The crack in the image: Virginia Woolf and Jacques Lacan on the limits of personality and the emergence of subjectivity

What is the difference between personality and subjectivity? Are there disciplinary and aesthetic delimitations of both concepts? And if so, what do they look like? These questions are underlying the argument of this paper. In looking for answers, the author turns to Lacanian psychoanalysis and Virginia Woolf’s theorising on the modernist novel, since both Lacan and Woolf offer, in their own way, a unique critique of the notion of personality. Whereas Lacan shows us the limits of personality as it was conceptualised by early psychiatry and the eminent French psychoanalyst Daniel Lagache, Woolf shows us the limits of this concept as it was implicitly proposed by her direct literary precursors, in particular by the famed novelist Arnold Bennett. Essential to both Lacan and Woolf’s position is the assertion that a subject arises where the notion of personality reaches its limit: one has to postulate an indeterminate object – in fact, the sheer form of an object –  for the subject to emerge. In the case of Lacan, this object is called objet a; in the case of Woolf, this object is found where realistic observation of experiential reality, as novelists working in the tradition of literary realism would have it, finds its limit. In fact, both Lacan and Woolf understand subjectivity as a position phantasmatically relating to an unknown X, and both their critiques of psychiatry/psychology and Edwardian realism respectively attest to this. The latter two had, namely, articulated theories of personality in which it was silently assumed that a personality is ‘full’ in itself, and that it could be captured scientifically, i.e. positivistically, and descriptively, i.e. realistically. Lacan and Woolf go against these tendencies: at the heart of subjectivity as well as at the heart of the novel there resides lack, and both contemporary psychoanalysis and the contemporary novel should render this palpable.