Issue #06 September 2017

Lacan on Satisfaction

“In other words — for the moment, I am not fucking, I am talking to you. Well! I can have exactly the same satisfaction as if I were fucking. That’s what it means. Indeed, it raises the question of whether in fact I am not fucking at this moment.”

(Lacan, Seminars, Book XI)

On the surface this quote seems merely a prime candidate for the Lacan Sans Contexte twitter feed, but it, and the ensuing remarks in Seminar XI, cuts to the very core of psychoanalysis’ key contribution to thought. That is, the transitivity of desire, or the “Vicissitudes of the Drive”.

These ideas, taken together, allow us to venture forth a premise: “Everybody does exactly what they want all of the time.” Despite how bold this sounds, especially to those of you reading this article on a mobile device crammed onto public transport in the early hours of the morning heading to a job you don’t like (thanks for reading BTW), this is, in very simple terms, the central mystery and insight of psychoanalytic theory, as well as existential theories of the will (such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre’s). But where these existential theorists were content to prioritize the forces behind action and choice (will), and point to how these can entangle themselves in inauthentic or reactive “bad states”, they overlooked the task (perhaps with the exception of Nietzsche) of giving interpretation to these “vicissitudes of the will”, or do so only in the broadest of terms.

So, for example, for Heidegger it is the experience of anxiety that both propels Dasein to dwell inauthentically in the “They” (as well as providing the means of its release), and for Sartre it was the byproduct of the structure of belief and the emptiness of consciousness itself that would have the ego falling into mauvaise foi, bad faith. Both of them held onto the notion that the seat of the soul, be that Dasein or Consciousness, was effectively good-natured, capable of becoming authentic but for one simple tragic flaw that had it default to inauthenticity (thus making the normative aspects of their philosophies necessary). What both of these thinkers miss, in foregoing a more subtle analysis of the kinds of traps the will falls into by simply calling them inauthentic, is a full appreciation of just how all-encompassing, and even essential, all of this so-called inauthenticity is (which possibly indicates that such a distinction is poorly founded in the first place). Perhaps Nietzsche understood this better. It is no surprise that both Heidegger and Sartre detested Freud.

But, wait, doesn’t psychoanalysis have as its goal its own state of authenticity? Doesn’t the process work by demonstrating to the subject all of the ways that they are misrepresenting their situation to themselves, how their motives don’t really aim at what they purport to aim, and that things would be much better for them if they just realized this and admitted it, taking it into their ego with all of the responsibility and subsequent “freeing of the will” that this entails?


We know that the forms of arrangement that exist between what works well and what works badly constitute a continuous series. What we have before us in analysis is a system in which everything turns out all right, and which attains its own sort of satisfaction. If we interfere in this, it is in so far as we think that there are other ways, shorter ones for example. (Lacan, Seminars, Book XI)

In order to grasp the full weight of this difference it is important to see in which ways the theory of drives distinguishes itself from any theory of the will.

Freud, in changing the conversation from will to drive, in a way deconstructs “the will” into elements affording analysis in a way never before attempted. “Willing” in the classical sense is preserved as a capacity, now merely called control over motility, and refers merely to the fact that the subject who speaks intuits they have a capacity to move their bodies and shape their thoughts in certain ways. As a capacity it joins perception as the two capabilities of an organism that generate the “ego effect” that we all walk around experiencing, for better or worse. That is, the sense that there is something that I am that sees the things that I see and feels the way I do and moves itself around the world trying to get stuff done. I’ve written at length how, for Freud, perception and movement are not only intimately linked together, but also implicated in their being a subject and an object at all as such.

The drive is that which animates these capabilities. It’s the first level of analysis: why does the will will at all? Freud sees drive as liminal concept; on the one hand being pure biological dynamism, but on the other impinging on the psyche in a myriad of ways. I don’t notice my heart beating until it palpitates, this palpitation makes a vague and blurry entrance to the scene of my lived sensations, for example.

Drive has four components: Pressure (its intensity), aim (which is always the satisfaction, which equates to the diminishing of intensity), object (the thing or set of actions taken as a possible means of diminishing intensity), and source.

