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An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis

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Evans, Dylan. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. 2003. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Back Cover

Jacques Lacan is arguably the most original and influential psychoanalytic thinker since Freud. His ideas have revolutionized the clinical practice of psychoanalysis and continue to have a major impact in fields as diverse a film studies, literary criticism, feminist theory and philosophy. Lacan's writings are notorious for their complexity and idiosyncratic style and "An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis" will be invaluable for reading in every discipline where his influence is felt.

Detailed definitions are provided for over two hundred Lacanian terms. Attention is given both to Lacan's use of common psychoanalytic terms an how his own terminology developed through the various stages of his teaching. Taking full account of the clinical basis of Lacan's work, the dictionary details the historical and institutional background to Lacanian ideas. Each major concept is traced back to its origins in the work of Freud, Saussure, Hege and otbers.

An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis provides a unique source of reference for psychoanalysts in training and in practice. Placing Lacan's ideas in their clinical context, the dictionary is also an ideal companion for readers in other disciplines.

DYLAN EVANS trained as a Lacanian psychoanalyst in Buenos Aires, London and Paris. He is a Lecturer in Psychoanalytic Studies at the University of Brunel and is in private practice in London.


"My discourse proceeds in the following way: each term is sustained only in its topological relation with the others." Jacques Lacan (SI 1, 89)

Psychoanalytic theories are languages in which to discuss psychoanalytic treatment. Today there are many such languages, each with its own particular lexis and syntax.

The fact that these languages use many of the same terms, inherited from Freud, can create the impression that they are in fact all dialects of the same language. Such an impression is, however, misleading. Each psychoanalytic theory articulates these terms in a unique way, as well as introducing new terms of its own, and is thus a unique language, ultimately untranslatable. One of the most importailt psychoanalytic languages in use today is that developed by the French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan (1901-1981). This dictionary is an attempt to explore and elucidate this language, which bas often been accused of being inflatingly, obscure and sometimes of constituting a totally incomprehensible 'psychotic' system. This obscurity has even been seen as a (deliberate attempt to ensure that Lacanian discourse remains the exclusive properity of a small intellectual elite, and to protect it from external criticism. If this is the case, then this dictionary is a move in the other direction, an attempt to open Lacanian discourse up top wider scrutiny and critical engagement.

The dictionary is an ideal way of exploiting language since it has the same structure as a language; it is a synchronic system in which the terms have no positive existence, since they are each defined by their mutual differences; it is a closed, self-referential structure in which meaning is nowhere fully present but always delayed in continual metonymy; it defines each term by reference to other terms and thus denies the novice reader any point of entry (and, to refer to a Lacanian formula, if their is no point of entry, there can be no sexual relationship).)

Many others have perceived the value of the dictionary as a tool for exploring psychoailalytic theory. The most famous example is the classic dictionary of psychoanalysis by Laplanche and Pontalis (1967). There is also the short dictionary by Rycroft (1968) which is extremely readable. In addition to these two dictionaries which concentrate mainly on Freud, there are also dictionaries of Kleinian psychoanalysis (Hinshelwood, 1989), of Jungian psychoanalysis (Samuels et al., 1986), and of psychoanalysis and feminism (Wright, 1992).

A dictionary of Lacanian psychoanalysis is conspicuous by its absence from the above list. It is not that no such dictionary has yet been written; there are, in fact, a number of dictionaries in French that deal extensively with Lacanian terms (Chemama, 1993; Kauftman, 1994), and even a humorous Lacanian dictionary (Saint-Drôme, 1994).

However, none of these has yet been translated, and thus the anglophone student of Lacan bas been left without a useful tool of reference. The dictionaries by Laplanche and Pontalis (1967) and by Wright (1992) include articles on some Lacanian terms, but not many.

