On the Passage from the ‘Structuralist’ to the Later Lacan

In discussion with certain colleagues in recent times, I thought it useful to reflect on Lacan’s shift from a ’structuralist’ psychoanalysis rooted in linguistics (in the 1950s) to his ‘late’ work, which I figure to date from around the time of Seminars XVI and XVII. (Structuralism is in quotes here as Lacan, for his part, denied being a structuralist per se). To put it very schematically, there are several reasons why I believe Lacan moved away from the clinic of the 1950s, with its language derived from Saussure and Jakobson, to his later period. I present some of these reasons here, without claiming that the list is any way exhaustive:

  1. The linguistic period of Lacan’s work – that is, the period approximately from 1953 (‘The Function and Field of Language and Speech in Psychoanalysis) until Seminar VII created, in short, a clinic oriented around desire. The parallels between Lacan’s désir and Freud’s Wunsch allow the latter’s work – on symptoms, dreams, parapraxes, etc – to be re-read in terms of linguistics. What is repressed is symbolic, that is to say, linguistic, and it pertains to desire. The neurotic symptom (or dream, or parapraxis) thereby corresponds to a desire which has been omitted (repressed) from the signifying chain. It follows that the articulation of this desire in speech (and through the analyst’s interpretation) would result in therapeutic effects with respect to the symptom. In particular, the jouissance of the symptom, ought to diminish. Jouissance is a concept under-theorised by Lacan until Seminar VII, where the clinic of desire reaches its apotheosis. The signifier has a more or less inverse relation with jouissance of the symptom – the more you have of one, the less you have of the other. This inverse relation is mediated by law and desire which, for Lacan, are two sides of the same coin. By the 1960s, this position is no longer sustainable, at least, not in the form presented above. Jouissance of the symptom persists beyond and in spite of any interpretation and articulation. Lacan was nothing if not responsive to empirical facts. Hence, the principal aim of analysis is no longer a decoding or deciphering (of repressed desire), but a nomination and construction (with respect to jouissance).
  2. Not only is the signifier no longer in a relatively straightforward, inverse relation to jouissance, but the signifier itself is a bearer of jouissance. Signification derives from lalangue, a primordial babbling between the child and (m)Other, in which the former’s cries are assigned meaning by the latter. (See Seminar XX, for instance). Signifiers mark the body, and are, in the first instance, inseparable from the body, and hence, from bodily jouissance. This signifier in speech can never be wholly separable from its bodily accompaniment. This fact has long been known to poets – it explains why Osip Mandelstam can speak of one of Dante’s most moving passages, namely, that concerning Count Ugolino, as using ‘onomatopoeic infantile material’ , and why the rhythms of Celan’s poems can be measured by breath, rather than metre. (Indeed, an associate of mine recently remarked that poetry was a form of organised jouissance).
  3. A clinic oriented toward repressed desire necessarily presupposes neurosis. Yet the other clinical structures (in Lacanian psychoanalysis, perversion, and particularly, psychosis), are increasingly flourishing. This is acknowledged even by non-psychoanalysts (see, for instance, the rapid increase in diagnoses of bipolar, ‘borderline’ personality, autism, etc). Even to the extent that interpretation may diminish jouissance in neurosis, it by no means follows that this technique can be adapted wholesale for psychotics; who exhibit foreclosure rather than repression, but who nevertheless suffer from jouissance. To work with psychotic patients calls for a different paradigm.
  4. Closely related to this last point is the decline of Oedipal structures, a process well and truly in motion by the 1960s in Paris (and elsewhere). Paternal authority in a symbolic sense is the parental counterpart to repressed desire in the child, and it stands to reason that if one is to be lacking, then the other will follow suit. This may, in part, account for the proliferation of the psychoses in contemporary times. Some Lacanians (in my view) overemphasise this point. The Father is not dead, or even disappeared; Oedipal fathers (and Oedipal triangulation)  can still be found everywhere, in Australian society, at least. Nonetheless, at most, the authoritarian, Oedipal father is a norm, and probably a fragile one at that. A familial standard that was nearly universal in Freud’s context is contingent, and but one of many, in ours.
  5. Finally, the 1960s saw a sustained critique of psychoanalysis and structuralism by, inter alia, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, and numerous feminist theorists. Many of the most pertinent objections  – for example, the notion that psychoanalysis could be co-opted into authoritarianism or conformism – were anticipated by Lacan himself as early as Seminar I (see the invocation of the Zen master against didacticism, for instance). Lacan by no means addresses his interlocutors directly, but their influence can be traced all the same.  Derrida, for instance, showed in Of Grammatology that speech was, by itself, an inadequate guarantor of identity (and thus repetition). Repetition was therefore a central Lacanian concept (see Seminar XI) being called into question. Writing was necessary to provide stability to the signifier, and writing, in addition to speech, played an increasingly important role in Lacan’s later work. The four discourses serve, among other things, as a rejoinder to Foucault’s notion that psychoanalysis was the modern substitute for the Catholic confessional, and in our times, Big Pharma and directive ‘therapy’ perpetuate the Master’s Discourse far more than any version of psychoanalysis.

Derrida, J. (1967/1974). Of grammatology. (Trans. Chakravorty Spivak). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins.

Mandelstam, O. (1973). Selected poems. (Trans. Brown & Merin). New York: NYRB.

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One thought on “On the Passage from the ‘Structuralist’ to the Later Lacan

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