Forward Into the Past: The Past, Present and Future in Jacques Lacan

Alexander Williams, St Martin’s College of Art and Design

In this essay I explore the relationship between the past, present and future in Lacanian psychoanalysis. Though time holds an important position within the theory of Lacanian psychoanalysis, nowhere does Jacques Lacan develop a clear and systematic thesis of time. My aim, therefore, is to bring together some of the divergent material scattered throughout his oeuvre, in order to develop a clear understanding of the function of time in psychoanalysis, particularly with regard to the future and its relation to the past. Though I present this essay from a purely psychoanalytic perspective, the results should be useful not only for those practicing in the field of psychoanalysis but also those in such disparate fields as cultural, film, and literary studies. Indeed, insofar as these fields have, in the last twenty or so years, borrowed much from the theoretical framework of psychoanalysis, my work will encourage further development in these fields.

Psychoanalysts have long understood that a human’s relationship to its past can often be fluid, that human memory is a construction built up over the span of a life and can be, at times, fictitious. Sigmund Freud states that ‘analysis […] necessitates our taking into account the distortion and refurbishing to which a person’s own past is subjected when it is looked back upon from a later period’.1 From this we see that psychoanalysis is deeply associated with the past, the past as it is understood, reorganised and reinterpreted in the present. Indeed, the process of analysis allows (or perhaps compels) the patient to reconstitute the repressed elements of their past – elements that despite being pushed into the unconscious keep reappearing – in the present.

Beginning from Freud’s notion of nachtraglichkeit, Lacan develops a theory of psychoanalytic causality in which ‘the past and the future correspond precisely to each other’.2 However, by this he does not mean that the future (a hoped-for or promised future) is simply, along with the past, a reconstruction in the present. For as he states, the past and future correspond ‘not just any old how […] On the contrary […] it happens in the right order – from the future to the past’.3 It is thus clear that Lacan does not regard analysis as a simple case of reconstructing and reconfiguring the past and future in the present. Indeed, there is a strange order of temporality at work here, a temporality in which, in some way or other, the future is implicated in the past.

The Temporality of the Subject: Alienation and Separation

In his Seminar of 1964, Lacan gives a neat summary of the subject; here he describes the subject as ‘the effect of the signifier’ and a signifier as ‘that which represents a subject for another signifier’.4 Thus, the subject exists as the breach or gap in the movement of representation from one signifier to the next. What is presented is, I think, a purposefully circular argument, with neither the signifier nor the subject being defined outside of their interwoven relationship.

For Lacan, the signifier ‘functions as a signifier only to reduce the subject in question to being no more than a signifier, to petrify the subject in the same movement in which it calls the subject to function, so to speak, as subject’.5 The subject is, then, an effect of the signifier, is a subject born from, and subjected to, language. Indeed, without the signifier the subject cannot come to be at all. However, having been brought forth by the signifier, the subject is then solidified in the very same process. In other words, the moment the subject emerges as subject the signifier usurps the subject’s place; this is the subject’s alienation. By way of the process of alienation Lacan postulates that though the subject exists it has no being, thereby positioning it as an ontological question mark.

To summarise the status of the subject as it arises through alienation, Lacan states that ‘the characteristic of the subject […] is that of being […] at an indeterminate place’.6 By way of the function of separation, the subject attempts to take up a determinate place, to be more than simply a placeholder for the signifier. Separation is, in this sense, the operation that the subject undertakes in order to provide itself with a modicum of being. Here, Lacan points out the French origins of the verb to separate, se parar, meaning to be able to defend oneself, to prepare or provide oneself with what one needs to be on guard.

Since both the subject and the Other (the Other being the locus of signifiers) are lacking, the subject’s being must come from elsewhere, from somewhere that is not exactly either one or the other. It comes from the overlapping of the two lacks, the one of the subject and the one of the Other. The subject places its own lack of being in the Other’s lack, tries to be that which is sought by the Other to fill its own lack, to be what is desired by the Other. However the problem is that the subject cannot always tell what the Other desires and hence the lacks do not completely coincide; insofar as the Other’s desire is unknown, the subject as desiring subject is constituted.7 As the subject cannot entirely be what is desired, there is always an excess, a remainder, which Lacan designates by the term objet petit a (or just objet a).

  1. Sigmund Freud, Case Histories II, ed. Angela Roberts, trans. James Strachey (London: Penguin Books, 1979), p. 235. []
  2. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book I: Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953-1954, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. John Forrester (London and New York: Norton, 1991), p. 157. []
  3. Lacan, Book 1, p. 157. []
  4. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI: The Four Fundamentals of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Norton, 1977), p. 207. []
  5. Lacan, Book XI, p. 207. []
  6. Lacan, Book XI, p. 208. []
  7. Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 53. []

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • Follow StetJournal on Twitter