Realism in Psychoanalysis

YouTube: REALISM IN PSYCHOANALYSIS.  Object-Disoriented Ontology (Part 1). (Series Playlist).

Welcome to Lecture 13 of Alenka Zupančič’s What Is Sex?. In this lecture we will be focused on Part 1 of Chapter 4 — Object-Disoriented Ontology.  In this subsection titled “Realism in Psychoanalysis” we will be exploring the concept of reality as it appears in modern philosophy and as it is related to the Lacanian theory of the Real.  Here we are focused on what Zupančič’ identifies as the “powerful revival” of realism in philosophy, in part inspired by Quentin Meillassoux’s attempt to once again ask the Kantian question of the status of the “Thing-in-itself” and its relation to mathematics in After Finitude. This realist revival has also seen movements in the form of “speculative realism” where the status of “pure ontology” is again becoming a center of philosophy after the strong epistemological or de-constructivist/constructivist turn. The question that Zupančič wants to address is the status of Lacanian theory in relation to this rise of realism given that “the Real” is a central concept in the Lacanian theoretical edifice.

Here to quote Zupančič’s direct reference to Meillassoux on the philosophical meaning of the re-turn to realism (1):

“Generally speaking, the modern philosopher’s “two-step” consists in this belief in the primacy of the relation over the related terms; a belief in the constitutive power of reciprocal relation. The “co-” (of co-givenness, of co-relation, of the co-originary, of co-presence, etc.) is the grammatical particle that dominates modern philosophy, its veritable “chemical formula.” Thus, one could say that up until Kant, one of the principal problems of philosophy was to think the correlation. Prior to the advent of transcendentalism, one of the questions that divided rival philosophers most decisively was “Who grasps the true nature of substance? He who thinks the Idea, the individual, the atom, the God? Which God?” But ever since Kant, to discover what divides rival philosophers is no longer to ask who has grasped the true nature of correlation: it is the thinker of the subject-object correlation[.]”

Pre and Post Kantian Philosophy

In other words, Meillassoux is here bringing to our attention that pre-Kantian philosophy was actually interested in the “Real Thing” (the infinite immortal Thing), but after Kant (After Finitude) we are reduced to our correlation or relation to the Thing. Thus, after Kant philosophy exists in a relational universe correlated to subjective perception or the transcendental a priori instead of an “absolute universe” of the “true reality in-itself”.

For Meillassoux this is an immanently practical question about the ultimate relationship between philosophy and science. Of course, when we think of science we are thinking of figures like Darwin and Einstein who were interested in grounding knowledge of the Thing-in-itself independent of our subjectivity. However, are philosophy and science existing in the same world if philosophy accepts the post-Kantian break of the transcendental a priori frame where the Thing is always framed in a relation to a subject? To state it in as simple as possible terms, how should a correlationist interpret modern scientific statements about pre-human reality like the age of the Earth or the age of the universe for that matter?

one or two
One or Two?

Zupančič explains in greater depth (2):

“This question [of two worlds] is pertinent to the issue of epistemology’s or science’s, relation to ontology. It may seem in fact as if science and philosophy have been developing for some time now in parallel worlds: in one it is possible to speak of the Real in itself, independently of its relation to the subject, whereas in the other this kind of discourse is meaningless. So, what do we get if we apply the axiom “There is only one world” to this situation? Instead of taking the — on the side of philosophy — more common path, criticizing science for its lack of reflection upon its own discourse, Meillassoux takes another path: the fact that certain scientific statements escape its “horizon of sense” indicates that there is something wrong with philosophy. It indicates that, in order to ensure the continuation of metaphysics by other means), it has sacrificed far too much, namely, the Real in its absolute sense.”

In other words, when philosophy focuses on correlationism and epistemology it is easy to criticise science for its “naive ontology”; but when we consider again philosophy from the point of view of deep ontological questions, we have to turn the reflection back on philosophy itself and its own inability to articulate an understanding of the in-itself independent of the subject.

