It’s been 35 years since the death of Jacques Lacan. We here at Pluto reckon that it’s time enough we had another controversial, ground-breaking philosopher-cum-psychoanalyst. So, as Lacan would have wanted, let’s turn this investigation in on ourselves, using passages from Martin Murray’s ‘Jacques Lacan: A Critical Introduction’, we can understand the formation of Jacques Lacan’s character and thought, and determine if you’ve got what it takes to be the next Lacan.
Are you a Polymath?
‘Controversy about his eclecticism never put Lacan off. In many senses, he relished it. Not only did he not relinquish his researches in unfamiliar fields, he extended them. As his career progressed, he engaged less with psychoanalytic theories and more with other ones. This is ironic, given that he increasingly claimed to be isolating what was ‘fundamental’ to psychoanalysis and to be doing so by ‘formulating’ what is essential to it.
The irony is well exemplified by Lacan’s late and quite notorious logical, mathematical and topological speculations. He claimed that these offered an overall, accurate, rigorous and definitive formulation of psychoanalytic principles. He even claimed that they offered an effective critique of philosophy and science per se. They don’t. In fact, there’s a debate about whether they achieve anything at all. In any case they confirm a contention that […] Lacan’s speculations, researches and theorisations, although sometimes ‘brilliant’ were idiosyncratic. They were looking to discover or establish something that is essential to psychoanalysis outside of psychoanalysis (for example in logic, topology and mathematics). In other words Lacan’s method was split, just as he was. Lacan wanted to be an acclaimed para-logician, a supra-formulator and a scientific (as well as philosophical) polymath (a sort of poly-mathematician). Yet he only convinced his followers that he was any such thing.
The division – between what Lacan would like to have been and what he was – corresponded with the conflict between the various and particular roles that he played but couldn’t decide between or give up (psychoanalyst, philosopher, healer, teacher, priest, genius, rebel etc.). All of these conflicts were probably symptomatic of a fear of and ambivalence about loss. In other words they were borne of a terror that success as one thing means failure as another, that gaining something means giving something else up, or that sacrificing one thing means losing everything.’
Do you recognise this multiplicity of spirit within yourself? Do you work in HR, but envisage yourself as a shaman/geographer/veterinary nurse? Well, our imposed methods of deduction suggest that you could be the next Lacan…
Are you fashion forward?
‘As adulthood loomed, Jacques assumed the dress of a dandy and a savage wit. He dressed and spoke like Oscar Wilde and developed an affection for clothes and ideas from England. Yet his aesthetic interests remained Continental. His was keen on the modern avant-garde that was at its most radical and influential in France and Germany. Its proponents were both élite and subversive. Jacques met André Breton and Philippe Soupault around about the time of their experiments in automatic writing. They had both been very involved in Dada and would officially found Surrealism a few years later. The former movement was anarchistic; the latter was Marxist and Freudian. Both movements were practised by cliques whose arbiters (especially Breton) were exclusive and authoritarian. They appealed to Jacques’ snobbishness as well as his disposition to sedition.
The violent atheism and anti-clericalism practised by the Dadaists and Surrealists eroded Jacques’ Catholic beliefs. Yet even these weren’t relinquished without ambivalence, as they too could be agents of both obedience and insubordination. A few years before his renunciation of God, Jacques had been a successful student of his religion, influenced by of one of his teachers, Jean Baruzi. The academic, rationalistic Catholicism that Baruzi taught him contrasted sharply with both the mystical, urbane sort practised by his mother’s family and the pietistic, provincial sort practiced by his father’s. Jacques attained very high marks in theology by espousing a faith that his family didn’t understand. He was thus able to both please and irritate them at the same time.
It is worth pausing briefly to comment on the nature and range of the contradictory philosophical, ideological and aesthetic positions taken up by the young Jacques. He was both radical and conservative. His radicalism was both left wing and right wing. He was religious and secular. The English won his loyalty and love, but so did their historical arch-enemies, the French. Is any of this surprising? Jacques had been ‘good and bad’ at school, behaviourally and intellectually. His parents must have had high hopes for him, but despaired of him too. The child clearly ‘had an ego’ in both the clinical and the common senses in which this phrase might be used. He both had a sense of self and one that was ‘egotistical’. What this all says about him reinforces much that has been said so far, namely that he was singly and multiply ‘split’. This splitting was clearly personal and would also become professional.’
