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Of fleshly garments: ascesis and desire in the ethic of psychoanalysis.

In the opening paragraphs of his essay "Kant avec Sade," Jacques Lacan identifies a trend in Western European culture that he views as the indispensable backdrop to Freud's formulation of the pleasure principle. Lacan's perception of this trend -- "the insinuating rise across the nineteenth century of the theme of 'happiness in evil'" -- holds a clue both to his own peculiar interpretation of ethical freedom, and to his status as the self-ironizing heir to the Enlightenment.(1) Engaging with all the major ethical problems that Freud confronted -- the hypothesis of aggression as innate to humanity; the postulation of the death drive as the powerful counterpart of the pleasure principle; the interpretation of culture as a defence against aggression, but a defence capable of generating more guilt than consolation -- Lacan formulates an ethic that is easily misconstrued. It is not surprising then that the perception has arisen in recent critical discourse that he romanticizes and idealizes " 'failure,' humility and limitation before the Law" and that such a ". . . structure of religious tragedy in Lacanian theory effectively undermines any strategy of cultural politics to configure an alternative imaginary for the play of desires."(2)

Such conclusions overlook those dimensions of Lacan's discourse that have the potential to provide strong theoretical support for effective cultural critique and this is a misprision that I aim to redress with this paper. For Lacan's ethic, formulated as the imperative not to give up on, nor give in to, one's desire, far from romanticizing or idealizing the virtue claimed by the practice of traditional ascesis, specifically ironizes such claims.(3) In this respect it could be read as the counter-intuitive, radical rethinking of asceticism,(4) theorizing it back to back with a reinterpretation of sublimation. The dialectical tension implicit in the Lacanian ethic enables not simply the mitigation, but the subversive, often playful, resistance of the condition of "limitation before the Law." But here I am getting ahead of myself. Let me return to the essay with which I began -- "Kant avec Sade" -- and Lacan's observation that the nineteenth-century acknowledgement of humanity's "happiness in evil" (or pleasure in the pain both of others and of oneself) can be traced not to the obvious figure of Sade, but more startlingly, to the eminently rational Immanuel Kant. The term crucial to making this connection is "ascesis."

In its broadest, most literal sense ascesis refers to the practice of mortifying the flesh to gain spiritual purity.(5) The fleshly self, as the locus of evil, must be the object of discipline if the individual is to improve in moral stature. Since the body is considered as a temporal veil barring the way to the enduring spiritual perfection that lies beyond it, there is a fund of moral benefit at stake in denying the flesh or appearing to attenuate the veil of corporeality.

Immanuel Kant -- the very rationality of whose ethics are ironically so alluring and provocative to Lacan -- in formulating his moral law, clearly wishes to distance himself from such traditional asceticism. For him, morality must be founded on a priori rational principles. In his view, the body and natural inclinations are to be considered as good in themselves, but since they belong to the empirical world, they are of peripheral relevance to a rational formulation of moral law (1793, 50-53). At most, natural inclinations may stand as difficulties hindering moral action, but they are not the grounds of the Good and the Evil that are the foremost concern of his moral imperative.

It is this attempt by Kant to separate his rational moral law from the body and natural inclinations that Lacan calls into question. His reading of Kant reveals an ascetic dynamic at work in the latter's discourse that very much involves the body. At the same time his own negotiation with ascesis involves looking squarely both at the nature of veils, and at what they are supposed to hide. Because he focuses on the most pervasive cultural veil -- that of semiosis -- his observations are pertinent for all students of the Sign. Because he looks at all aspects of the semiotic veil's power -- its power to conceal, reveal, seduce, delude, comfort -- his ethic is salient even to those who choose to resist it.

The first part of my argument will focus on the moments of empowerment and seduction that Lacan detects in Kant's quid pro quo ascetic economy, as well as on his methods of engaging with those moments. Certainly he demonstrates the threat posed (both to individual ethical freedom and to a broader cultural freedom) by categories like Kant's sublime, and he reminds us that the very quest for the sublimity of absolute freedom is what renders freedom itself impossible. In addition, he does this, not by a masterful stroke of demystification, but rather by a strategy of unsettlement; for he answers Kant's purity with Sade, discomposing reasoned moral law with the obscene joke, and unsettling respect with impudence. This enables him to engage both Kant and Sade dialectically, troubling the absolute position of each, while harnessing both in a remarkably economical tension.

