Australasian Journal Of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy
NO.1&2 - 2022
Australasian Journal Of
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy
NO.1&2 - 2022

A Lacanian View of Infancy

Leonardo S. Rodriguez

Given the brevity required for this presentation, I shall confine myself to a discussion of what I consider to be the salient contributions of the Lacanian school to the understanding of infancy. I shall present those salient points as four propositions. 1

1. The infant is for psychoanalysis a subject in his/her own right and in the full sense of the term and, although a subject in/and (‘unable to speak’), he/she is nevertheless a speaking being [parlêtre], a subject of speech and language.

Freud had stressed the decisive role of what ultimately is a biological factor, the human infant’s helplessness derived from his state of relative prematurity at birth. His helplessness makes the human infant unconditionally dependent on the Other, an Other who is – to start with – absolute, to use Lacan’s term. Absolute, since the infant’s chances of survival depend on the Other. This Other is not simply a ‘natural’ other, the natural mother or some other member of the species. The Other is essentially a locus, or place defined by what Lacan called the symbolic order, which is an order of signifiers, and as such exclusively human. As a position in the symbolic order, the Other may be incarnated by a variety of people, although it is the infant’s mother who typically occupies it in the first place. Hence the responsibility attached to her function.

The infant too is assigned a place that is determined by the symbolic order and which constitutes him as a human subject: well before he is able to utter words, he is nevertheless given a name that he will have to bear, and a surname that inscribes him in a genealogy; his birth, a natural event, is registered in a public document that mutates it into a human act; he is also given a place in a system of kinship, as the son (or daughter, if the infant is a girl) of his parents, the sibling of his brothers and sisters and the father of his future children, and by virtue of the position assigned to him in the kinship system he will be barred from taking the women occupying certain other positions as sexual objects: his mother, his sisters, his daughters; (that is to say, he will be subjected to a normative Oedipal structure); he will play his part in the myths and traditions of his family and his culture. As a human subject, the human infant is a subject of language, born into the symbolic order which is for humans the universal intermediary between the subject and the other two orders: real and imaginary. It is also the symbolic order that determines the quality and intensity of the maternal and emotional care and bonding that the infant requires, not a supposed ‘maternal instinct’.

The most devastating forms of psychopathology (psychosis, autism, mental retardation) occur if the infant subject, as a result of an accident which may result from a variety of etiologies, is not properly introduced into the symbolic order by the desire of the Other. The access to the signifier, the introduction to the symbolic order of language, is the one thing that the infant cannot, shouldn’t, be deprived. Lacan’s elaborations on the symbolic order owe a great deal to his psychiatric experience with psychotics, in whom he was able to recognise a fundamental deficit in symbolic organization: the foreclosure of the name of the father, a primordial signifier which is absolutely indispensable for the subject’s assumption of the Oedipal law.

Lacan ( 1966, 1977) called alienation the operation through which the human subject (and this already occurs in infancy) is constituted qua human, that is as speaking-being [parlêtre], by virtue of his subjection to the signifier. He called this operation alienation because the subject receives his being (as opposed to his natural existence) from an order of signifiers which is external to him and which constitutes him as divided: divided in that he is at once in as many places as the different signifiers that represent him; these signifiers constitute the unconscious. What is more, even before he is capable of uttering his own words, the infant subject is spoken to – by his mother, father and others. And his babbling, his gestures, his more or less timid, more or less energetic appeals to the Other, will be interpreted (quite correctly) as being his way of speaking. Freud ( 1950) had already anticipated in the Project that the baby’s screaming is the basis of speech proper. From the start, even before birth, mothers talk to their babies – how would they learn to speak otherwise?

For Lacan, the infant, subject in his own right, cannot be treated by psychoanalysis as an object: object of observation or investigation. The infant enters the psychoanalytic field as an analysand, in a relationship of transference with the analyst. For Lacan, it is the analyst who assumes the position of object in the transference-relation. In this sense, the infant is not different to any other analysand, whatever his/her age: for psychoanalysis, the position of each analysand is unique; but the fact of being an infant does not make the infant ‘special’, since all the structural conditions for the development of the work of analysis are already present in infancy. There is enough evidence of this in our experience and in the literature. It is the analytic experience with infants itself that provides the best source of data for the construction of psychoanalytic theoretical formulations regarding the questions posed by the infant.

2. The constitution of the subject is completed by the operation of separation, by virtue of which he is born as subject of desire.

Whereas other theorists may distinguish the position of the child, or subject, from the object (or objects), Lacan distinguishes the subject from both the Other and the object. The Other introduces the subject into the symbolic order and brings language to him through speech. The Other also provides the subject with the object of enjoyment [jouissance]. This object had already been defined by Freud as a lost object. It is only as lost that the object can be desired, since one desires only what one does not have, or what one is not. Lacan calls this object that sets desire in motion object cause of desire or object a [objet petit a]. The object is taken from the field of the Other. The gap, hole or lack left in the Other in the place of the lost object will be filled in by a succession of substitutive objects, all of which operate as plugs or stopgaps and cover up the loss. Typically, these substitutive objects are the fetal membranes, the nipple, the breast, the imaginary maternal phallus, faeces, urine, the voice, the gaze, the transitional objects and any other object which in the history of the subject performs the double function of filling in the hole left by the lost object and providing erotic enjoyment.

