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Lacan: An Exchange

To the Editors:

I have read Richard Wollheim’s article “The Cabinet of Dr. Lacan” (NYR, January 25) and I will briefly attempt to correct some of its inaccuracies, errors, and falsehoods. I mention at the outset that I am a member of the Ecole freudienne and am not disinterested.

At the end of his article Wollheim claims that Lacan has found his “recruits” among “feminists, cinéastes, professors of literature.” Supposedly, these groups “lack a theory worthy of their cause or calling,” and this makes them susceptible to being duped. Aside from the fact that this is a gratuitous slur, the vast majority of the members of the Ecole freudienne are psychiatrists, psychologists, and philosophers. Some, of course, are also feminists.

Next, it is not and never has been possible, despite what Mr. Wollheim has been told (by whom?) “to become a Lacanian analyst after a very few months of Lacanian analysis.” Had the author checked his sources, he would have discovered that one of the principal reasons for Lacan’s exclusion from the International Psychoanalytic Association was that his training analyses took too long to complete.

Also, I would be interested in knowing the source for this judgment: “All reports of his training methods…are horrifying.” Obviously, as Sherry Turkel’s Psychoanalytic Politics (cited to substantiate the claim) points our, there are a great many analysts in France and elsewhere who disagree. If the judgment is Mr. Wollheim’s, one would like to know what gives him the competence to judge psychoanalytic training. When he adds parenthetically that these techniques have brought about “three distinct secessions” in the French analytic movement, one wonders why he seems to be uninformed of the secessions in non-Lacanian groups—beginning with Freud’s first circle and even including the austere New York Psychoanalytic Society.

The more substantial error in this article is its systematic misreading of Lacan. Wollheim reads Lacan as though psychoanalysis were a branch of philosophy. How else could we understand his definition of analysis as “a particular way of exploring the mind.” Lacan would reject this purported equivalence and has never in fact discussed the “mind.”

In other places Wollheim seems to think that the force of analysis is that it gives explanations which lead to understanding. Since Lacan has stated explicitly that the efficacy of analysis has nothing to do with either explanation or understanding, it is unjust to accuse him of falling short in fields that are properly philosophical. Mr. Wollheim would have done well to discuss Lacan’s critique of consciousness.

And where Mr. Wollheim refers extensively to psycholinguistics and symbolism, we should point out that Lacan himself has never spoken of psycholinguistics and has differentiated the theory of symbolism from the symbolic order. Where Lacan says that the phallus and the Name of the Father are signifiers, Wollheim calls them phantasies, which are hardly the same thing.

More flagrantly Wollheim says that Lacan accepts the erotogenic zones Freud associated with drives. According to Wollheim, Freud defined these zones as “the mouth, the anus, the phallus, the genitals.” What Lacan did say in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis is that the four drives concern the mouth, the anus, the eyes, and the ears. This is not a question of interpretation, but rather of sloppy work. It is also sloppy to say that Lacan’s statement: “The unconscious is structured like a language” is equivalent to “The unconscious is a language.”

These are just some examples. I will not for the moment take up Wollheim’s confection of a layer cake to explain what he thinks Lacan’s theory of development is. Suffice it to say that this is also riddled with the same kinds of errors. I conclude in expressing my regrets that so distinguished a philosopher was not capable of giving Lacan a more intelligent and serious hearing.

Stuart Schneiderman

New York City

Richard Wollheim replies:

With a writer so obscure, indeed so deliberately obscure, as Lacan, it must always be difficult to be certain that one has properly understood him. I said as much in my original article, but Mr. Schneiderman’s letter does not help me to see where I may have gone wrong.

  1. In at least four places Mr. Schneiderman fails to follow me. So in my article I record it as an interesting, and melancholy, fact that Lacan should have found recruits amongst groups who already were in some way deprived or oppressed. But in saying this, I do not deny that Lacan also has a following amongst Lacanian analysts. Again, in referring to the secessions that Lacan has brought about in the French psychoanalytic movement I do not “seem to be uninformed’ of, let alone deny, disputes that have occurred in Vienna or New York—or indeed London and Los Angeles. That I didn’t mention them all in the same breath may be taken to imply that I think there were significant differences between them: which I do. And, again, in my article I do not equate the view that the unconscious is structured like a language with the view that the unconscious is a language. On the contrary, I explicitly distinguish them when I say that, though Lacan asserts the former view, he appears to believe the latter. Finally in giving my views, and possibly also in giving Lacan’s views about “the force of analysis,” Schneiderman makes the common confusion between necessity and sufficiency.

  2. In other places Schneiderman begs the question. So he rebuts criticisms that I make of Lacan—for instance, what I say about the subject matter and method of psycho-analysis—by saying that Lacan wouldn’t agree, and he rejects interpretations that I place upon Lacan—for instance, treating the phallus and the Name-of-the-Father as phantasies—by saying that this isn’t how Lacan expresses himself. This is to argue from authority, when it is precisely that very authority that is at stake. (Incidentally one phrase to which Schneiderman objects as unLacanian—“exploring the mind”—is, as most readers will surmise, Freud’s. E.g. SE, Volume XX, 1926f, p. 264.)

  3. There are two places where Schneiderman directly engages with what I say: about the erotogenic zones, and about the present state of Lacanian analysis.

