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privation (privation) In his seminar of 1956-7, Lacan distinguishes between three types of 'lack of object': privation, frustration and castration (see LACK). Each of these types of lack is located in a different order, each is brought about by a different kind of agent, and each involves a different kind of object. Privation is defined as a lack in the Real of a Symbolic object (the Symbolic phallus). The agent who brings about this lack is the Imaginary father.

Privation is Lacan's attempt to theorise more rigorously Freud's concept of female castration and penis envy. According to Freud, when children realize that some people (women) do not have a penis, this is a traumatic moment which produces different effects in the boy and in the girl (see CASTRATION COMPLEX).

Whereas the boy develops a fear of having his penis cut off, the girl envies the boy his possession of the penis, which she sees as a highly desirable organ. The girl blames the mother for depriving her of a penis, and redirects her affections to the father in the hope that he will provide her with a child as a Symbolic substitute for the penis she lacks (Freud, 1924d). Privation, then, refers to the female's lack of a penis, which is clearly a lack in the Real. However, by definition, 'the Real is full'; the Real is never lacking in itself, and thus 'the notion of privation . . . implies the symbolisation of the object in the Real' (S4, 218), In other words, when the child perceives the penis (a Real organ) as absent, it is only because he has a notion that it somehow should be there, which is to introduce the Symbolic into the Real.

Thus what is lacking is not the Real organ, for, biologically speaking, the vagina is not incomplete without one; what is lacking is a Symbolic object, the Symbolic phallus. Its Symbolic nature is confirmed by the fact that it can be substituted by a child in the girl's unconscious; in appeasing her penis envy by desiring a child, Freud argues, the girl 'slips - along the lines of a Symbolic equation, one might say - from the penis to a baby' (Freud, 1924d: SE XIX, 178-9).

Freud argues that the little girl blames her mother for depriving her of a penis. Lacan, however, argues that it is the Imaginary father who is held to be the agent of privation. However, these two accounts are not necessarily incompatible. Even though the girl may at first resent the mother for depriving her of a penis and turn to the father in the hope that he will provide her with a Symbolic substitute, she later turns her resentment against the father when he fails to provide her with the desired child.

Freud argues that penis envy persists into adulthood, manifesting itself both in the desire to enjoy the penis in sexual intercourse, and in the desire to have a child (since the father has failed to providÈ her with a child, the Woman turns to another man instead). Lacan argues that even when the Woman has a child, this does not spell the end of her sense of privation. Her desire for the phallus remains unsatisfied, no matter how many children she has. The mother's basic dissatisfaction (S4, 194) is perceived by the child from very early on; he realizes that she has a desire that aims at something beyond her relationship with him - the Imaginary phallus. The child then seeks to fulfil her desire by identifying with the Imaginary phallus. In this way, the privation of the mother is responsible for introducing the dialectic of desire in the child's life for the first time.


The concept of privation is essential for Freud. In The Future of An Illusion (1927c), he writes: "For the sake of a uniform terminology we will describe the fact that an instinct cannot be satisfied as a 'frustration,' the regulation by which this frustration is established as a 'prohibition' and the condition which is produced by the prohibition as a 'privation"' (p. 10). Later in the same essay, he defines more specifically the drive-wishes that result from privation: incest, the pleasure in and wish to murder, and cannibalism.

Melanie Klein and Jacques Lacan are the main authors to have taken up this concept. For Klein, privation is the basis for the paranoid position. She writes: "Persecutory anxiety, therefore, enters from the beginning into [the baby's] relation to objects in so far as he is exposed to privations" (Klein, 1932/1952b, p. 199). And elsewhere: "Feelings of frustration and grievance lead to phantasying backwards and often focus in retrospect on the privations suffered in relation to the mother's breast" (Klein, 1952a, p. 265). All feelings of privation or frustration originate in the subject's relationship with the mother, specifically with the maternal breast. These feelings are also articulated with persecution and fragmentation anxieties.

In "L'archaïque et le profond dans la penséedeMelanie Klein" (The Archaic and the Profound in Melanie Klein's Thought; 1982), Jean-Michel Petot discusses the constant slippage between the terms privation, deprivation, and frustration in Klein's work. He clearly shows Klein's difficulties with these notions, as well as the role played by Ernest Jones's translations of the German term Versagung.

For Jacques Lacan, archaic persecution or fragmentation anxieties are to be deduced from castration anxiety and are not its precursors. Privation is what is inscribed in the Real and reveals its nature. Privation corresponds to the "hole" in the Real; it is the basis of the Symbolic Order, and the agent who deprives is always Imaginary. Lacan's answer to the question concerning what is actually being deprived is that "It is especially the fact that the Woman does not have a penis, that She is deprived of it. [. . .] The very notion of privation, so tangible and visible in an experience such as that one, implies the symbolization of the object in the real. For in the real, nothing is deprived of anything. Everything that is real is sufficient unto itself. By definition, the real is full [plein]. If we introduce the notion of privation into the real, it is to the extent that we can already symbolize it adequately, or even completely. Indicating that something is not there means supposing its possible presence—that is, introducing into the real, in order to recover it and hollow it out, the simple symbolic order" (1956-57).

The reversal effected by Lacan, as compared to authors inspired by Klein, is striking, and it is the basis for his claim of making a rigorous return to Freud. However, his was a return to a particular Freud: In Freudian thought, while woman is indeed deprived of a penis, the male child is just as deprived of the breast. Although woman can aspire to replace what she lacks by bearing a child, man must replace that which he has been deprived of with "spiritual nourishment," or thought.

See Also


  • Freud, Sigmund. (1927c). The future of an illusion. SE, 21: 1-56.
  • Klein, Melanie. (1952a). On observing the behaviour of young infants. In Melanie Klein, Paula Heimann, Susan Isaacs, and Joan Rivière (Eds.). Developments in psychoanalysis (pp. 237-270). London: Hogarth.
  • Klein, Melanie. (1952b). Some theoretical conclusions regarding the emotional life of the infant. In Melanie Klein, Paula Heimann, Susan Isaacs, and Joan Rivière. (Eds.). Developments in psychoanalysis (pp. 198-236). London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1932)
  • Lacan, Jacques. (1956-57). Le séminaire: Livre IV, La relation d'objet (pp. 237-270). Paris: Le Seuil.