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Signifying Nothing: Lacanian Theory And Tragic Form

The Letter, Issue 29, Autumn 2003, Pages 188 - 202


Olga Cox Cameron

There is a brief moment in literary history which is of interest in the context of Lacan's theorisation of the coming into being of the subject. It is located at the juncture that Lacan designates as that of the birth of modern science and of the subject of psychoanalysis; in other words, the seventeenth and early eighteenth century. In literature, this moment corresponds to the decline of tragedy and the rise of the novel. It is tempting to see in these two literary forms a version of the difference Lacan establishes between the mortal blow of the St. Augustine anecdote and the steady unfolding of muted promise which is the Ego-ideal, outcome of the Oedipal encounter with prohibition. It is probably only at this particular historical juncture that the comparison can validly be made. Novels like Robinson Crusoe and the Bildungsroman of the eighteenth century fit the bill very well, while the modern novel or even older works such as Richardson's Clarissa do not. What is in question is the move away from destiny to domesticity; from Shakespeare to Defoe, from Racine to Balzac. There are several ways of theorizing this shift, among them an analysis of the rise of a pragmatic progressive middle class. Since Lacan so emphatically links the appearance of the subject of psychoanalysis to the birth of modern science, one might also consider the refusal of the new scientific spirit to entertain the concept of impossibility. It is said of Galileo that he urged his contemporaries to measure everything that could be measured and to render measurable that which could not. Tragedy is however, of course the domain of the impossible. It is also, as Lacan saw, the domain of a time which does not belong to history. The novel, as Terry Eagleton says in a recent work, can be seen 'as a matter of chronos, of the gradual passage of historical time, whereas tragedy is a question of kairos, of time charged, crisis-racked, pregnant with some momentous truth'.[2] In some of Freud's writings, (for example in The New Introductory Lectures) one gets the impression that the work of analysis is precisely a transition from kairos to chronos, from the charged time of trauma which does not pass, to the humdrum continuities of the everyday; but arguably the greatest danger for tragic truth would be precisely its dilution into ordinariness. Unlike Freud, Lacan, particularly in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis,[3] unambiguously privileges kairos.

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