INNER EXPERIENCE IS NOT PSYCHOSIS: Bataille’s Ethics and Lacanian Subjectivity - Andrew Ryder (2010)

Lacan and Bataille

Despite his personal proximity to Georges Bataille, Jacques Lacan makes very few direct references to his work. Indeed, the only mention of Bataille’s name in the 878 pages of the Écrits is in a footnote to “On a Question Prior to Any Possible Treatment of Psychosis.” This article declares that Daniel Schreber, the prototypical psychotic, was exposed to inner experience by his insight that “God is a whore.” Lacan affirms that his mention of inner experience is an allusion to Bataille, and refers the reader to Inner Experience, which he calls Bataille’s central work; and to Madame Edwarda, in which “he describes the odd extremity of this experience.” Lacan here identifies the experience of Madame Edwarda with Bataille’s “inner experience,” and stipulates that both are identical to Schreber’s psychotic break.

“On a Question Prior to Any Possible Treatment of Psychosis” was written in 1958 and generated by a seminar Lacan gave in 1955-1956. He had known Bataille for twenty years, having been a participant in Bataille’s Acéphale group. Lacan was also the companion of Sylvia Bataille (née Maklès), Bataille’s first wife, following their separation in 1934; Lacan married her in 1953. Sylvia remained close to Bataille for the rest of her life following their separation and divorce. Moreover, Lacan raised Laurence, Bataille’s daughter, because her birth parents separated when she was four years old. The 1950s was a period of close contact between the two men; Lacan contributed some of the research for Erotism, published in 1957.

Aside from this close biographical link and Lacan’s explicit invocation of Bataille in his consideration of psychosis, Slavoj Zizek has argued for another point of proximity between their thought, a link that he finds dangerous and aims to overcome. In Zizek’s view, it is in Seminar VII that Lacan is closest to Bataille in his formulation of transgressive jouissance. This is an influence that Zizek believes that Lacan subsequently escapes. I will argue that despite Lacan’s personal friendship with Bataille, his statement in “On a Question Prior to Any Possible Treatment of Psychosis” betrays a misunderstanding of Madame Edwarda. That is, while Lacan had commitments to the reconstitution of subjectivity that render Bataille’s work illustrative of psychotic experience, close reading of Bataille’s text reveals a distinct position on self and other. In consideration of these two points of contact between Lacan and Bataille (on psychotic experience and transgression), we must note that the neurotic who is led to undertake an act corresponding to the essence of his or her desire is not said to be a psychotic. To reconcile this apparent contradiction, it is necessary to realize that for Lacan, all subjects are potentially psychotic, and avoid this only by the fragile construction of an ego ideal. Psychosis, then, is the result of a foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father and a denial of the Other of the Other, leading to direct contact with the real. From this perspective, Bataille’s refusal of the Name-of-the-Father and of subjectivity (writing under a pseudonym) and emphasizing an immediate contact with otherness that identifies a specific alterity (the title character) with its ultimate guarantor can only be read as a psychotic experience. I will inquire into Lacan’s theories of subjectivity and examine the impetus they receive from Bataille’s ideas on ipseity, as well as their departure from his thought, as well as investigating the Lacanian approach to a Kantian ethical problem, as read by Adrian Johnston, with the end of comparing this to Bataille’s own imbrication of eroticism and ethics. A close reading of Bataille will show an alternative position on alterity that escapes subjectivity, while remaining distinct from the psychosis diagnosed by Lacan and the irresponsible nihilism suspected by Zizek.