Thing

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Lacan's discussion of 'the Thing' constitutes one of the central themes in the seminar of 1959-60 (‘’L'éthique de la psychanalyse’’ – “The Ethics of Psychoanalysis”), where he uses the French term ‘’la Chose’’ interchangeably with the German term ‘’das Ding’’. There are two main contexts in which this term operates.

The distinction between 'word-presentations' (‘’Wort- vorstellungen’’) and 'thing-presentations' (‘’Sachvorstellungen’’) is prominent in Freud's metapsychological writings, in which he argues that the two types of presentation are bound together in the preconscious-conscious system, whereas in the unconscious system only thing-presentations are found.[1]

This seemed to some of Lacan's contemporaries to offer an objection to Lacan's theories about the linguistic nature of the unconscious. Lacan counters such objections by pointing out that there are two words in German for 'thing': ‘’das Ding’’ and ‘’die Sache’’.[2] It is the latter term which Freud usually employs to refer to the thing-presentations in the unconscious, and Lacan argues that although on one level ‘’Sachvorstellungen’’ and ‘’Wortvorstellungen’’ are opposed, in the symbolic level 'they go together'. Thus ‘’die Sache’’ is the representation of a thing in the symbolic order, as opposed to ‘’das Ding’’, which is the thing in its “dumb reality”,[3] the thing in the real, which is “the beyond-of-the-signified.”[4] The thing-presentations found in the unconscious are thus still linguistic phenomena, as opposed to ‘’das Ding’’ which is entirely outside language, and outside the unconscious. “The Thing is characterised by the fact that it is impossible for us to imagine it.”[5] Lacan's concept of the Thing as an unknowable x, beyond symbolisation, has clear affinities with the Kantian 'thing-in-itself'.


In his seminar on the ethics of psychoanalysis, Lacan sought to clarify Freud’s definition of the unconscious and especially the question of what is repressed. For Freud there can be no unconscious without repression, but what exactly is it that is repressed: words, images, feelings? For Lacan, what is repressed is not iamges, words or emotions but something much more fundamental. Freud hit upon this when, in ‘’The Interpretation of Dreams’’, he suggested that there was a hard impenetrable core of the dream – what he called the ‘navel’ of the dream – that is beyond interpretation. What is repressed, argues Lacan, is this hard impenetrable core. This is always a core of the real that is missing from the symbolic and all other representations, images and signifiers are no more than attempts to fill this gap. In seminar VII Lacan identified this repressed element as ‘’the representative of the representation’’, or ‘’dad Ding’’ (the Thing).

The Thing is the beyond of the signified – that which is unknowable in itself. It is something beyond symbolization, and therefore associated with the real, or as Lacan puts it, “the thing in its dumb reality.”[6] The Thing is a lost object that must be continually refound. However, it is more importantly an ‘object that is nowhere articulated, it is a lost object, but paradoxically an object that was never there in the first place to be lost.”[7]


As well as the object of language, ‘’das Ding’’ is the object of desire. It is the lost object which must be continually refound, it is the prehistoric, unforgettable Other[8] - in other words, the forbidden object of incestuous desire, the mother.[9] The pleasure principle is the law which maintains the subject at a certain distance from the Thing,[10] making the subject circle round it without ever attaining it.[11] The Thing is thus presented to the subject as his Sovereign Good, but if the subject transgresses the pleasure principle and attains this Good, it is experienced as suffering/evil,[12] because the subject “cannot stand the extreme good that ‘’das Ding’’ may bring to him.”[13] It is fortunate, then, that the Thing is usually inaccessible.[14]

After the seminar of 1959-60, the term ‘’das Ding’’ disappears almost entirely from Lacan's work. However, the ideas associated with it provide the essential features of the new developments in the concept of the ‘’objet petit a’’ as Lacan develops it from 1963 onwards. For example the ‘’objet petit a’’ is circled by the drive[15] and is seen as the cause of desire just as ‘’das Ding’’ is seen as “the cause of the most fundamental human passion.”[16]

Also, the fact that the Thing is not the imaginary object but firmly in the register of the real, [17] and yet is “that which in the real suffers from the signifier,”[18] anticipates the transition in Lacan's thought towards locating objet petit a mcreasingly in the register of the real from 1963 on.

  1. Freud, 19l5e
  2. see S7, 62-3, 44-5
  3. 7, 55
  4. S7, 54
  5. 87, 12
  6. 1992: 55
  7. 1992: 58
  8. S7, 53
  9. S7, 67
  10. S7, 58, 63
  11. S7, 95
  12. Lacan plays on the French term mal, which can mean both suffering and evil, see S7, 179
  13. S7, 73
  14. S7, 159
  15. Sll, 168,
  16. S7, 97
  17. S2, l 12
  18. S7, 125