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For Beginners
Lacan For Beginners

Lacan For Beginners

by Phillip Hill, David LeachPhillip Hill
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Jacques Lacan is probably the most influential psychoanalyst since Freud (of the roughly 20,000 psychoanalysts in the world, about half are 'Lacanians') yet most people know nothing about him. The 10,000 analysts who use Lacan's ideas work mostly in France, Spain, Italy, and South America. To the rest of the world, including England and America, Lacan is a genius-in-waiting, due to be 'discovered' any day now.

Despite or because of his brilliance, Lacan is difficult to understand. He wrote with an obscure, style that casually refers to philosophy, linguistics, biology, mathematics, etc.—and to make matters worse, his ideas changed over the years.

Lacan For Beginners by Philip Hill introduces the reader to Lacan's theories and their relation to clinical practice in twelve elegantly structured chapters, designed around tantalizing questions that clarify Lacan's ideas.

Lacan For Beginners is written with insight and wit and illustrated with examples from popular culture and cinema. The artwork is humorous and informative, and works with the text. So don't you think it is about time you become familiar with his work?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781934389393
Publisher: For Beginners
Publication date: 08/25/2009
Series: For Beginners
Edition description: Reprint ed.
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Philip Hill is a psychoanalyst, writer and teacher in London with over 20 years clinical experience. He is also a member of the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research (CFAR), and the Site for Contemporary Psychoanalysis in the UK. Philip has also written Using Lacanian Clinical Technique: An Introduction, Press for the Habilitation of Psychoanalysis, 2002.

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By Philip Hill, David Leach

Steerforth Press

Copyright © 1999 Philip Hill
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-939994-13-4


Who Was Lacan?

He became a skinny but handsome intellectual and a dandy. He was exempted from military service because of his physique.

Lacan underwent medical and psychiatric training, a personal psychoanalysis and became a man of charisma,

Jacques Lacan was born to a middle class French Catholic family in 1901, seven years after Freud's work was first published. Lacan would usually have his nose in a book while other boys were playing football.

the lover of many women, and an atheist.

Lacan's difficult lectures were attended by many leading psychoanalysts and intellectuals. There would often be lengthy silences, in between Lacan writing obscure symbols and formulae on a blackboard. Listeners were often baffled by his complicated word plays and enigmatic puns, and by his use of German, Hebrew, Chinese and Ancient Greek. Even French speakers attending his talks were not sure if he was speaking French or not. Now there is a cult following of Lacan, with some thirty different camps of bickering followers, each claiming loyalty to the master.

Most of Lacan's work was not published or otherwise written down; he simply spoke it at his weekly seminars and lectures.

Some of Lacan's tape-recorded talks have been published and translated, but much of his work remains unpublished or untranslated; it circulates only in 'samizdat' form, as unofficial transcripts of the seminars. Lacan scorned publication, pronouncing it as 'poubellication', from the French 'poubelle', for garbage can.

The clinical and theoretical innovations introduced by Lacan (such as his infamous clinical sessions of variable length that could last any time between five minutes and an hour, instead of the conventional fifty minutes) produced splits in the psychoanalytic movement, and finally led to his being expelled from the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1953, and to the formation of his own psychoanalytic school.

Lacan was never comfortable with the relationship between institutions, including psychoanalytic training schools, and psychoanalysis as a clinical practice. The problem arises because the psychoanalyst helps his patients question their own values and issues, without the analyst having an investment in a particular answer. The psychoanalyst should not bring his own prejudices to bear on his patients' questions. Lacan thought that this special sort of space, in which the patient can speak openly, is essential in psychoanalysis, but very difficult to encourage and promote through an institution because of the kinds of identification and ideals of authority that tend to operate within institutions. Arguing that the institutionalization of psychoanalysis was fraught with dangers for clinical practice, he even took the extraordinary step of dissolving his own psychoanalytic school in 1980, the year before his death.

Lacan's work is difficult to study; not only because he lectured and wrote with a very complicated style, but also because he introduced many new ideas and concepts that are dependent on one another. Studying his work is made more difficult because many of these ideas changed during the course of his lifetime.

