The Seminar of Jacques Lacan
Bruce Fink

Author’s Bio

The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, W.W. Norton & Co. and Cambridge University Press, 1988. Book l: Freud’s Papers on Technique (1953- 1954), ed, J.-A. Miller, trans, John Forrester, and Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and the Technique of Psychoanalysis 11954-19551, ed. J.-A. Miller, trans, Sylvana Tomaselli.

There’s no two ways about it: Lacan’s early seminars are a damn sight easier to read than his Écrits and later seminars and writings. The appearance of his first two seminars in English marks a milestone in publishing history: English translators of his work have thus far preferred to present his later, more impenetrable texts, for which few English readers could in fact be truly prepared. Lacan’s early and most accessible work is finally becoming available to the whole English-reading public, and Norton and Cambridge seem committed to bringing out other seminars little by little. These eminently readable translations offer a manageable way into Lacan’s opus for beginners, and a firmer grasp on the history and foundations of Lacan’s theory and practice for readers already familiar with the Écrits, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, and/or the texts collected in Feminine Sexuality.

But there’s still a hitch. As the seminars come out in book form, readers are inclined to think of them as finished products, expecting them to lay out theses, justify and develop them in the course of the various chapters, and wind it all up at the end in a conclusion. But here we must heed the old adage: “don’t judge a book by its cover.” The first seminar that appeared in English, Seminar XI, has somewhat more of that kind of coherence readers expect of a Book, which is not surprising as it was specifically designed to provide Lacan’s view, albeit still developing, of certain fundamental psychoanalytic concepts. It does not fall into a sort of “Best of Jacques Lacan” category, in no sense constituting a summary of his work up until then, but it is rather more structured than many of his other seminars, earlier and later.

Seminars I and II give the reader a real sense of the work in progress that took place in the early years of Lacan’s seminar, as well as of Lacan’s modus operandi right up into the 1970’s. In the early years, a number of analysts and philosophers actively contributed (either willingly or with a bit of arm-twisting) to the exploration of the subjects taken up each week, struggling with the German of Freud’s as yet untranslated texts, and attempting to pin down some of his most allusive concepts in theoretical and clinical contexts. As for Lacan, we see him proceeding on the basis of an impressive knowledge of psychiatry, animal ethology, phenomenology, and German, using a distinctly Hegelian perspective to understand Freud’s writings. In his usual seminar style, he begins with a theme and a handful of articles or books, not really knowing where he will end up nor how he will get there, but systematically extending his tried and tested (though still evolving) categories of the real, symbolic, and imaginary as well as his then current notions of “desire” and the “other” to invent little by little new categories, determine the meanings of certain of Freud’s terms, and construct models helping one conceive of the relations between different terms. Lacan is often no more than one or two steps ahead of the other seminar participants in his thinking about certain questions, but this does not stop him from creating an element of surprise with his interpretations of schemas and obscure passages./span>

The reader looking for a clear and concise summary of the essentials of psychoanalytic technique in these first two seminars is bound to be disappointed. Certain crucial theoretical and clinical notions are, nevertheless, quite straightforwardly developed, and can be laid out without too much difficulty:

Many of the biggest blunders in the history of analysis have arisen because analysts allow themselves to slip into relationships of rivalry with or think of themselves as on the same plane as their patients; in such cases, analysis gets bogged down in a sort of struggle for the upper hand. Lacan situates this mis-positioning of the analyst in the imaginary register, suggesting that his or her true role is to intervene in the symbolic register, steering clear of such specular, ego vs. alter-ego, competition. Countertransferential feelings—made so much of by those who promote the “analysis of the defenses”—are precisely those the analyst indulges in or suffers because he identifies with and/or sees himself as his patient’s rival. Such feelings should, according to Lacan, be set aside by the analyst and play no role in the interpretations he proffers.

“Countertransference is nothing other than the function of the analyst’s ego, what I have called the sum total of the analyst’s prejudices.”

“If the only analyzing subject, the analyst, has felt some jealousy, it is up to him to take it into account in an appropriate manner, to be guided by it as by an extra needle on the dial. No one has ever said that the analyst should never have feelings towards his patient. But he must know not only not to give in to them, and that he is to keep them in their place, but also how to make adequate use of them in his technique.”

