Dolto formulated the concept of an unconscious archaic memory of life in utero. A memory of an affective relation with its umbilical cord, of its liquid environment immersed in amniotic fluid, with the placental envelopes. In other words a memory of its universe at the time; the matrix, that is to say the maternal womb. The fetus in effect bathes in the amniotic fluid. That archaic image of self linked to its mother in utero, symbolizes in the infant unconscious its basal security. This unconscious archaic memory of life in utero is, according to Dolto, also the beginnings of the unconscious image of the body for the being to be born. These are the concepts that make up our psychological heritage, that Jouvet would have us accept is programmed into the brain by the paradoxical sleep of the fetus. By the same token Dolto speaks of sleep in the adult as a state of natural regression to the fetal stage.
For Dolto every human being is a desiring subject. Human beings aspire to communicate from conception onwards. The unconscious image of the body is the concept which permits Dolto to take into account a continuity of being , before and after birth, which is the subject. What separates the body of the infant from the body of the mother, and makes it viable, is the umbilical cord and its ligature. The umbilical originates the body schema within the confines of an envelope that will become the skin (the placenta and the envelopes contained in the uterus having been cut away). The image of the body, made up partially of the rhythms, the warmth, the sonorities, the fetal perceptions, finds itself abruptly modified with the change in perceptions at birth, in particular the loss of the passive auditory pulses of the double heartbeat that the fetus heard in utero. This modification is accompanied by the advent of breathing through the lungs, and the activation of the peristaltism of the digestive tube which, when the infant is born, emits the meconium accumulated during the fetal period. The umbilical scar and the loss of the placenta, a fact in the course of human destiny, can be considered as the prototype of all the experiences that will be called castrations (including genital). This first separation should be called umbilical castration. It is contemporaneous with birth, and it is the foundation, in the modalities of joy and anguish which accompanied the birth, of the infant’s subjective relations of desire for others (Dolto, 1984).
The first attachment The expulsion of the placenta is hardly talked about in most prenatal groups that prepare the mother for the birth, but the infant is born with the placenta. Almost a half an hour can pass before the expulsion of that thick spongy mass, beautiful for some, formidable for others, with a very particular odor. The expulsion of the placenta often surprises the mother because of the pain and the contractions that it reinvoques. Mothers often consider that it’s all over when the baby is delivered. Doctors and midwives on the other hand monitor with vigilance the expulsion of the placenta, for if retained in the uterus, even with modern medicine, it can be a source of important complications, at times even dramatic. The echoes from the birthing room can be a matter of life and death.
But what is actually delivered? Is it simply an anatomical mass, an organ which no longer has a function, and is only of interest to research laboratories and to the cosmetics industry. Or is it a profoundly intimate companion which is no longer of use to us, from which we are forced to separate by nature, and which, after the first loss, that of the amniotic fluid, prefigures the first lost object, and evoques the paradise lost common to so many, if not all, originating myths (Rapoport, 1989).
The placenta, the perfect union between two beings, rises to a state that no other organ can equal. It can not be considered as a parasite and is in the nature of a transplant, expressed by both organisms and rejected by neither. It is the symbiosis and parabiosis of two beings united in the flesh, and yet the blood remains separate. The placenta is the seat of all the transfers of nutriment or waste product, oxygen, carbon dioxide, sugars, lipids, proteins and vitamins. The placenta plays an active role; it is the indispensable relay between the two organisms. At its peak in the thirty-fifth week of gestation, the maternal blood flow to replenish the villosities will attain thirty-six litres an hour (Clément-Faraut, 1989).
Certain analysts maintain that, at the outset, the infant sees itself and thinks of itself as being one with the mother. That it is not the mother who incorporates the infant into herself, but it is the infant that achieves unity with the mother, and lives as if it is a part of the maternal body, just like a leaf on the branch of a tree. When one studies what occurs between the maternal circulation and the fetal circulation, it is clear that the placenta creates a barrier, a frontier, strictly delimiting two territories; certain substances pass through the placental barrier, and others are stopped. The placenta is an obstacle to the unification fantasy, the desire to be at one with the loved one, a fantasy fundamental to humankind. In playing this role as obstacle it is also an organ protecting the fetus from the mother (This, 1989).
After the birth the mother does not disappear. She is there, attentive, taking care of the infant. It is precisely the placenta that has disappeared. The cut is located at this level, between the infant and that part of itself. So why do we so often describe the birth as a separation between mother-infant? Why don’t we talk of an umbilical cord that has to be sliced between the mother and the infant? Instead it is necessary to cut the umbilical cord. Everything happens as if the umbilical cord unites the mother and the infant, as if they communicated with each other, as if the umbilical cord was in the nature of a mirror where each is a reflection of the other, that each is the double of the other and yet, at the same time, contained within the other (This, 1989). The placenta is actually an amputated limb of the neonate, and as such remains in our psychological heritage as a phantom.
