Jacques Lacan, the most controversial psychoanalyst since Freud

Jacques Marie Émile Lacan (13 April 1901 – 9 September 1981), known simply as Jacques Lacan, was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who has been called "the most controversial psycho-analyst since Freud".

Giving yearly seminars in Paris from 1953 to 1981, Lacan influenced many leading French intellectuals in the 1960s and the 1970s, especially those associated with post-structuralism. His ideas had a significant impact on post-structuralism, critical theory, linguistics, 20th-century French philosophy, film theory and clinical psychoanalysis.

A Story from Lacan’s Practice

This is a wonderful story from Lacan's clinic as told by Suzanne Hommel, in analysis with Lacan in 1974. The excerpt is from Gérard Miller's film 'Rendez-vous chez Lacan'.

Here you can watch Gerard Miller's documentary online: 'Rendez-vous chez Lacan'

How, then, do Lacan’s ideas differ from the mainstream psychoanalytical schools of thought and from Freud himself?
"With regard to other schools, the first thing that strikes the eye is the philosophical tenor of Lacan’s theory. For Lacan, psychoanalysis at its most fundamental is not a theory and technique of treating psychic disturbances, but a theory and practice which confronts individuals with the most radical dimension of human existence. It does not show an individual the way to accommodate him- or herself to the demands of social reality; it explains how something like “reality” constitutes itself in the first place. It does not merely enable a human being to accept the repressed truth about him – or herself; it explains how the dimension of truth emerges in human reality. In Lacan’s view, pathological formations like neuroses, psychoses and perversions, have the dignity of fundamental philosophical attitudes towards reality. When I suffer obsessional neurosis, this ‘illness’ colours my entire relationship to reality and defines the global structure of my personality. Lacan’s main critique of other psychoanalytic orientations concerns their clinical orientation: for Lacan, the goal of psychoanalytic treatment is not the patient’s well-being or successful social life or personal self-fulfilment, but to bring the patient to confront the elementary coordinates and deadlocks of his or her desire."

Excerpted from How to Read Lacan by Slavoj Žižek

Here you can read Žižek's introductory book online: How to Read Lacan. (A list of introductory books on Lacan can be found below in the book section of the post.)

“The Single Most ‘French’ Moment in all of 1972: Jacques Lacan Accosted, But No One Stops Smoking.”

The 71-year-old Lacan never loses his composure. (His cigar appears bent out of shape, but it was that way from the beginning.) The audience, too, retains a certain Gallic nonchalance. The scene is from Jacques Lacan Speaks, a one-hour documentary by Belgian filmmaker Françoise Wolff.

You can watch the complete film, which includes Lacan’s extended and rather cryptic response to the incident and other excerpts from the lecture, followed by Wolff’s interview with Lacan the following day, in our post: Jacques Lacan’s Lecture at Louvain (1972)

In this interview given in 1974, Jacques Lacan prophetically warned of the dangers of the return of religion and of scientism. For him, psychoanalysis is the only conceivable rampart against contemporary anxieties. These are arguments of surprising present-day relevance.

Libération: “Tout fou Lacan”, September 11, 1981. (Image source: La République des livres)

In her book Jacques Lacan & Co: a history of psychoanalysis in France, 1925-1985, Élisabeth Roudinesco offers further explanation about the historical and political context in which Lacan’s death was received in France:
"While the newspaper of the PCF offered grandiose praise of this man who had never been favorable to their politics, Libération composed an explosive special issue. The headline was Lacanian to order, admirable in its humor and dash of journalistic genius: “Tout fou Lacan”. Beneath that slogan adapted to the 1980s, a photograph showed the master in profile, his chin encased in the palm of his hand. He seemed to be pondering with some curiosity the commotion of a major demonstration. On the inside, numerous chroniclers recalled the Surrealist adventure, the splits, Vincennes, and May1968. A series of puns punctuated the coverage: “Lacan nest plus, que Lacan même… Lacan nest plus, sue Lacan m’aime… Lacan nest plus, sue là quad même.” [Lacan is no longer, anything but himself… may he love me… anywhere but right here.] There was mention of Gloria Gonzales, psychoanalysis, and Pierre Goldmann. Libération was far and away the only newspaper to offer an account of the baroque character of the man, his doctrine and his unique school in French intellectual life. In 1981, the extreme Left emerging from the barricades was thus Lacanian: in its language, its style, its puns, and a certain uncontrolled way of seizing the signifiers of media-transmitted events. The children of Maoism recognized themselves in the figure of the master so intractable to the illusions of revolution."

Selected Books by Jacques Lacan


Here you can download Unofficial Seminar Translations by Cormac Gallagher 

Žižek's reading advice:

So what and how to read? Écrits or seminars? The only proper answer is a variation on the old “tea or coffee” joke: yes, please! One should read both. If you go directly to the Écrits, you will not get anything, so you should start – but not stop – with seminars, since, if you read only seminars, you will also not get it. The impression that the seminars are clearer and more transparent than the Écrits is deeply misleading: they often oscillate, experiment with different approaches. The proper way is to read a seminar and then go on to read the corresponding écrit to “get the point” of the seminar. We are dealing here with a temporality of Nachtraeglichkeit (clumsily translated as “deferred action”) which is proper to the analytic treatment itself: the Écrits are clear, they provide precise formulas, but we can only understand them after reading seminars which provide their background. Two outstanding cases are the Seminar VII on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis and the corresponding écrit “Kant avec Sade,” as well as the Seminar XI on The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis and “The Position of the Unconscious.” Also significant is Lacan’s opening essay in Écrits, “The Seminar on The Purloined Letter.”

Introductory Books on Lacan

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