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Thus said the desirer: “It’s not it”

25/06/2021 Idan Oren

Thus said the desirer: “It’s not it”

March 2nd, 2019, İstanbul, Conference: What does Lacan say about desire?

Idan Oren

So “What does Lacan say about desire?” That’s our title today. Surely he says many things about desire, not all of them are consistent, and not all of them offer themselves to understanding. I singled out *a moment* that I will present as my own little answer to this question.

I have quite a few of justifications for this – both for choosing this moment in particular and for choosing a moment, in speaking about desire – because choosing to speak of a moment is in itself part of my answer. But if I present you with the justifications I will not have time to present the moment, so I will offer you this moment, and if this will seem relevant for you, as patients, as clinicians and as desiring subjects, perhaps you will take it on yourselves to justify it. This is a clinical matter because sometime patients spend years in treatment justifying themselves before they get to saying what they really have to say.

In Seminar III Lacan says:

“To be a psychoanalyst is simply to open your eyes to the evident fact that nothing malfunctions more than human reality… Psychoanalysis… shows you that nothing is more stupid than human destiny, that is, that one is always being fooled. Even when one does do something successfully, it is precisely not what one wanted to do. There is nothing more disappointed than a gentleman who is supposed to have attained the pinnacle of his wishes. One only need speak with him for three minutes, frankly, as perhaps only the artifice of the psychoanalytic couch permits, to know that in the end all that stuff is just the sort of thing he could not care less about and, furthermore, that he is particularly troubled by all sorts of things. Analysis is about becoming aware of this and taking it into account[82]

I constructed from Seminar VIDesire and its Interpretation, three such moment, which may be called moments of “malfunction in reality”. And Lacan’s text suggests that the reality malfunctions because what is at stake for the subject is not to be successful and happy as he claims. Whenever a new patient comes to speak to me I do everything I can to find out what malfunctions in his or her reality that makes her come to speak now. Often, it is to be found elsewhere than what the patient presents as his reason for coming. This clinical direction that I am offering here is the initial point of departure for a clinic of desire, if I can call Lacanian psychoanalysis by this name.

Just last week a young lady came to speak to me because of what she called depression, loss of meaning to life, and she associated it with sexual tendencies that she acted upon for the first time in her life. Now she faces some decisions. In a psychotherapeutic framework we could help her arrange her life in the neatest way possible, taking into account these sexual tendencies. But I had some indications that she could do very well with arranging her life (all too well, in fact), and that the sexual tendencies have nothing to do with her depression. After picking on some of her statements it became clear that acting as she did disturbed her relationship with what we may call here God, a relationship that stabilized her life, and that it is this new anger towards God that brought this depression as loss of meaning.

Now three moments:

Lacan speaks in Seminar VI of a scene from some film in which the protagonist, a music box collector, presents to an audience a highly cherished object for him – a particularly beautiful music box. And at the moment he unveils it, reveals it to his audience, something happens to him that Lacan puts like this:

“At that moment the character is literally in this position… of shame: he blushes, he effaces himself, he disappears, he is very embarrassed. He has shown what he has shown, but how could those present understand that we find ourselves here at this level, at this point of oscillation that we grasp, which shows itself in its extreme form in this passion of the collector for the object. It is one of the forms of the object of desire. What the subject shows is nothing other than the most important, most intimate point of himself. What is supported by this object, is precisely what he cannot unveil, even to himself, it is this something which is at the very edge of the greatest secret.” (59)

Second point – “The hippopotamus… maps out what one can call his territory delimiting it by a series of relays, of points which should sufficiently mark for those who ought to recognize it, namely his fellows, that this is his… in short the hippopotamus is found to protect his pasturage with his excrement.” (74)

Then Lacan goes on to say that because man’s relation to his object is mediated by language his relation to this object is problematicized in the following manner:

“For man it is not his pasturage that he protects with shit;… it is his shit that he protects as a pledge of the essential pasturage, of the pasturage which is essentially to be determined.”

So the hippo promises himself a territory by marking it with shit, while man makes a big deal of his shit, and in this making a big deal of his shit that he becomes human, this is to say, he establishes for himself a human world.

The reason I called this second point “a moment” is that it anticipates a moment in which the shit that we make a big deal about is put to some question or to some trial, or worse yet – is exposed as being nothing but a piece of shit.

In both these moments Lacan identifies an object– music box and shit – that a lot, and perhaps everything is at stake for the subject in this object. In fact, his reality is at stake in this object. And there are many more such objects scattered all across the seminar. Why this focus on objects on a seminar on desire?

