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.
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.
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...