Superego / Sublimation: Slavoj Zizek, Simon Critchley, and the Ethics of Psychoanalysis
If the Name-of-the-Father ought not to be presupposed as the ultimate horizon of unconscious conflict, what then is the orienting principle of analysis? Does its end still hinge on assuming the lack of symbolic castration, and, if so, what then becomes of the remainder in the Real?
While Lacan’s approach to these questions is varied, the conclusions that he draws in Seminar VII: The Ethics of Pscyhoanalysis, hinge largely on the concept of sublimation, to which Freud returns repeatedly throughout the course of his career. Although Freud never systematically formulates a theory of sublimation, he consistently describes it as a process though which an infantile erotic wish is dispelled of its explicitly sexual dimension and directed towards socially acceptable ends; and, in the formulation of his own concept, Lacan firstly takes issue with the quasi-empirical and potentially conformist implications of Freud’s theory. (Laplanche and Pontalis, 431 – 434). On the one hand, in so conceiving sublimation, Freud risks reifying the drives as natural instincts, which exist in a primitive state, beyond the boundaries of society; while, on the other hand, he risks hypostatizing cultural conventions, as if they presented unqualified standards with which one inevitably must comply. Lacan remarks, “We find ourselves faced with a trap into which thought, with its penchant for facility, would love to leap, merely by constructing a simple opposition and a simple reconciliation between the individual and the collectivity” (Lacan, 1992; 94).
While criticizing Freud, however, Lacan does not altogether dismiss his theory, but rather argues that his concept of sublimation ought to be understood as accounting for the complication of these otherwise, apparently opposed terms, drive and civilization, and he takes it up accordingly to reformulate his own concept of the role of the symbolic in the constitution of desire. Reiterating his insistence on the plasticity of the drives, Lacan firstly contends that, the structure of the drive “commits (the libido) to slipping into the play of words, to being subjugated by the… world of signs” (Lacan, 1992; 91). However, Lacan places a newfound emphasis on the recalcitrance of drive-conflict, beyond this symbolic plasticity. “The most archaic aspirations of the child,” he contends, “are both a point of departure and a nucleus that is never completely resolved under some primacy of genitality or a pure and simple Vorstellung of man in human form by androgynous fusion, however, total one may imagine it” (Lacan, 1992; 93). As Lacan now understands it, the subject still remains fundamentally oriented by the lost object, engendered by the sundering of the signifier. However, he now conceives this lost object as, not only symbolic, but also Real. Desire’s metonymic slippage from one signifier to the next is thus informed not only by the lack of the paternal metaphor, but also by this nagging remainder, and he conceives Freud’s concept sublimation as accounting for their structure and dynamics.
As a “general formula,” Lacan contends, sublimation “raises an object… to the dignity of the Thing” (Lacan, 1992; 112). While still contesting the imaginary reduction of the signifier’s differential negativity to the self-presence of an immediately given object, as the crux of neurotic demand, Lacan now conceives the contrary process of elevating an imaginary particular to a symbolic embodiment of the Real, as integral to sustaining the lack of desire. Insofar as the sundering of the symbolic leaves a remainder in the Real, the absence it engenders is fraught with the force of a jouissance, which threatens to compel its closure. Symbolically articulating this loss, in the figure of an imaginary object, serves to ameliorate the force of this tension, by both addressing its insistence and deferring its satisfaction. Rather than merely given, as the essence of subjectivity, Lacan thus conceives desire as requiring active cultivation, and he presents the talking cure as not merely dissolving imaginary fixations into the constitutive lack of the symbolic, but also as restoring the committed engagement necessary to sustain this originary absence.
Along with conceiving the force of the drive as an effect of the remainder in the Real, marked by the sundering of the symbolic, and so irreducible to natural instinct, Lacan refutes the potentially conformist implications of Freud’s theory, by arguing that sublimation changes not only the subject, but also the symbolic, by creating “socially recognized values” (Lacan, 1992; 107). In his summary of this process, DeKesel emphasizes its perpetual renewal. He writes,
As a ‘creation ex nihilo,’ sublimation… repeats the primary cut of the signifier in the Real. Again, a signifier brings a difference a lack, an emptiness into the indifferent real, onto which a new autonomously operating system can graft itself. However, the system is incapable of filling the lack it has introduced into the real, and is therefore, in its turn, plagued by that real as if with an irreconcilable lack. The term for that real lack is the ‘Thing’ and the sublimated object is ‘raised to the dignity of the thing’ (DeKesel, 2009; 180).
