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The Lacanian Subject and the Deleuzian Subject

Catherine Ruyu Zheng 鄭如玉
In this paper, I aim to compare and contrast the Lacanian subject and the Deleuzian
subject. First, both Lacan and Deleuze problematize the Cartesian notion of an
autonomous, transcendental subject. Second, Lacan focuses on the lack while
Deleuze on the productive desire. Third, Deleuze’s project in Anti-Oedipus is to
attain the production of desiring-machine through scrambling and demolishing
Lacan’s Oedipal triangulation of Daddy-mommy-me.
Problematizing the Cartesian Transcendental Subject
Descartes employs the graph of two overlapping circles to illustrate his idea of
the subject, the cogito. Being and thinking coincide temporarily when the Cartesian
subject asserts to himself, “I am thinking” (Figure 11).
Figure 1

Whereas Lacan turns “Descartes’s subject inside out, employing everything the cogito
is not “(Fink, 45). Figure 22 shows the possible schema of the Lacanian subject.

Figure 2

See Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject : Between Language and Jouissance
(Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, c1995) 43.
Ibid, 44.

The left side is the ego, the false self while the right side is the unconscious. The
splitting of the I into ego (false self) and unconscious is termed “split subject,”

”divided subject,” or ”barred subject,” all represented by the same symbol, (S for

“subject,” / for “barred”: the subject as barred by language, as alienated within the
other).3 Lacan considers that the ego or "I" self is only an illusion, a product of the
unconscious itself and that “ego thinking is mere conscious rationalization” (ibid, 44).
In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the unconscious is the ground of all being. The ego is
constructed like an onion: “peeling off layer after layer of identification in search of
the substantial kernel of one’s personality, one ends up with a void, with the original
lack” (Key Concepts, 175). Instead of identifying with the ego, the subject learns to
desire as the Other and hence identifies with the Other. He further proposes that “the
subject is nothing here but a split between two forms of otherness—the ego as other
and the unconscious as the Other’s discourse,” (The Lacanian Subject, 46). The
subject is split between “an ineluctably false sense of self and the automatic
functioning of language (the signifying chain) in the unconscious” (ibid, 45). The
advent of the split subject marks a corresponding division of the Other into lacking

Other ( ) and object a. Through this, one realizes that there is no longer the idea of

a Whole subject or Other but that of a lacking and barred one.

Deleuze also problematizes Cartesian idea of subjectivity and proposes his own
conception of the subject. For Decartes, the thinking subject mapped out the material
world through the axis in rectilinear fashion and the ego (at the intersection of the
diagonals of a surrounding square) conquers the world through the order and process
of the Quincunx (see Figure 3).
Figure 3

Ibid, 41.
Whereas, for Deleuze, “there is no ego at the center...but a series of
singularities in the disjunctive network, or intensive states in the conjunctive tissue,
and a transpositional subject moving full circle” (Anti-Oedipus, 88). The idea that
“humans stand as triumphant subjects among inert objects no longer holds” (The
Fold, xiv) since the difference between organic and inorganic materials is no longer
determined by a wall but only by a way of a vector. The ideal of mastery couldn’t
persist if the imbrication of subject and object becomes the norm. Once the nostalgia
for a substantial, core self fades away, the choreography between the subject and the
object dazzles us with its infinite enfolding and unfolding. Without the ego-grounded
assumptions, a subject gains reciprocity from the world through operating in a
rhizomatic system of heterogeneously becoming relationships that breeds cross-
fertilization. Moreover, Deleuze argues that there is nothing but desire---the flow and
break of desire that escapes coding. He even claims that “the only subject is desire
itself on the body without organs” (Anti-Oedipus, 72).
Lack and Desire
Now, I will turn to contrast how Lacan and Deleuze deal with desire
respectively. Like Plato, Lacan argues that desire is constituted as a lack. “Lack and
desire are coextensive for Lacan. The child devotes considerable effort to filling up
the whole of the mother’s lack, her whole space of desire” (The Lacanian Subject,
54). He endeavors to seek out the boundaries of the Other’s lack and fills it with
himself. The attempt of totally superimposing the mother’s lack and the child’s is
shown in Figure 44, where their desires completely coincide. Thus, “man’s desire is
the Other’s desire” and “man learns to desire as an Other” (Ibid, 54).

Figure 4

Ibid, 55.

