Lacan and the Limits of Language

Lacan and the Limits of Language

Lacan and the Limits of Language

Lacan and the Limits of Language


This book weaves together three themes at the intersection of Jacques Lacan and the philosophical tradition. The first is the question of time and memory. How do these problems call for a revision of Lacan's purported "ahistoricism," and how does the temporality of the subject in Lacan intersect with the questions of temporality initiated by Heidegger and then developed by contemporary French philosophy? The second question concerns the status of the body in Lacanian theory, especially in connection with emotion and affect, which Lacanian theory is commonly thought to ignore, but which the concept of jouissance was developed to address. Finally, it aims to explore, beyond the strict limits of Lacanian theory, possible points of intersection between psychoanalysis and other domains, including questions of race, biology, and evolutionary theory.

By stressing the question of affect, the book shows how Lacan's position cannot be reduced to the structuralist models he nevertheless draws upon, and thus how the problem of the body may be understood as a formation that marks the limits of language. Exploring the anthropological category of "race" within a broadly evolutionary perspective, it shows how Lacan's elaboration of the "imaginary" and the "symbolic" might allow us to explain human physiological diversity without reducing it to a cultural or linguistic construction or allowing "race" to remain as a traditional biological category. Here again the questions of history and temporality are paramount, and open the possibility for a genuine dialogue between psychoanalysis and biology.

Finally, the book engages literary texts. Antigone, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Hamlet, and even Wordsworth become the muses who oblige psychoanalysis and philosophy to listen once again to the provocations of poetry, which always disrupts our familiar notions of time and memory, of history and bodily or affective experience, and of subjectivity itself.


These chapters were written as occasional essays, each at the invitation of a different host, who invited me to think about a topic of his or her own choosing. The solicitation of thought that is thereby implied, the way in which my own thought, grounded in philosophy and psychoanalysis, was shaped and altered by these invitations, is of intrinsic interest to me, insofar as it suggests how thought, and indeed life itself, unfolds beyond the individual, and beyond one’s own preoccupations. At the same time, my own concerns invariably mark each essay. And above all I am struck, looking back at these essays, at how preoccupied I have been with trying to support a conversation across boundaries that have become overly territorialized, overly defended, and exclusive. These boundaries are multiple, and I attempt here to cross them in several ways simultaneously. Several chapters are concerned with the question of the body, which Lacan is often wrongly said to neglect (Chapters 1, 2, 3, and 6). Several are concerned with the complex relationships among Lacan, Heidegger, and Derrida, relationships that I approach, not through explicit references or texts or themes (notoriously, the phallus as a supposed “master signifier,” the text of Poe’s “Purloined Letter,” etc.), but through some fundamental conceptual problems they share in common, in particular, the excruciatingly complex relationship between “structure” and “history” (Chapters 1, 4, and 5); the question of Lacan’s relation to topics that he is generally considered to have neglected, such as race (in Chapter 6), affect (in Chapters 2 and 3), and the body—a topic Lacan is thought to discuss endlessl6).

In general, these crossings between Lacan and other thinkers (feminist theory, Foucault, Derrida, and Heidegger, especially) are subterranean here, in the sense that these relationships are not the “topic” of the essays. But readers will see very clearly, I think, where I am inviting these relationships, and indeed am compelled to initiate them, for what I hope are . . .

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