Through this crafting of values, Lacan’s concept of sublimation registers his renunciation of the Name-of-the-Father, as a transcendental signifier, which guarantees the authority of the symbolic phallus. Instead, Lacan conceives the symbolic law as fundamentally tenuous, a historically contingent principle, calling for renewal. At the same time, Lacan rethinks the dynamics between law and desire. If the symbolic law institutes the lack of desire, Lacan argues that the sublimation of desire also redefines the principles of the symbolic. The two entail a dialectical reciprocity, which both registers the qualification of Lacan’s original concept of the law, and reiterates its generative potentiality. Accordingly, Lacan rethinks the ethics of psychoanalysis as defined not only by the concession of castration, but furthermore by the committed pursuit of this dynamic process. He writes, “From an analytic point of view, the only thing of which one can be guilty is having given ground relative to one’s desire” (Lacan, 1992; 319).
Indeed, Zizek explains Lacan’s concept of sublimation as strictly correlative to the anamorphosis of the gaze in the picturing of the visual field. If the stain of the gaze becomes visible as such, the coherence of the visual field collapses. So something must be displaced from the network of imaginary particulars, which make up the world, and put in position of this gap, around which it is organized. Zizek writes, “The object is the ‘sublime object [of ideology],’ the object ‘elevated to the dignity of the Thing,’ and simultaneously the anamorphic object (in order to perceive its sublime quality, we have to look at it ‘awry,’ askew – viewed directly, it looks like just another object in a series)” (Zizek, 2001; 149). However, Lacan’s concept of sublimation suffers from contradictions, which at least qualify, and perhaps ultimately discourage, affirming it as the formal principle of the Coens’ filmmaking.
Insofar as Lacan conceives the symbolic law as dependent upon an imaginary particular to embody the Real of the lost object, his concept of ethics runs counter to Kant’s moral philosophy, which treats the autonomy of the law and the heteronomy of other objects of interest as strictly opposed. At the same time, however, Lacan’s ethics resembles Kant’s, insofar as he conceives this mediating sublimation as sustaining the constitutive lack of the symbolic law, and explains the ethics of psychoanalysis accordingly as a purification of desire. Accordingly the question arises as to how Lacan situates the ethics of psychoanalysis in relationship to Kant’s moral philosophy, and specifically how he supposes to circumvent the sadism that, in the same 1959 – 1960 seminar, he criticizes in Kant. In the seminar’s penultimate session, Lacan returns to the problem of the superego, providing terms to clarify this apparent confusion, to account for one source of the chronic conflation of his theory with Derrida’s deconstruction, and to explain the contradictions that compel the further revision of his concept of the normative ends of analysis.
At this juncture, Lacan contends that the superego derives from the figure of the imaginary father of the Oedipus complex, insofar as it is informed by the Real of jouissance. Reflecting on the genesis of this tormenting agency, he writes, “If we are sufficiently cruel to ourselves to incorporate the father, it is perhaps because we have a lot to reproach this father with” (Lacan, 1992; 307). At issue, he explains, is the moment when the child “quite simply perceives that his father is an idiot or a thief… a weakling or routinely, an old fogey.” Despite bearing the mantle of symbolic castration, “the little man” provides “paltry support for the signifier,” appearing rather to be deprived of it himself (Lacan, 1992; 308). While one might suppose this disappointment to diminish the figure of the imaginary father in the child’s psyche, to the contrary, it compels his further exaggerated inflation, by intensifying the dynamics of the Oedipus complex. Along with realizing the child’s patricidal fantasies, and so compromising the loving identification that simultaneously provides the basis for its burgeoning ego, the father’s failures attest to his ultimate inability to quell the insistence of the (m)Other’s demands. As a paradoxical, and ultimately self-defeating response to this crisis, the superego thus provides an imaginary supplement to the father’s tenuous embodiment of the symbolic law: its terrifying power reflects the child’s sense of his weakness, its sadistic enjoyment serves to ameliorate the jouissance that he cannot circumscribe, and its severe reproaches echo those that the disappointed child levels against him. In this way, Lacan explains why conceding the superego’s demands, only further fuel their insistence. Not only does the injustice of superego’s demands provoke resentful defiance, but one concedes its demands precisely to sustain its cruel tyranny, as an antidote for the father’s failure to uphold the symbolic law. And, despite mitigating its force, the superego simultaneously maintains the jouissance of the subject’s enthrallment to the Other.
