The Tortoise and Homeostasis

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Jacques Lacan: “The organism, already convinced as a machine by Freud, has a tendency to return to its state of equilibrium – this is what the pleasure principle states.



The reception of cybernetics and information theory in Paris in the early 1950s was mixed. Some were suspicious of a discourse which appeared to be an agent of technocratic instrumentalism. Henri Lefebvre and Jean Paul Sartre, for instance,[1] understood the imposition of cybernetics and information theory was another example of the creeping cultural hegemony of the United States.[2] On the other hand, for many European intellectuals, cybernetics presented the opportunity to make a clean break with the trappings of the past: humanist liberalism, idealist individualism, and Cartesian dualism. Some had been seriously engaged with American cybernetic and information theory in during WWII. Roman Jakobson and Claude Levi-Strauss, for instance, had studied at Ecole Libre des Hautes Etudes in New York during the Nazi occupation of France and had both taught at New School for Social Research (at the same time as Gregory Bateson). The Ecole Libre was a francophone academy in exile, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, which strongly supported the emerging scientific disciplines of cybernetics and information theory. Jakobson and Levi-Strauss both incorporated elements of information theory, game theory, and cybernetics into the disciplines of structural linguistics and structural anthropology.[3]

Jacques Lacan attempted a similar synthesis by situating the discourse of cybernetics and information theory within the frame of Hegelian dialectics and Freudian psychoanalysis. Lacan manages this by positioning cybernetics as part of the shift from the discourse of knowledge (which dominated until after the time of Hegel) to the discourse of the machine (which would dominate the coming age of communication and control).[4]

In contrast to the cyberneticians Gregory Bateson and Warren McCulloch, Lacan will argue that Freud’s theories adapted to the transition from the discourse of knowledge to the discourse of the machine (indeed Lacan credits Freud with actually anticipating many of the changes to come in the cybernetic era). Lacan acknowledges, however, that the nineteenth-century entropic model of “psychic energy” required revision. This is to be replaced by the cybernetic notion of homeostasis which more accurately demonstrates the distribution of information (as opposed to energy) within a system.[5]

Lacan does not condone or condemn cybernetics, but he does acknowledge the need to adapt to the discourse of the machine. For Lacan, cybernetics represented a tendency which had developed over the preceding centuries. Lacan traces the genesis of this shift toward the discourse of the machine to the 1600s when mathematical systems of probability and conjecture were first introduced.[6] Such systems proposed a subject exterior to the symbolic order of which they were part. The 1600s also witnessed the invention of calculating machines capable of organising complex numbers in sequence (Pascal’s Pascaline and Leibniz’s calculator, for example). Thereafter knowledge is inscribed within the machine, placing the subject in exterior relation to the symbolic system which inscribes their subjecthood.

In Seminar II Lacan went on to establish a developmental dialectic of science.

The three periods are:

  1. The animistic order – precedes the age of science. It is the realm of magic, mediated by speech.
  2. Exact science – places the real in its “proper place” (the revolutions of the planets, the constancy of physical properties). The operations of the real are independent of human action. The era of exact science is mediated by writing and produces the subject of science.
  3. Conjectural science – the scientific revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in which systems of probability were formulated. Rules of indeterminacy were introduced, which disrupted the stability of exact science. That which is in its “proper place” (the ontic) is “substituted by the science of combination of places as such (the conjectural).”[7]

For Lacan the “new science” of cybernetics is part of a wider discourse, which arises from conjectural science, and within which both psychoanalysis and cybernetics are produced.

In this periodisation of science Lacan draws on the philosopher of science Alexandre Koyré (1882-1964). Koyré held that the scientific revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries produced not only a new theoretical outlook of the world but also a shift of the position of man in relation to the world.[8] Koyré was one of the contributors to a series of discussions which ran concurrent with Seminar II, entitled “Psychoanalysis and the Human Sciences”. [9]Like Lacan, Koyré distinguishes between a discourse of magic and its successor, the discourse of science. The discourse of science is mediated by written symbolic systems which are exterior to the subject. Simply put: if the discourse of magic is spoken, the discourse of science is written. It is this “flight” of the symbolic from the body which produces the modern subject. The “new science” of cybernetics brings us to a realisation that symbolic systems can run by themselves and that people take their place within those pre-existing systems. The era of conjectural science introduces a play between absence and presence which extends into the era of cybernetics.[10]


In the year before Seminar II[12] Jacques Lacan had delivered the paper “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis” at the Rome Congress held at the Institute of Psychology at the University of Rome (1953).[13] In this paper, which along with its introductory text are known as The Rome Discourse, Lacan set out to introduce the formation of his own school of psychoanalytic thought (Société Française de Psychanalyse),[14] and to upgrade Freudian psychoanalysis to meet the technical standards of the mid-twentieth century. For Lacan this meant psychoanalysis had to “take back its own property” –to go back to the first principles of Freud, in which the analysis of language was central.

