On Anxiety and Subjectivity

A certain uneasiness seems justified…

When consciousness feels this violence,
its anxiety may well make it retreat from the truth,
and strive to hold on to what it is in danger of losing.
But it can find no peace…

— G.W.F. Hegel

Anxiety has a prominent place in today’s society, and so too in medicine and psychoanalysis, perhaps now more than ever before. As one who suffers with anxiety on the daily, having been diagnosed with PTSD as a result of trauma, what fascinates me about this topic and why I continue to return to it, is precisely in its use. Particularly within psychoanalytic theory and analysis, which is counter to the modern conception of anxiety as something to be cured, I am interested in its function in my own subjectivity. Written in response to Catherine Malabou’s seminar, “Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Part I” presented at The European Graduate School in June 2022, this essay will trace the fundamental concept of anxiety through the work of Hegel, Freud, and Lacan in seeking to form a response to the question what is anxiety? — a question which can’t fully be articulated without also considering its relationship to loss, desire, mourning, and indeed, the very making of the subject.

Hegel sets the stage for the emergence of anxiety and its subsequent function in psychoanalysis. As early as the introduction to his Phenomenology of Spirit, he opens with, “A certain uneasiness seems justified…”1 The German term translated here as ‘uneasiness’ is Besorgnis, which is also translated as concern or anxiety. A few pages later, he writes: “When consciousness feels this violence, its anxiety may well make it retreat from the truth, and strive to hold on to what it is in danger of losing. But it can find no peace…[emphasis added]”2 Hegel understood that the experience of anxiety is an unavoidable part of reality. From the very beginning, we each experience separation. There is an initial separation at birth — a literal cutting of the infant away from the mother — as well as other formative separations such as the weaning of the infant from the mother’s breast and the prohibition of incestuous relations. Such experiences of loss and separation only continue throughout the rest of our lives. Indeed, being alive in this world, as Malabou suggests, “can only be interpreted as an experience of separation.”3 Thus, anxiety is about loss and separation, but it is also about desire. Significantly, what Lacan will come to call ‘lack,’ Hegel calls ‘desire’. We spend our lives trying to fulfill this lack created by anxiety. Malabou continues, “Desire is the answer to this experience of absence. If there was nothing to push us forward, life would be impossible. Another name for desire is the energy of the negative.”4 This pursuit of the desiring subject for satisfaction, which can never be fully satisfied despite all attempts to the contrary, “reveals the ontological lack by which the subject is constituted.”5

In many ways, Hegel’s influence can only be seen retrospectively, as a guiding thread or trace in the development of psychoanalysis. This is especially true with regard to the concept of anxiety, often appearing in the liminal spaces of the text, either beneath or between two consciousnesses or even requiring a closer reading, a reading between the lines, while Freud and Lacan each wrote extensively on the topic, and developed entire theories on just this concept alone. For Lacan, anxiety is the prerogative of subjectivity.6 However, we see this first in Hegel, most famously in his Master-Slave dialectic, whereby anxiety is at work in the very making of the subject, and in the movement from consciousness to self-consciousness, and the confrontation of two self-consciousnesses. In her book on Hegel, Malabou writes, “But the gradual formation of the ‘I’ is paradoxically accompanied by a loss of fluidity, leading to ‘ruin and disaster within the conscious spirit’.”7 Anxiety is a suffering we must endure, and like a perpetual mourning, it haunts us. It is important to note, as Rebecca Comay and Frank Ruda point out, that Hegel’s “Absolute knowing brings no release from anxiety. On the contrary, it brings anxiety to an unprecedented pitch.”8 In psychoanalysis, even today, there is no relief, no cure for anxiety. We can begin to see that for Hegel, as well as for Freud and Lacan after him, anxiety and subjectivity are also tied to mourning.

Anxiety, for Freud, is fundamentally a reaction to danger. It is worth noting, however, that Freud changed his theory of anxiety throughout the course of his work. Linking it first with sexuality, he theorized that anxiety was a consequence of repression. However, he reverses this theory in his 1926 Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, explicitly stating that, “Anxiety is not newly created in repression; it is reproduced as an affective state in accordance with an already existing mnemic image.”9 That is, anxiety comes first, is what sets repression in motion, and indeed, what is reproduced. As mentioned earlier regarding our experience of separation from the very beginning, Freud himself acknowledges birth as the first experience of anxiety.10 It is our primal trauma. In making this connection, however, he clarifies that the trauma of birth and the associated experience of anxiety is not a trauma we are continually repeating and reproducing — though who can say for sure? It remains a trace nonetheless. Even still, for Freud, anxiety is tied to repression, which is tied to repetition. In fact, repression and the formation of symptoms are actually an attempt to avoid anxiety. He posits, “It would be truer to say that symptoms are created so as to avoid a danger-situation whose presence has been signaled by the generation of anxiety.”11 In his later works, Freud distinguished between two types of anxiety: neurotic and real anxiety. The former is in regard to memory or fantasy, while the latter is conditional, in response to concrete danger. As a signal of danger which is often linked to the threat of castration, anxiety for Freud (as for Hegel) is ultimately about separation and loss.12

