The objet petit a and the objet a are the exact same thing!
A couple of months ago, I received some “criticism” of one of my blog posts on Lacan because I “conflated” the terms objet petit a and objet a. My “critic” informed me that I was “straight-up retarded” for making this mistake. now, the problem, of course, is that the objet petit a and the objet a are the exact same thing! Every Lacanian knows that objet a is simply a shorthand for objet petit a (I mean, this is Lacan 101 stuff), but I wanted to post some quotes from Lacan and other leading Lacanians just to clear this up once and for all. The funny thing is that I sent my “critic” all of these citations and he still held that there is some big conceptual difference between the two terms — the guy actually doubled down on his ridiculous position despite having read these quotes— but never could explain to me what this profound difference consists of. That’s when I asked him if we should just go ahead and make a threefold distinction between objet petit a, objet a and a itself. No response. Anyway, I’m really just using this as an opportunity to share some great quotes on objet petit a with my readers.
On a side note, I just want to let you all know that I’m still alive and staying busy. I’m going to go ahead and make it official. I have completed my first book. No, it’s not the main book I’ve been working on for four years, but it is a book nonetheless. I’m not sure if this is going to see the light of day, since it contains a lot of the main ideas I’m developing in my main book, but, damn, it does feel good to know in my heart that I’ve actually written my first book. If I can do it once, then I can do it 20 more times. Also, I do have plans to publish a couple more posts in the coming weeks.
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Ok, now here are the quotes on objet petit a.
a — Written object a, object (a), petit a, objet a, or objet petit a. In the early 1950s, the imaginary other like oneself. In the 1960s and thereafter, it has at least two faces: (1) the Other’s desire, which serves as the subject’s cause of desire and is intimately related to experiences of jouissance and loss thereof (examples include the breast, gaze, voice, feces, phoneme, letter, nothing, etc.); (2) the residue of the symbolization process that is situated in the register of the real; logical anomalies and paradoxes; the letter or signifierness of language.
(Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject, ‘Glossary of Lacanian Symbols’, p. 173)
It is also sometimes written “object (a),” “little a,” “petit objet a,” “objet a,” “petit a,” and so on.
(Bruce Fink, A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis, p. 238)
This paradoxical, unique, specified object we call the objet a. I have no wish to rehash the whole thing again, but I will present it for you in a more syncopated way, stressing that the analysand says to his partner, to the analyst, what amounts to this — I love you, but, because inexplicably I love in you something more than you — the objet petit a — I mutilate you.
(Jacques Lacan, Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 268)
The objet a is something from which the subject, in order to constitute itself, has separated itself off as organ.
(Jacques Lacan, Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 103)
To this breast in its function as object, objet a cause of desire, in the sense that I understand the term — we must give a function that will explain its place in the satisfaction of the drive.
(Jacques Lacan, Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 168)
The discovery of this constitutive and original deviation of drives (which is precisely what distinguishes them from instincts) will gradually lead to one of the major conceptual inventions of psychoanalysis, the concept of the object small a (objet petit a), as it was named by Lacan. To put it simply, object a will come to name the other (the real) object of the drive as “independent of its object.”
(Alenka Zupančič, Why Psychoanalysis?: Three Interventions, p. 16)
However, from a true Lacanian standpoint, one should turn around this idea: objet a is not the object to be “castrated,” it is rather an object which emerges as the remainder of the very operation of castration, an object which fills in the lack opened up by castration, an object which is nothing but this lack itself acquiring a positive form.
(Slavoj Žižek, Sex and the Failed Absolute, p. 232)
From our standpoint, objet a is that something — a virtual/fictive entity — which always adds itself to the series of actual/necessary entities.
(Slavoj Žižek, Sex and the Failed Absolute, p. 232)
We may desire this or that . . . the list is never complete, so that in describing the scope of our desire, one should always be cautious and add a + for the new objects that may arise. Kant remains at this level: our capacity of desire is empirical, it does not have an a priori transcendental dimension, there is no “pure” desire, desire not aiming at contingent empirical objects. It can be said that Lacan radicalizes Kant at this point: there is a “pure” desire, a desire aimed at an a priori formal object, so that Lacan can be said to deploy a critique of pure desire. This pure object of desire is objet a which . . . can be said to give body to the + itself, to that “something” that we aim in our desire and that is more than all empirical and contingent objects of desire. Objet a is this surplus itself reflexively conceived as a particular object, the void around which desire circulates, the non-object in the guise of an additional object.
