Study Guide

Jacques Lacan

Jacques Lacan Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The literary genre favored by Jacques Marie Émile Lacan (luh-kahn) was the academic lecture, into which he mixed the forms of psychoanalytic discourse, academic rhetoric, philosophy, literary criticism, and poetry. It was largely through the spoken word, both as psychoanalyst and teacher, that Lacan was able to revise radically the status of Sigmund Freud’s writings in French culture, in the discipline of psychoanalysis, and in the practice of literary criticism. Lacan was born in Paris, son of Alfred Lacan, a businessman, and Émilie Baudry. Lacan’s attendance at a Jesuit school for his primary education is blamed by some for the mysticism and obscurity of his later thought. Surrealism, which openly acknowledged its debt to Freud in emphasizing the unconscious sources of artistic production, interested Lacan more than religion; he associated with poets and painters such as Salvador Dalí during his student days, and among his earliest publications were contributions to the Surrealist journal Minotaure. Thus Lacan’s interest in psychiatry, for which he received a doctorate in 1932, seemed to grow out of an interest in artistic and cultural processes rather than an interest in medicine—although he did receive medical training. This conflict of priorities between medical and linguistic theories of the unconscious, always the subject of dissension between Lacan and other analysts, led him to form a secessionist French Psychoanalytic School in 1953.

In the same year, at the meeting of the International Psychoanalytic Society in Rome, Lacan directly confronted both the ego psychologists and the medical personnel with one of his most important lectures, The Language of the Self: The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis. Besides excoriating Lacan’s colleagues, this lecture brings together many of Lacan’s basic ideas: that psychoanalysis is based in the discourse of the patient—or more accurately, in the dialectic between analyst and patient—rather than in his physiology; that the ego is a symptom of rather than a source of strength for the patient; and that three basic orders form the human subject, the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real. Interestingly, the lecture ends with the same quotation from the Upanishads that the poet T. S. Eliot had used to close The Waste Land (1922): “Damyata, Datta, Dayadhvam” (“Submission, Gift, Grace”).

For three decades, Lacan lectured, worked, and trained analysts far from the public eye, at the Hôpital Sainte-Anne in Paris. Several events in the mid-1960’s suddenly made Lacan a household name. First, in 1964, the French Psychoanalytic School, in order to remain within the International Psychoanalytic Society, which was unhappy with Lacan, expelled its cofounder; Lacan responded by forming the École Freudienne de Paris and finding a new lecture hall at the École Normale Superieure, where he began to reach a much broader audience of students,...

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Jacques Lacan Bibliography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Althusser, Louis. “Freud and Lacan.” In Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays. Translated by Ben Brewster. 1971. Reprint. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001. A seminal Marxist literary theorist discusses Lacanian psychoanalysis and art.

Benvenuto, Bice, and Roger Kennedy. The Works of Jacques Lacan: An Introduction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. A straightforward, chronologically oriented discussion of Jacques Lacan’s key writings from his early years until his death.

Bowie, Malcolm. “Jacques Lacan.” In Structuralism and Since: From Lévi-Strauss to Derrida, edited by John Sturrock. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1979. This essay provides a brief introduction to Lacan’s thought and is a good place to begin reading about him.

Clark, Michael. Jacques Lacan: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1988. A good guide to the many Lacanian studies, which also contains biographical information and its own introduction to Lacan’s thought.

Evans, Dylan. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1996. A lucid explanation of many of Lacan’s technical terms, how he came to change them during his career, and some of his influences.

Feldstein, Richard, Bruce Fink, and Maire Jaanus,...

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Jacques Lacan Biography (Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Lacan was the single most important figure in the development of psychoanalysis in twentieth century France. His powerful rereading of Freud’s work and rethinking of Freud’s fundamental concepts made him a key figure in French intellectual life from the 1950’s until his death.

Early Life

Jacques Marie Émile Lacan was born on April 13, 1901, into an upper-middle-class Parisian family. His academic training focused first on medicine, then on psychiatry. He studied with the distinguished French psychiatrist Louis-Nicholas Clérambault, receiving his doctorate in 1932 with a thesis on the relationship of paranoia to personality structure. While still working as a psychiatrist, Lacan began studying psychoanalysis with the distinguished Freudian analyst Rudolf Loewenstein and in 1934 became a member of the Paris Psychoanalytic Society.

