Roland Barthes: Writing Degree Zero

ROLAND BARTHES (1914 – 1980)


Writing Degree Zero (1953)

One of the most interesting facts of the life of Roland Barthes was that he was struck by a laundry van and, after lingering for a month, died of his injuries. “The Painter of Modern Life,” Constantin Guys had also been struck down in a similar fashion: almost a century earlier, he was run over by a cab and his legs were crushed. Guys died more slowly and succumbed ten years later. If being run down by a laundry truck when walking home from lunch with the future President of France, seems an odd way to die, Barthes had always walked an uneven path. He was unfortunate enough to come of age at a time where homosexuality was not a public matter and he spent his life in the closet, living with his only parent, his mother, his entire life. As he got older and became less attractive to the young men he desired, he declined to impose himself upon them. Barthes, who preferred a quiet life in the home he shared with his mother, was so fond of his colleague and intellectual confident, Julia Kristeva, he wished he was a heterosexual.

Although to outsiders, especially dazzled Americans, he seemed to be the chain smoking quintessential French intellectual, he was something of an autodidact whose education was never completed. Barthes had taught himself the prevailing French ideas floating through the post-war decades, but remained mostly an essay writer until his new tendencies were publicly criticized by a Sorbonne professor, Raymond Picard. As one of his biographers Jonathan Culler related, from 1965 on Barthes became the intellectual representative of criticism after Existentialism. However, exalted his public persona, Barthes was both in the center and in the margins and, indeed, Michel Foucault was somewhat disdainful of the self-education of Barthes. Barthes finally achieved a place in the scholarly community he at once chided and aspired to when he was elected to a chair in Sémiologie Littéraire at the Collège de France.

Post-war Paris was in a state of intellectual flux. The scholarly community had been united by two elements during the Occupation: hatred for the Nazis and adherence to Marxism. When the war ended, Existentialism emerged as the prevailing philosophy, but Marxism as a philosophy seemed to be discredited by the brutal Stalinism of the Soviet Union. It was the events of 1968 that finally ended the faith in a practical Marxist theory of class revolution and, in the ruins of the “days of May,” Existentialism seemed too focused on the individualistic “act” of a single person, Marxism seemed too political and too tainted with failure, leaving Structuralism as the comfortably apolitical philosophy of the day.


Paris “Days of May” 1968

Based on the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, Structuralism was established by Claude Lévi-Strauss in his 1955 book Tristes Tropiques, which was followed up by Structuralist Anthropology in 1958. The work of Lévi-Strauss moved away from linguistic signs to social signs, from behavior and costumes, rituals and customs. The work of the Structuralist was to reveal the underlying structure of cultural signifiers which were arranged along binaries. Reflecting the structure of the human mind, paired opposites such as the raw and the cooked should be read as part of a larger sign system and gains meaning within a network of other signs. The raw and the cooked, the inedible and the editable, for example, are part of a larger concept of nature and culture.

It is important to understand that by the time Structuralism was introduced to America, it was already “over” in Paris, challenged by newer versions of Structuralism from those who also repudiated Structuralism, such as Foucault and those who undermined it, such as Jacques Derrida. From the late sixties to the mid eighties, works by French and German writers arrived, via translations, in an unsystematic manner and with alien labels, such as “Post-Structuralism.” In the blank space following the exhaustion of New Criticism and the aging of the Anglo-American tradition, French theory fell on fertile ground and was consumed by eager Americans, few of whom were familiar with the very real differences among the scholars in the very competitive universities and colleges of Paris. Instead, the “French” was all lumped together and were not understood as having distinctive intellectual lineages and very distinctive bodies of work. Compared to the scientific work of Lévi-Strauss, to the historical scope and extended projects of Foucault, to the twisted syntax and ever-evolving re-writings by Lacan, to the dense and circular layered writing of Derrida, the books and essays by Roland Barthes are brief, concise, eclectic and, in the case of Camera Lucida, an extended mourning for his mother, very personal. Not a trained philosopher, as were many of his colleagues, Barthes is best understood as a literary critic who used Structuralism as an analytic tool to better foreground “writing” over “literature” and to understand the system of social signs of ordinary life.

However, Barthes came to Structuralism late in his career. The first twenty years of his development was essentially a learning curve, including numerous essays that led to significant books, one of them being his first extended foray into literary criticism in 1953 when he published Le degré zéro de l’écriture. Early in his career, like all young intellectuals, Barthes digested Existentialism and was very inspired by What is Literature? (1947) by Jean-Paul Sartre. “The empire of signs is prose, poetry is on the side of painting, sculpture and music,” Sartre wrote and the reader of the works of Barthes immediately recognizes a famous phrase that would later become the title of a book by Barthes. “Poets are men who refuse to utilize language..he has chosen the poetic attitude which considers words as things and not as signs.” In both accepting this book by Sartre and in slipping away from Existentialism, Writing Degree Zero is very much a transitional book. A reaction against Existentialism, it combines Marxism in its critique of bourgeois literature and moves beyond a class critique to a critique of what Barthes called “Literature,” seeking a new non ideological way of writing. The roots of the short book go back to the late 1940s and is one of the most obvious of his excursions into semiotics.

In her introduction to Writing Degree Zero, when it was translated into English in 1967, Susan Sontag noted that American writers would have difficulty in understanding the book. Part of what disturbed her in the late sixties–the unfamiliarity with French literary criticism–has since passed and the book does not seem difficult at all, but the entire foundation of the book, an analysis of a tradition of literature that is specifically French, remains alien to many Americans. As Sontag pointed out, not only do American have an Anglo-Ameircan literary heritage but the canonical authors are quite different. When Barthes wrote of “Literature,” without explanation, he was referring to the French tradition of classical and official literature that dated back to the 17th century. Because Literature was designed to provide knowledge, information, and received wisdom, it was considered, not a mode of writing but a “natural” and inevitable form of communication. Due to its effectiveness, Literature remained supreme, even after the French Revolution. Early 19th century writers adopted the official language of power and what had once belonged to the ancien regime was appropriated by the “triumphant” middle class.

As an example of the authority of this form of language, Barthes made note of a form of grammar that does not exist in the English language: the “preterite,” or a verb that “implicitly belongs with a causal chain..set of related and oriented actions.” “The Marchioness went out at five o’clock,” was a famous phrase used by Paul Valéry as a convention used for novels and Barthes notes that the same conventions are used for the recitations of history. Barthes stated that “Behind the preterite there always lurks a demiurge, a God or a reciter..the preterite is the expression of an order.” For the contemporary writer, the preterite is a phasing of authority and can be thought of as director’s establishing shot or the screenwriter’s ellipse–a way of moving the narrative from here to there. The order could hold as long as the class system remained intact and the bases of power seemed secure but after the Revolution of 1848, the social organization broke down due to historical forces, from industrialization and the urbanization of society. With the fracturing of the old society, the language of old France, Literature, lost its authority and writers had to find a new way of writing.

According to Barthes, “Literature” is a modern creation, part of a larger system of ownership and property resulting from capitalism and as such, this cultural concept constituted a new or modern form of writing that was “owned” by the “author” and “owned” by the publisher. By the 19th century, in its new version,“literature” was bought and sold and was no longer communal property as were the epic poems of an oral tradition named “Homer.” Bourgeois literature was an art form in the Kantian sense, in that it had no “useful” purpose. Therefore that which was bourgeois writing was distinguished from forms of writing that were considered versions of the “truth,” such as religion. Marxist theorist György Lukács (1885-1971) asserted that Realist writing of the 19th century was based upon seeing, meaning that the writer was merely describing what was seen or witnessed, no matter how painful. The mediation or the apparently neutral description was in fact a political act in that Realism made the power of the middle class seem to be inevitable. Notice that the supposedly distanced and omnipotent position of the narrator mimics the conventions of Literature. It is no accident that the Realist or Naturalistic novels of George Sand and Honoré Balzac and Gustave Flaubert emerged during a period of rising capitalism, the steady of empowerment of the bourgeoisie and the demise of the proletariat.

In Le Degrè zéro l’écriture, 1953, Barthes understood language to be a historical phenomenon and style as an individual feature. Barthes noted that descriptive or naturalistic writing was not innocent and was bound up in its own historical period. The avant-garde, situated in the Generation of 1848, broke with the horizontally and continuity of realism and liberated words from other words. From the 1850s on, the writer is “without Literature” which is in a “tragic predicament,” and the question becomes what is the mark of “good writing” now that Literature had lost its place? Barthes recounted that the late 19th century writers foregrounded “labor” as a value and stressed their bourgeois origins as workers. The new elevation of the “craft” of writing to an independent aesthetic began with Flaubert and modern authors strove to generate “good writing,” or the ability to use words well. The problem for writing became one of extracting oneself from the precincts of power and to find a way for writing to function as writing within a system of language.

Barthes was suspicious of “realism” in theory and in texts and considered realism not a form of seeing or describing that what existed, but as being based upon a set of practices and signification. The texts of the Realists were founded on a set of conventions that limited the text and, in naturalizing society, became a mediator between the bourgeoisie and the working class. For Barthes, the key moment in his analysis of the history of French literature, was the disjuncture between bourgeois realism and avant-garde realism. For the world of visual art, Literature, which was so transparent it appeared to have no style, would have its counterpart in academic art of the mid to late 19th century. Paintings by Jean-Léon Gérôme or Ernst Meissionier were the bourgeois form of Realism as Literature. In contrast, examples of the avant-garde Realism would be the labored working class craft exhibited so proudly by Gustave Courbet or the visible marks of production kept on view by Édouard Manet in their paintings. Understanding the French Classical tradition of Literature which was supposedly invisible to itself but was actually a evidence of power and order allows the art historian to comprehend the cultural anger that met the avant-garde artists who called attention to the “un-naturalism” of “naturalism.”

It would be an exaggeration to see Barthes as a Structuralist in 1953 but he was certainly aware of Saussure and Marx, both of who had built binary models. For Saussure there was langue and parole, or the system of language and the way in which language is used in everyday life. Seeing a conflict with Saussure’s binary system–between the will and the system–Barthes sought a middle term: écriture. Écriture is not translatable into English and is now left in the original French, but in Writing Degree Zero the term is translated as “writing,” a rather colorless term. For Barthes, there is language, the system and style, which is both historical and personal or as he put it “biological.” If the language is social then the style is personal. But in between language and style is writing. As Barthes wrote,

A language and a style are blind forces; a mode of writing (écriture) is an act of historical solidarity. A language and a style are objects; a mode of writing (écriture) is a function; it is the relationship between creation and society, the literary language transformed by its social finality, form considered as a human intention and thus linked to the great crises of History.

For Barthes écriture had a specific relationship of form to content, embodied in the conventions of writing and operating within ethical and political values as a social fact. Always concerned with writing (écriture) as a moral act as a social fact, Barthes set up a ternary schema–a tripod model that would become his trademark–langue, style, écriture, which intimates or gestures at something beyond–a critique. “Writing,” Barthes asserted, “is always rooted in something beyond language, but develops like a seed, not like a line, it manifests an essence and holds the threat of a secret, it is an anti communication, it is intimidating.” Writing Degree Zero breaks down into three major sections with his discussion of the transition from Literature to avant-garde writing in the middle, as the meat in the sandwich, as it were. Having established écriture as a third element, wedged between language and style, Barthes then ended his slim volume of meditation on the French tradition of writing with another middle term: zero degree writing.

Concerned with getting literature out of trap of bourgeois realism, Barthes had little patience with the “craft of writing (which) does not disturb any order.” He includes in those non-disturbers writers, who think they are disrupting the system or can “exorcise this sacred writing by dislocating it,” the still ascendent Surrealists, such as André Breton. Even the attempts of Stéphane Mallarmé to renounce language were equivocal. The solution Barthes put forward was “a colorless writing, freed from all bondage to a pre-ordined state of language.” His new breaking of the binaries centered upon placing “a neutral term or zero element.” The zero element is an aspect of grammar, a term in the middle of the singular-plural binary. As Barthes explained, “..writing at the zero degree is basically in the indicative mode, or if you like, a modal..a journalist’s writing.”

Barthes was interested in the neutral or what Sartre called, the “white writing” of Albert Camus, purged of the characteristic mark of “literature” (mannerism or style), “achieves a style of absence, which is almost an idea absence of style; writing is then reduced to a sort of negative mood in which the social or mythical characters of a language are abolished in favor of a neutral and inert state of form..neutral writing in fact rediscovers the primary condition of classical art: instrumentality. But this time, form as an instrument is no longer at the service of a triumphant ideology; it is the mode of a new situation of the writer, a way of certain silence has of existing; it deliberately foregoes any elegance or ornament, for these two dimensions would reintroduce Time into writing..” Unlike Marxist literature which is a language of “value-judgments” or “professional language signifying ‘presence,” writing should be linked to the project of revolution by renegotiating its relationship to history.

Barthes comes from the exhausted traditions of Marxism and Existentialism and extends their shared values of a moral writing by an engaged intellectual and looks for an ethical dimension in literature. “White writing” negates the false transparency of the algebraic system of the cause-and-effect writing of Literature, in which one element “naturally” follows another in a “logical” fashion. For Barthes the critic’s job is to construct intelligibility for his/her own time and to develop conceptual frameworks for analysis. In this critical and analytical fashion, the critic exposed the habitual ways of making the world intelligible and worked to modify these meanings that seem “natural.” For Barthes, all writing contains social signs, indicating a social mode of writing. No prose is transparent; the author’s language is inherited, while his/her own style is personal, but writing can be “white” or “zero degree.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Harold Bloom: A Map of Misreading


Literary Criticism and Close Reading

Although Harold Bloom (1930-), from the perspective of the 21st century seems like a historical figure, he was a liminal figure caught between Modernism and Postmodernism. It is one of the ironies of Bloom’s career that he fought titanic battles with waning New Criticism, won that battle by tossing together a salad of new theories landing on the shores of the Ivy Leagues, only to be confronted with even newer theories that would rise up and scorn him. Through it all Bloom persevered, writing forty books, all of which center upon the importance of the author as creator. To understand the implications of Bloom’s position in the world of criticism, it is an awkward one–in between New Criticism which swept the poet away in favor of the poem and Postmodern theory which posited the author as “dead” or a mere fulcrum of references.

