Post-Rationalism
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Post-Rationalism

Psychoanalysis, Epistemology, and Marxism in Post-War France

Tom Eyers

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Post-Rationalism

Psychoanalysis, Epistemology, and Marxism in Post-War France

Tom Eyers

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Post-Rationalism takes the experimental journal of psychoanalysis and philosophy, Cahiers pour l'Analyse, as its main source. Established by students of Louis Althusser in 1966, the journal has rarely figured in the literature, although it contained the first published work of authors now famous in contemporary critical thought, including Alain Badiou, Jean-Claude Milner, Luce Irigaray, André Green and Jacques-Alain Miller. The Cahiers served as a testing ground for the combination of diverse intellectual sources indicative of the period, including the influential reinvention of Freud and Marx undertaken by Lacan and Althusser, and the earlier post-rationalist philosophy of science pioneered by Gaston Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem and Alexandre Koyré. This book is a wide-ranging analysis of the intellectual foundations of structuralism, re-connecting the work of young post-Lacanian and post-Althusserian theorists with their predecessors in French philosophy of science. Tom Eyers provides an important corrective to standard histories of the period, focussing on the ways in which French epistemological writing of the 1930s and 1940s - especially that of Bachelard and Canguilhem - laid the ground for the emergence of structuralism in the 1950s and 1960s, thus questioning the standard historical narrative that posits structuralism as emerging chiefly in reaction to phenomenology and existentialism.

