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The Seminar of Moustafa SafouanReview - The Seminar of Moustafa Safouan
by Moustafa Safouan
Other Press, 2002
Review by Adrian O. Johnston, Ph.D.
Dec 11th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 50)

            Moustafa Safouan is one of the first generation of Lacan’s students, a participant in le Séminaire from its inception in the early 1950s onwards.  Like other notable analytic theorists from this first Lacanian generation (for example, Jean Laplanche, Serge Leclaire, Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, as well as Octave and Maud Mannoni), Safouan maintains a respectful degree of distance from le maître absolu; as the cover blurbs for The Seminar of Moustafa Safouan accurately indicate, he explores psychoanalytic issues from a Lacanian vantage point without getting lost in the labyrinth of Lacan’s own discourse.  Safouan spends as much time discussing Freud as Lacan, and he frequently utilizes the former to clarify some select obscurities in the latter—as Safouan shows, Lacan’s “return to Freud” only makes sense if one actually bothers to literally return to Freud oneself.

            The five essays collected here in this volume were lectures delivered at the Lacanian School of Psychoanalysis in Berkeley and San Francisco in November of 1997.  The editors succeed in preserving the flavor of this particular format;  that is to say, the word “seminar” in the book’s title isn’t just there to emptily echo Lacan’s famous forum for the dissemination of psychoanalytic thought.  After each talk, an extensive question-and-answer period follows.  The questions range from requests for minor terminological clarifications to detailed queries aiming at the heart of Freudian-Lacanian theory.  Safouan’s recorded answers in response to his interlocutors are crystal clear and of direct relevance to the topic under discussion.  Those who believe that being a Lacanian is tantamount to being nothing more than a jargon-mongering obscurantist slavishly repeating the master’s mantras should take a close look at Safouan’s work.

            The opening lecture, “Direction of the Cure, the End of Analysis, and the Pass,” is primarily concerned with those aspects of psychoanalytic theory most directly connected with clinical practice.  Safouan spends the first half of this discussion explaining the relationship between transference and love (in the course of doing so, he succinctly summarizes Lacan’s reading of Plato’s Symposium from the eighth seminar on the transference).  He remarks that the, “psychoanalytic experience constitutes somehow a quasiexperimental isolation of the narcissistic dimension that is present in all love” (pg. 4).  Then, Safouan proceeds to observe that, “One cannot love oneself immediately; in this sense, there is no unmediated narcissism” (pg. 5).  Hence, the analysis of the transference highlights those aspects of the analysand’s narcissism as mediated vis-à-vis the history of his/her relations with others.  Safouan goes so far as to claim, against certain of Freud’s proclamations, that love blurs the distinction between anaclitic and narcissistic forms of libidinal investments—“According to Freud, there is an opposition between object love and narcissism, but as a matter of fact in real states of love you can’t distinguish the one from the other” (pg. 9).  In the second half of this first lecture, Safouan addresses two conceptions of the culminating point of an analysis:  the later Freud’s contention that analysis ends by running up against the “bedrock of castration” and Lacan’s notion that the process concludes with the patient “traversing the fantasy.”  Safouan links these two conceptions together through the concept of “identification.”  He interprets Freudian castration as Lacanian “symbolic castration” (i.e., the subject’s alienation in the “defiles of the signifier”).  Self-identity’s unavoidable routing through signifying matrices—this theme dovetails with the above claim that all narcissism involves external mediation—generates, according to Lacanian theory, the subject-as-void, namely, the “barred subject” ($).  This subject seeks in vain to substantialize itself, in its ephemeral negativity, through identification with the mediating representations of its Imaginary, ego-level selfhood—“identity is always resolved in identifications.  But identifications never capture identity” (pg. 21).  Fantasy-objects, as incarnations of objet petit a, are identified with by the subject as the fictive fillers of this absence of (self-)identity—another way of putting this is to say, as Safouan does, that, “object a is meant to fill or deceive this gap of castration” (pg. 11).  Consequently, traversing the fantasy is a way of confronting castration.  In both cases, the analysand is brought to that point where he/she recognizes the particular fashions in which the reign of a specific cluster of fantasy-objects has dictated the contours of his/her identity as an answer to the abyss opening up through symbolic castration.

