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Several novel conceptions of subjectivity are proposed in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse. Essays by Jacques Lacan, Jacques-Alain Miller, and Luce Irigaray, among others, attempt to refine a psychoanalytic concept of subjectivity compatible with structuralism, while other articles, by Alain Badiou and Thomas Herbert, for example, take a more critical approach to the concept of subjectivity and tie it to ideology.

In an essay on the work of Georges Canguilhem, Michel Foucault famously distinguished between two traditions in twentieth-century French philosophy: on the one hand, ‘a philosophy of experience, of meaning, of the subject’, exemplified by the phenomenology and existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and on the other hand, a ‘philosophy of knowledge, of rationality, and of the concept’, pursued by Jean Cavaillès, Gaston Bachelard, Alexandre Koyré and Canguilhem himself.1 Given the importance of the latter lineage of thought for the thinkers of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, one might then expect them to be dismissive of the concept of subjectivity tout court. However, Jacques-Alain Miller, Jean-Claude Milner, François Regnault and Alain Badiou were all profoundly influenced by the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan, which sought above all to develop a new theory of subjectivity. Overall, the work of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse emerges out of an encounter between the ‘philosophy of the concept’ of the French epistemology tradition, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Althusserian structural Marxism. The question of the subject is central to the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, and one of the key essays in Volume 9, Jacques-Alain Miller’s ‘Action de la structure’ (CpA 9.6) makes an explicit and detailed attempt to develop a concept of subjectivity in line with broadly structuralist priorities.

In the first stage of Althusser’s structuralist reformulation of Marxism in the 1960s - the stage that resulted in the books For Marx and Reading Capital - the ‘subject’ was a generally neglected, if not derided category. Althusser took the subject in the sense of reflective ‘consciousness’, as well as in the sense of an individual and deliberate will, to be an essentially ideological category. Althusser generally excluded the category of the subject from his efforts to provide a philosophical grounding for Marx’s science of historical materialism, and a Marxist concept of science more generally. In the mid-1960s, however, at the very moment the Cahiers were being produced, Althusser made a temporary (and quickly abandoned) attempt to construct a theory of the subject compatible with structuralism. In a paper he circulated to a small group including Cahiers editors Yves Duroux and Alain Badiou, ‘Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses’, Althusser allotted a place to what he called ‘subjectivity-effects’ in the four discourses of science, ideology, art and the unconscious.2 However, he soon changed his mind, and in the Cover Letter for the three ‘Notes’ (dated 28 October 1966), he says that ‘everything I have said about the place of the “subject” in every one of the discourses must be revised. The more I work on it, the more I think that the category of the subject is absolutely fundamental to ideological discourse, that it is one of its central categories’.3 He adds that the subject is ‘bound up with the truth-guarantee in the centred, double mirror structure’. He concludes that it is not possible to ‘talk about a “subject” of the unconscious, even if Lacan does’, nor of a ‘subject of science’ nor a ‘subject of aesthetic discourse’. Althusser stresses that his line of thought at the end of Note 1 needs to be ‘very seriously modified, both because of the status it implicitly ascribes to the subject of the general theory and also because of the General Theory which it suggests is determinant.’4 He thus abandons the notion of the subject, positing henceforth that history is a ‘process without a subject’.

As far as Lacan himself is concerned, ‘it is the act of speech which is constitutive’ of the subject, and ‘by being of the subject, we do not mean its psychological properties, but what is hollowed out in the experience of speech’ (S1, 232, 230). ‘From the Freudian point of view’ defended by Lacan in his early seminars, ‘man is the subject captured and tortured by language’ (S3, 243). The subject that is thus subject to and represented by a signifier (for another signifier) is for the same reason ‘barred’, split and evanescent or ‘fading’. ‘The signifier, producing itself in the field of the Other, makes manifest the subject of its signification. But it functions as a signifier only to reduce the subject in question to being no more than a signifier, to petrify the subject in the same movement in which it calls the subject to function, to speak, as subject’ (S11, 207-208). This is why analysis demonstrates that subjectification corresponds, along with an articulation of the repressed or an affirmation of the drive, a fundamental ‘aphanisis, disappearance […], the fading of the subject’ (S11, 207-208).

