What Does Lacan Say About… Desire?
Our desires are not our own, they are the Other’s
There are two relatively straightforward ways in which we can understand one of Lacan’s most well-known maxims, that “Man’s desire is the desire of the Other”? (Seminar XI, p.235). Firstly, that desire is essentially a desire for recognition from this ‘Other’; secondly that desire is for the thing that we suppose the Other desires, which is to say, the thing that the Other lacks.
In commenting on the way that desire repeats and insists through the transference and the signifier in psychoanalytic work, Lacan verifies our first reading, that desire is fundamentally a desire for recognition:
“The necessary and sufficient reason for the repetitive insistence of these desires in the transference and their permanent remembrance in a signifier that repression has appropriated – that is, in which the repressed returns – is found if one accepts the idea that in these determinations the desire for recognition dominates the desire that is to be recognised, preserving it as such until it is recognised” (Ecrits, 431).
In other words, desire pushes for recognition. It is less a question of what we desire as much as it is that we be recognised. Moreover, Lacan believes that this dependence on the other for recognition is responsible for structuring not only our desires, but even our drives:
“To return psychoanalysis to a veridical path, it is worth recalling that analysis managed to go so far in the revelation of man’s desires only by following, in the veins of neurosis and the marginal subjectivity of the individual, the structure proper to a desire that thus proves to model it at an unexpected depth – namely, the desire to have his desire recognised. This desire, in which it is literally verified that man’s desire is alienated in the other’s desire, in effect structures the drives discovered in analysis, in accordance with all the vicissitudes of the logical substitutions in their source, aim, and object” (Ecrits, 343).
So firstly our desire is a desire for recognition. But secondly it is also the desire for what we believe the other desires. We can see this as a consequence of the desire for recognition: what we experience as our own desire is always going to be, in a certain sense, the other’s desire, the other that we desire recognition from.
We can understand this ‘other’ in two ways: first, as indicated with a lower case o, the other person, our counterpart, our semblable; second, as the Other with a capital O, a more ‘otherly’ other, the essential feature of which being that although we never know quite what their desire is, we are on a constant quest to find an answer. This big Other might be another person in their essentially enigmatic dimension; or it might be the assumed virtues, morals and ideals of our culture and upbringing. One of the reasons why it is useful to put the capital O on this maxim of man’s desire being the desire of the Other is that it renders this ‘otherness’ of the Other more stark.
We never fully know exactly what the Other desires or why it desires it, or in what way we ourselves might be implicated. For the subject, desire is thus a constant process of questioning what the Other has or desires to have. In an address to the British Psychoanalytical Society in 1951 Lacan sums this up in saying:
“The object of man’s desire, and we are not the first to say this, is essentially an object desired by someone else. One object can become equivalent to another, owing to the effect producted by this intermediary, in making it possible for objects to be exchanged and compared. This process tends to diminish the special significance of any one particular object, but at the same time it brings into view the existence of objects without number” (Lacan, ‘Some Reflections on the Ego’, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 34, 11-17; reproduced in Furman and Levy (eds), Influential Papers from the 1950s, Karnac, 2003, p.295 – 296).
Equally, in the late sixties Lacan says:
“Desire full stop is always the desire of the Other. Which basically means that we are always asking the Other what he desires” (My Teaching, p.38).
This is the second way to understand the idea of our desire being the desire of the Other: as a desire for what we think the Other desires or lacks. So taking these two readings of Lacan’s maxim together, the lesson Lacan has for us is that the consequence of striving for recognition from the Other is that we can never ‘simply’ desire. Our desire is not something innate inside us. Indeed, for Lacan our desires are not even our own – we always have to desire in the second degree, finding a path to our own desire and our own recognition by asking the question of what the Other desires. We have to desire things that are desirable to the Other – whether other people or the Otherness of our socio-cultural context – and through that process the desire of the Other becomes our own. This is an idea that has its heritage in Hegel’s philsophy, as Lacan acknowledges in the Ecrits:
“Man’s very desire is constituted, he [Hegel] tells us, under the sign of mediation: it is the desire to have one’s desire recognised. Its object is a desire, that of other people, in the sense that man has no object that is constituted for his desire without some mediation. This is clear from his earliest needs, in that, for example, his very food must be prepared; and we find this anew in the whole development of his satisfaction, beginning with the conflict between master and slave, through the entire dialectic of labour” (Ecrits, 182).
To desire is to answer the question ‘What does the Other desire?’
However, this does not simply mean that we just identify with the other and automatically take whatever they desire as our own. Indeed, it is not always clear what the Other wants. When we call our desires our own what we really mean is only that we have succeeded in seeking out the gaps in the desire of the Other, and carving out a space for ourselves there:
“… It must be posited that, as a characteristic of an animal at the mercy of language, man’s desire is the Other’s desire.
This concerns a totally different function than that of primary identification mentioned above, for it does not involve the assumption by the subject of the other’s insignia, but rather the condition that the subject find the constitutive structure of his desire in the same gap opened up by the effect of signifiers in those who come to represent the Other for him, insofar as his demand is subjected to them” (Ecrits, 628).
Although Lacan’s maxim is that man’s desire is the desire of the Other, he does not picture our desires as clones of the Other’s. Rather, part of the job of creating our own subjectivity is to generate some autonomy between us and the Other, which in the first instance is manifested as the mother, or motherer. In order for him to become a subject, the helpless infant must first identify the mother’s desire, and then pick a position in response to it. A baby may get fed when he cries, whether or not his cry was a cry for food, for warmth, or for a change of nappy. The most urgent task in the development of his own desire is in coming up with an answer to the question of what the Other (in this case, his mother) wants, and seeking for himself a position in respect of that unfathomable ‘x’. Lacan characterises this dilemma in the following way in Seminar V:
“It is not just frustration as such, namely something more or less in the real order which has been given or which has not been given to the subject, which is the important point; it is the way that the subject has aimed at, has located this desire of the other which is the mother’s desire, and with respect to this desire it is to make him recognise, or pass, or propose to become with respect to something which is an X of desire in the mother, to become or not the one who responds, to become or not the desired being” (Seminar V, 12.03.58., p.3 -4).
In that seminar Lacan introduces the famous graph of desire, and the paper entitled ‘The Subversion of the Subject’ in the Ecrits follows on from the presentation of the graph of desire in Seminar V. Lacan makes the question of what the (m)Other desires – ‘Che vuoi?‘, ‘What do you want?’ – a kind of rites of passage for the infant, the answer to which will give the him a place from where he can answer the same question put to himself – what do I desire? Later in life this question might be echoed in a psychoanalysis as the patient lies on the couch asking himself what the analyst wants of him. Here is how Lacan puts this in the paper in the Ecrits:
“This is why the Other’s question [la question de l'Autre] – that comes back to the subject from the place from which he expects an oracular reply – which takes some such form as ‘Che vuoi?‘, ‘What do you want?’, is the question that best leads the subject to the path of his own desire, assuming that, thanks to the know-how of a partner known as a psychoanalyst, he takes up that question, even without knowing it, in the following form: ‘What does he want from me?’
It is this superimposed level of structure that will nudge my graph [see Graph 3] towards its completed form, inserting itself there first like the outline of a question mark planted in the circle of the capital A, for Other, symbolising the question it signifies with a disconcerting collineation” (Ecrits, 814-815).
However, even if he has succeeded in constructing his own desire from the answer he has given to the question of the Other’s desire, the fact that his desire has been premised on the Other’s desire means that there will forever be a world of difference between what he desires and what he actually wants. The two will never be in the same place at the same time. When the question of what the Other desires manifests itself, or is brought to the fore, it,
“… Leaves it up to the subject to butt up against the question of his essence, in that he may not misrecognise that what he desires presents itself to him as what he does not want – a form assumed by negation in which misrecognition is inserted in a very odd way, the misrecognition, of which he himself is unaware, by which he transfers the permanence of his desire to an ego that is nevertheless obviously intermittent, and, inversely, protects himself from his desire by attributing to it these very intermittences” (Ecrits, 814-815).
There results a gap between unconscious desire and the desire of your ego (what you might be said to want), as expressed in demand:
“For it is clear here that man’s continued nescience of his desire is not so much nescience of what he demands, which may after all be isolated, as nescience of whence he desires” (Ecrits, 814).
In a small footnote in The Interpretation of Dreams, we find a passage in which Freud appears to assert precisely this division between the subject and what he wants:
“No doubt a wish-fulfillment must bring pleasure; but the question then arises “To whom?” To the person who has the wish, of course. But, as we know, a dreamer’s relation to his wishes is a quite peculiar one. He repudiates them and censors them – he has no liking for them, in short. So that their fulfilment will given him no pleasure, but just the opposite; and experience shows that this opposite appears in the form of anxiety, a fact which has still to be explained. Thus a dreamer in his relation to his dream-wishes can only be compared to an amalgamation of two separate people who are linked by some important common element” (SE V, 580, n1).
The phallus is the indicator of the desire of the Other
So the problem of the infant is to find an answer to the Che vuoi?, to the (m)Other’s enigmatic desire, and carve out a place for his own desire in the gap he finds in the Other. Lacan refers to this as a “test constituted by desire” (Ecrits, 693) and he gives a very particular name to the presumed object of the mother’s desire, to the thing which she herself lacks: the phallus. In using this term Lacan intends to invoke the full weight of its Freudian connotation – that is, as the penis – but to go one better and make it the very signifier of desire, a kind of permanent marker of this fundamental lack, a signifier that there is something missing from the (m)Other.
“The fact that the phallus is a signifier requires that it be in the place of the Other that the subject have access to it. But since this signifier is there only as veiled and as ratio of the Other’s desire, it is the Other’s desire as such that the subject is required to recognise – in other words, the other insofar as he himself is a subject divided by the signifying Spaltung [splitting]” (Ecrits, 693).
What this passage tells us is that the phallus is not the object of desire, because it remains veiled and enigmatic, but rather it is like an indicator that points to the fact that there is something beyond the (m)Other that she does not have. This realisation of the mother’s lack or desire is the crucial turning point in the development of subjectivity for Lacan:
“Clinical work shows us that the test constituted by the Other’s desire is decisive, not in the sense that the subject learns by it whether or not he has a real phallus, but in the sense that he learns that his mother does not have one. This is the moment in experience without which no symptomatic consequence (phobia) or structural consequence (Penisneid) related to the castration complex can take effect. This seals the conjunction of desire, insofar as the phallic signifier is its mark, with the threat of or nostalgia based on not-having” (Ecrits, 693).
We might compare the phallus as a signifier of lack to a war memorial, like the Cenotaph in London, a memorial or a marker to lack that shows that something is missing. As such, it would be wrong to reduce the phallus to the penis, even under the threat of its castration. But this comparison has a limit because what for Lacan is crucial about the phallus is that it remain veiled – we don’t actually know what it is. As such, it does not have the status of an object. It is only the fact that it is veiled that makes it so potent a signifier for desire, because by being veiled it suggests both that there is something there, but that it is not clear what it is. Let’s briefly look at two examples that Lacan cites to demonstrate this veiled phallus functioning as the signifier of desire.
