Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Revolutions in Subjectivity (Book Review)

Author:  Parker, Ian 
Publisher: Routledge, 238 pp., 2011
Reviewed By: Jamieson Webster

Lacan Is History

When Russell Jacoby wrote a new introduction in 1997 to his classic work from 1975, Social Amnesia: A Critique of Contemporary Psychology, and asked himself what had changed, his answer was clear— “absolutely nothing.” In his original work he criticized post-Freudian psychologists and psychoanalysts for gyrating from extreme subjectivism to extreme objectivism, from conservative to reactionary agendas, failing to grasp the social implications of their own thinking with an undue lack of rigor. In 1997 he said, with a sigh, that we continue the oscillation that has always contributed to the social amnesia he sought to diagnose twenty-two years earlier. We seem incapable of mounting a resistance to what he calls pseudohistorical consciousness paraded under banners of new radical liberation psychologies, or cries for more and more fetishistic forms of objectivity. Whatever criticisms of the past we might make, they tend to be fundamentally shallow, betraying what is clearly more an infatuation with an imaginary future of prosperity and progress then any critical understanding of history, no less the history of one’s own discipline.

Psychoanalysis—with its sham innovation and empty psychological categories— blindly works in tandem with the most blatant forms of social injustice. While Jacoby’s book may be thought of by some as a classic, this label functions with a double edge—it is classic for its time, 1970s Freudian-Marxism. With the most extreme contradictions threatening the base of psychoanalysis, from calls for more politically viable forms of thought to demands for an evidential base, perhaps we should return to this classic work, which, he says, “is less about political than intellectual resistance, thinking against the grain—an endeavor that remains as urgent as ever” (Jacoby, 1975). For Jacoby, Freud remains the original figure of intellectual resistance, whose work attempts to think through the contradictions of his own time. It is this that makes Freud’s work more timeless than so many others, even as it grows increasingly obsolete. Obsolescence, Jacoby remarks, is less about veracity than a constellation of forces which include repression and forgetting usually directed at what is most pressing rather than least.

It is precisely for this reason that I find Ian Parker’s new book, Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Revolutions in Subjectivity, a promising return of Jacoby’s basic premise. What Jacoby did for Freud, I believe Parker does for Lacan. Lacan, like Freud, was not a thinker devoid of a sense of the social— anything but. Nonetheless, he, like Freud, has succumbed to the kind of reification that Jacoby wanted to tackle. With Lacan, more often than not, one finds book upon book treating his work as a rarified abstract system of thought replete with jargon and a slew of repeated mantras. Not least of these are the books that work on what are called the Lacanian mathemes—the diagrams Lacan presented in his seminars— which one of his early disciples humorously called nothing more than grafitti. Perhaps one earns one’s Lacanian badge of honor in finding pages worth of things to say about one of his graphs. Ian Parker, it must be said, has failed to earn his badge and has instead written something entirely blasphemous: revolutions in subjectivity?

Revolution is not a word a Lacanian is supposed to use—it’s too political. Lacan often bucked when confronted with the revolutionary sentiment in his day— Paris in the 1960s, replete with Debord’s Situationism, intellectual Maoism, structural Marxism, to name a few—most famous of all being his statement in his 1969 seminar to the protestors that had staged an intervention, “What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a master. You shall have one.” Revolution for Lacan is only a means of coming full circle—a snake that neurotically eats its own tail. We would not be far from the gyrating oscillation that plagued Jacoby. And yet, one can find in Lacan the hope for something beyond the fantasy of a masterful figure and an attempt to think through this interminable oscillation, something you would imagine to be important for the psychoanalysts who are supposed to be prepared to tackle repetition.

I for one commend Parker for the audacity of bringing this “unfashionable” term back to the table. Each section of Parker’s book takes Lacan from a perspective that seemingly intersects with his thought—from psychiatry, to psychology, psychotherapy, academia, feminism, religion, and politics— and demonstrates its fundamental divergence. The turning point, as you can perhaps imagine, is always along the lines of ideology, with the hope of showing how much more critical Lacan’s thought is. By revolutionary, Parker wants to imply resistance to the forces at work in the present. The book is undertaken with impudence. He even asks his readers in the introduction to assume (1) that his subject, psychoanalysis, is not universally true, and (2) that its theory of the subject is just one name for the contradictory experience we have of late capitalism (see pp. 13–14). Lacan’s perspective for Parker is one that logically tries to remain descriptive, dynamic, and critical, without becoming prescriptive. The line is a fine one and quite precarious to maintain, and what is of importance to Parker is the ethical import of continually finding a way to draw it, a lesson taken from clinical work:

“Every moment the analyst thinks they know best is a moment of ethical failure that betrays the task of opening a space for the analysand to make of their own analysis their own ethical practice” (p. 110).

While Parker advocates against knowingness, his knowledge is incredibly extensive. The book’s bibliography alone is worth its weight in gold, containing almost all the English translations of Lacanian articles in existence, which he covers throughout the text. True to a general inclusiveness, his knowledge does not break along the typical dividing lines of the post-Lacanian sects. This probably will not mean much to those outside the fold, but it seems important to note how Parker’s work differs in this respect. The yawning abyss between a Lacanian in one faction and a Lacanian in another is almost as big as that between French psychoanalysis and American psychoanalysis, to say nothing of American psychology. These dividing lines become a source of dogmatism that I tend to see as Lacanianism at its very worst. Over time, one begins to recognize the ticks of these particular groups, which is why Parker’s book is a breath of fresh air. Still, today, many of Lacan’s seminars remain untranslated, along with an immense body of clinical writings done through a Lacanian lens, a fact that gives these groups a hold they don’t really deserve. As Parker puts it, “they are those whose followers demand loyalty, those, who, it is sometimes said, do not operate as cults only because cults are easy to join and difficult to leave and these groups are difficult to join and easy to be cut loose from” (p. 9).