Kant avec Lacan: Intersections of Christian Traditions

Since Kant and Lacan seem at first glance strange bedfellows, let me once again backtrack briefly to point to some of the congruities in their cultural contexts and theories. Religion plays a constitutive role in the upbringing and education of both men, so that it is not surprising that theological questions are often a focus of interest for each of them respectively. To begin with Kant, he was born (in 1724) into a humble middle-class Pietist family, apparently remarkable only for their rigorous morality and piety. On one hand, Kant is known to have respected the judicious equilibrium that his parents' practice of Pietism encouraged, reflecting that respect in his own lifelong exercise of rigorous self-discipline. On the other hand, he developed an early aversion to the dogmatic ritual and unquestioning obeisance that institutionalized Pietism imposed on pupils of the Collegium Fridericianum at Konigsberg.(6) His resistance to this authoritarianism was to shape both his view of the Enlightenment subject as a responsible, autonomous thinker, and his organization of his magnum opus, the critical philosophy.

As the professed tightness of its tripartite structure might suggest, Kant's critical philosophy comprises a return to metaphysics, with the express purpose of reconstituting it as an uncompromisingly rigorous science. As Lewis White Beck succinctly explains (ix-x), a "critique" in Kant's view has a two-fold task: one is to extract and preserve those principles which constitute metaphysics "as science," defending them against universal empiricism; for by the mid-eighteenth century, this empiricism was calling into question the very possibility of speculative metaphysics. In this respect, "critique" implies the examination and definition of concepts -- such as "duty" in the Second Critique -- which in Kant's view lack objective validity if simply derived empirically from experience, but which are crucial for any meaningful ordering of such experience.

The second task of the Kantian "critique" is to expose and eliminate the illusions of the older metaphysics attacking the kind of dogmatism and moral fanaticism manifest in pretentious claims to supersensible knowledge of the kind that Kant had encountered as a schoolboy. This task is to be accomplished by instigating reason's reflexive examination of its own operations. The power of reason to reflect coherently upon its own act of contemplation was also to be a dominant consideration in Jacques Lacan's reading of the Kantian categorical imperative.

Like Kant's "return to metaphysics," Lacan's "return" to Freud's psychoanalytic corpus pursues and questions the implications of this discipline as a science. While, for example, he wishes to do away with the "obscurantism" of Jungian archetypes (S vii, 110-11/92; "K with S," 58), and while he brings the semiotic theories of C. S. Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure, and the linguistics of Roman Jakobson to bear on Freud's theory of the psychic drives, he also questions the segregationist tendencies of psychoanalytic "scientificity."(7) With all the conviction of one who has resisted the German occupation of France in the 1940s, Lacan likewise resists the monological reasoning that is able to separate, for example, those to be interned, from those who may be free, or those in need of cure from those supposed to possess curative powers. Yet, as he questions such segregationism, countering it with a cultural unconscious, he follows Freud in refusing to replace it with any "liberation theology."(8) Theology, and in particular Catholicism, is instead a reservoir of cultural influence and scholarly resources that Lacan will often invoke, only then to subvert by his own counter-intuitive reasoning.

For Lacan was born into a family, who like Kant's were middle-class, but were Catholic as opposed to Protestant. His mother receives particular mention in his biography for her participation in "an elaborate Christian culture with an ardent streak of mysticism" (Roudinesco 1986, 101-6). He was educated at the College Stanislas in Paris; his brother Marc-Francois to become a Benedictine monk. While Lacan himself gave up religious faith as a young man, he nevertheless retained a shrewd allegiance to Catholicism. He is known, for example, to have courted the approval of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly in 1953, when he had broken away from the SPP (Societe psychanalytique de Paris) and was looking for support for the newly-established SFP (Societe francaise de psychanalyse).(9) He even attempted, unsuccessfully, to get an audience with Pope Pius XII in September 1953, when he was giving his "Rome Discourse" at the Congress of the SFP. More importantly, however, his interpretation of Freud both draws on, and consequently invites interaction with, a Roman Catholic, and often a particularly Jesuit, tradition of thinking. His theories, for instance, caught the attention of many prominent Jesuits: Michel de Certeau, Francois Roustang and Louis Beirnaert amongst others. For the questing self-examination of analysis evokes -- sometimes directly, sometimes allusively -- the Catholic Confessional mode of a St. Augustine and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola; and the triad of the inseparable Orders (the Symbolic, the Imaginary and the Real) suggests Trinitarianism.(10) In addition, Lacan stresses the linguistic, semiotic and rhetorical rather than the genetic, biological and sexual aspects of Freud's theory, frequently alluding to doctrinal texts such as St. John's Gospel and St. Augustine's De Magistro to illustrate his discussions of the nature of words and the Word. While he certainly manifests a canny respect for theological traditions of rhetoric and interpretation, his innumerable irreverent jokes at the expense of Christianity and Catholicism announce his overt atheism. This skeptical irreverence makes him particularly responsive to the resonances of asceticism in Kant's philosophy.