Firstly, in Seminar V Lacan says that the hysteric arouses desire by making other people believe that the true object of desire lies beyond the veil. The hysteric uses the veil to stimulate desire, knowing full well that if the veil is removed, desire is completely extinguished:
“The hysteric’s provocation, is precisely something which tends to constitute desire, but beyond what is called defence, to indicate the place beyond this appearance, this mask, something which is essentially what is presented to desire, and which it of course cannot accede to because it is something which is presented behind a veil, but on the other hand of course not being able to be found there. It is not worth your while opening my bodice, because you will not find the phallus there, but if I put my hand to my bodice, it is so that you may designate, behind my bodice, the phallus, namely the signifier of desire” (Seminar V, 07.05.58., p.11).
As Lacan says in Seminar II, the lack that is signified by the phallus “… is beyond anything which can represent it. It is only ever represented as a reflection on a veil” (Seminar II, p.223). And in this example, the veil and the phallus are to all intents and purposes identical – the phallus is represented only by a veil; it is only because it is veiled that it is the phallus, the signifier of desire.
The second example takes this idea further, showing that there is in reality no difference between the signifier of desire and desire itself. In this passage from ‘The Subversion of the Subject’ in the Ecrits, Lacan is telling us that for a woman to be irresistible to a man she need only put a prosthetic phallus under her dress to demonstrate that it is the phallus as something veiled – rather than the penis which she obviously does not have – that signifies desire:
“Such is woman concealed behind her veil: it is the absence of the penis that makes her the phallus, the object of desire. Evoke this absence in a more precise way by having her wear a cute fake one under a fancy dress, and you, or rather she, will have plenty to tell us about: the effect is 100 percent guaranteed, for men who don’t beat around the bush, that is” (Ecrits, 825).
It is by virtue of being a signifier of some kind of lack in the Other that the phallus as a concept for Lacan retains its link to the Freudian notion of castration, and by extension the penis (because in Freud’s work we only ever find the penis given value against the possibility of its loss). But Lacan makes reference in the Ecrits not to Freud but rather to the Greek mythology that provided Freud’s own inspiration. Rather than turning to the story of Oedipus, Lacan takes the myth of Iris and Osiris, in which the scattered body parts of Osiris are found and pieced back together by his lover Isis, with the exception of his penis, which remains lost and to which she constructs a memorial (a signifier of lack). In the passage below, Lacan firstly presents desire as alienated from us in its infinite metonymy, meaning basically that it is impossible for us to put our finger on exactly what it is that we desire, much like how the phallus cannot be the object of desire because it only has a function in sustaining desire so long as it is veiled. The phallus is as such nothing more than the signifier of the metonymical nature of desire. He then shows us how the penis can never be equivalent to the phallus because, once castrated, it cannot be located back on the imaginary body. Castration (of the penis) is really just a reified version of the castrating experience of the effect of the signifier on the subject:
“Less still than the nothing that circulates in the round of significations that stir men up, desire is the wake left behind by its trajectory and like the signifier’s brand on the speaking subject’s shoulder. It is not so much a pure passion of the signified as a pure action of the signifier, which stops at the moment when the living being, having become a sign, renders this action meaningless [insignifiante].
This moment of cutting is haunted by the form of a bloody scrap: the pound of flesh that life pays in order to turn it into the signifier of signifiers, which it is impossible to restore, as such, to the imaginary body; it is the lost phallus of embalmed Osiris” (Ecrits, 629-630).
Desire exceeds need and uses demand as its vehicle
Perhaps Lacan’s most well-known statement regarding the difference between need, demand and desire comes in the paper on ‘The Signification of the Phallus’ in the Ecrits, the most succinct passage from which is the following:
“… Desire is neither the appetite for satisfaction nor the demand for love, but the difference that results from the subtraction of the first from the second, the very phenomenon of their splitting (Spaltung)” (Ecrits, 690-692).
In other words, desire is produced where a demand goes further than demanding what is needed. Lacan spends a good deal of time in Seminar V, contemporary with the paper in the Ecrits, expanding on the difference between need, demand and desire. There he presents desire as sitting in the no-man’s-land between need and the way that need is articulated in demand:
“[Desire] is produced in the margin which exists between the demand for the satisfaction of need and the demand for love” (Seminar V, 11.06.58., p.4).
In the following passage from Seminar V, Lacan goes into more depth in describing the transformation from need to demand to desire:
“Let us try to articulate what we mean by desire as such. We pose desire in this dialectic as something which is found on the little mobile [the Calder mobile, as one of his pupils describes the graph of desire], beyond the demand. Why is there need for a beyond of the demand? There is need for a beyond of the demand in so far as I told you, that demand by the necessities of its articulation, deflects, changes, transposes need. There is therefore the possibility of a residue….
“The fashion in which desire must appear in the human subject, depends on what is determined by the dialectic of demand….
“Nevertheless, because need has already passed through the filter of demand to the plane and the stage of unconditionality, it is in the guise, as one might say, of a second negation that we are going to find beyond, what it is precisely a question of finding, which is the margin of what is lost in this demand, and the beyond is precisely the character of absolute condition which is in desire, what presents itself in desire as such is this something which is of course borrowed from need. How could we construct our desires, if not by borrowing the raw material from our needs? But this passes over to a state of being unconditioned, not because it is a question of something borrowed from a particular need, but of an absolute condition out of all proportion to the need for any object whatsoever, and in so far as this condition is perhaps called for precisely in this, that it abolishes here the dimension of the other, that it is a requirement in which the other does not have to reply yes or no. It is this which is the fundamental dimension, character of human desire as such”. (Seminar V, 07.05.58, p.11-12).
