Lacan, envers et contre tout (Book Review)

Author:  Roudinesco, Elisabeth
Publisher: Paris: Seuil, 2011 
Reviewed By: Sergio Benvenuto, Summer 2012, 182 pp.

Various books on Jacques Lacan (1901–1981) were published on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of his death. It was also the occasion, for many, to weigh the historic significance and relevancy (or not) of Lacan’s teaching. I will attempt to do the same here. One of these books was written by Elisabeth Roudinesco, the most important historian of French psychoanalysis, who, while an admirer of Lacan’s thought, nevertheless does not belong to any Lacanian society. In effect, she writes (and one can only agree) that “the only way to keep a conceptual and clinical heredity alive, is to betray it” (p.146)—a phrase that echoes what Lacan himself advised his followers: “Do as I do: don’t imitate me.”

In this book, Roudinesco ably draws a portrait of both Lacan’s personality as well as his thought, seeking to transmit something essential about him to the public. Here, I propose to weigh Lacan’s thought in light of Roudinesco’s historic work. I think she would approve of such an undertaking. Is the era in which we live spiritually far from that in which Lacan died? The words Roudinesco uses to describe the times in which we live are drastic and succinct: “Our epoch is individualist and pragmatic—one which prizes the moment, evaluation, economic determinism, surveys, immediacy, relativism, security. It cultivates the rejection of political commitment and elitism, it despises thought, cultivates transparency, takes pleasure in evil and sexual perversity, exhibits affects and emotions, and explains the human being by his neurons and genes” (p.10–11). Does not all of this render Lacan disharmonic with the Spirit of our Time?

In addition, there is a widespread misunderstanding regarding Lacan and his movement in some countries. So let me add here some basic information that Roudinesco saw no need to provide to her Francophone audience. For example, in Italy many think that Lacanism remained a phenomenon limited to the French cultural ghetto. The reality is that Lacanian leanings prevail in almost all Latin American countries, and active and infl uential Lacanian schools exist in all Western countries, even in Russia and the United States. Some famous Anglophone authors were even inspired by Lacan. Yet misinformation is the corollary of the fact that an analyst usually views psychoanalysis from the narrow viewpoint of his own organization or trend, and so ignores what is happening elsewhere (this same scotoma on developments in other schools also afflicts many Lacanians).

So, is Lacanism one of the principle variants of psychoanalysis today, along with Kleinism, object relations, self-analysis, Winnicottism, ego psychology, Jungism, etc.? I wouldn’t say so, because there is something irreducibly extraterritorial in Lacanian psychoanalysis—something that accounts for why some assign to it a unique privilege, while for others it is just an irritating psychoanalytic pathology.

Lacan is one of the very few analysts— with Freud and Jung—to have been taken seriously by the intelligentsia, in particular by historians, anthropologists, philosophers, and cultural students. One of today’s most popular essayists, Slavoj Žižek, fully embraces Lacanian thought. It is rare indeed that a nonanalyst writes an important book on one of the illustrious post-Freudians, be it Klein, Winnicott, Bion, Kohut, Laplanche, or Kernberg. They are “great” only within the analytic tribe. Thus, we have a strange phenomenon wherein Lacanism enjoys popularity—at least among the intelligentsia— even in countries where as a clinical practice it has remained marginal, for example, in Anglophone nations. In London, if one were to randomly ask a psychoanalyst or psychotherapist about Lacan, chances are they will have read nothing by him, whereas an art critic, historian, cultural anthropologist, or academic feminist would likely answer that they had, or at least had not ignored him. How does one account for Lacan’s success in the wide “humanistic” sectors while Lacanism remains—aside from in Latin countries—somewhat extraneous to shrinks? It is not simply a question of cultural sociology, but of posing a crucial question to grasp the very key to Lacanism: what is it exactly in the Lacanian rewriting of psychoanalysis that so impressed that slice of culture that has been labeled postmodern? In the wake of suggestions put forth by Roudinesco, I might advance a couple of essential answers—one philosophical- theoretical, another ethical-clinical.

