Lacan and His Significance in Western Philosophy

Lacan and his significance in Western philosophy: excerpts of an interview with Ehsan Azari Stanizai.

Alan Saunders: Now, Ehsan, Lacan urged what he called "a return to Freud." Of course, there are many Freuds, so what Freud did he think he was returning to?

Ehsan Azari Stanizai: Lacan reread Freud creatively, and also he reoriented Freudian psychoanalysis from A to Z. Lacan's contribution is mainly on Freudian psychoanalysis in the light of structural linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure, and also structural linguistics of Jakobson, Russian linguistics, and he also used intensively philosophy, literature, arts and mathematics. He completely rewrote Freudian in a contemporary and postmodern context.

Alan Saunders: I mean, this is very different from the picture that I have of Freud. I think of Freud really in two senses, which might be somewhat at variance with each other; but I think of Freud as a man who wanted to create a science of the mind in fairly classical scientific terms, in almost Darwinian terms. I also think of him as, to some extent, a creative artist, as someone who is writing narratives of people's lives. This doesn't quite seem the Freud that Lacan is returning to.

Ehsan Azari Stanizai: I think you are quite right in that sense. Many of Freud's works are like novels. Freud was pretty much a thinker of his own age. If we look at late 19th century and also early 20th century that was an age of radical science in a way that Western intellectuals thought that science was the only thing that gives us the ultimate truth that we are looking for. Lacan reinterpreted Freud into our age, that is the age of postmodernity; the age of Einstein's relativity that we are looking back at metaphysical discourse since Socrates: faulty, in a way; because it created a kind of illusion that we will reach the ultimate truth by means of our reasoning; because Western philosophy was mainly focused on consciousness. So, this "unconscious" was inconceivable before Freud.

Alan Saunders: And he thought that the unconscious was structured like language.

Ehsan Azari Stanizai: Yes. That phrase is a little bit contradictory, but if we look at it in a Lacanian sense we can make sense of that phrase. He says that "unconscious is a knowledge." The knowledge that is not available for our consciousness. He thought that this unconscious is always producing its effect in these linguistic tropes and also in the gaps, and also in the lapses in our speaking, or in our written discourse, or in our spoken discourse; those things that we are not talking, or those things that Freud called parapraxes. And if you put it in literary discourse, those gaps, that lacunae in the literary text; this was the place that Lacan enlisted on it as an effect of the unconscious, and Lacan said that when language fails to produce its effect as a communicative means, then that is the eruption of unconscious.

Ehsan Azari Stanizai: Lacan was critical of Descartes because Descartes saw the human subject and the ego as consciousness. So he says that I am walking because I experience walking, therefore I am. So this consciousness for Descartes was an empirical experience. First of all... experience. So what Lacan says is that this is incomplete, because Descartes actually forgot about the whole picture of consciousness, because he ignored unconscious. Because, according to Lacan, the human subject, once it enters the language, this is -- as Lacan famously said -- that a human being is caught up between two deaths. One death is the entry into language, and the next death is the natural death that we have. He said that Descartes' talk about consciousness from a position of certainty. Lacan meant by changing Freud's dictum that there are two subjects within us, one is the speaking subject and the other is the subject being spoken or subject of unconscious. So the whole discourses about consciousness, Lacan contradicts; and he is skeptical about Descartes.

Lacan emphasized that style was the essence of a human being; I am my style as he once claimed.

I give you an example: when I was doing my degrees at Macquarie University, when I started reading Shakespeare, because one chapter of my thesis was on Shakespeare to find out -- Hamlet, for instance -- my supervisor told me, since Hamlet is very difficult even for native speakers. I told him that you have every right to laugh at me, but I will tell you one thing: when I stopped reading Lacan, and then started reading Shakespeare, reading Shakespeare became like a children's book to me, despite the fact that I was of non-English background.

Alan Saunders: You've mentioned Shakespeare, so let's talk about art and literature. What role does art have to play in Lacan's view of the unconscious?

Ehsan Azari Stanizai: Lacan was pretty much in dialogue with art, and also with literature, with painting and all form of art. And he saw in art, in literature, a kind of parallelism. He said that in literature, for instance, in poetry, there is a hidden knowledge, and that hidden knowledge which the writer, and a poet, and an artist articulated in his own ways; that is a raw material for psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis brings them into a coordinated epistemology; or to bring it to a kind of knowledge. However, that knowledge is always there. For Lacan, literature and art were a great source of not only inspiration, but he himself developed most of his concepts based on art and literature. For instance, I give an example: his theory of desire and interpretation of desire was based deeply in Hamlet, in Shakespeare. His theory of gaze was deeply based in Maurice Merleau-Ponty's philosophy.

Alan Saunders: Well just finally, then, what do you think was Lacan's relationship with philosophy. You've mentioned that he was influenced by Merleau-Ponty, the great French philosopher; we also know he thought Descartes was an idiot; but how did he stand in general in his relationship to philosophical thinking?

Ehsan Azari Stanizai: Although Lacan had a very ambivalent relationship with philosophy -- he called himself "anti-philosopher" in many places -- but in the meantime his discourses... his writing is so much embedded in philosophy. So he is criticizing philosophy because of its love of knowledge, and its claim of having access to ultimate truth. Both love and ultimate truth was an illusion for Lacan. That obsession of philosophers, i.e.: to go for and finding the truth, was a kind of paranoia for Lacan. Lacan also psychoanalyzed philosophical epistemology. He, on the one hand, developed his own concepts on the basis of philosophers, and on the other hand, he was also correcting philosophers. For instance, he speaks about Plato's theory of forms: Lacan says that theory of forms that Plato describes as something invisible, something divine, ultimate truth with which the soul was in contact. This was the origin of knowledge, for Plato, Lacan says that is unconscious knowledge. So that is why he corrects Plato.

Philosopher Zone, ABC, Radio National, Australia