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Lacan in context: an introduction to Lacan for the English-speaking reader.

"Lacan reads Freud," Malcolm Bowie announces decisively, "This is the simplest and most important thing about him" (Freud 100). Yet Lacan also reads Aristotle. He reads Plato and Plautus. He reads Nicolas of Cusa, Kierkegaard, and Merleau-Ponty. Lacan reads Sophocles and Moliere, Lucretius and Pascal, Valery and Rimbaud and Poe. He reads the work of other psychoanalysts: Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, Ernst Kris and Ernest Jones. Lacan reads case studies. Interestingly, when he wants to differentiate the signifier from the signified, Lacan comments briefly on Saussure, acknowledges his intellectual debt to Benveniste, and then reads Saint Augustine! Moreover, when Lacan wants to analyze desire - that insatiable insistence of the symbolic - he spends the better part of a year-long seminar reading Shakespeare.

Lacanian reading is psychoanalytic reading, and the model of Lacanian reading is Lacan's own work itself. However, for English-speaking readers and theorists, Lacanian influences are more abundant than Lacanian texts. Commonly, English-speaking readers meet Lacan through secondary works written about him, polemics written against him, or theoretical appropriations of him. Today, culture studies and film theory and their outgrowths, feminist psychoanalytic theory, and semiotics all share Lacanian concepts as a common intellectual currency.(1) While these diverse and widespread secondary sources testify to the importance of Lacanian ideas, such secondary applications rarely convey Lacan's concepts with the force and aptness of his own primary texts.

Because Lacan's influence has become so widespread, it seems important to give the potential reader of Lacan himself the opportunity to enter Lacan studies via the context of Lacan's own work and his own sources rather than in the context of his secondary sources, however good those sources may be. Thus, this discussion has four goals: first, to situate Lacan in the context of his own project by providing an historical overview of his development as a writer and a theorist; next, to account for the mystique of difficulty created by Lacan's reception, a mystique that discourages the reading of Lacan's primary texts; third, to define Lacan's methods and values as a reader; and finally, to offer a program of reading that provides a manageable plan for acquiring Lacan.


Lacan's intellectual production spans the years from 1926 through 1980, and some sense of the contours of his theoretical career seems necessary for any single work to be fully appreciated. At least part of the now-legendary Lacanian inscrutability - his infamous "difficulty" - stems from the fact that his works are generally considered singly, in isolation from the body of ideas in which they live and move and function, and outside of the context of Lacan's scholarly production. Lacan's education first in medicine and then in psychiatry provides the prologue to his reading of Freud, a project that spans more than half a century. His history as a psychoanalyst - a reader and a "writer" - articulates itself as a discourse punctuated by the social upheavals and institutional conflicts of his times.

Lacan's earliest publications consisted of articles written for psychiatric journals such as Revue neurologique, L'encephale, and Annales medico-psychologiques, co-authored with fellow medical researchers during the 1920s and 30s. After the publication of his doctoral thesis De la psychose paranoiaque dans ses rapports avec la personnalite, Lacan began to publish in the literary journal Le minotaure and, later, in Cahiers d'art as well. His thesis was, in fact, a detailed case study of a female paranoid psychotic whose delusions centered upon her fantasies of becoming a great poet, and who was institutionalized after attempting to murder a famous French actress. From Lacan's thesis onward, a merger of psychoanalytic and literary interests marked his early work.

As Lacan's psychoanalytic interests supplanted his psychiatric origins through the 1930s and 40s, he published mainly in the psychoanalytic journals Revue francaise de psychanalyse and Evolution psychiatrique. Lacan's interest in philosophy revealed itself as early as the mid-30s when he reviewed Minkowski's Le temps vecu: etudes phenomenologiques et psychopathologiques for Recherches philosophique. By the mid-50s, he was translating Martin Heidegger's "Logos" for psychoanalysts and writing to philosophers on the status of psychoanalysis, publishing in both Les etudes philosophiques and Bulletin de la Societe francaise de philosophie. It was at this time that Lacan announced his break with the International Psychoanalytical Association in his polemical "Discourse of Rome," bringing his theoretical conflicts with ego psychology to the attention of a wider interdisciplinary audience.

Together, these varied writings represent the first stage of Lacan's theoretical work. From his 1932 thesis on paranoia to his 1949 mirror stage essay, aggressivity, mirroring, and dialectical interaction are definitive themes; the philosophical orientation is explicitly phenomenological, and continual references to the "psychoanalytic experience" pervade his texts. Thus, the central text and the summation of this twenty-year-long period is "The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience," a paper delivered at the 16th International Congress of Psychoanalysis in Zurich, July 17, 1949. This essay presents a developmental portrait of the child's entry into language, an event that irremediably splits the child into a speaking subject (a je) decentered from an ideal ego (moi) whose unattainable image of perfection the child narcissistically wishes to find reflected by others, especially the mother. In toto, Lacan's writings of this stage coalesce into a critique of the unified Cartesian subject. Against unity, Lacan postulates both the split in the speaking subject and the dialectical nature of the speaking experience. Though these themes will be transformed in subsequent theoretical stages, they will never be abandoned.

The bulk of Lacan's textual production is represented by his now-famous seminars, twenty-seven all told, running from 1951 through 1980. For two years, Lacan held only small, informal seminars, but after the theoretical break announced in his "Discourse of Rome," the recorded seminars began. Thus after late 1953, at Saint Anne's Hospital, Lacan continually proclaimed his "return to Freud." Critics generally agree that this break marks a new stage of Lacanian theory, the linguistic and structural stage. Though the mark of this phase is Lacan's emphasis on the three registers, the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real, his central statement, "The Function and Field of Speech and Language," clearly emphasizes the dominance of the symbolic. Where Lacan's previous theory implied a developmental sequence through a mirror "stage" into a symbolic order, his structural theory indicates the dynamic and synchronous interaction of the imaginary and the symbolic registers. This crucial shift from a developmental to a structural psychoanalysis allows Lacan to relocate his diachronic impulses in narrative and in history.

Lacan's structural phase is his textual phase, and most of the terms associated with Lacanian psychoanalysis reach a peak of clarity and definition here. This is the phase of the signifier and the signified, of metonymy and metaphor. Lacan's emphasis on the signifier - on the mark rather than the meaning - is one hallmark of this period. Ideas of the Name-of-the-Father, of paternal prohibition, and of Law, stem from Lacan's distinct reworking of Freud's Oedipal model. The Oedipal triangle, in turn, provides a structural "third term," and this structural idea of the third and of triangularity constructs what Lacan calls the symbolic register. Throughout, he is spatial and geometrical, ever in search of the diagram that would best convey his ideas in apt theoretical relationship. In this phase, the insistence on both geometric models and on the disruption of binaries by third terms makes Lacan's theory simultaneously structural and post-structural.

After a decade, this impressive and fertile phase of Lacanian thought dead-ends in French psychoanalytic politics. By the mid-1960s, Lacan's excommunication from the Societe francaise de psychanalyse forced the removal of his seminar from Saint Anne's to the Ecole Normale Superieure. There, his audience widened to encompass prominent intellectuals of his day from many fields outside psychoanalysis proper and to include a large cult following as well. Changes in audience paralleled changes in theory. The third and final stage of Lacan's work dates from his founding of the Ecole Freudienne in 1964 and brings the problem of the register of the real to prominence. Though Lacan had continually spoken of the real, it remained an emergent discourse throughout his earlier theorizing - important more as a third element that discouraged (unsuccessfully, his reception suggests) the binary opposition of the symbolic to the imaginary.

This final theoretical phase began, aptly enough, with the interruption of the Names-of-the-Father seminar of 1964 and its replacement by the seminar on the Four Fundamental Principles of Psychoanalysis. The abandonment of the Names-of-the-Father seminar, with its emphasis on a central symbolic concept, seems prophetic. Freudians tend to see this as the point at which Lacan forgoes Freudian theory altogether in favor of a mathematical elaboration of his own concepts. Considered Lacan's topological phase, this is the part of his work that is identified by the impossible objects and Borromean knots. At this stage, Lacan moves from three terms to three dimensions - and beyond. Though some critics further subdivide this final phase of his work, the whole of his theorizing after 1964 specifies and manipulates distinctly Lacanian constructs. Lacan is constructing ideas about Lacanian ideas; this is his meta-theoretical and self-referential phase.