New Criticism was a new and methodical way of reading in a more precise manner, called “close.” A “close reading” of the text is based on the understanding that a text is unified and that it means exactly what it says. The author and the historical context of the author, his or her biography or intentions were irrelevant. New Criticism was the founding method of literary in the sense that it focused on making distinctions between modes of criticism at a time when new ways of writing, from James Joyce to Virginia Woolfe to Ernest Hemingway, demanded new ways of analysis. The fact that writing was more self involved, backgrounding narrative in favor of exploring the textures of the language itself. It seemed sensible to René Wellek (1903-1995) to focus on literature as literature and his seminal Theory of Literature, published in 1946 establish a foundation for formalist criticism. It is important to remember that the formalist art critic, Clement Greenberg, was part of the literary community and like Wellek published in the Partisan Review.

In summing up René Wellek’s approach to New Criticism, Sarah Lawall’s 1988 essay, “René Wellek and Modern Literary Criticism,” sound eerily like something one would write of Greenberg:

His insistence on the study of “literature itself,” as the culmination of a broad critical historical, theoretical and multilingual inquiry, reversed the status of prevailing extra-literary schemes of interpretation: no longer did they exhaust a work’s significance, or function as its only source of value. Wellek’s own set of values–his claim that each discipline must establish its proper object of study, and that literary study must focus on the autonomous category of art: his affirmation that no critical perspective is neutral; and his rejection of critical relativism even though he sees literature as an integral part of cultural history–has been part of our literary debates for four decades.

Wellek was one of the mid-century critics who articulated this new position, coming in the wake of I. A. Richards, T. S. Eliot and Cleanth Brooks. New Criticism eliminated the author’s intention as being irrelevant to the outcome or effect of the book, but the efficacy of literature does not rest upon the way the text made the writer feel. By marking off these two “fallacies”–the intentional fallacy and the affective fallacy–are irrelevant. The focus should be the text itself which is then subjected to a close reading by the literary critic. Texts possess intrinsic meanings that owe nothing to the writer and must be read as a structure composed of words which are knitted together into a unified whole. The result of close reading is a seamless and consistent organic work of art that can be analyzed in a near-scientific manner. New Criticism would be conflated with the prevailing 20th century idea of “art for art’s sake,” but it proponents denied that history was totally precluded from consideration but, in fact, formalist criticism considered form to be content.

Bloom’s A Map of Misreading (1975)

Against this background, Harold Bloom, an outsider, reanimated the author as a Romantic hero. Like Walter Benjamin reviving the reviled Baroque, Bloom reasserted the importance of Romanticism and Romantic poetry an art form long on the critical wane. In imagining a curious mixture of the writer as a Byronic rebel and as a Biblical prophet who fought to bring a poem into being, Bloom recast literature as a record of a struggle between the “son” and his literary “father.” Although Bloom is often seen as the anti-thesis to Postmodern theories of all stripes–and indeed he also saw himself as the opposite of Jacques Derrida. In his 1986 article on Bloom, the writer for The New York Times Magazine, Colin Campbell, quoted Bloom heaping scorn on his colleagues at Yale:

”You cannot go anywhere,” he cries, ”without running into various covens and sects and various new orthodoxies of a self-righteous kind. There are the purple-haired semioticians; there are the deconstructionists; there are those who have abolished anything like a coherent discourse, for whom every text is an aberration..To try to find out what’s going on at Yale now is beyond my power.” But Campbell continued, Bloom is not finished. He speaks of ”punk ideologies,” of ”vicious feminism,” of new modes of ”stifling doctrine” and of “new Stalinisms.” He describes one young member of the English department as ”an out-and-out Marxist agitator” and ”a horse’s ass,’‘ and he says some leftist notions of bourgeois art have grown so crude as to be unrecognizable. ”It’s almost the poet-as-slumlord theory. They have their colleagues terrified. ”There is no method except yourself,” says Bloom, ”and this is what they refuse to learn.” Ideologists of every description hate the self, he says. ”They all deny that there can be such a thing as an individual.”

It is over thirty years since this article and in the 21st century, it is difficult to read Bloom without a frisson of irritation when confronted with his male-based patriarchal theoretical position–he refers to the young male poet as an “ephebe.” However, it is important to remember that this was a man who missed all the Civil Rights movements and it is possible to re-read his theories from the perspective of production. If art makers are cultural producers then what are the materials they utilize to make art? Despite his protestations to the contrary, Bloom’s work is every bit as Postmodern as that of his colleagues: it is performative and self-conscious, riddled with constructs derived from Greek and Latin, but if the reader manages to clear away the name droppings there are some interesting insights about the psychology of creation. In reviewing the book in “The Poet as Oedipus” of 1975, the late Edward Said stated,

Bloom is the most rare of critics. He has what seems to be a totally detailed command of English poetry and its scholarship, as well as an intimate acquaintance with the major avant-garde critical theories of the last quarter century. (He is De Vane Professor of the Humanities at Yale.) Yet for Bloom this gigantic apparatus, to which he has assimilated Freudian theory and the Kabbalistic doctrines of Isaac Luria, a 16th-century Jewish mystic, is no mere scholarly baggage. Since it is the essence of Bloom’s vision that every poem is the result of a critical act, by which another, earlier poem is deliberately misread, and hence re-written, it follows also that Bloom’s sense of the poems he has read is intensely combative, constantly experienced, actively felt.

In A Map of Misreading, Bloom continued his habit of creating his own linguistic terms to explain his concept of passing on the poetic tradition. His tropes became “anxiety” and “misreading” and, in his second book of the series, many of his terms came from the Kabbala. He explained “misprision”–a deliberate misunderstanding–as a “swerve” away from the predecessor by the new poet who completes the parent poem by retaining its terms and its fragments but means these terms in another sense. The Kabbala speaks of the “breaking of the vessels” as part of the primal process of Creation and Bloom uses the concept of vessel and breaking and emptying to describe the labor of literature. The new poet empties out him/(herself) humbly and “empties out” the precursor as well, an act that opens up the essential power of the earlier poem and functions as a return of the dead. Said explained how the views of Bloom challenged the status quo position on the role of the artist:

The ground of literature is the text, just as its father–the mixed metaphor is inescapable, and encouraged by every writer who ever wrote–is the author. This is the very citadel of literary orthodoxy. Only a great writer will challenge that fortress of certainty. He will see that a father is himself a son; he will also see that his own work must be protected not only from writers who will come after it, but also from the powerful authors that precede him, who remind him by their strength of their prior authority and his filial secondariness.

Such a vision immediately plays havoc with the stability of texts and authors, indeed with the whole order of culture. The past becomes an active intervention in the present; the future is preposterously made just a figure of the past in the present. No text can be complete because on the one hand it is an attempt to struggle free of earlier texts impinging on it and, on the other, it is preparing itself to savage texts not yet written by authors not yet born. Every writer and every text is not–cannot be–itself, does not have a rock-bottom Aristotelian identity. Instead of texts and authors, there are wills struggling to overcome other wills, there are patricides and infanticides whose paradox is that poetry is, if not the manifest result of such violence, then the constantly impressive evidence.

The ancestral poet is dead but still embarrassingly potent and present, but, as Kierkegaard said, “He who is willing to work must give birth to his own father.” Strong poets do not read poetry; strong poets can read only themselves. In comparison to weak poets who remain enslaved to the traditional system, who are creatively inhibited by obsessive reasoning and comparing their works to those of their precursors, strong poets are involved in acts of creative “correction” and deliberate misinterpretation. In his typically Baroque and deliberately dramatic writing style, Bloom declaimed,

<Only a poet challenges a poet as a poet, and so only a poet makes a poet. To the poet-in-a-poet, a poem is always the other man, the precursor, and so a poem is always a person, always the father of one’s Second Birth. To live, the poet must misinterpret the father, by the crucial act of misprision, which is the re-writing of the father. But who, what is the poetic father? The voice of the other, of the daimon, is always speaking in one; the voice that cannot die because already it has survived death–the dead poet lives in one.

Bloom wrote of “agon” in his books. On one level agon, which is a Greek concept, seems to refer simply to a contest but the origin of this “contest” is a dialogue in Greek theater between the protagonist and the antagonist. Agon originated specifically in literature as a verbal contest, a struggle of wit and language. Later, especially during Roman times, agon becomes firmly attached to competitive games, such as chariot races, and becomes linked to the idea of victory and winning. In using this term of antagonism, Bloom precluded more benign concepts to describe creativity, such as “homage” or “collaboration.” The artist strives, in a very Modernist fashion, to overthrow the past and to assert his genius. Genius is strong, but the age of the genius is weak and the strong poet runs the risk of drowning in the act of becoming a good reader of earlier poets. As Bloom explained in Kabbalah and Criticism (1975),

Strong poets must be mis-read; there are no generous errors to be made in apprehending them, any more than their own errors of reading are ever generous. Every poet caricatures tradition and every strong poet is then necessarily mis-read by the tradition that he fosters. The strongest of poets are so severely mis-read that the generally accepted, broad interpretations o their work actually tend to be the exact opposites of what the poems truly are.

This danger of encountering the genius of the stronger poet arouses anxiety for the challenger, as the whole being of the poet must be unique in order for the poet to survive. Bloom writing as if he is aware of Postmodern idea of the bricoleur stated that the strong poet usurps and appropriates that which is strong and available within the language. And Bloom writes as if he has begun to incorporate the idea of intertextuality when he notes that the great poem can refer only to other great poems and emanates from the intricate balance of psychic warfare. The good poet steals, leaps and located his/herself in the freedom that is discontinuity.


Harold Bloom (1930-)

But Bloom also remained true to the structured meaning of literature when he asserted that literature is a text, stating that poems are not things: poems are words that refer only to other words and any poem is an inter-poem and reading is only inter-reading. Although Bloom sounds rather like a holdover from New Criticism, he is also a critic who is aware of his own theoretical time when he asserted that a poem is never written but rewritten because every poem is belated–a very Postmodern stance. Art is necessarily an after-ing, every artist a latecomer who lives under the shadow of art. The artist must usurp and seize textual authority in an act of imposition and a declaration of property. Poetry is thus an aspiring to strength that is necessarily competitive and obsessive. However, Bloom was no Postmodernist, despite his traces and flirtations with the tropes of Postmodernist theories, for he was always concerned with self-actualizaiton through an act of will, through an assertion of self-consciousness. In other words, self-representation is achieved only through “trespass” or an act of invasion into the territory of another artist, who then becomes the “father.”

In a purely Freudian fashion, as if the sons are collectively assaulting the father, Bloom asserts that the strong poet must invent him/herself through a strong new poem that is a sin of transgression against origins. The poet obtains freedom, that is, obtains a meaning of his/her own, achieved against an a priori fullness of meaning–tradition which leads the new strong poet to a territory of his own. This freedom of meaning can be arrived at only through combat–a reading encounter by a strong poet who loves his/her own poetry, and must live it, in order to get it written and to open up a poetic space or a terrain captured from another poet. In asserting that poetry can come only out of a lineage of poetry, Bloom seemed to be rejecting the possibility of a poetic revolution, such as that of Stéphane Mallarmé. Indeed, his list of “strong poets” is somewhat limited to the Romantic poets of the 18th century and those of the early 20th century. By asserting the primacy of existing tradition and, incidentally, upholding a canon of “strong poets,” Bloom was able to save history and tradition, genius and originality from the historicism and eclecticism, and the appropriation and borrowing of Postmodernism.

As a Jewish writer, Bloom appears to think in an almost Biblical construct of “begets”, establishing a patriarchal lineage of sons wrestling with their dead fathers for poetic or artistic territory. The question remains whether or not Bloom’s concept of Agon can be un-colored and un-gendered and re-made into a general account of how artists come to terms with the past and find their own creative ground through psychological suffering and self-protection that forces them onto new territories. He continues the formalism of Structuralism by reading poetry out of historical context and continues the Structuralism of Structuralism by creating another figurative metaphor: a field of conflict, and continues the teleological imperatives of Modernism as art begets art within a closed world, combining works of art, psychologies and histories.

But Bloom, as is recalled, worked with the radical Yale deconstructionists, Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida. There are aspects of his work that seem to reconcile the Postmodern denial of originality and its assertion of belatedness with the Modernist need to explain and to celebrate “genius.” But in the final analysis, Postmodernism is about the gaps, while Modernism is about continuity and the continuous rupture with the past. Bloom sees the tradition of “art” as being a conflicted hand-off, Agon, between fathers and sons. Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault would have very different views about how art is made.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Harold Bloom: The Anxiety of Influence


The Canon

The most prolific upholder of the Modern “canon” is Harold Bloom, the quintessential Modernist holdout surrounded by a sea of Postmodern theorists. However, Bloom, always an interesting and prolific writer, is merely more frank than his colleagues who were never champions of the Other, except as signifiers. The argument over the Canon coincided with the entry of women and people of color, gays and lesbians in the halls of academia and it is here, in these very institutions, that people are taught to read certain books and to look at certain works of art. By privileging certain authors articulating the concerns of certain classes and certain genders and by refusing to include the voices of the Other/s, the formation of the canon is an ideological act. The process of forming resembles that of selecting the “appropriate” texts for religious books, such as the Bible–only some are chosen. The rejected writings may have been deemed “marginal” or “non-orthodox,” but the final choices are shrouded in mysteries of confidentiality that hide the politics or the political impact. The formation of religious canon/s is usually in the hands of the so-called authorities but literary and artistic canons were less a matter of authority than of the availability of some works of art for study and not others or the extent to which a literary work is impactful or influential or referred to.

The fact that canons are formed casually over time does not blunt their ideological effect. Whether or not production has intent, and I would argue that it has, the end result of the Canon is to establish an authoritative “list” or “approved’ works that are deemed “suitable” for study and contemplation. The problem, as with all exemplars is that the choices cannot be sustained, except in a very few cases, in terms of “quality” and can be defended only in terms of the superiority of gender or race. While it is possible to argue that Shakespeare is “superior” to other writers in English, it is not possible to argue that T. S. Eliot is “better” than Virginia Woolfe and that therefore, the female should be excluded. Those who are opposed to the imposition of a Canon are not opposed to separating grocery store “romance novels” from the Brönte sisters but are opposed to including some at the inclusion of others. For example, it makes no sense to exclude either Berthe Morisot or Mary Cassatt from Impressionism, for they too painted in that style, were present at the creation, and were “painters of modern life.” To exclude Virginia Woolfe as a Modernist writer from the Modernist “canon,” is to defy history and to rewrite the formation of modern literature.


Instead of appealing to the accuracy of historical events, the 1980s debate over the Canon devolved into a proxy fight over the disempowering of women in order to continue to valorize the male. The Canon, or the concept of the Great Books or the Major Monuments, had long been considered the very definition of Western culture itself. “Culture” was assumed to be timeless and transcendent and revelatory of “civilization.” Until the rise of the “culture of critique” or as the art critic Robert Hughes called it “the culture of complaint,” the omission of women and people of color from the list of the “greats” and the “majors” was considered to be the “natural” result of the “deficiencies” of those who were the Other. But the Other spoke up and pointed out that the Canon was more than a reading list or a compilation of images and was a political instrument actively engaged in the oppression of disenfranchised peoples. In actuality, the fight over the inclusion and exclusion of those in or out of the Canon is based upon the argument that time is limited and that only so many works of art can be studied in the allotted time of the semester or quarter. Hopefully, that argument will become anachronistic with the increasing use of computer based courses, eliminating constraints of time and space and enabling students to wander among available books and works of art and make up their own minds.

Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973)

One of the staunchest defenders of the Canon is Harold Bloom, a lone voice of dissent against Deconstruction, a final defender of authoritarianism in the Yale School of Critics, once a hotbed of radical thought. Some of his colleagues and most powerful adversaries are dead: Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), Paul de Man (1919-1983) but J. Hillis Miller lives on. The School is a legend of the past with its heyday going back to the debate over the Canon. To understand how important the Yale School was in the 1980s is get an insight into the literary quarrels among the contending perspectives of New Criticism, Marxism, Deconstruction, Feminism and Multiculturalism. Of this rather assorted list, only Deconstruction was disconnected from the Enlightenment. The other “isms” were either white-male based: New Criticism and Marxism or were reformist: Feminism and Multiculturalism. Out of this fertile ground for affirmative debate over ideologies in the Canon came massive changes in the humanities that altered the way a work of art is studied and analyzed.

Harold Bloom, described in an amusing 1986 article, “The Tyranny of the Yale Critics,” by Colin Campbell as looking like Zero Mostel, rose above the battleground and stood his ground, defending the great works while ignoring all others. Bloom’s tireless defense of the Canon is less interesting in the long run than his description of how art is made and the relation of artists to their predecessors. For Bloom, the artist is always an avant-garde creator, a tormented Romantic genius, who struggles with a sacred and sanctified duty to be original. As Campbell mockingly wrote,

During the 1960’s and 70’s, Bloom’s hot-blooded readings of the 19th-century Romantic poets helped melt the authority of the New Critics (an intellectually cool group that distrusted Romantic enthusiasms). His dark, agonized, Freudian speculations over the process known as ”literary influence” – over the ways writers creatively misread and try to outdo their artistic predecessors – became the theme of his career.

Criticized by Feminists of constructing a masculine and Oedipal field of struggle between “fathers” and “sons” in violent creative competition, Bloom created a model of agonism and conflict that brings “great” works of art into being. Without preamble or preparation, Bloom plunges into his thesis of the “strong poet” and the “weak poet” making an argument that the relative strength and weakness can be measured in how each poet reacts the presence of precursors. Bloom sought a way out of Modernism’s cherished notion of “influence,” a narrow and reductive concept that was an enterprise that was inadequate at best and damaging at worse, shadowing the artistic experience with a simplistic mechanism of mere borrowing. Using the ideas of Sigmund Freud and Narcissism, Bloom separated the artistic world into strong poets and weak poets. Strong poets would triumph over their predecessors and overcome The Anxiety of Influence through something he called the “transitive originality,” meaning that originality is either passed on or newly discovered.

Originality is denied within Postmodernism, but Bloom rescues it from theoretical oblivion by asserting that the meaning of a poem can be only another poem, making poetic history the history of strong poems. The battle for the new artist is to accept the works of the predecessors, to do what has already been done, and to ultimately beat history through misinterpretation or misprision. Strong poets read their predecessors inaccurately through a different subjective paradigm and system of values, resulting in a strong new interpretation or a strong and deliberate misreading that becomes a new imaginative space for the new poet. As Bloom wrote,

Poetic Influence–when it involves two strong, authentic poets–always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main traditions of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist.

The problem of anxiety can be solved by the strong poet by a “swerve” away from the precursor. The swerve acknowledges the presence of the prior author and makes use of the available materials but on the terms of the next generation. Bloom, who delights in creating new terms, uses the word, “clinamen” to denote the “misreading” or

..poetic misreading or misprision proper; I take the word from Lucretius, where it meansa ‘swerve’ of the atoms so as to make change possible in the universe. A poet swervesaway from his precursor, by so reading his precursor’s poem as to execute a clinamenin relation to it. This appears as a corrective movement in his own poem, which implies that the precursor poem went accurately up to a certain point, but then should have swerved, precisely in the direction that the new poem moves..

Bloom created many terms such as”tessera,” which refers to a fragment (of a pot), which is both the antithesis of the completed object and the completion itself. “A poet,” Bloom wrote, “antithetically ‘completes’ his precursor, by so reading the parent-poem as to retain its terms but to mean them in another sense, as though the precursor had failed to go far enough.” The ideas of misreading and swerve, compared to the rest of the “Revisionary Ratios:” Kenosis, Daemonisation, Askesis and Apophrades, which are terms of elaboration, are key to understand Bloom’s main point: the poetic “sons” fear their poetic “fathers” in a Freudian sense. The sons fear the confrontation because they fear they will not measure up and will be castrated, i. e., that their inadequacies will be revealed through a weak poem which reeks of the influence of the father.

Because as Bloom contended, a poem can emerge only from another poem, the precursor must be acknowledged and the father cannot be “killed” by the strong poet. As he wrote, “Poetry is the anxiety of influence, is misprision, is a disciplined perverseness. Poetry is misunderstanding, misinterpretation, misalliance. Poetry (Romance) is Family Romance. Poetry is the enchantment of incest disciplined by resistance to that enchantment. Influence is influenza – an astral disease. If influence were health, who would write a poem?” What is odd about Bloom’s analysis of the Family Romance is that the Mother does not appear in the triad. His romance is a war between father and son in which the son is attempting to establish his own subject hood and thus his own self, his own Being. As Bloom noted, “When we say that the meaning of a poem can only be another poem, we may mean a range of poems: the precursor poem or poems. The poem we write as our reading. A rival poem, son or grandson of the same precursor. A poem that never got written – that is – the poem that should have been written by the poet in question. A composite poem, made up of these in some combination.”

The importance of Harold Bloom’s work is that he brings Freudian theory into Romantic or Kantian ideas about “genius.” By asserting the importance of literature for literature, Bloom ended the myth of original creation, one of the central tenets of Western aesthetics. However, the books of Harold Bloom, products of a pre-feminist and pre-Civil Rights era, were published in a different world and seemed like rear guard resistance against both inevitable change and ethical justice. There are logical flaws in Bloom’s arguments, which imply that the agon of poetry is an all male affair (romance). Although Bloom seems blind to the work of women, it is difficult to imagine that his favorite modern poet, Wallace Stevens, could have written “Anecdote of a Jar” without his female precursor, Emily Dickinson. Likewise, if one asserts that because Virginia Woolfe was a woman, she had no precursors, then surely Bloom would have to rank her as an original genius. But in the 21st century, it is pointless to argue with or about an elderly man who reflected his own time and it is important to understand his next book as an extension of its famous precursor.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Écriture Féminine: Laura Mulvey


PART TWO: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema

LAURA MULVEY (1941 – )

One of the most famous essays critiquing the structures of masculine oppression comes not from France and not from America but from the genteel shores of the British Isles: “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” by Laura Mulvey. Re-published in her book of film and cultural criticism, Visual and Other Pleasures, this ground-breaking article was written in 1973 and published in Screen in 1975. Her position was that psychoanalytic theory, a feminist take on Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) by way of Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), whose philosophies had been used as a weapon against women. Those psychoanalytic theories were, in their own way, expressions of the prevailing social norms that through the complex fulcrum of philosophy reinforced male control of the female. Mulvey was conversant with Lacan years long before the entirety of his work was translated into English. Indeed, she was present as Lacan, himself, was re-writing his own ideas on women during the seventies. Her article on the unconsciousness of film was so groundbreaking because, first, she used Lacan against himself or his own theories, but, second, she also provided a cutting-edged subversive analyses of male art forms to feminist theory. Given that Hollywood cinema is a delivery system of pleasure to men, Mulvey’s goal was to analyze this male pleasure and to destroy that pleasure.

If we extend psychoanalysis from the individual to the culture that produced the person, then the culture itself has embedded and buried its own unconscious which expresses itself through “dream-work.” Without being fully aware of what it is doing, male-made popular culture reproduces and reinforces male dominance in society, not in obvious ways but within a visual and verbal language that reveals, not will to power but a deep male anxiety about women. Mulvey analyzes cinema, an advanced representative system, which rests upon an unconscious that has been formed by the dominant order. The power of her texts is that she carefully re-looks at the familiar, films that most people have seen, perhaps the most insidious instruments of social manipulation, and makes these movies unfamiliar. Both men and women watch popular movies and are moved and shaped by what they see. One can debate as the “importance” of the feminist target–is it more effective to directly challenge Jacques Lacan, read by thousands or to dissect a mode of communication that involves millions of watchers?

Mulvey’s article established an entire field of film criticism for feminists and for critical theorists, such as Slavoj Zizek (1949-). Given the late date of the translation of Lacan’s writings, Mulvey must have read some of his work in the original and, thus, she acted as a transmitter of phallocentric ideas from this author to a wide audience, especially the audience of women who would make of this text a tool kit for critique. Mulvey worked with a concept that will prove a fruitful one: “The Political Unconscious,” which Frederic Jameson (1934-) would later combine Marx and Freud and join Mulvey in analyzing popular culture as revealing of the unsaid in culture. Because it was written in English and hence would have wider circulation, Mulvey’s signature essay is better known than the work of her French counterparts here in America. Her writing is more accessible and she sidesteps the temptation to take on Freud and Lacan in order to refute them. The article does not require the audience to have an understanding, first of Freud and second of Lacan, at the same level of detail that is needed to read French feminism; all “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema” demands is a passing knowledge of familiar films. Mulvey assumed, however, that the reader grasps the basic idea that society is phallocentric, that is male dominated, as she wrote,

The paradox of phallocentrism in aIl its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world. An idea of woman stands as lynch pin to the system: it is her lack that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies.

According to Mulvey, mainstream film has been coded into the language of the erotics of the dominant (male) order and these erotics give pleasure (designed for male needs) to the male. Although there is no doubt that females also receive pleasure from popular movies but this pleasure demands that she incorporate her own objectification. It is the intention of Mulvey to analyze this pleasure in order to destroy it, to break with “normal” pleasures and expectations–which are male pleasures at the expense of women. Mulvey’s article focused on the films of Alfred Hitchcock (1889-1980), the ultimate voyeur-as-director. In the 21st century, Hitchcock is understood through post-feminist eyes as somewhat unbalanced when it came to women, but it would be more precise to state that the English director was in a unique position to express very powerfully the feelings that men (at that time) had about women. Indeed, today, we view his films as less than archaeologies of sixties male culture but more as frank assertions of male needs, hiding in plain sight in the sixties. Whether Hitchcock can be positioned as a director of a group of late film noir movies or as being in an idiosyncratic class by himself, it can be said that he foregrounded one of the favorite noir characters, the femme fatale who became the focus of the auteur’s dissecting eye on the eve of a series of Civil Rights movements, including feminism.


Rear Window (1954)

In his classically neurotic film noirs of the late fifties and early sixties, from Psycho to Rear Window to Vertigo to Marnie to The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock featured strong blond women who, according to Mulvey, were, like all women in all male-made movies, were symbolic and “speaks to castration and nothing else.” Echoing Lacan who insisted that women did not exit, Mulvey said their role in visual culture was only as a sign:

Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.

Wittingly or unwittingly, film is a form of scopophilia, the rather perverted sexual pleasure obtained through looking–largely a male proclivity–a form of passive voyeurism that is inherently voyeuristic. Film is a function of the specular. Film theorists had long compared the darkness of a movie theater and the passive inertness of the audience to sleeping and experiencing dreams. The “narrative conventions” of this “magically unfolding” experience” allow the viewer to spy on a drama unfolding before their eyes. Like the voyeur who takes pleasure in watching, the filmgoers also receive ritual pleasure. Mulvey explained that the screen is a mirror, much like the Lacanian “mirror” which reflected a magnified image of the ego back to itself. The ego “misrecognizes” the image and receives pleasure from this “ego ideal.” This identification is the source of the “fascination” of film and its hold on its rapt audience who gazes upon the ego ideal, the male protagonist on the silver screen.

Because the narrative of film is constructed out of the split between the active male and the passive female, the ego ideal is that of the male and can never be that of the female. But male identification with the male must be constructed not on sexuality but on the dominance of the male protagonist who pushes the story forward. As Mulvey expressed it, “…the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like.” Regardless of the gender of the spectator, s/he identifies with the male on the screen. In contrast to the male, the female character is passive; she exists to be gazed upon, to be looked at. She is on display as a Sign of male sexuality and of male desire. But the active display of the passive female as an object to be seen by the viewers causes a problem for the male who will experience acute anxiety at the sight of this Other who does not possess the most important and prized possession: the Phallus. Mulvey wrote,

…the woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified. The male unconscious has two avenues of escape from this castration anxiety: preoccupation with the re-enactment of the original trauma (investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery), counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment or saving of the guilty object (an avenue typified by the concerns of the film noir); or else complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous (hence over-valuation, the cult of the female star).

Alfred Hitchcock masterfully played with the conventions of movies by foregrounding the perversions of scopophilila and the sadism of fetishistic fascination. In Rear Window (1954), the male protagonist is already suggestively castrated by his broken leg, his immobilization, and his infantile state as an invalid. His emasculation is further heightened by his active and sexually assertive girlfriend who controls and order his now-homebound life. Even the large extended phallic lens of his heavy camera, a survival of his career as a photojournalist, cannot compensate for his supine state. The anxieties of the male audience would be aroused in the extreme: a helpless male and a demanding female. As Mulvey pointed out, this hero is as trapped in his seat as the audience in the theater and the narrative worked quickly to ally fears. As soon as she appears, “Jeffries” orders “Lisa” to display herself to the audience, and as she swirls and twirls her bouffant skirts, she is belittled and degraded by the sarcastic male.

As in Vertigo, the male must be seemingly placed on the side of the Law of the Father. But Hitchcock’s saving grace is that he undermines these self-rightsous males: “Jeffries” is an irresponsible voyeur who snoops on his neighbors and cravenly sends “Lisa” into danger, and in Vertigo, “Scottie” is maniacal and obsessive and is responsible for the death of the woman he loves, “Madeline.” On its surface, Vertigo (1958), like Rear Window, is a murder mystery, but the so-called mystery is an Hitchcock MacGuffin, an excuse to explore the unhealthy romance between an ineffectual male and a powerful woman who must be destroyed and re-made into a fetish fashioned for male control. As in Psycho and Marnie, Hitchcock’s women were displayed to the men in the audience, made visually available to them, so that men, identifying with the male protagonist, could interrogate and investigate these women and then either master or kill the women, or both, in order to alleviate the castration anxiety of the male audience. According to Mulvey’s “Summary,”

The argument returns again to the psychoanalytic background in that woman as representation signifies castration, inducing voyeuristic or fetishistic mechanisms to circumvent her threat. None of these interacting Iayers is intrinsic to film, but it is only in the film form that they can reach a perfect and beautiful contradiction, thanks to the possibility in the cinema of shifting the emphasis of the look. It is the place of the look that defines cinema, the possibility of varying it and exposing it. This is what makes cinema quite different in its voyeuristic potential from, say, strip-tease, theatre, shows, etc. Going far beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself.

According to Mulvey’s critique, many films have a male-orientated sub-text that must be located in order to reveal the constant workings of the patriarchal culture to silence and to extinguish women, but the fact that she focused on Hitchcock films, the work of an acknowledge auteur raises several questions. First, Hitchcock was a director of the sixties and second, Mulvey was a writer of the seventies, therefore is this essay still viable? It has been forty years since Mulvey attempted to subvert the male pleasure of cinema, but from the opening credits of television shows, such as the Miami Vice and Burn Notice, the camera, the consummate instrument of voyeurism, par excellence, gloms onto women’s breasts and buttocks, untroubled by feminism, whether First or Second Wave or post. Clearly, we still need Mulvey. If any progress has been made, it can be seen that voyeurism has become equal opportunity: now male torsos have become fetish objects. But over the half century, we have witnessed the evolution of strong female protagonists in movies and in television. While there is no doubt that the Male Gaze reigns supreme, it is not unchallenged, as female filmmakers gradually remake and rewrite the political unconscious of film.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Jacques Lacan and Women

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)


Throughout this series on the teachings of Jacques Lacan, I have noted several times that his terms must not be taken literally. The Masculine Order does not signify “men” or “males,” but the Symbolic Order or language and the Feminine, likewise, is not “women” or “females,” but the inarticulateness of the real. The Phallus is likewise a signifier that both joins the masculine and the feminine and acts as a function of difference or becomes the mask of sexual difference. But the Phallus is not merely or only abstract,the Phallus is also part of the physical and is linked to sexual jouissance. The linking can take place because sexuality and sexual desire is deeply rooted in fantasies of desire (for the Mother) that have faded and have become lost over time and are unrecoverable, except symbolically as signified by the Phallus.

As the complexity of the meaning of the “Phallus” implies, Lacan’s thinking on the organ/not-organ evolved over decades—as was his habit—and is marked with traces of his struggle to wrest the Phallus from Freudian biology and to place it, in all its erectile glory, in the abstract symbolic. The centrality of the Phallus is not just a problem for Lacan, for his interpreters, it is also a problem for the 21st century woman, who following the women who read Lacan in the 2oth century, can only wonder, if the Phallus is symbolic of the Symbolic Order, why must the Symbolic Order or Language be represented by an über-penis? why is Desire ordered and organized around this phallic entity? As Lacanian scholar Luce Irigaray wondered, if the Mother is/was the origin of all Desire and the unspoken real, why not the vagina or why not an Economy of the breast? The simple answer is that Lacan spent his lifetime re-telling the tales of the patriarchy as re-told by Freud.

In reading Lacan, it is striking how phallic and aggressive his word choice is, indeed, his entire analysis of the socialization of the human subject is not a story of loving nurturance but one of sexual jealously and dramatic renunciation. Lacan combined Ferdinand de Saussure with Sigmund Freud or language and sexuality with ideas of being and existence, an interesting intellectual game, but, whatever the intent, the effect is to privilege the male and male violence and to write off the female by placing the Feminine in the realm of the non-speaking. The result of the Lacanian “family romance,” while stripped of its Freudian biological roots, is still the same and mirrors the actual male dominance over the female in actual society and has the effect of reinforcing the genderization of the Master/Slave dialectic.

Within the Lacanian system, Woman cannot be; she cannot exist. Within Lacanian thinking, women are merely the sign of difference, and if women are merely the relation of difference, they are excluded from subjectness or subjecthood. While speaking against “mastery,” Lacan not only masters Woman/women but renders them as the Other or the always-already Other which exists for the masculine subject. But this Otherness of women is a minor one and is less than the status of the Symbolic Other to the Symbolic One or the (non)subject. Women cannot even exist as the Other, as Simone de Beauvoir asserted in The Second Sex,

…she is simply what man decrees; thus she is called ‘the sex’, by which is meant that she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being. For him she is sex – absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.’

The category of the Other is as primordial as consciousness itself. In the most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies, one finds the expression of a duality – that of the Self and the Other. This duality was not originally attached to the division of the sexes; it was not dependent upon any empirical facts. However, like Freudian thought, Lacanian theory eliminates women, real women, from meaningful participation in society. The theory of Lacan by way of Freud, according to feminists, is nothing more than a ruse for a male voiced or “monologic” “elaboration” of the masculine. The feminine is silenced as the site of plurality, multiplicity, and subversion of the Masculine order, part of the real that resists symbolization. Women, as Difference, have always been excluded from universality, which is always the male who are assumed to transcend the local.


Jacques Lacan as a Young Man

As Lacan explained, the “male way” of jouissance or pleasure precluded any relationship with the female. The male subject is everything: l’homme comme tout. What the male desires is not the specific female but the objet a or the original missing love object that can never be recovered but is identified by Slavoj Zizek as the “Mother-Thing.” Feminist philosopher, Monique Wittig called for the destruction of “sex”or gender differentiation so that women could assume the status of the universal being. Feminist scholars point out that Lacan, like Freud, privileged vision and created a specular system or a system that is deeply scopophilic and voyeuristic. The (boy) child discovers his mother’s (Freudian) castration or (Lacanian) Lack through vision, through looking. He sees that, because the mother does not have the penis which is the appendage necessary to carry authority, therefore, the mother is less than the male. Without definition or meaning in her own right, she is defined by her Lack of a phallus/penis/power. The (child’s) eye has mastered/seen the Mother/object and has reduced her to insignificance.

Notice that the child has already learned–or the male theorist has already assumed–that the female must be “seen” only “in relation” or in comparison to the male. For Lacan, they eyes are the source of the scopic drive, the access through which the libido explores the world by projecting itself on the world. Love reduces the beloved to an object for the sake of possessing and controlling the object. Male/female relationships are organized around the inevitable sadism of Displaced desire in which the Other is reduced to a submissive non-entity and the masochism in which one offers oneself as an object for the other. For Lacan, sexuality, based upon a differential structure, is an assignment and is confined within the structure of the language. To illustrate the ” assignment,” Lacan produced his famous image of restroom doors, one labeled: “Ladies” and the other “Gentlemen.” Just as the doors are labeled, human beings are also labeled or differentiated, their social identities imposed from the outside, assigned to them through the operation of the Law which is Symbolic. Gender may exist as a biological effect, but sex is a social construct and an effect of dominance and subordination and sadism and masochism.

Although the Phallus is put forward as the supreme signifier, its supremacy is fraudulent, it is a mask. The Phallus depends upon its power only through the subjection of the other. But, in truth, we are all castrated. Our place in the patriarchal system is secured at the price of a Loss and our adult life is one of deferred consequences of the repressions instituted by the rule of symbolic patriarchal law. Women might well ask, why not an economy of loss and gain based upon the vagina? But if one follows the logic of Lacan, a vaginal economy would be impossible. Lacan based his psychology on the specular, on the sight of the woman’s “lack” of the Phallus/penis. The vagina exists but cannot be seen. Therefore, the specular order functions only in terms of the seen or visuality. It is not that women don’t possess sexual organs; it is that the organ is not “present” in the sense of being “present/ed” to the viewer.

For years Courbet was in possession of a painting thought lost, Origin of the World by Gustave Courbet. This famous painting was kept hidden and shrouded by a wooden sliding door (decorated with a outline carving of the painting by André Masson), which was pulled aside when the doctor “presented” the painting of a woman’s genitalia to the viewer (male or theoretically female). As Courbet’s painting Origin of the World suggested, the vagina was to be presented under ceremonial circumstances. The viewpoint of the female genitalia is purely that of the spectator: the woman who presumably owns or possesses the organs cannot see that which define her. She is blind to her own sex. The painting of the female vagina by a male, whether by Courbet of anyone else, is an act of not only claiming and defining but also one of radical voyeuristic visualization of the terrifying mystery of Lack. In addition to the literal concealment during Lacan’s ownership, there is the veil of pubic hair which frames the labia, which in turn covers the feared “hole,” that Lacanian theory defined as the Lack.

In contrast to the unseeable Lack, the penis/Phallus is easily located, readily regarded, and is always available to view. The man can see his organ without difficulty. From the standpoint of visual culture, the absence of the woman’s present organ explains the intense male curiosity about the female “sex.” Given the supposed cultural power of the Phallus, it is curious that the penis, its signifier, perhaps in order to preserve its mystique, is kept socially hidden from view. The culture gives the penis a discourse of variety: large, small, long, short, fat, thin, dark, light and so on. To the contrary, the culture seems to assume a “universal” vagina, as though all vaginas are the same, unified by their Lack. Oddly enough, the endless variation of penises is spoken but rarely seen outside of pornography, while the female body is constantly on view while being constantly subjected to uniformity through surgical engineering to ensure sameness. Within this specular system, the woman is denied individuality and must correspond to an abstract vision of herself or be cast out of the visual culture. As Lacan said,

Besides, it isn’t the penis, but the Phallus, that is to say, something whose symbolic usage is possible because it can be seen, because it is erected. There can by no possible symbolic use for what is not seen, for what is hidden…Strictly speaking, there is no symbolization of the woman’s sexual organ as such..The feminine sexual organ has the character of an absence, a void, a hole…

The Phallus is the only theorizable sexual organ, therefore, according to Lacan, the Phallus is only “trivially masculine.” The Phallus is the theory of what is given, what one has, what exists, while the vagina symbolizes what one does not have, a Lack, a Loss or that which does not exist or lies outside of theory. However, Lack and Loss are the very reasons for Desire. Men are energized by the threat of castration (Lack) and live uneasily within a phallocentric message that intimidates men and forces them to enter into rivalry with those who seem to possess more Phallus/power. As for women, Lacan’s theories canceled out women. “Woman” is merely an endless sequence of projections and fabrications emanating from the male discourse. Lacan displayed wonder that the female orgasm even existed and that the woman’s ability to orgasm is situated beyond the Phallus.

For Lacan, there is never a sexual “relationship,” because in their inequality, men and women cannot relate. Each partner plays the role of Subject to the other’s Object. There is never symmetry or reciprocity. The female body scarcely exists (except as Lack). Women have little to do and nothing to say. They can “become equal” only to men, because only men exist. If women do not exist, then who or what is that we see? Lacan, who readily incorporated the the ideas of others, stated that the woman is a masquerade. The idea of “womanliness as a masquerade” was not Lacan’s idea, but that of Joan Riviérè who wrote her famous essay in 1929 in response to a 1927 paper by Freudian follower, Ernest Jones. According to Sean Homer in his book, Jacques Lacan, Riviérè wanted to present a woman more modern, an intellectual woman, into a world of male psychoanalysts who had not considered such a being. The result was her 1929 essay, “Womanliness as a Masquerade.”

According to Riviérè, women who possess intellectual abilities and aspirations must, in the early 20th century, be aspiring to “masculinity,” and such a Promethean act would arouse anxiety within the male. This disruption of male dominance would be so great that men would resort to retribution against the offender. Therefore, women wish for masculinity but wear a mask of womanliness as an expression of the resolution of aggression and conflict. The masquerade averts anxiety and retribution from men. The fear that women have of men can be traced back to the family–her fantasy of taking the place of a man, the Father. For Lacan, the woman is a sign-object, a item of exchange, and, for Riviérè, when a woman speaks in public, acting as a lecturer or in any public way, she feels fear. Not only do men not welcome the voice of a woman, she is also but a castrated subject within the language.

The solution to this fear and the possible retribution from the male is the Masquerade. Riviérè draws an analogy between the woman and the homosexual, both of whom are required to wear masks: an exaggeration of “femininity” is a masquerade for women who wish for masculinity as their identification and the “masculinity” of a homosexual hides from others his “femininity” by an exaggeration of masculinity. The masquerade is central to the creation of a womanliness that men will accept. Ironically it is this art form of disguise through mimicry that authenticates this inauthentic womanliness. Because the entire discourse of sexuality circulates around the needs of the male, femininity is a mask for men. The reassuring mask resolves the crisis of masculine identification by allowing men to define themselves in relation to what they are not: women. In fact, as Lacan stated, “Woman does not exist.” To express the non-existence of an element that must, nevertheless, be spoken of, woman, like Being is put under sous rature. The Woman does not exist.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Jacques Lacan: The Formation of the Subject

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)


Anyone who has read the writings of Jacques Lacan came to the humbling realization that in any meaningful way s/he simply didn’t exist. Having gone through the boot camp of the Oedipal Order, the socialized (non)person emerges as an emotional cripple who will spend the rest of her life lying prone on a Freudian couch. Whatever shards of primal authenticity that might have been present at birth have been pummeled and buried under the threats of the Law of the Father who has Forbidden all manner of delights to a child who is stunned into submission. What is left behind after what appears to be two years of indoctrination, is not a shell, not a shadow of a former self, but a false impression of something called “ego,” a presumption to which one clings. It was the prime directive of Jacques Lacan to expose the false notion of the Cartesian self and to reveal the empty mask of a masquerading persona. From an emotional standpoint, the student must reject both Lacan’s enterprise and his conclusions, but from an intellectual perspective, Lacan’s position makes perfect sense.

Because the human subject is forged through the acquisition of language, the (faux)ego is an assumption—in that one assumes an ego as one dons a mask. Separated from “reality” which cannot be realized, Language is inherently and necessarily Symbolic. Lacan maintains that in order to achieve social personhood (persona), the child must submit to or accept the inevitability of the Symbolic. If language is split from reality, then when the subject acquires symbolic language, s/he becomes symbolized: the language speaks the subject. In order to be spoken, the subject must experience Loss (of the Forbidden Mother) and Gains entry into the social order. An Exchange, based upon Lack, has been made, the bargain has been struck and the ego or the subject does not and cannot exist.

But Lacan discussed the subject, which he asserted does not exist, at great length, so how are we to think of this non-existent “subject” of which so much is written? It is possible to resolve the dilemma by approaching it sideways. First, the subject does not exist and yet we must speak of it, or to put it more precisely, it seems as if we can, are able, to speak of subject (or ego). It is possible to speak of something that does not exist: we speak of ghosts, witches, zombies and vampires, and these are creatures of the imagination that do not exist. If you are Anne Rice, the non-existence of vampires does not trouble you, but if you are a philosopher, speaking of objects that are not objects or of the non-existent is troubling, especially when, unlike Anne Rice, you are compelled to address the non-addressable.

The solution was suggested by Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) who designated these troubling non-objects as “concepts,” and then proceeded on with the discussion. Another solution was proposed by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951): silence. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) confronted the problem of how to write about the non-existent by accepting the idea of “concept” from Frege, but, in the base of Being, Heidegger put Being sous rature or “under erasure,” by allowing “Being” to be written but also written out by deliberately crossing over the word with a large X. Although he does not resort to the ploy employed by Martin Heidegger, Lacan who was very aware of Frege and Heidegger can be seen as following their lead: “subject” is a concept, but that is all it is—an idea.

Repudiating the Cartesian notion of self or what Lacan called a “false being,” and the Freudian insistence on the ego of the conscious mind, Lacan wanted to disrupt the notion of the unified subject and the idea of presence through inversion. For Lacan, the subject is split and it is the unconscious that must supersede the conscious mind, as in U/c, meaning that the conscious mind is always overridden by the forces beneath, so to speak. In fact as Bruce Fink pointed out in The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance, “the subject is nothing but his split.” The “splitting of the I,” means that the subject is split when s/he is inserted into the Symbolic Order. The insertion, which is always forced, necessarily results in alienation of self from self and repression by the Law of the self.


Jacques Lacan (1901-81)

The split subject is mediated and can be understood only by being mediated through discourse, but this mediation, also a forcing event, creates a hidden structure: the unconscious. In Freudian terms, the end result of the “family romance” mans that the child is traumatized and the primal wound gives rise to the unconscious, where all that is not to be thought of is buried. But, in its raw state, the split create division and in order for the human being to function, if the (“social”) wound cannot be healed, the gap must be closed. Between the subject, which does not exist but thinks it does, and the world, which does exist but cannot be uttered, there must be a Third Order, referred to as the Suture. Think of the suture as a shunt or as a form of “stitching” the subject into society. But the Suture also represents the tear or splitting, which can only be mended but always leaves a scar–the trauma–behind.

When it is seen that the S/s (Signifier/signified) has a visible bar–the split/suture—is also the wound that causes the alienation of the subject within language. Because the subject is within language, as in caught or trapped inside, the subject is condemned to speak indirectly, through the assemblage piecemeal action of constructive collage, or through the animal-like mimicry of mimesis, and (self) representation. The subject, therefore, embedded in this indirectness, can never be an ego, in the Freudian sense, and can be only a persona. As as pointed out above, the self, the ego, the subject is formed as the result of Lack, which, in its turn, engenders need, desire, demand. Need, Desire, Demand—this is the the Triad of Lacan, replacing the Triad of Hegel: thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis. In the Hegelian sense, the conflict or the dialectic between Desire and Law produces drives, named by Lacan using Freudian terms: “eros” and “thantos.” These binary drives are the engines of the “subject.” Love and Death become opposites or polarities at war within the subject. The paradox of the death wish is that wishing for Death is also wishing for completion.

The completion can come about only when one is re-fused with the original Forbidden object, the Mother, or a substitution for the Mother. Eros must be displaced elsewhere and a substitution must be found, and these mechanisms of “displacement” and “substitution” are also functions of language, as Metaphor and Metonymy. In order to illustrate the process of becoming, as Freud would have it, “civilized,” Lacan sets up the family (Freud’s “family romance”) as a symbolic structure which is social or cultural and is thus contrasted to the natural world of animal promiscuity. It is important to note that the family, as posited by Lacan, is tripartite. The “family” beings with two terms: the Mother and the Child.” The third term is the Father who must act, who must intervene and split or separate the dyad of Mother and Child. The triangulated family—the father and child fighting for ownership of the mother—is the transcendence of order and culture, which rises above of the instinctive and the natural. The family becomes a proper “family” only when it comes into being through the Forbidden and the force used to establish the cultural/symbolic order by Forbidding the Forbidden. Force assumes sacrifice (loss) on the part of the child who has no power and who will never grasp the depth of the loss and the extent of the trauma and may be unable to grasp the Gain.

Lacan seemed to assume that “natural” is also “profane” and that culture is superior, but even without assuming a hierarchy, it is possible to state that humans become humans, rise above the animal, through language or the capacity to symbolize. Unlike Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), Lacan does not accept language or langue as an inherently human capacity and leave it there. Lacan envisions an Oedipal narrative of punishment for desiring the forbidden–the blinding of Oedipus (his self-sacrifice and self-punishment) is the equivalent of the subject’s inability to “see” or to articulate the world. The “blinding” is also the Sacrifice of sexual relations with parents or siblings. The Sacrifice of Incest corresponds to Repression, the crushing down of the Forbidden Desires. The Sacrifice which is the precondition for transition to symbolic order, results in a Splitting (Spaltung) of the subject due to his/her forcible entry into society and into the symbolic order of language. Ultimately, the subject is alienated in language, and, like Oedipus, bears a social wound.

The ego/subject, which is a fabrication, comes from a system of translation from the unconscious to the conscious by means of symbolization which is a process of substitution, displacement, condensation and referentially. Thus language is the precondition for the act of becoming and social wound introduces the subject into a symbolizing language. But to state that the subject is alienated through language is to invite an interrogation of language itself. As was pointed out in previous posts, the logic is clear: if the subject is split, then the source of the split must be within language itself. (S/s) means that Language is alienated from itself. Just as there is no authenticity of self, there is no authenticity in language. The artificiality of language or the arbitrary (dis)connection between the sign and the signifier or the object and the word is the profound insight of Saussure. However, Lacan’s de-stabalized alienated language is very different from Saussure’s stabilized language.

Saussure created an elegant architectonic structure for the sign, the signifier, and the signified and his system assumed a fixed position from which meaning is constructed. For the purposes of establishing and explaining the system, it was necessary for Saussure to assume immobility. But, as art historian Erwin Panofsky quickly found out, the “Signified” as culture is a huge field and a constantly shifting one. Rather than attempting to fix the diachronic, Lacan addressed the problem by demoting the Signified (diachronic level) and elevated the Signifier, allowing it to float freely. As the Signifier floats, it shifts its position to another site, and if the Signifier can shift and move, then the Signified becomes less significant. Claude Lévi-Strauss also spoke of the signifier as a “zero symbol,” floating without clinging to the signified. A close reader of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, Lacan, in turn, wrote of the impossibility of a one-to-one correspondence between the “tide” of signifiers and the “tide” of the signifieds that “float” one past another. Meaning becomes mobilized as the signifiers “cascade” down the signifying chain, or as Wittgenstein suggested “meaning is in the use.”

There can be no metalanguage.

What becomes important as a result of this line of reasoning is that the nature of the connections among the elements and not the elements themselves is most interesting. In other words, representation is not the equivalent of the thing itself, and, as Saussure pointed out, the nexus between words and things is broken. What is left behind is the in-between space in which writing is born of alienated language. The followers of Lacan took his ideas on language and extended them into writing that becomes materialized through the sounds and rhythms of language. Language and its floating signifiers is freed to revel in a plurality of meanings. The act of writing becomes an act of lived experience. Writing as jouissance or pure pleasure does not produce anything but is reminiscent of those deeply repressed but strongly remembered time of fusion with the original love object of desire.

Jouissance splits writing from itself and alienated already alienated language. A literature of experience is unreadable literature or limit-literature. In other words the writer accepts the alienated identity of language and reconfigures language into de-naturalized words, creating a new form of non-transparent writing called by Roland Barthes, écriture. Thus écriture transcends the instrumentality of language, or écrivance. The assumption that language is instrumental–can articulate or is transparent–écrivance—is broken. Breaking the assumed mask of the false and none-existent slink between language and thing is possible because language-as-message, communication to a receiver, is based already upon the “objectness” or the “object hood” or separateness of words which are homeless–floating signifiers. Thanks to Lacan,language is a representation of a representation. For Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva, writing is not transparent but opaque. To write is not to reveal but to be performative and not informative. Jouissance is the experience of the limits of language and writing against the limits becomes a field, not of knowledge, but of enjoyment.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


Jacques Lacan: Through the Mirror Stage

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)


Although Jacques Lacan can be characterized as a philosopher because his life work was based on reinterpreting the canonical writings of a philosopher, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). However, Lacan was a medical doctor, a psychoanalyst who had a practice, and, most of all, he was a teacher who lectured to large and illustrious audiences on Freudian theory. As a result his published works, like those of the late work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), are transcripts of his public talks. There is a quaint folksiness in the tone, as Lacan addresses his “dear friends” and refers to notes make on the chalkboard made in a previous class. Like Wittgenstein’s posthumous texts, the reader has an insight to how Lacan developed a topic. While Wittgenstein tended to think in discrete paragraphs that often presented different takes on the same point, Lacan worked in layers and would visit and revisit an aspect of Freud for decades, building a train of thought over time. Because Lacan was a scavenger who not only used canonical authors was also quickly picking up on the trends in European philosophy, it is necessary to read through his texts with a heightened awareness of the source of the ideas. A layered reading of the layers allows one to appreciate how Lacan re-interpreted his precursors.

Jacques Lacan echoed Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud in his search for the foundation of society. For Marx, the formation of social relations was based upon the Mode of Production, for Sigmund Freud, the determining factor was human (male) sexuality, and for Lacan, the sexualization (Freud) of language becomes the mode (means) of producing human relations. The Marxist system of Exchange, Loss and Gain orders the movement through the Oedipal order: the child loses the mother but gains entry into society in exchange by accepting the Law of the Father who informs the child what society forbids.This primal repression (desire for the mother) initiates the child into the precincts of language. Even though Lacan, like Freud, views society through the prism of sexuality, his work can be read as a socialization process in which the subject, the child, is disciplined and indoctrinated into the “tribe.” That said, there is a severity and a violence to the process that highlights the extent to which mental force must be brought to bear in shaping a “prematurely born” human being to the manner demanded by the culture.

By 1953, Lacan has presented “The Rome Discourse” or “The Function and Field of Speech and Language inPsychoanalysis,” which asserted that the speaking subject is determined by language. Subjects are formed through participation in the discourse of others. The accession to the Symbolic Order can occur only through the Oedipus trauma in which the father intervenes and deprives the child of the primal object of desire—the mother, and deprives the mother of the phallic object—the child. The Forbidden has spoken through the Law of the Father and the subject must now identify with the Father, the Law. The Father symbolically “castrates” the mother by taking the child away and, which the child recognizes that incest is forbidden, and the Law is internalized. The procession through the Oedipal complex is linked to accession to culture and accession to language and the subject withdraws from immediacy of lived experience (fusion with the mother) and learns to accept a mediated life. Lacan asserted, “What is social is always a wound.”

In later writings, such as Ecrits of 1966, Lacan continued his disruption of the prestige of Presence or Self. In asserting that subjectivity is possible only through language, Lacan denied the transcendental ego (the Self) and relocated the ego in the social and traced the painful initiation of the child into the symbolic order. Thus, the subject is not a thing or a measurable entity, but an ongoing process. Language is the medium of exchange for the subject. Given that the subject is constituted by language, the ego must be a text, a fiction that is fixed by narcissistic fictions of self-love that provide faux unity. The ego is constituted from the Other through projection: I project my gaze towards you and determine that you are the not-me. Certain points Lacan was making about language bear repeating. If his assertions are to be taken to their logical conclusions, then a particular conclusion will be reached.

First, Lacan sets up the Symbolic Order as the Third Order between the subject and the real world and this relation is called the “Suture.” meaning a “mending” or a “fixing” of a “split.” As Jacques-Alain Miller, the outstanding Lacanian scholar and translator, expressed it, “…the signifying chain is structure of the structure…” The Suture names the subject’s relationship with the chain of discourse. Miller explained, “…subject is anterior to signifier and that signifier is anterior to subject – but only appears as such after the introduction of the signifier. The retroaction consists essentially of this: the birth of linear time. We must hold together the definitions which make the subject the effect of the signifier and the signifier the representative of the subject: it is a circular, though non-reciprocal, relation…”

Being fashioned in society involves collage, mimesis, and representation, but that which remains after submission is the most truthful and revealing of the system of socialization (and de-sexualization) and the most important remainder which is the underside of the mask, or that which has been repressed. The mask is a social form that is also a reflection of the “true being” or the traces of an authentic person. Therefore the ego is not the person, the “true” or “authentic” person, but the “persona,” the appearance, as in the sense of costume, that is generated by an act of imagination and is therefore positioned or situated on the side of the imaginary. To return to the concept of “splitting,” discussed in the previous post, the infans is cleaved between the ego which is always the Other to the (true) Self, because the action of splitting masks the Subject from the Self and the Self can be captured only in its mirror reflection.

As the result of the splitting of the primal person into a public persona, for Lacan, “subject” is a fictive construction, who is produced by the law that prohibits incest. The Subject is a fiction that is forged as the child transfers his or her Desire away from the primary love object, the Mother, who is now forbidden, to appropriate objects. Notice that Lacan’s theories, like those of Freud, have little reference to the homosexual and the law forces displacement of (only) heterosexualizing Desire. But as in much of Lacan, these concepts are theoretical or allegorical. For example, the “woman” is never the mark of subject and not an attribute of gender, for “femininity” of only a signification of Lack, and this signification signifies mainly for the male. In this instance, “woman” does not have Being.

“Being” is the Phallus or Having the Phallus: to be the Phallus is to be the signifier of the Desire of the Other. The Phallus appears as the signifier, which is to be the object that represents and reflects masculine heterosexualized Desire for the benefit of the Other. The Masculine Subject has the Phallus and the Other must confirm this possession. Women can only reflect the autonomous power of masculine subject/signifiers. Women appear as the Phallus through a masquerade of femininity and because she is the Lack, woman is in need of unmasking. This masquerade-as-Phallus is not just the denial of feminine desire, it is also the denial of the dependency of the female, who has no signifier, upon the Masculine order.

In what feminist scholars would declare to be a matricide, the aim of the Law is to refuse the Mother-as-Other by producing a third symbol, which imposes the possibility of alienation or Death of the Subject who denies authority. As has been stated before, Lacanian ideas on how the child moves through the Mirror Stage is fraught with violence and the Law exists on the side of Thantos (or Death), not Eros (or Life), and the drive to subjectivity is always the drive towards Death. Coming from Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) by way of Georg Hegel (1771-1831), the idea that subjectivity or self-consciousness is the result of the human’s acceptance that Being is Death or that to be is to die was one of the founding concepts for Lacan. Under the pain and threat of death, the ego must not lose itself in the loved one but regain itself in the loss by submitting to the Symbolic, which is the Law, the Father.

In this Freudian and Lacanian universe of Loss and Gain, human subjectivity is formed through the agencies of power an domination. The subject will be driven by socially imposed guilt and anxiety and will become servile, cringing under the authority of the Law (of the Father) and dreading castration (further loss of power). As a result of this terrifying process, we, the victims, must wear the mask as a social form or conforming behavior. As we enter into the symbolic order of language we are fashioned by the order which installs masquerade and are marked by it as signified by the mask of custom and competency with language. Lacan makes the point that just as the human being is inauthentic—mask-waring–language is also split from the real. The symbolism of language can be only an indirect expression of “reality” in that it is not what it represents. Symbolization is a reference to, and not a reflection of, the self. The human tragedy is that life can be made only through language, which is never direct or immediate. Life is mediated and is filtered through language and thus is de-natured or de-naturalized and is split, severed, like the subject from that which cannot be symbolized.

Submission to the process separates each human from his or her “authentic” sexual self. Sexual desire consists, not of feelings or instincts, which are basic, primal and must be contained and governed, but of symbols, laws, concepts and ideologies—all of which are arbitrary and formalize individual experience but bring these strong needs under social control. Strangely, from a female perspective, sexuality is organized around the Phallus, which for a woman, is the symbol of Lack and speaks to the idea of the woman being castrated. Male-female elationships are always organized around the possession and non-possession of the Phallus, which due to its erectile form, defines the Lack. Without inquiring as to why or how the Phallus must be always erect it can be said that Lack is a chronic state of self-insufficiency born from the foundation of the Law or to put it in another way, the penis, in the normal course of its day, is only occasionally erect.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Jacques Lacan: The Mirror Stage

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)


As the heir to early Modernist philosophy, Jacques Lacan sampled, in a pre-Postmodern fashion, a complex of philosophical ideas on how humans come into Being and how humans become socialized. Using combinations of Georg Hegel, Karl Marx, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ferdinand de Saussure, Lacan “returned” to Sigmund Freud and reconsidered his canonical works from the oblique vantage point of language. Freudian philosophy was one of the last pure Enlightenment manifestations of self-actualization. But Lacan can be contrasted to Freud in respect to human autonomy, for Lacan denies autonomy and mastery and refutes the unity of consciousness and of the unconscious. The disunity or the splitting apart of the human subject happens through language. If, as Lacan insisted, language produces a Real which does not have any corresponding “reality,” then question is, when does the subject become alienated from him or herself and under what circumstances? According to Lacan, the structural foundation of speech emerges in what he called “the Function of the Mirror Stage.” Lacan delivered early version of this theory in 1936 and 1946 and the final and definitive version was published in 1966 in Écrits. By 1949 “stade du miroir” had become canonical to Lacan’s system, establishing a centrality to vision or to the specular that is reminiscent to the importance of the “gaze” in the work of his former teacher, Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault (1874-1932). The central role given to an act of seeing parallels Freud’s theory of the Oedipal complex, in which the male child “sees” that his mother does not possess the prized penis and is traumatized with fear that he, like his mother, will be castrated by his father. Vision or the ability to see oneself in a mirror is equally central to Lacan’s theory of the Mirror Stage.

Although it is possible that for Sigmund Freud the glimpsing of nude adults by impressionable children might have been possible—during his childhood, his family lived in one room—these acts of seeing whether in the flesh or in the mirror are best understood as allegorical. The development of a realization of the difference between the “inner world” and the “outer world” would be a better way to understand the Mirror Stage, as Lacan stated,

The function of the mirror stage thus turns out, in my view, to be a particular case of the function of imagos, which is to establish a relationship between an organism and its reality – or, as they say, between the Innenwelt and the Umwelt.

Under questioning of other philosophers who expressed concern over taking the idea of a “mirror” too literally, Lacan later shifted from “the mirror” to “mirroring behavior.” That said, Lacan based the idea of the Mirror Stage upon a number of pre-existing discourses (some of which involved an actual mirror) investigating the question of how one distinguishes between the self and the other and comes into consciousness or a full realization of the Self. The Mirror Stage, a term Lacan borrowed from Henri Wollen who in turn referred to the findings of Charles Darwin, occurs between six and eighteen months. Prior to that time, the infant has assumed a unified body image of itself to be found in the mother. Enjoying the jouissance of fusion, the infant assumes a Totality until the “infans” becomes the subject. The presence of the “mirror” implies narcissism or self-identification, which is self love and the beginning of ego. But ego more properly evolves out of the counter to narcissism which is Aggresssivity or the confrontational image of the other. The First Narcissism is called the Mirror Stage in which the subject begins to project its “ideal ego” (ichideal) or future ego, while the Second Narcissism gives the human subject its ego (“moi”) or sense of self within the Symbolic.

The primacy he ascribes to vision is reasserted when Lacan points out that the child who is born prematurely—relative to an animal—and is thus dependent upon adults. In his or her immobile state, the human child “looks out” and sees others moving about, walking and running, and is able (unlike an animal) project him or herself forward in time—anticipates. The dependency upon adults, the fusion between child and adult, is allegorized as “Mother.” The concept of “mother” as literal is as problematic as the concept of “mirror” and yet Lacan’s contemporaries did not point out that many children were raised by women who were family members and or servants and that the “mother” was but one of many adults. However, the mother/adult is the being from whom the child, now self-aware, must separate herself from. The separation is fraught with anxiety. The “I” is an imaginary recognition so that the “I” is essentially performative. The child is separated from a unifying image or the Mirror and finds integration only in the Symbolic field, the field of language. The Mirror Stage leads to the formation of a separate individual now separated (socialized) from the primary caregiver. This double splitting of the child from the mother and the child from its image or from others produces the I and the ideal ego which in turn produce the Imaginary and the ego ideal or the Other, the “autre Symbolic.”


The “whole” identity is sought in symbolic objects that symbolize the aim of desire, or objects petit a. Desire is aimed at the very lack it supports: the desire for something else. Metaphor and metonymy are related to knowledge and desire. The Metaphor (condensation or combination) is a typography of the unconscious, which is formed from the primal repression and is founded in the “emergence of signification.” Because the subject and knowledge are always barred from each other, the unconscious speaks through the Symptom or the Metaphor. Metonymy (substitution), on the other hand, represents Desire or another signifier always out of reach. What is the object of desire? Lacan had to rethink Freud’s Oedipal complex in ways that reconfigured the “family romance” and transformed this “romance” through language. However, with both philosophers, the journey towards differentiation is horrifying, full of violence, and completely androcentric. Women or the Mother, defined by Lack and inadequacy, is that which must be repudiated, left behind. It is the Oedipal realization or recognition that the child must break away that makes the subject capable of seeing itself in a formal or structural relation to others: “I and Thou.” To tell this tale of trauma, Lacan set up an (Marxist) Economy of Gain and Loss, and Exchange.

This familial analogy to economics occurs within the family structure: Mother, Father and Child. The child becomes aware of the Phallus, the first pure signifier, which establishes the position of the Father in the psychic structure of the child. If the Oedipal complex is the process or evolution of the substitution of the father for the mother, or the separation of the child from the mother, then the Name-of-the-Father symbolizes (the) prohibition (of the Mother). The Mother, the original object of Desire, is forbidden by the Law of the Father. The Mother, according to Lacan, was always conceived of by the child as “lacking” or needing him. In desiring her, the child imagines himself as the object of her desire to fulfill her essential lack. If the child feels fused with or at one with the Mother, then logically she is what he needs and he is what she lacks: Mother and child complete one another. Sadly, the Oedipal complex has a terminus: the child must experience Loss (of the Mother) in order to Gain admission into the order of language. The Exchange of Loss and Gain results in selfhood or socialization which is enforced by castration, the threat hanging over the (male) child who must always renounce the Mother who now characterized by her unredeemable Lack will always remain the child’s original and primal and unobtainable object of Desire. The separation of the child from the mother results in individuation. The child has perceived of himself as the phallus to the mother, but the Father will not permit this relationship and moves to separate the child of its mother and the mother from the child or phallic object.

As Joël Dor points out in his well-known Introduction to the Reading of Lacan: the Unconscious Structured Like a Language, the father forbids and frustrates and deprives the child. The object of frustration is the penis–the mother does not have one, the little girl does not have one, and from the child’s perspective, the mother’s lack of a penis is frustrating. Frustration can never be assuaged. The child is deprived by the intervening father who is now understood as representing “the law.” The castration complex results when the child realizes that he is not and cannot be the phallic object of the mother’s desire. Not only does he have to give up the Mother but he also must consider the Law or the Name-of-the-Father. The Oedipal complex wanes when the child grasps the concept of the symbolic—the phallus is symbolic, the Law is symbolic, the Name-of-the-Father is symbolic. The passage from the Mirror Stage through the Oedipus complex is the primal repression which results in a Loss, but there is a Gain due to a new sense of a separate and unified body realized through the image of the Other in the Mirror. The result of the sacrifice (of the mother, of fusion with her) is the ability to communicate as a human being through language which is the symbolic power to manipulate reality.

