The key point is that the 'immortality' of which Lacan speaks (that of the 'undead' lamella, the object that 'is' libido) can emerge only within the horizon of human finitude, as a formation that stands for and fills the ontological Void, the hole in the texture of reality opened up by the fact that reality is transcendentally constituted by the finite transcendental subject.
Lacan's myth of the lamella. In this myth, Lacan highlights the "immortal . . . irrepressible life" (Lacan 1991: 198) of the drive energy. The lamella is the human being as pre-sexual, pre-subject substance, that something in the human subject that is not reducible to the pure digitality of the symbolic. Lacan even calls it the organ of the libido, the paradoxical organ of a "life that has no need of no organ" (Lacan 1991: 198).
Commenting on Slavoj Zizek's interpretation of the lamella in the work of David Lynch, Harpold rightly sees Zizek's restriction to figures of "the flayed, skinned body, the palpitation of raw, skinless red flesh" as too limiting, because "too biological" (Harpold). Harpold observes that later in his seminar, Lacan shortly returns to his notion of the lamella, giving as some of the most ancient examples of the incarnation of the lamella in the body the practices of "tattooing, scarification" (Lacan 1991: 206). Presuming that Lacan would include other forms of bodily modifications in this list as well, Harpold then goes on "to extend this lamella-function to other artificial interventions on the body" (Harpold), interventions that play a predominant role in Tetsuo.
The materializations of the lamella that Lacan has described have "the function . . . of situating the subject . . . , marking his place in the field of the group's relations. . . . And, at the same time, it obviously has an erotic function" (Lacan 1991: 206). Whereas the 'situating function' doubles the logic of the Gestell, the 'erotic function' "inscribe[s] the substantiality of the body on its substance" (Harpold), and it is exactly that which combines these practices with the libido-organ, the lamella.
Lacan stresses the fact that in the so-called fort/da-game a rudimentary use of language--a first phonematic opposition--is implicated. For the speaking subject--being constituted by this "original" digitality [fort/da, 0/I) and inscribed into a trans-subjective (rather than inter-subjective) system--an outside of digitality is impossible. It might be argued that there is something in the human subject that is not reducible to pure digitality: its indestructible drive (for a presymbolic state). Lacan highlights the "immortal... irrepressible life" (Four Fundamental Concepts 198) of the drive energy in his myth of the lamella. The lamella is thus the human being as pre-sexual, pre-subject substance, of a "life that has need of no organ" (Four Fundamental Concepts 198). Lacan gives a very vivid image of it: "The lamella is something extra-flat, which moves like the amoeba.... And it can run around. Well! This is not very reassuring. But suppose it comes and envelopes your face while you are quietly asleep..." (Four Fundamental Concepts 197). This illustration of the lamella reads like a perfect description of the cover of The Prodigy's Music For The Jilted Generation. (See Figure 1.) It depicts this very balanced moment when the extra-flat lamella gives way to the clear-cut physiognomy of the subject, the (symbolic) "body with organs," when the "unspeakable" gives way to and disappears in articulation.
His new theory starts when he introduces the Real of the body as the basic causality. We have to be even more specific: it is not so much the body he is referring to, no, he is talking about the organism and the organs. Indeed, in his lesson of the 27th of May 1964, Lacan surprises his audience by introducing them to another lack, another loss. This lack precedes the well-known lack in the chain of signifiers, the one that determines the desire of the subject in the dialectical exchange between mother and child. The least that can be said about this new lack is that it is indeed a very fundamental one, because it concerns the loss of the eternal life. Paradoxically enough, this lack is installed at the very moment of the conception, that is, at the moment of the birth of a sexually differentiated life form. In order to explain this unexplainable fact, Lacan provides his audience with a myth, that is, he tells them a story about something that flies away at the moment of birth, a kind of lamella. This thing lost forever is object (a) in its purest form as life instinct. For Lacan, the loss of eternal life goes back to a biological fact, and in this way, he will reconsider Freud’s biological rock. In opposition to Freud, he will interpret this biological fact not so much as a stumbling rock, but as something that permits the subject to escape from the all embracing determinism (of the Symbolic).
