From LQ 150
7th March 2012
The child who comes
“Not only meaning …”
by Eric Zuliani
When, about twenty years ago, I started to meet very young, so-called autistic subjects in a nursery, I had to turn away from the appetite I had for the origins of autism – a lot was already being written about it at the time – to focus my interest on the consequences that resulted from the singular position of these children; I had the feeling that they were the seat of something that caused them, and it was from that point that I began to want to say something to them.
One anecdote, one of those that confront you directly with the results of your actions, is connected to that moment. The second time I went looking for Antonin, aged three and a half, in his living room, the childcare assistant tactfully indicated to me that my first encounter with the child had had some effects. Antonin no longer rocked for hours in a closet, biting one of his fingers until it started to bleed, instead he now galloped in all directions while screaming. She wondered, just as I did, how to judge this new behavior. A conversation ‘among several’ practitioners was necessary to agree on the fact that the incessant rocking in a closet was not much of a life, although one did not really understand these new manifestations. So I decided to continue meeting Antonin.
His carer deployed a whole treasure of inventions for every moment of his life; nothing was routine. She invented, with him and us, in tailor-made fashion and without seeking refuge in the sense of it all, a way of getting up, of washing, of feeding, and of putting him to bed. Curiously enough, we did not have the impression that we were merely answering to his needs, but rather that we were initiating in a delicate way something like a relationship. This was the crux of it for each of us.
In these regular meetings, I had then to consent to make a distinction, which did not seem to be such a big deal but in fact proved to be fundamental, between communicating and speaking. During the sessions, Antonin in fact did not speak and I spoke little, often to no one in particular. But umpteen things were going on around and about the small objects which little by little made the structure of language in which our encounters took place appear. Nothing stemmed from one person observing the other, everything indicated the involvement of both parties.
Meanwhile, I had started to see what is called a psychoanalyst on a regular basis. I experienced a process in which it was precisely a matter of speaking without ever communicating. At the same time, I was reading one of the most surefooted linguists, E. Benveniste, who also took an interest in this analytic process and who made the same distinction: he reserved communication for the animal kingdom, and the fact of speaking to human beings.
Also, for the so-called autistic subjects I met, I was interested in the phenomena where speech, especially the speech of others, had effects, which were sometimes undesirable, more than in knowing what they might be communicating. When the child care worker said for example: “Come to the table!”, Antonin sat down in front of his plate for a meal that promised to be long and tortuous. When that same person would talk to him in particular, implying the structure of “you”, and thus also of “I”, Antonin stayed deaf, and if one insisted, he could throw terrible tantrums. He did not hear, and for want of any grasp of the equivoque that revealed his subjective position, he underwent an astonishing number of audiograms.
Having had the feeling, over six years, of having established, based on indications given by Antonin, a relationship in making a reality, it seemed to me then that establishing a social bound was relative to the idea that we had of what language is.
Let us say with Jacques-Alain Miller, that “at the foundation of a social reality, there is speech(1)”. How then might one conceive of speech in as much as it founds the social bound? The answer is simple: our conception is that of Victor of Aveyron (2), and not that of his master. A teacher recently told me that Itard was the ultimate reference of her school inspector. I once read, I do not recall where, that this same Itard was a precursor of the cognitive-behavioral therapies.
What does the story tell? Itard was an enlightened master of the very early eighteenth century. As a son of the Enlightenment, he occupied himself with the most precarious ones: deaf children. He took a passionate interest in one child who was considered to be “wild”: Victor. This was in line with a reflection on the function of education as a way out for the subject of his social condition. His approach was empirical and sensualist. We know the film Truffaut made about this encounter. The book itself tells the story of a man who wanted to tie a social bond with one who was a-social: thus, a master and his pupil. Itard being an honest man, he recounts not only the operation but also its failure.
In what consists the lesson that Victor teaches his master? Itard proposed the following to Victor: “You will have a glass of milk when you say milk.” The description of this scene, which was repeated every day, allows us to perceive the obstacle. Victor does not hear. Not that he is deaf – Itard had asked himself this question – but he cannot hear… he cannot consent to this type of social bond. Yet Itard did notice the emotional bond that developed, during this period, with the young servant of the house, a young girl of twelve years who was around from time to time, and who expressed no want of anything in particular. So, things are not working out: Victor does not speak. Itard is about to give up: a renunciation… whereupon Victor grabs the glass, drinks it greedily, and in a jaculation says: ”Milk!” This does not satisfy the master. To his mind, this is not speaking.
Through this sequence, Victor makes us hear that the word has not only to do with the thing, but that the word refers to other words; and by doing so it produces significations; but that’s not all, moreover it says that the word has to do with the effect it has on the body, the “jouissance of the thing”, as formulated by Itard. Speaking has always to do with that; one can even say that all discourses, which are different ways of creating a social bond, are discourses on jouissance: “discourse is constantly touching it, by virtue of the fact that this is where it originates (3)”. Lacan even said that speaking is a jouissance. Itard’s experiment makes us understand that he who wishes to give a glass of milk, and thus the word “milk”, would do well to know whence he is giving it, from which place? The “milk” of Itard is a “milk” of speech, the social milk of demand, given by a master. But this “milk” which you really do want to learn is acquired against the backdrop of a refusal, a refusal of the jouissance of language, which you need to exchange for an attachment to a point whence it is given you: this is called love, and through love, you can share a common language. You want to share a common language with others, to speak about “milk” with others, to make a social bond, to make yourself heard on what milk is about; and this is done through love and against the backdrop of a refusal of what it does to you, for you, the milk of your language.
Philippe La Sagna(4), in an article on autism, reminded us that no one is forced to kit himself out with meaning only. One needs to remember that indeed, in many human registers – art and the sciences, for example, but also in an analysis –, meaning does not come first. Likewise, it often happens that the meaning of a piece of behavior or a comment, even of a lifetime, remains hidden for a long time, one only grasps it retroactively. There are even writings like those of Joyce and of Roussel that really do exist, which can be read, but nevertheless have no meaning. Meaning is not all there is to human experience and one sometimes needs an analysis to accept this fact and in spite of this come to forge a relationship with a young boy like Antonin.
What is it we do exactly when we meet, when we welcome, that is to say, when we say yes to subjects like Antonin? We make sure that speech does not give up. And when speech does not lean on the foot of meaning, this does not mean it will not have the support of another foot which never fails in this human experience. Jacques Lacan gave to this other foot of speech the name of jouissance.
Translated by: Francine Danniau
(1) JA Miller, “Vers PIPOL IV”; Mental 20, p.186.
(2) L. Malson, “Mémoires et rapports sur les développements de Victor de l’Aveyron par J. Itard”,
Les enfants sauvages, Paris, 10-18, 1964, pp.160-171.
(3) J. Lacan, The Seminar, Book XVII, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, New York, Norton & Co, 2007, p.70.
(4) P. La Sagna, “Partager la planète autiste?”; Petite Giraffe n° 27, p. 83 to 86.
 “Causer”: to ‘cause’ but also to ‘chat’, to ‘talk’. [TN]