Theory of Desire: Jacques Lacan and Squid Game
So, you just finished binge-watching Squid Game, the international smash hit written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk that has become the most popular show in the history of Netflix, and have been left with one burning question: why did the show, in Episode 2, go out of its way to highlight that one book sitting on that one desk? The book emphasized by the subtitles is called Theory of Desire and its author’s name is Jacques Lacan. The text is sitting next to some other books and one of them, if you look at the group closely, is Lacan’s Seminar XI (even if you can’t read Korean, you can still know it’s Seminar XI due to the “11” on the side of the book and the image from Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors, which Lacan discusses in Seminar XI). Chances are you have never heard of Lacan, but there’s good reason to learn about him.
This blog post will introduce the reader to Lacan’s theory of desire and also explain why Squid Game went out of its way to make an explicit reference to his work. I’ll say up front that gaining even an introductory familiarity with Lacan’s concept of desire will require a conceptual journey that is both long and difficult, but I think it is an incredibly rewarding one. This post will be divided into two parts. The first part will be an introduction to Lacanian desire and the second will be a Lacanian interpretation of the show itself (if you already have a working knowledge of Lacanian theory, then you might want to skip the lengthy introduction and jump ahead to the analysis of Squid Game). There are many thematic and conceptual connections to be made between Squid Game and Lacanian psychoanalysis, but I’m not going to write an incredibly detailed interpretation of the show right now. Instead, I want to merely provide an elementary understanding of how they both can be used to explain one another. To undertake this task, I will be presupposing that the reader has watched all nine episodes of the show and I also will be discussing spoilers, so spoiler alert!
PART ONE: JACQUES LACAN’S THEORY OF DESIRE
Jacques Lacan (1901–1981) was a French psychoanalyst and psychoanalytic theorist who, in my opinion, was the greatest psychoanalytic thinker since Sigmund Freud himself. I actually think that Lacan is the single most profound theorist of human subjectivity that has ever lived. Lacan was a loyal Freudian but also held that Freudian psychoanalysis needed to be rethought at its most basic level. Lacan’s life was spent engaging in this endeavor.
Now, Lacan didn’t write all that much and what he did write is notoriously difficult to comprehend (his written essays were published in a volume titled Écrits, which simply translates as Writings), but that didn’t stop him from being remarkably prolific. It’s just that the majority of his ideas, thoughts and theories were presented in his annual seminar that ran from 1952 to 1980 in Paris. This spoken seminar is far more intelligible than Lacan’s purposely opaque writings. For 28 years, Lacan got up in front of his students and proceeded to lay out a new reading of Freud’s thought, a “Return to Freud”, that continues to profoundly influence psychoanalysts, philosophers and critical theorists. From day one of his seminar, Lacan was concerned with desire and would spend years upon years conceptualizing and reconceptualizing it. This introduction to Lacan’s concept of desire will only scratch the surface of it, but this will suffice to be able to see how it links up to Squid Game.
A boring-ass note on the citation of Lacan’s seminars: Many of Lacan’s seminars have yet to receive official translations, but we do have unofficial translations of most the rest of them. The official translations are parts of a series titled The Seminar of Jacques Lacan and have been published by Norton and Polity. The unofficial ones were produced by Cormac Gallagher and are all available for free at http://www.lacaninireland.com. Throughout this post, I will cite them as simply as I can. For example, instead of citing the full title of the official translation of Lacan’s seventh seminar, which is The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959–1960, I will just refer to it as Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (can you really blame me?). When I quote from one of Gallagher’s translations, then I’ll be sure to specify it. Boring-ass note over.
First things first, Lacan never wrote a book called Theory of Desire. The Lacan book we see in the show is, to the best of my knowledge, a Korean anthology of some of Lacan’s works. However, Theory of Desire is a good title for such a collection, since, as Dylan Evans put it, “If there is any one concept which can claim to be the very centre of Lacan’s thought, it is the concept of desire” (An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, p. 37). Desire is one of the main concepts, if not the main one, that Lacan developed. The Lacanian philosopher Slavoj Žižek explains Lacan’s relation to the concept of desire like this:
Is not his entire work an endeavor to answer the question of how desire is possible? Does he not offer a kind of “critique of pure desire,” of the pure faculty of desiring? Are not all his fundamental concepts so many keys to the enigma of desire? Desire is constituted by “symbolic castration,” the original loss of the Thing; the void of this loss is filled out by objet petit a, the fantasy-object; this loss occurs on account of our being “embedded” in the symbolic universe which derails the “natural” circuit of our needs; etc., etc.
(Tarrying with the Negative, p. 3)
I know that this quotation is filled with all kinds of strange terminology such as “symbolic castration”, “Thing” and “objet petit a”, so I want to take a moment to address these technical terms because of how important each one is to Lacan’s theory of desire. I’m presupposing that the reader has no familiarity with Lacan’s work, so I’m going to try to be as clear as possible in my elementary explanations of his terms.
Symbolic castration is Lacan’s term for the beginning of the process of we typically refer to as socialization. Early on in life, children must accept that they cannot have whatever they want whenever they want it. In entering the social order (what Lacan calls the “symbolic order”), a child must conform to the rules, customs, norms, standards, practices, laws and prohibitions of society. This most fundamentally means acquiring language and agreeing to use it in proper ways. Simply put, symbolic castration is essentially about a child coming to embrace the word “No!” (this “No!” is what Lacan meant by the “name-of-the-father”) or finally accepting that he or she must live in accordance with the limits society places on our enjoyment.
However, symbolic castration comes at a price insofar as it necessities a sacrifice or an offering. And what is it that the child must give up in order to become a member of society? The child must give up “the Thing” (the German term Lacan uses is das Ding). And what is the Thing? Well, it is the child’s mother, but we must be very clear on this point. Obviously, sacrificing the mother does not mean never ever seeing her again, since the mother usually continues to be a constant presence in the child’s life. The mother is not the Thing as such, but, instead, the mother is only positioned as the Thing through the way the child relates to her (the position of the mother-Thing is not necessarily identical to the biological mother, but, instead, is the position of the child’s primary caregiver). The mother’s body is the wellspring of the abundant excitation that runs through the child’s body. The Thing is essentially the source of the child’s pre-symbolic, pre-linguistic and pre-social enjoyment (the French term Lacan used is jouissance). This is why Lacan said, “Das Ding is that which I will call the beyond-of-the-signified” (Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, p. 54). In other words, the child must sacrifice pure, immediate and full enjoyment to the demands of the Law in order to desire this enjoyment through the network of rules and prohibitions imposed by the Law, which is what Lacan meant when he wrote “Castration means that jouissance has to be refused in order to be attained on the inverse scale of the Law of desire” (Écrits, ‘The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire’, p. 700).
The Thing is the sublime substance the child was submerged in prior to all of the mediations, distinctions, prohibitions, etc., that come with being turned into a speaking being or a subject of language. For the young child, the mother or, more specifically, the mother’s body is the child’s entire world. As Lacan described it, “I mean that the whole development at the level of the mother/child interpsychology . . . is nothing more than an immense development of the essential character of the maternal thing, of the mother, insofar as she occupies the place of that thing, of das Ding” (Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, p. 67). The mother’s gaze, voice and breasts are the sources of the child’s excessive enjoyment. The mother and child form a postnatal union, wherein the child has all of its needs immediately satisfied — this is a state of plenitude wherein nothing is lacking.
Now, here’s the twist: this state of perfect enjoyment is not really what infancy and early childhood is really like. Oftentimes, the child feels anxiety precisely because the mother is too present, too suffocating, which causes the child to seek to establish some distance from the horrifying Thing that keeps snatching the child up and forcing it back in its lap. Also, the child is totally dependent on the mother (Thing), since he or she hasn’t learned to walk or even move with any coordinated fluidity. The disappearance of the mother is also frightful for the child, since her absence means that the baby is not always the object of the mother’s desire. This is a sort of trauma for the child — the trauma of the enigma of the Other’s desire. The cry of a child is a way of saying, “What does mother truly desire?”
The child is, therefore, caught up in a terrible ambivalence between wanting the mother all to itself and also wanting to get free from her overbearing presence. This means that the child only positions the mother as the sublime Thing of enjoyment retroactively, that is, it is only after the child has accepted symbolic castration and become a desiring subject that its pre-symbolic relation with the mother (primary caregiver) is retroactively idealized in fantasy. The mother was truly only the Thing in hindsight. The “perfect”, pre-social enjoyment is a retroactive construction. There never really was a perfect state of enjoyment the child existed in, but, then, was made to sacrifice on the alter of society (what Lacan would also call the “big Other”). However, the retroactivity of the loss still involves the loss of the mother-Thing for the desiring subject. As Lacan said, “one goal of the specific action which aims for the experience of satisfaction is to reproduce the initial state, to find das Ding, the object, again” (Seminar VII, p. 53). In other words, the “loss” of the Thing is still registered as a loss that will define the subject’s entire life and its pursuits, which is why Lacan insisted that “The Thing . . . is at the heart of the libidinal economy” (Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, p. 112). Through symbolic castration, the actual mother has been pried out of the sublime position the Thing, but this now emptied position will forever haunt the subject. But the loss of the mother-Thing simultaneously produces a second loss.
If the loss of the mother is the loss of the Thing, of the Other as source of sublime enjoyment, and if the child was its symbiotic relation to this Thing, was its submergence in perfect enjoyment, then the loss of the Thing itself causes the child to loss a part of itself, a par of its very being. This lost fragment of the child’s own being, its lost enjoyment, is what Lacan calls objet petit a (also referred to as objet a and simply as a). A straightforward translation of this French term is “object small o”. The little a stand for the French word Autre, which just means “other”. So objet petit a can be translated as the “small other-object”. What all this actually refers to is that lost part of ourselves that makes us incomplete and lacking, that is, it is what causes us to desire. We desire because we lack and we lack because we “lost” objet petit a (the litter remainder of enjoyment we had in our relation to the Thing that made us full beings). Again, this state plenitude never actually existed for the subject, but the subject of desire is the loss of the state of plentitude which it never actually had in the first place. Žižek says, “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” (Sex and the Failed Absolute, p. 232).
For Lacan, desire is the desire for a lost state of perfect enjoyment that one never truly lost but still had to lose in order to become a desiring subject. As he worded it: “The objet a is something from which the subject, in order to constitute itself, has separated itself off as organ” (Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 103). The Lacanian-Hegelian philosopher Todd McGowan provides a remarkably clear and succinct definition of objet petit a:
The objet petit a is in each case a lost object, an object that the subject separates itself from in order to constitute itself as a desiring subject. It is the loss of the object that inaugurates the process of desiring, and the subject desires on the basis of this loss. The subject is incomplete or lacking because it doesn’t have this object, though the object only exists insofar as it is missing. As such, it acts as a trigger for the subject’s desire, as the object-cause of this desire, not as the desired object. Though the subject may obtain some object of desire, the objet petit a lacks any substantial status and thus remains unobtainable. Lacan invents the term “objet petit a” (and insists that it not be translated) in order to suggest this object’s irreducibility to the field of the big Other (l’Autre) or signification. In contrast to the social domain of the big Other that houses our symbolic identities, it is a specific type of small other (petit autre) that is lost in the process of signification and ideological interpellation. The objet petit a doesn’t fit within the world of language or the field of representation. It is what the subject of language gives up in order to enter into language, though it does not exist prior to being lost.
(The Real Gaze: Film Theory After Lacan, p. 6)
Nevertheless, once the child has become a desiring subject, once the child has actually become the lack of enjoyment, then the subject seeks to reattain the lost object that that will make he or she “whole” once again even though the subject was never really whole to begin with. As Lacan said, “Desire is a relation of being to lack. This lack is the lack of being properly speaking. It isn’t the lack of this or that, but lack of being whereby the being exists” (Seminar II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, p. 223). The idea is that if the subject can regain the objet petit a, then it will reestablish its relation to the sublime Thing. The desiring subject comes to generate all sorts of fantasies about what it would be like to find the lost object. In and of itself, desire never knows what to desire, since the possibilities are infinite. How does desire come to have any determine qualities at all? The answer is through fantasy. Fantasy instructs desire by teaching it what it ought to desire in order to regain its lost enjoyment by being able to satisfy the desire of the Other. This is why Žižek said in the quote above from Tarrying with the Negative that “the void of this loss is filled out by objet petit a, the fantasy-object”. Lacan, therefore, thought that desire, loss (lack), fantasy and objet petit a all stand in essential relations to one another. We can even say that Lacan’s theory of desire is built around desire’s fundamental relations to lack, fantasy and objet petit a. This means that Lacan essentially constructed a theory of pure desire, that is, a theory of desire as such and not taxonomy of specific desires. Žižek explains:
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.
(Sex and the Failed Absolute, pp. 253–4)
Let’s now briefly explore some of the other essential aspects of Lacan’s concept of desire. On a gut level, we all have a basic familiarity with how desire works. We all know how unsatisfying it can be to actually get what you want. Every object of desire “promises” to fill of us full of satisfaction, but always falls short. It’s as though each object of desire will be the bearer of the true lost object (objet petit a) that will satisfy desire once and for all. We are constantly chasing some state of completeness, but are never able to reach it. Nevertheless, we keep on desiring the sublime enjoyment that will complete us. This is the appeal of the ending of Jerry Maguire. Tom Cruise finally finds his lost object in Renee Zellweger and famously declares “You complete me!” The film concludes with Jerry and his family walking away in perfect happiness on a sunny evening. Movies often end on these fantasmatic scenes that depict full enjoyment. However, would Jerry still feel complete if we checked in on him six months later? What about in one year? And how about ten years down the road? Would he still be basking in perfect enjoyment? I think not. Why? Because of one thing: desire.
For the sake of a basic orientation with the Freudian-Lacanian concept of desire, let’s take a look at how Richard Boothby wonderfully describes it:
By desire we mean something more subtle that the pressure of bodily need, yet more substantial than the temptations of passing fancy. Desire has to do with the force of longings that I may hardly know how to name, yet which stir me most deeply and define my outermost aspirations. Desire may be what fires my most absorbing hobby, what draws me to my favorite novel, what prompts me to quit my job and look for something else more stimulating, what leads me to marry this person, with his or her unique mix of strengths and weaknesses. What could be more mine, indeed what is there that more directly defines me, than desire in this sense? I am marked and distinguished by the pattern of my desire as by a fingerprint. And yet, isn’t it obvious that I myself am not the author of my desires? I can’t simply decide to have desire for something. In a certain crucial sense, desire comes to me from beyond myself. I am its receiver, its servant. Indeed I may feel my own desire to be a burden or a curse. I may even feel the need to rebel against its iron law as against a tyrant or a slave master. Is this not the meaning of the biblical injunction to cut off the hand that offends me, or to pluck out the unruly eye? What is it but the swerve of my own desire that moves my offending hand or that leads my wayward eye astray? The psychoanalytic concept of the unconscious is centered precisely on this inner ambiguity of desire, at once the heart of my identity and yet strangely and stubbornly foreign to me, a force that drives me beyond myself.
(Sex on the Couch: What Freud Still Has to Teach Us About Sex and Gender, p. 22)
Oddly enough, desire is turns out to be a paradox. On the one hand, it is the most personal and intimate truth of a single individual, but on the other hand, it is beyond the control of the individual and has an exterior origin. What exactly is this external source of one’s desire? How can my innermost desire be a foreign invader? How can my desire be an “extimacy”, that is, an external intimacy?
One of Lacan’s most famous axioms is desire is the desire of the Other. This has two key meanings: (1) I desire what the Other desires (2) I desire to be desired by the Other. In the words of Alexandre Kojève, “Human Desire must be directed toward another Desire” (Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, p. 3). Desire is Other-centric. We can sum this up in three words: desire desires desire. The desire of the Other becomes fundamentally profound and significant to us when we are children. Remember what I said above about the enigmatic nature of the mother’s desire and how this mysterious force is very much traumatic for the helpless child? This crack or gap in the mother-child relationship, the child’s realization that he or she cannot perfectly satisfy the mother and that she desires something else that takes her away from the child, is the moment when the child’s desire starts to be a desire for the Other’s desire. The child cannot stand this unbearable lack in the Other. The child desires to become the other thing (what Lacan calls the imaginary phallus) the mother desires, which would once again make the child the sole object of the mother’s desire and the only thing with the power to completely satisfy her desire.
But this is only the beginning of the subject’s relation to the desire of the Other. This dynamic will continue to develop throughout the course of the subject’s entire life. The desire of the subject’s other family members, friends, teachers, bosses, children, neighbors, coworkers, etc., will shape and influence the subject’s own desire. Even the desire of particular institutions and one’s country itself will have a huge impact on one’s desire. For Lacan, it is the subject’s fundamental alienation in the Other’s desire that actually constitutes the subject as a subject of desire. The subject’s ontological identity is located in the Other. I am the Other. The obstacle of desire is that the subject can only ever recognize his or her own desire in the desire of the Other, the two of which never resolve themselves into a perfectly harmonious union or compatibility (as the later Lacan would say, “there is no sexual relation”). Lacan says:
Is there not, reproduced here, the element of alienation that I designated for you in the foundation of the subject as such? If it is merely at the level of the desire of the Other that man can recognize his desire, as desire of the Other, is there not something here that must appear to him to be an obstacle to his fading, which is a point at which his desire can ever be recognized? This obstacle is never lifted, nor ever to be lifted, for analytic experience shows us that it is in seeing a whole chain come into play at the level of the desire of the Other that the subject’s desire is constituted.
(Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 235)
The traumatic aspect of the Other’s desire is that the Other itself is never entirely sure about its own desire. The Other tries to convey its desire through the demands it makes on the subject. “I want this! Now I want that! If you truly love me, then give it to me!” The problem, of course, is that following the Other’s demand to the letter usually ends with the Other still being unsatisfied and disappointed. This is because desire itself can never fully be satisfied nor fully articulated in a demand. To say that “desire desires desire” can also refer to the fact that desire desires to keep on desiring. Desire actually desires its own perpetual desiring. Another aspect of desire that makes it beyond mastery is that it is mainly unconscious. Our conscious demands are attempts to express our unconscious desire, but anyone who knows anything about psychoanalysis knows all about the discrepancies and inconsistencies between consciousness and the unconscious. I can never fully express my desire in the form of a demand because I myself (conscious ego) do not truly know what I actually desire. We take desire to truly want to attain enjoyment (jouissance), which would be the end of desire but, in fact, it really just wants more of itself. This is why Lacan stated, “Desire is a defense, a defense against going beyond a limit in jouissance” (Écrits, ‘The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire’, p. 699).
Lacan often refers to this unknowable, enigmatic and mysterious aspect of desire by the Italian question “Che vuoi?”, which essentially means “What do you really want from me?”. A fuller meaning of Che Vuoi? would be something along the lines of “You are demanding such-and-such from me, but cut the shit and tell me what you actually desire?” But, again, this is precisely what the Other cannot tell us. Fantasy is always an attempt to answer the perplexing question of the Other desire. Here’s how Žižek explains it:
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)
In other words, fantasy tells me what I must be like in order to satisfy the Other’s desire and, thereby, make the Other happy. My full enjoyment depends on my ability to provide the Other with full enjoyment. The is why Lacan’s formula for fantasy is $◊a. The lacking subject is represented by the symbol $ because the S with a line through it signifies the subject’s incompleteness, i.e., its desire. The ◊ stands for the the specific relation, the fantasmatic dynamic, the subject must realize in order to regain the lost object (objet petit a or simply a). The anxiety-provoking confrontation with the Other’s unknowable desire is the original situation the child was thrown into in its relation to the mother-Thing. Fantasy informs us all about what the Other truly desires, which informs us as to what we must be like in order to please the Other, which, in turn, tells us what we desire. Lacan wrote, “desire adjusts to fantasy” (Écrits, ‘The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire’, p. 691). The fantasy is a support of desire. In answering the question of the Other’s unconscious desire (what the Other lacks and how to fill it in), the desiring subject can begin to sustain his or her own desire. Lacan said it like this:
The Other is there as an un-consciousness that is constituted as such. The Other concerns my desire to the extent of what he lacks and to the extent that he doesn’t know. It’s at the level of what he lacks, and at the level of him not knowing, that I’m concerned in the most prominent way, because there’s no other path for me to find what I lack as object of my desire. This is why for me there is no, not simply access to my desire, but not even any possible means of sustaining my desire that would have any reference to any object whatsoever if not through coupling it, through tying it in, with this, the $, which designates the subject’s necessary dependence on the Other as such.
(Seminar X: Anxiety, p. 23)
Of course, fantasy itself is not fail proof when it comes to the Other’s desire. Fantasy does not know what the Other truly wants, but only serves to give us idea of it, which functions to relieve the anxiety provoked by the mystery of the Other’s desire. The lack in the Other is traumatic but the fantasy that claims to fill it in is comforting. Fantasy is an attempt to know the other’s desire or to read between the lines of the Other’s demands and connect the dots that make up his or her true desire. The Other’s demand is the failure of meaning to fully communicate the Other’s desire. Yet unconscious desire is always smuggled in through the spoken words of our conscious demands. Fantasy’s attempt to know the Other’s desire is an attempt to reduce the friction between the Other’s demands (literal words) and the Other’s desire (the gaps between those literal words). As Joan Copjec says, “It is this friction that prompts interpretation. Don’t read my words; read my desire! . . . That is, don’t take me literally (i.e., universally), but realize that these words are the unique bearers of my desire” (Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists, p. 189).
To summarize: Lacan’s point is that there is no necessary correlation, consistency and compatibility between desire and demand. Whenever someone assails us with a demand, we immediately interpret it as an articulation of that person’s desire. However, psychoanalysis reveals that there is no necessary coherence between the two and, more importantly, that they often stand in a contradictory relationship. Also, if one wants to discover the truth of one’s own desire, then one must start by answering the question concerning the Other’s desire. This is what Lacan is getting at here:
But we must also add that man’s desire is the Other’s desire [le désir de l’homme est le désir de l’Autre] in which the de provides what grammarians call a “subjective determination” — namely, that it is qua Other that man desires (this is what provides the true scope of human passion).
This is why the Other’s question [la question de l’Autre] — that comes back to the subject from the place from which he expects an oracular reply — which takes some such form as “Chè vuoi?,” “What do you want?,” is the question that best leads the subject to the path of his own desire, assuming that, thanks to the know-how of a partner known as a psychoanalyst, he takes up that question, even without knowing it, in the following form: “What does he want from me?”
(Écrits, ‘The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire’, p. 690)
But if fantasy fundamentally constitutes the subject’s ($’s) relation to the Other’s desire and to objet petit a, then what is the connection these two factors themselves? If desire is the desire of the Other and if objet petit a is the cause of the desire, then would that not mean that they are one and the same? If the subject’s desire is the desire of the Other, then can we not say that the Other’s desire is the cause of desire? Is not the Other’s desire the objet petit a? Yes and no. This is tricky. We need to use G. W. F. Hegel’s concept of speculative identity if we are to make sense of this bizarre relation. For Hegel, reason has the dialectical capacity to see the identity of contradictory objects. In fact, Hegel conceptualized identity as the identity of identity and difference. Hegel wrote, “And so identity is identity as difference which is identical with itself. But difference is identical with itself only inasmuch as it is not identity but absolute non-identity” (The Science of Logic, p. 357). Simply put, for Hegel, identity is a contradiction. As McGowan explains:
Contradiction is not anathema to thought but what animates both thought and being. Hegel’s primary philosophical contribution is to reverse the historical judgment on contradiction. It is the driving force of his philosophy. The role of contradiction in Hegel’s philosophy calls into question two pillars of traditional logic — the law of identity and the principle of noncontradiction.(Emancipation After Hegel: Achieving a Contradictory Revolution, p. 6)
This Hegelian insight is relevant to our current analysis insofar as we must understand the contradictory identity of the Other’s desire and objet petit a or how both of them are identical to and different from one another. The Other’s desire is the objet petit a insofar as this lost object is the remainder of the subject’s enjoyment that emerged out of the lack or desire in the Other. The subject desires because the Other desires (the mother-Thing is not totally satisfied by the child). And objet petit a is that lost shard of the subject’s being that can only be “regained” through satisfying the desire of the Other — closing up that gap in the Other that broke apart the “perfect” union the mother-Thing and child shared in “perfect” enjoyment. The specific determinations of the subject’s objet petit a form out of the subject’s interpretation of the Other’s desire. In other words, the subject unconsciously inscribes those traits and features it associates with the Other’s desire in its libidinal “memory bank” and, then, links them to its own objet petit a (the missing part of itself). Lacan refers to these traits and features as “pleasurable associations”:
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.
(Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, p. 52)
The subject’s idiosyncratic interpretation or unique reading (which is what fantasy is) of the pleasurable associations it links to the Other-Thing and, more importantly, to its desire are what come to give a specific content to the subject’s objet petit a. Through the interpretation of the Other’s desire, the objet petit a is both a shard of the subject and the Other-Thing. Whenever one comes to strongly desire a specific object, it is because that object of desire has certain traits one unconsciously associates with objet petit a, but those traits ultimately get traced back to the subject’s interpretation of the Other’s desire. Fantasy tells me what specific content or qualities I must have in order to satisfy the specific desire of the Other and, thereby, satisfy my own desire. In this sense, we can say that the Other’s desire and objet petit a are identical.
However, there is another sense in which they are opposed. The Other’s desire is never actually identical to the subject’s interpretation of it, which means that there is a radical difference and unbridgeable void between the content of the Other’s actual desire and the content of the subject’s objet petit a. This is the difference between the subject’s objet petit a as product of the interpretation of the Other’s desire and the Other’s desire in and of itself (the enigmatic Che Vuoi?). Now we can say that we have a proper Hegelian concept of the identity and nonidentity of the Other’s desire and objet petit a.
There is also a connection between desire and sublimation. For Lacan, sublimation is not the redirection of inappropriate sexual desires into socially acceptable outlets, but, rather, is the positioning of an ordinary object in the empty position of the sublime Thing. Lacan said, “Thus, the most general formula that I can give you of sublimation is the following: it raises an object . . . to the dignity of the Thing” (Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, p. 112). This process can also be called, to use a Biblical term, the transfiguration of an object. Sublimation is the becoming-sublime of an object. The sublime object that captures one’s desire is radiant, awe-inspiring, seductive, divine, majestic, ideal, glorious, etc. But the object is never sublime in and of itself. It’s only the particular fantasy-frame of a particular subject that makes a particular object particularly sublime. In other words, the sublimity of the object is in the parameters of the subject’s fantasy and not in the object all by itself. But, remember, it is the Other’s desire that ultimately shapes one’s fundamental fantasy and, therefore, shapes what counts as sublime. Žižek explains the Lacanian concept of sublimation better than anyone:
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)
However, the Other’s desire is not limited to the desire of another person, but can also be the desire of one’s culture. Our cultures generate their own fantasies of sublime objects, which come to influence and impact each of our own imaginary spaces of fantasy. Lacan says:
At the level of sublimation the object is inseparable from imaginary and especially cultural elaborations. It is not just that the collectivity recognizes in them useful objects; it finds rather a space of relaxation where it may in a way delude itself on the subject of das Ding, colonize the field of das Ding with imaginary schemes. That is how collective, socially accepted sublimations operate.
Society takes some comfort from the mirages that moralists, artists, artisans, designers of dresses and hats, and the creators of imaginary forms in general supply it with. But it is not simply in the approval that society gladly accords it that we must seek the power of sublimation. It is rather in an imaginary function, and, in particular, that for which we will use the symbolization of the fantasm ($ ◊ a), which is the form on which depends the subject’s desire.
(Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, p. 99)
Culture or social collectivity produces all kinds of “elaborations” and “imaginary schemes” that teach us about what the sublime object is and how to go about getting it. For example, capitalist ideology tells us that if we all work hard and have the right attitude, then we will become successes who will be able to buy all of the cool commodities required to have perfect enjoyment. Preachers, teachers, newscasters, politicians, artists, musicians, advertisers, social media influencers, etc., are all, in their own ways, the craftsman of fantasies about attaining the sublime object. The power of these fantasies is not so much in their being approved, certified and sanctioned by social authority, that is, in how they lure the subject with the prize of recognition of one’s high status, but, rather, in how they give the subject’s desire determinate answers to the question concerning the enigmatic desire of the Other. The subject’s desire ($◊a) is far more invested in the prospect of regaining that elusive surplus-enjoyment it lost, that sublime object, than it is with social recognition.
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 petit 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 petit 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 petit a, 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 located in the sublime position of fantasy. But if the object can undergo sublimation, it, too, can lose this status. We’ll return to this point.
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. For the later Lacan, desire and love are opposed. However, love does involve desire. Desire relates to the body with its partial objects (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. This is what Lacan had in mind when he said, “For it is love that approaches being as such in the encounter” (Seminar XX: Encore, p. 145). Or, as Alain Badiou put it: “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 refashioned” (In Praise of Love, p. 21). Again, this means that love loves the whole person, the person in their “being”, in the fullness of their pure singularity and Real Otherness, in their thisness or haecceity. Love loves that about another person which is theirs alone while desire fixates on specific traits (objet petit a) that are shared by many people. This is why one of Žižek’s constant refrains is “sex without love is just masturbation with a partner”:
In “pure” sex, the partner is reduced to a fantasy object, that is to say, pure sex is masturbation with a real partner who functions as a prop for our indulging in fantasies, while it is only through love that we can reach the Real (of the) Other. (This also accounts for the status of the Lady in courtly love: precisely because of its endless postponing of the consummation of the sexual act, courtly love remains on the level of sexual desire, not love — the proof of this is the fact that the Lady is reduced to a pure symbolic entity, indistinguishable from all others, not touched in the Real of her singularity.)
(The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity, p. 116)
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. Sexuality is never a perfect harmony. Sexual partners never snap together like puzzle pieces. There is no cosmic force that destines two human beings to be “soulmates”. In fact, Lacan goes on to argue that love is precisely 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). And Alenka Zupančič beautifully elaborates on this point:
A love (encounter) is not simply about everything falling into its rightful place. A love encounter is not simply about a contingent match between two different pathologies, about two individuals being lucky enough to encounter in each other what “works for them.” Rather, love is what makes it work. Love does something to us. It makes, or allows for, the cause of our desire to condescend to, to coincide with, our lover. And the affect of this is surprise — only this surprise, and not simply our infatuation, is the sign of love proper. It is the sign of the subject, of the subjective figure of love. It says not simply: “You are it!,” but rather: “How surprising that you are it!” Or, in a simpler formula of how love operates: How surprising that you are you! . . . Real love necessarily wonders at the coincidence of the loved (desired) object with an existing object. And this wondering is the affect of love proper.
(What Is Sex?, pp. 135, 137)
However, desire, sexuality, bodily pleasure, etc., are key elements of love, but, on their own, they are something quite different. 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)
Lacan, Žižek, Zupančič and Badiou all leave open the possibility of true love — love that fully embraces the Other despite the aspects which do not conform to the coordinates of the subject’s desire and fantasy. However, of course, true love is quite rare. Most of the time we merely mutilate, frame and edit the Other for the sole purpose of creating a prop on which we can project our fantasies centered around objet petit a. Desire (sexuality, “love”), as opposed to true love, 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 (singularity) 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 desire 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” or desires is not you but, rather, that “object” inside you that is more than you, that is, objet petit a. And this is the realization that one has been sublimated, that is, raised into the sublime position — a position that really has nothing at all to do with your singularity.
The other side of sublimation is desublimation. This is what happens when the actual object gets dislodged from the sublime position. Just as sublimation elevated an ordinary object to a radiant status, desublimation lowers the actual object to the level of some disgusting filth — the object goes from fine wine to vomit. 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 onto another one that more fully embodies objet petit a. However, when it comes to desire, there is a way in which things can go terribly wrong with objet petit a itself. This is the excremental aspect of objet petit 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 petit a go from the sublime object into a piece of shit, a waste product? Why is there a thin line between love and hate? 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. As Žižek describes the transition from sublimation to desublimation:
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)
There are many ways to talk about the subjective positioning or libidinal framing that constitutes the sublime object. The factors that sublimate an object, turn it sublime, are factors of the subject itself and not of the object. Imagine being in a big crowd wherein everybody who passes you by is blurry and indeterminate to your perception of them. Their faces are featureless and their voices are muffled. But, then, all of a sudden, one of them, for some inexplicable reason unknown to you, draws in your attention. This initial blur in your field of experience quickly shows itself as the sublime object with the most amazingly determinate qualities you have ever seen. The point, again, is that this only happens because of the unconscious dynamics of your fantasmatic desire. This is what Lacan means by “anamorphosis” and what Žižek means by “looking awry”.
What we have here are thus two realities, two “substances.” On the level of the first metaphor, we have commonsense reality seen as “substance with twenty shadows,” as a thing split into twenty reflections by our subjective view, in short, as a substantial “reality” distorted by our subjective perspective. If we look at a thing straight on, matter-of-factly, we see it “as it really is,” while the gaze puzzled by our desires and anxieties (“looking awry”) gives us a distorted, blurred image. On the level of the second metaphor, however, the relation is exactly the opposite: if we look at a thing straight on, i.e., matter-of-factly, disinterestedly, objectively, we see nothing but a formless spot; the object assumes clear and distinctive features only if we look at it “at an angle,” i.e., with an “interested” view, supported, permeated, and ‘’distorted” by desire. This describes perfectly the objet petit a, the object-cause of desire: an object that is, in a way, posited by desire itself. The paradox of desire is that it posits retroactively its own cause, i.e., the object a is an object that can be perceived only by a gaze “distorted” by desire, an object that does not exist for an “objective” gaze. In other words, the object a is always, by definition, perceived in a distorted way, because outside this distortion, “in itself,” it does not exist, since it is nothing but the embodiment, the materialization of this very distortion, of this surplus of confusion and perturbation introduced by desire into so-called “objective reality.” The object a is “objectively” nothing, though, viewed from a certain perspective, it assumes the shape of “something.” . . . Desire “takes off” when “something” (its object-cause) embodies, gives positive existence to its “nothing,” to its void. This “something” is the anamorphotic object, a pure semblance that we can perceive clearly only by “looking awry.” It is precisely (and only) the logic of desire that belies the notorious wisdom that “nothing comes from nothing”: in the movement of desire, “something comes from nothing.” Although it is true that the object-cause of desire is a pure semblance, this does not prevent it from triggering a whole chain of consequences that regulate our “material,” “effective” life and deeds.
(Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, p. 11–2)
The objet petit a is the product of an anamorphosis, that is, it comes to “shine through” by looking awry at an object, e.g., another person. Someone becomes the object of desire only when he or she has that wow-factor, that unnameable x. Of course, other people do not see your object of desire like this because they do not have your fantasy-frame structuring their desire, i.e, your specific objet petit a. From their objective perspective, the object of your desire is just an ordinary person. It’s only through your anamorphic perspective, through the structure of your desire, that this person has it (objet petit a). This is why Lacan and Žižek make such a big deal of anamorphosis and why they speak so much about Holbein’s famous painting The Ambassadors. Let’s have a look at the painting.
Viewed objectively, seen straightforwardly, the painting contains a blot, a blur, but when viewed awry the blot can be clearly seen to be a skull. It’s the same with objet petit a: when viewed objectively, another person simply has some trait or characteristic, e.g., brown eyes, tone of voice, etc., that has nothing special about, but when seen awry through a specific fantasmatic frame that organizes desire it becomes the very “object” that causes you to desire the person. Therefore, the blot/skull, for Lacan, is an embodiment of the object-cause of desire, which is precisely the point at which the spectator is caught in the trap of the painting. In other words, it’s the point where the painting itself takes the subject into account, that is, lures the subject’s desire. Everybody who views the painting is seduced by the blot and has the flames of their desire fanned by it, which makes them have to know what that blot really is. But the desire remains “enigmatic” because the spectators themselves do not understand what causes desire.
In Holbein’s picture I showed you at once — without hiding anymore than usual — the singular object floating in the foreground, which is there to be looked at, in order to catch, I would almost say, to catch in its trap, the observer, that is to say, us. It is, in short, an obvious way, no doubt an exceptional one, and one due to some moment of reflection on the part of the painter, of showing us that, as subjects, we are literally called into the picture, and represented here as caught. For the secret of this picture, whose implications I have pointed out to you, the kinships with the vanitas, the way this fascinating picture presents, between the two splendidly dressed and immobile figures, everything that recalls, in the perspective of the period, the vanity of the arts and sciences — the secret of this picture is given at the moment when, moving slightly away, little by little, to the left, then turning around, we see what the magical floating object signifies. It reflects our own nothingness, in the figure of the death’s head. It is a use, therefore, of the geometrical dimension of vision in order to capture the subject, an obvious relation with desire which, nevertheless, remains enigmatic.
(Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 92)
But there’s even more going on here: the objet petit a is the gaze. First things first, the gaze is not the look, first-person perspective or visual perception that belongs to the subject, but, rather, an object out there in the visual field among other objects. Trust me, I know how utterly strange this sounds when one first hears it, since we immediately associate “gaze” with consciousness, experience and perception. How could gaze ever be an object? What could this possibly mean? And why would we ever link gaze to objet petit a and desire? McGowan is very helpful on the topic of the gaze:
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.
(The Real Gaze: Film Theory After Lacan, pp. 5–6)
I want to clarify what McGowan is describing with an example from my own life. One of favorite things to do is go for long walks around my neighborhood in the evening. I live in one of the older suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri, called Raytown. Back in the 1980s, when I was a kid, Raytown was a perfect example of the all-American suburb. Well, to put it as nicely as I can, it’s not that anymore. In fact, it’s now very dilapidated and barely resembles it’s younger self. I’m someone who suffers from extreme nostalgia for the 1980s — I won’t deny it for a second — and often daydream about going back to my favorite decade. I know, I know, what the hell does this have to do with the gaze? I’ll tell you.
On the nights, especially in autumn, when I’m out for a walk, right at dusk, and I just so happen to be on the right stretch of the right street, Raytown suddenly appears to me, for a brief moment, like it used to. It’s as if my entire phenomenological field (the evening sky, houses, lawns, trees, street lights, etc.) actually takes my desire into account and configures itself to look the way I desire it to look. For a split second, I feel like I’m back in the ’80s walking through my beloved suburb and that the world itself has orchestrated this experience just for me (my desire). These moments always feel cinematic to me because I feel like I just stepped into one of my favorite ’80s movies wherein the suburbs look the way I still desire for them to look, e.g., some scene from Explorers (by the way, Stranger Things does an absolutely amazing job of recreating this atmosphere). What’s so bizarre and surreal about these “cinematic” experiences is that, without fail, every single one of them is accompanied by my feeling of being seen and not by other people (subjects), but, instead, by a free-floating gaze. This gaze is always beaming at me from a shadowy spot in the trees or from a dark storm drain or even from an unlit garage with the door open. I feel like something is gazing at me because I feel like my desire is being taken into consideration by my entire visual environment and especially by the gaze “around which this field organizes itself”. It’s as if an array of objects or an objective situation is itself responding to my desire. The Lacanian gaze is what happens when objects themselves “look” at you and, thereby, cause your desire. The trick, of course, is that it is my own fantasy-frame that produces this distortion to occur. In other words, I am my own visual field or I am my “cinematic” experience of Raytown — I ($) am the object-gaze (a) that causes me to desire. As Hegel would put it, “Spirit is a bone”.
Now that we have a basic familiarity with the concept of the Lacanian gaze, let’s read through McGowan’s discussion of Holbein’s The Ambassadors before moving on to another aspect of desire. McGowan writes:
In Seminar XI, Lacan’s example of the gaze is Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533). This painting depicts two world travelers and the riches they have accumulated from their travels. But at the bottom of the painting, a distorted, seemingly unrecognizable figure disrupts the portrait. The figure is anamorphic: looking directly at it, one sees nothing discernible, but looking at the figure downward and from the left, one sees a skull. Not only does the skull indicate the hidden, spectral presence of death haunting the two wealthy ambassadors — a memento mori — but, even more importantly for Lacan, it also marks the site of the gaze.
The skull is a blank spot in the image, the point at which spectators lose their distance from the picture and becomes involved in what they see, because its very form changes on the basis of the spectator’s position. One cannot simply look straight at the picture and see this object: one must move one’s body and turn one’s head. The gaze exists in the way that the spectator’s perspective distorts the field of the visible, thereby indicating the spectator’s involvement in a scene from which the spectator seems excluded. It makes clear the effect of subjective activity on what the subject sees in the picture, revealing that the picture is not simply there to be seen and that seeing is not a neutral activity. The skull says to the spectator, “You think that you are looking at the painting from a safe distance, but the painting sees you — takes into account your presence as a spectator.” Hence, the existence of the gaze as a disruption (or a stain) in the picture — an objective gaze — means that spectators never look on from a safe distance; they are in the picture in the form of this stain, implicated in the text itself.
The Ambassadors is a privileged example for Lacan because the form that the gaze takes in this painting — a skull — renders explicit the relationship between the gaze and the subject’s complete loss of mastery. The skull indicates the presence of death amid the wealth of the men pictured, but it also reminds viewers of their own death. Death is, as Hegel claims, the absolute master: it deprives the subject of any sense of mastery, and this constitutes much of the horror with which we respond to it. Even when a manifestation of the gaze does not make death evident directly like this, it nonetheless carries the association insofar as the gaze itself marks the point in the image at which the subject is completely subjected to it. The gaze is the point at which the subject loses its subjective privilege and becomes wholly embodied in the object.
(The Real Gaze: Film Theory After Lacan, p. 7)
Alright, we must now turn our attention to arguably the most important aspect of Lacanian desire. We already alluded to this, but it’s time to explicitly address it and flesh it out. Desire is ultimately a desire for an impossible object — the lost object is an impossible object. In other words, we can never truly get what we desire. Despite whatever forms of actual enjoyment (partial jouissance) we get, we still go on desiring because the satisfaction of desire is a structural impossibility. The reason why is objet petit a is always a virtual object and never an actual one. Žižek says,”From our standpoint, objet a is that something — a virtual/fictive entity — which always adds itself to the series of actual/necessary entities” (Sex and the Failed Absolute, p. 232). You can never hold the virtual object itself in your hand — air weighs more than objet petit a does.
Let’s use an analogy from language to better understand the structural virtuality of objet petit a. We need to consider the relation between a virtual statement and an actual statement. I’ll now write down a statement: I wish Jacques Lacan was here with me in Raytown, Missouri discussing Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s E. 1999 Eternal, Godzilla movies and the Monday Night War between WWF and WCW. Alright, I feel pretty damn confident in claiming that no one in the entire history of humankind has ever actually made this statement. I believe I just said something that has never been said before. However, prior to me actualizing this statement for the first time ever, it was a virtual statement tucked away in the English language in a state of potentiality. The very structural relations of English (its grammar, syntax, lexicon, etc.) had already articulated this statement I just made. The virtual system we call the English language had already virtually articulated the virtual statement prior to my actualization of it (I am, of course, alluding to Ferdinand de Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole — langue being the virtual structure of language and parole being an actual speech act). It was waiting in the virtual repository of language for me to actualize it. In truth, it is quite easy to actualize statements that have only ever been virtual. The difference between the virtual statement and the virtual object (objet petit a) is that the latter can never be actualized. The virtual object is impossible precisely because it can never be anything else other than virtual.
But if I fundamentally desire an impossible object, then what I actually desire is desire itself, that is, to forever go on desiring. If the true object of desire is impossible to attain, then desire is infinitely ceaseless. Remember, objet petit a is just the reification or becoming-object of the subject’s own lack or nothingness. Desire desires a nothingness. Desire is a nothing that desires a nothing.
Desire is always the desire of the Other, never immediately ‘mine’ (I desire an object only in so far as it is desired by the Other) — so the only way for me authentically to ‘desire’ is to reject all positive objects of desire, and desire Nothingness itself (again, in all the senses of this term, up to desiring that specific form of Nothingness which is desire itself — for this reason, human desire is always desire to desire, desire to be the object of the Other’s desire). Again, we can easily see the homology with Nietzsche: a Will can be a ‘Will to Will’, a willing which wants willing itself, only in so far as it is a Will which actively wills Nothingness. (Another well-known form of this reversal is the characterization of Romantic lovers as actually being in love not with the beloved person, but with Love itself.)
(The Ticklish Subject, pp. 28–9)
In light of this insight, we could even argue that Buddhists never fully give up on desire, but, instead, accidentally constitute for themselves an even more pure desire. In trying to not desire, the Buddhist actually comes to desire nothingness itself. The desire to not desire imperceptibly morphs into the desire for nothing (a sublime object). It’s worth noting that if the desiring subject could “reunite” with the lost remainder of itself, then the subject’s desire would actually be extinguished (the Lacanian point, of course, is that such a reunion is ontologically impossible due to the fact that there was no original union to begin with — there’s only a retroactive-fantasmatic constitution of it). The Buddhist never actually ceases to desire but, rather, only succeeds in cutting out the middle man, the object of desire, and goes straight for the object-cause of desire. Buddhism unknowingly turns objet petit a into the direct object of desire, which only intensifies desire by giving it an “authentic” object.
However, for the rest of us unenlightened desirers, some of the Otherly determined, libidinally invested and unconsciously privileged traits, features, words, qualities, etc., that fill our experience (both conscious and unconscious) with their content function as the “pleasurable associations” that indicate to us that they are the bearers of objet petit a. The actual objects of desire are always false promises insofar as they “claim” to be the incarnations of the virtual object-cause of desire when they never can be. This is the exact reason why Lacan likened the relation between the desiring subject ($) and the impossible object-cause of desire (a) to a Möbius strip. But what is a Möbius strip? Let’s begin with Lacan’s own visual aid provided in Seminar X:
A Möbius strip is formed by taking a rectangular strip, giving it a half twist and, then, connecting both ends together. It looks as though this band has two sides when, in fact, it is a one-sided surface. If, for example, we place an ant on a Möbius strip and it walks along the surface for a long enough time, then it will return to the exact spot we first placed it, that is, the ant will have traversed “both sides” of it. The ant returns to its original position precisely because the surface has only a single surface though it is one that loops back around on itself. In other words, a Möbius strip is a one that appears as a two. As Lacan explains this unorientable surface in Seminar X:
Let’s see for ourselves now with what I’ve taught you to find in the Möbius strip. In taking this band — having opened it and joining it back to itself by giving it a half twist on the way, you get with the greatest of ease a strip.
An ant walking along one of the apparent faces will pass over to the other face without needing to go over the edge. In other words, the Möbius strip is a surface that has just one face and a surface with just one face cannot be turned inside out. If you turn it over, it will still be identical to itself. This is what I call not having a specular image.
Furthermore, I told you that, in the cross-cap, when you single out one part of it through a section, a slice, which has no other condition than that of joining up with itself after having included the point on the surface where the hole lies, it is still a Möbius strip.
This is the residual part, here. I’ve constructed it for you and I’ll pass it around. It does hold a little interest because, let me tell you, this is the a. I give it to you much as one might administer the Host, because you’ll make use of its afterwards. The a is put together like that.
(Seminar X: Anxiety, pp. 96–7)
Lacan strait-forwardly states that the objet petit a (cause of desire) is essentially a Möbius strip or, at least, has the same structure. However, in his thirteenth seminar, he identities the Möbius strip with the subject. He says that the strip plays an essential role “in the constituting cut of the function of the subject”, since the “Moebius strip in its essence is the cut itself” and because the “cut itself has the structure of the surface called Moebius strip” (Seminar XIII: The Object of Psychoanalysis, Gallagher translation, pp. 6, 22, 23). The following year, he’d go on to add:
We can take this surface as symbolic of the subject, on condition that you consider, of course, that the edge alone constitutes this surface; as it is easy to demonstrate by the following: the fact is if you make a cut through the middle of this surface, this cut itself concentrates in itself the essence of the double loop. Being a cut, which, as I might say, “turns back” onto itself, it is itself — this single cut — just by itself, the whole Moebius surface. And the proof is that in fact, when you have made this median cut there is no longer any Moebius surface at all!
(Seminar XIV: The Logic of Phantasy, Gallagher translation, p. 118)
Can you guess where this is going? If both the desiring subject and the objet petit a are Möbius strips, then it’s because they are the exact same one. We must conceptualize both of them in terms of forming a single Möbius strip, which is the reason why Lacan explicitly linked them up.
This [the Möbius strip], for us, structures $. Something which is conjoined to this $ that we call (a) . . . in so far as it is knitted together, in so far as it is considered as the support of this $ of the subject, on the other hand, having fallen from it, it loses all privileges and literally leaves the subject alone, without the recourse of this support, this support is forgotten and has disappeared.
(Seminar XIII: The Object of Psychoanalysis, Gallagher translation, p. 81, translation modified)
Nevertheless, there remains a constitutive cut between them. This is the exact reason why Lacan used the Möbius strip to represent the relation between the desiring subject and objet petit a. The desiring subject is the extimate excess of objet petit a and the objet petit a is the extimate excess of the barred subject. They are both external interiors of one another. Žižek says:
Such a convoluted space in which external limit is simultaneously internal is what Lacan aims at in his persistent reference to torus and other variations of the Möbius-strip-like structures in which the relationship between inside and outside is inverted: if we want to grasp the minimal structure of subjectivity, the clear-cut opposition between inner subjective experience and outer objective reality is not sufficient — there is an excess on both sides.
(Sex and the Failed Absolute, p. 244)
There is a intrinsic limit, cut, split or division within the Möbius strip itself just like there is in desiring subjectivity. If taken as a whole, a single unity with three-dimensions, then the strip has but one side. However, if the strip is broken down into into component parts, into isolated portions, then it actually has two sides. If we limit our perception of a Möbius strip to a small stretch of it, then its two-sidedness is immediately apparent. Also, if we place our ant back on the strip somewhere in this isolated section and it happens to cross over to the other side of it, then the ant will have just gone from one side to the second one. It’s the cut in the strip that makes it have this perspectival-dialectical discontinuity to it. The cut is the strip’s one-half twist. When applied to Lacan’s concept of split subjectivity, the Möbius strip serves to make things far more intelligible. The Lacanian subject is the difference and discontinuity between $ and a as well as their identity and continuity. Žižek elucidates all this for us:
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. Or — to put it in philosophical terms — subject and object are identical in the Hegelian sense of the speculative coincidence/identity of radical opposites: when Hegel praises the speculative truth of the vulgar materialist thesis of phrenology ‘The Spirit is a bone’, his point is not that the spirit can actually be reduced to the shape of the skull, but that there is a spirit (subject) only in so far as there is some bone (some inert material, non-spiritual remainder/leftover) that resists its spiritual sublation-appropriation-mediation. Subject and object are thus not simply external: the object is not the external limit with regard to which the subject defines its self-identity, it is ex-timate with regard to the subject, it is its internal limit — that is, the bar which itself prevents the subject’s full realization.
(The Fragile Absolute, pp. 25–6)
Desire works like a Möbius strip. There is a homology between the structure of the Möbius strip and that of the subject of desire. This means that the full satisfaction of desire, the lure of the objet petit a, is merely desire seen as the “second” side of the Möbius strip. In other words, right when we little ants think we are about to get our desire satisfied by the object of desire that contains objet petit a, the impossible object that causes desire departs from it, which leaves us on the exact same surface — the single surface of desire. The objet petit a is the twist in the Möbius strip. Just when you think you’re about to crossover from desire to full enjoyment (jouissance) you are right back in desire. Not wanting to desire or attaining full satisfaction is actually just the inverse “side” of desire itself.
