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For Lacan; Collectivity and Comment

CORRESPONDENCE

For Lacan
Dear Radical Philosophy,

l

I

John Bird’s article on Lacan (RP 30) was so vehement
that some response is necessary. But replying to
Bird raises a problem. Bird has pitted himself
against Lacan, and this makes any reply seem to
speak for Lacan – a role it is impossible to fulfill.

The exposition and criticism in a few pages of an
important body of work must involve oversimplification and incompleteness, and Bird acknowledges this.

His exposition condenses Lacan’s thought to three
basic processes: the entry of the subject into language; the development of self, other and ego; and the
Oedipus complex. Exposition was hampered, he emphasises, by the particular difficulty of Lacan’s prose.

His criticism is concerned with Lacan’s failure to
contribute anything new to psychoanalysis, or even to
return to the real Freud; but it is focussed, once
again, on Lacan’s difficulty. This is the charge I
want to look at first. Bird assumes a link between
difficulty in exposition and difficulty as a criticism that I could not see. Does difficulty automatically condemn a work? Or is Lacan’s difficulty of a
particularly damning kind? Bird did not explain why
a Lacanian text could be invalidated on this ground;
but several arguments have been advanced to justify
the difficulty in Lacan’s work, and he would have done
well to examine them.

One reason often given for Lacan’s difficulty is
that he uses a specific vocabulary, which has to be
acquired by study, as in any science. Certainly,
there is a specialist language of current psychoanalytic theory, whose understanding requires knowledge of a theoretical corpus. Bird himself relies on
this language. Although he tries to explain Lacan in
‘non-Lacanian language’, as if specialist knowledge
were unnecessary, his article is not much less complex than Lemaire’s book, which he thinks incomprehensible. And, like her, he has to quote paragraphs of
Lacan’s allegedly impenetrable prose to make his
points.

Although there is littl~ doubt of the specificity
of Lacan’s discourse, the nature of this specificity
remains a problem. What makes an interpretation
analytic in the Lacanian sense? The best criterion
seems to be a clear theoretical relation between the
language of the unconscious and concepts of the body.

This is always a difficult relation to work with
because the body quickly assumes the status of a
given. But Bird ignores the relation altogether.

He is content to see language as a mediator between
society and the subject, a perspective which loses
the sense of Lacan’s statement ‘the unconscious is
structured like a language’ (my emphasis).

This brings me to a second explanation, which
Lacan himself offered, for the difficulty of Lacanian
texts. The resemblance of the unconscious to language must intrude into linguistic explanations, he
claimed. Condensation and displacement are displayed
in the metaphors and metonymies of the text, for
instance, at the same time as the text itself explains
how the unconscious itself is structured, like itself,
in metaphor and metonymy. Bird does ~ot ·give this
argument enough credence. This intrusion of the unconscious at all levels of language is disruptive
and problematic, but it allows for multiple interpretations of Lacan’ s work. It is this di fficul ty thC’.t
is responsible for the excitement Lacan’s texts have
stirred up, for the pleasure as well as the fury they
provoke. A number of new directions have developed
from attempts to come to grips with the difficulty of
the work. But Bird seems determined to ignore the
productiveness of Lacan’s difficulty, even though in
a perverse sense his own article relies upon it.

-The two criticisms Bird makes of Lacan that have
superficially nothing to do with difficulty are that
Lacan’s innovations are few, and that he does not
return, as claimed, to the truth of Freud’s work.

First of all, these charges themselves set up a contradiction, because the demand that psychoanalytic
theory should be true to Freud would compel it to
avoid new directions instead of seeking them out – as
Bird also wants it to do. Bird is looking into the
past and future for an absolute psychoanalytic truth.

Lacan’s work on meaning, which Bird ignores, often
points out that we can only recapture his (Lacan’s)
or anyone else’s definitive meaning in a myth of
absolute truth, although the texts are always open
for anyone, including Bird, to use in any way they
want.

What Bird calls ‘Freudian’ in Lacan’s work (his
opposition to ego psychology and to therapy as a
justification) he approves of. He assimilates the
‘unFreudian’ parts of Lacan’s work to romantic critiques of psychoanalysis and condemns them all. But
Lacan’s ‘return to Freud’ is more than a restatement,
and his anti-biologism has nothing to do with romanticism. He has radically changed psychoanalysis by
writing structuralist linguistics into it. Bird does
43

not realise all the implications that Lacan’s treatment of language has for psychoanalysis, and this
misunderstanding underlies all his criticism. What
is important in Lacan’s use of Saussure, for instance,
is his insistence on the bar within the sign, the
independent movement on either side of it, and the
autonomy of signifiers. Bird’s main emphasis is on
the unity of the sign: precisely not on the dislocation which makes romantic meaning problematic, and
which has been productive in psychoanalysis. The
metaphorical sense of the statement that ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’ is lost in
Bird’s article, because he takes the unconscious subj ect as the impl ici t foundation for language and
sexuality, and never questions it. His initial
schema, which draws a rigid distinction between subject and society, suggests that Lacan was trying to
bring the inside out, to ‘subvert the ego and reinstate the id’, using the language as the intermediary. This converts the metaphor in Lacan’s statement
to an equation. If the unconscious is a language,
instead of being like a language, then language can
appear as an agent of socialisation. But for Lacan,
language is outside and inside; we live in language
at the same time as we are lived by it. The very
division between individual and society is made by
and ~n language.

