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Lacan in AmericaReview - Lacan in America
by Jean-Michel Rabate (Editor)
Other Press, 2000
Review by Adrian Johnston, Ph.D.
May 3rd 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 18)

            Anti-American diatribes repeatedly surface in Lacan’s teachings.  For Lacan, heaping scorn on the “American way of life” is the obvious, appropriate rhetorical complement accompanying a sustained and carefully developed critique of ego-psychology (i.e., of any approach to analysis that seeks to strengthen the patient’s ego through helping it “adapt” to “social reality”).  In the Lacanian imagination, the United States is often depicted as a giant, homogenous conformity factory, a place where psychoanalysis is inevitably betrayed and bastardized in being pressed into the service of an ideologically overdetermined effort in which individuals are treated as mere cogs in the pragmatic functioning of the capitalist machine.  Only through the rebellious originality of the Gallic spirit, the breath of fresh Parisian air exhaled through the lips of the “absolute master,” is there hope of a “return to” or “rescue of” Freud, of revivifying the subversive significance of the unconscious so as to turn it against the crass, technocratic usurpers of the Freudian legacy.

Anyone who takes a moment to consider this position ought to immediately conclude that it rests upon a murky mixture of inaccurate generalizations, cultural prejudices, and gross factual distortions.  The myth of “Lacan versus America” is a story which Lacan is certainly complicit in fabricating, and which many of his followers are clearly guilty of uncritically perpetuating.  In one of the contributions to this sizable collection of essays, Catherine Liu (in her piece “Lacanian Reception”) reminds readers that ego-psychology wasn’t an indigenous, “home-grown” product of American culture, but an analytic approach imported to America by Central European immigrants fleeing from the Nazis and finding themselves in a new, unfamiliar social arrangement.  Any interpretations and critiques of American psychoanalysis qua ego-psychology, including Lacanian ones, must, in order to be taken seriously, grapple with the historical details of this process of cross-cultural fertilization.  Additionally, even if the portrayal of America and its relation to Freud offered by Lacan is basically accurate—even if one suspends suspicions about Lacan’s unjustified biases—it bears asking whether the situation remains the same today, whether the U.S. is still the land of “adaptation at all costs.” 

To take one gratuitous step further in using a couple of culinary metaphors familiar to Americans, one might even, in a half-joking way, go so far as to propose that perhaps Lacanian theory is already partially Americanized without knowing it.  At the clinical level, varying the length of sessions custom tailors the treatment to the needs of the individual analysand (the “short session” could easily be advertised to consumption-oriented Americans with not-so-long attention spans, despite Lacan’s explicit intentions to the contrary, as a kind of “fast food” version of analysis).  And, at the theoretical level, Lacanian thought is an interdisciplinary melange, an intellectual smorgasbord in which connoisseurs can sample conceptual items of all sorts (from psychoanalysis, philosophy, literature, mathematics, and so on).  Who says Lacan is inherently unpalatable to Americans?  In his 1974 interview broadcast on French television, alluding to just how wealthy he has become through the practice of analysis, Lacan smugly refers to himself, in English, as a “self-made man” (Je suis un ‘self-made man.).  Don’t Americans love a good entrepreneur?

Lacan in America brings together eighteen contributors, all of who share the conviction that the time is ripe for a long-overdue reconciliation between Lacan and America.  The essays in this four-hundred-page tome cover a wide range of topics:  the relation between Lacanian psychoanalysis and American psychology, the distinctiveness (and, in some cases, dubiousness) of Lacan’s handling of Freudian texts, the conduits through which Lacan has been introduced to the United States, the debates (crucial for feminism and queer theory) about whether or not Freudo-Lacanian ideas are thoroughly “phallocentric,” Lacan’s engagements with mathematics and the sciences in light of the “Sokal affair,” as well as the overlaps between Lacan’s work and major themes in philosophy—it should also be noted that this list is far from exhaustive.

