NOTES – LACAN’S SEMINAR ON ANXIETY (X): 15 MAY 1963

The object of objects is the object a. It is the remainder or the left-over in the table of long division. It remains after the subject and the Other stand against one another. When the subject is born from the field of the Other there is something left over, that is, the object a. But this object, unlike the other Freudian objects (phallic, anal, scopic, invocatory), arises as a result of the cut – the mobius strip – and this, moreover, occurs within the field of the eye, the visual or scopic field.

A S (jouissance)
a Ø (anxiety)
$ (desire)

Anxiety, claims Lacan, is the only path by which we can approach the question of the relation between the object a and desire. We have seen that anxiety is what mediates or comes between the barred-subject and jouissance. Anxiety is a signal, and this signal can be transformed, problematically, into a sign, vis-a-vis the fantasmatic port of access. Anxiety can be avoided any number of ways and, more to the point, fantasy, which occurs from the row of desire itself, is a way of achieving a distance from anxiety. In this case the object a stands in place of jouissance as, through the specular image [i(a)].

We have further seen that the Buddhist doctrine presents itself with the claim that desire is illusion. I explored this a little bit in the notes for the last class but not nearly enough. Lacan seems to imply that there is something about this that is not entirely problematic: desire is illusion. I wrote above that desire is illusion implies that the matheme of fantasy [$<>a] allows the subject to gain entry to the “port of access” but only through a sort of fantasy or illusion. Lacan wants us to think desire as the cut itself – so, we can see that desire is itself the mobius strip. This means that it has two sides which are paradoxically connected to one another (such that at any one point there is still an opposite side). The remainder, the object a, is what keeps desire as desire, it grounds desire somehow.

But lack is something else. Lack has to do with castration. But so too does the object a. So it remains to be seen how Lacan means to distinguish lack from object a. This is something I want to figure out immediately. To being with, Lacan says something that appears quite cryptic, cryptic inasmuch as it is compressed-thought:

The gulf between lack and the function of desire in action, structured by the fantasy and by the subject’s vacillation in his relation to the partial object, indicates the non-concurrence that creates anxiety, and anxiety is the only thing to target the truth of this lack.

Lacan is suggesting that there is a “gulf” between lack and the function of desire, which I take to be the object a. However, this leads me to ask: how, exactly, can a cause, such as object a (the cause of desire), be taken for a function? This is a truly complicated question, one that Lacan does not answer or even provide any indication that we are on the right track in asking it. We can conclude that (1) Lacan did not actually say function (poor translation?), or (2) there is no reason to dwell on the question of why he selected this word, or (3) it was a slip on his part, or (4) there is something to this use of the word function. I can’t answer this but I am deeply interested in the question.

Lack seems to be on the side of being, and what Lacan names “desire in action” seems to be on the side of fantasy, that is, the barred-subject in relation to the object a. And so there is something “non-concurrent” about this which creates anxiety. This can only mean that when fantasy is out of sync with being there is, somehow, anxiety. If somebody can alert me to the French word that Lacan used for “non-concurrent” it would be most helpful. In any case, something truly becomes confusing here. Anxiety is the truth of lack. Finally, we can say this with certainty. But the confusion stems from the implication noted above, the implication that if we were only to approach the truth of our lack, our being, jouissance, then we would be absolved of anxiety. Yet, this goes against the claim that anxiety is the signal of truth. I wonder if this is a poor translation, slip on Lacan’s part, or, more probably, a misunderstanding on my own part. Anyway, at this point, when lack and the function of desire (structured by fantasy) do not collide, we have the “anxiety-point.” Could it be that it is when fantasy can no longer succeed that the anxiety-point is reached?

Lacan finds it strange that psychoanalysis began with a discussion of the sexual foundations of desire and somehow remained caught up in the oral drive as the principal stumbling block for human development vis-a-vis desire. Why is it that all psychodevelopmental problems are reduced to the oral drive? As it happens, it appears to Lacan that everything discussed at the level of the oral drive is metaphorically linked to that which occurs at the level of the phallic object, in the castration complex. This explains why Lacan has been able to discuss, in previous classes, the cut within the oral drive itself. But why is it that the discussion of the oral drive as implicated in the impasse of psychodevelopment is metaphorical? It is our task to find the point at which this metaphor is made most apparent.

Another step would be to introduce a connection between the minus-phi a, the castration complex, and the visual or spatial field. We’ve already been on this path for some time. This next step comes after the oral step. So that is why we must talk about the oral step. We can talk about sucking, sucking during infancy. When sucking, it is all about the lips. This reminds us of the rim, from previous classes. The rim that encases the object a. Lacan wants us to remember something he mentioned early in 1962, namely that the lips are involved in the construction of certain phonemes: what we call consonants. Recall that a consonant, for example the sound-pattern for “P”, is used at the front of the mouth, with the lips. Others are made with the tongue quickly cutting the flow of air at the front of the mouth, like the sound-pattern for “T”. Consonants, broadly, are sound-patterns made by closing the vocal tract. So any sound-pattern that is made using the lips is a “labial consonant”. Lacan remarks that it can not be for nothing that the sound-pattern for baby’s first words begin with labial consonants: “mama” and “papa”.

