‘O-o-o-o!’ Theory is a game, a game of desire with a piece of string and a reel. To play, throw away a reel that is attached to a piece of string, making it disappear. Then pull it back. Two exclamations should accompany these motions: these have been transcribed as ‘fort’ (‘gone’) and ‘da’ (‘there’). The game was first observed by Sigmund Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and considered to be an apparently baffling phenomenon, one which he tried to explain as ‘the renunciation of instinctual satisfaction’ (Freud 1984, 285). Considered as a whole, the game seems to operate within an economy of pleasure in which the ‘distressing experience’ of (maternal) loss is calmed by being returned to the equilibrium maintained by the pleasure principle. Disappearance is no more than a prelude to return: unpleasure is sustained in a pleasurable dialectic which ensures the overcoming of the distressing experience of loss. But the act of throwing away, Freud notes, ‘was staged as a game in itself and far more frequently than the episode in its entirety, with its pleasurable ending’. Unsure of the return of pleasure, the game cannot be interpreted simply in terms of the pleasure principle. Another motive is suggested: ‘at the outset he was in a passive situation — he was overpowered by the experience; but by repeating it, unpleasurable though it was, as a game, he took an active part’ (Freud 1984, 285). An ‘instinct for mastery’ is at work. Here, Freud’s analysis hesitates, uncertain whether the game is determined by the pleasure principle or whether it follows an independent instinct of mastery.
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