Body, Meaning and Knowledge – Part I

by Jo Rostron on October 8, 2011

Snapshot 1  Encapsulation

(vignette of 34yr old male in art therapy with mild shell type autism and mild learning difficulties)


As the patient put down his paintbrush, I made the mistake of gently enquiring about his painting of loop shapes.  The peace of the session was shattered as he rounded on me, to loudly deliver a list of names, places and dates which erupted so rapidly that I had the impression he was reciting them off by heart.  The form of the communication was expressed rather than the meaning of it, his string of words linking repeatedly into its beginning making loops similar to those in his painting.  I sensed I was witnessing words being sicked up, swallowed and regurgitated.  There was no space for meaning to be digested.  I finally picked out one name, asking ‘Who is that person?’  ‘Don’t!’ he yelled menacingly.  ‘I don’t like words like whatandwhoandwhichandwhenandwhy.’  My question seemed to have broken some kind of protective spell made up of the sounds by which he was encircling himself at the skin surface.


Snapshot 2: une néo-barrière corporelle’


This subject’s use of language clearly showed that there was a problem with ‘surface’ in autism as Éric Laurent (1981 [i]) has described.  In subsequent papers (1987 [ii] and 2011[iii] ) he went on to suggest that subjects who have been isolated for a long period in autistic encapsulation have put in place a corporeal barrier to compensate for the lack of the image of the body due to a failure of the mirror function.  To Laurent, this indicates there is a particular circuit of the drives in autism that returns not by way of the Other of  language but instead via ‘une néo-barrière corporelle’.  Laurent says ‘This opaque presence of jouissance with this curious limit, this barrier, is perhaps the product of the emptiness of the place where the subject is hidden.’


Snapshot 3: Envelopes as elements of the body


‘The characteristic separation at birth does not occur between the child and his mother, but between the child and his ‘envelopes’, that he drops into the world with. (Lacan: Seminar X: The Anxiety: January 16th 1963  [iv]). ‘In order to have a complete notion of this pre-specular totality which is a, you have to consider these envelopes elements of the body…. (in any book on embryology).. you can see being manifested all the varieties of this inside to outside, of this outside in which the foetus floats, itself enveloped in its amnion……’


Snapshot 4:  Phallic jouissance, alienation, language


Jacques Lacan seems to have taken the fact that we are speaking beings as a point from which to reinterpret and develop aspects of Sigmund Freud’s work, and to attempt to demonstrate logically what he was finding clinically: the sexual drive consists of the drives that generate meaning and language.   He showed that as sexed biological organisms which speak, it is possible for us to differentiate between signifying phallic jouissance and the feminine.  In his Seminar XX: Encore: 8th May 1973 [v] , Lacan remarked  “it is truly odd that the fact that the structure of thought is based on language is not thrown into question in psychology”.


The Other of language, the network of associations between signifiers, is encountered by the infant as it reaches out to inscribe itself in the (m)other.  Each episode is a form of primary identification, or, in Lacanian terms, S1.  These elements of the signifier create islands of consistency, ‘between identification of self to self and qualities’.  They are given meaning retroactively for the infant through the (m)other’s response, S2.    Thus One rather than the multiple, forms the basis of the Symbolic register.  The One begins the alienation of the subject through the other as All, the universal Other of language $ (S1) S2.  The illusion of unity that accords with the deductive reasoning of Aristotle, the father of the religious world, was abandoned by Lacan in the light of Freud’s ‘Interpretation of Dreams’, Russell’s ‘Paradox of the Set’ and Frege’s ‘First Order Logic’.  Completeness and belief is what we ask for, all the time, but Lacan came to understand that the prevailing discourse in Western societies is a semblance, a make-believe, based on the One.  This discourse is now fragmenting.


Snapshot 5: Meaning, separation, the void and the letter


The creation of meaning simultaneously produces the register of the Real as a void place, a depot or remainder for the drives $ (a) S1, S2.  In this Real  are pure traces that operate without signifying what is there .   Lacan says in ‘Encore’ [vi] ‘We have no knowledge of what they mean, but they are integrally transmitted’.   The traces are a continuous inscription of discrete marks, strokes or beatsEach registers a moment in time, cuts a slice of the real that takes on a value only according to its context.  Letters of the alphabet, mathematical numbers and the brush strokes in Japanese ideograms take on value in just the same way.  So do the cuts and punctuations of the Lacanian analyst and the phonemes uttered by the analysand.  This is the pure operation of the letter.