Althusser’s classification of the subject and its relation to ‘truth’ as ‘ideological’ points to a major divergence with Lacan, for whom the relation between subject and truth is not ideological. Debates in the Cahiers will turn on this divergence. The question of the possibility of a non-ideological concept of subjectivity is directly related to the question of the scientificity of such a concept. Lacan himself addressed the subject’s relation to both science and truth in the inaugural essay of the journal.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

In ‘La Science et la vérité’ (CpA 1.1) Lacan gives his first written explanation of the concept of the ‘subject of science’. What did it mean to be a subject in the infinite universe opened up by Galileo and modern science? Lacan suggests that psychoanalysis existed because subjectivity still existed, as a form of ‘non-knowledge’, attached to the cause of truth. Science is caught in a ‘deadlocked endeavour to suture the subject’ (CpA 1.1:12-13; E, 861), but psychoanalysis can enable structuralism to explain the ‘internal exclusion’ of subjectivity from the symbolic order, and the emergence of the objet petit a as the ‘cause’ of desire.

Lacan’s claims in this essay emerge out of ideas on the subject developed in Seminar XI, published as The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. In his establishment of the distinction between the ‘subject of the enunciation’ and the ‘subject of the statement’, Lacan invokes the apparently paradoxical sentence ‘I am lying’. His distinction renders the expression unproblematic by making the ‘I’ of the (conscious) statement function as a shifter that refers in discourse to the lying ‘I’ of the (unconscious) enunciation, that is, the ‘I’ that is doing the lying in the first place, thus making the statement at once possible and true.5 Lacan’s point is that the ‘I’ of the statement obscures the more fundamental, unconscious ‘I’ that determines the expression in the first place. The same basic structure is in play in Lacan’s thinking about science, namely that science establishes itself as discourse by ignoring, or repressing this split that makes it possible in the first place. Science wants to ‘exclude’ the unconscious from its discourse, and attempts to do so by ‘suturing’ the ‘subject of science’, that is, by having this subject qua agent persist in a kind of wilful ignorance - ‘a lack of truth about truth’ - of its fundamentally split nature.

In his ‘Réponses à des étudiants en philosophie sur l’objet de la psychanalyse’ (CpA 3.1), Lacan responds to a series of questions about subjectivity, consciousness and self-consciousness. In this text, he reiterates his interpretation of Descartes’ cogito, which he had characterised in ‘La Science et la vérité’ as ‘punctual and vanishing’ (CpA 1.1:9; E, 858). ‘At a crucial point of the Cartesian askesis [the sceptical withdrawal of the Meditations] […], consciousness and the subject coincide. It is holding that privileged moment as exhaustive of the subject which is misleading […]. It is, on the contrary, at that moment of coincidence itself, insofar as it is grasped by reflection, that I intend to mark the site through which psychoanalytic experience makes its entrance. At simply being sustained within time, the subject of the “I think” reveals what it is: the being of a fall’. In its purest sense, the Cartesian cogito is the subject of the unconscious, revealed only through parapraxes and symptoms. Lacan says that psychoanalysis affords us ‘daily experience’, through the encounter with patients’ symptoms, of a ‘rift or split’ within subjectivity that consciousness attempts to repress. Lacan concludes his ‘Réponses’ as follows: ‘The best anthropology can go no further than making of man the speaking being. I myself speak of a science defined by its object. Now the subject of the unconscious is a spoken being, and that is the being of man; if psychoanalysis is to be a science, that is not a presentable object. […] That is why psychoanalysis as a science will be structuralist, to the point of recognizing in science a refusal of the subject’ (CpA 3.1:12-13/trans. 113). The ‘subject’ refused here is the subject of the unconscious, that is, the ‘subject of enunciation’, obscured or sutured over in discourse.

Yves Duroux’s ‘Psychologie et logique’ (CpA 1.2) and Jacques-Alain Miller’s ‘La Suture: Éléments de la logique du signifiant’ (CpA 1.3) suggest that although Frege’s Foundations of Arithmetic (1884) sets out from a critique of empiricist and Kantian idealist theories of subjectivity, his theory of logic and mathematics contains elements that can nevertheless be put to work in a psychoanalytic theory of unconscious subjectivity. For empiricism and idealism, the ‘function of the subject’ is to bring about a synthesis, as a ‘support of the operations of abstraction and unification’. Miller claims that Frege’s genesis of the series of whole natural numbers rests on a primary metaphor, that of the substitution of 1 for 0, which in turn serves as the motor for a ‘metonymic chain of successional progression’ (CpA 1.3:46). Frege’s theory of number is based on an ‘alternation of a representation and an exclusion’ that is structurally analogous to ‘the most elementary articulation of the subject’s relation to the signifying chain’ (CpA 1.3:47).

