Jaques Lacan: The Symbolic Order as Cybernetic Finite-State Machine

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In a chapter which explores the connecting links between early cybernetics and Jacques Lacan, John Johnston tells us that it becomes clear that, at least in the early stages of his thought, Lacan considered the working of the symbolic order not only in terms analogous to those of a cybernetic circuit but precisely as a circuit that operates as a finite-state automaton.1

I remember a few years ago, long before Zizek had mentioned the work of Jean-Pierre Dupuy in Less Than Nothing that Dupuy had himself been one of the young members of that select group who had joined in the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics. In his own book about this The Mechanization of the Mind Dupuy mentions Lacan in reference to this 1950’s explosion of cybernetic thought:

When at the beginning of the 1950s, French practitioners of the human sciences … were looking for a way to say something about the mystery of Being (Heiddegger’s influence), its unveiling, and so forth, they turned in their search for metaphors – poetic language not being their strong suit – to cybernetics. … The most typical case was that of Jacques Lacan. Cybernetics was the main topic of his seminar during the academic year 1954-1955, the culmination of which was the reading Edgar Allen Poe’s Purloined Letter in terms of automata theory.2

Dupuy tells us that Lacan’s interest in cybernetics was not just a passing fad, but that his knowledge of the subject was both detailed and reverberates throughout many of his conceptual breakthroughs from this period. Specifically as Dupuy states it, Lacan took a keen interests in the theory of closed reverberating circuits that Lawrence Kubie’s work in the 1930s had led McCulloch to take up, and he was familiar with the work of British neruoanatomist John Z. Young, who – as Dupuy, attended the Macy Conferences in 1952 testing the notion of cybernetic systems in octopuses. Lacan also followed carefully such cyberneticists as Ross Ashby’s formal results regarding the differentiating properties of computation. (Dupuy, pp. 108-109) Johnston doesn’t mention Dupuy or his comments on this, yet as he explains it if one observes carefully to the addenda in Ecrits (see 48, 56-57), he includes more complex plex circular and directional graphs, and that these graphs are intended to show how the operation of a “primordial symbol” can constitute a structure linking “memory to a law.” The fact that Lacan’s circular and directional graphs closely resemble the transition-state state graphs found in textbooks on computation and automata theory clearly establishes the extent to which he was thinking of the symbolic order explicitly in terms of finite-state automata. (Johnston, p. 86)

Combine this with Tom Eyers (Lacan and the Concept of the ‘Real’) investigations into Lacan’s materialism and reworking of the ‘Real’, etc. one gains a new picture of what Lacan was up too. As Eyers tells us:

It is as if, by developing his theory of the ‘sinthome’ in the 1970s, the symptom recast as Real, Lacan has taken what he had previously assumed to be a materiality localised in signification, and raised it to the function of a quasi-transcendental condition for Being as such. There, Lacan redefines the symptom as ‘the way in which each subject enjoys the unconscious, in so far as the unconscious determines him’. Just as sense relies on material non-sense, so psychoanalytic Being relies on a singular point of non-Being, uniting in its insistence what might otherwise scatter and skid on the movements of the signifier. What unites such a putative ontology are, I think, those elements, resistant to dialectical recuperation, indivisible and insistent, that Lacan groups around the idea of the Real. That these elements are constitutive of the Symbolic as much as they are external to signification, that they are present in Lacan’s early reflections on primary narcissism and the mirror stage, is to be taken as the surest sign that a Lacanian ontology is rather less concerned with the hypostatization of symbolic lack, with any kind of post-Kantian insistence on the inviolability of the in-itself beyond the text, as it is with a thoroughgoing materialist immanence that troubles the borders between the materially and ideally existent. They do not, it should be emphasized again, mark the final triumph of the text over its referent or the subject over the object, precisely because they signal a repudiation of the very distinction between subject and object, logos and matter, such that an object-like insistence provides the ground for both meaning and psychoanalytic being as such. 3