At an initial mythical moment, subject and Other are united, and the object occupies the intersection of both fields:

As the object is lost (it falls from the field of the Other, as Lacan puts it), both subject and Other are simultaneously left incomplete. This is what constitutes the human subject as such: a lack, or symbolic castration which affects both subject and Other, for which Lacan proposed the notation S and Ø.

What the subject and the Other lose as object, they gain as desire. The subject’s desire is his never-ending quest for the completion of the barred Other, unattainable in reality as the object is irreversibly lost.

The subject himself identifies with the object that the Other wants (in the double sense of lacking and desiring). This identification – which in some pathological arrangements becomes an identity – is the key for the understanding of pathological disorders in the infant in their relations with the desire of the mother.

3. The infant’s subjectivity depends on the position that he occupies in his parents’ subjectivity, which leaves him open Lo a variety of pathological developments.

In this respect, Lacan has described two different positions that the child (or infant) occupies in the subjectivity of his parents.

In the first place, Lacan says, the child’s symptom is a response to what is symptomatic in the family structure. In this sense the symptom is defined as the representative of truth. The truth in question is that of the parents’ sexuality and its pathological arrangements.

Secondly, Lacan has identified those situations in which the child’s dominant symptom stems from the subjectivity of the mother. The child comes to occupy the place of the object of the mother’s fantasy. The child then realises the presence of the object a. By incarnating the object of the mother’s fantasy, the child alienates ‘all possible access by the mother to her own truth, through giving it body, existence and, even, the requirement of protection. The somatic symptom gives the greatest possible guarantee to this miscognition [mêconnaissance]; it is the inexhaustible resource that, depending on the case, may testify to guilt, serve as a fetish or incarnate a primordial refusal’. (Lacan 1990, p.7.)

Analytic intervention is precisely aimed at reversing this objectification of the infant, this turning of the infant into an object whose aim is to fill in a hole in the mother. For Lacan, in the analytic situation the analyst occupies the position of semblant (the appearance) of the object a and offers himself to the transference of the analysand, who is in the position of subject. As the Other of the analysand’s speech, the analyst is not an absolute or complete Other, but an Other with a lack, a desiring Other.

4. The experience of the mirror is crucial for the consolidation of the separation of the subject from his Other and his object.

Lacan’s (1977) first major contribution to psychoanalysis was his theory of the mirror stage as structuring of the I. This contribution and its correlative developments on the order of the imaginary have retained all their value among Lacan’s more recent contributions, in particular as regards the conceptualization of and clinical work with psychotic and autistic structures.

The works of Rosine and Robert Lefort, who have specialised in the analysis of psychotic and autistic children, show the importance of the experience of the mirror for the stabilization of the division of the subject (Lefort 1980, 1988). The mirror image, or the image of the counterpart (the small other as it is called in Lacanian theory), provide the infant with a sense of unity, a Gestalt for his body. The experience of the mirror also introduces the division of the subject, in that (l) the identification with the image of the other involves an alienation (‘I is an other’); the I is moulded by the image of an other who is not the subject himself; and 2) the lost object does not appear in the mirror: the mirror confirms the fall and irreversible loss of the object.

Thus Lacan, who always underlined the definitive character of the relation with the object in the constitution of the subject, emphasized all along that the object relation is, in fact, a relation with the lack of object, with a pure loss.

This lack is also at the core of the infant’s relation with his mother. Hence the Lacanian formula: ‘There is no sexual relation’ (‘relation’, in the sense of proportion, or ratio). The analytic experience has revealed that the myth of the ‘perfect match’, or ‘naturally harmonious’ relation between infant and mother is just that: a myth, according to which each of the partners in the relation has what the other lacks. As Lacan put it, the ‘good enough’ mother is, in fact, the desiring mother, the mother with a lack, who opens the way to the desire of her infant precisely by being incomplete.


S. Freud (1950 [1895]), Project for a Scientific Psychology, Standard Edition 1: 366-7.

J. Lacan (1966), ‘Positions de l’inconscient’, in Ecrils, Paris, Seuil, pp. 829-50.

( 1977), The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, Hogarth, London, pp. 203-29.

J. Lacan (1977), ‘The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I’, Ecrits. A Selection, Tavistock, London, pp. 1-7.

(1990), ‘Note on the Child’, Analysis No. 2, Melbourne Centre for Psychoanalytic Research, p. 7.

R. & R. Lefort (1980), Naissance de l’Autre, Seuil, Paris.

(1988), Les structures de la psychose, Seuil, Paris.

995 Rathdowne Street
North Carlton
Vic. 3054

Scroll to Top