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Int J Psychoanal 2006;87:1049–58

A review of Lacan’s seminar on anxiety 1


48 bd Beaumarchais, F-75011 Paris, France — (Final version accepted 20 December 2005)

The seminar on anxiety marks a turning point in the development of Lacan’s thought from several perspectives. First, Lacan implicitly abandons his theory that the unconscious is structured like a language. He also abandons the endeavour to identify Freud’s theory with his own. He develops some original new ideas about anxiety, some of which are of great interest, such as the connection between castration anxiety and narcissism; others, such as his denial of the existence of separation anxiety, are absurd. Lacan’s main point of divergence from Freud, his rejection of the inner world, also emerges clearly in this seminar.

Keywords: anxiety, object a, jouissance, separation anxiety, intrusion anxiety, affect

The seminar on anxiety (Lacan, 2004) was held during the academic year 1962–3. In 1953, Lacan had produced a fiercely polemical manifesto, arguing that the leaders of the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA)—Hartmann, Kris and Loewenstein—had misrepresented Freud’s thought and that his own original ideas concerning a structural identity between psychoanalysis, linguistics and anthropology constituted a return to genuine Freudian thinking, hitherto misunder- stood through hasty readings and faulty translations. In this manifesto, he also put forward the justification for his most controversial innovation, the practice of short sessions of varying length. A schism had emerged at this time within the Société Psychanalytique de Paris (SPP) and Lacan had become the leader of a new group, the Société Française de Psychanalyse (SFP), which had requested admission to the IPA. The year before this seminar, in August 1961, the SFP had been accepted as a Study Group, and active international negotiations were being conducted for its admission as an IPA component society at the 1963 Congress. The main obstacle to this reinstatement was the practice of short sessions, which Lacan saw no reason to abandon. This is why only a part of the SFP rejoined the IPA in 1963 under the name Association Psychanalytique de France, while Lacan then created a new group, outside the IPA, the École Freudienne de Paris. This diplomatic context may explain why this seminar was written in a less polemical tone than the previous ones. It seems to me, however, that Lacan’s personal development had led him to accept the originality of his own ideas in relation to those of Freud, and that he therefore felt less of a need to demonstrate in polemical fashion that he was the only genuine ‘Freudian’.



The end of the ‘return to Freud’

In fact, it is interesting to note that in this seminar, instead of striving to demonstrate at all costs, as he had done previously—not without some difficulty—that his ideas concurred perfectly with those of Freud, Lacan now identifies many ‘vacillations in Freud’s doctrine’ (2004, p. 377). He clearly sets out where he disagrees with it, so that the reader can decide more easily on which points he has to choose between Freud and Lacan, and on which points Lacan’s contributions usefully amplify psychoanalytic theory. The divergences primarily relate to the theory of anxiety as it is developed in Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety (Freud, 1926) (Lacan, 2004, p. 18). For Lacan, the signal of anxiety is not in the ego but ‘in the ideal ego’ (p. 138); birth anxiety is not phylogenetic, and he finds the notion of ‘ancestral fear’ absurd (p. 74). The child’s separation anxiety relates not to the mother but to the embryonic envelopes (pp. 142–3), and the idea of the ‘bedrock’ of castration that Freud put forward in ‘Analysis terminable and interminable’ (1937, p. 252) needs to be transformed (Lacan, 2004, pp. 58, 161). Freud did not understand very much about the uncanny (p. 60). Freud’s theories of masochism (p. 125) and mourning are inadequate (p. 132): it is not enough to say that mourning is an identification with the lost object. ‘We are only in mourning for someone of whom we can say I was his lack’ (p. 166). In ‘The psychogenesis of a case of homosexuality in a woman’ (1920a), Freud is undoubtedly right to state that the young homosexual woman’s scandalous behaviour conceals the unconscious wish to receive a child from her father: but it is the phallus more than a child that she wants from her father (Lacan, 2004, p. 145). In general, Freud overlooked the question of femininity (p. 152). However, beyond femininity, it is Freud’s entire theory of the inner world that needs to be challenged (p. 328). Freud also missed the essential point in Totem and taboo (1913): the important issue is circumcision (Lacan, 2004, p. 239). The concept of the automatism of repetition is questionable: why should repetition be automatic? We repeat in order to awaken the memory of God (p. 290). Freud is also wrong to see the Wolf Man’s defaecation during the primal scene as a ‘sacrifice’. In fact, it is a ‘passage to the act’ in the Lacanian sense (p. 301). With this departure from Freud, Lacan relegates an essential part of his programme in the ‘Rome discourse’ (1956). In the discourse, delivered in 1953, he sought to demonstrate that psychoanalysis was the same as linguistic analysis. In 1962–3, Lacan may still have thought that ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’ but this ceased to be his watchword. Perhaps because he no longer has to demonstrate his orthodoxy, here Lacan has stopped forcing himself to distort Freud’s concepts in order to make them accord with his own.


