Miller’s Six Paradigms of Jouissance: A Summary


Miller’s ‘Six Paradigms of Jouissance’: A Summary

This piece is adapted from my doctoral thesis project “The Psychoanalysis of Artificial Intelligence”, forthcoming in 2020.

Jacques-Alain Miller’s ‘Six Paradigms of Jouissance’ tracks the movement, development and changing character of the concept of jouissance through Lacan’s work, but more fundamentally, the paradigms as Miller outlines them can be seen as the consolidation of Lacan’s whole theoretical project at each stage in his thought. That is to say, each moment in the conceptual modification of jouissance corresponds to a different theoretical emphasis in his teaching overall. Miller’s interpretation of Lacan presents a sustained endeavor to reorient Lacanian theory and practice according to what Miller sees as the new theoretical contours of psychoanalysis only present in Lacan’s later teaching and accordingly the place of psychoanalytic discourse in contemporary civilization. According to Alain Badiou this movement can be traced back to Miller’s intervention in Seminar XII, where he presents his landmark ‘Suture’ paper. But given that much has happened in the intervening period, it suffices to say that ‘Six Paradigms of Jouissance’ (along with ‘Suture’ and ‘Extimité’) could be said to form crucial foundational pillars in order to understand Miller’s recent work and position on contemporary psychoanalytic discourse.

These paradigm shifts however, do not succeed each other in the sense of rendering the previous paradigm irrelevant (with the possible exception of the second paradigm, given its pivotal status as the beginning of the Lacanian matheme), rather they speak to different nuances in the concept of jouissance that make the term richer and less “mystical” than it can sometimes appear.

The six paradigms are as follows: The Imaginarization of Jouissance; The Signifierisation of Jouissance; Impossible Jouissance; Normal Jouissance; Discursive Jouissance and The Non-Rapport.

The first paradigm (The Imaginarization of Jouissance) corresponds to Lacan’s early teaching dominated by the imaginary register and is, as Miller notes, what came to be characterized (in much Lacanian oriented literature) as his lasting legacy on the matter of jouissance. Since it was in place for such a long time, it was wrongly taken by many to be the sum total of his teaching. What dominates this conceptual development according to Miller is ‘communication conceived of as intersubjective and dialectical’ (p. 1). He describes the paradigm thus:

‘In these first years of Lacan’s teaching, the unconscious appears sometimes as speech and sometime as language. Sometime the stress is put on the structure which it comprises, sometimes on the discourse that it emits, that it constructs, to the point that the unconscious could be described by Lacan as a subject’ (ibid, p. 2).

This first paradigm rests on the ‘disjunction between signifier and jouissance’ and operates according to a logic whereby the symptom may be deciphered via successful communication (full speech), thereby creating the illusion of some imaginary satisfaction. The idea being that the symptom is an undelivered meaning looking for an outlet by means of the symbolic. This relies on the tenuous notion that there is some sort of perfect reciprocity in communication which allows for harmonious comprehension between subjects, or what would come to be called “intersubjectivity” in other psychoanalytically informed discourses.

This idea, Miller argues, was swiftly abandoned by Lacan, even though the form of imaginary jouissance to which he refers still nonetheless occurs in the clinical setting and not to mention everyday communication.

The second paradigm (The Signifierization of Jouissance) takes over and eventually dominates the first paradigm, as previously terms that had been imaginary become incorporated into the symbolic register. (Hence the move from transference on the imaginary axis to the symbolic in Seminar V.) It corresponds to the constant metonymic shifting of the signifier. Here is the key moment where Lacan ‘rewrites the drive in symbolic terms’ (p. 5). He detaches the drive from jouissance which is only imaginary, and instead formulates the drive as emanating from the symbolic subject, that is to say from demand. Here we find the appearance of Lacan’s matheme for the drive:

$ <> D

And also the formulas for fantasy:

$ <> a

This formula for fantasy, Miller points out, will remain for a very long time as the focus of the treatment of the fantasy as being the ‘knot where the imaginary and the symbolic come together, a quilting point essential to both registers’ (p. 5).  Furthermore, an important moment arrives:

‘when the phallus, whose status as image already distinguishes it from that of organ, is moved so as to privilege its symbolic status. We notice it continuously in Seminar V, since, after his work on A question preliminary to… where the phallus appears as imaginary, Lacan shifts his orientation until arriving at the phallus as signifier. If we compare the formulae, term by term, we see only one contradiction, when the phallic term is dragged there into the signifierisation of imaginary jouissance which Lacan is applying very systematically to all his terms’ (p. 5).