All together, Lacan's prodigious multi-faceted intellectual output provides a ground against which individual essays and single seminars appear as contributions to a larger effort. Rarely have English-speaking readers seen Lacan's work in context because so little of his work has been translated. In fact, the vagaries of publishing and translation account for much of the resistance to his ideas, and many would-be readers of Lacan have been discouraged by the myth of Lacanian difficulty and the ad hominem of stylistic self-indulgence and anti-Americanism.


Though publication of Lacan's seminars began during his lifetime, when he died on September 9, 1981, only Seminar XI on the fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis (1973), XX on feminine sexuality (1975), I on Freud's technical papers (1975), and II on the ego (1978) had been published by Editions du Seuil. Seuil released Seminar III on the psychoses that year, and followed with Seminar VII on ethics in psychoanalysis in 1986. The Seuil texts, edited by Lacan's son-in-law Jacques-Alain Miller, were established by Miller and some were confirmed by Lacan himself. Miller addressed the textual challenges posed by his transcription of the seminars in a note in Seminar XI, the first Seuil publication, in which he acknowledged the inevitability of inaccuracies and deletions as well as the imposition of meaning produced by the introduction of punctuation into Lacan's oral presentation (Miller xi). From 1975 on, Ornicar?, the journal of Lacan's own organization the Champs Freudien [Freudian Field], published the preliminary transcriptions of the later seminars XX through XXV, XXVII, and a large portion of Seminar VI on desire and its interpretation. Seminar VI contained Lacan's sessions on the reading of Hamlet. As of 1992, fourteen of the seminars remained unpublished in French, yet Lacan's French readers had access to a far greater portion of his oeuvre than did English-speaking readers.

Three factors characterize Lacan's work as it has become available to English-speaking readers, and each has a bearing on its reception. First, and most obvious, the Anglo-American reader reads Lacan in translation. Translation, in turn, demands a rendering of "this peculiar French into less than peculiar English" (Wilden viii), and each of the five seminars published in English (Seminars XI [1978], I [1988], II [1988], VII [1992], and III [1993]) has had its own translator, continuity being maintained by Jacques-Alain Miller's editorship. Second, though each of Lacan's works has a clear place in his overall project when his theoretical project is viewed as a whole, his major English translations appeared as much in response to cultural curiosity about that odd French "phenomene Lacan" and the political furor surrounding him as out of a concern for making crucial theoretical advances available to English-speaking critics and analysts. Indeed, the piecemeal translation of Lacan's major works into English has done little to combat the impression of a certain incoherence that dogs Lacan's reception outside of France. Finally, Lacan writes within a European intellectual tradition that contemporary Anglo-American readers may not share, and though his dominant influences are neither numerous nor obscure, they are sometimes implicit rather than explicit.

At the textual level, translation cannot be separated from theory since Lacan's theory of signification disjoins the signifier from the signified. In Lacanian theory, words signify but do not mean. However, translations differ in their presentations of this post-Saussurean position on the signifier's dominance, even though distinctions between signification and meaning are crucial in Lacanian theory. For instance, John Forrester and Sylvana Tomaselli, translators of, respectively, Seminar I and Seminar II, follow Alan Sheridan in rendering signification as "signification" and sens as "meaning." Stuart Schneiderman, however, reverses this distinction by translating signification as "meaning" and sens as "sense." Russell Grigg, who translates the seminar on the psychoses, follows Schneiderman, thus breaking with the practice of the four previous seminar translators. Because translations differ significantly, the English-speaking reader of Lacan must read particulars within the larger Lacanian theoretical context. There can be no absolute guideline for translation beyond fidelity to Lacanian analytic practice. Thus, Anthony Wilden, whose translation of Lacan's essay "The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis" precedes Sheridan's by a decade, details such difficulties as the problem of separating meaning from signification. Difficulties ultimately stem less from Lacan's sometimes intuitive use of the terms than from the fact that he makes a distinction that "in English...hardly exists at all" (Wilden xvii).