In Meillassoux’s realist program he starts by distinguishing between the old categories of primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities like size, shape, motion, number and solidity are absolute, mathematizable and in-themselves; whereas secondary qualities like temperature, smell, taste and sound are related to the subject and its perceptions. Thus, Meillassoux suggests that reality in-itself can be grounded by mathematised formulas of the primary qualities which guarantee subjectivity a “referent” to the real that exists whether or not subjectivity exists or not.

Thus we can summarise Meillassoux’s program of speculative realism in the following two theses: the first is that the primary qualities of being are mathematizable; and the second is that these qualities are absolutely contingent (meaning that they could be other than they are). According to Zupančič, what Meillassoux does not address in this version of speculative realism is the referent (correlate) of the universal properties of the real in-itself. In other words, Meillassoux does not address the link between mathematics and being: why do we exist in a universe where mathematization is not only possible but correlated as a reliable referent to the in-itself of absolute being?

Here Zupančič takes a step back and asks us to consider why philosophy seems to be taking this turn towards speculative realism and the desire to reach again the absolute in-itself of being (3):

“Since Descartes we have lost the great Outside, the absolute outside, the Real, and have become prisoners of our own subjective or discursive cage. The only outside we are dealing with is the outside posited or constituted by ourselves or different discursive practices. And there is a growing discomfort, claustrophobia, in this imprisonment, this constant obsession with ourselves, this inability to ever get out of the external inside that we have thus constructed. There is also a political discontent that is put into play here: that feeling of frustrating impotence, the impossibility of really changing anything, of absorbing the small and big disappointments of recent and not-so-recent history. Hence the additional redemptive charm of a project that promises again to break out into the great Outside, to reinstate the Real in its absolute dimension, and to ontologically ground the possibility of radical change.”

In this statement we see that Zupančič has mixed feelings about speculative realism. On the one side she can understand and sympathise with the project in the sense that becoming endlessly stuck in a loop of self-reflectivity can be exhausting in the sense that we become aware of our impotence; however, she is also suggesting that this move back to the pre-subjective being or the non-subjective being may also be a type of retroactive escapism.

She continues (4):

“One should insist, however, that the crucial aspect of Meillassoux lies entirely elsewhere than in this narrative […], namely and precisely the fantasy of the “great Outside” which will save us — from what, finally? From that little yet annoying bit of the outside which is at work here and now, persistently nagging, preventing any kind of “discursive cage” from safely closing upon itself. In other words, to say that the great Outside is a fantasy does not imply that it is a fantasy of a Real that does not really exist; rather, it implies that it is a fantasy in the strict psychoanalytic sense: a screen that conceals the fact that the discursive reality is itself leaking, contradictory, and entangled with the Real as its irreducible other side. That is to say: the great Outside is a fantasy that conceals the Real that is already right here.”

What this grounds in a shockingly and disturbingly precise sense is the difference between the pre-Kantian real, the Kantian noumenal, and the Lacanian Real. For Zupančič, in the philosophical attempt to “go back” to the pre-Kantian real of the in-itself misses the whole point of the Real that is identified in psychoanalysis. The Real in psychoanalysis is not the Real of what exists in the non-human reality, but rather it is an inhuman dimension that constitutes and persists internal to the “discursive cage” as the other of our symbolic universe. In this “great Outside” framed by Meillassoux and others is itself yet another fantasy screen of the Real in-itself that is “already right here”. In order to properly understand this turn on philosophical grounds it may be worth while to internalise the transition from Kant to Hegel that was covered in Chapter 5 of Less Than Nothing (Part 1 / Part 2).

