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La castration

In Freudian psychoanalytic theory, the castration complex refers to the child’s fear of punishment for their incestuous desires. In Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, the concept of castration refers first to an imaginary anxiety and, more fundamentally, to the child’s acceptance of the ‘Name-of-the-Father’ and their consequent entry into the symbolic order.

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Freud first elaborated the concept of a ‘castration complex’ in his 1908 article ‘The Sexual Theories of Children’, where he suggests that the male child originally attributes a penis to both sexes, and when it encounters the lack of a penis in the girl, initially infers that the girl has been subject to a castration (SE 9: 216-17). The male child consequently experiences the threats of the father as castration anxiety, even if they are not formulated in this way by the father. In his work from the 1920s, Freud extends this scenario to encompass both sexes. In ‘Female Sexuality’ (1931), Freud suggests that the female child in turn interprets her lack of a penis as the result of a castration, but blames the mother, rather than the father (SE 21: 230).

As Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis put it, in the boy, the castration complex ‘marks the terminal crisis of the Oedipus complex in that it has the effect of placing a prohibition upon the child’s maternal object’, while for the girl, the thought of having been castrated ‘initiates the research which leads her to desire the paternal penis; it thus constitutes the point of entry into the Oedipal phase’.1 According to Freud, neurotic patients manifest a variety of castration fantasies under displaced symbolic disguises.

The concept was radically reformulated by Jacques Lacan. In his early 1938 article on the Family Complexes, Lacan had initially situated the castration complex as a later, derived stage in the sequence of losses endured by the child. Arguing that the primary loss occurs during the weaning process, he described the castration complex as a ‘myth’ rooted in Freud’s patriarchalist idea that the fantasy of castration fundamentally signifies ‘the terror inspired in a male by a male’.2 Castration anxiety at this stage merely repeated earlier losses by the child, notably the loss of the breast during weaning. However, once Lacan started to develop the distinction between imaginary and symbolic orders, the significance of the theme of castration is re-instated and clarified. Anxieties about the loss of a bodily organ are assigned to the level of the imaginary, while the properly ‘symbolic’ meaning of castration is now identified. It is therefore crucial to distinguish between the ‘imaginary’ and ‘symbolic’ aspects of the castration complex.

In its initial ‘imaginary’ world, all the child wants is to be what the mother desires. In Lacan’s terms, the phallus is primarily a ‘signifier of desire’. Thus, in a minimal sense it can be said that the child wants to be the phallus of the mother. However, the only way the child can work out how to be what the mother desires is by observing the mother’s behaviour towards other children. The attempt to ‘be’ the imaginary ‘phallus’ of the mother leads to a dialectical impasse, as the child can only present itself through specular images, experiencing itself as in perpetual rivalry with other potential objects of the mother’s desire. As long as the child remains in the imaginary mode, the father appears as another potential rival. The Oedipus complex emerges directly from the child’s rivalry with the father for the mother’s desire. In its imaginary meaning, castration first of all signifies the threat of the castration of the imaginary phallus.

With the symbolisation of castration, a decisive step is taken. Castration becomes ‘merely’ symbolic, but it is nevertheless binding on the subject as a symbolic, speaking being. From this point on, castration refers to ‘the symbolic lack of an imaginary object’.3 Two aspects of symbolic castration may be distinguished: first, the submission to the symbolic order represented by the father, and second, the acquisition by the child of a new position, that of a subject with an object of desire.

From above, as it were, the father must intervene to ‘prohibit’, ‘namely to make precisely what is the object of the mother’s desire pass over to a properly symbolic status, namely that it is not only an imaginary object, but that it is also destroyed, prohibited’.4 The father thus serves as a representative of the symbolic order, and, according to Lacan, his agency is ultimately grounded on ideal, non-natural signifiers. Every symbolic order requires special kinds of second-order signifiers (in Lévi-Strauss’s terms ‘floating signifiers’) that serve to identify what is significant but not yet known. Without such signifiers, no knowledge or social order would be possible. In one sense, castration is a submission to the Name of the Father, in its role as founding signifier. The child must fix itself in the symbolic order, take on the family name, and begin to say ‘I’. Symbolic castration thus involves a ‘marking’ of the child by the symbolic order. All this involves a ‘symbolic castration’, in the sense of an acceptance of a ‘symbolic’ operation in lieu of a ‘real’ castration.

