After Transgression: Ethics Under a Different Master

September 26, 2021

Theo Reeves-Evison

Paradigms of Transgression

I will start by zoning in on what in many ways lies at the centre of Seminar VII, Lacan’s reading of Antigone, particularly in terms of the different modes of transgression it embodies. Why transgression? Because even though this is not the term that Lacan uses to describe Antigone’s actions, it is clear that what is at stake in Seminar VII is a certain limit, a limit which Lacan isolates in the greek word atè (translated as blinding ruin), and which separates us from the object cause of desire – or what in this seminar Lacan calls ‘The Thing.’

In Sophocles’s drama this limit is crossed by two different people, in two different ways. Creon represents a Symbolic order that knows no limits. He uses rational tools to try and distinguish good from bad, right from wrong and friend from enemy. All of these distinctions constitute a signifying matrix, and the matrix is imposed on everybody in the polisirrespective of the singularity of their desire. For Creon, there is nothing beyond signification, no ‘outside’ to the law.

Creon’s symbolic edifice starts to crumble when it encounters its inevitable limit in the figure of Antigone’s brother, Polynices. By forbidding him a burial, with a name above his grave, Creon condemns Polynices to a symbolic death – a second death after his body has become a corpse. The reason he fails is essentially because all he has at his disposal are symbolic means. The law is always symbolic, working with language and legislation, and Creon’s blindness consists in not being able to see this fact. He transgresses the limits of the symbolic by overstepping its reach. And for this reason his transgression is essentially a mistake, a product of hubris.

The idea of a ‘second death’ is also discussed by Lacan in relation to the Marquis de Sade. On the face of it both characters would seem to embody the same spirit of transgression. In his novels Sade continually returns to the idea of pursuing his victims beyond biological death and liberating nature from its own laws of regeneration. However to elide the two figures is to miss a crucial distinction. While both Creon and Sade overstep the limits of the symbolic, it is only Sade who does so in a way that Lacan labels ‘perverse.’ Sade plays a transgressive game with the law, making repetitive lurches toward its underside in the form of the Thing. His writings embody a ‘will to jouissance’ that pushes characters to occupy the place of the Thing. Creon, by contrast, wants nothing to do with the Thing. His mistake is to forget about its existence and place unlimited faith in logos.

Antigone, like Sade, at least acknowledges the underside of the law in the form of the Thing. In the words of her sister Ismene, she is ‘in love with impossibility.’ She guards the Real void at the heart of the polis. However, for Lacan, she does so in a way that is not perverse, but opens up a space for sublimation. For this to be the case we have to realize that Lacan’s reading of Antigone is an aesthetic-ethics. That is to say, Antigone does not serve as an example to be followed. She radiates an image that reveals to us the underside of the law. This has the effect of loosening our grip on the signifier, of coming to terms with the radical contingency of the Symbolic. The transgressive space beyond the law is left open, allowing us to maintain ourselves as desiring subjects, and Antigone serves to render this space visible to us. In effect, she is elevated to the dignity of the Thing – Lacan’s ironic formulation for sublimation.

To summarize then, we could say that at this stage of Lacan’s work there are three, not two modes of transgression. In the figure of Creon, we have the disavowal of the Thing, and an unlimited belief in the Symbolic. In the figure of Sade, we have a series of failed efforts to occupy the place of the Thing by Symbolic means. And finally in the figure of Antigone, we have an aesthetic image of transgression that exposes the contingency of the Symbolic and momentarily reveals to us the Thing and the power it holds over us.

From the Discourse of the Master to the Discourse of Capitalism

If we accept that Antigone’s aesthetic paradigm of transgression is the only ethical position the play allows for, then we might ask whether this paradigm still holds true today, in the context of a different social bond.

The contemporary social bond has been characterized in many complementary ways by Lacanian theorists. Here I want to highlight some of Lacan’s own reflections in Seminar XVII and beyond to highlight a few aspects of the contemporary social bond. This will also have the effect of bridging the gap between Lacan’s classical formulation of the ethics of psychoanalysis and his late work on Joyce.

