Introducing Lacan

From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis
Jump to: navigation, search

Born on 13 April 1901, Jacques Marie Émile Lacan was the first child of Charles Marie Alfred Lacan and Émilie Philippine Marie Baudry. Alfred Lacan was the Paris sales representative of a large provincial firm. The family lived in comfortable conditions in the Boulevard du Beaumarchais before moving to the Montparnasse area where Jacques entered the prestigious Catholic school, the Collège Stanislas.


An outstanding pupil, he excelled in religious studies and Latin. As a teenager, Jacques Lacan developed a passion for philosophy, adorning the walls of his bedroom with a plan of the structure of Spinoza's Ethics, a text which would always remain dear to him and which he would quote at the start of his doctoral dissertation in medicine.

The Surrealist Movement

Lacan took up the study of medicine in 1920 and specialized in psychiatry from 1926. During this period, he was active in the busy Parisian world of the writers, artists and intellectuals who made up the surrealist movement.

He frequented Adirenne Monnier's booshop on the Left Bank, along with the likes of André Gide and Paul Claudel and, at the age of seventeen, met James Joyce.

A friend of André Breton and Salvador Dali, he was to become Picasso's personal physician and a contributor to several Surrealist publications from the early 1930s.

(Three years later he was present at he first public reading of Joyce's Ulysses in the legendary bookshop, Shakespeare & Co.)

Beginnings in Psychiatry

His internship at St-Anne hospital, starting in 1926, and at the Infirmerie Spéciale des Aliénés de la Préfecture de Police, in 1928, gave Lacan a particular interest in the study of paranoia.

Later he would say that "My only real master in psychiatry was Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault."

Lacan singled out his concept of "mental automatism". This brought together many seemingly disparate phnomena of madness under the common motif of something being imposed from 'outside': the echo of thoughts or a commentary on one's actions, for example.

The form of a particular psychosis would then be determined by how one made sense of these elements which lacked an initial content. Lacan would say that this concept was the closest that contemporary French psychiatry got to a structural analysis, with its emphasis on the imposition of formal elements beyond the "conscious" control of the subject.


In 1932, Lacan completed his doctoral thesis on paranoia, Paranoid Psychosis and its Relation to the Personality, a study which had a great influence on many of the Surrealists.

The Case of Aimée

The thesis contains a detailed analysis of a woman, named Aimée after the heroine of one of her unpublished novels, who had attempted to stab a well-known Parisian acctress, Huguette Duflos. The case was widely reported in the press at the time, and Lacan tried gradually to piece together the logic behind her apparently irrational act. His thesis introduced a new concept into the psychiatric milieu, that of "self-punishment paranoia". Lacan argued that, in striking the actress, Aimée was in fact striking herself: Duflos represented a woman with freedom and social prestige, exactly the sort of woman that Aimée aspired to become.

In her ideas of persecution, it was this figure that she saw as the source of threats to her and her young son. The ideal image was thus both the object of her hate and of her aspiration. Lacan was especially interested here in this complex relation to images and the ideas of identity to be found in paranoia. In her subsequent arrest and confinement, she found the punishment which was a real source of the act itself. She understood, at a certain level, that she was herself the object of punishment.

Lacan's analysis of the case shows many of the features which would later become central to his work: narcissism, the image, the ideal, and how the personality could extend beyond the limits of the body and be constituted within a complex social network. The actress represented a part of Aimée herself, indicating how the identity of a human being could include elements well outside the biological boundaries of the body. In a sense, Aimée's identity was literally outside of herself.


Around the time that Lacan completed his thesis, he began his analysis with Rudolph Loewenstein, which continued until 1938. Loewenstein had been analyzed by Freud's student Hans Sachs.

Studies in Philosophy

Instead of confining himself to the standard texts in psychiatry and psychoanalysis, Lacan read widely, with a special interest in the philosophical work of Karl Jaspers, G.W.F. Hegel and Martin Heidegger. He attended the seminars on Hegel given by Alexandre Kojève together with many of the thinkers who would leave their mark on French intellectual life, Georges Bataille, Raymond Aron, Pierre Klossowski and Raymond Queneau.


In 1934, Lacan married Marie-Louise Blondin, the sister of his friend the surgeon Sylvain Blondin. Three children were born from this marriage, Caroline in |1934, Thibaut in 1939 and Sibylle in 1940.

