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Synopsis of Serge Leclaire, ‘Compter Avec La Psychanalyse’

[‘Reckoning with Psychoanalysis’]

CpA 8.6:91–119

This is the third and final instalment of notes on of Serge Leclaire’s seminar ‘Reckoning with Psychoanalysis’.1 The first two instalments were published in CpA 1.5 and CpA 3.6, and the previous sessions date from the beginning of 1966 (12 January and 2 February). The six sessions summarised here took place between 23 November 1966 and 8 March 1967. The article ends with a presentation by Claude Conté from 14 December 1966, on Lacan’s account of the lamella in Seminar XI.

The sequence of seminars is devoted to the subject of repression (refoulement). Leclaire begins by noting that Freud’s theory of secondary repression is founded upon his theory of primary repression; it is the latter that will therefore be examined in the seminar, and subjected to a ‘structural’ approach. He announces that he will be dealing with the ‘paradoxical’ relations between primary repression and jouissance (enjoyment), and discussing the notion of erotogenicity and the function of the phallus (CpA 8.6:91). Of all of the seminars published by Leclaire in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, this particular series contains the largest amount of material devoted to interpreting Lacan’s thought, and it bears the mark of the incursions into the question of the relation between sexuality and knowledge [savoir] opened up by Lacan in Seminars XII (1964-65), XIII (1965-66) and XIV (1966-67).

Session I. ‘Structure and Enjoyment’ [Structure et jouissance].

23 November 1966. (Leclaire’s own summary, from notes taken by P. Guyomard.

Although it may seem strange to posit a relationship between ‘structure’ and ‘jouissance’, Leclaire argues that this is the central knot in the problem of repression. He claims that Freud’s own introduction of the hypothesis of primary repression is structural, and cites the key passage from Freud’s 1915 article on ‘Repression’:

We have reason to assume that there is a primal repression, a first phase of repression, which consists in the psychical (ideational) representative [Vorstellungsrepräsentanz] of the drive being denied entrance into the conscious. With this a fixation is established; the representative in question persists unaltered from then onwards and the drive remains attached to (SE 14: 148).2

Leclaire identifies two questions implied by Freud’s hypothesis. The first is how to make sense of the ‘contradiction’ involved in stating that a properly psychical representative is barred from consciousness in the drive. For Leclaire, the difficulty resides in the fact that Freud assumes that a system of consciousness, in opposition to that of the unconscious, already exists before these first fixations take place. The second question concerns how consciousness, concerned to avoid a state of unpleasure, refuses to accept a representation attached to a drive for pleasure. It looks as if a movement towards satisfaction is blocked for the sake of unpleasure. Leclaire says that this paradox finds its most ample treatment in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (SE 18). Leclaire proposes to examine the problematic of fixation, which he says reveals ‘the fundamental cleavage in psychic life’ in its clearest form: on the one hand, there is an unfulfilled drive, ‘irremediably fixed in the suspense of its non-satisfaction’ (CpA 8.6:93), while on the other hand, and simultaneously, there is ‘the irrepressible pursuit of a satisfaction to fill the gap opened up by the first refusal (Versagung). The origin of the jouissance investigated by Lacanian psychoanalysis is to be found in this process of fixation.’

Session II. ‘Structure and jouissance’, II.

7 December 1966. (From notes taken by Marie-Claire Boons).

What is essential to repression is that it ‘turns representations away and maintains them at a distance from consciousness’ (SE 14: 147). As such, repression is a barrier that ‘maintains the splitting [l’écart] necessary to all logic; it is the condition of the possibility of difference and articulation without which there would be no structure, no logic’ (93). Leclaire says that he will assume as given the Lacanian position that ‘the structure of the unconscious can be described in terms of signifying concatenation: as a chain that has the effect of engendering a subject that it excludes and an object that falls out of it’ (93). Referring to Lacan’s recent thinking about the possibility of knowledge of sexual difference in Seminars XII and XIII, Leclaire notes that it is striking that jouissance, and ‘its limiting principle, pleasure’, are difficult to locate in the psychic structures articulated by Freud. Is this due to the impotence of language to ‘account for sexuality’, as Lacan suggests? Leclaire cites Lacan’s statement in ‘Position of the Unconscious’ that ‘there is nothing in the dialectic of the subject that can represent the bipolarity of sex’ (E, 849/720); and a statement from Seminar XII that the ‘radical difference’ of sex ‘refuses itself to knowledge’3 The task, according to Leclaire, is to situate jouissance formally and structurally. ‘How to pass from the signifier to sex, and from sex to the signifier?’

