The Law of the Father and the Superego
It is through the intervention of the father that the child is precipitated out of the imaginary world of infantile plenitude into the symbolic universe of lack. The Oedupis complex marks this transiiton from imaginary to symbolic, or, as Freud theorized in in such works as ‘’Totem and Taboo’’ (1913) and ‘’Civilization and its Discontents’’ (1930), the transition from nature to culture. The Oedipus complex for Freud marks the origin of civilization, religion, morals and art. It is only through the repression and sublimation of our incestuous desire for our mothers that civilization and culture can development. The Lacanian Name-of-the-Father, therefore, is associated with the prohibition of incest and the instigation of symbolic law. The symbolic order and the process of signification, according to Lacan, is ‘phalluc’ and governed by the paternal metaphor and the imposition of paternal law. The father is seen to embody the socio-symbolic law and the fucntion of the paternal metaphor is to substitute the desire for the mother with the law of the father. This is also the founding moment of the unconscious for Lacan and the point at which the phallus is installed as the central organizing signifier of the unconscious. The internalization of the paternal metaphor also creates something else, though, that Freud designates as the ‘’superego’’. Lacan has developed the notion of the superego in a very specfic and important way.
The superego emerges through the transition from nature to culture via the internalization of the incest taboo and is often associated with the development of moral conscience. Lacan retains this association between the superego and the law and poitns to an inherent paradox that Freud did not himself develop. In ‘’Totem and Taboo’’ Freud argued that the prohibition against incest provided the foundation for all subsequent social laws. In other words, the most fundmanetal desire of all human subjects is the desire for incest and its prohibition represents the governing principle of all societies. For Lacan, the superego is located in the symbolic order and retains a close but paradoxical relationship to the law. As with the law, the prohibition operates only iwhtin the realm of culture and its purpose is always to exclude incest:
“Freud designates the prohibition of incest as the underlying principle of the pimordial law, the law of which all other cultural developments are no more than consequences and ramifications. And at the same time he identifies incest as the fundmental desire.
The law, in other words, is founded upon that which it seeks to exlcude, or, to put it another way, the desire to break and transgress the law is the very precondition for the existence of the law itself. On the one hnad, the superego is a symbolic structure that regulates the subject’s desire, and, on the other, there is this senseless, blind imperativeness to it. As Lacan says in seminar XX, nothing forces anyone to enjoy except the superego: “The superego is the imperative of ‘’jouissance’’ – Enjoy!” The superego, therefore, is at once the law and its own destruction or that which undermines the law. The superego emerges at the point where the law – the public or social law – fails and, at this very point of failure, the law is compelled, as Zizek puts it, “to search for support in an ‘’ilegal’’ enjoyment.” The superego is, in a sense, the dialectical contrary of the pbulic law; it is what Zizek calls its obscene ‘nightly’ law – that dark underside that always necessarily accompanies the public law. According to psychoanalysis, there is simply no way a subject can avoid this tension ebtween the law and the desire to transgress it and this manifests itself as ‘guilt’. Indeed, for psychoanalysis, we are not simply guilty if we break th elaw and commit icnest, but rather we are always –already guuilty of the ‘’desire’’ to commit incest.
Hence, the ultiamte paradox of the superego: “the more we submit ourselves to the superego imperative, the greater its pressure, the more we feel guilty.”
- Lacan 1986, 67
- 1975, 3
- 1994, 54
- Zizek 1994, 67