Beyond the local textual confusions endemic to translation, greater confusions over Lacan's project were engendered in large part by the asequential translation of his major works. By the mid-1950s, English-speaking psychoanalysts had their first encounter with Lacan's return to Freud. "Some Reflections on the Ego," published in the International Journal of Psycho-analysis in 1953, presents Lacan's mirror stage theory of the genesis of the divided ego. The wordplay at work in the article's title hints at Lacan's future style. Subsequently, "Fetishism: The Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real," co-authored with Wladimir Granoff, was anthologized in the American volume Perversion: Psychodynamics and Therapy. This article concentrates on the dynamic interaction between the symbolic and the imaginary registers of signification and experience. Written in the straightforward academic prose characteristic of psychoanalytic journals, the two articles taken together, provide a valuable and most accessible introduction to central Lacanian concepts.

The Lacan first encountered by literary theorists was not the Lacan encountered by his fellow analysts - Lacan the psychoanalytic researcher. The literary Lacan was in small part Lacan the training analyst, the teacher, the seminarian but in large part the Lacan of the 1960s psychoanalytic politics. This controversial Lacan became the icon whose major works finally saw translation internationally. Michael Clark's Jacques Lacan, An Annotated Bibliography lists translations of Ecrits into Spanish (1971), Japanese (1972), German (1973), Portuguese (1974), Italian (1974), and English (1977), as well as unverified reports of translation into Serbo-Croatian and Norwegian.

Few English-speaking readers introduced to Lacan through either Ecrits or The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis seemed to acknowledge that they had entered in mid-stream a decades-long technical psychoanalytic debate. The Ecrits are not writings, as the title implies, but revisions of spoken texts: theoretical reports, public lectures, conference papers. Some, like "On a question preliminary to any possible treatment of psychosis," condense the content of a year-long seminar (in this case, the 1955-56 seminar on the psychoses) into a single essay. Thus, each "writing" has already been performed, and must be listened to - must be heard - as well as read. As Catherine Clement points out, "Lacan spoke as the hawk flies, circling about an idea before grabbing it in a lightning swoop" (14). Thus, in Lacan, the reader confronts the nonlinearity inherent in all complex thought about complex issues, a nonlinearity well-captured both in his numerous diagrams and schemas and in the structural theories of Lacan and his contemporaries. However, the most important thing to recall about Ecrits is that it speaks to an audience familiar with Lacan's style and with his public presentations.

Though The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis sounds as if it is a straightforward introduction to basic Freudian ideas, Lacan's eleventh seminar draws heavily upon concepts he has established over the preceding decade. Michael Clark's summary of the seminar indicates the cumulative nature of this Lacanian text which expects of its reader both an analyst's understanding of Freudian concepts and some familiarity with Lacan's previous explications of them as well:

Even when Lacan does turn to more conventional Freudian topics, such as the four concepts "fundamental" to psychoanalysis - the unconscious, repetition, transference, and the drive - he conceives them entirely within the parameters developed in the earlier seminars. The unconscious is merely "a play of the signifier" [SXI, 130], a gap in the signifying chain. Repetition is derived not from the instinctual need but from the subject's conjunction with the inevitable lack that marks the signifier's relation to the real. Transference is a repetition of the "missed encounter" inherent in symbolic relations and the subject's inevitably ex-centric position in relation to his own subjectivity. And the drive is more like a "montage" than an organic need, a montage whose "partial" character arises because the sexuality of the subject must pass through the "networks of the signifier" [SXI, 169, 177]. (I: liii)

Since it is the eleventh seminar in a series, Lacan's discussion of the founding ideas of psychoanalysis can be seen as a portion of an ongoing exploration. As such, it draws on terms whose function previous seminars have already established and whose uses have been repeatedly demonstrated. Detached and decontextualized, it seems as inscrutable as the highly condensed ideas in Ecrits.

