Graph of Desire

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The Graph of Desire is a schema, or model, that Jacques Lacan began developing in his seminar on The Formations of the Unconscious (1957-58). It achieved its definitive form in his essay "Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious" (1960/2004). Its four successive stages represent the constitution of the human subject and his desire. Nevertheless, Lacan never intended it to describe the genetic stages of a biological development. Rather, it represents the "logical moments" of the birth of a speaking subject.

Lacan starts with what he calls the "quilting point" (where an upholsterer attaches a button to a sofa or mattress to prevent the batting from moving around) a kind of looping by which the signifying chain of the parental Other's "discourse"not to be understood here as merely verbal, of courseintersects with the baby's expressions of need (See Figure 1).

This pressure of need is represented by a retrograde trajectory beginning at delta (d). In the course of its reverse looping, this line intersects at two successive points the vector S S, which represents the chain of the Other's discourse. Because they travel in opposite directions, the two trajectories carry out this double intersection in a retroactive manner that calls to mind Freud's concept of "deferred action." For Lacan, the point of intersection on the right, A, represents the "treasure trove of signifiers" (p. 292), which is Lacan's definition of the Other as the "locus" of the signifying battery on which the subject depends. On the left, the other point, s (A), represents the moment at which a meaning is produced in the heart of the Other, which henceforth makes it a sign for the infant.

This first stage of the graph forms a "circuit" of vectors that first follows the chain of the Other's discourse, from s (A) to A, and then returns, from A to s (A), along the path of the baby's biological impulses. In this circularity, everything comes back to the signifying structure of the Other's discourse. The demand of the newborn must conform the Other's "code" in order to be understood.

In spite of this apparently closed circularity, Lacan also situates the constitution of the ego ideal at this level. By grasping upon an insignia of the Other's parental power, s (A), the child anticipates its own future access to any power whatsoever. From then on, the ego ideal, I(A), is inscribed at the endpoint of trajectory delta, as an anticipated function that the child can attain in relation to the parent.

The process where the ego is constituted makes up the second stage of the graph. A right-to-left vector goes from the specular image, i(a), to the constitution of the ego, m (Figure 2). This vector is essentially imaginary, which means that it belongs to the register of spatial-corporeal representation, and it is grafted as a short circuit onto the delta trajectory, which represents the pressure of need.

From then on, a second circuit can be taken by returning along the signifying chain, S S. This return circuit, by which the constitution of the ego is implicated in the discourse of the Other, might constitute in itself an impasse, from which no subject could extricate himself. And this is where Lacan made one of his specific contributions to psychoanalysis by emphasizing the intrinsic doubling of the Other's discourse.

We have seen that effects of meaning are manifested in the Other, s (A), where they are interposed between the needs of the baby and certain signals and statements coming from the mother. The baby comes to feel capable of provoking these maternal manifestations, and at the same time develops a paranoid tendency to interpret their intentionality when they appear.

Lacan developed an account of this essential phenomenon on the basis of certain linguistic facts that led him to distinguish, beyond the subject of the statement evident in the parental discourse, a more or less obscured subject of the enunciation. This implied that quite another dimension of unconsciousness was possible (Figure 3).

The intentionality that is assumed to exist in the manifestations of the Other causes the child to askWhat does he want from me? This question forms the basis of the first experience of anxiety (Hilflosigkeit ). Given the fundamental mirroring nature of the imaginary relation that gives the ego substance, this paranoid questionWhat does he want from me? returns in the form of a question addressed to the nascent subjectWhat do you want? (or "Chè vuoi? " as Lacan puts it). This form of address, characteristic of the superego leads to the upper stage of the graph, which it takes the form of a question mark rooted in A, the place of the Other. But the Other at this stage is still not in any way the "barred" by the symbolization of its possible absence and not yet marked by the incompleteness of its sexual identity. At this point the Other is still the all-embracing expression of the two parents merged into a single non-castrated parent figure. It is the perception of the mother's lack of a penis that now plays the crucial role of representing the incompleteness of the maternal Other.

For the nascent subject, this is a transformational moment that leads to a recognition that the Other is desiring/lacking. From that moment on, the Other will be "barred," S(A̷), and submitted to the symbolic system of exchange that is instituted in the aftermath of the of the superego's question (Chè vuoi? ). It is from this point that we can conceive of the emergence of a subject in its own right. Lacan designates it with a barred S because of its fundamental dependence on a relation of at least two signifiers, one of which is necessarily the signifier of the lack in the Otherwithout which, Lacan said, no signifier would ever be able to represent a "person."

This is what can be formalized in a fourth imaginary stage wherein the subject that is detached at the point of symbolization by the Other finds a way to represent itself as having a relation with the object of desire through an unconscious fantasy, as shown in the formula S̷ a. The operation by which the Other is recognized as lacking is inscribed in a symbolic system of exchange that nevertheless includes a real "remainder" made up of objects that are detachable from the mother. These are the Freudian partial objects, which Lacan designates with a small a, that become part of the fantasy. Any persistent difficulty in symbolically marking the mother's lack interferes with the constitution of the fantasy and leads to a failure in the process of subjectivation (Figure 4).

At the upper level of the graph, along the imaginary vector (d S̷ a ), desire and fantasy maintain a relation similar to the one that at the lower level governed the constitution of the ego in relation to the image of the small other, i(a). However, Lacan noted that these two imaginary stages are not in any way analogous to each other, since unconscious desire tends to present itself regularly to the ego as precisely what the ego does not want. The subject of the unconscious fantasy, in contrast to the ego, represents for Lacan "the 'stuff' of the I that is primally repressed" (p. 302). In treatment, this subject would be the analyst's true interlocutor.

The two levels of the graph are modeled on a split that is structural in the human being (in Lacan's terms parlêtre, or "speaking-being"). The first level, that of the statement and of specular relations of the ego, is prior to castration. It manifests a phallic-narcissistic logic where the nascent ego remains trapped in the circle of the Other's all-importance. The upper level, on the other hand, has as its keystone the signifier of the lack in the Other, S(S̷), the guarantor of a discourse submitted to what Freud called the "reality of castration."

Bernard Penot

See also: Jouissance (Lacan).


Lacan, Jacques. (2004). The subversion of the subject and the dialectic of desire in the freudian unconcsious. In Écrits: A selection. (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1960)