Tuesday, 19 August 2008


In my earlier account (posted below) of Wittgenstein’s understanding of the role of grammar and our use of language, I suggested that there is in our meaningful utterances a double movement, a twofold temporality, of anticipation and retroaction. I argued that this is brought out by an argument developed by James Guetti and Rupert Read, to the effect that ‘we may say that each element of a linguistic sequence is presumed in order for another to follow it, or that it is transformed to presumptive status when—or even because—that further step occurs’ (52). They suggest that ‘a rule in action is "invisible" just in virtue of the fact that, to be taken as a rule—to be an actionable or capacitative concept—it must be un-expressed and un-exposed’ (52). In support of this view they cite an example from Wittgenstein, who imagines addressing someone who is in pain and simultaneously hearing a near-by piano being tuned in the following way: ‘"Were you thinking of the noise or of your pain?" If he answers "I was thinking of the piano-tuning"—is he observing that the connexion existed, or is he making it by means of these words?—Can’t I say both? If what he said was true, didn’t the connexion exist—and is not he for all that making one that did not exist?’ [48, cited from PI, 682] On the one hand, the ‘existence’ of the connection (between the person in pain and the noise of the piano-tuning) may be taken as a matter of the conditional, as a matter of what could or would have been said, had the question been put. On the other, the connection seems to come into being only when it is constituted retrospectively in the act of speech. The pre-existing conditions may be said to be what is anticipated by the connections of standing grammar, while the utterance itself constitutes that grammar in its pertinence, brings it into being, retroactively. The temporality of significant discourse is a temporality of the future anterior.

My contention is that this understanding of anticipation and retroaction is comparable to Lacan’s account of the temporality of the signifier. It is an idea of temporality that underpins the Lacanian graphs of desire, beginning with the ‘elementary cell of desire’ [see Graph 1 in ‘The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire’ (1960), Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink (Norton, 2006), p. 681]. Lacan says of his graphs that they lay out ‘the topology that I have developed in my teaching over the past few years’. Topology, a notion that was to play a crucial role in his later thought, is worth pausing over. It is a form, such as that of the Moebius strip (or an Escher painting), that is not reducible to the linear: if we try to think of language in topological terms such as these we will, it would seem, be led to question any picture of language that represents it as governed by rules laid down in advance, stretching like rails into the future. We may think of anticipation and retroaction as inseparable from each other, each one being the other seen under a different aspect, like the sides of a Moebius strip, a three-dimensional figure with one surface and one edge only. The fact that Lacan designates this figure by the lozenge in his matheme for fantasy, $<>a, suggests that we should see it as an attempt to capture something fundamental about the manner in which he wants us to think through, or think with, the manner of his writing, the mode or style of his presentation. For example, in his formula for the signifiers, S1/S2, the two letters, S1 and S2, are to seen as passing through each other, in a kind of self-exceeding and interminable dialectic: the signifier is the signified of the signified, the signified the signifier of the signifier. The aim is to represent in writing the lack of the very function that engenders it. He writes in 1953 [‘The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis’, trans. Fink, p. 247]: ‘I identify myself in language, but only by losing myself in it as an object. What is realised in my history is neither the past definite as what was, since it is no more, nor even the perfect as what has been in what I am, but the future anterior as what I will have been, given what I am in the process of becoming’. Lacan’s concern is not with knowledge-that, nor even with knowledge-how, but with language in act, in its dynamic employment, and I have to say that the assumptions informing his approach seem to me very like those that the various writings of Guetti and Read have also brought out.