In a section devoted to the analysis of pleasure, Leclaire starts by noting that in common usage, jouissance is posited as the ‘acme’ of pleasure, its ‘most secret and intimate’ component. Before proceeding with his own analysis, Leclaire takes up Lacan’s remarks about jouissance in his fundamental 1958 article ‘The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious’, where the term is given an immediately ontological significance, and related to the ‘exaltation and dissolution of being’ (94). The absence of jouissance, Lacan declaims, ‘would render the universe vain’ (E, 819/694). The lack of this jouissance would also make ‘the Other inconsistent’ (E, 820/694). In his graph of desire, Lacan places jouissance at the place labelled S(A), which, Leclaire explains, is ‘the place of the signifier of a lack in the Other considered as the guardian of signifiers’ (94). He elaborates that this signifier ‘can only be symbolised by the uncountable or unaccountable [incomptable] trait that encloses it’. It is a signifier that cannot be said as such. He cites Lacan: ‘We must keep in mind that jouissance is prohibited to whoever speaks, as such - or, put differently, it can only be said between the lines by whoever is a subject of the Law, since the Law is founded on that very prohibition’ (E, 821/696). From this perspective, the function of pleasure is to regulate the approach to jouissance, to defend against going over its threshold. In this way, jouissance plays the role of ‘an almost natural barrier’ (E, 821/696). Leclaire follows Lacan’s claim in ‘Subversion of the Subject’ that ‘castration means that jouissance has to be refused in order to be attained on the inverse scale of the Law of desire’ (E, 827/700).

On this basis, human pleasure can be rendered comprehensible. Pleasure cannot be allocated to either side of any putative division between ‘organic’ and ‘psychic’. Leclaire considers a clinical example of perverse pleasure. A voyeur experiences sexual enjoyment when he imagines or sees a crouching woman in the process of urinating. ‘His pleasure emanates from a visual contact with a part (detachable) of the body of the other, an elusive partial object that fulfils him’. Perverse pleasure implies the putting into play of an objet petit a that serves provisionally to fill the subject’s lack. In perverse pleasure, lack ends up functioning so as to excite libidinal attention and to postpone the moment of syncope or orgasmic discharge. The ‘time’ of annulment in mutual perverse pleasure is correspondingly distributed differently for the partners involved. Nevertheless, there is an element of perverse pleasure in all sexual pleasure. In all foreplay and caresses, there is a diffusion of sensation that induces a ‘subversion’ or ‘vacillation’ of the interior and exterior (96). Every experience of pleasure is conducted not only under the horizon of the annulment of a state of tension, but also of dichotomies between mind and organism, interior and exterior and even that between my body and the body of the other. Leclaire concludes that pleasure should not be understood on the model of a ‘representation of annulment’, but as a putting into action [mise en acte].

Leclaire then returns to the question of the relation of jouissance to the signifying chain as a structure. Citing Jean-Claude Milner’s ‘Le Point du signifiant’, he recalls that ‘the functioning of this chain implies a vacillation between its existence as chain and its disappearance: one could say that each element of the chain, even if it founds it, can, through the transgression that it operates, threaten it with annulment’ (cf. CpA 3.5:77). The possibility of collapse is included in the very possibility of the signifying chain. Leclaire extrapolates that what occurs in the encounter with jouissance is precisely such a collapse - ‘no longer as possibility, but as accomplishment’. Only sexual pleasure has the power to actualise the collapse that is always possible for signification. Leclaire notes the analogy with the relation of death to life. In life as in sexual pleasure, a ‘short-circuit’ can ‘annul the tension of the signifying articulation’. At the moment of jouissance, signifiers cease to refer to each other. The encounter of bodies of pleasure, putting the materiality of the signifier into play, ‘makes the zero that sub-tends [them] explode: for one instant, there is no more lack. Instead of supporting the chain, the zero and the one instead telescope it’ (CpA 8.6:96). Leclaire suggests that it may be in a similar fashion that the objet petit a initially comes to take the place of the lack in the Other.

