"Je est un autre." A psychoanalytic approach to the question of identity.


"Je est un autre." A psychoanalytic approach to the question of identity.

Sol Aparicio

Tel Aviv Forum, June 20, 2015


1. Who do you think you are ? Identity and/or identification·.

During the past thirty or forty years, identity has become a most important issue in our society. We know how concerned people are about having to defend their own personal, national or religious identity. Not only do we read about in the newspapers, and hear about it on the radio or television. Discussions on identity have become a true question tackled by many philosophers. Let me mention just two examples from the English speaking world, which have both been translated into French and other languages.

In the nineties, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (philosophy and political sciences professor at McGill University) published a major historical research study on the subject of identity, called Sources of the Self. The Making of Modern Identity, where he aimed at defining modern identity and writing its history by describing its origin.  In Taylor's view identity is closely attached to what we call ethics : “To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand.[1]

In 2006, Amartya Sen, the well-known Indian economist and philosopher who was awarded the Nobel prize in economic sciences, wrote a book on Identity and violence, which considers identity from a social and political point of view. Sen believes that each one of us has more than one identity, identity is plural, and in our multicultural world "violence is fomented by the imposition of singular and belligerent identities on gullible people."

Things being so, it is not surprising that the question of identity should be addressed to psychoanalysts, it is a question that psychoanalysis is also concerned with.  As Jacques Lacan put it more than half a century ago – and of course it still holds good – a psychoanalyst's undertaking requires that he "meet at its horizon the subjectivity of his time.[2]" Let us also recall that later on, when Lacan introduced his theory of discourses in the seventies, he did not only aim to establish and formalize the analytic discourse, he also clearly prompted psychoanalysts to keep in touch with and to discuss other discourses.

 What then do psychoanalysts have to say about identity ?

The question is not an easy one for us, it cannot be immediately dealt with, since the concept itself is absent from psychoanalytic theory.

Identity as not a social or political but a subjective question is certainly present in the field of philosophy, but we don't find it conceptualized in either Freud's or in Lacan's writings. This, of course, is not to say they never used the word. Nor that the question as such may not be present in their works under other terms. But it does suggest that their experience of analysis did not call for the concept of identity as being necessary, it didn't bring it up. Nevertheless, as we shall see further on, this does not mean that the question and the notion of identity have been totally absent from the history of psychoanalysis.

Now, to begin with, before we can enter into the field of psychoanalysis to see what it may have to answer, we need to know the meaning of that identity which is in question in the current debates. In order to answer this preliminary question, I shall refer to a book written by the French philosopher Vincent Descombes in 2013, that I have found extremely useful. It has an eloquent title, Les embarras de l'identité, literally "The embarrassments (or the troubles) of identity".

Descombes' purpose is to disentangle the "true lexical riddle" that identity has become in "the different meanings" in which it is used today. Wishing to find his way into the "identity idiom" which is nowadays spoken, D. questions the relevance of the concept of identity as it is used in the field of social and political science. He asks what does the word mean when applied to the first person as in expressions such as "my identity" or "our identity". And he remarks they are in fact quite recent.

For a very long time, the term "identity" was used in the sense given to it by philosophy, the fact of being one and the same. Whether referred to an objet or to a person, the word signfied absolute sameness ; it meant being identical.

This "proper sense" of identity is obviously not the one which is used at present. Identity has acquired a "moral sense", says D. This new sense given to identity has given birth in French to a new word, the adjective identitaire, often used in expressions like in revendication identitaire (meaning the assertion on one's identity) or repli identitaire (an exaggerated sense of identity, or the recourse to identity politics).

In its new use, the concept of identity designates the set of attributes that are included in someone's idea about himself, and that he cannot give up without feeling himself "diminished", lessened. (We may mention here the person's mother-tongue, nationality, religion, gender, profession, etc.) So, identity is "a question of pride, of self respect, of self assertion according to an idea of oneself which one demands to be recognized and respected by the others."

Moreover, D. states that there is a logical difference between these two meanings of identity. Identity in its first, proper sense answers to the question "who is it?", put in the third person, which will be answered with a name that will allow to identify someone. Whereas, the second sense will allow to answer a question concerning the first person, "who am I?" or "who are we?" Now, to put such a question about identity  in the first person implies that we appropriate or adapt identity to ourselves and that we thus give it a subjective meaning that the word did not have in the beginning . It is no longer a matter of identifying someone, but of identifying oneself. So the question obviously no longer concerns a person's name.

We then learn from D. that Voltaire was the first to speak about identity in French using this subjective sense, meaning "a person's consciousness about himself". At the time, following the ideas of John Locke, Voltaire intended to avoid reducing the concept of person to that of substance by giving it a subjective sense. Personal identity then ceases to be referred to others. It is referred to oneself and it depends on memory. Memory is the source of personal identity, for it is thanks to the memory a person has of himself that he is able to recognize himself at present as being the same person he was in the past.

So we see that, in European history, the question of identity didn't become a subjective one before the 18th century. At the time, this meant a question of memory and self-consciousness. Subjective identity is a modern affair. Charles Taylor remarks amusingly that there could be no identity crisis in Luther's time, because Luther didn't want to be himself, what he wanted to be was a true Christian. His was a "faith crisis" not an identity one.

Descombes further gives us an insight into where the contemporary use of the word "identity", in what he calls its moral sense, comes from.

