Essays on the new


By Jamieson Webster

“Naïve mouth… open up again to hear me. No need to close your eyes”, Lacan addresses an imaginary interlocutor in The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis (Lacan 1966/2002, p.55). Pressed on his devotion to the concept of the subject–‘Whatever you mean by this, Dr. Lacan, in any case, we already know it, the individual, subjective experience, psychoanalysis is on the side of the subject’–he takes the supposed subject and reduces it to a mouth, maybe also eyes. I don’t want to talk about the subject. Lacan goes on to do so in this essay for a number of pages. What I’m quite taken by is his desire that one open one’s mouth in order to hear, particularly since we rather close one in order to open the other, more often than not, as psychoanalysts.

Is this merely Lacan’s infamous hostility, reducing the other to a part object? Is it some sort of surrealistic game? Why, in the middle of a paper that wants to tackle the question of speech and language in psychoanalysis, would he designate his reader as a mouth and one that he would like to remain open? His hope, he’ll say a few pages later, is that if it opens then some truth might fall out of it.

It seems to me that Lacan’s thought, despite his passion for linguistics or hypothetical over-intellectualization of Freud, is deeply rooted in the body. A phrase like the above, if it hits home, does so precisely there. The logic of dreams also seems to contain this disembodied address not so much to the individual that Lacan’s interlocutor designates as the subject, but to the subject beyond this one which has more to do with the body than not. In Freud’s dream after his father’s death he is requested to close an eye (Freud, 1900). In Irma’s injection, ‘the mouth opens’ (ibid.). In the wolf man’s dream the window opens of its own accord and with a flash of recognition he sees that “my eyes suddenly opened” (Freud 1918, p.34)

For Lacan, the turbulence of the body flows beneath and animates language, and it does so with a certain degree of sovereignty. What control do we have if the eyes open or close by their own will? As Lacan put it once, “it dreams, it laughs, it fails”, not us (Lacan 2009, p.79). This animation, he says, is both that which we are, and that which we are not, pointing to a very basic and fundamental division in a subject. Ok, sure, division; but how can Lacan ask us to locate the subject in something so impersonal as libidinal movements? How can he ask us to find the subject in an interval hollowed within speech, even if it happens on the basis of some kind of bodily eruption? He does, and he does so literally: Naïve mouth…

We do not, as analysts, merely give back to our patient access to speech, despite the fact that is our medium. It seems to me that what we give is access once again to that which rouses it from its slumber. No need to close your eyes. And this, far from what so many theories claim, is not a reclaiming of the self, but an encounter with what is other than the self, what we do not have. We would not be too far from Winnicott’s not-me. The wager of psychoanalysis is that an opening onto this beyond, this unknown, will come to some unknown good, to something new.

If psychoanalysis begins through a particular kind of return to the body, this was the first move towards this unknown. As Lacan says in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis: seemed to inhabit cosmological projections. For a long time a world soul existed and thought could comfort itself with the idea that there was a deep connection between our images and the world that surrounds us. This is a point whose importance does not seem to have been noticed, namely, that the Freudian project has caused the whole world to re-enter us, has definitely put it back in its place, that is to say, in our body, and nowhere else”. So with Freud the world re-enters through the body. (Lacan 1986/1992, p.92)

It does so at this immemorial limit, this knife’s edge, where an exchange between inside and outside once again becomes possible. This is precisely the site where Eros has its source, its cause; in those “special points,” “points that are openings,” in other words, the “limited number of mouths at the body’s surface” (Lacan ibid., p.93) So perhaps we know a little bit more about why the reader is addressed as a mouth.

It has always been the case that in order to talk about the body it was best not to confine oneself to the body alone, particularly not in its material dimension. Sexuality as well seems to abide by the same constraint. In Freud, the body and sexuality are the ground for an expanding universe largely granted in the act of taking metaphor as the chief operation in the relation between psyche and soma. This is not only in the work of dreams, but also in Freud’s use of a continual and continually uncertain double register–conscious/unconsicous, active/passive, masculine/feminine, presence/absence.

There is an ancient Greek ethic with respect to Eros that follows this logic. For sure it is about the life of the body, but it becomes an ethic of life itself, an ethic set up against what was seen as the horror of inward or outer stasis. It amounts to a veritable fear of closure. The body must be able to release its heat. There must, like breathing, be a continual exchange between inside and outside. The move from stasis to ek-stasis (with the link to ecstasy) is close at hand.

The classicist Nicole Loraux shows how bound up with the body words can be, particularly as revealed by the precision of their use in ancient texts. In The Experience of Tiresias, Loraux points out that stasis, which was a term most commonly used to describe the horrors of civil war (notably in Thucydides), is a word that also has bearing on the most inglorious deaths that were common in such state of inner strife—to be hanged, strangled, or suffocated, to commit suicide with a noose. As with civil war, the essential law of life is in violation in each of these deaths, the law that the body remains open. Good deaths were those, like animal sacrifice, that opened the body, where blood was shed, notably in the form of a wound. This wound, she notes, is the typical fate of the epic hero.

Hysteria, as we know, was a term the Greek’s used to denote a womb that wanders and strangles a woman. Loraux notes that while men seem to die by the sword, strangulation, usually in terms of hanging, is the fate of women in Greek tragedy.

