Master Signifiers & Adolescent Identity

Every year I teach a class on doing psychotherapy with adolescents. I’m not teaching the class this summer, but recently I read Lacan’s short paper On Freud’s “Trieb” and the Psychoanalyst’s Desire in the Écrits, and it put the course on adolescents into my thoughts…

I started to take what I thought were some short notes on a few quoted lines from the text. However, soon enough my notes were no longer “short” notes. [EN-1]

I’ve decided to share my notes with you.

Master Signifiers & Adolescent Identity:

One of the things that I find striking about my clinical work with adolescents (and adults who retain an adolescent way of being in relation to others) is how important identity is to the adolescent.

I see adolescents constructing an identity through the process of identifying with various things. Some examples that are common now are LGBTQ+ or being an ally; other examples are identifying as a Christian, Muslim, or Jew; others still are identifying as a fan of a particular sports team or band. For the adolescent their personal identity —the story they tell themselves about themself— is constructed from these identifications with other people, places, and things.

In many instances, it seems to me that these identifications might be the foundations or the master signifiers that the identity is built on top of.

I see adolescents investing a huge amount of libido into their identifications and experiencing a massive amount of jouissance from the process of identifying. Why do adolescents do this? Because it gives their **jouissance** a fantasy of consistency to attach to, and this fantasy of rapport something other than **the drive**.

what should strike us [is] that identifications are determined by desire there without satisfying the drive.
This occurs because the drive divides the subject and desire, the later sustaining itself not by the relation it misrecognizes between this division and the object that causes it. Such is the structure of fantasy. [EN-1]


I think Lacan’s point is that identifications, and the identity they support, act as a braking system that pulls jouissance (satisfaction) away from the drive and towards the act of saying to the self, others, and the Other, “This is who I am!”

The adolescent enjoys the fantasy of being recognized in the way they want to be recognized, of having their identity reflected back to them within the mirror that is the gaze of the Other.


Identity is a structure (sometimes a neurotic fantasy and other times a psychotic delusion). When the subject is within the structure of their identity the subject feels safe(er) from the real and the castration the real inflicts.

Lacan points out there is indeed jouissance in feeling as if one is safe from the real and castration.

This jouissance of feeling safe as one constructs and maintains an identity can be more attractive than the jouissance of being pulled by the drive.

Be that as it may, even if a fantasy effectively distracts the adolescent from the drive, the drive is never gone...


While identifications and identity slow down the effects of the drive by creating a new channel for jouissance to flow through, the drive is not undone by identification and identity.

We can understand this by imagining a river flowing. The water is flowing from high to low, this is the drive, the water is driven to rejoin the sea.

An identity is creating a new channel that some of the water can flow into. This new channel does lessen the overall current (drive) of the river, but the water will always flow (be driven) down towards sea level (death).

The key point I'm trying to make is that identity slows down the effect of the drive, but the drive does continue to have an effect.


Keeping all of this in mind, Lacan asks

What then can the analyst’s desire be? What can the treatment to which the analyst devote himself be?

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