Archive for the ‘Lacan’ Category

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).


Local Happenings


I wanted to update my readers about some upcoming events.

1) I’ll be rejoining a Lacan study group at the Washington School of Psychiatry starting on February 9th. We’ll be reading Lacan and Freud, and the group we’ll meet every other Wednesday. Contact me if you’re interested in joining. The cost for students is $15/session.

2) At my local church in Arlington, I’ll begin teaching a theology class starting in March on Sunday mornings at 9:45. I think I’ll begin teaching a class on a theology of Holy Saturday. After that I’m hoping the class picks up some steam as we begin to wade through Grenz’s 20th Century Theology. I’m fairly open to teaching whatever, everything from postmodern theology to the church fathers. The Grenz book will be a way to open up the range of possibilities of different theologies the class could explore further. Eventually I’d like to spend some time that would align with my other supplemental projects: atonement (Feb-Apr), theodicy (May-July), liberation theology (Aug-Dec). I’ve thought about teaching Kotsko’s Politics of Redemption because it’s on my reading list (and Catholic U just got it in), and it integrates a variety of themes I’d like to cover: patristics, atonement, liberation theology, etc. I’ll keep readers updated. Also, I’d invite any lurkers from the DC area to join me.

Some Lutheran Reflections


The last two weeks I’ve work I’ve listened to Philip Cary’s (a student of Lindbeck) excellent courses on History of Christian Theology, Luther: Gospel, Law, and Reformation, and Augustine: Philosopher and Saint through The Teaching Company. The course on the History of Christian Theology was helpful for me as he traced the theological development of the different Protestant denominations. I highly recommend that course, and I must praise his ability to summarize Barth’s doctrine of election clearly in less than ten minutes. Also he explains quite lucidly the differences between Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic theologies. The shorter course on Augustine was a nice biographical introduction with a specific focus on his Confessions. After listening to that course I really want to delve into Augustine’s On The Trinity. However, the course on Luther was by far the best. He does a great job of capturing Luther’s theological genius while also emphasizing his many failures theologically and ethically. Never having read much Luther it was a great guide to his key concepts such as Law/Gospel, Two Kingdoms, and his understanding of justification. One thing that resonated with me (and this also came to mind since tonight I just finished Bonhoeffer’s Act and Being which is very Lutheran in character) was Luther’s insistence on turning away from oneself towards the cross to hold onto faith. Growing up in an evangelical/quasi-Reformed church I was constantly encouraged to turn inwards since Christ lived in my heart. Of course, inevitably, this only generated anxiety since when I didn’t find Christ inside I immediately began to doubt my faith.

Bonhoeffer says this quite well, “[h]ence Luther’s countless admonitions not to look on one’s own remorse, own faith, but to look on the Lord Christ Himself. While I am still reflecting on myself in order to find Christ, Christ is not there. If he is really there, I see only him. Conscience may be termed the voice of God only inasmuch as conscience is where, in the real temptation, Christ kills man – in order to give or not give him life” (Act and Being, 161).

Later on Bonhoeffer writes, “God can allow man to die “of” the knowledge of his sin, and can lead him through this death into the communion of Christ. In this case he turns man’s eyes away from man’s self and gives him his direction (the pure intentionality of the actus directus) to Christ the Crucified and Risen, who is the defeat of temptation to death” (Act and Being, 169).

Hopefully I’ll post some longer reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Act and Being this week.

Also, after getting a better background in the history of the development of the doctrine of predestination from Augustine to Luther to Calvin, I remain astonished at Barth’s brilliance in his re-interpretation of the doctrine of election. Say what you will about Barth, but it’s just incredible to me that he took a doctrine that the greatest theologians could only look on at in horror and transform it into truly good news that Barth defined as the sum of the gospel.

Finally, what is Luther’s obsession with shit? I know from reading Derrida’s text on animals that Lacan distinguished animals from man by saying animals are unable to pretend to pretend. Elsewhere though Zizek claims in On Belief (I can’t find the Lacanian reference) that Lacan said that a difference between man and animals is man has a problem with disposing of his shit. Not simply because of the smell, but because according to Lacan man feels shame because he believes he has exposed his innermost intimacy into this concert, vulgar object. Of course animals have no such problem since they have no idea of this split between interior/exterior. There’s not really a connection there but listening to Luther got me thinking about scat. Also if anyone can direct me towards the Lacanian reference it’d be much appreciated.

One more thing, has anyone read Bloch’s work Thomas Munzer als Theologe der Revolution? It appears that it has yet to be translated into English. I know recently Bloch’s work Atheism in Christianity was republished after it had been out of print for years so maybe this work will eventually get translated. Perhaps not.

