Lee Patterson on Lacan

January 2, 2007 at 7:19 pm (reading notes, theory)

Lee Patterson’s entire attack on Lacan seems to be based on undermining Freud — Lacan’s work is just “new wallpaper” in an old (crumbling) house. Since Freud is flawed, and Lacan called his work a return to Freud, returning to the attack on Freud is effectively demolishing Lacan’s position. “if the Freudian foundations on whch his work rests are unreliable, then his own enterprise…can hardly stand as an accurate account of human behavior.”

“Like Freud, Lacan presented his work as at once scientific (despite his disdain for evidence) and universalist.”
No, in fact, he didn’t.

“Lacan’s four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis are the unconscious, repetition, transference, and the drive; subjectivity is formed through infantile experience.”  Hmm, I don’t think so. Lacan does claim that entry into the symbolic order and its attendant overwriting and inscribing onto the preverbal Real does come with the acquisition of language.  But the Real is never completely overwritten *because the subject is not all “formed” by the age at which its toilet trained or whatever.*  “As if,” Fink notes, “a child [or an adult, I would argue] could ever assimilate all of language, or all at once.”  Lacan offers a way of thinking of *becoming,* and a way of thinking of subjectivity, that is quite different from Freud’s on more points than I bet I’m aware of.  The Real exists (insofar as something that cannot be articulated in language or symbolized can be said to exist to the mind that operates in symbols) “alongside” language (Fink).  Subjectivity is becoming, is inextricably entwined with discourse.  Subjectivity is emphatically not “formed through infantile experience” as if it were an egg, oops there’s the timer, can’t get any more cooked than that.  And Lacan’s engagement with the Name of the Father business is much, much more than that silly castration and Oedipus stuff, and hullo folks, by the way, the Phallus is a symbol and castration is a metaphor.

If Lacan is positing any universal, it’s the acquisition of language, and I think we can at least say that most of the cultures and societies we’re looking at had that, and that discursive practices shape societies, *particularly* emerging Christian ones.

Patterson’s gripe seems to be that if one accepts psychoanalysis as a hermeneutic endeavor one may not use it as a general theory of human behavior, particularly the behavior of people who are now dead and cannot participate in the psychoanalytic discourse that would exist in a hermeneutic model between analyst and analysand.

Well, ok.  Assuming for a moment that this is true, and that Patterson has clearly articulated the claims and stakes, can’t this criticism be leveled at ANY theoretical application of a work by a dead author, about dead people?  I’m sure I’m misunderstanding something, because this argument seems shaky as shit to me.

On Zizek: “his neo-Lacanian psychoanalysis of culture has a political and sociological interest that is lacking in Lacan himself. But his unqualified commitment to Lacanian categories renders his work equally dependent [read: invalid]… on Freud.  It is with Freud that psychoanalysis begins and ends…, and it is thus with Freud that the literary critic must come to terms.”

I’m having trouble articulating the ways in which I think this is fishy, to borrow Wittgenstein’s description of Freud, but it is. There are some assumptions here that need unpacking.  Also, I’m sure someone has done a much better critique of Patterson’s critique, but I haven’t found it.

Patterson: “it must be stressed that the variants of psychoanalytic theory that have developed over the years, and especially those associated with Jacques Lacan, are not only not free from the flaws of method and conceptual vagueness that are fatal to Freudianism but actually invoke them as a badge of honor.  Lacan shows little interest in empirical validation in preference to unconstrained theorizing.”  Pause here for a moment and ask yourself if any “theoretical reading” of a text attempts to lay a claim to empirical validation.  Patterson says this is bad because it’s not science and it claimed to be.  Straw man.  “The foundational account of prelinguistinc identity formation by means of the ‘mirror stage’ relies, as one of his defenders acknowledges, on a ‘very limited fund of observation data,’ data that genuinely empirical studies have subsequently shown to be false.”  Yes, Lacan discussed the “mirror stage” in 1936 as a temporal stage in human development. Thirteen years later, he elaborated on it from a symbolic perspective.  In any case, I think it’s somewhat appropriate, and I hope to be corrected if I’m wrong, to say that this ‘means’ that a sense of identity is formed in part because of a sort of internal parsing of surrouding discourses.  “I am that I in the mirror.”  “I am a Good Student.”  “I am a Bad Girl.”  “I am a Goth.”  “I am a Manager.”  These labels are not wholly self-constructed but take place in a  context of language, in a shared structure or matrix.  Integral to this notion is an introspective, to greater or lesser degree, internal dialogue in which the “I” notices that its perception of itself does not seem to match the “reflections” it receives from those around it, not wholly, and never will, because they are put into place by (the) Other(s).  This is not a crystallization, but a sedimentation, and it can be shaped, and “thought about,” and resisted.  And embraced.

I saw men go up and down
In the country and the town,
With this prayer upon their neck,
“Judgment and a judge we seek.”
Not to monarchs they repair,
Nor to learned jurist’s chair,
But they hurry to their peers,
To their kinsfolk and their dears,
Louder than with speech they pray,
What am I? companion; say.
And the friend not hesitates
To assign just place and mates,
Answers not in word or letter,
Yet is understood the better;–
Is to his friend a looking-glass,
Reflects his figure that doth pass

Laura Mulvey:

“The moment when a child recognises its own image in the mirror is crucial for the constitution of the ego…. This mirror-moment predates language for the child…. It is an image that constitutes the matrix of the imaginary, of recognition/misrecognition and identification, and hence of the first articulation of the ‘I’, of subjectivity.”

To the critic who would say “but what about the child who never sees a mirror image of itself, or does not do so at the “critical” time Lacan originally posited!” I would say it still has utility as a metaphor, and I think Emerson would too.




Patterson, Lee. “Chaucer’s Pardoner on the Couch: Psyche and Clio in Medieval Literary Studies. Speculum 76 (2001): 638-680.


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