Lacan, Jacques 1901–1981

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Lacan, Jacques

Jacques Lacan was born in Paris, France, on April 13, 1901, and died there on September 9, 1981. Lacan began his career as the chef de clinique of psychiatry at Sainte-Anne, the major psychiatric hospital in Paris. His doctoral dissertation had been on the subject of paranoid psychosis, although he was not to publish it until 1975. It was written in 1932 and was entitled De la psychose paranoïaque dans ses rapports avec la personnalié. Lacan argued in this thesis that narcissism can be the cause of psychosis when two people, seeming to merge into one, have not individuated into one. For example, the infant and the mother are identified in the infant's psyche as one between about six to eighteen months of age. With the advent of language and "no," individuation—psychic separation—occurs for most people. His thesis gave a whole new meaning to narcissism, which, indeed, he later rethought and argued was a cornerstone of the "I" in every person and not in and of itself pathological, as Sigmund Freud thought.

From the beginning of his career, Lacan was a leader in psychoanalysis in France. Fluent in German, he had access to Freud's texts in a way that most of his colleagues did not. Given that one of his early assignments was to design a formal institutional training program for analysts, it follows that he would critique the various methods, ultimately coming up with his own seminar that could be attended by anyone, with credit for courses given to those in psychoanalytic training.

Lacan's ideas began to take on a radical cast as he attended Alexandre Kojève's lectures on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) at the end of the 1940s and beginning of the 1950s. Lacan ended up rethinking the master/slave relation, viewing the slave as the master, as well as making use of Kojève's idea that the synthesis was not about unity but about the plethora of contradictions that each thesis and anti-thesis give rise to in their sublation. He also began to meet with the surrealist circle of writers, painters, and philosophers in whose journals he began to publish short essays, such as "Logical Time" (1945), a reply to Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) on the three prisoner conundrum. This means that three prisoners are offered freedom for the first one who can ascertain the color of the disk that has been pinned on his back. The warden has three white disks and two black disks and does not tell them he will not use any black disks, although he does not. They cannot see their own backs, nor is there any mirroring device in the room. They all figure out at the same time that if anyone had seen a black disk on his neighbor's back, he would have first exited, having figured that he had a white disk. They exit together. The logic has to do with what they do not see, a black disk. This gives rise to a different way of thinking about the logic of time. There is the moment for seeing, the time for understanding, and the moment of conclusion. Unlike Freud, however, Lacan did not publish his major writings regularly throughout his career. Although he published some papers from 1926 on, he did not publish his first major collection, the Ecrits, until 1966 when he was sixty-five years old. His twenty-seven volumes of Seminars are being published one by one by Lacan's chosen literary and intellectual inheritor, Jacques-Alain Miller. More than half have appeared in French and Spanish and are being translated into multiple languages.

Miller has discerned three major periods of Lacan's teaching. It has been said that Lacan's first two periods of teaching are similar to Freud's first period of studying the subconscious, preconscious, and conscious mind, and his second period studying the id, ego, and superego. Lacan's shift from work on language and identifications to his topological placing of different subjective effects in the third period of his theory, though, was so profound that it is distinct from his own previous work and the work of Freud.


Lacan's first theoretical period was 1953 to 1964, when Lacan elaborated the rereading of Freud he had begun in the 1920s and 1930s and worked on the assertion that "the unconscious is structured like a language." By that he meant that the unconscious has order, structure, and that it speaks the language of desire, different from the language of conscious thought. But unconscious language is nonetheless made up of concrete letters of thought and works according to the laws of metaphor and metonymy. Metaphor means that one signifier is substituted for another one in meaning making, and metonymy means that we displace primary references into a primordial period that cannot itself be remembered—only unary traits of them are left over. There is no memory possible before language, but there are unary traits of early experiences that seem to dwell outside language. Lacan's work on the metaphorical/metonymical structure of unconscious language laws was taken from his putting together Freud's work on condensation and displacement as well as linguist Roman Jakobson's work on metaphor and metonymy as the two major tropes of speech, as well as the two different ways in which the brain works by motor (dis)order or sensory (dis)order.

