Brief and selective notes on:  Lacan J. (1993) Ecrits. A Selection. Trans Alan Sheridan.London: Routledge

Dave Harris

[ I read Deleuze and Guattari before I read any Lacan, and so this highly selective set of notes relates to issues with Lacan as identified by D&G. I am only a casual reader of Lacan and my intention was solely to find out exactly what the problems were with two basic arguments that offend D&G:

  • that the unconscious is 'structured like a language', in particular that the 'subject is a signifier for other signifiers';
  • that language use necessarily exposes us to a patriarchal and hierarchical social order.

I have read Schreber's memoirs, his account of a very well-developed paranoid delusion,variously described as schizophrenia or dementia praecox. I have not taken notes, of course. I have also read Zizek's defence of Lacan against D&G,which, apart from anything else, indicates, as usual, that citing a few extracts can never be decisive in any dispute about what the hell Lacan means -- or D&G for that matter.

Here is what I have found so far]

The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I is revealed in psychoanalytic experience, (1949)

[Classic French elite academic discourse with largely implicit references to his own earlier work and the work of others, and the free use of words in other languages some of them Freudian terms. This is obviously a limited understanding of the marvellous literary flourishes. NB male pronouns throughout as in the original]

[This short piece seems to contain all the features that D and G find objectionable. There is the insistence that desire is driven by a lack of conformity between the ego and exterior surroundings including others, and the subjective distortions, alienation and aggression that this produces, and this of course is challenged especially in Anti-Oedipus with the notion of desire as something machinic rather than structured into the very development of the ego. There is also a clear intention to see psychic phenomena as linguistic. There is, however, some social criticism of narrow utilitarian societies, and pessimism about any possibility of reforming or ameliorating them]

This work helps oppose any notion that the key to human personality is the cogito. Children can observe their own images in mirrors, an 'expression of situational apperception' (1), and a necessary stage in the development of intelligence. Children, unlike chimpanzees, go on to develop gestures which indicate a relation between the movements in the image and the environment, and 'between this virtual complex and the reality it reduplicates'. The infant is fascinated by his image. The stage occurs between six and 18 months, even before children can walk.

There is an underlying 'libidinal dynamism' and an implicit 'ontological structure of the human world', which can be informed by an understanding of paranoiac knowledge. The mirror stage is an identification which transforms the subject: analytic theory describes it as the effects of the imago [the image as in Bergson, which reflects both subjective perceptions and aspects of the reality being imaged?]. The stage actually shows an emerging 'symbolic matrix' which includes the formation of the I, at an early stage, before 'it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject'.

This ideal I also generates secondary identifications, including those affected by normalized libidinal energy, but the main point is that this establishes the agency of the ego before any social determination. It is a fictional construction, something never reduced for individuals, related only to the actual subject coming into being, 'asymptotically' [a dictionary definition offers: 
A curve and a line that get closer but do not intersect are examples of a curve and a line that are asymptotic to each other]. The I therefore remains discordant with personal reality [hence the original tension that dominates the personality].

The subject sees the full form of his body as an exterior gestalt, of which he is a constituent part. It is something larger than him and it contrasts with those 'turbulent movements' that are felt as animating forces. In this way, a sense of permanence is symbolized for the mental activity of the I, but at the same time, an 'alienating destination'. It is still connected with a notion of the body as statue, haunted by phantoms or automata that seem to actually dominate the making of the external world and his place in it. In this way, the mirror image is 'the threshold of the visible world' (3). The mirrored image also appears in hallucinations and dreams, or in phenomena such as doubling, which are found in all 'psychical realities'.

Supporting evidence for the effects of an exterior gestalt on the interior of organisms can be found when female pigeons develop sexual maturity when they see another member of the species, or their own image in a mirror. Locusts also change to the gregarious form when they are presented with similar images. This may have implications for our notion of what counts as beauty — 'both formative and erogenic'. However, mimicry also helps with 'heteromorphic identification' as in the significance of space and territory [references to an obscure debate about different ethological accounts here].

Paranoiac knowledge also shows a social dialectic which explains why human knowledge is more autonomous than animal knowledge in terms of 'the field of force of desire', but still determined by a notion of a limited notion of reality [as in surrealist arguments].

The mirror stage also indicates 'an organic insufficiency in [human notions of] natural reality' (4), although there is a tendency for 'a primordial Discord' to spill out, shown in a certain uneasiness and lack of motor coordination in the neonatal. There is other evidence to for the 'real specific prematurity of birth in man', as agreed by embryologists [in the course of this, we learn that the cortex can be seen as 'the intra-organic mirror'].

