Encyclopedia of Contemporary French Culture

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L

Lacan, Jacques

b. 1901, Paris;

d. 1981, Paris

Psychoanalyst

A traditional psychiatric training and an intense knowledge of Freud's texts, combined with an exposure to the avant-garde culture of Surrealist circles and an absorption of structural linguistics and anthropology, produced in Jacques Lacan one of the most original of all psychoanalysts since Freud. His increasingly sophisticated speculations on the signifying processes that compose subjectivity have hardened into a powerful school of analysis whose influence notably reaches into many, if not all, of the human sciences. The collection of his lectures, Écrits (1966), remains a key text of structuralist and poststructuralist theory, in spite of (or sometimes because of) its opacity. It manages to retain something of Lacan's exploitation of the oral nature of teaching and his linguistic subversion of the position of master. What saves this from being merely irritatingly pretentious, wit and erudition apart, is that the operations of language are precisely central to Lacan's preoccupations; he thus sought to renew the concrete approach if not the clinical objective of 'the talking cure'. Already in his doctoral dissertation in 1932, 'Paranoid Psychosis and Its Relation to Personality' ('De la psychose paranoïaque dans ses rapports avec la personnalité'), which dutifully reproduces existing theories of paranoia and the requisite academic references, Lacan had none the less presented the patient 'Aimée' less as the object of a psychotic condition than as the subject of a certain discourse (Lacan quotes her literary efforts, which aroused some interest in Surrealist quarters).

In later papers, such as the 1953 'Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis' ('Fonction et champ de la parole et du langage en psychanalyse'), or the 1957 'The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious' ('L'Agence de la lettre dans l'inconscient'), Lacan identifies his clinical approaches with the analysis of speech as the vehicle through which the human being is brought into an already existing social order and thus as the means and form of expression of the unconscious. This structural and linguistic vision of the emergence of full subjectivity appropriates and transforms particular features of Lévi-Strauss, Saussure and Jakobson. Subjectivity for Lacan signifies not in the individual's will, but only through the signifying chain to which it must belong, as well as in the unstable relation which it must negotiate between a signifier (or term) and its signified (or concept). Lacanian analysis does not, then, operate with any sense of a final cure; the inevitable immersion of the human in the Symbolic order tends rather towards the point where the subject of a discourse may fully inhabit the structure of meaning. This is in

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