What Constitutes Self-Obliteration Within Lacanian Psychoanalysis?

In my last blog I mentioned that I would be answering questions about Self-Obliteration through readings of Kusama’s and Athey’s performances. Before doing this though, a brief return to what I have written before hand about Lacan and his concept of the ‘objet petit a’ might shed some light as to what self obliteration might actually constitute. 

Chapter 1 in my thesis identified that there have been a series of artists operating towards the end of the 20th Century where normative representations of masculinity are performed in relation to the control of image, and the endurance of abjection. I referred to these performances as muscular masculinity, yet what made these different from the work of those artists who can be read through Amelia Jones concept of phallic dis/play (Jones, 1994) is that these images are indicative of what Žižek refers to as not quite rightness (Zizek, 2011).  I argued that what makes these images not quite right is the flash of corporeal anxiety that appears and then immediately disappears in the works. 

As a way of articulating these flashing moments of anxiety I used Lacan’s concept of the object petit a, which he articulates as desire, and which in turn is only partly obtainable through the phallus (Lacan, 2001, p. 316).  Considering this, my argument was that muscular masculinity performed representations of phallic masculinity, which parodied the cultural need to cover up the ambiguity of male corporeality. 

In A Love Letter Lacan articulates the object petit a as being barred from the subject, that is the phallus hides it and metaphorically replaces its ambiguity with an inaccurate metaphorical substitute, the subject’s demand (Lacan, 1999a, p. 84).  What is meant by this is that in order for the subject to not return to the state of the chora, the environment prior to their entry into the symbolic, they must construct an identity that functions as a veil over the fragmentation and ambiguous feelings of the body and bodily drives. However, if we see the phallus as the bar between the body and language, or identity, then those parts of the body discussed in Chapter 3 (choking, gagging and retching), might be seen as a function of the loss associated with identity (Lacan, 1999b, p. 28)

If Lacan’s construction of self were to be used as a framework for making performance it would seem that the phallus has the dual function of constructing self and attempting to veil the ambiguity of the body. A Self-Obliteration then might occur by opening up the gaps that the phallus cannot fill as a way of exposing the fluidity and ambiguity of corporeality. 

Hence, rather than provide fleeting moments of the object petit a between phallic representations of masculinity, a Self-Obliteration might come from the impossible task of searching for the object petit a.  To move away from the symbolic construction of my imagined identity, as much as is possible, in search for the reality of my body.  To explore between the crevices and gaps of my body and to allow feelings, emotions and instincts to wash over me.  To embrace the space of ambiguity and incoherence that exceeds the violent restrictions and inaccuracies of language.


 Jones, A. (1994) Dis/playing the Phallus: Male Artists Perform Their Masculinities. Art History, 17 (4), pp. 546–584.

Lacan, J. (1999a) A Love Letter. In: Miller, J. A. ed. On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge. New York: Norton, pp. 78–89.

Lacan, J. (1999b) The Function of the Written. In: Miller, J. A. ed. On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge. New York: Norton, pp. 26–37.

Lacan, J. (2001) Signification of the Phallus. In: Ecrits: A Selection. London: Routledge, pp. 311–322.

Zizek, S. (2011) How To Read Lacan. Granta Publications.