The Frame of Desire
The Lacanian concept of desire and its ethics are slippery. Ordinarily, when we think of the concept of desire we think of it as a desire for x. "So and so desires a car." "So and so desires a house." "So and so desires this man or woman." I would suggest that this falls far more in the domain of what Lacan refers to as demand than desire. For Lacan there literally is no object of desire, no object that desire desires, unless this object is objet a which is the embodiment of a void (the empty set or mark alongside each positively embodied signifier: S & ~S) and therefore
"something" to which no empirical or concrete object can correspond. Objet a is more a frame or a stage for the desire of concrete objects than an object itself... For instance, gaze corresponds to the stage on which the subject acts, making herself seen or not seen... Hence the term "object-cause" of desire or that which sets desire in motion rather than that which is desired. Similarly, the anal object is a response to the demand to both master oneself and to release oneself in relation to the Other (thus the correlations between the anal drive and gift giving and the essential relation to the Other). From the Lacanian standpoint, each time we get the object we desire, desire once again displaces itself and searches for another object. Finally, where we normally conceive fantasy as a hallucinated form of satisfaction, I hope to show that the Lacanian concept of fantasy instead refers to what we take ourselves to be for the Other, how we imagine ourselves as related to the desire of the Other, and therefore as the frame through which we find various objects as desirable.
Lacan consistently claims that desire is the desire of the Other. This is a polyvalent statement that can mean a number of things. On the one hand it can mean that we desire to be desired or recognized by the Other (once again, gaze as stage upon which we seek to capture the Other's desire). On the other hand, it can mean that we desire the other person. However, most importantly, it means that our desire is structured by the Other, by the symbolic order, by the signifier or Law. That is, the logic of the signifier can function as determinants of our desire as is the case in the Rat Man, where the various homonyms generated by the signifier Ratten (debt, payment, rats, etc), function to organize his unconscious desire.
Finally, fourth, desire can literally be the Other's desire or the desires of the Others with whom I've identified; a foreign or alien desire inhabiting me, the Other's discourse, animating my action and pursuits in the world. This was the case, for instance, with the Rat Man who, by virtue of his identifications to the ego ideal, embodied the desire of his parents to marry a particular sort of woman, a respectable woman (his mother's desire), but also to be with an unrespectable woman (his father's desire). Around these two desires the Rat Man's subjective destiny and conflicts unfolded, as he strove to both resist and embrace them (again the ambivalence of the anal object which is simultaneously understood as a gift and as excrement, thereby entailing that the subject must entertain a contradictory relation to its products). Freud also discusses such a desire in Group Psychology and the Analysis of Ego, where a group of young girls take on the symptoms of a girl who got a love letter, thereby indicating an identification with her desire. This form of desire and the sort of conflicts that it often embodies allows us to thematize why subjects can desire the most horrifying and unpleasant things for themselves, such as fantasies of being roasted on a spit (no joke, I've come across such fantasies in the analytic setting). The question here would be "for whom would the subject be appealing in such a scenerio, for what Other does such a subject stage this fantasy?" In this scenerio, our desire is literally not our desire, but a desire that seems to infect us like a virus... Which is the experience of all desire, we experience it as strange and alien, an affront to the homeostatic yearnings of the pleasure principle, something that puts us off balance and which perpetually seems to get in the way of our pursuit of satisfaction.
For Lacan desire is unconscious. Insofar as the discourse of the Other is the unconscious, it follows that we do not know what our desire is. The subject that enters analysis is a subject with a complaint, but more importantly it is a subject that doesn't know what it desires or that is seeking to find out a bit about his or her desire. Analysis begins with the subject wishing to get rid of that about which s/he complains. Analysis only progresses if the object of the complaint is no longer seen as being akin to a cancerous tumor which might be excised, but as being a trace of desire-- what Lacan calls Truth --as an-Other discourse speaking within the subject. Thus, preceding analysis it can only be said that the subject has an inhibition. The symptom (as a trace of desire) will only be constructed in the course of analysis as "what will have been".
