Return to Freud
The 'Return to Freud'
Following Freud's death, psychoanalytic practice split into many differing schools of thought. Against the backdrop of these divergent currents of psychoanalytic theory, Lacan called for a 'return to Freud'. Lacan accused later psychoanalysts of a superficial understanding of Freud, claiming they had so cautiously adhered to his ideas that they had served to block rather than to induce scientific investigation of the mental process. Lacan wanted to return to Freud's thought, and expand it in light of its own tensions and currents. In fact, near the end of his life he remarked to a conference, "It is up to you to be Lacanians if you wish; I am Freudian."
It should also be emphasised that Lacan insisted that his work was not, in his eyes, an interpretation but a translation of Freud into structural-linguistic terms. Freud's ideas of 'slips of the tongue', jokes and suchlike – Lacan insisted – all emphasised the agency of language in subjective constitution, such that had Freud lived contemporaneously with Lévi-Strauss, Barthes and, principally, had Freud been aware of the work of Saussure, he would have done the same as him. In his famous essay, "Freud and Lacan", fellow structuralist Louis Althusser makes this point particularly well:
"In his first great work The Interpretation of Dreams […], Freud studied the ‘mechanisms’ and ‘laws’ of dreams, reducing their variants to two: displacement and condensation. Lacan recognized these as two essential figures of speech, called in linguistics [respectively] metonymy and metaphor. Hence slips, failures, jokes and symptoms, like the elements of dreams themselves, become signifiers, inscribed in the chain of an unconscious discourse, doubling silently, i.e. deafeningly, in the misrecognition of ‘repression’, the chain of the human subject’s verbal discourse. […] Hence the most important acquisitions of de Saussure and of the linguistics that descends from him began to play a justified part in the understanding of the process of the unconscious as well as that of the verbal discourse of the subject and of their inter-relationship, i.e. of their identical relation and non-relation in other words, of their reduplication and dislocation (décalage)." (Althusser, ‘Freud and Lacan’ in Lenin and Philosophy and other essays, trans. Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books, 1971), pp. 191 – 192.
The 'return to Freud', therefore, is primarily the realisation that the pervading agency of the unconscious is to be understood as intimately tied to the functions and dynamics of language, where, for example, the signifier is irremediably divorced from the signified, ultimately resulting in Lack. It is here that Lacan began his work on "correcting" Freud from within. As Malcolm Bowie puts it:
"For Lacan, Freud's central insight was not [...] that the unconscious exists, but that it has structure, that this structure affects in innumerable ways what we say and do, and that in thus betraying itself it becomes accessible to analysis". (Malcolm Bowie, 'Jacques Lacan' in John Sturrock (ed.), Structuralism and Since: From Lévi-Strauss to Derrida (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 118).
(The 'return to Freud' in the full sense of the term, as briefly explained above, begins with his paper ‘The agency of the letter in the unconscious or reason since Freud’ (Écrits, pp. 161 - 197).) Lacan's principal challenge to Freudian theory is the privilege that it accords to the ego in self-determination. The central pillar of Jacques Lacan's psychoanalytic theory is that "the unconscious is structured like a language". The unconscious, he argued, was not a more primitive or archetypal part of the mind separate from the conscious, linguistic ego, but rather, a formation every bit as complex and linguistically sophisticated as consciousness itself. If the unconscious is structured like a language, Lacan argues, then the self is denied any point of reference to which to be 'restored' following trauma or 'identity crisis'. In this way, Lacan's thesis of the structurally dynamic unconscious is also a challenge to the ego psychology that Freud himself opposed.