The three objects of the pandemic (and the subject) — Clint Burnham

When Covid-19 first appeared on the world scene in late 2019/early 2020, we had first of all the virus itself as an object: virulent, it goes without saying, jumping species and national border, simultaneously child-like and evil; named, numbered, and very much a signifier – the coronavirus, covid, Covid-19 [1]. Mobile – spreading in microdroplets (themselves a new object we had not known of before [2]) of our breathing and coughing, sticking to surfaces, but miraculously capable of being washed away with ordinary soap and water. In terms of Lacan’s three objects, the coronavirus is the objet petit a, a semblance of being or even its support, its platform or hypkeimenon or subiectum [3]. And so, very quickly, as we started washing our hands more frequently and social distancing, a new object appeared – or a class of objects – the various consumer items and medical equipment that was suddenly required, desired, manufactured and despised: mostly famously masks, but also hand sanitizer, ventilators, and the like, all subject to supply chains, political debates, and hypercommodification. The mask in particular, of course, which was the topic of vociferous debate (and new subjectivities: the “anti-masker”), a matter of governmental policies, and itself commodified, a sign, with brands, political slogans, and artistic designs now transforming it into an artistic frame à la the bumpersticker or t-shirt. As Lacan would argue, this is the object qua S(Ⱥ), or the signifier of the barred Other where truth is never guaranteed (there is no Other of the Other, no metalanguage). Finally the vaccine (or vaccines) itself: long desired, suddenly available in late 2020 (in time for Christmas! as if the temporality of medical research and plague contagion matched that of neo-Christian saturnalia), an object that like the masks and sanitizer arrests the coronavirus, but working at a different, invisible, level or scale, and, like those objects, subject to logistical constraints (most famously, the -70 degree Celsius freezing requirements of the Pfizer vaccine – but also, how long to space out the two doses) as well as, on the one hand, the ethical dilemmas of whom to vaccinate first (health care workers? the very old? some political celebrities to illustrate its efficacy? those who are more likely to die or to spread the disease? vulnerable communities?), illustrating geopolitical inequalities (hoarding and priorities, “vaccine nationalism”), and simultaneously a “miracle drug” and, again, the original despised object (hence anti-vaxxers). For Lacan, the vaccine functions as a phallic object (Φ, embedded in “scant reality” qua fantasy).

Žižek first discusses Lacan’s three objects (which are themselves quickly diagrammed in Seminar XX, Encore) in The Sublime Object of Ideology, as a way of working out the relationship of the subject to the Real. Questions, in particular, upset us, Žižek tells us, because they touch something that is “in us more than us,” the Freudian Kern unseres Weren or core of our being, Lacan’s das Ding, that which is “extimate” (SO 180).. This thing which troubles us, which splits us, this bit of the Real, also triggers our knowledge, is the unstable basis for knowing but it is actually, Žižek contends, a matter of three things, three objects. As this is “early” Žižek, which is to say the Žižek of the 1980s and 1990s, he is still immersed in the cultural space of Hitchcock and film noir, and so his examples for these objects come from Hitchcock: the three objects then are exemplified by the MacGuffin (or that which sets a plot in motion: the objet petit a), the birds in the film of the same name (“the impassive, imaginary embodiment of the Real” [SO 183], Φ qua jouissance), and by the ubiquitous circulating objects, radically contingent (the lighter in Strangers on a Train, the child in The Man Who Knew Too Much), articulating a lack in the Other, and hence: S(Ⱥ) [4].

