The Structure of Anxiety


Presentation delivered to the Lacan Circle of Melbourne, 18/7/2015

References/page numbers are to the English edition of Seminar X, by Jacques Lacan

Picture a scenario familiar in the clinic and, moreover, in life. Somebody is at home, and rings a loved one who is out. Receiving no answer, they send a text. Again they get no response, and, heart pounding, their thoughts begin to accelerate in different directions. Perhaps the loved one has been killed in a car accident. Or perhaps they are having an affair, and are in the middle of a rendezvous. With increasing tightness in the chest, the anxious subject thinks of making inquiries into hospitals, or hotel rooms…

These scenarios are my invention here, but they relate to Lacan’s opening point in Seminar X, which is that the structure of anxiety and fantasy is ‘well and truly the same’ (3). In the case of both the fantasy and the anxiety, the scenario indicates and provides the support for a desire. The subject’s relation to the signifier, as manifest in both anxiety and fantasy, gives rise to the question Che vuoi – ‘What wouldst thou?’, as Price translates it. When thinking of anxiety, we should recall the formula of fantasy ($&a), because in both cases, it is a matter of a subject in relation to objet petit a.

Seminar X is, in a sense, Lacan’s last return to Freud, and the Freud to which he immediately returns is that of the paper Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, wherein ‘everything is spoken about’, except anxiety. The three terms at issue in the title of Freud’s paper are, according to Lacan, situated at different levels. For instance, calling forth some etymological peculiarities, Lacan distinguishes between inhibition, impediment, and embarrassment, with each term implying more ‘difficulty’ than the last. Impediment implies ensnarement. ‘To be impeded is a symptom. To be inhibited is a syptom tucked away in a museum’ (10). Again, playing on etymology, embarrassment is the subject (S) decked out with the bar ($).

As for anxiety itself, Lacan defines it as an affect, and, as such, whilst it can be displaced, inverted, or metabolized, it cannot be repressed. What are repressed are its ideational representatives, to use Strachey’s term, or in Lacanese, the ‘signifiers that moor it’ (14). Consequently, whilst anxiety may be the only non-deceptive affect, this does not necessarily spare us the task of interpreting it, especially as far as desire is concerned. Lacan notes that Aristotle’s finest work on the passions was his Rhetoric (and not his work on psychology, for instance), sine the passions are caught in the net, or network, of discourse. This position is reminiscent of the Rome discourse, in which the dream work – a phenomenon we know only through discourse – is interpreted through the various figures of speech used to convey it.

What is important is the version of the text, and that, Freud tells us, is given in the telling of the dream – that is, in its rhetoric. Ellipsis and pleonasm,, hyperbaton or syllepsis], regression, repetition, apposition – these are the syntactical displacements; metaphor, catachresis, antonomasia, allegory, metonymy, and synecdoche – these are the semantic condensations; Freud teaches us to read in them the intentions – whether ostentatious or demonstrative, dissimulating or persuasive, retaliatory or seductive – with which the subject modulates his oneiric discourse (Ecrits, 268).

This insistence on the discursive bases of praxis is part of what delineates psychoanalysis rather sharply from the other psy-disciplines. An analysis proceeds through discourse, and not the brain (‘plastic’ or otherwise), or ‘behaviour’, or ‘cognitions’. For this reason, Lacan sees no need to preface his discussion of anxiety as affect with a general theory of affects, since, after all, he is not doing psychology, but ‘erotology’ (15), oriented around the question of desire. And it is because, at the level of rhetoric (and elsewhere), desire is structured as a question, that it can come to be connected with anxiety in the first place. (See also Television, p 21-23, which touches on these issues). As Lacan shows (19), the classification of affects (in the work of Aquinas, for instance) involves some reference to a Sovereign Good. In more contemporary terms, we might think of the teleological artifice required to sustain the theories of evolutionary psychology. It is clear that Lacan is arguing for anxiety to be understood as unequivocally central to psychoanalytic praxis, because of its relation to desire (as in ‘erotology’) but also because it indicates the proximity of the Real. To put this into context, we have to remember that in the clinical disciplines, anxiety is lumped into a broad range of poorly-differentiated disorders without any suggestion that there is anything remarkable about it. In mainstream psychology, anxiety is but one affect among others. Lacan, however, thinks that there is something absolutely exceptional about it, and hence it is the only one of the affects to which an entire seminar is dedicated.

