Lacan’s Concept of the Object-Cause of Desire (objet petit a)
I’m a big fan of Jacques Lacan’s work and I’ve been studying his ideas for years now. I’ve taken online courses that have centered around Lacanian psychoanalysis and have engaged in countless conversations about it. I find that one concept in particular remains incredibly difficult for people to understand. Of course, the concept is that of the objet petit a (objet a, a, object a, object-cause of desire, the Lacanian object, etc.). Recently, I’ve had a few discussions with some philosophy students about Lacan and the question concerning objet petit a is the main one they were interested in. What follows is my attempt to flesh out this concept. I’m far from being a Lacan expert, but I’m going to do my best to make sense of this concept for people who are new to Lacanian psychoanalysis. I might end up saying some things about objet petit a that Lacanians would disagree with, but I don’t really care. I’m willing to go out on an exegetical limb for the sake of clarification. If they can do a better job of fleshing out the concept in an introductory fashion, then I’d love to read it.
Lacan’s concept of the objet petit a is deeply inspired by the ideas of other psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud’s “lost object”, Melanie Klein’s “partial object” and Donald Winnicott’s “transitional object”. The French term objet petit a can be translated as “object small o”, but Lacanians usually leave it untranslated due to the fact that “object small o” sounds terrible and is of no real help in understanding what the Lacanian object actually is. In English, something like the little other-object or the little object of otherness might be a tad bit more helpful, but I think it’s best to just go with the French term. In fact, Lacan himself said that it should be left untranslated, “thus acquiring, as it were, the status of an algebraic sign” (‘Translator’s note’, Écrits: A Selection, p. xi). First things first, objet means “object” and petit means “small”. The a comes from autre, which is the French word for “other”. This is why the a would be translated as “o”.
Lacan spent a lot of time thinking about various forms of otherness. The Symbolic order (language, law, custom, etc.) is referred to by him as “the big Other”. The Real Otherness of the primary caregiver or the Thing (das Ding) is another type of alterity. When it comes to the Imaginary register with all its ego identifications and aggressive antagonisms, alter-egos (other people) are others with a small “o”. And later on in his work, the little a (o) that is objet petit a is yet another type of otherness. Lacan really started to develop this concept of otherness around 1962 (during his tenth seminar on anxiety) and it would occupy a privileged position in his work from then on. This was a big turning point in his work and it hinges on his new ways of thinking about the Real and objet petit a (for the later Lacan, the Real is associated with many things including drive, jouissance, sinthome, unconscious fantasy, objet petit a, etc.). Let’s explore this little “object” of otherness.
Let’s be very clear: objet petit a is not really an object in the standard sense of the word. It’s not a physical object that can be weighed, touched, seen, etc. It’s not like a chair or a tree. To talk like John Locke, it’s not the sort of object that would possess primary and secondary qualities, that is, it’s not the perceivable object of classical empiricism. This is why Lacan said, “The a, desire’s support in the fantasy, isn’t visible in what constitutes for man the image of his desire” (Seminar X: Anxiety, p. 35). Or to talk like Aristotle, the Lacanian object is not a substance. However, it does have certain relations to actual objects. In fact, one could say that it gets “incarnated” in specific objects. Yeah, I know, this all sounds extremely vague, but it will get clearer as we proceed. Now, physical objects are little others to us. We are not like rocks, hammers and cups, but the otherness of objet petit a is more significant than this sort of alterity. This little “object” of otherness would not exist if human beings did not exist. The objet petit a only “exists” in the relation between humans and language. Okay, so what exactly is this “other-object” that’s not really an object? To answer this question, we must get clear on how it emerges, that is, where it comes from. In other words, we have to get an idea of how Lacan envisions a young child’s transformation into a socialized human being.
To begin, objet a is a paradox. Lacan saw a certain paradox at the heart of objet petit a. He says, “This paradoxical, unique, specified object we call the objet a” (Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 268). The objet a is a paradoxical “object” directly because of the relation between its emergence and loss. Žižek clarifies this for us: “This coincidence of emergence and loss, of course, designates the fundamental paradox of the Lacanian objet petit a which emerges as being-lost” (The Plague of Fantasies, p. 15). The idea is objet a is not an actual object we once possessed but, then, lost. The very moment it emerges it does so as a lost object. This is its trick. We never really had a perfect drive satisfaction (jouissance), but we retroactively produce this illusion as soon as restrictions are placed on the jouissance we had at our mother’s body (das Ding). These restrictions retroactively produced what they forbid. Thus, both Law and objet petit a (result of the Law’s installation in the child’s mind) have paradoxical origins. The Law creates objet petit a as the little, concentrated reserve of jouissance leftover from the original jouissance we had to sacrifice in order to become socialized subjects. The point is that this little remainder is not something we ever actually had in some kind of pre-linguistic, pre-oedipal bliss.
For Lacan, a human infant is constantly immersed in drive satisfaction or jouissance. He identified jouissance with drive satisfaction: “jouissance appears not purely and simply as the satisfaction of a need but as the satisfaction of a drive” (Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, p. 209). The French term jouissance is very important for Lacan. Simply put, jouissance is pleasure-in-pain. For example, eating to the point where it becomes greatly uncomfortable. It’s the excessive enjoyment that ends up bringing pain and discomfort. Jouissance destabilizes oneself. Jouissance can also be thought of as an abundance of intensity or stimulation in the body. Lacan associates jouissance with repetition compulsion or with those acts we repeat over and over again, but which also cause all sorts of problems in our lives. For example, someone who feels compelled to wash their hands a hundred times a day. In this sense, repetition of the same is precisely what drive seeks. If drive could speak, it would say something like “More! Again! More! Again!” (this is why Lacan called his twentieth seminar Encore). This is why Lacan claims that every drive is a death drive (drive disrupts the functioning of our social or Symbolic selves). When you think jouissance, also think drive. Lacan views them as going hand in hand and he opposes them to desire. Lacanians often say that desire is a defense against drive and jouissance. As Lacan himself put it, “Desire is a defense, a defense against going beyond a limit in jouissance” (‘The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire’, Écrits, p. 699).
Is jouissance not the whole of an infant’s world? All babies do is breastfeed (oral drive), stare at their primary caregiver’s face or gaze (scopic drive), listen to the primary caregiver’s voice (invocatory drive) and shit (anal drive). A baby’s whole being is that of drive satisfaction or jouissance. Early on, none of this is mediated by language, law, custom, social norms, etc., that is, the baby is not yet a socialized subject who has to situate and contextualize its pursuits of enjoyment. Instead, it’s a little bundle of non-mediated, concentrated jouissance. This is not to romanticize jouissance. Over time, it becomes more and more unbearable and the child seeks a way to distance itself from it. Think about a small child’s relation to the body of its primary caregiver (usually its mother’s body). The child often clings to this body, but, at other times, it does anything it can to be freed from it. Little kids often start to throw a fit when their moms won’t put them down.
Don’t you know that it’s not longing for the maternal breast that provokes anxiety, but its imminence? What provokes anxiety is everything that announces to us, that lets us glimpse, that we’re going to be taken back onto the lap. It is not, contrary to what is said, the rhythm of the mother’s alternating presence and absence. The proof of this is that the infant revels in repeating this game of presence and absence. The security of presence is the possibility of absence. The most anguishing thing for the infant is precisely the moment when the relationship upon which he’s established himself, of the lack that turns him into desire, is disrupted, and this relationship is most disrupted when there’s no possibility of any lack, when the mother is on his back all the while, and especially when she’s wiping his backside.
