Such a fragment of the signifier permeated with idiotic enjoyment is what Lacan, in the last stage of his teaching, called le sinthome. Le sinthome is not the symptom, the coded message to be deciphered by interpretation, but the meaningless letter that immediately procures jouis-sense, "enjoyment-in-meaning," "enjoy-meant."
As early as 1957, the symptom is said to be 'inscribed in a writing process' (Ec, 445).
conceiving of the symptom as a message which can be deciphered by reference to the unconscious 'structured like a language',
For Lacan, the symptom is the fixed manner in which subjects enjoy their unconscious.
The sinthome as unanalysable.
Lacan introduces the term in 1975, as the title for the 1975-6 seminar, which is both a continuing elaboration of his topology, extending the previous seminar's focus on the borromean knot, and an exploration of the writings of James Joyce.
Through this coincidentia oppositorum - bringing together mathematical theory and the intricate weave of the Joycean text – Lacan redefines the psychoanalytic symptom in terms of his final topology of the subject.
Lacan defined the symptom in several ways: as a metaphor, as "that which comes from the real," as "that which doesn't work," and at the end of his teaching, as a structural fact, whose necessity must be questioned. In 1953 (2002a) Lacan emphasized that the analytic symptom—a neurotic, perverse, or even psychotic symptom; a dream; a slip; and so on—was sustained by a linguistic structure, by signifiers, and by the letters that serve as their material element.
In contrast to medical symptoms, the meaning of which is determined in relation to a referent, the neurotic symptom is blocked speech wanting to be heard and deciphered. Lacan saw the mechanism of metaphor at work in the symptom: when a trauma-inducing signifier is substituted for an element of the current signifying chain, it fixes the symptom and produces its meaning (2002b, p. 158). But interpreting its meaning is not enough. Interpretation works only by focusing on the articulation of the signifiers connected to the symptom; signifiers in themselves are meaningless (1995, p. 270).
Still, these signifiers must be addressed to an analyst. Because the symptom is a self-sufficient source of jouissance (enjoyment), the subject must be made to feel that behind the symptom is unknown knowledge and a related cause, and that the analyst has become the one who maintains it. The analyst has the responsibility for half of the symptom, Lacan said. He added that analytic training shows how the symptom completes itself.
Starting in 1974 with the Borromean knot with three rings, Lacan envisioned the relationship of the symptom with the real (R), the symbolic (S), and the imaginary (I). The symptom became "that which comes from the real" (1975, p. 185). It is marginally imaginary, while it unfolds in the symbolic (Figure 1).
The symptom, what is going wrong, uses speech to search for meaning. If we respond to it in this register, we can cause it to develop in the imaginary. Equivocal symbolic intervention can undo the certainties of the symptom and cause it to recede.
Lacan makes the function of the symptom specific by starting with a knot with four rings. Freud showed that the formation of symptoms is determined by psychic reality, which is organized by the Oedipus complex. Lacan called this reality "religious," because it is founded on the belief that the father castrates, even though the laws of language require a renunciation of reality and an assumption of the phallus. Thus the symptom seems to maintain a link with the father, which sustains identification and sexual jouissance. In this knot, the symptom ring knots the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary together (Figure 2).
An unresolved case is that of a subject unsustained by his symptom. This case is represented by a Borro-mean knot with three rings (Figure 3).
Lacan also asked what would happen if there were an error in the knotting of the three rings. Such an error would be fixed in a non-Borromean fashion by a fourth ring, that of the sinthome. In his study of James Joyce (2001), he used Joyce as his example of such a case (Figure 4).
For Lacan, the symptom is the fixed manner in which subjects enjoy their unconscious. Thus, the path that leads to oedipal normalization, even if it is neurotic, is also clearly marked. Treatment aims not at such a normalization but rather at learning "what to do with the symptom" instead of enjoying it.
See also: Aimée, case of; Formations of the unconscious; Four discourses; Imaginary identification/symbolic identification; Metaphor; Real, the (Lacan); Signifier/signified; Subject's desire; Topology. Bibliography
* Lacan, Jacques. (1974-1975). Le séminaire. Book 22: R.S.I. Ornicar?, 2-5. * ——. (1975). La troisième, intervention de J. Lacan le 31 octobre 1974. Lettres de l'École Freudienne, 16, 178-203. * ——. (1975-1976). Le séminaire. Book 23: Le sinthome. Ornicar?, 6-11. * ——. (1995). The position of the unconscious (Bruce Fink, Trans.). In Richard Feldstein, Bruce Fink, and Maire Jaanus (Eds.), Reading "Seminar XI": Lacan's four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis. New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1960) * ——. (2001). Joyce: Le symptôme. In his Autres écrits. Paris: Seuil. * ——. (2002a). The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis. In hisÉcrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1953) * ——. (2002b). The instance of the letter in the unconscious, or reason since Freud. In hisÉcrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1957)
The term sinthome is, as Lacan points out, an archaic way of writing what has more recently been spelt symptÙme.