However, the unity of mother-child relationship is challenged by the appearance
of the third term, the Name-of-the-Father, which results in the expulsion of the subject
from the other. The father’s castration threats result in the break away of the child
from the mOther. And since the castration is linguistically rather than physically
done, language protects the child from a potentially dangerous dichotomous
relationship with the mother through the substitution of a name for the mother’s desire
(see Figure 55) :

Figure 5

Mother’s Desire

Lacan symbolizes the Name-of-the-Father as S ( ), which is usually read “’the

signifier of the lack in the Other’ but, as lack and desire are coextensive, can also be
read ‘the signifier of the Other’s desire’” (ibid, 58). In this sense, “the subject is
caused by the Other’s desire” (ibid, 50). Therefore, for Lacan, lack is considered as
primary for the germination of the subject; in Seminar XI, alienation and separation
are “linked to the two fold lack and they install the subject in a never ending pulsating
process of appearing and disappearing” (Key Concept, 180).
On the one hand, in Lacan’s concept of Alienation, the child, through giving up
himself to the Other, gains the opportunity to enter the zone of language and becomes
a subject ‘of language’ or ‘in language.’

Figure 6

______  ___S___
Ibid, 57.


The child, through alienation within language, disappears beneath or behind the

signifier, S. The substitution of a signifier, S, for the barred subject, , inaugurates

the vicissitudes of the transient subject6. The signifier

functions as a signifier only to reduce the subject in question to being no

more than a signifier, to petrify the subject in the same movement in which it
calls the subject to function, to speak, as subject (The Subject and the Other:
Alienation, 203).

The Subject is alienated once he is spoken by language and becomes a function of

language. It is language that preexists and determines subjectivity. Therefore, “the
process of alienation conducts the subject toward the signifying chain of the Other”
(Key Concepts, 180). The subject appears not as a static subject, but as a fleeting
irruption or pulsation, expressing itself through the endless chains of signifiers. The
signifier substitutes for the subject who has now vanished beneath or behind the
signifier. Thus, the subject transforms from a register of imaginary fusions with the
world and with others (The Imaginary) into language (the Symbolic).
The vel of alienation can clearly illustrate the inevitable loss of the subject in the
end. The logic of the vel of alienation is that

whatever the choice operating may be, has as its consequence a neither one,
nor the other. The choice, then, is a matter of knowing whether one wishes
to preserve one of the parts, the other disappearing in any case (The Subject
and the Other: Alienation, 211).
Fig 77

Ibid, 49.
See Jacques Lacan, The Four fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis ; edited by Jacques-
Alain Miller ; translated from the French by Alan Sheridan. (New York
:Norton,1981, c1973) 211.

If one chooses being, the subject will disappear and fall into non-meaning. Contrarily,
if one chooses meaning, the meaning will survive “only deprived of that part of non-
meaning that is, strictly speaking, that which constitutes in the realization of the
subject, the unconscious” (Ibid, 211); that is, the result of choosing meaning will be
the Other eclipsed by the disappearance of being. Thus, the choice is provided, but
predetermined. Whatever you choose, you will lose the most precious part, your
being (subject) irrevocably. The initiation of the subject into the symbolic order,
represented by the-Name-of-the-Father, inescapably severs him from the primal unity
with the mOther. Lacan’s pupil Leclaire contributed a very brilliant illustration to
explain the vel of alienation.

Figure 8

The famous graph asks a fundamental question: Your money or your life! If I Choose
the money, I will be killed and lose both my life and my money. If I choose life, I will
survive, but it is a life deprived of something important. This graph succinctly
illustrates the vel of alienation and the impossibility of retaining one’s subject. “If it
appears on one side as meaning, produced by the signifier, it appears on the other as
aphanisis” (The Subject and the Other: Alienation, 210). Once the subject enters the
symbolic order, the field of language, he is alienated and destined to disappear under

