Love means giving something you don’t have, to someone who doesn’t want it.
Today, I will show you the basic Lacanian psychoanalytic approach to love, sex and relationships by situating it in Kantian philosophy and some of Alenka Zupancic and Slavoj Zizek’s ideas. One can effectively say that this post is not psychoanalytical because it is situated in basic philosophical principles. Although it would make more sense for me to place Lacan within Hegel’s philosophy, explaining it through Kant will be much easier for general readers because Hegel is difficult to understand. Here, I will be explaining Lacan without putting emphasis on any complex psychoanalytical concepts (split subject, big Other, jouissance, ego, etc.). My goal is to show you our relationship with others in addition to some ideas on science and psychotherapy. Where Freud will say, “every relationship is a sexual relationship”, Lacan will tell you, “there is no sexual relationship.”
Last edited: January 8, 2020. I made significant changes to certain sections.
Kant: the Limits of Knowledge and the In-Itself
Let us begin with one of the most influential 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant and his argument that the only thing the conscious human subject can experience is phenomenon and that we can never know any objects in-itself (noumenon). I can never know any object in-itself because I am never the chair or the table. I can never experience the world from your perspective because I am never your consciousness. I can only experience the world from my own consciousness. By saying that an object consists of X properties, I am idealizing the object as if it consists of X, even when I am never the object in-itself which is impossible to conceive because I am never the object.
Let us use a formal example which will guide us throughout the rest of this post: can an object such as Nature, exist without a subject? If I was never born, Nature would not exist because I would not be a thinking subject who is capable of seeing Nature as such. This is why the relationship around us—which is unthinkable without a subject—is a relationship from object to other objects. But since we can conceive of it by making such statement, it means that we are already a subject. There are no objects without a subject. In order for there to be a universe, a nature, a phenomenon, a writing or a science, there has to be a subject. As soon as the subject arises, every object is instantly related to that subject.
This subject isn’t just anybody. Within her own consciousness, she carries her desires, history, traditions, languages, culture, etc. The moment the subject exist in relation with Nature in-itself (not just standing in front of Nature, but also reading the word “Nature” in-itself), the subject immediately “contaminates” Nature with her own traces of her culture and desires. The subject establishes a relationship with Nature that she thinks is authentic (i.e. her own definitions of Nature), even when she cannot know anything in-itself because she is not Nature. The idealized relationship that the subject establishes with Nature is an Imaginary fantasy that she formulates in relation to herself. Nature as the in-itself is a void that we can never know anything about. Yet, it is this fantasy that we sustain as authentic which allows us to manipulate Nature by materializing a “Real” through the Real.
Imagining the Impossible Real
Let us dive into some Lacanian psychoanalysis with simple metaphorical examples on how this Imaginary relationship with Nature in-itself works. The key is to understand the contradictions involved and how we utilize our Imagination (fantasy; Ego; subjectivity) through the Symbolic (language; societal law) in relation with the Real (impossible). From now on, I will capitalize the words of the three orders displayed in the diagram.
Think about how people talk about the “real world” as if they know what the Real in-itself is (“Get real!”). To reach the Real, I attempt to reduce my glass of red wine into its fundamental properties and I discover that red wine in-itself is made up of grape juice. My attempt to reach the Real properties of the wine results in me producing the Imaginary fantasy as a surplus Symbolic statement that: “red wine is made of grape juice”. It is by producing this grape juice fantasy that I reach the “Real” which is really just an Imagination of the Real. Another words, the Real should not be something that I can only reach by producing it as an Imaginary fantasy (of imagining that red wine as grape juice). As Zizek says, the Real is this irreducible Thing that eludes us the very the moment we try to grasp it—it is an impossible Real. We can see something similar in chemistry when I imagine my cup of water as H2O instead of water in front of my eyes, or I imagine that nature consists of mathematical laws and not trees and mountains. It is through this Imaginary fantasy that we create reality around us by inscribing it into the Symbolic language; and it is through these contradictions that creates a new Real. For example, manipulating H2O causes real life effects to water. As Zupancic points out: “Science splits the world into two” and there are numerous historical events that showed this creation of a new Real (perhaps the most famous ones being Copernicus, Galileo and Einstein).
Our relationship with the Real in-itself is distorted by our Imaginary and Symbolic order every moment of our lives. What appears as (Imaginary) “Real” is always influenced by our imagination which is closely linked to our Ego. The true rupture of the Imaginary “Real” is when the impossible Real appears (when the impossible happens). It is when our unconscious mind surfaces to our consciousness as the Real which changes the relationship with our Imagination of the “Real”.
