Thursday, 23 September 2010


‘In the beginning was the deed’ (OC §402). With this famous citation from Goethe, Wittgenstein seems to signal a gap or rupture between letter and voice, between signifying act and bodily singularity. The sense of an utterance cannot be separated from the conditions of that utterance, conditions that are accidental, contingent. One can see here something of how meaning, the flat, denotative meaning of a written chain of words, is transformed into sense. As Zizek has it, this takes place ‘only when a nonsensical vocal dark spot which, in its very opaqueness functions as the stand-in for the subject is added to it’ (IR, 197). If objective-denotative meaning is to be transformed into subjective-expressive sense, one has to supplement it with a vocal stain, a stain that is without meaning: sense = meaning + nonsense. This transformation of the chain is effected, of course, retroactively. (See the graphs of desire.)

The presence of this impenetrable vocal supplement effectuates the magic transmutation of a written chain of signifiers into ‘subjectivized’ speech in which one can discern, beyond its denotative meaning, the reverberation of a subjective position of enunciation. (IR, 197)

Wittgenstein evokes some thing very similar to this when he refers what he calls ‘the context of significant use’ in the Tractatus, a crucial insight which he goes on to elaborate in his later work. (See James Conant on this.) The transmutation of meaning into sense is inseparable from the unpredictable singularity of a language event. (See the discussion of Guetti and Read elsewhere on this site.)

As an example of what I have in mind here, I cite the following remarks from Zettel, remarks in which Wittgenstein also brings out with astonishing clarity the lack of foundation of language, the lack which alone supports it, the nothing from which it comes, ex nihilo:

Even where the feeling that arouses joy is localised, joy is not: if for example we rejoice in the smell of a flower. – Joy is manifested in facial expression, in behaviour. (But we do not say that we are joyful in our faces.)
“But I do have a real feeling of joy!” Yes, when you are glad you really are glad. And of course joy is not joyful behaviour, nor yet a feeling around the corners of the mouth and the eyes.
“But surely joy designates an inward thing.” No. “Joy” designates nothing at all. Neither any inward or any outward thing. (Zettel §§486-87)

One might substitute jouissance for ‘joy’ and the point will, I think, remain. Our having the concept of joy that we do is part of our having that kind of complex life with language, its words, its grammar (in Wittgenstein’s sense) into which agreement—agreement in judgements, not just in definitions—enters in specific and often unforeseeable ways. In Zettel §351 he remarks:

‘If human beings were not in general agreed about the colours of things, if undetermined cases were not exceptional, then our concept of colour could not exist.’ No: our concept would not exist.

It is in our lives with language that the concepts that we have are indeed the concepts that we have. There is nothing beyond this: our lives in language float free in empty space. We possess no firm ground under our feet. One might say, with Zizek, that language maintains ‘an unnameable distance from the Real’. One might also say that what is being revealed here is the primordial character of the word. Just as there is no name for the name, so there is no metalanguage. The import of Wittgenstein’s vision is also grasped by Agamben when he writes: ‘we finally find ourselves alone with our words; for the first time we are truly alone with language, abandoned without any final foundation. This is the Copernican revolution that the thought of our time inherits from nihilism: we are the first human beings who have become completely conscious of language’ (Potentialities, 45). To adapt a formulation of Zizek’s, the barrier separating language (the Symbolic) from the extra-linguistic (the Real), is impossible to trespass, since language (the Symbolic) is this very barrier. It is in this gap that Lacan locates the subject: the subject is in effect the ‘abyss that forever separates language from the substantial life-process’.

One can see here what is involved in Lacan’s later considerations of the Borromean knot. In the seminar of 1975-76, devoted to a consideration of Joyce, the knot moves from being threefold to becoming fourfold, the fourth element being le sinthome, that which links the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real together. This can be mapped—at the risk of gross oversimplification—onto the equation taken from Zizek that I gave above: sense (Imaginary), meaning (Symbolic and nonsense (Real). Le sinthome would then appear as a thread or line to be envisaged as looping around the three terms of the equation. The problem here of course is that the equation exists in the register of the symbolic, whereas the symbolic is only one element of the knot as it appears in Lacan’s presentation. What my suggestion does conform to, however, is Lacan’s insistence that the writing of the knot cannot be located ‘in symbolic structure, psychological meaning [‘sense’ in Zizek’s equation] or the mute insistence of the drive; in other words the knot itself is irreducible to the registers it inscribes’ (Luke Thurston, James Joyce and the Problem of Psychoanalysis, 195). The mute insistence of the drive is what turns around the black spot of the voice, object a. The topology of the split subject, barred S, in its circulation around the object is marked by Lacan in the matheme for fantasy as a diamond (the sign for ‘more than’ linked to the sign for ‘less than’): this dimension is to be located between ‘meaning’ and ‘nonsense’. The knot is thus a kind of letter, an asemic coincidence of linguistic substance and jouissance, and ‘it remains behind language as litter’ (Thurston, 196). According to Thurston, not only is the sinthome the non-metaphorical knot itself, but it appears in the knot and as its least stable element. (In my inscription of it onto the equation, it is not even ‘there’, but posited.) The sinthome is what reveals a singularity—what for Lacan is the untranslatable signature of a subject’s enjoyment.

On this showing, human subjectivity is not to be understood in terms of rules or laws of signification (as Wittgenstein had already shown): it is to be seen in terms of an act that is open to the void of creative jouissance-in-language. In Zettel we find the following remark: ‘Our language-game is an extension of primitive behaviour. (For our language-game is behaviour.) (Instinct.)’ The extension in question is the extension of a language-game, so that the ‘primitive behaviour’ referred to here is always already language: and the same holds for ‘instinct’. The language-game is there like our life; it is not based on anything, reasonable or unreasonable. It thus makes no sense to ask: ‘from what did language emerge?’ Language truly is a creation ex nihilo. In the light of this, one can perhaps come to see why Lacan finally understood language and the subject’s relation to it, not in terms of metaphor, the Name-of-the Father, but as bodying itself forth without reference to the Other. Just such a vision of language is manifest in Wittgenstein’s account of the experience of meaning, and of seeing aspects.

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