Accordingly, the contrary question arises as to whether Lacan justifiably associates this monstrous figure with Kant’s ethics, even if only in terms of his own concepts? Indeed, as the basis for these reflections, Kant conceives the core of ethics as respect for the moral law, which Lacan equates with the differential negativity of symbolic castration. In keeping with the critical revision of his own earlier theory, however, Lacan argues that, insofar as Kant conceives the moral law as a transcendental condition of experience, he tacitly posits its authority as an objective given. While distinguishing the autonomy of the (symbolic) law from the will’s subordination to heteronomous (imaginary) ends, the very basis on which Kant draws this distinction already evidences its collapse; and it is this implicit reduction of the law’s negativity to the objectivity of an established principle that Lacan discerns in Kant’s description of the experience of moral commitment as painful (Lacan, 1992; 80). As further evidence of this imaginary reification of the law, Lacan argues that Kant’s concept of moral autonomy paradoxically requires making oneself the passive instrument of a radically heteronomous machine. Parodying Kant’s categorical imperative, he writes, “Never act except in such a way that your action may be programmed” (Lacan, 1992; 77). And, rather than the essence of moral autonomy, Lacan argues that the sense of duty serves as an “alibi,” whereby one submits to the authority of a thoroughly formal, albeit nonetheless imaginary demand, rather than concede the constitutive lack of the symbolic. He writes, “psychoanalysis teaches that, in the end, it is easier to accept interdiction that to run the risk of castration” (Lacan, 1992; 307).
In this regard, Lacan’s account of the genesis of the superego in disappointment with the imaginary father of the Oedipus complex concerns not only the (ontogenetic) development of the neurotic individual, but even firstly the (phylogenic) crisis in modern ethics, which provides the background for both Kant’s and de Sade’s writing. If Kant not only registers, but even reinforces the repudiation of any substantial concept of the Sovereign Good, by addressing ethics strictly in terms of the integrity of the will’s self-determination, he paradoxically preserves the substance that he repudiates, in the stark formalism of his ethics, by conceiving the moral law as a transcendental given (Lacan; 1992; 77). Insofar as Lacan, to the contrary, conceives the symbolic as dependent upon the articulation of an imaginary particular, he concedes its impotence to exhaust the force of the Real, whose loss it serves to circumnavigate. Rather than reified as a transcendental given, he deems the moral law to be fragilely tenuous – not only subject to, but even calling for the critical revision, realized in historical change. And, instead of perpetuating the subject’s masochistic enthrallment to the jouissance of the superego, the deferral entailed in this creative transformation sustains the symbolic lack of desire and the pleasure in its pursuit. When criticizing Kant’s moral philosophy, Lacan thus simultaneously situates psychoanalysis in relationship to the crisis that motivates the formulation of Kant’s ethics. He explains the superego’s cruelty, and the impasse it presents in the dialectic of enlightenment, as characteristic of the melancholic introjection of the Sovereign Good’s disappointing demise, in the formulation of modern morality. And he asserts Freud’s concept of sublimation as sustaining the orienting project of Kant’s moral philosophy, precisely by providing a corrective to its persistent objectivism, and so, redefining his theory of the will’s integrity, in terms of the purification of desire.