Lacan’s explanation of the lamella myth runs as follows. Organisms that reproduce themselves in a non-sexual way — bacteria’s, viruses, prions, and today clones as well — can in principle live forever, because their reproduction comes down to a replication. In these cases, death is purely accidental and not inevitable as such. This is not the case with sexually differentiated organisms, because these life forms have to die. The cell division that characterises these sexual life forms — the meiosis — causes not only the loss of half of the genetic material, it excludes these life forms from the eternal life as well. Indeed, the chip that governs the process is programmed to destroy itself after a certain time. In contemporary biology, this is coined as the apoptosis. It is interesting to note the analogies with Freud’s commentary on the Weissman’s theory in "Beyond the pleasure principle".
The non-sexual life form contains the possibility of eternal life. Sexual reproduction, on the other hand, implies automatically the death of the individual. The story does not end there, on the contrary. In one way or another, each organism tries to escape from this loss, and yearns to return to the situation from before the sexual differentiation. Freud had already recognised this tendency to return to a previous state of being as a basic characteristic of the drive. By the way, in this respect, we are still talking about the drive, meaning before any social determination of gender and before any division in partial drives. We will return to this with Freud’s idea of life and death drive, albeit that we will have to reinterpret his denominations.
It is important to acknowledge the fact that the reaction to this primordial loss — that is, the defensive elaboration and the attempt to return to the previous state — that this reaction takes place on the symbolico-imaginary scene, meaning the scene where the gender identity will be acquired. Because of the specifics of the oedipal structure, this gender identity comes down to a phallic one. This means that the attempt to return — that is, the answer to the primordial lack, the lack in the Real — will be produced on the level of the second lack, the lack in the Symbolic. Hence the fact that this fundamental lack on the level of the organism is reinterpreted as a phallic lack in the relation between subject and Other — this is first of all the case in hysteria and in neurosis in general, which explains Freud’s obstinate clinging to this phallic interpretation.
During this reinterpretation, object (a) becomes associated to the borders of the body, the orifices through which the secondary losses take place: mouth, anus, eye, ear and genitals. This phallic interpretation of the object (a) also implies the fact that the lack and original loss are introduced into the relation between child and first Other, the mother, and from there onwards, in the relationship between man and woman. The Freudian Oedipal complex can very well be summarised like that. From that moment onwards, the drive is turned into partial drives and presents always a fusion between life and death drive.
In a more recent formulation, Lacan characterizes the libido as an imaginary bodily organ he calls the lamella or l’hommelette. The latter term means both "omelet" and "little feminine man"; Lacan offers it as a witty play on Plato’s myth that human beings were originally egg-shaped androgynes who were only later divided into the two sexes. Lacan, knowing how to make a good French omelet, also knows how to capture the floating, insistent, sometimes queasy character that desire assumes when imagined or intuited apart from its objects. He simply breaks some eggs: "Let us imagine it, a large crepe moving about like the amoeba, ultra-flat for passing under doors, omniscient in being led by pure instinct, immortal in being scissiparous. Here is something you would not like to feel creeping over your face, silently while you are asleep, in order to seal it up." Isn’t it possible that what is thrown toward the opera in the dream of Freud’s young man is not something proper to the dreamer’s body but the adhesive substance of l’hommelette? And since the throw targets no specific scene, but only the operatic conjuncture of music and drama, orchestra pit and stage, wouldn’t it be possible to see in the throw a recognition that opera is always already the site of l’hommelette, always already covered at every point of its surface with the substance of desire?
What we have here is a field that may be described inpsychoanalysis as the field between two deaths, the symbolic and the real. The ultimate horror is this limbo, which Lacan called lamella, as an immortal yet indestructible object, i.e., a life voided from the symbolic structure.