The source of the drive would be its biological correlate, whatever that is discovered to be. In a way it would also be what is examined under the heading of “neurological correlates”. As we watch electrical and neuronal and hormonal activity surge through the body and nervous system, we’re seeing the fleshy sources of what appear to the subject as drives. Hunger is a great and simple example of this biological/psychological liminal drive concept: on the one hand having its source in blood sugar levels, hormones, and stomach contractions, but on the other hand having a variable pressure (thus urgency) based on what one is doing, and sometimes highly individual objects (as with particular cravings).

However, this reference to hunger is a little misleading. Lacan points out that the drive is always-already psychological. That is, it may have its source in the biological dynamism of the organism, but qua drive it is lived by the subject in their own psychological/symbolic terms. Thus, hunger is not the drive or the call of the small intestine, blood plasma, or the stomach — the drive we call hunger as we know it is the drive of the mouth. Thus “to eat” has psychological and biological realities, befitting the liminal nature of drives themselves. To see in eating only a refueling or a sustenance and in hunger merely the body’s call for this sustenance is to willfully ignore the place that eating occupies in human life; its countless elaborate rituals, superstitions and taboos, and the inevitable complex expressions of the culinary arts. We don’t eat to live, but live to eat, to reverse the pithy ascetic proverb. The “source” therefore needs to be understood in this two fold way. The biological hunger drive then becomes a subset of “mouth” drives in the folded cartography of the psyche — coffee and cigarettes.

Can we see how Freud is carrying through Nietzsche’s image of the “serviceable under-wills” from Beyond Good & Evil (§19)?

Fragment, Akhenaten, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The drive aims at satisfaction, its object is whatever will satisfy it, its source is biological but also firmly mapped onto the psychological projection of a body surface. This human sliding over the particular objects forbids us from a simple biological reference. When I eat I want more than sustenance and fuel, not in the sense that I want to enjoy all of the choices that a capitalist economy affords me, but in the simple fact that even in the simplest of meals engaged in with the most utilitarian of motives, my mouth enjoys itself along with, and in excess to, my metabolism (oh, and also, how much enjoyment in the notion of the simplicity of this meal, and the humble severity and priestly “seriousness” of these utilitarian motives!) — the mouth is not just a biological tool, a means to an end, but has its own drive, a drive that enjoys not only eating, but smoking and talking and drinking as well. In other words, mouths matter, are sites of an intense and unquenchable significance. And how couldn’t they? Just look how concerned we are as parents with what children are doing with their mouths…

It’s owing to how the drive that animates the will (that is the germ of the will?) can find its satisfaction in proxies and doesn’t really care that there is a multitudinous ways of being, that there are bizarre entanglements and economies of pleasure and motives, that allows us to speak of “persons” rather than just “the species”. “So what do you like to do?” could honestly be rephrased as “what stable collection of actions and objects have your endlessly striving partial drives settled upon as a means of satisfaction owing to the contingent experiences of your struggle through the world?” My answer: “making music, drinking, and studying philosophy”, and yours?

So let’s return to our rough thesis: “Everybody does exactly what they want all of the time”. There are two components here: one is that we are animated by drive, the “vital energy”, or drive pressure, that has us willing as such in the first place, the other is that these drives establish an energetic economy in their grasping for whatever objects will satisfy them. This is not to say that the drives don’t have their “original intention”, merely that all intentions take part in these drives, and insofar as most of our intentions are more mysterious and opaque than “I feel thirsty, I’ll drink some water” we can infer that countless drives have undergone a myriad of fates, forming a complex network of habits (both of body and thought) that we go through until a particular arrangement becomes unsustainable. This is directly akin to Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the habit-body, the layered strata of habits that enmesh us into our environment.

The particular question of why, for me, a given drive was impeded and diverted, and what particular re-route or diversion I enacted to avoid the anxiety inherent in an unsatisfied drive (anxiety is basically “rogue” drive in this model), and what further re-routes and diversions I enacted on those re-routes and diversions when they became unsustainable, is the question of the coagulation of the ego as the surface between these drives and their myriad expressions. This leads Lacan to call the Ego itself a symptom. A kind of translating switchboard medium where drives are rerouted to ensure a stable level of satisfaction, afforded by the indifference of the drive to its object.

