Lacan and Language


Jacques Lacan was a French psychoanalyst who from 1953 until 1980, in addition to his own clinical practice, gave regular seminars in Paris to an audience sometimes amounting to 800, many of whom were distinguished intellectuals in their own right.  Lacan’s influence over the last 20 years or so on nearly all humanities disciplines cannot be doubted.  His influence has been especially marked in literary criticism, film theory, art history and theory, continental philosophy and in some areas of social and political thought.  Several schools of psychoanalysis have evolved out of his own, but otherwise his relation to established psychoanalytic institutions is strained, to say the least.  His theory is by his own account a development of systematic reading of Sigmund Freud’s own works, and in fact his seminars, which are beginning to appear in transcriptions, are always based around particular texts by Freud.  But many other influences are apparent, including surrealism, continental philosophy and structural linguistics, which provides much of his vocabulary if not his theoretical base.  He uses other sciences like biology, optics, mathematics and physics more for their metaphorical resources rather than any objective principles.  This is an important point: Lacan follows Freud in making use of analogies to explain otherwise unexplainable things, so in this respect we can see that psychoanalysis shares some similar characteristics with literature and art generally.  There is, for instance, an insistence on the rhetorical dimension underlying human experience.  Lacan’s writings provide the clearest example of this aspect of psychoanalysis, so much so that, according to Lacan, literature and psychoanalysis are merely two different types of discourse with the same aims—that is, to expose the discursive dimension of knowledge, power and social relations as the locus of determinations on emotional life.



The Unconscious is the Discourse of the Other


According to Lacan, the human subject is always split between a conscious side, a mind that is accessible, and an unconscious side, a series of drives and forces which remain inaccessible.  The cost of human “knowledge” is that these drives must remain unknown.  What is most basic to each human entity is what is most alien.  This (S) is the symbol that Lacan uses to figure the subject in its division. We are what we are on the basis of something that we experience to be missing from us—our understanding of the other—that is the other side of the split out of which our unconscious must emerge.  Because we experience this “something missing” as a lack we desire to close it, to fill it in, to replace it with something.  Lacan calls this lack desire.  Desire is what cannot be satisfied even when our demands are met.  All our needs are at once converted into desires that cannot be satisfactorily fulfilled.  This is why sexuality cannot be considered as the result of a need.  The unconscious manifests itself by the way it insists on filling the “gap” that has been left by the very thing the subject feels is lacking in him or her, that is the unconscious!  (The unconscious attempts to fill in the gap caused by the unconscious).



The Unconscious is structured like a Language


Lacan borrows some ideas of linguistics that Freud did not have access to.  As we have seen, Saussure showed that a sign is not necessarily something that connects a word or name to a thing, but is in fact something which connects a sound or image to a concept.  The sound or image is called a signifier.  The concept is called a signified.  Meaning is produced not only by the relationship between the signifier and the signified but also, crucially, by the position of the signifiers in relation to other signifiers (in a given context).  When Saussure’s theory is put together with Freud’s it is not difficult to see that the movement of signifiers, which generates meaning, must remain fundamentally unconscious.  Meaning may only have a place in what Lacan calls “the signifying chain.”   So the signifier has primacy over the signified, which means that meaning is generated not by the normal meaning of a word but by the place the word has in a signifying chain.



Metaphor and Metonymy


Brief Reminder

Metaphor: substitutes a word for another word.

Metonymy: involves a linear form of displacement.



These two axes of language—substitution and displacement—correspond to the working of the unconscious.  Metonymy, which carries language along its syntagmatic axis, corresponds to the displacement of desire that characterizes the dream work in Freud.  Metaphor, on the other hand, corresponds to the paradigmatic axis, the axis of substitution and, therefore, corresponds to that aspect of condensation whereby different figures can be substituted or are condensed into one through an overdetermined nodal point.