Lacan grants discourse an expansive conceptual range, defining it broadly as a ‘social link (lien social), founded on language.’ In Seminar XVII he identifies four types of social link – the discourse of the university, the hysteric, the analyst and the master – and two years later in a paper delivered in Milan he identifies a fifth: the discourse of Capitalism. Although it would be wrong to assert that these discourses fully eclipse one another in a historical sequence, Lacan does point out significantly that ‘something changed in the master’s discourse at a certain point in history’. The question is how this change in the discourse of the master effects how we think about ethics and transgression.

The discourse of the master is more or less homologous with forms of traditional society based on prohibition. We could say that it is the form of social link visible in the structure of Antigone. The figure of the master could apply to the traditional role of the father in family structure, the monarch or ruler in social structure, or any transcendent Idea structuring knowledge. Lacan condenses his reflections on discourse into several mathemes which he returns to throughout Seminar XVII and beyond.

The Discourse of the Master

In each matheme the position of the symbols is as important as what they represent. Broadly speaking, the symbols above the bar are conscious, or overt, and those below are unconscious, or repressed, with the top left position claiming primacy over the entire discourse. In this discourse the master (S1) makes every effort to conceal his nature as a split subject ($), addressing the Other (S2), who in turn produces a surplus (a) that is hidden and cannot be reabsorbed (//).

Lacan’s most obvious point of reference here is Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, and just as for Hegel the master is only dominant by virtue of his saying so, for Lacan the master signifier as such means nothing. The master’s position is established simply by decree, it cannot be justified and requires him to continually exercise his power. The passage from one symbol to another is a circuit of power, and every time this circuit of power is traversed a remainder (a) is produced. In a fairly loose appropriation of the terms of Marx’s labour theory of value, Lacan dubs this remainder surplus jouissance. In fact, at this stage surplus jouissance is very different from surplus value. It stands for a remainder that can’t be integrated back into the system, whereas surplus value is always already built into circulation for Marx. Lacan shows that the production of surplus jouissance in feudal societies causes problems for the master, and he works hard to limit its impact. In his inimitable style, at one point in Seminar XVII, Lacan even claims that surplus jouissance is at the root of the ethical systems of antiquity:

The problems of ethics here, suddenly, start to abound […] Nobody knows what to do with this surplus jouissance. In order to successfully place a sovereign good at the heart of the world, you need to be as embarrassed as a fish with an apple.

Here ethics serves an essentially regulatory function. The master is embarrassed by an excess beyond his control, and by generating a system of Ethics he attempts to tie it to a specific place through prohibition. For Lacan, symbolic prohibition is a necessary accompaniment to the master’s discourse.

The Discourse of Capitalism

Lacan says very little about the discourse of capitalism, but in a paper presented at the university of Milan in 1972 he formulates another matheme. This discourse is a variation on the discourse of the master formed by making ‘a little inversion between S1 and $.’ It seems that we can read into this matheme at least two crucial points:

  1. by placing S1 ‘below the bar’ Lacan is highlighting the fact that under capitalism authority takes a different form. The split, supposedly liberated subject is the agent in the discourse of capitalism, but this freedom is illusory, because it’s hidden truth is mastery. In contrast to the master’s discourse, where the split nature of subjectivity is hidden, in this new discourse the split is plain to see, but this does not have the effect of removing authority from the equation all together.
  2. A second, more interesting implication of this change in discourse is implied by the removal of the blockage between the subject and surplus jouissance. The discourse of capitalism can be read accordingly as a sequence of infinite circulation (∞), which ‘works as if on wheels’. For Lacan, this is something that emerges at a specific historical juncture, and contributes to the emergence of Capital proper. Whereas in the master’s discourse surplus jouissance posed a problem that required prohibition, under capitalism the surplus is packaged up and reintegrated into circulation. ‘The important point is that on a certain day jouissance became calculable, could be counted, totalized.’ This logic can be seen at work in a range of contexts. Perhaps the most obvious is the way in which ‘spare time’ or ‘leisure time’ is no longer associated with inactivity, but bound up with the consumption of leisure products, and in effect bought in the first place with work. What was once a leftover is now a multi-million dollar industry.

