Jacques Marie Émile Lacan (1901-81) trained as a medical doctor at the Faculté de médecine de Paris and worked extensively with patients suffering from what psychiatrists called "automatism" or délires à deux. This condition led people to believe that their speech or writing was governed by an unseen but omnipotent force beyond their control. Often coupled with severe personality disorders and a history of familial conflict, the symptoms of automatism resembled certain aspects of the cases then being studied by the nascent psychoanalytic movement in France, and Lacan pursued this connection between psychiatric medicine and psychoanalysis in his thesis for the doctorat d'état in psychiatry, De la psychose paranoïaque dans ses rapports avec la personnalité (1932). Over the next 50 years, this combination of extensive clinical practice with speculative theoretical argument continued to distinguish what Lacan described as his "return to Freud." Through extended close readings of Freud's texts and his own clinical practice, Lacan expanded the field of psychoanalysis to include insights from philosophy, linguistics, literature, and, finally, mathematics. Although he sometimes explicitly discussed literature, his importance for literary theory and criticism derives primarily from his more general speculations on language, the subject, and sexuality. By the time of his death, Lacan was one of the most prominent and most controversial intellectual figures in the world, and his work had influenced the academic study of literature and film as well as the theoretical discourse and clinical practice of psychoanalysis.|
Lacan's career is often divided into four stages. From 1926 to 1953 his work evolved from the conventional psychiatric practice of the time to incorporate many psychoanalytic concepts into the clinical diagnosis and treatment of patients. His earliest publications consist of brief case studies, but beginning in the late 1930s he began publishing a number of articles that focus on the importance of the "mirror stage" in the development of a child's sense of self during the first two years of life. Drawing upon the work of the French psychologist Henri Wallon and others, such as J. M. Baldwin, Charlotte Bühler, and Otto Rank, Lacan argued that the child's emergent sense of self was always formed in reference to some "other." That other could be the child's own image in a mirror, a sibling or friend, or any number of alternative models with which the child associated itself according to what Freud had termed narcissistic identification.
Rather than being the first step toward the formation of a healthy and stable ego, the mirror stage in Lacan's account is the origin of a fundamental alienation in the individual's sense of self. Because that self is oriented in the "fictional direction" of an other who is perceived as omnipotent and thus as a potential rival to the self, the ego that emerges from this stage inevitably bears within it a hostility or "aggressivity" that threatens the very stability attributed to it. Lacan therefore concluded that human identity is formed only within an intersubjective context in which alienation and aggressivity are the norm rather than aberrations.
Lacan's insistence on the méconnaissance, or misperception, at the heart of the ego controverted the therapeutic pretensions of ego psychology, which conceived of the ego as the origin and basis of psychic stability and which was endorsed by most of the International Psycho-Analytical Association (IPA). Tension between Lacan and the IPA increased until 1953, when he broke with the IPA and formed his own group, the Société française de psychanalytique (SFP). At the first meeting of this group, in Rome that year, Lacan presented his paper "Fonction et champ de la parole et du langage en psychanalyse," which quickly became known as the manifesto of the new society, the "Discourse of Rome" (Écrits 30-113).
Lacan argued that speech and, more generally, language were central to psychoanalytic practice and to any theoretical conclusions that might be extrapolated from it. He rejected the tendency to treat psychoanalysis as a subspecialty of biology and neurology and instead turned toward Saussurean linguistics and Hegelian philosophical traditions for his theoretical vocabulary. (See G. W. F. Hegel and Ferdinand de Saussure.) Coupled with Lacan's bitter and sarcastic characterization of the ego as the seat of neurosis rather than the source of psychic integration, this emphasis on the symbolic organization of human experience staked out a radically new territory for psychoanalytic inquiry, one that Lacan claimed had been discovered by Freud but obscured by his followers.
