Translated by Julien Marzouk
The three trips
Jacques Lacan traveled to the United States three times: the first time in February 1966, then in October/November of the same year and the third time in November/December 1975. These trips frame the most incredibly creative period in the work of Doctor Lacan, which began with the publishing of Écrits in 1966 and ended with Seminar 23, Joyce and the sinthome, in 1975. During this time, the United States, just as Europe, changed considerably.
The first trip lasts three weeks and leads Lacan to speak in six universities: first in New York at Columbia University, then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT], at Harvard University in Boston, at the University of Detroit, at the Dan Harbour University in Chicago and at the University of Chicago. This trip is organized by Roman Jakobson and the lectures given by Lacan deal with demand and desire. In his argument, he puts together the unconscious content of demand and the splitting  of the subject. Following this USA run, Lacan stays a week on the American continent to visit Mexico.
He takes the floor in October of the same year in Baltimore, at the symposium, “The Languages of Criticism and Sciences of Man” (Johns Hopkins University).
The third trip, the one of 1975, also involves an intense work plan: Lacan is invited to four universities. He gives two lectures at Yale in New Haven: one for the Kanzer Seminar, the other at the Law school, on the 24th and 25th of November. He then goes to New York at Columbia University’s invitation; he speaks in the auditorium of the School of International Affairs (December 1st), and then gives a lecture at MIT in Boston (December 2nd).
To this day, no transcript of the conferences of this first trip is available. Lacan’s lecture in Baltimore was edited and published in English. Lacan himself, however, told the story of these trips on the March 23rd, 1966, in his Seminar.
As regards the conferences and conversations of the third trip, they were published in Scilicet n° 6/7, under the title: “Lacan’s Conferences and Conversations at North American Universities.” These texts are preceded by a disclaimer which informs that they were written with hindsight, based on notes, stenotypes and recordings, given that for every lecture Lacan only had frameworks from which he improvised. They constitute a precious and living contribution of Lacan and his way of addressing this non familiar audience.
What strikes one when reading this conference again, is the extreme delicacy with which Lacan addresses his audience. However, he points out that he does not wish to position his listeners in a safe place and that he will use both French and English for that purpose. This fact is surely something to be noted here as an enunciating position his analysands have always attested to.
Another shift introduced by Lacan: he reminds that he is addressing and has always addressed psychoanalysts. This point is particularly important as he speaks before an academic panel—mostly linguists and philosophers—and yet he puts them in an unsafe place: no “of course,” no dialogue (in French, “Pas De Dialogue”)—PDD, as Jacques-Alain Miller framed it a few years ago.
This is the juncture where the subject of the unconscious is located and Lacan wishes to give an idea of it to his listeners: “But the unconscious has nothing to do with the instinct or some archaic knowledge, nor with thoughts that would be prepared underground. It’s a thought with words, a thought that gets away from your vigilance, from your active monitoring state. […] It is as if a demon played with your vigilance.”
At the same time, his lecture is very simple, thorough, and in this sense probably very far from the idea his audience may have had on this obscure and incomprehensible French theoretician, possibly dogmatic and held back by his own knowledge. He addresses each person as a potential analysand, while still constraining himself to find new words to translate concepts that were elsewhere expressed in a more formal way, and all this, without loss. Reading this text, one grasps why Lacan could qualify his teaching position as one of an analysand. One can also get a grasp on how fundamental the way of addressing is for an analyst: to trigger something in the Other that will not make knowledge an occasion for closing oneself to the unconscious. This is how, for example, this apparent digression that Lacan introduces in his own speech and which was noted several times, is supposed to be received: “The best image that summarizes what is the unconscious is Baltimore in early morning.” From the idea that the contemporary city is like a living organism, like a pulsating brain, that can be switched on and off, that lives through thousands of thoughts, which have already been concretized into objects, he gets the meaning of a psychoanalytical discourse’s own position on intellectual matters across, which will provoke fierce struggles: “For a long time, thinkers, researchers, and even inventors who were interested in the question of the mind, have put forward the idea of unity as the most important feature, the most characteristic of the structure. […] The adult organism works as a unity. The question becomes more difficult when this idea of unity is being applied to the mind, because the mind is not a unity in itself.”
The USA: what struck Lacan
In March 1966, Lacan found it necessary to narrate his trips to the USA in his Seminar. He is concerned with the confusion that the philosopher Paul Ricoeur—who follows his teachings—spreads between psychoanalysis and some kind of hermeneutics improperly derived from the Lacanian concepts. What struck Lacan and what he develops at length goes against the generally accepted idea that America, and especially the USA of 1965, is a forward-looking country. On the contrary: “To me, it seemed like meeting a past time, he said, an absolute past, dense, a past that you could cut with a knife, a pure past, a past all the more essential as it never existed, neither at the place where it’s currently installed, nor at the one where it’s supposed to come from, which is from around here.”
