Conversations with Lacan
16 FEBRUARY 2021
Excerpts from Conversations with Lacan, Routledge, 2020.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, lithub.com, nosubject.com
think that what really counts in Lacan is the fact that he is able to offer us what Claude Lévi-Strauss – the anthropologist who was a long-time friend of Lacan – called the “plethora of the signifier.”
In “The Sorcerer and His Magic,” Lévi-Strauss (1963) posed the problem of how magical practices work in savage societies. He even attempted a comparison between shamanic treatments and psychoanalysis; and Lacan himself quoted this essay (Lacan 1966, p. 351). According to Lévi-Strauss, normal thinking – both scientific thinking and common sense – tries to explain the world through theories that give things a specific sense. But very often the world refuses to be explained, its cloudiness resists any sort of theory. In short, normal thinking confronts itself with a deficit of meaning: many things have no meaning at all. Instead, what Lévi-Strauss here calls pathological thinking – psychopathological – has a plethora of signifiers: neurotics and psychotics are full of interpretations and affective resonances with which they overload a reality that is lacking in sense. According to the anthropologist, shamanic treatments manage an arbitration between this lack of meaning (the non-sense in real life) and the wealth of floating signifiers. “Normal thought cannot fathom the problem of illness,” Lévi-Strauss writes, “and so the group [to which he or she belongs] calls upon the neurotic to furnish a wealth of emotion heretofore lacking a focus” (Lévi-Strauss 1963, p. 377).
Here Lévi-Strauss suggests a model of the signifier-signified relation that moves away considerably from the schema of Ferdinand de Saussure. And Lacan’s model is more Lévi-Straussian than Saussurian. For Saussure, signifier and signified are closely connected; for example, the signifier “chair” is closely connected to all the mental images that English speakers have of chairs and that go on to make up the meaning of chair in English. By contrast, Lévi-Strauss talks here of two parallel series that are not closely connected: the series of pure signifiers with no meaning, and the series of everything in the world that lacks meaning. These two series float, but this doesn’t imply that they hold fast to each other. This is what the Lacanian algorithm of the unconscious consists of: on the one hand a series of signifiers flowing above a bar and, on the other, a series of different signifiers below this bar that can offer meanings to the former.
Hysteric symptoms, for example, were found to be so striking at the end of the 19th century because they were inexplicable, meaningless signs. By making hysteric women talk off the top of their heads, by inventing the “talking cure” (as the hysteric Anna O. called it), Breuer and Freud collected an arsenal of signifiers, which by themselves had no application, but from which Freud selected elements to refer to the series of non-signified. We know which signifying elements he picked to create psychoanalytical theory. But he drew them from hysteric chatter.
To say that psychoanalytical theory is a way of “fastening” a series of signifiers to a series of meanings, Lacan took his terminology from the language of upholstery. According to Lacan, the mass of both signifiers and meanings find a fastening point somewhere in the points de capiton (quilting points). Capiton is a carefully stitched or embroidered part of the work. Lacan thus insinuates that the set of signifiers and the set of meanings are in fact connected, but precariously, as in a seam. Just as the two sides of a sofa don’t slide one onto the other but are fastened with quilting, in the same way he thinks that the two sets find connection points somewhere, they find absolute signifiers. These are points where signifiers and meanings overlap stably, somehow draining the two fluid masses. And he adds that psychotic breakdowns occur when this quilting comes undone, and then signifiers and meanings fluctuate without fastening.
As for the shaman, for Lévi-Strauss he is usually a pathological subject. Like hysteric women, he too has excessive “unapplied” signifiers. The shamanic cure therefore consists in “selling” this excess of signifier to a community of “normal” people who are astonished before a reality lacking any sense. It’s as if a community bought seams of signifier from “extra” beings, bizarre individuals, to compensate for lacks of meaning.
