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Psychoanalytic Theory and Criticism: 3. The Post-Lacanians

Second Edition 2005

In the late 1930s jacques lacan began challenging a number of conclusions long advanced by many psychoanalytic theorists and analysts. Lacan not only inveighed against the approach of American ego psychologists and its emphasis on the stability of the ego as a betrayal of Freudian thought but redefined the ego in relation to the "subject" of structural linguistics and semiotics. In his "return to Freud," Lacan attempted to find rigorously psychoanalytic explanations for the ego’s relation to the most important of psychoanalytic concepts—the unconscious—the psychic agency Lacan reconceived in semiotic terms and claimed was "structured like a language." Consistent with the poststructuralist reconception of the "subject," this line of thought eventually led to far-reaching changes in psychoanalytic practice in France and beyond regarding how therapy is conducted and how it effects cures.

This new thinking, characteristic of post–World War II anti-Hegelianism among French intellectuals, also engendered widespread reconsideration of psychoanalysis’s institutional function to the point that many in France took Lacan to be a prime instigator (because he was challenging established institutions) of the May 1968 uprisings by French students and workers. In the 1970s and 1980s a new wave of French theorists and critics trained or influenced by Lacan began to extend or revise psychoanalysis even further to address institutional and ideological issues more directly. They argued that Lacan did not go far enough in probing precisely the areas characterizing his discourse: the psychoanalytic dimensions of the "subject" ; psychoanalysis as both a clinical practice and a cultural institution; and psychoanalysis as ideologically committed and engaged.

These post-Lacanians included contributors in the late 1960s and 1970s to the French journal Tel Quel,feminists influenced by deconstruction, and Continental critics of the political Left. Some tended to combine Lacan’s insights with other perspectives as an attempt to galvanize both sides but made no fundamental changes in Lacan’s precepts. hélène cixous’s criticism belongs in this category in that she incorporated Lacanian strategies in feminism and deconstruction but did not challenge psychoanalytic discourse. This "additive" approach includes the ongoing work of Shoshana Felman, julia kristeva, Stephen Heath, and Colin MacCabe, among others. More demanding of concessions from psychoanalysis is the theoretical orientation of luce irigaray. In yet another group are judith butler as well as gilles deleuze and félix guattari, who have moved beyond psychoanalysis to challenge and recast its theoretical concerns and its function as an institutional representation of culture.

Throughout the last thirty years, many of these theorists have debated the nature of Lacan’s account of sexuation. However, a group of Lacanian critics that emerged in the 1990s express less interest in questioning the way sexual difference structures subject formation in Lacan’s work as Irigaray and Butler do. Instead, they explore Lacan’s ideas about the Real to reinvigorate metaphysics—in particular the philosophy of immanuel kant, g. w. f. hegel, and karl marx and friedrich engels. A group of intellectuals often referred to as the "Slovenian Lacanians" falls into this category. Among the better known of these intellectuals is slavoj žižek, who rereads Hegel’s philosophy through Lacan and resituates Lacan as a philosopher. In Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology (1993), for example, Žižek builds a case for considering Lacan as a transcendental philosopher on the basis that Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory offers a sort of critique of pure desire as it probes the question how desire is possible (3). Žižek’s elaboration of Lacan’s thought has not been without some controversy, however. In Contingency, Hegemony, Universality (2000) Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Žižek debate the viability of the Real, as well as whether the Lacanian view of subject formation is compatible with antonio gramsci’s notion of hegemony. More recently, Alenka Zupančič has followed in Žižek’s path, combining psychoanalytic theory and social philosophy by interpreting Kant through Lacan, and vice versa, in Ethics of the Real: Kant, Lacan (2000).

Finally, scholars such as Lawrence A. Rickels and Todd Dufresne have made specific aspects of Lacan’s theory a less prominent feature of their work; they critique instead the development of psychoanalytic theory as an institutional discourse. In Rickels’s three-volume Nazi Psychoanalysis (2002), for example, he illuminates the ways that psychoanalysis gained legitimacy as it was coopted to advance the war causes of the German and American military during World War II. Todd Dufresne takes a similarly historical approach in reevaluating the ideas of sigmund freud and Lacan by tracing the cultural influences on psychoanalytic thought. Although these more recent thinkers take key concepts such as the Real in new directions or reassess greater psychoanalysis as a whole, one of the primary remaining touchstones for intellectuals interrogating psychoanalytic theory has been the issue of sexual difference.

