Jacques Lacan

Jacques-Marie-Émile Lacan (French ) (April 13, 1901 – September 9, 1981) was a French psychoanalyst, psychiatrist, and doctor, who made prominent contributions to the psychoanalytic movement. His yearly seminars, conducted in Paris from 1953 until his death in 1981, were a major influence in the French intellectual milieu of the 1960s and '70s, particularly among post-structuralist thinkers.

Lacan's ideas centered on Freudian concepts such as the unconscious, the castration complex, the ego, focusing on identifications, and the centrality of language to subjectivity. His work was interdisciplinary, drawing on linguistics, philosophy, mathematics, amongst others. Although a controversial and divisive figure, Lacan is widely read in critical theory, literary studies, and twentieth-century French philosophy, as well as in the living practice of clinical psychoanalysis.


Because Lacan, like Freud, destroyed most of his records, it is difficult to disentangle the myths, anecdotes, and rumors that have surrounded him.

Early life

Jacques Lacan was born in Paris, the eldest child of three born to Emilie and Alfred Lacan. Alfred was a successful, middle-class salesman dealing in soap and oils. Emilie was an ardent Catholic, and Lacan's younger brother eventually entered monastic life in 1929. Lacan attended the Collège Stanislas, a well-known Jesuit high school. In the early 1920s, Lacan attended some meetings of right-wing group Action Française and met its founder Charles Maurras. By the mid-1920s, Lacan's growing anti-religious sentiment led to tensions with his Catholic family.

Too thin to be accepted into military service, Lacan went directly into medical school in 1920, specializing in psychiatry from 1926. He took his clinical training at Sainte-Anne, the major psychiatric hospital in central Paris. In his studies he had a particular interest in the philosophic work of Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger and, alongside many other Parisian intellectuals of the time, he attended the famous seminars on Hegel given by Alexandre Kojève.

Beginning in the 1920s, Lacan undertook analysis with Rudolph Loewenstein, which continued until 1938.


In 1931 Lacan received his license as a forensic psychiatrist, and in 1932 was awarded the ''Doctorat d'état for his thesis, De la Psychose paranoiaque dans les rapports avec la personnalité''. While this thesis drew considerable acclaim outside psychoanalytic circles, particularly among the surrealist artists, it was largely ignored by psychoanalysts. In 1934 Lacan became a candidate for the Société Psychoanalytique de Paris. In January of that year, he married Marie-Louise Blondin, who gave birth to their first child, Caroline, the same month. Another child, Thibaut, was born in August of 1939.

He presented his first analytic paper on the "Mirror Phase" at the 1936 Congress of the International Psychoanalytical Association in Marienbad. According to Roudinesco, Lacan's reading was interrupted by chairman of the congress, Ernest Jones, who was unwilling to offer more than the alloted time. Frustrated with what he considered an insult, Lacan left the congress to witness first hand a mass event manipulated by Nazis, in the form of the Olympic Games in Berlin. No copy of Lacan's original lecture remains extant.

Lacan was very active in the world of Parisian writers, artists and intellectuals during the inter-war period. In addition to André Breton and Georges Bataille, he was also associated with Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso. He attended the mouvement Psyché founded by Maryse Choisy. Several of his early articles were published in the Surrealist journal Minotaure and he was present at the first public reading of James Joyce's Ulysses. Dylan Evans has speculated that Lacan was a surrealist at heart, "his interest in surrealism predates his interest in psychoanalysis. Perhaps Lacan never really abandoned his early surrealist sympathies, its neo-Romantic view of madness as 'convulsive beauty', its celebration of irrationality, and its hostility to the scientist who murders nature by dissecting it." As such company would suggest, during this period Lacan was better known in literary circles than psychoanalytic ones.


The Société Psychoanalytique de Paris (SPP) was disbanded due to Nazi Germany's occupation of France in 1940 and Lacan was subsequently called up to serve in the French army at the Val-de-Grâce military hospital in Paris, where he spent the duration of the war. His third child, Sibylle, was born in 1940.

The following year, Lacan fathered a child, Judith (who kept the name Bataille) with Sylvia Bataille (née Maklès), estranged wife of his friend Georges. There are contradictory stories about his romantic life with Sylvia Bataille in southern France during World War II. The official record shows only that Marie-Louise requested divorce after Judith's birth, and Lacan married Sylvia in 1953.

