Lacan and Freud
Posted on December 25th, 2016

Ruwan M Jayatunge M.D.

The French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan belonged to the second generation of French psychoanalysts. He was profoundly influenced by Sigmund Freud. Lacan was the first to extensively reread Freud through de Saussure’s linguistic legacy and structuralist method (Marta, 1990). Lacan’s notion return to Freud” emphasizes the radical critique of ego psychology. He reconceptualized Freud using post-structuralism.

Lacan scrutinized Sigmund Freud’s structural id-ego-superego model of the mind. For Lacan’s ego is not the center but ‘unstable’ and subjective. Lacan’s emphasis has been on the speaking subject coming to self-realization in the analytic relationship through words. When this subject speaks about himself, however, he becomes an object to himself. This objectification and mediation of the subject in language results in reification, fixing in a rigid posture the dynamic subject. It is this rigid, reified, objectified self that Lacan calls the ego (Muller, 1982).

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The work of Jacques Lacan has opened up a creative space for reconsidering the psychoanalytic-literary nexus(Polatinsky &Hook, 2008). Lacan stated: Psychoanalysis is a terribly efficient instrument, and because it is more and more a prestigious instrument, we run the risk of using it with a purpose for which it was not made for, and in this way we may degrade it” Lacan  opined to use linguistics, structural anthropology and post-structural theories in psychoanalysis.  Lacan did not refute Freud’s idea of actual neurosis and psychoanalytic attachment concepts (Redmond, 2013). Lacan clearly made original contributions to psychoanalytic theory and technique (Gazzola, 2005).

For Lacan language is the creation of the self and psychic and sexual life. As he viewed psychoanalysis operates through speech. The subject is realized via the process of free association, with the analyst in the position of the listener.  Jacques Lacan’s désir (desire) follows Freud’s concept of Wunsch and it is central to Lacanian theories. In the Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis Lacan argues that “man’s desire is the desire of the Other. Lacan claimed that the only thing of which one can be guilty is of having given ground relative to one’s desire”

In formulating his psychology of the unconscious, Freud makes constant reference to Sophocles’ version of the Oedipus myth (Bollack, 1993). In Lacan’s view, Freud’s central insight was not that the unconscious exists, but that it has structure. Lacan viewed that “the unconscious is structured like a language” and that “the unconscious is the discourse of the Other”(Leavy, 1977). For Lacan, the unconscious speaks in the face of repression and censorship. As described by Lacan, the human subject is always split between a conscious side, a mind that is accessible, and an unconscious side, a series of drives and forces which remain inaccessible.

Lacan explained how the human subject becomes an ‘other’ through unconscious repression and stemming from the Mirror phase. According to Lacan (1977) at some time between six and eighteen months, the baby sees its image, generally in a mirror, and realises that what it is seeing is somehow itself. This recognition causes great confusion and ‘libidinal dynamism’. Lacan developed his double-mirror device to clarify the relationship between the drive, the ego, the ideal ego, the ego-ideal, the other, and the Other. This model helped Lacan describe the dynamics of identification and explain how psychoanalytic treatment works. He argued that by working with free association, psychoanalysis aims to articulate unconscious desire, and bypass the tendency of the ego for misrecognition (Vanheule, 2011). The differences between Lacan’s mirror stage and Freud’s narcissism are paradigmatic of the differences between their theories of the unconscious, of sexuality, of the ego, id, and superego, of the Oedipus and castration complexes, the nature of therapy, and their understanding of man’s relation to language and culture (Stockholder, 1998).

The concept of an entrapment within one’s image of oneself was elaborated by Freud in his notion of narcissism. Lacan further developed this notion as foundational in one’s relation to the other, but clarified that such mirroring relations to others are always imbued with jealousy and rivalry (Plastow, 2012).  He believed that conscious ego and unconscious desire are thus radically divided.  For Lacan, the unconscious entails a sense of something absent in itself and therefore desires the Phallus or the universal symbol for Desire.  He viewed the unconscious as being like a language, or semiotic system.

Lacan places the concept of the imaginary alongside the categories of the real and the symbolic. This concept plays a highly prominent role in his thinking, given that the essential determination of the imaginary is the primary relation of the ego to the image of the similar ( Gekle,  1995). Morris (1988) indicated that   Lacan’s analysis of Descartes’ search for ontological certainty draws him, in Freud, to the ontological implications of castration anxiety, disavowal, and splitting of the ego.

Lacan accentuated in language in the creation of the self and psychic and sexual life. For Lacan unconscious is ‘structured like a language’, operating according to differential relationships in language. The human subject is divided between a conscious side, a mind that is accessible, and an unconscious side, a series of drives and forces which remain inaccessible. For Freud, language remains in the sphere of the preconscious (Freud – The Contribution to the Concept of Aphasia -1891).  Caudill  1995) argues that Lacan’s emphasis on language and identity establishes the contours of a radical sociolegal psychoanalysis and that his account of the human subject bridges the antinomies of traditional and critical theory; mainstream and left analyses of culture. Lacan’s insight into the role of acquisition of language helps to understand the formation of the subject in pursuit of a virtual selfhood (Kirshner, 1991).

