Jacques Lacan

Lacan and psychoanalysis are practically synonymous terms today. Jacques Lacan expanded upon the developments of Freud in psychology and psychoanalysis. He is considered to be one of the most influential critical thinkers of the 1900's, his tentacles winding into every field from neuroscience to economics and (obviously) philosophy. Any serious student of Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, Cathrine Malabou, or Sigmund Freud needs to take time to familiarize with Lacan and his contribution to psychoanalytic theory.

Introduction to Lacan

Although Lacan insisted he was a student of Freud (IEP 2005), his theories interrogate the elder's thoughts in new and progressive ways. The first idea that stands out is his shift in perspective in regards to the unconscious. Instead of positioning the unconscious as an unwieldy director of drive, Lacan suggested that "The unconscious is structured as a language." (Lacan 1998) He explained the unconscious as a source of real truth which was best confronted head-on. Although the term "language" implies some level of order, this does not accurately reflect Lacan's thoughts, since his concept of the real (see below) examined the root of language as chaotic and empty. The lack it creates is the source of motivation which the ego seeks to entertain.

Hegel, Lacan, Language, and the Real

In fact, this brings up Lacan's Hegelian influence. While assuming a linear and structured object-domain to be perceived, Lacan conceptualized the subject simply as that which broke up and fragmented this order. That is, the subject can be understood as the disjunction between the way things are and the way consciousness represents them. The Real is not reality as we commonly speak of it - the Real is instead the elusive root of the insecure fluidity of language - the irrational core of our subjective experience. Confronting the Real is an analytical strategy used to reveal the nature of desire and thus traverse the fundamental fantasy (see below).

Two key vocabulary terms which provide clarification of the real is Lacan's distinction between the signifier and the signified:


[T]he distinction between language as structure (closed system of signs governed by the laws of diacritical opposition) and speech as act; the distinction within a linguistic sign between speech sound (signifier) and mental representation (signified); and the arbitrary nature of the relationship between signifier and signified (Richardson 1999: 521).

Any word holds meaning only in the context of other words and sensory associations we have developed in relation to them. There is no absolute word (or master signifier) which embodies the meaning associated with any object or experience. The Real is the very chasm standing between a word or symbol and that which it represents.

The Imaginary, Symbolic, Real - The Anatomy of Fantasy

In order to compensate for the loss experienced as a being of language, Lacan postulated that we create psychic projections of our beliefs. The grossest level where this happens is the Imaginary: From our necessarily limited perspective, we create representations of how the world works, and what we might do to make ourselves happy within it. We create scenarios, goals, and ideologies which allow us to cope with the infinite loss of the Real - that true satisfaction is unattainable due to our embodiment of language. Summed up, these projections constitute fantasy - the stories we tell ourselves to convince ourselves that we will one day be happy and completely satiated.

In order to enliven fantasy, we participate in Symbolic actions which fall in accordance to our fantasy. For example, we may believe that a successful career will bring us comfort and security, so we do our jobs well, show up on time, etc. Or, if we are in love and believe that our partner is bringing us a wholeness, we display our affection by holding hands, kissing, etc. These actions constitute the Symbolic framework upon which the Imaginary rests.

However, the Real is always lurking, preventing the complete satiation of our desire. For example, we may have a successful career and accumulate vast wealth, yet still feel that something is missing, or even desire more money. The Real guarantees that our desire will forever haunt us - that total satisfaction is not possible to attain. A lifter will always seek to lift more weight, a drummer will always seek a faster, more even drum roll. It is important to distinguish desire from needs - Lacan had no doubt that we can satisfy our immediate biological and social needs. It is our desire which is insatiable.

The Real, Objet Petit A, and Jouissance

It is this slippery sensation we feel with our desires which Lacan terms jouissance. Once we reach a new level of achievement, we seek more. Even if we seek to achieve nothing, our needs will continuously antagonize us - imagine the couch potato whose remote control stops working. Suddenly, this issue is preventing them from being happy and content. The object-cause of our desire - object petit a - is the fantastic supplement which fills the void of the Real. One sax player explained to me, "Even if you can practice 24 hours a day, you still need to practice more." Here, we can see how practice has filled the void of the Real through the process of fantasy: More practice will lead to better performance on the sax, no doubt. However, my friend might not realize that he is never going to be satisfied with his playing (due to jouissance). Zizek explains it is not just the fact that our we cannot attain jouissance - it is that we can never escape it:


For Lacan, the trouble with jouissance is not only that it is unattainable, always-already lost [due to the castration of the subject], that it forever eludes our grasp, but, even more, that one can never get rid of it, that its stain drags on forever - that is the point of Lacan's concept of surplus-enjoyment: the very renunciation of jouissance brings about a remainder/surplus of jouissance. Desire stands for the economy in which whatever object we get hold of is 'never it, the "Real Thing', that which the subject is forever trying to attain but which eludes him again and again, while drive stands for the opposite economy, within which the stain of jouissance always accompanies our acts. This also explains the difference in the reflexivity of drive and desire: desire reflexively desires its own unsatisfacton, the postponement of the encounter with jouissance - that is, the basic formula of the reflexivity of desire is to turn the impossibility of satisfying desire into the desire for non-satisfaction; drive, on the contrary, finds satisfaction in (i.e. besmirches with the stain of satisfaction) the very movement destined to 'repress' satisfaction (Zizek 1999: 291).

Lacan and Personality Development

Whereas theorists like Dabrowski and Maharishi focused on development later in life, Lacan and Freud emphasized the importance of early experiences. Lacan also rejects the hierarchical approach to personality development, and stands in absolute opposition any end goals of personality development, such as Maharishi's enlightenment through Unity Consciousness or Dabrowski's fifth stage, Secondary Integration. This is not to say that development doesn't continue throughout adulthood - it simply means that Lacan did not feel comfortable imposing society's understanding of peak achievement on other people. Rather, his analysis led to traversing the fantasy, which allowed the patient to come to terms with the insatiable nature of desire.

Symbiosis with the (M)Other

Children exist in the womb with all of their needs met. Food, water, warmth, etc. are all provided by the mother, creating the illusion of harmony with the environment. However, upon birth (or earlier), the child begins to experience various forms of discomfort. This "castration" - the cutting off from the mother - creates the force of demand: The child is now stuck in the realm of eternal lack. This loss is irreversible, re-unification is impossible. This split forces the child to develop abstract representations in language - "food" is needed to satiate hunger, which is coming from the body. As the capacity for speech develops, symbolic representations become necessary. Thus, the Imaginary comes into existence alongside the Symbolic. Simultaneously, repression of this fact begins, and the conscious and unconscious mind divide.

To explain this process in detail, Lacan conceptualized the mirror stage of personality development. Corresponding to the imaginary domain, the child believes itself to be in a unified state of wholeness. This concept of the self as stable and coherent Lacan calls the ideal-I or ideal-ego. Thus, it corresponds to the imaginary realm, and develops into more sophisticated fantastic projections as the individual grows and adopts beliefs about how they ought to be. These ideas come from role models, doctors, even psychologists. Lacan discards these fantastic projections as largely inauthentic.

Oedipus Complex, Incest, the Phallus

The prohibition against incest prevents re-unification with the bliss of symbiosis with mother. The child is instead forced to adopt to the rules of language and society. Desire for the mother - for Lacan - is better conceptualized as the desire to be desired by the mother. This is synonymous with playing the role of the phallus of the mother. The rule of the father, of course, prohibits this goal. Here, Lacan is not speaking of a simple moral blockage - the lack such prohibition creates it is a philosophical necessity for subjective, language-oriented experience.


How the Oedipal drama actually unfolds for the infant, i.e. how it comes to forgo its desire to be the mother's phallus and settle for the condition of "having" (or "not having") it and even, in having it, to renounce any pretense to master it; or, to put the matter differently, how the infant learns to accept its indigenous want, i.e. finitude, with the consequence that the same law (of the Father), which prohibits indulging the child's want to be the mother's phallus, is the law that henceforth mediates this want through the exigencies of linguistic structures through which desire must express itself (i.e. the symbolic order) (Richardson 1999: 528)

As one scholar explains, we can see the real corresponding to needs, the imaginary to demands, and the symbolic to desire (Felluga 2003).

Lacanian Psychoanalytic Methodology

Subjectivity, by definition, requires linguistic immersion on both conscious and unconscious levels. Therefore, desire is at once impossible to fulfill and inescapable. Lacan's approach was to walk the patient through a process which displayed this structure to the patient. A process of mourning is needed - for the loss of the object of desire, as it is revealed as impossible to attain; mourning for the analyst who cannot bring immediate comfort; and mourning as castration is fully accepted.


