‘Why Lacan is not a Heideggerian’ by Slavoj Žižek

The Ticklish Subject focuses on the reassertion of Cartesian subjectivity. One of the main philosophical proponents of the critique of subjectivity is Martin Heidegger, who was a key reference point for Lacan, at least in the 1950’s. For this reason, it is crucial to clarify Lacan’s reference to Heidegger, in particular, how he gradually moves from accepting Heidegger’s critique of the Cartesian cogito as another version of the Freudian ‘decentring’ of the subject to the paradoxical and counter intuitive embrace of the cogito as the subject of the unconscious.

Lacan’s starting point is Freud’s notion of a primordial Bejahung, affirmation, as opposed to Verwerfung (usually [mis]translated as ‘foreclosure’). Lacan reads Bejahung as primordial symbolization, against the background of Heidegger’s notion of the essence of language as the disclosure of being. When we confront a fact that clearly runs against a deep conviction of ours, we can react to it in two basic ways: either simply brutally rejecting it, or endorsing it in a ‘subl(im)ated’ form, as something not to be taken literally, but as an expression of a deeper/higher truth. We can, for example, either reject outright the idea that there is a Hell (a real place where sinners suffer endless pain as punishment for their bad deeds), or we can claim that Hell is a metaphor for the ‘inner turmoil’ we suffer when we do something wrong. Recall the well-known Italian expression se non è vero, è ben trovato – ‘even if it’s not true, it should be’. In this sense, anecdotes about famous people, even when apocryphal, often characterize the core of their personality more appropriately than would be enumeration of their real qualities – here also, ‘truth has the structure of fiction’, as Lacan put it. There is a wonderfully obscene Serbo-Croat version of this expression which perfectly renders the proto-psychotic rejection of the symbolic fiction: se non è vero, jebem ti mater! ‘Jebem ti mater’ (pronounced ‘yebem ti mater’, meaning ‘I’ll fuck your mother’) is among the most popular of vulgar insults; the joke, of course, relies on the perfect match in scansion – each phrase having the same number of syllables, with the stresses in the same positions – between è ben trovato and jebem ti mater. The meaning thus becomes an explosion of rage with an incestuous twist, attacking the other’s most intimate primordial object: ‘It better be true – because if it is not, I’ll fuck your mother!’ These two versions thus clearly enact the two reactions to what literally turns out to be a lie: furious rejection, or its ‘subl(im)ation’ into a ‘higher’ truth. In psychoanalytic terms, their difference is that between foreclosure [Verwerfung] and symbolic transubstantiation.

However, things quickly get complicated here. Apropos the ambiguous relation in Freud and Lacan between Ausstossung (the expulsion of the Real which is constitutive of the emergence of the symbolic order) and Verwerfung (the ‘foreclosure’ of a signifier from the symbolic into the Real) – sometimes they are identified, sometimes distinguished – François Balmès makes the following appropriate observation:

If the Ausstossungis what we say it is, it is radically different from Verwerfung: far from being the mechanism proper to psychosis, it would be the opening of the field of the Other as such. In a sense, it would not be the rejection of the symbolic, but would itself be symbolization. We should not think here of psychosis and hallucination, but of the subject as such. Clinically, this corresponds to the fact that foreclosure doesn’t prevent psychotics from dwelling in language.[1]

The conclusion is the result of a series of precise questions. The fact is that psychotics can speak; that, in some sense, they do dwell in language: ‘foreclosure’ does not mean their exclusion from language, but the exclusion/suspension of the symbolic efficacy of a key signifier within their symbolic universe – if a signifier is excluded, then one must already be in the signifying order. Insofar as, for Freud and Lacan, Verwerfungis correlative to Bejahung (the ‘affirmation’, the primordial gesture of subjectively assuming one’s place in the symbolic universe), Balmès solution is to distinguish between this Bejahung and an even more originary (or ‘primary’) symbolization of the Real, the quasi-mythic zero-level of direct contact between the symbolic and the Real which coincides with the moment of their differentiation, the process of the rise of the symbolic, of the emergence of the primary battery of signifiers, whose obverse (negative) is the expulsion of the pre-symbolic Real. When the little Wolf-man, at one year old, observed his parents’ coitus a tergo, the event left a memory trace in his mind; it was symbolized, but it was just stored there as a libidinally neutral trace. It was only later, after more than three years – when Wolfman’s sexual fantasies had been awakened and he became intrigued by the origin of children – that this trace was bejaht, properly historicized, activated in his personal narrative as a way to locate himself in the universe of meaning. Psychotics accomplish the first step, they enter into the symbolic order; what they are unable to do is subjectively/performatively engage in language, ‘historicize’ their subjective process – in short, accomplish the Bejahung.

As Balmès perspicuously noticed, it is for this reason that the lack occurs at a different level in psychosis: psychotics continue to dwell in the dense symbolic space of the primordial ‘full’ (maternal) big Other; they do not assume symbolic castration in the proper sense of a loss which is in itself liberating, giving, ‘productive’, opening up the space for things to appear in their (meaningful) being; for them, a loss can only be purely privative, simply depriving them of something.

In a risky interpretive move, Lacan links this ‘primary’ symbolization, which is accessible to psychotics and precedes their subjective engagement, to Heidegger’s distinction between the originary dimension of language as the disclosure of Being and the dimension of speech as the bearer of (subjective) significations or as the means of intersubjective recognition: at this originary level of naming as showing (Sagen as Zeigen), the difference between signification and reference falls away, a word which names a thing does not ‘mean’ it, it constitutes/discloses it in its Being, it opens up the space of its existence. This level is the level of appearing as such, not appearance as opposed to the reality beneath it, but ‘pure’ appearing which ‘is’ entirely in its appearing, behind which there is nothing. In his seminar on psychoses, Lacan provides a nice description of such pure appearing, and of the concomitant properly metaphysical temptation to reduce this appearing to its ground, to its hidden causes:


[1] François Balmès, Ce que Lacan dit de l’être, Paris: PUF, 1999, p. 72.