This is just one among many reasons to welcome Parker’s book. His attempt to distill what psychotherapy or psychiatry, or even the idea of a clinic, means to a Lacanian—a designation that he defines broadly, thereby escaping the narcissism of small differences that infects the field—is necessary. Each category is situated in relation to the current trends that define it, including contradictory views among the Lacanians themselves. Furthermore, this is always done with an eye to the historical and social forces at work that shape the field. The lesson that Parker draws, in this respect, is one fit for the Lacanians themselves. Parker writes: “Lacanian psychoanalysis is not a set of techniques (not medical), complete system (not psychological), worldview (not therapeutic) or a guide to life (it is not spiritual). There is no immutable reading, but contradictory readings. We do not merely strip away misconceptions to arrive at the real thing: there is no real thing” (p. 11). Finding a way for psychoanalysis to re-enter the public arena, and, importantly, vice versa, for the cultural and social landscape to enter back into psychoanalysis, is one of the tasks this book tries to undertake—to put Lacan back in line with the historical terrain.

For Parker, psychoanalysis without theory lapses quickly into moralistic common sense parading as depth psychology. Much of this book tries to tackle the difficult domain of psychoanalytic theory, in particular Lacan’s, in light of this cautionary tale. Parker writes:

One too-convenient way of marginalizing psychoanalysis as a clinical practice is to consign it to the depths of introspective self-reflection. It is thereby turned into an essentially “private” activity and sealed off from the public sphere where cultural and political coordinates of our lives can be contested and transformed… Defensive manoeuvres then serve to protect the supposed theoretical autonomy of psychoanalytic investigation outside the clinic, and lessons from actual psychoanalysis are reduced to being little moral narratives. (p. 6)

However, if psychoanalysis is rendered too academic, that which is rooted in a particular clinical experience (always tied to a broader history, both personal and transpersonal) is made into a static form of knowledge to be dispensed to the unknowing. Clinical work in the Lacanian vein is predicated on knowledge that neither the patient nor the analyst knows in advance, that is, knowledge in the unconscious. The dialectic between theory and clinical work must be maintained as open and ongoing in order to touch this radically other scene.

The lessons of the clinic are to show how psychoanalysis brings about a shift in subjectivity demonstrating this dialectical process in action. This shift is fundamentally a shift in one’s relation to mastery and knowledge that challenges the dominant forms of coercive power and thereby makes psychoanalytic works itself both ethical and revolutionary. But the problem doesn’t end here. For Parker it is always a matter of how these effects, which take place in individual work, extend beyond the couch. So, if the clinic is too privileged a domain, it lapses once again into an insular form of knowledge—a knowledge only for the experienced. The case study as well, in being offered up as proof, acts too much like an instruction manual on how people should talk or think; or, in other words, what psychoanalysts like to hear from their patients.

Perhaps the greatest bugbear of them all is the idea of a relation to the social that is uncritical, such as the 1950s psychoanalytic notion of adaptation. Parker lines up the more current culprits: pop psychology, self-help, moral re-education programs, a whole wave of advocates for emotional literacy, pop spirituality, and of course, psychopharmacology. For Parker, these fads unite under the banner of better adaptation and an ethics of well-being—the moralism of the twenty-first century that begins with Freud and ends with Oprah and Dr. Phil. The social, Parker demonstrates, is already entirely entangled with psychology and psychology with the social. As a clinical psychologist and a psychoanalyst, one of the biggest problems I see in my practice is the overtherapized patient who has collected vast stores of knowledge about themselves, including heaps of labels and diagnoses from multiple therapists, doctors, and self-help books. Perhaps the one truth they have gleaned is that all the knowledge in the world cannot stop a symptom. “It is the relation to knowledge, we have said, that comes to assume more importance than any knowledge as such, and so we are in the realm of performative effects rather than the production of new ideas or moral prescriptions” (Parker, 2011, p. 183).

It is here that I would like to conclude with a criticism of my own. If performative effects are part of what Parker sees as crucial, including the desubstantialization of any one knowledge for a given person, if psychoanalysis cannot be reduced to either a moral science or static knowledge, then Parker’s work must take on these dimensions itself. His book, at times, is woefully academic, and in this, is too knowing. There is a certain amount of play—with ambiguity, with language, with provocation—that is lacking in his momentous exposition. The idea that pychoanalysis is history, only history, is something, as Jacoby pointed out, that we tend to forget, if not entirely repress. It is, perhaps, an affront to our cherished professional identities and our longing for the immortalization of our field. The antidote to social amnesia seems to be the disappearance of psychoanalysis itself: psychoanalysis finally being able to locate its historicity. I would like to see Parker draw this conclusion out—for his book to be the magical equivalent of a disappearing act. I’ll anticipate such a denouement in his next book.


Jacoby, R. (1975). Social amnesia: A critique of contemporary psychology. Boston: Beacon Press.

Parker, I. (2011). Lacanian psychoanalysis: Revolutions in subjectivity. New York: Routledge.


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