But shamanic cures and psychoanalysis differ; whilst in the former it is the healer who essentially supplies this plethora of signifiers, in the latter it is the subject being healed who supplies it, whilst the analyst, the supposed healer, tends to remain silent. By encouraging the analysand to say everything that comes to his or her mind, to describe dreams and fantasies – according to the rules of free association – the analyst acts as a catalyst for an overproduction of signifiers from which analysand and analyst extract particular capiton signifiers, which vary according to the psychoanalytical school in question. With regard to the function of analytic theories, they usually supply the plethora of signifiers produced by patients with points of application, points where it is possible to find strong significations, structural and absolute ones.
Instead, with Lacan, analytic theory – not only practice – actually picks up on the shamanic strategy: this time it is the analyst – Lacan – who produces the plethora of signifiers. And here, the “healed” are not his patients, but all those of us who are interested in psychoanalysis; perplexed and dumbfounded before the enigma of our existences as they are plunged into the technological Real. Significantly, Lacan said that in his seminars he was in the position of the analysand: he offered his audience the surplus signifier that the analytic setting causes the analysand to produce.
For this reason, I don’t think we can interpret everything Lacan says, as his more tenacious pupils try to do. It would be like wanting to interpret every sentence the patient utters! I select what Lacan says because we have to be analysts of his plethoric discourse. I mean to say that Lacan’s word is unsaturated and that trying to saturate it betrays its authentic . . . non-sense. The arbitrational function of the “illuminated” – once shamans, today writers or philosophers, psychoanalysts or singers – consists precisely in supplying obscure, but interesting material.
Desire and the skinny virgin
[…] The early Lacan develops a form of existentialist Hegelianism, so-to-speak. He makes the manque à être, the lack of being or being deficit, the centre of subjectivity. According to Heidegger, Dasein lacks “presence,” insofar as it is a project and an anticipation, but it does not lack being. What counts in Lacan, by contrast, is the lack-of-being, the hole around which subjectivity as a whole rotates. The desiring being desires “to be,” but will never be.
Hence Lacan develops a vision of human desire that I would call anorexic. He uses the term aphanisis, by which he means the extinction or disappearance of desire. In this phase of his thinking, castration is not so much the incapacity to no longer enjoy sex, but the incapacity to desire. This is particularly evident today with tools such as Viagra. Many males – not only the old – complain not of impotence, but of being unable to desire women, or men in the case of homosexuals, and this makes them feel half dead. And in fact, because Lacan essentially understands the subject as desiderans, then the subject itself risks disappearing in the twilight of desire.
In the 1950s and 60s Lacan centres on desire, which gives “life” to the subject by never finding satisfaction in a determined object. This is what the Lacanian theory of anorexia is based on. It is an ascetic enjoyment in which mainly young females engage, that prospers almost exclusively in well-off countries where obesity rather than hunger is the main problem. Anorexia is also an anerosia, a lack of Eros: authentic anorexics also reject carnal relations with men or women. If they love someone, they do so only through Facebook or WhatsApp. The “skinny virgin” refuses to satisfy herself with food or orgasm because, in so doing, she preserves herself as a desiring being and hence as a subject. So, at the time, Lacan developed an anorexic-like theory of human beings.
We saw how for the ancients, relinquishing satisfaction – relinquishing direct seizure of the glabrous boy or of the “structure” (the Platonic idea) – was limited to a philosophical élite. Instead for Lacan, we’re all “philosophers.” Saint Augustine said that we must love love. We desire to desire, and desire, far from extinguishing itself in pleasure, relaunches itself in a spiral.
Purloining philosophy and the music of ideas
An Italian philosopher wrote about a doleful quip common among Italian philosophy students: “to do philosophy we have to hang around with the Lacanians!” Today’s philosophy faculties, especially in Italy, are dominated either by Anglo-American analytic philosophy or by a purely philological approach that understands philosophy as a cultural heritage from the past, to be preserved like the excavations of Pompeii. So, “continental” philosophy is apparently only kept alive by the Lacanian circles.
