Sherry Turkle

  • Jacques Lacan and Co: A History of Psychoanalysis in France, 1925-1985 by Elisabeth Roudinesco, translated by Jeffrey Mehlman
    Free Association, 816 pp, £25.00, December 1990, ISBN 1 85343 163 X

Freud believed that psychoanalysis was so deeply subversive of people’s most cherished beliefs that only resistance to psychoanalytic ideas would reveal where they were being taken seriously. In 1914 he wrote that ‘the final decisive battle’ for psychoanalysis would be played out ‘where the greatest resistance has been displayed’. By that point it was already clear that it was in France, the country of Mesmer, Bernheim, Charcot, Bergson and Janet, France with its long literary tradition of exquisite sensitivity to the psychological, that resistance to psychoanalysis was greatest. ‘In Paris itself,’ reflected Freud, ‘the conviction seemed to reign ... that everything good in psychoanalysis is a repetition of Janet’s views with insignificant modifications, and that everything else is bad.’ Despite early interest by the Surrealists, there was no French psychoanalytic society until 1926, and for over a quarter of a century it remained small, its members badly stigmatised by their medical peers. Before World War Two, the French had rejected psychoanalysis as a German inspiration; after the war it fared only a little bit better with a new image as an American import.

In the Sixties, all this seemed to change. A growing thirst for things psychoanalytic became a hallmark of French intellectual life. Ready to satisfy it was the brand of psychoanalytic thinking embodied in the work of Jacques Lacan. His Cartesian, poeticised and linguistic psychoanalysis constituted a French reinvention of Freud. Towards the end of the decade, what might have been confined to the hothouse world of the intellectuals was carried beyond by the passions of May 1968. The May events were a festival of speech and desire and psychoanalysts were perceived as the professionals of both. In the context of May, Lacanianism had a special cachet. It was linked to Althusser’s Marxism and Dali’s Surrealism, both excellent credentials for a movement that found itself caught between Marx and street theatre. Anti-establishment and anti-American in his politics within the psychoanalytic movement. Lacan became the symbol of a larger protest. There was even a story – so much a part of the folklore that it made its way across the Atlantic to be reported in the New Yorker – of Lacan putting the student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit in the back of his own Jaguar and successfully smuggling him across the border into Germany. Like all myths, the story speaks its own truth. By the end of the Sixties, what had been a small psychoanalytic movement, theoretically rich but socially isolated, grew into a more deeply and broadly rooted French psychoanalytic culture.

Elisabeth Roudinesco’s Lacan and Co, the second volume of her two-volume history of French psychoanalysis, traces the development of the French psychoanalytic movement from 1925 to 1985, with Lacan as its main protagonist. In French analytic circles, controversy over Lacan’s unorthodox practice and equally unorthodox ideas about psychoanalytic training precipitated three post-war schisms, in 1953, 1963 and 1969. And shortly before his death in 1981, in the heat of yet another controversy, Lacan dissolved his Freudian School, leading to a chain reaction of schisms and the formation of at least a dozen new psychoanalytic organisations. For over a quarter of a century Lacan served as a lightning-rod for controversy not only with psychoanalytic colleagues but in wider intellectual circles. Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Philippe Sollers, Paul Ricoeur and Louis Althusser are all part of Lacan and Co. Like the analysts, each of them had to take a stand for or against Lacan. Lacan would have it no other way. He charged intellectual history with the passion of transferences played out on a public stage. Vain, seductive, vindictive, insecure and charismatic, he never made it easy.

Lacan’s approach to psychoanalysis was characterised from the beginning by a personal appropriation of the Viennese theory which put it in contact with his own intellectual heroes – among them, Spinoza for philosophy, Maurras for his love of language, Clérambault for his observation of patients, Kojeve for the genius of his insight into Hegel, and Dali for the Surrealist experience. Roudinesco notes that the only person who clearly had no place within this family romance was Lacan’s own analyst, the ‘eminently decent Rudolph Loewenstein’. The man who would become famous for his attacks on ego psychology chose as his analyst the man who would become its founder.

Rudolph Loewenstein’s technique represented everything that Lacan would spend the rest of his life opposing. For Loewenstein, analysis was above all a medical technique aimed at curing symptoms: for Lacan, it was, as Roudinesco describes it, an ‘intellectual epic, a discovery of the mind, a theoretical journey’. Loewenstein believed the ego was the analyst’s ally. For Lacan, the ego was an illusion – to ally oneself with it was to consort with the enemy. For Lacan, the only way to approach the ego was ‘with daggers drawn’. Forty years after the event, Lacan referred to his analysis with Loewenstein by saying simply: ‘I analysed myself.’

