Lacan’s concept of ethics is among the most difficult to understand within his psychoanalysis. One of th central problems faced in the clinical setting is the issue of guilt. Guilt can manifest itself quite consciously in the persecutory voices we hear within our thoughts, but it can also manifest itself more subtly at an “unconscious” level, in the judgments we experience as issuing from others (“they hate me”, “they think I’m stupid”, “they think I’m incompetent”, etc) , or in actions that somehow produce painful consequences. For instance, I might steal a pack of gum from the store believing that I simply desire this gum and don’t have any cash on hand, but in pocketing the gum I do so in a reckless way as if the entire point were to get caught so as to create a situation in which I might finally bring about the punishment that would releive me of my guilt. Or perhaps I accidentally leave an internet link to pornography open in my office at the job I love, when leaving to attend to some other matter. What appears to be a simple act of innocent forgetfulness could here be understood as a manifestation of “unconscious guilt”, or the creation of a scenerio in which I lose my job so as to obtain the punishment I deserve (for unconscious issues quite unrelated to my job).

In seminar 7 Lacan raises the question of how guilt should be dealt with in the clinical setting. Lacan is clear in emphasizing that guilt should neither be ignored, nor should the analyst seek to persuade the analysand that she is not really guilt. According to Lacan, if the analysand feels guilt, experiences guilt, or acts in such a way as to indicate unconscious guilt or designs to be punished and lose the very things that are precious to oneself, then this is because the analysand is guilty. The whole problem is to discover what, precisely, the analysand is guilty of. In point of fact, this guilt is not irrational at all from the Lacanian perspective, but refers to something real ethically. Part of analysis consists in determining what this infraction refers to. Of what is the analysand guilty?

The analysand herself is often perplexed by her guilt. She feels guilty all the time, yet cannot see that she’s done anything wrong. She experiences guilt even over her thoughts, without acting on these thoughts. An examination of the actual actions she’s doing in the present seem to do little good in alleviating the feelings of guilt and self-punishing actions, as these events and situations in the present are only occasions for satisfying one’s guilt, they are not the cause of one’s guilt.

The mental gymnastics occur in relation to Lacan’s answer to this question. A somewhat standard understanding of guilt assumes that we experience guilt precisely when we have desires or engage in acts that are contrary to the moral law. Thus, for instance, this view would suggest that the woman feels guilty because, perhaps, she has fantasies of killing her boss that are contrary to the moral teachings according to which she was raised. If she could simply get rid of these thoughts, then she would no longer experience guilt. Under a cereal box reading of Freud, the superego would be the moral agency irrationally commanding that we obey certain moral prohibitions, producing guilt even when we merely think thoughts contrary to the moral law. Analysis would then consist in progressively coming to recognize the irrationality of this superego, so as to escape its sadistically demanding nature.

Nothing could be more contrary to this cereal box version of psychoanalysis that Lacan’s conception of guilt and the superego. Where the cereal box version of psychoanalysis claims that we experience guilt through the real or imagined violation of the moral law, Lacan argues that, “From an analytic point of view, the only thing one can be guilty of is having given ground relative to one’s desire” (Seminar 7, 319). If the man leaves the webpage linked to pornography open in his workplace office where everyone and anyone can see it, then this is indicative of a desire for punishment signifying that somehow he has given way on his desire. If the woman experiences others as judging her and wanting to reject her, then this is a trace of guilt indicating that she has given way on her desire. If one constantly experiences persecutory thoughts informing one how awful he is, how horrible he is, how he’s doomed to failure, and so on, then these are indications that one has given ground on one’s desire. From the popular psychoanalytic perspective the solution might seem to be one simply of ignoring these irrational thoughts. However, as Freud taught, the repressed is always accompanied by a return of the repressed. If I ignore these thoughts, they return as experiences of others persecuting and judging me, or in self-destructive actions unconsciously designed to bring me the punishment called for by the betrayal of my desire. We can thus see how far Lacan is from the notion that guilt is a product of having desires contrary to the moral law. In point of fact, it is the moral law itself that produces guilt by leading us to give ground relative to our desire. Yet paradoxically, desire itself is the moral law. Thus, for instance, Antigone follows her desire in burying her brother and going to her own death, i.e., following the moral law.