(Seminar X: Anxiety, p. 53)
Nevertheless, a young child’s whole world is centered around immediate access to jouissance and this is precisely what socialization (what Lacan called symbolic castration) seeks to correct. In Lacan’s words, “Castration means that jouissance has to be refused in order to be attained on the inverse scale of the Law of desire” (‘The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire’, Écrits, p. 700).
There comes a point in a child’s development when the standards and practices of society come to put restrictions on jouissance. In the traditional scenario, it’s the father that finally separates the child from the mother (primary caregiver) by laying down the Law. The father steps in and says, “No!”, that is, he puts limitations on the child’s drive satisfaction (Lacan calls this No! the “name-of-the-father”). The child must now seek enjoyment in ways that are socially appropriate. The child must accept that it has lost the immediacy of the maternal Thing (body of jouissance) and must seek out substitute objects of desire from now on. This is why Lacan associates desire with language — both of them involve metonymy, deferral, displacement, mediation, relationality, contextualization, rules, etc. In fact, for Lacan, there is no subject proper until one accepts the no-of-the-father and enters into the Symbolic order (language). Lacan said, “The subject is manufactured by a certain number of articulations that have taken place, and falls from the signifying chain in the way that ripe fruit falls. As soon as he comes into the world he falls from a signifying chain” (My Teaching, p. 44). This is why the Lacanian psychoanalyst Bruce Fink titled his famous book The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance. For Lacan, the human subject is a particular relation between language and jouissance and it is out of this relation that objet petit a emerges or falls away.
Remember, the being of an infant is that of unmediated jouissance or libidinal plenitude. For a baby, to lose this sort of jouissance is to lose its very being. The moment language takes hold and places restrictions on jouissance is the moment when a structural lack is produced within the human being — the lack of immediate jouissance. Now one’s being is a sort of non-being. “I am my inability to be.” Now there’s some-thing that I’m missing, that I lack, that I must have in order to be whole again. There’s some “part” of myself that I have been separated from. This some-thing is objet petit a. We could say that objet petit a is the ghost of one’s primordial jouissance that emerges through the socialization process. The objet petit a is that little remainder of the excessive jouissance we were once submerged in. As Lacan put it, “The objet a is something from which the subject, in order to constitute itself, has separated itself off as organ. . . . It must, therefore, be an object that is, firstly, separable and, secondly, that has some relation to the lack” (Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 101). In this context, I take it that objet petit a is the “organ” and the subject is the “body”. The Lacanian object is an “organ” insofar as it is that lost, sacrificed jouissance (excess or remainder) cut away from the body by language (name-of-the-father, the signifier, Law, etc.). Jouissance is the price of admission into the Symbolic order.
For the sake of clarification, we must understand that the world of the infant is not a euphoric bliss. Being submerged in jouissance is not a perfect state of being. No! At times, the child desperately seeks to escape it. And how does the kid get away from this sphere of jouissance? By distancing itself from the desire of the mother. The baby’s jouissance is fundamentally connected to the mother’s body. This means that she must desire the baby in order to prolong this symbiotic unity. On the one hand, the mother’s desire can be deeply comforting, but on the other, it can become a sort of tractor beam one struggles to escape from. Lacan sums up this situation in the following way:
The mother’s role is the mother’s desire. That’s fundamental. The mother’s desire is not something that is bearable just like that, that you are indifferent to. It will always wreak havoc. A huge crocodile in whose jaws you are — that’s the mother. One never knows what might suddenly come over her and make her shut her trap. That’s what the mother’s desire is. Thus, I have tried to explain that there was something that was reassuring. I am telling you simple things, I am improvising, I have to say. There is a roller, made out of stone of course, which is there, potentially, at the level of her trap, and it acts as a restraint, as a wedge. It’s what is called the phallus. It’s the roller that shelters you, if, all of a sudden, she closes it.
(Seminar XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, p. 112)
So what exactly is he saying? I don’t want to go into an examination of the phallus, but suffice it to say, the phallus is the lack the child perceives in its mother, that is, it recognizes the mother’s desire is lacking something. For Lacan, the Oedipus complex is structured around the phallus and his point is that the Oedipus complex or socialization enables a child to free itself from the mother’s desire, which is a good thing. He paints the mother (primary caregiver) as a big crocodile in whose mouth (suffocating presence) the child is located. If the kid tries to escape, the mother slams her jaws shut. Lacan envisions the phallus as a rolling pin that the child can place at the back of her jaws and thereby keep her mouth pried open long enough to escape from it. But here’s the thing: even though one’s early childhood is far from some libidinal utopia, it retroactively seems to have been one. There is a certain simplicity that is lost with taking on language, law, custom, and the like. It’s as if the unconscious comes to idealize the past of one’s immersion in jouissance.
There’s great ambivalence here. The child eventually yearns to be freed from the mother’s body (das Ding) and the jouissance that comes with it, but once it has become the lost object it forever haunts the subject as that missing “part” of itself, that is, it becomes objet petit a. As Žižek explains, “das Ding is the absolute void, the lethal abyss which swallows the subject; while objet petit a designates that which remains of the Thing after it has undergone the process of symbolization” (The Plague of Fantasies, p. 105). Therefore, we could say that objet petit a is the virtual trace of the maternal Thing (body of jouissance). The objet petit a is the becoming-virtual of jouissance. Gilles Deleuze refers to objet a as a “virtual object”: “These partial or virtual objects are encountered under various names, such as Melanie Klein’s good and bad object, the ‘transitional’ object, the fetish-object, and above all Lacan’s object a” (Difference and Repetition, p. 101). By “virtual”, in this context, we mean something like potential. Think about how a particular crack pattern is there in a window before it gets actualized. Before the window is actually shattered, the crack pattern was already there as a virtual potentiality. For jouissance to become virtual is for it to cease to be immediately present. In other words, it is something the subject lacks. In fact, the subject is this very lack. The desiring subject, all the days of its life, will be unknowingly chasing this lost “object” in the form of the virtual jouissance we call objet petit a. Sean Homer put it quite nicely:
The objet a is not, therefore, an object we have lost, because then we would be able to find it and satisfy our desire. It is rather the constant sense we have, as subjects, that something is lacking or missing from our lives. We are always searching for fulfilment, for knowledge, for possessions, for love, and whenever we achieve these goals there is always something more we desire; we cannot quite pinpoint it but we know that it is there. This is one sense in which we can understand the Lacanian real as the void or abyss at the core of our being that we constantly try to fill out. The objet a is both the void, the gap, and whatever object momentarily comes to fill that gap in our symbolic reality. What is important to keep in mind here is that the objet a is not the object itself but the function of masking the lack.
(Jacques Lacan, pp. 87–88)
A lot has been said about objet petit a so far and we’re just getting started. Let’s take a second and summarize what we’ve established before moving on. The most important thing to keep in mind is that objet a is not an actual object, but, rather, is a constitutive lack. It’s the lack that produces the desiring subject caught up in the play of signifiers (the differential and mediated structure of language), that is, it is the lost “object” that causes you to desire in the first place. The objet petit a is the positional void where one’s jouissance used to be. This is why Žižek says, “The self-referential movement of the signifier is not that of a closed circle, but an elliptical movement around a certain void. And the objet petit a, as the original lost object which in a way coincides with its own loss, is precisely the embodiment of this void” (The Sublime Object of Ideology, p. 178). Strictly speaking, objet petit a is not some positive reality, but, instead, is a void, an empty spot, a position of lack. Yet it’s a void that, for the subject, is like a thing or a missing part that has its own substantial reality. As paradoxical as it sounds, objet petit a is a positive negativity, a “substantial” void, a reified emptiness. The objet petit a is the void or lack you unconsciously pursue in the hope that the attainment of this missing part of yourself will give you an ontological completeness you once “enjoyed” as an infant.