Affect was particularly ill suited to the above operation, and it had therefore disap- peared from Lacanian theory altogether, as Green (1999) has pointed out. Questioned on television about Green’s criticism that he had neglected the question of affect, Lacan (1990) replied that he had discussed it in his seminar on anxiety (2004). In fact, the question is dismissed at the very beginning of the seminar (21 November 1962,



p. 29), in which Lacan, commenting on an article by Rapaport (1953), condemns ‘affect’ as a blanket psychological term that has no place in psychoanalytic theory. He goes on to demonstrate this throughout the seminar by gradually drawing up a two-dimensional picture in which the words from the title Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety (Freud, 1926) intersect, along with certain affects such as concern, serious- ness and expectation (p. 12). In the course of the year, this picture is filled in from one session to the next. The final result is enigmatic (pp. 93, 131; see Table 1).

Table 1






Passage to the act


Acting out


Something that appears nonsensical in a Lacanian text can always testify to the reader’s intellectual incapacities. However, it can also indicate that Lacan regards the problem posed as meaningless. Lacan did not change his views on the question of affect: you can invent as many affects as you like, and interconnecting them is even less worthwhile than Freud (1926), an essential reference point for American analysts and the main target of Lacan’s critique. There is only one affect that interests Lacan: anxiety.


Anxiety about returning to the mother’s breast

This seminar is very unusual in containing two excerpts from Lacan’s own clinical practice. One is a clinical extract (Lacan, 2004, p. 219) and the other is the following fantasy. Lacan imagined himself, wearing a mask, facing a huge female praying mantis, not knowing whether she thinks he is male or female because he cannot see himself in her gaze (p. 14). What does she want from him? (Che vuoi?) The fantasy of returning to the maternal breast, which for others is the ultimate image of happiness, is for Lacan the primary source of every form of anxiety (p. 215). ‘What causes anxiety is everything that tells us or enables us to see that we are going to go back to her lap’ (p. 67). This type of anxiety plays an important role in the psychopathology of romantic love, in which a subject, having obtained the favourable response that he desired from the loved object, suddenly draws back, wondering what the other person is going to do to him, illustrating ‘the essential relationship of anxiety to the desire of the Other’: ‘What does he/she want from me?’(p. 14). It also appears almost constantly in the impulse by which adolescents free themselves of their maternal objects. The fear that excessive maternal concern will lead to the elimination of the subject’s desire is primordial for Lacan: ‘What is most anxiety provoking for the child is precisely when the relation on which he founds himself, from the lack that produces desire, is disturbed, and it is most disturbed when there is no possibility of lack, when the mother is on his back all the time, specially to wipe his bottom, as a model of the demand, of the demand that could never falter’ (p. 67).



It was also by giving a central position to this type of anxiety that Jean Laplanche, a student of Lacan who broke with him at an early stage, went on to develop his own theory of ‘enigmatic signifiers’: what does this breast that is approaching me want from me?