But what does not wanting to desire mean? The whole of analytic experience — which merely gives form to what is for each individual at the very root of his experience — shows us that not to want to desire and to desire are the same thing. To desire involves a defensive phase that makes it identical with not wanting to desire. Not wanting to desire is wanting not to desire. . . . The subject knows that not to want to desire has in itself something as irrefutable as that Moebius strip that has no underside, that is to say, that in following it, one will come back mathematically to the surface that is supposed to be its other side.
(Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 235)
This is why getting the objects we desire is so dissatisfying. The moment we get our hands on the object we take to be the lost object, the objet petit a slides out of it and becomes “embodied” in yet another object (another point of the Möbius strip), which causes us to desire that other object we do not possess. Lacan gives brand new meaning to the old adage “the grass is always greener on the other side”. The subject can never attain the full satisfaction of its desire and this is the tragicomical situation at the core of human existence. There is a tragic comedy or a comedic tragedy playing itself out in the subject’s desirous relation to objet petit a. Lacanian psychoanalysis can be summed up by 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 enjoyment or jouissance is unsatisfying, but so, too, is jouissance itself. The Lacanian subject says, “neither desire nor jouissance”, but those are ultimately the only two pursuits available to it. We desire in order to escape the unbearable suffocation of jouissance, but, then, turn right around and 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 is a hot potato — once you catch it in your hands you must quickly throw it away.
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). It’s evil insofar as it says to hell with the Good of the community. 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 (aligned with desire) 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 that the subject can permanently reside on. 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, since desire is always desire for something else. Desire should borrow a line from Jay-Z and make its official motto “on to the next one”.
It’s precisely because the very ontological structure of desire always keeps the subject moving on to the next one that Lacan identified desire with metonymy: “man’s desire is a metonymy . . . desire is a metonymy, even if man scoffs at the idea” (Écrits, ‘The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious’, p. 439). Elsewhere, he put it in the following words: “Desire is the metonymy of being in the subject” (Seminar VI: Desire and Its Interpretation, p. 23). But what exactly is meant by “metonymy”? Well, Merriam-Webster will be of no help to us here. For Lacan, “metonymy” is a techincal term he borrows from the linguist Roman Jakobson. Lorenzo Chiesa explains the connection between Jakobson and Lacan as follows:
Lacan derives from Jakobson’s linguistics the idea according to which language is divided into two main axes (horizontal or diachronic, and vertical or synchronic), each of which is ruled by a specific linguistic law (metonymy for the horizontal axis, metaphor for the vertical axis). Furthermore, following Jakobson’s suggestion, Lacan believes that Freud’s description of the dream-work as dependent on the principles of displacement and condensation anticipates the formulation of the linguistic laws of metonymy and metaphor. As in the case of Freud’s Verschiebung (displacement), metonymy indicates the combination of one signifier with another. On the other hand, echoing the idea of Verdichtung (condensation), metaphor is constituted by a process whereby one signifier is substituted for another. Substitution produces signification.
(Subjectivity and Otherness: A Philosophical Reading of Lacan, p. 50)
Lacan uses “metonymy” to designate a specific relation between signifiers. Lacanians talks about “metonymy” in terms of a “diachronic relation” and a “combinatory axis”, but let’s be a little less abstract than that. The basic idea is that a metonymic relation between signifiers is what occurs whenever two signifiers are linked, associated or combined with each other. These signifiers are different but also similar. Metonymy involves the similar but not the identical — the difference between the two signifiers in their similarity is crucial to their metonymic relation. Lacan himself said:
A second new principle can also be seen: the principle of similarity. A certain dimension, the metonymic dimension, begins to operate as a function of the fact that, within the signifying chain, one signifying term may resemble another. . . . A relationship based on similarity is different from a relationship based on contiguity, but it is also a relationship between signifiers inasmuch as similarity involves the passage from one term [to another] owing to a similarity of being. There is a similarity between them insofar as, the one and the other being different, some existing subject [or: extant subject, sujet d’être] makes them similar.
(Seminar VI: Desire and Its Interpretation, pp. 23, 47)
All the techincal jargon is obfuscating the basic point being made. The mechanism of metonymy is the mechanism of desire. The reason why desire is inexhaustible and never-ending, why it is a “eternal” deferral, is because it is metonymic. As we have just learned in our analysis of the homology between human desire and the Möbius strip, there is a “fundamental structure that turns the object of any desire into the prop of an essential metonymy” (Seminar VI: Desire and Its Interpretation, p. 98). The signifiers at play in metonymic desire are, concretely speaking, the “pleasurable associations” desire has come to establish throughout its history. Simply put, the subject comes to desire a specific object because certain of the object’s traits (signifiers) have come to be linked to objet petit a (surplus-enjoyment).
Of course, once the subject attains the object of desire, he or she quickly realizes that it does not possess the sublime enjoyment it “promised” to deliver, so, then, the subject goes onto desire another object whose qualities (signifiers) are similar to the previous object. “I swore that this new car would satisfy me, but it didn’t. I really should have gotten it in a different color.” So, all of the qualities between the two cars are very similar, but the difference in color enables the subject’s desire to latch onto the one not purchased. This metonymic structure keeps desire moving from one object of desire to another that is similar-but-different.
This is why a person can come to desire very different objects as the subject’s personal history moves along. It’s through pursuing the similar that desire can actually drift down the path of difference (although, the similar usually has the stronger libidinal hold on the subject, which is why people often have a type of person they are attracted to). Desiring subjects are like stones being skipped across a lake — the moment they touch actual water (object of desire) they immediately leave it beyond. This is the metonymic-diachronic relation of “signifiers” that hover around the Möbius strip of the subject’s desire. And no system in human history has more successfully structured itself around the metonymic structure of desire than capitalism. McGowan writes:
Capitalism has the effect of sustaining subjects in a constant state of desire. As subjects of capitalism, we are constantly on the edge of having our desire realized, but never reach the point of realization. This has the effect of producing a satisfaction that we don’t recognize as such. That is, capitalist subjects experience satisfaction itself as dissatisfying, which enables them to simultaneously enjoy themselves and believe wholeheartedly that a more complete satisfaction exists just around the corner, embodied in the newest commodity.
(Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Costs of Free Markets, p. 11)
In his Ethics, Spinoza said, “Desire is the very essence of man”. Lacan totally agreed with Spinoza. Desire is what defines us as human beings. In fact, desire is what cuts us away from nature. In other words, desire is, in a certain sense, a de-naturalization of the species called Homo sapiens. Desire can be said to be a kind of negation of our very biology. This is why every attempt to reduce human beings to their biological factors will fail. To understand human desire is to understand the unnaturalness of desire. The objet petit a and the metonymic desire it gives rise to can never be accounted for in the biological terms of a natural philosophy. “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”(Écrits, ‘The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious’, p. 431).
Lacan explained the derailment of human sexuality from nature as the need-demand-desire dialectic. The reason why Lacan described this process as a dialectic is because the human being essentially undergoes a contradictory transformation in it. A human baby, like organisms in general, is born with certain needs or biological instincts that must be met in order for it to continue living. The primary need, of course, is for nourishment. However, unlike other animals, the human child comes to assimilate language. Once the child has learned some linguistic basics, it can begin to articulate its needs. But the appropriation of language is where the child’s derailment from nature occurs. When the child tries to perfectly articulate its need in language, it never can do so because language opens up a space in which the child can come to understand how the satisfaction of its needs always mean more than just that. If the parent gives the child what it demands, then it must mean that the parent loves the child, that is, stands in a certain interpersonal relation to the child. Now every demand is a demand for love. Žižek writes:
The Lacanian distinction between need, demand, and desire, i.e., the way an everyday object destined to satisfy some of our needs undergoes a kind of transubstantiation as soon as it is caught in the dialectic of demand and ends up producing desire. When we demand an object from somebody, its “use value” (the fact that it serves to satisfy some of our needs) eo ipso becomes a form of expression of its “exchange value”; the object in question functions as an index of a network of intersubjective relations. If the other complies with our wish, he thereby bears witness to a certain attitude toward us. The final purpose of our demand for an object is thus not the satisfaction of a need attached to it but confirmation of the other’s attitude toward us. When, for example, a mother gives milk to her child, milk becomes a token of her love.
(Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, p. 5)
But the problem is that love is itself not an actual object. Love is only the proofs of love. If love, however, is not a object that satisfies a biological imperative, then the relation between the young subject of demand and nature itself has already been cracked. While demand was an initial expression of simple biological needs, it brought the child to want something other than the objects that satisfy those needs. Demand started off tethered to need, but once this link has been severed, the child has finally arrived at desire. Dylan Evans really elucidates this point:
However, because the object which satisfies the child’s need is provided by another, it takes on the added significance of being a proof of the Other’s love. Accordingly demand too acquires a double function: in addition to articulating a need, it also becomes a demand for love. And just as the symbolic function of the object as a proof of love overshadows its real function as that which satisfies a need, so too the symbolic dimension of demand (as a demand for love) eclipses its real function (as an articulation of need). It is this double function which gives birth to desire, since while the needs which demand articulates may be satisfied, the craving for love is unconditional and insatiable, and hence persists as a leftover even after the needs have been satisfied; this leftover constitutes desire.
(An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, p. 36)
Desire is the subtraction of need from demand. This is why this process is a dialectic. The human being starts off firmly anchored in biological needs, but ends up becoming the subject of nonbiological desire. Desire is unnatural and human sexuality cuts us all away from nature. Desire begins where nature ends. Human sexuality as such is always-already a deviation from nature. This denaturalization of human sexuality — the human libidinal economy comprised of desire, fantasy, jouissance, drive, the unconscious, etc. — was Freud’s single greatest discovery. I have not found a better summary of all this than the one penned by Alenka Zupančič. The following citation is a bit long, but it is well worth the read for its lucidity and precision. Zupančič says in four paragraphs what it would take others an entire book to express.
Freud starts with the discussion of ‘sexual aberrations’ that were identified as such in the existing corpus of medical knowledge: homosexuality, sodomy, paedophilia, fetishism, voyeurism, sadism, masochism, and so on. In discussing these ‘perversions’ and the mechanisms involved in them (basically the deviations in respect of the sexual object, which is supposed to be an adult person of the opposite sex, and deviations in respect of the sexual aim — supposedly reproduction) Freud’s argument simultaneously moves in two directions. On the one hand, he extensively demonstrates how the ‘aberrant’ mechanisms involved in these practices are very much present in what is considered to be ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ sexual behaviour. Insofar as they well integrated in what is considered to be ‘normal’ sexuality, they are not viewed as perversions. They are only considered as perverse aberrations if they become altogether independent of the ‘appropriate’ sexual object and of the supposed sexual aim, if they become autonomous in their fragmented, partial aims that serve no meaningful purpose. Freud would object, however, to the word ‘become’ — and this constitutes the second, crucial line of his argument. Drives are fragmented, partial, aimless and independent of their object to start with. They do not become such due to some ulterior deviation. The deviation of drives is a constitutive deviation. Freud writes that “the sexual drive is in the first instance independent of its object; nor is its origin likely to be dues to its object’s attractions.” This is why “from the point of view of psychoanalysis, the exclusive sexual interest felt by men for women is also a problem that needs elucidating and is not a self-evident fact based upon an attraction that is ultimately of a chemical nature.”
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.”
But let us look at the origin of this concept in Freud’s observations. One of Freud’s main examples is thumb-sucking, which he analyses as a manifestation of infantile sexuality (the existence of which was, for the first time, systematically pointed out by Freud, and which has met with strong resistance). In relation to the need for nourishment, to which it attaches itself at the outset, the oral drive pursues an object different from food: it pursues (and aims at repeating) the very sensation of satisfaction produced in the region of the mouth during the act of nutrition. Oral satisfaction, which arose as a byproduct of the satisfying of the need for food, starts to function as an autonomous object of the drive, it moves away from its first object and lets itself be led into series of substitute objects. In other words, the concept of the drive (and of its object) is not simply a concept of the deviation from a natural need, but something that casts a new and surprising light on the nature of human need as such: in human beings, all satisfaction of a need allows, in principle, for another satisfaction to occur, which tends to become independent and self-perpetuating in pursuing and reproducing itself. There is no natural need that would be absolutely pure, i.e. devoid of this surplus element which splits it from within. This split, this interval or void, this original non-convergence of two different versant of the satisfaction is, for Freud, the very site of ground of human sexuality.
This is a crucial point when it comes to understanding another important emphasis of Freud’s conceptualisation of sexuality: ‘sexual’ is not to be confused with ‘genital’. The ‘genital sexual organization’ is far from being primordial or ‘natural’: it is a result, a product of several stages of development, involving both the physiological maturation of the reproductive organs and cultural-symbolic parameters. It involves a unification of the originally heterogeneous, dispersed, always-already compound sexual drive, composed of different partial drives, such as looking, touching, licking, and so on. (“Since the original disposition is necessarily a complex one, the sexual drive itself must be something put together from various factors.”). The unification bears two major characteristics. Firstly, it is always a somehow forced and artificial unification (it cannot be viewed simply as a natural teleological result of reproductive maturations). And secondly, it is never really fully achieved or accomplished, which is to say that it never transforms the sexual drive into an organic Unity, with all its components ultimately serving one and the same Purpose. The ‘normal,’ ‘healthy’ human sexuality is thus paradoxical artificial naturalization of the originally de-naturalised drives (de-naturalized in the sense of their departing from the ‘natural’ aims of self-preservation and/or the logic of a pure need as unaffected by another, supplementary satisfaction). One could even say that human sexuality is ‘sexual’ (and not simply ‘reproduction’) precisely insofar as the unification at stake, the tying of all the drives to one single Purpose, never really works, but allow for different partial drives to continue their circular, self-perpetuating activity.
(Why Psychoanalysis?: Three Interventions, pp. 15–7)
I now want to conclude this introduction to Lacan’s concept of desire with a brief discussion of the relation between desire and psychoanalysis itself. Lacan insisted that “desire is the central, pivotal point of the entire economy we deal with in analysis (Seminar VI: Desire and Its Interpretation, pp. 480–1). We must remember that Lacan’s insights into the structures of human desire were gleaned from his clinical experience as an actual psychoanalyst. In a lecture he gave at Yale 1975, Lacan stated, “It is from my analysands that I learn everything, that I learn what psychoanalysis is. I take my interventions from them, and not from my teaching.” The question is: what does psychoanalysis seek to accomplish in relation to desire? Lacan and psychoanalysis in general are primarily concerned with the subject’s unconscious desire, which is precisely what the subject cannot articulate. We all like to think of ourselves as masters of our desires. At the egoic level of self-consciousness, we tell ourselves that we know what we want, but, of course, this is merely a trick we are playing on ourselves. The truth is that we never really know our desires. Psychoanalysis seeks to bring the subject to know the truth of his or her unconscious desire through the medium of the subject’s own speech.
According to Lacan, ‘what’s important is to teach the subject to name, to articulate, to bring this desire into existence (Seminar II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, p. 228). And the only way that desire can be named and articulated is through the subject’s speech and especially in its free-associations in the presence of the Other. In Lacan’s words, ‘It is only once it is formulated, named in the presence of the other, that desire, whatever it is, is recognised in the full sense of the term’ (Seminar I: Freud’s Papers on Technique, p. 183). The Lacanian idea is not to have the subject simply confront his or her unconscious desire as it is already determined, but, rather, to actually have the subject produce a determinate desire. It’s through the process of “naming” desire that the subject retroactively establishes a determinate desire. The subject’s desire, as we have seen, metonymically skips all over the place in varying directions, but what the naming of desire hopes to accomplish is to give desire a much sharper trajectory and stability. Insofar as human desire has been freed from biological parameters, it is free to desire anything, but desire can actually come to suffer from the infinite possibilities that stand open to it. The naming of desire helps desire to not always have to be moving on to the next one.
However, the subject stubbornly resists this endeavor to name unconscious desire, which is why the desire of the analyst is so important to psychoanalytic work. The analyst’s desire, which is the Other’s desire, has to function of objet petit a for the subject undergoing analysis. In other words, the analyst’s desire for the subject to engage in psychoanalytic treatment must cause the subject to desire analysis itself (this is the reason Lacan, in his formula of the analyst’s discourse, placed objet petit a in the position of the agent). Bruce Fink explains:
From a Freudian/Lacanian perspective, it is clear that the therapist cannot rely on some sort of “will to get better” on the patient’s part — some kind of “genuine desire to change.” There is no such thing. Indeed, patients often go into therapy because they no longer have any will to live, or to do anything at all, or because they sense that their libido is stifled and withering; in short, their desire is dying. How then could it possibly serve as the mainspring of change? If there is a desire in therapy that serves as its motor force, it is the analyst’s, not the patient’s. . . . in the majority of cases the patient is looking for an excuse to leave, and virtually any excuse will often do. Patients tend to skip sessions or even break off therapy when they sense that they are being asked to give up or make a sacrifice they are not prepared to make. It is the analyst’s desire, not their own flagging desire, that allows them to continue. Even very subtle expressions of the analyst’s desire may suffice to keep certain patients in therapy when they have no will of their own to continue. The analyst’s “I’ll see you tomorrow” may be enough to bring certain patients back even though they believe they have nothing more to say and feel stuck.