Now, anxiety (angoisse in the French) and its cognate terms have a formidable intellectual history, particularly in modern philosophy. Lacan is not unaware of this, and he distinguishes the anxiety to which he refers from Sartrean (or Kierkegaardian) anguish. A great many things are subsumed under the heading of ‘anxiety’, but Lacan emphasises, here as elsewhere, that we should not assume too much, since ‘there are limits to understanding’ (18). In any event, the starting point of the subject is neither anxiety nor any other affect but ‘the most straightforward of signifiers, known as the unary trait’ (21). The singularity of this trait is ‘what we cause to enter the real, whether the real likes it or not’. As soon as a subject begins to speak, the unary trait comes into play (40). ‘The fact of being able to say 1 and 1 and another 1and another, constitutes the primary identification. You always have to start with 1.’

From the unary trait, the mark of pure difference, Lacan shows how the barred subject is tied to the Other. In Hegel, the sight of the Other kicks off a struggle on the plane of ‘pure prestige’, which is where desire is situated. However, “for Lacan, because Lacan is an analyst, the Other is there as an un-consciousness that is constituted as such. The Other concerns my desire to the extent of what he lacks and to the extent that he doesn’t know…This is why for me there is no…possible means of sustaining my desire that would have any reference to any object whatsoever if not through coupling it, through tying it in, with this, the $, which designates the subject’s necessary dependence on the Other as such’ (23).

Lacan illustrates this process through various formulae, culminating in the first table of division (26). It begins with the capital Other in the left-hand corner, as the locus of the signifier, and the unbarred S on the other side, as not-yet-existent subject on the other side of the bar. It is only when the bar comes down on the subject, when the signifier binds Subject to Other, that we find a barring in both Subject and Other. The remainder leftover from this process is the little a. There are several different ways of looking at this table. For instance, it makes one’s subjectivity dependent upon and coextensive with a lack in the Other, from which it follows that one’s desire is inextricably linked to the desire of the Other. Or, coming from another angle, we can consider the clinical effects of a relation to an unbarred Other (as in psychosis), or a non-relation to the Other altogether. As the poet Les Murray put it in a poem about an autistic boy, ‘He lives in objectivity’. It is in this vein that we can read Lacan against himself, as in his commentary of Klein’s case of ‘Little Dick’ in Seminar I. Klein introduces her young patient to the Other, and imposes a bar on this Other. The process is not pretty – Lacan himself describes it as ‘brutal’ – but the profundity of this operation cannot be overestimated. It is by entering language in the sense of signification (rather than at the level of mere ‘call’) that Klein’s patient has language grafted onto him, in the form of Klein’s transmission of the Oedipal myth in her interpretation.



This procedure of becoming subject through the Other’s barring is not only Symbolic and Real, but also Imaginary. Lacan denies (30) having had two teachings, one Imaginary (revolving around the Mirror Stage) and the other Symbolic (from the Rome discourse). Rather, these two registers are interwoven, and precisely in the Mirror Stage, in which it is the infant’s specular image, i(a), has its value ‘ratified’ by the big Other (32).

From the specular image, Lacan separates the world from the stage, as two separate loci which are ruled by differing laws, but which coexist all the same. From the stage, Lacan reconsiders the example of Hamlet, who was already the subject of much of Seminar VI. In this case, the discussion focuses on identification and mourning. As in the earlier seminar, Lacan remarks that Hamlet’s grief for the deceased Ophelia – whose manner of death made mourning difficult – was only properly awakened after the encounter with his specular image, Laertes. He grapples with his double in Ophelia’s grave, and it is only then that his desire to mourn is activated. (‘Forty thousand brothers./ Could not with all their quantity of love. /Make up my sum.’). From here, as Lacan notes, ‘things sort themselves out’ (37). We have had occasion to consider mourning previously, and whilst Freud, struggling for his bearings for a moment, perhaps, links it with melancholia, a more fitting analogue might be anxiety, since in both mourning and anxiety, symbolic articulation or inscription vitiates affective intensity without altogether removing it. A trace remains, and hence there is no zero-point of mourning or anxiety