But before I go on to talk to you about it, I would like to point out something. It must have appeared to you that Descombes' considerations seem to ignore the existence of psychoanalysis, I mean to say that they in no manner take into account the unconscious. If we do as we shall further on, we have no need to restrict the use of the concept of identity in its proper sense to the third person. The question about one's own identity may indeed be put in the proper sense of identity. And identity's second sense, the one defined as "the idea a person has about himself", his self-consciousness, may then appear to be less a matter of identity, than a matter of identification. When D. says that nowadays identity has become "a question of pride, of self-respect, of self-assertion according to an idea of oneself which one demands to be recognized and respected by others", we can easily see that, from a psychoanalytic standpoint, what is in question in the current social and political debate on identity has less to do with the concept of identity than with the psychoanalytic concept of identification.

Let us now go back to D.'s book in order to learn where the recent sense accorded to "identity" comes from.

It was Philip Gleason, an American historian who wrote an essay on "American identity" in 1970, who first mentioned the fact of a new use of the notion of identity. He noticed that it had become usual during the ‘fifties in the social sciences, although its meaning remained rather ambiguous, it wasn't clearly defined and could be used in the sense of the self, of personality or character, as well as meaning someone's social role or function. But the fact isat this new use of the word "identity" was actually imported from Europe, for it was a German psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson, who first spoke about identity in this way.

Ironie de l'histoire, as we say in French, an irony of history ! We learn that Erikson is considered to be "the father of our psychosocial notion of identity". He was the first one to speak about an "identity crisis", a notion which Charles Taylor would later use considering it as specific to the modern individual.

Erikson was born in 1902 and died in 1994, which makes him a contemporary of Lacan. (I don't know if he ever read Lacan, but we do know that Lacan did read some of Erikson's papers.) He went through analysis with Anna Freud in Vienna and worked with her as an teacher before he emigrated to the US, where he became acquainted with the new cultural anthropology school.

At the end of the Second World War, Erikson analysed soldiers coming back from the war. It was then that he introduced a new diagnosis, the identity crisis, which he described as a disorder or a loss of the feeling of ego identity. It was not a psychiatric disorder like the depersonalization phenomena, mental confusion or delusions are. The identity crisis is related to the feeling of not being able to keep up to the ideal of an American youth. Erikson's patients felt confused, disoriented, inadequate. Following the breakdown due to the war, they were no longer able to keep the idea they had of themselves before.

Now, since we are talking about a psychoanalyst's clinical experience, we can refer here to the Freudian theory. What Erikson diagnosed as an "identity crisis" concerns the subject's relation to the ideal, the ideal ego and the ego ideal have been endangered, injured in the subject's confrontation with the war. It is the ego's foundations, its fundamental identifications that have been brought into question.

According to Erikson, Freud didn't tackle the problem of ego identity because his patients were not "disoriented"; their problems had to do not with identity, but with having to respond to society's demands and to ideals which were too hard to meet. It is as if Erikson had forgotten that during the First World War, Freud came to know the war neuroses well enough… We can nevertheless admit what Erikson says about the effects of society's demands, which is precisely what Freud worked on in his book on Civilization and its Discontents. One wonders, had Erikson read it ? We can also agree with his interest in taking into account "the influence of discourse" and with the fact that it was certainly not the same in Freud's Vienna than in the after war US, both of which Erikson certainly knew very well. But, coming from a psychoanalyst, is it not surprising to assert that research on identity, in times when questions about identity become problematic, are as crucial as the research on sexuality was in Freud's time ?

Times change, no doubt. Other times, other ways. However, the core of the analytic experience is always the symptom. That is to say, not the medical, psychiatric or social symptom, but the analytic one – which is always closely, intimately linked to sexuality, to what Freud called sexuality, in Lacan's words, to "the sexual reality of the unconscious". (Notwhithstanding society's profound changes in sexual morals, the symptom remains linked to sex. )

Erikson had another important clinical experience when working in Indian reservations with Sioux adolescents. He found they were very much troubled by the fact of belonging to two different cultures, the Sioux traditions on the one side, and the European-American culture on the other, and he thought about it in terms of an identity crisis. He concluded that the identity crisis is specific to adolescence in societies where the rites of passage that lead to adulthood no longer exist. Each adolescent has then to find his way on his own. The notion of a "crisis of adolescence" would later largely gain ground amongst psychologists.

In Erikson's opinion, Freud's theory of idenification would prove to be inadequate in the treatment of adolescents, mainly because Freud didn't take into account their environment, their Umwelt. We know where this notion comes from, from Jakob von Uexküll's theory about living beings and their environment, which took him to conceive the human world in the same terms as the world of animals. As Lacan emphasized more than once, this Umwelt is an inadequate notion for considering what is at stake in analysis, that is to say the speaking subject and his experience of the unconscious, which is not a cultural fact, but a language fact.

Erikson's attachment to American cultural anthropology made him emphasize the subject's cultural environment in analyses. He thus moved out of the psychoanalytic field and drifted into what Lacan calls "psychologism", which consists in wanting to understand the analytic text, what the analysand's says according to different stages of the ego's development. But then, there is no place for the unconscious, for the unconscious implies what Lacan named a "décentrement du sujet", a shift of the subject in relation to the ego.

At the time of his Seminar II on "The ego in Freud's theory and in psychoanalytical technique", where he dedicated two lessons to a detailed comment on the Irma injection dream, Lacan talked about Erikson's reading of this dream of Freud's[3]. He then criticized Erikson and he recalled the Freudian doctrine: the ego is the sum of the subject's identifications, which entails much that is purely contingent, due to chance. And he insisted on this by underlining that "the ego is made of the series of identifications that have represented a landmark for the subject at each historical moment of his life".  We see, then, that it is at this level, the level of a subject's identifications, that we can measure in analysis the incidence of the cultural context.

