Lacan’s Mistake

The desire of the unconscious


in Features • Illustrated by Camille Velasquez


The truth is that I never thought I’d get through an entire book by Jacques Lacan. But then the pandemic broke out, and I found myself at home with time to read The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. I’ll admit that what drew me into the book was the drama of its provenance. Lacan had been kicked out of the International Psychoanalytic Association, and was no longer allowed to give seminars as a training analyst, and so the École normale supérieure offered him a platform to present his work. Speaking in a new context, Lacan felt it was necessary to offer his audience an overview of his thinking, and this was the text I followed — one chapter per week, word by word, for 20 straight weeks. What struck me as I read was how closely I felt I could follow his train of thought when transcribed from the spoken word. Sometimes I could even sense where his ideas were heading; I would react to an idea he put forth in my mind, and then, a little later, I’d find that same thought articulated. It felt like — and I don’t mean to sound presumptuous — Lacan and I were on the same wavelength. And that felt pretty uncanny.

Nowhere was this uncanniness as pronounced as when Lacan described psychoanalysis in terms of physics. In an essay I’d written on Samuel Beckett and Melanie Klein, I had used physics to describe what I saw as the core difference between Klein and Sigmund Freud. I had said that Freud was, to my mind, interested in energetics while Klein was interested in dynamics, especially how forces affect objects. As I read Lacan, I tried to put him into a branch of physics too, and as he increasingly gave examples taken from optics, I put him in with optical wave theory. But nothing prepared for the moment that he would suggest, in a section on Freudian drive theory, that “what we see emerging here in Freud’s mind are the fundamental concepts of physics. . . especially those connected with energy.” There was nothing more uncanny, but also reassuring, than to feel like Lacan and I were — whether right or wrong — barking up the same tree.

This feeling of solidarity helped me make my way through the densely-packed paragraphs of his speech, which had been given punctuation by one of his disciples, Jacques-Alain Miller. But this feeling slowly began to fade as my sense of camaraderie turned into critique. What emerged, as I made my way through the book, was something I could only think of as Lacan’s mistake. And, ironically enough, it was Lacan’s own analysis of Descartes — and, in his words, the “mistake” Descartes had made in his reasoning — that clued me into Lacan’s own mistake and gave me language to discuss its contours. So, in a way, Lacan himself paved the way for my articulation of his mistake.

The first indication of my divergence from Lacan emerged in his section on Maurice Merleau-Ponty. I had begun reading Merleau-Ponty while at grad school. It wasn’t easy, but it provided order for many of the thoughts, ideas, and intuitions I had accumulated as a young person. I read Merleau-Ponty carefully, book by book, over the next few years, and even wrote about what I saw as his descent into doubt over his position on the Soviet Union — which, interestingly enough, was around the time that he began to teach psychoanalytic theory at the Sorbonne. Now, I discovered not only that Lacan had dedicated three full meetings to Merleau-Ponty’s posthumously published book, The Visible and the Invisible, but that he claimed him as a friend. I couldn’t count Merleau-Ponty among my friends. But I had read enough of his work that I felt I was now on familiar territory. It almost felt like we had a friend in common.

So I was taken aback by what read like Lacan’s subtle but intentional appropriation of Merleau-Ponty’s book for his own purposes. The central issue had to do with an idea he develops from Merleau-Ponty’s notion that the seeing person is also seen. A core idea from Merleau-Ponty is that, when I see someone seeing me, I understand that I am in a field in which we are both subjects and objects for each other — that we both exist within an intersubjective realm — and this puts us in an ethical relation. Lacan, on the other hand, says that “I see only from one point, but in existence I am looked at from all sides.” This is especially disingenuous since Merleau-Ponty goes out of his way to suggest that even our own sight is made up of more than one point: “binocular perception is not made up of two monocular perceptions surmounted,” Merleau-Ponty writes, adding that “monocular images cannot be compared with the synergic perception” because they affect “a metamorphosis” in our vision. Lacan undermines this idea, turning this moment of synergy into one of separation and persecution. In his description, there is no equal relation between two people. There is only, to use a phrase that was developed along Lacanian lines, the panopticon. In the world of Lacan, I am surrounded by all-seeing observers whose presence is a threat. In Merleau-Ponty’s, I exist in the company of others who are my equals.

I noted my objections — and continued reading. Something bothered me, but I wasn’t yet sure what it was, and it was hard to contend critically with a mind like Lacan’s. Still, I didn’t feel powerless. I had an undergraduate degree in math and wasn’t intimidated by his use of algebra. I’d read enough Plato and Merleau-Ponty that I was able to hold my own when they came up in Lacan’s discourse. And I knew just enough Freud to be able to reference the original when he brought him up. This vague sort of discomfort continued to accompany my reading until I noticed his relation to the notion of the breast in psychoanalysis — which especially ignited my scrutiny. Because, in the psychoanalytic context, the word breast is very often a code word for Melanie Klein.

