Holden Battles the Summer Doldrums: Post 9 - Another Country and Lacan (Part II)

This week I finished what I started two weeks ago. Another Country was wonderful, but Lacan: In Spite of Everything fell short in spite of my charity, though it was still enjoyable.

Last week, I feel I wrote enough about Another Country to give anyone reading this blog a taste of what it has to offer. I selected it because it’s on The Great American Read. (Many of my fiction selections come from that list.) James Baldwin is immensely talented and something about the way he writes motivated me to seek creative outlets. I’ve mulled over diving into the plot or discussing themes, but I’ll just say this: Baldwin was ahead of his time. This is a book about different loves and pains that discard the masks of race and gender. Baldwin never offers facile claims about innate humanity or strength found in oppressive identities; he exposes the fluid nature of human hyle. Read my last blog post for a bit more about plot, characters, and so on through my own words and links to the words of others.

Now, I want to spend time talking about Élisabeth Roudinesco’s biography of famous French psychoanalyst and philosopher Jacques Lacan.

Maybe I need to take a step back and provide some background. In the history of western philosophy there was a major schism in the early twentieth-century between Anglophone academies and European academies on the continent. The Englishmen granted themselves the descriptor “analytic philosophers” and snubbed those across the pond as “Continental philosophers.” This is a stupid of categorizing thought. Who would take automobiles and divide them between “Made in Japan” and “Electric.” The answer is, "No one worth their snot." The divide remains to this day, but spans less hostile territory.

What’s the difference? Why this divide? The analytic boys thought they were more scientific. They focussed on language, moving from the idea that almost all confusion originates from imprecise human language. Thus formal logic was born, along with philosophies of science and language. In contrast, those wily Continentals were getting their kicks from phenomenology, psychoanalysis, and Marxism. One of my professors characterizes some analytic philosophers as emulating machines churning out logically perfect statements, while Continental philosophers general have questions about meaning, community, and politics. One group thinks about existential operators, the other thinks about existence.

Of course, language and politics are linked; trying to invent the perfect language is a fool’s errand; translating statements from natural language into logical language requires interpretation of meaning; and, most importantly, people lumped into these two schools do not always share positions. The division is unhelpful and inaccurate. (There’s obviously more to the history of western philosophy in the twentieth-century than what I’ve provided here. Please go and read and research for yourself!)

But it hasn’t stopped usually intelligent people from being tripped. Noam Chomsky is famous for being intelligent, erudite, and perceptive. He’s also infamously dismissive of Continental philosophers for not being “scholarly” enough, which is an odd accusation given the bulk of scholarship around such thinkers. In most cases he’s wrong to be so dismissive. Yet, there is one person who Chomsky may be right about.

This, finally, brings us to Jacques Lacan. Chomsky called Lacan a self-aware charlatan. Lacan has constantly haunted me after I came across repeated references to him and his ideas. But unless you speak French, it’s hard to get anywhere with Lacan. He was famous for giving annual seminars that expounded a new philosophical approach to psychoanalysis. The full transcripts of his seminars are available in French, but his son-in-law has allowed very few to be translated into English. We do have condensed versions of some of his seminars in a volume called Écrits, but these are difficult to follow because they were not meant to be delivered in this fashion. On top of this, Lacan loved neologisms and word-games, sliding back and forth amongst different terms for the same-ish thing.

Out of context, out of my native tongue, and out of my normal field of vision, Lacan presents a challenge to me. I want to know if he is a charlatan, a philosopher, or a prankster, and whether these things are mutually exclusive. This is why I read Lacan: In Spite of Everything. However, I soon found out that Roudinesco’s more systematic biographies, interpretations, and reports are mostly in French. She designed this little volume to hop around major themes and provide granules of claims about how Lacan should be read by people who are already familiar with Lacanian theory. This means that this book was not written for someone like me in mind, and it means I’m not much farther on my quest.

However, this brief biography done in hopscotch-time did confirm some ideas I already had about Lacan. I’ll share one: Lacan reads Sigmund Freud well. He inaugurated a “return to Freud” in the psychoanalytic community which had drifted from many of Freud’s original ideas. This occurred because many of Freud’s later ideas were locked into a biological determinism that does not map onto reality well. For example, the later theory of penis envy is laughably easy to undermine and reject. One could just as easily switch the word "penis" for "womb" and the evidence would be just as strong, thus undermining Freud's (again, late) theory about female sexual development. Lacan’s radical thesis proposed going back to Freud’s early work and modifying these early theories in view of mid-twentieth-century linguistics. Many people criticize Freud, but I’ve found very few who have read Freud themselves. Canned criticisms are not adequate substitutes for reading and thinking for yourself. Lacan just didn’t read Freud though, he made Freud’s ideas into something new and versatile with his interpretation. Thus, I also believe Lacan’s approach might also suggest something about interpretation and how a thinking, speaking subject should encounter texts from the past. This means he is not merely a charlatan because he did inject some much needed philosophical thinking into psychoanalysis (and by extension the whole of psychology, even if his impact is severely diluted in the Anglophonic world.)

I am still juggling four hypotheses about Lacan:

  • Hypothesis 1-Charlatanism: Lacan is a charlatan who relied on obscurantism and word-games to appear as if he had some secret knowledge. Epigones have subsequently mimicked this charlatanism, consciously or not. Already I’ve pointed to one instance where Lacan did something beyond charlatanism. While I can’t speak for disciples, wannabes, and parrots, it seems Lacan is not just a charlatan.

  • Hypothesis 2-Poor Communicator: Lacan is a psychoanalyst who might have introduced philosophical thinking into psychology, but was ultimately was not adept communicating his ideas. Yet, not everything Lacan wrote is inscrutable, and again, he meant to deliver his thought orally, so judging him solely on his translated writings would be hasty.

  • Hypothesis 3-Bonafide Philosopher: Lacan is a bonafide philosopher, but his neologisms and word-games are akin to pranks played with ideas and truths. This seems like a reasonable position give that I’ve found a few things that are worthwhile in his thought. Yet, I’m still incapable of providing many concrete, specific claims about Lacan’s ideas. I’m not going to consider him a “bonafide philosopher” until I can move beyond buzzwords and jargon.

  • Hypothesis 4-Philosopher-prankster: Lacan is a philosopher-prankster, because his goal is to demonstrate the futility of advancing universal, static truths. By playing with language and human psychology, Lacan attempts to illustrate the ultimate contingency of every abstract thing produced by humans. In other words, Lacan purposefully contradicted himself and introduced paradoxes to make a “meta-philosophical” point about truth. This would suppose a certain understanding of philosophy that I do not hold though.

None of these hypotheses were supplemented or changed by my reading these past two weeks, but at least I’m making an effort. At the very least, it’s nice to have questions; it assures that I have some protection against what I call “indoctrination by jargon” by certain dull-minded academics.

This coming week I’m reading Abahn Sabana David by Marguerite Duras. I’m also taking up a multi-week project by reading Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre. Existentialism has been on my mind for the past year. I took an amazing course on the philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir and my undergraduate thesis required a thorough historical understanding of existentialism. To date I have only read Existentialism is a Humanism by Sartre. I need to more faithfully devote time to understanding existentialism, so I’m reading the big one. Most of my time has been spent on understanding postmodern philosophy (a stupid term to describe a range of very different thinkers), which diverged from/grew out of existentialism. Through my thesis work I’ve come to question whether the later generation of philosophers did justice to existentialism or if they dismissed it wrongfully. This is an 800 page book, so I’ve broken it up into weekly reading chunks. Sorry, but not sorry.