But ‘from below’, according to Lacan, castration is also necessary for the child to accede to a position of desiring subject. ‘The subject cannot situate himself in desire without castrating himself, in other words, without losing what is most essential’.5 In the key 1960 piece ‘Subversion of the Subject in the Dialectic of Desire’ Lacan suggests that castration involves the loss of an original jouissance which is then regained in altered form on becoming a desiring subject and desired object in sexual relationships. ‘Castration means that jouissance must be refused so that it can be reached on the inverted ladder of the Law of desire’ (E, 324). First, the desiring subject is given custody over a symbolic phallus, that can henceforth serve as the subject of desire. But a new object is also gained for desire as a result of the symbolic operation. Lacan claims that the ‘object’ of desire serves as a ‘ransom’ extracted to compensate for the endurance of castration.6 The object of desire that emerges as a result of symbolic castration Lacan calls the objet petit a. He explains that the object’s appearance as containing something ‘hidden’ is a result of a metonymic displacement of the subject’s attempt to be ‘the object of the desire of the other’.7 The objet petit a presents a figurative embodiment of the lack that must be ascribed to the Other, and thus plugs the gap the subject perceives in the construction of the foundations of the symbolic order upon the Name of the Father. The object of desire comes to occupy the gap in the symbolic order, giving it imaginary form. Thus ‘all human desire is based on castration’.8 In one sense, fantasy and desire are a ‘defence against castration’,9 but in another sense, they give compensation for submission to symbolic castration by opening out a field of new objects. The aim of analysis is to facilitate the subject’s ‘acceptance’ or ‘assumption’ of castration, in order to free up its capacity to desire.10

In the period leading up to the Cahiers years, Lacan subjected the ‘imaginary’ and ‘symbolic’ aspects of castration to further analysis. He began to formalise the operation of symbolic castration on analogy with formal, mathematical and topological models. In Seminar IX, he describes symbolic castration as a ‘cut’ or coupure that formally instantiates structural order in the symbolic field.11 The symbolic phallus is effectively reduced to a ‘unit’, a one that represses the non-identity of the imaginary order. As a result of the development of his analysis of the foundations of the symbolic order, he was able to pinpoint the precise ‘object’ of castration anxiety. Rather than being fundamentally rooted in anxiety at the loss of a part of the body, castration anxiety is first directed at the thought of the loss of unity. As Lacan points out in his second contribution to the Cahiers pour l’Analyse (‘Response to the Philosophy Students’), castration anxiety is related to the possibility of a fundamental ‘impossibility’, of no longer being able to desire.12 The child thus experiences a ‘being-towards-castration’ that is prior to ‘being-towards-death’. Nevertheless, castration anxiety ultimately relates to ‘the truth of desire, or, if you wish, of what we do not know about the desire of the Other […]’.13 Once symbolic castration is undergone, the subject is free to find an object that transforms the anxiety it suffers before the lack in the Other into desire.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

It is notable that the term ‘castration’ does not appear in articles by Jacques-Alain Miller, Jean-Claude Milner, François Regnault or Alain Badiou, the core members of the Cahiers editorial board. The most extensive analyses of the concept are undertaken by Serge Leclaire and André Green. However, the key papers by Miller and Badiou can be understood as working through the logic of castration. Although Miller mentions neither the phallus nor castration, his analysis of the ‘zero’ and the ‘one’ follows indirectly from Lacan’s formalization of the phallic function in the early 1960s (notably in the 1961-62 seminar on Identification).

In his critique of Miller’s ‘Suture’, Leclaire claims that the ‘reality’ of sexual difference underlies castration. Leclaire claims that the analyst transcends the operation of suture to perceive this elementary difference. ‘Whoever does not suture is able to see the reality of sex underlying the fundamental castration’ (CpA 1.4:52).

