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Why are you here?Sherry Turkle
Vol. 11 No. 1 · 5 January 1989

Why are you here?

Sherry Turkle

2888 words
The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book I: Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953-1954 
edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, translated by John Forrester.
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Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955 
edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, translated by Sylvana Tomaselli.
Cambridge, 314 pp., £35, May 1988, 0 521 26679 3
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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 Seminar: Book I begins by invoking the ‘return to Freud’ – that is, a return to Freud’s texts as the source of psychoanalytic truth. But that return is to be selective. Lacan sees Freud’s revolutionary discovery in his early work, in a method that allows one to find a new level of meaning in what people say and dream and do. This is a method not unlike textual analysis. Psychical phenomena are discussed in terms that constantly remind the reader that the phenomena themselves are linguistic. In Freud’s later work, different concerns are dominant. There is an increasing focus on the mechanisms of negotiation between internal entities whose highly-structured actions are presumed to underlie behaviour. Chief among these was, of course, the ego.

In Lacan’s view, these later preoccupations led others to compromise the Freudian pursuit of meaning with an unfortunate preoccupation with mechanism. And they led to a misguided view of the ego itself. Lacan believes that Freud’s view of the ego is ‘so upsetting as to warrant the expression Copernican revolution’ (II,3). It is the cornerstone of psychoanalysis as a subversive science. For Lacan, the crux of Freud’s view is that there is no centred, stable self. People are constructed by language and society. But ego psychology has pointed itself in the other direction. Its notion of an autonomous ego supports the ‘illusion’ of the Cartesian subject, the ego as a rational and intentional agent.

The Seminar: Books I and II make it clear that the heart of Lacan’s attack on ego psychology is philosophical. In a series of playful and inventive optical thought experiments Lacan traces most of its problems to the idea that there is an ‘objective’, ‘knowable’ reality. Freud subverted that reality: the Freudian subject cannot be an objective ‘I’ or ‘eye’. As perceived by Lacan, the ego psychologists’ notion of a conflict-free zone of the ego implied an anti-Freudian voluntarism. The unhampered ego seemed free to act and choose; it almost seemed the locus for a reborn notion of the will or for a seat of moral responsibility.

On this point, Lacan criticises the reifications of the ego in Anna Freud’s The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence: ‘she is talking about the-little-man-within-the-man, who has an autonomous life within the subject and who is there to defend it – Father, look out to the right. Father, look out to the left – against whatever might assail him from without as from within. If we were to consider her book as the depiction of a moralist, then she incontestably is speaking of the ego as the seat of a certain number of passions, in a style not unworthy of the manner in which La Rochefoucauld points out the unflagging ruses of self love’ (I,63).

In The Seminar: Book I Lacan speaks of ego psychologists Heinz Hartmann, Ernst Kris and Rudolf Loewenstein as an ‘American troika’ who travel similarly dangerous ground. Lacan believes they have watered down Freud’s most powerful concepts, perhaps to make them more acceptable, perhaps in the service of trying to bring psychoanalysis back into the fold of general psychology. ‘They are always referring to the desexualised libido – they almost get to the point of saying delibidinised – or of deaggressivated aggression’ (I, 164). To Lacan’s mind, their idea of a conflict-free zone of ego functioning is as foolish as that of a delibidinised libido. As foolish, and more dangerous. The ego psychologists ‘say over and over again – We speak only to the ego, we are in communication with the ego alone, everything is challenged via the ego.’ But Lacan argues that the ego cannot hold the solution, because it is the problem: ‘the ego is structured exactly like a symptom. At the heart of the subject, it is only a privileged symptom, the human symptom par excellence, the mental illness of man’ (I, 16).

Lacan insisted that, far from being autonomous, the ego is alienated in the objects (the people and the images) with which it has identified during its development. While ego psychologists talked about setting up ‘therapeutic alliances’ with the autonomous ego, Lacan made it clear that the ego was the carrier of the neurosis, and that allying with the ego is like consorting with the enemy. Lacan criticises Michael Balint and his followers for thinking that ‘either the ego is strong or it is weak. And if it is weak, they are obliged by the internal logic of their theory, to think it has to be strengthened’ (I, 11). As Lacan sees it, there should be no question of strengthening the ego. The ego is built out of the misidentifications, confusions and alienations of a pre-symbolic, pre-Oedipal stage of development. It can do no better. The only psychoanalytic approach to the ego is with daggers drawn.

The alienations of the ego are born in a ‘mirror stage’ which extends from when the child is about six months old to when it is about eighteen months old. During this time, the child comes to see its body, still unco-ordinated and not fully under its control, as whole, rather than fragmented, by identifying with its mirror image in much the same way that it identifies with its mother’s body and with the bodies of other children. Lacan believes that in these unmediated, one-to-one identifications, the child is actually subordinated to its image, to its mother, to others.

The ego never exists as a coherent entity. From the beginning, it is a composite of false and distorted introjections, so that I and other are inextricably confused in the language of the self. When you look inside there are mirrors and snapshots. But there is no I.

These alienating relationships take place in what Lacan, borrowing from the metaphor of the mirror, calls an ‘imaginary’ stage. He contrasts them with the very different kind of signification that is possible with a changed relationship to language. In Lacan’s view of the resolution of the Oedipal conflict, one signifier, the father’s name – in French, le nom, a tantalising homonym with the father’s no, le non – comes to substitute for another, the desire for the mother and the desire to be what she most desires. In this way, Lacan translates repression as a process of metaphor formation. For him, Oedipus is about the development of the child’s capacity of a new way to use symbols.

