Lacan’s Mirrors

Edmund Leach

  • The Talking Cure: Essays in Psychoanalysis and Language edited by Colin MacCabe
    Macmillan, 230 pp, £20.00, February 1981, ISBN 0 333 23560 6

It is possible that I am asked to comment on this expensive and largely unreadable volume only because its editor has achieved national celebrity by seeming to figure as a sacrificial victim in the recent extraordinary fracas in the Cambridge English Faculty. Sacrifices, as the word indicates, are procedures for improving the ritual status of the victim-donor, and it is entirely appropriate that Dr MacCabe should, in the outcome, have become a full professor (at the University of Strathclyde). But all that has nothing whatever to do with this book.

Although it appears in a series (edited by Stephen Heath and Colin MacCabe himself) in which the titles suggest all the latest Marxist, Feminist and Structuralist Paris fashions, the actual contents of this exercise, where they are comprehensible, seem to me to be distinctly old hat. Most of the essays are rewritten versions of papers delivered to a seminar organised by Dr MacCabe in 1976-7 which sought to evaluate the work of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Despite their title, the authors are not concerned with therapy, but with the philosophical status of Lacan’s arguments as providing a model of the mind.

Now Lacan, by far the most obscure of all the Parisian intellectuals who, willingly or unwillingly, have been lumped together as ‘structuralists’, has been around a long time. Even in 1966, a friendly commentator, Anthony Wilden (not mentioned here), was complaining that many of Lacan’s writings had been allowed to go out of print! The concept of stade de miroir which is of ‘crucial importance from Lacan’s viewpoint’ dates from 1936. The same commentator remarked that the best introduction to the thought of Lacan was a lecture given in 1946 which was not written in ‘the dense and hermetic style of much of his later work’. The fact that very few of Lacan’s writings had appeared in English before 1977 was largely due to their unreadability. Whether the authors of the present set of essays have really understood what their mentor intended to say is a moot point, but perhaps unimportant since, in Derrida fashion, ‘author’s intentions’ come low down in their list of critical priorities.

Only one of the contributors makes any claim to professional competence in the art of psychoanalysis. This is Moustapha Safouan, a pupil of Lacan who has a practice in Paris. He is credited with having translated Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams and Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit into Arabic. The essay which he contributes here was originally written in French and translated into English by another hand. It is mostly an intricate argument about the meaning of the German language concepts of Vorstellung and Repräsentanz. The name of Lacan does not appear anywhere in Safouan’s essay, but its theme is very Lacanian. It is quite as hermetic as anything Lacan himself has ever achieved. This is evidently Safouan’s usual style. John Forrester’s essay quotes the following passage (which originally appeared in a supposedly popular exposition of psychoanalytic structuralism) as representing ‘a most interesting note’: ‘What distinguishes Lacanian theory is that, in showing the essential dependence of desire on the signifier, the signifier thus imposing, from the beginning, its structure, in so far as it is, in its very nature, the signifier of an absence, we hold desire to be a formation which is born in a constitutive sublimation.’ This is very typical. All the authors pretend that they and their readers are all equally polylingual, and that, in particular, everyone concerned has a complete grasp of the more subtle nuances of Lacan’s writings, most of which seem to me untranslatable and which, at the time of the original seminar, did not exist in English at all. And, just to make life more difficult still for the non-initiate, even those articles which did at that time exist in more or less comprehensible English are cited in the bibliography only in French or not at all.

It is not revealed which authors, if any, have themselves undergone psychoanalysis of either a Lacanian or any other sort. They have read Freud and about Freud, and they have presumably read Lacan. But Freud himself maintained that no one could understand what psychoanalysis was about without undergoing an analysis. These authors provide little evidence that they have this kind of ‘understanding from the inside’ of the theme of their discussion. But they are very pleased with themselves. They write in a wrapped-up private language as members of a mutual self-admiration society. They are addressing each other and a cadre of like persons, the total size of which must be extremely small.

Some of the essays also display a bogus adolescent scholasticism of the Granny-look-how-clever-I-am sort which serves no purpose at all except to clutter up the text. I cite Forrester again, though he is not the only offender. His essay is entitled ‘Philology and the Phallus’, and, taken as a whole, is one of the more comprehensible contributions, but it opens with a six-line, small-print quotation which receives no further comment. The quotation is identified as deriving from: ‘Sir William Hamilton, The worship of Priapus. An account of the Fête of St Cosmo and Damiens ... at Isernia in 1780 ... To which is added some account of the phallic worship, principally derived from A discourse on the worship of Priapus, by R.P. Knight. (London, 1883) (100 copies).’ What on earth can Forrester be getting at? Does he imagine that either Hamilton or Payne Knight was alive in 1883? Or are his readers being invited to admire his familiarity with arcane literature? In any event, he is wildly off-track. Hamilton wrote his letter about Isernia in 1781. Knight published it with his Discourse in 1786. Reprints of varying degrees of authenticity appeared in 1865, 1883, 1894 and 1974. Forrester’s quotation comes from page 17 of the 1786 edition and appears in all subsequent versions. I would agree that this is quite irrelevant to the matter of Lacan, but it does not encourage confidence in Forrester’s pretensions to scholarship.

