Anaëlle Lebovits-Quenehen – From the dualism of substances to the corporeality of lalangue


In a few months, our working community will gather around the theme: “The unconscious and the brain. Nothing in common.” And indeed, the unconscious is not the brain. What a strange idea it is to confuse them when you think about it!  Because either the unconscious exists and it differs from the brain that we know and have studied since long before Freud discovered the unconscious, or it does not exist and it still differs from the brain to the extent that the brain exists.

That being said, many scientists would wish to confine the Freudian and Lacanian invention to the margins of the brain [1] thereby denying it. Materialist and reductionist, they reduce reality to the only matter whose knowledge meets the criteria of scientific. As the unconscious does not answer, they deduce that it does not exist as such.

A passage by Descartes is therefore necessary to lay the terms of the problem that scientists raise, sometimes without even noticing it, making a work of prose of epistemologists as Monsieur Jourdain. Descartes states in his Meditations that the soul and the body are two distinct substances, posing a dualism which forbids the confusion between these two orders which are the body on one hand, and the mind (or the soul) on the other hand. If we follow him on this ground, it is clear that the brain itself belongs to the body conceived on the model of a machine. But now the brain has nothing in common with the soul, the mind. The organic body is defined to be extended, it unfolds in the geometrical space partes extra partes, in this space which escapes from the closed world and opens to the infinite universe [2], frightening Pascal by the silence that reigns there. The soul being immaterial escapes this space.

But Descartes conceives, in his sixth Meditation, a third substance [3] consisting of the union of the body and the soul. “The soul is not the pilot of his ship,” he says in a famous formula. This third substance takes note of the fact that, however distinct the soul and the body, these substances meet and merge in a third. Descartes invents that the soul and the body join in a strange place, which is the pineal gland located at the margins of the brain [4]. This curious location of the point of contact between two opposing orders undeniably inspires certain reductionists. They will soon suck up the whole soul in the pineal gland and after the soul, the mind, the consciousness, and then the unconscious. For the reductionist materialists, what we call the soul, the spirit, the consciousness or the unconscious escaping the register of modern science, do not exist. What exists is the body in the only sense of the organism and of which the brain is actually a part of it. The rest is illusion.

But, on the other hand, the third substance of Descartes will also open the way for Merleau-Ponty to clain to establish the union of the soul and the body (and the flesh of the world that this union will contaminate) under sine qua non conditions of all true knowledge – including scientific knowledge.

We know how Kant approached the question by affirming that if we can only know the organic body that presents itself to us under the species of the phenomenon, we can, and even we must believe that the soul exists. It does not however, reduce this belief to a subordinate rank since it makes it a categorical imperative, an ethical necessity which has the power of knowledge.

How, then, does Lacan subvert the question posed by twenty-five centuries of philosophy? It should first be noted that the unconscious is neither mind, nor soul, nor consciousness. Certainly, a rapid approach to the primacy of the symbolic that characterizes the first part of his teaching might lead us to believe that the terms change, but that the problem posed by Descartes persists, the unconscious having more to do with the mind than with the body. Lacan’s teaching however, sees the growing affirmation of the jouissance of the body (which from the beginning is distinguished from the organism). Every living body (from the human to the plant) enjoys (jouit). Here again, one could consider that the symbolic on the one hand and the real of jouissance on the other, echo the dualism of the substances by displacing them. Freud considered the concept of drive as a “limit concept” between the psychic and the somatic. The drive in Freud is an analogon of what the pineal gland is in Descartes.

But the more Lacan advances in his teaching, the more he brings out and affirms the jouissance that words carry. He thus affirms the matter, the corporeality of words. And this is true from the very beginning of his teaching. In his “Rome Report”, he argues that language is indeed a subtle body, but it is a body”[6]. And his teaching sheds light on this affirmation as the value of sign of the signifier becomes more precise.

“It is absolutely certain that it is in the way in which language has been spoken and also heard for so and so in its particularity, that something will then come out … in all kinds of stumbling, in all kinds of ways to say. It is, if I may use the term for the first time, in this motérialisme that lies the capture of the unconscious “[7]. Rather than matérialiste, Lacan calls himself a motérialiste. A letter separates these two terms, but between these two approaches, there is a world. Language touches the body and informs its way of enjoying (jouir) referring us to the corporeality of the spoken and heard language which thus affects the subject corporally.

Lacan notes that the human body is similar to the sieve on which lalangue has left some residue: “the fact that a child may say, not yet, before he is able to really build a sentence, proves that there is something in him, a strain that passes through, through which the water of language is to leave something in the way, some detritus with which he will play, with which he will have to manage”[8]. Body-colander through which language passes leaving waste whose parlêtre will have to use, that is the body affected by lalangue. And it is from these debris that a subject will orient himself to inhabit the world, including when the sexual thing will come to break in and summon him to renew his way of lodging there. “That’s what leaves him all this unthinking activity – debris, to which at a later date, because it is premature, will be added the problems of what will frighten him. Thanks to which he will coalesce, so to speak, this sexual reality and language”. [9]

Would an analyst seriously think that the unconscious would exist without the human body (of which the brain is a part)? Can we do an analysis without having an organism and a brain? Certainly not. He will, however, pretend that the words that touch – those that hurt as well as those that revive – are not without impact on this organism. He will also argue that clinical experience attests to the fact that the equivocations of lalangue (those found even in his first name or in his name), which also affect the body, are of a different order than the brain. – Some scientists who have the wind in their sails could be advised.

Translated by Lorena Hojman Davis

[1] This does not prevent some of them from also being genuine scientists.

[2] According to Koyré’s title.

[3] Descartes speaks of the union of the two substances that are the soul and the body, considering that they are “closely” united and even of substantial union.

[4] The pineal gland is predisposed to locate the union as the most “loose”, subtle, immaterial part of the body.

[5] On Descartes, refer to the Metaphysical Meditations and the very remarkable Descartes, metaphysics and the infinite, Paris, PUF, coll. Epimetheus, March 2017 by Dan Arbib.

[6] Lacan J., Écrits, p.301.

[7] Lacan J., LCD 95, dir. Christiane Alberti, Paris, Navrin, 2017, p. 13.

[8] Id Ibid.

[9] Ibid, p.14.

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