Update: I should also mention while looking for theological audio resources I stumbled upon Morse’s seminar at Union on Calvin’s Institutes. I haven’t listened to it yet but it’s over 18 hours long and free on ITunes U. I’m sure it’ll be good as it’s always nice to see Calvin in the hands of non-evangelicals.

Moving Beyond Oedipus: A Lacanian Critique


I will be relying heavily on Verhaeghe and Grigg’s article in Jacques Lacan and the Other Side of Psychoanalysis for this post. Lacan beings redefining jouissance in Seminar XVII, which in early seminars jouissance was always defined of as that which resists the symbolic. However, in seminar XVII he no longer thinks of it as being in opposition to the symbolic. In fact, the genesis of the signifier is closely related to jouissance. We here run into something of a paradox. On the one hand, the introduction of the signifier leads to the impossibility of attaining jouissance, and on the other hand the signifier is also the condition of possibility for reaching jouissance. Verhaeghe writes, “the connection between knowledge and jouissance is the foundation for the introduction of the apparatus of the signifier in the subject” (Jacques Lacan and the Other Side of Psychoanalysis, 31). Borrowing insights from Freud’s theory of repetition Lacan posits that jouissance occurs in the body through invasions, which refer to the body getting off on itself. However, “[t]hese invasion acquire markings; they are inscribed in the body through the intervention of the Other” (31). Whereas here this idea of jouissance is still in the Real (as in his previous theory) the idea of inscription introduces an Other who inscribes.

“Knowledge, once it has been introduced into the signifier, is both the means to jouissance and the cause of the loss of jouissance” (33). The emergence of the signifier is a second major loss supplementing the loss the subject has already experienced during the mirror stage. The signifier leads to a loss of jouissance which invariably leads to the subject competitively repeating in attempt to gain back the jouissance that was sacrificed at the mirror stage. In fact the introduction of the signifier in in some sense a response to the original alienation the subject experiences in the mirror stage. However, the introduction of the signifier also leads to a gain, a plus-de-jouir since the advent of the signifier also grants the subject access to language and culture (i.e. the symbolic order). Culture and language can offer the subject alienated in language temporary means of enjoyment.

Originally Lacan advanced an understanding of the Oedipus complex that differed from Freud because in his theory the father intervenes not to prohibit the child but rather the mother’s desire. This allows the child to escape the insatiable enjoyment of the mother and enables the child to begin desiring independently of the mother. Freud’s understanding of the Oedipal complex revolved around the idea of identity acquisition and the superego, which Lacan refers to as Freud’s dream.

Verhaeghe suggests that “we can propose the following statement: we are the way in which we (don’t) enjoy” (37). This (don’t) is crucial because otherwise the subject would be indistinguishable from her desires. “One’s ex-sistence as a subject simultaneously implies a divided stance towards jouissance” (37). We have to be divided relative to jouissance (this explains why we have defenses that limit enjoyment) otherwise we would be headed on the road towards death. In Lacan’s theory death and enjoyment are intertwined and “the road to enjoyment is the road to death” (37). The parental objects then situate themselves relative to jouissance to prevent the child’s annihilation. The father steps in to limit jouissance and ensures it will remain limited by instituting a prohibition.

Initially the child makes great demands on his mother and she ends up dominating any “inscription of jouissance; any attempt to repeat jouissance must be addressed toward her” (38). Originally the child enjoyed itself (i.e. his body), but now he demands the mother offer him enjoyment. The mother’s prohibitions enable the child to avoid the (death) threat of absolute enjoyment.

Now, in classical Freudian theory the tyrannical father breaks up this dyad. However, a question we must ask ourselves is from where did Freud derive this theory? This type of father figure is utterly absent from all of Freud’s major cases (e.g. Dora, Ratman, Wolfman, Little Hans). These fathers were always impotent, pathetic clowns. As I’ve already mentioned the early Lacan displaced responsibility onto the mother’s insatiable desire, which justified the father’s intervention.

Totem and Taboo is Freud’s Darwinian myth to justify his Oedipal formulation. Cleverly Freud even believes that the child can hark back to this mythical narrative to remember this prohibiting father (which is way too Lamarckian/Jungian) if the child’s actual father was a weakling. However even on closer inspection Lacan recognizes that the myth doesn’t work. Weirdly enough the threat of castration is absent from the myth. Secondly the relationship between law and enjoyment are inverted in the two myths. The law is primary in the myth of Oedipus and Oedipus’ enjoyment is understood as a transgression whereas in Totem and Taboo enjoyment is originary and the law is only formed afterward. On top of that Grigg points out that, “Freud retains, in fact if not in intention, is very precisely what designates as the most essential in religion – namely, the idea of an all-loving father” (60). This is indeed quite ironic since Freud hoped to expose religion as an illusion that was wholly accounted for by the child’s need for an omnipotent father. Verhaeghe writes that according to Lacan, “[t]he murder of the primal father is thus an expression of a death wish whose aim is to make the father immortal and, therefore, almighty” (41). Further on he says, “[w]e are inevitably tempted to elevate our father to unknown proportions in order to combat a danger we locate in the woman/mother, a danger that, in one way or another, always has to do with jouissance and our fears of becoming its victim” (42). Lacan even jokes that the illusion of an almighty father satisfying an entire clan of woman sexually is a joke considering a single father is hardly capable of satisfying one woman sexually.