Following the war, the SPP recommenced their meetings, and Lacan visited England for a five-week study trip, meeting English analysts Wilfred Bion and John Rickman. He was influenced by Bion's analytic work with groups and this contributed to his own later emphasis on study groups as a structure with which to advance theoretical work in psychoanalysis.

In 1949, Lacan presented a new paper on the mirror stage to the sixteenth IPA congress in Zurich.


In 1951 Lacan started to hold a private weekly seminar in Paris, urging what he described as "a return to Freud" concentrating upon the linguistic nature of psychological symptomatology. Becoming public in 1953, Lacan's twenty-seven year long seminar was very influential in Parisian cultural life as well as in psychoanalytic theory and clinical practice.

In 1953, after a disagreement about analytic practice methods, Lacan and many of his colleagues left the Société Parisienne de Psychoanalyse to form a new group the Société Française de Psychanalyse (SFP). One of the consequences of this was to deprive the new group of membership within the International Psychoanalytical Association.

Encouraged by the reception of "the return to Freud" and of his report - "The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis" (Écrits) - Lacan again returned to Freud, re-reading the canon in relation with contemporary philosophy, linguistics, ethnology, biology and topology. From 1953 to 1964 at Sainte-Anne Hospital, he held his Seminars and presented case histories of patients. During this period he wrote the texts that are found in Écrits, a selection of which was first published in 1966. In his seventh Seminar of 1959-60, 'The Ethics of Psychoanalysis', Lacan defined his ethical foundations of psychoanalysis and constructs his "ethics for our time"; according to Freud, an ethics that would prove to be equal to the tragedy of modern man and to the "discontent of civilization". At the roots of the ethics is desire: analysis' only promise is austere, it is the entrance-into-the-I (in French a play of words between 'l'entrée en je' and 'l'entrée en jeu'). 'I must come to the place where the id was', where the analysand discovers, in its absolute nakedness, the truth of his desire. The end of psychoanalysis entails 'the purification of desire'. This text functions throughout the years as the background of Lacan's work. He defends three assertions: that psychoanalysis must have a scientific status; that Freudian ideas have radically changed the concepts of subject, of knowledge, and of desire; that the analytic field is the only place from where it is possible to question the insufficiencies of science and philosophy.


Starting in 1962 a complex negotiation took place to determine the status of the SFP within the IPA. Lacan's practice-with his controversial indeterminate-length sessions in which he charged a full fee for truncated sessions, had his hair cut during sessions, and Lacan's critical stance towards psychoanalytic orthodoxy-led, in 1963, to a condition being set by the IPA that registration of the SFP was dependent upon removing Lacan from the list of SFP training analysts. Lacan left the SFP to form his own school which became known as the École Freudienne de Paris (EFP)

With Lévi-Strauss and Althusser's support, he was appointed lecturer at the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes. He started with a seminar on The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis in January 1964 in the Dussane room at the École Normale Supérieure (in his first session he thanks the generosity of Fernand Braudel and Claude Lévi-Strauss). Lacan began to set forth his own teaching on psychoanalysis to an audience of colleagues who had joined him from the SFP. His lectures also attracted many of the École Normale's students. He divided the École de la Cause freudienne into three sections: the section of pure psychoanalysis (training and elaboration of the theory, where members who have been analyzed but haven't become analysts can participate); the section for applied psychoanalysis (therapeutic and clinical, physicians who have neither completed nor started analysis are welcome); the section for taking inventory of the Freudian field (it concerned the critique of psychoanalytic literature and the analysis of the theoretical relations with related or affiliated sciences (Proposition du 9 octobre 1967 sur le psychanalyste à l'Ecole).

By the 1960s, Lacan was associated-at least in the public mind-with the far left in France. In May 1968 Lacan voiced his sympathy for the student protests and as a corollary a Department of Psychology was set up by his followers at the University of Vincennes (Paris VIII). Echoing this sentiment, "Shortly after the tumultuous events of May 1968, Lacan was accused by the authorities of being a subversive, and directly influencing the events that transpired."

In 1969 Lacan moved his public seminars to the Faculté de Droit (Panthéon) where he continued to deliver his expositions of analytic theory and practice till the dissolution of his School in 1980.


Throughout the final decade of his life, Lacan continued his widely followed seminars. During this period, he focuses on the development of his concepts of masculine and feminine jouissance, and puts special emphasis on his concept of "The Real" as a point of impossible contradiction in the "Symbolic Order". This late work had the greatest influence on feminist thought, as well as upon the informal movement that arose in the 1970s or 1980s called post-modernism.

Major concepts

The 'Return to Freud'

Lacan's "return to Freud" emphasizes a renewed attention to the original texts of Freud and a radical critique of Ego psychology, Melanie Klein and Object relations theory. Lacan thought that Freud's ideas of "slips of the tongue", jokes, etcetera, all emphasized the agency of language in subjective constitution. "Correcting" Freud from within the light of Saussure, Lévi-Strauss, and Barthes, Lacan's "return to Freud" could be read as the realization that the pervading agency of the unconscious is intimately tied to the functions and dynamics of language, where the signifier is irremediably divorced from the signified in a chronic but generative tension of lack. In "The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason Since Freud" (Écrits, pp. 161 - 197).) he argued that "the unconscious is structured like a language"; it was not a primitive or archetypal part of the mind separate from the conscious, linguistic ego, but a formation as complex and structurally sophisticated as consciousness itself. If the unconscious is structured like a language, he claimed, then the self is denied any point of reference to which to be 'restored' following trauma or 'identity crisis'.

The mirror stage (le stade du miroir)

Lacan's first official contribution to psychoanalysis was the mirror stage which he described "... as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience". By the early fifties, he no longer considers the mirror stage as only a moment in the life of the infant, but as the permanent structure of subjectivity. In the paradigm of The Imaginary order, the subject is permanently caught and captivated by his own image. Lacan writes, "[T]he mirror stage is a phenomenon to which I assign a twofold value. In the first place, it has historical value as it marks a decisive turning-point in the mental development of the child. In the second place, it typifies an essential libidinal relationship with the body-image".

As he further develops the concept, the stress falls less on its historical value and ever more on its structural value. In his fourth Seminar, ''La relation d'objet'', Lacan states that "the mirror stage is far from a mere phenomenon which occurs in the development of the child. It illustrates the conflictual nature of the dual relationship".

The mirror stage describes the formation of the Ego via the process of objectification, the Ego being the result of feeling dissention between one's perceived visual appearance and one's perceived emotional reality. This identification is what Lacan called alienation. At six months the baby still lacks coordination, however, he can recognize himself in the mirror before attaining control over his bodily movements. He sees his image as a whole, and the synthesis of this image produces a sense of contrast with the uncoordination of the body, which is perceived as a fragmented body. This contrast is first felt by the infant as a rivalry with his own image, because the wholeness of the image threatens him with fragmentation, and thus the mirror stage gives rise to an aggressive tension between the subject and the image. To resolve this aggressive tension, the subject identifies with the image: this primary identification with the counterpart is what forms the Ego. The moment of identification is to Lacan a moment of jubilation since it leads to an imaginary sense of mastery, yet the jubilation may also be accompanied by a depressive reaction, when the infant compares his own precarious sense of mastery with the omnipotence of the mother. This identification also involves the ideal ego which functions as a promise of future wholeness sustaining the Ego in anticipation.

In the Mirror stage a misunderstanding - "méconnaissance" - constitutes the Ego--the 'moi' becomes alienated from himself through the introduction of the Imaginary order subject. It must be said that the mirror stage has also a significant symbolic dimension. The Symbolic order is present in the figure of the adult who is carrying the infant: the moment after the subject has jubilantly assumed his image as his own, he turns his head towards this adult who represents the big Other, as if to call on him to ratify this image.


While Freud uses the term "other", referring to der Andere (the other person) and "das Andere" (otherness), Lacan's use is more like Hegel's, through Alexandre Kojève.

Lacan often used an algebraic symbology for his concepts: the big Other is designated A (for French Autre) and the little other is designated a (italicized French autre). He asserts that an awareness of this distinction is fundamental to analytic practice: 'the analyst must be imbued with the difference between A and a, so he can situate himself in the place of Other, and not the other'.