The Marienbad Congress

Lacan made his first intervention at the annual Congress of the International Psychoanalytical Association, held at Marienbad, in 1936. He developed the thesis of the "mirror phase." The original text of this paper is lost, but the brilliant article on the family which Lacan contributed to the Encyclopédie Française in 1938, together with a later version of the paper, presents the argument clearly.

Theory of the Mirror Phase

Humans are born prematurely. Left to themselves, they would probably die. They are always born too early. They can't walk or talk at birth: they have a very partial mastery of their motor functions and, at the biological level, they are hardly complete. The infant can't pick things up or move towards or away from things. So how does the child come to master its relation to its body? How does it respond to its "prematuration"?

... and Mimicry

Lacan's answer is in the theory of the mirror phase. He draws our attention, in later texts, to an enthological curiosity, known as "mimicry." Certain beasts have the habit of assuming the insignia and coloring of their surroundings. Hence a stick insect may choose to look like a stick. The obvious explanation for this phenomenon is that it protects the animal against predators. But what many investigators found was that those animals which assumed an image or disguise were just as likely to be eaten as those which didn't.

The US government had commissioned a survey in the early 1930s involving the rather macabre task of examining the stomaches of some 60,000 Neartic birds to confirm this diagnosis by counting the insects which had been swallowed. The ones which had disguised themselves were no less frequent than their most honest companions. So if evolutionary biology cannot provide an answer to the question of mimetism with the idea of protection from predators, how can it be explained?

Roger Caillois, a French thinker fascinated with the theme of masks, games and the relation of the human to the animal kingdom, argued that there was a sort of natural law whereby organisms become captured in their environment. They will thus take on the coloring, for example, of the space around them.

Captured in an Image

Lacan developed this thesis in his work on the mirror phase, combining it with observations from child psychology and social theory and argued for a similar form of imaginary capture for the organism in an external image. (The child identifies with an image outside himself, be it an actual mirror image or simlply the image of another child. The apparent completeness of this image gives the child a new mastery over the body.)

In the 1938 encyclopedia article, this idea is used to give a brilliant explanation of the inexplicable swings in a child's behavior from the tyrannical or seductive attitude to its opposite. Rather than linking this to a conflict between two individuals, the child and the spectator in this instance, Lacan argues that it derives from a conflict internal to each of them, resulting from an identification with the other party. This is an organizing principle of development rather than a single moment in childhood. (If I have identified with an image outside myself, I can do things I couldn't do before.)

The Imaginary

Mastery of one's motor functions and an entry into the human world of space and movement is thus at the prince of a fundamental alienation. Lacan calls the register in which this identification takes place "the imaginary", emphasizing the importance of the visual field and the specular relation which underlies the child's captivation in the image.

Ego and alienation

Lacan shows how this alienation in the image corresponds with the ego: the ego is constituted by an alienating identification, based on an initial lack of completeness in the body and nervous system.

Lacan's thesis provided a response to the question posed by Freud in his famous 1914 paper on Narcissism. If the ego is the seat of narcissism and if narcissism does not exist from the start of life, what must happen for narcissism to emerge? Some "new psychical action" must take place to constitute the ego, but Freud didn't say what it was. With the mirror phase, Lacan had found an answer.

Negative Hallucination

If the ego seems whole and complete, beyond it is only the fragmented, uncoordinated state of the body.

Freud had been intrigued by the phenomenon known as negative hallucination. Subjects would be hypnotized and informed, for example, that there was no furniture in the room. Then they would be requested to fetch something from the far corner of the same room.

If asked why they didn't walk straight to that corner, but instead took a carefully plotted route — precisely to avoid the furniture — they replied with false statements.

The Falsifying Ego

In other words, rationalizations of the hypnotized persons' actions were produced which had the function of glossing over the true state of affairs. Whereas other commentators had drawn attention to this "falsifying character of the ego" in the isolated context of negative hallucination, Freud and Lacan saw it as the basic characteristic of the ego at all times.

As with the ego of the mirror phase, its task is to maintain a false appearance of coherence and completeness. Thus analysis must be mistrustful and subversive of material which stems from the ego domain.) Any theory of psychoanalysis which involved the idea of the analyst making an alliance or pact with the patient's ego was thus fundamentally ill-starred. It could only result in a mutual deception.

In this early part of Lacan's work, the human subject oscillates between two poles: the image, which is alienating, and the real body, which is in pieces. In his work of the 1930s and early 1940s, Lacan often attempts to show the presence of these images of the fragmented body beneath the classic psychoanalytic complexes.

