Most helpful critical review
4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 7 October 2009
No one can say studying Jacques Lacan is easy but these authors have made an excellent effort in explaining his complex ideas in a manner which is reasonably comprehensible. That doesn't mean to say they make sense outside the realms of continental philosophy, Freudian psychoanalysis or Marxist ideology (which is why they were lapped up by French post structuralist philosophers in the 1960's and 1970's) but, within his own intellectual paradigm, Lacan believed they made sense. Whether they do is dependant on the assumptions from which one starts and there is no question that he was influential in France in the fields of aesthetics, literary criticism and film theory and, to a limited extent, political theory.
Having completed his doctorate on "Paranoid Psychosis and Its Relation to the Personality" Lacan developed the theory of "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I". He argued that human beings are born prematurely, inasmuch as at the biological level they are incomplete, unable to talk, walk, or have much control over their physical activity. He suggested children's behaviour was not a conflict between child and spectator but internal conflict within each which leads to an identification with the other party. The child's later entry into the human world (which is decisive in its mental development) is at the price of fundamental alienation from itself. Narcissism does not exist from the start of life, it is constituted by an alienating identification based on an initial lack of completeness in the body and nervous system. The ego functions to conceal the lack of unity within the body. Therefore, human beings oscillate between two poles, the image, which is alienating and the real body which is in pieces. The individual self is not innate it is an external structure.
Lacan advocated a return to the meaning of Freud emphasising the importance of language and never overcoming his early commitment to the Surrealist notion of civilisation and its discontents. As such it was, rather like James Joyce's Ulysses, a stream of consciousness which avoided disciplined structures. This was reflected in Lacan's analytic sessions which were indeterminate in length. He stopped sessions on an important word of phrase leaving the patient to meditate on this until the next session. His rationale was that interrupted activities could evoke more associative material than completed ones. In all these sessions he was seeking to identify the unconscious mind which he eventually came to believe was not separate from the conscious but was structured "like a language" and therefore could not serve as a reference point in time of an identity crisis.
Infantile sexuality and its relationship with the real, as opposed to the symbolic, world is one of the major factors why Freud has fallen out of favour. Certainly Freudian analysis differs from the idea of counselling which appears more concerned to bring out subject experiences rather than fit them within an artificial framework of the ego, castration complex and identification of the self. The suggestion that the neurotic is searching for the maternal phallus assumes too much thinking on the part of the child and too much disassociation between the real and the symbolic in human relationships. The notion that the organism's passage through and into language is castration i.e. the emptying out of jouissance (a surplus excitation or bombardment of stimulation) from the body bears so little relation to mental health practice as to be ludicrous.
Lacan defended the idea that psychoanalysis was a science, that Freudian ideas made a permanent contribution to knowledge and that analysis was the only method to question the shortcomings of both science and philosophy. Lacan, who set up his own short lived school of analysis, argued strongly for the use of the Symbolic as the means by which analysis completed the process of the purification of desire. In this sense he was repeating the Surrealistic error of regarding madness and irrationality as an expression of reality in an alienating world.
In fairness to Lacan it is not possible to do him complete justice in such a short review, particularly in view of the sharp divisions about his contribution to the world of ideas. Supporters of Lacan argue that he has been misunderstood, critics that he did not understand what he was talking about in the first place. Some of the latter considered his work to be pseudo scientific fashionable nonsense. Feminists, not without good reason, considered his analytic methods buttressed male bias in psychoanalysis relating to nineteenth century perceptions of female mental instability. Feminists, such as Judith Butler, who find support for Feminism in Lacan's theory appear to be stretching their imagination beyond breaking point.
The obscurity of Lacan's discourse should not hide his own over-developed sense of his own importance, nor hide the weakness of the Freudian and Marxist analysis on which it was based. I've given it three stars for the effort put in by the authors, although the book is for beginners rather than the public at large. I would have given it more had I thought Lacan had anything to offer but, having read this volume, it appears to me that Lacan belongs in the ranks of the obscure - a genuine intellectual imposter.