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Sigmund Freud

Law of the Father

In 1897 Freud remarked, on the basis of his analysis of his first patients and his self-analysis, that "The father forbids the child from realizing its unconscious wish to sleep with his mother."[1]

This first outline of the Oedipus complex, which now appears simplistic, grew increasingly complex throughout Freud's research.

In time the Law of the Father turned out to be directed both toward the mother as well as her offspring swept up by desire.

The law is also accompanied by an injunction against cannibalism and murder, and hold up ideals, primarily sexual ones ("Later you will enjoy, like me, a woman from another family").

Once introjected, this becomes the origin of the superego and ego ideal.

The repression of drives, their suppression and sublimation, are the principal outcomes of the conflict that connects them structurally to this law.


Freud quickly recognized that the actual presence of a father is not the best guarantee of the fulfillment of this law:

An absent or dead father can serve as the agent, as well as or better than the living father.

This led to the creation of the myth of the primitive father.[2]

Jacques Lacan

The law refers not to a particular piece of legislation to the fundamental principles which underlie all social relations.

The law is the set of universal principles which make social existence possible, the structures that govern all forms of social exchange.

Since the most basic form of exchange is communication itself, the law is fundamentally a linguistic entity - it is the law of the signifier.

"This law, then, is revealed clearly enough as identical with an order of language."[3]

This legal-linguistic structure is the symbolic order itself.

Law regulates sexual relations.

Human law is "the primordial Law... which in regulating marriage ties superimposes the kingdom of culture on that of a nature abandoned to the law of mating. The prohibition of incest is merely its subjective pivot."[4]

The father imposes the law on the subject in the Oedipus complex.

The paternal agency or paternal function is no more than the name for the prohibitive and legislative role.

In the second time of the Oedipus complex the father appears as the omnipotent 'father of the primal horde' of Totem and Taboo; this is the lawgiver who is not included in his own law because he is the law, denying others access to the women of the tribe while he himself has access to them all.

It is the law of the pleasure principle which commands the subject to 'enjoy as little as possible!', and thus maintains the subject at a safe distance from the Thing.

Jacques Lacan showed that this Law of the Father, to the extent that it serves as a principle of differentiation and separation, is in fact the law of language and a sine qua non for the existence of desire.

He claimed that the subject structures himself through his unconscious response to the law and to the incestuous desires it shapes to: the repression of desire (neurosis), and the denial or foreclosure of the law (perversion and psychosis, respectively).

Lacan also showed that it is important to differentiate the real Father, the imaginary Father, and the symbolic Father.

Law and Psychoanalysis

While psychoanalysis focuses on the individual subject, law refers to the collection of guidelines for behavior directed at all members of society.

There are challenges therefore in establishing a dialogue between two disciplines whose objectives and challenges are so far apart.

Yet, the necessity of psychoanalysis engaging with the human leads to its involvement with the foundations of societal values.

It cannot therefore avoid taking an interest in the law, which means it must ask the same questions differently.

Moreover, the discovery of a Freud who expresses himself like a lawyer justifies a new interpretation of some of his writings.

Although Freud from time to time took an interest in aspects of the legal process (1906c, 1916d, 1931d), he never tried to explain the possible interactions between law and psychoanalysis.

Nonetheless, the questions of guilt and crime—primarily through the oedipal murder of the father and incest—are presented in a way that is so fundamental to his work that the confrontation of the two disciplines becomes inevitable, crime—even though perpetrated by the unconscious—leading to trial.

It was when he abandoned a legal career to turn his attention to science that Freud, in a letter to his friend Emil Fluss on May 1, 1873 (1925d), used the word Prozess (trial) for the first time.

Rather than getting involved in real trials [Prozesse], he will study the "millennial cases of nature" so he can bear witness to its "eternal trials."

The use of this legal term is not an isolated occurrence in the Freudian corpus.

The frequency and occurrence of its use justify seeing it as a kind of fetish word, a wink at his youthful wish to become a lawyer.

He went so far as to talk about a "psychic trial" (1905d).

