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The Cabinet of Dr. Lacan

There is for Lacan another dimension to the difference between Demand and Desire. So far we have contrasted them as they relate to their objects: but they also relate differently to the individual. In breaking out of the miasmic condition of Need, the infant claims recognition and love, and every demand and every desire is also a vehicle of this general claim. They express a kind of primitive assertiveness.

But they carry the claim in different ways. Demand invariably makes the claim from the outside, peremptorily, and therefore, when it gets what it asks for, this invariably seems extorted and therefore unacceptable. By contrast Desire makes the same claim from the inside, insinuatingly, in that it tries to take over the desire of the person upon whom the claim is made. (A young girl, the daughter of a paranoiac impotent father and a frightened authoritarian mother who is terrified of change, goes mad. She is retarded, her speech is incoherent, she has phobic attacks. Her madness is the assumption of her mother’s desire that nothing should be different, that mother and daughter should never be separated.)8 The fact that desire is from the beginning an encroachment upon another extends the meaning of “Man’s desire is the desire of the Other.” For, since the earliest encroachment is upon the mother’s desire, the Other is, in appropriate contexts, the mother.9

Buried in this rather confusing material—and I regard it as no accident that I have failed to find a coherent account of the distinction between Demand and Desire in any of Lacan’s commentators 10—are several reasons why Desire has ultimately more to offer the individual than Demand.

In the first place, Desire, being registered in language, can be understood. And understanding may be the best we can achieve. Secondly, the registration of Desire in language, being a social phenomenon, automatically gives the individual part of what he claims: it gives him recognition—if not love. Thirdly, however fugitive or elusive the object of desire may be, at the causal end Desire is firmly fixed. It is rooted in the original lack or manque-à-être, or (better perhaps) in that primitive phantasy in which the filling of this lack was hallucinated. This original moment of bliss, which Lacan calls “l’objet petit a” (“a” for “l’autre,” “the other” as opposed to “A” for “l’Autre,” “the Other”), and which a less abstract psychology might think of as the mother’s breast, lies at the back of all the intersubstituted objects of desire, and at one point Lacan suggests that this, the cause of the desire, may also be its (true) object. If we can only recognize this in ourselves, or that what we desire stands in for a lost object, at least we may get beyond the stop-go of “demand.”

But with four layers laid down, how far on are we toward psychoanalytic theory? Not very far, it might be said. Out of rather unpromising elements Lacan has elucidated the chief categories of the mind and the general principles of its functioning. But this is about the same point that Hegel reached by the end of The Phenomenology of Mind, starting from roughly similar material. Lacan, it is true, has updated Hegel by adding certain twentieth-century ideas about symbolism, but the enterprise he set himself was, after all, that of backdating Freud, or showing that he can be derived from the general principles of symbol acquisition. Where Freud differs from Hegel is that he described not only the structure of the mind but its content. He talked not just about the general possibilities of human development but about how these are actualized: he talked about the Oedipus complex, and castration anxiety, and penis envy, about the origins of homosexuality and about paranoia. Does Lacan think that these too can be derived from psycholinguistic material?

The answer is that he does, and accordingly the fifth layer he lays down concerns man’s psychosexual development. One peculiarity about this layer is that, though everything gets explained through language, some phenomena get deep explanations and others shallow. So the incest prohibitions, which are intrinsic trinsic to the Oedipal situation, are connected with language in the most superficial way. They are said by Lacan to be messages explicitly written into the natural languages which we all learn: with presumably the utopian consequence, convenient for Lacan, that they could just as easily be written out of these languages, should society agree.11 By contrast, the two phenomena crucial and also peculiar to the Lacanian account of psychosexuality—the phallus and what he calls the Name-of-the Father—get deep explanations. They are located within the profoundest moments of symbol acquisition. Just how is at best obscure, but also ambiguous.