Yet Lacan always said he was not and did not wish to be a philosopher, despite his plundering of philosophical themes. His audience was supposed to be constituted by psychoanalysts, not by philosophers. He also ransacked other disciplines, from linguistics to mathematics. This is why Badiou (2018) situated him among the anti-philosophers (with Pascal, Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein). Nevertheless, it is a fact that many philosophers are attracted by his thinking.
But the opposite of what Ronchi quotes is also true. I’ve noticed that when philosophy lectures are given at many Lacanian schools of psychotherapy, students often say “I finally understand something about Lacan!”
In short, “to understand Lacan we analysts have to hang around with the philosophers.” It is absolutely significant that Jacques-Alain Miller, one of the leaders of the Lacanian school and editor of Lacan’s Complete Works, was a philosopher. This is where the crucial problem of the transmissibility of a thought or of a praxis emerges.
What do these philosophers, who can explain Lacan more effectively than so many analysts, actually help us understand? They help us understand a clarified Lacan, one whose concepts can be conveyed clearly and distinctly. A little like what I’m trying to do here; I’m someone who considers clarity a moral duty. Despite everything, philosophy is on the side of science and mathematics, not on the side of art, politics or psychoanalysis; in other words, it aims at clarifying our ideas. Even though many modern philosophers are actually un-conveyable.
But Lacan’s use of philosophical texts is not heavily criticized by those philosophers who would like to “clarify” according to analytic philosophy. Rather, the most significant criticisms of Lacan – Derrida’s, Lacoue-Labarthe’s, and Nancy’s – are not from traditionalist academic philosophers, but from philosophers who blame him for not having gone far enough
Shamanic cures and psychoanalysis differ; whilst in the former it is the healer who essentially supplies this plethora of signifiers, in the latter it is the subject being healed who supplies it, whilst the analyst, the supposed healer, tends to remain silent. […] Instead, with Lacan, analytic theory – not only practice – actually picks up on the shamanic strategy
L'ange du foyer (Fireside angel) by Max Ernst, 1937: Image Credit: all-art.org
But a doubt remains: is what is clarifiable and comprehensible in Lacan really “the thing Lacan”? Is it not a little like turning poems into prose, as they made us do at high school to check whether we’d “understood” them? What do we lose in the conversion to prose? As I said, we lose the Witz, the joke, the pun, the echo of the “plethora of the signifier” of which I spoke.
When Lacan kept repeating that he absolutely did not want to do philosophy, he did not do so out of vanity. He wanted to challenge philosophy on its own turf, to lure it into making itself say something other than what it wants to make us understand. He blocked clarification with something conceptually opaque that would provoke explicative erections without penetrating sense. If we cannot digest this non-clarifiable quality in Lacan, we end up mixing psychoanalytic apples with philosophical oranges. Even if it is commonly thought that Lacan’s essential reference was philosophy.
But Lacan’s use of philosophical texts – from Plato’s Symposium to Aristotle, from Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, to Hegel, and Heidegger – is not heavily criticized by those philosophers who would like to “clarify” according to analytic philosophy. Rather, the most significant criticisms of Lacan – I’m thinking of Derrida’s, Lacoue-Labarthe’s, and Nancy’s – are not from traditionalist academic philosophers, but from philosophers who blame him for not having gone far enough, for having remained attached to a logocentric (and phallocentric) vision, and ultimately to a humanistic conception of the unconscious.
However, Lacan attracts philosophers and non-philosophers insofar as, instead of clarifying, he creates thought-events. Consider some Lacanian semi-slogans such as “there is no sexual relationship” or “woman is not-whole [pas-toute].” They strike us as other thought-events that ended up giving the world a particular direction.