Lacan was one of the few—and moreover the one amongst those few who did it most originally and brilliantly—to transcribe Freudian theory into a non-“positivist” key; in short, not congruent with so-called scientifi c psychology (today absorbed by cognitive science). He reinterpreted it through the thinking of Hegel, Heidegger, and Kojève, that is, in a decisively transcendental key. Kant’s invention of philosophical transcendentalism had split Western culture. One part retook the Kantian vocation, albeit in the most variegated ways (from Hegel to Marx, Husserl to Heidegger, Nietzsche to Foucault), articulating what in Anglophone countries is called “Continental thought,” which is essentially post-Kantian thought. The other, which prevailed in Anglophone countries, never really made that transcendentalist presupposition, and developed various forms of empiricism, scientifi c rationalism, positivism, analytic philosophy, and today’s philosophy of mind inspired by Darwinism. The parting of the waters passes through Immanuel Kant.

Kant inaugurates philosophical transcendentalism when he shows, in “Transcendental Aesthetics” in Critique of Pure Reason, that space and time as such are not spatial and temporal phenomena, but are conditions of the transcendental possibility of the phenomenological constitution of the world as, always, temporal-spatial. Space and time are presupposed, in short, as prior openings, from which the world of experience gives itself. Anyone who rejects this Kantian difference is not inscribed in “Continental thought.”

Now, Lacan reinterpreted Freudian (but not successive) psychoanalysis in a decidedly transcendentalist key. Certainly, others also tried, such as Paul Ricoeur (1965), who authored an essay on Freud in a hermeneutical-phenomenological key; but only one year later (1966), Lacan’s cyclone of Ecrits relegated Ricoeur’s essay to second place.

A corollary of this transcendentalist choice is the split between psychoanalysis on one side, and psychology as a positive science on the other. (Lacan sometimes went back to research on psychology and biology, for example, to Henri Wallon and Jakob von Uexküll, but to reinscribe them in a not-at-all “psychological” or biological frame.) Lacan will say that psychoanalysis is not a psychology but an erotology, that is, a theory and practice of “erotic” ties in a larger sense, and of the subject as desirer and/or enjoyer. For Lacan, Freud signals the passage from a conception of the Cartesian I think to one, promoted by Hegel, of I desire. Lacan will later focalize rather on enjoyment (jouissance). We can say that for Freud, Homo sapiens is essentially carnis cogitans, “thinking flesh,” with “flesh” intended in the medieval sense, as the being who desires, suffers, and enjoys. For Lacan, the human being is carnis loquens, a speaking desirer, but with an important difference: for Lacan, this same essential premise is associated with a “critical” instance that makes of psychoanalysis a revolutionary practice of desire and pleasure; it would thus assume a meaning very similar to that of Marxism in the realm of economic and social sciences, insofar as in itself it is not a socioeconomic science, but a transcendentalist “critique” of it. “Continental” transcendentalism is by vocation dissatisfied with the world-as-it-is. And while Freud and a good part of his followers held substantially conservative political ideas, in France psychoanalysis has oddly always been perceived as something subversive.

An analyst friend, far from Lacan, was wont to say that he was a “dentist of the soul,” to underline the craftsmanlike and restorative character of his work. On the other hand, the function that Lacan ascribed to analysis is the opposite of the odontological one: Lacan led in a decidedly Dionysiac direction (in the Nietzschean sense) what others perceived as a psychoiatric technique. A dandy dentist.

For Lacan, the possible transcendental condition of the unconscious, and thus of humanity, lies in logos, the Word. To show the impact of this, Lacan also went back to a positivist science–the so-called structural linguistics of his time—but it is evident that, in making the unconscious an effect of language, or the effect of the human being’s capacity to speak, he placed language in the “conditioning” position held by space and time (and the a priori categories of the mind) in Kant. Homo sapiens was to be rebaptized by Lacan as parlêtre. For Heidegger the human being was Dasein, being-there, while for Lacan he is a talking being, parl’être. This transcendentalist presupposition renders Lacan affectionately familiar to whoever was trained in transcendentalist thought, be it Marxist, Nietzschean, phenomenological, or deconstructionist.

