Lacan’s Borromean Knot and the Object-Cause of Desire

A friend of mine recently asked me to explain why Jacques Lacan placed objet petit a at the center of the Borromean knot. What follows is my attempt to give a basic answer to that question. I decided to go ahead and throw it up on the blog in the hope that it may be of help to others. This is far from an exhaustive treatment of the Borromean knot itself and it will presuppose some general familiarity with Lacan’s concepts. However, I will try to clarify them a bit as I go along. I would love to write a much more fleshed out analysis of this topic, but I’m currently writing my first book and simply don’t have the time right now. Anyway, I’ll be relying on the help of Slavoj Žižek and Todd McGowan here. I should say that I have written a detailed analysis of objet petit a in another post on this blog. If you want to get familiarized with that concept, then check out that post. I will, however, give a short introduction to objet petit a below. Let’s take a look at Lacan’s Borromean knot:

The Borromean knot is essentially Lacan’s way of formally representing the structure of human subjectivity. It is comprised of the three orders: Imaginary, Symbolic, Real. The Imaginary order is all about images (both imaginative and perceptual — the specular imago or mirror image is perceived), egos and alter-egos, shapes, figures, identification and disidentification, wholeness, ideal ego, fantasies and daydreams qua images, struggle for recognition, rivalry, aggressivity, overproximity, narcissism, etc. The Imaginary order is also dualistic insofar as it is all about two egoic consciousnesses confronting each other without the mediation of the third (Symbolic order, big Other). The Symbolic is the order of signifiers, Law, prohibition, rules, language, social institutions, etc. The Imaginary and the Symbolic make up what we think of as our social reality. The Real involves all of those things that must be repressed in order for our Imaginary-Symbolic reality to function. The Real is the order of enjoyment (jouissance), the unconscious, death drive, trauma, radical contingency, inconsistencies and gaps in Imaginary-Symbolic reality, etc. The Real is that which structures our Imaginary-Symbolic reality without being perceivable or symbolizable within it while also threatening to explode it.

OK, so that probably wasn’t very helpful, so let’s turn to the words of Žižek to get clearer on all this. The first quote defines the three orders and the second one provides a helpful example of them.

For Lacan, the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real are the three fundamental dimensions in which a human being dwells. The Imaginary dimension is our direct lived experience of reality, but also of our dreams and nightmares — it is the domain of appearing, of how things appear to us. The Symbolic dimension is what Lacan calls the ‘big Other,’ the invisible order that structures our experience of reality, the complex network of rules and meanings which makes us see what we see the way we see it (and what we don’t see the way we don’t see it). The Real, however, is not simply external reality; it is rather, as Lacan put it, ‘impossible’: something which can neither be directly experienced nor symbolized — like a traumatic encounter of extreme violence which destabilizes our entire universe of meaning. As such, the Real can only be discerned in its traces, effects or aftershocks.
(Event, pp. 119–20)

For Lacan, the reality of human beings is constituted by three intertangled levels: the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real. This triad can be nicely illustrated by the game of chess. The rules one has to follow in order to play it are its symbolic dimension: from the purely formal symbolic standpoint, ‘knight’ is defined only by the moves this figure can make. This level is clearly different from the imaginary one, namely the way in which different pieces are shaped and characterized by their names (king, queen, knight), and it is easy to envision a game with the same rules, but with a different imaginary, in which this figure would be called ‘messenger’ or ‘runner’ or whatever. Finally, real is the entire complex set of contingent circumstances that affect the course of the game: the intelligence of the players, the unpredictable intrusions that may disconcert one player or directly cut the game short.
(How to Read Lacan, pp. 8–9)

