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Todd McGowan, Lacking Subjectivity, and Hamlet
The power of lack over loss as a model pointing to the truth of subjectivity
Loss or Lack?
Todd McGowan has a core message for us: when we think about the type of subjectivity encountered in psychoanalytic experience, and when we use this experience to theorize subjectivity more generally, we should never confuse a subject of lack with a subject of loss.1
In other words, we should not only not blend together, or use as synonyms, the concept of lack and the concept of loss, but we should also recognise that the subject of lack is a much more radical understanding of the nature of subjectivity, than is an understanding of subjectivity as constituted by loss.2 When we think specifically from the Freudo-Lacanian lens, a subject of loss would be thought along the lines of something like:
There is an initially harmonious self-identity,
And then secondarily this identity is broken
Here a paradigmatic psychoanalytic example might be conceived of something like:
The subject originally finds harmony with the mother (or a particular object related to the mother, e.g. breast/bottle)
The subject loses contact/is separated from this object and is left with a loss of this original connection which continues to shape its desire
What happens when we frame the emergence of subjectivity in this way, is we get the lurking possibility that, perhaps, we could regain this lost object, and this lurking possibility ends up structuring the nature of our unconscious desire (ultimately our desire for love). Such thinking actually permeates the structure of much ideology, whether sexual-romantic, religious, scientific, political, economic or otherwise.3 In other words, ideologies in fact sustain a “loss model of subjectivity” where we have “fallen” from a harmony and we must “regain/reclaim” this harmony, perhaps with a narrative twist that develops as a function of the fall as such (McGowan thinks this is a function of superegoic injunction).
However, if we are willing to think of a “lack model of subjectivity”, we can avoid this problem or even, this untruth.4 Let us for a moment reflect back to the image Lacan uses to depict an emerging fetus:5
“Whenever the membranes of the egg in which the fetus emerges on its way to becoming a new-born are broken”
Here we get the idea that the fetus, as a whole being which becomes a new-born, has a condition for its existence: first there is something broken (membrane of an egg) and then (secondarily) we get the new-born, or the fetus that will become a new-born.6 In other words, we start with a lack: a break, a cut, an opening; and what we come to think of as a whole object (fetus, new-born, infant), is a result of this primordial lack, this gaping non-being as an irreducible couple of beings or something. For the lack model of subjectivity, there is not an “original harmony” to which we must return (originally motivated by symptoms of mourning or melancholia). Or in McGowan’s language: there is no original satisfaction (breast, bottle, etc.), there is an original lack, an original something missing (the whole (egg as break)), and what we are is a constitutive effect of this something missing or breaking.
Perhaps in Lacanian terminology we could say that when we start to think of subjectivity as lack as opposed to loss we are starting to think about the function of truth as cause as opposed to the positivity of knowledge which constitutes our understanding of objects.7 This shifts our attention from something, some object, that would suture or complete a deterministic chain and bring certainty or predictability; in short: something which would fill up the lack. Perhaps the equivalent of such an object would be, in fact, the death of the subject (the truth of its cause).8
However, this leaves us with a question: how does lack constitute the structure of subjective desire if there is not an identity which is secondarily lost? In other words, how must we think of identity in this model?
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Lack of a Starting Point
First off, McGowan will make it clear that, starting with thinking subjectivity as lack over loss not only changes the way we think about subjective desire (as a way to regain/reclaim an original lost object), but also challenges Deleuzian conceptions of desire, which claim desire is about production, not lack. For Deleuze, we do not need to reconcile with an original lack (break, cut), but rather mobilise the original productive or affirmative vital process that is life itself.9
Second, McGowan suggests that lack as a starting point creates an irreducible rift between subjective non-identity (perhaps as the real) and symbolic identity. To be specific, one can never claim a perfect, complete or whole symbolic identity (again, whether sexual-romantic, scientific, religious, political or otherwise). In McGowan’s words, the subject can only ever be a symbolic failure to live up to the image or ideal of a symbolic identity, no matter what identity comes along or presents itself to subjectivity in the social field. The image or ideal of symbolic identity is a mirage constituted by a superegoic injunction, or ideological mechanism, which in some sense preys upon the subject of lack to overcome its lack, and even annihilate itself, by assuming a perfect, complete or whole symbolic identity. In the sexual-romantic field this may be the perfect couple, in the scientific field this may be the subject who knows, in the religious field this may be the subject one-with God (or the Absolute), in the political field this may be the subject that knows the way. We could think of these imagistic mirages as figures of omnipotence that would rid the subject of its otherwise uncertain and disturbed existence surfing the unpredictable waves constituted by lack (and excess).10
McGowan insists that this mirage of symbolic identity could function as a job title, like a lawyer, doctor, professor (i.e. being the perfect X, Y, Z), but is first and foremost experienced at the level of one’s own name: to be the perfect “Todd” or “Cadell” or “John/Jane”. He suggests that the common childhood experience of “not liking one’s name” is a symptom of this truth. In fact, on a personal level, I still recall the formative moments of my childhood identity, being one riddled by feelings of hating my name and wanting to change my name (because of its uniqueness), before being able to affirm and assume it as my own (enjoying the difference of being Cadell over a more commonplace name, like John).11
The basic message is simple: our subjectivity does not fit into the confines of a given identity (whether given by our parents/society in the first years of life, or whether it is some other identity we try to assume/invest in later in life, like a lawyer, doctor, professor). This presents us with two functions:
either I cannot rise to the level of the symbolic identity (i.e. I experience the negativity of not being able to assume the role of a “perfect professor”),
or alternatively the symbolic identity is not capable of rising to me (i.e. I outgrow the identity of a professor, etc.).