For this reason, his thought appears so disagreeable, or frankly hateful, to someone extraneous to transcendentalist thought. It is true that Lacan’s writing is often impenetrable, but even when his thought is explained clearly and systematically, it remains incomprehensible to minds not ground in the Kantian-Hegelian mill.

For some years now I have conducted seminars and conferences in Russia and Russophone countries, where I am often called upon to illustrate Lacan’s thought to a public of aspiring Russian psychoanalysts who, unlike in the West, have not yet been conditioned by the various analytic schools—in short, persons who are very open to any approach and who, in a certain sense, are starting from scratch. So when I speak about Lacan, trying my utmost to be as clear and didactic as possible, it becomes evident to me that the public is quickly divided: one part is fascinated and wants to delve more deeply into his thought, while the other quickly rejects it as abstract, obscure, and useless. Perhaps there exist two distinct cerebral structures in humans, one “transcendentalist,” the other “positivist.”

Yet Lacan was aiming for science, but in the style of a good French intellectual—that is, fundamentally Cartesian—for whom true science is not empirical but mathematical. (Roudinesco notes that he had 60 volumes on mathematics and geometry in his home.) His dream was to fi nd a “geometric” (more geometrico) description of the analytic practice.

On a clinical level, Lacan applied a symmetrical twist to his theoretical approach: he wanted to sever any link between analysis on the one hand and the various medical and paramedical practices— curative techniques—on the other. And just as in his theory he split psychoanalysis from scientific psychology, on the practical level he split analysis from every form of therapy promising the restitution of a supposed “health.” For this reason Lacan, more than a technique of analysis, speaks of the ethical position of the analyst (ethics being something practical, but not technical, because ethics, unlike technique, implicates subjectivity).

All of this led to his practice becoming ever more provocatively “minimalist.” “From 1975 onwards,” writes Roudinesco, “the duration of many sessions was reduced to a lack of duration”: the analysand (the analyzing one, as Lacan referred to the patient) entered, greeted him, and exited. The session was essentially reduced to punching one’s timecard. And for anyone who detests Lacan, this is obvious proof of his imposture, or his senile degeneration. But can we not view his barebones practice as a subtle, ironic, involuntary denunciation of psychoanalysis? By purifying psychoanalysis of all its “conversative” frills, to the point of reducing it to an almost fl eeting but essential heartbeat, did he not in fact purge it? Does not every excessive purifi cation—like Malevi’s “White on White” painting—resolve itself in an expurgation? The paradox is that Lacan on the one hand enormously idealized psychoanalysis, turning it into an absolutely specifi c way to act and to think (irreducible to psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, cognitive science, etc.); and yet this very idealization includes a de facto criticism of psychoanalysis as something ultimately based on the semblant, a semblance—comparable to a

great capitalist who is also Marxist. One often has the impression that Lacan erected a formidable self-criticizing monument to psychoanalysis. This perhaps explains why amongst psychoanalysis’s strongest supporters, many of those who ended up as its fiercest opponents came from a Lacanian background (for example, Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen). Purifi cation, expurgation—means through which Lacan certainly was striving to reach the very limits of something essential, to touch “a pure difference,” that which makes each of us a meaningless singularity.

Thus, Lacan does not at all offer us a useful, reassuring image of psychoanalysis, instead inscribing it in a fundamentally tragic vision that very few, one would think, could digest. Lacan expanded the tragic tropism of Freudian thinking, even if—as Roudinesco notes—he preferred the model of Antigone to that of Oedipus, that is, an inflexible, stubborn loyalty to one’s own Law, which always butts up against the improper laws of the City—“tragic” not in the sense of sadness, but rather in the sense of Nietzsche’s “Gay Science.” There was something about Lacan’s seminars (which I followed for years) that made us laugh, something jesterlike about him that recalled the Shakespearian “fool,” who both entertained and derided his lord, and yet who also shared his painful destiny. This accounts for why many are astounded at the favor Lacanian theses have found amongst intellectuals, analysts, and patients in so many countries. (Lacanians in the world are especially legion, when we consider the discouraging character of his thought.)