Keeping hold of the metaphor in Lacan’s work
allows us to ask how the unconscious is not like a
language; how other discourses may be like languages;
and how the unconscious intrudes on and is itself
commandeered by other discourses. The metaphor guarantees a continuous meton~y in La.canian texts, and in
the theoretical developments from them which are often
dismissed as fashion because of this very fluidity.

Bird is not able to bear the ambiguities this introduces into psychoanalysis: the fact that, for Lacan,
the return of true speech to the subject in analysis
is never complete because the subject is made incomplete in language; that distinctions between truth
and untruth, new and old, Freud and non-Freud, are
always a kind of blindness; and movement – ‘difficulty’ – can never be finished with.

At the end of his article, Bird consoles himself by
making a sort of zen contrariness into the truth of
Lacan’s work: ‘Perhaps when I throw up my hcmds in
horror and burn the works of Lacan out of frustration,
then Lacan himself will be able to say, “at last, you
understand”‘. This is the flip-side of a slavish
deference to Lacan, which he also shows. He is preoccupied with the choice between accepting and rejecting Lacan’s authority, as if making it would resolve
the frustration that Lacan’s difficulty causes him.

It is often a problem that difficulty, however productive, merely displaces power from the discourse to
the mythical figure of the author. There at least we
can hope to find a true interpretation. But this
determining place is always being taken away from
Lacan le maitre by the independent movement of the
discourse that is called his. Deleuze and Guattari,
for instance, have tried to replace the either/or
division which characterises psychoanalysis (thc>.t of
phallic presence/absence) with multiple divisions
overlying and displacing each other, and with chains
I inked by ‘and’, which do not oppress desire but allow
it to produce itself endlessly and changelessly.

Derrida has set in motion again the ‘letter’, which
was coming to rest as the ideal origin and end-point
of all Lacanian theory. I think it would have been
more productive if Bird had brought language in from
the periphery of his concerns, and worked on the continuing difficulty it provides in Lacan’s work,
instead of rejecting it to fight a mythical tyrant.

Corinne Squire
44

Collectivity and Comment
Dear Radical Philosophy,
No~l

Parker’s letter in Radical Philosophy 29
requested opinions on editorials and comment columns,
and it seemed to us there are some important perspectives on the subject that could do with airing which
were not discussed in the letter. We think there
are two points which are important in the production
of radical theoretical journals which have a bearing
on editorial procedures. They are not entirely
distinct, but here they are.

The first is that we feel it is important for
radical journals to encourage an active readership,
rather than to passify them, as it were. In the
context of Radical philosophy, the impression one
gains from occasional comments is that you desire a
readership which participates in the journal – the
best indication of which is perhaps the correspondence sections you have lately featured. We think
this has important implications, because we don’t
think the more conventional editorial procedures
such as formal editorials and comment columns are
really conducive to an active readership.

The second point is that we also feel that in the
production of radical theory it is important to
develop the idea of it as part of a process of
collective debate and discussion, as against tending
to present it as formal and definitive positionpieces from opposed individuals.

It is because of this we feel Radical Philosophy
would be better off without the comment column. We
are not suggesting you should avoid co~enting on
e.g. the Afghanistan situation – but rather you could
perhaps open up a ‘discussion’ section where such
topics might be better situated (this would obviate
the problem identified by Noel Parker: ‘whereas we
may agree on what it is worth discussing, we are much
less likely to agree on what is to be said’). In the
editorial column in the place of a ‘comment’ you
might give an introduction and rundown of the contents of each issue. This more informal approach
would we feel lend support to the more collectivelyminded aspects of theory production: we think it
would be a shame if you didn’t encourage them.

Yours faithfully, Seumas Caimbeul and lain Grannd

The Collective very much appreciates comment from
readers on how the magazine should be put together
and on specific articles – hence the recent revival
of the correspondence column. We therefore welcome
Seumas Caimbeul and Iain Grannd’s letter and
Corinne Squire’s~ and would be pleased to receive
further letters (for publication or not). I hope
that~ in particular~ discussion of the scope .for
political comment in the magazine will continue and
will not therefoY’e comment specifically on the above
points at this stage.

Noel

Parker~

Secretary to the Editorial Collective

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