Not only is the unconscious structured like a language, and in concrete letters such as A, B, or C, but it is also not some mystical unconscious, nor some Freudian mechanistic id. The unconscious also functions in sexuality, Lacan says in Seminar XI. Unconscious language enters conscious language through jouissance, which gives libidinal quality to language. The unconscious projects libidinal meaning of desire—whose home is the unconscious—into language, images, and thought, materializing language for jouissance, not only representational meaning. Desire—unlike jouissance, which is absolute—functions as an oscillation between wanting and having. We cannot want something if we have not lost it. Refinding any object we have desired means momentary fulfillment, with the structural lack always reinserting itself. In one sense, this is a new theory of motivation. Lacan's Che vuoi? (What do you really want?) graph is marked by the signifier for desire which is the subject as lacking (∃), (Lacan's macheme for the dividing subject) aiming itself via the path of the voice, castration, jouissance, and fantasy to the place of the ideal ego that is an unconscious formation. We only get glimpses of the ideal ego through the partners we choose, whom Lacan calls ego ideals or Others. The first period of his teaching is also marked by a development of the imaginary order; that is, the order of narcissism and identification with the Others of one's surrounding universe. This first occurs in a mirror-stage period that lasts approximately from three to eighteen months and is a first fixation of identification with immediate Others and the Other of the social order.

In Lacan's first period of teaching, when he was preoccupied with the function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis, he pushes the study of language away from its empiricist, behavioral, and developmental positivistic roots in the ideas of a consciousness of self. He flies in the face of cognitive theories that would have the brain speak itself to show us, rather, how the symbol system comes to reside in the brain in the first place. Lacan argued that there was no ego synthesis and that developmental psychology tries to equate the development of mentality with biologically based cause, be it via the theories of Charles Darwin (1809–1882), Jean Piaget (1896–1980), or Noam Chomsky (b. 1928). Psychic causality does not lie in organodynamism, but in a series of structures that are laid down from the beginning of life on, such as the mirror-stage logical structure, the experience of the objects-cause of desire (the breast, the feces, the urinary flow, the [imaginary] phallus, the voice, the gaze, the phoneme, and the nothing) ("Subversion," p. 303). It is important to know that Lacan has no innate structures nor any biological explanations for the cause of being or behavior. All these structures continue to function throughout life. So we have a root cause for aggressivity and jealousy in the mirror-stage structure, a root cause for desire in the primordial objects that cause it and drive us to seek to refind the jouissance of an object desired.

Lacan also comes up in his first period of teaching with the object a. At first he stressed the importance of the Other (Autre) in the seeking of objects to fill our lack-in-being. Then, he dropped the idea of a person qua object and argued that anything can work as a filler for lack. Thus, he coined the term object a. Experiences surrounding these early moments—object-cause of desire, mirror-stage, Oedipal "castration" by the Name-of-the-Father function—build into fundamental fantasies that operate consciousness from the unconscious realm of "fictions" that Lacan wrote as fixions. The infantile is replaced by structure, that which gives order, but does not speak its fantasy. Rather, bits of the unconscious are welded to language and appear also in the phenomena of the slip, humor, repetitions, and so on, that Freud named. Nor is there a self-knowledge preceding consciousness, only a series of emergent forms of images, words, and traumata of the real. Lacan's imaginary dimension displaces Freud's concept of sexual developmental stages (the oral, anal, and genital), arguing that we depend on others and a universe of language to satisfy and multiply our desires. And our primary desire is for the satisfaction that is jouissance, meaning both enjoyment and an excess in enjoyment that can border on pain of the repetitious, fixations. We refind the function of our organs in language where the signifier is incorporated, materializing or corporifying language and the imaginary body by the real.


The second period of Lacan's teaching lasted from approximately 1964 to 1974. Lacan set forth his major concepts at the École normale supérieure and the Law Faculty adjacent to the Sorbonne and Panthéon. He not only developed the symbolic order as the order of language and conventions, of law and the Name-of-the-Father signifier (which interdicts psychic oneness between a child and its mother), he also rewrote Freud's Oedipal complex in what he called a paternal metaphor. In this formula the Name-of-the-Father signifier supercedes the mother's desire. Thus the Name-of-the-Father places the social order of language and law—the Other—over the phallus, or the child as the beloved person between the parental couple. The child will be alienated into the desire of the Other by language and intentions, starting even before birth. He or she is further set apart from any direct access to the unconscious by the continual cuts or losses of things that satisfy. There is a constant movement of seeming consistency among the imaginary and symbolic orders, but the real of conflict or discontinuity continually inserts itself into these two other orders, making vague anxiety and trauma the order of the day as opposed to any holistic sense of an ongoing harmony of being.