What is usually termed “interpretation of resistances” often involves those very “countertransferential” feelings. Lacan situates resistance on the imaginary axis, and explains it in terms of his then operative distinction between empty speech—speech as simple mediation—and full speech: speech as revelation. Resistance amounts to a breakdown in the full speech the analyst attempts to elicit from the analysand, and “is produced at the moment when the speech of revelation is not said.” The analysand sinks his claws into the analyst “because what is pressing towards speech cannot attain it. [. . .] If speech then functions as mediation, it is on account of its revelation not having been accomplished.” Not being able to attain the full symbolic role Lacan assigns it, speech “reverts” to the imaginary role of pure mediation between the ego and its other. Transference, defined as a symbolic function whose motor force is full speech, degenerates into the imaginary bog of countertransferential standoffs.

Despite the importance of the imaginary in the animal kingdom, in particular in sexual development and mating rituals, Lacan takes the primacy of the symbolic in man so far as to show how his imaginary is itself structured by the symbolic—thus the essential difference between man and animal. Lacan distinguishes between the ego-ideal and the ideal-ego, two often confounded concepts in Freud’s work, the former operative on the symbolic level alone; this distinction is taken up again in Seminar VIII on transference where one finds an extension/rereading of the mirror stage on the basis of the ego-ideal.

Lacan parts ways from the outset with certain Anglo-American trends in psychoanalysis by stressing that history is not the past: it is not so much remembering that goes on in analysis, but reconstruction. According to Lacan, Freud more regularly emphasizes “the aspect of reconstruction than that of reliving, in the sense we have grown used to calling affective. The precise reliving—that the subject remembers something as truly belonging to him, as having truly been lived through, with which he communicates, and which he adopts—we have the most explicit indication in Freud’s writings that that is not what is essential. What is essential is reconstruction, the term he employs right up until the end. [I]t is less a matter of remembering than of rewriting history.”

This leads Lacan to formulate that while the unconscious is ideally inaccessible, it is realized in the symbolic; more precisely, “it is something which, thanks to the symbolic progress which takes place in analysis, will have been.” At some point in the future, its past configuration will be determined; it is always caught up in a future perfect. As for the symptom, its meaning will also be realized (not “discovered” as the translator would have us believe). Meaning is not there from the outset, but constructed during the analytic process.

The ego is asserted to be an imaginary function, to come into being simultaneously with the advent of the object, and to be itself an object for the subject in question. Lacan’s investigations and remarks in these seminars take us to the brink of what may be “beyond” the ego:

“Why does the subject alienate himself all the more the more he affirms himself as ego? We thus come back to last session’s question—who, then, is it who, beyond the ego, seeks recognition?”

Who indeed but the Lacanian subject?! And it is above all in the second seminar that Lacan begins to seriously address the above question.

Book II, aside from continuing the work on the imaginary and symbolic begun in Book I, affords the reader a glimpse into Lacan’s “purloined letter” workshop, showing his essay on Poe to have arisen, not like Athena from Zeus’s head, all in one piece, but rather gradually. The odds or evens game drawn from Poe’s story is transformed in a relatively straightforward way into a plus and minus chain, a numeric matrix, and then into an alphabetic matrix with characteristics surprisingly akin to those found in “natural languages.” The groundwork for Lacan’s theses concerning the autonomy of the signifying chain, the nonsensical nature of unconscious contents, and the symbolic character of repetition is laid here, Lacan pushing back ever further the frontiers of structure—to such an extent that one wonders whether Lacan leaves any room for subjectivity.

His “purely structural” subject, determined by a particular combinatory of signifiers, corresponds to what Lacan later (in “Science and Truth,” Écrits, 1966) calls the “non-saturated subject”: a purely positional subject appropriate to game theory. Lacan’s own “saturated” subject—saturated by object a—is something of a later development, but object a’s own “logical deduction” from the simple rules generating the alphabetic combinatory, carried out in the 1966 postface to the “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,’” is based on principles already laid out here in Book II.

Though not much time is devoted in Books I and II to truth and being as existing in speech alone, love vs. imaginary fascination, desire as the other’s desire, and transference, Lacan does provide some very thought-provoking glosses on them. They are all developed at great length elsewhere in his work, and are discussed year after year in his seminars.