Castration anxiety

Secondary to this anxiety about returning to the mother’s breast is castration anxiety, which Lacan describes as a total ‘captivation’ by the mirror image (p. 19). The only form of resistance to this threat of absorption is the autoerotic cathexis of the phallus, which constitutes a ‘libidinal reserve’ (p. 57) for the subject. This ‘results’ in a ‘break in the specular image’, which forms the basis for Lacan’s theory of the castration fantasy. The only thing that protects the subject from his desire to be absorbed by Other’s mirror image is a massive phallic cathexis. In this theory, the castration fantasy is no longer an infantile sexual theory that results from the confrontation of the subject’s sexual desires with the reality of sexual difference, as with Freud, but relates solely to narcissism and to a conception of narcissism that is itself highly specific, based on the relation to the mirror image. Besides, Lacan also accepts in more classical terms that castration anxiety is therefore connected with the perception of sexual differ- ence, which he expresses in his terminology by stating that it arises when the phallic lack appears in the place of the object of desire (p. 53). The idea that a ‘libidinal reserve’ is constituted at the threshold of a love relationship that appears to satisfy all the subject’s desires provides a good account of some paradoxical behaviours, such as the sexual adventures that certain subjects embark on with despised figures just before a marriage to a loved object. Lacan’s concept therefore constitutes a useful supplement to Freud’s theory.

Separation anxiety

In contradiction to common experience, on several occasions Lacan denies the reality of separation anxiety. Many witnesses have described Lacan’s distress when one of his patients, infuriated, put an end to the treatment. He was very well aware of the anxiety provoked by loss of the object. Notwithstanding this, Lacan asserts several times that it is not the absence but the presence of the mother’s breast (p. 66) or of the object in general (p. 67) that causes anxiety. He turns Freud’s demonstra- tion in Beyond the pleasure principle (1920b) on its head: if the child throws the bobbin away, this is not in order to master its disappearance but to remove a source of anxiety (Lacan, 2004, p. 80)! As it is nevertheless very difficult to argue that there is no such thing as separation anxiety, Lacan concedes that the child experiences an anxiety about separation—not from the mother but from the embryonic envelopes! These envelopes are still only parts of the child, detachable from him, just like the breast. It is therefore not the child who is sucking the breast; it is the breast and the placenta that are sucking the mother’s body (pp. 195, 337).

Birth anxiety

For Lacan, it is this anxiety about separation from the embryonic envelopes that accounts for birth anxiety, and not, as Freud believes, some form of phylogenetic



reproduction (p. 142). Moreover, the anatomical model of the relations between the placenta and the foetus is fairly similar to one of the geometrical shapes that represent for Lacan the new topography of the psychic space that he has invented, namely the cross-cap (p. 143). However, birth anxiety is predominantly an anxiety about intrusion (air into the lungs) and not an anxiety about leaving the maternal environment (pp. 377–8).

Signal anxiety

Signal anxiety therefore does not alert to ‘the alleged loss of the penis’ or reproduce a supposed phylogenetic event; it is only ‘the signal … of the failure of support that comes from lack’ to protect the subject from ‘returning to the lap’, that is losing himself completely in the specular image. Freud was mistaken. There is no ‘internal danger’ but only an anxiety about the Other: ‘Although the ego is the site of the signal, it is not for the ego that the signal is given’. The signal warns the ego that the Other desires it and is therefore seeking to ‘annihilate it’ (p. 179).


Why is the ego at risk of being ‘annihilated’ by the desire of the Other? First, as we have seen, because it can be absorbed entirely by the specular image that the Other represents for him, like Narcissus in the myth; second, because even if the subject has secured this absorption for himself through castration anxiety, he is exposed to a second, yet more formidable, danger. A child being held by his mother in the mirror does not only see his own image and that of his mother, by which he wants to be absorbed. He also sees that he is not adequate to satisfy his mother, and that there is something that exists other than him, which she does not have and which arouses her desire: the father’s phallus. This phallus appears solely as that which is lacking in the Other, and therefore only as castrated, which Lacan denotes φ (pp. 53, 197). Although making oneself the object of the mother’s desire is always hazardous, there is a more certain means of attaching the Other to oneself, which is to make oneself the ‘cause’ of her desire, by identifying with this castrated phallus. This is what Lacan means by becoming the object of the Other’s jouissance. In the castration fantasy, although the subject loses a valuable component of his specular image, he may also acquire an identification with a faecalized, fallen and deposed object, which will be certain to provoke the Other’s jouissance. It appears at first that in describing jouissance, Lacan is merely emphasizing the role of the Other in that which Freud has long since described using the term ‘moral masochism’. The existence of moral masochism is Freud’s main clinical argument in support of the death drive (1924). Without taking an explicit standpoint on the question of the death drive, Lacan also situates that which he calls jouissance ‘beyond the pleasure principle’ (2004, pp. 148, 213). In this sense, jouissance is radically different from orgasm, and the ‘small amount of satisfaction’ that it brings (p. 303). It is well known that neurotics unconsciously enjoy their symptoms and therefore that ‘the symptom is jouissance’ (p. 148). We did not need to wait for Lacan to describe couples, or parent–child relationships, in which a subject prefers to be



the faecalized object of the partner’s jouissance than to find pleasure in a mutual relationship. We are probably more indebted to Lacan for having demonstrated that if the analyst reveals to the patient his desire to cure or to teach him, he simultane- ously indicates to him how to make himself the object of his jouissance, by staying ill or remaining stricken by intellectual inhibition.