When Lacan points to Kant as inaugurating what will become a growing recognition, through the nineteenth century, of evil as an inherent source of man's happiness, he focuses on two issues. First, he points to the ascetic dynamic that, in spite of Kant's efforts to the contrary, is concealed in the very rationality of his moral law. Secondly, Lacan draws our attention to the other side of this ascetic economy -- the self-indulgence, cruelty and tyranny, that the moral act of self-denial both allows, but conceals. The juncture at which asceticism and its concealed aspect manifests itself particularly clearly is in the association between moral law and the sublime.

Now, when one speaks in literary circles of the Kantian sublime, the tendency is to think almost exclusively of Kant's "Analytic of the Sublime," as the second prong of his "Critique of Aesthetic Judgement." Within recent literary debates on the sublime, Kant's version of this aesthetic has been variously interpreted: for example, it has been described as a mode of promoting individuality -- a quest for individual freedom beyond the alienable and exchangeable private property that offers itself as the more conventional means of middle-class self-definition in the late eighteenth century. It has also been recognized as having its roots in the literature of conversion and revelation, and along similar lines as a "homeopathic cure" for the anxiety of nothingness by a more concentrated, but momentary, dose of carefully staged terror.(11) What seems to be missing in all these discussions is any serious consideration of what the connection might be between Kant's sublime as a form of cultural defence against late eighteenth-century anxieties, and sublimation as its demystified, attenuated version, presented by Freud at the turn of this century. Thomas Weiskel points to one reason for this when he remarks that for all its indubitable relevance to his examination of the sublime, sublimation remains too hazy a concept to be useful to a close structural analysis (1976, 31). Weiskel was, of course, working within a traditionally Freudian framework, and in his view, it was the economic and moral aspects of sublimation that Freud had left ambiguous. It seems that Lacan's discussion both of the moral law and of the problem of sublimation offer precisely the kind of clarification that might have been useful to Weiskel.

For it is the achievement of Weiskel and others to recognize that for all its overt affiliation to a Supreme Being, Kant's sublime, by virtue of its internalization, has the aspect of a self-generated psychic defense against the dread of the absence of that Being. The grandiosity of the sublime experience and its sudden pervasiveness as an aesthetic, at a time when the influence of divine authority was being less directly felt than previously in Western culture, would seem to support this suspicion (Weiskel 1976, 3-4). Freud's theorizing of sublimation as a vicissitude of the drives, the defensive effects of which are apparent in the various cultural forms of art, religion or science, represents another stage in this genealogy that endorses Weiskel's reading of Kant. However, Lacan's interpretation of the moral law and the problem of sublimation is, as I shall show, more than simply a further step on this demystificatory trajectory.

The approach that Lacan takes to these issues is not through The Critique of Judgement -- the route most commonly taken by literary critics and theorists -- but through The Critique of Practical Reason. As I indicated earlier, he deals with morality and sublimation back to back in his seminar on the ethic of psychoanalysis, stating clearly that sublimation is the other side of Freud's exploration into the bases of ethical feeling or moral conscience (S vii, 105/87). Following Lacan's lead then, let us approach Kant's discussion of sublimity via two of his ethical writings -- the "Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals" and The Critique of Practical Reason -- focusing on those moments that are of particular pertinence to Lacan's ethics.

Kant's Categorical Imperative and the Sublimity of Moral Behavior

Kant's quest after an a priori principle for a moral law reflects a humanism tempered by an awareness of man's propensity for acting in his own interests, for taking advantage of others even as he appears to be acting altruistically. He writes in the "Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals" (1785),

I am willing to admit out of love for humanity that

most of our actions are in accordance with duty; but if

we look more closely at our planning and striving, we

everywhere come upon the dear self, which is always

turning up, and upon which the intent of our actions

is based rather than upon the strict command of duty

(which would often require self-denial). (20)

The moral law that he formulates both in the "Grounding" and in The Critique of Practical Reason (1788) follows the Enlightenment imperative to man to emerge from self-incurred immaturity, or dependence on the understanding and guidance of another. Eschewing any outside authority, he should develop for himself a newfound autonomy or rational freedom (1784, 54). Thus Kant formulates his moral law in the categorical imperative, "So act that the maxim of your will could always hold at the same time as a principle establishing universal law" (1788, 30).

In formulating this imperative, Kant focuses on three practical principles of the will around which the moral law itself is built. First, objectively, the ground of all moral legislation lies in the universality of the rule, or its applicability to all rational beings, that makes it capable of being a law rather than a merely personal maxim. To have such a universality, the law must be emptied of all its material content; every object of the will that might be the ground of its determination is abstracted from it so that nothing remains but the mere form of the law that is only thinkable by reason. Emphatically resisting any altruistic aim at the greatest happiness for all, the inestimable worth of the good will arises precisely in the fact that the principle of action is free of all influences from contingent grounds.

