Judith Feher Guervich
Other Voices, v.1, n.3 (January 1999)
Copyright © 1999, Judith Feher Guervich, all rights reserved
The following is a partial transcription of public lecture given at the Kelly Writers House as part of the series Theorizing in Particular: Approaches to Cultural Interpretation on January 19th, 1999. We have left untranscribed that portion of the talk which contained privileged clinical information.
Lacan's contribution to psychoanalysis is usually perceived in the United States as having associated Freud's discovery of the unconscious with the field of structural linguistics. The distinction between the signifier and the signified, along with aphorisms such as "the unconscious is structured like a language" or "the unconscious is the discourse of the Other," often give the impression that Lacan has reduced the workings of psychic life to linguistic laws that bear little connection to the actual experience of the individual.
Lacan's return to Freud, however, does not merely formalize Freud's work; it actually attempts, like many other psychoanalytic schoolsto move beyond Freud. But Lacan's strategy differs from other approaches. Instead of criticizing Freud's concepts, he prefers to find in Freud's own writings the necessary elements that can, as it were, set Freud against himself.
Lacan's main concern was to give coherence to the most radical and controversial ideas of Freud's discovery, such as the concept of castration, the death drive, and the riddle of femininity. He was also very interested in discovering why Freud was unable to bring the psychoanalytic treatment to a close. Lacan approached these difficult questions in Freud through two concepts that were not specifically elaborated by Freud's himself, the desire of the Other and the jouissance of the Other.
The present paper, will try to show through these two concepts how Lacan offers a reading of Freud's Oedipal complex which resolves to a certain extent the gap between the one body psychology and the two bodies psychology .
Let's note right away that the term jouissance cannot be easily translated by enjoyment. Jouissance is a legal termin latin usufructusreferring to the right to enjoy the use of a thing, as opposed to owning it. The jouissance of the Other, therefore, refers to the subject's experience of being for the Other an object of enjoyment, of use or abuse, in contrast to being the object of the Other's desire . The experience of being perceived as an object of desire implies that the individual can figure out what it is about him or her that can be attractive to the Other. The desire of the Other in that sense offers the subject clues to what it would take to behave or to be what the Other wants. In contrast, the experience of being the object of the Other's jouissance conveys a sense of frightening mystery: What is going to become of me? What does the Other want from me?, etc. This is a situation in which the subject is clueless. The Other appears as enigmatic, as able to threaten the very core of the subject's being.. The goal of psychoanalysis therefore consists in demystifying the Other in its all-powerful and threatening incarnation. (The Other with a capital O refers primarily to the image the child has of its caretakersmother and fatherbefore the child realizes that such an Other is barred, i.e., the Other does not have the power to determine the fate of the subject. The Other of the child, like all human subjects, is above all a speaking being, that is, he or she is submitted to the rules and regulations that make society possible.)
Through his concepts of jouissance and desire, Lacan reworks Freud's stages of development and his drive theory into a system dominated by the idea that the Other is instrumental in the production of subjectivity. In other words, the realm of fantasy is not the effect of "anatomy is destiny"; rather, the realm of fantasy is determined by the way the child situates himself in relation to the jouissance and the desire of the Other.
How do the desire of the Other and the jouissance of the Other come into being? How are they the effects of psychic development? ...
The birth of the subject's desire can be traced back to what Lacan calls the experience of the mirror stage. The mirror stage can be viewed as a structural moment in the psychic development of the child when he or she encounters in the mother's gaze the image that will shape the child's ego ideal. In other words, the mirror stage inaugurates for the child the moment of experiencing that he or she is the object of his mother's desire and love. Yet the experience of the child as the apple of the mother's eye, as the exclusive object of the mother's desire, of course presupposes that the mother is a desiring being, in other words, that she wants something that she does not have. The experience of being the object of the Other's desire of course implies that the subject registers that he could also fail to occupy that position. In Lacanian terms, this translates as: the child must come to grips with the fact that the mother is lacking, and that something or someone is able to fill that lack. This is why Lacan says that castration is the ability to recognize the lack in the (m)Other. The mirror stage, in that sense, differs from Winnicott's idea of mirroring. The mirror stage includes three agents, not two. The child views himself as the object of his mother's desire and through her loving gaze is able to identify with the perception of himself that he imputes to his mother. Yet such a recognition depends on a mother who conveys to her child the sense that her desire exceeds the pleasure that she derives from the sight of her baby. In other words, the child must "work" to capture his or her mother's attention. Yet such a seductive strategy requires that the child has figured out to a certain extent what it is that the mother lacks. What is the nature of her desire? Where does she go to get what she wants?