The charge that psychoanalysts had abandoned the founding texts of their profession exacerbated tensions between the IPA and the SFP until Lacan left the group in 1963 to form another organization, the École Freudienne de Paris (EFP). This third turn in his career began in a series of lectures conducted under the aegis of the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes. There, Lacan continued his close readings of Freud's texts, but he now began to introduce a number of terms and concepts not found in Freud's own work. These new seminars were broader in scope and were addressed to a more diverse audience than the analysts and psychiatrists who had attended the earlier seminars at Saint Anne's Hospital. Lacan made few concessions to his new audience, but by the time his selected essays appeared as Écrits in 1966, his seminars were drawing huge crowds, and he was the object of an intense if often bemused scrutiny by the popular media. The press associated him with "structuralists" such as Jacques Derrida, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Michel Foucault, and along with other members of this group, Lacan was often criticized for the hermetic difficulty of his style, his open disdain for the autonomous cogito of traditional humanism, and his utter disregard for orthodox European Marxism (see Structuralism).
Lacan's standing among psychoanalysts during this period became increasingly vexed as well, since the training methods of the EFP departed drastically from the more conventional training of new analysts sanctioned by the IPA. Within the EFP itself, many of the practicing analysts were concerned about what they perceived as the increasingly theoretical and academic emphasis of Lacan's work. That concern was heightened by the founding of a department of psychoanalysis at the University of Paris at Vincennes in 1969, which Lacan hoped would lend a new, scientific rigor to psychoanalysis by integrating linguistics, logic, and especially the mathematical field of topology in psychoanalytic training. Lacan appointed himself "Scientific Director" at Vincennes in 1974 and began this program in earnest.
During this last stage of his career, Lacan began working toward a "meta-theory" of psychoanalysis that would recast his earlier insights in the more precise language of mathematics. Faced with an often bewildering array of topological figures, such as the Borromean knot, however, even many of Lacan's followers complained that his arguments had grown arcane and opaque and were increasingly irrelevant to clinical practice. He responded by dissolving the EFP and founding yet another association, the École de la Cause Freudienne, over which he presided until his death.
Lacan's emphasis on the symbolic constitution of human subjectivity in his seminal essay "The Function and Field of Speech in Psychoanalysis" echoes the work of Martin Heidegger and, more broadly, that of Hegel, especially as interpreted by Alexander Kojève in his enormously influential lectures on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Nevertheless, Lacan maintained that Freud himself had demonstrated the importance of symbolic relations in our lives, and he insisted that his emphasis on speech and language was in fact a "return to Freud," with direct consequences for analytic practice. Lacan proposed two fundamental principles for that practice: the short session and what he called the "analyst's abstention." These strategies are both designed to undercut the subject's tendency to identify with the analyst as the ideal form of subjectivity and to attribute an independent objectivity to the "reality" perceived by the subject through the lens of that identification. Lacan agrees that such moments are essential to transference, which is crucial to the analytic experience. He argues, however, that contrary to accepted practice, the analyst must thwart these imaginary relations, because they constitute an "empty" speech, which sustains the illusion of a coherent ego modeled on the imaginary other to which that speech is addressed. Abruptly terminating the analytic session at unpredictable moments short of the usual hour frustrates the subject's attempt to sustain the illusions in which he is already alienated. What is even more important, it discloses a "full" speech, which more accurately reflects the subject's relation to the symbolic order and orients the subject toward another "Other," written with a capital O, whose true alterity is undisguised.
Shortening the session in this way "punctuates" the subject's speech and reveals the dialectical character of the intersubjective context. It forces patients to deal with the analyst as truly other to the field of the subject's discourse, not simply as a reflection of their own fantasies. Lacan therefore insists that the analyst must "abstain" from the role of an ideal ego or imaginary other despite the patient's efforts to address the analyst as such. Resisting that expectation forces the subject to recognize the difference between the "I" who speaks and the idealized ego that is projected onto the analyst but that in fact is derived from the subject's own narcissistic desire for omnipotence. Moreover, because the subject's sense of self also depends on the way the subject represents the world and his or her place in it--what Lacan calls the "reality" of the subject's experience--the analyst's abstention also marks the boundary between the symbolic order of the subject's speech and what lies beyond it and resists incorporation into the symbolic. Lacan calls this "remainder" the "real" to distinguish it from the reality represented through the subject's discourse. Together, the terms "symbolic," "imaginary," and "real" indicate three "elementary registers" of human experience that Lacan claims to have distinguished for the first time in psychoanalysis.
