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Élisabeth Roudinesco interviewed on the 30th anniversary of Jacques Lacan’s death

Jordan Skinner29 May 2014

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Élisabeth Roudinesco, author of Lacan: In Spite of Everything, sat down with Laurent Etre on the 9th of September 2011 to discuss the founder of the Paris Freudian school, Jacques Lacan, who, thirty years prior, on 9 September 1981, had passed away—leaving in his wake a generation of followers and dissenters. Élisabeth Roudinesco, a recognised authority on his thought, helps us to grasp his relevance for the present day.

Laurent Etre:Your last book, published for the thirtieth anniversary of Lacan's death, is called Lacan, envers et contre tout ['Lacan, toward and against everything', published in English as Lacan: In Spite of Everything]. Why did you choose this title, which might suggest that there is something subversive or politically incorrect about invoking this intellectual figure

Élisabeth Roudinesco: It was firstly a means that I used to characterise my own fidelity to Lacan as persisting 'despite all his faults'. And I very much like the implicit idea of fidelity within infidelity. Moreover, Lacan was himself always a paradoxical and conflicted thinker, both an enlightened conservative and a subversive agent. This formula, 'toward and against everything', dating back to the Middle Ages, allows us to bring out this very particular aspect of Lacan's personality. This, too, was something that I wanted to do with this new book. How, having devoted so many texts to this man, could I do something really significant to mark the thirtieth anniversary of his death? I wanted a new angle, so I chose a nocturnal Lacan, the collector and reader of Sade... In my History of Perversion I showed that Sade himself was 'toward and against everything'. Not that I am drawing an equals sign between Lacan and the Marquis de Sade, of course.

But they do have points in common. Sade was beyond authority, escaping the understanding of all authority. He was locked up by the royalist regime and liberated during the Revolution, only to be jailed again by the revolutionaries themselves. Lacan was not Sade, he did not spend thirty years of his life in prison. But his fascination for Sade, for the transgression that he incarnated, bore witness to an interesting character trait of his, the fact that he had many faces, the spark for love and submission, which does not leave a simple legacy.

Let us now talk about the progress of psychoanalysis, from Freud to Lacan. Does it (with its idea that conscious discourse is incomplete, that it is necessary to go beyond what is signified) help us understand our society, over-saturated as it is with communication? Or are psychoanalysis's reflections on language reserved for the intimacy of therapy?

Yes, of course, in societies that are over-saturated with communication – which are in fact just a semblance, an appearance based on a narcissistic individualism, and not the true word – the idea that the unconscious expresses itself, that it is language, is a very powerful and politically subversive notion. This is one of the fundamental reasons for the hatred that Freud, Lacan and psychoanalysis in general constantly provoke. The idea that the subject is traversed by her or his unconscious and that language is of capital significance is opposed to all those theories that reduce man to his behaviour, to the sum of his bodily attitudes. This is a truly political debate. If we dwell on behaviouralism, then we abolish the freedom of the subject. Behaviouralism knows only machine-men. Conversely, Freud initiated a theory of freedom determined by the unconscious. It is, moreover, this disposition that allows for his rapprochement with Marx. Man is free to make his own history, but there are psychic and social determinations that act unbeknownst to him. This idea is still today a subversive one. That said, we ought to note a contradiction. Very often it comes to pass that psychoanalysts are unable to grasp this conception, this ethics of freedom inherent to their discipline. In our contemporary, ultra-mediatised world, which adores perverts and shams, there are many people prepared to make the most wild interpretations of anything and everything. We saw this with the Strauss-Kahn affair. We saw pop-pschology – relayed by politicians and certain feminists – declaring that this man was a pervert, a rapist (and thus a criminal), mentally ill, psychotic. All these cookie-cutter diagnoses were delirious. The people who churned out this stuff were guilty of a collective madness, a disgrace to psychoanalysis and psychiatry that damaged all the protagonists of this tragic affair: Strauss-Kahn and his family as well as the unfortunate hotel maid.

You consider psychoanalysis to be opposed in principle to narcissistic individualism. Yet we often tend to see a narcissistic practice within psychoanalysis itself, as the subject hears herself speak.... Is this completely without foundation?

The interest in narcissistic pathologies dates back to the 1960s, when clinical developments led practitioners to focus on the self more than the conflicts of the ego. Freud was a theorist of conflict (hysterical and intra-family conflicts). This was the beginning of what came to be called 'personal development'. It was in these circumstances that psychoanalytic therapy evolved toward analysis of narcissism. But at the same time, its principle in so doing was to critique narcissism. Lacan situated himself mid-way between these two currents. He returned to Freud, at the same time as concerning himself with the ideology of his own epoch. The other face of the cult of the self is the medication of everything. Cerebralists would have us believe that molecules alone can get rid of all mental pathologies. I think, on the contrary, that we should do everything to put a stop to this worrying development, and return to the balance: medication plus face-to-face therapy. Of course, this latter must not collapse into either adapting the subject to society as it is or collaborating with cerebralists, who have a lot to tell us about the functioning of the brain but not much about mental and social malaise. The goal of those who want to medicate everything is to get the mentally ill out of the psychiatrical hospital as quickly as possible. In certain ways, they are realising the dream that we had in the 1960s: get people out of the asylum. But in what state are these people leaving? With more than ten medications a day, dazing them with a serious, psychosis-free depression.

