Between Drive and Signifier

The first post on sexuation and the logic of sexuation can be found here.


Between The Interpretation of Dreams and the Three Essays on Sexuality there was a great tension within Freud’s thought, almost as if there were two entirely different psychoanalytic theories. On the one hand, the Three Essays developed the theory of the drives (trieb) and the various forms that they could take over the course of development and beyond. Freud’s early drive theory was a thoroughly embodied theory pertaining to the baroque displacements the drives can undergo in order to satisfy themselves. By contrast, The Interpretation of Dreams unfolded almost entirely in the order of the signifier, the semiotic, and its vicissitudes, with little that directly pertained to the drives. In certain respects, Freud’s work here was prescient. In his final essay, Analysis Finite and Infinite, Freud would wonder whether it was possible for analysis to come to an end. Despite the fact that interpretation would go as far as it could go over the course of analysis, despite the fact that the transference would have been thoroughly worked through, Freud would find that something in the analysand’s psychic system continued to repeat. In other words, there was something other at work in the analysand’s psychic system that could not be resolved through interpretation alone. No doubt it was observations such as these that led Freud to theorize a death drive in contrast to the pleasure principle and instincts.

Lacan’s thought underwent a very similar trajectory. Up through Seminar 6, Lacan focused primarily on the order of the signifier, ignoring almost entirely the order of drive or jouissance. During this period, Lacan optimistically argued that the symptom could be entirely resolved through analytic interpretation, even defining the symptom as a metaphoric condensation of signifiers. This is the period where Lacan believes that the big Other exists. During this period, as can be observed in the graph of desire, Lacan assimilates drive to the signifier, to the symbolic, rather than seeing it as belonging to the order of the real. It is not until Seminar 10, L’angoisse, that Lacan will begin to develop a rich account of drive as that which both accounts for signifying formations in the unconscious (an animating principle), and as a real and jouissance entirely other than the order of the signifier.

Read on

In the previous post I argued that the upper portion of Lacan’s graph of sexuation– the formulas –is to be understood as a logic of the signifier, and more specifically as two ways in which we encounter an impasse of formalization or failure when we try to totalize the order of the signifier.


Jouissance, Repetition, Entropy, and Loss– Beyond Pleasure

Insofar as the subject looks to the symbolic order in order to discover a substance for its being, these two impasses place the subject in a state that is perpetually precarious; for where the order of the signifier cannot be totalized every signifier proves inadequate for naming the subject or stabilizing its identity. Each signifier always refers to another signifier without identity being able to be fixed or established. Moreover, in being alienated or captured within the order of the signifier, the subject necessarily undergoes a loss of being, such that this loss is a priori— the loss of something the subject can never recover and the loss of something the subject never possessed. As a consequence, the structural impasse at the heart of the symbolic order generates a repetitive jouissance striving to compensate for the loss of being produced as a result of our alienation in the order of the signifier. As Lacan puts it, “[i] is precisely through being perceived in the dimension of loss– something necessitates compensation… that this something that has come and struck, resonated on the walls of the bell, has created jouissance, jouissance that is to be repeated” (The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, 50). It is precisely here that the logic of jouissance emerges in relation to the logic of the signifier. Where the upper cell of the graph of sexuation refers to the logic of the signifier, the lower cell of the graph of sexuation refers to the logic of jouissance, to the search for compensation, to the logic of repetition, that emerges as a result of the loss we undergo as a result of our introduction into language and the social order.

Jouissance is one of the most difficult concepts to grasp within Lacan’s work because the term itself in translation is misleading (“enjoyment”), but also because Lacan uses it in a highly polysemous ways, referring to very different, yet interrelated phenomena, that can only be grasped through the context in which it is being used. As I argued in the previous post, jouissance has to be carefully distinguished from pleasure, referring not to the order of homeostasis and a relaxation of tension within the psychic system, but to the order of repetition, an increase in tension, and even, in many cases, outright pain. We know that we’re in the order of jouissance and the properly psychoanalytic domain of human experience when we find ourselves before repetition or that which repeats within the subject despite being radically at odds with the well-being of the subject.

