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The term is employed in psychoanalysis in the sense in which one speaks of the object of someone's (Desire) (affection or attentions). No distinction is made between persons and inanimate things: individuals, parts of the body and the satisfaction of needs can all be objects.

It is the theory of objects that provides the intellectual basis for the object-relations school of psychoanalysis.

The notion of an object originates in Freud's discussion of the drives, where 'object' is defined as that which allows a drive to achieve its aim. The sexual object of a drive may, for instance, be a person; its aim, or the act towards which the drive tends, may be sexual intercourse with that person. The object of the drive is contingent and is not defined by any natural or predetermined purpose; sexual object-choice is determined by the individual's life-history, and primarily by experiences in childhood.

It is clear from Freud's account that the object of the drive is not necessarily a whole person and that it may be a part of the body or part-object, suhc as the penis or the breast. Although Karl Abraham speaks of "partial incorporation of the object" and of "partial object-love," it is Klein who really develops the theory of part-objects. Part-objects are essential features of the fantasy world constructed by the child, and are endowed with 'good' and 'bad' qualities thanks to the mechanism of projection. Projecting the ambivalence it feels towards its mother, the child typically fantasizes the existence of a good breast which offers comfort and nourishment, and a bad breast which denies or withdraws the instinctual satisfaction it seeks.


The concept of the object in psychoanalysis proves to be an enigmatic one, because of its mobile and polysemic aspect and constantly changing character; there always remains an unknown zone that nurtures the object-cathexis and is therefore necessary for its continuation. The object in psychoanalysis is constituted of fluctuating impulses of unconscious, preconscious, and conscious cathexes, that are exchanged on a reciprocal basis. The object is neither a thing or a person, nor the fantasmatic content or a bodily zone of that person, although it relates to these throughout the analytic work. The concept of the object is a tool of understanding for the analyst and a notion that would become meaningless if it were studied as an independently existing entity. It is the unconscious element that lends some continuity to the cathexis of the various kinds of representations that are evoked by the patients' words, provided that the analyst constructs this continuity through the bi-vocal melody to which he is listening. The term object can be used only from the moment when analytic work is possible, however early this may be (Diatkine, 1989).

There is a polysemy to the term object, as it flows into the part-object; the total, narcissistic, internal, and external objects; the self-object; the object relationship; object choice; and others. This semantic richness reflects the complexity of the connections to other people in the psyche; it also can lead to confusion.

In his study of the drives ("Instincts and Their Vicissitudes," 1915c), Sigmund Freud explores a connection between the object and the drive: the drive excitation comes from inside the organism (pressure) and it corresponds to a need that is assuaged by the satisfaction (aim of the drive). The object is therefore the means by which the drive can attain this aim. Freud already emphasizes, however, that the object is the most valuable element of the drive and also that is it not intrinsically connected with it; the link is therefore something that has to be constructed. He adds that the object is not necessarily an unfamiliar object; it can be anything that is susceptible to cathexis, including therefore the subject's own body through the forms of auto-erotism (object-cathexis, narcissistic cathexis).

Between 1905 and 1924, Freud described a series of pregenital stages that are to be understood less in genetic terms than as something defined by partial (or component) drives; the satisfaction of each is linked with an erogenous zone (oral, anal, phallic), and thus also by their corresponding oral, anal or phallic object relationship. The concept of "part object" was introduced by Melanie Klein, but the concept of the "part" already exists in Freud within the "partial drive" concept. The object choice that unifies the sexual life under the aegis of genitality and orientates it definitively towards others does not therefore occur until puberty.

Freud went to on distinguish between two types of object: an object that relates specifically to the drive (a person, part of a person, a part-object, a fantasmatic object) and a total object, an object of love or hatred. At the very beginning of psychic life, the external world, the object, and what is hated are identical (the object emerges in hatred). When, following the purely narcissistic stage, the object is recognized as a source of pleasure, it can become an object of love, being loved and incorporated into the ego. In "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes," Freud writes that the terms "love" and "hatred" should not be used for the relation of drives to their objects but reserved for the relations of the total ego with the objects. The concept of "object choice" (object choice or narcissistic object choice) thus refers to the object of love or hatred and not to the object of the drive.

