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Number 12: Summer 2016

Between a Rock and the Deep Blue Sea: Kafka’s Angst—and Ours

Werner Prall

But if Freud re-casts anxiety in the light of the threat of object loss—or separation anxiety—Lacan points out that the subject can only emerge in a space opened up by separation, in the gap or lack left by the mother after her departure. It is when this ‘lack comes to be lacking (quand le manque vient a manquer)’ (Lacan 1962-63, p. 35), i.e. when the object of primal merger (something of a contradiction in terms) appears to return, that anxiety arises. It is not absence but full presence, that is, the lack of a registration of separateness, that threatens the subject in its existence.

It is not possible here to trace the complex development of Lacan’s varied thoughts on the subject of anxiety. A very brief and necessarily unsatisfactory summary points to a number of ways in which Lacan takes up, but then recasts, Freud’s key suggestions, with one main difference relating to the status of the ego. ‘We must absolutely define the Ego’s imaginary function as the unity of the subject who is alienated from himself. The ego is something in which the subject cannot recognise himself at first except by alienating himself ’ (1974-75, p.24).

Having initially related anxiety to the threat of fragmentation as it is confronted by the subject in the mirror stage Lacan emphasises, as already indicated, the lack of separation from the mother and the fear of being engulfed by her as the key problematic giving rise to anxiety. Taking up Freud’s conceptualisation of trauma Lacan subsequently links anxiety to the register of the Real, i.e. that dimension of experience which remains outside symbolisation and hence beyond the possibility of psychic mediation. The Real is ‘the essential object which isn’t an object any longer, but this something faced with which all words cease and all categories fail, the object of anxiety par excellence’ (1988, p.164).

The relationship of the subject to anxiety is ambiguous, to say the least. Whilst Lacan suggests that anxiety is defended against by the various psychic defence mechanisms available to the subject he also stresses, in the seminar of 1960-1, the link between anxiety and desire, whereby anxiety is a means to sustain desire in the absence of the object. Desire, being more tolerable than anxiety, can be used as a remedy for it.

In his 1962-3 seminar entitled ‘Anxiety’ Lacan states that anxiety is not without an object, except it concerns an object which cannot be symbolised. The object in question is the object petit a, which Lacan defines as the object cause of desire. But far from being the lost object the absence of which causes (separation) anxiety, for Lacan anxiety arises when something appears in its place and therefore threatens to undo the lack that sustains the subject. In the same seminar Lacan suggests that anxiety is triggered by the confrontation with the desire of the other, that is, when the subject realises it is an object of desire for the other without knowing what the other’s desire is. Che voui? What is it you want from/ with me?