Returning to Lacan’s discussions in his most recent seminars of language’s lack of power to speak directly about ‘sex’.4 Leclaire suggests that language [langage] itself acts as a ‘veil’ draped over the fundamental ‘two’ of sex. Nevertheless, he continues, ‘as everyone knows, nothing is more patent than what is veiled’ (97). The status of the primal scene derives from the tearing away of this veil and the revelation of the other as a sexual being. jouissance only becomes possible for an organism once the signifying chain is established. The signifying chain is what supports the possibility of the ‘time of annulment’ embodied in sexual activity. In the following session, Leclaire promises to turn to the problematic of the phallus, which paradoxically appears as both a ‘signifier of jouissance’ and a ‘signifier of a lack of the signifier’ (97).

Session III. ‘The Psychoanalytical Concept of the Body’ [Le Concept psychoanalytique du corps]

11 January 1967. (From notes taken by Gérard Pislor).

Leclaire contends that the psychoanalytic concept of the signifier has been misunderstood. ‘The signifier in the psychoanalytic sense implies the conjunction of a letter and the movement of a body’ (98). Leclaire takes up Freud’s suggestion in the case of the ‘Wolf Man’, that alphabetical letters by themselves can (such as the letters ‘V’ or ‘W’) can correspond to libidinal movements (SE 17: 94). For the Wolf Man, the letter ‘V’ functions as a signifier to the extent that it marks a libidinal movement of the body (the opening of eyes and mouth). There are thus two basic types of relation at work in signifying chains. First, there are sign relations strictly speaking, composed of ‘phonematic differences’ in a ‘binary’, ‘vacillating’ relation. Then, on the other hand, there are ‘movements, gestures, and acts of separation [coupure]’ that correspond to bodily movements. Leclaire refers back to his earlier treatment of this issue (CpA 1.5:64 note 15), where he discussed the lexical extensions of the German term ‘reissen’ (to rip). On the one hand, reissen opens itself up to a plurality of meanings, ‘because it can lead to (eg.) reisen [to travel], heissen [to name], and weissen [to know]’ (CpA 8.6:98); on the other hand, reissen only becomes a signifier in the weighty sense when ‘it also relates to a libidinal movement of the body’ (for instance, the tearing up of flowers, or the infant ‘tearing into’ his or her mother, or the ‘tearing off’ of the penis in castration). Thus ‘the signifier is not only a vacillating element (binarity), it is an unstable compound of binarity and bipolarity’ (98).

Insofar as this ‘bipolar’ libidinal movement involves a coupure (a term that can be translated as ‘break’, ‘cut’ or ‘separation’), it is fundamentally related to castration, as Leclaire reminds he has insisted elsewhere in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse (CpA 5.1:21). Nevertheless, there is more to be said about these two parallel types of relation, the binary and the bipolar. When the binary oppositions of the signifying battery rest on nothing other than bipolar movements, schizophrenia results; on the other hand, when there is no relation to the bipolar movements, a ‘rigidity’ ensues that is characteristic of the obsessional neurotic (CpA 8.6:99).

In what follows, Leclaire develops his concept of the erogenous zone. He asserts that the erogenous zones are the ‘organising principle’ of thought itself, suggesting in a wide-ranging footnote that it might be possible to construct a set of correlations between the ‘typology of Desire’ and ‘the typology of Thought’ (99). He defines an erogenous zone as a ‘a zone marked by the fact of a cut [coupure]’. From the clinical point of view, erogenous zones are rooted in the ‘virtuality of pleasure’ made possible by the physiological play of excitations. From the structural point of view, the erogenous zone always refers to the erogenous zone of another body. From the topological point of view, it relates to the ‘edge-like’ nature of the erogenous zone. From the historical point of view, it refers to marks of events that are unerasable, yet can only be approached by means of a screen (100).