Lyrics from Queen’s song ‘Hammer to Fall’ sum up objet a: “Every night and every day, a little piece of you is falling away”. However, this “little piece of you” is not something you can name or point out. As far as your first-person, phenomenological experience goes, objet petit a is never directly perceived as the missing part of yourself, since it’s really a void. There’s a quote I’ve often seen attributed to André Breton that expresses this truth: “All my life, my heart has yearned for a thing I cannot name”. Objet a eludes the capture of the subject. Lacan says, “The base of the function of desire is, in a style and in a form that have to be specified each and every time, the pivotal object a insomuch as it stands, not only separated, but always eluded, somewhere other than where it sustains desire, and yet in a profound relation to it” (Seminar X: Anxiety, p. 252). In light of these words, we are ready to understand why objet petit a is the object-cause of desire (the “object” that causes desire) and not the object of desire.
The Lacanian object or objet petit a is not the object of desire. Instead, it is the object-cause of desire, that is, it is the object that causes you to desire the object you actually desire. Imagine being in a theater watching a graceful ballerina perform a spotlit solo. You find yourself completely captivated and memorized by this dancer. However, what in this analogy is the condition of this enchantment? It is the very spotlight in which the ballerina stands out from the darkness. In a sense, we are not even conscious of this light — it is “unconscious”. Analogously, it is this “object” that causes the ballerina to attract our attention. In other words, in this analogy, the object-cause of desire (objet petit a) is the spotlight and the object of desire is the ballerina.
In his tenth seminar, Lacan discussed the object-cause of desire in terms of Husserlian intentionality. Desire’s intentionality is always fixed on the object of desire, not the object-cause of desire, which means that the object-cause is off in the background or is at work behind the scenes. In other words, objet petit a eludes phenomenological experience. Lacan said, “To set our target, I shall say that the object a — which is not to be situated in anything analogous to the intentionality of a noesis, which is not the intentionality of desire — is to be conceived of as the cause of desire. To take up my earlier metaphor, the object lies behind desire” (Seminar X: Anxiety, p. 101). Now, perhaps he would reject this idea, but I think we could argue that there are always two separate beams of intentionality when it comes to desire. The beam of the unconscious focused on objet a or the object-cause of desire and the beam of conscious experience focused on the object of desire. Think about it. There has to be some awareness of objet petit a in order for it to cause us to consciously desire specific objects. The object-cause of desire is like the proverbial donkey’s carrot that functions as an unattainable lure or enticement.
As we’ll shortly see, objet a does come to have idiosyncratic determinations for each desiring subject, which is why we all desire different things and have our own personal histories of desire. The objet a is incredibly mysterious and elusive. It’s not the object of my desire, but, rather, the “object” that causes me to desire the object of my desire. Thus, the objet a is behind desire. It’s “off stage” in relation to fantasmatic desire. It seems to be completely indeterminable, but maybe it’s not entirely. Why and how does it cause me to desire specific things? If we can, in theory, desire anything, then what is the mechanism of a particular desire? What x caused me to desire y? There are two main senses in which objet a is the cause of desire (it’s worth noting that Lacan devoted a whole session to this concept of the cause in Seminar X). First, objet a is literally the cause of all desire, that is, it’s emergence is the very reason why human beings start to desire at all. Before the “falling away” of objet a, we are not desiring subjects, but, instead, are little bundles of wild drives and unregulated jouissance. The “breaking off” of objet petit a is precisely what causes desire as such. This is easy enough to understand, since we already know that the Law (name-of-the-father, prohibition) separates us from das Ding (maternal body of jouissance) and, thereby, produces a fundamental lack (objet a) “in” us that causes us to desire. This constitutive, structural lack is one that all of us as desiring subjects have in common. However, the objet a also comes to cause specific desires. We all have our own particular histories of desire and objet a in its idiosyncratic dimension is the hidden cause at work behind the scenes.
Let’s explore the specificity of the “object” that causes particular desires. The objet petit a is essentially a lack, a void or an empty spot, but throughout the course of one’s life, this void comes to be associated with specific features, traits, qualities, determinations, etc. This is where its specificity and uniqueness come from. Žižek is very helpful here:
In what precise sense is objet petit a the object-cause of desire? The objet petit a is not what we desire, what we are after, but, rather, that which sets our desire in motion, in the sense of the formal frame which confers consistency on our desire: desire is, of course, metonymical; it shifts from one object to another, through all these displacements, however, desire nonetheless retains a minimum of formal consistency, a set of phantasmic features which, when they are encountered in a positive object, make us desire this object — objet petit a as the cause of desire is nothing other than this formal frame of consistency.
(The Plague of Fantasies, p. 53)
Pay close attention to what Žižek just said. He identifies objet a with a “set of phantasmatic features” and this is precisely where its particularity is found. This set of phantasmatic features or desire’s “formal frame of consistency” is what bestows objet a with determinacy, i.e., provides the constitutive lack with positive qualities. Each of us in our own ways (via fantasy) come to unconsciously associate certain empirical features with that missing “part” of ourselves. If we can just find the right object of desire, then we will finally fill the void and. If we can just get ahold of IT (no, not that killer clown), then we will be complete. Of course, this is impossible, but it’s the impossibility that makes desiring subjectivity continue to be possible.
Put differently, objet petit a gets linked to certain idealized and libidinally-invested traits. One of the easiest ways to see this mechanism at work is to consider that many men end up marrying women that strikingly resemble their mothers. The traits of the mother (das Ding) get laid down in the mind as the most basic coordinates of jouissance. In Lacan’s words, “The world of our experience, the Freudian world, assumes that it is this object, das Ding, as the absolute Other of the subject, that one is supposed to find again. It is to be found at the most as something missed. One doesn’t find it, but only its pleasurable associations” (The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, p. 52). These specific qualities or traces of the maternal Thing form fundamental “pleasurable associations” with jouissance or drive satisfaction. As these impressions get imprinted and stored in the psyche, they produce the most fundamental configuration of the child’s libidinal economy. These features are the primary markers of jouissance, that is, they become master signifiers. They don’t have any signifieds (meanings) proper, but simply mark points in one’s environment (the maternal body) that are reserves of jouissance, e.g., breast, gaze, voice.
This line of thought comes from Freud’s work, so we must take a quick detour through some of his ideas to better understand it. In a short paper called ‘A Note upon the “Mystic Writing Pad”’, Freud provides us with an image of how these markers of jouissance (master signifiers) get established. Freud characterized the unconscious as timeless, but in what sense? According to him, all of the various aspects of one’s life history such as the different memory-traces or signifier-like inscriptions left behind by perceptual experiences are permanently and eternally stored in the unconscious. The following is from an article published by The Atlantic and authored by Rebecca J. Rosen called “The ‘Mystic Writing Pad’: What Would Freud Make of Today’s Tablets?” (Jan 25, 2013):
In 1925, Sigmund Freud published an essay, “A Note upon the ‘Mystic Writing Pad.’” In it, he considered a recent market arrival, the Mystic Writing Pad (of course), as a sort of metaphor for the human mind. At base, the Mystic Pad was “a slab of dark brown resin or wax” on which sat a translucent sheet of wax paper covered by a transparent sheet of celluloid. When a person set a stylus to it, the dark resin would become visible through the wax paper at the points of contact, and thus one could write. When the record was no longer desired, erase it by simply lifting the wax paper off of the slab. The celluloid served merely to protect the wax paper from ripping as the stylus ran across it. This may not sound like much of a metaphor for the human mind, but one unintended consequence of this procedure struck Freud as quite significant: “The permanent trace of what was written is retained upon the wax slab itself and is legible in suitable lights.” The Mystic Pad had a particular kind of memory. “I do not think it is too far-fetched,” Freud wrote, “to compare the celluloid and waxed paper cover with the system of Pcpt.-Cs. [Perception-Consciousness] and its protective shield, the wax slab with the unconscious behind them, and the appearance and disappearance of the writing with the flickering-up and passing-away of consciousness in the process of perception.
