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Desire

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French: désir
German: Wunsch

The concept of desire is at the center of Lacanian psychoanalysis as a theoretical, ethical and clinical point of reference. Theoretically, Lacan's elaboration of the concept is supported by, yet goes beyond, its Freudian origins. From an ethical perspective, Lacan has examined in an original way the relationship between desire and the law, and its implications for psychoanalytic praxis.

Sigmund Freud

Lacan's term, désir, is the term used in the French translations of Freud to translate Freud's term Wunsch, which is translated as "wish" in the Standard Edition.

By shifting the object of study from the imagery of the manifest content of the dream to its unconscious determinants in the dreaming subject, Freud unveiled the structure of both the dream and the subject. Beyond the preconscious wishes attached to a number of desirable objects that the dream-work utilizes, there lies the unconscious wish — indestructible, infantile in its origins, the product of repression, permanently insisting in reaching fulfilment through the dream and the other formations of the unconscious.

The indestructibility that Freud attributes to the unconscious wish is a property of its structural position: it is the necessary, not contingent, effect of a fundamental gap in the subject's psyche; the gap left by a lost satisfaction (cf. the seventh chapter of The Interpretation of Dreams; Freud, 1953, pp. 509-621).

Such a structural gap in the subject is of a sexual order; it corresponds ultimately to a loss of sexual jouissance due to the fact of the prohibition to which sexuality is subjected in the human being. This prohibition is a structural cultural necessity, not a contingency, and its subjective correlate is the Oedipus complex — which is a normative organization, rather than a more or less typical set of psychological manifestations.

The model of the unconscious wish elucidated by Freud in his monumental work on dreams remained his guide for the rest of his theoretical and clinical production; in pa rticular, it continued to inform, until the end, Freud's clinical interventions — interpretations and constructions in analysis — and his rationale for them. This model is inseparable from the form of discourse that Freud created: the rule of free association, the subject's speech, reveals his/her desire and the essential gap that constitutes it.

Lacan's elaboration of the praxis (theory and practice) of desire extends over his half-century of work in psychoanalysis, and attempting to abbreviate it or replace the necessary reading with a summary would be imprudent and misleading. Therefore, we can only indicate some suggestions for further reading (in Lacan's works) and further lines of enquiry.

A first ingredient of the concept of desire in Lacan's work contains a Hegelian reference, according to which desire is bound to its being recognized — even if later on Lacan emphasized the difference between his and Hegel's positions (Lacan, 1977 [1959], pp. 292-325).

But the reference to Freud's analysis of desire as revealed in the dream is from the start highly significant. Lacan emphasized that the analysis of the dream is in fact an analysis of the dreamer, that is, a subject who tells the dream to an other (with whom the subject is engaged in a transference-relation). In 'The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis' (1953), Lacan writes:

Nowhere does it appear more clearly that man's desire finds its meaning in the desire of the other, not so much because the other holds the key to the object desired, as because the first object of desire is to be recognized by the other. (Lacan, 1977 [1959], p. 58)

That the other holds the key to the object desired takes on added value later in Lacan's work. Yet that desire emerges in a relationship with the other which is dialectical, that is, which is embedded in discourse, is an essential property of human desire. Human desire is the desire of the Other (over and above the others who are concrete incarnations of the Other), not 'natural', endogenous appetites or tendencies that would push the subject in one direction or another irrespective of his/her relations with the Other; desire is always inscribed in and mediated by language (cf. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, which is an essential reference in its entirety; Lacan, 1977).

Lacan's study of the dialectical nature of desire led to his distinction between desire, need and demand. The three terms describe lacks in the subject; yet it is indispensable to identify each of these lacks, and their interrelations. The satisfaction of vital needs is subject to demand, and makes the subject dependent on speech and language.

The least noisy appeal of the infant is already inscribed in language, as it is interpreted by the 'significant' others as speech, not as a mere cry. This primordial discursive circuit makes of the infant already a speaking being, a subject of speech, even at the stage in which he/she is still infant. This subordination to the Other through language marks the human forever. Lacan writes:

The phenomenology that emerges from analytic experience is certainly of a kind to demonstrate in desire the paradoxical, deviant, erratic, eccentric, even scandalous character by which it is distinguished from need [...]
Demand in itself bears on something other than the satisfactions it calls for. It is demand of a presence or of an absence — which is what is manifested in the primordial relation to the mother, pregnant with that Other to be situated short of the needs that it can satisfy.
Demand constitutes the Other as already possessing the 'privilege' of satisfying needs, that is to say, the power of depriving them of that alone by which they are satisfied [...].
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 that it obtains for need are reduced (sich erniedrigt) to the level of being no more than the crushing of the demand for love.
Thus 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 phenomenon of their splitting (Spaltung). (Lacan, 1977 [1959], pp. 286-7)

This residual status of desire constitutes its essence; at this point the question of the object of desire acquires crucial importance. Lacan considered his theory of this object to be his only original contribution to psychoanalysis.