A crucial aspect of the second paradigm then is the shifting of the phallus from imaginary to symbolic status. ‘It culminates in the general demonstration that the libido itself is written into the signifier’ … ‘It is this that Lacan called ‘desire’’ (p. 5). This is what Miller refers to as a mortified jouissance; a dead desire. This paradigm is in effect the jouissance of castration, that which allows us to desire; this is the jouissance which is born out of the existence of the symbolic order and its structuring and ordering function. This could be succinctly put as the desire of desire itself. In sum, Miller states that it is the effacement of jouissance by the signifier in this second paradigm which corresponds to the effect of sublimation (the Aufhebung).

The third paradigm which Miller calls Impossible Jouissance arrives in Seminar VII, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, and is what could be otherwise known as Real Jouissance. By ‘pushing the signifierisation to its limit’ (p. 6), Lacan is left with the necessity to introduce a new dimension to the realm of jouissance that is one related to das Ding, ‘the Thing’ in Freudian terms, one which Miller points out never appears in Lacan’s mathemes precisely because by its uncanny nature it cannot be a symbolic term.

‘What is then meant by das Ding, the Thing? It means that satisfaction, the truth, the driven, the Brefriedigung, is found neither in the imaginary or the symbolic, that it is outside what is symbolized, that it is of the order of the real… everything in the two-level assembly of Lacan’s great graph is set up against real jouissance, in order to contain real jouissance’ (Miller, p. 7).

On this account of jouissance, it is in fact the function of desire which operates via the imaginary and the symbolic, acting as a barrier against the real and the jouissance which it embodies. It is the job then of civilization to build a protective shield via the constraints provided by ethical injunctions and their institutions which stand in between the desiring subject and the eviscerating effects of jouissance.

In relation then to the graph of desire to which Miller refers above, he contends that this paradigm as inaugurated in Seminar VII implies a:

‘fundamental redrawing of the graph implying an alternative to the defence of repression. Repression is a concept that belongs to the symbolic and which is set against the similar notion of decipherment, but this alternative to the defence indicates an orientation prior to being. As Lacan says, it already exists before even the conditions of repression as such are formulated’ (p. 7).

It is in this seminar that Lacan will explore the ethics of psychoanalysis invoking both Greek tragedy in the rendering of Antigone and the juxtaposition and cross reading of Kant with Sade in order to revisit the question of jouissance as the other side of the law; in sum, the third paradigm is jouissance as transgression.

The fourth paradigm Miller calls Normal Jouissance, but he says he could have otherwise referred to it as fragmented jouissance. This fragmented jouissance comes about in Seminar XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, and is jouissance broken up into (various) object a(s). In a sense this is a remarkable, albeit anti-climactic departure from the real and abyssal jouissance of Seminar VII, of on the one hand noble sacrifice and on the other heinous and salacious crime (hence why Miller calls it “normal”). ‘It is not situated in an abyss, but in a little cavity… jouissance is not reached by heroic transgression, but by the coming to mind of the drive, by the drive which makes a return trip’. (p. 9). Miller goes on to say:

‘The Stimmung, the affective colouration of these two seminars is quite different. In The Ethics of Psychoanalysis we have jouissance related to horror, it is necessary to pass through sadism to understand something of it. When in the place of jouissance, the experience is of a terrible bodily fragmentation, a single death is not enough to justify it, he adds a second. In the Seminar of Four Concepts the model to compare with jouissance is art, the picture, the peaceful contemplation of the art object. As Lacan says, the work of art soothes people it reassures them, it makes them feel good’ (p. 10).