(The phantasy of fragmentation may be found beneath the more celebrated phantasy of castration. (He developed the thesis that "in paranoia we can witness a sort of decomposition" which illustrates clearly the stages in the "normal" constitution of the image and of reality as such.

The Construction of the Ego

For example, the motifs of mirrored images, telepathic communication, observation and external persecution so common in paranoia may be understood as fundamental building blocks in the constitution of the ego. If the ego is constructed on an image outside ourselves, if our identity if given in an alienation.... (The truth of the ego emerges precisely in madness where the world seems to dissolve and the difference between self and other is radically put in question.)

In our day-to-day relationship with other people, we are unaware of these criteria, even if many works of art, notably those of Dali, try to capture this idea. (Lacan was thus led to the theory that human knowledge is in its very essence paranoiac.)

It is in paranoia that we can see so clearly the components, the steps which go to make up the relation to the world which madness can remind us of.

(Although Lacan's theory of the image at this date is often explained in terms of the influence of surrealism, it owes much more to certain currents in French psychiatry such as the work of Joseph Capgras and those psychiatric thinkers interested in problems of recognition, doubling and the image. Lacan often returned to the notion of the mirror phase to reformulate it during his teaching. It never stayed static. There is no one theory of the mirror phase in Lacan's work, but several.)

In the Second World War

With the German Occupation of France, Lacan was called up to serve in the French army and then posted to the Val-de-Grâce military hospital in Paris. A relationship began between Lacan and Sylvia Bataille (née Maklèes), whom he was later to marry. She was the wife of the writer and theorist Georges Bataille, although the two had been separated since 1933. She was well known for her roles in the films of Jean Renoir, the most famous of these perhaps being the heroine in Une Partie de Campagne. During the Occupation, Lacan made frequent trips from Paris to the South of France to see her, and in 1941 their daughter Judith was born.

Lacan took the decision not to publish anything during the war years. In 1945, after the war had ended, he visited England for a five-week study trip, described in the article "English Psychiatry and the War" (1947). He had a special admiration, he said, for the English during the war, and he reviewed the work of Wilfred Bion and John Rickman whom he had met during his stay. (They tried to use psychoanalytic ideas in the rehabilitation of army misfits).

Lacan was especially interested in their work with small groups. Rather than being organized around the presence of an authority figure with whom they were supposed to identify, these groups were centered on activities. (A group forms round a task or activity, indicating a different sort of identificatory process.) This sensitivity to problems of identification was praised by Lacan and he claimed that Britain's success in the war was in no small part a consequence of introducing such ideas to the military.

Return to Freud

From 1951, Lacan held a weekly seminar in which he urged what he called a return to Freud. (He advocated a careful rereading, focusing on the constant reference to language and its functions in Freud's work.) The Interpretation of Dreams, the Project of 1895, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life and Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious all deal with operations which are fundamentally of a linguistic nature, from associations between words to the very structure of symptoms themselves.

Freud had already spoken of "symptoms joining in the conversation" as early as 1895. (A patient might have sudden pains at precise moments in her speech. The pain would indicate that something had been left unsaid, showing how physical sensations themselves could be linguistic, sending a message to be picked up by the analyst.)

Symptoms and Speech

(Freud showed how symptoms and actions could literally be words trapped in the body. A woman who wishes to have a child jumps from an embankment, the word she uses for "jump" (niederkommen) being identical with the word meaning "be delivered of a child". A man's attraction to women with a "shine" on the nose could be traced to the verbal equivalence between the word for "shine" in German (Glanz) and the English word "glance".)

A whole neurosis could be organized by words and the relation between them. The case of the Rat Man discussed by Freud shows how a massive network of symptoms, compulsions and actions depended on the links between the words Spielratte (gambler), heiraten (to marry) and raten (instalments). Words became the very stuff of symptoms, the fabric of the life and torment of human beings.

Signifiers and Signified

Crucial to Lacan's programme of a return to Freud is the distinction between signifier and signified. According to a well-known definition, a a signifier is an acoustic image ( like a word, a signified is a concept. The signified has a kind of priority and we use signifiers to gain access to signifieds: or, put more simply, to say what we mean. A word gives us access to a meaning. The passage from word to meaning seems simple enough. We can ask for some object, the listener will understand our meaning and respond with the object. Language is thus all about communicating with each other. We use words to convey meanings and intentions.

But Lacan saw things differently. Rather than supposing a transparency between signifier and signified, an easy access from word to meaning, he claimed there was a real barrier, a resistance. (A word does not reveal its meaning so simply. Rather, it leads on to other words in a linguistic chain, just like one meaning itself leads to others.)