In the seventeen pieces gathered here, it seems as though practically no stone is left unturned.  Nearly every aspect of the multi-faceted Lacanian textual object is brought into view and addressed in at least one way or another during the course of these discussions.  In addition, rather than being yet another collection of rabid disciples mindlessly praising the complete correctness of Father-Lacan’s jargonized dogma, Lacan in America opens the space for new queries and criticisms to be directed at Lacanian theory:  Shouldn’t Lacanian thought, instead of always having recourse to ahistorical notions of “structure,” pay more attention to the details of history as well as the ever-changing field of the present socio-economic order?  What would a historically contextualized and up-to-date, twenty-first century Lacan look like?  Mustn’t it be asked again whether or not the “paternal function,” especially today, is indeed as central as Lacan depicts it to be?  Similarly, how accurate are Lacan’s predictions regarding a “decline of the paternal imago” in light of what has transpired since his death in 1981?  And, overall, is Lacan, as he so often claims, a faithful interpreter of Freud?  Or, in fact, does he break with Freud in such a radical manner that, even today, those engaged with the Freudian field have yet to really ask themselves how the clinic and its underlying metapsychological framework must be reconceived “after Lacan?”

Of course, due to considerations of space, summarizing all seventeen contributions plus the editor’s substantial introduction to this volume isn’t possible within the confines of the present review.  Attempting to do so would result in inflicting interpretive injustices upon each and every author handled in what would be an unacceptably cursory manner.  So, instead of reducing each piece to a trivial sound-byte, attention is selectively focused on five essays that are particularly interesting and illuminating:  Michel Tort’s “Lacan’s New Gospel,” Néstor A. Braunstein’s “Construction, Interpretation, and Deconstruction in Contemporary Psychoanalysis,” Arkady Plotnitsky’s “On Lacan and Mathematics,” Joan Copjec’s “The Body as Viewing Instrument, or the Strut of Vision,” and Christopher Lane’s “The Experience of the Outside:  Foucault and Psychoanalysis.”

Tort’s approach demonstrates the utility and fruitfulness of carefully considering threads of socio-cultural, ideological influence subtly under-girding Lacan’s ostensibly ahistorical, quasi-philosophical discourse.  According to Tort, the Lacanian “glorification” (if it can be referred to in this manner) of the “paternal function” (i.e., the Nom-du-Père, the paternal metaphor, symbolic castration, etc.) must be seen, at least partially, as symptomatic of a cluster of motifs forming part of the French Catholic background against which Lacan’s ideas emerge.  Tort goes on to highlight a strikingly extreme polarization at the core the Lacanian recasting of the Oedipus complex:  on the one hand, the maternal figure is portrayed as a dissatisfied, insatiable, all-devouring creature threatening to destroy the child through objectification, through reducing him/her to a de-subjectified, passive object of desire; on the other hand, the paternal figure (or, more accurately, the signifier-emblems of paternity) promises to liberate the young, nascent subject-to-be by intervening in such a way as to provide a means of gaining distance from this (s)mother-monster.

In his version of the Oedipal scenario, Lacan lays out a forced choice of sorts—Père ou pire, father or worse (“or worse” being, of course, psychotic dissolution in the suffocating embrace of the mother).  The value of this aspect of Lacanian theory resides in its correction of Freud’s often one-sided version of familial dynamics, a version wherein the mother is the alluring love-object for the child and the father is the threatening, anxiety-inducing castrator (Melanie Klein’s work already corrects this Freudian myth of the maternal, showing that the infant’s relation to the mother is far from amounting to a blissful, pre-paternal Nirvana).  However, Tort’s reading suggests that, arguably, Lacan doesn’t so much rectify this Freudian one-sidedness as merely invert it.  Instead of the soothing, lovable mother and the menacing, loathed father, one gets the frightening, ravenous mother and the domesticating, stabilizing father.  This “rejection of the feminine,” justified by a reliance upon religious, ideological, fantasmatic glorifications of paternity—anyone who bothers perusing Lacan’s seminars is free to see for themselves the kind of sources from which he borrows in shoring up his theoretical claims concerning the nature of women and the Name-of-the-Father—is, in Tort’s view, a problematic feature of psychoanalysis that still has yet to be fully and properly dealt with by its adherents.  He concludes his essay by asking, “Does psychoanalysis consist of pursuing the sinister work of religion by other means?  Or more prosaically, will it demolish the great illusion that monotheistic religions have created over the past four millennia?” (pg. 187).

