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The term 'complex' (complexe) occupies an important place in Lacan's work before 1950, where it is closely related to the image.

Whereas the imago designates an imaginary stereotype relating to one person, the complex is a whole constellation of interacting imagos; it is the internalisation of the subject's earliest social structures (i.e. the relationships between the various actors in his family nvironment).

A complex involves multiple identifications with all the interacting imagos, and thus provides a script according to which the subject is led 'to play out, as the sole actor, the drama of conflicts' between the members of his family.[1]

In his pre-war work, Lacan argues that it is because human psychology is based on the complexes, which are entirely cultural products, rather than on natural instincts, that human behaviour cannot be explained by reference to biological givens.

Nevertheless, while drawing this explicit contrast between complexes and instincts, Lacan also recognises that complexes may be compared to instincts in that they make up for the instinctual inadequacy (insuffisance vitale) of the human infant, and argues that the complexes are propped on biological functions such as weaning.[2]

In 1938 Lacan identifies three 'family complexes', each of which is the trace of a 'psychical crisis' which accompanies a 'life crisis'.

The first of these complexes is the weaning complex (complexe du sevrage).

Taking up the idea of a 'trauma of weaning', first developed by RenÈ Laforgue in the 1920s, Lacan argues that no matter how late weaning occurs, it is always perceived by the infant as coming too early.

Whether traumatic or not, weaning leaves in the human psyche a permanent trace of the biological relation which it interrupts.

This life crisis is in effect accompanied by a psychical crisis, without doubt the first whose solution has a dialectical structure. (Lacan, 1938: 27)

After the weaning complex comes the intrusion complex (complexe de l'intrusion), which represents the experience that the child has when he realises that he has siblings.

The child must then cope with the fact that he is no longer the exclusive object of his parents' attention. The third and final family complex is the Oedipus Complex.

After their appearance in the 1938 paper, the terms 'weaning complex' and 'intrusion complex' disappear almost completely from Lacan's work (there is a brief reference to them in 1950, but little else; Ec, 141).

However, the Oedipus complex remains a fundamental reference point throughout, and this is complemented by a growing interest, from 1956 on, in the Castration Complex.


  1. Ec, 90
  2. Lacan, 1938: 32-3

See Also