To conclude on the subject of our preliminary question about the meaning of the word "identity" as it is currently used, we may say that it is a psychosocial notion of identity, coming from American social sciences and ego-psychology.

We may now move on to consider whether the concept of identity is relevant in psychoanalysis. For psychoanalysis deals, once again, with the symptom and not with identity. People come into analysis when things go wrong, they seldom arrive with a question such as "who am I?". But, both, the symptom and the question of identity, will perhaps finally appear to be connected.

 In analysis, each time the analysand says "I am…(this or that[4])", he mentions a predicate, an attribute by which he presents, introduces himself to others and at the same time represents himself, Each time, an identification is, so to speak, pointed out. All of these attributes, strongly "cathected" or invested, which form someone's so-called psychosocial identity, are identification traits. Together they are part of the series of identifications recognized by Freud as forming the ego. Therefore, if one wishes to refer to this "idea of oneself"  by calling it identity, then one must talk about "ego identity".

As far as psychoanalysis is concerned, as I said before, this "identity" is a matter of identifications, by which we mean that it has to do with the subject's ties with other people, and not with his being identical (to himself). (Let us remember the Freudian definition of identification : "the earliest expression of an emotional tie with another person.") The identity someone asserts, which his self-respect cares about, is what psychoanalytic theory names the ideal ego, it is the self's idea of itself, narcissistically cathected.

I would say that the ego is certainly concerned by identity, inasmuch as it would like to be one and the same. But the fact is that it is composite, made of multiple successive identifications which are not always in harmony with one another. The analytic experience shows us how the ideal ego's belief in its own unity and sameness is run down.

So, if in psychoanalytic terms the question of social identity amounts to that of a subject's identifications and ideals, what then about identity proper, in its proper sense?

We may occasionnally find it in Lacan's writings.

In his 1949 paper on the mirror stage, for example, we find "an alienating identity" compared to a rigid armor. Speaking about the identification to the body's mirror image, Lacan says "the mirror stage is a drama whose internal pressure pushes precipitously from insufficiency to anticipation (…) and to the finally donned armor of an alienating identity that will mark (the individual's) entire mental development with its rigid structure."

A bit later, in his 1955 "Variations on the Standard Treatment", in a paragraph regarding the act of speech in analysis, we find a quite different identity, it concerns the subject's being. Speech is an act that presupposes two subjects, "but in a paradoxical unity of one and the other by means of which", writes Lacan, "the one defers to the other in order to become identical to himself.[5]" And further on: "But while, in accordance to the law of speech, it is in him qua other that the subject finds his own identity, it is in order to maintain his own being there.[6]" The following paragraphs show clearly what Lacan was aiming at, namely a critique of (Balint's) idea that the end of an analysis could be an identification with the analyst, in opposition to which Lacan introduces an altogether different view: the idea of "becoming identical to oneself" and of the speaking subject passing through the other "to maintain his own being".

So, according to Lacan, what analysis is all about is this passing by or through the Other in order not to identify with him, but to maintain one's own being, a being which is en devenir, it is in the way of becoming identical to itself. It's quite clear, isn't it, that such an identity is not the alienating one we have previously discussed.

We are better able now to answer the question about what psychoanalysis might have to say concerning identity. Let us go on.

If identity in its moral or social sense comes down to identifications and if identity in its proper sense concerns our being, we need to explicit what we mean, because "being" is a philosophical concept that is not a matter of course in the analytic discourse. So that, as I said in the beginning, the question of identity is not easy to answer for us, inasmuch us the concept itself is not a psychoanalytic one.

Who or what does identity concern ? Does it concern the subject, the subject of the unconscious that analysis works on? The speaking subject which is at work in free association is, following the Lacanian definition of the signifier you know well, représenté par un signifiant auprès d'un autre, "represented by a signifier for another signifier". Strictly speaking an expression such as "the subject's identity" doesn't make sense. The analytic experience leads to putting identifications in suspension, it is a process of dis-identification leading the analysand towards a moment of "destitution". This destituted subject, with no predicates whatsoever, is nothing but emptiness and can hardly be thought of in terms of identity.

Let me quote Lacan here, from his 1969 seminar, D'un Autre à l'autre:

"[i]Here is the formula, the originating formula, as I might say, that allows us to situate correctly what is involved in a subject, which we would not in any way be able to handle according to formulae that are apparently those of common sense, of good sense. Namely, that there is indeed something that constitutes this identity that differentiates this gentleman here from his neighbour.[7]"

Lacan obviously considered identity as a good and common sense idea, thereafter, a useless one for finding one's way in "the experience of the unconscious".

When we try to think of it, wouldn't we rather go back to Rimbaud's formula, "Je est un autre", "I is another"? You will notice how the poet asserts no self, no "I am", neither "I am another", nor "I am myself". Searching to say who he is, Rimbaud's "I" only asserts itself in the otherness of this "I is … another". So much so that it seems to indicate precisely the subject who speaks in the formations of the Ucs.

Who speaks in my dream ? Who speaks in the slip of tongue that overtakes me? The I who speaks in the dream's Other scene is another. « Nothing but a wish can set our mental apparatus at work », said Freud[8]. Can we assume then that it is the subject of the ucs wish, the subject of desire?

