The Psychopathology of Jacques Lacan or, Why Can’t Theorists Just Say What They Mean!??

I was quite taken recently with comments Chomsky made about Lacan. I originally came to Lacan through Žižek, as the intriguing way in which Slavoj deftly weaved Lacanian ideas into discussions of film piqued my curiosity. So I bought Žižek’s book about Lacan. Five years on I cannot for the life of me remember anything about this book – or find it on my shelves – but it must have been reasonably interesting, as it then prompted me to go and buy the Écrits. A few hours of engaging with this ungainly tome and my nascent enthusiasm for Lacan had been quashed. I continued to be vaguely interested in Lacan’s ideas but it’s unlikely, though not impossible, that I’ll ever bother to put the effort in to decipher Écrits. Particularly now that I’ve read a short book I stumbled across on Friday. My Teaching collects three lectures given by Lacan to ‘non-specialist’ audiences. Having now encountered Lacan in plain-speaking mode, what allure he possessed in my mind has pretty much completely deserted him. Nonetheless, a few points stood out, not least of all this:

It is primarily for that reason, I suppose, that, if we approach them from a different angle, we can agree to consider these Écrits unreadable; people at least pretend to read them, or to have read them. Not, naturally, the people who supposedly do that for a living, or in other words the critics. Reading them would force them to prove their worth by writing something that might at least have something to do with what I am advancing, but at that point they become suspicious. As you may have noticed, this book has not had many reviews. Probably because it is very thick, difficult to read, obscure. It is not designed for everyday consumption at all. You might say to me that that remark might suggest I’m making excuses. It might mean that I’m saying I should have produced a book for everyday consumption, or even that I’m going to. Yes, it is possible. I might try to. But I am not used to that. And it is by no means certain that it would be a success. Perhaps it would be better if I did not try to force my talent. And I do not find it particularly desirable in itself, because what I teach will indeed eventually become common currency. There will be people who will get down to it, who will put it about. That is obviously not quite the same thing, and it will be a bit distorted. They’ll try to introduce it into the hubbub. They will do all they can to reposition it in relation to a certain number of those very solid convictions that suit everyone in this society, as in any society.

– Jacques Lacan, My Teaching, Pg 62

I found this a remarkably strange extract. Perhaps also an extremely revealing one. Lacan complains that critics do not read or review his writing. He emphatically suggests that this is a failing on their part, reflecting an unwillingness to engage with what he is actually saying. Yet he immediately acknowledges that the book is “difficult to read” and “obscure”. There is a bizarre dichotomy underpinning this: books for “everyday consumption” vs books that are “very thick, difficult to read, obscure”. In doing so he excludes the possibility that his ideas can be expressed clearly without simplification (with the latter presumably necessary to produce a book for “everyday consumption”). That this dichotomy seems axiomatic for him points to the esoteric nature of his work (or his ‘doctrine’ as he later refers to it) and perhaps helps explain the influence he sustained over his adherents. On such a view, the simplification necessary for “everyday consumption” should surely be anathema and yet he considers precisely this but worries that “it would not be a success” (jarring with the self-confident esotericism of a man who can implicitly see it as a point of pride that his book is “very thick, difficult to read, obscure”). Not to worry though, his work will be popularised throughout the land nonetheless (it will become “common currency” no less) though, unfortunately, it will inevitably get fucked up in the process. So probably best to stick to books that are “very thick, difficult to read, obscure”.

I guess there are two points I’m trying to make it. One is the excluded middle in Lacan’s assumption about the nature of writing i.e. that work is either esoteric and obscure or popularised and simplistic. This excludes the possibility of writing that is clear without being simplistic. This assumption is far from unique to Lacan and this frustrating esotericism pervades continental philosophy. Suggesting this does not entail the view that writing that is clear without being simplistic can therefore be understood by anyone. Clearly, it cannot and that’s rather the point – the notion that writing is either for ‘us’ and is obscure or for ‘them’ and thus simplified really annoys me. My other point is how insecure Lacan seems in this extract, with its heady mixture of frustration, grandeur and anxiety. It leaves me feeling that Chomsky and Wright Mills are both onto something in their suggestion that intellectual insecurity drives theoretical obscurantism. If one is self-confident about one’s ideas then surely the most natural thing to do would be to communicate them clearly…!?