For Lacan, recent developments in structural linguistics (Roman Jakobson) and structural anthropology (Claude Levi-Strauss) provide “methods” through which Freudian psychoanalysis could be theorised anew. These methodological tools allowed Lacan to recognise a structural equivalence between the different elements of his neo-Freudian psychoanalysis.[15]

The other key structural element in Lacan’s discourse of 1953-1955 is his reading of the German idealist Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. In the 1930s, Lacan had taken part in Alexandre Kojève’s seminars on Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit. These highly influential seminars had been attended by a generation of thinkers who would shape the intellectual life in France over the coming decades, including Bataille, Deleuze, Foucault and Derrida.[16] In Kojève’s reading, Hegel held that the self and the social are mutually constitutive. This is exemplified in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic in which the subject is constituted – brought into a whole – in relation to the Other.[17] This reading of Hegel had been transposed into Lacan’s psychoanalytical theory by the mid 1930s, as is evident in Lacan’s formulation of the mirror stage (1936), in which unity of the self is established in its apprehension of the Self as Other. For Lacan, the moment when the infant apprehends the Self in the Other, it enters the realm of the symbolic – it enters language.

To understand Kojève’s reading of Hegel goes a long way in explaining Lacan’s mode of address circa 1953-1955. Lacan, like Kojève, recognises that thought is relative to time (the dialectic of history). This dialectical time begins with the recognition of I in the Other, which, I stress again, is the moment when the subject enters language.

Kojève states, in the introduction to his own seminar:

“Man is Self-Consciousness. He is conscious of himself, conscious of his human reality and dignity; and it is in this that he is essentially different from animals, which do not go beyond the level of simple Sentiment of self. Man becomes conscious of himself at the moment when - for the ‘first’ time - he says ‘I.’ To understand man by understanding his ‘origin’ is, therefore, to understand the origin of the I revealed by speech.”[18]

Kojève goes on to outline that (for Hegel) the subject locates their Self Conciousness through desire. This can be a basic desire such as hunger or sexual desire. This desire can be recognised in the Other. This desire brings an encounter with the self which is realised in language – the becoming of the “I”. This encounter creates subjectivity and allows the “transformation of an alien reality into its own realty” and “assimilation” of its other.[19]

And here, in Seminar I, Lacan discusses the coming into self-consciousness, in psychoanalytical terms, with Jean Hyppolite (the principle translator and commentator of Hegel in France):

“The subject originally locates and recognises desire through the intermediary, not only of his own image, but of the body of his fellow being. It's exactly at that moment that the human being's consciousness, in the form of consciousness of self, distinguishes itself. It is in so far as he recognises his desire in the body of the other that the exchange takes place. It is in so far as his desire has gone over to the other side that he assimilates himself to the body of the other and recognises himself as body.” [20]

This connection to Kojève's Hegel accounts for the overall dialectical nature of Lacan’s argumentation around the time of the Rome Discourses (1953-1955) when Lacan was setting forward his re-formulation of psychoanalysis.

The exchange between Hyppolite and Lacan also carries across Seminar I and Seminar II. For instance, in Seminar II Hyppolite points out that our relation to the machine has shifted radically in recent history. This allows Lacan to unpack this change of relation in dialectical terms, and to outline consequent change in the human subject position with particular relation to cybernetics.[21]


Early on in the seminar Lacan also establishes a structural relation between the Hegelian dialectic and Levi Strauss' Elementary Structures of Kinship[22]

In Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949), Claude Lévi-Strauss had considered the rules of marriage and parental systems to be structured like a language. Lévi-Strauss asserted that, like a language, such systems constituted “a set of operations designed to ensure a certain type of communication between individuals and groups”. Lévi-Strauss would go on to call this (algorithmic) set of precepts “the structural unconscious”. [23]

The fact that symbolic material circulates within a human community, Lacan goes on to say, sets humans aside from animals. The animals are in a “jam”, their fate is determined by genetics and by their environment (in this respect they are more machine-like than humans). Humans entry into the symbolic order makes them radically different. Lacan argues that Levi-Strauss’ elementary structure of kinship, at the moment it is introduced, is total. When the first words are spoken the whole symbolic order is instituted (one might say “installed”). At this point it is impossible to think outside of it because the symbolic order is a “universe ”. [24]


“The human order is characterised by the fact that the symbolic function intervenes at every moment and at every stage of its existence. In other words, the whole thing holds together. In order to conceive what happens in the domain proper to the human order, we must start with the idea that this order constitutes a totality. In the symbolic order the totality is called a universe. The symbolic order from the first takes on its universal character. It isn't constituted bit by bit. As soon as the symbol arrives, there is a universe of symbols.” [25]

Here Lacan has already made the transition from Levi-Strauss’ structural anthropology into the Hegelian dialectic, a little later he states.

“[…] we can formulate the hypothesis that this symbolic order, since it always presents itself as a whole, as forming a universe all by itself – and even constituting the universe as such, as distinct from the world – must also be structured as a whole, that is to say, it forms a dialectic structure which holds together, which is complete.”[26]

Here we see a very different emphasis to the cyberneticians. Whenever Lacan discusses cybernetics (or any other issue) it is always in relation to a dialectic which was set into motion when humans first exchanged and circulated symbolic material. The dialectic is always already complete, the elements of this elementary structure are there (Levi-Strauss does not describe them as “primitive” or even “complex”) they are the elements that structure the whole (speaking constitutes a symbolic order). This structure is fully realised even before humans start to talk about what is within it and what is outside of it. It was in place when people first started to ask: What am I? What do I know?

A little later in the seminar, whilst in another exchange with Hyppolite (in which they discuss the post-revolutionary stage of absolute knowledge, when the dialectic is fulfilled), Lacan states:

“I think that according to Hegel everything is always there, all of history is always actually present, vertically so. Otherwise, it would be a childish tale. And the thing with absolute knowledge, which indeed is here, ever since the first Neanderthal idiots, is that discourse closes in on itself, whether or not it is in complete disagreement with itself, whether or not everything which can be expressed in the discourse is coherent and justified.”[27]

We see that Levi-Strauss has been gathered into Lacan’s Hegelian-Freudian dialectic at a moment when it was necessary to reassess the human relation to the machine. This reassessment is itself a moment of coming into consciousness of our relation to the ever-present dialectic. When Lacan talks of cybernetics he understands it as a further coming into consciousness of a structure which has existed since the symbolic was first introduced. In the Hegelian scheme, intellectual, artistic and technological innovations represent a (sometimes messy) working through of a dialectic which ends in absolute knowledge.

I’ve taken time to outline this Hegelian, dialectical construction because when Lacan discusses cybernetics, and the activities of servo-machines within this unfolding dialectic, the moment when the subject enters into language becomes central, particularly at a moment when machines appear to apprehend themselves in another machine and even exhibit elementary desire. It is at this point when the role of the machine must be reassessed, in an ongoing dialectic in which humans have consistently understood themselves in mechanical terms (for instance, Descartes' bete machine, in Of Man(1633) – which would later be formulated as the homme machine by Lamettrie in 1747 – had long since instigated the discourse of the machine).


Galvini's experiment with a frog's leg

Lacan: "Freud's whole discussion revolves around that question, what, in terms of energy. is the psyche?"[28]

Central to Lacan’s Seminar II was an issue that had been at the heart of Kubie and McCulloch critique of Freudian energetics. This was the issue of homeostasis and how a re-evaluation of the nineteenth century energy model ushered in by cybernetics necessitated a re-evaluation of Freudian dynamic psychology. For Lacan, our understanding of homeostasis in the age of servo-mechanisms shifts discourse further from the discourse of knowledge to the discourse of the machine.[29] We have seen in the previous chapter that this discourse was familiar in and around the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics (1946-1953) […] We have also established that the “vapour engine” had been introduced into the discourse of evolution as early as the 1860s by Samuel Butler. Even in the 1800s the self-correction of such machines could be regarded as synonymous with “thinking”.

Galvini's experiment with a frog's leg (detail 1)

In Seminar II, Lacan cites a particular type of servomechanism, Grey Walter's Tortoise, which had been gliding in a hesitant gait across the floor of the 1951 Paris Congress on Cybernetics only a few years before, and which has the ability to process information coming from its environment and adjust its subsequent actions accordingly. This creature, which seems to express homeostasis and exhibit something close to desire, invites Lacan to reassess Freud's dynamic psychology.

Galvini's experiment with a frog's leg (detail 2)

In Lacan’s reading of the Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud is repeatedly struggling with the invisible issues of negative entropy and homeostasis, but Freud lacked the theoretical equipment to make the connection between entropy in the machine and biological realm and its relation to information and communication: “the idea of living evolution, the notion that nature always produces superior forms, more and more elaborated, more and more integrated, better and better built organisms, the belief that progress of some sort is imminent in the movement of life, all this is alien to [Freud] and he explicitly repudiates it.”[30] Here evolution, as a homeostatic agent serves as a generative regulator it controls the system within established variables but it also allows growth and adaptation.

In Seminar II’s The Circuit [31], Lacan describes Freud’s pleasure principle as follows: “when faced with a stimulus encroaching on the living apparatus, the nervous system is, as it were, the indispensable delegate of the homeostat, of the indispensable regulator, thanks to which the living being survives and to which corresponds a tendency to lower excitation to a minimum.”[32]

This “minimum” for a living organism is homeostasis (negative feedback). The literal minimum of excitation would, however, be death. There is an important distinction to be drawn here. For Lacan, when Freud speaks of the “death instinct” he speaks of man stepping out of the “limits of life” which is “experience, human interchanges, intersubjectivity”. The withdrawal from sensory input affords survival and regulation.[33]Lacan makes an explicit relation between energy [E] entropy [H] and message [M]:

“Mathematicians qualified to handle these symbols locate information as that which moves in the opposite direction to entropy”[34] Lacan goes on to further describe the relation between information and entropy and their generative properties: “[…] if information is introduced into the circuit of the degeneration of energy, it can perform miracles. If Maxwell’s demon can stop the atoms which move too slowly, and keep only those which have a tendency to be a little on the frantic side, he will cause the general level of energy to rise again, and will do, using what would have degraded into heat. [35]

A key thread running through Seminar II is the introduction of negative entropy which fundamentally changed the discourse of entropy (in which indestructible forces are held in dynamic equilibrium) to the discourse of homeostasis, communication and control. The ordering of the subject is bound to the signal-noise ratio even to the extent that the most rudimentary non-conscious cybernetic device (the tortoise), by feeding news of order through its nervous system, can express purposeful behaviour.

