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LacanReview - Lacan
by Alain Vanier
Other Press, 2000
Review by Adrian Johnston, Ph.D.
Apr 22nd 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 17)

            Lacan—Alain Vanier’s book is as concise and straightforward as its title.  In the space of ninety-one pages, Vanier offers a broad overview of the Lacanian corpus, touching upon the familiar textual milestones (the mirror stage essay, the Rome discourse, the eleventh seminar, etc.) that mark the progress of Lacan’s evolving engagement with psychoanalysis.  Apart from the first chapter’s summary of Lacan’s break with the I.P.A., the following three chapters are organized along the lines of his register theory.  The ordering of chapters reflects the standard chronological account according to which there are three phases in Lacan’s development:  the early Lacan focuses on the Imaginary (the 1930s through the 1940s), the middle Lacan on the Symbolic (the 1950s structuralist period), and the late Lacan on the Real (a period beginning the in the mid-1960s).

            Vanier’s Lacan is a thinker obsessed with establishing the exact status of Freud’s invention as both a theory and a practice.  What is psychoanalysis?  What kind of act is involved in analyzing someone?  How is Freudian metapsychology related to the sciences?  What sort of knowledge does analysis produce?  According to Vanier, a Lacanian perspective on these issues emphasizes the differences separating psychoanalysis from science.  The experience of undergoing and/or conducting an analysis is so uniquely particular that each analysis remains irreducible to any sort of abstract, generalized concepts.  Psychoanalysis is transmissible neither as a standardized method or model of clinical intervention nor as a global theory of the psyche, namely, as an account of the universal components of human nature.  Doesn’t the Lacanian “variable session,” for example, show Lacan’s willingness to alter the framework of the analytic clinic, thus challenging the tendency amongst analysts to treat Freud’s recommendations on therapeutic practice as scriptural commandments not to be modified?  And, isn’t it the case that the dominant role of the Real (as the “impossible,” “unknowable,” “ineffable,” and so on) in the later seminars thwarts any philosophically inspired attempt to attribute a “system” to Lacan?

What’s more, Vanier maintains that psychoanalysis resists being categorized alongside other forms of knowledge insofar as, “there is no difference between theory and practice: psychoanalysis is a praxis, or, rather a method.  This is why it is hard to situate it among the existing domains of knowledge, since it involves neither the practical application of theory nor an experimental protocol for identical replication” (pg. 4).  Psychoanalysis is a praxis of the particular, a shifting set of theoretical coordinates constantly in the process of being transformed with each and every instance of empirical application.  Given some of Vanier’s characterizations of psychoanalysis, it’s surprising that anyone can even identify distinct variants of it, or that one can speak of something like “psychoanalysis” per se at all.  What would “it” be, if all attempts at constructing a system or theoretical framework for psychoanalysis are ruled out in advance as violations or bastardizations of the delicately unique situation of being in analysis?

Part of what’s at stake in these sort of claims isn’t too hard to discern:  laying stress on the centrality of the clinic reflects an attempt to re-appropriate Lacan, to snatch him back from the clutches of theorists who themselves aren’t practicing analysts.  At various points during his exegetical exposition, Vanier insists that the sole, ultimate referent of Lacan’s theorizing activities is the analytic clinic.  He warns readers not to be misled by the interpretations of Lacan resulting from his ideas having been de-contextualized and (mis)appropriated by philosophers and literary theorists in the English-speaking world (although he’s sometimes willing to concede that psychoanalysts need to pay attention to the various disciplines that Lacan makes frequent forays into, and that Lacanian ideas have meaningfully enriched areas in the humanities and social sciences).  However, this aspect of Vanier’s perspective shouldn’t be accepted as immediately obvious and indisputable, since, if one takes Vanier too seriously or literally at this level, the rest of his book (i.e., a summary of Lacan’s overarching theoretical/conceptual framework) is rendered suspect.  Wouldn’t Lacanian concepts such as the three registers and objet petit a become, in this light, nothing more than misleading abstractions from the concrete nature of each individual analysis?  What right would Lacan have to make sweeping, non-empirical pronouncements regarding, for instance, quasi-transcendental possibility conditions underlying the libidinal economy and/or subjectivity in general?  And if, as Vanier claims at the end of the book, every analyst must re-invent analysis for him/her-self, why would these same analysts then be persuaded that they should spend time grappling with Lacan’s particular version of psychoanalysis?  Why shouldn’t each analyst have his/her own “private psychoanalysis” instead?  Is this really, as a few of Vanier’s textual citations seem to suggest, the conclusion reached by a weary Lacan at the end of his life’s work?