Look down, is that spaghetti bolognese on your t-shirt or the spilt blood of historically combatant continental nations, both of whom you pledge your intellectual and cultural allegiance to? Is that puddle water splashed up your trousers or is that the tears of a pious foe you espoused when renouncing your religion in favour of cold, hard, rationalist atheism? If the answer is the former then you please kiss goodbye to being the next Lacan.
What was your school career like?
‘Lacanians sometimes represent Jacques’ performance as a pupil as ‘brilliant’. This is only half-true. His schoolwork was inconsistent. He gained high marks in some subjects and average ones in others. This wasn’t so much a result of his intellectual limitations as of his emotional ambivalence about his background and adolescent experience.
Jacques parents were French, bourgeois and Catholic. They sent him to a school that was all of these things too. Yet he wouldn’t be made in their image. They always behaved respectably; he didn’t. His school reports described him as bright but lazy and funny but conceited. He was sure of himself, but often sick or truanting. This combination of melancholic and precocious traits made him like the young Nietzsche, who was one of his youthful idols. The identification was both aspirational and subversive. It allowed him to adopt the stance of ‘aristocratic radicalism’ attributed to his hero. Lacan never entirely relinquished this stance; he always saw himself as both superior and a rebel. In adolescence, the stance was complemented by a flirtation with extreme right-wing nationalism, as expounded by Charles Maurras. Like all forms of extremism, it had its violent aspect. Jacques became both more sophisticated and less civil than his parents. This made him a greater and a lesser bourgeois than them.’
Were you distinctly average at school, or could you manage an A* in RE, but when it came to Chemistry exams you were hoping your neighbour would shift their elbow a fraction of an inch so you could see the answer to 2D? Were you a teacher’s pet or did you fall in with a crowd of Nietzchean ‘aristocratic radicals’ with a profound adoration for King and Country? If you’ve answered yes to the second two questions you might be on track to becoming the next Lacan.
Are you already an esteemed psychoanalyst?
‘Lacan became a psychiatrist and then a psychoanalyst. The institutions that trained him to do what he did (his school, training hospital and psychoanalytic institute) were prestigious. He had a rewarding career. In keeping with his ambitions, he became well-known in Paris and made and spent quite a lot of money. He mixed with people of financial, cultural, social and intellectual status: lawyers, artists, businessmen, politicians, clerics, civil servants, academics and medics. He became a renowned and influential member of the Parisian intelligentsia. He partly achieved this by being a lecturing and training analyst in a series of psychoana- lytic institutes that increasingly bore the public stamp of his teaching and name. In other words the institutions he taught in became known as ‘Lacanian’ ones.
Lacan’s profile was compounded through lectures to and friendships with non-psychoanalytic intellectuals. He gave lectures – as opposed to training seminars – at élite institutions like the Sorbonne. These were published alongside some of his influential papers in his Écrits in 1966.
The Écrits were nominally concerned with psychoanalysis, but also engaged (in apparently complex and informed ways) with science, philosophy, the arts, politics and culture. The relatively large and attentive audience and readership of these lectures/writings included not only psy- choanalysts (practitioners as well as trainees) but also scientists, journalists, university students and professors. Lacan addressed them in a convoluted, allusive and abstruse manner. It was as if he was testing their intellectual ability against his. If they understood him they were his peers, if they didn’t they were his inferiors. Some promising students found him inspiring; some renowned academics found him incomprehensible. This was either a testament to his genius or to his intellectual vanity.’
No? Not ringing any bells? This whole ‘next Lacan’ thing might not work out for you then, sorry.
For similar titles to Jacques Lacan: A Critical Introduction, we suggest:
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Martin Murray is Head of the School of Media, Culture and Communication at London Metropolitan University. He has published various articles on psychoanalysis, philosophy, literature and culture in academic and non-academic journals.
A Critical Introduction to Jacques Lacan is available to buy here.