In other words, you express your needs in the form of a demand, but in the very process of making that demand something of the need is left out or leftover from the need. Lacan calls this a residue or a margin and it is what becomes desire. It is unconditional in that it outstrips the other’s ability to respond to the demand with a yes or no. The raw material of desire is therefore a transformed or mangled need, mangled through its very articulation in a demand, mangled to the point where it is not a question of getting your needs satisfied any more:
“In this way, demand annuls (aufhebt) the particularity of everything that can be granted, by transmuting it into a proof of love, and the very satisfactions demand obtains for need are debased (sich erniedrigt) to the point of being no more than the crushing brought on by the demand for love” (Ecrits, 690-692).
The important thing here is to distinguish desire from demand. Desire is not demand, even though it is often difficult to tell the two apart because of the fact that becasuse desire uses demand as its vehicle, they co-occur:
“Although it always shows through in demand, as we see here, desire is nevertheless beyond demand” (Ecrits, 634).
As we have seen with the examples of dreams and the object a, desire never quite shows its face, never appears as the desire for an object. In this passage from Seminar XI, Lacan continues by presenting desire as the underside of demand. Whilst desire is transmitted in demand, using demand as its vehicle, desire cannot be satisfied by anything that could be given in response to this demand:
“Desire is situated in dependence on demand – which, by being articulated in signifiers, leaves a metonymic remainder that runs under it, an element that is not indeterminate, which is a condition both, absolute and unapprehensible, an element necessarily lacking, unsatisfied, impossible, misconstrued, (méconnu), an element that is called desire” (Seminar XI, p.154).
A joke that Freud tells in Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious illustrates well the point that Lacan is making about how desire differs from both demand (what you ask for) and need (what you cannot do without). The joke goes:
“An impoverished individual borrowed 25 florins from a prosperous acquaintance, with many asseverations of his necessitous circumstances. The very same day his benefactor met him again in a restaurant with a plate of salmon mayonnaise in front of him. The benefactor reproached him: “What? You borrow money from me and then order yourself salmon mayonnaise? Is that what you’ve used my money for?” “I don’t understand you”, replied the object of the attack; “if I haven’t any money I can’t eat salmon mayonnaise, and if I have some money I mustn’t eat salmon mayonnaise. Well, then, when am I to eat salmon mayonnaise?” (SE VIII, 49-50).
Commenting on this joke in Seminar V, Lacan says:
“[The joke shows]… the relationship between the signifier and desire, and the fact that desire has profoundly changed its accent, has been subverted, has been made ambiguous, by its passage through the paths of the signifier. Let us be clear what that means. It is always in the name of a certain register that makes the Other intervene beyond the one making the demand, that any satisfaction is accorded, and precisely this profoundly perverts the system of demand and of the response to demand. “Clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick….” I do not need to remind you of the seven or eight or nine works of mercy. It is striking enough in their very expression, that in clothing the naked, one could say that if the demand were something that should be directly sustained in its fullness, why not clothe the naked man or woman at Christian Dior’s?…The same goes for feeding the hungry. Why not let them get drunk?” (Seminar V, 04.12.057., p.6).
To paraphrase Lacan’s point, the joke shows that desire is like a ‘perverted’ form of need by the very process of expressing that need in the form of a demand. The young benefactor obviously needs food, but his hunger can obviously be satisfied by something less than the most expensive and elaborate meals. So we find desire in what ‘pushes beyond’ need in the very expression of a demand.
Lacan gives us another example of this in Seminar II. Referring again to Freud, this time to The Interpretation of Dreams, he cites a passage in which Freud reports his infant daughter Anna dreaming of the delicious fruit she has been denied during the day. Whilst we can read this simply as the undistorted fulfillment of a wish, Lacan draws our attention to the ‘excessiveness’ of this ‘wish’:
“We never stop long enough to consider the hallucination of the child’s dream or the dream of the starving. We don’t notice one fine detail, which is that when the child wanted cherries during the day, she doesn’t dream only of cherries. To cite the young Anna Freud, since the dream is hers, with her baby talk in which certain consonants are missing, she also dreams of custard, of cake, just as the person starving to death doesn’t dream of the hunk of bread and glass of water which would sate him, rather he dreams of Pantagreulian meals….
“The desire at issue, even the one that is said to be distorted, is already beyond the coaptation of need” (Seminar II, p.226).
The lesson we can draw from these examples is that if we want to be on the lookout for desire, we might need to look for the sometimes very small and discreet details in a demand that go beyond what is required for a need to be fulfilled.
The importance of keeping a space for desire (the worst thing you can do to desire is to try to satisfy it).
As we saw above, desire is carved out in the space where it is perceived that the Other lacks; that is, beyond the Other’s ability to give you something. It is of the utmost importance that this gap be held open for the subject – so that he or she is allowed the space to desire – and as an example of where this fails Lacan points to anorexia. The anorexic’s refusal of food can be understood as an attempt to carve out a space for their own desire in place where the Other lacks, to generate an alterity with the Other by demonstrating that they are hungry in a way that can’t be fed:
“The child does not always fall asleep […] in the bosom of being, especially if the Other, which has its own ideas about his [the infant's] needs, interferes and, instead of what it does not have, stuffs him with the smothering baby food it does have, that is, confuses the care it provides with the gift of its love.
It is the child who is most lovingly fed who refuses food and employs his refusal as if it were a desire (anorexia nervosa).
This is an extreme case where one grasps as nowhere else that hate is the payback for love, but where it is ignorance that is not pardoned.
