Renunciation (Versagung)

from Enjoy Your Symptom!

the fundamental insight behind the notions of the Oedipus complex, incest prohibition, symbolic castration, the advent of the Name of the Father, etc., is that a certain “sacrificial situation” defines the very status of man qua “parlêtre,” “being of language.” That is to say, what is the entire psychoanalytic theory of “socialization,” of the emergence of the subject from the encounter of a presymbolic life substance of “enjoyment” and the symbolic order, if not the description of a sacrificial situation which, far from being exceptional, is the story of everyone and as such constitutive? This constitutive character means that the “social contract,” the inclusion of the subject in the symbolic community, has the structure of a forced choice: the subject supposed to choose freely his community (since only a free choice is morally binding) does not exist prior to this choice, he is constituted by means of it. The choice of community, the “social contract,” is a paradoxical choice where I maintain the freedom of choice only if I “make the right choice”: if I choose the “other” of the community, I stand to lose the very freedom, the very possibility of choice (in clinical terms: I choose psychosis). What is sacrificed in the act of choice is of course the Thing, the incestuous Object that embodies impossible enjoyment-the paradox consisting in the fact that the incestuous Object comes to be through being lost, i.e., that it is not given prior to its loss. For that reason, the choice is forced: its terms are incomparable, what I cede in order to gain inclusion in the community of symbolic exchange and distribution of goods is in one sense “all” (the Object of desire) and in another sense “nothing at all” (since it is in itself impossible, i.e., since, in the case of its choice, I lose all). This is the point which clearly marks the specificity of psychoanalysis: all other theories conceive the incest prohibition as a term in an act of exchange which ultimately “pays,” whereby the subject gets something in return (cultural progress, other women, and so forth), whereas psychoanalysis insists that the subject gets nothing in exchange (and also gives nothing). In short, this renunciation is “pure,” a pure negative gesture of withdrawal which constitutes the space of possible gains and losses, i.e., of the distribution of goods: women become an object of exchange and distribution only after the “mother thing” is posited as prohibited. Therein consists the psychoanalytic reading of Kant: the primacy of Justice over the Good implies that the supreme Good (the Thing in itself qua incestuous Object) is posited as impossible/unattainable.


what Lacan renders visible is a radical, redoubled, self-referring renunciation by means of which the dimension of subjectivity emerges. The first level is the symbolic pact: the subject identifies the kernel of his being with a symbolic feature to which he is prepared to subordinate his entire life, for the sake of which he is prepared to sacrifice everything-in short, the alienation in the symbolic mandate. The second level consists in sacrificing this sacrifice itself: in a most radical sense, we “break the word,” we renounce the symbolic alliance which defines the very kernel of our being-the abyss, the void in which we find ourselves thereby, is what we call “modern-age subjectivity.”

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