Fear and Loathing in Lacania

Abstract How do his interpreters explain and justify Jacques Lacan’s baroque and unintelligible rhetorical strategies in Ecrits and the Séminaires? Many philosophers, cultural critics and psychoanalysts begin their project of elucidating Lacan with explanations and justifications of their master’s obscure voice. I argue that all these arguments are either circular, unsound, inconsistent or – what is perhaps the worst feature they all share – that his readers are taken hostage: ‘Only if we take what he says as revealing the truth about the unconscious will we understand Lacan’ seems to be the conclusion of many scholars desperate to ‘understand’ Lacan. [1]

‘Parfaupe orecluspa nannanbryle anaphi ologi psysoscline ixipad anlana – égnia kune n’rbiol’ ô blijonter têtumaine ennounç…’ [2]

Countless readers of Jacques Lacan, fascinated by their Master’s voice and gestures, have offered explanations and justifications of the forbidding character of both style and content of Ecrits and the Séminaires – mostly heavily edited transcripts of lectures attended by psychoanalysts, philosophers and the intellectual chic of Paris in the sixties and seventies of the past century. Pondering their justifications, one inevitably gets the impression that before they had to convince themselves (and their readers), on the brink of an expedition into the heart of an impenetrable conceptual darkness, that the man really had something interesting to say, and that that deep insights about the human mind and man’s vicissitudes (‘the subject’) were lurking behind constantly shifting meanings, sophisticated jeu de mots, and sweeping claims and theorems borrowed from or modelled after formal approaches in mathematics, linguistics, cybernetics and structural anthropology. Although the explanations and justifications of Lacan’s sleight of hand techniques do not seek to directly defend the existence of such a hidden treasure, they certainly suggest that if the impenetrability of Lacanian discourse were given a reasonable explanation or justification, it could, at a minimum, hint at productive ‘readings’ of Lacan that offer a chance of approaching its hidden kernel (if any). Lacan writes as if ‘the hidden message is just out of reach’ (‘just as the satisfaction of le désir is always just out of reach’, a Lacanian might add) – and the explanations suggest appropriate hints and methods that will reveal its ‘true meaning’. [3] Many explanations are grounded in his theory of language, or based on extrapolations of Freudian claims, hence offer interesting perspectives on the way central claims in that framework can be put to use.

Many justifications have, perhaps unsurprisingly, the character of classical Freudian sublimations. They are attempts to explain manifestly surrealistic trains of thoughts and quasi-mathematical bric à brac, often reached by completely revising the standard meaning of mathematical concepts or by justifying conceptual constructions that owe more to écriture automatique than serious thinking. The weakness of these conceptual revisions is so obvious that self-deception must be in play. And the fact that they are repeated over and over again reveals a pattern: Lacan is ultimately ‘the subject that is supposed to know’ (le sujet supposé savoir) – a slogan his interpreters, unfortunately, misunderstand, for the ‘supposé’ in that description carried, according to Lacan, the Gricean implicature that the designated subject didn’t know. Lacan, qua theorist, was of course not willing to apply that description to himself – he never doubted that he knew.

Some explanations are simply ludicrous (although definitely not meant to be ludicrous by their inventors). The ‘complexity of his theories’ can hardly be considered ‘a protective measure against bad interpretations’, as Dylan Evans suggests in his Dictionary of Lacanian Terms. [4] Why should a theory protect itself from misinterpretations by being deliberately complex? (One would think the opposite true: accuracy, truthfulness and argumentative strength usually prevent
misinterpretations.) Sometimes, it is claimed that the stylistic complexity of the theory should prevent an easy, ‘superficial’ reading of the theory (The unintended side-effect was of course the reverse: hundreds of incompatible interpretations saw the light of day.) But who would want to write opaquely to prevent superficial interpretations? That intention is as irrational as the intention to write absolutely clearly with a view to protect oneself against bad interpretations. (Morale: no-one can protect herself from bad interpretations.) A less respectful explanation – not mine! – is that Lacan wanted to protect himself from criticism by being ‘difficult’. Fact is that Lacan always had a difficult time when dealing with critics and adversaries. [5] The history of French psychoanalytics is infested by ideological conflicts, sectarian moves and endless feuds with Lacan as their main protagonist.

In her introduction to Alain Vanier’s Lacan, Judith Feher-Gurewich stresses the ‘revolutionary character’ of Lacan’s thoughts; his ‘brilliant’ wordings are often misunderstood because of the many ‘prejudices’ of his readers. [6] Unfortunately, she doesn’t tell us what those prejudices are. Perhaps she has in mind students who think that if you claim to develop a theory and not just a series of associatively connected thoughts, certain intellectual virtues proper to theorizing (like accuracy, consistency, precision, intellectual honesty, courage…) should be respected. And there is of course no interesting theoretical reason to think that the subject matter of Lacan’s theoretical interests – roughly speaking: the Freudian unconscious – is a sufficient reason to abandon the pursuit of these virtues when developing a theory of these phenomena.

