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La pulsion

A central concept of Freudian psychoanalysis, the drive shapes the problematic interface between the psychic and the physical dimensions of human reality. The specific focus of most discussions of the drive in the Cahiers concern the general relation between the body and the signifier, or between sexual energy and lack. In Lacan’s later work, the drive acquires a distinctive ethical significance, as the call to identify with the drive’s senseless satisfaction begins to displace an earlier insistence on fidelity to the essentially tragic insatisfaction of socially mediated desire.

Whereas the sexual behaviour of most other animals is determined more or less immediately by species instincts, Freud argues that human sexuality is organised less by instinct [Instinkt] per se than by unconscious drive [Trieb]. (As Dylan Evans points out, ‘Lacan insists on maintaining the Freudian distinction between Trieb (“drive” [la pulsion, in French]) and Instinkt (“instinct”), and criticises James Strachey for obliterating this distinction by translating both terms as “instinct” in the [English] Standard Edition (E, 803/680)’.1 Unlike biological needs, drives cannot be satiated through consumption or possession of a particular object. Rather than aim at the direct possession of such an object, Lacan argues that a drive endlessly circles around it, and gains satisfaction from the persistence of this very circling.

As with so many aspects of his theory, Freud’s conception of drives changed considerably over the course of his work. In his earlier research, Freud focuses on the complex dynamics of the varied components of the sexual drive or libido, as distinct from the instinct of self-preservation. Unlike an animal instinct, the human sexual drive is not rooted in an effectively unalterable compulsion (cf. S11, 162) but comes to be configured in specific ways, determined over time in relation to distinct erogenous zones of the body (oral, anal, genital) and according to the particular trajectory of an individual’s psychic and socio-cultural development. Initially ‘polymorphous’ and disorganised, Freud argues (in his Three Essays on Sexuality of 1905) that normal sexual development, if and when it prevails, leads to the eventual coordination of its partial drives around the dominance of the genital organs and procreative heterosexuality.

The way this sexual drive comes to be repressed and partially sublimated, moreover, plays a decisive role in the constitution of a subject. In particular (in a passage from the 1915 article on ‘Repression’ that figures prominently in several Cahiers articles), Freud evokes the formative role of ‘primal repression, a first phase of repression, which consists in the psychical (ideational) representative [Vorstellungsrepräsentanz] of the drive being denied entrance into the conscious [domain]. With this a fixation is established; the representative in question persists unaltered from then onwards and the drive remains attached to it’ (SE14:148tm). In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud goes on to argue that

the repressed drive never ceases to strive for complete satisfaction, which would consist in the repetition of a primary experience of satisfaction. No substitutive or reactive formations and no sublimations will suffice to remove the repressed drive’s persisting tension; and it is the difference in amount between the pleasure of satisfaction which is demanded and that which is actually achieved that provides the driving factor that will permit of no halting at any position attained […]. The backward path that leads to complete satisfaction is as a rule obstructed by the resistances which maintain the repressions (SE18:42).

In his 1915 article on ‘The Drives [Instincts] and their Vicissitudes’, Freud recognises the additional role of an ‘aggressive drive’, ‘an urge for mastery’ of the object invested by the libido. Although aggression may reinforce the sexual drive, Freud eventually recognised that it is not reducible to it (cf. SE21:120), and came to link aggression with the drive to master, via repetition, unpleasant or traumatic experiences. More, he suggests that this drive to mastery and repetition is itself at work in every instance of drive, as if driving the drive as such. Insofar as drive always seeks a satisfying release from tension, the ultimate aim of drive would seem to be a release from the excitation of life altogether – i.e. death. ‘It seems, then, that a drive is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier stage of things which the living entity has been obliged to abandon under the pressure of external disturbing forces’ (SE18:36). Freud concludes, ‘after long hesitancies and vacillations’, there are just ‘two basic drives’, the sexual drive and the death drive (or ‘destructive’ drive). ‘The aim of the first of these basic drives is to establish ever greater unities and to preserve them thus – in short to bind together; the aim of the second is, on the contrary, to undo connections and so to destroy things’ (SE23:148).