Here I will offer a basic, formal, definition of desire – first, I will say what desire is not. It is not an affect, an emotion. This goes against our basic intuition concerning the term of desire. Because we can naturally say – I feel a strong desire. But Lacanian desire, strictly speaking, is not an affect – it is an effect. An effect of what? Of a particular kind of relationship to an object. How does Lacan characterize this relationship? Here Lacan becomes Lacanian. I quote from Seminar VI:

“The object is found to be… this something which supports the subject precisely at the moment at which he has to confront as one might say his own existence, which supports the subject in his existence, in his existence in the most radical sense, namely precisely in this that he exists in language, namely that he consists in something that is outside himself, in something that he can only grasp in its proper nature as language at the precise moment when he, as subject, must efface himself, vanish, disappear behind a signifier, which is precisely what one might call the panic point around which he must attach himself to something, it is precisely to the object qua object of desire that he attaches himself.” (59)

I promise you that by the end of my presentation this paragraph will make sense to you, I will read it again at the end.

So in this moment we can grasp two major things about the subject’s relation to the object : 1. The object supports the subject’s existence; 2. In the privileged moments of confronting the object the subject must “efface himself, vanish, disappear” (as did the music box collector).

And when speaking about humans making a big deal of their shit Lacan says that the shit serves as “as a pledge of the essential pasturage”. What is a pledge [garde en gage]?

It is a legal term that means a thing that is given as security for the fulfillment of a contract or the payment of a debt, that will be taken away as payment in case of a failure. To put it simply, it is something that acts as guarantee. So the shit here, as object,  serves as a guarantee for the existence of a human reality, that’s how I translate the “essential pasturage”, when speaking about subjects. This may sound delusional, but I hope to show you that this is very accurate, that this object – which may as well be shit – is what supports the subject as such.

As for the third moment, it’s in fact a list of names I collected from Seminar VI, names that Lacan gives to this moment which is at stake in desire (at least, this is how I read it):






Lack of validation

Lack of security





Helplessness (Hilflosigkeit)

I choose one of them for my explanation of this moment: Hilfolsigkeit. It appears in German because while this is a term Freud uses in very important junctions, it is only Lacan that made it into a concept, a meaningful concept.

Lacan says, almost in passing, in Seminar VI:

“Desire must be produced at the same place where at first helplessness [Hilflosigkeit, détresse] originates, is experienced.”

So if we want to know something about where desire is produced and it must be produces where first helplessness originates, we must know something about the origin of helplessness.

In Seminar VI Lacan gives a wonderful definition of helplessness: the position of being without recourse [“c’est cette position d’être sans recours”]. This is a very accurate definition from the point of view of what is the mandate of psychoanalysis in its interventions. Because helplessness is defined, in other discourses, as being unable to protect yourself against some danger, for example. So what is so accurate in this definition?

Recourse suggests a turning to someone or something for help or protection. For example, they settled the matter without recourse to law.

More specifically – if I take a mortgage from the bank and then the house loses its value and I sell it for a lower price – if I took the mortgage with recourse, it means that it is the bank that will have to suffer the loss. This is to have recourse.

And not to have recourse: If I have a few Turkish Liras, and possessions that are assessed in Turkish Liras, and in one moment the Turkish liras losses a lot of its worth, and I have these liras without recourse, then I have no one to turn to – no instance to turn to, I believe the word for “instance” in Turkish is “merci” – to account for my loss.

Another example – here we must start getting more structural (which, in this case, also means poetic), to get close to Lacan’s idea of desire: I have some document, a bill, a word, a promise – and it is not honored or met, or it seems to me that it is not. Or the conditions for it being met are not clear to me. The question of recourse, if I have recourse or not – is a question of who do I turn to, either to demand that it is met, or to explain to me what why it wasn’t met or what was meant by it (because maybe I didn’t understand it).

So we have something very valuable in our hands, that at some point was very valuable, that seems very valuable, that we rely on it having value, even who we are relies on it having value– a promise we got, from our parents, from our lover, from our boss, from the government, from God, and we are sufficiently naïve, or dupes, as Lacan would call it many years after Seminar VI, that this value is guaranteed. And then something happens and we are left with it and it seems to be worthless, meaningless.

Let’s say, some character trait or quality or attribute that we have that was admired and cherished at home, something that the other attributed to us and valued in us – and then we go out to the world, and we find out that this thing that was found beautiful, endearing, wonderful – is worthless in the world. This thing which was a gold coin in some market, that could buy a lot in that market, is completely worthless in other markets.

