Talk:Jacques Lacan:The Subject of the Unconscious

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In Seminar XI (1964) Lacan sought to distinguish his own conception of the unconscious from Freud's and more systematically formualte what is beyond language and structure.

He also repalced the linguistic categories of metaphor and metonymy with the new concepts of alienation and separation.

The processes of alienation and separation are closely linked to the psychoanalytic conception of desire and the drive.

In the previous two chapters we focused on Lacan's work from the 1950s, when he placed the greatest emphasis on the role of language and the symbolic order. Lacan was not a Structuralist in any strict sense of the term, however, for two reasons. First, Structuralism sought to dissolve the subject completely and saw subjects as merely the 'effect' of symbolic structures. Lacan, on the other hand, while seeking to locate the constitution of the subject in relation to the symbolic, does not see the subject as simply reducible to an effect of language or the symbolic order. Second, for Structuralism, a structure is always complete, while for Lacan the structure - the symbolic order - is never complete. There is always something left over; an excess or something that exceeds the symbolic. What exceeds the symbolic is the subject and the object.

In this chapter we will look at this exception in terms of the subject and in the following chapter in relation to the objet petit a. In seminar XI (1964) an important break was introduced into Lacan's work, as he sought to distinguish his own conception of the unconscious from Freud's and more systematically formulate what is beyond language and structure. He also replaced the linguistic categories of metaphor and metonymy with the new concepts of alienation and separation.


In the 1950s, Lacan placed the greatest emphasis on the role of language and the symbolic order.

Structuralism considers the [[[subject]] as merely the 'effect' of symbolic structures.

For Lacan, the subject is not reducible to an effect of language or the symbolic order.

Instead, he seeks to locate the constitution of the subject in relation to the symbolic.

Structuralism implies that a structure is always complete.

Lacan argues that the structure (of the symbolic order) is never complete, that there is always something left over, an excess that exceeds the symbolic.

What exceeds the symbolic is the subject and the object.

In Seminar XI (1964), Lacan formulates (his own conception of the unconscious as distinct from Freud's) what is beyond language and structure.

He also replaced the linguistic categories of metaphor and metonymy with the new concepts of alienation and separation.

The processes of alienation and separation are closely linked to the psychoanalytic conception of desire and the drive.

Formations of the Unconscious

The unconscious for Freud is essentially representation, in the sense that it consists of the memory traces of earily infantile experiences and traumas.

Lacan developed a number of different definitions of the unconscious and the emphasis that he placed on each conceptualization changed throughout his career.

According to Lacan, psychoanalysis is a science. It is the science of the unconscious subject, and this subject first emerged in the seventeenth century with the founder of modern philosophy RenE Descartes (1596-1650). Lacan interprets the Freduain unconsicous as both the direct heir of the Cartesian subject and, at the same time, that which undermines all philosophies deriving from it. In Meditations (1642) Descartes asked how we might know the truth of our beliefs and our perceptions of reality. He suggested that we could only do this scientifically if we rejected everything that we had cause to doubt and then saw what remained with certainty as true. The difficulty with this approach, Descartes observed, is that it could lead one into more difficulties and uncertainty than the position from which one originally started. One would have to accept, as Descartes put it, that "there was nothing at all in the world: no sky, no earth, no minds or bodies."[1] Descartes concluded, then, that all we could be certain of was the existence of God and ourselves.

There is therefore no doubt that I exist, if he [God] deceives me; and let him deceive me as much as he likes, he can never cause me to be nothing, so long as I think I am something. So that, after having thought carefully about it, and having scrupulously examined everything, one must then, in conclusion, take as assured that the proposition: I am, I exist, is necessarily true, everytime I express it or conceive of it in my mind. (1968 [1642]: 103)

From a Lacanian perspective, on the other hand, as Slavoj Zizek puts it, the only thing one can be certaint of is that one does not exist. LEt us try to clarify this.

