Jacques Lacan: Historical Context

JACQUES-MARIE ÉMILE LACAN (1901 – 1981)

PART ONE: 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thinking, Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction to an American audience, but, because these lectures would not be published in English until 1970, it would be years before these seminal discussions would take root in the United States.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.

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