Objet Petit a: “There is No Sexual Relationship”
To recap, our attempt to reach the Real in-itself is an impossibility. The moment one thinks they arrive at this Real, they discover that they are caught in their own Imagination. In the same way, what people think they know about someone is never what they know about them. What one perceives as their “Real” relationship is always distorted by their Imagination—which once again, is associated with the Imaginary. Our relationship with the other person as the object in-itself is a relationship sustained by an Imaginary fantasy that we experience as “Real”. For us, the other person is the “in-itself”, the void, just as we are for them.
In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the in-itself is similar to the objet petit a, or “the object cause of desire” (shown at the center of the borromean knot as “a“). When people say things like “stop objectifying women!” (via “male gaze” popularized by Laura Mulvey), they are referring to objet a. This “a” means “other” (“autre” in french) as in the other object. To be sure, not every object is objet a. It is only when the subject desires that it becomes a. For example, the super handsome / beautiful person, your cellphone screen, the food advertisement, the car you want to buy, or the desire to reconcile with Nature. As Zizek points out, Objet a is what gives a “body” to the in-itself (the void), but it is not the in it-self. Yet, by giving body to the in-itself, objet a will appear as if it is the in-itself.
Thus, our relationship with Nature in our formal example is really just a relation with objet a, but never nature in-itself as a void. It is easy to think of our subject-object Nature example in relation to copulation. To do so, we simply need to replace Nature with a subject. Hence, we have a subject-object relation (subject as the object or subject as objet a instead of Nature). This is why when we are having sex, we are actually having sex with objet a that is giving body to the in-itself. Another words, we are having sex with a void (an in-itself; the other person) that we know nothing about. There is no sexual relationship because the only relationship we have is with objet a which is just an Imaginary fantasy. Thus, there is a sexual relationship because there is no sexual relationship. We need Imagination not only because we have to learn and fantasize a formula for our sexual relationship due to its absence, but because fantasy is what sustains desire. This is one of the reasons why Lacan points out that a relationship is always a relationship of three: “1 + 1 + a“. What we love about someone is never exactly who that person is. Yet paradoxically, what bonds two people together is also this missed encounter (our fantasy about them) which happens to be the encounter of the “Real”.
Love as the Impossible Real
“Love feels like a great misfortune, a monstrous parasite, a permanent state of emergency that ruins all small pleasures.”— Slavoj Zizek
In our culture, the purpose of dating is to bond with the other person—to (hopefully) eventually have a “relationship” with them because there is no such thing as a relationship. Yet, it is only after dating where couples happens to love each other because “their relationship works”. While what appears to be a relationship is a fantasy constructed by the two people who are together, this fantasy is sustained by something which contradicts it. It interrupts the fantasy relationship by placing the subject into the Real. Such phenomenon is the impossible event of love.
Two people love each other not because their relationship work. Their relationship work because they love each other. For Zupancic, “it is love that does something to us, that makes relationships work and allow us to coincide with our lover”. What exactly does love do to us? Love makes us accept the object (subject) in-itself for who they are. Another words, love is neither a fantasy or an idealism (i.e. perfect personality, perfect body, etc.) because it is the impossible Real. Love as the impossible occurs not only when our fantasy relationship with the person (“the love object”) collides with the person in-itself (the void) as an absolute singularity, it can only do so because love allows us to accept the in-itself for itself. This impossibility is what disrupts our continuity with the (Imaginary) “Real” of the subject and allow us to encounter with our lover as if “it was the first time”. For Zupancic, this is why Clement Rosset responds to the “impossible question” in such way:
“Why do you love me?”
“Because you remind me of you.”
Here, we see that “you” objet a, reminds me of “you” in-itself. To put it another way, I love you because I love you—because you coincide with you. Thus one says, “She/He is the One!”. It is not surprising that people sometimes love each other without reason. After all, reason is just an attempt at “filling in the void” through the Symbolic as a surplus fantasy of the “Real”. For Zupancic, “In love, the impossible happens, and it is from there on that we must continue and work with what has happened, instead of assuming that from now on the impossible is (or should be) simply replaced by the possible and, indeed, necessary.”
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Through love, we recognize that we are all strangers in this world who are caught by our own finitude, fantasizing about relationships and the way reality works. The moment we confront the Real, we are already situated in the depths of our own fantasy. The impossible event of love—the fall of falling in love—is the new signifier which disrupts our “Real”. Love allows us to glimpse the impossible while confronting the infinite through its own finitude. Where we conceive of love which erupts from the impossible Real also appears as the imaginary of the Real. Love is at once the possible and the impossible—it is a singularity, a paradox, an event which throws the subject into an orbit without trajectory; like a star absorbed into the black light. —Love is therefore, the madness amongst the impossible.