In the American psychoanalytic community, reception of Lacan's Ecrits proved cold, if not outright resistant. Writing in the American Journal of Psychiatry, George H. Pollock lamented the lack of systematic exposition of psychoanalytic theory. Anton Kris, reviewing Ecrits for the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association agreed, seeing the essays as dogmatic and the arguments as unsupported assertion. Still more dismissive, Richard D. Chessick echoed the same theme, labeling Ecrits "an incredibly obscure hodgepodge." Articles in humanities journals such as Choice, the Library Journal, and Mankind, all commented on the difficulty - Morton wrote "needless difficulty" - of Lacan's style. Writing in the Psychoanalytic Quarterly, Stanley Leavy suggested that Lacan's style would actually prevent his work from reaching readers who might otherwise derive real value from his ideas. Even the highly favorable reviews of Ecrits written by Lacan's most ardent supporters, Stuart Schneiderman and Ellie Ragland-Sullivan, admitted that Lacan's style was difficult.

In fact, Lacan had brought at least some of the controversy over style upon himself when he used Buffon's "Style is the man himself" (Le style est l'homme meme) as the opening line of the French Ecrits (9). Not unexpectedly, the critical derision of Lacan's style has encouraged his supporters to explain, sometimes even to defend it. Thus, Jane Gallop remarks that "[Lacan] transfers the subject matter of his discourse into his style and makes it present in the actuality of his text. The unconscious or the signifier becomes not only the subject matter but, in the grammatical sense, the subject, the speaker of his discourse" (37). Malcolm Bowie characterizes Lacan's style as "a mode of verbal production-in-performance," a position with which the attendees at Lacan's later seminars would most likely concur. "Lacan's prose aspires perpetually to the condition of speech," Bowie writes, "and his aims in writing like this are clear: to allow the energies of the unconscious to become palpable in the wayward rhythm of his sentences, to discourage the reader from building premature theoretical constructions upon the text and to compel him to collaborate fully in the inventive work of language" ("Jacques" 121). Though Lacan's critics would find this a generous assessment of his style, Bowie's emphasis on the forestalling of meaning by signification itself highlights a central Lacanian theoretical construct.

Some critics of Lacan's style reveal a nationalistic stereotypy in their characterizations of Lacan's "typical" Frenchness. Richard King, reading Lacan's critique of American ego psychology's persistent dualisms as mere cultural bias, labels Ecrit's deeply philosophical interrogation of American psychoanalysis "vulgar Ideologie-kritic" and dismisses it as mere French chauvinism. Similarly, Richard Chessick identifies the book's style as typically opaque French philosophizing. In a review of Lacan's Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, Anthony Clare borrows Sir Peter Medawar's dismissal of De Chardin's style as: "that tipsy, euphoric prose-poetry which is one of the more tiresome manifestations of the French spirit." Given the overall reception of Lacan's first major English language publications, it is little wonder that the perceptively analyzed, compelling, witty Seminar I, introduction par excellence to Lacan's reading practice and to his psychoanalytic return to Freudian theory, went unnoticed. Given Lacan's American reception, it is also little wonder that readers who might well profit from Lacanian theory have, instead, been reluctant to read Lacan.


Lacan's own texts teach a way of reading by demonstrating the terms of reading. If these texts persistently frustrate the impulses of mastery, they offer alternative keys to analytic understanding. While it is a futile wish to master Lacan, it is a valuable goal to learn to listen to what he hears, and what Lacan hears repeatedly is the subtle dissonance of dissymmetry. Specifically, he uses the phrases "absolute dissymmetry" and "radical difference" to describe the relation between the symbolic subject of the unconscious and the imaginary ego in his seminar on the ego in Freudian theory (Seminar II 59). From his use of Hegel's paradigm of master and servant, to his emphasis on Freudian dialectic, to his discovery of metonymy within metaphor, to his post-Saussurian revision of the sign, Lacan consistently resists the lure of dualism. The most valuable Lacanian key of all - and the function best suited to the reader in search of analytic understanding - is the structural dissymmetry between the mirroring opposites of imaginary dualities and the Oedipal pattern of symbolic law. Given an overview of Lacan's analytic project, the English-speaking reader can come to terms with his thought, can appreciate the subtleties of Lacanian reading, can use the keys provided by Lacanian theory to open the dissymmetries of any text to analytic understanding.

This reader Jacques Lacan hears the speech of his analysands and listens to the signifiers in the literary text. "Commenting on a text is like doing an analysis," he writes (Seminar 173), suggesting that for him these distinct sites of reading both invoke the same analytic practice. Lacan reads and rereads with a translator's eye to the full plurality of significance, so it is not surprising that he characterizes reading as a "differentiation of levels" and a "critique of concepts . . . with the aim of avoiding confusions" (Seminar I 57). His depiction of reading as a distinguishing of textual levels restates Freud's comparison of analysis to archaeology, a comparison that pervades Freud's writings (see Bowie, Freud 18-26). Lacan's central metaphor, however, is a musical one, and he distinguishes several "registers," and occasionally "keys," of textual signification. These registers - the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real - are the structural paradigms of the Lacanian reading practice. By showing how text operates simultaneously in more than one register, Lacan analyzes confusions rooted in the oversimplification of central Freudian theoretical concepts.

According to Lacan, the analytic reader attends to the complexities of a text and appreciates its moment of confusion by resisting the urge to master it. "[O]ne of the things we must guard most against is to understand too much, to understand more than what is in the discourse of the subject" (Seminar I 73). While the reader seeking mastery achieves it by forcing content into binary constructs, the analytic reader concentrates on the discourse of the subject in order to interpret what that discourse is doing.(2) "To interpret and to imagine one understands are not at all the same things. It is precisely the opposite. I would go as far as to say that it is on the basis of a kind of refusal of understanding that we push open the door to analytic understanding" (Seminar I 73). So Lacan differentiates analytic understanding from the attempt to understand - to grasp the content - of a discourse. In this, as in his sense of the rich plurality of text, Lacan follows Freud.

The power of Lacanian reading has been remarked by contemporary critics. In his sweeping reevaluation of the problem of self in society, Social Theory and Psychoanalysis in Transition, Anthony Elliott specifically names Jacques Lacan as a thinker whose ideas establish "the principal terms of reference for thinking about the interconnections between the psyche and social field" (2). Reviewing Ecrits for the New York Times Book Review, Stanley Leavy praises Lacan's linguistic approach to the unconscious as an important counter to the entrenched biological and neurological construction of the unconscious. This Lacanian synthesis of Freudian theory with Saussurean linguistics which Leavy commends has indeed generated new terms, new conceptual tools capable of providing a rich theoretical framework for critical research and reading. In fact, Lacan's now-familiar terms (subject, Other, imaginary, symbolic), though not especially numerous, are complex and multifaceted, meant to help the analyst confront textual aporia and overdeterminations. Thus, Lacan's terms operate mathematically rather than definitionally or categorically, as functions that allow certain analytic interventions to punctuate the progress of a discourse. Lacan's own texts reward those readers who ask of a term "What is this doing?" rather than "What does this mean?"

The terms of the Lacanian reading operate dynamically, simultaneously. Thus Lacan's follower-turned-critic Francois Roustang writes that "[Lacan's] style is wholly oriented towards the juxtaposition of terms which have to be seen as related for a conclusion to be reached, but which the audience itself is precisely forbidden to relate for fear of its discovering the incoherence, the futility of the argumentation, indeed the exemplary trickery" (49). Roustang's response to Lacan's "relentless form of self-contradictory rigor" correctly stresses Lacan's plurality of terms, his multivalent patterning; however, Roustang's assertion that Lacan offers argumentation itself sets up the problems of incoherence and inconclusiveness that he then sees as Lacan's trickery. The suggestion of argumentation makes nonsense of Lacanian analysis because it imposes an expectation of linear meaning-making upon the rich orchestration of registers Lacan offers. To hear Lacan, one must listen for more than the melody.