The second chapter, on the Imaginary, naturally opens with a short synopsis of the mirror stage.  Although Vanier presents this section as an explication of some of Lacan’s earliest writings from the 1930s and 1940s, his explanation of the mirror stage tacitly mobilizes elements found in the later Lacan, with Vanier admitting to the difficulty of keeping these periods separate.  Speaking of the infant’s identification of its reflection and subsequent assumption of an ego-level identity structured around this specular kernel, Vanier observes that, “a third party is needed to name the image and thereby confer it on the subject...  there has to be symbolic mediation if the subject is to assume this identification”(pg. 19).  In other words, without some version of the Symbolic big Other—the example always given is the mother standing behind the young child, perhaps holding it up to the mirror, while saying “That’s you there!”—Imaginary attachment to a visual-imagistic moi would likely never occur in the first place.  Later, in the third chapter, Vanier underscores this point—“It is because the mother speaks that the imaginary relation is set in place” (pg. 41).  Hence, the mirror stage doesn’t rely on a developmental model wherein a pre-Symbolic stage (i.e., a purely Imaginary period) paves the way for a later form of subjectivity structured according to a predominantly linguistic mode of mediation.  The Symbolic is always-already present, enveloping and pre-determining the genesis of the Imaginary ego.  However, this isn’t representative of the initial version of the mirror stage; rather, Vanier’s exegesis is heavily informed by Lacan’s subsequent revisions of this theory (starting in the eighth seminar on the transference from 1960-1961).  The second half of the chapter on the Imaginary turns to a model used by Lacan in the early years of the seminar (the 1950s).  In an effort to clarify the relations holding between the subject, the ego, the body, and the various ideals shaping psychical identity, Lacan refers to an optical experiment in which an illusion is produced for a viewer placed in a certain position in relation to an apparatus consisting of a vase, a bunch of flowers, and several mirrors (the illusion involves juxtaposing a real object with a phantom reflection of another real object—the vase coupled with the reflected image of the flowers, or the flowers coupled with the reflected image of the vase—to produce the deceptive appearance of a real, integrated whole-object).  Vanier shows how this optical model, and Lacan’s sometimes difficult-to-follow explanations of its significance, helps to further clarify the relation between Imaginary moi, Symbolic sujet, and the bodily Real.

Chapter three walks readers through the basic ideas associated with the notion of the Symbolic in Lacan’s thought.  Vanier discusses the fundamental features of the Lacanian subject as a “subject of the signifier.”  Subjectivity is an effect established and sustained by Symbolic mediation.  And yet, the properties of the signifiers forming the essential units of this mediating matrix bar the subject from ever achieving any sort of stable identity.  Certain privileged signifiers (i.e., “master signifiers,” in Lacanian parlance, represented as S1) install particular individuals in subject-positions within the symbolic order, that is, the big Other as the battery of all signifiers.  However, these master signifiers also automatically entangle the subject in a web of associations and interconnections with other signifiers (denoted as S2 by Lacan) that constantly affect and alter the status of these S1 units, thus continually undermining the subject’s sense of enduring ipseity.  Vanier presents this as a consequence following from Lacan’s application of Saussurian structural linguistics to a theory of subjectivity:  if subjectivity is mediated by signifiers, and if, as Saussure stipulates, each signifier’s value is dependent upon its differential relations with all other signifiers in a given representational system, then being a subject is tantamount to being adrift in a web of interconnections (i.e., in the symbolic order as a whole).  Hence, with the Lacanian subject always being caught between its S1s and all the other S2s as more of a passive effect of these signifiers than as an active manipulator of them, the subject is “split” ($) by precisely that which brings it into existence in the first place.  The subject is subjected to its signifiers.  After discussing subjectivity, Vanier ends this chapter by connecting Lacan’s emphasis on the Symbolic to Freud’s investigations into the nature of paternity:  What is a father?  For a Lacanian, a father is neither one half of a biological equation, a procreating bearer of sperm, nor merely a certain physical presence in the child’s life.  Instead, paternity is, in its purest form, reducible to the “Name-of-the-Father.”  The arguments behind this move are long and complex.  Vanier contents himself with a quick citation of Freud’s Totem and Taboo as a reminder of why Lacan associates paternity with the signifier:  the Urvater murdered by the horde of his sons returns as a set of symbolically-articulated laws, prohibitions, and rituals regulating life amongst his descendents.  This “dead father,” whose ghost is the very Geist of the entire symbolic order, represents, according to Vanier, the condensed essence of the Lacanian paternal function qua Nom-du-Père.