Matters are further complicated by the fact that jouissance can simultaneously refer to an a priori lack within the subject’s economy that is repeated by virtue of forever striving to be filled, while also referring to fantasies of completeness and plenitude that haunt the subject’s fantasy life and turn everything in the world to shit. In an illuminating passage from Seminar 17, Lacan gives us a sense of just how jouissance is to be thought:

…it is in the place of this loss introduced by repetition that we see the function of the lost object emerge, of what I am calling the objet a. What does this impose on us? If not this formula that at the most elementary level, that of the imposition of the unary trait, knowledge at work produces, let’s say, an entropy…

…This shouldn’t astonish us. Are you unaware that, whatever the ingenuous hearts of engineers believe, energetics is nothing other than the network of signifiers overlaying the world?

I defy you to prove in any way that descending 500 meters with a weight of 80 kilos on your back and, once you have descended, going back up the 500 meters with it is zero, no work. Try it, have a go yourself, and you will find that you have proof of the contrary. But if you overlay signifiers, that is, if you enter the path of energetics, it is absolutely certain that there has been no work.

When the signifier is introduced as an apparatus of jouissance, we should thus not be surprised to see something related to entropy appear, since entropy is defined precisely once one has started to lay this apparatus of signifiers over the physical world. (48 – 49)

Lacan moves rather quickly in this passage, yet here he is referring to Newtonian physics prior to the development of thermodynamics. Within this framework, all of the equations of physics were reversible, such that simply by reversing the set of cause and effect relations the system in question could be returned to its initial state without the loss of energy. In other words, the energy expended through descent would be thoroughly returned by returning back to the initial state from which began. Of course, if you climb up and down a mountain you know that a great deal is lost. What we have here is a model for how jouissance is to be thought. On the one hand, there is the order of the signifier where relations or reversible without loss, while on the other hand there is the order of the body and jouissance where something is lost without being expressible in language as a result of being submitted to the order of the signifier.

This loss would be what Lacan refers to as “surplus-jouissance“. Just as surplus-value is expropriated from the worker while the worker is nonetheless compensated for his labor, surplus-jouissance is a loss that takes place as a result of language but that cannot be detected within language. As a result, the subject perpetually pursues this lost jouissance through language, only to find the loss further exacerbated and thereby finding himself increasingly alienated within language.

Phallic Jouissance and the Search for a Name and Identity

In Seminar 20, Encore, Lacan provides a nice diagram to illustrate the different forms that Jouissance can take with respect to the three orders of RSI:


It will be noted that for each of these three forms of jouissance there is in arrow from one order to another indicating the manner in which the jouissance strives to compensate for the real that haunts the symbolic order. Thus, in the trajectory from the real to the imaginary, we find phallic jouissance and the signifier reality. It will be recalled that the real is the impossible and, more precisely, an impasse of formalization when striving to form a totality out of the order of the signifier. We can thus think of phallic jouissance as a flight from the order of the real, that strives to cover over the constitutive incompleteness or inconsistency of the order of the signifier. Lacan often refers to phallic jouissance as “idiotic” or “masturbatory”. If this is the case, then this is because the phallus is the order of identity, the ego, or, what Lacan sometimes refers to as the “I-ocracy”. Insofar as masturbation is sex with oneself, the order of the Cartesian or Husserlian cogito or ego is masturabatory insofar as it strives to avoid any detour through the Other for jouissance. Here it should be recalled that in addition to being the order of specular identification, the order of the imaginary is also the order of fantasmatic wholeness and completeness. Consequently, phallic jouissance can be detected in all those social and signifying formations that strive for completeness, totality, and a theory of everything. In this respect, the phallic order strives to cover over or hide the constitutive inconsistency of the symbolic order.