  1. The little other is the other who is not really other, but a reflection and projection of the Ego. He is both the counterpart or the other people in whom the subject perceives a visual likeness (semblable), and the specular image or the reflection of one's body in the mirror. In this way the little other is entirely inscribed in The Imaginary order. See Objet Petit a.
  2. The big Other designates a radical alterity, an otherness transcending the illusory otherness of the Imaginary because it cannot be assimilated through identification. Lacan equates this radical alterity with language and the law: the big Other is inscribed in The Symbolic order, being in fact the Symbolic insofar as it is particularized for each subject. The Other is then another subject and also the Symbolic order which mediates the relationship with that other subject.

'The Other must first of all be considered a locus, the locus in which speech is constituted'. We can speak of the Other as a subject in a secondary sense, only when a subject may occupy this position and thereby embody the Other for another subject.

When he argues that speech originates not in the Ego nor in the subject, but in the Other, Lacan stresses that speech and language are beyond one's conscious control; they come from another place, outside consciousness, and then 'the unconscious is the discourse of the Other'. When conceiving the Other as a place, Lacan refers to Freud's concept of physical locality, in which the unconscious is described as "the other scene".

"It is the mother who first occupies the position of the big Other for the child, it is she who receives the child's primitive cries and retroactively sanctions them as a particular message". The castration complex is formed when the child discovers that this Other is not complete, that there is a Lack (manque) in the Other. This means that there is always a signifier missing from the trove of signifiers constituted by the Other. Lacan illustrates this incomplete Other graphically by striking a bar through the symbol A; hence another name for the castrated, incomplete Other is the 'barred Other'.

The Three Orders

The Imaginary

Lacan thought the relationship between the Ego and the reflected image means that the Ego and the Imaginary order itself are places of radical alienation: "alienation is constitutive of the Imaginary order". This relationship is also narcissistic. So the Imaginary is the field of images and imagination, and deception: the main illusions of this order are synthesis, autonomy, duality, similarity.

The Imaginary is structured by the Symbolic order: in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis Lacan argues how the visual field is structured by symbolic laws. Thus the Imaginary involves a linguistic dimension. If the signifier is the foundation of the Symbolic, the signified and signification are part of the Imaginary order. Language has Symbolic and Imaginary connotations; in its Imaginary aspect, language is the "wall of language" which inverts and distorts the discourse of the Other. On the other hand, the Imaginary is rooted in the subject's relationship with its own body (the image of the body). In Fetishism: the Symbolic, the Imaginary and the Real Lacan argues that in the sexual plane the Imaginary appears as sexual display and courtship love.

Lacan accused major psychoanalytic schools of reducing the practice of psychoanalysis to the Imaginary order by making identification with the analyst the objective of analysis (see Écrits, "The Directions of the Treatment"). He proposes the use of the Symbolic as the way to dislodge the disabling fixations of the Imaginary: the analyst transforms the images into words. "The use of the Symbolic is the only way for the analytic process to cross the plane of identification."

The Symbolic

In his Seminar IV "La relation d'objet" Lacan asserts that the concepts of Law and Structure are unthinkable without language: thus the Symbolic is a linguistic dimension. Yet, he does not simply equate this order with language since language involves the Imaginary and the Real as well. The dimension proper of language in the Symbolic is that of the signifier, that is a dimension in which elements have no positive existence but which are constituted by virtue of their mutual differences.

The Symbolic is also the field of radical alterity, that is the Other: the unconscious is the discourse of this Other. Besides it is the realm of the Law which regulates desire in the Oedipus complex. We may add that the Symbolic is the domain of culture as opposed to the Imaginary order of nature. As important elements in the Symbolic, the concepts of death and lack (manque) connive to make of the pleasure principle the regulator of the distance from the Thing (das ding an sich) and the death drive which goes "beyond the pleasure principle by means of repetition"-"the death drive is only a mask of the Symbolic order."

It is by working in the Symbolic order that the analyst can produce changes in the subjective position of the analysand; these changes will produce imaginary effects since the Imaginary is structured by the Symbolic. Thus, it is the Symbolic which is determinant of subjectivity, and the Imaginary, made of images and appearances, is the effect of the Symbolic.