(Slavoj Žižek, Sex and the Failed Absolute, pp. 253–4)
Years ago, some feminists (such as Mary Ann Doanne) accused Lacan of privileging male desire: it’s only men who can fully and directly desire, while women can only desire to desire, hysterically imitating desire. With regard to belief, one should turn things around: women believe, while men believe those who believe in them. The underlying topic here is that of the objet petit a: the other who ‘believes in me’ sees in me something more than myself, something of which I myself am not aware, the objet a in me. According to Lacan, woman is for men reduced to objet a — but what if it is the other way round? What if a man desires his object of desire, unaware of the cause that makes him desire it, while woman is more directly focused on the (object-) cause of desire?
(Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute, p. xxi)
One should oppose here two notions of doubles: The traditional motif of two persons who, although they look alike, one the mirror image of the other, are not the same (only one of them possesses what Lacan calls l’objet a, the mysterious je ne sais quoi that inexplicably changes everything). In popular literature, the best-known version of it is Dumas’ The Man in the Iron Mask: at the very top of the social edifice, the King (Louis XIV) has an identical twin brother, which is why he is imprisoned with an iron mask forever concealing his face. Since the imprisoned twin is the good one and the ruling King the bad one, the three musketeers, of course, realize the fantasmatic scenario of replacing on the throne the bad with the good brother, imprisoning the bad one . . .
The opposite, more distinctly modern motif of two persons who, although they look entirely different, are effectively (two versions/embodiments of) one and the same person, since they both possess the same unfathomable objet a.
(Slavoj Žižek, The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime, pp. 15–6)
The Lacanian name for this “by-product” of our activity is objet petit a, the hidden treasure, that which is “in us more than ourselves,” that elusive, unattainable X that confers upon all our deeds an aura of magic, although it cannot be pinned down to any of our positive qualities. It is through the objet a that we can grasp the workings of the ultimate “by-product” state, the matrix of all the others: the transference.
(Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry, pp. 76–7)
Is not the very form of the “strange attractor” a kind of physical metaphor for the Lacanian objet petit a? We find here another confirmation of Jacques-Alain Miller’s thesis that objet a is a pure form: it is the form of an attractor drawing us into chaotic oscillation. The art of the theory of chaos consists in allowing us to see the very form of chaos, in allowing us to see a pattern where ordinarily we see nothing but a formless disorder.
(Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry, pp. 38–9)
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. We desire because we don’t find the sacrifice of our enjoyment entirely satisfying, but desire, unfortunately, does nothing to overcome that dissatisfaction. In fact, desire is sustained dissatisfaction. This state of sustained dissatisfaction is the normal state for subjects within a society of prohibition. Prohibition produces dissatisfied, desiring subjects, subjects who remain securely within the confines of the social order.
(Todd McGowan, The End of Dissatisfaction?, p. 16)
Lacan comes to conceive of the gaze as something that the subject (or spectator) encounters in the object . . . it becomes an objective, rather than a subjective, gaze. Lacan’s use of the term reverses our usual way of thinking about the gaze because we typically associate it with an active process. But as an object, the gaze acts to trigger our desire visually, and as such it is what Lacan calls an objet petit a or object-cause of desire. As he puts it in Seminar XI, “The objet a in the field of the visible is the gaze.” This special term objet petit a indicates that this object is not a positive entity but a lacuna in the visual field. It is not the look of the subject at the object, but the gap within the subject’s seemingly omnipotent look. This gap within our look marks the point at which our desire manifests itself in what we see. What is irreducible to our visual field is the way that our desire distorts that field, and this distortion makes itself felt through the gaze as object. . . . As the objet petit a in the visual field, the gaze is the point around which this field organizes itself. If a particular visual field attracts a subject’s desire, the gaze must be present there as a point of an absence of sense. The gaze compels our look because it appears to offer access to the unseen, to the reverse side of the visible. It promises the subject the secret of the Other, but this secret exists only insofar as it remains hidden. The subject cannot uncover the secret of the gaze, and yet it marks the point at which the visual field takes the subject’s desire into account. The only satisfaction available to the subject consists in following the path (which psychoanalysis calls the drive) through which it encircles this privileged object.
