After World War II French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) became a cult hero, a formidable intellectual superstar whose "structural psychoanalysis," first in France and later at American elite universities, dominated much of intellectual life.
Jacques Lacan was born in Paris on April 13, 1901, the eldest child of Emilie and Alfred Lacan, a representant de commerce dealing in soap and oils. The family belonged to the prosperous middle bourgeoisie, and Lacan went to the Collège Stanislas, a well-known Jesuit establishment. Too thin to be accepted into military service, he went straight to the study of medicine and then to psychiatry. He took his clinical training at Sainte-Anne, the major psychiatric hospital in central Paris.
In 1931 he received his license as a forensic psychiatrist, and in 1932 was awarded his Doctorat d'état for his thesis, De la Psychose paranoiaque dans les rapports avec lapersonnalité. While this thesis drew considerable acclaim outside psychoanalytic circles, particularly among the surrealist artists, it seems to have been ignored by psychoanalysts. But in 1934 he became a candidate for the Société Psychanalytique de Paris. During this period he is said to have befriended the surrealists André Breton and Georges Bataille. Because Lacan, like Freud, apparently destroyed most of the records of his past, and unlike Freud did not reveal much of it later on, it is difficult to distinguish between the many myths, anecdotes, and rumors that have surrounded him. There are, for instance, many contradictory tales about his romantic life with Sylvia Bataille in southern France during World War II and of his attachment to her daughter Laurance. He married Sylvia in 1953 and had another daughter, Judith, whose husband Jacques-Alain Miller served as Lacan's literary executor.
In 1934 Lacan developed the first version of his "mirror stage," which was to become the cornerstone of his theory when presented at the meetings of the International Psychoanalytic Association two years later in Marienbad. Due to World War II and the decimation of psychoanalysis on the Continent, Lacan's ideas lay dormant until 1949. Then he presented a more complex and complete variant of his "mirror stage" theory. Extrapolating from his work with patients, he maintained that the child's first perception of itself in the mirror, how it becomes aware of itself as a biological organism, sets the stage for its future psychic development. During this stage (from about six to eighteen months) the child realizes that its parents are not totally responsive to inarticulate demands, that it has to acquire language. And what happens during this process determines psychic development.
Lacan's Freudian peers did not appreciate his contributions. In fact, the so-called American ego psychologists, who held that infantile experiences are being resolved during the oedipal period, could not accept Lacan's "rereading of Freud." They mandated different types of interactions between analyst and patient, different assumptions about human growth and about the structure of the unconscious.
Lacan and his peers in the International Psychoanalytic Association eventually split up, in 1953, because they could not agree on how best to help patients reach and then overcome early unconscious trauma. Classical psychoanalysts were agreed that, optimally, this could happen only by means of regular sessions, four to five times a week, for at least 45 minutes, and over a period of around four years. Lacan was seeing his patients once or twice a week, for five to 25 minutes, and attacking his American and Parisian adversaries as authoritarian. However, a part of these attacks was incorporated in his theories when he played on, for instance, such terms as the nom du père and the non du père to accuse the "sons of Freud"—that is, the leaders in the psychoanalytic movement—of paternalism and of domination counterproductive to the relationship between psychoanalyst and analysand.
Lacanian psychoanalytic theory differentiated itself also by underpinning it with Ferdinand de Saussure's structural linguistics—which in the 1960s was inspiring the other leading "structuralists," Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Louis Althusser, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. They all set out to uncover systematically the deep universal mental structures that manifest themselves in language. And they expected to find them by unveiling the relationships between signs (concepts) and signifiers (acoustic images); between language and words; and by studying their changing meanings. Lacan concentrated on "the language of the unconscious," not only in his work with patients but in the public seminars which certainly helped make him central to Parisian intellectual life, along with psychoanalysis, from the late 1960s until long after he died in 1981.
Lacan's analysis of literary texts as well used Saussurean means of "rereading." Whereas Freud and his followers (both literary figures and psychoanalysts) in a way were "diagnosing" artists and their works, Lacan's technique introduced a new dimension. His own imagination coupled to the linguistic method allowed him to make all sorts of jumps, in both metaphoric and metonymic directions. His famous seminar on Poe's "Purloined Letter" particularly intrigued American literary critics.
Lacan always deemed the psychoanalytic relationship central to everything he did. When he stated, for instance, that psychoanalysis is "structured like a language," he referred to the interaction between the analyst's and his patient's unconscious. His American followers, however, primarily were located in universities and, for the most part, ignored the therapeutic realm. Consequently, his Parisian adherents tended to be therapists working with patients who disregarded American textual analyses.
Urbane, brilliant, and provocative, Lacan continued to influence French intellectual life even while his ideas were questioned and debated.
French commentaries and histories both for and against Lacanian psychoanalysis abound. Among the translations of Lacan's works are his Ecrits (1977), Four Fundamentals of Psychoanalysis (1973), and two volumes of The Seminar of Jacques Lacan (1988)—all of them almost unintelligible to the general reader. Among the pro-Lacanian commentaries are Jacques Lacan. The Death of an Intellectual Hero (1983) by Stuart Schneiderman, Jacques Lacan (1977) by Anika Lemaire, The Lives and Legends of Jacques Lacan (1983) by Catherine Clément, and Psychoanalytic Politics (1978) by Sherry Turkle. The most balanced and informative account of Lacan's impact on, and connections to, French intellectual life is Lacan in Context (1988) by David Macey.
Bowie, Malcolm, Lacan, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.
The unconscious, Lacan argues, is like language because it operates by using metaphor and metonymy—that is, it works symbolically. His refinement of Freudian theory has been seen by many as crucial because it avoided Freud's controversial and arguably contradictory idea that there are biological ‘drives’ that reduce all individuals to identical development patterns. Language, according to Lacan, constructs meaning throughout culture, but language is also mutable, so that change is therefore not only possible but also inevitable, both at a social and a personal level. Lacan's theory thus enables the development of identity and subjectivity to be seen much more as socially constructed than biologically determined.
Crucial to Lacan's overall theoretical system is his idea of the ‘mirror phase’ of infant development. He argues that, at around the age of six months, a baby, who has previously thought of itself not as a separate being from its mother, grows aware of being separate. Lacan uses the metaphor of a mirror to illustrate this process, for the baby, looking at the mother as if looking into a mirror, finds an image reflected back which it regards as a coherent and unified whole. In fact, however, the image it sees is the mother/other and not itself. It is this misinterpretation that splits the human psyche into two, because we all identify with something or someone who seems like what or who we want to be, and yet which is in fact separate and alien. This leads to a false belief in the wholeness and stability of the ego, which Lacan sees as a continually restructured process.
As a baby develops, it falls in love with its mother and begins to see the father as threatening to its desire to have the mother to itself. Lacan argues that it is this longing for the mother, and the denial of it by the father who symbolizes culture and the outside world to the baby, which acts to create the unconscious. This process splits the child, the subject, into consciousness and the unconscious, and the whole process is an essential part of a young child's acquisition of language. Awareness of gender difference and the acquisition of gendered subjectivity are also integral to this process. Indeed, the idea of ‘difference’ is itself fundamental to Lacan's theory.
Lacan is most often referred to by sociologists for his complex decentred conception of the subject and of gender differences. His most accessible works are probably Écrits (1966) and Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1979). Elizabeth Grosz, Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction, offers a clear and useful account of his major ideas.