Kristeva, for instance, has followed Lacan in her conception of the subject and in her problematical approach to the woman question: "A woman cannot ‘be’; it is something which does not even belong in the order of being" (Marks and de Courtivron 137). As for writing, Kristeva sees women as facing two alternatives: either valorizing "phallic dominance, associated with the privileged father-daughter relationship, which gives rise to the tendency toward mastery," or valorizing "a silent underwater body," which entails the choice of marginalization (Marks and de Courtivron 166). The alternative she proposes is that women assume a negative function, one that would reject whole structures and explode social codes.

Likewise, Michèle Montrelay, who sees her writing as a contribution to a better understanding of the laws, structure, and dynamic of the unconscious, is convinced that "in our civilization, psychoanalysis, as theory and as treatment, is one of the most precious, highest, most symbolic forms of freedom" (Jardine and Menke 254) and emphasizes the political aspect of her work. In L’Ombre et le nom (1977)she attempts to probe psychoanalytic concepts, such as the assumption of woman as a "dark continent" and others concerning gender relations that continue to function within Freudian discourse. Often close to representing femininity in traditional terms—the feminine as the shadow and the outside that supports culture—Montrelay is also concerned with exposing the phallocentric bias in the Lacanian ethical hierarchy that privileges the Symbolic over the Imaginary. Rather than attempting to reverse the hierarchy, she proposes to shift the emphasis away from a hierarchy of values and to regard the Imaginary, not as "the poor relative," but as necessary to give consistency to the Symbolic (Montrelay 155–56).

Of course, many of these thinkers have been concerned with the problematical nature of the question of feminine subjectivity in Lacan. By discussing the subject solely in masculine terms, Lacan canceled out woman, and only too often he has reaffirmed that it is in the phallus that we find "the signifier intended to designate as a whole the effects of the signified, in that the signifier conditions them by its presence as signifier" (Écrits: A Selection 285). Many have agreed with Lacan’s notion that "there is no woman but excluded by the nature of things which is the nature of words" (Séminaire 68) but have objected to what follows: "and it has to be said that if there is one thing about which women themselves are complaining at the moment, it is well and truly that—it is just that they don’t know what they are saying, which is all the difference between them and me" (68). Indeed, much effort has been spent turning this lack to the advantage of women by devising strategies that, by revealing the ways in which femininity disrupts symbolic structures, also indicate the ways in which it circulates and inscribes itself. Woman’s language, according to many feminists, will be found by returning to the pre-Oedipal union with the mother.

However, feminists such as Butler question whether such a return is even possible and instead seek other strategies for destabilizing structures that reify phallic privilege in the Symbolic. In Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990)Butler criticizes Lacan’s theoretical construction of the Symbolic on the grounds that it is too deterministic and does not account for the variations, imperfections, and alterations that can take place in the signifying structures defining gender and reinforcing phallic privilege: "The alternative perspective that emerges from psychoanalytic theory suggests that multiple and coexisting identifications produce conflicts, convergences, and innovative dissonances within gender configurations which contest the fixity of masculine and feminine placements with respect to paternal law" (67). Contending that there is no inside or outside to culture, no a priori state of being, prediscursive reality, or pre-Oedipal state, Butler also reworks Lacan’s ideas about the mirror stage and the Symbolic in Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (1993)to demonstrate how universal applications of Lacan’s theories fail to describe a number of complications—that identification and desire are not always separate, mutually exclusive developments and that heterosexist assumptions underlie the Oedipal narrative in psychoanalysis.

Similarly committed to a more radical strategy, other critics of psychoanalysis do accept primary semiotic and structuralist advances of Lacan’s thought and have worked in light of these assumptions to displace the traditional idea of a subject (as an ego) and to deconstruct the traditional Freudian idea of desire. This is the direction of the transformative psychoanalytic critiques of Nicholas Abraham, Maria Torok, Deleuze, and Guattari—the last two, in particular, influencing those who wanted to go "beyond" primary Freudian concepts and Lacanian innovations such as the subject, the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real. They focus mainly on "Oedipus," Freud’s master plot for familial and social organization, the narrative that evokes, first, fantasies of unity expressing infantile idealizations of parental care; second, fantasies of alienation, rupture, and "morcellation" associated with the assertion of paternal and cultural authority; and third, the partial reclamation of childhood fantasies in conjunction with adult responsibility and maturity. Likewise, several French feminists of the 1960s, Cixous among them, sought to meld psychoanalytic procedures with feminist projects for the reclamation of women’s culture.

Shoshana Felman’s work belongs in this area. Authoritative, wide-ranging, and always lucid, she has helped to shape Lacanian studies since the mid-1970s. And along with Anthony Wilden, Jane Gallop, and Ellie Ragland-Sullivan, she has been committed to exploring literary and cultural criticism in relation to what she frequently calls the force of Lacan’s teaching, his "revolutionary" pedagogy. Her work indicates, moreover, the movement of Lacanian studies in the 1980s toward an appreciation of Lacanian practice as actively engaged with postmodern and avant-garde modes of thought.

For Felman, Lacan’s great contribution to contemporary culture is his teaching about rhetorical "performance" and "cognition," doing and knowing. She draws on speech-act philosopher J. L. Austin’s definition of the "performative" as rhetorical enactment, language use as separate as possible from what it conveys, a pure doing. The "constative," or cognitive, is what rhetoric creates, meaning as pure sense conveyed apart from how it came to be. The "revolutionary" dimension of Lacan’s pedagogy for Felman is the dialogism of the performative and constative, how in practice they undermine, deconstruct, and yet inform each other. The interactions of doing and undoing form the dynamic basis, Felman says, of psychoanalysis’s "ineradicable newness" (Literary 12), its evergreen vitality and unceasing "revolutionary" nature. Building on this insight, Lacan has shown experience, largely unconscious, to be structured like a language, since human behavior manifests the dialectical interaction of conscious and unconscious experience, the double writing of that which is enacted beyond what can ever be known at any one moment.

In Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight (1987)Felman wants to bring pedagogy into psychoanalysis, which Lacan conceived to be fundamentally and already a teaching anyway, and to show that a pedagogue should teach in relation to the student’s "unmeant knowledge" (77), the unconscious as it is inscribed but at the same time hidden in teaching as a kind of text. The "unmeant" is of paramount importance because "teaching, like analysis has to deal not so much with lack of knowledge as with resistances to knowledge" (79), unmeant knowledge being significant because its lapses and breaks are unconsciously motivated. In a reversal of priorities, Felman virtually promotes "ignorance" and decenters "learning" as the primary preoccupation of teaching. Felman’s rendition of Lacan is an implicit plea for adoption of a complex and subtle response to pedagogic discourse: respect for the "Other" conceived as the unconscious within language, respect given through the performative enactment of reading the unconscious text by actively recognizing resistances and absences and "unmeant" knowledge. Felman argues in her discussions of literature, criticism, and education that humans must read and interpret psychoanalytically so as to respond to the radical alterity of the impossibilities posed by the Other. In actual practice, her reading of literature focuses on the rhetorical dimension of hiddenness in texts, that which emerges when one reads the patterns of rhetorical strategy in a text as well as the achieved effects of rhetoric.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have moved in their own work from avant-garde experiments and probings of contemporary discourse to radical discursive practices. As an academic philosopher, for example, Deleuze began his career with typically "modern" topics such as those in Empirisme et subjectivité (1953, Empiricism and Subjectivity: An Essay on Hume’s Theory of Human Nature, 1991)and La Philosophie critique de Kant (1963, Kant’s Critical Philosophy: The Doctrine of the Faculties, 1984). Guattari began his work as a psychoanalyst trained in Lacan’s school in Paris, and beginning in 1953 he also practiced at La Borde Clinic, a radical experiment in providing noninstitutionalized versions of therapy. In different ways, in other words, both theorists performed early "immanent" critiques of contemporary psychoanalytic and other discourses. When they began working together, they moved toward radically "transformative" critique of the sort called for by Cixous and Irigaray.

Deleuze and Guattari, in short, seek to critique psychoanalysis in order to transform it altogether, ultimately to destroy it by unmasking its ideological foundation in the values of bourgeois culture. Accordingly, their move in this area is aimed at psychoanalytic "theory" but just as intently at psychoanalysis as an institutional representation of culture in its bourgeois and patriarchal dimensions. Their L’Anti-Oedipe: Capitalisme et schizophrénie (1972, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 1983)and Mille Plateaux (1980, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 1987)try to dissect psychoanalysis so as to institute truly new understandings and discourses for contemporary culture on the ashes of the old along three lines. First, they try to expose the nature of repression and castration as fundamental to psychoanalytic machinery. Second, they critique the psychoanalytic characterization of the unconscious as an ideal of static being rather than active production. And third, they try to expose the situating of discourse within the hegemonic constraints of the Oedipal narrative.

