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La place/le lieu

In the framework of structuralism, the place of a term was deemed more important than its specific content or denotative function for any effort to understand a logic of determination and/or the production of meaning.

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At its heart, structuralism is broadly speaking a body of thought that privileges relations over identity. In other words, in any signifying network, be it that conceived in Saussurean linguistics or Claude Lévi-Strauss’s anthropological account of myths, what counts in the determination of meaning are the relations among terms rather than any essential content of these terms themselves. As such, key to a structural analysis is a determination of the placement of terms, i.e. determining how and in which order terms relate to one another. In a review of Louis Althusser’s writings published in 1967, Alain Badiou lauded the signal insight of Lévi-Strauss’s project as follows:

The fundamental problem of all structuralism is that of a term with a double function, which determines the belonging of the other terms to the structure insofar as it itself is excluded from it by the specific operation that makes it figure there only in the form of its representative (its place-holder [lieu-tenant], to use Lacan’s concept) (457).

The ‘determination, or “structurality”, of the structure’, Badiou suggests, is thus governed by the ‘location of the place occupied by the term indicating the specific exclusion, the pertinent lack.’ In this passage, as he admits, Badiou relies upon Lacan’s concept of the ‘place-holder’, a concept that describes various entities in the Lacanian framework, from the object petit a to the signifier itself, insofar as it represents a subject for another signifier.

The ‘place’ in question in this concept is that of the French ‘lieu’, which is a more generic term than the French ‘place’. All the same, the concepts are related in that the primary concern is the location of a signifier in relation to others. The noun form place resonates more with the verb ‘placer’, i.e. ‘to place’ or ‘to put into place’, and as such captures more of the sense of determination involved in this concept. The question of placement is nevertheless intimately related to that part of the ‘place-holder’ [tenant-lieu], a relation that is extensively developed in Badiou’s Theory of the Subject (1982), where the concept of ‘splace’ [esplace] is offered as a way of thinking the relation between space and place, and the potential for its disruption, in a network of ordered determinations.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

In his response to Jacques-Alain Miller’s ‘La Suture’ (CpA 1.3), titled ‘L’Analyste à sa place?’ (CpA 1.4), Serge Leclaire argues that ‘the analyst, for his own part, is much rather like the subject of the unconscious, which is to say that he has no place and cannot have one’.

I imagine that this position or this non-position of the analyst might give vertigo to the logician, the one whose passion is for the truth. For it is in fact what testifies in his action to this radical difference between a sutured desire and one that refuses to be sutured, a non-suturing, a desire-not-to-suture. I know very well that in a certain sense this position is intolerable [insupportable]. But I believe that, whatever we are to make of it, we are not finished with it, and you neither, Miller, you have not finished in your attempt to put, or, as they say, to put the analyst back in his place. And that is a good thing. For whether he puts himself there by himself, through his own lassitude, or whether he is forced there, only one thing is sure: that the day when the analyst arrives at his place, there will no longer be any analysis (CpA 1.4:52).

In this passage, Leclaire is responding to Miller’s own claims to occupy a peculiar topological point, neither fully inside nor outside the discourse of psychoanalysis. Crucial to Miller’s argument in ‘La Suture’ was his claim that the zero in Frege’s discourse functions as a mark of lack, a place-holder [tenant-lieu] for non-being as such, conceived as the category of things that are not identical to themselves. The subject ‘flickers in eclipses’ (CpA 1.3:49, trans. 34) as this lack that is sutured over and that makes all discourse possible, including the subject’s own. Leclaire believes that the ‘place’ of the analyst is similarly indeterminate, refusing to arrogate for itself any kind of suturing function.

In the first segment of his seminar ‘Compter avec la psychanalyse’, published in this same volume, Leclaire also addresses the symbolic functions of the phallus and castration as terms that ‘hold the place’ [tenir lieu] of the ‘obstacle’ that is constitutive of a patient’s neurosis (CpA 1.5:58).

