The Split Subject of Speculative Discourse

By Armen Avanessian and Anke Hennig

Every discourse feeds an illusion—an image of a world without an unconscious— on the one hand and on the other produces a claim, for example the “I claim” or “I define” of philosophical discourse, statements that serve as the declaration of power of the master and his agents. What we’re concerned with here is a speculative discourse of the subject of the unconscious, of a split subject in conflict with both: with the philosophical claim of a master discourse that knows itself to be complete and therefore knows of nothing unconscious, and with the illusion discourse produces of an empirical world in which there is just as little unconscious [as in the master discourse].

A speculative discourse implies the unconscious. The support of speculative discourse, however, is neither the Super-Ego monotonously preaching the cruelty of the Law nor the pleasure-driven Id indulging in a Barthesean textual plaisir, and most certainly not a well-functioning Ego capable of brokering peace between the two conflicting instances of Freud’s unconscious. In the Freudian universe, the support of speculative discourse is nowhere to be found. In the Lacanian discursive universe, a split subject sets or keeps speculative discourse going.

The splitting of the subject is to be understood, on the one hand, as an emphatically romantic figure of inner turmoil and division, of course, but on the other also quite literally: as the splitting of all subjects into opposites. Historically, feminist criticism of the denial of subjects’ being split into feminine and masculine positions has been particularly consequential. Every subject can try in some way to repress this split within itself and claim, against all evidence, its subjectivity to be universal, or to master it through additional genders, or dismiss it with post-gender concepts. But it cannot be circumvented. That is why a romantic figure of inner turmoil and division is also a speculative figure. Speculative discourse allows for articulating the knowledge of an eminent enjoyment that comes with the splitting of the subject. The poetic moment then also obtains a very specific site within the subject, the site where a particular form of object arises that Lacan calls the Thing. The Thing comes to meet the split subject. According to the theory of the hermeneutic circle, this is also how subjects encounter works of literature: having slowly entered the work, the I at some point moves to the position of the subject of the work and forgets that it is created by the Other. The I follows the paths of the world opened up by the work until this world comes to meet it. At the end of some sentence, the sun will rise beyond the horizon. That is the moment at which the hermeneutic circle has reached its destination and the horizon of the work has become the horizon of my understanding. Heidegger describes the embedding of a subject in the world through nothing but the process of understanding according to this very figure. This is neither an illusory nor a speculative embedding but a poetic one. Maybe this is what Heidegger called “poetic inhabiting.”(1)


THE THIRD     The poetic character of truth is evident in the eradication of the symptom by the correct interpretation. The symptom is the way in which a neurotic subject orients itself in its sensible world. Everything about this orientation of the subject in its world is symptomatic, and thus also legible. When we focus on describing what this subject perceives in this world, we become phenomenologists. Yet when we focus on the subject, then the symptom is always the expression of a suffering, manifest in a sense of insufficiency or incapacity. The symptom expresses what the subject is lacking. It is the sense of something that lies beyond the reach of one’s body and its sensibility. A phenomenology of sense cannot be guided by aesthetics because aesthetics is only about the relationship of a subject with an object (that is, experience). A phenomenology of sense, however, is concerned with a relation in which there is always a third. Only with these three is it possible to clear up the illusion the subject maintains about itself. More than that: there can only be sense in the world if the third becomes an Other—or, as Lacan puts it, when the maternal Thing appears in the place of the signified, which is kept up by the paternal signifier (2). You asked whether by verbal signifier, I meant speaking. I’m concerned with the question whether speaking is poetic and touches on the world or whether a neurotic subject uses speaking to express the experience it has from time to time and that may be called an “aesthetic experience.” The automatism of the emergence of the signified prompted by the paternal signifier would then undoubtedly be an aesthetic automatism, displaying all of its characteristics: it occurs suddenly, it overpowers with sublime violence, it splits the subject into world and appearance. In turn, transforming the paternal signifier into an originary verbal signifier is a poetic act that can only be accomplished in speaking or in writing. This, moreover, is the moment in which the symptom expires, namely insofar as the Thing that then emerges is not “symptomatic.” It is a language of the Thing. You can hear it. But it would be an untenable claim by the master discourse, I think, to say that this language has its origin in the subject. If language has an ontological dimension, it can only come from the Thing. Lacan “brutally says about ontology, that is, about the consideration of the subject as Being, that it is a ‘shame.’ Why a shame? because what is written about the Thing must be considered as coming, not from the one who is writing, but from the Thing, which is the unconscious itself.”(3) Is it less of a shame that in Metanoia, we built our ontology of language on the epistemic situation, projected as a relation between subject-object and Other? What about the Other?