Already in this principle Lacan earmarks an unexpected effect. The very elusive, ethereal nature of "the object" of the moral law lends Kant's second Critique a "doubtless innnocent, but perceptible eroticism" ("K with S," 57). This eroticism is the effect of precisely the effort to exclude material content, the sensuous, and the bodily from practical reason's formulation of the moral law. For in his very attempt to exclude literal ascesis from that law, Kant brings back the mortified flesh in the strangely erotic figures of his language. A particularly clear illustration of this can found in an extraordinary footnote that describes the paradoxical unveiling of virtue:

To behold virtue in her proper form is nothing other

than to present morality stripped of all admixture of

what is sensuous and of every spurious adornment of

reward or self-love. How much she then eclipses all else

that appears attractive to the inclinations can be easily

seen by everyone with the least effort of his reason, if

it be not entirely ruined for all abstraction. (1785, 34)

In this negative unveiling, it is not, of course, the obscuring clothes that are removed to expose the feminized body beneath; rather, in a figuration of ascesis, the fleshly garments of corporeality are stripped away to reveal naked virtue in all her feminized nothingness. It is this nothingness, an emptiness of all sensuous incentive, that for Kant, constitutes negatively the law and freedom; or, thought conversely, it is the law requiring the denial of sensuous incentive that constitutes a space for moral freedom. Interestingly, in the Third Critique, Kant uses another, perhaps better-known footnote about the Temple of Isis to illustrate perfect sublimity in the idea of the veil unraised (1790, 179) -- a point I shall touch on again later.

If the first ground of moral legislation lies in the universality of the rule, the second ground lies in its end. Man's practical reason distinguishes him from all other things and even from himself insofar as he is affected by objects. As a rational being, he is by his very nature, an end in himself, so that he himself serves as a condition limiting all merely relative and arbitrary ends. Within this ground of legislation, Kant presents man as having two standpoints from which to regard himself: he belongs to the world of sense, subject to the laws of nature, but he also belongs to the intelligible world, the world of ideas that is founded only on reason. It seems hardly necessary to call attention to the obvious interest that this version of a split subject -- a splitting founded on the form of the law, but attempting to separate rational and sensuous selves -- will hold for Lacan who will, of course, be as interested in its liabilities as in its powers. For Kant, man is defined as morally free because of his immanent potential to suspend himself as sensually motivated or determined. Such freedom -- as that which makes virtuous acts possible-inheres negatively in the gap or absence of any sensual determinant that thereby allows the moral law to be defined.

However, in the description of the third ground of legislation, the implicit gap in man's subjectivity becomes significantly occluded. Kant here argues that the will is not merely subject to the law, but is also the subject of the law; the will must legislate for itself. The Enlightenment subject, freeing himself from sensuous incentives, legislates to himself, obeys himself, in such a way that he acts dutifully to nobody's specific interest, nor to anyone's specific detriment. Furthermore, the subject is not rewarded by an external authority for his obedience, but rather, he gains a sense of respect not for himself, but for and from a law which he himself has authorized. In Kant's translated words:

. . . although in the concept of duty we think of subjection

to the law, yet at the same time we thereby

ascribe a certain dignity and sublimity to the person

who fulfills all his duties. For not insofar as he is subject

to the moral law does he have sublimity, but rather has

it only insofar as with regard to this very same law he

is at the same time legislative, and only thereby is he

subject to the law. (1785, 44)

What is so seductively satisfying about this formulation of the moral law is that the "dear self " seems to come off so admirably, and apparently, at nobody else's expense. In the perfect balance of this moral economy nobody, it seems, has been crushed under foot, or stripped of her fleshly garments so as to provide the dear self with his sublimity.

Lacan, however, scrutinizing the economy of Kant's moral law pinpoints the moment of payment and dividend in the verbal distinction made between man's sense of well-being (Wohl) and his sense of moral virtue (das Gute) (1788, 61-68; S vii, 93-94/76-77). Kant's paradoxical insight is that the concepts of well-being or pleasure, and woe or displeasure, insofar as they relate to our sensibility, may determine actions which are morally good, only with reference to our inclination. Maxims of reason which pursue well being or pleasure, and avoid woe or pain cannot therefore be laws, but only reasonable, practical precepts. However, the concepts of the Good and the Evil are not defined prior to the moral law, and therefore cannot act, even surreptitiously, as the foundation of the moral law. Rather, the Good and the Evil must be defined after and by means of the law.