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Year
2013
ISBN
9781441149756
Edition
1
1
Psychoanalytic Structuralism in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse
By 1966, the year of the Cahier’s founding, both Lacan and Althusser had firmly established their influence on a febrile Parisian intellectual scene, one that since the end of the war had seen a partial, but frequently exaggerated eclipse of the projects of both post-Husserlian phenomenology and Sartrean existentialism. In part through the influence of the ethnologist Lévi-Strauss, an increasing concern for what lay beneath the flux of contingent sensory experience had come to the fore, with linguistics, in particular, forming a central focus of attention.1 Under Lacan’s tutelage, Freudian psychoanalysis had been accepted within the ranks of both radical Marxist circles and within the wider institutions of academe; a previous reticence to concede the divisibility of the subject of Cartesian rationality had given way to a fascination with Lacan’s own, partly rationalist reconstruction of Freudian thought. Both Lacan and Althusser shared a concern for the articulation of varying themes of structural causality and reproduction with an acknowledgment of the dynamism of the unconscious, manifest in Althusser’s case by an increasing concern with the question of ideology.2 The year 1966 saw Lacan’s seminar address “The Logic of Phantasy.”3 It was in this seminar that Lacan would give one of his most sustained treatments of his concept of objet petit a, or the object-cause of desire, a concept that, in its subversion of dichotomies of virtuality and actuality, of form and content, would prove difficult to integrate within Althusser’s reconstruction of Marx. As we’ll see, objet petit a is just one of the avatars of theoretical friction that define the pages of the Cahiers, theoretically and productively torn between the relative autonomy and permanence of structure, and the necessary contingency of the irruption of the subject.
As mentioned in the Introduction, it was a small group of Althusser’s students at the ENS, including Lacan’s future son-in-law Jacques Alain-Miller, who formed Cahiers pour l’Analyse in 1966. Their project, one should insist from the outset, was less to assimilate burgeoning psychoanalytic and Marxist themes to the apparent austerity of an abstracted, formal logic, derived wholesale, we’re often told, from the epistemology of Jean Cavaillès, Gaston Bachelard, and George Canguilhem. While the epistemology of the time was no doubt central to the foregrounding of questions of logical formalization over ontological speculation, the use of logic in the Cahiers was much more in the service of a dynamization of structure, in François Dosse’s useful phrase, as it was in the mere reproduction of prior epistemological concerns. As such, the marshaling of resources from mathematical and scientific sources produced a conceptual hybrid distinctly colored by the wider concerns of the critical philosophies of the time. That hybrid is defined in part by a creative appropriation of scientific, mathematical, and logical resources, rather than an adherence to their originating contexts. And as we’ll see, the original sources for that dynamization of structure are to be found in the work of earlier French epistemologists, even as the creative appropriation of that work transformed its implications; taken together, this work can be understood as a distinctly post-rationalist response to perennial philosophical problems.
Nonetheless, it is, I’d like to argue, the varying reception of Lacan’s thought in the journal that best dramatizes the tension between static and dynamic variants of structural analysis, and the aforementioned tension around the concept of object-cause provides a useful way in to this conflicted terrain. After considering the motivating contradictions attendant to the concept of “object,” I’ll turn to “formalization” and finally “subject” as subsequent themes that especially define the formative elements of the Cahiers project as it intersects with Lacan’s work. Along the way, I’ll introduce various extensions and complications of Lacan’s concepts presented by André Green, Luce Irigaray, and Serge Leclaire as a means of marking what is distinct in the post-Lacanian exploration of the problems of object and formalization, of subject and structure. Finally, I’ll turn to the work of Jacques-Alain Miller, whose influential Cahiers essay “Suture” will be discussed in a number of subsequent chapters. In those later chapters, the arguments given a broad and overarching reading here will be returned to, albeit often with the aid of different thinkers and through different philosophical apertures.
Object
As already mentioned, the year 1966–7 saw Lacan’s seminar address the theme of “The Logic of Phantasy,” and elaborating via the matheme of fantasy, formally identical to the matheme for the subjective relation, the coincidence of lacks produced in the convergence of the split subject of the unconscious, and the object-cause of desire: S<> a. The object-cause, or objet petit a, was conceived less as the positive object of the subject’s desires and more as the formal causative excess that motors desire as such, and that promises a subjective reconciliation that the predominance of the signifier in the formation and reproduction of the subject constitutively forecloses. In remarks that usefully prefigure the theme of the conceptual irrecuperability of objet petit a as manifested in the Cahiers, Lacan, in May 1967, comments: “The Other is only the Other of what is the first moment [. . .]: namely, this objet petit a [. . .] its nature is that of the incommensurable, or rather, that it is from its incommensurability that there arises every question of measure.”4 In other words, the object-cause is the positivization of a necessary failure of form, the remainder of such a failure that reiterates the subject’s original division. Form in this instance signals the form of the Symbolic, the battery of signifiers located in the Other.