In other words, traces of all our experiences get retained in the unconscious, which is basically a super-memory system. Consciousness forgets all kinds of things, but the unconscious remembers it all. Once an perceptual impression gets registered and inscribed in the indelible recording surface that is the unconscious, it can never be completely erased from it. The unconscious eternalizes the past. And so, for our purposes, we can say that the unconscious never forgets qualitative experiences of jouissance. As the young child forms associations between jouissance and certain empirical traits, it involutionary establishes the basic coordinates of its libidinal economy. Eye color, tone of voice, hair color, facial gestures, interpersonal dynamics, dispositions, etc., can all become fundamentally linked to jouissance and the memory-traces of these traits comprise a set of master signifiers, jouissance indicators or phantasmatic features. This is the determinate content of objet petit a that produces specific desires.
Lacan articulated the relation between the body, jouissance and signifiers in the following way: “I will say that the signifier is situated at the level of enjoying substance (substance jouissante). . . . The signifier is the cause of jouissance. Without the signifier, how could we even approach that part of the body? Without the signifier, how could we center that something that is the material cause of jouissance? However fuzzy or confused it may be, it is a part of the body that is signified in this contribution (apport) . . . the signifier is what brings jouissance to a halt.” (Seminar XX: Encore, p. 24). So Lacan claims that the signifier is the cause of jouissance, but, then, immediately adds that the signifier is that which brings jouissance to a stop. How are we to make sense of these two seemingly incompatible statements? By distinguishing between two types of jouissance. The signifier (language) puts an end to the unmediated jouissance experienced by the infant, but also produces a second-order, mediated jouissance through coming to represent it. The “set of phantasmatic features” Žižek described are the causes of the virtual jouissance we unknowingly pursue as desiring subjects. The marker of unmediated jouissance is not itself unmediated jouissance but comes to get libidinally invested or associated with it. The signifier takes us from unmediated jouissance to mediated jouissance. The Signifier giveth and the Signifier taketh away. The map of jouissance is not the original territory of jouissance, but the map itself becomes its own territory. But, of course, mediated jouissance, mapped jouissance, socially approved jouissance, is never quite the Real Thing forever lost.
This leads us to Lacan’s concept of the pure materiality of the signifier. The idea is that memory-traces of past experiences of bodily jouissance are fundamentally related to our bodies, sense organs, sensations, etc. These memory-traces or master signifiers are material owing to the fact that they are the traces of the sensations of jouissance that were actually perceived by the body and inscribed on our “mystic writing pad” (unconscious memory-system). The materiality of the signifier stems from the materiality of our senses and the sensations they have perceived. These master signifiers, therefore, have far more to do with bodily sensations of jouissance than they do with any cognitive content (concepts, signifieds, meanings).
To talk like Charles Sanders Pierce, these signifiers are more like indices and icons of jouissance than they are symbols of it or of anything else. They are indexical insofar as they point towards jouissance and they are iconic because they resemble (are similar to) former experiences of jouissance. The moment when the master signifier (S1) has been thoroughly inscribed in the young child’s mental apparatus is also the moment wherein the split between the desiring subject ($) and object petit a (a) occurs. Lacan said, “it is at the very instant at which S1 intervenes . . . this $, which I have called the subject as divided, emerges. . . . Finally, we have always stressed that something defined as a loss emerges from this trajectory. This is what the letter to be read as object a designates” (Seminar XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, p. 15). In becoming the representation, the marker, the stand-in, for original, unmediated jouissance, the master signifier (S1) forces the virtual “object” (a) to slip out of the subject, thus, producing the barred, desiring or divided subject ($). The spilt subject and objet petit a are the results of the initial inscription of the master signifier(s). We can formulate this Lacanian insight in the following way: S1 → $/a.
Another way to put all this is to say that objet petit a is the “object” (void with specific determinations added to it) around which your history of desire turns. It is the secret cause at the empty center of your personal narrative. It is that which organizes the plot of your life story without your knowing so. As far as phenomenological consciousness goes, it couldn’t care less about objet a. However, all of our conscious activity is set in motion by this inconspicuous bait, this evasive motivator, that remains tucked away in the background of desire’s story. This is why Žižek likens objet a to the Hitchcockian plot device known us the MacGuffin as well as to Iraq’s alleged “weapons of mass destruction”.
To mention the final example: the famous MacGuffin, the Hitchcockian object, the pure pretext whose sole role is to set the story in motion but which is in itself ‘nothing at all’ — the only significance of the MacGuffin lies in the fact that it has some significance for the characters — that it must seem to be of vital importance to them. The original anecdote is well known: two men are sitting in a train; one of them asks: ‘What’s that package up there in the luggage rack?’ ‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin.’ ‘What’s a MacGuffin?’ ‘Well, it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ ‘Well, then, that’s not a MacGuffin.’ There is another version which is much more to the point: it is the same as the other, with the exception of the last answer: ‘Well, you see how efficient it is!’ — that’s a MacGuffin, a pure nothing which is none the less efficient. Needless to add, the MacGuffin is the purest case of what Lacan calls objet petit a: a pure void which functions as the object cause of desire. That would be, then, the precise definition of the real object: a cause which in itself does not exist — which is present only in a series of effects, but always in a distorted, displaced way.
(The Sublime Object of Ideology, pp. 183–4)
The notorious Iraqi ‘weapons of mass destruction’ offer another example of the objet petit a: they are an elusive entity, never empirically specified, a kind of Hitchcockian MacGuffin, expected to be hidden in the most disparate and improbable places, from the (rather logical) desert to the (slightly irrational) cellars of presidential palaces (so that when the palace is bombed, they may poison Saddam and his entire entourage); allegedly present in large quantities, yet magically moved around all the time by workers; and the more they are destroyed, the more all-present and all-powerful they are in their threat, as if the removal of the greater part of them magically heightens the destructive power of the remainder — as such, by definition they can never be found, and are therefore all the more dangerous . . .
(The Fragile Absolute, p. 21)
Let’s make all of this even clearer. In good Žižekian fashion, we can use a couple examples from popular films to illustrate these tricky concepts. First, we find an analogy for the desiring subject’s relation to objet petit a in the Sci-Fi classic Terminator 2: Judgment Day. As the cyborg goes about searching for John Conner (object of desire), he is constantly scanning the faces of all the people in his surrounding environment for those specific features (object-cause of desire) that would identify John for him. This analogy is weak if we don’t make one important clarification. The Terminator is performing this scanning process at a conscious level, whereas the desiring subject does it on an unconscious one. Nevertheless, it’s like my unconscious is constantly scanning the objects I encounter for those libidinally invested traits I unknowingly associate with my fantasies of becoming-whole again, that is, of regaining that lost “part” of myself (objet petit a).