Ultimately, by refusing to satisfy the mother’s demand, isn’t the child requiring the mother to have a desire outside of him, because that is the pathway toward desire that he lacks?” (Ecrits, 628)
But Lacan also advances this point beyond the example of anorexia and into the sexual relationship proper. This too only survives so long as this space for desire is kept open:
“One can see how a sexual relationship occupies this closed field of desire and plays out its fate there. This is because it is the field designed for the production of the enigma that this relationship gives rise to in the subject by doubly ‘signifying’ it to him: the return of the demand it gives rise to, in the form of a demand concerning the subject of need; and the ambiguity presented concerning the Other in question in the proof of love that is demanded. The gap constituted by this enigma avers [affirms] what determines it, namely, to put it as simply and clearly as possible, that for each of the partners in the relationship, both the subject and the Other, it is not enough to be subjects of need or objects of love – they must hold the place of the cause of desire.
This truth lies at the heart of all the defects found in the psychoanalytic field regarding sexual life. It also constitutes the condition of the subject’s happiness there” (Ecrits, 690-692)
What Lacan is saying in this passage is that as long as our partners need, they will demand; and that demand, more than for any object, will be a demand for love and recognition. Rather than simply answering that demand with things and object that could prove our love, Lacan is suggesting here that for relationships to be successful we should put at their core the very inability to satisfy this demand. That is, rather than believing that anything we give or do will demonstrate our love, we should take the lack of the Other as our object. The mistake we are most likely to make is in assuming that the Other’s lack can be objectivised – that is is the lack of this or that particular object, like roses on Valentine’s Day.
Indeed, if we think of fantasy (whether sexual or otherwise) in simple terms as an answer to the question of what we assume the Other wants, a route by which we can carve out a space for our own desire where we believe we have found the Other’s lack, fantasy thus takes on the function of safeguarding our desire. This is the meaning of the following quotation from the Ecrits:
“Let us say that, in its fundamental use, fantasy is the means by which the subject maintains himself at the level of his vanishing desire, vanishing inasmuch as the very satisfaction of demand deprives him of his object” (Ecrits, 637).
And as if to put in even starker relief the difference between desire and a wish for something that would provide satisfaction, Lacan even goes as far as to say that the ability to maintain our desire is so vital that it safeguards us against the experience of satisfaction:
“For desire is a defence, a defence against going beyond a limit in jouissance” (Ecrits, 825).
The worst thing you can do with desire is to attempt to satisfy it, it would seem. Lacan is presenting a conception of desire in which it needs to be held in permanent abeyance. As the Lacanian psychoanalyst Darian Leader puts it, “Desire, indeed, is there to persist as desire, not as anything else” (Leader, Why Do Women Write More Letters Than They Post, Faber & Faber, 1996, p.108 – 110). Indeed, commenting in Seminar XI on the character of the ‘butcher’s wife’ from Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, who teases her husband by letting him know that she enjoys caviar but won’t let him buy any for her, Lacan himself says:
“You love mutton stew. You’re not sure you desire it. Take the experience of the beautiful butcher’s wife. She loves caviar, but she doesn’t want any. That’s why she desires it” (Seminar XI, p.243).
Desire is eccentric to any satisfaction
So desire is not a desire for the thing that might provide satisfaction. Quite the opposite: Lacan presents desire as eccentric to satisfaction, as outstripping anything that might attempt satisfy it. As an example to illustrate this idea, Lacan tells the amusing story of a man who enacts a strange ritual after sex. On the way back home he stands by the side of a railway track and in the light of a passing train drops his pants, flashing a carriage full of people, knowing there isn’t the slightest risk of getting caught. Here is what Lacan says about this:
“… What the act in question shows first and foremost, before any other interpretation, is that he has had and has realised his satisfaction; this act indicates what is left over to be desired beyond satisfaction.
“I simply recall this little example to fix your ideas on what I mean, on the problematic of desire in so far as it is determined by an act of signification, and in so far as it is distinct from any meaning that can be grasped.
“… The other point, the other term in which there is inscribed this dialectic, this problematic of desire, is that on which on the contrary I insisted the last time, it is this eccentricity of desire with respect to any satisfaction, which allows us to understand what in general is its profound affinity with pain” (Seminar V, 23.04.58., p.2 – 4, my italics).
Even if for this man the sex was satisfying, he nevertheless had to make room for something else, for a desire to appear in spite of this realised satisfaction. Desire does not exist to be satisfied, but exists only to keep desire going, only for its own sake. We should therefore view desire less as meaning something and more as a way to resist meaning. As Lacan puts it:
“That desire should be determined by an act of signification does not at all give us its meaning in any complete sense. It may be that desire is a by-product, if I can express myself in this way, of this act of signification” (Seminar V, 23.04.58., p.2 – 4).
Desire is “caught in the rails of metonymy”
This ‘eccentricity’ of desire in the face of any satisfaction is why Lacan says that desire is metonymy (Ecrits, 528). What this means is that desire exists only in the movement from one signifier to another due to the fact that, as Evans puts it, “one signifier constantly refers to another in a perpetual deferral of meaning. Desire is also characterised by exactly the same never-ending process of continual deferral” (Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Routledge, 1996, p.114). This explains why Lacan does not say that desire is simply like metonymy, but that it is metonymy. Desire has no object because it is the very process of constantly slipping from one object to the next. In fact, in a 1910 article on the nature of love in men we find Freud himself espousing a very similar view. Whilst he still believes that all our object choices, those we fall in love with, are surrogates for an irreplaceable ideal object, he is nonetheless not blind to this metonymical nature of desire:
“If we are to understand the love-objects chosen by our type as being above all mother-surrogates, then the formation of a series of them, which seems so flatly to contradict the condition of being faithful to one, can now also be understood. We have learnt from psycho-analysis in other examples that the notion of something irreplaceable, when it is active in the unconscious, frequently appears as broken up into an endless series: endless for the reason that every surrogate nevertheless fails to provide the desired satisfaction” (SE XI, 169).