Now Zupančič starts to work towards her aim of introducing us to the Lacanian universe and its relationship to scientific epistemology of the Thing-in-itself. Zupančič’s starting point as critique of speculative realism is that Meillassoux’s attempt to link scientific discursivity in the form of mathematization to the primary qualities of being as the absolute external real lacks a discussion on the underlying or unconscious presuppositions of the modern scientific ontology. In other words, if we have the binary option of, on the one hand critiquing science for lacking reflectivity on its own discourse, or critiquing philosophy for lacking an understanding of the in-itself, when where psychoanalysis emerges, specifically Lacanian psychoanalysis, is in this gap. For Lacanian theory the point is not to critique science for its lack of self-reflectivity or to re-link philosophy to the in-itself of being, but rather to understand the ways scientific discourse is itself implicated in the Real of the in-itself.

Speculative Realism

In the light of this idea let us first consider Lacanian theory from the perspective of the project of speculative realism and its attempt to get to the Thing-in-itself. Here we have the subject of science and its mathematized abstractions, we have contingent nature, and we have the primary qualities of absolute being (like size, shape, motion, number and solidity). In this intersection we should remember that for Lacan the subject of the unconscious and the subject of science were the same thing. In other words, the subject desiring the use of mathematized abstractions for an understanding of the in-itself was itself the unconscious. For this reason, Lacan claimed, that psychoanalysis as a discourse and therapy only became possible after the historical emergence of science. In other words, psychoanalysis was dependent on the emergence of science as a discourse, but not reducible to science as a discourse. The question that emerges here for Zupančič between speculative realism and psychoanalysis is in relation to the “Truth”: is the “Truth” of the “Absolute Real” what exists as the primary qualities of being, or are we dealing with something other?

From this question we can approach the Lacanian “theory of science” proper. For Lacan the emergence of scientific discourse was equal to mathematization replacing the ancient notion of nature as a mythical or fantasmatic being in-itself. After the emergence of scientific discourse nature was nothing but an empirical object-correlate of science. The in-itself was then, not the primary qualities as they existed independent of the subject of science, but rather were the subject of sciences own capacity to correlate to/with these primary qualities. From this presupposition we can say that the object of modern science is indistinguishable from its formulas, and thus its formulas are indistinguishable from the in-itself (which is why science does not need to be “more reflective”). The real of the scientific formulas are not whether or not they are actually the “in-itself” independent of subjectivity, but rather what their consequences are internal to discursive history. This breaks down the traditional divide between scientific materialism and discursive historicism since scientific materialism itself becomes a discursive historical process with real consequences. Here Zupančič quotes Lacan directly in order to communicate this point: (5) (p. 77):

“Energy is not a substance…, it’s a numerical constant that a physicist has to find in his calculations, so as to be able to work.”

What is emphasized here is not the way in which a formula is a correlate to an in-itself independent of subjectivity, but rather that a formula is a correlate to an in-itself of the subject’s own discursive and historical work. This is the crucial difference between Lacan’s Real and speculative realism.

On this difference let us consider a quote from Lacan (6):

“We cannot resist the idea that nature is always there, whether we are there or not, we and our science, as if science were indeed ours and we weren’t determined by it. Of course I won’t dispute this. Nature is there. But what distinguishes it from physics is that it is worth saying something about physics, and that discourse has any consequences in nature, which is why we tend to love it so much. To be a philosopher of nature has never been considered as a proof of materialism, nor of scientific quality.”

In other words, what Lacan is saying is that whether or not nature in-itself exists is besides the point when it comes to our discursivity, in the form of mathematics and physics. One could be a philosopher of nature in-itself but it has no real consequences. Mathematics and physics, on the other hand, have real consequences and this is in fact the “proof of materialism” that has so convincingly structured the logic of modernism. What is thus crucial for the Lacanian theory of science can be summarised in three points:

  1. The discursive consequences in the real (and not being in-itself independent of subjectivity);
  2. The attempt to understand this newly emergent reality structured by subjects of science as unconscious; and
  3. Finally, the problem of materialism that our scientific signifiers are translating into precise formulas.