Having praised the seminars as well as the translation let me now make a few more pointed remarks about the latter. Like other translators of Lacan’s texts, the translators (especially Forrester) show a certain penchant for Gallicisms, but in general they should be commended for a flowing, conversational (at times markedly British) style rather suited to the spoken style of the Séminaire. Certain expressions and grammatical forms have, however, slipped through the translators’ “filter,” and have been imported into the text without prior acclimatization: expressions like “at the limit” (à la limits: if pushed, in a pinch, or at a squeeze), “special” (spécial: peculiar, unusual, or odd), “adequation” and “inadequation” (adéquation: correspondence; inadéquation: non-correspondence or lack of correspondence), “represent to yourself” (se représenter: imagine or conceptualize) have succumbed to the path of least resistance— posing but a slight obstacle to the reader familiar with French, but a more sizable one to the uninitiated. This is compounded by unwillingness on the translators’ part to transform French punctuation into more typically English punctuation. The French quite blithely string together terms, placing commas between them, which are sometimes all there to explain one and the same word or idea, while at other times they constitute something more on the lines of a laundry list: e.g. “socks, towels, and underwear.” Whereas in French, one can make it clear that one is translating the German term Bejahung by “affirmation” in saying Mr. Hyppolite nous a montré la différence de niveaux de la Bejahung, de l’affirmation, et de la négativité, comprehensible English grammar requires us to say that Mr. Hyppolite “has shown us the difference in level between Bejahung—that is, affirmation—and negativity”; otherwise we are left wondering how Lacan suddenly jumped to a three-tiered structure involving (1) Bejahung, (2) affirmation, and (3) negativity. Translation of punctuation is as necessary as that of words and expressions themselves: when it is clear in the original, it seems to me that it should also be clear in the translation. Fortunately such confusions do not arise all that frequently. My suggestion is that, when confronted with ambiguous punctuation, readers who are familiar with French go back to the original to sort things out. Translating Lacan is generally a thankless task, in any case, and while Forrester and Tomaselli’s translations are overall quite laudable, readers who wish to closely study any particular concept will sooner or later be led astray by a slight inaccuracy or a failure to consistently translate an important term (i.e., a term the reader deems important) with the corresponding term or circumlocution in English. For such readers, there is, unfortunately, no getting around the need to learn French.

What I personally find the most valuable in the publication of Seminars I and II is that they are a first step to getting the study of Lacan in this country on the right track. People are often attracted to Lacan’s writings because they are dense, obscure, and at times poetic—perfectly fine reasons to be attracted—but when they try to talk about them in much the same way, it just doesn’t go over; behind Lacan’s most poetic, polysemous and obfuscatingly enticing passage lies twenty or more years of careful, painstaking and yet brilliant textual analysis, studies of case histories, and clinical experience. When Lacan in the 1970s quickly dismisses a notion from ego-psychology with a sarcastic innuendo, it should be kept in mind that he read more articles by and learned more from ego- psychologists than perhaps any other psychoanalyst of his generation (despite encouraging all of those around him to do the same); his own advances grew directly out of his critique of theirs. The word play is fun in and of itself, but Lacan uses it at the same time to launch incisive critiques. Oddly enough, a sort of “second” forgetting of Freud is occurring, as everything Lacan ever said is adopted as gospel truth, drowning out his insistence on returning to the founder (this is regretfully just as true at times in France as in America). Lacan’s thought, like that of any other difficult thinker, is becoming associated with a small number of passe-partout buzzwords, stopgaps for the hard work involved in grasping the origin and evolution of major concepts as well as the complex interrelations amongst them. These two seminars, however, make it crystal clear that Lacan was a psychoanalyst grappling with the philosophical and psychological baggage of his time, attempting to forge a theory that would account for clinical experience, while avoiding the reification inherent in ego-psychology and a predominantly Cartesian metaphysical tradition. His work is incomprehensible when divorced from the context in which it evolved, and the virulence of his attacks on certain notions can only be understood when one realizes that he is criticizing views he himself formerly held!

Art: Rosemarie Trockel, RAF (recycled Arnulf Rainer), mixed media, 2004.

literature and psychology, vol. XXXVI, 4, 1990.