Lacanian Review Online: The Times of the Virus

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LRO – COVID-19 2020 #23
27th March 2020


The Times of the Virus
Marie-Hélène Brousse


Maintaining sessions by the various means that modernity makes available to us, in this period of chaos for the social bond, brings sonorous and signifying material to this epidemic.[i] An analysand talking about a dream associates “avoiding spaces” [vider les lieux] with the “covi(d),” the name given in this dream to the coronavirus. A colleague talks about her town, which looked beautiful when first emptied of the tourists who usually invade it, but which later became “ghostly.” Another colleague notes that her city, which is said to “never sleep,” has fallen into a deep sleep where rats, previously confined to the subway tunnels, now roam freely on the platforms. Confinement is changing the shape of things. It is reminiscent of the animal and vegetable resurrection at Chernobyl. Men and women die, swept away by the virus, but life continues on its Darwinian way.

In short, the virus made its devastating entry not only into discourses, disrupting the modalities of the social bond, but also into the unconscious and the domain of the equivoque. We can characterize it in space by its extent [étendue] which repels all limits, “é-ten-due” [é-time-due] where the sonorous equivoque resonates with the dimension of time which characterizes it as well, given the speed of the virus’s spread.

How to Approach This Dimension of Time with Psychoanalysis?

I reread the text Lacan wrote in 1945, “Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty.”[ii] It seemed to me that, in these times of confinement, the dilemma of the three prisoners could shed some light.

However, I have always approached this article with some hesitation. In fact, my symptom, “to go, to leave” was a little too tightly closed, and the term “prisoner” produced an enduring clouding of judgment in me. Jacques-Alain Miller devoted several surgically precise courses to it, but then I noticed my difficulty in allowing myself to be taught by the logical articulations of this text, which confronted me with the imperious character of my I don’t want to know anything about it. No doubt it took the force of the real, in direct connection with the discourse, to bring me to read it when alone and confined, that is to say, as a prisoner.

Nevertheless, there is a paradox here: the three prisoners in the text want to get out. They think it is possible to leave. The virus has reversed this. The virus is the one who can go anywhere, and if we want ourselves and others to live, it is imperative not to go out.

So let’s imagine logical time on the basis of this premise: I don’t want to leave. The prison warden, as Lacan wrote, advised the three prisoners that: “For reasons I need not make known to you now, gentlemen, I must free one of you. In order to decide which, I will entrust the outcome to a test that you will, I hope, agree to undergo.”[iii] But, like Bartleby, the famous character invented by Melville, they would then answer him all together: “I prefer not to.” End of experiment.

Of course, logic does not sit well with Bartleby. So let’s opt to follow Lacan and, with him, the sophism, the signifier by which he names what he calls “the perfect solution.” In the paragraph thus titled, two expressions appear in italics – “a certain time” and “a few steps”: appearance of time and bodily displacement. Lacan then distinguishes “the test in real life” of this experiment from his practice “under the innocent conditions of fiction.” The text is crossed by considerations on the Era, which I write here with a capital letter. Lacan’s ethical and political reflection, relating to this period of the Second World War, in fact serves as the guiding thread for his text from its beginning to its end. Thus he writes:

Not that I would go so far as to recommend putting it to the test in real life – even though our era’s antinomic progress has, it seems, for some time now, been putting such conditions within the reach of an ever greater number. […] I am not one of those recent philosophers for whom confinement within four walls merely helps us attain the ultimate in human freedom. But when carried out under the innocent conditions of fiction, the experiment will not disappoint those who have not lost all taste for surprise.[iv]

The last lines of the text mention, as a limit to any “human” assimilation­ – “precisely insofar as it posits itself as assimilative of a barbarism” – the essential determination of the ‘I’…[v] In keeping with Freud, Lacan rejects the artificial antinomy between civilization and barbarism supported by certain philosophical currents and poses their identity. It is therefore thanks to this fiction of logical time that Lacan draws out the determination of the “I” by the act. It is a logic of reasoning as an act.

I will not elaborate on the sense of wonder that finally gripped me as I read this text, intermingling as it does the threads of a politics of the time with those of psychoanalysis, except to signal that, ever since Freud, psychoanalysis opposes the collectivity, composed of a definite number of individuals, to the generality, a class containing an indefinite number of individuals.[vi] The dilemma proposed by logical time therefore concerns a definite number of individuals, as is always the case in the theory of the analytical clinic as opposed to statistical thought.

We come to the “three evidential moments[vii] that this fiction, a true thought experiment, allows Lacan to distinguish: the instant of the glance, the time for comprehending and the moment of concluding. He points out at the outset that they can operate independently of one another or even overlap each other, which a chronological approach would not allow.

What About the Virus?