What could the identity of the subject of desire be? Once more we find ourselves facing the same difficulty. To quote Lacan’s well known aphorism, « desire is the desire of the Other ». He himself gave it different readings. I’ll recall this one : « man’s desire is the Other's", which is to say that "it is qua Other that man desires.[9] » Well then, how am I to find an identity in desire if I desire as Other ?

Readers of Lacan will remember the famous question he found in Cazotte’s novel, Le diable amoureux (The Devil in Love)[10], Ché vuoi?, "What do you want?"  This is the question which "leads the subject to the path of his own desire."  In analysis, when this question comes back to him from the Other, the subject takes it up, "even without knowing it, in the following form: 'What does he want of me?'[11]."  Before the analysand questions himself about what he wants, he begins by questionning in many ways what is it the Other wants or expects from him, did the Other want him or not, is he wanted, is he desired, is he loved ? The ucs. question which is worked through in analysis is thus : "what am I?", meaning, to begin with, « what am I for the Other? », "what am I for the Other's desire ?"

But then again, what about identity in the subjective sense first introduced by the 18th century philosophers, which is present in language under the expression « personal identity »? If strictly speaking, « the identity of the subject » doesn’t make sense for us, does « the identity of the person » make sense ?

As it happens with "identity", "the person" is not an analytic concept. Furthermore, in the Écrits, Lacan criticized it, remarking that "this notion has managed to assume the value of incarnating a unity that is supposedly affirmed in being", and he pointed out that the person is nothing but the Latin « persona », nobody ! But he went back to it briefly later on, at a particular moment of his teaching, in 1969, and he then gave a surprising definition of the person in order to clearly distinguish it from the subject. He remarked that we need to distinguish « what is defined as a subject » from « what is held to be a person ». And then he stated that, in the psychoanalytic perspective, what is called a person in other fields, cannot be situated  "at any other level than that of symptom" ! So the person is situated t the level of  symptom. Why ? Because the person begins where jouissance – which anchors the subject in a broader way – comes into play[12]. In other words, the person presupposes the body, the body which supports the symptom, as well as it supports identity.

As you see, the notion of a personal identity, literally understood as the identity of the person turns the question of identity to the symptom, it directs it towards the subject’s relation to jouissance, which is the symptom’s core. I would say that with Lacan, the so-called subjective or personal identity may be thought of in terms of  symptom. (By the way, it is interesting for us to note that Lacan goes in the opposite sense than Voltaire’s, by implicitly refering the concept of person to the body, he gives it back its substance.)

Let us take up again the question worked through in analysis, « what am I for the Other ? »

At the time of the remarks on the person I have just quoted, in Seminar XVI, Lacan made the following critique concerning analysis :

« Every treatment of neurosis that limits itself to the exhaustion of the identifications of the subject, namely, of that by which he is reduced to the Other, (…), carries in itself no promise of resolution of what constitutes the knot for the neurotic.[13]»

We understand that the problem at stake in neurosis, its knot, which is the symptom – you probably remember Lacan spoke about the symptom as "a knot of signifiers" -, this knot cannot be worked out, cannot find its "resolution" unless analysis goes beyond identification.

The idea of a need to go beyond identification was of course not entirely new then in Lacan's teaching. As we saw before, it was already there in his early criticism of Balint. We find it further developed in 1964, when Lacan states that identification cannot be the end of analysis and that it is possible to go beyond it, to pass through it « by the way of the separation of the subject in the experience[14] ». This separation is a separation from the Other to which identifications have reduced the subject. That is where the neurotic knot may find a solution. And it is where a new question may then appear for the analysand. A new « what am I ? » comes up then. Not the former « what am I for the Other ? », but « what am I beyond that which reduced me to the Other ? », "what is it I want?, what do I desire?"

If you have followed me up to here, perhaps you will agree in saying that we can rightly consider that this question bears on identity.

It obviously does inasmuch as it concerns the subject as separated from the Other, and it can be linked to the appearence of a different kind of question concerning desire, which is no longer in relation to the Other but turned to its cause. (Colette Soler speaks about a « separation identity », see the chapter on "L'analyse finie" of her book Lacan: The Unconscious Reinvented, published by Karnac in 2014.)

What is probably less obvious, is its relation to the symptom. And to the name. I will try to say something about it in the following lecture.

2. What's your name ? Notes on name and identity.

 « What am I beyond that which reduced me to the Other ? », "what is it I want?, what do I desire?" We consider this question which the analytic experience leads us to as a question bearing on identity.

Now, we do not ignore the fact that this is an unusual way of stating it. In everyday language, when we ask ourselves about someone's identity we rather ask "who" and not "what" he is. And when we receive a proper name as an answer to this "who is it?", we consider this name designates that person's identity. But it seems clear that this doesn't entirely answer our question. If we wish to explicit what identity is, we specify "the fact of being one and the same". And if we wish to know what personal identity is, the answer we get is "a person's consciousness of himself". It then appears that there is a gap between name and identity, a gap that cannot but get bigger if we take the Ucs. into account.

So it is the link between the two, name and identity, that I will try deal with now.

Let me start with a little « clinical fact ».

In early childhood there is a brief time during which the child who is starting to talk seems extremely embarrassed when asked this simple question : "what's your name?". And yet he knows his name. He knows it well enough to be able to answer when he is called by this name. He knows that when the Other pronounces it, he's the person concerned. But it is as if he doesn't altogether recognize himself in his name and doesn't know that, in the order of discourse, that name is the right answer to the question.

"What's your name?" Could it be that the question comes too early ? Maybe it is not enough to be called by his name by the Other for the child to know that it belongs to him and to be able to use it so as to identify himself.

