Ethics and the Real

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Belief and Ideology: Althusser and Pascal


Ethics and the Real

Lacan’s thought around 1960 is characterized by a tension centering around the ethical status of desire. What is the ethical status of desire?

In the late 1950s desire stood as a position notion. The goal of psychoanalytic treatment is the analysand’s assumption of his desire. Hamlet standards as a tragic hero precisely because he shows us the ultimate importance and difficulty of assuming our desire.

In contrast, by the 1960s and 1970s desire seems to taken on a negative connotiation in Lacan’s work. In “The Subversion of the Subject,” for example, Lacan seems to promote the value of ‘’jouissance’’ over that of the desire shaped by castration, and his account of women’s sexuality raises profound questions about the ultimate ethical status of desire.

Does the ethics of psychoanalysis lie with Hamlet, with the ideal of the human subject’s assuming his desire? Or with Antigone, who is willing to bo beyond the satisfaction of desire in her pursuit of ‘’jouissance’’ itself?

Now I offer an account of how the real relates to sublimation.

Freud introduces the concept of sublimation in connection with his problematic analysis of instincts or drives (‘’Triebe’’) Freud insists that sublimation must not be confused with the idealization of the object. In the essay “On Narcissism: An Introduction” (1914) Freud makes it clear that sublimation concerns the aim of drive. Sublimation consists in the drive’s “directing itself towards an aim other than, and remote from, that of sexual satisfaction; in this process the accent falls upon deflection from sexuality.” [It does not involve any necessary change in the drive’s object; which a change is, in contrast, the province of idealization.]

Lacan’s own account of sublimation is put in terms of a distinction between ‘’l’objet’’ (object) and ‘’Chose’’ (Thing). “Sublimation which brings to the ‘’Trieb’’ a different satisfaction of its aim – this always defined as its natural aim – is precisely instinct but has a relation with ‘’das Ding’’ as such, with the Thing insofar as it is distinct from the object.”[1] Sublimation then involves not a change in the drive’s object but the introduction of a new relation between the drive aand something in addiiton to the object, something separate from the object but somehow related to it. This new relation neertheless does have some effect on the character of the object, since Lacan gives as “the most general formula” of sublimation that it “lifts up an object … to the dignity of the Thing.”[2]

The foruth and fifth sessions of the seminar of 1959-60 are devoted to ‘’das Ding’’. ‘’Das Ding’’ stands beyond all human objects, as the “outsive-the-signified” in relation to which the “subject keeps his distance and is constituted in a mode of relation, or primary affect, prior to any repression.”[3] Lacan’s notion of ‘’das Ding’’ emerges as “the absolute Other of the subject,” modeled on the Mother, as the object forever lost around which the subject and his desire revolve.[4] Lacan characterizes ‘’das Ding’’ as paradoxically both exterior to the subject and yet at the subject’s very heart, as something that “a representation merely represents.”[5]

‘’L’objet’’ designates an object in the human world; as such, the “object” is thoroughly determined by signifying chains in the symbolic register as well as given shape by fundamental constraints of the imaginary. ‘’Das Ding’’ or ‘’la Chose’’ here designates a real existent that transcends the “reality” produced through the intersection of the symbolic and the imaginary; as such, the “Thing” overlaps the realm of the ‘’objets petit a’’, and we may assimilate the Thing/objet relation to the relation between the real ‘’objet a’’, forever lost to the subject, and the symbolic and imaginary objects that takes its place in the subject’s conscious life.

