Lacanian notions of castration are linked to frustration and deprivation, lacking and giving, and ultimately to object relations. These represent a certain culmination of the history of psychoanalytic thought on the subject. To better define their importance, let us examine their history.
Starting in 1905, Freud posited a theory of object relations that would be linked to the stages of libidinal development (Freud, 1905d). He later proposed that the loss of feces should be considered as the precursor of the castration complex (Freud, 1916-1917e). Thus the Freudian concept is "absolutely realist."
It fell to August Stärke, in a long and important article published in 1921, to expand this theory by proposing that the breast no longer be considered the first lost object and the model for castration anxiety. Instead he recommended that masochistic pleasure also be connected with castration anxiety, which is expressed as a desire to receive the penis.
In 1928, building on theories advanced by Karl Abraham in 1924 and on thoughts that Freud expressed in 1926 about the peculiarities of the castration complex in the woman (Freud, 1926d), Melanie Klein differentiated between early anxiety in boys and girls. A boy's anxiety involves castration and a girl's the good internal functioning of her body.
Thus there is a continuous strand of Freudian thought that considers the object as tangible and castration as a reality. Even an author like Bion did not depart from this line (Bion, 1959). For him, links and attacks, the breast and the penis, are always quite real—even if their reality is only fantasmatic.
Jacques Lacan revolutionized this tradition. For him, castration fundamentally pertains to the subjectivity of the subject. It derives from a symbolic debt, linked to the prohibition against incest and murder. In the real, the subject observes that a woman lacks a penis. Thus the relation to an object is just as much a relation to the lack of an object, the object existing just as much by its absence as by its presence.
Lacan claimed that the necessity of this revolution was justified by what had become the "heteroclite nature of the castration complex" (Lacan, 2002, p. 306). He suggested this in the complete form of his graph of desire, where we find the unconscious and the Other on the one hand and the barred subject on the other. Then, successively, there are the signifier and the voice and then jouissance and castration related to "the drive as the treasure trove of signifiers" (p. 302). Castration means, "that jouissance has to be refused in order to be attained on the inverse scale of the law of desire" (p. 311).
For both sexes, the phallus is "the signifier destined to designate meaning effects as a whole" (p. 275) and "the signifier of the Other's desire" (p. 279). As such, castration is not directly related to the reality of the penis. In fact, this relation is problematic and requires several operations: "It is thus that the erectile organ—not as itself, or even as an image, but as a part that is missing in the desired image—comes to symbolize the place of jouissance," that is, as "the function of a missing signifier: ( 1)" (p. 307). "The shift of ( /) (lowercase phi) as phallic image from one side to the other of the equation between the imaginary and the symbolic renders it positive in any case, even if it fills a lack. Although it props up ( 1) it becomes F (capital phi) there, the symbolic phallus that cannot be negated, the signifier of jouissance" (p. 308). The castration complex is "incited" by the object ( /) that designates it in its imaginary function.
The Lacanian revolution corresponds to a complete separation of dialectic from intersubjectivity, the very kernel of Freudian thought. This dialectic is expressed in the schema RSI, which represents the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary. Castration is inscribed therein as related to frustration and deprivation, as Lacan showed in his seminar on object relations (Lacan, 1956-57).