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Lacan to the Letter: Reading Écrits Closely (Book Review)

Author:  Fink, Bruce
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, 2004
Reviewed By: Jon Mills, PsyD, PhD, ABPP, Vol 26 (2), pp. 45

Lacan has been highly vilified by many analysts for his highly abstruse theoretical corpus and his questionably unethical technical practices, eventually earning him the reputation of being the most famous analyst who was kicked out of the establishment—only to establish his own psychoanalytic tradition that has withstood the test of time. In American psychoanalysis, Lacan is largely unknown or marginalized, and if regarded at all, he would be labeled an enigma at best. In psychoanalytic training institutes in France, Belgium, and Argentina, however, Lacan is mandatory reading. Among academe, on the other hand, Lacan has transcended the circumscribed world of psychoanalysis and is arguably a notable presence among many contemporary intellectuals in several disciplines across the humanities and the social and behavioral sciences. Then what’s up with Lacan?

When I speak to non-Lacanian colleagues about Lacan they tend to be very critical of his technical innovations, which they find unacceptably experimental and careless, if not palpably egregious, invalidating, and damaging to patients. Take for example his variable-length sessions (seances scandées), sometimes lasting as little as 5 minutes, in which he spontaneously told patients to leave his office because he was bored with their associations. Of course this technical strategy was said to be justified under the theoretical assumption that it is productive to “surprise the unconscious.” In today’s society, this is a good way to invite an ethics complaint and lose business at the same time.

It is speculated that Lacan’s experimentation with technique had something to do with a rather humiliating experience he had in 1936 at the Congress of the International Psychoanalytical Association in Marienbad, where Ernest Jones had cut him off in mid-sentence just shortly into his presentation, a painful experience Lacan reportedly remembered for the rest of his life. I can identify with Lacan’s humiliation. When in graduate school, I was reproached by a professor for quoting the secondary literature without even bothering to consult the original source. This is a lesson I am forever grateful for to this day. Ever since then, in my scholarly activities, I developed a habit of only reading original texts. This is how I stumbled on Lacan. When I embark upon a new course of study, I tend to get obsessed. I quickly ordered all of Lacan’s books and published seminars available in English off the Internet and immersed myself in six months of intense reading. Even after reading several secondary sources and commentators on Lacan, I must torpidly confess that he still remains an intellectual challenge.

An informal fact is that most analysts who are critical of Lacan simply don’t understand what he said, nor have they taken the time to read his work with any precision. And Lacan does not make it easy. His writing and spoken discourse is atrociously convoluted and fragmentary, packed with scholarly condensations and tangential eccentric remarks culled from many different disciplines, is often purposely misleading and confusing, and at times psychotic in structure. At first glance he is incomprehensible.

Bruce Fink’s recent book, Lacan to the Letter, is a splendid attempt to clarify much of the confusion that surrounds Lacan’s obscure psychoanalytic writings. In a nutshell, this is a highly assessable and successful attempt to expatiate many of Lacan’s key technical writings. Like Fink’s previously illuminating and digestible work, A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis, this book is a must read for anyone interested in grasping Lacanian thought.

Fink’s project takes a fastidious look at several of Lacan’s key texts regarding both theory and practice and attempts to render them intelligible in plain language. Fink argues that poor translations have aided in our misunderstanding of Lacan, translations he seeks to rectify and explain. In his discussion of Lacanian technique, Fink lays out Lacan’s thesis of the ego as imaginary, one entirely opposed to mainstream ego psychology, and implications for clinical practice including avoiding interpreting transference based on the patent’s personal history or the analyst’s own personality or countertransference. This goes counterclockwise to the whole psychoanalytic movement. Here Lacan’s arguments deserve out attention.

For Lacan, what is primary is not the individual, but the Other, that is, the symbolic and social functions imbedded within the subject. And for Lacan, the subject is always the subject of the unconscious, and the unconscious is always the Other’s discourse. There is always another voice speaking in the patient, a metapsychology of internalized culture, the ontology of symbolic meaning and demand instituted through speech and desire. This is what the Lacanian analyst listens for. Fink expounds many important aspects of Lacanian theory in juxtaposition to Freud and in contradistinction to most post-Freudian schools of thought, including challenging most of what ego psychology champions. And Lacan spares no punches: he advances his novelty by being ruthlessly disparaging and polemical. As a general rule, he tends to be critical of everyone, even Freud, although Freud is still respected as the master.

What Fink is most successful in accomplishing is initiating the neophyte in navigating through the turbid and sometimes turgid waters of Lacanian discourse, hence making comprehensible his notions of the imaginary and symbolic orders or contexts of being, the essence of desire and lack, the Name-of-the-Father and the role of the Phallus, symptoms and jouissance, and his revisionist revamping of Saussurean linguists, especially on the nature of the signifier and the signified. And Fink is very helpful in deciphering the many graphs, figures, axises, schemas, and mathematical equations Lacan is fond of using to concretize his ideas.

I have chosen not to highlight theoretical or technical problematics inherent to Lacan’s theories because I think readers should decide for themselves what deserves praise and what warrants criticism in Lacan’s contributions to our profession. What I can say is that Lacan proves instructive in clarifying what one does and does not stands for. Like Kant, you can reason with him or against him, but you cannot reason without him. Those curious or intimidated about Lacan may wish to start with this book, for Fink is arguably the leading expositor of Lacan in the English speaking world today.


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Date created: 2011