French philosopher Jacques Lacan’s writing is marked by a tendency to turn ideas in surprising directions, to reveal hidden motivations and causes beneath the ones we normally perceive. For Lacan, psychoanalysis aims at bringing us to terms with the Real, with the obscenity, futility, and neurosis belied by our ostensible roles in a social and linguistic community. He speaks of desire and pleasure in terms that reject our most basic intuitions about what and how we want, but which nonetheless seem to provide explanations for the complexities of desire as we experience it—as something elusive and surprising, consuming and thwarted.
Jacques Lacan on the Problem with Satisfaction
Jacques Lacan suggests that desire doesn’t truly pursue what it appears to or professes to. Desire seems to want its own cessation: when I am hungry, I want to eat enough that I stop being hungry. But for Lacan, this is a misleading appearance, disguising the actual object of desire, which is never total satisfaction.
The object of desire is never total satisfaction because total satisfaction is straightforwardly impossible. The impossibility of this, distilled in Lacan’s infamous “There is no sexual relation,” is foundational to Lacan’s thought. Many of the apparently counter-intuitive ways in which Lacan theorizes desire, pathology, and freedom are corollaries of the impossibility of satisfaction.
That satisfaction is elusive does not undermine the force of desire; it does not prevent the relentless restlessness with which we pursue its aim. For Lacan, “fantasy constitutes the pleasure proper to desire” (Kant with Sade, 1963). In other words, if the total satisfaction that desire seems to be driving us towards is actually unattainable, the pleasure it does achieve—a long way short of the intensity and extremity proper to jouissance—is the pleasure of fantasy itself.
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Desire, for Lacan, is always directed towards something beyond its avowed object. As Lacan scholar Adrian Johnston puts it: “Lacan therefore asserts that each and every demand is, at bottom, a demand for love” (Johnston, Jacques Lacan [SEP], 2023). Even when desire seems to aim at something attainable, perhaps most characteristically a romantic or sexual relationship with a particular person, the attainment of the apparent goal nonetheless fails to satisfy the roving, unattainable drive that underlies each passing object to which want attaches itself.
The pleasure proper to desire, the fantasy, is then the constantly renewed belief that the desired object remains obtainable, lurking in a space of possibility that is endlessly deferred. The total possession of the Other, of their love, is sought as if it is an object like those that desire picks up on its way. Absolute sexual satisfaction is, for the desiring subject (and we are all desiring subjects for Lacan, inescapably and universally), always around the corner, apparently as concrete and available as food or a caress, but actually—necessarily—elusive and intangible.
The paradoxical structure of desire for Lacan—that is, that it desperately seeks its own perpetuation, rather than its cessation—is the lingering effect of the trauma of infancy, the trauma of the initial encounter with the Other. Desire begins with the mother (Lacan’s stylized ‘mOther’) upon whom the infant depends.
In Kant with Sade, Lacan attributes the impossibility of attaining the desired object as beginning with the trauma of the mother’s otherness. The infant begins by conceiving no distinction between themselves and the mother on whom they depend. This state, in which the satisfaction of one’s needs and the provision of love is experienced as being not contingently but necessarily bound to the self, is the impossible object that underlies desire.
From the moment that the infant recognizes the otherness of their mother—that she can and will leave, that she cannot be totally assimilated into the self, that her provision of love and the nurture upon which the infant relies are both essentially contingent—there can never again be such a state of reassurance and satisfaction. Thenceforth, whatever the Other can supply, materially or erotically, is shot through with an awareness of its contingency, of the fact that the Other is never fully possessed.
The Mirror Stage
Throughout all his writings and seminars, Lacan’s ideas shift and appear in different guises. The notion of an impossible return to a blissful prior state, however, remains consistent throughout decades of Lacan’s work. Nonetheless, the description of this does not always draw so heavily upon the Freudian mother-child conception of desire. Lacan sometimes instead speaks of the infant’s initial state of bliss (the end towards which the subject spends the rest of their life striving to regain) as coinciding with the wholeness of their image in the mirror: the “Mirror Stage.”