   In “Construction, Interpretation, and Deconstruction in Contemporary Psychoanalysis,” Braunstein begins his assessment of a particularly important difference separating Freudian and Lacanian understandings of analytic procedure by uncovering lingering contradictions in Freud’s final texts.  In the late 1930s, Freud introduces a concept he designates “construction.”  During the course of an analysis, the analyst will produce an interpretation that he/she is strongly convinced must refer to a truth about the analysand’s past.  This conviction stems from the fact that such an interpretation, one that has this seductive ring of truthfulness in the analyst’s ears, elegantly and exhaustively ties together that various associations and symptoms presented by the patient.  In many instances, analysands are eventually able to confirm the analyst’s interpretation by unearthing the repressed memories referred to by the analyst as first-person recollections.  However, sometimes, no such “recovered memory” comes to light.  An interpretation that lacks this confirmation is dubbed a “construction.”  Freud proposes that constructions are necessary when the nucleus of the patient’s pathologies is so deeply buried, so forcefully repressed, that it’s practically impossible to undo the blockage and liberate these eclipsed experiences.

Braunstein proceeds to delineate a series of tensions and contradictions plaguing the later Freud’s musings on the process of analysis.  In his discussion of constructions, Freud appears to indulge himself in believing that a complete retrieval of the past is, at least in principle, possible.  And yet, his own theory of repression, centered on “primary repression” as the ultimate “prime mover” behind the various unfolding chains of repressed elements in the psyche, denies the very possibility of uncovering any final terms, any irreducible memory-kernels in psychical life.  In connection with this point, Braunstein also advances a thesis resembling Jean Laplanche’s focus on the alien desires of others, including, as a key example, the mother’s unconscious desires and how they indiscernibly-yet-decisively shape the emerging Oedipal subject (a recent collection of Laplanche’s essays translated into English, Essays on Otherness, is quite worthwhile examining apropos of these ideas).  According to Braunstein, maternal desire isn’t itself an “object,” “experience,” or identifiable set of “ideational traces” in the unconscious, so it can’t, despite its psychical centrality, be recovered as a distinctive group of repressed mnemic materials (thus thwarting any analytic approach conceived of along the lines of the persistent archaeological metaphor favored by Freud when describing the task of the analyst).  Similarly, Braunstein argues that Freud vacillates between two dissimilar ideas; he contends that Freud conflates “construction” and “reconstruction.”  The former entails a hermeneutic approach to analysis, where what really counts in the cure is providing the suffering patient with some sort of meaning, some type of narrative whose importance stems not from its factual truth-value, but, rather, from its power to convince and heal.  Reconstruction is something slightly different.  It involves the above-mentioned desire for a total, exhaustive picture of the patient’s life history (a desire frequently found as much or more on the side of the analyst as on the side of the analysand).  It concerns itself, no doubt in vain (given Braunstein’s claims), with factual accuracy as measured against the standard of the analysand’s recollections.  For Braunstein, Lacan’s basic fashion of practicing analysis is a response to precisely these sorts of problems and inconsistencies in the Freudian theory of the clinic.  Instead of stranding practitioners between construction and reconstruction, Lacan shows that analysis is best conducted as a process of “deconstruction,” a gradual dismantling of the narratives, fantasies, and interpretations of life historical facts brought to sessions by patients already brimming over with too much “meaning,” too much “understanding.”  Analysis cures not by constructing or reconstructing, but by undoing the spontaneous self-constructions/reconstructions forming integral parts of the ego and its constellation of symptoms.  Braunstein concludes by suggesting that a psychoanalytically informed reconsideration of Wittgenstein’s philosophy promises to further clarify the Lacanian clinic in its relation to language and meaning (the essay that follows, Erich D. Freiberger’s “‘Heads I Win, Tails You Lose’:  Wittgenstein, Plato, and the Role of Construction and Deconstruction in Psychoanalysis and Ethics,” takes its lead from Braunstein in pursuing a comparison between Wittgenstein and Lacan).

The writings and seminars of Lacan are peppered with complex visual graphs and extended meditations on mathematics, topology, logic, and set theory.  A series of interlinked debates surround this dimension of the Lacanian project:  Is Lacan attempting to reduce psychoanalysis to a hyper-formalized imitator of the natural sciences?  Should Lacan’s recourse to mathematics and topology be seen as a pedagogically motivated employment of a few handy metaphors?  Or, is he seriously maintaining that these formal models are something more than merely illustrative devices for his own concepts?  Can Lacanian “mathemes” be dismissed as irrelevant, misleading by-products of what some suspect to be a parallel development between his increasing reliance on these formal constructs and his growing senility during the last decade of his life?  There are already (although primarily in French) several detailed studies of Lacan’s employment of the formal languages upon which the modern sciences are grounded.  The merit of Arkady Plotnitsky’s “On Lacan and Mathematics” is to put these debates into dialogue with the issues arising specifically from the Sokal affair and the (primarily American) “science wars” being conducted within and between various segments of academia.

