W. W. Norton & Company of New York and London presents a series called The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller in 1981 and reissued again in 1998 (the first American edition having come out in 1978). The book I have chosen in this series is Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, translated by Alan Sheridan in 1977. The original copyright belongs to Éditions du Seuil that publishes the French version under the title Le Séminaire de Jacques Lacan, Livre XI, ‘Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse’ in 1973. This book contains revised transcriptions of a series of lectures that happened in 1964 in which Lacan explains the functions of psychoanalysis to a student body unfamiliar with the field. The four concepts he introduces during this seminar are the unconscious, repetition, the transference, and the drive. This work includes an index and a useful “Translator’s Note” defining several terms Lacan uses in his lectures.
The reading of this book is easier than most philosophy books because Lacan is speaking to an audience rather than writing to a specialized academic readership. Each chapter or lecture in the book spans only a few pages, so finding a good spot to stop if something comes up is quite convenient. Nevertheless, there are concepts that can challenge a person’s critical thinking skills, so a reader should to put some effort into understanding the text. Most of the transcriptions include students’ questions and Lacan’s answers to them that come at the end of the lecture. The fact that students have felt puzzled by Lacan’s teaching ameliorates my feelings of bewilderment from time to time. Despite any inadequacies any reader may feel, this volume gives a valuable viewpoint of Sigmund Freud’s contribution to psychology.
Before attempting to read this book, it may be a good idea to read the “Translator’s Note” first, which is located at the back of the book. Sheridan provides a glossary that, although not definitive, situates the reader enough to grasp the ideas that Lacan pursues. Lacan refers to three stages, structures, or states of mind that the analyst must keep in mind while analyzing an analysand. He calls them the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real. I understand that the Imaginary deals with images belonging to the conscious and unconscious realms, but do not necessarily mean the opposite of reality. The Symbolic deals with signifiers, symbols that do not have meaning by themselves except when associated with other symbols. The Symbolic forms the structure for the Imaginary, so these two intertwine. The Real is an area that stretches beyond the Imaginary. “This Lacanian concept of the ‘real’ is not to be confused with reality, which is perfectly knowable: the subject of desire knows no more than that, since for it reality is entirely phantasmatic” (Sheridan 280). This realm is “real” for the analysand, but it does not have to coincide with reality. I look at this sphere as the realm of the indescribable in the sense that each of us has felt emotions or states that we cannot put into words completely.
Another term to understand before tackling this book and which is found in the “Translator’s Note” is the phrase objet petit a. I include the definition here: “Objet petit a. The ‘a’ in question stands for ‘autre’ (other), the concept having been developed out of the Freudian ‘object’ and Lacan’s own exploitation of ‘otherness’. The ‘petit a’ (small ‘a’) differentiates the object from (while relating it to) the ‘Autre’ or ‘grand Autre’ (the capitalized ‘Other’). However, Lacan refuses to comment on either term here, leaving the reader to develop an appreciation of the concepts in the course of their use. Furthermore, Lacan insists that ‘objet petit a’ should remain untranslated, thus acquiring, as it were, the status of an algebraic sign” (Sheridan 282, italics in original). The a, or other, becomes the target of a person or of an object for the analysand’s desire or drive. However, this target can never be attained, hence a person’s neurotic disposition that gets him lying on the shrink’s couch in the first place. I also understand that the objet petit a acts as a type of mirror for the analysand, a mirror that expresses the analysand’s ideal self or the self that the analysand wants to become.
Having given the most important definitions, I have found three interesting themes in this book: language, phenomenology, and sexuality.
For the first theme, language plays the role of establishing a structure for the unconscious. Lacan’s teaches that “the unconscious is structured like a language […] that is materialized, at what is certainly a scientific level, by the field that is explored, structured, [and] elaborated by Claude Lévi-Strauss” (20, emphasis in original). Lacan’s reference to Lévi-Strauss reveals that the former’s ideas parallel the dominant philosophy movement at the time called Structuralism.
Language inhabits the sphere of subjective experience. The utterances we make to anyone have consequences in the unconscious of the hearer. Somehow, what we say seriously affects the person by incorporating itself into one of the three stages mentioned above. Words can hurt if we are not careful, because the effects of what we say will emerge from the unconscious in a strange and deleterious form. “The unconscious is the sum of the effects of speech on a subject, at the level at which the subject constitutes himself out of the effects of the signifier” (126).