Accordingly, at this juncture, Lacan’s concept of the ethics of psychoanalysis indeed justifies comparison with Derrida’s defense of deconstruction’s normativity. While Lacan conceives the Real as a distinctly material remainder, which exerts an affective force on the subject, in keeping with Derrida’s argument in “The Force of Law,” he here explains the superego’s coercion, above all, as symptomatic of the imaginary reduction of the symbolic to the static immediacy of an objective principle; and, despite his contrary emphasis on the value of elevating an imaginary particular to a symbolic principle, Lacan’s concept of sublimation lends itself to elaboration in terms of the post-phenomenological ethics of alterity.
Simon Critchley draws this equation with specific reference to Emmanuel Levinas, whose work strongly informs the ethics of the arrivant in Derrida’s deconstruction. In critical distinction to Heidegger’s emphasis on the philosophical priority of the question of Being, Levinas argues that ethics is first philosophy, and he conceives this pre-ontological normativity as informed by the radical absence, not of the subject’s own being-towards-death, but rather the alterity of the Other. Critchley summarizes,
What distinguishes an ethical relation from other relations (to oneself or to objects) is, Levinas claims, that it is a relation with that which cannot be comprehended or subsumed under the categories of the understanding. In Stanley Cavell’s terms, it is the very unknowablity of the other, the irrefutability of skepticism that initiates a relation to the other based on acknowledgment and respect. The other person stands in a relation to me that exceeds my cognitive powers, placing me in question and calling me to justify myself (Critchley, 1999; 97).
Insofar as they both conceive the subject as rent by an originary responsibility to the Other, Critchley contends that “there is a common formal structure to ethical experience in Lacan and Levinas” (Critchley, 1999; 199). In his exposition of Lacan’s concept of sublimation, Critchley reinforces this isomorphism by emphasizing that it articulates an originary absence. Since there is no Sovereign Good, he explains, the only chance for happiness lies in sublimation’s deflection of the drive from its aim. He writes, “Sublimation is the realization of one’s desire, where one realizes that one’s desire will not be realized, where one realizes the lack of being that one is” (Critchley, 1999; 202). As the articulation of a lack, Critchley furthermore contends that sublimation implies a confrontation with death – indeed, the marriage of being-towards-death and symbolic castration, integral to Lacan’s work of the 1950’s – and it is this, he argues, that brings to the fore its aesthetic dimension. While death remains beyond the ken of human understanding, sublimation provides the means to make it manifest, not, to be sure, by defining the truth of finitude, but rather, indirectly, insofar as it exceeds the boundaries of its presentation.
In this regard, Critchley argues that Lacan’s critical theory does not strictly correspond to, but rather offers a complimentary corrective to Levinas’ ethics. In keeping with the arguments that Derrida brings to bear on Heidegger’s concept of being-towards-death, in Aporias, Critchley asks how Levinas gains access to the traumatic encounter with the Other, and whether it is reasonable to suppose to that the force of this trauma, at the core of his ethics, can be sustained? While Levinas formulates his concept of the Other’s alterity through a phenomenological analysis of the intentional structures of experience, Critchley argues that his access to it implicitly depends upon the sublimation of his writing. He writes, “the entire effort of Levinas’ strangely hyperbolic rhetoric is to intimate or testify to a dimension of the unthematizable Saying within the thematics of the Said… There is no pure Saying, there is nothing prior to the mediation of the Said.” And, in this regard, he concludes, “Levinas’ writing might be seen as an anti-aesthetic aesthetic” (Critchley, 1999; 205).
While contrary to Levinas’ self-understanding, Critchley thus conceives Lacan’s concept of sublimation as clarifying an implication of his own theory, and he goes on to argue that Lacan’s critical theory similarly provides support for the normativity of Levinas’ philosophy. Insofar as Levinas explains the subject’s encounter with the Other as traumatic, it remains unclear how its normative force can be endured, and commentators have criticized his theory accordingly for its ethical extremism. However, Critchley finds implicit support in Levinas’ own text for countering this apparently exclusive emphasis on the traumatic encounter, and conceiving his ethics rather, in terms closer to Lacan’s concept of sublimation, as characterized by a twofold movement, “between separation and reparation, between the tear and repair, between the traumatic wound and the healing sublimation… In this sense,” he concludes, “ethics would not simply be a one-way street from the Same to the Other, but would also, in a second move, consist in a return to the Same, but a Same that had been altered in itself” (Critchley, 1999; 206).
