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The Cabinet of Dr. Lacan

Lacan’s account of the origins of sexuality—for which a good source is “The Transference and the Drive” in The Four Fundamental Concepts—is more complex both in the materials it surveys and in the time span it allows them to work themselves out. For not only does this account spread itself forward into the Symbolic stage, it reaches back into the inaugural phase. Indeed the early start that Lacan allows sexuality ought to make it difficult for him to insist on the full dependence of sexuality on symbolism and to deny its biological base. Sometimes Lacan bows to this difficulty and settles for only a partial dependence of sexuality on symbolism. But at other times Lacan circumvents the difficulty. How does he manage this?

Lacan, as we have seen, thinks of the inaugural phase as originating in the anatomical incompleteness of the newly born infant. This incompleteness is experienced as what Lacan calls “déhiscence and what his translator (on mature reflection presumably) translates as “dehiscence”: that is, the opening-up of a gap to be filled. This sense of a gap precipitates the infant into symbolism—Lacan’s idea being, I think, that language through its capacity to represent absence offers to make good this gap. Now Lacan finds a very significant parallel between the trajectory described by the process of symbol-acquisition and the trajectory described by the sexual drive. The parallel is on a highly abstract level, but it is typical of Lacan to think that the nature of something very material like sexuality comes out clearest when thought of most abstractly. Both articulate a loop. The sexual drive sets out from some part of the subject’s body, moves outward, encircles some thing or object in the environment, controls it, and then returns with it to find satisfaction in that very part of the subject’s own body from which it set out. This is the erotogenic zone.

But what of the erotogenic zone itself? The sexual drive may be given some kind of symbol-linked function, but surely the erotogenic zone is not to be explained as a psycholinguistic phenomenon?

Freud, as we know, identified four such zones—the mouth, the anus, the phallus, the genitals. His treatment of them as functionally equivalent throughout the body’s maturation, in that the libido organizes itself around each in turn, together with his account of how one libidinal organization gives way to another underlie his spectacular extension of the concept of sexuality. Now Lacan accepts the zones that Freud identified. But he denies any biological account of how they get singled out and how they succeed one another. For him the central feature of an erotogenic zone and that which he thinks gives it its significance is—that it is a zone. The significance of the mouth, the anus, the phallus, the genitals, for the developing infant, is, in each case, that it is an area of the body marked off from those other areas which it is not. Answering an interlocutor after one of his seminars Lacan is recorded as saying:

It is precisely to the extent that adjoining, connected zones are excluded that others take on their erogenous function and become specific sources for the drive. You follow me? [Four Fundamental Concepts, p. 172]

This assimilation of the erotogenic zone to the “diacritical” sign as Saussure conceived of it is for Lacan confirmed by the way that each zone is demarcated by a rim and that sexual pleasure is always experienced at the rim. Pleasure at the rim, Lacan implies, is pleasure in the rim.

But doesn’t the reference to pleasure invalidate this whole “semiotic” account of the erotogenic zone? Surely it is the fact that pleasure can be got out of them that explains why we esteem certain parts of our body—and why we esteem different parts at different stages of development? Lacan finds it in him to deny this too, and suggests that it reverses the order of explanation. The primary item in a libidinal organization is an organ, and that we use it, for instance to gain pleasure, comes second. (In The Four Fundamental Concepts he traces the way in which the use of the eye is an antidote to the dominance of the eye in our thinking.)

The second layer that we might expect from Lacan concerns the conative side of the infant’s life; that is, the striving, effortful side of life through which the drives get realized. In the inaugural phase the infant is confined to the single conative state of Need. Need is an “intransitive” state, in that, when the newborn child has needs, there is nothing of which it can be said that this is just what it needs. This is because the infant at this stage cannot represent to itself an object. So, when the infant acquires a system of representation, we should expect it to move into a “transitive” state, or a conative state with an object, which is what Desire is. To express the dependence of Desire on symbolism, Lacan reuses his notion of the Other and says, “Desire is the desire of the Other.”

But if symbol acquisition is a prerequisite to Desire, it also puts obstacles in its way. From Need the infant may graduate to Desire, but it may be shunted into what is mysteriously called Demand. So, to be faithful to Lacan, let us consider the smooth transition from Need to Desire as a preliminary idealization, look at the obstacles across its path, and then return.

The third layer of Lacan’s theory concerns the formation of the unconscious or repression. In the écrit “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious” Lacan denies any original or instinctual unconscious. Everything that is in the unconscious has to find its way there. And there is only one way to get there: it must first get symbolized, and only then is it ripe for repression. In the preface provided for Lemaire’s book Lacan defines his theoretical position by contrasting it with one he assigns to the French analyst Jean Laplanche. For Laplanche the unconscious is the precondition of language; for Lacan “language is the condition of the unconscious.”

