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A Question For Lacanians

When Jacques-Alain Miller was a philosophy student at L’Ecole Normale Superieure, Althusser told him to read “all of Lacan,” so he did. Then, one day when Lacan was visiting the school, Miller asked him a now-‘famous’ question that supposedly revealed the key to Lacan’s psychoanalysis, and the two from then on entered into an understanding which was to last all their lives. Miller’s question was: “Does your notion of the subject imply an ontology?” (via)

Another account of the exchange (which includes Lacan’s answer), located here, is:

The ontological concerns of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse themselves are prefigured in a key moment in Jacques Lacan’s seminar in the spring of 1964, when Jacques-Alain Miller asked Lacan if his theory of the subject, grounded in an account of lack and its structuring function of the unconscious, presupposed an ontology. In the seminar, Lacan answered this question with the suggestion that the constitutive gap of the unconscious was essentially ‘pre-ontological’. The Cahiers pursue Miller’s original question along multiple lines, identifying points of contact between Lacan’s theory of subjectivity and the ontological concerns to be found in recent and contemporary developments in logic and the sciences.

As far as I can tell, there are two possible interpretations of the word ‘ontology’ in Miller’s question. Ontology can mean ‘study of being’, or more rarely can mean ‘diegesis’ (fictional ‘world’), though I’m not sure if the latter is still true in the French. In the former case, it would seem that Miller is asking “Does your notion of the subject imply that your work is a study of being?” In the latter case, he would be asking if the ego (which is an imaginary construction) subsists in a distinct diegesis (i.e. a plane of reality separate from everyday existence).

Even after hearing Cahiers pour l’Analyse‘s account, I still do not understand the question (nor how Lacan’s answer can be correct). My question to Lacanians, then, is: what does Miller mean, what does Lacan’s answer mean in relation to Miller’s question, and what are the broad implications of this question?

(Note: the above exchange can be found in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis.)


Althusser on Purchasing

“I now feel I know for certain that one is not really alive unless one spends, takes risks, and therefore has surprises, and that surprises & spending (freely rather than for profit, which is the only possible definition for communism) are not simply a part of all life but constitute the ultimate truth of life itself, in its Ereignis, its surging forth, its very happening, as Heidegger has argued so well.”


~Althusser – The Future Lasts A Long Time, pg. 107

Structuralism: An Extremely Short Introduction

[These are my notes for a presentation I made on Structuralism a couple years ago for an assignment on schools of thought related to literature, though I admittedly don’t dwell on literature at all. The presentation is about as accessible as I could make it, though many of my classmates found it overly complicated. Most of the material is from the book European Intellectual History Since 1789 by N. Roland Stromberg, the “Structuralism” entry in the Colliers Encyclopedia, and some websites that I have since forgotten. For a magnificent & extremely accessible comparison of structuralism to poststructuralism (the best I have read on the topic), I direct the reader to John Lye’s essay Some Post-Structural Assumptions here.]

What Is Structuralism?

  • Philosophy/Sociology/Anthropology movement rising to prominence in the late 1950s-early 1960s (especially in France), reaching a peak in the later 1960s.
  • Successor to existentialism as a fashion in French ideas. Provided a cool, detached, objective, antihistorical view.
  • Specialized in the linguistic analysis of social ‘codes’, versus the frenetic subjectivism & romanticism of the existentialists.
  • Though roots were in linguistics, it became a mode/method of thought that could be used almost anywhere, thus transcending specialization.
  • Applied to such fields as anthropology (myth, kinship systems), literary criticism, sociology, & psychology.

How Does It Work?

  1. Analysis of patterns in language & media, taking into account the structure + the human faculties of comprehension.
  2. Antihumanism: the abolishment of the individual. The boundaries of language force speakers to think in certain ways, thus is it so irrational to assume that these boundaries affect action as well?
  3. Determinism: People are prisoners of language and cannot escape, no more than a physicist can find an observation point outside of nature.
  4. Consideration of clothing, etiquette, myth, gesture, etc., as ‘languages’; less focus on content, more on patterns & structure.
  5. However, offered a new principle of certainty, a “science of the permanent” (Claude Lévi-Strauss).
  6. Johannes Weissinger marked this as one of the most extraordinary of modern intellectual trends, describing it as “the penetration of mathematics, mathematical methods, and above all the mathematical way of thinking, into areas which previously appeared to be closed to it.”

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