A secondary consequence follows from this transformation of surplus jouissance into surplus value. As Todd McGowan and others point out, the saturation of the social order with jouissance leads, paradoxically, to its absence. Lacan goes as far to identify this as ‘imitation surplus jouissance’. This should not be opposed to any ‘authentic’ jouissance that can be located in the social order, because the only authentic jouissance is experienced as impossibility, as a gap in the social order. To use the vocabulary of Deleuze and Guattari, under capitalism the location of this point of impossibility is constantly deterritorialised and reterritorialised. The drive to jouissance serves as a motor that continually opens up new possibilities for profit. Under this regime surplus jouissance becomes a potentially infinite source of surplus value.

All this serves to render transgression more difficult, and we could go as far to say that the example of Antigone only really applies to social contexts in which the discourse of the master prevails. To recapitulate, Antigone protects a point of impossibility in the social bond. In the discourse of the master we could say that she protects ‘a,’ whereas Creon cuts both ‘a’ and ‘$’ out of the equation altogether, remaining on the top level of the matheme.

If we map Antigone onto the discourse of Capitalism however, things are complicated in at least two ways. Firstly, there is no Creon in the form of an overt prohibition on surplus jouissance. Because this jouissance is not prohibited Antigone’s transgression has the effect of seeking out surplus jouissance and preparing it for circulation in the form of surplus value. As Jacques-Alain Miller has pointed out, today there is a widespread ‘prohibition on prohibiting.’ This makes it increasingly difficult to find the point of impossibility in the Symbolic, because new means of accessing jouissance are immediately captured in the nets of Capital. Under this discourse, transgression becomes a synonym for adaptation.

Towards an Ethics of the Sinthome

In this final section I want to highlight some of the ways in which Lacan tackles this problem in his late work and rethinks ethics along the axis of creativity. As an initial hypothesis, we could say that the concept of ‘the sinthome’ represents the creation of a blockage to the circulation of enjoyment in the discourse of capitalism.

The two conceptual resources Lacan draws on most in Seminar XXIII are the writings of James Joyce and topology. The topological figure that preoccupies Lacan most in his late work is the Borromean knot. The Borromean knot has three rings, and when one of the rings is cut the other two drift apart. In such cases, a fourth element is required as a subjective repair. This fourth element is given several names during the course of the seminar – sometimes it is called the Name-of-the-Father, at other times ‘the symptom’, and perhaps most consistently it is called ‘the sinthome.’ In addition, when referring to Joyce, Lacan labels this fourth term simply ‘ego,’ adding yet another layer of confusion.

There is some disagreement on what exactly the four-ring Borromean knot represents for Lacan. Some people believe that the knot accounts for habitual psychic structure. For others, the fourth order emerges only in cases where the traditional Name-of-the-Father failed to occur – psychotics – it does not apply to those with neurotic or perverse clinical structure. I agree with Roberto Harari, who writes that the final Lacan envisions the effect of ‘an irreducible “psychotic” kernel in every individual, by means of which we are identified with our sinthome, the ever present modality of our jouissance.’

It is worth exploring this idea of a ‘modality in jouissance’ in detail, because in many ways it holds the key to understanding a different ethical mode of relating to the Symbolic. In Lacan’s late work there is a proliferation of different modes of jouissance. Here I want to concentrate on just two, ‘phallic’ jouissance and ‘opaque’ jouissance.

Phallic jouissance is the jouissance that is recouped from the Other. Lacan accordingly places it between the symbolic and the Real on the Borromean knot. While the traditional role of the Name-of-the Father is to separate us from thejouissance of the Other, in fact all it does is deliver us into a regime of phallic jouissance, a way of enjoying that is ideologically conditioned and that ‘corks’ the hole in the Other, rendering it complete.

