Objet petit a
L’objet petit a
A term coined by Jacques Lacan. The ‘a’ signifies ‘autre’ (other), so that the term can be translated as ‘little o-object’. The objet petit a has the primary significance of being the Other’s ‘little object’, the material remainder left over by the operation of symbolic castration.
Jacques Lacan uses the term ‘objet petit a’ to refer to what is most inaccessible in the object of desire. It is a product of the splitting of the subject in the development of the child. Lacan replaces the familiar subject-object dichotomy from epistemology with a new dichotomy that expresses the relation of desire: between the ‘barred’ or ‘split’ subject and the objet petit a, as the enigmatic, ‘real’ element in the object of desire.
The development of Lacan’s concept of the objet petit a can be traced by referring back to its etymology. The ‘petit a’ signifies the ‘little other’ [petit autre]. Lacan makes a distinction between the ‘little’ other [petit autre] of the imaginary order and the ‘big’ Other [l’Autre] to whom speech is addressed in the symbolic order. In Seminar II, he defines the big Other as the thought of absolute difference. Lacan links the part-objects or ‘little objects’ that govern the child’s experience in the imaginary order with the determination of the child’s actions through its specular relations with the other. Lacan argues that the child enters a ‘dialectic of desire’ (E, 793) in which it ends up wanting to be the ‘object’ of the mother’s desire. The child wants to be what the primary Other desires, and therefore attempts to present itself as a desirable object. By taking on the position of ‘desired object’ of the mother, the child has to take on bodily forms in the sensible field.1 From his earliest work Lacan is interested in how desiring subjects appear as objects to each other in the sensible field, and although he often stresses the visual dimension of the objet petit a (the ‘gaze’ is the objet petit a in the visual field), he also discusses ‘invocatory’ objects of desire.
However, the objet petit a only assumes its function as a consequence of symbolic castration. Lacan describes the objet petit a as something that ‘falls out’ of the symbolic order, as a ‘remainder’.2 It is a result, or a by-product, of the division of the subject into conscious and unconscious regions. Insofar as it emerges out of a gap or lack in the symbolic order, it functions first of all as an imaginary compensation for the symbolic castration of the subject. The objet petit a as ‘object’ of desire is a ‘ransom’ extracted to compensate for the endurance of castration.3 As such, it plugs the gap opened up by the construction of the symbolic order upon the Name of the Father. According to Lacan, the objet petit a achieves this function due to its ‘edge-like’ or ‘rim-like’ structure [structure de bord], which permits it to present a figurative, indirect embodiment of the lack in the Other. However, he insists that despite the apparent independence of the object, its appearance as containing something ‘hidden’, it must ultimately be understood as a result of a metonymic displacement of the subject’s attempt to be ‘the object of the desire of the other’.4
The objet petit a ‘falls’ out of an original relation between the subject and the Other. ‘The a, the object falls’, Lacan states in 1963. ‘That fall is primal. The diversity of forms taken by that object of the fall ought to be related to the manner in which the desire of the Other is apprehended by the object’.5 He goes on to sketch out a diachronic succession of objets petit a in child development that reflects Freud’s account of the development of the drives and their objects. For Lacan, the fundamental types of objet petit a are oral, anal, scopic and invocatory. His remarks about the nature of the objet a in the session of 4 March 1964 of Seminar XI give a brief account of his conception:
The objet a is something from which the subject, in order to constitute itself, has separated itself off as organ. This serves as a symbol of the lack, that is to say, of the phallus, not as such, but insofar as it is lacking. It must, therefore, be an object that is, first, separable and, secondly, that has some relation to the lack. I’ll explain at once what I mean.
At the oral level, it is the nothing, insofar as that from which the subject is weaned is no longer anything for him. In anorexia nervosa, what the child eats is the nothing … The anal level is the locus of metaphor – one object for another, give the faeces in place of the phallus. This shows you why the anal drive is the domain of oblativity, of the gift. Where one is caught short, where one cannot, as a result of the lack, give what is to be given, one can always give something else. That is why, in his morality, man is inscribed at the anal level. And this is especially true of the materialist.
At the scopic level, we are no longer at the level of demand, but of desire, of the desire of the Other. It is the same at the level of the invocatory drive, which is the closest to the experience of the unconscious.6
The oral function can only be understood ‘if the object being detached from the subject is introduced into the Other’s demand, into the call to the mother, and it delineates the space beyond in which, beneath a veil, likes the Mother’s desire’.7 The role of the anal object, the child’s ‘gift’ of faeces to the mother, is clarified in ‘the phenomenology of the gift, the present offered in anxiety’.8 However, it is Lacan’s two supplements to Freud’s theory of drive-objects – the scopic object, or object of the gaze, and the invocatory object – that most clarify the kinds of subtle relations of desire he seeks to bring to light.
