Body, Meaning and Knowledge – Part II

by Jo Rostron on November 12, 2011

In his session of 21st January 1975, R. S. I. [i] ,  Jacques Lacan says that it is only because the subject is CAUSED by an object imagining it knows, that the subject knows anything.  The subject is only ever supposed. This object, that imagines it knows, bars, or crosses through, the Other of knowledge.  It can take on many forms, although it is without form itself and can only be thought of ‘orally or shittily’ (incorporation or expulsion).  This object, the objet (a), is bound to the orifices of the body.  Although the eye may present as a sphere and the ear as a spiral, both eye and ear are orifices and as such create spheroidal perception.  The form of the circle configures meaning and designates the consistency presupposed to the symbolic.   Meaning accords with this primary image connected to the Order of the body, and from which the imaginary is suspended.   Thus there is an Order of the Body other than that along which the body thinks it moves.


The Other of the Body is a matrix with a dual entry, one of these being the objet (a).  The other entry is not the One of the signifier, which must not be confused with the One of meaning.   The One of meaning is the being, the being specified by the Unconscious inasmuch as it ex-ists , at least to the body.  For Lacan the striking thing is that it ex-ists in discord.  There is nothing in the Unconscious that accords with the body.  The Unconscious is discordant.  By speaking, the Unconscious determines the subject as being, but a being crossed through with the metonymy that supports desire which is impossible to speak as such.  It is (a) that causes desire.  (a) is neither the object nor the complement of desire, but only the cause as in causer, to speak.  The subject is caused by an object that drives him to speech, but this object can be noted only in writing.


This writing is not an effect of language. which is the patheme [ii] or passion of the body.  From this written language which has no effect, that which can be inscribed is a radical abstraction, the object Lacan designates  ‘with the figure of writing a’.  Here Lacan is referring to the letter and the matheme, the writing of what is unsayable, but can be transmitted.  These figures of writing denote the discursive demand and the promise of meaning –  therefore its absence.  ‘Nothing of it is thinkable but everything that is thought of as a subject, the being one imagines as being, is determined by it.’   The One of meaning hardly comes into it, because it is merely the effect of the One of the signifier, which only works by being available to designate any signified.


I now want to look more closely at what Lacan says about the letter in  Sem XVIII: 12th May 1971: titled  ‘Lituraterre’  [iii].   He claims that we need to forget knowledge put to use starting from the semblance, and that we need a different discourse for the experience that he is ‘warding off.’  He defines, in terms of riddles, several characteristics of the letter:


  • It is the letter itself that makes the journey and it always reaches its destination (takes on meaning according to context / recipient)
  • Its detours render a final account (the symptom) that has nothing to with its contents  (its detours underpin each One of the signifier  ‘with a question mark’ owing to the lack of sexual rapport.
  • It has an effect of feminisation – it is receptive as is the envelope, actively seeking a passive aim.
  • It carries the master signifier in its envelope, as in Poe’s story The Purloined Letter.  Psychoanalysis cannot tackle what is behind Poe’s text without showing its own failure.


Each x of the Ucs is capable of being written down by a letter.  What is the x of the Ucs that is unspeakable.  What is this hole or envelope?  Lacan is claiming to illuminate psychoanalysis, and to invoke those who seek enlightenment.  He illuminates by showing where the hole is in psychoanalysis – after all optics and physics make use of the hole – and he gives the example of the photon.  He poses these questions for his students to consider ( ‘On a Discourse that might not be a Semblance': Sem XVIII: ‘Lituraterre': Ch 7: 12th May 1971: p5-6: op. cit.)


  • Are certain analysts exercising psychoanalysis or being exercised by it?  He suggests that psychoanalysis shows itself at its best when knowledge is checkmated – and this does not (necessarily) imply a failure of knowledge.
  • Is it a dead letter that is the agency of the unconscious ?  He says that the letter has to insist and is not there by right, if it is reason that forces its advance.  Repetition of the letter creates the symptom.
  • Is there is nothing in the real which can do without the mediation of the letter?   A mediation that takes place across a frontier separating  two territories.  A frontier symbolises that they are the same territories for anyone crossing it.


Lacan’s two territories described in Sem XVIII: 12th May 1971 [iv] ,  do not correspond to ideas of the inner world and the outer world, or biological adaptation and natural selection.   Lacan makes the concrete statement that a litter comes after a letter.  He says that the letter is literal because it is founded on the littoral.  The littoral posits a domain that makes with another a frontier PRECISELY because they have absolutely nothing in common, not even a reciprocal relation.  The letter is the shore line, the littoral, mediating between jouissance and knowledge.  It is with the letter that psychoanalysis tackles and designates  the edge of the hole in knowledge.  Psychoanalysis is obliged to miss the sense of what the letter says literally, through its own movement, when all its interpretations are summed up in jouissance.

Jacques-Alain Miller puts this succinctly in his address: ‘Reading A Symptom’ to the New Lacanian School’s IXth Congress: ‘How Psychoanalysis Works’, in London on 3rd April 2011 [v]. ‘In the field of language, psychoanalysis doubtless finds its point of departure in the function of speech, but it refers it to writing. There is a gap between speaking and writing. Psychoanalysis operates in this gap. It exploits this difference.’  However, it is the Unconscious – the effect of language – that remains and takes precedence otherwise we could not make sense of anything much.  We have to know how the Unconcious commands this function of the letter.

[i] Jacques Lacan 1975: Seminar XXII:  R. S. I.: 1974-1975: Session of 21st January 1975. Jacqueline Rose’s translation: published in ‘Jacques Lacan & the École Freudienne:  Feminine Sexuality’: Edited by Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose: Macmillan: 1982: Ch 7: p162-171.  Further details of translations of Seminar XXII are available on @ here & here.

[ii]  ‘patheme’ is the author’s neologism – it refers to the passions.  It originates from:  ‘pathema and mathema were two terms known to the Greeks: the latter defines that which can be structured and transmitted to generations, while the former represents the suffering associated with this transmission.  The links between the two in English analytical culture have long been lost…. a divorce of structure and feeling….’  Quoted from: ‘Autism and Topology’ by Bernard Burgoyne:  in ‘Drawing the Soul: Schemas and Models in Psychoanalysis’: edited by Bernard Burgoyne: Rebus Press: 2000: p191.

[iii]Jacques Lacan 1971: Seminar XVIII: On a discourse that might not be a semblance: 1970-1971: Session of Session of 12th May 1971. Cormac Gallagher’s translation: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book XVIII: On a discourse that might not be a semblance: 1970-1971: published at : available here.

[iv]  ‘Lituraterre’: session of 12th May 1971: Sem XVIII ‘On a Discourse that might not be a Semblance’: Ch 7: op. cit. This session is the spoken version of an écrit published 1)  in the review Litterature (Larousse), No 3, 1971: 2) “Lituraterre” in Ornicar? No 41, Paris: Navarin, 1987: 3) Autres écrits, Paris: Seuil, 2001.  Jack Stone’s translation into English available here.

[v] Jacques-Alain Miller 2011.  Presented on 3rd April 2011. Published 1) NLS Messager 38 – 2011/2012: Towards Tel Aviv 3: 15th July 2011 2) ‘Lire un symptôme’: Mental: Revue internationale de psychanalyse: “Comment la psychanalyse opère?”: vol 26: June 2011: p49-60 3) ‘Reading a symptom’: Hurly Burly – The International Journal of Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Issue 6: September 2011.  p143-152