Jacques Lacan and the Other Side of Psychoanalysis: Refletion on Seminar XVII (Book Review)

Author:  Clemens, Justin and Russell Grigg (Editors)
Publisher: Duke Univesity Press
Reviewed By: Greg Novie, Spring 2008 (Vol. XXVIII, No. 2), pp. 43-44

This book is a collection of essays commenting on Jacques Lacan’s yearlong seminar, which he titled Seminar XVII, the penultimate book of his major theoretical contributions. Seminar XVII, subtitled The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, came at a time of social and political upheaval in France and in much of the Western world. The time was 1969. Indeed, the cover of the book shows what appears to be a confrontation between a young student and a policeman. This photo is reminiscent of a famous picture from the 1960’s protest era in the United States, a picture of a woman putting flowers in the gun barrel of a National Guardsman who had been called by President Nixon to quell campus demonstrations. So it was a time of revolution in many places and in Paris this was the “soil” that contributed to the development and change in Lacan’s theory. His choice of the words “the other side” I take to mean something between provocative and revolutionary. He is inviting us to think of what we don’t see in the psychoanalytic project, the underside, or the part hidden from view. It is a deconstructive position as it is borne of his personal revolution. He had been expelled from the International Psychoanalytic Association, in his words excommunicated, and he was holding his seminar within a new setting for the psychoanalytic movement: the university. He began the yearlong series of fortnightly lectures of Seminar XVII within the newly constituted Department of Psychoanalysis at the University of Paris. This department was under, and housed within, the Department of Philosophy, whose chair at the time was Michel Foucault, a revolutionary thinker as well. Foucault was the midwife for the birth of psychoanalysis within the university setting.

What does Lacan mean in “the other side?” What he means is that all social bonds, all human discourse, can be described in four types: the master’s, the university, the analyst’s, and the hysteric’s. Lacan was fond of putting his concepts into formulas, using what he termed “mathemes” as a sort of algebraic expression of his concepts. The four fundamental social discourses are all variations among four basic elements, or mathemes. These are the master Signifier (S1), Knowledge (S2), the divided Subject (S with a line through it), and objet a, loosely defined as jouissance (something like pleasure but more complicated and ambivalent). What did Lacan think was the purpose that these four discourses were to serve? The contributors to this book try to answer this from and varied perspectives. Only two of the sixteen authors are from the United States with the majority from France, Australia, and Slovenia. Belgium and the Netherlands are also represented.

Like Freud, Lacan’s ideas touch other disciplines in a fruitful cross-breeding, areas such as linguistics, philosophy, and in this Seminar in particular, politics. This is logical in that he was lecturing at a time of great political and social upheaval and I believe he was attempting to explain this revolution, this “other side” of society, the reasons for its discontents. For what all contributors would agree on is that Lacan was speaking about the very nature of the social order, what binds social discourse together. The various authors delineate his four fundamental types of discourse or ways of structuring social interaction. These four discourses are the master’s, the university, the hysteric’s, and the analyst’s. All four represent combinations of what Lacan believed to be the fundamental elements of social reality and that these elements were in the process of change in 1970. He believed that the master’s discourse, built upon Hegel’s conception of the master/slave discourse, had been the original if not the dominant social bond, but that this had given way to the university discourse, the mode of social reality exemplified in bureaucracies. This was a shift from the patriarchal “monarchy” to one where knowledge, routine and procedure reigned supreme. In his article “Objet a in Social Links,” Slavoj Zizek wrote that the former Soviet Union was the “pure reign” of the university discourse, the ultimate beaurcratic form. Zizek described the analyst’s discourse as the revolutionary-emancipatory expression of individual subjectivity. It could perhaps be said that this would describe the process of a psychoanalysis, the finding of one’s subjectivity beneath the alienating armor of identifications and defense.

But Zizek extends his reach beyond the clinic to the body politic. He believes that the agent of the social link today is objet a, the matheme Lacan called surplus enjoyment. Indeed, it is surplus enjoyment that drives the capitalist machinery, in Zizek’s words, promulgating the circular repetition of self-aggrandizement. The capitalist system provides products to satisfy every new and perverse mode of pleasure.

Lacan used the term jouissance for desire and its meaning combines aspects of desire, pleasure, and enjoyment without leaning toward any one of these elements. It is his answer to Freud’s drive but is not under the demand of an instinctual id as much as an unconscious that is, to use Lacan’s most famous line, structured like a language: like a language and not like a cauldron of primitive, instinctual need. In his article “Enjoyment and the Impossibility: Lacan’s Revision of the Oedipus Complex,” Paul Verhage begins by establishing some link between Freud and Lacan. Freud’s psychic apparatus is grounded in the prohibition of enjoyment. The same holds true for Lacan’s four discourses. If both systems depict the elementary objects of social relations, of social bonds, then desire (jouissance for Lacan) is the original driving force. But a desire for what? Freud ultimately believed that death was the final form of pleasure, that Thanatos eventually eclipses Eros. But let us return to Oedipus. Verhaeghe believed that the role of father was not primarily to contain the desire, the jouissance of the child. The father’s role is to protect the child from engulfment by mother’s jouissance. Mother’s is the dangerous desire. Father’s limiting of mother’s jouissance gives the child space for the possibility of its own experience of desire. Verhaeghe further describes how it is not the child’s fear of castration from father that leads to a renunciation of desire and identification but something else. Imaginary castration hides and blocks from view an elemental truth about being human—enjoyment is impossible from the moment that one speaks. This castration is symbolic, a given of structure says Verhaeghe, and its agent is the father. At its heart jouissance is of the body. Animals do not “know” enjoyment; they experience it without knowing it. The human being is split off from the body with the emergence of the signifier through language and hence forever cut off from this primary, complete experience of pleasure.

