Sunday, June 7, 2015

Who Was Jacques Lacan?

Once upon a time I wrote a book about French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. In it I discussed my own experience as Lacan’s analysand and presented his theories alongside some aspects of his biography. It was well-reviewed and well-received in America.

Not so in France.

The powers-that-be in French Lacanian circles were horrified that I had broken protocol by mentioning, for example, that Lacan was a notorious womanizer. They were even more appalled by the fact that Lacan was being  introduced to his widest American audience by someone other than themselves.

They told their cult followers in France not to read the book and never to mention it. Like good lemmings their followers complied.

More recently I wrote another book about psychoanalysis. Entitled The Last Psychoanalyst it presented a history of psychoanalysis, from the first unanalyzed analyst, Sigmund Freud, to the last analyst, Jacques Lacan, the man who ended the pretense that psychoanalysis was a clinical practice.

I suggested that Lacan wanted to end psychoanalysis as a clinical practice and allow it to fulfill its destiny as a force for cultural revolution. Since I did not limit myself to theories but placed some emphasis on Lacan the man, Lacanian cult followers in this country were told not to read the book.

If you want to control minds, you must be able to control what people read and discuss. Moreover, it is always much easier to control an ignorant and uneducated mind.

Among the qualities that distinguish the Lacanian cult is this: the vast majority of the members of this cult have absolutely no understanding of the theory. This offers an advantage: if you do not understand something you cannot agree or disagree with it. Also you cannot prove or disprove it.

Last October, someone named Eugene Wolters wrote an article about Lacan the man on a site called Vice. One suspects that he is thinking of my most recent book, but he does not say so. If he doesn't mention my book, the reason can only be that he does not want to encourage people to read and to think for themselves.

Wolters willingly acknowledges that Lacan was less than a stellar human being. He says the same of Zizek and Heidegger. But then he goes on to say that we ought to ignore the behavior of these people and concentrate on their ideas.

It would have been helpful if Wolters understood the ideas, but that, alas, is too much to hope for.

In his opening paragraphs Wolters presents his anti-hero:

Jacques Lacan. The very name signifies fear in the hearts of graduate students who were once forced to wrangle with his notoriously difficult body of work. But for all his dense prose, the French philosopher is widely considered one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. His weekly seminar was a veritable event and saw France’s most prominent thinkers in attendance. He founded the Freudian School of Paris. Through his works, he's transformed the fields of psychology, literary theory, sociology and psychoanalysis.

But Lacan was also an asshole. He stole the work of colleagues, arrogantly intimidated undergrads and was accused by feminists of being a sadistic narcissist. He romanced the ex-wives of his friends. At least one reviewer referred to him as “The Shrink from Hell”. In the current climate of notable thinkers making pricks of themselves – like the misanthropic Slavoj Žižek, the sometimes-thinker and full-time asshole Richard Dawkins, or the probably-a-Nazi Martin Heidegger – Lacan’s is a name that doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.

If Wolters had really understood the thinking of any of this trio he would have known that they all believed in promoting a cult of amorality. They were not encouraging people to conform to social norms and to promote the virtues of capitalism and bourgeois conformity. Their behavior was perfectly consistent with their ideas.

For his cult followers Lacan was considered a god. He is more like the Left Bank version of L. Ron Hubbard. This does not make him one of the great thinkers of the twentieth century. He was too confused and too confusing to rise to that level.

Wolters is quite correct to say that Lacan was an arrogant, narcissistic asshole… and a thief. When he adds that Heidegger was probably a Nazi he simply shows his inability to accept the fact that Heidegger was definitively a member of the Nazi party in Germany, that he remained a member throughout World War II and that he refused to the end of his life to recant his adherence. If that does not make him a Nazi, nothing does.

Lacan’s bad behavior is well known now, thanks to Elisabeth Roudinesco.

Wolters writes:

After poring through her archives of Lacan’s letters, Roudinesco discovered that Lacan would often write to friends to either borrow or purchase books that were rare and collectible. When asked to return them, they were often “lost”, and in the case of purchasing them he rarely shelled out the full agreed-to amount.

Of course, Lacan had no interest in fostering open and honest discussion and debate. He was as much an enemy of the marketplace of ideas as he was of free enterprise.

Wolters explains one incident:

One of Lacan's students happened to be Felix Guattari, who, with French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, would eventually become famous for being one of Lacan’s greatest critics. Guattari was originally part of the Lacanian cult, a star student who paid for the privilege of driving Lacan home after his seminar. It was, Lacan argued, a part of the psychoanalysis.