"Identifying oneself" implies in this case recognizing oneself in that name and making the others recognize you in it. If he could express it, the child's right answer at that time of his childhood would probably be to say: "I don't know my name", and perhaps to add "it is the Other who calls me by a name, I don't name myself yet". By which we may understand that the I function is not functionning. "My self" is not yet constituted.

But we may also see something else. This momentary phenomenon manifests how complex the process a little child undergoes while learning to speak is, in other words, to use the language, the mother-tongue offered to him, in which he dwells, to use it to say.

Psychologists talk about language acquisition. It's easy to say. Language is already there and awaites the child, so to speak, even before his birth. As Lacan's teaching puts it, it is rather a question of the body meeting the words that are spoken and surround it, a question about how these words are incorporated, which in Latin means "embodied". It is a question of how a subject comes to be in and through speech. This is truly a question : how does a subject come to be? How is it born?

To utter a name is to call (for an answer). (If you utter a name in a crowd, you can be sure someone will answer.) It doesn't follow that the subject concerned identifies himself with that name from the very start. He is identified by the Other in the first place, and only afterwards does he identify himself. Identifying oneself is a different matter than identifying someone. And our question concerns this identifying oneself. (I'm pointing this out thinking about Lacan's late question about nalysis : "So then in what does this mapping out called analysis consist? Might it be or might it not be, to identify oneself (…) to one’s symptom?[15]" I will come back to this question further on.)

Once this momentary child embarrassment is over, we can say that everyone is supposed to know his name, the name he was given at birth, which grants him a civil status and a place in the symbolic order. And so, to speak about an ucs name may sound fairly crazy. But it’s not. Not if we ask ourselves about what the Ucs may have to do in the definition of identity, and about the birth of the subject as a speaking subject.

This is the question I wish to approach now. To do so I will refer to some of Lacan’s remarks on the proper name in his seminar on identification (1960-1961).

The idea of a an ucs name or rather of a name which would be that of the ucs subject appears in this seminar quite naturally. I mean to say that such an idea proceeds from Lacan’s insisting question in his previous seminars : qui parle?, « who is speaking ? » It is a matter of identifying the subject who speaks in a dream and beyond this, the subject speaking in analysis, this peculiar experience of speech which makes room for the Ucs.

Let us get to the heart of the matter. Lacan uses some very significant expressions when talking about the Ucs. The first one is ce cœur parlant du sujet que nous appelons l’inconscient, « this speaking heart (or core) of the subject we call Ucs ». The second one, le lieu du sujet où ça parle, « the place of the subject where it (or Id) speaks ». Both « speaking heart » and « it speaks » give us the idea of the living being; moreover the Id, ça, refers to the drive and therefore to the living body affected (we may even say troubled) by language.

Now if we are to make room for the Ucs in speech we need to make a difference between the level of the statement (énoncé) and the level of the act of enunciating (énonciation). And this leads Lacan to the following statement :

"in so far as the subject speaks, all he can do is to advance further along the chain, in the unfolding of statements (enunciations), but, directing himself towards the statements (enunciations), by this very fact in the enunciation (the enunciating act), he elides something which is properly speaking what he cannot know: the name of what he is qua enunciating subject.[16]"

Here is, then, a name which is not on one's identity card. It doesn’t say who the subject is in terms of his civil identity. It says what he is qua enunciating subject,  subject of his enunciating act. And this name can but be elided, it is missed while the subject is speaking, it cannot be known, it remains ucs.

Lacan considers this ucs name as the heart, the primary core of the Ucs :

"In the act of enunciating, there is this latent nomination which can be conceived of as the primary kernel as signifier of what is subsequently going to be organised as a turning chain"

Further, he goes on saying : "It is in so far as (…) the subject speaks, that he cannot avoid always, once more, naming himself without knowing it, without knowing with what name". Going back to the little child’s answer I began with, « I don’t know my name », we could now understand it in these slightly different terms : « I don’t know how I name myself…, when I speak. »

A bit later in the same lesson, Lacan states « the subject is what names itself »; he considers that what happens "at the origin of nomination" concerns "the birth of the subject ».

What then does naming mean? In Lacan’s words, « naming is first of all something which has to deal with a reading of the unary trait (or trait one) that designates absolute difference. »

Let us try and see what is it that leads him to this definition. I would say Lacan « transfers » towards the analytic discourse what other discourses had developed about the name. He studies in detail the definitions given by logicians, linguists, historians (namely Bertrand Russell, Allan Gardiner, John Stuart Mill, Flinders Petrie, James Février). He discusses them and finally puts forward the following hypothesis : "the characteristic of the proper name is always more or less linked to this trait of its liaison not to the sound, but to the writing[17]" . What distinguishes a proper name is that "from one tongue to another its structure is preserved", Cleopatra is always Cleopatra, Lacan is called Lacan in every tongue. And this is because of "the proper name's affinity with the mark" – the mark which in French is the identification mark as much as the trade-mark, the brand; in any case, it is always written.

This is a hypothesis he will come back to later on, so we can say he confirms it. In the November 1963 lesson on « The Names-of-the-Father » : "the name is a mark already open to reading (…) imprinted on something that may be a subject that shall speak (…)[18]."

So, the name is there first, the mark is there before it is read.