Leclaire proposes a psychoanalytic definition of the body as ‘a set of erogenous zones’. Every zone refers to: (i) a fundamental lack, (ii) to the absent erogenous zones of the other, (iii) to one’s own erogenous zones, and (iv) to non-erogenous zones. He notes that there is a homology between ‘full signification’, or ‘full speech’ in the Lacanian sense and the structure of the set of zones. The erogenous zone too is structured like a signifier: it has binary relations to the other zones on the one hand, and bipolar relations to specific zones in the body of the other. Leclaire stipulates that this is a different conception of the body to that of the biologist (101).5

Session IV. ‘The Psychoanalytical Concept of the Body’, II [Le Concept psychoanalytique du corps].

25 January 1967. (From notes taken by B. Tort).

In this session, Leclaire gives an elaborate account of Lacan’s most recent thinking on the concept of the object petit a. He begins by relating the objet petit a to the genesis of the relation of the subject to the ‘signifying order’, as it is spelled out by Jacques-Alain Miller in ‘Suture’ (CpA 1.3:48). The subject according to Miller, Leclaire reminds us, is ‘not a term in the chain, but is defined as the simple possibility of one signifier more’; it is an effect of the signifying chain, while also being excluded from the chain as such. ‘Its structure can be articulated as a “flickering in eclipses”’ (CpA 1.3:49). Leclaire then gives two definitions of the objet petit a, the first according to Lacan, the second according to Jean-Claude Milner. Lacan defines the objet petit a as an ‘ejected’, ‘dejected’ object, belonging to the ‘order of the real’ [l’ordre du réel].6 Although itself unrepresentable, it has the ‘function of representing every possible representation of the subject’ (CpA 8.6:102). Milner specifies that the objet petit a ‘can be described as being like the stasis of the cyclical repetition of a fall’ (CpA 3.5:78).

Leclaire gives three interpretations of what the concept of the objet petit a could refer to. It could describe the child as such an object, fallen from the body of its mother; alternatively one could think of the object as anal (dropped, expelled, etc); or, in a third sense, as a separable, detachable object. He questions whether the relations amount to more than an ‘analogy’. There are two ways of articulating the relation of the objet petit a with the signifier. One can go the ‘idealist’ route, from the signifier to the object, and interpret it on the model of genesis (as the history of the fall of an object; Leclaire refers to his own attempt at such an approach in CpA 5.1:27-29). The Wolf Man wants to repress what he has seen in the primal scene, and to say ‘it is not her, it is not my mother’. From this ‘contestation of the identity of the mother as desiring subject arises the dislocation of the signifier of maternal identity, from which falls the residual object, the fantasy of the crouching woman’. Alternatively, one can take an ‘anti-idealist’ approach and go from the objet petit a to the signifier. Leclaire suggests that if the reconstruction of the relationship between the two terms is to be complete, the possibility must remain of following both routes (CpA 8.6:103).

Session V. ‘The Privilege of the Phallus, or the Reprise of the Object by the Signifier’ [Le privilege du phallus ou la reprise de l’objet par le signifiant].

