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Subjectivity and OthernessReview - Subjectivity and Otherness
A Philosophical Reading of Lacan
by Lorenzo Chiesa
MIT Press, 2007
Review by Kamuran Godelek, Ph.D.
Apr 22nd 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 17)

"What will you do with all that I say? Will you record on a little thing and organize soirées by invitation only?--Hey, I've got a tape by Lacan!" This utterance of Lacan from his Seminar XVII is the opening sentence of the Introduction of Subjectivity and Otherness. Chiesa states that this passage shows how Lacan was well aware that his teachings would, sooner or later, be incorporated into what he disdainfully named the "university discourse". But, according to Chiesa, one fundamental question, namely "in what way such an assimilation should occur?" remains to be answered. This book is aimed partly to provide an answer to this question by investigating Lacan's theory of the subject and its relation to otherness.

In a speech given in 1955 in Vienna, the birthplace of psychoanalysis, Jacques Lacan famously called for a "return to Freud". Lacan saw his mission as one of rescuing the meaning of Freud's texts from his own disciples, and that impulse remained at the heart of his analytic enterprise, one of the twentieth century's seismic intellectual events. On the basis of Freud's discoveries, Lacan outlines a revolutionary theory of the subject and, despite his relentless attacks against philosophy, repeatedly invites it to collaborate with psychoanalysis in order to build on his groundbreaking investigations. It is Chiesa's belief that "unfortunately such a call has largely gone unheard ... and that especially in light of the recent and widespread debate over a return of the subject in contemporary European philosophy, Lacan's psychoanalytic theory of subjectivity must be reconsidered as an innovative point of reference ... and must carefully be expounded (p. 6).

The principal aim of Chiesa in this book, therefore, is to analyze the evolution of the concept of subjectivity in the works of Jacques Lacan by countering both a call from some "pro-Lacanians" for an end to the exegesis of his work and the dismissal of it by "anti-Lacanians" who hold it to be impenetrable. Against both sides, he offers a thorough and fruitful philosophical analysis of Lacan's theory of the subject. More specifically, it endeavors to carry out a detailed reading of the Lacanian subject in its necessary relation to otherness according to the three orders of the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real. In each phase, the subject is defined against a different order of otherness: the Imaginary in the first phase, the Symbolic in the second, and the Real in the third. Cutting against the grain of much recent Lacan scholarship, Chiesa emphasizes the continuity underlying the three phases of Lacan's theory of subjectivity. And he shows how in each successive stage, the older theory is recuperated and incorporated into the new one.

Subjectivity and Otherness is also designed in accordance with these orders of otherness in relation to the subject. Part I of the book titled as The Subject of the Imaginary (Other) focuses on the subject of the Imaginary, and provides a precise account of the way in which the ego comes to be defined as an imaginary function by Lacan. The ego corresponds to the subject's identifying alienation in the imaginary other and given its narcissistic-specular nature, should not be confused with the subject of the unconscious. Central to the conception of the human, in Lacan, is the notion that the unconscious, which governs all factors of human existence, is structured like a language. Lacan calls this phase, the mirror stage, the realm of the Imaginary because the idea of a self is created through an Imaginary identification with the image in the mirror. The realm of the Imaginary is where the alienated relation of self to its own image is created and maintained. The Imaginary is a realm of images, whether conscious or unconscious. It's prelinguistic, and preoedipal, but very much based in visual perception, or what Lacan calls specular imaging.

Part II titled as The Subject of the Symbolic (Other) contains a systematic analysis of the subject of the Symbolic. In one and the same gesture, Lacan relates subjectivity to language understood as a structure, the symbolic order as the legal fabric of human culture and the Freudian unconscious. The first chapter is concerned above all with the exploration of the famous Lacanian motto according to which "The unconscious is structured like a language." In this chapter, Chiesa endeavors to illustrate the precise reason why, despite being articulated like a language, the unconscious is not the same as ordinary conscious discourse. After this confrontation, in the second chapter, Chiesa goes on to investigate in detail the way in which Lacan explains the individual subject's active entry into the Symbolic as the fundamental law of society and how, before such an entry, the child is completely subjected to the Other.

Part III titled as The Subject of the Real (Other) is the most extensive part of the book, and deals with the subject of the Real; more specifically, it attempts to demonstrate the way in which, after realizing that the symbolic Other is structurally incomplete, Lacan gradually reorganizes his theory of the subject of the unconscious on the basis of the notion of the fundamental fantasy as inextricable from the object a, the leftover of the Real in the Symbolic. In other words, the subject is now considered to be a "middle term between the real and the signifier." In the first chapter, Chiesa gives an in depth analysis of the meaning of the formula "There is no Other of the Other", and argues strongly in favor of the suggestion that, in this case, Lacan radically reverses his previous "structuralist" reliance on a transcendent "Other of the Other", namely, the-Name-of-the-Father as the "signifier of the signifiers." Moving on from these considerations, the second chapter investigates the subject of the Real as the subject of the fundamental fantasy, then raises the open question of how Lacan proposes individually to subjectivize the real lack beyond the dimension of collective (ideological) phantasies.

Lacan is known as a paradoxically systematic thinker because, despite formulating a highly elaborate and consistent theory, he decides to present it to us through the work-in-progress that leads to its emergence and its continuous, fertile rediscussion (in his seminars) as well as the inherent questions, doubts, dead ends that all consistent, "closed", and completed philosophical systems end up silently confronting (in the Écrits and other written articles). That's why, there are and always have been powerful thinkers who find it impossible to read Lacan or impossible to find anything worth reading. Yet there remain scholars who read Lacan fluently. The impossibility of reading Lacan has hardly stopped people from doing so. And Chiesa's reassesment shows that Lacan's psychoanalysis can, and indeed should be legitimately approached as a consistent philosophical system.

In this innovative book Subjectivity and Otherness, Chiesa analyses each "old" theory of the subject within the framework of a "new" elaboration and reassesses its fundamental tenets from the perspective of a general psychoanalytic discourse that becomes increasingly complex. From the 1960's on, writes Chiesa, the Lacanian subject amounts to an irreducible lack that must be actively confronted and assumed; this "subjectivized lack", Chiesa argues further, offers philosophy an escape from the contemporary impasse between the "death of the subject" alleged by postmodernism on the one hand and a return to a traditional "substantialist" notion of the subject on the other.

An original treatment of psychoanalytic issues, Subjectivity and Otherness fills a significant gap in the existing literature on Lacan, taking seriously the need for a philosophical investigation of Lacanian concepts. This book is especially of interest for academicians and any philosophy or psychology student and I believe, this book provides an extremely useful framework for anyone who is interested in doing some future analytic work on Lacan and his treatment of psychoanalysis and also in subjectivity.

© 2008 Kamuran Godelek

Kamuran Godelek, Ph.D., Mersin University, School of Arts and Sciences, Department of Philosophy, Ciftlikkoy, MERSIN, TURKEY


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