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.

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[*] 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.