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At first glance, the question of “sexuality” would seem to present no difficulty. Have we not already been led to expect a certain symbolic or imaginary displacement at the heart of human embodiment? Is this passage through the field of representation not what the distinction between the instinct and the drive asserted at the start? This is the lesson of Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) repeated in “The Instincts and Their Vicissitudes” (1915), in both of which Freud elaborates the drive in terms of four aspects—its force, aim, object and source (Drang, Ziel, Objekt, and Quelle).
of the drive as such. This would be the “story of genesis” according to Freud:
as soon as the human animal departs from the state of nature, it can only eat “too much” or “too little,” the “proper object” having always already been lost. The best one can do is to establish a “golden mean,” a symbolic 38 Penumbra measure that allows the primordially lost object to be “refound” in another form, where it is regulated not by nature, but by the rule of a moral law.
Taken from nature, the subject, and the entire domain of sexuality, would be placed in the field of the Other.
Such a view is not altogether mistaken, and in Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud recalls this argument from his earlier work. Speaking of the child’s relation to the breast in the oral phase, an example discussed at length by Jean Laplanche, Freud makes two distinctions: first, with respect to the “subjective” correlate (to put the point phenomenologically), he observes that the child’s appetite may be satisfied by the nourishment it receives, but that oral satisfaction is a different phenomenon. Freud notes that the satisfaction of the oral drive can be attained through a substitute (as in the case of thumb-sucking), which is not possible in the case of hunger. This shows at one and the same time the distinction between the oral drive and the instinct of hunger, and also the propping or leaning of the former on the latter. Detached from the domain of “hunger,” the oral drive is nevertheless located in a physical way that departs from this organic function (in a similar way, the scopic drive will depart from the function of sight). “Sexuality” itself, in the Freudian sense, originates in this departure.
Second, with respect to the “objective” correlate, Freud distinguishes between the milk which the child seeks at the breast, and the breast itself, as an “object” that is propped on the organic function of feeding, but nevertheless distinguished from it. Lacan formulates this point by distinguishing the object of need from the object of demand, the first being necessary to biological life, the second designating an object that belongs to the field of the Other.
Propped on an organic function, the symbolic mobility of demand (as in the case of thumb-sucking) nevertheless thus separates it from the “unsubstitutable” aspect of need. In this example, we find a formulation of the fact that “sexuality” emerges in the difference between need and demand, at the level of the oral drive. At the same time, it is clear that Freud insists on the bodily inscription of demand, at the level of the oral drive. Thus, while we may justly assert that sexuality “goes everywhere” in Freud, it should be added that if it goes everywhere in principle, it does not do so in fact, in the case of a particular subject.
This is where the distinction between demand and desire comes into play: if anorexia, as Lacan suggests, is a form of the oral drive in which the subject “eats the nothing,” it is because lack has not been adequately established.
That lack, on the basis of which the body is given, has not yet arrived, and in this respect the anorexic does not have her body. We thus have a correlation between demand and the drive: bound by the “demand for the nothing” that repeats itself mechanically at the level of the oral drive, the desire of the subject is compromised.
Thus, if it is true in one sense that sexuality “goes everywhere,” and that having been detached from nature, it can appear at any point in the The Elements of the Drive imaginary and symbolic network, there is also a more precise sense in which Freud speaks of “sexuality,” particularly when it comes to the drive, as a particular bodily formation, a particular modality of libido. This is why we must say that “sexuality,” in being detached from nature, “is not all inscribed” in the order of representation. Something remains beyond the circuit of the law, and it is here, at this limit of the law, that “sexuality” may be given a more precise meaning.
Again, it would be tempting to overlook this fact. One might think that Lacanian theory regards the subject, and indeed the unconscious itself, as a matter of the symbolic order—a “linguistic” matter, in accordance with the purely formal economy derived from Saussure and Levi-Strauss, so that the unconscious (which is “structured like a language”) would therefore be explained by symbolic means. Is this not the classic explanation of “unconscious desire,” which emerges in the signifying chain, disrupting the sequence of signifiers that articulate the ego’s narrative with the nonsensical “material” of the lapsus, the dream, and the forgotten word—or the sudden, unexpected free association that shows where “it speaks” beyond what “I want” to say?