Again, on a personal level, both perspectives ring true in my experience:
on the one hand, feeling that I will never be able to embody the symbolic title (as well as the power that comes with) being a “professor” (or teacher, guide, etc.); and
on the other hand, feeling that the symbolic title of a professor in no way “covers me”, that there are always elusive gaps and cracks in such an identity, which actually open space for me to become something other.
In short, for a lacking subject (for McGowan, what we truly are), subjectivity and identity can never perfectly or completely coincide, but always occupy the space of a “missed encounter”. Perhaps this constitutive “missed encounter” (between subject and symbolic object) points us both towards the relation between the real and the symbolic as structured by a lack, but also points us towards the way in which images appear/populate this lack to create mirages and fantasies of a totalising resolution. Thus the stakes here are being able to avoid the positivisation of our identity that would determine or situate our identity “once and for all” (as a site of productivity). Instead, it seems we must accept and work with our lack (negation of negation) as both a terrifying and terrific power, where we can surprise our self, even if it comes at the cost of an irreducible anxiety (as the truth of our cause).
Hamlet and Paradox of the Dead Father
In order to give us a deeper perspective on lack, one inspired by history and literature, McGowan relies on the narrative and character development in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. To be more specific, he relies on the development of Hamlet’s character in relation to the Oedipal tension he experiences with his mother and father. Here what Hamlet loses in the story, is not the mother (at least not directly), but the father, the King of Denmark. As is well known, Hamlet’s father is murdered by his uncle, Claudius, who then subsequently marries his mother (which would certainly provoke Oedipal tensions, rivalry). In the story, Hamlet is visited (haunted) by the ghost of his lost father (literally the archetype of the “dead letter”), who commands him to prove his worth as a son: murder Claudius for revenge, and restore honor to the throne.
Here we are clearly presented with the challenge of a loss in which the dead letter (superegoic injunction) confronts the subject with a possibility to rectify this loss, perhaps exploiting both symptoms of mourning and melancholia. However, what McGowan suggests is that we search for the truth of this story, not in the model of loss, but the model of lack. We should note a key contradiction in Hamlet’s response to the dead letter: he does not outright reject this command (withdrawing from the heavy weight of the symbolic order), but he also does not immediately or blindly obey it (assuming the function of the symbolic order without subjective reflection). He rather occupies a space of lack between both the command (demand) and the desire (need) to obey the dead letter (ghost of his father).12
What is going on here?
McGowan claims that Hamlet helps us to understand desire as lack versus loss. The first problem for such a subject is: how can I know the dead letter is real? How can I know that the dead letter is not a deceptive trick? To generalize this story to subjectivity as such: when I adopt the subjective title I was given as a child, or when I attempt to assume the symbolic title of a certain prestigious position in society (perhaps as a result of a superegoic injunction), how can I know this is really representative of my truth, or how can I know that this is really the truth of my desire?
In other words, keeping this gap as a lack between rejecting a mandate from a dead letter and accepting it as the structure of my desire, is constitutive for what it means to work through the political step that makes a subject a subject (as opposed to being reduced to a function of a dead letter commanding you to recover the perceived loss). To use again my examples of struggling to accept my own name (Cadell) or wrestling with the contradictions of a professional title (professor): there is a certain lack that is constitutive of the process of fully assuming it (name/job title), that is required in order not to just become an automaton of this symbolic title (i.e. reduced to an Oedipal drama with my parents or reduced to an automatic production line in an academic structure).
The important point at work here, embodied in a real contradiction, is that one neither refuses symbolic identity on account of its lack, rather staying “outside the symbolic”, and one neither unconsciously accepts the symbolic identity on account of “the dead letter told me to do it”. Instead, one reflects in the negative space of thinking that struggles with the contradiction as positive: the symbolic identity is certainly not-all, but at the same time, it certainly points in a desired direction, a direction that can sustain desire as drive.
