|J E P - Number 12-13 - Winter-Fall 2001|
Lacan in America |
Keywords: Desire - Jouissance - New Pathologies - Queer Theory - Feminist Theory- Prohibition of Incest.
This paper reviews the place Lacan occupies in the US both in the clinical and academic worlds. While in academia Lacan has been criticized for his phallocratic bent, among American psychoanalysts Lacan's ideas are viewed as too intellectual and divorced from clinical concerns. Taking account of these objections, the paper attempts to rework Lacanian theory by emphasizing that the symbolic order does not need to be equated with phallocracy.
When one returns from Europe to America it is always tempting to indulge in Schadenfreunde [damaging friends]. To that end, the old French saying "ils sont fous ces américains" [these Americans are crazy!] may be a reassuring thought, allowing one to believe that, since the United States has either killed Freud or at least deeply misunderstood his theory, there is nothing we can learn from an American clinical or ideological approach. However ultimately one must admit that this kind of attitude may be an effect of resistance. After all, even in America everyone knows (and only too well) that the ego prefers to ignore the shock of anything new because, God forbid, the id might find in some exposed crack a path through which to reveal its ugly head. So it turned out that the longer I lived in America, my preferred indignation over the state of American psychoanalysis slowly became transformed into curiosity, which made a place for critical thinking. I finally came to realize that some of the complaints Americans voiced about Freud had only indirectly been addressed by Lacan, even though his claim would suggest otherwise.
That their complaints about psychoanalytic theory might lead to something important was made even more clear when I agreed to take on the rather thankless task of explaining Lacanian theory in American universities and psychoanalytic institutes. For one thing, I quickly found out that it was impossible to teach Lacan's thought to Americans without taking into account the psychological, political, ideological and cultural context that had shaped the consciousness of my audience. The situation was additionally complicated by my realization that the academic world and the clinical world each were faced with different challenges. For example, feminist theory from the 1970's through 1980's had already dismissed Lacan's insights. After praising the charms of the Lacanian signifier (thanks to which the question of gender could escape the threat of biological determinism) feminist theorists then decided that Lacan was not on their side; concluding that the division that the symbolic order creates between the sexes is nothing but an arbitrary arrangement merely conceived to serve the interests of the so-called phallocratic system. Thus feminist theory succeeded in turning Lacan against himself. The discourse of the hysteric became the spokeswoman of feminist resistance and Lacan was attacked, along with Freud, for seeming to require that women accept their castrated lot.
More recently queer theory, a subversive theoretical movement that came out of the gay movement but which opposes the credo of identity politics, pushed the feminist critique of psychoanalysis even further. For the queers, Lacan seemed to offer no more than ego psychology. Moreover, Lacan's emphasis on the law and the paternal function seemed to make him for queer theorists a champion of what is now called the heteronormative dimension of psychoanalysis. This is not to say however, that the Lacanian voice entirely disappeared from the world of academia. Yet to my mind the small Lacanian factions that remain in place have refused, on principle, to engage with their detractors in a productive debate. They have either faulted their opponents on a poor understanding of Lacanian texts or else attacked them below the belt, by associating the so-called subversive intent of queer theory to the general post-modern climate, which is slowly eroding the law of the father and the social contract. Namely, they brought the dirty word perversion out of the bag. Such a rebuttal, which seems to bring the Lacanian point of view onto the side of family values and conservatism, has certainly not helped the Lacanian image in the academic world. As if this weren't bad enough, it turned out that the real conversation stopper between the two groups came down to a question that most Lacanians refused to tackle head on: the psychogenetic causes of homosexuality. And of course not all homosexuals are pervers mais quand même ...
American psychoanalysis posed a different set of problems concerning the transmission of Lacanian theory. Apparently intimidated by the post-structural direction of the academic debate between the anti-Lacanians and the pro-Lacanians, most psychoanalysts, clinical psychologists and social workers simply concluded that Lacan would not be worth their trouble. They reasoned that, since Lacan seems to them to neglect the pre-Oedipal and favor a pro-paternalistic psychoanalytic approach, there would be little point in trying to master this nearly incomprehensible theory, in particular since they perceived it to be out of touch with their clinical and social reality.
In fact for more than the past fifty years, psychoanalytic research in the United States has been systematically chipping away at the Oedipal dynamics and its vicissitudes. From Object Relations Theory to Self Psychology, these so-called post-Freudian theories have successfully undermined the notion of the paternal function which, according to these theorists, is no longer in tune with the social and cultural climate. Instead they found importance in the psychic connection, which resists the forces of social change: to wit they were concerned with the so-called pre-Oedipal dynamics and the nurturing function of the mother. By placing emphasis on the pre-Oedipal, American psychoanalysis managed to avoid the most fruitful part of the Oedipal story: its impact on sexual difference and gender roles. Moreover by rejecting what they perceived to be Freud's biological determinism, American post-Freudians have clearly returned to a pre-Freudian (or even pre-Durkheimian) position. Having thrown out the Oedipus complex, they ended up with a concept of the individual which, while interacting with the social, is somehow not produced by it. Yet this outdated theoretical stance somehow doesn't perturb the psychoanalytic community - perhaps because American psychoanalysis has already lost its place in academia, not only in psychology departments (where it has been replaced by cognitive and behavioral sciences) and in psychiatric departments (where it has been replaced by psychopharmacology) but also in the human sciences where, paradoxically, it has been usurped by Lacanian theory. At this time only infant research remains legitimate in the scientific bastion, toward fostering new psychoanalytic approaches.