But for Lacan at least this does not mean that desire can be simply reduced to the idea of yearning or pining for something lost. Desire for him is always a desire for something else, because it is caught in what he calls “the rails of metonymy”:
“And the enigmas that desire – with its frenzy mimicking the gulf of the infinite and the secret collusion whereby it envelops the pleasure of knowing and of dominating in jouissance – poses for any sort of “natural philosophy” are based on no other derangement of instinct than the fact that it is caught in the rails of metonymy, eternally extending toward the desire for something else” (Ecrits, 518).
Because metonymy is a linguistic operation, desire is in its essence a feature of the sliding of the signified under the signifier. This is why Lacan says that desire is to be found “bedding down in the signifying cut in which metonymy occurs” (Ecrits, 835-836). And in Seminar XI, he suggests that what we experience as desire just the effect of this movement: “The function of desire is a last residuum of the effect of the signifier in the subject” (Seminar XI, p.154). The Lacanian psychoanalyst Darian Leader draws a parallel here with what happens to a message sent round a circle in the game of Chinese whispers:
“One could define desire as exactly this process: as the difference between the original message and that which arrives at the end. The key here is that desire is not the message itself. It is neither the original sentence nor the final one, but the process or structure of distortion itself” (Leader, Why Do Women Write More Letters Than They Post, Faber & Faber, 1996, p.108 – 110).
What Lacan wants us to understand about desire is that it has no positive character or attributes. His most stark expression of this comes in Seminar XI when he tells his audience that to desire and to not desire are effectively the same thing:
“But what does not wanting to desire mean? The whole of analytic experience – which merely gives form to what is for each individual at the very root of his experience – shows us that not to want to desire and to desire are the same thing.
To desire involves a defensive phase that makes it identical with not wanting to desire. Not wanting to desire is wanting not to desire.” (Seminar XI, p.235).
Lorenzo Chiesa describes this aptly as a “positivisation of lack on the part of the subject. The child manages to ‘positivise’ the lack that surfaced with the unconditionality of the demand for love, and in so doing he subjectivises himself and emerges as a desiring lack-of-being (manque-a-etre)” (Chiesa, Subjectivity and Otherness, MIT Press, 2007, p.155). A fundamental part of being able to desire then is being able to experience the sensation of this lack. Desire has no more positive ontic manifestation than that, either in an object to be desired, or in an aim to be pursued. In a short sentence in the Ecrits, Lacan simply says that “Nothing about desire, which is lack, can either be weighed or placed in scale pans, unless they are those of logic” (Ecrits, 759).
But what precisely is this lack a lack of? Lacan’s answer in Seminar II is that it is a lack of your very being itself:
“Desire is a relation of being to lack. This lack is the lack of being properly speaking. It isn’t the lack of this or that, but lack of being whereby the being exists.
“This lack is beyond anything which can represent it. It is only ever represented as a reflection on a veil” (Seminar II, p.223).
This is an idea that we also find Lacan advancing in the Ecrits. In The Direction of the Treatment Lacan twice says the same thing, within the space of a few pages: that desire is the metonymy of the want-to-be, and the ego is the metonymy of desire (Ecrits, 623 and 640). To paraphrase what this might mean: from a fundamental experience of a lack in the Other we identify for ourselves a lack in our own being, which comes to constitute our desire; and our ability to form an ego (an ‘I’) only comes when this is possible. If desire has no home as such, it can only sustain itself in a want-to-be.
To take an example to clarify the way that desire skips between the signifiers without ever having a fixed object, and evading everything that might satisfy it, we can look at Lacan’s comments on the dream of the butcher’s wife that Freud recounts in The Interpretation of Dreams (SE IV 147), and that we have touched on already. This dream, and the associations the dreamer brings up in recounting it, show how desire utilises not just metonymy but metaphor as well.
The dream itself presents a thwarted attempt by the butcher’s wife to host a dinner party because all she has is a little smoked salmon. In her associations she brings up the fact that, although she loves caviar sandwiches, she doesn’t want her husband to give her any even though he wants to, just so that she can tease him about it. Here we see again the familiar desire for an unsatisfied desire, which constitutes metonymy, “the combination of one term with another to produce a metonymical effect”, as Lacan calls it (Ecrits, 622):
“Let us note for the moment that the desire in question, while signified as unsatisfied, is signified thusly by the signifier ‘caviar’, insofar as the signifier symbolises this desire as inaccessible; note too, however, that as soon as this desire slides, qua desire, into the caviar, the desire for caviar becomes this desire’s metonymy – rendered necessary by the want-to-be in which this desire sustains itself” (Ecrits, 622).
But she also notices in recounting her dream that smoked salmon is a favourite dish of her skinny female friend, whom she knows her husband is interested in even though the friend is not his type. Here Lacan says the desire of the butcher’s wife for caviar is a substitution for the desire of the Other, the female friend, for smoked salmon. This makes it a metaphoric operation which Lacan describes as, “the substitution of one term for another to produce a metaphorical effect” (Ecrits, 622).
“… In the dream, the desire for smoked salmon, characteristic of the patient’s female friend, is substituted for the patient’s own desire for caviar, which constitutes the substitution of a signifier for a signifier” (Ecrits, 622):
Muller and Richardson, in their commentary on Lacan’s text, summarise this fluidity of desire through a chain of associations and signifiers nicely:
“Desire as such proceeds out of this radical finitude or lack and seeks to cover it by generating an endless metonymic chain of substitute signifiers, an endless displacement” (Muller and Richardson, Lacan and Language: A Reader’s Guide to Écrits, International Universities Press, 1982, p.321).