Lacan, unlike Freud, frequently uses the term “subject” in his work, denoting something quite distinct from his use of “ego.” For Freud, the ego encompasses the self in its capacities as both subject and object—the “I” and the “me” fall under its signifying umbrella. For Lacan, however, the ego is straightforwardly an object, something composed and directed from without, rather than something volitional, will-driven, and internal.
The mirror stage, for Lacan, is the stage between the ages of six and eighteen months when the infant recognizes itself in a mirror, but nonetheless perceives this self as something whole, rather than split (in its otherness to the subjective “I”) and already socially constituted.
The mirror stage ends, Lacan says, at the point at which the unitary self, perceived in the mirror, is revealed as something social and fragmentary, no longer a harmonic whole, under the control of the subject, but something runaway—unbeholden to the subjective consciousness.
On this telling, the movement of desire thereafter is characterized by attempts to return to this imaginary ideal state of infancy, in which the subject and the ego are identical and harmonious, existing in a state of autonomous unity. The pain that accompanies desire, the desire for this impossible return, is for Lacan “the paranoiac alienation that dates back to the time at which the specular I turns into the social I” (Lacan, The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function, 1949).
These two descriptions then, each of them explaining the original trauma that instantiates the ceaseless movement of desire, are not so different from one another. Whether we describe the state of bliss from which the infant-subject traumatically falls as imaginary, necessary unity with the mother, or imaginary, pre-social, pre-linguistic identity between subject-I and object-ego, the basic narrative remains the same, and the obstacle that holds off the possibility of fantasized unity is the same.
The social-symbolic order—that is, the encounter with the Other—cuts off the possibility of unity, the unity whose satisfaction the sexual relationship then seeks, in futility, to re-obtain.
Running besides the impossibility of satisfaction in Lacanian thought, and the pleasure that attends unsatisfied yearning is another term, usually rendered as the untranslated “jouissance” (literally, enjoyment). Jouissance, for Lacan, is located outside the domain of pleasure proper; it lies “beyond the pleasure principle,” insofar as its attainment would involve the total renunciation of “egotistic interests” (Žižek, How to Read Lacan, 2006).
Jouissance characterizes the non-pleasure enjoyment that comes not from the satisfaction of desire, nor from the fantasy of that impossible satisfaction, but from the very inhibition of the drive towards satisfaction. Jouissance, therefore, is central to Lacan’s understanding of Immanuel Kant and the Marquis de Sade, as well as to the explanation of sadistic and masochistic tendencies.
If “pleasure,” in Lacan’s sense, is connected with the harmonious, the unified, and the comfortable (this also being the Freudian telos: the return to the mother, and to a state of minimal excitation), jouissance is, by contrast, a state of extreme excitation and intensity, a kind of pleasure but one not marked by any of the attributes of pleasure in the former sense. Jouissance, for Lacan, slips back and forth between ideas, sometimes being the pleasure that accompanies the inhibition of satisfaction, and sometimes seeming to refer to the transgressive edge of satisfaction itself.
In both cases, Lacan speaks of jouissance as having a special attachment to the “Real,” in contradistinction to the imaginary and the symbolic. Jouissance is a brush with something that threatens the total dissolution of the social order, it is not harmonious but rather explosive in intensity. Johnston writes:
The jouissance presumably lost to the speaking subject returns only in the guises of what might be labelled ‘limit experiences,’ namely, encounters with that which is annihilating, inassimilable, overwhelming, traumatic, or unbearable.
Johnston, Jacques Lacan [SEP], 2023
The brush with the real object of desire, lurking beyond propriety and beyond the social order imposed through language, is never the comforting or harmonious pleasure aspired to in the fantasized return (to the mother, to the mirror stage). Rather, jouissance—despite its many guises and forms (Lacan enumerates many different kinds of jouissance, intersecting with many other parts of his thought)—is always unsettling; it is the pleasure beneath the surface of perversion and righteous self-denial alike.
For Lacan, it is central to psychoanalytic practice that the analysand comes to recognise his/her own jouissance. That is, that the analysand reckons with the terrifying, almost intolerable Real of their desires and their motivations. The analyst encourages the patient to encounter the pleasure that they refuse to acknowledge, or do not even register as pleasures—pleasures which are denied and defended against in the perpetual deferral of fantasy.