Compare Freud’s distinction to Saussure’s formulation:


                  Signified               Conscious

                  Signifier               Unconscious



Lacan turns the formulation on its head:






Henceforth the unconscious, sexuality and fantasy can be pictured as the Signifier over the signified. The unconscious is constituted in the same way as our intrinsic ability to speak.  Desire is left always unsatisfied and is either displaced from signifier to signifier or it is substituted for—one signifier for another—and the whole process makes up a “chain of signifiers,” which remains unconscious but which, like the unconscious, leaves traces of itself, traces which may be read.



Metonymy follows the horizontal line of signifiers, which never cross the bar (of repression) that leads to the signified and to signification.  Just as desire is always deferred from one object to the next, so the signifier suspends signification while following the horizontal chain.  Each signifier that fails to cross the bar has exactly the same meaning.  If signifies lack (desire).



Metaphor is placed in a vertical relation.  One signifier can substitute as the signified for another signifier.  “Crossing the bar” is really the action of one signifier becoming signified by taking the place reserved for the signified itself—the bar allows the substitution of one signifier for another:


                           Sr      S

                           Sd î  Sr



Sexuality and Sexual Difference


One of the most controversial contributions of psychoanalysis has been on the issue of sexuality and sexual difference.  Most famously Freud introduced a new definition of sexuality.  We need to first look at the more traditional one (which still has adherents today) and then examine the nature of the Freudian definition.  The terms on which sexuality is usually defined turn on the relation between notions of normality and notions of perversity.  Freud was at his most controversial when he stated that he had discovered a form of sexuality present in infants.  At this stage the infant expresses his or her sexuality polymorphously (taking many forms)—that is, with no particular fixed object or aim, just a kind of indulgent pleasure.  The meaning of this pleasure is then presented back to the adolescent in a kind of deferred action in which primal fantasies are given a more fixed shape (helped along by the notorious Oedipus Complex) with a socially sanctioned object type and a useful aim in reproduction.



Deferred Action

Nachtragtlichkeit describes the ways in which an infantile experience that is either incomprehensible or traumatic is nonetheless somehow retained by memory unconsciously and reactivated at a later time in a different context.  The notion comes from an early stage in Freud’s speculations and was used to explain the mechanism of hysteria, in which a traumatic early experience is reactivated in terms of a less traumatic later provocation.  He sometimes explains this with the mildly comic story of a young man infatuated with women.  “A young man who was a great admirer of feminine beauty was talking once of the good-looking wet nurse who had suckled him when he was a baby.  ‘I’m sorry,’ he remarked, ‘that I didn’t make a better use of my opportunity.’” (IoD 295).  This is not, of course, an example of deferred-action, but it does illustrate the notion by emphasising an inability at the early stage to understand or to act at all on experiences, which are retrospectively activated in later life.  Freud’s commentators have found the notion more useful than he evidently did, in so far as the rhetorical aspect has become much more obvious.  Signification involves the constant reactivation of significant material in new and unpredictable contexts, which thus produces new significance and new meanings.        



Freud’s Three Essays on Sexuality can be a frustrating read, with its delays and detours and often inconclusive observations.  Perhaps because of this, however, it remains one of the key books on sexuality and sexual difference both within and outside the institution of psychoanalysis.  There are two striking aspects to Freud’s work on sexuality.  The first involves his use of the mainstream professional views of his time.  He doesn’t simply critique these or oppose them and he doesn’t even try to produce a convincing alternative vocabulary to talk about these issues.  So his quite stark departure from mainstream knowledge is made within the terms and the frameworks of that knowledge itself, which is why the standard oppositions like normal and perverse, masculine and feminine, etc. remain part of the vocabulary.  However the system governing the meanings of that vocabulary is both subverted and transformed in Freud’s text.  The second aspect involves his use of evidence in relation to the professional views.  Basically he employs the same hypothetical framework but transforms it through his rigorous and tenacious insistence on the evidence—what happens to the theory when one confronts it with these facts?  The theory changes.  Perversity, which was once a category for sexuality gone wrong, a perversion of normal sexuality (like fetishism, same sex desire, bestiality, even masturbation), becomes the general condition of all sexuality per se.  Normal desire, on the contrary, which had an extremely narrow definition supported (as it still is) by everyday common-sense assumptions, is now understood as being one of the  numerous contingent possibilities of a general perversity.  Thus Freud appears to be saying extremely odd things in a rather traditional language.  In that language, that framework, that vocabulary, however, Freud’s theories remain the only ones that work.   





