WHO WAS LACAN?
He became a skinny but handsome intellectual and a dandy. He was exempted from military service because of his physique.
Lacan underwent medical and psychiatric training, a personal psychoanalysis and became a man of charisma,
Jacques Lacan was born to a middle class French Catholic family in 1901, seven years after Freud’s work was first published. Lacan would usually have his nose in a book while other boys were playing football.
the lover of many women,
and an atheist.
Lacan’s difficult lectures were attended by many leading psychoanalysts and intellectuals. There would often be lengthy silences, in between Lacan writing obscure symbols and formulae on a blackboard. Listeners were often baffled by his complicated word plays and enigmatic puns, and by his use of German, Hebrew, Chinese and Ancient Greek. Even French speakers attending his talks were not sure if he was speaking French or not. Now there is a cult following of Lacan, with some thirty different camps of bickering followers, each claiming loyalty to the master.
Most of Lacan’s work was not published or otherwise written down; he simply spoke it at his weekly seminars and lectures.
Some of Lacan’s tape-recorded talks have been published and translated, but much of his work remains unpublished or untranslated; it circulates only in ‘samizdat’ form, as unofficial transcripts of the seminars. Lacan scorned publication, pronouncing it as ‘poubellication’, from the French ‘poubelle’, for garbage can.
The clinical and theoretical innovations introduced by Lacan (such as his infamous clinical sessions of variable length that could last any time between five minutes and an hour, instead of the conventional fifty minutes) produced splits in the psychoanalytic movement, and finally led to his being expelled from the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1953, and to the formation of his own psychoanalytic school.
Lacan was never comfortable with the relationship between institutions, including psychoanalytic training schools, and psychoanalysis as a clinical practice. The problem arises because the psychoanalyst helps his patients question their own values and issues, without the analyst having an investment in a particular answer. The psychoanalyst should not bring his own prejudices to bear on his patients’ questions. Lacan thought that this special sort of space, in which the patient can speak openly, is essential in psychoanalysis, but very difficult to encourage and promote through an institution because of the kinds of identification and ideals of authority that tend to operate within institutions. Arguing that the institutionalization of psychoanalysis was fraught with dangers for clinical practice, he even took the extraordinary step of dissolving his own psychoanalytic school in 1980, the year before his death.
Lacan’s work is difficult to study; not only because he lectured and wrote with a very complicated style, but also because he introduced many new ideas and concepts that are dependent on one another. Studying his work is made more difficult because many of these ideas changed during the course of his lifetime.
Lacan was also an intellectual magpie—he took and adapted for his own ends many ideas from other fields, including linguistics, mathematics, literature, philosophy and science.
One of the main influences on the early Lacan, in the 1920s and 1930s were the Surrealists, then in their heyday. Many Surrealists were interested in psychoanalysis, including Salvador Dali, who met both Freud and Lacan.
Lacan had noticed that the meanings patients attach to words are often fluid and seem to be attached to images, while meaning in Surrealist art is also attached to images.
How might images play a role in the clinic? Here is an example of someone whose life had been dominated by an image: a woman had a phobia of open and public spaces, so she stayed at home. She had a fear of being seen lying down in the street. In the course of her psychoanalysis it transpired that she was ashamed of her past sexual conduct, and of her sexual desires, and that above all, she did not want to be seen by others as a ‘fallen woman’. The image or idea of the fallen woman dominated her life, via the idiom ‘fallen woman’. It was around these words that her phobic symptom operated, not only by ‘speaking the truth’ about her past ‘shame’, but protecting her from further sexual encounters that she desired.
Here ‘fallen woman’ is ambiguous, with two meanings, just as Dali’s picture on page nine is ambiguous, between a face and women.
In this first phase of his work Lacan stressed the role of images and the imaginary in the workings of the human mind. He had been particularly struck by Lorenz’s famous experiment with ducks. Lorenz had put his Wellington boots next to duck eggs. As the ducklings hatched out and saw the boot, they became ‘imprinted’ with its image; wherever that boot went, the little ducks would follow. They mistook Lorenz’s boot for their mummy. When Lorenz wore his Wellingtons he was slavishly followed by a trail of ducklings, each of whom were captivated by the image of the boot.
In the same way, a man might love a woman who looked, smelt or sounded like his mother, because he is captivated by an image of her. It is not unusual for people to fall in love with someone who has something familiar about them, a smell, a laugh or their eyes. In love, we typically confuse our new love with an old love. Lacan once said of his dog:
This idea of ‘domination by the image’ is for Lacan tied to the concept of captivation, slavery or bondage. Such a bond can exist between a child and mother, between lovers or between a slave and a master.
Lacan took this idea from the German philosopher Hegel, who developed a theory of the ‘slave-master relation’. We will look at this in chapter six, on discourse, but to understand the slave-master relation we need to first look at the problems Socrates thought we have in knowing things, and at Freud’s theory of consciousness, or the ‘ego’ which also stresses mis-knowing.
Socrates is an important figure for Lacan because he had a problem with knowing, kn...