- Purchase/rental options available:
American Imago 58.3 (2001) 685-706
[Access article in PDF]
Postures and Impostures:
On Lacan's Style and Use of Mathematical Science
Jason Glynos &
Lacan makes difficult reading. No doubt about it. This, at least, is common ground to sympathizers and detractors of Lacan alike. Clearly, it is an understatement to say that when mathematical science is added to the equation, things do not become any easier. Most of us already feel insecure with the simplest of mathematical statements, let alone references to esoteric-sounding subdisciplines such as general topology or knot theory.
When we inquire into the make-up of the universe, all the way from distant galaxies and supernovae to cells, synapses, and quarks, we are not surprised when confronted with a discourse that sounds foreign to us. Scientific discourse is, by and large, opaque and filled with impenetrable jargon that takes considerable time and will to master. People do not expect to understand quantum mechanics and are happy to concede ignorance. On the other hand, when we inquire into human nature, psychic processes, identities and emotions, and the workings of the mind, we expect the corresponding models and discourse to be easily understood. This is because they are supposed to be telling us something about ourselves--something, in other words, over which we each can claim some authority and knowledge. It is a natural expectation that is deeply ingrained. So much so that scientists themselves express frustration at the mind's reluctance to yield its secrets. So when Lacanian psychoanalysis--which purports to be such a discourse about ourselves--appears to make every effort to thwart straightforward understanding, when Lacan hesitates [End Page 685] not a jot in enlisting mathematical science to his cause, this cannot but seem to add insult to injury.
No one likes to feel stupid. A very rare person indeed is she who, having struggled to make sense of Lacan's Écrits, has not entertained such thoughts of vulnerability. This vulnerability is only exacerbated if a Lacanian seminar or essay has been recommended as reading material by a friend or professor whom we respect. It is a vulnerability that can very quickly turn to frustration, intimidation, and even anger.
Just imagine, then, what would happen if someone came along and declared Lacan to be an impostor. Let us assume, futher, that this "someone" is a well-respected scientist, no less. Current affairs commentaries, press releases, editorials, and radio programs suddenly become flooded with the common knowledge that "the emperor has no clothes"; that Lacan's difficult, even tortuous, discourse is nothing more than an exercise in obscurantism of Joycean proportions; that Lacan's mathematical forays bear absolutely no relation to psychoanalysis. Just imagine the relief and satisfaction! In a society governed by the "sound-bite" imperative, we can now with clear consciences set aside that weighty volume.
This story is not just a story. It is a story that goes some way toward explaining the popularity of a recent bestseller by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont (hereafter S&B), entitled Intellectual Impostures (1997). It is a book in which the authors, both scientists, take issue with the way mathematical science is invoked in the works of a multitude of French intellectuals: Kristeva, Irigaray, Latour, Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, Virilio, and Lacan.
Alan Sokal, professor of physics at NYU, in particular, has taken upon himself the task of defending an orthodox conception of scientific discourse against an apparent assault originating in the Parisian intellectual scene--an assault that has acquired hegemonic status in certain circles of Western academia. He initiated his counterassault by writing a consciously "bogus" piece on the hermeneutics of quantum gravity and submitting it for publication. After the article was accepted and published in the journal Social Text (Sokal 1996a), he promptly revealed it as a hoax--the so-called "Sokal hoax" [End Page 686] (Sokal 1996b)--thus sparking an interesting and fruitful international debate on the intellectual standards of postmodern academia (see Aronowitz 1997; Robbins 1996). Intellectual Impostures, however, seeks to raise the stakes even...