For Jacques Lacan, human being is a "lack of being." That was how he designated the subject's fundamental emptiness as it was caused by the first symbolization and by the fact that desire originates in castration.
From the beginning of his teaching, Lacan noted that for Freud the object is fundamentally lost, and the subject spends his life looking for it. The object of psychoanalysis is the lack of an object, and this lacking object is at the heart of being. Lacan started elaborating on this notion of a lack of being in 1957, when he set about describing the oedipal crisis in terms of the dialectic of desire and the question of the phallus.
During the mirror stage, the infant identifies with a certain point within the maternal space. In fact, what the subject takes for its own being is an other, both an image in the mirror and an alter ego. This fundamental alienation establishes misapprehension whereby one's being is confused with one's ego. From the beginning the subject is torn. He is divided between the place from which he sees himself, and the image, the other with which he identifies. From this perspective, a human being can never experience a wholeness that would amount to being.
Because language allows the child to symbolize the mother's alternating presence and absence, it makes it impossible for the child to become one with the mother. From this point on, a gap is introduced between the mother and child and any illusion of totality is broken. The subject experiences his lack of being, and when father later appears to put the phallus into play, he proves the lack of being of the maternal phallus. "[T]he child's desire manages to identify with the mother's want-to-be" (Lacan, 2002, p. 197). This desire begins as a quest for an object that might fill this lack.
Paradoxically the subject, as an effect of the symbolic (trapped within language), can only use language to search for the lost object. As Lacan wrote, "The being of language is the nonbeing of objects" (p. 253). Being is only a "lack of being," and the thing that could fill this lack is forbidden. This prohibition maintains desire. Thus desire appears as the metonymy of a lack of being whose signifier is the phallus that marks what the mother lacks. The subject's being is lack, and the cut that produced the symbolic is the object a, which is the real insofar as it is articulated in the symbolic and which is also a gap that the ego as image occupies. The image of the body, the principal mirage, indicates the place of desire insofar as it is desire for nothing. This is the relation of human beings with their own lack of being. But at the same time, the image is what prevents the human being from seeing it.
- Lacan, Jacques. (1958-1959). Le Séminaire-Livre VI, Le désir et son interpretation (unpublished seminar).
- ——. (1997). The seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII, The ethics of psychoanalysis, (1959-1960) (Dennis Porter, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.
- ——. (2002).Écrits: A selection. (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton.