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From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Lacanian Psychoanalysis
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Castration is referred to throughout the work of Freud and Lacan. Although it undergoes certain referential changes, castration retains its place as a necessary element in the structuring of sexuality for the speaking being.

Sigmund Freud

In all of his discussions on sexuality, Freud emphasizes castration. What Freud learned from his clinical practice is that sexuality always involves a dimension of the impossibility of reaching total satisfaction. In order to achieve some satisfaction it is necessary to renounce total satisfaction and this renunciation is one of the references to castration, where castration is a condition for satisfaction.


Castration refers to the movement of separation installed by the Oedipal law between mother and infant and is thus a requirement of culture; it is the positive side of the prohibition of incest. Freud emphasizes that instinctual renunciation is necessary for all cultural achievement, associating it with the Oedipus complex and its resolution.

Freud first used the term castration complex in 1908 in reference to an infantile theory of sexuality adopted by children to explain the difference between the sexes.[1] Freud emphasizes the phallocentrism of children, who, assuming the possession of a penis in all living creatures, attribute the lack of it to a castration. This very attribution of a lack is the result of a fantasy of a castration in relation to which the boy will experience castration anxiety and which will contribute to an experience of disillusionment in the girl.

Freud's argument in the case of the boy is that his wish to take his mother as his sexual partner is given up due to the threat from the father that he will lose his penis - that instrument of erotic sensations — if he carries out his wishes. The narcissistic investment in the penis leads the boy to a renunciation of the mother as his sexual partner, and to wait for a time when he can take another woman as his partner.

The actual effect of castration takes place for the boy following the perception of the female genitals and the acknowledgement that the organ in which he has invested such value, and which is so essential to his self-image, is not present on the body of the girl. At this structuring moment the boy remembers the threats made concerning his masturbatory habits which at an earlier moment had little effect.

This deferred action now comes into effect with the fear of castration, a powerful influence in all his subsequent development. Interestingly, the effects of castration can be experienced without it being carried out and expressly formulated. This indicates the Freudian thesis of the structuring function of the Oedipus complex.

The girl's castration complex is also started by the sight of the boy's genital. She notices the significance placed on it and resulting from this perception is a feeling of having been wronged. The subsequent 'envy for the penis' leaves a permanent trace on the girl's psyche, persisting in the unconscious. Freud argues that in the case of women the castration complex does not work so well. There is something problematic in woman's relation to castration and to the Oedipal law, due to the girl only partially being able to resolve her Oedipus complex. This is because she is not as vulnerable to the threat of losing a penis that she does not have. The girl's vulnerability shows itself in an anxiety related to the loss of love.

The castration complex is central for Freud. He argues that it is the necessary structural foundation from which a subject can take part in the world of sexual desire. It is only from a position of renunciation of the incestuous object that it is possible to go out into the world and seek a partner other than the incestuous one. The prohibition of the primordial object, the mother or whomever comes to her place, produces a lack which will orient a subject to look elsewhere. In this way desire is inaugurated.

The castration threat and the Oedipal law, which articulates a prohibition and a prescription, both give an orientation to the child. Without it, the child is stuck within a world of incestuous objects and a constant fear of actual loss.

In 1923 Freud (1951) introduced the primacy of the phallus. Although the boy and the girl initially share the same object — the mother and a 'masculine' or phallic sexuality — Freud argues an asymmetry between the sexes. The castration complex and the Oedipus complex work differently for the boy and the girl. The Oedipus complex in the boy illustrates the separating function of the law of the father and its conversion in the super-ego.

The function of the castration complex is to end the boy's Oedipus complex. For the girl, the castration complex inaugurates her into an Oedipus complex which will succumb to repression. She will transfer her love to the one who seems to have the phallus, the father or substitute. The girl will desire to have the phallus in the form of a baby along the lines of the symbolic equation that will make the phallus equal a baby.

In 1933 Freud elaborated three possible outcomes of the castration complex for women. The first is a total repudiation of sexuality, the second is the adopting of a masculine position and the repudiation of penis envy and the third solution is that of motherhood as a treatment of penis envy through the symbolic equation of penis equals child.

The asymmetrical situations of the boy and the girl were what Freud (1951) returned to when he wrote in 1937 of the limits of an analytic treatment. The man will forever fear castration and the woman will forever endure envy of the penis, the castration complex contributing to a basic rejection of femininity for both sexes.

