Lacanian Materialism and the Question of the Real

By Eyers, Tom | Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, January 2011 | Go to article overview

Lacanian Materialism and the Question of the Real


Eyers, Tom, Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy


The question of the continuing value of varying kinds of materialism is central to much work in Continental philosophy today. The materialist legacy in political philosophy continues to provide a rich source for the analysis of contemporary capitalism, while Slavoj Zizek, Adrian Johnston and others are seeking to 'materialise' the legacy of German idealism through an attention to the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan, and in particular through his theory of the subject. (1) This paper argues, through a reading of a number of early texts by Lacan, that it is only through an attention to the conceptual genesis of the category of the Real that the materialist potential of Lacanian theory may be fully realised. The Real, I argue, is to be taken not as something extra-Symbolic, but as an overdetermining function that is materialised only through the particularity of the Symbolic and Imaginary registers. Further, I argue that it is through Lacan's complex philosophy of language, and especially through his insistence on the withdrawal of signifiers from networks of relation, that the Real becomes material, as constitutive as it is disruptive of the subject. At one and the same time, psychoanalytic theory, I argue, allows us to put into question the very validity of such oppositions as subject/object, material/ideal, Imaginary/Symbolic, with the Real as the conceptual vehicle through which a more general psychoanalytic ontology skeptical of the prevailing binaries of contemporary thought might be realised.

The value in such questioning, distinct as it is from the meta textual dislocation afforded by deconstruction, is locatable as much in the disciplinary position of psychoanalysis, as it is in the specificity of its conceptual innovations. Psychoanalysis remains an interstitial discipline, caught between its clinical manifestations and the vast influence it has had upon the contemporary academy, especially in its Lacanian guise. The disjunction between clinical practise and academic psychoanalytic theory, while frequently the source for dispute and accusation among psychoanalysts and researchers, is nonetheless generative of various kinds of productive misunderstandings and crosspollinations. Philosophy and psychoanalysis have, of course, entertained an ambiguous relationship since Freud, with his supposedly disavowed debts to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and for all Lacan's protestations that his discourse was intended solely to ground the practise of analysis, there is little doubt in my mind that Lacanian theory sits at a usefully awkward angle to the mainstream of contemporary continental thought, reposing questions that might otherwise remain caught in the orthodoxies of the reproduction of philosophy as a discipline unto itself.

Indeed, as I will argue later, Lacan might be better understood as a non- if not anti-dialectical thinker, concerned with the paradoxical productivity of aporias and what we might call the weird materialism of the signifier, something I'll return to. It is worth asking, though, whether, in all of Zizek's proclamations of a specifically Lacanian materialism centred on the non-all of nature, on the constitutive incompleteness of matter (2), the full philosophical implications of Lacan's materialism, if it is a materialism, have yet to be mined, particularly as it relates to the undermining in Lacanian theory of the notion of language as something supposedly 'extra-material', or ideal. It is, in part, due to a prevailing orthodoxy in the contemporary reception of Lacan's thought, one that, as well as isolating the Real conceptually from the Symbolic and the Imaginary registers, isolates the Real periodically as central only to the latter stages of Lacan's teaching, that the potential of Lacanian materialism has yet to be fully addressed. As a result, it is important to reconnect these different stages of Lacan's work, in particular to address the immanence of the Real to the articulation of the Imaginary and the Symbolic.

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