Serge Leclaire is at first resistant to Miller’s ‘logical’ account of the subject. In ‘L’Analyste à sa place’, he argues that it is rather ‘the analyst who is like the subject of the unconscious, which is to say that he has no place and can have none’ (CpA 1.4:52). But Leclaire’s claim that the analyst has no ‘place’ does not satisfy Miller, who wants to know from what position one can say such a thing. As his response to Leclaire in the 21st session of Lacan’s Seminar XII makes clear, Miller’s exacting concern with issues of system, reflexivity and metalanguage will not allow him to accept the privilege of the analyst without argument.6 In the ‘Compter avec la psychanalyse’ sessions and his two written articles for the Cahiers, Leclaire tends to avoid metatheoretical questions and instead focuses on the original relation between drive and signifier in the constitution of subjectivity. He argues that the formal account of alternation and vacillation given by Miller must be rooted in the original split opened up by the loss of the maternal object (cf. CpA 2.5:133, CpA 3.6:87).

In Cahiers Volume 2, the question of subjectivity is taken up with relation to the social science of psychology. Canguilhem criticises psychology for having no real object, a situation that has resulted in its invasion and take over by political ideologies and ‘technicism’ (CpA 2.1).

In ‘Réflexions sur la situation théorique des sciences sociales, et, spécialement, de la psychologie sociale’ (CpA 2.6), Thomas Herbert [Michel Pêcheux] argues that ‘all the philosophies of consciousness and the subject (that is almost to say, all of philosophy, except certain dissidents like Spinoza, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud)’ have the ‘ideological function’ of repressing both the economic situation of capitalism, and the superegoic ‘command’ that accompanies it at the ideological level (CpA 2.6:152). The theory of the subject must yield to the methods of psychoanalysis, linguistics and historical materialism, and give concrete accounts of how to struggle against ideology. What Herbert calls ‘ideological practice’ concerns the ‘transformation of a given “consciousness” into a new produced “consciousness”, by means of a reflection of consciousness upon itself’ (142). In Herbert’s second essay, ‘Pour une théorie générale des idéologies’, the problem becomes how to identify the genuine mutations occurring in the field of ideology itself (CpA 9.5:92).

Volume 3 returns to psychoanalysis with major contributions from Luce Irigaray, André Green, and Jean-Claude Milner, and a detailed discussion of key formal issues at the end of the volume.

Green offers a critical engagement with Miller’s logic of the signifier in his exposition of Lacan’s theory of the objet petit a in CpA 3.2. Green argues that the subject, as the enunciator of the statement, is automatically placed outside the statement it makes, and is for this reason analogous to the ‘absolute’ zero in Miller’s sense. However, ‘for us this concept issues from the encounter with truth, insofar as it not only dissociates truth from its demonstration [manifestation] (identity with itself), but it also designates there as its place, through the blank or the trace that negates it’ (CpA 3.2:23; trans. 173, modified). He specifies that ‘it is inadequate to see this concept only as a simple relation of absence. What should be pinpointed [cerné] here is the relation of lack to truth’.

Irigaray’s ‘Communication linguistique et spéculaire’ (CpA 3.3) gives a structuralist linguistic account of the conditions for the emergence of subjectivity. She claims that the genesis of the child-subject is initially brought about by his or her parents talking about them (CpA 3.3:40; trans. 10). This creates a minimal placeholder with which the child can identify. Irigaray charts the vicissitudes of this minimal subject through the acquisition of language and into the ‘specular’ regime of visual representation, which offers a series of lures and deceptions, but also allows the subject to assume a place beyond representation.