(The Rat Man's raten does not point to the meaning "instalments" but to other linguistic elements like heiraten and Spielratte, even though he might not have been aware of these links at all. The group of meanings is organized by the links between the words. There is thus a priority of the signifier, of the material, verbal element in psychic life.)

The Symbolic

From the start of the 1950s, Lacan stressed more and more in his work the power and organizing principle of the symbolic, understood as the networks, social, cultural, linguistic, into which a child is born. These preced the birth of a child, which is why Lacan can say that language is there from before the actual moment of birth. It is there in the social structures which are at play in the family and, of course, in the ideals, goals and histories of the parents. Even before a child is born, the parents have talked about him or her, chosen a name, mapped out his or her future. This world of language can hardly be grasped by the newborn and yet it will act on the whole of the child's existence.

This idea has obvious conseuqneces for the theory of the mirror phase. If Lacan had first stressed the imaginary identification, he now discussed its symbolic side. If the child is captured in an image, he or she will still assume signifiers from the speech of the parents as elements of identification. (As a mother raises the baby to see its reflection, she might say, "you've got grandma's eyes" or "you look just like your father." These are symbolic pronouncements since they situated the child in a lineage, in a symbolic universe.) The baby is bound to its image by words and names, by linguistic representations. A mother who keeps telling her son "What a bad boy you are!" may end up with either a villain or a saint. The identity of the child will depend on how he or she assumes the words of the parents.

The Ideal

There is thus an identification which is beyond and in a sense prior to the identification with the image: a symbolic identification with a signifying element. (If narcissism is about one's relation to one's image, this shows how narcissism is not only imagianry but includes a symbolic dimension as well.) Lacan calls this an identification with the Ideal, a term which is not intended to suggest anything perfect or literally "ideal". This ideal is not conscious. The child does not suddently decide to put himself or herself in the shoes of some ancestor or family member. Rather, the speech which he or she hears as a child will be incorporated, forming a kernal of insignia which are unconscious. Their existence may be deduced from clinical material. Analysis reveals the central identifications, how the subject has 'become' what a parent prophesied or how he or she has repeated the mistakes of a grandparent. (The symbolic operates beyond the conscious control or understanding of the plays involved.)

The key to the theory of identification here is that symbolic identification with an ideal element removes the subject from being completely at the mercy of the imaginary images which captivate him or her. They come from another register, the symbolic, and thus serve to ground the subject, to give him a base, in this structure. (To take on a place in the symbolic world means leaving the world of the image.)

The narcissistic imaginary register which Lacan had elaborated in such detail in his early work is now shown to rest on a symbolic foundation: the relation to the image will be structured by language. (My relation with myself is constructed "from the outside." I learn who I am because others tell me.) Images are caught up in a complex symbolic web which manoeuvres them, combines them and organizes their relations.

Ego Ideal and Ideal Ego

Hence, Lacan's differentiation of ego ideal and ideal ego, two terms which we can find at some points in the work of Freud. In Lacan's formulation of 1953, the ideal ego is the iamge you assume and the ego ideal is the symbolic point which gives you a place and supplies the point from which you are looked at. If you drive a car fast, it might be because you assume the iamge of some race driver. You identify with him, and this would involve the ideal ego. But the real question is, who is it that you are identifying with this racing driver for? (Who you drive fast, who do you think is watching you?) This is the dimension of the ego ideal. CLinically, pointing out to a patient an ideal ego identification usually has little effect: to dislodge it, an appeal must be made to the symbolic dimension, to the register of the ego ideal.

Structural Linguistics

What characterizes the symbolic register here is something very particular. Thinkers influences by developments in linguistics had the idea that any structure is a linguistic one if it has the simple quality of being based on a system of differences. A word is a word because it is different from other words: "cat" has its value because it is different from "mat", "fat" and "cot", for example. It takes on its value because it is an element in a system of differences.

Thus the central property of a linguistic system is discontinuity, the existence of a series of differential elements. Discontinuity means gaps: there is a space between elements. This discontinuity is set in opposition by Lacan to the imaginary register which strives to avoid the dimension of lack or absence. This endeavor is of course inauthentic, since the imaginary itself is based on a serious and troubling form of discontinuity, the gap between the child's uncoordinated body and the envelope of the whole image which it assumes.

