Who Is Jacques Lacan?

John Haber
in New York City

A Primer for Pre-Post-Structuralists

Jacques Lacan was a Parisian psychoanalyst who has influenced literary criticism and feminism. He began work in the 1950s, in the Freudian society there. It was a time when those official ties meant something—when one could be expelled for deviation, as if from the Communist party.

It was also a time when Sigmund Freud's reputation in France was very low, for existentialism was the thing. Lacan changed all that almost overnight, when he broke off to start his own society, commencing seminars there and at the École Normale Superior. Picasso's Girl Before a Mirror (Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Mrs. S. Guggenheim, 1932)

The cry of "return of Freud" went up at just the right moment. It was 1964, with pressures building against the establishment, the same pressures that led to the 1968 student riots and Michel Foucault's philosophy of suspicion. But then where would art be without sex, neurosis, ideas, and rebellion? Structuralism was in the air, too, and Lacan offered a structuralist Freud. A structuralist Freud? That is it in a nutshell, and that is what needs explaining.

A "Lacan for Dummies" would take at least a book—indeed, a book willing to criticize its own place in the history of ideas. I can offer only a kind of extended footnote for mad art fans who encounter his name elsewhere in my criticism. Had something like Wikipedia existed, I might never have written it. Think of it as a mild apology for an assumption of this whole Web site: criticism can and should invoke ideas without burying the art. The essays on this Web site refer to Lacan often enough, though, for a primer.

Words, words, words

Jacques Lacan was fascinated by Freud's earliest discovery—unconscious desires, as revealed through free associations and dreams. In other words, desires emerge through words and images. They speak a language parallel to our own.

Jean-Paul Sartre's followers had no interest in such things. Existentialists believe in conscious decisions. The unconscious seems far too squishy to them, too much a denial of responsibility. Instead of internal conflicts, Sartre said, other people create our identity. The "unconscious" is just the part of us that others understand when we do not. Lacan may disagree, but the "discourse of the other" will be crucial to his understanding of the mind.

Lacan picked up on the unconscious as a social being. He even spoke of a child's passage through a mirror stage, in which it must learn to see itself from outside before it can have an internal identity. Yet the psychologist refused to dismiss the reality of an unconscious mind. Nope, it is quite real enough to destroy lives, and it can be made perfectly precise: the unconscious is structured like a language. As Anthony Wilden's book about him puts it, the unconscious is The Language of the Self. To explain this, I have to spell out how structuralists understood language.

One often thinks of a language as a lexicon. Each word points to a familiar object, like a dictionary or even a picture book. In a real language, however, words take on meaning only from other words. Batty philosophers are not exactly catty because of a difference in sounds, and semantics works much the same way. Those clowns are not exactly insane or comical either, because shades of meaning emerge by contrast.

The ultimate unit of meaning is less the word than the sentence—or even the entire language. One has a system, a structure, without a base. Language is like a computer network without a central computer. Meaning is always "deferred" to the next word in the chain of associations.

Picking up on Freud's idea of free associations, Lacan tried structuralism on the mind. The reward for him was in that mysteriously productive deferral. He marveled at a word's absence of fixed reference taken alone, apart from a context in language. It reminded him of what happens when one feels an absence in oneself, a lack in life: desire. Lacan had brought together Freud's technique, of word association, with his subject matter, desire. In this way he found new relevance in Freud's whole vocabulary of unconscious urges.

The symbol truth

The trick was to stick to how words work. One necessarily expresses desires in words, so every desire needs a symbol. The father against whom one rebels is a symbol, and from it the mind takes shape. The mother is what each symbol lacks, so desire for her makes symbolic sense, too. These symbols form not some hidden art gallery of the mind, but a living vocabulary: "The unconscious is always empty."

Does it seem silly for Freud to talk about one's old man as a mythic figure out of Oedipus Rex? Does penis envy seem even sillier, if not sexist? Fine. What matters is "the name of the father" and the social authority of men, with their darn "phallus." Lacan used that word, rather than "penis," to stress its symbolic, downright arbitrary nature.

A healthy person thrives on this system of symbols and desires. One needs all this "Imaginary" to stay in touch with "the Real." A neurotic is someone for whom the system has broken down. Language has utterly deserted a depressive, who is reduced to mute despair. Psychoanalysis heals by restoring a tortured mind to speech. More formally, Lacan translated Freud's ego, id, and superego into levels of linguistic mastery, but the jargon ("schema R") is more than you need to know to cope with my Web site.

Students were spellbound, owing to the standard ingredients of cult status—ideas and charisma, Ironically, Lacan's ego got caught up in the very paradox of his work: psychoanalysis, too, seemed to need the name of the father. It could achieve maturity only by recognizing Lacan's unshakeable authority, even if only as yet another productive symbol. Oddly enough, the obscurity of Lacan's language fed into all this, or at least into his charisma. Mostly the difficulty comes through in print, too, for he writes just awfully.

Lacan at once relished his status and recognized a problem with it. He reveled in his high-handed style, but he dissolved his own society in 1980, the year before his death. He applied the tools of language and literature, but he came to have a greater and greater interest in symbolic logic as well. So, at any rate, argues a philosopher who saw Lacan's practice of philosophy as a game changer, Alain Badiou.

By that time, however, Lacanian thought had taken on a life of its own. At first its influence outside Paris was, to put it graciously, nil. Laying existentialism and structuralism on top of Freud, most therapists felt, made the squishy into pure liquid. Lacan's lousy prose only confirmed how useless it all was. Even today, American undergraduates studying abnormal psychology beware: they will hardly find Lacan so much as mentioned in their textbook, if at all.

Per loins

Outside psychology, however, structuralism was taking over intellectual life. Literary criticism, especially felt its influence. It was starting to call itself literary theory and imagining it was philosophy! Did Lacan treat the mind like a work of literature, to be interpreted through attention to its language? Hardly a bad message for those who take literature for the meaning of life, and a new kind of Freudian interpretation took hold. Lacanians got to insist that, unlike the nasty old kind, they were not just reducing books to the writer's hang-ups or to Freud's system. They were showing people how to read. One can even apply Lacan to Dickens.

What other critics were showing people, however, was no longer a system—not even Lacan's. Indirectly, Lacan helped give birth to a happy mess that his system could never comprehend. Starting with such titles as Grammatology, Jacques Derrida made the decisive step. The French philosopher took structuralism apart and found that he liked it better in pieces. Interpretation mattered so much for him that there was no escaping the text into the real.

Can any meaning be traced through an entire language? Can any word take on fresh associations? Fine, but then what sense does it make to catalog a language—or the mind? The operative word became post-structuralism, the first "post" in a long run of fashionable Postmodernisms.

Lacan himself helped out the literary trends: his opening seminar in his collected writings analyzes "The Purloined Letter" as an example of how the mind works. Remember the letter used for blackmail in Edgar Allan Poe's short story? In the same way, Lacan argued, words take on new significance, threats, power, and desires for each person as they circulate.

If some English professors in America were happy, feminists were simply overjoyed. The Freudian father? Not even real. Just a mental construct. Jacqueline Rose and Juliet Mitchell in London saw that as cause for Marxists to re-examine how society creates gender roles for us, just as social and economic conditions create other sorts of havoc. Lacan's mirror makes a great metaphor for a world that surrounds women with mirrors and fashion photography, makes them into Madonnas and whores, and long called a still-life painting Vanitas.

Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigary, Hélène Cixoux, and other feminists in Paris found cause for yet another celebration. Art, they wrote, releases a kind of meaning that's freer than ordinary prose—a rich, meaningful babbling dominated by the dream of one's mother. The doctrine of lack and deferral truly means something for women who feel more like male society's displaced persons than happy creatures born to nurture men. And in fact Kristeva was an exile in another sense, Bulgarian born.

Po' Poe

The b.s. quotient here had not escaped the rest of the world, of course. Kristeva sounds like a typical Parisian intellectual. In her novels, women naturally watch film noir and always wear just the right outfit. The deacon of deconstruction himself, Derrida, demolished Lacan through another reading of Poe, just as he frolicked through art history in the person of Vincent van Gogh.

Let me look more carefully, then, at Lacan's "Seminar on the Purloined Letter." It was originally published in French as the opening essay in Écrits ("Writings").

Derrida's response, "Le Facteur de la Verité," has a more punning title, typical of his playfulness. It means both "The Truth Factor" and "The Mailman Bringing Truth." Alan Bass's translation first appeared in what quickly became a legendary issue of Yale French Studies. Derrida included the essay as well in a book on Freud, which Bass also translated: La Carte Postale (or "The Post Card").

