“There are only different ways to fail, some of which are more satisfying than others. We are not simply having a laugh here, it’s not just a Witz. It is the condition for holding one’s own in the discourse of hypermodern civilization.”

Jacques-Alain Miller, “A Fantasy” [1]

Even in times when things are going seriously wrong all over the world, the speaking being clings fiercely to the belief that everything will be all right, that it will all turn out okay. This dreamy, even silly thought is really not meant to wake us up. In fact, it becomes more consistent than ever. Those who take their bearings from Lacan don’t see the glory of a bright tomorrow on the horizon. They say to themselves, without any despair, that it’s going to fail again and that they’ll have to invent, use bits and pieces, this and that, and make do with whatever’s to hand. For Lacan, the “it fails”, inherited from Freud, goes far beyond the psychopathology of everyday life. He doesn’t limit himself to what of the act succeeds in the slip and the bungled act: the “it fails” runs through “the very text of our existence” [2]. It’s the same with our collective destinies. This is what he puts forward, strengthened by the lucidity that assures him that he is heading towards the real: “A human society has always been madness. It doesn’t get any worse than that. It will always be this way, it will always stay the same.” [3] An assumption is required in order to hold out. Finally, we also owe to the “it fails” the only opportunities we get to define jouissance: “It is only known […] under the forms […] of the fault, the stumbling, the failure […] We only know … [the activity of jouissance] under the form … of what is missed” [4].

A cartoon, published on 1 January, shows us the year 2021 lying on a couch, telling her analyst about what’s weighing on her mind: “I feel that people are expecting a lot from me.” A New Year is under way and many people are wondering if it is really going to be Other, compared to the previous one, if the real toughness of the pandemic is finally going to fade and allow us to reclaim our lives again before it cuts our customary connections. People are anxious about whether or not the vaccine will work, distrust is everywhere, conspiracy theories about its harmfulness are proliferating and many people see it as a means of controlling the population. Confidence in science has been shattered, the confidence that used to assure us that “the real: it works” [5]. This was the diagnosis of Jacques-Alain Miller, at the beginning of our century, when he said at Comandatuba: “Now, in hypermodern civilization, we have the idea that scientific knowledge, in the real, fails, that it is going to fail” [6]. Lacanian psychoanalysis is probably the only discipline in the world to give the dimension of failure the dignity it deserves. Psychoanalysis approaches failure neither as a calamity nor as a matter for conformism. It calls it by its name: the real. Proven in the flesh, observed in the turnings of our drive circuits, in our irreducible distance from those who are close to us, those with whom there is always something “forever missed,” the experience of an analysis opens onto the assumption of the “it fails”: “We touch a point of awakening” [7], we accept a gap in structure where desire breathes and becomes stronger.

Having “it fails” as a compass is also what distinguishes the Lacanian orientation from other branches of psychoanalysis. If certain analytical movements at the beginning of the twenty-first century––nostalgic, backward-looking or progressive––aim at finally making it work for the parlêtre, for Lacan, failure is about a relationship with the impossible. Let us recall, in order to get through this age of pandemic, that it is this pairing––of failure and the impossible––that is central in Lacan’s last teaching, which J.-A. Miller raises to the dignity of antibodies: “He inoculated us with these terms which protect us, have protected us, have been like antibodies in relation to the discourse of what works and the new practices of psychoanalysis, all of which have this principle” [8]. In a world of scattered “ones”, Lacanian practice “plays [more than ever] its part in the dimension of a real that fails” [9]. It is a world in which psychoanalysis struggles to preserve “saying” – as Samuel Beckett invites us to do: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” [10].


Translated by Janet Haney


First published on Hebdo Blog, 10 January 2021

[1] Miller, J.-A., “A Fantasy”, Psychoanalytical Notebooks, No. 34, 2019, p. 159.

[2] Lacan, J., My Teaching, London/New York, Verso, 2008.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Miller, J.-A., “Déficit ou faille”, La Cause du désir, No. 98, March 2018, p. 127, available via the internet.

[5] Miller, J.-A., “A Fantasy”, op. cit.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lacan, J., My Teaching, op. cit.

[8] Miller, J.-A., “A Fantasy”, op. cit., p. 153.

[9] Ibid., p. 158.

[10] Beckett, S., Worstward Ho!, London, Calder, 1984.