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Bahan Bacaan Teoretis


Ch. 1: Theory of the Subject (Marc de Kesel)



Psychosis (B. Fink)

Neurosis (B. Fink)
Perversion (B. Fink)


Instincts and their Vicissitudes (S. Freud)

Ch. 7: Sublimation (Marc de Kesel)


Ch. 8: Radiant Antigone (Marc de Kesel)

The Splendor of Creation: Kant, Nietzsche, Lacan (Alenka
Hysteria in Scientific Discourse (Colette Soler)

Chapter 1

A Theory of the Subject

Psychoanalysis is not a Weltanschauung, nor a philosophy pretending to deliver the key to the universe. It is supported by a particular
intuition that is historically dened by the elaboration of the notion
of subject.1

The introduction of das Ding in the Ethics Seminar marks a change

at the very core of Lacanian theory. Such, at least, is the consensus of
practically every commentary on Lacan. Prior to his seventh seminar, so
the story goes, Lacan conceived the subject as entirely determined by the
signier. Since signiers continually refer to other signiers, the subject that
emerged was thought to be exceptionally agile, slippery, and exiblean
insight that does justice to the paradoxical and devious paths the subject
is forced onto by its capricious drive-life. Yet with his seventh seminar,
the commentaries continue, Lacan introduced an important correction
into his theory. Despite its agility within the realm of signiers, the subject is now presumed to remain simultaneously attached to something
that is not a signier: something that is beyond all signiers and which
Lacan, with Freud, names das Ding, the thing. It is this thing that
gives the subjects slippery libidinal economy its ultimate consistency.
Henceforth Lacan no longer considers the subject solely as the bearer of
an unconscious chain of signiers (as in the previous six seminars), but
also, and more fundamentally, as attached to a thing: this is the new
insight offered in Lacans Ethics Seminar. According to these commentators, the idea of attachment is the key to understanding Lacans difcult
expositions in this seminar.2
However, although the emphasis on the thing is unquestionably
there, readers will seek the word attachment in vain. Nowhere is the rela-



Eros and Ethics

tion between the subject and its thing described in these terms, nor does it
appear in any other contexts. The term attachment, which has meanwhile
been developed into a concept, seems to have been an invention of Lacans
interpreters rather than of Lacan himself. Nevertheless, this term rightly turns
our attention to the object that the subject is related to. It presumes an
emphasis on the thing at which the subject aims, an emphasis one can
indeed nd on practically every page of Lacans Ethics Seminar.
Yet to dene the relation between the subject and the thing as
an attachment is to say more than this. It names the nature of that
relation. It presumes this relation to be close, attached, and involving
a strong bond or attraction. As I will show, such an interpretation is
in fact far less easyif not impossibleto extract from the text. At any
rate, the tie between subject and object will be so much more complex
that one must ask whether a notion like attachment is capable of doing
it justice at all.
What is more, these commentaries that refer to the idea of attachment seem to imply that the attention to the object pole in desire is
something new in Lacanian theory, something that is only introduced
in his Ethics Seminar. This too, however, is not substantiated, neither
in the text of the seminar, nor in the wider development of his theory. It
is in agrant contradiction with the fact that Lacan had always put the
emphasis on the object pole of desire. This was evident from the opening steps of his oeuvre, that is, his theory of the mirror stage. Many of
the turns of his oeuvre are motivated by further, ongoing corrections and
renements of this rst object relations theory.
In this respect, his entire theory could be regarded as an object
relations theory, at least if we understand this term in a wider sense
than that assigned by Ronald Fairbairn, the analyst who made the rst
breakthrough of this theory. Fairbairn dened the object relation as the
opposite of a libido relation: in his eyes, object relations theory contests the primacy of the libido as the basic principle of the drive-life.3
Lacans preference, on the other hand, for approaching things from an
object relations perspective is always accompanied with an even greater
emphasis on the libidinal aspect of the problem.4 If we thus understand
the term object relation in the widest sense of the word, that is, as a
psychoanalytic theory that centers on the problem of the object in the
libidinal economy, Lacans thought has always been an object relations
theory. Although he has long been one of its most formidable critics, he
has always moved within the same paradigm of the diverse object relations theories of his time.
If one tries to conceive of the relation between the drive and its
object (the thing in the Ethics Seminar) as an attachment, one must
do so at least against the background of the object relations theory per-

A Theory of the Subject


sisting and developed in the course of his oeuvre. And, what is more, one
must conceive of that object relations theory as a theory of the subject.
For the libidinal economy cannot solely be regarded as an object relation. It is crucial to recall how the object relation requires a bearer,
a subjectum, an instance giving support and ground to the entire slippery libidinal economy. This is why Lacans object relations theory is
rst of all a theory of the subject. In this chapter I will cover the basic
principles of Lacans theory of the subject. Solely this perspective offers
the background necessary for understanding the subjects complex relation to the ultimate object of its desire, that is, the object which is
central in Lacans seminar on the Ethics of Psychoanalysis and whose
implications have far-reaching consequences for the ethical condition of
the modern subject in general.

1. The Object Relations Theory and Its Moral Premises

In the period preceding his seventh seminar, Lacan was rmly opposed
to the object relations theories that were popular in the fties. Already
in the fortiesin part under the inuence of the violent controversies
swirling around Melanie Kleinthe argument was that libidinal life is
best approached from one of the four components Freud attributed to
the drive, namely the drives object.5 This argument emerged from
an article by Karl Abraham in 1924 where he distinguishes a number of
stages in object love that parallel the stages of the libidinal development.
Already prior to attaining a true object love (and this is only true of
the genital phase, the phase during which the Oedipus conict is settled),
the child displays partial love, as Abraham called it: a pregenital relation toward (oral, anal and other partial) objects. His study explains
how the phases of the evolution of the pregenital, still incomplete object
relation perfectly replicate the libidos evolution.6 Following in the line of
Abrahams discoveries, Melanie Klein showed, on the basis of often very
convincing case studies,7 how already in the childs earliest months there is
a relation with objects that are of primordial interest for the formation of
identity. From its rst experiences (hence, long before the Oedipal phase)
the child identies with objectspartial objects, such as the mothers
breast, the feces, or the phallusthat are all localized in the maternal
body. According to Klein, this identication is the determining factor for
the subsequent course of the childs libidinal development.
Along the same lines, an entire current of both theoretical and practical
psychoanalysis in the fties focused on the intimate relation between the
drive and the object. Freud had previously described the relation as free,8
although other theorists at that time regarded this relation as more static.


Eros and Ethics

The idea gained ground that the drive is more or less naturally attuned
to its object.9 The translation of the German word Trieb as instinct
(in English as well as in many other languages) supported this interpretation. Regarding it in terms of a developmental process of instincts affords
the idea of a natural physiological process, and object relations are then
spontaneously conceived of in the same way. Psychoanalytic practice, too,
doesnt escape this tendency: the cure enables the analysand to arrive at
a renewed relation to the object that his entire drive life naturally aims
at but with which he had become at odds. This same object relations
theory is then able to bring the importance of the pregenital objects back
into view, although the main emphasis remains the genital object. After
some ambivalent (because) oral and anal adventures during the period of
pregenital object relations, the drive, in the natural order of things, should
turn around and evolve into a stable (because) genital object choice that is
both a sign of and condition of possibility for a mature libidinal life. That
such a mature object relation ts with the acceptable ethical ideal of a
monogamous sexual culture simultaneously grants the latter an underlying
scientic legitimacy. This type of psychoanalysis implicitly declares that the
heterosexual, genital and monogamous object choice is the normal and
natural one. If Lacan turns against this kind of object relations theory, it
is primarily because of its unarticulated ethical pretensions. In their socalled psychoanalytic logic, the ambivalences and conicts characteristic
of our libido are supposed to nd a natural answer in what culture
postulates as normal and good.10
However, this is not what psychoanalysis is about, according to
Lacan. For him, Freuds intuition points in exactly the opposite direction.
Does analytic practice not notice every day how difcult it is for people
to enjoy the so-called natural and normal objects offered to their desire
by culture? Freud would never have invented a new theory had he not
seen how stubborn and incurable human discontent is. In one way or
another, people also love the discontent they hate. This is the Oedipal
structure Freud discovered in human desire. And this is what he observed
with the hysterics on his couch as well as with the remarkably persistent
discontent in human civilization. Remarks to this effect can be found long
before his famous 1930 essay, Civilization and Its Discontents.11 People
may love the rigid limits culture forces them into, but their relation to
culture is never natural. They relate to it from a polymorphous-perverse
drive, that is, from a drive that perverts nature.
Here perversion refers to the way an organism does not live its
biological functions for their own sake, that is, for the sake of what they
are for, but for the pleasure they give. If life is a reaction to stimuli (as
the biological denition of life claims), then this reaction, according to
Freud, must be considered perverse, that is, as turning around on itself,

A Theory of the Subject


detached from the aim and the proper orientation of its function.12 That
is why its principle of reactionand, thus of drive and of lifeis not
self-preservation, but pleasurepleasure being a purely formal principle
to be dened as a perversion of reaction/drive/life. Life, as a reaction to
stimuli, is guided by pleasure, not by self-preservation: this is the axiom
of psychoanalytic theory. The drive driving the organism may indeed be
biological, but the principle driving that drive is not to be found in the
biological self-preservation of the organism but in the pleasure accompanying the biological functioning. What drives an infant to suck at its
mothers breast may have been caused by its biological feeding function,
that is, its hunger, but the drives reaction to the hunger stimulus starts
with the pleasure the infant obtains from this sucking activity. At the
most basic level, the child sucks not in order to live but from the sheer
pleasure of slurping and sucking itself.13 We nd the same thing in adults:
the sucking reex can be perverted in smoking, defying the risks of
cancer, or in overeating (bulimia) or in eating the nothing preferred
above all (anorexia nervosa). Hence, it is the pleasure principle that makes
life polymorphous. Because pleasure is not linked to the proper aim of a
biological function, one can live that function for all kinds of other purposes, as these examples clearly illustrate. At the most fundamental level,
it is not a self-preservation principle (i.e., the axiom of modern biology,
including all Darwinist theories) but a pleasure principle that governs our
drives: this is the founding axiom of Freudian psychoanalysis.
Note that the idea that life is governed by drives is not restricted to
psychoanalysis. This is, more or less, what the entire philosophical and
scientic tradition says, albeit each proceeding from its own paradigm.
What is distinctive about Freudian psychoanalysis is its new concept of
the principle driving the drives. At the most fundamental level, the drive
attends not to the self-preservation of the organism, but to the pleasure
that it can gain. Pleasure may be found in self-preservation, but it isnt
necessarily the case. The organism can just as easily experience pleasure
from what is not in the interests of self-preservation.
Moreover, Freud does not attribute the polymorphous-perverse pleasure principle to a self-conscious subject, but to a completely unconsciously
functioning libido that, if only for that reason, carries all of the old connotations of sin. In Augustines Latin, libido stands for a bodily or
psychological movement released by a will that escapes conscious, rational
control. The Church Father interpreted the involuntary rebellion of the
male genital in erection as an unmistakable expression of libido. This
erectile insurrection that, by denition, escapes conscious control was,
in Augustines eyes, an exquisite sign of mans insurrection against God
and his Creation.14 This negative, Augustinian connotation is undeniably
present in Freuds concept of the unconscious, polymorphous-perverse


Eros and Ethics

libido. Unlike Augustine, however, he does not believe in the possibility

of redeeming the libido from its negative sinful nature. For Augustine,
mans sinful, libidinal condition will be reconciled at the end of time and
regain the perfection it knew in Paradise before the Fall. For Freud, in
contrast, human life is basicallyand will remaina matter of a sinful
and disturbing libido, which is also true for our most self-conscious
rationality and morality. The libido, by denition, has no natural destination or object where it will ultimately come to rest. It functions only
insofar it can polymorphously pervert everything natural.
This infamous insight, Lacan repeats over and again, is the core
of Freudian psychoanalysis. And it is precisely this scandalon that many
critics and even many psychoanalytic theorists try to repress or deny by,
for instance, ascribing the drive (or the libido) a natural object. This
was the main presupposition supporting the different object relations
theories of the fties. According to Lacan, it was their way of denying
the scandalonand, thus, the coreof psychoanalysis. Against these,
Lacan reafrmed Freuds basic intuition: there is simply no object that
corresponds to the drive in a natural way. The drive relates to its object in
a polymorphous-perverse way15 and it perverts the natural logic we have
always used to think about human life and its condition. This is why it
demands a new logic, that is, a psychoanalytic logic.

2. Lacans Target: Maurice Bouvet

In the name of his rereading of Freudhis famous return to FreudLacan
ercely attacks any form of object relations theory that fails to keep this
in mind. Although he pits himself against a number of big names, for
many years Lacan focuses his attention primarly on a single gure, Maurice
Bouvet.16 In this younger contemporary, he nds all the evils from which,
in his eyes, the most successful of object relations theorists suffer. Bouvet,
like no other, formulated the phases of the object relation as steps in a
spontaneous and natural process. In that sense, he elevated the genital
object relation into a normal, ideal and natural thing.
This already gives us one of Bouvets central conceptual pairs. As
opposed to the pregenital type, a catchall for anything that can go
wrong with the drive, Bouvet outlines the positively valorized genital
type: the type of person who, because of his or her genitalized object
relation is capable of having a normal, objective relation to reality,
the result of which is a strong ego. In one of his essays17 he writes that
pregenitals (les prgnitaux) are characterized by a weak ego. Their
ego is still too closely modeled on the oral and anal object relation, where
the various partial drives are not yet in possession of the right relation

A Theory of the Subject


to the object. At this level, the ego so cathects the object that it tries
to overcome the distance holding the object at bay. It tries to negate this
distance and take the object as a whole. It thereby undermines precisely
the object relation that it lives by, and it therefore continually threatens
to destroy itself. The problematic identity of the pregenitals stems from
the shaky structure of the earlier (oral and anal) ego. With the genitals,
things are quite different says Bouvet. These persons are able to acquire
a more stable distance in relation to the object because their egos are
less directly dependent on the object relation.18 Later in the same essay,
he characterizes the transition from the pre-genital to the genital phase
in the following way:
Once the drives that kindle the ego have been genitalized, once
they have been through the maturing process that forms the
transition from the pre-genital to the genital formation, they
are no longer controlled by an unmanageable, unremitting,
unconditional and partially destructive possessive impulse.
They are instead tender, amiable and even if the subject is
not willing to make sacrices here (i.e., to act disinterestedly),
even if it treats its objects as narcissistically as before, yet, it
is capable of understanding and adapting to the situation of
others. (Bouvet 1972; 178179)
It is easy for Lacan to expose the unquestioned moral presuppositions in passages such as this. Here, the drive relates purely to a spontaneous, natural growth process which, moreover, coincides with the moral
achievement of man as a social, comprehending being capable of making
sacrices. According to Bouvet, ethics seems to be rooted in a natural
libido. It is not surprising that Lacan cannot resist taking pot shots at
such a naturalizing and moralizing distortion of psychoanalysis.
Let us, however, permit Bouvet to speak rst, for, from a certain
perspective, his position doesnt seem to differ so radically from Lacans
after all. Like all object relations theorists, Bouvet starts out from the
primacy of the object relation: the organism is primarily a cluster of
(among others, oral and anal) object relations, and only lateras an
effect of their mutual conictsdoes it form a more or less stable ego,
rooted in a central relation to a privileged object. The ego is the agent
that channels the organisms inexorable drive tensions in a goodthat
is, pleasurableway. Rather than a point of departure, the ego must be
conceived as an effect of these primordial object relations. For Bouvet, the
success of the egos formation depends on the organisms ability to identify
and maintain the correct distance in relation to its central object. In the
pregenital phase, however, this object relation has not yet transcended


Eros and Ethics

its internal contradictions and tensions. The organism can only maintain
itself through an identicatory clinging to the object. In this way, it tries
to negate the distance that separates it from the object. In fact, it wants
to be its object. Both oral and anal-sadistic aggression stem from this. By
the same token, when the object is another person (the mother, family
members, other children), the young child tries to annihilate the distance
between itself and the other and become that other. Because of the aggressive and destructive nature of such a relation, the other/alike elicits the
greatest anxiety in the child. For the other/alike, too, is driven to (orally
or anally sadistically) eat up and destroy the object. This is why, in the
pregenital object relation, the child is subject to such erratically ambivalent
feelings. It is unable to assume a xed position, either in relation to the
outside world or to itself.
Accordingly, the ego resulting from the pregenital object relation is
particularly weak, Bouvet concludes. In this phase, the optimal distance
between the organism and its object has not yet been guaranteed (Bouvet,
1972: 268). This only occurs in the genital phase. There, a differentiated and nuanced relation with the object predominates, enabling the
ego to maintain its distance in relation to that object. It is this persistent
distance that guarantees a more or less successful satisfaction of the
drive (satisfaction instinctuelle).19 The subject no longer destructively
cathects the object (i.e., its double) but assumes a self-sacricial relation
to it, arriving at an understanding and an adaptation to the others
situation. Here, Bouvet concludes, objective reality is perceived as such
(Bouvet, 1972: 268).
In the analytic cure, too, where the analyst takes on the role of the
drive object in the transference, what is at stake is the distance towards
the object, Bouvet continues. Following the phases of libido development,
the analyst will continually reduce the distance between the analysand and
this object, right up until his own disintegration. The analysts interventions are designed to help the analysand resist the ambivalences brought
about by this process. This reduction to zero of the distance between the
subject and the object is strongest at the moment when the transferential
relationship reaches its peak. As soon as the analysand (or, more accurately, his ego) has introjected these aggressive and conicting drives,
he must be able to take and maintain his distance from the object again.
In Bouvets eyes, the analysand revisits the conictual Oedipal transition
from the pregenital to the genital phase in analysis, and reinstalls an
Oedipal (and therefore stronger) ego (Bouvet 1972; 267).
According to Maurice Bouvet, the psychoanalytic cure essentially
concerns the distance between the ego/subject and the object. From
Lacans early writings onward, this distance is a major topic that comes
into play from the subjects earliest beginnings because it constitutes itself

A Theory of the Subject


by identifying with the drive objectwhich is the foundational axiom of

every object relations theory. According to Bouvet, this is a radical and,
in a sense, ontological identication: the organism only exists through its
drive to merge with the object or, in other words, its drive to become
its object. Object relations theory must posit that the libidinal being, at
the most fundamental level, is its own drive object. Or, as Freud formulated it elsewhere in a collection of separate notes titled On having and
being in a child:
The child happily expresses the object relation by means of an
identication: I am the object. Having it comes only later [. . .].
Mother: breast. The breast is a piece of myself, I am the breast.
Only later: I have it, that is, I am not it.20
At the same time, the infantile libidinal being can only maintain
itself insofar as it fails in this radical identicatory movement, and thus
keeps itself at distance fromin relation tothis object. It can only exist
as an ego precisely insofar as it does not merge with the object. It has
to constitute itself as the subject (in the literal meaning of bearer) of a
relation to that objectthat is, the subject of an object relation. In short,
here we run across the basic paradox to which all object relations theoriesLacans includedmust return: on the one hand, the libidinal being
nds its ultimate ground in its object (or, so to speak, it is its object),
but, on the other, it only exists by grace of the distance it takes from this
object. In this sense, it is both its object and its relation to it.
This distance between itself and its object is what supports the libidinal
being. Note however, this itself (i.e., its subject or ego) is not given in
advance but is entirely the result of the installation and the maintenance
of this distance. For Bouvet, the regression from which all pathologies
stem entails a loss of this distance, causing the subject to fall back into
a conictual and in extreme cases self-destructive identication with the
object. Arduous, protracted analytic work is often needed before this
distance can be repaired.
Bouvets psychoanalytic theory is certainly not the most subtle of its
kind, but it would be an injustice to turn him, following Lacans lead, into
a caricature. One cannot, for instance, impute a crude naturalism to his
theory. In the nal analysis, his characterization of the drive object has
not so much to do with content (the true object is the genital object)
as with form: the true relation is genital, not because the object has a
genital nature but because, in the genital phase, the subject is in a position
to assume the right distance (distance optima) in relation to any object
at all (Bouvet 1972; 195; 268). The genitalizing of the object is not so
much a question of reaching the natural end of the drives development


Eros and Ethics

but of maintaining a safe distance from it. It is true that Lacan shows
how, intentionally or not, Bouvets conceptualization of psychoanalysis is
full of physical, natural, and, hence, ethical presuppositions. But if
one considers Lacans own statements in his seventh seminar, it is hard not
to see how close he is to Bouvets theoretical starting points. In his own
way Lacan, too, will place the emphasis on a similar kind of distance.
For Lacan as well, the truth of the goodor, in psychoanalytic terms,
the ultimate object of desireis found in a correct distance from the
subject. The subjects ethical attitude depends on the way he or she keeps
that object at a distance. Or, to coin a phrase: not unlike Bouvets, can
Lacanian ethics be dened as an ethics of distance?
But before going into Lacans Ethics Seminar, it is worth sketching
the contours of his theory of the subject in more detail. In a different,
more nuanced way than Bouvet, Lacan will try to provide an answer
to the basic paradox on which all object relations theories are founded,
namely, that the libidinal being is both its object and the distance it
takes in relation to it.

3. Lacanian Object Relations Theory: A Theory of the Subject

. . . but above all he is these objects . . .
(Lacan, 2002: 240)

3.1. An Imaginary Subject Theory

As he rants about Maurice Bouvet in the fties, Lacan is in fact revisiting his own previous theoretical position. At the end of the forties, he
similarly approached the basic structure of libidinal life as an explicitly
dualistic conict between two antithetical parties, the ego and the object.
And he, too, claims that man can neither avoid nor tolerate the strained
distance between these two poles. The only difference in those days was
that, unlike Bouvet, Lacan paid special attention to the status of the
participants in this conict. Bouvet paid little attention to this, beginning
from the position that one can approach both the ego and the object as
ordinary, real qualities. Lacans starting point, in contrast, was that one
must approach them both as strictly imaginary forms. In this way, he
succeeds in clarifying the most basic paradox that all theories holding to
the primacy of the object relation must face. For how can such a theory
plausibly make the ego both its object and the relation to that object?
How can it adequately explain why the ego wants to merge with its object
(which is why it can be so aggressive and even destructive in relation to

A Theory of the Subject


the object) while acknowledging that this same ego only exists thanks to
the distance it keeps from that object?
Lacans conceptualization of the mirror stage21 gave an adequate formulation of this logical contradiction. There, he explains that identication
plays out between purely imaginary antagonists. The egos identication
with the objectand, consequently, the destruction of the distance
between themis purely imaginary, not real. The entire explosive drama
of (oral) devouring and (anal-sadistic) destroying the object remains caught
in the imaginary status of this scene and, in this way, keeps the (object)
relational nature of the ego in place. This imaginary scene lends a supporting surface to the entire event and, in this way, enables the libidinal
being, despite those tensions, to exist at all.
The aha-experience the children undergo at the moment that they
rst recognize themselves in the mirror makes it easy to see how the
ego does indeed rst nd itself in an outside object, that is, in its shape
in the mirror. And it is also clear why that same ego, therefore, cannot
really merge with that object. This imaginary relation permits a radical
identication with the object while simultaneously keeping the distance
between the libidinal being and its object intact. So, considering the entire
object relation as imaginary one does full justice to the relation as such.
Regardless of how self-destructive its dynamic is (wanting to merge with
its object), the object relation remains a relational tension; it remains a
distance toward that object.
Henceforth the ego is not only one of the two relating terms; it is
at the same time the very bearerthe subjectof that (object) relation. The ego is capable of this because it miscognizes22 the inner structure
of the whole scene, believing to be the cause of its mirror image, while,
in reality it is only an effect of that image. Unconsciously, it behaves
as if it had always possessed its own identity, which is only afterward
reected in the mirror. It miscognizes the primacy of the image. Precisely
this miscognition enables the ego to be the subject, the bearer of its
relation to its image and, thus, of the organisms entire libidinal scene,
that is, of its self.23
Lacans hard-hitting critique of object relations theories in the fties
does not imply he turns against this kind of theory per se. On the contrary,
like Maurice Bouvet and Melanie Klein (and not without being heavily
inuenced by the latter), Lacans thought is deeply steeped in the object
relations problematic. Without question, he is himself an object relations
theorist, albeit in a contrary and rebellious way.24 His rst contribution
to psychoanalytic theorythe mirror stage as a reformulation of narcissismcan easily be described as an object relations theory. There, the egos
narcissistic function is founded on an entirely imaginary object relation.
Precisely by thinking the whole problematic as imaginary, Lacan enables


Eros and Ethics

us to understand how the ego is not only one of the participants in the
libidinal drama (between ego and object), but how the ego is at the same
time the bearerthe subjectof that drama. Lacanian object relations
theory of the thirties and forties is therefore, in the fullest sense of the
word, also a subject theory, a theory about the site, the surface, the
platform, the stage, the scene, the subjectum, or the hypokeimenon on which the entire libidinal economy, a fundamentally relational
economy, takes place.25 More specically, his central argument is that
the stage on which the drive life takes place or the point from which it
operates is, paradoxically, also an effect, a construction of the drive itself.
This recalls the famous story of Baron Munchausen who saves himself
from drowning by pulling himself up by his own wig.26 The place of
the event (its ground, its platform, its subjectum)the supporting
point from where one pulls oneself up out of the mudis in fact a purely
imaginary effect of that event. As the bearer of libidinal activities, the
subject is at the same time the ctional result of its cunning logic.
The Freudian unconscious, which already by this time Lacan is
trying to reconceptualize, concerns rst and foremost the subject. That
which carries one, the surface on which the mirror effect one is takes
place, the point from27 where that one maneuvers: this is a place where
the subject can never (consciously) be. This kind of andere Schauplatz
(other scene) remains unconscious, yet it is from this scene that our
libidinal life is driven.28 This other scene is the virtual mirror surface
on which man discovers himself as the object he will never have access
toimpeded precisely by the very mirror that is supposed to grant his
access. For Hegel, one of Lacans main sources of that time,29 the subject
resides at the point where the speculative relation is sublated (in the
sense he gives to the word Aufhebung). For Lacan, in contrast, the
subject of the object relation is located in the place where such an Aufhebung is impossible. It is located in the placethe scene, the andere
Schauplatzwhich escapes the dialectic of consciousness and which Freud
dened as the unconscious.
Already in the thirties and forties, then, Lacan had developed a
proper object relations theory. Without neglecting the conictual, indeed
self-destructive nature of the pregenital object, he succeeded in explaining
precisely how this kind of relation provides the libidinal organism with a
ground. Its imaginary character and the subjects unconscious condition
prevents this relation from ever being reconciled or sublated. This is why,
despite its self-destructive conictual structure, it is able to maintain itself
as a relation. Hence in his own way, and before Bouvet, Lacan conceives
of the distance from the object as constitutive of the subject.
However, Lacan gradually realizes a crucial shortcoming in his subject
theory. It is still left unexplained why, as merely the bearer (subject) of this

A Theory of the Subject


imaginary (object) relation, man is nevertheless able to lead a relatively

peaceful existence. The very logic of such an imaginary relation means
that such peace ought to be impossible. The same goes for the relational
tension between the ego and its object, which is no less conictual. If the
ego is to merge seamlessly with the other in the mirror, it will not only
miscognize the other; it will also want to destroy him if possible, because
only then can it really be the other. Not only is this specular other the
mirror image of my identity, he is also the image to be demolished so
that I can really be who I suppose I am. In the logic of the imaginary,
nothing can lessen this conictual tension, certainly not the ego itself. It
would thus only be logical if, in the long run, the ego (the bearer of the
tensional relationship) also effectively gave way under the tension and
succumbed to the aggression that such an imaginary relation inevitably
brings with it. That the ego evidently doesnt and, in the midst of incessant libidinal conict, generally conducts itself surprisingly well implies
that there is something wrong with Lacans theory. His ego-theory from
those days (which is his purely imaginary theory of the subject) was to
undergo a thorough correction.
Confronted with the object relations theory of Maurice Bouvet in
the fties, Lacan set himself primarily against Bouvets neglect of this
kind of imaginary aggression. However, it is now clear that he was at
that moment primarily turning against the views he had himself held for
many years. Lacan only ran across this kind of aggression at the end of
the forties,30 and it is this discovery that forced him to thoroughly revise
the premises of his purely imaginary subject theory.
3.2. A Theory of the Symbolic Subject
Lacans solution to this problem is well known. Until the end of his
days, it will remain his most fundamental thesis. Under Lvi-Strausss
inuence31 (and, beyond, the general inuence of the then upcoming
structural linguistics), he conceives the entire problematic no longer in
terms of the imaginary but of the symbolic. Identication, which is to
provide a support (a ground, a subject) to the cluster of (real) drives, no
longer solely refers to an imaginary gure in a mirror but now also to a
linguistic gure. This gure is not to be approached as a mirror image
but as a discursive narrative, as a story carrying a name. This name,
and the narrative that weaves itself around it, operates inside a largely
automatically functioning eld of signiers that linguistics baptized the
symbolic order. From now on, the subject must be sought not only in
an imaginary other (with a small o) but rst and foremost in a symbolic
Other (with a capital O). Lacan reserves, more precisely, the term
ego for the imaginary other the libidinal being thinks he is.32 The term


Eros and Ethics

subject is henceforth reserved for the bearer of the symbolic Other,

or, more precisely, for the bearer of a set of signiers plucked from the
Other that makes up my concrete identity.
Lacans variation on Rimbauds I is another (S2E: 7; S2F: 16) is
that the human beingwho is, according to Lacan, rst of all a speaking
being, a parltreis the subject (i.e., the bearer) of a narrative that
fundamentally and irrevocably comes from an Other. The subject can only
exist in an element that never really gives it presence but only represents
it (symbolically). Only in language does the human libidinal being nd
an element in which its alienation coincides with its realization, without
immediately falling short as is the case in imaginary ego formation. In this
endlessly sliding eld of signiers, it is able to be (symbolically) present
as that which remains absent (in the real). For Lacan, this absence is the
heart of what Freud called the unconscious, what the famous other scene
is all about. In order to trace this insistent absence, one must continually
encircle it with signiers which hide it. This is why the psychoanalytic
cure is indeed a talking cure (as one of the rst analysands, Anna O,
made clear to her analyst, Joseph Breuer).
For Lacan, this insight throws a surprising new light on Freuds
entire discovery. Mankinds struggle with the unconscious is played out
in one exclusive element, that is, language; therefore, the truth of the
unconscious must be sought not behind but in language. This does not
imply that language and the unconscious are one and the same. But since
mankind is trapped in language and since each of us is its subject (bearer),
language is the only thing that enables us to track down something of
the unconsciousand therefore something of the subject that bears us.
Although there are many passages in Freud that contradict Lacans emphasis
on language, his thesis nevertheless revalorizes the foundational praxis of
psychoanalysis, that is, the analysis of dreams, slips of the tongue, jokes,
daydreams, associationsin short, the analysis of linguistic phenomena.33
It strikes Lacan now, more than ever before, how Freud was not so much
seeking the meaning behind the words, as exploring their purely linguistic
interrelations. Only by closely pursuing the interrelated (metonymic) displacements and (metaphoric) condensations between the signiers can one
nd traces of the unconscious. The latter does not lie behind the words
the analysand has given himself over to. It is only in the word-stream
itself that it can be found. This is where, hidden among the signiers and
concealed within the linguistic caprioles, the analysand must look for his
self as being the object relation that, in the last resort, he is. He
must look for himself not only in the virtual image in the mirror surface
but also, and primarily, in the even more slippery slope of the linguistic
symbolic order in which he slides from one signier to another.

A Theory of the Subject


The new premises of the symbolic put the entire object relation in
a new light. The heart of the problemthe aporia that the libido is
simultaneously its object and its distance from itseems insufciently
explained if one regards each party solely as an imaginary entity. In such
a case, they remain ravaged by an unbearable aggression that makes any
kind of stable subject formationor, what was then for Lacan the same
thing, any ego formationunthinkable. By locating the entire process
in an autonomously functioning symbolic system, Lacan can keep the
unbearable tension typical of the distance between the ego and its object
away from the ego. Of course, the libidinal being remains an object relation and coincides with the strained distance in relation to the object.
But the symbolic status of this object means that the entire tension is
already situated at the level of the object, which makes the unbearable
pressure of the ego fall away. Moreover, that object is taken up in an
autonomous symbolic system where it resides neither as a real thing,
nor as an enchanted imaginary gure but simply as a sliding signier.
By denition, this signier exists only as a reference to another signier,
which in itself provides an appropriate platform for the object relation
and its unbearable tension.
The ego too, for that matter, is taken up on that same platform.
Although it remains an imaginary entity, it functions as a signier and not
as a subject (bearer) of signiers. It is, then, no longer the (imaginary)
ego that must regulate the distance in relation to the object (in what
Bouvet called le rglage de la distance).34 This is now done by the
symbolic subject, except that this subject must not actively take this task
upon itself. This task henceforth belongs to the autonomously functioning
symbolic order; and the libidinal being only has to be the passive bearer
(the subject) of this self-functioning strained relation. Here, subject and
ego are denitively to be distinguished from one another. They are to
be located on different levelssymbolic and imaginary, respectively. The
aim of the analytic cure will also, in this sense, be reformulated. Freuds
famous wo Es war soll Ich werden henceforth becomes Lacans there
where the imaginary ego was, the symbolic subject must come to be. In
the cure, the imaginary ego must be de-centered and confronted with
its true bearer, the symbolic subject.35
In contrast with Lacans earlier position where the ego and the object
were imaginarily opposed to one another, as symbolic entities they are
now in solidarity together. Both the ego and its object relation are part of
a universe in which the tension that governs them can at any moment be
discharged. The tension will by no means be lessened, but because neither
the ego nor the object is the subject of the relationship, this tension will
even benet the (object) relation. It will remain uid, thereby advancing


Eros and Ethics

its relational character, with the result that the subject will also become
more stable. Because this tension has more or less unlimited possibilities
for discharge in the virtually unlimited universe of signiers, it will rarely
turn directly against the subject itself. This explains the relative stability
the symbolic order gives to the subject permanently plagued by tension.
Lacans major turn at the beginning of the fties, when he introduces the symbolic, imaginary, and real triad,36 also meant a new step
in his conceptualization of object relations of which, despite his claims
to the contrary, he has always been an adherent. Better than its imaginary precursor, his new symbolic concept of the subject claries how the
strained relation between the ego and its object can maintain itself and
how, nevertheless, under these circumstances a stable subjectbearing and
guaranteeing the relationis possible. Throughout the rest of his oeuvre,
Lacan will never lose sight of the decisive impact of the symbolic on the
human libidinal being.
Yet, this primacy of the symbolic will not enable Lacans theory
to denitively master the problematic tension that he nds right from the
outset in the object relation. Precisely in his seventh seminar, the Ethics
of psychoanalysis, all of the problems he encountered in his conceptualization of the object relation will pile up again, and more massively
than ever. In what Lacan calls das Ding, the subject will once again
nd itself opposite something it stands in a tensile relation to that is no
less pernicious and ambiguous than the dual imaginary relation between
the ego and its object. In reading this seminar, we will retrace this turn
in detail and see how it brings far-reaching implications along with it.
But let us rst look more closely at Lacans object relations theory
which, as I suggested, either cannot be fully explained simply by referring to the primacy of the symbolic. One cannot lose sight of the fact
that, before his seventh seminar, Lacan had already forged two important
concepts that brought the whole object relations problematic into very
nuanced focus, namely, the phallus and the phantasm (fantasy). The rst
concept enabled him to approach the object as a lack, more specically,
as a lack at the level of the signier. This enabled Lacan to clearly show
how desire advanced toward a perpetually retreating object. In this way,
the slidingand, thus, relationalaspect of the object relation is properly
articulated conceptually (see below 3.3). The second concept, the phantasm, enabled him to explain the consistency and stability of this same
object relation (see 3.4). Thanks to these two concepts, the phallus and
the phantasm, Lacan was able to neutralize the most fundamental impasse
that lurks in all object relations theory: man is both his relation to the
phallic lack and that lack as such, albeit in a fantasmatic way.
In the period Lacan was putting the nishing touches on his theory
of the phallus, the question arose as to whether one can think of this lack

A Theory of the Subject


as purely phallicthat is, symbolic (see 5). The negative answer with
which he reluctantly concluded his sixth seminar led him, at the beginning
of his next seminar, to introduce a new concept. This new concept is das
Ding, whose status is no longer imaginary or symbolic, but real.
From this perspective, it is worth rst looking more closely at Lacans
purely symbolicor as he called it phallicapproach to the human being
as an object relation. In the following section we will once more take up
his sketch of subject formation but now specically from that phallic
departure point where the object as a pure lack or, if you like, as lack
itself will be conceived. Only in this light will the stakes of Lacans later
denition of the object of desire as real become clear, as was introduced
for the rst time in his seminar on the ethics of psychoanalysis.
3.3. Phallus . . .
It is well known that Lacans major turn in 1953 coincides with his
discovery of the primacy of the signier in the operation of both the
unconscious and in subject formation. He begins from the point that
for the infantile libidinal being the very fact that it must settle down in
a universe of signiers is already a trauma but, to the extent that it is
a libidinal being for whom attaining pleasure equals life, it simply has
no other choice. Having no way of satisfying its life-sustaining need for
pleasure by itself, the infant must rely on others from the outset and,
because these others direct themselves to the infant through speech, it is
completely at the mercy of their linguistic world. In expressing her needs,
the infant encounters the other, not as someone who satises these needs
immediately, but as someone who asks what she wantsas someone, that
is, who never stops shooting signiers in her direction.
If only because of this, the infant is traumatized. For what she is asking for is not a question in return, nor even an answer to that (linguistic)
question. She asks for an immediate satisfaction of pleasure at the level
of the drive. She is not asking for (distancing) words or signs; she wants
actions that immediately turn the unpleasurable sensations into pleasure.
The infant is entirely at the mercy of the other for her pleasureand
thus for her lifeand the trauma of the whole event lies in this: all the
other can offer is something as insufcient as signiers. The other is thus
primarily a stream of signiers that descends on the child unasked. This
is what Lacan means when he writes the Other with a capital O
(Autre). It is via the (linguistic) Other that the child has to satisfy its
life-sustaining pleasure needs, just as it is also through the Other that she
must form her own identity and her own subject.
The ruses of the imaginary provide the libidinal being with an initial
strategy for saving itself from the traumatic situation in which, instead


Eros and Ethics

of immediate pleasurable pacication, it receives alienating signiers that

require processing. It will constitute itself precisely out of the lack proper
to these signiers. Signiers are characterized by a constitutive lack in the
sense that they are structurally cut off from their meaning, their signi.
They do not rst refer to that signi (as taught by classical theories of
language), but to other signiers (as de Saussure has shown). They always
need another signier to say what they mean, and this lack is constitutive for how they operate. Precisely because of that lack, the signier can
constitute the solution to the infantile libidinal beings traumatic problem.
It enables the infant to identify her own drive-induced lack37 with the
signiers lack so as to be able to miscognize, at this imaginary level, all
lack. More specically, the infant will constitute her self as an answer
to the Others demand. Or, in linguistic terms, the subject will maintain
itself as the signied (signi) of the signiers (signiants) it receives from
the Others demand.
The infant may coincide with her demand for the Others love; her
imaginary ruse, however, lies in acting as if it is precisely the Other who
made the demand. This enables the infant to feel that she is herself the
exclusive answer to the supposed demand of the Other. The object to
which she is a relation can then be situated in the Other; the infant
simply acts as if she were the object that the Other demands. She thus
constitutes herself as the Others demand (Demande de lAutre) in the
double sense of the genitive. On the one hand, she is a bundle of demands
directed at the Other; on the other, however, she can remain blind to
that traumatic fact by taking herself as the answer to the demand of the
Other (a demand the Other makes on her). In order to create a self,
she takes herself as the signied of the Other38 and in this (imaginary)
way miscognizes both her own lack and that of the Other.
To explain what is at stake where the signier and its bearer (here,
the imaginary subject39) encounter one another, Lacan uses the concept of
the phallus. The term phallus stands primarily for that which can be
castrated, that is, for what can be missing or lacking. In the imaginary
strategy outlined here, the libidinal being occupies the point in the Other
where the Other is purely a signier and, thus, pure lack. It does so in
order to deny that lack and to act as if it is itself the signied of the signier, the lling in of the lack. In other words, it positions itself in the place
where the Other is castrated in order to act (in an imaginary way) as if
it is itself the Others phallus. It thus acts as if it corresponds with what
lls in the Others lack. In this way, the libidinal being avoids confronting
the fact that the Other is irrevocably castrated. The Other, on whom
the libidinal being must rely for help with its drive-related lack, is also
marked by an irreconcilable lack. It can do nothing other than miscognize
the Others castration (in what Lacan technically calls mconaissance),

A Theory of the Subject


and it does this by imagining that it is itself the adequate answer to the
Others lack, that is, that it is the Others phallus.
This kind of imaginary strategy is doomed to fail. For the Other has
more than just his majesty the babys pleasure needs at heart; his desires
go beyond the child. This is, again, a moment of shock and trauma for
the infant: its entire imaginary ego-constitution begins to totter. Now the
lack characterizing the Other can no longer be miscognized. The infant
can no longer act as if she herself is what was missing, that is, the signied, the imaginary phallus. The lack in the Other now appears to be
located somewhere else than where she is. Hence, the Other can no longer
be regarded as a complete Other (complete, because the child lls up its
lack), but is now undeniably seen to be lacking. It has become a desiring
Other. This factthat the Other desiresis again a genuine trauma for the
infant. Imagining herself to be the answer to the Others lack, suddenly,
at a certain moment, she nonetheless hears the Other ask, What do you
want? (Che vuoi?).40 That answer destroys her entire ego-construction and pulls the ground out from under her feet. If the Other must still
ask for something, what else could that mean for the child than that it is
not the answer to the demand of the Other, and that the latter is not the
complete Other the infant imagined it was? Now, she must face the lack
in the Other without the comforting illusion she is that lacks answer.
The child that up till then could constitute herself as the object of
the Others demand must now do so as the object of the Others desire.
She will no longer be able to act as if she coincides (imaginarily) with that
object. The Others object now lies beyond the child, and, just like the
Other, the child can only desire it. Henceforth, she can only exist insofar
as she identies with this desire, and in this sense, becomes the subject
of the Others desire.41
Here, too, the subject occupies the position of the Others phallus.
However, it can no longer maintain that it indubitably is this phallus,
thereby denying the Others lack. Now it must refer to a castrated Other
and thus to a phallus that the Other is also unmistakably lacking. The
subject must now constitute itself as a libidinal being that desires the phallus without ever being able to have access to it. The phallus becomes a
symbolic object par excellence that the subject can no longer identify with
imaginarily. For here the phallus stands precisely for what escapes its mirror imagebecause it escapes the Other. It becomes exclusively that which
the Other doesnt have and thus desires.42 And as the subject (the bearer)
of a castrated Other, the libidinal being also becomes a subject of desire.
This confrontation with the castrated Other is crucial, among other
things, for the sexuation of the young childs genital zone. Initially, the
genitals are invested with the same pleasure as all the other parts of the
body and have no further special libidinal meaning. Now, however, they


Eros and Ethics

become invested with a higher pleasure because they are the place on the
childs body where the lack (by which it is libidinally menaced) literally
inscribes itself, as it were. The genital zone becomes the place on the
body where the boy can lose something. Henceforth, his entire relation
to his penis is affected by the fear that it is not the real phallus. He
imagines that the Other has it, an Other he has become afraid of because
it can deprive him of his precious thing. In the same way, the girls
genital zone also becomes the place on her body where there becomes a
possibility of something missing, something that could be lled in by a
phallus. With her, just as with the boy, the phallus (i.e., sexuations point
of reference) lies exclusively with the Other. However, since this Other is
castrated and cannot give them the phallus they wish to have, henceforth,
they can only desire it. Only with the sexualization of the genital zone is
the child able to break through its purely imaginary relation with the
Other and, therefore acquire an independent identity as a subject of
symbolic desire. For Lacan, the sexualization of the genital zone and the
installation of a desiring subject thus go hand in hand.
It is striking how Lacan again comes close to Bouvets object relations theory here. Just as with the latter, the Lacanian subject can only
hold its ground when, after the Oedipus complex, the drive object is
phallically genitalized. With both, a phallic sexuation goes hand in hand
with the completion of subject formation. Just as with Bouvet, sexuation
in Lacan will depend on the installation of a distance in relation to the
object.43 This is what the concept of symbolic castration amounts to.
Only a phallically sexuated subject can control the distance between itself
and the object and is therefore in a position to relate to reality in a more
or less normal or objective way.
Here, once more, the entire difference lies in the status that Lacan
gives the terms. Only as symbolic entities, as signiers, Lacan claims again,
do they decide the sexuation of human genitality and in this way decide the
accompanying distant attitude toward the object. The phallus holds as
a matrix for sexuation not insofar as it refers rst and foremost (really)
to male sexuality, but only insofar as the phallus is just a signier. This
is how the desired object (the childs own genital included) is structurallyhere meaning symbolicallymaintained at a distance.44 This symbolic
castration gives the object relation its denitive structure. It installs both
the lack and the object at the correctsymbolicdistance.
3.4. . . . and Phantasm
But the subject is not only the bearer of a relation toward an endlessly
receding object; it is also this object. This was how we formulated the
founding paradox of all object relations theory. Lacan will elaborate

A Theory of the Subject


this paradox by means of a precise concept, the phantasm. Phantasm

refers specically to a brief scene that repeatedly haunts the mind of the
analysand during the analytic cure but at rst sight has no relation to
the complaints he originally went into analysis for. Besides the emotional
line of the analysands discourse, there is at rst sight an indifferent but
persistent little story that often appears in his stream of consciousness:
this is what Lacan calls le fantasme, phantasm. He denes it as a
more or less xed scenario of signiers thanks to which the subject, sliding from one signier to another, gains a certain consistency. It provides
that subject with an anchoring point, not in the form of an imaginary
gure (Gestalt) as in the mirror stage, but in the form of a xed
series of signiers.45 This series invariably tells how the subject in one
way or another disappears under the signier (because that is what it
must do in order to become the bearer of signiers). A child is being
beaten, a well-known phantasm that Freud analyzed with a number of
his patients, reveals not only how they fantasize that their father beats
another child, but also how they themselves would like to be beaten by
the father.46 In other words, it reveals how they would like to disappear in (and under) the symbolic order, hence Lacans interpretation. In
his conceptualization, the phantasm stands for a linguistic image that
shows in a hidden way how the libidinal being has disappeared in the
Other so as, in this way, to become its subject.
At the level of the symbolic, then, the subject nds its consistency
no longer in a visual (imaginary) gure (the ego), but in a phantasm in
which it can disappear as a subject of desire without also undoing the
object relation it originally stems from.47 The center of gravity of the
object relation now lies entirely in the object pole. The libidinal being
realizes itself as the subject of desire, a subject that has its ultimate support
in a small set of signiers, the phantasm, in which the entire weight
is now placed on the object.48 Here, the object relations paradox gains
adequate expression, showing how the entire drive economy coincides
with its object, without ceasing to be a desire for that object. In other
words, the being of the drive is indeed both its object and its relation
to that object.
In the sixth seminar, Desire and Its Interpretation, where Lacan
specically addresses this topic, he focuses on the phantasm of the miser.
It is brought to his attention through a passage from Simone Weils, Gravity and Grace, a compilation of aphorisms. There, the famous Christian
mystic refers to the mystery of the miser, a passage to which Lacan
returns four times in the course of his seminar. Weil writes,
To ascertain exactly what the miser whose treasure was stolen
lost: thus we should learn much.49


Eros and Ethics

The idea that a miser would miss his treasure most if it were lost
is indeed not that certain. In fact, he already misses it. This is precisely
why he is a miser: he not only denies everyone else the enjoyment of his
treasure, but also himself. No matter how attached to it he is, he leaves
it untouched. And if deprived of it, even he himself would not be able
to say what precisely he is missing. In this sense, the misers treasure
strikingly illustrates what Lacan denes as the object of phantasm.
The treasure makes up the center of a scenario to which, at the most
fundamental level, the miser owes his identity as miser. It indicates the
level at which he no longer seems able to maintain himself as the subject (the bearer) of his narrative. For as soon as he is confronted, either
consciously or unconsciously, with the fact that he does not know who
he is and precisely what he seeks in his riches, he slides away into his
phantasm. He sinks down into a scenario of signiers in which he (as
subject) completely forgets himself and merges with his beloved treasure.
However, he doesnt really merge with his treasure; he only merges with
the scenario crystallized around that object. He merges with a signifying
scenario from which the treasure remains at distance. As object of desire,
the treasure is not to be reduced to one of the signiers that constitute
the misers life. Rather, it is located where the signiers always fall short
and, in this way, maintain the misers desire (or, what amounts to the
same thing, the object relation he is). The object is to be sought at
the place of the phallus, that is, the place where that pure (phallic,
symbolic) lack is covered up by the scenario of the phantasm. Keeping
everyone (including himself) from his treasure, the only experience he has
of it is that of a lack. In the nal analysis, his treasure coincides with
that very lack, which is the ultimate reason why he keeps it above all
away from himself.
What happens, then, when someone no longer manages to hide that
object (and, hence, that lack) from others as well as from himself? Just
after Lacan cites Weils aphorism for the rst time, he refers to a scene
from a lm by Jean Renoir that offers a striking illustration of this. In
a remarkable scene from La rgle du jeu (1939), at a party, an amateur
collector of barrel organs desires to reveal his most beautiful and precious
acquisition. When the moment arrives however, the man is overcome by
an intolerable sense of embarrassment and creeps away in shame.
Recall if you have a memory of it, this lm [La rgle du jeu] at
the moment when Dalio discovers before a numerous audience
his last nding: a very beautiful music box. At that moment,
the person literally is in the position that can and must be described exactly as shame: he becomes red in the face, he fades
away, he disappears, he is very embarrassed . . .50

A Theory of the Subject


For Lacan, it is clear: the man suddenly fears that by showing his
newest acquisition, he will in fact reveal only an ontological lack. That
toward which his entire existencehis desire and his identity includedwas
aimed seems to be a thing of nothing. All of a sudden, the lack of
being on which as a libidinal being he rests, threatens to rise up without protection to the surface. Here, there is no single signier to deect
attention, while the presence of the audience prevents him from dreaming
himself away (i.e., of fading away into his phantasm). A direct, unmediated confrontation with this lack can no longer be avoided. Should his
object undergo such a sacrilege, the subjectthat is, the object relationcan only creep away in shame and anxiety, unwilling to succumb
to this confrontation. In his collection, a collector discovers precisely the
phantasm so as to be spared this confrontation and this shame. This is
similar to the unconscious motive behind the misers phantasm as well.
The latter keeps his riches away from everyones desire primarily out of
the anxiety that, if someone asked for it, he would have to admit that
his most precious possession is a thing of nothing, a pure lack.
Each in their own way, the robbed miser and the surprised collector
demonstrate how in the object relation from which we stem, it is all a
matter of a lack. It is thanks to this persistent lack that desire maintains
itself as desire. And it is only to this extent that we are able to be the
bearers of desire. Yet, as subject of that desire, one is nonetheless able
for a moment to fade away and to transfer the task of bearer over
to the object. This is what happens in the phantasm. As the libidinal
being threatens no longer to be able to maintain itself as the bearer of
signiers, its entire drive economy is borne through a scenario that still
relies exclusively on the object. The fantasies of the miser or the collector
demonstrate this clearly.
Lacans subject theory thus supposes the human being to coincide with
a libidinal orientation toward an unreachable and, in the nal analysis,
purely phantasmatic object. The question that it raises here is whether
one can found an ethics on such a theory? Can morality be grounded at
all if, in the nal analysis, man comes down to a polymorphous-perverse,
unsatisable desire? Does the good, as object of our desire, have a sufciently rm basis, if fantasies such as those of the miser and the collector
must serve as a model for it? These are the kinds of questions that Lacans
seminar on the ethics of psychoanalysis addresses. This is not to say,
however, that he wasnt concerned with the problem of ethics before he
began this seminar. On the contrary, the train of thought pursued in his
earlier seminars contains plenty of indications in this direction. The daring
novelty of his Ethics Seminar is only rendered fully visible in the context
of this background which is why the following section provides a short
summary of the implicit ethics contained in Lacans rst seminars.


Eros and Ethics

4. Ethics and Phantasm

Thus psychoanalysis maintains that the image, far from abstracting
us and causing us to live in the mode of gratuitous fantasy, seems to
deliver us profoundly to ourselves.
(Maurice Blanchot)51

Ethics can be dened as the human attempt to realize the good. In that
sense, in the years preceding his seventh seminar as well, Lacan never
doubted that ethics canand mustexpress its foundations by calling on
notions like desire and lack. According to Lacan, the ethical law does not
rest upon the good in itself but on desire (for the good or for whatever). And even if desire is rightly to be dened as based in an amoral,
polymorphous-perverse drive, it nevertheless provides a solid base for ethics,
so Lacan had argued from the very beginning of his oeuvre. Because of its
original helplessness, the polymorphous-perverse libidinal being is entirely
reliant on the Other (on other people, on the symbolic universe). And
because it never can totally appropriate the Other, the latter is inevitably
perceived as a law. The Other appears to the infant as an imperative, as
a law without which it is unable to become a subject. That is why ethics
is a solid, indispensable factor in subject formation. In this sense, all
goods and all ideals (including the Freudian ego-ideal) are to be interpreted as objects of desire. And even if they refer, in the nal analysis, to
a phantasm, they support the subject in its ethical stability. In this sense,
psychoanalysiss ethical task is primarily to bring the analysand in touch
with his (unconscious) desire, rather than with moral values.
The question, of course, is what it means for someone to get in
touch with his (unconscious) desire. Of course it means that, through
the story she spins about herself, the analysand tracks down a number
of unknown, unconscious desires and is nally able to comply with them
in a less inhibited manner. Nevertheless, such a cure doesnt solve all
frustrations, nor does it denitively bring the unconscious to the surface.
Anyone who expects this kind of good from a psychoanalytic cure cannot but be disappointed. For that kind of cure starts from the idea that
both the unconscious and desire are the foundational structures of human
existence. This is why, after the cure as well, the analysand cannot but
remain a desiring subject. To come to terms with ones desirewhich is
the fundamental task of analysismeans reconciling someone with the
fact that his or her desire will never be anything but frustrated and
Or, even more strongly: a Lacanian perspective implies taking comfort
in the fact that desire is unquestionably never ones own. Desire is the
desire of the Other Lacan again and again tells us. Man is the subject of

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the desire of (and for) the Other. He is the bearer of a desiring Other,
an Other who, just like the subject, will never be its own self (in the
full sense of the word), but will only desire it. The Other, too, in the
nal analysis, comes down to a lack of self or, what amounts to the
same thing, to a mere lack. And it is of this lack that man is forced to
become the subject, its bearer. To bring someone into contact with his
desire thus equals confronting him with a radical lack that is not even his
own, but which he nevertheless coincides with as with his most intimate
self. He must put up with the fact that he both stems from a radical
lack and that the remedy for it succeeds only because it also radically falls
short. Confrontation with the truth, however liberating, must therefore
also necessarily be painful. For what comes to light could only have been
tolerated insofar as it was kept repressed.
It is not a mere coincidence that in his sixth seminar, where he protractedly and thoroughly sounds out these lines of thought, Lacan comes
up against Simone Weils Gravity and Grace. This Christian mystic, too,
starts from the same premisethe primacy of desireto conclude that
in his most intimate kernel, a human being is pure desire and therefore
nothing, lacking and empty. For Weil, man must confront this
emptiness. This is what she writes in her chapter Detachment, in typically meditative style:
Always, beyond the particular object whatever it may be, we
have to x our will on the voidto will the void. [Et tout, par
del lobjet particulier quel quil soit, vouloir vide, vouloir
le vide.] For the good which we can neither picture nor dene
is a void for us. But a void fuller than all fullness. [. . .] The
good seems to us as a nothingness [nant], since there is no
thing that is good. But this nothingness is not unreal. Compared with it, everything in existence is unreal. (Weil, 1987:
13; 1948: 15)
By freeing oneself from all attachment, by emptying oneself and
accepting ones own emptiness, man comes to terms with what desire
actually wants, which is nothingness, Weil argues. For her, like for
Lacan, such a confrontation with emptiness also demands a victory over
the imaginary. Moreover, the imagination, which immediately wants to
ll anything that is empty, blocks the way to anyone who wants to face
desire and, hence, the emptiness he basically is. In the rst aphorism of
the following chapter we nd:
The imagination is continuously at work lling up all the ssures
through which grace might pass. (Weil 1987: 16; 1948: 19)


Eros and Ethics

For Lacan, too, the path to such a confrontation cannot be an

imaginary one; for, as he teaches, the imaginary way of dealing with a
lack consists in denying that lack (i.e., miscognition). Only a symbolic
approachan approach that expressly operates on the slippery surface of
signiersopens up the possibility, at least for a moment, of seeing beyond
repression and, thus, of getting in touch with the lack upon which desire
is founded. A confrontation with the lack at the level of the signierthe
lack in the Othercan bring me to the point of accepting the lack that I
am, that is, of accepting that I am desire. So far, it is rather hard to see
where Lacan and Weil disagree.
But they do disagree concerning Lacans thesis that the lack of the
symbolic orderthe emptiness that for Weil too desire is based onis
radically unsublatable. The void is the complete fullness, we read in Weil
(on the same page, note, as that of her aphorism on the miser Lacan cited;
Weil 1987: 21; 1948; 26).52 Weils full emptiness conceives of desire from
a teleological as well as theological perspective. It functions as a Supreme
Good or as a God-given state of grace, a situation in which desire as
such is fully satised. The emptiness Lacan has in mind, however, is and
remains empty once and for all. For him, desire never ceases desiring,
precisely because every object through which it obtains satisfaction is a
phantasmeven the objectless object of Weils emptiness.
Yet the question arises whether this is really so different from Weils
theory of desire? She may indeed dene her emptiness as full, and
clothe it in deep theological prerogatives, but this does not prevent her
from continually stressing how this fullness must be experienced as an
emptiness all the same. Precisely believing in the emptiness as fullness
itself is the evil she argues against. Similarly, she argues against any belief
that xes itself on the existence and ultimate meaning of God. In her
eyes, this is precisely what the miser does. He makes his treasure from
the emptiness his desire longs for, which is why, according to Weil,
God withdraws himself in order not to be loved like the treasure is by
the miser.53 So, apparently, the emptiness and the lack Simone Weil talks
about never operates simply as a massive fullness.
On the other side, Lacans symbolic lack seems not to be as empty
as he pretends. His concept of the symbolic Other is meant to be an
alternative to Weils God as the place where desire can meet itself and
make full circle. Lacan, in turn, stresses how the point where desire is
supposed to make full circle is itself lacking. The symbolic universe in
which desire operates by means of that lack rests on a point of pure
lack, a point where any (ontological) ground is absent. Yet one can still
ask whether this symbolic order operating by means of its own lack does
not, in the nal analysis, end up lacking nowhere and lacking nothing at
all, and whether it does not, in its own but nonetheless similar way to

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what Weil says, function as fullness, as completeness. On the one hand,

we have the full emptiness to which Weils God is reduced. On the other,
there is Lacans symbolic order of lack making full circle in that very
lack. What precise difference does this make here?
After all, doesnt Lacan cite Weil precisely because he feels such a
kinship with her? Is he really in disagreement with the answer that she
gives to her riddle of the miser? For both Lacan and Weil, the robbed
miser is missing a lack, and his miserliness is an imaginary attachment
to that (miscognized) lack.54 For both, he must overcome this imaginary
xation on his riches in order to be liberated from his suffocating avarice
and, nally, to rediscover the real condition of his desire. However, for
Lacan, overcoming that xation does not equal annihilating it. In its quality of phantasm, this xation remains constitutive for the subject and his
desire (in this case, the misers). Only, the miser will have to rediscover
that phantasm as such within his symbolically functioning desire. He will
have to face it as what offers his subject an unconscious support so that
it can move uidly from one signier to another.
But does the Lacanian phantasm, as the point of nothing where the
symbolic order makes full circle, differ that much from the nothing named
God, that is, the pure absence and emptiness Simone Weil places in the
centre of the universe? Do both God and the phantasm not function as
a nal veil for the nitude and the (in Lacanese, phallic) lack our human
(i.e., symbolic) world rests on? And is not Lacans phantasm, quite like
Weils empty God, not primarily meant to reconcile our desire with the
unconditional imperative of the (symbolic) law whose ground denitely
escapes us? In other words, is Lacans psychoanalytic theory of lack
really so different from the mystical Christian doctrine? Christianity too,
for that matter, offers a theory of lack, that is, a theory of sin. And,
similar to Lacanian theory, this Christian theory locates the way out of
sin in the paradoxical confession that the greatest sin lies in wanting to
be without sin.55 Just as for Lacan, it is all a matter of admitting that
we are based on an irremovable, unsublatable lack.
It is far from implausible that these kinds of questions were also
in Lacans mind in the weeks and months following his introduction of
Simone Weils aphorism concerning the miser in his seminar on December
10, 1958. Although he never explicitly utters these questions, it is nonetheless striking that he did not draw the same conclusions as Weil on these
issues. Anyway, this is what one must deduce from what he says later in
the same seminar (the lessons of April 8 and 15, and May 13, 1959). It
is not impossible that it was precisely from the Christian nature of Weils
conclusions that he recoiled, that is, from a conclusion that makes a full
circle of desires problematic primacy. This might be why he staked everything on thinking Weils aphorism of the miser in a new way. It seems


Eros and Ethics

as though he was initially fascinated by that aphorism as he worked on

a theory of the phantasm, but that, through closer examination, he had
to come to a conclusion that differs radically from Weils.
Lacans reading of Hamlet in the sixth seminar was crucial for this
turn. Where the object of the phantasm was previously conceived exclusively as a signier, after his Hamlet seminar, he increasingly emphasizes
the real status of that object. This new accent will make it impossible
to lock up the phantasm entirely within the limits of the symbolic. The
phantasm will henceforth refer to a real remainder that radically escapes
the symbolic (i.e., the realm of signiers) and prevents that order from
closing in on itself, from making full circle. The point where the order
ought to make full circle will turn out to be that of an object that falls
radically outside its domain and keeps it permanently open. This will make
Lacan draw very different conclusions from Weils aphorism of the miser
and will force him to a radically different characterization of ethics.

5. Introducing a Real Object

5.1. A Phallophanie . . .
When Lacan cites Simone Weil for the rst time, he is on the point of
completing a theory of the phantasm by way of an extensive commentary on Hamlet, illustrating through it a theory of desire that is not at
all incompatible with the one we saw in Weil. In Shakespeares tragedy,
Lacan reads how, in the nal analysis, all desire is oriented towardand
based ina phantasmatic object56 and how the subject has to learn to
assume this imaginary object as a symbolic lack. It is only as a lack at
the level of the signier (i.e., as symbolic phallus) that the object supports and maintains desire. While desire might be based in a mere lack,
it is nevertheless able to nd itself in that very lack as such or, what
amounts to the same thing, in the signier as such. So, Lacans claim is
very close to Simone Weil for whom everything goes back to a lack or
an emptiness that equals fullness or totality itself.
Lacan reads Hamlet as an explicit tragedy of desire.57 The main
character gives a perfect illustration of someone who can no longer position himself as a subject of desire. Although desire might be the desire
of the Other, as Lacan never tires of telling us, Hamlets paradigmatic
gures for that Other have suffered a signicant dent. His mother has
all too quicklyand, in his eyes, not unsuspiciouslyexchanged her
dead husband (Hamlets father) for a new, living one. And his father has
appeared to him, not as an Other in whom he can bury (i.e., repress)

A Theory of the Subject


his lack, but, precisely the reverse, as an Other whose own lack Hamlet
must now repair (by revenging his fathers murder).
In contrast to Oedipus who is confronted with a father (the
Other) he cannot escape and in relation to whom he falls short, Hamlet
is confronted with a father who himself falls short and who demands
that Hamlet repair his paternal lack.58 Such a direct confrontation with
the Others lackand thus with desiretraumatizes Hamlet to such an
extent that he sees only one libidinal way out: to miscognize this lack in
the Other and act as if he is himself its fulllment (i.e. its phallus). This
is to say that Hamlet falls back into an imaginary relation to the Others
desire. This is why he focuses on his mother. His relation to her has the
structural format of a Demand, and the position he takes in this is
the answer to that Demand. In other words, he positions himself as the
fulllment (signi) of the Others lack. He is apparently no longer able
to fully constitute himself within the desire of the symbolic Other, that
which would enable him to remain a subject of desire; the only thing
he is capable of is to (imaginarily) miscognize everything that is desire.
It is this miscognition that hides behind Hamlets famous doubt,
according to Lacan. His famous question whether it is better to be or
not to be is not so much an abstract, metaphysical or existential question
as a means of expressing his position within the Others (in this case: the
mothers) domain in which he must constitute himself. This is why he
reads that famous question as to be or not to be the phallus: am I or
am I not the Others phallus? Am I or am I not the object that fullls
the Others desire, that satises and annihilates desire, and thus resolves
all the lacks in the world that plague us?
This is why Hamlet is neither able to miss nor to tolerate the Others
desire.59 On the one hand, he frontally attacks desire and characterizes
it as sin and vice and damns it to hell. This is why he rejects both his
mothers and Ophelias love. On the other hand, he remains entirely preoccupied with it, given the fact that only in the realm of the Others desire
is he able to realize himself as a libidinal being. This ambiguitythat is,
his inability to remain the subject of desiremakes Hamlet fall back into
the libidinal format of Demand, which makes him lose the support
the phantasm normally offers. He now (imaginarily) has to act as if he
were himself the object of the Others desire. The phantasm would have
prevented him from wanting to be that object, only allowing him to act
through desire for it. This comfort Hamlet must now do without.
If the phantasm could be reinstalled, Hamlet would be given a
chance to realize himself again as the subject of desire (of the Other).
This is effectively what takes place in the Shakepearean tragedy, more
precisely, at the moment when Hamlet rediscovers Ophelia, his former


Eros and Ethics

phantasmatic object, and remembers how he never had stopped loving

herwhich, however, did not happen without rst having reviled, humiliated, and neglected her. For, like his mother, she was marked by desire
and lack, things he despised throughout his crisis. He imaginarily denied
(miscognized) the lackor, what amounts to the same thing, the phallusthat she was to him. Until, suddenlyin what Lacan calls a phallophanie60Hamlet recognizes the lack again, that is, recognizes the
phallus that she is, acknowledging this at the level of the symbolic.
Let us focus on this famous phallophanic scene. Just returned
from his trip to England, Hamlet is unexpectedly witness to the funeral of
Ophelia who has meanwhile committed suicide. From his concealed position
behind the graveyards bushes, he watches how overwhelmed by grief, his
best friend Laertes, Ophelias brother, leaps into the grave to embrace his
sister one last time. There he lashes out again at the one who has been
responsible for all this, Hamlet. Precisely at that moment, the latter comes
into view. He, too, leaps into the grave and there the old friends come to
blows. Nobody loved Ophelia more than I, Hamlet shouts:
I lovd Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum.61
Still reviled a minute before, Ophelia has suddenly become the
lovable Ophelia again, more desirable than ever. It seems that, at the very
bed of her grave, Hamlet has rediscovered his desire. In any event, what
follows is very clear: his change will indeed enable him to become the
bearer, the subject of the desire of the Other again. In other words,
he will be able to take the position of revenging his father, that is, of
eliminating his uncle.
What is so special about this scene, then, that it enables Hamlet to
rediscover his desire? What changes Ophelia, the object of Hamlets
contempt in which he disapproved all lack and desire, suddenly into the
object in which lack (phallus) and desire become again attractive to
him? What makes Ophelias unexpected appearance a pure phallophany
that stops him from miscognizing all lack and desire? Simply the fact
that she is dead, is Lacans reply. Or, more accurately, simply the fact that
she is mourned, and mourned, moreover, by an Other, Laertes. At the
end of his lesson of April 15, 1959, Lacan refers to this furious ght at
the bed of the grave as a scene
which indicates the function of the object as what can be reconquered only at the price of mourning and of death [in order
to become the again the phantasmatic support of desire].62

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Hamlets relation to Laertes, his bosom friend and role model (his
model for identication) is thoroughly imaginary, Lacan argues. His crisis
even intensies the negative sides of his imaginary attitude. Here, too,
Hamlet positions himself in his relation to his friend at a point where the
mourning Laertes is almost reduced to his lack (i.e., to the point where
he is nothing but desire for an unreachabledeadultimate object). For
this is the best position for miscognizing this lack and putting himself
forward as a remedy against that lack. However, in the bizarre churchyard
scene, this imaginary strategy fails. Modeling himself on Laertes, Hamlet
can no longer identify with him as though he, Hamlet, was Laertes object
of desire (which would enable him to transform Laertes symbolic desire
into an imaginary Demand). Face to face with the dead Ophelia, he now
identies with Laertes insofar as he explicitly desires Ophelia, that is, an
object with which he, Hamlet (and also Laertes) cannot coincide. Here, the
imaginary conict between Hamlet and Laertes does not so much bridge
the distance toward the object but, precisely, installs that distance. This
conict reinstalls the object as a (phallic, symbolic, irremovable) lack. By
identifying with the mourning Laertes, Hamlet installs a denitive distance
between himself and the object he now thoroughly desires again. In this
way, Hamlets phantasm around Ophelia is restored as well as the basic
condition that enables him to reposition himself as a desiring subject.
For Hamlet, the entire scene is indeed a phallophany, an appearance of the lack as such. Carried to her grave, Ophelia suddenly appears
to him again as the pure lackas the Others (castrated) phalluswhich
Hamlet can no longer (imaginarily) ignore (miscognize). On the contrary,
he explicitly afrms that lack and allows it to fully denote and signify
him. By identifying with Laertes mourning, he actually mourns the phallus, that is, the lack with which the Other is irreparably marked (in this
case, Laertes). He will no longer think he can (imaginarily) supplement
this lack by means of his bold existence; now he will acknowledge itby
mourning itas an irremovable, unsublatable object of desire.63
Where does Lacans Hamlet nd his real self? Where, in other
words, does he nd the desire and the lack that he is? Not in a real
lack, in any case. If it were really lived, such a lack-in-itself would
literally imply the death of the one who lives it. He can nd himself
only in a symbolic lack, Lacan emphasizes here. Hamlet can only nd
the lack from which he stems in an order that is itself marked by lack:
the order of signiers. He nds himself precisely at the place where the
order lacks and where, in its (phallic) lack, it makes full circle. Begun as a
ight from all lack, his odyssee arrives at that same lack. He discovers
at the end of his quest that the emptiness of desire he once so hated in
his mother and his lover is his ultimate raison dexistence, as well as the
keystone of his identity. To his fathers demand, who beseeches him to


Eros and Ethics

undo the lack that struck him, he nally answers by offering himself as a
mere lackas a deadly wound. He nds the answer to his question about
desire nowhere else than in the emptiness of his desire. In this emptiness
and this lack, he nally meets his true self: this is the core of Lacans
interpretation of Hamlet.
And where, according to Simone Weil, does the miser nd his true
self, that is, his desire? Not so much in the tangible riches he cherishes
but in the lack itself that the riches stand for. Weils miser found himself in the emptiness that lay hidden behind the riches, and which, for
anyone who detaches himself from all his riches, could be experienced
as a true fullness.
Lacans theory of desire, as it gained shape over the course of his sixth
seminar, was about to close the whole problematic of desire and its lack
in on lack itself, a lack operating as both the motor and the keystone
of the autonomous symbolic order. Had Lacan left his theory like this, it
would hardly have changed the classical ethical paradigms. At any rate, a
new, psychoanalytically oriented ethics of desire would have recognized
the Christian mystically oriented ethic as its predecessor. Thought from
the primacy of desire, the good as the object of desire would have been
marked by an irremovable lack, it is true, but this desire would nevertheless have found itself precisely in that lack itself, that lack being the
good that it seeks. In any case, the discovery of the symbolic order as
the scene in which the human libidinal being nds its ground encouraged Lacan to conceive such desire as a circular quest for itself (which is
at the same time its lack and its supreme good). In this way, thinking
ethics from the primacy of desire and lackthat is, from the paradigm
of psychoanalysiswould have changed little. The Christian ethics drawn
from Weils mystical thought would not really have differed from the ethical
consequences resulting from Lacans theory of desire of that period.
5.2. . . . Under Critique
Nevertheless, things went differently. The nal lessons of Lacans sixth
seminar already show how he became less and less satised with a purely
imaginary or symbolic characterization of desires ultimate object.64 At the
moment when he nally explains Hamlets phallophany, as he had long
and with great pathos announced to his audience he would do, he no
longer seems able to read Ophelia exclusively as the phallus. The object
of desire and phantasm (in this case, Hamlets) no longer seems able to
be thought exclusively as imaginary or symbolic. What he already had
been calling the objet petit a65 for the last two seminar-sessions, he is
now going to characterize as real. In the nal lessons of the sixth seminar,
this intent becomes more and more pronounced.