This theoretical reliance on the development of language marks a point of sharp disagreement between Lacan and Melanie Klein. In The Seminar: Books I and II Lacan’s respect for Klein is clear. He admires her clinical instincts and ability to get down into what he called the ‘shit and nappy rash’ of the analytic enterprise. He supports her in what he refers to as her ‘Merovingian’ dynastic struggles with Anna Freud. But Lacan fundamentally disagrees with Klein about the possibility of Oedipal struggle in a child without language. For Lacan, Oedipus is language.

Lacan marks the enormous difference between pre-Oedipal and post-Oedipal symbolic capacities by naming two different ‘orders of signification’. The first order, associated with the mirror and the immediate, dual relationship of child and mother, is the ‘imaginary’. As when Narcissus bent over his reflection, self yearns to fuse with what is perceived as other. The second order, in which signification is mediated by a third term, the father, is called the ‘symbolic’. The word is no longer the thing.

But even in this post-Oedipal world, the imaginary identifications persist. Lacan has no simple ‘stage theory’: throughout life, the subject continues to identify with people and images in a direct, fusional mode in which self is lost in other. The primary identification of the self in a misrecognition constrains all further construction. It ‘situates the agency of the ego, before its social determination, in a fictional direction, which will always remain irreducible for the individual alone’.*

At least metaphorically, the ego is lost in the mirror and it continues to be lost in language. In September 1953, Lacan made one of his most memorable statements on how language determines the self in a speech usually referred to as the ‘Discourse of Rome’. In it, he said that symbols ‘envelop the life of a man in a network so total that ... they bring to his birth ... the shape of his destiny’. Only a few months later, in the first seminar, Lacan extended the thought with metaphors of domination. Human beings have no choice but to ‘submit’ to the world of symbols.

The Seminar: Book II includes one of Lacan’s most accessible and influential presentations on this point. This is the seminar on Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Purloined Letter’. All of the actions of all of the characters in the story are determined by the presence of a letter, a signifier whose contents are unknown. Lacan repeatedly emphasises the extent to which we are dominated by the presence of such signifiers. This is a way of thinking that has no room for notions of ‘objective reality’ or ‘autonomous ego’. At the heart of the subject there isn’t autonomy but ‘submission’ to language. Or, in the optical metaphors of The Seminar: Books I and II, at the heart of the subject, there isn’t a ‘self’ but a mirror reflecting a mirror.

The Seminar: Books I and II are a sure path of entry into Lacan’s critique of ego psychology, but some readers will feel that this is not very relevant to current concerns. They will feel that what Lacan had to say was all well and good in the context of the Fifties, but that shrill denunciations of the ‘first wave’ ego psychologists are no longer needed. I believe they are wrong. Lacan’s message about the decentred self is very much to the point today.

First, even if the tradition of classical ‘ego psychology’ has become far more philosophically sophisticated, there is the continued growth and popular presence of all its noisy relations: the plethora of theories and therapies which assume the presence of an active, autonomous ‘self’. Heinz Hartmann is gone, but Heinz Kohut puts forth a self whose optimism, realism, and ability to stand aside from conflict, make it not dissimilar from the autonomous ego that Lacan took to task over a quarter of a century ago.

And there is a deeper issue, one which Lacan raises when he begins The Seminar: Book II with a short history of the ego. There he says that Freud’s radical ideas were ‘destined’ to abolish traditional notions of the ego, and yet ‘via innumerable detours’, a version of the pre-analytic ego has re-emerged (II, 3). Lacan notes that its return has been greeted with enthusiasm: ‘There was a general rush, exactly like the kids getting out of school – Ah! Our nice little ego is back again. It all makes sense now’ (II, 11). The centred self is reassuring.

Following Lacan’s thought, it is too simple to ‘explain away’ ego psychology as the ‘Americanisation’ of psychoanalysis, or describe its influence as a historical accident. Ego psychology is the psychological model that is closest to ‘common sense’. It is the psychological model that is closest to the way most people like to think about themselves. It is the version of the unconscious most acceptable to the conscious. Seen from this perspective, controversy about ego psychology relates directly to a struggle that touches each individual. ‘Every relation of man with himself changes perspective with the Freudian discovery’ (II, 3). The effect is of a decentring. Lacan sums it up with a phrase from Rimbaud: ‘I is an other’ (Je est un autre).

Lacan’s critique of ego psychology raises the question of the extent to which each of us is willing to accept the presence within of an other, an alien, whether that other be linguistic, or social, or historical. It raises the question of the extent to which each of us is willing to accept a subversion of our everyday sense of ourselves as actors, and as the makers of our own lives. Doing so takes an extraordinary discipline, both for the individual and for intellectual movements. Everything in daily life pushes in the other direction, including, and especially, language. As soon as we use pronouns with verbs – ‘I do, she wants, he desires’ – we speak the language of the cogito, without, if Lacan is right, being one.

For generations, people have argued about whether or not Freud’s theory was ‘revolutionary’, and the debate has usually centred on Freud’s ideas about sexuality. These days, the idea that our sexual selves are present in everything we do, say and think has passed into the world of things that most people take for granted. But Lacan’s work underscores that part of Freud’s message that is most revolutionary for our time. 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.

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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.

Galen Strawson
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.

Percy Cohen
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.

Sherry Turkle
London SW3

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