The following is a modified version of a presentation given to the Lacan Circle of Melbourne on 21/2/15:
‘Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety’ was Freud’s late (1926) contribution to a theory of anxiety, a problem which then exercised Freud and several of his colleagues. It is a paper in which the nature of anxiety is by no means settled, but among other things, Freud associates it with an over-excitation of the subject in the midst of a ‘traumatic situation’, the nature and genesis of which was and remains a disputed point. On the other hand, there is anxiety as signal, activated by the ego as a call to action in the face of a threat. This seems, from a Lacanian point of view, something of a complex admixture, since the traumatic elements (presumably) pertain to something Real, beyond representation, whilst the signalling function revolves around imaginary ego structures and signifying articulations. You can see the confusion with which Freud’s followers were left. In some cases, anxiety was a defence; in others, it was the thing to be defended against. Nonetheless, anxiety remained a central concept in psychoanalysis, and if Freud could be accused of pan-sexualism, one might think of Melanie Klein’s work, for instance, as a case of pan-anxietism.
If we turn to Lacan, especially the Lacan of the 1950s, we see the progressive theorisation of the imaginary and symbolic elements of psychoanalysis. In this iteration, affects are fundamentally deceptive. They constitute the imaginary element, the signified, to the ordering signifier, and hence are endlessly displaced, isolated, metaphorised and metonymised and so on. This is the case in Lacan’s Seminar I, for instance, in which anxiety does not yet quite have any particular connection to the real. One finds parallels with these seminars of Lacan and the early works of Freud, such as The Interpretation of Dreams, in which even the nightmare can initially be explained without reference to trauma. The nightmare too is an example of wish-fulfillment, albeit, one pertaining to a wish which freaks the subject out.
One can go quite a way with this sort of theory in an analysis. by sticking to the signifiers at play in the fantasy, and without any invocation of the real.To take examples of the clinic, consider the frequency with which anxiety is associated with thoughts of the subject’s loved ones coming to harm in some way. In these obsessional thoughts, the subject may well imagine themselves as the cause of some lethal accident to their spouse, or mother, or significant other. Taking the imagined scenario as signified, the obsessional thoughts may well reveal a repressed desire (i.e. for aggression at an ostensibly loved object). One can arrive at this interpretation by remaining at the level of the signifying articulation of the fantasy, making no mention of the real.
All of this is very well, but it presumes that one is starting from neurosis and repression. What about psychosis? I have heard it argued by psychoanalysts here and there that, since there is no repression in psychosis, there can be no desire, and also no anxiety. This theoretical position has a certain neatness to it, yet in the clinic, psychotics themselves speak of anxiety, the phenomenological conditions of which are of the same order as anxiety. As elsewhere, the encounter with psychosis is what forces a reconsideration of a psychoanalytic theory which had become, to coin a term, neurotocentric.
Lacan seems to have had this realisation himself in Seminar VII, which is perhaps where interpretation through symbolic machinery reached its zenith, and was precisely where the real makes its first methodically theorised appearance, this time, in the guise of the object qua das Ding. (In the following year, taking from Plato’s Symposium, this developed into the agalma, and eventually into object petit a). In Seminar X, anxiety has a special relation not only to desires and wishes, but to the object, which is itself a formation deriving from the subject’s encounter with the real. Having a relation with the real, anxiety is, therefore, the only affect which does not deceive. In particular, anxiety is the place where the fantasy of ‘reality’ fails in some way, is revealed to have a flaw.
In this vein, the seminars after Seminar VII, and up to at least Seminar XIV constitute a rigorous coming to grips with subjectivity and its relations to the real. Again the encounter with psychosis, and with the less ‘well-formed’ neuroses – phobia, addiction, etc, is of the utmost importance here, since they tend to underemine a neurotocentric view of things, in which Oedipus is paramount. It is immediately after Seminar X, for instance, that Lacan gave his aborted seminar of the names of the father. He was working toward a position in which the organising principles of subjectivity are manifold, and the real and psychosis necessitate this, in my view. As Jacques-Alain Miller says in reference to ordinary psychosis, psychosis is a vast continent. It should be added that Seminar X is therefore the last seminar in which Lacan is undertaking his ‘return to Freud’. In this Seminar, Freud’s paper on anxiety is the key reference point, but this is the last time such a reference point works this way in Lacan’s work. In seven years time – Seminar XVII – Oedipus is relegated to the status of Freud’s myth. And even in this seminar, presaging Seminar XX, Lacan is equally interested not just in Freud but in the writings of women analysts.