During the 1930’s, a complex set of influences helped form the mind of the young Lacan, laying the foundation for the mature work that would make him a luminary in the febrile Parisian atmosphere of the decades following World War II. In addition to his growing absorption in the thought and teaching of Sigmund Freud, Lacan associated closely with the Surrealist circle of artists and writers and contributed essays and poems to Surrealist publications. This Surrealist connection attests his lifelong fascination with language and its power to shape human life.

Lacan was also strongly influenced, as were many others of his generation, by the teaching of the Russian émigré thinker Alexandre Kojève. It was primarily through Kojève’s lectures between 1933 and 1939, at the École Normale Supérieure, on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel—with particular emphasis on the Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807; The Phenomenology of Spirit, 1872; also known as The Phenomenology of Mind, 1910)—that the work of the great German philosopher had a major impact on French thought. Thus, at the same time that Lacan was immersing himself in Freud’s theories, he was attending Kojève’s lectures emphasizing the Hegelian account of the problems for the development of human self-consciousness. This complex of Lacan’s interests in the 1930’s—psychiatry, Freud, Surrealism, Hegel—typifies what would always mark his work: a breathtaking catholicity of scope buttressed by remarkable erudition, reminiscent of Freud himself.

Lacan’s position as an important thinker within Freudian psychoanalysis was first established for an international audience in 1936, when he spoke at the Fourteenth Congress of the International Psychoanalytic Association. In this address, Lacan presented his theory of the mirror stage. He argued that the earliest development of the human ego (somewhere between six and eighteen months) occurred on the basis of the infant’s imagined relationship with its own body as first perceived in a mirror and with that of the significant others—typically the mother—in its life. Lacan’s conclusion was that the human ego is never a coherent entity, even from its very inception. This moment, 1936, at which Lacan chose to present his developing theory is significant, for it was at this time that Freud’s daughter Anna and others following her lead were beginning to argue for the coherence of the ego and to elaborate its varied mechanisms of defense and adaptation. Thus Lacan’s first step onto the international psychoanalytical stage veered toward a possible schism from the keepers of Freudian orthodoxy, thereby prefiguring the series of rifts and splits within the psychoanalytic movement that Lacan would repeatedly provoke later in his career.

Life’s Work

Lacan was a dominant intellectual presence in French cultural life for three decades, and his influence radiated far outward from its psychoanalytic base into disciplines such as philosophy, literary criticism, and linguistics and into broader, interdisciplinary fields such as feminism and some variants of Marxism. The extent of Lacan’s impact both within and beyond psychoanalysis highlights what he himself considered to be his primary purpose as analyst and writer: to revivify psychoanalysis by a radical return to Freud’s work and to do so by putting Freud’s thought in touch with the latest developments in contemporary thought. For Lacan, these two intentions were inextricable, and together they define the originality of his contribution to twentieth century thought and the breadth of his influence.

Lacan’s published work consisted primarily of essays, the most important of which were collected and published as Écrits: A Selection. Yet his most immediate impact on the French intellectual public came not from his writings but rather through the biweekly seminars (actually public lectures) that he conducted for more than three decades, very few of which appeared in print during his lifetime. Lacan’s verbal brilliance, personal flamboyance, and intellectual charisma fused in lectures that became veritable performances attended by important thinkers from many fields in French culture.

The impact Lacan had on French psychoanalysis was pervasive as well as divisive. No one escaped his influence, but that influence provoked repeated divisions and splits. In 1953, Lacan and several colleagues broke with the Paris Psychoanalytic Society, the official French branch of the International Psychoanalytic Association, and formed a new Société Française de Psychanalyse. Then in 1964, Lacan reformed his analytic society, calling it L’École Freudienne de Paris, only to dissolve it in 1980 to create a new organization he called La Cause Freudienne. These schismatic moves bear witness to Lacan’s growing worry that his teachings were becoming too institutionalized and thereby rigid and narrow, a fear similar to Freud’s earlier concern that the professionalization of psychoanalysis as a branch of medicine would unduly constrict its applicability in the broad arenas such as education, where Freud hoped his science’s impact would be most profound. Lacan’s ambitions for his own rethinking of...

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