“The father is a symptom or a sinthome”. This is how Lacan introduces us to his identification. With patriarchy not offering any compass anymore, fathers are not only numerous, but also weakened, jostled by an era that does no longer offer them any guarantee concerning the guiding points that are linked to law or morality. The father’s ailments are subsequently viewed as solutions to occupy the father’s function. This is the reverse side of its representations of the past; they have been passed through the mill of criticism and trauma.
In the 1970s, the “new fathers” came to the fore. They refused to identify with their own father and made theirs the principles of an egalitarianism between men and women by sharing both household and mothering tasks. They introduced the idea that being father is not in opposition to being mother, but rather that being father is disconnected from the man as an ideal of virility. What follows is the clinical fact of a division between man and father. This division seems obvious today. On the one hand, it is affecting the relation of the father towards his objects – in this case his children to whom he shows paternal care– and on the other hand, the fact to remain desirable for their partner. This division is symptomatic, indicating a disjunction between paternal and virile positions.
As a consequence, paternity has eaten into virility. Paternity has opened up fathers to the jouissance that is felt when one takes care of the body of the infant, to cuddle it, to take care of it. This is not about a feminisation of the man, as some might think. It is rather about a change of position in respect to paternity.
End of the authoritarian father
Our era constructs new ideals of paternity. They are founded on a saying no to fathers of the law and respect, no to strict and unjust fathers, no to fathers who transmit family values in the name of duty and manly transmission.
In short, this refusal of the pater familias has given rise to various modes of being a father and of deriving satisfaction from it. The modern father has discovered what a game changer the proximity to the child is and responded to a crucial discovery of fatherhood, that of a new love.
The duplicate father
Many fathers take the mother, who is their partner, as reference. It is she who introduces them and commands the ways of looking after the babies. She turns her partner into a split-up mother and imprisons him in a mirror identification, leaving little room that would allow him to constitute a position that is distinct from hers.
It is a father under the reign of the mother, somehow her substitute.
This position, which is often necessary in the first months of a baby’s life, can live on as a lack of differentiation between paternal and maternal functions. The father, in his autruification dimension, is erased. He undergoes a castration in the sense that he is deprived of his power of phallic affirmation in order to become father instead of the mother. Being a father is absorbed by the maternal desire.
Nowadays fathers have waived their enjoyment of authority. The ideal father is no longer in line with the precepts of the authoritarian voice. The latter has vanished in favour of the voice of love. This version of the father is erected as an ideal. It supports an ideology where love would come to satisfy and reassure the children before they even experience the anguish of the loss of love. Castration anxiety is thus denied.
From the beginning the child is placed as an exclusive love object for each one of the parents, who thereby find themselves competing. Love, in its imaginary and reciprocal version, is a utopia. Is this a new père-version though? It certainly is. Love, in fact, is not a supplement to be offered, but a lack. In love one gives what one does not have. Yet, nowadays the paternal love is a symptom. This love is complete, it smothers, it prevents, it weighs… Far from creating a lack, it suffocates. The expected harmony is not realised. The child does not respond to so much love. In order to grow up, it must encounter a certain disharmony. When Lacan notes that “A father has no right to get respect, only love, and only when the so-called love is père-versely oriented; that is to say, makes of a woman, object a that causes his desire”, he indicates the non-rapport between father and child. The child has to encounter the riddle that is love and the father’s desire for the woman who is his mother. Equally, when Lacan introduces the phallus as a third term that comes to disturb the mother-child bond, he unravels the myth of love as One. The mother desires something else, the child does not fulfil her. Parents who develop an identity that is based on the negation of this difference, create new forms of anguish in the child. The latter grows up against the certitude of the parental love, hence the series of symptoms are triggered by this: anger spells, refusal, omnipotence, etc.
This version of the father has evolved from the surplus-jouissance objects, marked by the entry of video games into the culture. Admittedly, they have been existing for decades, playing soccer still has a few beautiful days ahead. And the father who initiates his children to the pleasures of sport, introduces them to an encounter with the pleasure of having a mastered and phallicised body. In contrast, video games and other screen passions partake in this paternal position that does not say no to a jouissance that is immediate and solitary. By positioning himself as such, the game-father authorises a forbidden jouissance because he himself is his very slave. He thus shows his child how to not deprive oneself from enjoying [jouir] unhindered. He puts him on the path to screen addiction and boosts in him an entitlement to jouissance rather than its renunciation.
The all-knowing father
No doubt heir of Schreber’s educator father, the pedagogue father is the one who holds an encyclopaedic knowledge that he wants to transmit to his children. It is the father who targets the professor model as an ideal, who wants to secure the royal path to knowledge and self-affirmation to his child. Injecting knowledge like crazy, he fills up the lack that is necessary for the manifestation of desire. He creates the knowledge-anorexia of which Lacan has demonstrated the mechanism with anorexia nervosa. When the child is filled with too much knowledge, the refusal, the saying-no to knowledge, will emerge. Nothing as object a then responds.
The I-don’t-give-a-damn father
This is the father who laughs at everything, who mocks, who encourages, then cancels, who makes laugh, then makes cry, who gives and who deprives, who says yes, then no. It is a volatile father, bamboozled, without law. The fall of ideals, a consequence of his cynicism, results in anguish and insecurity in the child. This is a father who above all destroys, because he has not been able to idealise himself as a father, he has not been able to recognise himself as such. The ideal ego lacking, the child becomes its ersatz i(a). The child of whom he does not want to be the master while occupying the function. Hence the tyrannical form that results from it.
Lacan evoked the “evaporation of the father” [l’évaporation du père] as a symptom of the end of patriarchy. Its consequences can be read in our time in the ideals of paternity. Ideals that circulate and make the father a symptom insofar as each person has to deal with his singularity. Jacques-Alain Miller adds that it is at that level that he is perverse. That is to say that his specific style, his singular jouissance, do not prevent him from orienting himself towards one woman among all women, rather than toward his child.
References from the author:
 Lacan, J. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XXIII, The Sinthome, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, translated by A. R. Price. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016, p. 11.
 “autruification”, in French in the original text, could, in English, be translated as “other-making”.
 Lacan, J., The Seminar, Book XXII, « R.S.I.», lesson of the 21st of January1975, Ornicar?, nº 3, May 1975, p. 107. Our translation.
 Lacan, J., « Note sur le père », La Cause du désir, nº89, January 2015, p. 8. Our translation.
 Miller, J.-A. “L’orientation lacanienne. L’Un-tout-seul”, lesson of the 6th of April 2011 [unpublished]. Our translation.
Translation: Eva Sophie Reinhofer
Proofreading: Aurélie Solliec
Picture : © Emmanuel Kervyn