Greek tradition is quick to contrast the wound that opens a man’s body with the dangerous closure that in more than one way dooms the female body to strangulation. Perhaps, in fact, Greek thinking about the masculine finds it advantageous to close women’s bodies all the better to open those of men…This can probably be seen as a way of denying the ‘simple’ evidence that women’s bodies are inherently open- slit”.(Loraux 1997, p.99)

Loraux concludes that the basic imagery that informs classical thought, even acts as its principle and most richly discriminating operator, concerns the feminine body–her body is the one that is open, that sheds blood, that acts as a conduit between two necks, two mouths, the passage that essentially gives life. It is this slit/open body that supports Athenian male identity, Andres, where it is re-appropriated. Harboring the feminine in the masculine ostensibly makes one all the more virile. The dream of feminine interiority becomes the outward banner of the glory of the Polis.

Loraux cautions a reading too psychoanalytic or too feminist at this point. Instead, she advocates, simply, reading. For Loraux, the law of the difference between the sexes is a frontier that is difficult to transgress, even if the signifiers for masculinity and femininity remain for the most part empty shifters. The beauty of these ancient texts is in their abiding by this divide, close to Freud’s fundamental anatomical distinction, which allows one to read: monuments of imagined bodies, lines of distortion and influence, the trace of enjoyment and anxiety, transitional spaces, modes of reversal. In short, a whole series of mythic arrangements and transmutations.

It is fascinating to watch Loraux construct this ethic through her reading of the traces of the body as it appears in Greek tragedies. One begins to get a sense of value. The attack on a woman’s throat has a link to her voice. These deaths takes place off stage, in silence, and typically bring the chorus to speech. While masculine glory is made self-evident, the feminine seems to demand a supplement of words. Words become a new point of exchange–my body for yours, your words for my body. If Loraux has an enemy, it is not the poets, nor men, but in fact the philosophers who do their best to exile this body and this body of thought. Plato first off.

Bodies that are by law to remain open, whether inherently or not, are in danger of strangulation. A Heraclitean principle is the ideal relation between the sexes, or more generally, for civic life as a whole. The continual risk of civil war is equivalent to the threat of stasis; a threat that is essentially a failure of exchange between inside and outside, one sex and another. One does not judge. What is of importance is to recognize that if the system has ground to a halt, somewhere a cut must be made that provides a new point of passage. A new mouth.

For Loraux, like Lacan, psychoanalysis is a return to this kind of ethic. If we psychoanalysts were to abide by this Greek code, if we re-entered the body as a result of Freud, there must nevertheless be a turn outwards once again. The question of this turning round and turning out is, I think, one of the most important questions that psychoanalysis still faces, in particular, in its clinical dimension and act. For Lacan, this reconsideration is at the heart of the question of sublimation.

There is no other good in psychoanalysis, for Lacan, than that which we can use to pay the price for access to desire in the form of sublimation. By what means do we gain access to desire? With what do we pay? What sublimation is remains an enigma if not a problem. It is “…something that still confounds psychoanalysts because, in handing down the term, Freud’s mouth remained sewn shut” (Lacan 2001, p.195). If it opens sometimes, it closes at others.

There is, nevertheless, something of an avowal by Freud with respect to sublimation. He says that it comes at a price. The price is not in the object since the object is precisely what sublimation brings about. The price is in the aim; in the enjoyment that sublimation yeilds. Sublimation, if it is about the possibility of the new, demands a kind of cutting: of new channels, of new vicissitudes, of a new relation between body and world. A change in surface and strucure. Sublimation is this cut.

To conclude at some distance from the Greeks, I’d like to turn to Shakespeare. Lacan, in his interpretation of Hamlet, declares that the Father’s ghost is the cut; a cut that he is asking Hamlet to be. The sovereignty of the open body, the naïve mouth that opens and hears, the exchange between the sexes, an ethic of life–are everything Hamlet is not. He is closed.

The ghost seemingly asks Hamlet for nothing else than to hear: lend thy serious hearing; so art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear; now, Hamlet, hear. Hamlet, in the end of this first scene, is left with one imperative: “howsoever thou pursuest this act; taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven” (I.v.84-86). Instead, Hamlet finds himself besieged by what Lacan calls “an absolute horror of femininity” (Lacan 1958, p.211). Eros becomes a sheer offence–get thee to a nunn’ry, we will have no more marriages.

In the infamous scene of near incestuous violence with his mother, the ghost appears again and for the last time. It asks Hamlet to step into a cut, a space between you and you, her and him. Break open this civil war. Find your way out of a closed conceit, out of a body that disdains weakness and refuses to hear. Amazement is an invitation. Speak, the ghost asks:

Do not forget: this visitation is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose. But look, amazement on thy mother sits; O step between her and her fighting soul; Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works, speak… (III.iv.110-115).

Hamlet cannot hear the message of the ghost. It takes a real blow, a literal cut, which costs him his life.


Freud, S. (1900) ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (Stratchey, ed.), Volume IV (1900): The Interpretation of Dreams (First Part), ix-627.

------. (1918) ‘From the History of an Infantile Neurosis’ in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (Stratchey, ed.), Volume XVII (1917-1919): An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works, 3-123.

Hamlet. The Oxford Shakespeare (G.R. Hibbard, ed.) reissue ed. USA: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Lacan, J. (2001) ‘Homage fait à Marguerite Duras, du ravissement de Lol V. Stein’, in Autres Écrits. Paris: Editions du Seuil.

------. (2002) Écrits (Bruce Fink, trans.) New York: W.W. Norton (original work published in French 1966).

------. (2009) My Teaching (David Macey, trans.) New York: Verso.

------. (1958) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book VI: Desire and its Interpretation (Cormac Gallagher, trans.) unpublished copy for personal use only.

------. (1992) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (Dennis Porter, trans.) New York: W.W. Norton (original work published in French 1986).

Loraux, N. (1997) The Experience of Tiresias: The Feminine and The Greek Man (Paula Wissing, trans.) New Jersey: Princeton University Press