(A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis, pp. 3–4)
A few clarifications must be made here. First, the analyst does not seek to cause the patient (analysand) to have specific desire. It’s not like the analyst sets out to push certain determinate contents into the analysand’s indeterminate desire. All the analyst’s desire wants to cause is a desire for psychoanalytic work, which makes it a purified desire. It’s ultimately up to analysands themselves to name their own specific desires. Second, the naming of desire never exhausts unconscious desire. In other words, it is impossible to fully bring one’s unconscious dynamics into conscious speech. The unconscious is itself a sort of infinite surplus. Speech can never capture unconscious desire once and for all, but it still can provide the subject with a less neurotic relation to it.
Lacan’s expression “the analyst’s desire”refers not to the analyst’s counter-transferential feelings but rather to a kind of “purified desire” that is specific to the analyst — to the analyst not as a human being with feelings but as a function, a role, a part to be played and one that can be played by many extremely different individuals. “The analyst’s desire” is a desire that focuses on analysis and only on analysis. Many therapists tell me that they have plans for their patients, that secretly (or not so secretly) they hope one patient will become this, another that, that one will split up with her husband and another will settle down and have children; these wishes have absolutely nothing to do with “the analyst’s desire” as Lacan formulates it. “The analyst’s desire” is not for the patient to get better, to succeed in life, to be happy, to understand him or herself, to go back to school, to achieve what he or she says he or she wants, or to say something in particular — to say, for example, that the pig in the dream represents her father or that she had something to do with the disaster that occurred in her family when she was eleven. It is an enigmatic desire that does not tell the patient what the analyst wants him or her to say or do. Neurotics are only too eager to figure out what other people want from them so they can fulfill or thwart those other people’s desires.
(A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis, p. 6)
But we should not let this conception of the analyst’s purified desire mislead us into thinking that the analyst does not take up a particular stance towards the speech of the analysand. The analyst listens to the patient’s free-associational discourse in a very specific way. What the analyst is listening for and waiting to highlight are those moments in the patient’s speech that allude to his or her unconscious desire as well as the forms of enjoyment (jouissance) he or she does not want to consciously identity with.
The analyst is anything but a neutral listener. He or she makes it very clear that certain points — points that virtually always have to do with the revelation of unconscious desire and previously unavowed enjoyment — are crucial. He or she directs the patient’s attention to them, more or less directly recommending that the patient mull them over, associate to them, and take them seriously. Patients do not spontaneously home in on the subjects that are most important, psychoanalytically speaking; they spontaneously avoid them, for the most part. Even if they recognize that sexuality should be dwelt upon, for example, they nevertheless tend to avoid associating to the elements in dreams and fantasies that are the most sexually charged.
(A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis, p. 16)
The analyst is like a compass that always directs analysands to the North of their sexuality (desire and enjoyment). What this all leads up to is the traversal of the subject’s fundamental fantasy. If the subject is to establish a new relation to desire, then there must be a reckoning with the Other-centric fantasy that most fundamentally constitutes it. “Analysis should not, according to Lacan, be an infinite process; instead it should involve a concrete move, a shift in subjective position — what he calls the traversing of the fundamental fantasy” (A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis, p. 213). Analysis is geared towards this moment in particular.
His [Lacan’s] answer to what has been construed as the monolithic “bedrock of castration” is the traversing of fantasy made possible by the confrontation with the analyst’s desire. The analyst’s interventions, including the scansion of the session, can lead to a new configuration of the analysand’s fundamental fantasy, and thus to a new relation (stance or position adopted with respect) to the Other — the Other’s desire and the Other’s jouissance. The initial fixation of the analysand’s desire is shaken up, and the analysand’s desire no longer serves as a substitute for or hindrance to the pursuit of satisfaction.
It should be noted that the fundamental fantasy is not so much something that exists per se prior to analysis, as something constructed and reconstructed in the course of analysis. In a certain sense, it is distilled out of the whole network of fantasies that come to light in the course of analysis. It can be seen, after one’s analysis has gone far enough, that this is the position or stance the subject adopted with respect to the cause that has been responsible for so many of the subject’s choices and actions. By time such a position or stance has been discerned in analysis, it has, no doubt, already changed to some degree.
(A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis, p. 70)
But what does it mean exactly to traverse the fantasy? Lacanians often disagree about the precise meaning of it, but Fink holds that it involves a reconfiguration of the fantasy, which, in turn, enables the subject to finally free its drives (forms of jouissance) from the inhibitions placed on them by the big Other (Law, social authority, etc.). Insofar as the subject’s fundamental fantasy is all about answering the enigma of the Other’s desire, the subject’s desire has never been liberated from the judgments of the Other. The cause of the subject’s desire has always been stationed in the locus the Other. However, Fink claims, “In the traversing of fantasy, the subject subjectifies the cause of his or her existence (the Other’s desire: object a), and is characterized by desirousness” (A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis, p. 195). In other words, traversing the fantasy entails the subject’s desire becoming freed from the Other’s desire and being owned, claimed or named by the subject itself. The end of analysis comes when the subject ceases to rely on the authority of the Other for his or her desire. To borrow a term from existentialism, the subject establishes an authentic desire — one that does not take its cues from the Other — which amounts to an embrace of one’s own drives and their preferred modes of jouissance.
At the outset of the cure is transference: the transferential relationship is in force as soon as the analyst appears in the guise of the subject supposed to know — to know the truth about the analysand’s desire. When, in the course of the psychoanalysis, the analysand complains that he doesn’t know what he wants, all his moaning and groaning is addressed to the analyst, with the implicit supposition that the analyst does know. In other words — in so far as the analyst stands for the big Other — the analysand’s illusion lies in reducing his ignorance about his desire to an ‘epistemological’ incapacity: the truth about his desire already exists, it is registered somewhere in the big Other, one has only to bring it to light and his desiring will run smoothly. . . . The end of the psychoanalysis, the dissolution of transference, occurs when this ‘epistemological’ incapacity shifts into ‘ontological’ impossibility: the analysand has to experience how the big Other does not possess the truth about his desire either, how his desire is without guarantee, groundless, authorized only in itself. In this precise sense, the dissolution of transference designates the moment when the arrow of the question that the analysand pointed at the analyst turns back towards the analysand himself: first the analysand’s (hysterical) question is addressed to the analyst who is supposed to possess the answer; then the analysand is forced to acknowledge that the analyst himself is nothing but a big question mark addressed to the analysand. Here one can specify Lacan’s thesis that an analyst is authorized only by himself: an analysand becomes an analyst upon assuming that his desire has no support in the Other, that the authorization of his desire can come only from himself. And in so far as this same reversal of the direction of the arrow defines drive, we could say (as Lacan says) that what takes place at the end of psychoanalysis is the shift from desire to drive.
(The Metastases of Enjoyment, pp. 72–3)
This connection between desire and drive is crucial, since it leads us to our arrival at what Lacan called the ethics of psychoanalysis, which was the main focus of Seminar VII. The ethics of psychoanalysis can also be referred to as the Law of desire. The fundamental maxim of the ethics of psychoanalysis or the Law of desire is do not give ground relative to one’s desire, that is, do not compromise your singular desire in any way, shape or form. The only thing one can be truly guilty of is making concessions and bargains in relation to one’s desire. This is why Lacan said, “I propose then that, from an analytical point of view, the only thing of which one can be guilty is of having given ground relative to one’s desire” (Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, p. 319). We give ground to our desire whenever we let the desire of the Other influence our desire, which, as we now know, is our default setting. We have always-already given ground relative to our desire, but we never stop feeling guilty about it. And it is the superego that bombards us with ever-expanding guilt for having compromised our desires.
The gap between this ‘law of desire’ and Ego-Ideal (the network of socio-symbolic norms and ideals that the subject internalizes in the course of his or her education) is crucial here. For Lacan, the seemingly benevolent agency of the Ego-Ideal that leads us to moral growth and maturity forces us to betray the ‘law of desire’ by way of adopting the ‘reasonable’ demands of the existing socio-symbolic order. The superego, with its excessive feeling of guilt, is merely the necessary obverse of the Ego-Ideal: it exerts its unbearable pressure upon us on behalf of our betrayal of the ‘law of desire’. The guilt we experience under superego pressure is not illusory but actual — ‘the only thing of which one can be guilty is of having given ground relative to one’s desire,’ and superego pressure demonstrates that we effectively are guilty of betraying our desire.
(How to Read Lacan, p. 81)
It should be said outright that psychoanalysis does not bother with moralistic shaming when it comes to the analysand’s desire. It matters not whether one’s own desire is deemed moral or immoral by society (Law, big Other, Ego-Ideal, etc.) — what ethically matters to desiring subjects is simply that they are guilty of compromising their desire. The only thing the Law of desire concerns itself with is whether or not one has sold one’s desire short and not with the moral standings of particular desires. In fact, there is an extreme tension between the Good (Sovereign Good) and the subject’s desire (Law of desire).
The question of the Sovereign Good is one that man has asked himself since time immemorial, but the analyst knows that it is a question that is closed. Not only doesn’t he have that Sovereign Good that is asked of him, but he also knows there isn’t any. To have carried an analysis through to its end is no more nor less than to have encountered that limit in which the problematic of desire is raised.
(Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, p. 300)
Simply put, psychoanalysis is not about creating or recreating the subject’s desire in the image and likeness of the Sovereign Good (some perfect happiness sanctioned by social authority), since no such absolute principle actually exists. Instead, psychoanalysis is about aiding the subject in naming an authentic desire in the absence of any Sovereign Good. Psychoanalysis does not lead us to the Good, but, rather, to our very own desire. Put differently, psychoanalysis never sets itself the task of forcing the subject’s desire to bow and conform to the demands and desires of social authority, but, on the contrary, to break free from this “Sovereignty” through recognizing that it itself cannot provide any final answer.
This is the moment of separation. If alienation is the subject’s recognition of its own lack, then separation is the subject’s recognition of the lack in the Other. Separation is the subject’s confrontation with the lack in the Other, with the barred or incomplete Other, with the missing signifier of the Other’s desire, with the truth that there is no big Other. The truth is that every authoritative Other is inconsistent, nescient, split, etc., that is, it does not know what it really desires — just like the subject. And since the Other cannot name its own desire, it certainly cannot guarantee the desire of the subject. It’s in staring down the lack in the Other, the fact that the Other cannot truly tell us what we should desire, that we become free to name our own desires. The Other does not have the final answer to the question of the subject’s desire. In separation, in confronting the missing signifier (the nonexistent final, authoritative answer) in the Other, we can go from a compromising Other-determined desire to a stubbornly self-determined desire or drive (jouissance). Bruce Fink writes:
The Other supplies no explanation for the subject’s being or for the subject’s enjoyment, no raison d’être, no cause to embrace: The subject has to take responsibility for all that himself. The Other simply points or gestures beyond herself. Lacan suggests that the neurotic is not sufficiently confronted with this, except perhaps in analysis or in an exceptional life event, such as what Hamlet experiences at the end of Shakespeare’s play. As Lacan puts it at the very end of Seminar VI, “The neurotic’s desire is what is born when there is no God” (June 24, 1959), that is, when no ideal, answer, or guarantee is supplied by the Other. Desire, if it is to be something other than just the Other’s desire, requires absence, requires that something be missing and that this “something missing” be symbolized.
(Lacan to the Letter: Reading Écrits Closely, p. 123)
This subjective destitution, this overwhelming encounter with truth, this acceptance of the groundlessness of one’s desire, is precisely the moment of authentic freedom, that is, the moment wherein the subject must accept full responsibility for his or her own desire without the comforting support of Other-centric fantasy (fantasy being a schematic of desire rooted in the interpretation of the Other’s desire). But, in a sense, we can even say that this where the subject says “Adieu!” to desire as such. If desire is fundamentally Other-determined, then “authentic desire” really should be thought of in different terms. According to Žižek, the “law of desire” is really the “law of drive”. Freedom is the embrace of the idiosyncratic jouissance of one’s drives, which is one’s authentic “desire”. The law of drive says, “Do not compromise your jouissance even in the face of death . . . just like Antigone!”
With regard to this relation between drive and desire, we could perhaps risk a small rectification of the Lacanian maxim of the psychoanalytic ethic “not to cede one’s desire”: is not desire as such already a certain yielding, a kind of compromise formation, a metonymic displacement, retreat, a defense against intractable drive? “To desire” means to give way on the drive — insofar as we follow Antigone and “do not give way on our desire,” do we not precisely step out of the domain of desire, do we not shift from the modality of desire into the modality of pure drive?
(Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, p. 172)
This is the spirit of the ethics of psychoanalysis. It’s not about forcing the subject to desire specific desires or enjoy specific enjoyments. It is all about giving the subject the chance to freely determine these things without the “authoritative” influence of the big Other. Marc De Kesel really succeeds at summarizing the ethics of psychoanalysis for us:
If I do in fact wish to grant my neighbor his singular enjoyment and, thus, affirm the radical finitude of my ethical impact on him, it is impossible for me to define ethics exclusively in terms of the good. Such a point of departure still makes me blow “hot and cold.” The ultimate aim of the moral endeavor is a completely singular enjoyment and, since this escapes the moral law by definition, it cannot but be defined as “evil.” Nevertheless, this doesn’t prevent the ethical dimension of psychoanalysis from granting a place precisely to this enjoyment. It can do so only insofar as it recognizes its own limits, its own finitude. That is why psychoanalysis, first, must start from the position that it cannot fulfill the analysand’s demands. Instead of the good the analysand demands, it can only confront her with her desire for an enjoyment beyond every good. Second, psychoanalysis must realize that it is able to lead the analysand only to the “threshold” of her singular jouissance (Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, p. 22). Once there, the analyst must for ethical reasons let the patient go: it is up to her to assume the lack of her desire, which is for psychoanalysis the “ethical act” par excellence. It is only in this way that one can grant the other her desire and her singular enjoyment in the name of an “ethics of psychoanalysis.”
(Eros and Ethics: Reading Jacques Lacan’s Seminar VII, p. 161, quote modified)
This concludes the introduction to Lacan’s theory of desire. I think that we’ve discussed all of the essential structures of the Lacanian concept of desire in this post. However, one thing is conspicuous in its absence and that thing is Lacan’s graph of desire (a graph presented in Seminar V, Seminar VI and in ‘The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire’). I just want to say that I purposely left out an analysis of this graph, since it it very complicated. I do plan on devoting an entire blog post to it in the future. With that being said, we can now turn our attention to how Lacanian desire figures into Squid Game.
PART TWO: LACANIAN DESIRE IN SQUID GAME
How is Lacan’s concept of desire relevant to Squid Game? Let’s find out, shall we? I’m primarily going to approach this through of series of reflections on various characters and some of the show’s general themes. Again, I am presupposing that the reader has made it through the entire show, so I’m not going to waste anytime giving a summary of it or sketching out introductions to each of the characters. Okay, one more time: spoiler alert!
The Desire of Gi-hun, Sae-byeok and Sang-woo
Squid Game provides us with a very straightforward assertion of Lacan’s maxim: desire is the desire of the Other. This point is driven home in Episodes 8 and 9, wherein our three main characters all disclose the truth of their desire. In Episode 8, when Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) and Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon) are lying on the bed next to each other contemplating teaming up against the “psychopathic” Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), they begin discussing what they’ll do if they win the prize money. Gi-hun starts off by saying how he’ll pay off all of his debts and buy his mother a nice shop of her own in the city. He talks how it has always been his mother’s dream to have a real store to run. More importantly, Gi-hun goes on and explains that he’ll be able to finally be a true father in the eyes of his young daughter. Sae-byeok immediately tells Gi-hun that she has a little brother who is stuck in an orphanage. She explains that she has promised her brother that she’ll soon get him out of there once and for all. She goes on to reveal that her mother is still trapped inside North Korea with no hope of escaping. Sae-byeok has also made a promise to her mother, like she has to her brother, to get her out of North Korea as soon as she’s made enough money and also to buy all three of them a house.
Sae-byeok, then, suggests to Gi-hun that the two of them make a pact. She wants to enter into a symbolic agreement with him. If one of them turns out to be the winner and the other the loser, then the winner has the obligation to help the loser’s family out. If Gi-hun wins, then he’ll make sure Sae-byeok’s mother and brother end up in a good situation, and she’ll do the same for Gi-hun’s mother and daughter. Sae-byeok desperately insists that Gi-hun swears on it. Why? Because she knows, unlike Gi-hun, that she has been mortally wounded and soon will die. While Gi-hun never officially makes the promise, he still goes on to rescue her brother from the orphanage after he defeats Sang-woo in the squid game and wins the entire competition.
What we have in this scene is the truth of both of Gi-hun’s and Sae-byeok’s desires. Both of their desires are desires for the Other’s desire. Gi-hun desires to satisfy his mother’s and daughter’s desire, whereas Sae-byeok’s desire is to satisfy the desires of her mother and brother. Ultimately, both of them desired to enter the game precisely because of the possibility it opens up, namely, the possibility of satisfying the Other’s desire. Gi-hun desires to have a certain respectable status in society and not for the sake of social recognition itself but for how it will enable him to fill his mother and daughter with enjoyment. And the same is true of Sae-byeok.