Is not the symptom itself regarded as a “symbolic” phenomenon, the unconscious “reminiscence” or the “metaphor” in which “flesh or function is taken as a signifying element” (E 518/166)? Such is the familiar Lacanian formula, according to which “the unconscious of the subject is the discourse of the Other,” a formula which allows us to distinguish between the discourse of the ego and disruptive appearance of unconscious desire. In Seminar 11, however, Lacan insists that this symbolic debris—the “discourse of the Other”—is not the whole truth, and the “unconscious” itself must be redefined, linked in turn to “sexual reality,” which is irreducible to language. Neither the demand of the ego nor the discourse of the Other will be sufficient now: “This nodal point is called desire” (SXI, 154). Lacan explicitly marks this development at the very start of Seminar 11, the first sentence of which reads: “When the space of a lapsus no longer carries any meaning (or interpretation), then only is one sure that one is in the unconscious” (vii).9 Thus, in 1964 Lacan breaks with the received Lacanian wisdom. “I find myself in a problematic position,” he writes, “for what have I taught about the unconscious?” (SXI, 149). “The unconscious is constituted by the effects of speech,” he says, and “the unconscious is structured like a language” (149). Nevertheless, he now insists on a new formulation: “the reality of the unconscious is sexual reality” (SXI, 150). We are thus confronted with an aspect of the unconscious that cannot be presented in images or words, and it will lead Lacan to insist that Freud was right in claiming that the drive is always a “partial drive,” its object a “partial object”—not because it involves a “part” of the subject’s body (the erotogenic zone, or the anal, scopic, and other “stages”), but because it only partly represents: “This feature, this partial feature, rightly emphasized in objects, is applicable not because these objects 40 Penumbra are part of a total object, the body, but because they represent only partially the function that produces them” (E, 315, emphasis added). The same point is made in “The Subjective Import of the Castration Complex”: “The drives represent the cause of sexuality in the psychic; they do so only partially and yet they constitute the only link of sexuality to our experience” (FS, 119). In short, while the drive is distinguished from instinct and detached from its natural foundations, it is not entirely inscribed in the circuit of the signifier.
One might say that the drive thus poses the problem of a third alienation— beyond imaginary and symbolic alienation—insofar as it introduces the lack in the Other, and tries to grasp the bodily consequences of this lack.
Thus, if we begin with a “symbolic” conception of the unconscious, understood as the “discourse of the Other,” we will have to recognize that something of the unconscious remains essentially unspeakable. As he says in “The Direction of the Treatment,” “I can already hear the apprentices murmuring that I intellectualize analysis: though I am in the very act, I believe, of preserving the unsayable aspect of it” (E, 253). This “impossibility,” this defect in the order of representation, leads Lacan to formulate the object a as a point that cannot be presented in imaginary or symbolic form (though “it is to this object that cannot be grasped in the mirror that the specular image lends its clothes” E, 316). So decisive is this development that Lacan will even begin to define the subject in terms of this “impossibility.” In “Subversion of the Subject” he writes: “This cut in the signifying chain alone verifies the structure of the subject as discontinuity in the real” (E, 299).
Starting from this unspeakable point, this moment of aporia in which the Other malfunctions, we must then try to see how this “cut” or “discontinuity” of the real is able to give rise to particular bodily effects. For the “real,” however lacking or “impossible” it may be (as the “phallus,” a signifier of lack, as the “breast,” a lost object, as the “gaze,” what is missing from the visual field, etc.), can nevertheless make a difference in the structure of the body.
The lack in the Other is not just an abstract “impossibility,” but an “embodied aporia” (E, 265). For if the body is “untimely ripped” from nature and “gathered up” into the field of the Other, it is also here that the surplus effect of lack comes into being, giving rise to a debt that can be paid in different currency. As Lacan puts it in “The Direction of the Treatment”: “This moment of cut is haunted by the form of a bloody scrap—the pound of flesh that life pays in order to turn it into the signifier of signifiers, which it is impossible to restore, as such, to the imaginary body” (E, 629-30/265). To speak of this “bloody scrap” is thus to speak of the object a, where we find a sacrifice of the subject, a sacrifice of desire whereby the subject throws itself into the fire, in a sacred effort to answer the Other’s lack, or in movements which, though less spectacular, still leave a “mark of iron of the signifier on the shoulder of the speaking subject” (E, 265). As he says in Seminar 11, where he is concerned once again with the subject as a “discontinuity in the real,” and not with The Elements of the Drive symbolic “identity”: “At this level, we are not even forced to take into account any subjectification of the subject. The subject is an apparatus. This apparatus is something lacunary, and it is in the lacuna that the subject establishes the function of a certain object, qua lost object. It is the status of the objet a in so far as it is present in the drive” (SXI, 185).
Let us conclude with Freud’s own formulation. For Freud, the drive may initially seem to be defined at the level of psychic inscription. Like anything that belongs to the order of the “subject,” even the most elementary “perception,” so also the drive must be presented through the network of representation— conscious, preconscious or unconscious. The difference between the instinct and the drive would thus be nothing other than the difference between the sphere of immediate presence and biological energy, and the sphere of mediation and re-presentation. In “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes” (Triebe und Triebschicksale, “The Drives and their Destiny”), Freud thus offers the following definition: “an ‘instinct’ [Trieb, drive] appears to us as a concept on the frontier between the mental and the somatic, as the psychical representative of the stimuli originating from within the organism and reaching the mind” (SE 14: 121-2). But in the article on “Repression” written at the same time, Freud complicates this account: “In our discussion so far we have dealt with the repression of an instinctual representative, and by the latter we have understood an idea or group of ideas which is cathected with a definite quota of psychical energy (libido or interest) coming from an instinct” (SE 14: 152).
At this point in the discussion of repression, we would seem to be concerned with a division, within the order of representation, between “instinctual representatives” that are repressed and those that are not. But Freud now adds
that “some other element” has to be accounted for: