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Love of Knowledge and the Agalma

Lacan (used to sparring match between Socrates and Alcibiades at the end of the Symposium to delineate the function of the agalma within the transference.[1]

Agalma is the term Alcibiades used to grasp the hidden, yet fascinating object he believed to be enclosed in the depths of Socrates’ hideous body.

A mysterious gem whose preciousness he had savoured as a young man during a privileged moment of revelation, the agalma had sparked Alcibiades’ infatuation with Socrates and served to justify his eulogy of Socrates’ attractiveness.

In Seminar VIII Lacan surmised that the part played by the agalma in the emergence of transference must be at least as important as that of the supposed knowledge, yet his subsequent invocations of the topic were rather disappointing.

Apart from a small, yet valuable gloss in his ‘Proposition of 9 October 1967 on the Psychoanalyst of the School’ (1995b [1967]:7), references were often limited to simple mentions of the term.

It is tempting to argue that Lacan gradually replaced the agalma with his own concept of the object a, so that each passage on the function of the object a in the transference would contain an implicit reference to the agalma.

the equation of the agalma and the object a makes it extremely difficult to comprehend some of Lacan’s later statements on the position of the analyst in the treatment.

For if agalma (as the mysterious object triggering love) equals the object a and the analyst is held to occupy the position of object a in the analytic discourse, how can the transference ever be analysed?

The conflation of the agalma and the object a also gives rise to a confusion of love and desire in Lacan’s work, since the object a is traditionally defined as the object cause of desire.

Lacan himself to some degree contributed to this confusion by using love and desire as interchangeable terms in Seminar VIII, and by elucidating the metaphor of love in his two subsequent Seminars as a substitution of the desiring (le désirant) for the desirable (le désiré).

However, from the mid-1960s he charted love and desire as two separate experiences on whose distinction the entire progress of psychoanalytic treatment depends.

The promotion of desire as the analyst’s lever to overturn the analysand’s love in Seminar XI (1977b[1964]:235) can exemplify this.

Hence the agalma of love does not equal the object a of desire, because like the supposed subject of knowing the agalma relates to the analysand’s perception of the Other as a perfect being, containing the precious jewels of happiness and salvation, whereas the object a is strictly situated within the dimension of semblance.

Whereas the agalma represents the ideal stone of wisdom, the object a is but a partial, replaceable commodity.


This conjures up the analyst's relation to the partial object -- identified as 'petit a,' or agalma in reference to the Symposium -- which, in turn, leads to his/her stance vis-a-vis the drive.


Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre VIII. Le transfert, 1960-61. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991.

  • Le Séminaire, Livre VIII, Le transfert, o.c., pp. 163-178.
  • 1960-1. p.163-195