The need for postnatal development is experienced as a notion of time and its dialectic which is decisive in the understanding of ourselves as individuals in history. In the mirror stage, we move from insufficiency to anticipation. The stages of spatial identification lead to a succession of fantasies, moving from a fragmented body image to a more total form, and finally to 'the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity'. Together this succession of 'the ego's verifications' structure the entire mental development.

We still experience a fragmented body in dreams featuring 'aggressive disintegration', disjointed limbs, separated organs, just as in a Bosch painting. We also find the fragmented body in the notions of phantasms about fragility, including schizoid and hysterical symptoms. By contrast, the I itself appears in dreams as a fortress or stadium, a secure area within a contested one, the latter symbolizing the id. We also find lots of metaphors in waking life about fortifications, which can be associated with obsessional neurosis and its 'inversion, isolation, reduplication, cancellation and displacement' (5). These subjective data help us see that experience can be understood as 'partaking of the nature of a linguistic technique', but we still need some grasp of objective data to provide 'guiding grid for a method of symbolic reduction'.

We can see in the defences of the ego, 'a genetic order', as argued by Anna Freud [order in the sense of a sequence apparently where hysterical repression is more archaic than obsessional inversion, which features isolation, and less developed than paranoid alienation where the individual I is deflected onto a social I]. In this way, we can see a dialectic between the I and 'socially elaborated situations'.

The end of the mirror stage is a moment where all of human knowledge is mediated 'through the desire of the other'; where objects are made abstractly equivalent 'by the cooperation of others'. The main function of the I then becomes regulating dangerous instinctual thrusts. This function finds itself normalized by cultural developments. We see this with the regulation of the sexual object by the Oedipus complex.

There may be an original 'libidinal investment '(6) in our activities [so earlier theorists have argued] in the form of 'primary narcissism', but this notion also reveals 'semantic latencies'. We can see this in the opposition between this original individual libido and sexual libido. Sexual libido was initially explained in terms of destructive instincts, but what the opposition really shows is a conflict between narcissistic libido and the 'alienating function of the I'. This also shows in [a necessary?] aggressivity in relation to the other, present even in acts of charity. These initial explanations prefigure the 'existential negativity' found in contemporary accounts of being and nothingness [presumably Sartrians?].

However, that philosophy, together with so-called existential psychoanalysis, sees negativity without realizing that the ego does not have a self-sufficient consciousness, that its supposed autonomy is an 'illusion', that these dimensions are misrecognised. Existential psychoanalysis operates in the current context, where societies are dominated by utilitarian functions, and where individuals' anxiety is increased by this limited but prevalent social bond [Lacan calls this a 'concentrational' social bond, which a note on p.7 helpfully explains alludes to the experiences of life in a concentration camp.] As a result, the explanations given of various 'subjective impasses' by existential psychology are paradoxical: freedom is most authentic in prison, people experience increasing demands for commitments, but also an increasing impotence to grasp or understand situations, voyeuristic or sadistic idealizations of sex, the culmination of a personality in suicide, the notion of the other that can only be satisfied by 'Hegelian murder' [total abolition of the other in the name of transcendence?].

None of these propositions apply in actual experience. Instead, the ego should not be seen as a matter of perception and consciousness or as organized by some 'reality principle', itself the result of a 'scientific [positivist?] prejudice'. We should start instead with misrecognition [I have translated meconnaissance despite the translator's warnings] found throughout the structures of the ego. That appears in denial [Verneinung], but there are other latent effects [to be exposed by reflection on 'the level of fatality, which is where the id manifests itself', (7)].

We can now grasp the inertia of some formations of the I. We can also understand the 'most general formula for madness' and 'the most extensive definition of neurosis': it will all be explained by the 'captation of the subject by the situation' [captation seems to mean at its simplest a reaching after, an attempt at capture]. General madness extends to life outside the asylum. We can understand the sufferings of neurotics and psychotics as a general set of 'passions of the soul', and when we examine the ways in which psychoanalysis seems to threaten communities, we can see the 'deadening of the passions in society'. Psychoanalysis, as a kind of modern anthropology, operating at the 'junction of nature and culture' can explain that 'imaginary servitude that love must always undo again' [Lacan describes this servitude as a 'knot'].

We can't rely on altruism, philanthropy, idealism, reform or pedagogy because they are underpinned by aggressivity. However, there is no guarantee that we can bring people to see the other in their full otherness, although psychoanalytic practice may bring people to 'that point where the real journey begins'.

