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A key concept in the Lacanian edifice, which evolved over time and was split between the registers of the Imaginary and the Symbolic, the problematic of the Other as ‘the locus of the signifier’ would be one of the primary principles behind the investigations of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse.

The nineteenth-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud famously wrote ‘I is an other’ [‘Je est un autre’] thereby inaugurating a modernism in thought and culture wherein the subject could no longer be thought of as an immediate self-presence, but rather as a figure inextricably bound to the question of alterity or otherness. In twentieth-century philosophy, the ‘Other’ became an increasingly prominent figure of theoretical reflection. Indeed, much French phenomenology in the wake of Jean-Paul Sartre’s and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s early contributions, and inspired chiefly by the thought of Emmanuel Levinas, has been devoted to new consideration of the Other as a condition of subjectivity as such, ethical or otherwise. Numerous critics, and some supporters, have observed, however, that this figure of the ‘Other’ as an absolute alterity is but a latter-day manifestation of a God who is beyond being or beyond the world itself, a condition of possibility for existence rather than an object that is encountered within it.

Jacques Lacan’s contribution to the discourse of the Other is, in this regard, singular, and in many ways counterpoised to the phenomenological figure of the Other that marks contemporary European thought. For Lacan, the other operates on different registers, and the sense of the term evolved over the course of his teaching, accounting ultimately for the difference between the ‘other’ and the ‘Other’ in his discourse. In his early works, for example ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience’ (1949), the other is a concept tied to the Imaginary. Lacan argued in this seminal paper that the emergence of the ego was a result of the infant’s recognizing (or mis-cognizing) its specular image in a mirror, or in the mimicry of another infant. In this instance, which constitutes the ‘ideal-I’ or ‘ideal-ego’ the subject is established as irrevocably split between the holistic image it has of itself and with which it identifies (i.e., the ‘other’ in the mirror) and its constitutive incapacity to master this image, to be fully adequate to it. In this, his most Rimbaudian lesson, Lacan locates the phenomenon of primary narcissism in this moment, and this identification with an ‘other’ that is constitutive of an ego will be an element, though a decreasingly prominent one, in Lacan’s later teaching.

As Lacan’s own typology of the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic develops, a new figure of the Other (here with a capital O) that is constitutive of the Symbolic order of language becomes predominant. In many respects, the ‘other’ of the Imaginary register will be transmogrified in Lacan’s teaching into the concept of the objet petit a (i.e., the object that is experienced as an ‘autre’ – the small ‘a’ being deliberate, in order to distinguish it from the big ‘A’ of the Autre, or Other), which functions as the object-cause of desire in a manner not unlike the specular image the child beholds and over which it seeks mastery.

The key essay for coming to terms with Lacan’s conception of the Other as essentially being the Symbolic order of language itself is his ‘The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious’ (1960). The crucial moment for Lacan is the ‘subject’s submission to the signifier’ (E, 806). What does this mean? The submission to the signifier is coterminous with the assumption of language, the beginning of speech. But the language that one speaks is never one’s own, it is an order that is essentially ‘Other’ in which one takes up a position. In other words, any language is in all instances antecedent to the subject who begins to speak it. Lacan writes: ‘The Other, as the preliminary site of the pure subject of the signifier, occupies the key [maîtresse] position here, even before coming to existence here as absolute Master – to use Hegel’s term with him and against him. For what is omitted in the platitude of modern information theory is the fact that one cannot even speak of a code without it already being the Other’s code’ (E, 807/683). In numerous other instances, Lacan will remark that the unconscious is the ‘discourse of the Other’, i.e., an unmasterable discourse that determines the subject in its linguistic being.

Further in the same essay, Lacan conceptualizes the Other as ‘the locus of the signifier’ as such, and specifies that ‘there is no metalanguage that can be spoken, or, more aphoristically, that there is no Other of the Other’ (E, 813). Lacan likens ‘submission to the signifier’ to the submission to Law, a primordial law that tolerates no impostors, but that is in effect the symbolic order itself. Lacan’s ideas here and in his earlier teachings on the phallus as the ‘primordial signifier’ decouple the symbolic function of the phallus from the material penis of the father. In this respect, the Name-of-the father as a paternal signifier (i.e., the name) and also an injunction (building on the French homophony between ‘nom’ [name] and ‘non’ [no]) is of greater importance than the father himself in any kind of biological sense.

Lacan links this conception of the Other to the problematic of desire. He writes:

[W]e must add that man’s desire is the Other’s desire [le désir de l’homme est le désir de l’Autre] in which the de provides what grammarians call a ‘subjective determination’ – namely, that it is qua Other that man desires (this is what provides the true scope of human passion).