We see a very similar operation at work in obsessional neurosis, nowadays referred to as obsessive compulsive disorder (or OCD). Constant counting and other repeated rituals can be seen as an attempt to move desire on and on metonymically, so that the problem posed by his desire never actually has to be confronted. Hence the uncertainty that Freud sees as so characteristic of the obsessional: he seems stuck between two contradictory desires, for example, love and hate, and so instead of making the impossible decision to choose one he displaces his dilemma onto something that is linked in a metonymic chain to the choice he faces. The thing he displaces it onto becomes the object of the obsessional ritual.
Desire is not a desire for a thing as such
So we have seen how the transformation of need to desire takes place in the relationship to the maternal Other through the articulation of demand. This demand is what morphs need into desire, and illustrates the capacity of the signifier – in this case, the speech that puts our demands into words – to give desire its expression in spite of that articulation of a demand.
This brings us to an answer to a simple question: what precisely is desire a desire for if it is not the same as demand? Firstly, we have to remind ourselves that desire is not simply a wish. It is not a wish for a particular object, like we might have a wish for chocolate cake or for sex. Lacan claims to find desire manifested in the same place that Freud finds the wish – namely, in dreams. Freud’s central thesis in the Interpretation of Dreams is that dreams represent a wish fulfilled (SE IV, 122). But for Lacan, to have a wish for something is not the same as desire. For him, the important lesson of The Interpretation of Dreams is to show us our desire cannot be expressed in the form of a sentence – for example, ‘I want sex’ or ‘I want chocolate cake’ – but rather that desire is the very process by which dreams are formed:
“Although Freud there [the Traumdeutung] goes over the thousand empirical forms which this desire can acquire, there isn’t a single analysis which ends up with the formulation of a desire. Desire is, in the end, never unveiled there. Everything [in the dreams] happens on the steps, in the stages, on the different rungs of the revelation of this desire. Freud also somewhere pokes fun at the illusion of those who, having read his Traumdeutung, end up thinking that the reality of the dream is the sequence of the dream’s latent thoughts. Freud himself says that if that were all it was, this reality would be of no interest. It is the stages of the dream-work which are interesting, for that is where we find revealed what we are looking for in the interpretation of the dream, this x, which in the end is desire for nothing. I defy you to bring me a single passage from the Traumdeutung which concludes – this is what the subject desires….
“Fundamentally, when Freud speaks of desire as the mainspring of symbolic formations, from the dream to the joke via all the facts taken from the psychopathology of everyday life, he is always concerned with this moment when what comes into existence via the symbol isn’t yet, and hence can in no way be named” (Seminar II, p.211-212).
In dreams as well we may find that a need becomes mangled in a way that allows something quite beyond the satisfaction of need to be expressed. As Freud writes in his Introductory Lectures to psychoanalysis, polar explorers do not just dream of the food they have a need for, but vast quantities of food of all different varieties, or a postman giving a long, apologetic story about why he was unable to deliver the mail sooner (SE XV, 132-133). The point here is that the dream does not just represent the wish fulfilled or the need satisfied, but the need or wish in the process of its satisfaction, and thereby something more than the wish; and so we find desire not in the satisfaction of need but in the details of the dream that do not need to be there. If we are hungry we might not just dream of bread but of eating a giant chocolate ice cream cone in Trafalgar Square. In such an example, it would not be the satisfaction of a need for food or a wish for ice cream, but in the detail of Trafalgar Square that we should look for desire.
Psychoanalysis only deals with desire via the signifier
So desire in the dream is manifested in an analogous way to the experience of the infant making the demand of the maternal Other to satisfy its needs. It is not the need itself, but the process of its articulation through signifiers. For Lacan, in dreams too it is the signifier that leaves the residue we know as desire. In Seminar V he tells his audience:
“Observe that when all is said and done, in the dream, what Freud recognises as desire, is indeed [recognised] by means of what I am telling you about, namely it is by the alteration of need that it signals itself, it is in so far as what is fundamental is masked, articulated into something which transforms it, which transforms it into what? Into the fact that it passes through a certain number of modes, of images which are there qua signifiers. It is therefore through the coming into play of a whole structure which no doubt is the structure of the subject, in so far as there must operate a certain number of agencies.
“But this structure of the subject, we only recognise it through the fact that what happens in the dream, is submitted to the modes and to the transformations of the signifier, to the structures of metaphor and metonymy, of condensation and of displacement. Here what gives the law of the expression of the desire in the dream, is indeed the law of the signifier….” (Seminar V, 12.03.58., p.3 -4)
In other words, it is in the passage of need through the signifier that desire in the dream is to be found. Indeed, we can say that the dream itself is only a vehicle for the transmission of desire, its transmission or creation through signifiers. Lacan’s commitment to the importance of the signifier thus leads him to argue that it is not the dream itself that is important, but the telling of it once we have woken up, the words or signifiers that we use when we narrate it, for example on the couch in an analytic session. Lacan says precisely this in the following passage from the Ecrits. He is referring to a dream reported to Freud by a patient who could remember nothing about a long dream she had had, except that it was something to do with a channel (SE V, 517, n2). Around this single signifier – ‘channel’ – Freud builds an interpretation. The interpretation itself is not important, but rather what Lacan believes it tells us about the importance of the signifier in dreams:
“This led me to highlight the example with which Freud illustrates, almost acrobatically, what he means by the desire in a dream. For while he provides this example [the dream] in order to cut short the objection that a dream undergoes alteration when it is recollected in the narrative, it appears quite clearly that only the elaboration of the dream interests him insofar as it is carried out in the narrative itself – in other words, the dream has no value for him except as a vector of speech. Hence all the phenomena that he furnishes of forgetting, and even of doubt, which block the narrative must be interpreted as signifiers in this speech” (Ecrits, 378, italics mine).