Lacan introduces the term in 1975, as the title for the 1975-6 seminar, which is both a continuing elaboration of his topology, extending the previous seminar's focus on the BORROMEAN KNOT, and an exploration of the writings of James Joyce. Through this coincidentia oppositorum - bringing together mathematical theory and the intricate weave of the Joycean text - Lacan redefines the psychoanalytic symptom in terms of his final topology of the subject.
1. Before the appearance of sinthome, divergent currents in Lacan's thinking lead to different inflections of the concept of the SYMPTOM. As early as 1957, the symptom is said to be 'inscribed in a writing process' (Ec, 445), which already implies a different view to that which regards the symptom as a ciphered message. In 1963 Lacan goes on to state that the symptom, unlike acting out, does not call for interpretation; in itself, it is not a call to the Other but a pure jouissance addressed to no one (Lacan, 1962-3: seminar of 23 January 1963; see Miller, 1987: 11). Such comments anticipate the radical transformation of Lacan's thought implicit in his shift from the linguistic definition of the symptom - as a signifier - to his statement, in the 1974-5 seminar, that 'the symptom can only be defined as the way in which each subject enjoys [jouit] the unconscious, in so far as the unconscious determines him' (Lacan, 1974-5: seminar of 18 February 1975).
This move from conceiving of the symptom as a message which can be deciphered by reference to the unconscious 'structured like a language', to seeing it as the trace of the particular modality of the subject's jouissance, culminates in the introduction of the term sinthome. The sinthome thus designates a signifying formulation beyond analysis, a kernel of enjoyment immune to the efficacy of the symbolic. Far from calling for some analytic 'dissolution', the sinthome is what 'allows one to live' by providing a unique organisation of jouissance. The task of analysis thus becomes, in one of Lacan's last definitions of the end of analysis, to identify with the sinthome.
2. The theoretical shift from linguistics to topology which marks the final period of Lacan's work constitutes the true status of the sinthome as unanalysable, and amounts to an exegetical problem beyond the familiar one of Lacan's dense rhetoric. The 1975-6 seminar extends the theory of the Borromean knot, which in the previous seminar had been proposed as the essential structure of the subject, by adding the sinthome as a fourth ring to the triad of the real, the symbolic and the imaginary, tying together a knot which constantly threatens to come undone. This knot is not offered as a model but as a rigorously non-metaphorical description of a topology 'before which the imagination fails' (Lacan, 1975-6: seminar of 9 December 1975). Since meaning (sens) is already figured within the knot, at the intersection of the symbolic and the imaginary (see Figure 1), it follows that the function of the sinthome - intervening to knot together real, symbolic and imaginary - is inevitably beyond meaning.
3. Lacan had been an enthusiastic reader of Joyce since his youth (see the references to Joyce in Ec, 25 and S20, 37). In the 1975-6 seminar, Joyce's writing is read as an extended sinthome, a fourth term whose addition to the Borromean knot of RSI allows the subject to cohere. Faced in his childhood by the radical non-function/absence (carence) of the Name-of-the-Father, Joyce managed to avoid psychosis by deploying his art as supplÈance, as a supplementary cord in the subjective knot. Lacan focuses on Joyce's youthful 'epiphanies' (experiences of an almost hallucinatory intensity which were then recorded in enigmatic, fragmentary texts) as instances of 'radical foreclosure', in which 'the real forecloses meaning' (seminar of 16 March 1976).
The Joycean text - from the epiphany to Finnegans Wake - entailed a special relation to language; a 'destructive' refashioning of it as sinthome, the invasion of the symbolic order by the subject's private jouissance. One of Lacan's puns, synth-homme, implies this kind of 'artificial' self-creation.
Lacan's engagement with Joyce's writing does not, he insists, entail 'applied psychoanalysis'. Topological theory is not conceived of as merely another kind of representational account, but as a form of writing, a praxis aiming to figure that which escapes the imaginary. To that extent, rather than a theoretical object or 'case', Joyce becomes an exemplary saint homme who, by refusing any imaginary solution, was able to invent a new way of using language to organise enjoyment.
In Jacques Lacan's theory of psychology, each of the rings composing a Borromean knot represent the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic. The core of a person's psyche can be found when these three rings overlap in the sinthome.
- Žižek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press, 1991. p.129
- Lacan, 1962-3: seminar of 23 January 1963
- Lacan, 1974-5: seminar of 18 February 1975