Lacan returns to Freud once more in this seminar, but this time it is to ‘The Uncanny’. Das Unheimliche is one of Freud’s more curious papers, and he spends some time trying to pin down what he recognises as an elusive concept. After a lengthy detour through etymology and various languages, the ‘unhomely’ provokes anxiety precisely because there is something familiar about it, perhaps in the form of repressed wishes or fantasies, or taboos, or anxieties, particularly castration anxiety. Freud recounts a rather convoluted tale of Hoffman’s, namely, ‘The Sandman’, as an example of an ‘unparalleled atmosphere of uncanniness’, and I shall read to you Freud’s summary of the text (p. 227, SE):

This fantastic tale begins with the childhood recollections of the student Nathaniel: in spite of his present happiness, he cannot banish the memories associated with the mysterious and terrifying death of the father he loved. On certain evenings his mother used to send the children to bed early, warning them that “the Sand-Man was coming”; and sure enough Nathaniel would not fail to hear the heavy tread of a visitor with whom his father would then be occupied that evening. When questioned about the Sand-Man, his mother, it is true, denied that such a person existed except as a form of speech; but his nurse could give him more definite information: “He is a wicked man who comes when children won’t go to bed, and throws handfuls of sand in their eyes so that they jump out of their heads all bleeding. Then he puts the eyes in a sack and carries them off to the moon to feed his children. They sit up there in their nest, and their beaks are hooked like owls’ beaks, and they use them to peck up naughty boys’ and girls’ eyes with.” Although little Nathaniel was sensible and old enough not to believe in such gruesome attributes to the figure of the Sand-Man, yet the dread of him became fixed in his 6 breast. He determined to find out what the Sand-Man looked like; and one evening, when the Sand-Man was again expected, he hid himself in his father’s study. He recognized the visitor as the lawyer Coppelius, a repulsive person of whom the children were frightened when he occasionally came to a meal; and he now identified this Coppelius with the dreaded Sand-Man. Concerning the rest of the scene, Hoffmann already leaves us in doubt whether we are witnessing the first delirium of the panic-stricken boy, or a succession of events which are to be regarded in the story as being real. His father and the guest begin to busy themselves at a hearth with glowing flames. The little eavesdropper hears Coppelius call out, “Here with your eyes!” and betrays himself by screaming aloud; Coppelius seizes him and is about to drop grains of red-hot coal out of the fire into his eyes, so as to cast them out on the hearth. His father begs him off and saves his eyes. After this the boy falls into a deep swoon; and a long illness followed upon his experience. Those who lean towards a rationalistic interpretation of the Sand-Man will not fail to recognize in the child’s phantasy the continued influence of his nurse’s story. The grains of sand that are to be thrown into the child’s eyes turn into red-hot grains of coal out of the flames; and in both cases they are meant to make his eyes jump out. In the course of another visit of the Sand-Man’s, a year later, his father was killed in his study by an explosion. The lawyer Coppelius vanished from the place without leaving a trace behind. Nathaniel, now a student, believes that he has recognized this childhood’s phantom of horror in an itinerant optician, an Italian called Giuseppe Coppola. This man had offered him barometers for sale in his university town and when Nathaniel refused had added: “Eh, not barometers, not barometers—also got fine eyes, beautiful eyes.” The student’s terror was allayed on finding that the proffered eyes were only harmless spectacles, and he bought a pockettelescope from Coppola. With its aid he looks across into Professor Spalanzani’s house opposite and there spies Spalanzani’s beautiful, but strangely silent and motionless daughter, Olympia. He soon falls in love with her so violently that he quite forgets his clever and sensible betrothed on her account. But Olympia was an automaton whose works Spalanzani had made, and whose eyes Coppola, the Sand-Man, had put in. The student surprises the two men quarrelling over their handiwork. The optician carries off the wooden eyeless doll; and the mechanician, Spalanzani, takes up Olympia’s bleeding eye-balls from the ground and throws them at Nathaniel’s breast, saying that Coppola had stolen them from him (Nathaniel). Nathaniel succumbs to a fresh attack of madness, and in his delirium his recollection of his father’s death is mingled with this new experience. He cries, “Faster—faster— faster—rings of fire—rings of fire! Whirl about, rings of fire—round and round! Wooden doll, ho! lovely wooden doll, whirl about——,” then falls upon the professor, Olympia’s so-called father, and tries to strangle him. Rallying from a long and serious illness, Nathaniel seemed at last to have recovered. He was going to marry his betrothed with whom he was reconciled. One day he was walking through the town and marketplace, where the high tower of the Town-Hall threw its huge shadow. On the girl’s suggestion they mounted the tower, leaving her brother, who was walking with them, down below. Up there, Clara’s attention is drawn to a curious object coming along the street. Nathaniel looks at this thing through Coppola’s spyglass, which he finds in his pocket, and falls into a new fit of madness. Shouting out, “Whirl about, my wooden doll!” he tries to fling the girl into the depths below. Her brother, brought to her side by her cries, rescues her and hastens down to safety with her. Up above, the raving man rushes round, shrieking “Rings of fire, whirl about!”—words whose origin we know. Among the people 7 who begin to gather below there comes forward the figure of the lawyer Coppelius, suddenly returned. We may suppose it was his approach, seen through the telescope, that threw Nathaniel into his madness. People want to go up and overpower the madman, but Coppelius 7 laughs and says, “Wait a bit; he’ll come down of himself.” Nathaniel suddenly stands still, catches sight of Coppelius, and with a wild shriek “Yes! ‘Fine eyes-beautiful eyes,’” flings himself down over the parapet. No sooner does he lie on the paving-stones with a shattered skull than the Sand-Man vanishes in the throng.

