Objet (petit) a

From the late 1950s, poststructuralist psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan used the phrase “objet (petit) a”—object (little) a–or the algebraic letter “a,” for the “object of desire” we seek in others. In his seminars from the mid- 1960s on, he increasingly associated it with what he called the “Real” and the trauma of constitutive lack and alienation due to the fact that human subjects are creatures of language, which derails any “natural” relation to objects that might meet instinctual needs. Objet a is the “cause” of desire, a fragment of the phallus the subject believes it lost with the symbolic castration that ended its pretensions to satisfying the desires of the (M)Other but has found again in the love object. Objet a inaugurates and sustains desire as lack, rather than satisfaction, and it is signaled by the anxiety associated with the enigmatic desire of the Other with which the subject has identified, conveyed by Lacan in Italian to signal its foreign origin, “Che vuoi?” (“What do you want?”).

Lacan theorizes the gaze and the voice as exemplary objets a, sources of an excessive pleasure and anxiety caught up in the erotic drives of seeing and hearing that derive but diverge from instinctual functions through their libidinization, circling repeatedly around an object they never attain. He preferred that the term for that object remain untranslated to underline its foreign, disquieting, and uncanny dimension as something that belongs to the “Other,” rather than the self. If desire is “desire of the Other,” as Lacan insisted from the outset, so that what is most intimate is strange and estranging, so too are the gaze and the voice. They exceed symbolization as a way of containing threats to identity and object relations, just as desire exceeds the demands to which it gives rise and responds. The gaze is even best represented by something heard, rather than seen, such as the noise of an eavesdropper, while the voice can be figured by a look that seems to speak volumes. The gaze is the blind spot in the reassuring picture we would make of the world as we look at and relate to it through how we name it, the point from which we are seen as something out of place, a stain, while the voice is the incomprehensible silence or noise in speech or music, in which we are heard as a dissonance. Gaze and voice thus make for a lack of satisfaction with the objects we see and hear, disturbing our fantasy of a harmonious relationship with them and unsettling our sense of self or identity.

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