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Olga Cox Cameron – Signifying Nothing – Lacanian Theory and Tragic Form


THE LETTER 29 Autumn 2003, Pages 188-202


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.

Signifying Nothing – Lacanian Theory and Tragic Form

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