Although an exaggeration in reality, Lacan's position is justified because with that theory he introduced in psychoanalysis a conception of the object that is genuinely revolutionary and that makes possible a rational critique of the notion of 'object relations' and its clinical applications.

For what Lacan emphasized was the illusory nature of any object that appears to fulfil desire, while the gap, the original splitting which is constitutive of the subject, is real; and it is in this gap that the object a, the object cause of desire, installs itself. (Lacan 1977; in particular, chapter 20).

Desire requires the support of the fantasy, which operates as its mise en scène, where the fading subject faces the lost object that causes his/her desire (Lacan 1977 [1959], p. 313). This fading of the subject in the fantastic scenario that supports his/her desire is what makes desire opaque to the subject him-/herself. Desire is a metonymy (p. 175) because the object that causes it, constituted as lost, makes it displace permanently, from object to object, as no one object can really satisfy it.

This permanent displacement of desire follows the logic of the unconscious; thus Lacan could say that desire is its interpretation, as it moves along the chain of unconscious signifiers, without ever being captured by any particular signifier (cf. Seminar VI, 'Desire and its Interpretation'; Lacan, 1958-59).

In the analytic experience, desire 'must be taken literally', as it is through the unveiling of the signifiers that support it (albeit never exhausting it) that its real cause can be circumscribed (Lacan, 1977 [1959], pp. 256-77).

Desire is the other side of the law: the contributions of psychoanalysis to ethical reflection and practice have started off by recognizing this principle (Lacan, 1990; 1992). Desire opposes a barrier to jouissance - the jouissance of the drive (always partial, not in relation to the body considered as a totality, but to the organic function to which it is attached and from which it detaches), and that of the super-ego (with its implacable command to enjoy; Lacan, 1977 [1959], p. 319).

Thus, desire appears to be on the side of life preservation, as it opposes the lethal dimension of jouissance (the partiality of the drive, which disregards the requirements of the living organism, and the demands of the superego - that `senseless law' - which result in the self-destructive unconscious sense of guilt). But desire itself is not without a structural relation with death: death at the heart of the speaking being's lack-in-being (manqué à l'être); death in the mortifying effect of those objects of the world that entice desire, inducing its alienation, without ever satisfying any promise.

There is no Sovereign Good that would sustain the `right' orientation of desire, or guarantee the subject's well-being. As a consequence, the ethics of psychoanalysis require that the analyst does not pretend to embody or to deliver any Sovereign Good; it rather prescribes for the analyst that `the only thing of which one can be guilty is of having given ground relative to one's desire' (Lacan, 1992, p. 319).

The analyst's desire, 'a desire to obtain absolute difference', is the original Lacanian concept that defines the position of the analyst in analytic discourse, and represents a culmination of his elucidation of the function of desire in psychoanalysis (Lacan, 1977, p. 276; 1991).

This position is structural, constitutive of analytic discourse - not a psychological state of the analyst. It is his/her lack-in-being, rather than any 'positive' mode of being that orients the analyst's direction of the treatment (Lacan, 1977 [1959], p. 230). This means that the analyst cannot incarnate an ideal for the analysand, and that he/she occupies a position of semblant of the cause of desire (Lacan, 1991; 1998). Only in this way may the analyst's desire become the instrument of the analysand's access to his/her own desire.

See also: jouissance, subject

References Freud, S. (1953) [1900a] The Interpretation of Dreams. Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vols 4 & 5. London: Hogarth Press.