Miller identifies in the transition from Seminar VII to Seminar XI a certain inversion. In the first case we started with the pleasure principle in homeostasis, which following its trajectory in pursuit of impossible jouissance ends up with total sadistic fragmentation. In the second case, we start from the other side, that is with fragmentation as the beginning; the body divided up into partial drives and erogenous zones which operated according to their own volition but then as contrary to the previous paradigm, there is (something of) an integration achieved thanks to drive jouissance bringing things back to equilibrium without transgression.

Miller asks why this reversal occurs and surmises that it has something to do with the fact that at the beginning of Seminar XI Lacan defines the unconscious in a manner like never before. Whereas previously Lacan had described it as an ‘order, a chain, a regularity’ he now suddenly redefines it as a discontinuity as a ‘rim that opens and shuts’ (p.11). Why does he do this? Miller’s answer is that Lacan seeks to make the unconscious equivalent to an erogenous zone. Miller describes it ‘as an anus or mouth’ (p. 11). Lacan does this in order to show that there is a structural similarity between the symbolic unconscious and the function of the drive. We may recall in this seminar how Lacan addresses his audience:

‘For the moment, I am not fucking, I am talking to you. Well! I can have exactly the same satisfaction as if I were fucking. That’s what it means. In fact it raises the question of whether in fact I am not fucking at this moment. Between these two terms – drive and satisfaction – there is set up an extreme antinomy that reminds us that the use of the function of the drive has for me no other purpose than to put into question what is meant by satisfaction’ (Lacan, 2004, p 166).

Miller believes that Lacan has ‘structured the unconscious as similar to something in the bodily apparatus’ (p. 11), precisely after this model. Jouissance becomes a substance which fills in the gaps of lost objects (recall that jouissance is the only substance Lacan recognizes). These are nothing more than traces of the originary lost object which is constitutive of the sexed subject and form the structural loss of subjectivity itself. Lacan explains this with recourse to his famous myth of the lamella. This lamella is the amoeba like undead substance which leaves the child’s body at birth and flies off never to be seen again but always to be pursued or indeed feared. But this is not to be confused with das Ding as a beyond the signifier, the endpoint of a trajectory, because the lamella is the mythical expression of a natural loss occasioned by the entrance into the symbolic.

In Seminar XI, ‘Jouissance re-establishes itself… under the figure of the object a, that is, something more modest, scaled down, more easily handled than the Thing. The object a… is the loose change of the Thing’ (Miller p. 12). The difference being then between the Thing and the object ‘a’ is that whereas the Thing operates as an un-symbolizable monstrous figure in the real, the object ‘a’ derives from the signifying Other and its effects on the body.

The fifth paradigm (Discursive Jouissance) appears in Seminar XVI, XVII and Radiophonie, but will be most familiar to people in the form of Lacan’s four discourses Masters, Hysterics, University and Analyst. In this paradigm the signifier and jouissance become, for the first time, inextricably tied together.

‘Before this fifth paradigm, there is always in Lacan one way or another a description of structure, of the articulation of signifiers, of the Other, of the dialectic of the subject, and then, in a second period, the question was to know how the living being, the organism, the libido were captured by the structure. What changes with the notion of discourse is the idea that the relationship signifier/jouissance is a primitive and primal relation. It is there that Lacan emphasizes that repetition is repetition of jouissance’ (Miller, p. 13)

It is in Seminar XVII therefore where Lacan gives his most extensive justification for the separation of truth and knowledge. Access to jouissance is no longer, according to Miller, ‘by way of transgression, but by way of entropy, the loss produced by the signifier’ (p.18). For this reason Lacan (2007) famously says ‘Truth is the dear little sister of Jouissance’ (p. 202). The effect of lack that the signifier therefore produces is what Lacan calls surplus jouissance. But surplus jouissance may occupy any one of the four positions on the quaternary structure of a discourse (see figure 1 below), which changes the significance of the operation of jouissance for the subject depending on the mode of discourse. This is what arguably makes this particular paradigm and the seminar in which it features the most politically applicable of all of Lacan’s teachings. Given that it formalizes the transmission of knowledge in relation to jouissance that goes beyond individual clinical applications and becomes a mode of understanding large scale movements of jouissance in social structures and cultural practices. It also provides a way of understanding the place of scientific discourse in relation to politics and religion.

