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Le temps

Time and its relation to lived experience was a central notion in Bergson’s philosophy, as well as in phenomenology, two philosophical traditions to which the Cahiers pour l’Analyse opposed its own formalist undertaking. Calling upon the notion of differential temporalities inherent to a synchronic structural analysis, the Cahiers developed some of Lacan’s ideas on time in its effort to produce a theory of the subject predicated on a formalised relation between circular and linear time, i.e., the synchronic and the diachronic.

Long a central concern of philosophy, time became a privileged subject of philosophical consideration in the modern age, in the wake of Kant’s critical philosophy. The nineteenth century witnessed efforts to consider historical time in terms of a progressive dialectic (e.g., with Hegel or Marx) that would be distinct from the circular time of the pre-modern era and the eschatology of a redemptive Christian narrative. In the twentieth century, time was a target of critical reconsideration, particularly with respect to Kant’s linking of time with space as the two foundational categories of intellectual intuition. Bergson reconceived time as a process of contraction and expansion grounded in a élan vital subtending lived experience. Heidegger, in his magnum opus Being and Time, criticized Bergson for remaining in an Aristotelian framework that conceived of time in terms of space. A rethinking of time as the primordial modality of being was crucial for Heidegger’s project, which conceived of temporal ek-stasis as the ground of human subjectivity and meaning.

The advent of structuralism as a paradigm of thought in post-war France was in many ways opposed to both the Bergsonian and Heideggerian emphasis on lived experience as the condition and object of philosophical consideration. Making use of Ferdinand de Saussure’s structural linguistics, Claude Lévi-Strauss considered meaning as an effect of synchronic symbolic relations. His model was explicitly opposed to the historicized phenomenology to be found in Sartre’s example, and conceived of time no longer as historical progression, but rather as a diachronicity that was itself an effect of these synchronic relations.

Jacques Lacan’s rethinking of psychoanalysis took place within the same frame. For Lacan, what he termed ‘temporal tension’ was distributed along a plane of ‘logical time’ that was distinct from lived experience (cf. ‘Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty’ [1945], E 197-213). Lacan’s analysis was grounded in an account of language as introducing an irreconcilable distribution of meaning over three moments, the instant of the gaze [instant du regard], the time for understanding [le temps pour comprendre], and the moment to conclude [le moment de conclure]. There is a reflexive movement in this distribution, wherein the moment to conclude sutures over the chasm of the time for understanding that separates the conclusion from the inaugural gaze. This basic frame would be developed in myriad ways in Lacan’s own teaching, but also chiefly in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, where Jacques-Alain Miller’s reading of Gottlob Frege’s generation of the sequence of whole numbers seeks to establish subjective diachronic temporality as based upon the circular time of an inaugural synchronic suturing.

Beyond Lacan, resources for the Cahiers’ generally anti-phenomenological engagement with time were also found in the tradition of French epistemology, chiefly in the attenuated project of Jean Cavaillès. In his essay, Sur la logique et la théorie de la science (1946), Cavaillès argued that ‘As a uniquely autonomous progress, a dynamism closed in on itself, with neither absolute beginning nor term, science moves outside of time – if time means reference to the lived [vécu] of a consciousness’.1 This conception of science, as predicated upon a rejection or epistemological break with the ‘imaginary’ elements of lived experience or ideology, would be a crucial influence on the interrogation of science within the Cahiers, above all in the contributions of Alain Badiou.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

The relation between ‘linear time’ and ‘circular time’ is a key point in the conclusion of Jacques-Alain Miller’s ‘La Suture: Éléments pour une logique du signifiant’ (CpA 1.3), one of the seminal articles of the journal. Miller suggests that a distinction between circular and linear time arises from his theory of the signifying chain. Although the enunciation of the signifier is limited by the linearity of the signifying chain, the retroactive nature of signification is circular and in fact conditions ‘the birth of linear time’ (CpA 1.3:49, trans. 34). In conclusion, Miller says that ‘by crossing logical discourse at its point of least resistance, that of its suture, you can see articulated the structure of the subject as a “flickering in eclipses”, like the movement which opens and closes the number, and delivers up the lack in the form of the 1 in order to abolish it in the successor’ (CpA 1.3:49/34). The ‘division of the subject’ - which is ‘the other name for its alienation’ - is hereby made manifest. Making way for his development of this model in ‘Action of the structure’ (CpA 9.6), Miller states that ‘it will be deduced from this that the signifying chain is the structure of structure’, from which may be developed a new theory of structural causality.

