Yesterday, Stephen Keating and I had a great discussion of Lacan’s Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. There is much that is impressive about this seminar, which seems to me to operate at a higher level of ambition and reach than the first three, but there is also much that is puzzling — most notably the central question of the sense in which this is an ethics.
As Stephen suggested, perhaps Lacan was not so much putting forward a normative ethics as performing a kind of thought experiment, asking what ethics would look like in light of psychoanalysis. After working through all the relevant materials (including a highly counterintuitive reading of the Entwurf as a fundamentally ethical text), it seems that the “truly” ethical act (truth being the only one of the three transcendentals that survives the psychoanalytic critique) is a self-destructive adherence to a signifier detached from its discourse, bring the subject into contact with something like the founding moment of the symbolic order, the violent imposition of the signifier.
We both linked this notion to the Schmittian state of exception, which reveals the sheer violence that founds law and that law exists to keep at bay (parallel with the pleasure principle’s goal of keeping jouissance at a safe distance). I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the idea of doing some serious writing bringing together Lacan and Agamben, and here I wonder if we could say that Lacan has not yet attained the level of Agamben’s messianic “real state of exception,” which he will perhaps reach in his later thinking with the logic of the non-all or non-whole as an alternative to the logic of the master-signifier.
Certainly it seems clear that some kind of profound deadlock is involved in this seminar — the only “beyond” of the pleasure principle is precisely that which founds the pleasure principle as such (i.e., the knot that ties together the primordial signifier with the death drive). We can’t get “out” of the symbolic order, we can only get as far as its threshold. And that threshold is precisely not an ethos, not a sustainable or livable space — we must either return to “normal” life (compromise our desire) or court self-destruction, Antigone-style. But perhaps this is precisely the point: if this is where ethics winds up, if this is the way ethics maps itself out over psychoanalysis, then we need to do something other than ethics.