Deleuze and Guattari reject this notion of repression and castration as "molar" —blanket conceptions, a cluster of suppressed assumptions united in an ideologically motivated pattern that is taken mistakenly to be "scientific" and "naturally" the way humans function. The buried supposition behind the term "castration," as Deleuze and Guattari show, is "that there is finally only one sex, the masculine, in relation to which the woman, the feminine, is [also] defined as a lack, an absence" (Anti-Oedipus 294). Deleuze and Guattari challenge this hegemonic version of cultural regulation as promulgated to advance a "molar" (and essentialist) conception of males. By contrast, the "molecular," nonessentialist conception of the unconscious, like the repression that engenders it, "knows nothing of castration," precisely because castration as such is an ideologically motivated construct not attributable to the operation of repression (295). Deleuze and Guattari seek to explode the concept of castration as a form-giving and unifying concept and speak instead of the unconscious producing positive "multiplicities" and "flows" (295), potentially not just "two sexes, but n sexes," perhaps "a hundred thousand" (296).

What allows the constitution of such "molar" conceptions of castration to begin with is Freud’s conception of the unconscious as a static representation. The fact of the unconscious as such is not objectionable, and to a certain point Freud conceived of the unconscious as the site of the "production of desire." Deleuze and Guattari, without irony, call this conception the "great discovery of psychoanalysis" (Anti-Oedipus 24). The problem comes, rather, in Freud’s attempt to bury the unconscious "beneath a new brand of idealism" and to associate it with the representation(rather than production) of "a classical theater" of "myth, tragedy, [and] dreams" (24). In short, Freud, and Lacan after him, connects the unconscious, in a detour through Greek myth, inextricably with the family and the ideological investments inherent to the West.

The final target of Deleuze and Guattari’s attack on psychoanalysis and patriarchal culture in general is Oedipus. The three areas of their attack are interrelated, and certainly the attack on Oedipus recapitulates that on the "familial" version of the unconscious. But Oedipus is an even broader concept and must be seen not merely as an ideological interpretation of psychological functions but in a broader, political sense, as Mark Seem asserts, "the [very] figurehead of imperialism [and] ‘colonization’" (Anti-Oedipus xx). Oedipus is a construct "more powerful . . . than psychoanalysis, than the family, than ideology, even joined together" (122) and encompasses the whole of the hegemonic regime that is "Western culture" ; it is "Oedipus" at this encompassing level that Deleuze and Guattari oppose in their fervor to be "anti-Oedipal."

Deleuze and Guattari project the "post-Oedipal" as a world without the genital and Oedipal organization characteristic of Western culture. The loss of this traditional genital economy will yet produce, among many other things, a radically liberated human body, a "body without organs" (Thousand 285), a body of energy "flows" and "excesses" that is capable of "becoming an animal" (259) in the specific sense that psychoanalysis, with its Western belief in castration and Oedipal commitments, "doesn’t understand becoming an animal" (259). However one may understand "becoming an animal" or the a-linear logic and irrationality of the "rhizome" (or a-paternal) economy of culture as discussed in A Thousand Plateaus, it is clear that Deleuze and Guattari want to violate and suspend Western ideology as they find it figured in the schemata of psychoanalysis. They advocate the pursuit of ratios and economies of experience other than those Freud could conceive in his own recapitulation of the values and commitments already evident in Western culture from the ancient Greeks forward. As literary critics, they tend to be deconstructive readers who challenge and dismantle the unities of realism and its metonymic effects of familiarity in a text. Ultimately, they wish to deconstruct the textual authority of the paternal metaphor that is at the heart of Oedipus.

Sharla Hutchison

Chiara Briganti

Robert Con Davis-Undiano

TOP Bibliography

See also judith butler, hélène cixous, gilles deleuze and félix guattari, french theory and criticism: 5. 1945 to 1968 and 6. 1968 and after, luce irigaray, julia kristeva, jacques lacan, and slavoj žižek.