When Freud refers to the libido of the ego as opposed to the libido of the object, the object in this expression is understood in the restricted sense of an external object that does not include the ego; furthermore, it nevertheless clearly transpires that Freud generally focuses on psychic reality and the intrapsychic in his metapsychological theory. His theory of anaclisis required nothing more from the object than its necessity for ensuring self-preservation; here it was the child who was "responsible," based on the satisfaction of their bodily needs, for developing auto-erotisms in order to prepare for their existing and future sexuality. However, Freud was evidently well aware "that there is no such thing as a baby without a mother" (as Donald Winnicott was later to say) when he wrote in The Ego and the Id, albeit in a footnote: "The effects of the first identifications made in earliest childhood will be general and lasting. This leads us back to the origin of the ego ideal; for behind it there lies hidden an individual's first and most important identification, his identification with the father in his own personal prehistory (Perhaps it would be safer to say 'with the parents'; for before a child has arrived at definite knowledge of the difference between the sexes, the lack of a penis, it does not distinguish in value between its father and its mother). This is apparently not in the first instance the consequence or outcome of an object-cathexis; it is a direct and immediate identification and takes place earlier than any object-cathexis" (1923b, p. 31).

How then should we understand the relation between the parents, or those who perform this function, as people, as against the father or mother as "objects" used in the psychoanalytic work? The psyches of mother and father clearly play an essential role in the creation of the human being's representational system from the very beginning of life. By conferring a meaning on the very young child's activity, the capacity for "maternal reverie" (Wilfred Bion) does not introduce this meaning into their psyche, but rather harmoniously or discordantly modulates stimulations and "calming" attitudes or temporary abandonments that are constructed by the child. The meaning given by the mother produces another meaning in the subject, each of which becomes interconnected in a process that is as complex as the process that gives rise to the bi-vocal melody in the analytic treatment.

Following on from Freud and Karl Abraham, Melanie Klein, in her study of archaic states of functioning, attributes to the psyche from the outset a primitive ego (self), an external-internal boundary, a (part) object and the capacity for splitting and projecting; like Freud, she uses footnotes to take account of external objects. With reference to Sándor Ferenczi, she notes that it may be that complex mechanisms (living organisms) cannot continue as stable entities independently of the influence of external conditions. When these conditions become unfavorable, the organism disintegrates. "Integration and adaptation to reality depend essentially on the infant's experience of the mother's love and care."

Donald Winnicott, a contemporary of Klein and a highly innovative author who theorized the bond between object and subject, attributes prime importance to the object's response in the creation of this vital illusion to be shared between mother and child, namely the transitional space, of which the transitional object is only one of the signs. The "use of the object" is at the heart of this author's concerns and he gives precedence to the access to subjectivation, "first being," over the economy of drives. For him, this hallucination occurs in response to the increase in tension, always independently of the reality of the object; the problem of primary binding (that is, the object's binding of the hallucination or the drive excitation) arises as follows: if the object is absent, the drive excitation and the hallucination are dealt with either by evacuative discharge or by a mode of binding and fusion in statu nascendi, primary masochistic binding. It is essential that the object's absence or separation (creating the excitation) should not continue for a period that exceeds the subject's capacities to re-establish through the hallucination the psychic continuity that is necessary to the sense of continuity of being. If, on the contrary, the object is present and if its response is "granted" to this hallucinatory process, it instigates the "created-found" aspect of the object and the transformation of the hallucination into an illusion. The threat that will inevitably be posed to the primary illusion (the lover's censure, decrease in primary maternal concern) then triggers an upsurge of destructivity connected with distress and rage at the object's lack of attunement. It is here that Winnicott introduces a further element into the theory: whereas classically the object was discovered in hatred as a result of frustrations, Winnicott accords a primordial position to the object's response in the child's symbolization process. To be discovered, the object has to "survive" the destructive activity and has to allow itself to be "used." Winnicott refers here to three fundamental characteristics of object response: an absence of withdrawal, a lack of reprisals or retaliation, and a capacity to be manifestly creative and vital.

It is the object's response to the destructivity, through the gap that it creates against the background of its primary adaptation to the subject's needs and thus through a support that is introduced, that opens up the field of experience through which the complex process of symbolization will begin. The concept of the "good enough mother" is thus defined in its connection with the object's pre-symbolizing function.

More recently, with reference to Winnicott, René Roussillon (1997) has sought to explore in more depth what he refers to as the object relationship that can allow representational activity and symbolization. He established symbolizing objects of the "malleable medium type" as a term by describing the qualitative characteristics of the relationship of primary attunement, and formulated a preliminary outline of the future attributes of the symbolization apparatus (hardness/malleability, indestructibility, tangibility, transformability, sensitivity, availability, reversibility, loyalty, and constancy).