This taxonomy of the pandemic objects also helps us to understand some of the ambivalence at work in our relation to these objects. Even with the virus itself, there were from the beginning calls to develop “herd immunity” (still at play, it seems, in Scandinavia), or cynical attitudes towards the likelihood of the elderly dying off (which has very much been the case due to the material and profit-driven neglect in so many long-term care facilities in the US and Canada). Then, of course, masks have at once become a consumer object, with the N95 “gold standard,” the designer versions, and the ubiquitous pale blue disposable one that Bernie Sanders was praised for wearing at the US inauguration in January, even as people are mocked in many jurisdictions for wearing them (in a “bad infinity of opposites,” this mocking takes place both in the social democratic utopias of Sweden, according to Lacanian friend who lives in Stockholm, and in the right-wing “red states” of the US) [5]. And the same split has appeared most dramatically with respect to the vaccine. We hear of queue-jumpers (an early shameful example in Canada being a casino magnate and his Russian girlfriend-cum-model who flew to a remote Indigenous community to get the vaccine), doctors who add their family members to the payroll, members of the “one percent” (including a Canadian pension fund CEO) flying to Dubai for vaccines, and other examples of the desire for the vaccine; even as anti-vaxxer ideology continues apace, including the frightening report from The New York Times that one third of serving US military members have said they will not be vaccinated. The vaccine is very much an object that we see in front of us, that presents to us, that seems to be opposed to us as subjects. And then, that we also reject that object: we object to it.

Which is to say that “vaccine hesitancy” both is and isn’t social. It is not for the psychoanalytic reasons given above – and, indeed, for the very dialectical reason that it must be considered alongside the desire for the vaccine that translates it into a commodity, a scarcity, and the like. Vaccine hesitancy is social in the sense that anti-vaxxers cannot be pathologized and dismissed as celebrity-duped overprotective middle class white parents. Vaccine hesitancy and the mistrust of medical establishment in African-American communities makes perfect sense in the wake of the Tuskegee experiments or the revelations, more recently, of the legacy of Henrietta Lacks, the Black woman whose cancer cells, harvested without her permission in 1951, became an important resource in medical research. If we think globally, recall how, in early 2010s Pakistan, the CIA used a fake hepatitis-B vaccine program in its hunting down of Osama bin Laden. And, to return to North America, Indigenous people in Canada have long suffered not only under medical injustices ranging from the historic relocation of communities in response to tuberculosis outbreaks and nutrition experiments on school children [6] (scandalously, the Canadian government’s first response to the swine flu outbreak in 2009 was to send body bags to remote indigenous communities), to present day mistreatments in emergency rooms and other medical facilities that belie Canada’s tattered reputation for liberal multiculturalism and tolerance.

All of which is to say that ambivalence turns out to revolve around a shameful desire and an anxiety-based aversion – and the latter, anxiety, Lacan reminds us, is not without an object. These affects speak, that is, to a lack in the object, which is to say, that the vaccine, or the mask, or the virus, is a subject, not a substance. Our split responses are due to that lack, that split, which is constitutive in the object as subject. The object in the sense of what is before us also carries with it the sense of what we object to, what we discard, its negation. It is, as Žižek reminds us, “an object in the strict sense of materialized enjoyment – the stain, the uncanny excess that the subjects snatch away from each other.” [7]

I want to conclude by returning to Lacan’s objects, to his diagram from Seminar XX:


What is evident from the schema – or algorithm – is that these three objects all have much to do with how we relate to jouissance. This question came up at a recent Lacan Salon – how are we enjoying (in the Lacanian sense of an unbearable pleasure, a pleasure unto death) the pandemic? How do we enjoy, for example, the mask as a non-guarantee of truth, of the Other, of the lack in the Other, of S(Ⱥ)? The mask as synecdoche for following rules (which assuredly we enjoy, and get enraged when others do not), even as its transgression also brings pleasure (and yet of course, like all transgressors, the anti-maskers depend on the (presumed) existence of the big Other. What about the coronavirus as objet petit a, this bit of the Real circulating around, how do we enjoy it? Here the sheer idiocy of numbers, of bar charts and rising or falling cases, of the variants themselves and whether they should be named after the countries of origin – China, the UK, South Africa. Finally, the vaccines as phallic object, as Φ, means the material object that is also the maternal object: it threatens to eat us or swallow us up, to (s)mother us (Žižek discusses the phallic object, Phi or Φ, in a few different ways in The Sublime Object and The Plague of Fantasies: it is the overwhelming birds in Hitchcock, or the boat at the end of the street in Marnie). Vaccines as Φ, to paraphrase Žižek, serves to gentrify the virus, so that we can perceive it in a way which is no longer directly threatening [8]. That is, the vaccine protects us from our enjoyment.

