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What Subject Is It?

The Letter, Issue 50, Summer 2012, Pages 61 - 76


Guy Le Gaufey


It is amusing to know that the word “subject”, which appears to assemble in it the essence of what makes man a rational animal, is also used to mean “a corpse used for the study of anatomy, dissection, vivisection.”[2] From freedom to slavery, the semantic spectrum of this term is so broad that it borders on homonymy. Law, politics, medicine, literature, the arts cannot do without it. It’s philosophical career? Prestigious. The man in the street, for his part, uses it without blinking, and even the concierges do not shy away from saying: “What’s the subject?” Did psychoanalysis have to monopolise it in order to further its cause?

This was the challenge for Jacques Lacan. Whilst the term proves to be almost non-existent in the work of Freud (the German language has little use for it, more or less on a par with the French), Lacan has never ceased to make it one of the pivots of his construction. It is true that his “specular I,” right from the first steps of the mirror stage, did not fit in with the Freudian ego [moi], and left the place of the subject vacant, while a couple of substantive pronouns me/I [moi/je] had already been custom-made in the French language (unlike the German, the English or the Spanish language). It would, however, take a few seminars for Lacan to embark at the turn of the sixties on fostering an acceptation of the term “subject” foreign to the philosophical orb in which up to then Descartes, Hegel and Heidegger had brought precious but contradictory indicators to bear on it. From May 1959 on, the release towards the end of the seminar Desire and its Interpretation of his long commentary on Hamlet, the urgency of the need for a new definition of the subject and of the object at play in analytical treatment makes itself felt, and Lacan himself sets out through numerous trials and errors until he comes, more than two years later, during the first sessions of the seminar Identification, to a particularly crimped formula where subject and signifier are co-defined: “The signifier represents the subject for another signifier.” The treatment is strange, and the imposed semblance of universality compels even more immediate incomprehension, giving the impression of a round and impenetrable stone, centred on enigmatic repetition.

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