Freud remains Cartesian to the extent that he sets out from a posiiton of doubt, but, whereas Descartes moves from a position of doubt to the certainty of conscious mind, Freud moves in the opposite direction aand places the emphasis on the doubt that support certainty.

For Freud, it is the central tenet of psychoanalysis that the vast majority of mental life and activity remains inaccessible to the consicous mind. He famously used the iamge of an iceberg to illustrate the human mind, in the sense that only a fraction of an iceberg is immediately visible and the majority of it remains submerged beneath the surface.

Lacan argues that if we take the Freudian unconscious seriously then we must reverse Descartes' formulation thus: "By virtue of the fact that I doubt, I am sure that I think."[2] The certainty of consciousness is always supported by something else: by doubt, by the unknown or unknowable, or by what Freud will designate as the unconscious.

For Lacan, thereforee, the only thing we can know with certainty after Freud is t"that the subject of the unconscious manifests itself, that it thinks before it attains certainty."[3]

In this sense the unconscious is pre-ontological; it is not a question of existence, of being or non-being, but rather of the unrealized, the unknown of Cartesian doubt.

The unconscious is not the act of doubting as such, as this presupposes an already existing subject. The unconscious is the unknown that lies beyond doubt.

The Unconscious as Gap or Rupture

The unconscious, writes Lacan, must 'be apprehended in its experience of rupture, between perception and consciousness, in that nontemporal locus, … Freud calls … another scene' (1979 [1973]: 56).

According to Freud we know that there is an unconscious because it manifests itself at precisely those moments when our conscious defence mechanisms are at their weakest; for example, through our dreams when we sleep, in those accidental slips of the tongue when we say something that we did not really intend to say but we often mean, through jokes which frequently reveal more about us than we think, or, finally, through the symptoms of mental distress and illness. What each of these examples points to, argued Freud, is the presence of processes beyond conscious thought that erupt and disrupt everyday speech and experience. This is the Freud of the early texts on language: The Interpretation of Dreams (1991a [1900]), The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1991b [1901]) and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1991c [1905]). In seminar XI Lacan remains very close to these texts, defining the unconscious in terms of 'impediment', 'failure' and 'splitting'. The unconscious manifests itself at those points when language fails and stumbles. The unconscious is precisely this gap or rupture in the symbolic chain. So in what sense can Lacan also say that the unconscious is structured like a language?

The Unconscious is Structured like a Language

That the unconscious is structured like a language is Lacan's central thesis and probably his most influential contribution to psychoanalysis as well as literary and cultural studies. Freud described the unconscious as a realm without syntax or grammar; a realm without temporality or contradiction. Does this not directly contradict Lacan's thesis? For Freud, all mental states are either ideas (representations) or ideas plus affect (energy) and in this respect he distinguished between 'word-presentations' - the product of the secondary processes of conscious thought - and 'thing-presentations' - the product of the primary processes of the unconscious. These are very complicated ideas in Freud and he never explicitly spelt out what he meant by them. Many critics have taken Freud's distinction between the primary and secondary processes to mean that conscious thought is concerned with language while the unconscious is concerned with images and feelings. Lacan is completely against this idea.

The unconscious, according to Lacan, is governed by the rules of the signifier as it is language that translates sensory images into structure. We can only know the unconscious through speech and language; therefore, similar kinds of relationships exist between unconscious elements, signifiers and other forms of language. As we saw in the previous chapter, the unconscious is constituted through the subject's articulation in the symbolic order. The Lacanian unconscious is not an individual unconscious, in the sense that Freud speaks of the unconscious; neither is it a collective unconscious in the sense that Carl Gustave Jung (1875-1961) defines it, that is, as a repository or reservoir of mythical images (archetypes) and racial inheritance. The Lacanian unconscious is rather the effect of a trans-individual symbolic order upon the subject. We can draw from this three related theses:

  1. The unconscious is not biological but is something that signifies.
  1. The unconscious is the effect - the impact - upon the subject of the trans-individual symbolic order.
  1. The unconscious is structured like a language.