We find an even better example of the object-cause of desire in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. It’s almost as if this scene was purposely shot just to express the workings of objet petit a. The sequence I have in mind is the one in which Philip Seymour Hoffman sees Mark Wahlberg for the very first time (the former is strongly attracted to the latter). The sequence is a panning shot of a pool party that’s being thrown at Burt Reynolds’ house. As Hoffman turns his head, he takes in the whole party for the sake of gaining a basic orientation with the festive environment, but something unique happens the moment he sets his eyes on Wahlberg. Suddenly, the rest of the party fades to darkness while Wahlberg remains the only person visible in the “spotlight” of Hoffman’s perception (desire). This single shot perfectly captures objet petit a. Why? The surrounding darkness represents objet petit a as well as all of the imperceptible markers of jouissance (phantasmatic features, libidinal attractors, master signifiers) stored within the unconscious. The objet a and the specific traits linked to it are not present in Hoffman’s conscious experience of Wahlberg, in his perception of the object of his desire, but they are what cause Wahlberg to be the object his desire becomes fixated on. For Hoffman, Wahlberg has a kind of sublime presence that foregrounds itself, but, in reality, it is the dark (unconscious) background that causes him to stand out to Hoffman’s conscious desire. Now, in this example from Boogie Nights, we don’t know what specifics traits cause Hoffman to desire Wahlberg, but we do get a vivid picture of how objet a mechanistically causes a specific object (person) to become the object of desire. We see how one object among many becomes positionally transfigured into the object of pure splendor.
This brings us to a key aspect of objet petit a . This virtual “object” is the je ne sais quoi or the “I don’t know what” that makes a certain object or person become unexplainably special, that is, objet a is the x-factor or the it-factor, the indefinable quality or elusive detail that makes something distinctive, sublime or attractive. You know there’s something special about the person, but you never can quite put your finger on what exactly it is about them that does so. The objet a is the hidden treasure or agalma (a term Lacan borrowed from Plato’s Symposium) that turns an ordinary thing into a radiant prize. This can work in different ways. Sometimes, the other person is positioned as objet a (agalma), but at other times, you are in this position so as to imagine yourself as deserving of the other person’s desire. Žižek writes, “In late Lacan, on the contrary, the focus shifts to the object that the subject itself ‘is’, to the agalma, secret treasure, which guarantees a minimum of phantasmic consistency to the subject’s being. That is to say: objet petit a, as the object of fantasy, is that ‘something in me more than myself on account of which I perceive myself as ‘worthy of the Other’s desire’” (The Plague of Fantasies, p. 9).
However, this whole process can quickly take a turn for the worse. There’s actually something very violent and dehumanizing when it comes to the workings of desire, sexuality and objet petit a. Lacan knew this all too well, “I love you, but, because inexplicably I love in you something more than you — the objet petit a — I mutilate you.” (Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 268). His point is that you are merely using the other person as a means to actually get your hands on your objet petit a (as we’ll see, this can never really happen). In other words, your desire for the Other is just a go-between in the relation between you ($) and that lost “part” of yourself (a). Desire never cares for the Other as an actual person, but, instead, is only interested in treating them as a sexual prop. Now, what Lacan means here by “love” is sexual desire or erotic attraction, but he came to make a famous distinction between desire and love. Both Žižek and Badiou can help us to understand Lacan’s later distinction.
For Badiou, like the later Lacan, desire and love are opposed. However, love does involve desire. Desire relates to the body with its partial objects (Lacanian objets petit a), that is, desire is invested in certain physical features that it finds sexually attractive (the traits desire seeks out vary from person to person or from fantasy-structure to fantasy-structure). Love, on the other hand, is geared towards the totality of the being of the Other, i.e., the beloved. Desire aims at parts — love aims at the whole. Badiou borrows this distinction between desire and love from the Lacan of the twentieth seminar. There, Lacan says, “For it is love that approaches being as such in the encounter” (Seminar XX: Encore, p. 145). Again, this means that love loves the whole person, the person in their “being”, in the fullness of their pure singularity and Otherness, in their thisness or haecceity. Love loves that about another person which is theirs alone while desire fixates on specific traits (objet a) that are shared by many people. Badiou puts it like this: “Lacan also thinks . . . that love reaches out towards the ontological. While desire focuses on the other, always in a somewhat fetishist manner, on particular objects, like breasts, buttocks and cock. . . . love focuses on the very being of the other, on the other as it has erupted, fully armed with its being, into my life thus disrupted and re-fashioned” (In Praise of Love, p. 21).
Lacan famously said, “there’s no such thing as a sexual relationship” (Seminar XX: Encore, p. 12). What he meant is that sexuality never involves two people establishing a compatible, complimentary and mutually satisfying oneness. Sexuality (desire) is a lot of things, but a yin-yang it is not. In fact, Lacan goes on to argue that love is what attempts to make up for the lack of a sexual relationship. “What makes up for the sexual relationship is, quite precisely, love” (Seminar XX: Encore, p. 45). However, desire, sexuality, bodily pleasure, etc., are key elements of love, but, on their own, they are something quite different. As Žižek likes to say, “Sex without love is just masturbation with a partner”. Badiou describes all this in the following way:
Jacques Lacan reminds us, that in sex, each individual is to a large extent on their own, if I can put it that way. Naturally, the other’s body has to be mediated, but at the end of the day, the pleasure will be always your pleasure. Sex separates, doesn’t unite. The fact you are naked and pressing against the other is an image, an imaginary representation. What is real is that pleasure takes you a long way away, very far from the other. What is real is narcissistic, what binds is imaginary. So there is no such thing as a sexual relationship, concludes Lacan. His proposition shocked people since at the time everybody was talking about nothing else but “sexual relationships”. If there is no sexual relationship in sexuality, love is what fills the absence of a sexual relationship.
Lacan doesn’t say that love is a disguise for sexual relationships; he says that sexual relationships don’t exist, that love is what comes to replace that non-relationship. That’s much more interesting. This idea leads him to say that in love the other tries to approach “the being of the other”. In love the individual goes beyond himself, beyond the narcissistic. In sex, you are really in a relationship with yourself via the mediation of the other. The other helps you to discover the reality of pleasure. In love, on the contrary the mediation of the other is enough in itself. Such is the nature of the amorous encounter: you go to take on the other, to make him or her exist with you, as he or she is. It is a much more profound conception of love than the entirely banal view that love is no more than an imaginary canvas painted over the reality of sex.
(In Praise of Love, pp. 18–9)
Like the later Lacan and Badiou, Žižek leaves open the possibility of true love — love that fully embraces the Other despite the aspects which do not conform to the coordinates of desire and fantasy. However, of course, true love is quite rare. Most of the time we merely mutilate, cut and edit the Other for the sole purpose of creating a prop on which we can project our fantasies centered around objet a. “Love” (desire, sexuality) reduces the Other to the status of a sex doll. This is why people fear the premature “I love you”. It fails to allow the beloved to gain enough temporal support for the fantasy that posits that the lover loves you for the fullness of your being and not merely because you happen to possess certain traits that easily and isomorphically align to those of the lover’s objet petit a (colloquially speaking, the lover’s type). This is why I like the example of the sex doll — it is a generic canvass on which gets projected a fundamental fantasy. The reason that most people are disgusted by the thought of having sex with a doll is because it gets too close to the Real, that is, it mirrors a terrible (unconscious) truth — that “love” turns actual people into sex objects. Again, this is why the premature “I love you” shatters the fantasy. It discloses that what the other “loves” is not you but, rather, that “object” inside you that is more than you, that is, objet petit a.
The objet petit a is that sublime “object” inside of an ordinary object that makes the ordinary one become sublime. But this requires that all of those imperfections in the ordinary object (another person) must be bracketed out,”cut off” or remain out of sight. This is desire’s violence — the mutilation of the Other. If these imperfections come to overshadow the traits desire finds enticing, then desire simply abandons this object and moves on to another one that more fully embodies objet a. However, when it comes to desire, there’s is a way in which things can go wrong with objet a itself. This is the excremental aspect of objet a. In Lacan’s words, “I give myself to you . . . but this gift of my person . . . is changed inexplicably into a gift of shit.” (Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 268).
