In which Zizek misreads Lacan

Zizek completed a second doctorate in 1986 under Jacques-Alain Miller, entitled “La philosophie entre le symptom et le fantasme”. His reading of Lacan precedes Jacques-Alain Miller’s switching away in 2005 from the ‘structuralist’ aspect of Lacan’s teaching in its different facets to the late Lacan.  To try and capture the significance of this switch, we need to contrast Lacan’s understanding of the importance of the Caesura with Zizek’s reading of Lacan in relation to Schelling.

The essential point I am wanting to make is that Zizek’s use of Schelling is to construct a metaphor for the formation of the subject in which, while for Lacan it is a privation arising from being in relation to a real lack, a real hole (Lacan 2021[1956-57]: p29), in Zizek’s reading it is a contracting arising from becoming alienated from the abyss, the void of divine eternity. In effect, Zizek’s reading is a metaphysical version of the subject’s caesura.  The resultant radical asymmetry between the void of divine eternity and man’s alienation leaves an irreducible gap – an indivisible remainder – that in Zizek’s reading of Lacan becomes the relation to the objet petit a. No such radical asymmetry exists in Lacan.

The Lacanian understanding of the importance of the Caesura

The caesura is the moment of separation from the mother:

“The striking coincidence by which the anxiety of the new-born baby and the anxiety of the infant in arms are both conditioned by separation from the mother does not need to be explained on psychological lines. It can be accounted for simply enough biologically; for, just as the mother originally satisfied all the needs of the foetus through the apparatus of her own body, so now, after its birth, she continues to do so, though partly by other means. There is much more continuity between intra-uterine life and earliest infancy than the impressive caesura of the act of birth would have us believe. What happens is that the child’s biological situation as a foetus is replaced for it by a psychical object-relation to its mother. But we must not forget that during its intra-uterine life the mother was not an object for the foetus, and that at that time there were no objects at all.” (Freud 1959[1926]: p138)

The experience of this separation cannot be compared to later forms of separation, since the foetus is as yet totally unaware of its existence as an object:

“The first experience of anxiety which an individual goes through (in the case of human beings, at all events) is birth, and, objectively speaking, birth is a separation from the mother. … Now it would be very satisfactory if anxiety, as a symbol of separation, were to be repeated on every subsequent occasion on which a separation took place. But unfortunately we are prevented from making use of this correlation by the fact that birth is not experienced subjectively as a separation from the mother, since the foetus, being a completely narcissistic creature, is totally unaware of her existence as an object.” (Freud 1959[1926]: p130)

The Lacanian reading of Freud on how the experience of this caesura is taken up is as an affirmation (Bejahung) of being in relation to an original loss, the foreclosure of which forms the basis of psychosis:

“In his ‘Reply to Jean Hyppolite’s commentary on Freud’s Negation’(Lacan 2002[1996]-c), Lacan describes a primordial act of affirmation which is logically prior to any act of negation (Lacan 2002[1996]-c). Lacan uses Freud’s German term, Bejahung (affirmation) to denote this primordial affirmation (Lacan 2002[1996]-c: p387; Freud 1961[1925]). Whereas negation concerns what Freud called the “judgement of existence,” Bejahung denotes something more fundamental, namely the primordial act of symbolization itself, the inclusion of something in the symbolic universe. Only after a thing has been symbolized (at the level of Bejahung) can the value of existence be attributed to it or not (negation). Lacan posits a basic alternative between Bejahung and the psychotic mechanism he later calls “foreclosure”; the former designates a primordial inclusion of something in the symbolic, whereas foreclosure is a primordial refusal to include something — the Name-of-the-Father — in the symbolic (Lacan 1993[1981]: p82).” (Evans 1996: p17)

Others have delved into the basis in Freud’s work of this affirmation, an affirmation of being in relation to an originating loss that is referred to as Das Ding (Hooson 2015). In considering what might have been lost in relation to the intra-uterine life of the foetus, Freud noted that “for psychic development, the intrauterine time must be included in the calculation, otherwise it will not work; whereas for sexual development, the calculation can only start with birth. (Freud 1985: December 6th 1896 pp207-215). More recent research shows that “the most rapid growth of the brain occurs in utero and in the first 20 postnatal weeks. At birth, the majority of systems that will compose the network architecture of the adult brain are already present.” (Thomason 2020) “Human brain development is a protracted process that begins in the third gestational week with the differentiation of the neural progenitor cells and extends at least through late adolescence, arguably throughout the lifespan” (Stiles and Jernigan 2010).