Psychoanalysis may accompany the patient to the ecstatic limit of the "Thou art that," in which is revealed to him the cipher of his mortal destiny, but it is not in our mere power as practitioners to bring him to that point where the real journey begins (Lacan and Fink 2002 pg. 8).

Take, for example, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, who seems to understand the consequences of the Lacanian notion of such a “real journey”:


You know, I'm 53 years old and, every time I pick up the instrument it's a struggle to try get the sound. You know, I'm always hearing the sound up here, and something just a little bit beyond my grasp, so there's always this struggle going on. After 40 years of playing, or however long it's been, hopefully something has happened (Transcribed from Youtube).

Lacan might have simply made this realization explicit for Frisell by showing how desire keeps him picking up his guitar again and again, never leaving him satisfied with his musical capabilities. This process would qualify as a fantastic traversal: The fantasy of being a master of guitar is shattered by the realization that we can never satiate our urge to become a better musician.

From Desire to Drive

The Act of traversing the fantasy pushes the subject from the realm of desire into a state of drive. Despite his understanding of the nature of his relationship with the guitar, Frisell nonetheless continues to play - perhaps more ambitiously than before this realization occurred. Within this space of subjective destitution, a new perspective is embraced. This is the final step of Lacan's analysis - to push the patient to the limit of their fantasy as to traverse the fantasy and move from desire to drive. How the patient responds to this change is unique for each individual - preserving their personal integrity and blocking unfair influence coming from the analyst.

The Big Other, Autonomy, Superego

This may sound bleak initially, but a close inspection gives us a different view. Slavoj Zizek repeatedly mentions the liberating potential this process holds for society as a whole, allowing a fundamental reconstruction of our collective values and challenging the ideological roots of capitalism (Zizek 2010, 1999). Through the death drive, we may overcome the societal norms and regulations which have been imposed upon us.

Understanding Lacan's concept of the "Big Other" allows us to understand with additional depth. Our identities and our beliefs are constructed in terms of another (an Other) - the Other is a construction necessary for enjoyment and pleasure. We can only base our values on a hypothetical figure who judges from a privileged, all-knowing position. This figure is the Big Other. Although the Big Other is an ambiguous figure (Zizek 2007), Christianity affords us a clear example. A true follower of the words of Christ tries to be like Him, to follow in his footsteps, etc. What is right and wrong is dictated by Him alone - His knowledge is unending. Once the subject traverses such a fantasy, the omniscience of the Other is refuted. This opens the opportunity for true autonomy as the individual is now forced to create their own system of values.

The Fundamental Fantasy

Lacan realized early in his career the risk of a patient continuing their poor behavior despite having traversed the fantasy. A patient may even feel encouraged to pursue their problematic activity as a result of the liberation offered by the loss of their ties to societal norms. Therefore, Lacan conceptualized a "fundamental fantasy" which lurks beneath and supports all of the fantasies we experience. If this foundational construct is addressed, analysis may not be effective. An authentic Act must confront and traverse the fundamental fantasy (Zizek 1999: 266 and 307). Such an Act can only be accomplished by fully embracing the death drive "in its most radical dimension of traversing the fantasy" (Zizek 1999: 390). This pushes the patient into subjective destitution, where jouissance is embraced head on. Zizek often explains this shift in terms of a hand reaching for an object which perpetually pushes itself out of reach. From the perspective of desire, one would believe the object reachable. Once this fantasy is traversed, we move into drive, yet continue to reach for the object, knowing that it will never be reached.

Works Cited

Felluga, Dino. "Introduction to Jacques Lacan, Module on the Structure of the Psyche." College of Liberal Arts : Purdue University. 2003. Web. 16 Apr. 2010
Lacan, Jacques, and Bruce Fink. "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalysis." Ecrits: a Selection. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2002. Print.
Lacan, Jacques, and Bruce Fink. "The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectics of Desire." Ecrits: a Selection. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2002. Print.
Lacan, Jacques. On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge: Book XX, Encore 1972-1973. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: Norton, 1999. Print.
Richardson, William J. "Lacan." A Companion to Continental Philosophy. By Simon Critchley and William Ralph. Schroeder. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998. Print.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 2006. Print.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Ticklish Subject: the Absent Centre of Political Ontology. London: Verso, 1999. Print.

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