How to read Lacan: Introduction by Slavoj Žižek

How to Read Lacan by Slavoj Žižek

Let’s try to practice a little brain-washing on ourselves. [1]

How to Read Lacan by Slavoj Zizek

In 2000, the 100th anniversary of the publication of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams was accompanied by a new wave of triumphalist acclamations of how psychoanalysis is dead: with the new advances in brain sciences, it is finally put where it belonged all the time, to the lumber-room of pre-scientific obscurantist search for hidden meanings, alongside religious confessors and dream-readers. As Todd Dufresne [2] put it, no figure in the history of human thought was more wrong about all its fundamentals – with the exception of Marx, some would add. And, effectively and predictably, in 2005, the infamous The Black Book of Communism, listing all the Communist crimes, [3] was followed by The Black Book of Psychoanalysis, listing all the theoretical mistakes and clinical frauds of psychoanalysis. [4] In this negative way, at least, the profound solidarity of Marxism and psychoanalysis is now displayed for all to see.

There is something to this funeral oratory. A century ago, in order to situate his discovery of the unconscious in the history of modern Europe, Freud developed the idea of three successive humiliations of man, the three “narcissistic illnesses,” as he called them. First, Copernicus demonstrated that Earth turns around the Sun and thus deprived us, humans, of the central place in the universe. Then, Darwin demonstrated our origin from blind evolution, thereby depriving us of the privileged place among living beings. Finally, when Freud himself rendered visible the predominant role of the unconscious in psychic processes, it became clear that our ego is not even a master in his own house. Today, a hundred years later, a more extreme picture is emerging: the latest scientific breakthroughs seem to add a whole series of further humiliations to the narcissistic image of man: our mind itself is merely a computing machine for data-processing, our sense of freedom and autonomy is merely the user’s illusion of this machine. Consequently, with regard to today’s brain sciences, psychoanalysis itself, far from being subversive, rather seems to belong to the traditional humanist field threatened by the latest humiliations.

Is, then, psychoanalysis today really outdated? It seems that it is, on three interconnected levels: (1) that of scientific knowledge, where the cognitivist-neurolobiologist model of the human mind appears to supersede the Freudian model; (2) that of psychiatric clinic, where psyhoanalytic treatment is rapidly losing ground against pills and behavioral therapy; (3) that of the social context, where the image of a society, of social norms, which repress the individual’s sexual drives, no longer appears valid with regard to today’s predominant hedonistic permissiveness.

Nonetheless, in the case of psychoanalysis, the memorial service is perhaps a little bit too hasty, commemorating a patient who still has a long life ahead. In contrast to the “evident” truths of the critics of Freud, my aim is to demonstrate that it is only today that the time of psychoanalysis has arrived. On reading Freud through Lacan, through what Lacan called his “return to Freud.” Freud’s key insights finally become visible in their true dimension. Lacan did not understand this return as a return to what Freud said, but to the core of the Freudian revolution of which Freud himself was not fully aware.

Lacan started his “return to Freud” with the linguistic reading of the entire psychoanalytic edifice, encapsulated by what is perhaps his single best known formula: “the unconscious is structured as a language.” The predominant perception of the unconscious is that it is the domain of irrational drives, something opposed to the rational conscious self. For Lacan, this notion of the unconscious belongs to the Romantic Lebensphilosophie (philosophy of life) and has nothing to do with Freud. The Freudian unconscious caused such a scandal not because of the claim that the rational self is subordinated to the much vaster domain of blind irrational instincts, but because it demonstrated how the unconscious itself obeys its own grammar and logic – the unconscious talks and thinks. The unconscious is not the reservoir of wild drives that has to be conquered by the ego, but the site where a traumatic truth speaks. Therein resides Lacan’s version of Freud’s motto wo es war, soll ich werden (where it was, I shall become): not “the ego should conquer the id”, the site of the unconscious drives, but “I should dare to approach the site of my truth”. What awaits me “there” is not a deep Truth I have to identify with, but an unbearable truth I have to learn to live with.