This does not mean, of course, that the mother lacks a penis, but rather, as Freud noted in his last essay on femininity, that she lacks the phallus, that she lacks that which could bring her fulfillment. Lacan reads Freud differently from other schools that continue to insist that Freud equates penis and phallus. For Lacan, the phallus, at least at the level of the mirror stage, represents for the child the signifier of the mother's desire, that means the object of her desire. It is important to reiterate that castration for Lacan refers to the child's ability to recognize that there is a space between him and his mother. In order to try to occupy that spaceto be the phallus of the motherhe must recognize that his mother has a desire, in other words, that she is not self sufficient.
However, If the mother's desire cannot view her child as a separate being whom she can admire, love, and desire, the child will instead encounter the mother's jouissance, that is, a realm of enjoyment that is not symbolized, something akin to Melanie Klein's definition of the maternal super-ego or Kohut's selfobject.
The child's exposure to the mother's jouissance is a necessary part of oedipal dynamics It is extremely important to realize that jouissance belongs to a different register from that of desire. As long as the child views himself in his mother's gaze as the exclusive object of her desire, he is spared the experience of her jouissance. It is only when he comes to realize that the mother wants something the child does not have that the threat of her jouissance will become real, that the child will be forced to change position. It is at that crossroads that the child's status as an object of desire will be jeopardized, and the sense of unity that he derived from his mother's gaze will give way to a fear of being devoured by the Other's incomprehensible demand. This fundamental anguish will force the child to find a solution to this frightening situation. If she is not the exclusive object of her mother's desire she may risk becoming the object of the m(Other)'s jouissance. The child will be led to wonder, "What does she want from me?" "What can I do or be to satisfy her desire?" "Is there something or someone else that can answer her enigmatic demand?" In other words, the anxiety created in the child by the jouissance of the mother triggers in the child the necessity to find a solution to what feels like a threat to her or his existence. The solution to this frightening riddle is precisely where Lacan situates castration, that is, the moment when the child is able to give a "translation" of the mother's incomprehensible demand: "there is something or someone other than me that she wants, and so I have to accept that I must relinquish the position of being the exclusive object of her desire."
It is at this crossroads between the jouissance of the Other and the desire of the Other that Lacan situates the introduction of the prohibition of incest. The prohibition of incest is perceived by Lacan as the child's ability to identify with the clues, the "signifiers," the signposts of the mother's desire for somebody else that can lead the child to a safer harbor usually provided by the desire and interests of the father. We can see here how Lacan rejoins Freud's oedipal dynamics by taking another route: The child is not forced to leave the mother and her jouissance; rather, he or she is led towards the paternal realm thanks to the mother's directives. Lacan adds to the Freudian apparatus a dimension that creates a bridge between Freud and Klein. The signifiers of the mother's desire save the child from her jouissance. In that sense, the real person of the father can only function as a limit to the mother's jouissance under the condition that he is desired by his wife (lover, etc.). Again, the signifiers of the mother's desire therefore provide a limit to the mother's jouissance in the sense that they will propel the child towards new poles of identificationusually provided by the fatherthrough which the ego ideal will be constituted.
If, however, the mother's desire encounters some vicissitudes and the mirror stage is obscured by the mother's jouissance, the child will need to find alternative mechanisms to fend off a maternal demand that resists any form of symbolization. Therefore, if the child encounters in the mother's gaze an excess of jouissance, she or he will be reluctant to leave the maternal realm. The image that is being sent back will not sufficiently reflect the sense that the child stands as a love object, that is, as an entity separate from the mother. The mother's desire for the father, for example, may not be sufficient to separate the mother-child symbiosis, so that the excess of maternal jouissance will return as the jouissance of the Other through the injunction of the super-ego, that is, as a punitive and arbitrary force that the child cannot make sense of. (This is why Lacan emphasizes the distinction between the punitive dimension of the super-ego and the protective aspects of the ego ideal.) For examplethe child will experience an excess of anxiety for failing to be what could adequately please his mother. The child is "not good enough" not because he is not as good as his fatherthe realm of the mother's desirebut because nothing seems to please her, or because she is too depressed to enjoy any form of pleasure.
I am speaking here, of course, of neurosis only. In psychosis the jouissance of the Other completely prevents the law of the prohibition of incest from becoming operative. In other words, Lacan understands psychosis as the child's inability to escape or set a limit to the mother's jouissance.
It is at this point that Lacan's usage of structural linguistic becomes meaningful. At the risk of being reductive, let's simply say that Lacan reverses our intuitive assumption about the relation between the word and the thing. It is not that the thing is waiting for a word to represent it; rather it is the word that creates the thing. Language in some fashion precedes the world it represents. When Lacan says that "the unconscious is structured like a language," this means, among other things, that the unconscious is not the repository of the drives, or the storage room for the "thing-representations." The unconscious does not have a fixed content.