Roudinesco, a member of Lacan’s Freudian School from 1969 to its dissolution in 1980, is a second-generation Lacanian, the daughter of Jenny Aubry, a psychiatrist who was in analytic training at the Paris Psychoanalytic Society at the time of the schism of 1953 when Lacan’s experiments with analytic technique were already crystallising larger conflicts about the nature of psychoanalytic training. Carefully researched, using archival and interview material never before reported on, Lacan and Co recounts the Lacanian saga from an insider’s point of view. It is a tale of psychoanalytic politics which never strays far from family romance.

Indeed, in the final chapters of the saga, Lacan’s son-in-law, Jacques-Alain Miller, was put in the place of dauphin, much as Freud had made his daughter Anna his Antigone. Miller’s struggle for the succession brought to the surface the complex and self-contradictory nature of psychoanalysis as a family affair, its members united by blood, or by marriage, or by transferential bond.

Jacques-Alain Miller entered Lacan’s world at a fateful moment. In October 1963, Miller, then 19, had just completed his licence under the direction of the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. Althusser encouraged his student to make a serious study of Lacan’s work. But even as Miller was reading his first Lacan texts, the International Psychoanalytic Association demanded that Lacan’s name and that of his colleague Françoise Dolto be removed from its list of training analysts at the French Psychoanalytic Society, formed as a result of the schism of 1953. The International Association would no longer tolerate Lacan’s experiments with analytic technique – in particular, his practice of short sessions, often only five minutes in length. The short sessions were only one way in which Lacan asserted that, in his view, psychoanalysis could not be reduced to any formalised technique: it was a research instrument in a developing science and there should be no absolute rules. When the International Association ruled against him, Lacan declared himself ‘excommunicated’ and likened the International to a Church rather than a scientific organisation. In protest, he shut down his weekly seminar at Saint Anne’s hospital. When he resumed teaching in January 1964, it was on Althusser’s turf at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. The move was symbolic. Excluded from the world of internationally-recognised psychoanalysis, Lacan was now determined to seek recognition in intellectual worlds beyond it. Miller, who saw Lacan’s work as a theoretical whole that needed to be systematised, was well placed to assist in that goal. Unlike Althusser, he was not interested in integrating Lacan’s ideas with those of Freud, but in stressing their differences. The goal of this systematisation and purification was to put Lacanian theory in a better position for dialogue with other formal theories of discourse. What these theories had in common was the epistemological break that Althusser had already commended in Lacan’s reading of Freud: they specifically excluded the psychological subject.

In June 1964 Lacan founded the Freudian School. Unlike traditional psychoanalytic societies, it welcomed non-analysts as members. From its earliest days it was a meeting-place for mathematicians, philosophers, linguists, anthropologists and literary critics. It was there that Miller and a small group of Althusser students formed a study group on ‘the theory of discourse’. In January 1966, this group, known as the Cercle d’Epistémologie de l’Ecole Normale Supérieure, began to publish its own journal, Cahiers pour lAnalyse. Roudinesco remarks that Miller’s formalisation of Lacanian thought ‘led to a recasting of Lacanianism that had two immediate consequences, one theoretical, the other political’.

From 1966 to 1969, Cahiers pour l’Analyse built up an extra-analytic, theoretical Lacanianism, concerned with logic, formalism and science. Purified of all reference to the psychological subject, it was the vanguard for the Lacanian colonisation of the worlds beyond psychoanalysis. In its issues, Lacan appeared with writers such as Georges Canguilhem. Althusser, Derrida and Georges Dumézil.

Politically, the reference to an objective science meant that adversaries could be identified and labelled ‘deviationist’ in relation to a pure and absolute doctrinal norm. While Lacan produced concepts that were deliberately ambiguous and open to multiple interpretation, Miller sought to rationalise them. This ‘corrected’, more ‘coherent’ version of Lacan facilitated attacks on now more easily identifiable theoretical enemies. Before this period Lacan had not used the term ‘deviation’ to describe wayward disciples. In his very first presentation at Lacan’s seminar, however, Miller applied this politicised language to attack theoretical impurities in the work of Lacan’s followers, and specifically that of the analyst Piera Aulagnier. Aulagnier had refused Lacan’s invitation to respond, claiming that the charge of deviationism had no meaning in a clinical context. From this first interchange, Miller established a pattern that was to be fateful for the history of the Freudian School: a ‘scientific’ philosophical language was pitted against ‘impure’ clinical discourse. With Miller, the reference to science in Lacan’s work became a tool of Lacanian psychoanalytic politics.