How does objet a go transform from the sublime object into a piece of shit, a waste product? The reason why an object (person) can suddenly go from sublime to excremental is because it can never really fill in the void that is the absence of the original object or Thing (das Ding, maternal body of jouissance). Every substitute, no matter how sublime it may seem, is just that — a substitute. Žižek writes,”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).
In a lengthy passage, Žižek draws a multifaceted analogy between objet petit a and Coca-Cola. Since this sheds lots of light on the subject’s relation to objet a, it’s worth reading in its entirety. We will also use these insights to better understand how objet a can shift from sublime object to excremental remainder.
What is crucial here from the psychoanalytic perspective is the link between the capitalist dynamics of surplus-value and the libidinal dynamics of surplus-enjoyment. Let us elaborate this point apropos of Coca-Cola as the ultimate capitalist merchandise and, as such, as surplus-enjoyment personified. It is no surprise that Coke was first introduced as a medicine — its strange taste does not seem to provide any particular satisfaction; it is not directly pleasing and endearing; however, it is precisely as such, as transcending any immediate use-value (unlike water, beer or wine, which definitely do quench our thirst or produce the desired effect of satisfied calm), that Coke functions as the direct embodiment of ‘it’: of the pure surplus of enjoyment over standard satisfactions, of the mysterious and elusive X we are all after in our compulsive consumption of merchandise.
The unexpected result of this feature is not that, since Coke does not satisfy any concrete need, we drink it only as a supplement, after some other drink has satisfied our substantial need — rather, it is this very superfluous character that makes our thirst for Coke all the more insatiable: as Jacques-Alain Miller put it so succinctly, Coke has the paradoxical property that the more you drink the thirstier you get, the greater your need to drink more — with that strange, bittersweet taste, our thirst is never effectively quenched. So, when, some years ago, the advertising slogan for Coke was ‘Coke is it!’, we should note its thorough ambiguity: ‘that’s it’ precisely in so far as that’s never actually it, precisely in so far as every satisfaction opens up a gap of ‘I want more!’ The paradox, therefore, is that Coke is not an ordinary commodity whereby its use-value is transubstantiated into an expression of (or supplemented with) the auratic dimension of pure (exchange) Value, but a commodity whose very peculiar use-value is itself already a direct embodiment of the supra-sensible aura of the ineffable spiritual surplus, a commodity whose very material properties are already those of a commodity. This is brought to its conclusion in the case of caffeine-free diet Coke — why? We drink Coke — or any drink — for two reasons: for its thirst-quenching or nutritional value, and for its taste. In the case of caffeine-free diet Coke, nutritional value is suspended and the caffeine, as the key ingredient of its taste, is also taken away — all that remains is a pure semblance of, an artificial promise of a substance which never materialized. Is it not true in this sense, in the case of caffeine-free diet Coke, we almost literally ‘drink nothing in the guise of something?
What we are implicitly referring to here is, of course, Nietzsche’s classic opposition between ‘wanting nothing’ (in the sense of ‘I don’t want anything’) and the nihilistic stance of actively wanting Nothingness itself; following Nietzsche’s path, Lacan emphasized how in anorexia, the subject does not simply ‘eat nothing’ — rather, she or he actively wants to eat the Nothingness (the Void) that is itself the ultimate object-cause of desire. (The same goes for Ernst Kris’s famous patient who felt guilty of theft, although he did not actually steal anything: what he did steal, again, was the Nothingness itself.) So along the same lines, in the case of caffeine-free diet Coke, we drink the Nothingness itself, the pure semblance of a property that is in effect an envelope of a void.
This example brings home the inherent link between three notions: that of Marxist surplus-value, that of the Lacanian objet petit a as surplus-enjoyment (the concept that Lacan elaborated with direct reference to Marxian surplus-value), and the paradox of the superego, perceived long ago by Freud: the more Coke you drink, the thirster you are; the more profit you make, the more you want: the more you obey the superego command, the guiltier you are — in all three cases, the logic of balanced exchange is disturbed in favour of an excessive logic of ‘the more you give (the more you repay your debts), the more you owe’ (or ‘the more you have what you long for, the more you lack, the greater your craving’; or — the communist version — ‘the more you buy, the more you have to spend’): that is to say, of the paradox which is the very opposite of the paradox of love where, as Juliet put it in her immortal words to Romeo, ‘the more I give, the more I have’. The key to this disturbance, of course, is the surplus-enjoyment, the objet petit a, which exists (or, rather, persists) in a kind of curved space — the nearer you get to it, the more it eludes your grasp (or the more you possess it, the greater the lack).
(The Fragile Absolute, pp. 19–21)
To state the obvious, Žižek just said many important things about objet petit a via its likeness to Coke. The objet a is (1) the it that is never really it, (2) that which keeps us consuming commodities, (3) surplus-enjoyment, (4) useless supplement, (5) paradox, (6) pure semblance or artificial promise, (7) Nothingness or Void. To summarize, objet a causes our desire but it also increases and intensifies it due to the fact that it is unattainable. The more we try to fill the void “in” ourselves, the more we end up desiring, since we are pursuing an impossible “object”, that is, a void or nothingness. Picture a car stuck in the mud: the more it spins its wheels, the more it gets stuck in the mud. The more you try to get traction (or satisfaction), the less you have it. This is why Žižek compares objet a to Coca-Cola (“the more Coke you drink, the thirstier you are”). This is also what gives objet petit a its own unique type of jouissance called surplus jouissance. This is not the original jouissance enjoyed at the maternal body (the Thing), but a second-order jouissance produced by our failed attempts (via desire) to regain the original object. Surplus jouissance is the excess jouissance we get from chasing objet a but never actually catching it. Likewise, we get enjoyment from drinking Coke precisely because it does not satisfy us. Both objet a and Coke are the it that’s not really it. We see this mechanism at work in consumerism with its false promise that claims some commodity will finally come along and complete us by bestowing upon us the Great Satisfaction or Happiness with a capital “H”. As the Narrator in Fight Club says, “When you buy furniture, you tell yourself, that’s it. That’s the last sofa I’ll need. Whatever else happens, got that sofa problem handled. I had it all. I had a stereo that was very decent. A wardrobe that was getting very respectable. I was close to being complete.”
Let us briefly return to the idea that objet a can quickly shift from sublime object to excremental trash by connecting this transition to Coke. While Žižek didn’t explicitly make this connection in the long passage above, I’d argue it’s there at a tacit level (he alludes to this connection in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology). Coca-Cola perfectly embodies the shift from sublimity to shit. How? Just think about what happens to Coke when it’s been left out too long — “it” goes flat. The sublime taste of Coke turns putrid. I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen people spit out flat Coke or pour out the remainder of an old can or bottle. The conditions (cold temperature, recently opened, etc.) have to be just right for Coke to have that sublime taste just as the scenery (fantasmatic staging, ideal setting) has to be right for objet petit a to shine in the Other (other person, object of desire, sexual partner, commodity). When Coke goes flat, you pour it out. When objet a turns to shit, you discard the grotesque Other. When objet petit a departs from the Other, all desire is left with is flat Coke. Any number of things can cause this shift to occur, for example, changes in the Other’s physical appearance (weight, aging, hair, fashion, tattoos), manifestation of an annoying flaw or deep insecurity, loss of a certain social status, etc.