Now, Gi-hun kept his “promise” even though he never actually made it. He did this for a number of reasons, but, I believe, most importantly, because Sae-byeok intervenes right when Gi-hun is about to sneak over to Sang-woo and murder him in his sleep. Gi-hun is far from perfect, but he’s managed up until this point to retain his humanity throughout the course of this inhuman game. If he were to give into his murderous impulse and kill Sang-woo, then the good part of himself would also be killed. In stopping Gi-hun from going through with this violent act, Sae-byeok gave him the symbolic gift of himself, of his own good-hearted character. In this sense, Sae-byeok’s desire was for the desire of Gi-hun. How so? She just had learned about how he desires to become a respectable son and father, to be the type of person who can satisfy the desire of his mother and daughter. If he commits this cold-blooded murder (even one that is arguably justifiable) he will inadvertently murder the possibility of becoming the person he desires to be for his loved ones. In this moment, Sae-byeok’s desire for Gi-hun’s desire is actually what saves him. This is why he honors the unofficial promise and returns Sae-byeok’s gift with his own countergift — his desire for her desire, that is, her desire for the desires of her mother and brother.
Both of their desires for the Game were actually their desires for the Other’s desire. Is this not true of the fantasies we all have of winning the lottery? If you think to yourself about the daydreams you have about becoming excessively rich overnight, are they not primarily fantasies about what you will be able to do for the Other’s desire? Are they not explicitly Other-centric fantasies? I know this is true in my case. I think about all of the things I could do for the people I love. I imagine all of the types of wonderful possibilities I could open up for them. I could buy them far more than new commodities — I could buy them entirely new lives. I, therefore, fantasmatically desire to win the lottery precisely because I desire the desire of the Other.
This is even true in the case of heartless and self-centered Sang-woo. In Episode 9, after Gi-hun defeats him in the squid game, Gi-hun begs and pleads with Sang-woo to form a majority and end the game without either one of them having to die, which, of course, would necessarily mean that neither one of them would walk away with the prize money. This is a gigantic sacrifice that Gi-hun is willing to make for his childhood friend. However, Sang-woo refuses and stabs himself in the throat with a knife, but, then, implores Gi-hun to use some of the prize money to help his mother. Even the desire of the violently narcissistic Sang-woo was the desire of the Other. From here, Gi-hun goes on to leave Sae-byeok’s brother in the care of Sang-woo’s mother and also leaving them both a suitcase full of money, which, as we know, is the object believed to satisfy both of their desires.
This is the reason why the prize money was the object of desire for Gi-hun, Sae-byeok and Sang-woo. Money is without value so long as the Other does not desire it. The Other’s desire is precisely the objet petit a that caused the prize money to become the object of desire. It’s the particular interpretations of Other’s desire that caused objet petit a to become positioned inside the giant piggy-bank. Notice that the piggy-bank, hovering above the contestants like a piece of heaven, has a golden radiance about it, a sublime glowing hue, and this is due to the fact that it is the object of desire which contains the objet petit a.
The Desire of the Front Man
Let’s reflect on the desire of the ominous Front Man whose actual name is Hwang In-ho (played by Lee Byung-hun). The Front Man’s desire is of special interest to us, since he was the person who owned the copy of the Lacan book. What’s the fundamental link between Lacan’s theory of desire and the desire of the Front Man? Let’s keep in mind that the Front Man, without question, is the most mysterious character in the whole show. I do not think this is a coincidence and contains the secret of his connection to Lacan’s concept of desire. What the Front Man embodies is the enigma of desire itself. We cannot begin to imagine how the Front Man’s desire works at all (if there’s a second season, then they’ll likely attempt to fill in this gap by exploring his backstory).
This is a man who, like Gi-hun and the other competitors, has suffered the horrors involved in playing the games. He was even one of the winners of the competition, which means he went through more suffering than most of the other players, but, still, he ended up desiring to become a central organizer of the games? Even worse, the Front Man shoots his own brother, a brother that was willing to risk his life for him and a brother to whom he had given one of his own kidneys, simply in order to protect the Game, that is, for his desire for the Game. How could his desire lead him down this path? This brings the viewer to have a confrontation with the Che vuoi?, with the anxiety-provoking unknowability and unpredictability of the Other’s desire. In this sense, the Front Man is the personalization of pure desire. His jet black, shadowy outfit and mask perfectly represent the darkened and unfathomable void that is desire itself. However, given just how incalculable the Front Man’s desire is, I will not be surprised if he turns out to be the person who eventually brings the Game crashing down through another twist of his desire. The Front Man is the uncertain surplus of desire itself in all its enigma and that is his essential link to Lacan’s theory of desire.
The “Desire” of the VIPs
Next, I want to examine the “desire” of the VIPs with the exception of the Il-nam himself, since we’ll be taking a closer at him in another section. Now, there has been a lot of negative feedback on the VIPs from various film and TV critics. They criticize the VIPs for coming off ridiculous, cheesy, unrealistic, etc., and they also claim that the actors’ performances were rather poor. I totally understand why these criticisms are being made, but I also think these choices were intentional. And even if they weren’t intentional, they still have something important to convey. The capitalists do not come off as real human beings, but, instead, as obscene and silly caricatures, which stands in sharp contrast to the gritty realism of all of the other characters. Why? I claim that it has everything to do with their “desire” or lack thereof. Their off-putting, inhuman Otherness stems from their very lack of desire or their lack of a lack. They are pure embodiments of surplus-jouissance who lack nothing except desire itself.
We’ve seen how objet petit a is the impossible object-cause of desire, but what this boils down to is that it is a structural obstacle or ontological impediment. Desire requires an obstacle in order to desire, something must be in its way, and objet petit a itself functions as this built-in obstacle. The ontologico-structural obstacle is given body in an ontic-empirical obstacle. In other words, the objet petit a is the obstacle that, in the last instance, can never fully be overcome, but actual obstacles that block us from attaining what we desire serve as concrete embodiments of the structural obstacle. The more obstacles that get in the way of one’s desire, the more one’s desire intensifies. Consider how the long distance in a long-distance relationship is exactly what functions as objet petit a. What we find in these sorts of relationships is that once the obstacle is removed, once the long distance has been negated and the two lovers are actually able to live together, their desire often fades. It was the long distance itself that was primarily the motivating cause of their desire for one another.
The excessively rich and privileged capitalists in Squid Game basically have no obstacles in the paths of their desires. I am not implying that they are not desiring subjects in the strictest sense of the term, that they have entirely “eaten” their impossible objects, but they also do not desire in the way the rest of us do. Unlike us, they can have whatever they desire whenever they desire it and this is precisely how they end up sabotaging their very ability to desire. We could even say that these capitalists are actually stuck within a crisis of desire for the very reason that their wealth actually functions as an obstacle of the obstacle. What I mean by this is that they cannot actually desire concrete objects because they have the ability to immediately possess them. This unrestrained, direct access to every commodity imaginable prevents objet petit a from getting embodied in any of them at all. While these capitalists do not negate objet petit a, they do negate the object of desire. There is, for them, a unbearable rift between the structural object (object-cause of desire) and the empirical object (object of desire). It’s strange how money can go from the supreme object of desire, the one in whom objet petit a shines with the most sublime brilliance, to being the very object that prevents objet petit a from radiantly indwelling any object whatsoever — again, superabundant wealth is the obstacle of the obstacle.
I do not believe that the VIPs were all born sadists, but came to enjoy sadistic jouissance due to the disaster that is their lack of desire. What these capitalists actually desire is desire. They desire to desire again. The only “object” they cannot immediately get their hands on is desire itself. This leads them to seek out the few transgressive acts that can function as obstacles. The games are the only obstacles in the way their desire and enjoyment. There’s a certain risk involved here insofar as if word of these activities were to get out, if this information was officially registered by the Law (big Other), then they all could lose everything. But, at the same time, strict precautions have been made to insure that they will continue to get away with it (remember, the Game started in 1988 and is still going on). With that being said, even their sadistic jouissance seems rather lackluster and pathetic. There’s no intense passion in them. Theirs is a charade of desire and jouissance. The VIPs are the larpers of libido. Even the whole ritualistic structure they force on themselves at the games is a last ditch effort to impose obstacles that momentarily prevent their immediate gratification, but, since they can remove said obstacles at any moment, these sham impediments themselves cannot have the libidinal charge of the true impediments. The games are not indicative of their absolute power and unconstrained enjoyment, but, rather, of their abysmal castration (they’re so castrated that they cannot even desire in any meaningful sense). But the crisis of their desire and jouissance is the crisis of their extreme wealth. The one thing they believe is the condition of their excessive enjoyment is precisely what makes it impossible. The ones who can have and do whatever they desire whenever they desire it are the only ones who cannot ever truly desire or truly enjoy — impossibility is the possibility of desire.
Despite the general consensus, I hold that the show succeeds in its portrayal of the VIPs. I say this because of the fact that there is nothing seductive, alluring or enticing about them. Whenever Hollywood depicts capitalists, even when a film is attempting to critique them, they always still come off as enviable. No matter how much Hollywood films directly or indirectly shame capitalists for their greed and corruption, they still cannot resist the temptation to glamorize capitalistic jouissance (especially, it’s Americanized variety). Nowhere is this truer than in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and Martin Scorsese’ The Wolf of Wall Street. You know was well as I do that we all harbor a secret desire to live the life of a Gordon Gecko or a Jordan Belfort if only for a single day — champagne wishes and caviar dreams. However, the depictions of capitalists in Squid Game do not cause me to desire anything about their jouissance. They are wholly repulsive, pathetic, unenviable, and so on . . . you know, just like Jeffery Epstein.
The Desire of Il-nam
So, it turns out that Il-nam, the lovable old man who befriended Gi-hun as a fellow contestant, is actually a VIP and one of the original organizers of the Game. However, there’s a reason why I chose not to lump him in with the rest of the sadistic capitalists and that reason has everything to do with his fundamental fantasy and the role it played in constituting his desire to form the games. During his death bed confession, Il-nam explains to Gi-hun the reasons he had for founding the Game:
Do you know what someone who doesn’t have any money has in common with someone with too much money to know what to do with? Living is no fun for either of them. If you have too much money, then it doesn’t matter what you buy, or eat, or drink, or whatever. Everything, well, it all gets boring. All of my clients started to eventually say the exact same things whenever we talked. Everybody felt that there was no joy in their lives anymore. And so, we decided to get together. We did a little bit of thinking. What could we all do to finally have some fun.
The crisis of Il-nam’s desire is ultimately a crisis of fantasy. It’s safe to assume that early on in his life, his fantasy was to become a successful businessman who could buy anything he liked, but the crisis emerges right when he actually realizes the fantasy. For him, there was only trauma in the realization of his fantasy because it entailed all things becoming undesirable. Gi-hun, then, asks Il-nam what drove him to actually participate in the Game. Il-nam explains:
Oh, well, in my childhood I always had so much fun out doing things with all of my friends. We’d lose track of time for hours. I wanted to just feel something just one last time before I die. And you are not going to get that feeling if you are just going to spectate. I desperately wanted that. . . . By joining and playing with you I got that chance to feel again. Thanks to you I got to remember all these things that I had forgotten long ago. It had been such a long time since I was able to have that much fun.
I claim that this contains the truth of Il-nam’s fundamental fantasy, which has a special relation to the gaze. Il-nam, like the other VIPs, desires to truly desire and enjoy once again, but his is unique given how his fantasy is structured around the child’s gaze. For him, only children can experience the wonders of desire and jouissance, which, of course, is a fantasmatic construction. Žižek has explored the essential link between nostalgic fantasies and the gaze of the child. He writes, “The innocent, naive gaze of the other that fascinates us in nostalgia is in the last resort always the gaze of a child” (Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, p. 114). And this is why Il-nam’s desire is so fixated on his fantasmatic recreations of his childhood memories. The only thing that can cause Il-nam to desire is the nostalgic gaze-object of his childhood self. What Žižek says about the film Body Heat can just as easily be applied to Il-nam’s desire: “Its whole power of fascination is bestowed upon it by the fact that it looks at the present with the eyes of the mythical past” (Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, pp. 112).
But why is his childhood gaze an object and not a subjective look or perspective? Because what he’s done in his fantasy space is isolate his childhood look in a freeze frame. It’s an objectification of his innocent perspective on things. Of course, childhood is not some perfectly euphoric state, but we retroactively cause it to be one through the magic of fantasy’s “editing software”. Il-nam took some his early memories of he and his friends having fun while playing children’s games and, then, fantasmatically reconstituted them in an idealized, purified and sublimated form. From the fantasy-perspective of Il-nam, what’s so special about the child’s gaze is that it never encounters the gaze-object, that is to say, it never experiences any discrepancy or tension between itself and the world (full immersion in enjoyment) — children never have to face up with how their desire is distorting what they see. Simply put, the child’s gaze is immune to the illness of a crisis of desire (but this is true only in fantasy). The child’s experience of the world remains unperturbed by the gaze’s de-neutralization of the world. As McGowan puts it:
In his Seminar XI Jacques Lacan names the distortion that desire produces in the visual field le regard or the gaze. . . . The gaze, as Lacan theorizes it, is not the simple act of looking and the mastery involved in that act (as the English-speaking interpreters of Lacan had it), but rather the point at which the distortion caused by the subject’s desire becomes visible as a disruption in the visual field. In short, the gaze is nothing but the way that the subject’s desire deforms what it sees. It is the impossibility of a neutral or natural field of vision. At the point of the gaze, the subject is an absent presence in the visual field that is responsible for the field’s distorted character, its lack of neutrality. The gaze is political in the sense that it exposes the unnatural status of the apparently natural visible world.
(Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Costs of Free Markets, pp. 78–9
Il-nam was able to “have fun” again only against the background of a fantasy centered around the gaze of the child, that is, this is Il-man seeing himself seeing — a literal case of from outside looking in. We can even say that this nostalgic gaze-object of his younger self functions as the Other’s desire that causes his desire. This child-gaze is his objet petit a and it is the impossible object that causes his desire to participate in the Game. It is impossible in the sense that Il-nam cannot actually be a child again, can never truly occupy a child’s perspective, except for the briefest of moments of make-believe during the games thanks to the retroactive power of fantasy. But it’s because it is literally impossible to be a child again that Il-nam’s desire can desire something unattainable. Il-nam goes from a broken fantasy ($ . . . a) to an operating one ($ ◊ a). Simply put, Il-nam necessitated a new fantasy in order to enjoy. Jacques Alain-Miller clarifies this for us: “Jouissance in one respect is nothing other than desire, which is at the same time dead desire. This makes all the more important the second term where Lacan inscribes jouissance, that is, the fantasy which accounts for everything that jouissance has of life. The fantasy consists of life” (Paradigms of Jouissance, pp. 25–6)
To summarize, we can say that, in Heideggerian terms, an encounter with the gaze is what happens when desire itself becomes “unready-to-hand”. In other words, a confrontation with the gaze occurs whenever desire itself has malfunctioned and the subject is forced to stand back, evaluate and reckon with its own desire as a “dense” object. If objet petit a, when operating properly, is similar to the spot light that makes a dancer (object of desire) stand out against a darkened background (non-desirable objects), then the encounter with the gaze is what it would be like if the spot light itself (objet petit a, cause of desire) came to occupy the very light (desire) meant for the dancer (object of desire). We can, thus, say that the gaze is the glitch of desire.
This, in turn, indicates an even more fundamental failure in one’s fantasy structure. The encounter with the gaze occurs when fantasy breaks down and objet petit a gets temporally dislodged from its containment in the frame of fantasy. Due to its abrupt expulsion from the imaginary lens of fantasy, it is free to wonder about in the actual visual field, which continuously imposes a crisis of desire on the subject so long as it endures ( we have here an invisible blot that gets positioned in the actual blurry spots in the field of vision and disrupts its consistency).
How can the subject fix this anxiety-provoking situation? The construction of a new fantasy is the main strategy the subject can adopt in order to get desire up and running again. Put differently, the constitution of a new fantasmatic frame is precisely what can recapture the gaze, force it to withdraw from the subject’s visual experience and be confined once again to the unconscious space of the fundamental fantasy.
These are the four key moments in Il-nam’s reconstitution of desire: 1. Il-nam’s fantasy structure breaks down, 2. he perpetually encounters his gaze (crisis of desire), 3. he constitutes a nostalgic fantasy, 4. he is able to desire and enjoy precisely because he cannot realize the new fantasy. What caused Il-nam’s fantasy structure to implode and free the gaze (objet petit a) is that he actually realized his fantasy space. The actualization of his fantasmatic self is precisely what dilapidated it as a fantasy. It was only by way of generating a new fantasmatic image of himself, his childhood “self”, which he cannot literally realize, that he could desire once more. Perhaps childhood is the ultimate object of fantasy for the very reason that it is literally impossible to reattain. This absolute impossibility is what floods the nostalgic fantasies of childhood with a highly concentrated jouissance.