Instead of hopelessly trying to tackle the whole range of mathematical concepts borrowed by Lacan in the space of a single essay, Plotnitsky wisely chooses to examine a single example:  Lacan’s references to imaginary numbers.  In a chapter of their book Fashionable Nonsense:  Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science, authors Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont take Lacan to task for what they treat as his utterly illegitimate misappropriation of the terminology of science.  They assert that Lacan “steals” ideas from mathematics, ideas that he lacks a proper understanding of, in order to coat his own obscurantist theoretical apparatus with a false veneer of “scientific” legitimacy.  In his defense of Lacan against Sokal and Bricmont, Plotnitsky, rather than either minimize to the point of negligibility Lacan’s usage of mathematical concepts or launch himself into familiar tirades against the hegemony of the sciences, uses the history of mathematics itself to vindicate Lacan.  Displaying an impressive degree of erudition regarding his chosen topic, Plotnitsky convincingly demonstrates that Lacan may, in fact, understand the philosophical implications of negative and imaginary numbers—these implications are best discerned through an appreciation of the history of mathematics and the sciences—better than his scientist-critics.  Because of their ahistoricism, itself a product of biases internal to the contemporary scientific field and its deeply engrained epistemological habits, Sokal and Bricmont often inadvertently simplify the disputed scientific/mathematical concepts in question.  Furthermore, Plotnitsky observes that Lacan never makes absurd claims to the effect that psychoanalysis grounds or explains mathematics;  nor does Lacan propose that, by borrowing certain mathematical concepts, he thereby succeeds in transforming analysis into a science akin to physics.  Instead, Lacan merely aims to show that certain logical structures and paradoxes embedded within the numerical domain are mirrored by specific signifying dynamics endemic to psychoanalysis and its (Symbolic) subject.  The Lacanian wager here is that reflecting on the former might yield insights into the latter.  Is science, and the truths it produces, meant only to be enjoyed by scientists?  Must one be a mathematician in order to be licensed to speak of numbers and their properties?

Joan Copjec, a familiar name in English-language Lacanian scholarship, addresses the link (or, perhaps, non-rapport) between psychoanalysis and “embodiment theory” as a general anti-Cartesian trend permeating the American academy.  Proponents of the “embodied subject” endlessly rant and rail against the Cogito’s haunting of Western thought, continually issuing emphatic reminders to themselves and others that “bodies matter.”  Lacanian psychoanalysis is seen as yet another Cartesian marginalization of the body; Lacan gives pride of place to “the signifier” and its structure, thereby ignoring corporeality, affectivity, and so on.  But, Copjec asks in “The Body as Viewing Instrument, or the Strut of Vision,” what kinds of “bodies” are embodiment theorists talking about?  Simply affirming that “the body” is important, that human beings have bodies, is a trivial point not worth paying attention to when taken at face value.  What sort of insights could the brute declaration “I have a body” possibly hope to produce?

One of Copjec’s central theses is that Freudo-Lacanian psychoanalysis promises a far more philosophically satisfying investigation into embodiment than what comes out of the mouths of the agitated advocates of a “return to the body.”  These advocates usually offer a choice between two flawed options:  either an experiential “lived body” entwined with an amorphous perceptual self of sorts (i.e., the phenomenological option), or, alternatively, an empty, socially constructed husk, a tabula rasa for the transcription of “power” (i.e., a vaguely Foucauldian option).  Copjec maintains that the psychoanalytic concept of Trieb poses a direct challenge to these ways of envisioning embodiment that has yet to be genuinely thought through by those who so frequently babble about bodies—“of all Freud’s notions, that of the drive has had the least success in attracting supporters; it obliges a kind of rethinking that only the boldest of thinkers would dare to undertake.  The question one must ask is:  How does drive determine human embodiment as both a freedom from nature and a part of it?” (pg. 279).  Or, similarly, how should one set about explaining the manner in which “human nature” is, by being simultaneously and always-already entangled in “soma” as well as “psyche” (the latter including the concrete impacts of the socio-symbolic order on the individual), neither a pure corporeal substantiality nor a constructed, virtual epiphenomenon?  Copjec uses discussions of gaze and body, particularly the issues raised by Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer:  On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century and subsequently taken up by film theory, in a struggle to work through the implications that metapsychology harbors as regards embodiment (in this task, she relies on Lacan’s analyses of the gaze, the visual field, perspective, and subjectivity from seminars eleven and thirteen).