It is the case with some marks Lacan was extremely interessed in, those found on the predynastic pottery of ancient Egypt. These marks, signs or inscriptions were the same that would be used many centurys later for alphabetic writing.  So Lacan commented on the fact that "the pottery never had a chance to speak and say that was its trade-mark". He thus underlined that the name is situated at that level, at the level of " something that may be a subject that shall speak."

The name, the proper name, has to do with writing, in so far as writing is independent of its phonetic usage. What interests Lacan, what retains his attention so much is the fact of having been able to find there was a time, historically defined, in which the signs of the future alphabets were there before they constituted a phonetic support for reading. These signs or traits, were all there was left from previous drawings of objects which had been simplified, only to retain the object's "unicity". They are a proof of "what we could call the attachment of language to the real".

 Now, Lacan takes a step further: these traits that were there, waiting to be read, they lead him to suggest the necessity of a name as an “archaic, radical point” that would be located “at the origin of the unconscious”.

Lacan then pursues his hypothesis by reminding us of the Freudian doctrine distinguishing the unconscious from the pre-conscious. Concerning the latter, there is the language as we “hear it spoken” and as it “structures our thoughts”, it is “the structured language of the common discourse”, that which is “common talk”. While the unconscious, on the other hand, is constituted at the much "more radical level of the emergence of the act of enunciating". That is where Lacan situates “the primary and radical functioning of the articulation of the subject as a speaking subject.”

He subsequently leads up to the notion of the name as a radical point at the origin of the unconscious, of the Ucs as a distinct system separate from the Prec. And then he refers to the notion of identity such as described in The Interpretation of Dreams when Freud establishes a difference between the perceptual identity and the thought identity. You shall immediately understand why.

On the Prec. level the subject conforms to logic, he/she attempts "to identify thought to thought, proposition to proposition”, so as to “reduce the different to the identical”, this is "the effort of our organisation of the world". On the Ics level, things are entirely different. We usually think ourselves conscious of what we perceive. But perceptions per se are unconscious to start with, said Freud. The unconscious is in fact situated between perception and consciousness, between “leather and flesh” as coined by Lacan[19].  It is the perceptual identity that is sought after in the unconscious, the purpose is to recover the perception of an inaugural experience of satisfaction, to recover, says Lacan, “what in the once perceived is identically identical” – in other words the identity of the (lost) object. It is, as demonstrated by Freud, the birth of the subject of desire which is at stake when seeking out the object that had once appeased the need.

So we see that the name as a radical point at the origin of the unconscious would thus be the birth name or the name that gives birth to the subject of desire. But, shouldn’t we situate at this radical point what first determined the subject— the lost object ?

For such an endeavor, we know, is bound to fail, the identically identical can never be found again. Here Lacan mentions the “primal repression”, Urverdrängt, which in Freud’s theory occupies the place of the empty gap, the hole in the structure. There lies the original core of the unconscious that Lacan now designates as the “speaking heart of the subject”. The expression reminds of Freud’s own, often quoted by Lacan: Kern unseres Wesen, "the core of our being".

It is there, at the level of the hole of the primary repressed, that Lacan situates the name when he argues that the speaking subject elides its name, remember? : "he elides something which is (…) what he cannot know: the name of what he is qua enunciating subject."  The question therefore arises concerning the possible articulation between this name we have quite rightfully designated as unconscious – which it is stricto sensu -, and the proper name each one of us bears. What is the relationship between the two?

 It seems to me that there is a first answer to this question in a well-known page of Lacan's essay titled "The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire", probably contemporary of the seminar on  Identification[20].

By way of introduction I would like to quote a highly convincing excerpt from another text, "The Instance of the Letter in the Ucs". (Highly convincing as far as the question of identity is concerned.) Lacan is commenting on Freud's “core of our being” saying it has nothing to do with "the futile adage 'Know thyself' and explicits his idea adding the following :

the 'this' which (Freud) proposes we attain is not a this which can be the object of knowledge, but a this (…) which constitutes my being and to which, as he teaches us, I bear witness as much and more in my whims, aberrations, phobias and fetishes, than in my more or less civilised personage.[21]

It cannot be any clearer, can it? My vaguely polished, educated, socialized, normalized person, rendered conform to the ideals of the group is not the very “core of my being” which eludes me, escapes me, despite the fact that I testify to it through my whims and aberrations, my symptomatic traits, and through my phobias and fetishes,  meaning the singular mode of relating to the object which was, early on, set for me.

Well then, this being of mine, that escapes my capacity to know, is designated by Lacan as impensable, “unthinkable”, in the quite dense passage from "The Subversion of the Subject" that I shall now quote. Lacan then positions "the signifier of a lack in the Other" on the enunciation chain (of his graph of desire), "the lack at stake is (…) that there is no Other of the Other". We may rephrase this by saying there is no guarantee in the Other that “can answer for what I am[22]. Such a signifier, S with a barred capital A, is "unpronounceable", imprononçable, impossible to pronounce, "but its operation is not, for the latter is what occurs whenever a proper name is pronounced. Its statement is equal to its signification.[23]

Pronouncing a proper name is equal to its signification since by pronouncing a proper name nothing else but the name itself is signified.

However, Lacan then adds: “This is what the subject is missing (lacking) in thinking he is exhaustively accounted for by his cogito – he is missing what is unthinkable about him[24]”. Being able to think oneself as accounted for by one’s cogito would imply we were able to think ourselves complete as self consciousness. Self consciuosness does not account for the subject. Consequently, Lacan underlines something is missing, lacking, the subject lacks that which would enable him to think himself complete; he lacks or misses "what is unthinkable about him”, ce qu'il est d'impensable. Each time a proper name is pronounced there is this operation pointing the lack constituted by "what is unthinkable about the subject"

Let’s take yet another step further. Lacan continues: “Our problem" lies in the question “what am I?”. Curiously enough, to this question he does not answer by indicating what I am, but where I am: " I am in the place from which 'the universe is a flaw in the purity of Non-Being' is vociferated" – it is a quotation from the poet Valéry —. This place, concludes Lacan, is called Jouissance.