Thus, Lacan holds firm on the point that the analyst does not want to cure the patient (eliminate the symptom); what counts for him is analysis for analysis’s sake, like art for art’s sake, even if this analysis for the love of analysis also leads (by luck) to relief from suffering. Jacques-Alain Miller, Lacan’s son-in-law, reached the point of saying that “Lacanian practice fails,” wherein would lie precisely its excellence. Lacanian practice has often been compared to the paradoxical, often scandalous practice of Zen masters, for instance, in the art of archery: one hits the bull’s-eye only when one is not consciously trying to hit it. For Lacan, analysis is not for curing the subject of his symptom, because for him the focal symptom is not an impediment to free self-expression; on the contrary, it is the essence of subjectivity itself. The symptom allows the subject to affirm his own radical specifi city. Furthermore, Lacan does not believe that analysis pursues the ideal of liberty; rather, he always rejected, with caustic irony, liberalism, libertarianism, freedom, “free enterprise,” or Sartre’s absolute freedom, reminding us that each of us will always be determined by his symbolic tie to others, by the Other’s speech. Many of Lacan’s famous maxims have inscribed him in the league of pessimists, from Schopenhauer to Cioran via Freud— to say nothing of the Leitmotiv of his last years: “there is no sexual relation” (sexual acts are carried out, thank God, but precisely because there is no relation between the sexes). How then did such an intricate and depressing thought attract so many?

It is perhaps because liberty in action—which Lacan practiced to a colossal degree—asserts itself only by philosophically deriding every ideology of Freedom.

In effect, all of this criticism of the liberal bel canto can be grasped only against the background of a phenomenological and Hegelian philosophy that precisely has human freedom as its presupposition. In general, it seems as though every attack launched by Lacan against certain conceptions was consumed in a sort of divorce from their mirror image: attack the ideologies of freedom in light of Liberty, attack the ideologies of meaning in light of a vision of Meaning, denounce the imposition of the technological real in the name of the Real, etc. Lacan’s every intellectual campaign, his every polemical aphorism, makes his selfironic halo grow: denouncing something that celebrates x makes the true X, without celebrating it, transparent.

Many cultured persons (especially those whose sentiments lie with the radical left) are seduced by Lacan because he articulates, with an esprit de fi nesse but also de géométrie, the rejection of that Great Promise made by technosciences today: to construct a world where bodies and souls are rendered effi cient and happy by technology, a life completely monitored and managed by scientifi c knowledge, by evidence-based ethics and politics. Lacan provides a voice and the instruments to those launching a radical, romantic challenge to this Promise of a world that appears ever more like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. He expresses in a rigorous but at the same time surreal way an exigency that the ancient mystic Christians called “a strong desire of absence,” in short, a tragicomic protest against the “magnifi cent and progressive destiny” of the technoscientifi c project. Like other “negative thinking”—Deleuze, Lasch, Baudrillard, or the Frankfurt School–even Lacanism incarnates a refusal of the technocratic ideal, and of a psychoanalysis that yearns to be co-opted by this technocracy. It is precisely for this reason that Lacanism is, and will perhaps become ever more, a mass psychoanalysis. An odd conclusion, but only apparently so.