What are the phallus and the Name-of-the-Father? The best way of looking at them, which Lacan encourages, is as phantasies that the infant entertains. The phallus is the earlier phantasy, originating in the Imaginary stage but persisting. The Name-of-the-Father dates from the Symbolic stage.

If we now ask what the content of these phantasies is, Lacan’s implicit answer is that they are about what their names indicate. The phallus is a phantasy about the erectile sexual organ. The Name-of-the-Father is a phantasy about the male parent: or more specifically the male parent in so far as he issues commands—and, more specifically yet, in so far as he commands in absence, or from beyond the grave.

However, each of these phantasies, bound up as it is with the most elementary movements toward expression, acquires further significance. The phallus dominates the infant’s moments of blissful merging with the mother: it is the phantasized point of union between them.12 And so it comes to stand for totality, or a state in which all is union and nothing is differentiated, and ultimately, when the symbolic stage is entered into, for the completeness of the system of signs. The Name-of-the-Father gets similarly extended. It comes to stand for rule-governed activity, and then for the supreme example of such activity, speech.

So Lancan’s implicit answer shows the importance of symbol acquisition for psychosexuality, but not its priority. Hence Lacan’s explicit answer about the content of the phallus and the Name-of-the-Father. This reverses the whole story, and makes the phallus primarily a phantasy about the totality of a symbol system and the Name-of-the-Father primarily a phantasy about the rules of language.

Plausibility apart, this explicit answer just won’t do because it renders incomprehensible many of the quasi-Freudian things Lacan says about the infant’s life.

For instance, Lacan regards phallic phantasies as, for a variety of reasons, peculiarly precarious. As they crystallize around the symbolic system, they get more precarious. But how does this precariousness evince itself? Phantasy converts itself to anxiety, and the anxiety is experienced as fear of castration. But doesn’t this require that phallic phantasies are indeed about what their name indicates?

Again, the phallus, or phallic fantasy, is at its most precarious when it collides in the infantile mind with the Name-of-the-Father. Why is this? Because the Name-of-the-Father claims the mother from the infant. Because the Name-of-the-Father seeks to subject the mother to its will. And because the Name-of-the-Father instills into the infant’s mind, alongside the warm, primitive hallucination of being the phallus, the more evolved, the more discursive, the more reality-testable thought of having the phallus. But, if we are to make sense of this collision and its baneful aspects, does this not require that we think of the Name-of-the-Father too as being about what its name indicates?

And a final consideration in favor of the implicit over the explicit answer is this: Freud, as we know, thought the appearance of the father in the infant’s awareness sets up a three-cornered conflict in its mind in which the actors are father, mother, and infant, and the stake is the infant’s sexual organ. This is the Oedipus conflict. Lacan also talks of a psychic drama in the infant’s mind. He gives it the same structure as Freud does, he gives it the same dramatis personae as Freud, and he borrows the Freudian title. The Lacanian drama is set into being by the Name-of-the-Father and it is fought over the phallus. Is this a coincidence, or does it show that whatever may be in doubt about the Lacanian scenario, the Name-of-the-Father and the phallus must be given a literal significance primarily, if an extended one derivatively? With this, the attempt to ground psychosexuality in the phenomenon of language collapses.


In expounding Lacan’s theory of the mind I have shown where Lacan takes Freud’s name in vain, which may not be serious, and I have indicated certain confusions and mistakes, which may be eliminable. The big question to which everything leads is whether, charitably read, adequately repaired, Lacan’s theory can be put beside Freud’s—which, after all, has its defects too.

My answer would be a qualified No.

The reason for the No is that Lacan’s theory lacks the explanatory force of Freud’s. Freud’s theory has the following form: It shows man to be endowed with a very complex internal structure. This internal structure changes. It matures, and also it is modified by experience which can be both of outer and of inner reality. But if experience modifies structure, structure mediates experience. It determines how man reacts to experience, and this reaction, like the experience it reacts to, can be either external or internal. Structure, experience, reaction—Freudian theory shows these to be interdependent, and yet capable of being independently studied.