These issues occupied Lacan for the rest of his career. In the decade following the "Discourse of Rome," he devoted his seminars and most of his writing to theoretical elaborations on the role of the symbolic in Freud's own work. Focusing on topics such as the ego, transference, psychosis, the death drive, repression, and sexuality, Lacan argued that Freud had understood the linguistic nature of human psychology but that he had simply lacked the Saussurean vocabulary necessary to articulate it. In Freud's analysis of Daniel Paul Schreber's case, for example, Freud had argued that Schreber's psychotic delusions were actually a defense against latent homosexual desires, but in Lacan's interpretation Schreber's delusions stem from the "foreclosure" of a "primordial signifier," the Name-of-the-Father. Schreber's fantasies about being the wife of God are attributed to his inability to assume a position in the symbolic order of language, and Schreber's auditory hallucinations are described as imaginary manifestations of the symbolic functions that he lacks.
This revision in Freud's theory of psychosis reflects Lacan's broader interests in the symbolic basis of Oedipal sexuality and even of the unconscious. In Les Psychoses: Seminar III, Lacan claims that the Saussurean distinction between the signifier and the signified enables us to see that the unconscious is "structured like a language" (187). It is governed entirely by the order of the signifier rather than by some autonomous realm of repressed desire and instinctual urges. Even sexual identity is determined by the subject's relation to the signifier, Lacan says, and not by some innate, biological predisposition. For Lacan, what Freud described as the Oedipal phase is actually a moment in which the individual faces the option of accepting or rejecting the signifier in the place of the object or the imaginary other. Although Freud called this signifier the phallus, its primary characteristic is not its status as a biological organ that one may or may not possess. Rather, this primordial signifier possesses the fundamental property of being separable from the object it represents. Freud identified this possibility as "castration," but Lacan claims that it is simply the functional principle that enables the signifier to appear as such. Sexuality and, more generally, personal identity is thus not biologically determined but instead constructed through one's relation to the symbolic order. The phallus, for example, is described by Lacan as "the privileged signifier of that mark in which the role of the logos is joined with the advent of desire" (Écrits 287).
Most of Lacan's work from this period traces the connections between specific properties of the signifier and their effects in human experience. In his seminars on Edgar Allan Poe's "Purloined Letter," he claims that the entire structure of intersubjective relations is determined not by the individuals involved but by the way those individuals "model their very being on the moment of the signifying chain which traverses them. If what Freud discovered and rediscovers with a perpetually increasing sense of shock has a meaning, it is that the displacement of the signifier determines the subjects in their acts" (60). This displacement is possible, Lacan says, because the signifier is entirely autonomous from the signified. The link between them, which we ordinarily think of as "meaning," is merely an effect of the signifier itself and its relation to other signifiers in the signifying chain.
In "The Insistence of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason since Freud," Lacan describes the way that effect comes about. Drawing upon Roman Jakobson's distinction between two poles of language, metaphor and metonymy, Lacan claims that these functions can account for our sense that language somehow contains meaning when there is in fact an absolute barrier between the signifier and the signified, or between the symbolic and the real. Meaning never "consists" in language, Lacan says; it "insists" in the chain of signifiers as one supplants the other metonymically, deferring and so "always anticipat[ing] meaning by unfolding its dimension before it" (Écrits 153). The only reason that language seems to "mean" in the usual sense is that the displaced signifiers tend to function as the signified in Saussure's model do. Subsequent signifiers merely refer back to earlier ones, and it is this retrospective "reference" that sustains the effect of reference in the absence of a referent or an actual signified (152-54).