There is something similar at play in the separation of the oral rim from the nipple as partial object, and the separation of the child from the mother. Lacan goes a little bit further than we typically do in our everyday lives: the cut of birth is made not between the child and the mother but rather between the child and the envelopes that contain him. The child has a primordial relation with the placenta, even before the mother. But to return to the oral drive, the object of the oral drive, it has been said, is the breast (along with the nipple). But beyond the relation between the oral rim and the breast or nipple there is an anxiety-point. In the relation between the oral rim and the nipple there is something else in question, which is the mother. So this means that the object a and the anxiety-point are in two different places.

I’m still trying to sort out this problem. It was the original problem I set out to settle in these notes for this class. It seems that Lacan is making a distinction between object a and the anxiety-point on the basis of a previous distinction between object a and lack. Lack seems to be on the side of the anxiety-point, or in some relation to it. We have a diagram, of sorts:

S A
a anxiety

Lacan names this diagram, the “anxiety-point.” We can see here something very interesting. If the seminar began by linking anxiety with the object a, anxiety signalling, to some extent, some relation to the object, now, we can be sure of this, the object a and anxiety are further classified in relation to the mythical subject and the mythical Other. The Subject and Other, being mythical, and having some relation to jouissance, stand like two strong columns. They designate the “side” on which each the two obscure concepts that are causing some problems for me are situated: the object a is on the side of the mythical Subject, the side which leaves him holding onto the Other in a sense; anxiety is on the side of the mythical Other, demonstrating that it is the lack in the Other which is the locus of anxiety. Now I am approaching a real understanding. We can now say that anxiety and lack are related to the Other – but we need to be careful here, it is not the Other as an independent being outside of the subject, it is the Other as psychic apparatus, as the dimension of the Other for the subject. We can see why the discussions of masochism and sadism – perversion – have helped to open up the way for this diagram: there is a question of making the Other exist, and to make the other exist is to produce anxiety for the Other.

anxiety is related to the lack in the Other

The object a is not what is separated from the mother, the Other, but rather what is separated from the child. The object a is on the side of the castration complex. It is what is taken from us whenever we form an attachment, a covenant, with the Other – it is “the price we pay.” However, returning to the oral drive, we can see the object a at play. What happens with the fantasy of vampirism? What happens is precisely that the child, as vampire, finds nourishment, using the teeth through the lips, in the mother’s neck. The vampire calls the mother’s function into question – are you really the Other? To find this out it is enough to inflict anxiety, to target the lack in the Other, by using teeth and lips. The anxiety-point is thus at the level of the Other, even here in the oral drive. [Interestingly, I searched google for an image of vampires biting necks and I couldn’t find a single image of an Other without a smile. This demonstrates something of the times, I presume.]

Freud once wrote that anatomy is destiny. Lacan wants to remind us that the word anatomy comes from “cutting up”, and the body is what is “cut up”. It is not for nothing that knowledge of the body, of medicine itself, of biology, can only be made by cutting the body up, dissecting it. In a recent movie directed by Philipp Stolzl called “The Physician” we follow an apprentice “barber” in the 11th century who fights against everything – his mother’s death, the master who made him apprentice, religious dogma – to obtain knowledge of the body. At one point he decided that it was for the greater good to make a few cuts on the body. This was considered blasphemy so he did it in private. He looked at the body as a beautiful machine and jotted down diagrams. I doubt it was for nothing that he was attempting, through the movie, to learn the wisdom of how the eyes function and how to cure blindness – but that is another story. The movie, based on a novel by Noah Gordon, is well worth watching, if only to understand that what is at stake in the cut concerns the search for the self, for inner knowledge and inner growth. Finally, what the young physician did was expose the anxiety-point of the establishment, where it was fundamentally lacking. He pushed things to their limit, and so too did his master who, it seems, was forever waiting for an apprentice such as him.

The Physician (2013)

And isn’t this ‘cutting of the body’ for the sake of knowledge what is at stake in Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man? This is a topic I would like to spend more time exploring – the relationship between the cut, the body, and knowledge – but I must stick to the line.

Vitriuvian Man (Leonardo da Vinci)

Returning to the point, what we can see here is a topological division between anxiety and desire. However, this poses a problem with respect to Lacan’s previous table of long division. He claimed that anxiety occurs in the middle row, there where object a is located. Yet, where it really seems to occur is on the side of the lack in the Other – which is beside the object a. We can see that things are forever shifting around, ideas are finding their place. But something strange happens here – or, at least, it is only initially strange. The object a, related as it is to the castration complex, can only occur via the Other. For example, we’ve seen this in the logic of the covenant. So, we could say it like this: it is only by and through the Other that the castration complex, and object a, comes into play. Similarly, the oral drive, the enjoyment proffered, occurs in the same way that the enjoyment might occur through orgasm – through prolongation, for example.