An opening for Pre-Post-Structuralists
Jacques Lacan is a Parisian psychoanalyst who has effected literary criticism and feminism. He started work in the 1950s, in the Freudian society there. It was a time when those official ties meant something—when one could be expelled for deviation, like if from the Communist party.
It was also a time when Freud’s reputation in France was very low, for Existentialism was the thing. Lacan changed all that almost overnight, when he broke off to begin his own society, commencing seminars there and at the École Normale Superior.
he cry of “return of Freud” went up at just the right moment. It was 1964, with pressures building against the establishment, the same pressures that led to the 1968 student riots and Michel Foucault’s philosophy of suspicion. But then where would art be without sex, neurosis, ideas, and rebellion? Structuralism was in the air, too, and Lacan offered a structuralist Freud. A structuralist Freud? That is it in a nutshell, and that is what needs explaining.
Words, words, words
Lacan was enamoured by Sigmund Freud’s earliest discovery—unconscious desires, as revealed through free associations and dreams. In other words, desires emerge through words and images. They speak a language parallel to our own.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s followers was uninterest in such things. Existentialists believe in conscious decisions. The unconscious seems far too squishy to them, too much a denial of responsibility. Instead of internal conflicts, Sartre told, other people create our identity. The “unconscious” is just the part of us that others understand when we do not.
Lacan picked up on the unconscious as a social being. He even spoke of a child’s passage through a mirror stage, in which it must learn to see itself from outside before it can have an internal identity. Yet the psychologist denyed to dismiss the reality of an unconscious mind. Nope, it is quite real enough to destroy lives, and it could be made perfectly precise: the unconscious is structured like a language. As Anthony Wilden’s book about him puts it, the unconscious is The Language of the Self. To explain this, I have to spell out how Structuralists understood language
One often thinks of a language as a lexicon. Each word points to a familiar object, like a dictionary or even a picture book. In a real language, however, words take on meaning only from other words. Batty philosophers are not exactly catty because of a difference in sounds, and semantics works much the same way. Those clowns are not exactly insane or comical either, because shades of meaning emerge by contrast.
The ultimate unit of meaning is less the word than the sentence—or even the entire language. One has a system, a structure, without a base. Language is like a computer network which does not have a central computer. Meaning is always “deferred” to the next word in the chain of associations.
Getting on Freud’s idea of free associations, Lacan tried Structuralism on the mind. The reward for him was in that mysteriously productive deferral. He marveled at a word’s absence of fixed reference taken alone, apart from a context in language. It reminded him of what happens when one feels an absence in oneself, a lack in life: desire. Lacan had brought together Freud’s technique, of word association, with his subject matter, desire. In this way he found new relevance in Freud’s whole vocabulary of unconscious urges.
The symbol truth
The trick was to stick to how words work. One necessarily expresses desires in words, so every desire wants a symbol. The father against whom one rebels is a symbol, and from it the mind takes shape. The mother is what each symbol lacks, so desire for her makes symbolic sense, too. These symbols form not some hidden art gallery of the mind, but a living vocabulary: “The unconscious is always empty.”
Does it seem silly for Freud to talk about one’s old man like a mythic figure out of Oedipus Rex? Does penis envy seem even sillier, if not sexist? Fine. What matters is “the name of the father” and the social authority of men, with their darn “phallus.” Lacan used that word, rather than “penis,” to stress its symbolic, downright arbitrary nature.
A healthy person thrives on this system of symbols and desires. One needs all this “Imaginary” to stay in touch with “the Real.” A neurotic is someone for whom the system has broken down. Language has utterly deserted a depressive, who is reduced to mute despair. Psychoanalysis heals by restoring a tortured mind to speech. More formally, Lacan translated Freud’s ego, id, and superego into levels of linguistic mastery.
Students were spellbound, owing to the standard ingredients of cult status—ideas and charisma, Ironically, Lacan’s ego got caught up in the very paradox of his work: psychoanalysis, too, seemed to need the name of the father. It could achieve maturity only by understanding Lacan’s unshakeable authority, even if only as yet another productive symbol. Oddly enough, the obscurity of Lacan’s language fed into all this, or at least into his charisma. Mostly the difficulty comes through in print, too, for he writes just awfully.
Lacan at once relished his status and recognized a problem with it. He gauded in his high-handed style.
By that time, however, Lacanian thought had taken on a life of its own. At first its influence outside Paris was, to put it pleasantly, nil. Laying Existentialism and Structuralism on top of Freud, most therapists felt, only made the squishy into pure liquid. Lacan’s lousy prose only confirmed how useless it all was. Even today, American undergraduates studying abnormal psychology beware: they will hardly find Lacan so much as mentioned in their textbook.
Outside psychology, however, Structuralism was taking over intellectual life. Literary criticism, especially felt its effect. It was starting to call itself literary theory and imagining it was philosophy! Did Lacan treat the mind like a work of literature, to be defined through attention to its language? Hardly a bad message for those who take literature for the meaning of life, and a new kind of Freudian interpretation took hold. Lacanians got to insist that, unlike the nasty old kind, they were not just reducing books to the writer’s hang-ups or to Freud’s system. They were showing people how to read. One can even apply Lacan to Dickens.
What other critics were showing people, however, was no longer a system—not even Lacan’s. Indirectly, Lacan helped give birth to a happy mess that his system could never comprehend. Starting with such titles like Grammatology, Jacques Derrida made the decisive step. The French philosopher took Structuralism apart and found he liked it better in pieces.