We can now see why the feminine side of the graphs of sexuation points from la femme to Φ or the phallus. Insofar as not-all of those speaking-beings are subject to the phallic function, there is always something resistant to naming among those subjects that fall on the feminine side of the graph of sexuation. It is this that will lead Lacan to argue that “La femme n’existe pas” or that “The Woman does not exist”. By this Lacan does not mean that women do not exist, but rather that there is no generalizable category or signifier within the symbolic order capable of defining or naming woman. Each subject sexuated according to the feminine side of the graph is absolutely singular. As such, feminine identity is experienced as a non-identity or a state in which identity is perpetually precarious. “What am I?” In earlier work Lacan had expressed this with the question of the hysteric: “Am I a man or a woman?”

In living this fraught deadlock wherein an adequate signifier does not exist to name one’s being within the symbolic, the subject sexuated as feminine searches for the phallus or an Other that would be able to name his or her being. This might take the form of looking for some expert such as a priest, psychotherapist, teacher, etc., who would be able to tell her what she is. Or it could take the form of looking to some powerful or strong person who could fix her identity within the symbolic. In this latter case, the feminine sexuated subject ends up being the phallus (the signifier of desire) for the subject that has the phallus (a semblance of mastery). It is for this reason that the feminine sexuated subject encounters the question “am I a man or a woman?” For insofar as this subject does not know whether she’s found the secret of her own desire or is simply embodying, like an envelope, the semblance of the Other’s desire, she oscillates between her own desire and the Other’s desire. Moreover, insofar as every master or bearer of the phallus comes up short or eventually reveals himself to be castrated or incomplete, the feminine sexuated subject finds herself passing from expert to expert, lover to lover, encountering initial enthusiasm at perhaps having found a signifier that would name and fix her identity within the symbolic order only to discover the idiocy of the master and the charade of his supposed knowledge.

Subject Positions and Fantasy


Each of the three subject-positions are organized around a particular form of negation. In the case of psychosis the negation in question lies in the foreclosure of the name-of-the-father. Because the name-of-the-father is not operative in the psychotic, the neurotic does not distinguish between words and things (words come to be treated as things), there is a marked absence of metaphorical operations, there is no signifier to organize the linguistic universe of the psychotic (hence the presence of neologisms in psychotic discourse), and relations between the psychotic and others remain at the level of dual imaginary relations (because the dimension of desire and its opacity isn’t attributed to the psychotic’s semblables or others). This is why the world of the psychotic is characterized by certainty as there is no dimension of doubt produced by encountering others as desiring subjects.


In the case of perversion, the mechanism of negation lies in disavowel of castration. Unlike the neurotic, the pervert claims to possess a knowledge of jouissance or to possess the secret of what the Other wants. As Lacan often points out, the pervert makes himself a tool or implement of the Other’s jouissance. If this is so, then this is because the pervert can only attain the status of a subject (and therefore defend against anxiety) by making a detour through the Other. In other words, where castration is operative though repressed in the case of the neurotic, castration has been disavowed in the pervert. As a result, the pervert has not attained the separation necessary to constitute himself as a subject. According the Lacan, what the pervert ultimately seeks is not jouissance, but rather the “no!” of the Other that would institute castration, enact separation, and thereby allow him to attain the status of a subject. In short, what the pervert aims at is not the jouissance of the Other but the anxiety of the Other so that the law might be instituted and separation might take place.


Finally, in the case of neurosis, we have negation as repression of castration and desire. Where the pervert relates to the jouissance of the Other, the neurotic relates to the desire of the Other. But here the aim is to convert desire into a specific demand that the neurotic can then set about satisfying or thwarting. If the neurotic seeks to repress the desire or castration of the Other, then this is because desire manifests itself as an anxiety provoking enigma from which the subject strive to flee. “You’re telling me this but what do you really want?”


Lacan often illustrates desire and the anxiety it produces by reference to being before a female praying mantis and not knowing whether we’re wearing the mask of a male praying mantis or a female praying mantis (the female praying mantis, of course, devours the head of her partner after mating with him). Faced with this enigma of what the Other desires the neurotic is filled with anxiety. Consequently, to escape this painful anxiety the neurotic strives to convert this enigmatic and opaque desire into a specific demand that would veil the dimension of desire.

