Lacan’s elusive object petit a

Have you ever wondered why we keep chasing happiness and still never find it permanently? Why do our desires never cease and why do we keep running after material possessions? 

French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan had an interesting and mind-bending analysis on this subject.

Let us first understand the key terminology that the theory encapsulates.

Object petit a – This is no physical object or marker. It is not even tangible. Object petit a is basically the cause of a desire. This is that ultimate consequence, attainment of which will end our desire yet it is never fulfilled paradoxically. For example: happiness in buying something is a desire that will never be fulfilled in a lifetime. If you buy x, you still want to buy y and z and so on and so forth.

Jouissance –  This concept essentially mean pleasure till the point of pain. In economics there is a concept of marginal utility which diminishes as the consumption increases. Similarly, Jouissance is the drive of pleasure to the point of it becoming painful. 

The big other – The big other is the world, the ecosystem, language, laws and the society at large.

A recently born infant is in the Jouissance stage as its entire world revolves around the mother who acts as a care giver. The mother nourishes and clings on to the child offering unparalleled love and support. The child realizes a gradual reduction in the attention given to him/her as the mother has to attend the worldly affairs. The gradual detachment from the mother develops a sense of ego in the child. The child subconsciously thinks what the others including his/her own father has that the child does not have for not getting the attention of the mother. Lacan refers to the mother and the child here as ‘the small other’. The child starts developing the understanding of ‘the big other’ from the womb of the mother but the differentiation between the conscious and the unconscious self is determined in the mirror stage as described below.

We are a formless, continuous stream of consciousness from the inside but when a child looks at the mirror for the first time (literally or figuratively), h/she realizes the innate unidimensional, simplistic and stable imagery of himself / herself. Lacan refers to this phase as ‘the mirror stage’. The mirror stage leads to the creation of the child’s identity. The child now has conscious self / ego as the child’s identity is now detached as an observable object.

This further fuels the ego posture and the child spends the lifetime to demonstrate to the others (people in the society) how complex s/he is from the inside. This is termed as ‘the desire of the other’. This demonstration can be in the form of clothing, hobbies or other style preferences. Lacan refers to this never fulfilling quest of idealism as Ideal-I (Ideal Image). This quest is the root cause of alienation and anxiety. 

Human psyche according to Lacan is composed of 3 stages. He calls them ‘registers’. 

1. The imaginary

2. The symbolic

3. The real

These registers have a mutual dependence on one another.  The imaginary order relates to ‘the mirror stage’ where the infant in absence of the cognitive language depends on the visual of the self as a yardstick for benchmarking. The imaginary order refers to the imagery of how you imagine others and how others imagine you. 

This The symbolic order(the big other) constitute of the social structures around us. The imaginary order is dependent on the symbolic order. The symbolic order refers to the laws, rituals, customs, traditions, institutions and other social constructs that forms the environment around us. We are who we are because of the symbolic stage. To interpret the desire of the unconscious, one must refer to the world beyond the imaginary, where nature reigns, to the symbolic world.

The real order is tied to both the imaginary and the symbolic order. Imaginary and symbolic orders as a mutually integrated entity develop the creation of the reality. The real cannot be gauged or comprehended. It is the impossibility or the culmination of unfulfilled desires. We spend our time in the real, ignorant of the way it functions. The real can only be experienced when our reality is ruptured and everything we find meaningful in life is gone and we experience this unfathomable void. 

These registers break the identity ‘the other’ in ‘the mirror stage’ and govern the psychodynamics of our existence.

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