A Theory of the Subject


With this, he corrects his own idea that desire would close in on
itself,that is, in an empty, phallic signier. Instead, desire stands open
toward the real. By interpreting the ultimate object as something real, it
was easier to develop why the object relation the libidinal being rests on
never stops being a relation to that object, despite its radical identication
with the object. To give that ultimate objectwhich is also the object of
the phantasma real status radicalizes the nature of desire. In the last
lesson of the sixth seminar, Lacan describes the phantasm primarily as the
articulation of an opposition, a cut, a disconnection between the
subject and object poles of the object relation that desire stems from.66
Here he denes the object constituting the kernel of the phantasm as a
(real) remainder escaping the symbolic surface of desire. In his lesson
of July 1, 1959 (the nal lesson of his sixth seminar), he says that the
object of desire
in its nature is a residue, a remainder. It is the residue which
is dumped by being [and] to which the speaking subject is
confronted as such, [. . .]. And this is the way the object joins
the real.67
Although the object still continues to function as a signier, in the
nal analysis, it points not purely to other signiers, but also to the real,
or, as Lacan puts it here, to being . . . insofar as this is marked by the
signier (Lacan, 1996a; 534). This is to say that the object relation on
which desire is founded, is a radically open relation.68
Such openness indisputably responds to the main issue of Lacans
seminar on Desire and Its Interpretation. As opposed to the all too
moralizing object relations theory that supposes desire to be based in
the object to which one is by nature (instinctively) attached, Lacan tries
to approach this issue exclusively from the primacy of desire. It is desire
that determines the object, and not the other way around. According to
Lacan at the end of that seminar, this is as much as to say that the libidinal
being only exists as an openness to an always retreatingbecause always
desiredobject. In the nal lesson, Lacan explicitly characterizes that
ultimate objectbaptized meanwhile as the object aas something
The object as such, the object a of the graph, if you prefer, is
something open.69
The analytic cure, too, essentially works toward such a kind of
openness. In search of himself as the desire that he is, the analysand is


Eros and Ethics

not only confronted with the fact that he is the desire of the Other, but
also, according to Lacan at the end of the same lesson, that he
opens upon a cut, upon pure being, manifesting itself here as
In the closing sentences of this lesson (which, in Lacans own words,
forms a sort of prelesson on the theme of the following seminar71), he
also refers explicitly to this openness. The psychoanalytic cure operates
exclusively within the cut of the word, claims Lacan, but to this
extent processes an opening [. . .] towards something radically new.72
No one who glances further through the seminar he will give a couple
of months later, will misunderstand this hint: he is indisputably referring
to das Ding, one of the main terms in his Ethics Seminar.
5.3. An Expressly Ethical Context
It is worth remembering that the link to that following seminar is not
solely conned to this single, somewhat mysterious reference to das Ding
we nd here. The entire problematic of the Ethics Seminarincluding
major themes such as the problem of the Supreme Good, hedonism,
utilitarianism, Aristotles master ethicsis already announced in the
rst lesson of Lacans seminar on Desire and Its Interpretation. There,
all the issues developed extensively in the next, seventh seminar, are already
summed up, including his critique of the explicit moralizing suppositions
behind the current object relations theory of his days.
Contained in Fairbairns distinction between pleasure seeking and
object seeking is nothing other than the classical question with which all
traditional ethics have wrestled, Lacan claims, namely whether the object
of ones highest striving (the good) also guarantees the greatest pleasure.
In that lesson we read:
I will, more or less, stand still with what has been the position
of the philosophers in this. This has always been very exemplary
[if one regards things] from the point we situate our problem
[i.e., from desire]. I have been so diligent to put on top of the
blackboard these three [sic!] terms, pleasure-seeking, objectseeking. Seeking pleasure [on the one hand], seeking the object
[on the other]: this is the way reection and morality always
have put the problemI mean the theoretical ethics, the ethics
which expresses itself through prescriptions and rules, through
what philosophers and certainly so-called ethicists promote.73

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Is what gives us the greatest pleasure also of the highest ethical value?
Is the satisfaction our desire unconsciously leads us to also the ethical
good that we consciously have before our eyes? While the majority of psychoanalytic theories answer in the afrmative, it was clear for Lacan that
under no circumstances could Freuds basic intuition allow this. Pleasure is
polymorphous-perverse and thus perverts everything that is offered to it
as the supreme Good or the good in itself. This is the basic intuition
behind his inquiry into the pleasure principle: human desire has no rm
ontological ground, but is based in a principle of ontological perversion:
pleasure. So, desire is not bound to any specic good and nor is it a good
in itself. It is a merethat is to say, polymorphous-perverseopenness
and therefore cannot be dened in terms of what it opens todened
here, in object relations terms, as the object. Or, in more traditional
terms: even if there may be something transcendent about desire, desire
cannot be dened or thought through that transcendence.


Foreclosure and the Paternal Function

Foreclosure involves the radical rejection of a particular element from the
symbolic order (that is, from language), and not just any element: it involves
the element that in some sense grounds or anchors the symbolic order as a
whole. When this element is foreclosed, the entire symbolic order is affected;
as has been noted in a great deal of the literature on schizophrenia, for
example, language operates very differently in psychosis from the way it does
in neurosis. According to Lacan, the element that is foreclosed in psychosis
intimately concerns the father. He refers to it as the "Name-of-the-Father" (as
we shall see, the French, Nom-du-Pre, is far more instructive). For my present
purposes, I will refer to the "father function" or "paternal function," since they
cover more or less the same ground. The latter term can occasionally be found
in Freud's work, but it is Lacan who rigorously formulates it.'
The absence of the paternal function is the single most important criterion

to consider in diagnosing an individual as psychotic, yet it is by no means

immediately visible in the majority of cases. The paternal function is not the
function played by the individual's father, regardless of his particular style
and personality, the role he plays in the family circle, and so on. A flesh-andblood father does not immediately and automatically fulfill the paternal function, nor does the absence of a real, live father in any way automitical ly ensure
the nonexistence of the paternal function. This function may be lullilled tie-

spite the early death or disappearance of the father due to war or divorce; it
may be fulfilled by another man who becomes a "father liguri"; anti II may be
fulfilled in other ways as well.
A complete understanding of the paternal function requires knowledge of
a good deal of Lucan's work on language and inehuphor. Ior our purposes



here, let it suffice to say that the father who embodies the paternal function in

a nuclear family generally comes between mother and child, stopping the
child from being drawn altogether to or into the mother and stopping the
mother from engulfing her child. Lacan does not claim that all mothers have a

tendency to smother or devour their children (though some do); rather, he

says that children "perceive" their mOther's desire as dangerous or threatening. This "perception" reflects in some cases the child's wish for the mother to
take her child as her be-all and end-all (which would ultimately annihilate the
child as a being separate from its mother), and in other cases a reaction to a
genuine tendency on the mother's part to obtain a kind of satisfaction with her
child that she has not been able to obtain elsewhere.
In either case, the result is the same: the father keeps the child at a certain

distance from its mother, thwarting the child's attempt to become one or
remain forever one with the mother, or forbidding the mother from achieving
certain satisfactions with her child, or both. Stated differently, the father protects the child from le dsir de la mere (which means both the child's desire for

the mother and the mother's desire)that is, from a potential danger. The
father protects the child from the mother as desire (as desiring or as desired),
setting himself up as the one who prohibits, forbids, thwarts, and protectsin
a word, as the one who lays down the law at home, telling both mother and
child what is allowed and what is not.
The father I have been describing thus far is a stereotypical figure seen less
and liss frequently in our times (at least according to sociologists): the "head
of the household" who is the authority at home, the master in his own castle

who has no need to justify his orders. Even if he generally does provide
for his commands, he can always put an end to any controversy by
'laying, "lkcause I said so."
We are familiar with this rhetorical strategy, since it is adopted in a great

many contexts, In a leftist study of political economy, a particular line of

reasoning may he merely suggested, not proven, and then followed by the
fateful words, "As Marx says in volume 3 of Capital
This is known as the
"argument from authority," and is as prevalent in psychoanalysis as it is in
politics, philosophy, and virtually every other field. In my own writing, I do
not appeal to "Freud" and "Lacan" as living, breathing individuals; I appeal
to their names. Their names lend the weight of authority (only, of course, to
those who accept them as authorities).
In the same way, when a father says, "You'll do it because I said so," there
is often an implicit "I am the father here, and the father is always to be
obeyed." In modern Western society, many contest the principle that "the
father Is always to be obeyed," but it seems to have been widely accepted for


centuries and is still commonly appealed to. The point is that in many families
the father is granted a position of authority not so much because he is a "true
master"a truly authoritative, brilliant, or inspiring figure who commands
total respectbut simply because he is the father and is expected to take on
the functions associated (in many people's minds) with "father."
The paternal function is a symbolic function, and can be just as effective when
the father is temporarily absent as when he is present. Mothers appeal to the father as judge and castigator when they say to their children, "You'll be punished
for that when your father gets home!" But they appeal to the father as a more abstract function when they ask a child to consider what its father would do or say
if he found out that the child had done such and such. They appeal, in such
cases, to the father as a name, as a word or signifier associated with certain ideas.
Consider the case of a woman whose husband has died; she can keep him alive
in her children's minds by asking them, "What would your father have thought
about that?" or by saying, "Your father wouldn't have liked that one bit." It is
above all in such cases that we see the functioning of the fat her as a part of speech
that is, as an element in the mother's discourse. The paternal function here is served

by the noun "father" insofar as the mother refers to it as an authority beyond herself, an ideal beyond her own wishes (though in certain cases she may be appealing to it simply to prop up or lend credence to her own wishes).

What has thus far been rendered in English translations of Lacan's work as
the "Name-of-the-Father" is much more striking in French: Nom-du-Pre. Nom

means both "name" and "noun," and with this expression Lacan is referring
to the father's name (for example, John Doe), to the name insofar as it plays
the role of father (for example, in the case of a child whose father died before
it was born, the father's name as pronounced by the mother, as it is given a
place in the mother's discourse, can serve a paternal function), and to the noun
"father" as it appears in the mother's discourse (for example, "Your father
would have been very proud of you").2 Lacan is also playing off the fact that,
in French, nom is pronounced exactly like non, meaning "no," evoking the
father's "No!"that is, the father's prohibition.
Now a mother can undercut her husband's position by constantly telling lwr
child "We won't tell your father about that, will we?" or "Your father tloesn't
know what he is talking about!", and by disobeying all of
as he turns his back. Thus the paternal function may never become operative
in cases where a child's father is clearly present, yet it
in cases
where a child's father is absent from birth. The pri enie or
a father
in someone's clinical picture provides no immetli,itt indication. I shall more
fully explain the paternal function and the pur
it serves alter a discussion
of the consequences of its failure.



Consequences of the Failure of the Paternal Function

What happens if a certain lack has occurred in the formative function ofthefather?
Lacan, Seminar ifi, 230

Lacanian psychoanalysis, the paternal function is considered to be all or

nothing: either a father (as noun, name, or "No!") has been able to take on the
symbolic function in question or he has not. There are no in-betweens.4
Similarly, either the paternal function is operative by a certain age or it never
will be. Lacanian psychoanalysis, though it purports to help the psychotic,
cannot change the psychotic's structure: once a psychotic, always a psychotic.

There is, of course, some question about the maximum age at which the
paternal function can be instatedthat is, the age beyond which one's psychi-

cal structure cannot be further modified. It seems likely that appropriately

oriented analytic work with young children can, up to a certain point, bring
about the establishment of the paternal function.
In the case of adults, however, no amount of analytic or other work can,
according to Lacan, change a psychotic structure. Such work can make certain
psychotic traits recede from a patient's clinical picture, ward off further psychotic episodes, and allow the patient to carry on life in the world; but there
is no such thing as a "cure" for psychosis in the sense of a radical change in
psychical structure (for example, transforming the psychotic into a neurotic).
This structural approach to psychosis also means that a patient who has a
"psychotic break" at age thirty has always had a psychotic structureit was
simply "untriggered." The patient could, in theory, have been diagnosed as
psychotic by a clinician long before an obvious break occurredthat is, long
before the appearance of obvious psychotic phenomena.
The clinically observable consequences of the failure of the paternal function
are many and varied, and the clinician needs to be on the lookout for them in
establishing a diagnosis. I will begin with the best-known psychotic phenomenon, hallucination, and then take up less well-known phenomena that can be
helpful in diagnosing untriggered psychosisthat is, cases in which no psychotic break has yet occurred.

I Lallucination, in its widest sense, is not a consequence of the failure of the
function. Freud tells us that hallucination is the infant's first path to
when hungry, for example, the child first hallucinates an earlier


experience of satisfaction, rather than engaging in motor activity, such as

crying, to attract a parent's attention so that nourishment will be provided.
Hallucination is a typical form of primary-process "thinking," and plays a role

in daydreaming, fantasizing, and dreaming. Thus, it is present in all of the

structural categories: neurosis, perversion, and psychosis.
Taken in its widest sense, therefore, hallucination is not a criterion of psychosis: its presence does not constitute definitive proof that the patient is
psychotic, nor does its absence constitute definitive proof that the patient is
not. In the words of Jacques-Alain Miller, since "hallucination [may be found]
in both hysteria and psychosis, [iti is not, in and of itself, proof of structure...

If you find an element like hallucination, you still have to ask very precise
questions to distinguish between the different structural categories."5
Lacan nevertheless provides us with the wherewithal to understand hallucination in a narrower sense as well. And given the contemporary tendency in
the United States to immediately classify people who report anything vaguely
resembling a hallucination as psychotic (or at least borderline), and to prescribe drugs to them or commit them, I think that it is important to insist that
not all hallucinations are alike. It seems to me justifiable to distinguish psychotic

hallucinationswhat I'll call bona fide hallucinationsfrom the run-of-themill voices and visions that so many nonpsychotics report.6
A patient in therapy with someone I supervise once said he had had the
impression that he'd seen his ex-wife standing in a hallway. The therapist
could have added the clinical trait "hallucinations" to his list, and indeed his
other supervisors did just that. Yet the patient never used the term "hallucination," and even if he had, it would probably have been because a previous
consulting psychiatrist had used the term in his presence.
If we probe the subjective nature of the experience, a number of distinctive
features standout. For example, the patient had been surprised by this image or
vision, and had said to himself that his
could not have gotten into the house
without his noticing, thus calling into question the reality not of his experience
(the image or vision) but of the image's content. He had glanced over at two people sitting next to him, and when he had looked back toward the hallway his exwife was gone. He never once believed that the person had realli, been there; hi
believed thathe had seen somethingthat is, he believed in the vision but did
not believe
He did not believe that what was presented was rt.il, or
claim to be taken as real. Superficially speaking, we could say thu hi was able to
distinguish between fantasy (psychical reality) and reality (the Western notion
of social/physical reality he has assimilated in the course ol his lifetime).
When the discussion is cast in terms of Fantasy uuuil ,'e,ullty. however, we cannot clearly distinguish between neurosis and psychosis. br many neurotics are



unable, at certain moments, to tell fantasy from (our socially constructed notion
of) reality. The most obvious example would be that of the hysteric (consider
Freud and Breuer's Studies on Hysteria) whose fantasies have become so lifelike
as to have rewritten the subject's historical account of his or her past. Neurotics
and psychotics may both manifest difficulty distinguishing psychical reality
from socially constructed reality. Indeed, important questions could be raised
aL,out the very validity of this distinction. For example: Whose notion of socially
constructed reality is to prevailthe patient's or the analyst's? Is there a clear
watershed between the psychical and the social?8
I will leave these epistemological questions for another occasion, emphasizing instead Lacan's suggestion that "reality" is not all that helpful a concept
by which to distinguish fantasies from hallucinations or neurosis from psychosis. A far more useful concept is "certainty."9
Certainty is characteristic of psychosis, whereas doubt is not. The psychotic is
convinced not necessarily of the "reality" of what he or she sees or hears, but
of the fact that it means something, and that this meaning involves him or her.
While the psychotic may agree that what he or she heard or saw was not
audible or visible to others (Seminar ifi, 87)in other words, that it was not
part of a socially shared realitythis may make it all the more special to him

or her: he or she has been chosen among all others to hear or see it, or it
concerns only him or her. "The president of the United States is trying to
contact use personally through brain waves." "God has chosen me as his messt'nger." The subject is certain with regard to the message (the content of what

was heard or seen) and the identity of the addressee: him- or herself. The
that what was "true" or "real" to him or her in the
were the implications of the message for his or her life: "They are
trying to get me," "They want my brain." There is no room for error or
misinterpretation: the meaning of the experience is self-evident.
In contrast, what dominates the clinical picture in the case of neurosis is
doubt. Doubt is tin' yen, hallmark of neurosis.' The neurotic is unsure: maybe the
person was there, maybe not; maybe the voices are coming from some outside
source, maybe they are not; maybe what they say has some meaning, maybe
not; the meaning seems to have something to do with the person, but perhaps
he or she is misinterpreting it. The neurotic wants to know: "Am I crazy to be

seeing (hearing) such things? Is it normal? How should I be viewing such

experiences?" The neurotic has a certain distance from them; as gripping and
anxiety-producing as they may be when they occur, it is never entirely clear
whit they signify, what they mean in the larger scheme of things. "God spoke
to ins', but does that mean that I am to be his messenger? What does he want



The psychotic knows. For example: "God wants me to be his wife."11 "The
Devil wants to have his way with me." "The Martians want to take my brain
to study it; then they can control all my thoughts."
In the case of the man who had the impression he'd seen his ex-wife in a
hallway, his "vision" was not what I call a bona fide hallucination but rather
something on the order of a waking fantasy or daydream. His desire to see her
was so strong that she "appeared" before him. What seemed to be a persecutory note in his alleged hallucination (in his vision she said, "I'm gonna get
you!") seemed indicative of his own wish to take revenge on her, transformed
into a fear that she would harm himthe typical neurotic mechanism of a fear
disguising a wish.12 If she were to try to hurt him, he would feel justified in
hitting back (and perhaps pummeling her, as he had done to someone else
when provoked in the past).
Thus, I believe we are justified in referring to this patient's experience as a fan-

tasy or daydream rather than a hallucination. Indeed, when Freud tells us that
hysterics sometimes hallucinate, what he seems to mean is that their thoughts
and wishes become so powerful (so hypercathectedthat is, so highly invested
with energy or libido) that hysterics "see" or "hear" them as if they were being
enacted or fulfilled in the present. They fantasize so intensely that the event
seems palpable or real. Yet some doubt remains in their minds about the fantasized events. Indeed, they find it hard to say what is real and what is not.
Obsessives, too, sometimes hallucinate,13 and their "hallucinations" are generally auditory in nature. Their auditory experience can usually be understood
in terms of the voice of the punishing superego. When someone claims to hear
voices saying, "You'll never amount to anything," "It's your faultyou ruin
everything," "You don't deserve any better," "You'll be punished for that,"
and so on, we need not jump to conclusions with a diagnosis of paranoia. The
punitive superego is a well-known and documented phenomenon, and patients often recognize the voice as the father's and the phrases as typical of the
things the father used to say (or was believed to have thought).
It would be difficult in the course of any one book to exhaust the panoply

of voices that are heard by neurotics and that can hardly be considered
pathological. What certain patients and nonpatients describe, for example, as
a kind of running commentary that accompanies them in their daily lives

"Now she's going into the restaurant, and now she's smiling at the person
behind the counter . . ."can be understood on the l,asis oil .,wans work on
the mirror stage:'4 insofar as the ego is essentially the sell s,vn by "oneself" (as
in a mirror reflection)that is, viewed as if by another
or seen from
the outside by someone elsea running comnwnlary may well be provided
in a form of s('If-consciousness, or consciousness ol one's sdl doing things in



the world.15 A philosopher may observe his or her thought processes as if they

were those of another person; and one can observe oneself interacting with
others as if that self were someone else. The "mystery of self-consciousness"

thought by some to be a gift of evolution, dependent on the numerous interconnections in the human brain, soon to be duplicated in computer chipsis

explained by the nature of the ego (which is identical to the "self" in my

terminology)'6 as an external view or image of the subject which is internalized
or inteijected. The ego is thus an object,'7 and consciousness may adopt it as
an object to be observed like any other object.18
Neurotics may well see and hear all kinds of thingsthey may have visions
and hear voices, have tactile sensations and smell odorsbut they do not have
bona fide hallucinations. They may fantasize, hear superego and other endo-

psychic voices, and so on. But a bona fide hallucination requires a sense of
subjective certainty on the patient's part, an attribution of external agency, and
is related to the return from the outside of something that has been foreclosed.'9
One conclusion of this discussion is that when a patient reports having hallu-

cinations, the clinician thould never take the report at face value and should
spend time exploring the nature of the experience. In cases in which the clinician

cannot find convincing evidence one way or anotherin other words, cannot
determine whether or not it is a bona fide hallucinationother diagnostic criteria, such as those described below, should be given the most weight.


uf psu1chosss, we must make sure that flanguagel disturbances exist.

Lacan, Seminar III, 106


uslsalnts la:iguage, the psychotic is inhabited or possessed by language.

Lacan, Seminar III, 284


are all born into a language that is not of our own making. If we are to

express ourselves to those around us, we are obliged to learn their language
our parents' language, which we can refer to here as the Other's discourse
and in the process this language shapes us: it shapes our thoughts, demands,
and desires. We have the sense, at times, that we cannot find the words to say
what we mean, and that the words available to us miss the point, saying too
lunch or too little. Yet without those words, the very realm of meaning would
For us at all. Lacan refers to this as our alienation in language.2'
Ike isroblem we face is how to come to be in language, how to find a place


for ourselves in it and make it our own to the greatest extent possible. We may
seek out and adopt a vocabulary that is rejected, scorned, or repressed by the
powers that be: the rebellious son may adopt a slang dominated by four-letter

words, the anarchist a jargon free of the language of power, the feminist a
nonpatriarchal lexicon. We may feel more ourselves when we speak in a
subcultural dialect, or with an assumed accent. More radically still, we may
reject our mother tongue almost completely, if we associate it with our parents
and a discourse (educational, religious, political, and so on) we abhor, feeling
at home only in a foreign tongue.21

The neurotic succeeds, to a greater or lesser extent, in coming to be in

language, in inhabiting some subset of language (no one can ever inhabit the
whole of a language as developed and variegated as most natural languages
are). Alienation is never completely overcome, but at least some part of language is eventually "subjectified," made one's own. While language speaks
through us more than most of us would care to admit, while at times we seem
to be little more than transmitters or relays of the discourse around
while we sometimes initially refuse to recognize what comes out of our own
mouths (slips, slurred speech, and so on), we nevertheless generally have the
sense that we live in language and are not simply lived by it.

The psychotic, on the other hand, "is subjugated by the phenomenon of

discourse as a whole" (Seminar ifi, 235). Whereas we are all inhabited by
language as a kind of foreign body,n the psychotic has the sense of being
possessed by a language that speaks as if it were coming not from inside but
from outside. Thoughts that come to mind are considered to be placed there
by some outside force or entity. Although the Rat Man refuses responsibility
for certain thoughts that come to him, he never attributes them to an agency
outside himself, loosely speaking.
Lacan's thesis is that the psychotic's relation to language as a whole is different
from the neurotic's. In order to understand this, we must examine more closely
the imaginary and symbolic orders, as Lacan defines them, and consider their
different roles in neurosis and psychosis.

The Symbolic's Failure to Overwrite the Imaginary

The best-known aspect of Lacan's work to date in the English-speaking world
is the "mirror stage,"24 a concept Lacan developed in
Briefly stated, the
mirror stage corresponds to the time in a child's life when It is still extremely
uncoordinated and is merely a bundle of perceptions and sensations lacking
in unity. According to Lacan, it is the child's mirror Image that first presents

the child with an image of its own unity and tuher.'m'e which goes beyond



anything that it has yet achieved developmentally. The mirror image is jubilantly invested with libido by the child and internalized, becoming the nu-

cleus, core, matrix, or mold of the child's ego. Successive "self-images"

reflected back to the child by parents, teachers, and others crystallize around
it. Lacan views the mirror stage as providing a structuring imageone that
brings order to the prior chaos of perceptions and sensations. It leads to the
development of a sense of self, anticipating a kind of unity or self-identity that
has yet to be realized. And it is what allows a child to finally be able to say "1."
More important than this early description of the mirror stage, however, is
Lacan's 1960 reformulation of the mirror stage, currently available only in
Here Lacan suggests that the mirror image is internalized and invested
with libido because of an approving gesture made by the parent who is holding
the child before the mirror (or watching the child look at itself in the mirror). In
other words, the mirror image takes on such importance as a result of the parent's rec-

ognition, acknowledgment, or approvalexpressed in a nodding gesture that has

already taken on symbolic meaning, or in such expressions as "Yes, baby, that's
you!" often uttered by ecstatic, admiring, or simply bemused parents. This is

what makes it different from the power of certain images in the animal kingdom. A female pigeon, for example, must see an image of another pigeon (or of a
decoy, or even a mirror image of itself) for its gonads to mature (Ecrits, 95/3),
but the image alone suffices for a developmentally significant process to occur.
In human beings, the mirror image may, as in chimpanzees, be of some interest
at a certain age, but it does not become formative of the ego, of a sense of self, Unit is rat if 1'd by a person of importance to the child.26

l.atan associates this ratification with what Freud calls the ego-ideal
a child internalizes its parents' ideals (goals that are symbolically
expressed), and judges itself in accordance with those ideals. Indeed, a child


brings its parents' (perceived) view of the child into itself, and comes to see itself

as its parents do. Its actions become seen as its parents see them, judged as
worthy of esteem or scorn as its parents would (the child believes) judge them.
A whole new order is instated in this way: a reorganization (or first organization) takes place in the early chaos of perceptions and sensations, feelings

and impressions. The imaginary registerthat of visual images, auditory,

olfactory, and other sense perceptions of all kinds, and fantasyis restructured, rewritten, or "overwritten" by the symbolic, by the words and phrases
the parents use to express their view of their child.27 The new symbolic or
linguistic order supersedes the former imaginary order, which is why Lacan
talks about the dominance and determinant nature of language in human
existence, This is at the crux of his critique of certain forms of object relations
which he sees as focusing on an imaginary order or set of relations


that is, in fact, superseded by the symbolic and that is inaccessible to psychoanalysis, whose sole medium is speech.
The overwriting of the imaginary by the symbolic (the "normal" or "ordinary neurotic" path) leads to the suppression or at least the subordination of
imaginary relations characterized by rivalry and aggressivity (as discussed in
Chapter 3) to symbolic relations dominated by concerns with ideals, authority
figures, the law, performance, achievement, guilt, and so on. This overwriting
is related to Freud's notion of the castration complex, which, in the case of

boys, brings about an ordering or hierarchization of the drives under the

dominance (or "tyranny," to use Freud's termr of the genital zone. The boy's
blithely polymorphous sexuality becomes organized, owing to the father's
function in bringing about repression of the boy's Oedipal attachment to his

mother. The fatherwho in Freud's work is par excellence the symbolic

father, the demanding, prohibiting fatherbrings about a socialization of the
boy's sexuality: he requires the boy to subordinate his sexuality to culturally
accepted (that is to say, symbolic) norms.
This occurs, Freud tells us, even in the case of perverts: their polymorphous
sexuality gives way to a hierarchization of the drives, but under the dominance of a zone other than the genital zoneoral, anal, scopic, and so on.
Similarly, in accordance with Lacanian criteria, the pervert's imaginary has
undergone symbolic rewriting of some kindnot the same rewriting as in
neurosis, but a rewriting nevertheless, evinced by the ordering or structuring
of the imaginary (see Chapter 9).
In psychosis this rewriting does not occur. We can, at the theoretical level, say
that this is due to the unsuccessful establishment of the ego-ideal, the nonfunctioning of the paternal metaphor, the noninitiation of the castration complex,
and a variety of other things. The point here is that the imaginary continues to
predominate in psychosis, and that the symbolic, to the extent to which it is

assimilated, is "imaginarized": it is assimilated not as a radically different

order which restructures the first, but simply by imitation of other people.
Insofar as the ego-ideal serves to anchor one's sense of self, to tie it to the
approval or recognition of a parental Other, its absence leaves one with a
precarious sense of self, a self-image that is liable to deflate or evaporate ,il
certain critical moments. Rachel Corday, a psychotic who has matle in i's
tremely instructive videotape entitled Losing flit' Threat! (Insight
which details her first-hand experience of psychosis, rtiwats nialnercius times
that she "loses her self" during psychotic breaks, likening her sell to a balloon

that is rising out of sight in the sky and that she i.. iiiiahle to recapture. She
tells us that she can then no longer relate to other things, .is there is no I to do
center iii Intentlonality. "Everything
the relating, no longer any



in reality disintegrates, including my own body," she says, detailing how

difficult it becomes to move from one point to another without the "CEO in
her office," that homunculus known as the ego which gives us the sense that

our bodies are organized wholes that move harmoniously, as a unit. The
nerves, muscles, and tendons in her body still have all the same connections
that allowed her to execute complicated movements before, but the sense of
self that allowed her body to function as a whole dissipates.3
Corday tells us that she is prone to telling herself, "Get hold of yourself!"
just like many other patients (for example, Gerard Primeau, interviewed by
Lacan in "A Lacanian Psychosis")3' who use the very same words to describe
their sense that their self is slipping away. The disintegration of the ego is not
always so complete in psychosis, and we perhaps more often witness a confusion between self and other, a difficulty in determining who is speaking. As

Corday says, "I don't know where my own voice is coming from." The
"boundaries" of the ego are not simply flexible, as they are sometimes described
in neurosis, but virtually nonexistent, leading to a dangerous sense that another
person or force is trying to usurp one's place.32 Without the help of language that

names and delimitswhen its structure is assimilated and not simply imirelations predominate, as we shall see a bit further on.

The Inability to Create New Metaphors

While S(hsreber

eertainlil a u'riler, lie is no poet. He does not introduce us to a new dimension

Lacan, Seminar 111,91

The fact that the essential structure of language is not assimilated by psychotics is attested to by the fact that they are unable to create metaphors the way

neurotics can. They obviously use metaphors, since metaphors are part and
parcel of every natural language; they are quite capable of employing the
metaphors used by those around them, those found in their reading, and so
on. They are incapable, however, of forging new metaphors.
It would appear, then, that the very structure of languagenoun, verb, and
objectis not assimilated in the same way, for example. For this structure
allows us to replace a noun, such as "womb," with another noun, such as
"theater," or with a phrase such as "theater of menstrual activity," to create a
metaphor (a specific kind of metaphor known as a "substitutional metaThe psychotic's discourse is curiously devoid of original metaphors,
peiUii,1illy poetic devices through which most people are able to create new


meanings. Thanks to imitation, a psychotic can learn to speak the way other
people speak (Seminar ifi, 285), but the essential structure of language is not
integrated in the same way.
The metaphorical use of language is not available to psychotics, according
to Lacan, due to the failure of the essential metaphor: the paternal metaphor. Lacan

refers to the paternal function as having the structure of a (substitutional)

metaphor, where the term on top replaces or cancels out the one below it:
Father's name
Mother as desire
Or more simply:

The fatheras name, noun, or No!cancels out the mother (as desiring or
desired), neutralizes her, replaces her; loosely speaking, the father puts himself as name or prohibition in her stead. Stated thusly, the paternal metaphor
has considerable affinity with the castration complex, as Freud describes it: a
child is forced to give up a certain jouissance, a certain relationship with the
mother, due to a demand made or a threat issued by the father. In a word, this
corresponds to what Freud calls "primal repression," or what we might term
the "first
Let us assume that the child has been accepted into the world of its mother
or primary caretaker. This is often a big assumption, for as we see in certain
extreme cases of childhood autism, some children are granted no place whatsoever in their mother's world, not having been wanted at the outset; only
their most minimal biological needs are attended to (often not even by their
parents, but by indifferent, paid caretakers) and their attempts at talking and
engaging with others are met with shouts and
Figure 7.1 represents the
situation in which a child is given some space within its mother's world.
In a nuclear family in Western cultures, it is typically the father who gets in
the way of the child's otherwise exclusive relationship with its mother.' The





father is often experienced by the child as hampering or cutting off access to

its mother at various times of day and night and, indeed, as imposing Iiniita-

tions on the kind of satisfactions the child can achieve with the mother,
claiming, for example, "You're too old for that nowonly babies need their


Figure 7.2

Here, in a very straightforward way, the father serves a separating function:

he acts as a bar or barrier between mother and child, refusing to allow the child

to be no more than an extension of the mother (see Figure 7.2). The wish to
maintain as close a mother-child link as possible may be the wish of the child,
the mother, or both (though, strictly speaking, it becomes a "wish" only once
it is obstructed); in any case, the father serves here as that which separates the
child from the (typically) primary source of its satisfactions. He thus functions
the one who prohibits jouissance.
The Father's No!
Mother as Source of Jouissance

Prohibition, as we have seen, creates desire: it is only when something is

refused me that I first see what I want, what I lack, what I cannot have. The
father's prohibition constitutes a desire for certain pleasures with my mother
(contact with her body, her caresses, the warmth of her embrace, the sound of
her voice, her loving looks, and so on), but this desire must go underground:
it is unacceptable to this father person, and must be put out of mind. The first
repression, thus, for both male and female children, involves the forgetting of
one's desire to achieve certain satisfactions with one's mother. This repression
is often stronger in boys than in girls, since the father typically makes greater

efforts to separate his son (as rival) from the mother; often he allows his
to maintain a far closer relationship with the mother for a far longer
1)1 tIme. Nevertheless, limits are drawn to the kinds of satisfactions the


child is allowed to achieve with the mother (or the mother with the child), and

repression occurs; this is often evidenced when the child begins to find the
mother's caresses and embraces to be repugnant, disgusting, unseemly, and
so on, all of which are telltale signs of repression. I schematize repression by
putting that which is repressed under the bar:
The Father's No!
Mother as Jouissance

The paternal metaphor involves yet another moment, which we shall have
occasion to talk about in later
What I would like to stress here is the
sense in which this first moment already ties word to meaning (meaning being

the "stuff" of our socially/linguistically constituted realitythat is, of the

reality we share because we talk about it). As we saw in Part I of this book,
meaning is determined after the fact, and the child's relationship with its
mother is given meaning by the father's prohibition; that meaning is, we might
say, the "first meaning," and it establishes a solid connection between a sternly
enunciated interdiction and an indeterminate longing for closeness (which is
transformed into desire for the mother as a result of the prohibition). The first
meaning, the fundamental meaning brought into being by the paternal metaphor, is that my longing for my mother is wrong. Whatever else I may come
to think of it laterbelieving, for example, that I should not have given in to
my father's prohibition because he never offered me anything in return, never

provided me with substitute satisfactionsthat first meaning, once established, is unshakable and cannot be uprooted.
Everything else may be open to interpretation, up for grabs. And certainly
there is room for misunderstanding even when the father prohibits something
about the mother-child relationship: "Is it the way she's holding me, the way
I'm holding her, or the noise we're making?" A child is not obliged to mimediately conclude that it is certain kinds of touching and caressing that the
father is objecting to. Assuming, however, that the father has been assiduous
(or simply lucky) enough to drive home to the child what is prohibited, a link
is established between language and meaning (reality as socially constituted),
between signifier and signified, that will never break.
This is what Lacan refers to as the "button tie" (point de uspih;n,
also translated as "anchoring point" or "quilting point"). A mutton tie, In the
upholsterer's vocabulary, is a type of stitch used to secure .t button to fabric

and stuffing in a couch or chair, whereby the button 1und fabric are held
but simply In reference to
together not in reference to a wooden or steel
one another. There is no true anchoring here, strictly speaking, since an anchor
suggests an unmovable terra firma to which something Is attached. Rather, the



result of the paternal metaphor is to tie a specific meaning to particular words

(Figure 7.3) without regard to an absolute referent (that is, without appealing
to a mythical absolute reality beyond the reality created, or hewn from the real,

by language). The paternal metaphor creates a foundational, unshakable

Button tie

(reality as socially constituted)
Figure 7.3

When everything else can be thrown into question later, even the why and
wherefore of this foundational meaning, it is precisely because that original
button tiea kind of knotwas tied in the first place. It is this one stitch that
allows someone to assimilate the structure of language. Without it, everything
comes undone. As Rachel Corday says, try as she might to gather up some
sense of self at one end, it constantly "unravels at the other end." The fabric of
her self unravels without that all-important stitch, which is why she so often
"loses the thread."4

Interrupted Sentences and Neologisms

In psychosis, the paternal metaphor fails to function and the structure of
language (allowing for the possibility of metaphorical substitution) is not
assimilated. When language operates without that structure, other distur-

bances may appear as well. For example, the voices the psychotic hears often
speak in interrupted phrases or sentences that break off just before the most
important term is uttered, and the patient feels obliged to supply the missing
part of the sentence.
it is part and parcel of the structure of speech that a sentence takes on its full
meaning only after the last word has been pronounced. For each word or
phrase in a sentence paves the way for the words that are to follow it and bears

a relation to the words that precede it. In the partial sentence "The most
important thing is. . .," the verb is determined as a third-person singular by
the subject and leads us to anticipate, when we take it in conjunction with the
subject, a single thing or activity that is deemed crucial by the speaker (such
as". . to please yourself"). A sentence can be understood as a chain, in the
that the verb is linked to the subject, the adjectives to the nouns they
I1IIahIy, md the formulation of the last part of the sentence to the structure of


the first: the elements are thus all interrelated. Certain elements prepare the
way for others, and none of the elements is completely independent: they are

all "chained together" (this is why Lacan uses the expression "signifying

One cannot fully understand the beginning of a sentence in isolation; its

meaning or meanings become clear (if they ever become clear) only at the
end of the sentence. The anticipatory and retroactive movements involved
in the creation of meaning are depicted in Lacan's diagram of the button
tie,41 and are related to the process by which new meaning is created through
metaphorization. For our purposes here, it should suffice to say that the
interruption of a sentence pronounced by the voice a psychotic hears severs
the chain that had been forming, exposing its components as isolated units
or things, not
This suggests a disturbance in the usual process of
meaning making, and is related to the sense in which words are things for
the psychotic.
One patient, whose therapist I supervise, illustrated the psychotic's fundamentally different relation to language when she began speaking of her
fear that someone wanted to "strip her of her assets," and then remarked
on the curious connection between this phrase and "Strip District" (a market
area in Pittsburgh she had just been to), and "New York Strip Steak" (which
she had seen on a menu recently). She was intrigued not by the different
meanings of the word "strip" (for example, its sexual connotations), but sim-

ply by the fact that the word had appeared in her life in three different
contexts. Her "associations" were not to closely related words (such as,
"stripe," "trip," or "tripe") or to different meanings, but simply to the reappearance of the same word qua thing. This patient also saw a sort of
"cosmic connection" between David Letterman and a certain David who had
been interested in Saint Paul's letters in the New Testament. One of my own

patients said the following about the importance to him of words: "They
are my crown jewels that no one should piss on." To him, words art'
one can piss on.
It has often been noted that psychotics show a predilection for IR'OIIIgItInM

Unable to create new meanings using the same old words viii mI'l.Iph.)r, tin
psychotic is led to forge new terms, and attributes to them a
he or she often describes as ineffable or incommunicai'lr.
every other
term we employ, which can be defined with known worth, .isih ,u'nktglsins
cannot be explained or defined. The meaning ol
itnitnary word or expression always refers to other meanings, hut the
employs words that
do not refer to any other known or
nteantngs. I.acan
neologisms as one of the "signatures" of psyehnth
lii, 4344).



The Predominance of Imaginary Relations

In the beginning was rivalry...

It is in afrndamental rivalry. .. that the constitution of the human world as such takes place.
Lacan, Seminar ill, 51

elementary Lacanian distinction between imaginary and symbolic can

serve as a powerful clinical tool in distinguishing psychosis from neurosis.
The neurotic, while likely to bring up a variety of more or less significant
conflicts with friends and colleaguesthat is, with others like him- or herselfoften lets the therapist know right from the first few sessions that his or
her main beef is with the symbolic Other. This may be expressed through
complaints about parents, authority figures, social expectations, or self-esteem

issues, all of which suggest a conflict at the level at which the patient sees him-

or herself in terms of the Other's ideals (that is, at the level of his or her
ego-ideal or superego)as inadequate, underachieving, guilty, and so on.
The psychotic, on the other hand, presents things differently: the conflict
seems to be with others his or her own agerivals, competitors, or lovers.

They are not all trying to gamer approval from the same authority figure;
rather, one of them is usurping the psychotic's place.43

The familiar phenomenon of persecution clearly falls in the category of

imaginary relations, and is the predominant feature in paranoia (one of the
psychoses). As Lacan says, "It is insofar as [the patient] has not acquired...
the Isymbolici Other [language with its underlying structure] that he encounters the purely imaginary other. This other negates him, literally kills him"
(Seminar lii, 236). Nevertheless, Lacan reminds us that just because a patient
complains that someone is trying to do him or her harm, we cannot automatically assume that the patient is psychotic: the complaint may be true, or it may
be so outrageous as to be obviously false, but often it is not very easy to tell.
In this context, Lacan once again reiterates that in order to be sure the patient
is suffering from psychosis, "there must be language disturbances" (Seminar

The Invasion of Jouissance

In psychosis, just as the imaginary is not overwritten by the symbolic, so the

drives arc never hierarchized in the body except by imitation. In other words,
hierarchy that may be apparent is not irrevocable: it does not represent as

d.linItlve a sacrifice of jouissance as does the hierarchization the neurotic


undergoes during socialization, whereby libido is channeled (more or less

completely) from the body as a whole to the erogenous zones.
Lacan asserts that the body, in neurosis, is essentially dead. It is written with
signifiers; in other words, it has been overwritten or codified by the

The body as a biological organism is what Lacan calls the "real," and it is
progressively socialized or "domesticated" to such an extent that libido retreats from all but a very few zones: the erogenous

Only in these zones

is the body still alive, in some sense, or real. Here libido (or jouissance) is
channeled and contained. This is not the case in psychosis: the hierarchy of
drives achieved imaginarily can collapse when the imaginary order that supports it falters. The body, which has been for the most part rid of jouissance,
is suddenly inundated with it, invaded by it. It comes back with a vengeance,
we might say, for the psychotic may well experience it as an attack, an invasion, or forcible entry.
Thus, when the patient speaks, as does Schreber,47 of the "voluptuousness"

of his body, of the indescribable ecstasy or "electric sensation [he feels] in

[his] whole body" (as one of my patients described it), or of the unbearable
shooting pains he feels (for which no biological cause can be found), the
therapist can feel confident of having uncovered a likely indicator of psychosis. it is not positive proof, since religious mystics (of whom there is not an
overwhelming number) sometimes report similar experiences, but it is a good
first indication that the symbolic has been unable to rewrite the body, and
that whatever organization of libido may have occurred via the imaginary
has collapsed.
Lack of Control over the Drives

Neurosis is generally characterized by extensive ego and superego control

over the drives. When the neurotic engages in truly physically aggressive acts,

he or she usually has to be drunk or in some other sort of altered state (for
example, repeatedly angered by someone, pushed to the limit, sleep deprived.
or on drugs); only then are the restraints of conscience lifted sufficiently for
the neurotic to take direct action. To act directly and effectively is, biked, one
of the hardest things for a neurotic to
The absence of the paternal function affects all symbolic munctbo.m, and thus

it should be no surprise that it affects everything we commonly ssndate with

morality and conscience. This does not mean that a psychotic always acts
"immorally"; rather, it means that even slight
can lead the psychotic to engage in seriously punishing L,ehaVk,r. 11w reIgning in of the drives
that occurs in the course of the neurotic's "education," socialization, Oedipali-



i.ation, and de-Oedipalizationoften manifested in the laborious weighing of

alternatives by the neurotic before any kind of lust or aggression can be

displayed to othersdoes not occur in a durable way in psychosis. Thus, the
psychotic is more prone to immediate action, and plagued by little if any guilt
after putting someone in the hospital, killing someone, raping someone, or
carrying out some other criminal act. The psychotic may manifest shame, but
not guilt. Guilt necessitates repression: one can feel guilty only if one knows
one secretly wanted to inflict harm or enjoyed doing so. In psychosis, nothing
is repressed and thus there are no secrets one keeps from oneself.

An interesting facet of psychosis in men is the feminization that often occurs.
Schreber, in the course of his delusions, begins to see himself as the wife of

God. In certain other cases of psychosis, we see a tendency toward

transsexualism, repeated requests for sex change operations, and homosexual
activity.49 Freud analyzed Schreber's psychosis as indicative of an inadequate
defense against homosexuality, but Lacan suggests that Schreber's feminization occurs due to the very nature of psychosis.5
Psychosis is by no means a direct result of the physical absence of the father
in a family; as I have said, the father is a symbolic function, and this function
may be served by other people in or around the family or even by the mother's

discourse. l'sychosis is, no doubt, more likely to result when the father or
lather figure is absent from a patient's childhoodand it is always important
for the clinician to try to get a sense of the degree of that physical or psychological absencebut it may result when the father or father figure is present
as well.

Lacan suggests that certain fathersoften men who are very successful,
socially speakingare characterized by an unrestrained ambition or "unbridled authoritarianism" (Seminar ifi, 230), and establish a relationship with

their sons, in particular, which is not that of the symbolic pact but one of
rivalry and antagonism. The imaginary is war, the symbolic peace. The symbolic

the lawdivides things up, providing a kind of distributive justice: this is

yours, that is mine. The father who incarnates the lawthe symbolic father
says, "Your mother is mine, but you can have any other woman"; "This is my

bedroom and my bed, but you can have your own space and a bed for
yourself." The symbolic father makes a tacit pact with his son: "This part of
the day must be spent on homework, and the rest is yours to do with what you
wtll"; "This is what I will oblige you to do, and what you do apart from that


In contrast, the unbridled father acts unilaterally toward his son, punishing, for example, without listening to the son's possible reasons for having
behaved the way he behaved. There are no limits to his demandsno symbolic criteria that specify and delimit boundaries for both the demander and
demandeeand thus they can never be satisfied. The father is perceived as
a monster, and Lacan suggests that the only relationship possible is an imaginary relationship51 characterized by rivairous, erotically charged tension. No
triangulated Oedipal relation can form, and the child assumes a feminine
position in relation to the domineering, monstrous fatherthe imaginary

This feminine position may be covered over for a long period of time, as the
male psychotic identifies with his brothers and friends, imitating them in his

attempt to act like a man. When a psychotic break occurs? the patient's
imaginary identifications or "imaginary crutches" (Seminar III, 231) collapse,
and his essentially feminine position reemerges or forces itself upon him. In
other cases, the male psychotic may claim to have felt he was a woman since
his earliest
Such male psychotics are the most likely patients to
request sex change operations.
Feminization in psychosis thus seems to be indicative not of a total absence
of a real father in the child's family, but of the (at least occasional) presence of
a father who established only an imaginary relationship with his son, not a
symbolic one. Interestingly enough, the psychotic may also describe himself
as in a feminine or passive relation to language itself, passively submitting to
it, invaded by it, or possessed by
it becomes clear that feminization occurs for more

structural reasons as well, and need not necessarily be restricted to male

psychotics who had only imaginary relationships with their fathers. I cannot
present here all of the concepts Lacan develops in Seminars XVIII through
XXI regarding masculine and feminine structure, for it would take us too far
Very briefly stated, Lacan suggests
afield and I have done so
that masculine structure is related to a kind of "totalization" brought on by
the symbolic father (who imposes limits on the male child), whereas feminine
structure is related to a kind of nontotalization (pas tout) or impossibility of
totalization; when the paternal function is missing from a boy's lile, tutallzation does not occur and the boy takes on a certain ek'nn'tst of lefllifllfle
structure.57 However, the "Other jouissance" char,uteristi of h,uinine structure often becomes, for the psychotic, a very ng-Iastfng if not constant
experience (characterized as invasive), whereas for fbi neurotic with feminine
structure, this particular form of jouissante is more likely to be occasional
and fleeting.



The Lack of a Question

We are sure that neurotics have asked themselves a question. With psychotics, this is not so clear.
Lacan, Seminar 111,227

At the end of Chapter 2, I mentioned that the therapist is not always able to
discern anything like a question that the analysand asks him- or herself. Even

after months of regular sessions, certain analysands never wonder aloud

about anything, never mention that they wonder or once wondered about why
they did what they did at a certain point in time, what their dreams mean, or
why they seem to react in a particular way to things. Nothing in their own
lives raises a question in their mind, nothing seems incomprehensible, no
motives are called into question. There is no food for thought.
Desire is a question, according to Lacan, and what such a situation suggests
is either that the analyst has been unable to create a space in which desire can

show itself or come into being, or that it does not exist as we know it in
neurosis. Desirehuman desire, not the kind of desire we anthropomorphically attribute to animals or inanimate objects (for example, "The squirrel

wants to find the acorns it buried in the fall," "The sun is trying to come
out")forms in language and exists only in language. And it is subject to a
dialectic or movement typical of language:

One forgets that the dialectical changeability of actions, desires, and valLICS is characteristic of human behavior and that it makes them liable to
change, not only from one moment to the next, but constantly, and even
that it makes them shift to strictly opposite values. . . The ever-present

possibility of bringing desire, attachment, or even the most enduring

meaning of human activity back into question . is such a common
experience that it's stupefying to see this dimension forgotten. (Seminar

III, 32)

We are accustomed, in work with neurotics, to witnessing an evolution in the

neurotic's desires, fantasies, values, and beliefs in the course of therapy. Of
course, we are sometimes disheartened by the inertia we encounter in certain

areas of the neurotic's life, but perhaps more common is the neurotic who
expresses surprise at the ease with which he or she has been able to shed
identities and ideas that had seemed so central to his or her "personality" such
a short time before. The fiercest defender of machismo soon recognizes homo-

tendencies in himself, the staunchest advocate of family ties soon

with his or her parents, and so on. Ego identifications collapse, new


ones form, and desire is allowed to pursue its own course ever more completely.
The psychotic, on the other hand, is characterized by inertia, by the lack of
movement or dialectic in his or her thoughts and interests. The obsessive, too,

complains of having the same thoughts over and over, but generally in the
course of therapy at least some of his or her ideas change rapidly, while those
more closely linked to the symptom change slowly if at all. The psychotic,
however, reiterates again and again the same phrases; repetition replaces
explanation. The "dialectic of desire" has no place. There is no properly
human desire at all in psychosis. Where the structure of language is missing,
desire too is missing. Where repression is missingwhere transparency has
not given way to the opacity regarding my own thoughts and feelings that
results from repressionthere too questioning and wondering are missing: I
cannot call into question my past, my motives, or even my thoughts and
dreams. They simply are.

The Treatment of Psychosis: Analysis of a Case

The most particular cases are those whose value is the most universal.
Lacan, Seminar VI, February 11, 1959

Lacan does not merely provide us with a radically new way of understanding

psychosis; he also helps lay the groundwork for its treatment. As I mentioned

above, this does not mean that Lacan believed he could alleviate or cure
psychosisin other words, instate the paternal function in a patient in whom
it had not been instated. He does not hold out for us the hope of naming the
mother's desire or desire for the mother, and thus constituting it as prohibited
and requiring repression, twenty years after the fact, say.
The symbolic order, missing a crucial element (the Name-of-the-Father,
cannot be structurally repaired, to the best of our knowledge; it can, however,
be propped up or "supplemented" (to use Lacan's term) by another order. In
his early work, it is the imaginary that is relied upon to cover over the hole in
the symbolic. Indeed, according to Lacan, it is the imaginary - -in this cast, the
mimicking of others engaged in by the psychoticthat often allows the psychotic to make it to age twenty or thirty without suffering a psychotic break
imaginary to the
or "episode." The goal, superficially stated, is to return
stable state that characterized it prior to the
I cannot provide here a thoroughgoing dist'iissk,ii of l.acan's approach to
the treatment of psychosis, since this would reillliri' the introduction of too



many new concepts. Instead, I will provide a brief case history of a psychotic

who was treated by two different psychotherapists; the case illustrates a

number of Lacan's claims about psychosis and the possibilities for its treatment.

Unlike Freud's study of Schreber, the case is quite contemporary, dating

back only to the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although it is not one of my own
cases, I have decided to introduce it here because it exemplifies a number of

points highlighted in this chapter, is readily available in English (though

probably not well known), and is a mere eleven pages long. It is entitled
"Bronzehelmet, or the Itinerary of the Psychotherapy of a Psychotic," and was
The case study does not contain
written (in French) by Jean-Claude
a wealth of biographical information, but instead concentrates on what occurs
in the course of the patient's treatment.

Schaetzel refers to his French patient as Roger Bronzehelmeta pseudonym, but the patient's last name does literally mean "bronze helmet" in the
Slavic language from which it derives. As we shall see, Roger's last name

that is, the name handed down to him by his fatheris of considerable
importance in his history. Regarding Roger's family, Schaetzel tells us that
Roger's father allows himself to be completely dominated by his wife's
mother, to the extent that Roger believes his maternal grandmother to be the
"father" of the family. When the mother-in-law dies (Roger is four at the
time), the father becomes an alcoholic and allows his wife to dominate him
as her mother had before her. The father devotes all his attention to Roger's
sister, who is seVen years Roger's senior; Roger's mother devotes all of her
,ittention to Roger. Born in 1943, Roger has no known psychiatric history or
douimentcd difficulties during his childhood or teenage years. It is only as
a college student in the mid-1960s that Roger begins to show signs of obvious
As a child, Roger plays "sexual games" with his sister, the nature of which
is unclear, and it is when he is about to have his first sexual encounter as an
adult that he becomes profoundly disoriented. A woman in Roger's apartment
building, whose blind husband has recently died in an accident, invites him
to visit her, and her intentions seem overtly sexual. As the time of their
rendezvous approaches, he anxiously flees the apartment building and goes
in search of his professor at the university, "to tell him of his state of utter
confusion" (185). An assistant there, perceiving his difficulty, directs him to a
social worker, who in turn directs him to a psychotherapist for treatment.
Of particular relevance here are certain things Roger says and does in the
IOIIFMI' of his therapy that are related to his father and his father's name.
liure is no name for a father like mine," he tells his
He refers to


his father as a "poacher," an unscrupulous "crook" who wanted his son to

play the part of the "lookout to prevent them from being found out by the
law" (187)a far cry from the father who lays down laws that both he and
his child must obey! An event that occurs during the therapy is indicative of
Roger's lifelong lack of recognition and attention from his father: wishing to
start anew, to build a relationship with his father from the ground up, Roger
asks his father to put the past behind them, saying that "to live, a father needs
a son, just like a son needs a father." His father's reply says it all: "I'd sooner
grow fond of a dog."6'
Roger's attempt to establish a relationship with his father does not, at first
sight, differ much from the neurotic's all-too-common attempt to renew ties
with a father who did not, the neurotic feels, provide sufficient praise, recognition, or love. But Roger's quest is more all-encompassing, more vital: rebuffed by his father, Roger becomes convinced that the "unscrupulous" man

who lives with his mother must not be his real father. He visits the county
recorder's office to look up his birth certificate and his parents' marriage
license, in order to see with his own eyes the name of the man who signed
themthat is, in order to be sure of the name of his true father. But despite
what he sees, he remains unsure that he is the son of the man whose name
appears there in black and white, or that the name he sees is in fact the same
as that of the scoundrel who lives with his mother; in other words, he remains
unsure that he is that man's son. He feels a vital need to establish a paternal
genealogy for himself, to find an identity and a place for himself as someone's
son. The neurotic may wish his or her father had been different, hate or despise

the father, wish he or she had had someone else (indeed, anyone else) for a
father, but generally does not throw into question in this way who his or her
Here we see, in a very concrete case, that the father, as we generally understand it in our society, is a symbolic function, not a biological (real, physical,
genetic) function. The father is someone who plays a specific role in his child's
life, not simply someone whose name appears on a piece of paper, no matter

how official it may be. Some male obviously provided Roger's mother with
the sperm necessary for her to conceive Roger, but the latter nevertheless feels
himself to be no man's son, to have no father.
Needing an identity, Roger goes on to create for himself "a secret name that
finally allows him to live" (188). He senses that he can he horn from himself
and his therapist, and combines the letters of his first name with those of his
therapist's last name (the combination turns out to he a simple anagram of the
therapist's name). Roger writes this name down on a piece of paper which he
considers to he his true birth certificate (in French, acit' de naissance also evokes



the act of birth, the fact of being born), sticks it in a hole in the foundation of
his family home, and plugs up the hole. The joy he feels that day is ineffable.
Only a name can give birth to the subject, can give a child a place in which to
come to be in the symbolic world of family trees and genealogies. Roger has
no place; the name he bears, Bronzehelmet, cannot really be his name, to his
mind, since his so-called father prefers even a dog to him.
Roger mechanically goes to his sessions with his first therapist for two years,
bringing the therapist mountains of writings: he meticulously writes down his
dreams, types them up, memorizes them, and recites them by heart in his
sessions. (This sort of prolific "literary" production is an extremely common
feature in psychosis.) The therapist holds on to the writings and allows Roger
to recite his dreams in therapy for a long time, but one day, after Roger recites

a dream in which he is in a gilded cage "strewn with roses, watched by the

therapist" (186), the therapist suggests that this may be an image of his life at
present perhaps he sees the world as if from within a gilded cage where
everything is rosy and he is admired by his doctor.
Without taking up the question of the well-foundedness or groundlessness
of this interpretation, we need first to note its effect it leads to a psychotic break.
The therapist, by providing a kind of interpretation, suggests to Roger that his
dreams have meaning of which he is unaware; up until this time, Roger views

his dreams as no more than pretty images and stories that he finds very
pleasing. With this intervention, the therapist attempts to situate himself not

in the place of the witness, the willing repository of the patient's dreams,
writings, and thoughts, but in that of the Other: the place or locus in which
Iue4fliflg is determined.

In work with neurotics, a therapist must, as we saw in earlier chapters,

situ,ite him- or herself as the Other who hears something in what the neurotic
says that is not what the neurotic consciously intended. For it is in this way
that meaning becomes problematized and that the analysand begins to realize
that he or she does not always know what he or she is saying. In the case of
the neurotic, this place or locus already exists, and the therapist simply maneuvers in such a way as to occupy it, if he or she is not situated there from the
outset by the neurotic. In the case of the psychotic, however, this locus does
not exist. Roger's therapist can thus be understood as trying, with this intervention, to take on a symbolic role for which there is no precedent. The therapist
tries to go beyond the imaginary axis, on which everything had until then been
situated in Roger's case, and to bring something into "symbolic opposition"

(l:erits, 577/217) with the imaginary. In a word, he tries to triangulate, or

introduce an "outside" into a dyadic
In terms of the I Schema introduced in Chapter 3, Roger and his therapist


have been situated at either end of the imaginary axis (Figure 7.4), the only

axis involved in their relationship. But the therapist, no doubt unwittingly,

tries to occupy a position in symbolic opposition to a subject (along the
symbolic axis in Figure 7.5) in a case in which there is no subject to be found. That
Therapist (ego')

Roger (ego)

Figure 7.4 L Schema (imaginary axis alone)

is, he tries to situate himself in a symbolic relationship to Roger when those

places, subject and Other, do not exist for Roger.TM Instead of a subject who can

respond to the Other, what appears is a giant hole or vacuum. In the absence
of a subject of meaninga subject rooted in a first meaning established by the
paternal metaphorRoger begins to attribute a menacing meaning to all kinds
of things that, prior to the therapist's interpretation, had no such meaning. A
hammer inadvertently left in the therapist's waiting room is suddenly understood by Roger to imply that the therapist thinks Roger has "a screw loose."5
A question on the cover of a journal in the therapist's waiting room, "Are
students crazy?" (announcing an article on discontent among college students), leads Roger to believe that that question is aimed directly at him, and
that it is intended specifically for him. In other words, interpretations begin to
present themselves to Roger of which he is absolutely convinced; in a word,
he begins to have delusions.


Figure 7.5. L Schema (imaginary





It should be kept in mind here that while Roger has seemingly been trying

to erect this therapist into a father figure by christening himself with an

anagram of the therapist's name, he nevertheless tells Schaetzel (his second
therapist) that his first therapist was "like a mother to me." Once he even tried

to leave a photograph of his mother in the therapist's office, so that the

therapist would keep it and perhaps take the hint that he should attempt to be
like her. Roger strives to create for himself a new genealogy, one that provides
a space or place for him in the world, a role in a specific lineage, but he does
not adopt his therapist as a symbolic father; rather, he takes him as a kind of
supportive maternal figure. The therapist's presence remains reassuring to
Roger until the therapist attempts to become somewhat more like a symbolic
father, attempts to "situate himself in a tertiary position in a relationship based
on the imaginary couple a-a' [ego to alter-ego]" (Ecrits, 577/217). Lacan refers
to such a father as Un-pere, "A-father," or perhaps better,
role involves not just any older man, but a man who attempts to intervene in
a dyadic (usually mother-child) relationship and establish a genuinely symbolic relation with the psychotic.
It is the encounter with the One-father, with the Father as a pure symbolic
function67 (and this often takes the form of an encounter with a particular
person, male or female, who plays or tries to play a symbolic role), that leads
to the triggering of psychosisthat is, to a psychotic break. Lacan makes this
into a very general thesis, inviting us to try to verify it by seeking dramatic
encounters with such a One-father at the origin of every psychotic break
whether it is found, in the case of "a woman who has just given birth, in her
husband's face, un that ofi a penitent confessing his sins in the person of his
confessor, jor in that ofj a girl in love in her encounter with 'the young man's
father" (Lerits, 578/217). The encounter with the Father as a pure symbolic
function may also occur without the intermediary of another person, as, for
example, when a man learns that he is about to become a father, or is called
upon to play the role of a social/political/juridical father figure (Seminar III,
344345; Lacan has Schreber in mind in the latter case).
One of the immediate consequences of this encounter in Roger's case is that

Roger sets out in search of a new name, a new secret name by which to bring
himself into being. The first secret name he concocted, based on his therapist's
name, was not solid enough to allow Roger to answer "Present!" when cast
into the position of the subject of the symbolic orderthat is, the subject of the
signifierby the therapist's interpretation. When he was interpellated, called
to come into being as a subject of language, as a subject capable of taking
for the hidden meanings in his own dreams, the secret name
caved In, logically enough, Roger's search for a new name then leads him to


try to discover the name of his therapist's analyst, the spiritual or symbolic
father of his own therapist, but he is unsuccessful in this endeavor. He next
tries to speak with the most prominent professor at his university"the
biggest name," as he puts itsbut it is suggested to him that he continue
therapy, this time with a therapist of his own choice.
Roger chooses his new therapist, Jean-Claude Schaetzel, for largely unknown reasons, though it seems quite likely that the therapist's last name
sounds a good deal like a nickname Roger used for his sister who was so
adored by his father. Prior to the first session, Schaetzel is lucky enough to
attend a case presentation on Roger by Roger's first therapist, and is thus well
aware that Roger is psychotic, is prone to delusions, and attaches tremendous
importance to his oneiric-literary production. Schaetzel never refuses to accept
Roger's written work and always allows Roger to recite dreams during his
sessions, but gives precedence in his interventions to "casual remarks" Roger
makes before and after sitting down and to seemingly spontaneous comments
Roger makes about his dreams that are not included in the written version he
hands his therapist. Obviously feeling more at ease speaking to Schaetzel,
Roger reveals the following: "Words frighten me. I've always wanted to write,
but couldn't manage to put a word on a thing. . . It was as though the words
slipped off things. . . So I thought that by studying the dictionary from A to
Z and writing down the words I didn't know, I would possess them all and
could say whatever I wanted" (190191). Of course, Roger never manages to
"possess" them allthat is, stop them from "sliding off of things"for there
is no anchoring point for him that could ever tie word to thing, or, more
precisely, signifier to signified. In the absence of the fundamental button tie
that links the father's name or "No!" with the mother's desire, words and
meanings, sigrnfiers and signifieds, are condemned to drift aimlessly. Roger
nevertheless feels a bit safer when he writes things down, as writing seems to
fix or freeze meaning to some extent (things are thus "set in type," if not in
stone); speech, he feels, is dangerous because meanings become slippery, and
he feels he can never grab hold of them or tie them down.
Schaetzel is very patient with Roger, and by devoting attention to linger's
more spontaneous comments and by repeating in later sessions wh.it Roger
said offhandedly in earlier sessions, Schaetzel allows Roger to view him
"someone he can talk to" (191). Roger almost completely stops reciting dreams

by heart, sensing that, unlike his first therapist, St'haetid will not try to
explode the meaning of his speech (which is already tenuous in his own
mind), to evoke or insinuate meanings that Roger does not intend.
Schaetzel makes an important intervention in this vein when Roger recounts
a dream whose principal figure is the "203 man. ""'Ihe number "two hundred




,iid three" (deux cent trois), is pronounced in French exactly like "two without
three" (deux sans trois). Aware of the problem Roger's former therapist had
provoked by attempting to introduce a tertiary position, a three, into the
dyadic relationship between Roger and himself (a two), Schaetzel intervenes
by saying, "There is two without three," implying thereby that two without
three is permitted and that the therapist is not going to attempt to play the role
of the One-father with Roger, being content to have a dyadic, mother-child
type relationship with him. After a momentof silence, Roger says, "It's like

with my mother. . . I was always with her as if I didn't have a father" (193).
Indeed, Roger has no more than a real (biological) or imaginary father, not
a symbolic fatherthat is, a father who lays down the law by saying, "Your
mother is off limits, I found her first. Go find your own woman." There were
two without three throughout Roger's childhood, and now it is too late: to try
to introduce an outside (a three) at Roger's age would lead only to delusions
and suicidal depression. The father's name, like the father's prohibition, was
never accepted by Roger or never imposed upon him in the first place, and the
Other as locus never came into being. Primal repression never occurred, and
we thus see in Roger's case what Lacan refers to as the foreclosure of the
father's name or "No!" While "foreclosure" suggests an active attempt to
refuse or reject something, we see here, as we so often see, a simple absence of

paternal prohibition leading to no inscription or instating of the father as

symbolic Other. Roger seems not to vigorously refuse to grant his father a
symbolic role; rather, he is never given the opportunity to either accept it or
reject it. Indeed, he tries in vain to replace his father's name with some
otlwr---with the therapist's name (in the form of an anagram), or a "big-name"
professor's namebut nothing "sticks," so to speak: nothing can do the job for
which there has been no precedent. He appeals to or calls upon the Name-ofthe-Father, but to no avail: there is nothing there to respond. The therapist
cannot hope to triangulate now; he must focus all his efforts on the imaginary
register that is there and operative, to make it as sturdy and solid as possible.
What exactly does this mean in Roger's case? Roger tells Schaetzel that he
wants to "understand what has happened" to him (193). And this is precisely

what the therapist can hope to achieve with a psychotic: help the patient
construct an understanding, edify a world of meaning that allows the individual

to live and find a place for him- or herself. Meaning is imaginary, as we saw
in Chapter 2, and it is the level at which the psychotic can be successfully
engaged in therapy. With neurotics, the therapist must work hard to stop them

from understanding too quickly, because they see what they want to see,
understanding what it is pleasing to them to understand. Since the ego recrysor reconstitutes itself around every new meaning, every new under-


standing, the therapist tries to disrupt the neurotic's all too quick and conven-

ient meaning-making activity, hoping to affect what is unconscious, not the

ego. But with the psychotic, the therapist must encourage such meaning-making activity because the ego is all one can work with: the therapist must build
up a sense of self in the psychotic that defines who the psychotic is and what
his or her place is in the world.
In Roger's case, we see that while Roger suffers from delusions after his first

therapist proposes an interpretation, his delusional activity never foments a

new cosmology or world-viewone like Schreber's, for example. Delusional

activity, when it is allowed to run its course rather than being silenced by a
therapist's intervention, eventually leadsand this process may well take
yearsto the construction of what Lacan calls a "delusional metaphor" (Ecrits,
577/217), a new starting point on the basis of which the psychotic establishes

the meaning of the world and everything in it.7 In Roger's case, this new
starting point might be a delusional genealogy explaining that Roger is actually, say, the son of God (if not the wife of God), explaining how his mother's
and father's family trees were destined to come together, and so on. Lacan
refers to such a new world view as a delusional metaphor because, in certain
respects, it stands in for the paternal metaphor, allowing words and meanings
to be bound together in a relatively stable, enduring way. Schreber, for example, spends years fomenting a new, highly idiosyncratic cosmology, but the
end result is a stable world of meaningsmeanings not shared by many, but
meanings all the samein which a space, a bearable role, is reserved for
Schreber. Schreber at last manages to find a place for himself in a world of his
own making. Lacan refers to this as the "terminal" point of Schreber's "psychotic process" (Ecrits, 571/212).
As we shall see in Chapter 9, the paternal metaphor serves as an explanatory
principle, explaining the Other's desire from which we are born (for, as subjects,
we are born of our parents' desire, not of their bodies), explaining why we are
here, why we were wanted, to what extent we were wanted, and so on. In the
absence of such an explanatory principle, the psychotic attemptsvia the delusional processto elaborate an explanatory principle of his or her own.

In contrast, Roger's delusional activity is halted, for the most part, by his
therapist's interventions. Schaetzel sets out to help Roger construct ii*eanings
that can sustain him in life without recreating the entire tiniverse t Ia Sehreber.
Schaetzel does not tell us what the constructed system ol meanings looks like
in Roger's case, for his case study reports on oniy two years of work; nevertheless, it does give us a good idea of the type ni work
carrying out with Roger over the years to come A
of Lacan's
approach to the treatment of psychosis beyond IhI'i point would, In any case,



require the introduction of much more theoretical material; in particular, it

would require me to indicate and justify the precise nature of the interventions
Lacan advocates as means of curtailing hallucinatory activity and helping the
psychotic construct a new meaning system. I will present such material in the
sequel to this book.
Much more could obviously be said about Roger. I have not, for example,
said anything about why his problems seem to begin when the possibility of
sex with a woman presents itself (a woman whose blind husband has recently
died). Is this predicament related to his early sexual play with his sisterthat
is, with the girl who was his only means of access to his father while growing
up? Nor have I addressed the question of feminization in his case. It seems to
me, however, that Schaetzel does not provide enough background for us to do
anything more than speculate about such questions. The case primarily ifiustrates what is meant by the foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father, and helps
us understand the radical difference in the therapist's role when the treatment
involves psychotics instead of neurotics.

From Father to Worse

Sociologists and historians have, for some time now, been announcing the
decline of the father function in Western society. This announcement must, it
seems to me, be taken with a grain of salt; after all, the ancient comedies of
Terence and Plautus depict the father in ways quite reminiscent of what we
see all around us. Nevertheless, changes in family structure (such as the rising
percentage of single-parent families today), and changes in ideology and
discourse regarding sexual roles, suggest that the importance of men in families and of their symbolic roles as fathers is being ever more widely contested.
More and more single women are deliberately having children, ostensibly
rejecting the importance of triangulation (for example, the introduction of a

third term in the mother-child dyad, an outside, a symbolic Other; or the

institution of the paternal metaphor); and more and more lesbian couples are
raising children, seemingly eschewing or downplaying the importance of the
father. Combined with the de facto increase in the divorce rate and the consequent increase in the number of children being raised solely by their mothers,
and with the growing antiauthoritarian attitude toward children among men

(no doubt at least in part encouraged by certain modem-day feminist discourses), the paternal function seems to be in danger of extinction in certain
social milieus.

I acan does not claim that the paternal or father functionthe instatement
lather figure in a role of authority beyond the motheris the nec plus ultra


of family structure. His discourse is not that of "family values," pitting Dan
Quayle against Murphy Brown. Lacan does not assert that the father should
be propped up in our society. Rather, he issues a warning: to reject the father's
role, to undermine the father's current symbolic function, will lead to no good;
its consequences are likely to be worse than those of the father function itself,
increasing the incidence of psychosis. This is one of the things Lacan had in
mind when, in 1971, he entitled Seminar XIX ". . ou pire" (". . or Worse"),
one of the possible elided words being pete ("father"). If we view the father as
the lesser of two evils, to reject the father is to opt for the worse.
Lacan's challenge to discourses that encourage the elimination of the paternal function would run something like this: "Can something like the paternal
metaphorproviding the fundamental link between signifier and signffied,
between language and meaningbe instated without the father as symbolic
function? If so, how? If not, is there some other way to introduce an outside
that is, to triangulate the mother-child relationship and stave off psychosis?
How can this be done without relying on the symbolic order and its ability to
intercede in the imaginary, the world of rivalry and war? Doesn't one sex have
to play the part of symbolic representative?"

Unless some other way of achieving the same effect is foundLacan's work
would seem to suggestthe practices that stem from such discourses run the
risk of increasing the incidence of psychosis?1


Fantasy provides the pleasure peculiar to desire.

Lacan, Ecrits, 773

Many features of neurosis have already been described in this book. Indeed,
the approach to analysis outlined in the first five chapters applies, above all,
to neurotics; as I mentioned in Chapter 7, a different approach is required in
the case of psychotics and (as we shall see in Chapter 9) the approach required
in the case of perverts is also different in certain respects.
Neurosis can, of course, be characterized in many ways. In contradistinction
to psychosis, it implies the instating of the paternal function, the assimilation
of the essential structure of language, the primacy of doubt over certainty,
considerable inhibition of the drives as opposed to their uninhibited enact-

ment,' the tendency to find more pleasure in fantasy than in direct sexual
cont4wt, 11w mechanism of repression as opposed to foreclosure, the return of

tlu repressiti from within, as it were, in the form of Freudian slips, bungled
iitlons, and symptomsthe list goes on and on. Unlike perversion, neurosis
the predominance of the genital zone over the other erogenous zones,
a tertain hgret of uncertainty about what it is that turns one on, considerable
ilIffliulty pursuing it even when one does know, the refusal to be the cause of
the Other's iouissancc, and so on.

The first thing to say about the unconscious .


what Freud says about it: it consists of

Lacan, Scilicet 1(1968): 35

What is essential in repression


not that affect is suppressed, but that if is displaced and

I.acan, Seminar XVII,



The fundamental mechanism that defines neurosis is repression. Repression is

responsible for the fact that, whereas the psychotic may reveal all of his or her
"dirty laundry" with no apparent difficulty, airing all of the scabrous feelings
and deeds anyone else would be ashamed to divulge, the neurotic keeps such

things hidden from view, from others and from him- or herself. Lacan expresses the psychotic's situation by saying that his or her unconscious is
exposed for all the world to see (a ciel ouvert).2 Indeed, in a certain sense there
is no unconscious in psychosis, since the unconscious is the result of repression.3

Repressionhowever its motor force is described (whether as the putting

out of mind by the ego or superego of thoughts or wishes that do not fit in
with one's view of oneself or with one's moral principles; or the attraction to
the "nucleus" of primally repressed material of elements linked to it; or
both)leads, according to Freud, to a separate inscription or recording of a
perception or of a thought that once passed or flashed through one's mind.
Thus, it does not imply the utter and complete obliteration of that perception
or thought, as we might understand foreclosure. As Freud tells us in his essay
"Negation," repression cannot occur unless the reality in question (the perception of a scene, for example) has already been accepted or affirmed at some
level by the psyche.4 In psychosis, the reality in question is never affirmed or
admittedit is foreclosed, refused, rejected. In neurosis, the reality is affirmed
in some very basic sense, but pushed out of consciousness.
Just as Freud likens the manifest content and the latent content of dreams to
two different languages (SE lv, 277), Lacan suggests that the unconscious is a
language (Seminar ifi, 20), a kind of foreign language that we are not immediately able to read. Following Freud's most rigorous formulations in his paper
"Repression" (which are repeated many times elsewhere), Lacan sustains that
what is repressed is neither perception noraffect, but the thoughts pertaining topercepthe thoughts to which affect is attached. In other words, the unconscious con-

sists of thoughts, and thoughts cannot but be expressed or formulated in

wordsthat is, with signifiers. Affect and thought are generally connected or
linked at the outset; but when repression occurs, affect and thought are generally detached from each other, and the thought may be put out of consciousness.
This is why clinicians often see patients who claim to be blue, depressed,
anxious, sad, or overwhelmed with guilt, but do not know why. Or the re,isons
they put forward do not seem in any way commensurate with the power of

the affect that has overcome them. Affect often remains when the thought
related to it is repressed, and the troubled individual tends spontaneously to
seek ad hoc explanations for it, attempting to understand it In some way or
other.' The "forgetting" of the thought, accompanied by persistence of the
affect, is especially common in hysteria.