The text is replete with continual references to eyes, in the story itself, but also as symbols, and in rhetorical figures. I wondered if Bataille’s Story of the Eye owed anything to Hoffman’s circumlocutions here. In any case, both Freud and Hoffman are worth keeping in mind when it comes to Lacan’s next manoeuvres in this seminar.

Again, it cannot be overstated how different Lacan’s approach is to that which you find predominating in Anglophone clinics. As we shall see, Lacan will affirm that anxiety is ‘not without an object’. This is an innovation which he introduces, proceeding from the classical distinction between fear, which involves an object, and anxiety, which is supposedly object-less. In the contemporary clinic, this distinction is itself effaced. The object is either regarded as irrelevant, or as lacking altogether, as in the case of ‘panic disorder’, or ‘generalised anxiety disorder’. The distinction between anxiety and fear is made to hinge upon the relative ‘rationality’ of the fear, which is, of course, determined by some clinical authority or other. We could embark upon considerable discussion here, on the nature of phobic structure, anxiety hysteria, and the relations between anxiety and desire. Since there are relations between anxiety and desire, it is absolutely essential, from a psychoanalytic perspective, to clarify the objects involved in each. Desire ceases to be in question and becomes self-evident when you abandon any notion of the unconscious, as in technocratic psychology. The patient’s demand is taken at face value, and the treatment is a matter of acceding to that demand. Yet if we take a fear of failure, for instance, an anxiety which often appears in the clinic, one can often discern that, irrespective of how ‘rational’ the fear is, the patient very often guarantees his own failure. (For instance, through inaction, endlessly deferring decisions, refusing to embark upon any course of action with less than certain prospects of success, etc.). In effect, the patient keeps himself wanting, thus indicating a nodal point between desire, anxiety and castration.


The function of desire is supported by two ‘pillars’ (41), the specular image i(a) and the object of desire (a). Lacan’s formula for fantasy – $&a – requires that the fantasy be accessible via some imaginary detour, such as through the virtual image (i-prime(a)). This virtual image is the picture of the vase where it isn’t, for those who remember Lacan’s diagram of the mirrors from Seminar I. This distinction is necessary since the more the subject ‘encircles’ or even ‘caresses’ is objet petit a, the greater the need to cling to the specular image. Or, to put it differently, love requires some illusion in the imaginary register, and sex is always-already ‘virtual’.  The minus-phi (-„) is the ‘natural’ counterpart of the a. Lacan says that anxiety emerges when something – anything whatsoever – appears in the place of this minus-phi, namely. The minus phi is the Heim (47). This is where the Unheimliche is to be found. It begins with imaginary castration because ‘there is no image of lack’ (43), and if something does appear there, it can only be because lack happens to be lacking. Lacan speaks of a ‘fracture’ that occurs when the libidinalized image of the semblable is approached, constituting the traumatic scene (46).

