Tuesday 3 June 2014

The Dark Side of the Loon (2)

Maarten Boudry
This post has been published on behalf of Maarten Boudry (University of Ghent).

In my previous post I introduced the psychological mechanisms responsible for people stopping the search for meaning in obscure texts. Here I shall show how these are used by Lacan.

Lacan’s pronouncements are couched in a number of highly abstract and complex concepts – the Other, the Symbolic, the objet petit a, jouissance, the Phallus, etc. – which are notoriously difficult to understand. The central tenets of Lacanian theory are that the unconscious is structured like a language and that human beings are trapped in a web of signifiers. By means of language, we try to comprehend reality and each other, but that hope is often frustrated.

In Lacan's linguistic re-interpretation of the Oedipus complex, subjects are symbolically castrated upon introduction in the Symbolic order. By means of obscure pseudo-mathematical formulas, Lacan has tried to show that the Real can never be fully accounted for by the Symbolic order. There always remains an ineluctable loss, something that defies understanding and remains elusive. This thing that cannot be grasped or comprehended, which plays a central role in Lacanian psychoanalysis, has been theorized as the "objet petit a". It is like a vanishing point, always out of reach. Or as The Master wrote: “The objet petit a is what remains irreducible in the advent of the subject at the locus of the other”. The later Lacan coined the term “sinthome” for that which is beyond meaning and unanalysable in the so-called topology of the human mind. Meaning is always manifold and interpretation ambivalent, determined by a web of unconscious associations that we can barely glimpse. As a consequence, communication is doomed to fail, our identity is fragmented and divisive, and truth has a fictional structure.

If one looks at these theoretical themes, it is striking how they exemplify the experience of trying to make sense of Lacan's own writings. After all, what better illustration of the primacy of the signifier over the signified and the elusiveness of meaning than Lacan’s own ever-shifting and esoteric concepts? These central features tend to acquiesce the interpreter into the frustrating experience of reading Lacan. Indeed, they reassure him that he is on the right track. Some interpreters have suggested that Lacan's style of exposition illustrates his deep insight into the human psyche: he speaks the language of the unconscious. Or, to put in in Lacanese, the unconscious speaks through Lacan. Unfortunately, Lacanians have mistaken the predicament of their own belief system for that of every other discourse. Paraphrasing Karl Kraus, one of Freud’s earliest critics, Lacanian psychoanalysis is itself the disease for which it claims to be the cure.

By anticipating on and accounting for the readers' feeling of disarray and puzzlement, Lacan's theory not only facilitates a futile quest for meaning, but also provides a protective shield against criticism. To bemoan Lacan’s obscure language, from the Lacanian’s own point of view, is to refuse to understand the deeply subversive nature of Lacan's teachings about meaning and truth. To insist on clarity of language is to miss the very point of Lacan. Thus, the diligent interpreter is kept under The Master’s spell.

As Filip Buekens and I hope to have shown in our paper, the success of a bizarre theory such as Lacan's is the effect of mundane and fallible cognitive processes, amplified through a theoretical lens that prevents the interpreter from knowing when to halt a quest for meaning. Finally, it is important to emphasize the intimidating effect of unintelligible prose. Intellectual insecurity and vanity may further prolong the quest for meaning. Many interpreters have boasted that they understand Lacan perfectly well, and some even maintain that the man's writings are in fact crystal-clear, despite appearances to the contrary, and are hardly in need of any interpretation. Who will be confident enough, after years of investment in Lacanian exegesis, to see through this rhetorical bluster?

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