Narcissism – Sublimation – Cynicism

daliThe following was presented at a study day of the Lacan Circle of Australia on 16/3/19.

No term of Freud’s has suffered more from misuse than that of ‘narcissism’, both in pop psychology and inthe clinical lexicon. Along with the term ‘toxic’, ‘narcissism’ has become a catch-all denunciatory epithet to designate an enormous variety of things that might formerly have been classified under the category of sin, and the sub-species of which include ‘vanity’ and ‘selfishness’. If nothing else, this teaches us that the secularism of our times has done nothing to diminish the jouissance to be found in moralising.

Against this moralising tendency, I think that it is important to return to Freud, such as we find him in his 1914 paper ‘On narcissism’. The choice of this term recalls the Greek myth of Narcissus and Echo, and which concerns the partial objects of the gaze and the voice respectively. The term also names a common flower, the narcissus, whose etymology is reminiscent of another much-abused term  of contemporary moralism, ‘toxic’. The flower in question is poisonous, and its name derives from the Greek noun νάρκη, referring to deadness or numbness. The verb-form of this noun, ναρκάω, means to grow numb, and it is the origin of our word ‘narcotic’, among other things.

Freud’s first move in his paper is to link narcissism with self-administered bodily satisfaction. The Lacanian name for this satisfaction is jouissance. Freud then distinguishes between two currents of libidinisation, one in which the libido is directed to objects, and the other in which it is directed to the subject’s own ego, and is therefore narcissistic. For Freud, there is a more or less fixed quantum of libido, and so the two libidinal outlets are in a zero-sum game. That is, the more libido that goes into one direction, the less it goes into the other. Further, in contrast to transference neuroses, such as hysteria and obsessional neurosis, Freud delineated the narcissistic psychoneuroses (in the ‘Introductory Lectures’), identifying them with melancholia and dementia praecox. We can come to the reasons why in a moment.

If narcissism amounts to a withdrawal, a retreat by the subject back into his or her own ego, we might be tempted to think that the solution to this is Freud’s ‘object-libido’. This is, if we pare it down, the Kohutian solution. Heinz Kohut does not affirm the existence of a subject but, in good Anglo-Saxon fashion, a ‘self’, and since narcissism is the principal problem of this self, he quite logically views empathy as the appropriate solution, as a kind of object-libido. However, we have to be very clear here about what sort of ‘object’ is at stake. The narcissism of withdrawal into the ego is a structural regression to the imaginary, but this imaginary element is by no means lacking in object-libido. Freud himself allowed for the possibility of ‘narcissistic love’, and the notion of ‘love at first sight’ is fairly suggestive of an imaginary, narcissistic dimension. This isn’t the only type of love, as this isn’t the only type of object – there is the small other, the object a, and the big Other, barred and unbarred, etc. Insofar as anybody is dealing with jouissance, they are dealing with a body, and this necessitates that all satisfaction is in some sense narcissistic. If we accept the proposition that narcissism is universal, there can be no question of psychoanalysts attempting to cure it.

If we can subtract the moralistic element from the notion of narcissism, it should be clear that the pinnacle of narcissism is not the act of posting selfies for Instagram, but catatonia, in which there is no relation to any other, and certainly not a discursive relation of the sort that might constitute a social bond. Catatonia is the extreme point of withdrawal, and one can find it in what contemporary psychiatry calls schizophrenia and melancholia, but in contrast to the formulations of psychiatry, it is not a negative symptom, since there are no negative symptoms as far as libido or jouissance are concerned.

If we take catatonia as our baseline for narcissism, every other mode of jouissance is relatively more Other-oriented. The person who derives jouissance through their selfies on social media is indeed engaged in something narcissistic, but if we analyse the activity, it isn’t purely narcissistic. The selfie-taker must, for instance, fantasise notions of what the Other will like, and transmute these into at least a rudimentary aesthetic form. Almost certainly, some discourse in the form of text will provide at least minimal accompaniment to the image, and we are therefore a long way from catatonia. Masturbation is clearly narcissistic within the definition given by Freud, but since, like other sexual jouissance, it requires a fantasy to be successful, it too will contain a reference, an orientation to the Other. Addiction can be a very solitary, self-administered mode of jouissance, but this can deceive us into forgetting that the addict too has a fantasy, and usually is obliged to engage in at least elementary symbolic relations to acquire his or her object of jouissance. Activities typically derided as narcissistic are therefore not all reducible to narcissism.