It seems that after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Eastern Europe found itself in a position similar to that of Oedipus, a horrible intermediate position, whereby it has been changed into an inseparable remainder, a substanceless crumb of reality that has already swallowed all the potential generated by its previous existence. But—and this is crucial to an understanding of the changed, so-called failed position of Eastern Europe—when Lacan uses the plus-de-jouir notion, he is playing with the double entendre of the French term, comprising simultaneously ‘surplus’, and ‘no more’ Oedipus, having fulfilled his destiny, is plus d’homme, which means both ‘surplus man’ and ‘no longer a man’. He is a conditional man; a human monster, and as such, a paradigmatic example of the modern subject, since his monstrosity is structural, not accidental.
In chapter 15 of Seminar XI, Lacan introduces the mysterious notion of the "lamella": the libido as an organ without body, the incorporeal and for that very reason indestructible life-substance that persists beyond the circuit of generation and corruption.1 It is no accident that commentaries on this passage are rare (for all practical purposes nonexistent); the Lacan with whom we are confronted in this passage does not have a lot in common with the usual figure of which reigns in the domain of cultural studies. The Lacan of the lamella is "Another Lacan," as Jacques-Alain Miller put it, a Lacan of drive not desire, of the real not the symbolic.
How are we to approach this notion of lamella? Let us risk a detour. If, today, the term "post-modernism" is of any theoretical use, then lamella is a post-modern notion par excellence—the shift from the Lacan of the symbolic to the Lacan of the real is the shift from modernism to post-modernism. For that reason, one should not be surprised that lamella is the central preoccupation of the person whose work epitomizes post-modernism in cinema, David Lynch. And, in order to expose as clearly as possible Lynch's post-modernism, let us risk an additional detour via those who were, in all probability, the first post-modernists avant la lettre: the Pre-Raphaelites.
p. In the last analysis, the irreducible gap that separates an effect from its cause amounts to the fact that “not all of feminine enjoyment is an effect of the masculine cause." This "not-all" has to be conceived precisely in the sense of the Lacanian logic of not-all (pas-tout)8: it in no way entails that a part of feminine enjoyment is not the effect of what men do to a woman. In other words, "not-all" designates inconsistency and not incompleteness: in the reaction of a woman, there is always something unforeseen. A woman never reacts as expected—all of a sudden, she does not react to something that, up to
Let us begin by taking a closer look at the mysterious wound which prevents Amfortas from finding peace in death.
This wound, of course, is another name for its opposite, for a certain surplus of jouissance. To delineate more precisely its contours, let us take as our starting point a new book on Lacan, Richard Boothby Death and Desire. 27 Its central thesis, although ultimately false, is deeply satisfying in the sense of a demand for symmetry: it is as if it provides the missing element of a puzzle. The triad Imaginary-Real-Symbolic renders the fundamental coordinates of the Lacanian theoretical space; but these three dimensions can never be conceived simultaneously, in pure synchronicity, i.e., one is always forced to choose one pair at a time (as with Kierkegaard's triad of the aesthetical-ethicalreligious): the Symbolic versus the Imaginary, the Real versus the Symbolic. The hitherto predominating interpretations of Lacan tended to accent either the axis Imaginary-Symbolic (symbolization, symbolic realization, against imaginary self-deception in the Lacan of the fifties) or the axis Symbolic-Real (the traumatic encounter of the Real as the point at which symbolization fails in the late Lacan). What Boothby offers as a key to the entire Lacanian theoretical edifice is simply the third, not yet exploited axis: the Imaginary versus the Real. That is to say, according to Boothby, the theory of the mirror-stage is not only chronologically Lacan's first contribution to psychoanalysis but designates also the original fact which defines the status of man: the alienation in the mirror image, due to man's premature birth and his / her helplessness in the first years of life, this fixation on imago interrupts the supple life-flow, it introduces an irreducible béance, gap, separating forever the imaginary ego -- the wholesome yet immobile mirror image, a kind of halted cinematic picture -- from the polymorphous, chaotic sprout of bodily drives -- the real Id. From this perspective, the Symbolic is of a strictly secondary nature with regard to the original tension between the Imaginary and the Real: its place is the void opened up by the exclusion of the polymorphous wealth of bodily drives. Symbolization designates the subject's endeavor, always fragmentary and ultimately doomed to fail, to bring to the light of the day, by way of symbolic representatives, the Real of bodily drives excluded by imaginary identification; it is therefore a kind of compromise-formation by way of which the subject integrates fragments of the ostracized Real.