What matters in a dream is therefore not the dream itself, but the telling of it, the process of translating the images into signifiers, even if these signifiers are few and far between, or the recollection of the dream hazy and indistinct. “Like the unnatural figures of the boat on the roof, or the man with a comma for a head, which are expressly mentioned by Freud”, Lacan says, “dream images are to be taken up only on the basis of their value as signifiers” (Ecrits, 510). Dreams are only the ‘vectors of speech’. In a 1956 article that appears in the Ecrits, Lacan reminds us that the images we see in our dreams do not meaning anything in themselves. We should rather put them into words, translate them into signifiers:
“’Only the dream’s elaboration interests us’, Freud says, and again, ‘A dream is a rebus.’ What would he have had to add so that we would stop expecting dreams to deliver up the words of the soul? Have the sentences of a rebus ever had the slightest meaning, and does its interest – that is, the interest we take in its deciphering – not derive from the fact that the signification manifest in its images falls away, having no other scope than that of conveying the signifier that is disguised in it?” (Ecrits, 470).
Dreams essentially play around with signifiers through the use of rhetorical tricks. In the Rome Discourse of 1953 Lacan gives us examples:
“We must thus take up Freud’s work again starting with the Traumdeutung [The Interpretation of Dreams] to remind ourselves that a dream has the structure of a sentence or, rather, to keep to the letter of the work, of a rebus – that is, of a form of writing….
“What is important is the version of the text, and that, Freud tells us, is given in the telling of the dream – that is, in its rhetoric. Ellipsis and pleonasm, [the use of more words than are necessary], hyperbaton [different or unusual word order] or syllepsis [the use of a word to perform two syntactic functions. E.g., 'are' in the phrase 'Neither he nor I are willing], regression, repetition, apposition – these are the syntactical displacements; metaphor, catachresis [a mixed metaphor], antonomasia [calling a person by a title rather than a name], allegory, metonymy, and synecdoche – these are the semantic condensations; Freud teaches us to read in them the intentions – whether ostentatious or demonstrative, dissimulating or persuasive, retaliatory or seductive – with which the subject modulates his oneiric discourse” (Ecrits, 268).
But it is not only in dreams that we find desire by looking at the signifier. Lacan says in Seminar V that psychoanalysis only ever deals with desire via the signifier. Desire therefore is not some mysterious entity independent of our words, but that is product of our words or signifiers themselves:
“… The locus of the Other is the locus of the word, which creates the whole problematic of desire, of human desire, and which makes it subject to the formations of the unconscious, to the dialectic of the unconscious, which means that we deal with it, that we can have an influence on it by the fact that it is or not articulated in the word in analysis. There would be no analysis if there were not this fundamental situation” (Seminar V, 11.06.58., p.4).
Desire’s little object – the object a
If desire cannot be satisfied with an object in the same way as a wish, need or demand can be, in what sense is the famous object a, that Lacan sees as his most important contribution to psychoanalysis, the object of desire? Crucial in answering this is to understand that object a is not an object that has positive properties or form as such. When in Seminar XI Lacan gives examples of objects a, he does not choose attributes such as hair, eyes, or a smile but parts of the body that are at a kind of margin between inside and outside, that lack specular representation.
The gaze is the best example of this formlessness of the object a. We cannot see the gaze as such, and when we try to we see only the eye. We might feel the gaze upon us from the blacked out window of a passing car or from a CCTV camera, but there is not necessarily anyone behind it. We have the unusual sensation that we are being watched even if there is no one watching. The gaze as an example of object a is an object that does not require a subject. As we saw when looking at the role of the phallus as signifier of desire, Lacan says that where we look for an object of desire we only find a lack, or at best, a place-holder for lack. This is another way to understand his pronouncement quoted above that desire is “only ever represented as a reflection on a veil” (Seminar II, p.223). It is this anti-objectivisable quality of desire’s object that lend it so well to the many different faces of human sexuality. By the time of Seminar XI in the mid-Sixties, Lacan presents desire as like a hinge or lynch-pin between the unconscious and sexuality:
“I maintain that it is at the level of analysis – if we can take a few more steps forward – that the nodal point by which the pulsation of the unconscious is linked to sexual reality must be revealed. This nodal point is called desire….” (Seminar XI, p.154)
For Lacan the object a, as object-cause of desire, is the object of the drive, and rather than our desire being to get this object our desire actually circumvents it:
“You see, the object of desire is the cause of the desire [object a], and this object that is the cause of desire is the object of the drive – that is to say, the object around which the drive turns…. It is not that desire clings to the object of the drive – desire moves around it, in so far as it is agitated in the drive.” (Seminar XI, p.243).
However, Lacan does comment on Winnicott’s idea of the ‘transitional object’, perhaps using it as his inspiration for his own concept of object a. Whilst it is not for him the object of desire, Lacan nevertheless sees the transitional object as an object that the child appropriates en route to his own desire. Rather than being the object of desire, he calls it its emblem, an emblem of the process of separating need from demand that allows the infant to detach himself from anxiety related to the potential inability of his demands to be answered in a way that satisfies his needs:
“Given the advantage won over the anxiety related to need, this detachment is successful right from its humblest mode – that in which it was glimpsed by a certain psychoanalyst in his work with children, which he called the ‘transitional object’, in other words, the shred of blanket or beloved shard the child’s lips or hands never stop touching.
This is, frankly, no more than an emblem; representation’s representative in the absolute condition is in its proper place in the unconscious, where it causes desire in accordance with the structure of fantasy I will extract from it” (Ecrits, 814).
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