Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1123
In 1966, Editions du Seuil published Ecrits, a collection of Jacques Lacan’s essays, lectures, addresses, and journal papers. Written in French, this collection included Lacan’s earliest significant critical contribution, “Le Stade du miroir” (the mirror stage), first delivered at the fourteenth International Psychoanalytical Congress in August, 1936, and published in an English translation in the January, 1937, volume of The International Journal of Psychoanalysis under the title “The Looking-Glass Phase.” It was not until after his September, 1953, report to the Rome Congress, commonly referred to as “Discours de Rome” (or “The Rome Address”), however, that Lacan’s contributions became the center of international controversy. Further, the first references to Lacan in English essays did not appear until 1966, when he began to be heralded by scholars in the literary and the philosophical humanities as the major voice of the second-generation psychoanalytic theorists.
Even then, debate on psychoanalytic theory continued in English-language periodicals with few references to Lacan’s importance—R. D. Laing was the predominant preoccupation throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s—until the 1972 issue of Yale French Studies on “the French Freud.” Shortly thereafter, nine essays were selected from Ecrits for translation and publication in a 1977 volume, Ecrits: A Selection. Le Seminaire: Livre XI, les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychoanalyse (1973; The Four Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1977) soon followed as a companion volume. Lacan had exploded onto the scene after fifty years of obscurity; three years later, he was dead.
It was Lacan’s emphasis on the role of linguistics and philosophy, signaled in “The Rome Address,” that brought him to the attention of scholars in the humanities before he was appreciated by colleagues in psychology. The radical rethinking of Sigmund Freud in Lacan’s seminars during the 1950’s gives the book its form. The essays (chosen by Lacan himself for translation) chronologically develop the more humanistic implications of Freudian study, and in them Lacan espouses his famous linguistic premise that the unconscious is structured like a language. Even his references reflect more concern with the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and the anthropology of Claude Levi-Strauss than with his contemporaries in the field of psychoanalysis.
Ecrits is an unusual work of interdisciplinary method and application. Combining psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and cultural anthropology, Lacan has created not so much a consistent treatise as a history that traces his evolving theory of interpretation. Although the focus of each essay varies according to its occasion, a consistent theme runs throughout: the centrality of language for Freudian theory and practice. Lacan insists that psychoanalysis has betrayed Freud’s original genius, which lies in the observation that speech is fundamental to identity. It is this observation, Lacan maintains, that underlies the early, and for him most important, works of Freud: Die Traumdeutung (1900; The Interpretation of Dreams, 1913), Zur Psychopathologie des Alltagslebens (1904; Psychopathology of Everyday Life, 1914), and Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewussten (1905; Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious, 1916).
By treating Freud’s own words as discourse that reflects the structures of language, Lacan reinterprets psychoanalysis as an experience related to ontology rather than as a set of rules prescribing a technique. In other words, it is the process of discovery that Freud’s writings enacts, not his results, that should be the focus of psychoanalytic study. To abandon speech for technique turns analysis into its own obsessional neurosis:. . . a curious sort of closed circuit in which the meconnaissance [misknowledge] of the origin of the terms produces the problem of making them agree with each other, and in which the effort to solve this problem reinforces the original meconnaissance.
In order to resist the tendency to confuse understanding and technique, Lacan writes in a style that deliberately complicates his meaning. He forces his readers to attend to his text not as logical argument but as language. He writes in a way that seeks to engage the unconscious reason as well as the reader’s conscious understanding, since the heart of Freud’s discovery about personality is that it operates according to a dialectical relation between the conscious and the unconscious mind. Rejecting propositional logic allows Lacan to expose the ways that conscious meaning exists as the product of those discourses it represses.
Basic to an understanding of the relationship between the conscious and unconscious is Lacan’s definition of the self: that it is not a single identity but is composed of two separate subjects, one conscious and one unconscious. The relation between the two halves of the split subject is reflected in the childhood narcissism that Lacan designated “the mirror stage.” A child’s visual identification with its image in the mirror (occurring between the ages of six and eighteen months) leads to an awareness that a subject exists, reflected in the mirror, who cannot be identical with the child perceiving it, and similarly, who is perceived differently by the child than by all other human perceivers. Language, as spoken discourse, is addressed to the other and, in evoking a response, acts as a mirroring of the self, creating the same fundamental alienation between the speaker’s conscious and unconscious self as the more literal mirror does. Instead of the unified ego of Freud’s hypothesis, Lacan posits a split subject that cannot perceive objectively. By forcing his readers to enter the dialectic of his conscious and unconscious use of language, Lacan enlists the reader’s help in defining the role that his subjectivity plays in the production of meaning. Thus, his readers share his subjectivity before they understand his message; intuition guides the attention of the reader of Lacan’s discourse.
Lacan’s method provides a way for him to communicate without the imposition of Freudian desire that murders the other through the appropriation of his or her words as an act of interpretation. Rather than interpret Lacan’s discourse, the reader must anticipate it by recognizing that “the function of language is not to inform but to evoke.”
The book is divided into nine chapters. The first two chapters (pages 1-29) precede “The Rome Address,” and the remaining seven chapters (the bulk of the book, pages 30-324) span the period from 1953 to 1960, when Lacan worked through the implications of that seminal essay. A bibliographical note in the beginning identifies each chapter’s origin and history, and the version used for this translation. The translator, Alan Sheridan, has also included a helpful glossary that introduces and translates Lacan’s use of Freudian terms, although its usefulness is limited to those readers already familiar with psychoanalytic concepts. The indexes include a classification of the major concepts, an index of Freud’s German terms, and an index of proper names in the text; given his style, however, it is difficult to make Lacan’s text into simply a reference book.