In this sense, Boothby interprets the death-drive as the reemergence of what was ostracized when the ego constituted itself by way of imaginary identification: the return of the polymorphous impulses is experienced by the ego as a mortal threat, since it actually entails the dissolution of its imaginary identity. The foreclosed Real thus returns in two modes: as a wild, destructive, nonsymbolized raging, or in the form of symbolic mediation, i.e., "sublated" (aufgehoben) in the symbolic medium. The elegance of Boothby's theory turns on interpreting the death-drive as its very opposite: as the return of the life-force, of the part of Id excluded by the imposition of the petrified mask of the ego. Thus, what reemerges in the "death-drive" is ultimately life itself, and the fact that the ego perceives this return as a death threat precisely confirms the ego's perverted "repressive" character. The "death-drive" means that life itself rebels against the ego: the true representative of death is ego itself, as the petrified imago which interrupts the flow of life.
Against this background, Boothby also reinterprets Lacan's distinction between the two deaths: the first death is the death of the ego, the dissolution of its imaginary identifications, whereas the second death designates the interruption of the pre-symbolic life-flow itself. Here, however, problems begin with this otherwise simple and elegant construction: the price to be paid is that Lacan's theoretical edifice is ultimately reduced to the opposition which characterizes the field of Lebensphilosophie, i.e., to the opposition between an original polymorphous life-force and its later coagulation, confinement to the Procrustian bed of imagos. For this reason, Boothby's scheme has no place for the fundamental Lacanian insight according to which the symbolic order "stands for death" in the precise sense of "mortifying" the real of the body, of subordinating it to a foreign automatism, of perturbing its "natural," instinctual rhythm, thereby producing the surplus of desire, i.e., desire AS a surplus: the very symbolic machine which "mortifies" the living body produces by the same token the opposite of mortification, the immortal desire, the Real of "pure life" which eludes symbolization.
To clarify this point, let us turn to an example which, in a first approach, may seem to confirm Boothby's thesis: Wagner Tristan und Isolde. What precise effect does the philtre provided by Isolde's faithful maid Brangäne have on the future lovers? "Wagner never intends to imply that the love of Tristan and Isolde is the physical consequence of the philtre, but only that the pair, having drunk what they imagine to be the draught of Death and believing that they have looked upon earth and sea and sky for the last time, feel themselves free to confess, when the potion begins its work within them, the love they have so long felt but have concealed from each other and almost from themselves." 28 The point is, therefore, that after drinking the philtre, Tristan and Isolde find themselves in the domain "between the two deaths," alive, yet delivered of all symbolic ties. Only in such a subjective position are they able to confess their love. In other words, the "magical effect" of the philtre is simply to suspend the "big Other," the symbolic reality of social obligations (honors, vows...). Does this thesis not fully accord with Boothby's view of the domain "between the two deaths" as the space where imaginary identification, as well as the symbolic identities attached to it, are all invalidated, so that the excluded Real (pure life-drive) can emerge in all its force, although in the form of its opposite, the death-drive? According to Wagner himself, the passion of Tristan and Isolde expresses the longing for the "eternal peace" of death. The trap to be avoided here, however, is conceiving of this pure life-drive as a substantial entity subsisting prior to its being captured in the symbolic network: this "optical illusion" renders invisible how it is the very mediation of the symbolic order that transforms the organic "instinct" into an unquenchable longing which can find solace only in death. In other words, this "pure life" beyond death, this longing that reaches beyond the circuit of generation and corruption, is it not the product of symbolization, so that symbolization itself engenders the surplus which escapes it? By conceiving of the symbolic order as an agency which fills out the gap between the Imaginary and the Real opened up by the mirror-identification, Boothby avoids its constitutive paradox: the Symbolic itself opens up the wound it professes to heal.