It is clear that those with whom we deal, the patients, are not satisfied, as one says, with what they are. And yet, we know that everything they are, everything they experience, even their symptoms, involves satisfaction. (Lacan, Seminars, Book XI)

Freud’s theory of phobias illustrates this perfectly. From an original dire drive situation of the experience of some painful impossibility (attraction/repulsion), or contradiction, the drive is first transferred to some innocuous object; a spider, a horse, water on the carpet. I love someone I’m terrified of; something’s gotta give. In the case of phobias the terror “slides over to” something else, resolving the deadlock. This initial transference is achieved via proximity within the symbolic register (conceptual, word associations) or in the imaginary register (a horse or stain on the carpet may have just been on hand at the moment, next to, behind, before, or after), more often than not being a combination of both. With this transference affected, the object is now saturated in the foreign, re-directed, anxiety, causing the subject to avoid it, thus using the spatio-temporal geography of the world itself as an ad hoc means of “repressing” the original anxiety. Out of sight, out of mind. Problem solved, now I’m free to love the original object and my phobia keeps me away from the terror that has been funneled away from it.

This is what Lacan means when he says that the psychoanalyst intervenes only to suggest a “shorter route”. We don’t build ourselves, or fashion the series that our various drives develop as they hop from one object to another. It is possible that we find ourselves in a state where some collection of satisfactions has become far too complex, far too ritualized and convoluted, too difficult to reliably bring about, and some other arrangement may do the same work at half of the effort, risk and cost. My horse phobia is doing a perfect job of “repressing” some insoluble deadlock until I move to the countryside where my neighbor keeps a horse.

And this is where the simple authenticity discourse of the existentialists breaks down. In what sense is reducing these crutches, these re-routes, back to their most elementary engagements desirable? What assurance do we have that the ego, once deconstructed to the degree that drives are in no way convoluted but direct, would be at all? Obviously, in not taking the possibility that the will itself is analyzable into parts, and that it can forge unconscious alliances, seriously, the will becomes that which is simply transparent to itself. So, the goal of authenticity is to choose one’s choices, and not have had chosen them before one realizes. But what of the myriad ways we discover that we already have had chosen various associations and strategies that inform the general context of our decisions? I choose not to choose horse-riding because I’m terrified of horses. In what sense is my will free in light of the geography that conditions my very engagement with the world? Should these meanings and associations be cast away under the heading of the inauthentic if we discover they are the product of diverted drives? If the ego in its particularity as a person just is the total of these semi-stable diversionary strategies what would be left? What would be left of me once I’d disentangled the web of drives that makes studying philosophy immensely satisfying for me?

Perhaps in light of these questions we should we take a different starting point, and see just how steeped we all are in this supposed inauthenticity, and begin with the idea that the will is not trapped, sold, or enslaved, but is doing its best to find its satisfaction in this world that we have. We begin from the notion that all that is done comes from a place of satisfaction, even the crying and gnashing of teeth and the professing that the end is nigh. And not just the actions, but even the diagnosis of the situations in which these actions themselves occur. From there, the task is to trace the convoluted wiring structures of the ego, “the interpretation of forces” as Deleuze’s Nietzsche would say. This interpretive framework is the true wealth of psychoanalytic theory. It is not a new form of authenticity, but a diagnostic tool for unearthing the secret satisfactions that underpin our persistent social and personal “problems”.

The issue, then, is not how to get free of this world and our inauthentic ways of being within it, but rather realizing that these “inauthentic” ways of being are our sad solutions to this world we have made for ourselves. This is the revolutionary pinch of the theory, its Civilization and its Discontents; not an “authentic retreat” to a more meaningful lifeworld/way of life, but a diagnosis of the way our society necessitates our illnesses and hangups and petty violences as so many stable strategies of an immense and monstrous satisfaction.

John C. Brady is a perennial student of philosophy and educator situated in Beijing. He gets most of his reading done in traffic jams. He is also a co-editor of this magazine, by way of full disclosure.


September 2017


A Few Notes On Post-Modernism

by Timofei Gerber

“Ethics Matters”: A New TV Series

Epoché Magazine in conversation with Dan Halliday

The Political Dimensions of Time: A Polemic

by Brendan De Paor-Moore

You and I, I and It: Martin Buber’s I and Thou

by Justin Richards

Lacan on Satisfaction

by John C. Brady

Arendt’s “Philosophy & Politics”