The machines compulsion to repeat its actions gives Lacan the opportunity to reassess Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle further. Freud had posited the “death wish” as the desire of the subject to repeatedly place themselves in situations which would be harmful, and to do so voluntarily. Freud called this compulsion to repeat “Wiederholungszwang”, which Lacan translated as “automatisme de répétition” (which is in English “automation of repetition”). In so doing Lacan renders the unconscious death wish as equivalent to the non-conscious repetition of a servomechanism.[36] As the tortoise is compelled to seek light, to test the limits of life, it is also compelled, by the same non-conscious circuitry, to seek rest.

In Seminar II [37] Lacan recounts the encounter between two of Grey Walter's cybernetic tortoises “Which we know how to furnish with homeostasis and something like desires” in compulsive terms. The machines operate with a light sensitive sensor and the behaviour of one is determined by that of the other. Indeed the “unity of the first machine depends on that of the other” as long as one gives the “model or form of unity” [...] “whatever it is that the first is orientated toward will be that which the other is orientated towards”.[38] This orientation is achieved through the scansion of the rotating photocell which registers a precedence or an absence – repetition and insistence. In Lacan's narrative the two machines are “jammed” in apprehension of each other. Lacan asks where could the desire of such a machine be located, “The sole object of desire which we can presume of a machine is therefore its source of nourishment. Well then, if each machine is intent on the point to which the other is going somewhere there will necessarily be a collision.”

It is the cybernetic tortoise's mechanistic desire to repeat which saves it from death, from the inevitable effects of entropy (death) and brings it toward life (negative entropy). Lacan describes the homeostatic feedback loop of the cybernetic tortoise in the following way: “the machine looks after itself, maps out a certain curve, a certain persistence; And it is along the very path of this subsistence that something else becomes manifest, sustained by this existence it finds there and which shows it its passage.“ [39]

Even such rudimentary devices as the tortoise “learned” to navigate the space they were in and negotiate with other versions of themselves – sometimes colliding and sometimes “jamming” – as one tortoise is frozen in apprehension of the other. When one machine is “jammed” in its encounter with the other, as it encounters itself in the other. This might be read as a neurotic response (Norbert Wiener's cybernetic bedbug-moth was prone to such neurotic paralysis; Cora Mrk 2 was also prone to seizure) But this “jamming” is unique in another sense: servomechanisms and humans share similarities which they do not share with animals. In the post cybernetic era, humans and machines share a material relation to the world through manipulation of the symbolic system. The animal is in a genetic “jam” because it is lacking access to symbolic material. Lacan identifies the desire of such a machine is to restock its energy sources (Machina Speculatrix did indeed return to base to recharge itself). In this case the desire of the machine is the source of its nourishment. The desire of the machine to withdraw into its hutch is linked with the desire of the machine to continue. The fact that the machine can protect itself through withdrawal, by creating a stop-gap or buffer from the data-stream of the outside world is central to Lacan’s re-formulation of Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Desire is provided by the source of the initial signal; purpose is established by the feedback of organism-machine and source; the machine must periodically withdraw, to step out of limits of life which is experience, interchanges and intersubjectivity.

In the case of cybernetic tortoise the circuit is rudimentary, it is purely reflexive, a memory without storage, but even at this rudimentary level the scanning action which encodes the dark-light signals from the environment into a sequence, the machine is organising symbolic material. It is the repetition and insistence of the scanning light cell that anchors the tortoise in the world of the symbolic.

Lacan next suggests adaptations to the design of the mobile servo-machine: if the machine is fitted with recording equipment, a “legislator” intervenes with commands which “regulate the ballet”, this introduces a higher degree of symbolic regulation.[40] This represents a voice which is external to the machine which is nevertheless mixed with the circuitry of the apparatus.

When Lacan discusses augmenting the tortoises with additional sensors he is not speaking purely speculatively, he is describing a machine such as Grey Walter’s CORA Mrk. 1 which we discussed in the chapter The Body in Pieces. In The Living Brain Grey Walter had described the seven stage circuitry required for a mechanism to acquire a conditioned response. Here, acquired knowledge feeds into the circuitry in long and short feedback loops. The correct functioning of CORA Mrk 1 would require the machine to store information about a previous action and to act in response to it. This is a stage of abstraction removed from the first generation of tortoises (Elsie and Elma). In the cybernetic tortoise memory takes the form of symbolic units of difference – these feed through the circuitry of the machine as a cluster of 1/0 – on/off – light/dark – the world encoded as a memory which translates as a learned response. This is still some light years from human consciousness but from this point, as far as the cyberneticians are concerned, the distance becomes a matter of degree.

For Lacan such machines provide plastic models for the formation of the subject in which consciousness is not essentialised (it is a body in pieces). The moment when the tortoise apprehends its Self in the Other is the moment when the nascent subject grasps unity. If the body in pieces finds its unity in the image of the other it is within the circuitry of cybernetic creatures that the model of homeostatic co-dependency is expressed. Cybernetic machines such as the tortoise allow Lacan to conceive of “a symbolic regulation, of which the unconscious mathematical subjacency of the exchanges of the elementary structures gives us the schema.”[41] This last sentence provides a complex knot to cut through, but it will be worth the effort. Here Lacan brings us back to Levi-Strauss' elementary structures. The symbolic material which circulates within human cultures has an underlying structure which is fundamentally mathematical. This order has been brought into dialectical relief by machines which, like human beings, exhibit negative entropy. The legislator is not a puppet master of the human-machine (there is no place for idolatry in this scheme) it is rather a reiterative pattern, ordered pulses of absence and presence (dark-light-on off) which brings forth consciousness. This is the “subjacent” material that gives rise to the symbolic order. In Play Like an Idiot we will discuss how this “mathematical subjacency” comes into being in Lacan's Schema.