Freud describes the psychoanalytic theory of sexuality in the following way:


Psychoanalysis considers that a choice of object independently of its sex—freedom to range equally over male and female objects—as it is found in childhood, in primitive states of society and early periods of history, is the original basis from which, as a result of restriction in one direction or the other, both the normal and the inverted types develop.  Thus from the point of view of psychoanalysis the exclusive sexual interest felt by men for women is also a problem that needs elucidating and is not a self-evident fact based on an attraction that is ultimately of a chemical nature. (Freud, 1915).


In other words, the normal assumption is that normal sexuality involves an exclusive sexual interest felt by men for women.  Both the implicit one way sign [men č women] and the exclusive nature of the interest are present in the traditional notions.  Of course it is obvious that sexual interest ranges all over the place and that women fancy other people as much as men do.  But for the traditional views these would have been problems.  For Freud, that is no less true, but for him the normal version (boxed above) is also a problem and has no clear explanation.  For him the evidence shows that sexuality is grounded in a condition where there is no pre-existing object and no defined aim.  The pleasure principle is unscrupulous.   



Some rudimentary definitions of sexuality don’t much help.  The standard definitions of sexuality grow out of husbandry.  Sexuality has the following related meanings: the condition of being sexed; being male or female; having sexual characteristics; feelings or desires to a specified degree (over-, under-, etc.); the condition of having a sex.  Thus the sexuality of someone (their being one or other of the sexes) gets extended to also signify behavioural characteristics.  You might begin to expect certain types of behaviour from one or the other sex and you can justly express shock or concern when people behave outside those norms.  So what is a sex?  The dictionary tells us that Sex is that by which an animal or plant is male or female; the quality of being male or female; either of the divisions according to this, or its members collectively; the whole domain connected with this distinction.  (In so far as I am sexed, my sex is male; I share this quality with the whole of the male sex; but I share the quality of being sexed with the entire human race as well as the animal and plant kingdoms).  It seems that we are not going to get very far without encountering some aspect of our universally shared sexual difference.  This is all very well if you are mating chicks or growing violets.  In that case the distinctions have a practical and functional purpose.  This is the female and this is the male.  Put them together in these particular ways and they will produce.  In so far as people reproduce in these ways too, a kind of loose analogy emerges, conferring specific meaning upon each relation that may or may not have a sexual aspect (in the biological sense).  The idea that biology is at the root of human sexual relations, and thus explains human sexuality, is at best grounded in the loosest of analogies.  Psychoanalysis has played an important role in helping to undo these narrow and ungrounded assumptions.  Along the way it has revealed a tangle of problems. 



Psychoanalysis, without departing from the traditional vocabulary, develops an extended and transformed understanding of the concept of sexuality.  Before Freud, sexuality was most likely to be defined as an instinct with a predetermined object and aim.  The object was a member of the opposite sex.  The aim was for union of the genital organs in coitus.  The sole function was considered to be reproduction.  Any kind of sexuality or sexual behaviour that does not aim for reproduction is considered to be perverse.  Again the influence from cultivation and husbandry is clear.  What is the good of a stud that won’t mount the mare? But psychoanalysis questions the notion of perversity.



Freud takes one of the most influential and highly respected authorities on the matter, Krafft-Ebing, as an example of the normative explanation.  This is Krafft-Ebing:


During the time of maturation of physical processes in the reproductive glands, desire arise in the consciousness of the individual, which have for their purpose the perpetuation of the species (sexual instinct) [...] with opportunity for the natural satisfaction of the sexual instinct, every expression of it that does not correspond with the purpose of nature, i.e. propagation—must be regarded as perverse.


