The trials of the post-Freudians: Jacques’ cigar has gone limp!
Jacques Lacan (1901-1981)
The man who has just died was all the greater in that greatness is becoming rare — very rare — in our uncertain lands. The media let him see that very clearly, as their goal is always to align that which exists with the transient and limited prose of journalism. They all asked his sworn enemies and those who go through the dustbins to say something about him.
When not even death can silence envy, it really is a sign of just how barbaric our societies are. All those psychoanalytic dwarves, all those gossip columnists amplifying the mean cry of ‘He was standing in my way, and now he’s dead at last. Now pay some attention to ME!’
It is a fact that Lacan was on the warpath right from the start, denouncing the illusory consistency of the ‘Ego’, rejecting the American psychoanalysis of the 1950s which proposed to ‘reinforce the ego’ and thereby adapt people to the social consensus and arguing that, because it is symbolically determined by language, the subject is irreducibly the subject of desire, and as such cannot be adapted to reality, except perhaps in the imaginary.
Lacan in effect established that the cause of desire is an object that has been lost, that is lacking, and that, being articulated under the symbolic law, desire has no substance and no nature. It has only a truth.
He made money out of this particularly bleak vision of psychoanalysis, in which it is the truth and not happiness that is in play, thanks to the practice of what were sometimes very short sessions. The crucial and non-existent role of psychoanalysts in the plural is to let shine — with a searingly subjective brightness — the signifier of a break that lets slip the truth of desire, whilst the individual psychoanalyst must, ultimately, reconcile himself to be nothing more than what is left at the end of the analysis and when that work is done.
The practice of short sessions polarized a real hatred of the truth against Lacan. As a result, he was literally excommunicated by the psychoanalytic International. The need to organize the transmission of his thought, and to train analysts who would act in accordance with what he believed to be the ethics of psychoanalytic practice, led him to found his own school. But even there, the splits and dissolutions were testimony to a stubborn reluctance to hold the severe position he promoted to the end.
It had become good form to state that the ageing Lacan was no longer transmitting anything worthwhile from the 1970s onwards. In my view, it is quite the opposite. Having lamented the theory of the subject’s subservience to the signifying rule, Lacan made one final effort to pursue his investigation into its relationship with the real as far as he could. The rules of the signifier were no longer enough. What was needed was some kind of geometry of the unconscious, a new way of representing the three agencies (symbolic, imaginary, real) in which the subject-effect is deployed. Lacan’s recourse to topology was an internal requirement born of this new stage in his thinking, and it brought out his underlying materialism.
Lacan held that politics has no effect on the real. He used to say that ‘the social is always a wound’. And yet it so happens that even a Marxism in crisis cannot avoid making reference to the dialectic of the subject that he outlines. It is in effect clear that the fiasco of the Party-States that emerged from the Third International opens up radical questions about the essence of the political subject. Now, neither the subject-as-consciousness (Sartre‘s thesis) nor the subject-as-natural substance will do. The at once divided and errant subject theorized by Lacan in his own realm does offer us a way out of that impasse. For such a subject is a product of a break, and not of the idea that it represents a reality, not even that of the working class. For today’s French Marxists, the function of Lacan is the function that Hegel served for the German revolutionaries of the 1840s.
Given the trite situation in which we find ourselves, marked by the platitudes and relative self-abasement of our intellectuals, the death of Lacan, coming so soon after that of Sartre, does nothing to improve matters. We were anxious to hear what he might still have to say. Quite aside from the content of his teaching, he developed an ethics of thought that is now highly unusual.
Le Perroquet1 will of course come back to the almost incalculable import of that ethics. For the moment, the important thing is, without any restrictions or any presumption, to pay tribute to one who is no longer with us.
1 This text appeared in the fortnightly Le Perroquet, which was founded by Natacha Michel and myself, and which was probably the most interesting paper published in the 1980s; the accuracy of that eulogy can be verified by reading the complete run (1981-87). Written just after the death of Lacan, the article appeared in the pilot issue of the fortnightly, dated November 1981.
I have written on, or about, Lacan very often. He is an essential point of reference for my first ‘big’ book on philosophy, Théorie du sujet (1982). In 1994-95,1 devoted a whole year’s seminar to him. In addition to the two sections of my systematic syntheses devoted to his thought in, respectively, the last and 38th mediation of Being and Event L’Etre et événement, 1988] and Logics of Worlds [Logiques du monde, Book VII, section 2, 2006]. Long discussions, both admiring and critical, can be found in Conditions (1992), with particular reference to Lacan’s relationship with the concept of the infinite, the notion of knowledge and the real experience of love. My most recent and complete text on the crucial question of Lacanian anti-philosophy appeared in English in the journal Lacanian Ink no. 27 under the title ‘The Formulas of L’étourdi’.
—from Alain Badiou, Pocket Pantheon: Figures Of Postwar Philosophy, Verso 2009. Translated by David Macey from Petit Pantheon Portatif, Editions La Fabrique, 2008.