But for Lacan language is not just the precondition, it is also the content, of the unconscious. Lacan constantly says that the unconscious is like, or is structured like, a language. What he appears to think is that the unconscious is a language. It is a language having three distinctive features. In the first place, it is made up not of signs but just of signifiers. Secondly, the signifiers that make it up are those which have undergone repression and also those signifiers related to them by principles of association.

Freud too thought that unrepressed material gets dragged into the unconscious through association with the repressed. Freud specified what he thought the principles of association were. He called them “condensation” and “displacement.” Following Roman Jakobson Lacan calls his principles “metonymy” and “metaphor” and, of course, claims they are identical with Freud’s. “Metonymy” and “metaphor” seem to me to have all the disadvantages and none of the advantages of technical terms, and here I only want to point to one significant difference between Freud’s principles of association and Lacan’s. It is we, speakers of the language, who condense and who displace: we forge associations within the system of language. But for Lacan metonymy and metaphor are intrinsic features of language itself. So in holding that the unconscious is formed in accordance with such principles, he edges himself a little further toward where he wants to be: that is to say, to a view of human psychology as constituted by the impersonal reality of language.

Thirdly, the chains of signifiers that form the unconscious are inaccessible to the subject. Access to them is gained through the dialectic of the analysis which restores to the patient “true” or “full” speech. If psychoanalysis is psycholinguistics in its theory, in its technique it is speech therapy.

A slogan which expresses the Lacanian view of the unconscious and also exemplifies the Lacanian form of the slogan is “The unconscious is the discourse of the Other.” Whereupon “the Other” acquires two further connotations. It means first “the unconscious,” and then he who restores the discourse of the unconscious to its owner or “the analyst.”

Lacan sets out his notion of the unconscious in the “Discours de Rome,” “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious,” “The Direction of the Treatment,” and the untranslated Position de l’Inconscient: and it might be thought feasible to work back from this to his notion of repression and to reconstruct how the unconscious presupposes symbol acquisition.

One account immediately suggests itself: In repression what happens essentially is that the link between signifier and signified gets broken, and the signified slips out of the picture. The signifier now rides free, and the associative links with other signifiers, effected through metonymy and metaphor, become all-important. One signifier gets freely exchanged for another signifier in accordance with these links so that the subject loses all grip upon what his signifiers mean. He fails to understand them either when he asserts them (in speech) or when they assert themselves (in symptoms). Understanding returns only with the reconstitution of the sign in the analytic process.

Such an account has a certain amount to recommend it, including its comparative clarity, but whether we are right to attribute it to Lacan depends on how we think he interprets the Saussurean distinction between signifier and signified when he says that the unconscious is populated entirely with signifiers. Does he mean, as I take him to mean, signs which have lost their sense? Or does he interpret Saussure differently? Or is it possible, as some commentators suggest,6 that Lacan is much more casual with Saussurean terminology than his professions of discipleship prepare us for?7

Both repression and the unconscious have a dual aspect in Lacan’s theory. Once a thought is repressed, the person who has the thought does not recognize it. Additionally, he cannot recognize it as his thought. He misunderstands what his speech says, and where it comes from.

This symbiosis of alienation and repression becomes significant when we turn to the fourth layer that Lacan lays down, which concerns what he calls Need, Demand, and Desire. This is the realistic version of that simple progression from Need, which life does not offer. The crucial difference between Demand and Desire seems to be that Demand has its roots in the Imaginary, whereas Desire is structured within the symbolic order. Each has the defects of its origins, and each brings with it its own attendant dissatisfactions.

Being represented within the Imaginary order, the object of Demand is always brute. The infant demands it for its immediate allure, not because of any meaning it has for him. Accordingly, when one demand is met, a new demand is presented. Being represented within the symbolic order, the object of Desire is never brute, it is always sought after as if for its meaning. But the “as if” here is crucial. Rooted in symbolism, and therefore prone to repression, desire is essentially a substitutive phenomenon, so that one desired object always does duty for another, with a third lying in wait to take over. “Man’s desire is a metonymy,” is how Lacan puts it, adding, “however funny people may find the idea.” And this process of substitution goes back historically to the very beginnings of desire in the individual’s life, or to the earliest attempt to formulate that lack or gap, which is the original psychic representation of need. Accordingly, desire too is insatiable, but not because when one desire is satisfied a new desire arises, as with demand, but because, more radically, desires do not thus split themselves up: there is one desire, which is continuous.

  1. 6

    Anthony Wilden, in The Language of the Self, op. cit., and Georges Mounin, Introduction à la Sémiologie (Paris, 1970), and Clefs pour la Linguistique (Paris, 1971).

  2. 7

    One thing is certain. If Lacan gives this account of repression, he also, in The Four Fundamental Concepts, gives another. It too refers to a degeneracy in the individual’s grasp of his language and it postulates a disruption within some crucial pair of signifiers. But I do not follow it and will not try to reproduce it.

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