The process of development that the caesura interrupts is thus one in which the traces of endogenous excitation of the -complexes arising during the pre-natal stage of development have added to them wholly new forms of excitation:

“… also receives cathexes from the interior of the body, and it seems reasonable to divide the -neurones into two groups: the neurones of the pallium which are cathected from , and the nuclear neurones which are cathected from the endogenous paths of conduction. (Freud 1966: p315)

Lacan’s reading of the effects of the interruption caused by the caesura are that the subject experiences a loss that is either affirmed or foreclosed:

“In the subject’s relationship to the symbol there is the possibility of a primitive Verwerfung, that is, that something is not symbolised and is going to appear in the real.  It is essential to introduce the category of the real, it is impossible to neglect it in Freud’s texts. I give it this name so as to define a field different from the symbolic.  From there alone it is possible to throw light on the psychotic phenomenon and its evolution.  At the level of this pure, primitive Bejahung, which may or may not take place, an initial dichotomy is established – what has been subject to Bejahung, to primitive symbolization, will have various destinies. What has come under the influence of the primitive Verwerfung will have another. … In the beginning, then, there is either Bejahung, which is the affirmative of what is, or Verwerfung.” (Lacan 1993[1981]: pp81-82)

The ‘what is’ that is affirmed is a “primary procedure in which the judgement of attribution finds its root”:

Verwerfung thus cut short any manifestation of the symbolic order—that is, it cut short the Bejahung that Freud posits as the primary procedure in which the judgment of attribution finds its root, and which is no other than the primordial condition for something from the real to come to offer itself up to the revelation of being, or, to employ Heidegger’s language, to be let-be. For it is clearly to this distant point that Freud brings us, since it is only afterwards that anything whatsoever can be found there as existent [comme étant].” (Lacan 2002[1996]-c: p388) italics in the original

The subject, then, is to be understood as this being in relation to that which was lost:

“Where is the subject? It is necessary to find the subject as a lost object. More precisely this lost object is the support of the subject and in many cases is a more abject thing than you may care to consider – in some cases it is something done, as all psychoanalysts and many people who have been psychoanalyzed know perfectly well. […] «S» designates something which can be written exactly as this S. And I have said that the «S» which designates the subject is instrument, matter, to symbolize a loss. A loss that you experience as a subject (and myself also). In other words, this gap between one thing which has marked meanings and this other thing which is my actual discourse that I try to put in the place where you are, you as not another subject but as people that are able to understand me. Where is the analogon ? Either this loss exists or it doesn’t exist. If it exists it is only possible to designate the loss by a system of symbols. In any case, the loss does not exist before this symbolization indicates its place.” (Lacan 1970[1966])

For the subject, it is a loss that shows its presence as an absence, referred to by Freud as the navel of dreams (Freud 1953[1900]: p111 footnote 1) that Lacan refers to a being present for the subject as a ‘hole in the real’:

“I believe that, in the unconscious too, something entirely analogous is signifiable. I believe that what Freud comes to a halt before on this occasion as the navel of the dream, since it is in this regard that he uses the term Unerkannt, unrecognized, this is what he expressly designates elsewhere as the Urverdrängt, the primary repressed (which was translated as best one could). I believe that it is in the destiny[1] of the primary repressed, namely, that something specified by not being able to be said on any account, whatever the approach, being, so to speak, at the root of language, that we can give the best figure of what is at stake.
The relation to this Urverdrängt, to this original repressed, since a question was asked about the origin earlier, I think this is what Freud comes back to regarding what has been translated, very literally, as the navel of dreams. It is a hole, it is something that is the limit of analysis. It obviously has something to do with the Real, which is a real that is perfectly denominable in a way that is a matter of pure fact. It’s not for nothing that it brings into play the function of the navel.” (Lacan 2023[1975])

The importance of the relation to this ‘navel’, this ‘hole in the real’, is written about by Felman (Felman 1993) in the context of the relation to sexuation (Lacan 1998 [1972-73]) and is referred to by Lacan as that which ‘does not stop not being written’:

“The Unerkannt is the impossible to recognize. Freud does not emphasize this in the passage on the navel of dreams. It is only elsewhere that we have the notion of the primary repressed. But even the notion of the primary repressed, in the form given to it, does not foreground this function of impossibility. What designates the impossible is the sense of the Un in the German term. It is the Unmöglich that is at stake, it can neither be said nor written. It does not stop not being written. It’s a kind of redoubled negation, which is the one by which we can approach this quite radical use of negation. When I say it does not stop not being written, it is there that this kind of grey area comes into play, which results from this, that it’s the only way to define the possible, strictly speaking. This would be to say: that the possible stops being written, it is the only way of circumscribing it closely that is established on a solid basis. It is precisely the distance that there is in the scope of the two negations. It is not that it does not stop being written, which, through the effect usually given to the double negation, would amount to limiting ourselves to the fact that it stops being written. But the does not stop not being written seems to me to be the sense of the Unerkannt as Urverdrängt. There is nothing more to be drawn from it. That’s what Freud is referring to when he talks about the navel of the dream. That’s where we lose our thread. There’s no way to pull more on the string, except by breaking it. So that this designates an analogy, entirely analogous to what you’ve just designated as the real of the drive.”(Lacan 2023[1975])

This hole in the real, a hole that is the loss in the real that never ceases not to be written, is the place in which is projected the object of desire, objet petit a:

“In other words, the hole in the real provoked by a loss, a real loss, this sort of unbearable loss for the human being, which provokes mourning in him, is found in the real, is found by that very function in this relationship which is the inverse of the one that I put forward before you under the name of Verwerfunq. Just as what is rejected in the symbolic reappears in the real, that these formulae should be taken in the literal sense, likewise the Verwerfunq, the hole of the loss in the real of something which is properly speaking the intolerable dimension presented to human experience which is, not the experience of one’s own death, which nobody has, but that of the death of someone else, who is for us an essential being. This is a hole in the real, it is found in the real, and because of this fact is found, and because of the same correspondence which in the one that I articulated in the Verwerfunq, to offer the place where there is projected precisely this missing signifier, this essential signifier, a, as such, in the structure of the Other, this signifier whose accent makes the Other powerless to give you your response. This signifier which you cannot pay for except with your flesh and your blood, this signifier which is essentially the phallus under the veil.” (Lacan 2019[2013]: p336)

The desire here spoken of, however, is not at the level of the ego’s desire of ‘something’, but at the level of the subject’s relation to the hole in the real: “…while desire is the metonymy of the want-to-be, the ego is the metonymy of desire” (Lacan 2002[1996]-b: p534[640])

Zizek’s reading of the caesura as a relation to a no-thing

Here is Zizek’s reading of Lacan in relation to Schelling:

“Schelling’s ‘materialist’ contribution is best epitomized by his fundamental thesis according to which, to put it bluntly, the true Beginning is not at the beginning: there is something that precedes the Beginning itself – a rotary motion whose vicious cycle is broken, in a gesture akin to the cutting of the   Gordian knot, by the Beginning proper, that is, the primordial act of decision. The beginning of all beginnings, the beginning kat’ exohen – ‘ the mother of all beginnings’, as one would say today – is, of course, the ‘In the beginning was the Word’ from the Gospel according to St John: prior to it, there was nothing, that is, the void of divine eternity. According to Schelling, however, ‘eternity’ is not a nondescript mass – a lot of things take place in it.  Prior to the Word there is the chaotic-psychotic universe of blind drives, their rotary motion, their undifferentiated pulsating; and the Beginning occurs when the Word is pronounced which ‘represses’, rejects into the eternal Past, this self-enclosed circuit of drives. In short, at the Beginning proper stands a resolution, an act of decision which, by differentiating between past and present, resolves the preceding unbearable tension of the rotary motion of drives: the true Beginning is the passage from the ‘closed’ rotary motion to ‘open’ progress, from drive to desire – or, in Lacanian terms, from the Real to the Symbolic.” (Zizek 1996: p13) italics in the original.

In this reading, there was a ‘nothing’, a ‘void of divine eternity’ in relation to which ‘the primordial act of decision’ took the form of ‘contracting being’, a contracting that is paralleled by man’s ‘primordial act of free decision’:

“… the primordial act of free decision is not only man’s direct contact with the primordial freedom as the abyss out of which all things originate – that is, a kind of short circuit, of direct overlapping, between man and the Absolute; this act of contracting being, of choosing one’s eternal nature, has to be a repetition of the same act of the Absolute itself.” (Zizek 1996: pp20-21) italics in the original

‘Contracting’ here is to be understood as a contracting of being in a process of becoming alienated from the abyss, the void of divine eternity. The parallel ‘contracting being’ by which the subject asserts ‘pure Freedom’, instituted by a primordial act in relation to the vicious cycle of repetition, which Zizek identifies with Lacan’s Real, leaves an irreducible gap – an indivisible remainder – that in Zizek’s reading of Lacan becomes the relation to the objet petit a:

“Schelling’s point is not, therefore that the Ideal (A) is ultimately bound to serve the Real (B); rather it resides in the irreducible gap between pure Freedom ($) and every symbolic scheme of Reason, every determinate symbolic representation of the subject in A, in the ideal medium. The leap from $ (pure Freedom) to A is possible only via a detour through B, in the medium of B; in other words, it is radically contingent: if the subject ($) is to represent-express itself in A, it has to rely on B, on a contracted element which eludes idealization. In Lacanian terms: there is no symbolic representation without fantasy, that is, the subject ($) is constitutively split between S1 and a; it can represent itself in S1, in a signifier, only in so far as the phantasmatic consistency of the signifying network is guaranteed by a reference to objet petit a.” (Zizek 1996: p79)

Zizek’s way of reading Lacan is thus within the context of Schelling’s relation to German Idealism:

“In dealing with Schelling’s Weltater, one should always bear in mind the precise discursive context of his endeavour: his ultimate aim was to realize the so-called ‘oldest systematic programme of German Idealisms’ from his youth, and to deliver the system of ‘rational mythology’ which would present the highest insights into the nature of the Absolute in a popular-mythological form, thereby setting in motion a total spiritual-political renovation of the German nation via the surmounting of the deadlocks of modernity.” (Zizek 1996: pp8-9) Italics in the original

Within this context, the ‘irreducible gap’ read as objet petit a, while appearing to be a ‘wanting being’ in the sense of the Lacanian manque à être (Lacan 2002[1996]-a: p534[640]), is a wanting towards a return to the void, a nothingness that is the void of divine eternity:

“For Schelling, the original Will is the transcendent point of departure, from the very beginning securing the transcendence of reality: it is the `living reality’ and `the oldest of all beings’ which develops `freely, by its own impulse and volition, purely by itself’ (Schelling 1942: p83). The Schellingian Will is a `living contradiction’: it is only as wanting to be, which means that, at the same time it is not. As wanting being, it is simultaneously nothingness which lacks being and a proto-being pressing for more life, more existence that will realize and reveal its final essence. … But for Schelling, there can be no talk of the estrangement from the will and the unintended consequences, because the primordial Will simply does not know what it wants: it wants being, it wants itself, but since none of it existed before, it has no clear picture of its strivings.” (Bielik-Robson 2019) italics in original

In Zizek’s reading of Schelling, we understand the repetition compulsion as a failure of narrative to metabolize trauma and a regression to a self-erasure evidencing the effects of the death drive overcoming the will as a wanting to be:

“Schelling thus discovers the rule which later on will be fully confirmed by the Freudian method of the talking cure: the more traumatic the moment of origin, the more visible the tendency for Wiederholungszwang, the `repetition compulsion’ which does not allow the past to become past and bestows the returning trauma with an aura of timelessness, akin to the one which gives the axioms of the system their eternal validity. In Schellingian terms, it means that the more `vexing’ and `mad’ the foundational act of the first creation of das Reale, the less likely it is for the story to develop: the narrative gets stuck in the insoluble compulsion to repeat and then, instead of moving ahead, begins to regress. Again, Schelling proves here to be Freud’s direct precursor. Just as in Freud, the regressive tendency aims at the deletion of all psychic life and the return to the nirvanic state of self-erasure, Auslöschung – in Schelling, the regression takes the form of the ideal of absolute Ruhe, rest and peace, which will have put the end to the `madness’ of the irrational dark arche. (Bielik-Robson 2019) Italics in original

The effect of this reading, therefore, is to identify a radical asymmetry between the void and ‘man’ in which

“true being – the only being worthy of that name – is of a purely pneumatic nature, while matter turns out to be the fake creation of an Archon, a minor apostate deity who made this fallen world by merely imitating the divine creative power. Thus, while from the point of view of material entities the true being appears as nothing (a no-thing whose mode of existing cannot be compared to that of cosmic beings), from the point of view of the true being the created world simply is nothing.” (Bielik-Robson 2023) italics in original

No such radical asymmetry is present in Lacan’s work.  In its place are incommensurabilities that take up the stratification that Freud wrote about in 1896 (Freud 1985: December 6th 1896 pp207-215) separating a neuronal (radically) unconscious from a symbolic unconscious and an imaginary perceptual reality, the relations between which take the form of a Borromean knotting that is the subject’s taking up of his or her being in relation to an originating loss.


[1] TN: The reader may wish to note that the term destin is also the word used to translate Freud’s “Triebe Und Triebschicksale”—“Pulsion et destin des pulsion”—which is translated in the Standard Edition as “Instincts and their Vicissitudes.”


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