Or perhaps the ‘misunderstandings’ that so frequently bedevil readers of Lacan have to do with the abundance of references to logic, topology, Russell’s paradox and Gödel’s incompleteness theorems in Lacan’s work. Susanne Barnard suggests that

‘(…) his arguments often revolve around relatively obscure philosophical references (e.g., Bentham’s Theory of Fictions) and theories (e.g., number theory, set theory, topology) that are inaccessible to the one uninitiated into the idiosyncrasies of Lacan’s later work’ [7]

which presupposes that the ‘idiosyncrasies’ are accessible to the initiated. But note, first, Barnard is obviously mistaken to confine the excursions into mathematics to Lacan’s later work, which even Lacan’s admirers do not take very seriously. The references are there already from the very beginning of his mature work. [8] The real problem with the ‘idiosyncrasies’ is that understanding his use of logic and mathematics, his ‘formulae’ and ‘mathèmes’, requires that one abandons, leaves behind, standard interpretations of symbols and first order formulae and trust the strange distortions. Logic, set theory and topology are perfectly transparent disciplines – except in the hands of Lacan. Even among seasoned readers and interpreters there is absolutely no consensus over what, for example, the famous ‘formulas of sexuation’ mean. [9] (Joël Dor, a famous Parisian psychoanalyst, urged us to completely abandon classical logic in view of Lacan’s logical ‘insights’.) [10] And why should a strange and inconsistent ‘formalization’ of the difference between man and woman in first order logic create an insight? Why should a weird re-interpretation of a mathematical theorem (Gödel’s theorem, for example) clarify a psychoanalytic claim?

And perhaps someone should have reminded Barnard that the references to logic, mathematics, structural linguistics and anthropology were the cornerstones of Lacan’s self-declared ambition to turn psychoanalysis into a ‘science of the subject’ (science du subjet). To quote just a few relevant passages:

‘Rien ne paraît mieux constituer l’horizon du discours analytique que cet emploi qui est fait de la lettre par la mathématique. La lettre révèle dans le discours ce qui, pas par hasard, pas sans nécessité, est appelé le grammaire. Le grammaire est ce qui ne se révèle du langage que par l’ecrit. Au-delà du langage, cet effet, qui se produit de se supporter seulement de l’écriture, est assurément l’idéal de la mathematique’ [11]

and elsewhere in the same Séminaire:

‘La formalisation mathématique est notre but, notre idéal. Pourquoi? – parce que seule elle est mathème, c’est à dire capable de se transmettre intégralement’. [12]

‘Integral transmittability’ is, of course, an important meta-theoretical property of scientific theories. Their content is communicable, translatable, and intended to clarify and explain the observed phenomena. Are the results of the ‘psychoanalytic experience’ objective? Lacan asks. Yes, he claims in 1966:

‘Ai-je besoin de dire que dans la science, à l’oppose de la magie et de la religion, le savoir se communique? Mais il faut insister que ce n’est pas seulement parce que c’est l’usage, mais que la forme logique donnée à ce savoir inclut le mode de la communication comme suturant le sujet qu’il implique’ [13].

But in the hands of Lacan transmittability gets a totally different intra-psychoanalytic content:

‘Ses résultats (the results of the psychoanalytic experience, FB) peuvent-ils fonder une science positive? Oui, si l’experience est contrôlable par tous. Or, constituée entre deux sujets dont l’un joue dans le dialogue un rôle d’idéale impersonalité…, l’expérience, une fois achevée et sous les seules conditions de capacité exigible pour toute recherche spéciale, peut être reprise par l’autre sujet avec un troisième. Cette voie apparement initiatique n’est qu’une transmission par récurrence.’ [14]

Whilst it was initially suggested that communicability pertains to the central theoretical claims and explanations in psychoanalytic theory, it suddenly transpires that we are dealing here, in fact, with the transfer of the psychoanalytic experience, possible only if one gets, via an analysis, access to that experience and is then in a position to transmit (i.e. induce) that experience into others (by analyzing them). Transmission and communicability, in the hands of Lacan, has nothing to do with objectivity and communicability of theories but with the passing on of a kind of experience and technique – the infamous and notoriously controversial Lacanian passe everyone has to undergo in order to be accepted as a Lacanian psychoanalyst. [15]

A more intriguing line of defense directly appeals to an intra-Freudian claim – Freud’s conception of dreams as decypherable rebuses in the Traumdeutung
(1899)– a work of which Lacan said: ‘Cet ouvrage ouvre avec l’oeuvre sa route royale (via regia, says Freud in ‘über Psychoanalyse’) à l’inconscient’. [16] Call this the Rebus Argument. We are told that Lacan’s work is a ‘rebus’, just as dreams, at least according to Freud, are rebuses: underneath a manifest dream content is hidden a latent dream content the correct reconstruction of that hidden meaning, when discovered (and not invented, as Freud repeatedly stressed), will reveal a hidden, repressed desire that casts a shadow over the dreamer’s life. [17] Freud’s onirology can be applied to Lacan’s writings:

‘It does not seem unfair to characterize Lacan’s writings in this way [as a rebus, FB] …(f)or their substance deals with the nature of the unconscious as Freud understood it, hence with that dimension of human experience that lies beyond the kernel of conscious, rational discourse and emerges into awareness only through a din of diffraction that may assume many forms – in the case of dream, for example, the form of a rebus. By saying, then, that Lacan’s work, in terms of its substance, is a rebus, we mean to suggest that it is dealing with a theme that of its very nature escapes the constriction of rational exposition.’ [18]

Ecrits and the Séminaires are

‘essentially a concrete demonstration in verbal locution of the perverse ways of the unconscious as he experiences it’ [19]

But why should someone with the ambition to develop a theory about an intrinsically difficult and opaque subject like the unconscious, decide to write in an obscure fashion? No theory about phenomenon X needs to adopt or simulate features of X to be verifiable, falsifiable, consistent or correct, or to offer theoretically important insights about its subject matter. A theory about colors doesn’t have to be colorful or be written down in colorful ink. And note that, if this justification were correct (the subject matter of the theory is obscure, so the theory itself must reflect that obscurity by being somehow obscure itself), we can no longer explain and appreciate why Sigmund Freud, the founding-father of psychoanalysis, wrote crystal-clear prose. The explanation is so strong that it implies that Freud could not have developed an adequate theory of the unconscious!