Fink argues that the Lacanian unconscious is not only structured like a language but is language, insofar as it is language that makes up the unconscious. This involves us in rethinking, however, what we mean by language. Language, for Lacan, designates not simply verbal speech or written text but any signifying system that is based upon differential relations. The unconscious is structured like a language in the sense that it is a signifying process that involves coding and decoding, or ciphering and deciphering. The unconscious comes into being in the symbolic order in the gap between signifier and signified, through the sliding of the signified beneath the signifier and the failure of meaning to be fixed (see Chapter 2). In short, the unconscious is something that signifies and must be deciphered.

In seminar XX Lacan formulated this distinction between his own use of the term 'language' and linguistics through the neologism la linguisterie. Linguistics is concerned with the formalization of language and knowledge. La linguisterie on the other hand is the side of language that linguistics ignores. It refers to those points in language when meaning fails and breaks down; it is the science of the word that fails. Fink rather nicely translates la linguisterie as 'linguistricks', which serves to emphasize the playfulness of the unconscious and the way it is always trying to trip the subject up, playing tricks on conscious thought. It is in this sense and not in the sense of formal linguistics that the unconscious is structured like a language. Let us now turn to Lacan's third definition of the unconscious as the discourse of the Other.

The Unconscious is the Discourse of the Other

Freud spoke of the unconscious as '(an)other scene' - the immutable realm of human desire. Lacan speaks of the unconscious as quite simply the 'discourse of the Other' (1977e [1960]). There is an important distinction being made here by Lacan between the little other and the capitalized big Other. The lower case 'other' always refers to imaginary others. We treat these others as whole, unified or coherent egos, and as reflections of ourselves they give us the sense of being complete whole beings. This is the other of the mirror phase who the infant presumes will completely satisfy its desire. At the same time the infant sees itself as the sole object of desire for the other (see Chapter 1). The big Other, on the other hand, is that absolute otherness that we cannot assimilate to our subjectivity. The big Other is the symbolic order; it is that foreign language that we are born into and must learn to speak if we are to articulate our own desire. It is also the discourse and desires of those around us, through which we internalize and inflect our own desire. What psychoanalysis teaches us is that our desires are always inextricably bound up with the desires of others. In the first instance these are the desires of our parents, as they place upon the newborn infant all their hopes and wishes for a prosperous and fulfilled life, but also in the sense that they invest in their children all their own unfilled dreams and aspirations. These unconscious desires and wishes of others flow into us through language - through discourse - and therefore desire is always shaped and moulded by language. We can only express our desire through the language we have and we must learn that language through others. According to Lacan, just as there is no such thing as the unconscious without language, it is through language that desire comes into being. Unconscious desire, therefore, emerges in relation to the big Other - the symbolic order. It is the discourse of the Other, insofar as we are condemned to speak our desire through the language and desires of others. As Fink writes, 'we can say that the unconscious is full of such foreign desires' (1995:9).

The psychoanalytic subject - the subject of the unconscious - can only come into being through others and in relation to the Other. As Lacan puts it, the subject unfolds in the place (locus) of the Other. As with the Cartesian subject, the subject of the unconscious is faced with the question of its own existence, or, more precisely, its lack of existence. Unlike the Cartesian subject, however, the Lacanian subject does not have the certainty of self-consciousness - I think, therefore, I am; the Lacanian subject of the unconscious is essentially no-thing; it is a lacking subject who has lost his or her being. The subject in Lacan can also be seen to have a certain equivalence to the unconscious and desire, and these three concepts emerge at the same point within Lacanian theory. The question psychoanalysis poses is: how can something come of nothing? In the 1950s Lacan suggested that the subject was the effect of signifiers and was realized through the processes of metaphor and metonymy. In seminar XI he substituted for metaphor and metonymy the operations of alienation and separation. These two operations describe the process by which the subject realizes him or herself in the Other.