In ‘Compter avec la psychanalyse’, Leclaire takes up Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis’s suggestion in ‘Fantasme originaire, fantasme des origins, origine du fantasme’ (1964) that castration is among a small group of ‘original’ or ‘primal’ fantasies. According to Laplanche and Pontalis, fantasies of castration depict ‘the origin of the difference between the sexes’.14 Leclaire elaborates that the particularity of the primal fantasies can only be accounted for by referring to the ‘anchoring’ of the signifier in bodily experience (CpA 1.5:61). Appealing to Freud’s suggestion that, in traversing the symbolic sequence ‘faeces-child-penis’, the Wolf Man has an ‘unconscious concept’ of ‘a little thing that can be detached from the body’ (SE 17:26), Leclaire suggests that a sequence of ‘bodily movements’ underpin the ‘original’ or ‘primal fantasies’.

The second section of Leclaire’s ‘Les Éléments en jeu dans une psychanalyse’ (CpA 5.1) is entitled ‘Of Castration’ (CpA 5.1:17-29), and is based around an analysis of Freud’s account of castration anxiety in the case of the Wolf Man (SE 17). Leclaire argues that, as an obsessional, the Wolf Man was precociously invested by his mother as an object of desire, but that through the accident of the primal scene he came to have a premature experience of himself as a ‘one’ cut off from the body of his mother (CpA 5.1:18). By developing a fantasy of re-entering the womb, he holds castration at bay, but at the cost of becoming enveloped in the ‘obscurity’ of the imaginary order, incapable of differentiating anything, including its own desires. Leclaire suggests that the Wolf-Man’s fantasy stages an alternation between a world of twilight and confusion and a world of clarity exposed by a ‘tearing’ or ‘ripping’ away. ‘Something closely bearing upon his body must be cut, torn up, torn away for him to accede to a world of clarity where difference reigns’ (21). The child’s concept of difference must be founded on a special kind of signifier, one that differs from an ordinary concept in being related to a movement of the body. Here, Leclaire states that his basic signifier is ultimately castration, which he connects with ‘cutting’ [coupure] and ‘tearing,’ as well as separation, rejection, splitting. The Wolf Man’s ‘most profound desire’, he argues, is ‘a desire for castration: to be torn away from the mother, cut loose from the signifier that substituted itself for the phallus, and allowed to accede to castration’ (37-8). This desire for castration is at bottom a desire for the signifier that would allow the patient to be able to sexually differentiate himself from others and become capable of desire. Castration for Leclaire therefore primarily signifies the attainment of sexual difference.

In ‘Réponses à des étudiants en philosophie’, Lacan remarks that the subject is founded on a ‘split’ [refente], suggesting that it is this structural split in subjectivity that is at the root of ‘castration anxiety’. The idea of castration generates anxiety despite representing an ‘impossibility’: ‘I have castration anxiety at the same time as I regard it as impossible’ (CpA 3.1:6; trans. 107). Castration anxiety therefore has a more profound object than the anticipation or fear of physical punishment. Lacan goes so far as to say that Freud’s ‘crude example’ conceals the true thought at work in castration anxiety, and that Freud in general misinterpreted his own better ideas on the subject. Later in his discussion, Lacan mentions the ‘vacillation’ of Freud’s disciples about ‘assenting’ to his ideas about castration (CpA 3.1:9 trans. 109). The disciples thus fall into an obsessional relationship with a castrating father. For Lacan, castration anxiety must be related back to the relation of the subject to the Other. The subject’s anxiety before castration comes down to anxiety in the face of the lack in the Other.

In his explication of Lacan’s concept of the objet petit a (CpA 3.2), André Green situates Miller’s formal account of the genesis of order in the unconscious in the context of the psychoanalytic theory of development. He argues that ‘the break [coupure] between the subject and the maternal object separates irremediably the two entities’. What is revealed in ‘the experience of castration’ is ‘the lack that affects the primordial object’ (CpA 3.2:18). However, this first experience is then repeated in a ‘series of castrations’. For Green, the speculations about the structure and dynamics of repetition advanced by Miller are essential for understanding castration. ‘The series of castrations postulated by Freud – weaning, sphincter control, castration as such – gives this experience its signifying power (because of its repetition) as well as its structuring power (due to its recurrence)’. However, it remains the ‘revelation of the lack in the Other’ that ‘organizes the confrontation with castration as that which is unthinkable’ (20/169). Castration anxiety is grounded in the encounter with ‘this gap in the possibilities of thought’ (20/169).