Here another of Freud’s remarks comes to mind; one made familiar to us by Lacan who often translated it by “where it was, there must I come to be as a subject” in his 1966 translation[25]. He had, prior to this, pointed out that: “where it was” is a “locus of being”, un lieu d'être[26]. Therefore it is clear that to the question on the subject's being, Lacan replies by indicating its place, the locus of being which is jouissance . “What am I?” “I am in the place of Jouissance”.

We note how Lacan seems to carefully avoid giving any content to the being of the subject: “What am I?”. Lacan does not answer by saying, for instance, “you are a child” or “you are an adult” all answers that would imply an identification that could lock one into an alienating identity. As Lacan stated later, being and thought do not coincide. I am not, where I think. And where I am, I do not think – it is the place, the locus of the unthinkable.

The name of what I am is inexpressible, unutterable. The proper name I bear only indicates ce que je suis d'impensable, my unthinkable being, as would say Lacan: the proper name “veils a lack” or, more accurately, it sutures the gap, the subject's hole.[27]

So, circling back to the beginning, I shall no longer say “I do not know what my name is”. Instead I shall say, “I know how the Other calls me, but I cannot know how I name myself.” (This corresponds quite well with what Lacan later formulated when he said, in his seminar on anxiety : “where you say I, is, in the true sense, at the level of the unconscious, where ‘a’ is situated.[28]” The letter ‘a’ indicates, as you know, the object that causes me as a speaking subject – in French the verb causer, to cause, can also mean to talk.

I would now like to tell you something about Honorine. It is a pretty and rather old-fashioned feminin name, that made a brief yet significant appearance in Lacan’s Seminar, the one intitled "Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis" (book XII).

Let’s sum up. The proper name is first of all a mark, a sign. A mark of the desire of those who chose it and of a determined filiation, the proper name does not only specify the civil identity of someone, it singles out a speaking subject while designating its unthinkable being.

And it is to what is singular that Lacan, later, attaches it; the proper name connotes singularity. Thus, to embrace it another form of logic is necessary, instead of the classical logic, for the singular cannot be defined by opposing the universal and the particular. That is the essence of the proper name, which is what Lacan highlighted with a brief example, almost a joke.[29]

(At that time one used blackboards and a chalk). During his seminar, he was discussing Bertrand Russell's theory once again, referring to what the latter had come to claim: that the proper name par excellence was the demonstrative pronoun that. Lacan at one point asked more or less the following question: why is it then that I would never call this piece of chalk Honorine, whereas I could call my dressing gown Honorine? Well, because, as clearly demonstrated by Diderot, the author of Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown, it is irreplaceable. Which means it can be missed, we can feel its loss.

(Diderot wrote this short essay in 1769, let me quote its first sentences :  "Why didn’t I keep it? It was used to me and I was used to it. It molded all the folds of my body without inhibiting it; I was picturesque and handsome. The other one is stiff, and starchy, makes me look stodgy. There was no need to which its kindness didn’t loan itself (…)."

This explains the importance of a proper name in the domain of love. It is not the individual that we name with a name, but the "irreplaceable", the one that would be singularly missed.

It is certainly why we honor names. Why we refuse to forget them, to let them disappear.


Late in his teaching, at the time when he introduced the borromean knot, as you know, Lacan worked on James Joyce and proposed to give a new spelling to the word "symptom" – which he then wrote as in old French, sinthome. He gave it a precise definition which made this sinthome, in a way, a synonymous with singular, with singularity. He said the sinthome was "ce qu'il y a de singulier chez chaque individu[30]", "that which is singular in each individual". That is, I would say, the closest we can get to a definition of identity in psychoanalytic terms.

I suggested in the first of today's lectures that both the symptom and the question of identity would perhaps finally appear to be connected. With this reference to singularity we can see now how indeed they are.

The sinthome has little to do with identification. On the other hand, it does have to do with naming, the function of naming for which Lacan uses the word "nomination".

In Seminar RSI, Lacan first indicated that nomination can be the fourth element of the Borromean knot, the one that knots together the other three, the symbolic, imaginary and real[31].  The following year he stated that nomination, or naming, is the father's function and that the father is "that fourth element without which nothing is possible in the  knot of the symbolic, imaginary and real." (This fourth element is what Freud calles the Oedipus complex or the psychical reality.)

Now, the sinthome is, according to Lacan, another way of naming the father. The sinthome can have the same knoting function, it can be the fourth element which knots the symbolic, imaginary and real in a borromean way, it establishes the borromean link.

Links are of course of utmost importance for the speaking being, who is a social being. The Lacanian theory of discourses is a theory concerning the different forms of link, the different social bonds due to language. Language indeed is what establishes "a link between those who speak[32]".

When we emphasize singularity, the fact of being (just) one, as opposed to the particular and the universal, we may think of it as being link-less, but indeed it isn't, not necessarily. For if it ties together the symbolic, imaginary and real, "that which is singular in each individual", the sinthome, may prove to be a condition for the subject to enter a social bond.