Lacan, in the light of this distinction between well-being and the Good, focuses on the moment in Chapter Three of the Second Critique in which Kant describes this difference in the context of the individual consciousness (S vii, 97/80; 1788, 75-77). In his very determination to exclude any sensuous motive from this description, Kant elaborates a clearly recognizable quid pro quo ascetic economy that has the ring of a morality play staged in the individual consciousness. Following the natural law as the type of moral law, we find that the self-legislated moral law requiring us to give up all sensuousness produces in us a feeling which we could call "pain" (Schmerz). The moral law strikes down our arrogantia or self-conceit and in contrast demonstrates itself to be an object of greater respect. Yet because we ourselves authorized the law, this respect is experienced as our own. It is not of empirical origin: it is a respect which derives negatively as the dividend from our self-humiliation. Thus, like an internalized, sui generi's version of Christian redemption, the pleasure or well-being of the individual is "born again" as the new moral good: das Gute. Even in the process of describing this, Kant, for all his cool reason, is inspired to the following exultant ejaculation:

Such is the nature of the genuine incentive of pure

practical reason. It is nothing else than the pure moral

law itself, so far as it lets us perceive the sublimity of

our own supersensuous existence and subjectively effects

respect for their higher vocation in men who are

conscious of their sensuous existence and of the accompanying

dependence on their pathologically affected

nature. (1788, 91)

Clearly then, there has indeed been a winner and a loser in this morality play. Self-conceit has been roundly trounced by the moral law, and pleasure has been sanitized by pain. However, as Lacan's reading reveals, because Kant postulates the scenario as an internal dialogue of the self with the self, he effaces the possibility that the linguistic positions of the two selves in such a dialogue might be of radically different logical types ("K with S," 58-59).(12) Between the enunciating subject -- Kant's legislating self -- and the subject of the statement -- Kant's obedient self -- there is a logical incommensurability. Kant's rational subject, in stepping forward as moral legislator, presents the illusion of an autonomous consciousness fully in control of its own behavior and its own legislative order. As Lacan reads it, Kant's oversight lies in his pronouncement of the law by the voice within so that the split between the subject of enunciation and the subject of the statement, is conjured away ("K with S," 59). In Lacan's version of the split subject, the imperative of moral law is felt as the unconscious desire imposed on him by the Other whose trouncing of the ego supports the Symbolic Order, can too easily become tyrannical, and must therefore be resisted. In addition, the apparent seamlessness of Kant's scenario occludes the emptiness that earlier gave definition to the form of the law. In Lacan, this emptiness or locus of la Chose will organize the signifying relations of the subject in the Symbolic Order, while the emptiness of the Real will serve equivocally as the support for, but potential threat to, Symbolic reality. It is then the dual premise of a subject split by his accession to a Symbolic Order, and inherently destabilized by the negativity of the Real, that forms the basis of Lacan's own ethic.

"Getting Real": Lacan's Ethic

The paradox of the Lacanian imperative not to give up on one's desire hinges on the verb "to give up on" (ceder sur), which allows him to encapsulate a dialectical tension between resistance to the Law and obedience to one's desire and surrender of one's desire and submission to the Law. This dialectic itself is necessitated by his postulation of the object of desire (la Chose), and the order of the Real, as radically ambiguous in moral status.

First of all, the ambiguity of la Chose inheres in its status as the sublime, impossible, distanced object, exterior yet intimate, that operates in the psychic economy as a kind of vanishing point on the horizon of the Real. Lacan's choice of the sexually resonant term la Chose serves to remind us that his ethics involves erotics, for the body's capture in the Symbolic network -- its division into semiotic zones -- precludes any separation of mind and body. As the sublime object, la Chose can only ever appear as that which lies "beyond the veil"; consequently, it can as readily be coded as the evil spirit exorcised for the sake of harmony, as it can the spirit of virtue to which ascesis aspires to bring the sinful fleshly self (S vii, 139-52/115-27; Ecrits 401-36). Similar to la Chose, the ambiguity of the Real inheres in its negative status as void, the impossible, the impasse, which permits it to be experienced as the inarticulable support for Symbolic reality, but also a threatening irruption into the supposed balance of the Symbolic Order.(13)

The mercurial availability of la Chose and the Real to ambiguous moral coding, allows Lacan to demonstrate the inseparable intertwining of the death drive and the pleasure principle, and consequently the ambiguity that inheres in any attempt to construct an absolute and unequivocal ethic. To use Lacan's own metaphorics, he tortures Kant's carefully reasoned moral law with the fantasy of unrestrained sensual liberty presented in his paraphrase of the parodic Sadian maxim:

