The real without law seems unthinkable. It is a limit idea that in the first instance means that the real is without natural law. – Jacques-Alain Miller 

Everything that you take from nature, she later reclaims from you with interest. – Isidore of Muncia (11th century AD)


Strangely familiar images reach us from Italy, both unforeseen and revealing, after several days of confinement of the population during the coronavirus epidemic. In Cagliari, dolphins come into the harbour to the edge of the docks. In Venice, the canals are no longer the usual tourist dung heap, the water is clear to the bottom, making way for swans, fish and various birds. Nature thus reasserts its law when the speaking being has to retreat – a little, only a little – before the epidemic of its own forms of enjoyment that we call civilization. Nature is epidemic by nature, if I am allowed this pleonasm, either with swans in Venice or with global viruses traversing countries and borders. The human being is epidemic because he speaks and is inhabited by that enjoying substance that we call the signifier.[1] We know that we will see images like those of Cagliari and Venice in other places and times. In each instance, the law of nature and the real of jouissance seem to be the obverse and the converse of the same traumatic event for the subject of our time. But we should distinguish them.

Perhaps today as never before Humanity – with the capital – can and should recognize itself as a single subject in the face of the irruption of the real, as that collective that Jacques Lacan defined so enigmatically as “the subject of the individual ”[2]. A subject faced with a challenge that precisely can only be overcome collectively, with a calculus of action that is necessarily collective. We are currently undergoing – day by day – the most brutal effects of an event that is and will continue to be a paradigm of the real in the 21st century. But which real is at stake? This is undoubtedly a good time to read or to reread Jacques-Alain Miller’s intervention in preparation for the Congress of the World Association of Psychoanalysis of 2014, dedicated precisely to “A real for the 21st century”[3]. We find there several gems to gather and to elaborate during these days.

Nature is no longer the real

This deadly little machine named SARS-CoV2, which is transmitted and multiplies from one body to another, generating the symptoms of COVID-19, is a virus. Most biologists tell us that a virus is not a living being — unlike a bacterium — but that it needs a cell, a living being, to replicate itself. For this reason, other biologists say that it is a being that is neither alive nor dead, like a sort of Monsieur Valdemar. It all depends on where we situate the frontier of “the real of life”[4], which not at all straightforward. What we do know for sure is that it is a virus that is transmitted and replicates according to very precise laws. In the case of COVID-19 it is a law that we are deciphering little by little, far too slowly. There is, therefore, a real of time at stake that is decisive for its treatment. The real of the speaking being, we often repeat following Lacan’s late teaching, is a real without law. But the SARS-CoV2 virus follows an implacable law, it follows the law of nature that you have to know how to decipher in order to confront it. The problem is that we do not yet know enough about its law and above all we do not yet know how to deactivate its mode of contagion to create efficient antivirals and a vaccine. It needs the luck of Alan Turing, who deciphered the code of the infernal machine called “Enigma” used by the Third Reich for the transmission of secret messages during the Second World War. Turing’s success is estimated to have shortened the end of the war by two to four years and saved thousands of lives. With regard to the coronavirus, we are not yet advanced enough in the race to obtain properly tested antivirals and vaccines.

In the case of SARS-CoV2 we thus are not faced with the real without law but rather faced with a phenomenon of nature that follows its laws, the laws that science since Galileo deciphers according to his maxim that “nature is written in the language of mathematics”. It is true that in Antiquity nature and the real were in contiguity, they overlapped in some way, they were made of the same stuff. But one of the effects of modern science has been precisely to separate nature from the real.

As Jacques-Alain Miller pointed out: “Previously the real was called nature. Nature was the name of the real when there was no disorder in the real. When nature was the name of the real you could say, as Lacan did, that the real always returns to the same place. Only in this epoch, in which the real disguised itself as nature, the real appeared as the most evident, the most elevated, manifestation of the very concept of order… You could say that in this epoch the real as nature had the function of the Other of the Other, that is, it was the very guarantee of the symbolic order.”[5]

There are different ways of giving oneself today to this impossible function of Other of the Other to guarantee a meaning when the real erupts in a traumatic way: scientism is one, religion is another. The behavioral psychologist, for his part, advises us: “Don’t say chaos! Don’t panic! Don’t think about it!” But this is the same as telling us not to think of a white elephant, which is the best way to keep thinking and worrying about a white elephant without actually deciphering its linguistic being as a white elephant.

