Lacan on the Unconscious and the Desire of the Other


I’ve been reading Lacan and listening to Augustine’s Confessions over the last couple of days, so that explains the lame illustration.

In the public, I believe there is a mistaken notion of the psychoanalytic subject. Lacan distinguished between two types of discourse in an individual: the ego discourse and the unconscious discourse. One can conceive of the ego discourse as the way someone describes one’s self as having characteristic A1, A2, and A3. That is if asked who you are, you might respond with ‘I’m a male, 22-year-old graduate student’. That is the way we consciously, objectively view ourselves. Psychoanalysis posits that another unconscious type of discourse exists as well. This type of discourse is evidenced by slips of the tongues, garbled speech, and other abnormalities that occur in everyday language. Freud noted that if a person is asked whether or not these events are meaningful, the patient will always respond with a negative. These linguistic intrusions are generally ignored or laughed off by the speaker. Now, the problem with this understanding occurs when one assumes that these evanescent glimpses into the unconscious are on some level more genuine or truer revelations of the individual’s desire than those things that are revealed in everyday ‘ego’ talk. Let me offer two examples. Everyone’s familiar with the story of the unwise wife who while making love to her husband blurts out the name of a past lover. The sex is over. Undoubtedly, the husband has his feelings hurt and begins to question the relationship. He might begin to wonder how serious his wife views the marriage. Does she often imagine that she is making love to a past-ex? On some level, we understand that this unconscious irruption was the wife’s true desire.

However, the problem with this global hermeneutic is that it fails to understand how the unconscious is not merely a repository for the individual’s desires. The individual’s unconscious is also a collection of other people’s desires. Fink offers a helpful example in his work The Lacanian Subject (by the far the best introduction to Lacan’s work). An analysand tells his analyst, “I know that in my relationship with my father there was a lot of tension, and I think it came from the fact that he was working too hard at a schnob he couldn’t stand and took it out on me” (The Lacanian Subject, 3). If we applied the previous hermeneutic we might assume that, “the analysand who blurts out schnob instead of job is revealing his or her true colors: a gripe against a father who paid too much attention to an older sibling and not enough to the analysand, and a wish that it would have been otherwise” (The Lacanian Subject, 9). This is your typical “gotcha” moment in psychoanalysis. Let’s imagine St. Augustine in psychoanalysis. The analyst says, “See Augustine, you always act as if you are wholly devoted to your mother, but noticed how you just substituted ‘smother’ for ‘mother’”. You said about your friend, “He was always one of my great friends, but not as good as my smother”. The analyst continues, “I think it’s obvious that this parapraxis reveals that alongside the love you constantly profess for your mother there was also a lurking frustration with her overprotective nature.”

While these types of unconscious disruptions might be truer than some trite ego desire like, “I really just want to help out as many people as possible”, we fail to appreciate that these desires often have a source that is foreign to the individual. Fink offers another reading of this parapraxis that comes from the Other’s desire. Perhaps, the disgruntled mother constantly confided into her son (the analysand) how neglectful his father was, and in turn this prevented the analysand from loving his father and began disliking him to appease his mother. As the analysis progresses, the analysand might come to realize that he didn’t really dislike his father or experience him as distant, but rather his mother forced these beliefs onto the analysand. Here, we get a glimpse into the fact the analysand’s unconscious is not merely composed of his own desires, but is also replete with the Other’s alien desires. That is to say, the analysand had internalized his mother’s desire, and he later regurgitated these beliefs in conversation with his analyst. Although, it’s easy to assume that what emerged in the slip of the tongue has its source in the analysand’s unconscious hatred of his father, it is perhaps unwise to jump to such a conclusion without first considering how an individual often assimilates the Other’s desires into his unconscious.


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