Precious little of this survives in Lacan’s theory. In the first place, Lacan assigns no place to maturation. Indeed, he looks upon any attempt to treat the mental as resting upon the state of the body as an abdication of psychology.

Secondly, Lacan is extremely hazy about the internal structure that he presumes. He talks of the mechanisms of repression and rejection, and treats them as impairments of the symbolic function. But he says next to nothing about other mechanisms like introjection, projection, projective identification, which later psychoanalysts have carefully and fruitfully distinguished. And we are never told why any of the mechanisms should get employed. As long ago as 1909 Freud thought that internal conflict could not be explained simply by reference to consciousness and the unconscious, but that separate agencies in the mind had to be invoked. Lacan antedates this.

Thirdly, Lacan totally depreciates the contribution of experience to psychoanalytic explanation, and it becomes clear that the absence from his writing of case histories and clinical illustration is not just an eccentricity of presentation. It reflects his theory. For his favored form of explanation is not by reference to the internal structure of the individual plus his experience. He appeals only to how the individual is internally structured.

An artificial example might help. In her account of early development, Melanie Klein laid great emphasis upon the moment when the infant is able to conceive of whole persons, at once good and bad, and not just part-persons, some altogether good, some altogether bad. It can now recognize that it has hated the person whom it also loves, it can feel remorse, and it can desire to set the harm right. This is the “depressive” position, and Klein goes on to make use of it in order to explain how an infant who achieved this position will then respond to subsequent experiences. But if Lacan were a Kleinian, we can imagine him simply appealing to the depressive position to explain an infant’s reactions, and there would be no reference to experience. The Lacanian individual typicaly reacts to himself or to his own being rather than to what happens to or within him.

But the No I would give to Lacanian theory is a qualified No. For judgment must be qualified if it respects the difficulties inherent in any text which disdains examples, which concedes no second thoughts and denies all change of opinion, which modulates from rhetoric to buffoonery to self-pity, which is laden with formulas that respect no formation rules and diagrams that require conflicting principles of interpretation, which uses technical terms like “topology,” “metalanguage,” “Gestalt” decoratively, which is elusive and obscure, and consciously and deliberately so.

And for the reader who is still uncertain what I have in mind in talking about Lacan’s obscurity, the following examples must suffice.

1) On the connection between psychoanalysis and science:

If we can couple psychoanalysis to the train of modern science, despite the essential effect of the analyst’s desire, we have a right to ask the question of the desire that lies behind modern science. There is certainly a disconnection between scientific discourse and the conditions of the discourse of the unconscious. We see this in set theory. At a time when the combinatory is coupled to the capture of sexuality, set theory cannot emerge. How is this disconnection possible? It is at the level of desire that we will be able to find the answer. [Four Fundamental Concepts, p. 160]

2) On the mirror image:

The fact is that the total form of the body by which the subject anticipates in a mirage the maturation of his power is given to him only as Gestalt, that is to say, in an exteriority in which this form is certainly more constituent than constituted, but in which it appears to him above all in a contrasting size that fixes it and in a symmetry that inverts it, in contrast with the turbulent movements that the subject feels are animating him. [Ecrits, p. 2]

3) And:

What one ought to say is: I am not wherever I am the plaything of my thought; I think of what I am where I do not think to think. [Ecrits, p. 166]


Obscurity is not the worst failing, and it is philistinism to pretend that it is. In a series of brilliant essays written over the last fifteen years Stanley Cavell has consistently argued that more important than the question whether obscurity could have been avoided is whether it affects our confidence in the author.

Confidence raises the issue of intention, and I would have thought that the primary commitment of a psychoanalytic writer was to pass on, and (if he can) to refine while passing on, a particular way of exploring the mind. Indeed this is how Lacan himself proposes that his work should be judged. “The aim of my teaching,” he writes, “has been and still is the training of analysts.”

