The following text has been automatically reproduced by an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) algorithm. It may not have been checked over by human eyes. For matters of precision please consult the original pdf.

Fatal Attraction

Fatal Attraction
Jean Laplanche on sexuality,
subjectivity and singularity in the
work of Sigmund Freud
Philippe Van Haute

Freud considered sexuality to be the shibboleth of
psychoanalysis. With a surprising stubbornness, he
repeats over and over again: ‘and yet the libido is
sexual’. 1 But when we ask for his arguments for this
rather audacious statement, we are for the most part left
without an answer. In fact, in the last resort Freud always
falls back on biochemistry: one day biochemical research
will prove that there are indeed two, and only two,
fundamental drives in human beings: one that tends
towards self-conservation and another one which is
sexual. 2 This preference for a biochemical model of
argument, which in fact might not produce an argument
at all, goes together with a tendency to give a biological
account of the libido. Freud very often seems to speak of
the libido as something that due to internal necessity that is to say, on the basis of biological maturation – goes
through the different stages we are familiar with (oral,
anal, etc.), while the psychological evolution would be
completely dependent on it. This is the idea, one might
say, of a libido that spontaneously wanders from one part
ofthe body to another, until it finally arrives where it was
supposed to arrive from the outset: at the primacy of the
genital zones. 3 And by the same token, Freud sometimes
seems to reduce sexuality to the search for ‘erotic’

pleasure in and through which the excitation of an
erogenous zone is discharged. 4 In other words, sexual
investment would be identical to the search for a
physiologically accessible pleasure that can be reached
through auto-erotic and allo-erotic means. Such a theory
is, of course, in direct contradiction with Freud’s ongoing
attempt to distinguish Instinkt from Trieb, and with the
discovery of the (unconscious) phantasy life that goes
along with it. But even if a ‘biological’ interpretation of
the libido, as I have just described, is hard to reconcile

with some of Freud’s other theoretical positions, and
probably even more so with his practice, the fact remains
that one finds far more than this isolated passage in his
work that suggests such an interpretation.

How can we free ourselves from this ‘biologistic
fallacy’ without at the same time giving up the idea that
the libido, and thus the unconscious, is sexual? The
French psychoanalyst, psychiatrist and philosopher Jean
Laplanche has tried for most of his life to articulate an
answer to this question. s He does so by first developing
the notion of ‘leaning on’ (Anlehnung) as it can be found
in Freud: sexuality emerges as leaning on the instinct of
self-conservation. 6 But over the years the idea of ‘leaning
on’ turned out to be insufficient to free Freud’s theory of
the libido from all the biological connotations already
mentioned. Laplanche then returned to Freud’s early
work – especially the ‘Project’ of 1895 and the ‘Studies
on Hysteria’ – to develop what he calls a general theory
of seduction that would allow for a radical ‘debiologization’ of Freud’s theory of drives and, more
generally, of his metapsychology.7 In what follows I
would like, on the one hand, to reconstruct some of the
essential features of Laplanche’ s theory of a ‘generalized
seduction’, while on the other hand trying to show how
this theory could be philosophically relevant. Indeed,
Laplanche’s theory of seduction allows for a reformulation of the relation between bodily existence,
singularity and subjectivity in a way that is both
philosophically and psychoanalytically relevant. But
before entering into this debate let us first go back to
Laplanche’s theory of a general seduction. The most
appropriate way to introduce this theory and the
problems to which it is meant to provide an answer is
probably via the notion of ‘leaning on’.

Radical Philosophy 73 (SeptlOct 1995)


Freud’s notion of ‘leaning on’

What does Freud’s idea of ‘leaning on’ imply? Freud
uses the notion of ‘leaning on’ in order to show how
sexuality is created or, more correctly, emerges as
essentially dependent on the satisfaction of the instincts
of self-preservation. 8 Initially the sexual drive and the
instincts of self-preservation are intermingled. The
satisfaction of one is intrinsically connected with the
satisfaction of the other. While the child is fed – that is,
when its instincts for self-preservation are satisfied – it
experiences a pleasure that cannot be reduced to a
pleasure exclusively linked with the satisfaction of the
corporeal function – that is, to a pleasure that goes
together with the satisfaction of the need for food as such.