Alienation and Separation

Alienation designates the process through which the subject first identifies with the signifier and is thereafter determined by the signifier. This is essentially the subject of speech and language that preoccupied Lacan for the first ten years of his seminar. In the 1950s Lacan described two moments of alienation and suggested that the subject was doubly alienated: first, through the infant's (mis)-recognition of itself in the other during the mirror stage and, second, through the subject's accession into the symbolic and language. Alienation is an inevitable consequence of the formation of the ego and a necessary first step towards subjectivity. Contrary to the usual understanding of the term in philosophy or political theory - that is, alienation as self-alienation that must be overcome if the true self is to emerge - alienation, for Lacan, is unavoidable and untranscendable. The alienated subject is the subject of the signifier; it is the subject that is determined by the symbolic order and language and is constitutively split or divided. From the mid-1960s onwards Lacan no longer spoke of these two moments of alienation but elaborated a single process that designates the subject's determination by the signifier. From a Lacanian perspective 'alienation is destiny' (Soler 1995a: 49) - we cannot escape language and language inscribes us in a certain position within the symbolic.

Lacan's breakthrough in seminar XI was the introduction of the concept of 'separation'. Separation is linked to desire and designates the process through which the child differentiates itself from the (m)Other and is not simply a subject of language. It is through the concept of separation that we can see that a frequent criticism of Lacan - that he reduces everything to language - is based on a very partial reading of his early seminars. Separation takes place in the domain of desire and requires from the subject a certain 'want to be'; a 'want to be' separate from the signifying chain. It also involves a 'want to know' of that which is outside structure, and beyond language and the Other. However, the Other in this case is not the same as the Other of alienation. Previously we considered the Other as consisting of signifiers, but the Other of separation is first and foremost a 'lacking' Other. We will see what Lacan means by this below, but first let us consider what we mean by desire.

Lacan is very careful to distinguish between a 'need' and 'desire'. A need such as hunger or thirst can be satisfied. Desire on the other hand refers to something beyond basic human needs that cannot be satisfied. For Lacan, desire is a much broader and more abstract concept than either libido or 'wish' in Freud; in seminar XI he describes it, following Spinoza, as 'the essence of man' (1979 [1973]: 275). Desire is at the very core of our being and as such it is essentially a relation to lack; indeed, desire and lack are inextricably tied together. Lacan defines desire as the remainder that arises from the subtraction of need from demand:

Thus desire is neither the appetite for satisfaction, nor the demand for love, but the difference that results from the subtraction of the first from the second, the phenomenon of their splitting (Spaltung). (1977d [1958]: 287)

Desire and the unconscious are founded through the recognition of a fundamental lack: the absence of the phallus. Desire, therefore, is always the manifestation of something that is lacking in the subject and the Other - the symbolic order. It is through the Other that the subject secures its position in the symbolic, social, order. The Other confers upon the subject its symbolic mandate, as it is through the desire of the Other that the subject's own desire is founded:

In the child's attempt to grasp what remains essentially indecipherable in the Other's desire - what Lacan calls the X, the variable, or (better) the unknown - the child's own desire is founded; the Other's desire begins to function as the cause of the child's desire.(Fink 1995:59)

The infant's earliest experiences are characterized by an absolute dependence upon the (m)Other, as she fulfils the child's needs of feeding, caring and nurturing. In this scenario the infant fantasizes that the (m)Other can fulfil all its needs and desires and, as it is the centre of attention, the infant assumes that it equally fulfils the mother's desire. Gradually, the infant realizes that the mother is not as dependent upon it as he/she is upon her and that a part of her desire is directed elsewhere. Faced with this dilemma Lacan suggests that the child poses a series of questions to itself: what does she want from me? What am I for her? What does she desire? The infant is forced to recognize that not only is he/she a split and lacking subject but also that the (m)Other is a desiring subject and therefore lacking something. The (m)Other is never perfect and the infant's demand for love goes beyond the objects that satisfy its needs. For Lacan it is this irreducible 'beyond' of the demand that constitutes desire.