Lacan takes up the theme of the gaze as the ‘field’ of desire at greatest length in Seminar XI (1964), dividing up the visual field into a geometrical, optical field on the one hand, and a visceral, sexual field of gazes on the other. Initially, the child is in an exhibitionist relation to the Other, yielding up its body to its gaze. But this relationship is susceptible to inversion, in voyeurism. In the latter, ‘what is intended by the subject is what is realized in the other’: voyeurism is reverse exhibitionism.9 The scopic objet a has a tenuous existence: as soon as the other sees the subject seeing it, the field of the gaze dissolves back into geometrical space.
With regard to the invocatory object, the voice as objet petit a, Lacan explains that the voice gains this function as the material bearer of the signifier, insofar as it serves as the vehicle for all kinds of expressive traits and punctuations. The voices of the parental Others in the family situation determine the direction of the child’s desire. Perhaps Lacan’s most acute exploration of the theme of the voice is in the sixth session of Seminar XIII: The Object of Psychoanalysis (1965-66), in a discussion of Socrates’s relation to his ‘inner voice’ or ‘daimon’.10 But he also shows how the invocatory objet petit a plays a role within the fields of politics and ideology.
Without the concept of the objet a – whose incidences, it seems to me, have made themselves widely enough felt for the people of our present generation – it seems to me that much of what is done as analyses of subjectivity as well as of history and its interpretation, and specifically of what we have lived through as contemporary, and very specifically of what we have, rather crudely, baptised with a most improper term, under the name of totalitarianism [cannot be understood].11
The objet a would thus play a role in totalitarian regimes insofar as these exploit the absence at the heart of the paternal function, the ‘Name’ of the Father, and, by extension, the absence at the origin of human culture, pandering to the anxieties created by this lack, with the aim of occupying it and controlling it. The totalitarian appeal to the voice, to spectacular rallies, and to projective fantasies about scapegoats, would thus involve appeals to objets petit a in order to bolster the illusion of authority.
Only a few of Lacan’s suggestions about the significance and various functions of the objet petit a are taken up in the pages of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse. Lacan’s 13th Seminar, The Object of Psychoanalysis (1965-66), ran in parallel with the first three volumes of the Cahiers, but his developments of the theme of the objet petit a are mainly taken up in the journal by thinkers outside the immediate Circle of Epistemology, such as Serge Leclaire and André Green. Nevertheless, certain statements by Jacques-Alain Miller and Jean-Claude Milner indicate that the concept has an important role to play for them as well.
In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse
In ‘Science et la vérité’ (CpA 1.1), Lacan proclaims that ‘there is something in the status of the object of science that seems to me to have remained unelucidated since the birth of science’ (CpA 1.1:14; E, 863). Insofar as it is supported by a subject, science is governed by a particular kind of object that, he claims, can only be articulated and comprehended by psychoanalysis. For Lacan this ‘object’ that is proper to psychoanalysis is the objet petit a, understood as the objective correlate of the desiring subject. The objet petit a emerges as something ‘inserted […] into the division of the subject by which the psychoanalytic field is quite specifically structured’ (CpA 1.1:15; E, 864). In the ensuing paragraphs, Lacan identifies a ‘causal’ function of the relation to this object that makes it stand apart from ‘knowledge’ as it is usually understood. When the subject refuses knowledge because they are bound to a truth that transcends knowledge, psychoanalysis is required in order to reconstruct the objects of desire that determine subjectivity.
In ‘Réponses aux étudiants en philosophie’ (CpA 3.1), Lacan appeals to the concept of objet petit a in answer to a question on the possibility of overcoming alienation in the political field. He states that, strictly speaking, there is no ‘subject of desire’, only a ‘subject of fantasy’, which, Lacan claims, is “stopped up” by the ‘object-cause of desire’ (CpA 3.1:9, trans. 110). ‘It is only once the status of that object – the one I call “petit a” and with which I have entitled my course this year as the object of psychoanalysis – has been acknowledged that we will be able to give a meaning to the alleged impetus you attribute to the subject’s revolutionary praxis of going beyond his alienated labour […] All I can see as transcending that alienation is the object sustaining its value, what Marx, in a homonym singularly anticipatory of psychoanalysis, called the fetish’ (ibid).
Lacan reiterates that the objet petit a is only apprehensible by psychoanalytic means. It is an object that ‘leap[s] from its place’ (9/110). As a product of the combination of structure and subject, it moves according to the logic of structural causality.