The Unconscious and Language

If the ego is imaginary, the unconscious for Lacan is structured like a language; that is, it is constituted by a series of chains of signifying elements. Like an infernal translating machine, it turns words into symptoms, it inscribes signifiers into the flesh or turns them into tormenting thoughts or compulsions. A symptom may be literally a word trapped in the body. Remember that all that children really know about their internal organs is what their parents tell them. The inside of their body is thus made up of words. Doctors are familiar with patients who complain of pains when a biological cause is clearly absent. This does not mean that the pain is false: it is exactly the same pain, perhaps even a greater one, as if it were caused by some real physical determinant. (I suffer from the idea that I associate with the idea of a particular organ.) To relieve the pain, the repressed ideas need to be linked to the rest of the signifying chain. They have to undergo a new translation.

Symptoms and Words

A symptom is made up of words. A metaphor involves the substitution of one element for another. This is the very structure of the symptom - one term is substituted for another, which is kept repressed. When it is connected with the rest of the chain of words, there will be an effect on the symptom.

The Variable Session

Lacan's sensitivity to discontinuity led to a radical change which he introduced into the practice of psychoanalysis. Whereas his contemporaries worked with an average 50-minute session, Lacan made the length variable. (I never know when the session is going to end....) The session is stopped on an important word or phrase, and the patient is then left to meditate on this until the next session. This technique has several advantages over the standard 50-minute session. First, it has been demonstrated that interrupted activities produce more associative material than completed ones. This capacity of interruption to generate memories and associative amterial forms one part of the rationale of the variable session. The broken sessions may evoke the broken Oedipal love relations. There is also the effort to avoid suggestion or, in everyday language, brainwashing the patient. Thus, instead of being offered a running commentary on the analytic material, the patient himself or herself is, through the breaks in the sessions, allowed to do much of the work. (Variable time is invaluable in combating many forms of resistance, such as the common one of patients' preparing their sessions in advance.) In the atmosphere of a variable session, there is a certain degree of tension - one does not know when it is going to end - and this tension serves to generate material and upset standard patterns of resistance. To understand what a variable session is about, one has to experience it, as the real experience of time which it introduces is startling, disturbing and completely unexpected. (The dimension of discontinuity and rupture introduced by the variability of the length of the sessions is thus effective in generating the most hidden material.)

Speech and Language

Lacan elaborated on his conception of the relatiosn of the imaginary and the symbolic in his famous Rome Discourse of 1953, "The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis". This paper served to dispel a common confusion between speech and language. Language, as we have just seen, is considered as an abstract structure, a formal system of differences. But speech supposes the existence of a speaker ... and a listener. If language is a structure, speech is an act, generating meaning as it is spoken and giving an identity to the speakers involved.

Saying "You are my master" gives a signification to the position of the speaker: either as the slave, or, more likely, as someone who does everything apart from accept the position of slave. Speaking thus determines one's position as speaker, it gives one a place. As a patient speaks, such significations will emerge which are unconscious. (he words I use mean more than I mean in using them. They carry meanings which are beyond his or her conscious understanding and control. As the analysis continues, the message can be sent back to the patient. (The subject receives the message in inverted form. His desire can finally become recognized.)

At this point in his work, Lacan thought that speech had a subject who strives for the recognition of his or her desire. Since speech usually has the opposite effect, that of blocking recognition, this is hardly an obvious outcome. And if recognition is seen as central to a theory of how speech works, it supposes the existence of an Other, a place from which you are heard, from which you are recognized. (The Other is thus the place of language, external to the speaker, and yet, since he or she is a speaker, internal at the same time.) To the extent that Lacan associates speech and the symbolic, it is possible for the subject to be recognized, to find some kind of identity, in the symbolic order.

The Real

To the symbolic and the imaginary, Lacan adds the category of the Real, something he reformulated at several moment in his work. In 1953, the real is simply that which isn't symbolized, which is excluded from the symbolic. As Lacan says, the real "is that which resists symbolization absolutely." He calls the real, the symbolic and the imaginary the "three registers of human reality." Thus, what we ordinarily speak of as "reality" would best be defined as an amalgam of symbolic and imaginary: imaginary to the extent that we are situated in the specular register and the ego offers us rationalizations of our actions; and symbolic to the extent that most things around us have meaning. (Everyday objects are symbolized in the sense that they mean something, they have a signification. Sometimes an object loses its meaning. I look at an everyday object as if it is mysterious and uncanny.) The real would represent precisely what is excluded from our reality, the margin of what is without meaning and which we fail to situate or explore.