The signification of the phallus (1958)

[Intended, as with the others, to rebuke existing theories and open up new possibilities]

The 'unconscious castration complex' (281) produces a characteristic knot. It produces certain symptoms found in 'neuroses perversions and psychoses', and it also develops the development of the subject. The subject is installed in an unconscious position which is necessary to identify with 'the ideal type of his sex', and to respond appropriately to [hetero?]sexual relations, and even to raise kids adequately.

It seems paradoxical at first that men should adopt characteristic manly attributes only after a threat of castration. Freud suggested this would produce an essential disturbance of sexuality, with irreducible effects on the masculine unconscious and penis envy in women. There are no biological explanations. The very necessity of the Oedipus myth shows this. Nor is there some shared historical amnesia. So how did the link between the murder of the father and the 'pact of the primordial law' emerge, and why was castration the punishment for incest?

The answer lies in examining the relation of the subject to the phallus. We are not talking about anatomical features here [but we might be later?] , hence we can extend the notion to women. There are four issues: (a) little girls also see themselves as temporarily castrated, deprived of the phallus, initially by their mother and then by their father in a form of transference; (b) the mother also possesses the phallus; (c) the significance of castration appears fully in symptoms only if it is seen as originating in the castration of the mother; (d) genital maturation seems to produce the phallic stage, associated with 'imaginary dominance of the phallic', and 'masturbatory jouissance', but also the localization of jouissance in the female clitoris functioning as a phallus. Genitality does not extend in the phallic stage to the idea of the vagina and genital penetration.

Ignorance [of genital penetration?] looks like classic misrecognition [my speech recognition software cannot spell méconnaissance] and it may be false [meaning that it is not recognized as proper sexuality? Possibly that it is explained in a false way?]. This is why the phallic stage has been described as arising from [straightforward] repression [and not from the alienation of language?]  with its functions seen as the symptoms. These have been variously seen as phobia, perversion or both. Sometimes the object of a phobia can be transmuted into a fetish. However, these accounts do not take account of current fashions for describing object relations. The notion of part object 'has never been subjected to criticism' (283) [Lacan ascribes this concept to the work of Karl Abraham]. The discussion now seems to have been abandoned, but at least it referred to Freudian doctrine, unlike the current 'degradation of psychoanalysis consequent on its American transplantation'.

There are three diverse accounts. Ernest Jones in his account introduces the notion of aphanisis [defined in a note as the disappearance of sexual desire]. He does identify the problem of the relation between castration and desire, but does not see that this might help us develop some insight [maybe — a contorted sentence with lots of conditionals and double negatives]. His attempt to use a letter written by Freud in justification is 'particularly amusing'. He appears to make a case for re-establishing an equality of natural rights between men and women, concluding with a biblical quotation that God created them equal. He tries to see the phallus as a classic part object, something inside the mother's body, but fails to see that this view originates in infantile fantasies during an early Oedipal formulation.

What produce the paradox for Freud? He failed to articulate it adequately, so it is not surprising that followers lost their way. Lacan's own commentary arose from his own interest in using the notion of the signifier, opposed to the signified as in modern linguistics to grasp analytic phenomena. Linguistic notions like this postdate Freud, but he has anticipated their formula. Freud's discovery helps us grasp the full implications of the opposition between signifier and signified: the signifier 'is an active function in determining certain effects' and the signifiable 'appears submitting to its mark' by becoming the signified 'through that passion' [The essay on the meaning of the phallus, cited below says that this also explains the incessant 'sliding' of the signified under the signifier].

We have to refer back to Freud designating the unconscious as 'that other scene' which has effects. We can discover these by looking at that 'chain of materially unstable elements that constitutes language'. Effects are determined by the 'double play of combination and substitution in the signifier' as in metonymy and metaphor, 'the two aspects that generate the signified'. These effects determine the 'institution of the subject'. We can derive a topology to replace the simple description of the structure of the symptom.

It [does he mean that it which is also called the id?] speaks in the Other. The Other is a locus evoked by speech involving any relation allowing intervention by the Other. That it can speak shows that the subject 'finds its signifying place' before any signified is actually specified. This shows us that the subject is constituted with a definite 'splitting'.

We see the function of the phallus here. The phallus is not a fantasy, not an imaginary effect, not just an object of any kind. It 'accentuates the reality' of any relation. It is never just the biological organ that it symbolises. Freud's a reference to an ancient simulacrum [the royal sceptre or other phallic objects?] is not trivial.