See bibliographies in judith butler, hélène cixous, gilles deleuze and félix guattari, luce irigaray, julia kristeva, and slavoj žižek for additional texts by those writers. Primary Sources

Alain Badiou, Deleuze: La Clameur de l’être 1997, Deleuze: The Clamor of Being Louise Burchill, trans. , 1999; Alain Badiou, L’Ethique: Essai sur la conscience du mal 1993, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil Peter Hallward, trans. , 2001; Alain Badiou, Manifeste pour la philosophie 1989, Manifesto for Philosophy Norman Madarasz, trans. , 1999; Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, Slavoj Žižek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, (2000); Hélène Cixous, Angst 1977, Angst Jo Levy, trans. , 1985; Gilles Deleuze, The Deleuze Reader, Constantin V. Boundas (1992); Gilles Deleuze, Empirisme et subjectivité 1953, Empiricism and Subjectivity: An Essay on Hume’s Theory of Human Nature Constantin V. Boundas, trans. , 1991; Gilles Deleuze, La Philosophie critique de Kant 1963, Kant’s Critical Philosophy: The Doctrine of the Faculties Hugh Tomlinson, trans. , Barbara Habberjam, trans. , 1984; Todd Dufresne, Freud under Analysis: History, Theory, Practice, (1997); Todd Dufresne, Returns of the French Freud : Freud, Lacan, and Beyond, (1996); Todd Dufresne, Tales from the Freudian Crypt: The Death Drive in Text and Context, (2000); Shoshana Felman, Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight: Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture, (1987); Shoshana Felman, Le Scandale du corps parlant: Don Juan avec Austin ou la séduction en deux langues 1980, The Literary Speech Act: Don Juan with J. L. Austin, or Seduction in Two Languages Catherine Porter, trans. , 1983reprint, The Scandal of the Speaking Body: Don Juan with J. L. Austin, or Seduction in Two Languages 2003; Jacques Lacan, Écrits 1966, Écrits: A Selection Alan Sheridan, trans. , 1977Bruce Fink, trans. , Héloise Fink, trans. , Russell Grigg, trans. , 2002; Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire livre XX: Encore Jacques Alain Miller , 1975, On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge Bruce Fink, trans. , 1998; Elaine Marks Isabelle de Courtivron New French Feminisms: An Anthology, (1980); Michèle Montrelay, L’Ombre et le nom: Sur la féminité, (1977); Laurence A. Rickels, Nazi Psychoanalysis, 3 vols., (2002)Volume 1 Only Psychoanalysis Won the War Volume 2 Crypto-fetishism Volume 3 Psy fi ; Slavoj Žižek, Culture, (2003); Slavoj Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor, (1991); Slavoj Žižek, Philosophy, (2003); Slavoj Žižek, Society, Politics, and Ideology, (2003)

TOP Secondary Sources

Louis Althusser, Écrits sur la psychanalyse: Freud et Lacan 1993, Writings on Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan Olivier Corpet , François Matheron , Jeffrey Mehlman, trans. , 1996; Shuli Barzilai, Lacan and the Matter of Origins, (1999); Shari Benstock, Signifying the Body Feminine Textualizing the Feminine: On the Limits of Genre (1991); Mark Bracher, Lacan, Discourse, and Social Change: A Psychoanalytic Cultural Criticism, (1993); Teresa Brennan Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis, (1989); Joan Copjec, Read My Desire: Lacan against the Historicists, (1994); Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema, (1984); Jacques Derrida, Résistances de la psychanalyse 1996, Resistances of Psychoanalysis Peggy Kamuf, trans. , Pascale-Anne Brault, trans. , Michael Naas, trans. , 1998; Robyn Ferrell, Passion in Theory: Conceptions of Freud and Lacan, (1996); Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance, (1995); Jean-Joseph Goux, Freud, Marx: Économie et symbolique 1973, Symbolic Economies: After Marx and Freud Jennifer Curtiss Gage, trans. , 1990; Elizabeth A. Grosz, Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction, (1990); Alice Jardine, Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity, (1985); Alice Jardine, Anne Menke, The Politics of Tradition: Placing Women in French Literature Yale French Studies Volume 75 (1988); Sarah Kay, Žižek: A Critical Introduction, (2003); Sarah Kofman, L’Enfance de l’art: Une Interprétation de l’esthétique freudienne 1970, The Childhood of Art: An Interpretation of Freud’s Aesthetic Winifred Woodhull, trans. , 1988; John Lechte, Julia Kristeva, (1990); James M. Mellard, Using Lacan: Reading Fiction, (1991); Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory 1985, 2d ed., 2002; Toril Moi French Feminist Thought: A Reader, (1987); Elaine Showalter The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, (1985); Hugh J. Silverman Philosophy and Desire, (2000); Yannis Stavrakakis, Lacan and the Political, (1999); Alenka Zupančič, Ethics of the Real: Kant, Lacan, (2000)