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  • Jameson’s Lacan
  • Steven Helmling

Fredric Jameson’s career-long engagement with Jacques Lacan begins in the pages on Lacan in The Prison-House of Language, with the declaration that Lacan’s work offers an “initiatory” experience rather than an expository account. It is in the spirit of that experiential or “dialectical” emphasis that Jameson proposes an off-standard response to what (he says) most people receive as Lacan’s “programmatic slogan,” that “L’inconscient, c’est le discours de l’autre”:

This seems to me a sentence rather than an idea, by which I mean that it marks out the place of a meditation and offers itself as an object of exegesis, instead of serving as the expression of a single concept.

(PHL 170–1)

In this essay I want to indicate what seem to me to be the parameters of Lacan’s importance for Jameson. I begin with this passage, in which Jameson discriminates Lacan’s “idea” from his “sentence,” in order to emphasize that Lacan and Jameson share a central problematic: the indissociability of what Lacan calls the “spirit” that motivates an enunciation and the “letter,” at once spirit’s vehicle and its betrayer, of the &eacutenouncé that “it speaks” (ça parle). I aim not to bracket “meaning” here, but to highlight what seems to me Lacan’s most immediate interest for Jameson, namely his sense, both as a problem for exposition and as the condition or “motivation” of his gnomic, enigma-mongering prose style, of what Jameson calls “the mystery of the incarnation of meaning in language” (PHL 169).

Jameson subsequently elaborates this “mystery” into the antagonism between the inevitability of “meaning,” its social, collective, constructed, conditioned, and thus (for Jameson) ideological character, and a Cartesian ideology of the self or “subject” that is rooted in and implies a speaker’s desire (futile perhaps, but only the more poignant for that) to “mean” things that haven’t been meant before, to make new and “original” meanings, to escape the entrapment (what Jameson calls the “ideological closure”) imposed by the “order of the signifier.” At issue are the ways in which how “it” is said may change or affect what is said—an issue, or “motivation,” fundamental to the deliberate, self-conscious, and exorbitant “difficulty” of both Jameson’s and Lacan’s notoriously idiosyncratic prose styles. For Jameson, Lacan’s writing is exemplary in not merely enacting, but inflicting upon the reader, all the dilemmas (inside/outside, same/different, surface/depth, written/spoken, temporal/spatial) to which highbrow postmodernity finds itself returning like a dog to a bone. Reading Lacan, your bafflement can’t decide whether you are trying to gain entry to something, or effect an escape from it—even if (indeed, no matter how many times) you’ve already surmised that the best model this prose offers of itself is the Lacanian “Real,” whose definitive measure is the success or failure with which it “resists symbolization absolutely.” This is a prose in which the law of non-contradiction does not prevail, a medium solvent enough to diffuse, but also stiff enough to suspend, every precipitate released into or catalyzed within it.1

Jameson accesses the multifold issues entangled here by way of a term he borrows from the opening pages of Barthes’s S/Z, “the scriptible”—not the “culinary” pleasure of “the lisible,” the “readerly” text so consumably written that (so to speak) it does your reading for you, but rather a “writerly” kind of writing that is (Jameson’s word, not Barthes’s) “dialectical”: “sentences,” as Jameson puts it in “The Ideology of the Text” (1975/6), “whose gestus arouses the desire to emulate it, sentences that make you want to write sentences of your own (IT1 21; “sentence” here, as elsewhere in Jameson, is a code-word for “the scriptible”—as in the quotation above, “a sentence rather than an idea”). The notion of “gestus” here suggests something physical, somatic: textuality as not a condition or premise of writing or language as such, but, more contingently, an energy, a contagion of excitement that prompts an “emulation” evidently free of the “anxieties of influence” so potently featured in Harold Bloom’s conception of...

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