The "Oedipus complex" is a concept used by Sigmund Freud to refer to the unconscious sexual desire of the child - especially a male child - for the parent of the opposite sex, usually accompanied by hostility and rivalry with the parent of the same sex.
The Oedipus complex emerges in the third year of life and then declines in the fifth year. The Oedipus complex coincides with the phallic stage of psychosexual development. The Oedipus conflict, or Oedipus complex, was described as a state of psychosexual development and awareness first occurring around the age of 5 and a half years (a period known as the phallic stage in Freudian theory).
The Oedipus complex is, for Lacan, the paradigmatic triangular structure, which contrasts with all dual relations (though see the final paragraph below). The key function in the Oedipus complex is thus that of the father, the third term which transforms the dual relation between mother and child into a triadic structure. The Oedipus complex is thus nothing less than the passage from the imaginary order to the symbolic order, "the conquest of the symbolic relation as such." The fact that the passage to the symbolic passes via a complex sexual dialectic means that the subject cannot have access to the symbolic order without confronting the problem of sexual difference.
In The Seminar, Book V, Lacan analyzes this passage from the imaginary to the symbolic by identifying three "times" of the Oedipus complex, the sequence being one of logical rather than chronological priority.
prior to the invention of the father there is never a purely dual relation between the mother and the child but always a third term, the phallus, an imaginary object which the mother desires beyond the child himself (S4, 240-1). Lacan hints that the presence of the imaginary phallus as a third term in the imaginary triangle
In the first time of the Oedipus complex, then, the child realizes that both he and the mother are marked by a lack. The mother is marked by lack, since she is seen to be incomplete; otherwise, she would not desire. The subject is also marked by a lack, since he does not completely satisfy the mother's desire. The lacking element in both cases is the imaginary phallus. The mother desires the phallus she lacks, and (in conformity with Hegel's theory of desire) the subject seeks to become the object of her desire; he seeks to be the phallus for the mother and fill out her lack.
The second 'time' of the Oedipus complex is characterized by the intervention of the imaginary father. The father imposes the law on the mother's desire by denying her access to the phallic object and forbidding the subject access to the mother. Lacan often refers to this intervention as the "castration" of the mother, even though he states that, properly speaking, the operation is not one of castration but of privation.
The third 'time' of the Oedipus complex is marked by the intervention of the real father. By showing that he has the phallus, and neither exchanges it nor gives it,, the real father castrates the child, in the sense of making it impossible for the child to persist in trying to be the phallus for the mother; it is no use competing with the real father, because he always wins. The subject is freed from the impossible and anxiety-provoking task of having to be the phallus by realizing that the father has it. This allows the subject to identify with the father. Lacan follows Freud in arguing that the superego is formed out of this Oedipal identification with the father.
Since the symbolic is the realm of the law, and since the Oedipus complex is the conquest of the symbolic order, it has a normative and normalizing function. "The Oedipus complex is essential for the human being to be able to accede to a humanized structure of the real." This normative function is to be understood in reference to both clinical structures and the question of sexuality.
The Oedipus complex and clinical structures
In accordance with Freud's view of the Oedipus complex as the root of all psychopathology, Lacan relates all the clinical structures to difficulties in this complex. Since it is impossible to resolve the complex completely, a completely non-pathological position does not exist. The closest thing is a neurotic structure; the neurotic has come through all three times of the Oedipus complex, and there is no such thing as a [[neurosis without Oedipus. On the other hand, psychosis, perversion and phobia result when "something is essentially incomplete in the Oedipus complex." In psychosis, there is a fundamental blockage even before the first time of the Oedipus complex. In perversion, the complex is carried through to the third time, but instead of identifying with the father, the subject identifies with the mother and/or the imaginary phallus, thus harking back to the imaginary preoedipal triangle.
A phobia arises when the subject cannot make the transition from the second time of the Oedipus complex to the third time because the real father does not intervene; the phobia then functions as a substitute for the intervention of the real father, thus permitting the subject to make the passage to the third time of the Oedipus complex (though often in an atypical way).
- Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p.199
- Lacan, Jacques. 1957-8: seminar of 22 January 1958
- Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p. 319
- Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. pp. 208-9, 227
- Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 415
- Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p.198
- 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.201