Why are you here?
On 16 June 1953 an administrative session of the Paris Psychoanalytic Society passed a vote of no confidence in its President, Jacques Lacan. Lacan’s theory was at war with internationally-dominant trends in ego psychology. His short analytic sessions took liberties with practices that others saw as sacred. And in relations with colleagues, Lacan disturbed the peace by insisting that traditional psychoanalytic societies undermined psychoanalytic truths. With the no confidence vote, Lacan resigned his presidency, and the Paris Society split in two. During his lifetime, the French psychoanalytic movement would be torn by four such schisms. In each, analysts would be forced to make a choice for or against Lacan.
Those who chose ‘for Lacan’ during the summer of 1953 met with him in weekly seminars that began the following fall. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book I is the edited transcript of the first year of those meetings, devoted to Freud’s papers on technique. Book II covers the group’s second year, focused on the study of the ego. While the previously translated Ecrits primarily consists of formal presentations, the seminars are Lacan as he spoke more informally to those who loved him and to those he wished to seduce. Lacan’s writing is difficult, sometimes almost impossible, to read. Many have wondered how he became so popular. That those who followed him not only read but heard him is part of the answer. And what they heard was the voice of the seminars. They too can be abstruse, but in them we can hear an echo of Lacan’s compelling personal presence. We can begin to understand why people crowded in and wanted more.
The Lacan seminar became a Paris institution that continued for nearly a quarter of a century. By the time I attended in 1972-73, over three hundred participants crowded the Law School Amphitheatre at the Sorbonne, carrying tape-recorders and their scarce hope of being recognised by le Maître. But among the seminars, the early years have a special place. They mark the beginning of Lacanism as an independent psychoanalytic movement. In the seminar of 1953-54 Lacan spoke not only as a theorist within a psychoanalytic society, but as a leader of his own, newly-formed psychoanalytic school. He had long spoken to students: now he was speaking to disciples.
Those who attended Lacan’s first seminars had left an accredited psychoanalytic society to follow a heretic. Lacan alternately teases and congratulates his audience for taking the risk, but he also makes it clear that they had no real choice. He tells them that the Freudian legacy will not survive if psychoanalysis becomes synonymous with ego psychology or continues to live in the bureaucratic world of traditional psychoanalytic societies. In sum, psychoanalysis is in danger and together they can save it. ‘If you are not coming to put into question everything you do, I don’t see why you are here. Why would those who do not sense the meaning of this task remain tied to us, rather than joining up with some sort of bureaucracy or another?’ (I,7).
The spirit of Lacan’s arguments – both in his attack on the ego and on the psychoanalytic institution – evoke the metaphor of a ‘Psychoanalytic Protestantism’. His is a Reformation which asserts the purity and the power of a return. It is a return to Freud’s original texts – to the psychoanalytic Bible – and it is a return to a psychoanalysis that denies the authority of the established psychoanalytic church. It will not rely on standard rules of technique or reassuring notions of cure, but demands a personal and immediate relationship to far more slippery and disturbing truths.
The Seminar: Books I and II also have a special place because of their value as an introduction to Lacan. In the early years of his seminar Lacan was trying to confirm his converts and build his school. He had a particular interest in favourably contrasting his ideas with those of his opponents and critics, primarily English-speaking psychoanalysts. Thus in these seminars we can hear the still relatively unfamiliar Lacan describe himself in contrast to the far more familiar Anna Freud, Melanie Klein and Michael Balint. In the contrasts, Lacan emerges far more clearly than in much of his other writing. And we get a new perspective on what we thought was familiar.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
[*] Lacan, ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I’, in Ecrits: A Selection, translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (1978).
[†] Lacan, ‘The Function and Field of Speech in Language and Psychoanalysis’, in Ecrits.
Vol. 11 No. 4 · 16 February 1989
In his review of Jonathan Glover’s and Alan Donagan’s books, David Pears claims that ‘if … the philosophical analysis of human agency has altered our view of our place in the world as human agents, it has never done so alone, but always aided by some factual hypothesis. This is very clear in cases of diminished responsibility and it ought to be equally clear in the limiting case in which the factual hypothesis is universal determinism’ (LRB, 19 January).