The crux of the problem is the Freudian rebus-metapher, which already presupposes that dreams have meanings or ‘solutions’, like real rebuses or crosswords (it is as if your metaphors reveals your hidden expectations and assumptions – an insight Lacanians would be proud of). But isn’t that what had to be proved? Dreams, for all we know, are not products of subconscious intentional processes, for there cannot be such processes. The idea that dreams have a hidden content that reveals the dreamer’s repressed wishes is as unproven and implausible as the ancient belief that the hidden content of a dream was a prediction, pace
Freud and his countless followers.

Madan Sarup exploits the metaphor in the Imitation Argument:

Lacan’s writings are a rebus because his style mimics the subject matter. He not only explicates the unconscious but strives to imitate it. The unconscious becomes not only the subject matter but, in the grammatical sense, the subject, the speaker of the discourse. Lacan believes that language speaks the subject, that the speaker is subjected to language rather than master of it. [20]

The central premise in this explanation appeals to Lacan’s theory of the subject as constituted by language or discourse: ‘language speaks the subject’ and ‘the subject is not the master of its discourse’. Lacan, we are told, serves as mouthpiece of the unconscious; his discourse is a perfect (and therefore instructive) imitation of the unconscious. [21] In a recent paper Dany Nobus seems to confirm this view:

‘(Lacan) modeled his own discourse on the very rhetoric of the unconscious which he believed to have discerned in Freud’s foundational accounts of dreams, slips of the tongue and jokes’ [22]

If Lacan’s language or discourse is a deliberate imitation of the unconscious (‘he strives to imitate it’, Sarup claims, he ‘models his own discourse on the very rhetoric of the unconscious’, we are told by Nobus), it must be presupposed that Lacan has an adequate conception of the unconscious, or at least his unconscious. A successful imitation of a phenomenon, like a good impersonation, requires that the imitator have a reliable conception of the object or person imitated or impersonated. But what if Lacan’s impression of the unconscious was false? [23] And where does imitation of the unconscious end and explication and theorizing begins? And why should an imitation amount to a theory?

Secondly, the allegedly inscrutable character of the subject matter of a theory and and structure of the theory cannot be so intrinsically connected as Sarup suggests, for it would entail that every effort to present Lacan’s conception of the unconscious in more or less streamlined fashion will eventually end up as a fatal distortion of the theory. Any attempt to present his thoughts in a systematic, orderly way will fatally misinterpret him (and the unconscious) if the Imitation Argument were sound.

Thirdly, the Imitation Argument reveals an unfounded sweeping generalisation. Remember that the argument explains Lacan’s opacity on the basis of theory-internal claims: ‘Language speaks the subject’, ‘The subject is constituted by language’. The argument then runs as follows: from the fact – if it is a fact! – that ‘language speaks the subject’, it follows that Lacan’s theory is ‘spoken by’ the language of the unconscious. Since the unconscious is a rebus – Freud’s claim, embraced and further developed by Lacan himself – Lacan’s writings will themselves be a rebuses. But can a theory’ be ‘spoken’ by one’s unconscious (even if that unconscious is ‘structured like a language’? Does not every theorist intend to say something when he says something? Isn’t the choice of words, the structure of arguments, the precise formulation of ideas the core of an intentional activity called ‘theorizing’? Isn’t Lacan himself insisting that he intends to develop a scientific version of Freudian psychoanalysis? How could that intention be squared with a discourse which merely mimics the unconscious? A claim that was initially intended to describe the patient’s free associations turns out to be applicable to all forms of intentional behaviour, including the presentation of a theory.

The objection that these claims (‘language speaks the subject’, etc.) are defended by Lacan is worthless, for it merely shows that Lacan’s obscure style and content is consistent with what he says about language and the subject. [24] Consistency with Lacanian claims is insufficient as a legitimation of theoretical obscurantism. Finally, if, as Nobus suggests, Lacan had the intention to present his theories in a baroque way, he made a conscious (yet not very reasonable) choice; the presence of such an intention suggests, moreover, that there are occasions where he choose to speak about the unconscious (and psychoanalaysis in general) in an orderly fashion. [25] It was clearly not an option for him to speak and think the way he spoke and thought.

The central problem with the Imitation Argument, however, is its very structure: we are in fact told that it is a necessary
condition for understanding the theory – the central, philosophical or psychoanalytical assertions – that we must assume it is a correct imitation of its subject matter. (Remember: if we are to understand Lacan, we must assume that his discourse is the expression of his unconscious which is itself structured like a language). [26] If Sarups argument were sound, readers are taken hostage: the Lacanian insights reveal themselves only if (not: if) you take the theory to be a correct imitation of the unconscious. By contraposition: if you reject that Lacan’s simulation is faithful to the nature of the unconscious, the theory will not reveal itself to you. But isn’t it a minimal requirement that the content of a theory must be accessible even when it turns out to be false? The hermeneutic circle drawn by Sarup is too tight to leave space for rational dissent.

A slight variation on this theme is offered by Samuel Weber. [27] According to Weber (thereby echoing Lacanian claims about language and ‘the play of the signifiers’), the signification of ‘signifiers’ (signifiants) can only be determined ‘retroactively’, their meaning is ‘contextually’ determined. It is of course notoriously difficult to get a precise grip on the signification of the central Lacanian concept of a signifier – Lacan tends to use it as meaning symbol, concept, sound pattern, referent, propositional content, linguistic sign, or contextually determined referent. Be that as it may, Weber’s sweeping explanation directly appeals to the ‘the retroactive character of the fixation of meaning or signification’ to explain its extremely polysemous character.

‘This suggests that the term ‘signifier’ – formally considered: a word – has neither a simple nor a clearly determinate meaning, since what it designates and points toward – as configuration of differences – engenders meaning only retroactively, as the result of the ‘pointing’ as it were. (….) If this process designated by the signifier forms a condition of possibility of the word, qua meaningful unit, which in turn is an indispensable constituent of the concept, the signifier cannot be grasped in terms of a particular content, but instead can be represented only formally, by what Lacan calls ‘an algorithm’; this unspeakable formula must be written: f(S)1/s’ [28]

The strategy can easily be generalized for other Lacanian concepts: whenever central concepts in Lacan’s framework are vague, ambiguous or cryptic – in this case: the central concept of signifier (signifiant) – his interpreters immediately mobilize theory-internal claims: the signification of the concept becomes clear, reveals itself ‘in a signifying chain’ , in a ‘system of differences with other signifiers’. We retroatively interpret and re-interpret the central signifiers of Lacan’s theory. And so it goes. If we want to understand Lacan’s central assertions, we should apply its central claims to his own theory. But that entails that we could never come to the conclusion that the central claim could turn out to be false (if the claim is false, you will suddenly come to recognize that you don’t understand the theory). Musn’t we allow that even on a holistic understanding of a theory one could come to the conclusion that one of its theoretical claims was false? [29]

The basic flaw in Weber’s argument is based on a deep and widespread extrapolation of Lacanian claims (almost certainly induced by Lacan himself). The claim that the meaning of signifiers had to be reconstructed retroactively was specifically intended not to apply to theories, but to the psychoanalytic patient’s free associations (Freud’s freier Einfall) during psychoanalytic sessions! It may well be that significant patterns in those associations are discovered retroactively, but it surely doesn’t follow that the same approach works for the interpretation of theories – intentional products of rational agents. Theories are not samples of free associations. And if the meaning of the concept of ‘signifier (signifiant)’ eludes us, how can it be that a semi-mathematical ‘unspeakable’ formulae captures its content?

Theories always leave out something, many authors happily conclude when on the verge of giving up the search for meaning in Lacan. Malcolm Bowie’s ‘minimal’ interpretation of Lacan (he wisely puts aside Lacan’s phantastic excursions into mathematics and shaky linguistics), tells us that

‘Lacan is a theorist of the human passions who maintains a steady hostility to the language of ‘theory’. Desire is the subject matter of psychoanalysis, but something is always left out when the analyst writes about it…. However hard he tries to ‘articulate desire’ – by constructing a theory of it, say- desire will always spill out from his sentences, diagrams or equations. But theories should not be silent on that which eludes them, Lacan insists.’ [30]

Bowie’s elegant formulations are a specimen a family of explanations that appeals to the elusive, strange or obscure character of his particular object of inquiry. The recurrent theme is that however precise one wants to write about desire, the unconscious, the ‘Name of the Father’, the phallus, the Other,…, the essence of the subject-matter of the theory will always ‘escape us’. Psychoanalytic theories cannot but continue to ‘circle’ around ‘the unspeakable kernel of the subject’, it tries to articulate ‘a desire which constantly eludes and escapes us’.

It bears repeating that these observations never constitute a reason to abandon
the virtues and values of proper theorizing, for it is a feature of every theoretical account that it necessarily formally abstracts away from many aspects or properties of its subject matter. For example, it is not a requirement on the adequacy of neurological or cognitive theories of pain and other phenomenal experiences that they are ‘complete’ ‘adequate’ only if they contain a perfect evocation of what it is like to be, say, in pain. No theory can provide its reader with a a recognitional conception of what it is like to be in pain or what it is like to hear voices in one’s head, or what it’s like to feel depressed. [31] Similarly, a theory of Lacanian desires need not convey to the reader a phenomenal conception of what it is like to live with a desire to, say, seek revenge for paternal abuse. No theory can achieve that impossible goal. [32] Richard Boothby seems to have something like this in mind when he writes:

‘Lacan aims to produce in the reader an experience that bears some likeness to the encounter with the unconscious. His style is an appropriate reflection of the fact that, as he says, ‘obscurity is characteristic of our field’ [33]

There is no need to think that what a theory ‘leaves out’ must be recovered or captured in the style, the form, the conceptual structure of the theory. And it certainly doesn’t follow that intellectual virtues of serious theorizing must be abandoned. And note that the claim that Lacan speaks and writes qua analyst and is therefore not tied to the demands of theory, contradicts his explicit ambition to present a scientific theory.