The phallus is a signifier. It leads us to the interest subjective dimensions. It is intended to 'designate as a whole the effects of the signified' conditioned by its presence as a signifier. This presents produces effects.

When man speaks, his needs 'are subjected to demand, they return to him alienated' (286). Speech involves turning needs into 'signifying form as such' and this can be emitted from the locus of the Other. This is a primal form of repression of needs, but it also gives rise to something that appears in man as desire. We know from analytic experience that desire is 'paradoxical, deviant, erratic, eccentric, even scandalous' compared to need. Under pressure from moralists, sometimes psychoanalysis tries to reduce desire to need.

A proper analysis would start with the notion of demand, which is always connected to frustration. It is not just a demand for satisfactions. 'It is demand of the presence or of an absence', seen in the primordial relation to the mother. It constitutes the Other as something privileged in satisfying needs, something that can deprive needs of their satisfaction. This privilege does not extend to the Other being able to give love. Instead, demand can see any particular thing as proof [or denial] of love, and the satisfaction for needs as a crushing of the demand for love [a way of placating demands for love?] [apparently there are illustrations in accounts of child rearing]. This places particular satisfactions beyond demand, although they still preserve traces of the unconditional demand for love. Desire offers a less absolute substitute for this unconditional demand, permitting particular needs to be satisfied without having to meet any absolute proofs of love. Desire works by subtracting the appetite for satisfaction from the demand for love, by splitting them.

Sexual relations take place in this 'closed field of desire' (287). We find the same enigma in sexual relations, a double signification, both a demand for needs to be satisfied as a proof of love from the Other, but also a cause of desire, for both subject and Other. This is what lies behind all the distortions appearing in psychoanalysis. It is disguised in sexual conduct by displacing it onto genital activity and developing an notion of tenderness which is an orientation to the Other. This is well-intentioned, but 'fraudulent nonetheless', despite being supported by various moralizing activities by French analysts.

Man can never be whole or have a total personality. He is doomed to constant displacement and condensation when exercising his functions. This shows he is 'a subject to the signifier'. The phallus is the privileged signifier joining 'the role of the logos... with the advent of desire'. This signifier is 'the most tangible element in the real of sexual copulation, and also the most symbolic', literally equivalent to the logical copula. It's turigidity also 'is the image of the vital flow as it is transmitted in generation'. However, it can only act behind a veil, as something latent just as anything signifiable does when it becomes a signifier. This is shown by what follows when it is unveiled, as in paintings in Pompeii, or when it disappears accompanied by shame. It acts to 'strike the signified' in a 'signifying concatenation'

The establishment of the subject by the signifier is complementary, and lies behind the splitting of the subject and its completion in an intervention by a signifier. Thus the subject organizes his life by striking [in the sense above?] everything he signifies in a drive to be loved for himself. And what is found in primary repression [as above?] can be signified just as the phallus marks the signified, '(by virtue of which [which demonstrates?] the unconscious is language)' (288). Overall, the discussion of human development is so lengthy that's we can only use 'the phallus as an algorithm', and 'rely on the echoes of the experience that we share'.

The phallus as a signifier means that it is located in the Other and that's where subjects can access it. However, it appears 'veiled' as 'ratio an indication of proportion? [reason for? Rationalisation of?] of the Others desire' [note that when Lacan introduces the term ratio, just above, he refers to a musical term, the '"mean and extreme ratio" of harmonic division']. This implies that the Other must also be recognised as a subject, also split by the act of signifying. We can find some support for these views in work on 'psychological genesis'. Klein notes that the child sees that the mother contains the phallus, for example.

The main point is that development is ordered by 'the dialectic of the demand for love and the test of desire' (289). [according to the author of the Meaning of the Phallus: '
To the extent that signifiers are able to articulate this thrust {the drive to express needs in signifiers} , the result is a series of demands. To the extent that they cannot, the dynamic movement remains operative but is now subject to a continual displacement whose pattern is unconsciously structured, and it is in this form that it goes by the name of "desire." Sex is important because it is the primary location for this] The signifier of desire must not be alien to the demand for love. Thus we see that if the desire of the mother is seen as signified by the phallus, 'the child wishes to be the phallus in order to satisfy that desire'. In other words, relating to the desire of the other involves the subject being content to try to offer anything that may correspond to the phallus, whether or not the child actually has a phallus — 'the demand for love... requires that he be the phallus' whatever the reality [difficult stuff here].