According to this view, nature somehow makes itself felt in the consciousness of the mature adult, in the form of a conscious desire to mate with a member of the opposite sex.  Nature, in this sense, is simply the need for the reproduction of the race (that peculiarly nineteenth century notion of evolution is evident here).  The only “natural” satisfaction of this itch, this desire, would be subordinated to the purposes of nature.  Anything that does not obviously lead to reproduction is not natural (“it’s not natural!”), because it would be a perversion of nature’s aim.  As usual with scientific views of this time, purpose itself, the Greek telos, is the unanalysed aspect underlying these assumptions.  Krafft-Ebing, it is important to remember, is merely representing the popular views in scientific discourse.



Freud responds explicitly to these views at the beginning of his “Three Essays on Sexuality”:


Popular opinion has quite definite ideas about the nature and characteristics of this sexual instinct.   It is generally understood to be absent in childhood, to set in at the time of puberty in connection with the process of coming to maturity and to be revealed in the manifestations of an irresistible attraction exercised by one sex upon the other; while its aim is presumed to be sexual union.  [...] We have every reason to believe, however, that these views give a very false picture of the true situation.  If we look into them more closely we shall find that they contain a number of errors, inaccuracies and hasty conclusions.


In the “Three Essays” Freud doesn’t substitute a new theory for the old ones.  Rather he extends and transforms the popular and scientific notions of sexuality by correcting the errors, clarifying the inaccuracies and rethinking the hasty conclusions that make up what he calls the “false picture.”  A new picture thus emerges out of the ruins of a now transformed vocabulary.



The evidence against holding to the false picture is available in everyday life.  Freud also draws explicitly from his fund of analytic experience, in many cases with distressed men and women of the inherently conservative European bourgeoisie, who had never been able to voice their discomfort about their own apparently perverse desires.  The distinction between normal and perverse is so riddled with overlaps that it is impossible to extricate the two.  There are numerous perversions and they are common (though not explicitly talked about in Freud’s time).  Not only are there numerous varieties of different object but also there are uncountable and creative methods for achieving satisfaction.  On the model of means and ends, the normal view holds that sexuality manifests in activities designed to achieve the aim of reproduction.  The end is reproduction; the method is union of the male and female genitals.  However in Freud’s experiences with his patients, the methods often overlap between the normal and perverse.  In other words very similar kinds of activities occur whether there is an obviously reproductive function or not.  Men and women will have “sex” in all kinds of ways including “normal” coitus.  The ends are as various as the means.  Furthermore, same sex relations, as well as masturbation and the fantasies of all kinds that accompany it, each exhibit similar routes to satisfaction, in terms for instance of flirting and foreplay.  Even a comfortably heterosexual couple will use a creative variety of methods, including coitus, to achieve satisfaction.  So what is consistent in all this is not the function of reproduction at all but the function of satisfaction.  Thus the reproductive teleology has no ground in evidence at all.    



Evidence against Normativity



The distinction between the normal and the perverse is riddled with overlaps.


A great diversity of sexual “perversion” not only exists but is common.


This diversity involves not only the choice of sexual object but also the type of activity used to obtain satisfaction.


In the popular view, the “normal” type of sexual activity involves only coitus between members of the opposite sexes with the aim of reproduction.


But the “normal” and the “perverse” are not so easily separated.


For instance, the usual form of satisfaction may become temporarily impossible, so a “perverse” satisfaction may replace it.


And the sort of foreplay leading up to normal sexual behaviour is usually also found leading up to perverse types as well.




Freud often found that repressed wishes and desires are of a sexual kind and that the repressed wish in these cases is a perverse sexual wish.  He concluded that the so-called normal types of behaviour belong with the forces of rational and socially acceptable convention defensive of the desiring and creative agency.  In other words the normative version of sexuality is socially rather than biologically determined.  There is a biological difference but—like all difference—it is meaningful only in terms of the institutions that organise experience is specific ways.  And we are back in the rhetorical dimension.  The libido is thus a kind of undetermined force that becomes bound by the various kinds of restriction, paradigmatically the Oedipus Complex, that represent the institutions of culture and society. 