As with the subject the Other is also lacking; the Other is also 'barred'. There remains something essentially unfathomable in the desire of the Other for the subject. What Lacan calls separation is this encounter with the lack in the Other and the 'want to be', more than merely lack. Separation involves the coincidence, or overlapping, of two lacks: the lack in the subject and the Other. The interaction between these two lacks will determine the constitution of the subject. Separation, therefore, takes place at precisely the point that the subject can formulate the question: what am I in the Other's desire? and can thus differentiate itself from the desire of the Other. While the desire of the Other always exceeds or escapes the subject, there nevertheless remains something that the subject can recover and thus sustain 'him or herself in being, as a being of desire' (Fink 1995:61), or a desiring subject. That remainder is the objet petit a, the object-cause of desire (see Chapter 5).

The Lacanian Subject

The Lacanian subject is, therefore, constituted through two movements: the first corresponds to the process of alienation through language, the second to the separation of desire. Lacan never, however, precisely designates the point at which the subject appears, because it never appears as such. The subject in Lacanian psychoanalysis has no permanence or persistence. Lacan always refers to the subject as arriving or having just arrived; as always too early or too late. There is never a point in time that the subject can be said to finally emerge as a stable and complete entity. It emerges only fleetingly through a continuous process of subjectification - alienation and separation - rather than at a specific moment in time. Paul Verhaeghe summarizes the process well:

[T]he subject, confronted with the enigma of the desire of the Other, tries to verbalise this desire and thus constitutes itself by identifying with the signifiers in the field of the Other, without ever succeeding in filling the gap between subject and Other. Hence, the continuous movement from signifier to signifier, in which the subject alternately appears and disappears.(1998:168)

What is crucial here is that the subject assumes its position within the symbolic order and is thus able to act. The subject is not simply determined by structure. To become a subject, one must take a position in relation to the desire of the Other. The infant must differentiate itself from the desire of the Other. It is this element of choice that allows for the possibility of change, beyond the inescapable determination of the symbolic. Lacan referred to this as the 'future anterior' - the future past. The subject makes a choice that will determine its future but, paradoxically, this is grounded on the indeterminateness of the unconscious and desire. The subject is, in a sense, suspended between a 'subject-to-be' and the field of the Other, in a continuous vacillation or fading but never substantively present. But if the subject has no permanence or consistency and it is not merely the effect of language or discourse, what is it? What is there beyond language and the symbolic that makes the subject more than the subject of the signifier? The answer to this absolutely fundamental question is to be found in the psychoanalytic understanding of the drive. There is no subject distinct from the drive.

The Drive

Freud's theory of the drive was revised extensively throughout his career. The drive, or instinct as it is usually translated in English, is a concept that exists on the border between the somatic (bodily) and the mental. It consists of a quantity of energy and its psychical representative (remember what we said above about the unconscious being representation). Jean Laplanche and Serge Leclaire define the Freudian drive as 'a constant force of a biological nature, emanating from organic sources, that always has as its aim its own satisfaction through the elimination of the state of tension which operates at the source of the drive itself' (1972 [1965]: 140). According to Freud, there are four characteristics of the drive: its 'pressure', its 'aim', its 'object' and its 'source' (1984c [1915]: 118). By pressure Freud means the drive's motor factor, that is to say, 'the amount of force or measure of the demand for work which it represents' (1984c [1915]: 118). Exerting pressure is a characteristic common to all drives and represents the drive's essence. The aim of the drive is to seek its own satisfaction and it achieves this by removing the source of stimulation. The object of the drive is that which the drive attaches itself to in order to achieve its aim. Freud designates a particularly close attachment between the drive and its object as 'fixation'. Finally, the source of the drive is 'the somatic process which occurs in an organ or part of the body and whose stimulus is represented in mental life by an instinct' (1984c [1915]: 119). The drive, in short, is something that originates within the body and seeks expression in the psyche as representation. Freud is primarily concerned with the aims of the drives and how they seek satisfaction.