This initial attempt at a satisfying relation can be seen as a 'test of the desire of the Other'. The subject learns not only that he may not have a real phallus, but that the mother does not have it. This moment is crucial for the development of any subsequent symptoms like phobia or consequences like penis envy attached to the castration complex. This is where desire is connected with threat or nostalgia, because it is focused on the phallic signifier. At this stage the father also introduces 'the law' and the way in which has since done can affect the development of symptoms or consequences.

The function of the phallus also shows us 'structures that will govern the relations between the sexes' [so this is the controversial bit where conventional relations between the sexes are justified as being somehow natural or an inevitable part of the normal development of the personality]. The relations turn around either being or having and when referred to the phallus as signifier, this can produce two opposed effects — 'giving reality to the subject' on the one hand [the signifying dimensions of the relation], and on the other hand 'derealising' [not grasping or avoiding or managing their reality?] the actual relations which are to be signified.

A notion of 'seeming' replaces the notion of having. This protects those that have [the phallus or the penis? There are several confusions of the two?], and will 'mask its lack in the other' [note we are shifting to small 'o's]. This projects all the 'ideal or typical manifestations [value judgments here] of the behaviour of each sex, including the act of copulation itself, into the comedy'. The demand for sexual satisfaction 'is always a demand for love', with desire reducing to demand.

This seems paradoxical but it explains why sometimes women 'will reject an essential part of femininity, namely, all her [natural? biological? conventional?] attributes in the masquerade' (290) in order to be a phallus, a 'signifier of the desire of the Other'. In order to be desired as well as loved she has to be something 'which she is not'. She will find the signifier of her own desire in the body of a male partner, from whom she demands love. The actual organ which has a signifying function 'takes on the value of a fetish' [only heterosexual coupling is acceptable in the demands of love?]. The actual experience of love for women deprives her of the signifying power of possession of the phallus [maybe] because her desire converges on the male phallus/penis.

That also explains why the lack of satisfaction in women, 'frigidity', is 'relatively well-tolerated', and why they feel less of a need to repress desire [very puzzling, and of course, politically highly dubious — women do not need to repress their own desires, because of their attachment to heterosexual coupling which implies that men can manage it? Or that they are more interested in the demands of love and less concern to locate that in satisfying heterosexual conduct?].

For men, however the connection between demand and desire, as Freud noted, lead to 'a specific depreciation... of love'. Men find satisfaction of the demand for love in heterosexual relations. For men, the signifier of the phallus suggests that the relation between desire and the demand for love in women is constituted by his activity [again assumes a confusion between phallus and penis?].  However, the male desire for the phallus will transfer this to other women who offer other signifying possibilities 'either as a virgin as a prostitute' [very weird and apologetic stuff]. There is therefore 'a centrifugal tendency of the genital drive in love life', but this is not all good for men — impotence is more difficult to bear, and the repression of desire becomes more important [if men are to be monogamous?]. This is not to argue that infidelity is 'proper to' the male function [it is the emphasis on function which we might use to defend Lacan against a simple support for patriarchy?]. Women can also experience 'the same redoubling', although the partners of unfaithful women find it difficult to become the 'Other of Love as such', especially if they also see themselves as a substitute, especially if 'he is deprived of what he gives' [that is, rendered as some object of love, not just as someone seeking to satisfy his desires? I can't help thinking that this only makes sense given the underpinning cultural understandings of the French educated petit bourgeoisie towards adultery]

Male homosexuality is a matter of desire. Female homosexuality 'as observation shows' arises from a disappointment that only reinforces the demand for love. There is a need for further examination of this difference, especially as refusals of demands are sometimes resolved by 'a return to the function of the mask' as a form of identification. Femininity finds refuge in this mask. The repression inherent in the 'phallic mark of desire' can make human virility 'itself seem feminine'.

We can also examine another characteristic only hinted at in Freud. He says there is only one libido, and that is masculine in nature. The most profound thing about the phallic signifier, as the ancients realized is that it is embodied [in phallic symbols?]  [and at this point we end with two infuriating Greek words!! —they might be 'phallos' {phallic pillars} and 'hermai' {representations of Hermes, messenger of the Gods so associated with language, as an erect penis. Thanks to the anonymous author(s) of The Meaning of the Phallus a very thorough discussion of this essay and others in Lacan, collected in No Subject: an encyclopedia of Lacanian psychoanlysis ]. So --
modern societies also embody the phallus in actual penises,  models of them, phallic symbols and the like? Lacan himself is not equating the two but suggesting that ordinary folk still do so?