For decades now Lacan has been insisting that the nature of this commitment has been systematically obscured, particularly in North America. Training has become “routinized,” and analysis itself has become distorted into a process of crude social adaptation. There is much here to agree with. Yet two questions must be raised. Has Lacan devised a more effective method of training analysts? And, would one expect this from his writings?

Neither question gets a favorable answer. All reports of his training methods, over which he has now brought three distinct secessions within the French psychoanalytic movement, are horrifying.13 It is now, I am told, possible to become a Lacanian analyst after a very few months of Lacanian analysis. And what pedagogic contribution could we expect from a form of prose that has two salient characteristics: it exhibits the application of theory to particular cases as quite arbitrary, and it forces the adherents it gains into pastiche.14 Lacan’s ideas and Lacan’s style, yoked in an indissoluble union, represent an invasive tyranny. And it is by a hideous irony that this tyranny should find its recruits among groups that have nothing in common except the sense that they lack a theory worthy of their cause or calling: feminists, cinéastes, professors of literature.

Lacan himself offers several justifications for his obscurity, about which he has no false modesty. At times he says that he is the voice, the messenger, the porte-parole, of the unconscious itself. Lacan’s claim stirs in my mind the retort Freud made to a similar assault upon his credulity and by someone who had learned from Lacan. “It is not the unconscious mind I look out for in your paintings,” Freud said to Salvador Dali, “it is the conscious.”

  1. 8

    The example comes from the work of an analyst working within a Lacanian framework, Maud Mannoni, The Child, his “Illness,” and the Other, translated from the French (Pantheon, 1970).

  2. 9

    This last idea has nothing to do with Freud and derives from Hegel. This is no mere textual point. For what it means is that Lacan effects a drastic revision of the theory of the instincts and solely to comport with metaphysical considerations. The revision, with its new emphasis upon a primitive assertiveness, moves Lacan in the direction of Adler.

  3. 10

    A remarkable failure in this respect is the otherwise lucid Eugen S. Bär, “Understanding Lacan,” Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Science, Vol. III, edited by Leo Goldberger and Victor H. Rosen (International Universities Press, 1974).

  4. 11

    The view that natural languages have certain rules or messages written into them is, with Lacan as with Lévi-Strauss, often falsely derived from the fact that these natural languages contain the appropriate classifications for setting out these rules. So languages are said to contain incest prohibitions because they contain kindred categories. The erroneous assimilation of classificatory systems to natural languages—a favorite “structuralist” tactic—has been pertinently criticized by Noam Chomsky, e.g., his Language and Mind (Harcourt Brace & World, 1968).

  5. 12

    A good question to be asked is, Why the phallus? Given the nature of these phantasies, given also Lacan’s expressed admiration for the work of Melanie Klein, why does not Lacan think of phallic phantasies as later reworkings of phantasies about the nipple? Lacan’s reasoning here is that it is the phallus that dominates the mother’s phantasies of merging with the child, and even at this very early stage the infant’s desire must be understood, along the lines discussed above, through the mother’s desire, which it tries to appropriate. Subtract the Hegelianism from all this, and there remains an interesting psychological idea. It is that psychosexuality is something that is partly learned. The idea also appears in the work of two English psychoanalysts, Donald Winnicott and Wilfred Bion, but in their work an attempt is made to explain the mechanism by which the infant imbibes the mother’s reverie, and also to illustrate it clinically. This is not Lacan’s way.

  6. 13

    Psychoanalysis, Creativity and Literature, edited by Alan Roland (Columbia University Press, 1978)—surely one of the most ill-assorted books ever to appear between covers—contains an article by Sherry Turkle, “French Psychoanalysis: A Sociological Perspective,” which gives some fairly up-to-date information about Lacan’s current practice. This account has now been amplified in Sherry Turkle, Psychoanalytic Politics (Basic Books, 1978).

  7. 14

    According to Turkle, it is the official editorial policy of Scilicet, the organ of Lacan’s Ecole Freudienne, that Lacan’s articles are signed and all others appear anonymously.

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