Why are you here?

Sherry Turkle

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.

[*] 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.