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The Cambridge Companion to LacanReview - The Cambridge Companion to Lacan
by Jean-Michel Rabaté
Cambridge University Press, 2003
Review by Dominique Kuenzle
Apr 30th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 18)

The Cambridge Companions are a success.  Not only has the original series, Companions to Literature, grown to over 100 publications since its launch in the eighties, but there are now Companions to philosophy, religion, music and national cultures, too.  All books across the disciplines begin with a chronology and end with a selected bibliography.  Their main part consists of fifteen previously unpublished essays by established international experts.  Because Companions are aimed at non-experts and especially students, the essays typically address topics that are considered relevant in contemporary academic discourse.  Ideally, the writing is accessible without coming across as introductory or didactic.  Good Companions allow the reader to get a grip on a topic by observing contemporary researchers "in action", as it were.

Jean-Michel Rabaté, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania, has now edited the Companion to Lacan (2003).  Fifteen scholars from the Americas and Europe interpret the texts and speeches of the influential Parisian psychoanalyst and theoretician Jacques Lacan (1901-1981).  They explore the traditions he stands in (or loudly puts himself in), isolate key concepts and important controversies and introduce the reader to the huge impact Lacan's work has had on cultural studies, film studies and literary criticism.

To contribute accessible, yet challenging and rigorously argued essays on Jacques Lacan is not an easy task.  More than twenty years after his death in 1981 there is still no generally agreed upon order in the forest of technical concepts Lacan left behind.  But despite his reputation for being a difficult, if not deliberately obscure author, Lacan is now generally acknowledged for his original work on (and with) Freud's theory of the unconscious, and for his ability to forge fashionable theoretical tools from materials gathered from other disciplines.

These synthetic (at best) or eclectic (at worst) tendencies are addressed by many essays in this volume: Elisabeth Roudinesco offers a scholarly examination of the different occasions (between 1936 and 1949) on which Lacan appropriated Henry Wallon's technical notion of the "mirror stage" (without acknowledging his source; Lacan tended to be forgetful with respect to quotation marks).  Dany Nobus, who has recently stressed the practical aspects of Lacan's work in a book reviewed by Adrian Johnston on this website, sketches Lacan's interest in language in general and structuralist linguistics in particular.  Unfortunately he doesn't add much to the countless presentations of Lacan's adaptation of the core concepts of Saussure's linguistics already on the market.  Bernard Burgoyne tracks Lacan's often puzzling uses of mathematical formulas more or less chronologically throughout his work (without rendering them less puzzling), Charles Shepherdson lists most of the philosophers that Lacan recommends for close reading, and Joe Valente sketches Marxist elements in Lacan's work and how Slavoj Zizek has sexed them up since.

But although the majority of the contributions in this volume are dedicated to non-psychoanalytic materials that Lacan incorporated and to non-psychoanalytic disciplines that he inspired (on top of the papers listed above there are also Deborah Luepnitz' and Tim Dean's solid introductions to Lacanian traces in feminism and queer theory), Rabaté actually wants this Cambridge Companion to return, as it were, to Lacan the practicing psychoanalyst.  The English version of Lacan's conceptual apparatus has largely been confined to literary criticism, film studies and cultural studies, and in general the ties between the two institutions of psychoanalysis and academia in the English-speaking world have been weak.  Within cultural studies people like Slavoj Zizek have successfully severed the ties binding Lacan's terminology to the practice of psychoanalysis.  Symptomatically one of Rabaté's students, when reminded of the clinical origin of the concepts she was discussing, noted that she had forgotten that one could do such a nineteenth century thing like lying on a couch and indulge in free association.  This in return has led to the questionable situation that a book published in the same series as the Companion to Dickens and the Companion to the Russian Novel stresses the importance of clinical and practical aspects of Lacan's work, and makes a point of commissioning essays from practicing psychoanalysts.