All this is very unfortunate and quite unnecessary. ‘Structuralism’ is not a mystery or a religious dogma. When properly used, it is a way of thinking about the man-made data under investigation, and one which provides new and unexpected insights. The best structuralist writing uses very little jargon, though it does tend to rely a good deal upon pictorial and schematic diagrams. To determine where Freud, and hence Lacan, comes into it requires some appreciation of the not very convincing models used by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure at the beginning of the century.

Orthodox Freudian theory holds that although the source of a patient’s neurosis is repressed into the unconscious, the patient is able to talk about the neurosis to the analyst by providing a verbal account of dream experiences and by making verbal free associations on elements drawn from such verbal descriptions. The problem of how verbal utterances relate to unconscious elements of mental process is thus a central issue, but traditional Freudian theory did not speculate in any detail about the nature of the linguistic mechanism that might be involved.

In Saussurean linguistics, which is fundamental for most contemporary forms of ‘structuralism’, the first basic theme is that we must distinguish ‘language’ (langue) from ‘speech’ (parole). Language is a system of differentiated elements the coding of which makes it possible that a speech utterance should convey meaning. Orthodox structuralist discussions of language are almost entirely concerned with language as coded differences in this sense rather than with speech.

In its original form, Saussurean linguistics was behaviourist. It was held that words, considered as differentiated sound patterns, are descriptive of autonomous objects in the world out there, but that internally, in the mind, a distinction must be made between the acoustic image of the word and the concept which it represents. It was postulated that the two relationships are the same. Thus, in the world out there, a signified object might be denoted by the signifier sound pattern which we hear as ‘tree’, while internally, in the mind, the signified concept of the ‘idea of a tree’ is denoted by the signifier acoustic image, the word ‘tree’ as we hear it. The relationship ‘signified’ to ‘signifier’ is the same in both cases:

Signified=Object out there=Concept in the mind
SignifierWord as sound patternWord as acoustic image

Lacan, along with a number of other contemporary structualists, inverts the diagram. Objects (and concepts) are constituted by words: they do not exist as category entities in their own right. The difference between a ‘tree’ and a ‘bush’ is a matter of language, not of botany.

But Lacan then links this with an extremely mechanical model of the relationship between acoustic image (the signifier) and concept (the unconscious signified). This model depends on the well-known fact that various kinds of visual illusion can be created by an arrangement of hidden mirrors: Lacan’s analogue argument is that, in a psychoanalytic discourse between patient and analyst, the words which are used by the patient as signifiers denote hidden (repressed – mostly sexual) signifieds, rather than the signifieds which they would denote if it were not for the mirror-like trickery of the Freudian unconscious.

Apart from this twist, Lacanian psychoanalytic theory seems old rather than new-fashioned. It appears to accept quite uncritically such curiosities as the Oedipus Complex, primeval matriarchy, penis envy, and other features borrowed from the Freud of the pre-1920 era, though Lacan’s arguments about ‘the Other’ seem to derive in part from Melanie Klein.

Another fundamental theme in structural linguistics of the Saussurean sort, which in its present-day form owes a great deal to Jakobson’s studies of aphasia in children, is the emphasis placed on the fact that the meaning of speech utterances derives from two polar types of association both of which are always present, though in differing degrees. On the one hand, an utterance consists of a chain of differentiated elements – vowels, consonants, syllables, words, sentences – coming one after another. The association is that of contiguity (syntagmatic chains in Saussure, metonymy in Jakobson). On the other hand, there are relations of asserted similarity (paradigmatic association in Saussure, metaphor in Jakobson). Here the Lacanian thesis seems to be that in the patient’s discourse with the analyst the metonymic chain of signifiers (as in free association) is metaphoric for a quite different but repressed chain of signifiers which it is the purpose of the analysis to reveal.

At this level, Saussurean structuralism does fit quite tidily onto orthodox Freudian theory, but it does not, in any obvious way, add any novel insights. On the other hand, when Lacan elaborates his jargon, his diagrams and his aphorisms, including the formula that ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’ and the claim that the patient’s utterances constitute ‘the discourse of the Other’, he makes the whole process of psychoanalysis seem more and more like a spirit medium’s incantation and less and less like a genuine procedure of scientific medicine.

But the authors of this book, although they are not all 100 per cent Lacanian devotees, are all greatly impressed. There is no suggestion that any of them think of their mentor as a charlatan. As far as I can judge, there is only one paper (out of nine) which might perhaps be of some interest to readers who are not already deep in the Freudian mire. It is entitled ‘The Imaginary’ and is by Jacqueline Rose. It is concerned to examine the connection, if any, between Lacan’s model of mental imagery as a construct of ‘hidden mirrors’ and the way that the observer of a cinema film or a television screen interprets the images on the screen. It is not comprehensible without cross-reference to Lacanian literature, but it poses a number of interesting questions which might well persuade an otherwise uninitiated reader to look up Rose’s references.

MacCabe’s own contribution, entitled ‘On Discourse’, was not a contribution to the Lacan seminar, but originated at much the same time and has all the private-language vices of the other items. Only those readers who have an obsessional interest in the infighting among contemporary Parisian Marxist intellectuals are likely to find it interesting. Far more space is taken up with bashing down the arguments of rival scholars (mostly French) than with explaining just what it is that MacCabe wants to say.

Some librarians will, presumably, want to purchase this book anyway; the remaining potential readership is very small.