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Phobia

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French: phobie

A phobia is usually defined in psychiatry as an extreme fear of a particular object (such as an animal) or a particular situation (such as leaving the home).

Those who suffer from a phobia experience Anxiety if they encounter the phobic object or are placed in the feared situation, and develop 'avoidance strategies' so as to prevent this from happening.

These avoidance strategies may become so elaborate that the subject's life is severely restricted.

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Freud's most important contribution to the study of phobias concerned a young boy whom he dubbed Little Hans.

Shortly before his fifth birthday, Hans developed a violent fear of horses and became unwilling to go outdoors lest he encounter one in the street.

In his case study of Hans, Freud distinguished between the initial onset of anxiety (which was not attached to any object) and the ensuing fear which was focused specifically on horses; only the latter constituted the phobia proper.

Freud argued that the anxiety was the transformation of sexual excitement generated in Hans by his relationship with his mother, and that the horses represented his father who Hans feared would punish him.[1]

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Lacan, in his seminar of 1956-7, offers a detailed reading of the case of Little Hans, and proposes his own view of phobia.

Following Freud, he stresses the difference between phobia and anxiety: anxiety appears first, and the phobia is a defensive formation which turns the anxiety into fear by focusing it on a specific object.[2]

However, rather than identifying the phobic object as a representative of the father, as Freud does, Lacan argues that the fundamental characteristic of the phobic object is that it does not simply represent one person but represents different people in turn.[3]

Lacan points out the extremely diverse ways in which Hans describes the feared horse at different moments of his phobia; for example, at one point Hans is afraid that a horse will bite him and at another moment that a horse will fall down.[4]

At each of these different moments, Lacan argues, the horse represents a different person in Hans's life.[5]

The horse thus functions not as the equivalent of a sole signified but as a signifier which has no univocal sense and is displaced onto different signifieds in turn[6]

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Lacan argues that Hans develops the horse phobia because his Real father fails to intervene as the agent of castration, which is his proper role in the Oedipus Complex.[7]

When his sexuality begins to make itself felt in infantile masturbation, the preoedipal triangle (mother-child-Imaginary phallus) is transformed from being Hans's source of enjoyment into something that provokes anxiety in him.

The intervention of the Real father would have saved Hans from this anxiety by Symbolically castrating him, but in the absence of this intervention Hans is forced to find a substitute in the phobia.

The phobia functions by using an Imaginary object (the horse) to reorganise the Symbolic world of Hans and thus help him to make the passage from the Imaginary to the Symbolic order[8]

Far from being a purely negative phenomenon, then, a phobia makes a traumatic situation thinkable, livable, by introducing a symbolic dimension, even if it is only a provisional solution.[9]

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The phobic object is thus an Imaginary element which is able to function as a signifier by being used to represent every possible element in the subject's world.

For Hans, the horse represents at different moments his father, his mother, his little sister, his friends, himself, and many other things besides.[10]

In the process of developing all the permutations possible around 'the signifying crystal of his phobia', little Hans was able to exhaust all the impossibilities that blocked his passage from the Imaginary to the Symbolic and thus find a solution to the impossible by recourse to a signifying equation.[11]

In other words, a phobia plays exactly the same role which Claude LÈvi-Strauss assigns to myths, only on the level of the individual rather than of society.

What is important in the myth, argues Lévi-Strauss, is not any 'natural' or 'archetal' meaning of the isolated elements which make it up, but the way they are combined and re-combined in such a way that while the elements change position, the relations between the positions are immutable.[12]

This repeated re-combination of the same elements allows an impossible situation to be faced up to by articulating in turn all the different forms of its impossibility.[13]

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What are the practical consequences of Lacan's theory in the treatment of subjects who suffer from phobias? Rather than simply desensitising the subject (as in behavioural therapy), or simply providing an explanation of the phobic object (e.g. 'the horse is your father'), the treatment should aim at helping the subject to work through all the various permutations involving the phobic signifier.

By helping the subject to develop the individual myth in accordance with its own laws, the treatment enables him finally to exhaust all the possible combinations of signifying elements and thus to dissolve the phobia.[14]

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(It should be borne in mind that Lacan's discussion of the case of Little Hans only explicitly addresses the question of childhood phobias, and leaves open the question of whether these remarks also apply to adult phobias.)

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As Freud himself noted in his case study of Little Hans, phobias had not previously been assigned any definite position in psychiatric nosographies.

He attempted to remedy this uncertainty surrounding the classification of phobia, but his proposed solution is prey to a certain ambiguity.

On the one hand, since phobic symptoms can be found among both neurotic and psychotic subjects, Freud argued that phobias could not be regarded as an 'independent pathological process'.[15]

On the other hand, in the same work Freud did isolate a particular form of neurosis whose central symptom is a phobia.

Freud called this new diagnostic category 'anxiety hysteria' in order to distinguish it from 'conversion hysteria' (which Freud had previously referred to simply as 'hysteria').

Freud's remarks are thus ambiguous, implying that phobia can be both a symptom and an underlying clinical entity.

The same ambiguity is repeated in Lacan's works, where the question is rephrased in terms of whether phobia is a symptom or a structure.

Usually, Lacan distinguishes only two neurotic structures (hysteria and obsessional neurosis), and describes phobia as a symptom rather than a structure.[16]

However, there are also points in Lacan's work where he lists phobia as a third form of neurosis in addition to hysteria and obsessional neurosis, thus implying that there is a phobic structure;[17]; in 1961, for example, he describes phobia as "the most radical form of neurosis."[18]

The question is not resolved until the seminar of 1968-9, where Lacan states that One cannot see in it [phobia] a clinical entity but rather a revolving junction [plaque tournante], something that must be elucidated in its relations withthat towards which it usually tends, namely the two great orders of neurosis, hysteria and obsessionality, and also the junction which it realises with perversion.[19]

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Thus phobia is not, according to Lacan, a clinical structure on the same level as hysteria and obsessional neurosis, but a gateway which can lead to either of them and which also has certain connections with the perverse structure.

The link with perversion can be seen in the similarities between the fetish and the phobic object, both of which are symbolic substitutes for a missing element and both of which serve to structure the surrounding world.

Furthermore, both phobia and perversion arise from difficulties in the passage from the imaginary preoedipal triangle to the symbolic Oedipal quaternary.


References

  1. Template:SF 1909b
  2. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. pp. 207, 400
  3. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. pp. 283-8
  4. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 305-6
  5. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 307
  6. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 288
  7. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 212
  8. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. pp. 230, 245-6, 284
  9. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 82
  10. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 307
  11. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 168
  12. Lévi-Strauss. 1955
  13. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 330
  14. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 402
  15. Freud, 1909b: SE X, l15
  16. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 285
  17. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 321
  18. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre VIII. Le transfert, 1960-61. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 425
  19. 1968-9