The Hysteric Philosopher

It must first be pointed out that one doesn’t have to be hysterical in the clinical sense to hold the Discourse of the Hysteric; indeed, Lacan made it clear that this type of discourse, in non-hysterical people, is precisely what leads to true learning. Here, the agent of the discourse is the castrated lackingness of the Hysteric; hidden beneath its bar is his/her object cause of desire. This barred Subject, driven by its objet petit a, addresses the master signifiers of the other, which respond with the production of knowledge, beneath the bar. It is to the master signifier that the Hysteric addresses his/her questions, but she/he receives as an answer only the knowledge of that person, which the Hysteric enjoys for want of anything better, although these answers never constitute a satisfactory response to his/her desire. The Master’s willingness to answer the questions of the Hysteric is not fuelled by his/her wish to teach but is an effect of the unconscious connection with the objet petit a of the Hysteric, as represented by the oblique arrow. The hysterical questioning pushes the master signifier up to the limits of its knowledge and leads to the Hysteric’s frustration when this limit is reached. The Discourse of the Hysteric is held by anyone who is on the path to knowledge; indeed, Lacan says that the desire for knowledge does not lead to knowledge, and what does is precisely the Discourse of the Hysteric.

In the Discourse of the University, one can see that the barred subject of the student in fact responds indirectly to the master signifier of the institution, as much as to the knowledge. The primary relationship of the student is with what is represented by the institution, and not with knowledge; the student wants to have the status of one who knows, rather than the knowledge itself. Curiously, the position of the Hysteric, which is incessantly to question the Master, results in the acquisition of knowledge. While she/he truly wants to know what is his/her object cause of desire, she/he gets fed knowledge instead, and without setting out to become one who knows, ends up knowing. This is very much the position adopted by good journalists, when they are in the field. It is a position that requires (as shown in the barred Subject as the addressing agent) perfect acceptance of one’s ignorance, no great desire to pretend to any other status, and a hunger for the object cause of desire. It is a position in which the Subject can question the other – who is represented by master signifiers – with an unquestioning acceptance of the authority of those master signifiers: this man before me is an Afghan warlord, I expect him to know about his territories … this woman is a botanist, therefore I must ask her about plants …

Oddly enough, apart from hysterics and journalists, there are not many people who pose questions to others precisely and exhaustively in their true field of expertise: we do not necessarily respond to the master signifiers of the other, because of other social and unconscious factors. Indeed, many social relationships require one to ignore the master signifiers of the other: for instance, if you meet a famous writer at a party, you may feel that interrogating her about her work might be tiresome to her; if you consult an expert for an opinion (say, on a legal matter), it is a commercial transaction in which you would be overstepping the boundaries by questioning him about the workings of his field more generally. The student is in theory permitted to question his/her teachers/superiors in such a way, but in fact rarely does. This may be because the castratedness she/he feels in relation to the institution is such that she/he feels ‘stupid’ or embarrassed about asking, or she/he can’t be bothered because what she/he hankers after is the qualification or status the institution will give him/her rather than the knowledge itself, or if she/he does pose questions these may be designed to ‘show off’ in some bid to identify with the master signifiers of the institution. It is only those who take up the Hysteric’s discourse – who put their castratedness on the line, as it were, who truly gain knowledge. The journalist’s role on the other hand requires him/her to adopt the Hysteric’s discourse for long periods of their career, and the result of this may be that they end up with an encyclopaedic knowledge of a great many things.

Lionel Bailly: Lacan, Beginner’s Guide


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