Lacan, eroticism, & some thoughts on how it pertains to BDSM

On the suggestion of my primary supervisor, I have been taking a look at Jacques Lacan and Lacanian theory as it pertains to critical theory and  literary criticism.  To someone outside my academic field, this might seem slightly odd, but once you start to read into the subject, it begins to make a lot of sense for a number of reasons.

Lacan was a Freudian psychoanalyst. He accepted and developed many of Freud’s major theories. But he also expanded well beyond them. He was also influenced by a number of other people: Hegel, Heidegger, Levi-Strauss among them. He was re-reading Freud through modern eyes.

Probably his best known theory is that of the ‘mirror stage‘. The point at which a child recognizes himself in the mirror and a paradox begins: he recognizes his reflection, but knows it is not him – not two of him. This of course is mostly symbolic. But there is a moment in a child’s life where it realizes that the world is not him and he is not the world. He is an individual apart from other individuals. There is ‘me’ and then there is ‘other’.

Why would this matter to a writer? Well, it is the inception of the person. Or, as Lacan would call it ‘the subject’.

He carried on the Freudian concepts of the Oedipal complex, but he moved the problematic relationships between a child, its mother and its father out of one of simple sexual jealousy, and opened it out into a way humans begin to understand where they fit in the world. It’s a little unfortunate that he also came up with a lot of obscure jargon like ‘The Name of the Father” and the “Phallus”  – which are easy to interpret simplistically – but the essential realization that you are not your mother’s only concern, that you are not the centre of the universe, and how you cope with the knowledge of that as you develop, is interesting. Especially in the way it described how individuals negotiate that first rejection of exclusivity, which transforms as we grow, into a yearning for other things.

Levi-Strauss & Saussure  influenced his thinking on language a great deal, and what we do with language both internally and externally. Again, Lacan invented some not very helpful vocabulary with which to discuss his ideas on this. Basically, imagine three interlocking rings that are all ways in which we conceive of the world: “The Real”, “The Symbolic”, and “The Imaginary”.

“The Real”, to Lacan, is an alinguistic experience of the world. I find it hard to explain it without quoting, and in fact, the best way I can think of to explain it is through a marvelous poem by Robert Graves, “The Cool Web”.

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
How dreadful the tall soliers drulling by,

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the roses’s cruel scent,
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:

(From “The Cool Web,” Robert Graves)

I don’t want you to get too hung up on the fact that in the Graves’ poem, he see’s this ‘Real’ state as one that only occurs in childhood, because to Lacan, we can’t actually process ‘The Real’ consciously at all. The Real is an entirely objective universe that is so intense and concrete, contact with it would blow away our sense of self.  We operate in the realm of “The Symbolic,” in our daily lives. And this is the “speech” part of the Graves poem. Language is all symbols, really –  a combination of sounds that stand as a symbol for the real thing. ‘Dog’ is the sound that we agree, in English, means the four legged critter with legs and a wagging tail.

Lacan went even further, to say that the system of perception he calls ‘The Symbolic’ is there from the first moment of consciousness. It isn’t just languages, but the pre-language way we have of taking the world in and reproducing reality in our brains in order to navigate it. I don’t know that I buy this, but smarter people than I do, so just go with it for the moment.

The third ‘order’ for Lacan was “The Imaginary” – this is sort of like the anchor of the Symbolic to the Real. The place where the paradoxes between the two are negotiated. It’s the creative place where we conceive of what and who we are and how the world around us works. I’m not doing a good job of explaining this one, but say, for instance, that you can conceive of a ball, and you can see that the ball is blue. The ‘Imaginary’ allows you to conceive of the possibility of a red ball, or a yellow one, too. It is where we extrapolate upon the known.

Now you can see that what Lacan had to say about these three orders becomes very relevant to a writer. Especially a fiction writer, because we’re actively juggling the world of the Symbolic and the world of the Imaginary and I suppose some of us are sort of trying to push at the closed doors of the Real.

You may notice that I’m capitalizing some pretty odd things. This is a consequence of Lacan’s use of quite common words to mean something different to the common definition. I’ve noticed the French do this all over the place. Think about Barthes’ concept of ‘text’. It’s annoying as hell. For such imaginative people, you think they could bloody just invent new words for what they meant. *grr*

