Alongside the coronaviruses we see another pandemic appearing, that of a generalised uncertainty which has become a current form of civilisation’s discontents. Until now hidden by the hopes generated by science, uncertainty is spreading even faster than the virus itself and is creating a crisis within society. There is the uncertainty regarding new variants, uncertainty as to the measures to implement, or uncertainty about vaccination, including that of children. Has uncertainty become a reason for not vaccinating? Or should one vaccinate children despite this uncertainty? How can one choose? Which way should we place our bet? Uncertainty reveals the extent to which taking a gamble is inescapable.

Whatever the position adopted we fall into a forced choice similar to the impossible alternatives laid out by Lacan: your money or your life, which entails the choice of a life robbed of one’s money; your liberty or your life, which reduces one, like a slave, to a life robbed of freedom; right up to liberty or death, which introduces death as the limit on liberty, thus introducing an unavoidable ‘lethal factor’ into the equation.[1] As with that last alternative, beyond the death that the pandemic has spread, uncertainty has become the other death factor which is devastating the world.

One cannot escape the uncertainty. It continues its course alongside all attempts to treat it. Science itself, in its desire to get ahead of uncertainty, produces it, like a real that continuously evades. And what if there were a science of the unpredictable? Like that which Nassim Nicholas Taleb aspires to.[2] A science that goes beyond its own distortions, distortions belonging to a tendency which selects only the data that square with its own priorities; as though everything were positioned on a Gaussian curve, in a tenacious desire to retrospectively explain what was unpredictable. How can the improbable be positioned in relation to probability? What is the weight of the improbable? By hiding it behind probabilities, we do not erase its consequences – consequences that repeatedly impact on the steps to be implemented.

Yet, there is not only a deathly uncertainty. In truth the aim is to take up the challenge uncertainty presents, without getting drawn into the trap of the death drive. A death drive resulting from life swept towards death. A tendency towards death that is present in life, experienced as an ‘appetite for death’[3] which goes towards “…that which in life might prefer death”.[4] To go against this tendency is to bet on life and therefore to handle uncertainty from the perspective of life. “The worst is not always certain”, as the subtitle to Paul Claudel’s The Satin Slipper points out – in a similar vein Lacan speaks of “blissful uncertainty” that allows for “a sufficiently relaxed existence”.[5]

Daring to live in uncertainty, coping with it, not hiding it, being able to make decisions despite it, there lies the wager. Betting on life, without adding to what is placed on the side of death. That is what is at stake if we intend to move from a deathly uncertainty towards an uncertainty on the side of life.

To move away from the unease of uncertainty is also to leave behind the certainties it induces. Is there not, paradoxically, perhaps too much certainty in situations of uncertainty? It is there also that the tendency towards death takes root.

To go towards life requires a wager that there is a way out of the impasse, by finding in the impasse itself the strength to create something new. This would be a way of using the impasse to open new possibilities: a way of confronting the crisis by transforming the deathly uncertainty into a certainty of life, by transforming the unease into opportunity – something that no doubt presupposes inventing something that is unknown.

Translated by Kirsten Ellerby

Originally published here:

[1] Lacan, J. (1998) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book XI The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. J.-A. Miller (ed.), A. Sheridan (trans.). New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company, p. 213.

[2] Taleb, N.N. (2007) The black swan: the impact of the highly improbable. London: Allen Lane.

[3] Lacan, J. (1938) Le complexe du sevrage. In Les complexes familiaux. Paris: Navarin.

[4] Lacan, J. (1992) The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-1960. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. J.-A. Miller (ed.), D. Porter (trans.), London: Tavistock/Routledge, p. 104.

[5] Lacan, J. (1997) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book III The Psychoses, 1955-1956. J.-A. Miller (ed.), R. Grigg (trans.), New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company, p. 74.