André Green’s ‘L’objet (a) de J. Lacan, sa logique, et la théorie freudienne. Convergences et interrogations’ (CpA 3.2) presents the most extensive analysis of the concept. Implicitly taking up Lacan’s suggestion in ‘Science and Truth’, that the proper object of psychoanalysis as a discipline might be a particular kind of object, the objet petit a (CpA 1.1:15; E, 864), Green says an analysis of Lacan’s concept of the objet petit a is necessary, not only because of the intrinsic difficulties of the concept, and its central place in Lacan’s system, but also because it ‘marks out the limitations of the modern structuralist dimension of Lacanian thought, and, no doubt, of all psychoanalytic thought’ (CpA 3.2:16, trans. 164). In the article, Green presents a wide-ranging analysis of the role of this special ‘object’ in instituting the conditions for the distinction between subject and object in general. Noting the semantic overlap between the terms ‘subject’ and ‘object’ (where the ‘subject’ of an analysis can also be its ‘object’ (15/164), he suggests that the concepts of subject and object have ‘related destinies’ which can be illuminated by a psychoanalytic account of the role of this special kind of object, the objet petit a, in the formation of the subject. His aim will be to examine the binary oppositions of ‘identity and difference’, ‘conjunction and disjunction’, and – within the context of the work pursued within the Cahiers pour l’Analyse – the notions of ‘suture and coupure [break/cut]’, and relate them back to the processes of formation in which they originally occur. ‘The series of castrations postulated by Freud – weaning, sphincter control, castration as such’ all involve the loss of an object, and the objet petit a appears ‘to detach itself from this series of experiences’ (18/167). Whereas initially (according to Lacan), the subject ‘exhibits’ itself in the field of the Other (E, 682), the sequence of objets petit a show how what the subject loses turns up again in displaced form in the object of desire. The objet petit a is a ‘remainder issued by the desire of the Other, a residue that has slipped past the bar’ (20/170). Green goes on to argue that the objet petit a shows the ‘limits’ of psychoanalytic structuralism insofar as it raises questions about the role of affectivity in the relation to objects that cannot be answered within a purely structuralist framework (28/180).
Luce Irigaray does not use the term ‘objet petit a’ in her ‘Communication linguistique et spéculaire’. However, she does discuss the formal constitution of the ‘object’ in the act of linguistic exchange (CpA 3.3:42), the ‘objectification’ of the subject in the act of enunciation (44), and the specular features of the object of desire (46-49). In an article from 1975, ‘Così Fan Tutti’, Irigaray critically examines Lacan’s remarks in Seminar XX: Encore, about how women ‘serve as the object a’, as a ‘bodily remainder’ in the constitution of male subjectivity. ‘The being that is sexualised female in and through discourse is also a place for the deposit of the remainders produced by the operation of language’.12 In her major work, Speculum: De l’autre femme , she shows how female subjectivity can overcome objectification and rediscover a place of its own outside the phallocentric presuppositions of Freudian psychoanalysis.
Jean-Claude Milner’s return to Plato in search of a prototype for a logic of the signifier, ‘Le Point du signifiant’ (CpA 3.5), results in his discernment of a basic ‘repetitive’ mechanism in the constitution of the subject through its subjection to the signifier. He suggests that this mechanism also helps us to formalise Lacan’s conception of the objet petit a, which he formulates as ‘like the stasis of a fall’s cyclical repetition’ (CpA 3.5:78). Lacan had stated that the splitting of the subject was coeval with the ‘dejection’ or evacuation of the objet petit a. The objet petit a is what ‘falls out’ (in English: the ‘fallout’) of the cut of symbolic castration, but its formal properties can be deduced from the logic of the signifier.
Serge Leclaire does not take up the theme of objet petit in detail until the third instalment of ‘Compter avec la psychanalyse’ (CpA 8.6). However, at the end of his second ‘Compter avec la psychanalyse’ session (CpA 3.6; 2 February 1966), Jacques-Alain Miller makes some remarks in the question period about the objet petit a that clarify his own ideas about the formation of the subject (in ‘Suture’, CpA 1.3), and include details about the role of the objet a in the formation of subjectivity that are not replicated elsewhere in Miller’s contributions to the Cahiers. Taking up an exchange between Leclaire and Milner on the nature of the formal constraints on signification, Miller interjects with the following remarks:
Although the object is ‘dejected’ when the subject is ‘excluded’, subject and object, without which there is floating or confusion, are both homogeneous insofar as they constitute a correlation. If with relation to all geometrical space, the subject and the object are in a relation of aberration, is that to say that the impossible object becomes subject? Not at all, for the impossible object is not a remainder, but a lack. Logical discourse subsumes this lack of the object that defines the subject of the lack. And this object which can only lack because it is named, is the subject. The object (a) is therefore the zero as lack.
