Lacan: In Spite Of Everything by Elisabeth Roudinesco
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
First, what is “everything”? And second, how does le maître survive in spite of it?
“Everything” for Roudinesco includes Lacan’s often obscurantist vocabulary; his late belief in mathematics as the key to formalizing his theories of subjectivity and society; his inability to run institutions (whether school or clinic) except for cultically; his encouragement of an elitist and asocial and apolitical psychoanalytic practice; and possibly, though Roudinesco doesn’t come out and say it in so many words, his own personal appetites (for women, wine, shoes, rare editions, etc.) and his cynicism (his disbelief in love, his parvenu’s fury against his small origins in a vinegar-merchant’s family).
This is not necessarily how an Anglo-American intellectual would draw the bill of indictment against Lacan. Even those of us with far greater sympathy than your average Oxbridge empiricist for speculative thought and visionary prose may have a low tolerance for the abstraction seemingly endemic to Continental theory. Ours is a language shaped by poets who pitted the subjugated dialect of the northern tribes against a Latinity that will always strike the Anglophone ear as malignly elite, as well as somehow effete—even those Anglophones (like myself) who are “ethnically” Latin and were reared in popery. And we certainly do not want psychoanalysts delivering political pronouncements!
But it is Lacan’s speculative and social thought that Roudinesco appreciates most. She has little patience for his scientism or his avant-garde commitment to the neologism, but hails him essentially as a responsible heir to the adventure of philosophical modernity, and one who successfully managed to pass it on to the rest of us, despite the globalization of Anglo-Saxon ideology. (“Us” here means mainly the French intelligentsia; this is a very “French” book in ways I am hard pressed to define, but can nevertheless obscurely sense.)
Roudinesco honors Lacan for his defense of an “enlightened conservatism” in a century of extremes. He scorned those (fascists) who would simply restore the patriarchy that had been largely deposed in Europe by the end of the nineteenth century, even as he regarded as naive (and doomed to repeat the tyranny they wished to overthrow) those (communists and libertarians) who would put in its place the reign of absolute freedom. Lacan’s was a mission to retain Law—conceived as the symbolic, the possibility of humans making sense at all—after the passing of the paternal imago, whether God or his surrogate, the paterfamilias. This freedom-within-law can only be achieved through the endless process of using language creatively and critically—in psychoanalysis, he thought, or, as I would amend, in imaginative literature.
This book is not exactly an introduction, and I found some of it rather abstract; the discussion of Antigone, for instance, eludes me and I hope to look up the relevant Lacanian text—or maybe just Judith Butler—someday. The section on Kant and Sade is suggestive though; I gather Lacan thought them the poles of modernity, Kant-as-authoritarian-modernism and Sade-as-capitalist-postmodernity, to both of which he would counterpose psychoanalysis to act as the new rationalism in which desire could be articulated within the bounds of the always incomplete symbolic. Contra his communist disciples, the Real is not representable and the attempt to manifest it will inevitably end in the catastrophic tyranny of a naively totalizing symbolic. I think—as I said, the book is suggestive, and that is what it suggested to me.
When it is not being polemical, this book occasionally indulges an idiom I associate with Borges or Calvino: long lists of exotica, the things Lacan loved or the things he owned. An illustrated book of Lacaniana might be interesting; the Jungians get such works published, why not the Lacanians?
This is the book of a partisan, so it isn’t “objective,” nor is it a very good primer. I suspect the target audience is probably someone like me—somebody who has studied the humanities extensively and knows a bit about Lacan but would like to know more. As the target audience, I enjoyed it; I’m not sure I’d recommend it to everyone. It made me want to seek out more of Lacan’s works. Some more-or-less Lacanians were very influential in my undergraduate education—Colin MacCabe, Valerie Krips—and their way of thinking about literature still informs my own. But I was never able to make much headway with the texts of the man himself; his followers express themselves far more lucidly than he was concerned to. Nevertheless, I am stimulated by Roudinesco to go further, especially given her political polemic. I’d hoped for better in my receding youth, but it seems to me now that if the coming catastrophes of our civilization are as bad as some foretell, an “enlightened conservatism” may be the needed remedy.