"I have the right of enjoyment over your body, anyone

can say to me, and I will exercise this right, without

any limit stopping me in the capriciousness of the exactions

that I might have the taste to satiate." ("K with

S," 58 and 63)

Certainly one effect of this is outrageous, carnivalesque black comedy. The master of enlightened reason has only to suggest the gibbet outside the bedchamber as the threat to love-of-life that would surely cool unreasonable lust, for Lacan to raise the alternative possibility that such a threat, answering the death drive, might not only make forbidden fruit taste sweeter, but of itself be the final sublimity of painful pleasure ("K with S," 67-68; S vii, 129-31/107-10). But more than this: if we rethink Kant's morality play in the light of Sade's maxim of freedom, the moral law stripping virtue of all sensuous incentive, or striking down self-conceit, takes on a remarkably cruel aspect. The sublimity of das Gute that the moral law achieves could be as accurately described as an inhuman Evil. Once the ambiguity of this gap of negativity is acknowledged, it becomes clear that Kant's dispassionate law (supposedly excluding all sensuous interest from moral action) not only risks reducing the conscious subject to the abject slavery of moral masochism, but appears to approve the pleasure he might take in such self-destruction. In other words, it would seem ironically to encourage him to pursue a course as destructive to himself as the hedonism of Sade's unrestrained libertine is to his partner.

As ironic would be the moral reading of Sade's law permitting the cruel libertine the right of pleasure over every other body: this could be argued to liberate those oppressed by the possessive tyranny of supposedly reasonable patriarchal law (S vii, 96/79). Inferentially, the freedom that inheres negatively in the moral law is by no means as surely directed toward holiness as Kant's rational argument might suggest. While Kant himself states that the growth of the moral disposition depends on the conflict between sensuous desire and moral will, and that the ideal of holiness is attainable only in death, the possibility that death is a sublime fulfillment is by no means guaranteed. It can as easily be described as the death drive's final negation of all possible pleasure.

The ironic point of Lacan's ethic then is to demystify the comfortingly righteous effect of moral ascesis, unveiling the superegoic tyranny on which it is based. The "revelation" that it offers in return is that an inevitable self-denial or discontent is involved in accession to the Symbolic Order. This entails the recognition that some part of pleasure is always already lost because absolute pleasure is impossible and its pursuit self destructive. The subject must experience as inexorable his distance from the Other and its desire, the burden of lack in his own consciousness, and the macrocosmic lack or aporia that is the burden of the negativity of the Real. This, however, is not where the ethical story ends. The very negativity of the Real that destabilizes the individual subject can also be used as the locus for demonstrating the instability and arbitrariness, not of Symbolic Order or Law in general (for even if unstable and arbitrary, Symbolic Order is obviously indispensable to semiotic representation and to that extent inescapable), but of the particular shape that that Order takes in the juridical and moral laws of any given culture. Once again let us turn to Kant.

While the ascetic economy that underlies the moral subject's feeling of sublimity in the Second Critique seems designed to protect man from his aggressive self-interest only to turn that aggression against himself, in the Third Critique the same economy is evident on a much grander scale. There is in fact good reason to consider the "Analytic of the Sublime" as an extension of the ascetic discussion in the Second Critique, rather than as part of the aesthetic discussion in the Third.(14) Kant himself seems to hint at this when he refers to the sublime as "a mere appendage to the aesthetic estimate of the finality of nature" (1790, 93). While the moral law emphasizes the burden of self-denial, its other aspect or extension towards an aesthetic realm stresses the mitigation of ascesis. This relation between the moral law and the aesthetic sublime in Kant anticipates a correlative relation between the psychoanalytic ethic and the various forms of sublimation, most specifically artistic sublimation, in Lacan. While the ethic argues for a dialectical tension between giving in to or restraining, pursuing or relinquishing desire, sublimation is predicated on the dynamic of exposing the tenuousness of any law's stability, even as it may concede the continuation of Symbolic Order, presumably under pressure of renegotiation.

From Kant's Sublime to Lacan's Sublimation

Analogous to its generation through moral law, the sublime in Kant's "Critique of Aesthetic Judgement" cannot be contained in any sensuous form or object of nature -- not in mountains, or raging seas, which for Edmund Burke arouse delightful horror (1790, 130) -- but rather concerns ideas of reason that cannot be presented adequately in the mind. They can however be known negatively, being called into the mind by the very failure of the imagination to present them. I would argue that whereas in the moral scenario we observe the containment of man's aggression -- its inversion that appears empowering even as it is potentially self-destructive -- in the scenario of the sublime, we have an account of how man might finesse a more radical disruption of his rational world, veiling catastrophe with his claim to empowerment. In other words, Kant uses the ascetic dynamic not only to finesse the threat that the unthinkable -- the suddenly devastating shipwreck or volcano -- might constitute for the subject of enlightened reason, but to turn that threat to his advantage.

