Prime Time Psychoanalysis

By Ball, Edward | Afterimage, May-June 1998 | Go to article overview

Prime Time Psychoanalysis


Ball, Edward, Afterimage


Jacques Lacan died six years ago, leaving his renegade version of psychoanalysis to be debated by columns of followers in deconstructionist criticism, film theory, feminism and psychoanalysis proper. Throughout his 50-year career, Lacan cultivated an aura of personal mystique with the care of a diva. In contrast to Freud's even, statesmanlike style. the French analyst spoke and wrote in apocryphal tones, like some oracle of the unconscious. For this Lacan withstood endless criticism; meanwhile, his adherents multiplied. Thrown out of establishment psychoanalytic institutions, Lacan's star profile eventually cast a shadow over them. By the time his theory spilled over into liberal arts curricula during the '60s and '70s, Lacan's influence had reached far beyond that of any psychoanalyst since Freud himself.

In 1972 Jacques-Alain Miller, then an analyst in training, approached Lacan to request a television interview. The idea of broadcasting Lacan into the living rooms of France must have seemed progressive to the post-1968 French intelligentsia (and strangely, to the government television bureaucrats who permitted it). "I wanted Lacan, just once, to speak to the common man," said Miller at the recent colloquium (April 9-10) in New York City organized around that interview and called "Jacques Lacan: Television." The two-hour program aired in 1973 on the French government TV network O.R.T.F. under the title, Psychoanalysts. Who knows how it was received: Lacan's onscreen pronouncements are as opaque as anything he wrote.

Psychoanalysis has survived as the only document of Lacan on film, the only record of the once-notorious lecture style that the analyst showcased at his infamous seminars in Pans during the late '60s to early '70s. It is important to see intellectual icons like Lacan speak before an audience or on film. The specular event diminishes the preciousness of their writing. This, at any rate, was the greatest value of "Jacques Lacan: Television," which was organized by October magazine and the French psychoanalytic journal Ornicar?, and took place at Cooper Union, an art school in lower Manhattan. Psychoanalysis was dug out of the vaults for the meeting, subtitled, and screened with lavish introductory hype. About 100 Lacan specialists and fellow travelers showed up to watch. The black and white print broke a few times, the sound was lost and finally the showmanlike Lacan was left gesticulating silently to the rhythm of the subtitles beneath his chin. Nervous laughter filled the auditorium; spectators were here to see the intellectual hero no matter what.

In the filmed interview, Lacan moves through his various poses: a teacher, an ironist, a demagogue, a new messiah of psychoanalysis. In the first minute, the neo-Freudian upbraids the offscreen interviewer Miller, who had wanted Lacan to simplify things for the camera: "Why should I use a different tone here than for my seminar? . . . I am speaking to those who are savvy, to the non-idiots, to the supposed analysts." Later, he muses with immoderate self-irony: "You know that I've got an answer to everything . . . Who doesn't know that it's with psychoanalysis that I've made it big. That makes me a self-made man." One imagines a viewer in Normandy dialing through the channels and coming upon Lacan's histrionics. What kind of television was this?

In her remarks at the conference the following day, Yale comparative literature professor Shoshana Felman summarized the Psychoanalysis interview for Lacan: "You want to see me. I will give you a show. …

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