Insofar as every drive is repetitive and marked by the deathly power of the signifying letter, Lacan will later radicalise Freud’s position, suggesting that ‘every drive is virtually a death drive’ (E 848/719); after initially insisting that ‘the death drive is only the mask of the symbolic order’ (S2, 326), itself driven by repetition, Lacan will later associate drive with the real – the real as that which resists symbolisation or incorporation into our ordinary experience of reality. ‘The whole of Lacan’s effort’, as Žižek will put it, ‘is precisely focused on those limit-experiences in which the subject finds himself confronted with the death drive at its purest, prior to its reversal into sublimation […]. What “Death” stands for at its most radical is not merely the passing of earthly life, but the “night of the world,” the self-withdrawal, the absolute contraction of subjectivity, the severing of its links with “reality”.’2

As Evans explains, in more general terms, for Lacan ‘the purpose of the drive [Triebziel] is not to reach a goal (a final destination) but to follow its aim (the way itself), which is to circle round the object [cf. S11, 168]. Thus the real purpose of the drive is not some mythical goal of full satisfaction, but to return to its circular path, and the real source of enjoyment is the repetitive movement of this closed circuit.’3 Whereas mere desire remains forever tangled with prohibition and lack, forever caught in irreducible ‘impasse’, as Jacques-Alain Miller observes, ‘the drive never comes to an impasse […]. The drive knows nothing of prohibition and certainly doesn’t dream of transgressing it. The drive follows its own bent and always obtains satisfaction.’4 Over the course of Lacan’s work in the 1960s the imperatives of drive begin to take priority over fidelity to desire. The conclusion of Seminar XI stages the question: ‘How can a subject who has traversed the radical fantasy experience the drive? This is the beyond of psychoanalysis, and has never been approached.’5 Much of Lacan’s later work is bound up with this approach, as an encouragement to follow and identify with the drive and its symptoms displaces the older commandment ‘do not give up on desire’ as the ethical core of psychoanalysis.

Clarification of what is at stake in the enjoyment (jouissance) of these symptoms (and with it the ethical difference between desire and drive) subsequently became a central concern of much post-Lacanian work, e.g. that of Žižek and Zupančič. If, as Žižek explains, the ultimate goal of analysis is to allow patients to ‘traverse the fantasy’ that sustains their desire and orients the experience of ordinary reality associated with it,6, this is achieved when ‘the subject fully assumes his or her identification with the sinthome [or symptom], when he or she unreservedly “yields” to it, rejoins the place where “it was,” giving up the false distance which defines our everyday life.’7 We are then free to ‘identify with the pathological singularity on which the consistency of our enjoyment depends’; here, ‘in the real of your symptom, you must recognize the ultimate support of your being.’8

Whereas Lacan minimises the biological aspects of the drive, and generally dissociates it from Freud’s ‘energetic’ or ‘hydraulic’ conception of libido, most of the Cahiers authors who analyse the concept approach it in terms that seek to bridge the apparent gap between Freud (energetics, embodiment) and Lacan (the signifier, lack).

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

The most substantial discussions of drive in the Cahiers occur in the texts on psychoanalysis by Serge Leclaire, André Green and Michel Tort. In keeping with the problematic legacy of Freud’s own formulation of the question, the Cahiers articles focus in particular on the ambiguous status of the drive as a relation between the domains of the body and of the psyche.

One of the guiding concerns of Leclaire’s seminars on psychoanalysis, which are summarised in several instalments in the Cahiers, is with the status of the body as marked by inaugural ‘separation’ (from the mother) and by ‘differentiation’ (as sexed) (CpA 1.5:67). Analysis can diagnose hysteria, for instance, in terms of a prematurely definitive separation, and obsessive neurosis in terms of a delayed and uncertain separation. Such neurotic configurations further determine the ‘erogenous zones’ that make up a ‘body’ in the distinctively psychoanalytic sense of the term, on the assumption that ‘no theory of discourse is possible without having assured a correct position for the body’ (69): it is ‘in the sensible body, as a non-dual surface, that one effectively finds the root of all possible differentiation, and the model of all discrimination, including logic’ (68).

