A woman reports two dreams to Freud:

1. She dreamt she was going to the market with her cook, who was carrying the basket. After she had asked for something, the butcher said to her: ‘That’s not obtainable any longer’, and offered her something else, adding ‘This is good too’. She rejected it and went on to the woman who sells vegetables, who tried to get her to buy a peculiar vegetable that was tied up in bundles but was of a black colour. She said: ‘I don’t recognise that; I won’t take it. (SE IV, 183)

2. Her husband asked her: ‘Don’t you think we ought to have the piano tuned?’ And she replied: ‘It’s not worth while; the hammers need reconditioning in any case.’ (SE IV, 185)

Two seemingly unremarkable dreams, and certainly not two of the more celebrated in the Traumdeutung. Yet Freud reads sexual connotations into both. His interpretations are peculiar because they seem to come out of nowhere and have no obvious justification. It is as if he injects sexual meaning by allusion, without any ambiguity or hesitation. Why?

When Lacan discusses these dreams in his fifth Seminar on 7th May, 1958 he says that what’s at stake here is the difference between the object of desire and the signifier of desire. That distinction will be our focus.

If we think of the way we usually understand desire it is in reference to an object. Desire is equivalent to a wish, whether for chocolate cake, sex, or groceries in this woman’s case. The only question is whether, behind the object we ostensibly want, there lies another which is the true object of our desire.

But Lacan sees things differently. He believes that what is really operative in desire is the lack of an object. And not just a lack of the object desired, but lack per se. In the place of the object we find instead a signifier of desire: something that represents desire, that would indicate the presence of desire, rather than the thing desired itself. The marker of a lack as such.

The subject’s relation to this signifier of desire can be seen as their way of responding to this lack. Lacan gives two examples of this relation: being and having. Discussing the two dreams of Freud’s patient in Seminar V, he presents the first as an example of being the signifier of desire, and the second as an example of having it.

“That’s not obtainable any longer”

In the first dream, the woman’s “That’s not obtainable any longer” is the key phrase for Lacan. It’s simple enough to see how “obtainable” refers to a ‘having’ of something. Freud traces this same phrase to a fragment from the woman’s conversation the previous day, and Lacan points out how the other elements in the dream are built up around it, making of it “a signifying articulation of the lack of the object as such”. Notice how, in so doing, both Freud and Lacan avoid the trap of taking the dream at face value; that is, in believing that the dream represents the frustration of a wish (to obtain groceries from the butcher), a reading which would contradict Freud’s hypothesis that dreams represent disguised wish fulfilments. But it is the second dream that Lacan is more interested in.

It’s not worthwhile”

In the second dream, the key phrase for Lacan is “It’s not worth while”, which he says refers to the position of being the signifier of desire. How? The woman tells Freud that the previous day she was visiting a friend but declined the invitation to take off her jacket when she arrived, saying that she couldn’t stay for long so “It’s not worthwhile”. Freud’s response is very strange. He connects this to what seems to be an association of his own. He remembers that the last time the woman came for an analytic session with him a button fell off her jacket, perhaps threatening to reveal a little too much. Embarrassed, she hastily grabbed it around her as if, Freud thinks, to say ‘Please don’t look, it’s not worthwhile’.

Now, whether we think this link is tenuous or unwarranted, Lacan makes a big deal of it. We don’t have to assume he agreed with Freud, but as is so often the case with his commentary on Freud’s texts he lifts a tiny detail from them in order to extrapolate something much more important. Lacan’s remarks might themselves appear very strange, but are worth quoting at length before we explore what he means:

“As woman she makes herself mask, she makes herself mask precisely in order behind this mask, to be the phallus. Why is it not worthwhile? Because of course it is a question of you not looking behind, because behind, what is of course in question is that the phallus should be there. But it is really not worth while to go looking there, because precisely one will not find it there…. The fundamental behaviour of [the woman, is] …. 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…. 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 you may designate, behind my bodice, the phallus, namely the signifier of desire.” (Seminar V, 7th May 1958)

The biggest problem for readers of Lacan

In the passage above Lacan introduces the name he gives to this signifier of desire, and it is a controversial one: he calls it ‘the phallus’. This is a term readers of Lacan often have problems with. It has implicit patriarchal – perhaps even chauvinistic – overtones; it refers to an organ which belongs to only one sex, so in using it Lacan appears to be privileging this organ above its female counterpart; and its use by Lacan is obscure, appearing next to equally indefinite terms like ‘veil’, ‘mask’, and ‘desire’.

In fact, it is none of these things, and in what follows we will look at what it is, and why it is a concept vital to distinguishing wish from desire in Lacan’s teaching.

We know firstly that Lacan’s use of the term in this passage does not refer to the male organ. After all, the woman does not have one, so as Lacan points out Freud is not going to find one under her dress. Instead Lacan is describing how her dress has a function of masking or veiling. If the best way to represent something that is not there is to mask or veil it we can start to understand why Lacan was so interested in this element of the story. When you draw a veil or put on a mask you do not simply conceal, you also point to or signify something that may lie beneath the veil. Yet because it is veiled you do not know what this is, and therefore the veil can be said to point to something beyond any given object. The key to understanding why Lacan uses the term ‘phallus’ in the way that he does – not to refer to the organ, but to a signifier of desire – is the concept of the veil.

Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii

Scene from the frescos in the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii. The initiate into the Dionysian cult kneels down to lift the veil from the emblem of fertility, assumed by most scholars to be the phallus. The winged figure – Aidos, the demon of shame – snaps a whip to prevent the unveiling.

“The phallus…. can play its role only when veiled. That is why the demon of Shame springs forth at the very moment the phallus is unveiled in the ancient mysteries (see the famous painting in the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii)” (Écrits, 692)

The important thing about the woman’s second dream, for Lacan, is that it presents a scenario where she had occasion to veil herself. Why is this important? Lacan’s answer is that she wants Freud to see her as being, as incarnating, this signifier of desire. Something which, through the function of the veil, retains an elusive and indefinable character. After all, she does not really know what Freud wants, but if there is an expression of unconscious desire in the dream it is the desire not for an object, or for a sexual liaison with Freud, but to show him that she is, what Lacan calls in Seminar V, a “something which is nothing” beneath this veil.

This “something which is nothing” is the very definition of the signifier of desire. It signifies, as Lacan refers to it here, “the place beyond this appearance, this mask”. In the reference to veiling that the dream gives occasion to the woman finds a way to represent something which is not there. But crucially for Lacan, she does not just use the veil, she incarnates it. She herself becomes it. Being over having.

What’s the difference between wish and desire?

Notice that what Lacan is presenting here is an entirely different conception of desire to the one we are used to. Let’s pick some of the key points from what he says to illustrate the difference between wish and desire.

  • Firstly, desire is always masked or veiled. It never announces itself as such in the way that a wish does, with intent.
  • Consequently, we are robbed of the visual aspect – the object of desire is not something we can see (an idea Lacan will elaborate on when he refines the concept of object a, which has no specular image, in the 1960s and 70s).
  • Similarly, by virtue of the fact that desire is occluded, unlike a wish it cannot be expressed with the first person pronoun. We often impute our desires to others to find expression (something that helps us understand this strange ‘Other’-ness with which Lacan presents desire). ‘Repressed’ desires are therefore not hidden except in the open.
  • Rather than observing or stating desire as such there is first a signifier. We go via a signifier of desire both to denote it and to experience it.
  • And it is at this point that desire acquires its peculiarly sexual character. On Lacan’s reading, desire does not have a sexual character in and of itself. This comes from the mark given it by the signifier of desire, which Lacan labels the phallic signifier. And so we have a potential answer to the question we began with. An alertness to this nuance was perhaps why Freud’s interpretations of his patients’ dreams were so often sexualised. Perhaps he sensed that the operation of desire depended on a signifier rather than an organ, one that becomes operative only when veiled or disguised.
  • The ‘Graph of Desire’

    Around the time that he was commenting on these two dreams, Lacan was trying to explain to his audience what has come to be called his ‘Graph of Desire’. His audience then – much like today’s – had some difficulty understanding it, and Lacan noted approvingly that one of his followers compared it to a Calder mobile (Seminar V, 7th May, 1958).

    Graph of Desire-Calder Mobiles

    Lacan’s graph of desire and Calder’s finely-suspended ‘mobiles’.

    As well as distinguishing desire from wish, in Seminar V Lacan uses his Graph to contrast it to two other categories: need, and demand. Here is a quick overview of how they can be distinguished.

    Need: Let’s think of need in this instance as being a purely biological need, like hunger or thirst. It is a baseline, an absolute, and it is satiable.

    Demand: Demand is the use of the signifier to state or represent, a need. Demand deflects, changes, transposes need through its articulation – you wish for something, you demand for an object. But in the very making of that demand itself something gets left behind. There is a residue. And this is because demand is made with signifiers. Whether with words or the most minimal differential components of a language, it is transposed to the level of the symbolic.

    Desire: Desire is the effect of need coinciding with the signifier. The conditions under which it coincides are those of making a demand. Lacan refers in Seminar V to “the margin of deviation marked by the incidence of the signifier on needs”. Desire therefore appears as a kind of ‘beyond’, “extracted from the soil of needs”.

    Demand needs the other – it is ultimately a demand for the presence (or indeed absence) of the other, a demand for their love. It is not a demand for satisfaction (like the satisfaction or fulfillment of a wish). “Demand in itself bears on something other than the satisfaction it calls for”, Lacan says in the Écrits (690). It doesn’t matter so much what you get from the other, or whether it satisfies your needs, simply that it is a reflection of the recognition of the other. As such it is a fundamental distortion of need.