If, by desire, we mean "desire for object x" then it is indeed true that Lacan does not advocate acting out all our "desires" (note the square quotes) when he claims that the ethics of desire consists in "not ceding one's desire". Indeed, Lacan claims that living out ones fantasy-- where fantasy is the frame of desire or the setting in which we're able to desire particular objects --is horrifying in that it brings us right to the edge of castration which the fantasy is designed to hide or defend against. Fantasy is a defense against the opaque and enigmatic desire of the Other. It gives a response to the question "what am I for you?" or "what is it that you want?" To act out one's fantasy, to live it, is to directly encounter this enigma or to discover that the Other does not itself know (hence the reason that ordinary neurotics are simultaneously fascinated and horrified with true perverts as perverts do what neurotics dream of, but also reveal the ultimate castration behind these acts or that the Other does not itself know what it desires). However, there is another way of understanding Lacan's aphorism "don't give way on or cede your desire." On the one hand, not giving way on your desire entails attending to your unconscious, heeding the formations of the unconscious (slips of the tongue, jokes, bungled
actions, acts of forgetting, dreams, symptoms). An ethics of psychoanalysis is an ethics that aims at truth insofar as it aims at the truth of one's desire manifested in these formations. An analysand is practicing the ethics of psychoanalysis when they speak the truth of these manifestations or when they take responsibility for their unconscious, when they subjectivize these formations, when they heed the truth that their unconscious is speaking as captured in the trace of the signifier that appears in broken speech, fractured, or unintentional speech and action. Lacan refers to this as the ethics of "speaking well" (bein dire), which consists in not speaking well at all. Quoting Freud, Lacan states "Wo es war, soll ich werden." "Where it was, the subject should come to be." We can can think of psychoanalysis as a sort of truth procedure in Badiou's sense of the word. What is counted in analysis is the symptom, the fracture, what is heterogeneous to the avowed intentions of conscious ego discourse. In Ranciere's terms, psychoanalysis counts precisely that which has "no count", or that which is excluded from conscious discourse and through free association sees how these fractures (parapraxes, symptoms) might be linked or not linked to ego-discourse, thereby progressively transforming the field of the subject's desire. Put differently, psychoanalysis concerns itself with what is included in the analysand's situation, but which an analysis does not treat as being a member of that situation. On the other hand, desire entails maintaining one's distance from the fascinating, horrifying, and lethal Thing or that which would fill the void in the big Other.
The paradox is that desire cannot be said to pre-exist its articulation. In seminars 6 and 14, Lacan claims that desire is its interpretation. This entails that desire is not what is, but what will have been through the process of symbolization or articulation, which is again why the procedure of counting the symptom is so crucial to the formation of desire. Desire is constituted in and through language.
It is indeed true that we suffer from our desire. If I desire to politically transform the world, then I will experience frustration at the lack of initiative I see in others and all the things that I see need to be done. The question here is again, for whom, do I see myself as one who undertakes the desire to change the world? If I desire to dupe and master the Other, then I will have to place myself in scenerios where the Other might triumph over me so that I can escape them and demonstrate my cunning. Lacan's point seems to be that the alternative, giving way on my desire, is worse. Psychoanalysis does not promise happiness or a cure, but rather a more direct relationship with one's desire where we can understand our suffering as a product of our own desire and yet still act and pursue that desire, thereby evading the far more troubling lures of fantasy that promise a world without such suffering, a world that is whole and complete, a subject that is complete, without ever being able to deliver it, thereby exacerbating suffering and creating all the imaginary struggles that punctuate the field of fantasy whereby the real is externalized in the form of the other as a symptom (for instance, as in the case of anti-semitism where the figure of the Jew comes to function as the marker for the real of social antagonism or the impossibility of acheiving social harmony). The ethics of desire is a tragic ethics.
In Seminar 6, Desire and its Intepretation, Lacan defines fantasy as the frame of desire. Fantasy thus functions as a sort of window or frame through which we look to encounter objects as desirable. The formula Lacan gives for this frame is ($ <> a). Now it is easy to give this formula a straightforward reading which would interpret it as "barred subject related to the object that it lacks". Under this reading fantasy would be the thought of myself conjoined with the object I desire or want such as the hard to find book that's currently missing from my collection of books by Hegel. However, this misses the specificity of objet a as object-cause of desire, rather than the object of desire. Objet a is the cause of desire, the occasion of desire, and desire is the effect of objet a. What is important is not the book that I desire, but how this book comes to be desirable. Put otherwise, what is the frame through which the book becomes desirable? Given the infinite possibilities of what I could desire as a result of being subordinated to the signifier-- which irrevocably introduces absence into the world. Would the Conquistadors have desired Eldorado or the City of Gold had it not been named? --how do we come to desire one series of things rather than another?