A few English-language publications have included glossaries which provide a key to a number of Lacanian terms (e.g. Sheridan, 1977; Roustang, 1986), but these too include only a few terms, with extremely brief remarks attached to each. The present work will therefore go some way towards filling an obvious gap in reference material in psychoanalysis.

While many have seen the value of the dictionary as a tool for exploring psychoanalytical languages not so many have been fully aware of the dangers involved.

One important danger is that by emphasizing the synchronic structure of language, the dictionary can obscure the diachronic dimension. All languages, including those which are otherwise known as psychoanalytic theories, are in a continual state of flux, since they change with use. By overlooking this dimension, the dictionary can create the erroneous impression that languages are fixed unchanging entities.

This dictionary attempts to avoid this danger by incorporating etymological information wherever appropriate and by giving some indication of how Lacan's discourse evolved over the course of his teaching. Lacan's engagement with psychoanalytic theory spans fifty years, and it is hardly surprising that his discourse underwent important changes during this time. However, these changes are not always well understood.

Broadly speaking, there are two main ways of misrepresenting them. On the one hand, some commentators present the development of Lacan's thought in terms of dramatic and sudden 'epistemological breaks'; 1953, for example, is sometimes presented as the moment of a radically new 'linguistic turn' in Lacan's work. On the other hand, some writers go to the other extreme and present Lacan's work as a single unfolding narrative with no changes of direction, as if all the concepts existed from the beginning.

In discussing how the various terms in Lacan's discourse undergo semantic shifts during the course of his work, l have tried to avoid both of these errors. By showing how the changes are often gradual and hesitant, l hope to problematise the simplistic narratives of epistemological breaks. One important point that such narratives ignore is that whenever Lacan's terms acquire new meanings, they never lose their older ones; his theoretical vocabulary advances by means of accretion rather than mutation. On the other hand, by pointing out the changes and semantic shifts, l hope to counter the illusion that all of Lacan's concepts are always already there (an illusion which Lacan himself condemns; Lacan, 1966c: 67). In this way it should be possible to appreciate both the elements that remain constant in Lacan's teaching and those that shift and evolve.

The dictionary contains entries for over two hundred terms used by Lacan in the course of his work. Many new terms could have been included, and the main criterion for selecting these terms rather than others is one of frequency. The reader will therefore find entries for such terms as 'symbolic', 'neurosis', and other such terms which figure prominently in Lacan's work, but not to other terms such as 'holophrase', which Lacan only discusses on three or tour occasions.

In addition to terms frequently employed by Lacan, a few other terms have been included which Lacan employs infrequently or not at all. In this group are terms which serve to provide a historical and theoretical context for Lacan's own terms (e.g. 'Kleinian psychoanalysis'), and terms which bring together an important set of related themes in his work which would otherwise be distributed among disparate entries (e.g. 'sexual difference').

Besides the criteria of frequency and contextual information, the selection o terms has also, inevitably, been governed by my own particular way of reading Lacan. Another writer, with a different reading of Lacan, would undoubtedly have made a different selection of terms. l do not pretend that the reading implicit in my selection of terms is the only or the best reading of Lacan. It is one reading of Lacan among many, as partial and selective as any other.

The partiality and limitations of this dictionary concern not only the matter of the selection of terms, but also the matter of sources. Thus the dictionary is not based on the complete works of Lacan, which have not yet been published in their entirety, hut only on a selection of his works (mainly the published works, plus a few unpublished ones), This almost exclusive reliance on published material means that there are inevitably gaps in the dictionary. However, as Lacan himself points out, the condition of any reading is, of course, that it impose limits on itself' (S20, 62).

The aim has not been, therefore, to present a work of the same breadth an detail as the classic dictionary by Laplanche and Pontalis, but merely to present a broad outline of the most salient terms in Lacanian discourse; hence the adjective 'introductory' in the title. At a future date it may be possible to produce a more comprehensive and detailed edition of this dictionary based o Lacan's complete works, but the current absence of any English-language dictionary of Lacanian thought is perhaps sufficient justification for publishing the work in its present incomplete and rudimentary state. This dictionary may thus be thought of as a resistance, in the way Lacan defined resistance, a 'the present state of an interpretation' (S2, 228).