Melanie Klein's successors developed in new directions and reassessed her premises, including in the field of object relations and of projective identification as a primary mode of exchange. Esther Bick introduced the concept of adhesive identification and "psychic skin," but it was principally Wilfred R. Bion who created new models for the relationship between two psyches. He defined the relationship between container and contained, and then analyzed this relationship using a complex mathematical system. During the maternal reverie, the alpha function psychically processes the beta elements, drives, and drive-derivatives that the child is unable to assimilate individually, in order to enable them to process these psychically, and then to introject this function itself. This is very much a theory of psychic transmission.

In France, Maurice Bouvet made Freud's concept of the object relationship the main focus of his work, exploring it in more depth between 1948 and 1960 and developing it into a true concept. He and his students studied the object relationship in clinical practice (addressing hysteria, phobia, obsessional neurosis, and depersonalization) and went on to address the subject-subject relationship: the dual and reciprocal object relationship existing between ego-subjects. Addressing psychopathology in terms of the psychic object provides some ways of gaining a new perspective on the structural approach and produces a better understanding of difficult cases.

French psychoanalysts have preferred to address the successive description of the two psyches to account for the way in which the mother's psyche contributes to the child's psychic constitution. Denise Braunschweig and Michel Fain theorize "the lover's censure" (1975), in which the mother's experiences during pregnancy, her experience of childbirth, and the experiences relating to the almost total erotism with the newborn give way retroactively to the fantasmatic elaboration of an incestuous erotic fulfillment in which the unconscious oedipal bedrock is evident. This conflict leads her to convey a censure to the child in a prelude to the fantasmatic life of the human being, in order to protect the child from the desire of and for the father, a two-fold desire that incorporates both the desire for her as a woman and the desire for the father's penis in the child's unconscious. The confused perception of these psychic realities then imposes on the mother the necessity of duping the child.

Jacques Lacan holds a distinctly opposing view, with his structural theory of the contribution of the symbolic register and of language as an organizer of the psychic; for him, there can be no discussion of drives that does not establish a "circuit of the drive" passing through the other; using a different term from that of the object, this big Other/little other demonstrates the theoretical shift from the intrapsychic to the interpsychic. Following on from Lacan, Piera Aulagnier, with the "violence of interpretation" refers to the foundational violence that the "word-bearer" exerts over the infant and reintroduces temporality and a subject, the I, which is re-evaluated with reference to Lacan's emphasis on the subject of the unconscious to the detriment of the ego. With his theory of the child's "seduction" by the mother's "enigmatic signifiers" as the origin of psychic life, Jean Laplanche does not restrict the object's contribution to language but extends his theory to the object's drives. In a different way, Didier Anzieu returns, through his metaphor of the "skin ego," to a theory of a psychic formation based on the mother's care and cathexis that is close to Esther Bick's theory of "psychic skin."

With his concept of "fantasmatic interactions," Serge Lebovici, who took a particular interest in early mother-infant relations, provides an analytic version of the concept of interaction, which is too often influenced by objective reality. This is where Daniel Stern diverges from psychoanalysis: Although we may accept his concept of "emotional attunement," his convictions regarding a neurophysiological evidence of perception lack the subtlety of Winnicott's "created-found" and the importance of cathexis and hallucination for access to perception in Freudian theory. Let us further mention the originality of Christopher Bollas with his concept of the "transformational object": the object is identified based on what the child feels is modifying his experience of the self. Rather than being perceived as an object, the mother is experienced as a process of transformation.

For several authors, the need for the object to be inaccessible is a central focus of concern. For Jean Guillaumin, the object in psychoanalysis is postulated and targeted through the insistence of the drive but never actually given: We apprehend it as such only through our sense of that aspect of it which remains concealed to us. The rhythm of the mother's absence-presence and Winnicott's holding and handling can allow the experience of the hallucinatory satisfaction of desire theorized by Freud as an experience that establishes the drive orientation towards an object. However, the concept of the object corresponds to the experience of non-fulfillment because when it is found, attained, and mastered, it ceases to have any clinically observable psychic existence. This evident fact is irksome because it constitutes a paradox for logical thought; the nature of the total object can be described as something that necessarily includes a component of otherness that eludes the subject's control. This point is explored in more depth by Klein, who makes it the main focus of her essential reflections on the depressive position.