For Green, what Miller has isolated is the logic of metonymic displacement in the process of the child’s confrontation with the absence of the phallus in the mother. But Miller’s formal account must be situated back into the original psychoanalytic context from which it derives its significance: ‘It is psychoanalysis which gives to the child, woman born, a significance bearing on his entire development: namely that he is the substitute for the penis of which the mother is deprived, and that he can only achieve his status as subject by situating himself at the point where he is missing from the mother on whom he depends’ (17/166). Green defends the value of Miller’s concept of suture for the sense it makes of Freud’s discussion of the ‘consequences of castration’:

If castration is possible, if the threat is realised, the subject is deprived of masturbatory pleasure; but castration also implies the much-feared and henceforth irreversible impossibility of union between the castrated subject and the mother. If we consider castration to be the collapse of the entire signifying system because of the rupture of any possibility of concatenation, we may then understand why Freud sees castration as a disaster causing incommensurable damage. In any case, the penis plays the role of mediator between cut [coupure] and suture (24/174).

The focus of Green’s essay is on the ‘product’, or what ‘falls out’ of the sequence of castrations: the objet petit a. Using Miller’s logic of the signifier, Green claims that the constitution of the objet petit a can be reconstructed on this logic of ‘cut’ and ‘suture’.

In her ‘Communication linguistique et spéculaire’ (CpA 3.3), Luce Irigaray claims that a purely linguistic analysis of the genesis of intersubjective communication yields up the basic structure of the Oedipus complex in Freudian psychoanalysis. The problematic of castration can be reduced to its structural value. ‘The notion of castrating agent’ is in fact ‘a phantasmagoria, a misleading diachronic reification of a synchronic operation’. There is no castrating agent, only an automatic process of induction into the symbolic order. ‘The castrator, if it exists, is to be sought elsewhere, in the very conditions of the structure of communication’. This linguistic structure also has the virtue of clarifying the role of the sexes in the triadic ‘Oedipal’ structure. The father no longer appears as the exclusive agent of castration, since ‘the mother as well as the father is alternatively “I” and “you” in their exchange’ (3.3:41; 10-11). Irigaray suggests that the French impersonal third-person pronoun ‘on’ [in English, ‘one’] yields up the primary function of the linguistic subject as a ‘placeholder’. Arguing that the unconscious is not founded on a repressed content, but on a structural process, Irigaray reduces the operation of castration to a linguistic matrix, centred around the operation of naming. She reformulates Miller’s account of the suture of the subject in linguistic terms, specifically in terms of the proper name: ‘The proper name best represents the paradox of the engendering of the “1” out of “zero”’. The ‘exclusion’ of the desiring subject is ‘the necessary condition for the establishment of the structure of exchange’ (43/12).

In his analysis of the concept of fantasy (CpA 7.4), Jacques Nassif refers back to Laplanche and Pontalis’s identification of ‘three original fantasies’: ‘fantasies of origins, the primal scene pictures the origin of the individual; fantasies of seduction, the origin and upsurge of sexuality; fantasies of castration, the origin of the difference between the sexes.’15 He states that in masochistic beating fantasies the ‘fundamental fantasy’ is that of castration, in the sense that it ‘expresses the origin of sexual difference’ (CpA 7.4:74).

Discussing Freud’s remark that fantasies are akin to ‘scars’ or ‘precipitates’ of the Oedipus complex, Nassif suggests that the content of masochistic fantasies can be reduced to the main ‘scar’ [cicatrice] resulting from the Oedipus complex, the ‘scar of castration’: ‘Under the scars of Oedipus, there will be the scar of castration’ (81).

In ‘Sarrasine, or Castration Personified’ (CpA 7.5), Jean Reboul conducts a Lacanian reading of Balzac’s story Sarrasine, the tale of a love affair between the eponymous narrator and Zambinella, a singer who turns out to be one of the last of the castrati. Reboul suggests that the ‘real’ nature of Zambinella’s castration (her ‘personification’ of castration) serves to highlight the structural importance of the phallus and castration in the symbolic order. At first, when Zambinella’s ‘real castration’ is hidden from view, Sarrasine occupies the position of the ‘barred subject’, faced with signifiers of unknown provenance (CpA 7.5:95). However, his obsessional inability to deal with a lack in the Other comes to a head when he discovers Zambinella’s ‘real’ castration. While for Sarrasine the discovery of the ‘real castration’ of Zambinella is a psychic catastrophe that permanently excludes him from being able to love again, for the readers of the tale, castration is permitted to emerge in its properly symbolic dimension, as signifying the unknowable nature of the Other (96).