Quite common in obsessive neurosis is the case in which a thoughtfor

example, the memory of a particular childhood eventis quite available to
consciousness, but evokes no affect whatsoever. The obsessive recalls the
event but not his or her reaction or emotion at the time. Repression operates
in such cases essentially by breaking the link between the thought and the
affect originally associated with it. In such cases, the analyst must rely on the
patient to transfer the dissociated affect onto the here and now of the analytic
relationship. This is brought about neither by suggestion nor by accusation,
but by the analyst's playing the part of a blank screen as far as possible and
taking the positive projections with the negative.
Freud, in his work with the Rat Man, for example, was convinced early on
that the Rat Man had, as a child, harbored hateful feelings toward his father,
but no such affect was elicited by any of his childhood memories. By embodying the "Man without Qualities," however, Freud allowed his analysand to
reproduce those feelings in the analytic setting and heap abuse on Freud as an
extremely patient stand-in for the Rat Man's father. Thanks to a displacement
(from father to analyst), the affect was able to come to the fore.

The Return of the Repressed

Once a thought is repressed, it does not lie dormant. It connects up with other

related thoughts and seeks expression whenever possible in dreams, slips,

bungled actions, and symptoms. "The repressed and the return of the repressed
are one and the same," Lacan tells us.7 In other words, the idea that is repressed
is the same idea that is expressed in a disguised fashion in the Freudian slip, the
forgetting of a name, the "accidental" breaking of a vase, or whatever the form
taken by the return (for example, disgust at a mother's caresses, revealing the
child's repression of its desire for the mother). Indeed, our only "proof" of the
existence of the repressed is its return, its manifestations in the form of disruptions or interruptions. The existence of a symptoma convulsive movement of
a part of the face, for exampleis the only proof psychoanalysis has or needs of
repression:8 the tick may result from repressed hostile thoughts or a repressed
wish to see more; in either case, some wish is being put down or pushed aside.
"The neurotic symptom plays the role of the language [langue] in which repression can be expressed" (Seminar ifi, 72). It is a message to the Other.

In the case of conversion symptomsthat is, symptoms expressed in the

body (which run the gamut from minor aches and pains, tightness in the chest,
tingling sensation, a burning sensation, and dizziness to migraines, paraly1414. blindness, muteness, and deafness)the medium the symptoms adopt is
body written with language, a body overwritten with signiuiers. The inven-


tor of the "talking cure," Anna 0. (whose real name was Bertha Papperiheim
and who was treated by Joseph Breuer),9 developed an occasional stiffening of

her right arm, because it was that arm that refused to protect her father when
she believed (in a "waking dream") that he was being threatened by a snake.
In other words, her physical, bodily symptom "spoke of" a relationship to her
father and a possible death wish she had toward him that she was loath to

admit to herself. She developed another symptom that defied all medical
knowledge of nerve pathways in the body: she began to feel acute pain in a
small area of her thighthe same area, as it turned out, where her father
would rest his foot on her leg while she took care of his podiatric problems.
It is commonplace to say that obsession is characterized by the return of the
repressed in the mind, whereas hysteria is characterized by the return of the
repressed in the body. While it is true that the obsessive is likely to be plagued
by disturbing thoughts (thoughts that are seemingly nonsensical, compulsive,
or even persecutory), and the hysteric by physical ailments that may change
considerably over time, this is not a hard and fast rule and does not afford a
reliable distinction between obsession and hysteria. It seems that obsessives
are increasingly succumbing to physical ailments that are "stress related"
which is nothing but a modern medical buzzword for psychosomaticand

that are just as telling in the choice of the part of the body affected as the
hysteric's psychosomatic symptoms ever were. Is it, for example, an accident
that the obsessive's "somatization" shows such a strong predilection for the
digestive and excretory tracts? (Consider the number of "stress-related" gastrointestinal troubles diagnosed in our day, as well as new "syndromes" like
"irritable bowel disorder.")
In the end, it is not the different sites of the return of the repressedin one's
thoughts or in one's body, both dominated by language, thus both the "locus
of the Other"that can help us distinguish hysteria from obsession.1 A predominance of conversion symptoms in a patient's clinical picture may suggest
a diagnosis of hysteria, but one still needs to look further. Specffic characteristics such as conversion are rarely determinant; like masochistic tendencies, conversion can be found in a number of different clinical categories,

Lacanian Subject Positions

within the
The different "clinical structures" (that is, diagnostit'
larger structural category of neurosisall of whhh ,ire delinid by the medianism of repression'correspond, according to I ..w,m, to dillertnt subject positions, not to different symptoms. American
psychoanalysts, and
psychologists seem intent on introducing ever more classifications and diag



nostic categories within neurosis (if they even recognize the larger category of

the neuroses)"depressive disorder," "bipolar disorder," "panic disorder,"

"hyperactivity," "hypnoid states," "dysthymia," "polysubstance dependance"1but none of their categories does anything but tag a particular
symptom or set of symptoms manifested by an individual at a given moment in time. Each such category represents but a micro-symptom or minipattern in a person's overall psychological makeup.
In Lacan's view, there are structures that are far more fundamental than
those of "addictive personalities," "introverts," "extroverts," "women who
love too much," "men who are afraid of intimacy," and "codependents."
American psychology and psychiatry tend to deal only with what immediately meets the eye, abandoning the notion of "deeper" structures with which
psychoanalytic investigation began. Thus, they often succumb to the banal
simplicity of mainstream American scientific thought: divide and conquer
break every pattern down into its smallest isolable parts, give those parts new
names, and attempt to treat them (with drugs whenever possible, or with
specific "therapeutic techniques") as logically separate "disorders." Indeed,
the categories from pop psychology are ultimately no better and no worse
than those promulgated by "medical science," since they both take a syndrome-by-syndrome, symptom-by-symptom approach.
A woman who is anorexic can legitimately be categorized as having an
"eating disorder," but then we already know this as soon as we are told she is
anorexic. If, however, she is diagnosed as hysteric, we can begin to situate the
role of her "eating disorder" within the larger context of her psychical struclure, This may allow us to see, for example, that the same role played by her
in her teen years may have been played by vomiting when she was
child, shoplifting when she was in her early twenties, and high-stress,
high-volume trading as a stockbroker in her later years.
In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the diagnostic subcategories within neurosis
are also structural categories; they are not based on a particular set of symptoms, for the same symptoms can be found in extremely different sorts of

The main diagnostic structures and the subcategories under neurosis are
schematically represented below:
Main Categories:



Hysteria Obsession Phobia





question then is: How are these "deeper structures" within neurosis


Hysteria and Obsession

In his early work, Freud makes a number of attempts to define obsession and
hysteria on the basis of the highly specific way in which people react to early

(primal) sexual experiences; one of the most striking of the definitions he

proposes is that obsessives react with guilt and aversion, whereas hysterics
react with disgust or revulsion.'2 For clinicians who continue to view sexuality,
in its broadest Freudian acceptation,'3 as extremely important, the possibility
of distinguishing among patients on the basis of a fundamental difference in
their sexual stances is a diagnostic contribution of major proportions. For in
real-life clinical work, the more superficial indicators of obsession and hysteria

(compulsive rituals, somatic symptoms, and so on) do not always appear to

be decisive: one finds what are usually considered to be hysterical traits (for
example, conversion or psychosomatic problems) in otherwise generally obsessive people, and obsessive traits in those who seem otherwise predomi-

nantly hysterical. Indeed, in one case I supervised, a patient presented

anorexic tendencies (usually associated with hysteria) brought on by guilt
feelings (usually associated with obsession): the guiltier she felt toward her
mother, the more severely she would restrict her consumption of calories.'4
If therapists had a "true definition" of hysteria, they would, for example, be
able to see beyond some of the compulsive phenomena in a patient's clinical
picture to a more fundamental mechanism, one which is truly regulating the
person's psychic economy. This would also allow them not to dismiss or
neglect the "stray" traits characteristic of other clinical structures, but to situate themselves in the transference as a function of the patient's most basic
It was clearly Freud's goal in the late 1890s to provide such a definition for
hysteriaa single unequivocal definitionbut he never felt that he was able
to do so. In his letters to Fliess,'5he declares his intention to write the definitive

work on hysteria which would explain it all, but he never wrote the hook in
question. We are left with a number of provisional definitions of hysteria and
obsession, which are not always internally consistent. These remain extremely
useful to the practitioner, but the larger question is left o)t.n: Why are there
two main neuroses, hysteria and obsession, instead of, say, four? Or six? Or
seven? (There are actually three, since we include phobia,)"
Apart from the historical importance of the categories hysteria and obsession in the development of psychoanalysis, and in the absence of some sort of



absolute definition, it is difficult to convey a sense of their importance to

anyone who is not already working with such categories and seeing clinical
experience in terms of them. For virtually any classificatory schema can take
on a certain usefulness and significance for a practitioner over time, as he or
she begins to see common characteristics among patients in the same category.
One could argue for the greater validity of psychoanalysis' categories on the
ground that they are more usefri than other categories, providing clinicians
with a good idea of how to orient themselves in the transference, what to be
on the lookout for, and the range of features that, while perhaps not initially
visible, are likely to surface in the course of therapy. One could argueas I do
in this chapterthat psychoanalytic classifications go beyond other diagnostic
systems insofar as they help orient the practitioner's interventions with different patients.
But Lacan allows us to argue for psychoanalytic categories still more forcefully: he shows that they can be defined at a profound, structural level. In his
lifelong attempt to formalize and extend Freud's work, Lacan provides the

basis for a structural understanding of obsession and hysteria that Freud

himself did not provide.

Structural Definitions
"li'eriithsnc/or the other," sal/s the obsessive, and that is what hedoes,for being in the perpetual
of ilesiroiiing the
he can never do enough to ensure that the other
i'nis,iues to e.i 1st.
Lacan, Seminar VIII, 241

'to grasp I .acan's most far-reaching distinction between hysteria and obsession, We must return to his notion of the fundamental fantasy, introduced in
Chapter 5. In its most basic form, it is the relationship between the subject and
the object: ($ a). The structure of the fundamental fantasy in hysteria is, however,
radically different from that found in obsession. Most simply stated, the obsessive's

fantasy implies a relationship with an object, but the obsessive refuses to

recognize that this object is related to the Other. Though the object always
arises, according to Lacan, as that which falls away or is lost when the subject
separates from the Other (see Figure 8.1), the obsessive refuses to acknowledge
any affinity between the object and the Other.'7
To take the simplest Freudian and Lacanian example, the mother's breast is
initially the infant's primary source of satisfaction (for those infants who
It'd), In I:igurc 8i, we can situate the child in the lefthand circle, the


mOther in the right-hand circle, and the breast in the intersection between the

two. At first, the infant considers the breast not as separate from itself but
rather as part and parcel of "itself" (there being, at the outset, no sense of
"self," no sense of where one person or object leaves off and another begins);
experience takes the form of a continuum, not of discrete, separate entities.
Once the infant becomes aware of itself as separate from its mother, however,
the breast can never be "possessed" in exactly the same way, for the initial
satisfaction it brought was tied to a time prior to the self-other, subject-object
distinction.'8 The infant did not consider the breast to belong to another person
(indeed, the concept of belonging or possession was as yet unknown), but in
the course of weaninga form of separation, loosely speakingit is experienced as wrenched away, as lost. it is not so much the mOther the child loses
in separation as the erotic object, the object that provided so much pleasure.19
The child does not suffer this loss passively: it tries to make good or compensate itself somehow for the loss.

Figure 8.1

In the obsessive's fantasy (and I shall refer to the obsessive here as "he,"
since the majority of obsessives are male), separation is overcome or made up
for as the subject constitutes himself in relation to the breast, which functions

as the cause of his desire; unity or wholeness is restored to the subject by

addition of the object. But the obsessive refuses to acknowledge that the breast
is part of or comes from the mOther, or bears any relation to the actual woman
who becomes the obsessive's sexual partner.
As schematically represented in Figure 8.2, the obsessive takes the object for
himself and refuses to recognize the Other's existence, much less the Other's

desire. The obsessive's fundamental fantasy can thus be adequately formua), as

lated using Lacan's general formula for the fundamental fantasy
long as it is understood that the obsessive seeks to neutraliie or annihilate the

On the contrary, in the hysteric's fantasy (and I shall refer to the hysteric
here as "she," since the majority of hysterics are ti'male), separation is over-



come as the subject constitutes herself, not in relation to the erotic object she
herself has "lost," but as the object the Other is missing. Separation leads the
hysteric to grasp her own loss in terms of her mOther's loss, the falling away
of the object she had been for her mOther. She senses that her mother is not
complete as mOther without her child, and constitutes herself as the object
necessary to make the mOther whole or complete (the object that plugs up or
stops up the mOther's desire).21 If this relationship does not become triangulated via the Name-of-the-Father, psychosis may result; but when it is trian-

gulated, the hysteric constitutes herself as the object that makes the Other
desire, since as long as the Other desires, her position as object is assured: a
space is guaranteed for her within the Other.

Figure 8.2

Rather than taking the object for herself, as in obsession, the hysteric seeks to
divine the Other's desire and to become the particular object that, when missing, makes the Other desire, She constitutes herself on the subject side of the
"equation" as object a (see Figure 8.3). The fundamental fantasy can be viewed
as a response to separation. Here we see that the obsessive aftempts to overcome or reverse the effects of separation on the subject, whereas the hysteric
attempts to overcome or reverse the effects of separation on the
I will illustrate these rapidly sketched notions below, but first let us note that

the hysteric's fundamental fantasy cannot be adequately formulated using

Figure 8.3


Lacan's general formula (>a). In the slot to the left of the 0the "subject
slot," so to speak, the slot where the subject's position is indicated or where
the subject is situatedthe hysteric appears, identified with an object: object
a. And the object with which she relates in her fundamental fantasyindicated in the slot to the right of the 0, the "object slot"is not the lost object,
as in obsession, but the Other as lacking, which Lacan designates A (for Other,
Autre in French) with a bar through it to indicate that it is divided or lacking:
Hence, the hysteric's object or "partner" is not an imaginary other, a person
she considers to be like herself, nor is it a real object that serves as her cause
of desire (for example, the voice or the gaze). Rather, it is a symbolic Other or
master: someone imbued with knowledge and/or power, whether male or
female. The hysteric's fundamental fantasy could thus be written (a 0
These formulas could be commented on at length, and will only take on
meaning for the reader little by little here. The most important point to keep
in mind from the outset is that, if we use Lacan's incisive (though complex)
conceptssubject, object, and Other.hysteria and obsession can be defined as
radically different subject positions implying opposing relations to the Other and to
the object.

It should be noted that the formulas (or "mathemes," as Lacan calls them)24
I have provided for obsession and hysteria are not exactly the same as the ones
Lacan provides at different moments of his work. The formulas he offers date
back to 1960 and 1961,u and appear to be superseded to some extent by his
work in the 1970s. Since it is my purpose here to offer not a historical account
of the development of Lacan's work but rather a summary of what seems to

me of greatest value to the practitioner, I am deliberately leaving out many

possible levels of commentary on Lacan's mathemes. I am doing so not because they are uninteresting but simply because they would weigh down my

It should also be noted that the structures in question here are not superficial
"patterns" which one is likely to detect upon casual observation (though at
times they may be extraordinarily visible) or which are likely to be reported
in the first sessions of analysis. The experienced clinician may see telltale signs

of one structure or another after a very short period of time, but often lu.my
sessions are required to arrive at a reliable diagnosis.

Being in Thought (Obsession) versus Being the

(I li,ster:a)

Lacan views the fundamental question involved in neurosis as the question of

being: "What am I?" As I indicated in Chapter fj, this question is reflected



above all in the child's investigation of its parents' (the Other's) desire: "Why

did they have me? What do they want from me?" These questions have to do
with the place the child has in the parents' desire. When the child raises these
questions directly to the parents, the answers are rarely convincing ("Mommy
and Daddy loved each other very much, and then you came along. ."), and

the child is left to ponder the why and wherefore of its existence via the
inconsistencies in its parents' discourse and deeds. The answer is provided in
the fundamental fantasy.
The obsessive and the hysteric come to grips with the question of being in
different ways, for the question is modulated differently in hysteria and obsession. The hysteric's primary question related to being is "Am I a man or a
woman?" whereas the obsessive's is "Am I dead or alive?" The obsessive is
convinced that he is, that he exists, only when he is consciously thinking.27
Should he lapse into fantasy or musing, or stop thinking altogether, for instance during orgasm, he loses any conviction of being. His attempt to come
into being or continue to be involves the conscious, thinking subjectthe
egonot the divided subject who is unaware of certain of his own thoughts
and desires. He believes himself to be master of his own fate.
The obsessive, as conscious thinker, deliberately ignores the unconscious
that foreign discourse within us, that discourse we do not and cannot control
which takes advantage of the ambiguities and multiple meanings of words in
our mother tongue to make us say the opposite of what we consciously meant,
and do the opposite of what we consciously intended to
The obsessive
cannot stand the idea of sharing his mouthpiece with that foreign voice, and
does his best to keep it down or at least out of earshot. He acts as if it did not
exist, all proofs to the contrary notwithstanding. In the classroom, the obsessive is the student who refuses to accept the idea of the unconscious in the first
place, affirming that slips of the tongue have no meaning, that he is aware of
all his thoughts, and that he does not need anyone else to help him become
aware of them. If he comes to change his mind, he does so grudgingly and only
when he sees a prospect of remaining at the level of psychoanalytic theory
The obsessive thus views himself as a whole subject (designated by the letter

S without a bar through it), not as someone who is often unsure of what he is
saying or what he wantsin other words, not as someone subject to lack. He
fiercely refuses to see himself as dependent on the Other, attempting to maintain a fantasmatic relationship with a cause of desire that is dependent on no
onehence his predilection for masturbation, in which no other person is
Involved, The obsessive is complete unto himself. In this sense, we can even
remove the bar on the subject in his fantasy, rewriting it as (S 0 a). Hence also


his predilection, if he is sexually involved with others, to equate them all as

contingent "containers" or "media" of object a: each partner is fungible or
exchangeable for any
He is led to annihilate any actual partner, ensuring that he or she not become an elective cause of sexual excitement. Instead,
the human partner is often transformed in his mind into a mother figurea
provider of maternal love and a proper object of fflial devotion. This is related
to what Freud calls the "debasement in the sphere of love" (SE XI, 179ff.),
wherein the obsessive creates two classes of women: the Madonna and the
whore, the mother figure who can be loved and adored versus the exciting
woman who embodies object a, who cannot be transformed into a maternal
love object.3

The hysteric, on the other hand, emphasizes the partner or Other, making
herself into the object of the Other's desire so as to master it. The Other is the
desiring subject in the hysteric's fantasyusually a partner (lover or spouse)
who desires when and how the hysteric as object sees fit. Indeed, the hysteric
orchestrates things in such a way as to ensure that the Other's desire remains

unsatisfied, leaving the hysteric a permanent role as object. The Other as

desiring subject here is but a puppet: it is the Other whose desire is kept
unsatisfied by the hysteric in order for the hysteric to be able to maintain her
role as desired object, as desire's lack. We shall see that the hysteric is also
characterized by the better-known "desire for an unsatisfied desire" of her
own; Lacan goes so far as to define the hysteric's stance by saying that hysteria
is characterized by an unsatisfied desire (Seminar Vifi, 425).

Unsatisfied Desire (Hysteria) versus Impossible Desire (Obsession)

The crux (of desirel is essentially found in impossibilities.3'
Lacan, Ecrits, 852

In sharp contrast to the hysteric, the obsessive is characterized by an impossible

desire (Seminar VIII, 425). Let me borrow an example here from Colette Soler
that nicely illustrates this.32 An obsessive man meets a woman who .ittratts
him greatly, seduces her, and makes love to her regularly. I le sees in her tin'

object that causes him to desire. But he cannot stop hinv4ell 1mm planning
when they will make love and asking another woman to tall him at that exact
time. He does not just let the phone ring, or stop making love when he answers

the phone. Instead, he answers the phone and talks with the caller while
making love with his lover. His partner is tlitus iniwlk'd or nvutralii.ed, and
he does not have to consider himself dependt'nt on her, or on her desire for



him, in any way?3 Orgasm usually leads, at least momentarily, to a cessation

but since the obsessive continues to
of thoughts, to a brief end to
talk on the phone with this other woman, he never allows himself to disappear
as conscious, thinking subject even for so much as a second.
Few obsessives take the maintenance of thought to this extreme, but the

annulling or negating of the Other (here of a woman as the Other for the
obsessive) is omnipresent in obsessionthough, as we shall see in the discus-

sion of a case of obsession further on, this is often far easier to see in the
obsessive's concrete actions related to a woman than in his conscious beliefs
about his relationship with her. While making love, the male obsessive tends
to fantasize that he is with someone else, thereby negating the importance of
the person he is with.35 Desire is impossible in obsession, because the closer the
obsessive gets to realizing his desire (say, to have sex with someone), the more

the Other begins to take precedence over him, eclipsing him as subject. The
presence of the Other threatens the obsessive with what Lacan calls "aphan-

To avoid that presence, an

isis," his fading or disappearance as
extremely typical obsessive strategy is to fall in love with someone who is
utterly and completely inaccessible or, alternatively, to set standards for potential lovers which are so stringent that no one could possibly measure up to

In the hysteric's fantasy, it is the Other

the hysteric's partner (for example, husband or boyfriend in the case of a heterosexual couple)who desires. It thus seems, at first glance, that the hysteric herself
occupies no position of desire, and is simply an object of a man's desire.
Indeed, certain feminists claim that psychoanalysis, like society at large, assigns women no place as desiring subjectsthat it objectifies them. But Lacan
not prescribing: his first claim is that clinical experience teaches
us that hysterics adopt a certain stance as objects. Whether or not they do
so in large part due to women's social position is a moot point in this context,
since Lacan's aim is neither to condemn nor to approve; he is simply saying
that this is what clinicians see in analysis day in and day out. He is certainly
not claiming that obsession is better than hysteria (if anything, the contrary!).

As I have argued elsewhere, it seems to me that Lacan's point of view regarding women's association with the object is quite profound, involving
the very nature of the symbolic order (signifiers, language) and its material
What must be stressed here is that the hysteric's stance as object is but one
side of the story; for the hysteric also identifies with her male partner, and
ilislres as if she were him. In other words, she desires as if she were in his
as if she were a man. When Lacan says that "man's desire is the


Other's desire," one of the things he means is that we adopt the Other's desire
as our own: we desire as if we were someone else. The hysteric desires as if
she were the Otherher male partner, in this case.
To illustrate this, let's consider the example of the butcher's wifea case
that Freud describes in The Interpretation of Dreams (SE IV, 144-51) and that
Lacan takes as a paradigm in "The Direction of the
patient (whom he perhaps tellingly identifies only as "the butcher's wife")
notices that her husband, while very much enamored of her and seemingly
very satisfied with their relationship in every respect, is nevertheless somewhat interested in a woman who is not at all his type (she is very skinny, and
he is generally attracted only to plumper women like his wife). In the dream
she recounts to Freud (a "counter-wish" dream, which she tells in order to
disprove Freud's theory that every dream fulfills a wish), she identifies with
that is, literally puts herself in the place ofthe skinny woman desired by her
husband. In other words, she detects a previously unsuspected desire in her
husband, and attempts to become its object (via identification). This gives her
a sense of being, of being somethingnamely, the object that the Other is
missing, the object required to complete the Other.

There is, however, a further element: by way of identification with her

husband, she herself desires her female friend. Since "man's desire is the
Other's desire," her desire becomes identical to his: she desires just as he
desires and the same thing he desires. His desire points the way for her own.
The "other woman," often referred to in discussions of hysteria, is a woman
desired by the Other: the complex "love triangles" (see Figure 8.4) which the
hysteric creates or thrives on all revolve around a man. The hysteric's position
as a desiring subject is dependent upon the Other's desire; in other words, it
She desires like a man, here.
involves a detour via a

Lacan characterizes hysteria with the formulation, "L'hysterique fait

l'homme" (Seminar XX, 79), which can be understood in two ways, both of
which are intended: the hysteric makes the man, and the hysteric plays the
part of the man. She makes him what he is, bringing out his lack/desire; at
(a') Woman I

(A) Man

Woman 2 (a)



the same time she usurps his place or plays his role for him.4 In the case of the

butcher's wife, we see that she identifies both with her female friend, as an
enigmatic object of her husband's desire, and with her husband, at the level of
his desire for the female friend. Here we see the pertinence of the hysteric's
question, "Am I a man or a woman?" Identifying with both positionswith
the enigmatic object of desire and with the desirousness that seems enigmatic
in view of her husband's apparent satisfactionhow is the hysteric to situate
her own sexuality?
I do not mean to imply that the obsessive does not wonder about his own
sexuality, for as Freud tells us in his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (SE
XVI, 307) every neurotic has homosexual tendencies, and as he tells us in The
Ego and the Id (SE XIX, ch. 3) children always identify in certain respects with

both the male and female parent (when they are both present, of course). In
other words, "Am I a man or a woman?" is a question for all neurotics. It is,
however, more poignant or present for the hysteric, just as the question "Am
I dead or alive?" is the more pressing or intrusive one for the obsessive.
Let's return for a moment to the case of the butcher's wife. We know from

Freud's discussion that she seeks to keep a certain desire of her own tinsatisfied; indeed, she tells Freud in no uncertain terms that she adores caviar,
yet tells her husband not to buy it for her and "teases" him about it. In other
words, she takes pleasure in simply being able to want it, and in depriving

herself of it. (The pleasure derived from self-deprivation is significant in

hysteria and should never be underestimated, given its important role in
anorexia.)4' She is quite well aware that she has a wishthat is, it is not an
unconscious wishfor an unsatisfied wish. Lacan terms this a (preconscious)
desire for an unsatisfied desire.

At the same time, in order to maintain her position with respect to her
husband's desire, the butcher's wife must keep his desire alive, keep teasing
and titillating him, not allowing him to gamer too much satisfactionfor
satisfaction squelches desire. As Lacan puts it, "Desire is sustained Ein the
person who incarnates the Other for the hysteric] only by the lack of satisfaction [the hysteric] gives him by slipping away as object" (Ecrits, 824/321).42
Consider her maneuver with respect to the caviar: since she tells her husband
that she would love to eat one caviar sandwich a day, she incites in him a
desire to buy her the necessary caviar. But then she tells him that she does not
want him to spend that much money on her ("she grudges the expense"). She
first arouses a desire in him (a want-to-give) and then demands that he not
satisfy it! Indeed, she teases him about it day after day, reminding him of his
want-to-give, of the lack she has wrought in him.
The butcher's wife detects a desire in her otherwise so-very-satisfied husband


for another woman, the wife's female friend, but she is also able to create one if
she feels the need to. The hysteric finds a way, just when it seems her husband is
most satisfied, to provoke a desire in him for something else, or even for someone else. In the case of the butcher's wife, another woman is ready to hand, so to
speak; in other cases, however, the hysteric seems deliberately (though generally it is not consciously intentional) to seek out another woman with whom she
can involve or ensnare her partner in a triangular circuit of

The Neurotic's Stance Regarding the Other's Jouissance

By orchestrating the circuit, the hysteric becomes master of the Other's desire
the cause of his desireyet at the same time she aftempts to avoid being the person
with whom he satisfies his desire. She keeps his desire unsatisfied in order to
avoid being the object of his jouissance. For Lacan, like Freud, the hysteric is
someone who finds the Other's sexual satisfaction distasteful, and attempts to
avoid being the object the Other gets off on. She refuses to be the cause of his
jouissance. She wants to be the cause of his desire, but not of his

does not mean that she refuses to engage in all sexual activity with a man
(although this sometimes happens); rather, when so engaged, she is inclined to
imagine that some other woman is in bed with him, that she is someone else or
somewhere else, or that he is a different man. In her mind, she is not the cause of
his jouissancesomeone else is, because, at least in thought, she is not there.
Imagine now, if you will, the obsessive and the hysteric together in bed: the
obsessive refuses to fade as thinking subject when faced with a woman who incarnates the Other for him, and thinks of another woman or even talks to another woman while making love (he reduces the Other to the object a he sees in
her and wants from
The hysteric refuses to be the cause of her male partner's sexual satisfaction, preferring to keep his desire unsatisfied, and imagines
that some woman other than herself is in the bed. This can serve as a fine illustration of Lacan's oft-repeated claim, "There's no such thing as a sexual relationship." The obsessive relates to his object a, neutralizing the woman present, and
the hysteric keeps her desire alive by mentally being somewhere else during
sex. This is certainly not a "relationship" in the usual sense of the term!4"
The distinction between desire and jouissance is off/ic utnios? ,ul;;orhsuee here.

have seen that the female hysteric often requires a triangle involving a man to
keep her desire alive and that she prefers to exclude sexual satisfaction from
that circuit; she may nevertheless find great sexual
with women
(the Other sex for both men and women, as I ..ican says), in masturbation, in
eating, in drug or alcohol use, or in other activitilM. lI%1 hysteric's inability to
find sexual satisfaction and desire in one and the same relationship may be



structural, not accidental, and the analyst must not in any sense take it as his
or her goal to bring the patient to the point where the two can coincide.47
Lacan often criticized American psychoanaiysts for believing that analysis

could and should direct patients toward "normal heterosexual genital" satisa fusion of the patient's love object and
sexual object; he faulted them for viewing the patient's neurosis as consisting

precisely in the inability to find love and sexual excitement in the same
partner. In contrast, Lacan suggests that love, desire, and jouissance are structurally different levels, and thatsince the analyst directs the treatment for the

analysand's greater eros, not for what he or she believes to be good for the
analysand (Seminar Vifi, 18)the problem is not the analysand's inabffity to
find love, desire, and sexual excitement all in the same place, but rather the
fact that the analysand gives up the pursuit of desire and sexual excitement,
say, for the sake of an ideal such as "the perfect love."
Neurotics are often so concerned with what those around them consider
"normal" that the obsessive, for example, may seek to put out of mind any and
all fantasies that do not involve his wife, and then wonder why he feels that
his libido has shriveled up and died; and the hysteric may sacrifice the satisfaction she experienced on certain occasions with women because it does not

fit in with her notion of what a love relationship with a man should be, and
then wonder why her life seems so empty and restricted. The analyst must not
adopt any pre-established notion of what is good or bad for the analysand, but
simply encourage the dialectization of the analysand's desire and foster the
analysand's separation from the Other's desire.
Returning to the hysteric's stance regarding jouissance (the fact that the
hysteric refuses to be the cause of the Other's jouissance), let us note that the
same is true of the obsessive. His sexuality is essentially masturbatory, the
Other being annihilated; his strategy, like the hysteric's, can be characterized
as a sort of "No jouissance for the Other!" Whereas the pervert, according to
Lacan, devotes himself (at least in fantasy) to being the object the Other gets
off on, the neurotic's motto is "The Other will never get off on me!"49 Neurosis
can thus be understood, in part, as a strategy regarding jouissanceabove all,
the Other's jouissance.5 Both the hysteric and the obsessive refuse to be the
cause of the Other's jouissance.
Ironically, Lacan nevertheless suggests that the neurotic's fundamental fan-

tasy "takes on the transcendental function of ensuring the Other's jouis-

sance."5' The subject's position may well be one of refusal, but the
Fundamental fantasy nonetheless forms in response to the Other, "who passes
this chain (the fundamental fantasy can be qualified as a chain or linki on to
In the I .aw"that is, in response to the symbolic father or superego. We


desire in accordance with the law: prohibition is what eroticizes and leads to
the construction of the fantasy. Yet there is a threshold of sorts within fantasy
itself, the point beyond which it turns to horror; this threshold is familiar to
most of us from dreams in which we seem to be pursuing precisely what is
most pleasurable, when suddenly what we most ardently desire turns out to
be something else altogether, something absolutely horrible. The purity of
desire veers in the direction of a kind of obscene jouissance.

I cannot go into the complex dialectic at work here, but it is related to

Lacan's thesis (discussed in "Kant with Sade," for example) that the severity
of the superegowhile often reduced to the internalized voice of conscience
is actually a vehicle for jouissance: the obsessive's superego voices may command him to do certain things that are strangely exciting for him simply to
think about. Indeed, Lacan formulates the essential imperative issued by the
superego as "Jouis!"a command directing the subject to enjoy, to obtain
satisfaction. In the case of the Rat Man, for example, virtually every command
the Rat Man tells Freud he hears consists of an order to do precisely what, at
some level, he wants to do: be vindictive, aggressive, and so on. The superego

commands us to satisfy our drives, oddlyand no doubt to some extent

counterintuitively<ommanding us to satisfy that sadistic Other within us,
the superego. Obviously, we simultaneously satisfy "ourselves" in some
sense, though certainly it is not at the level of the ego or self that we find it
satisfying. When we obey such superego commands, it is as if we were
obtaining jouissancefor the Other, not for "ourselves."52
In a sense, the obsessive who lives for "Posterity" and not for today transfers
all jouissance to the Otherthat is (if he is a writer), to the whole set of future

readers who will appreciate his writings and make him live on long after he
is dead. The obsessive lives posthumously, sacrificing everything (all satisfaction in the here and now) for the sake of his namehaving his name live on.
The namebeing the Name-of-the-Father, the name passed down from the
fatheris in some sense the Other who passes on the law and whose jouis-

sance is ensured by the obsessive's accumulation of publications, titles,

money, property, awards, and so on. This is but one illustration of how the
neurotic, while positioning him- or herself in such a way as to avoid being the
cause of the Other's jouissance, unwittingly sacrifices jouissance to the Other

nevertheless. Whenever we force ourselves to conform to our ideals at the

expense of our own satisfaction, we assure the Other's jouissanee. In the case
of hysteria provided below, we shall see one of the lorins this may take.
A thousand details could be added to fill out thss brief outline: virtually all
of psychoanalysis' major conceptstransference, compulsion, symptom forbe usefully examined in terms of the
mation, the drives, and so



hysteria-obsession divide. Since this is an introduction, and a clinical introduction in particular, I will discuss hysteria and obsession here only in terms of
one of those major concepts: transference.

Obsession and Hysteria in Analysis

The obsessive attempts to neutralize the Other. The more obsessive he is, the
less likely he is to go into analysis. For to go into analysis is to enlist the help
of another person, someone generally considered to have specialized knowledgein short, a symbolic Other. The obsessive is the one who, after attending
weeks of classes on Freudian theory and practice, continues to say, "1 still

think people should be able to work out their problems on their own." He
may, intellectually, come to accept the existence of the unconscious, but not
the notion that it is inaccessible without someone else's help. He realizes he
has problems, but engages only in "self-analysis," keeping a journal, writing
down his dreams, and so on.
In more everyday situations, the obsessive refuses to be helped by other
people: "1 can do it myself," says Tim ("the Tool Man") Taylor on Tool Time,
even though he always needs helpindeed, professional help. "Why would I
call a specialist when I can install this heating unit myself?" asks the main
character on Coach as the six-hundred-pound unit comes crashing through the
ceiling into his living room from the attic. The perfect obsessive is the Ayn
Randian "self-made man" who believes he doesn't owe anyone anything and
that he made his fame and fortune in a completely ahistorical context, independent of any particular economic system, government, industry, or persons.
More typically, the obsessive lives out his life in rebellion against one or all of
his parents' wishes, but denies any relation whatsoever between what he does
and what his parents wanted him to do or be. His whole life may be a protest
against the Other's ideals, but he is likely to cast what he does in autonomous
terms: "I do this because I believe in x, y, and z," not "My parents tried to force
me to do p and that's why I'm doing q."
The obsessive's fiercely expressed independence from the Other makes him
an unlikely subject for analysis. Generally speaking, it is only when something
very specific (in analytic terms) happens that he truly goes into analysis. Many
obsessives come for a few sessions, asking for help of a minor sort, or because
their significant others have pushed them into therapy, but they do not stay.
Those who do stay have usually had an unexpected encounter with the Other's
desire, an encounter with the lack in the Other that generates anxiety (perhaps
br years thereafter) and rocks the obsessive's world. It may be the Rat Man's
with the "Cruel Captain" (SE X, 166169), who doesn't mince words


about his desire to inflict punishment on others; or it may be the obsessive's

sudden realization that one of his parents has become involved in a passionate
love affair shortly after the death of the other parent. The obsessive is shaken
up by such manifestations of the Other's desire, and can no longer successfully
nullify or neutralize the Other and his dependence on the Other.
Such an encounter is usually at the origin of an obsessive's request to begin
an analysis, and it results in what seems to be a certain openness or attentiveness to the Other. In other words, such an encounter makes the obsessive a bit
more like the hysteric, the hysteric always being attentive to the Other's wants.
The obsessive has become "hystericized," to use Lacan's termhas opened up
to the Other.
The problem is that "hysterization" is fragile and short-lived: the obsessive
often reverts quite quickly to shutting out the Other and denying any kind of
dependence. If analysis is to have any effect on the obsessive, the analyst must
foster hysterization; cast in the role of Other by the analysand, the analyst
must continually bring to bear his or her desire (regarding all things analytic,
as enumerated in Chapters 15) in order to thwart the otherwise inevitable
"obsessionalization" or shutting off of the obsessive.53
Thus, the first and ongoing "maneuver" required on the analyst's part is to

ensure that the obsessive is regularly confronted with the analyst's desire.
Analysts who work with obsessives are quite familiar with the obsessive's
tendency to talk on and on, to associate and interpret all by himself, paying no
heed to the analyst's punctuations or interpretations. Indeed, the analyst often
has to make a considerable effort to stop the obsessive from bulldozing right
over his or her intervention: the obsessive gives the analyst the impression that

he or she is intruding, getting in the way of what he wanted to say. The

obsessive would prefer that the analyst remain silent, or play dead if not
actually be dead. Every sound the analyst makesmoving in his or her chair,
even breathingis too much, reminding the obsessive of the analyst's presence that he would so much rather forget.
Many analysts respond by playing dead, remaining silent and trying not to
intrude into the chain of the patient's endless associations, but it is only by
intruding and reminding the obsessive of the Other's presence and tln
of the Other's desire that hysterization is maintained, The analyst niust not
conform to the obsessive's fantasy in which the Other is glossed over or annulled, but must try to foil the obsessive's attempts to repeal it with the analyst.

Given this portrait of the obsessive, one might hi Inclined to think that the
point of view. She is,
hysteric must be the ideal analysand from 11w



after all, extremely attentive to the Other's desire, since she derives her being
from it (a 'C> jo. But in addition to expecting being from the Other, she also
expects knowledge: she looks to the Other to fill her lack of being (or want-tobe) and lack of knowledge (or want-to-know). This is what makes it easy for

her to request the analyst's helpshe recognizes her dependence on the

Otherbut makes it difficult for her to work once she is in analysis. Just as she
seeks out and provokes, if need be, lack/desire in her partner, seeking to know
what she is as an object of desire, so too she seeks knowledge about herself

"What do I have, doctor? What is the matter with me?"and expects to

receive that from the analyst as well.
Should the analyst comply, and many do, attempting to supply the hysteric
with knowledge about herself, this knowledge (which is, in any case, likely to
miss the mark in the early stages of analysis) is only momentarily gratifying
to the analysand. It is almost immediately questioned, examined, scrutinized,
and evaluated by the hysteric seeking the lack in the analyst's knowledge, the
lacuna or gap; for this gives her the role of the exception, living proof that she
can supplement or complement the analyst's knowledge. Analysts often find
hysterics very challenging to work with, having the sense that they are never

far enough ahead of the hysteric's understanding of the situation, that they
never have enough new knowledge with which to appease the hysteric's
insatiable appetite. Analysts who play the game of feeding knowledge to the
analysand sooner or later learn that it is the hysteric who always wins that
game: she becomes the master of the analyst's knowledge, making the analyst
produce that knowledge as fast as he or she can. Should the analyst succeed,
through interventions and interpretations, in getting the hysteric to give up
one symptom or in "resolving" one symptom, the hysteric is likely to report
In her position as the one who points out
new symptoms at the next
or demonstrates the lack in the Other's knowledge, she becomes a living
exception or enigma, always one step ahead of any known theory or technique.

The hysteric makes herself the master of the analyst's knowledge and,
indeed, of his or her desire as well, laying out the terms of the therapy and
telling the analyst what he or she must want from the analysand. Thus, in
work with hysterics, the maneuver required of the analyst is to turn the tables.
Whereas the hysteric asks, "Tell me about myself, doctor. What is the matter
with me?" the analyst has to direct the question at her: "What do you want?"
This transition is formulated by Lacan as the shift from "the hysteric's
discourse" to "analytic discourse." Here, I will merely reproduce Lacan's
br those discourses and mention a few points, since I have discussed

length elsewhere.55


Hysteric's course:


Analytic discourse:


The hysteric's discourse is the discourse spontaneously adopted by the hysteric (as barred subject,
the hysteric addresses (the addressing being designated by the arrow,
a master (S1), in this case the analyst, and tries to get
In analytic discourse, the hysteric or
him or her to produce knowledge
hystericized analysand
is put in the position of the worker (the upper
right-hand position is the position of production or work), and it is the analyst's enigmatic desire (a) which is the agent that sets the discourse in motion
(the upper left-hand position is the position of agency).
Thus, whereas the obsessive must be hystericized at the outset and throughout the course of his analysis, the hysteric must be made to change discourses
and stop expecting or waiting to receive knowledge from the
different neuroses thus require different stances on the part of the analyst.
When the analyst mistakes a hysteric for an obsessive, he or she may grant a
request (never a good idea, in any case)to use the analyst's bathroom, have
a drink of water, change a session time, stand instead of sit, delay payment for

a week, or whateveronly to find that the analysand's requests increase

tenfold, one demand leading to a multitude of demands. Should the analyst
then stop granting requests altogether, or draw the line somewhere in the
attempt to put a stop to past indulgences, he or she is likely to be accused of
being inconsistent. "Why can't I do x now, when you let me do it before?" "Did
you make a mistake when you let me do it the first time?"

This kind of testing behavior, well known to analysts, is related to the

hysteric's attempt to sound the analyst's desire and knowledge. The hysteric
tries to discern the Other's desire in order to be able to position herself in such
a way as to become its lack or cause. Is she going to be able to master the
analyst's desire, to incite and then frustrate it? How far does she have to push
the analyst before he or she will express his or her desire? She needs such
expressions in order to situate herself, and if they are not forthcoming, she
provokes themperhaps subtly, perhaps not so subtly.
When an analyst mistakes a hysteric for an obsessive, he or she is also likely

to direct the analysand to the couch too soon. In America, analysts and psychiatrists have a tendency to put everyone on the couch right from the outset,
eliminating any distinction whatsoever between the preliminary meetings and
"analysis proper," between the vague malaise with which patients often come
to analysis and a genuine wondering about the why and wherefore of certain
actions, symptoms, and pleasures. Assuming the analyst has grasped the



distinction between the preliminary sessions and the later stage at which the

"person" of the analyst (the analyst as an individual) progressively fades into

the background, he or she must then consider that face-to-face sessions are of
greater importance to the hysteric than to the obsessive. Attuned as she is to
the Other's desire as embodied in a specific person, the hysteric cannot easily

bear to speak to a blank wall (or even a wall with paintings or diplomas),
needing to feel the Other's gaze upon her, needing to feel supported in some
way. She finds it extremely difficult to explore the arcana of her circuits of
desire without knowing whom she is talking to and the effect her words are
The obsessive, on the contrary, couldn't care less. Since he would just as
soon be alone in the room, preferring that no one embody the Other for him,
he is likely to find the couch a more convenient arrangement than face-to-face
meetingsindeed, too convenient an arrangement at the outset, if we consider
the importance of keeping him hystericized. The real presence of the analyst
in the room must be emphasized from the beginning, if the obsessive is to be
coaxed out of his solipsism. Once a certain openness to the Other's desire is

ensured, he can be directed to the couch so that that Other becomes blank
enough to support any and all projections.
I am not suggesting that every single hysteric openly tests her analyst and
that every obsessive blatantly shuts his analyst out. These are general tendencies based on differences in psychical structure, and may vary in their expres-

stun to a ver significant degree. They are, however, tendencies the analyst
should always keep in mind.
II should be noted that, although! have been referring to the obsessive as a he
am! the hysteric as a she, there are female obsessives and male hysterics. They
often confound modern psychiatry, which tends to place them in the twentiethccli tu ry catch-all category "borderline." (As I mentioned in Chapter 6, Lacan rejects this category outright as a simple throwing up of one's hands and saying,
"I don't know what I'm looking at.") From my own experience, I would suggest
that a certain number of male homosexuals and heterosexuals can be viewed as
hysterics, and Freud describes a number of women he seems to consider obsessive (Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, ch. 17). The complications that can
arise in this kind of crossing over of typical categories are further compounded

by Lacan's distinction between masculine structure and feminine structure,

which, according to him, correspond neither to biology nor directly to obsession
and hysteria, though there is a great deal of overlap (Seminar XX).

But rather than introduce more theory? I will now provide some in-depth
tllu'4tratlon of the mass of theoretical work that has been outlined in this
I will present two of my own cases, one of obsession and another of


hysteria, supplying first some of the general case material and then a detailed

commentary. Neither case is in and of itself exemplary, but in both it was

particularly easy to protect the identity of the patients.

A Case of Obsession
For about a year I saw a man in analytic therapy, at a frequency of two sessions
a week at the outset, then three, and then four sessions a week by the end. The
patient was from another country, and his therapywhich never, in my view,

went beyond the stage of preliminary meetingscame to a premature end

when he returned to his homeland. The material that came out in the course
of this relatively short treatment was ample, but not so copious as to preclude
giving the reader a reasonable idea of the clinical picture in a few pages.
Names and certain biographical details have been changed to protect the
identity of the patient.
The patient, whom I will call Robert, was thirty years old and worked as a
troubleshooter in the area of high-tech equipment. He had been thinking of
going into therapy for some time, and finally decided to do so at a moment of
crisis that involved a number of factors, the most salient of which was that the
company he had set up with a friend was founderingdue, he felt, to his own
inadequacies and inertia. He had resigned as codirector the very day he first
came to see me, had accepted the idea that he would henceforth have to work
as his friend's subordinate, and was, in Robert's own words, "finally getting
what [he] deserved." According to him, he had coasted through life without

ever committing himself to anything and without ever really working at

anything; he was a "fake," a "pretender" who had been found out, someone
who had had a "free ride" and who was now in over his head. He had always
managed "to pull the wool over people's eyes," but now he was being "called
to account" by his friend.

Though initially shaken by this experience, two weeks later Robert described himself as "gleeful" about finally being held liable for his actions: "1
won't get away with it for the first time," he crowed. "If my salary is cut off,
I'll be forced to start from scratch, and everything will be truer. It'll be due to
my own effort and not to luck." Robert hoped that no one would be
pick up the piecesthat is, to help him out of his jam and he would linally
be obliged to do something for himself. His parents would try to interfere, he
worried, but he did not want them "to bail Ihitul out."
late did not fulfill
his fantasy (no one cut off his salary and forced huii to start anew), Robert
considered other ways of tempting fate. Afraid to ask his boss for time off from
work, for example, Robert waited until two
before his scheduled (and



prepaid) trip to another continent to ask for vacation time, hoping that the
request would lead to a confrontation and to his getting fired.
He said that his inability to work dated back a long time. "AS soon as
anything is even so much as cast in terms of involving effort, it's already too
late." To try was to expose himself to the possibilityindeed, the virtual
certaintyof failure. If someone else "spoon-fed" him what he needed to
know, everything was fine; if not, he merely tried to fake his way through.
What he already knew about his business was "trivial and boring"; what he
didn't yet know was "impossible": "I'll never know it, I'll never figure it out."
Initially, he demanded that I help him stop procrastinating and get to work;
he wanted me to give him small projects to work on, projects which, after a
month of sessions, he described as "doing the dishes, cleaning up, tidying my
desk," and so on. He wanted me to tell him to do such things so that he would

have to be accountable to someone and report back on his achievements.

Naturally, I did not provide any such assignments, requesting instead that he
tell me what was on his mind and recount his dreams, fantasies, and daydreams. Two months later Robert told me that he would feel like an "automa-

ton" if he simply had lists of things he was supposed to do and followed

through on themhe wouldn't have his "freedom."
Robert suggested that his inability to take action was also a longstanding
problem. When in love with a girl during his school years, he could not bring
himself to tell her; indeed, he still often waited for women to initiate conversation and intimate contact with him. He could never be sure a woman was
"the right woman," and in an association to a dreama dream in which he
was with a prostitute and two other prostitutes were looking on and perhaps

joining inhe said it seemed "as if one weren't enough." There was an
"endless number of possibilities" (he said this about women and about life in
general) and he couldn't choose among them, for he felt that if he did he would
be missing something. "I can't devote myself to one activity without thinking
about others I could be doing." He also expressed the "need to consider all the
ramifications before acting," which is patently impossible and led to inertia on

his part. It was "very displeasing" to him to consider that he had limits. He
wanted to think "I can have any girl I
His love life at the time consisted of short-lived relationships with women
who resided in different countries and who visited him or whom he visited
for a week now and then. Often there was no one in his life, but just as often
there were two or three occasional lovers concurrently. Though this was not
mentioned during the first few sessions, it turned out that, just prior to beginIlIng tlwrapy, Robert had begun to have repeated trouble achieving an erec1km, 4Ind that this was an almost constant torment to him in his most recent


relationship with a woman I will refer to as Sandra. Sandra was his sister's
best friend, and Robert considered her the kind of woman he would like to
settle down with. As it turned out, the most "suitable partners" were the ones
with whom he was most often impotent, whereas when he went out with a
woman who was "virtually punk," he had no such difficulty.
After spending a week with Sandra, Robert said that she was "no longer
intact"; he had "violated" her; she was missing something; she no longer had
what she had had before. She had seemed more whole, more perfect before he
had gotten involved with her. It seemed as if he had taken something from
her. Sandra, like his former long-term girlfriend from college, had become "too

easy"; there was no longer any need for him to be seductive, and he lost
interest in sex. When he did engage in it, he always took a shower beforehand
and asked his partner to do the same.
In doubt about whom to love (about who was "the right woman"), Robert

often fell for and fantasized about "another man's woman." Such women,
though involved with his best friends, were considered sacrosanct and were
idealized by Robert. Since they were inaccessible, he was free to daydream
about them without ever having to worry about "violating" them in deed; in
his dreams, however, they succumbed to the same fate as Sandra.
He recounted a dream in which he was walking down the street and saw a
man pulling a drunk girl along in the opposite direction. Her "shirt was loose
and a breast was exposed"; he grabbed it, and fondled it a few moments. In
his associations to the dream, he said that he would normally resist that urge,
but as she was "someone else's girl" she seemed more exciting, and as she was

in a state of drunken passivity her breast seemed "available." He disliked it

intensely if a woman was active or assertive, and sought to "possess" a

woman, to overpower and immobilize her. Part of his typical sexual activity

was to "pin a girl down, and squeeze her so tightly she can't move." He
regretted that he often needed her collusion: he needed her to play along, since
he didn't have the physical strength to immobilize her unassisted. "Complete
control" was what he wanted.
This concern for control always arose with women he loved and

With the "virtually punk" woman, on the other hand, he felt no such need.
Though he had been sure at the outset that the relationship with her wouki
e,kh other
not last, due to "her lower-class background," they continued to
for two years and he experienced no notable control or lmteny
tine day, alter they
her; their relationship was, in his mind, "mostly
had split up, he ran into her and started trying to seduce her. Hut when she
eventually began to push him away, he went "out ot control"; he told me he
had been tempted to rape her, though he dkl not do so.



In another dream, he was "stoning a figure cloaked in black and huddled

over"; it seemed to be a woman. And indeed, the first woman who came to his
mind was an idealized woman who lived with one of his male friends. He was
"horrified" by the violence of the act of stoning depicted in the dream, and was

"amazed" that he could have been involved in it, that he could have gone
along with the others who were stoning her. The look on his face as he talked
about it nevertheless suggested that there was something strangely satisfying
about it to him.

Despite all of his talk about relationships with women, his mother was
rarely mentioned; instead, he always alluded to his sister as the model for all
his "suitable partners." He described his relationship with his sister as "almost
incestuous," but that seemed to be due to the frequency with which he made
love to her in his dreams. His mother was characterized as "underhanded."
When she disapproved of something he did or wanted to do, nothing could
be discussed; she simply made "disapproving gestures and faces"there was
nothing he could argue with, nothing they could "banter back and forth." She
wanted "total control," in his view, and the only way he could "rebuke" her
was to disobeythat is, to do what he had wanted to do in the first place.
His father, a strict Catholic with high moral and educational ideals, was,
according to Robert, very disapproving of him, but never hit him or even "got
really angry" at him. Robert said that his father "kept it all inside" and didn't
even understand anger because he couldn't feel it or express it. His parents
m.Iintained "a conspiracy of silence," admonishing him nonverbally.
Robert kIt that in his inability to force himself to do thingsto study, work,


so onhe was "putting up resistance to some sort of internal

a "point of honor not to give in." This internal
m.miksted itself in Robert's relationship with me: he was always


to hear a critical tone in my voice when none was (at least consciously)

intended on my part, and confessed that he was trying at some level to

provoke me, to get me to reprimand him. He felt that he had sometimes
intentionally overslept to arrive late at sessions, which also made it difficult
for him to stop off at the bank and pick up money with which to pay me. Very
often he found himself leaving the house late and then rushing like mad to my
office only to arrive late, engaging in a form of "brinkmanship," as he called
it. He said he realized he was courting punishment in this way, but said that
he derived pleasure from it.
Robert solicited criticism from many sources, including colleagues at work
women friends, and his usual strategy was to provoke it, quickly admit
hI being In the wrong to "disarm" the person and "escape the brunt of Ihis or
hi. I 14nt up Inger," and then adopt a confessional stance allowing him to


"cleanse [himselfi of [his] sins." A great many military metaphors were employed in his description of this strategy; for example, he said that the "battle
of will against will" brought out the "fighter spirit" in him. Provoking criticism in this way was thus "threatening but exciting."
Robert was sure I must resent him because he had asked me to reduce his
fee at a certain point; he felt guilty, as if he had "unduly challenged [my]
authority," opposing his desire to mine. I reminded him that we had agreed
to a lower fee because he was now coming to see me four times a week instead

of three, but he nevertheless expressed a nagging regret that if only he'd

"accepted the original price, things would have proceeded more analytically,
more professionally." He had the sense that he was "failing his analysis"for
he still couldn't manage to force himself to workand that it was his fault. If
our sessions were of variable length, it must be because he was paying me less

than he was supposed to. I reiterated that I ended sessions on particularly

important points, and that the length of a session had nothing to do with how
much he paid me.
This led to quite another level of reproaches toward me: I was rejecting his
"feminine side," and he was sure that if he cried during a session with me, I
would cut it short and send him "packing." He needed "to cry it all out" and
felt he would never be able to do that with me. With certain women he could
show his weaknesses and cry, but felt that he had "to keep up a front for [me],"

had to act "like a responsible thirty-year-old man." I did not accept or reject
the notion that I disapproved of his "feminine side," nor did I immediately
suggest that he was the one who didn't truly accept it in himself. Instead I
asked, "Men don't approve of your feminine side?" He responded by saying
that his father disapproved of all weakness, all imperfection. He went on to
say that one of his former lovers had told him she believed he had a "male
side" somewhere, but didn't show it much.
As a boy, he had viewed his father as a powerful figure; whenever someone
mentioned that his father was at work, he would imagine "a Canadian lumberjack rolling logs on a river, jumping from one to another, and keeping them

away from the banks." As an adult, however, he described his father as

"incompetent, impotent, and ineffective," and claimed to be like him in many
respects. Had his father been more authoritarian with him, Robert wouldn't,
he felt, be so undisciplined. Had his father given him "more direction" and
stated more openly what he believed, Robert could have rebelled in a more
when one
definitive manner. He had been pained, hut also secretly
day his college lover had gotten into an argument with his father, for she had
made his father appear "vulnerable, exposed, and openly stupid."
In the early months of the treatment, Robert
me as "like a rock"



for him. He associated me with a figure in a dream: "a priest with his legs

spread apart, standing firmly on the ground, wearing a brown habit, the wind
blowing through his cassock; he is unflinching, leaning into the wind." He

thus viewed me as an ideal, phallicly powerful figure, a rigid, unbending

authority, yet at the same time as someone to whom he could confess his sins
and from whom he could expect absolution. As the year went on, his view of
me changed, and I became someone he could provoke and deliberately try to
anger without jeopardizing his analysis. As the time of his return to his own
country drew near, I encouraged him to continue therapy once he was home,
and have reason to believe that he did so.

This short and obviously incomplete case discussion illustrates many general
features of neurosis, as well as many particular features of obsession. Robert
quite clearly came to therapy in a crisis with at least two components:
First, he had had a confrontation with someone who, though initially a friend,
had become an "authority figure" for him: his business partner. As Robert remarked, "It [was] his approval which [was] in question." Through his inertia,
Robert had provoked an expression of this Other's desire, and now this Other
wanted him to step down, make amends, and put his nose to the grindstone.
While upsetting for Robert, the experience was simultaneously titillating; he became positively "gleeful" at the thought that he would be forced to give up
something, lose something: his salary. In Robert's mind, the Other wanted him
to make the necessary sacrifice, wanted to castrate him symbolically.'
Second, he had had an encounter with a "suitable woman" (his sister's best
friend, Sandra, an idealized feminine Other for him) who openly expressed
her desire to have a relationship with him and her eagerness to have sex with
him; this led to impotence on his part, clearly constituting a kind of "satisfaction crisis."
One of his primary internal conflicts revolved around a highly developed
set of ideals and moral principles regarding what he should do and bethat
is, a punitive superego or ego-idealwhich he wanted to live up to, yet could
not act on.61 Many obsessives strive for "the one truth," "the one true path,"
"the right woman," and so on, and their ideals are so lofty as to be unrealizable, no humanly possible effort seeming grand enough to constitute a genuine step in the direction of the ideal; hence, they do nothing. Robert's ideals

seemed less grandiose than those expressed by certain obsessives, but the
same characteristic inertia resulted from his rebellious stance toward them. He
had .111 too clearly internalized his parents' ideals and moral values (in other

word4, the symbolic Other had plainly been instated), but had never made


them his own. Like the parents he could never bring himself to openly rebel
against, he danced around their ideals, paying them lip service yet at the same
time resisting them.
A good deal of Robert's energy was tied up in that "dance," and this is what
made the provocation of criticism from others so "threatening but exciting" to
hint. The obsessive is happy to be able to externalize the exhorting and criticizing voices in his own head, if only for a moment; the process gives him an
external enemy to focus on and brings him back to life, so to speak, brings out

his "fighting spirit" in the "will against wifi" Robert referred to. For the
obsessive's internal conflict is so all-engrossing that it leaves little vitality for
other activitieswhich is why the obsessive feels dead so much of the time.
In Robert's case, it was only when an external authority figure could be found,
whether business associate or analyst, that some verve appeared.
Robert's provocations of people he viewed as authority figures should not be
confused with the attempt to make the Other exist that is characteristic of perversion (as we shall see in the next chapter). The law exists only too evidently in

obsession, weighing the subject down and oppressing him or her. Robert had
come into being as a stance with respect to the law, which is precisely how Lacan
defines the subject in his early work.62 Robert's provocations were designed to
give him some concrete misdeed to which he could attach his ever-present guilt,

guilt that no doubt went back to an Oedipal conflict leading to hatred of his
father (and doubtless of his mother as well). The therapy did not go far enough
to verify the wellsprings of his guilt, but it was clear that by provoking punishment, he could feel guilty for specific "crimes" carried out more or less intentionally, confess his sins, and thereby assuage his guilt, albeit temporarily.

Guilt was the dominant affect in Robert's life at the time; it was usually
articulated in terms of his failure to do what he was supposed to do at work,
and his more everyday failure to "make his bed," "tidy up his room," and so
Though he complained that his parents had not given him specific rules
and principles, something he could argue with them about, resorting instead
to criticizing him with gestures and facial expressions, certain injunctions had
obviously been formulated. Indeed, one can easily see a certain hint of anality
in the things Robert felt he was supposed to do, a hint that is confirmed by his
characterization of his obstacle in life: "a big black boulder blix king a narrow
path, the black shining a bit here and there; the boulder is rotindtsh and thus
'rollable'it could fall into a nearby stream and be washed downstream."
Spoken after almost a year of analysis, this description ,IlsI) resonated with the
I was, by
earlier view he had expressed of me as being "like a risk";
that point in time, associated with his obstacle in Ide, the uncomfortable cause
of his need for some kind of evacuationM



As regards Robert's relations with the opposite sex, it was quite obvious that
he was caught up "in the perpetual whirlwind of destroying the other" (Semi-

nar VIII, 241), in the constant negation, neutralization, or annihilation of

Woman as Other. He idealized certain women in his conscious thoughts, only
to violate them in his dreams and reduce them to passive, lifeless, desireless
objects, like the breast of the drunk girl being pulled down the street in his
dream. Women (in his conscious thoughts) were either pure, sacrosanct, and
Madonna-likeon the model of his sister (whose name contained the same
first syllable as an important signifier in his religious background)or "sluts
This is the classic obsessive
and the way Robert knew

that a woman was worthy of idealization followed a common obsessive

schema: she had to be anOther man's woman. His own judgment regarding
women was "clouded by doubt"; hence, he had to look to other men to know
which woman to love. Just as his mother had probably been idealized early
on, insofar as she was the Other's (his father's) wife and thus inaccessible,
Robert idealized women in his entourage who were involved with men he
considered to be strong and hardworking. One woman he talked about incessantly was living with a writer he was friendly with who knew how to say no
when Robert tried to distract him from his writing. Such a man was a kind of
father figure who could set limits.
This kind of triangle is a bit different from the hysteric's triangle. As is true
of the hysteric, the obsessive's desire is also the Other's desire, but here the
Other is of the same sex: Robert desired the same thing as that "manly man,"
tlw latter's desire pointing the way for his own. We might even go so far as to
say that he desired "as if he were the Other man," a formulation that finds
4Iarj4nsM confirmation in a sexual fantasy that regularly accompanied Robert's
tnasttirliitory activity: "1, or someone like me, is penetrating a woman with an
pole or a dildo. I am often looking on while this happens. Sometimes
it's even a mechanical device that's doing it"
added). The voyeuristic note in the fantasy contrasted markedly with
Robert's concrete sexual
activity, and suggested not a different diagnosis but simply the presence of
"perverse traits"in other words, traces of perversion that are almost invariably found in neurotics' fantasies.
Robert's fantasy suggests at least a twofold positioning of the subject in
relation to the Other's woman: Robert is both executor (the penetrator, who,
while sexually indeterminate here, should probably be understood as a father
figure, since the women in these fantasies were usually the partners of such
authority figures) and onlooker or witness. As executor or, indeed, execuIlsillir, he penetrates a woman who seems to be utterly passive and submissive
(sI.'.iilP) with a detachable, artificial erection, a phallic object that can never go


limp. He is preserved thereby from both impotence and castration, and never
loses himself as subject present to himself: he remains "in control." (As we
shall see in a moment, when he lets go, it is as a woman.)
We may well get the sense here too that Robert established a relationship to
the father figure via woman, suggesting an alternatively submissive and rebel-

lious homoerotic tension of sorts. Fantasizing, as he did, about his male

friends' women, he was, as it were, ripping off a certain jouissance right under
those men's noses. The titillation of the masturbatory activity thus derived in
part from his provocative stance with respect to the father figure.
There is, no doubt, yet another position Robert adopted in this fantasy: that

of the woman being penetrated by one man and watched by another. This
interpretation is lent credence by Robert's statement that, in the fantasy,
"when the woman comes, I generally do too." In this respect, Robert fait la
femme: he plays the part of a woman, submitting to penetration and having no
apparent control over the remote-controlled situation. Jouissance
is independent of her will, and of his as well. It is only insofar as he plays the
part of the woman here that he can relinquish control and reach orgasm.

This seems to add a hysterical note to the fantasy, and reminds us of the
extent to which fantasies are like dreams: they are extremely complicated
and overdetermined, and their analysis has no ascertainable endpoint. A
feminized relation to a man is, nevertheless, a very common feature of obsession; it is quite visible, for example, in the Rat Man, whose sexuality was
inextricably bound up with his relationship to his father. Such feminized
relations seem to stem from a father-son relationship which can never be
entirely free of imaginary elements that libidinize it. In other words, we
may understand them as related to the father as punitivethat is, to the
"obscene jouissance" that seems to accompany his enunciation of the law
(see Chapter 9). Insofar as his criticism is both painful and innervating, the
relationship to him (even once internalized in the form of the superego) is

A great deal more could obviously be said about Robert's masturbatory

fantasies,67 but let us now turn to his actual relationships with women. We see

that Robert made certain women into mother figures by idealixing them,
rendering sexual satisfaction with them impossible (the relationships ssmikvtl

too much of incest). This did not always stop him from ardently destring them;

indeed, it often made it possible for him to go on desiring them, whereas

otherwise his desire would disappear due to sexual tistattion (what Ereud
refers to as the "devaluation" of a partner after the sixtml att). It was only with
the "virtually punk" woman that he was able to l)tltbt11 his sexual drives,

leaving behind, to some extent, desire with all

highialutin ideals and



values. (The way in which desire, replete with such ideals, inhibits the satis-

faction of the drives will be taken up in detail in Chapter 10.)

Since Robert virtually never talked about his mother (except to say that she
was "underhanded" and wanted "total control"like him, as we have seen),

little can be said regarding the origin of his simultaneous desire for and
aggression against women. We might speculate that he was extremely attached to her as a young child, and could not bear the greater distance she
maintained between them after the birth of his younger sister. Her demands

that he do certain things and not others, and that he act toward her in a
respectful manner, might have been acceptable to him when he had her more

exclusive attention, but perhaps grew unjustifiable and unbearable to him

when he received far less. Indeed, he may well have felt that his mother
preferred his younger sister to him, and forced him to care for her "as a loving
older brother should." None of this, however, was in any way corroborated
by Robert's still incomplete account of the major turning points in his life.
The particular challenge! faced in the treatment was that of bringing Robert
to the point of formulating a question of his ownthat is, of problematizing

his own motives for his actionsand this was never fully achieved. His
demands for me to "enlighten" him and tell him what he should do returned
periodically, and even at the end of our work together he regretted that he had
not learned to "push himself" as he had hoped at the outset. I never granted
his demand for concrete assignments, nor did I take at face value his talk about
"termination" after six weeks of therapy; I thereby refused him what he had
explicitly been asking for, with the aim not of frustrating him but of opening

up the space of desire. When confronted with direct demands,! skirted the
issue by asking him to tell me more about a particular dream element he
hadn't yet elucidated or a fantasy to which he had not yet associated, letting
him know that I had been listening to him attentively and taking his words
seriously. Never suggesting that his demands were "inappropriate" or "invalid," I instead offered him something else: my ear, presence, and speech, the
latter in the form of punctuations and expressions of my desire that he continue to come to see me.

When he would attribute harsh views to meas when he believed that I

would be critical of his "feminine side"! avoided defining myself as either
accepting or rejecting, allowing him to continue to project his internal critique
onto me and rebel against me; in this way I hoped to encourage him to relive
certain affects with me in the controlled environment of the therapy setting,
not in order to "let it all out" but in order to reconnect thought and affect. The
connectIons between thought and affect are, as I indicated earlier, often dissolved or forgotten in obsession, and the obsessive must be brought to the


point of, say, getting angry with the analyst for rejecting his weaknesses and
then connecting this with his father's severe attitude toward him (thanks to a
question or interpretation by the analyst). Repression, in Robert's case, consisted at least partly in the breaking of the association between his rebelliousness and his father's early admonitions, between his hatred of his father and

the latter's disapproval (of his weaknesses and of his "feminine side," for
example). The work of "destroying his father," not in effigy but in the relation-

ship with the analyst, was initiated but not completed in the course of our
work together.
The fact that Robert's demands resurfaced at different times did not mean
that his desire had not at all come to the fore; it suggested that it was easier for

Robert (as for all neurotics) to deal with the Other's demands than with the
Other's desire, since the latter is, after all, never explicit and always open to
interpretation. To have given him specific tasks would have amounted to
telling him what he needed to do to be lovable in my eyesallowing him to
strive to become lovable or anathema to meand would have spared him the
more anxiety-provoking question: "What does he want of me?" If I did not
berate him for corning to sessions late and without money, if I merely asked
him to talk about his lapses instead of exacting punishment, there must have
been something else I was looking for, something else I was wanting. But to
ponder that was to throw into question the fundamental fantasy...

A Case of Hysteria
A thirty-seven-year-old Frenchwoman was in analytic therapy with me for
about three and a half years, at a frequency of one session a week at the outset,
increasing to two sessions a week by the end. She had previously been in
therapy in France for about two years with someone who had never asked her
to talk about her fantasies or dreams, and she had recommenced therapy
about six months after moving to the United States, her husband having been
transferred by his company. The intensity of full-fledged analysis was not
achieved until the last year of ourwork together, and most of the sessions
conducted face-to-face. The treatment was, in my view, by no means
by the time she left the United States. My account here is highly seks ttvr ,sn;l
has been considerably condensed in the attempt to give the
lwt.' h.iil hi be
able idea of the clinical picture in a few pages; many
completely left aside. As in the previous case, n,mtes 10sf
have been changed to protect the identity of the
Jeanne (as I shall call her) initially entered ths'sa1sy
to severe marital
affair and constant
problems, culminating in her engaging in .in



thoughts of divorce. She had met another man through workher job in-

volved planning lectures, conferences, and other eventsand felt that things
in her life had become explosive. A mother of two young children, holding
down a full-time job, she did not feel that divorce was the best solution.
Jeanne seems to have used her first therapy as a crutch with which to keep
her marriage hobbling along. Indeed, she said she "stayed with [her] husband
because of that bearded psychologist" (her first therapist). The same was true
of her early work with me, in which she was never willing to have more than
one session a week. This seemed to allow her to vent her anger toward her
husband and articulate some of her pain without ever truly rocking the boat.

Only after two and a half years of therapy did she agree to two sessions a
week, despite my repeated requests earlier on that she see me more often.
A good deal of family history came out in the course of Jeanne's treatment.
The second of four sisters, she grew up in the French provinces, where her
father and mother lived under the same roof until Jeanne was about seven
(there was some question about her actual age at the time, however, since
certain memories suggested that her parents stayed together only until she

was around four). At about that time, her father went bankrupt, despite
considerable borrowing from the mother's family. He abruptly left the country, leaving his wife and three daughters no forwarding address. The family
was forced to move in with the mother's parents, and only after a year did the
mother manage to locate and contact the father.
Alter that, j(.,1I%,w, her sisters, and their mother lived in France in near

and constant uncertainty. The father slowly rebuilt a business in

North Alrka, but sent his family little money at extremely irregular intervals.
I Ii' spent quitt lavishly on himselfand, as Jeanne came to realize during her
analysis, on his mistressesbut allowed his family to languish. Once a year,
he had the family come spend a month with him in North Africa during the
summer, but always waited until the last minute to let them know when they
could come.
Jeanne's memories of North Africa involved being ogled and harassed by

men; she said that a man had even tried to kidnap one of her sisters in the
building in which they lived. In that environment, the father continued to treat
his wife and daughters as he always had: violently jealous of any male attention paid to them, extremely protective of all four of his "women," drunkenly
abusive to the mother, foul-mouthed and foul-tempered. Jeanne depicted her
lather as domineering, explosive, and never offering a kind word. He bullied
lth wife, kept her at his financial mercy, vented his venomous rage at her, and
on herindeed, when he was on his deathbed it came out that he even
had a mistress and a daughter out of wedlock in France.

Jeanne considered herself to be her father's favorite, since she was the best
of the four sisters in school. This provided one of the bases for her identification with her father, one of the only educated people in their circle. She said

that her father had never hidden the fact that he wanted a son, and during
sessions she occasionally slipped when speaking of herself as a young child,
saying "quand j'etais petit" ("when I was little," using the masculine form of
the adjective) instead of "quand j'tais petite." She was, in some sense, the son
her father never had. It should be noted that only one letter separated Jeanne's

real first name from a boy's name, the same letter she elided in the slip
between "petite" and "petit."
Jeanne's mother vigorously criticized the father whenever he was away
(that is, most of the time after Jeanne turned seven), attempting to make her
daughters despise him. She was largely successful, since the daughters very
often took her side and felt sympathy for her (this laid down one of the bases
for Jeanne's identification with her mother). The mother tirelessly complained
that the father promised money but never sent it and that she would love to
get divorced but for the children. She nevertheless allowed this abusive relationship with her mostly absent husband to continue, got pregnant by him
with their fourth daughter on one of the summer trips to North Africa, and
stayed with him long after all the children were grown and gone. She was
aware of his vicious temper, yet seemed to deliberately provoke him to harsh
words and arguments.
When Jeanne was around seventeen, her father returned to France for good,
uprooted the family from one part of France to another, and told Jeanne he
was going to take the steps necessary to ensure her "a fine future." She waited
three weeks for him to do something, during which time "he went out gallivanting." It seems that she first began to masturbate at this time (at least, this
was the only period during which she remembered having masturbated).
He finally took some initiative and, twisting a few arms, enrolled her in the
business school he himself had formerly attended. He knew full well that she
preferred art and had no interest whatsoever in business, but he insisted ih.tt
she would never succeed as an artist. Jeanne moved to the town where 11ti
business school was located, but she never studied, spending in4te,I*I "ilie
whole first year with a boyfriend." She visited her family tront lI.iie hi him,
but her father never gave her the money that he promised. (msn'wsi.irIthly, silme
was often in trouble with the bank and with her l5mnmIlurml lies imi'w isiti mould

not pay her bills on time. Once, when she w,ts driving '&ssmswhere with her
father at the age of eighteen, she went so far as Iii IIIIIIIS smut iii Ike moving car

in protest of his callous attitude.

The father made terrible scenes whenever hi'. teenage

began to



date anyone. Jeanne recalled a memorable occasion at a hotel in North Africa

where her older sister, who had met a boy there, was called a whore by the
father in front of a great many people. He would rant and rave, use extremely
foul language, and publicly humiliate all of his daughters.
Jeanne said that, as a teenager, she was uninterested in most of the boys who
were interested in her; their love was worth nothing as it was so easy to win,

and it did nothing for herit did not arouse her interest in them. She was
merely flattered, and "enjoyed jerking them around." There was one boy who
managed to inspire great passion in her for a while, until the day he declared
his love for her in a letter. She claimed that, from the moment she read the
letter, she was no longer interested in him. But she was immediately attracted
to a man I will refer to as Bertrand, the first man her own age who treated her
more indifferently, more callously. That turned her on.

