The “terminal” subject

There are some interesting passages in Jacques Lacan’s Seminar XVII (“The other side/the upside-down of psychoanalysis”) given in 1970. This is the seminar best known for discussing the “four discourses” which were his attempt to illustrate the structures of relations between subject and language.

Lacan’s four discourses were that of the master, the hysteric, the analyst and the university:


Lacan’s four discourses

These discourses attempt to illustrate the ways in which the (always incomplete or divided) subject is socialized in language. The terms are S1 – master signifier; S2 – knowledge; $ – the [divided] subject; and a – “that which escapes” (in Massumi’s terms) or more usually objet petit a (the small other). Notice that each discourse is a quarter turn around.

The discourses work by occupying in turn the following meanings:


The idea is that the term in the top left corner provides the orientation for the term in the top right. So in the master’s discourse for example, the master signifier, S1, as the agent impossibly attempts to provide the other with knowledge. This is however impossible because the master actually has no knowledge and instead depends on the “slave” (to use Hegel’s terms) to produce knowledge, which the master seeks to appropriate. What is produced in this scheme is a, while the subject occupies the position of truth.

At a point late in the seminar Lacan explicitly discusses science. Lacan starts talking about science as possibly a master’s discourse and as if it constituted a series of zones, or better, spheres which “encircle the earth” (Sem. XVII, p. 160 of the English translation and 187 of the French). Surprisingly given that we’re talking about science, Lacan rejects calling this the noosphere or sphere of the mind “which we ourselves supposedly populate” (p. 161/187). Rather, Lacan terms this the “alethosphere.”

Don’t get too excited. The alethosphere gets recorded. If you have a little microphone here [presumably indicating the recording microphones in front of him], you are plugged into the alethosphere. What is really something is that if you are a little vehicle that is transporting you toward Mars you can still plug into the alethosphere….

It takes time to observe all the things that populate it…

I’m going to call [them] the “lathouses.” The world is increasingly populated by lathouses.

Sem. XVII, p. 161-2/188

Sorry for the neologisms he uses here. Alethosphere should be familiar to readers of Philip Pullman however, who features an alethiometer; both words derive from the Greek for “truth.” Heidegger also uses the term aletheia.

As for lathouses, the first thing Lacan does is claim he could have spelled it “lathousies” which echoes Plato’s ousia or being, but which Lacan says is somewhere between being and the Other.

What are they? “And these tiny objects little a that you will encounter when you leave, there on the footpath at the corner of every street, behind every window, in this abundance of these objects designed to be the cause of your desire, insofar as it is now science that governs it” these are the lathouses.

For Joan Copjec, commenting on this, these lathouses are little gadgets or gizmos:

In Lacan’s new ultra-modern myth, there is no heavenly sphere, naturally; it has been demolished. All that remains of the world beyond the subject is the ‘alethosphere’, which is a kind of high-tech heaven, a laicized or ‘disenchanted’ space filled none the less with every technoscientific marvel imaginable: space probes and orbiters, telecommunications and telebanking systems, and so on. The subject is now a ‘terminal’ subject, plugged into various circuitries, suited with wearable computers and fitted with artificial, remotely monitored and controlled organs, implants.

Copjec 2006, p. 96

So in this view science has given us only a series of “gadgets” rather than meaningful truth. We accommodate ourselves to them instead of the other way round These gadgets tear us away from a social fabric (discourse), and from our truths (Dunlop, 2014, p. 160).

Copjec: “The reality ( of the market ) principle was clearly calling the shots, telling the
pleasure principle in what to invest and what pleasures ought to be sacrificed to get the best returns on those investments.” This part is not necessarily new of course as you can find similar ideas in Benjamin and Heidegger.

But I like this idea of the terminal subject. This is a common trope in SF where it’s variously called cyberspace (Gibson) or the Oasis (Ready Player One) etc. I think this in some ways betters Haraway’s “cyborg” in that the terminal subject, by being taken up into the Other, will experience anxieties, not of a general or diffuse angstyness, but because of a surfeit of these objects. Especially these “non-objectified objects” called lathouses (Copjec, p. 99). Thus the modern subject with their smartphones, GPS devices and other forms of technology is the anxious subject, overwhelmed and subjectified.

But this subjectification takes place, to some extent, with our willing consent. That is because in these gadgets we seek to work out our desires, that is, to gain jouissance. By definition, desire can never be satisfied, so it produces a constant searching and no doubt participation in social media such as Facebook and Twitter. (Let me just check if anyone responded to my hilarious FB post! How many followers do I have on Twitter now? Let me just check again!) ARRRGGH!

To no avail then. For Copjec, this jouissance is “fraudulent” because it gives a false sense that our core being is knowable. This will perhaps be the problem with Big Data when it comes to “represent” us. As Rouvroy and Berns (2013) have already outlined, algorithmic governance entails three (problematic) stages:

  1. The data double & Big Data become statistical data, information.
  2. The production of knowledge from those data, especially through automated machine learning with the goal of “absolute objectivity.”
  3. Action is taken on behaviors: anticipate possibilities that individuals will realize and to associate these with profiles in order to “conduct” (cf. Foucault).

Lacan ends his seminar XVII by provoking his listeners to feel shame. Here we might reflect on what psychoanalysis in the Lacanian tradition is meant to achieve in the end. It does not seek to change behavior or to reach some deep understanding of themselves as a now cured unitary self. Rather, it is more modest in that it seeks to have people confront the truth of their desires.So when we constantly put in place ways of collecting more data on ourselves in the Internet of Things, perhaps we should face the truth of what we’re doing here, whether it be control or profit.


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