The Borromean knot is Lacan’s way for representing all three orders in their most abstract relations and structural dependence on each other. We now have two questions: (1) What is objet petit a? (2) Why is objet petit a at the center of all three orders? First things first, the French term objet petit a (often shortened to objet a) is usually left untranslated. If we do a strict translation of it into English, then it would be “object small o”. The French “a” is the abbreviation of “autre”, which, in English, is the world “other”. The “o” in “object small o” means “other”. The full term would be “object small other”. How fucking terrible is that? I, personally, think the best way of referring to objet petit a in English is with the term it-factor. The objet petit a is that imperceptible and unnamable it-factor or Je ne sais quoi (“I don’t know what”) in another person, place or thing that makes it stand out to your desire. This is why someone you desire can go from being the most amazing thing in the world to being a piece of trash. Žižek explains it like this, “Is not every element that claims the right to occupy the sacred place of the Thing by definition an excremental object, a piece of trash that can never be ‘up to its task’? This identity of opposite determinations (the elusive sublime object and/or excremental trash) — with the ever-present threat that the one will shift into the other, that the sublime Grail will reveal itself to be nothing but a piece of shit — is inscribed in the very kernel of the Lacanian objet petit a” (The Fragile Absolute, p. 23). If the person with the it-factor comes to lose that factor, then that person immediately turns to shit in the eyes of one’s desire. You might still like, love or respect that person, but he or she is now sexually repulsive to you due to they fact that the objet petit a has departed from them. But how does the objet petit a come to be?

If a baby is to become a socialized human being, then it will have to give something up. What is the price we all must pay in order to gain access to the social world with all its meanings, rules, protocols, etc.? We must undergo a fundamental process of prohibition, that is, limits must be placed on our enjoyment (the French term is jouissance). In order to enter into the mediated world of Law, into the social order, we must sacrifice our uncompromised and immediate enjoyment. Lacan called this process symbolic castration because the Symbolic order “castrates” or “cuts away” our pre-Symbolic jouissance from us. But here’s where it gets weird: the Real jouissance you sacrificed on the alter of the Symbolic (Law) is an enjoyment you never actually had to begin with. It’s the prohibition of that enjoyment and your acceptance of it that retroactively produces the enjoyment you sacrificed while undergoing Symbolic castration. The “lost” enjoyment concentrated in the objet a is literally an impossible enjoyment. As Žižek put it, “The fundamental paradox that, according to Lacan, defines “symbolic castration,” the “prohibition of incest”: the prohibition of the jouissance that is already in itself impossible to attain” (Looking Awry, p. 43). Once you have “lost” your primordial-impossible jouissance, your entire subjectivity is structured around its lack (absence, nothingness, void). However, we make a fundamental reification, that is, we turn this virtual jouissance, this nothing-enjoyment, into a missing part of ourselves, into a sublime substance. We feel us though an essential chunk or portion of our subjectivity, some lost remainder, is out there in the world waiting to be recaptured. This missing remainder, this unconscious reification of “lost” jouissance, is the objet petit a. And the “loss” of this Real object is precisely what makes us into the desiring subjects we are. In other words, the objet petit a is the “lost” object that causes us to desire in the first place and this is why Lacan also called it the object-cause of desire. The objet a is the cause of desire as such and also the cause of specific desires. Here’s how McGowan describes objet a:

Though this prehistorical enjoyment did not exist, the idea of it nonetheless continues to have a power over the subjects of the social order. Having given up a part of themselves — albeit a part that did not exist until they gave it up — these subjects, insofar as they remain within the social order, are incomplete or lacking. Bound by this lack, they imagine or fantasize an object that exists in the gap left by their sacrifice. This object is what Lacan calls the objet petit a. The objet a constitutes the subject as desiring; it provides the lure that acts as an engine for the desire of the subject and also directs that desire in its circuit. In fact, Lacan notes repeatedly that “the petit a is the cause of the subject.” It causes the subject to emerge as a desiring subject, as the subject of desire. Desire is, in this sense, part of what one gets in exchange for the sacrifice of one’s enjoyment. While this may seem, on the surface, to be a bargain for the subject (considering that she or he never had the enjoyment she or he gave up in the first place), desire is inevitably a poor substitute for enjoyment. Enjoyment satisfies the subject, but when a subject desires, she or he perpetually lacks her objet a and hence remains perpetually dissatisfied. Desire lays down a path that has no exit and leaves the subject, despite her/his constant longing for something more, a prisoner of the social order that desire itself is a reaction against. The only end of desire is more desire.(The End of Dissatisfaction?, p. 16)