Another self-imposed limitation has been the decision to restrict reference to secondary sources to a minimum. Thus the reader will find few allusions to Lacan's commentators and intellectual heirs. To exclude references to the work of present-day Lacanian analysts is not such a grave omission as it might seem, since this work has consisted almost entirely of commentaries on Lacan rather than of radically original developments (the work of Jacques-Alain Miller is a notable exception. Such a scenario is completely different to that of Kein's thought, which has been developed in very original ways by such followers as Paula Heimann, Wilfred Bion, Doviald Meltzer and others.

However, to exclude references to the work of Lacal's more radical critics, such as Jacques Derrida, Helèna Cixous and Luce lrigaray, or to those who have applied his work in the fields of literary criticism and film theory, may seem a more glaring omission. There are two main reasons for this omission. Firstly, it is often forgotten in the English-speaking world that Lacan's work is first and foremost aimed at providing analysts with help in conducting analytic treatment.

By excluding ref'erences to the applications of Lacan's work in literary criticism, film studies and feminist theory I hope to emphasise this point and thus to counter the neglect of Lacan's clinical basis by his English speaking readers. Secondly, l also want to encourage the reader to engage directly with Lacan self, on Lacans own terms, without prejudicing the debate for or against him by reference to his admirers or to his critics.

However, there are some exceptions to this rule of omission, when the debate around a particular term has seemed to be so important that it would be misleading to omit all refererence to it (e.g. "phallus", "gaze")

My decision to stress the critical basis of Lacan's work is ot aimes at excluding non analysts engaging with Lacan. 0n the contrary; the dictionary is aimed not only at psychoanalysts, but also at readers approaching Lacan's work from other disciplines. Lacan himself actively encouraged debate between psychoanalysts and philosphers, linguists, mathematicians, anthropologists and others, and today there is growing interest in Lacanian psychoanalysis in many other areas especially in fillm studies, feminist theory and literary criticism. For those with backgrounds in these disciplines the difficulties involved in reading Lacan can be especially great precisely due to their unfamiliarity with the dynamics of psychoanalytie treatment. By stresslng the clinical basis of Lacans's work, l hope to situate the terms in their proper context and thus make them clearer to readers who are not psychoanalysts. It is my belief that this is important even for those readers who wish to use Lacan's w ork in other areas such as cultural theory.

Another probleni for readers approaching Lacan's work from non-psychoanalytic backgrounds may be the unfamiliarity with the Freudian tradition in which Lacan worked. ]'his dictionary addresses this issue by presenting, in many cases, a short summary of the way Freud used the term, before outlining the specifically Lacanian usage. Because of their brevity, these summaries run the risk of oversimplifying complex concepts, and will undoubtedly strike those more familiar with Freuds work as somewhat rudimentary. Nevertheless, it is hoped that they will helpful to those readers unversed in Freud.

Given the wide range of readers at whom this dictionary is aimed one problem has been to decide the level of complexity at which to pitch the entries. The solution attempted here has been to pitch different entries at different levels. There is thus a basic core of entries pitched at a low level of complexity, some of which present the most fundamental terms in Lacan's discourse (e.g. 'psychoanalysis', 'mirror stage', 'language'), while others sketch the historical context in which these terms evolved (e.g. Freud (return to), 'International Psycho-Analytical Association', 'school', 'seminar', 'ego psychology'). These entries then refer the reader to more complex terms, which are pitched at a higher level and which the beginner should not hope to grasp immediately. This will I hope allow the reader to find some kind of direction in navigating through the dictionary. However, the dictionary is not an 'introduction to Lacan'; there are already plenty of introductory works on Lacan available in English (e.g. Benvenuto and Kennedy, 1986; Bowie, 1991; Grosz, 1990; Lemaire, 1970; Sarup, 1992), including some excellent ones (e.g. 7-iYek, 1991; Leader, 1995). The dictionary is, rather, an introductory reference book, a guide which the reader may refer back to in order to answer a specific question or to follow up a particular line of inquiry. It is not meant to be a substitute for reading Lacan, but a companion to such reading. For this reason copious page references have been provided throughout the dictionary, the intention being to allow the reader to go back to the text and place the references in context.