We cannot go into Freud's different theories of the drive in detail here, but it is crucial to acknowledge the distinction between an instinct and a drive. An instinct designates a need that can be satisfied. The examples Freud usually gives are the ones I used above - those of hunger and thirst. These needs give rise to an excitation within the body that can be satisfied and neutralized. The drive, on the other hand, cannot be satisfied and is characterized by the constancy of the pressure it exerts on consciousness. The model of the Freudian drive is libido - sexual energy - or what is also translated as 'wish' or 'desire'. According to Laplanche and Leclaire, it is the introduction of the drive into the sphere of need that marks the distinction between a need and desire: 'the drive introduces into the sphere of need an erotic quality: libido will be substituted for need' (1972 [1965]: 140). Libido is the fundamental motive force of human beings; it is unconscious desire which is the organizing principle of all human thought, action and social relations. Throughout his career Freud maintained a dualistic theory of drives. In the Project for a Scientific Psychology (1954 [1895]) he distinguished between bound and unbound energy. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1991d [1905]) Freud distinguished between libido and the ego-instincts, or the drive to self-preservation. Finally, when he came to accept the criticisms of his fellow analysts that the drive to self-preservation was also sexual in nature, he formulated his final great mythopoetic theory of Eros, the pleasure principle, and Thanatos, the death drive, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1984b [1920]).

For Lacan, the Freudian notion of the drive is probably the single most important contribution of psychoanalysis to the field of human psychology and our understanding of subjectivity. Lacan insisted on the need to retain the Freudian distinction between the drive and instinct, and in his early work the drive is closely associated with desire. Above all, the drive shares with desire the property of never achieving its aim. The drive always circles around its object but never achieves the satisfaction of reaching it. The purpose of the drive, therefore, is simply to maintain its own repetitive compulsive movement, just as the purpose of desire is to desire. Lacan's theory of the drive, however, differed from Freud's in two important respects. Freud argued that sexuality was composed of a series of partial drives which he defined as the oral, anal and phallic phases. These phases become integrated into a single, whole, genital drive after the resolution of the Oedipus complex. Contrary to Freud, Lacan argues that all drives are partial in the sense that there is never a single integrated harmonious resolution of the drives in the subject. Furthermore, a partial drive does not represent a part of a singular unified drive, but rather the partiality of the drive in the reproduction of sexuality (see Chapter 6). Lacan also developed Freud's theory of the drive in another important respect. He thought that it was important to retain Freud's dualism, rather than reducing everything to a single motivating force, but rejected Freud's notion of two distinct drives, Eros and Thanatos. For Lacan every drive is sexual in nature and at the same time every drive is a death drive. There is fundamentally only one drive for Lacan - the death drive - and as we will see this drive will increasingly be associated with the real and jouissance. From seminar XI onwards Lacan will oppose the drive and jouissance to desire, and that little piece of the real - of jouissance - that the subject has access to will be designated the objet petit a (see Chapter 5). These are very difficult ideas and, in order to help you understand them better, let us look at Lacan's conception of the subject in relation to the desire of the Other through his reading of Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Hamlet and the Tragedy of Desire

Along with Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Hamlet has been a central literary reference for psychoanalysis. In the Interpretation of Dreams, Freud produced the first piece of psychoanalytic literary criticism, when he distinguished between the two plays on the basis of the secular advance of repression in the emotional life of humanity:

In the Oedipus the child's wishful phantasy that underlies it is brought into the open and realised as it would be in a dream. In Hamlet it remains repressed; and - just as in the case of neurosis - we only learn of its existence from its inhibiting consequences. Strangely enough, the overwhelming effect produced by the more modern tragedy has turned out to be compatible with the fact that people have remained completely in the dark as to the hero's character.(Freud 1991a [1900]: 366-7)

