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Siebers, T. (1986). The Ethical Unconscious. Psychoanal. Rev., 73C(3):309-330.

(1986). Psychoanalytic Review, 73C(3):309-330

The Ethical Unconscious

Tobin Siebers, Ph.D.

Psychoanalysis has always been fascinated with the sublimation of aggression in language and, by extension, with the sublimation of aggression in the subject, especially given Lacan's view that the subject is a signifier for other signifiers. Lacan's unique contribution to psychoanalysis was to describe aggression and sexuality in terms of a language of the self, positing a fundamental similarity between linguistic structure and the unconscious. More specifically, Lacan argued that the status of the unconscious, which is structured like a language, is ethical, and consequently one may ask in what ways Lacanian theory does and does not elaborate the relationship between psychoanalysis and ethics.

Following the late Freud, Lacan places aggressivity in the forefront of psychoanalysis. Indeed, in Lacan, aggression is constitutive of the subject. The theory of the mirror phase reveals aggression to be at the heart of subjectivity. A network of imaginary identifications captures each self and effects an aggressive disintegration of the individual at an early age. The subject is cut into membra disjecta, as illustrated by the mutilated and partial bodies found in fantasy and art. Lacan (1977) points to Hieronymus Bosch's paintings as “an atlas of all the aggressive images that torment mankind” (p. 11). The fragmented nature of the subject also comes to light in fantasies of the fortified self, symbolized in dreams by images of castles, stadiums, and inner enclosures. The imaginary phase inserts the subject in a line of fiction that prefigures the later splitting of the ego as it accedes to language and falls under the sway of symbolic mediations.

More significant, however, the mirror phase situates the play of aggressivity in relation to primary narcissism.

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