the endless signifiers.
On the other hand, the process of separation “involves the alienated subject’s
confrontation with the Other, not as language this time, but as desire” (The Lacanian
Subject, 50). The child tries to grips with the Other’s desire and learns to desire as an
Other. The separation may be seen as the failed attempt of the subject to fill the
Other’s lack (desire) with himself. Separation leads to the subject’s exile from the
Edenic wholeness with the mOther. He is “barred from holding at least part of the
’space’ of desire” (ibid, 55).
However, for Deleuze, there is nothing but desire---the flow and break of
desire. First of all, desire as desiring-machine represents not a static entity but a
process, the production of production. Second, “desire as desiring-machine has no
subject and no object” (Reading Notes on Deleuze and Guattari Capitalism &
Schizophrenia, Part One, 3) and is completely invested in the process of desiring
production. So Deleuze believes in the power of the positive desire and proposes that
“the three errors concerning desire are called lack, law, and signifier” (Anti-Oedipus,
Since desiring-machines only emphasize on the production of production, there is
no object of desire and thus no lacking Subject and Other as in the framework of
Lacan and Freud. Deleuze suggests that “from the moment lack is reintroduced into
desire, all of desiring–production is crushed, reduced to being no more than the
production of fantasy” (ibid,111). He criticizes the concept of the lack and tries to
situate the desiring-machine as the dynamo.
Ever since desire is welded to the law, the circle of prohibition and
transgression, taboo and incest operate its eternal repression. Deleuze considers that
“the sign of desire is never a sign of the law, it is a sign of strength (puissance)”
(ibid,111). It signals the incessant flows and breaks among partial objects and
different machines. According to Deleuze,

An organ-machine is plugged into an energy-source-machine: the one

produces a flow that the other interrupts. The breast is a machine that
produces milk, and the mouth a machine coupled to it. The mouth of the
anorexic wavers between several functions: its possessor is uncertain as to
whether it is an eating-machine, an anal machine, a talking-machine, or a
breathing-machine (asthma attacks) (ibid, 1).

The flows and breaks among the different machines weave a dynamic matrix,
within which the myth of a lacking subject is replaced by the productive
interaction among partial objects and different machines. Even the nursing child

is” already caught up in an immediate desiring-production where the parents play
the role of partial objects” (ibid,100). For the infant, there is no longer the whole
image of daddy and mommy, but the partial images that connect and disconnect
with his organs.
Furthermore, “the sign of desire is never signifying, it exists in the thousands of
productive breaks-flows that never allow themselves to be signified within the unary
stroke of castration” (ibid,111). Deleuze,in Anti-Oedipus, tries to subvert the concept
of the Oedipus Complex, which puts everything, including desire, under the sway of
the Phallus. This will be discussed in details later.
Within the framework of Deleuze, the advent of the subject is instated not
before desiring-machine but only after as an effect or residue of production. The
radical demolition of subjectivity is operated through his three syntheses: the
connective synthesis of production (desiring-machine), the disjunctive synthesis of
recording (Body-without-Organs), and the conjunctive synthesis of consumption-
consummation (subjectivity). According to Deleuze, Body-without-Organs serves as
a surface for recording the entire process of production of desire. It is a cosmic egg,
traversed by “bands of intensity, potentials, thresholds, and gradients” (ibid,19).
Body-without-Organs represents the force of anti-production (repulsion) while
desiring-machine symbolizes the force of production (attraction), connecting and
disconnecting partial-objects. And the interplay of the forces of production and anti-
production gives birth to a wide range of forms of subjectivity. The following
quotation capsules the germination of the subject within the framework of Deleuze’s
three syntheses---desiring-machine, Body-without-Organs, and the subject:

It is a strange subject, however, with no fixed identity, wandering about

over the body without organs, but always remaining peripheral to the
desiring –machines, being defined by the share of the product it takes for
itself, garnering here, there, and everywhere a reward in the form of a
becoming or an avatar, being born of the states that it consumes and
being reborn with each new state (Anti-Oedipus,16).

It’s not a theater of representation but a factory of desire that allows the multiplicity of
subjectivity to be born and reborn. Thus, the map that records the complex
relationship between the Cartesian thinking subject and the world that he creates is
redrawn. For Lacan, “the unconscious is the discourse of the Other;” (Ecrits,16)
therefore, it is language, Unconscious, or the lacking Other that give birth to and
situate the subject. For Deleuze, it is desiring-production and Body-without-organs
that engenders the subject.