The real has no meaning

Another gem: “Not having meaning is a criterion of the real, in as much as it is when one has arrived at the outside meaning that one can think that one has emerged from the fictions produced by a wanting to say. “The real is destitute of meaning” is equivalent to the real does not respond to any wanting to say. Meaning escapes. One gives meaning, there is a donation of meaning by way of the fantasmatic lucubration.”[6]

Unlike the real, the COVID-19 illness is today a huge bubble of meaning, of religious meaning, like any meaning, and always on the verge of bursting. “Coronavirus” is the master of the meaning of our times, it is the master signifier par excellence, to such an extent that even the Church has given orders to empty the basins of holy water under its mandate. And with good reason, of course. That is where, in effect, all the fantasies flourish, individual and collective, making it into a demonic force, the quintessential malign god who wants the extinction of Humanity, delivering punishment to a civilization of excessive enjoyment. Giving a bit of meaning relieves us for a while, but the return effect is usually much worse still than the initial lack of meaning. Meaning, always religious, is viral, as opposed to the real that has nothing viral about it, but rather does not cease not to be written, without any meaning.

The experience of the real

Faced with disordered nature, faced with the real that no longer returns to the same place, the subject is anguished. Scientism promises to overcome anguish with knowledge, a knowledge that would be inscribed in the real at the outset. In vain. Religion promises to overcome it with meaning. Also in vain.

What real is then at stake for psychoanalysis? That of always? No, the real is no longer what it was, this is one of the things we learned at our 2014 Congress of the WAP. It concerns the real of the 21st century, a real separated from nature, the residue of a nature that was ordered by a law, divine or not, scientific or not, but which is already a nature that is irretrievably lost. And that this is indeed a real without law, without a law that can predict, at least, its eruption. It is here that the experience of these days can give us an unprecedented testimony, on a planetary level, of an experience of the real in the collective as subject of the individual in different registers of the real:

– Of the real of time. It is an imperceptible time, not symbolizable, not chronologically representable, but that marks the time of the illness generated by the coronavirus. It is one of the features that makes it more difficult to treat: that it can be spread silently, in the absence of any observable medical symptoms. That is indeed the real in its most Lacanian sense, a real that necessarily introduces a logical time in the subject of the collective: something that does not cease not to be written… until it is written. The problem is no longer whether one day you might catch it – we know that it will reach at least 70% of the population – but rather when it will be, and when it will stop not giving symptomatic signs in the body.

– Of the real of space in the experience of confinement. Metric space, now necessarily restricted, gives way these days to another space closer to non-metric space. It is incredible the things that can be done in a square meter that is also a cubic meter.

– The real of collective time to mitigate the effects of the inevitable spread of the virus. In fact, the collective panic is not generated today by the coronavirus itself but by the inevitable overwhelming of the health system that introduces the need for a logical time: “Don’t all get sick at once, please.” This is also the real of time, traumatic for each one.

– Of the real of having a body, always a little in the hypochondriac mode.

– And, above all, the real of the solitude of the speaking being, whether or not you are in company.

The experience of the real in which we find ourselves is therefore not so much the experience of the illness itself but rather the experience of this subjective time that is also a collective time, strangely familiar, that occurs without being able to represent itself, without being able to name itself, without being able to count . This is this real that psychoanalysis is interested in and deals with. The symptom dimension of this experience occurs without necessarily being inhabited by the coronavirus itself, only by the discourse that tries to give meaning to its eruption into reality as effect of the pure law of nature.

The law of nature can be predictable – this is the task of science. The real without law is not predictable – this is the task of psychoanalysis. Faced with this difference, it will be good to resort today to the maxim of the Stoics to make a collective experience of the real in the least traumatic way possible: serenity in the face of the predictable, courage in the face of the unforeseeable, and wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.


Translated Betina Ganim & Roger Litten

[1] Lacan, J, The Seminar, Book XX, Encore, Norton, 1998, p. 24: “I will say that the signifier is situated at the level of enjoying substance.”

[2] Lacan, J., “The collective is nothing but the subject of the individual”.

[3] Miller, J.-A., “Presentation of the theme of the IXth Congress of the WAP”, available online at:  Also published as “A Real for the 21st Century”, in Scilicet, A Real for the 21st Century, AMP/NLS, 2014.

[4] Mais où est donc Zadig?

[5] Miller, J.-A., “Presentation of the theme of the IXth Congress of the WAP”, available online at:  Also published as “A Real for the 21st Century”, in Scilicet, A Real for the 21st Century, AMP/NLS, 2014, p. 27.

[6] Ibid., p. 33.

Image @ The Alan Turing statue, created in slate by Stephen Kettle in 2007
located at Bletchley Park in England