The four place holders of the discourses are Agent, Other, Truth and Product, and the four components are S1, S2, $ and a.

Lacan discourses

The significance of the discursive paradigm furthermore is that in splitting off jouissance into multifarious objets a, the notion of surplus enjoyment comes to fit perfectly with the discourse of capitalism, in other words there is potentially no end to the promise of ever new incarnations of objet a, which Lacan refers to briefly in Seminar XVII as the lathouse. Whereas Jouissance had previously been something bombastic, sublime and ethically challenging, it was now reduced to the mundanity of petty consumerism which by definition always promises a satisfaction that can never really arrive, producing an endless search for that thing that will finally be it.

‘The notion of surplus jouissance in Lacan has the function of extending the register of objets a to include objects in some way ‘natural’, to extend them to all the objects of industry, culture, sublimation, that is to say, all that can come to fill minus phi, without ever succeeding in completely doing so’ (Miller, p. 20).

The sixth and final paradigm is the Non Rapport. This version of jouissance arrives in Seminar XX Encore and is based on the non-relation between signifier and signified, between man and woman, and between jouissance and the big Other. As Miller explains:

‘In Encore, [Lacan] puts into question the very concept of language, which he considers to be a derivative concept, not primal, in contrast to what he calls lalangue, which is speech before its grammatical and lexicographic scheduling. Similarly he puts into question the concept of speech, now conceived of, not as communication, but as jouissance. Whilst jouissance was, in his teaching, always secondary by comparison with the signifier, and he even develops it into a primal relationship, language and structure hitherto treated as primordial givens must now in this sixth paradigm appear as secondary and derivative’ (p. 21).

What Lacan is articulating in this sixth paradigm is the fundamental disjunction not just between the signifier and the signified, but in the sexual relation and the modes of jouissance which may be attainable through its pursuit. In his separation of speech from language he identifies that whilst there is an absence of any necessary link between signifier and signified, the arbitrary link is itself a cause of jouissance, a bodily jouissance. The non-existent sexual relation is demonstrated by Lacan in this same seminar by his graphs of sexuation.

After Seminar XX Lacan begins to look for other ways of representing the relationship between imaginary, symbolic and real registers of the psyche, which did not conform to transmissible units of information (a focus on topology and knot theory). The structures with which Lacan tried to formalize psychoanalysis up until this point had appeared to lose their grip on the operation of jouissance. At this stage in Lacan’s teaching the Name-of-the-Father, the phallus, Oedipus, all become nothing more than semblants. Furthermore, Lacan is concerned by the problem that at this point in civilization psychoanalysis no longer ‘works’.

Miller notes that Lacan has always been careful to distinguish between what psychoanalysis was capable of in Freud’s time compared to his own. When ‘invention becomes routine’ (p. 23)  he begins to recognize that even his own inventions – be they conceptual, structural or mathematical – may also have passed from invention to routine. With this admission, Lacan (1998) must jettison all of his previous models of jouissance and replace the matheme of the unconscious with the mystery of the speaking body, opening up to the final phase of his teaching involving the Sinthome and, following Miller, the conceptual replacement of the unconscious by the speaking body. Essentially this is a non-discursive jouissance, one that does not depend on the Other. An ‘autistic jouissance’ even.

‘This is first of all demand to place jouissance without any idealism, and, at this point, the place of jouissance, as cynics would have it, is the body itself. What Lacan shows is that all actual jouissance, all material jouissance is jouissance One, that is to say jouissance of the body itself. It is always the body itself which enjoys, by whatever means available’ (Miller, p. 25).