A struggle for the upper hand ensued between her and Bertrand in a
tempestuous relationship that turned into marriage. If they were fighting and
she wanted to leave the house, Bertrand would physically block the door; if
she was mad at him and left town, he would call everyone they knew until he
found her and then come and get her. He eventually gained the upper hand,
according to Jeanne, and, when he did, her initial passion turned to revulsion:
she could no longer bear to let him touch her. She began to suspect him of all
kinds of things of which her father had been guilty, such as womanizing and
spending all of the family's money on himself. She dreamed of leaving him
but never did, claiming that it was "impossible" for her to do so.
Physical symptoms began to appear, some of which seemed to have antecedents in adolescence, but many of which seemed to grow out of her identifying
her husband with her father (aided, no doubt, by the fact that the husband and
the father got
well). She spoke of back pains, shoulder pains, jaw pains,
tongue pains, chest pains, throat pains, and stomach pains, and went from gastroen terokgist to chiropractor to herbal healer to acupuncturist, all to no avail.
Right from the beginning of Jeanne's therapy with me, the primary conflict
seemed to revolve around her father and husband. Nevertheless, she devoted
a good deal of time in early sessions to recounting rivalries with her eldest
sister, whom she had often made fun of as a child and apparently outshined.
Rivalrous identifications with her sisters were largely worked through within
a year or so, it seemed, and receded into the background. The father/husband
then monopolized her thoughts. Transferentially speaking, she never seemed
to place me in the position of an other (person) like herself, despite the fact that
Wt were very close in age; indeed, her imaginary relations seemed more or
confined to women. From the outset, I seemed to be identified with the
iiiie who knows: the symbolic Other. Virtually none of the anger or recrimina-


tions expressed toward her father during the sessions, or even later toward her
mother, was reflected in her transferential attitude toward me; only occasional
elements in dreams ever suggested possible anger toward me. A sort of goodfather (me) bad-father (Bertrand) dialectic evolved that did little to accelerate
our progress.

An important turning point came when, after two and a half years of my
urging, Jeanne agreed to shift to two sessions a week. Her willingness to do so
was no doubt overdetermined: her husband was away on business more and
more, and, according to Jeanne, he was the one who opposed her seeing me
(he did not believe in psychotherapy and did not wish to spend money on it);
they had become somewhat more affluent, and Jeanne perhaps felt she could
more easily hide the extra expenditure from her husband; and, perhaps most
important, her symptoms had become more oppressive. The first two reasons

were lent support by the fact that when her husband finally examined the
family accounts eight months later, he made a big scene about her seeing me
twice a week, and she went back to once a week, not being willing to challenge
or disobey her husband on this point. Perhaps she had been willing to risk his
wrath only when her suffering was most acute.
The intensification of her troubles was marked by the appearance of a new
symptom: when her husband was away, she occasionally started feeling cold

all over, so cold that taking a hot bath could not warm her up. It was her
associations to this symptom, verbalized very quickly after the resumption of
the therapy after a summer break, that tied together much of the unconscious
material elicited over the years and that evoked a sort of "primal scene."
The feeling of coldness she was experiencing preceded the recollection of a
scene presumably witnessed at the age of seven or eight; she seemed thus to
be re-experiencing something that she could not at first
In North

Africa, her bedroom (which she shared with her older sister) adjoined her
parents' bedroom. There was a door between the two rooms, but it was always
kept closed. Her bedroom there was the scene of many dreams she had during

the course of her analysis, and it became clear to Jeanne that she had often
overheard her parents arguing in their bedroom.
She could easily talk about their fights, and said that she often "held her
whdt w415
breath, trying to stop breathing, in order to listen," in order to
going on in the next room. Often she could not go to sleep "until it w.is over,"
and "had to stay very still in order to hear it." She seemed very tIn's to
what that it was on numerous occasions, but circled 4ruund II every time as if
she were unable to speak it. On one such occasion, alft'r she had said that she
would listen during their fights until it was over, I a4kkd a few words to the
effect that her parents would end up making love



This was obviously a construction on my part ("construction" in the sense

found in Freud's article "Constructions in Analysis," SE XXffl, 257269), a
construction based on years of listening to Jeanne's discourse about her parents' tempestuous relationship. I cannot affirm with certainty that Jeanne had
been conscious or preconscious all along of the thoughts she expressed after

this intervention and had simply been loath to speak them; for it is also
possible that my intervention led to a reconstruction of childhood scenes that
she had never quite
In any case, it led almost immediately to her

saying that she believed she had heard her parents conceive her youngest
sister, born nine months after their first summer trip to North Africa. During
the next session, she told me that, one night in North Africa, she had gone out
into the hall, where the ceramic floor tiles had felt cold under her feet. The door

to her parents' bedroom had been ajar and she had looked in and seen her
"father on top of [her] mother, his penis erect." According to her, she had been
shocked, horrified, and disgusted.
The nocturnal feelings of coldness went away after she recounted the scene

to me, and another symptomtightness or pain in the chestwent away

when she added another detail: from the angle from which she had observed
the scene, it looked as if her "father had his knee on her [mother's] torso."
When listening to her parents' arguments and lovemaking from her room,
Jeanne would not only try to stop breathing (the better to hear)she would
also tense up or stiffen, as if to protect herself against the expected blows
(verbal and/or physical), to protect herself from being "wounded." In a
she put ln'rsell in her mother's shoes, imaginirg herself being beaten
and made love to by her father. Many of her back, shoulder, and neck pains
stemitl clearly related to this stiffening while listening, but our work to
geilur did not go far enough to elucidate all of the material necessary to
alleviate them entirely.
Although Jeanne devoted the first years of her therapy to detailing her father's atrocious behavior, her mother's role was only occasionally thrown into
question. Her mother was at that time depicted as a victim, purely and simply;
she had made a mistake marrying such a man, but had attempted to make the
best of it "for the children's sake." During the last year of the therapy, however,
Jeanne turned her attention to her mother's less obvious motives.
Her mother was now described as passive and self-indulgent, and as having
made her daughters do all the housework. She was viewed as being interested
only in her friends, and as having deliberately attempted to make her daughter
despise the father. Though this attempt forced Jeanne to cover over her fonder
leelings for her father and to hate him in certain respects, it also convinced her
Ili.sl her lather was in some sense being victimized by the mother and was thus


unloved. Jeanne recalled that her mother had loved dancing with men: indeed,
Jeanne said her mother loved "all men except my father." Jeanne claimed that
she herself was the exact opposite: she had "never loved any man except [her]
father." She began to hate her mother for having prohibited her from loving her
father, or at least from feeling it, being aware of it, and showing it.
Jeanne had nevertheless remained faithful to her father at some level, convinced that he really did love her even though he never expressed it, "never

knew how to express it." In her everyday life, she had remained faithful to
everything he said: he had told her she would never amount to anything, and
so she sabotaged things in such a way as to fulfill his prophecies. For example,
in her mid-thirties she began painting, drawing, and making ceramicsactivities she had not engaged in since high schooland was often complimented
on her talent. After a small exhibition of her work, she began having problems
associated with her eyesight (Ia vue)7 and associated them with her father's
predictions: if she could not see well, she could not paint and thus could never
amount to anything. He said that her life would be a disaster, and she felt she
unwittingly confirmed this. For to succeed in life was to betray him, not just
outwardly but inwardly as well.

Thus, in the course of Jeanne's analysis, there was an almost complete

reversal of perspective. At first, she viewed her father as the cause of all of her
problems in life, while solidarity with her mother seemed virtually complete.

Later she came to see her father as her one true love and her mother as the
villain. Jeanne proceeded to kill her mother in a dream, and began to think that

her own daughter, who was then about thirteen, wanted her dead. Jeanne
began to blame her mother for all kinds of things. For example, the mother
would leave her daughters home alone in North Africa when she went out
with girlfriends, warning them "not to breathe in her absence"; she would
criticize her daughters' grades but do nothing to help them; she was "gratuitously mean to her daughters."
Jeanne also recalled that her mother would bring her daughters to a park in
North Africa, and would talk absorbedly with a friend while her daughters
wandered about the park unsupervised; on one occasion, Jeanne and her older
sister had been led into a storeroom by a park guardian, who had proceetk'd to
show them his penis. Jeanne complained that she had not been

by her

only thing her

mother. (Indeed, within several months Jeanne said that
mother had ever done for her daughters was to stay with her "Internal hushi' was protective.
band.") The father was "insanely" overprotective, but at
In the course of this return to the father, Jeanne recounted a dream in which

her father up a
it seemed that she would rather imperil herM'lt,
narrow, windy mountain path, than "passer l%r Ia mi'r/mre," "follow the



path near the sea/mother" (mer, "sea," is pronounced exactly like mere,
"mother"). The father might be dangerous, but the mother was worse. In
another dream, Jeanne saw her own "two children in the sea (mer/mre), and a
big wave came toward them and engulfed them. They were okay and washed
up on shore." According to her, the wave was her father, a tidal wave smashing everything before it, even Jeanne's mother (mere), for the children were
swept away from the sea up onto the shore, where they were safe. He saved
the children, and thus Jeanne had them or was allowed to keep them thanks

to him; in that sense "they were his." Her own father was thus, in some
fantasmatic sense, the father of her children.
In yet another dream, she had "three new childrenboys, all with brown
eyes. At first it's not entirely clear if the third is a boy, but seems to be one in

the end." In her associations to the dream, "brown," which at first elicited
nothing, reminded her that she had recently seen a picture of her father's
illegitimate daughter; the latter had brown eyes, like Jeanne's father. She said
that the children in the dream could not be her husband's, since he had blue

She had thus remained eternally faithful to her father, despite
and her relations with her husband suggested continued fidelity to her father.
Though she had become aware that she tended to project paternal faults onto
her husband, this was still a dominant theme in their relationship. In one
instance, while he was away on business, she found some credit card bills and

becanw enraged when she saw the huge expenditures he was making. It
turned out that they were all business expenses reimbursed by his company,

she had immediately equated her husband (whom she sometimes deas a devoted family man) with her freewheeling, inconsiderate, spendthrift lather.
In her OWfl marriage, Jeanne viewed herself as like her mother: abandoned
(though she was not), cheated on (though this was by no means clear to her),
and so on. In short, her husband was identified in her mind with her father,
and she saw herself in her mother's shoes (that is, she was her father's wife),
though at the same time she viewed herself as her father's son.
Her therapy with me ended when her husband was once again transferred

by his company, and she returned with her family to France. I obtained the
name and phone number of an analyst in the town in France to which she
moved, and encouraged her to continue the work we had begun.

I his brief presentation of Jeanne's therapy, incomplete though it is, illustrates

es lain important characteristics of hysteria.


To begin with, Jeanne's whole way of talking about herself and her life
involved other peoplesignificant others. Her discourse contrasted sharply
with Robert's discourse, which revolved almost exdusively around himself,
an obsessive wrapped up in his own world and viewing himself as an island

unto himself. Jeanne's world was peopled, and Jeanne defined herself in
relation to people.
Jeanne's fundamental stance was that of completing the Other: becoming
the son her father never had; becoming a faithful wife to her father, since his
wife betrayed hint by preferring the company of all other men to his (when
dancing, in particular); and even becoming a kind of husband substitute for

her mother when her mother tirelessly complained, in the early years after
her husband left the country, of being abandoned and ill-treated by her husband. In the latter case, Jeanne tried to "give [her] mother what [her] father
didn't give her," to make her life as easy and happy as possible, do many
of the household chores, impose on her mother as little as possible, and
perhaps even eat very little to save her mother money. Jeanne sought to
detect what it was the significant Other in her life wanted, lacked, or was
missing, and to become it.
Her sexual position was perhaps even more complex than Robert's, which
was already multilayered. She identified with her mother, but with her father
as well. In her marriage, she was an abandoned, mistreated, and misunderstood woman like her mother. In her many psychosomatic symptoms, she
put herself in the place of her mother being abused and made love to by the
father. In a certain sense, she viewed herself as the faithful wife her father
never had, yet simultaneously as the son he never had (she described herself
as a tomboy, "un garcon manqu"). She was like the father intellectually,
considered herself strong-wified and stubborn like him, and cast herself in a
masculine role in certain dreams and slips. In recounting one dream, for
example, she slipped and said that "a number of men were falling in love
with [her]," but instead of saying amoureux ("in love"), she said amoureuses,

using the feminine form of the adjective. The slip turned the men into
women,'2 reflecting, it seems to me, the fact that she was putting lwrsel( in
the place of a man like her father, the seducer, the one Who had "women
falling all over him."
Jeanne's sexual identity was thus partly based ofl her mother and partly on
her fatherconventionally speaking, it was partly femlimw and partly masseetnt'd to be
culine.73 Her sexuality, which remained largely
dominated by disgust, revulsion, and the refusal of direct, physical, sexual
satisfaction; as an adult, she said that she almost never accepted her husband's
overtures, never masturbated, and had had but one fleeting affair. Even the



early tempestuous period with her husband seemed, according to her descriptions, to have been characterized by the passion of desire growing out of a

(very serious) game of seduction and power struggle, rather than by the
fulfillment of some corporal longing or lust of her own. Indeed, it seemed that,
for her, sex was no more than a weapon in the battle with Bertrand. The very
idea of sexual activity (with a man) evoked, in her discourse, every imaginable
metaphor from the realm of food and digestion: it was "disgusting," "revolt-

ing," "nauseating," "sickening," and so on. In one dream, for example, her
husband refused her sexual advances; in her associations to the dream, it
seemed that being turned down, and thus being able to go on wanting, excited
her more than sexuality itself. The dream thus seemed to fulfill her desire for
an unsatisfied desire.74

In another dream she slept with one of her husband's friends, who, she had
just heard, had cheated on his wife. She found the man disgusting in real life,
but dreamed of "sleeping with him" (there seemed to be no representation in
the dream of the sexual act itself). It seemed that she had, in the dream, put
herself in the position of the mistress with whom a man might cheat on his
wife, with whom a man like her husband might be unfaithful. She was inter-

ested in knowing why a man might cheat on his wife"How can another
woman be loved?" as Lacan formulates the question of the butcher's wife in
Ecrits (626). She put herself in the shoes of the other woman and imagined the
man's desire for her. Though she did not explicitly evoke her identification
with her father (or, more generally, men) in her associations to this dream,
there may also have been a sense in which she saw herself in her husband's
Iriend, and imagined what it would be like to sleep with the other woman (a

role she herself played in the manifest content of the

This is an
example of what I referred to earlier as the hysteric's complex "circuit of
Jeanne closely scrutinized her husband's desire in the attempt to detect an
interest in other women. Though he had, according to her, apparently been
faithful throughout their fourteen years of marriage, she could not stop herself
from imagining that he was having an affair with someone whenever he was
away on business, and she was always on the lookout for clues. She would not
hesitate to go through his personal effects, papers, and records, or call him at
all hours at his various hotels; consciously "afraid" he was cheating on her,
she nevertheless seemed to wish to discern a desire on his part for another

Such a wish would, of course, have been overdetermined: were he to be
having an affair, this would confirm her sense of being abandoned like her
IItflIhI'r by a man like her father; but it would also provide a new possible


circuit for her desire via the other woman. Recounting one of her dreams,
Jeanne said, "Bertrand has a mistress; I catch him on the phone with her
red-handed saying 'I love you.' I say to myself, 'Now I can get divorced, now
I have the necessary proof. But I cannot. He will stop me from leaving!" At
least one level of interpretation of the dream elicited the idea that his desire
for another was enraging, yet somehow seemed necessary to her.
The jealous scenes Jeanne made based on her suspicions appeared to have
kept her husband's desire alive, in certain respects; the passionate struggle
between them had never completely subsided. She perhaps also kept his
desire in play (not necessarily deliberately) by frustrating most of his demandsdemands that she take care of certain household business in his
absence (cleaning, organizing, bill paying, and so on) and demands for sex.
Seeking to be the cause of his desire, she nevertheless refused to satisfy his
desire, refused to be the object of his sexual satisfaction. Unsatisfied desire is
found on both sides in hysteriain the hysteric and the partner. The hysteric
keeps her partner unsatisfied, since it is the partner's desire that is so important to her in defining her being. Jeanne seemed to sense that if she allowed
her husband to satisfy his sexual urges with her, his lack or desire would at
least temporarily disappear.

Nevertheless, after three years of analysis Jeanne said she was "sick of
[her] own behavior"sick of refusing to have sex with Bertrand and being

aggressive with him all the time. It seemed that, in denying herself what
she wanted, she was doing so at least partly out of "solidarity" with her
mother. For Jeanne's mother had repeatedly told Jeanne that all other couples
were happy and united; only Jeanne's mother and father were not. By getting
married yet preventing solidarity with her husband, Jeanne seemed to iden-

tify with her mother at the level of dissatisfaction, lack of satisfaction, or

Corroborating Jeanne's identification with her mother at this level was
one of Jeanne's long-standing psychosomatic symptoms. She had developed
a problem with the sciatic nerve after her father had thrown a memorable
jealous fit when her mother had received anonymous flowers from someone
at Christmastime. The father was convinced they had been sent by the
mother's employer, a male chiropractor he believed she imist be havmg an
affair with (in fact, they had been sent by an aunt). liver since then, Jeanne
had frequently gone to chiropractors for pains related to the
problem her mother had described to herand a whole variety of other
complaints. She would fall "ill" so that she would have to come into contact
with the kind of man her mother (according to her lather) desired, even
though that desire had never been fulfilled, The chiropractor had, in a sense,



come to represent her mother's unsatisfied longing for a different man, per-

haps a better man (the chiropractor had also become associated with her
father's upsetting yet thrilling, annoying yet stimulating, jealous rage).
By stating that she was "sick of [her] own behavior," Jeanne nevertheless
suggested that she was not satisfied with unsatisfied desirein other words, that

desire was not the whole story. "Woman does not live by desire alone," she
seemed to be saying, suggesting that she was not uninterested in satisfaction
at every level. At what level was she interested? While certain hysterics play
the game of desire with men but satisfy their sexual drives with women, no
homosexual current ever clearly manifested itself in our work together. But
another current showed itself when, after seeing the film Indecent Proposal,
starring Robert Redford, Jeanne had a dream which she recounted as follows:
"Bertrand agreed to do something in order to make $450 million. Though
worried about making money dishonestly, I eventually said okay." Jeanne
commented that, in the movie, a man agreed to let his wife sleep with Robert
Redford for a considerable sum of money. Jeanne said she disliked the idea of
making money in any sort of "dishonest way" ("de manire malhonnte"), but
her choice of words suggested something a bit different, since malhonnte can
also be heard as male-honnte, an "honest male."76 There was perhaps something about "an honest to goodness male" like Robert Redford that could
make her turn a blind eye to certain scruples (that is, inhibitions); but she also
said she had the sense that "it would be impossible for [her] to refuse to help
her husband out for such a large sum."
Rather than immediately interpreting this as some sort of profound desire
on her part to become a prostitutethat is, to receive money for sexwe
should see in it a very general characteristic of hysteria: the inhibitions blocking sexuality must be overcome by a powerful force, often outright coercion,
in order For sexual satisfaction to be considered something other than reprehensible, Uninhibited sexual enjoyment seems possible only when forced
or obligatorywhen it is beyond one's power to stop it. If prostitution fantasies arise so often in analysis with hysterics, it is because prostitution is
commonly associated in the public mind with utter destitution and compulsionfor example, an abandoned mother must walk the streets in order to
feed her children; or a young woman with no education, from an extremely
poor but honest background, must sell her body because she has younger
brothers and sisters to feed and invalid parents to care
We find a similar
motive at work in the rape fantasies that are so common among hysterics,
the essential idea being that the woman has no choice but to engage in sexual

'lhl.s suggests that the part played by inhibitions in hysteria is extremely


important. In Jeanne's case, we see that some of the inhibitions were related
to solidarity with her mother. To actually enjoy sex (and not simply obtain
jouissance from her conversion symptoms, associated with her mother's sexual activity) would be to betray her mother. The question of betrayal, whether
it involves one's mother or father, is always a question of values, principles,
and idealsin other words, of the ego-ideal or superego. Although Jeanne
may not seem to have been driven by impossible ideals in the way Robert
was, contradictory ideals were nevertheless very much present in her mind:

what she had been told a woman was supposed to be, what she, as her
father's "son," was supposed to accomplish, and what she, as her mother's
daughter, was responsible for giving her mother and could later expect from
Freud tends to view revulsion toward sexuality as virtually structural or a
priori in hysteria, and the ego-ideal as far more developed in men than in
women; but we might do better to consider revulsion as the product of a more
typically feminine ego-ideal (typical for Western culture), and guilt as the
product of a more typically masculine ego-ideal. For revulsion and guilt seem
to be attitudes toward the satisfaction of the drives, attitudes that are imposed
on us in the course of socialization; in other words, they are stances adopted
at the symbolic level (that of ideals, values, and principles)at the level of
desirewith respect to the satisfaction of the drives. They are not necessarily
characteristics of the drives themselves.Th Freud seems to be misled into viewing women as having less highly developed ego-ideals because his notion of

what constitutes an ideal is overly narrow: it includes only widely accepted

social, economic, political, intellectual, and artistic ideals-the kinds of ideals
hitherto inculcated primarily in men in Western societies. But an ideal is any
kind of articulated entreaty or injunction which may be universali.zable (for
example, "A daughter is always respectful toward her mother") or may not
be (for example, "Your father treats us all like dirt! All we have is each other,
so we must band together"). The weight of particular, context-specific entreaties may be just as great as, if not greater than, that of more universalizable
value judgments like "These days, you have to go to college if YOU expect to
be anyone." A useful rule of thumb might be: "If it produces inhibit ions, it's
It should be further noted that the structural diflereiwe between
and obsessionin the former, the overcoming of
through completion of the Other, and, in the latter, through completion iii the subjectis
grounded in social and sexual ideals, many of which
not terribly difficult
to divine. Hysteria and obsession are "structures"
In Western societal
context, constitute a sort of great divide in subjective positions, but they are



not universal, transcendental necessities. They are contingent structures based

on a particular (but quite widespread) form of society.

Turning now to the treatment, I wish to comment briefly on a particular

intervention I made, the one I qualified earlier as a "construction." As I said,
I cannot be sure that Jeanne had been conscious or preconscious all along of
what she said after my intervention, and had simply been loath to say it; my
impression, in fact, was that the intervention led to a reconstruction of scenes

from the past that she had never quite understood. If this is the case, the
intervention would constitute an example of interpretation "hitting the real"
(as discussed in Chapter 4). The real is that which has not yet been symbolized, not yet put into words; it is what, at a certain moment, is unspeakable
(the "impossible to say") for the analysand but not necessarily for the analyst.
By naming what Jeanne had heard and seen as a young child, prior (apparently) to having learned about sex, I began the process of neutralizing itthat
is, draining away its heavy affective chargethrough symbolization. As long
as it remained unspeakable, it fixated her. Once spoken, the fixation began
to give way.
Insofar as interpretation hits the real, it does not so much hit the truth as create
it. For truth exists only within language (it is a property of statements), and
thus there is no truth of that which cannot yet be said. Truth is not so much
"found" or "uncovered" by interpretation, as created by it. This does not mean
that interpretation is free to invent as it pleases; the approach I adopted with
Jeanne, listening to her attentively for two and a half years once a week prior
to venturing such an interpretation, contrasts sharply with the "wild interpretations" made by so many psychologists and psychiatrists nowadays based on
.1 ten-minute conversation or a handful of sessions with a patient. Jeanne had

ilone everything but say what I said, circling around the notion in several
sessions, and was obviously prepared to hear it.
Consider the difference between the subjective validity of such a construction for Jeanne, witnessed by the material she brought forward in the sessions
that followed it, and the effect of an interpretation made by a psychiatrist with
whom Jam acquainted. A patient, who had been in therapy for two years with
a psychologist I supervise, saw this psychiatrist every few months regarding
his medication. On one occasion, the patient mentioned that he had suddenly
recalled that he had been sexually abused three times as a child; the psychiatrist seized the opportunity to say, "You must have enjoyed it." The patient

was quite shaken by the interpretation and almost left therapy altogether
because of it.
might argue that, based on psychoanalytic theory, what the psychiatrist
's,Ikl was true in numerous cases, since many people enjoy such sexual cxpe-


riences in some, perhaps not so obvious, way; but it completely ignored the
experience of the individual in question, and had little or no subjective validity
for him. If interpretation creates truth, the ground has to be prepared for it (as
for a plant, if we expect it to take root and grow): the surrounding material has
to be elucidated and the relationship with the therapist has to be solid. Otherwise it has no more than shock value (at best). Shocking statements may be
appropriate at times in teaching, if one's aim is to shake students out of their
habitual ways of thinking, but they have little place in therapy.8
As I indicated in Chapter 4, the kind of interpretation I made with Jeanne,
which is not "oracular" in naturenot ambiguous, polyvalent, or essentially
evocativeshould be reserved for a relatively advanced stage of an analysis,
when the analyst's knowledge of the analysand is quite extensive and the

analysand is quite open to the effect of the analyst's interpretation. Such

interpretation provides a particularly clear illustration of what Lacan means
when he says that interpretation is "apophantic" (Scilicet 4 [1973]: 30). "Apophantic" (from the Greek apophantikos) means "categorical," "declarative," or
"assertive." Interpretation, in Lacan's sense, whether oracular in nature or a
construction, is not presented in the form of a question or as possibly being
true; it is declaratively stated by the analyst.

Jeanne's treatment was obviously far from complete by the time she returned to France. While Jeanne had begun to blame her father and mother
somewhat less for her problems, she had by no means separated from them;
at some level, she still sided with her mother against her father, simultaneously remaining faithful to her father by fulfilling his prophecies (that she
would amount to nothing, for example). The therapy never attained the intensity necessary to "destroy" these parental figuresin other words, the power
of their prohibitions and ideals that led to Jeanne's inhibitionsthrough the
transference. Jeanne remained loath to become "overly dependent" on me,
and I was unable to intrigue her sufficiently to overcome both her own resistances and her husband's. Though the frequency of sessions finally increased
in the last year, the scene Bertrand made when he discovered that she was
seeing me twice a week put an end to the greater intensity of our work
together.8' Jeanne felt she could not oppose him on this point.
Jeanne had begun to glimpse the sense in which she had made cholieM and
adopted stances toward her parentseven if it seemed, at the nulset, that her
position had simply been thrust upon herbut had not vii bi,in able to affirm
had wanted it the time, Subjectificathat she had done so because of what
of bringing the subject into being where the Other is considtionthe
ered the responsible partythus was not fully achieved. Although in certain
br example, in her last
respects she moved away from her father's



year of therapy, Jeanne rekindled her long-stifled passion for art, which her

father heartily disapproved ofshe felt that he nevertheless continued to

interfere in her pursuit of recognition as an artist. His values continued to
inhibit her: she had not yet come into being as subject where his values had
beenthey had neither been destroyed nor become her own. She was held in
limbo, suspended between rejecting his ideals and punishing herself for rejecting them.
Prior to Jeanne's analysis, her love for her father had been repressed, and
this repression was evident in the extreme hatred she relentlessly expressed
toward him. Her hatred wasas analytic theory would lead us to expectdirectly proportionate to his importance to her, to the love she felt for him. The
hatred represented the return of the repressed in a disguised manner, here in the
form of a simple inversion, hate appearing in the place of love. Similarly, prior
to her analysis, her repressed anger toward her mother manifested itself (in
other words, returned) in the form of an exaggerated belief in her mother's
saintliness and perfection. Although these repressions lifted in the course of
her analysis, her repressed Oedipal longing to take her mother's place as the
object beaten and made love to by the fathera longing that was fueling most

of her somatic symptoms (for in those symptoms, she put herself in her
mother's shoes)remained barely broached, touched upon only in a few
dreams (for example, that of the whale with the long trunk). Her fundamental
fantasy seems to have been to be the object that is abused and made love to by
a man like her father. While that fantasy came into view in the course of her
analysis, it was far from reconfigured or traversed.

Etiological Considerations
The two preceding case studies have provided concrete ifiustrations of many

of the facets of neurosis discussed in this chapter, and have, I hope, given
the reader a clearer sense of what "modem-day" obsession and hysteria may
look like in individual cases. There is no "pure" case of obsession, free of
hysterical or perverse features, just as there is no "pure" case of hysteria.
Each case confirms certain things we have already learned about neurosis
and, if we are open to hearing what is not yet explicable within a particular
theoretical system, teaches us new things as well. Robert's case brought out
something that may turn out to be of general valuethe importance of the
Other man's womanand Jeanne's history shed light on the why and wherelore of her revulsion, perhaps suggesting something about the origins of
Aind guilt in the first place. As Lacan says, "The most particular


cases are those whose value is the most universal" (Seminar VI, February
11, 1959).

The following table summarizes what I have been referring to thus far as the
"defining characteristics" of hysteria and obsession.

Status of desire
Stance toward sexuality
Primary zone affected
Strategy with respect to
Strategy for overcoming
Fundamental fantasy


"Am I a man or a
Being the cause of the
Other's desire
Complete the Other

"Am I dead or alive?"


(S (>a)

Being in thinking

Complete the subject

It should be quite clear that these "defining characteristics" are not etiological

in nature; I have not sought to answer here the question of why someone
becomes hysteric or obsessive (except parenthetically in my commentaries
on the preceding cases), confining my attention to the what of hysteria and
obsession. I have sought to use Lacan's most far-reaching distinctions to
indicate what hysteria and obsession are and how they differ from each

Freud was clearly seeking etiological definitions at an early stage in his

work. In his letters to Fliess, Freud hypothesizes that obsession is caused by an

early sexual experience resulting in too much pleasure (and a subsequent

feeling of guilt, which in turn leads to avoidance behaviorguilt and avoidance being later understood as the retroactive effects of a second experience in
which the person learned the social/sexual meaning of the first event). Freud
was seeking to explain why a particular person became an obsessive, and his

early "definitions" concern "first causes." But even in the cast' of lri'ud's
causal explanations, one can always ask why: "Why did one
ence too much pleasure, and another too little?" To

this by saying that

the former was imbued with an excessive desire for his or her "seducer,"
whereas the latter had too little or was disgusted by him or her, merely allows
us to repeat the question at one remove: "Why an
too little in another?'

What seems most important in Freud's iharacii'rl,ations is the fact that



clinicians are, indeed, presented with patients whose sexuality is dominated

in one case by guilt, and in another by revulsion. Not that guilt never appears
alongside revulsion, but in the overall clinical picture one or the other tends
to predominate.
Lacan does not share Freud's concern with first causes, devoting his attention to logical processes instead. Since repression is the main mechanism in

neurosis, repression must lead to different results in the different cases. If

repression means that the subject becomes split into conscious and unconscious (that is, ego and subject) at a certain momentnot necessarily chro-

nometrically definablethe split must occur somewhat differently in

obsession and hysteria (the obsessive and the hysteric are "alienated" differently). Since it is signifiers that are repressed, differential splitting implies that
the hysteric and the obsessive have different relations to language, and different relations to knowledge.
But such considerations do not tell us why repression or splitting takes one
form in hysteria and another in obsession, or why one person becomes hysteric and another obsessive. They do not explain (as I tried to with my social-psychological explanation in an earlier footnote) why one person comes
to negate the Other and another doesn't. Freud, with his well-known dictum
"Anatomy is destiny," seems to suggest that it all depends on whether one
has a penis or not: when you have it you cannot be it (that is, be the phallic
object of desire for the Other); when you do not, you can embody it for the
Other. l.acan repeats such Freudian formulations in his early work (for instance, Intervention on Transference," from 1951), but problematizes such
in his later work. His later discussionsrevolving around
the (act that in Western culture there is no signifier for Woman, whereas the
is the signifier for Mantake us further into the dialectic between
anatomy and language, where biology does not have the last word. I cannot
go into such a discussion now, however, as it would take us into complex
questions about the nature of language that I have not laid the groundwork

Another question that is beyond the scope of this chapter concerns the
possible social causes of two such highly distinct structures as hysteria and
obsession. I have not in any way suggested here that these structures correspond to the way things should be. Lacan would not, I suspect, have consid-

ered these structures to be universal; rather, he would have seen them as

dependent on a certain typically Western organization of society wherein the
phallus is the predominant signifier of desire. All efforts to change women's
.iiid men's roles notwithstanding, as long as the phallus remains the signifier
these different structures seem unlikely to disappear. If we look only


at the different kinds of ideals at work in obsession and hysteria and the
different ways in which they are inculcated in a specific family context (as I
did in my commentary on Jeanne's inhibitions in sexual matters), we leave
unanswered the larger social questions Lacan also attempts to address.

The mainspring and the reason for phobia is not, as those who have but the word "fear" on their
lips believe, a genital or even a narcissistic danger. What the subject is afraid of encountering is

a certain sort of desirelinked to certain privileged developments in the subject's position

vis--vis the Other, as is the case in little Hans' relationship to his motherthat would
immediately make all signifying creation, the whole signifying system,fall back still/luther into
Lacan, Seminar VIII, 305


moving on to perversion, we must say a few words about phobia.

While Lacan sometimes considers phobia to be a separate diagnostic category,

it represents, according to him, "the most radical form of neurosis" (Seminar
Vifi, 425), in the sense that it is a response to a problem with the establishment
of the paternal metaphor. In other words, phobia is not so much "in between"
hysteria and obsession or a third independent structure, as in some sense prior
to the other neuroses.M Whereas hysteria and obsession presuppose the instating of the paternal metaphor (and thus of primal and secondary repression),
the phobic is able to instate the paternal metaphor only by canceling out the
mother with something other than the father's "No!" or name.

The child's separation from its mother is rendered extremely difficult in

phobia, due to the relative weakness of the father or father figurethat is, of
the paternal function. Lacan shows, for example, that in Freud's well-known
case of "little Hans" (SE X, 1149), the refusal by Hans' father to separate his

son from the boy's mother leads to a build-up of anxiety in his son; Hans'
anxiety is clearly related to his mother and to the desires he attributes to her
(engulfment, incorporation, and so on). The development of I tans' phobia
coincides with an abrupt decrease in anxiety: the latter is boumi temporarily
when Hans takes the signifier "horse" as a sort of lather substil%IIe (a stand-in

for the father, for the father's name or "No!" in tlw paternal


Phobia can thus be viewed as a strategy that the inillvklual adopts in order
to shore up a crucial element of the Other (this ek'm.'nt being the Nameofthe

Father) which, though not altogether lacking, has a precarious status. Phobia



cannot be situated on the "borderline" between psychosis and neurosis, for it

is a successful shoring-up: it successfully instates the paternal metaphor. It
allows "ordinary repression" to operatethat is, secondary repression and
the return of the repressed. It does not, it seems, have a full set of defining
characteristics of its own, like those provided in the table above summarizing
the essential characteristics of hysteria and obsession.
Rather, phobia appears to be closely related to hysteria, since the hysteric
constitutes herself initially as the object suitable for plugging up the lack in the
mOther. Through triangulation (the intervention of the Name-of-the-Father),
the hysteric is able to go beyond constituting herself as the imaginary object
of the mOther's desire, to constitute herself as the "symbolic object" of the
Other's (usually the father's)
The phobic, though initially an imaginary object for the mOther, has to prop up the Name-of-the-Father. As we

shall see, this suggests certain affinities between phobia and perversion,
though one should keep in mind that the phobic's propping-up is successful,
supplying a kind of permanence that the pervert's attempted propping-up is
unable to supply.87


Desire is a defense, a defense against going beyond a limit in jouissance.

Lacan, Ecrits, 825/322

Most clinicians do not see many patients who can accurately be qualified as

perverts, psychoanalytically speaking. A number of contemporary American

analysts seem to believe that perverts in therapy are a dime a dozen, but when
evaluated in terms of the Lacanian criteria I have been presenting in this book,
the vast majority of the people commonly referred to as perverts in fact turn
out to be neurotics or psychotics) Modern psychiatry, for its part, has not in
any way expanded our understanding of perversion. Doing what Freud tells
us it does best, giving new "names to different [behaviorsi but saying nothing
further about them" (SE XVI, 260), psychiatry has simply provided a panoply
of new terms to describe the particular objects that turn people on: pedophilia,
frotteurism, toucherism, transvestic fetishism, and so on.2
Lacan, in contrast, is able to help us better understand the nature of perversion with his crucial distinctions between the imaginary, the symbolic, and the
real, and between desire and jouissance. If neurosis can be understood as a set
of strategies by which people protest against a "definitive" sacrifice of jouissancecastrationimposed upon them by their parents (attempting to recover
some modicum of jouissance in a disguised manner) and come to desire in
relation to the law, peruersion involves the attempt to prop up the law so that limits
can be set to jouissance (to what Lacan calls "the will to jouissance"). Whereas we

see an utter and complete absence of the law in psychosis, and a definitive
instatement of the law in neurosis (overcome only in fantasy), in perversion the
subject struggles tobring the law intobeingin a word, to make the ( )ther eXIst.

As usual, Lacan's work here grows out of Freud's, and thus I shall litgln my
discussion of perversion here by taking up some of Freuds dlstlnitkms.

The Core of Human Sexudlity

If we begin with Freud's early assertion that any
a purpose

other than that of reproduction is

activity engaged in for

then we have to accept


Desire is a defense, a defense against going beyond a limit in jouissance.

Lacan, Ecrits, 825/322

Most clinicians do not see many patients who can accurately be qualified as

perverts, psychoanalytically speaking. A number of contemporary American

analysts seem to believe that perverts in therapy are a dime a dozen, but when
evaluated in terms of the Lacanian criteria I have been presenting in this book,
the vast majority of the people commonly referred to as perverts in fact turn
out to be neurotics or psychotics.' Modern psychiatry, for its part, has not in
any way expanded our understanding of perversion. Doing what Freud tells
us it does best, giving new "names to different [behaviors) but saying nothing
further about them" (SE XVI, 260), psychiatry has simply provided a panoply
of new terms to describe the particular objects that turn people on: pedophilia,
frotteurism, toucherism, transvestic fetishism, and so on.2
Lacan, in contrast, is able to help us better understand the nature of perversion with his crucial distinctions between the imaginary, the symbolic, and the
real, and between desire and jouissance. If neurosis can be understood as a set
of strategies by which people protest against a "definitive" sacrifice of joinssancecastrationimposed upon them by their parents (attempting to recover
some modicum of jouissance in a disguised manner) and come to desire in
relation to the law, perversion involves the attempt to prop up the law so that limits
can be set to jouissance (to what Lacan calls "the wifi to jouissance"). Whereas We

an utter and complete absence of the law in psychosis, and a definitive

instatement of the law in neurosis (overcome only in fantasy), in perversion the

subject struggles tobring the law intobeingin a word, to make the ( )ther
As usual, Lacan's work here grows out of Freud's, and thus I shall begIn my
discussion of perversion here by taking up some of Freud's illstlnttons.

The Core of Human Sex utility

If we begin with Freud's early assertion that any
a purpose other than that of reproduction is

activity engaged in for

then we have to accept



the fact that the vast majority of human sexual behavior is perverse. Indeed,
perversion lies at the very core of human sexuality, as we all begin life "polymorphously perverse"that is, as pleasure-seeking beings that know nothing
of higher purposes or appropriate objects or orificesand continue through-

out our lives to seek pleasure for its own sake in forms other than those
required for the reproduction of the species.
If we begin with the notion that "normal" sexual activity is directed toward
a "total person," a partner who is desired for him- or her-"self," not for any
particular attribute he or she may have or embody, then we once again must
accept the fact that the vast majority of human sexual behavior is perverse. As

we saw in the last chapter, the obsessive reduces his partner to object a,
neutralizing the partner's Otherness, and the hysteric does not so much desire
her partner as desire via her partner and wish to be the object he is lacking.
The sexual partner is not considered as "an end in himself or herself"in the
Kantian sense of something pursued for its own sake, instead of for some other
"selfish" purpose like achieving pleasure, feeling loved, or the likebut is
pursued because he or she has something (even if it is but a lack that engenders

desire) which does something for us. Indeed, as Lacan says, object a has
something inherently fetishistic about it.3 As we also saw in the last chapter,
the object that elicits love from us is not necessarily the same as the object that
elicits desire or that can bring us jouissance.
If we begin with either or both of these notions (or notions similar in kind),
we are ineluctably led to qualify virtually all human sexuality as perverse.
Given the way in which the terms "pervert," "perverse," and "perversion" are
used by certain people to stigmatize those whose sexuality seems different
from their own, it will no doubt seem politically expedient to certain readers
to simply affirm that all human sexuality is essentially perverse in nature, and
leave it at that. Indeed, Lacanian psychoanalysts view the perverse nature of
sexuality as a given, as something to be taken for grantedin other words, as
What Lacanian analysts are concerned with, however, is a specific mechamsm of negation"disavowal" (Freud's Verleugnung)characteristic of very
few of the people considered in the popular mind and by most contemporary
psychologists to be perverse, a mechanism that can be clearly distinguished

from repression (at least, that is what I hope to show in this chapter). It is
evidence of the functioning of this mechanismnot this or that sexual behavior in and of itselfwhich leads the analyst to diagnose someone as perverse.
Thus, in psychoanalysis "perversion" is not a derogatory term, used to stigpeople for engaging in sexual behaviors different from the "norm."

It designates a highly specific clinical structure, with features that


sharply distinguish it from neurosis and psychosis. The analyst can agree that
all human desire is essentially perverse or fetishistic in nature, but nevertheless maintain an important theoretical and clinical distinction between neurotic structure, say, and perverse structure. In psychoanalysis, perversion is
not to be viewed as a stigma but rather as a structural category.

In a number of different texts, Freud describes a process that he refers to as
Verleugnung, a term that has been rendered in English as "disavowal," though
in many ways the English term "denial" is closer to the German (indeed, the
French have preferred the term dni, close in meaning and use to "denial").4

Freud develops the notion to account for a curious attitude he detects in

certain young boys who, when confronted with a girl's genitals, deny that the
girl does not have a penis and claim that they in fact see one. Little Hans, for
example, watching his seven-day-old sister being given a bath, says: "Her
widdler's still quite small. When she grows up it'll get bigger all right"
Freud formulates this by saying that, in such cases, the perception or sight
of the female genitals is disavowed. He notes that in certain older male patients, one finds a twofold attitude regarding the fact that women do not have

penises: they disavow the perception, maintaining a belief in what Freud

terms the "maternal phallus," but develop symptoms which seem to indicate
that this perception has nevertheless been registered at some level. It is not as
if the memory of a specific perception had simply been "scotomized"6 or in
some way excised from the men's minds (as we might very loosely think of
foreclosure); we know it is still there because it has effectsit generates symptomsbut it is nevertheless denied. In his article "Splitting of the Ego in the

Process of Defence," Freud mentions two examples of such symptoms: a

man's fear that his father will punish him (for continued masturbation), and
"an arudous susceptibility against either of his little toes being touched" (SF
X)Ull, 277278).

Described in this way, disavowal seems very similar to repression: tin'

pushing of a memory out of consciousness, and the return of this memnu v
the form of symptoms. Indeed, Freud at first tries to dt'visi' a clt'awr ili.slunli.m

between repression and disavowal by proposing th,it what


affect, whereas the idea or thought related to it is dis,wnwtsl (SF

this first attempt contradicts Freud's more rigorous ,intt nlFrtln'ated assertion

that only an idea or thought can be repressed. In ni'urosis, an atlect and the
thought related to it (its "ideational represt'ntativi'," as Strachey translates
Freud's term
for example, the



thought representing a sexual impulse that the ego or superego considers

incompatible or unacceptable is repressed, while the affect associated with it
is set free to be displaced. In the description Freud provides in "Splitting of
the Ego," disavowal and repression seem to collapse into one and the same
In an article from 1938, Freud makes a second attempt to distinguish repres-

sion from disavowal by saying that in repression one of the patient's own
sexual impulses ("an instinctual demand from the internal world") disappears, whereas in disavowal it is "a portion of the real external world" (SE
XXIII, 204) that disappears. To state this more rigorously: in repression, the
thought associated with one of the patient's own drives8 is put out of mind (the
quantum of libido or affect associated with the drive being set free to drift or
be displaced), while in disavowal a perception of the "real external world" is
put out of mind.
This only makes matters worse, however, because the "portion of the real
external world" in question is, Freud says, the "lack of a penis."9 It should be
clear that, strictly speaking, one never sees or perceives the lack of anything: one

sees what is there to be seen, not what is absent. The lack of a penis (or of
anything else for that matter) is not a question of perception: there is no lack
at the perceptual levelthere the world is full.'0 One "sees" nothing only lone
is expecting something in particular and mentally notes its absence. Except in a

totally dark room, one always sees something; there are always photons
striking the rods and cones of the eye. "Nothing" exists only at the level of
Thus, what is involved here is not perception per seas Freud says, it is not
as II there were a scotoma or black spot on the retina, impeding the fetishist
what is there to be seen, stopping him from receiving certain
photons--hut a thought related to a particular perception. Seeing is not believing.

Freud's 1938 distinction between repression as related to the internal world

and disavowal as related to the external world is reminiscent of his 1924

distinction between "neurotic anxiety" and "realistic anxiety." Neurotic anxiety stems from an internal dangerthat is, an impulse within the patient that
is considered inappropriate by the patient's own ego or superegowhereas

realistic anxiety (which Freud also refers to as "fear") stems from a real
external danger (SE XXII, 8189). Insofar, however, as disavowal clearly involves a thought related to a perceptionthat is, something generally consid-

ered to be


the subject, part of his or her psychical realitynot a

I$r9'ePt Ion alone," the internal-versus-external distinction breaks down.'2 Both

IeIIse's.skm and disavowal involve thoughts, not perceptions.


Having criticized Freud's internal/external division, let us also note that

Freud's view of disavowal as the putting out of mind of a perception of the
"real external world," like his definition of realistic anxiety as stemming from
a "real external danger," rests on a naive belief in objective reality. Let us
accept, for the sake of argument, that a particular "danger" is externalsay,
the visible and audible presence of a brown bear in the vicinity of one's
campsite in the mountains. What can we say about the supposed "reality" of
the danger? The seasoned camper may believe (based on long experience) that
the bear is interested only in the food carefully hung in the trees a hundred
yards off, whereas the novice may believe that bears are vindictive and likely
to attack humans without provocation. But the seasoned camper may turn out
to be wrong one out of a hunched times. Are we then going to say that the
novice's apparently neurotic anxiety is in fact realistic?
Let's shift the example to New York City. Suppose we know that one out of
a hundred women who walk down a particular back alley gets raped. Won't
most of us say that a woman's fear of walking there is realistic, not neurotic?
Who is to say what a "real danger" is? Is the analyst the one who decides
whether the "external danger" is real or notin other words, whether it is a
danger or not? The appeal to reality is always problematic. "Realistic versus
unrealistic" and "real anxiety versus neurotic anxiety" are distinctions of
dubious value at best, and become all the more doubtful when coupled with
the spurious internal/external distinction.
Having discussed the overriding importance of psychical reality and the
social/linguistic constitution of reality compared to some sort of objectivist
view of reality, I will restate Freud's distinction as follows: in repression, the
thought associated with one of the patient's own drives is put out of mind,
whereas in disavowal a thought, or complex of thoughtsrelated to a perception of the female genitals, to the father's supposed castration threat (issued to
keep the boy away from his mother and to keep him from masturbating), and
to the patient's narcissistic attachment to his penisis put out of mind.

A First Symbolization
One of the important things to note here is that, if what is put out ol nitnil k
a thought, then at least a first symbolization has taken
something related to the father and his will to separate his son trt',u the mother
is symbolized, and thus, in contrast to psychosis, an Initial acceptance or
admission (Bejahung) of the father as symbolit si.p5ir.itor takes place. Basing
our theorization on Freud's clinical observations about the perverse patients
to sit least some extent
he treated, we can assert that the father is



because of the castration-related symptoms that form.'3 Yet this symbolization

is not as complete as that achieved in neurosis.

Since my goal here is not to provide an exhaustive critique of Freud's

inconclusive definitions of disavowal as a mechanism that clearly differs from
repression, I will first indicate what I think we can take disavowal to refer to
in the context of Lacan's thought (though to the best of my knowledge Lacan
never formulates it as I am going to) and then try to translate some of Freud's
discussions into Lacanian termsthat is, in terms of the Other and the sacrifice

of jouissance. My claim here is that disavowal is a mechanism that can be

clearly distinguished from repression, though not in the way Freud attempts
to do so.
Like foreclosure and primal repression, disavowal concerns the father: the
father's desire, the father's name, and the father's law. The three mechanisms that
constitute the three essential psychoanalytic categoriesneurosis, psychosis, and
perversionall concern the paternalfunction (typically fulfilled by a child's father

in our society). This point is not nearly as clear in Freud's work as it is in

Lacan's, and thus Lacan can be seen to have systematized Freud's work in this

As we saw in Chapter 7, whereas Freud maintains that paranoia (one of the

psychoses) results from a defense against homosexual urges (SE XVI, 308),
Lacan says that homosexuality is not irrelevant to the understanding of psychosis but rather a consequence of the foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father.
The defense against homosexuality turns out to be a byproduct of foreclosure,
not the cause of psychosis. Similarly, Freud's notion that the fetish object is
ri'I,ited in the fetishist's mind to the so-called maternal phallus is not irrelevant
1mm i I ,t.mi,m perspective, but is, rather, understandable in terms of the
lather, his desire, and his law. Belief in the maternal phallus suggests, as we
shall see, that the mother's desire-engendering lack has not been canceled.out
or named by the father, as it is in neurosjs.'5 In other words, Lacan does not
consider Freud's observation irrelevant but subsumes it within a larger theoretical framework.
From a Lacanian perspective, the apparent contradiction inherent in disavowal can, it seems to me, be described as follows: "I know full well that my
father hasn't forced me to give up my mother and the jouissance I take in her

presence (real and/or imagined in fantasy), hasn't exacted the 'pound of

flesh,'I6 but I'm going to stage such an exaction or forcing with someone who
stands in for him; I'll make that person pronounce the law." This particular
lormidation applies better to the masochist than to the sadist or fetishist, as we
nhall set', but suffices to indicate that disavowal implies a certain staging or making
the paternal function.


Refusing the Sacrifice

The notion of sacrifice or exaction is certainly not absent from Freud's work

on perversion, and one of the places we see it most clearly is in Freud's

discussions of the "splitting of the ego." A splitting of the ego, Freud postulates, occurs in perversion, not in neurosis. In neurosis, contradictory thoughts
are situated at different levels, in different agencies. For example, "1 want to
sleep with my sister-in-law" is repressed and persists in the unconscious,
while the idea "1 don't want to sleep with my sister-in-law" is what becomes
conscious.17 In perversion, on the other hand, the ego itself splits (SE XXffl,

204), and contradictory ideasa woman both does and does not have a
penisare maintained side by side in the same agency.18 Freud refers to this
as a partial "turning away from reality" (SE XXffl, 277) by the ego, a procedure
he would prefer to reserve for psychosis. Yet the description he provides of
the case on which he bases his notion of splitting (SE XXIII, 276278) differs
little from cases of repression; for in the former the repressed returns in the

guise of two symptoms (the man's fear that his father will punish him for
continued masturbation, and "an anxious susceptibility against either of his
little toes being touched"). Symptom formation requires, as Freud says (SE
XVI, 358359), two different agencies that are at oddsego and id, or conscious and unconsciousand we seem to have neither more nor less than the
conditions of neurosis here: the splitting of the "1" (Ich) into conscious and
unconscious due to repression.
But let's take a closer look at this supposed case of splitting, to see where
renunciation comes in ("instinctual renunciation," as it is translated in the
Standard Edition, though it is a question of renouncing the pleasure provided
by the drives). A young boy, early "acquainted with the female genitals
through being seduced by an older girl," takes pleasure in touching his own
genitals after relations with the older girl are broken off. One day his nurse
catches him doing it and tells him his father wifi "cut it off" if he does not stop.

Freud tells us: "The usual result of the fright of castration, the result that
passes as the normal [neurotic] one, is that, either immediately or alter some
considerable struggle, the boy gives way to the threat and obeys the
tion either wholly or at least in part (that is, by no longer touching his genil4Ils
with his hand). In other words, he gives up, in whole or in
as if
of the drive" (SE XXIII, 277). This boy, however, continued to
in She name of
no threat had been issued. He refused to give up th%t
his t.ithir's sake (otherthe father. His nurse demanded that he give it up
wise his father would castrate him, Freud tells us), liec,iuse his lather would
not approve, hut the boy refused.



Faced with the possible loss of jouissance, the pervert and the obsessive react in

ways, Freud suggests. The obsessive submits to the loss, however

reluctantly, however haif-heartedly, and even if he never stops frying to get
some of that jouissance back later.19 He gives up that jouissance in the hope of
gaining esteem, recognition, and approvala symbolic equivalent. He loses

one thing to gain another; we might say that he is induced to give up his
narcissistic (imaginary) attachment to his peniswhich Lacan refers to as the
imaginary phallus, , the penis as invested narcissisticallyand the autoerotic
pleasure it gives him, to win something at the social, symbolic level. He gives
up p for 4), the phallus as signifier, as the socially recognized signifier of value
and desire. As Lacan says regarding Hans, a boy must, in some sense, hand
over his little penis to get a bigger and better one from his father (Seminar IV).
Often the latter is not considered bigger and better enough, in the end. Often
it is considered totally inadequate, and the boy may feel he got a raw deal and
hold it against his father forever. But some autoerotic pleasure is nevertheless
yielded, given up, or handed over by the obsessive.20
The pervert, on the other hand, does not hand that pleasure over, does not

surrender his pleasure to the Other. Freud insists again and again that the
to give up his pleasurethat is, the masturbatory pleasure
related (in his fantasies) to his mother or mother substitute.2' Why does one
boy surrender it and another refuse? Freud sometimes appeals here to consti-

tutional factors in explaining this refusal: perhaps the pervert's drives are
stronger than the neurotic's, and cannot be subjected and tamed the way the
neurotic's can.22 It seems, however, that a number of different explanations are
possible. Consider the following:
('linical work and everyday observation show that mothers are often dissatisfied with their husbands and look for satisfaction in their lives from their
relationships with their children. It is also clinically attested that mothers are
more inclined to take a male child as their all-encompassing complement in life
than a female child, and we can only assume that that is due to the child's sex
(and the sex's social meanings, of course).20 Now, a mother's interest in her son's

penis always contributes to the localization of jouissance in the male sexual

organ; and in cases in which a mother places great value on her son's penis, he
may become extremely attached to it, narcissistically speaking, his whole erotic
relation to his mother revolving around it. Often, such a son energetically resists

any kind of perceived demand that he stay away from his mother, and the
struggle is likely to center around his penis, even if no direct threat is made to it
(though such direct threats still are made more often than many think).24
as mothers do not often take their daughters as their complement to
11w ft.Im.'
look to them for such intense satisfaction in life, or take such


great interest in their genitals, the mother-daughter relationship is rarely

eroticized to the same degree,25 jouissance is not usually symbolically localized

for females in the same way, and the struggle with the father over separation
from the mother generally does not come to a head in the same way or focus
on a specific organ.25 The father often has an easier time separating his daugh-

ter from her mother (though he may not find it as important to do so, not
feeling that he is in competition with his daughter as he is with his son);
nevertheless, the result is likely to be either hysteria with traits of perversion
when the father is not forceful, or psychosis when the father refuses to intervene at all.

This explains, in part, my use of masculine pronouns alone when talking

about perverts. In psychoanalytic terms, perversion is virtually an exclusively
male diagnosis. Indeed, Lacan goes so far as to say that "female masochism is
a male fantasy,"27 and qualifies lesbianism not as a perversion but as "heterosexuality": love for the Other sexthat is, women. Homosexualityhornmosexualit, as Lacan spells it, including the two m's from homme, "man"is,
in his terms, love for men (Seminar XX,
Lacan's statement that males
are "the weaker sex with respect to perversion" (Ecrits, 823/320) should cer-

tainly give us pause for thought, and warrants more explanation than I can
provide here.25

To return to the question of why one boy might agree to give up pleasure
while another might refuse, we see that in cases in which there is a very close

bond between mother and son, a fatherin order to bring about a separationhas to be quite forceful in his threats and/or quite convincing in his
promises of esteem and recognition. But the very fact that such a close bond
has been able to form suggests that the father either is incapable of fulfilling
the paternal function or does not care to interfere (perhaps happy to be left
alone by his wife, who is now preoccupied with her son). The father, while
avoiding the rivalrous ferocity of certain psychotics' fathers, does not forcefully put himself in the position of symbolic separator (the one who says, "This

is mine and that is yours"in other words, the one who gives the child a
symbolic space). And even if he does try to do so, he may be undermined by
at thI
the boy's mother, who, the moment the father's back is turned.
boy, letting him know that their special relationship will i*vretly sematn
the ktntl sit tither lreud
It seems to me that we have to shift our focus
tither wisis hirielully enunoften seems to have presumed to existthat is,
ciates his will to separate his son from the boy's msitlwr ((h. Pervert being the

tontemporary father
son who obstinately refuses)to the
who is a much weaker figure and is often conhiwd about his role,5' In cases



where there is a strong mother-son bond and a weak or indifferent father, the
paternal function, though not altogether absent, may well stand in need of a
boost. As I mentioned at the end of Chapter 8, in an early childhood phobia
such as little Hans', appearing around age four, the object that becomes central
in the phobia (in Hans' case, the horse) serves as a Name-of-the-Father that

contributes to the separation of mother from child. Hans attributes certain

characteristics to the horseabove all, angerthat he would like his father to
manifest regarding Hans' special bond with his mother ("You're cross. I know
you are. It must be true." [SE X, 831), but that he can never get his father to
admit to. Perversion, like early childhood phobia, results from a partial failure
of the paternal function, the latter requiring supplementation in order to bring
about separation. Rather than emphasizing, as Freud does, the pervert's re-

fusal to sacrifice jouissance, and his attempt to maintain the jouissance he

obtains from the relationship with his mother or mother substitute (a fetish,
for example), we need instead to stress the inadequacy of the paternal function.

While disavowal could be described as a defense mechanism, a defense

against the father's demand that the child sacrifice jouissance, we could instead view it, like Hans' phobia, as not simply evasive but as an attempt to
prop up the paternal function (expressed in the father's law)an attempt to
make the Other pronounce the law, or to indicate oneself the place of the
lawso that the anxiety-relieving separation can come about. In a Lacanian
perspective, separation from the mOther may be anxiety producing in certain
respects (the object becomes lost or falls away at the moment of separation),
relieving at a more profound levelthat is, at the level of
but is
being. I l.ins,
the conscious level, is "afraid" that his mother wifi go away,
but isnconscinusly wishes she would go away and allow him to have desires
th.it tin not involve her. His "separation anxiety" reflects a wish to continue to
with his motherin other words, to obtain certain pleasures with
herbut a simultaneous wish for an end to be put to that "coaxing," to that
jouissance, since the latter engulfs him and stops him from coming into being
as a desiring subject.Il Thus, his "separation anxiety" is actually indicative of
a wish for separationseparation from his mother.
Jouissance is simply overrated. It is not so wonderful that everyone really
wants it, the pervert supposedly being the only one who refuses to give it up
and who is able to go out and get it.32 As we saw in previous chapters, the
psychotic suffers due to an uncontrollable invasion of jouissance in his or her
body, and neurosis is a strategy with respect to jouissanceabove all, its
avoidance. Perversion, too, is a strategy with respect to jouissance: it involves
the attempt to set limits thereto.


Being and Having, Alienation and Separation

The whole problem of the perversions consists in conceiving how the child, in its relationship
with its mothera relationship constituted in analysis not by the child's biological [vitale]
dependence, but by its dependence on her love, that is, by its desire for her desireident(fles with
the imaginary object of her desire.
Lacan, Ecrits, 554/197198

Freud reveals to us that it is thanks to the Name-of-the-Father that man does not remain bound
to the sexual service of his mother.
Lacan, Ecrits, 852; Reading Seminars! and II, 418

One way to describe my essential thesis regarding perversion is to say that the
pervert has undergone alienationin other words, primal repression, a splitting
into conscious and unconscious, an acceptance or admission of the Name-ofthe-Father that sets the stage for a true coming-to-be of the subject in language
(unlike the psychotic)but has not undergone
How can we characterize the pervert's alienation here? As Lacan tells us, we come into the world
offering ourselves up as partial objects to the Other's desire (Ecrits, 582/225),
hoping to be the object of the Other's desire, to win the Other's desire; and the
pervertwhose father's desire is not terribly pronounced, it would seem
"identifies with the imaginary object of [his mother's] desire, insofar as she

herself symbolizes it in the phallus" (Ecrits, 554/198). In other words, the

imaginary object of the mother's desire here is the phallusnot as a displaceable symbol, in the sense that the mother might desire, say, all the trappings
of status, all socially valorized objects, or a husband (or boyfriend or whatever) who resembles socially accepted images of "real men," sometime "possessors" of the phallus, but as an unsymbolized, nonfungible, undisplaceable
objectand the child attempts to become it for her. He attempts to be her little
prized possession, her little substitute penis, as Freud might have put it; and
the father often does not care to interfere (perhaps preferring to be left alone)
or is ineffectual in his attempts to interfere.
Using the kinds of schemas introduced in Chapter 8, we can represent the
pervert's situation as shown in Figure 9.1. When we compare this configu
ration with that of neurosis, we see that the pervert's "subject position" dues
not entail something outside or beyond the Other. Instead tIn'
subject, plays the role of object: the object that fills the void in the
speakA first division in the Other has occurred for tin' pervert,
ing: the Other is not whole; his mOther is lacking in sininihing, wants for
something. To the question "What am I?" the pervert responds, "I am that,"
that something she is lacking. Thus, for the pervert, there is no persistent



question of beingrn other words, no persistent question regarding his rai-

son d'tre.
To separate the boy from his mother here would entail forcing him to stop
being the phallus so he can have it, stop being the imaginary phallus in order to
obtain a symbolic one (through the father's recognition and esteem, through
social, symbolic channels). If he is the phallus for his mother, he wifi never

accede to a symbolic positionthat associated with symbolic castration.

Rather than becoming someone the mother can be proud of, he remains
someone she cuddles with, strokes, and perhaps even reaches sexual climax
with. He cannot go off to "make a name for himself" in the world, for it is not

symbolic stature that he is able to

He remains stuck at the level of

serving as his mother's be-all and end-all.



Figure 9.1

Primal repression allows the subject to come into being, but the child is then
ask, "What ans I? What am I to my parents?" The pervert constitutes
himself as what is lacking in the mOther; making himself into the object of her
(lIslw, he constitutes himself as her object a. He becomes what she is missing
(her penis/phallus) and what she wants. Heplugs up her lackwith himself. The
Other's desire/lack is, as I explained at length in Chapter 5, anxiety producing,
insofar as it is not named; the pervert's solution to this anxiety is to become the
object that can stop up the desire by providing the Other with jouissance, with
the kind of satisfaction that squelches desire (albeit temporarily).n
left to

This explains why it is so difficult to do analytic work with perverts: the

pervert casts himself in the role of object a, expecting to play the part of the
object that can satisfy (plug up) the analyst's desire. The analyst may be hard
pressed to maneuver the transference in such a way as to become the cause of
the perverse analysand's desire, when the latter works so hard to occupy the
position of cause of desire. The pervert would rather serve as the cause of the
analyst's anxiety and desire than let the analyst become the cause of his own
IInIsingM. It is thus quite difficult to do genuinely analytic work with perverts,
In gel them intrigued by unconscious formations

and by what the analyst


underscores in them, and to get their desire in motion. As Lacan says, object a
must be situated by the subject in the Other, the Other as analyst here, in order
for transference to be possible (Seminar X, July 3,

In order to articulate the pervert's position more rigorously, however, it

must be emphasized that the pervert deals not so much with the mOther's desire as

with her demand. As long as the desire/lack a child's mOther "has" is not
named or put into words, the child is confronted with her demand alone.
Strictly speaking, we cannot even say that he is confronted with her lack or
desire, since lack does not exist outside a symbolic system. Lacan's oft-repeated illustration of what constitutes lack is the example of a book that is not
present on a library shelf. From the perspective of perception, we cannot say
that the book is missing because we see only what is there, what is present,
not what is not there. It is only because of a symbolic gridfor example, the
Dewey decimal system or the Library of Congress book classification system
which provides the book with a designation or name (such as "BF 173, F23,
1899, v. 2") that we can say the volume is not in its place or is missing (volumes
1 and 3 being there, with no space between them). Nothing can be thought of
as missing except when there is a signifying system in which certain spaces or

places are laid out or ordained. We cannot think of something as missing

without language, without some kind of symbolic order.
What this implies is that we cannot even speak of the mother as lacking (so far
as her child is concerned) until she is said to be wanting in some respectuntil

she herself verbalizes a longing for something or someone or a desire for

something or someone other than her child, or until someone else (typically
the father) pronounces something about her desire (for example, that she is
envious of so and so, wants a fur coat, wants to be promoted, would like the
father to act like this instead of like that) or about her shortcomings. The child

cannot be said to understand his mother to be lacking or to desire until her

desire or lack has been formulated, put into words. Once it has been named,
the weight of her demands (her real, physically unavoidable demands regarding the child's bodily functions, for example) lifts, and a space of desire opens
upa space in which her desire is articulated and moves, and in which
child can model his desire on hers.
Until "it" is named, there is no lack; the child is submerged in 11w m( )iher

as demand and cannot adopt a stance of his own (a desire that constitutes a
stance with respect to jouissance, a defense against j uissanee), "Ike child here
is confronted with what we can refer to as a laeA u/
only the mOther's
demand exists; she is lacking in nothing "to speak ot." nothing that is symbolixable for the
Once named, however, tki "real kick" (the lack in the
example, her dissatisl.wtk,n wflh her husband, her career,



her whole lifethat she has been attempting to make good through her son,

even though it has never been spoken) is neutralized to some extent. As Lacan
says, the word is the death of the thing; the thing (the "real lack"), once named,

comes into being as a word that can be linked up with other words, joked
about, and so on. The word is far less dangerous than the thing it supposedly
signifies or designates, for it actually annihilates the thing, drains away some
of its oppressive force.
Once that which the mOther is missing is named, the object the child was for
his mOther can no longer exist. For once desire is articulated in words, it does
not sit still, but displaces, drifting metonymically from one thing to the next.

Desire is a product of language and cannot be satisfied with an object. The

naming of the mOther's desire forces the child out of his position as object, and

propels him into the quest for the elusive key to her desire. What does she
want? Something ineffable that seems to characterize the endless series of
things her desire alights uponwhat in Western society is known as the
phallus. No longer the real object (the real organ) required to complete her, the

child can go on to seek to possess what her desire points to, connotes as
desirable, as phallic.
The mOther's lack has to be named or symbolized for the child to come into
being as a full-fledged subject. In perversion, this does not occur: no signifier is
provided that can make this lack come into being at the level of thought, easing its
real weight. Neither the mother nor the father provides the articulation necessary for symholii.ation. As we see in Freud's work, the question of the mOther's

lack often centers, in perversion, around the mOther's genitalia, her sexual
if rene from her son. Later in this chapter, we shall see a detailed illustration
(It the importance of nomination (that is, naming), discussed thus far in rather
abstract terms, in a case that revolves around the mother's sexual organs.

In Chapter 7, I suggested that there are two moments of the paternal metaphor. This naming of the mOther's desire/lack is the second (logical) moment.
If the first moment of the paternal metaphor is the father's prohibition of the
child's pleasurable contact with its mother (prohibition of jouissance), le Nomdu-Pre taking the form of the father's "No," the second moment involves the
symbolization of the mOther's lackthat is, its constitution as lack due to the
fact that it is given a name (here we see le Nom-du-Pre as the name provided
by the father, or the father himself as the name of the mOther's desire).
11w two substitutive moments can be represented schematically as follows:
Father's "No!"
Mother as jouissance

Father's name
Mother as desire


Only the second moment can be considered genuinely metaphorical, since it

is only in the second that language operates in a full-fledged manner by

naming. These two moments correspond precisely to the two schemas provided in Figure 9.1: the first moment leads to a division within the mOther,
whereby the child comes into being as the object with which the Other obtains
satisfaction, while the second leads to the advent of a desiring subject (separate
from the Other as source of jouissance). The first corresponds to what Lacan

calls alienation, the second to separation. The first may also be fruitfully
associated with what Freud calls primal repression, the second with secondary
As I said earlier, my essential thesis here is that, although the pervert has

undergone alienation, he has not undergone separation. The psychotic has

undergone neither, while the neurotic has undergone both. This can be schematically represented as follows:


Father's "No!"
Mother as jouissance



Primary repression
Prohibition of jouissance

Father's name Neurosis

Mother as desire
Secondary repression
Naming of lack




If psychosis can be understood as owing to the absence or failure of paternal

prohibition, perversion can be understood as owing to the absence or failure
of symbolization.39

From Jouissance to Separation

In discussing perversion, Freud almost always emphasizes the subject's refusal of the law, his obstinate refusal to give up satisfaction; thus, in a sense,
Freud considers perversion almost exclusively from the perspective ol the
satisfaction the pervert continues to obtain.40 Lacan examines
what might be qualified as a more classically Freudian manner
like every other activity, must be considered in terms ol the
ttt)i% U
brings (however indirect or unintuitive), but also in k'rni's the hinction it
serves in relation to the law and separation. A neurohi sy.nl9kmt provides the
hirins in rder to bind
patient with a certain substitute satisfaction, but It
anxiety; so too, the pervert's activities serve a
that is not simply that
of achieving direct sexual satisfaction.4 Many neuronis think the pervert must



be getting an awful lot more satisfaction in life than they areindeed, many
analysts fall into the same trap. This stops them from seeing what it is that the
pervert's apparent "will to jouissance" (as Lacan calls it) is designed to do, is
in the service of, and is covering over.
Turning our attention from the kind of father Freud often seems to have
assumed to existthat is, the father who has no reservations about separating

his son from the boy's mother (the pervert being the son who obstinately
refuses to let this happen)to the all-too-common contemporary father who
never worked out his own problems with authority, does not believe fathers
should wield authority over their children, believes children are rational creatures and can understand adult explanations, prefers to let his wife discipline
the children, wants to be loved not feared, and who (perhaps to boot) allows

his wife to undercut his authority, we can begin to understand perversion

from a rather different
Perversion and the Law
One of the paradoxical claims Lacan makes about perversion is that while it
may sometimes present itself as a no-holds-barred, jouissance-seeking activity, its less apparent aim is to bring the law into being: to make the Other as
law (or law-giving Other) exist. The masochist's goal, for example, is to bring

the partner or witness to the point of enunciating a law and perhaps pronouncing a sentence (often by generating anxiety in the partner). While the
pervert seems to be able to obtain a kind of "primal satisfaction"transcending his own subjective division as a subject of language (who, like the rest of

us speaking beings, is not supposed to be able to obtain more than a mere

J)1t1411wt' ol jouissance: as Lacan tells us, "jouissance is prohibited to whoever
821/3191), and finding a kind of wholeness or completeness
neurotics can only dream of or fantasize aboutanxiety in fact dominates the
pervert's sexuality. The pervert's conscious fantasies may involve a kind of

unending jouissance (consider the Marquis de Sade's numerous scenarios

where the male sexual organ never manifests any limit in its ability to recom-

mence sexual activity), but we must not confuse conscious fantasies with
concrete activity, and the latter is designed to place limits on jouissance.43

Desire is always a defense, "a defense against going beyond a [certain I

limit in jouissance" (Ecrits, 825/322), and the pervert's desire is no exception.
lnr example, the masochist, in fantasy, seems to do everything for the Other
and nothing for himself: "Let the Other get off on me, use me as he or she
titr he seems to say. Beyond this fantasy, however, his aim is somewhat
dtlk,enl beyond this apparent altruism "Nothing for me, everything for


the Other!"there is something in it for him. Desire as a defense appears

in the pervert's fundamental fantasy that manifests his position with respect
to the law.
The neurotic desires in relation to the law: the father says the child cannot
have its mother, and the child thus unconsciously desires her. The pervert, on
the other hand, does not desire as a function of the lawthat is, does not
desire what is prohibited. Instead, he has to make the law come into being. Lacan
plays on the French term perversion, writing it as pere-version, to emphasize the
sense in which the pervert calls upon or appeals to the father, hoping to make
the father fulfill the paternal function.

Some Structures of Perversion

To make this discussion more concrete, let's turn to the individual perversions.
Since this book is an introduction, not an exhaustive description of each and
every clinical structure, I will focus primarily on fetishism, sadism, and maso-

chism, the perversions Lacan discusses most extensively (see "Kant with
Sade," in Ecrits and Seminar X).