It is therefore not a chronological succession that smoothes time like a continuum. The emphasis is placed on what Lacan calls a “tonal discontinuity” or a “real succession”, each moment being able to take or not take place, to be absorbed or not absorbed in the following one.

Let’s say that faced with the virus, as the newspapers have reported, there was almost no instant of the glance, even in China, where it all started. The reasons for this absence are many and varied. It can nevertheless be posited that, faced with the real, the strangeness of the different framings made by psychic reality is such that it abolishes, in many subjects, the instant of the glance. We don’t see anything coming. We are engulfed by the wave before we can see it. There was not even what Lacan called the impersonal “subjectivization […] which takes form here in the ‘one knows that…’”[viii] Let us say it in everyday language: there was not even a formulation like “What is this thing?” The instant of perception is absent.

Next comes the time for comprehending and reveals what crystallizes – Lacan’s expression – in various hypotheses. The time for comprehending makes it possible to reinterpret the instant of the glance that was lacking, an after-effect, in anamorphosis. It refers to the skull which Lacan analyzes from Holbein’s painting, The Ambassadors,[ix] which appears only as a skull with a certain adjustment of the gaze. The death drive makes its entry outside the sideration that prevented the instant of the glance. Then the true unknown of the problem can appear: in that it touches the subject itself, in that it concerns the subject and in that it divides the subject. The objectivity of the time for comprehending allows the subjects defined “by their reciprocity” to appear. In the absence of the instant of the glance, which Lacan designates as “apodosis[x] – a grammatical term designating a main proposition that is missing – the length of the time for comprehending, in putting forward hypotheses, turns out to be very long indeed in the epidemic we are going through.

This is evidenced by the difficulty of taking instructions seriously, a difficulty which is still active today in democracies. This also explains why the containment decision was taken so late. The time for comprehending, in fact, requires a reconfiguration of the extremely narrow frameworks of psychic reality. These allow, in normal time, the speaking bodies to manage their daily life by the routine of automatisms acquired from the discourses that constitute them. Once this routine is cancelled or split, it is the symptom of each of us that takes over. Since it is not dialectisable, it skews the time for comprehending.

Then Comes the Moment to Conclude

To conclude the time for comprehending involves the passage to an assertive logic. Lacan uses colloquial formulations – “so that there will not be (a lagging behind that engenders error)” or “for fear that (the lagging behind might engender error)”[xi] – to indicate what, of the time for comprehending, permits us, with the affect of anxiety that accompanies this passage, to make an assertion. This assertion allows the passage from the collective to the singular, to the I, resulting from this assertion. So that I [Je] put on gloves, I [je] put a distance of one meter between myself [moi] and the other, etc.

It is therefore the assertive concluding moment which brings the I into play as an effect of its act and no longer as a simple uninhabited obedience. Its condition is an act of which it is the result.

But therein lies a paradox. Because the advent of this I is – depending on the moment of concluding proper to the Lacan of that time – quickly desubjectified.[xii] A speech act brought out a speaking being where the subject was. But it is from this I that a de-subjectivation occurs, a condition for which a reciprocity does not arise from monitoring the herd or from identification with the One of the tyrant. In the case of the virus, let’s add that it is a condition of the solidarity of the ones-all-alone [uns-tout-seuls].

By way of conclusion, I return to the occurrences of a few words collected from analysands, by telephone, since the beginning of the confinement assumed as an act. Covi(d) or Covi(de) [Co-empty], the empty city that has become “ghostly”, silence and absence are so many equivoques of the life and death of speaking bodies, in whom, with every drive being the death drive, it comes in opposition to what life has of the real, the life of the virus for example. I also hear a theme that is occupying me right now, that of emptiness. The epidemic shows that emptiness is also a mode of enjoyment. “Hush!” [“Chut!”], as an Analyst of the School recently said.


Translated by Dominique Rudaz
Revised by Janet Haney

[i] First published as “Les temps du virus”, Lacan Quotidien, No. 876, 25 March 2020.
[ii] Lacan, J., “Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty”, in Écrits, The First Complete Edition in English, transl. B. Fink, Norton, London/New York, 2006, pp. 161-175.
[iii] Ibid., pp. 161.
[iv] Ibid., pp. 162-163.
[v] Ibid., pp. 174.
[vi] Cf. ibid.
[vii] Ibid., pp. 167.
[viii] Ibid., pp. 167.
[ix] Cf. Lacan, J., Seminar Book XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. J.-A. Miller, transl. A. Sheridan, Norton, London/New York, 1998, pp. 86 & seq.
[x] Lacan J., “Logical Time…”, op. cit., p. 167.
[xi] Ibid., pp. 169-170.
[xii] Ibid., p. 172.

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