In his article, ‘Gravité de Rousseau’ (CpA 8.2) in volume eight of the Cahiers, Alain Grosrichard contrasts Rousseau’s account of the genesis of reason and of the faculties in Emile to the sensualist model offered by Condillac. Something of the alternating nature of temporality captured in Miller’s account of suture is found in Grosrichard’s reading as well:

If the sensualist model of transformed sensation also determines the genesis of Emile’s faculties and kinds of knowledge, with Rousseau this genesis is commanded by a real temporality, that of a living individual, who is born, suffers, desires, and could die at any instant – in short, an individual made of a mind [esprit] and a body. As such, Emile’s genesis is not a linear transformation of sensation, but a parallel double transformation: not a succession of forms of the understanding, but a succession of couplets of calibrated forms (CpA 8.2:51).

The function or concept of time in an account of structural causality is a guiding concern in Jacques-Alain Miller’s ‘Action de la structure’ (CpA 9.6). Crucial to the psychoanalytic variant of structuralism is a non-univocal conception of time, a distinction between the temporality of the unconscious and that of lived experience, or the imaginary. The objects of psychoanalytic structuralism are ‘experiences’, which ‘unfold according to their own interior time, indiscernible from the progress of their constitution’ (CpA 9.6:95). The ‘dynamics’ of structuralism is to be found in the displacement of elements. Miller suggests that structure can thus minimally be defined as ‘that which puts in place an experience for the subject that it includes’. The concept of structure therefore needs to be qualified with two extra ‘functions’: ‘structuration, or the action of the structure; and subjectivity, in its status as subjected [assujettie]’. If the consequences of this ‘hypothesis’ are drawn, it is possible to ‘engender’, or bring about a genesis of, ‘structure’ itself [engendre la structure].

Miller proposes that the concept of structuration can be analysed on its own terms. Structures present themselves in two ways. On the one hand, on an ‘actual’ plane, where they are given to the observer, and on the other hand, in their ‘virtual’ dimension, through which all their states are capable of being deduced (CpA 9.6:95). There is thus a ‘structuring structure’ and a ‘structured structure’. Miller stresses that these distinctions are to be located at the methodological level of analysis, and that no ‘structural time’ or movement can be ascribed at this point in the argument.

If, however, the minimal assumption of a ‘reflexive element’ [élément reflexif] is added, something more emerges. ‘If we now assume the presence of an element that turns back on reality and perceives it, reflects it and signifies it, an element capable of redoubling itself on its own account, then a general distortion ensues, one which affects the whole structural economy and recomposes it according to new laws’ (CpA 9.6:95). From the moment that the structure involves such an element, (1) its actuality gains the status of an ‘experience’, (2) ‘the virtuality of the structuring process is converted into an absence’, and (3) ‘this absence is produced in the real order of the structure’, and ‘the action of the structure comes to be supported by a lack’.

Select bibliography

  • Bergson, Henri. Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience. Paris: Alcan, 1889. Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans. F.L. Pogson. Montana: Kessinger Publishing Company, 1910.
  • Bergson, Henri. Matière et mémoire. Paris: PUF, 1896. Matter and Memory, trans. N.M. Paul and W.S. Palmer. New York: Zone Books, 1994.
  • Cavaillès, Jean. ‘Sur la logique et la théorie de la science’ [1946]. In Oeuvres complètes de Philosophie des sciences, ed. Bruno Huisman. Paris: Hermann, 1994.
  • Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time 1927], trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper Row, 1962.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.


1. Sur la logique et la théorie de la science, 22.