Once Lacan had outlined the role of the servomechanism in positioning the subject– Hyppolite interjects, offering two observations which allow Lacan to develop his argument further:

  1. that the meaning of the machine has changed since the advent of cybernetics.
  2. that it is the human passion for mathematics that makes humans “partners to the machine”.

These two observations allow Lacan to address two of the central themes of his assessment of cybernetics.

These are, principally

  1. the shift from the entropy model of energy to the homeostatic (negative entropy) model of energy
  2. the development of the science of probability in the seventeenth century,[42] which provided the conditions for humans to become partners to the machine.

Later in the seminar, in his lecture on cybernetics and the Unconscious, Lacan will identify this as the era of “conjectural science”. Throughout the seminar Lacan describes the shifting horizon of possibility that takes place as the implications of these two things take hold on human life.

In his approach to Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Lacan seeks to update our reading of Freud in the light of current (post cybernetic) knowledge of homeostasis. Freud encountered the same energy question as other nineteenth century thinkers: in an entropic universe how could one account for order in the first instance? It was possible to approach the crisis by understanding systems in dynamic equilibrium, but without an adequate theory of homeostasis the theorist of system was in danger of falling into the metaphysics of vitalism and energetics – which must rely on a vague notions such as a “life force” to plug the energy gap.[43]

Early in his career Freud had practiced in a context which relied on the model of the reflex-arc, which attempted to understand the organism’s relation to environment through input stimulus. In this scheme stimulus provides excitation to action. This theory proposed a hierarchy of reflexes “higher reflexes, reflexes of reflexes...” &c.[44] Freud opposed this “reflex architecture” and, anticipating neuron theory, counter-proposed the concept of the “buffer” (this has some relation to Claude Bernard’s milieu interieur). [45]

In relation to neuron theory, later experiments, including those of McCulloch and Pitts, would confirm the functioning of synapsis as “contact barriers” and the equilibrating system of filters which “damps down” the synaptic charge (negative feedback). In cybernetic terms, there are checks in the system which avoid “overrun” or positive feedback. The cybernetic tortoises express this in very rudimentary terms. In Lacan’s reading, Freud’s “genius” was that he anticipated a conception of the psyche as working in equilibrium and even described the function, but Freud lacked the theory which accounted for the energy deficit, which Lacan characterises as “pulling the rabbit out of the hat”. Freud did not succeed in finding a coherent model of consciousness principally because he lacked the theoretical apparatus provided by a theory of homeostasis and the cybernetic conception of negentropy.[46]

A renewed understanding of entropy invites not only a reassessment of Freudian discourse but of discourse in general. Lacan goes into detailed description of how the discourse of knowledge transitioned into the discourse of the machine. [47] In tracing the development of this discourse Lacan gives the example of Galvini’s experiment with an electric charge to the leg of a dead frog (1791), which gave rise to the notions of “animal electricity” and “vitalism”. Here the energy problem remains. In order to “pull a rabbit out of a hat”, Lacan remarks, one must first place the rabbit into the hat. Lacan mentions that an earlier attempt to account for this energy surfeit, Condillac (1716-1780), was conditioned by the lack of a sufficient model to describe entropy. “[Condillac] didn’t have a formula for it, because he came before the steam engine. The era of the steam engine, its industrial exploitation, administrative projects, and balance-sheets, were needed, for us to ask the question – what does a machine yield?” Lacan identifies the “metaphysics” in such an approach, whether one seeks recourse in “energetics” or “vitalism”. “For Condillac, as for others, more comes out than was put in. They were metaphysicians.”[48]

Before the advent of cybernetics, there is no adequate account of how that rabbit got into the hat. In Lacan’s unfolding dialectic, Wiener’s theory of negentropy, and Claude Shannon’s information theory are the only things that can legitimately account for the rabbit’s miraculous appearance. Lacan recognises that the horizon of possibilities shifts as the administration of the system of knowledge changes, and that the change is dependent on a particular technological development – be it the steam engine or the servo-mechanism. This is not to say that the machine produces the discourse, Lacan is careful to give accounts in which each is produced by the other in a discursive feedback loop. The language within Lacan’s account, in which “balance sheets” speak of the fantasy of economic equilibrium and “yield” speaks of economic and energetic surplus, emphasises the very energy crisis in which the discourse is situated. The machines described by Lacan encode, inscribe, and send symbolic material into the world – they produce discourse.

Lacan next elaborates the discourse of energy in the light of Hegel’s dialectic and sets this against the emerging discourse of cybernetics. Lacan understands the second to be a dialectical outworking of the first. We have established that if Hegel is concerned with the discourse of knowledge, cybernetics is concerned with the discourse of the machine. Hegel, in the first instance, allows us to see man as co-extensive to discourse, knowledge is “more than a tete e tete with God”, Lacan suggests. In the discourse of cybernetics man is co-extensive with the machine. In Lacan’s account we see the discourse of the machine prefigured in the time of Pascal (with the Pascaline calculating machine) and Huygen (with the clock) whereby humans first understood themselves as being constituted by symbolic systems – and machines which measure and regulate those systems – which are outside of the self.

