Between a Rock and the Deep Blue Sea: Kafka’s Angst—and Ours
In a later formulation, as Lacan’s interest shifts to the dimension of the Real, including the Real of the body, he takes up Freud’s first theory of anxiety as transformed but psychically unmediated libido, recasting it in his own language as jouissance. Anxiety in this view is a reaction to a surge in jouissance that cannot be assimilated and that threatens to overwhelm the imaginary cohesion of the body. As such it does not arise from a conflict on the basis of unconscious thoughts but is the effect of a discontinuity between the Real of the organism and the Imaginary register in which the body finds it integrity. It is something that comes from beyond the ego, something that gets registered, but cannot be identified by the ego. In his seminar on Anxiety Lacan states: ‘the ego is the site of the signal. But it is not for the ego threat the signal is given … It is so that the subject—it cannot be called otherwise—may be alerted to something’ (1962-62, p.35). It is for the subject to find a response to what exceeds the ego, that is, to something that sits on the side of the real.
Whilst there are clear differences between Freud’s and Lacan’s conception of psychic organisation and functioning we might suggest that there is a structural similarity in their thinking that pertains to the question of anxiety. At the risk of gross reduction of either writer’s complex ideas we might try the following thought: a psychic system—the ego for Freud, for Lacan the subject—is confronted by ‘something’—the drive/ id for Freud, for Lacan the Real/jouissance—which, whilst being constitutionally (for the constitution of the system qua system) linked to it, comes at it as if from the outside, making demands which can be neither ‘refuted’ nor assimilated or satisfied. The psychic system comes about as a product of differentiation from this ‘outside’ to which it is ineluctably wedded even as it exceeds its capacities to come to terms with it. This excess is registered as anxiety—one might say as the ‘noise’ of the system’s self-maintenance.
If this sounds as if the question of anxiety is answered in the direction of the drive it is important to remember that the drive is not pure biology or quantity. Freud thought of the drive as lying ‘on the frontier between the mental and the physical’ and suggested to regard it ‘as a measure of the demand made upon the mind for work’ (1905, p.168). What we take the drive to drive us to do is for the mind to work out— and hence inflected by the other/Other. Che voui? What do you want from/with me?—this is a question which is evoked not just in the face of the other’s desire but by all that comes at me, claiming me, from ‘the other side’. Inside/outside introduces a spacial metaphor with deceptive power and, as far as the psyche is concerned, a particularly precarious status. ‘I’, however, has a strong vested interest in stabilising this boundary.
‘The ego is not master in its own house’—a famous pronouncement, often (mis)attributed to Freud. ‘The ego feels uneasy; it comes up against limits to its power in its own house, the mind’, he wrote in 1917 (p.141). Precariously constituted between the drives and the Other – or, similar thing, between the drives and language—it can maintain itself only anxiously. Anxiety being a disturbing experience, the subject seeks to defend itself against the very mechanism by which it protects itself from trauma. To the extent that it succeeds in this secondary defence it does so at the cost of illness. This is the predicament that the ego, that ‘poor creature’, faces as it seeks mastery over its own house, often by attempting to become its master builder.