Zupančič here asks us to reflect deeply on this last point, since in this last point we discover a fundamental psychoanalytic paradox, that “true materialism” does not really depend on “any matter” (in the sense of the speculative realists), but is rather “dialectical” on the level of our “material signifiers”.

This leads Zupančič to attempt to formulate a theory of true materialism that is not reduced to the “cerebral unconscious” but rather to the “libidinal unconscious” identified by Freud and worked philosophically by Lacan. In this form of true materialism it is not that “matter is all” in the sense that matter is all there is (with no room for a subject); and neither is it “primary” in the sense that absolute being is structured by the primary qualities (where secondary qualities of the subject are irrelevant on the terms of the absolute); but rather the “cut-division is all-primary”. What this means is that the cut internal to matter, that matter is “not-all” is the opening that leads to the appearance of subjects and their signification interventions which have the capacity to exert consequences. The cut is where the subject appears and works.

Kantian Noumenal to Lacanian Real

Thus we can make some progress in determining what science is to philosophy in a way that can be elevated beyond the Kantian transcendental critique which asks for more reflectivity from science’s own discourse. In the Kantian system Nature is the inaccessible Thing and physics is a transcendental structure that is attempting to reflect or reduplicate (correlate) to this Thing. The impossibility of achieving this end leads to the Kantian “antinomies” of reason. However, in the Lacanian system physics is not the transcendental structure attempting to cover over this Thing and correlate to it, but rather is a symbolic addition that emerges in the cut where matter is not-all, appearing to us in the imaginary. This addition to nature does not change whatever the in-itself of nature is, but rather changes the way in which observers can interact and transform their own discursive real.

Screen Shot 2019-09-28 at 17.43.17 (2)
Hegel in the Alps

Zupančič here offers a digression to a story of the Hegelian interpretation of nature and the absolute in-itself of being. In this story Hegel is apparently dragged to the Alps by his friends so that he can see the beauty and glory of nature in-itself as a “sublime spectacle”. Apparently all Hegel said was “It is so; it is what it is”, and that is all that needs to be said. For Hegel (and for Lacan) there is nothing to know about nature in-itself, it is besides the point, and what really matters is that we are in language and our discourse has consequences in this real.

To quote Zupančič on Lacan’s theory of physics and nature as it relates to discursive consequences (7):

“Lacan’s definition of this difference is indeed extremely concise and precise. What is at stake is not nature as scientific object (that is, as physics) is only an effect of discourse, its consequence — and that in this sense physics does not actually deal with the Real, but only with its own constructions. What is at stake is, rather, that the discourse of science creates, opens up, a space in which this discourse has (real) consequences. And this is far from being the same thing. We are dealing with something that most literally, and from the inside, splits the world in two.”

You can see in the representation below that science abstractions in the formulas of the real appear in the void as a type of spectral double or addition to materiality. The mystery from the Lacanian perspective is how these spectral double or addition to materiality has consequences.

Real as a Cut

To quote Lacan directly as it relates to a 20th century event that is often overlooked by philosophy, the moon landing (8):

“Scientific discourse was able to bring about the moon landing, where thought becomes witness to an eruption of a real, and with mathematics using no apparatus other than a form of language.”

Lacan on the Moon Landing

Thus, far from asking science to reflect more on its discourse, Lacan is asking philosophy to consider the real that emerges with science. This could be why Lacan was so fascinated with the imaginary of science fiction.

Now we can see the Lacanian theory of science coupled to this cut and emergent spectrality. With the emergence of this cut and spectrality we are not just dealing with nature in-itself, but nature in-itself coupled with our own technological consequences. To quote Zupančič (9):

“Modern science […] [arrived] at the absolute character of its referent […] by reducing it to a letter, which alone opens up the space of the real consequences of (scientific) discourse.”

Nature + Cut

Here Zupančič is critiquing the referent of speculative realism for not taking this in-itself seriously. It is not the in-itself of the primary qualities of being without subjectivity; but the in-itself of the subject of the unconscious and its wish fulfilment.

