Until approximately 5th grade, I was a Jehovah’s Witness. The Witnesses have often been compared to a cult. I grew up to have a half-serious, half-ironic interest in Lacanian psychoanalysis. It’s probably not a coincidence. Richard Webster’s “The Cult of Lacan” is funny and should be read by everyone. It’s pretty damning, in that the following is an accurate and succinct summary of the theory:
Although the idea of such primal discord is a fiction which Lacan himself has created, he proceeds to treat it as a fundamental fact of biological development. It is in order to escape from this discord that the infant is supposedly so eager to identify with its mirror image and does so with such ‘jubilation’. Yet according to Lacan, by identifying with its mirror image, which is not really its own self, the infant escapes from primal discord into a kind of self-imposed alienation. An extraordinarily complex argument is then introduced by means of which the whole mirror ordeal becomes the basis of an Oedipal drama; the outcome of this drama in Lacanian theory is that the child ‘enters language’ in the quest for a phallus or alternatively is ‘inserted’ into language. This entry into language, which involves complex abstract and symbolic relationships with the child’s parents, the mother’s desire and the father’s phallus, is described by Lacan in quasi-mystical terms:
In the quest for the phallus the subject moves from being it to having it. It is here that is inscribed the last Spaltung [splitting] by which the subject articulates himself to the Logos…
The fact that the phallus is a signifier means that it is in the place of the Other that the subject has access to it. But since this signifier is only veiled, as ratio of the Other’s desire, it is this desire of the Other as such that the subject must recognise, that is to say, the other in so far as he is himself a subject divided by the signifying Spaltung.
It is in terms such as these, in which meaning is cloaked with terminology whose difficulty cannot ultimately disguise its vagueness, imprecision or emptiness that Lacan demonstrates, to his own satisfaction at least, the compatibility of his mirror theory with psychoanalysis in general, and Freud’s Oedipus complex in particular.
The possible objections to Lacan’s theory are so numerous that an entire book would be needed to anthologise them. One of the simplest would point to the inherent implausibility of a theory of human development in which a child’s relationship to a mirror is held to be more significant than its relationship to its parents.
It gets worse:
The unconscious aim of his ritual obscurity appears to be domination. The obscurity is a means of creating anxiety about not understanding, while at the same time preserving the mystery of Lacan’s thought and personality. To understand something is to reduce it to human proportions; to allow something to remain incomprehensible is to let it remain mystically vast and potentially dominating. At his most extreme Lacan thus projected himself not simply as a messiah, but as an inscrutable God. The young psychoanalysts who were his students frequently referred to him as ‘God the Father’ and one of his former patients, Danièle Arnoux, has even recounted how she sought out Lacan rather than enter into analysis with one of his followers on the grounds that ‘it was better to deal with God than his saints.’
Ok, this is making me uncomfortable:
In many respects his own attitude to knowledge was merely a more acute version of that shown by Freud and other ‘messianic’ intellectuals. The tragic predicament of such intellectuals is that, driven by terrifying feelings of emotional emptiness and insecurity, they mistakenly conclude that intellectual truths can be an adequate substitute for emotional warmth. Convinced that difficult or abstract intellectual formulations can alone fill the void they feel within them, they develop a voracious appetite for such formulations, anorexically judging their goodness by the degree of difficulty or abstraction they possess. Believing that what they have devoured is intrinsically nourishing and failing to grasp the poverty of the diet they have adopted through their own self-denying ordinances, they now feel impelled to share their ‘truths’ with others. Indeed they are driven by their own generosity to do so. Like a starving man who compels others to eat the diet of stones he believes has saved him, they give abundantly of their poverty out of a genuine conviction that they are enriching others. Because their own most generous impulses have become inextricably entwined with their impulse to self-denial they are unable to discriminate between generosity and cruelty and unable to understand that by compulsively sharing with others (or compelling others to share) their own chosen form of intellectual or spiritual wealth they are merely disseminating their poverty.
Ouch. Self-denial, compulsive sharing, emotional coldness…sounds like Jehovah’s Witnesses! The Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t funny, though. Jacques Lacan was a surrealist troll who also said things like “The closer we get to psychoanalysis being funny, the more it is real psychoanalysis” (quoted in this book). I think Lacan is best understood as a troll. He said things that are fun to think about. Yes, it’s sort of a scandal that he was ever fashionable, but this is hilarious:
In his seminars, highly intelligent people were persuaded to listen attentively to propositions which were for the most part obscure, incomprehensible and entirely without explanatory value. Some of the intellectually more confident members of Lacan’s audience objected to just this fact. Paul Ricoeur, for example, who had himself made a deep study of Freud, attended Lacan’s course during the 1960s and found himself unable to understand a word of it. Instead of remaining silent about this he recorded the fact that he found Lacan’s discourse ‘uselessly difficult and perverse in its proclivity towards suspension.’
Claude Lévi-Strauss himself, having attended Lacan’s courses, later recalled that ‘as far as what I heard went, I didn’t understand. And I found myself in the middle of an audience that seemed to understand.’ At the same time, however, he was impressed by Lacan’s personal magnetism: ‘What was striking was the kind of radiant influence emanating from both Lacan’s physical person and from his diction, his gestures. I have seen quite a few shamans functioning in exotic societies, and I rediscovered there a kind of equivalent of the shaman’s power.’
Jacques Lacan was compared to a powerful shaman by Claude Lévi-Strauss, the father of modern anthropology!