On the erotogenic zones Schneiderman claims that Lacan does not accept Freud’s list but amends it by replacing the phallus and the genitals with the ears and the eyes. In the écrit “On the Possible Treatment of the Psychosis” Lacan talks of “the equivalence” on which the hypothesis of the phallic zone rests, i.e. clitoris = penis, as part of “the armature of the Freudian edifice” (Ecrits, p. 189). Possibly there is less direct textual support for supposing that Laçan regards the genitals as an erotogenic zone, and in attributing the view to Lacan I may have been unduly influenced by charity. The issue of the ears and the eyes is slightly more complex. Long before Lacan, Freud talked of the eye (and the skin), and Abraham talked of the ear, as possible erotogenic zones. That is well known. But both thinkers strongly suggested that these are substitutive phenomena, or cases where one area of the body does duty for another. The trouble is that, since Lacan rejects both a biological account of how any erotogenic zone establishes itself (passim) and also a developmental account of how one zone succeeds another (Four Fundamental Concepts, p. 64), he is prevented from making the necessary distinctions which will allow us to see unambiguously whether he agrees with his predecessors or whether he thinks of the eye and the ear as erotogenic zones in their own right. Mr. Schneiderman’s phrase—that “the four drives concern the mouth etc.”—accurately reflects the precision of Lacanian theory on this point. However, I assume Lacan’s proclaimed rétour à Freud allows me to infer at least this: that Lacan believes himself to be in agreement with Freud except where he explicitly says otherwise.

The state of Lacanian analysis cannot be decisively settled in the correspondence columns of The New York Review. It was for this reason that I expressed myself so moderately, though I said that reports reaching me of Lacan’s training methods were “horrifying.” I had in mind the combination of three distinct factors: the absence of training analysts, the brevity of the analytic session, and the brevity of the training. Schneiderman disputes the last factor and also questions my competence to judge psychoanalytic training methods.

As to the brevity of Lacanian training, Schneiderman, it will be noted, changes the subject from Lacan’s present methods to methods allegedly his at an earlier date—though by talking of Lacan’s “exclusion” from the International Psychoanalytic Association he may be referring to 1953 when Lacan in effect excluded himself from the IPA, or to the period 1956-1963 when he unsuccessfully tried to rejoin the Association. The IPA refused to accept Lacan back on a number of grounds—the brevity of the session, the number of patients seen in the day, the refusal of Lacan to persist with patients who said nothing etc.—but not on the ground that Schneiderman cites.

What may have confused Schneiderman is that Lacan was further criticized by the IPA for his failure to handle adequately “the termination phase” of the analysis with the result that patients remained in a state of dependence upon him long after the analysis was over. I say that on utterly reliable and altogether well-informed authority. The present situation is somewhat obscured by Lacan’s belief in self-authorization by the analyst and the lack of a selection procedure—so when are we to say the training is complete? For me this only compounds the “horror” of the situation.

My competence to judge psychoanalytic training—and what is at issue here is not, of course, a capacity to make fine-grained judgments of the sort the IPA tried to make, but a broad competence—comes from my ability to infer from my reading of Freud and other sources, from my own experience of analysis, and from certain powerful common-sense intuitions just how complex and just how difficult the process must be of mastering “the science of unconscious mental processes” (again Freud’s phrase), of seeing how to apply it, and of learning how to cope with the transference and also with the counter-transference.

To the Editors:

Richard Wollheim ends his informative and challenging article on Jacques Lacan with a polemical aside that leaves me puzzled. He writes: “Lacan’s ideas and Lacan’s style, yoked in an indissoluble union, represent an invasive tyranny. And it is by a hideous irony that this tyranny should find its recruits among groups that have nothing in common except the sense that they lack a theory worthy of their cause or calling: feminists, cinéastes, professors of literature.”

Would Professor Wollheim care to explain on what evidence he includes feminists in this list? Could he give the names of any individual women or women’s groups, here or in France, that have become Lacan’s “recruits”? I would certainly be curious to learn how Lacanian theory and feminism manage to coexist.

Fritz Fleischmann

Watertown, Massachusetts

Richard Wollheim replies:

Lacanian feminism”—a term intended very broadly—is influential in France, England, and (I understand) Italy.

In France its original base was the group Psychanalyse et Politique, the anti-anti-psychoanalytic section of the Mouvement de la Libération des Femmes, which was started in 1968. Those who either have influenced, or were influenced by, Lacanian feminism include Maude Mannoni, Julia Kristeva, and Luce Irigaray. Some of the more significant writings are forthcoming in a translation by Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose entitled Feminine Sexuality in the School of Jacques Lacan (Macmillan, London: 1979).

In England one of the earliest discussions appears in Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism (Allen Lane, London: 1974). Out of study groups operating in London and Birmingham (see, e.g., letter from Lacan Study Group, New Left Review, no. 97, May-June 1976), two journals have appeared which tend to discuss feminist issues in Lacanian terms: Ideology and Consciousness (1977- ) and m/f (1978- ). The literature is considerable, and attention to these ideas is now to be found in the more “popular” feminist magazines, e.g., Spare Rib No. 70, May 1978. Also relevant is the work of filmmaker Carola Klein (Mirror Phase) and artist Mery Kelly (see Hayward Annual 1978 catalogue).

In the United States I believe the influence of Lacan upon feminism is less, though in the recently appeared Camera Obscura (Berkeley, Calif. 1978- ) this tendency is represented.

Where I sympathize with Lacanian feminism is in the attempt to formulate a theory of feminism and of male hostility to or envy of women, but I am doubtful whether the line can ever be drawn between an explanation of the problem (however identified) in terms of Lacanian theory and a mere rewriting of the problem in Lacanese.

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