I now want to briefly discuss how objet petit a relates to fantasy. Lacan’s famous formula of fantasy is $◊a, that is, the desiring subject in relation to objet a. According to Lacan, all desiring subjects ultimately have a fundamental fantasy at their unconscious foundation which organizes their idiosyncratic relations to objet a. This structural fantasy is an unconscious scenario, foundational dynamic, underlying outline or interpersonal blueprint. In other words, the fundamental fantasy is the skeleton of desire. This is why Žižek likens it to Immanuel Kant’s concept of transcendental schematism.
The first thing to note is that fantasy does not simply realize a desire in a hallucinatory way: rather, its function is similar to that of Kantian ‘transcendental schematism’: a fantasy constitutes our desire, provides its coordinates; that is, it literally ‘teaches us how to desire’. . . . fantasy mediates between the formal symbolic structure and the positivity of the objects we encounter in reality — that is to say, it provides a ‘schema’ according to which certain positive objects in reality can function as objects of desire, filling in the empty places opened up by the formal symbolic structure. To put it in somewhat simplified terms: fantasy does not mean that when
I desire a strawberry cake and cannot get it in reality, I fantasize about eating it; the problem is, rather: how do I know that I desire a strawberry cake in the first place? This is what fantasy tells me.
(The Plaque of Fantasies, p. 7)
In fantasy’s formula ($◊a), the fundamental fantasy is the organizing principle of desire and is primarily identified with the lozenge sign (◊). This diamond-shaped symbol is a condensation of four other symbols: (1) ∧ (conjunction sign), (2) ∨ (disjunction sign), (3) < (greater-than sign), (4) > (less-than sign). One’s fundamental fantasy can involve all sorts of desirous structures: conjunctive scenarios (fusion, synthesis, merger), disjunctive scenarios (repudiation, rejection, distancing), greater-than scenarios (superiority, domination, sadism), less-than scenarios (submission, dependency, masochism). Each desiring subject has a fundamental fantasy with one of these basic dynamics. In fact, one’s fundamental fantasy is what gives each person’s desire a certain individuality. The fundamental fantasy is the fingerprint of subjectivity. Žižek calls this the “factor”: “The Freudian point regarding fundamental fantasy would be that each subject, female or male, possesses such a ‘factor’ which regulates her or his desire: ‘a woman, viewed from behind, on her hands and knees’ was the Wolf Man’s factor; a statue-like woman without pubic hair was Ruskin’s factor; and so on” (The Plague of Fantasies, p. 8). When thinking about the ◊ in $ ◊ a, think about the lyrics from Sweet Dreams by Eurythmics: “Some of them want to use you. Some of them want to get used by you. Some of them want to abuse you. Some of them want to be abused.”
However, we must resist the impulse to think of fantasy as an obstacle in our view of reality. Žižek claims that fantasy is what actually gives us access to the world. He says, “With regard to the basic opposition between reality and imagination, fantasy is not simply on the side of imagination; fantasy is, rather, the little piece of imagination by which we gain access to reality — the frame that guarantees our access to reality, our ‘sense of reality’ (when our fundamental fantasy is shattered, we experience the ‘loss of reality’)” (‘Is It Possible to Traverse the Fantasy in Cyberspace’, The Žižek Reader, p. 122). To put this in Martin Heidegger’s terms, for Žižek, fantasy is the individualistic aspect of the clearing, fantasy is the mineness of disclosure as such. What makes the shared, social clearing mine is the fantasy through which I comport myself towards the beings I encounter in the world. For Heidegger, authentic-being-towards-death is that on the basis of which Dasein could be truly individuated, but Žižek thinks we’re always already individuated in relation to das Man (the big Other, the Symbolic order) before we ever have a resolute confrontation with death, since the fundamental fantasy is the hidden individualizing mechanism of Dasein’s existence. Fantasy is, thus, the unconscious, pre-authentic individuality of Dasein. Simply put, all desiring subjects unconsciously pursue objet petit a, that lost remainder of themselves, but fundamental fantasy gives each of them a way to stage a scenario in which they regain it. The fundamental fantasy is a roadmap to that lost part of yourself (of course, the problem is that it can never actually be regained, but one feature of fantasy is that it conceals this impossibility).
Nonetheless, the idiosyncratic aspect of fantasy should not prevent us from seeing how fantasy can function at a general level. Žižek has highlighted time and time again the significant role fantasy plays in society, politics and ideology. For him, there are ideological fantasies the various members of communities share and have in common. Yet these ideological fantasies, like personal ones, are centered around objet petit a. In fact, objet petit a is the “sublime object” in the title of Žižek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology. As he says there, “When, for example, in his speech at Lenin’s funeral, Stalin proclaims, ‘We, the Communists, are people of a special mould. We are made of special stuff, ‘ it is quite easy to recognize the Lacanian name for this special stuff: objet petit a, the sublime object . . .” (The Sublime Object of Ideology, p. 162). His point is that all ideologies elevate a particular object to the sublime status of objet a or das Ding, for example, “freedom”, “the people”, “the Nation”, “God”, “the church”, “history”, “blood and soil”, “equality”, “the free market”, “competition”, “proletariat”, “the King”, etc.
This is also the fundamental feature of the logic of the Lacanian object: the place logically precedes objects which occupy it: what the objects, in their given positivity, are masking is not some other, more substantial order of objects but simply the emptiness, the void they are filling out. We must remember that there is nothing intrinsically sublime in a sublime object according to Lacan, a sublime object is an ordinary, everyday object which, quite by chance, finds itself occupying the place of what he calls das Ding, the impossible-real object of desire. The sublime object is ‘an object elevated to the level of das Ding’. It is its structural place — the fact that it occupies the sacred/forbidden place of jouissance — and not its intrinsic qualities that confers on it its sublimity.
(The Sublime Object of Ideology, p. 221)
The next aspect of objet petit a that I want to briefly discuss is how it is the object of anxiety (for more on this, see my other blog post titled Why So Anxious?: Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Lacan on Anxiety). For Lacan, objet petit a is not only what causes desire but also causes anxiety. “The most striking manifestation of this object a, the signal that it is intervening, is anxiety” (Seminar X: Anxiety, p. 86). Whenever objet a gets too close to the desiring subject, that is, when it gets too close to conscious experience, anxiety assails the subject. Anxiety is a warning system that warns the subject of the proximity of objet petit a. Remember, objet a only works so long as it remains at a distance, so long as it is just a lure. According to Lacan, anxiety is about the lack of a lack or the presence of something that was and/or is supposed to be absent. Anxiety is about some overbearing presence that threatens to consume the subject — the overwhelming presence of objet petit a. The desiring subject only exists as a desiring lack, so the presence of objet a, the Real of jouissance, is the threat of Imaginary-Symbolic death (the deconstruction of our socialized egos). For fantasy (◊) to function, objet a must remain off its stage or out of its frame, that is, it must remain something absent that we’re unconsciously searching for in order to work.
This nightmarish dimension of objet petit a puts things in a different light. So far, we’ve seen how the desiring subject is always unconsciously pursuing objet a, but what if we perform a simple parallax (shift in perceptive) and view it as that which is always pursuing us? The horror film It Follows perfectly represents this idea. There’s an old horror trope of a monster relentlessly chasing its victim. We see this in Dracula, The Wolf Man, Jaws, Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Child’s Play, etc. However, It Follows takes this to a whole new level. This it, this monster, in and of itself, is imperceptible — it reveals itself only in illusory forms (just like objet a). Also, the it is like an STD, since is sexually transmitted from one victim to the next. In other words, it emerges in your life as the remainder or trace of a past jouissance (just like objet a). In this horror film, the it never stops pursuing you. It never gets distracted and never rests. All it does is chase you. If it catches you, you die. One is left in constant anxiety by the imminence of this object, this lack of a lack (just like objet a). On the one hand, objet a is what keeps us living life, what keeps us striving for new and better things, but on the other, it is simultaneously what prevents us from ever having peace, satisfaction and contentment. It is the “bone in the throat” of human existence.
