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Jacques Marie Émile Lacan - Biography

Jacques Marie Émile Lacan was born in 1901 to a bourgeois Catholic family. He was an admirable student, and excelled especially at Latin and philosophy. He went to medical school, and began studying psychoanalysis in the 1920s with the psychiatrist GaÎtan de Clérambault. He studied at the Faculté de Médecine de Paris, and worked with patients suffering from délires ý deux, or "automatism," a condition in which the patient believes his actions, writing, or speech, are controlled by an outside and omnipotent force. A growing psychoanalytical movement in France had been showing a particular interest in similar patients. Lacan wrote his thesis for his doctorat d'état in 1932 titled De la psychose paranoïaque dans ses rapports avec la personnalité, in which he drew a connection between phsychiatric medicine and psychoanalysis. It was this combination of the theoretical and the clinical that would become Lacan's practice and inform what he would call his "return to Freud." In his lifetime, Lacan extended the field of psychoanalysis into philosophy, linguistics, literature and mathematics, through close readings of Freud and continued clinical practice.

In discussions of Lacan's career, it is often divided into four stages. The first, from 1926 to 1953, marks an evolution from conventional psychiatric work to the gradual inclusion of psychoanalytical concepts in the clinic, both in diagnosis and treatment. His first publications are case studies. In 1936 Lacan developed his theory of the "Mirror Stage", and published a number of articles about its importance in the development of the subject. This work was particularly influenced by the psychologist Henri Wallon, as well as J.M. Baldwin, Charlotte Bühler, and Otto Rank. The Mirror Stage concerns the ability of an infant (6 to 18 months of age) to recognize its own image in mirror, before it is able to speak or have control over its motor skills. The infant must see the image of itself as both being itself and not itself, in that it is the reflection of its own face and only a reflected image at the same time. To become a subject, or social being, the infant must come to terms with the reflection not being identical to itself as a subject. This marks the child's entry into language, and the formation of ego. The Mirror Stage changes the emphasis in subject formation from a biological base to a symbolic or language base. As Lacan writes in the Discourse of Rome, "Man speaks…but it is because the symbol has made him man."

The Discourse of Rome is the more common name given to Lacan's lecture presented in Rome in 1953 originally titled Fonction et champ de la parole et du langage en psychanalyse. This paper became the manifesto of the new Société française de psychanalytique (SFP), which Lacan formed the same year when he broke with the International Psycho-Analytical Association (IPA). His break with the IPA was based on major disagreements Lacan had with the ego psychology of the group, which placed the ego at the origin of psychic stability. Lacan argued against therapeutic pretensions, claiming that the ego could never be "healed", and that the true intension of psychoanalysis was never cure, but analysis itself.

Lacan attracted philosophers, linguists, and other thinkers to his renowned weekly seminar at St. Anne's Church. Barthes, Foucault, Levi-Strauss, and Althusser sat in his audience and were influenced by his work. From this lecture series came what is perhaps his most celebrated work, Écrits (1966).

From 1953-63 Lacan concentrated on structural linguistics and the role of the symbolic in the work of Freud. He felt that Freud had understood that human psychology is linguistically based, but would have needed Saussure's vocabulary and structuralist concept of language as a system of differences to articulate the relationship. In Les Psychoses: Seminar III, Lacan claims that the unconscious is "structured like a language," and governed by the order of the signifier. This is contrary to the idea that the unconscious is governed by autonomous repressed or instinctual desires. Saussure's linguistic theory, especially on the relation of constant separation between signifier and signified, led Lacan to show that no signifier ever rests on any particular signified. He went on to argue that the Symbolic order, the order of signs, representations, significations and images, is the place where the individual is formed as a subject. He stated that the subject is always the subject of the signifier.

"I identify myself in language, but only by losing myself in it like an object. What is realized in my history is not the past definite of what was, since it is no more, or even the present perfect of what has been in what I am, but the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming." (From Écrits)

Lacan translated Martin Heidegger's work into French and the evidence of Heidegger's influence can be read in Lacan's essay The Function and Field of Speech in Psychoanalysis, in which he concentrates on the idea that subjectivity is symbolically constituted. Lacan was also influenced by Hegel's work, and by his discussions with both Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. He was the first to introduce structural linguistics to psychoanalytical theory, and because of this he attracted attention both nationally and, later in the 1970s, internationally. He was considered unorthodox and unusual in his psychoanalytical practice, and his lectures were a form of practice alongside his work as an analyst, in that they put his theory into practical form. His lectures made his theory evident: that language can say something other than what it says, and that it speaks through humans as much as they speak it.

Language is of the Symbolic order, one of three orders that constitute the subject in Lacanian psychoanalysis, the other two being the Imaginary and the Real. The Imaginary is the place where the subject fails to see the lack of reality in the symbolic, and mis-recognizes its nature, believing in its transparency. The Imaginary is the place of necessary illusion. At the level of the Imaginary, the de-centering of the subject that occurs at the Mirror Phase is not acknowledged. The Real can be understood, in one sense, as that that is always "in its place," because only what is absent from its place can be symbolized. The Symbolic is the substitute for what is missing from its place; language cannot be in the same place as its referent.

In the years 1964-73 Lacan departed further still from Freud and traditional psychoanalysis. His discourse became uniquely "Lacanian", and he became known for his neologisms and complex diagrams. His view of the ego as the seat of neurosis rather than the place of psychic integration, and the Symbolic order as the primary place for subject formation, made his work groundbreaking. He still claimed to be continuing Freud's work, which had only been obscured by Freud's followers, and this accusation caused tension within the SFP. Lacan left this group in 1963 to form the École Freudienne de Paris (EFP). The decision to start the new group was inspired by a series of lectures, given at the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes, in which he read Freud's texts closely but also introduced new terms to the readings from outside the original work.

These lecture attracted still more attention from outside the psychoanalytical circle, including the press, who associated Lacan with the "structuralists" practicing in France at the same time. The training methods of Lacan's new school, the EFP, departed considerably from the traditional training offered to analysts at the IPA, causing the IPA distress. Tension between Lacan and the traditional psychoanalytic community grew greater still when he took the position of "Scientific Director" at the University of Paris at Vincennes in 1974, heading the department of psychoanalysis which had opened in 1969. Lacan hoped the new department at the University would integrate linguistics, logic and mathematics with psychoanalytical training, giving it a scientific rigor.

Lacan strived to create a more precise mathematically based theory in the last stage of his career. His "meta-theory" of psychoanalysis uses mathematics, casting the trilogy he conceived of earlier (the Real, Symbolic, and Imaginary) in the language of topology and mathemes rather than linguistics. He claimed that "La mathématisation seule atteint ý un reel." From 1974 he studied the intersection of the three registers through complicated topological figures. He began to confound even his most faithful followers, and students became suspicious of how applicable this type of education might be to their clinical practice. Lacan decided to dissolve the EFP and found another association, the École de la Cause Freudienne, which he maintained until his death in 1981. By the time of his death, Lacan had become one of the most influential and controversial intellects in the world. His work has had a significant effect on literature, film studies, and philosophy, as well as on the theory and practice of psychoanalysis.