Primary bibliography

  • Freud, Sigmund. ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality’ [1905], in Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey et al. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974. Vol. 7. [Hereafter ‘SE’ followed by volume number].
  • ---. ‘On the Sexual Theories of Children’ [1908], SE 9.
  • ---. ‘History of an Infantile Neurosis (“The Wolf Man”)’ [1918], SE 17.
  • ---. ‘The Infantile Genital Organization’ [1923], SE 19.
  • ---. ‘Female Sexuality’ [1931], SE 21.
  • Lacan, Jacques. The Family Complexes [1938], trans. C. Gallagher, unpublished translation.
  • ---. Seminar IV: La relation d’objet, ed. J-A. Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1999.
  • ---. Seminar VI: Desire and its Interpretation [1958-59], trans. C. Gallagher, unpublished translation
  • ---. Seminar IX: Identification [1961-1962], trans. Cormac Gallagher, unpublished manuscript.
  • ---. Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis [1964] ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Penguin, 1977.

Secondary bibliography

  • Evans, Dylan. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1996.
  • Irigaray, Luce. ‘Psychoanalytic Theory: Another Look’, trans. Catherine Porter, in This Sex which is not One. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.
  • Laplanche, Jean and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse. Paris: PUF, 1967. The Language of Psychoanalysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. London: Hogarth Press, 1973.
  • Lemaire, Anika. Jacques Lacan [1970], trans. D. Macey. London: Routledge, 1977.


1. Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, 57.

2. Lacan, The Family Complexes, 56. The ‘prototype of oedipal suppression’ lies further back, in a ‘primary masochism’ located in the child’s fascination with an archaic ‘maternal imago’: ‘The phantasy of castration is as a matter of fact preceded by a whole series of phantasies of the fragmentation of the body that go, in regressive order, from dislocation and dismemberment through gelding and disembowelling to devoration and burial’. Ibid, 59-60.

3. Lacan, Seminar IV: La relation d’objet, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, 219.

4. Lacan, Seminar V: Formations of the Unconscious, 12th session, 5 Feburary 1958, 13.

5. Lacan, Seminar VI: Desire and its Interpretation, 20th session, 13 May 1959, 15

6. Lacan, Seminar VIII: Transference, 10th session, 1 February 1961, 12.

7. Lacan, Seminar VIII: Transference, 10th session, 1 February 1961, 12.

8. Lacan, Seminar VIII: Transference, 10th session, 1 February 1961, 12.

9. Lacan, Seminar IV: The Object-Relation, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, 119-20.

10. Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, ‘Castration Complex’, 23.

11. Lacan, Seminar IX: Identification, 13th session, 14 March 1962, 7.

12. In this article and in Seminar X on Anxiety Lacan supports his claims about the specific nature of castration anxiety by making appeals to a general Heideggerian theory of anxiety. For Heidegger, to take on the thought of one’s death implies an encounter with the possibility of an ‘absolute impossibility’: ‘Death is the possibility of the absolute impossibility of Dasein’ (Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, H. 250). A finite thinking being that takes on the thought of its own death is ‘brought face to face with the absolute impossibility of its existence’ (Ibid, H. 255). Heidegger’s approach is to clarify the temporal co-ordinates of human existence and to identify its fundamental ‘possibilities’ and ‘impossibilities’. By adopting an ‘anticipatory’ temporality, human beings can overcome anxiety and actualise their possibilities. Lacan’s discussion of castration anxiety situates it as the apprehension of a specific kind of impossibility. Castration is an impossibility because if it happens then nothing will be possible for the child or adolescent in the register of desire.

13. Lacan, Seminar IX: Identification, 15th session, 28 March 1962, 11.

14. Laplanche and Pontalis, ‘Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality’, 19.

15. Laplanche and Pontalis, ‘Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality’, 19.