This is why the Other’s question [la question de l’Autre] – that comes back to the subject from the place from which he expects an oracular reply – which takes some such form as ‘Chè vuoi?,’ ‘What do you want?’, is the question that best leads the subject to the path of his own desire, assuming that, thanks to the know-how of a partner known as a psychoanalyst, he takes up that question, even without knowing it, in the following form: ‘What does he want from me?’ (E, 815).

To be sure, one could detect a theological element in this conception of the Other, and in that of the subject’s neurotic relationship to it – Lacan’s commentators remain divided on this point. But by making the Other the symbolic order in which the subject is inextricably embedded, Lacan refuses any conception of an Other ‘beyond being’. In any event, his discourse is not an ontological one. The Cahiers pour l’Analyse were produced at a moment when Lacan’s own discourse on the Other, and the desire of the Other, remained in transition. Even if Lacan himself was not motivated by philosophical questions of ontology, his conception of the Other as ‘the locus of the signifier’ in which the subject finds itself constitutively split and predicated upon lack would be one of the guiding convictions of the enterprise.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

In the concluding section of his ‘La Suture: Éléments pour une logique du signfiant’ (CpA 1.3), one of the Cahiers’ programmatic texts, Jacques-Alain Miller links his analysis of Frege’s generation of the number line out of the unitary concept of zero to Lacan’s theses about the subject’s relation to the Other:

In effect, what in Lacanian algebra is called the relation of the subject to the field of the Other (as the locus of truth) can be identified with the relation which the zero entertains with the identity of the unique as the support of truth. […]

[…] What constitutes this relation as the matrix of the chain must be isolated in the implication which makes the determinant of the exclusion of the subject outside the field of the Other its representation in that field in the form of the one of the unique, the one of distinctive unity, which is called ‘unary’ by Lacan (CpA 1.3:47, trans. 32).

Miller follows Lacan in identifying the subject as the capacity for ‘one signifier more’ in this field of the Other, i.e., the field of language itself. This capacity is essentially the successor operation in Frege’s discourse:

As for the +, you have understood the unprecedented function which it takes on in the logic of the signifier (a sign, no longer of addition, but of that summation of the subject in the field of the Other, which calls for its annulment). It remains to disarticulate it in order to separate the unary trait of emergence, and the bar of the reject: thereby making manifest the division of the subject which is the other name for its alienation (CpA 1.3:49/34).

In Alain Grosrichard’s contribution to Volume 2, which takes the form of a philosophical history of the ‘Molyneux problem’ in Enlightenment thought (CpA 2.3), the peculiar nature of the Other as a function that can be either external or internal is demonstrated through a comparison of Descartes’ and Locke’s respective philosophies. Indeed, Grosrichard sketches the ironic affinity between Cartesian rationalism and Lockean empiricism. Whereas the truth of Descartes’ discourse is guaranteed by an extrinsic God, Locke’s Essay attempts to establish the following: ‘all these ideas - supposedly innate, deposited there by the Other - are mine’ (CpA 2.3:102). In other words, the foundation of all truth must be in experience; knowledge is acquired, not given, and the distinction between description and acquisition is a false one. But Grosrichard identifies the aporia of Locke’s effort as follows: ‘It remains the case that, from the frontiers of the most obscure and confused Cartesian perception, the discourse of the Essay covers little by little, with neither rupture nor leap, the whole domain of Cartesian knowledge [savoir], ultimately reconnecting with the other frontier, the one that limited the domain of Cartesian understanding when faced with the divine infinite. Everything is acquired, from what used to be only on loan [prêté]. Everything, except the truth status of this everything [Tout, sauf la valeur de vérité de ce tout]’ (CpA 2.3:103). Grosrichard’s point, then, is that Locke does not succeed in decoupling truth from its depending on the Other so much as make this Other wholly internal to his empiricist discourse. In this incorporation, the ‘Other’ that is ‘the locus of truth’, as Miller remarked, loses none of its authority.

At the beginning of Volume 3, Lacan is questioned concerning the relation between alienated desire and revolutionary practice, and is pressed on the notion that psychoanalysis is a ‘class therapy’. He responds: ‘The subject of alienated desire – you mean no doubt what I articulate as: the desire of – is the desire of the Other, which is correct, with the sole modification that there is no subject of desire. There is the subject of the fantasy, that is: a division of the subject caused by an object, that is: stopped up by it, or more exactly, the object for which the category of cause occupies the place in the subject’ (CpA 3.1:9, trans. 110). Here Lacan deflects the question to the status of the objet petit a, as the object-cause of desire that is then responsible for the subject’s fantasy. All the same, however, he maintains that desire, properly speaking, is always desire of the Other, playing on the plural sense of the genitive ‘of’ or ‘de’ as a desire that comes from the Other, i.e., is the Other’s desire, but is always a desire for the Other.