Both pleasures have to be distinguished, since in a second
moment – which is also, according to Freud, the moment
of the genesis of sexuality in the proper sense of the word
– this pleasure is sought for its own sake. Contrary to
what is often said, Freud’s model of infantile sexuality
proper is not the child at the breast of the mother, but
‘thumb-sucking [das Ludeln] ‘9 – which is not primarily a
pleasure that is found in the body of the other (or in the
object), but a pleasure that is found in one’s own body. It
is what Freud calls ‘Organlust’. Hence sexuality emerges
as essentially auto-erotic. The important point, then, is
the following: sexuality emerges not when an adequate
(sexual) object is found, but is a moment of loss of the
object – more precisely, in a moment of loss of the real
object. However, this loss of the real object cannot be
equated with the loss of every object: the becoming autoerotic of the sexual drive is co-originary with the
becoming phantasmatical of sexuality. The real object is
replaced by a phantasy one. And it is noteworthy that the
real object which is lost is not the same as the phantasy
one that replaces it: the lost object is the object that
satisfies the instinct for self-preservation – the milk whereas the phantasy object that replaces it is, on the
contrary, the breast. 10
At first sight this theory seems to allow us to free
Freudian psychoanalysis from the biologistic model
mentioned earlier. Indeed, if sexuality is always already
phantasmatical we can no longer identify sexual interest
with the mere search for erotic pleasure in and through
which the excitation of an erogenous zone is discharged.

But Laplanche argues that, at the same time, and more
importantly, in this model the emergence of the sexual
drive as such remains a process that develops out of itself,
just as was the case in the biologistic model we wanted to
avoid. ll It is true that the notion of ‘leaning on’, as it is
developed in Freud, suggests – but only suggests – that
sexuality emerges in an inter-subjective process: the
other is present in it from the outset. But his or her role


could hardly be more insignificant – it is purely passive.

The other – paradigmatic ally the mother – is thought to
be at the origin of a process that develops completely
independently of him or her. The other only functions as
a catalyst for a process that is essentially self-sufficient.

In this way the very notion of ‘leaning on’ remains,
according to Laplanche, very close to the biologistic
model we wanted to avoid. Indeed, just as in the
biologistic model, the notion of ‘leaning on’ remains
auto- or ipsocentrist in that it describes the evolution as
being only from the inside – that is, the sexual drive
coming from the inside and leaning on or attaching to
self-preservation. 12
More fundamentally, according to Laplanche, the
ipsocentrism just mentioned characterizes all the
fundamental psychic mechanisms – projection,
introjection, repression, foreclosure, etc. – that are
described in psychoanalytic theory. Indeed, for all these
terms one can say that the verb has a subject, the person. 13
This, obviously, is not to say that they are all mechanisms
in the first person, since the verb could be the third
person. As Laplanche points out, it could be ‘I project’ ,
‘I introject’, or ‘Sigmund projects’, ‘Sigmund denies’,
‘Jacques forecloses’ … But even if Freud, and most of his
followers, remained the victim of this ipsocentrism,
which could be regarded as a psychoanalytic variant of
subject-centrism, he at the same time allows for a break
away from it. Indeed, Freud’s texts – at least this is what
Laplanche argues – also make it possible to rethink the
primal mechanisms as coming from the other. Hence,
their subject would no longer be the ‘person’, but the
other. Laplanche claims that it is at this point that Freud’s
early theory (or should we say ‘theories’?) of seduction
shows its relevance.

Primal seduction
As we know, seduction plays a central role in Freud’s
first theory of hysteria. Hysteria is here understood as the
result of an early seduction by the father. There are
several aspects of this theory that deserve our attention
here. For one thing, it is in the context of this theory that
Freud introduces the concept of nachtriiglichkeit. 14 This
idea implies that a trauma never arrives by itself. One
needs at least two ‘traumas’ to produce a traumatic effect.

What does this mean? The following clinical example
might help us to understand Freud’s position. IS In his
‘Project for a Scientific Psychology’ Freud tells the story
of Emma, who, at the age of eight, was the object of a
seduction by the owner of a grocery shop. At the moment
that the seduction occurred it had no immediate traumatic
effect, since Emma didn’t yet possess the proper
intellectual and affective means to interpret this scene as

a sexual one. It is only five years later, on the occasion of
a second traumatic scene, that the first scene gets its
pathogenetic effect. At the age of thirteen she entered a
clothes shop in which she saw two men laughing. She
immediately thought that these two men were laughing
at her clothing and from then on developed a phobia
about this type of shop. The reason, according to Freud,
lies in the fact that the second scene, through a complex
network of associations, was linked to the first one. In
this way the original scene could show up again at the
limits of consciousness. But since Emma had meanwhile
reached puberty, she was now capable of gi ving the first
scene its proper sexual meaning – hence the defensive
reaction. The original scene is repressed through a
displacement of the affect that linked the first scene onto
the second one. So, it is only retroactively – with regard
to a second scene – that the original scene gets its
traumatic effect.