Consider statements such as “man is the measure of all things” by Protagoras. Or the “epiméleia heautou” – “care for self” – of the ancient Greeks; or “all human beings are born free and equal,” or Nietzsche’s “God is dead.” These are mostly gratuitous statements, given to us without the philosopher paying the levy of demonstration. Yet empires, wars, genocides, enthusiasms and desperations, poverty and prosperity, have been generated by such philosophemes, by charming bursts of thought-events
Sometimes when we listen to a particular piece of music we say “this music is making me think!” About what? About no specific concept, yet it’s a piece of music that makes us thoughtful, one that reminds us that the world and life are things to think about, that do not lend themselves to absent-minded simplicity. I think that certain authors, Lacan among them, are like this “music that makes us think.”
After all, what counts is the music of ideas. Some authors say the right things, but their thinking has no musicality and so what they say sounds irrelevant. Those with a taste for Lacan understand his music. For example, I don’t understand certain types of actual music nor certain ways of doing philosophy, because they give me no enjoyment. What makes a thinker great is not the fact that he or she has discovered definitive truths, but the fact that his or her ideas have the right rhythm, the rhythm that leads (many of us) “to think.” If this conversation of mine is to be of any value, then it will be because I have produced a conceptual music for certain readers, rather than stated truths. The perception of stated truths is a trompe-l’intelligence of this music of concepts.
It is by distorting certain philosophical texts that Lacan has enriched them, resituating them in a new regime of sense. The same thing surrealism did with the figurative arts. I think that Lacan is to current psychoanalysis what surrealism was to the more traditionalistic arts of the 20th century.
Let’s take the painting “L’ange du foyer” by Max Ernst, for example. What does this painting really represent? It could be read, of course, as a representation based on the fantastic beings. We see a figure, part human, part monster, which seems to be hyperbolically pouncing upon a piece of land. Is this “angel of the hearth” supposed to represent the monstrous side of the good housewife? We then realize that a purely figurative reading of this painting allows us to capture its abstract, non-representational tone. In other words, it is not a representation of monstrous creatures, but an uncertainty in giving them form and sense. On the one hand the painter encourages us to take an interpretative path, but soon condemns it, in the way we say a door is “condemned.” We can still see its shape, but it is walled up, still inviting us to see something figural in the work.
My feeling is that Lacan does something similar. Some say “Lacan is a philosopher,” but in him we can find plenty of traits that are absolutely non-philosophical. It is even uncertain whether his is a theory in the strictest sense. Under many aspects it does present itself as a monumental theoretical system. But under others, it presents itself as a series of literary pages written in a baroque style. The writing and speech of Lacan are reminiscent of the writings by psychotics he published in his younger days. Lacan’s writing is also psychotic, because some psychotic discourses are like Ernst’s painting: something that apparently tends to a sense, but fades into other discourses, like a discordant polyphony.
Lacan infuriated not only philosophers, but specialists more generally from all the disciplines he plundered, who often condemned the use he made of linguistic, philosophical or mathematical concepts as malpractice. Linguists, for example, reproached Lacan for his offhand use of some of de Saussure’s and Jakobson’s concepts.
Something Lacan couldn’t deny. So, he declared “moi, de la linguistique, je m’en fous,” “I don’t give a shit about linguistics.” Then he made fun of himself, saying his wasn’t linguistics but “linguistérie,” “linguisterics.” A neologism we can understand as “hysterical language.” Or as “language shop”. And he could have said the same of all the disciplines he based himself on. His was “philosophérie” and “mathemathérie.” He purloins the various disciplines he uses, like Poe’s letter (The purloined letter).
It would be naïve to think that Lacan’s disarraying of non-psychoanalytic authors is the result of an artlessness or amateurism on his behalf. The distortion of certain theories seems to be calculated, something that he even admitted to on occasion. These diversions respond to his intent to “psychoanalyze” the theories he bases himself on, in the sense of making them say what they do not manifestly say, but that is nevertheless nestled in a conceptual latency in the theories themselves.