The Psychoanalytic Institution

In 1953, Lacan, together with many colleagues, left the Société Parisienne de Psychanalyse (SPP) to form the new group, the Société Française de Psychanalyse (SFP). Lacan did not agree with the standardized form of practice which the SPP was doing its best to introduce.

(Nor did Lacan see eye to eye with the SPP on the question of psychoanalytic training.) Leaving the SPP to form the SFP had the consequence, unknown to Lacan and his colleagues, of depriving them of membership of the International Psychoanalytical Association, and, in the following years, a complex process of negotiation was to take place to determine the status of the new group.

In his work of the early 1950s, Lacan saw the image as the central source of resistance in psychoanalytic treatment. The ego is made up of privileged images and the task of analysis is to dissolve them. They must be integrated in speech and the symbolic network, rather than remaining stagnant and inert, blocking the dialectical progression of speech. (The initial step in analysis is to reveal not what the patient is saying, but from where they are speaking - to reveal where their imaginary alienation is situated. Understanding what someone is saying must come after this.)

When the patient says "I", the analyst should be mistrustful! "I" must be separated from the "ego". The "I" of speech might seem to refer to the person sitting in front of you, but this is not the same thing as the ego, the site of the imaginary identification. (When a patient says "I", the analyst shouldn't be fooled!) It is necessary to see from where he is speaking, perhaps the place of a sibling, a friend or a parent who has been identified with at an unconscious level.

Ego and Subject

Lacan introduced the distinction between the ego and what he called the subject. The ego is imaginary, whereas the subject is linked by Lacan to the symbolic. It is a fundamentally split or divided entity: split by the laws of language to which it is subordinate, and split to the extent that it does not know what it wants. This divided subject does not have any one representation, but emerges rather at moment of discontinuity: for example, in a slip of the tongue or a bungled action.

Examples of Neurosis: 1. The Hysteric

Neurosis itself, Lacan thinks, is a sort of question asked by the subject by means of the ego. The identification is used to ask a question. For the hysteric, the question is: What is it to be a woman?

Examples of Neurosis: 2. The Obsessional

For the obsessional, the question is: Am I alive or dead? He will spend his life never acting, but waiting. When he has a problem, he won't get on the telephone, but will brood and think interminably. His life is mortified by rituals, habits, rules. When it comes to action, he would rather that someone else act in his place, thus avoiding any real vital struggle with another living being. (Living outside myself in this way, I become a sort of living corpse.)

((Freud had linked this picture to an unconscious resolution of a problem with the father. Rather than really fighting things out, the son imagines his feature is already dead. Lacan's version focuses on the place of the ego here. The obsessional not only awaits the death of his master, but identifies with the master as already dead. Hence the mortified quality so common in obsession.)) (I live my life according to strict routines and daily rituals, avoiding any encounter with sexuality not organized by myself.)

Structural Anthropology

It is the task of analysis, Lacan argues, to indicate to the subject the place of the ego and to turn the stagnatory images which captive him into part of the associative material. Analysis thus involves the full assumption by the subject of his or her history: the images of the ego have to be integrated into this symbolic text. Analysis is thus a passage to the symbolic at this moment in Lacan's work, and he is continually elaborating his theory of this register with input from other fields, structural anthropology in particular.

Lacan's friend, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, was engaged in similar research at the time. He showed how symbolic structures which are not consciously perceived can organize and govern the workings of a society, and, indeed, the mind of the individual. Lacan was especially interested in Lévi-Strauss's use of the mathematical group, a theme which he returned to several times in his own work.

Mathematical Models

During the 1940s and 1950s many new mathematical methods had been introduced into anthropology: algebraic structures, structures of order and topologies. What interested Lacan in the early and mid 1950s was the algebraic side. An equation in mathematics could be associated with a group of permutations, and group theory is the part of mathematics which pays special attention to the properties of such groups. (Lacan had the idea that a neurosis might obey laws which could be studied in exactly the same way - that it might consist of a group of rules for permutation.)

An initial situation - such as the details of the marriage of one's parents - would be transformed into certain rules in one's own life, completely unconsciously, to generate situations - such as one's own marriage or love life - which both repeated the initial situation and transformed it in important ways. The laws of this transformation process could be given the same mathematical formalization that anthropologists like Lévi-Strauss were employing.

