What follows is a tentative foray into Lacanian territory—a shift that coincides with a move from the Centre de Recherche en Épistémologie Appliquée to the Husserl Archives, at the ENS where I’m working again with Dorothée Legrand on the intersection of phenomenology and psychoanalysis. To get orientated, I have a question in mind: How does psychoanalysis enter the phenomenological scene of anxiety? This question can be reformulated from the perspective of another question: what does anxiety communicate?
As indicated in my last post, in phenomenological terms, anxiety has assumed the place of philosophical mood par excellence so far as it designates both the supreme ethical and metaphysical value. Anxiety comes into the world of phenomenology by way of a crisis: the crisis of the subject. As is well known, in Heideggerian terms, anxiety disrupts the subject’s entanglement in particular modes of inauthentic being. Doing so, anxiety restores the subject to a state of ownership over the finitude, and thus establishes the basis of both a moral and epistemic relationship to the truth. What is the object of anxiety for Heidegger? The answer is nothingness – the Nothing (das Nichts). The affective correlate of the Nothing is located in the subject’s sense of their contingency, a contingency that carries with it a pervading sense of uncanniness.
The landscape is not so different in Freudian terms. Here, too, anxiety is married with uncanniness, which in turn is synthesised under the rubric of either the libido (early theory) or the ego (late theory). As with Heidegger, anxiety occupies a relationship to repression. Only instead of Heidegger’s metaphysical framework, where the return of the repressed marks an ontological revelation, Freud’s disclosure is contained with the intra-psychic mind. Later on, Freud will make a move from an account of anxiety as being the product of a repressed libido to an account that accents early trauma, principally birth. This move from a physio-chemical analysis of anxiety to a psychoanalytical model marks a move from a broadly phenomenological analysis of anxiety as it can be described to an account rooted in the structure of the subject.
Despite this move, Heidegger and Freud share a series of features in common. First, they regard anxiety has something that can be represented, even if that representation is in the form of an absent object. After all, both Freud and Heidegger retain the distinction between fear and anxiety, which is both a thematic and structural distinction, allowing Heidegger in particular to prise anxiety apart from a solely ontic realm; namely, as the fear of…. Freud, too, in his early theory at least would contend that anxiety is characterised by a libidinous energy lacking an object, a free floating generalised anxiety.
For both figures, anxiety has a definable structure to it. For Heidegger, anxiety assumes the form of an ethical and metaphysical substance. In Freud’s case, the persistence of the ego as the basis of anxiety means that anxiety retains an invariant relationship to the conscious subject. In each case, anxiety marks the shadowy underworld of the subject, a parallel world to conscious life in which truth beckons. For both of them, anxiety is wisdom, a decipherable riddle to be solved. Critically, this parallel structure between the overworld of the symptom and the underworld of anxiety belies an attempt to assimilate anxiety within the realm of conscious subjectivity. At all times, anxiety is able to be assimilated by dint of its relationship to the subject.
It is precisely at this intersection of anxiety as being represented by a subject paralleling the underworld of the unconscious that Lacan enters the scene. There are a number of points of divergence for Lacan (and here my use of Lacan leans on Roberto Harari’s book on Seminar X). First, foremost: If anxiety, as Lacan has it with Freud and Heidegger, is affective, then it nevertheless does not represent itself. Here, Lacan is with Freud: anxiety is a signal of a different order. It does not belong to the realm of ontic things, but is necessarily a cipher to be interpreted within the realm of those things. Anxiety is a fundamental mystery: it points to a reality that is communicated via a kind of time-lag, a delayed signal, which, by the time it reaches the subject is indecipherable and which must then be re-transmitted or re-appropriated by the subject.
This leads to Lacan’s second point: Anxiety is not without an object. The formulation captures the obscurity of anxiety. Anxiety can be seen as being both absent and present simultaneously: absent in so far as it affects the subject through the articulation of particular things: bridges to cross, families to meet, relationships to endure and so forth. At the same time, anxiety does not reveal itself in these things; it cannot be identified with these things. Anxiety is not reducible to particular things, nor even our relation to these things. Here, a direct challenge is posed to phenomenology: what role does the evidence afforded by phenomenological description play in the understanding of particular things? I will refrain from responding to this question now; suffice to say the question queries whether or not phenomenology’s fidelity to the appearance of things presupposes those things are open to clear and distinct reasoning. Lacan’s formulation is a rejoinder to this presupposition so far as it accents the obscurity of anxiety. Anxiety is not without an object: to be sure, anxiety has a relation to things. But at the same time, anxiety is not with an object: that is, anxiety cannot be reduced to the naming of things that “provoke” anxiety.
That anxiety is irreducible to particular things means that it has an existence prior to the emergence of things. Things of the world do not exhaust the primordiality of anxiety. A third point, then, which concerns the origins of anxiety. If Freud regards anxiety as a conflict in the structures of the self, then anxiety can be seen as having a contingent relation to the subject. For Lacan, anxiety occupies a structurally necessary relationship to the subject, insofar as anxiety not only precedes the genesis of the subject but is constitutive of the subject in the first place. This is a radical claim. It means first that anxiety is there along, murmuring beneath the appearance of things as an immanent presence. In addition, it means (against Freud), for Lacan there is only mode of anxiety: a formless void, lacking all teleological wisdom, and wholly independent from the ego. If anxiety is primordial, then it enters the world of the subject with nothing to say other than to speak of chaos and indifference. Against Heidegger, anxiety does not appear to redeem the subject from his or her inauthentic nadir. Anxiety is not a revelation but a dissolution of appearances. From this pervasive threat of dissolution, the subject is created. That there is a subject is only because there is anxiety that led to the subject forming itself in the first instance.
Even on these three points alone, Lacan’s portrayal of anxiety is a radical departure from Freud and Heidegger. Here, anxiety lacks both an intra-psychic contingency (Freud) and an ethical redemption (Heidegger), and instead points to the constant threat of self disintegration, and thus to the exposure of the emptiness of self and world. Seen in this way, phenomena such as panic and phobia would need to be re-evaluated at a more primordial level. With Lacan, the concern would be less the question of finding a home in the world and more the traumatic task of confronting a world that is in some fundamental sense, not quite real. More next time.