Xavier Audouard’s essay on Plato’s Sophist (CpA 3.4) expounds the relation between the logical subject (to which predicates are attached in a judgment), and the unconscious subject posited by Lacan. In searching for definitions, we attach predicates to a subject, but this subject is never fully included in any of the predicates. Audouard argues the subject only emerges retrospectively, once the process of dichotomy and division has been initiated (CpA 3.4:58).

Plato’s Sophist is also the terrain of Jean-Claude Milner’s ‘Le Point du signifiant’ (CpA 3.5), which argues that ‘non-being’, as clarified by Plato, is ‘the signifier of the subject’ (78). According to Milner, this non-being appears at every moment the subject prepares to ‘annul’ the whole signifying chain and start again from zero. If the chain is not annulled, then non-being appears in an alternating, symptomatic guise instead.

In keeping with Lacan’s complex account of the emergence of desire (cf. ‘Subversion of the Subject in the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious’), Leclaire claims in CpA 3.6 that desire is the result of a ‘cleavage by exclusion’, that introduces ‘the dimension of subjectivity or of redoubled alterity’ (CpA 3.6:93). In desire, rather than a synthetic subject encountering an objective given, a split subject confronts an objet petit a. The psychoanalytical account of the split subject is taken up further in Volume 5 in the essays by Serge Leclaire (CpA 5.1) and Michel Tort (CpA 5.2).

In volume 6, Martial Gueroult develops Fichte’s critique of Rousseau’s account of ‘moral conscience’. On the basis of Kant’s ethics, Fichte criticises Rousseau’s account of conscience as something simultaneously natural and divine, putting in its place a distinction between nature and right (CpA 6.1:17) and establishing the primacy of an auto-legislating concept over inchoate notions of feeling in the subjective determination of right. Jacques Bouveresse’s ‘L’Achèvement de la révolution copernicienne’ (CpA 6.7) and Jacques-Alain Miller’s ‘Action de la structure’ (CpA 9.6:103-105) also argue for the ongoing relevance of Fichte’s theory of subjectivity for epistemology and political theory. Bouveresse claims that Fichte propagates a ‘Copernican revolution’ in ethics that goes hand in hand with a ‘vigorous denunciation, and attempt at an explanation of, capitalist anarchy’ (CpA 6.7:130).

In his essay on Hume’s theory of authority (CpA 6.5), Bernard Pautrat argues that Hume dissolves the link found in Locke between the philosophical subject and the political subject, and abandons the project of protecting an ‘illusory autonomy’ (CpA 6.5:71). Instead, Hume proposes a ‘psychology of obedience’ that will ‘lead the political subject to its natural place, that of subjection’ (72). Pautrat suggests that Hume’s shift from a philosophy of the subject to a political psychology of the ‘system of subjection’ succeeds in transcending the ideology of the period.

In his exchange with the Cercle d’Épistémologie in Volume 9, Michel Foucault notes that as a result of the achievements of psychoanalysis, linguistics and structuralist anthropology, the very idea of a ‘spontaneous synthesising subject’ is in the process of disappearing (CpA 9.2:12; trans. 301). In their reply to Foucault’s ‘Réponse’, the Cercle criticise Foucault’s impersonal account of discursive events for occluding the dimension of enunciation that is necessary to distinguish an event from a mere element in a structure (CpA 9.3:43-44).

In ‘Action de la Structure’ (CpA 9.6), Jacques-Alain Miller goes against the Althusserian grain by appealing directly to the notion of subjectivity. He stipulates that the subject ‘will no longer figure in the form of a regent, but as a subjected subject [sujette]’ (CpA 9.6:98). Although it is required by representation, this subjectivity is not required to occupy the position of a foundation. Miller’s subject ‘retains none of the attributes of the psychological, nor the phenomenological subject’. Its ‘conscious being’ is determined by structural mechanisms. ‘The theory of the subject must start from structure, taking its insertion for granted. It is essential to preserve the order: from structure to subject’. Miller’s derivation of subjectivity from structure depends on the introduction of an unspecified ‘reflexive element’ into the presupposed structure. At first, the subject that emerges out of this primary structuration is ‘nothing but a support, a subjected subject’. ‘Subjectivity can be defined as reflexive in the imaginary, and non-reflexive in the process of structuration itself’. The subject misrecognises what motivates it, attempting to compensate for its emptiness. The subject is thus ‘fundamentally deceived: its miscognition is constitutive’. Alienation is intrinsic to the subject, which only becomes an agent in the imaginary. Nevertheless, through pursuing the goal of a doctrine of science, the subject may participate in the ‘infinite activity’ of desire (CpA 9.6:104), and manage in part to transcend alienation.