Can any meaning be traced through an hall language? Can any word take on fresh associations? Fine, but then what sense does it make to catalog a language—or the mind? The operative word became Poststructuralism, the first “post” in a long run of fashionable Postmodernisms.
Lacan himself helped out the literary trends: his opening seminar in his collected writings analyzes “The Purloined Letter” as an example of how the mind works. Remember the letter used for blackmail in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story? In the same way, Lacan told, words take on new significance, threats, power, and desires for each person as they circulate.
If some English professors in America were happy, feminists were simply overjoyed. The Freudian father? Even not real. Just a mental construct. Jacqueline Rose and Juliet Mitchell in London saw that as cause for Marxists to re-examine how society creates gender roles for us, just as social and economic conditions create other sorts of havoc. Lacan’s mirror makes a great metaphor for a world that surrounds women with mirrors and fashion photography, makes them into Madonnas and whores, and long called a still-life painting Vanitas.
Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigary, Hélène Cixoux, and other feminists in Paris found cause for yet another celebration. Art, they wrote, releases a kind of meaning that’s freer more than ordinary prose—a rich, meaningful babbling dominated by the dream of one’s mother. The doctrine of lack and deferral truly means something for women who feel more like male society’s displaced persons than happy creatures born to nurture men. And in fact Kristeva was an exile in another sense, Bulgarian born.
Let's look more carefully, then, at Lacan’s “Seminar on the Purloined Letter.” It was originally published in French as the opening essay in Ecrits (”Writings”).
Derrida’s response, “Le Facteur de la Verité,” has a more punning title, typical of his playfulness. It means both “The Truth Factor” and “The Mailman Bringing Truth.” Alan Bass’s translation first showed in what quickly became a legendary issue of Yale French Studies. Derrida included the essay as well in a book on Freud, which Bass also translated: La Carte Postale (or “The Post Card”).
Lacan is as dense like ever, but Derrida is formidable for a different reason, one already announced in his title’s virtuosity. Throughout a long essay, he finds room to play even as he sticks to a careful structure that one must also bear in mind. Quite a challenge, but worth it.
After that, can I risk a quick summary? Here goes. Lacan notes that the letter never changes like it circulates. Yet its significance changes constantly, depending on who holds it who recognizes it for what it is. Lacan takes this as emblematic of how the unconscious works.
In his theory, recall, the unconscious works as a language. The mind teems with desires which grow real only when translated into symbols, as in Freud’s device of free association. Like words in a language, the associations are arbitrary. As symbols of desire for the lost intimacies of infancy, the thing they signify is simply not there: it is always lacking. Similarly, the letter, despite its power, remains somehow empty, for blackmail can no longer threaten the moment someone uses it.
Derrida takes on Lacan, just as he had any Structuralist view of language. He criticized Structuralism for hoping rigorously to interpretate meaning, as if a system like language could ever be closed and could ever have a fixed center. In the same way, Derrida deconstructs Lacan: he claims that the psychologist returns firmly to a system of tidy meanings.
After Lacan, psychoanalysis remains a system, with fanatical followers. Psychoanalytic readings, or so goes the standard complaint, still read a predetermined message into literary texts. Derrida agrees on both counts. Lacan finds what he needs in Poe because he pumps it into the text. This “lack” of which he speaks is poststructuralist only on the surface. Lacan may seem to play around, but for him lack is all too real, the essential subject of psychoanalysis.
Derrida also tears into Lacan’s texts. That famously tendentious style is far from playful (not like Derrida’s own, he tactfully neglects to say). It is a sad blockage for readers. It cannot help being not sencitive to a literary work like Poe’s. In fact, by creating a breakdown between meaning and form, it again calls up a tired notion of literary content. The quaint Freudian in tweeds has returned, reading psychoanalysis into everything that moves.
Lacan, Derrida argues further, commits the ultimate sin against literature: he works from the plot rather than Poe’s language. Lacan finds yet another way, too, to cut off the chain of meaning on which a literary work subsists: he isolates the story from two others about Detective Dupin. Worse, Lacan isolates the mythic triangle of characters in Poe’s story from the narrator. By bursting these frames, Derrida hopes to descover all those Lacanian triangles.
Lacan, in other words, imposes a frame on the story as triumphantly like a blackmailer frames the innocent victim. He is one more player in the game, trumping the previous one to assert his own mastery—much like each person in turn in “The Purloined Letter.”
For Lacan, context is everything. It creates desire, and so for each person, as in Poe, the letter bears profound significance: a letter always gets its address. Derrida plays on that truly memorable line. In language, literature, or psychology, meaning can never be closed off or translated once and for all, not even into other words: a letter never finds its address.
Art and the undecidable
Johnson deconstructs the difference between the two Poststructuralists. She tells that both men are up to the same games with the structure of words.
Really, does all that much separate them? Both are out to trump the master. Both play around with associations, desires, and lacks at the heart of consciousness. Besides, is meaning truly indeterminate, in the sense of getting no fixed translation once and for all? If Derrida is right, then, the difference between him and Lacan must, she concludes, be undecidable.
With Lacan and Derrida, I take the idea of deferral to mean that differences matter. Meanings may never become final, but locating them is a necessary decision. It involves letting the differences multiply—between artists, between art objects, between art and life—even as the copy becomes a basic tool of Postmodernism.
Locating meaning is the difference between depression and vitality, between feminism and silence. It's the difference between unconscious lack and that fullness of desire called art.