typically of a militant postmodernist predisposition, I might add) a reason to criticize Lacan for failing to do away with the notion of ‘center’ altogether. I assume we will have to come back to this in the future.

So in the coming discussions then I will be trying to gradually work my way through these two lines of Lacanian theory, i.e. linguistic structuration and a negative ontology (and thence the primacy of fantasy), towards a picture of the subject that, as I suggested earlier, emerges as inevitably political.

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9 Responses to The (Lacanian) unconscious: structure and negative ontology

  1. I’m intrigued by Lacan’s “big hole.”

    Or rather, his “negative ontology (and thence the primacy of fantasy)”. The idea of fantasy cohering political ideology certainly resonates.

  2. I too find this notion one of the most exciting aspects of Lacan’s theory and conception of the person. I think I should start and stay with this feature for a short while first…

  3. I’ve been exploring how Lacan’s work sheds light on the narcissism of consumer culture, and the negativity at the center of the subject connects with what I see as the mirrorlike “grasping” purchase of signature forms–cars, clothes, and iconography that we use to establish an identity for ourselves. I’ve been wondering about art and creativity generally, whether this offers a way out of the narcissistic trap — a general economy in which the “hole” becomes a cornucopia of the unconscious, constantly generating a gift economy between the subject and audience in folk traditions.

  4. Paul, I find your take on the place and possibilities of negativity quite interesting -thanks for sharing. I hope you continue to share your reflections on the relevance of Lacan to your work (and I hope, also, that I find a way of making sure I won’t miss comments that are left on earlier posts! I am glad I caught yours, for instance, because it’s a pretty primitive system: me going over the list and catching any new comments…).

    I’m also looking forward to learning more about your reflections on what you called the narcissism of consumer culture and the obvious implications of that for a model of subjectivity.

  5. Working on Jung right now in a MA program and while writing a paper on unconsciousness and ontology, I was confronted with the idea that archetype(-as-such) may be the corollary to ontology for unconsciousness. Don't get me wrong, this is not Lacan at all but consider perhaps, that archetype may be a metaphysical sister-branch of ontology. You wont find much sympathy amongst the existentialists, but I think its food for thought.

  6. But it seems that according to Lacan at the center lies only “the impossible”, not “nothingness”, which again according to him, should always be taken with prudence, and not to be taken by negation.

  7. Besides, it fascinates me a lot to want to know the difference between logos and nothingness, which I feel to be the one and the same thing, but simply cannot make it clear in a scholarly way. Will the author please give a few hints. Thanks so much.

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