In an interview with Roudinesco, Miller recalls that during this early period he saw his relation to Lacan in terms of Hugo’s La Légende des Siècles, where he identified with the character of Aymerillot.

Charlemagne was sad on his return from Roncesvaux. He had lost Roland and dreamed of conquering Narbonne. He turned to his barons, his old companions of many struggles, but none of them wished to take up the challenge. Dismayed, they turned their eyes to the ground. Suddenly, Aymerillot stepped away from the rest. Pale and fragile, he turned to Charlemagne and said: ‘I have come to ask you for what no man wants, the honour of being, oh my King, if God does not forsake me, the man of whom it will be said: It was he who took Narbonne ... I will enter Narbonne and I will be its conqueror. Later, I will punish scoffers, should any remain.’ More radiant than the archangel, Charlemagne said to Aymerillot: ‘You will be a count paladin.’ The following day the youth took the city.

In 1969, after its tenth issue, Miller interrupted publication of the Cahiers to turn his full attention to politics. He was now a committed Maoist, a member of La Gauche Prolétarienne. It was a turn of events that was quite pleasing to those at the Freudian School who were relieved that Miller would be occupied elsewhere than on their home turf. But they were naive to rejoice so soon. Miller was to take Narbonne, although to his foes he was less a chivalric knight than an implacable Jacobin, more Saint-Just than Aymerillot. In 1966 he married the King’s beloved daughter, Judith Lacan. In 1969 he began his step-by-step takeover of the Department of Psychoanalysis at Vincennes, a campaign waged to full victory by 1976 when Vincennes was his, a fiefdom within the University of Paris. And in 1972, while still at La Gauche Prolétarienne, he was passed what in retrospect was clearly Lacan’s most potent symbol of succession. Lacan decided that it was Miller who should edit and control the texts of his seminars. It was Miller who would inherit the rights to the Word.

Lacan began his weekly seminar in 1953; by the early Seventies, there were transcripts, notes, pirated versions, and a series of uncompleted attempts to edit them for publication. In June 1972, Lacan challenged Miller to do better. Miller agreed and left for Italy, where he worked with a stenographer’s transcript of the seminar of 1963-64, the first seminar he had attended, the first seminar after Lacan’s excommunication. A month later, Miller returned to Paris with a first draft. Roudinesco tells us that Lacan was pleased, but thought it was so much Miller’s work that he offered him co-authorship. Miller refused – the intellectual and commercial value of the seminar was tied to Lacan’s being sole author. But when Miller raised the possibility of other transcriptions by other editors, Lacan objected. It was at this point that his son-in-law picked up a second gauntlet. Miller agreed to do them all himself. ‘ “I’ll do them all,” Miller said. “I’ll call the whole thing Le Séminaire and divide it into numbered volumes.” The young man had set sail on a terrible voyage.’ Lacan bequeathed Miller a life’s work. Miller was not simply ‘editing’ but ‘establishing’ the text of the seminar. He added language where there were gaps, he removed contradictions and ambivalences. Roudinesco describes the documents that resulted as authored by Miller and guaranteed by Lacan: ‘Lacan underwrote his son-in-law’s work and made him the legal owner of the transcription. But at the same time, and perhaps without realising it, he also designated the tendency to whom it would fall to represent him for the future.’

In the course of this work, Lacan’s dependence on Miller grew; some would say their relationship became the dominant force in the last fifteen years of Lacan’s life. On the one hand, Miller was a scribe, writing out what the Maître had said, or perhaps meant to say. On the other, Miller revised and changed Lacan’s work as he ‘established’ it. Roudinesco describes the relation of their thoughts as ‘osmotic’. To some degree, Miller renounced his own voice to pledge himself to his version of Lacan’s. On his side, Lacan accepted Miller’s formulations and, to all appearances, came to see them as his own. Roudinesco remarks that ‘in Miller, Lacan met up with that reader – at once mirror and adversary to himself – whom he had spent his life looking for: a mixture of Corneille’s Rodrigue and the historical Saint-Just.’ The resulting symbiosis was to have important consequences for the history of Lacanianism. If by the Eighties Miller seemed to feel justified in speaking for Lacan, he was acting not only out of habit but out of a profound sense of Lacan’s wanting and needing him in this role.

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[*] The sentence in question is what Freud said to Jung as he contemplated his enthusiastic reception by the Americans: ‘Don’t they know that I am bringing them the plague?’