WHY MEN HAVE NO MEANING      Prompted by your reflections on an ethics of knowledge and a poetics of existence, I’ve been occupied with the question how the subject relates to the Other, and I reread Lorenzo Chiesa’s Subjectivity and Otherness (4). As I was reading, a leitmotif quickly took shape in the form of a motto: “women don’t exist, men have no meaning.”

“Woman does not exist” is a classic of Lacanian philosophizing that has long been regarded as scandalous and has had feminist movements up in arms. Joan Copjec gives a good interpretation in Imagine There’s No Woman, which manages to overcome symptomatic readings and impulsive resistances (5). For her, the paradox of the inexistent category “Woman” results from a fundamental antinomy of thinking. Thinking can obtain the [logical] consistency of a universal category only at the considerable price of giving up certainty about the existence [of the category]. This may not bother me much in the case of a category like colors or books. But when the category at issue includes my subjectivity, it raises the question whether “I” exist.

Lacanian psychoanalysis does in fact note that there is no category “Woman” that could be articulated as a coherent concept, even if at first sight, this seems incomprehensible and unacceptable. And things get worse when authors such as Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, or Slavoj Žižek affirm such articulation to be possible for the category “Man.” Perhaps not everything can be defined by a universal category, but what would that mean for equal rights?

The formula used to define masculinity has two components: all men are subject to the law of the phallus (Woman does not have one). And: there is always one man who escapes the law of castration. In other words, the masculinity of at least one man is not drowned in the general miserableness, the masculinity of the king in feudalism, for example, or that of the white hero in colonialism, as you say, or that of God in the Christian religions, as I say. That implies—and this is as astonishing as it is fascinating—that the law of the phallus applies to all men without any ambiguity and at the same time defines each one individually. Each one will wage his very own battle against the general castration, the escape from which defines him personally. Since there is only ever one man who escapes, his path will resemble that of no other man. He will find a new way and make a name for himself.

And this brings us to the second part of the motto, “men have no meaning.”


MEN HAVE A NAME INSTEAD      Chiesa makes a particular effort to bring out the implications of the law of castration for the significance of the category “Man.” One remarkable aspect of his argument is evident where it intersects with analytic philosophy. This tradition, like structural linguistics, supposes the existence of “rigid designators,” of expressions in a language that always name one and the same thing (6). Both traditions subscribe to the thesis that there are rigid designators that are nothing but names, that have no meaning precisely because they always name only one and the same thing.

Chiesa supposes that the phallus or Name-of-the-Father is such a rigid designator: “by signifying always one and the same signified (ϕ, the Other qua Other) the Name-of-the-Father is actually meaningless: it is both that which allows the emergence of (phallic) signification as such in the signifying chain—by anchoring it—and, per se, meaningless.”(7) The choice to be made about which position to assume toward language is significant: masculine gendering or feminine gendering, name or existence? The choice of the name gives rise to a masculine-gendered subject that henceforth has no meaning. If you choose the name that always designates you, you dodge a perhaps more urgent problem: that your discourse puts your existence at stake. The price you pay for your existence being unquestioned is that you (don’t) mean anything (to anyone). Your name always designates you, even if it doesn’t mean anything. And for a named subject, which for this reason alone is a masculine subject, the encounter with “Otherness” means nothing but trouble.


A WOMAN NAMED LISA DAVIS      Some time ago, I read a story in the Guardian that caught my attention (8). A woman recounts the rather eccentric experience she had with her name. What began whimsically eighteen years earlier as an annoyance about being held responsible for a traffic violation committed not by her but by a namesake—she loses her license—is to have more ominous consequences. She finds herself mysteriously already registered to vote when she goes to do so or sees her name next to an incorrect address when she shows up for a job interview.