This seems to me to be wrong. Philosophers who have tried to alter our view of our place in the world by appealing to the factual hypothesis of universal determinism have standardly argued that if determinism is true then we cannot be truly free or morally responsible agents in the way that we ordinarily suppose. And such an argument is surely correct. But it has also been argued that you don’t have to appeal to any factual hypothesis like that of determinism in order to show this, because true responsibility is logically impossible – it’s impossible whether determinism is true or false. In which case philosophical analysis of human agency may alter our view of ourselves as agents unaided by any factual hypothesis like that of universal determinism. Pears needs to show what is wrong with this second argument.
Here is a very brief version of it. According to our ordinary, strong conception of free will, free will entails true moral responsibility; and true moral responsibility entails being truly deserving of praise and blame (and punishment and reward) for our actions, in the strongest possible sense. Perhaps the most graphic way to convey this conception of responsibility (or free will or desert) is this: it’s responsibility of such a kind that if we have it then it makes sense, at least, to suppose that it might be just to punish some with damnation in hell, or reward others with bliss in heaven. This idea makes perfect and clear sense, if we have such responsibility, even if it is in fact part of a highly extravagant and distasteful myth. Less eschatologically, many suppose that this idea makes sense simply because we are the ultimate, absolute, buck-stopping originators of our actions, in some sense which is certainly not available if determinism is true.
One could call this conception of freedom and responsibility heaven-and-hell (H&H) free will. The familiar point is that if determinism is true, then H&H free will is not possible. The less familiar point is that H&H free will is impossible even if determinism is false. For suppose some of our actions do occur partly or wholly as a result of occurrences which are themselves random or indeterministic. How could that help to give us H&H free will? How on earth could it make us responsible for those actions in such a way that we could be truly deserving of praise and blame for them? Again, suppose that some of those features of our mental make-up which lead us to act in the way we do are not determined in us (say by heredity, upbringing and environment, and ultimately by events which occurred before our birth), but are instead the outcome of indeterministic events. How on earth (which is where we are) could that help make us deserving of praise and blame for our actions? It seems that indeterminism (the falsity of determinism) is no help at all, if we are looking for H&H free will. It seems that what we would need for H&H free will is not just indeterminism but ultimate self-determination or self-creation, on the part of free agents. But it appears that such self-creation is logically impossible.
Why do we need it and why is it impossible? We need it because if we are to be ultimately responsible for our actions, then it seems that we must be ultimately responsible for how we are mentally, at least in certain respects, since our intentional actions are necessarily a function of how we are mentally. We must be ultimate ‘originators’ of ourselves, and our natures, at least in certain respects. But this is logically impossible: the attempt to describe how we could possibly be ultimate originators of ourselves and our natures in this way leads self-defeatingly to infinite regress.
For suppose that one could somehow choose how to be, in certain respects, and could then bring it about that one was that way. In order to do this, in such a way that one became ultimately responsible for how one was, one would already have to have existed prior to one’s choice, with a certain set of preferences about how to be, in the light of which one chose how to be. But then the question would arise: where did these preferences come from? Or were they just there, unchosen preferences for which one was not ultimately responsible? To be ultimately responsible for oneself one would have had to have chosen these preferences in turn. But then one would need another set of preferences in the light of which one chose them. And so on. One could never get back behind oneself in such a way as to be able to create oneself in such a way that one was ultimately responsible for how one was.
This also bears on a claim recently made in the LRB by Sherry Turkle, who concluded her review of Jacques Lacan’s Seminars (LRB, 5 January) by saying that ‘the individual is “decentred”. There is no autonomous self. What sex was to the Victorians, the question of free will is to our new Fin de Siècle.’ It is true that if there is no self as ordinarily conceived, then there is no free will, as ordinarily conceived. But it does not follow that free will is possible if the self is. If the above argument is right, conclusions about free will do not depend on conclusions about the self in this way. Even if you can save the self, you can’t save free will.
Jesus College, Oxford
Vol. 11 No. 7 · 30 March 1989
Some years ago I read, with considerable enjoyment and admiration, Sherry Turkle’s Psychoanalytic Politics, in which she offered a non-partisan comparison of Lacanian and American versions of Freudian psychoanalysis. But now, in her review of Lacan’s seminar papers (LRB, 5 January), she seems to have shifted her position towards Lacan and, especially, towards his rather rabid antagonism to the ego-psychology of Hartmann, Kris and Loewenstein. The purpose of this letter is not to endorse the ‘Troika’, whose views have long been modified, if not supplanted, by others – and not necessarily by those of Kohuth, who is hardly the flavour of this month – but to express regret that she is now less critical of Lacanian ideas which are no more tenable than those to which they are opposed.