2 February 1967. (From notes taken by Danièle Cottet).

Leclaire suggests that the objet petit a has the function of ‘reprising’. Malaises relating to the sensation of an accumulation of detritus repeat the relation to the anal object. The voice too can function as an objet a, if it is taken as not just ‘produced by an organ’, but as embodying ‘the phonic materiality of the signifier’. The same goes for the scopic regime and light. The problem is that the concept of ‘objectivity’ risks overextension. A mutation in subjectivity is demanded if the apprehension of the objet petit a is to be possible. In a sub-section entitled ‘Formalisation and the Organism’, Leclaire inquires into the presentation of the objet petit a as a ‘detachable’ or exchangeable part. He claims that the idea still conjures up the image of a complete ‘whole’; thus it is necessary to go further and define the part as ‘the effect of a rejection by formalisation’ (107). Although the gaze is tied to the eye, food to the mouth, etc., the ‘organic function’ at work in the objet petit a pulls in two directions: towards anatomy on the one hand, and formalisation on the other. ‘The object’, in its value as partial representation, is therefore at once the agent of an organic function and the representative of ‘the “purity” of all possible formalisation’. Leclaire emphasises that the function of the objet petit a goes ‘against nature’, and ‘subverts the organic order’. The ‘function of the organ of pleasure’ emerges, with a ‘fetish object’ as its ‘objective’ correlate.

In the following subsection, Leclaire follows the path from the penis as objet petit a to the phallus. As a natural object, the penis exists in a ‘bipolar’ relation, but when it comes to provide ‘a privileged support to the fantasy’, its properties as objet petit a become freed up. ‘This organ, by its variations of volume, mimics the split between tension and its resolution’. The phallic orgasm ‘reveals for an instant […] the place of jouissance’. Leclaire notes the relevance here of ‘the theme of annulment, as an actualisation of the zero’ (108n.). Rather than being an expression of jouissance, pleasure represents a limitation of this jouissance. Nevertheless, the transition from penis to phallus only takes place when the object takes on its role as purely interchangeable, and as therefore susceptible to reduction to a function of the subject. From then on, it can take on its role as ‘symbol of the bar [la barre] that affects the Other (that is to say, its lack)’. ‘The organ-agent […] produced by this mutation is the phallus’ (108). Leclaire’s account of this transition here provides perhaps the subtlest analysis of the concept of the phallus in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse. He concludes by raising anew the question of how it comes about that repression comes to bear on the ‘phallic reference’ (109).

Session VI. ‘Consciousness considered as an Effect of Repression’ [Le Conscient consideré comme effet du refoulement].

8 March 1967. (Leclaire’s own summary).

Leclaire now pursues the theme of primary repression in the light of the ‘veiling of the phallus’. The phallus serves as a ‘model of all erogeneity’, because it is ‘subversive of the organic order: in a very condensed formula, we can say that it is the only term that can be said to be at once signifier and object’ (110). The phallus as signifier is therefore indeed the lack of a signifier, as Lacan argues. Leclaire concludes that ‘primary repression is the installing of the phallic reference as forbidden. This signifier of the lack of a signifier, this non-uttered utterance of the prohibition [ce dit non dit de l’interdit], is the pivot of any possible signifying organisation’ (111).

Everything that has been said so far about the ‘structural model’ has concerned the order of the signifier, which is, ‘strictly speaking, an unconscious organisation’. Consciousness initially emerges in a state of dependence on the objet petit a as waste or scrap, as déchet. ‘The object, or the series of objects, principally the body, constitutes this opaque and reflecting surface starting from which what I shall call “the consciousness effect” follows’ (111). Leclaire goes on to relate this account of primal repression to ‘secondary repression, or repression properly speaking’ (112). He concludes that ‘reckoning with [compter avec] psychoanalysis is also reckoning with repression, with the installation of the phallic reference, and the perennial nature of its effects’ (113).

Session VII. Claude Conté, ‘The Unconscious and its Relationship to Sexuality’ [L’Inconscient et son rapport à la sexualité].