So, this seminar situated anxiety not just with the wish, but with the object. This is not to say that Lacan dispenses with diagnostic structure. On the contrary, the place of anxiety across structures is itself of diagnostic significance. This seminar goes into some detail, for instance, in distinguishing neurotic ‘perverse’ sexual fantasy as against bona fide, structural perversions, such as sadism or masochism. We can think of the popular book and film, Fifty Shades of Grey, in this light. In a world in which control, and above all, self-control, are ideologically prized and fetishized, it is perhaps not so surprising that a dialectical dance of control (and its lack) should feature in sexual fantasy. This fantasy is coextensive with dominant ideologies, since, after all, it rests on that pillar of liberal bourgeois individualism, the contract. One can follow Lacan in this seminar and see that the masochist of structural perversion, for instance, is up to something rather different, namely, the anxiety of the Other, something which is by definition uncontainable by contractual legalities. These points regarding perversion are not merely academic, I should add, that Lacan eventually changed his mind about the non-attendance of perverts in analysis. In my opinion, it is more the police officer than the pervert who dodges analysis, but that is another matter.
We shall discuss this more in a subsequent session, but Lacan’s position is that the Other precedes the subject, logically and chronologically. This is the first point of division. The second point of division proceeds from the sub-division of each of these elements. That is, the Subject’s encounter with the Other produces both a barred Subject and a barred Other. The remainder of this operation, lying beyond both language and the specular image, is the object a. Entry into subjecthood is predicated upon a constitutive loss, the positivisation of which is object a. The partial drives and objects – oral, anal, scopic and invocatory – likewise circulate through these divisions. (The latter two, one will notice, are particularly prominent in psychosis, and, in contrast to the oral and anal drives and objects, are not founded on a dialectic of demand of the Other’s).
Another notable point about these drives and objects is that they are centred on the body’s erogenous zones, the portals between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, undermining the distinction between each. It is not for nothing that topology, particulary the Klein bottle and the Moebius strip, feature heavily in this seminar. What Freud called libidinal economy is organised around rims. Nonetheless, unless one is dealing with the most brute and elementary features of excitation, anxiety is irreducible to its bodily manifestations. Anger, arousal and anxiety have shared physiological features, and are principally distinguished, like all affects, by subjective interpretation, and not biological ‘markers’. At another level, there is a shared etymology, too. Anxiety is the anguish (angoisse) in French, and angst in German. The English word ‘anger’ itself derives from the Old Norse word for grief, which is to say, the affective counterpart of object-loss.
Anxiety introduces crisis into the Subject’s world, and this, after all, is our theme for the year. At length, Lacan theorises two possible subjective responses to this crisis. There is ‘acting out’, which, in contrast to popular usage today, does not mean ‘misbehaving’ but rather acting, in an interpretable way, with the subject ‘on show’. It is transference, but without analysis. Passage a l’acte, on the other hand, is a drop from discourse altogether, an escape from the scene. These dual responses to anxiety are illustrated with case examples, including the famous slap given by Dora to Herr K, as well as the literal plunge taken by Freud’s young female homosexual.
And, to be clear, both Freud and Lacan insist upon a distinction between fear and anxiety. Whilst there is much in this world to be afraid of, there is nevertheless also much to cause anxiety. This is partly, at least, the meaning of Lacan’s definition of anxiety, namely, that it is not without object. Lacan does not sever the relations between anxiety and repressed desire based on lack, however, he also stresses the traumatic over-proximity of the object, of the lack of a lack. Lacan takes his examples from the paintings of Zurbaran of Sicilian martyrs, Santa Lucia of Siracusa, and Santa Agatha of Catania, the former having her eyes gouged out, latter, her breasts torn off. He says – ‘Is that what anxiety is? Is it man’s possibility of maiming himself? No, it isn’t…it is the impossible sight that threatens you, of your own eyes lying on the ground.’
Impossibility then, is at the heart of anxiety, whether it be in the form of the positivised loss, or the impossible object, or the subjective experience of castration. This impossibility is an altogether different matter to mere prohibition of the sort that was prominent in Auden’s age of anxiety. Not only does permissiveness fail to diminish anxiety’s powers, it augments them. The contemporary subject without prohibitions constructs thousands of his own rules and systems, or is stricken with anxiety neurosis or polyphobia, or quells these with the aid of some addiction or other. Contemporary medicine tries to respond to this subjective crisis with anxiolytic drugs and ‘techniques’. Yet this is missing the point, since drugs and techniques can only turn off the smoke alarm, when the point is to put out the fire. This is where psychoanalysis comes in; helping the subject negotiate his or her way through the crisis of anxiety, both as signal and as trauma, and to have the courage to gaze upon the subjective circumstances which have been the incubator for this anxiety in the first place.