The dilemma of the Other's desire

In this situation where the child perceives that mother seeks something beyond the child, to ask what mother wants is simply another way of asking — what do I lack?

The dilemma of the Other's desire
The dilemma of "what am I to the Other?" provides the central narrative mechanism of romance anime/manga, like in the above "Please don't bully me, Nagatoro-san!" The viewer feels a sense of "does she like him? does he like her?" and as the characters' feelings become more clear, we begin to feel a rising anticipation for the resolution of the tension through a "revelation" of the feelings which were always there, thus bringing us final clarity on what we mean to the Other, and ostensibly, filling the gap which constitutes our perceived lack. 

"What do I lack?" - asks the child

In the midst of our discussion of the Oedipus complex last week, we noted that the infant cannot help but notice that the mother's desire may be oriented beyond the child themselves. They will inevitably observe how something else steals mother's attention away from them at times, and that this other thing occasionally causes her to respond more slowly to their needs.

This state of affairs seems to indicate that there exists something which the mother lacks (otherwise, why would she be searching?), but even more importantly, it inexorably carries the implication that the child does not provide whatever this thing is which mother lacks. The fact that the mother seeks her desired object somewhere other than the child indicates that the child lacks what she desires.

In this situation where the child perceives that mother seeks something beyond the child, to ask what mother wants is simply another way of asking — what do I lack?

In this way, we see how desire involves at its most elementary level a narcissistic fixation on the subject’s own identity vis-à-vis the Other, rather than originating in a fundamental orientation towards objects in our world. This is what Freud meant when he posited a 'primary narcissism.' The initially inward questioning of 'what do I lack?' catalyzes the outward movement which then leads us to ransack the external world looking for the object which we lack.

What is in me more than myself

Though the mother as the child’s primal relation exemplifies this structure, is there not something in this relationship which defines more generally how all people stand in relation to all others? The subject is absolutely lost in an ocean of the Other's desire, overshadowing and overdetermining every encounter with the particular others with whom we come into contact. For every person we meet (and many we have not!), we stand in an anxiety-inducing relationship of concern.

There is something that we take others to desire from us, that is, to give them, which implies that this object must be in us. Even if this desire seems merely to be for us to play our very defined role and not upset the private world of others (to literally be an object, utterly inert window dressing), at every stage of our lives we constantly ask ourselves what our value is, what our social status is, and how others perceive us. These questions all pertain to the singular question of what we are to others, which in turn makes up what we can be to ourselves.

At the end of his book The Puppet and the Dwarf, Žižek uses the analogy of the Kinder egg to explain this something which we presume to give (or take!) from others. The Kinder egg consists of a chocolate egg with a toy inside. This hollow egg with a toy inside provides Žižek with the perfect riff for describing how we conceptualize ourselves as subjects, complete with our interiority and the mysterious object which resides in our depths, making us desirable to others. Žižek calls this object "what is in me more than myself."

The Kinder egg inspires this perverse psychology where the goal of the child is not to eat the chocolate egg, but rather to immediately crack the egg open to get to the toy inside. The chocolate becomes only an after-thought, although it will be consumed nonetheless. The designers of the Kinder egg have engineered their product to sell more chocolate eggs, but precisely by using less chocolate and employing the art of concealment to induce the desire for something which is not chocolate! In this ingenious move, we glimpse the relation in which we perceive ourselves in relation to others – ready to be cracked open to give the other what they want, thereby revealing our true meaning which we possessed all along.

Elsewhere, Žižek notes the subject experiences intimations that they were brought into existence for some reason, that is, that someone desired that they exist rather than not exist. If I was born, surely there was a reason, the subject wonders. They secretly hope that discovering this reason will provide them with the meaning of their life. This desire which the subject presumes pushed them into life now pushes them forward in life as they search for the object which will make them become the thing which they were made to be. The subject wishes to produce in themselves what the Other desires, in order that they may give it to the Other in a moment of final recognition.

The earliest demand

Lacan presses this point even deeper, arguing that this demand to know what we mean to the Other ("what do you want from me?") emerges from the earliest experiences of language itself. Language creates an economy in which symbols are exchanged for the servicing of bodily needs, but the child operates in this economy under a cloud of profound ambiguity, made all the more harrowing by the limitless nature of their needs and their profound impotence in the world.

The child experiences the swelling of a drive within the chaos of their body, but in order to assuage this unpleasant experience, they must adopt the alien discourse (language) of the Other in hopes that the parent will understand their demand. The signifiers which compose language are mere objects, fundamentally indifferent to the child's need, and thus the child adopts them only in a desperate attempt for their message to be successfully delivered to the caregiver.

The anxiety of the 'what do you want from me' emerges in the diachronic nature of speaking — the meaning of a sentence remains indeterminate until we arrive at what Lacan calls the 'suture point' which retroactively "stitches" the signifiers which came before. In other words, sentences only become meaningful when they arrive at a certain point, such as a pause, phrase, or punctuation. In that temporal gap between enunciation of the words and recognition by the hearer, we experience a profound anxiety about what we mean to the Other. We can't help but wonder what we have to give them in order to get what we need.

The mimetic subject's dilemma

"What am I for the Other?" And, we must ask, how could the mimetic subject possibly answer this question? The indeterminacy of the Other's desire is structural — it has no true resolution.

But let us take this conundrum even a step further – What does the mimetic subject do when they find themselves in a situation in which they take themselves to be the object which the Other desires?

This question puts the imitator in the terrifying situation of constantly experiencing themselves as the object of the Other/other's desires, and yet nonetheless concluding in the rational register that no particular attribute actually makes them desirable.

The haunting question "what am I to you" has no answer, but it will consume the subject nonetheless if it remains unanswered. We cannot even locate the solution within the Other themselves, for, despite all our myth-making, the Other cannot produce the answer for why they desire what they do.

We have now caught the mimetic subject in a different sort of bind — I am desired but there is no reason why. In Girard's mimetic theory, the gaze of the Other creates the vector for desire, propelling the imitator towards a contingent object in the world, but what happens when I am that contingent object?

Don't miss the most recent episode of Samsara Audio where I walk listeners through the central argument of the book I'm writing. Don't forget that premium subscribers here at Samsara Diagnostics received text transcriptions of all the videos I post on my YouTube channel. Thanks for reading and listening!

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