During this period, Lacan also came up with a theory of the drives that displaces Freud's idea of them as id "motive forces." The drives are made up of the images and signifiers, the cuts and alienations, the material of everyday life, and Lacan calls them a montage. They still bear the Freudian vicissitudes of aim, goal, object, and force, but the aim misses its goal and the object remains just out of reach, although it can be temporarily grasped to fill the void in being that Lacan places at the center of all experience. Lacan developed this matheme, meaning that the ensemble of the Other is not whole. There is always loss at its center because this is the way that objects are invested with desire in the first place, having value only once they are lost.

In the second period of his teaching, Lacan was rejected by the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA). Various reasons were given for this, including the fact that Lacan had sessions of varying length. Given that language is operated on by the real, the moment of ending of a session is enunciated by the analysand, not the analyst. Lacan was rejected, as well, for criticizing various theories of the ego in his first period of teaching and for showing how the social enters the individual through language. He had called into question the sacred theories of classical-psychoanalytic biological drive theory and ego defense theory, as well as the whole person theories on which object relations theories based themselves. Although the IPA shortly thereafter tried to get Lacan to rejoin them, he refused and carried on his development of Freud's work in what is now called the Freudian Field.


The third period of Lacan's teaching was from 1974 to 1981. In this period, he reworked his category of the real, making it the basic binding of flesh to thought via unary traits. He also developed a topology based on the Borromean knot, illustrating his reconsideration of the interlocking categories of the real, symbolic, and imaginary. A revolutionary moment occurred when his Seminar XXIII on James Joyce, Le sinthome, appeared. A major rethinking of the Name-of-the-Father signifier was articulated. He argued that the Name-of-the-Father is not the only way to bring law and order into the dyad of the infant and mother, thus creating a social order, but that the function of such a name can be pronounced and effected by anyone to whom such authority is granted. This took away the Oedipal family idea of how one comes to be a speaking being with desire, fantasy, drives, and so on. In one tribe, Lacan remarked, the Name-of-the-Father function was not even linked to reproduction; the function was given to a river god. Moreover, Lacan made a distinction between the symptom, which is a sign of bodily discontent, and the sinthome, which is the way in which the Name-of-the-Father binds the orders of the real, imaginary, and symbolic together such that they are more than a vast associative linking of orders that work by different laws, but which work together to effect any conscious act. They only work because a certain "ideological" knotting joins them together. In psychosis, this knotting does not exist, because the condition of psychosis is a refusal of the separation Lacan called castration, a refusal of twoness in the name of an ongoing mental identification with the maternal One.

In the third and final periods of his teaching, Lacan brought into question what it is that we call mind, knowledge, even science. Generally mind is taken as a kind of metaphor for identifications with language, images, and others, or as a brain function. This is not to say that the brain is not affected by our mental activities. Lacan simply reversed the order of cause and effect. By arguing that the symbolic and the imaginary constitute not only subjectivity, but also the real of the drive, Lacan showed how mind and body are linked via desire/lack, jouissance, fantasy, unary traits, and so on, thus obviating both the mind/body dualism of centuries of Western thought, and the phenomenological split between the subject of consciousness and objects of the world. The subject is consistent with an image of his or her body in the imaginary, fading and covered with holes and gaps in the symbolic, and absolute in the real. Thus, the subject dwells—qua object—in the gaps between signifiers, in the language materialized by jouissance effects.


What is most relevant for theories of sex and gender in Lacan's teaching is not only that he rethought them in a revolutionary fashion, but that he made sexuality the cause of being and knowing, making childhood sexuality itself the base of the four different categories of desire that mark each person's resolution of the trauma of sexual difference as a matter of not being whole—of identifying with the difference between the sexes as itself a third thing, an abstract signifier. These four ways of resolution are: the normative masquerade marked by repression of the sexual difference as having any meaning; the neuroses (hysteria and obsession) marked by denial that the difference makes any difference; perversion marked by a repudiation of this difference that is replaced by a fetish; and psychosis that forecloses the difference, remaining imprisoned in the logic of One. The normative person plays out the sexual roles of a given cultural moment. Within the neuroses category, the hysteric, usually female, is split between identification with the father and brothers and the mother and sisters, while the obsessional's question is one of guilt, having been preferred to his father by his mother. His question is "Am I alive or dead?" The obsessional has identified so strongly with the mother that he is hard put to act "manly" in the symbolic. The hysteric's basic question is "Am I a woman or a man?" The perverse subject practices masochism or sadism. The masochist is one who is not intent on desire, but on directly bringing jouissance to the Other. The sadist is concerned, rather, with making the Other feel anxious, thus protecting himself from anxiety. This is quite a different coupling than the linking of perversion with homosexuality, or sadism and masochism as a binarily happy couple. The psychoses (paranoia, schizophrenia, and manic depression) all cluster around a foreclosure of the sexual difference itself, and aim at retaining a mental symbiosis of Oneness with the primal mother. The psychotic is marked by rigidity of personality because he or she has few identifications to go on; fragility because the symbolic order threatens his or her tenuous hold on it; and a compensatory identification with the symbolic (there being no imaginary, except a prosthetic one, for the psychotic).