As one might have already sensed prior to the present juncture, a contemporary figure playing in the background of many of these ongoing debates is Judith Butler.  Certain arguments mentioned above are echoed in Butler’s exchanges with Slavoj Žižek in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality:  Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, particularly the problem of negotiating between structural and historical axes of analysis in Lacanian theory.  Part of her project, as spelled out in The Psychic Life of Power:  Theories in Subjection, is to wed Foucault and psychoanalysis so that they mutually supplement each other.  Why should one combine these positions?  Foucault’s delineations of the workings of “power” lack any carefully-explained model of psychical subjectivity as the object of these forces; however, psychoanalysis fails acknowledge and incorporate Foucauldian insights into the fundamentally historical, contingently-mediated nature of the subject.  In short, Butler is searching for a metapsychology of the socially constructed psyche (on a related note, Frances L. Restuccia’s piece “The Subject of Homosexuality:  Butler’s Elision” succinctly blows holes in Butler’s claim, also from The Psychic Life of Power, that heterosexual identity is erected upon the foundations of a fundamentally disavowed “passionate attachment” to the same gender, that “foreclosed” homosexuality underlies society’s artificial sexual norms).  Going back to the texts of Foucault, according to Christopher Lane in “The Experience of the Outside:  Foucault and Psychoanalysis,” reveals the ultimate futility of this Butlerian endeavor.  Any marriage between Foucault’s constructivist position and Lacanian psychoanalysis can only result in the suppression of the latter’s explanatory potentials.

Lane’s argument is clear, straightforward, and easy enough to grasp.  He contends that an absolutely fundamental assertion/assumption in psychoanalysis is that the subject is constitutively “out of joint” with “reality.”  What else could Freud mean when he speaks of the impossibility of “educating” the unconscious, or when he later depicts the id as utterly ignorant of the external world?  Of course, this isn’t to deny that the psyche is profoundly affected and modified by the sensations, experiences, and influences constantly streaming into it from “the Outside.”  Nonetheless, what Lane does deny is the notion that subjectivity is a passive, receptive surface, a malleable receiver or container of normative, socio-cultural patterns and processes.  Copjec cites Lacan’s remarks from the eleventh seminar about “failures of causality” and “gaps” between causes and effects as fundamentally important conceptualizations to keep in mind when approaching the unconscious.  Similarly, Lane stresses that the interactions between psychoanalytically conceived “human nature” and its trans-individual environment cannot be mapped out along the lines of predictable pathways, such as, for example, ideological stimulus “x” always leading to subjectivity effect “y.”  Although “power” may indeed perpetually and continually press upon subjects, a carbon-copy imprint of these socio-ideological mechanisms, a flawless reproduction of the macro-level at the micro-level, doesn’t smoothly and invariably take root.  Lane effectively shows how any constructivist position repeats, on nothing more than a quantitatively enlarged scale, the narcissistic enclosure of solipsism by presenting a picture of humans unproblematically manufacturing their own reality as a collectivity.  If everything is socially constructed, then what motivates this constructing activity in the first place?  What sets it in motion, and why is society constructed in the specific ways that it is, rather than being constructed in other possible ways?  Lane explains Foucault’s well-known ambivalence towards psychoanalysis as a result of his failure to resolve these sorts of criticisms and questions to his own satisfaction.  Although Lane concedes that Foucault himself sensed these problems and made sophisticated attempts to deal with them, he argues that Foucault’s followers tend to pass over them in silence.

In the end, one could say that, in terms of its title, this thought-provoking collection of essays sells itself short.  The rapport between Lacan and “America” (American psychoanalysis, the American academy, American intellectual trends and its culture in general) is indeed re-examined from numerous angles.  But, this is hardly the sole labor that transpires between the folds of this volume’s front and back covers.  This book deals with Lacanian theory pure and simple, in its full complexity and richness.  However, maybe there is something distinctly American about this book after all.  It provides the reader with the same kind of pleasure an American viewer takes in five hundred channel cable television:  in this collection, there are plenty of Lacanian “programs” for everyone... Enjoy!


© 2002 Adrian Johnston

Adrian Johnston recently completed a Ph.D. in Philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook. His dissertation was Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive


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