Fetishism: Analysis of a Case

If the Name-of-the-Father were to speak, it would say, "You are not the phallus!"
Jacques-Alain Miller, "Donc," June 29,


illustrate some of the claims I have made about perversion thus far in
this chapter, I will use a case that is quite contemporary, not one that dates
back to Freud's time. While it is not one of my own cases, I have decided
to introduce it here because it is readily available in English (though probably not well known), a mere fifteen pages long, and extremely provocative.
It is entitled "Fetishi.zation of a Phobic Object," and was written by

The case is that of a man who, as a young child, has an extremely close bond
with his mother, and whose fatherthough he lives at home with hiM wilt' 4tnd
sonis effaced for most intents and purposes. The mother t,ikis her MOIi, Jean,

as her complement in life, for her husband means nothing In her mind does
nothing for her. Jean becomes that which she is missing md which can make
her whole. At first she cares for him when he is ill, hut then begins to pretend
that he is ill even when he is not (manually he.iting up the thermometer to
make it seem he has a lever), so that he
needs a devoted mother's



attention. One of the striking things in this case is that, by the kinds of medical
treatments she subjects him to, she makes his whole body into a red, swollen,
puss-discharging object that the patient himself can only describe years later
as a kind of living dildo with which she does as she pleases. To her, he is the
penis she wants; at the level of being, he is the real object she wants to make
The father imposes no separation between mother and son, is clearly not an

object of the mother's desire, and can in no way be considered to willfully

instate any kind of triangulation at first. The mother displays no desire for
anything other than Jean; there is no outside, no object that draws her toward
something other than Jean, and thus Jean cannot wonder what it is his mother
wants: he knows. She wants him to be her real, living complement. There is
nothing symbolic about the position he has in her desire. For example, since
he is an only child, he is not the second of three children, all of whom she
might profess to love equally; nor is he second in line when the father makes
demands upon his wife. There is no symbolic place for him at all. To be an
object is the opposite of having a symbolic place. Certain important preconditions of psychosis are thus present in Jean's case.
At age six, however, Jean develops appendicitis, is rushed to the hospital,
and wakes up to the sight of his father holding Jean's appendix in a jar, smiling
radiantly at the excised organ. Jean never again plays along with his mother's
"treatments," refusing henceforth to be the penis for her with his whole body,
with his entire being. The father's presence at his bedside and approval of the
organ removal seems to finally bring about a kind of displaced circumcision
or loss symboliiing castration: a first division (or alienation) between Jean and
hI'4 ,nother, 11w father "bars" or "cancels out" the mother herein the sense
briefly described in Chapter 7 in my discussion of the paternal metaphorby

exacting his due (the excised organ), and the paternal metaphor is instated.
Jean does not become
Jean's mother nevertheless continues to view Jean as "my little man" and
lets him know that his penis is inadequate to give her everything she needs:
she refers to his penis as ton petit bout, "your little end or bit," the "little"
suggesting "too little"; often, however, she simply calls it ton bout, "your end."
She never stops looking for some sort of real satisfaction from him, however,
and always asks him to come help her get dressed. He senses that his penis is
truly at stake or involved in his relationship with her, for at the age of six he

experiences (what he describes twenty years later as) a kind of abrupt and
pleasure in his penis, a sort of orgasm, one day while helping her
Jean is never praised by his mother for the speed at which he learns
sistv wIIr4lM, songs, stories, and so onin a word for his symbolic achieve-


ments as a child. He is valued only as an extension of herself, an extension that

provides her with narcissistic and bodily pleasure.
One day Jean overhears his father refer, or so it seems to him, to the mother's
genitals as her "button" (bouton, a simple inversion of the syllables contained
in her euphemistic term for his penis: ton bout), naming her physical difference

for the first time, putting a metaphorical name on her "lack." The naming is
not done decisively, it seems (perhaps due to the son's uncertainty over what
exactly it is the father is referring to, or the fact that it is not repeated in the
mother's presence, and so on), and we see in the fetish Jean forms an attempt
to supplement the father's act of naming: he comes to abhor buttons (the kind
used on clothing) when they occur singly, but is turned on by many buttQns
of the same kind in a rowthe more the better. it is not a "simple" button
fetish, for he is aroused only by rows of identical buttons, and is compelled to
follow only women who wear clothes that sport numerous identical buttons
in a row. In the course of his analysis, he explains that the more buttons there
are, the weightier his father's contribution (la part du pere) becomes. The more
buttons, the less he feels that his mOther's lack/desire is incommensurate
(dnwsur), overwhelming.

The name the father seems to have provided (and as I've already pointed
out, the French term Nom-du-Pre can also mean the name given by the fatherthat is, the term used by the father to name the mOther's desire) becomes more powerful the more buttons there are, and Jean can feel safer and
more separate than at any other time. Hence, the perversion (that is, the fetish)

serves to multiply the force of the father's symbolic action (putting the
mOther's lack into words), to supplement or prop up the paternal
The name given by the father is a start, a first step, but does not go far enough.
It needs support, it needs amplification.49
In Chapter 7,1 ifiustrated the function of the father's name in the following

Father's name
Mother's desire
Since the mother's desire here seems to be for a real, anatomical penis
we can rewrite the substitution as follows:
Real penis

I put "button" in quotes to emphasize that it is the word "button" that is

operative here, not the material object. The real penis Is riplaced by a word;
Jean's real organ is thereby spared, and his

lack named, He need not



hand his organ over to the mOther, nor suffer anxiety owing to the lack of lack

in his relationship with her: her lack is named and thereby delimited ("It's
only a button").
The problem is that "button" can accomplish this only in situations where
he sees a woman wearing a multitude of identical buttons, and thus the
anxiety-relieving separation (brought on by propping up the father's act of
naming) has to be repeated again and again. it is never final and definitive.
It would appear that what is enjoyable for Jean in such situations is the
fleeting separation itself. Strange as this may seem, we should bear in mind
that separation is part and parcel of what Freud terms "castration," and that
there is a very intimate relationship between castration and jouissance. There is a
kind of jouissance in being separated from one's jouissance.5 Jean, in a sense,

is repeatedly led to attempt to complete his castration.

To talk about Jean in terms of disavowal, we could say that Jean's fetish
suggests a twofold attitude regarding his father and his father's name: "1 know
full well that my father hasn't truly named my mOther's lack, but I will stage
the accomplishment of that naming." Using somewhat different terms, we
could say that Jean makes the Other existnot the mOther, but the symbolic,
law-giving Other. The pervert knows that his own father is not such an Other,
but makes this Other exist via the perverse act. Having served as that which
completes the mOther (as her complement), the pervert attempts to complete
the Other as law.
It is this twofold attitude toward the fatherinvolving the realization that
he has not named or legislated, yet staging that naming or enunciation of the
I,iwwhich is the very definition of the term "disavowal" as I am using it

The "Maternal Phallus"

Lack is graspable only by means of the symbolic.
Lacan, Seminar X, January 30, 1963
The phallus

is nothing but the site of lack it indicates in the subject.5'

Lacan, Ecrits, 877

What might Freud's theory of fetishism have to do with Jean? According to

Freud, a fetish secretly represents the maternal phallus the pervert believes in,
as he does to accept the fact that his mother does not have a penis,
l'ri,ius' Ihis would imply that she has been castrated and thus that he too


could suffer the same fate. We can assume that Jean had, at one time or
another, seen his mother's genitals, since she enjoyed having him watch and
help her get dressed. And certainly the button fetish is strildngly related to the
word Jean's father seems to have used to designate the mother's genitalsa
word that turns out to include the same syllables as the term Jean's mother
used to describe Jean's own genitals. Perhaps Jean believed that her button
was essentially equivalent to his "end." We could then try to understand his
fear of one button alone as follows: she has a penis of her own, does not need
mine, and therefore there is no place at all for me in the world. But according
to Freud's theory, it would seem that one button should turn him on, since it
simultaneously represents the mother's never-castrated organ and his own
(and thus represents the preservation of his jouissance), whereas in fact one
button horrifies him, and a whole line of identical buttons excites him. How
can we account for these clinical elements?

Note that no castration threat was ever made to Jean, and he was never
asked (much less told) not to play with himself. Indeed, Tostain tells us that
Jean continued to masturbate uninterruptedly from an early age. Thus, an
important facet of Freud's theory of fetish-formation is missing in this case:
there is no conflict here between the patient's narcissistic attachment to his

penis and his father's castration threat. We cannot say that Jean's mother
implicitly threatens to cut it off, since she seems quite content to simply use it,
to employ it in her "sexual service."

I am not suggesting that Freud's notion of the maternal phallus is of no

importance, since many of my own analysands and certain children have
amply proven to me that they believe in it, at least at some level. What I am
proposing is that it be seen within the larger Lacanian context of the naming
of the mother's lack or desire. it is common to find phobics and perverts who
believe that their mothers have a penis (or something along those lines), and

the general reason for this belief is the father's inadequate naming of the
mother's desire. Not every fetishist believes, at one level, that his mother has
a penis, while at another level disbelieving it; but every fetish does revolve
around the question of the mother's lack. Only Lacan explains this to us iu its.
fidl generality via the function of naminga putting into words.

On the Analytic Treatment of Perversion

ol I
This brief sketch of Jean's case history ullustr.ties
theory of
perversion. The case also raises the pressing
It seems
clear that, despite years of Iruitlul
1i,in kws not change structures: he remains perverse. Indeed, as Is geller4lly true, structures seem quite



irrevocable beyond a certain age. We see in Jean's case that a particular life

event (his appendicitis at age six) and his father's reaction to it can probably

be considered responsible for the fact that Jean becomes a pervert, not a
psychotic. But coming to analysis at age twenty-six, Jean has little hope of
becoming a neurotic: once again it seems that the paternal function must be
operative by a certain age, or else.. . (ou pire).
This does not mean that Jean could get nothing out of his analysis; certainly
a great deal of his anxiety and suffering abated in the course of it. Tostain does

not tell us to what extent he himself, as Jean's analyst, was able to become
Jean's cause of desire, leading Jean to adopt a different position, if only in the
analytic relationship. We can only assume that this occurred to some extent
and that Jean's fundamental fantasy was at least partly modified.
In certain cases that I myself have supervised, I have seen a gradual shift on
the part of genuinely perverse subjects from positions in which they engaged
in no wondering of any kind about their own actions, feelings, and thoughts
court orders or the hope of getting a rise out of their therapist seeming to be
their only motive for showing up for therapyto positions of true questioning. If there is never a loss of certainty about where jouissance comes from,
there is at least a lessening of certainty about motives. This is accompanied by
partial relinquishing of the role of object a to the therapist.

perversi' subject loyally offers himself up to the Other's jouissance.

Lacan, Seminar X, December 5, 1962

In the material that h)llows, I shall not present the elaborate four-term
of masochism and sadism Lacan provides in the Ecrits, since too much additional explanation would be required.52 My discussions of these clinical struc-

tures should thus be viewed as partial. Nevertheless, with what has already
been said about desire, jouissance, and the law, certain essential features of
these structures can be outlined.
Though it may appear that the masochist devotes himself to giving his
partner jouissance (the partner standing in for the Other here) while asking for
nothing in returnin other words, that he sacrifices himself by becoming the
instrument of the Other's jouissance, obtaining no enjoyment for himself
I .4wan suggests that that is but a cover: the masochist's fantasy dissimulates
Irut aim of his actions. As we have seen several times, fantasy is essentially

thit tonceals the subject's mainspring, masking what truly makes the


subject "tick." While the masochist would like to believe and to make us
believe that he "aims to give the Other jouissance,"53 in fact he "aims to make
the Other anxious" (Seminar X, March 13, 1963). Why does he do so?
Like the fetishist, the masochist is in need of separation, and his solution is
to orchestrate a scenario whereby it is his partner, acting as Other, who lays

down the lawthe law that requires him to give up a certain jouissance. A
partner is not necessarily, however, immediately willing to legislate, give
orders, make decrees, and so on in a relationship; a partner must often be
pushed to some extent, bullied into declaring limits, into expressing his will
that things be one way and not another, that things go no further. Often a
partner must be pushed to the breaking point, to a point of intense anxiety,
before he explosively expresses his wifi in the form of commands ("Stop!" for
"The masochist tries to bring something into being. . . by which the Other's
desire makes the law" (Seminar X, January 16, 1963), and the Other must often
first be made extremely anxious before he agrees to enunciate the law. Though

the masochist seems to be single-mindedly devoting himself to "pleasuring"

the Other, the Other cannot take it after a certain point: jouissance becomes
unbearable, and the partner finally imposes limits on it. By making the Other
anxious (by making himself into the instrument of the Other's jouissance), the
masochist manages to get himself commanded (sefaire commander, a formulation of the masochist's drive).
Thus, it is the masochist's own desire that leads the dance here: he makes the
partner, as Other, lay down the law. Where the father's desire (to separate his
son) is lacking, the masochist uses his own desire to push a father substitute

to legislate and exact punishment. He pretends that it is the Other who is

laying down the law, when he himself is the one pulling the strings. His own
desire takes the place of the Other's desire as law, staging or enacting it, as it
were, and propping it up.
This, it seems, is the specificity of disavowal as we see it at work in masochism. Separation, as part and parcel of castration, has not occurred, and the
subject himself is compelled to bring about its completion. He is never altogether successful in doing so, and thus must reinitiate the enactment again and
Though it is often thought that the masochist is in search of pain, this is not
what is essential; pain is merely a sign that the Other has agrettl to Impose a
condition, limit, toll, penance, or loss upon him, l'unishment may momentarily provide a form of relief to the masochist: it is the proot that there is someone
the pound of flesh.
who is demanding a sacrifice of him and who is
encounter in which he
As one ol my analysands said about a briel



played the slave, "It felt as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoul-

ders." The problem is that the symbolic space in which the masochist can come
into being is never supplied: the partner pronounces the law ("You've been a

very bad boy, and now you shall be punished," or "You know you weren't
supposed to do that") and exacts something, but provides no genuine separation in return. The masochist remains an imaginary object for his mOther's
desire, never becoming someone with symbolic status who can see himself as
valued for his social, cultural, or other symbolically designated achievements.
Failing all else, the masochist accepts here the vociferous father or mother

who only in anger expresses desire for something to stop or change, the
ferocious parent who gets off on imputing blame and inflicting pain. The
masochist knows not the symbolic father who supposedly imposes

the child's own good"; his experience teaches him that limits are merely
expressions of the parent's desire. He knows not the father who yields his son
a certain space of his ownthat is, the father of the "symbolic pact" who says,
"This is mine and that is yours," limiting his own jouissance at the same time
as he limits his son's. The masochist knows only the father whose own jouissance is the sole limit imposed on the son's, the father who criticizes and limits
without appealing to principles, but simply "because that's the way I want it."

Jouissance and the Moral Law


in its very wording.


Lacan, Ecrits, 771

(erlain moralists and ethical philosophers, such as Kant, would have us

believe that moral principles are "rational" and objective, and that *e can
accept to live by them "rationally" just because they are "true." Freud suggests, however, that a principle is nothing in someone's psychical reality until
a quantum of libido has been attached to it; in other words, a moral principle,
like any other thought ( Vorstellung), has to be cathected before it can play a role

in someone's psychical economy. And the psychical agency in which Freud

situates moral principles is the superego, which takes pleasure in criticizing
the egonot simply reminding the ego of the law, but getting off on berating

the ego for its failure to execute the law and enjoying a kind of vicious
enunciation of the law. The superego, as the internalization of the criticism we
receive from our parents, is a repository not merely of the moral principles our
hand down to us, but also of the kind of harshness we sense in their
when they lecture, scold, and punish us. The superego can be ferocious


in certain cases, obviously taking a good deal of pleasure in badgering, berating, and bludgeoning the ego, but the important point here is that it is impossibleexcept in philosophical treatisesto divorce the statement of a moral
principle from the libido or jouissance attached to its enunciation; it is impossible to divorce a precept taught us by our parents (for example, "DO unto
others as you would have others do unto you") from the tone of voice in which
it was pronounced.

The moral law, as it plays a role in our psychical lives, is not an abstract
proposition, principle, or statement with universal or quasi-universal application: it is an enunciation, announcement, proclamation, or kerygma. The moral
lawwhether it goes by the name of the "voice within," the voice of conscience, or the superegooriginates in parental voices, most typically in the
voice of the
It is experienced by children as an expression of the Other's
desire. The father who "lays down the law" for his children expresses, an-

nounces, and proclaims his desire for things to be a certain way and not

The moral law is thus inextricably associated with expressions of the Other's
desire and jouissance, and the masochist seeks to elicit that jouissance in lieu
of the law. Since he cannot obtain the symbolic law as such, he seeks that
which he somehow understands to be associated with it. The Other's desire or
will is accepted by the masochist instead of the law, in place of the law, in the
absence of the law. As Lacan mentions, the Marquis de Sade (better known as
a sadist, but in this instance manifesting decidedly masochistic tendencies)

pushes his mother-in-law, Madame de Montreuil, to the point where she

expresses her will that Sade be punished. It is her desire or will that has to
serve Sade as a law. Not the law, but a law.
The neurotic tends to be upset when the enunciation of the law is accompanied by jouissance on the part of the enunciator. The neurotic senses that there
has been some kind of miscarriage of justice or abuse of power when a judge

makes certain kinds of comments or adopts a certain tone in sentencing a

criminal: "If it were up to me, Mr. Jones, given your heinous crimes, your
sentences would run consecutively and you would be unable to even
here "justice" becomes vindiiiive, ted
for parole until you were
ing its mandated role to act objectively and dispassiuwlely. the neurotk
implicitly grasps the notion and even clings to the ideal of the
applies rules that
who is fair, impartial, and disinterested, and who
hi' signifies the
govern everyone equally. "This symbolic Path.'r,
Law, is clearly the dead Father" (Ecrils, 55b/ lilt)) that hi, the father who can
"perverse" pleasure
experience no jouissancc, who cannot derive simw
from the enunciation of the law.



The pervert seems to be cognizant, at some level, of the fact that there is
always some jouissance related to the enunciation of the moral law. The
neurotic would prefer not to see it, since it strikes him or her as indecent,

obscene. The symbolic law is supposed to be free of invocations of this kind.

Indeed, it would seem that the pervert accepts the invocations in lieu of the
symbolic law itself, unable as he is to obtain the latter. The criminal justice
system, with its often vicious guards and wardens, certainly provides perverts
who are subjected to it confirmation that vindictiveness and cruelty constitute
the hidden face of the law.
Incarceration nevertheless continues to serve as an often sought-after form
of punishment for the masochist, who wants some sort of substitute symbolic
castration. As Lacan says, "Recourse to the very image of castration can come
as a relieving, salutary solution to [issue a] anxiety for the masochist" (Seminar
X, March 26, 1963). The subject in need of separation turns and returns for
relief to whatever substitute castration can be had.57

Sadism is not the inverse of masochism
The move from one to theother involves a quarterrotation fin a four-term schema 1, not some sort of symmetry or inversion.58
I.acan, Seminar X, March 13, 1963

depicted, he does everything possible to

dnxiety in other people. His goal is not simply to harm them; indeed,
ottin this is hut a contingency, a mere byproduct of his concern with making
In every movie in which a sadist is

them anxiously anticipate a horrible, painful death or torment. The importance to the sadist of the victim's anxiety is thus recognized by the popular
mind as well as by the sadist himself; indeed, in his fantasies he views it as an
absolute conditionthat is, as absolutely necessary if they are to provide
pleasure. But as we have seen, what is crucial in fantasies is no more than a

That does not mean that the sadist must then be seeking to give the Other
jouissance, as might be thought by simply reversing our earlier formulation
regarding the masochist (apparently seeking to give jouissance, he is actually
attempting to arouse anxiety). Sadism and masochism are not simple inversions of each other. What is covered over by the sadist's fantasies, Lacan tells
us, Is that lie is seeking to isolate object a (Seminar X, March 13, 1963).

Whit does this mean? Let us consider the villain in a typical B movie. What

ksi h. do to the hero when he captures him? The villain tics him up in such


a way that if he tries to free himself, his beloved falls into a pool of boiling acid.
In this way, the hero is forced to contemplate the imminent loss of what is most
precious to him: his cause of desire, the woman who for him embodies object
a. In certain cases, the hero is not even aware that this woman is what is most

important to him in the world until he sees her dangling by a thread over the
boiling caidron: an object becomes object a at the very moment one is threatened with

its loss. The breast becomes an object a for an infant when weaning is initiated,
not before. it is when a certain will sets out to separate you from an object that
this object manifests itself as the cause of your desire.

Object a comes into being due to the lawor the Other's desire or will
standing in for the lawthat is applied to it. According to Freud, anxiety
arises as a "signal" indicating a
Lacan suggests that the danger in
question is "related to the characteristic of cession [the French here means
yielding, transferring, giving up, or handing over to another person] at the
moment constitutive of object a" (Seminar X, July 3, 1963). In other words, the
danger that brings on anxiety is the subject's imminent renunciation of satis-

faction derived from an object (the breast, feces, and so on). The parent, in
making demands, lays down a law (of weaning or toilet training, for example)
that isolates an object, cutting it away from its context or background, creating
a foreground and a background: the breast is constituted as a separate object
at the moment at which it is prohibited.6 Anxiety, Lacan tells us, is not like
fantasy, which can serve as a cover or veil; anxiety is never deceptive (ne
trompe pas): it always indicates that the object is about to be lost. Anxiety never
lies. The sadist's aim thus is not anxiety itself, but what it attests to: the object
to which the law applies.
A boy's penis may be an object of his narcissistic interest, but it is not until
the father's law is enunciated that the boy's penis becomes isolated or engendered as an object that can be lost (castrated)in other words, as an object a.

it is the father's prohibition that, in the typical Oedipal scenario, isolates this
object: the penis the father threatens to cut off unless the subject gives up the
pleasure he gets from it in his (real or fantasy) relationship with his mother."
The sadist believes that it would be the symbolic Other's will to wrist 11w
object from him, to take away his jouissance, if only the Other n'ally i'xisktl,
oF 11w t )Ilwr In
The sadist, for whom the law has not operated, plays the
his scenario in order to make the Other exist, and seeks to
Lor hIs victim
the object to which the law applies. Unlike the maseehist, who has to orchestrate things in such a way that his partner cnunciatis th, 141w even though he
is the one pulling the strings, the sadist's own will ian play 11w part of the law.

In a sense, the sadist plays both parts: legislator

of the law,

lawgiver and the one on whom the exaction or limit Is Imposed. To the sadist,



the victim's anxiety over the isolation or designation of the object about to be
lost is proof of the enunciation of the law, proof that the law requiring separation has been pronounced. It seems to be a moot point whether the law thus

enunciated applies to the other or to himself, since at a certain level he

identifies with his
As was true in the case of the masochist, this staging of the enunciation of
the law by the sadist does not suffice to bring on any kind of lasting separation
or to provide him with a symbolic place. He remains an object (imaginary or
real) for the mOther's desire, never becoming someone who can see himself as

valued for his symbolic achievements. Castration is never completed, and

here, too, disavowal concerns the castrating or separating function of the
father: "1 know full well he hasn't required this of me, but . . ." It is the
ever-repeated staging of castration that brings the sadist, like the masochist
and the fetishist, a kind of jouissance. It is not some kind of "polymorphously
perverse" jouissance that they obtain from every zone of their bodies; it is not
a return to some sort of presymbolic stage where the body has not yet been
written with signifiers. They get off on the enactment of castration.

Perversion and Jouissance

On the face of it, perversion is diametrically opposed to neurosis when it comes
to jouissance. The neurotic says, "The Other must not get off on me!" while certain perverts seem to say, "Let the Other get off on me!" "Let me become 'the instrument of the Other's jouissance" (Ecrits, 823/320). Nevertheless, as we have
seen, this is not the whole story; indeed, it is but the screen. The pervert does not
say to himself, "I'm doing all of this in order tobe able to completemy own separatk)n, my OWfl castration; I've got to manage to make theOtherexistand get the
1,1w pronotsiwed!" Instead, he conceives of himself quite differently: as the object ready and willing to do anything to give the Other pleasure in masochism,
as the instrument of the Other's anxiety in sadism, and soon.
What appears from the outside to be a no-holds-barred pursuit of satisfaction by the pervert himself is, in fact, a defense of sorts: the attempt to bring
into being a law that restrains the pervert's jouissance, that bridles or checks
him on the road to jouissance (Seminar X, February 27, 1963). The pervert's
will to jouissance (pursuit of satisfaction) encounters its limit in a law of his
own makinga law he makes the Other lay down, stipulate, mandate (even
If, as in the case of sadism, the sadist himself plays the role of Other and victim

l'ar.Ido)dcally, perhaps, he gets off on the staging of the very operation

.'.ti.ilkin) that is supposed to require a loss of jouissance. He derives satis


faction from the enactment of the very operation which demands that he
separate from the source of his satisfaction.

Castration and the Other

What analytic experience attests to is that castration is. . what regulates desire, in both normal
and abnormal cases.

Lacan, Ecrits, 826/323

Castration means that jouissance has to be refrsed in order to be attained on the inverse scale of

the law of desire.

Lacan, Ecrits, 827/324

We have seen that perversion differs from neurosis and psychosis in impor-

tant ways. Whereas the psychotic may suffer from what is experienced as an
invasion of jouissance in his or her body, and the neurotic attempts above all
to avoid jouissance (maintaining an unsatisfied or impossible desire), the
pervert gets off on the very attempt to draw limits to his jouissance. Whereas
in psychosis the Other does not exist (since its principal anchoring point, the
Name-of-the-Father, is not instated), and in neurosis the Other exists only too
ponderously (the neurotic wishing to get the Other off his or her back), in
perversion the Other must be made to exist: the pervert has to stage the Other's
existence by propping up the Other's desire or will with his own.M

The symbolic Other




Is lacking, thus
does not exist
as such


Must be made
to exist

The pervert and the psychotic engage in an attempt to supplenu'nl the paternul
frnction that brings the symbolic Other into existencethe pervert by stagiiag
or enacting the enunciation of the law, the psychotic by fomenting a ili'Iuslonal
metaphor. Even certain phobias, in which a phobic object is put in the place of
the NameoftheFather, involve a form of

at ion ii/ the

lion. Nevertheless, the psychotic's supplementation

the pervert's and phobic's aims at separation.
Let us turn now to the mOther, the imaginary or re.iI mother. In psychosis

she is never barred by the Name-o(-the-lathe,, ami the psychotic never



emerges from her as a separate subject; in neurosis she is effectively barred by

the Name-of-the-Father, and the neurotic does emerge as a separate subject; in
perversion the Other must be made to exist so that the mOther can be barred

and the pervert can emerge as something other than an imaginary object of
her desire.

Psychosis means there has been no effective prohibition of the child's jouissance in its relationship with its motherthat is, no inscription of the father's

"No!"due either to the father's absence or failure to impose himself as

symbolic father, on the one hand, or to the child's refusal to accept that
prohibition, on the other (or some combination of both). Perversion involves
the inability to name something having to do with the mOther's desire (the
father does not seem to be what she wants), to name or symbolize something
having to do with sexthe mOther's lack'5the result being that the pervert

is faced with a lack of lack that generates anxiety. Neurosis involves the
inability to enjoy oneself, due to all the Other's idealsthat is, the inability to
separate from the Other as language.

Neurotics arc often very uncertain about what they want and what turns
them on, whereas perverts are often quite certain. Even when neurotics do
know, they are often highly inhibited in their ability to pursue it; perverts, in
generally far less inhibited in their pursuit. Neurotics may often
have perverse fantasies in which they act in a very uninhibited manner, but
this does not make them perverts, from a structural vantage point.
In The Lacanian Subject, I described three moments constitutive of subjectivityalienation, separation, and the traversing of fantasythat help us understand the three main clinical structures. These moments can be schematized as
three substitutions or substitutional


In alienation, the Other dominates, since the child comes into being as a subject

of language (the child is, we might say, enticed into language, seduced into
making the "forced choice" between pleasure and language, between the
pleasure principle and the reality principle); this does not occur in psychosis.

In separation, object a as the Other's desire comes to the fore and takes
precedence over or subjugates the subject; this does not occur in perversion,

for the pervert himself occupies the position of object a, not allowing the
Other's desire to serve as cause of his own: he is the real object that plugs up
the mOther's desire. In the traversing of fantasy, the subject subjectifies the
cause of his or her existence (the Other's desire: object a), and is characterized
by desirousness; this does not occur in neurosis.
In this sense, these three moments can be described as a sort of progression:
psychosis alienation =' perversion
perversion separation neurosis
neurosis traversing of fantasy beyond neurosis
Simply put, the difference between perversion and psychosis is alienation, and
the difference between neurosis and perversion is separation. Without alienation, there is psychosis; alienation without separation leads to perversion; and
alienation and separation without the traversing of fantasy leads to neurosis.
The traversing of fantasy leads the subject beyond castration, beyond neurosis,
into largely unexplored territory.67
In schematic terms, we can represent psychosis, perversion, and neurosis as
shown in Figure 9.2. These graphical representations allow us to posit that,
understood in terms of the mOther's desire, the psychotic's whole being and
body are required to fulfill the mOther (the psychotic is engulfed within the
mOther); the pervert's real penis is required to fulfill the same task; and the
neurotic's symbolic achievements are required but never suffice for the same
job: the neurotic's mOther always wants something else.


figure 9.2




Freud's whole investigation comes down to this: "What does it mean to be afat her?
Lacan, Seminar W, 204

To many readers, all of this talk about the Other, the law, the symbolic order,

structure, language, and naming may seem quite odd. What could pathology,

as we see it so concretely in the clinical setting, possibly have to do with

making the Other exist? Readers familiar with Freud's work may feel that
Freud at least stayed closer to the observable clinical features of cases, as
far-fetched as his analyses may at times seem. Even when people find Freud's
notions about the phallus and castration excessive or misguided, at least they

feel that these notions are not so obscurethey have the sense that they
understand what Freud is up to, and why he was led to introduce ideas that
depart so significantly from the clinical facts at hand.
Yet with such notionsand with his myths of the primal father who keeps all
of the women in the primal horde to himself, and of the sons who band together
to kifi the father, but who then impose the first egalitarian laws upon one another (see Totem and Taboo and Civilization and Its Discontents)Freud goes be-

yond his own ability to provide explanations. We create myths to account for
things we cannot explain otherwise, and though generations of psychoanalysts
after Freud have simply regarded his myths as wild imaginings, they demonstra te the necessity of such constructions to Freud's thought. The father, the law,
the renunciation of "autoerotic" satisfactionall of these are absolutely crucial

to Ireud's way of thinking about individual cases and diagnostic categories,

and it is Lacan who, benefiting from forty-five years of work in linguistics beginning with Saussure, recasts the Freudian myths in more scientific terms.
I'sychoanalysis has not, with Lacan, completely moved beyond the stage of
cosmology, of mythological thinking; indeed, at certain points, Lacan deliberBut his work on the relationship between
ately provides his own
words and the world (signifiers and "reality"), and on the movements and
displacements within language itself (metaphor and metonymy), provides the
necessary linguistic basis for understanding the crucial role of the Freudian
father. The paternal function served by the latter is grounded in linguistics; his

function is a symbolic one. His crucial role is not to provide love-as the
politically correct popular mind is so likely to sustain to the exclusion of all
elsebut to represent, embody, and name something about the mother's
Serving a symbolic funcdesire and her sexual difference: to metaphorize
lion, hi' need not be the biological father, or even a man. It is the symbolic
limi lion Itself that is essential.


The Paternal Metaphor as Explanatory Principle

Understood as involving two distinct logical moments, and as instating the
symbolic order as such, the paternal metaphor can be usefully understood as
providing a subject with an "explanatory principle," an explanation of the
why and wherefore of its having been brought into the world, an interpretation of the constellation of its parents' desire (and oftentimes grandparents'
desire, as well) that led to its being born. To illustrate this, let us consider
Freud's case of little Hans (SE X, 1149).

Little Hans does not automatically understand what role the father plays in
procreation. Indeed, his parents provide all kinds of nonsensical explanations
about where babies come fromexplanations that involve the stork and that
obfuscate even the mother's rolebut Hans is never completely duped: he
sees his mother's stomach grow, hears her groans from the bedroom one day,
and notices the simultaneous appearance of his sister Hanna and disappearance of his mother's large stomach. He grasps in his own way the mother's
crucial role in bringing children into the world.
But his mother certainly does not prefer his father or Hanna to himshow-

ing him in so many ways that he is the apple of her eye-and always gets
her way, skirting the father's occasionally expressed displeasure when she
allows Hans in her bed. Hans is aware of his father's displeasure (though he
cannot get his father to admit to it) and is able to raise the question "What
does my mother want?"that is, he is not psychoticbut he is unable to
answer it with anything other than himself: "She wants me." ("Me" here is
a specific object; we are dealing with demand, not desire, strictly speaking.)

He repeatedly asks his father what role the father played in his birth and
whether Hans is his mother's child or also his father's child (SE X, 92 and
100), and the father bumblingly accords all procreative power to the mother
(and to God, but God here is declared to go along with whatever the mother
wants [SE X, 91]). The father never allows Hans to grasp the father's role in
begetting childrena role which is not immediately graspable, which requires explanation and thus languageor the place a father might have in

a mother's desire. Hans is thus left believing that he is the product of

mother's desire alone, not the product of their joint desires, contradsctory
and intertwined as they may be. Though he can wonder and even ask about
his reason for being, the answer that presents itselt is alw.ivs the
was brought into the world to serve her.
e.isily tr.mslatable
Hans, who is never afraid of carts drawn by two fun
Is drawn by one horse
as two parents, a father and a motherbut only of
someone or something
X, 91), is unable to find a place for his



outside himself that serves as a relay of his mother's desire, an object of her

desire that goes beyond him. There is no name for what she wants: there is
only Hans as the object that can satisfy her demands. A first barrier has been
erected between Hans and his mother, since Hans knows his father disapproves of their close relationship, but her desire is never named and thus never
comes into being as such (in other words, as desire for something else, something other than Hans). Hans feels that all of him is required to keep her
satisfied, and this is the true source of his anxiety. Once a first barrier has been
erected, the subject does not simply rejoice in being the mother's sole source
of jouissance; this role is both enjoyable (Hans' pleasure in "coaxing" with his
mother) and threatening (for he senses that he can have no life beyond her).
"Hans" is the only name of her desire.7
Hans' phobia is an attempt to put some other being (a certain kind of horse)
into the father's place between mother and child, as shown in the figure. It is
a being to which he can attribute pride and anger, the sentiments he believes
his father feels when he sees Hans in bed with his mother (though the father
denies any such sentiments, no doubt in part to conform to his and his wife's
initial decision to raise the boy with the least possible coercion [SE X, 61). The
phobic object here binds or reduces his anxiety





about being the sole object of his mother's affections for a certain amount
of time (and takes on many attributes that I cannot go into here), yet it
Providc4 no permanent solution: the phobia dissipates when Hans finds a
new solution. But the solution he finds is not a metaphorical one, whereby
his mother's desire/lack7' is named (indicating that she wants, say, status,
wealth, a "real" man, advancement in a career, or recognition in an artistic
or musical fieldsomething beyond Hans that Hans would then have to
grapple with, perhaps trying to help her achieve it or to give it to her through

his own accomplishments). I would argue that it is a metonymic solution,

whereby Hans simply hopes to have a child of his own whom he can offer

up to his mother in exchange for himself. To get his mother off his back,
he wifi follow his father's example: he wifi give her a male child to come
between them, just as his father had Hans, who came between the mother
and father:






I hI'. leads I lans to create an entirely new genealogy for himself, recreating


the family treehis symbolic lineage-in such a way that Hans marries his
own mother and his father marries his own mother (Hans' paternal grandmother). It may look Oedipal from the outside, but it is not at all the expression of an Oedipal wish. Rather, in seeking some separation from his
mother, he is required to give her another child to dote on; this is the only
solution he can find to create a space of his own. Like Jean, Hans remains
at the end of his pseudo-analysis with his father and Freudhis mother's

"little man." His hope-hardly a neurotic one-is to give her another son
to suffocate.
Never having been enabled to name her desire (even falsely, and all names,

by defining and delimiting, falsify to some degree, yet can be altogether

effective in bringing about separation), Hans can never become someone who
can set out to achieve symbolic status in order to win her praise and satisfy
her desire in its unlimited displacements: strictly speaking, he is never con-

fronted with her desire, since it is never named. He deals only with her
demand, her demand for a specific object: him. Rather than glimpsing something in her interests that goes beyond himself, all he can do is imagine giving
her a substitute object, another child with which to coax.
Had Hans remained phobic, the paternal metaphor would have been suc-

cessfully shored or propped up; an angry horse would have filled the father's shoes. Having taken on certain of the mother's attributes as well,
however, the horse was perhaps never destined to do the trick. The result of
the father's failure to provide any sort of an explanatory principle involving
the father's will and the father's role in the mother's desireand of Freud's
failure to name the mother's demand and thus transform it into displaceable, enigmatic desire-left Hans in what it seems most appropriate to qualify
as a perverse position. Indeed, Lacan's conclusion at the end of Seminar IV is
that Hans becomes perverse, not (normally) neurotic, as Freud suggests.

For the neurotic, there is always some sort of explanatory principle; there is
always a little story, vague and confusing as it maybe, about why our parents
wanted us, or perhaps didn't want us at first but grew to love us. This IiitIi
story tells us something about the place we occupy in their desire not the
place we occupy in the universe as a whole, science seeming In
with such insignificant places in it (the universe c ntains,as (art Sagan says,
"billyuns and billyuns of galaxies")and this space in their desire, however
small, is our foothold in life.
But what are we wanted for? That is the (luestilIn 'It we are wanted only
ourselves to that par
as an extension of one parent, and expected to



ent's "sexual service," trouble ensues. We must be wanted for something else,

something perhaps extremely obscure: "We just want you to be happy," "We
want you to achieve something important," "We want you to make us proud."
As anxiety-producing as such parental desires often are to the neurotic, they
are part of the price that must be paid to stave off the "worst."

The delusional metaphor constructed by a psychotic serves to make up for the lack of

just such an explanatory principle. One patient (mentioned briefly in Chapter 7)

came to therapy with the idea that a certain David she had once worked for,
who had a predilection for reading Saint Paul's letters in the New Testament,
had a sort of "cosmic connection" with David Letterman, the talk-show host.
In the course of her therapy, she made all kinds of new connections: according
to her, the first David was her half-brother, being the illegitimate child of her
own father and the next-door neighbor; he was able to exert influence over all
areas of her life, and was growing more powerful everyday due to his connections with prominent men like David Letterman; he was going to run for
president, with God's help; and she herself played a role in his life as a fallen
angel who, it seemed, might be raised up in the course of his ascent.
Her "connections" took on "cosmic" proportions: lacking a symbolic space
in her own nuclear family, in her parents' desire, this patient set about recreating the world in such a way as to grant herself a special role in it, a place that

would at last be truly hers. Her work is ongoing, and it is not clear exactly
where she will fit into the cosmological scheme of things she is elaborating
not deliberately but spontaneously. What is clear is that she is slowly but
surely generating an explanatory principle for herself; it is admittedly idiosyn-

like Schreber's, and hardly likely to win adherents in a wider circle

(though this sometimes happens), but if allowed to follow its own course, it
should afford her far greater stability.
Like Hans' spontaneous recreation of his own family tree, of a new genealogy that would allow for a solution to his dilemma, the psychotic's delusionswhen allowed to pursue their own coursemove toward creating a
world in which the psychotic is assigned an important place, a critical role.
The psychotic's delusional cosmology serves to explain the why and wherefore of the psychotic's birth, and the purpose of his or her life on earth. Thus,
it too attempts to tie word to meaning, like the paternal metaphor.

the case of a very young boy I know whose mother had destroyed
its' boy's lather, demanded complete loyalty from her son (never tiring of


telling him that he would have trouble finding a wife later because of his
special relationship with his mother), put him in her bed every night, and
never revealed her genitals to him or said anything to correct his belief that
both men and women had what he called "a ball" (his term for a penis). In
order to have him, his mother had decided to get pregnant without consulting
the father, a man she had just begun dating; she later told the boy his father
had abandoned him because he didn't love him (when she had actually driven
the father to suicide).
A therapist has a number of options in such a case. He or she can wait, and
hope the child articulates something that wifi transform the mother's unbearable presence and demands (the mother as real) into a speakable, bearable
reality (the mother's desire as named), but the therapist then runs the risk of
abandoning the child to psychosis or perversion. Or the therapist can invent
an explanation: "Your father very much wanted a little boy like you, and asked
your mother to have his child. Since your father's death, your mother has been

very scared and upset, and holds onto you as a reminder of her lost husThis is not merely a constructionit is a calculated lie. But with such a lie,
if it is introduced after a strong relationship has been established between
therapist and child, and does not blatantly contradict too much of what the
child has heard about the absent father, the therapist creates an important
place for the father in the mother's world and thereby names her desire. In
other words, if the therapist is successful in making this construction stick
(and I have seen it work), the therapist transforms the mother's demand for
the child to give her all of her satisfaction in life with the whole of himself
transforms it into a desire, a desire for something else, for the father or
something about the father that the boy can then try to fathom.
This construction will contradict certain things the mother says, but the
child will set about trying to understand what the mother says in the context
of the construction: "She won't let go of me because she misses my father";
"She complains of his abandoning us because she is lonely." The contradictions do not uproot the construction or anchor the therapist has provided, but
rather serve as the point from which everything else is interpreted. Mo
ihanged a
though the mother's behavior and presence have not
whit, the therapist has enabled the child to read them diiferently. lh.' child's
experience of his mother has been radically transformed by 11w
Later in life, the child may come to reject virtually all tateh ot the therapist's
were mostly
construction, coming to believe instead that the nmtlwri tu
malicious and selfserving, but he will reject the 4ofl'.Spgn Sioss lion, She standpoint
of the construction. In other words, he will have i

on which to stand that



remains unshakable, a vantage point from which to cast doubt upon the
accuracy of the construction. Prior to the construction, there was no place to
stand, no ground, and thus no possibility of questioning or wondering. After

the construction, the child can call everything into question without ever
cutting out the ground from beneath his feet. He may, at the extreme, come to
wish he had never been born, but at least there will be a place from which he
can formulate that wish! This place is the subject, the Lacanian subject.

The ego ideal opens up an important avenue for the understanding of group psychology.
In addition to its individual side, this ideal has a social side; it is also the common ideal of
a family, a class or a nation. It binds not only a persons narcissistic libido, but also a
considerable amount of his homosexual libido, which is in this way turned back into the
ego. The want of satisfaction which arises from the non-fulfilment of this ideal liberates
homosexual libido, and this is transformed into a sense of guilt (social anxiety).
Originally this sense of guilt was a fear of punishment by the parents, or, more correctly,
the fear of losing their love; later the parents are replaced by an indefinite number of
fellow-men. The frequent causation of paranoia by an injury to the ego, by a frustration
of satisfaction within the sphere of the ego ideal, is thus made more intelligible, as is the
convergence of ideal-formation and sublimation in the ego ideal, as well as the involution
of sublimations and the possible transformation of ideals in paraphrenic disorders.


Intentionally left blank

We have often heard it maintained that sciences should be built up on clear and sharply
defined basic concepts. In actual fact no science, not even the most exact, begins with
such definitions. The true beginning of scientific activity consists rather in describing
phenomena and then in proceeding to group, classify and correlate them. Even at the
stage of description it is not possible to avoid applying certain abstract ideas to the
material in hand, ideas derived from somewhere or other but certainly not from the new
observations alone. Such ideas which will later become the basic concepts of the science
are still more indispensable as the material is further worked over. They must at first
necessarily possess some degree of indefiniteness; there can be no question of any clear
delimitation of their content. So long as they remain in this condition, we come to an
understanding about their meaning by making repeated references to the material of
observation from which they appear to have been derived, but upon which, in fact, they
have been imposed. Thus, strictly speaking, they are in the nature of conventions although everything depends on their not being arbitrarily chosen but determined by their

having significant relations to the empirical material, relations that we seem to sense
before we can clearly recognize and demonstrate them. It is only after more thorough
investigation of the field of observation that we are able to formulate its basic scientific
concepts with increased precision, and progressively so to modify them that they become
serviceable and consistent over a wide area. Then, indeed, the time may have come to
confine them in definitions. The advance of knowledge, however, does not tolerate any
rigidity even in definitions. Physics furnishes an excellent illustration of the way in which
even basic concepts that have been established in the form of definitions are constantly
being altered in their content.
A conventional basic concept of this kind, which at the moment is still somewhat
obscure but which is indispensable to us in psychology, is that of an instinct [Trieb] .
Let us try to give a content to it by approaching it from different angles.

First, from the angle of physiology. This has given us the concept of a stimulus and the
pattern of the reflex arc, according to which a stimulus applied to living tissue (nervous
substance) from the outside is discharged by action to the outside. This action is
expedient in so far as it withdraws the stimulated substance from the influence of the
stimulus, removes it out of its range of operation.
What is the relation of instinct to stimulus? There is nothing to prevent our
subsuming the concept of instinct under that of stimulus and saying that an instinct is
a stimulus applied to the mind. But we are immediately set on our guard against equating
instinct and mental stimulus. There are obviously other stimuli to the mind besides those
of an instinctual kind, stimuli which behave far more like physiological ones. For
example, when a strong light falls on the eye, it is not an instinctual stimulus; it is one,
however, when a dryness of the mucous membrane of the pharynx or an irritation of the
mucous membrane of the stomach makes itself felt.
We have now obtained the material necessary for distinguishing between instinctual
stimuli and other (physiological) stimuli that operate on the mind. In the first place, an
instinctual stimulus does not arise from the external world but from within the organism
itself. For this reason it operates differently upon the mind and different actions are
necessary in order to remove it. Further, all that is essential in a stimulus is covered if we
assume that it operates with a single impact, so(that it can be disposed of by a single
expedient action. A typical instance of this is motor flight from the source of stimulation.
These impacts may, of course, be repeated and summated, but that makes no difference to
our notion of the process and to the conditions for the removal of the stimulus. An
instinct, on the other hand, never operates as a force giving a momentary impact but
always as a constant one. Moreover, since it impinges not from without but from within
the organism, no flight can avail against it. A better term for an instinctual stimulus is a
need. What does away with a need is satisfaction. This can be attained only by an
appropriate (adequate) alteration of the internal source of stimulation.
Assuming, of course, that these internal processes are the organic basis of the

respective needs of thirst and hunger.

Let us imagine ourselves in the situation of an almost entirely helpless living organism,
as yet unorientated in the world, which is receiving stimuli in its nervous substance. This
organism will very soon be in a position to make a first distinction and a first orientation.
On the one hand, it will be aware of stimuli which can be avoided by muscular action
(flight); these it ascribes to an external world. On the other hand, it will also be aware of
stimuli against which such action is of no avail and whose character of constant pressure
persists in spite of it; these stimuli are the signs of an internal world, the evidence of
instinctual needs. The perceptual substance of the living organism will thus have found in
the efficacy of its muscular activity a basis for distinguishing between an outside and an
We thus arrive at the essential nature of instincts in the first place by considering their
main characteristics - their origin in sources of stimulation within the organism and their
appearance as a constant force - and from this we deduce one of their further features,
namely, that no actions of flight avail against them. In the course of this discussion,
however, we cannot fail to be struck by something that obliges us to make a further
admission. In order to guide us in dealing with the field of psychological phenomena, we
do not merely apply certain conventions to our empirical material as basic concepts; we
also make use of a number of complicated postulates. We have already alluded to the
most important of these, and all we need now do is to state it expressly. This postulate is
of a biological nature, and makes use of the concept of purpose (or perhaps of
expediency) and runs as follows: the nervous system is an apparatus which has the
function of getting rid of the stimuli that reach it, or of reducing them to the lowest
possible level; or which, if it were feasible, would maintain itself in an altogether
unstimulated condition. Let us for the present not take exception to the indefiniteness of
this idea and let us assign to the nervous system the task - speaking in general terms - of
mastering stimuli. We then see how greatly the simple pattern of the physiological reflex
is complicated by the introduction of instincts. External stimuli impose only the single
task of withdrawing from them; this is accomplished by muscular movements, one of
which eventually achieves that aim and thereafter, being the expedient movement,
becomes a hereditary disposition. Instinctual stimuli, which originate from within the
organism, cannot be dealt with by this mechanism. Thus they make far higher demands
on the nervous system and cause it to undertake involved and interconnected activities by
which the external world is so changed as to afford satisfaction to the internal source of
stimulation. Above all, they oblige the nervous system to renounce its ideal intention of
keeping off stimuli, for they maintain an incessant and unavoidable afflux of stimulation.
We may therefore well conclude that instincts and not external stimuli are the true motive
forces behind the advances that have led the nervous system, with its unlimited
capacities, to its present high level of development. There is naturally nothing to prevent
our supposing that the instincts themselves are, at least in part, precipitates of the effects
of external stimulation, which in the course of phylogenesis have brought about

modifications in the living substance.

When we further find that the activity of even the most highly developed mental
apparatus is subject to the pleasure principle, i. e. is automatically regulated by feelings
belonging to the pleasure-unpleasure series, we can hardly reject the further hypothesis
that these feelings reflect the manner in which the process of mastering stimuli takes
place - certainly in the sense that unpleasurable feelings are connected with an increase
and pleasurable feelings with a decrease of stimulus. We will, however, carefully
preserve this assumption in its present highly indefinite form, until we succeed, if that is
possible, in discovering what sort of relation exists between pleasure and unpleasure, on
the one hand, and fluctuations in the amounts of stimulus affecting mental life, on the
other. It is certain that many very various relations of this kind, and not very simple ones,
are possible.
If now we apply ourselves to considering mental life from a biological point of view, an
instinct appears to us as a concept on the frontier between the mental and the somatic,
as the psychical representative of the stimuli originating from within the organism and
reaching the mind, as a measure of the demand made upon the mind for work in
consequence of its connection with the body.
We are now in a position to discuss certain terms which are used in reference to the
concept of an instinct - for example, its pressure, its aim, its object and its source.
By the pressure [Drang] of an instinct we understand its motor factor, the amount of
force or the measure of the demand for work which it represents. The characteristic of
exercising pressure is common to all instincts; it is in fact their very essence. Every
instinct is a piece of activity; if we speak loosely of passive instincts, we can only mean
instincts whose aim is passive.
The aim [Ziel] of an instinct is in every instance satisfaction, which can only be obtained
by removing the state of stimulation at the source of the instinct. But although the
ultimate aim of each instinct remains unchangeable, there may yet be different paths
leading to the same ultimate aim; so that an instinct may be found to have various nearer
or intermediate aims, which are combined or interchanged with one another. Experience
permits us also to speak of instincts which are inhibited in their aim, in the case of
processes which are allowed to make some advance towards instinctual satisfaction but
are then inhibited or deflected. We may suppose that even processes of this kind involve
a partial satisfaction.
The object [Objekt] of an instinct is the thing in regard to which or through which the
instinct is able to achieve its aim. It is what is most variable about an instinct and is not
originally connected with it, but becomes assigned to it only in consequence of being
peculiarly fitted to make satisfaction possible. The object is not necessarily something
extraneous: it may equally well be a part of the subjects own body. It may be changed
any number of times in the course of the vicissitudes which the instinct undergoes during
its existence; and highly important parts are played by this displacement of instinct. It

may happen that the same object serves for the satisfaction of several instincts
simultaneously, a phenomenon which Adler has called a confluence of instincts
[Triebverschrnkung]. A particularly close attachment of the instinct to its object is
distinguished by the term fixation. This frequently occurs at very early periods of the
development of an instinct and puts an end to its mobility through its intense opposition
to detachment.

By the source [Quelle] of an instinct is meant the somatic process which occurs in an
organ or part of the body and whose stimulus is represented in mental life by an instinct.
We do not know whether this process is invariably of a chemical nature or whether it may
also correspond to the release of other, e.g. mechanical, forces. The study of the sources
of instincts lies outside the scope of psychology. Although instincts are wholly
determined by their origin in a somatic source, in mental life we know them only by their
aims. An exact knowledge of the sources of an instinct is not invariably necessary for
purposes of psychological investigation; sometimes its source may be inferred from its
Are we to suppose that the different instincts which originate in the body and operate on
the mind are also distinguished by different qualities, and that that is why they behave in
qualitatively different ways in mental life? This supposition does not seem to be justified;
we are much more likely to find the simpler assumption sufficient - that the instincts are
all qualitatively alike and owe the effect they make only to the amount of excitation they
carry, or perhaps, in addition, to certain functions of that quantity. What distinguishes
from one another the mental effects produced by the various instincts may be traced to
the difference in their sources. In any event, it is only in a later connection that we shall
be able to make plain what the problem of the quality of instincts signifies.
What instincts should we suppose there are, and how many? There is obviously a wide
opportunity here for arbitrary choice. No objection can be made to anyones employing
the concept of an instinct of play or of destruction or of gregariousness, when the subjectmatter demands it and the limitations of psychological analysis allow of it. Nevertheless,
we should not neglect to ask ourselves whether instinctual motives like these, which are
so highly specialized on the one hand, do not admit of further dissection in accordance
with the sources of the instinct, so that only primal instincts - those which cannot be
further dissected - can lay claim to importance.

I have proposed that two groups of such primal instincts should be distinguished: the
ego, or self-preservative, instincts and the sexual instincts. But this supposition has not
the status of a necessary postulate, as has, for instance, our assumption about the

biological purpose of the mental apparatus (IDH_p2960IDH_p2960); it is merely a

working hypothesis, to be retained only so long as it proves useful, and it will make little
difference to the results of our work of description and classification if it is replaced by
another. The occasion for this hypothesis arose in the course of the evolution of psychoanalysis, which was first employed upon the psychoneuroses, or, more precisely, upon
the group described as transference neuroses (hysteria and obsessional neurosis); these
showed that at the root of all such affections there is to be found a conflict between the
claims of sexuality and those of the ego. It is always possible that an exhaustive study of
the other neurotic affections (especially of the narcissistic psychoneuroses, the
schizophrenias) may oblige us to alter this formula and to make a different classification
of the primal instincts. But for the present we do not know of any such formula, nor have
we met with any argument unfavourable to drawing this contrast between sexual and egoinstincts.
I am altogether doubtful whether any decisive pointers for the differentiation and
classification of the instincts can be arrived at on the basis of working over the
psychological material. This working-over seems rather itself to call for the application to
the material of definite assumptions concerning instinctual life, and it would be a
desirable thing if those assumptions could be taken from some other branch of knowledge
and carried over to psychology. The contribution which biology has to make here
certainly does not run counter to the distinction between sexual and ego-instincts.
Biology teaches that sexuality is not to be put on a par with other functions of the
individual; for its purposes go beyond the individual and have as their content the
production of new individuals - that is, the preservation of the species. It shows, further,
that two views, seemingly equally well-founded, may be taken of the relation between the
ego and sexuality. On the one view, the individual is the principal thing, sexuality is one
of its activities and sexual satisfaction one of its needs; while on the other view the
individual is a temporary and transient appendage to the quasi-immortal germ-plasm,
which is entrusted to him by the process of generation. The hypothesis that the sexual
function differs from other bodily processes in virtue of a special chemistry is, I
understand, also a postulate of the Ehrlich school of biological research.

Since a study of instinctual life from the direction of consciousness presents almost
insuperable difficulties, the principal source of our knowledge remains the psychoanalytic investigation of mental disturbances. Psycho-analysis, however, in consequence
of the course taken by its development, has hitherto been able to give us information of a
fairly satisfactory nature only about the sexual instincts; for it is precisely that group
which alone can be observed in isolation, as it were, in the psychoneuroses. With the
extension of psycho-analysis to the other neurotic affections, we shall no doubt find a
basis for our knowledge of the ego-instincts as well, though it would be rash to expect
equally favourable conditions for observation in this further field of research.
This much can be said by way of a general characterization of the sexual instincts. They

are numerous, emanate from a great variety of organic sources, act in the first instance
independently of one another and only achieve a more or less complete synthesis at a late
stage. The aim which each of them strives for is the attainment of organ-pleasure; only
when synthesis is achieved do they enter the service of the reproductive function and
thereupon become generally recognizable as sexual instincts. At their first appearance
they are attached to the instincts of self-preservation, from which they only gradually
become separated; in their choice of object, too, they follow the paths that are indicated
to them by the ego-instincts. A portion of them remains associated with the ego-instincts
throughout life and furnishes them with libidinal components, which in normal
functioning easily escape notice and are revealed clearly only by the onset of illness.
They are distinguished by possessing the capacity to act vicariously for one another to a
wide extent and by being able to change their objects readily. In consequence of the latter
properties they are capable of functions which are far removed from their original
purposive actions - capable, that is, of sublimation.

Our inquiry into the various vicissitudes which instincts undergo in the process of
development and in the course of life must be confined to the sexual instincts, which are
the more familiar to us. Observation shows us that an instinct may undergo the following
vicissitudes:Reversal into its opposite.
Turning round upon the subjects own self.
Since I do not intend to treat of sublimation here and since repression requires a special
chapter to itself, it only remains for us to describe and discuss the two first points.
Bearing in mind that there are motive forces which work against an instincts being
carried through in an unmodified form, we may also regard these vicissitudes as modes of
defence against the instincts.
Reversal of an instinct into its opposite resolves on closer examination into two different
processes: a change from activity to passivity, and a reversal of its content. The two
processes, being different in their nature, must be treated separately.
Examples of the first process are met with in the two pairs of opposites: sadismmasochism and scopophilia-exhibitionism. The reversal affects only the aims of the
instincts. The active aim (to torture, to look at) is replaced by the passive aim (to be
tortured, to be looked at). Reversal of content is found in the single instance of the
transformation of love into hate.
The turning round of an instinct upon the subjects own self is made plausible by the
reflection that masochism is actually sadism turned round upon the subjects own ego,
and that exhibitionism includes looking at his own body. Analytic observation, indeed,

leaves us in no doubt that the masochist shares in the enjoyment of the assault upon
himself, and that the exhibitionist shares in the enjoyment of his exposure. The essence of
the process is thus the change of the object, while the aim remains unchanged. We cannot
fail to notice, however, that in these examples the turning round upon the subjects self
and the transformation from activity to passivity converge or coincide.
To elucidate the situation, a more thorough investigation is essential.
In the case of the pair of opposites sadism-masochism, the process may be represented
as follows:
(a) Sadism consists in the exercise of violence or power upon some other person as
(b) This object is given up and replaced by the subjects self. With the turning round
upon the self the change from an active to a passive instinctual aim is also effected.
(c) An extraneous person is once more sought as object; this person, in consequence of
the alteration which has taken place in the instinctual aim, has to take over the role of the

Case (c) is what is commonly termed masochism. Here, too, satisfaction follows along
the path of the original sadism, the passive ego placing itself back in phantasy in its first
role, which has now in fact been taken over by the extraneous subject. Whether there is,
besides this, a more direct masochistic satisfaction is highly doubtful. A primary
masochism, not derived from sadism in the manner I have described, seems not to be met
with. That it is not superfluous to assume the existence of stage (b) is to be seen from the
behaviour of the sadistic instinct in obsessional neurosis. There there is a turning round
upon the subjects self without an attitude of passivity towards another person: the change
has only got as far as stage (b). The desire to torture has turned into self-torture and selfpunishment, not into masochism. The active voice is changed, not into the passive, but
into the reflexive, middle voice.
Our view of sadism is further prejudiced by the circumstance that this instinct, side by
side with its general aim (or perhaps, rather, within it), seems to strive towards the
accomplishment of a quite special aim - not only to humiliate and master, but, in addition,
to inflict pains. Psycho-analysis would appear to show that the infliction of pain plays no
part among the original purposive actions of the instinct. A sadistic child takes no
account of whether or not he inflicts pains, nor does he intend to do so. But when once
the transformation into masochism has taken place, the pains are very well fitted to
provide a passive masochistic aim; for we have every reason to believe that sensations of
pain, like other unpleasurable sensations, trench upon sexual excitation and produce a
pleasurable condition, for the sake of which the subject will even willingly experience the
unpleasure of pain. When once feeling pains has become a masochistic aim, the sadistic
aim of causing pains can arise also, retrogressively; for while these pains are being
inflicted on other people, they are enjoyed masochistically by the subject through his
identification of himself with the suffering object. In both cases, of course, it is not the
pain itself which is enjoyed, but the accompanying sexual excitation - so that this can be

done especially conveniently from the sadistic position. The enjoyment of pain would
thus be an aim which was originally masochistic, but which can only become an
instinctual aim in someone who was originally sadistic.
(Footnote added 1924:) In later works (cf. The Economic Problem of Masochism,
1924c) relating to problems of instinctual life I have expressed an opposite view.

For the sake of completeness I may add that feelings of pity cannot be described as a
result of a transformation of instinct occurring in sadism, but necessitate the notion of a
reaction-formation against that instinct. (For the difference, see later.)
Rather different and simpler findings are afforded by the investigation of another pair of
opposites - the instincts whose respective aim is to look and to display oneself
(scopophilia and exhibitionism, in the language of the perversions). Here again we may
postulate the same stages as in the previous instance:- (a) Looking as an activity directed
towards an extraneous object. (b) Giving up of the object and turning of the scopophilic
instinct towards a part of the subjects own body; with this, transformation to passivity
and setting up of a new aim - that of being looked at. (c) Introduction of a new subject to
whom one displays oneself in order to be looked at by him. Here, too, it can hardly be
doubted that the active aim appears before the passive, that looking precedes being
looked at. But there is an important divergence from what happens in the case of sadism,
in that we can recognize in the case of the scopophilic instinct a yet earlier stage than that
described as (a). For the beginning of its activity the scopophilic instinct is auto-erotic: it
has indeed an object, but that object is part of the subjects own body. It is only later that
the instinct is led, by a process of comparison, to exchange this object for an analogous
part of someone elses body - stage (a ). This preliminary stage is interesting because it is
the source of both the situations represented in the resulting pair of opposites, the one or
the other according to which element in the original situation is changed. The following
might serve as a diagrammatic picture of the scopophilic instinct:() Oneself looking at a
sexual organ
() Oneself looking at an
extraneous object
(active scopophilia)

A sexual organ being looked

at by oneself
() An object which is oneself
or part of oneself being looked
at by an extraneous person

A preliminary stage of this kind is absent in sadism, which from the outset is directed

upon an extraneous object, although it might not be altogether unreasonable to construct

such a stage out of the childs efforts to gain control over his own limbs.
With regard to both the instincts which we have just taken as examples, it should be
remarked that their transformation by a reversal from activity to passivity and by a
turning round upon the subject never in fact involves the whole quota of the instinctual
impulse. The earlier active direction of the instinct persists to some degree side by side
with its later passive direction, even when the process of its transformation has been very
extensive. The only correct statement to make about the scopophilic instinct would be
that all the stages of its development, its auto-erotic, preliminary stage as well as its final
active or passive form, co-exist alongside one another; and the truth of this becomes
obvious if we base our opinion, not on the actions to which the instinct leads, but on the
mechanism of its satisfaction. Perhaps, however, it is permissible to look at the matter
and represent it in yet another way. We can divide the life of each instinct into a series of
separate successive waves, each of which is homogeneous during whatever period of
time it may last, and whose relation to one another is comparable to that of successive
eruptions of lava. We can then perhaps picture the first, original eruption of the instinct as
proceeding in an unchanged form and undergoing no development at all. The next wave
would be modified from the outset -(being turned, for instance, from active to passive and would then, with this new characteristic, be added to the earlier wave, and so on. If
we were then to take a survey of the instinctual impulse from its beginning up to a given
point, the succession of waves which we have described would inevitably present the
picture of a definite development of the instinct.
(Footnote added 1924:) Cf. IDH_p2965n.IDH_p2965

The fact that, at this later period of development of an instinctual impulse, its (passive)
opposite may be observed alongside of it deserves to be marked by the very apt term
introduced by Bleuler - ambivalence.
This reference to the developmental history of instincts and the permanence of their
intermediate stages should make the development of instincts fairly intelligible to us.
Experience shows that the amount of demonstrable ambivalence varies greatly between
individuals, groups and races. Marked instinctual ambivalence in a human being living at
the present day may be regarded as an archaic inheritance, for we have reason to suppose
that the part played in instinctual life by the active impulses in their unmodified form was
greater in primaeval times than it is on an average to-day.
We have become accustomed to call the early phase of the development of the ego,
during which its sexual instincts find auto-erotic satisfaction, narcissism, without at
once entering on any discussion of the relation between auto-erotism and narcissism. It
follows that the preliminary stage of the scopophilic instinct, in which the subjects own
body is the object of the scopophilia, must be classed under narcissism, and that we must
describe it as a narcissistic formation. The active scopophilic instinct develops from this,
by leaving narcissism behind. The passive scopophilic instinct, on the contrary, holds fast

to the narcissistic object. Similarly, the transformation of sadism into masochism implies
a return to the narcissistic object. And in both these cases the narcissistic subject is,
through identification, replaced by another, extraneous ego. If we take into account our
constructed preliminary narcissistic stage of sadism, we shall be approaching a more
general realization - namely, that the instinctual vicissitudes which consist in the
instincts being turned round upon the subjects own ego and undergoing reversal from
activity to passivity are dependent on the narcissistic organization of the ego and bear the
stamp of that phase. They perhaps correspond to the attempts at defence which at higher
stages of the development of the ego are effected by other means.
At this point we may call to mind that so far we have considered only two pairs of
opposite instincts: sadism-masochism and scopophilia-exhibitionism. These are the best
known sexual instincts that appear in an ambivalent manner. The other components of the
later sexual function are not yet sufficiently accessible to analysis for us to be able to
discuss them in a similar way. In general we can assert of them that their activities are
auto-erotic; that is to say, their object is negligible in comparison with the organ which is
their source, and as a rule coincides with that organ. The object of the scopophilic
instinct, however, though it too is in the first instance a part of the subjects own body, is
not the eye itself; and in sadism the organic source, which is probably the muscular
apparatus with its capacity for action, points unequivocally at an object other than itself,
even though that object is part of the subjects own body. In the auto-erotic instincts, the
part played by the organic source is so decisive that, according to a plausible suggestion
of Federn (1913) and Jekels (1913), the form and function of the organ determine the
activity or passivity of the instinctual aim.

The change of the content of an instinct into its opposite is observed in a single instance
only - the transformation of love into hate. Since it is particularly common to find both
these directed simultaneously towards the same object, their co-existence furnishes the
most important example of ambivalence of feeling.
The case of love and hate acquires a special interest from the circumstance that it
refuses to be fitted into our scheme of the instincts. It is impossible to doubt that there is
the most intimate relation between these two opposite feelings and sexual life, but we are
naturally unwilling to think of love as being some kind of special component instinct of
sexuality in the same way as the others we have been discussing. We should prefer to
regard loving as the expression of the whole sexual current of feeling; but this idea does
not clear up our difficulties, and we cannot see what meaning to attach to an opposite
content of this current.
Loving admits not merely of one, but of three opposites. In addition to the antithesis
loving-hating, there is the other one of loving-being loved; and, in addition to these,
loving and hating taken together are the opposite of the condition of unconcern or
indifference. The second of these three antitheses, loving-being loved, corresponds
exactly to the transformation from activity to passivity and may be traced to an

underlying situation in the same way as in the case of the scopophilic instinct. This
situation is that of loving oneself which we regard as the characteristic feature of
narcissism. Then, according as the object or the subject is replaced by an extraneous one,
what results is the active aim of loving or the passive one of being loved - the latter
remaining near to narcissism.
Perhaps we shall come to a better understanding of the several opposites of loving if we
reflect that our mental life as a whole is governed by three polarities, the antitheses
Subject (ego) - Object (external world),
Pleasure - Unpleasure, and
Active - Passive.

The antithesis ego - non-ego (external), i. e. subject-object, is, as we have already said,
thrust upon the individual organism at an early stage, by the experience that it can silence
external stimuli by means of muscular action but is defenceless against instinctual
stimuli. This antithesis remains, above all, sovereign in our intellectual activity and
creates for research the basic situation which no efforts can alter. The polarity of
pleasure-unpleasure is attached to a scale of feelings, whose paramount importance in
determining our actions (our will) has already been emphasized. The antithesis activepassive must not be confused with the antithesis ego-subject - external world-object. The
relation of the ego to the external world is passive in so far as it receives stimuli from it
and active when it reacts to these. It is forced by its instincts into a quite special degree of
activity towards the external world, so that we might bring out the essential point if we
say that the ego-subject is passive in respect of external stimuli but active through its own
instincts. The antithesis active-passive coalesces later with the antithesis masculinefeminine, which, until this has taken place, has no psychological meaning. The coupling
of activity with masculinity and of passivity with femininity meets us, indeed, as a
biological fact; but it is by no means so invariably complete and exclusive as we are
inclined to assume.
The three polarities of the mind are connected with one another in various highly
significant ways. There is a primal psychical situation in which two of them coincide.
Originally, at the very beginning of mental life, the ego is cathected with instincts and is
to some extent capable of satisfying them on itself. We call this condition narcissism
and this way of obtaining satisfaction auto-erotic. At this time the external world is not
cathected with interest (in a general sense) and is indifferent for purposes of satisfaction.
During this period, therefore, the ego-subject coincides with what is pleasurable and the
external world with what is indifferent (or possibly unpleasurable, as being a source of
stimulation). If for the moment we define loving as the relation of the ego to its sources
of pleasure, the situation in which the ego loves itself only and is indifferent to the
external world illustrates the first of the opposites which we found to loving.
Some of the sexual instincts are, as we know, capable of this auto-erotic satisfaction,
and so are adapted to being the vehicle for the development under the dominance of the

pleasure principle which we are about to describe. Those sexual instincts which from the
outset require an object, and the needs of the ego-instincts, which are never capable of
auto-erotic satisfaction, naturally disturb this state and so pave the way for an advance
from it. Indeed, the primal narcissistic state would not be able to follow the development
if it were not for the fact that every individual passes through a period during which he is
helpless and has to be looked after and during which his pressing needs are satisfied by
an external agency and are thus prevented from becoming greater.

In so far as the ego is auto-erotic, it has no need of the external world, but, in
consequence of experiences undergone by the instincts of self-preservation, it acquires
objects from that world, and, in spite of everything, it cannot avoid feeling internal
instinctual stimuli for a time as unpleasurable. Under the dominance of the pleasure
principle a further development now takes place in the ego. In so far as the objects which
are presented to it are sources of pleasure, it takes them into itself, introjects them (to
use Ferenczis term); and, on the other hand, it expels whatever within itself becomes a
cause of unpleasure. (See below, the mechanism of projection.)
Thus the original reality-ego, which distinguished internal and external by means of a
sound objective criterion, changes into a purified pleasure-ego, which places the
characteristic of pleasure above all others. For the pleasure-ego the external world is
divided into a part that is pleasurable, which it has incorporated into itself, and a
remainder that is extraneous to it. It has separated off a part of its own self, which it
projects into the external world and feels as hostile. After this new arrangement, the two
polarities coincide once more: the ego-subject coincides with pleasure, and the external
world with unpleasure (with what was earlier indifference).
When, during the stage of primary narcissism, the object makes its appearance, the
second opposite to loving, namely hating, also attains its development.
As we have seen, the object is brought to the ego from the external world in the first
instance by the instincts of self-preservation; and it cannot be denied that hating, too,
originally characterized the relation of the ego to the alien external world with the stimuli
it introduces. Indifference falls into place as a special case of hate or dislike, after having
first appeared as their forerunner. At the very beginning, it seems, the external world,
objects, and what is hated are identical. If later on an object turns out to be a source of
pleasure, it is loved, but it is also incorporated into the ego; so that for the purified
pleasure-ego once again objects coincide with what is extraneous and hated.
Now, however, we may note that just as the pair of opposites love-indifference reflects
the polarity ego-external world, so the second antithesis love-hate reproduces the polarity
pleasure-unpleasure, which is linked to the first polarity. When the purely narcissistic
stage has given place to the object-stage, pleasure and unpleasure signify relations of the
ego to the object. If the object becomes a source of pleasurable feelings, a motor urge is
set up which seeks to bring the object closer to the ego and to incorporate it into the ego.
We then speak of the attraction exercised by the pleasure-giving object, and say that we
love that object. Conversely, if the object is a source of unpleasurable feelings, there is

an urge which endeavours to increase the distance between the object and the ego and to
repeat in relation to the object the original attempt at flight from the external world with
its emission of stimuli. We feel the repulsion of the object, and hate it; this hate can
afterwards be intensified to the point of an aggressive inclination against the object - an
intention to destroy it.

We might at a pinch say of an instinct that it loves the objects towards which it strives
for purposes of satisfaction; but to say that an instinct hates an object strikes us as odd.
Thus we become aware that the attitudes of love and hate cannot be made use of for the
relations of instincts to their objects, but are reserved for the relations of the total ego to
objects. But if we consider linguistic usage, which is certainly not without significance,
we shall see that there is a further limitation to the meaning of love and hate. We do not
say of objects which serve the interests of self-preservation that we love them; we
emphasize the fact that we need them, and perhaps express an additional, different kind
of relation to them by using words that denote a much reduced degree of love - such as,
for example, being fond of, liking or finding agreeable.
Thus the word to love moves further and further into the sphere of the pure pleasurerelation of the ego to the object and finally becomes fixed to sexual objects in the
narrower sense and to those which satisfy the needs of sublimated sexual instincts. The
distinction between the ego-instincts and the sexual instincts which we have imposed
upon our psychology is thus seen to be in conformity with the spirit of our language. The
fact that we are not in the habit of saying of a single sexual instinct that it loves its object,
but regard the relation of the ego to its sexual object as the most appropriate case in
which to employ the word love - this fact teaches us that the word can only begin to be
applied in this relation after there has been a synthesis of all the component instincts of
sexuality under the primacy of the genitals and in the service of the reproductive

It is noteworthy that in the use of the word hate no such intimate connection with
sexual pleasure and the sexual function appears. The relation of unpleasure seems to be
the sole decisive one. The ego hates, abhors and pursues with intent to destroy all objects
which are a source of unpleasurable feeling for it, without taking into account whether
they mean a frustration of sexual satisfaction or of the satisfaction of self-preservative
needs. Indeed, it may be asserted that the true prototypes of the relation of hate are
derived not from sexual life, but from the egos struggle to preserve and maintain itself.
So we see that love and hate, which present themselves to us as complete opposites in
their content, do not after all stand in any simple relation to each other. They did not arise
from the cleavage of any originally common entity, but sprang from different sources,

and had each its own development before the influence of the pleasure-unpleasure
relation made them into opposites.
It now remains for us to put together what we know of the genesis of love and hate.
Love is derived from the capacity of the ego to satisfy some of its instinctual impulses
auto-erotically by obtaining organ-pleasure. It is originally narcissistic, then passes over
on to objects, which have been incorporated into the extended ego, and expresses the
motor efforts of the ego towards these objects as sources of pleasure. It becomes
intimately linked with the activity of the later sexual instincts and, when these have been
completely synthesized, coincides with the sexual impulsion as a whole. Preliminary
stages of love emerge as provisional sexual aims while the sexual instincts are passing
through their complicated development. As the first of these aims we recognize the phase
of incorporating or devouring - a type of love which is consistent with abolishing the
objects separate existence and which may therefore be described as ambivalent. At the
higher stage of the pregenital sadistic-anal organization, the striving for the object
appears in the form of an urge for mastery, to which injury or annihilation of the object is
a matter of indifference. Love in this form and at this preliminary stage is hardly to be
distinguished from hate in its attitude towards the object. Not until the genital
organization is established does love become the opposite of hate.

Hate, as a relation to objects, is older than love. It derives from the narcissistic egos
primordial repudiation of the external world with its outpouring of stimuli. As an
expression of the reaction of unpleasure evoked by objects, it always remains in an
intimate relation with the self-preservative instincts; so that sexual and ego-instincts can
readily develop an antithesis which repeats that of love and hate. When the ego-instincts
dominate the sexual function, as is the case at the stage of the sadistic-anal organization,
they impart the qualities of hate to the instinctual aim as well.
The history of the origins and relations of love makes us understand how it is that love
so frequently manifests itself as ambivalent - i.e. as accompanied by impulses of hate
against the same object. The hate which is admixed with the love is in part derived from
the preliminary stages of loving which have not been wholly surmounted; it is also in part
based on reactions of repudiation by the ego-instincts, which, in view of the frequent
conflicts between the interests of the ego and those of love, can find grounds in real and
contemporary motives. In both cases, therefore, the admixed hate has as its source the
self-preservative instincts. If a love-relation with a given object is broken off, hate not
infrequently emerges in its place, so that we get the impression of a transformation of
love into hate. This account of what happens leads on to the view that the hate, which has
its real motives, is here reinforced by a regression of the love to the sadistic preliminary
stage; so that the hate acquires an erotic character and the continuity of a love relation is
The third antithesis of loving, the transformation of loving into being loved, corresponds
to the operation of the polarity of activity and passivity, and is to be judged in the same
way as the cases of scopophilia and sadism.