Clint Burnham is President of the Lacan Salon (Vancouver); Professor and Chair of the Graduate Program in English at Simon Fraser University; and author of Does the Internet Have an Unconscious? Slavoj Žižek and Digital Culture (Bloomsbury, 2018); “Jameson and Lacan” (Historical Materialism); “The Coronavirus’ Two Bodies,” a forthcoming chapter in Global Pandemics and Epistemic Crises in Psychology, (Routledge); and, co-edited with Paul Kingsbury, the forthcoming Lacan and the Environment (Palgrave).


[1] See Jamieson Webster: “The signifiers are pressing: Corona, Trump, Law, Police.” The coronavirus, named because of the allegedly crown-like shape of the microbe (which is to say, by the metonymy of the scientific imaginary), is an evil king.

[2] As we will see, our attitude towards objects is also influenced by whether they have been hitherto unknown qua objects and/or have to their names – the jouissance of learning always returns us to the trauma of the educational scene. We do not like to learn.

[3] In the chapter on “Knowledge and Truth” of Seminar XX, Lacan delineates three objects, the phallic object (Φ, embedded in “scant reality” qua fantasy); S(Ⱥ), or the signifier of the barred Other where truth is never guaranteed (there is no Other of the Other, no metalanguage); and the objet petit a, a semblance of being or even its support, its platform or hypkeimenon or subiectum. I do not go further into this taxonomy here; for more details, please see my chapter on “Lacan’s Trash-Talk” in the forthcoming collection Lacan and the Environment, co-ed. with Paul Kingsbury (Palgrave, 2021). Žižek breaks the objects down, first in The Sublime Object of Ideology and then in The Plague of Fantasies (with the added bonus of a footnote in the latter that argues the same “triad of Phi, a, and S(Ⱥ), is clearly discernable in the three cinema hits of summer 1996 [Twister, Independence Day, Mission Impossible]). Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies (London: Verso, 1997), 223n.

[4] As if to demonstrate the fidelity of Žižek’s thought to an event he could not have even forecast (although, also see The Plague of Fantasies), he goes on to discuss a feature of the early pandemic: toilet paper hoarding (SO 185-6). I work out the logic of Covid as fantasy in a blog entry on the Lacan Salon website. See “Covideology in 6 Parts.”

[5] In a YouTube lecture from July 26, 2020, Todd McGowan argues the right is reluctant to wear masks because they signify lack; more recently, however, he has stated that the coronavirus “has produced intellectual whiplash as it prompts conservatives to sound like leftists and leftists to echo conservative talking points.” See his blurb for Coronavirus, Psychoanalysis, and Philosophy Conversations on Pandemics, Politics and Society, Routledge, forthcoming 2021. I discuss masks in my essay “Masks, Handwashing and Zoom: The Way We Lack Now.” In New Associations 32 (Autumn 2020), 19-21.

[6] Please see, in this regard, my chapter “‘We were very lonely without those berries’: Gastronomic colonialism in Canada’s Indian Residential Schools.” Gastro-Modernism: Food, Literature, Culture, ed. Derek Gladwin, Clemson UP.

[7] Slavoj Žižek, Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (New York: Routledge, 1992), 22. Another pandemic object that, like Žižek’s theory, predates and predicts the psychoanalytic dimensions of Covid-19, is hand sanitizer, and especially its MacGuffin-like role in Season 10 of Larry David’s TV show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, which aired in early 2020.

[8] Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies 175-6

One comment

  1. I like to associate Lacan’s three objects with his three passions:
    1) Coronavirus = Ignorance (between Symbolic and Real)
    2) Mask = Love (between Symbolic and Imaginary)
    3) Vaccine = Hatred (between Imaginary and Real)

    I think it makes sense:
    1) We don’t know enough about the virus, the virus embodies our ignorance, so it triggers our stupid procedures of knowledge,
    2) We protect our loved ones with masks, the mask embodies our lack, so we get obsessed or embarrassed about it, we defend our ego against it,
    3) We hate and fight the disease with the vaccine, the vaccine embodies an attack, so we get paranoid about it, we are deeply ambivalent.


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