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desire (dÈsir)

Lacan's term, dÈsir, is the term used in the French translations of Freud to translate Freud's term Wunsch, which is translated as 'wish' by Strachey in the Standard Edition. Hence English translators of Lacan are faced with a dilemma; should they translate dÈsir by 'wish', which is closer to Freud's Wunsch, or should they translate it as 'desire', which is closer to the French term, but which lacks the allusion to Freud? All of Lacan's English translators have opted for the latter, since the English term 'desire' conveys, like the French term, the implication of a continuous force, which is essential to Lacan's concept. The English term also carries with it the same allusions to Hegel's Begierde as are carried by the French term, and thus retains the philosophical nuances which are so essential to Lacan's concept of dÈsir and which make it 'a category far wider and more abstract than any employed by Freud himself' (Macey, 1995: 80).

If there is any one concept which can claim to be the very centre of Lacan's thought, it is the concept of desire. Lacan follows Spinoza in arguing that 'desire is the essence of man' (Sll, 275; see Spinoza, 1677: 128); 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. Unconscious desire is entirely sexual; 'the motives of the unconscious are limited . . . to sexual desire . . . The other great generic desire, that of hunger, is not represented' (E, 142). The aim of psychoanalytic treatment is to lead the analysand to recognise the truth about his desire. However, it is only possible to recognise one's desire when it is articulated in speech: 'It is only once it is formulated, named in the presence of the other, that desire, whatever it is, is recognised in the full sense of the term' (Sl, 183).

Hence in psychoanalysis 'what's important is to teach the subject to name, to articulate, to bring this desire into existence' (S2, 228). 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: 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 some- thing which would be entirely given. . . . In naming it, the subject creates, brings forth, a new presence in the world. (S2, 228-9)

However, there is a limit to how far desire can be articulated in speech because of a fundamental 'incompatibility between desire and speech' (E, 275); it is this incompatibility which explains the irreducibility of the unconscious (i.e. the fact that 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.

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 (see S4, 100-1, 125), but only crystallises in 1958 (Lacan, 1958c).

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 symbolises 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' (E, 287). 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' (E, 311). 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.

Lacan's distinction between need and desire, which lifts the concept of desire completely out of the realm of biology, is strongly reminiscent of KojËve'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' (KojËve, 1947: 6).

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: see S1l, 243). There is only one object of desire, OBJETPETITA, and this is represented by a variety of partial objects in different partial drives. The OBJET 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.

One of Lacan's most oft-repeated formulas is: 'man's desire is the desire of the Other' (Sll, 235). This can be understood in many complementary ways, of which the following are the most important.

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 KojËve, 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'. (KojËve, 1947: 6)

KojËve 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.

2. It is qua Other that the subject desires (E, 312): 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' (Lacan, 1951b:

12). 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' (Lacan, 1951b: 12). This idea too is taken from KojËve's reading of Hegel; KojËve 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' (KojËve, 1947: 6).

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 (KojËve, 1947: 40).

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; S4, 138; see Freud, 1905e). 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).

     3. 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 (S7, 67).
     4. Desire is always 'the desire for something else' (E, 167), since it is impossible to desire what one already has. The object of desire is continually deferred, which is why desire is a METONYMY (E, 175).
     5. Desire emerges originally in the field of the Other; i.e. in the unconscious.
    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.
    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 CASTRATION COMPLEX).


In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the term desire designates the impossible relation that a subject has with objet petit a. According to Lacan, desire proper (in contrast with demand) can never be fulfilled.


Desire is the Desire of the Other

It is on the basis of this fundamental understanding of identity that Lacan maintained throughout his career that desire is the desire of the Other. What is meant by him in this formulation is not the triviality that humans desire others, when they sexually desire (an observation which is not universally true). Again developing Freud's theorisation of sexuality, Lacan's contention is rather that what psychoanalysis reveals is that human-beings need to learn how and what to desire. Lacanian theory does not deny that infants are always born into the world with basic biological needs that need constant or periodic satisfaction. Lacan's stress, however, is that, from a very early age, the child’s attempts to satisfy these needs become caught up in the dialectics of its exchanges with others. Because its sense of self is only ever garnered from identifying with the images of these others (or itself in the mirror, as a kind of other), Lacan argues that it demonstrably belongs to humans to desire- directly- as or through another or others. We get a sense of his meaning when we consider such social phenomena as fashion. As the squabbling of children more readily testifies, it is fully possible for an object to become desirable for individuals because they perceive that others desire it, such that when these others' desire is withdrawn, the object also loses its allure. Lacan articulates this 'decentring' of desire when he contends that what has happened to the biological needs of the individual is that they have become inseparable from, and importantly subordinated to, the vicissitudes of its demand for the recognition and love of other people. Events as apparently 'natural' as the passing or holding back of stool, he remarks in Ecrits, become episodes in the chronicle of the child's relationship with its parents, expressive of its compliance or rebellion. A hungry child may even refuse to eat food if it perceives that this food is offered less as a token of love than one of its parents' dissatisfaction or impatience. In this light, Lacan's important recourse to game theory also becomes explicable. For game theory involves precisely the attempt to formalise the possibilities available to individuals in situations where their decisions concerning their wants can in principle both affect and be affected by the decisions of others. As Lacan's article in the Ecrits on the "Direction of the Treatment" spells out, he takes it that the analytic situation, as theorised by Freud around the notion of transference (see Part 2), is precisely such a situation. In that essay, Lacan focuses on the dream of the butcher's wife in Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. The said 'butcher’s wife’ thought that she had had a dream which was proof of the invalidity of Freud's theory that dreams are always encoded wish-fulfilments. As Freud comments, however, this dream becomes explicable when one considers how, after a patient has entered into analysis, her wishes are constructed (at least in part) in relation to the perceived wishes of the analyst. In this case, at least one of the wishes expressed by the dream was the woman's wish that Freud’s desire (for his theory to be correct) be thwarted. In the same way, Lacan details how the deeper unconscious wish expressed in the manifest content of the dream (which featured the woman attempting to stage a dinner party with only one piece of smoked salmon) can only be comprehended as the coded fulfilment of a desire that her husband would not fulfil her every wish, and leave her with an unsatisfied desire.