However, when Guattari met with Lacan for dinner and explained his forthcoming book, Anti-Oedipus (a lengthy screed against Freudian and Lacanian thinking), Lacan broke off all contact with Guattari, and started spreading rumours to his friends to ruin his former disciple's career. (He also banned his students from discussing Guattari's book, as a biography of the duo notes.)

As for the claim that Lacan was one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century, Wolters provides us with evidence that discredits it:

Way back in 1995, Noam Chomsky, who had met Lacan several times, described him as an “amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan”. Three years later, the physicist and strident critic of postmodernism Alan Sokal referred to Lacan's work as “gibberish”, a viewpoint Richard Dawkins backed up, deriding the Frenchman as a “fake” for “equating the erectile organ to the square root of minus one”. 

Since Lacan claimed to be a theorist of language and linguistics, the fact that Noam Chomsky—not a man of the extreme right, by the way—considered him to be a charlatan argues against the notion that Lacan was a great thinker.

Calling someone a charlatan does not merely suggest that he was wrong. It means that his work is not worth considering.

I would add that a philosopher-logician I once met in Sao Paolo, Brazil harangued me and a Lacanian friend for nearly a half-hour about the fact that Lacan did not know anything about logic. Lacan’s four discourses, he noted, were junk thought.

Since Lacan claimed to have rendered Freudian theory in the terms of formal logic, the denunciation, from an authority in the field, also discredits the claim that Lacan was a great thinker.

Obviously, Wolters feels some need to present some of Lacan’s great ideas. If you detach the man from the idea, you would do well to show how well you understand the ideas.

In his words:

Arguably the most important of Lacan's theories is his theory of desire. For Lacan, desire doesn't merely refer to our needs and wants. Rather, desire is something that can never be sated. Desire arises from an existential lack, a gaping hole that can never be filled. According to Lacan, it’s actually the constant thwarting of our desire that drives our pleasure. Phrases like “You want what you can’t get” and “the grass is always greener on the other side” hint at this logic. Desiring something – a lover, a gadget, an event – is always more tantalising than actually fulfilling a want. Slavoj Žižek, the voluble and much-discussed Slovenian writer and modern philosopher, elegantly uses the Lacanian language of desire to describe why Coke is the perfect commodity.

Apparently, Wolters does not know the story of Tantalus, for whom desire can effectively never be sated. Lacan’s theory is not that “desire is something that can never be sated” but that desire can never be fully sated.”

Even as poor a writer and fuzzy thinker as Wolters should have been able to grasp the difference. The real problem with hitching one’s mind to Lacan, Zizek and Heidegger is that you run a severe risk of being unable to think straight.

Finally, Wolters dismisses all Lacan’s behavior because he was a thinker, not someone to emulate. The problem is, Lacan’s students certainly emulated him. It is impossible to absorb ideas that propose a new way of conducting your life without having an example before your very eyes.

Similarly, Martin Heidegger believed that his philosophy was perfectly consistent with the ideals of National Socialism. When he wrote cultural criticism Heidegger was directing himself at specific cultures. Surely, Heidegger is opposed to the inauthenticity of British culture, but he must also have opposed Jewish culture. Is it possible that he hated Jews but love Jewish culture?

Wolters, however, has a mind/body problem, so he insists that behavior does not count:

The idea that philosophers are shitty human beings has been all the rage these last few months. Whether it’s Martin Heidegger’s anti-Semitism or the fact that Žižek accidentally plagiarises the occasional white supremacist magazine. But all these arguments, whether for or against these academics, assume that we should either wholly endorse, or reject, certain thinkers. And it all assumes an uncritical, unthinking reader who must be told by someone else what is and isn’t “true” and who we can and can’t read.

One hates to be the bearer of bad tidings, but Lacan did not encourage his students to read his works critically. His followers do not want anyone to question anything that Lacan has ever said. For them his word his holy writ, or should it be, wholly writ. 

The leaders of today's international Lacanian cult--which I have called the Wholly Freudian Church--tell their adherents what to think, when to think it and with whom they can discuss it.

A couple of decades ago I met with an analyst from Buenos Aires. She wanted to invite me to come to her city to deliver some lectures about Lacan.

Hearing this invitation, I replied:

Can I say whatever I want?

She was taken aback and declared:

Absolutely, not. You can take issue with Freud if you like, but if you dare criticize Lacan you will be run out of town.

With regret I turned down the invitation.


Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

"... [Wolters] goes on to say that we ought to ignore the behavior of these people and concentrate on their ideas."

