Squid Game and Psychoanalysis: The Theory of Desire of Jacques Lacan

On September 17, 2021, for the first time, “Squid Game“, a South Korean television series, is broadcast.

Hwang Dong-hyuk, the author of the series, had already written the screenplay in 2008, however the success of the masterpiece was stopped by the inability to find producers to finance the project.

To date, the success of the series is planetary in size, so much so that many know the plot: 456 people freely choose to risk their lives by participating in a deadly game; There are 45.6 billion won at stake. The participants share the same fate: they are all people of the lowest condition who “live on the edge” and who “do not have the money to pay off their debts“.

From a “superficial reading” level this could be everything, but in reality the series presents a deeper level of reading.

In “Hell“, the second episode of the series, at one point we see the young detective Hwang Jun-ho: he is in his missing brother’s apartment and is looking for useful clues that can help him in his research.

On a desk, among a pile of books, we can glimpse “The Theory of Desire” by Jacques Lacan (as well as a book on the surrealist painter René Magritte, one on Van Gogh and one on Picasso). “Why are those books shown?” one wonders looking at the episode for the first time.

Answering this question is of fundamental importance since there are key elements to grasp the subtle nuances of the story, but to do so it would be necessary to dwell on Jacque Lacan’s “theory of desire”; then on the characters that characterize the series.

Jacques Lacan, French psychoanalyst, psychiatrist and philosopher, states “our desire is always and only the desire of the other’s desire”. But what is desire?

Borrowing the words of the clinical psychologist Giovanni Lo Castro “Desire is the effect of a * mechanism, a mechanism that humanizes the human being when it is born“.

In simple terms, man “being of desire“, is distinguished from the animal “being of need”, in that to satisfy his need he needs another man (subject and subject relationship), while the animal , which obeys the instinct (the drive) satisfies its own needs without the need of the other (subject and thing relationship).

The being of desire therefore asks the reference figure “what am I for you?” or “what place do I occupy in your desires?“.

Starting from these summary considerations (which deserve further study) it is possible to carry out an analysis of the characters of the television series.

Let’s consider Seong Gi-hun, one of the main characters, as well as the most emblematic.

He is a divorced man, a great gambler who sinks into debt, a man who finds himself at the bottom of the social ladder. His condition prevents him from being recognized as a father (so much so that his mother, speaking of legal issues, tells him that “if he demonstrated that he could financially support his daughter, he could get her back”).

It is clear that he has a desireto be something for his daughter” but his passion for gambling is opposed to his desire and deprives him of the necessary means to satisfy it.

Being recognized as a father and a person of value is therefore difficult and so Seong Gi-Hun’s life loses its meaning: all he can do is play Squid Game, since putting his own life at risk not only gives him the opportunity. to win, but also allows him to “anesthetize” the pain felt. And so it also happens to all the other players, albeit with different dynamics.

Massimo Recalcati, psychotherapist and great Lacan scholar, would say that in the Squid Game universe it is the force of the drive that dominates the characters, and in fact, in one way or another, they are all attracted to excess.

Moderation, a sense of proportion, both inside and outside the game, are perceived as bad, as they are synonymous with “defeat”. And you cannot let yourself be overcome by surrender, in a world where you have to be ruthless to survive.

Thus the game and its appetizing prize pool of 45.6 billion won gives participants the illusion of being able to satisfy every desire and be able to overcome the afflictions of life. But what escapes them is the fact that the game itself “does nothing but restart the original lack“.

*Clinical psychologist Giovanni Lo Castro states that desire runs through a circuit:

  • the need (the subject notices a lack)
  • the demand for care (the subject not being able to satisfy his or her needs by himself asks himself: “what / how should I do so that the reference figure takes care of me?”)
  • the request for help loaded with an enigma (the cared person wonders “what does the reference figure want from me?” and consequently feels the need to extract from the question of the reference figure something that is the object of desire of the figure reference point; eg a smile, an answer to questions) “.


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