As anticipated by the initial qualification of these reflections, one might protest Critchley’s appropriation of Lacan’s concept of sublimation to the post-phenomenological ethics of alterity, as predicated upon the idealitic abstraction of the Real in the phenomenological underdetermination of experience. Indeed, despite Critchley’s concern with its excessively traumatic quality, the affective dimension of Levinas’ concept of the Other’s alterity ultimately must be purged of jouissance in order to justify his concept of “subjectivity as welcoming the Other, as hospitality” (Levinas, 1979; 27). And, in his elaboration of Lacan’s critical theory, Critchley addresses the Real, as itself an elusive good, rather than a sticking point more closely approximate to the evil of original sin (Zizek, 2008; 339 – 346). At this juncture in Lacan’s development, however, Critchley’s post-phenomenological appropriation of his critical theory is fundamentally justified, insofar as Lacan still conceives the normativity of psychoanalysis as an ethics of lack. And the force of these qualifications only makes itself felt at the juncture, paradoxically, where Lacan’s critical theory also calls for a further Derridean corrective.
As evidence of, what Chiesa explains as, the persistent transcendentalism of his initial thematization of the Real, Lacan’s concept of sublimation implicitly still suffers from the imaginary reification of the symbolic, which he criticizes in Kant’s moral philosophy. Whereas Lacan later postulates a cut in the Real that precedes the sundering of the symbolic, at this juncture, he conceives the division between the symbolic and the Real as univocal, defining the Thing specifically as “that which in the real… suffers from the signifier” (Lacan, 1992; 118). Accordingly, if he now understands the symbolic as informed by the persistent force of the Real beyond its borders, Lacan nevertheless conceives it as essentially coherent, in its demarcation of the distinction between inside and out, here and beyond. Despite now explaining the Real as a material remainder that exerts a force within the symbolic, Lacan still conceives it as a noumenal object of desire, whose disquieting force lies in its elusive magnetism, as categorically beyond the subject’s reach. While he argues that the symbolic depends upon the sublimation of an imaginary particular, the broader disjunction that organizes his theory, between the sublimation of desire and the coercive jouissance of the superego, still presupposes the strict distinction between the symbolic and the imaginary, as correlative to desire and demand. And if Lacan conceives sublimation as sustaining the tension between the symbolic and the Real, this newfound dynamism nevertheless remains circumscribed by the symbolic itself, as a dialectical play between the imaginary and the symbolic, which is compelled but not compromised by the jouissance that threatens its closure.
According to his own criteria in this Seminar, Lacan’s critical theory thus requires a more radical concept of sublimation, as originally instituting the symbolic rather than merely serving to sustain its constitutive absence. Insofar as these revisions concern the imaginary reification of the symbolic, in the residual transcendentalism of his thinking, they promise to further reinforce Critchley’s post-phenomenological appropriation of Lacan’s theory, by further elaborating the differential underdetermination that qualifies his teaching as an ethics of lack. Indeed, as commentators frequently argue, these revisions would render the conceptual logic of Lacan’s critical theory not merely isomorphic, but equivalent with Derrida’s ethics of the arrivant. However, insofar as Lacan conceives the Real as the material recalcitrance of an affective excess, the very criteria that compel this further revision appear to be untenable. And, in this light, Lacan’s critical theory proves to be not only incommensurable with, but even opposed to post-phenomenological philosophy, as the ethics of lack prove to compliment, rather than to correct, the jouissance of the superego’s coercion.
Accordingly, when conceiving the Real as the disturbance of an excitation in the symbolic, rather than an elusive remainder that compels the subject from beyond its borders, Lacan renounces his reduction of the superego’s cruelty to a consequence of the imaginary reification of the symbolic’s constitutive lack, and he no longer asserts the sublimation of desire as an antidote to its coercion. To the contrary, he comes to see the two as coextensive. In his 1972 – 1973 Seminar, Lacan writes,
The superego, which I qualified as based upon the imparative “Enjoy!” is a correlate of castration, the latter being the sign with which an avowal dresses itself up (se pare), the avowal that jouissance of the Other, of the body of the Other, is promoted only on the basis of infinity (de l’infinitude). I will say which infinity – that, no more and no less, based on Zeno’s paradox (Lacan, 1990; 7 – 8 – my emphasis).
