The Subject of Lacan: A Lacanian Reader for Psychologists (Book Review)

Author:  Malone, Kareen Ror and Stephen R. Friedlander (Editors)
Publisher: Albany, NY: State University Of New York Press, 2000
Reviewed By: Jan Haaken, Fall 202, pp. 29-30

As an academic psychologist working in the field of psychoanalytic cultural studies, I often encounter intense resistances among students to the readings I assign. On a manifest level, the charge is that I burden them with impenetrable texts and gratuitously complex theorizing. On a more latent level, there is the palpable helplessness and rage generated by students’ own sense of insufficiency. As the teacher, there are moments when I find myself defensively asserting my authority, placing the difficulties back onto frustrated students. Working through various defensive positions requires finding ways of sustaining engagement, however, without resort to either/or responses (i.e., good teacher/bad student or bad teacher/good student). Intellectually and relationally, my obligation is to bridge the psychological field students know through prior courses and the more alien world of ideas they now confront, a world that eludes strivings for mastery. At the end of the day, the measure of my success as a teacher is less in whether students embrace psychoanalytic cultural theory than it is in how effectively we have been able to sustain engagement in key questions underlying any complex account of human experience. One key question concerns the usefulness of psychoanalytic theory in reducing human suffering or realizing some important human value. While this question may presuppose narrowly conventional or utilitarian notions of “usefulness,” it is nonetheless an important place from which to begin and return in any academic pursuit.

So of what use is Lacan in the pursuit of psychological knowledge? In The Subject of Lacan: A Lacanian Reader for Psychologists, editors Kareen Ror Malone and Stephen Friedlander take on this question, acutely aware of the intensity of resistances among American psychologists to this tradition of psychoanalysis. The fact that Lacanian theory flourishes in cultural studies offers meager enticements to those schooled in the social sciences, including many clinical psychologists. The writings of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan are legendary for their seemingly cryptic phrases and formulae, requiring unflagging commitment on the part of readers. Further, the Lacanian system of ideas does not map readily onto much of psychoanalytic theory, much less conventional psychology. In his famous “return to Freud,” Lacan brings back considerable freight. For some, the added value is gratuitous surplus. But the editors of The Subject of Lacan have gathered together an impressive array of contributors to make the case for this added value, and to lower the bar of entry into Lacanian psychoanalysis.

The Subject of Lacan
is divided into three parts, offering readers an introduction to a wide range of Lacanian formulations and practices, from philosophical issues and clinical practices through cultural theory. The three parts of the book overlap in many respects, suggestive of the arbitrary and illusory boundaries separating inner and outer experience, clinic and culture, self and society.

Part One focuses on broad theoretical and philosophical issues in psychology, particularly in staking out the terms under which the psychological self—or, what Lacanians refer to as the subject—is theoretically constituted. The “cognitive revolution” relegitimized inquiry into unconscious processes in academic psychology, and conflict models of mind more generally. But the authors in this part of the book suggest that in arguing for a psychoanalytic psychology, it is important to work through the implications of concepts such as the ego, the self, the unconscious, instincts, and to avoid reification of such key constructs. Part One also takes up cultural themes, such as girls’ comics, homosexuality, and religious experience, enlisting Lacan in resisting positivistic tendencies within psychoanalysis and psychology. This tendency in cognitive psychology often takes the form of hyper-rational models of mind, with the libidinal side of life repressed in the process of theorizing. As Malone suggests in her introduction to this section, the authors “point to the essential significance of considering human desire (lack, gap, impossibility) in understanding the processes of human cognition” (p. 21).

Part Two covers Lacanian clinical practice, extending beyond psychoanalysis to include applications in the field of family therapy and work with psychotic patients. Central to the Lacanian understanding of therapeutic effectiveness is attentiveness to its constraints, and to the illusory nature of the any notion of a clinical cure. Through case examples, the authors show how Lacanian concepts are applied in practice. In laying out the scope of this section of the book, Friedlander invites readers to consider how Lacan’s concepts of the Symbolic, Real, and Imaginary registers are helpful in organizing clinical material. It is an approach that resists any interpretive foreclosure, and one that acknowledges the limits of therapeutic knowledge. The psychoanalyst/psychotherapist does not offer interpretations in the sense of translating unconscious material into a form that is consciously accessible. Rather, “the analyst who concentrates on discerning how the symbolic works in the specific clinical relationship with each patient will encounter himself ‘as Other’ by encountering differences, over and over again, between himself and ‘the other’ who inevitably takes the analyst’s spoken words to mean something the analyst never foresaw” (p. 139). The therapist speaks from the position of the unconscious, free-associating, in a sense, to the patient’s own production of images, narrative fragments, and words. Irony and word plays are part of this method of widening the therapeutic space for registering unconscious communication.

