Lacan’s Marginalization in American Psychoanalysis


Currently I’m in a doctoral program for clinical psychology that has a strong psychoanalytic orientation. Many of my professors are psychoanalysts, and my classes on different subjects (e.g. psychotherapy, theories of mind, social/development) are psychoanalytic in nature. For example, in the second year of the program all students are required to take a two-semester course on psychoanalytic theory. In the first semester, we study Freud, ego psychology (Hartmann, A Freud) and self-psychology (Kohut, Wolf). We focus on Klein, object relations, and relational psychoanalysis in second semester. I asked my professor during the first semester whether we’d be covering Lacan, and he told me we did not have time. Apparently we have time to cover someone like Heinz Kohut, for two months, who essentially did nothing radical for the field other than to combine Rogerian therapy with ego psychology. All Kohut did was try and conceive of a new way to treat narcissistic clients, an important contribution, but nothing theoretically revolutionary. Another excuse one hears when one asks American psychoanalysts about Lacan is this: Lacan is interesting (although none of them have a clue what he actually said) but unreadable.

I have two questions:

1) Why is Lacan avoided in psychoanalytic circles?
2) What makes Lacan so impenetrable to modern American psychoanalysis?

First off, Lacan generates a severe amount of anxiety in modern psychoanalysts. He’s considered to be some threat to the system that would challenge many of the basic assumptions of modern psychoanalysis (e.g. the obsession American psychoanalysts have with the ‘ego’). Second, Lacan’s work cannot be reduced to pithy phrases and cute ideas. Reading Lacan requires patience. So much of modern psychoanalytic theory can become rigid and formulaic where certain ideas like (id-ego-superego) are treated like mechanistic ideas that can be schematized in simplistic ways. Three, to understand Lacan, one has to read Freud. It is simply perverse how many psychoanalysts treat Freud like a thinker of the past who has nothing of relevance to say to clinicians working in 2011. Not only do they reduce Freud to a caricature, they also completely bypass the tremendous amount of work that is required to understand him. Lacanian theory is a unique exegesis of Freud’s texts. One interesting feature of Lacan’s seminars is that he rarely discusses his own case material. He discusses Freud’s cases in depth, not in a blind dogmatic way (e.g. he is critical of Freud’s treatment of Dora), but in humble recognition that we must come to term with what Freud was doing clinically. Lacan was ultimately a clinician. He doesn’t talk about Antigone simply because he’s a bourgeois French intellectual (although he was that), but because understanding Antigone will help us come to better terms with how to conceptualize and treat clients. In my opinion the main reason Lacan is rejected by the American psychoanalytic establishment, is that the Lacanian system requires a return to Freud. It demands a re-reading of Freud that focuses on a theory of subjectivity that can be very foreign and challenging. Lacan’s extreme criticism of ego psychology was that it had completely abandoned the Freudian revolution of unconscious subjectivity and shifted the focus to address the ego. We cannot simply adjust parts of Freudian theory here and there (e.g. re-thinking Oedipus etc) but we must revisit the Freudian corpus, in its totality, to understand what Freud is trying to do and how his theory and practice evolved.

I want to make one more closing observation. I think this marginalization of Lacan (which is ultimately a refusal of Freud) is symptomatic of a larger problem, namely, the marginalization of psychoanalysis in the American academy. Psychoanalysts often find Lacan difficult because of the way he puts multiple disciplines in conversation with psychoanalysis (e.g. anthropology, linguistics, mathematics, philosophy, religion). Of course, Freud did the same thing when he combined insights from anthropology, neurology, and religion to help inform and make sense of psychoanalysis. Unfortunately, psychoanalysts have refused to follow suit and have refused conversation with a variety of related fields like behaviorism, neuropsychology, philosophy, sociology, etc (not to mention Freud’s cultural texts are all but ignored as speculative musings). As long as psychoanalysis continues to refuse dialogue with these various disciplines, it runs a great risk of being completely removed from the academy (although it has already been largely banished from psychology departments and demoted to English departments).


23 Responses to “Lacan’s Marginalization in American Psychoanalysis”

  1. david cl driedger Says:

    More posts from your formal studies please. Are you currently doing any clinical work?

  2. Jeremy Says:

    Thanks for the encouragement as I find that my posts on psychology generally fall flat. I am doing clinical work, both individual and group psychotherapy, but obviously I can’t comment on that for confidentiality reasons.

  3. david cl driedger Says:

    I have limited and often more ‘informal’ clinical settings in which I engage (as a pastor). For quite some time my theoretical development and practical engagement was quite distinct (probably very common). I find it does take great time and patience to sit with both in a way that allows fruitful engagement. I am slowly beginning to see engagement and theory in a more congruent expression. The structure of therapy (from a counselling though perhaps not psychiatric perspective) of course pushes against this with the ongoing need for ‘short-term’ therapy. I agree that in many cases short-term may be all we have but I fail to see how ‘solution-focused’ approaches are all that can fit the bill. This is why I am very interested in your experience as you seem to be in an institution that does value psychoanalysis and I rarely run across contemporary expressions in the clinical field.
    Out of curiosity is a figure like RD Laing given any treatment at all?

  4. Jeremy Says:

    My program is very against these band-aid approaches to therapy and some of my work is more intensive (two session/wk) for over a year. Insurance companies certainly don’t help.

    Laing isn’t really given much treatment probably because he was not Freudian in orientation.