If the lack of symbolic castration provides the subject with a minimal distance from the Real of the Other’s jouissance, insofar as it remains not merely open to, but rent by this same Real, it institutes and sustains its coercion. The deferral of desire, which Lacan equates here with the infinity of Zeno’s paradox, does not therefore provide an alternative to it, but rather remains predicated upon, even characteristic of, the tireless circuit of prohibition and transgression, compelled by the superego. [i] As Joan Copjec explains it, “The more we define ourselves as mere becoming, the more we place ourselves in the service of a cruel and punishing law of sacrifice, or, as Lacan says, a ‘dark God” (Copjec, 2004; 151).
Traversing the Fantasy
Strictly speaking, to argue that “there is no Other of the Other” is equivalent to insisting that, “there is no Other.”[ii] In the absence of a transcendental signifier, the symbolic ultimately lacks coherence, instead coalescing in tenuous configurations, which are sustained by historically contingent master signifiers. When drawing this conclusion, of course, Lacan does not thereby deny the heteronomous qualification of subjectivity, or the integral role of the symbolic in its genesis and structure. However, he conceives the subject and the symbolic as more dialectically interdependent, placing a newfound emphasis on the “circularity of the relationship of the subject to the Other” (Lacan, 1998; 213). As a compliment to his original concept of the alienation of the subject in the symbolic, Lacan accordingly postulates a contrary separation. If the subject loses the Real of its Being, through the sundering that marks its entrance into language, separation sustains the continuity of its existence, by redressing the disturbance of the Real in the symbolic.[iii] Making sense of the Other’s address, requires reflexively locating the vantage from which it is articulated. Rhetorially, Lacan asks, “He is saying this to me, but what does he want?” (Lacan, 1998; 214). As a concept of the transference, separation answers this question, by delimiting the force of the Other’s jouissance in the form of the fantasy frame. In this regard, when conceiving the symbolic as rent by the Real, Lacan not only further displaces the subject in relationship to the Other, but also renders it more responsible for the contours of its experience.
At the same time, in this two-fold movement of alienation and separation, Lacan’s critical theory reveals its isomorphism with Derrida’s deconstruction. However, Lacan does not therefore conceive the incoherence of the symbolic as exhausted by the aporetic complication of this twofold movment. Instead, he conceives it as symptomatic of the ecstatic jouissance, which holds the subject enthralled to the Other, before and beyond the absence of the symbolic. So that, while Derrida conceives the phenomenological underdetermination of this incoherence as the lack of a radical ontological openness, which itself renders difference unavoidably complicated with identity, Lacan conceives it as the collapse of an ontological closure, compelling the institution of the symbolic (in the form of the fantasy), which holds open experience as a field of desire. Zizek makes the point rhetorically,
According to the doxa, fantasy stands for the moment of closure: fantasy is the screen by means of which the subject avoids the radical opening of the enigma of the Other’s desire. …What, however, if things are exactly inverted? What if it is fantasy itself which, in so far as it fills the void of the Other’s desire sustains the (false) opening – the notion that there is some radical Otherness which makes our universe incomplete (Zizek, 1997; 31)?
While Freud’s theory of dreams as “wish-fulfillments” might appear to emphasize the imagined gratification of a frustrated desire, in the revision of his critical theory, Lacan reverses the order of these terms. The imaginary gratification in the wish-fulfillment mitigates the Real in the Other’s demands, localizing its imposing jouissance, and so establishing the distance necessary to articulate an object of desire, i.e., to wish. Rather than misconstruing the constitutive lack of the symbolic, the fantasy institutes the authority of the law, whose contravention it stages. And, the object does not therefore mediate the subject’s relationship to the symbolic, but rather the symbolic mediates between the subject and the Real.