In ‘Marque et manque: à propos du zero’ (CpA 10.8), Alain Badiou criticises Miller’s entire project to save a conception of the subject by appealing to a logic of the signifier. Badiou notes that for Lacan and by extension for Miller, ‘the articulation of the subject is conceived through a system of concepts called the “logic of the Signifier”: Lack, Place, Placeholder, Suture, Foreclosure, Splitting’. A placeholder of lack, the Lacanian subject is an instance of non-identity and non-self-coincidence. Badiou claims that science, and in particular the mathematical writing fundamental to science, excludes all lack and all non-self-coincidence, and he thereby denies that there is any subject of science in the Lacanian sense; science should rather be understood as the ‘psychosis of no subject’ (CpA 10.8:161-62).

Badiou’s first major book of philosophy, Theory of the Subject (1982), is in large part a vigorous critique of the limitations of the merely ‘structural’ conception of things developed in the Cahiers. It affirms the primacy of a revolutionary, post-Maoist subject as the driving force of political change. In developing a theory of that active if not voluntarist subject which is precisely excluded from the Cahiers project, Badiou here distinguishes the (a) ‘historical’ aspect of the dialectic (which involves destruction of an old order and the deliberate, ‘consistent’ recomposition of a new configuration) from (b) its ‘structural’ aspect (which follows, with Mallarmé and then Lacan, the trajectory of a ‘vanishing cause’), and privileges the former over the latter.

Select bibliography

  • Althusser, Louis. ‘Trois Notes sur la théorie des discours’, in Écrits sur la psychanalyse. Paris: IMEC, 1995. ‘Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses’, in The Humanist Controversy and Other Writings (1966-1967), ed. François Matheron, trans. G. M. Goshgarian. London: Verso, 2003.
  • Badiou, Alain. Théorie du sujet. Paris: Seuil, 1982. Theory of the Subject, trans. Bruno Bosteels. London: Continuum, 2009.
  • ---. ‘Le Sujet et l’infini’, in Conditions. Paris: Seuil, 1992. ‘The Subject and Infinity’, in Conditions, trans. Steven Corcoran. London: Continuum, 2008.
  • ---. ‘Y a-t-il une théorie du sujet chez Georges Canguilhem?’, in Étienne Balibar et al., Georges Canguilhem: Philosophe et historien des sciences, Actes du Colloque (6-7-8 décembre 1990). Paris: Albin Michel, 1993. 295-304. ‘Is There a Theory of the Subject in Georges Canguilhem?’, trans. Graham Burchell. Economy and Society 27:2 (1998).
  • Balibar, Etienne, Barbara Cassin, and Alain de Libera. ‘Sujet’, in Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles. ‘Subject’, trans. David Macey. Radical Philosophy 138 (July/August 2006): 15-41.
  • Foucault, Michel. ‘La Vie: expérience et science’. Revue de métaphysique et de morale 90:1 (1985). ‘Life: Experience and Science’, trans. Robert Hurley, in Foucault: The Essential Works, vol. 1: Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, ed. James D. Faubion. London: Penguin, 1998.
  • Frege, Gottlob. The Foundations of Arithmetic, trans. J. L. Austin. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1980.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Jacques-Alain Miller, ed. Alan Sheridan, trans. London: Penguin, 1977.
  • ---. Seminar XII. Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis (1965-66), trans. Cormac Gallagher, unpublished manuscript.
  • Miller, Jacques-Alain. Contribution to Lacan’s Seminar XII. Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis, 21st session.
  • Wahl, François. ‘Le structuralisme en philosophie’, in Qu’est-ce que le structuralisme? Paris: Seuil, 1968.


1. Foucault, ‘Life: Experience and Science’, 466.

2. Althusser, ‘Three Notes on the Theory of Discourses’, 48.

3. Ibid., 37-38.

4. Ibid., 38.

5. Seminar XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 138-42

6. See Miller’s response in Lacan, Seminar XII, Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis, 21st session (2 June 1965), 4.