Lacan was also an intellectual magpie—he took and adapted for his own ends many ideas from other fields, including linguistics, mathematics, literature, philosophy and science.

Lacan and the Image

One of the main influences on the early Lacan, in the 1920s and 1930s were the Surrealists, then in their heyday. Many Surrealists were interested in psychoanalysis, including Salvador Dali, who met both Freud and Lacan.

Lacan had noticed that the meanings patients attach to words are often fluid and seem to be attached to images, while meaning in Surrealist art is also attached to images.

How might images play a role in the clinic? Here is an example of someone whose life had been dominated by an image: a woman had a phobia of open and public spaces, so she stayed at home. She had a fear of being seen lying down in the street. In the course of her psychoanalysis it transpired that she was ashamed of her past sexual conduct, and of her sexual desires, and that above all, she did not want to be seen by others as a 'fallen woman'. The image or idea of the fallen woman dominated her life, via the idiom 'fallen woman'. It was around these words that her phobic symptom operated, not only by 'speaking the truth' about her past 'shame', but protecting her from further sexual encounters that she desired.

Here 'fallen woman' is ambiguous, with two meanings, just as Dali's picture on page nine is ambiguous, between a face and women.

In this first phase of his work Lacan stressed the role of images and the imaginary in the workings of the human mind. He had been particularly struck by Lorenz's famous experiment with ducks. Lorenz had put his Wellington boots next to duck eggs. As the ducklings hatched out and saw the boot, they became 'imprinted' with its image; wherever that boot went, the little ducks would follow. They mistook Lorenz's boot for their mummy. When Lorenz wore his Wellingtons he was slavishly followed by a trail of ducklings, each of whom were captivated by the image of the boot.

In the same way, a man might love a woman who looked, smelt or sounded like his mother, because he is captivated by an image of her. It is not unusual for people to fall in love with someone who has something familiar about them, a smell, a laugh or their eyes. In love, we typically confuse our new love with an old love. Lacan once said of his dog:


This idea of 'domination by the image' is for Lacan tied to the concept of captivation, slavery or bondage. Such a bond can exist between a child and mother, between lovers or between a slave and a master.

Lacan took this idea from the German philosopher Hegel, who developed a theory of the 'slave-master relation'. We will look at this in chapter six, on discourse, but to understand the slave-master relation we need to first look at the problems Socrates thought we have in knowing things, and at Freud's theory of consciousness, or the 'ego' which also stresses mis-knowing.

Socrates is an important figure for Lacan because he had a problem with knowing, knowledge, and wisdom, and because he is famous for a special way of speaking and arguing that is now called 'Socratic Discourse'.

Around 399 B.C, Socrates become worried when he heard that:

Socrates was surprised to hear this because he was sure that he was without wisdom. Fascinated by the contradiction between what he thought of himself, and what had been said of him, Socrates went about testing the hypothesis that there was 'no man wiser', by arguing with people who were thought to be wise. He did this by pointing out the contradictions in what people said to him. As you might imagine, this caused a lot of upset and controversy, but it also had a dramatic result, Socrates ended up on trial.

Defending himself, he said that people had become emotionally involved with him because they supposed him to possess knowledge, which in fact he did not have:

'The effect of these debates and investigations of mine, gentlemen, has been to arouse against me a great deal of hostility, and hostility of a particularly bitter and persistent kind, which has resulted in various malicious suggestions, including the description of me as a 'professor of wisdom'. This is due to the fact that whenever I succeed in disproving another person's claim to wisdom in a given subject, the bystanders assume that I know everything about that subject myself. But the truth of the matter gentlemen, is pretty certainly this ...

human wisdom has little or no value.'

In the spirit of Socrates, Lacan said that a psychoanalyst has no special knowledge to give his patients. And like Socrates, a psychoanalyst can provide a special kind of logical questioning that can help the person being questioned find some truth about themselves.

Lacan was interested in the supposition that 'another person possesses knowledge', because that is exactly what happens in psychoanalysis, as well as in some other relationships. The patient who brings his problems and suffering to the psychoanalyst usually supposes that the analyst possesses a special knowledge; typically, knowledge of the solutions to all the patient's problems.

A competent psychoanalyst does not pretend to have such knowledge and, of course, usually has difficulties of his own.

