Zizek on Lacan’s Object a

[T]he Lacanian objet a whose status is that of an anamorphosis: a part of a picture which, when the picture is viewed in a direct frontal way, appears as a meaningless stain, but which acquires the contours of a known object when we change our position and look at the picture from the side. Lacan’s point is even more radical: the object-cause of desire is something that, when viewed frontally, is nothing at all, just a void— it acquires the contours of something only when viewed sideways. One of the most beautiful cases in literature occurs when, in Shakespeare’s Richard II (Act 2, Scene 2), Bushy tries to comfort the Queen, worried about the unfortunate King on a military campaign:

Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows,
Which shows like grief itself, but is not so;
For sorrow’s eye, glazed with blinding tears,
Divides one thing entire to many objects;
Like perspectives, which rightly gazed upon
Show nothing but confusion, eyed awry
Distinguish form: so your sweet majesty,
Looking awry upon your lord’s departure,
Find shapes of grief, more than himself, to wail;
Which, look’d on as it is, is nought but shadows
Of what it is not.

This is the objet a: an entity that has no substantial consistency, which is in itself “nothing but confusion,” and which acquires a definite shape only when looked upon from a standpoint distorted by the subject’s desires and fears— as such, as a mere “shadow of what it is not.” As such, the objet a is the strange object which is nothing but the inscription of the subject itself into the field of objects, in the guise of a stain which acquires form only when part of this field is anamorphically distorted by the subject’s desire.1

The objet a is as such primarily not the lost object of the subject, what the subject lacks, but that which the Other itself lacks, that which subtracts itself from the Other. In an homologous way, den is the result of a double negation, the negation of 1 which results in zero plus the subtraction from zero which results in den. It is, however, crucial not to stop here: we should also invert this operation, otherwise we get stuck in a kind of theology of the symbolic which appears from nowhere: the symbolic alienation is not the beginning, something has to be there before, the remainder— den—must be already a starting point, as it is for Democritus for whom den is the name of the indivisible atom. (396)

In what precise sense is the atom indivisible? Gilbert Ryle once played with the idea that the only way to bring to an end the Zeno-like interminable division of an entity into smaller and smaller parts would be to reach the point of the “last division,” the point at which One no longer divides into two positive parts, but into a part and nothingness . Therein resides the paradox of the atom: it cannot be divided (into two somethings ) because it is the something of the last division between something and nothing. Hegel saw this clearly: atoms are not Ones floating in the empty space-void, negativity is immanent to them, in their very core— is this nonsense ? It is if we conceive the atom as more than nothing and less than One ; it is not if we make the atom less than nothing, not something between 0 and 1— something has to be added to the atom not to make it One but to make it Nothing. (397)

This zero-level of den is, however, not simply previous to the One— Lacan differs here from Deleuze as well as from Badiou, all three deploying different versions of the relationship between multiplicity and the One. For Badiou, the primary fact is the multiplicity of multiplicities and the One comes after, through counting-as-One; for Deleuze, the productive-immanent One of the Life flux immanently generates multiplicity; for Lacan, multiplicity emerges against the background of minus One— in short, the absence/ failure of One is immanent to multiplicity, it is its determining absence, i.e., there is multiplicity because the One is barred by its immanent impossibility. Or, to put it in more speculative Hegelian terms: the One arises as the effect of its own impossibility (like the subject which is the result of its own failure to become a subject).(397)

… The primordial state is thus not a simple innumerable and inconsistent multiplicity, but a multiplicity with/ out One, marked by an immanent obstacle which prevents it becoming One. One lacks, it is “one less,” and this lack is in itself a positive fact, it triggers repetition /drive. It is precisely because the One is lacking that the ics multiplicity appears to itself, re-presents itself.(397)

Lacan defines objets a as objects which “cannot be grasped in the mirror” since— like vampires— they “ have no specular image.” 22 But what if they are the exact opposite, the virtual organ visible only in the mirror, as in the horror movies where I see something in the mirror that is not there in reality? Such a paradoxical object standing for the very absence of an object cannot be deployed only at the level of content (a system of signs or objects)— one has to include the subject. (402-403)

The objet a is the point at which the subject encounters itself, its own impossible objectal counterpoint, among objects—“ impossible” means here that a is the obverse of the subject, they can never encounter each other in a direct opposition or mirroring, i.e., there is no relationship between $ and a, they are like the two sides of the same spot on a Möbius band. What this means is that the objet a stands for the “object as such,” the frame of a variable; it is in this sense (Lacan’s version of) the transcendental object, a mark of the “pure” faculty of desire: it has no substantial consistency of its own, it is just a spectral materialization of a certain cut or inadequacy— or, as Lacan put it concisely: “The object a is a cut” (“l’objet a est une coupure”). (403)

…the objet a is not the inaccessible ideal object to which no empirical object is adequate—“the object a is this inadequacy itself.”  In this sense, the objet a is “the presupposed void in a demand,”  the void that sustains the experience of “this is never that”: the universal (“object as such”) comes to exists as a pure gap. (404)

The position of Wisdom is that the Void brings ultimate peace, a state in which all differences are obliterated; the position of dialectical materialism is that there is no peace even in the Void. (415)

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (p. 392). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

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