If as Johnston suggests the Symbolic Order is a finite-state machine we should also take note that in the seminar Lacan never identifies the symbolic order with language itself; rather, he understands the symbolic order as operating within or by means of language, in and by means of specific circuits of discourse in which signs of recognition or exchange are passed or not passed. Importantly, the operations of the symbolic order are never confused with or reduced to the operations of language. The idea that the distinction between the two must be rigorously preserved may have come from several sources, including number theory and Levi-Strauss’s work on structure and symbolic function in primitive societies. In any case, it is clear that the autonomy of the symbolic function the key theme of the seminar required a new conceptual framework for its full elucidation, and Lacan found it in the discourse of cybernetics and the new information machines. Indeed, it can be inferred that it was Lacan’s familiarity with finite-state automata that enabled him to understand  that simple information machines were not unlike simple restricted languages with a limited set of functions, in contrast to natural languages, whose full expressive powers enable them to be used for multiple purposes. Lacan presumably concluded that the workings of the symbolic order could be fully described by the grammar of a finite-state automaton,  whereas natural language required a higher and more powerful grammar.(Johnston, p. 88)

At the opening of his lecture “Psychoanalysis and Cybernetics,” Lacan announces, “To understand what cybernetics is all about one must look for its origin in a theme, so crucial for us, of the signification of chance” (296). But rather than take up the signification of chance directly, Lacan turns to a related concern: the relationship of cybernetics to the real. By the real, Lacan initially means what is always to be found in the same place, like the fact that at the same hour and date the same constellation of stars will always appear in the sky. This sense of the real, he asserts, has always been the provenance of science. But cybernetics introduces a new and different kind of science, a conjectural science concerned with the articulation of place as such, regardless of what does or doesn’t come to occupy it. (Johnston, pp. 92) The term we’ve come to know as structuralism is defined by this.

Presciently, here Lacan attributes to cybernetics an idea that will later become a cornerstone of research in artificial intelligence, namely, Newell and Simon’s physical symbol system hypothesis. According to this hypothesis,  symbol-processing devices do not depend for their operation on the nature of their material substrate; hence they operate equally well in either a digital computer or a human brain. Though symbols are tied to material counters, their operations are not reducible to the physical laws that govern the behavior of the latter. What does govern their behavior is the syntax of symbolic logic, which George Boole called the “language of thought.” As Lacan implies in the lecture, this autonomization of the symbol, that is, its being set free from the constraints of nature (the physical laws of matter and energy), is at the heart of the symbolic function and its relationship to the real. (Johnston, p. 94)

In contrast to phenomena of nature, which are always subject to entropy and therefore tend to equalize levels of difference, cybernetic machines, once set going, autonomously maintain or even increase levels of differentiation. “Everything we call language,” Lacan says, is organized around this kind of differentiation, but in order for language to come into being, there must be “insignificant little things such as spelling and syntax”. Constituting “a pure syntax,” the logic gates and their corresponding truth tables make it evident that cybernetics is a “science of syntax” and thus well positioned to help us perceive that “syntax exists before semantics.” Does this mean that it is we who introduce meaning [or “direction,” since the French word sens can mean either]? Not altogether, Lacan answers; for there to be meaning (sons) there must be “a sequence of directed signs”. In other words, meaning presupposes syntax, even if it is not reducible to it. What, then, is the meaning of meaning? It is “the fact that the human being isn’t master of this primordial, primitive language. He has been thrown into it, committed, caught up in its gears”. (Johnston, p. 94)

Lacan closes his lecture on what he unexpectedly admits is the central question: “to know whether the symbolic exists as such, or whether the symbolic is simply the fantasy of the second degree of the imaginary coaptations”. If cybernetics provides the answer by confirming ing the existence of the symbolic order, it is because it allows us to demonstrate that “there is something into which [man] integrates himself, which through its combinations already governs”. Although there are various ways of saying this-Lacan cites examples from both Freud and Claude Levi-Strauss the cybernetic machine provides the most direct and material proof that “man is engaged with all his being in the procession of numbers”. Since it is in or through numbers, most simply in the articulation of Is and Os, that nonbeing comes to be, Lacan concludes his lecture with a paradox: “The fundamental relation of man to this symbolic order is very precisely what founds the symbolic order itself the relation of non-being to being”. (Johnston, pp. 95-96)