It is in this sense that Miller (2013) characterises rather crudely that the 21st century bears witness to a great ‘disorder in the real’. The loss of a transcendental structure in relation to jouissance gives rise to a more unmistakably materialist reconfiguring of Lacanian theory. Not that there is no structure, Miller is keen to point out, but rather it is becoming harder to distinguish what is structure and what is Real.

It must be stressed that these six paradigms, while they may be locatable by Miller to specific chronological stages of Lacan’s teaching, do not however represent discrete and successive concepts which are abandoned at each new development of Lacan’s thought. Rather they may be seen to emphasise different concerns and a multiplicity of facets in the rich conceptual development of jouissance, reflecting Lacan’s particular concerns at each part of his seminar.

At a moment when we are witnessing great interest in the concept of jouissance in various psychoanalytically informed fields of study, the importance of distinguishing between the six paradigms for scholars of Lacan’s and Miller’s work is becoming increasingly clear. This opens up the possibility for a seventh paradigm, through which the concerns of contemporary civilization may be newly addressed. It is in this vein that the Psychoanalysis of Artificial Intelligence (from which this text derives) seeks to articulate new problematics and generate novel discussions of the contours of jouissance today and in the future.


Lacan, J. (1998) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XX: Encore. London: W.W. Norton & Company.

Lacan, J. (2007) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. London: W.W. Norton & Company.

Miller, J-A. (2013) The Real in the 21st Century. Hurly-Burly 9: pp. 199-206.

Miller, J-A. (2019) Six Paradigms of Jouissance. The Psychoanalytical Notebooks 33. French online version:

The Psychoanalysis of Sexbots

This talk was given at the event Sex Robots: Are we Ready? at Old Street Gallery 12th Dec 2019.

To read my academic work on the Psychoanalysis of AI, please see my page:

The full article on Blade Runner 2049 is forthcoming with the Palgrave Lacan series. My doctoral thesis project will be published in 2020.


‘The world is increasingly populated by lathouses. […] The lathouse has absolutely no reason to limit its multiplications. What is important is to know what happens when one really enters into relationship with the lathouse as such.’

Lacan (2007, p. 162)

‘There is something stronger than passion: illusion. There is something stronger than sex or happiness: the passion for illusion.’

Baudrillard (2008, p. 6)

‘Technology is lust removed from nature.’

Delillo (1986, p. 285)


The truth is, as attention grabbing as these lovely things are, I am not particularly interested in sex robots, they actually leave me rather cold. Having said that I think the concept of the sex-bot is fascinating from a psychoanalytic perspective. But what do I mean by the “concept” of a sex-bot, well taken to its speculative zenith it’s an embodied humanoid artificial intelligence with whom we enter into a sexual relation, experience physical and emotional enjoyment, who may even become real love objects, and who in turn may (fantasmatically) “love” or more accurately “enjoy” us back.  In psychoanalysis enjoyment or jouissance is a complex term that refers not just to pleasure but also pain and their paradoxical intersection otherwise known as the death drive, that is definitive of human experience.

This idea of AIs as love objects has fascinated writers and film makers for years. Most recently we can think of, for example Ex-Machina, Blade Runner 2049, West World, Black Mirror among many others. And so, in my research which is on the Psychoanalysis of Artificial Intelligence, I use the concept of the sex-bot in film as a tool to examine larger philosophical questions about our intimate and sexual relations with forms of Artificial Intelligence. So, what is sex in psychoanalytic terms? Common characterizations of psychoanalysis accuse it of reducing everything to an underlying “sexual meaning”. But on the contrary, this is to misunderstand what sex is. Sex is not a hidden meaning, but precisely the lack of meaning itself. As philosopher Alenka Zupančič (2017) says:

‘[I]t would… be a big mistake to consider that, in Freudian theory, the sexual (in the sense of constitutively deviational partial drives) is the ultimate horizon of the animal called “human,”… on the contrary it is the operator of the inhuman, the operator of dehumanization’ (p. 7).