Here, then would be the secret of neurotic fantasy. On the side of the obsessional, fantasy takes the form of the barred subject relating to objet a: ($*a). The “punch” (which I cannot represent on this blog as it comes out as code) can here be read as referring to the “greater than” (>), “less than” (<), “conjunction” (&), and “disjunction” (v) operations in mathematics. That is, we here have the barred subject either dominating, being dominated by, combining with, or disjoining with, the objet a (cf. Seminar 10: L’angoisse). The key point in obsessional fantasy is that the barred subject strives to negate the Other as desiring so as to directly relate to the lost object. Thus, for example, the obsessional might attempt to satisfy all the demands of his partner so as to avoid any encounter with the Other’s desire. Likewise, the obsessional might fill every silence with a stream of words or not let the Other get a word in edgewise so as to prevent any encounter with the Other’s enigmatic desire. What the obsessional dreams of, we might say, is a world without others (perhaps this is why it took philosophy so long to recognize the dimension of alterity).

The fantasy structure of hysteria is different. Where the obsessional strives to relate directly to the lost object or surplus-jouissance, the hysteric tries to fabricate herself as objet a, the object cause of desire, for the barred Other: (a * A). Lacan claimed that the “obsessional has a desire for an impossible desire”, whereas the hysteric “has a desire for an unsatisfied desire” (cf. Seminar 3: Psychosis. Both of these paradoxical desires are designed to both sustain desire indefinitely (thereby defending against the fading of the subject that takes place in jouissance) and to defend against an encounter with the anxiety producing desire of the Other. In the case of the hysteric, the unsatisfied desire she seeks is not her own, but rather the Other’s dissatisfaction. In producing desire in the Other the hysteric thereby creates a place where she might come to exist as the object of the Other’s desire.

Here we thus encounter another dimension of the feminine sexuated subject’s relation to the phallus at the level of jouissance. It is not simply that the feminine sexuated subject seeks an Other that has the phallus and therefore can provide her with a stable identity within the symbolic order. It is also that she must produce desire in thus subject so as to become the object of that subject’s desire. Consequently, two key indicators of a feminine sexuated subject are, on the one hand, the search for a subject who has the phallus– a master who has a special sort of knowledge (though it always turns out to be the wrong sort of knowledge), and, on the other hand, the production of oneself as an envelope or object of the Other’s desire not unlike a fetish object. For example, a hysteric male might show a keen interest in weight training, his body, being impeccably groomed, having money, etc., while a hysteric woman might be the stereotypical “done up” woman who turns her body into a spectacle to behold through clothing, jewelry, perfumes and lotions, strategically revealing certain parts of the body, etc. These, of course, are not the only forms that “being objet a” can take within a phallic economy.

A key point not to be missed is that for Lacan the three subject positions are not forms of sickness from which subjects must be cured. Rather, the three subject-positions are economies of jouissance and desire that emerge in relation to how the subject occupies language and relates to the Other (or does not relate to the Other as in the case of psychosis). Thus, for Lacan, there is no “normal” subject that would be deemed “healthy” in relation to those forms of subjectivity that are “mal-adapted”. The importance of the subject-positions, then, is that they allow the analyst to situate him or herself vis a vis the analysand’s jouissance and desire in the clinic. This is a major feature distinguishing psychoanalysis from psychotherapy. Where psychotherapy might try to “cure” the subject of the symptom, psychoanalysis begins with the premise that there is no subject without a symptom (the sinthome is the subject’s singularity), and that the aim of analysis is summed up in Freud’s dictum from The New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis: Wo es war, soll ich werden. The subject must come to be in the place of jouissance or the symptom, identifying with the symptom and seeing the symptom as the site of his being.

The next post in the Sexuation series shall discuss surplus-jouissance and Other-jouissance or feminine jouissance, as well as how jouissance functions in these sexuated social formations.