We may sum up by saying that the essential feature in the vicissitudes undergone by
instincts lies in the subjection of the instinctual impulses to the influences of the three
great polarities that dominate mental life. Of these three polarities we might describe that
of activity-passivity as the biological, that of ego-external world as the real, and finally
that of pleasure-unpleasure as the economic polarity.
The instinctual vicissitude of repression will form the subject of an inquiry which


Intentionally left blank

One of the vicissitudes an instinctual impulse may undergo is to meet with resistances
which seek to make it inoperative. Under certain conditions, which we shall presently
investigate more closely, the impulse then passes into the state of repression
[Verdrngung]. If what was in question was the operation of an external stimulus, the
appropriate method to adopt would obviously be flight; with an instinct, flight is of no
avail, for the ego cannot escape from itself. At some later period, rejection based on
judgement (condemnation) will be found to be a good method to adopt against an
instinctual impulse. Repression is a preliminary stage of condemnation, something
between flight and condemnation; it is a concept which could not have been formulated
before the time of psycho-analytic studies.
It is not easy in theory to deduce the possibility of such a thing as repression. Why
should an instinctual impulse undergo a vicissitude like this? A necessary condition of its
happening must clearly be that the instincts attainment of its aim should produce
unpleasure instead of pleasure. But we cannot well imagine such a contingency. There
are no such instincts: satisfaction of an instinct is always pleasurable. We should have to
assume certain peculiar circumstances, some sort of process by which the pleasure of
satisfaction is changed into unpleasure.
In order the better to delimit repression, let us discuss some other instinctual situations.

Chapter 7


1. From Doom to Dame

Paradoxically, as we learned in the previous chapter, the ultimate purpose
of the moral law is to be transgressed. The satisfaction of our desire
(which is why we obey ethical rules) lies not so much in the good as in
an excessive enjoyment that cares nothing about the good. This is why
even the most ethically inspired action only makes the moral lackthe
impossibility of realizing the goodmore profound. In the nal analysis,
even such action aims for evil jouissance. This is Lacans way of saying
that the most fundamental drive behind our moral conscience is the death
drive. The commandment that was supposed to lead to life turned out to
lead to deaththus Lacan in his lecture of December 23, 1959, quoting
literally from Saint Pauls Letter to the Romans (Rom. 7:10):
The dialectical relationship between desire and the Law causes
our desire to are up only in relation to the Law, through which
it becomes desire for death. It is only because of the Law that
sin, marta [hamarta]which in Greek means lack and nonparticipation in the Thingtakes on an excessive, hyperbolic
character. (S7E: 8384; S7F: 101)
But are we therefore doomed to be the perpetual victims of this
fatal dialectic? Must we simply remain blind to the diabolical ruses that
traverse all of our moral aspirations in such a subversive way? Immediately
after the previously cited passage, Lacan asks this question directly. In
light of the emphasis he has placed on this subversive structure of moral
conscience, his answer sounds surprisingly optimistic:



Eros and Ethics

Freuds discoverythe ethics of psychoanalysisdoes it leave
us clinging to that dialectic? We will have to explore that
which, over the centuries, human beings have succeeded in
elaborating that transgresses the Law [on the level of the noV
(nous, Greek for raison)],1 [i.e., that which] puts them
in a relationship to desire that transgresses interdiction, and
introduces an erotics that is above morality. I dont think you
should be surprised by such a question. It is after all precisely
something that all religions engage in, all mysticisms, all that
Kant disdainfully calls the Religionsschwrmereien, religious
enthusiasmsit is not an easy word to translate. What is all
this except a way to rediscovering the relation to das Ding
somewhere beyond the law? There are no doubt other ways.
(S7E: 84, modied translation; S7F: 101)

The impasse we reach through the dialectical tension between the

law and desire does not have to weigh on us as an unshakable blind
fate, Lacan argues. Although this impasse structures our desire, a certain
stance toward it is nevertheless possible. At the unconscious level, there is
the jouissance that enables our phantasm to escape it (albeit in a purely
symbolic, and thus fake manner). At the conscious level, toothat is,
at the level of understanding, of noV (nous), as Lacan indicates with
the Greek termone can take a certain stance in relation to the impasse
without having to be crushed by it. Eroticism, religion and certain other
forms, Lacan assures us here, offer a way for desiring that deals with
the transgression it aims at. These are forms that our noV (nous), our
rational faculty, has developed to enable us to consciously manage the
transgressive link that binds us to the moral law.
By comparing it with the original stenograph of the seminars, one can
see how Millers editing simply dispenses with the Greek word noV, and
thus dispenses with Lacans explicit reference to reason in this context. It
must have escaped Miller that Lacan most probably read this word from
out of the Greek text of the New Testament that was lying open at that
moment on his lectern and from which he had just plucked the quote
from Saint Paul he had surprised his audience with. That he is indeed
referring to the Greek text can be inferred from the fact that he cites the
New Testament word for sin, marta [hamarta].2
In the passage from the Letter to the Romans Lacan invokes here,
Paul makes a strict distinction between reason [noV, nous] and esh
(sarx, sarx): the former is in the service of the law of God while the
latter responds to the law of sin.3 Obviously, Lacans reference to the
term noV [nous] must be read as a critical comment on Saint Pauls text.
Against the latter, he states that it is not just sin that is able to stand in



for a transgressive relation with the law. Reason, too, has worked out
ways of giving form and place to this transgressive relation.4
In this context, it is a pity that Miller drops the Greek word noV
(nous). Precisely with this word, Lacan indicates that it is possible to
approach the evil, transgressive dimension of desire consciously and
rationally. This diabolical dialectic between the law and its beyond is no
longer conned to the unconscious, phantasmatic phenomenon of jouissance that escapes the universal order by denition. That order itself, in
its turn, can allow for a conscious confrontation with this dialectic. For
this, Lacan reserves the term sublimation.
In fact, his comments on religion and eroticism in his lesson of
December 23, 1959 are not casual side remarks intended to ll in the
remaining time. Given the results, it seems clear that at that moment he
was already introducing the theme of sublimation, which subsequently
took no fewer than six lessons to elaborate. With this concept, he will
explain how an ethics of desire is not just limited to the space of the
psychoanalytic cure, but can also offer a contribution to the wider domain
of a universal, cultural Bildung.
Although here, in this lesson, religion is briey mentioned, it is already
clear that Lacan considers eroticism the privileged phenomenon capable
of revealing the structure of sublimation. In any event, his unannounced
introduction to this concept is entirely devoted to the erotic. Implicitly, he
is already referring to Courtly Love which he will later call a paradigm
of sublimation (S7E: 128; S7F: 153). Immediately following the long,
previously cited quotation, he claims:
What is all this except a way to rediscovering the relation to
das Ding somewhere beyond the law? There are no doubt other
ways. No doubt, in talking about erotics, we will have to talk
about the kind of rules of love [des rgles de lamour] that have
been elaborated over the centuries. (S7F: 84, S7F: 101102)
The phrase, the rules of love is already a striking expression of
the paradox Lacan is trying to grasp with his concept of sublimation.
Erotic love is the domain of jouissance par excellence where laws and
rules only hold insofar as they are simultaneously transgressed. The erotic
play installs rules of transgression and turns them into the stakes and
the object of culture. Driven to enjoyment by desire, all culture in fact
stems from such a dubious but nevertheless well-regulated game with the
law, a game in which the law is repeatedly transgressed only to be each
time reconrmed.
In the singular experience of enjoyment, that game occurs unconsciously. With sublimation, the stakes are a conscious, more general


Eros and Ethics

cultural phenomenon. Sublimation enables us to relate consciously and

rationally to the impossible structure of our desire. A little further
along, he refers to the ethical space that Freud opened up for the erotic
relation, shedding light on the basic structure of eroticism along the way.
From what follows in his seminar, it will become apparent how here he
already describes the sublimation process in a nutshell:
It is true: Freud placed in the forefront of ethical enquiry the
simple relationship between man and woman. Strangely enough,
things havent been able to move beyond that point. The question of das Ding is still attached to whatever is open, lacking,
or gaping at the center of our desire. I would sayyou will
forgive me the play on wordsthat we need to know what
we can do to transform this dam-age into our Dame in the
archaic French sense, our lady [quil sagit pour nous de savoir
ce que nous pouvons faire de ce dam pour le transformer en
dame, en notre dame]. (S7E: 84; S7F: 102)5
The moral law places the ultimate object of desire under prohibition,
thereby sealing the damage or, also, doom, damnation (dam)
characteristic of desire. It seals the wound (other meaning of dam)
that irreparably cuts the subject off from its ultimate object (the thing).
By keeping this wound open, by afrming the lack on which the entire
drive economy rests, desire is kept alive. In order to keep that ultimate
thing at a distance while still remaining oriented toward itin other
words, to continue aiming at the doom the thing stands forthis
doom can be granted the attraction of a dame, an inaccessible Lady
who attracts as the erotic object of desire.
What Lacan describes here is nothing other than courtly love as a form
of sublimation, as elaborated in his next lesson. Like every sublimation,
this highly developed and coded form of eroticism performs the paradox
of desire in culture. The object aimed for is posited on the place of
the thing, that is, of desires ultimate object. The dame becomes the
doom that keeps desire unsatised; and, in the same movement, the
doom becomes a dame that inames our desire. It is sublimationin
this case, courtly lovethat gives this paradoxical relation shape.
It is already clear that Lacan will dene sublimation by reference to
the thing. By installing the ultimate object of desire, (the object constitutive for the object relation that we are) in the place of the thing,
sublimation simultaneously both inames and brakes desire. This is to
say that Lacan denes sublimation exclusively in reference to the object,
that is, in terms of his own object relations theory.



2. An Object Relational Concept of Sublimation

2.1. The Premises of Object Relations Theory . . .
It is well known that Lacans view of sublimation diverges sharply from
Freuds. Although it would be interesting, of course, to explain Freuds
conceptualizations of sublimation and to examine the ways Lacan differs
from them, it would not be expedient here. Not only are Freuds numerous attempts in this area seriously heterogeneous in themselves (such
that an inventory alone would take up too much time and space6), but
Lacans emphasis on the object in his denition of sublimation nds no
direct precedent in Freud.
With the notion of sublimation, Freud always had a more or less
positive concept in mind. It names the process by which an originally
sexual drive energy is diverted from its sexual aim to become the driving force behind art, science, and other typical cultural activities.7 In this
sense, Freud characterizes sublimation as a vicissitude of the drive that
must be distinguished from repression.8 Generally, he describes it as a
change of sexual aim and not of object (as Lacan will claim).9 As a rule,
he takes the energy that is in play to be sexual although this does not
stop him from several times explicitly calling sublimation a process of
desexualization.10 Aside from all its contradictions and the irregularities
in Freuds text, sublimation can be summed up as a positive vicissitude
through which the drive chooses a different, nonsexual aim in order to
gain pleasure.
What is striking is the way Lacan only appropriates the rst, general
characteristic of Freuds concept. Lacans concept of sublimation focuses on
a modication of the drive object and not of the aim, as Freud (nearly)
always held. Moreover, in contrast to Freud, for Lacan it is quite conceivable for sublimation to be about an explicitly sexual object. Anyway, it is
in this sense that he will interpret courtly lovefor him, the prototypical
example of sublimation.
With this concept, Lacanwho is at this moment still advocating
a return to Freudseems to be seriously diverging from his master.
Nevertheless, on closer examination, his divergence is not really so striking, certainly not for anyone who reads Lacans theory of sublimation
according to the basic paradigm on which his entire conceptualization of
psychoanalysis is built, namely, object relations theory. From this angle,
it is not only the sexual, erotic nature of the sublimated object that will
become, if not defensible, then at least comprehensible. The difference
between change of aim and change of object will also be put into
perspective. It is Lacan himself who declares that we must consider the


Eros and Ethics

whole problematic of sublimation from the standpoint of object relations

theory. He steers his audience toward it with an explicit appeal to the
foundation of what psychoanalysis is for him: object relations (S7E: 90;
S7F: 109). A closer examination of this passage is illuminating.
After having prepared the topic of sublimation in his lesson of
December 23, 1959 (without, however, mentioning the term as we already
saw), he comes straight to the point in the following lesson (January 13,
1960). He stresses the importance of a concept like sublimation for
the entire topic of his seminar, if only because it brings the question of
value based ethics on board.
Sublimation is, in effect, the other side of the research that Freud
pioneered into the roots of ethical feeling, insofar as it imposes
itself in the form of prohibitions, of the moral conscience. It
is the side that is referred to in the world in a manner that is
so improper and so comical to a sensitive earI mean in the
world outside the eld of psychoanalysisas the philosophy
of values. (S7E: 87; S7F: 105)
It may still be possible, the concept of sublimation seems to suggest,
for our appreciation of moral values to be grounded in our drive life in
a positive way. Perhaps, on the mere basis of a polymorphous-perverse
anarchy, the drive is spontaneously and of its own accord able to form
a drive attachment to ethical values. In this case, ethics would not stem
from prohibition or laws that curb the free drive but from a spontaneous potential inherent to the drive itself to transform itself into natural
goodness, that is, to sublimate itself. In other words, a concept like
sublimation would, in one and the same movement, give ethics both a
drive-based and a natural foundation (S7E: 88; S7F: 106).
Of course, Lacan does not agree with this characterization of
sublimation. Here, too, he criticizes any attempt to grant the drive a
natural or less perverse nature. This also accounts for the negative tone
he immediately gives the term philosophy of values. Nevertheless, this
doesnt prevent Lacan from agreeing that a notion like sublimation can
indeed found ethics and ethical values in the drive. However, for Lacan,
this drive can in no way be approached as something natural. According
to Lacan, the drive refers to a polymorphous-perverse driving away
from nature, away from the biological function onto which it is grafted.
This accords with Lacans methodological starting point: the primacy of
the signier. To construct a science of the human, what is called nature
must be approached as a universe of signiers. So, when he goes into the
relation between sublimation and the drive in the lesson of January 13,
1960, his starting point is precisely the signiers primacy.11 After claiming



again that the drive should in no way be confused with instinct (the
Trieb and not the Instinkt), he states:
The Triebe were discovered and explored by Freud within an
experience founded on the condence he had in the play of
signiers, in the play of substitutions. The result is that we
can in no way confuse the domain of the Triebe with a reclassication of human beings associations with their natural
milieu, however new that reclassication may seem. The Trieb
must be translated insofar as possible with some ambiguity,
and I like sometimes to say drive in French, drift. It is in
any case drive that is used in English to translate the German word. That drift, where the whole action of the pleasure
principle is motivated, directs us toward the mythic point that
has been articulated in terms of an object relation. We have
to be precise about the meaning of this and to criticize the
confusions introduced by ambiguities of signications that are
much more serious than the signifying kind. We are now getting
close to the most profound things Freud has to say about the
nature of the Triebe, and especially insofar as they may give
satisfaction to the subject in more than one way, notably, in
leaving open a door, a way or a career, of sublimation. (S7E:
90: S7F: 108109)
The drive drives away. It continually drives away its energy
(thereby generating pleasure) because this is siphoned over from signier
to signier. However, Lacan argues, this manner of representation takes
us to a mythical point, a point that must be interpreted explicitly in
terms of object relations theory. What Lacan has in mind here has become
familiar to us in the meantime: the entire drive system in which the drive
ourishes at the level of the signier drives, in its turn, away from the
ultimate object called the thing. The libidinal being is an object relation
that never reaches that thing and can therefore never denitively drive
away the energy that is to be removed. The term drive thus refers
to an energy uctuation that never stops driving away. What keeps
a drive going and what, in the nal analysis, grants it its consistency is
thus also this cut-off, extimate object. The drive thus stands for this
fundamental, permanently irreconcilable and forever drifting detour that
the pleasure animal must take on its way toward its ultimate object, a
detour by whichlike a planet, as it werethe drive is taken in an orbit
around its object.
This image literally lies at the basis of Lacans conceptualization
of sublimation. If the drive is cut off even at a real level from its object


Eros and Ethics

(and this is what Lacan concludes from Freuds Entwurf), one cannot
conceive of the drives satisfaction in terms of arriving at its object. Of
course, at the imaginary and symbolic levels, the desiring subject can have
this impression, namely in the experience of jouissance. At the level of
the real however, the drive does not reach its thing. On that level, the
drive must be conceived as a perpetual, pulsating circling around the
thing, and its satisfaction as an unrestrained missing-out of that thing.
The vicissitude of drive called sublimation must literally be conceived of
with reference to this structure, according to Lacan.
2.2. . . . Applied to Sublimation
Lacan denes sublimation as a change not so much at the level of the
drives aim, as Freud generally did, as of its object. And this change gives
satisfaction not so much at the individual level (which involves jouissance)
as at the broader, more general cultural and social level. Here, too, as
a positive (non-neurotic) operation at the level of the drive, sublimation
presupposes a successful, more or less satisfying object relation. But for
Lacan, objects function as perpetually interchangeable signiers. So, where
can one nd an object that corresponds to this kind of positive, satisfying12
operation that is sublimation? What, in other words, turns something into
an object of sublimation?
It is as a result of this question that Lacan discusses Freuds theory
of sublimation for the rst time. In his lesson of January 13, 1960, he
invokes one of Freuds answers to this question:
[. . .] [S]ublimation is characterized by a change of objects, or in
the libido, a change that doesnt occur through the intermediary of a return to the repressed nor symptomatically, indirectly,
but directly, in a way that satises directly. The sexual libido
nds satisfaction in objects; how does it distinguish them?
[Freud answers this question] [q]uite simply and massively, and
in truth not without opening a eld of innite complexity: as
objects that are socially valorized, objects of which the group
approves, insofar as they are objects of public utility. That is
how the possibility of sublimation is dened. (S7E: 94, modied translation; S7F: 113)
Because of the repression that hinders the drive from conquering
the sexual object, the repressed always comes back in the form of some
pathogenic symptom. Sublimation can avoid such symptom formation
because the sexual object can be exchanged for an alternative object



that is just as satisfying. Up to this point, Lacan agrees with Freud. But
he does not agree with Freuds argument concerning why a nonsexual
object can be equally satisfying. According to Freud, in the absence of
explicitly sexual objects, an object can also give satisfaction for the sole
reason that it is generally appreciated and held as an established value.
Unable to have sexual relations, the poet hopes to achieve satisfaction
later in the form of the publics acclaim for the sublime poetry where he
sings of his impossible love. The nonsexual enjoyment that accompanies
social or cultural recognition gets interpreted as a compensation for the
individuals sexual deprivation.13
For Lacan, this kind of compensation theory is much too rash14as
if the social could unproblematically compensate for the individuals lack.
As if the larger groups acclaim is sufcient to forge the individuals discontent into a sense of well-being.15 In any event, Lacans reections on
the relation between individual and communityread: between the subject
of the drives and the symbolic order, the Otherpresents things in a
more nuanced manner. In the rst place, the individual is always already
situated in a communityor, in Lacanese, in the Otherand it is always
via that Other that he obtains his drive satisfaction. Second, what he can
get from the Other as remedy for his lack is, in the nal analysis, equally
lacking. The Other, too, is based on an irreconcilable lack. Hence what
the community can give the artist or the celebrity is, in the last resort,
nothing but lack. It is not by chance that fame is extremely eeting or
that the most harrowing libidinal dramas are reserved for the most successful megastars. The social recognition of their sublimation doesnt
necessarily deliver greater pleasure.
Moreover, such a compensation theory seems to be based on the idea
that something in the outside world can directly connect to the lack at the
level of the drive. The publics acclaim is supposed to intervene decisively
at the level of the artists drive life. With this, Freud contradicts his own
basic intuition, which denies any direct natural relation between the
libido and the outside world, and therefore leads him to call the principle that drives the drive (namely, pleasure) polymorphous-perverse.
It is no surprise then that Lacan, in this context, dwells once more on
the complete absence of a natural relation between the microcosm
of the drive economy and the macrocosm of the outside world (full of
objects the helpless pleasure animal relies on; S7E: 92; S7F: 110111). If
Freud denes sublimation as a direct relation between drive and culture,
Lacan asks a little further on, why does he in the very same text call it a
reaction formation,16 a term indicating that culture repudiates (sexual)
drive and, thus, refers to repression rather than sublimation? In short, for
Lacan, the criterion for what enables an object to become the center of
sublimation must in no case be sought in its social valuation.


Eros and Ethics

But must we then search for this criterion solely in the individual
realm? Must the mechanism of sublimation be thought as laying wholly
within the internal workings of the drive economy? This is, in any event,
where Lacans line of reasoning is heading when, immediately in connection
with the previous idea, he claims it is only Freuds theory of narcissism
and its associated second topography that can map out the problem
of sublimation.17
In truth, the problem Freud raises relative to sublimation only
comes fully to light at the time of his second topography. We
will have to approach that from Zur Einfhrung des Narzissmus
(On Narcissism: An Introduction), a work that not only is
an introduction to narcissism, but also the introduction to the
second topopgraphy. In this text [. . .] you will nd the following
comment: What we have to seek is that which now presents
itself to us concerning the relations to this formulation of the
ideal to sublimation. Sublimation is a process that concerns
object libido. (S7E: 95, modied translation; S7F: 114)18
Freud thus regards sublimation here as a gure for the object libido.
According to Lacan, this new outlook offers a way of getting around the
anomalies of Freuds rst theory of sublimation (i.e., the compensation
theory). His new theory enables him to locate the object of sublimation
exclusively inside the narcissistic microcosm. It lies in the ideal that
the libidinal being must put forward in order to maintain its identity, an
ideal that must be conceived as the object of narcissistic libido. Indeed,
the not-directly sexual object that is capable of giving satisfaction must
be a narcissistic, imaginary object. There the libido nds itself, that is,
the object that supports its entire drive economy with a positive pleasure
balance. The consistency of the desiring subject is not only the effect
of an imaginary objectan ideal egobut also of a symbolic objectan
ego idealthat the subject incessantly pushes ahead, from one signier
to another.19 Henceforth, Lacan argues, what Freud called sublimation
must be understood in terms of this new narcissistic and object related
conception of the human libido.
Does sublimation lie, then, in the reinstallation or reparation of such
a narcissistic object? This is in any event the direction that Melanie Kleins
theory of sublimation heads. She interprets sublimation as a reparation
of the object, in this case, the maternal body, in relation to which the
pleasure being is.20 But according to Lacan, besides the fact that Klein
fails to take the status of that object into account (whether it is imaginary, symbolic or real), he also nds it a strange idea that sublimation is



supposed to repair somethingas if sublimation is meant to connect

the drive to a repressed origin after all. In this way, one again neutralizes
the scandalon of Freuds intuition, namely, the polymorphous-perverse
nature of the drive that cuts it off from any origin. And if there is one
thing Lacanian psychoanalysis opposes, it is precisely this.
Is the object around which sublimation revolves to be identied with
the symbolic object, then? In other words, must this Freudian concept also
be conceived in terms of the primacy of the signier? Lacans answer to
this question is afrmative. Like all Freudian concepts, for Lacan, sublimation must also be understood on the basis of that primacy. Yet this
does not mean that we must regard its object as something that is purely
symbolic. Precisely because the object refers incessantly from one signier
to another, the ultimate object must escape the realm of signiers and be
approached as something real. For Lacan, sublimation nds its support
in the tension that is aroused between the object as a symbolic, always
receding entity and the object as a real, always already lost thing.
The object that supports sublimation belongs to the microcosm of
the drive economy. In other words, it must be understood in terms of
the narcissistic structure assumed by the libidinal being. But that object
is neither the imaginary ideal ego, nor the symbolic ego-ideal, but the
object that escapes their dialectic, and which therefore provides them with
their ultimate consistency. Or, as Lacan puts it in the lesson of January
13, 1960:
It is through this mirage [i.e., imaginary, narcissistic] relation
that the notion of an object is introduced. But this object is
not the same as that which is aimed at on the horizon of the
instinct. Between the object as it is structured by the narcissistic
relation and das Ding, there is a difference, and it is precisely
on the slope [la pente] of that difference that the problem of
sublimation is situated for us. (S7E: 98; S7F: 117)
If the mechanism of sublimation comes down to a displacement at
the level of the objectthe claim Lacan is defending herethis must be
situated in the slope (the course, the space: la pente) that lies
between the object as an imaginary or symbolic ideal self and the object
as a real thing. The term slope is not without import here. It is one
more indication that the drive always continues to operate in the course
of its aim/object, without ever having access to it. The sublimated drive
maintains itself in the space between the level of the imaginary and symbolic
objects on the one hand, and that of the thing on the other. Only by
operating in the space of this difference can sublimation give the drives


Eros and Ethics

true nature a chance. Just prior to the passage in the next lesson (January
20, 1960) where Lacan gives his most formal denition of sublimation,
he refers to this one more time:
The sublimation that provides the Trieb with a satisfaction
different from its aiman aim that is still dened as its natural aimis precisely that which reveals the true nature of the
Trieb insofar as it is not simply instinct, but has a relation to
das Ding as such, to the Thing insofar as it is distinct from
the object. (S7E: 111; S7F: 133)
In sublimation, the true nature of the drive comes to light, namely,
that it is not directly anchored in nature but operates according to a
polymorphous-perverse distance from it. In other words, it makes clear that
the drives nature is unnatural. The sublimated (and therefore satisfying)
gure of the drive thus reveals itself in the distance from the thing with
which it is a relation. All of the objects through and by which the drive
lives (as an object relation) are marked by this distance.
This is the context in which Lacan situates his most general denition of sublimation. A few lines later we read:
Thus, the most general formula that I can give you of sublimation is the following: it raises the objectand I dont mind
the suggestion of a play on words in the term I useto the
dignity of the Thing. (S7E: 112; S7F: 133)
Sublimation raises the object [. . .] to the dignity of the thing: a
denition that is as brief as it is enigmatic. While a close reading of the
context gives us a sense of how one might begin to interpret it, so far
little has actually been said about it. In any case, it doesnt illuminate
the contradiction that is already expressed by the terms of this formula. How can Lacan attribute a dignity to the thingand a high
dignity, since the object must be elevatedwhile keeping it outside of
all value by denition? For the realm of the thing is jouissance and,
as such, exceeds the order of all values and goods. Perhaps this is why
Lacan draws his audiences attention to the word play that enables one
to hear the German-sounding Dingitt (or Dingheit) in the French word
dignit, as if he was trying thereby to soften gravity of his formula
and give it an ironic twist. Anyway, it seems to be in keeping with one
of the examples Lacan uses elsewhere to illustrate his concept of sublimation. The object Jacques Prvert elevates to the dignity of the thing is
nothing other than a series of banal, empty match boxes placed end on



end to decorate his room, as Lacan comments in his lesson of January

20, 1960 (S7E: 114: S7F: 136; Wajcman, 1999: 5354).
The contradictions in Lacans denition of sublimation are not limited solely to the formula alone. Particularly because the term sublimation sometimes applies to the most divergent things, the concept seems
to empty itself out. Not only are religion, art, and science sublimations
(S7E: 130; S7F: 155), ethics too (S7E: 87; S7F: 105), or concepts such
as the drive and death principle21 and even Freudian psychoanalysis as
such (S7E: 214; S7F: 253) are given this label. There are so many that it
seems the term can guarantee little conceptual power. And yet, this is not
a reason to set it aside as meaningless, for it contains the contradictions
and paradoxes that reveal the most crucial problematic of the whole of
Lacanian psychoanalysis.
This is why it is worth reecting more on this concept if we are
to follow Lacans not-always evident train of thought. To penetrate what
Lacan has in mind with his concept of sublimation, we must look explicitly at the example he uses so strikingly often to illustrate it, namely,
courtly love.22

3. Courtly Love
3.1. FinAmor . . .
Nearly every time Lacan brings up the topic of sublimation, he refers
explicitly to courtly love. He already did so when he introduced the topic
without mentioning it by name (S7E: 84; S7F: 101102; see above 7.1),
and he does so in the lessons where he develops the concept. He even
readily admits afterward that it was not without cause he highlighted
precisely courtly love as the rst example of sublimation.23 Similarly, his
critical formula of sublimation (just-cited) is immediately followed by
the rst more developed reection on courtly love:
[. . .] it [i.e., sublimation] raises the object [. . .] to the dignity
of the Thing. That is signicant, for example, in relation to
something that I alluded to at the limit of our discussion,
something I will get to next time, the sublimation of the
feminine object. The whole theory of the Minne or of courtly
love has, in effect, been decisive. Although it has completely
disappeared nowadays from the sociological sphere, courtly love
has nevertheless left traces in an unconscious that is sustained
by a whole literature, a whole imagery, that we continue to in


Eros and Ethics

habit as far as our relations with women are concerned. (S7E:
112; S7F: 133134)

The object raised to the dignity of the thing is directly illustrated

by the object courtly love puts in the center of its particular eroticism.
We do not have to take it pejoratively that the word object in this
context refers to woman. Here Lacan is only alluding to the fact that in
almost all traditional cultures (concerning love relations or marriage agreements), the woman is assigned the place of a (passive) object rather than
of an (active) subject. Generally, the latter falls to the man. In marriage
cultures without free partner choice, the man is said to marry while the
woman is given in marriage. Even in a culture with free partner choice,
the woman remains the one who is courted, seduced, and taken, while the
man is more commonly given an active role. In order to increase the power
of his object-directed theory of sublimation, Lacan thus reaches back to a
phenomenon which, for the rst time in our (Western) historyand with
positive consequencestouches fundamentally on the traditional object
position of woman. From a male-dominated object, woman becomes
an object that now dominates men.24 Inside a fully feudal culture that
saw woman reduced to a matrimonial object of exchange,25 a new, courtly
culture suddenly created a position for her that completely broke away
from that marriage economy and, in time, even forced the existing marriage culture into a specic historical direction.
The inuence of courtly love undeniably stretches into our time and
thereforeand solely thereforeplays a part in everyones unconscious.26
Still, Lacan refers in the rst place to a historical phenomenon, namely,
the highly erotically tinged courtly culture of namor:27 a rened form
of erotic culture that sprung up with the Provencal and Aquitanian troubadours of the twelfth century, and that disappeared again several decades
later following the destruction of this area (during the crusade against the
Cathars, 12081215).28 The direct inuence of courtly love on the rest
of Western Europe, the trouvres culture in Northern France, as well as
that of the Minnesnger in the German Empire only lasted until the rst
quarter of the thirteenth century (S7E: 145; S7F: 174).
In the midst of a harsh feudal culture where the woman was primarily a matrimonial object, necessary for reproduction and (thus) for
the continuation of the family estate, a culture unexpectedly burgeoned
forth where that same woman became the center of a lifestyle that was
as playful as it was rened, and whose inuence covered all aspects of
existence. Even though the woman in the new culture still remained a legal
wife as well as, in this respect, her husbands possession (and thus the
guarantee that his property will remain within the family), nevertheless
an explicitly erotic culture blossomed up around her where young trou-



badours and jongleurs courted her and sang their love for her in frank
terms. However, this doesnt mean that they intended to marry her at all
costs. On the contrary, most of them held her husband and master in
more than the usual esteem. It was, after all, often at his invitation that
they were guests at his feudal seat and paid as jongleurs. Still, this did not
prevent the love-sick troubadour from competing with undisguised erotic
seriousness for his Ladys favor. Neither did it prevent him from loving
other mistresses, nor from having his own family with a legal wife.29
In other words, here we are dealing not so much with an amorous
sensibility as such, as with a highly nuanced, long-drawn-out culture, rich
in reections, rules, and methods for stylizing and rening that sensibility.
While every courtly lover dreamed of spending a night with his Lady,30
his entire culture of courtly love was designed to make that night, if not
impossible, then at least postponed for as long as possible.31 This is why he
must rst deserve his ladys love which, given the highly codied nature
of that love, was no easy thing to do. The sovereign place assigned to
the woman in this code obliged the lover to approach her with both the
most ardent desire and the greatest caution. It was above all his duty
to immediately acquiesce to her most capricious whims and commands.
These, too, were prescribed by the code of courtly loverecall the love
trials and the so-called asagand may not be shirked, no matter how
impossible to execute they were.32 It is courtly loves very nature to make
the asagand the entire codeparticularly difcult, since this conrmed the
inaccessible place of the Lady. The code was nothing other than a scholastics of unhappy love where the love object is cultivated as if she were
already lost and mourned by the courtly lover (S7E: 146; S7F: 175).
But again, courtly love was a culture that had not so much to do
with the feeling as such as with the stylization and rened forms to which
it gave rise. The hallmark of the courtly lover lay not so much in the
authenticity of his sentiment as in the degree of artistry with which he
was able to express his desire for his inaccessible Lady. Courtly love was
an art, not a feeling. It was a clearly articial mode of life, love, and
desire, three things that were interchangeable for the ideal construct of
courtly culture. For this reason, too, the unshrinking delity that bound
the courtly lover to his Lady was simultaneously both stronger and weaker
than the marriage bond. It was stronger because, aside from any marriage
and hence property-economies, it testied to a radical disinterestedness
and selessness. But it was at the same time weaker insofar as the lover
was never really bound to her. For that, courtly love was too articial,
and too easily exchangeable for a still greater delity to an even more
sublime Lady. Guilhem IX of Aquitaine (Count of Poitiers, 10711126),
for instance, the rst-known troubadour in history, was in fact a Don
Juanlike womanizer, while his poetry literally makes a great song and


Eros and Ethics

dance about delity to the one and only inaccessible Lady. Even a glimpse
of real indelity makes an appearance in his poetry, albeit never without
being sublimated and rened, thus emphasizing the internal tension in
the courtly love grammar as such.33
Seen from this perspective, it does not matter whether the famous
cours damourthe female court that passed judgment on matters of
courtly loveis a matter of historical accuracy, as Andreas Capellanus
suggests in his De amore (written around 1185), one of our preeminent
sources for the study of namor.34 If this was indeed so, these courts
function as a game, intended in the rst place to entertain. In any case,
at no moment do they bring the accepted marriage laws into question.
Courtly love must thus be primarily regarded as an artisticand hence
articialconstruction, a set of artices, as Lacan puts it (S7E: 151;
S7F: 180).35 Nevertheless, it will be precisely on this aspect that he will
lay the ethical signicance of this courtly love culture. And since, for him,
courtly love functions as a prototype of sublimation, he will attribute the
ethical dimension of everything that is called sublimation primarily to that
articial nature. However, let us rst look at what Lacan has in mind
when he calls courtly love a sublimation.
3.2. . . . and Sublimation
As always, Lacans point of departure here is the primacy of the signier,
which is why he places so much emphasis on the articial character of
courtly love. In his eleventh lesson, for example, where he examines this
topic at some length, he asserts:
On this subject all the historians agree: courtly love was, in brief,
a poetic exercise, a way of playing with a number of conventional, idealizing themes, which couldnt have any real concrete
equivalent. Nevertheless, these ideals, rst among which is that
of the Lady, are to be found in subsequent periods, down to
our own. The inuence of these ideals is a highly concrete one
in the organization of contemporary mans sentimental attachments, and it continues its forward march. Moreover, march is
the right word because it nds its point of origin in a certain
systematic and deliberate use of the signier as such. [. . .] Of
interest to us from a structural point of view is the fact that
an activity of poetic creation was able to exercise a determining inuence on manners at the time36 [twelfth century]and
subsequently in its historical consequenceswhen the origin and
the key concepts of the whole business [i.e., of courtly love]
had been forgotten. (S7E: 148149; S7F: 177178)



Lacan does not explain how courtly love has inuenced both our
marriage ethics and our morality in general, let alone how it has elevated
mutual love into a conditio sine qua non for marriage relations. He does
not even introduce sufcient elements for a rst attempt at such a sketch.37
But he does venture a hypothesis regarding the origin of this ethically
signicant change. This, he claims here, has everything to do with an
activity of poetic creation, with a specic systematic and deliberate use
of the signier as such.
Once again, the whole point of Lacans thesis lies in the nal addition, the signier as such. At the turn of the twelfth century, the status
of the female object changed, not by giving her another real position
(she stayed more than ever mans possession and object), but by playing consciously with the signier that makes this position possible. The
entire xed eld of signiers that made woman what she was in this
culture was shaken up, and became the stakes of a creative poetic game.
Just as much as the rediscovered intimacy of erotic desire (the yearning
for love), the crude social reality (the woman as guarantor of inheritance
and property) was brought back to what Lacan calls its true ground: the
autonomously operating eld of signiers. The poetic revolution of courtly
love reworked, rearranged, remodeled, and refurbished the set of signiers that regulated sexual difference at that time. The troubadour, as a
jongleur, juggled with words, and, out of nothingex nihilocreated
a new culture. Courtly love thus does not stem from a supposed medieval
soul (the famous great soul of the blessed Middle Ages; S7E: 112; S7F:
134), nor from a mystical experience akin to those of Hindu or Tibetan
cultures, as Denis de Rougemont, one of Lacans sources, claims.38 It is an
articial creation, a poetic insurrection incited by a small literary circle,
a revolution at the level of the signier and, in this capacity only, does
it inuence marriage morality or ethics and culture in general by way of
a veritable social epidemic (S7E: 126; S7F: 151).
All cultural renewalsand in this sense, all of culture itself tooare
thus, in Lacans eyes, the results of sublimation in the sense of what he
repeatedly calls a faonnement du signiant, a fashioning (retooling, styling, modeling) of the signier.39 In this sense, all cultural realizationsincluding ethicscome down to a creation ex nihilo, that is,
to signiers that, thanks to their negative power, can break with what
existsand with the real as suchso as to call something new into life
purely on the basis of their autonomous operation.40
When Lacan denes sublimation as the elevation of an object to
the dignity of das Ding, this implies rst that the object in question
has the status of a signier. The fact that it involves the elevation
of the woman in courtly love is not because she represents an absolute
value in herself but precisely because she does not. In other words, it is


Eros and Ethics

because she is an arbitrary, displaceable, signier that is interchangeable

by denition. But precisely for this reason, she can, at a certain moment,
be elevated above all other signiers and become the central value of
a renewed symbolic system. Because such a system has no real ground,
woman can become the signier in which that system reconstructs its
own consistency. Furthermore, this single signier also bears the clearest
traces of this break with the real. It is as if in this signier one can still
feel this break, Lacan suggests. In other words, it is as though at this place
the real still noticeably suffers under the gesture by which the signier
broke with it. In this sense, the supreme value that an entire symbolic
universe depends onin courtly culture, for example, the Ladyis marked
by the real, by the thing, by that which in the real suffers from the
signier as Lacan formulates it repeatedly here.41
This is why this kind of supreme valuethe sublimated object
locates itself strictly outside the symbolic system. The Lady is literally
absolute (from the Latin verb absolvere: to set free, to disconnect)
and transcendent: she is beyond the acceptable, she transgresses the
normal. Lacan alludes to this when he says that an object is elevated to
the dignity of the thing, a thing that by denition falls outside the
eld of signiers but around which, as the extimate center, everything
rallies. Whence the unassailable position assigned to the Lady of courtly
love.42 But whence, too, the empty, stereotypical impression she makes. In
the lovers perception, she functions not as a concrete person but as an
empty ideal. She has become a pure signier that all the other signiers
derive their meaning from, but which itself signies only itselfand
therefore nothing. She provides sense to every gesture, every feeling, every
word of the courtly poet, while emptying herself of all content. This is the
case for all sublimations: the elevated object in whose light everything
else acquires sense is itself empty and senseless. This is how sublimation
functions at the unconscious level. At the conscious level, the sublimated
signicance is felt precisely as the utmost meaning and ultimate value.
From a structural perspective, sublimation is thus purely the result
or, better, the creation of the autonomous operating signier. It is as if
sublimation corroborates the monotheistic myth that everything was created
by the wordand hence out of nothing. As a creation ex nihilo, sublimation in fact repeats the primary cut of the signier in the real. Again,
a signier brings a difference, a lack, an emptiness into the indifferent
real onto which a new autonomously operating system can graft itself.43
However, this system is incapable of lling in the lack it has introduced
into the real, and is therefore, in its turn, plagued by that real as if with
an irreconcilable lack. The term for that real lack is the thing and the
sublimated object is raised to the dignity of the thing.



In this sense, a sublimation creates the extimate center of a symbolic system. Just as a jar is only a jar insofar as it gives form to the
emptiness inside it (an image Lacan borrows from Heidegger) so, too, can
a symbolic system only maintain itself thanks to an internal outside
around which it incessantly revolves. However, one must realize that, as
the essence of a jar lies in its emptiness, this emptiness can no longer
be conceived as a substance in itself to which attributes can then be
ascribed. On the contrary, in this case, the attributes predate, as it were,
the entire ontological process, so as to retroactively create the jar.
In an essay that bears precisely the title of Das Ding, and to which
Lacan explicitly refers here (S7E: 120; S7F: 145), Heidegger describes this
inversion of the ordinary (metaphysical) way of thinking of the jar (this
Destruktion of what is classically called its essence). One does not
rst have the thing, in the sense of something original that, then, is
given form by the symbolic reality. First is the (by denition) unoriginal signier. The signifying cut only retroactively turns the real into the
emptiness that gives the oating corps of signiers its stabilizing center;
this, at least, is how Lacan interprets the Heideggerian idea.44
In other words, it is not that one rst sees an intrinsic value in the
Lady, around which a courtly universe is subsequently constructed. Rather,
according to Lacan, one rst discovers that the woman and all other
values in a culture are (only) signiers, sliding entities in a universe that
in itself offers no foothold. It is only by allowing all existing values and
norms to oat that a center becomes vacant in the midst of this cultural
storm that can serve as an anchoring point for this unstable universe. The
sublimation of the female object lies in articially associating the signier
Lady with this type of extimate (beyond the signier) center, this
thing in the middle of the rotating whirl of signiers.
The usual psychoanalytic interpretation of sublimation is that it
involves a more or less successful satisfaction of pleasure. While he is not
insensible to the neurotic appetites testied to by the courtly love poets, still,
for Lacan, courtly love as such is not a neurotic afiction that threatens to
drag the individual under the vicissitudes of his pleasure economy. Rather,
like other forms of sublimation, courtly love is a solution to this type of
problem. In this, Lacan undeniably follows Freuds line on the concept.
By raising an object to the dignity of das Ding, a sublimation such
as courtly love can proffer the pleasure animal a more or less adequate
answer to the desire that it is. However, such an elevation of the object
amounts in the rst place to an emptying of it. Precisely because in this
poetic eld, the female object is stripped of all real substance, as Lacan
puts it in his lesson of February 10, 1960, sublimation can provide an
answer to the demand that in the most fundamental sense of the word we


Eros and Ethics

are (S7E: 149; S7F: 179). And we must take the word demand here in
the technical sense the term has acquired in Lacanian psychoanalysis.
Only then does his conclusion become somewhat clear:
Here we see functioning in the pure state the authority of that
place the instinct [la vise tendentielle] aims for in sublimation.
This is to say that, that what man demands, what he cannot
help but demand, is to be deprived of something real. And
one of you, in explaining to me what I am trying to show
in das Ding, referred to it neatly as the vacuole. [. . .] Were,
in effect, is the vacuole created for us? It is at the centre of
the signiersinsofar as that nal demand to be deprived of
something real is essentially linked to the primary symbolization which is wholly contained in the signication of the gift
of love. (S7E: 150; S7F: 179)
What does sublimation give the demanding libidinal animal? An
empty place, a void. It does not give us the desired object itself, the
thing we seek; it refers us solely to the place where the object lies
and, further, keeps this place explicitly empty. Sublimation must thus
be strictly distinguished from jouissance. There, the libidinal being takes
possession of the thing, albeit not without disappearing as a subject in
this process. Sublimation, on the other hand, manages to keep the subject
intact and gives it, if not the thing, then at least a signier that covers
over the empty place of that absent thing. What the subject demands
of sublimation is the (imaginary) fullness of love (that is, the lling in
of its lack). What the subject gets from it is the paradoxical fact that
it will be perpetually deprived of something: the real thing. Only in
this way does it give us what we in fact demand: our (symbolic) desire,
that is, the polymorphous-perverse openness that we are the bearers of,
an openness that does indeed have an aim but will never reach its destination. That aim is the singular thing desire seeks; it is that which is
desired in every object because no object can give it. This hard, objectal
negative, this thinglike openness acquires a satisfying form in sublimation,
afrming desire in a positive, bearable fashion. In this way, the human
pleasure animal gets the one thing it can live off: a gift that continually
gives nothing, and therefore stimulates its desire.
But along with this thinglike nothing, sublimation simultaneously
gives an artice, an articial element. The sublime nothing it hands to
us implies rst and foremost an entire torrent of signiers that enables
us to keep the place where this nothing is given to us empty. In this
sense, Lacan can suggest, it is as though, in courtly love, the signier
Lady colonizes the eld of the Thing as it were (S7E: 99; S7F:



119). That signier occupies the place of the thing and draws the
courtly lovers desire toward it. But instead of granting him access to that
domain, the Lady simultaneously functions as a hindrance, a terrifying
doom that deters him from it. In this way, the domain of the thing
remains empty.45 Constantly groping for still more signiers, the courtly
lover perpetually circles around his Lady. No matter how unsatisfying it
seems and how removed it is from what takes place in enjoymentthis
process keeps desire alive (albeit never more than temporarily) without
putting the individual at risk. It is in this sense that sublimation offers a
satisfying solution to the unstable drive economy.

4. Culture as Sublimation
4.1. Culture . . .
Sublimation comprises the basis for the wider, more general eld of culture. Following Freud, Lacan distinguishes three subcategories of culture:
art, religion, and science, which stem respectively from ethical, religious,
and scientic sublimations. In the already-cited passage from his tenth
lesson where he calls on the earlier Freudian text, he links this healthy
drive vicissitude to its pathological counterparts, namely, hysteria, obsessional neurosis, and paranoia.46
The process described in courtly love is characteristic of an aesthetic
sublimation.47 The beauty with which desire allows itself to be seduced
functions as a veil that suggests something sublime behind it without ever
actually showing it. It is as if the beautiful simultaneously blinds one to
what it implies will be unveiled. The ravishing Lady sets the lovers heart
on re but the entire courtly code is designed to make her beauty operate
as a veil that will never be removed. In this sense, aesthetic sublimation
has something of hysteria about it, Lacan says in a previously described
passage (S7E: 130; S7F: 155). However, this is the healthy side of
hysteria, not the side that succumbs to repression. Refusing all concrete
content of desire, leaving every ultimate object as empty and unlled as
possible, consciously organizing the entire desiring trajectory around a
void so as to keep it innitely alive: these are features of both hysteria
and aesthetic sublimation. It is as if courtly love reforgessublimatesthe
hysterical procedure as a conscious form of culture. The void that makes
the hysteric suffering becomes the stakes in a controlled and rened
namor in the case of the courtly love poet.48 In aesthetic sublimation,
the hysterics pain in feeling the weight of desires lack becomes a richly
creative process or a gripping aesthetic experience. Yet, in a way, beauty
has an identical function to the hysterics symptomatic pain. In one and


Eros and Ethics

the same movement, it keeps the desiring subject both aimed at and away
from the thing. And in the same gesture, the courtly lover cultivates
his cherished Lady into a doom that forever denies him the thing
he seeks. Beauty is both the allure that attracts desire and the dazzling
blindness it recoils from.
Aesthetic sublimation is not the only form of sublimation. Religion,
too, is a type of sublimation for Lacan, albeit as the healthy reverse
of obsessional neurosis, according to that same passage from his tenth
lesson (S7E: 130; S7F: 155). As he cites from a draft Freud sent to Fliess,
the primal scene of obsessional neurosis stems from an experience of an
excess of pleasure that must be warded off at all costs. The obsessional then organizes his desire around a supposed fullness toward which
he feels guilty and worthless. No matter how much he wishes to redeem
this guilt, the obsessional thoughts that plague him only increase it, forcing him to institute still more defense mechanisms. Where the hysteric
could still place the lack in the desired object, in the obsessional neurotic
it lies entirely in himself. The obsessional idea that it is he, rather than
the Other, who falls short is a way of avoiding the fact that it is in the
rst place the Other who is marked by lack. Yet, while the obsessional
feels this as a terrible weight, religious sublimation delivers humans from
such suffering, even if it acts in a similar way. The scrupulously regulated
(and hence easily transgressed) rituals, the fantasies of an inaccessible,
heavenly realm absent of all lack, the guilt that increases the more we
think we can escape it: these are features common to both obsessional
neurosis and religion. In religion, however, they are accompanied with
no painful effects. There, they prevent people from succumbing to the
anomalies of their by denition unstable drive economy. By burdening the
domain of the thing with all kinds of divine prerogatives, religion keeps
it at bay, and thus reserves the necessary space desire needs to ourish.
But this very veil of holiness and divinity, on the other hand, keeps that
same desire aimed at the impossible thing and in this way gives it the
requisite consistency.
On the same page (S7E: 130; S7F: 155), Lacan distinguishes yet
a third form of sublimation: science. From the days of ancient wisdom,
crossing the long philosophical tradition and arriving at the different kinds
of scientism of our day: from a libidinal perspective, these are all ways
of keeping the domain of the thing out of consideration by way of a
stubborn disbelief. They each have something of the paranoiacs way of
imagining himself to be the master of reality, Lacan says, plucking again
from Freuds same text to Fliess. The paranoiac does not believe in the
trauma with which he wrestles, something that, in the nal analysis, is
also true for the thing that traumatically attracts and deters him. The
paranoid ideas that typically give him his inalienable certainty are all part



of a strategy for foreclosing the things existence. Foreclosing here has

a specic meaning, distinguished from repression. In the two previous
neurotic forms, the nitude of our grasp of reality (the impossibility of
ever reaching the thing) is repressed, and to this extent in a way also
conrmed. Both in their own ways, the hysteric and the obsessional reserve
a space for the lack and (hence) for desire (albeit an empty, extimate
space). The paranoiac, on the other hand, forecloses this empty realm of
the thing and imagines that his grasp of reality is complete. The same
disbelief in the structural limitations of desire is also characteristic of
science, according to Lacan. While science, too, relates to the domain of
the thing, it does so in a strictly negative way. Here is how Lacan puts
it in his lesson of February 3, 1960:
The discourse of science repudiates [the perspective and49]
the presence of the Thing insofar as from its point of view
[i.e., from this repudiation] the ideal of absolute knowledge is
glimpsed, that is, something that posits the Thing while it pays
no attention to it. [. . .] The discourse of science is determined
by this Verwerfung [. . .]. (S7E: 131; S7F: 157)
Believing in the omnipotence of the signier (an omnipotence that
has indeed taken on massive proportions with the mathematization of the
modern world, see above: 3.1.1), for science there is only one unknown:
that which it doesnt yet know, and thus imagines it will one day be able
to know. Its perspective is thus nothing less than absolute knowledge,
as Lacan calls it here with Hegel. With this kind of madness, science
remains blind to the structurally unknowable and unconscious support
on which its entire knowledge is based and which Lacan conceives here
in terms of the domain of the thing.
But being no less a sublimation than art or religion, science enables
us to deal with our desire in a healthy, satisfying way. Its disbelief is
way of giving form to our relation to that distant thing in a manner
that saves us from individual neuroses. Foreclosing the thing also
keeps the place of the ultimate reference point of our desire empty and,
in this way, keeps desire perpetually alive. However, through its obstinate
belief, this kind of sublimation ensures that such a thing doesnt exist
and that, in other words, nothing escapes its grasp.50 Rather, it has
unconsciously expelled that unruly thinglike nothing in advance, and
thus kept the place of that voidlike thing open. Science speaks of reality
as if it is (at least virtually) master of it but it can do so only because it
has kept this point of masterythe ultimate object it desiresopen in
advance. Ultimately, it is only for this reason that science can maintain
itself, that is, the desire that it is. Science is thus also a way of enabling


Eros and Ethics

us to see the object relation we are in all of its paradoxes. As a result

of this type of sublimation, man imagines himself lord and master of
reality, yet he continues to yearn for a still greater mastery. It is as if he
is simultaneously the object he seeks and his relation to that object. In
short, the scientic sublimation permits him to be the bearer of the
distance toward the thing. In other words, it makes it possible for a
libidinal being to realize itself as the subject of desire.
This is true of every sublimation. Aesthetic, religious or scientic,
all sublimations enable us to give what is in principle the impossible
object relation with which we correspond a form that is nevertheless livable. They centralize the object and thereby conrm how fundamentally
dependent the (in-itself totally helpless) pleasure animal is upon an object
outside itself. At the same time, they clearly keep that same object at a
distance and in this way guarantee the irreconcilable relation that we
are toward that object. The way an aesthetic sublimation achieves this
is by seducing us with a beauty that constantly slips away from us. A
religious sublimation achieves this by demanding such immense respect
for a deity that we cannot help but disappoint, with the result that we
owe him even more respect. Science achieves this by remaining blind to
the fact that what, from its perspective, it characterizes as an absolute
knowledge only exists precisely because that absolute knowledgein the
shape of the thinghas been excluded from its purview in advance. In
short, the entire cultural eld in the broadest sense of the word (including more contemporary phenomena such as sport, relaxation, amusement,
work, social work, and suchlike) is a eld of sublimations that enable
us to avoid the individual neuroses and to more or less successfully give
form to the impossible pleasure animals that we are.
4.2. . . . and Its Polymorphous-Perverse Foundation
By the same token, this also means that, at the most fundamental level,
man is only connected to his culture precisely because it stems from sublimations. We cling to our culture, not only because it is of vital assistance
to us, but primarily because its sublimations allow us to deal with our
desire. And this occurs not because sublimations give full satisfaction to
our desire but precisely because they dont; because they only keep us
dangling, and delude us into thinking our desire will someday be satised. It is as if culture, precisely in its quality of sublimation, is able to
lie when it comes to desire, enabling us to go on desiring in a more or
less satisfying manner. It is as though, precisely in its capacity as sublimation, culture is able to tell us lies with enough imagination and promise
such that we make peace with the discontent that haunts us. At the end



of his lesson of January 13, 1960, the rst full reference to the problem
of sublimation, Lacan says:
At the level of sublimation the object is inseparable from imaginary and especially cultural elaborations. It is not just that the
collectivity recognizes in them useful objects [i.e., objects of
common interests]; it nds rather a space of relaxation [champs
de dtente] where it may in a way delude itself on the subject
of das Ding [se leurrer sur das Ding], colonize the eld of das
Ding with imaginary schemes. That is how collective, socially
accepted sublimations operate. Society takes some comfort from
the mirages that moralists, artists, artisans, designers of dresses
and hats, and the creators of imaginary forms in general supply it with. But it is not simply in the approval that society
gladly accords it that we must seek the power of sublimation.
It is rather in an imaginary function, and, in particular, that
for which we will use the symbolization of the phantasm
($ a), which is the form on which depends the subjects desire.
(S7E: 99: S7F: 118119)
Collective and other forms of sublimations work because they
accommodate not so much what we need in order to live but our
unconscious fantasies. They conjure up the object of our fantasies, the
ultimate object from which all our desire stems, and keep us xated at
that imaginary level. In sublimation, we dangle a lure in front of ourselves
(se leurrer) and delude ourselves with visions of a fata morgana we can
yearn for, thereby sustaining our desire. Culture may thus have no real
foundationas the creation of a polymorphous-perverse libido it may well
be built on nothingnevertheless, it is precisely for this reason that it
is more or less able to satisfy the libidinal being. It is precisely this that
makes it compatible with the drive that, at the most fundamental (i.e.,
real) level, never reaches its object but only circles around it.
In the same way, the satisfaction offered by ethics comes back, in
the nal analysis, to the fact that it has something of an articial illusion about it. According to Lacan, it derives from a morally fabricated
hallucination, and only in this capacity is it satisfying. It is only to
the extent that, as a creation ex nihilo, it is not a xed entity that it
appeals to the free space that divides man from the object his drive
(as an object relation) aims at. In the nal analysis, desire discovers its
most fundamental support only in this space (this distance, this
gap). Sublimation grasps this gap in an imaginary way through an
image (a mirage, an illusion, a hallucination). If it installs an object (a


Eros and Ethics

signier) in the center of this free space, it is not in order to subdue

desire but rather to make it circle around it more intensely. Sublimation
can give desire the satisfying feeling that it has got (an imaginary) hold
of its ultimate object while at the same time maintaining a distance from
it. The mere glimpse of his Lady already brings the courtly lover into
ecstatic enjoyment51 while, nonetheless, his desire continues unabated.
Solely this illusion, solely this earliest truth-founding lie provides
the ultimate guarantee that his desire will have the space it needs.52 To
the extent that this free space acquires form in our moral values, these
values escape the neurotic activity that desire so often generates and we
are able to experience desire in a more or less satisfying way. It is only
this kind of open space that permits our drives to function in a more or
less healthy fashion inside culture without succumbing to the frequently
neurotic demands emerging from it.
Culture proffers itself as a law. As a helpless, libidinal creature, man
is irrevocably dependent on this law (or, what comes down to the same
thing, on the symbolic order). It is the sole element that can guarantee our
existence as desiring beings. But in the nal analysis, what the law offers
is an open space beyond itself, a space that permits us to transgress the
law, if only phantasmatically. What binds us to culture, what binds us
mutually in culture to others, is the transgressive space of our fantasies.
Desires ultimate guarantee is not the universe of signiers that lends it
its indispensable law, but an object that lies beyond it. Culture can stand
in for this guarantee because it stems from sublimations, from signiers
or objects that it has rendered in the place of that transgressive thing.
Such an object elevated to the level of the thing not only provides an
ultimate reference point for the whole drive economy; sublimation also
keeps the space around that thing open and free so that desire, too, can
move around freely in a realm that escapes the symbolic law. Sublimations
incapability to absolutize an object to a thing is thus meant to give
desire free space, that is, a space where it performs a certain freedom
vis--vis the symbolic law (however indispensable that law is).
Note that while culture may stem from sublimations, sublimation as
such is an active process whose satisfying effect is owed to this aspect.
Once established, it loses much of its sublimating power and its chances
of operating neurotically increase. Sublimations only provide satisfaction
to the extent that they are perceived in their transgressive dimensions. It is
as if by perceiving a (religious, artistic, scientic) value, we simultaneously
perceive its foundation, its creation ex nihilo and thus sense the way
it springs from a realm where our desire proceeds beyond the law and
circles around an ungraspable and (in this sense) absolute thing. Only in
this way does it become compatible with the most fundamental structure
of the drive: a pulsating movement where everything revolves around a



central, empty thing. In this way, a cultural value is brought back to

the polymorphous-perverse starting point from which the human libidinal
creature perceives it. Courtly loves sublimation springs not so much from
the lovers authentic love as from the play of delity and transgression
set down by the courtly code. It is only thanks to this perverse play
with the law that he encounters the frequencies of his most fundamental
drive structure and is able to bind himself to his culture with a fully
libidinal stake.
As I mentioned, in the nal lesson of his sixth seminar where he
announces the theme of the following seminar (the ethics of psychoanalysis),53 Lacan already explicitly talks about sublimation in the transgressive,
even perverse sense that we have traced here. Culture, he says in this
context, is not purely the means by which an individual ts himself into
a society but is also something that authorizes a mobile counter dialectic. Of course, man is dependent on society. He is so already as a sujet
logique, as Lacan formulates it here, as a logical subject, as the bearer
of the logos, that is, of the linguistic, symbolic Other (Lacan, 1999a: 538).
But this doesnt prevent this society, precisely through the agency of the
individual, from having an inclination towards entropy and dissolution,
since the individual always sets himself in opposition to its norms at the
same time (ibidem). Although society offers models with which he must
inevitably identify, he remains at the same time recalcitrant toward them. It
is precisely in this protest that desire reveals itself most clearly, that is, in
the polymorphous-perverse nonconformity the human drive stems from:
What, in the society, presents itself as culture [. . .] is something that establishes a movement, a dialectic, which opens the
same gap inside of which we try to situate desire. It is in that
sense we can qualify what is produced as perversion, i.e., as
the reection, the objection on the level of the logical subject,
of what the subject undergoes on the level of identication,
insofar as identication is the relation which commands, which
establishes the standards of social stabilisation [. . .].54
It is in this context that the term sublimation appears a couple
of lines farther on:
In the sense that we could say that something is established
as an interaction [circuit tournant] between what we could
call conformism [. . .] [and] perversion, insofar this [i.e. perversion] represents [. . .] all that, in conformisation, performs
as protest in the proper dimension of desire as the relation of
the subject towards its beingthis is the famous sublimation


Eros and Ethics

about which we maybe will talk next year. For this is truly
the most extreme notion, the most justied of all what I am
presenting to you [. . .].55

Note how Lacans subsequent formulation of sublimation can already

clearly be seen here. Sublimation concerns the relation of the desiring
subject toward his being, that is, to the real (the thing) that lies
beyond the (symbolic) world of signiers in which it moves. This relation
is explicitly linked here with the subjects perversion and its protest,
that is, with the way in which the subject falls short in his identication
with the Other that he needs for survival (i.e., with the models and
norms that society supplies him with). Sublimation must be framed in
a circuit, an interaction between conforming to the norm, on the
one hand, and a perverse (inverting all norms) protest on the other.
This interaction reveals how desire forms the basis for culture and its
norms; how it, too, in the nal analysis is founded in the polymorphousperverse pleasure animal that is man. This is what connects culture and
sublimation: both show that the subjects immersion in the symbolic order
nevertheless leaves open a free space that allows this protest, making
it precisely for this reason possible for the subject to circulate in that order
as a radical desire. For this reason, sublimation allows the subject to be
interpellated into society in a more or less satisfying way. It is able to
keep the interaction between conformity and perversion sufciently
livable that the subject can conform to the law without relinquishing the
radical desire that he is.

5. Sublimation and Ethics

5.2. Sublimation versus Perversion
Lacan remains completely faithful to what he said at the end of his sixth
seminar. His investigation into desire and its interpretation (Le dsir
et son interprtation, the title of that seminar) concludes that also at the
macrolevel of culture, desire (as well as the polymorphous-perverse drive
structure it stems from) remains the most basic factor. It is no surprise,
then, that in his following seminar that same sublimation plays a crucial
role. It will deliver a concept that enables him to avoid having to dene
the ethics of desire entirely at the microlevel of the psychoanalytic
cure, but also let it apply to the wider level of culture. One must understand a cultures values as objects elevated to the status of a thing, as
signiers that thus come to occupy the extimate empty place around
which the entire drive economy revolves and in this way keep desire alive.



The reason why ethical laws and obligations do not necessarily have to
be neurotic, neither at the microlevel nor at the macrolevel, is because
they stem from a sublimation, that is, from an imaginary structure that
is linked to the polymorphous-perverse nature of our most fundamental
drive-life: an interminable revolving around a thing with which we
are an (object) relation.
Still, it is worth looking more closely at a passage in Lacans seventh
seminar where he talks explicitly about this strange interweaving of sublimation, perversion and ethics. This will show that the confrontation of
sublimation with the ethical problematic will force further renements of
Lacans reections on perversion. Here he lays the basis for what will
later become a specic theory of perversion, where the term can no longer
be confused with polymorphous-perverse but, instead, indicates one of
the three major psychic structures (alongside neurosis and psychosis).
The passage in question is from his lesson of January 20, 1960.
At a certain moment, he emphasizes the contingent, historical nature
of sublimation, which he therefore characterizes as something cultural
rather than collective or individual, that is, as something through
which the individuals recalcitrant singularity carves itself dialectically
into the collective. It would be difcult for anyone who had attended the
nal lesson of his sixth seminar to hear Lacans use of the term culture
here in a neutral way:
You dont paint in Picassos time as you painted in Velazquezs;
you dont write a novel in 1930 as you did in Stendhals time.
This is an absolute essential fact that does not for the time
being need to be located under the rubric of the collectivity or
the individual. Lets say we will place it [i.e., sublimation] under
the rubric of culture, for what we question here is precisely its
relation to societyi.e., what satisfaction society can nd in it.56
The problem of sublimation is there, of sublimation insofar as
it creates a certain number of forms, among which art is not
alone, [. . .]. (S7E: 107, modied translation; S7F: 128129)
As a sublimation, art comes into being in a context where individuals
extricate themselves from the accepted demands of society while nevertheless
producing things in which that society can subsequently recognize itself.
However, as Lacan suggests here, art is only one of the sublimations for
which this applies. It is just as applicable for ethics Lacan argues later.
Ethics, too, stems from a contingent, historical moment during which an
individual goes outside the existing ethical order so as to create, as if from
nothing, a new moral value. If society subsequently recognizes itself in
this, this recognition is linked from a libidinal perspective to the creative


Eros and Ethics

origin of that value. What binds people to these values is the phantasmatic
transgressive space out of which they spring, a space that responds to the
most basic, polymorph perverse drive structure of their desire.
It is here that for the rst time Lacan cites the passage from the
Critique of Practical Reason, already discussed at the end of the previous
chapter, where Kant presents two fables to illustrate the weight of reason in ethical questions.57 It is no coincidence that in both of the cases
it involves a singular individual who explicitly sets himself against the
law and has the chance to protest against it and even to transgress it.
In the rst fable, Kant invokes a man who has the opportunity to spend
a night with his mistress with the proviso that, if he takes up this offer,
he will later be hanged. In the other fable, a person nds himself in a
position where he must disobey the moral obligation to always tell the
truth: he can send his fellowman to death with a false declaration, with
the proviso that, if he fails to do so, he will himself be killed.
In his analysis of this passage, in which he limits himself for the
most part to the rst case, Lacan stresses how there is one thing that Kant
fails to see. For Kant, it is clear that, having to choose between a night of
enjoyment or saving his life, a man will opt for the latter without question. According to Lacan, what escapes Kant is that the man in question
may well be a courtly lover. For such a person, it is in no way senseless
or immoral to value his mistress over his own life. What is of weight
in his ethical dilemma is not reason, as Kant claims (S7E: 10858; S7F:
130), but his Lady. From the standpoint of courtly love, she is, from an
ethical perspective as well, his mistress, his Domina, the one who
is so good as to dominate him. Kant was unable to imagine that the
man in question might just as easily choose the fatal night of love, not
so much because he cannot control his passions but because, on account
of his courtly ethos, he owes her his obedience and fealty. And this ethos
originates not in the unshakable transcendental structure of human reason (as held by Kantian ethics), but in a poetic revolutionhistorically
specic (S7E: 109; S7F: 130)in which troubadours conjured up out of
nothing a new, female-friendly eroticism.
Kants fundamental error, according to Lacan, is to remain blind
to the fact that in the nal analysis an ethical relation stems not from
the weight of reason, nor from the autonomy of the law, but from a
dialectic (ibid.) between the subject and the law. This dialecticas
he teaches us at the end of the sixth seminarputs the subject against
the law and thus in a certain sense outside it. The subject stands in the
transgressive place where the law is made as if out of nothing (creation ex
nihilo) (as one makes literature and poetry, as still found in the strong
meaning of the Ancient Greek word for to make [poien, poiein]). In



other words, Kant failed to see that ethics stems from a sublimation. Or,
as Lacan puts it in a difcult and uncivilly long sentence (only the basic
skeleton of which is translated here):
Our philosopher from Knigsberg [. . .] doesnt seem to have
considered that under certain conditions of what Freud would
call berschtzung or overevaluation of the objectand that
I will henceforth call object sublimationunder conditions in
which the object of a loving passion takes on a certain signicance (and, as you will see, it is in this direction that I intended
to introduce the dialectics through which I propose to teach
you how to identify what sublimation really is), under certain
conditions of sublimation of the feminine object [. . .] [as in]
courtly love [. . .], that under certain conditions of sublimation,
then, it is conceivable for such a [transgressive] step to be taken
[as described in Kants apologue]. (S7E 108109; S7F: 130)
For Lacan, it is thus not impossible that the character in Kants fable
would, for ethical reasons, choose a night of love with his lady above his
own life. In this case, in the name of the courtly ethic, he transgresses
the usual ethical law, even if he must put his self-preservation at risk for
this. It is only in this transgressive step (franchissement), according
to Lacan, that it becomes clear how ethics stems from a sublimation, that
is, from a dialectical relation with the law.
But, Lacan adds in this unseemly long sentence, this same free space
beyond the law makes it not impossible that the man transgresses the law
out of a delity to evil, and falls into an intolerable, pure criminality:
All of which leads to the conclusion that it is not impossible
for a man to sleep with a woman knowing full well that he is
to be bumped off on his way out, by the gallows or anything
else, [. . .]; it is not impossible that this man coolly accepts
such an eventuality on his leavingfor the pleasure of cutting
up the lady concerned in small pieces, for example. (S7E: 109;
The site beyond the law is thus evidently not exclusively reserved
for sublimation. Crime, too, operates from here, Lacan claims. The place
beyond the law that is the place of the thing and that constitutes the
center of every sublimation is, at the same time, the domain out of which
a criminal interaction with the law operates. Recall Roger Vaillands
description of the village of maosi in his novel La Loi where the law


Eros and Ethics

is established directly from out the thing, as Lacans analysis demonstrated (see 5.4). Here, too, man operates explicitly on the basis of a
transgressive realm, albeit in an exploitative manner where terror reigns
in the name of the law.
It shouldnt surprise us, then, that Lacan can no longer allow his
notion of perversion to be associated with the universal polymorphousperverse human condition. So as to distinguish sublimation and crime
from one another, both of which operate from out of the same transgressive space of the thing, the term perversion will be reserved solely for
crime and is no longer employed to characterize sublimation, as it was at
the end of his sixth seminar. Several lines further, we hear how
I have outlined then two cases that Kant doesnt envisage, two
forms of transgression beyond the limits normally assigned
to the pleasure principle in opposition to the reality principle
given as a criterion, namely [on the one hand], excessive object
sublimation and [on the other] what is commonly59 known as
transgression. (S7E: 109; S7F: 131)
Operating from out the thing beyond the law, there are thus
two possibilities for human action, one negative and one positive: either
perverse lawlessness, or sublimation.60
However, this does not mean that, at the level of content, Lacan strips
sublimation of the perverse nature he had attributed to it at the end of
his sixth seminar. It remains perverse here, too, in the sense of being a
gure of that polymorphous-perverse distance the pleasure being assumes
with respect to the law. It remains, in other words, a transgressive game
with the law. However, in sublimation this occurs in a positive fashion;
the transgressive space beyond the law is explicitly kept open.
Here we bump up against what is undoubtedly the most crucial
point of Lacans concept of sublimation. Why does sublimation enable us
to relate to this lawless space beyond the law without thereby falling
into pure crime? It is because there, in that transgressive domain, only
our object is posited. In no way are we present as subjects. That which
sublimation elevates to the status of a thing is exclusively the object:
something that the subject desires but with which it can never coincide.
In crime, on the other hand, in perversion as dened herewhat is
posited in the place of the transgressive thing is the subject. In this case,
the subject itself takes the place of the thing and in this way sublates
the distance that divides it from the object (or at least acts as if that
distance has been sublated). Whenever this kind of person directs herself
toward others, it is not surprising that the absolute evil the thing stands
for will come to the surface as well. The way the mafosi in Vaillands



novel imagine themselves above the law speaks volumes in this context.
Anyone who makes law out of the transgressive thing that lies at
its foundation inevitably sows terror.
5.2 Sublimation and Transgression
Generally speaking, one could claim that, through the notion of sublimation, Lacan has attempted to conceptualize the lawless, mystical ground
of the law (to use Montaignes and Pascals term61). His aim is to chart
the way the foundation of ethics perpetually escapes ethics own ethical
grasp and how the lawas remedy against crime and evilitself, in the
nal analysis, derives from crime and evil. Freud sketched out this mystical, unconscious foundation of the law in Totem and Taboo. In this
essay, the law emanates from the unrestrained libido of the primal father
who, dominating everything and everyone, is consequently murdered by
the oppressed sons. However, this doesnt stop the criminal law that
curtails the libidinal life of his sons from being permanently forged into
the ethical law after his death, binding them more powerfully to the
criminal law of the father through their sense of guilt. Lacans ethics
of psychoanalysis is an attempt to allow this mystical, transgressive
space that lies at the basis of the ethical law to come into its own right
because it is there, par excellence, that desire and the polymorph-perverse
drive it derives from are revealed.
However, Lacans concept of sublimation makes it clear that one
must not assume this space as a subject, if only because, as Freuds myth
suggests, one would lapse into the unholy violence of the primal father. In
that case, the distance that separates the libidinal being from its ultimate
object would be destroyed. The object relation libidinal economy is based
on would collapse, bringing about the death of the subject. When this is
about to happen, the sole means of survival lies in the way the subject
diverts the violence away from itself and abreacts it onto others. Then, the
subject acts as if there is no longer any gap between itself and the thing
whereas, in fact, the evil hidden inside it becomes abreacted onto others
and the subject imagines itself as sovereign as the mafosi in Vaillands
novel or as the heroes in Sades fantasies. For this latter outlet, where the
subject operates directly from the position of the transgressive thing,
Lacan reserves the term perversion, although it will take another two
years before he arrives at a fully developed theory of perversion.62
An ethics of psychoanalysis such as Lacan presents here uncompromisingly aims to do justice to desire and must therefore afrm the
transgressive origin of the law. For this reason he focuses on the thing,
on this transgressive space that prevents the subject from merging with
the symbolic law, enabling it to take a certain position vis--vis the


