Jacques Lacan (April 13, 1901 – September 9, 1981) was an influential French psychoanalyst as well as a structuralist who based much of his theories on Ferdinand de Saussure's theories on language.
Lacan's life is summarised in a timeline at this page (http://www.lacan.com/rolleyes.htm).
Lacan reiterated and clarified Sigmund Freud's findings. In contrast to the dominant Anglo-American ego-psychologists of his time, he considered the ego as constituted in the "other", rather than an internal wholeness. After having obtained a medical degree in psychiatry he settled in Paris, where he worked as a psychoanalyst, primarily with patients suffering from various forms of psychoses.
Lacan argued that the psychoanalytic movement towards understanding the ego as an active and dominating force in the self misinterpreted its Freudian roots. Lacan stated that the self remained in eternal internal conflict and that only extensive self-deceit made the situation bearable.
Lacan also initiated the ideas of the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real, with which he explained the three aspects of human psychic structure. Describing the interaction of this triad, Lacan revised orthodox Freudian ideas about a stable psychic reality. The Imaginary, or non-linguistic aspect of the psyche, formulates human primitive self-knowledge while the Symbolic, his term for linguistic collaboration, generates a community-wide reflection of primitive self-knowledge and creates the very first set of rules that govern behavior. Lacan's notion of the Real is a very difficult concept which he in his later years worked to present in a structured, set-theory fashion, as mathemes.
His developmental theory of the objectified self was inspired by Ferdinand de Saussure's insights into the relationship of the signifier and the signified.
Although Lacan has joined Freud and Melanie Klein as one of the three major figures in the history of psychoanalysis, he made his most significant contributions not in the traditional form of books and journal articles, but through seminar lectures. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, conducted over a period of more than two decades, was not simply transcribed by Jacques-Alain Miller, his son-in-law; Sherry Turkle further claims that Lacan effectively contracted out all work on the seminars to Miller after reviewing his work on the first and that Miller made extensive changes to the seminars to add clarity to the material (Turkle, Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud's French Revolution, p. 254-255). The Seminars are still taken to represent the main body of his thinking. The Seminars may be taken as more intellectually accessible than his published collection of writings, entitled Écrits. Seminar XX remarks that his Écrits were not to be understood, but would produce a meaning effect in the reader similar to some mystical texts. Given the complex provenance of these texts, this remark is extremely difficult to evaluate.
Turkle and Ferdinand Dosse both claim that Lacan had a hand in the extremely contentious politics surrounding the pioneering psychoanalysis program at the University of Paris VIII at Vincennes. This was a program headed by Serge Leclaire, annexed to the philosophy department headed by Michel Foucault. At the outset all of the members of the program were also members of the Freudian School of Paris [French acronym EFP, for École Freudienne de Paris]. Lacan was not a member of the program himself, but his son-in-law was. The department suffered from a number of difficulties: one was that Lacan was not himself in charge. Leclaire became exasperated with the program's lack of autonomy, intellectual and institutional, both from Lacan and the philosophy faculty and left the University. The department was to go without a chair for three years. Second, the program had limited degree status. A degree from Vincennes was not initially a clinical qualification to practise psychoanalysis, which caused considerable objection among the students. When Lacan gave a lecture at the University in 1969, in which students interrupted to complain about their lack of qualification through the program and refused to accept his objection that psychoanalytic knowledge was distinct from other forms of knowledge taught by the university and therefore should not be credentialed equally. In addition to his concern about granting clinical authority Lacan was against granting any academic credit for work in the program. Students unhappy with the program's seeming disinterest in clinical experience left the program to undergo analysis or simply stopped attending lectures. Miller's inclusion in the program was a problem in that his avowed Maoism was in apparent contradiction with his university position given that Maoism set the abolition of the university as a goal. Such contradictory and conflicted attitudes toward authority and education are often taken as the hallmark of Vincennes generally (ironic jokes about a Gaullist strategy to preoccupy the many factions of the French academic left by giving them a university to administer), but this problem seems unusually acute in the psychoanalysis program. Third, Lacan's subsequent involvement in the program, which began in 1974, was regarded as heavy-handed and was a further source of frustration for the clinically included. Lacan was retooling his views of psychoanalysis heavily and was determined to give it a more profoundly scientific character. He declared the previous efforts of the program a failure, appointed himself to a position in the department, and had Miller elevated to the position of chairman. In the same period Luce Irigaray proposed to offer a course on material developing in the wake of her first book on psychoanalysis and feminine sexuality and was rejected. This rejection was perceived as petty antagonism of a critic indicative of a further curtailment of intellectual freedom in a program seemingly shackled to Lacan's agenda. Later decision to grant clinical standing by degrees from the program were taken as signs of outright hypocrisy serving to assure Miller of unreasonable powers in Lacan's name.
In this period the EFP fell apart, sparked in large part by the rise of the parallel organization Confrontations, which René Major helped found with the support of Jacques Derrida. Confrontrations harnessed much of the dissent that emerged in the French psychoanalytic community in response to Lacan's insistence on mathematical aspects of his scientific conception of psychoanalysis. The clinical emphasis of Confrontations drew in those less inclined toward issues they viewed as hermetically theoretical or philosophical. In some respects Confrontations might be taken to be a necessary element of the psychoanalyic community, but the EFP went so far as to remove Denis Vasse, then serving as its vice president, from office for his participation. EFP broken down into factions, and a number of factions otherwise sympathetic to Lacan walked became restive because of what they viewed Miller's increasing hegemony as dictatorial in ambition. As questions were raised about the democratic nature of the EFP, Lacan became increasingly ill with colon cancer. A letter dissolving the EFP was circulated, affixed to a Lacanian signature whose authority was contested by allegations of a Miller forgery or dictation imposed upon a gravely ill Lacan. The matter splattered headlines everywhere. Louis Althusser showed up to denounce the proceedings of a meeting to found a new organization, the Freudian Cause. It became increasingly difficult to determine whether Lacan was speaking with his own voice or if Miller were appropriating his authority in a bid to consolidate power. Turkle has suggested that many who wished to think themselves loyal to Lacan expressed this in imagining that they were only defying the machinations of a scheming son-in-law.
Lacan died in hospital after a hemorrhage left him in a coma.
Criticism was levelled at Jacques Lacan in the essays of Jacques Derrida, who made a considerable critique not only of Lacan's analytic writings, but his structuralist approach as a whole and its various underpinnings. Lacan, like Freud, was also the target of numerous feminist critics, who saw Lacan as carrying on the sexist tradition in psychoanalysis.
Lacan was not without other critics either: François Roustang, in The Lacanian Delusion, called Lacan's output "extravagant" and an incoherent system of pseudo-scientific gibberish. Lacan was described by Noam Chomsky (who had "met him several times") as "an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan, though his earlier work, pre-cult, was sensible and I've discussed it in print".  (http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/chomsky-on-postmodernism.html) In Fashionable Nonsense (1997), authors Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont accused Lacan of abusing scientific concepts, and in a 750-page French biography of Lacan (translated into English by Barbara Bray) by Elisabeth Roudinesco, a psychiatric historian, Lacan was portrayed as a megalomaniac and compulsive womanizer who was dishonest when it was expedient. Notable, however, is that Roudinesco has also characterized Lacan as "the last great living master of psychoanalysis" (Roudinesco w/ Derrida, Of What Tomorrow..., p. 167) and further argued:
- Lacan is the only heir to Freud who attempted to think the question of a school of psychoanalysis that would be neither a professional corporation, nor a party, nor a sect, nor a bureaucracy. He pushed the reflection on this subject very far, and I can testify to this, having participated in this adventure as a member of the EFP beginning in 1969. (ibid, p. 182)
The comment by Chomsky (please follow the link: it is prefaced by a remark that attribution is not firm) is more enlightening when the remarks are put in context. Chomsky begins by noting that he has been asked over the years to extend his political criticism in a "theoretical" context. Chomsky then states that he hasn't any familiarity with "theory" or, for that matter, any idea of what body of scholarship would be referenced by that name. He does, however, restate what his preconception is of what theory should look like to warrant his interest:
- "a body of theory, well tested and verified, that applies to" the kinds of problems and issues that Mike, I, and many others (in fact, most of the world's population, I think, outside of narrow and remarkably self-contained intellectual circles) are or should be concerned with: the problems and issues we speak and write about, for example, and others like them. To put it differently, show that the principles of the "theory" or "philosophy" that we are told to study and apply lead by valid argument to conclusions that we and others had not already reached on other (and better) grounds; these "others" include people lacking formal education, who typically seem to have no problem reaching these conclusions through mutual interactions that avoid the "theoretical" obscurities entirely, or often on their own.