To begin with, she makes no comment on Lacan’s tendency to reify or, worse, personify the ego, which is presented as dangerous, deceptive, elusive, shifty and to be approached ‘with daggers drawn’. There are intimations here of nothing less than incitement to violence! Who whom? Or again: ‘When you look inside there are mirrors and snapshots. But there is no I.’ Is the I absent? In which case, where lies its corresponding presence? And if I is non-existent what would we have expected to find if it were not? Or is I, like God, something purely imagined and without any objective correlative? And is it the case that for each one, there are only second and third persons? And who or what is it that relates to them? I shall be reminded that Lacan is only using metaphors. But, for Lacan, there is no such thing as only using a metaphor.
Hartmann et cie became so concerned with the ego – or with some aspects of it – because excessive Freudianism was attributing everything to the contrariness of unconscious instinct: psychoanalysts would not have been able to explain the very practice of their ‘science’, such as it was and is, without acknowledging some area of mental activity in which the criteria of rational evaluation – not only of scientific theories, but of the assumptions of everyday life itself – could, indeed, have some degree of autonomy.
This is no plea in defence of the ‘Troika’s’ whole project, since what was wrong with it were the very theoretical directives with which they tinkered; the whole apparatus needed, and still needs, replacement. What it does not need are the paranoid horror stories tacked on to it by Lacan. Those stories are grist to the mill of analytic practice; they are not components of its theory.
Turkle seems to endorse Lacan’s emphasis on the ‘decentred’ self which is nothing but the product of the identifications which have been made with ‘others’. This all ‘underscores that part of Freud’s message which is most revolutionary for our time’. Unfortunately, that term ‘decentred’ has become yet another of the buzz words of post-structural or post-post-structural discourse in which nothing is ‘privileged’ except perhaps the meta-discourse which is, for the moment, on stage. Turkle is not of that ilk but might be thought to be on loan to it. But if all persons are ‘decentred’ – in which case where is the person? – what is the measure of their condition: that is, where is the ‘centre’ at which they would be if they were there? Perhaps the article should have been titled not ‘Why are you here?’ but ‘Not being there’.
Turkle ends with the promise that ‘what sex was to the Victorians, the question of free will is to our new Fin-de-Siècle.’ Considering that nearly all determinisms, whether ontological or epistemological, have taken a severe beating for much of this century, and even more so of late, having been increasingly replaced by the idea of systems of different degrees of openness and closure – Popper’s clouds and clocks – one wonders what she has in mind. Both free will and determinism have become zero-rated points on a continuum. There may be much to be learned from Lacan; and especially from points of agreement between his Freudian theory of identification and Mead’s theory of the self. But it is surprising that Turkle does not notice that Lacan’s ‘vendetta’ against the ego – that is, his particular choice of ambivalence to Freud – indicates an excessive commitment to a metapsychology which he could have helped undo.
London School of Economics, WC2
Vol. 11 No. 8 · 20 April 1989
Mr Cohen (Letters, 30 March) need not fear I have made a shift towards the rabid. My purpose both in Psychoanalytic Politics and in my recent review of the early Lacan seminars is to understand what Lacan was trying to tell us, why so many people stopped to listen, and what paying attention to him can teach us. I underscore ‘trying’ because, beginning with Freud, psychoanalytic theory teaches us not only by its successes but through its project and aspirations. In this realm I believe in the value of imperfect but powerful ideas. And I would apply this standard not only to Lacan but to his enemies and Mr Cohen’s friends. Then as now, I think Lacan articulated a series of important contradictions between psychoanalysis and the psychoanalytic institution at a time when establishment complacency ran high. Then as now, I think Lacan’s emphasis on ‘decentring’ was a calculated move to counter not only an ego psychology which he saw as ascendant but also what he saw as people’s natural tendency to slip back a notion of an automatic self because it ‘feels’ like a familiar and reassuring friend. I stand by my concluding remark about the current centrality of notions of free will and intentionality. Whether or not we have ‘selves’, it is Freud’s challenge to this notion rather than his assertions about sexuality that is most at the heart of today’s concerns.