  1. Lacan, J. (1958-59) `Le désir et son interpretation' (seven sessions, ed. by J.-A. Miller). Ornicar? 24 (1981):7-31; 25 (1982):13-36; 26/27 (1983):7-44. The final three sessions appeared as `Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet'. Yale French Studies 55/56 (1977):11-52. There are unedited transcripts of the whole seminar available in French and English.
  2. Lacan, J. (1977) [1959] Écrits: A Selection. London: Tavistock.
  3. Lacan, J. (1977) The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. London: Tavistock.
  4. Lacan, J. (1990) `Kant with Sade'. October 51. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press.
  5. Lacan, J. (1991) Le Séminaire, Livre XVII, L'envers de la psychanalyse, 1969-1970. Paris: Seuil.
  6. Lacan, J. (1992) The Seminar, Book VII, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960. New York: W.W. Norton; London: Routledge.
  7. Lacan, J. (1998) The Seminar, Book XX, Encore, 1972-1973, On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge. New York: W.W. Norton. Leonardo S. Rodriguez
Unconscious Desire

Lacan follows Spinoza in arguing that "desire is the essence of man."[1] Desire is simultaneously the heart of human existence and the central concern of psychoanalysis. However, when Lacan talks about desire, it is not any kind of desire he is referring to, but always unconscious desire. This is not because Lacan sees conscious desire as unimportant, but simply because it is unconscious desire that forms the central concern of psychoanalysis.

Truth and Desire

The aim of psychoanalytic treatment is to lead the analysand to recognize the truth about his desire. It is only possible to recognize one's desire when it is articulate in speech.

Existence

Hence in psychoanalysis, "what's important is to teach the subject to name, to articulate, to bring this desire into existence."[2] However, it is not a question of seeking a new means of expression for a given desire, for this would imply a expressionist theory of language. On the contrary, by articulating desire in speech, the analysand brings it into existence. (The analysand, by articulating desire in speech, (does not simply give expression to a pre-existing desire but rather) brings that desire into existence.)

"That the subject should come to recognise and to name his desire; that is the efficacious action of analysis. But it isn't a question of recognising something which would be entirely given. ... In naming it, the subject creates, brings forth, a new presence in the world."[3]

However, there is a limit to how far desire can be articulated in speech because of a fundamental "incompatibility between desire and speech;"[4] it is this incompatibility which explains the irreducibility of the unconscious (i.e. the fact the the unconscious is not that which is not known, but that which cannot be known).

"Although the truth about desire is present to some degree in all speech, speech can never articulate the whole truth about desire; whenever speech attempts to articulate desire, there is always a leftover, a surplus, which exceeds speech."[5]

Criticism

One of Lacan's most important criticisms of the psychoanalytic theories of his day was that they tended to confuse the concept of desire with the related concepts of demand and need. In opposition to this tendency, Lacan insists on distinguishing between these three concepts. This distinction begins to emerge in his work in 1957,[6], but only crystallises in 1958.[7]

Need

Need is a purely biological instinct, an appetite which emerges according to the requirements of the organism and which abates completely (even if only temporarily) when satisfied. The human subject, being born in a state of helplessness, is unable to satisfy its own needs, and hence depends on the Other to help it satisfy them. In order to get the Other's help, the infant must express its needs vocally; need must be articulated in demand. The primitive demands of the infant may only be inarticulate screams, but they serve to bring the Other to minister to the infant's needs. However, the presence of the Other soon acquires an importance in itself, an importance that goes beyond the satisfaction of need, since this presence symbolizes the Other's love. Hence demand soon takes on a double function, serving both as an articulation of need and as a demand for love. However, whereas the Other can provide the objects which the subject requires to satisfy his needs, the Other cannot provide that unconditional love which the subject craves. Hence even after the needs which were articulated in demand have been satisfied, the other aspect of demand, the craving for love, remains unsatisfied, and this leftover is desire.

"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."[8]
Demand

Desire is thus the surplus produced by the articulation of need in demand;

"Desire begins to take shape in the margin in which demand becomes separated from need."[9]

Unlike a need, which can be satisfied and which then ceases to motivate the subject until another need arises, desire can never be satisfied; it is constant in its pressure, and eternal. The realisation of desire does not consist in being "fulfilled", but in the reproduction of desire as such.

Alexandre Kojève

Lacan's distinction between need and desire, which lifts the concept of desire completely out of the realm of biology, is strongly reminiscent of Kojève's distinction between animal and human desire; desire is shown to be distinctively human when it is directed either toward another desire, or to an object which is "perfectly useless from the biological point of view."[10]

Desire and Drive

It is important to distinguish between desire and the drives. Although they both belong to the field of the Other (as opposed to love), desire is one whereas the drives are many. In other words, the drives are the particular (partial) manifestations of a single force called desire (although there may also be desires which are not manifested in the drives).[11] There is only one object of desire, object (petit) a, and this is represented by a variety of partial objects in different partial drives. The object (petit) a is not the object towards which desire tends, but the cause of desire. Desire is not a relation to an object, but a relation to a lack.

Desire of the Other

One of Lacan's most oft-repeated formulas is: "man's desire is the desire of the Other."[12] This can be understood in many complementary ways, of which the following are the most important.