Madan Sarup offers another strategy:

‘An analysis terminates only when the patient realizes it could go on for ever. Perhaps the reader of Lacan’s work should be prepared for an unending struggle rather like the analytic patient’s’ [34]

Does this mean that understanding Lacan is impossible? Or that we stop interpreting when we realize that understanding is impossible? Or when we think we have found an interpretation that fits our needs? And is there such a thing as an intended interpretation of Lacan? Lacan himself promised that ‘it would take ten years before everything will be clear for all’. [35]

The next argument is the Appeal to the reader’s unconscious:

‘Cracking (Lacan’s) difficult writings involves not only the intellectual efforts of readers but also their unconscious processes; comprehension will dawn as reader-analysts recognize in their own work what was expressed in sibylline fashion in the text.’ [36]

Feher-Gurewich’s first argument (in this quote) assumes the central working hypothesis of psychoanalysis: man is not a master in his own house. So, when interpreting (trying to understand) Lacan, it is our unconscious life that is supposed to help us understanding the theory. But why does the theory remain difficult, even if our own unconscious is at work when we try to understand the theory? Or does it understand the theorie but refuses to tellus what the theory says? And if this hypothesis were right, wouldn’t we want to know how our unconscious life assimilates the texts of Lacan and why it refuses to reveal its true meaning to us? And how do I know that my unconscious assmilates the theory? And why should a theory of the unconscious appeal to my unconscious life?

If Feher-Gurewich’s second argument (‘comprehension will dawn…’) were correct, only practitioners would have access to the hidden meaning of the theory; others are by definition excluded from understanding. (I, for one, will have completely missed the point of the theory – a happy consequence for Lacanians.) But let us not complain about the fact that this claim is empirically false (many non-analysts have claimed to ‘understand’ Lacan), for the deeper, conceptual problem with the claim that ‘only practicioners will understand the theory’ is that it equivocates two senses of understanding. There is a distinction between (i) understanding a theory as understanding its central claims and concepts, and (ii) the capacity to recognize symptoms and phenomena on the basis of understanding the theory. The implicit claim in the argument is that one understands a theory (in the first sense of ‘understanding’) only if one recognizes in one’s own work or (psychoanalytical) practice the phenomena and symptoms it accounts for. The second sense of understanding is thus a necessary, condition for the first sense of understanding. But this claim is simply false. Our capacity to recognize and identify phenomena in terms of the theoretical concepts of a theory requires that one grasps or understands, in the first sense of ‘understanding’, the theory. To learn to ‘observe’ the world via a theory, one must first struggle to understand the theory. The latter is a necessary condition for the former, but not vice versa.

In Ecrits Lacan offers an often-quoted defiant explanation:

‘L’écrit se distingue en effet par une prévalence du texte, au sens qu’on va voir prendre ici a ce facteur du discours – ce qui y permet ce resserrement qui à mon gré ne doit laisser au lecteur d’autre sortie que son entrée, que je préfère difficile. Ce ne sera donc pas ici un écrit à mon sens’ (Ecrits, p. 493)

That the psychoanalytical praxis is an intrinsically difficult affair, or at least a kind of practice we do not want everyone to enter it, to have access to it. Hence, ‘entering it should not be made easy’. [37] But no valid argument lies in the offing. Good chess playing is difficult, but it doesn’t follow that one is forced to write in a difficult or obscure fashion about excellent chess-playing. Mathematical theories are difficult, but not because mathematicians are bad writers or intend to write difficultly. Why should a theoretical presentation of the nature and laws of the unconscious be an exception? And note that Lacan in a sense misdescribes his own obscurantism: it’s the content and not just its presentation that makes him so hard to grasp.

Another recurrent argument – Lacan doesn’t present a theory, he’s presenting loosely connected intuitions and associations – is not only contradicted by the intentions of the master but also by his accounts of his interpreters. Even if they begin by conceding that Lacan doesn’t present a theory, they always end up with presenting him as defending a theory (sometimes called ‘a metapsychology’) that lies at the foundation of Lacanian discourse. The concept of a theory of the unconscious is simply ineliminable from their interpretations. Of course, there is a strong conception of theory – a theory als a closed, axiomatic system – a psychoanalytic theory will never attain. The only sense in which I can see value in the claim that Lacan doesn’t present a theory is that he does not present a theory in the strong, reductionist, positivistic sense of the concept – a scientific theory modelled after physics. (Lacan was, admirably, an anti-reductionist about mental concepts!). On the other hand: every theory should, as Aristotle rightly stressed, approach its subject matter with the appropriate concepts. But this concession is not sufficient to describe Lacan as an anti-theorist. We encounter here a structural problem that permeates the whole oeuvre of Lacan: on the one hand the desire to escape from the ‘conventions’ of theoretical writing (which are, of course, not simply conventions! This is clearly Lacanian spin), to deliberately neglect the virtues and values of scientific or theorizing, and, on the other hand, the intention to turn psychoanalysis into a science by employing in its discourse heavily theoretical concepts borrowed from various scientific theories like linguistic structuralism, logic, topology and numerous other branches of mathematics. Unsurprisingly, a project that attempts to realize such contradictory intentions must eventually fail. And note that formalizing certain central concepts (like the notorious objet petit a or the formulas of sexuation in the XXth Séminaire is never sufficient to turn one’s claims into theory. From the fact that we could formalize Madame Bovary in first order logic, it doesn’t follow that Flaubert’s masterpiece turns out to be a theory, let alone a theory about women.