    Need is filtered through demand, which in its articulation is transposed to the symbolic insofar as it is expressed through language, through signifiers. Something of the need gets lost thereby. In a beautiful passage in the Écrits, Lacan writes of how “The power of pure loss emerges from the residue of an obliteration” (Écrits, 691). This residue is desire. And what desire retains through this filter of demand is the absolute conditionality of need. Unlike demand, not just anything will do. But unlike need, getting the thing in question will not satisfy desire and put a stop to it. Desire retains its infinitely metonymical character.

    An important implication of this is that unlike demand, desire is not addressed to the other as something that they can satisfy. Desire expresses itself independently of another person’s capacity to satisfy it. No object or presence that could be offered by another person would suffice to quell desire because desire is not a pining for any given object or person, but something that arises in the actual splitting of need from demand:

    “This is why 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” (Écrits, 691).

    Lacan says in Seminar V that the absolute conditionality of desire “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”. So while the expression of desire may be conditioned by the relation to the other, in terms of its satisfaction Lacan says that desire “satisfies nothing other than oneself”.

    What about sexual desire?

    In referring to the phallus as signifier of desire Lacan is unequivocally introducing the sexual dimension. So how does sexual desire fit into his broader distinctions between the categories of need, demand, and wish?

    We know that sexual desire is not a need. The panoply of sexual tastes which exceed the procreative function makes it impossible to believe that sexual desire serves the preservation of the species or the gene. Is sexual desire a form of demand, then? That’s oblativity, says Lacan, quipping that “in acceding to the place of desire, the other does not at all become as we are told the total object… he becomes totally object, qua instrument of desire”.

    Coming back to the two dreams we started with, we can say that where Freud saw a (sexual) wish Lacan reads a desire. But rather than debating whether there is or is not a disguised sexual wish in these dreams at all, we can ask a deeper question: why would such a wish have to be disguised in the first place? Supposing Freud was right and the woman’s dreams had a sexual meaning, why was this not just represented in the dream up front?

    The answer may have nothing to do with the sexual mores of Freud’s time or the censorship it exerts over dream material. Rather, it can be found in the distinction we have already looked at between desire and wish. Unlike the sexual wish that Freud thought he could detect in the dream, Lacan detects something that is not simply implicit, but which points to the character of desire itself. If this desire has a sexual hue, and if the signifier of desire (the phallus) has to be veiled to become operative, we would not expect to find an overt representation of the object of desire. But neither should we expect an interpretation to reveal a decoded latent sexual wish. Instead, we should expect to find exactly what Lacan highlights when he looks at these dreams: a signifier of desire, and a veil.

    What might distinguish the character of wish from that of desire is the presence of a signifier of desire, not as an organ and not as an object, but as a function.

    Why does desire need a signifier?

    This helps us solve another problem – why does desire need a signifier in the first place? Why can’t we just desire ‘directly’, as it were? On Lacan’s model, desire does not go directly to an object but is mediated by a function. A signifier by its nature is a functional unit, and Lacan turns to logic to explain this. He calls the phallus, as signifier of desire, the “(logical) copula” (Écrits, 692). In logic the copula is basically a link. It joins the subject and the predicate of a proposition, for example ‘are’ in the proposition ‘All men are equal’. But we can also recall the function of the veil or mask that so interested Lacan. As signifier of desire the phallus is a signifier of a ‘beyond’. It points to the fact that there is something more, something veiled, something lacking. Lacan says that “the phallus itself is nothing other than this point of lack it indicates in the subject” (Écrits, 877). In this function, Lacan describes how it operates in men to produce a “residual divergence” towards a woman other than their wife or girlfriend. Regardless of the other woman’s attributes, Lacan’s example shows the signifying of nothing other than the presence of a desire, this beyond (Écrits, 695).

    Another example of the functional attributes Lacan gives to the phallus as signifier of desire is to provide the partners in a sexual relationship some mobility to play out their relationship between the questions of being and having. This dialectic produces some interesting effects. On the one hand, both subjects (of either sex) gain some kind of orientation point in reference to the signifier of desire. In the Écrits Lacan refers to it as like a gnomon, the raised part of a sundial (Écrits, 877). It indexes the subject’s sexuation as well as mediating their desire. But this will also, he says, “render unreal the relations to be signified” (Écrits, 694). We can see this manifested in the apparently trivial contingencies of a relationship – pet names, role plays – that are actually necessities for making the relationship work. These little masquerades do two jobs: they ‘protect’ the idea of having the phallus as signifier of desire, and mask the lack of not having it. Lacan notes however that this will “project the ideal or typical manifestations of each of the sexes’ behaviour, including the act of copulation itself, into the realm of comedy” (Écrits, 694).

    There is much more to be said on the subject of desire and its signifier than can be captured in Lacan’s comments from a single session of Seminar V alone. In essence, Lacan’s project here, via the reference to the two dreams from the Traumdeutung, is to demonstrate “the rectifications that can be brought about, in theory and technique, by the consideration of the phallus, no longer as image or as phantasy, but as signifier”. For more check out the article on this site about desire in Lacan’s wider work.

    By Owen Hewitson, LacanOnline.com

    (All quotes refer to Seminar V, 7th May 1958, unless otherwise stated.)


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