In Part Three, contributors introduce readers to Lacanian cultural theory and critical psychology. Because there is such emphasis on language as a system of signification, Lacanian theory seems particularly amenable to cultural readings. The individual subject (analysand or analyst) is not constituted through the unique vicissitudes of family history and object relations, but, rather, through language and the Symbolic Order. Although Part Three includes topics as varied as religion, cinema, psychotropic drugs and left politics, the papers share an emphasis on the interpenetration of psychic structures and cultural phenomena—that is, representations produced and reproduced at the societal level. The unconscious is structured through the interplay of the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real, each term suggesting an axis of overdetermination in mental and cultural life. This radical uncertainty and refusal of any version of a Prime Mover in human development or a primary cause of symptomatology has a notable affinity with post-structuralism. Yet, as David Caudill points out, Lacanian theory is concerned with ethical questions concerning human suffering and responsibility.

“As often noted, the Lacanian subject is a subject or slave of language…While this account of the subject fading (or disappearing) into language and relationships seems to coincide with the postmodern turn toward cultural determinism and moral relativism, Lacan also emphasizes both the particularity of the subject in, and the ethical responsibility of the subject for, his or her own unique desires and his or her own relation to loss (or “lack”)” (p. 299).

The Lacanian attitude—if we may refer to it as such—is deeply non-reductionistic and critical in its stance toward authoritative claims, an attitude that accounts for much of its appeal among feminists, leftists and post-modernists engaged in critiques of hegemonic ideologies, including those ideologies that flourish within psychology. Indeed, Lacanians—like the unconscious itself—are most comfortable on the margins. This is where the creativity and critical insights lie. Implicit in this critical stance is a commitment to the subversive possibilities of psychoanalysis, and a corresponding concern that any readily assimilated psychology risks domestication.

The Subject of Lacan evinces a palpable ambivalence, however, concerning its own stated aims. Although Part One seeks out points of contact between Lacanian theory and other traditions within psychology, the book keeps considerable distance from neighboring schools of thought. While they are aligned with the turn toward discursive approaches in contemporary psychology, the contributors also caution against anchoring language in a stable set of objective referents. Yet in cautioning against mainstream psychologies, the Lacanian position may rely too heavily on its opposition to normalizing tendencies within psychology.

As an anti-utopian philosophy, Lacanian thought is often deployed critically to expose Western hubris, particularly the fantasy of the autonomous, unified subject. Feminist Lacanians are particularly adept at making use of this critique in deconstructing phallocentrism and masculine narcissism. Donna Bentolila comments on the fantasy of unlimited development and expansion that constitutes “The American Way of Life.” This fantasy operates on a cultural level to produce a manic denial of the ecological limits of the planet and the costs of a post-World War II social order where “the United States assumed the role of masters of the world on a political, military, and economic level” (p. 321). Bentolila cites Lacan in supporting this same critique: “(T)here is no progress, because what one gains on the one side is lost on the other” (p. 321).

But for those socially positioned to experience lack all too readily and for whom fragmentation is the more readily available state, the Lacanian attitude may offer little warmth in facing the Void. Further, a psychology that places such emphasis on limits and lack may be enlisted to pathologize utopian ideals. In addressing “the inevitable traumas of sex and death,” Bentolila suggests that, “[I]ncreasingly, we see the sexes becoming more homogenized and the differences between them more repressed, whether it be through the theory of the ‘self,’ which through its asexual nature seems to or being neither a man nor a woman—or through the growing influence of certain feminisms. For example, the chameleon-like Madonna presents us with a sex symbol that attempts to re-edit the myth of the androgynous, an order wherein laws are demanded that legalize same-sex marriages, wherein maternity/paternity is subverted and the patronymic loses importance… “(p. 322-23).

Bentolila seems to be suggesting that progressive movements often deny limits. It is through our recognition of our castrated state, individually and collectively, that we are able to come to terms with the conditions of our existence, and to recognize ourselves as desiring subjects. But who is the arbiter of such limits? Who decides what is progressive and what is regressive in laws and myths, or in any given symbolic order? Bentolila may easily be read as reactionary in that there are no caveats concerning the conservative political implications of her argument.

Any school of thought within psychoanalysis—or psychology, for that matter—is open to both conservative and progressive readings. Certainly, Lacan has been a vital “third term” in the contemporary reworking of Freud within critical psychology and cultural studies. Lacanians also have revitalized the humanities wing of the Freudian tradition, over against the drift toward scientific/biological currents of psychoanalysis. Yet this same recuperative project may widen the divide separating a DSM-oriented psychoanalysis and those critical traditions operating at considerable distance from the medical model. There may not be an easy integration of the two, however, and The Subject of Lacan is one indicator of the gap that remains.

Returning to the question of the use value of theory, The Subject of Lacan is likely to arouse both frustration and delight in readers, but Lacanians remind us that the two are inseparable. The book invites readers to think through questions that go beyond the capacity of any particular school of thought to address. In working through these questions, Malone and Friedlander remind us of the inevitable uncertainty that remains in any theoretical project. Whether one goes the whole distance of a serious engagement with Lacanian theory, it is very much worth the foray into this rich field of ideas.

Reviewer Note

Janice Haaken is Professor of Psychology at Portland State University and a clinical psychologist in private practice in Oregon. She is author of Pillar of Salt: Gender, Memory, and The Perils of Looking Back.

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