What is that thing I call “I?” While most of your grade-A philosophers of the past hundred years or so agree that it’s not a Cartesian Cogito, i.e. an immortal soul characterized by continuous consciousness, the alternatives are many and varied. With Hegel, we got the idea that the self is built, and this through our relations with others, but that leaves unclear the question of who it is, if anyone, that’s the perceiving subject, the “point of view,” the center of consciousness, while this “self” as a collection of personality traits and self-identifications is built. Sartre made a sharp distinction between the self as a mostly public object, a thing in the world, and consciousness, which he thought actually does not (as experienced) have a subject at all, but is just nothing but the world itself exposed, with the question “exposed to whom?” labeled as misconstrued.
French psychotherapist Jacques Lacan followed Freud in claiming that the Cartesian picture of self is misleading because it neglects the unconscious. For both Lacan and Freud, the ego (or in German, “Ich,” which is just “I”) is something that we build, largely injecting material dished on us by other people; our “self” is an imaginative creation. They diverge in that whereas Freud saw the unconscious as our deepest desires, and so (maybe) a better candidate for our “true self” than the ego-creation, Lacan saw the unconscious as all syntax, no semantics: just strings of symbols that for one reason or another have sunken below conscious awareness and now sit there, making us unable to think certain thoughts and otherwise screwing us up. The psychotherapist, for Lacan, is a cipher who can read these strings as they reveal themselves through slips of the tongue and such.
The important thing, though, is that the unconscious is no more of a true self than the ego: both are the result of the infection of language, which approaches our raw desires and labels them, traps and channels them within language. What remains, the “unthinkable,” is called by Lacan “the real” (as opposed to “reality,” which is the socially constructed, language-infected world).
If Lacan were an existentialist, then, with a notion (like Heidegger’s) of authenticity, of being true-to-yourself, then the goal of therapy, then, would be to somehow take possession of this “real,” but that’s not actually possible for humans, who live in language, whereas the real is by definition what escapes language. No, Lacan’s use of “real” to describe this unarticulated backdrop is not meant to pick out some ethical goal. The point of therapy, instead, is to achieve a self that is internally coherent, that takes responsibility for unconscious contents instead of letting them needle at you, to work through issues with your parents and such that may have prevented you from becoming appropriately independent of them.
The subject, then, according to Lacan is split between this fiction-imbued ego and this fiction-imbued unconscious, and one goal of therapy is to “subjectify one’s fate,” i.e. to heal the split, to take into one’s consciously built self ownership of and identification with these unconscious contents, among which are the desires of your parents that made you who you are.
To explore these ideas, our chief reading was a book about Lacan by American psychotherapist Bruce Fink called The Lacanian Subject (1996). (Buy it here.). Wes (who has taken a few years of classes studying psychoanalysis in recent years) picked this book because the work of Lacan himself is so fragmented and impenetrable that unless you’re willing to become a Lacan scholar, there’s no way that you’re going to get any kind of large-scale picture of his model(s) of the psyche by just reading a few of his papers. Fink gives us the story I’ve outlined above, and then adds much more detail about the specific conflicts that can stunt the growth of the personality, which we tried in our discussion (on the evening of Sunday, 3/17/13) to lay out briefly.
We also did dip into Lacan himself with the short essay “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience” (1949), which you can read online here or purchase in this collection. This essay (the text of a lecture) discusses a stage before language acquisition where a baby sees itself in a mirror and gets this impression of a whole, unified body: himself. This impression “situates the agency of the ego… in a fictional direction,” because this sense of unity is false. After all, at this stage, the baby’s body doesn’t actually feel unified to it, meaning it doesn’t have control over itself. So in this image, the baby “anticipates in a mirage the maturation of its power.” So even before language (which I’ve already described above as setting up a fiction-filled ego and fiction-filled subconscious) we’re packed full of fiction, which nonetheless is a normal and actually necessary part of development.
Let me leave you with a slightly longer quote from this essay just to give you a picture of how irritatingly difficult it is to read Lacan:
The mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation–and which manufactures for the subject, caught up in the lure of spatial identification, the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality that I shall call orthopaedic–and lastly, to the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject’s entire mental development. Thus, to break out of the circle of the Innenwelt [our inner world] into the Umwelt [the outer world] generates the inexhaustible quadrature of the ego’s verification.
So yes, Lacan does like throwing in superfluous mathematical terms like quadrature, and yes, we do spend some time bitching about how an arrogant disregard for his readers infects Lacan’s style in a way qualitatively worse than even that of Heidegger or the other difficult figures we’ve read.
Fink actually has a defense of this difficulty from Lacan himself: if you immediately understood what Lacan was talking about, that would indicate that he wasn’t actually saying anything new. Just as the baby, in seeing his reflection, in essence thinks “hey, that’s me; I now understand myself and just need to fill in some details,” we are all guilty of overweening self-confidence. The traditional model of learning is one of assimilation, where we just add some new facts to memorize to a storehouse of predetermined parameters, and Lacan wants nothing to do with that; to actually learn something really new, you have to stretch your mind, redefine the storehouse or come of with a new metaphor than “storehouse” altogether. Lacan becomes our guru, playing to us the role that the Lacanian therapist is supposed to play to his patients, getting us to upturn the garbage pails in our mind until we’ve worked out a framework for understanding ourselves that is coherent and livable.