The Conceptual Innovation Argument appeals to the need for conceptual innovation in ‘revolutionary theories’ (note the spin!). Lacan is in constant need for new concepts to be fed into in his scientific enterprise and is therefore forced to forge new ‘signifiers’. Reading Lacan, one learns to understand a new language (Lacanese). The untranslatable signifiants with their ever-floating content are well known (jouissance, le nom du père, the chaîne signifiante) and part of many cultural theorist’s jargon. David Caudill appeals to this phenomenon:

‘Despite these stylistic and contextual difficulties, interest in Lacan continues to grow. To the extent that Lacan challenges entrenched notions of the subject, language and cognition, he will be forgiven (as any critical thinker would be) for running up against the limits of language as well as for disturbing familiar concepts in the process of reconceptualisation.’ [38]

Whilst it is undoubtedly correct that every innovative theory – be it about the unconscious or quantum physics – needs to introduce new concepts (and sometimes new methods) and that genuinely novel concepts are in an important sense not reducible to old, familiar ones (for why would one have introduced them if they were so reducible), expanding one’s cognitive reach by introducing new concepts does not usually lead to deep epistemological problems (in fact, we do it all the time – our conceptual apparatus is constantly in flux). Conceptual innovation requires, of course care, precision and the avoidance of ambiguous or inconsistent use of newly introduced concepts. The problem with Lacan is that these are the kind of intellectual virtues he manifestly neglects, and this is not just a matter of style, for his neglect directly affects the credibility of the ‘revolutionary theories’.

* * *

The last argument amounts the a Complete Denial of Obscurity. Lacan was, we are told, ‘a crystal-clear writer’. The first sentence of a notorious defense of Lacan’s scientific methods, Jean-Claude Milner’s L’oeuvre claire leaves no doubt:

‘Je ne me propose pas d’éclairer la pensée de Lacan. Je n’ai ni autorité, ni qualification pour cela. De plus, le project d’une telle élucidation ne paraît pas spécialement urgent. Lacan est, comme il le dit lui-même, un auteur cristallin’. [39]

A classic example of post-Lacanian bluff: begin with a claim that is completely false (Milner knew Lacan – he has the authority and the qualifications to enlighten us about Lacan), and then do exactly what you just announced you wouldn’t: Milners book is an in-depth analysis of the scientific and methodological foundations of Lacanian psychoanalysis in which many of the absurd and almost surrealistic aims and claims of Lacan’s scientific ideas are ‘explained’ and ‘contextualized’.

I conclude with a case of sublimation verging on blind adoration:

‘Lacan’s careful attention and his painstaking elaboration of a formal structuration of the unconscious make it possible to support any aspect of his thought by randomly choosing from any text and from any point in chronological time. The consistency of Lacan’s epistemology has all the aesthetic beauty of a mathematical theory or the cantos of Dante.’ [40]

In Lacan to the Letter, a recent book by Bruce Fink, a well-known American explicator of Lacan, writes:

‘A great deal of theoretical writing adopts (the) presupposition (that theory has to produce a discrete, discernible object (a turd of sorts) for us to examine (admire or scorn), which is essentially an obsessive bias associated, for the most part, with what we might cavalierly call ‘anal male academic writing’. [41]

I leave it to the reader to assess the last clause (which, I’m sure Fink suggests, certainly applies to this author). Fink continues:

‘Why should this be the standard by which Lacan’s writing is measured? Perhaps we should admire, rather, not the final product but the flow or process of Lacan’s writing: its twist and turns, recursive style, and movement…. To Lacan’s mind, a teaching worthy of the name must not end with the creation of a perfect complete system; after all, there is no such thing’. [42]

There is certainly a trivial sense in which Lacan’s work, like anyone else’s, is (or was) work in progress. But it doesn’t follow from this mundane, unspectacular observation that we shouldn’t strive for carefulness, accuracy, and transparency, – the central virtues of any theoretist. It is obvious that none of these virtues Lacan found attractive. What is presented under the guise of theory is in fact a complex and often fascinating form of conceptual surrealism, sold as a ‘theory’ to a fascinated public. The gestures and presence of Lacan did the rest. As Claude Lévi-Strauss testifies,

‘What was striking was the kind of radiant influence emanating from both Lacan’s physical person and from his diction, his gestures. I have seen quite a few shamans functioning in exotic societies, and I rediscovered here a kind of equivalent of the shaman’s power. I confess that, as far as what I heard went, I didn’t understand. And I found myself in the middle of an audience that seemed to understand.’ [43]

The Lacanian Error

No one promised us that theorizing about the mind and, more specifically, the Freudian unconscious (if it exists) would be easy or forthcoming. Theorists must steer between the Scylla of a purely phenomenal account which precludes integration in a theory and a detached, scientific approach that often results in deplorable reductionism (the famous ‘nothing but’-reflex: mental events are nothing but brain events). The first point of view is enhanced by the following considerations: persons have a phenomenal, first-personal conception of experiences and have first person authority with respect to the contents of their beliefs and other propositional attitudes. It should be obvious that mental disturbances have a phenomenal aspect and we often experience, when we are irrational, a kind of surdness. [44] A theoretical description of the structure of the unconscious, however, cannot have as its central theoretical aim an evocation of such experiences, for it cannot be the purpose of a theoretical inquiry into the nature of a normal or abnormal human mental economy is to transmit knowledge of its phenomenal aspects. No theory can have as its aim the reproduction of essentially first personal, phenomenal and therefore essentially recognitional knowledge of the mental (recognitional knowledge is the kind of knowledge one gains only if one experiences oneself the phenomenon in question). On the other hand, if one’s theoretical account of the mental were restricted to a purely empirical, objective mode of inquiry, having as its central goal a nomological account of the workings of the mind, it would have to employ concepts borrowed from neurology and, eventually, physics. But this approach faces the difficulty that the application of mental concepts is subject to constitutive principles that, as Davidson famously argued, ‘have no echoe in physical theory’. Mental concepts are sui generis: they are irreducible to physical concepts and they cannot figure in lawlike generalizations. Any attempt to approach the mental in a scientific way – an ambition Lacan certainly entertained – will simply miss this anti-reductionist point. It is ironical that Lacan, who himself often appealed to Gödel to evoke the incompleteness of physical descriptions of the mental (at best a bad analogy, but let that pass), thought for himself that the model for a scientific approach to the unconscious was mathematics!