In that sense, Lacan transforms Freud's understanding of primary repression. What is being repressed is not the forbidden oedipal yearning but rather the signifiers that mark the psychic separation from the maternal realm. These signifiers in turn don't have a fixed meaning; they slide according to the rules of metonymy and metaphor that Lacan compares to the processes at work in dreams, namely, condensation and displacement. The unconscious therefore evokes through a process of chain reaction the very experiences that allowed the subject to be cut off from the jouissance of the Other. For Lacan this cut is castration. The subject, then, is born into the world of signifiers at the moment when the jouissance of the Other becomes translated into the desire of the Other. As Lacan says, "Castration means that jouissance must be refused, so that it can be reached on the inverted ladder . . . of the Law of desire" (Ecrits. A Selection. New York: Norton, 1977, p.324). Here we begin to see that Lacan's castration and Freud's super-ego part company. This transformation from jouissance to desire does not involve, as it does for Freud, a paternal injunction that forces underground the incestuous or oedipal fantasy. It is rather that the oedipal fantasy is created as an effect of symbolic castration.
In other words, the unconscious signifiers that unwittingly inform our existence constitute the proof that we are desiring subjects, that we have been saved from the grip of maternal jouissance. Yet, because these signifiers evoke separation rather than fusion, our psychic economy, which remains dependent on the rewards of the mirror stagebeing the exclusive object of the Other's desireclings to a fantasy that necessarily ignores the enabling function of castration.
This is where Lacan brings an interesting twist to Freudian theory. The fantasy of incest is not the cause of primary repression. It is rather that the fantasy of incest is produced after the formation of the unconscious. The signifiers of the desire of the other that constitute the chain reaction at work in the unconscious represent the desire of the mother for something, or someone, other than the child, and, ultimately it is with the help of these signifiers that the child will fabricate a fantasy of what could bring fulfillment to the mother. It is from the standpoint of the desire of the Other that we constitute a fantasy of what could bring fulfillment to the Other. In turn we expect that if we bring fulfillment to the other we can (re)capture the sense that we are the exclusive and unconditional object of the Other's desire. It is in this sense that the incestuous fantasy becomes a secondary formation. In order for us to have this fantasy, castration must necessarily have already occurred. The oedipal fantasy requires that we have access to the signifiers of the desire of the Other in order to foment a fantasmatic strategy that makes us the "ideal ego" for the Other. Because the jouissance of the Other is necessarily out of reach, the distance that separates us from it enables us to invent a fantasy that permanently fuels our desire. Yet if we could access this jouissance, our very existence as subject would be jeopardized. It is as if we were thinking, at the level of the unconscious, not with our own words but with the words of the Other. This is why Lacan can say that the unconscious is "the discourse of the Other" and that "the desire of the subject is the desire of the Other".
The way Lacan conceptualizes the subject's wish to recapture the incestuous fantasy whose loss has enabled desire to be born thus gives Freud's notion of castration anxiety and penis envy a whole new meaning.
Castration, for Lacan, is not a fear that is carried over by the super-ego after the dissolution of the oedipal complex. Castration assures the birth of the subject, whose desire is constituted by the signifiers of the desire of the Other. Thus castration is not a threat that awaits the subject. It has, in fact, already occurred, and castration anxiety and penis envy no longer need to be perceived as the psychological strata that led Freud to reach "bedrock".
The injunction of the super-ego and the fantasy that it condemns are both psychic inventions that attempt to deny the threat posed to the subject by the jouissance of the Other. Since the oedipal fantasy is experienced as a transgression, the need to keep it alive exposes the subject to the threat that comes from the super-ego. Castration anxiety and penis envy are therefore neurotic constructions that attempt to keep at arm's length a demand for a pound of flesh that the subject refuses to deliver. In order to keep the fantasy alive, the subject will evoke the super-ego, under the guise of a frightening imaginary father, so that the fear of transgression can offer a guarantee of a beyond where dreams can be fulfilled.
What Lacan offers psychoanalysis, therefore, is an understanding of how the subject has been misled to believe that the object of his desire is in the hands of an all-powerful Other who's arbitrary law forbids access to it. This is why the subject will devise the most elaborate neurotic scenarios to lure this Other, to defend against it, or even to claim responsibility and guilt so that the fantasy can remain intact.
The process of psychoanalysis consists in coming to realize that the Other
whose jouissance we both fear and envy, is in fact within us, yet not as
all-powerful or malevolent, but simply as traces, as a legacy of the marks of
psychic separation from the primordial others of our childhood. This legacy
that we encounter through the analytic process is precisely what Lacan calls
castration. Therefore the process of revisiting a castration that has been
there from the start enables us to realize that the fantasy that leads us to
fear the retaliation of the law was merely an artifact that is ultimately
devoid of meaning.