The Real

Not only opposed to the Imaginary, the Real is also located outside the Symbolic. Unlike the latter which is constituted in terms of oppositions, i.e. presence/absence, "there is no absence in the Real." Whereas the Symbolic opposition presence/absence implies the possibility that something may be missing from the Symbolic, "the Real is always in its place." If the Symbolic is a set of differentiated elements, signifiers, the Real in itself is undifferentiated, it bears no fissure. The Symbolic introduces "a cut in the real", in the process of signification: "it is the world of words that creates the world of things - things originally confused in the "here and now" of the all in the process of coming into being.

Thus the Real is that which is outside language, resisting symbolization absolutely. In Seminar XI Lacan defines the Real as "the impossible" because it is impossible to imagine and impossible to integrate into the Symbolic, being impossibly attainable. It is this resistance to symbolization that lends the Real its traumatic quality. In his Seminar "La relation d'objet", Lacan reads Freud's case on "Little Hans." He distinguishes two real elements which intrude and disrupt the child's imaginary pre-oedipical harmony: the real penis which is felt in infantile masturbation and the newly born sister.

Finally, the Real is the object of anxiety in that it lacks any possible mediation, and is "the essential object which is not an object any longer, but this something faced with which all words cease and all categories fail, the object of anxiety par excellence."


Lacan's désir follows Freud's concept of Wunsch and it is central to Lacanian theories. For the aim of the talking cure - psychoanalysis - is precisely to lead the analysand to uncover the truth about their desire, but this is only possible if that desire is articulated, or spoken. Lacan said that "it is only once it is formulated, named in the presence of the other, that desire appears in the full sense of the term." "That the subject should come to recognize and to name his/her desire, that is the efficacious action of analysis. But it is not a question of recognizing something which would be entirely given. In naming it, the subject creates, brings forth, a new presence in the world." "[W]hat is important is to teach the subject to name, to articulate, to bring desire into existence." Now, although the truth about desire is somehow present in discourse, discourse can never articulate the whole truth about desire: whenever discourse attempts to articulate desire, there is always a leftover, a surplus.

In The Signification of the Phallus Lacan distinguishes desire from need and demand. Need is a biological instinct that is articulated in demand, yet demand has a double function, on one hand it articulates need and on the other acts as a demand for love. So, even after the need articulated in demand is satisfied, the demand for love remains unsatisfied and this leftover is desire. For Lacan "desire is neither the appetite for satisfaction nor the demand for love, but the difference that results from the subtraction of the first from the second" (article cited). Desire then is the surplus produced by the articulation of need in demand (Dylan Evans). Lacan adds that "desire begins to take shape in the margin in which demand becomes separated from need" (article cited). Hence desire can never be satisfied, or as Slavoj ?i?ek puts it "desire's ''raison d'être'' is not to realize its goal, to find full satisfaction, but to reproduce itself as desire."

It is also important to distinguish between desire and the drives. If they belong to the field of the Other (as opposed to love), desire is one, whereas the drives are many. The drives are the partial manifestations of a single force called desire (see "The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis"). If one can surmise that objet petit a is the object of desire, it is not the object towards which desire tends, but the cause of desire. For desire is not a relation to an object but a relation to a lack (manque). Then desire appears as a social construct since it is always constituted in a dialectical relationship.


Lacan maintains Freud's distinction between Trieb (drive) and Instinkt (instinct) in that drives differ from biological needs because they can never be satisfied and do not aim at an object but rather circle perpetually round it, so the real source of jouissance is to repeat the movement of this closed circuit. In the same Seminar Lacan posits the drives as both cultural and symbolic (discourse) constructs, to him "the drive is not a given, something archaic, primordial". Yet he incorporates the four elements of the drives as defined by Freud (the pressure, the end, the object and the source) to his theory of the drive's circuit: the drive originates in the erogenous zone, circles round the object, and then returns to the erogenous zone. The circuit is structured by the three grammatical voices:

  1. the active voice (to see)
  2. the reflexive voice (to see oneself)
  3. the passive voice (to be seen)
The active and reflexive voices are autoerotic, they lack a subject. It is only when the drive completes its circuit with the passive voice that a new subject appears. So although it is the "passive" voice, the drive is essentially active, "to make oneself be seen" instead of "to be seen." The circuit of the drive is the only way for the subject to transgress the pleasure principle.