To summarize the sublime experience briefly, both the mathematical and the dynamic sublime involve a mental movement that is subjectively final, but with no end or interest attached to it. The sensible faculty of the imagination, bowing to the law of reason, is humiliated by its failure to meet reason's requirements. It fails to comprehend "too many" or too much" into a unified intuition; however, that failure brings with it a dividend of empowerment. Just as earlier, we are described as experiencing respect for our self-legislated moral law through the pain of our humiliated self-conceit, so now, our momentary imaginative bafflement is followed by an influx of respect for our vocation as rational beings capable of having ideas inaccessible to our own imaginations. The increased investment of terror in the aesthetic sublime bears with it an increased dividend of elated empowerment. If the dynamic of the moral law could be compared to a morality play, then its grand-scale version in the aesthetic sublime has the resonances of a Christian conversion narrative. After surviving a severe trial of self-doubt, the subject is saved by a rush of elevating insight.

In contrast, Lacan's elucidation of sublimation resonates with echoes not of redemption, but of droll deception, hoodwinkery and seduction. His chief revisions of the Freudian model are directed at the drives, the reaction formation and the object. Firstly, by redefining the drives as themselves operating on a system of difference based on their connection to the erogenous zones and the body's capture in the Symbolic network, Lacan avoids any hierarchical privileging of soul over body (as in a religious model), or body over psyche (as in a biologistic model). The drives are not unequivocal charges of energy directing the organism to its aim. Instead, being partial and plastic, they operate like the signifiers in a semiotic system, capable of substituting for and replacing each other, but by virtue of their constitutive implication in negativity, always resisting integration into perfect stable harmony (S vii, 106-14/88-95). The pastoral utopia of genital satisfaction must give way to the hope of a dialectically negotiated, imperfect psychosomatic equilibrium.

The reaction formation in Lacan's model becomes the obstacle, not imposed on the subject by external authority, for that would simply be an unquestioning acceptance of the Symbolic Order. Instead, it is the obstacle introduced by the subject himself. Arranged around the emptiness that is la Chose, the obstacle also draws attention to its own substantiality. It thus opens the way first to the recognition of la Chose (and the Real) as the effects of the Symbolic and Imaginary relations, not some prior essence to be pursued. Secondly, it acknowledges the ascetic dynamic required of ethical freedom constituted by Symbolic Order, but stresses the arbitrary, negotiable and therefore consensual dimensions of particular laws. Ensuring both the inaccessibility and therefore the apparent perfection of the desired object, the obstacle (be it for example the veil of poetic words, the tactile veil of the dancer, the pictorial/cinematic frame, or the mask in its various transmutations) elevates the object to the dignity of la Chose (S vii, 133/112). Interestingly, this obstacle may be lucid, or on the verge of being raised, but unlike the fleshly garments of Kant's virtue, it is never completely stripped away. Rather, like Kant's veil of Isis (1790, 179) Lacan's obstacle suspends us on the horizon of jouissance. In this it acknowledges the ambiguity both of la Chose and of the Real's negativity. On one hand, as a form of resistance to the Law, the dynamic of sublimation is thus able to demonstrate that any claim to absolute authority is supported by the Real which may as readily undermine that authority in an irruption of disorder as support its stability. Conversely any claim to mastery that arises out of sublimation is to be treated as a laughable fraud, a ridiculous pretension or at best a pleasurable (if self-conscious) delusion.

For if a particular manifestation of the Law does not call for anything as strong as resistance, if it is perceived to be just, but irksome, Lacanian sublimation allows a mitigation of the asceticism of Symbolic Law. In restraining or postponing the gratification of desire by manipulating the obstacle or veiling device, the subject can enjoy the allure of a consummation promised, but deferred. While the promise offers the comforting suggestion of pleasure yet to come, the deferral prevents the apocalypse of arrival, or the calling into question of the "dignity" of la Chose.

Thus the dynamic that in Kant is dramatized as a climactic revelation is scaled down in Lacan's discourse to something more like a canny seduction of the subject's own contrivance. As in Kant's sublime, Lacan's sublimation involves an economy of gain and loss, but with stakes considerably reduced. In the place of sublime flight or earth-shaking epiphany, there is offered a psychic sleight of hand, a masterful ruse, captivating in its power to cheat the Law and the sense of lack, even while conceding their inevitability in some form.

At the beginning of this essay I expressed the wish to counteract a critical theorist's recent censure of a strain of religious tragedy in Lacanian theory, debilitating to efforts at renegotiating the Symbolic Order. I hope that at the least this argument will provoke a return to Lacan's discussions of psychoanalytic ethics and so encourage exploration of the contribution his theory might make to supporting a discourse of cultural critique.