Freud was struck by the similarity between the myth of Oedipus and his own discoveries of unconscious processes.  The myth is most clearly dramatised in the plays of Sophocles (who was a contemporary of Socrates).  In Sophocles’ drama the unfolding of the tragedy involves Oedipus’ gradual discovery of his own guilt.  He discovers that he has in ignorance killed his father and that the woman he loves and has married is none other than his mother.  As a consequence of his discovery he blinds himself and exiles himself from his home.   In fulfilling the oracle that begins the story he fails to escape his predestined fate.  This is Freud’s explanation: “It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father” (IoD 364).  Freud argues that the power of this artwork lies in the ability of the poet to force us into a transferred recognition of what he calls “our own inner minds.”  Those same impulses (to patricide and incest with the mother) are still lurking yet “suppressed” within all of us.  Oedipus’ unconscious guilt (which is literal—he is not at first conscious of his guilt) stands figuratively for our own unconscious guilt.  “Like Oedipus, we live in ignorance of these wishes, repugnant to morality, which have been forced upon us by Nature, and after their revelation we may all of us well seek to close our eyes to the scene of our childhood” (IoD 365).  This last sentence has many resonances.  Freud points out in a footnote to a later edition that it is this part of his theory that has provoked the most embittered denials, fiercest opposition and the most amusing distortions (100 year later we are often led to suspect that this is still the case).  Thus the blinding scene is a metaphorical indication of the vicious resistance to the insights that psychoanalysis offers.  Freud also, significantly, likens not the myth itself but the action of the play to the processes of psychoanalysis.  He says that it “consists in nothing other than the processes of revealing, with cunning delays and ever-mounting excitement—a process that can be likened to the work of a psycho-analysis” (363).  It places Freud firmly within the canon of arguments about false-consciousness (along with Plato, Descartes, Marx and Wittgenstein).  But we need to ask, what is the so-called “Nature” that the Oedipus myth actually represents (the truth behind the false and blinded consciousness).  Freud’s use of he word Nature in fact already illustrates how he is replacing the traditional biological ground of sexuality (the cultivation/husbandry ground) with an alternative in the Oedipus complex. 



The Phylogenetic Hypothesis

Freud returned many times to the question of innate disposition and perhaps the most outrageous, yet most consistently held, version is the hypothesis of phylogenesis, which follows a somewhat Darwinian trend.  Here, at its most extreme, the argument suggest that in human pre-history a great tribal father was actually killed by the jealous horde and that all of us are born with traces of this pre-historical guilt carried through the genetic phylum (like hair-colour in the chromosomes).  One thing is constant here.  There is a constitutional anxiety (the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaarde had in the previous century coined the phrase “anxiety over nothing”) that is related unconsciously to a desire for the death of the father and a desire for union with the mother.              




Sexual Difference


It is Freud’s account of the Oedipus Complex and its modes of resolution that really grounds the psychoanalytic theory of sexual difference.  As such the theory is diagnostic only in so far as it attempts to lay bare the underlying structures that lead to certain tendencies in the relations between people.  Unlike the traditional notions there is no sense of what men and women should or should not be like, how they should live in terms of their sexual differentiation.  It attempts, instead to find out how people come to be as they actually are in the first place.



In classical psychoanalysis the father represents a third term which must break the imagined dyadic unit of mother and child.  Until the “father” interrupts it, the mother-child unit—a perfect self-contained dyad—is asocial.  The father stands for social symbolisation.  In terms of this structure the distinction between men and women exists but it only has meaning symbolically. Lacan provides the following witty diagram, based upon the story of the two children, a boy and a girl, in a train who, on arriving at a station see this sign:










The boy exclaims, “we are at Ladies.”  The girl responds by saying, “no we’re not, we’re at Gentlemen.”  The two doors indicate the ways in which boys and girls are given the choice of two alternatives—each of which has intractable meaning in terms of the other—as to where they each are in the social topography.  The doors are themselves just signifiers as are the different sexes.  Sex (male and female) is always subject to identifications, which tell me who I am in terms of my gender.   In traditional terms sex would be the empirical dimension of sexuality and gender would be the transcendental structure or system that gives us its meaning.  As we have already indicated, however, the distinction between the empirical and the transcendental is already extremely problematic, so we are going to have to find some way of dealing with the difference itself.