Leclaire then tries to integrate this conception of bodily differentiation with an understanding of the drives, so as to ‘flesh out’ an account of the signifier and its logic. In particular, Leclaire repeatedly returns to Jacques-Alain Miller’s quasi-logicist account of suture (CpA 1.3), in order to show how the emergence of the signifier is bound up with the erotogenetic construction of the body, i.e. how it is marked by early events of separation and differentiation affecting the erogenous body. In relation to Freud’s case of the ‘Wolf Man’ (CpA 1.4:51), for instance, he shows how difference (and thus a sense of self) can only appear on the child’s body-surface once a ‘little piece’ of that surface has been separated: the body can then affect itself, or affect or be affected by another body. The unconscious concept of the ‘small piece’ detached from the body ‘in order to gain the favour of some other person whom he loves’ (SE17:131) serves here as the libidinal condition for the emergence of the signifier.

In the next instalment of his ‘Compter avec la psychanalyse’ seminar (CpA 2.5), Leclaire tries to pinpoint what is specific about the object of psychoanalysis, and concludes that the true ‘object’ of psychoanalysis (as distinct from psychology) is the drive. Leclaire notes how Freud ‘is led very early to consider the mind on the model of an apparatus that will function, in one respect, like a drive-engine [machine à pulsion] (in the sense that one talks of a steam-engine [machine à vapeur]), with the drive here designating the source of internal energy’ (CpA 2.5:131), geared to the pursuit of pleasure (a diminution of excitation or tension) and the avoidance of unpleasure. Leclaire pays particular attention to the way an unconscious drive comes to be attached to a ‘representation’, such that it can manifest itself as an affective state. In Freud’s energetic model of the unconscious, says Leclaire, ‘representation corresponds to a process of investment, of fixation of energy in a form, a trace, in such a way that the affect corresponds to a process of partial discharge of energy’ (127). How then is the ‘communication’ between the two heterogeneous systems of the unconscious and consciousness established? After Freud, Leclaire answers the question in terms of repression, arguing that the constitution of the drives in the process of primal repression produces precisely that situation in which ‘the same representation’ can come to exist ‘in the psychic apparatus under two different forms.’

If now a drive is a constant force with an immutable aim (to reduce tension), then as Freud acknowledged in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), ‘logically, it must find its most achieved accomplishment in the sovereign exercise of the death drives [pulsions de mort], the end of which is precisely to lead all tensions to zero’ (CpA 2.5:132). However, this would imply the subordination of the pleasure principle to the death drive, and render analysis of pleasurable increases in stimulus (exemplified by sexual excitation) inexplicable. According to Leclaire, Freud is led by a ‘long detour’ to the position on the drive spelled out in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where the ‘driving factor’ is explained as the difference between the pleasure demanded and that which is achieved (SE18:42). It is this difference that is expressed in the drives, but also in the signifiers that emerge from their repression. ‘The drive therefore appears as the dynamic of difference, and it would be justified to say that the goal of the drive is to maintain this difference, because by virtue of the satisfaction it demands, it re-animates at every instant the experience of a difference with the memory of primary satisfaction. In the same way one can say that pleasure is always referred to some other pleasure more intense and inaccessible, which is presented as the present remainder of a nostalgic dissatisfaction’ (CpA 2.5:133). We thereby arrive at the central problem in identifying the object of psychoanalysis: the drive is bound to the attempt to ‘seize an object that is indifferent to it, and which only takes on its value through its ungraspable difference with a lost model’ (134). In this sense, Leclaire’s analysis of the drive resonates with the general Lacanian conception of desire as lack.

Leclaire devotes a full session of the third instalment of his seminar to the question of ‘the drives’ (CpA 3.6:84-88), in order to show how specific kinds of neurotic behaviour might be traced to events in the process of repression to which the subject was submitted in the course of the development of his drives. Drawing on Freud’s main text on the topic, ‘Drives and their Vicissitudes [Triebe und Triebschicksale]’, Leclaire defines the drive as ‘the psychic representative of a constant force emanating from the interior of the organism and which tends to satisfy itself by the suppression of the state of tension that reigns at the source of the drive itself’ (CpA 3.6:85). Leclaire emphasises the fact that the psychoanalyst always has to do with psychic representatives [représentants] of the drives, i.e. drives as felt, as emotional or affective processes, and he suggests that it is vain to interrogate what is represented by starting from the representative. Because the drive emanates from within the person, however, the person cannot escape or flee it, and any object that might permit the reduction of tension (pursued by the drive) will remain secondary to the psychic process of the drive’s own satisfaction. Leclaire repeatedly returns to the question posed by the ultimate goal of the drive as cessation of all tension, noting how ‘the difference between the satisfaction obtained and the satisfaction sought always pushes the subject forward because the path backwards towards complete satisfaction is barred in general; the drive situates itself within this same difference’ (CpA 3.6).9 This leads to an ‘adjusted’ definition of the drive, whereby ‘the repressed drive is a constant force which assures and maintains the difference that is experienced as satisfaction at the level of the body […]. Pleasure is the evocation of the non-difference as non-attained’ (86).