Lacan (Encore: 8th May 1973 [vii]) considers Aristotle’s affirmation that ‘man thinks with his soul’.  Lacan says that there are advantages in unifying the expression for the symbolic, imaginary and the real, but a valid concept of body and soul must include an awareness that the structure of our thought is based on language.  It is here that one encounters the articulation of an inertia that constitutes language and that dominates thought.   For Lacan the soul functions as a writing that continually creates links between A and (a).  The bordering brackets indicate a void space induced by the phallus, an empty set or envelope where the letter (a) functions: mapping out the jouissance of the body as dynamic and textured moments in time.  For Lacan this is the function in language that registers and orders the drive objects for the reception and creation of new meaning, in a space where the world itself becomes a partner (Encore: Session of 22nd October 1973 [viii]).  This active search for a passive aim, Freud’s view of the feminine, is understood by Lacan in terms of the letter.   The feminine position or receptive for Lacan links into something beyond sexuality, beyond the body to time as eternal.  Phallic jouissance and the positioning of the feminine constitute the subject whatever the biological gender.


Snapshot 6: Lack of meaning and éspaces de jeu


Laurent (1998 [ix]) suggests that when the subject is not represented in the Other of language, or cannot be represented in this Other, and when the Imaginary has been abolished, he inscribes himself, but not in an otherThese traces neither signify, nor give any indication of being those of the calligrapher: around the non-existence of a function, the deserted expanse that is the subject, the traces become littoral, creating an envelope, ‘une neo-barrière corporelle’.   (This border separates the letter, a from knowledge thus creating a holophrase of S1S2[x]   which can be represented as    a)S2) [xi].) But inside this space negotiations with the other are possible in psychoanalysis.  Laurent suggests that exchanges within the play space offered by an analyst can extract an object that makes up an integral part of this border.  It is following the extraction of the object that signifiers, endowed with a special status, can appear.  Laurent (2011 [xii]) writes ‘From the perspective of psychoanalysis all broadening of unconscious knowledge, or the unconscious as knowledge, is at the same time an effect of jouissance.   Play implies an indestructible link between gain in knowledge and satisfaction, even beyond satisfaction’.


Snapshot 7 Mark-making in therapy – a return to the patient


During a research project I explored the abundance of artwork my patient produced over a 2 year period.  I scrutinised each image chronologically in the context of his use of space, of the duration of therapy, and of my written record of the session(s) in which it was made.  I noticed that within a month or two of beginning therapy his mark-making in felt tip pen or paint had begun to function metonymically as an elaboration of his relationship to the therapist.  Through painting and drawing he had been offered a way of operating by making a trace, of ordering by way of the stroke (trait) of the paintbrush (see next snapshot.).  The reception and harbouring of the jouissance in the letter was inscribing itself on the surface of the painting, making a record in the images of the transference.  This demonstrated primary identifications (S1s) were taking place.  As I tracked the images chronologically it became apparent that alongside his new capacity for imagination and the sharing of meaning that I had observed and noted during the sessions, metaphorical elements were now occurring in his art work.  The images also revealed that temporal and spatial co-ordinates were functioning, particularly around breaks in therapy.  These co-ordinates also formed the basis of the construction of my visual research framework.


Snapshot 8: Coming into Being, Psychological Birth


The following is taken from ‘The Purloined Letter and the Tao of the Psychoanalyst’ in which Éric Laurent (1998)[xiii] reflects on the impact on Lacan, of the particularly original theory on painting and calligraphy, put forward by the 17th Century Chinese writer, Shih-t’ao.  Quoted by Laurent from Seminar XIV: 1966-1967[xiv], Lacan states


“The indistinct function of Yin and Yun – it is chaos, not Yin and Yang – constitutes original chaos.  And if it is not by way of the unary stroke of the brush, how could one disentangle original chaos?  ….. to carry out the union of Ink and the Brush is to resolve the distinction between Yin and Yun and to undertake the disentangling of chaos…..  In the midst of the ocean of Ink, to firmly establish the spirit; at the tip of the brush, that life might assert itself and surge forth.  That on the surface of the painting is the metamorphosis.  From the One, the Multiple is divided; from the Multiple the One is conquered…….”  [xv]