One response to “The Psychopathology of Jacques Lacan or, Why Can’t Theorists Just Say What They Mean!??”

  1. There may be another way to view this. Very simplistically: Lacan was a psychoanalyst. In psychoanalysis you, the analyst, speak and it has an effect – the talking cure. The effect is often in complete disproportion to, and even disconnected from, the content of what was said. Think of the quiet question at the beginning of Blade Runner: “Describe in single words only the good things that come into your mind about… your mother.” The answer is the violent murder of the questioner. The content, whether simple or complex, may be clear, but what it does, its performative power, by way of the unconscious is always obscure, though often direct.

    This was exactly what Lacan was all about. His particular move in relation to Freud was to downplay the troubling content (which Freud was forever changing, and never entirely sure about whether it was truth or suggestion, but analyst or patient), and focus on the structural relations – in particular, the structural relations between the patient and his or her unconscious and the analyst and his or her unconscious. All these things only ever manifest through language. Importantly, the unconscious (according to Lacan) never deploys language referentially; instead it is always trying to perform through language to create a particular set of relations. The analyst therefore plays the same game, saying things whose content is less important than its capacity to reveal the relations structuring the analysts symptoms.

    Lacan was also, of his time (Levi-Strauss, Althusser, Foucault, etc), but also following the later Freud, someone who believed that much of what his patients suffered was not suffered by them alone, but by society in general. Their symptoms were not idiosyncratic but pervasive, if not ontological; which is why psychoanalysis (and it has been heavily criticized for this) often claims to be interminable – it cannot cure once and for all, it can only help the analysand to ‘enjoy their symptom.’ Another way to describe what analysis does is to say that rather than cure, it ‘teaches,’ it helps analysands learn to self-analyze. This is why the only way to become a Lacanian analyst is to go through analysis. And you know you are ready to ‘self-authorize’ as an analyst when you realize that your analysis is interminable.

    Another really axial part of Lacanian analysis (before all the later mathemes) is the way Lacan ‘structuralist’ed Freud’s troubles with transference. Transference is of course when emotional bonds form between the analyst and analysand. For Lacan, these relations are necessary for analysis, but again, only when voided on content. It is not about falling in love with your analyst, or identifying with your analyst, but instead, placing your analyst in a position of power over you. The analyst must be ‘the subject supposed to know.’ Again, another way to think of this is accepting that your analyst is a teacher. (The converse is also true: it is very difficult to start to learn from a professor if you assume at the outset, without evidence, that he is a vacuous, old idiot.)

    So, when Lacan gives talks, published in a collection, under the title ‘My Teaching,’ he is most likely not giving a clear account of the content of his doctrine. He is probably performing, in the style of a Massively Open Session of Analysis, the structural position of being the master teacher. The content of what he says is less important than the structural relations it establishes and then perverts. There must be some content of course – this is not just Eliot’s The Wasteland. Note that for example the end of an interminable analysis is also the moment at which you realize that analyst does not in fact know, that the only reason the analyst appeared to know is because you put him or her in the position of being the knower at the outset. That moment is characterized by you thinking that the Teacher/Analyst is just a charlatan (as some other vacuous, old idiot puts it, in order to assume the now vacant position of ‘Master’).

    This way of reading Lacan, as a performative discourse, following the philosophy of language of Austin, was popular during the American reception of Lacan (as opposed to the British via screen studies which was more accepting of the content), especially via 3rd wave feminists such as Shoshana Felman, Jane Gallop and Liz Grosz. It was a particularly Derridean way of understanding what Lacan was doing, because Derrida was very interested in writing in ways that performed what he was talking about. (The classic example is the fight he had with Searle about Austin which at one point came down to the impossibility of being able to joke, or be ironic, in Searle’s appropriation of Austin: just as it is impossible to tell if Derrida’s violent critique of Searle is at times a joke or ironic.)

    It is something given short shrift by Zizek, who makes more use of Lacanian content, though clearly is playing a kind of Lacanian game in terms of (neurotic) persona.

    None of this is to defend Lacan, who was clearly a dictatorial egomaniac, nor is it to claim that ‘My Teaching’ is a successful lecture series/book, or that it has been titled correctly or marketed in the right way.

    But it is to insist that there is more to language than being clear, and that when you decide to make use of that ‘more’ you should not immediately be marginalized into ‘art’ (poetry) – it may actually be teaching us something.

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