JACQUES LACAN has proven to be an important influence on contemporary critical theory, influencing such disparate approaches as feminism (through, for example, Judith Butler and Shoshana Felman), film theory (Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, and the various film scholars associated with "screen theory"), poststructuralism (Cynthia Chase, Juliet Flower MacCannell, etc.), and Marxism (Louis Althusser, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Fredric Jameson, Slavoj Zizek, etc.). Lacan is also exemplary of what we can understand as the postmodern break with Sigmund Freud. Whereas Freud could still be said to work within an empirical, humanist tradition that still believes in a stable self's ability to access the "truth," Lacan is properly post-structuralist, which is to say that Lacan questions any simple notion of either "self" or "truth," exploring instead how knowledge is constructed by way of linguistic and ideological structures that organize not only our conscious but also our unconscious lives. Whereas Freud continued to be tempted by organic models and with a desire to find the neurological and, thus, "natural" causes for sexual development, Lacan offered a more properly linguistic model for understanding the human subject's entrance into the social order. The emphasis was thus less on the bodily causes of behavior (cathexis, libido, instinct, etc.) than it was on the ideological structures that, especially through language, make the human subject come to understand his or her relationship to himself and to others. Indeed, according to Lacan, the entrance into language necessarily entails a radical break from any sense of materiality in and of itself. According to Lacan, one must always distinguish between reality (the fantasy world we convince ourselves is the world around us) and the real (a materiality of existence beyond language and thus beyond expressibility). The development of the subject, in other words, is made possible by an endless misrecognition of the real because of our need to construct our sense of "reality" in and through language. So much are we reliant on our linguistic and social version of "reality" that the eruption of pure materiality (of the real) into our lives is radically disruptive. And yet, the real is the rock against which all of our artificial linguistic and social structures necessarily fail. It is this tension between the real and our social laws, meanings, conventions, desires, etc. that determines our psychosexual lives. Not even our unconscious escapes the effects of language, which is why Lacan argues that "the unconscious is structured like a language" (Four Fundamental 203).

Lacan's version of psychosexual development is, therefore, organized around the subject's ability to recognize, first, iconic signs and, then, eventually, language. This entrance into language follows a particular developmental model, according to Lacan, one that is quite distinct from Freud's version of the same (even though Lacan continued to argue—some would say "perversely"—that he was, in fact, a strict Freudian). Here, then, is your story, as told by Lacan, with the ages provided as very rough approximations since Lacan, like Freud, acknowledged that development varied between individuals and that stages could even exist simultaneously within a given individual:

0-6 months of age. In the earliest stage of development, you were dominated by a chaotic mix of perceptions, feelings, and needs. You did not distinguish your own self from that of your parents or even the world around you. Rather, you spent your time taking into yourself everything that you experienced as pleasurable without any acknowledgment of boundaries. This is the stage, then, when you were closest to the pure materiality of existence, or what Lacan terms "the Real." Still, even at this early stage, your body began to be fragmented into specific erogenous zones (mouth, anus, penis, vagina), aided by the fact that your mother tended to pay special attention to these body parts. This "territorialization" of the body could already be seen as a falling off, an imposition of boundaries and, thus, the neo-natal beginning of socialization (a first step away from the Real). Indeed, this fragmentation was accompanied by an identification with those things perceived as fulfilling your lack at this early stage: the mother's breast, her voice, her gaze. Since these privileged external objects could not be perfectly assimilated and could not, therefore, ultimately fulfill your lack, you already began to establish the psychic dynamic (fantasy vs. lack) that would control the rest of your life.

6-18 months of age. This stage, which Lacan terms the "mirror stage," was a central moment in your development. The "mirror stage" entails a "libidinal dynamism" (Écrits 2) caused by the young child's identification with his own image (what Lacan terms the "Ideal-I" or "ideal ego"). For Lacan, this act marks the primordial recognition of one's self as "I," although at a point "before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject" (Écrits 2). In other words, this recognition of the self's image precedes the entrance into language, after which the subject can understand the place of that image of the self within a larger social order, in which the subject must negotiate his or her relationship with others. Still, the mirror stage is necessary for the next stage, since to recognize yourself as "I" is like recognizing yourself as other ("yes, that person over there is me"); this act is thus fundamentally self-alienating. Indeed, for this reason your feelings towards the image were mixed, caught between hatred ("I hate that version of myself because it is so much better than me") and love ("I want to be like that image").Note This "Ideal-I" is important precisely because it represents to the subject a simplified, bounded form of the self, as opposed to the turbulent chaotic perceptions, feelings, and needs felt by the infant. This "primordial Discord" (Écrits 4) is particularly formative for the subject, that is, the discord between, on the one hand, the idealizing image in the mirror and, on the other hand, the reality of one's body between 6-18 months ("the signs of uneasiness and motor unco-ordination of the neo-natal months" [Écrits 4]): "The mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation—and which manufactures for the subject, caught up in the lure of spatial identification, the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality that I shall call orthopaedic—and, lastly, to the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject's entire mental development" (Écrits 4). This misrecognition or méconnaissance (seeing an ideal-I where there is a fragmented, chaotic body) subsequently "characterizes the ego in all its structures" (Écrits 6). In particular, this creation of an ideal version of the self gives pre-verbal impetus to the creation of narcissistic phantasies in the fully developed subject. It establishes what Lacan terms the "imaginary order" and, through the imaginary, continues to assert its influence on the subject even after the subject enters the next stage of development.