In reality, mother, father and child are positioned around the impossibility of jouissance. Society is in complicit in trying to trick us into believing that impossibility is really just a prohibition. Here recall the male graph of sexuation where the male subject can only accept castration if he posits that there once was a male who avoided castration. Of course this is simply mythmaking since there never was an almighty father.

We must rethink castration unlike post-Freudians who have simply bypassed it entirely by focusing on the mother/child dyad via attachment theory. In place of the omnipotent father Lacan substitutes the castrated father who donates to his son the master signifier S1. Castration for Lacan is the subject’s alienation in language and a forfeiting of a primordial jouissance through a “primary identification with the S1” (43).

“The S1 intervenes in the already existing S2 that divides the subject through the chain of signifiers, making enjoyment impossible to reach. In sum, the intervention of the master signifier S1 on S2, that is on knowledge as a means for assuming jouissance, induces and determines symbolic castration” (43). This theory in fact presupposes for the father to offer S1 he too must already be symbolically castrated. In Lacan’s theory the glorified male tyrant has now been humiliated into a castrated sham. In fact Lacan believes the primary affect for the father is shame since he must admit that he can never adequately represent S1 for the child. The lack the father experienced can never be filled in, and he must pass on this disease to his child. Furthermore the idea that the father could ever have properly intervened and split up the powerful mother/child dyad to begin with was simply wishful thinking.

Here we see just how far Lacan went away from the clumsy Oedipal complex, which if you notice could never be explained for girls except by making up some ridiculous misogynist myth about little girls who suffer from penis envy and demand babies from their dads. Instead the original impossibility of jouissance is what is real and the whole notion of prohibition is simply a social conspiracy to trick the subject into believing that this prohibition can be transgressed.

More Lacanian Bullshit


“One can bullshit a lot over myths, because it is precisely the field of bullshitting. And bullshitting, as I have always said, is truth. They are identical. Truth enables everything to be said. Everything is true – on condition that you exclude the contrary – except it nevertheless plays a role that it be like that” (Book XVII, 111).

Lacan, Freud, and Bullshit


“I wanted to begin with an aphorism which, I hope, will strike you by its obviousness, because it’s the reason that Freud has carried the day despite the protestations that greeted his entry into the world of commerce of ideas. What carried the day is this – Freud doesn’t bullshit. This is what gives him this sort of priority he has in our day. It’s probably also what makes it the case that there is another who, as we know, survives fairly despite everything. What is characteristic of the two of them, Freud and Marx, is that they don’t bullshit” (Book XVII, 70-1).

While I can agree with Lacan on Freud and Marx, am I the only one who senses the irony of these comments? Doesn’t Lacan make an entire career out of bullshitting? He spends the majority of his seminars telling dirty jokes, making puns, circling again and again around points. I’m not accusing him of being a charlatan like Chomsky once did, but isn’t there some sort of positive role that bullshit serves in Lacan’s theory?

Lacan Against Analogia Entis


I just finished up Encore today (Seminar XX) and wanted to post these quotes. I’m trying to write something on Lacan, jouissance, and the hatred of God tomorrow. I’m moving on towards Seminar XVII and some choice essays from Ecrits for the month of August.

“That being as such may provoke hatred cannot be ruled out. Certainly, Aristotle’s concern was, on the contrary, to conceive of being as that by which beings with less being participate in the highest of beings. And Saint Thomas succeeded in reintroducing that into the Christian tradition – which is not surprising given that, having spread among the Gentiles, the Christian tradition had necessarily been thoroughly shaped thereby, the upshot being that one had but to pull the strings for it to work again. But do people realize that everything in the Jewish tradition goes against that? The dividing line (coupure) there for does not run from the most perfect to the least perfect. The least perfect there is quite simply what it is, namely, radically imperfect, and one must but obey with finger and the eye, if I dare express myself thus, he who bares the name Jahve, and several other names to boot. The latter chose his people and one cannot go against that. Isn’t it revealed therein that it is far better to betray him occasionally than to “be-thrate” him (l’etre-haïr), the former being what the Jews obviously did not deprive themselves of doing. They couldn’t work it out (en sortir) any other way. On the subject of hatred, we’re so deadened (etouffes) that not on realizes that a hatred, a solid hatred, is addressed to being, to the very being of someone who is not necessarily God” (Seminar XX, 99).

