Desire and Malfunction — Işık Barış Fidaner

Perhaps the greatest discovery or invention of psychoanalysis is the connection it found or the bridge it established between the concepts desire and malfunction. Through this bridge, it identified the sexual and aggressive desires and drives concealed behind accidental acts like dreams, slips of the tongue and jokes, and named them the Unconscious. On the other hand, those who follow the mysterious “royal road” (Freud’s term) of unconscious desires until the end will finally confront some basic malfunctions and impasses: The inadequacy of words in language, the mortality of sexual beings, the impossibility of the Real, the incompleteness (non-all) of truth… [1] The common feature of desire and malfunction is that they are disruptive rather than constructive. That’s why one speaks of “disorders” in mental health. So what do desire and malfunction disrupt?

A subject that does not accept that (s)he is just the reflection of God can realize his/her own subjective consistency; this is one’s conscious will. Desire is an unconscious factor that disrupts the subject’s conscious will. Desire is disruptive because it transcends subjective control. A person can have fidelity to his/her desires or not, but (s)he cannot be fully conscious of his/her desires. So our knowledge about desires is inevitably partial, incomplete, non-all. Moreover, it’s not just our knowledge about it; the truth of desire is also incomplete. The ultimate relation we have with desires, even if it’s constructed through psychoanalysis, is a relation of not knowing, even a relation of not wanting to know. The knowledge implied by “Know thyself!” in ancient Greece is the knowledge of subjective will. But the subjective consistency of the conscious will can always be disrupted by unconscious desires.

If we don’t accept that they conform to a natural flow as in Aristotelian teleology, we call the ordered objective consistencies that we encounter in the world, “systems”. One can examine the systems’ orders, this is the aim of science; the aim of engineering is to construct systems and make them work. Malfunction is the event of an objective system’s disruption. Malfunction is disruptive, because it transcends objective control. We can be affected by malfunctions and accidents, we learn by examining them, we try to prevent (or sometimes trigger) them, but we cannot master them completely. So our mastery of malfunctions is partial, incomplete, non-all. It is impossible to master the systems completely. There’s the real of chaos and entropy. The ultimate relation we have with malfunctions, even for the most meticulous engineers, is to leave them be when we cannot master them. The objective consistency of the system can always be disrupted by malfunctions.

So the great discovery of psychoanalysis is the deep relevance between malfunctions that we leave be and our desires that we don’t want to know. This relevance is the bridge between subjective inconsistencies and the objective inconsistencies [2]. In other words, it is the paradoxical identity of subjectivity and objectivity. This paradoxical identity recalls the measurement problem in quantum physics: The subjective factor that participates in the measurement device has a share in the objective reality of the fact of measurement. Desire has a share in malfunction.

Let’s give an example from The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. There has been an accident: Freud’s hand moved and his inkpot cover has fallen and broken. Freud, even if he knows that this was an accident, or precisely because of this knowledge, thinks that there must be a factor of unconscious desire that made his hand hit the inkpot cover. Then, he recalls what his sister told him a moment ago: “Your writing table looks really attractive now; only the inkstand doesn’t match. You must get a nicer one.” And Freud identifies the desire that broke the inkpot cover: “I carried out, so it seems, the execution of the condemned inkstand.” [3]

There is a factor of desire in every accident. In order to limit the responsibility that we bear, we want to disregard the factor of desire, or sometimes conscious acts are obfuscated by making them seem like an accident. Even an innocent act like telling someone “I have things to do, I’m busy” instead of saying “I don’t want to see you”, is the denial of desire by making it seem like an accident.

On the other hand, there is a factor of accident in every desire. Human desires are not necessary, they can be attributed to contingent causes. So they cannot be reduced to certain functions. For instance, sexual desire cannot be reduced to a desire to reproduce; aggressivity cannot be reduced to a desire to dominate. It’s easy to identify the desire-malfunction connection in idioms like “There will be an accident out of my hand” [This Turkish idiom means that I’m angry and I may act aggressively].

We can find the subjectivity/objectivity bridge between desire [arzu] and malfunction [arıza] in the word “arz” [4]. In Turkish “arz” means “to present” as well as “Earth”. The word arz founds the bridge between the subjective will and the objective system: What is presented subjectively to humanity consists of the objectivity of the Earth. Arz is arzed. And the malfunction that we call the climate crisis should be explained by desires that humanity cannot control.


Işık Barış Fidaner is a computer scientist with a PhD from Boğaziçi University, İstanbul. Admin of Yersiz Şeyler, Editor of Žižekian Analysis, Curator of Görce Writings. Twitter: @BarisFidaner


1. The impossibility of the real and the incompleteness (non-all) of truth is, according to Lacan, linked to the non-all of Woman. One thinks that Man is all. This thought makes up the Symbolic Order.

2. In Lacanese these are called the barred subject $ and the barred Other Ⱥ.

3. See the quote.

4. Here I just point out the similarity of the words. If you check their etymology, you see that arzu comes from Persian whereas arıza comes from Arabic, and that only the arz which means “to present” is connected to arıza.


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