B ut there is another aspect of this theory that deserves
our attention. In his early theory of hysteria, Freud
blames the father for introducing sexuality into the life
of the child. 16 The father confronts the child with a world
of sexual significations he or she is not yet capable of
coping with. Laplanche, however, shows that in some
later texts 17 Freud brings another figure onto the scene:

no longer a perverted father, but a perverted mother (and,
more generally, a perverted adult). And on this occasion
we are apparently no longer talking about a purely factual
and contingent seduction. Rather, this is a structural
seduction from which not only can nobody escape, but
which more fundamentally has to be understood in
relation to the very constitution of sUbjectivity. What
does this mean?

In his New Introductory Lectures, Freud writes:

‘Here, however, the phantasy touches the ground of
reality, for it was really the mother who by her activities

something similar could be said, for example, of anal
and oral erogenesis. Moreover, and more importantly, he
does not take into account the sexuality of the mother.

The mother remains sexually neutral. In the second
quotation, however, Freud seems no longer to be talking
about a physiologically accessible pleasure at the level
of a specific erogenous zone. But he is also more
explicitly speaking about the sexuality of the adult as
such (‘Die Pfiegeperson’, the care-giver, but why would
that necessarily be the mother?21) that is, so to speak,
transferred to the child: ‘thinks of the child with feelings
derived from his or her own sexual life’ . And it is clear
from the outset, even if Freud almost never recognized it
himself, that we cannot understand this transference
without taking into account the adult’s unconscious.

After all, wasn’t it Freud who said that the unconscious
is sexual and the sexual unconscious?22 The issue at stake
here is that the adult world is entirely infiltrated by
unconscious and sexual meanings of which not even the
adult possesses the code. In the context of the quotation
from the Three Essays this would mean not only that

over the child’s bodily hygiene inevitably stimulated, and
perhaps even roused for the first time, pleasurable
sensations in her genitals.’ 18 And in his Three Essays on
the Theory ofSexuality Freud gives a less ‘physiological’

account of the same phenomenon: ‘What is more, the
latter (the care-giver) thinks of the child with feelings
derived from his or her own sexual life, strokes, kisses
and cradles it, and clearly treats it as a substitute for an
actual sexual object. ’19 In both cases Freud seems to be
speaking of a seduction that is less contingent than the
one he previously held responsible for hysteria. But there
are also some striking differences between these two
citations. 20 In the first quotation, Freud fails to generalize
the early seduction by the mother to the whole of sexual
life, since he limits its effectiveness to the birth of
sensations in the genital organ, without recognizing that


‘Die Pfiegeperson’, but let us say the adult in general,
could eventually take the child as ‘ein eYfdgultiges
Sexualobjekt’, but more generally that the adult
inevitably gives to the child verbal, non-verbal and
behavioural signifiers which are pregnant with
unconscious sexual significations. These significations
are unintelligible both to the child, who does not yet
possess the proper intellectual and affective means that
would allow it to understand them properly for what they
are, and for the adult, given their unconscious character.

It is precisely this fundamental situation – in which the
adult inevitably gives to the child sexual meanings whose
code neither party possesses – that Laplanche calls
‘primal seduction’ .23 We shouldn’t avoid thinking of this
in a very concrete way: for example, in the way we wash
a child – and more generally in the way we take care of it
– we are inevitably implicated along with our own
(unconscious) sexuality. Or, to give another example,
when parents embrace each other in the presence of their
child they inevitably confront it with behavioural
signifiers that carry all kinds of meanings that are related
to their sexuality and of which they are not themselves in

Seduction as the truth of
‘leaning on’

We should not think of ‘primal seduction’ as a mere
dismissal of the notion of Anlehnung. 24 On the contrary,
Laplanche argues that seduction is the truth of ‘leaning
on’ and thus cannot be opposed to it. But how is this
possible? If the theory of a generalized seduction implies
that sexuality is in principle introduced from the outside,
how then can seduction be thought of as the truth of
‘leaning on’? Didn’t we say that the notion of ‘leaning
on’ is essentially ‘ipsocentrist’, that is, that it obliges us
to think the emergence of the sexual drive as a process
that develops out of itself and in which the other doesn’t
play a significant role?

In what type of relation do we primarily ‘transfer’

sexual messages to the child?25 It is a commonplace to
say that the adult is supposed to feed, to protect and more
generally to take care of the infans that is fundamentally
‘helpless’ (Freud) in every respect. Modern psychology
has also characterized this relation as one of attachment.