Lacan is as dense as ever, but Derrida is formidable for a different reason, one already announced in his title's virtuosity. Throughout a long essay, he finds room to play even as he sticks to a careful structure that one must also bear in mind. Quite a challenge, but worth it.

After that, can I risk a quick summary? Here goes. Lacan notes that the letter used for blackmail never changes as it circulates. Yet its significance changes constantly, depending on who holds it and who recognizes it for what it is. Lacan takes this as emblematic of how the unconscious works.

In his theory, recall, the unconscious works like a language. The mind teems with desires that grow real only when translated into symbols, as in Freud's device of free association. Like words in a language, the associations are arbitrary. As symbols of desire for the lost intimacies of infancy, the thing they signify is simply not there: it is always lacking. Similarly, the letter, despite its power, remains somehow empty, for blackmail can no longer threaten the moment someone uses it.

Lacking Lacan

Derrida takes on Lacan, just as he had any structuralist view of language. He criticized structuralism for hoping rigorously to define meaning, as if a system like language could ever be closed and could ever have a fixed center. In the same way, Derrida deconstructs Lacan: he claims that the psychologist returns after all to a system of tidy meanings.

After Lacan, psychoanalysis remains a system, with fanatical followers. Psychoanalytic readings, or so goes the standard complaint, still read a predetermined message into literary texts. Derrida agrees on both counts. Lacan finds what he wants in Poe because he pumps it into the text. This "lack" of which he speaks is post-structuralist only on the surface. Lacan may seem to play around, but for him lack is all too real, the essential subject of psychoanalysis.

Derrida also tears into Lacan's writing. The latter's famously tendentious style is far from playful (unlike Derrida's own, the philosopher tactfully neglects to say). It is a sad blockage for readers. It cannot help being insensitive to a literary work like Poe's. In fact, by creating a breakdown between meaning and form, it again calls up a tired notion of literary content. The quaint Freudian in tweeds has returned, reading psychoanalysis into everything that moves.

Lacan, Derrida argues further, commits the ultimate sin against literature: he works from the plot rather than Poe's language. Lacan finds yet another way, too, to cut off the chain of meaning on which a literary work subsists: he isolates the story from two others about Detective Dupin. Worse, Lacan isolates the mythic triangle of characters in Poe's story from the narrator. By bursting these frames, Derrida hopes to open up all those Lacanian triangles.

Lacan, in other words, imposes a frame on the story as triumphantly as a blackmailer frames the innocent victim. He is one more player in the game, trumping the previous one to assert his own mastery—much like each person in turn in "The Purloined Letter."

For Lacan, context is everything. It creates desire, and so for each person, as in Poe, the letter bears profound significance: a letter always finds its address. Derrida plays on that truly memorable line. In language, literature, or psychology, meaning can never be closed off or translated once and for all, not even into other words: a letter never finds its address.

Art and the undecidable

Literary critics love arguments, and I suppose they will go on until the world loses patience entirely with anything so turgid. No wonder an American moved the dispute officially to the world of literary criticism. Barbara Johnson weighed in with "Poe, Lacan, Derrida," an essay in her finest book, The Critical Difference.

All three essays appear along with Poe's story—and goodness knows what else—in a paperback called The Purloined Poe. Johnson's book, which was her first, also has a superb essay (if longer and at least as tough) on Herman Melville's Billy Budd.

Johnson deconstructs the difference between the two post-structuralists. She suggests that both men are up to the same games with the structure of words.

Really, does all that much separate them? Both are out to trump the master. Both play around with associations, desires, and lacks at the heart of consciousness. Besides, is meaning truly indeterminate, in the sense of having no fixed translation once and for all? If Derrida is right, then, the difference between him and Lacan must, she concludes, be undecidable.

I side with the French, but both at once, for the same reason that I want to end this primer in the world of fiction—and art. (After all, I steal from Derrida myself when I come to Constantin Brancusi, Andy Warhol, and Warhol's influence.) With Lacan and Derrida, I take the idea of deferral to mean that differences matter. Meanings may never become final, but locating them is a necessary decision. It involves letting the differences multiply—between artists, between art objects, between art and life—even as the copy becomes a basic tool of Postmodernism.

Locating meaning is the difference between depression and vitality, between feminism and silence. It is the difference between unconscious lack and that fullness of desire called art.

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Related readings:
 · A brief Jacques Lacan biography
 · Quotes from Jacques Lacan


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