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).
OBJETa (see a/so JEW, MASTER-SIGNIFIER) Oígjet a, one of Lacan's most famous "mathemes or conceptual neologisms, is first of all that element standing in for the Real within any symbolic system. It is at once what cannot be accounted for within this system and yet what produces this system as the attempt to speak of it. It is in this abstract, nonpathological sense that Žižek describes objet a as the object-cause of desire: "The fundamental thesis of Lacan is that this impossible object is nevertheless given to us in a specific experience, that of the o/7jet petir a, object-cause of desire, which is not "pathological," which does not reduce itself to an object of need or demand" (p. 129-30). And, as Žižek goes on to say, the aim of the analysis of ideology is to bring out the double status of this olijet a. as both what completes the symbolic circle of authority, acting as the guarantee or Other of its Other, and what cannot be accounted for within it, what always appears as excessive within its officially stated rationale: 'The aim of the "critique of ideology," of the analysis of an ideological edifice, is to extract this symptomatic kernel which the official, public ideological text simultaneously disavows and needs for its undisturbed functioning" (p. 292). This olijet a can take many forms within ideology: seemingly transgressive enjoyment, racism, paranoia, the belief in an explanation hidden behind the public one. To this extent, it functions as the "master-signifier' of the master-signifier - and Zižek's point, following Lacan, is to reveal that there is no Other of the Other, that the Other does not possess objet a or the cause of our desire, but that in a way we do: we are ultimately our own cause. That is, if on the one hand, "Lacan defines objet a as the fantasmatic "stuff" of the I, as that which confers on y, on the fissure in the symbolic order. on the ontological void that we call 'subject," the ontological consistency of a "person" ", on the other it is what Lacan, in his last phase at least. referred to as the "subjective destitution" which is involved in the position of the analyst. of the analyst as occupying the position of objet petit a' (p. 59).
The objet petit a denotes the object which can never be attained, which is really the cause of desire rather than that towards which desire tends; this is why Lacan now calls it ‘the object-cause’ of desire. Objet petit a is any object which sets desire in motion, especially the partial objects which define the drives. The drives do not seek to attain the objet petit a, but rather circle round it (S11, 179). Objet petit a is both the object of anxiety, and the final irreducible reserve of the libido.
The objet petit a is also defined as the leftover, the remainder (Fr. reste), the remnant left behind by the introduction of the symbolic in the real.
The term 'objet petit a' is translated as 'objet small a, but it is normally left in the French at Lacan's insistence. He argues that it thus acquires "the status of an algebraic sign". This is an instance of Lacan's tendency, especially in his later writings, to use algebraic signs or 'mathemes'. This formalization is intended to guarantee the 'integral transmission' of psychoanalytic theory.
The concept of objet petit a derives from Freud's theory of the object and from Lacan's own meditations on the theme of the other; there are some similarities between it and both Klein's part-objects and Winnicott's transitional object. The a stands for autre ('other'), and the use of the lower case marks the distinction between this object and the 'big Other' symbolized by the capital A[utre]. Unlike the 'big Other', objet petit a exists within a relationship with the ego and is described as belonging to the order of the imaginary.
The earliest references to a appear in the 1950s, and it initially designates the ego, with a designating the specular image of the mirror-phase and 'A' the unconscious or the discourse of the Other. Object petit a is imagined by the subject to be an object that can be separated from the body in such a way as to take on an existence of its own.
From the 1960s onwards, objet petit a comes to mean an object of desire rather than a concrete object that is actually sought by the drives. Lacan later describes it as an 'object-cause', defined as any object of desire that sets the drives in motion. It can be a source of anxiety as well as a promise of pleasure. Rather than seeking to attain or possess it, the drives endlessly circle around it.