For the English-speaking reader, to acquire Lacan is to acquire a habit of mind. Though the terms of Lacanian reading now have a certain cultural and critical currency, the uses and definitions of these terms do not. A full appreciation of Lacan's theoretical approach is best acquired by honoring the European intellectual tradition in which he writes. Lacan does make intellectual demands on his reader. He assumes his audience shares the larger intellectual interests of his day, interests which Anthony Wilden lists as Hegel and his French commentators, early Heidegger and early Sartre, the structural linguists Saussure and Jakobson, and the structural anthropologists Mauss and Levi-Strauss (viii). A reader can begin to contextualize Lacan by reading those works that bear directly on his central philosophical and Freudian ideas before moving on to study Lacanian psychoanalysis itself.

1. General intellectual influences. Clearly, with Lacan as with any other writer, familiarity with the sources he draws upon enriches a reader's comprehension. Ferdinand de Saussure's "Nature of the linguistic sign" (from his Course in General Linguistics) and Levi-Strauss's "The Structural Study of Myth" (Chapter 11 of Structural Anthropology) provide some grounding in structural linguistics and anthropology. Both of these essays are frequently anthologized. Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness (Part III, Chapter One, Section IV "The Look") and Martin Heidegger's Being and Time (Sections 25-27) offer a glimpse of the relevant phenomenology.(3) The single most important background source must surely be Alexandre Kojeve's rereading of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. In fact, Kojeve's interpretation is more relevant to an understanding of Lacan than Hegel's Phenomenology itself. Lacan's idea of the dialectic and its distinctly intersubjective form clearly derives from Kojeve, and dialectic is central to Lacanian psychoanalysis. Thus, Kojeve's Introduction to the Reading of Hegel presents ideas which pervade Lacan's writings, particularly the first seventy-five pages in which Kojeve discusses Hegel's paradigm of the birth of history in the struggle to the death for pure prestige between the master and the servant.

2. Freudian theory. Since Lacan's fundamental project is the rereading of Freud, familiarity with Freud's major theories and models should go without saying. Furthermore, Lacan makes no effort to translate or explain Freud's German terms, save where translation and terminology are themselves at issue, since Lacan is predominantly an analyst addressing other analysts. Here, Peter Gay's introduction appearing in any of the Norton volumes of The Standard Edition of Freud's works provides a helpful historical overview of the stages of Freudian theory. Specifically, Lacan repeatedly returns to The Interpretation of Dreams (SE IV and V), especially Chapter 7 on forgetting, regression, and repression; to the Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis (SE XV and XVI); and to Beyond the Pleasure Principle (SE XVIII, 7-64), particularly Chapter 2 where Freud discusses his grandson's Fort-Da game. Lacan frequently discusses Freud's major essays as well, emphasizing primarily "Negation" (SE XIX 235-9), "A Note upon the 'Mystic Writing-Pad'" (SE XIX 227-32), "On narcissism: an introduction" (SE XIV: 73-102), and "Repression" (SE XIV 146-58). Since Lacan continually emphasizes Freud's discovery of the unconscious, Freud's essay "The Unconscious" (SE XIV: 161-215) provides the necessary ground against which the Lacanian reinterpretation of the unconscious structured like a language should be read.

3. Lacanian basics. Since Lacan's central textual interest is in problematics, he writes to those readers who value knowing when to question more than knowing what to answer. There is no better way to get the feel for the timing of the question than to read the working Lacan, the Lacan of the seminars. Though most English-speaking readers first encounter Lacan through his essays in Ecrits, neither "The mirror stage" nor "The signification of the phallus" offers a solid starting place since both essays present halves of polemical arguments, and since both constitute densely theoretical discussions. These essays do define significant Lacanian theoretical positions for those readers sufficiently familiar with Lacan to understand what is at stake in psychoanalytic reading in general. At first, however, Lacan is more profitably approached through his seminars in which he defines his terms and spells out his theoretical differences with mainstream psychoanalysis in detail. As of 1996, the first three seminars are available in English translation, providing access to the foundational concepts of Lacan's structural rereading of basic Freudian theory: the registers (the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real) and the elements of subjectivity (the Subject, the ideal ego, the object other, and the Other as the linguistic unconscious).

