TRACES – Stijn Vanheule

"Writing is a trace in which an effect of language can be read"
— Lacan, XX, 121


NLS Congress presents

Stijn Vanheule
The Flesh and lalangue: our Parasites

In 1997 Berlinde De Bruyckere made a series of drawings entitled “parasite”. They show us a bent over woman who is probably pregnant. Long hair veils her face. All kinds of black, skin-colored and blood-red tentacles rise ostentatiously from the bottom. These hook onto scars and appear to be entwined with her organism. Some tentacles resemble a spider's hairy legs. Others are like blood vessels perforating the boundary of the skin and merging with the substance of her body.

A parasite is an organism that feeds on other living organisms, like a tick in a dog's coat. As De Bruyckere uses this term, the question is which parasite is attacking that woman. In an interview the artist connects the idea of being inhabited by a parasite with pregnancy and refers to the fear she felt during her first own pregnancy.

Without realizing it, she thus formulates a very Lacanian remark. Lacan argues that an embryo has a parasitic bond with the mother, which is physically broken at birth, causing physical malaise in the baby. De Bruyckere's drawings demonstrate that similarly pregnancy causes malaise in a woman. Apart from the hormonal adjustments, she is then faced with the challenge of situating the parasitic intrusion of a new life in the space of her own body. Usually, this coexistence becomes livable by identifying with motherhood. In other words, an answer is needed in response to such parasitic intrusion.
Lacan's later ideas about the link between language, body and physicality especially revolve around finding an adequate response to the parasitic intrusions we all encounter. Take his Séance de clôture from 1975, which we studied in our cartel. There he states that we should regard a human being as a thinking thing or res cogitans. Where in the 1950s and 1960s he emphasized that thinking obeys the logic of the signifier and thus of the signified unconscious, in Scéance, as well as in other contributions from the seventies, he accentuates the material character of the res cogitans. The thinking thing is a substance, and this substance escapes the mind-body opposition (res cogitans versus res extensa). Lacan puts it this way: “what we strive for is to let that notion of the thinking substance enter a real”.
With the notion of "thinking substance" Lacan posits that our signified being is linked to a real physicality, which can also be distinguished from the body as an imaginary spatial representation. To think of this physicality, according to Lacan (still in his Séance de clôture), we must free ourselves from the thought that "life" needs to be considered in opposition to the term "death."
In Lacan's logic, "life" is nothing more than a cyclical process revolving around a hole. Viewed from the Real, man is a lump of senseless trembling flesh with holes in it – the holes of the body orifices – where precisely the trembling of the flesh evokes a jouissance that is parasitic to body image. Parasitic because this jouissance is experienced as internal, but not as 'own'. It must be appropriated, and to the extent that it fails, anxiety arises.

I   body  —————————->   R   flesh

Perhaps that is precisely why a pregnancy can evoke a parasitic experience in a woman: a new life in your body makes it clear that your own living body has always been vibrating and trembling without the will having much of an impact on it.
It does not stop there, this living flesh is itself not autonomous either. Its substance is linked with lalangue. Words parasitize our organism, which Lacan expresses with his term "speaking body" (corps parlant).


R   flesh  —————————->   S   lalangue


In L’inconscient et le corps parlant Miller (p. 56) writes the following about this speaking body: "It is a reminder that the signifying chain, which we decipher in a Freudian way, is connected to the body and consists of enjoying substance."
In other words, to the extent that signifiers are letters and have a meaningless lalangue character, their use parasitizes the body. Lalangue is an out-of-body organism that bites into living flesh. Speaking therefore functions as an enjoyment circuit that affects the body with its sounds. Conversely, the excitation of the flesh also vibrates in how we handle the signifier. This, Lacan and Miller argue, is the real of the unconscious.
To limit both forms of parasitization, people usually incorporate their speaking body into the field of images and meanings. Two tracks thus open up spontaneously: debility and delusion. Debility means that one comes to believe in “the imaginary of the body and the imaginary of meaning” (Miller, p. 58). Delusion involves the belief that the Real is signifiable. Debility and delusion make us deaf to the parasitization by language.
Lacan illustrates this dynamic in his 24th seminar (meeting March 8) with the example of his grandson Luc. One day little Luc tells him that he is trying to use words that he does not understand. What's more, he believes that is precisely why he has a big head. Lacan points out that the boy, like him, actually does have a big skull, but that is not the crux of the story. The point is that little Luc links this particular image of his head to the proliferation of misunderstood words. It shows that he uses everyday delusion to limit the parasitic experience of language. It is a form of identification with which he responds to an intrusion.
The third track, next to debility and delusion to deal with parasitization through the flesh and lalangue, is through being duped by the Real. This can be done, among other things, by naming the meaningless jouissance that marks our life. I read Berlinde De Bruyckere's drawings as a kind of such naming or presenting a real jouissance. They make jouissance singularly present without it being completely particularisable in the field of meaning and language.

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