Chomsky's preconditions are arguably predispositions rather than positions from which to dismiss "theory", the leading practitioners of which Chomsky claims not to understand:
- Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. --- even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest --- write things that I also don't understand, but ... no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven't a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures.
Chomsky immediately follows with an overly schematic remark that this must be either because the advance in their theoretical work represents a "quantum leap" or "genetic mutation" or because "... I won't spell it out". In short, Chomsky's engagement is not that of one with any familiarity or for that matter comprehensive understanding of Lacan or the others (although we shall see shortly that where he does claim understanding of Lacan, his remarks are generally favorable), but he believes that, lacking familiarity or understanding, he can allow for its dismissal by implication and thereby avoid making any salient critique of it, although he does attempt some negative remarks about Derrida's Of Grammatology, which one may set to one side for lack of sustained argument ("I dislike making the kind of comments that follow without providing evidence"), and Foucault, which culminate in favorable comments about the promise of his historical research tempered by complaints about "'posturing'" (in quotes in original), taken to arise from the "corrupt intellectual culture of Paris," which he further believes uninteresting to the audience of that article and therefore does not elaborate (those interested in such elaborations may find some published in the course of the "Faurisson affair"). This position may reasonably be summarized as anti-intellectual in its particular mode of "self-containment", however much this might shock those who appreciate Chomsky either as a scholar or a political commentator and is perhaps most remarkable in that it finds Chomsky speaking as a political commentator about scholarship while refusing fully to engage in it on his own part. Chomsky is in some sense aware of the unsatisfactory nature of his remarks and therefore virtually suspends them on delivery by apologizing for them ("That's a broad brush, and I stress again that it is unfair to make such comments without proving them... I'm not going to undertake an essay on topics that don't interest me."). It would perhaps be of greater interest to examine at greater length the reasons given for Chomsky's disinterest.
One may in any case take Chomsky's initially cited remark to reflect a character judgement that largely sets aside Lacan's work (even the unelaborated compliments). Roudinesco's commentary is perhaps more compelling in that it is unrelenting in showing Lacan's character failures without conflating these with an assessment of his work, which is, as a distinct entity, generally praised.
The concerns of Sokal and Bricmont can be considered to have some similarities in that they are not "internal" criticisms of Lacan's work. They are themselves interdisciplinary in the sense that they are policing the borders of what they consider to be scientific discourse based on their expertise in the physical sciences and mathematics. Their argument is with what they consider to be implicit arrogation of scientific authority by way of linguistic misappropriation. This is not, however, to say that they claim the privilege of an a priori definition of science or its essence (as, for example, Heidegger in "The Question Concerning Technology"). Their work may thus be taken as an aggressive defense of an undefined border via the policing of terminology, which is to say empiricism without analysis and therefore questionable as to the science of its method and occasional disinterest in context. While psychoanalysis is not scientific in the sense of the physical sciences or even the sense too often imposed on the social sciences by implication, its capacity for the production of truth is demonstrably not a concern of Sokal and Bricmont and, after a different fashion, Chomsky.
The Name of the Father
Unconscience as the language of the Other
Oedipal drama and the Oedipal signification
Selected works published in English listed below. More complete listings can be found at Lacan Dot Com (http://www.lacan.com/bibliography.html) or Peter Krapp's page (http://www.hydra.umn.edu/lacan/gaze.html)
- The Language of the Self: The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis*, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968
- Écrits: A Selection*, transl. by Alan Sheridan, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1977, and revised version, 2002, transl. by Bruce Fink.
- The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis
- The Seminar, Book I. Freud's Papers on Technique, 1953-1954, , edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, transl. by J. Forrester, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1988
- The Seminar, Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-1955, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, transl. by Sylvana Tomaselli, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1988.
- The Seminar, Book III. The Psychoses, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, transl. by Russell Grigg, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1993.
- The Seminar, Book VII. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, transl. by Dennis Porter, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1992.
- The Seminar XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, transl. by Alan Sheridan, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1977.
- The Seminar XX, Encore: On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, transl. by Bruce Fink, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1998.
- Sherry Turkle, Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud's French Revolution, 2nd edition, Guilford Press, New York, 1992
- Jacques Derrida and Elisabeth Roudinesco, For What Tomorrow..., Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2004
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