Lacan identifies four partial drives: the oral drive (the erogenous zones are the lips, the partial object the breast), the anal drive (the anus and the faeces), the scopic drive (the eyes and the gaze) and the invocatory drive (the ears and the voice). The first two relate to demand and the last two to desire. If the drives are closely related to desire, they are the partial aspects in which desire is realized: again, desire in one and undivided whereas the drives are partial manifestations of desire.

Other concepts

Writings and seminars

Although Lacan is a major figure in the history of psychoanalysis, his Seminar lectures - contains the majority of his life's work, though some of these remain yet unpublished. Jacques-Alain Miller, the sole editor of Lacan's seminars, has been regularly conducting since 1984 a series of lectures, "L'orientation lacanienne", within the structure of ParisVIII. Miller's teachings have been published in the US by the journal Lacanian Ink.

Lacan claims that his Écrits were not to be understood, but would produce a meaning effect in the reader similar to some mystical texts. Lacan's writing is notoriously difficult due to the repeated Hegelian/Kojèvean allusions, wide theoretical divergences from other psychoanalytic and philosophical thinking, and Lacan's obscure prose style.


Although Lacan is associated with it, he was criticized by major figures associated with post-structuralism (and the related postmodernism school). Jacques Derrida characterized Lacan as taking a structuralist approach to psychoanalysis. Derrida claimed this led Lacan to inherit a Freudian "phallocentrism," exemplified by Lacan's conception of the phallus as the "primary signifier" that determines the social order of signifiers. Derrida deconstructs the Freudian conception of "penis envy", upon which female subjectivity is determined "as an absence," to show that the primacy of the male phallus entails a hierarchy between phallic presence and absence that ultimately collapses.

While he has been criticized for adopting a Freudian phallocentric stance in his psychoanalytic theories, many feminists believe Lacan provides a useful analysis of gender biases and imposed roles. Some feminist critics, such as Luce Irigaray, accuse Lacan of maintaining the sexist tradition in psychoanalysis. Others feminists, such as Judith Butler, Jane Gallop, Bracha Ettinger, and Elizabeth Grosz, have each interpreted Lacan's work as opening up new possibilities for feminist theory.

Other critics have often dismissed Lacan and his work in a more-or-less wholesale fashion. François Roustang called Lacan's output "extravagant" and an "incoherent system of pseudo-scientific gibberish." Noam Chomsky described Lacan as "an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan".In Fashionable Nonsense, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont accuse Lacan of "superficial erudition" and of abusing scientific concepts he does not understand.

Defenders of Lacanian thinking dispute most external criticism, stating that these critics' misunderstand-or often simply have not read-Lacan's texts. Bruce Fink has dismissed Sokal and Bricmont, claiming they have "no idea whatsoever what Lacan is up to," and accuses them of elevating a distaste for Lacan's writing style into an attack on his thought as a whole. Similarly, Arkady Plotnitsky claims that Lacan uses the mathematical concepts more accurately than do Sokal and Bricmont. For a criticism of Lacan from both a medical and a philosophical viewpoint, see Raymond Tallis' review of Elizabeth Roudinesco's Jacques Lacan & Co.: A History of Psychoanalysis in France, 1925-1985, translated by Jeffrey Mehlman and published in London by Free Associations Books in 1990. He sums Lacan and Lacanian thought up thus: "His lunatic legacy also lives on in places remote from those in which he damaged his patients, colleagues, mistresses, wives, children, publishers, editors, and opponents-in departments of literature whose inmates are even now trying to, or pretending to, make sense of his utterly unfounded, gnomic teachings and inflicting them on baffled students. Aleister Crowley, the 20th-century thinker whom Lacan most resembles, has not been so fortunate in his afterlife." www.psychiatrie-und-ethik.de/infc/en/Shrink_from_Hell.htm 07:58, 26 April 2008 (UTC)




Selected works published in English listed below. More complete listings can be found at Lacan Dot Com.

*referenced above

Works about La''can's Work and Theory

External links





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