It does not follow from the impossibility to give a reductive account of the mental and, a fortiori, the unconscious, or the impossibility to reproduce the phenomenal character of the mental in theories, that theorizing about the mind is impossible or incoherent. A viable account requires is the right concepts and insight in the nature of the constitutive principles that govern the application of those concepts. For example, it seems essential that an account of belief as a state of mind must be such that it is a rational state that can be rationally connected with other beliefs and which will be updated or rejected when its subject discovers that the state is false. (This is, like all other principles, not a law but a ceteris paribus principle; nevertheless, it reveals part of the nature of belief, just as the transitivity of the relation ‘is longer than’ reveals part of the nature of measuring length.) Similarly, a core aspect of phenomenal experiences must account for the fact that it part of the nature of an experience that it manifests itself to the agent via its essence. The concept of pain is an essential recognitional concept, as Perry and Loar have stressed. [45] Part of what makes the Freudian unconscious – or deeply irrational phenomena and deviant experiences, if you reject Freud’s topology – unfathomable is that we cannot avoid describing it – using conceptual tools borrowed from a rational psychology and mental states the essence of which is that they manifest themselves to the subject. The unconscious neither manifests itself phenomenally, nor is it a rational affair. This partly explains why Freud and Lacan had to introduce new concepts that are neither phenomenal nor answerable to the constitutive principles of rationality.

And now we can locate Lacan’s error. Lacan’s first intention was to present us with a personal phenomenal impression of the unconscious (‘as he experiences it’, it is claimed). We have just seen that that intention cannot reflect a theoretical attitude towards the subject matter of his inquiry. It is, for conceptual reasons, impossible to satisfy a theoretical interest with a purely first-personal, recognitional account of its subject matter. On the other hand, Lacan also had the explicit intention to give us a stringent theoretical account of the unconscious, and he forcefully argues that this requires methodological input from mathematics, logic, linguistics and other formal sciences. But this formalism introduces concepts governed by constitutive principles that are, in an important sense, alien to the concepts we must employ to get theoretical insight in the nature of the mental qua mental. As Lacan himself recognizes, the mental cannot be reduced to the physical (unfortunately, his argument for that claim – based on Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, is ridiculous). So, the second intention too cannot be realized. The third element is that his attempts to realize these irrational intentions are constantly mixed up. The result is sometimes amusing conceptual surrealism. Lacan failed to see that neither intentions were necessary to get insight in the nature of the unconscious. Rather than helping us to understand it, his conceptual surrealism leads us away from understanding the vicissitudes of your mental life.

© Filip Buekens
University of Tilburg
Comments sought!

1. English not revised! A shortened French version appeared in Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen (ed.), Le Livre noir de la psychanalyse, Paris: Les Arènes, 2005. This paper was read (and loathed) at the Rhetorics, Ethics, Politics Conference at Ghent University (April 2005). I thank audiences in Amsterdam, Brussels and Tilburg for interesting and provocative remarks.

2. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits (Paris : Seuil, 1966), p. 299, note 1.

3. See J.M. Muller & W.R. Richardson, Lacan and Language. A Reader’s Guide to Ecrits, International Universities Press (s.l.), ‘Introduction’.

4. See Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, London: Routledge, 1996, p. ix. Similar suggestions in Paul-Laurent Assoun, Lacan, Paris: Puf, 2003, p. 10. Evans is an apostate. He no longer takes (Lacanian) psychoanalysis seriously.

5. See E. Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan, Paris: Fayard, 1993, passim.

6. Judith Feher-Gurewich in A. Vanier, Lacan, New York: The Other Press, 2000, p. viii. (also published in French).

7. S. Barnard, ‘Introduction’, in S. Barnard in Bruce Fink (eds.), Reading Seminar XX. Lacan’s Major Work on Love, Knowledge, and Feminine Sexuality, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002, p. 3. See also Assoun, op. cit., p. 21 who uses the same ‘initiation’-metaphor.

8. Compare the long mathematical addendum to Lacan’s analyses of Poe’s Purloined Letter in Ecrits, usually neglected in interpretations of his famous reading.

9. See Lacan, Séminaire XX: Encore, January 16, 1973.

10. See Joël Dor, Introduction à la lecture de Jacques Lacan I et II, Paris: Denoël, 1986.

11. Séminaire XX, p. 44, also quoted in Roustang, The Lacanian Delusion, p. 94.

12. Séminaire XX, p. 108.

13. Ecrits, p. 876.

14. Ecrits, p. 103. See also F. Roustang, The Lacanian Delusion, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

15. More on these matters: Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan, Paris: Fayard 1993.

16. Ecrits, p. 509.

17. See Ecrits, p. 470 where Lacan explicitly adopts Freud’s metaphor : ‘Le rêve est un rébus (dit Freud). Qu’eût-il fallu qu’il ajoutât pour que nous n’en attendions pas les mots de l’âme?’. Malcolm Macmillan, Freud Evaluated, Cambridge: MIT Press 1997, pp. 660 convincingly shows how an innocent metaphor (dream as rebus) becomes a running rhetorical device that underpins Freudian realism about a dream’s latent content. The meaning of dreams is, according to Freud, discovered, not constructed.