Now I will turn to the third issue of the Oedipus Complex. For Lacan, the
Oedipus Complex impels the passage from the imaginary order to the symbolic order
and represents the paradigmatic triangular structure. The passage is marked by three
‘times’ of the Oedipus complex. The first time of the Oedipus complex is
characterized by “the imaginary triangle of mother, child, and phallus” (An
introductory Dictionary, 128). The triangle represents that a purely dual relationship
between the mother and the child never exists and that there is always the third term,
the phallus. The child finds out that both he and the mother are marked by a lack.
Thus, he seeks to completely satisfy the mother’s desire, the imaginary phallus. The
second time of the Oedipus complex is characterized by “the intervention of the
imaginary father” (ibid,128). The father exerts the operation of privation through
denying mother’s access to the phallic object and forbidding the child’s access to the
mother. The third time of the Oedipus complex is indicated by the intervention of the
real father. The child (subject) is castrated by the real father since the father’s phallus
thwarts any hope of his attempt to be the phallus for the mother. Thus, the subject is
initiated into the symbolic order and falls from the imaginary fusion with the world
and with others. The Oedipal triangulation of Daddy-mommy-me is omnipresent and
“Oedipus has as its formula 3+1, the one of the transcendent phallus without which
the terms considered would not take the form of a triangle” (Anti-Oedipus, 73). The
triangle of Daddy-mommy-me is anchored by the phallus as the third term.
However, for Deleuze, “there is no Oedipal triangle: Oedipus is always open in
an open social field. Oedipus opens to the four winds, to the four corners of the social
field (not even 3+1, but 4+n)” (ibid,96). The phallus as the detached complete object
is replaced by detachable partial objects. The breaks and flows of desire among
partial objects and different machines crack open the structure of triangle. Deleuze
proposes the possibility of the schizoanalysis, which aims to schizophrenize the
domain of the unconscious in order to “shatter the iron collar of Oedipus and
rediscover everywhere the force of desiring-production” (ibid, 53).
One is impelled to learn from the experience of the psychotic how to subvert
the Oedipal yoke and kindles the politics of desire, the

anti-oedipal forces---the schizzes-flows---forces that escape coding,

scramble the codes, and flee in all direction: orphan (no daddy-mommy-
me), atheists (no belief), and nomads (no habits, no territories) (Anti-
Oedipus, xxi).

The unconscious is no longer conditioned by the eternal triangle of daddy-mommy-

me. It is freed from the Oedipus complex and initiated into the zone of desire, where
the distinction between subject and object is crashed and the only survivor are
desiring-machines traversing on body-without-organs in a nomadic way.
Therefore, Deleuze asserts that the desiring-production shouldn’t give way to a
simple representation since it is a factory of desire rather than a theater of
representation. The productive unconscious should never make way for an
“unconscious that knows only how to express itself-express itself in myth, in tragedy,
in dream” (ibid, 54).

To sum it up, both Lacan and Deleuze contribute important perspectives for
criticizing the traditional concept of the transcendental subject and for rethinking and
reconceptualizing subjectivity. Lacan claims that “the subject is split from its real
being and forever tossed between eventually contradicting signifiers coming from the
Other” (Key Concept, 179) while Deleuze’s subject is the nomadic subject which
exists temporarily in an ever shifting array of potentials as desiring machines
distribute flows across the body without organs. Moreover, though both of them
consider that desire lacks an object and is conceived of as an incessant movement,
Lacan argues that the subject is constituted through lack because “one can only desire
what one does not have,” (Key Concepts, 6) while Deleuze tends to focus on the
power of productive desire. Furthermore, Deleuze employs the schizophrenic desire
to subvert the Oedipal triangulation, whose operation on the subject is as if “a
tablecloth were being folded, as if its 4(+n) corners were reduced to 3 (+1, to
designate the transcendent factor performing the operation)” (Anti-Oedipus,101).
Through an incessant process of territorialization, deterrtorialization, and
reterritorialization, Deleuze aims to set free the production, reproduction and anti-
production of desire.

Works Cited

Deleuze, G and Guattari, F. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia [pref. M.
Foucault; introd. M. Seem], Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

Deleuze, Gilles. The Fold : Leibniz and the Baroque. Foreword and translation by
Tom Conley. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, c1993

Evans, Dylan . An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. New York :

Routledge, 1996

Fink , Bruce The Lacanian Subject : Between Language and Jouissance. Princeton,
N.J. : Princeton University Press, c1995

Hardt, Michael. “Reading Notes on Deleuze and Guattari Capitalism &

Schizophrenia.” 16 June 2004. 28 February 2005.

Nobus, Dany. Key Concepts of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. New York : Other Press,

Sheridan, Alan. Ecrits : a Selection / Jacques Lacan ; translated from the French by
London : Tavistock Publications, 1977.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Trans. A.

Sheridan. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991.