It is quite obvious that this notion of attachment replaces
Freud’s notion of self-preservation, a notion that seems
to imply an all too ‘alimentary’ view of the relation
between parents and children (children and adults). It is
true that one very often has the impression that Freud
reduces self-preservation to the need for food as such as if a child would only need to be fed. Re-formulating
self-preservation to include ‘care’ and ‘attachment’


allows us to include a wide range of different types of
relations that are as necessary in order for the child to
survive psychologically and physically as the mere
satisfaction of biological functions in the strict sense of
the word.

From what we said earlier, it should be clear that it is
in and through this relation of attachment that the child is
confronted with sexual meanings it cannot understand.

Laplanche reminds us in this context that,
etymologically, Veifiihrung 26 refers to the idea of leading
something away from its ‘normal’ goals or from what it
is intrinsicallyY Since the ‘normal’ relation of care
cannot but carry enigmatic sexual messages along with
it, the child is inevitably led away from its relation of
mere ‘attachment’ to the adult. The child attaches itself
to the adult, but in so far as this relation of attachment is
invested with enigmatic sexual meanings it is led away
(always already?) from what it is in itself.

Freud’s original notion of ‘leaning on’ showed us that
sexuality emerges in close dependency – as a
Nebenprodukt, Freud says28 – to the satisfaction of the
instincts of self-preservation. But this original notion
remained very close to the ‘biologistic model’: even if
the other is present in it, he is nothing but a catalyst for a
process that develops completely independently of him.

In Laplanche’s new and more complete model, this is no
longer the case: in so far as sexuality is introduced in the
child in and through the relation of care (that is; ina
relation that aims at the satisfaction of the instincts of
self-preservation), this new and radicalized model is an
intersubjective version of the original theory. Sexuality
no longer just ’emerges’ in the child, but it is rather
introduced into the child from the outside. The
’emergence’ of sexuality can still be considered as a
Nebenprodukt of the satisfaction of the instincts of selfpreservation, but this Nebenprodukt cannot occur
without an active – albeit mostly unconscious – seduction
by the other.

Further remarks on Laplanche’s
theory of ‘primal seduction’

Before commenting any further on this theory of a
‘primal’ seduction, I should stress another aspect of it
that seems important not only for the development of my
own argument, but also for psychoanalytic theory as
such. Laplanche works with a fundamental opposition
between self-preservation and sexuality.29 It is in the
relation of care for the child – that is, according to
Laplanche, in the satisfaction of the instincts of selfpreservation – that sexuality is, as it were, introduced
from the outside as an enigmatic message. In this way
Laplanche can avoid – in contradistinction to Freud in

many of his texts – postulating an anobjectal state at the
origin of the subject. But Freud also stresses over and
over again that the world of the infant is structured in
terms of experience of non-functional pleasure and
displeasure which are intrinsically linked up with his/her
body. On the basis of the model we have just developed
we would say, then, that it is precisely these primordial
experiences of bodily pleasure/displeasure that get linked
up with – if not just ‘loaded’ with – sexual meanings the
child cannot understand. In other words, they get linked
up with a sexual message from the other which, from the
child’s point of view, cannot but appear as an enigma
that relates to his/her body as it is concretely experienced
as a source of pleasure/displeasure. We also understand
now why Laplanche, following Freud,30 calls these
enigmatic messages ‘sexuallpre-sexual’31 – they are
‘sexual’ with respect to the adult, but they are ‘presexual’ with respect to the child, who is not yet in a
position to recognize them as ‘sexual’ .32 It is, then, in this
context, of the utmost importance to realize that this
fundamental situation of ‘primal seduction’ implies a
fundamental passivity on the child’s part: the intrusionthe implantation in the erogenous body – of these
enigmatic signifiers, as Laplanche describes it,
constitutes for the child a situation in which it cannot but
be passive. 33 It is as if it were, at least in the first instance,
delivered over to – if not placed at the mercy of – the
enigmatic signifiers of the other. The relation between
adult and child is in this sense fundamentally an
asymmetrical one.

Freudian terms, the child has to bind these signifiers that is, to .translate or elaborate them in such a way that
they can be integrated into the circuits of meaning. 36
However, this translation can never be complete. Since
neither the child nor the adult possesses the code of the
messages they are confronted with, the translation is
bound to fail. There is always a remainder. Something
inevitably escapes. Laplanche writes: ‘It is the attempt to
link, to symbolize … signifiers, which results both in what
Freud calls the child’s theorization (infantile sexual
theories), and in the partial failure of this symbolization
or theorization, let us say in the repression of an
unmasterable, unencirclable remainder’ .37 This unmasterable remainder could be thought of as a kind of ‘thorn in
the flesh’ of the ego which we continuously try to get rid
of without ever being able to. It is therefore in this second
moment of failure, Laplanche states, that the original
message gets a traumatic effect. Indeed, since the sexual
message of the other cannot be fully integrated into the
circuits of meaning, part of it continues to push from
behind our backs; in other words, it forces the psyche
into a permanent effort of interpretation that it will never
be able to finish or to satisfy completely. As in the
example of Emma, what was introduced in a first moment
from the outside only receives its traumatic value in a
second moment – that is, nachtraglich, at the moment
when it appears to be impossible to integrate it. These
traumatic remainders form the core of the uneonscious.