Then when Lacan defines sublimation as involving the lifting up of an object “to the dignity of the Thing,” which is involved is the subject’s attempt to reclaim the lost ‘’objet a’’ and in this way to map himself into the impossible and unmappable real from which the primal repression of language has separated him. In this account, the subject’s attempt to refind himself in the real plays a significant role. It is precisely this that brings out the fundamentally ethical dimension of sublimation, because, as Lacan notes, it is this notion of the Thing as fundamentally lost, as forbidden by the primordial threat of castration, that provides the very foundation of the “moral law” in modern ethical theory.[6]

In his Critique of Practical Reason, first published in 1788, Kant argues that ethical judgment ultimately refers to the presence or absence of a “good will.” For Kant, there is no guaranteed connection between the good will and human happiness; thus whatever it is that makes a will good, it is in no way related to its ability to produce happiness. Because the very idea of moral goodness implies that morality be a matter of something universally and necessarily true, Kant argues that what makes a person’s will a good will is that the person’s reason for acting can be universalized so as to apply to any and every human agent. Any maxim for acting that cannot be so universalized is thus immoral. The result of all this is that, for Kant, the moral law is essentially empty of content: it is the very form of universality that is at issue in ethics, and any particular content specified in a maxim will only serve to deprive that maxium of the universality that would make it morally acceptable. It is the “categorical imperative” – “So act that the maxim of your will could always hold at the same time as a principle establishing universal law” – that determines the goodness of the will, and any specific pleasure, desire, or interest that an individual might have must be isolated and purged from a will that is to be fully moral.

In his essay “Kant avec Sade,” Lacan characterizes Kant’s position as follows: “So that [the Good] is imposed as superior by reason of its universal value. Thus the weight of this does not appear except by excluding drive or feeling, everything that the subject can suffer by reason of its interest in an object, i.e., what Kant, for his part, designates as ‘pathological.’”[7] The moral law according to Kant, then, rests on the exclusion, the prohibition, from the will of any particular object of human interest. In Lacanian terms, however, this prohibited, lost object is of course ‘’das Ding’’, the “Thing,” even the ‘’objet petit a’’, around which the desiring life of the human subject inevitably turns. In this way it is the impossible real, the fundamentally lost ‘’Chose’’, ‘’das Ding’’, that provides the foundation for the moral law in Kant.[8]

Freedom and Agency: Kant, Sade and the 'Ethics of the Real'

Lacan's discussions of ethics are contained in books VII and VIII of his Seminar and the paper "Kant with Sade."

Lacan distinguishes between ethics and morality. Morality, for Lacan, is a product of the pleasure principle and the Oedipal law.

Unlike Freud, for whom sublimation is the corner-stone of ethical endeavor, Lacan emphasizes the link between sublimation and perversion. Since the subject had no choice but to enter the symbolic order, the giving up of his or her personal jouissance was inevitable, and teh very idea that the subject 'could have had it' is an illusion.

When the père-vers of the superego punishes the subject for having accepted this forced choice, he is acting perversely. Although he may appear to encourage us to sacrifice ('sublimate') jouissance, in reality he is binding us ever more closely to it in the form of its monstrous surplus of plus-de-jouir. The more we obey the superego imperative, the more our sense of guilt over our illusory sacrifice increases, and the more we need to be punished, so the more surplus enjoyment we get.

Because Lacan sees morality as belonging in the symbolic order, with its aspiration to universality, he points the finger at Kant for having been the first to formulate its principles. The categorical imperative adduced by Kant, "So act that the maxim of your will could always hold at the same time as a principle in a giving of universal laws"[9], is for Lacan the prototype of the moral law. Lacan observes that the same principle is formulated by the Marquis de Sade: "Anyone can say to me, I have the right to enjoyment of your body, and I shall exercise that right without any limit to put a stop to whatever capricious demands I may feel inclined to satisfy."[10]

Lacan praises Kant for having perceived that the object of ethics, "the good", is not pre-given, but results from the way we apply the law. It is not the law which defines the good. Sade's formulation makes it easier to see that this object, which Lacan identifies with the objet a, is bound up with the subject's jouissance.

Freedom and Agency: Kierkegaard and Repetition

Schelling's 'Abyss of Freedom'

Badiou's Saint Paul: Faith and the Truth-Event

Agape: The Order of Charity

  1. S 7, 133
  2. S7 133
  3. S 7 67-68
  4. S7, 65, 82
  5. S 7, 87
  6. S 7, 85
  7. E 766
  8. S 7, 93-95
  9. Critique of Practical Reason 28
  10. Kant with Sade