The unknown (l’insu) that knows by Thomas Van Rumst


To the unconscious, which has the disadvantage of carrying a negation, Lacan gives a positive definition in these terms: “There are only particular unconsciouses, in so far as everyone, at every moment, gives a little boost to the language that he speaks.”2 When he brings this kind of consideration to the practice of language, it is always in a context where he speaks about scientific devices, especially in connection with Freud’s Project wherein he unravelled the unconscious.

The most amusing occasion is when he speaks about Luc his grandson, a future mathematician, who had just recounted his recent visit to Saclay, a scientific centre equipped with the latest technological devices. Little Luc said that he inferred that the words he did not understand and which tried hard to say, gave him a big head – he had a big head like his grandfather. “In this way”, said Lacan, “he has come to define the unconscious so well, for that is what it is all about, namely that the words came into his head, it is obviously wrong to infer that at the same time that is why he has a big head (…). There is something that gives him the feeling that to speak is parasitic.”3 Luc’s words would have no less value than what Lacan saw at Saclay. And we can update this technological reference by referring to the storage of digital data. Data is stored in the Nevada desert, in places which take up more and more space and consume more and more energy – parasiticalness finds its ecological expression here.4 Our digital traces are therefore written and stored and are always found. Already written, they await us to rediscover them. It is the same principle as the unconscious as cybernetic memory. Parasiticalness comes from the connection of the symbolic and the imaginary of the body.

Lacan asks on this occasion if we have a memory: “Can one say that one makes more of saying [dire] that we have it than imagining that we have it, that it’s available (qu’on en dispose)?”5 We imagine then that our memory is available in the form of traces and of words, and that we have only to read them as the book of our life, in which occasionally there are missing pages. Now the analytic word is not just a reading, it is above all a writing. In the same way, Lacan said that we imagine we choose the language that we speak, whilst we create our language every time we speak. We do not know a language, we practice it, let’s say: without knowing.

(2) Lacan J., Le Séminaire, Livre XXIII, Le sinthome, Paris, Seuil, 2004, p. 133.

(3) Lacan J., “Nomina non sunt consequentia rerum”, Ornicar? 16, p. 11.


(5) Lacan J., Le Séminaire. Livre XXIII Le sinthome, Paris, Seuil, 2004, p. 133.


Translated by Joanne Conway