In Hamlet’s case: how should I ethically approach the injustice involved in losing my father (and mother, too). Should I act from the position of revenge, in the hopes of canceling or anuling my loss, in the process becoming “king” (a perfect political identity)? The crucial political question for the subject, in this case Hamlet, seems to involve a fundamental choice, revolving around the endlessly fascinating questions regarding the ethics of desire (especially in relation to Oedipal dynamics).13 What is to be found on the “other side” of this drama as a result of this choice? Reclaimed fullness? Or the truth of lack?
Confronting the Symbolic-Real
Spoiler alert: What is interesting about the narrative in Hamlet, for McGowan, is that the mandate Hamlet’s father gives to him, to kill Claudius, Hamlet does end up affirming, i.e. he kills Claudius. McGowan interprets this as Hamlet “integrating lack”, due to (we might say) Hamlet’s “time for understanding” and “moment of concluding” in the symbolic (as opposed to either withdrawing from the symbolic or unreflectively affirming the symbolic).
In other words, Hamlet kills Claudius, but he does not simply do it as an unreflective unconscious conformity to the symbolic mandate to regain the loss (or as a “melancholic subject”), but as an abyssal affirming of his own lack without transcendental guarantee (enjoying his lack as such). In other words, it is only after Hamlet has been able to engage the inward spiritual struggle, involving skepticism about the identity of the father, and the father’s motives (seeing them as deceptive, maybe even demonic, certainly lacking), can he really assume his desire as true cause (i.e. without it being a blind filling in of the dead letter).
This processing/integration of lack is one that McGowan suggests involves overcoming the idea of an uncastrated other, i.e. that while the symbolic identity never fits for my subjectivity, someone out there has figured it out, someone out there really embodies the symbolic mandate. To again use the previous personal examples, when I was a kid who felt that he did not coincide with my name (Cadell), I still presupposed that many people out there did coincide with their names; or while I did not coincide with the professional title of a professor, I often felt that there were other professors who did coincide with that title (embodying the real of a perfect professor).
In Lacanian terms, we may call this struggle a “traversal of the fantasy” (of an uncastrated other, whether in myself or the actual other).
Thus, what McGowan is suggesting, is that in the narrative development of Hamlet, we are witnessing not only an Oedipal drama between Hamlet and his mother and father, but also the stakes of traversing the fantasy of the Oedipal drama itself via a fidelity to one’s desire as drive. What results is double: I do strive to ascend to my symbolic identity (to become my own father in a sense), but I can only do this on the basis that I realize that all symbolic identity is flawed, i.e. that the truth of ascent itself is on the basis of a strange fiction.
This strange fiction involves a redoubling of lack: the lack that is the subject (think back to the broken membrane of the egg that opens the conditions of possibility for the subject as such), and the lack that is inherent to symbolic identity itself (whether my name, or some professional title). In fact, this redoubled lack is what holds the symbolic and the real together in truth: once I accept myself as lacking (indecisive, not sure of the ethics of my situation), as well as accepting the symbolic as lacking (that no one in the symbolic order knows the ethics of their situation either), can I make the abyssal choice that allows me to determine or assume my truth as cause.
In other words, McGowan’s idea of lack as a model for subjectivity over loss, does not promise a guarantee (in this case, of Hamlet reuniting with the dead father in revenge), but rather forces on us the ethics of an abyssal choice: what are you going to do with the impossibility of the Oedipal dynamic in which your subjectivity emerged? Here we get not only a model of the subject as lacking, but also a ubiquitous structure of how subjectivity basically works at the level of its intimate dramas and struggles. This ubiquitous structure involves the “dead letter” (the symbolic order), which presents itself as perfect, complete, whole in the crack of life (which it can only do precisely because it is a result of death parasitising life), and the lacking subject who is not merely alive (biological life form), but both an effect of this chain of dead signification, and called to enliven it through murder (killing).
Here, however, I have perhaps a different perspective on Hamlet as really integrating lack. I could be wrong: but would not the true integration of lack not be an externalised killing (i.e. actually following through with murdering Claudius), but rather an internalised (metaphorical) killing? In other words, the difference between blind murder (encouraged by the dead letter of the father), and a perhaps beautiful murder as self-sacrifice, is when one accepts self-sacrifice (a type of negation of negation of sacrifice).14
It seems to me that Hamlet himself seems to realize this too late: we should not forget that after Hamlet kills Claudius, Hamlet himself dies. His final words: “the rest is silence.” Perhaps this “the rest is silence” is the real of the lack in the other that represents the non-other as such (the deeper truth to “there is no big Other”). Perhaps the task is to recognise this before we externalise violence and kill the other. Perhaps this is the condition of possibility for a symbolic position that is really inclusive of imperfection, incompleteness, and division which can be enjoyed (even in, or especially in, conditions where the other does wrong us/does us wrong).
