Lacan and The Prestige

I’ve spent a chunk of the last several weeks reading work by Jacques Lacan (1901-1981). Given my interest in Deleuze and Guattari over the past few years this makes sense since both were engaged in conversation with his thought and methods.

More immediately however I wanted to find out what Lacan had to say about anxiety, which has become a major theme in my own thinking lately; see for example my forthcoming talks in London at UCL and my AAG presentation in San Francisco:

Lacan gave a whole seminar on anxiety (Seminar X) which was luckily for me recently translated into English by Polity Press and available here. In the words of the recent meme however “one does not just…read Lacan” but there is a whole process of getting familiar with his thinking as a whole, which is not easy. (I wonder what it was like to sit there and listen to him speaking his seminars, since he has a very round-about way of talking and his ideas are fairly unusual even today.)

Luckily there are some good guides (the Introductory Dictionary on Lacan by Dylan Evans is invaluable) and well-informed colleagues and websites who’ve paved the way.

Lacan’s discussion of the structure of the psyche places anxiety fairly centrally, which makes sense if you think of the condition of the person seeking therapy in the first place. Lacan connects anxiety with desire, which is also central to his work. For Lacan, desire is not so much directed at an object (“I want a new Xbox”) but (as I understand it) in connection with other people. Desire is the desire for desire from these others (Lacan: “desire of the Other’s desire.”)

It might be best to introduce some of Lacan’s terminology here, which I can best explain in the context of Christopher Priest’s novel The Prestige (2005). Lacan argues that desire is not need or demand (the baby screaming because it’s hungry is demanding to satisfy its needs) but rather is directed at the big Other (which is at least initially most often the mother) as a demand for unconditional love. Since the Other cannot provide this unconditional love there is a leftover portion of demand, and this left-over, which remains unsatisfied, is desire. (See entry for desire in Evans, or the online encyclopedia of Lacan.) In French this is the big A (for Autre or Other).

As we probably know from personal experience, desire can never be satisfied (“money can’t buy me love” etc). Desire is a moving target; when you get something you thought you wanted desire moves on to the next thing. This is why seduction is erotically so charged, and conquest so boring (Foucault once remarked that the best moment of love is when the lover leaves). Psychoanalytically therefore focusing on the relation between objects and desire is a dead end. Desire is a lack. Lacan explains this by saying that the self (ego) places its counterpart, which he calls the objet petit a (little other) as the only object of desire. It is the cause of desire (X, p. 101).

Objet petit a is a counterpart of the ego, like an image in a mirror (a great theme of Lacan’s who after all introduced the concept of the mirror stage). While the Other may be readily comprehended I think the objet petit a is more difficult. This is where The Prestige comes in.


For many people I suspect they will be most familiar with the film of the same name by the Nolan brothers and starring Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall and Piper Perabo (with David Bowie as Nikola Tesla and Michael Caine as Cutter). The film is very good, and I do recommend it, but in many ways it has less depth than the original book. I recently watched the film again and reread the book, inspired by Lacan’s analysis.

Minor spoilers ahead!

Bale plays Alfred Borden, an up-and-coming magician in the late nineteenth century. Note the A-B structure of his name for now. Jackman plays Robert Angier, another magician between whom a rivalry develops. The doubling here already prefigures Priest’s interest in twins, doubles, original/other etc. This goes back to the first book to take what has become a signature title structure of Priest’s; a book called The Affirmation (1981). (I would say these two books are his best.) So The Glamour, The Quiet Woman, The Separation, The AdjacentThe Dream Archipelago, etc. His Encyclopedia of SF entry is here. Priest is a writer of sf if we understand the s here to be speculative rather than science fiction. His blog is here.

In both the film and the book the key magic trick performed by both men is to seemingly transport themselves in an instant across the stage. Although it is concealed from us, Borden achieves this by actually being twin brothers (the A-B hints at this). In the film the two men are never openly shown together (one plays the magician and one plays the ingénieur) and in the book Borden’s diary is written as one person (both refer to themselves as “me”). Following the death of Angier’s wife in the film because Borden tied a more difficult knot on her hands, we get a hint of this when Angier demands of him “which knot did you tie?” and Borden replies “I keep asking myself that…And I’m sorry, but I just don’t know”, p. 37 of the screenplay.) That is, he asks his twin, who is the more reckless version, but can’t decide if he’s being truthful.

In the book there is further doubling, for example between Olivia Wenscombe and Olive Svensson (not in the film), and a framing narrative set in the present-day. But the most interesting from a Lacanian point of view is that of Angier (who is actually already playing two roles, as the younger Lord [Rupert] Caldlow and his stage name The Great Danton). Angier visits Nikola Tesla, who at that time had research labs just outside Colorado Springs on Pike’s Peak in order to capture the lightening from the frequent storms, and thus work on his electrical experiments. (Another doubling here is Tesla’s own rivalry with Thomas Edison over alternating or direct current.)

