The subject in Jacques Lacan



Lacan does not have a concept of praxis, nor a dialectical conception of language, which makes him skeptical about the possibility of transformation

The objective of this note is to discuss a little, from the perspective of the critique of political economy, the notion of subject in Lacan based mainly on the book The Lacanian subject between language and enjoyment by Bruce Fink, published in 1995, in English, and in 1998, in Portuguese.[I] First of all, as this author emphasizes, Lacan conceives the subject as lacking-to-be, that is, through a first principle that denies it as such: “the subject” – he says – “fails to develop as someone , as a specific being; for, in the most radical sense, he is a non-being.”

Lacan, therefore, instead of thinking of the human as a being that is currently in a state of alienation, but that could become a subject under certain conditions, he founds it as a homo alienatis, as a being that cannot overcome this state of alienation except as a mere spark – as will be shown later – but also, finally, as homo economist. A better clarification of this Lacanian impasse requires a deeper comparison.

For Marx, there is no subject placed in the conditions of current society, but despite this there is, always, a presupposed subject. And this, under certain developments, could appear collectively in history. In today's society, there is only one “subject” subject to merchandise, money, capital. For Lacan, on the contrary, there is a posited subject, but which is, in fact, a non-subject, which will remain so forever, except as an eternal promise. The psychoanalyst constantly uses the term subject, but for him, this man is above all illusory.

Now we need to start taking a closer look at Bruce Fink's statements. In doing so, we see that he says, falling into contradiction, that the subject for Lacan is, ultimately, a non-subject. Then, appearing to enjoy falling into the same logical abyss, he adds: “the subject exists (…) although it remains without being”. In other words, it is being and non-being, at the same time and under the same conditions.

Here, then, is how he tries to make sense of this illogical way of expressing himself: “Before alienation” – that is, before entering the domain of language – “there was not the slightest possibility of being: it is the subject himself who is not there at the beginning (…); subsequently, your being becomes only potential. Alienation gives rise to a possibility for being, a place where one hopes to find a subject but which nevertheless remains empty.”

Lacan, as we know, invests in a particular conceptualization of the term “subject”. According to him, this does not identify with either the social individual or the individual ego, understood as the sphere of conscious thought. For him, the ego is confused with the imaginary and, in this sense, is alienated from birth to the mirror and, later, to the images that constitute the ideal self. Therefore, the subject considered by Lacan can only be a subject of the unconscious. And this conclusion is in agreement with the conception that the human is the homo alienatis.

Now, it is necessary to see that the logical falls presented above do not come from either a morbid inclination or an incompetence of this well-respected author in psychoanalytic literature. Rather, they come from the fact that the theoretical discourse of Jacques Lacan, as well as that of his follower who tries to explain it in a more comprehensible way for those interested, are guided by understanding – taking this term here in the sense that it gave Hegel. As we know, common intellection, when facing being in itself contradictory, falls into contradiction when seeking to express it as if it were free from contradiction. In Ruy Fausto's expression, it is necessary to assume (dialectical) negation in order not to suffer (vulgar) negation.[ii]

Consequently, what underlies such falls into the illogical is the fact that these authors are trying to theoretically apprehend a subject subject that is there, that exists in contemporary society, well-established, in fact, on the capitalist mode of production. For Lacan, the social individual, which he aims to understand through a structuralist approach with some characteristic of his own, is alienated ad perpetuam. And it is Bruce Fink himself who confirms: “it is not possible to demonstrate the existence of the Lacanian subject” – he says suddenly –, “since this demonstration is impossible. As Lacan says, the subject is never more than an assumption”.

If this proposition is true – and the French master does not say this – it affirms a counter-revolutionary truth, as there can be no emancipation – or any non-spontaneous social transformation that builds a better world – without a subject and this subject must be collective, not individual. In any case, there is a paradox that needs to be better presented.

