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Subject And Body: Lacan's Struggle With The Real

The Letter, Issue 17, Autumn 1999, Pages 79 - 119


Lacan's struggle with the Real*

Paul Verhaeghe

It is not to his conscience that the subject is condemned, it is to his body.**[1]


Study of Lacan's work may start from two different points of view. Either one considers that everything is there, right from the start, thus considering the rest of his work as one long elaboration. The standard example of this approach lies with the Freud scholars who include the whole of his theory in his early Project for a Scientific Psychology. Or one considers his theory and teaching as a 'work in progress' marked by an evolution which contains drastic changes. Both approaches can be defended. I have opted for the second one, which does not mean that we will not be confronted with the first option...

From this point of view, Lacan's theory concerning the relationship between body and subject can be divided in three periods, each one demonstrating a certain evolution in his work as such.

- Lacan (1) is concerned with the opposition between the Symbolic and the Imaginary. The Symbolic determines the body in a predictable way, so that this body is nothing more than an effect, to be understood as a bodily surface.

- Lacan (2) has to do with the Real as the cause of the combined Symbolic and Imaginary; the Real of the body is to be understood as the organism and the drive.

- Lacan (3) takes these previous oppositions up again, this time in terms of jouissance, that is, phallic jouissance versus the jouissance of the body.

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