More

1. Desire is essentially "desire of the Other's desire", which means both desire to be the object of another's desire, and desire for recognition by another.

Lacan takes this idea from Hegel, via Kojève, who states:

Desire is human only if the one desires, not the body, but the Desire of the other . . . that is to say, if he wants to be 'desired' or 'loved', or, rather, 'recognised' in his human value. . . . In other words, all human, anthropogenetic Desire . . . is, finally, a function of the desire for 'recognition'.[13]
Object of Another's Desire

Kojève goes on to argue (still following Hegel) that in order to achieve the desired recognition, the subject must risk his own life in a struggle for pure prestige (see master). That desire is essentially desire to be the object of another's desire is clearly illustrated in the first 'time' of the Oedipus complex, when the subject desires to be the phallus for the mother.

Two

2. It is qua Other that the subject desires:[14] that is, the subject desires from the point of view of another. The effect of this is that "the object of man's desire . . . is essentially an object desired by someone else."[15] What makes an object desirable is not any intrinsic quality of the thing in itself but simply the fact that it is desired by another.

The desire of the Other is thus what makes objects equivalent and exchangeable; this "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."[16]

This idea too is taken from Kojève's reading of Hegel; Kojève argues that:

"Desire directed toward a natural object is human only to the extent that it is 'mediated' by the Desire of another directed towards the same object: it is human to desire what others desire, because they desire it."[17]
The reason for this goes back to the former point about human desire being desire for recognition; by desiring that which another desires, I can make the other recognise my right to possess that object, and thus make the other recognise my superiority over him.[18]
Hysteria

This universal feature of desire is especially evident in hysteria; the hysteric is one who sustains another person's desire, converts another's desire into her own (e.g. Dora desires Frau K because she identifies with Herr K, thus appropriating his perceived desire).[19] Hence what is important in the analysis of a hysteric is not to find out the object of her desire but to discover the place from which she desires (the subject with whom she identifies).

Desire for the Other
  1. Desire is desire for the Other (playing on the ambiguity of the French preposition de). The fundamental desire is the incestuous desire for the mother, the primordial Other.[20]
  1. Desire is always "the desire for something else,"[21] since it is impossible to desire what one already has. The object of desire is continually deferred, which is why desire is a metonymy.[22]
  1. Desire emerges originally in the field of the Other; i.e. in the unconscious.
Social Product

The most important point to emerge from Lacan's phrase is that desire is a social product. Desire is not the private affair it appears to be but is always constituted in a dialectical relationship with the perceived desires of other subjects.

(M)other

The first person to occupy the place of the Other is the mother, and at first the child is at the mercy of her desire. It is only when the Father articulates desire with the law by castrating the mother that the subject is freed from subjection to the whims of the mother's desire.

See Also

References

  1. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p. 275
  2. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55. Trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1988. p. 228
  3. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55. Trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1988. p. 228-9
  4. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 275
  5. Evans, Dylan. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. 2003. New York: Brunner-Routledge. p. 36
  6. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. pp. 100-1, 125
  7. Lacan, Jacques. (1958c) "La signification du phallus." Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966: 685-95 ["The signification of the phallus". Trans. Alan Sheridan Écrits: A Selection. London: Tavistock, 1977; New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1977: 281-91].
  8. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 287
  9. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 311
  10. Kojève, Alexandre (1947 [1933-39]) Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. Trans. James H. Nichols Jr. New York and London: Basic Books, 1969: 6
  11. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p. 243
  12. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p. 235
  13. Kojève, Alexandre (1947 [1933-39]) Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. Trans. James H. Nichols Jr. New York and London: Basic Books, 1969: 6
  14. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 312
  15. Lacan, Jacques. "Some Reflections on the Ego." International Journal of Psychoanalysis. Vol. 34. 1953[1951b]: 12
  16. Lacan, Jacques. "Some Reflections on the Ego." International Journal of Psychoanalysis. Vol. 34. 1953[1951b]: 12
  17. Kojève, Alexandre (1947 [1933-39]) Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. Trans. James H. Nichols Jr. New York and London: Basic Books, 1969: 6
  18. Kojève, Alexandre (1947 [1933-39]) Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. Trans. James H. Nichols Jr. New York and London: Basic Books, 1969: 40
  19. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 138; Freud, Sigmund. (1905e) "Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria." SE VII, 3.
  20. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book VII. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-60. Trans. Dennis Porter. London: Routledge, 1992. p. 67
  21. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 167
  22. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 175