Objet petit a
The very centerpiece of Lacan’s thinking on desire, the objet a is most readily defined by the fact that it is not coincident with any particular object at all, but only with the desire for desire: "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" (Evans 38). Absolutely unattainable, then, the objet a is little other than the name we give to that absence that structures signification, subjectivity, and desire; it is "the object which can never be attained, which is really the cause of desire rather than that towards which desire tends," objet a is ‘the object-cause’ of desire" (Evans 125). It is the object-cause of desire in that it is not exclusively the one or the other, but a retroactive cause of its own desirability. That is, the objet a is the name we give to the lack generated by the infant’s entry into the symbolic (at the injunction of the law in its incarnation as the paternal function); it identifies that which is lost as the individual becomes a subject. As such, it is both the object of the subject’s desire (and hence, due to the biological constraints of temporality, coincident with the death drive) and its cause. It is the object of desire insofar as the subject compulsively strives toward it. It is the cause of desire in its phylogenetic persistence in the psyche as a trace of that lost plenitude toward which desire tends; without this trace experience, desire would have neither object nor cause – it would not exist.
The result of the objet a’s irremediable elusiveness is that the subject proceeds through a series of misrecognitions and near-misses in the lifelong attempt to pin down an object of desire which will render true gratification. Lacan refers to this movement as the asymptotic logic of desire, borrowing a mathematical term that denotes the perpetual progression of an arc toward an axis of a graph. As the arc nears the axis its angle grows increasingly shallow so that its moment of confluence is perpetually deferred. At the same time, the arc never ceases to be an arc by arriving at parallelism with the axis it approaches. The logic of an asymptote is, therefore, that of a perpetual approach that never arrives and yet constantly promises to coincide with that toward which it tends. Desire follows this asymptotic logic as the subject perpetually approaches the objet a (not least by the simple teleology of biological lifespan, according to which temporal existence and the fact of mortality bring individual subjects nearer to death all the time) and yet never reaches it.
These approaches manifest themselves in the lives of subjects as particular instances of desire for specific objects. These particular desires are but misrecognitions, however, as the asymptotic logic of desire keeps gratification from being total or absolute no matter how successful an individual is at attaining phenomenal objects of desire. Perhaps the most memorable instance of this logic is that driving Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. Had Kane succeeded in retrieving Rosebud he would nonetheless have found his desire unresolved and been forced to move on to some other object of desire. Individual objects of desire provide at best partial gratifications, but are never adequate to the fundamental psychic motivator of desire. Along with subjectivity, desire is an effect of the chain of signification; specific objects of desire are at best materialisations of the point de capiton – they seem to have enduring content but are in fact only necessary illusions. At best they arrest the movement of desire for a time before the tyranny of the symbolic order reasserts itself, the deep connection is broken, and the subject is forced to move on in quest of another, more lasting gratification.
The only way for the subject to escape the perpetual cycle of incomplete identification with its residue of difference (that keeps desire alive) is to achieve complete identification, emptying itself out in a full transferal of its content into something other than itself. In other words, the subject would have to undertake the utmost realisation of the logic of predication, not only relating "I" to "that," but emptying "I" into "that" so completely that "I" would cease to signify altogether in an instant of pure subjective negation. If "the objet a is the lining of subjectivity" (Bowie 176-177), then we may think of this radical negation as an instance of the subject turning itself inside out, bringing together "the alpha of human experience" with "the omega of death" (Bowie 165). Insofar as desire is always intersubjective and bound by the law we may conceive of it as a drive towards something universal beyond the accidents of individual differentiation, but which is always haunted by the knowledge (built into the symbolic order itself as the site of the unconscious) that what lies behind those accidents is nothing at all, absence, lack as lack, the end of being in its most Heideggerean conception (Evans 31). To attain the objet a would be to identify with the manque â être that forms the ground of subjectivity, bringing being (as represented in subjectivity) together with the lack of being which prompts the advent of the subject in the first place, eradicating both in a radical negation that leaves behind no residue from which desire can start anew. As part of an elaborate mechanism whereby the psychic system guarantees its own perpetuity, then, the metonymic substitution of object after object for the real object of desire (objet a) functions as a material masking and deferral in full (though unconscious) knowledge that the end of desire is also the end of subjectivity.
This is in conversation with Hegel's Master-slave dialectic. To some extent, it is the nothing-space into which the One moves in a dialectic. An imagined place that by its difference from reality gives depth and dimension to reality. Compare with Althusser's Subject-subject relationship of reflexive constitution. The capital 's' Subject is the One (Master, Society) that calls one's name. The little 's' subject's name is called. Yet neither exists without the other.
Žižek explains this objet petit a—the MacGuffin—in the following way: "MacGuffin is objet petit a pure and simple: the lack, the remainder of the real that sets in motion the symbolic movement of interpretation, a hole at the center of the symbolic order, the mere appearance of some secret to be explained, interpreted, etc." (Love thy symptom as thyself).