Insofar as the drive’s pressure is ‘constant’, analysis of the drive demonstrates how ‘the body is affected by the bursting open of the primary needs; it is a surface affected by holes that become signifying places in relation to the loss of the first object’ (CpA 3.6:87). Where Freud says that the object is non-specific and is interchangeable (cf. SE14:122-23), and Lacan says it is an ‘almost-nothing’ [presque-rien], Leclaire now specifies the role of the object of the drive as ‘something that assures, and therefore does not reduce, the difference between a [something] similar and non-similar [pareil et non-pareil]. It is the very splitting of the difference. The object is where the drive underlines its value as an index of the split between the terms of the couple, “object lost – object present”. The repressed drive aims towards the object as a remainder of the signifying order’ (87). The object of the drive can thus be understood as both signifier and as objet petit a: insofar as it is the terminus of sought-for satisfaction, it is the objet petit a, but insofar as it is connected with a differentiation in the body, it is a signifier (87).

The drive itself comes from within, but nevertheless aims to install something ‘other’ that is both separable and pacifying. The death drive aims at the ‘objectal’ side of the object, and reintroduces the separable element as something lost, while the life drives affirm the separable thing as signifier, albeit one that transgresses the corporeal surface. It is the drive that assures the putting in place of a deep structure in which the subject is not yet placed, and is characterised by its lack of the lost object and the alterity of the separable, corporeal components towards which it is directed.

André Green (CpA 3.2) also tries to relate objet petit a to the object of the repressed drive, on the assumption that ‘representation and affect are two different types of signifiers’ (CpA 3.2:29/180). In Green’s compressed terms, ‘the signifier is that which, at the risk of its own disappearance, must, in order to subsist, enter into a system of transformations in which it represents a subject for another signifier falling under the act of the bar of repression or of disavowal’ (29/180). The ‘always silent’ ‘work of the death drive’ can be located, then, ‘in this reduction (in every dimension of the word) which attempts to always reach the point of absence wherein the subject links its dependence to the Other, by identifying itself with its own erasure. The mutation of the signifier, its epiphany underlying its polymorphous and distributed forms, indicates the leap it intends to oppose – as in a dream – to this annulment’ (36/188).

Both Leclaire’s and Green’s analysis of the drive dwell on the critical role played, in the mediation of the bodily and psychic domains, by what Freud called a Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz (normally translated into English as ‘psychical representative’ or ‘ideational representative’); Michel Tort’s contribution to the Cahiers (CpA 5.2) is entirely devoted to this concept, leading to a critique of the biologism he sees at work in Freud’s later conception of the drive. Tort argues that the term Vorstellungs-Repräsentanz is a specialised version of a more general Freudian term, the ‘drive representative’ [Triebrepräsentanz] (CpA 5.2:45). In the 1895 ‘Project for a Scientific Psychology’, Freud affirms the ‘dependence of the psychical apparatus with respect to quantities of excitation which are endogenous, that is, which come from within the body’ (CpA 5.2:45/20; cf. SE1:295-310). For the early Freud, all drives, not just sexuality, are sources of endogenous excitation, and once an excitation crosses a certain threshold of intensity, ‘somatic energy [Trieb] is transformed into psychical energy [Antrieb] in the nervous system or psychical apparatus’ (CpA 5.2:46/21).

The drive can be analysed, then, according to two different approaches, ‘a physiological-biological approach treating the source of the excitation as a specific chemism [chimisme], and a psychological approach insofar as the phenomenon of internal excitation reveals properly psychical forms of manifestation. In reality, the drive is, then, at one and the same time endogenous excitation and psychical manifestation of it’ (49/23). The earlier Freud seems to reserve the name of drive for psychical manifestations (e.g. in certain passages in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and still in ‘Drives and their Vicissitudes’), such that what is at issue is an analysis of the process or vicissitudes of the drive as such, rather than any representation of it. But although the concept of the Triebrepräsentanz thus has nothing to do with the epistemological problem of representation, it remains problematic insofar as it presupposes a mysterious framework of ‘expression’, with ‘the drive representing “itself” in the psychism’ (53/27).