If the subject is the scansion of the chain of movement and the object the calm function of this chain, the object can be said to be what is in excess and the subject is in deficit. As regards what is involved in the relation between 0 = (a) and the other elements of the signifier, I would hazard: the object (a) is the very signifier of suture (CpA 3.6:95).
Appealing to his argument in ‘Suture’ (CpA 1.3), Miller states here that the objet petit a functions as the zero of lack, as opposed to the zero of number (cf. CpA 1.3:44). He also goes so far as to say that the objet a is ‘the very signifier of suture’.
In his discussion of the objet petit a in the third installment of ‘Compter avec la psychanalyse’ (CpA 8.6), Leclaire builds on his account of the relation between ‘detachable’ part-objects and signifiers in the constitution of desire (cf. CpA 1.5, CpA 2.5, CpA 3.6). He suggests that the objet petit a is what is at play in perverse pleasure, where a special object is sought to provisionally fill the lack perceived by the subject in the Other. He gives the example of a voyeur who experiences sexual enjoyment when he imagines or sees a crouching woman in the process of urinating. ‘His pleasure emanates from a visual contact with a part (detachable) of the body of the other, an elusive partial object that fulfils him’ (CpA 8.6:96).
In the session of 25 January 1967 (CpA 8.6:101), Leclaire gives an elaborate account of Lacan’s most recent thinking on the concept of the objet petit a. He begins by relating the objet petit a to the genesis of the relation of the subject to the ‘signifying order’, as it is spelled out by Jacques-Alain Miller in ‘Suture’ (CpA 1.3:48). The subject according to Miller, Leclaire reminds us, is ‘not a term in the chain, but is defined as the simple possibility of one signifier more’; it is an effect of the signifying chain, while also being excluded from the chain as such. ‘Its structure can be articulated as a “flickering in eclipses”’ (cf. CpA 1.3:49). Leclaire then gives two definitions of the objet petit a, the first according to Lacan, the second according to Jean-Claude Milner. Lacan defines the objet petit a as an ‘ejected’, ‘dejected’ object, belonging to the ‘order of the real’ [l’ordre du réel].13 Although itself unrepresentable, it has the ‘function of representing every possible representation of the subject’ (CpA 8.6:102). Milner specifies that the objet petit a ’can be described as being like the stasis of the cyclical repetition of a fall’ (CpA 3.5:78).
Leclaire gives three interpretations of what the concept of the objet petit a could refer to. It could describe the child as such an object, fallen from the body of its mother; alternatively one could think of the object as anal (dropped, expelled, etc); or, in a third sense, as a separable, detachable object. Leclaire questions whether the relations amount to more than an ‘analogy’. There are two ways of articulating the relation of the objet petit a with the signifier. One can go the ‘idealist’ route, from the signifier to the object, and interpret it on the model of genesis (as the history of the fall of an object; Leclaire refers to his own attempt at such an approach in CpA 5.1:27-29). The Wolf Man wants to repress what he has seen in the primal scene, and to say ‘it is not her, it is not my mother’. From this ‘contestation of the identity of the mother as desiring subject arises the dislocation of the signifier of maternal identity, from which falls the residual object, the fantasy of the crouching woman’. Alternatively, one can take an ‘anti-idealist’ approach and go from the objet petit a to the signifier. Leclaire suggests that if the reconstruction of the relationship between the two terms is to be complete, the possibility must remain of following both routes (103).
In the following session (22 February 1967; CpA 8.6:106), Leclaire specifies that the objet petit a has the basic function of ‘returning’ or ‘reprising’ [reprise]. Malaises relating to the sensation of an accumulation of detritus repeat the relation to the anal object. The voice too can function as an objet a, if it is taken as not just ‘produced by an organ’, but as embodying ‘the phonic materiality of the signifier’. The same goes for the scopic regime and light. The problem is that the concept of ‘objectivity’ risks overextension. Instead, a mutation in subjectivity is demanded if the apprehension of the objet petit a is to be possible. In a sub-section entitled ‘Formalisation and the Organism’, Leclaire inquires into the presentation of the objet petit a as a ‘detachable’ or exchangeable part. He claims that the idea still conjures up the image of a complete ‘whole’; thus it is necessary to go further and define the part as ‘the effect of a rejection by formalisation’ (107). Although the gaze is tied to the eye, food to the mouth, etc., the ‘organic function’ at work in the objet a pulls in two directions: towards anatomy on the one hand, and formalisation on the other. The object, in its value as partial representation, is therefore at once the agent of an organic function and the representative of ‘the “purity” of all possible formalisation’. Leclaire emphasises that the function of the objet petit a goes ‘against nature’, and ‘subverts the organic order’. The ‘function of the organ of pleasure’ emerges, with a ‘fetish object’ as its ‘objective’ correlate. In the following subsection, he goes on to follow the developmental path from the penis as objet petit a to the phallus.