This dehumanization as she calls is significant in relation to our discussion of sex robots as undead companions. Since it is from this “inhuman” basis that psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan constructs his theory of subjectivity around this fundamental negativity we call sex. Zupančič says:

‘What Freud calls the sexual is thus not that which makes us human in any received meaning of the term, it is rather that which makes us subjects, or perhaps more precisely it is coextensive with the emergence of the subject’ (p. 7).

The question of sex in Lacanian psychoanalysis has its roots in Freud’s discovery of the unconscious. But Freud’s most significant contribution to the question of sex was to claim that our popular conceptions of what sex is were completely wrong. A common misconception about Freud’s legacy which still persists, is that he reduced all the complexity of human life down to banalities of repressed sexual and bodily drives stemming from originary traumas that underpinned all of our subsequent adult desires. Whilst sexuality is at the root of the Freudian conception of human subjectivity, it is not sex in the common sense meaning of the term. Furthermore, whilst Freud may have spoken about sexual trauma as formative to our adult sexual orientation, this trauma is not necessarily one that ever took place in reality, and nor is there such a thing as normative sexuality which could exist without such trauma in the first place. For Freud, the fact of sexuality itself is the inherent trauma of what it is to be a human being. It is how this trauma is navigated which will determine the precise way in which a person will come to inhabit his her (or their) sexuality.

And this is what Lacan would formalize logically over many years of his seminar culminating eventually in terms of his graphs of sexuation (pictured here) and transitioning from the subject of the unconscious to the fundamentally barred subject otherwise known as the speaking being. Lacan schematized sexual difference in logical terms as two different ways of constituting a totality using the language of set theory and algebra (what are also known in psychoanalysis as mathemes). Masculinity and femininity merely being two failed modes in language of reaching the “impossible absolute” and giving sense to his famous refrain “the sexual relation does not exist”. This relation does not exist because (to simplify somewhat) symbolically the man has the phallus and the woman is the phallus, two mutually exclusive positions.

For psychoanalysis the fact that we speak and are castrated by language is the sine qua non of our subjectivity and sexuality.  A process which all speaking beings must by definition undergo, and which determines their sexuated position within language and discourse. The term castration here does not refer to the actual removal of the phallic organ but rather the symbolic operation of entering into the realm of language. Our first experience of language of course, being as a stand in for something missing that we desperately wanted; a breast, a toy, a person, a look. Language is the mark of the thing that we lacked, and which provides us the substitute satisfaction in its place.

But importantly this form of understanding sexuation does not conform to genetic or biological models and therefore does not depend on what type of body you inhabit. These positions within language are highly abstract and correspond to the way in which the symbolic carves up our bodies and orients our enjoyment. These forms of enjoyment dictate the way in which we experience ourselves as an object for the other, and in return how the other may be an object of enjoyment for us. We don’t have time to go into it fully here but we can simply say that the masculine position corresponds to the all of exception and inclusion, to be on the masculine side you are characterized by belonging to a closed group which is constituted by an exception in the form of the mythical totemic and all enjoying father (Freud, 2001 [1958]). For the masculine sex all except one are castrated. This totemic father never really existed but yet as a fantasy he operates. To make it more tangible think of Donald Trump as the ultimate obscene totemic Freudian father, who is permitted to enjoy everything (including, as he insinuates, his own daughter) and in doing so creates the exception to the rule, creating the category of so called real “men”.

The feminine non-all in contrast is an open set which doesn’t require a boundary to define itself. There is not one that is not castrated. For this reason, masculinity is, formally speaking, a limit to forms of enjoyment and femininity is an unlimited mode of enjoyment. Not because women are not subject to castration, but because the function of non-castration does not determine their enjoyment. Think here of the logic of femininity not as something mystical or ineffable but rather as a formal category which entails an infinite proliferation of possibilities. To give you an image, think of the notion of female enjoyment (and its prohibition) as the absolute fascination of our culture. We have always been completely obsessed with how women enjoy. As pornography shows, the enjoying body of a woman is the ultimate prize and the ultimate enigma. The strange thing about the two modes of sexuation, however is that on the masculine side the category of man is generated as a totality, whereas on the feminine side the category of woman logically simply cannot exist. Since the conditions of her totality are impossible.