Seminar I. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book L Freud's Papers on Technique, 1953-1954. Seminar I begins with Lacan's critique of Freud's essay on negation and to a great extent the ideas of negation that permeate much of Lacan's work are defined here. Two case studies of children, Melanie Klein's well-known study of Little Dick and a Lacanian study of a young psychotic boy whose only speech is "The wolf!," provide the focus for Lacan's thorough discussion of the imaginary. The relation of the imaginary register to aggression, to narcissism, to the ego and its ideals is thoroughly discussed as are the contrasting concepts of libido and desire. This is a seminar devoted not only to the idea of speech - from its dawn in the child to its flowering as truth but also reading and to analysis, to the lie and to the error rather than to knowledge. Lacan's final chapter, which defines the process of analysis, should make clear to any reader just what is at stake in Lacanian reading and psychoanalysis.

Seminar II. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book II, The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-1955. This seminar further defines the Lacanian registers with a particular emphasis on the symbolic. Central texts for this seminar are Freud's early texts on dreams, on slips of the tongue, and on jokes, Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and Poe's "The Purloined Letter." The last is the focus of Lacan's discussion of the "beyond" of intersubjectivity, the position of language. Consequently, the central Lacanian idea of the Other as a repository of language or treasury of signifiers receives several chapters of discussion. Lacan's critique of materialist ideas of consciousness explains clearly the implications of the decentering of the subject. Don't "entify" the subject, Lacan warns. Instead, he models an Hegelian dialectical approach to reading the subject which avoids the totalizing impulses evoked by the idea of the ego, particularly the ego as the unified agent of ego psychology. Seminar II is, in brief, Lacan's rejection of ego-based Freudianisms in favor of his intersubjective model of the Subject and the Other in symbolic relation.

Seminar III. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book III, The Psychoses, 1955-1956. This most readable of the seminars offers far more than a discussion of psychosis. To be sure, Lacan's focal texts for this seminar are Daniel Paul Schreber's Memoirs of my Nervous Illness and Freud's "Case History of Schreber" (SE XII, 3-82). Further, Lacan applies his theory of the imaginary, symbolic and real registers to Schreber's texts to show precisely and clearly how the unconscious, structured like a language, reveals the linguistic differences between psychosis and neurosis. However, his introductory chapter offers his most detailed and valuable discussion of the famous Schema L, his map of the subject. Schema L illustrates the structure of intersubjectivity and defines the relations of his terms Subject (je), ideal ego (moi), other (as object), and Other (as language). Seminar III also explicates in detail Lacan's theories of signifier and signified. Here, too, are the chapters on metaphor and metonymy, and of the early seminars Seminar III is perhaps the most important for literary study, particularly for linguistically-oriented readers. Taken together, these first three seminars present Lacan at the height of his theoretical powers. Read with their Freudian and literary source texts and in the wider context of French philosophical interests, the early seminars open up for the English- speaking reader the rich, fascinating, useful territory of Lacanian reading.


1 It's a good bet that more English-speaking readers have read Marjorie Garber's Vested Interests (New York: HarperCollins, 1993) than Lacan's "Fetishism: the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real," Elaine Showalter's "Representing Ophelia" (especially the reprint in the St. Martin's Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Hamlet, 1994) than Lacan's "Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet," or Kaja Silverman's The Subject of Semiotics (New York: Oxford, 1983) than Lacan's Seminar II. The Lacanian concepts at issue are, respectively, the registers, the phallus and castration, and subjectivity.

2 What the text "does" can be related to the philosophical concept of performative language, a concept most often associated with the philosopher J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975), a concept that positions speech within its contexts of production and reception. But the idea that words "do" something is hardly exotic. The writing instructor who uses the opening line "I want a wife!" in order to teach students the difference between the author's attempt to startle her readers (what the line does) and the verbal content with its implication that a wife is a good thing to have (what the line says) makes the distinction Lacan employs.

3 I am indebted to William Schroeder, Department of Philosophy, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, for the background reading in philosophy suggested in this article.


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Van Pelt is assistant professor of theory in the department of English at Idaho State University. Her work on Lacan, psychoanalysis, and theory have appeared in Literature and Psychology, Postmodern Culture, Style, and Belgian Essays in Language and Literature.
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Title Annotation:writer Jacques Lacan
Author:Van Pelt, Tamise
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:Jun 1, 1997
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