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Thinking about Lacan and Fatherhood While Drinking Coffee and Petting the Dog

Jacques Lacan famously asserted that “to love is to give what one hasn’t got.” When I first encountered this line, I associated it with the Lacanian notion of desire and how it is related to the eternally elusive object and the ways in which we project desire onto others (even though our own subjectivity has been constituted by the desire of the Other [i.e., L’Autre, A], which is why “desire is always desire of the Other [A]” and why the Subject [S] is constantly barred by the signifier  imposed by A, leading it to be recorded as S). We attempt to objectify others–to seek a within them–but we are forever frustrated in this effort. Thus, when the subject is objectified by A, S responds lovingly to A by seeking to fulfill A’s desire, but S does not know what A actually, really, truly desires, nor is S capable of adequately being a, and so S attempts (but fails) to give A what S does not have to give. But this is not what Lacan actually asserts. I read his statement in the following way: “to love is to [attempt (but fail) to] give what one hasn’t got” but what if this is not the case? What if love actually succeeds in giving what one hasn’t got?

I begin to think about this anew because I was reflecting on how this accurately describes my experience as a parent. As a father, I give my children what I do not have. How is this the case? Well, in my case, I am giving my children a home where they are celebrated, where they can always feel safe, where they are known and loved intimately, and where they are free to discover and explore who they want to be. This is something I never received as a child. I do not know what it is like to experience that while growing up. I do not know who I might have been if I had been raised in that way. In other words, I am giving my children a fundamentally different experience of the world, which will shape their subjectivities in a fundamentally different way than the way I was shaped as a subject. I am, quite literally, giving them what I have not got. Thus, rather than understanding love as a failed effort to satisfy the insatiable nature of desire, here love is is associated with an overflowing abundance.

This further illustrates Lacan’s point regarding how the subjectivities of children are shaped by the desire of the father. A central unsatisfied desire of mine is to have had a safe and loving childhood. There is no possible way of me satisfying this desire. Consequently, I project this desire into my children–I desire it for them–and who they are in and of themselves becomes shaped by it. Essentially, I think that one could make the argument that the nature of my relationship with my children becomes a Lacanian fetish object that allows me to not be overwhelmed by the trauma of my childhood relationship with my father. Now some Lacanians (Žižek, for example) would argue that this fetish is deployed within a strategy of avoidance. It is the trauma that is most real (in fact, the Real itself is traumatic) and so the use of a fetish object is a flight from the Real, that overcodes reality with a layer of ideology (understood here as a fiction or artifice) that makes the (real-ly) unbearable nature of reality bearable. However, recalling Lacan’s point that when we unmask the subject from the signifier barring it, we only find another signifier, and so on ad infinitum (i.e., “it’s turtles signifiers all the way down”), and recalling that there is nothing necessarily more real about the traumatized S formed by the A than there is about the non-traumatized S formed by the A, I’m not convinced that the notion of avoidance accurately describes every instance of the fetish. Or, perhaps (if avoidance of something is fundamental to the definition of the fetish object), the fetish object does not apply here. In that case, I’m not sure how we might describe what’s going on.

Thinking further on this matter, one might be tempted to say that the object a I am projecting into my children is my desire to have had a safe and loving childhood home. Even though my children have a safe and loving childhood home, this desire ultimately remains unsatisfied because it does not change my own childhood experiences (in fact, nothing does or will and so, anything I look to in order to try and satisfy this desire, will always come up short). This, then, is part of what is so traumatic about seeing my children harmed by others, or unhappy, or suffering (due to a bullying teacher, an accident, whatever). Such experiences force me to recognize that my desire cannot be satisfied–my children cannot fulfill their role as my object a (and, of course, so many parents harm their kids by trying more and more forcefully to have their children fulfill this role).

However, from a Lacanian perspective, it would be a mistake to think that I can so easily identify the object a. According to Lacan, the object a is the irreducible remainder that persists even after all desires have been named. The object a reveals itself in that, no matter how frequently and successfully we satisfy our desires, we continue to desire (even though we continually fool ourselves and think, “if I only had this thing or that promotion or this level of financial security or whatever, then I would truly be happy and satisfied”).

Here, it is worth thinking about the relationship between love (which gives what one hasn’t got) and desire. Desire, Lacan emphasizes, is intimately related to law (and the rule thereof). As he states in his seminar on anxiety: “Desire and law are the same thing … the desire of the Other [A] lays down the law.” It is the law, understood as the whole system of signification and valourization imposed by A on S, that teaches S what is desirable (and if you want a great illustration of this, watch Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers). Consequently, just as the law creates subjects who are always-immediately-forever guilty (as Kafka understood), so also desire creates subjects who cannot be satisfied.

It is precisely here that one should appeal to the Pauline notion of love as the antithesis and enemy of the law (although it paradoxically and simultaneously fulfills what the law [dishonestly] claims to be its own purpose, although that’s a topic for another time). Love is not bounded by the law (e.g., love does not ask what is legal or illegal and then act accordingly–love asks what is loving and acts according to its own judgement regardless of how those actions might be perceived in a Court of Law). It  is precisely because it is lawless that is is able to give what it never received within the world dominated by the rule of law.

How, then, does love relate to desire? According to Lacan, “love is the sublimation of desire” which “allows jouissance to condescend to desire.” Jouissance is defined as “superabundant vitality” and enjoyment “beyond the pleasure principle.” Consequently, in the Écrits, Lacan argues that “Desire is a defense, a defense against going beyond a limit in jouissance.” Desire, in other words, seeks to make jouissance conform to the rule of law. Therefore, by condescending to desire and sublimating it, love transforms desire and moves it outside, beyond, and against the law. This is also a shift from a lack (that one has) to a surplus (that one gives). Desire within the domain of the law longs to possess what it cannot attain. However, sublimated by love and transformed by jouissance, desire gives what it does not have.

Here, it is important to not make a one-to-one correlation between love and jouissance. Both operate extra-legally but, on its own, jouissance can also be a source of harm to others (if, for example, one does what one wants regardless of anyone or anything else–Lacan uses the example of incest). Jouissance, taken alone, is a lawlessness that attends to one’s self. When brought together with love, it attends to others. In fact, it is precisely by shifting the focus from taking for one’s self to giving to an other, that love sublimates desire. Here, then, if I understand things correctly, when I love my children, rather than seeking to find the object a (which is more a void than a thing) within them in order to satisfy my desire, I always already find the agalma (which is a thing outside the law of the signifier or any other rule of law–it is not an absent cause but an indescribable cause) and so I love them accordingly.

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  • June Reviews | On Journeying with those in Exile

    […] Jouissance is not to be confused with desire—it has more to do with the lawless (amoral) pleasure associated with fulfilling primal drives, whereas desire is bound to the signifier and entirely enmeshed with the domain of the law. Anxiety persists attempts to fulfill desire actually attempt (and fail) to fulfill jouissance. Here, then we can also return to Lacan’s formula for fantasy (S ◊ a). Fantasy requires S to stand in a polyvalent relation to a, symbolized by the rhomb “which represents disjunction, ᴠ, just as much as conjunction, ^, which is as much greater than > as lesser than <.” The a is irreducible, it is a remainder that S never attains. And so jouissance goes unfulfilled by desire (and, instead, is related to love that operates outside the domain of the law, as I explore in my recent post below). […]