- Psychoanalytic Politics by Sherry Turkle
Burnett Books/Deutsch, 278 pp, £6.95
Sherry Turkle has written a reasonable, useful and heroically neutral book on the Lacan phenomenon: the sudden celebrity in France as maître à penser of Jacques Lacan, an elderly psychoanalyst whose writings are of a unique, some would say repellent difficulty. Venerated on the one side as the foremost agent of ideological subversion, reviled on the other as an intolerable, conceited obscurantist, Lacan is a living symbol of division between opposed temperaments, parties and generations. In order to account for his boisterous if tardy emergence into public life, Ms Turkle, who is a sociologist, recalls the remarkably unimpressive history of the psychoanalytical movement in France and Lacan’s own virulently dissident role within and without it. Sociology is not always so dramatic: she has made of Lacan an exemplary as well as a fascinating protagonist, and is both precise and comprehensive in her analysis of the radical cast of mind in contemporary Paris.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 1 No. 4 · 6 December 1979
SIR: John Sturrock’s review of Sherry Turkle’s Psychoanalytic Politics (LRB, 22 November) raises the question as to whether an attitude of neutrality is desirable in the reviewer. Almost the only unambiguous virtue which Sturrock finds in Turkle’s study or Jacques Lacan is that the book it ‘heroically neutral’. It is to my mind unfortunate that Sturrock spends most of his review attempting to outdo Turkle in this peculiar and questionable brand of heroism. He seems to believe that, like the BBC when it is dealing with party politics, he is bound by the principle of balance. The balancing acts which he tries to perform are extremely difficult. Inclining his head to the one side, he tells us that Sherry Turkle’s book is ‘reasonable’; inclining his head to the other side, he tells us that it is ‘unreal’ and ‘too dramatic’. As he extends his left foot forward to deliver a critical tap to Lacan or Turkle, he seems intent on thrusting his right leg back in order to kneel at the shrine of one or both. The posture is not easy to maintain and there are a number of painful moments. Having assured us that Lacan’s professional mission has been the ‘recovery of the true Freud’, he goes on to tell us that ‘in Lacan’s version of Freud, the Ego dissolves.’ If someone told us that a theologian had set out to restore the true concept of the Holy Trinity and that in doing so he had decided to leave out God the Son, we might well feel that the situation called for some comment. Although he is in a similar position, John Sturrock seems to think that even to raise an eyebrow would be to commit an unpardonable breach of critical manners. Unperturbed, he goes on to observe that ‘the paradox of Lacan is that he is the immovably authoritarian source of anti-authoritarian ideas.’ Lovers of neutrality have a habit of discovering paradoxes where others can see only contradictions.
What is most interesting about John Sturrock’s review are the various hints he gives that he does not understand Lacan’s Ecrits. Lacan not only writes with a ‘disordered syntax’ but has managed to produce ‘a large volume of considerable obscurity’ which is ‘strangely arcane’. Yet Sturrock has been given the task of reviewing this study of Lacan because he is particularly well-qualified to do so. If he really does not understand Lacan, he might reasonably conclude that this is not because of his own inability to read, but because of Lacan’s inability to write, which perhaps only disguises a more serious inability to think. Sturrock claims that Lacan’s published lectures are ‘relatively easy going’ when set beside his Ecrits. That may be true but ‘relatively’ can be a big word. My own experience is that when Lacan exchanges tortuous prose for slightly less tortuous prose, his deep theoretical confusion simply becomes more apparent. Sturrock does not seem to be disturbed either by Lacan’s obscurity or by his theoretical confusion and he ends by suggesting that Lacan may revolutionise the psychoanalytic interpretation of literature. Would this be a good thing or a bad thing? Is a man whose major theoretical writings are incomprehensible well-qualified to bring about a revolution in literary criticism?
There will always be some who declare that the Emperor really is wearing new clothes and the cult of Lacan will no doubt persist. It will persist for reasons similar to those which lie behind the success of the Divine Light movement, the Church of Synanon and the Moonies. The cult of neutrality will help to ensure that such movements thrive.
Vol. 1 No. 5 · 20 December 1979
SIR: My deplorable ‘neutrality’ in respect of Jacques Lacan can be analysed (I don’t mean psychoanalysed) into a belief that he is both good and bad. Some parts of his writings I think are brilliant and mind-opening, other parts are beyond me. I cannot either idolatrise or dismiss him in the blandly integral way which Richard Webster (Letters, 6 December) very obviously prefers. I do not understand Lacan’s Ecrits (Mr Webster’s imputation), I do not not understand them. The Ecrits make a volume of some nine hundred pages; it would be absurd to apply to them criteria of comprehensibility appropriate to a single sentence. Rightly or wrongly, Lacan offers the Ecrits as a literary work and literary works above all should escape the form of semantic bigotry which Mr Webster displays.
His Lacan is one thing – ‘incomprehensible’ and that’s that, let’s hear no more about him. My Lacan is not one thing but plural; valuable, incomprehensible, impressive, maddening – the epithets pile up and can all of them be justified. They are not contradictory of one another when they are applied to a life’s work. Mr Webster would like the whole of Lacan’s work to be magically incorporated in the one word ‘Lacan’, and then to manipulate that word to the final disadvantage of the writer who bears it. Lacan himself, like other contemporary French thinkers, notably Barthes and Derrida, asks that we should give our attention to local, not to global instances of meaning and pleasure. Where is the virtue in getting to the end of Ecrits, scrawling the one word ‘incomprehensible’ across the cover and discarding it for ever? I hesitate to offend the editors of the London Review of Books and drag the word ‘deconstruction’ in, but it applies. Such proponents of a positively harmful simplification of intellectual issues as Mr Webster would do well to consider what a capacious term like ‘Lacan’ actually covers when they use it. It covers a body of writings to which Dr Lacan has put his name but with which, by his own – persuasive – account of verbal processes, it would be quite wrong to equate him, since the things that we write or say so far exceed our conscious intentions in writing or saying them. We have no business reducing authors to a single, perfectly coherent source of ideas the easier to ignore them once we have done so.