Ideas have consequences. I'm uncomfortable separating people from their ideas if they advocate them regardless of consequences or, at very least, do not acknowledge the consequences and seek to reconcile them. If you are an intellectual, and you do not publicly denounce those who do harm using your ideas, I would say you're the worst kind of intellectual -- perhaps evil, as there is no moral standard for your work. Heidegger seems to fit the profile. Perhaps Lacan, too, but I must claim I know little about him. If his work is as impenetrable as I've been advised, I have a large stack of other reading and will dedicate my time to those pursuits. That, and in my experience, writers who are not clear usually have something to hide... or are too lazy to edit. In either case, there is usually contempt for the reader, and a similar contempt becomes a sort of birthright for the author's acolytes who spit on the rest of the human rabble who "don't get it." Self-reverentially elitist and cut off from the humanity they claim to float above.

Creating a carte blanche exemption from consequence for the professed intellectual is dangerous. It's like someone yelling "Fire!" in a crowded movie theater and claiming he enjoys freedom of speech. With that kind of standard, people should also be given the liberty to beat the living piss out of him and leave him curbside. If there be no consequences for the yeller, there ought not be consequences for those aggrieved, shaken, injured or dead who seek vengeance for his actions. Some might say this is uncivilized, but civilization does not give people absolute right to do whatever the hell they want. Civilization is an order that brings order. It is the mind integrated with the body. It's not just theory (the mind) and not just physical impact (the body), it's both. Like "Caitlyn" Jenner, the mind that hates its body is deeply disturbed.

C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L'Engle depict evil as a body separated from the mind, and I find this accurate. It certainly seems to be that way with Heidegger. Do we separate Goebbels from his propaganda work? His certainly had intellectual components that animated a philosophy to enable mass murder. Does he get a free ride? A self--administered cyanide capsule decided that, but you get my drift. Once again, a mind separated from the body.

Stuart, your comments at the end about your invitation to speak on Lacan are instructive. If we want to evaluate ideas for their truth and utility, fine. That means we will be subject to defending those ideas. But sharing ideas while simultaneously demanding that no one contest them is dishonest. In fact, one could say such non-thinking is the foundation of mob psychology or mob rule. Philosophy is not religion or spirituality seeking to connect with the cosmological realm beyond and it's supernatural impact. If people are claiming the same protections of a man and his ideas, it is a cult. It is self-referential. It is one's mind separated from the body of humanity.

This is philosophy, and philosophy is subject to questioning, as it certainly begins with questions. If the efficacy of these ideas is left wanting, the ideas naturally expire. But if their efficacy (in terms of consequence) is their stamp on the world, and it is positive, what is the need to conceal? Certainly one who makes himself vulnerable posits that he has nothing to defend. Yet hiding from questions as a strategy to thrive is to encourage ignorance in others, which philosophy seeks to combat. One cannot have it both ways unless one is a cult leader, deliberately seeking to insulate himself from challenge, which is sounds like Lacan was. Hardly a hero. A hero faces the dragon, even if it is himself.

I have several colleagues who are quite enamored with Heidegger. Sad.

Ares Olympus said...

re: The leaders of today's international Lacanian cult--which I have called the Wholly Freudian Church--tell their adherents what to think, when to think it and with whom they can discuss it.

I also know nothing about Lacan outside of this blog. I am always curious about censorship, i.e. those who openly defend it. What is at risk?

Of course Stuart himself has many-a-time something on the order of "saying what one things and feels" as a socially destructive indulgence. So there must be some reason for promoting commonality before tearing things down, unless you only want to tear everything down, which perhaps what Lacan's followers deserve?

A while ago I came upon the history of Ben Franklin's "Janto club" and his interesting membership swearing in questions. Consider this was started when he was 22 years old, and a full 48 years before the revolutionary war.
The Junto was a club for mutual improvement established in 1727 by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia.

Any person to be qualified as a member was to stand up, lay his hand upon his chest, over his heart, and be asked the following questions, viz.

1.Have you any particular disrespect to any present members?
Answer. I have not.

2.Do you sincerely declare that you love mankind in general, of what profession or religion soever?
Answer. I do.

3.Do you think any person ought to be harmed in his body, name, or goods, for mere speculative opinions, or his external way of worship?
Answer. No.

4.Do you love truth for truth's sake, and will you endeavor impartially to find and receive it yourself, and communicate it to others?
Answer. Yes.

Might it be censorship to require these oaths from members? Was Franklin the first American "pluralist"? And freedom of speech, at least within the privacy of a self-selected group that won't use what you say against you outside the group.

I suppose there's an idea of "freedom of speech" within a certain context. So maybe giving a sermon at a church to tell the flock that their religion is false is a bad idea, and you'll get run out of town.

But if you offer to give a private speech among those willing to hear it, and follow with an open and honest reply to your charges within that private sphere, I'd hope any "progressive" religion would be very open to that, even if its not a real religion.