We had beauty that dazzled the other, and we lost our beauty; we had a skill that was highly appreciated and now the market changed and our skill is useless; we had a high position in some group – work, family, social group – and we lost it – and I will add, we never had certainty that we really have it, we had only our belief to rely on; we constantly were seeking for more and more validation of our worth – ok, this and this and that think I am beautiful, but that one thinks I’m ugly; I have this great skill, but at any moment I may encounter a situation in which this skill will be useless, I think I am smart and knowledgeable, but there is some ticklish or scratching suspicion that all this knowledge is an elucubration, do you know this term by Lacan? That it is all falan filan, bla bla – it can be our religion, our profession in which we are professionals – it can be any discourse what so ever, that while it supports us, it can seem bla bla to us in some points.

And this is just as true from the other direction, from us to the Other – there was something or someone that we cherished, interested in, that we aspired to, wanted to penetrate, to conquer, and something changed and we lost interest in it.

So then – to be a subject is to be determined in the market of the Other, not to have any “objective” value, but rather be valued in a market of desiring others – we have many objects in us, in who we are and in what we possess (this touches on Lacan’s distinction between being and having), and we put all our faith in it, we trust in it, but we are never absolutely sure that we will always be able to redeem our objects, to cash them, to affect the other with them, to do something in the world with them, but this is nonetheless all that we have.

When I was a young child my parents were selling the apartment we were living in and potential buyers came to see the apartment. At one of these visits the door opened and a man was standing there and he winked at me, and I thought to myself, what a nice funny guy, and I winked back at him. A few seconds later I noticed that he continues winking to the walls. He had an involuntary tick in his eye. I was ashamed at that moment. I think this is a very small, but accurately isolated moment of helplessness as having no recourse. Because something that I thought was coming from a place that was inhabited by someone, by some authority, merci, place that could register my existence, that could acknowledge me, recognize me as a human being, as a fellow human being, is in fact an empty place, a place completely indifferent to me, a place that doesn’t take me, in my little presence on my parents’ orange sofa, into account. In that moment I was left absolutely alone with my own wink with no one to turn it to, with no one to address it to, with no one to accept it, to cherish it, to validate it. This is why I was for a moment exactly effaced, vanished, disappeared, collapsed, faded – all of Lacan’s terms that I mentioned are applicable here.

There is knowledge there: what we thought had value in itself, in fact had a value that was guaranteed of being valuable, of having worth – so here an essential step is made– that this had worth for the Other, this is to say, it’s worth depends of the guarantee of the Other. This moment, I suggest is to be called a moment of having no recourse. So in one moment the world can become a dead place for us, a place with nothing to offer us. Here we are getting closer to desire, because what other name can we give this losing interest in the world, value in things in the world, than a clogging, plugging, blocking of desire?

I believe that it is at least good to hold the idea that whenever someone asks to speak to us as a patient, something of this order has happened, or almost happened, something happened that gave some glimpse or a hint of glimpse at this space in which there is no recourse, where there is a merci lacking.

I will say it more sharply – our ethics is such that guides us to assume this. Because we may as well take the positions of those who know that missing knowledge for the subject (we know what depression is, why it is caused and how to treat it), or those who can give him the guarantee he is lacking. But our position is different – for us, this is exactly the point when it is our desire as analysts that must function in the direction of the treatment. This deserves a longer elaboration that cannot be completed here.

In any case, the cure offered by psychoanalysis is dependent upon a knowledge of our helplessness. And the subject, as such, doesn’t want to know anything about his helplessness. This is a structural “doesn’t want to know”, because this is a knowledge that can only be gained when the subject is effaced.

So this is the last step I must take now – of the necessary link between this knowledge and the rectification of the position of the subject as desiring.

I want to lay another stress on this “no recourse” – what in fact do we encounter at this moment that I am trying to circumscribe? This is a moment in which all that we are and all that we possess finds no court, no instance, no arena, no judge, no father, no man of science, no imam, no leader – no master – to acknowledge, guarantee, validate, assure. What we are and what we have is torn there from all its links, links that give it meaning.

And it is here that the status of the object may change for us. This is one possible way to understand the “traversing” and “crossing” in Lacan’s famous “traversing the phantasm” or “crossing the plane of identification”, but in a very specific way – of repositioning ourselves in respect to the object. And I remind you that desire is an effect of a certain relation to the object.

Until this crossing, our relation to the object may be described as such: the objects are all either in front of us, or in us, this is to say, in front of the other as we stand in front of him. So we have ideals, which serve as a compass, among all these objects that we either want to be or we want to have, guiding our way, and we follow them, and this keeps us walking, keeps us in the game.