As an oedipal subject, Lisa Davis first tries to insist on the rigidity of her name, a name manifest in no one’s existence but her own. She thinks it’s a case of identity theft. Over the years during which she repeatedly cannot prove that she did not run that red light, did not even own that car, or wasn’t even in town, she learns that very selective databases that contain little more than name and date of birth are responsible for her identity being identical with that of other New Yorkers born on the same day as her.

Having decided at some point to go and look for her namesake, a shift sets in. She no longer thinks about whether and how the chain of signifiers of her name could be made rigid again by adding more signs—by having herself tracked via GPS for example, or developing a blockchain to testify to her identity. The story leads to the meeting of two women sharing a name. They understand that today’s data processing identifies them in a way that will not allow them to be distinguishable. And they learn that the data system that time and again seeks to hold them responsible does not have them personally in mind. Yet a subject whose existence is guaranteed by its name feels threatened when this name stops always designating one and the same thing, namely It.

In this story, then, the name suddenly no longer functions as a “rigid designator.” It tells of an exchange, an exchange of an individual existence guaranteed by a name of one’s own for the encounter with an Other. The moment at which the existential fear of Lisa Davis transforms into the decision to seek out Lisa Davis is an act of feminine ethics. And Lisa Davis finally finds one of the four Lisa Davises in New York with whom she has been identified for years. At the end, the two women know that for the rest of their lives, they will not have an individual existence. Instead, they share a story—the encounter with the Other—and this story has meaning.


THE OTHER, FEMINIE AND MASCULINE      The intimacy of Others has a meaning for which the name of the Other is but a symbol. In the history of the subject, this takes the form of the child—who, before becoming a subject, is the object of the mother—depending on the mother and perceiving her to be omnipotent. It is a complete mystery to the infant why the mother satisfies some needs and not others, all of which are equally crucial to the child in its state of complete dependence. Only once it understands that the mother cannot satisfy all its needs because she, too, is permeated by a lack, which displays itself to her as desire, something like symbolization sets in. Her desire is still as mysterious as the incomprehension of the child. The father becomes the key figure of understanding because he represents the masculine Other of the mother (that is, of her desiring) while the feminine Other of the child is the mother.

Meaning arises in the relationship between the feminine and the masculine Other. There are two sides in this relationship. The feminine other or the masculine other? The very moment the child takes one of the two sides, it becomes a subject. A line is drawn between object that it was and the subject that it is. The ethics of psychoanalysis insists on tracing the subject back to this choice because this choice creates the very limit at which the subject begins in the first place. That is why psychoanalytic ethics is an ethics at the furthest limits of the subject.


THE MEANINGLESSNESS OF THE NAME      As soon as the choice is made, the masculine Other for the child becomes a symbol (of the desire of the mother) and the key figure of understanding. As Lacan puts it, the masculine Other

is itself a symbolized Other, and this is what gives it its appearance of freedom. The Other, potentially the Father, the locus in which the law is articulated, is itself subject to the signifying articulation, and even more than subject to signifying articulation, it’s marked by it, with the denaturing effect that the presence of signifiers entails (9).

The suspicion of meaninglessness arises when the second, masculine Other does not inherit the omnipotence of the first, feminine one. Žižek notes:

For those who know Lacan, it is impossible to miss the irony . . . the “Other of the Other” designates exactly what later becomes “there is no Other of the Other.” In both cases, the point is that the Other is in itself “castrated,” incomplete, thwarted, far from a perfectly organized symbolic network or machine (10).

The reasons certainly are to be found not only in the developing subject status of the child but also in the cultural environment in which that development takes place. In the slow cultural distancing from patriarchy (which may very well go hand in hand with a hardening of phallocracy), the power of the father visibly recedes and he loses his position as the universal Other instituted by law. “The Name-of-the-Father will no longer ‘encircle’ the Other; it will simply suture it by ‘veiling’ its lack,” Chiesa writes (11). Henceforth all versions of the father (père versions previously maligned as perversions) are practices of signification with equal rights beside the significance the patriarchal subjectivization in the Name-of-the-Father once had. This is where—and it is not coincidence that this point is a poetic one—the agendas of feminism and LGBT+ converge. Women’s and LGBT+ rights are based on the possibility of articulating the law through other practices of signification than patriarchal symbols. And both movements have long been working on identity politics to develop subjectivations beyond patriarchal signification and to give them legal status. Switching positions—from positing the masculine Other of the feminine Other as the Name-of-the-Father to stating that the masculine Other of the feminine Other does not exist (at least not as uncastrated or only as pervert)—has concrete consequences. The model of how meaning is formed shifts considerably. Indeed, the Name-of-the-Father can henceforth only be meaningless (that is, be a rigid designator) and the phallocrat (a masculine subject claiming to possess the phallus) can only appear as a con man or a fraud.