Lacan's contact with structural anthropology was also to result in a revision of the classical psychoanalytic theory of the Oedipus complex. Several anthropologists had noted that in certain societies the father is less the object of awe, fear and rivalry than the maternal uncle. The oedipal structure does not suppose the existence of the "typical" nuclear family, but, via the wife - giving maternal uncle, it involves the whole tribe or clan. The sociologist Marcel Mauss had elaborated the idea that society is constituted and held together by a perpetual cycle of exchange of gifts both within and between generations. (Gifts of property, goods and even people are what gives the symbolic texture to society.) The givint itself rather than what you give is the key factor. It is symbolic.

The Name of the Father

Now, from these theories, it follows that a marriage will serve to cement relations in the community and will make of the man and woman involved mere players in a larger symbolic organization. A marriage involves a whole community and not just the immediate relatives and parents. The man and woman thus become part of a symbolic chain. The real, biological father is thus to be distinguished from the symbolic structures which organize the relation of man to woman. Paternity has a symbolic side to it, and Lacan called this agency of paternity the name of the father. It is not a real person but a symbolic function.

This should not be confused, as it often is, with the real name of the father. It is merely a term to designate the symbolic side of paternity as opposed to its real nature, reduced in the modern world to sperm. A woman can become pregnant today without having had sexual intercourse with a man: artificial insemination is made possible by science, a fact which still illustrates the Lacanian distinction between real and symbolic agencies.

The Phallus

Now, Lacan argues that the Oedipus complex will result in the child's entering the symbolic circuit and moving away from the immediate relation with the mother. This relation, however, is not a dual one. It does not involve simply mother and child. (There are three terms present: the mother, the child and the object of the mother's desire - what Lacan calls "the phallus".) (However much the mother loves her child, there will always be some margin, something to indicate to her child that what she desires is beyond it. The child realizes that he or she is not identical with what his or her mother desires.) Once this triangular structure is established, the child can try, with the many games of seduction that children are so good at, to become this third term, the object of the mother's desire. It is an attempt to be the phallus for the mother, to incarnate the phallus in whatever form is particular to the individuals in question.

The Symbolic Network

Lacan argues that this imaginary object of the child's games must be transported to the symbolic level. The images which the child uses to entice the mother must be given up, marked with the sign of prohibition. Now, this is where the anthropological stress on the role of giving in society becomes so important. (If the symbolic network of a community is constituted by the exchange of gifts... and if the imaginary object of the child's games with the mother can be linked to this circuit, then the child will be able to leave the initial triangular regulation with the mother.)

He or she will be able to leave the universe of the mother to take on a place in the larger universe of the symbolic world. The imaginary object must take on the value of a gift, and hence the crucial time of the Oedipus complex will involve establishing this new signification. The phallus will be the object promised to the child for use in the future, it will become the object of a pact. (Some day, this will all be yours...) This promise supposes, of course, that what will be returned in the future has been taken away first. Assuming a sexual position thus supposes an initial loss or subtraction. Lacan's theory of the Oedipus complex will be reformulated later on his his work, as we shall see.

Is Lacan a Structuralist?

By the late 1950s, Lacan's work shifts its focus from the problem of speech to the problem of language. Speech is an act, involving subject and other. Language, however, is a structure: as such, it does not supposed a subject. There is nothing human about a language, if it is seen as a formal system of differences and distinguished clearly from speech. (The problem is exactly this. If language is an abstract structure, what kind of subject can be conceived for it? How does the human find a place in a structure which is intrinsically alien to it?)

Lacan is thus hardly a structuralist. Structuralism aimed to do away with the subject and the notion of subjective agency, putting in its place the autonomy of linguistic structures. As Jacques-Alain Miller has pointed out, although Lacan shares this conception of the autonomy of the symbolic, he is deeply concerned at the same time, to find a place for the subject here.

((Try writing a small ad. What you write is different from you. It may represent you, but in being represented, you have to confront the fact that words are not there to help you. They have no been designed for you, and yet you have to find your way around in the world of language in order to survive. (Words represent me, but are not for me...))) There is thus a new theory of alienation in Lacan. The early work referred to alienation in the register of the image, and now alienation is situated in the register of language. If speech was first seen as giving the subject some sort of identity, now language has the role of blocking identity. This is the difference between Lacan's conception of language in 1953 and that of 1958: the subject is no longer recognized but abolished.

Loss and Language

From early childhood, you have to use speech to express your needs. But the minute you use words to express something, you are in another register. (If you need water, asking for it changes things. The water matters less than whether my mother gives it to me. In other words, how the mother manifests her love.) The object of need becomes pulverized by the dimension of language: what matters now is not the object (the water) but the sign of love. Speaking thus introduces a particular form of loss into the world. To speak is to make the object vanish, since one is speaking to someone else. The object of need becomes eclipsed in the demand.