The object a

The most certain way of becoming the object of the Other’s desire is therefore to make oneself the cause of his jouissance by becoming his part object. However, Lacan rejects the term ‘part object’ because Freud (1926) regards the various part objects as objects from which it is possible to separate, and Lacan will brook no reference to separation anxiety. The breast, the phallus, the ‘scybalum’ and the child—Freud’s part objects (1926)—are what Lacan terms ‘objects a’. However, Lacan describes many others, such as the foreskin in circumcision (2004, p. 247), the eye (p. 276), the voice (p. 342), the superego (p. 341) and even Jesus Christ, who makes himself an object a in the Passion, as a ‘residue, fallen object’, for the Other, God (p. 192). The object a causes anxiety not because it might be lost but because it might have to be shared (pp. 53, 107). It is never a case of an object being lost by the subject, but objects ‘lacking in the Other’ (p. 337). The object a is not the object of the subject’s desire but its cause (p. 323). The object a is that which eludes specularization and signifiantisation (p. 204). The object a is itself the representative of a ‘thing’ that is unnameable and unrepresentable for the Other (p. 148). This is reminiscent of those subjects who, constantly behaving abjectly towards those close to them, restore to life before their eyes objects that have been lost to the previous generation in conditions that cannot be represented in any other way.


This theory of jouissance and the object gives rise to a disillusioned view of love, since there is no better means of making oneself loved than to become a castrated phallus and thus to be for the Other that which one does not have oneself (p. 139):

the formula ‘love is giving what you do not have’ (p. 128) is the new watchword which, in this seminar, replaces ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’.

The rejection of interiority

The object a initially appears as that which resists assimilation by the Other, and therefore as the guarantor of the separation between ego and non-ego (p. 121). However, the space in which the psychic events described by Lacan occur is not well adapted to the internal/external distinction (pp. 290, 328). There is no ‘internal danger’ and ‘the neurological apparatus has no interior’ (p. 179). For the model that Freud proposes in The ego and the id (1923), in which the psychic apparatus, with ego, id and superego, confronts the external world, Lacan



substitutes various models without interior or exterior, such as Klein’s bottle (p. 238) or the Möbius strip, which has only one surface, so that by following it from one end to the other you move from one side to the other without crossing it (p. 116). To move from one side of the Möbius strip to the other, you have to make a hole in it:

the hole is the object a. However, this hole cannot be symbolized (p. 161). Like the object a, the Möbius strip therefore has no specular image (p. 110). Conversely, the object a has the shape of the Möbius strip. The cross-cap (pp. 13, 51, 113, 115, 143) is another topographical model that has both an exterior and an interior but in section it is the shape of an ‘inner eight’, which resembles the Möbius strip (p. 115). Topographical shapes like the cross- cap exist in nature (p. 377). For example, embryonic envelopes have this structure (p. 143). This explains Lacan’s enduring interest in embryonic envelopes and the placenta (pp. 142–3, 195, 267).