It points to a subject that does not exist, that is, it indicates a subject, but it is also said that it is a non-subject; therefore, it is indicated that it exists and does not exist. And this contradiction, it is clear, cannot remain forgotten, as it contemplates another logical horizon. This “subject that does not exist” has to appear as a negation and, at the same time, as an affirmation – even if this goes beyond understanding, which is the field of Lacanian discourse.

Now, here it is necessary to make a long quotation in which the compelled author clearly introduces the issue of denial. This is what it says about the existence of “no” in language which, in a structuralist way, is understood as a system of signifiers[iii]: “Lacan states that a [determined] signifier marks the cancellation of what it signifies: the [signifier] “no”; Now, this “no” signs the death sentence of the subject of the unconscious. It stays just long enough to protest, to say “no.” Once the subject has made an additional statement, his or her saying usurps the place of “no”: the next signifier replaces it; he disappears. It is in this sense that it can be said that “no” is the subject’s signifier. The subject, as represented by the symbol $ (S for subject and/for barred) – that is, as a subject barred by language, alienated within the Other –, disappears “underneath” or “behind” the signifier “no”.

“The “no”, like every word, requires an agent to express it, to say it to someone. If the one who says it is generally designated by S1, a characteristic Lacanian formula can be written in which S1 appears superimposed on the $, being separated by a dash – that is, S1/$. The line, thus placed (it would be better if it were a horizontal bar), separates these two signifiers by means of a barrier. And it indicates that the first appears and that, in doing so, it hides the second, which thus remains implicit. In other words, the “subject” S1 is just an “apparent subject”, which does have practical effectiveness; the “subject” said to be barred is the homo alienatis, that is, the Lacanian “subject”.

But that's not all, to better clarify this passage mentioned above, it is necessary to take one more step.

Language is defined by Lacan as a system of differences between signifiers, which are posited through negations that, of course, exclude identities: thus, for example, the signifier bird is not the signifier airplane, cloud, star, etc. In this way, the predicates in this expression unfolded to infinity are always posited as negations of the subject. Any other signifier is, so to speak, non-bird. But in this system there is a word that presents itself as anomalous: precisely “no”. The latter is a signifier that is also not any other signifier, which is achieved by applying the same previous reasoning. However, a problem arises here.

If the signifier “not” is not-another signifier in general, it becomes evident that there is also, in addition to the difference, an identity between the subject and the predicate in such expressions. Now, to avoid this contradiction, since this locution contains identity and difference, Lacan's structuralism says that there is a hole in the structure of language; behold, this hole is exactly where the “no” is.

“This signifier” – says Bruce Fink – “takes the place of the subject, occupies the place of the subject that has now disappeared. This guy has no existence other than a hole in the discourse.” Therefore, it is an extremely sparkling hole and the sparks that come out of it supposedly show the transience of the subject as thought by Lacan. “The subject” – completes Bruce Fink – “appears only as (…) an impulse (…) that immediately fades and erases”.

For Marx, the language of commodities is a source of alienation, estrangement and fetishism; Natural language, for him, is a medium in which ideology thrives (false consciousness, mystification, socially necessary illusion), but also in which criticism can thrive, especially dialectics, which has the function of discovering the truth that is hides in falsehoods and falsifications, but above all in the appearance of things. For Lacan, natural language itself is a structural and inescapable source of alienation; Now, he presents this as a “truth”. On the other hand, how does the human being base itself on homo alienatis, that is, in a being incapable of truth, he falls into contradiction.

Let us now see that this way of conceiving the subject, or rather, the “subject” (this could not be written without quotation marks), blocks the very emancipatory perspective of psychoanalysis; the clinic itself becomes just a mere means by which professionals in this area make money, as with all other professions. How does Jacques Lacan, according to Bruce Fink, seek to solve this problem?

Bruce Fink, firstly, says that the “subject as a hole”, that is, as a sparking hole in the alienating structure of language, a structure that subjects him as such, best corresponds to the notion of subject elaborated by Freud. Behold, thus conceived, it emerges only in dreams, jokes, mistakes, etc. Jacques Lacan, in turn, would have escaped this trap that psychoanalytic knowledge had set for itself. It will be?