Lacan describes this effect as the "creative spark" of metaphor, and he claims that it constitutes the site of human subjectivity and the "radical heteronomy that Freud's discovery shows gaping within man" (172). Lacan goes on to observe that subjectivity has been traditionally understood as a juncture between words and things and thus as situated on the bar between the signifier and the signified, the border between language and the world. But that border, Lacan argues, is nowhere, or at least it was nowhere until Freud discovered the unconscious. Read through Saussure's influence and Lacan's emphasis on the absolute autonomy of the signifier, Freud's discovery thus installs a radical "lack-of-being" in the subject's relation to the object and to the self that catches the subject "in the rails of metonymy," "eternally stretching forth towards the desire for something else" (167).
This something else is the "objet a," which might be simply defined as the object of desire as such. Lacan argues that the psychoanalytic discovery of the unconscious reveals a subject constituted in relation to an Other it cannot know and oriented toward an object that it can never possess. This "splitting," which Freud called the Ichspaltung, is brought about by the subject's entry into the symbolic, and it supersedes (or at least supplants) the imaginary unity derived through identification with the other. In place of that identification arises a more complex relation to the symbolic Other. Introduced in the "Discourse of Rome," the "Other" comes to designate any number of concepts for Lacan: death, the symbolic father, the role of the analyst, the locus of speech, the unconscious. These designations are not simply interchangeable, but they are all characterized by what Jacques-Alain Miller has called "their dimension of exteriority and . . . their determinant function in relation to the subject" (623). The "objet a" is dissimulé in this Other, Lacan claims, and consequently "the desire of man is the desire of the Other" in the sense that desire is both "for" the Other and also experienced as the Other's desire.
Invoking neologisms, slogans, and complex diagrams and graphs, Lacan's exposition of Freud's work grew increasingly difficult and, some analysts felt, idiosyncratic. During the years 1964-73, Lacan's departure from conventional psychoanalysis became even more apparent as a uniquely Lacanian discourse gradually supplanted the traditional Freudian terms and formulations of his earlier work. Among the terms Lacan introduced to psychoanalytic discourse during these years, one of the most influential was jouissance. He describes jouissance as an experience of pleasure ordinarily associated with sexual climax, and its prominence in his work echoes the importance of sexuality to ordinary Freudian psychoanalysis. For Lacan, however, jouissance discloses an intricate interdependence between sexuality and the symbolic that subordinates the body to the law of the signifier. Because the position of any subject vis-à-vis the symbolic is marked by a lack or what Lacan calls a "fading" before the object of desire, relations between the sexes are always structured according to some missing or third element that makes the relation, strictly speaking, "impossible." Thus Lacan claims flatly in Le Séminaire livre XX: Encore that there is no such thing as sexual relations. This impossibility lifts the significance of sexual pleasure from the biological realm of satisfaction to the level of jouissance, and Lacan now claimed that it relegates woman to the symbolic status of a pas-tout, literally a "not-all" or lack that "does not derive from the body but results form the logical exigency of speech [parole]" (15). "Woman" as a general category exists, Lacan says, only as that which is excluded from the symbolic order, and a man relates to woman only as the missing "objet a," a phantasm of wholeness or totality.
Lacan's revisionary reading of Freudian sexuality antagonized many analysts as well as feminists outside the psychoanalytic community. His argument attacks the essentialist strain of feminism that proposes the feminine as a privileged realm free from cultural determination in general. Feminists sympathetic to Lacan claimed that his argument exposes the cultural ground of women's oppression and thus at least provides a point from which that subordination can be contested. Feminists hostile to Lacan argued, however, that he has simply replicated the phallocentric character of traditional Freudianism, substituting symbolic determination for biological destiny and universalizing what are in fact historically specific social values and practices. From this point of view, the Lacanian symbolic thus appears as simply one more explanation of why women must keep to the place assigned them by conventional psychoanalysis, which is no place at all.