Lacan accessed the writing of Shih-t’ao through Francois Cheng’s translation ‘Le vide et le plein’ op. cit. p84.   In this approach to painting offered by Shih-t’ao there is no opposition between the subject, One, and the world that it represents.  Laurent (1998: op. cit.: p41) tells us “Creation, for the Chinese painter, is not opposed to him, he pursues it, he adds himself to it.  Far from being a description of the spectacle of creation, painting is an addition that allows a disentangling, to add, not to a world conceived as exterior, but to a world conceived as an object………..  It is a way of ordering by way of the stroke (trait) of the paintbrush, of operating by making a trace……  This is where the gesture of the painter, the gesture of Shih-t’ao, meets up with the gesture of the infant throwing his bobbin to enact the fort-da, to shape the anguish of l’Achose.  It is not only the phonemic opposition of the ‘o-a’, fort-da, but the gesture itself that counts, bearer that it is of the inscription of this trace.”

[i] Éric Laurent 1981: ‘De quelques problèmes de surface dans la psychose et l’autisme’: published in Quarto: 1981: n°2: p30

[ii] Éric Laurent 1987: Text presented in1987 at a conference on autism in Toulouse, France. (Colloque de la Découverte Freudienne) Published as  ‘Lecture Critique II’ in: L’autisme et la psychanalyse: Séries de la Découverte Freudienne: P. U. du Mirail:1992.

[iii] Éric Laurent 2011: ‘Les spectres d’autisme in des autistes et des psychanalyistes’: published in La Revue de la Cause Freudienne: Vol 78: June 2011

[iv] Jacques Lacan: Seminar X: The Anxiety: 1962-1963: Session of  23rd January 1963. Cormac Gallagher’s translation, published by, available here, p102.

[v] Jacques Lacan: Seminar XX: Encore: 1972-1973:  published in Bruce Fink’s translation as ‘On feminine sexuality, the limits of love and knowledge’: 1972 – 1973: Encore: The seminar XX of Jacques Lacan: Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller: W. W. Norton & Co: 1998.  (Cormac Gallagher’s translation, which includes far more of the dialogue between Lacan and his interlocutors, is published by www.LacaninIreland, and available here.) Seminar XX: Encore: 8th May 1973: On the Baroque: in Fink’s translation p110.

[vi] Jacques Lacan: Seminar XX: Encore: 1972-1973: 8th May 1973: On the Baroque: in Fink’s translation op. cit. p110.

 [vii] Jacques Lacan: Seminar XX: Encore: 1972-1973: Session of 8th May 1973: Chapter IX: On the Baroque: Fink’s translation op.cit. p104.

 [viii] Jacques Lacan: Seminar XX: Encore: 1972-1973: Session of 22nd October 1973: Chapter X: Rings of String: Fink’s translation op. cit. p118

 [ix] Éric Laurent (1998). Text presented during the 1998-1999 seminar in Paris: ‘L’expérience du réel dans la cure analytique’. This seminar is unpublished. Laurent’s text, published in English translation as ‘The Purloined Letter and the Tao of the Psychoanalyst’, in ‘The Later Lacan: An introduction’: Eds Véronique Voruz & Bogdan Wolf: SUNY press: 2007: p25-52

[x] Author’s note: I am not able to draw two overlapping circles using my keyboard or current software.  I have used brackets to substitute for Laurent’s circles which contain &  S1S2 with a in the overlap.  The bracket, following ‘a’ in the overlap, should be in bold to indicate a distinct function of this edge. This notation refers to the diagram at the top of the page: Laurent 1998: op. cit. p39.

[xi] Author’s note – part 2: This notation, a)S2), refers to the second diagram: Laurent 1998: op. cit. p39. Jouissance, a, outside the crescent, and )S2) which is inside the crescent refers to sense.  The bracket following ‘a’ should be in bold to indicate a distinct function of this edge.

[xii] Éric Laurent 2011:  op. cit.

[xiii] Éric Laurent 1998: op. cit.: p40

[xiv] Jacques Lacan: Seminar XIV: The Logic of the Fantasy: translated by Cormac Gallagher: published at and available here.

 [xv] Probably quoted from: François Cheng: Vide et plein – Le langage pictural chinois: Éditions du Seuil, Paris: 1979: P84-85