Angier contracts Tesla to make him a device or machine which can transport matter, by extension from Tesla’s theories of sending electricity through the air. And here we come to both the Lacan and the meaning of the title, The Prestige. Note that the title is not just Prestige. What is prestige? Priest explains that an illusion has three stages; the setup (the “pledge” in the movie), where the nature of what will be attempted is explained and demonstrated. Second, is the performance itself (the “turn” in the movie) where the magical display is performed. Third, in a coinage of Priest’s, is the “prestige,” which is “the product of magic” (p. 73 of the novel), which includes the “prestigious” effect and affect. It is what is left over after the trick.

In the story, this is a dreadful pun because what is produced (the “prestige materials”) by Tesla’s machine is both a splitting apart of the subject, and a reassembling at the intended location, not only across space, but also on the original location. There are then, two Angiers, both alive and with identical memories up to that point (and therefore identifying as Angier). In the film, this is dealt with by having a trapdoor open below the Tesla coil and drop one Angier into a tank to drown. The other then continues as a single Angier until next time. In the book the bodies are collected and stored in the family vault on the Caldlow estate.

In the book the non-transported Angier, the prestige (the “product of magic”) is dead (but, we find out, with an incorruptible body). Except for one time when Borden interferes. In this case the process is interrupted partway through the transportation, which results in two Angiers, both alive. The one is terribly sickly and has lost 30lbs in weight, big Angier we might say, the other which was transported across the theater, is ghostlike and semi-transparent, petit a-ngier we might say. The novel’s closing chapters hint that after the death of Angier, petit a will use the machine to transport into the body of big A and live on.

I don’t know if Priest had this language or concept in mind during the book’s writing, but it’s a good way to think through objet petit a. Objet a is not the Other but rather the counterpart or spectral (projected mirror) image of the ego. Petit angier likewise; he is spectral (ghostlike, can pass through matter but can affect matter too), the desired (ie missing) part of the ego, not an (ordinary) object. The cause of desire.

The splitting apart occurred because of a great trauma (a concept closer perhaps to Freud than Lacan). What is produced is something left over, not totally accessible by oneself, the ego (moi, in French). Now we return to anxiety. Lacan says that anxiety is an affect, the only affect which is entirely free of doubt or “that which deceives not” (X, p. 76, Session VI). Here Lacan breaks from Freud who distinguishes between fear and anxiety. For Freud, fear is fear of something but anxiety is not directed at an object, it’s not specific. No, said Lacan, anxiety occurs not due to this lack, but rather due to “lack of a lack,” an overwhelming, smothering presence (as of early in life might occur with the mother’s breast). More generally, it’s the inability to define oneself outside the overwheening intrusion of the Other. Or, ahem, over-weaning.


The object that anxiety is not without is petit a. It can be uncanny (Lacan discusses the uncanny as Unheimlich throughout Seminar X, drawing again from Freud). Certainly petit-angier is uncanny; his appearance in dim light is ghostlike, causing men to exclaim and women to scream (this is in the book; it doesn’t happen like this in the film). Standardly, Unheimlich means a feeling of familiarity yet foreigness, as in the description of those Japanese animatronic dolls that fall into the “uncanny valley” hypothesized in 1970 by Masahiro Mori. As robots and humanoid dolls become more lifelike, Mori posited that human “affinity” (shinwakan) for them would suffer a severe dip like a valley. This would be exacerbated if they also moved around.

Mori’s uncanny valley

As human likeness increased just a bit more however, the affinity for them would rapidly be overcome. Notice that Mori also put “healthy person” at the apex of the graph (reading from left to right). As he further elaborated, this means that the bottom of the valley is occupied by some interesting beings, namely a corpse and ultimately a zombie:


Death now pulls a healthy person back into the valley (reading from the top right leftwards) to the corpse position in the valley. Below that is a zombie which is dead, but moves around.

Mori implies that we have less affinity for an ill person than a healthy person, although their degree of human likeness is almost the same. An ill person is right on the edge of the valley. They are slightly eerie. An animated corpse, like petit-angier would be fully uncanny/Unheimlich. Anxiety? Well, then it might be the question of where you put this part of yourself in this schema. Evans after all says that anxiety is not knowing what sort of object you are for the Other.

In The Prestige, the closing chapters indicate that petit-angier is going to attempt to transport himself into big Angier’s body. Both (A)angiers note that the other would complete them, and their material aspects also indicate this. One is a physical body without a lifeforce, and the other is a lively presence without much of a body. Can this be conjunction be satisfactorily achieved? In Lacan, what is looked for cannot be attained (remember desire). In the novel this is left radically open, or at the very most, the physical conjunction appears to have taken place but it is not known if the psychic conjunction did so as well in any kind of healing way.

Anyway, it’s a brilliant novel and has really helped me with Lacan.


One response to “Lacan and The Prestige

  1. Pingback: Explaining the Trump effect | Open Geography

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