It’s funny how some theories fall in and out of style in the academic world. Actually, maybe this process is not funny at all, but exceedingly sad. A colleague of mine at Trent recently went on a completely unprovoked rant about the apparent horrors of the postmodern enterprise. I could only reply that the impulses of postmodernity belong to a different time (and are inextricably linked to the goals of postcolonialism). Still, postmodernity wasn’t an illusion or some kind of conspiracy, it existed and in different forms, still carries on subverting and interrogating binaries through varied narrative strategies.
I find that Lacanian psychoanalysis brings out much the same rage or dismissive ridicule in certain academic circles. I find the whole attitude baffling. I am guessing that such reactions are not born out of actually reading Lacan, but from the way his ideas are (mis)respresented. So, for example, professor A had supervisor B for his or her doctoral years and B told A that Lacan is a pile of S (that’s an inside joke for all you Lacanians). If Lacan isn’t your cup of tea (or cigar or whatever), that’s all Kool & the Gang,
(Sometimes you just need to dance….with some theory….)
but I think it’s kind of ridiculous to dismiss one of the few conduits we have in western society for thinking about how we are acquired into sign systems and, in turn, how those systems shape us (and vice versa). Actually, the bracketed phrase is what really tickles me about Lacanian theories – we shape the symbolic order – minutely – but we do it, because each of us, with our difference backgrounds, passionate attachments and so forth, bring our little idiosyncratic selves to the cultural table and join in the feast in very different ways.
Lacan fundamentally reshaped Freudian psychoanalysis by adding a few more ingredients to Freudian theories: linguistics (specifically Saussure’s structural linguistics), philosophy, rhetoric (yes, rhetoric), and math (yes, math). Lacan urged a return to Freud, but there are many “Freuds,” and so who did he mean? He took Freud’s “science of the mind” and his way of writing narratives about his patients and blended this work with the new ways of thinking about language I list above. In a sense, I think Lacan saw that the gaps in Freud’s work, which is the metaphysical discourse that we can reach a fundamental truth. This gap was something that Freud really struggled with (read “Totem and Taboo” and tell me differently).
“It Is Always Better to Look Good than to Feel Good, Darling”
The ‘image,” and “ideal” are central concepts to understand (there are more, but this post is for an introductory seminar, in part, and not grad school…oh boy, if this were a grad school course, we would be reading Freud, Klein, and Lemaire). Lacan theorized that our identities – our sense of “self” – is not constituted naturally “within us” (have you looked inside yourself? It’s not pretty), but is formed through complex social processes and networks, with language being the major system through which we come into consciousness. Yes, that’s right, we are dealing with how we actually come to consciousness rather than beings who simply run on instinct. Lacan famously said that we die two deaths: one when we come into language and the other when we die physically.
When we enter into language, we enter into the symbolic order in which we must repress impulses and behave according to certain rules and regulations; therefore, we must “kill” that which does not suit the symbolic order.
You probably want me to talk about the Mirror Stage about now…okay….let’s talk about the image and how we are captured in the image. Basically, early studies in evolutionary development showed an astounding fact: mimicry is not so much about evolution, but is about an organism becoming captured in their environment. Mimicry is a major function in child development, but what is its purpose? Does mimicry ever stop? How are mimicry and identity related? Lacan took ideas from child psychology, anthropology and social theory about human development and argued that humans are trapped in their environments as well. Starting from around 6 months of age, we will recognize our image (in a mirror, but the mirror doesn’t always have to be there) and from that moment on, we IDENTIFY with an image that is outside of ourselves – this is the beginning of the imaginary. We identify, from that point on, with any number of images outside of ourselves. Trapped in the oscillation between the “I” and the “You,” we are both self and other thanks to our entrapment…our captivity…in the image(s).
On top of this, the image is produced out of the symbolic, which situates the child as part of the social, historical, and cultural order. The child, once captured in the image, will ingest the signifiers from the speech of his or her parents and become “filled up” with the symbolic elements of his or her world. So much for free will right? Sigh….
Belay that sigh! Our agency rests in how we assume/consume the words of our passionate attachments (parents, siblings, best friends…although our parents are the first out of the gate and so the most important). If our parents are abusive, will we lay claim to the injurious words they supply or will we forge new captivities from other types of images? If we desire mental health, we will…guess what can help you get there?
Stories Shape Us
Or so says my main man, Slavoj Zizek. Stories allows us to play out (or contain) ruptures in the symbolic order and for my money, there are few authors that do this better than Toni Morrison. Think of Beloved, in which the trauma of slavery or the Real of trauma breaks through the domestic scene in the form of a ghost. The struggle between Sethe and her fractured self plays out violently not only in her home, but into the wider community. Morrison is able to expose a specifically American symbolic order that structures race, class, and gender in ways that are disabling but can and have been made enabling.
How about we dive into the Phallus next week? Yes, I said that.