Tort argues that as he continues to work on the problem, Freud is unable to clarify what Laplanche and Leclaire were later to identify as ‘the major obscurity of the Freudian economic hypothesis’, namely the conversion of general psychic energy or investment (cathexis) into specifically ‘sexual energy (libido)’ (CpA 5.2/28).10 Instead, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), he falls back on ‘an entirely speculative and “biological” theory of the nature of the drive’ (59/31). This ‘mythologising and biologising of the drive’ conjures up a spurious ‘aim’ at the ‘organic’ level, so that Freud now speaks of the ‘aim’ of Eros or the ‘final’ aims of the drive as such, in a way at odds with his earlier, more rigorous conception of the aims of the drive in the 1915 ‘Drives and their Vicissitudes’ (60/31).

Tort offers a critique of this ‘biological hypostasis’ of the drive in Freud’s later work (CpA 5.2:59/31), and tries to account for the difficulties in his account of Repräsentanz as resulting from his insistence on a ‘biological, organic particularity of sexuality’ (65/36). The ultimately speculative nature of Freud’s conception of drive, Tort argues, ‘is sufficient to indicate without ambiguity that this “biology” is an ideological myth […]. A form of scientificity which can only be imported into a domain in a speculative form is ideological for sure.’ Tort concludes that the concept of Repräsentanz ‘is not a rigorous concept but the ideological designation of an absolutely new relation between sexuality as drive and the representation imposed by clinical experience’ (66/37).

Select bibliography

  • Evans, Dylan. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1996.
  • Fink, Bruce. A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.
  • Fink, Bruce, et al., eds. Reading Seminars I and II: Lacan’s Return to Freud. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.
  • 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].
  • ---. ‘Drives [Instincts] and their Vicissitudes’ [1915], SE14.
  • ---. ‘The Unconscious’ [1915], SE14.
  • ---. ‘Repression’ [1915], SE14.
  • ---. Beyond the Pleasure Principle [1920], SE18.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
  • ---. Le Séminaire, Livre XI. Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse, 1964, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1973. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.
  • Laplanche, Jean and Serge Leclaire. ‘L’Inconscient: Une étude psychanalytique’. Les Temps modernes 183 (1961). ‘The Unconscious: A Psychoanalytic Study’, trans. Patrick Coleman. Yale French Studies 48 (1972), The French Freud, ed. Jeffrey Mehlman.
  • Laplanche, Jean, and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis. The Language of Psychoanalysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. London: Hogarth, 1974.
  • Leclaire, Serge. Psychanalyser. Paris: Seuil, 1969. Psychoanalyzing, trans. Peggy Kamuf. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.
  • Žižek, Slavoj. Looking Awry : An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991.
  • ---. Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.
  • ---. The Plague of Fantasies. London: Verso, 1997.
  • ---. The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. London: Verso, 1999.
  • ---. Žižek Reader, ed. Elizabeth Wright and Edmond Leo Wright. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.
  • Zupančič, Alenka. Ethics of the Real: Kant, Lacan. London: Verso, 2000.


1. Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, 46.

2. Žižek, The Ticklish Subject, 160, 154. Subsequent references to pages numbers in this work appear in brackets in the text.

3. Evans, Dictionary, 46-47.

4. Miller, ‘Commentary on Lacan’s Text,’ in Fink et al ed., Reading Seminars I and II, 425-426.

5. S11, 273. More fully, the passage reads:

It is beyond the function of the a that the curve closes back upon itself at a point where nothing is ever said as to the outcome of the analysis, that is, after the mapping of the subject in relation to the a, the experience of the fundamental phantasy becomes the drive. What, then, does he who has passed through the experience of this opaque relation to the origin, to the drive, become? How can a subject who has traversed the radical phantasy experience the drive? This is the beyond of analysis, and has never been approached. Up to now, it has been approachable only at the level of the analyst, in as much as it would be required of him to have specifically traversed the cycle of the analytic experience in its totality […].