The published pieces turn out to be less grounded in a state-of-the-art account of practical psychoanalysis than we may have hoped for.  None of the essays, not even Diana Rabinovitch's promisingly titled "What is a Lacanian clinic?", shows Lacan's conceptual apparatus at practical work.  Rabinovitch leaves us with often-repeated remarks on Lacan's controversial idea that psychoanalytical sessions should not always last just an hour.  They should be of variable length to make it impossible for the patient's unconscious to time the session, as it were.  Lacan was soon accused of greed because his sessions with "variable" length invariably turned out to be quite short.

There are essays in this book that are, as the idea behind the Companions series suggests, both accessible and inspiring.  The editor himself opens the volume with a piece on "Lacan's turn to Freud", which suggests that Lacan's seemingly preposterous presentation of himself as Freud's truth may be defensible if we radically question our conceptions of what it is to interpret a text or to stand in an intellectual tradition.  Unfortunately Rabaté opts for a biographical sketch of when and how Lacan actually turned to Freud, instead of exploring the idea of a new "science of personality" systematically, perhaps by contrasting it with the criteria of interpretational adequacy presupposed in standard academic hermeneutics.

Darian Leader attempts to analyze explanatory myths as parts of Lacanian methodology in an inspired and unpretentious essay.  Leader's thesis is straightforward: Lacan adopts Freud's idea of treating unconscious production of impossibilities or incompatibilities as a defense mechanism.  The child's trouble with representing the mother as a sexual being and representing her as an object of love, for example, can lead to a posited incompatibility between the loved woman and the sexually desired woman.  As a consequence it becomes impossible to love and sexually desire a woman at the same time.  Lacan then subscribes to the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss' view that the production of both individual (unconscious) and social (public) myths can be understood as an answer to precisely such incompatibilities.  Myths however do not solve an incompatibility problem, but provide "new ways of formulating it logically" (p. 39).  They reshuffle or transform the original incompatibility along some given relational structures that Lévi-Strauss has identified as mythical.  Applied to Lacan's theoretical work this model may then be used to justify Lacan's refusal to use explicitly structured arguments for his views, as well as his appeals to mathematics.  The idea is to interpret Lacanian myths, as well as his use of mathematical formulas, as ways of dealing with the problem of the unsayable or "Real", as Lacan calls it.  According to Leader's structuralist Lacan we do not have to be silent about what cannot be said -- we can put it in terms of relational structures such as myths or algebra.

Alenka Zupancic from the Zizek camp in Slovenia writes lucidly about tragedy and the self-conception of psychoanalysis as a modern institution that refuses to contribute to the "bourgeois dream" by sending its patients back into the machinery of the "universal spread of the service of good", as Lacan called it.  Almost in passing (she is dealing with tragedies, after all) Zupancic succeeds in making the problem of the ethical norms of psychoanalysis relevant to the reader.

At its best, this collection is challenging, inspiring and entertaining.  At its worst it provides mere variations on comments of those passages from Lacan's corpus that people have found fascinating for the last twenty years.  By now many readers are familiar with the countless formulations of, and metaphors for, the intuition that we all lack something, somehow, and that this "lack" has something to do with language, and that language has something to do with social norms or "the Symbolic" or "the law" or the "symbolic father" or the "phallus".  The Cambridge Companion to Lacan will be of great help to readers who, like Rabaté's student, tend to forget that some of the most fruitful concepts of, say, contemporary film studies are rooted in a theory tailored to support and improve the practice of psychoanalysis.  But it fails to bridge the gap between the broadly structuralist and Freudian intuitions that many of us would like to see incorporated into a rigorously argued, systematic, clear account of desire and the unconscious -- and the all too often uncooperative published texts and comments based on seminars by Jacques Lacan.



© 2004 Dominique Kuenzle


Dominique Kuenzle is a PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield.  He works on pragmatist accounts of conceptual content and is interested in rational, discursive and epistemic normativity, its 'continental' critics and rationalist defenses.


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