In Seminar 10, L'angoisse, Lacan claims that anxiety is not without an object. Anxiety, unlike fear, is objectless in the sense that it is not an encounter with some specifically threatening empirical object such as a lion or a vicious weasel, but with the enigmatic desire of the Other. But while anxiety does not have an empirical object, it is not without an object. That is, anxiety is a response to objet a, which is not an empirical object, but which is nonetheless a condition of objects. In elaborating anxiety Lacan is led to speak of the difference between acting out, the act, and passing-to-the-act. In describing passing-to-the-act-- namely, suicide --Lacan speaks of it as "exiting from the stage" and evokes the example of the young female homosexual who threw herself off the train platform when her father saw her with the female prostitute who was the object of her affections.
This formulation of "exiting from the stage" in relation to an encounter with her father's gaze should give us pause when thinking about the frame of fantasy. For Lacan, fantasy is the support of desire. The object of this young woman's desire was the female prostitute. But the object-cause of this woman's desire was the paternal gaze, her father's look. It is in relation to this gaze or look, to this primary identification, that the woman takes on her identity as an ego, that she is able to constitute the relation between ego-ideal and ideal-ego, or that she is able to form an identity. Her identity literally comes from the outside in, through an identification with the Other, and it is this identification that structures her desire and action in the world.
Something about an encounter with the gaze in this particular instance precipated an "exit from the stage", constituting a passage-to-the-act where the subject at last coincided with herself. In Seminar 6, Lacan remarks that the punch (<>) is to be understood as the "greater than" (>) or "less than" (<) sign and as the logical functions of "and" (&)-- sometimes represented in logic as (^) --and "or" (v). In this scenerio, we can imagine that the woman's relation to objet a as cause of her desire had shifted such that we have ($ v a), to be read as "either the subject or the gaze" (an exclusive disjunction in which the young woman opts to keep the gaze existant and sacrifice herself) or that it had shifted to (subject <> a) or "the barred subject greater than the gaze" or the barred subject demonstrating to the Other what it ought to be were it ot castrated. The mechanism of fantasy thereby grants identity to the subject or being to the subject in relation to the Other which is always barred or incomplete. In doing so it delimits a field of desirable objects. to the subject. On Lacan's graph of desire this would correspond to the vector relating $ ---> I(A), or "the subject sutured to the ego-ideal present in the Other or the unary signifier, and i(a) ---> m, or the relationship between the ideal-ego (what I would like to be for the Other, how I would like the Other to see me) and the moi or ego. Here the subject takes on its being, fills its want-to-be, through an identification with the ego-ideal or the gaze of the Other for which it acts as if on a stage.
Traversing the fantasy entails discovering the castration of the Other [S(-A-)] behind the fantasy, that the Other itself is desiring and lacking, incomplete, or that the Other does not itself know what it wants. This traversal of the fantasy, which involves discovering how the subject has itself provided a response to the question "what does the Other want from me", while highly painful as it involves a collapse in one's identifications or what Lacan calls subjective destitution, nonetheless allows for a separation from the Other that hitherto paralyzed me in its demand, such that I might more directly pursue my desire without any longer requiring the sanction or the guarantee of the Other. It is in this vein that Lacan can wonder, at the end of Seminar 10, L'angoisse, whether one can consider an analysis complete if the analysand still believes in God at the end of analysis. For what is God if not the idea of an omnipresent gaze that would give me being or guarantee my identity (here it would be appropriate to speak of the role Descartes' proof for the existence of God plays in his metaphysics and the pursuit of knowledge). That is, traversing the fantasy implies a mutation in the structure of fantasy itself, not a mutation in the objects we desire which were always already changing. What is of interest in analysis is not so much the objects desired, but the frame through which these objects become desirable in the subject's relation to the Other. Perhaps, in this vein, we could think of analysis as a de-framing of the frame, or better yet, as a purification of the frame and its separation from the Other who is believed to "really" embody this impossible gaze through which we come to our existence.