What is at play in this very common supposition of knowledge that patients make of their analysts and their doctors, and that children make of their teachers and parents? Lacan's answer is 'the slave-master discourse'.

So one theme for psychoanalysis, from Socrates, is the idea that knowledge is a central problem for each of us, posing difficult questions such as:

What do we know?

How do we know it?

How do we live with it?

How do we speak about what we know?

Knowledge and Desire

In Freud's theory there is—put simply—the unconscious or 'id', where unconscious desires live. It is a safe place for desires that would otherwise embarrass us, or expose conflicts, contradictions and make problems. Consciousness is that part of the mind to which we have access: the images, feelings and ideas that we can simply introspect and see. This, roughly speaking, Freud called the 'ego'. Freud thought of the ego as the surface or façade that negotiates between the unconscious and the world.

Mostly by a kind of lying, just like Basil Fawlty in the TV show 'Fawlty Towers'. The main job of the ego is to cover over the problematic desires and their conflicts. It does this by making numerous 'false connections' between things, and then making them conscious. For example, a married man explained to a psychoanalyst that his problem was 'alcoholism'. But this man had an unconscious desire to be homosexual, and had used drink as a way of avoiding sex with his wife. He would explain to her 'I can't make love to you because I've been drinking'. It was an explanation that also convinced him. Importantly, it did not betray his unconscious desire to love men, rather than women. His drinking was being used by his ego as a false connection, linking his unconscious desire to love men, with his impotence in relation to his wife. All his wife saw was his drunkenness and his impotence.

In another example a man, Mr. Jones, fell in love with a married woman, Mrs. Brown. Instead of acknowledging the disappointment of his unrequited love, he slandered the woman's husband, Mr. Brown, spreading nasty rumours about him. The rumours established a false connection between his love, and its disappointment, via his rival.

For Lacan, following Freud, the primary function of the ego, of consciousness, is deception. This means that whatever the circumstances, and however much psychoanalysis a person has had, in matters of consciousness and judgement—especially reflexive ones in which people make judgements of themselves—the productions of the ego are suspect. Lacan calls the false judgements of the ego 'meconnaissance' or 'misknowing'.

The deceptive function of the ego is something that we are all stuck with. A deceptive ego that tells lies is a necessary part of our mental structure.

Freud and Lacan argued that people have an almost infinite capacity to deceive themselves. This is especially true when they are making judgements about themselves, or when they are contemplating their own desire and their own image.

This Freudian model of the 'ego as deceptive' has been confirmed by hundreds of experiments carried out by psychologists with the techniques of mainstream science. But, surprisingly, this Freudian and Lacanian view contradicts what has become the predominant view in American culture and 'therapy': 'Ego Psychology'. What is called 'therapy' in America has very little if anything to do with either Freud's or Lacan's ideas. Ego Psychologists argue that the ego can be 'strengthened', by the construction of a 'conflict-free zone' within it, and thus have the ego 'accord with reality', instead of lying compulsively!

Life is tough; we are divided in many ways, for instance as men and women. In our state of division it is far from obvious which is the best way to live. What should we do? Where should we do it? Who should we love? What work should we do? How do we live with our desire? Whatever we do, life is a series of conflicts.

The American dream or ego ideal is that we should eat McDonalds, have 2.3 children and lead good, happy, heterosexual lives without any fundamental difficulties or conflicts. The standard Hollywood solution to life's difficulties, whatever their size or shape, is for a heterosexual man and woman to walk into the sunset holding hands, to make babies. Heinz Hartmann, one of the founders of Ego Psychology, revised Freud's fundamental conception of the ego beyond recognition.

The Ego Psychology ideology suggests a utopia in which we can remove all conflict by seeing 'The Truth' clearly. This view has its roots in Plato's blueprint for a fascist society in which he would expel poets and artists, because 'their art is a deliberate attempt to deceive us, to disguise the truth'. Plato wanted a law ensuring that all single adults over thirty would be fined every year, until they married. He would also encourage adolescent boys and girls to dance together, naked.