Before Galvini’s experiment with the frog’s leg the notion that humans were “energised” was not part of discourse. Lacan notes that Hegel had little or nothing to say about energy – there was no steam engine in the Hegelian universe to provide a model for human energy; the crisis of equilibrium that would accompany the invention of the steam engine and the establishment of the second law of thermodynamics was yet to occur. It is at the point when machines exhibit behaviour that another conception of self is possible(and we have seen in earlier chapters how Samuel Butler articulated this new reality). It is in the cybernetic era that information and energy find their equivalence.

In Lacan’s discourse a change in human conception of what constitutes a human is influenced at every turn by a machine which causes a change in the conception of what is possible: The calculating machine (Pascaline) presages an era in which the human subject is answerable to systems of probability which are exterior to the self; the clock presages a human subject who is beholden to an exterior symbolic order; the steam engine introduces the economy of energy and entropy into the problematic of what constitutes "man"; servomechanisms, such as Grey Walter’s tortoise, introduce the notion of negative entropy, resolving the nineteenth century energy crisis but at the same time making the organism equivalent to the machine. Hegel's discourse was a discourse on knowledge, but if a machine can think, what does a machine know, and how does a machine know?

The issue of energy becomes central at the point when the steam engine is common (in the time of Freud). Freud intuited that the pleasure principle corresponded to a state of equilibrium, where dynamic forces produce a balance, but he did not have a scientific model or the embodiment of homeostasis in a machine. The model would be provided by Cannon's formulation of homeostasis in the 1930s and the machine would be provided by the British neurophysiologists and cybernetician Grey Walter.

Maxwell's Demon


I began by pointing out that Lacan's Seminar I and Seminar II are framed in the context of the Rome Discourses of 1953[49], which sought to bring psychoanalysis in line with the technical standards of the mid 1950s. It was Lacan’s aim to rehabilitate Freud’s emphasis on the analysis of language as the central activity of psychoanalysis.

I also pointed out that the broad frame for this new programme was provided by Alexandre Kojève’s analysis of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (itself a combination of Hegel, Heidegger and Marx). Lacan's reading of Kojève is reflected in his discourse on exact science. The world of exact science is one in which there is a limit to what can be known, in this it can be understood as ontic. The ontic refers to knowledge which is given: simple or complicated matters of fact which are independent of human mind and human action. Once the ontic is established there is nothing new to know about it. The world of exact science, in which everything is in its proper place – the planets spin in their allotted configuration and the properties of the physical world are stable – is such a world. Ontological questions are of a different order, because they cannot easily be assigned a place and do not have limits or boundaries (the question of Being, is one such question).

The era of conjectural science disrupts the ontic stability of the world of exact science because the stable relation between humans and knowledge is challenged. It is in the context of conjectural science that humans achieve a more radical level of exteriority, it becomes evident that we are produced by symbolic systems that function despite our own existence (non-human agents of subjectivity that are produced by a symbolic order exterior to the subject). It is at this stage that we begin to understand our intersubjectivity in relation to those systems. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit might be understood, dialectically, as a coming to terms with the modern, administrative world of checks and balances, of probabilities, ratios, and averages. For Lacan, Hegel's work is a response to the production of subjectivity in the aftermath of the era of conjectural science.

The invention of the steam engine introduces a new era in which the human relation to knowledge is again disrupted. In the era of steam a crisis of subjectivity is produced and a new synthesis of knowledge is required. As the dialectic unfolds, humans suddenly become aware that their fate is tied inexorably to entropy. The ontological crisis of self in the 1800s, becomes an energy crisis. An explanation for this is provided by Freud, who formulates the theory of dynamic psychology. And this goes some way to establishing a relation between the subject and the discourse of energy which produces that subject.

In the cybernetic era, Bateson, McCulloch, and Kubie (among others) are quick to see the deficiencies in Freud’s energetic model. The ‘vapour engine’, which had initiated the crisis, actually holds the solution, because it does something more than distribute energy in order to produce an equilibrium. It also produces information about itself and its environment which it feeds through its system in order to adapt and change (negative entropy). The governor, in Hegelian terms, embodies the thesis, antithesis and synthesis of the cybernetic era. It is at the point where the vapour engine’s younger cousin, the cybernetic tortoise, scuttles uneasily across the floor, that Lacan engages with the new, non-human, performative, agents of subjectivity. The discourse is no longer about knowledge, or about energy but about the subject’s relation to negentropic systems which are radically exterior to it, and yet which constitute it. The new discourse of information and communication.

In the Rome Discourse Lacan outlined the stake of language in the new information age. Lacan points out that recent innovations in communication made it necessary to reduce redundancy in speech and to emphasise information (the signal-noise ratio), but notes that:“[T]he function of language in speech is not to inform but to evoke. What I seek in speech is a response from the other.”[50] Lacan returns to the master-slave dialectic in order to articulate this new crisis of communication.