But why is objet petit a positioned at the center of the Borromean knot? Well, because it fundamentally structures each of the three orders but in unique ways. I have to say that Lacan made it clear that all three orders come into being at the same time. It’s not like these are developmental stages we go through. A child has been socialized once the structure of the Borromean knot has become the structure of the his or her subjectivity. However, we have to analyze the relation between each order and objet a (jouissance) in a chronological manner. Let’s start with the Symbolic.

The Symbolic order is the agency of prohibition. It requires that we conform to its rules, restrictions, etc., in order to be a part of it. This means that we symbolically surrender our primordial jouissance (remember, it never really existed) to the Symbolic itself. Concretely speaking, this occurs in our relations to authority figures (parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, etc.). It’s as if we give our enjoyment over to the Law and it gets to enjoy it instead of us. Now, authority figures always have signifiers we associate with them. The main signifier of prohibition, of course, is “No!” and its variants. Considering that the father, traditionally, was the authority figure that laid down the Law, Lacan came to think of the first signifier as nom du père. This French term means both the name-of-the-father and the no-of-the-father. However, the no-of-the-father does not have to always be the word “no” nor the actual name of the father (even though we get “branded” with his last name). It can be any number of words, signs or gestures. The signifier “Hey!” could be it but so could a very stern look or a disciplinary instrument such as a belt. The point is that is the first signifier, this master signifier, ends up being saturated with our objet petit a. It’s as if the first signifier confiscates our jouissance and enjoys it instead of us. The signifier (Law, prohibition, Symbolic order) steals our primordial-Real jouissance (objet a) and leaves us with only desire (lack, castration). We get desire in exchange for our jouissance (objet a) but desire is a shitty substitute and ultimately leaves us in perpetual dissatisfaction. This means that the authority of the Symbolic order is actually propped up by its possession of our sacrificed enjoyment. One reason why people get so invested in authority figures and social institutions is because they unconsciously think that they can somehow get their “lost” enjoyment back from them if they properly cooperate. On top of that, the Symbolic order can provide certain types of enjoyment one could not have without it. Prohibition itself can come to be enjoyable. This is why objet a supports the entire edifice of the Symbolic order.

What Hegel already hints at, and Lacan elaborates, is how this renunci­ation of the body, of bodily pleasures, produces a pleasure of its own — which is precisely what Lacan calls surplus-enjoyment. The fundamental ‘perversion’ of the human libidinal economy is that when some pleasurable activity is prohibited and ‘repressed’, we do not simply get a life of strict obedience to the Law deprived of all pleasures — the exercise of the Law itself becomes libidinally cathected, so that the prohibitory activity itself provides a pleasure of it own. Apropos of the ascetic, for example, Hegel emphasizes how his endless mortification of his body becomes a source of perverse excessive enjoyment: the very renunciation of libidinal satisfaction becomes an autonomous source of satisfaction, and this is the ‘bribe’ which makes the servant accept his servitude.
(The Ticklish Subject, p. 125)