How, then, do Lacan’s ideas differ from the mainstream psychoanalytical schools of thought and from Freud himself? With regard to other schools, the first thing that strikes the eye is the philosophical tenor of Lacan’s theory. For Lacan, psychoanalysis at its most fundamental is not a theory and technique of treating psychic disturbances, but a theory and practice which confronts individuals with the most radical dimension of human existence. It does not show an individual the way to accommodate him- or herself to the demands of social reality; it explains how something like “reality” constitutes itself in the first place. It does not merely enable a human being to accept the repressed truth about him – or herself; it explains how the dimension of truth emerges in human reality. In Lacan’s view, pathological formations like neuroses, psychoses and perversions, have the dignity of fundamental philosophical attitudes towards reality. When I suffer obsessional neurosis, this ‘illness’ colours my entire relationship to reality and defines the global structure of my personality. Lacan’s main critique of other psychoanalytic orientations concerns their clinical orientation: for Lacan, the goal of psychoanalytic treatment is not the patient’s well-being or successful social life or personal self-fulfilment, but to bring the patient to confront the elementary coordinates and deadlocks of his or her desire.

With regard to Freud, the first thing that strikes the eye is that the lever used by Lacan in his “return to Freud” comes from outside the field of psychoanalysis: in order to unlock the secret treasures of Freud, Lacan mobilized an eclectic series of theories, from the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, through Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology, up to mathematical set theory and the philosophies of Plato, Kant, Hegel and Heidegger. No wonder most of Lacan’s key concepts do not have a counterpart in Freud’s own theory: Freud never mentions the triad of Imaginary, Symbolic and Real, he never talks about the “big Other” as the symbolic order, he speaks of “ego”, not of “subject”. Lacan uses these terms imported from other disciplines as tools to cut distinctions which are implicitly already present in Freud, even if he was not aware of them. For example, if psychoanalysis is a ‘talking cure’, if it treats pathological disturbances with words only, it has to rely on a certain notion of speech; Lacan’s thesis is that Freud was not aware of the notion of speech implied by his own theory and practice, and that we can only elaborate this notion if we refer to Saussurean linguistics, speech acts theory and the Hegelian dialectics of recognition.

Lacan’s “return to Freud” provided a new theoretical foundation of psychoanalysis with immense consequences also for analytic clinic. Controversy, crisis, scandal even, accompanied Lacan throughout his path. Not only was he, in 1953, excommunicated from the International Psycho-Analytic Association (see his Chronology) but his provocative ideas disturbed many progressive thinkers, from critical Marxists to feminists. Although, in the Western academia, Lacan is usually perceived as one of the postmodernists or deconstructionists, he clearly sticks out from the space designated by these labels. All his life, he was outgrowing labels attached to his name: phenomenologist, Hegelian, Heideggerian, structuralist, poststructuralist; no wonder, since the most outstanding feature of his teaching is permanent self-questioning.

Lacan was a voracious reader and interpreter; for him, psychoanalysis itself is a method of reading texts, oral (the patient’s speech) or written. What better way to read Lacan, then, than to practice his mode of reading, to read other’s texts with Lacan. This is why, in each chapter of this book, a passage from Lacan will confront another fragment (from philosophy, from art, from popular culture and ideology). The Lacanian position will be elucidated through the Lacanian reading of the other text. A second feature of this book is a big exclusion: it ignores almost entirely Lacan’s theory of what goes on in psychoanalytic treatment. Lacan was first and foremost a clinician, and clinical concerns permeate everything he wrote and did. Even when Lacan reads Plato, Aquinas, Hegel, or Kierkegaard, it is always to elucidate a precise clinical problem .This very all-pervasiveness of clinical concerns is what allows us to exclude them: precisely because clinic is everywhere, one can erase it and limit oneself to its effects, to the way it colors everything that appears non-clinical – this is the true test of its central place.