For feminists, what is perhaps most relevant in Lacan's theory is his formalization of a logical subject instead of a biological one. Each sex coheres as an identity only by losing its sense of wholeness vis-à-vis the other who is sexually different. Little boys tend to confuse having the penis with being the desired object—the phallus—while little girls must substitute something else of value for not having this imaginary phallus—the body itself, a baby, a husband, a career, and so on. But the little girl can also believe unconsciously that she has the phallus—having and being concerned with the difference itself. Lacan calls this experience of learning sexual difference "castration," dealing with the lack of being whole. The body is represented in parts, not as one whole. Lacan argues that the phallus is symbolic, representing the lack of being whole; imaginary, as its appearance seems to concern having and being; and real, in that its presence or absence can set up a trauma.

Lacan also set out a sexuation graph in Seminar XX demonstrating his theory that the sexual difference is discovered in such a way that it not only gives birth to culture—identifying with a third term—but is the key to gender identity, equated with identification of the masculine with the feminine rather than with biological sex. He argues that sexuation is not gender specific, but that each person identifies as predominantly masculine or feminine within a given culture. The logic at play in sexuation is complex and involves a rethinking of universals and particulars. Moreover, sexuation—sexuality plus identity—is established as an asymmetry between the masculine and feminine. Opposing Freud, Lacan theorizes that to identify as a male, the boy is required to give up his primary identification with the mother and identify with an abstraction of the symbolic order—difference per se—while the girl can identify with her mother, but must work with the problem of the logic of sameness. Vis-à-vis the phallus, the male is asked to bond together in a group of "brothers" (see Freud's Totem and Taboo [1913]) who live together under the law of castration, of not being the one exception to the group who is the Urfather, structural exception to the law of castration.

The female also participates in the symbolic law, but since she does not have to eradicate the primary mother, and, further, since there is no essential woman, no essence of the feminine, she is, so to speak, free to go her own way, one foot in the symbolic order camp and the other in the real of the experiences of the effects of loss and lack. Woman, like man, is a signifier. But the logic of marking sexual difference as a third thing, apart from the reality of the man and the woman make it seem that there is a feminine essence, because there is a logic of the feminine, which can characterize a man or a woman. On the side of the masculine, which is one with the symbolic order, the logic is that of "all." The discourse spoken here is totalizing, that of the master. On the feminine side of sexuation, the logic of the "not all" marks the point that this side is identified with the reality of loss and the void. The reason has to do with the identification of the feminine with the social idea of the woman as "not all" under the interdiction of the symbolic order conventions. The "not all" is also of a part with the incompleteness of the other which is registered on the feminine side. These concepts are developed at length in Lacan's sexuation graph.

see also Freud, Sigmund.


Lacan, Jacques. 1998. Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Alan Sheridan, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: Norton. (Orig. pub. 1964.)

Lacan, Jacques. 1998. On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge, trans. Bruce Fink. New York: Norton.

Lacan, Jacques. 2002. "The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious in Psychoanalysis." In Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Bruce Fink. New York: Norton.

Lacan, Jacques. 2002. "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience." In Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Bruce Fink. New York: Norton. (Orig. pub. 1949.)

Lacan, Jacques. 2006. Ecrits, trans. Bruce Fink. New York: Norton. (Orig. pub. 1966.)

Ragland, Ellie. 1992. "Lacan, Jacques." In Feminism and Psychoanalysis: A Critical Dictionary, ed. Elizabeth Wright. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, pp. 201-207.

Ragland, Ellie. 2004. The Logic of Sexuation: From Aristotle to Lacan. Albany: State University of New York Press.

                                                  Ellie Ragland

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Lacan, Jacques 1901–1981

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