“You are not obliged to understand my writings” (Lacan, 1973): Certainement! — Hal Odetta

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We can believe Guy Le Gaufey, in his meticulous histo-biographical and philosophical reconstruction of Lacan’s sexuation formula [1], that the start of the 70’s is a special period in Lacan’s pursuit of his strange l’objets (his particular kinds of néant and manque) and their relation to the supreme problematic of “negation’’ (la négation).

This has been a mainstay concern of Lacan, perhaps ever since encountering Kojeve and Hegel. Le Gaufey thinks that the sharpest point of grasping it is through the well-known four-set logical notations called the ‘sexuation formula’ (formules quantiques de la sexuation).

In Le Gaufey’s reconstruction, this crucial phase of clarification began by the end of 1969 (December), and reached its peak in January 1973, during the Seminar called Encore.

But curiously, also at this exact month, one hears Lacan admonishing his audience with this curious line: “That is why you are not obliged to understand my writings. If you don’t understand them, so much the better – that will give you the opportunity to explain them.”

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Is this just an ironic joke from this 70’s Parisian Master of tricky negations, slash bars, and dialectical erasures—but, who, it is important to recall, has carefully distinguished ignorantia docta from ignorantia docens from Seminar I (7 July 1954)?

What is the right approach to understanding the above quotes, which is like putting a slash bar, Lacan-style, on the four-year-in-the-making ‘sexuation formula’?

The translation used above is from Bruce Fink. Perhaps we just have to listen to Fink’s advice to ‘take Lacan to the letter’ and closely read what was said/written then. These are the exact lines’ immediate context:

C’est très difficile de comprendre ce que ça veut dire, la négation. Si on y regarde d’un peu près, on s’apercevra en particulier qu ‘ il y a une très grande variété de négations, qu ‘ il est tout à fait impossible de réunir sous le même concept. La négation de l’existence, par exemple, ce n’est pas du tout la même chose que la négation de la totalité. [….] C’est bien pour ça que vous n ‘ êtes pas forcés de comprendre les miens. Si vous ne les comprenez pas, tant mieux, ça vous donnera justement l’occasion de les expliquer. (9 Janvier 1973)

We have two English translations of the above; first, from Bruce Fink, and second, from Cormac Gallagher:

(Bruce Fink’s translation) It is very difficult to understand what negation means. If you look at it a bit closely, you realize in particular that there is a wide variety of negations that it is quite impossible to cover with the same concept. The negation of existence, for example, is not at all the same as the negation of totality. [Two sentences discussing the notations S and s and adding a negating bar on each.] That is why you are not obliged to understand my writings. If you don’t understand them, so much the better – that will give you the opportunity to explain them. (Emphasis added.)

(Cormac Gallagher’s translation) All the same, it is very difficult to understand what negation means. If one looks a little bit more closely at it, one will see in particular that there is a great variety of negations. And that it is quite impossible to unify all the negations under the same concept: the negation of existence, is not at all the same thing as the negation of totality, to limit myself to the use that I have made of negation. [….] This indeed is why you are not forced to understand mine! If you do not understand them, it is a good sign, so much the better! That will precisely give you the opportunity of explaining them. (Emphasis added.)

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Reading the boldfaced line closely in Lacan’s original French (C’est bien pour ça que vous n’êtes pas forcés de comprendre les miens), one sees that Cormac Gallagher has translated it more ‘to the letter’ compared to Fink’s version. Lacan, being Lacan, is far from saying that we are not supposed to understand “all” his writings; he is simply saying, in Gallagher’s translation, that “you are not forced [forcés] to understand mine [les miens]!”

And to what is this les miens referring to? Of course, to the preceding discussion about the placing of things in bars.

The point is that Lacan is giving here a sharp, forceful and proper piece of advice: he is admonishing his audience to be careful in relating with, in treating, in taking-off from, his style of making negations.

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Everything hangs on how to do negations. And this applies, Lacan says, to Lacan’s negations themselves. At the culminating point of his construction of the concept of ‘sexuation’, he gives here that supplemental note.

In the spirit of a Bible-translation tradition [2] wherein the translator amplifies and expands the lines in order to give the real meaning of the text, here, in my view, is what is as close as possible to the spirit of Lacan’s ‘’letters’’, if one is to grasp the design of the above quotation:

It is very difficult to understand this, this phenomenon of negation: like when you say “no” to a thing or idea, or when you say that such and such “do not exist”. If you look closer, you will notice in particular that there is a wide variety of negations, and so it is impossible to bring them together under the same concept. The negation of existence, for example, is not at all the same as the negation of totality. [….] That is why, you do not have to force yourself to understand mine: my negations, and my various explorations of these peculiarly-human and symbolic “objects” of “nothings”. If you don’t understand them — so much the better! — as this will give you occasion to explain them, that is, figure out the negations to yourself and in your own particular contexts and singularity.

Lacan here was simply giving us a perfectly sensible clinical (and also anthropological! [3]) advice and warning.

Lacan was never ironical when he said that line (“You are not obliged to understand my writings”) in that important day, on the 9th of January, 1973, which was the culmination of his hard conceptual labors on the formula of sexuation.

We are never obliged to repeat Lacan’s “objects”. Certainement!

Hal Odetta is a pen name. He is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of the Philippines and works with the Manobo indigenous peoples of Mindanao.

Notes:

1. This is Le Gaufey’s central work on this: Guy Le Gaufey, Le Pastout de Lacan: consistence logique, conséquences cliniques, Paris: EPEL, 2006. Cormac Gallagher’s translation of the central chapter of this work can be found here: http://www.lacaninireland.com/web/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/TOWARDS-A-CRITICAL-READING-2506.pdf

2. I am specifically referring to the famous The Amplified Bible Translation: https://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Amplified-Bible-AMP/.

3. Perhaps pace his Levi-Straussian inspirations, as Markos Zafiropoulos (2003/2010) has reminded us, in his work, Lacan et Lévi-Strauss ou le retour à Freud (1951-1957)/Lacan and Levi-Strauss or The Return to Freud (1951-1957).

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