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Lacan: An Exchange

To the Editors:

I enjoyed reading Richard Wollheim’s review of Lacan. Having been involved myself in trying to explain Lacan from “first principles,” I appreciated the lucidity and straightforwardness of Wollheim’s presentation. I also share Wollheim’s impatience with Lacanian opacities. But I feel that the style of criticism adopted in his review tends to throw out the admittedly cantankerous baby with the admittedly muddy bath water.

Lacan provokes people to take positions for or against and the recently begun Anglo-American interchange about Lacan in the New York Review is already falling into the polemical tradition of a quarter of a century of French intellectual pyrotechnics. In the fray, I find my own work (Psychoanalytic Politics: Freud’s French Revolution) used by both sides. Richard Wollheim (NYR, January 25) cites it to support “horrifying” rumors of Lacanian training and practice; Stuart Schneiderman, in the other camp, uses it as a kind of character reference to support a thesis of Lacanian respectability by association (NYR, April 5).

People end up fighting about Lacan, and a radical polarization of opinion (for or against) and level of discussion (alternating between lofty philosophical issues and grubby details of practice) ensues. In all of this, there is little room for understanding what Lacan is saying and doing in terms of his global intention as a psychoanalytic theorist at a particular historical moment.

Consider, for example, Lacan’s theory of the way in which language constitutes the self. Wollheim reads it as an abstract theory of language, and complains that it lacks in originality. But for Lacan, the language theory is part of a real battle with ego psychology that he fights not as a philosopher but as an analyst. Lacan’s description of an ego as an alienated self built out of confusions has nothing in common with the sturdy, helpful agent described by the ego psychologists. When Lacan’s ego theory is read as part of his attack on ego psychology, it is no longer appropriate to say (as Wollheim does) that Hegel knew it all. Nor is it appropriate to say (again, as Wollheim does) that the theory of language is trivial because it would be accepted by most people (“only the crassest empiricist would dissent”). Perhaps American psychoanalysts would accept the theory as abstract statement, but Lacan calls on them to act on it. This means calling into question the notion of a “therapeutic alliance” with the ego. For Lacan, the ego carries the neurosis—alliance with it is consorting with the enemy. Whatever one thinks about the philosophical originality of Lacan’s theory, its implications for psychoanalysis are neither derivative from Hegel nor commonplace on the psychoanalytic/psychotherapeutic scene.

In general, what is most disappointing about Wollheim’s very thoughtful review is that it fails to deal with the development of Lacanian themes in terms of his intentions. (Wollheim does comment that “confidence raises the issue of intentions” but he does so in one of his final paragraphs and the issue gets less than short shrift.) Lacan’s intentions combine purely theoretical concerns with political ones. Lacan’s fight against ego psychology is inseparable from his effort (supported by Marxists such as Louis Althusser) to purge adaptationist psychology out of psychoanalysis, from his critique of the medicalization of psychoanalysis and from his attack on the orthodoxy and hierarchy of the psychoanalytic institution.

Lacan’s controversial ideas about analytic training only make sense in the context of this latter struggle. But Wollheim disposes of the issue in one sentence, by stating that “all reports of his [Lacan’s] training methods…are horrifying.” When challenged by Schneiderman to expand on the causes for his horror, Wollheim specifies that “there are no training analysts.” Indeed, there is no separate category of analysts set apart as “training analysts” at the Freudian School. But this state of affairs grew out of a desire for good training rather than a casual attitude towards it. The breakdown of the standard hierarchy within the analytic institution is a response to Lacan’s dissatisfaction with the tradition of taking some analyses and giving them an a priori “professional” status as qualification to practice. Like Luther who cried out for personal faith against the institutionalized dogma of the Church, Lacan asserts a psychoanalytic protestantism where psychoanalysis is a calling before it is a career and where the authorization to become an analyst is squarely placed in the shared experience of analyst and analysand, not in its labelling by an institution. Lacan believes that such institutional legitimations profoundly compromise the psychoanalytic process. Whatever one thinks of Lacan’s psychoanalytic “protestant reformation,” it is a serious attempt to respond to a perceived contradiction between psychoanalysis and the psychoanalytic institution. To simply state, as does Wollheim, that the French school suffers from a lack of training analysts begs the question of what Lacan is really up to.

One final point about the perils of ignoring an author’s intentions. When Wollheim transposes Lacan into collegial status as a philosopher, he puts him in a world where internal contradictions (unless “reparable”) are grounds for dismissal. This is a world where Lacan is easy prey. But, in putting Lacan to this philosopher’s test, what slips by is another issue central to Lacan’s agenda: this is to raise the question of what kind of discourse is appropriate to psychoanalytic theory.

The words of the analyst in the analysis session do not have the status of truths requiring assent or disagreement. They are provocations to speech—provocations to personal exploration. Lacan’s assertion is that the writing of the psychoanalytic theorist must also be of this nature. Wollheim finds that Lacan’s writing is missing the rich texture of Freud’s where examples from case histories and from daily life were in abundance. Freud’s examples (like somebody leaving an umbrella behind) do have a reassuring earthiness. If you read Lacan looking for such, you are indeed disappointed. Lacan has an altogether different idea of what we need examples of. His text itself—the puns, the plays on words, the play with words, are there for the reader as examples of how language works in the shifting, slipping associative chains of the unconscious.

When Lacan visited the United States in November, 1975, he spoke to a group of scientists, mathematicians, psychologists, and linguists at MIT. Their expectation resembled Wollheim’s: that Lacan would speak about psychoanalysis. Instead Lacan simply spoke—and in a language that he himself characterized as “analytic, that is, close to poetry, close to delirium.” He was trying to do psychoanalysis in public rather than speak about it.

Lacan came to a university and spoke of God, the Trinity, topology, paranoid knowledge, of man encumbered by his excrement. His MIT audience, some indignant, some amused, found Lacan’s talk unacceptable. They saw it as a failure. But he may have made his point: that the role of both analyst and analytic theorist is to unrelentingly confront people with a vision of psychoanalysis as the unacceptable, the discourse that subverts everyday securities. To the extent that psychoanalysis becomes established university truth, standard medical practice, expected rhetoric, the chic “thing to do,” it becomes what Lacan has called a “social epidemic” and faces its own demise.

Sherry Turkle

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Richard Wollheim replies:

Professor Turkle can be a generous reader, but she is not a careful reader, as a small point shows. In replying to Schneiderman’s question about what I found “horrifying” in Lacan’s training methods, I referred to “the combination of three distinct factors.” Turkle takes me up on this reply, cites just one of these factors, and then reproves me for the simplicity of my answer.

It is this same carelessness that leads Turkle to accuse me, in the main body of her letter, of ignoring Lacan’s intentions, for it is evident that she has overlooked the two passages in my original review where Lacan’s intentions are considered. Early on in the review I say that, contrary to certain interpretations, Lacan does not seek to supplement Freudian theory with a theory of language: his central aim is to ground Freudian theory in a theory of language. Turkle must have missed this passage, for, though I go on to say that, once this point is grasped, certain criticisms made of Lacan (e.g., the lack of originality in his linguistic theory) seem “beside the point,” it is just these criticisms that Turkle attributes to me. Later on in the review I connect Lacan’s attitude to psychoanalytic training with his desire—with which I also express myself in some sympathy—to combat certain North American tendencies. I mention the “routinization” of training, and the conversion of analysis into a “process of crude social adaptation,” but what Turkle finds “most disappointing” in my review is my failure to recognize just these concerns in Lacan’s work.

Turkle, however, comes to unbury Lacan’s intentions so as to praise him, and she therefore must find his intentions reasonably well-judged and the execution of them appropriate. If Turkle and I disagree at this point, it reflects differences in the way we see psychoanalysis. It does not seem that Turkle’s reading of Freud is very deep, and from what she says in her letter she has had less than beginner’s luck in the examples she has hit upon. Of more recent developments her information seems confined to North American ego-psychology and Lacan—an impression confirmed by her book—with the result that she naturally treats any argument against the former as one in favor of the latter. The view that she takes of the psychoanalytic process itself, according to which interpretations are seen as mere “provocations” to further speech or action and devoid of truth-value, is the crude pragmatist view that prevailed among certain British linguistic philosophers in the early 1950s. The serious attention she solicits for what she cleverly calls Lacan’s “psychoanalytic protestantism” is surely, as I said in my reply to Schneiderman, incompatible with any view derivative from psychoanalysis that emphasizes either unconscious emotions or the forces of resistance.

Closely connected with the two previous points is the issue of the language in which psychoanalytic theory should be cast. Hartman, the doyen of ego-psychology, argued that psychoanalysis should follow the development of the natural sciences and aspire to formulations that are abstracted from the experiential. I disagree with his arguments but it strikes me that the arguments must be met, and Lacan has never attempted this. The view, to which Turkle is sympathetic, that psychoanalytic theory is best expressed in the language of the unconscious (rid, if necessary, of the “opacities” with which she is impatient) seems recommended only by the dictum, “Who drives fat oxen should himself be fat.”

Professor Turkle has shown herself an energetic and resourceful fieldworker, but she has a shock in store for her if she really believes, as she says, that philosophy is the only discipline where internal contradictions cannot be entertained.

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