They are, according to Laplanche, the primordially
repressed. 38

Seduction and subjectivity

Between Heidegger and Lacan?

We considered Laplanche’ s ‘primal seduction’ both
structural and related to the constitution of subjectivity.

But what we have said up to this point only seems to
bring us to a position to claim that this seduction is
inevitable in a purely factual sense. How, then, would it
relate to the constitution of subjectivity? The child is
confronted with enigmatic messages that emanate from
the world of the adult. In a more Lacanian language,34
one could say that it is confronted with de-signified
signifiers – that is, with signifiers that have lost every
determinable signified without by the same token having
lost their power to signify to somebody. 35 They signify to
the child, who at the same time cannot attribute a
signified to them. In doing so, they lay a claim on the
child, as it were – What does it want to say to me? and
even: What does it want from me anyway? – to which it
has to respond. They confront the child with a task of
interpretation: the intrusion of enigmatic signifiers is
experienced as a demand upon the child which produces
a concomitant drive for meaning in the child. Or, in more

But maybe we are losing track. Maybe we are starting to
feel somewhat lost. And I can imagine that some of my
readers, in order to ‘bind’ the Laplanchean signifier as I
have presented it up to now – that is, in order to integrate
it in their circuits of meaning so that they would feel
somewhat less lost – have already started to link it up
with more familiar references such as Lacan and
Heidegger. After all, weren’t we talking about designified signifiers (‘pure’ signifiers?); weren’t we
suggesting that desire arises from the question ‘what does
the other want from me anyway?’ (Che vuoi?);39 and isn’t
there an analogy to be found between the coincidence of
the intimate and the alien that is implied in what
Laplanche calls ‘traumatic signifiers’ (they are both
‘mine’ and unmasterable) and what Lacan calls in his
seminar on the ethics of psychoanalysis’ extimite’ ?40 And
when Laplanche calls the human subject fundamentally
self-theorizing, self-symbolizing and self-interpreting,
can we avoid thinking of Heideggerian Dasein as the
being that poses the question of its own being?41


Laplanche, however, is neither a Lacanian nor a
Heideggerian. But a short confrontation between what
we have said up till now and both Lacanian and
Heideggerian thought can allow us to introduce, albeit in
an all too sketchy way, the problem we have wanted to
deal with from the outset: namely, the relation between
the body, singularity and subjectivity.

It is true that Laplanche seems to be using a Lacanian
language: the unconscious consists of designified
signifiers. But does this also imply that the unconscious
is ‘structured as a language’ and/or that we should think
of the unconscious as intimately related to the symbolic
in the Lacanian sense? It seems not, since Lacan’ s
Symbolic consists of organized signifiers; it is a
language. 42 Laplanche’s enigmatic signifiers, however,
are not organized at all, and on top of that they are
conflictual. There is no principle of unification that would
‘govern’ them in any way whatsoever. It is precisely the
task of the subject to bind – and that also means ‘to
organize’ – them.43 Furthermore, Laplanche refuses to
consider verbal language as being at the foundation of
the unconscious. And, whether one likes it.or not, there
is a strong tendency in Lacan to do so. Such a theoretical
move forces us inevitably to think the unconscious as
something trans-individual, if not ‘collective’ .44 For
Laplanche, however, the unconscious is essentially
individual: your enigmatic signifiers are not mine. Or, to
use a more Heideggerian language, your lethe – after all,
we are talking about a forgetting that cannot be undone is not mine.

This also seems to imply that the reference to Dasein
as the being that poses the question of its own being, and
that is characterized by a fundamental ‘je-mein-igkeit’,
is highly problematic, or should at least be articulated in
a very cautious way.45 It is true that Laplanche calls the
human subject intrinsically auto-theorizing and selfinterpreting. But the ‘autos’ he is talking about are
(remainders of) enigmatic signifiers that come from the
outside (and that couldn’t be integrated). One could think
of these remainders as a kind of archive that is in the
most radical sense ‘my own’ – and thus singularizes me
– and to which we are at the same time for ever denied
access. That which is ‘je mein’ (always mine) is also that
which irrevocably escapes me. If we recall what we said
earlier about the relation between ‘primal seduction’ and
passivity, we seem to be in a position to state that at the
core of subjectivity there is an essential passivity that
can never be completely undone and that at the same
time singularizes us.