So the solution for Ego Psychology as for Plato, is heterosexuality. Ego Psychology claims that truly satisfying sex has to be genital intercourse and can only occur at the end of successful course of therapy, for those who see 'The Truth'. The guardians of 'The Truth' in Plato's scheme are the elite 'philosopher-kings', the rulers of the state, who have had twenty or thirty years of special 'Truth training' in Plato's doctrine; in Ego Psychology the only ones who are supposed to see The Truth are the therapists and their 'cured patients' who take fifteen or twenty years studying to identify their conflict-ridden egos with the 'conflict-free egos' of their therapists; but for Socrates, Freud and Lacan, life is a disease, and the cure is death.

For Lacan then there is no possibility of living your life with conflict and without being misled by your ego, because it is necessarily difficult to be alive. We can only live with conflict. There are profound differences such as gender and sexuality (explored in chapter nine on feminine sexuality) and other problems that cannot be ironed out or eliminated completely by any amount of psychoanalysis, politics or social engineering. Conflict remains an essential part of the package of life. The device that 'manages' the conflict, maintaining a facade, by lying, is the ego. Freud and Lacan argue that we are all in the position, identified by Socrates, of not knowing. Not only do we often not know about reality and the external world in any pure sense, but, more importantly, we may not even know our own deepest desires.

Desires are often unconscious, and are covered over by the false connections of the ego, which deceive us. For Freud and Lacan it does not matter how much psychoanalysis you have consumed, how saintly you are, or for how many decades you have practised meditation, you will still have an ego whose function is to deceive you.


If there were an autonomous little man in charge of the ego, or 'conflict free ego' as Hartmann claims, we would have a problem: what would be inside the little man's head? The little man would have to have a complete mind of his own. And how would that work? With its own complete little man? Would that little man also have his own little man ...?

This problem, with the infinitely many little men, each one smaller than the one before it is called 'The Homunculus Problem'. We will return to it. Because it is conceptually impossible, we know that any scheme that relies on it cannot exist.

Psst! The ego is not master in its own house!

So, in the tradition of Socrates and Freud, Lacan does not believe that we can turn to the ego for answers about our deepest unconscious desires. But there are some linguistic techniques for studying the rewriting and rereading that the ego carries out. However these techniques cannot be relied on to provide us with 'the absolute infallible truth' about ourselves, as Ego Psychologists claim.


What Has Language Got to Do With Psychoanalysis?

Psychoanalysis is carried out exclusively with words, with language. So psychoanalysis, argues Lacan, must have a theory of language and meaning. The surrealists showed that one image can be associated with more than one meaning. But Freud and Lacan claim that meaning is essentially something to do with language, with words and symbols.

Jung, Klein and Plato had theories of language that are similar: they all claim that some meanings are rigidly fixed and cannot be moved. This position is very different from Freud's and Lacan's view of language, where meaning is in flux.

Jung thought that whatever our experiences, and however different our backgrounds and cultures, we can only conceptualise and experience the world, each other and language through a fixed number of ideas that he called 'archetypes' such as the 'Earth Mother' or the 'Trickster'.


Excerpted from LACAN FOR BEGINNERS by Philip Hill, David Leach. Copyright © 1999 Philip Hill. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1 Introduction. What is psychoanalysis? What have images got to do with it? What does the ego do?,
Chapter 2 What has language got to do with psychoanalysis? What did Lacan mean when he said that 'the unconscious is structured like a language'?,
Chapter 3 Lacan's theory of 'the real' as the 'impossible to soy' that always returns.,
Chapter 4 'Jouissance' or sexual enjoyment and desire. Is sexual enjoyment something that only happens in intercourse? How are 'need', 'demand' and 'desire' differentiated?,
Chapter 5 Objects and their subject.,
Chapter 6 The Four Discourses: four ways of speaking and being.,
Chapter 7 Overview of psychopathology: focus on perversion, hysteria and obsessional neurosis.,
Chapter 8 What is psychosis?,
Chapter 9 What is feminine sexuality? What does it mean to be a woman?,
Chapter 10 What is topology? and: What does it have to do with time? Why do Lacanians use variable length sessions?,
Chapter 11 What is the good of psychoanalysis? and: What is the meaning of life?,
Chapter 12 Review.,
BIBLIOGRAPHY by chapter with suggestions for further reading,

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