“You know the crazy story, the one that arouses my delirious admiration? I roll on the floor laughing when I read Saint Thomas (Aquinas), because it’s awfully well put together. For Aristotle’s philosophy to have been reinjected by Saint Thomas into what one might call the Christian conscience, if that had any meaning, is something that cannot be explained by the fact that Christians – well, it’s the same with psychoanalysis – abhor what is revealed to them. And they are right” (Seminar XX, 114).

Lacan on the Subject of the Unconscious


While analyzing Freud’s famous dream of Irma’s injection, Lacan brilliantly summarizes his view of the Freudian subject:

“That happens when we see the subject substituted for by the polycephalic subject – this crowd I was speaking about last time, a crowd in the Freudian sense, the one discussed in Massenpsychologie und Ich-Analyse, made up of the imaginary plurality of the subject, of the fanning out, the blossoming of the different identifications of the ego. At first this seems to us like an abolition, a destruction of the subject as such. The subject transformed into this polycephalic image seems to be somewhat acephalic. If there is an image which could represent the Freudian notion of the unconscious, it is indeed that of the acephalic subject, of a subject who no longer has an ego, who doesn’t belong to the ego. And yet he is the subject who speaks, for that’s who gives all the characters in the dream their nonsensical lines – which precisely derive their meaning from their nonsensical character” (Seminar II, 167).

Lacan on Ego Psychology


Ego psychology was a psychoanalytic school popularized through Anna Freud’s study of defense mechanisms and Hartmann brought it to fame in America. Believing the focus of the ego be a central betrayal of the Freudian subject of the unconscious, Lacan never missed an opportunity to skewer this school for fundamentally misunderstanding Freud. It’s especially interesting that a focus on the ego is in many ways responsible for the ascendancy of cognitive-behavioral therapy in the States. CBT exclusively focuses on the way automatic thought patterns negatively impact a person’s engagement with the world. For example, to treat a depressive patient it’s of the utmost importance to correct the automatic thoughts patterns that only serve to reinforce the depressed person’s negativistic view of the world (while completely bracketing the study of the unconscious). In 1920, Freud introduced his structural model of the mind (id-ego-superego) in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Here’s the quote from Lacan:

“What Freud introduced from 1920 on, are additional notions which were at that time necessary to maintain the principles of the decentering of the subject. But far from being understood as it should have been, there was a general rush, exactly like the kids getting out of school – Ah! Our nice little ego is back again! It all makes sense now! We’re now back on the well-beaten paths of general psychology. How could one fail to come back to it with elation, when this general psychology is not only stuff from school or mental commodity, but, what is more, is the psychology of everyman? There was satisfaction in being once again able to believe the ego to be central. (Seminar II, 11)

On a meta-level, this summer (along with continuing to read Barth’s CD) I plan on reading Seminar II, III, XVII, and XX with the hopes of producing a paper on Lacan and theology. So continue to expect more on Barth and Lacan.

Zizek on the Deleuzian Viritual


Starting Monday, AUFS is hosting a book event on Gabriel and Zizek’s work Mythology, Madness and Laughter. It’ll span a little over three weeks, and I’ll be contributing at the tail end of the event. I’m just about finished, and I have to say that the work is really solid and lucid, despite the rather difficult topic of subjectivity in German Idealism. Gabriel’s part of the book is especially impressive. Here’s a quote from Zizek that I liked about Deleuze’s concept of the virtual.

“The solution of this dilemma is precisely the notion of virtuality in the strict Deleuzian sense, as the actuality of the possible, as a paradoxical entity the very possibility of which already produces/has actual effects. One should oppose Deleuze’s notion of the virtual to the all-pervasive topic of virtual reality: what matters to Deleuze is not is not virtual reality, but the reality of the virtual (which in Lacanian terms, is the Real). Virtual reality in itself is a rather miserable idea: that of imitating reality, of reproducing its experience in an artificial medium. The reality of the virtual, on the other hand, stands for the reality of the virtual as such, for its real effects and consequences. Let us take an attractor in mathematics: all positive lines or points in its sphere of attraction only approach it endless fashion never reaching its form – the existence of the form is purely virtual, being nothing more than the shape towards which lines and points tend. However, precisely as such, the virtual is the Real of this field: the immovable focal point around which all elements circulate. Is the not the Virtual ultimately the Symbolic as such? Let us take symbolic authority, in order to function as an effective authority, it has to remain not-fully-actualized, an eternal threat” (Mythology, Madness and Laughter: Subjectivity in German Idealism, 109).