In this way, Lacan’s concept of the fundamental fantasy provides an alternative account of sublimation’s elevation of an object to the dignity of the Thing, which previously was explained as correlative to the anamorphosis in the image. And he rethinks the critical normativity of psychoanalysis as oriented and sustained, not by desire’s motivating lack, but rather by the Real, jouissance, as a still more problematic ethics of the drive. Registering this shift, in the closing session of his 1964 Seminar, Lacan asks, “How can a subject who has traversed the radical fantasy experience the drive?” (Lacan, 1998; 273). While he only uses the phrase this once, the concept of traversing the fantasy has gained widespread usage as a general term for the diverse approaches that Lacan develops, in his later thinking, when addressing the ends of psychoanalysis in relationship to the jouissance of the drive.
Among other ways, in his exposition of Lacan’s concept, Zizek appeals to Freud’s distinction between the interpretation of symptoms and the construction of the fantasy. Insofar as he originally conceives fantasy, as the imaginary fixation that renders the subject’s desire contradictory, by misconstruing the signifier’s originary lack in the demand for something actual, Lacan assumes the interpretation of symptoms to hold the promise of its dissolution in the assumption of castration. In his concept of sublimation, this process is more dynamic, but the two, symptom and fantasy, remain essentially coextensive in their symbolic dissolution. However, insofar as he comes to see the subject as marked by a cut in the Real that is irreducible to the sundering of the symbolic, Lacan conceives the institution of the fantasy frame as logically prior to the lack of its organizing principles. While, in clinical practice, the interpretation of symptoms restores the dialectical flexibility in the analysand’s desire, lessening its fixations, and decreasing their motivating anxiety, ultimately, in order to address the conflicts in the analysand’s experience, one must speculatively construct the fantasy, which institutes the lack of desire, independently from the meaning (or meaninglessness) of symptoms (Fink, 1997; 205).
While symptoms presuppose the institution of the symbolic Other, which retroactively confers on them their meaning, in the fundamental fantasy, Lacan locates the gratification that sustains the Other’s authority over the subject, in the Real that renders it incoherent. “Desire,” Lacan writes, “is on the side of the Other. Jouissance is on the side of the Thing” (Lacan, 2006; 853/X). In this regard, the interpretation of symptoms and the construction of the fantasy exhibit contrary affective dynamics. While symptoms disturbingly subvert one’s sense of self-possession, their interpretation tends to be pleasurable as an intersubjective articulation of unconscious desire. By contrast, the private reveries of fantasy are terrifically pleasurable. However, their disclosure tends to cause discomfort and shame (Zizek, 1989; 74). Strictly understood, in fact, traversing of the fantasy necessarily entails this disturbing affect. As a critical practice, its force lies in refusing the distance that enables the subject to disavow the gratification in the symbolic articulation of experience. In strict contrast to Derrida’s concept of undecidability, Lacan conceives skeptical reflection as essential to upholding, rather than subverting the symbolic. What causes the symbolic to collapse is rather the all too immediate realization of the gratification, which upholds its organizing principles. Traversing the fantasy accordingly compels this confrontation, bringing the subject to the point where the fantasy frame proves impossible to sustain, in light of the unbearable proximity of its inherent enjoyment.
[i] So understood, the symbolic law not only engenders the temptation of transgression as the force of a remainder that lies beyond the purview of its regulation, and so compels further sublimation. It furthermore articulates the jouissance that it purports to quell, for the first time, under the aspect of its prohibition. Rather than relieving its burden, the sacrifices required by the symbolic thus fuel the excitation that it outlaws. In fact, one might discern the superego injunction “Enjoy!” in the very purported purity of the symbolic’s constitutive lack.
[ii] Indeed, as anticipated by Lacan’s depiction of the infant enthralled to the mirror image, unable to turn to its care-giver to articulate its contours, “at the level of jouissance… the Other doesn’t exist” (Miller, 1997; 16).
[iii] As Ed Pluth explains, separation thus accounts for how the impasse of “the Real’s presence in the symbolic achieves symbolization” (Pluth, 2007; 91).