Lacan differs from Freud in that he does not share the latter’s view that castration anxiety is that which constitutes the neurotic’s ultimate impasse (45). ‘What the neurotic shrinks back from is not castration, but from turning his castration into what the Other lacks. He shrinks back from turning his castration into something positive, namely, the guarantee of the function of the Other, this Other that steals away in the indeterminate echo of significations, this Other in which the subject no longer sees himself except as fate…fate that gets lost in the ocean of histories. Now, what are these histories, if not an immense fiction? What might ensure a relationship between a subject and this universe of significations, if not the fact that somewhere there is jouissance?’

‘Dedicating his castration to guaranteeing the Other is that before which the neurotic comes to a standstill…for a reason that is in some sense internal to analysis and has to do with the fact that it’s analysis that brings him to this appointment. At the end of the day, castration is none other than the moment of interpreting castration’.  These are Lacan’s words, but I think that we should read the testimonies of the pass in light of them.

When Lacan speaks of perversion, it is often, as it is in Seminar X, to distinguish it from neurosis on the basis of fantasy (and by extension, anxiety). We should recall that the formula for fantasy is reversed in the case of perversion. (A similar reversal is present in the discourse of the analyst). One way of understanding perversion is not to focus too intently on the content of their fantasy of activity, the material of which may not differ significantly from neurotics or anybody else. Rather, the pervert’s activity has the effect of a barring of the Other, a kind of decompletion. To be the instrument of the Other’s anxiety, or jouissance, or perhaps even embarrassment gets closer to what Lacan has in mind when he distinguishes perversion from neurosis, and is far removed from the majority of theories which judge ‘perversion’ relative to one normative standard or another. For Lacan, things are in their right place in perversion (49). The perverse subject is a crusader for the Other’s jouissance, even as he himself is oblivious to the significance of his actions.

Neurotics, for their part, have perverse fantasies, but here as elsewhere, Lacan insists that these are not evidence of perverse structure. This raises the question – of what use is the perverse fantasy to the neurotic? Lacan’s answer to this is, in this seminar, at least, is that it defends against anxiety, but only to the extent that the object a that the neurotics makes himself into (in fantasy) is a kind of postiche a. This defensive function of the a is only one part of its function, the other half of which is to be the ‘bait’ which the subject uses to hold onto the Other.

Fantasy is not limited to the analytic clinic, however, but can be seen wherever there is an attempt to uphold the notion of a sexual rapport, whether it be that promoted by religion, or that of genital love, oblativity and so forth. Some of this comes very close to the obsessional fantasy of giving all to the Other, being the Other’s servant. This is situating things at the level of demand, whereas at another level, the one thing that the neurotic must learn to give is his ‘nothing’ (52), his anxiety.

Lacan is careful to indicate that anxiety is not a lack, but rather, ‘the failing of the support that lack provides’ (53). Taking things one part-object at a time: it is not the longing for the breast, nor its alternating between presence and absence, but its imminence which provokes anxiety. ‘The most anguishing thing for the infant is precisely the moment when the relationship upon which he’s established himself, of the lack that turns him into desire, is disrupted, and this relationship is most disrupted when there’s no possibility of any lack, when the mother is on his back all the while…This is one model of demand, of the demand that will never let up’ (54)….Lacan proceeds to illustrate this point with the genital organs and the superego. He demarcates three sites of anxiety: 1) the demand of the Other; 2) the jouissance of the Other; 3) the desire of the Other, especially as evinced in psychoanalytic interpretation. This is where we shall leave things for today.


One thought on “The Structure of Anxiety

  1. Pingback: News – July 2015 | LACANONLINE.COM

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