Before reaching a (provisional) conclusion, let us try
to go yet one step further, albeit in an even more sketchy
way. In discussing Freud’s theory of Anlehnung, we


explained why the becoming auto-erotical of the sexual
drive is co-originary with the becoming phantasmatical
of sexuality. We also stated that the enigmatic (sexual)
message of the other is intrinsically related to the body as
a source of pleasure/displeasure. Should we not think,
then, of auto-eroticism as an answer to the enigmatic
signifiers of the other? That which stimulates autoeroticism and which makes it exist as phantasmatical is,
according to Laplanche, the intrusion and the subsequent
repression of enigmatic signifiers brought by the adult. 46
It is not at all difficult to give examples of signifiers that
will almost inevitably play a predominant role in these
phantasies. The example of the breast – even if it only
has a prototypical value – is most striking in this respect.

Can we, Laplanche asks over and over again, continue to
neglect the sexual and unconscious investment of the
breast by the mother in psychoanalytic theory?47 Can we
assume that this investment is not ‘felt’ by the infant as
the source of an obscure questioning: what does it want,
apart from feeding me and, after all, why would it want
to feed me at all? It is to this and similar enigmas that
early infantile phantasies try to articulate an answer. This
implies, in the first place, that the auto-theorizing and
self-symbolizing activity of the human subject should not
be understood in too ‘intellectualist’ a manner. It is first
and foremost carried out at the level of phantasy life,
which we know should be understood as intimately
related to bodily existence. And second, if it is true, as
the psychoanalytic tradition claims, that it is in and
through this phantasmatic activity that the erogenous
body-image (as opposed to the physiological body) is
constituted, should we not also say, then, that we are
singularized in terms of precisely this erogenous body?

Or, more precisely, shouldn’t we say that singularization
takes place in and through the constitution of the
erogenous body? Indeed, if the constitution of the
erogenous body has to be understood primarily as an
attempt to ‘bind’ enigmatic signifiers, then it is also in
and through this attempt that ‘something’ is irrevocably
lost, ‘something’ which at the same time singularizes us.

The erogenous body constitutes an always inadequate
answer to the intrusion of enigmatic sexual messages. 48

What can we conclude from all of this with respect to the
status of subjectivity? Or, more concretely, if it is true
that the subject can no longer be anything but a decentred
subject, what does all of this teach us about the very
nature of this decentering? We said that that which is ‘je
mein’ – (the remainders of) enigmatic (sexual/presexual) signifiers – is also that which on the one hand
irrevocably escapes me, while on the other hand forcing

me into a never-ending effort of symbolization. It is, so
to speak, an Other in myself that makes me symbolize
and that is intrinsically linked with our sexual body as
we thematized it. Decentring of the subject doesn’t mean,
then, that the subject has no centre, but that it has a centre
to which it is denied access. 49 This centre is constituted
of (remainders of) the sexual messages of the other that
are essentially enigmatic. And it is not without
importance to realize that since these signifiers are both
non-organized and confiictual, this lost centre cannot be
interpreted as a principle of unification either. The
subject can no longer occupy the position of the centre,
and yet it is in the grip of a centre that fatally attracts it,
or, more precisely, that continuously forces it to
symbolize in a never-ending effort to recuperate what is
irrevocably lost. 50 Precisely because it is irrevocably lost,
this centre ‘(can) more essentially concern (the sUbject)
and make a more intimate appeal (to the subject) than
any other present thing which strikes or concerns (it)’ .51

1. An earlier version of this text was read at the annual
meeting of the Society for Phenomenological and
Existential Philosophy, Seattle, 1994.

2. See S. Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, in
On Sexuality, Pelican Freud Library, Vol. 7,
Harmondsworth, 1977, p. 83.

3. It was Abraham who developed this idea in all its details.

See in this respect, for example, K. Abraham, Versuch
einer Entwicklungsgeschichte der Libido, in K. Abraham,
Psychoanalytischen Studien I, edited by 1. Cremerius,
Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1971.

4. For example, in those passages in which Freud claims that
auto-erotic activity is without an object, be it real or

5. See especially 1. Laplanche, Life and Death in
Psychoanalysis, trans. 1. Mehlmann, lohns Hopkins
University Press, Baltimore, 1976; La sublimation
(Probh~matiques Ill), P.U.F., Paris, 1983; and Le baquet.

Transcendance du transfert (Problematiques V), P.U.F.,
Paris, 1987; New Foundations for Psychoanalysis, trans.

D. Macey, Blackwell, Oxford, 1989; Le fourvoiement
biologisant de la sexualite chez Freud, SyntMlabo (CoIl.

Les empecheurs de penser en rond), Paris, 1993.