Deok-su’s Obsessional Desire and Mi-nyeo’s Hysterical Desire
I’m only going to mention this in passing, but I do think the characters of Deok-su and Mi-nyeo respectively typify the desire of the obsessional and the desire of the hysteric. For Lacan, obsession and hysteria are the two main forms that neurosis can take on. Both of them are different ways of responding to repression and castration. In the simplest terms, the obsessional subject employs a number of strategies to block out the desire of the Other and focus solely on his or her own desire, whereas the hysteric heavily fixates on the desire of the Other. Deok-su is a gangster who is a total narcissist that does everything he can to avoid taking the Other’s desire into account. Mi-nyeo may seem equally as narcissistic, but, in truth, she quickly gets hung up on Deok-su’s desire after making a pact with him during sex. He promises her that they will “stick together” until the very end of the Game and that the two of them will both make it out alive. She, then, gives him a big warning: “You betray me, I’ll kill you, okay?” But, of course, Deok-su stabs her in the back the moment it serves his own interest. This betrayal deeply wounds and infuriates Mi-nyeo, which leads her to be the one who eventually kills Deok-su. Hey, she warned him.
Anyway, the hysteric has real trouble dealing with infidelity in all of its various forms. Why? Because of the hysteric’s paradoxical desire. On the one hand, the hysteric desires the one who has the “phallus” or, in simple terms, the person who appears to be completely whole, self-sufficient, exceptionally powerful, etc. Hysterics are all too familiar with the uncertainty of their desire. Hysterics do not know what they want, so they are seduced and captivated by figures of mastery and certainty. The hysteric desires the one who does not lack. But on the other hand, it is precisely the lack in the Other that the hysteric desires to fill while simultaneously keeping that desire alive. The hysteric paradoxically desires to (1) be with an Other who does not lack and (2) fill in that last remaining lack in the Other while still sustaining that lack. The hysteric’s desire and identity become centered around being the object that fills in the gap in the Other and evokes its desire. And, so, whenever the hysteric is cheated on or betrayed, whenever the hysteric is smacked in the face by the Other’s disregard, it necessarily triggers a crisis in desire and identity. This is what we see occur in the relationship between Deok-su and Mi-nyeo. This encapsulates the antagonism between obsession and hysteria — the former cares too little about the Other’s desire and the latter cares far too much. There is no “sexual relationship” or built-in compatibility between obsessional desire and hysterical desire.
The Ethical Act of Ji-yeong
I hold that the greatest moment in the entire show is towards the end of Episode 6 during the game of marbles, wherein Ji-yeong performs an ethical act and sacrifices her own life for the life of Sae-byeok. Here, we are dealing with the ethics of desire as developed by Lacan in Seminar VII. It was in this seminar that Lacan brought some new concepts into his psychoanalytic repertoire. These concepts include the ethics of psychoanalysis, the ethical act, the two deaths, etc., and his key example of all this is Sophocles’ Antigone. Let’s have Zupančič contextualize this for us:
Another example might better express the ethical issue at stake here, as well as allow us to outline the framework of the ‘ethics of desire’ — the example Lacan introduces in his seminar The Ethics of Psychoanalysis: Antigone. Antigone stops at nothing in order to carry out her intention of burying her brother Polynices. In her persistence she is not guided by any ‘good’: neither her own (the only ‘good’ awaiting her is burial alive), nor the good of the community represented by Creon (the consequence of Antigone’s act is the ruin of the community, the fall of the kingdom). Her starting point is an unconditional ‘must’ — Polynices must be buried.
At any number of points in the drama, Antigone could have stopped and asked herself: ‘Is it really worth it?’ ‘Is it worth insisting on doing this, given the circumstances?’ In this case, of course, there would be no Antigone. To be sure, there will always be someone willing to defend the point of view that Antigone would have acted even more ethically had she renounced her quest to bury her brother and saved the kingdom. This kind of ethics, however, does not enter the perspective opened by Kant, nor the one discussed by Lacan, for they both reaffirm ethics in a perspective which is far from comfortable. They situate the ethical act in a dimension which is neither the dimension of the law (in the usual, sociojuridical sense of the word) nor the dimension of a simple transgression of the law (Antigone is not an activist, fighting for ‘human rights’ that are being trampled down by a tyrannical state), but that of the Real.
(Ethics of the Real, pp. 57–8)
The point, however, is that Antigone’s story involves a symbolic suicide and not merely a literal or actual one. But what is the difference between the two deaths? Žižek writes, “This act of symbolic suicide, this withdrawal from symbolic reality, is to be opposed strictly to the suicide ‘in reality’. The latter remains caught in the network of symbolic communication: by killing himself, the subject attempts to send a message to the Other, i.e., it is an act that functions as an acknowledgement of guilt, a sobering warning, a pathetic appeal . . . , whereas the symbolic suicide aims to exclude the subject from the very intersubjective circuit” (Enjoy Your Symptom!, pp. 43–4). Symbolic suicide primarily relates to the Symbolic and the Imaginary. For example, take a professional baseball player. This person is a baseball player because they base their identity on the idealized image of a great baseball player. This image is the person’s ideal ego. Now, the ego is the ego only by making a series of (mis)identifications. A baseball player identifies with bats, jerseys, team logos, other baseball players, etc. None of these things are actually the player, but the player produces a sense of self (ego) by making a (mis)identification with them. “Oh, that’s me!” But our Symbolic identities are different from our Imaginary identities while still being connected to them. The baseball player’s Symbolic identity is comprised of the social status it brings and by the rules the player must follow (the rules of baseball).
But what happens if this baseball player decides to break apart this identity? What if the player decides to walk away from baseball and never play again? A symbolic suicide occurs. The person is not literally dead but a death has happened nonetheless. This death is that of a social identity. Abstractly speaking, it seems relatively easy to commit this suicide, but, concretely speaking, it can be unthinkable. Just imagine how much of this person’s life has been invested in building and cultivating this social identity. This process could’ve began early on in childhood. On top of that, there’s the question of how the person will support themselves. Walking away from your profession usually entails walking away from your livelihood. However, this sort of symbolic suicide is really just the death of a person’s particular position in society and not their universal position within it. Symbolic suicide proper is one’s social death, that is, a death in the eyes of the Law (big Other) as such.
Symbolic suicide is no easy task, since it hurls one into a space Lacan called the “between two deaths”. Here, a person is stuck between symbolic death and actual death — neither (socially) alive nor (literally) dead. And as we already know, Lacan’s prime example of this is Antigone. As Žižek puts it, “Is not Lacan’s analysis of Antigone focused on the moment when she finds herself in the state ‘in between the two deaths’, reduced to a living death, excluded from the symbolic domain?” (The Ticklish Subject, p. 189).
Long story short, Polynices, Antigone’s brother, has died in battle, but due to the surrounding circumstances, King Creon is refusing to allow Polynices to have a proper burial or even to be mourned. Well, Antigone is having none of that. She gets caught defying Creon and is forced to go talk to him about it. She basically says, “Yes, I mourned my brother, you piece of shit! Fuck you! I serve God’s Law and not yours! I stand by what I did and, on top of that, I unconditionally demand that you let my brother have a respectable burial!” Creon does not tolerate that, so he has Antigone buried alive in a tomb (symbolic death, first death). Creon eventually decides to change his mind, but it’s already too late. Tragically, Antigone has hung herself (literal death, second death). But don’t worry, Creon ends up getting what’s coming to him. His son and wife kill themselves directly because of his choice to entomb Antigone. See, the son was in love with Antigone, so he kills himself once he learns of her death. Then the son’s mother, in turn, kills herself because the son killed himself. Here’s how Žižek sums it up:
Let us begin with Antigone who, according to Lacan, irradiates a sublime beauty from the very moment she enters the domain between two deaths, between her symbolic and her actual death. What characterizes her innermost posture is precisely her insistence on a certain unconditional demand on which she is not prepared to give way: a proper burial for her brother. It is the same with the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who returns from his grave with the demand that Hamlet revenge his infamous death. This connection between drive as an unconditional demand and the domain between the two deaths is also visible in popular culture. In the film The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a cyborg who returns to contemporary Los Angeles from the future, with the intention of killing the mother of a future leader. The horror of this figure consists precisely in the fact that it functions as a programmed automaton who, even when all that remains of him is a metallic, legless skeleton, persists in his demand and pursues his victim with no trace of compromise or hesitation. The terminator is the embodiment of the drive, devoid of desire.
(Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, pp. 21–2)
The reason why Antigone was willing to risk it all was because she had an unconditional demand (“Bury my brother!”). It didn’t matter to her if it cost her her social life. She made the ethical choice to choose her drive or pure desire (we’ve already seen how Žižek explains the turn from desire to drive) over the comfort, pleasure and security of her social identity. Now we can see how the death drive is operative within symbolic suicide.
Death drive is not a drive to literally die. No! It’s a drive that seeks to destroy our social selves and all the baggage (limitations, restrictions) they bring with them. It’s a “will” to begin again, to free ourselves from the fixity of our Imaginary-Symbolic identities. As Lacan said of the death drive, “Will to destruction. Will to make a fresh start. . . . Freud’s thought in this matter requires that what is involved be articulated as a destruction drive, given that it challenges everything that exists. But it is also a will to create from zero, a will to begin again” (Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, p. 212). As Žižek pointed out, Antigone’s death drive became aligned to her unconditional demand and it was precisely this assemblage that allowed her to commit symbolic suicide, and, thereby, refuse to accept the commands of Creon. What we see in Antigone is a kind of fusion between demand, desire and drive. Marc De Kesel is especially helpful here:
Thus “desire” is also the term Lacan uses here to think the finitude of the ethical law. That law must inevitably profess the realization of its promised good, but can in fact never do anything more than make us long for it. This is the desire, says Lacan, that shines in the figure of Antigone. It is not coincidental that, following this allusion to his subject theory, he talks about Antigone’s tragic gesture and interprets it as a radical act of desire: “[Antigone] pushes to the limit the realization [accomplissement] of something that might be called the pure and simple desire of death as such. She incarnates that desire” (Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, p. 282). . . . Antigone’s act is one of pure desire. “Pure,” because all elements that usually keep desire repressed are set aside. The discursive order of significations that provide this unrestrained desire with a protective meaning falls away. The metonymic displacement of signifiers also strands itself on the one literal dead signifier “Polyneices.” Even the subject of this desire (Antigone) is so carried away by that desire that it forgets its function of bearer and is at risk of disappearing. The “accomplishment” (“realization”) Lacan talks about here does not mean the fulfillment of desire in the sense of jouissance. Rather, it is a matter of keeping that desire going “to the limit,” a limit behind which both the Other and the subject who bears that Other disappear. In this way, desire becomes a “pure and simple desire of death,” a desire that goes beyond the self-preservation of the subject. Here, “accomplishment” thus does not mean that desire, now purified of all foreign elements, has come to the end of its odyssey and finally attained itself. On the contrary, the death principle means that desire never comes home, and its support (i.e., the locus where it lies and from where it operates) by definition lies not in itself but in the symbolic Other — an Other that, in its turn, has its “subject” (the place where it “finds itself”) only in the fictional place from which the drive regulates its libidinal economy.
(Eros and Ethics: Reading Jacques Lacan’s Seminar VII, pp. 224–5, quote modified)
David Hume said of actual suicide, “If suicide be criminal, it must be a transgression of our duty either to God, our neighbour, or ourselves” (Selected Essays, ‘On Suicide’, p. 316). Maybe, maybe not, when it comes to literal suicide, but what about symbolic suicide? Isn’t it just the reverse? Is it not the case that oftentimes the ethical thing to do is to commit symbolic suicide? It certainly was in the case of Antigone. Sometimes, symbolic suicide is one’s ethical duty in accordance with the law of desire: “do not give ground relative to one’s desire”. And the fulfilment of this ethical act might very well involve the suspension of one’s “instinct” for self-preservation.
Alright, now back to Squid Game. The key to Ji-yeong’s sacrificial death is that she forces herself to die the first death before dying the second one, to undergo symbolic death before really being killed. Let’s keep in mind that Ji-yeong and Sae-byeok were more or less total strangers at the beginning of this game. Once these young women realize that the rules of the marbles game dictate that they must play against each other and that only one of them will make it out alive, they decide to play only one round of one simple game. They, then, agree to take the remaining time to get to know one another by telling each other things they’ve never told to anybody else. Sae-byeok explains how she escaped from North Korea to South Korea because she thought that “things were good over here” while also silently expressing her disappointment in how things have gone for her in South Korea. Sae-byeok goes on to explain the situation with her mother and brother. She also talks about how her father was shot to death trying to flee North Korea and, later, tells of a plague that went through her town that killed her grandmother, grandfather and older brother (she watched as soldiers threw their bodies in a pile and lit them on fire). She tells Ji-yeong of her desire to help her mother and brother by freeing them from their miserable circumstances and buying them a house. She joined the game in the hopes of winning the prize money just so she can realize their desire (Other’s desire). Sae-byeok also expresses her desire to travel to Jeju Island, which, to her, is an exotic paradise (or a land of jouissance).
Sae-byeok asks Ji-yeong if she’s ever seen a dead body before. She describes how she arrived home from school one day to find her mother lying dead on the floor. It gets worse. Standing next to her mother’s body was her “so-called dad with a knife”. Ji-yeong says that the second dead body she ever saw was her own father’s after she had killed him for killing her mother. Her father was also a pastor who would go pray to God and ask for forgiveness after terribly abusing her and her mother. Sae-byeok asks her what she’ll do with the prize money if she wins it. She says that she isn’t sure about that.
The two of them finally decide to play the single round. They’ll each throw one marble towards a wall and whoever threw the marble that’s closest to the wall will win the round. Before starting the game, they both tell each other their names. Up until this point, they had only been numbers to each other. This symbolic exchange of their painful secrets, intimate desires and also of their names is what seals their bond. Sae-byeok goes first and throws her marble close to the wall. Ji-yeong steps forward to take her turn, but, then, does something unexpected — she drops her marble right where she stands. This makes Sae-byeok the winner of the game. Sae-byeok gets angry and insists that Ji-yeong take another turn but she refuses. Ji-yeong says, “I have nothing”. She admits that she has no reason the live and that Sae-byeok does. Ji-yeong even confesses that she can’t really think of anything in particular she would want to do with the prize money if she won it. She insists that it is “right” for Sae-byeok to get out of the Game the winner and tells her, “You can do it. Don’t die in here, okay? And go meet your mother. Go get your brother too. And go to Jeju Island.” Sae-byeok’s only response is to cry. As Sae-byeok walks away, right before the guard shoots Ji-yeong in the head, Ji-yeong says, “Kang Sae-byeok! Thank you for playing with me.”
Here we have an exceptional example of the ethical act of the law of desire. Ji-yeong does not compromise her desire, which, in this case, is the desire of Sae-byeok. Just as Antigone absolutely demanded that Polynices receive a proper burial, so, too, Ji-yeong emphatically insists that Sae-byeok gets to rescue her family. The Bible says, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). A Lacanian version of this verse would be something like: there is no greater love than sacrificing oneself for the sake of the Other’s desire. But Ji-yeong remains utterly faithful to her own desire — it’s just that her desire is Sae-byeok’s desire. As McGowan said to me, “For Lacan, the ethical act occurs when we don’t betray our desire. But there is no difference between one’s own desire and the desire of the Other. That’s why I think in this case she sees her desire in the desire of the Other, and thus gives herself up” (cited from personal correspondence). Ji-yeong’s desire for Sae-byeok’s desire is authentic here, since she “named” it herself. She freely choose it as her desire. And in throwing down her marble and letting Sae-byeok win, Ji-yeong entered the space between two deaths. She committed the symbolic suicide of killing herself as a player in the game and this is precisely what gives her literal death so much symbolic weight. It was through striking at herself, sacrificing her self-interest for her desire of Sae-byeok’s desire, that Ji-yeong was able to inflict a symbolic revenge on the Game itself. How so? Žižek has argued that there is a certain freedom in striking at oneself in an act:
In Speed, when the hero (Keanu Reeves) is confronting the terrorist blackmailer who is holding his partner at gunpoint, the hero shoots not the blackmailer, but his own partner in the leg — this apparently senseless act momentarily shocks the blackmailer, who releases the hostage and runs away. . . . In Ransom, when the media tycoon (Mel Gibson) goes on television to answer the kidnappers’ request for two million dollars as a ransom for his son, he surprises everyone by saying that he will offer two million dollars to anyone who will give him any information about the kidnappers, and announces that he will pursue them to the end, with all his resources, if they do not release his son immediately. This radical gesture not only stuns the kidnappers — immediately after accomplishing it, Gibson himself almost breaks down, aware of the risk he is courting. . . . And, finally, the supreme case: when, in the flashback scene from The Usual Suspects, the mysterious Keyser Soeze returns home and finds his wife and small daughter held at gunpoint by the members of a rival mob, he resorts to the radical gesture of shooting his wife and daughter themselves dead — this act enables him mercilessly to pursue members of the rival gang, their families, parents and friends, killing them all. . . . What these three gestures have in common is that in a situation of forced choice, the subject makes the ‘crazy’, impossible choice of, in a way, striking at himself, at what is most precious to himself. This act, far from amounting to a case of’ impotent aggressivity turned against oneself, rather changes the co-ordinates of the situation in which the subject finds himself: by cutting himself loose from the precious object through whose possession the enemy kept him in check, the subject gains the space of free action. Is not such a radical gesture of ‘striking at oneself’ constitutive of subjectivity as such?
