Moving Beyond Oedipus: A Lacanian Critique


I will be relying heavily on Verhaeghe and Grigg’s article in Jacques Lacan and the Other Side of Psychoanalysis for this post. Lacan beings redefining jouissance in Seminar XVII, which in early seminars jouissance was always defined of as that which resists the symbolic. However, in seminar XVII he no longer thinks of it as being in opposition to the symbolic. In fact, the genesis of the signifier is closely related to jouissance. We here run into something of a paradox. On the one hand, the introduction of the signifier leads to the impossibility of attaining jouissance, and on the other hand the signifier is also the condition of possibility for reaching jouissance. Verhaeghe writes, “the connection between knowledge and jouissance is the foundation for the introduction of the apparatus of the signifier in the subject” (Jacques Lacan and the Other Side of Psychoanalysis, 31). Borrowing insights from Freud’s theory of repetition Lacan posits that jouissance occurs in the body through invasions, which refer to the body getting off on itself. However, “[t]hese invasion acquire markings; they are inscribed in the body through the intervention of the Other” (31). Whereas here this idea of jouissance is still in the Real (as in his previous theory) the idea of inscription introduces an Other who inscribes.

“Knowledge, once it has been introduced into the signifier, is both the means to jouissance and the cause of the loss of jouissance” (33). The emergence of the signifier is a second major loss supplementing the loss the subject has already experienced during the mirror stage. The signifier leads to a loss of jouissance which invariably leads to the subject competitively repeating in attempt to gain back the jouissance that was sacrificed at the mirror stage. In fact the introduction of the signifier in in some sense a response to the original alienation the subject experiences in the mirror stage. However, the introduction of the signifier also leads to a gain, a plus-de-jouir since the advent of the signifier also grants the subject access to language and culture (i.e. the symbolic order). Culture and language can offer the subject alienated in language temporary means of enjoyment.

Originally Lacan advanced an understanding of the Oedipus complex that differed from Freud because in his theory the father intervenes not to prohibit the child but rather the mother’s desire. This allows the child to escape the insatiable enjoyment of the mother and enables the child to begin desiring independently of the mother. Freud’s understanding of the Oedipal complex revolved around the idea of identity acquisition and the superego, which Lacan refers to as Freud’s dream.

Verhaeghe suggests that “we can propose the following statement: we are the way in which we (don’t) enjoy” (37). This (don’t) is crucial because otherwise the subject would be indistinguishable from her desires. “One’s ex-sistence as a subject simultaneously implies a divided stance towards jouissance” (37). We have to be divided relative to jouissance (this explains why we have defenses that limit enjoyment) otherwise we would be headed on the road towards death. In Lacan’s theory death and enjoyment are intertwined and “the road to enjoyment is the road to death” (37). The parental objects then situate themselves relative to jouissance to prevent the child’s annihilation. The father steps in to limit jouissance and ensures it will remain limited by instituting a prohibition.

Initially the child makes great demands on his mother and she ends up dominating any “inscription of jouissance; any attempt to repeat jouissance must be addressed toward her” (38). Originally the child enjoyed itself (i.e. his body), but now he demands the mother offer him enjoyment. The mother’s prohibitions enable the child to avoid the (death) threat of absolute enjoyment.

Now, in classical Freudian theory the tyrannical father breaks up this dyad. However, a question we must ask ourselves is from where did Freud derive this theory? This type of father figure is utterly absent from all of Freud’s major cases (e.g. Dora, Ratman, Wolfman, Little Hans). These fathers were always impotent, pathetic clowns. As I’ve already mentioned the early Lacan displaced responsibility onto the mother’s insatiable desire, which justified the father’s intervention.

Totem and Taboo is Freud’s Darwinian myth to justify his Oedipal formulation. Cleverly Freud even believes that the child can hark back to this mythical narrative to remember this prohibiting father (which is way too Lamarckian/Jungian) if the child’s actual father was a weakling. However even on closer inspection Lacan recognizes that the myth doesn’t work. Weirdly enough the threat of castration is absent from the myth. Secondly the relationship between law and enjoyment are inverted in the two myths. The law is primary in the myth of Oedipus and Oedipus’ enjoyment is understood as a transgression whereas in Totem and Taboo enjoyment is originary and the law is only formed afterward. On top of that Grigg points out that, “Freud retains, in fact if not in intention, is very precisely what designates as the most essential in religion – namely, the idea of an all-loving father” (60). This is indeed quite ironic since Freud hoped to expose religion as an illusion that was wholly accounted for by the child’s need for an omnipotent father. Verhaeghe writes that according to Lacan, “[t]he murder of the primal father is thus an expression of a death wish whose aim is to make the father immortal and, therefore, almighty” (41). Further on he says, “[w]e are inevitably tempted to elevate our father to unknown proportions in order to combat a danger we locate in the woman/mother, a danger that, in one way or another, always has to do with jouissance and our fears of becoming its victim” (42). Lacan even jokes that the illusion of an almighty father satisfying an entire clan of woman sexually is a joke considering a single father is hardly capable of satisfying one woman sexually.

In reality, mother, father and child are positioned around the impossibility of jouissance. Society is in complicit in trying to trick us into believing that impossibility is really just a prohibition. Here recall the male graph of sexuation where the male subject can only accept castration if he posits that there once was a male who avoided castration. Of course this is simply mythmaking since there never was an almighty father.

We must rethink castration unlike post-Freudians who have simply bypassed it entirely by focusing on the mother/child dyad via attachment theory. In place of the omnipotent father Lacan substitutes the castrated father who donates to his son the master signifier S1. Castration for Lacan is the subject’s alienation in language and a forfeiting of a primordial jouissance through a “primary identification with the S1” (43).

“The S1 intervenes in the already existing S2 that divides the subject through the chain of signifiers, making enjoyment impossible to reach. In sum, the intervention of the master signifier S1 on S2, that is on knowledge as a means for assuming jouissance, induces and determines symbolic castration” (43). This theory in fact presupposes for the father to offer S1 he too must already be symbolically castrated. In Lacan’s theory the glorified male tyrant has now been humiliated into a castrated sham. In fact Lacan believes the primary affect for the father is shame since he must admit that he can never adequately represent S1 for the child. The lack the father experienced can never be filled in, and he must pass on this disease to his child. Furthermore the idea that the father could ever have properly intervened and split up the powerful mother/child dyad to begin with was simply wishful thinking.

Here we see just how far Lacan went away from the clumsy Oedipal complex, which if you notice could never be explained for girls except by making up some ridiculous misogynist myth about little girls who suffer from penis envy and demand babies from their dads. Instead the original impossibility of jouissance is what is real and the whole notion of prohibition is simply a social conspiracy to trick the subject into believing that this prohibition can be transgressed.


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