In defence of Jacques Lacan (sort of)

Last week I wrote a sightly irritated post speculating about the psychopathology of Jacques Lacan. This persuasive comment by someone I had been unfairly and unnecessarily rude to on Twitter merited reproduction in its own right. I’ve underlined a few sections which I thought were particularly interesting. The comment nicely captures exactly what had intrigued me about Lacan’s thought (I’m very interested in psychic structures, albeit from a sociological perspective) and it addresses my initial criticism of what I saw as Lacan’s wilful and insecure obscurantism in an affably direct way:

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.

– cameron tonkinwise (@camerontw)

It still makes me uncomfortable though. For instance I’ve always admired the clarity of Fromm (who I recognise is the only psychoanalyst I’ve read in any depth) and see his work as a clear sign that the standard of ‘clarity’ I’m invoking is not something inapplicable to this domain. However Cameron has made me reflect upon what I think constitutes ‘being clear’. In my mind when I use the term, I tend to think of Margaret Archer’s work. This might seem a baffling statement to many that have read her books and perhaps, in light of  this, i should rethink my terminology here. When I describe her work as ‘clear’, I don’t mean that it’s easy, straight-forward or aesthetically pleasing. I simply mean that she develops ideas in an extremely direct way, building up her argument through a clear presentation of the steps involved in drawing her conclusions. Her work is clear in the way that analytic philosophy is frequently clear. For instance I hate reading John Rawls but I think his work is an exemplar of the sort of clarity I’m talking about.

What I take Chomsky to be suggesting in the interviews which sparked this cluster of blog posts is that a refusal to be straight-forward about one’s argument is suggestive of an anxiety about how that argument will be received. I now accept this is clearly an overstatement and that I need to be more careful about applying my notion of ‘clarity’ outside of the area I work in. But I’m still not comfortable with the idea that we can just say “oh but that’s just what people like Lacan do“. I agree there is more to language than being clear , with that ‘more’ being something that is shaped by the practical purposes to which language is being put. However I think we need to be critical of the potential for obscurantism and manipulation which is inherent in this. The incipient sadomasochism implicated in Lacan’s professional self-conception (as per Cameron’s reading) is a tad disturbing. I appreciate Cameron confirming that the man was clearly an asshole (something I only realised when reading the book of lectures) but, to bring a sociological perspective to the reading suggested above, surely we can therefore see this not solely as some contingent personal attribute of Jacques Lacan the man but also as an assemblage of rather unpleasant dispositions inculcated in the ‘master teacher’ by the occupational and cultural structures of psychoanalysis? Which takes me back to the original question I posed about the psychopathology of  Jacques Lacan. I realise I’m on the verge of arguing that there is an ethical value in ‘clarity’ of the sort I’m advocating (i.e. it keeps everyone honest). I’m not 100% sure if I’m persuaded by my own argument here though.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.