According to André Green, the concept of the object inevitably creates some philosophical difficulties, namely the impossibility of defining an object other than for a subject that constitutes it as an object and is constituted by it. This paradox is insurmountable. Subject and object are reciprocal terms: eliminating the object always means eliminating the libidinal subject and sexuality. According to Green, who therefore maintains the Freudian model, the object is primarily an object for the drive. However, there is an essential and constituent asymmetry between the pole of the subject (Green refers to the "ego-subject" because object and drive lead to the concept of the ego rather than of the subject) and the pole of the object in any consideration of the relationship with the other that introduces the third or "the other of the object." As concerns the link between the external object and the internal object: Whatever its indisputable reality (objective, objectal), the external object remains unknowable and it is only ever possible to work with its representatives. Psychoanalysis has nothing to say about this, unless it is by including a displacement in terms of function; if the object is described in these terms, it becomes possible to consider every process as an object.

André Green introduced the concept of the "objectalizing function": if the ego is characterized by certain appropriations of the object (incorporation, introjection, and beyond this, every form of internalization and identification), it transforms the status of the object with which it enters into a relationship, but above all it creates objects itself based on drive activity. What corresponds to the objectalizing function, an expression of the sexual drive, is its opposite and its negative: a disobjectalizing function, an expression of the death drive. Symbolization is placed here in the service of destructivity as the dramatization is transformed into an actualization. The disobjectalizing function operates to withdraw from the object the cathexes that are attached to it or even to move the object cathexes towards the narcissistic cathexes, narrowing the field of otherness.

In the United States, Otto Kernberg draws extensively on object-relations theory, which he regards as a supplement to ego-psychology and drive theory. He subscribes to Heinz Hartmann's theory that the ego defines the attitudes and intellectual processes that allow secondary-type mental activity, but there are many points of convergence between the views of this theorist, who has focused particularly on narcissistic disorders, and the European currents of psychoanalytic thought. For Kernberg, object relations are not a style of interaction with others but a mode of fantasmatic organization and a form of imaginary relationship with an object that is sustained to a greater or lesser degree by the perception of others. To the extent that every fantasmatic object relationship involves an imaginary relation between a self-representation and an object-representation, Kernberg argues that these object-relations become constituent of the personality and contribute to the person's individual development. Thus narcissism can no longer be considered simply as the return of the drive to the subject but as an internalization of a set of self-representations and representations of others that comprise intrapersonal relational systems. The general self-representation results from these partial representations; Kernberg takes up the description of the "grandiose self," a term introduced by Heinz Kohut (1974), which is concealed behind apparent signs of depression and inferiority feelings. However, whereas Kohut conceived the narcissistic organization of these patients as the result of a fixation at an archaic developmental stage of narcissism, Kernberg regards it as the result of a poor differentiation of the psychic agencies, in which the grandiose self is a cluster of idealized and internalized object-relations, poorly differentiated self-representations, and pathological representations of the ego ideal. It thus certainly entails a combined pathology of the id, ego, and superego, that is mainly due to the excessive burden of the archaic aggressive drives. In this respect, Kernberg is closer to Melanie Klein than to Kohut; he has less confidence in the reparative value of psychotherapy than in the interpretation of archaic conflicts of ambivalence.

According to Jean Guillaumin (1997), a substantial, if not interminable, amount of work remains to be done on the question of the subject and the object. The anxiety surrounding experiencing oneself as a subject and being considered as a subject, which are preconditions for subject-object differentiation, is so intense in early experiences that it can only be checked by an auto-erotism of anxiety that can very naturally develop into a form of masochism, which thus becomes a matter for sharing and communicating with others on a minimal basis of a joint denial of difference. The sharing of the subject's anxiety with two or several individuals creates silences, attacks, and complicities in lack that seem to be the most authentic form of relationship between human beings (Angélo Hesnard).


Objet Petit a and L'Autre

L'autre is, in a sense, the key term in understanding Lacan's treatment of the unconscious. It is those aspects of an encounter not captured by signification but affecting the psyche of the subject in potentially important ways. Lacan remarks that it is "stuck in the gullet of the signifier" (1994/1997, 270) and therefore indicates the gap between the symbolizing subject and the subject as subjectivity. "The object a is the remainder from the operation of being constituted as a speaking being; it cannot be assimilated because it is Real" (Marks, Glowinski, and Murphy 2001, 125). [End Page 69]That is to say, words are not the actual things that they indicate; an encounter is never completely captured discursively. When two people interact, both are affected in ways not captured by the "text" of the conversation. The effects on speaker and listener are different, but both are affected by aspects of their encounter that do not form content for conscious experience and are part of l'autre. If, later, these effects "tug at the psyche," a person may use an object a to try and give tangible form to this elusive aspect of the encounter. Freud discusses the child's game of losing and retrieving a physical object (such as a toy) in trying to deal with the repeated losses and reappearances of the mother by "concretizing" (and thereby making accessible to cognition) what is going on. For Lacan, the psychic dimensions of this challenge become symbolically "located" in that object that serves as a model or icon for the development of object relations in the unconscious.