The fetus is inside; but this ‘inside’ is already an ‘outside’ because its sensory organs are continually informing it about what is happening from afar. We know that it is listening attentively when it is awake, perceiving from a distance, obtaining information about everything that is happening in its neighborhood, in what we could call its territory. Listening to our words, participating in its own way, living in a world structured by language. The mother eats curry and the amniotic fluid has a curry taste. The fetus is permanently savoring this liquid; it drinks two and a half litres per day, and we know that its tongue, its mouth and the upper part of the esophagus are constellated with gustatory papillae that will disappear at the time of birth. Because of the placental function, the infant, so tiny and weak, has an astonishing power of attraction, and of suction of liquid elements and of their dissolved content. It is this power of suction that causes the milk to rise in the maternal breast. The placenta is the window for the fetus to the world outside preparing the fetus for its future life. Because of its operation the fetus is neither inside nor outside (This, 1989).
Now we can appreciate the anguish of birth, the emergence from the primordial aquatic milieu when it exits from the amniotic fluid; the leap into a world where its lungs come into play, where it has to breathe air in order to survive. The trauma of birth is not separation from the mother per se but the strangeness of this new milieu so strikingly different. Lacan attributes to this moment the anguish of birth, inherent in life, inevitable, an anguish which can project its shadow for the rest of life. The infant has lost in this adventure of birth that part of itself from which it becomes separated, discarded, abandoned, the ‘book of flesh’ that was the placenta engaged in signifying relations with the mother and the external world. The important thing is to know that this abandoned object is at the base of all that is desirable in life, because now it has disappeared, it instills in reality a sense of lack, of an emptiness (This, 1989).
If the subject that is born situates itself and constitutes itself in a rapport with the Other, because it is born to the extent that it is represented by the signifier (the signifier brings the subject into existence because it only has meaning as a signifier for other signifiers), we have to recognize with Lacan that, in this operation, something remains which becomes ‘object-cause of desire’, the lost object where the function of cause can take root (This, 1989).
Therefore at the base of subjectivity, in front of all other objects, at the horizon of being, there is this object irretrievably lost, and the desire functions inside a bubble which, although burst, still contains the trace of what it originally enclosed inside the envelope. We desire because we have been deprived of the liquid world, of our envelopes, of our placenta. This means that the experience of that severance marks the subject in all its development, the relation of subject to object being always felt as unsatisfying. It can not bring contentment, it can not bring security. The object will always be the cause of desire, according to Lacan, the cause of an unsatisfied desire. “Where the Thing was, one could say, I have to be” because we are desiring subjects. A fact of nature divides us… in order that we may be born (This, 1989)
Desire according to Lacan Lacan’s theory of desire stems originally from the ideas of Plato that on the one hand desire is fundamental movement of living beings and that the soul is the living principle, and on the other hand that desire implies the essentially psychic process of memory. The body, which is only capable of grasping what is actual and immediate, is incapable when confronted with a void or emptiness of experiencing the feeling of repletion or of being satiated. It is only the soul that can ‘have contact’ with what is presently absent, because the soul possesses the memory of a repletion that has already been experienced. This is why there is no bodily desire. Only the soul can, by virtue of memory, anticipate the pleasure that an object that is missing can procure, and instigate, by that anticipation, the movement towards the object; this is what desire consists of. Desire is incapable of being reduced to a bodily affectation. It is essentially a movement of the soul towards a satisfaction previously experienced (Baas, 1992) Plato’s theory is therefore enhanced by the theory put forward by Jouvet, that we are born with this satisfaction previously experienced as part of our psychological heritage that has been programmed into our memory by fetal dreams. What Plato refers to as our soul is what Jouvet would consider our psyche that is based in our fetal dreams.
