From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis
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Hegel's master-slave story Lacan belonged to the same generation as Sartre and Levi-Strauss, a generation which was antagonistic to the academic philosophy of the 1920s and 1930s. It was a generation that reacted bitterly against the domination of neo-Kantianism and the Cartesian tradition. This was a tradition that excluded Hegel from serious consideration. It was not the academic philosophers who imported Hegel and Heidegger into France but more marginal figures, many of them immigrants like Kojeve, whose lectures on Hegel were to have an immense impact. Alexandre Kojeve gave a series of lectures, between 1933 and 1939, which were regularly attended by intellectuals such as Aron, Bataille, Breton, Klossowski, Merleau-Ponty, ~eneau and Lacan. Many elements of the 'left Hegelianism' and Marxist humanism of the post-war decades can be traced back to these lectures. Kojeve's lectures describe a violent world-view and focus upon moments of rupture and struggle rather than synthesis. For Kojeve it is Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit which is the key text and, within that text, it is the master-slave dialectic which is foregrounded to the exclusion of almost everything else. The central moment in the emergence of individuality revolves around Desire in so far as it implies a dialectic between self and other. As Lacan was greatly influenced by Kojeve's lectures on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit I will now give a brief summary of Kojeve's exposition of the nature of human desire, the struggle for recognition, and the parable of the master-slave relation.2 Man is self-consciousness. He is conscious of himself, conscious of his human reality and dignity; and it is in this that he is essentially different from animals. Man becomes conscious of himself when, for the first time, he says '1'.3


A' 32 Jacques Lacan The man who contemplates is 'absorbed' by what he contemplates; the knowing subject loses himself in the object that is known. The man who is 'absorbed' by the object that he is contemplating can be 'brought back to himself only by a Desire; by the desire to eat, for example. It is in and by - or better still as 'his' Desire that man is formed and is revealed, to himself and to others, as an I ... In contrast to the knowledge that keeps man in a passive quietude, Desire disquiets him and moves him to action. Born of Desire, action tends to satisfy it, and can do so only by the 'negation', the destruction, or at least the transformation, of the desired object: to satisfy hunger, for example, the food must be destroyed or, in any case, transformed. Thus, all action 'is negation'. But negating action is not purely destructive, for if action destroys an objective reality, for the sake of satisfying the Desire from which it is born, it creates in its place, in and by that very destruction, a subjective reality. The being that eats, for example, creates add preserves its only reality into its own reality I by the 'assimilation', the 'internalisation' of a 'foreign', 'external' reality. Generally speaking, the I of Desire is an emptiness that receives a real ~ositive content only by negating action that satisfies Desire in destroying, transforming and 'assimilating' the desired non-I. Human Desire must be directed towards another Desire. Thus, in the relationship between man and woman, for example, Desire is human only if one desires, not the body, but the Desire of the other; if he wants 'to possess' or 'to assimilate' the Desire taken as Desire - that is to say, if he wants to be 'desired' or 'loved' or, rather, 'recognised' in his human value, in his reality as a human individual. To aesire the Desire of another is in the final analysis to desire that the value that I am or that I 'represent' be the value desired by the other: I want him to 'recognize' my value as his value. In other words all human Desire is, finally, a function of the Desire for 'recognition'.4 It is only by being 'recognised' by another, by many others, or - in the extreme - by all others, that a human being is really human, for himself as well as for others. The human being can be formed only if at least two of these Desires confront one another. Each of th~ two beings endowed with such a Desire is ready to go all- the way in pursuit of .its

The uses of philosophy 33 satisfaction; that is, is ready to risk its life ... in order to be 'recognised' by the other, to impose itself on the other as the supreme value; accordingly, their meeting can only be a fight to the death. Human reality is created, is constituted, only in the fight for recognition and by the risk of life that it implies. Man is human only to the extent that he wants to impose himself on another man, to be recognised by him ... If one of the adversaries remains alive but kills the other, he can no longer. be recognised by the other; the man who has been defeated and killed does not recognise the victory of the conqueror. Therefore, it does the man of the fight no good to kill his adversary. He must overcome him 'dialectically'. That is, he must leave him life and consciousness, and destroy only his autonomy. In other words, he must enslave him. By refusing to risk his life in a fight for pure prestige, the Slave does not rise above the level of animals. Hence he considers himself as such, and as such is he considered by the Master. But the Slave, for his part, recognises the Master in his human dignity and reality, and the Slave behaves accordingly. The Master is not the only one to consider himself Master. The Slave, also, considers him as such. Hence, he is recognised in his human reality and dignity. But this recognition is one-sided, for he does not recognise in turn the Slave's reality and dignity. Hence, he is recognised by someone whom he does not recognise. And this is what is tragic in his situation. The Master has fought and risked his life for a recognition without value for him. For he can be satisfied only by recognition from one whom he recognises as worthy of recognising him. The Master's attitude is an existential Impasse. The Master is fixed in his Mastery. He cannot go beyond himself, change, progress. As for the Slave, there is nothing fixed in him. He wants to transcend himself by negation of his given state. He has a positive ideal to attain, the ideal of autonomy, of Beingfor-itself. The Master forces the Slave to work. In becoming Master of nature by work, then, the Slave frees himself from his own nature. The future and history hence belong not to the warlike Master, who either dies or preserves himself indefinitely in identity to himself, but to the working Slave. The Master, who does not work, produces nothing stable outside of himself. He merely destroys the products of the Slave's 34 Jacques Lacan work. Work is repressed Desire, it forms and educates. The Slave can work for the Master only by repressing his own desires. Hence, he transcends himself by working - or, perhaps better, he educates himself. Man achieves his true autonomy, his authentic freedom, only after passing through Slavery, after surmounting fear of death by work performed in the service of another. Without work that transforms the real objective world, man cannot really transform himself. The Master can never detach himself from the world in which he lives, and if the world perishes, he perishes with it. Only the Slave can transcend the given world and not perish. Only the Slave can transform the world that forms him and fixes him in Slavery and create a world that he has formed in which he will be free. And the Slave achieves this only through forced work carried out in the Master's service. To be sure, this work by itself does not free him. But in transformj9g the world by this work, the Slave transforms himself, too, ana thus creates the new objective conditions that permit him l~ake up once more the liberating fight for . recognition that he refused in the beginning for fear of death. And thus~ih -t~ long run, all slavish work realises not the Master's will but the wih~ at first unconscious - of the Slave who, finally, succeeds wher<\the Master, necessarily, fails. Lacan is deeply indebted to Hegelian thought. Indeed, one critic has written that it is not an overstatement to say that the entire first phase of Lacan's work as a psychoanalyst from 1936 to 1953 is dominated by the elaboration of this Hegelian account of the dilemmas of self-consciousness and their resolution.5 I think Lacan draws on Hegel's work in the following ways. Hegel's analysis of the power situation of the master and slave and their codependence has greatly influenced Lacan who, as we shall see, often refers to and makes use of the master-slave dialectic. Second, I would argue that Hegel's parable about how the master and the slave strive for recognition of desire forms an essential part of Lacan's thought. It is said that Lacan combined Freud's concept of libido with Hegel's concept of recognition to produce his particular concept of desire. For Lacan there is no simple relation between desire and an object that will satisfy it; in fact, he shows how desire is linked •in a complicated fashion to the desire of the Other.6