As Freud increasingly placed the castration complex at the centre of his theoretical and clinical writings, there developed resistance in the analytic world, particularly in the debates of the 1920s and 1930s on female sexuality. For a number of analysts the castration complex did not have the major structuring role in the construction of sexual difference and they turned rather to biological and developmental theorization.

Freud's very last paper in 1938 referred to the castration complex and its effects on the very construction of the subject. It illustrates clinically that the ego, in a moment of encounter with the threat of a loss, undergoes a split which is insistently maintained. As a reaction to the castration complex a fetish is constructed, confirming that the object is lost and the subject is split (1951).

Jacques Lacan

Early on in his writings, in the 1930s, Lacan viewed castration as a fantasy of the mutilation of the penis, linking it with a series of fantasies of bodily mutilations which begin with the image of the fragmented body.

It is in the 1950s that the function of castration is discussed in reference to the Name-of-the-Father and the paternal law which forbids the mother and the child the satisfaction of being the sole desire of each other. The paternal law installs the phallus as signifier of a lack which refers mother and child to the dimension of the symbolic. The mother does not have the phallus and therefore desires it elsewhere. Thus castration orients the child and the mother beyond each other.

In his seminar of 1956-57, Lacan (1994) delineates the difference between privation, frustration and castration in relation to the symbolic, imaginary and real. Lacan emphasizes that it is not possible to articulate anything about castration without this distinction. He claims that it is the confusion of castration with privation and frustration that has led a number of psychoanalysts to founder in their theoretical and clinical orientation. He singles out Ernest Jones who substitutes for castration his concept of aphanisis, disappearance of desire, as an example of an analyst unable to surmount the difficulties of managing the castration complex.

It is also in this seminar that Lacan elaborates the relation between castration and the phallus. Lacan attributes to Freud the introduction of the phallus as a third imaginary term between the mother and the child. The phallus thus has a major signifying role.

Freud insists that in the world of objects the function of the phallus is decisive. Here Lacan will use the term imaginary phallus which is not to be confounded with the real penis. The lack referred to in woman is not, after all, a real lack. In the Freudian thesis the woman counts the phallus among her lacking objects and this brings her child into an exact connection with her relation to the phallus, because a child can come to stand in for and calm her longing for the phallus.

Based on the premise that the object is lacking, Lacan points to three different ways in which it can lack:

1. In frustration the lack is imaginary and the subjective experience is that of a damage most typically attributed to the time of weaning and loss of the breast. While the lack is imaginary, the object, such as the breast, is real. Lacan is not referring here to any actual experience. The agent of the frustration is the mother, at the level of the symbolic.

2. Privation refers to a real lack due to the loss of a symbolic object, the phallus as signifier. It especially refers to the fact that the woman does not have a penis and the assumption of this fact is a constant in nearly all of the accounts of Freud's cases. The notion of privation implies the symbolization of the object in the Real, because in the Real nothing is missing. The absence of something in the Real can only be purely symbolic. To indicate that something is not there, requires a supposition that it is possible for it to be present. This introduces the elementary symbolic order into the Real. The agent of privation is the imaginary father.

3. Castration is the symbolic lack of an imaginary object. It is essentially tied to the symbolic order and to the central position given by the Oedipus complex. It refers to the symbolic debt in the register of the law. The clinic provides evidence that castration refers to the loss of the phallus as imaginary object. The agent of castration is the real father.

Agent Object Lack Object
Real father Castration
Symbolic debt
Imaginary (= phallus)
Symbolic mother Frustration
Imaginary injury
Real (= breast, penis)
Imaginary father Privation
Real hole
Symbolic (= phallus, child)

In 1958, Lacan refers to the unconscious castration complex as having the function of a knot in the structuring of symptoms and as 'the regulator of development' through 'installing in the subject an unconscious position without which he would be unable to identify with the ideal type of his sex, or to respond without grave risk to the needs of his partner in the sexual relation, or even to receive adequately the needs of the child thus procreated' (Écrits, 1977, p. 281). It is in this 1958 paper that Lacan orients the questions which emerge from the clinic back to their origins in Freud. This reorientation of Lacan is due to the fact that by the 1950s many analysts had moved away from any reference to the castration complex, which was so central to the Freudian clinic.