Lacan reminds his students a second time about language’s influence on the unconscious: “The unconscious is constituted by the effects of speech on the subject, it is the dimension in which the subject is determined in the development of the effects of speech, consequently the unconscious is structured like a language” (149). But if the unconscious is structured like a language, then helping the analysand requires the analyst to help decode the manifestations of the language. In other words, the analyst must help the analysand be proficient in the linguistic code of the signifiers that the analysand possesses.
But there is a catch: “Psycho-analysis is neither a Weltanschauung, nor a philosophy that claims to provide the key to the universe. It is governed by a particular aim, which is historically defined by the elaboration of the notion of the subject. It poses this notion in a new way, by leading the subject back to his signifying dependence” (77, emphasis in original). In other words, psychoanalysis is not a cure-all, but a method to understanding the symptoms by going to the source of the problem. What the analysand needs to understand is that he or she is the one that has to deal with it when the symbols are decoded, if they ever are.
The second theme I see in the book is the mention of phenomenology, although psychoanalysis is not strictly phenomenological. During this series of lectures, Lacan mentions Maurice Merleau-Ponty and his posthumous work The Visible and the Invisible, a book I have read. (It makes following along the discussion much easier.) Lacan refers to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology at various points and associates it to psychoanalysis. One of them is the concept of the gaze.
Phenomenology believes that a subject has a consciousness of something at any given moment, whether that something exists or not. Lacan adjusts this concept to his understanding of the gaze, an act that submits the analysand into thinking that someone or something is watching him. Nature normally does not produce this sensation. “The world is all-seeing, but it is not exhibitionistic—it does not provoke our gaze. When it begins to provoke it, the feeling of strangeness begins too” (75). Lacan takes the gaze a little further: “In the scopic field, everything is articulated between two terms that act in an antinomic way—on the side of things, there is the gaze, that is to say, things look at me, and yet I see them. This is how one should understand those words, so strongly stressed, in the Gospel, They have eyes that they might not see. That they might not see what? Precisely, that things are looking at them” (109, emphasis in original). (If we take that idea a little farther, we can conclude that if the Pharisees and the Sadducees had not eyes to see, then they would have felt the gaze upon them, encouraging them to mend their ways under the notion that their actions would be witnessed by the possessor of that gaze.)
The trompe-l’œil is another term that relates to the phenomenology of perception, but more suited to psychoanalysis. Lacan cites a Greek legend that exemplifies how the gaze acts. “In the classical tale of Zeuxis and Parrhasios, Zeuxis has the advantage of having made grapes that attracted the birds. The stress is placed not on the fact that these grapes were in any way perfect grapes, but on the fact that even the eye of the birds was taken in by them. This is proved by the fact that his friend Parrhasios triumphs over him for having painted on the wall a veil, a veil so lifelike that Zeuxis, turning towards him said, Well, and now show us what you have painted behind it. By this he showed that what was at issue was certainly deceiving the eye (tromper l’œil). A triumph of the gaze over the eye” (103, emphases in original).
The third theme is one that everyone seems to think about when they hear the word psychoanalysis: sexuality. The unconscious conceals many levels of sexual urges, an idea propagated ever since Freud has given his theory on the matter. Many after Freud, including Lacan, admit that most of his beliefs are not accepted today or are disproven. However, the most interesting observation about sexuality in psychoanalysis is its relation to a person’s death drive, which makes perfect sense in literary criticism. Lacan explains: “Let us look at the facts. The reality of the unconscious is sexual reality—an untenable truth. At every opportunity, Freud defended his formula, if I may say so, with tooth and nail. Why is it an untenable reality? […] Let us say that the species survives in the form of its individuals. Nevertheless, the survival of the horse as a species has a meaning—each horse is transitory and dies. So you see, the link between sex and death, sex and the death of the individual, is fundamental” (150). This idea emerges again and again in literary criticism. The sexual act in an artistic medium can represent the participant’s realization of his or her mortal existence and vulnerability to death. In a way, the sexual act and the propagation of posterity is a way of transcending this death. Or, if the participant does not care about populating the earth with life, the sexual act is a form of rebellion that defies death’s law that hovers over the libertine’s head. In an LDS context, this idea may give a whole new meaning to Jacob’s utterance, in the Book of Mormon, when he inquires his congregation saying “for why will ye die?” (Jacob 6:6).
Although I do not believe everything that psychoanalysis teaches, I have enjoyed learning from this book. Lacan, from time to time, dots the lectures with witticisms and apologues that entertain. I recommend this book to anyone interested in becoming a literary critic or psychologist.