What is a discussion of Sublimation doing in Lacan’s Seminar VII?

January 27, 2009

VP has inspired me with his recent summary-style posts of our current reading, so I got a little busy today.



Here are some thoughts on our reading for this week, ‘The Problem of Sublimation’ in Seminar VII, focused on the first two chapters of that section.


(The following is a summary of my reading of a short chapter in Zupancic’s book on Nietzsche).



What is the ‘problem of sublimation?’ It is ‘as a problem of ethics that we have to judge sublimation; it creates socially recognized values.’ (107) Sublimation is a creation ex nihilo & not an act of adhering to already existing social values. So the Freudian idea that the satisfaction of the drives must find some surrogate in an already socially acceptable manner must be resisted. Sublimation has to do with creating new values. That is why it has to do with ethics.


Lacan uses the famous Kantian moral example from CPrR & says that Kant cheats, as the two situations are not strictly comparable: while the second one of bearing false witness is a choice bet. pleasure & duty, the first one of the gallows is presented in terms of a choice bet. pleasure & displeasure. But Lacan says that nothing prevents us from conceiving of the first situation in terms of pleasure versus duty, since Kant’s moral philosophy is not based on any pre-established Good.



The man in the gallows example very well could choose to spend the night with his beloved even if it meant death, NOT because he is ready to sacrifice everything for his pleasure, NOR because for him, pleasure is so powerful that it overrules his desire to avoid death, but because he thereby ‘raises an object to the dignity of the Thing,’ which is the fundamental gesture of sublimation. For him, this choice of pleasure is the only way for him to show that he is able to act contrary to the pleasure principle (or more specifically, to act contrary to the reality principle).



By sublimation, we can accept as possible something the possibility of which is excluded from the reality principle. The reality principle normally functions as the criterion of possible transgressions of the pleasure principle, setting limits to its transgressions: it tolerates some transgressions (and it excludes others) from the pleasure principle’s binary field of pleasure/pain.



Sublimation enables us to challenge the criterion of the reality principle, which is ideologically mediated – it is in fact the highest form of ideology in that it presents itself as an empirical, biological fact that cannot be disputed. Since sublimation is not entirely subordinated to the reality principle, sublimation suggests that thru it, we get closer to the Real than the reality principle does, since it raises an object to the dignity of the Thing without idealizing it. Rather, such an object stands in for the Real. It ‘realizes’ the Thing.



You could also conceive that sublimation liberates or creates & maintains a certain space for objects that have no place in the given reality, giving value to objects that the reality principle does not value. Sublimation enables us to value something that is situated beyond the reality principle & beyond the principle of the common good. Thus, it is related to ethics.



But a caution: sublimation NEVER allows us direct, immediate access or appreciation of the Thing itself; what is valued is some everyday object that is elevated to the dignity of the Thing; an object that always masks the Thing as the central void. Thus, these objects of sublimation display a series of objets petit a that mask or veil the difference bet. themselves & the void they give body to. That is, they act as a lure. Accordingly, one seminar session in Ethics is entitled ‘Drives & Lures.’



Here we must be careful not to fall into the trap that so many so-called Lacanian & Zizekian critics of ideology fall into: (1) by their endeavor to fight against semblances in a bid to clearly distinguish these imaginary formations from their Real, they thereby engage in a ‘passion for the Real’ & despair at the ‘colonization of the field of das Ding,’ or (2) they go the other way & denounce the Real as the last transcendence, the last big illusion, reducing reality to mere language games. These critics of ideology are thereby critics of sublimation who simply misunderstand the logic of sublimation.



This error teaches us an important lesson, however. By reflecting on how we may strive to separate the illusion from the Real or alternatively, denounce the Real outright as an illusion, we see how the Real thereby coincides with reality & how we are utterly subjected to it. The Thing moves to the register of the Superego & its imperative of Enjoy! follows us everywhere. The Superego here might say: since there is nothing beyond the reality (principle), we have to enjoy each & every moment of it – which of course is the surest way to make any enjoyment impossible.



If we fall into this trap (& we all do), how are we to say No! to the Superego & its imperative? One answer may be: instead of spending all of one’s energy trying to escape this persecuting Thing, one need only to manage to feel some passion for the Thing.



In terms of sublimation… Lacan’s answer is not to present it in terms of a reaction to the impossibility of doing something (thus constituting a surrogate for the satisfaction of the drive). Rather, Lacan insists that sublimation is the satisfaction of the drive.



Sublimation & drive are linked. This allows us to formulate more precisely the nature of the duality to be found at the very core of sublimation. The duality is not simply the one constituted by the gap that separates the imaginary ‘a elements’ of fantasy from the Thing as the impossible Real – here we see the sublime object as the mask of some unrepresentable Void. The duality is also a redoubling of the very ‘a element’ (objet petit a), whereby the Real is nothing other than the name of the noncoincidence of reality with itself.



That is, the object of drive is a double object: there is the object that is supposed to satisfy the drive (that which the drive aims), but there is also this very satisfaction that should itself be conceived in terms of an object. The former is the ‘object of satisfaction.’ The latter is ‘satisfaction as object.’ These two objects are both part of reality & the Real is neither one nor the other, but takes place in the very gap that separates these two objects. It is correlative to their lack of coincidence. The Real is that which names the fact that these two objects never coincide; it is not a disturbing presence, nor the truth of reality, but simply the stumbling block of reality.



Sublimation is active within the field of this interval bet. these objects & it is also what prevents this gap from closing.



So the trap to avoid is double as well. (1) We are in danger of eliminating the gap by trying to inscribe ‘satisfaction as object’ in the ‘object of satisfaction’ (as the (commodity) fetishist does). We should remember that the drive, as well as sublimation, compels us to distinguish bet. these objects & thus we must endeavor to keep them separate, but not too separate à (2) The gesture of transforming the duality – this duality existing thru the interval or gap that at the same time links & separates the two sides – into ‘two ones’ (the semblance & the Real), goes too far in the other direction. This second gesture is at the very origin of the Superego injunction to enjoy.




2 Responses to “What is a discussion of Sublimation doing in Lacan’s Seminar VII?”

  1. Ottilie Young said

    Very nice explanation of “sublimation.” I don’t’ get this: “Ethics punishes the individual relatively much less for his faults than for his misfortunes.” The superego/moral conscience/ethical punishes him every time he tries to comply; I’d think that’s a fault, not some misfortune, accident that happens to him. Unless it’s that a person unconsciously keeps trying to be good against being constantly punished for trying? But, how is it about something that just accidentally happens to him which is how I read “misfortune”? Someone loses their job for example; is it that such a person will blame herself instead of looking at a larger financial situation that loses that job for her?


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