[Editor's Note: Wayne here is currently leading one of our Not School groups on Deleuze. Being well-versed in this area and having made some helpful comments on this blog, we asked him to clarify what he took to be Lacan's ontology. Thanks, Wayne!]
Jacques-Alain Miller once asked asked Lacan, “What is your ontology?” Lacan replied saying that we should read both Badiou and Zizek to find out (guess he deferred to philosophers for ontology). While their ontologies are illuminating, I'll try here to extract Lacan’s ontology from his own system as much as possible, continuing with Fink’s groundwork in The Lacanian Subject.
Phenomenological Ontology: Subjectivity
Lacan appears to closely follow the Freudian/psychoanalytic concept that the Real represents a psychological time prior to the symbolic (linguistic) order, prior to linguistic consciousness (before language). However, Lacan says that the unconscious is “pre-ontological.” The Symbolic (language) “cuts into the smooth façade of the Real creating divisons, gaps . . . sucking it into the symbols used to describe it, and thereby annihilating it.” (Fink, p. 24) Lacan is presenting the limits of language and experience as symbolic representation in the face of the Real.
The Symbolic--language--thus creates “reality:” “things which had no existence prior to being ciphered, symbolized, or put into words.” “The Real, therefore does not exist since it precedes language . . . it ‘ex-ists.’” “The Real is . . . that which has not yet been symbolized.” It is the analyst’s ability to “put into words that which has remained unsymbolized” that enables the analysand [client] to transform those earlier unspoken never conceptualized or incompletely conceptualized experiences by talking.” “Lacan insists again and again that it is in an analysts’s job to intervene in the patient’s Real, not in the patient’s view of reality.” (Fink, p. 25)
The subject is split by the Symbolic which bars the “Real, overwriting and erasing it: Symbolic/Real . . . We can think of the real as being progressively symbolized in the course of a child’s life . . . less and less of that ‘first’ ‘original’ Real being left behind, though it can never all be... .killed [castrated]... There is thus always a remainder which persists alongside the Symbolic.” (pp. 26-27)
The therapist can help the client come to terms with the Real when "interpretations hits the cause:" it hits that around which the analysand is revolving without being able to "put it into words." The analyst may be “able to speak the signifier to which her or she as subject had been subjected.” (p. 28).
Happily, “something anomalous always shows up in language, something unaccountable, unexplainable: an aporia. These aporias point to the presence within or influence on the Symbolic or the Real. I refer to them as kinks in the symbolic order.” (P. 30)
“The subject is never more than an assumption on our part.” (p. 35)
“The ego, according to Lacan, arises as a crystallization or sedimentation of Ideal images, tantamount to a fixed, reified object with which the child learns to identify . . . with him or herself.” (p. 36) Objet a, the lost memory of a unity, becomes a structural necessity of subjectivization, the source of the structuring lack itself.
In actuality, the “non-ego or unconscious “discourse interrupts the former –almost saying “No!” in much the same way as does a slip of the tongue . . . or . . . use of ‘but’ –as signifying the speaking or enunciating subject.” (p. 39)
“‘Ne’ [not] and ‘but’ is but the signifier of the Subject” which vanishes beneath or behind the signifier ‘ne.’ (p. 41)
Formal Ontology: Structure
In Lacan’s formal ontology, the subject is born from lack, nothingness, void (at the ontological level). It is the signifier that founds the subject subsequent to alienation and thus has ontic potential as a factual entity. Alienation gives rise to the potentiality of being by marking the subject as set apart from nothingness (from set theory which is considered to deal with pure multiplicity as such and group multiplicities into sets, and grounded on the empty set). The Lacanian Cogito based on the unconscious becomes “I am thinking where I am not, therefore I am where I am not thinking” and thus grounded on the void, on what I am not, and on what is not. Structure emerges from the void emergently from a novel multiplicity in the form of an event, an experience.
Lacan seeks to found psychoanalysis on science, on his definition of structure, such as the unconscious, and firmly found it on symbolic logic (a la Badiou). Badiou seems to have drawn many into his founding of ontology on mathematics as the portal to multiplicities. Lacan thus uses the concept of the symbolic to found his theory, believing that if you bury a symbol for a thousand years, you can dig it up and it will still be true. His ontological theory is thus summarized by the Borromean knot of the three interdependent rings of the Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic (see the image at the top of this post). This is like a Gödelian structuralism which maintains the importance of structure, while pointing out the necessary incompleteness, and impossibility of defining a language (symbolism) within a language (linguistics).
My take-away of Lacan’s approach to reality, is that:
1) We get into delusional and destructive modes of processing the world when in the Imaginary.
2) While we are in the linguistic and symbolic mode of processing reality most of the time, it is nevertheless foundational to maturity and well-being not to mistake the Symbolic for the Real.
3) We need to keep an open mind to knowing that we can never know completely, and through conscious awareness of all three aspects of reality, we can live life more richly with jouissance.
For further reading: The Question of Lacanian Ontology: Badiou and Žižek as Responses to Seminar XI.