By the same token, there can be narcissistic jouissance in activities that are not normally moralised over. Sex with a partner, for instance, contains a narcissistic element even though an ostensible object is on the scene, and there is a cynical sense in which sex with a partner – and even with multiple partners – can be interpreted as masturbation via the body of an Other. The so-called social consumption of alcohol, drugs and other objects of addiction is also a misnomer, with the social element potentially providing a fantasmatic veil to the narcissistic self-administration of jouissance. The reduction by a subject to an imaginary object for the Other, an i(a), can intensify the ravages of precarity that characterise our times, and this is the realm of both the narcissistic image but also that of evaluation, quantification and biopolitical procedure. All self-evaluation which produces jouissance is fundamentally narcissistic, and this is as true of the self-reproaches of the melancholic as it is, say, for the merely self-aggrandising subject. Consider for example this passage from “notes from the Underground’, Dostoevsky’s novella, wherein the anonymous narrator likens himself to a wretched mouse, seeking revenge for an insult, but finding only resentment:

 [N]othing remains for it to do but shrug the whole thing off and creep shamefacedly into its hole with a smile of pretended contempt in which it doesn’t even believe itself. There in its nasty stinking cellar our offended, browbeaten and derided mouse sinks at once into cold, venomous, and above all undying resentment. It will sit there for forty years together remembering the insult in the minutest and most shameful details and constantly adding even more shameful details of its own invention, maliciously tormenting and fretting itself with its own imagination. It will be ashamed of its fantasies, but all the same it will always be remembering them and turning them over in its mind…

The fantasmatic content may involve spiteful self-derision, but the structure of this narcissistic jouissance resemble nothing so much as masturbation.

Empathy, which is advertised as a solution by so many contemporary discourses, runs the risk of being yet another mode of imaginary adaptation. I empathise with the Other insofar as I ‘understand’ him, which is to say, systematically misunderstand him by assimilating him into my own pre-existing fantasies. In this vein, those psychotherapies which aim to treat narcissism via an improvement of ‘self-esteem’ or empathy are, to an extent, at least, perpetuating that which they purport to cure. This is why there is a need to introduce registers in addition to the imaginary. The alternative is that treatment becomes the replacement of one fantasy for another, and in which the end of analysis resembles the popular mean in which a cartoon dog sits inside a burning building, and says ‘This is fine. I’m okay with the events that are currently unfolding’. In the full version of the meme, the dog promptly melts. In some expressions of anorexia, the disjunction between the body as narcissistic image for the Other’s gaze and the body as Real organism is absolutely clear, especially when the subject in question is delighted with the former at the direct expense of the latter. Narcissism can be defined as the symptom in its imaginary aspect, but a psychoanalysis requires that it be put alongside its real and symbolic dimensions.


The detour of discourse is a defence against the drive. Because of this, the formation of social links through discourse can entail that the jouissance of the subject takes a deviation via the Other. In contrast, when a subject is outside of discourse, or inserted into a pseudo-discourse such as the discourse of capitalism, jouissance is structured like a short-circuit. The subject as consumer consumes him or herself, and is ‘burnt out’ in the process. There are analogies with economics and the environment here, in that limitless production of surplus-value for ‘growth’ will ultimately result in devastation, just as it does in the case of limitless surplus-jouissance. It is not that any jouissance is non-narcissistic, there is a general tendency for it to be relatively less destructive the more it follows a circuit involving the Other.

With this in mind, there’s a passage in an article by Jacques-Alain Miller that I would like to discuss, wherein he mentions two different kinds of outcomes of a psychoanalysis. If we remember Seminar XI, Miller asked Lacan about his ontology, and the two different outcomes mentioned in this paper seem to me to correspond to two different ontologies. Miller says (p. 14):

Often, analysts are divided between those who see the end of analysis more on the cynical side and those who see it more on the side of sublimation. The sublimatory side supposes that one aims at the jouissance of the Other, while Diogenes demonstrates that the only thing that interests him, the only thing that is truthful, true or real for him is the jouissance of one’s own body.

In other words, Miller positions himself in opposition to sublimation as an aim of analysis, in favour of the approach of Diogenes the Cynic, who masturbates publically, and is interested only in his own, singular jouissance, the jouissance of the idiot, as Miller says elsewhere. The context for this discussion is one in which Miller notes that analysis sometimes brings the analysand to choose between ideals, and jouissance. He gives homosexuality as a specific example. Without really trying, an analysis tends to have the effect of loosening the bond between a subject and his ideals, as the master signifiers that constitute the ideals are ironised, questioned, put in scare quotes. I think that Miller’s description fits with my own experience, though I question whether the conflict between ideals and jouissance implicitly presupposes neurosis. A paranoiac, for instance, whose mode of jouissance consists in attacking alleged persecutors, may not see any problem reconciling their ideals and their satisfaction.