For Lacan, over and above desire in terms of an articulated desire towards a desired object, there is the Thing. In terms of a lost object the Thing recalls the Freudian concept of an ‘experience of satisfaction’ to be understood certainly as an original experience. For Freud there is certainly the original experience of the mother, of which the memory traces constitute a sort of dissolved image in the psyche of a satisfying object. This image determines the elaboration of desire and engages the subject to find what is lost according to a logic of identity. If we follow the maze of representations, the associative knots, the fantasies and the dreams we will always find ourselves there; the body of the mother. This is what, according to the Freudian tradition, will give a meaning to the ‘lost object’, the body of the mother is the embodiment of the Thing (Baas, 1992)
Lacan attempts a transcendental theory of desire. To the question what is there in the subject which renders the loss possible from which the desire proceeds, Lacan employs this word - the Thing - precisely because the Thing is not discernible, even less representable, because to give a content to this thing means that one has already entered into the game of the signifiers, one has already confused the thing with the desired object, the Thing is already reduced to something desirable for its own sake. Consequently the Thing is above the signifying game through which operates the desiring function of the subject, even if – or rather – because it is the condition which renders the game possible. For Lacan, the Thing is ‘hors-signifié’ which means impossible to signify. The loss is anterior to what is lost. This means that if there is desire, and if the desire permeates all the detours of the substitutive process, of the signifying metonomy, it is not by virtue of the loss of some origin of sorts, but it is precisely because the loss is itself the origin. That is why the object of desire, the desired object, is always an object that has been found again The Thing is the loss itself, the fundamental and original lack, a pure lack which constitutes the subject in terms of being a divided subject (Baas, 1992).
It is necessary therefore to distinguish the desired object and the ‘object which is the cause of desire’; the latter, always qualified in these terms by Lacan, is what he refers to as l’objet a, which literally means the object ‘a’ in lower case. The letter A stands for Other (Autre in French). L’objet a is always designated as an object separated, detached, from whatever may be the desired object, the maternal breast, the feces, the voice, or the regard. It is not reducible to the desired object, nor is it identifiable with the subject of the desire, the desiring subject. It is simply articulated by the desiring subject which is itself a subject divided. This division comes about in the subject because its desire proceeds from nothing tangible, but only from the pure lack of the Thing. It is the lack of the Thing which bars the subject from desire. No matter how desire expresses itself, always articulated within it is the fantasy of l’objet a. The fantasy of the lack renders possible the synthesis of the facultyof desiring and of the empirical desired object (Baas, 1992).
Before the separation, that is before birth, there is neither subject nor object. It is the separation which produces at the same time both the subject and the object. Alienation and separation are therefore the constituents of the subject. In Lacan’s theory the subject does not come into existence until approximately six months after birth with the commencement of the mirror stage. The loss therefore occurs at a time prior to formation of the subject, and therefore logically prior to the feeling of desire itself. The desire can only abstract itself from the signifying order in which it is constituted. In desire derived from the signifying order there is a sort of small remainder which rises up from the (anterior) pure lack, that is to say l’objet a. (Baas, 1992). Lacan’s theory therefore reinforces the theory of Jouvet. Evidently the fetal dreams have no subject per se. The fetus is dreaming of its circumstances in utero which provide for it a psychological heritage. It is only after birth when the umbilical cord is cut, and the subject begins to constitute itself, that desire comes into play. Because the loss preceded the subject we can understand Lacan’s assertion that l’objet a exists only in the fantasy of desire and not in reality.
The Thing is not an object of this world and is not a part of this world, even if it is true that the world is what constitutes itself for the subject through the network of signifiers. Nor is the fetal dream experience of the placenta and the fetal envelope of this world. It truly predates the advent of the subject itself. The Thing, or the pure lack, here occupies the place of an unconditioned absolute, in as much as it is from what desire proceeds, and yet it can not be articulated by this desire through a signifier. To cover the Thing, the pure lack, by a signifier is to constitute a ‘myth’ according to Lacan. Thus for example, (and evidently it is not important what example) to identify the Thing as the body of the mother is a myth to use Lacan’s word, that is to say with exactitude, the transcendental illusion (Baas, 1992). What the fetus experienced in its dreams was of another world. What the fetus lost was the aquatic milieu in the amniotic fluid, the link with the mother via the placenta and the umbilical cord. However, to say this is obviously to reenter the world of signifiers. We are again in the grip of the transcendental illusion. It is actually impossible for us to conceive the precise nature of the fetal dream of its intrauterine experience, which is why it will always be for us a pure lack.
The myth consists of giving a figure to the Thing (it is the figure, the mythical figure of the great maternal goddess), but it also consists – and this is why it is an illusion – in supposing a consistent or substantial reality behind the figure, a reality of which the figure can only be an appearance or the symbolic manifestation (it is the body of the mother in the supposed experience of the original satisfaction). In order to avoid such an illusion, it is necessary, opposed to the myth, to affirm that behind the figure there is nothing, that there is nothing else than the Thing, that is to say the pure lack (Baas, 1992). The fetal dream can not be proved as a fact. The content of fetal dreams is not of this world and has no place in the order of signifiers which we take to be reality. From the point of view of a living subject, the fetal dream that forms the base of our psychological heritage is precisely what Lacan suggests – nothing. Nothing, that is, in the sense of no thing. And yet it is the fantasy…
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