For Lacan, anxiety isn’t about the loss of the object, its absence, as it is for Freud. On the contrary, anxiety is about presence.13 Things get tricky here. Part of the Hegelian dialectic that Malabou brings to our attention is how, for Hegel, the nothingness isn’t empty.14 And this is absolutely fundamental: whether we talk about despair, doubt, or loss, it is not an abstract negation — a nothingness with no result — rather, it has content. This is what Hegel will describe later on as the energy of the negative: it is movement, a disruption that pushes us forward. Perhaps it could be suggested that Hegel’s ‘energy of the negative’ is anxiety as such. Further, Lacan made reference to Hegel in explaining that the real was very close to Hegelian negativity.15 Indeed, in daily life, anxiety is as close as we get to the real. For Lacan, anxiety is a form of certainty.16 It is not a reaction or defense against something unexpected, whether a surprise or danger, but rather a terrible certainty. As such, in psychoanalysis it is not simply something to get rid of, but must be worked with and used. The certainty at stake here is a certainty of non-being. This is why Lacan says of anxiety that it is the place where lack is lacking.17 It is something that appears and pushes me out of being, the very lack of being. Accordingly, anxiety acts as a hinge between desire and jouissance. As such, it is linked to the other, as it “puts at stake the position of the subject as the object he/she is for the Other.”18

Judith Butler, in an analysis of Lacan in relation to Hegel writes, “This Absolute, this “being” that is lacked, is also termed jouissance, the fullness of pleasure which, in Lacanian terms, is always frustrated by the oedipally conditioned pain of individuation.”19 In linking this back to Hegel, Butler posits that what becomes clear in the trembling of the bondsman is that fear of death grounds individuation.20 As aforementioned, it could be suggested that anxiety is at work beneath the surface, present in this trembling and between this confrontation in the master-slave dialectic. Anxiety is a precursor to subjectivity. The subject is constituted as such in relation to the Other and centered around the function of anxiety.21 While the Freudian conception of subjectivity is largely implicit, for Lacan, it is a process rather than substance. For Hegel, the life-and-death struggle is a dialectical proof, an achievement, a process of subjectivity.22 Lacan writes, “In Hegel, the Other is the one who sees me and this is what, all by itself, kicks off the struggle…”23 Moreover, Hegel, in reference to self-consciousness writes that it “...exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another, that is, it exists only in being acknowledged [emphasis added].”24 What becomes clear in Hegel as for Lacan is that subjectivity happens in relation to the other yet this confrontation with the other, whether stranger or neighbor, implies a certain proximity that causes even more anxiety.

Additionally, there is within the Hegelian dialectic the notion of fashioning oneself, which is elaborated in Malabou’s work on plasticity. Thus what is at stake in subjectivity is that, in a certain sense, it must destroy itself. That is, destruction is necessarily included in subjectivity. The dialectic at work here is one of both preservation and destruction. This destruction is not simply putting one’s life at risk, but of becoming someone through the very plastic formation of oneself. It implies that some aspect of ourselves has to disappear in order for other aspects to appear.25 Within the Hegelian dialectic, there is a certain suffering involved in coming to be known. What remains unspoken but nevertheless present in this exposition on the function of anxiety and subject formation is grief and mourning.

To conclude, in following the trace of anxiety throughout the work of Hegel, Freud, and Lacan in response to the question of what anxiety is, the shift in my own perspective comes in seeing the necessity of anxiety. Indeed, subjectivity as such implies anxiety in relation to the other. The centrality of anxiety to the theory of psychoanalysis is fundamental, not to mention its link to other essential concepts such as loss, desire, and mourning. Our debt to Hegel cannot be understated. His work in general, and particularly with regard to the purpose of this paper — namely, the function of anxiety and the formation of the subject — can be seen as a guiding thread in the work of Freud and Lacan, and indeed, within psychoanalysis as a whole.

1. G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 46.
2. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 51.
3. Catherine Malabou, “Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Part I” (seminar, The European Graduate School, June 2022).
4. Malabou, “Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Part I.”
5. Philippe Sabot, foreword to Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France, by Judith Butler (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), vii-viii.
6. Alenka Zupančič, What Is Sex? (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017), 56.
7. Catherine Malabou, The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality, and Dialectic, trans. Lisabeth During (New York: Routledge, 2005), 32.
8. Rebecca Comay and Frank Ruda, The Dash—The Other Side of Absolute Knowing (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2018), 26.
9. Sigmund Freud, “Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. XX, trans. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press, 1981), 93.
10. Freud, “Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety,” 93.
11. Freud, “Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety,” 129.
12. Ibid., 130.
13. Jacques Lacan, Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book X, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller and trans. A.R. Price (Malden: Polity, 2016), 54.
14. Catherine Malabou, “Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Part I.”
15. Lacan, Anxiety, 184.
16. Ibid., 218.
17. Ibid., 42.
18. Bogdan Wolf, Anxiety Between Desire and the Body: What Lacan Says in Seminar X (New York: Routledge, 2019), 7.
19. Judith Butler, Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 399.
20. Butler, Subjects of Desire, 201.
21. Lacan, Anxiety, 325.
22. Malabou, “Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Part I.”
23. Lacan, Anxiety, 23.
24. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 111.
25. Malabou, “Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Part I.”