6. For Freud, see, among other passages, ‘On Narcissism:

An Introduction’, in On Metapsychology, Pelican Freud
Library, Vol. ll, Harmondsworth, 1984, p. 81; Three
Essays, pp. 98-9. For Laplanche’s comment on these and
similar passages, see especially Life and Death in
Psychoanalysis (the first three chapters) and Le
fourvoiement biologisant, pp. 29ff.

7. The theory of a generalized seduction is already present
very early in the work of Laplanche (see Life and Death in
Psychoanalysis, p. 34). One finds more extensive
developments of this theory in New Foundations, pp.

104ff.; Le fourvoiement biologisant, pp. 60ff.; La
sublimation, pp. 106ff.

10. It is clear from what we have said already that this is the
way in which Laplanche thinks we have to read Freud in
order to make sense of his theories on the essentially
sexual character of the libido. For Freud himself, as
Laplanche is well aware, it was much less obvious that the
becoming auto-erotic of the sexual drive is co-originary
with the becoming phantasmatical of sexuality (see note

11. 1. Laplanche, Le fourvoiement biologisant, pp. 29ff; The
Freud Museum seminar, in 1. Fletcher and M. Stanton,
eds, 1. Laplanche: Seduction, translation, drives, London,
ICA, 1992, pp. 56-7, 60-6l.

12. Ibid” pp. 60-61.

13. Ibid” p. 57.

14. S. Freud, ‘Entwurf einer wissenschaftliche Psychologie’,
in S. Freud, Aus den Anfangen der Psychoanalyse. Briefe
an Wilhelm Fliess – Abhandlungen und Notizen aus den
Jahren 1887-1902, Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main,

15. For what follows, see ibid” pp. 353ff.

16. Ibid” passim. For a detailed study of the formation and
evolution of Freud’s early theory of hysteria, see 1.

Corveleyn, Religieuze themata in de hysterische psychose.

Onderzoek naar de eigenheid van het ziektebeeld in de
literatuur en psychodynamische analyse van een
religieuze waan (in 2 parts), unpublished doctoral
dissertation, K.u. Leuven, 1981, part I, pp. 218-364.

17. See S. Freud, ‘Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His
Childhood’ , in Art and Literature, Pelican Freud Library,
Vol. 14, Harmondsworth, 1985, pp. 151-231; Three
Essays; ‘Femininity’, in New Introductory Lectures on
Psychoanalysis, Pelican Freud Library, Vol. 2,
Harmondsworth, 1973, pp. 145-69.

18. Freud, New Introductory Lectures, p. 154.

19. Freud, Three Essays, p. 120.

20. For what follows, see Laplanche, New Founaations, pp.


21. For a more detailed account of this generalization as it is
found in Freud’s text, see Laplanche, Le fourvoiement
biologisant, pp. 67ff.

22. This was Freud’s leading idea up until the introduction of
the ‘death drive’ in his ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, in
On Metapsychology, pp. 275-338.

23. The issue is rather that the adult world is entirely infiltrated
with unconscious and sexual significations, of which the
adult too does not possess the code. And, on the other
hand, there is the issue that the infant possesses neither the
emotional nor the physiological responses which
correspond to the sexualized messages that are proposed
to it; in short, its means to establish a substitute or
provisional code are fundamentally inadequate (1.

Laplanche, ‘The Drive and its Object-source. Its Fate in
the Transference’, in Fletcher and Stanton, eds, Jean
Laplanche, p. 188.

24. ‘My formulation will therefore be: the only truth of
“leaning on” is primal seduction’ (ibid., p. 190); cf. also
‘The theory of seduction is even more important than that
of “leaning on”, or it supplies the truth of the notion of
leaning on, so to speak’ (1. Laplanche, La sublimation,

25. For what follows, see also Laplanche, Le fourvoiement
biologisant, pp. 67ff.

8. ‘The sexual drives first lean on the ego drives, and only
make themselves independent of them later on’ (‘On
Narcissism’, pp. 80-81 (trans. altered).

26. Freud uses the word to characterize the relation of
Leonardo to his mother, which was supposed to be
completely impregnated with (mostly unconscious) sexual
meanings; see Freud, ‘Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory
of His Childhood’, p. 209.

9. Freud, Three Essays, p. 95.

27. Laplanche, La sublimation, p. 87.


28. Freud, Three Essays, p. 98.

42. 1. Laplanche, ‘The ICA Seminar: New Foundations for
Psychoanalysis?’, in Fletcher and Stanton, eds, Jean
Laplanche, pp. 75ff.