Human beings who must appease and/or augment the desire for totalizing images must communicate in their highly mediated fashion through a metonymic chain of signifiers that substitutions and displacements. The child becomes a speaking subject (the human being is submitted to language). Language and Sexuality, then, are fused through the symbolic Castration, which is a mediation, or a substitution, of desire (for the mother) through a metaphor which mediates the Law. The child is now a human subject who must submit to word play—you are being (played) spoken. The child must incorporate language on two levels. First, language is symbolic, it is a substitute for something than can never be known: the real. Second, language is not only a substitute it also symbolizes and is therefore an activity of double symbolization. The Oedipal stage is allegorical of a child’s passage into adulthood through socialization as he is initiated into language. Lacan makes it clear that grasping the symbolic logic of language is an arduous task that must be enforced by Order or the Phallus. As with Freud’s penis, Lacan’s phallus should not be taken literally. Being male, the philosophers selected this anatomical appendage to be the signifier of social order, which manifests itself through language. As a metaphor (the Phallus is the Social), the Phallus is central to Lacan and is central to the formation of the Symbolic. The Phallus is a parental metaphor, the symbol for authority. The Name-of-the-Father is also a metaphor, signifying paternity and that which comes between the mother and child, separating this unity. The child must accept that the mother does not have the father’s authority or Phallus.

The child experiences a double loss: the loss of the Phallus and the loss of the Mother. This loss is Castration, which ushers in an unavoidable acceptance of alienation into language and submission to the ultimate authority of Law. Law resides in the Place of the Name-of-the-Father and Desire resides in the place of the M/Other, producing a conflict between Desire and Law. “Desire” indicates a fundamental Lack and this lack is language or the process of speaking language, which produces a gap between saying and meaning. Lacan retold Freud’s account of a game his nephew played when his mother was not in the room, the “fort-da” game which is built on a Lack, a Loss and want of Being (the Mother). By saying “fort” (here) (pulling a ball to himself) and then “da” (there) (pushing the ball away), symbolizing “here” (mother was here) and “there” (mother is not here), the child makes the absence of the mother present or understandable to himself through symbolization. The child has made an important discovery: one can create a Symbolic mediation to express and explain the actual event. This fantasy of here and there covers the loss of the mother and the desire for her return is externalized through language. Because it is built upon a loss or a lack that goes back to the original loss or lack, the separation from the mother, Desire is never fully satisfied.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Jacques Lacan: Return to Freud

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)


Being a transitional figure, bridging Modernism and Postmodernism, Jacques Lacan was a complex and hybrid philosopher whose work is convoluted and complicated. As a Modernist, he favored models and structures, a methodology he inherited from both Georg Hegel and Karl Marx who worked from the dialectic, a triadic process. The combination of dyads and triads marks the efforts of Jacques Lacan who then layers the duos and trios in a series of strata. As a Postmodernist, Lacan was one of the earlier re-readers of Enlightenment ideas and did not hesitate to slice and dice and recombine ideas purloined from Modernists, Ferdinand de Saussure, Alexandre Kojeve, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, et. al. Lacan used the works of all of these philosophers to re-interpret the books of Sigmund Freud. The one element that marks him off from his predecessors is Lacan’s use of language or appropriation of the linguistic theories of Saussure and the idea of “language games,” borrowed from Wittgenstein. The primary project of Jacques Lacan was to re-make Freudian theory by filtering it through the fulcrum of language.

In 1955 Jacques Lacan announced his famed Return to Freud, meaning that he had decided to take up the writings of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) as literature. As is clear by the date of is “announcement,” Lacan had read Ludwig Wittgenstein’s recently published Philosophical Investigations (1953) and had learned of Wittgenstein’s notion of “language games.” Although Lacan had been working with Freudian theory and had even challenged the Freudian privileging of the ego, Wittgenstein gave him a new way to re-read Freud. Wittgenstein had used language games to demonstrate the difference between saying and showing and to search for the limits of “saying” or what could be said. These limits are reached when the question of defining “language” arises and any definition can only become another example, and never a definition, meaning that meaning is always deferred.

Lacan rediscovered the “essential Freud” through the early writings: The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), The Psychology of Everyday Life (1901), Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905). These signature works are considered the canonical theories on the unconscious mind. Lacan referred to the Unconscious as the “Lost Object”, an object barred from the conscious. He was less interested in Freud’s archaeological project and more interested in the constitution of the individual and social beings and with the relation of the individual subject to the structure of language within the culture. The individual is formed/made/built in relation to the family and is integrated into the social matrix through the agency of language. Lacan asserted, <“I have never said that the unconscious was an assemblage of words but that the unconscious is precisely structured.” “The meaning of a return to Freud is a return to the meaning of Freud.”

The unconscious is structured like a language and functions in ways similar to language: sign, signifier, and signified. In giving agency to language in creating the human and by insisting on the primacy of language as generative of consciousness, Lacan expressed his opposition to the traditional notion of the Self as an independent or transcendent or an absolute entity in the world. The question is why language? Psychoanalysis has but one medium: the patient’s speech, and Freud taught his readers that “symptoms,” or uncontrolled manifestations of the unconscious, speak in and through words. Symptoms, like dreams, which are linguistic image based narratives, were constructed in phrases and sentences. Freud tried to use language to reach a source or an origin from which the primal pain was emanating, but Lacan insisted that origins can never be located. What is available to the observer is the capacity for symbolization, expressed as language.

The subject exists because of and through language. Because the human agent “knows” or “speaks” only through language, language is the determinant of intersubjectivity or consciousness. Given that the limits of language, not only is there no outside or no meta-language and also no access to the unconscious but there is also no ego without language. The ego or the conscious rational mind is the product of linguistic activity. In other words, the limits of the language and the limits of the consciousness are the same and inseparable. As Lacan expressed it,

…words are the only material of the unconscious…The subject does not exist prior to language, the subject comes into being through language…the concept…engenders the thing…the world of words…creates the world of things…

And as Lacan continued,

If I have said that language is what the unconscious is structured like, this is because language to begin with, does not exist. Language is what we try to know concerning the function of la langue.

Notice that Lacan used the term la langue or lalangue. This characteristic play with words is a nod to Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) who separated langue, or that which structured linguistics as it exists in the social collective, from parole or common speech acts. Scholars have debated the extent to which Saussure meant for the speaker to “possess” langue, but for him, langue was synchronic (based in structure), while parole was diachronic (based in time). According to Saussure, we communicate synchronically through the sign, the signifier, the signified, but Lacan added a third term, lalangue, or the language of the unconscious, which is the primal language heard by the infant from its mother. As Juan David Nasio wrote in Five Lessons on the Psychoanalytic Theory of Jacques Lacan,

Lalangue is something that one sucks, it is the maternal part of language that undergoes jouissance. Lalangue remains intimately linked to the body, and is thus eminently charged with meaning. Lalangue is the language of meaning, full of meaning.

Language operates in terms of connection or putting together and through substitution or alternative that are expressed in Freudian terms of “condensation” and “displacement.” Dreams are symbolic symbols that are condensed or combined from concepts that have been suppressed by the conscious mind. This displacement from the conscious to the unconscious forces metaphorical expression which is the stuff dreams are made of. Accordingly, language is not as much descriptive as it is symbolic. Linguistically, the Sign or the Letter is the material support, the Signifier or the Metaphor substitutes itself for the thing it represents, and the Signified—that which has been signified—or the Metonymy, is that which re-represents itself. The result of these processes of connection and substitution is a displacement of meaning along a chain of signification.

Lacan linked three terms: the Imaginary, the Real and the Symbolic. The “Imaginary” was the earliest of these concepts and refers to the world we “imagine” or bring into being, and for Lacan it is this order of expression that is the proper study of psychoanalysis. The Symbolic is that which is signified through language. Because humans must express themselves through symbolic means, the “Real” is forever inaccessible. Lacan’s concept of the “real” evolved over this career. In the 1930s, the “real” was pre-symbolic, unreachable and unknowable. Because the “real” is unknowable and escapes language the real does not exist. If there is a “real,” then a Symbolic Real has priority over that raw reality as it exists before language, but paradoxically this “real” also limits that which can be imagined and thus restrains what can be symbolized.

Rather than revealing the unknowable “real,” the Symbolic Real hides and veils the unsymbolized and unsymbolizable real through acts of symbolization. Lacan expressed this strange unbridgeable divide through the algorithm “S/s.” S/s indicates that there is a split or a “bar” between the Symbolized and the un/symbolizable. There can be no true coincidence or semblance between the theoretical entities of the Real and the Symbolic. The line or forward slash between the S(ymbolic Real) and the (un)s(ymbolized real) is the essential fact of human existence. The bar is an imaginary filter between the real and the human mind: the real that is perceived but that can never be expressed except through the mediative process of language. Thus the human condition is constituted through language. Language is the Symbolic Real, which has two orders of reference: the Real, which cannot be articulated and Language, which functions metaphorically.

The slash or slanted line between S and s is significant and needs further discussion. By the 1960s, Lacan associated the real (that which cannot speak its name) with trauma or an original wound. Taking a word from Aristotle, tuché, meaning “cause,” Lacan transforms the word to mean an “the encounter with the real.” But because this encounter with the real must always be “missed,” not because it did not happen but because it cannot be internalized, this unassimilable event is re-written as trauma. There is a connection between language and trauma, for we enter into language through trauma. The birth of a human subject into language produces a disjunction (a bar, a slash) between the lived experience and the sign, which replaces reality. Language should be thought of as a reflection upon experience and yet is always divergent from experience. In other words, language is not reflective and can never be reflective–as in a reflection of reality—but can only reflect or think upon the experience. The word upon indicates a displacement: language is not a mirror which reflects; the language is a mechanism which allows thinking about.

We come into consciousness through language. We are ushered into society through language. The bar/slash between the S and the s is also the veil or the “splitting” that occurs when the unseparated (from the mother) infant is separated (becomes separate) from its mother and is initiated into society through language. The beginning of humanity is the end of the infant’s certainty of fusion and wholeness, the jouissance of bodily contact with the mother. S/he is forever barred and forever split from this undifferentiated fusion through the workings of symbolic (unreal) language. The result of this act of separation, this slash or division, is a trauma that splits the child off and sends him or her hurling alone into society. The map or topography of the resulting separation of the conscious from the unconscious is the alienation of the subject from itself.

The S/s separation of Lacan also divides the signified from the signifier and puts the Signifier over the signified and separates the sign from meaning and installs a barrier between subject and object. The word is subordinated to the concept, just as the signified is subordinated to the signifier. The counter-intuitive inversion was borrowed from Hegel’s master-slave dialectic and Hegel’s assertion that the Master was ultimately dependent upon the Slave for recognition. In the same way, it seems that the Conscious mind is the Master but it is the Unconscious mind that represses the conscious mind, and the thesis, so to speak, is made slave by the antithesis: U/c. The bar cites the presence of an inherent and inverted repression.

Reiterating but re-expressing the Freudian model of the barrier between the conscious and unconscious mind, the Lacanian bar is also a gap between the signifier and the signified or a “topological substratum.” As Lacan explained why the Signified is ascendent,

…the signifying chain gives an approximate idea” rings of a necklace that is a rung in another necklace made of rings. Such are the structural conditions that define grammar as the order of constitutive encrohments of the signifier up to the level of the unit immediately superior to the sentence, and lexicology as the order of constitutive inclusions of the signifier to the level of the verbal locution.

The appearance of language is simultaneous with the primal repression, which produces the unconscious. The notion that the human being must be repressed in order to be socialized is a Freudian idea, but Lacan relocates the repression to the trauma of the initiation into the symbolic (language). For Freud, repression was divided into two stages: the primary or primal repression (Urverdrängung) which becomes a fixation that draws secondary repressions to it because the two forces cooperate. In 1961, Lacan interpreters Jean Laplanche and Serge Leclaire explained that primal repression was connected to metaphor in language. In primal language, the signifiers float without a structural network, as functions of “pure difference.” Secondary repression occurs when the signifier is not only doubled by the metaphor but is also fixed in the framework of signification,i.e., the metaphor signifies (something). As a result of these stages of repressions (two or three stages—Laplanche and Leclaire differ), consciousness of the self is now possible due to the ability of the subject to contrast the Self to Others (“I-thou” or the “me-non-me”) that defines subjects by mutual opposition or mutual dependency.

The process of repression/s are determined by the two “Narcissisms” or reflections upon the self which are experienced by the subject and creates the tension of attraction and repulsion. And yet the self and its Narcissistic development is dependent upon the formation of the Imaginary and the Symbolic. Because the Imaginary overlays the primal and perceptual real, the Imaginary structures a Real of cognition and this Imaginary produces knowledge. Just as the signifier is doubled by the metaphor, “reality” doubles and pairs, meaning that one object (the real) is obliterated by another (the imaginary) through the faculty of creation. Each term—real, imaginary—becomes its opposite and each is lost in the play of endless reflection. Just as the signifier is finally caught in the mesh of meaning, Language and the Symbolic arrest this play of reflections.

Lacan’s point de capition (upholstery button) is the point of convergence or stoppage or fixation where the signifier stops/halts the endless movement of signification. In other words, the Imaginary is stabilized by the subject’s (traumatic) acceptance of the Symbolic register. Finally, at the end of this endless process, the Symbolic overlays or veils or covers the Imaginary and restructures cognition. The Symbolic is characterized by mediation, or the filtering of the perceptual through linguistics, so that Language becomes dominant, but there is price for the triumph. Human alienation is the cost because the subject is constituted in the very gap or bar or split between the signifier and the signified. Constructed by this uneasy and alien place, the space of the gap, the subject and the language exist in this system of differences.