Instead of explaining Lacan through his historical and theoretical context, How to Read Lacan will use Lacan himself to explain our social and libidinal predicament. Instead of providing an impartial judgment, it will engage in a partisan reading – it is part of the Lacanian theory that every truth is partial. Lacan himself, in his reading of Freud, exemplifies the force of such a partial approach. In his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, T.S. Eliot remarks that there are moments when the only choice is the one between sectarianism and non-belief, i.e., when the only way to keep a religion alive is to perform a sectarian split from its main corpse. By means of his sectarian split, by cutting himself off the decaying corpse of the International Psycho-Analytic Association, Lacan kept the Freudian teaching alive – and it is upon us today to do the same with Lacan. [5]

On Reading Lacan

If one disregards occasional short texts (introductions and afterwords, transcribed improvised interventions and interviews, etc.), Lacan’s oeuvre clearly falls into two groups: seminars (conducted every week during the school-year from 1953 till Lacan’s death, in front of an ever larger public) and &#233′crits (written theoretical texts). The paradox pointed out by Jean-Claude Milner is that, in contrast to the usual way of opposing the secret oral teaching to the printed publications for the common people, Lacan’s ecrits are “elitist,” readable only to an inner circle, while his seminars are destined for the large public and, as such, much more accessible. It is as if Lacan first directly develops a certain theoretical line in a straightforward way, with all oscillations and blind alleys, and then goes on to condense the result in precise, but compressed ciphers. In fact, Lacan’s seminars and ecrits relate like analysand’s and analyst’s speech in the treatment. In seminars, Lacan acts as analysand, he “freely associates,” improvises, jumps, addressing his public, which is thus put into the role of a kind of collective analyst. In comparison, his writings are more condensed, formulaic, and they throw at the reader unreadable ambiguous propositions which often appear like oracles, challenging the reader to start working on them, to translate them into clear theses and provide examples and logical demonstrations of them. In contrast to the usual academic procedure, where the author formulates a thesis and then tries to sustain it through arguments, Lacan not only more often than not leaves this work to the reader – the reader has often even to discern what, exactly, is Lacan’s actual thesis among the multitude of conflicting formulations or the ambiguity of a single oracle-like formulation. In this precise sense, Lacan’s écrits are like an analyst’s interventions whose aim is not to provide the analysand with a ready-made opinion or statement, but to set the analysand to work.

So what and how to read? Écrits or seminars? The only proper answer is a variation on the old “tea or coffee” joke: yes, please! One should read both. If you go directly to the Écrits, you will not get anything, so you should start – but not stop – with seminars, since, if you read only seminars, you will also not get it. The impression that the seminars are clearer and more transparent than the Écrits  is deeply misleading: they often oscillate, experiment with different approaches. The proper way is to read a seminar and then go on to read the corresponding écrit to “get the point” of the seminar. We are dealing here with a temporality of Nachtraeglichkeit (clumsily translated as “deferred action”) which is proper to the analytic treatment itself: the Écrits are clear, they provide precise formulas, but we can only understand them after reading seminars which provide their background. Two outstanding cases are the Seminar VII on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis and the corresponding écrit“Kant avec Sade,” as well as the Seminar XI on The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysisand “The Position of the Unconscious.” Also significant is Lacan’s opening essay in Écrits“The Seminar on The Purloined Letter.”

More than half of Lacan’s seminars are now available in French; the English translations which follow with a delay of a couple of years are usually of a high quality. Écrits are now available only in selection (the new translation by Bruce Fink is much better than the old one). Lacan himself conferred on Jacques-Alain Miller the task to edit his seminars for publication, designating him as “the (only) one who knows to read me” – in this, he was right: Miller’s numerous writings and his own seminars are by far the best introduction to Lacan. Miller accomplishes the miracle of rendering an obscure page from ecrits completely transparent, so that one is left wondering “how is it that I did not get it myself?”


[1] Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, London: Routledge 1992, p. 307.

[2] Todd Dufresne, Killing Freud: 20th Century Culture and the Death of Psychoanalysis, London: Continuum Books 2004.

[3] Le livre noir du communisme, Paris: Robert Laffont 2000.

[4] Le livre noir de la psychanalyse: vivre, penser et aller mieux sans Freud, Paris: Arenes 2005.

[5] Since this book is an introduction to Lacan, focused on some of his basic concepts, and since this topic is the focus of my work in the last decades, I couldn’t avoid a degree of “cannibalization” of my already-published books. As an excuse, I took great care to give to each of these borrowed passages a new twist here.


Reading Žižek – Where to Start?

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