The Oedipus Complex

Lacan, like Freud, believed that individuals are socialized by passing through the three stages of the Oedipus complex: seduction, the "primal scene," and the castration phase, the last of which Lacan reconfigured as the "Father's 'No'." In the so-called seduction phase, the child is attracted to the original object of desire, which is the body of the mother. In the "primal scene" or "primal stage" the child witnesses the father having sexual intercourse with the mother, and this is followed by the "castration phase," wherein the father restricts the child's access to the mother under threat of castration. The "Law of the Father" or "Father's 'No'" causes the child to redirect desire from the mother to what Lacan calls the "Other"—a hypothetical "place" in the unconscious which allows the individual to later project desire onto other persons—other, that is, than the mother.

Lacan holds that there are three "registers" in the child's psychosexual development: the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real. These correspond— somewhat—to the Freudian oral, anal, and genital stages and are related, indirectly, to the three stages of the Oedipus complex.

At the level of the imaginary, the pre-Oedipal infant inhabits a world without clear subject-object distinctions. The child thinks that it is coextensive with the mother's body. While the child perceives the mother's body as nurturing and pleasurable, it also entertains fantasies that the mother's body might overwhelm and destroy it. This yields alternating fantasies of incorporation and assault, whereby the child is both blissful in its identification with the body of the mother and frightfully aggressive toward it. At this stage in its development, the child inhabits a world of images. The mirror stage is the most important moment of imaginary misidentification, or méconnaissance.

It is the father who disrupts the closed dyadic relationship between mother and child, according to Lacan. The father signifies what Lacan calls "the Law" or the "Law of the Father," which is always, in the first instance, the incest taboo. The child's intensely libidinal relationship with its mother's body is opened to the wider world of family and society by the figure of the father. The father's appearance divides the child from the mother's body and drives the child's desire for its mother into the unconscious. Therefore "the Law" and unconscious desire for the mother emerge at the same time, according to Lacanian psychoanalysis.

The child's experience of the father's presence is also its first experience of sexual difference, and with it comes the dim awareness that there is someone else other than the mother in its world. The "Father's 'No'" deflects the child's desire from the mother to what Lacan calls the "Other." Lacan identified the "Other" as a hypothetical place in the unconscious which can be projected onto human counterparts by subjects. Lacan held that the "Other" is never fully grasped because the nature of desire is such that its object is always beyond its reach.

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