Friday 12 September 2014

You may ask me what it means, and I will tell you that the meaning is that there is a meaning.

In Plato’s Symposium, a book about the mysteries of love, there is a particularly curious passage. As Pausanias pauses his speech, the humorist playwright Aristophanes who is due to speak next, says that he cannot speak (of love) because his voice is taken with a case of the hiccups, perhaps having laughed so much at the lawyer Pausanias’ speech. With some considerable word play the Symposium relates to us that  Aristophanes turned to the doctor Eryximachus, who was due to speak after Aristophanes, to ask Eryximachus if he might have a cure for the hiccups. Eryximachus offers some possible cures but also to take Aristophanes’ place in the order, so that if the hiccups are cured by the time he’s finished Aristophanes might take his place. Arstophanes takes this offer, and is able to talk after Eryximachus. The reader is left pondering on the meaning of this interruption.

The Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan was one of those wondering what the episode of the hiccups might mean. Whilst preparing his Seminar VIII (PDF), on the theme of transference, which is nothing other than love, he sought to find out. His mentor the Hegelian scholar Alexandre Kojeve had been studying Plato, and so Lacan asked him if he had any thoughts on the meaning of this episode in the Symposium. Having not specifically studied the Symposium Kojeve did not have an answer, but offered to Lacan in place of a solution this reply - “In any case you will never interpret the Symposium if you do not know why Aristophanes had a hiccup!” This of course, for Lacan, only makes the matter more mysterious.

In his book A Voice and Nothing More, Mladen Dolar relates this story, adding on Lacan’s behalf a formula which is absent from Lacan’s telling in Seminar VIII. Dolar infers from Lacan that the settlement towards the meaning expressed by the hiccups, as a kind of voice, is that it means that it means.

The formula that the meaning is that there is a meaning, is one that at first glance seems to rely on rhetorical tautology. There are several examples of related seeming logical fallacies which Lacan thought about, for instance, the statement ‘I am telling a lie’, which seemingly if it is true, must be false, and if it is false, must be true, but which none the less we may find a way to understand in everyday conversation. In following the logic of the split between conscious and unconscious, shown clearly for instance in Freud’s short 1925 text on Negation, Lacan seeks to clarify why such statements do in fact work. He proposes that there are two subjects, the subject of the statement, and the subject of enunciation. So there is a subject who states that she is lying, and a subject who indicates in her enunciation through this false statement that she isn’t lying, or perhaps that she is - there are, after all, several ways that such a statement can be enunciated. It is at the level of statement that Aristophanes’ hiccups make no sense - there is no stated meaning. But the manner of Plato’s inclusion of this episode indicates that meaning is there, if never stated, otherwise, why else would the episode be there? The proposal that the meaning is that there is a meaning acts as a kind of meeting of statement and enunciation, whereby the non-meaning of the statement is the condition of its meaning in enunciation as meaning as such.

You may ask me what it means, and I will tell you that the meaning is that there is a meaning.


  1. Ha! I remember asking you what was the meaning. Well, in that case why not just say that "the meaning is that there is no meaning", since it would mean the same?

    Also, this is a little like someone asking you "ARE YOU ALRIGHT???" with the intention of extracting a longer update on one's situation - only to receive a monosyllabic "yes" or "no" - which reveals the limitation of the original question. I should probably have just asked you what quantity or color of meaning it was. Or if the meaning were to be a cake, then what kind of cake would it be?

    1. Thanks Debbie. I think the point is that there's really a difference between saying that the meaning is that there is a meaning, and saying that there is no meaning, since the later would tend to allow the matter to be determined by the subject of statement as if the subject of enunciation were not active - although at the level of enunciation, they could mean the same or quite the opposite thing, in different circumstances.