text: “Semblantisation and Nominalism” (J Santiago)

from the website of the Congress:

Semblantisation and Nominalism

Jésus Santiago

In his presentation of the theme for the next WAP Congress, Jacques-Alain Miller is led to put forward the notion of ‘make-believisation’ to indicate that, in the field of the psychoanalytic clinic, ‘the ideal of total symptomatic fade-away is meaningless.’[1] If there is no solution at the end of the experience, aside from the symptom, this is above all because the make-believe [semblant] is at the base of what Lacan designates as the ‘primary function of truth.’[2] This means that what constitutes what is proper to the experience of analysis is that it requires time. In other words, treating the real is accomplished through the accumulation of the work of deciphering the effects of truth. Considering the opposition between truth and real, between make-believe and real, in a dichotomic way, as if it were a matter of realities that are mutually exclusive, could bring about a conception of the practice that, in the end, would exclude the effects of truth, affects which, in the last instance, convoke time. The hypothesis we can formulate here is that this kind of exclusion would be close to a nominalist trend that puts what is essential to analytic practice in question. Focussing attention on what is particular in the clinic enters, in my opinion, a nominalist side of practice; I am going to try to explore this question in greater depth.

Lacan’s non-nominalism

The category of ‘make-believisation’ enables us to affirm that the only outcome for the difficulties encountered by the work of deciphering the symptom, when it comes up against the non-meaning of jouissance, is the outcome offered by the make-believe. It is certain that one of the clinical tools that makes the dynamic of the functioning of ‘make-believisation’ explicit is the subject supposed to know itself. If the subject supposed to know is a make-believe, its transformation does not however lead to a real that is without a relation to make-believes. Nothing in its transformation and its fall happens without some S1s being isolated. It is also possible to say ‘make-believisation’ constitutes a fairly enlightening seizure of the ‘hystoricisation’ Lacan speaks about, because it highlights the major importance that the use of the make-believe takes on in the Lacanian conception of the symptom and in its final resolution. This is why the value conferred upon the make-believe in analytic practice supposes a position being taken up with regard to the dispute between nominalism and realism.

That said, it seems to me that it is not by chance that, in Seminar XVIII on the make-believe, Lacan took care to declare explicitly his ‘non-nominalist’ filiation. Admittedly, we can always retort that this was a comment addressed to the nominalism of the time, namely Jacques Derrida’s ‘deconstructivist’ philosophy, given that there are elements in this Seminar that corroborate this proposition. Nevertheless, we can ascertain the presence of components that refer back to his conception of analytic practice. When he writes: ‘I am not nominalist’, Lacan means to bring out the fact that his point of departure is none other than: ‘The name [as] something that tacks itself, just like that, onto the real’, and that at the end of the day, ‘our discourse […] only finds the real in as much as it depends on the function of the make-believe.’[3]

For nominalism, the real and the names present themselves as radically separate and impenetrable realities. The name of things is considered as a sheer artifice, with nothing to do with the conception of the real transported by this doctrine, namely: essentially particular beings or individuals. In fact, what is involved is a doctrine that only recognises the existence of individuals, it does not accept the existence of universal realities, above all when they are expressed in the form of mental categories.[4] Indeed, the elimination of everything that does not make up the particularity of individuals reduces the real to the world of particular individuals. If the universal is conceived of as contradictory and unusual, then it must be radically excluded. There would not be, in the individual, any universal manifestation that would have to be distinguished from what makes up his intrinsic nature. The universals are names; they are neither a reality nor something that would have its grounding in reality. When nominalism postulates that the universals are simple flatus vocis, it is led to admit that the universals do not refer back to anything real. Thus, in the nominalist doctrine, names are make-believes bearing no relation to the real.

At the level of the nominalist solution, what is uppermost is the artificialism of the signifier which on one side takes as truth the unilateral thesis that the signifier would be a make-believe, and on the other side the idea that there would be no make-believe in the real. If Lacan calls himself ‘non-nominalist’ it is because grasping the real in psychoanalysis is opposed to the presupposition of radical separation between names and things. The analytic practice is only possible through its politics of the symptom that postulates the conjunction of the real and language.

