The term "aphanisis" merits an entry in Laplanche and Pontalis's The Language of Psychoanalysis, where its principal definition is as follows: "Term introduced by Ernest Jones: the disappearance of sexual desire. According to Jones aphanisis is the object, in both sexes, of a fear more profound than the fear of castration."
It was in 1927 that Ernest Jones called upon this concept in his work on the precocious development of feminine sexuality. Etymologically the term comes from the Greek aphanisis, which refers to an absence of brilliance in the astronomical sense, to disappearance or becoming invisible (of a star for example).
Jones applied this concept in a psychoanalytic sense in seeking to account for the disappearance of sexual desire in light of the castration complex; at the same time, he stressed that in his view there was no strict correlation between castration and the disappearance of sexuality: "many men wish to be castrated for, among others, erotic reasons, so that their sexuality certainly does not disappear with the surrender of the penis." (1927, p. 439-440)
In other words, the concept of aphanisis, according to Jones, was much broader than that of castration, and if the two notions sometimes appeared to merge, it was only because the figure of castration was in some way emblematic of the suppression of sexual desire, for which it supplied a concrete (but in fact inaccurate) representation.
Laplanche and Pontalis (1967) observe that in women the fear of aphanisis is discernible beneath the fear of separation from the loved object, which is consistent with the fact that Jones introduced the notion apropos of feminine sexuality.
While Sigmund Freud described the psychosexual development of the boy along phallocentric lines, Jones, for his part, tried to describe the sexuality of the young girl not by exclusive reference to penis envy (Penisneid), but as a sexuality having direct aims and modalities of its own. And it is precisely aphanisis, prior to the castration complex, that can furnish a kind of common basis for the sexual development of both sexes.
About thirty years after Jones introduced it, in 1963, John Bowlby took up the concept of aphanisis again in his critical review of separation anxiety. He made aphanisis one of the possible bases for understanding this developmental phenomenon. The disappearance of the object in fact confronts the infant with the fear of no longer being able to focus its instinctual impulsive movements, and thus with the risk of losing the very possibility of the pleasure of desire as well.
Today the concept of aphanisis as such is little used in the context of metapsychological work; it has doubtless been relegated to the background by the redoubtable expansion of the theory of attachment.
See also: Annihilation anxiety; Femininity; Jones, Ernest; Object a; Phallus.
Bowlby, John. (1961). Separation anxiety: A critical review of the literature. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 1, 251-69.
Ernest, Jones. (1950). Early development of female sexuality. In Papers on psychoanalysis. London: Bailliere, Tindall and Cox. (Original work published 1927)
Laplanche, Jean, and Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand. (1967). The language of psychoanalysis. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
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