In his work during the 1950s Lacan often refers to "the dialectic of the master and the slave", which Hegel introduces in Phenomenology of Spirit. As in all his other Hegelian references, Lacan is indebted to Alexandre Kojève's reading of Hegel, which Lacan encountered when attending Kojève's lectures on Hegel in the 1930s.
According to Kojève, the dialectic of the master and the slave is the inevitable result of the fact that human desire is the desire for recognition. In order to achieve recognition, the subject must impose the idea that he has of himself on an other. However, since this other also desires recognition, he also must do the same, and hence the subject is forced to engage in combat with the other.
"Fight to the Death"
This fight for recognition, for "pure prestige" must be a "fight to the death", since it is only by risking his life for the sake of recognition that one can prove that he is truly human. However, the combat must in fact stop short of the death of either combatant, since recognition can only be granted by a living being. Thus the struggle ends when one of the two gives up his desire for recognition and surrenders to the other; the vanquished one recognizes the victor as his "master" and becomes his "slave". In fact, human society is only possible because some human beings accept being slaves instead of fighting to the death; a community of masters would be impossible.
Master and Slave
After achieving victory, the master sets the slave to work for him. The slave works by transforming nature in order that the master may consume it and enjoy it. However, the victory is not as absolute as it seems; the relation between the master and the slave is dialectical because it leads to the negation of their respective positions. On the one hand, the recognition achieved by the master is unsatisfactory because it is not another man who grants him this recognition but only a slave, who is for the master a mere animal or thing; thus "the man who behaves as a Master will never be satisfied." On the other hand, the slave is partly compensated for his defeat by the fact that, by working, he raises himself above nature by making it other than it was.
In the process of changing the world the slave changes himself and becomes the author of his own destiny, unlike the master who changes only through the mediation of the slave's work. Historical progress is now "the product of the working slave and not of the warlike Master." The outcome of the dialectic is therefore paradoxical: the master ends up in a dissatisfying "existential impasse", while the slave retains the possibility of achieving true satisfaction by means of "dialectically overcoming" his slavery.
Lacan draws on the dialectic of the master and the slave to illustrate a wide range of points. For example the struggle for pure prestige illustrates the intersubjective nature of desire, in which the important thing is for desire to be recognised by an other. The fight to the death also illustrates the aggressivity inherent in the dual relationship between the ego and the counterpart. Furthermore, the slave who resignedly "waits for the master's death" offers a good analogy of the obsessional neurotic, who is characterized by hesitation and procrastination.
Discourse of the Master
Lacan also takes up the dialectic of the master and the slave in his theorization of the discourse of the master. In the formulation of this discourse, the master is the master signifier (S1) who puts the slave (S2) to work to produce a surplus (a) which he can appropriate for himself. The master signifier is that which represents a subject for all other signifiers; the discourse of the master is thus an attempt at totalization (which is why Lacan links the discourse of the master with philosophy and ontology, playing on the homophony between maître and m'être). However, this attempt always fails because the master signifier can never represent the subject completely; there is always some surplus which escapes representation.
- Kojève, Alexandre. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 1947 [1933-39]. Trans. James. H. Nichols Jr., New York and London: Basic Books, 1969.
- Kojève, Alexandre. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 1947 [1933-39]. Trans. James. H. Nichols Jr., New York and London: Basic Books, 1969: 7; Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book I. Freud's Papers on Technique, 1953-54. Trans. John Forrester. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. p. 223
- Kojève, Alexandre. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 1947 [1933-39]. Trans. James. H. Nichols Jr., New York and London: Basic Books, 1969: 20
- Kojève, Alexandre. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 1947 [1933-39]. Trans. James. H. Nichols Jr., New York and London: Basic Books, 1969: 52
- Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 142
- Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 99
- Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book I. Freud's Papers on Technique, 1953-54. Trans. John Forrester. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. p. 286
- Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre XX. Encore, 1972-73. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1975. p. 33