Contrary to much commentary on Lacan, and as I have argued at length elsewhere, we can locate the concept as having emerged, at least in germinal form, in articles of the 1940s concerning primary narcissism, the period in the development of a child where, prior to the onset of the Oedipus complex, images of the Other form the material for the development of the ego.5 In a surprising parallel with Melanie Klein’s work on the “good” and “bad” object, these primary images exert a contradictory force of constitution and aggressivity for the subject, simultaneously forming the contours of the ego while, in the inevitable production of aggressive rivalry that develops, threatening it from without. Later in this chapter, we’ll see how Luce Irigaray sought, in the pages of the Cahiers, to synthesize the post-rationalist concern for the “logic of the signifier” and the object with this problem of specularity, of the Imaginary relation that sustains the ego. Upon his own sustained interrogation of the Symbolic, Lacan will transform his concept of the ideal-ego, the image that forms the lynchpin of the formation of the ego, into objet petit a, as the precisely nonspecular object that testifies to the persistence of the division of the subject after the operation of Symbolic castration. Crucially, however, the object-cause as an excess or remainder contained within the form of the Symbolic will never lose its Imaginary or narcissistic resonance; as late as the 1970s, Lacan will refer to it as Imaginary.6
André Green’s commentary on objet petit a, “The Logic of Lacan’s objet a and Freudian Theory: Convergences and Questions,” was published in the third volume of the Cahiers, after being originally delivered as part of Lacan’s thirteenth seminar on “The Object of Psychoanalysis” in 1965.7 Green would go on to become one of the foremost psychoanalysts in France, developing his own distinctive brand of analytic thought, especially through an attention to the psychic textures of affect, and to the lingering relevance of the death drive to analytic thought and practice.8 Green’s commentary on Lacan in the Cahiers is fascinating in many respects, not least in the way that it prefigures Green’s subsequent break with Lacanianism over the relative importance of affect to psychoanalysis, but it serves our purposes as it lays out the tensions and contradictions that attend the choice of the word “object” for Lacan’s conceptual innovation of the object-cause of desire, distinct as it is from the mere “object” of one’s desire. Instead, it specifies the formal cause that puts desire in motion.
Psychoanalysis, Green suggests, operates with a concept of the object distinct from that of science per se, an argument he adopts from Lacan’s own Cahiers article “Science and Truth,” which had initially appeared as the first week’s lesson of the thirteenth seminar.9 There, Lacan had argued that the natural and physical sciences, in contrast to analysis, seek to cover over (or “suture”) the subject and the irreducible gap that it creates in knowledge, and in so doing obscure the importance of that absent subject of the unconscious as cause in the production of all Symbolic structures. I’ll return in more detail to Lacan’s important “Science and Truth,” published in the very first edition of the Cahiers, in Chapter 4. For Green, objet a is best understood as an exemplar of the complex relation of subject and object as, or as he puts it, “the function of mediation that such an object plays out, not so much between the subject and the Other, as in their relationship; my desire enters the Other who has awaited it, forever under the form of the object that I am—inasmuch as the Other exiles me from my subjectivity by including all signifiers.”10
This ludic passage contains many of the contradictions that Green’s argument both identifies and perpetuates; its general intent, nonetheless, is to underline the ways in which the “subject,” for psychoanalysis, is always also an object situated within an economy of desire. Green shrinks from positing objet petit a as having any ameliorative function precisely because he wishes to retain the errant quality of the psychoanalytic object, situated as it is in a zone of formative ambiguity with characteristics of both the subjective and the objective. The positing of a symmetry between subject and Other such that the subject could directly “grasp” its object-cause would smooth over this function of eccentricity or ambiguity, rightly located by Green at its origin in the process of primary narcissism, the point in the life of a child where images of significant others begin to form the basis of identity, an identity as marked by aggression as any sense of completion or wholeness. As Green writes, “[I]n the zone of the imaginary, the subject goes in one of two directions: either toward the object or toward the ideal. We know that in Freudian thought this orientation is heavily dependent on narcissism.”11 In the early life of the child, that is, identity rests on the incorporation of “ideal” images of significant others, while in the post-Oedipal context, the subject incorporates objects of desire that are the successors of those “ideal” images toward which the subject tended in early life, and which continue to exert a palpable influence within the register of the Imaginary. Moreover, the object itself comes to stand in for the logic of these early, “Imaginary” relationships at the level of the Symbolic. Nonetheless, as a direct result of the transformation of such Imaginary logics into their Symbolically situated objectal leftover, the object is precisely not specularizable in the way that images situated within the Imaginary are; rather, the object, in its very nonspecular “nature,” serves to condense and embody the opaque promise of the Other’s desire, and in so doing to perpetuate the potential for desire in the subject. Thus, the object, for Green, is a “function of the residue [le reste] stemming from the desire of the other,”12 a formal result of the translation of Imaginary processes into Symbolic logics.
There is, however, a sustained attempt to hold open the gap between subject and Other in Green’s account, a gap that seems to maintain something of the symmetry that is otherwise banished through the association of objet a as the excess of the Symbolic, as that irrecuperable element that sits askance from the form that it nevertheless inhabits. Green even goes so far as to write, in the context of Lacan’s “Mirror Stage,” that “(a) [. . .] can be understood as an element of ineluctable mediation uniting the subject with the Other.”13 While Green clearly locates this particular mediation at a logical point prior to the full accession to the Symbolic, and thus governed to some degree by the dyadic logic of the Imaginary and the subject’s first identifications, his reasoning threatens Lacan’s own insistence on the conceptual continuity between the objects of the Imaginary and the Symb...

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