Eros and Ethics

law. It is the only possible way a subject can more or less satisfactorily
hold out in a world lled with neurotic laws and norms. Precisely as
a sublimationas a creation ex nihiloculture maintains contact
with the free space of the thing and connects to the most fundamental
polymorphous-perverse structure of the human drive. But for sublimation
to maintain contact with this transgressive thing simultaneously means
keeping the subject at the necessary distance from that thing. Here,
the fully ethical dimensions that Lacan attributes to sublimation become
clear. That sublimation must elevate precisely the object to the status of
a thing comes primarily as a result of the fact that the subject must not
assume this place.
Here, we face one of the most fundamental reasons why Lacan,
unlike Freud, conceives his theory of sublimation entirely from the perspective of the object pole. The object relational grammar enables us to
see more clearly the paradoxical gesture that sublimation stands for. The
object of the object relation that we are lies beyond the limit of the
law, while the subject of this relation remains on this side of the law. In
this way, it becomes more or less comprehensible why, as libidinal beings,
we remain both devoted to the law and xated on what lies beyond it.
Lacans object-relational version of sublimation articulates how it is possible to maintain contact with the domain of Jenseits, beyond the lawa
necessary requirement in order to allow desire to come into its own and,
hence, in accord with an ethics of psychoanalysiswithout the subject
itself transgressing the limit of the law. Sublimation keeps the drive open
towards an object that lies beyond the law while simultaneously allowing
us to maintain ourselves as subjects (bearers) of that symbolic law. It is
only sublimation, considered from the object relational perspective, that
enables us to think the relation between law and desire as a dialectic,
albeit a dialectic thatin contrast to what Hegel maintainednever
overcomes (sublates) its antagonistic operation.
Only the objectand never the subjectis elevated to the status
of the thing in sublimation. In the very gesture of transgressing the
limit of the law (the symbolic order) and establishing an object above
the law, the subject is prevented from participating in this transgression.
Only a sublimated object can keep the space beyond the law open (and
so sustain the most radical dimension of desire) without dragging the
subject along with it into that dangerous openness. It was in this way
that the courtly lover could trample on the ordinary laws and open up a
space beyond, while at the same time be prevented by the Lady (i.e., the
sublimated object) from handing himself completely over to that space.
In what is commonly called perversion (as Lacan puts it in the passage
cited above), this space is not respected and the subject itself takes the
place of the thing from where he then literally lays down the law for



others. The mafosi in Vaillands novel relate not to an object beyond

the law but put themselves (as subjects) literally outside or above the law
from where they lay down the law to their fellow men with a sovereign
Now it becomes clear how sublimation brings the founding paradox
characteristic of the object relation sharply into the foreground. On the
one hand, man is the object he desires: only in that object is he
what he desires to be. However, on the other hand, his being is posited
as nothing other than an object, as a point of reference that perpetually
withdraws behind the limit and which makes us innitely desire the object
that we are, thereby conrming ourselves as an (object) relation.
This also claries the ethical stakes of sublimation: sublimation stands
as a guarantor for desire precisely by making the irreconcilable gap between
subject and object the engine of culture. An object elevated to a thing
afrms the transgressive dimension of our desire while simultaneously
preventing us from being dragged along by that transgression, since the
subject is explicitly evacuated from the law-transgressing gesture. In this
way, sublimation gives acculturated man the chance to connect with the
polymorphous-perverse nature of his drive life while preventing him at the
same time from falling into the monstrous position of perverse criminality
(where we believe ourselves to be the thing). Sublimation thus combines
a more or less satisfying positive gesture with an active ght against the
lawless evil perversion leads to. This, for Lacan, is indisputably the essence
of its ethical dimension.
5.3. The Function of the Beautiful: An Ethical Function
The sublimatory character of our culture appeals to the fundamental drive
structure of our desire. From a psychoanalytic perspective, it is only in
this sense that culture fullls its ethical function. Each in their own way,
art, religion, and sciencethe three major sublimations Lacan, following
Freud, distinguisheskeep this space beyond the symbolic law open. In
this way, they arouse desire at its most radical level, that of the drive. In
this way, too, Lacanian psychoanalysis is able to give a positive moral
valorization to all three.
Nevertheless in his Ethics Seminar, Lacan expresses a clear preference for one of these three sublimations, namely, the aesthetic. Here the
structure of desire is most clearly revealed. For this reason, according
to Lacan, one must attribute a particular ethical task to the aesthetic
sublimation. In fact, not all of the three sublimations Lacan itemizes
(following Freud) yield up their secrets in the same clear fashion. Science
does so least of all for, paradoxically, it only reveals the extimate
space around which its desire is centered by foreclosing its existence in


Eros and Ethics

advance. There, this space can only be deduced from the irrepressible zeal
with which it pursues absolute knowledge. That zeal makes science
blind to the fact that such knowledge must remain innitely postponed.
Religion is much clearer about this because it explicitly reserves a place
for this radical space of desire. There, the transgressive nature of our
relation to this space is unmistakable. The limit religion installs between
the sacred and the profane functions as the perpetual object of a highly
regulated, spiritualized form of transgression. Only, religion organizes
these transgressions as rituals (which is the sacred side of religion)
orother possibilitycondemns them as sin and evil (which is religions
moral side).
According to Lacan, it is in fact the aesthetic realm that offers the
most far-reaching view of sublimations transgressive game. Art comes up
with the most enlightened way of bringing the structure of our desire
and our drive to light. Of course, the aesthetic acts as a veil, but for this
very reason it most clearly betrays how that veil continues to hide something, and is therefore only a veil. For Lacan, courtly love is paradigmatic
of sublimation (S7E: 128; S7F: 153) because the veil cast over the Lady
(as representative of the thing) is what points most clearly to her (and
hence to the thing).
Lacan speaks about aesthetic sublimation as a function of the
beautiful, which he distinguishes from the function of the good (S7E:
218, 231; SVII: 257, 271). It is not in the latter function (the good) but
in that of the beautiful that one must seek the kind of ethics psychoanalysis has in view.
In the meantime it has become clear that with a notion such as the
function of the goodto clarify this rstLacan is not referring to the
good in itself or the supreme good. Rather, he has the entire symbolic world in mind as both the material and spiritual values and the
goods to which we are libidinally bound. For him, the domain of the
good is also directly the economy of goods.63 And these goods not only
meet our needs (as people still believed up until and including Benthams
utilitarianism, see among others S7E: 228; S7F: 269), but primarily our
pleasures and desires. More specically, they answer to the desire we are
and whichaccording to the foundational axiom of Lacanian theoryis
that of the Other. In order to become a subject at all, the libidinal being
must assume the desire of the Other, including all of the goods he or
she may desire. In so doing, we always desire what the Other desires.
Consequently, anything we have is always something that we have in
fact held back from an other. This is the reason why the domain of the
good(s) is so rife with power and violence. At the end of the lesson that
Miller titled The function of the good, Lacan maintains:



The domain of the good is the birth of power. The notion of

control of the good is essential [. . .]. To exercise control over
ones goods, as everyone knows, entails a certain disorder, that
reveals its true nature, i.e., to exercise control over ones goods
is to have the right to deprive others of them. [. . .] For the
function of the good engenders, of course, a dialectic. I mean
that the power to deprive others is a very solid link form which
will emerge the [specic dimension of the] other as such. (S7E:
229; S7F: 269270)
My good is thus in principle just as much the others good. Whence,
too, my natural tendency to distrust that other and fear he will take his
good away from me. At the same time, I am also jealous of that other
and imagine he has precisely what I so pointedly lack (S7E: 237; S7F:
278). No matter what good I have, I naturally believe that the other is
the only one who has the real good, and it bugs me that he seems to have
at his ngertips the very good I am pining for in vain.64 Although the
realm of the goods possesses a logic of envy, it is nevertheless constitutive
for our desire. It binds us to the order of the Other and keeps us at a
distance from the thing. Moreover, in the nal analysis, our desire is
not for a good but for a thing, although it can only maintain itself
thanks to the distance it takes from that thing. Even our most severe
attachment to a possession is still just a means of keeping us away from
our ultimate object of desire.
Just recall the miser and his riches in Simone Weils Gravity and
Grace. He, too, can only maintain himself as a desiring subject, as Lacans
analysis in his sixth seminar has it, to the extent that he denies himself all
enjoyment of his riches. For himself even more than for others, his riches
remain a forbidden and (only for that reason) desired fruit (see 1.3.5).
In this sense, the dimension of the good or the goods forms a wall, a
barrier (S7E: 216; S7F: 256) that holds desire back in its push toward
enjoyment.65 Or, as Lacan puts it elsewhere, playing on the double meaning of the French word dfendre:
There is a fact observed in experience that one always has
to remember in analysis, namely, what is meant by defending
ones goods [dfendre ses biens] is one and the same thing as
forbidding oneself from enjoying them [se dfendre soi-mme
den jouir]. The sphere of the goods erects a strong wall across
the path of our desire. (S7E:230; S7F 270)
Possessions, including the envious struggle that inevitably accompanies them, form a strong wall against jouissance: this is the function


Eros and Ethics

of the good. Nevertheless, this doesnt mean that this function solves all
problems. On the contrary, the blind envy that characterizes this realm
keeps man perpetually in bondage to others. Unable to nd the hoped-for
good in myself (for the simple reason that, because it is enjoyment, it
can in no way ever be appropriated), I will covetously imagine the other
has it. I will envy him and literally take it from him if need be. His
inability to give it to me only strengthens my suspicion that he is in fact
withholding it from me, and this makes me hate him all the more. In his
lesson of May 18, Lacan says this about the spiral of jealousy:
Isnt it strange, very odd, that a being admits to being jealous
of something in the other to the point of hatred and the need
to destroy, jealous of something that he is incapable of apprehending in any way, by any intuitive path? The identication
of this other virtually in the form of a concept may in itself
sufce to provoke the movement of malaise concerned; and I
dont think one has to be an analyst to see such disturbing
undulations passing through subjects behaviors. Now we have
reached the frontier. What will enable us to cross it? One nds
at this frontier another crossing point, which enables us to
locate precisely an element of the eld of the beyond-the-good
principle. That element, as I have said, is the beautiful. (S7E:
237; S7F: 278)
If the good protects us from the dangerous realm of the thing, it
does so in blind fashion that lands us in a spiral of envy and aggression.
The function of the beautiful, according to Lacan, is to arm us against
this. The beautiful operates beyond the limit of the good although, like
the good, it also serves to prevent us from gaining access to that thing
beyond. The beautiful is thus also a barrier. But it is a barrier that,
by blinding us with something beautiful, prevents a blind ght for the
good. It keeps us under the spell of a beauty that paralyzes, for a
moment, our envious struggle for the good. At the end of his lesson on
the function of the good, where he makes the transition to the function of the beautiful, we read:
Beyond the place of restraint constituted by the concentration
and circuit of goods, a eld nevertheless remains open to us
that allows us to draw closer to the central eld. The good is
not the only, the true, or the single barrier that separates us
from it. What is that second barrier? [. . .] The true barrier
that holds the subject back in front of the unspeakable eld
of radical desire that is the eld of absolute destruction, of
destruction beyond putrefaction, is properly speaking the aes-



thetic phenomenon where it is identied with the experience

of beautybeauty in all its shining radiance, beauty that has
been called the splendor of truth. It is obviously because truth
is not pretty to look at that beauty is, if not its splendor, than
at least its envelope. (S7E: 216217; S7F: 256)
If we go beyond the barrier of the circuit of goods, we do not
immediately enter the realm of the thing, the eld of absolute destruction where the subject disappears. Beyond the rst barrier is a second
barrier: the beautiful. There we are brought to a halt, not by the thing
itself, but by a splendor, a brilliant radiance that, drawing our attention
toward the thing, simultaneously pulls it out of our direct sight.
In Lacans line of reasoning, the barrier of the beautiful takes on
a double and, in a sense, ambiguous function. On the one hand, it is
the subjects nal obstructive limit in its search for its radical desire,
that is, for its extimate and deathly radix, that is, the thing. On the
other hand, it opens up a eld that enables us to draw closer to the
thing. It is thus a barrier that is at the same time an access. Precisely
in this lies its difference from the barrier of the good. For as long as we
dance before the limit of the good, we keep on blindly imagining that
the other has our thing in his possession, and thereby fall prey to an
irremediable jealousy. In this sense, the good threatens and deceives us.
But if we transgress the limit of the good and stop before the limit of the
beautiful, we get a glimpse of that impossible, unreachable and destructive
thing. We are no longer confronted with an absolute good possessed
only by the other but now see it more clearly as something that, if it
cannot be had, can also not be tolerated.
The beautiful in its strange function with relation to desire
doesnt take us in [ne nous leurre pas], as opposed to the
function of the good. It keeps us awake and perhaps helps us
adjust to desire insofar as it is itself linked to the structure of
lure [leurre]. (S7E: 239; S7F: 280)
The beautiful thus does not deceive us in our desire, precisely
because it is already in itself deceptive. Beauty also shows how it is only
an appearance, a representation, without ever letting us see the thing as
such. Seducing us, it doesnt deceive us for it explicitly presents itself as
an unattainable good. In this sense, the beautiful provides a more tting
image for desire insofar as, despite everything it grasps for, it remains
perpetually unsatised.
This is precisely the moral function that, tracing out an ethics of
desire, Lacan will ascribe to the beautiful. More so than the good, the
experience of beauty prepares us for a confrontation with our desire as


Eros and Ethics

such, with this futile movement that constantly misses the thing it
desires and thereby circles perpetually around it. In the beautiful, the
deception of desire at least becomes visible and therefore helps us avoid
becoming entangled in the goods deceptions. From this perspective, the
beautiful is better than the good, because it lets us see that the better we continually strive for is not the fulllment but the destruction of
the good. Lacan cites the French saying, the better is the enemy of the
good.66 The beautiful preserves us from that better than the good by
allowing us to see it in its petried cruelty.
Sublimation appeals to the most fundamental structure of the drive
and therefore gives an extra (transgressive) space to the desire that has
been aroused by the symbolic law. It is here that the ethical dimension
of sublimation lies. An explicitly aesthetic sublimation only makes the
ethical dimension more distinct. It gives us the clearest picture of what
is at play in sublimation, in desire and in the drive. Precisely because it
deceives us less than other forms of sublimation, its ethical dimension is
more pronounced, says Lacan. More than the others, it grants us a glimpse
of the thing we seek, a glimpse that, while always making us recoil, at
the same timeprecisely through its beauty effectconsciously keeps
it in place. In the rst allusion Lacan makes to sublimation in his Ethics
Seminar, he had already this conscious, lucid aesthetic sublimation in mind.
As we saw at the beginning of this chapter, he was concerned with
that which, over the centuries, human beings have succeeded
in elaborating that transgresses the Law [on the level of the
noV (nous, Greek for raison)], [i.e., what] puts them in a
relationship to desire that transgresses interdiction [. . .]. (S7E:
84; S7F: 101; see above 7.1)
Lacan, already talking about sublimation without mentioning the
term, approaches it as a conscious means for afrming the transgressive
relation between the desiring subject and the symbolic law. Sublimation is
announced as a positive, nonrepressed afrmation of desires transgressive
structure, an afrmation at the level of the noV [nous, understanding,
reason, thought, consciousness].
Yet this does not prevent precisely the conscious nature of aesthetic
sublimation from being highly problematic. For how can we imagine such
an aesthetic confrontation between desire and its own extimate object?
While it might be situated on the level of the noV [nous], the function
of the beautiful certainly cannot be dened as the becoming-conscious of
the unconscious. In that case, Lacans theory would lapse into a traditional
philosophy of consciousness and would misrecognize the most essential
point of psychoanalysis, namely, that the unconscious is consciousnesss



very base and, thus, structurally unsublatable. The mere fact of the
things unknowable nature conrms this fundamental idea.67
But still this does not answer the question of how such a conscious,
aesthetic contemplation of the unconscious, unsublatable thing can have
an ethical function. What am I supposed to do with that beauty that
gives me a glimpse of that unbearable yet at the same time irresistible
thing my desire unconsciously seeks? In the following chapter we will see
how the entire problem with which we ended the previous chapterthat
is, the unpronounceable singularity of an ethics of desirerears its ugly
head again. For, even when the ethical function of an aesthetic image is
to make desire visible, the question remains whether we can therefore
make that image function as an aesthetic demand or a moral law. Can
one even remotely take an ethical stance on the basis of an aesthetic
image? Or does the singularity of desire as afrmed in that image make
this impossible?
To deal with these questions, Lacan will comment on an exemplary
aesthetic sublimation that makes desire visible. The example in question
is the well-known (also from an ethical perspective) ancient tragedy,
Sophocles Antigone.

Chapter 8

Radiant Antigone

Beauty, too, has its rights.

Balthasar Gracian

1. An Anamorphic Glance at Tragedy

1.1. Beauty: . . .
The splendor of Antigonesuch is the title Jacques-Alain Miller invents
for the rst lesson of Lacans commentary on the tragedy bearing this name
(S7E: 243; S7F: 285). The title suggests the image of a beautiful young
woman, radiant in the center of a fatal catastrophe, and it sends us
directly to the heart of Lacans interpretation. What, to his mind, makes
the central gure the main theme of Sophocles tragedy is indeed her
beauty, her irresistible radiance. When he asks at the beginning of his
reading, What does one nd in Antigone? his answer is instantaneous:
First of all, one nds Antigone (S7E: 250; S7F: 293). Her unbearable
splendor, her harsh beauty, this is what the tragedy is about (S7E:
246; S7F: 290).
The articulation of the tragic action is illuminating of the
subject. It has to do with Antigones beauty. And this is not
something I invented; I will show you the passage in the song
of the Chorus where that beauty is evoked, and I will prove
that it is the pivotal passage. (S7E: 248; S7F: 290)



Eros and Ethics

It is typical of Lacans often sloppy teaching method that he never

explicitly fullls this promise. From the context, however, he almost certainly had the third Chorus song in mind (verses 781805). He comes back
to it frequently and with great emphasis.1 It does indeed concern beauty,
albeit not specically of Antigone herself, but of young girls in general.
The radiant bloom on a girls soft cheek (v. 784) is a sign, the Chorus
sings, of the irresistible power of Eros, never conquered in battle
(v. 782).2 Yet, in the given context, this ode to Eros is rather striking. A
furious Creon just sentenced Antigone to be buried alive, and already the
choir starts up with a song of praise to erotic love. In Roberts Fagless
translation, the brusque transition in the text is clearly evident:

I will take her down some wild, desolate path

never trod by men, and wall her up alive
in a rocky vault, and set out short rations,
just the measure piety demands
to keep the entire city free of delement.
There let her pray to the one god she worships:
Deathwho knows?may just reprieve her from death.
Or she may learn at last, better than ever,
what a waste of breath it is to worship Death.
(Exit to the palace)
CHORUS: Love, never conquered in battle
Love the plunderer laying waste the rich!
Love standing the night-watch
guarding a girls soft cheek [. . .]3

For Lacan, this brusque transition from a death sentence to a hymn to

Eros is highly signicant. What shimmers along with the gure of Antigone
at that fatal tragic moment is also Eros orin Lacanian termsdesire.
A little later in the Chorus song, we nd the term on which the core
of Lacans interpretation hangs: i meroV nargV [himeros enargs], the
visible desire that comes from the eyes of a beautiful girl (v. 795796).4
Antigone, her crime and the carrying out of her death sentence: for Lacan,
each of these are aesthetic gures, gures of beauty through which desire
becomes visible and whose power glows and radiates. Referring to
the moment just after Creon seals Antigones death, Lacan claims:
It is precisely at this moment that the Chorus says in so
many words: This story is driving us mad; we are losing our
grip; we are going out of our minds; as far as this child is
concerned we are moved to. . . . what the text, using a term
whose appositeness I ask to remember imeroV nargV [himeros

Radiant Antigone


enargs] [. . .].
ImeroV nargV is literally desire made visible.
(S7E: 268; S7F: 311)5
Despiteor, more strictly, because ofthe hideous context in which
she is situated, the power of desire radiates from Antigones appearance. The entire play is a ghastly tableau that, as Aristotle puts it, elicits
only pity and fear,6 yet in Lacans eyes it serves primarily to give us a
sharper image of the harsh beauty of desire.
It goes without saying that Lacans reading of Antigone raises some
critical questions. Since Aristotle, has it not become clear that tragedys
essence lies primarily in the tragic drama,7 rather than in the personality
of the protagonist? Anyway, the emphasis on Antigones beauty is absent
from Sophocles text itself, as is any reference to her specically erotic
radiance. Rather, the tragic poet depicts Antigone as a cold, unfeeling
character.8 Following the letter of the text, it is only her anc, Haemon,
who shows any sign of erotic distress. When he falls on his sword at
the end of the play, it is out of genuine love for his beloved. Antigone
herself doesnt let any of loves considerations stop her, unless it is her
love for her brother, but this is not given the slightest erotic interpretation by Sophocles.
However legitimate, this type of criticism does not really bring us
closer to understanding Lacans train of thought, which is our primary
concern. For this purpose, even his misreadings can be illuminating.
Remember his reading of Hamlet in the sixth seminar (see above I, 5,
12), where it became clear that his comments on this major canonical
text are primarily meant to force his own theory into sharper relief. From
this perspective, a confrontation with Antigone will allow him to reect
on what the ethics of desire is about. His reading is thus colored in
advance and my intention is to judge that color, not by its accuracy to
the original text, but by what it contributes to the theory currently being
formed here. Hence it makes sense to follow Lacans highly chargedat
times even erroneousreading of Antigone very closely within the lines
of thought he is developing in his Ethics Seminar.
1.2. . . . Ethical, But Not Good
In the course of this seminar, Lacan has explained in various ways how
the supreme good is in fact a radical evil and that the goods we deal
with on a daily basis are perpetually sliding signiers that deceptively
keep us away from that evil supreme good, the ultimate thing our
desire aims at. In that deception, he had identied the function of the
good and had added the function of the beautiful as the next step in
his reasoning. In the beautifulan artwork, a creative play with signiers


Eros and Ethics

(a faonnement du signiant as he sometimes calls it)the capricious,

deceptive structure of the good whose work normally goes unnoticed
comes to the surface. Or, as Lacan expresses it in the passage cited at
the end of the previous chapter:
The beautiful in its strange function with relation to desire
doesnt take us in, as opposed to the function of the good. It
keeps us awake and perhaps helps us adjust to desire insofar
as it is itself linked to the structure of lure. (S7E: 239; S7F:
Beauty unmasks the deception through which we realize ourselves
as (subjects of) desire. On a conscious level, it grants us a view of the
thing and in this way supports our unconscious fascination with it. At
the same time, beauty supports the necessary distance in relation to that
dangerous thing that even our best intentions unconsciously aim for. In
this lies the expressly ethical function of the beautiful for Lacan.
This is why Lacan now tries to show how the function of the
beautiful does indeed operate ethically in a work of art. In his eyes,
Sophocles Antigone seems particularly well-suited for this, if only because
of the explicitly ethical character of its scenario. Rarely is the question of
the meaning of the moral law and mans relation to it so clearly delineated
than in the conict between Antigone and Creon. Moreover, the long
history of ethical reection accompanying the reception of this tragedy
enables Lacan to position himself against the entire ethical tradition.
Yet precisely because of the explicitly moral nature of this tragedy,
Lacans commentary can easily be misinterpreted. His point is that its
ethical power is found not so much in its moral content as in its formal
beauty and the way that this beauty works. Lacan latches on to Antigone primarily because it is a work of art and appeals to our sense of
beauty. Solely in this capacity is it able to tell us something essentially
new about ethics. Consequently, it is senseless to hunt for exactly what
it is that Lacan nds ethical or unethical in Antigones decision to bury
her brother in deance of Creons prohibition. It makes just as little sense
to ask why he doesnt emphasize Creons own moral dimension more.
Regardless of how interesting such further discussions might be (and the
entire reception of Antigone up till now is proof of this9), Lacan nevertheless puts the emphasis on something completely different. For Lacan, the
ethics of this tragedy lie not in Antigones motive, nor in the potentially
unethical nature of Creons death sentence. The ethical must be exclusively
sought in the beauty of the play, that is, in the purely aesthetic effect
that it has on the audience.

Radiant Antigone


Do not imagine that this makes Lacans thesis any easier to grasp.
His claim will not only require us to go patiently through the often
confusing explanations of his seminar, it will also remain problematic
within the lines of his seminars own logic. For what could a specically
ethical function of the beautiful mean? That it is morally good to look
at beauty and be captivated by art? That the beautiful gives us a more
adequate ethical model than the good and that from a moral perspective
the beautiful is better than the good?
Although Lacans argument seems to point in this direction at rst
sight, the very logic of his reasoning can only forbid such a conclusion. For if
the good is bound up with the beautiful, this immediately risks reducing
the beautiful to a good, that is, to something that deceives us in our desire.
How can we still claim, then, that it is precisely the beautiful that reveals
the deceptive strategies hidden in the domain of the good? It is easy for
Lacan to attribute a fully ethical function to the beautiful, but what else
could this mean than that the beautiful is a better good than the good,
that it thus inevitably belongs to the good and has the same function?
To grasp Lacans point here, we should understand how the beautiful can
be more ethical than the good, without therefore being betterwhich
takes us to one of the thorniest question in the Ethics Seminar.
1.3. An Anamorphosis
In his rst two lessons devoted to Antigone (May 25 and June 1, 1960),
Lacan limits himself to a scene by scene overview of the text, occasionally pausing on a fragment discussed by such major gures as Goethe and
Hegel (to name only these two). These latter provide him the opportunity to present, bit by bit, his own interpretation. Regarding his general
approach and the method that directs his reading, for the moment, the
reader is left guessing. It is only on June 8, in his third and nal lesson
on Antigone, that we hear something about this.10 However brief and
casual this may be, it is of decisive importance for understanding Lacans
entire commentary.
In this lesson, he observes that the structure of a tragedy is comparable to an anamorphosis, a painting whose image can only be recognized
once one has found the right perspective.11 Such a reference would not
have been entirely surprising to his audience given that he had already
spoken about anamorphoses earlier in his seminar, again in relation to
the aesthetic. More specically, on the third and tenth of February he had
displayed an anamorphosis borrowed from his friend Jacques Prvert and
given a fairly detailed explanation of it. This was a cylindrical or tubular
anamorphosis, a remarkable example of artistry made from a at support


Eros and Ethics

where all one sees at rst is a chaotic mess of color until one places a
cylindrical mirror in the middle of it and looks into that mirror from a
particular angle. At that moment, a full image emerges out of the chaos.
In the case of the anamorphosis in question, this was a miniature copy
of a crucixion by Peter Paul Rubens.
This is the anamorphosis Lacan is referring to in his third lesson
on Antigone. After a long digression on the other Sophoclean tragedies
that have overcome the ravages of time (S7E: 271272; S7F: 316317),
he unexpectedly displays this little artefact so as to promptly promote it
into a methodological paradigm for his reading of tragedy. This is what
he says:
Let us return to Antigone [. . .]. On one occasion I showed
you an anamorphosis; it was the nest I could nd for our
purpose, and it is indeed exemplary, far beyond anything one
could have hoped for. Do you remember the cylinder from
which this strange phenomenon rises up? It cannot properly
speaking be said that from an optical point of view there is an
image as such. Without going into the optical denition of the
phenomenon, one can say it is because an innitesimal fragment of image is produced on each surface of the cylinder that
we see a series of screens superimposed; and it is as a result
of these that a marvelous illusion in the form or a beautiful
image of the passion [Christs passion] appears beyond the
mirror, whereas something decomposed and disgusting spreads
out around it. That is the kind of thing that is involved here.
What is the surface that allows the image of Antigone to rise
up as an image of passion? [. . .] Tragedy is that which spreads
itself out in front so that that image may be produced. When
analyzing it, we follow an inverse procedure; we study how an
image had to be constructed in order to produce the desired
effect. (S7E: 272273; S7F: 318)
How does Lacan regard tragedy? Not in the way Aristotle does for
whom it primarily concerns a highly complex plot that at a specic
moment tragically explodes. For Lacan, a tragedy is rst of all an arbitrary set of disparate facts and events that, precisely in and through these
confusing impressions, generate an image that is lit up with an clat,
a radiance. It is in this sense that tragedy resembles the painted surface
of an anamorphosis. There, in an ugly and diffused way, everything
collides with one another while nonetheless succeeding in nding a unity,
albeit not so much in the narrative plot line as in the persistent ickering
image that emerges out of that chaos (if one can still call it an image,
Lacan adds). Out of an anarchy of death and misery, Antigone emerges as

Radiant Antigone


an ultimate epiphany of beauty that persists through to her living grave,

through to what Lacan, with Sophocles, calls her At (see 3.1). In the
eyes of the audience, her radiant image holds out despite it all. For
Lacan, the epiphany of this radiance is the rationale of every scene and
of the play in general.
Analyzing a tragedy for Lacan, then, is not so much a matter of
looking for the logic behind the plot as studying how, despiteor, better,
thanks toits confusing spectacle, each scene generates that ickering image.
Only, this kind of analysis must pursue that procedure in the inverse
direction. Unlike the audience who allow themselves to be dragged along
by that fascinating image, the analysis Lacan proposes suspends the operation of that image so as to reveal the chaotic surface of the tragedy and
to show how each of its pieces does its job in conjuring the central
epiphany into being. Now that we understand Lacans anamorphotic view
on tragedy, it is clear what he had in mind during his confusing, twolesson-long articulations of the play12: not a discursive analysis of the
plot but a study that focuses individually on each scene to see how they
successfully conjure up that central image.
Or, to put it in Lacans own terms: he examined each scene in its
capacity as signier, generating its arbitrary signied only through its mutual
play with other signiers. Usually a signied is generated immediately and
hence unnoticeably. A tragedy, in contrastand by the same token any
artwork and the entire domain of the beautifulis constructed in such
a way that the viewer makes the link between the signier and signied
less rapidly. This is why, in the tragic scene, a series of mysterious tableaux
(signiers) appear whose secret is not immediately divulged, making the
gap between signier and signied tangible and demonstrable. In this way,
a tragedy enables us to see how signier and signied are encountered not
by nature but by chance and, in the case of tragedy, even by fate.
According to Lacan, the anamorphic structure that one can recognize in tragedy not only allows the gap between signier and signied
to be seen. It also neatly shows where the subject is placed within these
coordinates. For Lacan, the bearer (the subject) of an anamorphosis,
that is, this entity where all of its elements coincide, the point where it
is what it is, lies not in its dappled ground surface, nor in its mirror,
but behind the mirror. In the real anamorphosis Lacan is referring to,
the crucied Christ looms up out of this dark tain. In the same way, in
Lacans eyes Sophocles tragedy creates the central but inaccessible space
out of which Antigone looms up and radiates. It is in this space that
Lacan will locate the precise place of the subject, the load bearing but
ctive point on which the entire libidinal construction rests.
And, last but not least, does Lacans reference to anamorphosis tell
something about the way we should look to tragedy, that is, as if we
were looking at ourselves in a mirror? In contrast to an image generated


Eros and Ethics

by a at mirror, however, an anamorphic image does not give one the

illusion that it is reecting reality itself. On the contrary, an anamorphosis
immediately shows that the image is only an image, a haphazard effect
of intrinsically meaningless spots. Precisely for this reason, such an image
will not be allowed to function as an example that we ought to follow
in our real lives. For such an image undermines any link to reality in
advance: it does not reect reality (as does a at mirror), nor even ideals
or pregurings of an anticipated future reality. It reects only meaningless
spots, stains, or, in Lacanese: signiers.
It is now clear that when Lacan attributes an ethical function to
tragedy and interprets it as an anamorphosis, such tragedy by denition
must not be interpreted as an example, no matter how spontaneously one
is inclined to do so given the ethical context we are in. While Antigone
may well have something important to say about ethics, it neither functions in Lacans ethics seminar as a moral example, nor does the tragedy
permit one to draw a moral lesson from it.13 In this respect, as we will
see later on, it makes no sense for us to debate, for example, whether we
ought to be like Antigone ethically, and whether it is she or Creon we
should take as our example when confronting a moral choice. If ctional
gures such as Antigone or Creon possess a moral function, it is purely
and simply as an image that, precisely, cannot serve as an example.
Because of its anamorphotic operation, such an image decenters or
deconstructs our tendency to take them as moral examples. The ethics
of psychoanalysis, so Lacan will argue, lies in this very decentering or
deconstruction of normal ethics.
In what follows, we will rst look more closely at the way Sophocles tragedy offers an anamorphotic image of our situation as subjects
of signiers. Only then can we understand what motivates the ethical
conclusions Lacan draws from it. More specically, it will become clear
how Lacans anamorphotic analysis of Antigone forms an illustration for
a more general decentering of ethics.

2. The Subject in the Picture

2.1. My life has long been dead
From the very beginning of the play, Antigone is literally in a fatal position. She realizes that burying Polyneices equals her own death sentence,
but at the same time she knows she will bury him anyway. It is clear to
her that giving her brother nal honors implies she is already dead. Both
his funeral and her death are the two sides of the same choice for her.
This is evident, for instance, in what she snaps at Ismene in the opening

Radiant Antigone


dialogue of the play: but I shall bury him: It is honorable for me to do

this and die [. . .] I shall lie with him. And she is even clearer about this
when, standing before Creon, she accuses her sister: Yes, you chose life,
and I chose death.14 When she cries to Ismene a little later on, You
are alive, but my life has long been dead (v. 559),15 she aptly expresses
how she regards herself at the beginning of the play. It is as though she
can only do what she does precisely because she already considers herself
dead. In any event, this is what Lacan takes from the text. He is struck
by how Sophocles depicts in Antigone a gure who proclaims in full
consciousness to be in fact already dead.
Describing Antigones song of complaint in his lesson of 8 June (S7E:
280281; S7F: 326327), he cites the numerous commentators who nd it
difcult to understand how, after hearing her ofcial sentence, Antigone,
the cold, inhuman heroine bursts into tears, complaining bitterly about
her fate. Reacting to the repeated suggestion that this passage is perhaps
a later addition, Lacan fulminates:
It is an absurd misinterpretation, for from Antigones point of
view life can only be approached, can only be lived or thought
about, from the place of that limit where her life is already
lost, where she is already on the other side. But from this place
she can see it and live it in the form of something already lost.
(S7E: 280; S7F: 326)
The explanation for Antigones unexpected complaint is to be sought
neither in the plot nor in the main characters psychology, says Lacan.
According to the logic of Lacans anamorphotic reading, this complaint
turns out to be just another expression of Antigones position. The fact
that she was always already dead is now shown less ambiguously. As the
audience, we can no longer get around the fact that she is indeed what
she says she always already was: dead. It is a means of emphasizing the
dead position from which she operates. And this is just as true for
the long, tense scene as a whole where she penetrates the caverns of the
dead (v. 920). There, according to Lacan, is revealed a
fate of life that is about to turn into certain death, a death
lived by anticipation, a death that crosses over into the sphere
of life, a life that moves into the realm of death. (S7E: 248;
S7F: 291)
Lacans emphasis on the dead position from which Antigone operates ought not to surprise us. In any event, it should not have surprised
his listeners, since with this he broaches the main theme of his previous


Eros and Ethics

seminar (Desire and Its Interpretation)and even of his entire oeuvre.

For the idea that a human being, as a real being, is always already
dead lies at the heart of the Lacanian theory of the subject. Being
the subject/bearer of signiers, human beings have left behind their real
being and only live by grace of the signiers that represent them. In his
commentary on the passage where the choir calls Antigone autonomous
(v. 821) in the lesson of 8 June, Lacan calls upas if in a ashthis
theory of the subject:
Antigone appears as utnomoV [autonomos, autonomous], as
a pure and simple relationship of the human being to that of
which he miraculously happens to be the bearer, namely, the
signifying cut that confers on him the indomitable power of
being what he is in the face of everything that may oppose
him. (S7E: 282; S7F: 328)
As the image of the pure and simple relationship of the human being
to [. . .] the signifying cut, Antigone gives us an image of the subject as
such, that is, of the fact that, as a libidinal being, man is the bearer of a
break with his being. As explained earlier, for Lacan the very ruse of
the pleasure economy lies in how the unbearable lack that we are on
the level of the real is replaced by one at the level of signiers that work
precisely on the basis of a lack. An impossible real lack is replaced with
an operational, linguistic lack (which is what primary repression comes
down to for Lacan). This is to say that the human self only exists as
something that can be represented by these signiers, without however
really being present. Hence Lacans thesis that I is an Other; as a
real being it is always dead because it has always already disappeared
beneath the chain of (symbolic) signiers. To put it into the metaphorics
of Antigone, the subject is, strictly speaking, always buried alive.
Lacans anamorphic cylinder is an excellent illustration of this. At
the base, all spots (signiers) conjure up the dying Christ, but this image
certainly does not nd its bearer either in a real Christ or in the chaos
of spots in front of the mirror. It nds its bearer in an ungraspable point
beyond this mirror out of which Christ suddenly, in a brilliant clat,
appears. He exists only insofar as he is the subject of a chaos made up
of reected fragments and colors (signiers). He is there only insofar as
is he represented. At the place where the representation suggests a presencein our case, in the empty central space behind the mirrorthere is
nothing at all: this is the precise locus of the subject. Lacan reads Antigone
according to the model of this anamorphosis. The bearer/subject of the
whole play is at the same time what disappears behind its central, looming image. Just before the previously cited passage, Lacan explicitly says

Radiant Antigone


that he situates Antigone precisely at this point: a victim at the center of

the anamorphic cylinder of the tragedy.16 By situating her in the hollow
kernel behind that tubular mirror surface, Lacan clearly indicates how
she disappears beneath the play of signiers that represent her, while on
the other hand it is only in this capacity that she is the subject (bearer)
of that signifying play.
Nevertheless, the passage cited above where Lacan invokes his theory
of the subject tells us more. Lacan not only suggests that Sophocles
protagonist shows us what it is to be the bearer of a symbolic order.
He also, in so many words, speaks about an autonomous Antigone,
an Antigone who has the indomitable power of being what [s]he is
in the face or everything that may oppose [her] (S7E: 282; S7F: 328).
This somewhat mysterious formulation seems to indicate that a space
is conferred on her in opposition to the signiers of which she is the
bearer. She may always already be dead; she may always already have
disappeared under the signiers that represent her, yet she still seems to
be characterized in opposition to them and therefore to be able to do
what she wants. More strongly, she even seems capable of autonomously
choosing her always already dead condition. At least this is the direction
Sophocles text seems to point since she is said to have autonomously
chosen death.17
Before we look more closely at Lacans interpretation of this paradoxical, tragic freedom (see 2.4), we must rst examine Antigones autonomy in
its more usual sense. Is she not completely autonomous because she resists
what in her eyes is an illegitimate law? Does her freedom not lie rst of
all in the fact that she buried Polyneices in deance of Creons explicit
prohibition? Is she not free primarily because she dared to champion her
brother who was branded an enemy of the state? Lacans answer to this
question is indisputably positive. However, he will show how her choice
of Polyneices and of her own death comprise two sides of one and the
same decision. To clarify this, we must rst examine the introduction and
the stakes of Antigones autonomous act and investigate why precisely she
makes such an unconditional commitment to Polyneices.
2.2. My brother is my brother
It is clear that Antigone takes up a autonomous position vis--vis the
Creonean law. But the question is how this autonomy is to be understood. Does it indicate that Antigone acts in the name of a law other
than Creons? Does she defend the law of the family in opposition to
one of the polis, as Hegel believed?18 Her appeal to an unwritten law
of the gods in her dispute with Creon could point in this direction (v.
454455). Or is her autonomy that of her own, personal free will that


Eros and Ethics

does not want to be absorbed by the tyranny of a universal law? In that

case, burying Polyneices primarily expresses her own individual freedom.
Support for this might be found in the implacable and uncompromising
way she tirades Creon. Or, third possibility, does the play show us primarily that Creons law is simply wrong and her autonomous act is a cry for
a better, more humane law? For this, too, there is something to be said,
particularly if one recalls how, at the end of the play, Creon himself is
plainly forced to recognize his mistakes.
However, the key question around which these and other interpretations usually turn is the question of why Antigone takes Polyneices side so
unconditionally. What binds her to such an extent to her dead, number
one enemy of the state brother that she shrinks from no prohibition and
radically and autonomously opposes the established law? If Sophocles had
mentioned somewhere in his play that Polyneices had explicitly begged
his two sisters not to leave him unburied should he die (as was the case
in Oedipus at Colonos19), the entire thing would be less enigmatic. But
in Sophocless play we get not the slightest allusion to this element from
the myth, thus only strengthening the impression that she does everything
autonomously and from her own sovereign inclination.
A discursive analysis would peel everything back to this underlying
conviction in an attempt to understand Antigone from the inside, as it
were. Hegel, for example, nds in her a delity to the family law which,
in that specic periodclassical Greece of the fth century B.C.was still
at odds with the general law of the polis. Lacans structural analysis
resists such an interpretation because it erroneously professes to be able
to look behind the text. As often, here too, he repeats: Garder vous de
comprendre: Dont think that you can look beyond the text to grasp
its supposed underlying essence.20 According to Lacan, an analysis can
only explore the texts surface and an interpretation can only be supported
by the way the elements relate amongst themselves on that surface. How,
then, does Lacan interpret Antigones unconditional choice of her dead,
enemy brother? What is her direct motive in his eyes? In the lesson of
June 8, he examines this closely (S7E: 277280; S7F: 323326) and indicates rst and foremost that she doesnt feel obliged to give Creon much
explanation. This already demonstrates her autonomy:
When she explains to Creon what she has done, Antigone afrms
the advent of the absolute individual with the phrase: Thats
how it is because thats how it is. (S7E: 278; S7F: 323)
Yet Lacan will give a particular interpretation of what he calls
Antigones absolute individuality. For he links Antigones autonomous
act to the act of her brother, and to the autonomous position that he

Radiant Antigone


assumes in relation to good and evil or to the law in general. Polyneices

may have acted in an unjustiable way, but for Antigone this is still no
reason not to give him the nal honors once dead. A little later, Lacan
explains Antigones argument with Creon as follows:
My brother may be whatever you say he is, a criminal. He
wanted to destroy the walls of his city, lied his compatriots
away in slavery. He led our enemies on to the territory of our
city, but he is nevertheless what he is, and he must be granted
his funeral rites. He doubtless doesnt have the same rights as
the other. You can in fact, tell me whatever you want, tell me
that one is a hero and a friend, that the other is an enemy. But
I answer that it is of no signicance that the latter doesnt have
the same value below. As far as I concerned, the order that you
dare refer me to doesnt mean anything, for from my point of
view, my brother is my brother. (S7E; 278; S7F: 324)
My brother is my brotherthis, according to Lacan, is why Antigone buries Polyneices. This, too, is what is at stake in her sovereign,
autonomous act. What, however, might this mean? A little later, in her
song of complaint, she herself gives a explanation, although it does not
make us that much wiser. Had it been a husband, she argues, I could
have taken another; had it been a child, I could have had another, but
because it is my brother and my last remaining brother since my mother
and father are dead, he is irreplaceable.21 It is a strange argument that
many commentators have found incomprehensible. Goethe even doubted
the authenticity of this passage.22 Lacan, on the other hand, professes to
nd it less problematic. The passage continues immediately as follows:
That is the paradox encountered by Goethes thought and he
vacillates. My brother is what he is, and its because he is what
he is and only he can be what he is, that I move forward toward the nal limit. If it were anyone else with whom I might
enter into a human relationship, my husband or my children
for example, they are replacable [. . .]. But [. . .] this brother is
something unique. Ant it is this alone which motivates me to
oppose your [i.e., Creons] edicts. (S7E: 278279; S7F: 324)
The motivation of Antigones autonomous act lies in her brothers
uniqueness. Her father and mother are dead, thus she will never again
have a brother to whom she can render the nal honors. While Lacan
may let y at all those who cannot cope with this argument, he, too, will
have to translate it before being able to say something about it. For


Eros and Ethics

Lacan, Polyneices uniqueness cannot strictly be derived from the place

he holds in the genealogical line of the family but stems from the mere
place he occupies in the symbolic order, regardless of anything he has or
has not done. What makes Polyneices unique, in other words, is the pure
fact that he is a signier, as is evident in the long and difcult sentence
that follows the above passage:
Antigone invokes no other right than that one, a right that
emerges in the language of the ineffaceable character of what
isineffaceable, that is, from the moment when the emergent
signier freezes it like a xed object in spite of the ood of
possible transformations. What is, is, and it is to this, to this
surface, the unshakeable, unyielding position of Antigone is
xed. (S7E; 279; S7F: 324325)
Antigone calls on what it is that makes Polyneices unique, something
he is simply and purely because he is. She alludes to the ineffaceable
character of what [he] is, to his own unique being. But, Lacan immediately adds, this unique value does not lie in what he really is, but in the
signier that freezes him to something rm over and above his own
real, amorphous facticity (above this stream of every possible change).
The unique value of Polyneices, afrmed in Antigones funereal rites, lies
not in the actual (real) kernel of being but in the (symbolic) signier he
is and which he remains after his death. A little later on, Lacan puts
this more clearly:
[. . .] Antigones position represents the radical limit that afrms the unique value of his being without reference to any
content, to whatever good or evil Polyneices may have done,
or to whatever he may be subjected to. This unique value
involved is essentially that of language. Outside of language it
is inconceivable, and the being of him who has lived cannot
be detached from all he bears with him in the nature of good
and evil, of destiny, of consequences for others, or of feelings
for himself. (S7E: 279; S7F: 325)
By burying Polyneices, Antigone honors him not for the good or evil
that he may have done but for his existence per se. The value her brother
has in himself is separate from any of his good or evil acts, but it is also
separate from his brute, real, natural facticity. Polyneicess value for Antigone is not of the order of the natural, nor of the real in the Lacanian
sense (and thus does not derive from what Lacan called das Ding), but
of the order of the signier. Polyneices is what he is even when he is

Radiant Antigone


no longer real, that is, after his death as well, and this is only because
he is named, because he is a name and a narrativebecause he is a
signier. Of course, a person and language are not exchangeable entities
but, as a libidinal being, man is what is he because he has a name
and, precisely as a name, a signier, he never coincides with his facticity
on the level of the real. Hence a dead Polyneices may well be dead but
he is not gone, and one may not act after his death as though he never
existed. He has existed as a signier and in this capacity exceeds the
facticity of his death. It is the signier that has torn him loose from the
natural order of life and death (from the stream of possible changes)
and thereby ensures that his value does not disappear along with him
when he dies.
This signier, moreover, is also separate from the meaning (signieds, signis) he generates. No good or evil that Polyneices ever
accomplished coincides with the ultimate ground of his existence, which
is the pure, senseless signier that he is. This is the dimension that Antigone sees in the reviled body of Polyeices, Lacan argues. She adopts the
position of the pure signier that he is: pure not in the moral sense
of the word but because it has been detached (puried) of all meaning,
all signieds, even the meaning of state enemy number one. Antigone
takes her stand as it were in the cut between language and meaning, in the fault line that ensures that no single signier can pretend to
ground being. In the nal analysis, meaning comes from nothing,ex
nihilofrom the cut that language makes in the real. This is what we
hear immediately after the previously cited passage:
That purity, that separation of being from the characteristics
of the historical drama he has lived through, is precisely the
limit or the ex nihilo near to which Antigone takes her stand.
It is nothing more than the break that the very presence of
language inaugurates in the life of man. (S7E: 279, translation
modied; S7F: 325)
Antigone, who is going to bury Polyneices at any cost, thus wants
to honor her brother in the capacity of an unbound signier arising out
of nothing. It is not Antigone herself (or her attachment to him) who
makes Polyneices into something unique. He is unique because the law
tried to expel and destroy him. If Antigone takes up the cause of this
unique expelled one, it is to show that it is precisely his status as a
signier that makes him immune to the laws destruction. The law cannot
make it as though Polyneices had never existed. If it tries, it will only
make him persist all the more visibly as a signier. It is this status as a
signier that Antigone wants to afrm with her autonomous act.


Eros and Ethics

Put another way, it is precisely this status that Creon does not want to
recognize in Polyneices. For Creons attitude shows even more clearly that
what is at issue in the entire confrontation about Polyneices funeral is in
fact the signier. Creon wants more than his death; he wants his body to
rot away or to be left as carrion for the dogs and birds, leaving no traces
of him behind. Eteocles, Creons predecessor in the war, was elevated as
a hero in a state burial, but Polyneices signication is to be reduced to
nothing. He is to disappear from history as if he never existed. It is for
this reason he will not grant Polyneices a grave with his name. But it is
precisely here that Creon runs up against the harsh materiality that lends
Polyneices his ultimate value, namely, the ex nihilo on which he rests,
the signier that he is and which cannot be undone by any bestowal of
meaning, no matter how negative or destructive. Even after Polyneices
death, (hence, as a corpse), Creon wants him to face what Lacan, following Sade, calls the second death, that is, a death that destroys him
as a signier (S7E: 254; S7F: 297). But the entire tragedy shows that this
second death, the murder of the signier, is a lethal impossibility. It is
precisely the signier as such that Creon, whose own power he owes to
the signier, cannot touch.
Creon does indeed stand for the law without limits, the sovereign
law, the law that goes beyond or crosses the limit, as Lacan emphatically puts it elsewhere (S7E: 259; S7F: 301). But precisely because the
law, too, works with signiers, it is nite, bound as it is to the limits of
the signier. In the last resort, Creon can exercise power and establish
a difference between good and bad, right and wrong, friend and enemy
thanks to the signier. But he is unable to go beyond the signier; he
cannot decide the being of Polyneices beyond the signier that represents him. He cannot send Polyneices back to the real. Here the law must
acknowledge its nitude and admit that it can only intervene at the level
of the signier, without being able to touch the signier as such. It is this
structural powerlessness that Creon fails to see.
It is precisely this powerlessness Antigone illustrates by her autonomous gesture. She asserts herself not against Creons law as such but
consciously stands at that laws limit, at the precise place where the law
encounters its material support: the pure signier, in this case, presented
in the dead body of Polyneices the enemy. She resolutely goes to where
the law can no longer realize its pretensions so as to show how that law
threatens to run up against its own limits. It is thus no surprise that Lacan
invariably associates Antigones position with a boundary, a radical limit
as he calls it in the passage cited above (S7E: 279; S7F: 325) or a condition
of the-race-is-run as we already cited.23 He describes her not so much
as someone who resists Creons law as if from the outside but rather as

Radiant Antigone


someone who advances to the limit of the law from withintoward the
fatal limit as Lacan calls it (S7E: 279; S7F: 324)so as to take a position at this radical limit, the limit that is at the same time the material
core (radix in Latin) of the law: the signier.
2.3. Antigone: Decentering the Subject
At that radical limit, we also encounter that which binds us as libidinal
beings to law and the signier: desire. Antigone also shows us the desire
that we are. In contrast to our daily experience, at the unconscious level,
law and desire are not that opposed to each other, as Lacan explains in
detail throughout this seminar. For the desire that we are is primarily
that of the symbolic Other, which is imposed on us from outside, telling
us what have to be or have to do. Although we project the fulllment
of our desire onto the Other (which is why we always remain more or
less attached to its law) we at that same time repress the Others impossibility of doing so (this is primal repression). In fact, it is precisely
because the Other will invariably fail in this, that it is so constitutive
for our libidinal economy. Only in this capacity does it keep us desiring.
We reect ourselves in the symbolic Other precisely because it is at one
and the same time both desire and lack, and it exists only insofar as we
are the subjects/bearers of that desire and lack. To repeat the basic claim
of Lacanian psychoanalysis: we have replaced the unbearable real lack
with a livable symbolic one (the Other as order of the lack). It is thus
essentially the lack in the Other that makes us desire.
Still, this is only one side of the coin. The Other not only makes
us desire; in another sense, we also make the Other desire. As bearer/
subject of its lack, we situate ourselves precisely in that symbolic eld of
otherness where it is marked by a lack. By taking this place, by subjectifying the lack of the Other, we keep the Other open and arouse its
desire. And because the Other proffers itself as a law, we thereby afrm
the laws constitutive inadequacy, nitude and lack (including that of the
ethical law). As subjects of the desire of the Otherand hence as subjects
of the lawwe are at the same time an afrmation of the lack of the
Other and its law.
Here we arrive at the heart of Lacans interpretation of Antigone:
it is precisely this aspect of his theory of the subject that his reading
of this ancient tragedy is meant to illustrate. In his previous seminars,
Lacan had already explained that man is the subject of the desire of the
Other. Recall his sixth seminar (Desire and Its Interpretation) where he
interprets Hamlet as a tragic attempt to become the subject of the Others
desire and law (see above 1.5.1). If he then focuses on Antigone in his


Eros and Ethics

next seminar, it is to develop an aspect of his subject theory that has not
yet been fully claried. Here the protagonists catastrophe makes it clear
how the Other, too, is primarily radical desire and therefore marked by
lack and nitude, even if this Other proffers itself as an absolute law.
Antigone is the subject of the Others desire, a desire that clearly appears
here as the law: as the daughter of the previous king, her existence is
completely determined by the political (symbolic) order. But this is not
what the play brings into focus. It rather presents Antigone in such a
way that she makes clear how the entire order, with its power and law,
is at one and the same time desire and lack. Under circumstances where
the law appears omnipresent and all-powerful, she assumes precisely the
place where the law comes up against its own limits, thereby revealing
how it cannot give or realize what it promises.
Creon functions in the play as the representative of the law (or, in
Lacanian terms, the Other) trying to restore order in a polis recently
ravaged by war. Where the two brothers had brought the city to the
brink of the abyss by their capricious desire, Creons wish is for the law
to prevail over desire, a law thatas Lacan formulates it elsewherehas
the good of all in mind (le bien de tous, S7E: 258, 259; S7F: 300,
301). By the end of the play, to his own dismay and shame, he will be
forced to realize that the lawthat is supposed to restrain desireitself
stems from desire. Then Creon nally understands what Antigone had
shown him by opposing his law so vehemently: the lack of his own
desire, more precisely the lack and the desire lying at the base of the
law. Before his tragic fall, he considered himself the true subject,
the true bearer of the law. Following the death of both pretenders to
the throne, he has become responsible for the good of the polis. It was
up to him, then, to separate good from evil again, to identify friends (in
this case, Eteocles) and enemies (Polyneices), and treat each accordingly.
At the end of the play, it becomes evident how wrong he was, however
noble his intentions were. For, it was not he who was the subject and
bearer of the law but the one whom he had expelled on the basis of the
law, Antigone with her lawless desire.
The play in fact stages what Lacan would call the decentering of
the ethical subject. It is not Creons certainty about the good that shows
us the point where the ethical law nds its fundamental support, but
Antigones stubborn and unfullled desire. Creon reveals the law as supported by desire, by a desire to destroy all evil and to create real goodness.
The confrontation with Antigones inexible desire will make himand
the audienceconclude that indeed, his law can only desire such a thing;
that his law, too, in other words, stems from just as obstinate a desire as
that of Antigones. The good the law promises can only be desire, and it
is in this desire that the law nds its ultimate ground.

Radiant Antigone


2.4. Autonomous
It should now be clear that the key to understanding Lacans commentary
on Antigone lies in his theory of the subject even though he rarely refers
directly to it. As we saw, at the end of his lesson of June 8, he alludes
to it in connection with the autonomy he attributes to the gure of
Antigone. Although this passage was cited and commented on already, we
can now understand it more clearly. Antigone, he claims here,
appears as utnomoV [autonomos, autonomous], as a pure
and simple relationship of the human being to that of which
he miraculously happens to be the bearer, namely, the signifying
cut that confers on him the indomitable power of being what
he is in the face of everything that may oppose him. (S7E: 282;
S7F: 328; see above 2.1)
As we now know, what makes Antigone autonomous for Lacan is
the signier. She has taken her stand at the very locus of the signifying cut, that is, in the gap between the signier and the real. Neither
the real as such nor any of the established meanings lay down the law
to her, which gives her the indomitable power of being what [s]he is
in the face of everything that may oppose [her]. Does this mean that
now she can choose to be what she is out of her own free will? Not
at all.24 Her autonomy is not that of a free subject in the voluntarist
sense of the word, but that of a subject insofar as it is the bearer of
a desire, a desire, note, that is that of the (symbolic) Other. Neither the
real, nor the xed signied, but the signier and (which amounts to the
same thing) the desire of the Other lay down the law to her. But if
this is the case, how can she then be free? How is precisely a law able
to make her into a rebel?25 How can she be both obedient to the law
of the signier and the rebel who tramples autonomously on every law?
It is because this autonomy is not only hers, but also and primarily
that of the law itself. The autonomy Antigone testies to in her tragedy
istechnically speakingnot that of the ego she imagines herself to be
but that of the subject she is, and this is something completely different
for Lacan. Of course, Antigone is for him, too, an autonomous liberated
rebel; however, in his eyes she can only be this thanks to an autonomy
and freedom that is also characteristic of the law she opposes. She is the
subject/bearer of an autonomy of the Other and (thus) of the law. In
this sense, the conict in Sophocles Antigone is not between autonomy,
on the one hand, and the law on the other, but a confrontation of
the law (or, which amounts to the same thing, the symbolic order)
with its own autonomy and the anomalies that mark it. In Antigones


Eros and Ethics

rebellion, the law itself is confronted with the problem of its own
autonomous foundation.
In fact, from Lacans perspective, the law (and the symbolic order
in general) must be regarded as a radically autonomous entity that stems
neither from some kind of essence nor from something real. It is only
supported by signiers that have been cut off from the real and determine what we call reality. In other words, it is the signier that makes
the law an autonomous power. Still, it is also the same signier that is
responsible for the radical nitude of this autonomous power and ensures
that the law will never realize its pretensions and promises. Any signier that promises to realize the law projects this anticipated autonomy
in a signier that is forever to come so that the realization of autonomy
remains innitely deferred. Since the autonomy of the law is only symbolicbecause it derives from signiersthe law remains desire longing
for itself, although its function is precisely to channel all desire and
put it onto the right path. It is solely because the law can only desire
rather than realize the fulllment of its promises, the human libidinal
being is able to be its bearer (subject). Because, in other words, the
law remains other to itself as well, the (from a real perspective)
impossible and unlivable libidinal being can nevertheless nd shelter
and realize itself as other (as Lacan calls it referring to Rimbauds I
is another).
Against this background, it is now clear why Lacan immediately
associates Sophocles word autonomous with the fact that Antigone is
the bearer of the signifying cut. The freedom with which Antigone resists
Creons law and even chooses death is nothing other than the freedom
and autonomy of the symbolic order and of the law as suchwhich are
free, also in the sense of freed from the real. However, this symbolic
order or law can only sustain itself by repressing this radical groundless freedom at every turn. Antigones tragic gesture breaks through this
repression and confronts the law and the entire symbolic order with its
groundless ground: with an unattainable otherness or, what amounts to
the same thing, with a radical and unfulllable desire.
Thus desire is also the term Lacan uses here to think the nitude
of the ethical law. That law must inevitably profess the realization of its
promised good, but can in fact never do anything more than make us
long for it. This is the desire, says Lacan, that shines in the gure of
Antigone. It is not coincidental that, following this allusion to his subject
theory, he talks about Antigones tragic gesture26 and interprets it as a
radical act of desire:
[Antigone] pushes to the limit the realization [accomplissement]
of something that might be called the pure and simple desire

Radiant Antigone


of death as such. She incarnates that desire. (S7E: 282; S7F:

Antigones act is one of pure desire. Pure, because all elements
that usually keep desire repressed are set aside.27 The discursive order of
signications that provide this unrestrained desire with a protective meaning
falls away. The metonymic displacement of signiers also strands itself on
the one literal dead signier Polyneices. Even the subject of this desire
(Antigone) is so carried away by that desire that it forgets its function
of bearer and is at risk of disappearing. The accomplishment (realization) Lacan talks about here does not mean the fulllment of desire
in the sense of jouissance. Rather, it is a matter of keeping that desire
going to the limit, a limit behind which both the Other and the subject
who bears that Other disappear. In this way, desire becomes a pure and
simple desire of death, a desire that goes beyond the self-preservation
of the subject. Here, accomplishment thus does not mean that desire,
now puried of all foreign elements, has come to the end of its odyssey
and nally attained itself.28 On the contrary, the death principle means
that desire never comes home, and its support (i.e., the locus where it
lies and from where it operates) by denition lies not in itself but in the
symbolic Otheran Other that, in its turn, has its subject (the place
where it nds itself) only in the ctional place from which the drive
regulates its libidinal economy.
In the ethics seminar, Lacan forges a concept for mapping this
paradox of desire in a more nuanced way. With Das Ding, he names
desires inability to really come full circle and gives it a specic locus in
the libidinal economy. As a radical exteriority, the thing nevertheless
forms the central point around which the whole economy revolves and at
which desire aims, a topological paradox for which he forges the term
extimit (S7E: 139; S7F: 167). While the thing indicates the point at
which desire aims, as if at itself, it is also what would destroy it as soon
as it was reached. This is why the thing is an indispensable element
in the cartography of desire. Antigone, for Lacan, offers a particularly
apposite illustration of this.

3. Desire in the Picture

3.1 At
Although fundamental for the argument, the term das Ding is nowhere
to be found in Lacans comment on Antigone. In the course of the previous
lessons, Lacan had come step by step closer to the extimate domain of


Eros and Ethics

the thing. In the session on enjoyment (April 27), we read that only
transgression gives access to that domain and in the following lesson (4
May, on the death drive) the reference to Sade showed how evil and
diabolical that realm is. The next lessons, the function of the good (May
11) and the function of the beautiful (May 18), developed two ways
of maintaining us at a distance from the thing despite our orientation
towards it. If, Lacan, argued, the good does so in a deceptive way,
the beautiful at least permits something of that ultimate domain at
which our desire aims to shimmer through. The latter will be of great
interest to an ethics based on the primacy of desire.
A work of art such as Antigone grants us a vision of the domain of
the thing: this will be the next step in Lacans line of reasoning. This
tragedy reveals how the limit of desire is transgressed and gives us a certain
view of the thing that lies beyond this limit. There, a domain emerges
where our desire can indulge itself uninhibitedly but where, precisely for
this reason, nothing or no one can survive, neither can any ethical desire
to do good. We already saw this in a previously cited passage where Lacan
characterizes Creons tragic fault as the misrecognition of the limit that
separates us from the thing. In Creon, Sophocles gives us a man who
wants to let the good rule without any constraint or limit; too late, he
realizes how he has unleashed the apotheosis of his own fate:
His error of judgment [. . .] is to want to promote [. . .] the
good29 as the law without limits, the sovereign law, the law
that goes beyond or crosses a certain limit, [his mistake in
judgment is] that he doesnt notice that he crosses this famous
limit [. . .]. (S7E: 259, modied translation; S7F: 301)
A little later on, Lacan derives the following from this:
The good cannot want to30 reign over all without an excess
emerging whose fatal consequences are revealed to us in tragedy. What then is this famous sphere that we must not cross
into? We are told that it is the place where the unwritten laws,
the will or, better yet, the Dkh [Dik, legal order] of the gods
rules. (S7E: 259; S7F: 301)
Here, in Sophocles text, we have the equivalent of what Lacan calls
the domain of the thing. The famous sphere we reach once we transgress the limit of our desire is nothing other than what the ancient Greeks
meant with the will, the law, the justice (the Dik) of the gods. The
terms law and justice are rather deceptive since the ancient gods
refer not to something symbolic but indicate a eld that lies beyond it

Radiant Antigone


and which must unquestionably be called the real (the thing). This
is at least what Lacan claims here, and he will afrm it in one of the
rst lessons of his next seminar (The Transference, 19601961). There,
he will repeat that what the Greeks called gods must be understood
as the real and differs radically from the monotheistic God which is of
the order of the Word and, hence the symbolic. During his third lesson
of the seminar (November 30, 1960), he questions his audience:
What after all do you think about gods? Where are they situated
with respect to the symbolic, to the imaginary and to the real?
[. . .] the gods it is quite certain belong obviously to the real.
The gods are a mode of revelation of the real. (S8F: 58)31
In brief, Lacans interpretation of Creon comes down to this: by trying to realize a limitless good, the mortal Creon goes beyond his limits,
imperceptibly landing in the domain of the godsthe realand is there
confronted all the more bitterly with his own limits and his own mortality. What interests Lacan here, however, is how the audience meanwhile
obtains a glimpse of the transgressive space the Greeks described as the
domain of the gods, which he indicates with his terms, the real and
the thing. For this is what tragedy consists of, for Lacan: a staging of
signiers in such a way as to allow the real, gaping beyond the symbolic
eld, to shine through.
How, then, can this transgressive space appear through a gure such
as Antigone? Isnt she precisely the one who respects the space of the gods,
and resisting Creons law, defends the inviolability of their particular kind
of law, their Dik? Does she not try precisely to safeguard the domain
of the gods from any transgression, that of the audience included? How,
then, is she able to reveal something of this transgressive space that the
thing stands for?
It is at this point Lacan breaks away from the majority of interpretations of Antigone to opt for a reading that, if we are to believe George
Steiner, is the furthest from the Sophoclean tenor (Steiner, 1986; 93).
Everything comes down to the interpretation of one verse in Sophoclean
play, the verse where Antigone refuses to go along with Creons edict:
Yes it was not Zeus who made this proclamation [to me],
nor was it Justice who lives with the gods below. (v. 450;
Sophocles, 2002: 45)
According to the usual interpretation, Antigone is challenging the
legitimacy of Creons law: he has no mandate from the gods for his edict.
Like in many other translations, Hugh Lloyd-Jones also neglects to take


Eros and Ethics

the word mi [mi, me] into consideration.32 Once one does so, however,
the text can also be translated as neither Zeus nor any other god asked
this of me, where the pronoun this refers not to Creons decree but
to Antigones own crime.33 Lacan defends this latter reading vigorously
and says, with reference to Antigone:
She denies that it is Zeus who ordered her to do it. Nor is it
Dkh [Dik], which is the companion or collaborator of the
gods below. She pointedly distinguishes herself from Dkh.
(S7E: 278; S7F: 324)
In this interpretation, Antigone thus claims that no god ordered her
to bury her brother, that is, she did it purely by herself, autonomous
as she is. The autonomous nature of her act shows how she observes
no limit between mortals and gods and, like Creon, is also guilty of an
unlawful transgression.
For Lacan, Antigones transgressive nature is revealed by yet another
element in the text: the often repeated theme of at, blind fate. When
Lacan describes Antigone in his lesson of 1 June, he links her immediately
with this at:
By way of introduction, I would just like to make a few remarks. And I will come right to the point in stating the term
that is at the center of Antigones whole drama, a term that
is repeated twenty times, and that given the shortness of the
text, sounds like fortywhich, of course, does not prevent it
from being readth [at]. (S7E: 262; S7F: 305)
As is typical in such cases, Lacan exaggerates a little. The term
appears not twenty but ten times32stamping the whole play all the
sameand is not the main topic of the passages at hand. But Lacan has
gone so deeply into one passage that it colors his reading of all the others.
It concerns a number of verses33 from the second stanza, the choirs song
where they complain about the fate that, after having mowed down all
the other members of the house of Labdakos now strikes Antigone. In
the nal strophe we hear:
He was a wise old man who coined
the famous saying: Sooner or later
foul is fair, fair is foul
to the man the gods will ruin
He goes his way for a moment only
free of blinding ruin. (v. 620625; Sophocles, 1984: 89)

Radiant Antigone


Blinding ruin translates (correctly, by the way) the Greek at.