The moment I am situating is a moment in which these objects collapse for us, and with them, the subject itself collapses too. And now I want to read again the difficult-to-understand paragraph I presented before:

“The object is found to be… this something which supports the subject precisely at the moment at which he has to confront as one might say his own existence, which supports the subject in his existence, in his existence in the most radical sense [and here I add now, in his “stupid ineffable existence”, an Lacan would later put it], namely precisely in this that he exists in language, namely that he consists in something that is outside himself, in something that he can only grasp in its proper nature as language at the precise moment when he, as subject, must efface himself, vanish, disappear behind a signifier, which is precisely what one might call the panic point around which he must attach himself to something, it is precisely to the object qua object of desire that he attaches himself.” (59)

Language here, and this disappearance behind a signifier – refers to the moment when it becomes clear that we were dupes, naïve, to think that all the attributes we have are real things with real value in itself, like gold, turn out to be owing their existence only to language, they turn out to be signifiers – that our subjectivity is held in them, suspended by them, that is why we experience this feeling of disappearing, being effaced, being helpless – because the place that seemed to guarantee language, to guarantee that these signifiers have a referent, that they are not just empty bla bla, at that moment we glimpse behind it and see that it is empty. This is one way to understand what Lacan calls in Seminar VI “There is no Other to the Other”. And not only does he say this, but he also says that this is “the great secret of psychoanalysis.”

But, there is a next step necessary here –otherwise this moment could just as well lead to depression or madness or nihilism – here there is also a reconnecting to the object, qua object of desire. Back to the paragraph, to the last sentence: “which is precisely what one might call the panic point around which he must attach himself to something, it is precisely to the object qua object of desire that he attaches himself.”

So I suggested that when all the objects in front of us collapse, here arises the option that the object changes its position in respect to us – or us in respect to it – and it is then situated behind us, as what pushes us, motivates us, this is to say, as CA– USE of our desire. So from being the aim or goal, what we want to possess or to be, it becomes now the cause. This is to say, it becomes the thing which causes us to chase objects in the first place, this is to say, that it determines us as desiring.

Lacan ends Seminar XI with this direction exactly. There he puts it in these words:

“The analyst’s desire… isolates the a [the object as cause of desire], places it at the greatest possible distance from the I [Ideal] that he, the analyst, is called upon by the subject to embody [what I called, “to be in front”]. It is from this idealization that the analyst has to fall in order to be the support of the separating a.”

In one of his essays Montaigne writes that philosophy teaches us how to die. I would say that the experience of analysis is the experience of losing. But losing without falling to depression, bitterness or hatred –pain, disappointment and sadness, of course – but to pain or to be sad is not to live without desire; analysis allows us a glimpse at the comic aspect of losing. To put it simpler yet, to lose objects without losing our desire together with the object.

A loved one dies prematurely, the house is burnt, money is lost, we become sick – there are two different sufferings here that must be distinguished. The pain and trouble that are related to the loss are not one with the question that opens up – why did this happen? There is this almost mythological image, which is perhaps trans-cultural, of a person in a state of helplessness raising his head and hands to the sky screaming why, why, why. And the real question there is actually “why me?”

I stress again – helplessness is not the experience of something terrible and irreversible in itself; rather, it has to do with the turning to the sky with a WHY that gets no answer.

This is the adult version of what every parent knows of the phase when children ask “why” about every little thing, and about every answer they get, until the parent eventually yell at the child –go eat your simit!

This is exactly why Lacan defines helplessness in a very specific manner: “Having no recourse before… the desire of the other.” That’s how helplessness is accepted by the psychoanalyst. This “Why” [hands to the sky] has a resonance of – what do you want from me? I did almost everything you asked for. Yes, I committed some crimes, but they were not terrible ones, and god knows I suffered heavy guilt for them – what do you want from me?! (this could be a 4th moment)

I think that reaching this ending of analysis has to do with this WHY resonating in the empty space in the Other, in the hole in the Other. In desiring, we are determined by this unique object, invented by Lacan, rather than by any object of demand, by any object that is articulated and therefore guaranteed in the field of the Other – and the response, I mean here response in a non-epistemic way, not an articulated answer, the response to this hole, lack of recourse, fall of our object – is desire. This one of the ways to speak of what analysis strives at.

I said before that the subject makes a big deal of his shit, refers to it as a big treasure. This also means that he guards it, doesn’t want to use it, play with it with the other – He fetishizes the object, that’s another way to say it. And that’s exactly because when he will do it, at one point or another something will necessarily happen to him of the nature of what I called today “moment”.

The thing which is not evident, displayed, or caused, by any object of the objects of the world, which are objects of demand – is desire. Because desire is conditioned by a different object, one that may not be displayed, and that when all is said and done the only proof for its existence is the fact that desire is possible.

This is why at the end of analysis there is a product that is put in both terms – 1) an object – at the end of analysis the analysant is a psychoanalyst because he is, in principle, in a position that he can be the object to any subject – this is because he was destituted in analysis, lost everything, was left with nothing; 2) but we also have a desire – because the analyst is not just an object, heshe is also a desire – there is no analysis without the desire of analyst.

So there we have it.