However, the judgement—despite the tribute paid to his hosts and listeners and a part from the exceptional place given to New York’s own culture—is both severe and somber. He points out that the inertia here is not of the order of repetition: “it’s a past with no underlying repetition whatsoever. It may be this peculiar, striking, impressive aspect, […] that gave me […] the feeling […] of the mass of dough, absolutely impossible to mold.” This sentence suggests that Lacan had spotted a lack on the symbolic level that is peculiar to the American society. He praises, however, several academic works which he got his hands on. Despite that, the conclusion he draws is pessimistic: “One will not arrive at anything like a reversal of the current, at a reflux, […] at anything at all that may resemble a fundamental change,” even though it is counterbalanced by the idea that “everything is left to be done” and that it could be something in the form of a publication. Lacan conceives it as a challenge to be taken up and, as often, in a paradoxical way: since it is impossible, everything is left to be done!
Third trip: Lacan is deeply absorbed by the Borromean knot theory and by the preparation of the part on Joyce in his Seminar, the first lesson of which he will give on November 18th, 1975. Accompanied by psychoanalyst Thérère Parisot, representing l’Ecole Freudienne de Paris [EFP], Lacan carries out an astonishing activity. One of his Cicerones, academic Paul B. Newman, who has an acute awareness of the exceptional character he is dealing with, highlights this in a beautiful narrative. Being unable to develop these accounts here, we refer to this precious document.
The “Conferences and Conversations…” bring Lacan face to face with very different interlocutors: from simple students to leading experts of American thought—logician Quine, linguist Chomsky. Linguist Jakobson also attends the conference. Lacan tries to give them a hint of the use of the borromean knot theory and overall, to have them get a grasp on what is the real in psychoanalytic theory. Some precious points can also be found in those conferences on what Lacan means by sinthome together with an unusual stress on the body dimension. From time to time, a few misunderstandings arise; Chomsky would have been offended when Lacan asserts that “he thinks with his feet.” This assertion would not surprise anyone who read in TélévisionLacan’s considerations on the body and the thought.Unfortunately, this exchange was not recorded.
These conferences and conversations as a whole enlighten us on the “last Lacan” with a relaxed yet very dense style, where he seems much more at ease than in his Seminar, which had become at that time, corseted due to a numerous and deferential audience, of which he often complained. Should this jibe that he would have said—“America mops me up”—according to Paul B. Newman, be considered the alpha and omega of this trip? What is rather striking is the uncommon vivacity and stamina of this seventy-four year old man who turns out to be once again, first and foremost a man of desire: gay sçavoir.
The above appeared in French in Lacan Quotidien
Reported by Lacan in his Seminar, the 23rd of March, 1966: cf. The Seminar, book XIII, “The object of psychoanalysis,” 1965-1966, unreleased.
In english in the original text.
Ibid. : “The so-called suspension of the non contradiction principle at the level of the unconscious, is simply this fundamental splitting of the subject.”
Cf. Lacan J., “Of Structure as the Inmixing of an Otherness Prerequisite to Any Subject Whatever,” in The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man. The Structuralist Controversy, s/dir. R. Macksey & E. Donato, Baltimore / London, Johns Hopkins, 1970.
Lacan J., Communication and discussion at the international Symposium of the Johns Hopkins center in Baltimore, 21st of October, 1966, unreleased, translated by the author of this article.
Lacan J., The Seminar, book XIII, “The object of psychoanalysis,” 1965-1966, session of the 23rd of March, 1966, unreleased.
Newman P. B., “Lacan in America,” Ornicar?, n°7, June-July 1976, p. 103-108.
The editorial format of this text does not make it possible to go over the content of these works. One could especially read the article of Anne Lysy: “Unconscious and Interpretation,” in Hurly Burly, n°1, p. 57-75.
Lacan J., “Conferences and Conversations at North American Universities. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 2nd of December 1975,” Scilicet, n° 6/7, 1976, p. 60.
Cf. Lacan J., “Television,” Autres écrits, Paris, Seuil, 2001, p. 512: “The man does not think with his soul, as the Philosopher imagines it. He thinks from how a structure, that of language […] cuts up his body, and, which has nothing to do with anatomy.”
Reported by Newman P.B., “Lacan in America,” in Ornicar?, n°7, p. 103.