The mother/child relationship is therefore at the heart of what is now at stake in American psychoanalytic research. Yet this does not mean that the Kleinan approach has gained any momentum, perhaps because the Kleinan conceptualization of the id and its unconscious representations remains too Freudian in spirit for Americans, and/or because Klein does not sufficiently acknowledge the place of the mother in psychic development. Within this climate it is not surprising that Lacanian theory is perceived as too intellectual and therefore too far removed from clinical reality.
I was therefore confronted with a very difficult challenge. Fortunately I remembered that analysis teaches that, if a task appears insurmountable, it usually means that we have merely failed to see the answer, which is sitting right in front of our eyes. Thus, despite the fact that the academic critiques of Lacan and the ones that emerged from the psychoanalytic community seem divided by an imaginary line called structuralism, I noticed that the academics and theorists are really complaining about the same thing; they both claim that Lacan's return to Freud pathologizes social change by refusing to question the problematic status of the Oedipal complex. Here it is important to understand that while for Europeans, family structure is sufficient to reflect the cultural ideals that accompanied Freud's discovery, in the United States sociologists and psychoanalysts agree that the era of a family structure dominated by a paternal figure whose function is to impose the law of the incest taboo has already become obsolete.
This crucial difference in thinking between Europe and the United States made me wonder if, after all is said and done, Lacan had fully resolved the aporia that plagues for Americans Freud's discovery of the unconscious? If the Oedipus complex is a universal phenomenon that accounts for the psychic mapping of human subjectivity, can we not subtract from it the historical circumstances that made Freud's discovery possible? Can we not distinguish, in the manifest content of 19th century Vienna, a latent structure that can be found in any place and at any time? Was Lacan, who bent over backward to detach Freud's insight from any biological foundation, perhaps too eager to confirm Freud's vision that the law sits on the side of the father? And could it possibly be that Europe (or France to be more precise) is in mourning over the loss of the strong father while America is rejoicing in his death? And more to the point, is the Lacanian vision of the law, meaning the prohibition of incest between mother and child, the only cornerstone where what is psychoanalytic intersects with what is social? And if this is so, does it then have to mean that this law actually requires an enforcer, and one in the guise of an imaginary father? If it is no longer enforced will society fall apart, drowning its subjects (or what is left of them) in a sea of jouissance?
If Lacan scrubbed Freud's discovery clean of its biological underpinnings isn't it now time to apply Lacan's scouring pad to his own reading of Freud, especially where the shadow of historical patriarchy may obscure the distinction between the desire of the subject and the demands of cultural ideals? In other words, can Lacanian psychoanalysis resist Lacan's own ideological or cultural bias? These are the questions we need to address if we want to engage with Americans in our dialogue.
In teaching Lacanian theory to Americans, I suggest that, if we are prepared to separate Lacan's seemingly ambiguous terminology (such as the law, the paternal function, the-name-of-the-father, etc.) from what actually transpires in the clinical situation, it is possible to effectively argue against American resistances to Lacan, meaning put forth the case that psychoanalysis is not invested in enforcing law, but rather in dissipating its destructive effects. After all, Lacan's definition of symbolic castration belongs to a different register than Freud's incest taboo. To teach this distinction, however, I have found that one cannot merely follow the evolution of Lacan's thought. Instead, we must do for Lacan what Lacan did for Freud: we must examine Lacan's early insights through the lens of his later concepts. It is therefore through the lens of Lacan's later notion of the jouissance of the Other that I propose to reexamine how he was able to place his earlier formulation of the mirror stage in the context of Freud's Oedipal theory. In this retroactive way I hope to clarify how the Oedipus myth loses any essential tie with a given social structure and becomes (when it becomes) the effect (rather than the cause) of human subjectivity. I also hope this approach will allow us to break down the cultural bias that has up to now made a dialogue between Lacanian and Anglo-Saxon psychoanalysis almost impossible.
For those who are less familiar with Lacan, please note right away that the term jouissance cannot be translated simply as enjoyment. Jouissance can also be a legal term referring to the right to enjoy the use of a thing (usufruct), as opposed to owning it. The jouissance of the Other therefore refers to the subject's experience of being for the Other an object to be enjoyed, through use or abuse, in contrast to being simply the object of the Other's desire. The distinction is important because the experience of being perceived as an object of desire could imply that an individual might be able to consciously figure out what it is about her or him that is desirable or attractive to the Other. The desire of the Other in that sense could offer the subject some clue as to what it might take to behave more like, and thus to become more, what the Other desires. In contrast, the experience of being the object of the Other's jouissance conveys a sense of frightening mystery, which Lacan suggests takes the form of a question, such as, What will the Other do with me?, or What does the Other want of me?, or even his most enigmatic suggestion, What sauce does the Other want to eat me with? This is a situation in which the subject is absolutely clueless. The Other then appears as completely enigmatic and, as such, able to threaten the very core of my being.
Through this lens the mirror stage can be viewed as a structural moment in the psychic development of the child when she or he encounters in the mother's gaze the image that will shape the child's ego ideal. In other words, the mirror stage inaugurates for the child the moment of experiencing that she or he is already the object of her or his mother's desire (and love). Yet the experience of the child as, so to say, the apple of its mother's eye, or as the exclusive object of the mother's desire, presupposes that the mother is a desiring being, in other words, that she wants something that she does not already have. The experience of being the object of the Other's desire therefore implies that the subject also might register that she or he could fail to occupy that position. In Lacanian terms, this translates as: the child must come to grips with the fact that the mother is lacking, and that she wants something or someone to fill her lack. This is why Lacan says that symbolic castration is the ability to recognize the lack in the (m)Other.