 Being singular is, of course, not always appreciated, it can often mean being peculiar, odd. So if we agree with Lacan in considering that each individual is in some way singular, we see that for each one of us the question is how do we relate to our own singularity. I understand this to be what is at stake when in 1976 (Seminar XXIV) Lacan once again goes back to the question about the end of analysis.

So I will now end my lecture with a few words about what he says there.

Lacan recalls then what he had previously so often criticized, namely, the idea "that the end of analysis should be to identify oneself to the analyst". Lacan doesn't agree, he says "this is what Balint maintains, and it is very surprising."  And he goes on putting forward the following question :  

" So then in what does this mapping out called analysis consist? Might it be or might it not be, to identify oneself, to identify oneself while taking some insurance, a kind of distance, to identify oneself to one’s symptom? "

Analysis is then what Lacan designates here in a most simple way as a repérage, a "mapping out" (or "a situating" in another translation) – se repérer is finding one's bearings, and we know how true this is in our everyday experience, that is how the slow and long process of analysis develops. So Lacan asks, might it consist in identifying oneself with one's symptom ? You may note he uses a verb, s'identifier (to identify oneself), a verb indicates an action, something happening, taking place and so, needing some time.

Just before this, in the same lesson, Lacan gives a definition of identification which regards identity, he says "it is clear that identification is what is crystallised in an identity." He had already used the image of cristallization concerning symptoms, they are crystallised in early childhood[33]. To crystallise is to become solid, as a crystal, to make or become definite and clear. (Think about little Hans' overflowing anxiety, how it was crystallised in his phobic symptom.)

Now, we may ask what is necessary for an identification to crystallise in an identity ? If we consider what Lacan says a little further about analysis, we may answer that it needs this identifying oneself with one's symptom, which means we recognize it as being our own.

*  These lectures are part of the work developed during the year 2014-2015 in the seminar I held at the Collège de Clinique Psychanalytique de Paris.

[1] Ch;Taylor, Les Sources du Moi. La formation de l'identité moderne. Seuil Paris, 1998, p 46: "Savoir qui je suis implique que je sache où je me situe. Mon identité se définit par les engagements et les identifications qui déterminent le cadre ou l'horizon à l'intérieur duquel je peux essayer de juger cas par cas ce qui est bien ou valable, ce qu'il convient de faire, ce que j'accepte ou ce à quoi je m'oppose. En d'autres termes, mon identité est l'horizon à l'intérieur duq uel je peux prendre position."

[2] J. Lacan, Écrits, Norton, NY & London, 2005, p 264.

[3] J. Lacan, Le Séminaire, livre II, Le moi dans la théorie de Freud et dans la technique de la psychanalyse, Paris, Seuil, 1978. March 9 & 16, 1955.

[4] American, a film-maker, a mother, shy, lazy, married, Protestant, bad-tempered, unlike my father, etc.

[5] J. Lacan, Écrits, op.cit., p 291.

[6] Ibid., p 298.

[7] J. Lacan, The Seminar, Book XVI, D'un Autre à l'autre, Seuil, Paris, 2006, May 14, 1969, Eng. trans., C. Gallagher

[8] S. Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, Chapter VII, C., p 567

[10] Jacques Cazotte was an XVIIIth century French novelist, guillotined in 1792.

[11] J. Lacan, «The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire », Écrits, op.cit., p 690.

[12] J. Lacan, The Seminar, Book XVI, op.cit, May 14, 1969, p 317-318.

[13] J. Lacan, ibid, April 24, 1969, p 278. (Gallagher's translation)

[14] J. Lacan, The Seminar, Book XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, June 24, 1964

[15] J. Lacan,  Le Séminaire, livre XXIV, "L'insu que sait de l'une bévue s'aile à mourre", (1976-1977), inédit, 18/1176.

[16] J. Lacan, The Seminar, Book IX, Identification, (1961_1962), January 20, 1961,

[17] J. Lacan, The Seminar, Book IX, Identification, 12/20/1961, trans. C. Gallagher.

[18] J. Lacan, "Les noms du père", 20 novembre 1963, in Des Noms-du-Père, Seuil, Paris, 2005.

[19] J. Lacan, Le Séminaire, livre VII, L'éthique de la psychanalyse (1959-1960).

[20] Some of the notes Lacan added to this 1960 essay indicate that this was done in 1962.

[21] Lacan, Écrits, p 526.

[22] J. Lacan, Le Séminaire, livre VI, Le désir et son interprétation (1959-1960), 8/04/59, Ornicar? 26, p32.

[23] J. Lacan, Écrits, p 819.

[24] Lacan writes : "ce qui manque au sujet pour se penser épuisé par son congito, à savoir ce qu'il est d'impensable."

[25] See "Science and Truth", Écrits, p 864.

[26] See "The Fredian Thing", Écrits, p 417

[27] J. Lacan, Le Séminaire, livre XII, "Problèmes cruciaux pour la psychanalyse" (1964-1965), unpublished, 6/01/65.

[28] J. Lacan, Le Séminaire, livre XII, L'Angoisse (1962-1963), 16/01/63.

[29] J. Lacan, Le Séminaire, livre XII, "Problèmes cruciaux pour la psychanalyse", op. cit., 6/01 et 5/05/65.

[30] J. Lacan, lecture given at the opening of the 5th James Joyce International Symposium, June 16, 1975.

[31] See Book XXII, RSI, May 13, 1975.

[32] J. Lacan, The Seminar, Book XX, Encore 1972-1973, Norton, 1998, p 30.

[33] See the October 1975 Geneva lecture on the symptom.