Lacan’s version of the triangulated Oedipus complex (mother—child—father) combines Freud’s theory with structural linguistics, developed as we have seen particularly from the theories of Saussure, Levi-Strauss and Jakobson.  The relationship between the child and mother is imagined in the infant’s unconscious as something that was once self-contained and entirely satisfying but has since been broken up.  The post-break-up (which is a psychoanalytic version of the fall from grace, mankind now banished from its eternal Garden of Eden) is in fact the child’s beginning.  Its prehistory is nothing but an imaginary desire.  In other words the child’s experience begins with a feeling of something having been lost.  The symbol of this loss is like a third term that has come between the mother and the child—the father who (in a literal version) comes home from work at the end of an otherwise perfect day ordering his dinner and smelling of pipe smoke and the intrusive outside.  Lacan calls this “third term” the symbolic because it “symbolises” all relations.  Freud had called this third term “the father,” perhaps because of the specific nature of his own upbringing, his dreams, and the dreams of most of his patients (who were mostly bourgeois Europeans).  But the father is just a symbol too (anything can represent it).  Symbolisation works because we make imaginary identifications, which are based upon proximity and immediate experience (the contiguous axis, or metonymy).  What we imagine to be the case is always to be understood symbolically and that makes it seem real (the paradigmatic axis, or metaphor).  Symbolisation thus acts as an introduction to the world that is at the same time an introduction of lack.   The introduction of a meaningful element disrupts the perfect unity of the imaginary relation, which only has the sense of a perfect unity by virtue of the meaningful element that excludes perfection.  The experience of lack is therefore the very thing that gives us the sense that there was something to lack in the first place—it gives meaning to my partial relations and opens my experience to the other—which, of course, I cannot experience at all. The real in Lacan’s theory is a plenum.  A plenum is something complete in itself, so full that nothing need be added to it.  However because experience is determined by the relation between the symbolic and the imaginary (Lacan’s complicated version of the transcendental and the empirical) the plenum is figured only as an impossible outside.  It can therefore appear as a horrifying mysterious thing (enter the house of horror) that sometimes threatens to break open the illusion (our social reality) brought about by the symbolisation of our imaginary desires.



Lacan was so taken by the similarities between Freud’s theory of the unconscious and structural linguistics that he was able to come up with some fairly systematic concordances.  At the risk of over-schematising (which Lacan attempted to resist, though his theory encourages it) we might chart them in the following way:










The Impossible



Literal language




Relation to the Other

Relation to the object

No relation



Under the Symbolic we find the system of differences between signifiers that determines their meanings, which Lacan relates to the metaphorical dimension of figurative language (this stands in for that and excludes it).  He felt that Freud’s explanation of the dream-work allied metaphor to the process of condensation (which puts different images together under the single sign of a metaphorical nodal point).  Under the Imaginary we find proximal identifications that indicate the relations of individual desire, which Lacan relates to the metonymic dimension of figurative language (this stands in a proximal and inclusive relation to that).  He felt that Freud’s explanation of the dream work allied the movement of metonymy to the process of displacement (which in a disguised way displaces from an object of immense intensity to an object of relatively trivial significance).  Metonymy tends to exclude the meaningful aspect of language for the sake of being-next-to while metaphor privileges the meaningful aspect of proximal signs by giving them meaning, thrusting signification underneath them, under the symbolic “cut” of the bar between signifier and signified in Saussure’s diagram of the sign.



                                                   S        S

                                                   S   ć   S



Under The Real, in contradistinction to these runaway overdetermined signs, lies the impossible experience of the plenum.  The real stands for literal meaning (as opposed to literal uses of meaning, which are always possible).  In so far as no experience of the real is possible (experience is the consequence of the interaction between imaginary identifications and symbolic signification) it stands for the impossible.  The ideal, beyond signification, which stands in for the fact that there is no real relation, is the non-relational possibility itself, or just death.  We can fairly clearly see, I think, that relations of any kind are only possible through certain kinds of signification.  In terms of desire, the proximal relation (I just want to get next to you) blots out signified meaning in favour of contiguous relation (pure chance in its extreme form, which is a little disconcerting for those who are waiting for Mr Right).  This is perhaps best experienced as a kind of jouissance (the French term denotes ecstatic enjoyment) or petit-mort (little death, a colloquialism for orgasm).  In terms of the symbolic, relations are overdetermined by many permutations of social identification, including gender, class, position, status etc.  Anything like a real relation is of course impossible, as is a pure symbolic or pure imaginary relation.  Everything seems to appropriate bits of everything else like a perpetually shifting system of parasites with no non-parasitical host.  Everything to a certain extent depends upon something of its others.          