(The Fragile Absolute, pp. 139–40)
The idea is that ethical act or simply “the act” does the impossible and, therefore, restructures the very social conditions in which it occurred. To do the impossible is the make the impossible possible. Žižek also says, “An act accomplishes what, within the given symbolic universe, appears to be ‘impossible’, yet it changes its conditions so that it creates retroactively the conditions of its own possibility” (Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, p. 121). Once this is accomplished, it can be repeated by others because they now know it is a possibility open to them. The impossible act that Ji-yeong performs is that of acting in the most selfless way within the the most selfish of situations. The game is designed and engineered to isolate individuals and pit them against one another, since there can only be one winner, but Ji-yeong’s stubborn fidelity to her desire (Sae-byeok’s desire) is what enables her to do the ethical in unethical conditions. Whereas Sang-woo acts in perfect conformity to the egocentric rules of the game in tricking Abdul Ali out his marbles, which immediately led to his death, Ji-yeong’s ethical act operates outside of the rules and retroactively changes them. It transforms them by showing that one does not have to play by them at all. Žižek says:
However, what about the retroactivity of a gesture which (re)constitutes this past itself? This, perhaps, is the most succinct definition of what an authentic act is: in our ordinary activity, we effectively just follow the (virtual-fantasmatic) co-ordinates of our identity, while an act proper is the paradox of an actual move which (retroactively) changes the very virtual, ‘transcendental’ co-ordinates of its agent’s being — or, in Freudian terms, which does not only change the actuality of our world, but also ‘moves its underground’. We have thus a kind of reflexive ‘folding back of the condition onto the given it was the condition for’: while the pure past is the transcendental condition for our acts, our acts do not only create new actual reality, they also retroactively change this very condition.
(Event, p. 144)
In this case, the retroactive power in Ji-yeong’s act is directly connected to it involving a self-inflicted loss. The fact that she was willing to resolutely sacrifice her life for the desire of a total stranger is what makes the impossible become possible here. This, too, is precisely what puts Ji-yeong in the same category of the likes of Oedipus, Antigone and Hamlet, which is why her tragedy resonates with us so much. McGowan’s interpretation of tragedy is very insightful:
Even if tragedy as an art form doesn’t offer us much in the way of pleasure, it does provide an opportunity for us to enjoy. While watching a tragedy, we enjoy the repetition of the experience of loss. What’s more, tragedy does not simply depict a random loss. The loss it highlights is always in some sense self-inflicted. Oedipus blinds himself; Antigone defies Creon in order to make her death inevitable; Hamlet chooses to confront Claudius even though he knows it will cost him his life; and so on. The tragic hero is at once the agent responsible for the experience of loss and the one who endures it. Even when tragic heroes are not initially responsible for their fall, like Oedipus in Oedipus Tyrannus, they assume responsibility, as if they had willed it, which has the effect of transforming the externally inflicted wound into a self-inflicted one. Tragedy’s focus on the self-inflicted loss returns us as spectators to our own initial loss of the privileged object — the primordial self-inflicted wound. The enjoyment that tragedy produces in the spectator occurs through the repetition of sacrifice.
(Enjoying What We Don’t Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis, p. 39)
Back to Gi-hun’s Desire
I just want to make two final points concerning Gi-hun’s desire as explored in the last episode. To start with, Gi-hun, like the Front Man, found no satisfaction in the money he won. Both of them could have gone anywhere and done anything, but were only left desiring something else. Gi-hun desires that he had never even entered the game nor won the prize money. The Frontman ends up desiring to oversee the Game itself. In other words, desire shows itself to be enigmatically unpredictable in both cases. Neither of them desired what they thought they desired. Il-nam also did not find satisfaction in wealth. This is the Möbius Strip of desire — the moment you think you’re about to get objet petit a (turn to the “other side” of the strip), it slides out of the object of desire (you’re back on the same side of the strip). To desire is to desire the impossible.
Gi-hun was only able to really desire again only when he freely started giving away his money to others, i.e., sacrificing for the Other’s desire. He reignites his desire for both Sae-byeok’s and Sang-woo’s desires for him to help their loved ones. After leaving Sae-byeok’s brother in the care of Sang-woo’s mother and giving them a whole lot money, Gi-hun turns his attention to the desire of his own daughter.
He decides to reconnect with her by travelling to America for a visit. However, on his way to the airport, he catches a glimpse of the Recruiter right in the middle of manipulating another man into joining the Game. Gi-hun rushes over to confront the Recruiter but he escapes. Gi-hun warns the other man to not participate in the Game and takes the card with the contact number away from him. Now Gi-hun is enraged by the sharp reminder that the Game is still going on. As Gi-hun is about to board the plane for his flight to America, he cannot resist dialing the number and having a little chat. He says to the person who answers the phone, “I’m not a horse. I’m a person. That’s why I wanna know who you people are, and how you can do these horrible things to people.” The voice on the other end of the phone call warns Gi-hun to not “get any absurd ideas”. Gi-hun responds, “It wasn’t a dream. I can’t forgive you for everything you’re doing.” The Front Man now says to him, “Just get on that plane. It’s for your own good.” Gi-hun hangs up the phone and turns around. He, then, begins to walk back up the jet bridge. He has just named his desire and that signifier is “The Game must be destroyed”. Here, he makes the ethical act. He is willing to strike at himself, to once again ruin his relationship with his daughter, in order to take down the Game. In sacrificing his rational self-interest, his ability to live a life filled with economic prosperity and privileged social status, he performs the impossible act and refuses to give ground relative to his desire. The Game must not be allowed to continue on.
We can even read Gi-hun’s desire as a symptom. In what way? The psychoanalytic concept of the symptom sees it as that which problematizes the functioning of a human being while also having its source in that very person’s unconscious subjectivity. The symptom is the obstacle of subjectivity that originates in subjectivity. In other words, a symptom is an internal contradiction. Žižek uses Freud and Marx to show how the wage laborer (proletariat) is the social symptom of capitalist society. This centers around the concept of freedom.
This procedure thus implies a certain logic of exception: every ideological Universal — for example freedom, equality — is ‘false’ in so far as it necessarily includes a specific case which breaks its unity, lays open its falsity. Freedom, for example: a universal notion comprising a number of species (freedom of speech and press, freedom of consciousness, freedom of commerce, political freedom, and so on) but also, by means of a structural necessity, a specific freedom (that of the worker to sell freely his own labour on the market) which subverts this universal notion. That is to say, this freedom is the very opposite of effective freedom: by selling his labour ‘freely’, the worker loses his freedom — the real content of this free act of sale is the worker’s enslavement to capital. The crucial point is, of course, that it is precisely this paradoxical freedom, the form of its opposite, which closes the circle of ‘bourgeois freedoms’.
(The Sublime Object of Ideology, pp. 16–7)
It was only with the universalization of commodity production that a symptom (the wage slave) emerged in exchange (the market). The market only became exploitative when producers were “freed” from their means of production by the capitalists. Before that, exchange was fair. The universalization or generalization of commodity production brought with it the symptom: the commodity of labor power. Labor power qua new commodity is what makes equivalent exchange into its own negation. The wage paid to the laborer is equivalent to the labor power he sells (equivalence), but the catch lies in the fact his labor power (the new commodity) is capable of producing surplus value, which means that the equivalent exchange is not so equivalent. In principle, labor is paid its full value, but that’s not where the story ends. The usage of the use value (labor power) bought in equivalent exchange produces a surplus value, a value beyond the value of labor. The unequivalence of this equivalent exchange is its own intrinsic factor — this unequivalence comes straight out of the equivalence of exchange, that is, it follows from the very logic of the situation’s dynamics (a capitalist would never engage in this equivalence without its unequivalence, i.e., surplus value). This is how the capitalist walks away with more value than he started with, but this theft, this exploitation, this unequivalence, is the offspring of the exchange of equivalents (wage = value of labor).
This is also the logic of the Marxian critique of Hegel, of the Hegelian notion of society as a rational totality: as soon as we try to conceive the existing social order as a rational totality, we must include in it a paradoxical element which, without ceasing to be its internal constituent, functions as its symptom — subverts the very universal rational principle of this totality. For Marx, this ‘irrational’ element of the existing society was, of course, the proletariat, ‘the unreason of reason itself (Marx), the point at which the Reason embodied in the existing social order encounters its own unreason.
(The Sublime Object of Ideology, p. 18)
So, according to Marx, the very type of worker that produces and reproduces capitalist society is also the one who will end up destroying it. The proletariat is the symptom or intrinsic negation of capitalism. Just as the proletariat is the internally generated threat to capitalism, so, too, is Gi-hun’s desire the internally generated threat to the Game. Gi-hun’s desire is the symptom of the Game itself. The VIPs should have read their Marx! The VIPs believe that they have successfully read the desire of the Game’s contestants. “The desire of the one who wins will be so satisfied with enjoyment that he or she will gladly keep silent and cause us no problem.” They’re so confident in how capitalism programs our consumeristic desires that they fail to recognize that there is always an enigmatic surplus of desire that evades ideological programming. Well, they certainly did not read Gi-hun’s desire correctly. This ethical and symptomatic desire is now a weapon Gi-hun is ready to wield against the very Game that produced it. Bring on Season Two!
Capitalism and Desire
I’m going to state the obvious: there’s no way for me to do a proper treatment of the relationship between desire and capitalism. The ways in which capitalism and desire intersect are incredibly detailed and many philosophers and critical theorists have spent big chunks of their lives pondering this very connection, e.g., Herbert Marcuse, Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, Jean Baudrillard, Slavoj Žižek, Nick Land, Mark Fisher, etc., have all spent countless hours thinking about this link. Instead of trying to make sense of the innumerable relations between desire and capitalism, I’ll just be limiting myself to the examination of one main point of interest. However, I do want to recommend one book in particular. If you, the reader, want to know more about this connection, then definitely check out Todd McGowan’s Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Costs of Free Markets. I cannot sing it’s praises loud enough. It’s the clearest and most focused book on the relation between political economy (capitalism) and libidinal economy (desire, fantasy, jouissance, etc.) that I’ve ever read.
Okay, I want to say a few more things before getting to my main analysis. First, there’s a “debate” happening online between those who think that Squid Game is a critique of capitalism and those who don’t. Well, frankly, I don’t know how anybody can watch this show and not think its a blistering critique of capitalism. Even an ardent defender of capital like Ben Shapiro realizes that the show purposely takes up a negative stance towards capitalism. South Korea has made two of the strongest critiques of capitalist class relations in recent years — first in Parasite and now in Squid Game.
However, what Squid Game gets at more than Parasite is what Mark Fisher called capitalist realism, which is basically our inability to imagine any alternatives to capitalism while capitalism continuously makes our lives and the environment worse and worse. Capitalist realism is the hell of being stuck inside a futureless present that does nothing but recycles the past. However, some leftists claim that Squid Game itself is guilty of propagating capitalist realism due to its own lack of a vision of a (communist) future. However, it’s through the very absence of any hope for the future, through submerging us in the hopelessness of the eternal present, that the show actually seduces the viewer into desiring the future. Adam Ray Adkins, cohost of the podcast Acid Left, does a wonderful job of exploring this line of thought in his new article ‘Dystopia Never Looked So Familiar’. As Adkins puts it:
Calling Squid Game capitalist realism because it shows us horrors of capitalism misses a crucial element of Fisher’s thought, the future. Squid Game isn’t capitalist realism because it isn’t trying to imagine another world and failing; it isn’t a story of the future but of the present. It isn’t trying to make us feel glad we don’t live in its world or stop it from coming about (such as The Handmaid’s Tale). It is trying to make you realize that you already live in that world.
In other words, Squid Game seeks to make the viewer face up to the economic, cultural and “eternal” hell-present they are trapped inside. As we know now, we can even interpret Gi-hun’s final gesture in the show, his turning around an walking back towards the camera, as him acting on his pure desire — his desire for a future, for an alternative way of life.
Dystopia Never Looked So Familiar - Imago
We wouldn't consider the more imaginative gangster or revenge films to take place in a dystopia because we recognize…
Then, of course, there is the show’s reference to the Escher stairs. What’s important about these stairs (a lithograph print called Relativity) is that they were designed by M. C. Escher who just so happens to be the act same graphic artist who created the image of the ants walking along the Möbius strip, which, as we already know, is a Lacan’s topological representation of the structure of desire itself. What the show is gesturing towards with its nod to Escher is how capitalism taps into our desire and exploits it for its own gain. The Möbius strip-like staircases bear an uncanny resemblance to the networks of elevators that structured our old shopping malls. In fact, Thomas Heatherwick’s structure Vessel succeeds of visually merging Escher’s unorientable stairs with the design of mall elevators — a perfect representation of capitalist desire.
Now, there are other ways of understanding what the Game itself represents. Is the competition simply a critique of capitalism itself, with all its extreme egocentric individualism, or can it be understood to represent specific institutions within capitalist society? I think it can represent capitalism itself as well as more specific domains inside it. For example, I do think that this Game does a nice job of serving as a metaphor for social media. Think about it. Social media is often a kind of digital “death game”. The whole cancel culture thing is certainly a part of this phenomenon, but the problem is far more pervasive than the annoying swarms of online activists. Social media keeps all of us competing for attention. It’s a game within a game. It’s a competition inside of capitalist competition that keeps us from focusing on capitalism itself.
There’s also the show’s emphasis on debt and the power it holds over us. Capitalism has turned into a debt machine and reproduces itself on this basis. For more on the connection between debt and capitalism, check out David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Maurizio Lazzarato’s The Making of Indebted Man. Both of these are especially good reads.
This brings me to the central aspect of the relation between capitalism and desire that I want to stress — the desire of the capitalist. In order for the capitalist to be successful, to continue to accumulate more and more capital, there is one desire that must animate all of his or her own activities, which is the desire for wage laborers to compromise their desire. And this insatiable desire provides the capitalist with a perverse type of surplus-jouissance. We see this at work in Squid Game. If there was one single perverse enjoyment that the VIPS got out of the situation, then it is simply in getting people to “voluntarily” participate in the games and, then, holding this “free choice” over their heads. This is maybe the most fundamental critique of capitalism in the entire show. How so? Because it is perfectly homologous to the “free choice” of every wage laborer: the “free choice” to either sell one’s labor power to a capitalist or to live in utter poverty. This is the point in the show where it is attacking the capitalist ideology of “market freedom”. The sadistic enjoyment is gained from getting workers to compromise their desire — their desire to not sell themselves in wage labor or their desire for a third option. This is the capitalist’s jouissance gained from the imposition of the forced choice hurled upon anybody who has nothing to sell in the market except for their labor power.
In their final confrontation, Gi-hun, angry and dumbfounded, asks Il-nam how he could have put all of the players throw the hell they went through just so he could “have fun”. Il-ham, then, throws the whole “free choice” thing in Gi-hun’s face. He says, “It seems that you forgot how no one had to play, and you all put your signatures on the agreement. And that you all made your decision to come back on your own.” Of course, what this poisonous ideology obfuscates is the background conditions against which the players “freely” chose to take part in the games. This forced choice was one between bad and worse just as is the “choice” of wage labor. In both cases, the true freedom would be found in being freed from the forced choice itself. The reason why the majority of the players decided to go back to the game is because their economic circumstances were so bad that they were actually willing to risk their lives on the small chance of escaping the hell of their material conditions (debt, lack of opportunity, shitty jobs, futurelessness, etc.).
It’s also worth noting that Squid Game targets the ideology of equality in the Game and in capitalism. For both the Game’s contestants and everyone born into capitalist society, the playing field is not level, i.e., equal. The players are not truly equal. The differences between them in age, size, knowledge, strength, problem-solving skills, speed, cunning and luck all play a huge role in deciding the winner of the Game. For example, the “boomers” have an advantage over the younger players due to how they have a great familiarity with all of the games owing to the fact that these are the games they played as children. Il-nam can even leave the Game whenever he wants. He’s really just larping as a contestant. The Game is just about the ideology of formal equality. Think about the inequality in luck the players had to face in the game of the glass platforms (the one player even calculates the probability of him surviving and knows right then and there that he’s as good as dead). Sure, abstractly speaking, anybody can win, but when it comes to their concrete “equality” it’s a very different story — just like in capitalism. Kids born to wealthy parents have a far greater chance of making it than kids born into poverty.
What makes the capitalists’ enjoyment so perverse is that it takes the responsibility belonging to the structure of capitalism itself and pins it on the “irresponsible” individual. “You should have made better decisions with your personal finances!” “If only you had worked harder and been more responsible!” Blah fucking blah! Now, one feature of the perverted sadist is that this person gets off on enforcing the Law. This is what Il-nam does to Gi-hun. He seeks to make him feel guilty in the eyes of the Law of capitalism for things he is not actually responsible for. What we must takeaway from the depiction of the forced choice in Squid Games is that it involves a structural desire on the part of the capitalist — the desire for all of us wage laborers to compromise our desire. Well, I’ll just go ahead and name my desire. I desire a life without poverty and without wage labor. I desire a life without the forced choice capitalism structurally imposes on me every single day of my life. I demand a new future! I demand a new freedom! I, too, like Gi-hun, desire to walk towards the camera. Who desires to walk with me?