            The next two lectures are jointly entitled “The Unconscious and Its Scribe” (referring to a book published by Safouan of the same title—L’inconscient et son scribe).  The main contribution of these lectures is the manner in which they clarify the best known, and yet, perhaps, least understood, aspect of Lacan’s thought:  “the unconscious is structured like a language.”  Safouan is careful to note that the Lacanian unconscious is not, in and of itself, composed of the same linguistic material that circulates about through consciousness.  The unconscious (as Lacan himself repeatedly insists in the face of various misunderstandings) is not simply a jumble of elements from everyday, natural language; the unconscious isn’t simply the obscure underbelly of English, French, German, etc.  Safouan argues that Lacan’s famous thesis does not concern the repressed as such (i.e., the unconscious as a separate system divorced from the rest of the mental apparatus), but, rather, the manner in which the repressed returns.  The repressed is “structured like a language” because it surfaces within a conscious field permeated by linguistic organizations.  As Safouan adeptly clarifies, the central axiom of Lacanian structuralist psychoanalysis is interested specifically in the traces left behind by the activities of unconscious cognition—“the very well-known thesis, the unconscious is structured like a language, is simply a way of explaining the return of the repressed, insofar as you admit that repression always strikes signifiers.  Insofar as it strikes signifiers, it is always doubled by a return of the repressed” (pg. 36).  Safouan subsequently explains the relationship between repression and Lacan’s two psychical tropes of metaphor and metonymy (as borrowed from the linguist Roman Jakobson).  Repression goes hand-in-hand with metaphor, since the obfuscation of one sort of ideational representation is accomplished by displacements of various sorts onto other ideational representations (i.e., one thing is substituted for another).  The return of the repressed, as an evasion of repression’s censorship via a “compromise formation,” is effectuated through a metonymic sliding from the eclipsed content to other ideas loosely connected with what previously fell prey to repression (these tangentially connected ideas being themselves admissible to consciousness).

            The fourth and fifth lectures, “The Object of Psychoanalysis” and “Jouissance and the Death Drive,” both delineate what, from a Lacanian view, is involved in theoretically going “beyond the pleasure principle.”  As in Slavoj Žižek’s interpretation of the mechanisms at play in the libidinal economy, Safouan establishes a direct equivalence between the Freudian death drive (Todestrieb) and Lacanian jouissance:  both concepts refer to something excessive in human nature, something compulsively driving individuals to ignore their self-interests and well being as governed by the normally reigning equilibrium between the pleasure principle and the reality principle.  Whereas the pleasure principle’s pursuits are modified in accordance with the obstacles and prohibitions erected against it by external reality (whether this Umwelt is natural or social), jouissance jeopardizes the individual’s bodily and/or psychical welfare in forcefully ignoring the constraints exerted by the empirical-material environment.  Instead of treating Freud’s distinction between the pleasure and reality principles as a matter of diametrical opposition, Safouan, following Lacan, posits that these two principles are ultimately reflections of the same mechanism—“the pleasure principle, meaning pleasure with its natural limit… is exactly the same as the reality principle” (pg. 96).  Safouan argues that the tragedy of the human condition, according to Lacan, is that individuals are condemned to perpetual dissatisfaction with the pleasures they can and do obtain, always chasing after a fantasized form of absolute enjoyment that is itself, ultimately, incapable of ever being attained (and, if the impossible did miraculously happen, the procurement of full jouissance would be a crushing trauma equivalent to psychical death).  The tension between (as Lacan puts it in the twentieth seminar) “jouissance expected” and “jouissance obtained” is an irreducible feature of human nature, a feature incarnated in the drives as the fundamental units of the psychoanalytic theory of the libidinal economy.  As Safouan puts it, “the difference between the satisfaction obtained and the satisfaction looked for constitutes the driving force, the sting, that prevents the organism from being satisfied with any given situation but ‘pushes it to go ahead, always ahead’” (pg. 91).  He continues, saying, “We only know that the complete satisfaction they seek is never the same as the one obtained, and that it is precisely in this distance, in this lack of the same, that the sting lies that ‘pushes them ahead’” (pg. 91).  In the final question-and-answer session of this set of lectures, Safouan makes a variety of remarks.  He claims that theoretical recourse to a pre-Oedipal phase is “stupid” (pg. 98), since the onset of the Oedipus complex retroactively modifies pre-Oedipal object-relations in such a way that the traces of their prior configurations are, for all intents and purposes, obliterated (i.e., subjected to primal repression).  He also reminds his audience of a point he made earlier in the course of commenting upon one of his own clinical vignettes:  in Lacanian psychoanalysis, “traversing the fantasy” often amounts to bringing the analysand-subject to the moment when, in seeing their deepest unconscious fantasies for what they are, he/she recognizes the idiotic contingency of these ontogenetically formed templates.  Fantasies thereby lose a power they exert only so long as they remain indiscernible.

The Seminar of Moustafa Safouan is highly recommended to anyone who already knows a little Freud and wishes to gain some insight into Lacan’s ideas.  In an elegantly straightforward way, Safouan deftly leads the reader through some of the most important concepts in Lacanian psychoanalysis.  He cuts through numerous Gordian knots of complexity embedded in Lacan’s massive and difficult corpus, and, in so doing, succeeds in displaying the power and relevance of Lacanian theory as an unparalleled analysis of the nuances of psychical reality.


© 2002 Adrian Johnston


Adrian Johnston, Ph.D. holds a position as interdisciplinary research fellow in psychoanalysis at Emory University.


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