Imagine, for fun, Lisa Davis’s husband arguing that she is the real Lisa Davis because Davis is the name of his father. The Lisa Davis mystery might seem an eccentric anecdote, but in fact it touches on the mystery of all signification by names. Names like Freud or Lacan or Irigaray or Butler sound as if they were surrounded by an aura of meaning. Strictly speaking, though, Lacan is neither more nor less Lacan than Lisa Davis is Lisa Davis.


The text is translated from the german original by Nils F. Schott.



  • 1 Alluding to Heidegger’s lecture on Hölderlin, “Dichterisch wohnet der Mensch,” in Martin Heidegger: Gesamtausgabe, vol 7: Vorträge und Aufsätze (1936-1953), ed. Friedrich-Wilhelm v. Herrmann (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 2000). See also Alain Juranville, Lacan et la philosophie (Paris: PUF, 1988), 129.
  • 2 “The only means by which the paternal signifier no longer ensures the emergence of the signified is to make it the originary verbal signifier that opens up for the encounter of the Thing” (Juranville, Lacan, 272).
  • 3 Juranville, Lacan, 354.
  • 4 See Lorenzo Chiesa, Subjectivity and Otherness: A Philosophical Reading of Lacan (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).
  • 5 See Joan Copjec, Imagine There’s No Woman: Ethics and Sublimation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).
  • 6 “The Name-of-the-Father as signifier signifies ‘the Other qua Other,’ the existence of the differential signifying chain as such; for the same reason, it is precisely, as name (of the Other), a ‘rigid designator,’ it always designates the same thing” (Chiesa, Subjectivity and Otherness, 94).
  • 7 Chiesa, Subjectivity and Otherness, 94.
  • 8 [Lisa Selin Davis, “For 18 years, I thought she was stealing my identity. Until I found her,” The Guardian, 3 April 2017,]
  • 9 Jacques Lacan, Formations of the Unconscious, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book V, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Russell Grigg (Cambridge: Polity, 2017), 438.
  • 10 Slavoj Žižek, Disparities (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 289–90.
  • 11 Chiesa, Subjectivity and Otherness, 102.


Anke Hennig is a theorist of 21st century literature and visual culture. Recently she was Visiting Professor at University of the Arts, Berlin and is teaching at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts, London. She is chairing the international research group Retro-Formalism ( and co-founder of the trans-national research platform Speculative Poetics ( Currently she pursues a research project on artistic research funded by the German Research Council and affiliated to the Ruhr University, Bochum. She is the author of Soviet Cinematic Dramaturgy (in German Vorwerk 8, 2010) and, in co-operation with Armen Avanessian, co-author of Present Tense. A Poetics (Bloomsbury 2015, in Russian RGGU Press 2014, in German Diaphanes 2012), Metanoia. Speculative Ontology of Language (Bloomsbury 2017, in German Merve 2014) and Speculative Poetics of Feminism, Algorithmics, Politics and Capital (in German Merve 2019). 

Armen Avanessian studied philosophy and political science in Vienna and Paris. After completing his dissertation in literature, he worked at the Free University Berlin from 2007-2014 . He has previously been a Visiting Fellow in the German Department at Columbia University and in the German Department at Yale University and visiting professor at various art academies in Europe and the US, and fellow at the Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles. In Berlin he is editor at large at Merve Verlag and in charge of a SprechDenkTheater theory program at Volksbühne. He is co-founder of the bilingual research platform (including a series of events, translations and publications) Spekulative Poetik ( and the Berlin based graduate school His work is translated into various languages.

By Armen Avanessian and Anke Hennig