There is one more facet of objet a that makes it unnerving and that is its relation to the desire of the Other, since the latter often occupies the position of the former. One of Lacan’s most famous saying is “desire is the desire of the Other”. This contains multiple meanings. We desire what other people desire. We desire to be desired by others. We desire to satisfy the Other’s desire. We desire to know what the Other desires. Desire desires desire. However, there is a fundamental enigma at the heart of the Other’s desire, that is, we can never be sure when it comes to the desire of the Other. Think about. We never know for sure what we desire, so how can we possibly be certain when it comes to the Other’s desire? People do things all the time in the name of their desire that we never see coming. Desire as such, yours and mine, is enigmatic. Why? Because the unconscious is always involved with it. We lack direct access to both our unconscious dynamics as well as those of the Other, which means we can never master desire and all its secrets. We are never safe and secure when it comes to desire. Lacan provides a great image of the enigmatic nature of the Other’s desire:
I’ll recall the fable, the apologue, the amusing image I briefly set out before you. Myself donning the animal mask with which the sorcerer in the Cave of the Three Brothers is covered, I pictured myself faced with another animal, a real one this time, taken to be gigantic for the sake of the story, a praying mantis. Since I didn’t know which mask I was wearing, you can easily imagine that I had some reason not to feel reassured in the event that, by chance, this mask might have been just what it took to lead my partner into some error as to my identity. The whole thing was well underscored by the fact that, as I confessed, I couldn’t see my own image in the enigmatic mirror of the insect’s ocular globe.
(Seminar X: Anxiety, pp. 5–6)
To clarify, Lacan wants us to envision ourselves standing before a giant praying mantis. Here’s the catch: we are wearing a mask and we do not know what mask it is. Is the mask that of the mantis’ lover, enemy, offspring? We simply do not know what we are to the Other’s desire. Using the gaze of an insect is very appropriate, since insects are the creatures humans typically feel no warmth towards due to their radical, alien Otherness. But, in truth, there is an aspect of every human that is insectival — namely, enigmatic desire. Oftentimes, the Other’s desire is objet petit a or the cause of one’s desire and fantasy serves to answer the question “What do you want from me?”
One should always bear in mind that the desire ‘realized’ (staged) in fantasy is not the subject’s own, but the other’s desire: fantasy, phantasmic formation, is an answer to the enigma of Che vuoi? — ‘You’re saying this, but what do you really mean by saying it?’ — which established the subject’s primordial, constitutive position. The original question of desire is not directly ‘What do I want?, but ‘What do others want from me? What do they see in me? What am I to others?’ A small child is embedded in a complex network of relations; he serves as a kind of catalyst and battlefield for the desires of those around him: his father, mother, brothers and sisters, and so on, fight their battles around him, the mother sending a message to the father through her care for the son. While he is well aware of this role, the child cannot fathom what object, precisely, he is to others, what the exact nature of the games they are playing with him is, and fantasy provides an answer to this enigma: at its most fundamental, fantasy tells me what I am to my others.
(The Plaque of Fantasies, p. 9)
If there’s an upside to the anxiety-provoking desire of the Other, then it is to be found in how it gives us a certain freedom. This encounter can actually bring us to a moment of self-determination wherein we take control of our own desire. This is something like desire’s authenticity. Here, one’s desire ceases to be the puppet of the Other’s desire and affirms its own freedom to choose for itself. As Žižek explains:
There is no freedom outside the traumatic encounter with the opacity of the Other’s desire: freedom does not mean that I simply get rid of the Other’s desire — I am, as it were, thrown into my freedom when I confront this opacity as such, deprived of the fantasmatic cover that tells me what the Other wants from me. In this difficult predicament, full of anxiety, when I know that the Other wants something from me, without knowing what this desire is, I am thrown back into myself, compelled to assume the risk of freely determining the coordinates of my desire.
(The Puppet and the Dwarf, p. 129)
To conclude, it should be said that objet petit a is at the center of the human condition (for lack of a better word). Lacan says, “Effectively, everything turns around the subject’s relation to a” (Seminar X: Anxiety, p. 112). In his Borromean knot of the Real, Symbolic and Imaginary, objet a is located at the center of the three of them. The objet a is in the Real insofar as it is that lost remainder of ourselves that is operative only so long as it remains the unconscious cause of desire. It’s in the Symbolic due to the fact that language itself is what produced it as the remainder which all language circles around without ever grasping — not to mention that fantasy is Symbolically mediated and its object is objet petit a. It also belongs to the Imaginary because it is the last missing part of itself that the ego needs in order to be “whole” (wholeness has been the main motivating factor for the ego since its emergence in the mirror stage).
With all that being said, there is a tragic, pessimistic dimension to the subject’s relation to objet a. Lacanian psychoanalysis can be summed up with the words of Oscar Wilde: “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it” (Lady Windermere’s Fan, Mr. Dumby, Act III). The lack of jouissance is unsatisfying, but so too is jouissance itself. The Lacanian subject says, “neither desire nor jouissance”, but those are ultimately its only two options. We desire in order to escape jouissance (drive), but, then, we spend all of our lives trying to regain it. Yet those who do find themselves submerged in jouissance, e.g., drug addicts, desperately yearn to get rid of it. Jouissance brings suffering because it is also located beyond the Law. This is why Lacan said, “jouissance is evil” (Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, p. 184). He also explained, “It begins with a tickle and ends in a blaze of petrol. That’s always what jouissance is” (Seminar XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, p. 72). What does this mean? It means that going beyond the pleasure principle starts off with a mild sensation but ends up quickly engulfing one — jouissance goes from zero to sixty in a split second. And there’s no sense of a nice middle ground or habitable in-between (Aristotelian mean) on this continuum. With jouissance, one goes from too little to too much in a snap of the fingers. However, desire has its own type of built-in suffering. Desire is always desire for something else: “And the enigmas that desire . . . poses for any sort of “natural philosophy” are based on no other derangement of instinct than the fact that it is caught in the rails of metonymy, eternally extending toward the desire for something else”(‘The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious’, Écrits, p. 431).
The objet petit a is at the heart of this tragedy. It is that lost “part” of jouissance we sacrificed on the alter of language and that which we unconsciously seek out our entire lives. It is also a false promise of an ontological completeness we can never achieve. The objet petit a is the impossible object, the unattainable it. As long as the subject “is”, it remains a lack. All it can do is chase that “part” of itself that is no part at all. The subject is a lack that pursues a reified lack.
That is to say, for Lacan, the subject ($ — the ‘barred’, empty subject) and the object-cause of its desire (the leftover which embodies the lack that ‘is’ the subject) are strictly correlative: there is a subject only in so far as there is some material stain leftover that resists subjectivization, a surplus in which, precisely, the subject cannot recognize itself. In other words, the paradox of the subject is that it exists only through its own radical impossibility, through a ‘bone in the throat’ that forever prevents it (the subject) from achieving its full ontological identity. So we have here the structure of the Moebius strip: the subject is correlative to the object, but in a negative way — subject and object can never ‘meet’; they are in the same place, but on opposite sides of the Moebius strip.
(The Fragile Absolute, p. 28)
So much more needs to be said about objet petit a. I feel like I barely scratched the surface of this concept, but this post must come to an end. I do plan on writing more posts on objet a in the future. I’d like to go into greater detail on its place in fantasy and ideology. I’d also like to discuss how the psychoanalyst must become positioned as objet a in order for psychoanalytic work to be effective. Anyway, I hope this analysis of objet petit a has been helpful.