The Thing called Nothing

After the discussion of the subject, let us take a look at the object side using the Lacanian triad of need, demand, and desire. First, we have a starting point of natural needs. The subject (in the sense of a person) needs objects in reality to satisfy its needs. If one is hungry, one needs food. When this natural need is articulated in language, however, it becomes a demand. In a demand, the natural and real object of need is already negated in two senses: 1) the word, the signifier we use signifies the absence of the real object. 2) As soon as we speak our demands, it is mediated by language and becomes a message addressed to the other. The other who can satisfy our needs (i.e., the caretaker) is presupposed. The demand aims not only at the object which satisfies our needs, but also at the other’s love. When the other complies with my call, the object does not merely satisfy my natural need, but more importantly, testifies the other’s love, as Lacan notes that “the demand sublates the particularity of everything that can be granted by transmuting it into a proof of love”.1 The problem is that this surplus dimension that language creates is never fully satisfiable. Whenever the subject obtains the object of demand, the difference between the natural object and love is opened up: encore! This introduces the third element, desire. Lacan argues that “desire is neither the appetite for satisfaction, nor the demand for love, but the difference that results from the subtraction of the first from the second”.2 Desire is what is left over after the need articled in demand is satisfied. To some extent, we can say desire is the kernel that is never satisfied. To desire is to be desirous, to continue desiring, in other words, the desire to desire. How is desire actualized in our daily lives? The answer is through objet a, the object-cause of desire, an object that exists merely to embody the void of desire.

Take anorexia for example. The anorexic subject refuses to eat (negation of needs). On the dimension of demand, the very gesture of not eating is already a message addressed to the other: the demand for the other’s love. In terms of desire, the subject eats Nothing itself, does it not? The desire not to eat is directly aiming at the unfathomable surplus, the mysterious Nothing. Another example would be the figure of the Lady in courtly love. The Lady is always described to be the cold, cruel, inhuman, and inaccessible partner. In Freudian formulation, the psychical value of an object is heightened when there are obstacles that prevent us from obtaining full satisfaction. The more inaccessible something is, the more libido we invest in it. Courtly love seems to be a strategy for elevating the value of the object by postponing the fulfillment of love.

However, if we take into account the impossible feature of desire, a more fundamental question appears: is this love possible in the first place? Lacan remarks the courtly love as “a highly refined way of making up for the absence of the sexual relationship, by feigning that we are the ones who erect an obstacle thereto”.3 This indicates that we not only may set up obstacles to heighten the value of the object, but also to create an illusion that, without such obstacles, the object of desire would be accessible. (Recall Strait is the Gate by André Gide, in which Jerome experiences the trauma of his aunt’s sexual desire, and chooses his cousin Alissa as the object of his love. This incestuous love is of course forbidden and he mostly only writes to Alissa instead of actually living together with her. We can see how Jerome creates hindrances to love to cover up the impossible nature of the sexual relationship for him caused by his childhood trauma.) Objet a functions as a placeholder to fill in the original void of our desire, rendering our desire possible. In other words, objet a is a representation of the lack of object for the faculty of desire.

What is the philosophical conclusion that we can draw from this articulation of the desire for nothing? First, I consider this desire of nothing, far from being nihilism, as a positive force. The objet a signifies, instead of the satisfaction and thus the disappearance of desire, the sustaining of desire for the sake of desire. To put it in Nietzschean terms, this desire for nothing is precisely a will to will. (We can observe also great proximity between the will to nothingness and the will to will in Nietzsche’s writings.) Secondly, it is precisely because nothing is derived of any material determination that this desire becomes an all-embracing wrapper for all other desires in the normal sense.

That being said, because desire is a relation with the subject, I locate the primacy in the subject instead of the thing. The subject of apperception is responsible for the creation of the Thing. Take the fantasy of the shining truth for example. The image of truth which can be too much for us to know, at which we should not look directly, is exactly a concealment of the absence of truth. In Blade Runner, the truth is not the fact that the protagonist is one of the replicants, which still presupposes that a proper identity for the subject is possible and implies that only if the protagonist was human he would not go through this anxiety, but the concealed truth that no subject has its place pre-inscribed in the symbolic order. The protagonist’s very anxiety about whether he is human or not deprives him of any positive, substantial content and consequently makes him human.

  1. Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, 286.↩︎
  2. Ibid., 287.↩︎
  3. Lacan, On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge, 69.↩︎