Journal of Modern Literature 26.3/4 (2003) 136-142
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Daniel T. O'Hara
Jacques Lacan is the type of intellectual that people love to hate. His style, first of all, is notoriously difficult due to its obscurity and convolution. His concepts and terms, in addition, are intentionally unstable, never finished, and always open to further revision by the master himself or his often erstwhile disciples. And his wit, although sometimes very funny in an academically Marx- brothers sort of way, is more often ponderously self-regarding and too clever by half. Finally, although he promotes himself as the true follower of his master, Freud—whose other followers got him wrong—Lacan's work represents rather a decided break with Freudian psychoanalysis than its definitive fulfillment. Why Lacan, indeed?
Jean-Michel Rabaté's Cambridge Companion to Lacan answers this basic question of the skeptical Anglo-American intellectual, and in raising even more interesting and pertinent ones, makes a major contribution to Lacan studies. Before continuing with my analysis of this volume's achievements, however, I will outline Lacan's major contribution to the theory of the human subject.
Lacan begins his work in psychiatry and then psychoanalysis not with neurotic patients but with psychotic ones. Basing himself on the phenomena of their madness, Lacan articulates a general theory of the human subject. First of all, Lacan proposes three registers (or dimensions) in which the human subject defines itself: the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real. The Imaginary can be exemplified by what Lacan designates as the mirror stage of childhood development.
During the period between six and eighteen months, Lacan argues, when the child jubilantly discovers his or her self-image in the mirror, the child also receives a model of wholeness and perfection that is both false or misleading and alienating in the end. Supported by the primary caregiver while viewing his or her own mirror image, the child, still unable to master completely his or her various bodily functions and muscular movements, beholds an image of totality that appears masterfully still or at the command of the child's every whim. Such a specular mirage haunts the child ever after with an ideal image (or its projected fantasized gaze); the child can never hope to measure up to in its life no matter what it may do. [End Page 136]
The Imaginary, then, is the dimension of aesthetic fascination and mis-recognition. But what makes this dimension possible, of course, is the presence and action of the Symbolic; in this instance, as manifested by the primary caregiver supporting the child as it gazes into the apparatus of the mirror. The Symbolic is principally what plays this supportive and in fact formative role in all of our lives; that is, it is language (in the largest sense of a rule-governed combinatory system of exchange and communication) and its institutions, such as the law, the family and the social order, generally. The primary caregiver commanding ("Look! See!) the child to regard itself in the mirror as the child is being held up to do so would be the simplest version of this Symbolic agency of language.
The production, distribution, and operation of structures in society, as theorized by Levi-Strauss' anthropology (derived as it is from Saussure's structuralist linguistics), would be the more sophisticated version of the Symbolic Order. All the formal rituals that structure otherwise irresolvable contradictions into livable if repeatable oppositions—those of the family and kinship system, of the legal system, of politics and communication, of religion and cultural life at large—this anthropological dimension of human existence is what Lacan means primarily by the Symbolic. It is, as he nicknames it, "the Big Other." It implants its psychology (neurotic or psychotic mentality) into each subject via the delegations of the family and society's communication mechanisms, particularly those of spoken discourse. "The unconscious is structured like a language" and it is "the discourse of the Other...