What are we to make of this preference for cynicism over sublimation? Note that Miller is not recapitulating Lacan’s thesis of Seminar VII, in which the ethics of psychoanalysis necessitate sticking to one’s desire. His cynic is a crusader of jouissance, not desire. As with many perverts, he is also an exemplary moralist. Lacan discussed sublimation in the seminar on ethics, and whilst he had expressed reservations about it, he nevertheless held it open as a possibility. Courtly love is a theme of the same seminar, and for all of the narcissism inherent in such love, it is also an example of sublimation, with the lover’s lyrics the residue of the subject’s encounter with the Other. Throughout this period of Lacan’s teaching, one can discern a marked anti-psychologism in the seminars. Lacan turned to many other disciplines to irrigate the waters of psychoanalysis, like linguistics, or anthropology, but never psychology. It is no coincidence, I think, that the disciplines he used were those in which the phenomena at stake are grounded on a relational ontology which is lacking in psychology. In psychology, one studies the curves of the skull, or of a psychometric test, to localise and individualise a subject who is now constructed merely as an object. In cognitive science, which is the dominant paradigm of contemporary psychology, there is no such thing as discourse, only data, construed as computational by way of a functionalist metaphor. Computers can very well transmit this data to one another and ‘process’ it, but they have neither jouissance nor a social bond. In contrast, however, it is absurd to try to situate discursive phenomena such as law, or language within an individual brain or body, even if there are effects on individual brains and bodies. This, I think, speaks to the need to consider the symbolic and real along with the imaginary elements of jouissance, because the Other remains present, and language remains performative. In effect, there are two ontologies here – a relational ontology grounded in the Other, and an ontology of the one, as a localised, singular bodily jouissance. This corresponds to two of Lacan’s propositions which emerged at more or less the same period of his teaching: first, that there is no sexual rapport, and second, that there is nonetheless a social bond possible via language, the name for which is discourse.

This makes Diogenes the Cynic an ambiguous example. He famously masturbated in public, and argued in favour of spitting in the faces of the rich, and whilst these can be read as acts of bodily jouissance, they are not only that. In each case, an Other is on the scene, and it would be a curious psychoanalytic position, in my view, to assume that this Other is merely incidental to the jouissance in question. Diogenes looks as though he is thumbing his nose at the law of the Father, and I suspect that if his modes of jouissance are to be sustained beyond a very short frame of time, he will be obliged to do at least a little sublimation. Spitting at the rich or masturbating in public are likely to bring down violence upon oneself unless they are conducted with the support of some social bonds. And Diogenes was not merely enjoying by way of bodily acts, but by writing, and teaching, which are already little concessions that Diogenes is making to send his narcissistic jouissance down the detour of the Other.

This is the Borromean problem, namely, that jouissance has to be considered across all three registers and this obliges us to give some consideration to the Other, even if we believe that bodily satisfaction is reducible to an ontology of the One. Moreover, we should be wary of replicating a mistake that Freud was sometimes accused of, namely, examining clinical problems under historically contingent circumstances, and universalising them. It is true; that the Anglophone world in particular is currently characterised by radical individualism, but the doctrine that this is some universal, ‘natural’ state of human subjectivity belongs to Thatcher, not Lacan. I mean here the Thatcher for whom society does not exist, the Other does not exist. No doubt, it can appear at times as if Thatcher was speaking the truth. Just as Oedipus and the nuclear family are not eternal structures, we should be careful about over-generalising any ontology of the One. In any case, one question that arises from this is whether a sinthome can be constructed without sublimation, or without reference to an Other.


Lacan’s proposition Y a d’l’Un could be translated as ‘there is some one’, or perhaps that ‘there is some of the One’.  We should not confuse this with Parminidean philosophy, which Lacan refuted during this period. He does not say that there is one, that there is exists one, or that psychoanalysis proceeds from the one. Lacan’s teaching is a reversal of Thatcher’s thesis that society does not exist. Rather, the individual does not exist, except imaginarily, as a synthetic unity to be found in the narcissistic relation of the mirror stage. A good deal of contemporary biopolitics is dedicated to individuation, to making this imaginary One exist as an ego or a ‘self’, but because it deals only with an imaginary relation, it is not-all encompassing in its effects. So whilst all jouissance, all satisfaction, is narcissistic, broadening its circuit might enable a detour to become a sinthome. Turning the gaze on the self through self-regulatory procedures replicates the structure of the so-called narcissistic neuroses, and whilst psychoanalysis is not immune to this risk, the discursive context of analysis, and the performative function attributed to speech work against it.

It might prevent a subject being burnt out. The cynic may well say that we are all burnt out in the long run, but if jouissance takes the path of the Other, there is at least a chance that this burnout will leave a residue of something other than ash.




Miller, J-A. (2012). Psychoanalysis, the city and communities. Psychoanalytical Notebooks, 24.

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