18 months to 4 years of age. The acquisition of language during this next stage of development further separated you from a connection to the Real (from the actual materiality of things). Lacan builds on such semiotic critics as Ferdinand de Saussure to show how language is a system that makes sense only within its own internal logic of differences: the word, "father," only makes sense in terms of those other terms it is defined with or against (mother, "me," law, the social, etc.). As Kaja Silverman puts it, "the signifier 'father' has no relation whatever to the physical fact of any individual father. Instead, that signifier finds its support in a network of other signifiers, including 'phallus,' 'law,' 'adequacy,' and 'mother,' all of which are equally indifferent to the category of the real" (164). Once you entered into the differential system of language, it forever afterwards determined your perception of the world around you, so that the intrusion of the Real's materiality becomes a traumatic event, albeit one that is quite common since our version of "reality" is built over the chaos of the Real (both the materiality outside you and the chaotic impulses inside you). By acquiring language, you entered into what Lacan terms the "symbolic order"; you were reduced into an empty signifier ("I") within the field of the Other, which is to say, within a field of language and culture (which is always determined by those others that came before you). That linguistic position, according to Lacan, is particularly marked by gender differences, so that all your actions were subsequently determined by your sexual position (which, for Lacan, does not have much to do with your "real" sexual urges or even your sexual markers but by a linguistic system in which "male" and "female" can only be understood in relation to each other in a system of language).

The Oedipus complex is just as important for Lacan as it is for Freud, if not more so. The difference is that Lacan maps that complex onto the acquisition of language, which he sees as analogous. The process of moving through the Oedipus complex (of being made to recognize that we cannot sleep with or even fully "have" our mother) is our way of recognizing the need to obey social strictures and to follow a closed differential system of language in which we understand "self" in relation to "others." In this linguistic rather than biological system, the "phallus" (which must always be understood not to mean "penis") comes to stand in the place of everything the subject loses through his entrance into language (a sense of perfect and ultimate meaning or plenitude, which is, of course, impossible) and all the power associated with what Lacan terms the "symbolic father" and the "Name-of-the-Father" (laws, control, knowledge). Like the phallus' relation to the penis, the "Name-of-the-Father" is much more than any actual father; in fact, it is ultimately more analogous to those social structures that control our lives and that interdict many of our actions (law, religion, medicine, education).Note After one passes through the Oedipus complex, the position of the phallus (a position within that differential system) can be assumed by most anyone (teachers, leaders, even the mother) and, so, to repeat, is not synonymous with either the biological father or the biological penis.

Nonetheless, the anatomical differences between boys and girls do lead to a different trajectory for men and women in Lacan's system. Men achieve access to the privileges of the phallus, according to Lacan, by denying their last link to the Real of their own sexuality (their actual penis); for this reason, the castration complex continues to function as a central aspect of the boy's psychosexual development for Lacan. In accepting the dictates of the Name-of-the-Father, who is associated with the symbolic phallus, the male subject denies his sexual needs and, forever after, understands his relation to others in terms of his position within a larger system of rules, gender differences, and desire. (On Lacan's understanding of desire, see the third module.) Since women do not experience the castration complex in the same way (they do not have an actual penis that must be denied in their access to the symbolic order), Lacan argues that women are not socialized in the same way, that they remain more closely tied to what Lacan terms "jouissance," the lost plenitude of one's material bodily drives given up by the male subject in order to access the symbolic power of the phallus. Women are thus at once more lacking (never accessing the phallus as fully) and more full (having not experienced the loss of the penis as fully).Note Regardless, what defines the position of both the man and the women in this schema is above all lack, even if that lack is articulated differently for men and women.



Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Lacan: On Psychosexual Development." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Date of last update, which you can find on the home page. Purdue U. Date you accessed the site. <http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/psychoanalysis/lacandevelop.html>.







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