Friday, January 10, 2014

Lionel Bailly: The Subject is Revealed in the Other

For Lacan, the Subject remained that elusive thing that hides behind the ego [our conscious self-identity as we would describe it], that is alienated from it, that is created in an act of language, and that is largely unconscious. It is the Subject that speaks; but when it speaks, it barely knows what it is saying. And I am no longer referring here to the 'unconscious discourse' that appears in slips of the tongue, dreams, and pathological symptoms, I am referring to what the speaker (Subject) would think of as 'conscious speech'. This is because for the most part, the Subject is unconscious of itself.

This view may seem like overstatement: one feels provoked to say, 'But I do know what I'm talking about ... I only make a slip of the tongue very rarely, 99% of the time I mean exactly what I'm saying', etc. But the experienced analyst knows instantly when she/he hears denegation ('Of course, he's likeable [sic] enough' nearly always means I don't like him); and even the most common, everyday use of language is closely governed by the unconscious. Most of the time, there is an interplay of conscious and unconscious in our speech: we may mean exactly what we say, but we hardly ever know why we say it. Consider the following examples:

'Has so-and-so got a partner?' appears a simple question, but what motivates it? Is the questioner a woman worried that the so-and-so in question is interested in her man? Or is it a man interested in so-and-so? Or is it a woman who, motivated by jealousy, hopes to learn that so-and-so is unlucky in love where she herself is not? Whichever it is, the speaker is bound to deny it, and say it's an innocent question motivated by altruistic concern or curiosity. And even if that were true, then why the altruism/curiosity? We can never escape the unconscious—even when it is harmless.

'We've cooked a roast for you—we got the joint from such-and-such specialist butcher' could provoke guilt in a prodigal child, or encourage a guest to bring a bottle of better quality wine than usual (why not just 'a roast'? Why mention the quality of it?), etc. But again, in both cases, the speaker's intentions are entirely unconscious.

'I'm still recovering from the weekend' is a commonly heard phrase, but why does the speaker think the listener needs to know this? Is she/he boasting about her/his exciting social life, bolstering the edifice of an ego which includes the master signifiers 'socially successful' or 'popular'? Or is she/he trying to convince her/himself that she/he had a good time, when in fact she/he was very bored?

Even 'Please may I have a kilo of potatoes' could be a multi-layered statement: why not simply, 'a kilo of potatoes'—why the time spent on a formula of politesse? Is the questioner trying to show her/his good breeding? Or if, on the contrary, all politesse is dispensed with—then why the rudeness? Might that be a way of establishing higher status over the lowly greengrocer? And is a kilo enough—or is the speaker being mean and not buying enough, or displaying an anxiety about inadequacy and asking for too many?

These trivial examples only underline the power of the unconscious in directing the selection and combination of signifiers into chains with or without our conscious 'will'; Lacan saw this interplay between conscious and unconscious in the Subject as being like the continuum of the surface of a moebius strip.

The Other is manifest not only in language (even though this may be its principal domain), but also in the whole set of hypotheses [i.e. circumstances] that exert their influence upon the Subject. The Law, societal rules, taboos, mores and expectations, and even Time are different faces of the Other. The Other is constituted by the entire symbolic realm of human productions; accessing the Other involves the crossing of the bar...; it also involves the act of alienation described in the Mirror Stage, which situates the Subject within the Other. These processes of alienation and symbolisation [sic] which tie together Subject and Other are the essential basis of human creativity.


Source: Lionel Bailly, Lacan (Oxford, England: Oneworld Publications, 2009), 69-71.

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