Passage to the act and acting out

French analysts used to translate the term ‘acting out’ by passage à l’acte (literally, ‘passage to the act’). Lacan draws a distinction between passage to the act and acting out (pp. 93, 135, 372). Passage to the act is the leap into the void ‘at the moment of conjunction between desire and the law’ (p. 130); i.e. the identification with an object a and the simultaneous condemnation of this identification by the subject whose desire was in fact thought to be provoked by this identification (p. 131). The object a is that which is dropped (p. 136). Lacan gives the example (p. 145) of the young homosexual woman seen in consultation by Freud (1920a), who had thrown herself off a bridge after being seen by her father in the company of the woman she loved. In the passage to the act, the subject leaves the scene (p. 136). In acting out, however, the subject remains on the scene. We might suppose the ‘scene’ to be the psychic scene or the scene of the transference, in which case acting out would be an act that could be interpreted. However, Lacan gives it a broader definition. The scene is the scene of the Other, which exists in every relationship between two people. It stands in contrast to ‘the world’. The world is ‘the place in which the real occurs’ (p. 137). When Freud’s homosexual woman throws herself on the tracks, this is a ‘passage to the act’ because the judgement read in her father’s gaze removes her from her position as cause of his desire. When she has an affair with ‘the Lady’, this is acting out because nothing that occurs between her and the lady has dislodged her from this position as subject. Similarly, in the Dora case (Freud, 1905), when Dora slaps Mr K, this is a passage to the act, because Mr K’s declaration, ‘You know I get nothing out of my wife’ (p. 98), has dislodged her from her position as cause of desire for the two members of the couple. When she has had a love story with Mr and Mrs K, this is acting out, because nothing that has occurred has deprived her of this position.


Lacan takes a firm stance against Freud’s theory of penis envy in women (pp. 152, 211, 214). He draws (without naming it) on Andreas-Salomé’s theory of



the location of the vagina in the anus (1916) to deny the existence of ‘alleged vaginal jouissance’ on the grounds that the vagina is insensitive (Lacan, 2004, p. 307). Here, jouissance has to be understood in the ‘orgasmic’ sense. However, if we distinguish jouissance from orgasm, the female orgasm occurs at ‘a fairly primitive point and is therefore older than the existing compartmentalization of the cloaca’ (p. 307). It is therefore easier for women than men to put themselves in the position of the object a for the Other. They have a simpler relationship to the desire of the Other (p. 214) and a better understanding than men of ‘the relationship of desire to jouissance’ (p. 208). This means that female analysts have an easier access to their countertransference and it is therefore no surprise that it should be mainly women who have written on this subject (pp. 208, 214). Unlike men, women are not afraid of losing their phallus (p. 214) since ‘they don’t have it’ (p. 233), but they are afraid of provoking castration anxiety in men (p. 58; see also Cournut-Janin and Cournut, 1993). The woman’s object a is the ‘lost member of Osiris’ or the sacred heart of Marie Alacoque, or alternatively the priest’s penis for the woman who loves priests. Don Juan is a female fantasy, that of an uncastratable man (p. 233). Adopting the more traditional hypothesis of the woman as phallus, Lacan writes that the woman presents herself as a ‘non-detumescent’ phallus (p. 308).

The analytic process

The analytic process consists in the successive abandonment of every form of identification with the object a of the Other: ‘It is to the extent to which you leave the demand unanswered that there arises … what?’ Not aggression followed by regression, but a

re-examination of that which aggression intrinsically seeks out, namely the relation to the specular image. It is the extent to which the subject exhausts his passions on this image that determines the emergence of this series of demands, leading to an ever more original demand, in historical terms, and that regression as such is modulated. (p. 65)

There is no ‘genetic reconstruction’ but there is a reinterpretation of the ‘bedrock of castration’: ‘In fact, it is to the extent to which all the forms of the demand are exhausted to their term, to the end of the line, until the zero demand, that we see the relation of castration emerge’.


Lacan always deploys paradoxical formulations that have a shock effect and pose a challenge to received ideas. They occur particularly frequently in his seminar on anxiety. For example:

It is not castration from which the neurotic draws back; it is making of his castration that which the Other lacks [p. 58]. Do you not realize that it is not the nostalgia for the maternal breast that engenders anxiety, but its imminence? [p. 66]. The security of presence is the possibility of absence [p. 67]. It is not a question of loss of the object but its presence; objects are not missed [p. 67].



What is the relation of desire to the law? Answer: It is the same thing. Desire is the law [p. 97]. The castration of the complex is not a castration [pp. 113, 125]. After all, the mother herself is not the most desirable object [p. 125]. Anxiety is the signal of the real [p. 188]. The object of male desire is the absence of the phallus [pp. 215, 231]. Metaphor does not oppose the intrinsic meaning to the represented meaning [p. 250]. Of all the forms of anxiety, orgasm is the only one that really ends [p. 275]. The phallus constitutes castration itself [p. 308].