43. Cf. ‘The unconscious is an unstructured “like-a-language”
… a “like-a-Ianguage” which is no longer that which it
resembles’ (New Foundations, p. 53).

44. For our comparison with Lacan we follow mainly
Laplanche’s own statements on his relation to Lacan. It is
true, however, that the introduction of the notion of
‘lalangue’, as opposed to ‘la langue’ (the object of
linguistics), might make the contrast between Lacan and
Laplanche less sharp than is suggested here. Cf. 1. Lacan,
Encore, Seuil, Paris, 1975, passim.

45. For what follows, see Laplanche, ‘The ICA Seminar’ , pp.


46. It is because the adult’s gestures directed at the child’s
preservation carry unconscious sexual messages (i.e.

unconscious for them), which in turn cannot be mastered
by the child, that such gestures produce the movement of
cleaving and drifting (derive) that eventually ends up in
auto-erotic activity. Thus, the obligatory vehicle of autoeroticism, that is, what stimulates it and makes it exist, is
the intrusion of enigmatic signifiers brought by the adult,
then their subsequent repression (Laplanche, ‘The Drive
and its Object-source’, p. 190).

47. Laplanche, Le fourvoiement biologisant, p. 78; New
Foundations, p. 126.

48. From this it is clear why our bodily existence always
remains something mysterious, and/or why we can ~er
be completely ‘at home’ in our bodies.

29. ‘We oppose self-preservatory functions to sexuality’ (1.

Laplanche, ‘The Drive and Its Object-source’, p. 187.

30. Freud, Letter 30, inAus den Anfangen der Psychoanalyse,
p. 113.

31. See Laplanche, New Foundations, p. 112; Le baquet
Transcendance du transfert, p. 238.

32. 1. Laplanche, ‘Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality’, in
Victor B urgin, lames Donald and Cora Kaplan, eds,
Formations of Fantasy, Methuen, London and New York,
1986, p. 9.

33. Laplanche, New Foundations, p. 106.

34. For Laplanche’ s relation to Lacan, see 1. Laplanche and S.

Leclaire, ‘The Unconscious: A Psychoanalytic Study’,
Yale French Studies, 48, 1972. (cf. 1. Laplanche,
L’inconscient et la (-‘a (Probh~matiques IV), Paris, 1981,
pp. 261-321). Cf. also 1. Fletcher, ‘The Letter in the
Unconscious. The Enigmatic Signifier in the Work of lean
Laplanche’, in Fletcher and Stanton, eds, Jean Laplanche,
pp. 93-120.

35. Laplanche, New Foundations, p. 44.

36. Freud, ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, pp. 285-7.

37. Laplanche, ‘The Drive and Its Object-source’, p. 191.

38. Laplanche, New Foundations, pp. 133-9. One also finds
there a more detailed account of the process of
symbolization just referred to. Cf. Laplanche and Leclaire,
‘The Unconscious’.

39. 1. Lacan, tcrits: A Selection, Tavistock, London, 1977, p.

313; 1. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of
Psychoanalysis, trans. A. Sheridan, Penguin,
Harmondsworth, 1979, p. 214.

49. Cf. R. Visker, ‘Fascination with Foucault. Object and
Desire of an Archeology of Our Knowledge’, in Angelaki
3,1994, p.51.

40. 1. Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoan~lysis, trans. Dennis
Potter, Tavistock and Routledge, London, 1992, p. 139.

50. Ibid” p. 51.

51. M. Heidegger, Vortrage und Aufsatze, Neske Verlag,
Pflillingen, 1985, p. 129 (quoted in Visker, ‘Fascination
with Foucault’ , p. 51).

41. M. Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. 10hn Macquarrie
and Edward Robinson, Blackwell, Oxford, 1962, p. 27.

Science as Culture
SaC 22 (1995) ‘Science on Display’ includes:

Making nature ‘real’ again (Steven Allison)
Supermarket science? (Sharon Macdonald)
Realism in representing race (Tracy Teslow)
Nations on display at Expo ’92 (Penelope Harvey)

SaC 21 (1995) includes:

Demolition derby as destruction ritual (Stephen C. Zehr)
Electronic curb cuts and disability (David Hakken)
Te(k)nowledge & the student/subject (James McDonald)
The zoo: theatre of the animals (Scott L. Montgoery)
Subscriptions: £25/$30 individual £50/$65 institutional
from: WorldWide Sub Service, Unit 4, Gibbs Reed Farm Ticehurst, East Sussex TN5 7HE

Tel: 0580200657;
in North America: Guildford Publications, 72 Spring Street, New York, NY 10012
Tel: 212 431 8900
Editorial: Process Press, 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ


Download the PDFBuy the latest issue