The schema that I leave you, as a guide both to experience and to reading, shows you that the transference operates in the direction of bringing demand back to identification. It is in as much as the analyst’s desire, which remains an x, tends in a direction that is the exact opposite of identification, that the crossing of the plane of identification is possible, through the mediation of the separation of the subject in experience. The experience of the subject is thus brought back to the plane at which, from the reality of the unconscious, the drive may be made present (S11, 273-274).

6. Žižek The Plague of Fantasies, 31.

7. Žižek, Tarrying, 60.

8. Žižek, Looking Awry, 138, 137; cf. Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies, 49. According to Žižek, analysis thus culminates in a unredeemably ‘cold’ affirmation of ‘mindless jouissance’ embodied for a subject in the ‘sinthome […] in its utter stupidity, as a meaningless fragment of the Real’, and crowned with a single, radically deflating command: ‘love thy sinthome as thyself’ (Žižek, ‘The Undergrowth of Enjoyment,’ in Žižek Reader, 17, 19; cf. Fink, A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis, 214-215).

Zupančič helpfully illustrates the difference between desire and drive, in a more ‘comic’ vein, through reference to two of the great seducers of early modern literature, Laclos’ Valmont and Molière’s Don Juan. Valmont is a heroic figure of desire. Insofar as desire is always a desire of lack or what is missing (i.e. insofar as desire desires its own perpetuation), so then Valmont refuses to fall for the trap set by love. He refuses to settle on any particular object, in order to persist in an endless quest for the forever-missing ‘right woman’; at the cost of his own happiness, he refuses to compromise his desire, and remorselessly keeps open ‘the gap that separates desire from any [lovable] object which pretends to “satisfy” it’. Don Juan, by contrast, ‘finds the gap that constitutes the drive of his actions in satisfaction itself. His case is not that of the metonymy of desire, of the eternal elusiveness of the “true” object (of desire). He is not looking for the right woman; […] on the contrary, for Don Juan each and every woman is the right one, and what drives him further is not what he didn’t find in his previous lover, but precisely what he did find. He attains satisfaction without attaining his aim – or more exactly, he attains satisfaction precisely in so far as his aim is nothing but “getting back into circulation”’, over and over again (Zupančič, Ethics of the Real, 136). Neither Valmont or Don Juan will ever find the ‘right object’, i.e. the definitive object that brings lasting satisfaction; but whereas Valmont persists in his tragic search for the missing object, Don Juan finds some satisfaction in this very lack, in the fact that the absence of any definitively satisfying object means that he can find (some) satisfaction in every object he encounters.

More generally, whereas ‘desire sustains itself by remaining unsatisfied’, Zupančič argues, ‘the drive sustains itself on the very fact that it is satisfied. Lacan explains this “paradox” which makes the drive attain its satisfaction without attaining its goal: “Even when you stuff the mouth – the mouth that opens in the register of the drive – it is not the food that satisfies it, it is, as one says, the pleasure of the mouth” [S11, 167] […] We satisfy the mouth, so to speak, without filling it up – that is to say, without passing into a register which would be simply opposed to that of lack. In other words, when we “stuff our mouths”, we satisfy the drive, whether we want to or not. And in spite of the fact that the object we consume will never be “it” [i.e. the definitively satisfying object], some part of “it” is produced in the very act of consumption. It is precisely this “some part of it” that is the true object of the drive’ (Zupančič, Ethics of the Real, 242-243).

In Bruce Fink’s more prosaic terms, the ‘subject as drive’ (or ‘subject as real’) theorised in Lacan’s later work is a ‘headless subject (a sort of nonsubject, when thought of in traditional philosophical or psychological terms […]) which pursues satisfaction. This subject is, prior to analysis, hemmed in, kept down, and silenced as much as possible by the ego and the superego, by desire as it forms in language on the basis of the Other’s discourse, which transmits the Other’s desires, values and ideals.’ This subject must now traverse desire and fantasy because these block satisfaction, so as to orient itself no longer in relation to the Other’s desires but purely ‘in relation to the partial object that brings satisfaction: object a’ (Fink, A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis, 209-210).

9. See also CpA 1.5:68, CpA 2.5:129, CpA 5.1:17; cf. SE18:42.

10. Cf. Laplanche and Leclaire, ‘The Unconscious’, 10/134.