Can we identify, in this constant recourse to chemicals that you denounce, the consequences of the general commodification of human activities? Indeed, one might think that the more or less consciously sought goal of this short-termist cerebralist medicine is to get the patients back to the market as soon as possible...

It's more complicated than that. Doctors are not in the service of big capital. In reality, the concern of this ideology that has a chemical answer for everything, the reduction of man to his brain and his physiological circuits, is, still, the patient's well-being, the idea being that medicine alone is effective in this regard. So it is not narrowly a matter of making subjects active on the market again as soon as possible. Indeed, this misunderstood materialism and cognitivism traverses the main currents of politics, and the Left also must learn to distrust it. Having a chemical answer for everything may seduce those who want to free themselves of any form of spirituality. The risk, though, is falling into a reductionist hedonism, prioritising the body at the cost of negating subjectivity, in the manner of certain biological ideologies of the far Right.

In your book, you advance the idea that Lacan's thinking allows us to critique the hedonism of present-day society, centred as it is on the egocentric quest for short-term pleasure... At the same time, you explain that Lacan's ethics can be summed up in the formula 'don't give up on your desire'. Is there not a contradiction, here? Doesn't desire always refer to pleasure, the promise that a tension will be relieved?

This formula that Lacan took from his interpretation of Antigone is not without its ambiguities. Many psychoanalysts have interpreted it as an appeal for apoliticism, absolute detachment from society. Now, at root this injunction not to give up on one's desire means that it is necessary to go beyond both moralism and an excessive deployment of affects. Desire is not reducible to the pleasure that is promised by today's hedonism. This latter – as Lacan's great text 'Kant avec Sade' suggests – is based on the idea that we no longer have any need for symbolic functions, that there is no law, and that the subject's body is all-powerful. This is the omnipotence of the ego, which is considered the 'king of the world', as they say. At heart, hedonism proclaims a pure imperative, enjoyment. There is something mortifying about this. To wish to enjoy everything all the time means death, guaranteed self-destruction. Faced with this, psychoanalysis is a sort of school of reason. Of course, in order to live we do need pleasure, desire, enjoyment. Psychoanalysis is not a theory of the frustration of pleasures. But it invites reflection on the fact that the untrammeled reign of passions produces the same result as absolute control over them: the death of the subject. In this sense, psychoanalysis renews a whole philosophical tradition concerning the mastery of passions by reason.

You characterise Lacan and Freud as 'thinkers of the sombre Enlightenment'. What do you mean by that?

Lacan takes from Freud – who was part of that lineage – a certain pessimism with regard to progress, a critique of any ideology of unlimited progress. Lacan thought that man is fundamentally occupied by the tension toward death, and that this latter is the basis of the real. He thought that it would never be possible to overcome this part of the real, the obscure, mad part of man. Politically, Lacan was an enlightened conservative who nonetheless adoped a social-democratic, pro-Mendés-France perspective. He was very close to the magazine L'Express, a friend of Françoise Giroud and Madeleine Chapsal...

But this critique of unlimited process would have us believe that man is finished, that his essence is now complete... Does such a conception not necessarily lead to a rejection of change, always defending the established order?

It is a very complicated question... Lacan was not a total pessimist, and thought that the subject's action in life does have some margin of freedom. It is in relation to the symbolic order, language, that the subject is conscious of herself. She can shake off the illusions in her imaginary, rise above her feelings and emotions. But what is certain is that Lacan was not in favour of revolution. He believed that it neecessarily led to terror and new forms of slavery worse than the preceding ones. It is also in this sense that we can see a Sadeian side to Lacan. He considered himself beyond all authority. But each time that he was driven to take a position on a political subject, it was for good causes. He showed himself to be an anti-colonialist and anti-racist who was in favour of the emancipation of the subject. From 1953 to 1960 he turned toward what he saw as the two great political forces: the Church, which at that time was truly interested in psychoanalysis (notably the Jesuits) and the French Communist Party, which was on the way to abandoning its condemnations of Freud. These two forces, each in their own way, were refurbishing their intellectual tools in order to resist the narcissistic and individualist wave of American society: Lacan was a materialist who believed in the force of ideas and of the human spirit. He here made a choice for France that was all the more judicious if we consider that he remained attached to a very 'English' democratic tradition: he loved the British constitutional monarchy and admired Churchill.

Was Lacan not, above all, a thinker in the republican tradition, developing a conception of law as a fundamental tool for constructing free subjects, as opposed to the liberal-libertarian ideology that tends to consider all limitations on desire as an obstacle to individual freedom?

Exactly – a paradoxical republican. Like Lévi-Strauss, Lacan believed that the symbolic function – not to be confused with repressive law – is capital for allowing man to exist as a subject. The symbolic function is an order: not a patriarchal one, but an order of meaning. It is for this reason that we can use Lacan to help get a handle on an authentic progressive thought, a thought open to contemporary developments, to changes in the family form like same-sex parenthood, but without falling victim to the dangers posed to democracy and co-existence by a certain degree of inflation of communitarian and identitarian (sexual, ethnic, etc.) claims. It is, in any case, in the sense of this critical outlook that I am still today committed to developing Lacan's legacy.

See the original French interview here.

Lacan: In Spite of Everything is available to buy at a 40% discount on our website (with free p&p and bundled ebook).