These pervasive shock formulae often form the introduction to an interesting new idea. Sometimes, they are rank absurdities, such as the idea that the mother is not desirable to the child. Their abundance ultimately leaves the reader with a sense of having read them somewhere before. They are reminiscent of the Newspeak watch- words from the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984 (1954, p. 7), which were themselves inspired by communist slogans such as ‘the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat’:


This is not a new comparison. The abrupt alternations between seduction and threat that characterize Lacan’s oratorical style in his seminar, in which his patients partici- pated, have often been compared with the police technique of ‘brainwashing’. Lacan knows this and replies to it—in Newspeak. It is extremely good for a psychoanalyst to wash his brain—of his erroneous ideas:

Therefore, what I am evoking for you here is not metaphysics. It is rather a form of brainwashing. This is a term that I had allowed myself to use a few years before it was done any injury by current events. What I mean by this is a method of teaching you how to recognize that which appears in your experience in its correct position … I may sometimes have been criticized for the presence of some of my analysands in my seminars. After all, the legitimacy of this coexistence of these two relationships with me— listening to me and having me listen to you—can only be judged from the inside … As I said, brainwashing … (2004, p. 85)

There could be no better way of expressing it.

Translations of summary

Eine Neubetrachtung von Lacans Seminar über Angst. Das Seminar über Angst markiert in verschiedenerlei Hinsicht einen Wendepunkt in der Entwicklung von Lacans Denken. Erstens rückt Lacan implizit von seiner Theorie ab, dass das Unbewusste wie eine Sprache strukturiert sei. Er verzichtet auch auf den Versuch, Freuds Theorie mit seiner eigenen in eins zu setzen. Er entwickelt neue, originelle Ideen über die Angst, die zum Teil, wie beispielsweise die Verbindung zwischen Kastrationsangst und Narzissmus, außerordentlich wichtig sind; andere, etwa seine Verleugnung der Existenz von Trennungsangst, sind absurd. Der wichtigste Punkt, in dem Lacan von Freud abweicht, nämlich seine Ablehnung einer inneren Welt, wird in diesem Seminar ebenfalls deutlich.

Una reseña del seminario de Lacan sobre la angustia. El seminario sobre la angustia marca un punto crucial en el desarrollo del pensamiento lacaniano desde varias perspectivas. Primero, Lacan implícitamente abandona su teoría de que el inconsciente está estructurado como un lenguaje. También abandona el intento



de identificar la teoría de Freud con la suya propia. Lacan desarrolla algunas nuevas y originales ideas sobre la angustia, algunas de gran interés, como la conexión entre la angustia de castración y el narcisismo; otras, en cambio como la negación de la existencia de la angustia de separación, son absurdas. La principal divergencia de Lacan con Freud es su rechazo del mundo interno, lo cual también surge claramente en este seminario.

Compte-rendu de L’angoisse de Lacan. Le séminaire sur L’angoisse marque un tournant dans l’évolution de la pensée de Lacan à plusieurs points de vue. Lacan y renonce implicitement à sa théorie que l’inconscient est structuré comme un langage. Il cesse de chercher à identifier la théorie de Freud à la sienne propre. Il développe de nouvelles idées originales sur l’angoisse, les unes très intéressantes, comme le lien qu’il établit entre l’angoisse de castration et le narcissisme, les autres absurdes, comme le déni de l’existence de l’angoisse de séparation. Sa différence principale avec Freud, son refus du monde intérieur, apparaît clairement dans ce séminaire.

Resoconto del seminario di Lacan sull’angoscia. Il seminario sull’angoscia segna una svolta importante nello sviluppo del pensiero lacaniano sotto diversi punti di vista. Innanzitutto, Lacan abbandona implicitamente la teoria secondo la quale l’inconscio è strutturato come un linguaggio. Abbandona inoltre il tentativo di identificare la teoria di Freud con la propria. Sviluppa poi nuove idee originali sull’angoscia, alcune molto interessanti, come il nesso che stabilisce fra angoscia di castrazione e narcisismo; altre invece, come il suo diniego dell’esistenza dell’angoscia di separazione, risultano assurde. In questo seminario emerge inoltre chiaramente il suo rifiuto dell’esistenza di un mondo interiore che costituisce la sua maggiore divergenza da Freud.


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