The focus, in the Freudian corpus, on the use of a specifically legal vocabulary (conflict [Konflikt], defense [Abwehr], conviction [Verurteilung or Urteilsverwerfung], punishment [Stafbedürfnis]) demonstrates that the intersection of the two disciplines was not accidental.

If the psychic apparatus needs to organize a system of defense and condemnation, it is because unconscious guilt engages the subject in a continuous trial.

The operation of the psyche demonstrates concrete links with that of the legal process once the question of guilt is introduced.

The appearance in Freud's work of references to a legal vocabulary, as well as to functions that are part of legal works, can be seen clearly from an examination of the multiple roles attributed by the founder of psychoanalysis to the "agency" of the superego.

We find that the image he presents is that of a court that will entirely assume the burden of all legal responsibilities.

The Freudian superego assumes the responsibility of legislator, judge, supreme court, attorney (for the id), public prosecutor, and even grief counselor.

It also sometimes serves as a vigilante.

Freud shows himself to be a skilled proceduralist by identifying the putative fatherhood referred to by lawyers (Pater incertus est . . .) and, when he points out the "progress of civilization" that characterizes the "transition from mother to father" (1909d, 1939a [1934-1938]), he borrows the specific vocabulary of the law of evidence.

The legal context in his work is supported by the explicit reference to Aeschylus's Oresteia.

It appears that the reference to legal institutions to understand and attempt to resolve interior conflict does not exhaust the vision of Freud as jurist shown by his work.

But it is with reference to the murder of the father that the field of interaction between law and psychoanalysis is the most fecund.

Aside from the opportunities presented by the presence of a Freudian legal vocabulary, although frequently hidden by translations that systematically "delegalize" his language, the fact that the legal functions attributed by Freud to the mental apparatus are visibly inspired by those attributed to the participants in the Last Judgment enables us to hypothesize a possible scriptural origin to his legal conception of mental agencies—especially the superego—when he evokes the "judicial activity of the moral conscience" (1933a [1932]).

Another facet of Freud's work is revealed by his knowledge of Pauline thought and, more generally, of the Bible, the book in which Sigmund was taught to read by his father.


Žižek is concerned to show the secret transgression that underpins and makes possible the symbolic law:

"'At the beginning' of law, there is a transgression, a certain reality of violence, which coincides with the very act of the establishment of law."[5]

Or, as he will say about the seemingly illicit rituals that appear to overturn the law: They are a satire on legal institutions.

"They are an inversion of public Power, yet they are a transgression that consolidates what it transgresses."[6]

But, beyond this, the law itself possesses a certain obscene, unappeasable, superegoic dimension:

"On the one hand, there is Law qua symbolic Ego-Ideal. that is, Law in its pacifying function ... qua the intermediary Third that dissolves the impasse of imaginary aggressivity. On the other hand, there is law in its superego dimension, that is, law qua "irrational" pressure, the force of culpability, totally incommensurable with our actual responsibility."[7]

In other words, law itself is its own transgression, and it is just this circularity that Žižek seeks to dissolve or overcome.

As he says, repeating at once the problem and the solution:

"The most appropriate form to indicate this curve of the point de capiton, of the 'negation of negation,' in ordinary language is, paradoxically, that of the tautology: 'law is law.'"[8]


In Lacan’s theory of childhood development, the traumatic moment of entry into the symbolic is not simply a spontaneous act on the part of the infant.

It is also the originary advent of the law as an effect of the father’s interdiction.

In the infant’s experience of his mother’s body as a site of enjoyment (producing warmth, food, comfort, etc.), he or she perceives this enjoyment as an integral part of the order of things as they are ambiguously organised through imaginary identifications.

At some point, however, the infant becomes aware of the fact that the father has some degree of precedence over the infant’s right to enjoy the mother.

Classically termed the Oedipus complex, this moment is part and parcel of the infant’s entry into the symbolic order, as this apprehension of the father’s precedence is conveyed as an originary verbal prohibition of access to the mother’s body which forces the infant to devise a compensatory presence, the symbol of the absent mother (the "da!" of the Freudian fort-da binary).