“What constitutes me as a subject is my question. In order to be recognized by the other, I proffer what was only in view of what will be. In order to find him, I call him by a name that he must assume or refuse in order to answer me.”[51]
“If I now face someone to question him, there is no cybernetic device imaginable that can turn his response into a reaction. The definition of "response" as the second term in the “stimulus-response” circuit is simply a metaphor sustained by the subjectivity attributed to animals, only to be elided thereafter in the physical schema to which the metaphor reduces it. This is what I have called putting a rabbit into a hat so as to pull it out again later. But a reaction is not a response.”[52]

As I mentioned earlier, Lacan returns to the metaphor of the Rabbit again in Seminar II. For him the metaphorical manoeuvre is akin to the magician’s sleight of hand. This violates the rule (in Hegel) that speech elevates the human above the animal. It is the case that for the subject to be constituted as self-conscious, some stimulus and response is required, but this is of a different order to the stimulus and response within the circuitry of any “cybernetic device” (which responds to stimulus and response in a similar fashion to the nervous system in an animal), because, for Lacan “a reaction is not a response”. [53]A response, in human communication, is an acknowledgement of an other’s existence and of their desire. It acknowledges an intersubjectivity that is constitutive of the subject that speaks and the subject that responds. By contrast to this, states Lacan: “If I press an electric button and a light goes on, there is a response only to my desire” [54] In this case, there is no intersubjective response, and that will remain the case, however elaborate the circuitry. What matters, on a human level is the production of intersubjectivity.

If Maxwell’s demon, in the post cybernetic era, is embodied in servomechanisms and computers, what then is the implication to the subject in relation to this new turn in the dialectic which produces the discourse of the machine?

It is not Lacan’s aim to endorse cybernetics, but rather to acknowledge its reality within the emerging discourse. As with earlier discourse networks[55] (exact science, conjectural science) the subject’s relation to the symbolic will change, as the volume of symbolic material proliferates and as the media of its communication increase. The question then becomes, what kind of subjectivities are engendered within the discourse of cybernetics? How does the discourse of cybernetics structure the symbolic?