Demand is ultimately a demand for love, and, for this reason, unsatiable. If someone asks you if you love them and you say yes, that will not step them from asking you again and again and again. The impossibility of really proving one's love once and for all is well known. Hence demand is a continuing spiral. But Lacan adds something more. To need and demand, he adds the register of desire. Desire take sup what has been eclipsed at the level of need (the dimension represented by the mythical water) and introduces an absolute condition in opposition to the absolutely unconditional nature of demand. (We can see this in cases where human desire literally has an absolute condition, in fetishism. I can only reach sexual enjoyment when a particular object or trait is present in my partner, like a ribbon or a certain pair of boots.) Enjoyment is determined strictly by the present of this element.

And Lack...

Although the example of fetishism is an extreme one, Lacan shows that it is at the horizon of all desire for the man. A man's choice of partner will always contain some reference to inhumane details: the color of the partner's hair, her eyes, etc. There is nothing "human" about such abstract features. Desire is thus linked to condition in contrast to the register of demand. (Part of the work of analysis is to try to tease out the subject's desire from his incessant demands. The neurotic is someone who privileges demand, who hides his desire beneath the imposing presence of demand.)

If demand is demand for an object, desire has nothing as its object: nothing in the sense of "lack taken as an object". Some clinical structures show the different clearly. The anorexic, for example, in refusing to eat gives a place to desire beyond demand. To the mother's demand for the child to eat, the latter offers a symbolic refusal, maintaining a desire centering on the "nothing" which is eaten. Into the relation with the mother, a lack is thereby introduced, something which marks out clearly the tension between demand and desire.

Distortion and Desire

Desire is thus a very peculiar thing. Lacan elaborates a theory of desire as something very strange ,very odd: it has nothing to do with wishes, but consists of linguistic mechanisms which twist and distort certain elements into others. A slip of the tongue would provide another example. You say one thing instead of something else and you do not know why. Desire is present because one element has been distorted and modified by another one. We can deduce the presence of desire in clinical work by paying attention to these processes as they repeat themselves and to the points of rupture, distortion and opacity in a patient's associations.

If language has a capacity to transmit a message, it also has a redundant side. It's the different between a letter and a telegram. The telegram conveys the minimum information content quickly, whereas the letter may dwell on details, use rhetorical devices and bow to the requirements of etiquette. Now, if we are to track down desire, Lacan says, we will do best by focusing not on the message, but rather on the points of redundancy, the little details which do not really need to be there.

The Maternal Phallus

If desire here is a process of distortion, a force at work in between signifiers, how can we speak about an object of desire? It would seem, on the contrary, as if desire did not have any object. Lacan replies that the object is of a very particular kind: an absent one. It is not any absent object but, for Lacan at this moment in his work, a very precise one: the maternal phallus. Freud and his followers, despite many disagreements, had always stressed the centrality of the castration complex. The key is less the possession by the subject of a phallus, but where the mother has one or not. (The phallus is not the same thing as the penis: it is the penis plus the idea of lack.) (if you think that you might lose your penis and that other people do not have this organ, the idea of loss will become linked to the organ in question. It will never be a penis again. In Freudian theory it will be a penis plus the idea of its absence. Hence what one searches for in the mother cannot be seen: how can one see something which is not there?

The Missing Phallus

The neurotic wants, in Lacan's terms, to be the phallus for the mother. The child is searching for some object, but it is a lost one, as the intervention of the father in the Oedipus complex prevents the child from assimilating itself with the object of the mother's demand. The intervention of the father distances the child from the mother, it gives the child possibilities of leaving the universe of the mother. And it situates the phallus as something lost, forever out of reach, it says "No" both to the child and to the mother.

(As something missing, the phallic object is best represented by a veil of something which covers or conceals. How else can a lack be represented, after all, than by the image of a screen which points to something beyond itself? Later on in his work, Lacan would modify this conception. We will discuss it shortly, but it is important first to fill in some of the detail of this picture of the Oedipus and castration complexes.)

The Oedipus Complex...

The child is at the mercy of the mother at the start of life, dependent on her in all senses of the word, and unable to understand the rationale of her behavior. However marvellous or cruel the mother may be, the same question will pose itself for the child, a question which concerns him or her to the quick: what does she want? (Why does she leave the room right now? Why does she push the bottle into my mouth now? Why does she hold me so tight or so lightly today? Why does she allow my sister to go to bed so much later than me?)