Lacan only mentions Klein by name once in his seminar. But the word breast appears eight times — almost always in a disparaging manner. He speaks, at one point, of Augustine’s recalling seeing his little brother at his mother’s breast, and feeling envy even though he no longer needed her milk for sustenance. Elsewhere, he invokes Freud to suggest that the breast is only a stand-in for any desired object, lacking significance of its own. At another point, the breast becomes a stand-in for the womb and everything we lose at childbirth. He twice accuses Edmund Bergler, an Austrian-born American psychoanalyst, of a “pointless discussion” and “aimless development” of the concept of the breast in psychoanalytic theory. And, at one point, he even compares suckling to sucking — and the infant’s oral drive to the bloodthirsty drive of a vampire. You get the impression that Lacan would like to talk about anything but breasts. Unless, as he says at one especially lurid moment, he’s talking about a waitress whose “tits” he presumes we all want to “tickle.”

This, in itself, clued me into Lacan’s consistent but unannounced targeting of Melanie Klein, as both a woman and a rival theorist. His remark, for example, that “the terms introjection and projection are always used rather recklessly” is an obvious affront to Klein, who often discussed the effects of these core mechanisms on the psyche. He then adds a critique of the “good or bad object, around which, for some, revolves everything in a subject’s behavior that represents distortion, inflection, paradoxical fear, foreign body.” Anyone who has read Melanie Klein knows exactly for whom good and bad objects are fundamental. Elsewhere, his disagreement with Klein is less confrontational, yet it exposes a deep difference in their idea of what constitutes the human psyche and interpersonal relations.

Picking up on his earlier idea — developed using Merleau-Ponty’s suggestion that the self is subjected to the sight of the other — Lacan says that “the subject appears in the Other, insofar as the first signifier. . . emerges in the field of the Other.” Put in simpler terms, I come into existence because someone else sees me exist. This suggests, in essence, that I don’t exist unless I’m seen by someone else — or, a little more radically, unless I see someone seeing me. This leads to a highly over-determined idea of how subjectivity is formed. Klein’s views on the formation of subjectivity are much less determined. She says that the self is “called into operation and developed. . . through its earliest object relations” — that is, we begin to develop subjectivity, which already exists, through the presence of, and interaction with, others. For Lacan, it’s enough to be seen and to realize that we exist as objects for others. For Klein, it’s only the presence of the other that makes us aware of our existence. In one world, we are forever stuck behind a glass vitrine where our life is little more than what it means to be an object on display. In the other, we live in order to love.

Little by little, I started to get the sense that Lacan was setting out a path that could not be traversed without him, which became clear in a section where he talks about his followers. “There is no way of following me,” he says, “without passing through my signifiers, but passing through my signifiers involves a feeling of alienation that incites them to seek, according to Freud’s formulation, the smallest of differences. Unfortunately,” he adds, “this small difference makes them lose the full significance of the direction I pointed out to them.” The idea, it seems, is that there’s no way to follow Lacan and also think for yourself. You are likely to get lost in the differences between him and Freud and, as a result, lose your way. I know enough to be suspicious of anyone who warns me against paying attention to difference — especially as difference, or delta as it appears in physics, is sometimes the most important measurement to analyze. And, aside from the technical aspect of my critique, to me, these sounded like the words of a thought-dictator who believes he always knows best and disparages anyone who tries to think critically about Lacan.

As I continued to read, I began to center on the issue I took with Lacan — which became clearer through his own example of diplomats addressing each other. “In the very exchange of views,” he says, “each must record only what the other transmits in his pure function as signifier, he must not take into account what the other is, qua presence, as a man who is likable to a greater or lesser degree.” He then adds that “the signifier has to be understood in this way,” and, a little later, clarifies that, where there is “something that functions as a signifier. . . the Other is there.” What this means, I realized, is that the signifier that brings me into being is the gaze of the Other by whom I am seen. But unlike the so-called “objet petit a,” the uncapitalized “other” that represents other people in a general sense, the capitalized Other is actually Lacan himself. And, since this Other is Lacan, I don’t exist unless I am brought into existence by Lacan. As far as my subjectivity is concerned, Lacan is my creator.