Here we can further differentiate between the Lacanian theory of the real and Meillassoux’s attempt at speculative realism. From Lacan himself (10):

“It is not worth talking about anything except the real in which discourse has consequences”

Thus the difference between Lacan’s in-itself and Meillassoux’s in-itself is that Lacan’s in-itself is always-already “in here” as a cut internal to matter where the signifier appears and not “out there” pre-existing subjectivity. Thus we get to a theory of science that can explain all of the transformations that are becoming possible in the 20th and 21st century.

Meillassoux and Lacan

Here is yet another representation of this core difference between Meillassoux’s speculative realism and Lacan’s psychoanalytic real. Instead of closing the cut and uniting scientific abstractions with primary qualities of being; we affirm the cut and transform the very in-itself through scientific abstractions.

Now Zupančič attempts to put this Lacanian real into conversation with Meillassoux’s original problem of what philosophy should think of scientific statements about the real independent of human existence (11):

“Let us recall: “the referents of the statements about dates, volumes etc., existed 4.56 billion years ago, as described by these statements — but not these statements themselves, which are contemporaneous with us.” The ideal character of a scientific formula catches in its net, here and now, a fragment of the thing that is in itself absolute (that is to say, which existed as such, and independently of this net, 4-5 billion years ago). Or, to put it another way: the Real is that portion of a substance that does not slip through the net of mathematizable science, but remains caught in it. Lacan’s metaphor, and with it his entire perspective, is quite different in this respect: the Real is guaranteed not by the consistency of numbers (or letters), but by the “impossible”, that is, by the limit of their consistency. […] The Real […] is indicated by the fact that not all is possible.”

Here we get to a subtle point that requires deep reflection. Zupančič is saying that from the philosophical standpoint we can never get to this absolute being in-itself of knowledge of how old the Earth is “in reality” independent of our measurements of an age between 4-5 billion years old. Instead she is saying that from a philosophical standpoint what is real is the way in which our signifiers reach a certain impossibility of affirming a certain determination (say the age of the in-itself) and repeat at this location. Here the “Real in-itself” is nothing but “the fact that not all is possible”.

Here Zupančič continues on this meditation of the hypothetical age of the Earth according to science (12):

“[pre-human reality] is independent, yet it becomes such only at the very moment of its discursive “creation”. That is to say: with the emergence — ex nihilo, why not? — of the pure signifier, and with it of the reality in which discourse has consequences, we get a physical reality independent of ourselves.”

In other words, Zupančič is suggesting that what is more interesting then thinking about the in-itself of an independent noumenal reality, is the idea that this idea emerges with the appearance of subjectivity in-itself. From this perspective the independent in-itself is a spontaneous creation of the signifier and we can never really escape this determination.

From this presupposition Zupančič assumes that (13):

“ancestral statements […] are […] objective correlates of the emergence of a break in reality as a homogenous continuum.”

Thus objective correlates require a discontinuous rupture and the emergence of the signifier. Consequently the foundation for dialectical materialism is not a pure absolute materiality of primary qualities, but rather a pure coincidence between the becoming (of the signifier) and the absolute that is affirmed in this becoming (14). Moreover, on the topic of whether this absolute is contingent or necessary, Zupančič sides on the simultaneity of these concepts, that is that the absolute is “both necessary and contingent”. However, what is important to stress is that, unlike the traditional absolute which is conceived as an all-necessity, the psychoanalytic absolute is a necessity that is “not-all” in the sense that necessity can change, can become something other.

Now this dimension of the coincidence between becomingness and absoluteness, or contingency and necessity, is something that Zupančič suggests is key to understanding the relation and perhaps also the antagonism between science and psychoanalysis. Here to quote Lacan (15):

“The fact is that science, if one looks at it closely, has no memory. Once constituted, it forgets the circuitous path by which it came into being; otherwise stated, it forgets a dimension of truth that psychoanalysis seriously puts to work.”