Opaque jouissance, by contrast, stems from the lack in the Other. It represents an individual ‘subjectivation’ of jouissancethat is not collectively negotiated. Lacan’s example here is James Joyce, who he describes as ‘pure artificer […] a man of know-how.’ Joyce’s achievement, according to Lacan, consists in creating for himself a idiosyncratic mode of jouissancethat is not reliant on the Other. There are at least two implications of this. Firstly, it means that this jouissance is not reliant on the Name-of-the-Father. Joyce in effect ‘makes a name-for himself’ and his symptom takes on the role of the Name-of-the-Father in a new, individualized way. Secondly, opaque jouissance is opaque precisely because it excludes meaning. It is associated with the sinthome, which is to be distinguished from the symptom by virtue of the fact that it is not a message to be deciphered.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to claim that ‘opaque jouissance’ bypasses the Other entirely. Lacan says that Joyce’s sinthome is ‘unsubscribed’ from the Other, implying a two-stage process: first a subscription, then an unsubscription. The subscription is progressively withdrawn by traversing the fundamental fantasy which, as Verhaeghe and Declercq point out, strips the symptom of its symbolic properties. After this has been done, a second process of reinscription can begin. As in the example of Joyce, this installs a new, particularized Master-Signifier. In Seminar XXIV, Lacan claims that art, as a representative of this secondary process of re-inscription, is ‘not pre-symbolic, but symbolic to the power of two.’

In conclusion, we could say that over the course of 15 or 16 years the accent in Lacan’s work on ethics changes from transgression to creation. Instead of simply guarding the surplus jouissance of the Other in the way Antigone does, Lacan’s late work seems to imply creating a subjective mode of jouissance without the Other. Despite the commonplace assertion that today ‘creativity’ fits perfectly into the discourse of capitalism, it is my contention that the form of creativity that Lacan isolates in Joyce is not so easily recuperated. Instead of simply looking for the lack in the other and converting surplus jouissance into surplus value, the opaque jouissance of the sinthome is beyond meaning, and therefore resistant to recuperation. Seminar XXIII is not just a commentary on the intricacies of the Joycean text, it is an invitation to us all to follow Joyce and ‘make a name for ourselves’ in lieu of an existing ‘Name-of-the-Father.’


1 Sophocles, The Three Thebian Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the Kind, Oedipus at Colonus (London: Penguin, 1984), p. 64

2 Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XX: Encore (New York: W. W. Norton & Company 1998), p. 17.

3 Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (New York: W. W.  Norton & Company, 2007), p. 177.

4 The term also functions as a loose translation of Freud’s ‘lustgewinn’, typically translated as ‘yield of pleasure’.

5 Lacan, Seminar XVII, p. 175.

6 The significance of Lacanian Ethics is that it breaks with this tradition of regulating surplus jouissance.

7 Jacques Lacan, ‘On Psychoanalytic Discourse’ available from: <>[accessed 27 April 2013], p. 11.

8 Ibid.

9 Lacan SXVII p. 177.

10 Lacan, Seminar XVII, p. 81. Todd McGowan, The End of Dissatisfaction: Jacques Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004)

11 As Zupančič puts it, ‘Drives are plastic; just let them come up with another symbolic (or imaginary) configuration of enjoyment that can then be detached from enjoyment per se.’ Alenka Zupančič, ‘When Surplus Enjoyment Meets Surplus Value’ in Reflections on Seminar XVII, ed. by Justin Clemens and Russell Grigg (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006) 155-178 (p. 173.)

12 Jacques-Alain Miller, ‘On Shame’ in Reflections on Seminar XVII, ed. by Justin Clemens and Russell Grigg (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006) 11-28 (p. 12.)

13 Roberto Harari, How James Joyce Made His Name: A Reading of the Final Lacan (New York: Other Press, 2002) p. 145. [my italics]

14 Jacques Lacan, Seminar XXIII: Joyce and the Sinthome (unpublished translation by Cormac Gallagher available from <>), p. 141.