  5. Clayton Crockett Says:

    Yes! I completely agree with the American academy and psychological establishment’s abhorrence of Lacan, which ultimately consists of a refusal to think. For me, lacking any clinical or practical training–I am not and do not have any capacity to be an analyst–I am confined to wrestling with and thinking through Lacan’s theoretical ideas, but these are more than provocative and challenging enough, as well as fruitful for rethinking the entire theological tradition, as you well know.

  6. Clayton Crockett Says:

    And furthermore, Freud is caricatured and ridiculed and dismissed by most of our culture, with its preoccupation with programming and packaging of happiness. It’s so interesting to see how cognitive psychology appropriates Freud’s insights and then bashes him with the most stupifying kettle logic.

  7. Jeremy Says:

    I was thinking of the kettle logic when writing this post actually.

    What’s interesting is that someone like Kandel, a Nobel prize winning neuropsychiatrist, came out and said recently that the Freudian view of the mind is still the most comprehensive and useful model of the mind out there. In college I took a class in cognitive psychology where the professor made sure to emphasize that while cognitive theories might use terms like the unconscious, we should not confuse that with the Freudian unconscious. Why? I haven’t the slightest idea.

    Huprich has written a great book:, that discusses the way so much of cognitive psychology has hijacked the logic of Freudian metapsychology but has completely disavowed this appropriation. All they’ve done is renamed terms.

    I’ve always found psychoanalysis to be refreshing because it doesn’t make judgments about happiness or well-being. Psychoanalysis is one of the only places in society that is OK with allowing people to not be happy, unlike a field like Positive Psychology led by Seligman. It opens up a space where nobody is made to feel guilty for not enjoying life (of course this very pressure is the Lacanian superego to Enjoy!).

  8. Simon Says:

    “Psychoanalysis is one of the only places in society that is OK with allowing people to not be happy”

    I can’t agree with you more. Therapy has become secondary to ‘life’ where therapists are seen as people who’ll ‘fix’ your problems so that you can go on with your business. No need for a relationship, they’re just there as a means to getting you back on the road, maybe to do just the very things which may have caused the symptom in the first place! Therapy’s become commodified. You’re sick? Go to therapist, get ‘cured’ and outcha come. Just like a drive-thru. The logic is “You have X? Take a pill”—it’s all about getting things done, overcoming these obstacles so that you can ‘maximise and realise your true potentials’ and all that nonsense. Now everything’s considered a mental disease—every little abnormality’s a disease and people WANT to make their ‘faults’ into diseases because diseases are considered to have explanations, to be beyond your control and ‘curable’. We need answers; we need something to blame so we don’t have to properly deal with it (just postpone it, repress it); we need to get rid of this problem (that’s what I’ve paid you for, therapist!). No wonder CBT’s endorsed by so many companies—it assumes that everyone’s normal; that you can go back to that normality. But that comes at the cost of ignoring the symptom. Like people who misread Interpretation of Dreams, they search for the meaning of their symptoms so that they can make sense of them then ignore them; they don’t try to engage with the question of WHY the symptoms took the FORM they did. People are too caught up with content and explanations and not with the process of ‘symptomisation’…

    Sorry for my little rant.

  9. Kevin Says:

    Paraphrasing Freud, didn’t he say something about the object of analysis being “to transform abject misery into mere unhappiness”?

  10. Jeremy Says:

    Yes. He was also something of a pessimist.

  11. George Elerick Says:

    Hi Jeremy! – Loved this! I totally agree, I believe Lacan’s rebelliousness scares the hell out of fundamentalists. But it is his very offering that we need to help transform the landscape of psychoanalysis. Great post. (We also seem to have a mutual friendship in Daniel Tutt)

  12. Jeremy Says:

    Do you mean religious fundamentalists or orthodox psychoanalysts? I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  13. Jeremy Says:

    I don’t really think Lacan scares, for example, the psychoanalytic establishment in America. They just don’t bother to read him because it’s difficult and strange.

  14. George Elerick Says:

    i guess when i use the word scare i mean ‘uncanny’ in the freudian sense; i think in terms of scare i am not referring to fear but rather displacement. in my experience this seems to be the general repulsion…

  15. George Elerick Says:

    oh the orthodox psychonalaysts.

  16. Jeremy Says:

    But this is not an international problem, rather is is a uniquely North American one. So that requires some consideration as well. Currently, I’m a doctoral program in clinical psychology that is psychoanalytic in its approach. Most of the professors seem to just not give a damn about Lacan because he’s too difficult and does not help inform clinical practice.

  17. George Says:

    the reason why i would say it is is because i live in the UK and in the same circles ul reception is inhospitable.

  18. Jeremy Says:

    Yet Lacan is quite popular in Latin America and much of Europe (sans the UK) .

  19. George Says:

    not in north England. I live here. Lol.

  20. Jeremy Says:

    Yeah, well we can certainly understand why with the influence of Anna Freud et al.

  21. George Says:

    yes. She has definitely had her effects here.

  22. Simon Says:

    London is surprisingly good for Lacanians, actually. CFAR, LSNLS, College for Psychoanalysts, Centre for Psychoanalysis at Middlesex, UCL Psychoanalysis Unit, Karnac, Birkbeck (Stephen Frosht) and you have the Freud Museum and ICA which host Lacanian events (at ICA, they have a “film + talk by psychoanalyst” evenings, hosted by the Institue of Psychoanalysis). London is good for psychoanalysts of all schools.

  23. Jeremy Says:

    That’s encouraging to hear. I live in DC and we have over three institutes here. I think there cannot be more than 10 Lacanians in the area. I was thinking that the UK hasn’t been as friendly to Lacan historically, but let’s hope things continue down that trajectory.

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