According to Freud and Lacan, the individual is inaugurated into society or become socialized through a series of traumatic acts. For Lacan this suffering is the price paid for the purchase of the pride of language. True to his method of modeling structures in opposites or in triads, Lacan reconsidered Martin Heidegger’s (1889-1976) distinction between “speech” and “talk” with his elaboration of “empty speech” and “full speech.” Empty speech implies a subject dispossessed and alienated and belongs to the imaginary autonomy of the ego. There is a debility at the heart of human speech–the emptiness. While full speech is incapable of being no more or less “true” (there is no truth) than empty speech; full speech is merely more functional or performative and uses language in a more transformative manner. Lacan used a comment by Stéphane Mallarmé to illustrate his point. Mallarmé referred to language as a coin with images on both sides. The coin is exchanged even though the images are not noticed and the image is “effaced” or not seen and is passed from hand to hand “in silence” or without speech. According to Lacan, the subject must cross over the “wall of language” to speak in order to say nothing. Lacanian “full speech,” “commits,” “acts,” “institutes,” and “transforms” as a “speech act.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Jacques Lacan: Historical Context



Among the most important philosophers of the post-war period was Jacques Lacan who lectured to a number of future Postmodern thinkers, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, all of whom sat in on his famous lectures. A careful reading of his lectures, the Écrits, followed by a careful reading of the ideas of his students reveals traces of his thought in their writings. Lacan became more widely known in America through his appearance at the now famous 1966 symposium at Johns Hopkins University. This symposium introduced European post-Freudian thinking, Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction to an American audience, but, because these lectures would not be published in English until 1970, it would be years before these seminal discussions would take root in the United States. In fact his last essays, concerning his now controversial interpretations of women and their position in psychological theory, were not translated until 1998.

Jacques Lacan was first and foremost the fulcrum through which many impulses of Postmodern thought were injected into a wide range of disciplines, from literary theory to feminist theory to Marxist theory to philosophy. The scatter-shot effect of his texts indicate the very complex construction of his widely influential books and lectures. One of the themes in Elizabeth Roudinesco elegantly laid out in her 1990 book, Jacques Lacan & Co: A History of Psychoanalysis in France, 1925-1985, Lacan’s entire career was certainly self-invention and re-invention and his re-take on Freudian theory was a bricolage re-construction.Born of a middle class Parisian family whose ordinariness he would take pains to hide, Lacan was, in many ways, a reinvented man by the time he entered into the still new medical field of psychoanalysis. For one seminal year, 1928-1929, he interned at the Infirmary for the Insane of the Police Prefecture under the colorful Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault, a specialist in “erotomania,” paranoia, and the draping and knotting of cloth. Clérambault held dramatic sway over his pupils and, believing in the power of the “gaze,” observed his patients, who were never allowed to talk with him, and based his conclusions on his observations.

It is important to understand that when Lacan began his independent professional career, he was part of a purely French take on psychoanalysis: from Clérambault’s reworking of Freud’s teacher, Jean-Martin Charcot to his own reworking of Clérambault (who accused his pupil of plagiarism). But this French foundation would be infused with more than a touch of alien German-ness. It is through his interest in Dada and then Surrealism that Lacan discovered the writings of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) in the early 1930s, but, once again, it is important to note that Lacan came to Freud through late Surrealism and ideas of Salvador Dali (1904-1989) on paranoia. For Dali, seeing one thing and thinking (due to paranoia) that it is something else–different and threatening–is the equivalent of living in an hallucination.

Although Freud was alive and quite accessible in the 1930s, Lacan and the second generation of French psychoanalysts knew Freud through reading his books, and it was through Freud’s writings that Lacan learned of the “talking cure” or the “couch,” and of the importance of language. Clearly, the young doctor could see, first, that his field was changing and that with the demise of the teachers, the students could now assume leadership positions and that, second, there was nothing and no one preventing him from stepping forward with new ideas. Through sheer will and force of personality, Jacques Lacan took the lead in re-creating a new version of psychoanalysis. Lacan was not and would never be an originator or an innovator, instead his talent lay in a penchant for theatrical delivery and in drawing together numerous concepts, already in circulation and recombining and reinventing the already invented. His method as a teacher was to teach (dramatically) the work of others, especially Freud, filtered through his own re-interpretations, which then, in and of themselves, could become a distinct body of work in its own right.

If the first step towards a re-thinking of psychoanalysis was Freud, then the second step was Georg Hegel (1770-1831), but Lacan would absorb a very particular re-interpreting of Hegel. As a member of the generation of 1930, Lacan was influenced by Hegelian thought transmitted to the French through the 1933-34 lectures of Alexandre Kojève from 1933 to 1939. Although other work was discovered posthumously, Kojève’s most famous book was his Introduction à la lecture de Hegel (published in French in 1947 and in English in 1968). Because this book is a compendium of a series of lectures, the text is a bit oddly segmented but it presents the ideas of Georg Hegel in a succinct and comprehensible fashion. As philosopher Michael Roth recounted in his 1985 article, “A Problem of Recognition: Alexandre Kojève and the End of History,”

The center of Kojeve’s oeuvre is, and will remain, however, his book on Hegel. This interpretation, a collection of notes and texts assembled by Raymond Queneau, is gleaned from a seminar which was a hothouse for intellec- tual development: Raymond Aron, Georges Bataille, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eric Weil, Aron Gurwitsch, Gaston Fessard, Alexandre Koyré, Queneau, Andre Breton, and Jacques Lacan were among the auditors.

Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit introduced the notion of a dialectic between the self and the other and/or the master/slave. As Alexandre Kojève pointed out in his lectures, the desire for recognition, which leads to self-consciousness, is linked to the desire for the Other. As Michael Roth explained, “Human desire, properly so-called, has as its object another desire and not another thing.” What is significant about Kojève’s re-reading of Hegel through a Marxist filter is that by placing “desire” at the center of Hegelian thought, Kojève moved the desire for recognition (self-consciousness) out of Hegel’s theological (transcendental) time to Marx’s material time (class struggle as the basis for history itself). Then he substituted Hegelian being with the Being of Heidegger, in which Being or Dasein is achieved through the anticipation of death. So what beings in desire ends in death, all enfolded in a life lived in real historical time. Desire creates history and even time itself.

Lacan would take up the psychological implications of the One/the Other and sexualize the alterity or otherness between the self and the other. For Lacan, following Kojève, the emergence of individuality would revolve around Desire, which is always directed toward an/Other Desire, which is always deferred. Lacan also re-cast Marxism in that economy became a way to explain an “exchange” system of loss and gain, now connected to the ideas of Sigmund Freud. Unlike Freud, an original thinker, who labored alone, Lacan re-examined Freud by filtering him through other disciplines–anthropology (Claude Lévi-Strauss) and semiotics (Ferdinand de Saussure)–and focused on what is particularly human about the human mind. Rejecting Freud’s biology, which insisted that the workings of the mind was determined by the body, or to put it more bluntly, “anatomy is destiny,” and borrowing from Saussure, Lacan substituted nature for culture and biology for anthropology and sociology and claimed that the unconscious was structured by language, in other words by culture. As Lacan stated in Seminar XX:

…I am staying within the bounds of what I put forward when I say that the unconscious is structured like a language. I say like so as not to say – and I come back to this all the time – that the unconscious is structured by a language. The unconscious is structured like the assemblages in question in set theory, which are like letters…

Although Lacan had already presented his idea of the “mirror stage” in 1936, he did not announce his fabled Return to Freud until November 7, 1955 with the aim of dislodging the ego from its position of ascendancy and of dethroning consciousness. As Terry Gamel pointed out in his “Summary of Lacan’s ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,'” Lacan posited that the “mirror stage,” or how a child comes to literally “see” herself as a separate (conscious) individual, evolved through (trace of Dali’s ideas) “paranoiac knowledge,” or how we make sense of the world. By the 1950s, the interest in Freudian studies had declined in France. There was no psychoanalytic study in France until 1926 (remember Surrealism emerged a few years earlier), during the war, Freud had been rejected for being “German,” and many (Jewish) practitioners of Freud’s ideas were killed during World War II.

The post-war scene in French philosophy was dominated by Existentialism and its notion of the self as an actor with individual autonomy. But in 1963, Louis Althusser (1918-1990) revived Lacan by inviting him to bring his famous seminars to École normale supérièure from Sainte Anne Hôpital. At the hospital, Lacan had performed in the amphitheater from 1954 to 1964 as a spellbinding and prophetic leader: the kind of scholarly superstar that is unique to France. He claimed he made the unconscious manifest through his self-conscious style of performance. In keeping with what would later be called “postmodernism,” Lacan radically critiqued psychoanalysis by re-reading Freudian theory. In keeping with his linguistic take on Freud, Lacan asserted that the whole truth could never be spoken and that any perceived totality was imaginary.

Once he moved to the École, Lacan’s circle quickly expanded and included Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), author of Structural Anthropology to whom he owed some of his thinking on the role of culture in shaping the human mind. In addition, both Althusser and Lacan were re-thinking the philosophy of Karl Marx without reference to Hegel’s absolute and Freud without reference to the unified self/ego, respectively. But, as Elizabeth Roudinesco stated, the events of May 1968 transformed psychoanalysis from an academic enterprise to a psychoanalytic culture that was dedicated to social and political issues and to social criticism. These events of 1968 created a political community that changed the French intellectual psyche. In comparing Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) to those who came after him, one could now say he was the last Enlightenment philosopher and perhaps the last Modernist philosopher after Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), and that Lacan was the first Postmodernist in that he was one of the early re-writers and re-thinkers who also used bricolage to re-assemble a new take on old ideas.

To the generation of 1968, the theory of language as a discours engagé, meaning politically committed writings, had to be reappraised. Although a political uprising had begun spontaneously, the end result was a reassertion of power under an autocratic and dictatorial Charles de Gaulle. Discouraged by the collapse of oppositional forces—labor and students—French intellectuals began to manifest their refutation of the “classical” tradition, which stressed clarity above all, in French literature by deliberately writing with oblique political gestures. In other words, the new philosophers position themselves in a postmodern position of critique by re-reading and re-writing or re-newing the philosophy of Others, or to put it still another way, they overthrow or overwrite their precursors. One of the best books on this transformation of French thought, The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution was written by Richard Wolin, who explained,

As a result of the May events and their contact with the Maoists, French intellectuals bade adieu to the Jacobin-Leninsit authoritarian political model of which they had formerly been so enamored. They ceased behaving like mandarins and internalized the virtues of democratic humility. In May’s aftermath, they attuned themselves to new forms and modes of social struggle. Their post-May awareness concerning the injustices of top-down politics alerted them to the virtues of “society” and political struggle from below. In consequence French intellectual life was transformed. The Sartrean model of the engaged intellectual was upheld, but its content was totally reconfigured. Insights into the debilities of political vanguardism impelled French writers and thinkers to reevaluate the Dreyfusard legacy of the universal intellectual: the intellectual who shames the holds of power by flaunting timeless moral truths.

At all costs, totalitarian thinking or grand narratives must be avoided. The experiences of 1968 also explain the commingling of philosophy and other disciplines, especially with the arts. As with the Frankfurt School, political events brought about an interdisciplinary approach within philosophy. Lacan’s Seminar of 1969 reflected not only his long apprenticeship and absorption of multiple strains of pre-war intellectualism but also his post-war reactions to political upheaval. First, he stated his objections to the idea of totalization of knowledge and began a critique of the Hegelian idea of the Master, by pointing to what he termed the “hysteric” discourse of Socrates. Lacan blended the dialectic between question and answer with the circular and symbiotic relationship between the doctor and patient. The presumed role of the pupil/subordinate/hysteric who asked questions of the Master, demanding the Master’s answer, only brings the master and the hysteric into a symbiosis or a symbiotic or mutually dependent relationship. This entangled and self-enclosed discourse of universality is the discourse of the Master, implying a mastery of all disciplines.

The Master reinforces his Mastery through mystification of ideas and deliberate obscurantism of intellectual thought, which produces the non-mastery of the subordinated and bewildered students. In his rejection of Socratic thought and method, Lacan was echoing Friedrich Nietzsche (184401900), who saw Socrates as destroying the balance between Apollo (the rational) and Dionysius (the irrational). In his dialogues with his pupils, Socrates attempted to upset this balance to make logic (the rational) the primal mode of thought which should dominate (like the Master) the workings of the mind. It is not clear how Lacan, the “master” performer surrounded by students and disciples, avoided the position of the Master and the consequent mutual identification in his turn, but he was part of the post 1968 reconfiguration on the part of French intellectuals who took a subversive turn. The goal of the Postmodern enterprise was to question prevailing wisdom by critiquing the already said.

In the decades after this death, his possible upending of authority attracted a new commentary on and a new critique of Lacan himself by a younger generation. A more contemporary reading of Lacan would find a bias towards Eurocentrism and a phallocentric (male) perspective on the world. Although the “culture” of Freud and Lacan was a white European male culture, Post-colonial writers have found Lacan’s notions of Desire to be an important aspect of the colonial question of the relationship between the One and the Other. Since the seventies, many feminists debated both of these writers, while other feminists did not bother to do battle on a terrain that does not include women. Re-reading Jacques Lacan in the 21st century is a challenging enterprise and calls into question the relevance of Postmodern thinking to a world that has so clearly moved beyond the culture that formed Lacan. For women and for people of color, for people who are not heterosexual, Lacan is at best anachronistic. Yet it cannot be denied that the relevance of Lacan lies in his insights into how relationships of power shape the consciousness, bending it towards either dominance or submission: concepts that have profound political implications today.

The next four posts will discuss Lacan’s re-reading and re-writing of Sigmund Freud.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]