To bring this around to a personal dimension one last time, it is only in accepting my given name (Cadell) and my symbolic title (professor), inclusive of its imperfection, incompleteness and division, that I can really die into myself (loving the others who either made fun of my name, or the others who have made my process of professional maturation more difficult, even unjust). This is an option that may prevent us from externalising any unconscious bitterness at the situation in which I find myself, where I could perhaps labour under the delusion that someone else has figured it out (personally or professionally). This option lets our work do the killing, it speaks for itself.
Indeed, that is something I experience as a daily work, and I assume, it is something that anyone who picks up their symbolic mandate after considerable inward dialectical struggle, feels when working for truth as cause.
Todd McGowan will be teaching in the fourth Philosophy Portal course focused on Lacan’s Ecrits, which starts September 3rd. To find out more, or to register, visit: Philosophy Portal.
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This should remind us of the distinction made famous by Freud in his 1917 essay Mourning and Melancholia. For Freud, both positions represent a type of loss: mourning is loss of a conscious love object, and melancholia is loss of a more ambiguous and obscure unconscious love object. Perhaps here McGowan’s notion of lack points towards the negation of the negation of loss, the loss of the loss, which is the subject of lack.
I discuss this in Critical Media Theory in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, inspired by discussions with David McKerracher and Ann Snelgrove of.
Which perhaps structures symptomal dispositions of mourning (conscious loss) and melancholia (unconscious loss).
Lacan, J. 1998. From Love to the Libido. In: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. p. 197.
This reminds me of a distinction made by Dr. Samuel McCormickin our talk “Reading Lacan’s Écrits” between science, which fetishises or reifies objects or beings, and psychoanalysis, which thinks openings (lacks) which condition objects or beings (in this case the opening/lack in which a broken egg-membrane is the condition of possibility for a new-born).
Here again in reference to Dr. Samuel McCormick at, he suggests we should pay close attention to Lacan’s article “Science and Truth” from the Écrits.
We should remember that Freud discovered the death drive in the repetition, not of pleasure, but of something painful or traumatic, this missing object. Perhaps the truth of the death drive is the reconciliation that this missing object cannot be found, but must be enjoyed as missing, the condition of possibility to play with higher orders of tension-in-becoming.
From Alenka Zupančič’s reflections on the key distinction between Lacan and Deleuze on the topic of death drive in What Is Sex?, I may suggest that we are dealing with a difference located at the level of “positivising negativity” (Deleuze) and “negation of negation” (Lacan). Positivising negativity may be thought of as mobilising the productivity of desire, whereas negation of negation may be thought of as the transformation of negative loss into positive lack.
Zupančič’s What Is Sex? seems to point towards the modern problem of “wandering excess” for the lacking subject which requires a type of magic signifier that “works” (not necessarily on the level of production, but on the level of enjoyment).
In that sense a simple perspectival shift on an already existing signifier like “Cadell” (whether via analysis or via working-through the symbolic on one’s own), can open one to an enjoyment that works.
Here if we recall my recent Reflections on Lacan’s “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’” ( we may find the characters of the King as joke and Queen as masquerade as helpful for thinking through Hamlet’s situation. If Hamlet were to unreflectively carry out the demands of the dead letter, we would have the joke of a man thinking he is a king who really is a king, and also thinking that the queen (his mother) really is a queen (his mother) in relation to Claudius as the politician (minister) who steals the letter (kills the king). Instead, perhaps we should take the position of the detective, which requires us to stay still in the Oedipal madness, and see what no one sees (misrecognition) but what is still right before everyone’s eyes (the letter is always-already stolen, missing, lacking).
When we think the “Absolute Choice” perhaps we need to think about it within the way in which our desire is constituted by Oedipal dramas: what to do with our desire for the mother? What do we do with our desire to kill the father? (in Hamlet’s case: kill Claudius, reclaim his mother, etc.). For more on the concept of “Absolute Choice”, see: The Absolute Choice: Reason as Nonrationally Choosing Against Experience the Road to Absolute Knowing. In: Enter the Alien: Thinking as 21st Century Hegel (2022). p. 243-273.
This is an idea I explore in Abyssal Arrows re: the character of Zarathustra, see: Philosophy After Nietzsche: The Challenge of Thinking both Becoming under a Cross and an Other Becoming towards Flight? In: Abyssal Arrows: Spiritual Leadership Inspired by Thus Spoke Zarathustra (2023). p. 727-742.