So, what does this have to do with sex robots? At a time when the notion of the technological singularity is hotly debated, we are presented with all kinds of imagined futures wherein the boundaries of humanity and sexuality are redefined and transgressed. Even though actual sex-bots are in their infancy in the present stage of techno-capitalism, their fantasmatic presence in culture, betray our long-time fascination with intimate relationships with AI more generally. In Lacan’s Seminar XVII he famously invented two new terms the lathouse and the alethosphere. The alethosphere, from the Greek word Alethia – truth, in contemporary times would refer to the realm of individualized and formalized truth making that we each plug into in the digitally mediated social space. In other words, the self-contained echo chamber of our own ideas and enjoyment, wherein despite our connectivity we are all profoundly alone. Just think about the lonely desperation of the twitter-sphere, or the deluge of angry men with a dangerous grudge that the internet has spawned. And so the lathouse is this strange object that is, to paraphrase Lacan, “not quite being and not quite the Other”, but is to be found in the guise of the ever-proliferating objects a , or object causes of desire which sustain this self-contained bubble of auto-enjoyment (these may be material, technological or conceptual in nature). And what better example of this is there than the love-dolls we are seeing tonight? So rather than a standard feminist critique of the misogynistic aspects of the sex robot industry then, I am more interested rather in what the fantasy of a relationship between a human and an embodied AI (a modern day lathouse), tells us about subjectivity in the alethosphere. Because whether we like it or not, AI is entering the social bond. In the context of Lacanian theory, this (impossible) relationship is interlinked with the question of knowledge, enjoyment and sexuation:

‘[I]t’s a logical articulation that is at stake in the formulation that knowledge is the Other’s jouissance – the Other’s, of course, insofar as – since there is no Other – the intervention of the signifier makes the Other emerge as a field’ (Lacan, 2007 [1991], p. 15).

So how does the question of non-human or undead sexual companions reflect a far more intractable problem regarding sex, speech, knowledge and the body? When there is less and less space between demand and fulfilment, we may ask what is the status of fantasy as a sustaining structure to “real” life? In psychoanalysis, fantasy is the framework through which we construct our subjectivity, our deepest desires being based around a fictional structure, that is constitutively unknown to us.  The function of fantasy is in fact the logical framework that allows the subject to become intelligible and for the ‘imaginary [to be] captured by a particular use of signifiers’ (Lacan, 2017 [1998], p. 387).  This leads us to query the logic of fantasy in relation to artificial intelligence and the different ways sexuation can manifest in fantasies of AI.

The enigma of sex then, is one which we will always find right at the heart of our fantasies of radical futures for the human species and alternative utopian or dystopian landscapes and has recently found expression in various depictions of AI and our sexual relation to it in cinema. Much like the first Blade Runner movie, Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 sequel Blade Runner 2049 asks fundamental questions about the nature of human existence in the context of accelerated techno-capitalism. This time though the crux of the protagonist K’s dilemma is no longer am I human? but was I born?  K, in searching for the film’s object of desire – the missing child – fantasmatically tries to reconstruct his very own primal scene, ie the impossible knowledge of his own creation. K now starts to believe he is the “chosen one”, born of the union of man and woman.

 The enigmatic and profoundly human problem of sexuation is thus brought to the fore. The anxiety depicted here is therefore the disintegration of the illusion of the sexual relation, which according to psychoanalysis, never existed in the first place. Since in this imagined future, humans are reproduced “artificially” and without the need for the work of female gestation, the significance of sexuation becomes ever more conspicuous. Why would we still need so called “men” and “women” if we can reproduce a-sexually? But whilst K is a replica of a male human yet aware of his replicant status, Joi his holographic girlfriend is a virtual AI programmed for the sole purpose of being a love interest for her husband but supposedly unaware of her existential quandary i.e that she is “not real” or doesn’t exist. Joi is perhaps what Lacan would have referred to as the ultimate ‘lathouse’. The lathouse which Lacan derives from the Greek ousia meaning being, merged with venthouse the French for suction cup, and vent for wind, evokes a device for siphoning off enjoyment. This allusion we may relate to the voice and breath and the enjoyment of speech, involved in feminine jouissance and which is one of the most tangible features of Joi’s character. Joi, in her fully automated luxury femininity summons up the image of the capitalist dream of women as pure object a. Joi represents the phallus as pure signifier of castration, an “impossible” undead body. Reading Slavoj Žižek (2005) on the question of the phallus and the body we could similarly understand Joi’s significance thus:

‘Its ‘transcendental’ status means there is nothing ‘substantial’ about it: the phallus is the semblance par excellence. What the phallus ‘causes’ is the gap that separates the surface event from bodily density: it is the ‘pseudo-cause’ that sustains the autonomy of the field of Sense with regard to its true, effective, bodily cause’ (p. 130).

It is thus the question of the enjoying body as depicted between K and his fantasmatic relationship to both his love object and his own idea of his body (as born, not made) that provides us with the conceptual transition from the Freudian unconscious to the Lacanian speaking body. K’s unconscious becomes a site of contestation via the various discursive modalities that he enjoys through his fantasy of lost, or potential enjoyment. His enjoyment is very much predicated on his ability to experience himself fantasmatically via the body of the ‘woman’, whether that is his holographic lover, simulacrum of a sister, or dead mother. So, sex is here what is missing from the signifying chain, a gap in knowledge. In other words, sex is the very structural incompleteness of nature and of being. In the age of the alethosphere is this not the point of the sex robot, the possibility to experience ourselves via the body of an impossible other, the body of the woman who doesn’t really exist?


Baudrillard, J. (2008) The Perfect Crime. London: Verso.

Delillo, D. (1985) White Noise. New York: Penguin Random House.

Freud, S. (2001) Totem and Taboo. In: The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII (1917-1919). London: Vintage.

Lacan, J. (1998) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XX: Encore – On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge. London: W.W. Norton & Company.

Lacan, J. (2006) Écrits. London: W.W. Norton & Company.

Lacan, J. (2007) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XVII: The Other Side of  Psychoanalysis. London: W.W. Norton & Company.

Villeneuve, D. (Dir.) (2017) Blade Runner 2049 [Film] Warner Brothers.

Žižek, S. (2005) The Metastases of Enjoyment: On Women and Causality. Verso: London.

Zupančič, A. (2017) What is Sex? Cambridge: MIT Press.

Sex, AI and the Enigma of Reproduction

edinburgh poster


A seminar exploring AI and sexuality from the perspective of psychoanalysis and ‘Blade Runner 2049’.

What is the relationship between sexuality and Artificial Intelligence? In this seminar, Isabel Millar will discuss the new psychoanalytic questions provoked by the entrance of AI into the social bond, the growing figure of the sex robot and the conceptual problems this raises for psychoanalytic accounts of subjectivity.

Exploring the film Blade Runner 2049, the seminar will discuss the enigma of reproduction and its relationship to sex. In the midst of an existential battle between humans and their replicas, the object cause of desire is the missing offspring around which the film revolves. As Lacan once said, the only real object a is the child. In which case, we may ask, how does the figure of the child function as an ontological problem for a replicant who never suffered castration and was not “born of woman” ? What is the significance of woman in relation to the protagonist’s (non) human enjoyment? Furthermore what does Blade Runner 2049 tell us about the labour of human pregnancy, the fetishsization of biology, heredity and genetics and the disavowed work of gestation?

Using this and other cinematic depictions of AI and the sexual relation, this seminar will explore some of the ramifications and possible implications of our first forays into sexual relationships with Artificial Intelligences.

Isabel Millar is a PhD researcher in psychoanalysis, philosophy and contemporary critical theory at Kingston University, School of Art. Her research is on Lacan, Sex and Artificial Intelligence.

Open to all and free via registration on Eventbrite:

Thursday September 5, 18:30 – 20:00
Edinburgh Napier University (Merchiston Campus)
Room H5