For Freud, and later for Ernest Jones (1949), Hamlet's hesitation to act and revenge the death of his father at the hands of his uncle could be explained in terms of his repressed Oedipal desire for his mother. By killing Hamlet's father and then marrying his mother, his uncle had fulfilled Hamlet's own unconscious wish and therefore Hamlet was unable to kill him in turn. For Lacan, on the other hand, Hamlet is not a play about repressed Oedipal scenarios, but rather a drama of subjectivity and desire (1982). Hamlet is a tragedy of desire; the tragedy of a man who has lost the way of his desire as it is inextricably tied up with the desire of the Other. As Elizabeth Wright writes, Lacan uses Hamlet 'as an allegory both of blocked desire and the act of mourning which unlocks it' (1999:77). In 'Mourning and Melancholia' (1917) Freud suggested that the work of mourning involved the gradual withdrawal of libido from a loved one who had died. This process takes place slowly and, in the meantime, 'the existence of the lost object [person] is psychically prolonged' (1984d [1917]: 253) and the subject's desire remains fixed on the lost object. Once the work of mourning is complete the subject is free to direct their desire elsewhere. According to Lacan, Hamlet was unable fully to mourn his dead father because his mother prematurely married his uncle and replaced the symbolic father. The mother, therefore, replaced the lost object with a new one before Hamlet could withdraw his desire and direct it elsewhere. As we saw in the previous chapter, the original lost object is the phallus and what Lacan is suggesting is that Hamlet is unable to mourn the loss of the phallus that will inaugurate the movement of his own desire. In this situation Freud suggested that mourning turns into melancholia. The crucial difference between mourning and melancholia is that in the act of 'mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself' (Freud 1984d [1917]: 254). In melancholia the act of mourning is narcissistically turned back upon the self and the subject identifies his/her own ego with the lost object. Melancholia, therefore, has the effect of blocking the natural process of mourning and freezing the subject in time.

Lacan associates narcissism with the imaginary order (see Chapter 1) and the mother/child dyad. The dilemma for Hamlet, argues Lacan, is how to separate himself from the demand of the (m)Other and realize his own desire. Lacan, therefore, interprets Hamlet's notorious hesitation to act and revenge the death of his father as a manifestation of the desire of the Other. Hamlet simply cannot choose between his own desire and the desire of the Other. We need to be clear here though that it is not Hamlet's desire for his mother that inhibits him, but his fixation within his mother's desire. Hamlet is simply unable to differentiate his own desire from his mother's desire. Hamlet confuses and distorts his own desire; he sees his desire not as constituted in relation to the Other but as the same as the Other.

This confusion can also be seen through Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia. Lacan reads Ophelia as the object of desire - the objet petit a, or object-cause of Hamlet's desire. At the beginning of the play Hamlet is estranged from Ophelia. He distances himself from her, from the loved object, but in doing so he dissolves the imaginary relations between subject and object. By dissolving the boundary between subject and object Hamlet is unable to realize his own subjectivity. His whole being is consumed with the rejection of the object of desire and thus, paradoxically, he is trapped within the desire of the Other.

Ophelia can only become the object of his desire once more when she is dead, that is to say, when she is once again unattainable. For Lacan, the tragedy of Hamlet is the tragedy of a subject who is suspended within the time of the Other. Hamlet always acts too early (as with the killing of Polonius) or too late (as with his failure to kill Claudius in the church or recognize his object of desire) until the final hour. It is only at the very end of the play, when Hamlet himself is mortally wounded, that he assumes his position as a subject.


According to Lacan we cannot know waht the unconscious is.

Indeed, it is not a thing as such but a hypothesis; we cannot know the unconscious, but only deduce it from a subject's speech.

We can deduce that there is "knowledge", an X, that exists elsewhere.

In this sense, the unconscious manifests itself in the symbolic order and emerges through the subject's encounter with a trans-individual symbolic order.

There can be no unconscious without an Other.

The unconscious depends upon the existence of an Other - an interlocutor, reader or analyst who can depiher its inscriptions.

Simiarly the subject of the unconscious, the subject of desire, is not th esame as an indiviudal human being, but something that is constituted in the gap between the signifier and the signified.

The subject is the subject of the signifier insofar as it is marked by language.

At the same time, the subject is the breach in the signifying chain - the gap that opens up between the symbolic and the real, through which the drive manifests itself.

  1. 1968: 103
  2. 1979: 35
  3. 1979: 37