Pleasure, prohibition, repression are all actors in both the Freudian and Lacanian dramas. In his article “On Shame,” Jacques-Alain Miller writes that in this contemporary drama shame has ceased to be a player. At the start of Seminar XVII Lacan told his audience of mostly analysts that they came “...because I happen to make you ashamed.” Miller believed that shame had always been conveyed by the gaze of the Other or the gaze of God. Miller described an account from Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. A man is looking through a keyhole and is absorbed in what he is seeing. We don’t know what he’s looking at. But then he hears footsteps and looks up at someone whose gaze is upon him: enter shame and the subject’s awareness of himself as an object in the world, now cut from the seamless transcendent experience of looking without self-awareness. Miller felt that Sartre was attempting to understand the subject’s “...fall in the status of this shameful reject.”

As a portent for the future, Eric Laurent in his article “Symptom and Discourse” is none too optimistic. He believes societies are moving toward a new definition of what it means to be human. He quotes Peter Sloterdijk’s 2000 lecture “The Domestication of Being” as an example of an ushering in of such a new definition. Francis Fukuyama echoes this warning in his book “Our Posthumous Future,” where he described how with medication society is trying to “remove the inequality of moods between the sexes” (Laurent’s words) through the use of Prozac and Ritalin. Medication allows the subject to approach a mean, “an ‘ordinary life’ that is now the experiential frame of our civilization.” Indeed, Laurent argues that in such a world guilt and shame are rendered useless virtues.

Lacan used language with some provocation in mind. Indeed, I think he believed that language itself is a provocateur. It offers this portal to a false promise, the possibility of a desire so purely gratified that we enlist the otherness of another language—jouissance. For Lacan, it is unspeakable, it the real. But the longing for it, the desire, is mobilized toward it, riding the wheels of words. But this does not make life meaningless. It is the search for meaning, the search for jouissance that connects the subject with her desire. I use the word her to provoke, not just something in you but something in me. It brings us back to one of the points in the book, the idea that it is mother’s desire that must not be provoked, and a maternal, feminine desire. This is where fear ultimately resides, not in the strong, castrating father of 19th century Europe. As one of the author’s contend, was this Freud’s heroic attempt to rescue the declining father? Was this the decline of the master’s discourse, the crumbling of empires and kings at the end of the 19th century? The trajectory of discourse, from master’s to university’s, is illuminated in the rise of the great bureaucracies of the 20th century, vast monolithic powers replacing czars and mandarins.

So what was Lacan trying to tell us in using the words “the other side” of psychoanalysis? Up to 1970 we had been on one side, and Lacan saw himself as being able to detect something in western culture, some paradigm shift. I think he saw this as a seismic shift, something revolutionary, certainly something political. Indeed, many of the authors in this volume chose to comment on the meaning of the other side in political and economic life. Even though Lacan probably would not have agreed, I think Seminar XVII is a question of what it means to be human.

Thus, I believe it is still in the realm of a humanistic tradition, in part because Lacan is not telling us that he knows what it means to be human. He is telling us that the attempt to know oneself takes at bedrock four fundamental ways, or discourses. I think he believed we were missing something and that a revolution in psychoanalytic thinking was in order. We had been too long on one side, now it was time to be on “the other side.”

Perhaps this book is relevant today as we struggle to find some sense of ourselves, straining to exist under the weight of late capitalism and the lure of an experience of “surplus jouissance. ” Do all these authors, from all over the globe, continue to find something in Seminar XVII that propels them to do what I am attempting this moment: to understand what Lacan was trying to say, to relate it to my experience in the clinical setting and in my own life.

In the true spirit of Lacan, reading this book leaves one with more questions and fewer answers. But it does inspire one to think about the psychoanalytic project and to appreciate how others across the globe see this project. The understanding of what it means to be human is important not only for the consulting room but also to understand those larger social and political forces we find ourselves swirling around in. Lacan felt societies and psychoanalysis were both in the midst of profound change in 1970 and in the midst of the whirlwind he was trying to bring our gaze to “the other side” of psychoanalysis. I am still searching for what that might mean and in that sense I think I’m experiencing what Lacan intended in those lectures now thirty-some years ago.

Reviewer Note

Greg Novie


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