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Jacques LacanReview - Jacques Lacan
An Introduction
by Sean Homer
Routledge, 2004
Review by Sam Brown, Ph.D.
Jun 20th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 25)

If you've ever stared at a Lacanian text and wondered when the jargon would start to make sense, you will understand the need for an accessible primer to clarify the key concepts in advance. This slimline volume from the Routledge Critical Thinkers series admirably fits the bill. Sean Homer manages to pin down the notoriously evasive writings of Jacques Lacan and make them comprehensible, helpfully signposting the journey into deeper philosophical waters. While the book is too sketchy to serve as an authoritative reference or a quotable exposition, it comfortably achieves its stated aim of introducing novice readers to Lacan's central concepts.

There is no doubt that Lacan was enormously influential. He is widely hailed as the most important psychoanalyst since Sigmund Freud. He also had a significant impact on literary criticism, feminist philosophy, film studies and social theory, and his influence can be detected in the work of many important and controversial Continental thinkers: Althusser, Levi-Strauss, Barthes, Derrida and most obviously, ´i¸ek. Unfortunately, his notoriously obscure writing could confound all but his most ardent disciples. He twisted words, changed their connotations, and toyed with apparent absurdities and contradictions. Some commentators revel in this obfuscatory melange, exemplifying the Lacanian spirit of fluid signification, and as a result the novice scholar is often confronted with an impenetrable swirl of ungrounded technical jargon that never seems to condense on a stable interpretation. Homer's approach is much more helpful and accessible. He situates Lacan's basic innovations in their proper hermeneutical context, starting from the locus of Lacan's departure from Freud: semiotics.

Lacan's most famous dictum is "the unconscious is structured like a language". Analytic philosophers may misread this simple statement as a suggestion that the unconscious is highly structured and rule-governed, with a formal semantics and a generative grammar. But Lacan would have none of it: he strongly repelled such objectivist notions. Instead, he embraced Saussure's semiotic model of a fluid system of signs, in which meaning is assigned subjectively to empty signifiers by an unconscious process of signification. The Lacanian unconscious resides in this gap between symbol and significance, constituting the associative link. The key point is that meanings are not fixed; mental representations may acquire new connotations for the individual or be used to signify something else entirely. As the unconscious system of signification develops during childhood, the ideas of self, other, society and gender are constructed in accordance with, or opposition to, the basic psychosexual notions of the phallus, the mother and the 'names-of-the-father'. This has an important consequence for psychoanalysis: the meanings of a patient's conscious representations, including their most fundamental ideas, can vary between individuals, change with context, and evolve over time. Interpretation is not a matter of consulting a look-up table of fixed symbolic meanings. Instead one must understand the individual's history and context in order to grasp the true significance of their ideation. Symbols can become confused, or disconnected from their conventional meanings, and the underlying thoughts and desires may be expressed in cryptic ways. Most notably, the psychiatric 'symptom' may be the patient's solution to a deeper crisis—their ultimate source of jouissance, a kind of ironic pleasure derived from playing the aggrieved or dysfunctional role.

Unfortunately, Lacan's writing often exemplifies his own theory of fluid signification. His complex mythology of the mind often twists familiar concepts in idiosyncratic ways. For example, by "phallus", Lacan does not refer to the male genitals, or an image or symbol of them, or even essential masculinity, but to the primary signifier that anchors the chain of signification in the unconscious, representing an essential lack, or a drive for completion, or the unattainable desires of the other. By rolling these alternative meanings around the same word, Lacan demonstrates the flexibility of signifiers and the need for careful interpretation. In order to read him properly, you must already understand what he is expressing, which of course requires some prior acquaintance with his theory. Accordingly, appreciating Lacan is normally a slow process of bootstrapping oneself into a position of greater understanding. This is where Homer's introduction amply serves its purpose. He provides a pedagogical ladder planted firmly on  Freudian and Saussurian foundations.

Homer does not shy away from highlighting serious controversies and flaws in Lacan’s approach. Lacan aspired to a science of psychoanalysis, yet his own methods were anything but scientific. Homer's aim is not to urge agreement with Lacan, but merely to introduce his innovative ideas, allowing his readers ample space to reach their own conclusions. He even cites a staunch critic who lambasts Lacan's theories as products of tendentious and subjective 'theorhoea'. Readers may concur, but at least they will do so from a platform of greater understanding.

Homer's mastery of the topic is evident in his confident, direct and authoritative style. Though this book does not cover all the nuances or applications of Lacan's ideas, it maps out the expansive domain into regions of fact, opinion and controversy. For those who wish to delve deeper, Homer offers detailed recommendations for further reading, each constituting a mini-review in its own right.

Homer's book brings sense and order to the confusing Lacanian jargon and avoids the vague and circular allusions found in other introductory texts. All in all, it is a very level-headed primer for an influential school of thought.


© 2006 Sam Brown


Dr Sam Brown is a philosophical counsellor interested in the science and psychology of reflective wisdom, emotions and intuition, and their application in reasoning and creativity.


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