Jacques Lacan (1901-81) - Key Figures in Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Jacques Lacan (1901-81)
Key Figures in Literary Theory

Jacques Lacan was born in Paris and educated in Jesuit schools before beginning his studies in medicine and psychiatry at the Faculte de Mede- cine de Paris. He started his clinical training in 1927, working on “automatism” and personality disorders. He received his doctorate in 1932 with a thesis on paranoid psychoses and the possibilities of combining psychiatry with Psychoanalysis. Two years later, he joined the Psychoanalytic Society of Paris and began undergoing psychoanalysis. During the Second World War, he protested the brutality of the Nazi occupiers of France by ceasing all professional work. In the decades following the war, he developed an interest in Structuralism and linguistics, arguing that these sciences shed light on the workings of the unconscious. His unorthodox theories of clinical practice led to his break from the International Psycho-Analytical Association (IPA) in 1953. In the same year, at a congress in Rome, Lacan read his most important early essay, “Function and Field of Speech in Psychoanalysis,” which argues that the creation of the subject is fundamentally and unavoidably a process of immersion in linguistic structures. It followed that the unconscious must also operate according to this order.

For the next ten years or so, Lacan devoted his time to a project now referred to as the “return to Freud.” As he readily admits, his discovery of the importance of structure and language in the unconscious was actually a working out of discoveries Freud himself had made without the benefit of the Saussurean linguistics that were necessary to understand them. The essays of this period, collected in Ecrits (1966), form the basis of his early reputation, though his seminars, beginning in 1954, produced much of his work on Freudian theory. In Ecrits, Lacan postulates a structural theory of language that permeates the ego’s relations with the world, that indeed constructs the ego as a SUBJECTIVITY in the world. Lacan articulates this formation as a process in which the SUBJECT becomes constituted by her ascension to the SYMBOLIC order of language, law, and representation. In the Symbolic, desire displaces demand and institutes “lack” as the foundation of subjectivity. He also posited an IMAGINARY order, characterized by narcissistic desire and fantasy, and an order of the REAL where basic needs require and receive fulfillment. The Real is wholly external to the Symbolic and Imaginary orders, the unrepresentable ground of human experience.

In the early 1970s, Lacan and members of the Ecole freudienne de Paris, which Lacan had formed in 1964, published Feminine Sexuality (1973). Since the early 1980s, translations of Lacan's seminars on psychoanalytic theory have steadily appeared, many of which were not published in any form in his lifetime. If the essays in Ecrits established Lacan as the preeminent psychoanalytic theorist of the poststructuralist era, the seminars and later work confirmed the originality and critical power of his “return to Freud.”


Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

---- . Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the Ecole Freudienne. Ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose. Trans. Jacqueline Rose. New York and London: Norton; New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.

---- . The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1978.

---- . “Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet.” Yale French Studies 55/56 (1980): 11-52.

---- . The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. John Forrester. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.