(1.) An earlier version of this paper was given at the 1991 Buffalo Symposium in Literature and Psychoanalysis, the topic of which was Lacan and Enlightenment. I wish to thank Joan Copjec (who organized the conference) as well as Hent de Vries and Shaun Irlam for their readings of preliminary drafts of the essay. (2.) I quote here from Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (56-57). In general, Butler is not as dismissive of Lacan as this extract might suggest. For example, in a substantial discussion preceding these statements, she offers a carefully nuanced reading of the various implications of "being" and "having" the Phallus (43-56). Furthermore, in a slightly later publication ("Lana's 'Imitation' "), her discussion of the law's self-repetition particularly through the performance of imitation, plays Foucault off against Lacan in a juxtaposition that works decidedly in Lacan's favor. Yet her readings of Lacan seem to stop short of taking into account the fairly recently published (and very recently translated) Seminar vii. It would seem to me that the discussions of the problem of sublimation and of a psychoanalytic ethic presented in this seminar would be very tractable to Butler's project of finding ways to "make gender trouble." They might likewise be enabling to Jonathan Dollimore; for even as he uses Butler's reservations about Lacan to express his own ambivalence toward psychoanalytic theory (1991, 254-56), he himself postulates a version of sublimation (275) that would surely be endorsed rather than compromised by Lacan's theories of ethical freedom and sublimation. (3.) In his recently published English translation of the seventh seminar, Dennis Porter attempts to preserve this double valence of "ceder sur son desir" (i.e. "giving up on" and "giving in to" one's desire) with the phrase "giving ground relative to one's desire." In all subsequent references to this seminar, I give the French pagination first, followed by the English translation. Here the reference is S vii, 368-73/ 319-24. (4.) My argument is partially endorsed by Jeffrey Mehlman in his Translator's Foreword to Elisabeth Roudinesco's Jacques Lacan & Co. He remarks, " . . . Lacan was -- or should have been -- associated with Mallarme by virtue of their common commitment to understanding per se construed as a radical askesis" (xi). I have not yet found an elaboration of this view, either by Mehlman, or by anyone else. (5.) Although he approaches the topic from a very different angle, Geoffrey Galt Harpham's analysis of ascesis is rich and suggestive. I have found his short section "The Signs of Temptation" particularly pertinent to this discussion. (6.) I draw here on Ernst Cassirer, in particular 13-18; J. H. W. Stuckenberg; Lewis White Beck's "Translator's Introduction," to The Critique of Practical Reason, vii-xx; Stephan Korner; and Hans Reiss, "Introduction" to Kant's Political Writings, 1-40. (7.) See Elisabeth Roudinesco's interpretation of Lacan's "Proposition du 9 octobre," presented in 1967, and its implications for psychoanalysis as a science -- Roudinesco, 444-48. (8.) I take this phrase from Roudinesco who argues that "Freudian doctrine was not a liberation theology; it would be, rather, a proof of the shackles the human condition inflicts on itself. And yet it delineated a kind of freedom based on the recognition of an interdiction" (508). One could argue that the operation of an ascetic dynamic which I identify in Lacan's psychoanalytic ethic is implicit in this description of Freudian doctrine. (9.) An informative account of these controversial events is given in Roudinesco, 223-68. (10.) This view is endorsed by Etienne Balibar's observation that the exemplar of Lacan's "symbolic" as an order of discourse might more readily be found in Trinitarian theology than in the work of Levi-Strauss, Saussure, Hegel or Kant. See Balibar's response to Natalia Avtonomova in Lacan avec les philosophes, 89, which itself draws on the more extended examination of this connection by Francois Regnault in Dieu est inconscient. (11.) I refer here to discussions of the sublime by Frances Ferguson, 4-9; Neil Hertz, 47; and Thomas Weiskel, 18. (12.) I am indebted here to Joan Copjec's condensed outline of Lacan's very diffuse argument in "The Sartorial Superego," 80-81. (13.) One of the more lucid discussions of the Real and its relation to reality is that in S vii, 87-97. See also S xvii, 192; and Slavoj Zizek's article "The Real and its Vicissitudes," in which he offers lucid explications of the ambiguous operation of the Real, with a variety of accessible illustrations from popular culture. (14.) This is to some extent born out by Paul Crowther's introductory remark that the reception of Kantian aesthetics in the Anglo-American and German philosophical traditions in the twentieth century has been characterized by the neglect of the sublime in favor of the beautiful (1-2).


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Title Annotation:The Body
Author:Saville, Julia
Publication:American Imago
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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