The issue of femininity and relations between the sexes appears frequently in Lacan's work throughout the early 1970s, but by the end of Encore his attention had shifted to a more abstract concern: the mathematical field of topology and the figure of the Borromean knot. Drawing upon the triad he had introduced 30 years earlier, Lacan once again reconceived the primary issues of psychoanalysis in terms of the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary. But this time, he cast their relations in the language of topology and "mathemes" rather than Saussurean linguistics. "La mathématisation seule atteint à un réel," he claimed, and from 1974 to his death in 1981 he explored the intricate intersections among his three registers through a proliferating series of knots and even more complicated topological figures, such as the Klein bottle and the torus. Praised by some as strikingly innovative and precise formulations, and denounced by others as self-indulgent, senile ramblings, Lacan's last turn split his followers yet again, this time into those who would pursue the "mathematization" of psychoanalysis as a step toward scientific rigor and those who would reject it as a misleading attempt to found a "metatheory" that ignores the more concrete and useful work of the Écrits. This split continues to divide Lacanians and has resulted in an often bewildering congeries of organizations and movements devoted to Lacan's work.
Michael P. Clark
Notes and Bibliography
See also Feminist Theory and Criticism: 3. Poststructuralist Feminisms and Materialist Feminisms, French Theory and Criticism: 6. 1968 and After, and Psychoanalytic Theory and Criticism: 3. the Post-Lacanians.
Jacques Lacan, De la psychose paranoïaque dans ses rapports avec la personnalité (1932, reprint, 1975), Écrits (1966, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan, 1977), Les Écrits techniques de Freud: Seminar I, 1953-54 (ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, 1975, Freud's Papers on Technique, 1953-1954, trans. John Forrester, 1988), L'Éthique de la psychanalyse: Seminar VII, 1959-60 (1986), Le Moi dans la théorie de Freud et dans la technique de la psychanalyse: Seminar II, 1954-55 (ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, 1978, The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55, trans. Sylvana Tomaselli, 1988), Les Psychoses: Seminar III, 1955-56 (ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, 1981), Les Quatre Concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse: Seminar XI, 1964 (ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan, 1977), Le Séminaire livre XX: Encore (ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, 1975), "Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter,'" trans. Jeffrey Mehlman, Yale French Studies 48 (1972), Télévision (1974, Television, ed. Joan Copjec, trans. Denis Hollier, Rosalind Krauss, and Annette Michelson, 1990).
Malcolm Bowie, Lacan (1991); Michael Clark, Jacques Lacan: An Annotated Bibliography (2 vols., 1988); Robert Con Davis, The Fictional Father: Lacanian Readings of the Text (1981); Shoshana Felman, Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight: Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture (1987); Jane Gallop, Reading Lacan (1985); Jonathan Scott Lee, Jacques Lacan (1990); Anika Lemaire, Jacques Lacan (1970, trans. David Macey, 1977); Jacques-Alain Miller, "Jacques Lacan: 1901-81," Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought 7 (1984); Jacques-Alain Miller, ed., L'Excommunication (Ornicar? 8, suppl., 1977), La Scission de 1953 (Ornicar? 7, suppl., 1976); John P. Muller and William J. Richardson, Lacan and Language: A Reader's Guide to "Ecrits" (1982); Ellie Ragland-Sullivan, Jacques Lacan and the Philosophy of Psychoanalysis (1986); Madan Sarup, Jacques Lacan (1992); Joseph H. Smith and William Kerrigan, eds., Interpreting Lacan (1983); Anthony Wilden, The Language of the Self: The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis (1968, reprint as Jacques Lacan, Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis, trans. Wilden, 1984).
|Topics Index Cross-references for this Guide entry:|
autonomy, close reading, essentialism, feminism, imaginary, symbolic, real, jouissance, metonymy, mirror stage, sexuality|
Copyright © 1997 The Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved. This document may be used, with this notice included, for noncommercial purposes within a purchasing institution. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically outside of the subscribed institution, in whole or in part, without written permission from the JHU Press.