Freud believed that personality develops through a series of stages, each characterized by a certain internal psychological conflict. Lacan rejected the hierarchical approach to personality development. In addition he argued against a metaphysical conception of personality. He reflected personality based on the dialectical development of the person. As Lacan viewed person’s development does not proceed in a fixed direction, but at times hesitates or vacillates between alternatives, changes tack etc. He introduced objective definition of personality phenomena.

Lacan’s seminar on anxiety elucidates the connection between castration anxiety and narcissism (Diatkine, 2006). Lacan’s theory derives from and develops Freud’s late work on the narcissistic origins of conflict within the ego (Morris, 1988).  For Lacan, the anxiety of being absorbed by the object is the principal anxiety from which the anxieties of separation, castration or fragmentation are derived (Diatkine, 2007). Commenting on Anxiety Lecan concluded; Anxiety, as we know, is always connected with a loss…with a two-sided relation on the point of fading away to be superseded by something else, something which the patient cannot face without vertigo”

Psychoanalysis regards psychosis as an early disturbance in the development of the personality, specifically, of the ego. The disturbance occurs during that period prior to the castration complex and thus before the phase when the ordering of relations becomes oedipal (Villemoes, 2002). Jacques Lacan   formulated an original theory of psychosis, focusing on the subject and on the structuring role of language and he postulated that language makes up the experience of subjectivity and that psychosis is marked by the absence of a crucial metaphorization process. (Ribolsi et al., 2015). Lacan stressed that delusions arise “primarily”. He thought that delusional interpretation is not deducted by any other preceding psychical experience, and is one of the elementary phenomena (Matsumoto & Kato, 2012). Lacan considered Freud’s account of the Oedipus complex as important for characterizing the structure of psychopathology. Nonetheless Freud mainly described the Oedipus complex in developmental terms(Ribolsi et al., 2015). 

Based on Freud’s study (the Memoirs of Schreber) Lacan introduced a theory of schizophrenia. Lacan believed that Schizophrenia patients have a defective relation to language. He commented on four other characteristics of schizophrenic behavior: the fragmented body image; lack of realistic evaluation of the world; bisexuality; and confusion of birth and death. Lacanian theory suggests that psychotic speech is frequently autonymic, with a rich use of neologisms or auto-referential words (Ribolsi et al., 2015). According to Carveth (1987) Lacan saw the origin of the schizoid dilemma in a fundamental failure of oedipalization to establish in the unconscious the signifier of the phallus, the Name-of-the-Father, as the primal cut or castration dividing infant and mother and opening up a space for symbolization.

Lacan’s notion of “paranoid knowledge”, an imagined knowledge of what the other is thinking, is precisely a ‘theory of mind’ that is able to account for the way one subject attempts, and ultimately fails, to read the mind of another( Plastow ,2012). Based on Lacan’s teachings psychotic pathological structures can be broadly taken to be inquiries into the psychical repercussions of the failure of the individual to be assimilated into the symbolic order” of language (De Waelhens &Ver Eecke, 2001). Lacan postulated that language makes up the experience of subjectivity and that psychosis is marked by the absence of a crucial metaphorization process (Ribolsi et al., 2015).

In Ecrits, 30 Lacan concluded: If what Freud discovered, and rediscovers ever more abruptly, has a meaning, it is that the signifier’s displacement determines subjects’ acts, destiny, refusals, blindnesses, success, and fate, regardless of their innate gifts and instruction, and irregardless of their character or sex; and that everything pertaining to the psychological pregiven follows willy-nilly the signifier’s train, like weapons and baggage. Lacan wished his own theory and practice maintain strict fidelity to Freud’s insights and the psychoanalytic apparatus that he established. At the end he stated; It is up to you to be Lacanians if you wish. I am a Freudian.”

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Caudill DS.(1995).Lacan and the critique of legal ideology: reason and religion in law and politics. Psychoanal Rev.  ;82(5):683-702; discussion 703-7.

De Waelhens, A., Ver Eecke,W.(2001). Phenomology & Lacan on Schizophrenia, After the Decade of the Brain. Leuven University Press.

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Plastow M.(2012).’Theory of mind’ III: the unbearable idea of other minds.Australas Psychiatry. ;20(5):369-73.

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Redmond JD. (2013).Contemporary perspectives on Lacanian theories of psychosis.Front Psychol.   28;4:350.

Ribolsi M , Feyaerts J , Vanheule S.(2015).Metaphor in psychosis: on the possible convergence of Lacanian theory and neuro-scientific research. Front Psychol.   3;6:664.

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