Let us look, then, at the ‘elementary cell of desire’, Graph 1. Some pre-symbolic intention (denoted by A) cuts through (or ‘quilts’) the chain of signifiers, S→S’. The result of this is the subject, denoted by $, a matheme that indicates at once the divided, or split, subject and the effaced signifier, the subject as void or empty space in the signifying chain. As Slavoj Zizek has noted, ‘A crucial feature at this elementary level of the graph is the fact that the vector of the subjective intention quilts the vector of the signifier’s chain backwards, in a retroactive direction: it steps out of the chain at a point preceding the point at which it has pierced it’ [The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1999), p. 101]. To say that the effect of signification is retroactive in character amounts to saying that in the progression or unfolding of the signifying chain the signified is left behind, as a kind of after-effect: ‘the effect of meaning is always produced backward, après coup’ (Zizek, op. cit., p.101). The onward, forward movement of the signifying chain, the uttering, is at the same time a turning or folding back of itself upon itself. To put it another way, the act of enunciation always is always ahead of, in excess of, the enounced, until, at some point, this excess is momentarily subdued. ‘Signifiers which are still in a "floating" state – whose signification is not yet fixed – follow one another. Then, at a certain point – precisely the point at which the intention pierces the signifier’s chain, traverses it – some signifier fixes retroactively the meaning of the chain, sews the meaning to the signifier, halts the sliding of the meaning’ [Zizek, op. cit., pp.101-2].

The signifier that fixes meaning retroactively is what Lacan calls the point de capiton, the upholstery button, quilting point, anchoring point (Sheridan) or button tie (Fink). Lacan sums up the situation thus: ‘The diachronic function of this button tie can be found in a sentence, insofar as a sentence closes its signification only with its last term, each term being anticipated in the construction by the other terms and, inversely, sealing their meaning by its retroactive effect’ [trans. Fink, p.682]. Zizek exemplifies the matter by taking an instance of what he calls ‘ideological quilting’. One may think of ideology as a space where signifiers float unanchored, signifiers such as ‘freedom’, ‘state’, ‘justice’, ‘freedom’ and so on. It is not until their chain is supplemented by some master signifier (‘Communism’) that their (Communist) meaning is retroactively determined [Zizek, op. cit., p.102]. Zizek goes on to argue that such capitonnage or quilting is successful only insofar as it effaces its own traces. To put it another way, the grammar of Communism is presumed when it appears to us (Communists) as if real freedom is ‘in its very nature’ opposed to bourgeois freedom, that the state is ‘in its very nature’ a tool of class domination, and so on. This presumption he sees as an instance of the fundamental illusion of transference, an illusion the untying of whose binding structure must be accomplished during the course of an analysis. For Zizek, this aim is pertinent not only to psychoanalytic therapy but also to the analysis of ideology and ideological ‘transference’ also. (We may think in this context of the therapeutic understanding of philosophy, as that is undertaken by Wittgenstein, and by the analyses, including those considered earlier, of Guetti and Read.)

Lacan’s purpose seems rather different, however, inasmuch as he is seeking to give what would appear to be a general account of language and the structure of signification as such. In ‘The Subversion of the Subject’, in the paragraph immediately following his remarks on the diachronic function of the button tie, he writes: ‘But the synchronic structure is more hidden, and it is this structure that brings us to the beginning. It is metaphor insofar as the first attribution is constituted in it—the attribution that promulgates "the dog goes meow, the cat goes woof-woof," by which, in one fell swoop, the child, by disconnecting the thing from its cry, raises the sign to the function of the signifier and reality to the sophistics of signification, and in his contempt for verisimilitude, makes necessary the verification of multiple objectifications of the same thing’ [trans. Fink, p.682]. By metaphor he is referring to the originary substitution of the word for the thing, an evocation of the idea initiated by Hegel and given currency by Kojève, that of the word as ‘murderer of the thing’. In Seminar I he says: ‘Everything begins with the possibility of naming, which is both destructive of the thing and allows the passage of the thing onto the symbolic plane, thanks to which the truly human register comes into its own’ [The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book I, trans. John Forrester (Cambridge, 1988), p.219]. Now, while the idea that there is a founding of language at all is dubious, let alone a founding of it on naming, what Lacan is after is, I think, not a theory of language but rather a prompt or reminder, to the effect that language is given all at once. Jacques-Alain Miller sums up Lacan’s position in exactly these terms: ‘The consequence of all this is that an evolutionary point of view concerning language is very difficult to bring back. On the contrary, we cannot imagine the slow, gradual learning of language, but, rather, language created at one stroke. It is a holistic theory, I would say. If a child can learn language, it is on the precondition that he is already in language’ [‘Language: Much Ado About Nothing’, in Lacan and the Subject of Language, ed. Ellie Ragland-Sullivan and Mark Bracher (Routledge, 1991), p. 33]. Miller hangs on to the notion of theory here, but in effect his argument subverts it. On his own showing, there is simply no position from which such a theory can be elaborated, since we are, all of us, ‘already in language’. Some earlier remarks in the same essay make this conclusion unavoidable: ‘nothingness enters reality through language . . . this void is created by language. That is, we replace the correspondence theory of language with a creation theory of language, the first creation being a lack, and in this sense it is a lack of all things’ [op. cit., p.32]. What ‘a creation theory’ of meaning amounts to is no theory at all—it is the subversion of theories of meaning as such.