The Imaginary order is also grounded by objet a insofar as the images we identify with provide us with an illusory sense of wholeness. The reason why we are so invested in fantasmatic and idealized images of ourselves is because they provide us with illusions of our “reunion” with objet a. The Imaginary offers us the image of enjoyment, that is, fantasmatic pictures of us in the throes of Real jouissance. This means that the image of enjoyment is also the image of the complete self, that is, the uncastrated subject. These fantasmatic images serve to disguise us from us. In other words, they conceal or veil our lack (castration). The image of the self of Real enjoyment gives one “access” to one’s “true” self, i.e., the self without any Symbolic compromises to its enjoyment. The fantastic image allows the castrated subject to see itself in its uncastrated form (an impossible image due to the fact that the subject is castrated by definition). The Imaginary order gives us a place where we can temporarily retreat from Symbolic reality and lose ourselves in idealized images of maximum jouissance and freedom. In the Imaginary, I no longer have to sacrifice my jouissance and can enjoy any object I want. The catch, of course, is that I can only enjoy the image of the object I desire and not the object itself. Here’s the thing: the objet petit a is the Real object and not an Imaginary one. The objet a is not an imagistic or perceptual object even if the subject comes to associate it with fantasmatic images and empirical objects. The image is never actually the objet a (missing remainder of Real jouissance). The pure objet a or objet a itself has no image, since it is merely a permanently virtual object (one that is invisible and structurally non-actualizable). In a sense, objet a is what sustains the Imaginary order insofar as its attainment is the necessary condition for subjective wholeness.

Finally, objet petit a structures the Real order precisely because its “loss”, “sacrifice” or repression is what produces the Real itself. The idea of there being some pre-Symbolic Real, a Real not chained to the other two orders, is only the product of retroactivity. It’s only after we are within the Symbolic order (language) that we retroactively posit a prelinguistic Real.

The Lacanian Real is not some kind of a hard kernel: the true reality as opposed to only our symbolic fictions. This is why the notion of the imaginary Real, which I evoked before, is so important. I think that the Real is in a way a fiction; Real is not some kind of raw nature which is then symbolized. You symbolize nature, but in order to symbolize nature, in this very sym­bolization, you produce an excess or a lack symmetrically: and that’s the Real. This is the crucial Lacanian lesson. It’s not, as it is sometimes misrepresented, that you have — let’s call it naively pre-symbolic reality: you symbolize it and then something cannot be symbolized and that is the Real. No, this is just a kind of stupid reality; we don’t even have an ontological name for it. It is, rather, that the very gesture of symbolization introduces a gap in reality. It is this gap which is the Real and every positive form of this gap is constituted through fantasy.
(Conversations with Žižek, p. 78)

Anyway, the Real is the unconscious and the split between consciousness and the unconscious occurs through Symbolic castration. It’s only after we have suffered the traumatic “loss” of objet a and after it has been repressed in the unconscious that the order of the Real has been established. This is how objet petit a structures the Real order.

We now have a basic understanding of why objet petit a is at the center of the Borromean knot and how it structures each of the three orders. Human subjectivity is fundamentally organized around objet a or “lost” jouissance and that’s what the knot, in part, has to teach us. Let’s finish with McGowan’s lucid summary of the relation between objet a (jouissance) and the three orders:

In Lacan’s triadic division of experience, the Symbolic order constitutes our social reality, the imaginary provides an avenue for the illusory transgression of that reality, and the Real marks the point at which the Symbolic order fails — the gap that always haunts it. Though the imaginary assists prohibition by providing a safe outlet for enjoyment, it also represents a danger to the society of prohibition. . . . Only outside the limits of both the symbolic and the imaginary — only in the Real — are we actually able to enjoy because the Real does not require a sacrifice of enjoyment. The status of enjoyment, in fact, provides an easy way of grasping Lacan’s symbolic-imaginary-Real triad: in the Real, we can enjoy; in the imaginary, we imagine that we enjoy; and in the symbolic, the symbol enjoys in our stead. Even though it only provides an imagined enjoyment, the imaginary nonetheless seems to provide enjoyment as such, while the symbolic order only offers desire. This is why one cannot think the society of prohibition without the imaginary housing the image of the denied enjoyment. This image is what allows subjects in the society of prohibition to sustain themselves in the midst of their dissatisfaction.
(The End of Dissatisfaction?, pp. 18–9)

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