Chapter four, on the Real, is by far the most illuminating section of the book.  Vanier provides readers with an extremely lucid account of objet petit a.  In Lacan’s view, the advent of signification, the individual’s accession to the realm of signifiers, fundamentally transforms his/her relation to objects in the experiential field.  A radical break is introduced at the ontogenetic level, a discontinuity that separates “thing” (i.e., the original pre/non-symbolized point of attachment for the drives, which Lacan dubs das Ding) from “object” (i.e., the later, substitutive fragments of this “lost thing” subsisting within the domain of accessible Imaginary-Symbolic reality).  The vexing problem for the desiring subject is that the former only emerges retroactively through the interference of the latter.  The original thing only becomes desirable once cancelled out through displacement by its stand-ins.  Or, put differently, Imaginary-Symbolic marks and traces allow the desiring subject to pursue the task of “re-finding” the absent, missing center of its libidinal economy; but, at the same time as these marks and traces sustain a relation to das Ding, they also guarantee the impossibility of it ever being directly re-encountered again in its initial pre/non-symbolic state.  Objet petit a designates this irreconcilable tension between orders that constitutes desire in the Lacanian sense.  And, as Vanier remarks, objet a is, for Lacan, the “cause” of desire:  that is to say, instead of satisfying the drives’ struggle to repetitiously reinstanciate the past, objet a incarnates the frustrating gap between thing and object, thus sustaining (i.e., “causing”) desire as the perpetual cry of “ce n’est pas ça,” as the dissatisfied, interminable movement from one object to the next.  In addition, the fourth chapter also does a nice job of rendering Lacan’s later musings on “sexuation” accessible.  In the seminars of the early 1970s, Lacan utilizes formal logic to illustrate what’s at play in assuming a sexuated position as either a masculine or a feminine subject (with Vanier rightly reminding the uninitiated that sexuation and biological sex are far from being identical).  Without going into details here, Lacan aims to establish the thesis that masculine and feminine subject-positions are mutually incompatible, that sexuated individuals are constitutively “out of synch” with each other.  Hence, Lacan can proclaim “there is no sexual relationship” (Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel).

During the course of his closing reflections, Vanier states, “Psychoanalysis is in the retinue of science, linked to it in the circumstances of its emergence, and it attempts to vouch for what science discards in order to constitute itself” (pg. 88).  In the contemporary context, where psychoanalysis is in danger of being replaced by more “scientific” approaches to treatment (i.e., pharmacology, neurology, behavior-modification therapy, etc.), Vanier’s remark here conveys the importance of Freudo-Lacanian theory as a counter-balance to the excesses of science’s epistemological as well as practical ambitions.  The scientific reduction of the human being to a bundle of empirical, material features, although far from incorrect or false, is only a partial reduction; it leaves a residual remainder, and this leftover of the scientific reduction is, one could claim, part of what is referred to by Lacan’s phrase “the subject of science.”  For Lacan, the very substance of subjectivity, the “stuff of the ‘I,’” involves an entirely other kind of materiality than that at stake in the natural sciences (and, at this level, Lacan’s engagement with philosophy cannot be marginalized through being portrayed as a series of casual, occasional borrowings on his part—he is quite obviously an heir to the modern philosophical tradition).  Psychoanalysis, contrary to prevailing trends in mental medicine, remains committed to a procedure that focuses on the “I” that resists collapsing back into the body from whence it’s presumed to come.  And, Vanier even seems to hint that the more individuals are reduced by scientific discourse to their corporeal substratum, the more psychoanalysis becomes crucial as an endeavor to explore what rebels in individuals against this stifling procedure of objectification.

Vanier’s Lacan is well suited to serve as an introduction to the basic themes and concepts of Lacanian theory.  For those unfamiliar with Lacan’s teachings, Vanier provides a tour through the varied landscapes of the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary that doesn’t get tangled up in tangents or bogged down in inessential minutiae.  The fourth chapter on the Real ought to prove especially useful for newcomers to Lacan, since this notion is perhaps the most elusive and difficult feature to grasp in the Lacanian oeuvre (even for those who’ve spent time pouring over primary and secondary literature in this area).  Alongside Joel Dor’s Introduction to the Reading of Lacan:  The Unconscious Structured Like a Language—this volume, also published by Other Press, provides one of the best summaries regarding Lacan’s register of the Symbolic and his employment of structural linguistics, thus supplementing Vanier’s general focus on the Real—Lacan should be kept in mind as a resource furnishing students with a means of getting a handle on this “notoriously difficult” thinker’s body of work.


© 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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