This inaugural paternal interdiction is thus essential to the symbolic order and makes of it the very fibre of the law itself:

This law, then, is revealed clearly enough as identical with an order of language.

For without kinship nominations, no power is capable of instituting the order of preferences and taboos that bind and weave the yarn of lineage through succeeding generations.

And it is indeed the confusion of generations which, in the Bible as in all traditional laws, is accused as being the abomination of the Word (verbe) and the desolation of the sinner.[9]

"This legal-linguistic structure is in fact no more and no less than the symbolic order itself."[10]

Clearly drawing on structural anthropology and, more obscurely, on speech act theory, Lacan positions the law in its broadest sense as "the set of universal principles which make social existence possible, the structures that govern all forms of social exchange, whether gift-giving, kinship relations or the formation of pacts. Since the most basic form of exchange is communication itself, the law is fundamentally a linguistic entity – it is the law of the signifier."[11]

Growing out of the paternal interdiction that puts an end to the infant’s unproblematic imaginary identification with the mother and inaugurates the rivalry between infant and father that grounds the Oedipus complex, the law is coextensive with the symbolic order to such an extent that neither is conceivable without the other.

Insofar as the law is essentially a process for regulating social relations, the symbolic order must henceforth be conceived of as a profoundly intersubjective structure.

Just as there can be no need for, or effectiveness of, the law in the absence of something to regulate, so there can be no signification in the absence of someone to whom to signify.

That is, the law actually invents that which it regulates, creating a lack by masking the impossibility of the imaginary relation behind the symbolic prohibition:

"[T]he law creates desire in the first place by creating interdiction. Desire is essentially the desire to transgress, and for there to be transgression it is first necessary for there to be prohibition […] desire is born out of the process of regulation."[12]

By the same process, the symbolic order actually invents the subject as an effect of itself, generating the subject position of the speaking individual at the same moment as that individual seeks to signify the absence of someone or something to which it has suddenly been barred access (or the impossibility of access to which he or she has suddenly been made aware).

In this regard, the entry into the symbolic makes of all signification an intersubjective situation as the speaking subject necessarily orients itself in relation to that which it symbolises; to do so, it must hold a position within that symbolic network – it must in essence be a signifier.

The infant’s entry into the symbolic is thus a traumatic event in which the original sense of integrity, wholeness, presence, and identification (associated with the primary narcissism of the imaginary order) is lost forever.

Even the imaginary compensations of ego formation now recede from consciousness as the irremediable gap between the individual and that which it desires (the ideal-ego, the mother’s body, plenitude) comes to the fore as the organising principle of the totalising force of the symbolic order.

The repetitive automatism of the signifying chain is thus a compensatory gesture, an obsessive attempt by the symbolic order (and the subjects who live in and by it) to cover over the lack/absence which organises it.

The signifying chain must always remain in motion, doubling back on itself and deferring any presence of meaning as content, in order to forestall the terrifying confrontation with this originary and constitutive absence.

In effect, the symbolic order achieves a sustained deferral of this confrontation, proffering alternative signifiers as provisional substitutive compensations for the irremediable lack created in its radical reorganisation of the world.

An analogous and consistent way of conceiving this compensatory response to the trauma of entering the symbolic is to consider the occurrence of repetition compulsion in victims of trauma.

By repeating an action that is an effect of a traumatic episode, the obsessive neurotic effectively symbolises the traumatic kernel that organises his or her symptoms without ever approaching the truth of the motivating traumatic episode.

The repetitive actions of the trauma victim are comparable to the repetition compulsion built into the incessant play of signifiers in the signifying chain.

Just as the trauma victim’s actions constitute a series of symptoms that represent effects of the traumatic episode without symbolising it, so the series of signifiers in the signifying chain represent the traumatic loss or absence around which the symbolic order is organised without ever being able to signify it directly.

See Also


  1. letter to Fliess, October 15, 1897
  2. 1912-1913a
  3. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.66
  4. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.66
  5. p. 129
  6. p. 264
  7. p. 157
  8. p. 127
  9. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p.66
  10. Evans 99
  11. Evans 98
  12. Evans 99