  1. Céline Lafontaine The Cybernetic Matrix of ‘French Theory’; Theory, Culture & Society 2007 (SAGE, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, and Singapore), Vol. 24(5): 27–46 | Sartre's response to Foucault, Levi-Strauss, Lacan and Althusser.:"[look to] what is going on in the United States" [where] “a technocratic civilization no longer holds a place for philosophy unless the latter turns itself into technology."
  2. This is not without foundation, the 1951 Paris Congress on cybernetics was covertly funded by the C.I.A.. This was part of a larger program to ensure cultural influence in western Europe see Who Paid the Piper?])
  3. Note: For more on information theory and cybernetics as an ideological instrument see: Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan: From Information Theory to French Theory: Jakobson, Le´vi-Strauss, and the Cybernetic Apparatus, Critical Inquiry 38 (Autumn 2011), The University of Chicago + or read the annotation (link here)]
  4. Liu, Lydia H.: The Cybernetic Unconscious: Rethinking Lacan, Poe, and French Theory, Critical Inquiry 36 (Winter 2010),The University of Chicago
  5. There is a central question dominating Lacan’s work from The Rome Discourse (1953) and through Seminar I and Seminar II (1953-1955) which we will examine in the coming chapters. The question is (crudely put): How can psychoanalysis meet the technical standards of the mid-twentieth century? And the answer to that question (again, crudely put) is: One must recognise the shift from the discourse of knowledge (which dominated the enlightenment and after) to the discourse of the machine (which will dominate the age of communication and control).
  6. Ian Hacking The Emergence of Probability
  7. :Lacan Seminar II, Lecture on Cybernetics and the Unconscious
  8. See, Svitlana Matviyenko, Lacan’s Cybernetics: The University of Western Ontario, 2016, p25
  9. “Psychoanalysis and the Human Sciences” featured many prominent thinkers of the time, in addition to Alexandre Koyré, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jean Hyppolite, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Émile Benveniste. In Seminar II Lacan regularly comments on what had been discussed at these events.
  10. This is why Edgar Allan Poe’s story of the Purloined letter becomes so important later in the seminar. In the story, the letter (which remains unopened – “black boxed”) excites the protagonists to action.
  11. This section could be sub headed- Lacan: Hegel, Structuralism and Cybernetics: from The Rome Discourse to Seminar books I and II (1953-1955)
  12. Lacan, Jacques, and Miller, Jacques-Alain. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 2: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954 1955. Cambridge: CUP Archive, 1988
  13. The Function and Field of Speechand Language in Psychoanalysis. Paper delivered at the Rome Congress held at the Institute of Psychology at the University of Rome on September 26 and 27, 1953
  15. Note:In the Rome Discourse Lacan describes the relation as follows. On structural linguistics: “…the reference to linguistics will introduce us to the method which, by distinguishing synchronic from diachronic structurings in language, will enable us to better understand the different value our language takes on in the interpretation of resistances and of transference, and to differentiate the effects characteristic of repression and the structure of the individual myth in obsessive neurosis.”. Structural anthropology affords similar advantages:” “[I]t seems to me that these [psychoanalytical] terms can onlv be made clearer if we establish their equivalence to the current language of anthropology, or even to the latest problems in philosophy, fields where psychoanalysis often need but take back its own property.”
  16. Warms, Richard L. & McGee, R. Jon . Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology. An Encyclopedia Sage, 2013; Mark Poster, The Hegel Renaissance: Toward a Philosophical Anthropology, in Existential Marxism in Postwar France From Sartre to Althusser, Princeton University Press (1975)
  17. ]Kojève, Alexandre (1902-1968), Introduction to the Reading of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, Assembled by Raymond Queneau, Basic Books (1969).
  18. Kojève, Alexandre (1902-1968), Introduction to the Reading of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, Assembled by Raymond Queneau, Basic Books (1969).
  19. Kojève Introduction to the Reading of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, Assembled by Raymond Queneau, Basic Books (1969) p4
  20. Seminar 1 147
  21. In Seminar II, the dialectical structure again becomes apparent when Lacan describes a coming into being of consciousness which is conditioned by changes in technology: the advent of Huygen's clock, the emergence of probability, the introduction of the steam engine. Each technological innovation has structured particular types of subjectivity. A parallel dialectic unfolds when Lacan distinguishes three different periods in human development: (1) animistic order (2) exact science and (3) conjectural science. In Lacan’s unfolding dialectic each era establishes new horizons of possibility.
  22. On 30 November 1954 (the day before Lacan's seminar) Claude Levi-Strauss gave a lecture to the Societe Francaise de Psychanaiyse, entitled 'Kinship versus the family'
  23. Levi Strauss in 1951, cited in Céline Lafontaine The Cybernetic Matrix of ‘French Theory’; Theory, Culture & Society 2007 (SAGE, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, and Singapore), Vol. 24(5): p.34;Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology Translated from the French by Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf, Basic Books 1963 (1958)
  24. Seminar II p29
  25. Lacan, Jacques, and Miller, Jacques-Alain . The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 2: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955. Cambridge: CUP Archive, 1988. p29
  26. Lacan, Jacques, and Jacques-Alain Miller. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 2: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955. Cambridge: CUP Archive, 1988. p29
  27. Lacan, Jacques, and Miller, Jacques-Alain. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 2: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955. Cambridge: CUP Archive, 1988. p71
  28. Lacan, Jacques, and Miller, Jacques-Alain. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 2: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955. Cambridge: CUP Archive, 1988. p75
  29. Although Lacan will invoke the cybernetic creatures built by Grey Walters and the “second guessing” robots like those built by Claude Shannon & David Hagelbarger these machines underline the central issue of the "homeostasis" section of the seminar.
  30. Lacan, Jacques, and Miller, Jacques-Alain. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 2: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955. Cambridge: CUP Archive, 1988. p79
  31. Seminar II (77-90)
  32. Seminar II p80
  33. For Lacan it is precisely this homeostatic ability which represents the “rabbit inside the hat”, a previously unaccounted for surfeit.
  34. cite
  35. Lacan, Jacques, and Miller, Jacques-Alain. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 2: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955. Cambridge: CUP Archive, 1988
  36. Here I have paraphrased Jean-Pierre Dupuy. On the Origins of Cognitive Science : The Mechanization of the Mind ; translated by M. B. DeBevoise. MIT Press, 2009 p 18
  37. Lacan, Jacques, and Jacques-Alain Miller. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 2: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955. Cambridge: CUP Archive, 1988. pp40-52 and p.54)
  38. Lacan, Jacques, and Jacques-Alain Miller. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 2: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955. Cambridge: CUP Archive, 1988.(p40-52 and 54)
  39. Lacan, Jacques, and Miller, Jacques-Alain. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 2: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955. Cambridge: CUP Archive, 1988.p.81
  40. Lacan, Jacques, and Miller, Jacques-Alain. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 2: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955. Cambridge: CUP Archive, 1988. P.539 54
  41. Jacques Lacan, and Miller, Jacques-Alain . The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 2: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955. Cambridge: CUP Archive, 1988. p 55
  42. I. Hacking, The Emergence of Probability 10
  43. Bergson, H. The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics. North Chelmsford, MA: Courier Corporation, 2012.
  44. Lacan, Jacques, and Jacques-Alain Miller. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 2: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955. Cambridge: CUP Archive, 1988. (From the Entwurf to the Trandeutung) p. 116
  45. Cannon, Walter B. “The Wisdom of the Body”. The American Journal of the Medical Sciences 198, no. 1 (1939), 113. doi:10.1097/00000441-193907000-00031. An extension of Bernard’s milieu intérieur. See: Bernard, C. (1974) Lectures on the Phenomena Common to Animals and Plants. Trans Hoff HE, Guillemin R, Guillemin L, Springfield (IL): Charles C Thomas
  46. Lacan, Jacques, and Miller, Jacques-Alain. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 2: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955. Cambridge: CUP Archive, 1988. (From the Entwurf to the Trandeutung) p. 117
  47. Here Lacan gives an interesting description of the functioning of a discourse network, as readers of Kittler would understand it. In Kittler, discourse is conditioned by the technical standards of the day; Lacan takes up Hyppolite’s point that our understanding of what a machine is has changed in the era of cybernetics. See: Kittler, Friedrich A. Discourse Networks 1800/1900. Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 1990.
  48. Lacan, Jacques, and Miller, Jacques-Alain. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 2: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 19541955. Cambridge: CUP Archive, 1988. p.61
  49. Aka:Lacan. The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis
  50. Lacan. The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis p247
  51. Lacan. The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis p247
  52. Lacan. The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis p247
  53. Lacan. The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis p247
  54. Lacan. The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis p247
  55. Here I use Kittler’s designation: Discourse Networks 1800-1900