LX:66 | Anxiety as a Signal
In order to show you where we are headed, I am going to get well ahead of myself, after which we will backtrack, darting hither and thither like jackrabbits.
Where is the analyst situated in the subject’s relationship to desire, in his relationship to an object of desire that we assume, in this case, to be an object that brings with it the threat in question, the threat that determines the zu Verdrängen, the [fact that it] “must be repressed.” It goes without saying that none of this is definitive, but since we are broaching the problem in this way, let us raise the following question: when faced with a dangerous object, since that is what is involved here, what would a subject ordinarily expect from someone who would dare occupy the place of his companion? The subject would expect his companion to give a danger signal, a signal that, in the case of a real danger, would lead the subject to get the hell out of there.
What I am introducing here is something that people complain that Freud did not include in his dialectic, for it was truly something that needed to be done. I say that the internal danger is altogether comparable to an external danger, and that the subject strives to avoid it in the same way that we avoid external dangers. Look at what this provides us by of an effective articulation if we consider what actually happens in animal psychology.
Everyone has heard about the role played by signals among social animals like those that live in herds. When a predator shows up, the cleverest animal, or the one in the herd that is keeping watch, notices, smells, and locates it. Gazelles and antelopes raise their muzzles, make a little bellowing sound, and without delay the whole herd dashes off in the same direction. A signal as a reaction to a danger in a social complex, at the biological level, can thus be grasped in an observable society. Well, the same is true of anxiety as a signal - the subject can receive the signal from the alter ego, from the other who constitutes his ego.
You have heard me warn you at length against the dangers of altruism. I have explicitly told you to beware the pitfalls of Mitleid or pity, that which stops us from harming the other, the poor girl [la pauvre gosse], leading us to marry her and to both of us being bored for a long time to come - I am abbreviating here. However, if it is merely humane to alert you to the dangers of altruism, it does not mean that this is the final mainspring; and it is, moreover, in this respect that I am not, with respect to whomsoever I am speaking on a particular occasion, playing devil’s advocate. The latter would bring him back to a healthy egoism and steer him away from this truly likable direction that involves not being mean. For, in fact, this precious Mitleid or altruism merely covers over something else, and you can always find it, assuming that you look at it psychoanalytically.
He who is suffocated by this Mitleid is the obsessive, and the first step is to notice - using what I point out to you and what the whole tradition of moralists allows us to assert in this case - that what he respects, what he is unwilling to violate in the other’s image, is his own image. If the inviolability of this image were not carefully preserved, what would arise would truly be anxiety.
Anxiety when faced with what? Not when faced with the other in whom he sees himself, the one I called “the poor girl” earlier, who is poor only in his imagination, for she is always much tougher than you might think. When faced with “the poor girl,” he is scared to death of being faced with the other a - not the image of himself, but the object of his desire.
I will illustrate this with the following point, which is quite important. Anxiety is undoubtedly produced topographically in the place defined by i(a) - in other words, as Freud articulated it in his last formulation, in the place of the ego. But there is no anxiety as a signal except insofar as it is related to an object of desire, inasmuch as the latter disturbs the ideal ego - that is, the i(a) that originates in the specular image.
Anxiety as a signal has an absolutely necessary connection with the object of desire. Its function is not exhausted in the warning that one must take off. Even as it serves this function, a signal preserves one’s relationship with an object of desire.
This is the key to and the mainspring of what Freud accentuates in this text - as well as elsewhere, repeatedly and with the same accent, with the same choice of terms, and with the same incisiveness that is illuminating in his work - by distinguishing the situation of anxiety from that of danger and from that of Hilflosigkeit [helplessness or distress].
When in Hilflosigkeit or distress, the subject is purely and simply overwhelmed by a situation that irrupts, which he cannot cope with in any way. Between that and taking flight - flight which, not to be heroic here, Napoleon himself considered the truly courageous solution when it came to love - there is another solution and it is what Freud points out to us by underscoring the Erwartung character of anxiety.
This is its central feature. True, we can secondarily construe it to be a reason to take off, but that is not its essential characteristic. Its essential characteristic is Erwartung, and I designate it by telling you that anxiety is the radical mode by which a relationship to desire is maintained.
When the object disappears - for reasons of resistance, defense, or other ways of cancelling out the object - there remains what can remain, which is Erwartung. In other words, what remains is a pointing toward the object’s place, a place where the object is now missing, where we are no longer dealing with anything but an unbestimmte Objekt [an uncertain, undecided, or indefinite object], or again, as Freud says, an object with which we are in a relationship of losigkeit [not having it]. When we are at this stage, anxiety is the final or radical mode in which the subject continues to sustain his relationship to desire, even if it is an unbearable mode. (363-365)
Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book VIII: Transference. Trans. Bruce Fink. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Polity Press. 2015.
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Tags: Jacques Lacan