Lacan, Johnston tells us came to a paradoxical conclusion in his studies, discovering an absence where there should’ve been presence, and presence where there should’ve been an absence:

The cybernetic information machine therefore finds its illustrative value in the fact that the subjective, imaginary aspect of the symbol is absent (i.e., these machines have no imaginary: they cannot see and desire). As Lacan puts it, “The machine is the structure detached from the activity of the subject” (47). However, this doesn’t quite work either, since this very same machine is also found to be “inside” the subject,  as the mechanism enabling the subject to recognize and follow the syntactic laws that integrate him or her into the human order; at the same time, this mechanism is in-mixed with desires that subvert this very integration. At this stage of his thought, in short, Lacan seems to have no other way to articulate the “impossibility” that defines the human. (Johnston, pp. 97-98)

Ultimately as Johnston relates it if Lacan leaves us with a fairly precise notion of the symbolic order and its relation to the “world of the machine,” what makes up or characterizes the human is less well defined. As Lacan himself puts it, “The question of knowing whether the machine is human or not is evidently well decided [toute tranchee]: it is not. But it’s also a matter of knowing if the human, in the sense in which you understand it, is all so human as that”. Lacan no doubt sensed that the introduction of an abstract machine into the nexus of relationships that constitute the human could not fail to have profound consequences for the very definition of the human. In contrast then to Norbert Wiener, who wavered between a conscientious endorsement of the liberal humanist values founded on an assumed “autonomous” ego and a working commitment to the cybernetic viewpoint that eroded it, Lacan confronted the new challenge brought by information machines from a less blinkered perspective. At the very least, Lacan understood that in the era ushered in by these new machines the decentralization of the ego begun by Freud would have to be carried even further and given new theoretical foundations.  That he sought to achieve this by means of the very theory that brought these machines into existence redounds all the more to his credit. (Johnston pp. 101-102)

1. John Johnston. The Allure of Machinic Life: Cybernetics, Artificial Life, and the New AI (p. 86). Kindle Edition.
2. Jean-Pierre Dupuy. The Mechanization of the Mind – On the Origins of Cognitive Science. (New French Thought 1994) (pp. 108-109)
3. Tom Eyers. Lacanian Materialism And The Question Of The Real. (Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol 7, No 1 (2011)) (online: here)

8 thoughts on “Jaques Lacan: The Symbolic Order as Cybernetic Finite-State Machine

  1. A perhaps naive question: What role, if any, does Lacan associate with writing and literacy in the symbolic constitution of human subjectivity? Various theorists (Walter Ong, Alexander Luria, for example) have suggested the extent to which literacy radically transforms the individuals’ self-other relation. Does Lacan explicitly thematize writing and literacy anywhere?

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    • Well that would be to cover a great deal of territory… Lacan believed the Unconscious was structured like language… as a base. For him the signifier was a material thing… his seminars and Ecrits is the best place to start… Bruce Fink and others have commentaries… along with Zizek.

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      • Right, right. But no where you are aware of where he explicitly thematizes the role of writing in constituting this linguistic structure of the Unconscious. Most of what I have come across so far has considered speech and language, but I haven’t seen anything yet on writing, specifically.

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      • Off the top of my head, I the sense of Ong… no… Lacan was foremost a psychoanalyst who was more interested in teaching his pupils his form of French Freudianism… he reconceptualized Freud’s metonyms into the lingua franca of his age and invented concepts for this and this only…. obviously he had a great influence on many of the postmodern and poststructuralists… but did not speak specifically to Ong’s sense of it as a pure technology etc.

        Like you I’d have to dig to see… I’m not as fully memory laden in Lacan’s work as I am in others texts at the moment like Zizek … 🙂

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      • I always felt that Ong’s second work Interfaces of the Word was more in tune with my present work… this symbiosis of culture-nature in it dialectical interplay within thought, etc.

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      • I have to re-read Ong, but seems to me like there is a lot there that is worth re-thinking. It’s very likely that many others have already done so. It’s an area I need to study more.

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