In any case, the two masters of psychoanalysis rejected Descartes' conception of the subject, which presented him as both “master of his own thoughts” and capable of mastering reality external to the self. Therefore, they focused on the strength of unconscious thought, thus giving “conscious thought a low status”. Instead of conceiving the psyche as a duplicity in which the poles require each other, they conceived it as a duality: if the philosopher focused on one side of this duality, the master psychoanalysts stuck to the other. From this perspective, for Lacan, the Cartesian subject becomes just a “false being”, because the truth of the human is in his unconscious.

In fact, to account for this polarity considered disjoint and extreme, Lacan – as Bruce Fink points out – conceives the vassal of language as a barred subject, that is, as a being divided between the conscious self and the unconscious non-self. In his theorization, the first appears as a “false being” and the second appears as subject to the automatic functioning of language.

The Lacanian subject – he says – is nothing other than this division itself”. Therefore, as happens in mathematized political economy, this “subject” deserves to be described only and solely through an abstract symbolization that, in the case of psychoanalysis, appears as a simple $ – that is, like a matheme.

Up to this point – and this is evident – ​​the aforementioned impasse has not yet been overcome. Here is what Bruce Fink says to show that something is still missing in this theorization: “the divided subject is by no means Lacan's last word on subjectivity”. Now, as we will see immediately, Lacan's last word is nothing more than Freud's last word, that is, what the first master presented in the form of an aphorism. Here it is, first, in German: Wo Es war, sol Ich werden; here it is, now, in Portuguese: “I must become I where the That was” (according to the book studied here).

But what does this aphorism mean? This does not mean – mind you – that the Self becomes an effective subject as it appears in Descartes. No, actually not. It also does not mean that the Self, through the dialectical critique of the existing there and the thinking here, becomes a de facto subject; thus, what was presupposed comes to be put into practice effectively, even if not in an integral and permanent way. No, actually not. It just means the following: “I must come, I must assume (…) that place where the It was. The I here appears as the subject that analysis seeks to bring to the surface: an I that assumes responsibility for the unconscious.”

In short, due to the structuralist conception of language, the conscious Self can only be a false subject, a merely fictitious subject, without any substance. Now, if this is so, if the conscious does not have a very high status, what value of liberation can there be in the conscious taking responsibility for the unconscious? Is this “subject” not the same as that of political economy, that is, homo oeconomicus posited as such? – a self-interested individual, founded on his own desires, even if they come from the Other?

As Freud and Lacan lack the concept of praxis (where true transformations occur), as well as a dialectical conception of language (in which the contradictions of the real lie, but can be awakened and expressed to better guide human action), they become skeptical about the possibility of true transformation.

Thus, for current psychoanalysis – however great its contribution to understanding the psychological suffering of human beings in existing social conditions – all that remains, in the end, is to fall into a moralistic position: analysis must make knowledge unconscious becomes conscious. Better knowledge of oneself, of what is repressed, alleviates suffering – although it does not eliminate it as it is based on social reality – and not just in the psyche. It follows from all this that psychoanalytic analysis appears to be conformist and adaptive knowledge, even under the occasional indignant protest of Lacanian psychoanalysts.

* Eleutério FS Prado is a full and senior professor at the Department of Economics at USP. Author, among other books, of From the logic of the critique of political economy (anti-capital fights).


[I] Fink, Bruce. The Lacanian subject between language and enjoyment. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1998.

[ii] Fausto, Ruy. Marx: Logic and Politics. Tomo I. São Paulo: Editora Brasiliense, 1983, p. 33.

[iii] For Saussure, language is formed by signs, which he represents by a formula in which the signified (the concept) appears superimposed on the signifier (the material constituent of the word). For Lacan, on the contrary, language is formed by signifiers, which he also represents by a formula in which the signifier is superimposed on the signified. In this way, meaning becomes elusive and language as a whole appears as an intransparent medium, as a source of alienation.

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