For Roudinesco, Lacan’s rejection of “normality” derives mostly from his friendship with the surrealists,  but also from his identifi cation with the dandy fi gure, like Baudelaire. Lacan was perhaps the last of the great dandies, and not just because of the incroyables,1 unbelievable outfi ts he had tailored for himself which only he dared to wear. The dandy was an eccentric fi gure who sought social success ironically by proclaiming himself extraneous to any of the intellectual or moral norms of the society in which he lived. His passion lay in overturning unchallenged commonplaces, not with any political intent at reform, but to affi rm one’s own irreducible diversity with respect to the “crowds”—the result being that today there fl ourishes a mass cult of the dandy. Take Oscar Wilde’s tomb at Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery, the most sought out amongst the countless celebrities buried there, and the object of an enthusiastic, and touching, homage. There is a certain affi nity between Wilde’s dandyism and Lacan. In fact, some of Lacan’s more famous aphorisms—such as “Love is to give what one does not have to someone who doesn’t want it”—closely resemble the provocatory twists of some of Wilde’s (1905) more famous sayings—such as “Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life”; “If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out”—methodically turning upside down the commonplace meaning one is expecting. Lacan’s contempt for predictable common sense found a corollary in his disdain for motherhood (which Roudinesco addresses, p.23). He found no sympathy for the Kleinian primacy of the maternal breast, because in the end, he hated the maternal breast, that is, all “good enough ideas.”

Just as in art and philosophy, every psychoanalytic theory expresses in some way the person who theorizes it. Lacan’s doctrine expresses a fundamental uncertainty on his part, which seduces us. On the one hand, he did not believe we were free to construct our own destiny, each of us being ensnared by the desire or enjoyment of the Other—in short, what we are as subjects is structured by our subjective history. Yet on the other hand, he affi rmed between the lines that, to the extent that we acknowledge this determination, some deliverance from this despotic Law is possible.

Even the dandy continually confronts himself with the Other, that is, with the rules, beliefs, and values of the “human fl ock,” which he nevertheless sought to attract: but it was in turning all of this upside down that—and he knows this—he confirmed the Other. All of this makes these “grand dandy” personalities at once revolutionary and conformist, provocative and moralizing, subversive and well-adapted. Like Lacan. For example, albeit an atheistic libertine, he said that Catholicism (in which he had been educated) “is the only true religion,” and Roudinesco notes that he had wanted for himself a Catholic funeral in Italy.

Lacan “was rude, entertaining, hateful and insatiable” (p.98), wrote Roudinesco. Roland Barthes, who admired him, called him “an ogre.” A frenetic impatience agitated him; “Lacan exhibited an enormous desire to control time, to read all the books he collected, to visit all the important cultural sites, to possess all objects” (p.113). An anguish, which he managed masterfully, fed this grand impatience. Miller (2011) recently published his Life of Lacan wherein he reveals certain traits of his father-in-law that could discredit him. For example, Lacan found red traffi c lights intolerable, and sometimes preferred to get out of the car and continue on foot rather than wait for the light to change. He could not tolerate that his irresistible forward advance on the world and in history could be interrupted by a banal superegoist stop.He wanted the road level and empty, desire to be quickly resolved in enjoyment, in an avid grasping at things. Is it not curious that the analyst who more than any other insisted on the function of the Law as constitutive of desire then, in practice, tended to break the simplest law of them all, that of the road? Is there a contradiction between theory and practice? The point is that Lacan stressed the structuring power of the Law, not to bend us resigned to this Law, but precisely to nurture an eternal, desperate, Dionysian hatred for the Law of the Father.

In short, Lacan exhibited a hubris that contrasted with that model of the wise, humble “dentist of the soul.” Yet is there not necessarily something odontological—that is, very little romantic—in analysis, which, as Freud himself acknowledged, always remains a psychotherapy, a holding (embracing) therapy, to ease suffering? Is a dandy dentist possible—a dandy who can also propose himself as a reassuring, kindly healer? Lacan’s challenge consisted in proclaiming this incredible possibility.


Lacan, J. (1966). Ecrits. Paris: Seuil.

Miller, J.-A. (2011). Vie de Lacan. Paris: Navarin Editeur.

Ricoeur, P. (1965). De l’interprétation. Essai sur Freud. Paris: Le Seuil. Translated by D. Savage as Freud and philosophy: An essay on interpretation, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1970.

Roudinesco, E. (2011). Lacan, envers et contre tout. Paris: Seuil.

Wilde, O. The Decay of lying. New York: Brentano (1905 [1889]).


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