Moreover, it seems clear that if psychoanalysis seeks to modify the real by using words, it is because for psychoanalysis the connection between the real and language constitutes an impassable point of departure. Nevertheless, it is not enough to say that the analytic practice limits itself to treating the uniqueness of the case by means of clinical types; that would amount to reducing the analytic treatment to the existence of clinical types, i.e. confining the treatment to the realism of structure. Naming by means of structure is more than classifying because it lets us suppose that it would be possible to grasp the particular by appealing to the make-believe. Thereafter, one conjectures that the make-believe lodges itself in the real, or even that it touches upon it.

The singular element

If ‘make-believisation’ is not nominalist, it does however indicate the limits of the realism of structure. At the level of the analytic experience, the ‘unique’ is not mistaken but, at the same time, it is not opposed to what is of the order of structure. Even if what is essential to the experience of analysis only moves forward through ‘particulars’, the unfolding of the treatment permits of underlining, within the uniqueness of the case, what makes for its singularity. It would be wrong to think that the conclusion of the analytic treatment gets mixed up with the horizon of the clinic – in which the particular always ends in the clinical structure. It is Jacques-Alain Miller who confirms this with the surprising thesis that ‘the clinic is not psychoanalysis.’[5] Consequently, when one considers that ‘make-believisation’ ends up with ‘exceptions’, by virtue of the fact that there are only exceptions, psychoanalysis can make a universal paradox exist that sketches itself out as an ‘all’, but which is frankly negated by each case. Henceforth, a real presence related to the sinthome is admitted into the particular of the case; and once this singular element of the symptom has been spotted, we can do otherwise than to merely include it in a type or a clinical structure. This is how something of the unicity of the real at stake in the functioning of the sinthome can be reached.

The phallic semblant

The value bestowed upon the make-believe does not cover over the nominalist viewpoint, and the proof of this is that Lacan strives to demonstrate that the make-believe is the opposite of the artefact: ‘Discourse is artefact. What I’m beginning to build with this is exactly the opposite, because the make-believe is the opposite of the artefact.’[6] Nothing of the make-believe gets mixed up with the artificial configurations of the reparatory set-up proper to the way the products of science are used, a set-up that often has the appearance of a symptomatic construction with fairly singular characteristics. Contrary to this viewpoint, the make-believe is in abundance in nature: it is the case for thunder. There are also make-believes in psychoanalysis: the Name-of-the-Father, the phallus and even the object a.

But it is the establishing of the phallic make-believe that must be brought to light in so far as it indicates that a part of jouissance has been ‘significantised’ and consequently distanced from the body. When he remarks on the non-contingent character of this operation, Lacan refers rather to the jouissance that corresponds to the phallic make-believe, and not really to the phallic make-believe itself. He affirms that, ‘Were there another one, but there is none, other than phallic jouissance.’[7] Nevertheless, this real that expresses itself through the part of jouissance that has been significantised is, as Lacan puts it, ‘the only real that verifies anything whatsoever.’[8] It is only the phallic make-believe that can verify this real that is equivalent to the ‘anything whatsoever’, i.e. that undifferentiated something that certainly borders on common sense. The ‘make-believisation’ proper to the sinthome is something else entirely to the extent that here one would be aiming to get at a real that does not resemble anything and that expresses itself as absolute difference.


1- Miller, J.-A., ‘Semblants et sinthomes. Présentation du thème du VII Congrès de l’AMP’, in La Cause freudienne, Issue 69, Paris, Navarin/Le Seuil, Septembre 2008, pp. 128-129.

2- Lacan, J., Le séminaire, Livre XVIII, D’un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant, Paris, Seuil, 2007, p. 24.

3- Ibid., p. 28.

4- De Libera, A., La querelle dès universaux: de Platon à la fin du Moyen Âge, Paris, Seuil, p. 21.

5- Miller, J.-A., L’orientation lacanienne, 2008-9, Choses de finesse en psychanalyse, Lesson V, Unpublished.

6- Lacan, J., Op Cit. p. 27.

7- Lacan, J., The Seminar Book XX, Encore, Norton, New York/London, 1998, p. 60.

8- Lacan, J., Le séminaire livre XXIII, Le sinthome, Paris, Seuil, 2005, p. 118.

Translated from the French by Adrian Price


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