Well, I didn’t like that idea at all. But it only reinforced itself as I made my way through the book. And this was about the point when Lacan pointed to “Descartes’s mistake,” which was to see in his “I think” the certainty of existence — and to call it knowledge. According to Lacan, Descartes’s “I think” is only the product of alienation that comes from being seen by the Other – being placed in the signifying field, the field of Lacan, and coming into being as a Lacanian subject. Because, even as far as Descartes is concerned, Lacan seems truly convinced that the field that he has enumerated in his theory is the field of the psyche, and that it exists precisely as described by Lacan. Descartes, it seems, should have said, “Lacan sees me, therefore I am.”

Once I understood Lacan’s aim to place himself at the center of determining my subjectivity, I began to push back at more of his ideas. But I didn’t stop reading. I still found it both enriching and stimulating, because, as Lacan implies at one point, the uncanny functions like a provocation. And I was interested in his endgame, especially as he had promised early in the book to discuss the point when he believed an analysis to be complete. And the acrobatics in which he engaged to address the issue, which ends up looping into itself, only served to expose his mistake.

In dealing with the core issue of the book, Lacan claims that “the analyst is supposed to set out in search of unconscious desire,” adding that “the desire of the analyst” is the “essential function” of analysis. So I, as analyst, desire to find unconscious desire in the person I am analyzing. And I also have to be aware of my own unconscious desire, because the analysis is located in this “relation of desire to desire.” It sounds rather vague until Lacan explains that a person’s “desire is the desire of the Other.” But this capitalized Other, as I came to understand, was none other than Lacan himself, so, ultimately, according to Lacan, my unconscious desire is the desire of Lacan.

That, at least, is how Lacan sees things. But there’s an inherent issue. The idea that the analyst is “supposed to set out in search of unconscious desire” is itself an assumption that’s, at best, a partial truth. And it is itself based on Lacan’s own reverence for Freud. In his search for a psychoanalyst who “can claim to represent. . . a corpus of absolute knowledge,” he admits that, “if there is someone to whom one can apply there can be only one such person,” and then adds, “this one was Freud, while he was alive.” But Freud is dead — which leaves Lacan as the next in line who can at least identify the one with “absolute knowledge” and also interpret that knowledge for himself and others. And this second person, this Lacan, additionally declares that all progress loses its way “whenever it neglects one of the terms around which Freud ordered the courses that he traced, and the paths of the unconscious.” His use of “the paths of the unconscious” is crucial to understanding his claim to the “corpus of absolute knowledge,” especially since he had already located the search for “unconscious desire” at the core of what an analyst wants. The loop is closed. And the only person who knows how to do this, the only expert now that Freud is dead, is Lacan.

So the endgame is to become Lacan. “There is only one kind of psychoanalysis,” he says toward the end of the seminar, “the training analysis — which means a psychoanalysis that has looped this loop to its end.” No analysis is complete until you become an analyst. This fate has its attractions. It gives you a sense of transcendence, or, in Lacan’s words, a “crossing of the plane of identification,” knowing that you can, at least, become an iteration of Lacan. Then you can start to determine the subjectivities of other uncapitalized others, the little people seeking analysis who don’t yet know what you know and don’t yet realize they need to become you.

Becoming the other, Lacan suggests, is already inside each of us as an unconscious desire. And I don’t disagree that the search for this desire is part of the analytic process. But I don’t believe it can be claimed as its foundation, for a relatively simple reason. Lacan says, repeatedly, that the unconscious is structured like a language. But this skips a step and turns the unconscious into something mysterious — when the unconscious doesn’t have to be a mystery. It can be as simple as the perceptions we register and have not yet processed into consciousness, as happens with a faraway humming that irritates us before we notice it’s there. In this sense, the unconscious is not structured like a language, it itself seeks language, striving to enter consciousness through words. In Lacan’s terms, we might say that language is itself the desire of the unconscious.

The self does not necessarily seek to become Lacan. And it isn’t always determined by his field of signification. It was there before Lacan, and it’ll be there after him. All the self wants is to find words to express the parts of its experience that have been registered but not yet spoken. It wants to speak the parts of itself that have not yet found expression. Yes, some of those parts are made up of desires, but other parts include pain, regret, even joy — emotions that also represent the depths of our human experience. It doesn’t mean that the self has to close the loop and become an analyst. It just means that the analyst is there to guide our search for expression in language. In the end, it’s not really Lacan we’re looking for. It’s simply a way to express our inner selves in plain words. •


David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar. His fiction has appeared in The Woven Tale Press, The Account, and Call me Brackets, his nonfiction in The American Scholar, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Entropy, and his translations in The New Yorker, Conjunctions, and Asymptote. His most recent book is A Short Inquiry into the End of the World, a speculative essay in The Massachusetts Review‘s Working Titles series, and his edited collection of essays by Isaac Bashevis Singer is forthcoming from Princeton University Press.