Things become even more perplexing when we approach Lacan’s conception of the superego. According to Lacan, the superego is not an agent of prohibition, but is rather a command or imperative to enjoy. As Lacan puts it, the superego bellows Enjoy! From this perspective, if we are to look for the superego, we shouldn’t look in the voices of guilt that we experience or the self-punishing actions we unconsciously engage in; rather, the superego is to be found in our compulsion to enjoy. In our contemporary capitalistic society, the superego is present in the almost overwhelming compulsion we experience to go out and buy. It is to be experienced in the imperative to have new and ever more exotic sexual experiences, to fuck at least 3.5 times a week, and worry over whether we’re doing it the right way (think of all the articles in Cosmopolitan, instructing women on how to be perfect sex kittens). And this is where things get very strange. If I feel guilt in relation to these activities (sex, buying, consumption, vacationing, and so on), it is not because I just decadently spent $80,000 on a Land Rover SUV that I don’t need, thereby violating the imperative of my thrifty protestant superego. No, according to Lacan my obedience to the superegoic command to enjoy (to buy the Land Rover) is not the violation of a rule, but is rather a betrayal of my desire. In buying the SUV, in enjoying, I have somehow given way on my desire. The more I obey this imperative to enjoy, the more guilty I feel and the more ferocious and commanding my superego becomes. The conclusion is that there is nothing “libertine” about Lacan’s conception of psychoanalytic ethics.

If Lacan’s views are here counter-intuitive, then this is because we ordinarily think of enjoyment as precisely that which is prohibited by the superego. How, metapsychologically, are we to understand a superego that commands enjoyment? I suspect that this is a question that can only properly be answered through a careful and precise reading of Freud’s essays “On Narcissism”, “Mourning and Melancholia”, “The Ego and the Id”, “Group Psychology and the Analysis of Ego”, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, and “Civilization and Its Discontents”. As is suggested early in “On Narcissism”, the superego is a continuation of jouissance by other means through the introjection of the parental voice.

However, more importantly, if Lacan’s understanding of the superego, enjoyment, guilt, and desire hold up under scrutiny– and the practice of analysis seems to bear this out as guilt diminishes over the course of analysis when the analysis is moving forward –what is to be done? If enjoying is actually a way of fueling the superego and thereby promoting guilt, what is the alternative? Lacan argues that there is only one solution to this riddle: do not give way on your desire! Yet it is very easy to confuse desire with jouissance, as we see jouissance as the object of our desire. The only answer to this riddle is that desire must be unconscious desire, that it is something that we must discover within ourselves. It is this that leads to Lacan’s core ethical claim:

Wo Es war, soll Ich werden

Where the unconscious (desire) was, there I should come to be. Lacan’s claim is that the only way to escape the guilt that indicates the betrayal of our desire is to take responsibility for our desire, to avow our desire, to no longer put off our desire or to delay our desire, but to come to be the subject of our desire. It is only through the work of coming to know and enact our unconscious desire through free association, claims Lacan, that we can escape the crushing guilt that accompanies the command to enjoy, or the self-lacerating thoughts, persecutory experiences of others, and self-punishing actions that populate our day to day life. The paradox, then, is that it is precisely towards these bungled actions, self-lacerating thoughts, and persecutory interpretations of how others see me that I should look to discover my desire. And if this proves incredibly difficult, then this is because the psychic system is such that it does everything to push these things away and repress them. It is further complicated by the fact that while these things unfold in the present and appear to pertain to the present situation I inhabit (for instance, the man might think he leaves the pornography visible in his office because he hates his job), these thoughts are in fact clothed repetitions of things that belong to a very different scene. Four questions thus emerge:
1) What is this mysterious desire?

2) How do we discover this mysterious desire?

3) How is this mysterious desire to be distinguished from jouissance or enjoyment?

4) If jouissance is the guilt-producing command of the superego in which I give way on my desire, what does it mean to avow my desire (if not to enjoy)?