Another problem concerns the issue of translation. Different translators have used different words to render Lacan's terminology into English. For example Alan Sheridan and John Forrester render Lacan's opposition between sens and signification as 'meaning' and 'signification', whereas Stuart Schneiderman prefers 'sense' and 'meaning' respectively. Anthony Wilden renders parole as 'word', whereas Sheridan prefers 'speech'. In all cases, I have followed Sheridan's usage, on the grounds that it is his translations of Lacan's écrits and The Seminar, Book XI, he four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis that are still the main texts for readers of Lacan in English. In order to avoid possible confusion, the French terms used by Lacan are also given along with the English translations. I have also followed Sheridan's practice of leaving certain terms untranslated (e.g. jouissance), again on the grounds that this has become established practice in anglophone Lacanian discourse (although I personally agree with Forrester's criticisms of such a practice; see Forrester, 1990: 99-101).

The one issue on which I differ from Sheridan is my decision to leave his algebraic symbols in their original form. For exampie I have left the symbols A and a as they are, rather than translating them as 0 and o as Sheridan does. Not only is this common practice in translating Lacan into other languages (such as Spanish and Portuguese), but Lacan himself preferred his 'little letters' to remain untranslated. Furthermore, as has become clear at the various international conferences of Lacanian psychoanalysis, it is very useful for analysts with different mother-tongues to have some basic symbols i common which can facilitate their discussions of Lacan. With respect to the English words used to translate Freud's German terms, have generallly adopted those used by James Strachey in the Standard Edition with the exception (now common practice) of rendering Trieb as 'drive' rathe than 'instinct'. Another, more fundamental problem is the paradox involved in the very act of writing a dictionary of Lacanian terms. Dictionaries usually attempt to pin down the meanings of each term and eradicate ambiguity. The whole thrust of Lacan's discourse, however, subverts any such attempt to halt the continual slippage of the signified bed under the signifier. His styie, notorious for its difficulty and complexity, was, argues Derrida, deliberately constructed 's as to check almost permanently any access to an isolatable content, to a unequivocal, determinable meaning beyond writing' (Derrida, 1975: 420). To attempt to provide 'adequate definitions' for Lacan's terms would therefore bre completely at odds with Lacan's work. as Alan Sheridan remarks in his translators notes in "Écrits". In Sheridan's short glossary of' Lacanian terms, which appears in the same translators note, he popints out that Lacan himself preferred that certain terms be left without any comment at all, 'on the grounds that any comment would prejudice its effective operation (Sheridan, 1977: vn). In these cases, Lacan prefers to leave 'the reader to develop an appreciation of the concepts in the course of their use' (Sheridan 1977: xi).

On the basis of these comments it would seem that, contrary to my initial statements about a dictionary being an ideal way to explore Lacan's work nothing could be further from the spirit of that work than to enclose it in a dictionary. Perhaps this is true. It is certainly true that no one ever learned language by reading a dictionary. However, l have not tried to provide adequate definitions' for each term, but simply to evoke some of the complexity, to show something of the way they shift during the course of Lacan's work, and to provide some indication of the overall architecture o Lacan's discourse. As the entries are arranged in alphabetical order, instead of being ordered according to a particular construction, readers can start wherever they wish, and then refer back to Lacan's texts and/or follow the cross references to other terms in the dictionary. In this way, each reader will find their own way through the dictionary, as each one, as Lacan himself would have said, is led by their desire to know.