However, from 1958 Lacan diverges from Freud and views castration as a function of the order of the signifier in its connection with the cultural law that imposes the sacrifice of jouissance, rather than as a purely psychical phenomenon referring to fantasy or fear. Here, castration refers to the universal effect of language, which by necessity requires a giving up of jouissance. This is due to the human being having to use the signifier in speech which can never match the thing exactly, thus necessitating a loss of the complete jouissance of the Other. This is the operation of symbolic castration. Language separates the subject from the immediate jouissance of the body of the Other.

Although we can say that Lacan diverges from Freud, and that he considers that Freud fails to make a distinction between imaginary and symbolic castration, he in fact never loses the reference to the relation of castration to the phallus. The sexuality of desire and jouissance, which is both cause and consequence of the Oedipus complex and the paternal metaphor, is the relationship between the phallus and castration, where the phallus is the signifier of castration, in the very act of saying 'no' and by virtue of the fact that the phallus can be used as a reference for the subject's desire following the structuring operation of symbolic castration.

It is in 1975 that Lacan (1998) breaks from the Oedipus complex as myth and develops a logification of sexual difference based on the different relationship of man and woman to the signifier. Here the phallic function refers to a castration brought about by the use of signifiers.

Where for Freud, the castrated one is the woman, for Lacan it is the man who is castrated, in so far as he is completely subjected to the signifier which says 'no' to complete satisfaction. The boy is totally subjected to the law and thus to symbolic castration. It is only at the imaginary level that he appears not to be castrated in his possession of a penis. The only exception to this rule that all men are castrated is that of the father of the primal horde. In its connection with the incest taboo, the effect of castration is to divide women into those who are accessible and those who are not.

The only one who has not succumbed to castration is Freud's mythical primal horde father who considers himself as being able to have access to all women including those to whom he is related. This uncastrated exception confirms the rule of castration following the logic that every rule requires at least one exception.

It is the woman who is not-all-castrated in that not all of her is subject to the phallic law. This not-all-castrated leaves the way open for a supplementary form of jouissance, feminine jouissance, which may be experienced in addition to the phallic form of jouissance. Lacan's argument is that although there is no woman who is not subject to the phallic law, and thus castrated, not all of her is subjected to it.

Clinical application

In his 1937 paper, Freud (1951) discusses the bedrock of castration around which the analytic work so often founders. The neurotic protests against castration, the sacrifice to be made, retaining the demand for the phallus, the major focus of the whole imaginary play in the analysis of a subject. For a woman, penis envy and the demand to the analyst to compensate for her lack is ever present. For a man, the difficulty in subjecting himself to another man remains a constant concern in terms of his castration anxiety.

Lacan follows Freud in pointing to the rejection of castration as the fundamental problem at stake in all the psychopathological structures.

In neurosis, where the mechanism of defence is repression, Verdrangung, awareness of castration and the lack in the Other is repressed.

What the neurotic does not want, and what he strenuously refuses to do right up until the end of his analysis, is to sacrifice his castration to the Other's jouissance, allowing it to serve the Other. (Écrits, p. 323)

It is beneath his or her ego that the neurotic covers the castration that he or she denies yet clings to. The structure of fantasy, $()a, contains within it the imaginary function of castration. This hidden function has an effect on one or other of the terms of the unconscious fantasy, for the hysteric, the object, and for the obsessional, the subject.

Instead of seeing the lack in the Other and correlatively in him or herself, a recognition that is part and parcel of symbolic castration, the hysteric maintains desire only in the form of lack of satisfaction and eludes him- or herself as object. The obsessional denies the desire in the Other and emphasizes the impossibility of him- or herself disappearing as subject. In both cases there is an incomplete symbolic castration with castration being attributed to the demands from the Other for his or her castration rather than what is essentially required from a speaking being.

In the structure of perversion, disavowal (Verleugnung) is the form of defence which passes through castration and disavows it. The prototype of perversion is the fetishist who uses the fetish object as a substitute for the penis of the mother. Freud, in his article of 1927, illustrated how the perverse subject both recognizes the lack in the mother and disavows it via the construction and use of the fetish (1951).

In the structure of psychosis, castration is foreclosed and lack is neither accepted nor borne. Freud called it Verwerfung, repudiation. The place of lack is lacking and castration returns in the real as happens, for instance, in the case of hallucination.

Lacan tried to theorize beyond the bedrock of castration with his ideas on the end of analysis. With his notion of the crossing of the fundamental fantasy, the analysand has the possibility of separating from object a and encountering the point where the fantasy becomes the drive, a point of recognizing his or her own castration.

See Also

External Links

Castration Complex

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