- Evans, Dylan. Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1996.
- Irigaray, Luce. ‘Così Fan Tutti’ , in This Sex which is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.
- Lacan, Jacques. Seminar I: Freud’s Papers on Technique [1953-54], trans. John Forrester. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
- ---. Le Séminaire, livre IV: La relation d’objet, ed. Jaques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1998.
- ---. Seminar VI: Desire and its Interpretation [1958-59], trans. C. Gallagher, unpublished translation
- ---. Seminar VIII: Transference [1960-1], trans. Cormac Gallagher, unpublished manuscript.
- ---. Seminar IX: Identification [1961-1962], trans. Cormac Gallagher, unpublished manuscript.
- ---. Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis [1963-1964], ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Penguin, 1977.
- ---. Seminar XII: Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis [1964-1965], trans. Cormac Gallagher, unpublished manuscript.
- ---. Seminar XIII: The Object of Psychoanalysis [1965-1966], trans. Cormac Gallagher, unpublished manuscript.
1. Lacan stresses the role of the body in intersubjectivity in a key section on ‘The Object Relation and the Intersubjective Relation’ in his first Seminar: ‘We want to become for the other an object that has the same limiting value for him as does, in relation to his freedom, his own body’. Seminar I, Freud’s Papers on Technique, 17th session, 2 June 1954, 217. Later on, he reiterates: ‘The desire to be loved is the desire that the loving object should be taken as such, caught up, enslaved to the absolute particularity of oneself as object. The person who aspires to be loved is not at all satisfied, as is well known, with being loved for his attributes. He demands to be loved as far as the complete subversion of the subject into a particularity can go, and into whatever may be most opaque, most unthinkable in this particularity’. Seminar I, 22nd session, 7 July 1954, 276. ↵
2. Lacan, Seminar IX: Identification, 26th session, 27 June 1962, 1. ↵
3. Lacan, Seminar VI: Desire and its Interpretation, 20th session, 13 May 1959, 15. ↵
4. Lacan, Seminar VIII: Transference, 10th session, 1 February 1961, 12. ↵
5. Lacan, ‘Introduction to the Names-of-the-Father Seminar’, ↵
6. Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 4 March 1964, 104. ↵
7. ‘Introduction to the Names of the Father Seminar’, 85. ↵
8. ‘Introduction to the Names of the Father Seminar’, 85. ↵
9. Seminar XI, 13 May 1964, 183. ↵
10. Noting the lack of biographical information available on Socrates, Lacan states that there are certain things about him that no historian doubts. ‘The first of these things is the voice, the voice which Socrates undoubtedly testifies to us was not at all a metaphor. The voice for which he stops speaking in order to hear what it is saying to him just like one of our hallucinating patients […] As long as one does not have a really adequate idea about what a voice is, what functions it enters into beyond its phenomenon, what it means in the subjective field, so long as one does not have what will allow us, in my discourse, to formulate it as this petit objet fallen from the Other – like other little objects of this kind, the objet petit a, to call it by its name – then we will not have a sufficient apparatus to situate, without imprudence, the function of the voice in a case like that of Socrates, which is in effect a privileged one.’ Thus Socrates’ invocatory object is what he calls his ‘daimon’. Lacan would be saying here that the objet petit a of the invocatory drive is the voice of auditory hallucination, giving material expression in the real to the foreclosed demands of the symbolic order. Socrates’ position may be a privileged one, insofar as he puts himself in the position of fearlessly interrogating the desire of the master, but that would be one more reason why it is necessary to grasp the particular structure of his position. Seminar XI: Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis, 20 January 1965, 11. ↵
11. Seminar XIV: The Logic of Fantasy, 16 January 1966. ↵
12. ‘For this to be the case’, she adds, ‘woman has to remain a body without organs’ (‘Così Fan Tutti’, 90). Rather than alluding to Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of a ‘body without organs’ (in their 1972 Anti-Oedipus), Irigaray means that woman in the regime of the phallus is denied her own definition of her drives and objects. ↵
13. Leclaire refers to Lacan’s Seminar XIII, The Object of Psychoanalysis, 20th session (8 June 1966) as his source for this account of the objet petit a. ↵