In the concluding remarks to the second instalment of his ‘Compter avec la psychanalyse’ in this same issue, Serge Leclaire paints what appears to be a slightly different picture of the relation between the Other and desire, turning on his definition of alienation. Leclaire writes: ‘Alienation: man’s desire is the desire of the other. Freud says: of an other = the unconscious’ [‘L’aliénation: le désir de l’homme est le désir de l’autre. Freud dit d’un autre = de l’Inconscient’] (CpA 3.6:93). As Lacan maintained, however, that the unconscious was essentially the symbolic order of language itself, and the field of the Other itself was language as the locus of truth, then Leclaire’s brief précis is consistent with Lacan’s teaching at this time as well.

In his contribution to Volume 7, Jean-Claude Milner produces a reading of Louis Aragon’s La Mise à mort that highlights the peculiar relation of the subject to the other that occurs in the act of writing itself (CpA 7.2). The relation between writing and individuation, in particular, is key (CpA 7.2:50-3). In this work, the author ultimately figures as ‘nothing but pure individuation, nothing but the weight of writing, a rule of writing’. This rule rests on the essential unity of the I as such, as pronoun, which retains its ‘self-identical massivity [massivité]’ all through the novel’s systematic confusion of referents and meanings. ‘The pronoun acquires the property of being the place of a unity that is sufficient to unify the most varied traits and names - Struensce, Antoine, Aragon Pierre, simply on account of the fact that the I designates them’. If then it’s true that ‘I is an other’, the I that is altered or ‘othered’ through writing is by the same token already a (self-identical) one. (Milner’s position here might be understood, perhaps, as in some sense between Miller’s insistence on the subject’s lack of self-identity (in ‘Suture’, CpA 1.3) and Badiou’s subsequent emphasis (in ‘Marque et manque’, CpA 10.8), thanks to the self-identity of the mathematical letter, on the exclusion of such lack from the discourse of science).

The equivocal nature of the other/Other, as operating on both the Imaginary and Symbolic levels, in Milner’s analysis is also prevalent in Jean Reboul’s ‘Sarrasine: ou la castration personifiée’ (CpA 7.5). In effect, when Sarrasine discovers that Zambinella is a castrato, he encounters a double manifestation of castration: he is returned to the status of the ‘barred subject’, faced with ‘the signifier that comes from the other’ (CpA 7.5:95). ‘Real castration here rejoins the imaginary lack of the maternal phallus’. Zambinella is in a position where she/he has to hide from society, because her very form exposes the world to the loss of the phallus, and proclaims a ‘being-for-castration’ that supervenes on ‘being-for-death’. Zambinella is ‘castration personified’. Sarrasine, meanwhile, is the bearer of ‘an uncertain penis’. Having avoided the test of symbolic castration, he ends up encountering lack and castration ‘in the real’ [dans le réel] (CpA 7.5:96). His narcissism fragments before a ‘profaned mirror’. He cannot re-appropriate himself as a desiring being, and now, insofar as the imaginary other literally does not have the phallus, he becomes permanently ’excluded’ from possessing a ‘specular other’. ‘For him, there are no more women, nothing but mutilated men’. Hence the shadowy, vampiric apparition at the ball at the beginning of the story. ‘Castration and death, the fatal cycle is closed’ (CpA 7.5:96).

By encountering castration in the real in the story, we are returned to the underlying symbolic lack implied in the ‘Chè vuoi?’ (‘What do you want from me?’) of the primal encounter with the Other. ‘Man does not know exactly what he wants and the question can only remain the question of the question, that of lack, of the impossible, the lost object, and its eternally inadequate substitutes’ (CpA 7.5:96).

In his ‘Action de la structure’ (CpA 9.6) in Volume 9, Jacques-Alain Miller further develops his suggestive remarks concerning the relationship between the subject and the Other in ‘La Suture’ (CpA 1.3). The difference between logical formalization and statements in the linguistic field, Miller argues, is that the latter refer back to a code whose virtuality is essential for messages to be possible (CpA 9.6:100); the subject’s speech is inverted as soon as it is uttered in the field of the Other (since, amongst other reasons, it is liable to interpretation in ways other than directly intended). The lack of the code at the level of speech, and the lack of the subject-agent in the place of the code, however, combine in such a way as to generate the possibility of an unconscious (CpA 9.6:101). While the subject is correctly conceived as always ‘repeating’ a ‘primordial and generative’ relation to the Other, a full theory of discourse would also reveal more specific circuits of repetition emerging from the primary split between subject and Other.

Select bibliography

  • Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire, Livre III. Les Psychoses, 1955-1956, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1981. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book III: The Psychoses, 1955-1956, trans. Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire, Livre XI. Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse, 1964, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1973. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire, Livre XVI. D’un Autre à l’autre 1968-1969, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 2006.
  • Van Haute, Philippe. Against Adaptation: Lacan’s ‘Subversion’ of the Subject, trans. Paul Crowe and Miranda Vankerk. New York: Other Press, 2001.