- Conversations with Lacan: Seven Lectures for Understanding Lacan by Sergio Benvenuto
How does Jacques Lacan speak to us today? How can we, or should we, read Lacan today? Or, as Sergio Benvenuto asks in the Foreword to Conversations with Lacan, "Which reading of Lacan can be recommended today? In other words, what is still interesting in Lacan today, what is alive of him?" (2020, p. 5). These are some of the motivating questions of Benvenuto's lucid and wide-ranging engagement with the thought, speech, and writing of Jacques Lacan. Benvenuto has published widely on a range of topics in psychoanalysis, including a fascinating approach to the gaze in modern art (Benvenuto, 2013), and this book, written in a very engaging personal style, has the feel of someone at ease in its discourses and practices.
To situate his intervention, Benvenuto summarizes three dominant approaches to reading Lacan today in the Foreword to his book: 1) scientific approaches that privilege truth and contemporary research, thereby focusing on "themes that are important," 2) the philological—or historical-hermeneutical—approaches found in history and the humanities that privilege "the texts of certain authors," and 3) a positive or negative "militant exegesis" that treats texts as "absolute" or "sacred" (2020, pp. 6–7). Examples of the third approach include the work of analysts who read Lacan to prove their positions to be "correct" (2020, p. 7). Benvenuto offers a helpful analogy to such an approach when he refers to leftists who read Marx and his inheritors to validate their own political ideology. Given this setup, Benvenuto unsurprisingly claims to practice none of the three approaches. Instead, Benvenuto's "interest is in deconstructing" Lacan, "an approach […] based on a sort of deconstructive piety" (2020, p. 8). Such a reading, he claims, will address both theoretical and clinical approaches to Lacan, as well as their limitations. This double approach remains faithful to psychoanalysis as a practice, and it also reminds readers that Benvenuto is himself a practicing analyst.
I want to begin with the book's final chapter, because it is here that Benvenuto offers the clearest gloss on the overall [End Page 772] project of Conversations with Lacan and its approach to Lacanian psychoanalysis. Benvenuto describes himself as a "layperson" in contrast to those "iron Lacanians […] who cite Lacan's utterances as if they were passages from the Bible or the Koran" (2020, p. 206). He means by this self-description that he "never take[s] anything for granted," always returning to the origin of concepts in order to start from the beginning to "requestion them" (2020, p. 206). "Lay" therefore opposes the "ecclesiastic" trends in psychoanalysis that Benvenuto opposes from the outset. Benvenuto traces "lay" to its Greek root, "laikos, which derives from laos, people" (2020, p. 207). To be a layman means, then, to be "of the people," "for the commoners," or "something vulgar" (2020, p. 207). This reference to the vulgar is immediately followed by a revealing statement: "Like these conversations of mine, which try to popularize the subject" (2020, p. 207). Benvenuto therefore understands his position as a layperson to mean one that popularizes Lacanian psychoanalysis. I will have more to say about this form of the "conversation" at the close of this review, but for now, I want to emphasize that Benvenuto's "like" analogizes his work in the book to the vulgarity of the layman and that layman's work.
There is something "democratic," then, to Benvenuto's approach to Lacan, an approach that attempts to resist the ecclesiastical and obscurantist tendency in many Lacanian schools. This democratic quality finds a surprising analogue in Lacan's own late work. With the Borromean knots, for instance, Benvenuto claims that Lacan offers a "democratic" theory of the three registers (2020, p. 217). Where Lacan's earlier writings foreground "the primacy of the symbolic," the discussion of Borromean knots, especially in Seminar XXIII, offers a model in which "the symbolic ceases to have pre-eminence over everything else: it is only one of the three rings" (2020, p. 217). Similarly, Benvenuto...