In the next segment of this seminar, appearing in Volume 3 (CpA 3.6), the session concludes with an exchange between Leclaire, Miller, and Jean-Claude Milner concerning the relation between terms and places. In effect, Milner pressures Leclaire’s insistence on the heterogeneous nature of the ‘terms’ of psychoanalysis (e.g. object a, subject), arguing instead for a ‘homogeneity attached to places’ that allows one to think the ‘homogeneity of subject and object’ that occurs in the suturing operation (CpA 3.6:95).

A concept of place in terms of ‘place-holder’ or ‘tenant-lieu’ occupies a crucial position in Jacques-Alain Miller’s account of structural causality in ‘Action de la structure’ (CpA 9.6). Miller develops Althusser’s concept of overdetermination in ways that evoke Miller’s own arguments in ‘La Suture’ (CpA 1.3). Miller argues that, although overdetermination must be ‘relate[d] back to lack as to its principle’, lack itself never appears as such, and is instead always misrecognised by the inhabitants of the structure. It is at this juncture that Miller attempts to fuse his conceptions of suture and structural causality: ‘We must deduce from this that, in this place where the lack of the cause is produced in the space of its effects, an element interposes itself that accomplishes its suturation’ (CpA 9.6:96). Every structure includes a ‘lure’ or ‘decoy’ [leurre] which takes the place of the lack [tenant lieu de manque], but which is at the same time ‘the weakest link of the given sequence’, a ‘vacillating point’ which only partially belongs to the plane of actuality. As with the suturing function of the zero, or indeed Miller’s own introduction of himself to analysts in ‘topological’ terms, place is the key concept for thinking a structural account of determination.

‘Place’ itself is given pride of place in Judith Miller’s reading of Galileo in Volume 9, an example of the breadth of purchase of structural analysis in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse (CpA 9.9). Galileo’s insistence on establishing unique necessity as a key feature of scientific thought avoids reliance on the logical (Aristotelian) principle of identity insofar as the transcendence of reality with respect to the logical demonstration (i.e. its transcendence over the principle of non-contradiction or identity) is conditioned by the ‘relational definition of being, i.e. by the definition of the real by the place that determines its identity’ (CpA 9.9:144). For the Aristotelian, it is the being-straight of the line that determines its significance; for Galileo, the latter depends on what it relates. A straight line is the shortest way of measuring the distance between two points, but not necessarily the shortest way of measuring the distance between two other parallel lines (since in that case only a perpendicular rather than oblique line will qualify as the shortest). Depending on what it relates, ‘a straight line both is the shortest and is not the shortest’ (CpA 9.9:144). What determines the identity of a thing (e.g. the shortest line) thus depends on the set of terms it relates.

In ‘Marque et manque: À propos du zéro’ (CpA 10.8), Alain Badiou insists, against Miller, upon the self-identity of marks across various places or placements within a scientific script (CpA 10.8:158). Many of Badiou’s later concerns are adumbrated in this article, not least the concern for the relation between ‘place’ and ‘space’ that will be central to his Theory of the Subject. He writes: ‘[T]here is no subject of science. Infinitely stratified, regulating its passages, science is pure space, without inverse or mark or place of what it excludes. Foreclosure, but of nothing, science may be called the psychosis of no subject, and hence of all: congenitally universal, shared delirium, one has only to maintain oneself within it in order to be no-one, anonymously dispersed in the hierarchy of orders. Science is the Outside without a blind-spot’ (CpA 10.8:161-62). Against an ideological logic of placement, in which each term is given its place in a network of determined relations, science opens up a thought of ‘pure space’ that dislocates the logic of placement as such.

Select bibliography

  • Badiou, Alain. ‘Le (Re)commencement du matérialisme dialectique’ [review of Louis Althusser, Pour Marx and Althusser et al., Lire le Capital]. Critique 240 (May 1967): 438-467.
  • Badiou, Alain. Théorie du sujet. Paris: Seuil, 1982. Theory of the Subject, trans. Bruno Bosteels. London: Continuum, 2009.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Écrits, Paris: Seuil, 1966. Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.