Subject of the Unconscious

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It has often been remarked that Freud hardly ever made use of the term "subject." The only exception (which is surprising, because it was never noticed) was his respected use of the term in "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" (1915c). While describing the normal instinctual "vicissitude," where the drives turn back on the subject's body and where the mode of satisfaction is reversed from active to passive, Freud wrote of "a new subject," which he situated outside of the person proper. This subject wants to be watched (or violated) to satisfy the infantile need to be looked at (or treated sadistically). Freud thought that this instinctual subject-agent had been created at the stage where goals became passivean idea that he took up again four years later with regard to the origin of the fantasy of "A Child is Being Beaten" (1919e). There he declared that the fantasy acquired its full subjective power only when it was being lived through passively: "I am beaten by the father."

Subsequently, when Freud considered the love-hate dyad, he did not think of it as in the same category as instinctual dyads like the sadomasochistic and voyeur-exhibitionistic dyads. Instead, he conceived of it as being determined by narcissism. Then he returned to his former conception of an "ego-subject" after seeming to introduce the notion of an unconscious instinctual object in the first part of his study (Freud, 1915c).

Jacques Lacan took up the challenge of developing this concept of the subject of the unconscious in his teaching. From 1945 on, he worked on defining the different meanings of the term "subject." He wrote of the Cartesian subject of certainty, the negated subject of science, the personal subject of self-affirmation, and of course the two subjects of a sentence: the grammatical subject and the intentional subject. This duplication is at the basis of his conception of the intrinsically divided subject, =S (barred S), which accounts for his famous definition of the subject as being whatever a signifier represents for another signifier (Lacan, 1966/2002).

But Lacan was always led back to the "subject of unconscious desire": the subject of the desires of The Interpretation of Dreams, the subject of the witticism and other expressions of the unconscious, which he saw as structured like a "language." However, having reduced the subject of human desire to an effect of language ("the speaking being"), he didn't reduce it any further to a grammatical subject. His subject was either instinctual or empty (like the word).

This drive-based vision of the subject prompted Lacan, in his first seminars (1975, 1978), to differentiate it categorically from the ego. On this point he broke openly with Freud's notion of the global ego. In effect, he saw the ego as an imaginary function whose purpose is to provide the person with a sense of corporeal unity and continuity. Lacan emphasized that the ego was necessarily involved in a struggle against the instinctual registers, and this stance caused him to view the ego, as it reflects the image of the Other, as opposed to the subject (S), which emerges as the id. His interpretation of Freud's famous statement "Wo Es war, soll Ich werden" ("Where the id was, there I should come to be") led him to play on the homo-phony of "S" and "Es."

Lacan viewed the newborn subject, because it was always born prematurely, as implicated in the "demands" through which it makes known its needs. It borrows these demands from the maternal signifying code. In so doing, the subject makes a first effort to attach itself (instinctively) to a desiring maternal Other, thus confirming the incompleteness of the latter. When the young subject observes the lack in the Other, it will disengage from its mother. Lacan said that the signifier of the Other's lack showed how "all the other signifiers represent the subject," but on the other hand he conjectured that "when this signifier is missing, all the other signifiers represent nothing" and no one (1977, p. 316).

The subject, in its fantasies, is able to represent itself as maintaining a desire through the partial (real) objects that Lacan called "little a 's." These little a 's are residues of the operation through which the first Other recognizes itself as being subject to the rules of symbolic exchange.

The neurotic in analysis obstinately refuses to imagine the Other as a subject, "the subject who is supposed to know," and refuses to accept that the Other is animated by a desire toward him. This is what sparks the transference in the cure.

Bernard Penot

See also: Fantasy, formula of; Linguistics and psychoanalysis; Signifier; Signifying chain; Topology; Unary trait.


Freud, Sigmund. (1915c). Instincts and their vicissitudes. SE, 14: 109-140.

Lacan, Jacques. (1988). The seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book 1: Freud's papers on technique (1953-1954) (John Forrester, Trans.). (Original work published 1975)

. (1988). The seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book 2: The ego in Freud's theory and in the technique of psychoanalysis (1954-1955) (Sylvana Tomaselli, Trans.). (Original work published 1978)

. (2002). The subversion of the subject and dialectic of desire in the Freudian unconscious. In hisÉcrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1960)