One of the most important set of ideas Lacan developed had to do with desire. He felt that it was important to distinguish between instinctual urges, drives and desires because urges are primal and of ‘The Real’ and can be satisfied (i.e. hunger, the need to take a piss, relief from physical pain) and desires which constitute a ‘lack’ or a sort of empty space we want to fill but never can. I like to think of his concept of desire as yearning. Jouissance is the pleasure or joy that comes from circling, conceiving of, rubbing up against that object of desire that cannot be had. Although most theorists will admit to ‘jouissance’ being innately sexual in spirit, they go all adult and wobbly on it when it comes to digging into the concept. (With the spectacular exception of Bataille who goes way over-board with TMI). I think of it as a sort of orgasmic pleasure which inherently has its limitations, since the pleasure you feel as you approach orgasm comes with the foreknowledge of its fleetingness. But the this whole yearning for something that can’t be named, can’t be had, and yet gives so much pleasure to reach toward is very to the point when it comes to discussing eroticism and what good erotic fiction is trying to deal with. It’s not just sex, it’s the ecstatic out-of-the-selfness that we itch for in the grip of pleasure. Its there, not just during sex, but also during ecstatic religious experiences, intense bursts of creativity, sometimes in horror, in pain. And some theorist argue that this is the experience of The Real leaking through The Symbolic perception of the world. Bataille, although not a Lacanian, would say that this is eroticism – where eroticism is a yearning for an end to discontinuity. What he means by this is a breaching of the boundaries of the individual as a single entity. A merging. Inherent in this is a destruction of the ego, if only fleetingly.

But most of the time, Lacan see us servicing the desires of what he calls ‘The Other’. Initially, the ‘Other’ is your mother: the first thing/person you realize that you know is NOT you. Then there are other Others – the Father who has something that you don’t have – the Phallus –  and that your mother wants. Don’t get too hung up on this. I know it’s easy to do for the cock-obsessed among you, but just try and let it slide.  We’re really talking about this concept of the individual, isolated self, and the way we engage with the rest of world. Because what is outside us, that has a will and desires of its own is The Other.

Lacan felt that what people needed psychoanalysis for was to help the analysand (the patient) discover his or her true desires. Not the things we’re told we should desire by The Other (whether that happens to be your parents, your school, your society).  We spend a lot of our lives serving the desires of The Other – we obey their rules, we pay our taxes, we get to work on time, we don’t just whip it out and jerk off in the middle of the street. Basically, when we conform to society’s dictates, we’re servicing the Other’s desire.

To me, this has implications for why, for instance, people seek to indulge in D/s and BDSM and seek sexual submission. Because we spend our lives serving the desires of The Other, and so often without our tacit consent. You can see how the idea of designating who The Other is, and being able to draw formal lines around what desires you will and won’t consent to service, can feel like a control you don’t have for most of your life. When sexual submissives say that submission feels liberating to them, you can see how it could, from a Lacanian perspective. How often to we actually get to formally nominate who ‘The Other’ is and what desires we are willing to fulfill?

And you can see why there is appeal in acting as, in embracing the role of the nominated Other, as a dominant, not implicitly, as is usual, but explicitly. And having the boundaries of The Other’s desire so spelled out, so tacitly.

Similarly, you can see how someone yearning to break beyond The Symbolic, might use pain, humiliation, cruelty, or any given type of extreme to breach the veil of what Graves called ‘The Cool Web’ to get a glimpse of The Real.

This is pretty much as far as I’ve gotten. I didn’t want to go through the whole of the post saying ‘I think this is what this means, but I’m not sure’, however if I’ve misunderstood any of this and you’re a serious Lacan reader, please feel free to correct any of my misunderstandings in the comments area.

Meanwhile, if I’ve whet your appetite to find out more about Lacan, I strongly suggest you don’t read his own work. I know I’m going to sound arrogant in saying this but, as brilliant as some of his ideas were, he was a terrible written communicator. Instead I’d recommend Zizek’s How to Read Lacan first. Also, Lacan: A Beginner Guide is really pretty good, although I think it spends too much time talking about his career, it does also clearly introduce a lot of his main concepts.

 

 

 

3 Thoughts on “Lacan, eroticism, & some thoughts on how it pertains to BDSM

  1. Interesting, too, how to get beyond any idea of an ‘other’ or even ‘self’ to remove those ego-driven ideas of what we might want or need, all symbols, to a point where reality (a construct?) isn’t even relevant.

    As a writer, there are times when I have to shut down everything I can in order to ‘get at’ something that is deeper than myself, or anywhere I’ve ever been, yet is something I feel connected to. It’s a bit like watching a dog gnaw on a bone: it’s not just sustenance he’s craving, it’s the comfort of the action, the most primal part of himself he is satisfying. We don’t need to bring it up, because it isn’t something most of us think or care about – but where you’re going makes me think of this, that raw, dark, soft marrow, molded to a certain shape, that, once, removed, holds more information about ourselves than we realize.

    It’s also kind of yummy.

    Oh look – rambled.

    PS: AGREE about Barthes (the French), et al – what linguistic loiterers!

    • No, I definitely understand what you mean by your example of the dog. It’s not just to get at the meat, its a pleasure in its own dogginess. A kind of Heideggarian dogness of being.

  2. Fascinating. I was especially interested in connecting desire to lack. It has obvious physical implications. I have a penis but lack what it implies, a vagina. Also it reminds me of Sartrean nothingness. A giddy sense that there’s a nothing but a void in which we must act. He uses the example of someone walking along a cliff who realises there’s absolutely nothing between walking along and jumping off; it’s a choice. Sex is like that but with someone* – the what happens now? Something to desire.

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