18. J. P. Muller, W. J. Richardson (eds.), Lacan and Language. A Reader’s Guide to ‘Ecrits’, International Universities Press (s.l.), 1982, p. 2.-3. But what about Wittgensteins famous rejoinder that dreams certainly look like rebuses or riddles?

19. Ibid., p. 3. Analogous remarks in Bice Benvenuto and Roger Kennedy, The Works of Jacques Lacan, London: Free Association Books, 1986, p. 13 and D. Caudill, Lacan and the Subject of Law, New Jersey: Humanities Press, p. 5.

20. Madan Sarup, Lacan, New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992 (Modern Cultural Masters), p. 80.

21. The verbal puns and wordplays in Lacan’s discourse are justified by Stanley Leavy: ‘The theoretical basis of (his) playing with words is found in Lacan’s dictum that ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’. In his playful punning this claim is concretized, embodied. The unconscious can speak truthfully, revealing the identity of the logically unrelated, cognitively distorted, affectively confused experiences.’ Stanley A. Healy, ‘The Image and the Word. Further Reflections on Jacques Lacan’, in J. Smith and W. Kerrigan (eds.), Interpreting Lacan, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983, p. 13.

22. Dany Nobus, ‘The Punning of Reason. On the strange case of dr. Jacques L.’, in Angelaki 9 (2004), p. 189-201, quoted from p. 196.

23. And what if Lacan’s unconscious were a-typical for a given population?

24. Nobus, op. cit. p. 197 suggests a ‘strict compatibility’ between Lacan’s account of the unconscious and his rhetorical strategies.

25. See also M. Bowie, Freud, Proust, Lacan: Theory as Fiction, Cambridge: CUP, 1987, p. 104: ‘… Lacan’s main ideas and cherished controversial positions are presented to the reader in a consciously ragged and desultory form’ (my italics). This is followed by a lengthy, courageous defense of Lacan’s glossolalia that recapitulates many arguments discussed here.

26. ‘Le symptôme psychanalysable… est soutenu par une structure qui est identique à la structure du langage… la structure du langage telle qu’elle se manifeste dans les langues que j’appellerai positives, celles qui sont effectivement parlées par les masses humaines.’ And: ‘L’inconscient est structuré comme un langage’, Lacan, Ecrits, p. 444.

27. S. Weber, Return to Freud. Jacques Lacan’s Dislocation of Psychoanalysis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 63-64.

28. Weber, op. Cit., p. 64. Compare Lacan, Ecrits, p. 502: ‘On peut dire que c’est dans la chaîne dus signifiant que le sense insiste, mais qu’aucun des elements de la chaîne consiste dans la signification dont il est capable au moment même. La notion d’un glissement incessant du signifié sous le signifiant s’impose donc’.

29. Similar arguments can be found in Ellie Ragland, Essays on the Pleasures of Death. From Freud to Lacan, New York: Routledge, 1995, p. 10: ‘Lacan’s concepts always function in a dynamic cadence with his other concepts’. But isn’t that true of all theoretical concepts in every theory? ‘Dynamic cadence with other concepts’ does not explain obscurity.

30. Malcolm Bowie, Lacan, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991, p. 1.

31. See Thomas Nagel, ‘What is it Like to be a bat?’, in T. Nagel, Mortal Questions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

32. This point is stressed by, for example, John Perry, Knowledge, Possibility and Consciousness, Cambridge (Mass), 2001 and by many who explain our anti-reductionist intuitions about phenomenal concepts.

33. R. Boothby, op. cit., p. 11.

34. Sarup, op. cit., p. 82.

35. J. Lacan, Autres Ecrits, p. 544 (‘Télévision’).

36. Feher-Gurewich in Vanier, op. cit., p. xii.

37. In a more defiant mood : ‘L’écrit, ça n’est pas à comprendre. C’est bien pour ça que vous n’êtes pas forcés de comprendre les miens. Si vous ne les comprenez pas, tant mieux, ça vous donnera justement l’occasion de les expliquer.’ J. Lacan, Séminaire XX: Encore, Paris: Seuil, p. 35

38. David S. Caudill, Lacan and the Subject of Law, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1997, p. 6. Analogous remarks in Bruce Fink, Lacan to the Letter, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004. p. 66.

39. Jean-Claude Milner, L’Oeuvre claire. Lacan, la science, la philosophie, p. 7. The sentence is notorious because it famously figured as motto to the chapter on Lacan’s obscure mathematics in Bricmont and Sokal, Intellectual Impostures, London, 1996.

40. Ellie Ragland-Sullivan, Jacques Lacan and the Philosophy of Psychoanalysis, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987, p. 220, also quoted in D. Caudill, op. cit., p. 6.

41. Bruce Fink, Lacan to the Letter, p. 66

42. Idem.

43. Claude Lévi-Strauss, quoted in E. Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan & Co.: a History of Psychoanalysis in France, 1925-1985, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990, p. 362.

44. See D. Davidson, ‘How is Weakness of the Will Possible?’, in ibid., Essays on Actions and Events, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

45. See John Perry, Knowledge, Possibility and Consciousness, Cambridge (Mass.), MIT Press, 2001.

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