14 December 1966. (Summary by Conté).

In the last session, a participant in the seminar, Claude Conté, gives a reading of one of Lacan’s articles, ‘Position of the Unconscious’, which had just been published in the Écrits (E, 830-850/703-721). This article itself was a resumé of the main ideas developed in Lacan’s Seminar XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1964). Conté gives an explanation of Lacan’s ideas about alienation (114) and separation (115), and comments on Lacan’s theory of the ‘figuration’ of abstract libido in the form of a ‘lamella’ or embryonic surface (116, 119; cf. E, 848/719). According to Lacan, ‘the organ of what is incorporeal in the sexed being is the aspect of the organism that the subject manages to invest [placer] when his separation occurs. It is through this organ that he can really make his death the object of the Other’s desire’ (E, 849/720). Sexual drives can only be partial drives because of the impossibility of representing oneself as ‘either male or female in [one’s] being’ (E, 849/720). Conté concludes from Lacan’s statements that ‘the unconscious is tied to the subsistence of a subject of non-knowledge [sujet du non-savoir]’ (119) and that it is due to this non-knowledge that ‘the opposition masculine-feminine arises, about which we know nothing’. This subject of non-knowledge provides a ‘point of impossible access, or more exactly, a point where the real is defined as impossible’. The Freudian cogito is thus fundamentally linked to sexual desire, and is can also be named desidero, ‘I desire’.

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:


English translation:


Primary bibliography:

  • Freud, Sigmund., The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). In Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freuded. James Strachey et al. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974), vol. 4-5. [Hereafter ‘SE’ followed by volume number].
  • ---. ‘Drives and their Vicissitudes’ (1915), SE 14.
  • ---. ‘The Unconscious’ (1915), SE 14.
  • ---. ‘Repression’ (1915), SE 14.
  • ---. Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), SE 18.
  • Lacan, Jacques., ‘The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious’ In Écrits (1966), trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
  • ---. ‘Position of the Unconscious’. In Écrits.
  • ---. Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Penguin, 1977.
  • ---. Seminar XII: Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis (1964-1965), trans. Cormac Gallagher, unpublished manuscript.
  • ---. Seminar XIII: The Object of Psychoanalysis (1965-1966), trans. Cormac Gallagher, unpublished manuscript.
  • ---. Seminar XIV: The Logic of Phantasy (1966-67), trans. Cormac Gallagher, unpublished manuscript.
  • Leclaire, Serge. ‘Compter avec la Psychanalyse. Séminaire de l’École Normale Supérieure 1965-1966, I’. CpA 1.5.
  • ---. ‘Compter avec la Psychanalyse. Séminaire de l’École Normale Supérieure 1965-1966, II’, CpA 3.6.
  • ---. ‘Les Éléments en jeu dans une psychanalyse (à propos de “L’Homme aux loups”)’, CpA 5.1.
  • Miller, Jacques-Alain. ‘Suture: Éléments de la logique du signifiant’, CpA 1.3. ‘Suture: Elements for a Logic of the Signifier’, trans. Jacqueline Rose. Screen 18:4 (Winter 1977-78).
  • Milner, Jean-Claude. ‘Le Point du signifiant’, CpA 3.5.

Selected secondary literature

  • Deleuze, Gilles. ‘How do We Recognise Structuralism?’ [1967], Desert Islands and Other Texts, trans. Mike Taormina [New York: Semiotext(e), 2004].
  • Leclaire, Serge. Psychanalyser. Paris: Seuil, 1969. Psychoanalyzing, trans. Peggy Kamuf. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.


1. Serge Leclaire reworks material from this seminar in his book Psychanalyser (Paris: Seuil, 1969; trans. 1998).

2. Leclaire parenthetically remarks on the translation problems attached to ‘ideational representative’ (Vorstellungsrepräsentanz); cf.. CpA 5.2:43

3. Lacan, Seminar XII, Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis, 18th session, 19 May 1965.

4. See the development of this connection starting in Seminar XII, Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis, 18th session (19 May 1965) and extending through Seminar XIII, The Object of Psychoanalysis, and beyond into Seminar XIV, The Logic of Fantasy (1966-67).

5. In his ‘How do We Recognise Structuralism?’ [1967], Gilles Deleuze refers to Leclaire’s contention that ‘the symbolic elements of the unconscious necessarily refer to “libidinal movements” of the body’ (in Deleuze, Desert Islands and Other Texts, 178).

6. Leclaire refers to Lacan’s Seminar XIII, The Object of Psychoanalysis, 20th session (8 June 1966) as his source for this account of the objet petit a.