What one should do here, in the space of a more detailed theoretical elaboration, is to approach in a new way the Lacan-Heidegger relationship. In the fifties, Lacan endeavored to read the "death-drive" against the background of Heidegger's "being-toward-death" (Sein-zum-Tode), conceiving of death as the inherent and ultimate limit of symbolization, which accounts for its irreducible temporal character. With Lacan's shift toward the Real from the sixties onward, it is the indestructible life sprouting in the domain "between the two deaths" that emerges as the ultimate object of horror. Lacan delineates its contours toward the end of chapter 15, of his Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis where he proposes his own myth, constructed upon the model of Aristophanes' fable from Plato Symposium, the myth of l'hommelette (little female-man -- omelette 29 ):
Whenever the membranes of the egg in which the foetus emerges on its way to becoming a new-born are broken, imagine for a moment that something flies off, and that one can do it with an egg as easily as with a man, namely the hommelette, or the lamella.
The lamella is something extra-flat, which moves like the amoeba. It is just a little more complicated. But it goes everywhere. And as it is something...that is related to what the sexed being loses in sexuality, it is, like the amoeba in relation to sexed beings, immortal -- because it survives any division, any scissiparous intervention. And it can run around.
Well! This is not very reassuring. But suppose it comes and envelopes your face while you are quietly asleep...
I can't see how we would not join battle with a being capable of these properties. But it would not be a very convenient battle. This lamella, this organ, whose characteristic is not to exist, but which is nevertheless an organ...is the libido.
It is the libido, qua pure life instinct, that is to say, immortal life, or irrepressible life, life that has need of no organ, simplified, indestructible life. It is precisely what is subtracted from the living being by virtue of the fact that it is subject to the cycle of sexed reproduction. And it is of this that all the forms of the objet a that can be enumerated are the representatives, the equivalents. The objets a are merely its representatives, its figures. The breast -- as equivocal, as an element characteristic of the mammiferous organization, the placenta for example -- certainly represents that part of himself that the individual loses at birth, and which may serve to symbolize the most profound lost object. 30
What we have here is an Otherness prior to intersubjectivity: the subject's "impossible" relationship to this amoebalike creature is what Lacan is ultimately aiming at by way of his formula & ◇ a. 31 The best way to clarify this point is perhaps to allow ourselves the string of popular-culture associations that Lacan's description must evoke. Is not the alien from Ridley Scott 's film of the same title "lamella" in its purest? Are not all the key elements of Lacan's myth contained in the first truly horrifying scene of the film when, in the womblike cave of the unknown planet, the "alien" leaps from the egglike globe when its lid splits off and sticks to John Hurt's face? This amoebalike, flattened creature, which envelops the subject's face, stands for the irrepressible life beyond all the finite forms that are merely its representatives, its figures (later in the film, the "alien" is able to assume a multitude of different shapes), immortal and indestructible (it suffices to recall the unpleasant thrill of the moment when a scientist cuts with a scalpel into a leg of the creature which envelops Hurt's face: the liquid that drips from it falls onto the metal floor and corrodes it immediately; nothing can resist it). 32
The second association which brings us back to Wagner is a detail from Syberberg film version of Parsifal: Syberberg depicts Amfortas's wound as externalized, carried by the servants on a pillow in front of him, in the form of a vaginalike partial object out of which blood drips in a continuous flow (as, vulgari eloquentia, a vagina in an unending period). This palpitating opening -- an organ which is at the same time the entire organism (let us just recall a homologous motif in a series of science fiction stories, like the gigantic eye living a life of its own) -- this opening epitomizes life in its indestructibility: Amfortas's pain consists in the very fact that he is unable to die, that he is condemned to an eternal life of suffering; when, at the end, Parsifal heals his wound with "the spear that smote it," Amfortas is finally able to rest and die. This wound of Amfortas's, which persists outside himself as an undead thing, is the "object of psychoanalysis." 33
- ==Slavoj Žižek==
Further information about Lamella can be found in the following reference(s):
- Žižek, Slavoj. Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel and the Critique of Ideology. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993. p.176-82