Although aspects of experience may be addressed by manipulating the object petit a, the object petit a cannot adequately be symbolized by any public system of signifiers; nor can it be eliminated. The object a is a joint creation of the world and my subjectivity as it grapples with the world and reflects both the need for signification in the psyche and its inevitable incompleteness and insufficiency to both the tuché and the object of desire.

   Object a lies beyond the signifier, it cannot be expressed in signifiers but it can be distinguished as the object cause of desire precisely because desire endlessly shifts through a chain of signifiers; it never coincides with them. 

(Marks, Glowinski, and Murphy 2001, 125)

In this passage, the interaction between signification and the tuché continually draws the subject back to the locus of the tuché to try and find some closure—a doomed search. The tuché cannot be just an object (because it is a product of my engagement with the object) and cannot be possessed.

   Consider an example: a young man is contemplating asking a young woman from his university class to date him. He muses upon his possible love life and builds fantasies on his picture of her. He is disturbed at one point when he notices that she has a birth mark on her neck and thereafter feels unhappy about his reveries. He forsakes her as his imaginary partner and looks for another, scanning the face of any young woman he sees for something he knows not what until he becomes aware that every woman he meets has some defect which he cannot overlook. 

What is the relationship between this search for a perfect partner and the search for a perfect object corresponding to a signifier? Neither is attainable because of the nature of the tuché and the nature of fantasies he builds. That which is desired is signified by the individual and the actual world can never actually match the signified desire. No matter what happens: whether the individual continues to find new objects that will inevitably be part of an unsatisfactory tuché; or changes the desire he will find that the gap is unbridgeable.

For Lacan (and, by implication, psychoanalysis in general) psychopathology arises when the mismatch between the Symbolic, Imaginary, and Real intrudes on and disrupts the unfolding of a life story. It is not unusual for people to put symbolic labels to things when those labels poorly represent those things or even to idealize things and experiences because they do not fulfill the significations ideally associated with them. If Uncle Joe was an abuser and yet the child symbolizes Uncle Joe in a good light because of the residues of speech by other trusted people (Mum and Dad), then there is a mismatch close to the center of the child's being. The mismatch is at a strategic point where the entire narrative needs to be coherent in the right kind of way. For Uncle Joe's victim the sexual abuse escapes into l'autre because it has no place in legitimate narratives around here.

Unacceptable experiences can end up confined to l'autre without any symbolic markers to fix them in the memory explicitly or in any recoverable form. It is as if the ego says, "That experience was nothing important, I'd be silly to take too much from that." But the unconscious "knows" otherwise. Despite the conscious message that that man does not really have anything to do with me, there is associated but inchoate psychic material conveying a very different message [End Page 70] (on the basis of a psychic association with a tuché from my past). We might understand something like "repression," in this kind of circumstance, by exploiting Lacan's analysis. See also: Abandonment; Addiction; Alienation; Allergic object relationship; Amae, concept of; Ambivalence; Anaclisis/anaclictic; Antilibidinal ego/internal saboteur; Asthma; Autism; Bizarre object; Cathexis; Childhood; Counter-identification; Counterphobic; Cruelty; Dead mother complex; Depersonalization; Depression; Depressive position; Drive/instinct; Ego; Envy; Envy and Gratitude; Externalization-internalization; Female sexuality; Femininity; Fetishism; Hatred; Idealization; Identification; Internal object; Libidinal stage; Lost object; Love-hate-knowledge (L/H/K links); Manic defenses; Mastery, instinct for; Maternal; Melancholia; "Mourning and Melancholia"; Narcissistic withdrawal; Object a; Object, change of/choice of; Object relations theory; Orality; Pain; Paranoid position; Paranoid-schizoid position; Partial drive; Passion; Pictogram; Primary object; Projection; Psychosexual development; ; Reparation; Rivalry; Self-hatred; Self-object; Splitting; Splitting of the object; Subject; Sublimation; Substitute/substitute-formation; Symbiosis, symbiotic relationship; Symbolization, process of; Transference relationship; Transitional object; Transitional object, space; Transitional phenomena; Turning around upon the subject's own self. Bibliography


  • Freud, Sigmund. (1915c). Instincts and their vicissitudes. SE, 14: 109-140.
  • ——. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.