Lacan’s considerations of Graph 2 (Fink, p.684) elaborate his ideas on signification further, and can be mapped onto the operations of grammar as understood by Guetti and Read. Lacan draws attention to two points of intersection on the graph, A, the Other, on the right of the signifier-voice chain, and s(A), the signified, the meaning, a function of the big Other, on the left of it. He writes: ‘The first, labelled A, is the locus of the treasure trove of signifiers, which does not mean of the code, for the one-to-one correspondence between a sign and a thing is not preserved here, the signifier being constituted on the basis of a synchronic and countable collection in which none of the elements is sustained except through its opposition to each of the others. The second, labelled s(A), is what may be called the punctuation, in which signification ends as a finished product’ [trans. Fink, p.682]. If we put aside for a moment the idiom deriving from Saussure, and see in the topological relation between A and s(A) the relation of grammar and empirical statement, as in, say, the waxwings example, we may see the working together of anticipation and retroaction, presumption and action, that Guetti and Read, in their account of meaningful consequences and the following of a rule, have also addressed. The mode of this relation is captured by Lacan in the following: ‘The subject’s submission to the signifier, which occurs in the circuit that goes from s(A) to A and back from A to s(A), is truly a circle, inasmuch as the assertion that is established in it . . . refers back only to its own anticipation in the composition of the signifier, which is in itself meaningless [insignifiante]’ [trans. Fink, pp.682-3]. Substitute grammar for signifier, and Lacan’s prose may be seen as an attempt to enact, at a schematic level, what is involved in a dynamic use of language, in a use of language to say something meaningful. The complex role of the subject is similarly captured, inasmuch as it constitutes itself only by subtracting from the circuit A-s(A) ‘and by decompleting it essentially, such that he [the subject] must, at one and the same time, count himself here and function only as a lack here’ [trans. Fink, p.683]. The subject is not an ‘after-effect’ of the signifying chain, as certain commentators have argued, it is both inside the chain insofar as it is outside it, and excluded insofar as it is included: it is ‘extimate’ In this, it is rather like the set of Russell’s paradox, the set of all those sets that do not include themselves . [Further commentary on the graphs may be found in Zizek, The Sublime Object, ch. 3.]

Wittgenstein writes in Zettel, 545: ‘Being sure that someone is in pain, doubting whether he is, and so on, are so many natural, instinctive kinds of behaviour towards other human beings . . . Our language-game is an extension of primitive behaviour. (For our language-game is behaviour.) (Instinct.)’ Rush Rhees has suggested that the implication of the first remark in parenthesis is that the extension of our primitive behaviour Wittgenstein has in mind is the extension of a language-game [Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, ed. D.Z. Phillips (Blackwell, 2003), p.94: commentary by Phillips, p.163]. The second parenthesis – ‘(Instinct)’ – endorses this reading, insofar as it implies that the language-game does not result from reflection or ratiocination. Rhees goes on to cite On Certainty, 559: ‘You must bear in mind that the language-game is so to say something unpredictable. I mean: it is not based on grounds. It is not reasonable (or unreasonable). It is there, like our life’. He then insists: ‘In this context it would make no sense to ask, "From what did it emerge? And still less, ‘From what did language – Sprache – emerge?’ [op. cit., p.95]. Wittgenstein, he notes, does not speak of any development from something prior to a language-game: language, we may say, is given at one stroke, in one fell swoop. The conclusion to be drawn regarding Lacan is that drawn by the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus regarding his own propositions: ‘My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognises them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) He must overcome these propositions, and then he will see the world aright’ [6.54]. There is no Other of the Other—the Other does not exist.

© 2008 Michael Grant

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