(Todd McGowan, The Real Gaze: Film Theory After Lacan, pp. 5–6)
The a stands for objet petit a, that is, object a as the “object-cause of desire.” Lacan employs this latter phrase for object a because this “object” is a spectral, virtual construct of what would qualify as “IT” for the desiring subject (see 2.4.1 above), with this libidinal-transcendental schema of desire’s object (i.e., a) “causing” select given empirical objects in a person’s libidinal-amorous history and experience to be desired as stand-ins for “IT.” However, these substitutes are always and necessarily inadequate and unsatisfactory due to an insurmountable, ineliminable gap between the more-than-empirical fantasmatic objet a originating in the subject’s unconscious past and the empirical objects present and future incarnating it. These latter objects are situated in Imaginary-Symbolic reality, condemned partially and imperfectly to embody an interminably receding and elusive surplus (i.e., the impossible-qua-Real dimension of object a).
(Adrian Johnston, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Jacques Lacan entry)
This quasi-object, rolled ahead of the unfolding of discourse, is the Lacanian objeta. It forms the nucleus of the fantasm around which desire will be lured and is closely associated by Lacan with the signifying function of the phallus. As we have seen, under the influence of castration, the phallus is shifted from its place in the child’s relation to the mother’s desire and assumes the role of a key element of the signifying chain. Castration is thus not so much the detachment of a part of the subject from himself as it is a detachment of his desire from the imaginary other. It is with respect to this process that we can situate the emergence of sublimation in its Lacanian meaning. The objet a harkens back to the primordial object of satisfaction, that original object in relation to which every subsequent attempt at satisfaction must be deemed a re-finding of the object: the mother. Yet by virtue of being imbricated within the system of language, the locus of the objet a cannot be occupied by any imaginary form. It is cut free from the maternal relation and circulates in the signifying chain, drawing into its orbit the fragmentary resonances of significance generated by signifying combinations. As objet a, the phallus becomes a key signifier in the unconscious, or better, it becomes the mark of the necessity of ever-ongoing signification.
(Richard Boothby, Death and Desire, pp. 165–6)
The concept of the objet petit a, a phrase that Lacan prefers to leave untranslated, is perhaps his most original contribution to psychoanalytic theory. The lowercase “a,” the initial letter of “autre,” indicates an essential relation to the Other but is also intended to designate an algebraic variable or “function” in the mathematical sense. Within the compass of the objet a Lacan gathers the familiar psychoanalytic partial objects relevant to the Freudian stages of development — oral, anal, and phallic — but also adds some of his own. He thus cites as figurations of the objet a: “the mamilla, faeces, the phallus (imaginary object), the urinary flow. (An unthinkable list, if one adds, as I do, the phoneme, the gaze, the voice — the nothing.)” (E:S,315).
(Richard Boothby, Freud as Philosopher: Metapsychology After Lacan, pp. 165–6)
Lacan consistently reformulated the objet petit a from his earliest work to his final seminars in the 1970s. The objet a is implicated in all three of Lacan’s orders. The algebraic sign a was first introduced by Lacan in 1955 in relation to the schema L, where it designates the little other, autre, as opposed to the capitalized A of the big Other. The objet a represents the Other’s lack not in the sense of a specific object that is lacking but as lack itself. What does Lacan mean by this? Desire, strictly speaking, has no object. Desire is always the desire for something that is missing and thus involves a constant search for the missing object. Through the rupture between subject and Other a gap is opened up between the desire of the child and that of the mother. It is this gap that inaugurates the movement of desire and the advent of the objet petit a. Through fantasy, the subject attempts to sustain the illusion of unity with the Other and ignore his or her own division. Although the desire of the Other always exceeds or escapes the subject, there nevertheless remains something that the subject can recover and thus sustains him or herself. This something is the objet a.
(Sean Homer, Jacques Lacan, p. 87)