And now to quote Zupančič:

“This is not simply about past structures, accidents, or even mistakes that often pave the way for huge scientific breakthroughs (resolving a “crisis”), it is about the subjective toil that each of these crises takes.”

Truth = subjective struggle for absolute necessity

In other words, for psychoanalysis, it is once again not about the absolute being in-itself of classical philosophy, but rather the way in which the absolute in-itself is becoming through the emergence of the scientific signifiers as a new level of reality. The crucial point here is that such a level of reality is mediated by subjective toil, by the suffering of subjects who make huge breakthroughs quite accidentally, and which are perceived as an absolute necessity only retroactively. Take for example the image of above of the great scientists of the modern age, whose formulas were necessary for the emergence of the moon landing as a real in-itself. There was no way for these subjects to foresee or predict this in-itself beyond a science fiction speculative imaginary, but nonetheless once it was actually achieved, the formulas for this achievement can be seen as paving the way to its realization.


This view is all the more important now that we are in the age of the brain sciences with the paradigm of neuroplasticity. No longer is it the case that scientific abstractions will merely lead to consequences in the realm of physics, but also in the realm of our very neurophysiological foundation. One can think of this relation practically as a situation where the spectral image of neuroplasticity emerges in the void of our understanding, and then starts to have real consequences on the neurophysiological foundation with the development of new technologies to map and transform the real of our brain. In this sense it is not about some absolute in-itself that pre-exists subjectivity, but the way in which scientific formulas will make cuts as the in-itself that will retroactively transform what is absolute.

To quote Zupancic directly on this point (16):

“This also implies that no amount of “plasticity of the brain” can smooth out, or avoid the cut involved in, the signifiers capable of producing a plausible scientific theory of this same “plasticity”. It cannot do away with this cut without losing its own real and falling instead straight into yet another Weltanschauung or “world-view”. For the brain, as a meaningful referent of science, is not the piece of meat in our heads, but an object such that scientific apparatus has consequences for it (and in it).”

Transhuman Struggle

Now, finally, one can view the same representation as the moon landing in relation to transhumanism. Here we see the subjective toil of all the great philosophers and scientists who have contributed to our understanding of the human body and brain, from Francis Bacon, Descartes, Darwin, Nietzsche, Hegel to Arthur C. Clarke, George Church, Alan Turing, Ray Kurzweil and Nick Bostrom. These historical subjectivities in their becoming may be paving the way towards a real in-itself that is meditated by scientific signifiers and forever transforms what is absolute.

To summarise in this lecture we first covered Meillassoux’s challenge to philosophy of speculative realism as an attempt to reach the real being in-itself. Second, we approached the traditional metaphysical desire to reach this Great Outside in relation to the modern epistemological projects correlating us to subjectivity. Third, we explored the Lacanian theory of science as grounded in psychoanalysis. And finally, we proposed a notion of the absolute real that was in relation to the singular field constituted by discursive consequences.

And that brings us to the end of Lecture 12 focused on Part 1 of Chapter 4 — Object-Disoriented Ontology. Here we covered the difference between philosophy and sophistry, how this difference manifests in univocal and equivocal theory, the way analytic theory is built from the synthesis of these different forms of theory, and finally, how we can start to verbalize our contradictory knots to truly embody the becoming of the absolute in living language.

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Works Cited:

(1) Zupančič, A. 2017. Chapter 4: Object-Disoriented Ontology.  p. 73-4.

(2) ibid.  p. 74.

(3) ibid.  p. 76.

(4) ibid.

(5) ibid.  p. 77.

(6) ibid.  p. 78.

(7) ibid.  p. 79.

(8) ibid.

(9) ibid.  p. 80.

(10) ibid.

(11) ibid.  p. 80-1.

(12) ibid.  p. 83.

(13) ibid.

(14) ibid.

(15) ibid.

(16) ibid.  p. 84.


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