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Looking back at On a Discourse that Might not be a Semblance with L’Étourdit in Mind

The Letter, Issue 63, Autumn 2016, Pages 69 - 82


Patricia McCarthy

Discourse and semblance are important terms to understand in order to make sense of L’Étourdit. My wager is that all that is re-presented by Lacan in this écrit is present in a nascent state in earlier works such as On a Discourse that Might Not be a Semblance – a seminar well worth re-visiting to help us come to terms with the shocking implications of non-existence, indicated in 1971 by Lacan in many new ways, such as in the notion that the semblance is but a connotation.

Keywords: discourse; semblance; the Lacanian subject; the Ratman; connotation; ab-sens; an underdeveloped logic


For the past year, our cartel has continued to work on Lacan’s L’Étourdit accompanied by Christian Fierens’ two Readings. To capture some of the questions that these texts provoke,[1] I’ve chosen to re-read Lacan’s seminar from 1971 On a Discourse that Might not be a Semblance. This seminar appealed at this time because of its enigmatic title, a title that contains the words discourse and semblance and that seems to take the form of a question – is it possible to have a discourse that might not be a semblance? Lacan himself fashions it more as a negative hypothesis that he answers quite early on. A discourse that might not be a semblance posits that there is no escaping the fact that discourse - master, university or hysterical - is a semblance. In 1971, did Lacan wish that things could be otherwise? I would suggest that the fact that you cannot have a discourse that is not a semblance culminated in Lacan’s clarifying in L’Étourdit - completed a little over a year later on July 16th 1972 – how, by a strange unsettling of the stable habitat[2] stabitat of the semblance, the analytic discourse works. As Fierens puts it, the analytic discourse is ‘then a matter of a discourse already there’ - master, university or hysterical - ‘on which the analytic discourse operates a cut that relaunches the discourse and prolongs it.’ Let me give you this quote in full without interruptions.

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