As far as the Oedipal Triangle is concerned it is possible to map a Lacanian triangle over a Freudian one, in the following way:













Lacan and the theoretical imagination


We should say something about Lacan’s style.  In most people’s minds the difference between literary text and theoretical text could not be more marked.  Literary texts are full of images, narratives, concrete situations, sometimes wildly imaginative sequences, or they are formally structured pieces, like different types of poem.  Theory is a dry discourse, with long, technical sounding terms, full of abstract ideas, objective and perhaps coldly scientific.  It often seems difficult if not downright perverse, to apply these coldly scientific systems of ideas to the multifarious and rich fund of personal experience.  Lacan’s style suggests that he is concerned to enliven scientific discourse with the metaphorical fecundity of literature.  But, at the same time, he seems to want to use the descriptive clarity of scientific formulations to suggest, metaphorically, the otherwise indefinable and sometimes inexplicable aspects of the ordinary common experiences.  As the contemporary psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has written: “Psychoanalysis began as a kind of virtuoso improvisation within the science of medicine; and free association is itself ritualised improvisation.  With the invention of psychoanalysis Freud glimpsed a daunting prospect: a profession of improvisers.  And in the ethos of Freud and his followers, improvisation was closer to the inspiration of the artists than to the discipline of scientists.”  So we can already glimpse the point of psychoanalysis for critical theory: a confluence of separate traditions—scientific and artistic—produces something new—psychoanalytic theory.



Returning to Freud


“We are not following Freud, we are accompanying him.  The fact that an idea occurs somewhere in Freud’s work doesn’t, for all that, guarantee that it is being handled in the spirit of the Freudian researches.  As for us, we are trying to conform to the spirit, to the watchword, to the style of this research”  


Freud is, on one level, replying to an ancient prejudice—that which derives human experience from consciousness.  For Freud, consciousness is an effect of instinctual neurological or biological drives.  The hypotheses of two principles of mental functioning distinguishes between that of pleasure, which wants immediate satisfaction, and that of reality, which puts off the satisfaction of desire for a more appropriate and safer moment.  We are not, on this model, born rational and responsible, nor do we learn rationality and responsibility—these are simply terms that describe the instinct for survival in negotiation with the instinct for the reduction of unpleasant impulses.  Freud later modified his hypothesis of two principles and reduced them both to a single, rather frightening one, called the death instinct.  For him what is typical of instincts is that they tend towards an absolute reduction of all disturbing impulses (even pleasure aims for this). On the one hand the death instinct aims for immediate cessation of dangerous impulses yet, on the other hand, it tones this drive down as a dangerous impulse itself.  So in the complex reality of social existence this death instinct can be understood as both the law (the symbolic) and (imaginary) desire in a kind of negotiation.  The game that we now know as Fort-Da, which was played by Freud’s grandson, exemplifies the kind of strategies that the unconscious employs to contain the sense of loss that operating in a social world imposes.  The mother—as the sole source of comfort and sustenance, leaves for work and is absent for very long periods of time.  The infant plays a game with a cotton reel on a string, shouting “Fort” (gone) when it is on the other side of the cot’s curtains and “Da” (here) when he reels it back.  Symbolically the cotton reel stands in as a substitute for the mother (oh the power of fantasy).  And the reeling-in that the child repeatedly practices stands for the imaginary control he has over a contingent and arbitrary exterior.  The reality principle, of course, concerns the child’s ability to tolerate the truth of the outside—oh no, the mother really is absent and this cotton reel is just a cotton reel.  The process of mourning after the death of a loved one is very similar.  It is this process that allows us to now explore the increasingly influential work of Melanie Klein.  










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