However, in Lacan, this word acquires a more specic meaning because
he reads it in relation to the preposition that accompanies this word
here (as it does in a number of other verses). In one verse, man is led
towards atproV tan [pros atan]in another one nds oneself
(for a moment only) beyond atktoV taV [ektos atas].34 For
Lacan it is clear: the at stands here for a limit, a border. Human existence
moves toward a limit that, once transgressed, brings us into a domain
where we cannot maintain ourselves. At the beginning of his third lesson
on Antigone, Lacan focuses on the verses from the second stanza:
#EktoV taV [Ektos atas] has the meaning of going beyond a
limit in the text. And it is around this notion that the Choruss
song is developed at that moment in the same way that it says
that man goes toward proV taV [pros atan], that is, toward
At. In this business the whole prepositional system of the
Greek is so vital and so suggestive. It is because man mistakes
evil for the good, because something beyond the limits of At
has become Antigones good, namely, a good that is different
from everyone elses, that she goes toward, proV tan [pros
atan]. (S7E: 270; S7F: 315)
Antigones act involves a clear transgression. She has gone beyond
the limit of at, beyond the limit inside which life and goodness are
possible. By mistak[ing] evil for the good, by choosing what falls
outside the law, she is beyond at and, like Creon, sets her destiny in
motion. Note that this choice does not refer to a decision of will, nor
an error of judgment on Antigones part, but to a structural element in
desire. Coming back in the following lesson to this passage in the second
stanza, Lacan states:
It is because she goes toward At here, because it is even a
question of going ktoV taV [ektos atas], of going beyond the
limit of At, that Antigone interests the Chorus. It says that
shes the one who violates the limits of At through her desire.
marta [hamartia], that is to say a mistake
[. . .] At is not a
or an error [la faute ou lerreur]; its nothing to do with doing
something stupid [une btise]. (S7E: 277; S7F: 322323)
One can still blame Creons transgression of at on a mistake (as
the choir explicitly states at the end of the play35). It is literally, as they
marta [hamartia]. But we never hear that wordwhich
say, his own a
is nevertheless essential to tragedy for Aristotle36about Antigone. Her


Eros and Ethics

transgressive step beyond the at is evidently not the result of an error

but, according to Lacan, to be blamed purely on her desire. The way
she is presented in the play does not make us look for her fates cause
(as is the case with Creon) but confronts us directly with her desire and,
more precisely, with the autonomy of that desire in the sense that we have
outlined. Her tragedy lies, then, not in the way she deal with her desire
but in that desire itself. In Antigone, it becomes clear how desire only
exists thanks to the limit that separates it from the real that it nevertheless aims for. This limit is nothing other than the signier itself, the sign
of both the autonomy and of the nitude of desire. In the play, Antigone
seeks this pure signier and, therefore, takes her stand at the limit of
the symbolic order and its law. Appearing in this limit, she reveals how,
despite being completely dependent on this order and law, desire still tries
to go beyond it and aims at the real, the thing, that is, that domain
where the subject of desire (its bearer) disappears. Her commitment to
Polyneices reveals the tragic locus of the signier, that is, the limit that
desire both props up and is incited to transgress in order to lose itself in
the real. Antigone, the play, shows desire as aiming at a Beyond where
the subject is unable to sustain itself. There, desire appears as what is
always at odds with what limits and constrains it; in the nal analysis,
it coincides with the very irreconcilability of that tension.
Both Creon and Antigone transgress the constitutive limit of the law
and thus confront the audience with the transgressive structure of desire.
Does Lacan, then, make no distinction between Creon and Antigone? Do
both represent two equivalent ways of bringing desire into the picture?
And in this sense do they both have the same moral validity for the ethics of desire Lacan is outlining here?
3.2. Apotheosis of Sadism
Although they both go beyond the limits of at, Antigones and Creons
transgressions are not the same. Antigone is fully conscious of the limit
and, transgressing it, she does so in complete awareness that she is sealing
her fate. Creon, on the other hand, remains blind to this limit, regarding
the law he defends as unlimited. Only when it is too late, only when his
wife and son have been mowed down by fate, will he take notice of that
limit. Until then, his arrogance denied that his law was limited by the
material it consists of (i.e., signiers). In so doing, he remained blind to
the same wild desire that underlies his own law, but which he initially
saw solely in Antigone.
According to Lacan, this type of conscious blindness is not as foreign to us as we might think. It is in fact our very own, if only because
monotheism and, more specically, Christianity have such a strong inuence on us, regardless of whether we are religious or not. In a previously

Radiant Antigone


cited passage where Lacan compares the domain of the thing with
at, he links our ignorance of the ancient gods immediately to our
Christian origins:
What then is this famous sphere that we must not cross into?
We are told that it is the place where the unwritten laws, the
will or, better yet, the Dkm [Dik] of the gods rules. But we
no longer have any idea what gods are. Let us not forget that
we have lived for a long time under Christian law [sous la loi
chrtienne], and in order to recall what the gods are, we have
to engage in a little ethnography. (S7E: 259; S7F: 301)
Monotheism elevates the denial of the domain of the gods (that as
an individual Creon testies to) into the principle of a new religion and,
in the shape of Christianity, lays the foundation for Western culture,
modernity included. For the gods are idols and hence non-existent, so
monotheism claims. Only God is Goda God who is to be considered
as Word. With this, the word itself acquires a divine and (hence) innite
status. The divine no longer lies beyond the word, as with the Greeks,
but has now become the word itself. It is through the divine omnipotence
of the word that all of creation came into being.37 And after creation
fell into sin and death through the pride of man, that same wordnow
become esh in Christis going to save us.38 In the foundational texts
of Christianity, the savior is explicitly called the logos, reforging in
this capacity all lack, death and nitude into the innity of an eternal
life. Through himin the terrestrial world toothe logos becomes
unlimited and no operation hampers its power, not even death. The entire
philosophical and scientic tradition is supported by this unlimited belief
in logos whose inuence continues undiminished, even after Christianity
lost its dominant role in our culture.
Thus our scientic culture (certainly following the mathematization
of our world picture; see above: 3.1.1) and our religious tradition both
suppose an unlimited belief in the logos.39 Unlimited, precisely because
it denies its radical nitude and, in so doing, consciously remains blind,
like Creon, both to the limit on which this logos is built (the Greek
at, the Lacanian signier) and to the domain that yawns beyond this
logos (for the ancients, the gods, for Lacan the domain of the thing).
Both monotheistic and scientic traditions have extracted all content from
the gods, declaring them unreal chimeras. Several lines later, Lacan says
this about the domain of the gods:
In other words, this whole sphere is only accessible to us from
the outside, from the point of view of science and its objectivation. For us Christians, who have been educated by Christianity,


Eros and Ethics

it doesnt belong to the text in which the question is raised.
We Christians have erased the whole sphere of the gods. And
we are, in fact, interested here in that which we have replaced
it with as illuminated by psychoanalysis. In this sphere, where
is the limit? A limit that has no doubt been there from the
beginning, but which doubtless remains isolated and leaves its
skeleton in this sphere that we Christians have abandoned. That
is the question I am asking here. (S7E: 260: S7F: 302)

Here, Lacan argues, psychoanalysis at least allows a consideration of

the limit of that suppressed domain of the gods (and hence also the limit
of the logos). Note that psychoanalysis itself is a full consequence of the
primacy of the logos that has determined our culture since the rise, rst,
of Christianity, and then of modern science. Psychoanalysiss primacy of
the signier is only its most recent modication. Still, Lacan believes that
with the latter a decisive step has been taken. Where men traditionally
took the logos for something innite and unlimited, it is now conceived
from the notion of the signiersomething radically nite. However
all-determining the signiers may be, they do not coincide with reality
as such. The signier is not able to touch real being as such. In contrast
to the presuppositions of Christianity and science, the autonomy of the
logos corresponds radically with its nitude, with the irrecuperable
impotence of realizing its aspirations with respect to the real. It remains
imprisoned in the unreal material it is made of, namely, its signiers.
This doesnt prevent the desire driving this logos from remaining
thoroughly aimed at the real beyond the signier. Here desire shows its
most dangerous aspect because, when it gives in to it, it becomes a mere
desire for death. A logos that could realize its own innite aspirations
and reconcile the gap separating it from the real would without question
destroy itself because it would no longer desire. For psychoanalysis, it is
once more a question of detecting and paying attention to this limit of
logos and desire.
In the course of his seminar, Lacan already demonstrated how this
limit is nothing but the signier itself, appearing as such in the phenomenon
of the beautiful. He alludes to this again in the sentence that immediately
follows the previously cited passage:
The limit involved, the limit that it is essential to situate if a
certain phenomenon is to emerge through reection, is something
I have called the phenomenon of the beautiful, it is something
I have begun to dene as the limit of the second death. (S7E:
260; S7F: 302)

Radiant Antigone


On the following pages, Lacan reexamines this limit of the second

death. If he turns his attention exclusively to the way it is presented in
Sade, it is because Sade enables him to reveal how this limit is deniedjust
as in the Christian and scientic traditions. Only afterwards will he focus
on the gure of Antigone as an illustration of how one can acknowledge
this limit afrmatively, whichas I will explainis essential for an ethics of psychoanalysis.
If Lacan approaches Sades oeuvre as a work of art, it is because the
limit involved emerges in the foreground in the gure of the beautiful.
But where, then, do we nd beauty in the Sadean apotheosis of cruelty that
holds everyone in its eternal death grip, making them suffer ad innitum?
For, according to the Sadean norm, it is not enough to simply kill the
victim. This would only return the victims mutilated body to the natural
cycle of life and death, its decomposed matter incessantly reforming into
new living beings.40 The victim must therefore be given a second death,
a death that strikes beyond the limit of natural mortality. However, this
second death fantasy presumes that the victim can be touched beyond
his natural death, in other words, that he can endure more than normal
agonies, that is, that he can go beyond this and even then keep on living.
It is precisely this perverse logic that attributes a paradoxical beauty to
the victim in the Sadean fantasy. Take, for example, Justine, the gure par
excellence of what Sade calls the misfortunes of virtue. Misused in the
most inhuman ways, raped and tortured night after night, what do we
see the following morning at breakfast? Precisely the victims untouched
beauty that seduces the libertine again. Despite the sadistic orgies of the
night before, her beauty remains intact. It is as though the sadist can
torture everything in her except her beauty. More precisely: only to the
extent that she is perceived as absolute beauty can the sadist treat her
so cruelly. Her beautythat is, the fact that she functions purely as a
signieris the condition of possibility for his sadism.
In such beauty, the sadistic fantasy thus runs up against its constitutive limit, a limit that according to Lacan is nothing other than the
signier itself. The sadist tries to strike his victim beyond her natural
death but, in the same movement, must keep her alive, precisely in order
to be able to do so. It is only because the victim functions purely as a
signier that such a perverse ruse is possible. The fact that she remains
immune to whatever is done to her, that she can always with the same
virginal blush on her cheeks reawaken the libertines appetites, shows
that she functions within the Sadean fantasy solely as a signier. And
by treating her like a signier, the sadist tries, as it were, to force her
back into the nothingthe ex nihilofrom which she originates. Of
course, this can only be phantasmaticly occurring only in an imaginary


Eros and Ethics

scenario driven purely by the power of signiers. This is why the sadist
ascribes his victim an indestructible support, a beauty surviving and
resisting every violation. The victims real existence is literally sacriced
to the status of a signierto beauty. A little further in the same passage,
Lacan refers to the signier as the indestructible support on which the
sadistic fantasy rests:
In the typical Sadean scenario, suffering doesnt lead the victim
to the point where he is dismembered and destroyed. It seems
rather that, in the phantasm,41 the object of all the torture is
to retain the capacity of being an indestructible support. (S7E:
261; S7F: 303)
So, Sades oeuvre does indeed illustrate what Lacan means by the
function of the beautiful. Beyond the function of the good, which
is the rst barrier on desires path to the thing as Lacan put it, the
function of the beautiful forms a second barrier. That the beautiful
goes beyond the good is quite palpable in an oeuvre such as Sades. Yet
it is at the same time a barrier the sadist uses to protect himself from
that deathly domain of the thing as presented in the victims real pain.
Worshiping his victims unassailable beauty, the sadist denies the unbearable real at whose mercy the victim is, and imagines himself in a universe
deprived of all lack, law, nitude or death. Violating every possible law
(including the prohibitions against incest and murder), his phantasm is
one of a limitless jouissance, albeit one that must disavow its failure
each time by creating new victims or inventing new torture techniques.
For the sadist, the victims beauty functions as barrier that enables him
to remain blind to anything that might point toward lack, law, death,
and desire, in other words, toward the signier and its deadly Beyond.
For Sades readers, on the other hand, this beauty functions as a barrier
through which the horrible domain of the thing does indeed become
visible. For us, it reveals beauty as a veil that covers an unbearable suffering but at which our desire nevertheless aims. One can also see beauty
in Sade as beginning of Terror were still just able to bear as Rainer
Maria Rilke once called it.42
Lacan observes this intimate connection between beauty and pain
not only in Sades fantasies but in much of modern aesthetics as well,
as for instance in Kant. In his Critique of Judgment, Kant dened the
beautiful as the result of a pure, reexive judgment of taste, that is, a
judgment that says nothing about the object but speaks solely about the
feeling this produces in the human faculty of cognition.43 It tells of the
feeling the intellectual capacitiesand hence, so to speak, the autonomous
logoshave of themselves while making an aesthetic judgment. The

Radiant Antigone


perceived object is never more than an occasion. Lacan sees a striking

similarity in this with Sade. For in both Kantian and Sadean judgments of
taste, the real object functions only in order to be cut away as it were.
After evoking Kants denition of beauty, Lacan asks his audience:
I take it you see the analogy with the Sadean fantasm, since
the object there is no more than the power to support a form
of suffering, which is in itself nothing else but the signier of
a limit. Suffering is conceived of as a stasis which afrms that
that which is cannot return to the void from which it emerged.
(S7E: 261; S7F: 304)
By denition, Kants judgment of beauty dispenses with the object.
The objects suffering is its condition of possibility so to speak. An
aesthetic judgment conrms that, once an object has been taken up in the
realm of autonomous logos, it can no longer return to where it came
from, remaining trapped in this logos. Once the logos has hauled
something out of nothingex nihilo,that same logos prohibits it
from returning back to nothing. The real of the object remains forever
behind in that nothing, in that domain the ancient Greeks attributed
to the gods and which has in fact been reduced to the pure limit of the
nothing since Christianity. Only the fascinating beauty of this limit allows
something of the real suffering that lies behind it to shimmer through.
Not without provocation, Lacan claims here that Kants aesthetic
judgment, as revealed in its Sadean structure, also applies to Christianity.
What are the good tidings if not this stasis which afrms that that
which is cannot return to the void from which it emerged. Once it has
been created out of nothing, the way back to that nothing becomes
impossible. Once something has been saved by the Word, the way back
to the real from which it came is forever cut off. All the real can do is
shimmer in the fascinating beauty of the Word (the signier) underneath
which it wastes away. The Christian image par excellence of the Word
(or, in Lacanian terms, of the pure signier) is the crucied Christ, says
Lacan in the immediate conclusion to the above-cited passage:
Here one encounters the limit that Christianity has erected in
the place of all the other gods, a limit that takes the form of
the exemplary image which attracts to itself all the threads
or our desire, the image of the crucixion. If we dare, not so
much look it in the facegiven that mystics have been staring
at it for centuries, we can only hope that it has been observed
closelybut speak about it directly, which is much more difcult,
shall we say that what is involved there is something that we


Eros and Ethics

might call the apotheosis of sadism? And by this I mean the
divinization of everything that remains in this sphere, namely,
of the limit in which a being remains in a state of suffering
[. . .]. Need I go further and add that in connection with that
image Christianity has been crucifying man in holiness for
centuries? In holiness. (S7E: 261262; S7F: 304)

In Christianity, the domain beyond the word is reduced to nothing,

which is not simply nothing but the limit behind which the real is kept
hidden. Lacan observes this even in the aesthetic image through which
Christianity presents itself, the crucied Christ. That image expresses how
the son of God has taken all sin, nitude, and death upon himself for the
sake of universal salvation At least, this is what this image says will happen.
However, it tells this by solely showingin the glittering of its signierspain,
death, and nitude. So, in the same move, the image of the good tidings
both shows and denies pain, sin, and death. The structure of this Christian
disavowal is isomorphic to that of the Sadean hero, so Lacan argues. He
even goes so far as to claim that this process surpasses the purely aesthetic
and nds its counterpart in the way Christianity deals with man in reality.
The Christian ideal of an imitation of Christ can assume such proportions that someone literally sacrices himself out of pure devotion in an
attempt to make himself equal to that beautiful image.
On the previous page, Lacan had already alluded how such a Sadeanism functions in reality and had announced his theory of perversion in a
nutshell (later to be set out in his tenth seminar [Anxiety, 1962/63] and
in Kant with Sade [1963]).44 Immediately following the passage where
he described the beauty of the Sadean victim as its indestructible support, we read that the Sadean fantasy:
is indeed a fantasm whose analysis shows clearly that the subject
separates out a double of himself who is made inaccessible to
destruction, so as to make it support what, borrowing a term
from the realm of aesthetics, one cannot help calling the play
of pain. (S7E: 261; S7F: 303)45
In the Sadean fantasy, the subject separates out a double of himself, and projects this onto his victim. The stakes of this perverse process
become clear once one realizes that the sadist projects his own lack, his
own pain of being into the double (the other, in this case, the victim)
in order to immediately deny its presence there as well. Thus, he both
pretends to be without any lack himself while maintaining the illusion
that his victim is unmarked by lack either. He literally carves his own
lack into the victims skin, branding it with death, suffering, and every

Radiant Antigone


possible sign of human nitude so that, once transferred onto the other,
he can disavow it there too. In this way, the sadist tries to obtain proof
through the other that he is himself without lack. His lack writhes in
the others pain, but this pain serves merely to prove that he, the sadist,
enjoys it and can imagine himself above all pain. In this way, he creates
the fantasy of a world without lack, a world lled with jouissance in
which there is no lack and no law that can forbid him anything.
The perverse procedure Lacan focuses on here is not, however, limited
to sadistic individuals who poke fun at the law. It applies just as much to
anyone who demands a strict observance of the law. He, too, can deny
the lack inherent to the law and project it onto others in order to deny
it there. So can a lawmaker or politician project the lack inherent to his
legal order onto the people and maintain that the reason there has to be a
law at all is precisely because of their lack, of their failure to conform to
the ideal. In this way totalitarian communismto take an example Slavoj
iek often came back to in his earlier work46pretended that the falures
of this kind of political and economic systems was caused by the way
some (and virtually all) citizens fell short of the great leap forwards,
or sabotaged the cultural revolution so that the system was constantly
obliged to go after its citizens, feeding the insatiable mouth of the Gulag.
The moment a legal order disavows its own nitude through this kind of
perverse logic, the consequences are incalculable, as the political history
of the twentieth century illustrates abundantly, alas.
In Lacans interpretation, Creons position contains the seeds of such
a disastrous perverse procedure. This is at least one of the reasons Lacan
does not consider him the protagonist of the play.47 Creons reaction to
Antigones act illustrates his intention to reestablish the sovereignty of
the law after a war between Thebes leaders that could have destroyed
the city. In itself, it is a noble intent except that Antigones punishment
shows how dubious and perverse (in the sense described above) his position is. For he does not summarily kill her, as his own law dictates, but
imprisons her alive in a cave that will become her grave. He even gives
her provisions so as to maintain the impression that it is not through his
agency that she will die but rather because the gods, who she claims to
support, refuse to save her. At the beginning of this chapter we cited this
passage in Robert Fagless translation. It is Creons retort, right at the end
of the third episodion, just after Antigone is led away:

I will take her down some wild, desolate path

never trod by men, and wall her up alive
in a rocky vault, and set out short rations,
just the measure piety demands
to keep the entire city free of delement.


Eros and Ethics

There let her pray to the one god she worships:
Deathwho knows?may just reprieve her from death.
Or she may learn at last, better than ever,
what a waste of breath it is to worship Death.
(Exit to the palace)48

Clearly, Creon recoils from assuming the consequences of his own law.
While he sentences Antigone to death, he refuses to take full responsibility for that death. At the crucial moment he thus refuses to accept that
death and law have anything to do with each other. By literally leaving
death to the real and pretending his legal order has nothing to do with
it, Creon disavows the inherent lack, the structural nitude of this order.
Lack, nitude and hence (from a Lacanian perspective) desire are afrmed
rather than disavowed in the gure of Antigone. In her beauty radiates the
eros or desire that underlies mankind and its world, its law included.
3.3. Catharsis . . .
This takes us back to the central thesis of Lacans commentary on Antigone: the ethical meaning of the tragedy is to be found in the protagonists
radiant beauty. Yet how is this possible, since, in a sense, Antigones
beauty differs little from that of a Sadean victim? Like the victims in Sade,
is she not just that indestructible support (S7E: 261; S7F: 303) onto
which all the suffering of the world falls? In the phantasmatic space of
the tragedy, she too situates herself beyond the rst, natural death (my
life has long been dead) and is therefore touched by a second death.
In this sense, she is between two deaths (an expression that Lacan by
his own admission appropriated from one of his listeners).49 This is the
precise place where the sadist puts his victim, as we can infer from what
Lacan says in his rst lesson on Antigone:
How do we explain the dissipatory power of this central image [i.e., Antigone] relative to all others that suddenly seem
to descend upon it and disappear? [. . .] It has to do with
Antigones beauty and with the place it occupies as intermediary between two elds that are symbolically differentiated. It
is doubtless from this place that her splendour [clat] derives
[. . .]. I attempted to grasp it the rst time by means of the
second death imagined by Sades heroes [. . .]. (S7E: 248; S7F:
The purely symbolic support on which everything is bornethe
signier that represents hershimmers through her suffering. This is where

Radiant Antigone


Antigones irresistible beauty stems from, says Lacan. More strongly, this
inviolable beauty (i.e., this signier) to which she is reduced is beautiful and attractive precisely because everything real about her has been
repressed and crushed underneath this signier. The real that suffers
from the signier (as Lacan formulates it50) glistens painfully through
her image, although her beautys function is to continue to keep this real
at distance.
Yet while Antigones beauty may be the same as the Sadean victims,
it functions differently. By worshipping the beauty of his tortured victim,
the sadist indulges in the illusion that he has beaten all existential lack
(the lack inherent in mortality, nitude, law and desire) and that now his
entire existence is pure jouissance. Since Justine (in the novel of that name)
functions solely as an absolute beauty, the Sadean hero can immediately
disavow all the pain he has carved into her and, in so doing, imagine
himself in a world no longer marked by lack, death, law, and desire.
If the tragedy of Antigone enables us to see a similar beauty, says
Lacan, it is to confront us precisely with this very lack. In contrast to
Sade, Sophocles play makes us spontaneously identify not with the one
causing Antigones pain but with Antigone herself. We sympathize with
her miserable fate and experience pity and fearat least that is the
way tragedys effect on its audience has been described since Aristotle.
More precisely, this effect involves a catharsis, a purication and purging
of this type of feeling.51 Like many psychoanalysts (think for instance of
Breuers cathartic method; S7F 286287), Lacan endorses this classical
approach, albeit in a decentered way (as is the case with all the classic concepts he uses). Aristotle is correct when he claims that catharsis
is a purication of our pathemata, our feelings, affects, and passions.
However, for Lacan, this catharsis brings us back not to our natural
essence, but to our desire which is unnatural by denition, a desire that
in a strict sense is not even our own and which decenters our presumed
identity. Just prior to the previous citation, and referring to his previous
seminar (Desire and Its Interpretation, 195859) Lacan claims:
What in particular has been said about desire enables us to
bring a new element to the understanding of the meaning of
tragedy, above all by means of the exemplary approach suggested
by the function of catharsisthere are no doubt more direct
approaches. In effect, Antigone reveals to us the line of sight
that denes desire [Antigone nous fait voir en effet le point de
vise qui dnit le dsir]. (S7E: 247; S7F: 290)
According to the classicalthat is, Aristoteliantheory of catharsis, Antigone has a purifying effect on the audience in the sense that she


Eros and Ethics

throws all of us back upon ourselves, upon our basic nitude. The play
shows how dangerous it is for mortals to meddle with the dark world
of the gods. Human beings cannot help but accept their limits and must
protect themselves against their own arrogant hubris. This is the ethical
dimension of tragedy. To become happyor, which for Aristotle amounts
to the same thing, to foster self-realizationone must restrict his desires
to the rule of the mean (mests) and avoid extremities.52
But since desire is no longer grounded in being, nor is it automatically aiming at happiness, things are different, Lacan claims. In this case,
catharsis does not bring us back to our natural happiness but confronts
us with desires extimate line of sight, a line orientated toward our own
death. Catharsis can longer correspond with a moral admonition not to
drive our desire so far that it threatens our happiness. On the contrary,
catharsis offers an X-ray of the hidden structure beneath our striving
for happiness,53 enabling us to see how our desire aims at a fatal thing
beyond that happiness. It teaches us not so much that our desire must
resist a tendency towards hubris but that this tendency comprises the
very structure of our desire itself.
In the course of the play, Antigone shows us the path of desire in
an almost didactical manner, Lacan says. After she manifestly takes the
position of what Lacan called the subject (My life has long been dead),
she pursues the path of desire step by step, including the transgression
it contains. By choosing her maligned brother, she shows not only how
the signier, as the material support of the symbolic law, is simultaneously its limit, she also lets the Beyond of this limit to shine through,
the domain of the thing desire aims at. This is what her desire aims
at from the outset, and when she voluntarily (autonomously) assumes
her death sentence and, solemnly assisted by a long choral song (kommos), descends into her living grave, she unambiguously takes both the
nite and transgressive nature of her desire upon herself. She assumes her
desire in its most rigid form: as a desire for death.
Are we invited to imitate her example? This would be absurd, since
it would be a direct exhortation to suicide. Is she then a negative example,
an example of how one must not act? This moralizing interpretation also
misses the point. For Lacan, the plays catharsis must purify us both in
our tendency to pity Antigone and in our fear of being like her. The
complex feeling she awakes in us, the fascination in which she holds us,
is designed to give us a proper picture of our desire, including its nite
and transgressive dimension. However, this picture cannot be lived as an
example to follow. It presents an image of the hidden, repressed, unconscious structure of our desire, which, in order to able to function, must
remain repressed and unconscious.

Radiant Antigone


Antigonethe play and the way it functions in our cultureis not a

moral example but a sublimation. It is an artistic producta faonnement
du signiantin which an object is elevated to the status of a thing
(S7E: 112; 7F: 133). In Lacans eyes, the play shows how, responding to
her desire, Antigone comes to take the place of the thing so that, by
identifying with this gure, our desire can take this same path. However,
we do so not to take the place of the thing ourselves but to clarify how
it is solely our thingthe object in relation to which we arethat
is located in this place where we as subjects can never be.
The previous chapter indicated how vital it is that in sublimation, the
place of the thing is occupied by the object, not the subject (6.5.2). For
once we make a claim for ourselves there as subjects, we inevitably disavow
our desire in the perverse, criminal way offered by Vaillands mafosi or
Sades libertines. It is only when the objectand only the objectis claimed
for the place of the thing and the subject explicitly kept at a distance
that we can speak of sublimation. An artistic or cultural activity that can
bring this off (courtly love, for example) sustains the radical openness of
our desire and in this way appeals to the fundamentally openbecause
polymorph-perversestructure of our most basic drive. Only then can we
understand how, for Lacan, watching a tragic event can satisfy without
pathogenic strategies such as repression or perversion.
3.4. . . . and Image
In this lesson, Lacan expresses the cathartic, decentered operation of
tragedy in what is for him a more classical way. If tragedy confronts us
with our desire in its pure state, this implies it puries us of the imaginary demand that is at work in us while watching the scene. Watching
a tragedy decenters our imaginarymiscognizing, disavowingrelation
to the desire we are and ensures that, if only in the eeting moment of
catharsis, we whole-heartedly afrm that desire. In short, Lacan interprets
tragedy as a conrmation of his own, at that moment (1960) already
classic thesis of the primacy of desire. The dimension of desire is more
fundamental than the imaginary self-image through which we spontaneously suppose ourselves to be master of that desire. If, as the audience,
we allow ourselves to be led by Antigones power of attraction, we will
be puried of the imaginary illusions that enable us to keep up appearances, so as nally to be confronted with the nakedness of our desire.
Or, as he himself says:
It is in connection to this power of attraction that we should
look for the true sense, the true mystery, the true signicance


Eros and Ethics

of tragedyin connection with the excitement involved, in
connection with the emotions and, in particular, with the
singular emotions that are fear and pity, since it is through
their intervention, di lou kai jbou [di eleou kai fobou;
Lacan quotes from Aristoteless Poetics 1499b], through the
intervention of pity and fear, that we are purged, puried of
everything of that order. And that order, we can now immediately recognize, is properly speaking the order of the imaginary.
And we are purged of it through the intervention of one image
among others. And it is here that a question arises. How do
we explain the dissipatory power of this central image [i.e.,
Antigone] relative to all others that suddenly seem to descend
upon it and disappear? [. . .] It has to do with Antigones
beauty and with the place it occupies as intermediary between
two elds that are symbolically differentiated. It is doubtless
from this place that her splendour [clat] derives [. . .]. (S7E:
247248; S7F: 290)

The nal sentences of this passage have already been cited. There,
Antigones beauty was said to have to do with the locus of her appearance,
the site between two deaths. In this phantasmatic place, she can only
function as a signier and her beauty conrms the explicitly symbolic status
of her person. Only in this capacity does she fully confront us with the
desire we are, and purify us of all imaginary (self-)images that miscognize
this. And yetas Lacan briey but unmistakably admits hereAntigone
functions as an image and, thus, imaginarily. She is one image among
many, an image that, while revealing the signier and desire in its
pure state, nevertheless functions imaginarily. Rather than referring us
to something else (the way a signier does), it keeps us under the spell
of what it displays. As soon as we show interest in Antigone, she clasps
us in an imaginary embrace from which we can hardly escape. Her
appearance thus functions as the epiphany of a pure and (therefore)
explicitly symbolic desire, but it does so, Lacan explains, as an imaginary
image. By saying this, Lacan makes a most remarkable claim, certainly
as regards his theory up until now.
For only a few years back, he was still inveighing against Maurice
Bouvet and other theorists of object relations, reproving them for failing to recognize the frequently imaginary dimension of this relation, and
claiming that they ought to be able to distinguish this from the symbolic
(see 1.2). For this reason, they remain blind to the true stakes of the
analytic cure, which involves the switch the analysand undergoes from an
imaginary to a symbolic subject position. There where the imaginary ego
was, the symbolic subject should be, Lacan interpreted Freuds famous

Radiant Antigone


saying (Wo Es war, soll Ich werden; see above: 1.3.2). Since then, the
imaginary gained a negative connotation. Although still considered to be
fundamental for subject constitution, its raison dtre was primarily to
be overcome by the symbolic. Here, however, in his lesson on Antigone,
his conception of it shifts and the imaginary is suddenly attributed a far
more positive function.
It is now clear how Antigone defends her brother solely on the
grounds that he is a signier and, in this capacity, may not be reduced to
nothing by Creons law. To afrm this, she takes the inviolable position
of the signier but not in order to reincorporate her maligned brother
into the laws of the symbolic order. On the contrary, it is precisely the
structural lack of the law and the whole symbolic order that she aims to
emphasize. However, as Lacan claims here, this would be impossible if
she functioned solely as a pure signier. She can expose the pure signier she has indeed become (from which her radiant beauty stems) only
as an image, as an imaginary gure that arrests the logic of the sliding
signiers at the moment this logic is about to complete its circle. There,
a Gestalt stops the moving signiers and shows a glimpse of what is
beyond. A paralyzing fascinating image shows that no signier is able to
reconcile or to sublate (in the strict sense of aufheben) the nitude or
the lack of the subjects desire.
This revaluation of the imaginary can be understood as a sort of
reply avant la lettre to Patrick Guyomards Derridean-inspired critique. For
Guyomard, Lacan falls into the trap of the contemporary Aufhebung,
assuming a position reminiscent of Hegelian absolute knowledge. As
already indicated (see above: note 28), Guyomard claims one can nd a
metaphysical and idealistic moment in Lacan, certainly in the seminar we
are commenting on. If the symbolic order literally lives off its lack, as
Lacan claims, this order becomes a point of pure lack, a pure loss:
a loss so pure that there is no more loss at all and is therefore identical
to pure gain (Guyomard, 1992: 26). In this sense, rather than a sign of
nitude, lack becomes an almighty weapon capable of sublating all lack
and nitude. The signier and the unconscious, two concepts for explaining the nitude of human cognition, become instruments of what Hegel
called absolute knowledge.
It goes without saying that, from a psychoanalytical perspective,
absolute knowledge is a pure fantasy.54 If to emphasize this, Lacan
now makes an appeal to the imaginary register, he is in fact grasping for
a strategy that seems to fall even more easily into such absolute pretensions and to lead all the more directly to miscognizing nitude. It was
precisely for its imaginary character that he had already critiqued the
Hegelian dialectic, saying that although Hegel was right to place difference at the heart of consciousness and thought, nevertheless by conceiving


Eros and Ethics

it assublatingoppositions he remains caught in the impasses of the

imaginary.55 Yet it is precisely to counter this type of Aufhebung that
Lacan now reaches for that very imaginary. How, then, can such an
explicitly imaginary procedure prevent desire from attaining itself and,
in so doing, undo the lack it stands for?
Was this not already the point where we arrived at when Lacan
took measures, as it were, against the circular logic of his primacy of
the signier? In fact, when he was trying to determine the status of the
ultimate object of desire at the end of his previous seminar (Desire and
Its Interpretation), and was on the point of dening it as a pure signier,
he said he was forced to recognize it as real as well, precisely to maintain
the radical openness of desire and avoid resolving it in the lack itself.
Recall the scene in Hamlet at Ophelias funeral, a scene Lacan interprets
as a phallophany. The sight of Ophelias dead body being mourned by
Laertes broke the imaginary impasse in which Hamlet was imprisoned and
opened up the dimension of lack for him and thus of desire. The object
that reawakened the dimension of lack Lacan described as the phallus,
the signier as such (see above: 1.5.1). But in the lessons following his
commentary on Hamlet, he felt inclined to emphasize the real status of
that object, which in the following seminar (on ethics) became das Ding.
Although this thing is to be dened as exclusively real, it operates in
an imaginary way, so Lacan concludes at the end of the ethics seminar.
He seems to have made a strange move in his theory. In the nal lesson
of his sixth seminar, his intent was to emphasize the radical openness of
desire as precisely as possible. And now, at the end of the seminar in
which he had foregrounded the dimension of the real as never before,
that same intent forces him into a revaluation of the imaginary.
3.5. Anamorphosis of Consciousness
However, none of this is as surprising as it seems, particularly if one
remembers that the imaginary, here, refers primarily to the relation the
subject can have with this the real thing. If only because a symbolic
relation with that thing is impossible by denition, an imaginary relation seems all that remains for Lacan. If he plays this card, he does so
not without changing the content and the structure of that imaginary. It
no longer involves a simple mirror reection that immediately denies
the other in whom I recognize myself. The mirror Antigone holds up to
us has a more complex structure. It holds me (imaginarily) xated on a
point where I expect to see myself as if it were the point where my desire
is fullled. This point, however, remains absent in this mirror, which is
why the latter stimulates (instead of fulls) my desire. An ordinary mirror throws the reality it reects back in the eye of the viewer, giving us

Radiant Antigone


the impression that what we see is just as real as the reality around us.
But the kind of mirror we are talking about here maintains the reality
to which it refers behind the mirror surface so that this image is literally
only a passage to something that is not immediately visible. It is the sort
of mirror reminiscent of Ren Magrittes famous painting La reproduction
interdite (The Forbidden Reproduction) that depicts the back of a man
looking at himself in a mirror. What he sees, however, is not his front, as
one would expect, but his back. A man who looks in the mirror thus
literally seesbut this is precisely why it is so surprisinga man who
looks in the mirror. In the same way, tragedy, which keeps us under the
spell of Antigones radiant beauty, carries us away from ordinary, recognizable reality. It takes us beyond the limits of the normalbeyond what
Lacan, with Sophocles, calls atto a point that will never enter the
picture but to which everything in that image refers.56
Hence, again, the importance of the anamorphic cylinder mirror
Lacan exhibited to his audience one day. It is an excellent illustration
of the structure of that new kind of imaginary image that comes to be
central to his thinking. For, in such an anamorphosis, it is not so much
my accidental, one-off glance that is caught (as with a at mirror) but the
entire protocol of sight I have passed through. The fact that, in order
to get through the chaotic play of color, I must rst nd the right angle
that allows me to recognize something, belongs to the strategy of the
image itself and contributes to what I see. For the moment we recognize
something in an anamorphosis, we observe not only an image looming
up out of the chaos. We also realize that the representation is indeed only
an image, the result of a ctive play between what, in themselves, are
merely senseless scraps of color (or, if you wish, signiers). In this way,
the dimension of the signier in itself appears. Such an anamorphosis
enables us to see, however, how the image is clearly formed behind the
mirror, in a space where, in contrast to a at mirror, we immediately
realize that there is absolutely nothingcertainly no reality that is the
putative point of the image.
However, we now realize that this nothing cannot be thought
away but rather forms the center of the entire image. This nothing is
the images real support, the thing in which it nds its ultimate ground.
That thing itself never enters into the picture, although everything in
the image points in this direction. It is in this sense, it can provide an
image of my transgressive, thing-directed desire.
Lacan could in fact have found no better example to illustrate
the function of the beautiful. The image that rises up out of such an
anamorphosis is not a classical, imaginary picture immediately denying
its own lack of reality. Neither is it just a (symbolic) signier that we
thoughtlessly consume in the pleasure of looking and which immediately


Eros and Ethics

refers us to another image. In such an anamorphotic image, the deceit

of the images we consume dailyincluding the self-image we receive
from themunmistakably comes to the surface and its ctive status (as
a signier) becomes visible as such.
Or, more precisely: became visible. In fact, at the moment when the
epiphany of the ction appears, it is, strictly speaking, already undone
because what we see then is precisely an image reected in the anamorphotic eld. The anamorphotic protocol of seeing reveals how, at the
moment of the epiphany of the beautiful itself, the viewer is unable
to be its subject (bearer). The function of the beautiful is to bring
the signier as such to light and in this way grants us a glimpse of the
beyond. However, when this happens, the subject of this experience of
the beautiful is unable to be consciously present. It is rst and foremost
this paradox that Lacans cylinder anamorphosis charts and it represents
Lacans answer to Guyomards critique that he has fallen into the trap of
Hegels absolute knowledge and that the psychoanalytic theory of the
unconscious has toppled over into a classical, metaphysical philosophy
of consciousness.
The vision the anamorphosis forces us to see does in fact contain
a moment of lucid consciousness, a moment of insight to which Lacan
explicitly alludes. But what his unusual, exemplary anamorphosis (S7E:
272; S7F: 318) implies rst of all is the fact that the subject can never be
present in this lucid moment. All we can see is that everything was only
a signier. We can never consciously say that we now see and know that
everything is just a signier. When we stood before the anamorphosis and
had not yet found the point from which the image can emerge, we saw
nothing, nothing in the most banal sense of the word. Then we suddenly realize that every image emerges out of that nothing. However,
already in this very moment we no longer see that nothing but an
image covering it up (i.e., the image in the tubular mirror). That image
teaches us that we can never consciously be present at the epiphany of
that nothing, of that ex nihilo from which all signiersincluding
all imagesstem.
Now we can understand why the consciousness that becomes aware
that everything is just a signier can only have an imaginary image as its
support. For at the moment of that insight itself, it is impossible for the
subject to be present. Could it be present, it would indeed sublate the
lack of the signier and thereby turn the niteness of the symbolic order
into an innitude. In other words, Guyomards critique would be correct.
At the moment the signier signies itselfthat is, when desire nds
itselfthe subject of this lack and this desire are nevertheless absent and,
then, both are borne (supported) by an imaginary image. In this way, the
selfhood or identity of that self-knowledge or self-confrontation is also

Radiant Antigone


decentered. Or, as Lacan puts it technically: a fully inclusive symbolic

order or an absolute knowledge is a phantasm, an imaginary scenario
that pictures the way the subject has disappeared from it.
The moment of desires self-confrontation can thus only be reconstructedbefore or after the eventand cherished as a phantasm, an
imaginary gure in which the subject stages its own impossibility of being
present with it (i.e., with its full gure). Only in an image deprived of
its subject does something of the fact that everything is a signier shimmer
through, as well as of the real that yawns behind. But although without
a subject, that imaginary image has an autonomous status and, so, xes
or saves the consciousness it contains. This is, according to Lacan, the
function of the beautiful and, more specically, of art. If a 2000-yearold play has something to say to us, this is because it is art, that is, a
moment of impossible knowledge frozen in an imaginary gure. Only in
the momentariness of a catharsis can an individual partially share in this
knowledge. But he is unable to remain in this catharsis. He will always be
dependent on the imaginary gem that is the beautiful and whose structure,
as Lacan shows, is revealed in the cylinder anamorphosis.
For Lacan, Antigones ethical dimension is to be found in the viewers
aesthetic moment of catharsis. It is clear from this that the moral good
we strive for is merely a signier that refers us to a domain where we
cannot maintain ourselves as a subject: the domain of the thing. In
this sense, it is good that we cannot take our good for something
absolute but must recognize it strictly as a signier. Just as it is good,
too, that we realize that our pretension of wanting to materialize an
absolute good can only give the opposite effect and result in a hell. It
is, in other words, good to realize that heaven does not exist but hell
does. Sades perversions are too often exceeded in reality for us to be
in any doubt of this.
However, such awareness never becomes a good like any other.
This is to say we cannot turn it into a rule to live by. Such a rule would
mean precisely the miscognition of what this awareness is about, namely,
that herein Antigone, for exampleprecisely the nitude and the lack
inherent in all rules is revealed. Such a scene shows us not what I ought
or ought not to do; it shows us what we are and do. It shows us the map,
the topology, the structure of our desire tout court, regardless of what we
do. Thanks to the beautiful, we can peruse this map. More specically,
we can get a glimpse of that impossible domain of the thing around
which the entire map (just like our desire) turns. Any conscious insight
into this is, however, completely denied to us. All we can do is realize
that we can never really be present to such an insight as a subject. We
see this truth only as an external, separate thing frozen in a neutral
and autonomous fantasy. The aesthetic experience of that truth endsfor


Eros and Ethics

Lacan as for Aristotlein a catharsis. In the nal analysis, we become

puried of the pretension that we can really be present at what we see
there. We can never fully identify with the desire itself that emerges
there, nor elevate it into a law. All Antigone can do is give us an image
of ourselves as ethical subjects. This is precisely why she can never serve
as an example.
The question remains, then, what might this mean in concrete ethical
practice? What can we do with this moral insight if we cannot elevate it
into a moral law or example? What role can it have in psychoanalysis
which, in Lacans own words, is a thoroughly ethical praxis, a commitment of one person to another where the express intent is that something
good will take place? What does this mean, in other words, for what
Lacan calls here an ethics of psychoanalysis? In the following chapter,
a commentary on Lacans nal three lessons, we will look more closely
at these questions.





In his Critique of Judgment, Kant approaches the question of the

beautiful in four steps, with four paradoxical definitions, which all
revolve around the "signifier of the lack" - the word without or
devoid of Beauty is "a liking without interest," "lmiversality without concept," "purposiveness without purpose," and "necessity
without concept." Kant's basic operation in these definitions
consists in what one might call essential subtraction; in each of the
definitions quoted above, Kant deprives the first noti on exactly of
that which is considered to be its essential characterization. Is it not
the essence of every liking or pleasure (Wohlgefallen) that it is bound
with interest? Is it not the essence of universality and of necessity
that they are based upon concepts? Is it not the essence of purposiveness that it has a purpose? The beautiful thus becomes the quality of something organized around a central void, and it is this very
void which somehow dictates its organization. "Purposiveness
without purpose," for example, does not simply refer to something
that, while having no purpose, nevertheless strikes us as if (the
famous Kantian als ob) it had one. The question is not simply that of
comparison or resemblance, and the opposition is not that of the
appearance of a purpose versus the actual absence of any purpose.
The mystery of the beautiful does not reside in the question, "How
can something that has no purpose produce such a striking effect of
purposiveness?" The point is rather that the absence of the purpose
in the "center" and the purposiveness of what is organized around
thts central absence are intrinsically connected. It is not that we
detect some purposiveness in spite of the absence of any purpose;
that is, it is not that the relation between the two elements is that of
contradiction, but rather the relation is that of a specific form of
mutual sustaining.
What we called essential subtraction can be expressed even better in
terms of extimite, defined by Lacan as the "excluded interior," as
something which is "excluded in the interior./I This is precisely what
Kantian definitions aim at: the beauty names the effect of this
excluded interior. Where the excluded dimension remains included as
excluded, it is via its own exclusion that it becomes operative as the
organizing power of its "surroundings./I It is quite remarkable that in
his discussion of art in relation to the question of sublimation, Lacan
accentuates almost the same structure as Kant. He stresses that in
every form of sublimation, emptiness (or void) is determinative,
although not in the same way. Religion consists of avoiding this void,

U M B R (0)


whereas science and/or philosophy take an attitude of unbelief towards it. As for art, "all art is
characterized by a certain mode of organization around this emptiness."1 Of course, the emptiness at
stake is not just any kind of emptiness or void, but precisely "that excluded interior which ... is
thus excluded in the interior."z The other name for this void or emptiness is das Ding, the Thing.
Previously we took the example of "purposiveness without purpose," which might be slightly
misleading since we encounter the same term (purpose) on both sides. A better example is that
of "pleasure without interest," Ol~ in another translation, "liking devoid of all interest," which
will help us to clarify in detail how this "interior exclusion" actually works and what its consequences are. The notion of "pleasure devoid of all interest" also has the advantage of becoming,
since Nietzsche's critique, the emblem of the Kantian conception of the beautiful and the tapas of
contemporary philosophical debate concerning the notion of the beautiful (and of art in general).
Nietzsche's attack on Kant's n'otion of "pleasure devoid of all interest" is famous enough.
Nietzsche identifies Kant's position with that of Schopenhauer's (which is, in itself, a very problematic identification) and sees in it a "reactive" approach to art. According to Nietzsche, disinterested delight is an absurd notion resulting from the fact that we approach art exclusively from
the standpoint of the spectator, and a non-creative spectator at this. Art and its appreciation are in
no way "disinterested operations." To Kant's definition of the beautiful, Nietzsche opposes
Stendhal's, which defines the beautiful as "a promise of happiness" and implies, according to
Nietzsche, the recognition of the power of the beautiful to excite the will (and thus the interest).3 As
appealing as this critique might seem, it very much misses Kant's point, which is in fact quite close
to Nietzsche's own views. 4
But what exactly does the formula "pleasure devoid of all interest" aim at? Kant calls the pleasure that is still linked with interest (or need) "agreeableness." If 1 declare an object to be agreeable, this judgment "arouses a desire for objects of that kind."5 This does not mean that with the
next stage, the stage of the beautiful, or "devoid of all interest," this desire disappears - the point
is that it becomes irrelevant. Let us clarify this with one of Kant's own examples, the "green
The first stage is the objective stage: the green color of meadows belongs to objective sensation.
"Meadows are green" is an objective judgment. The second stage is the subjective stage: the
color's agreeableness belongs to subjective sensation, to feeling; "I like green meadows" is a
subjective judgment, which also means, "I would like to see green meadows as often as possible."
This is a "yes" to the object (green meadows) which is supposed to grat!!1j us (Kant's term). The
third stage is a "yes," not to the color, but to the feeling of the agreeable itself, a "yes" not to the
object that gratifies us but to the gratification itself, i.e. a "yes" to the previous "yes." Here it is the
feeling itself, the sensation that becomes the object (of judgment). "Green meadows are beautiful"
is a judgment of taste, an aesthetic judgment, which is neither "objective" nor "subjective." This
judgment could be called "acephalous" or "headless/' since the "I," the "head" of the judgment
is replaced, not with some impersonal objective neutrality as in statements of the type "the meadows are green," but with the most intimate part of the subject (how the subject feels itself affected
by a given representation as object). "Devoid of all interest" means precisely that we no longer refer
to the existence of the object (green meadows), but only to the pleasure that it gives us.

It is striking how close this third stage is to one of the central themes of Nietzsche's philosophy, the theme of the "affirmation of affirmation." As Deleuze showed very well, the point of the
Nietzschean "yes" is that it has to be itself affirmed by another "yes." There has to be a second
affirmation, so that the affirmation itself can be affirmed. For this reason the Dionysian "yes" (the
"yes" to everything that provides pleasure and enjoyment) needs the figure of Ariane in order
to be completed 6 This could also be a way of understanding what is usually referred to as
Nietzschean "anesthetization of life": if life should be a "yes" to a "yes," then this means
precisely that it should be "aesthetisized" (in the Kantian sense of the word). Life must involve
passion (engagement, zeal, enthusiasm, interest), but this passion must always be accompanied
by an additional "yes" to it, otherwise it can only lead to nihilism. This "yes" cannot be but
detached from the object, since it refers to the passion itself. The great effort of Nietzsche's
philosophy is to think and articulate the two together. "Yes" to the "yes" cannot be the final stage
in the sense that it would suffice in itself. Alone, it is no longer a "yes" to a "yes," but just plain
"yes" - the "ee-ahh," the donkey'S sound of inane, empty enjoyment. Thus, for Nietzsche, the
figure of affirmation can only be a figure of a couple, and the aesthetic detachment only a "yes"
to the greatest involvement.
But how exactly does this couple function? We know that any real involvement excludes
simultaneous contemplation of it. And yet they must be somehow simultaneous, they must
always walk in a pair (i.e. constitute one subjective figure), otherwise we would not be dealing
with the "affirmation of affirmation," but with two different types of affirmation. The figure that
corresponds to this criterion is the figure of creation -or, in other terms, the figure of sublimation. The creation is never a creation of one thing, but always the creation of two things that go
together: the something and the void, or, in Lacan's terms, the object and the Thing. This is the
point of Lacan's insisting on the notion of creation ex nihilo, and of his famous example of the
vase: the vase is what creates the void, the emptiness inside it The arch-gesture of art is to give
form to the nothing. Creation is not something that is situated in the (given) space or that occupies a certain space, it is the very creation of the space as such. With every creation, a new space
gets created. Another way of putting this would be to say that every creation has the structure
of a veil. It operates as a veil that creates a "beyond," announces it, and makes it almost palpable in the very tissue of the veil.
The beautiful is the effect of a surface which is supposed to hide something (else). One must
note, however, that the beautiful here no longer remains within the frame of the Kantian definition: it is not the pleasure that we find in the harmony between a given form and an indeterminate concept of the understanding. Lacan's notion of the beautiful actually combines two
Kantian notions, the beautiful and the sublime. This is why he often uses the term "sublime
beauty." Beauty no longer refers to the (harmonious) form, but to the splendor, eclat,that seems
to emanate from certain objects which may very well be "ugly" or, at any rate, "plain" if taken
only in their form. What makes them "glitter" is their relation to something else, the fact that
they function as a screen for something else. One of the finest examples of the beautiful image's
relation to the "abyss," the background upon which it emerges, which it announces and at the
same time forbids access to, is probably Poe's tale "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar." This



relation is precisely that which exists between the repulsive and formless mass, the disgusting
dissolution, the substance of jouissarice into which Valdemar's body is transformed when he is
woken up from the mesmeric trance and, on the other hand, the sublime body of Valdemar,
maintained for seven months in a state of mesmeric trance, under the disguise of which it transforms irrepressibly into the Thing (in Freud's as well as John Carpenter's meaning of the word).
"There lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome - of detestable putrescence."7 It is because of the
reader's awareness of the near presence of this "liquid mass of loathsome" (long before it finally
reveals itself at the end of the story) that its surface, the body of Valdemar, produces an effect of
beauty: the object-body is thus "elevated to the dignity of the Thing. "s This is why in relation
to the phenomenon of the beautiful Lacan speaks of the fa ntasy which he formulates in terms
of "a beauty that mustn 't be louched,"9 which is his "conceptual translation" of Kant's '/devoid of
all interest." The shift that this translation produces is a very subtle one: it posits the breakdown
of the object, linked to the appearance of the beautiful, as the very effect of the beautiful (and
not as its condition). Kant goes to the trouble of performing a kind of "phenomenological reduction/' of "putting in parentheses" the existence of the object (and the pleasure or displeasure
that we can find in its existence), in order to arrive at the '/devoid of all interest." Whereas
Lacan's point is that I'putting in parentheses" the existence of the object is the effect of the beautiful on our desire and not the state of mind that we must achieve first in order to be able to
appreciate the beautiful (this is, once again, closer to the Kantian conception of the sublime):
lithe beautiful has the effect, I would say, of suspending, lowering, disarming desire. The
appearance of beauty intimidates and stops desire. "lD
We must be very careful in understanding this statement. It does not imply that beauty is on
the side of the Thing and the intimidated desire on the side of the subject. On the contrary, they
both refer to one and the same thing which is to be situated in the space that lies between and
separates the subject and the Thing. But the appearance of the beautiful is at the same time
precisely what creates this '/space in-between," this distance. The "spectator" who finds something beautiful acts, participates actively in its being beautiful and, in finding something beauti- .
fu1; he re-acts in the active sense of the word. The '/splendor" of beauty is a kind of shield that
the artist and the "spectator" raise in a kind of complicity, at the very point of das Ding. This
shield is made to stop desire: desire, as it were, stops at beauty and remains with it, not wishing
to go any further. It is not that the desire for the beautiful is suspended, but rather that desire is
suspended, '/frozen" within the realm of the beautiful.
This modified notion of the "devoid of all interest," which implies the engagement of desire
at a certain distance, a "respecf' in the sense of I'do not come too close to the bea utiful," is not
far from Nietzsche's conception of the beautiful. In Will to Power, 852, for example, he writes:
"To pick up the scent of what would nearly finish us off if it were to confront us in flesh, as
danger, problem, temptation - this determines our aesthetic 'yes.' ('That is beautiful' is an affirmation.)"ll The opposition between the "scent" and the "flesh/ in which the scent is the locus of
the beautiful and the flesh (or "danger") its excluded interior, is perfectly compatible with the
Lacanian conceptualization of i'sublime bea uty" (as well as with Kant's theory of the sublime).
When Nietzsche links the notion of the scen t (which expresses the same idea as the veil another word that Nietzsche likes to use) to his notion of affirmation this points precisely in the

direction of the simultaneous appearance of two things: the involvement and the distance, the
"danger" and the "pleasure," the Thing and the object. In other words, it points in the direction
of sublimation.
It might seem that it is precisely the notion of sublimation that opposes Nietzsche's and
Lacan's conceptions of art (and creation in general). Is not the notion of sublimation a "reactive"
notion par excellence (reactive in Nietzsche's sense of the word, i.e. non-affirmative, non-active),
implying that art can only be an "answer" and never a proposition, affirmation, invention? At
best, art would be a "yes" to a "no" (i.e. to the impossibility of attaining satisfaction there where
it is originally sought). Another question connected to this is the one of the "aesthetics of the
ugly" (or the "explicit"): we know that nota11 art moves in the direction of "sublime beauty."
Traditional wisdom about sublimation describes the-latter as the process of converting the
explicit (which is considered to be forbidden andlor impossible) into the implicit (which,
because of its ambiguity, is socially acceptable andlor possible). Moreover, the explicit is
supposed to be linked to the sexual, whereas in the implicit the sexual character is no longer
directly visible. This is, according to Lacan - who here adopts an almost Nietzschean discourse
-what "the foolish crowd thinks." Sublimation actually presupposes a change of object, yet this
"change of object doesn't necessarily make the sexual object disappear-far from it, the sexual
object acknowledged as such may come to light in sublimation. 'The crudest of sexual games can
be the object of a poem without for that reason losing its sublimating goal."J2 In order to demonstrate this, Lacan stops at a poem that belongs to the literature of courtly love, while at the same
time being quite sexually explicit. If our idea of courtly love (and of the sublimation that it
involves) is that we are dealing with "idealization," we are now in for a big surprise. Here is a
part of the poem:
Though Lord Raimond, in agreement with Lord Truc Malec, defends Lady Ena and her orders, J would
grow old and white before I would consent to a request that involves so great an impropriety. For so as "to
put his mouth to her trumpet," he would need the kind of beak that could pick grain out of a pipe. And even
then he might come out blind, as the smoke from those folds is so strong .
He would need a beak and a long, sharp one, for the trumpet is rough, ugly and hairy, and it is never dry,
and the swamp within is deep. That's why the pitch ferments upwards as it continually escapes, continually overflows. And it is not fitting that he who puts his mouth to that pipe be a favorite.
There will be plenty of other tests, finer ones that ilre worth far more, and if Lord Bemart withdrew from
that one, he did not, by Christ, behave like a coward if he was taken with fear and fright. For if the stream
of water had landed on him from above, it would have scalded his whole neck and cheek, and it is not fitting
also that a Jady embrace a man who has blown a stinking trumpet. 13

This poem is a good example of "aesthetics of the explicit," as well as proof of the fact that not
all art moves in the direction of "sublime beauty." It is clear that "sublime beauty" with its splendor is not the only "shield" that can step in between the subject and the Thing, thus diverting the
subject from feeling just pure horror or disgust or plainness. The other "shield" or way of reacting is laughter. The tragic or sublime paradigm consists in creating the surface of the Thing,
creating something as the obverse of the void that can be inhabited by all sorts of projections of
things that would "finish us off if they were to confront us in flesh," the surface playing the role
of the "last veil." The comic paradigm, on the other hand, is not so much a process of " tearing

down the veil" and peaking on the other side, revealing the actual ridiculousness of the "sublime
object," as it is a process of describing the Thing (in a certain way, of course - the poem quoted
above can also be categorized as the process of describing the Tb.ing). Good comedies do not just
say, "The Emperor is naked" - they display and layout a whole set of circumstances or situations in which the nakedness is explored from many different angles, COnSh"llcted in the very
process of its display. If the tragic / sublime paradigm implies that we elevate an object to the
dignity of the Thing, the comic paradigm could be said to consist in elevating an object to the
very indignity of the Thing.
Another commonplace about sublimation is that it provides a substitute satisfaction.
Sublimation, however, should be distinguished from the symptom as compromise formation
which belongs to the economy of substitution (a repressed drive returns in the form of a symptom
by means of a signifying substitution). The object or "formation" that is the result of sublimation
can be composed of metaphors, but is not itself a metaphor or a stand-in (for something else). This
is why Lacan, following Freud, links the question of sublimation to the question of drives.
Sublimation is the satisfaction of the Iheb. This does not mean that a drive which cannot find its
satisfaction in the object that it originally aims at (because of certain social prohibitions) is then
forced to find its satisfaction elsewhere, in some more "acceptable" way The point is that the
"structure" of the drives is in itseifthe very structure of sublimation: "The sublimation that provides
the Trieb with satisfaction different from its aim -an aim that is still defined as its natural aim -is
precisely that which reveals the true nature of the Trieb insofar as it is not simply instinct, but has a
relationship to das Ding as such, to the Thing insofar as it is distinct from the object."14
When, in The Four Fundamental Concepts, Lacan returns to the question of the drive, he reformulates the difference between the object and the Thing in terms of the difference between aim
and goal. Let us suggest an example of this difference, as well as of the difference between in..stinct
and drive: the child's instinct to suck the nipple in order to be fed becomes the drive when the
aim (or the object) of sucking is no longer milk, but the very satisfaction that it finds in sucking.
Thus, a child sucking its finger already has some experience of the drive. The "change of object"
that characterizes the drive, as well as sublimation, is the shift from the object that gives us satisfaction (i.e. the "natural" object, the object that can satisfy a certain need) to the satisfaction itself
as an objectY We are not dealing with substitution, but rather with a "deviation" or i'detour."16
Two questions arise at this point. First, can we simply say that drive equals sublimation?
And second, considering that sublimation covers a much larger field than the field of art,
what is the specificity of "artistic sublimation"? In reply to the first question, we could say
that if the drive is a "headless" procedure, sublimation is not. Sublimation is a kind of "navigator" of the drives, and this is why it plays such an important role in society. Collective,
socially accepted sublimations "lead" the drives to certain fields where they can "relax" and
"let themselves go." As Lacan points out, however, it is not simply that society approves of
drives only in certain deLimi ted fields, bu t also tha t society needs to "colonize the field of das
Ding with imaginary schemes" l? that sublimations tend to produce.
In answer to the second question, let us propose som e general lines that can account for
principal differences between science, religion, and art, as three major fields of sublimation.

If we define the core of sublimation (i.e . the Thing) in terms of the Lacanian notion of the real,
we can say that:
1. Science is based upon the s upposition that there is no real that could not be formulated
within the symbolic. Every Thing belongs to or is translatable into the signifyingorder. In
other words, for science, the Thing does not exist; the mirage of the Thing is only an effect
of the (temporal and empirical) deficiency of our knowledge. The status of the real here is
the status of something not only immanent, but also accessible (at least in principle). It
should be noted, however, that even though - because of this attitude of disbelief science seems to be as far as possible from the realm of the TIling, it sometimes comes to
embody the Thing itself (the "irrepressible," blind drive that may lead directly to the catastrophe) in the eyes of the public. Suffice to recall Frankenstein's monster or, from more
recent times, Dolly, or the idea of clones in general.
2. Religion is fmmded upon the supposition that the real is radically transcendent, Other,
excluded. The real is impossible and forbidden at the same time, it is transcendent and

3. Art is founded upon the presupposition that the real is at the same time immanent and inaccessible. The real is what always "sticks" to the representation as its other or reverse side.
This reverse side is always immanent to the given space, but also always inaccessible. Each
stroke always creates two things: the visible and the invisible, the audible and the inaudible, sense and nonsense, the imaginable and the unimaginable. In this manner, art always
plays with a limit, creates it, shifts it, transgresses it, sends its "heroes" beyond it. But it
also keeps the spectator on the "right" side of it.
In the most general terms, the limit at stake is that between pleasure and pain, the limit of the
"pleasure principle." This limit is in itself a flexible, plastic limit. It can be given many different
forms and it can very well include a portion of what lies beyond the pleasure principle. The
example of the latter is what Kant calls the sublime: in the sublime, the Thing is not evoked by
its veil, by its noticeable presence-in-absence, but instead is present in the excess of the forces (or
magnitude) displayed before us. And yet, as Kant is careful to add, we can only enjoy it aesthetically if we are "in a safe place," if the destructive force that we admire does not reach us "physically " The distance, the "devoid of all interest," is the consequence of the fact that the object at
stake concerns us at the very core of our being. Art is the very process of creating this distance.
But it is crucial not to forget that there is a double movement involved in this creation. The point
is not that there is first this unspeakable Thing and that art enters the scene to make it possible
for us to relate to it. Art is not simply a mediator between the subject and the Thing, but rather,
art is what creates this Thing in the first place. This brings us back to the notion of what is
"excluded in the interior"; the arch-gesture of art is precisely that of creating an "excluded interior," of producing the very void around which it spreads its "net."


Colette Soler

The master/hysteric couple is found throughout history, but in this chapter I

will try to elucidate its current conguration. That requires, rst of all, something like a diagnosis of the present state of the discourses.

Hysteria bears some of the responsibility hystorically for this present state.
Indeed, hysteria is the unconscious in action and did not just begin to insist
in history recently, because the unconscious is based on the fact that we speak.
Hysterical subjects are not the only ones to lend their voices to it, of course,
but more than others they keep the leitmotif alive. The efcacy of this insistence is the origin of the desire that gave rise to science. At least, that is the
thesis that Lacan develops in Seminar XVII and in Radiophonie.1 This thesis
leaves no room for the Hegelian master/slave dialectic and makes science a
pointed response to hysterias provocation: this runs from Socrates to Newton
and from Anna O. to Freud.The masters discourse nds its reason in the hysterics discourse, says Lacan. Antiquitys master relied on the slaves artisanal
knowledge in order to produce a surplus jouissance that plugged up the sexual
gapat the cost of any and all desire to know. It took Socrates, the pure hysteric, to breathe into it the desire to know from which science issued, involving
the transformation of knowledge by science from artisanal knowledge to universalizable, formalized knowledge in which mathematics dominates.
What kind of success is this for the hysteric? This resurgence of desire produces new knowledge that operates in the real, but it nevertheless leaves the
subject who is confronted with the sexual impasse suffering; for, even more


Colette Soler

than Antiquitys discourse, science excludes the subject from its purview:
Science is an ideology of the suppression of the subject. It is not surprising,
then, that postscientific hysteria reemerged at another point in history as a
symptom against the backdrop of the failure of the Enlightenment, and that the
result was the emergence of psychoanalysis by which Freud objected to medicines foreclosure of the subject.The question, therefore, is what has become of
hysteria now that psychoanalysis has emerged in science, 100 years after Freud
accepted the challenge to take responsibility, both practically and theoretically,
for its solicitation, having managed to inscribe the enclave of his practice in the
regulation of jouissance by the dominant discourse. It is thus hysteria in science, but with psychoanalysis, that I am investigating.

Over thirty years ago, Lacan highlighted the fact that the repercussions of
science in our world appear in social links due to universalization.This is now
widely recognized and most often deplored. It goes hand in hand with the
new supremacy of the goods produced by the modern economic system in
subjects lives, and a question arises about the extent to which it is the effect
thereof.Whatever the case may be, this twofold resultuniversalization and the
supremacy of goodsconcerns the sexual couple, which is precisely what fascinates the hysteric.
The mortication that language brings with it has now shifted into realitythe reality of instruments. The latter instrumentalize us to such an extent
that we are not even aware of it in our everyday lives, and it takes some accident or science ction story to remind us of it. Our lives, which we attribute
to our bodies, are now totally tted out with gadgets. Lacan also noted at the
end of his teaching that to have a body is to be able to do something with
it, notably to use it for jouissance. This can take many forms: a body can be
lent, sold, offered, refused, and so on. In capitalist discourse, something new
has appeared: our bodies are now pledged to the enormous machine of production.
The phenomenon is not in itself new, but its mass application is, extending
far beyond the proletariat to which Marx conned it. At all levels of social
employment, our already instrumentalized bodies have themselves become
instruments. It is obvious that we treat our bodies as we treat machines: we give
them checkups, special diets, tness training, beauty care, and so on. Not all of
this can be chalked up to narcissism. In fact, we take the durability of the
equipment (the body) into accountindeed, the health bulletins about our
leaders have no other meaning.Why would Yeltsin, speaking on French television in the 1990s, feel compelled to tell us about his cold shower in the morning, his favorite sport, and how much sleep he gets if not to reassure us about
his instruments ability to continue to man the helm? The body is now a form
of capital for all of us, and we treat it as such.

Hysteria in Scientic Discourse


How could this not be detrimental to jouissance when the very denition
of capital is that it is exempt from jouissance?2 Love loses here, to be sure.
Courtly love, for example, and la carte du tendre 3requiring patience and industrywere only for people who were idle, who had no date books or answering machines! Can you imagine a troubadour with a fax machine? While
family ties have become independent from the transmission of goods, love itself
is increasingly expressed in terms of having: we count its occurrences, its product, and its gains; we calculate prots and losses, and our legislation raties this.
In this way, the capitalization of the body goes hand in hand with a widespread
debasementnot merely neuroticin the sphere of love.4
This new realism is accompanied by a still more remarkable effect
previously unheard ofthat I will call the unisex effect, generalizing the
expression that advertisers usually apply to clothes, clothes that usually conceal
rather than reveal sexual difference. It is often thought that we are moving
toward a generalized transvestitism in the name of the equality of men and
women. This is perhaps true, but it is an inexorable side effect of universalization: sciences correlate is the Cartesian subject who knows nothing of sexual
difference; science consequently adapts very easily to the reduction of every
subject to a universal worker.The immediate result is especially felt by women,
who for centuries have seen their jouissance conned to the perimeter of the
home, whatever form that home may have taken, including husband and child.
The labor market has emancipated them from this conned eld, while also
alienating them through the imperatives of production. Hence the hesitations
of the feminist movement when it oscillates between a claim for equality and
a contrary claim for difference in which the particularity protest is expressed.
What is clear is that there is virtually no domain to which women do not
now have access.Their ingress keeps expanding, and the tide seems irreversible.
Marguerite Yourcenar has succeeded where Marie Curie failed, obtaining entry
into the Acadmie Franaise.The following have recently been announced: the
rst woman driver in a Formula One race car, the rst woman to climb a difcult mountain alone, and the rst girl in a chess championship. A few bastions
still remain. A womans attempt to be admitted into the French National Guard
recently led to considerable protest by its members. That may still take some
time! The psychoanalyst, as analyst, need not take a position on such developments. He or she cannot, however, ignore their consequences . . . on both
How can the subjective impact of these social changes be understood?
They concern phallic jouissance itself, insofar as it is not only inscribed within
the context of the sexual relationship, but also props up the whole relationship
to reality. Phallic jouissance is jouissance that can be capitalized upon. Unisex5
means the phallic jouissance that is available to everyone. Not that women
were ever deprived of it, but they had it only within the connes of their roles
as wives and mothers. It is this restriction, not to say prohibition, that has given
way, allowing for widespread competition between the sexes.


Colette Soler

The historical moment at which Freud emphasized the phallic phase

that scandalous notion implying an inequality of the sexes in the unconsciouswas not indifferent. The context of his discovery was the ideology of
human rights and the ideals of distributive justice which, in the realm of ethics,
echo the universality of the subject of science. We must agree with Freud and
everyone else around usthey are all on the same side on this pointthat
boys and girls are not born free and equal in rights.Thanks to discourse, boys
begin life with a little more capital: having the phallic signier. It is only logical
then that girls feel poor and consequently dreamthis is all that Freud discovered in exploring the feminine unconsciousof obtaining something. There
was a time when it could only be from a husband, bearer of the organ, and
then from children as substitutes. Today, alongside these engaging realities, the
whole eld of what Lacan calls the most actual realizations is open to them:
goods, knowledge, power, and so on.
Our scientic civilization has changed womens reality.The analyst is cognizant of this and observes that it does not necessarily make them any happier:
anxiety, inhibition, guilt, and feelings of failure are among its consequences.The
rst psychoanalysts, Joan Riviere in particular, assumed that if, at times, women
felt precluded from phallic jouissance, it was because they feared losing their
femininity in it. But is it not true, rather, that phallic jouissance in itself engenders guiltfor men as well, although in different forms? Since it is a limited
jouissance that obeys the discrete structure of the signier, phallic jouissance is
always at fault and prepared to entertain the superegos imperative: always

In this context the hysterics question about sex can but change in form, to the
point of becoming, as we know, unrecognizable to psychiatry in its current
state. But under the pretext of not overlooking hysteria, psychoanalysis should
not see it everywhere by simply confusing it with femininity. Lacan always distinguished the two positions, specifying that hysteria is not the privilege of
women alone: there also are hysterical men, and they may even be more hysterical than women! If this is the case, it is necessary to understand what causes
the confusion.
I would like to highlight a shift in the feminine problematic between
Freud and Lacan. Taking as his point of departure his discovery of the phallic
phase, which reveals the single signier that answers for sexual difference in the
unconscious, Freud distinguished the two sexes by having: one has it, and the
other does not have it.The one that has it fears losing it, and the one that does
not have it wants to acquire it. Lacan translates this nicely when he speaks of
the threat of or nostalgia based on not-having (crits, 694/289).6 Thus we
find, on the one hand, a defensive strategy of protection and, on the other
hand, several possible strategies. Freud sketched out the range of womens

Hysteria in Scientic Discourse


different positions.7 One position consists of completely eliding sex. A second

position, a combative one, denies the phallic lack in the hope of acquiring a
substitute: this is what he calls the masculinity complex. The third position
involves consent and renunciation, out of love for the father, Freud thinks, and
hope for a compensatory child. It also is a position of waiting, but it requires
the mediation of a man to give the phallic substitute in the form of love or the
child as a gift. Thus, according to Freud, the true woman is the one who
accepting her deprivationalso is willing to say thank you, while the
otherthe woman with a masculinity complex who sets out to acquire a phallic substitute by herselfrefuses it with a no thank you that virtually rejects
men as useless.
Unlike Freud, Lacan rst emphasizes the dimension of being, or rather the
failure to be [manque--tre] which, as an effect of speech, is the point of departure for both men and women. In the question of sexual difference, the problematic of having is combined with that of being. We can trace the variations
on these two interwoven themes through the different texts. They lead Lacan
to distinguish men and women a little differently than Freud, though in the
end Lacan does not contest Freuds phallocentrism. Men, if they are posited as
having the phallus, make up for their failure to be by having and by the advantage [bnce]8 of phallic jouissance. Women, on the contrary, conjugate their
failure to be at the outset with deprivation of the organ. But according to
Lacan, this lackwhich is, as it were, doubledopens the way for her to
a solution that consists in deriving a being-effect from her relationship with a
man. Hence the possible formulation of sexual difference through the opposition between having and being: having or being the phallus in his earlier work
(crits, 63033/26569), and having or being the symptom in his later work.
The two formulations are not equivalent: since the phallus is a negative function of lack, and the symptom is a positive function of jouissance, they are
opposed, so much so that wanting to be the phallus, with which Lacan at one
point stigmatized the hysteric, means precisely not wanting to be the symptom.
Let me simply refer here to Lacans second 1979 lecture on Joyce;9 there
Lacan explicitly distinguishes the hysterics position from the womans position.
A woman is specied as being a symptom.This is not the case of the hysteric,
who is characterized as being interested in the others symptom and is therefore not the last symptom but only second to last.To be the unique symptom
at least for One is not, strictly speaking, the hysterics demand, as we know
from Dora. We see this in analytic experience in the following way: even in
private, the hysterical subject does not constitute a couple, but at least a triangle, if not a still larger conguration.The clinical difculty is that the inverse is
not true. A woman, whether she is obsessive, phobic, or even psychotic, might
also have to deal with what I would call her symptom rivals, but those rivals
would not play the same role for her as that played by the other woman in hysteria. Note that an obsessive man also has his triangle when he sustains his
desire through that of an alter ego.


Colette Soler

For a hysteric, in any case, being interested in the others symptom means
not consenting to being the symptom, and it does not mean having a symptom
identical to a mans symptom. Contrary to what hasty thinkers imagine, the
fact that someone is not a woman does not mean that person is a man. For
example, Lacan says that Socrates is not a man: instead, he occupies a third
position, that of having a symptom vicariously through a man [par la procuration dun homme], so to speak, and that, Lacan clarifies, does not imply bodily
One could catalog all of the formulations in Lacans teachings by which he
progressively approached this assertion. First come the statements that indicate
the hysterics refusal or impossibility to accept herself as an object. It would be
necessary to add to the list the notion of slipping away (crits, 824/321),
which indicates the strategy by which the subject extricates herself from the
a-sexual jouissance (Seminar XX, 13/6, 115/127) of the relationship between
the sexes, as well as Lacans formulations regarding hysterical identication with
desires lack as opposed to desires object. It is clear, for example, that Dora is
interested in Frau K. as a symptom but does not want to be Frau K.consider
the slap she gives Herr K. when he offers her the position.The butchers wife,
with her dream of defiance toward Freud (SE IV, 147), shows more clearly
stillsince she puts up in reality with the assiduous attentions of her husband,
the man with the organthat she dreams of nothing more than of leaving the
place of the symptom and, as Lacan says in Seminar XVII (8485), of leaving
the dear butcher to another woman. As for Socrates, it is clear that he does not
want to be Alcibiades symptom, but that he is interested in Agathon insofar as
Agathon occupies that place for Alcibiades.
We see here why the hysterics position often is confused with the feminine position. To be a woman implies having a relationship with the Other,
man, in order to be actualized as a symptom. Since her jouissance being
involves the mediation of this Other, we understand her interest, not so much
in that Other, man or God, as in his desirethe desire by means of which she
comes to incarnate his jouissance. Now the hysteric submits to the same mediation by the Other but with different ends in viewnot in order to be actualized as his symptom. Her desire is sustained by the Others symptom, to the
extent that one could almost say that she makes herself a cause thereof, but
a cause of . . . knowledge, not because she is motivated by a desire to know, but
because she would like to inspire a desire to know in the Other.
How, then, are we to situate the fact that the hysteric plays the part of the
man [faire lhomme]?10 This expression takes on several meanings. It designates
rst the hysterics challenge:show me if you are a man, in the sense of stand
up and ght like a man, but it also means identication with the man. However, this is not just any old identication, and this is where people often are
mistaken. It can be an identication with his phallic knowledge or, on the contrary, with his lack thereof. Both can actually coexist in the same subject, but
hysterical identication proper, as we nd it in Dora and in the butchers wife

Hysteria in Scientic Discourse


(as Lacan reformulates the latters case in 1973),11 implies identifying with a
man insofar as he is not fullled, insofar as he too is unsatised, his jouissance
The clinician can easily be led astray here, for the consequences of this
identication sometimes present themselves in the form of a hyper-femininity.
Consider the butchers wife: at the imaginary, visible level, she competes with
her female friend in playing the part of the woman, but this masquerade results
from the fact that, at the symbolic level, as a subject, she identies with her
husband insofar as he is lacking something. Another practical result is that the
hysteric becomes the active agent of the Others castration.

Having claried this position, I now return to contemporary forms of hysteria.

The state of our civilization is, as I said, complicit with the ever-possible identication of women with masculine having. Thanks to metonymy, a career path
is open to all women, to our modern hysterics as well as to others, and they are
quite talented in their pursuits. But one should nevertheless recall the clinical
result that analysis attests to in all of its forms: contrary to what one often
imagines, the more the hysteric succeeds in the phallic conquest, the less she
can enjoy it, and the greater her sense of disappropriation grows. She can
strive to win the different competitions open to her, but almost as soon as she
has proven herself, the gain vanishesfor her real question is played out elsewhere, in the closed eld, as Lacan says, of the sexual relationship. It is only
there that sexual difference, repressed in all other facets of life by unisex,
remains irreducible. We could perhaps say that she makes the unisex of castration rule there, too, but this is because she is only interested in the jouissance
that is its correlate and that she exalts. On this point, the sexual subversion of
our times owes as much to her as to science.
In this respect, psychoanalysis is really what the hysteric needed, because it
agrees to recognize the enigma of sex and assumes responsibility for it. Consider the difference between psychoanalysis and Charcots approach: Charcot
thoughtsomewhat stupidlythat what a hysteric needed was an expert love
maker. This is what is implied in the formulation that struck Freud so much,
which prescribed repeated doses of the penis as a remedy for all of the ills of
hysterics.12 One hears the same thing in the lewd slang expression that a
woman is not getting the right stuff [mal baise].13 This expression is, in fact,
less shocking than simply poorly thought out. What the hysteric is seeking is
not an expert love makersomeone who makes love wellbut a sex connoisseur, someone who can say what jouissance it is that a woman has [porte]
beyond that of the organ. If the one she has is not spoken, one can only mark
its place by leaving the organ-related jouissance unsatised.
The faithlessness of the hysteric has a logic of its own (crits, 824/321).
Freud accepted the challenge and invented an approach that excludes the


Colette Soler

expert love maker by forbidding bodily contact, thus obliging the subject to get
the Other to respond and to produce knowledge such as that of science, in
which logic plays a major role. Actually, psychoanalysis did satisfy the hysterics
request for knowledge about sex. This knowledge, however, is a surprise
knowledge with respect to the aspiration that gave rise to it, for it consists only
of a structural negativityto use Lacans expressionand thus leaves the
hysterics wish unsatisfied. Instead of the unconscious yielding a science of
jouissance as sexual jouissance, it turns out that the unconscious is only familiar
with phallic jouissance, which is a-sexual; the unconscious only approaches the
other jouissance through logic and the real of that jouissance through what it is
impossible to say.
It is hard to say whether hysterics would be happy with such an arid answer. Would they not rather be tempted to inspire a resurgence of religion?
Lacan worried about that, but it must be said that a certain part of analytic revelation also lends itself to that, since psychoanalysis emphasizes, with respect to
jouissance, that castration is not the last word for everyone; not only is there
surplus jouissance that plugs it up, but there also is the Other jouissance that
objects to unisex.The analysand no doubt consumes phallic jouissance, but the
analyst incarnates what remains irreducible to phallic jouissance.
It is quite apparent that this irreducible element lends itself to diverse uses
that are subjective. In particular, womans supplementary jouissance, newly
accredited as a limit of knowledge by Lacan and the logic he adopts, this new
alliance with Tiresias, is already engendering new clinical facts in analytic discourse: a question, no doubt, but also a craving [envie]. This cravingif it is not
new, then it is at least newly deployedrivaling penis envy, is a craving for the
other jouissance; it is a fear as well, or even a denunciation. We can nd traces
of it in both men and women and isolate its amusing use, designed to renew
the resources of the masquerade that makes woman what she is.The cult of her
mystery could very well make her exist, as it made God, the Father, exist.
In conclusion, our scientic civilization and the universalization it promotes engender unisex. In this context hysterics have inspired psychoanalysis,
which keeps open the question of sex and provides them with a response. But
in the future they might well reject its purely logical response and prefer
instead the religion of woman. That will depend on whether or not hysterical
discourse yields to analytic discourse.
Translated by Franois Raffoul and David Pettigrew,
revised and edited by Bruce Fink.
1. Le Sminaire, Livre XVII, Lenvers de la psychanalyse (19691970), ed. J.-A. Miller
(Paris: Seuil, 1991); Radiophonie, Scilicet 2/3 (1970): 5599. All footnotes as well as
references in the text have been added by the editor.

Hysteria in Scientic Discourse


2. The French here plays on the contrast in French economic terminology

between capital (xed assets) and the usufruct (the enjoyment or jouissance) of that capital.
3. A sort of map of the landscape of love (the tender feelings), described by
Madelaine de Scudry.
4. Cf. Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of
Sigmund Freud, 24 vols., trans. J. Strachey (London: Hogarth Press), vol. XI,On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love, 17990. Hereafter, all references
to the Standard Edition will be given as SE, followed by volume and page numbers.
5. Unisex is used here and elsewhere in this chapter as a noun, such as masculinity or femininity.
6. All references to crits here are rst to the French edition (Paris: Seuil, 1966)
and then to English translation, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977),
although all translations have been modied.
7. See Female Sexuality, SE XXI, 22930 and Femininity, SE XXII, 12630.
8. The French here also means gain or prot.
9. Joyce le symptme II, in Joyce avec Lacan, eds. J. Aubert & M. Jolas (Paris:
Navarin, 1987).
10. The French here can also mean to make a man, that is, to make a man of
11. Introduction ldition allemande dun premier volume des crits (Walter
Verlag), Scilicet 5 (1975): 1117.
12. Cf.Rx Penis normalis dosim repetatur, in SE XIV, 15, where the prescription is attributed to Chrobak.
13. American English does not seem to have any exact equivalent for this French
expression, which literally means badly laid.