There’s an apocryphal legend that concerns an early astronomer (already in possession of a telescope) who visualized Neptune a century or more before it was even calculated to exist, but recorded it as a distant shooting star. I know this legend to be apocryphal because I just made it up. The clunky metaphor it implies serves as a narrative standing point to once again discuss the intellectual standing of Jacques Lacan.
Lacan is a shooting star who believes himself to be a stable traveling planet. Note that this isn’t a plain inversion — J-Lac has become both astronomer and celestial body. This collision is enabled by the theory of the mirror stage.
Indeed this earliest of lacanian concepts makes sense of everything that happened later: in his “return to Freud” Seminar I, our man Jacques is unambiguous in dismissing Anna Freud’s organization and consolidation of clinical psychoanalysis and making the metapsychology the technical core of Sigmund’s study. Freudian metapsychology is already theory-qua-theory, the study of what psychological theories might look like. But Freud, clinical ambitions and all, characterizes the metapsychology as heuristic and “as-if”, disclaiming any connection to the raw (e.g. neurological) facts of psychology. Meanwhile, in the very Seminar on “The Technical Writings of Freud”, Jacques Lacan gives us this:
Pour vous permettre de vous orienter à travers les amibigüités que se renouvellent à chaque pas dans le littérature analytique et dont je pense vous êtes aperçus, il y a plus d’un méthode. Je pense de vous enseigner catégories nouvelles qui introduisent distinctions essentieles. Ce ne sont pas des distinctions extérieures, scolastiques et en extension — opposant tel champ a tel champ, multipliant les bipartitions à l’infini, mode de progrès qui consiste toujours a introduire des hypothèses supplémentaires. Cette methode est permise sans doute, mais pour ma part je vise à un progrès en comphrehension.
Progress in understanding what? In the absence of a eschatology like our very own switcharoo, J-Lac can’t possibly believe he can theorize his way through the virtual absence of empirical regularities in human psychology. We know how “scientific” psychology fooled itself into the abyss of unreplicability: through a primitive understanding of statistics and a faith in the representativeness of readily-available American college students. But Lacan had a clinical practice complete with a Freudian-style couch; could it have been fully divorced from his wild ambitions about clinical theory? This is what the mirror stage produces: a primary-primitive illusion of mastery.
Could the tragedy of Jacques Lacan have been avoided if his peak years had better synchronized with the peak years of American program of the “philosophy of the mind”? Whatever I’ve read of the latter seems made either of pure and desperate honesty or honest and pure desperation: as it turns out from their “thought experiments” regarding zombies and robot replicants, it’s very difficult to even establish the existence of “a mind” (something that could be the object of “a psychology”). There is much to applaud about the American program: rather than plainly equate the mind and the brain, they split bipartitions à la infini on, for example, what level of functional equivalence with a mind-possessing person produces an artificial mind. Metapsychologies then falls as a kind of industrial byproduct of this aberrant “thought empiricism”.
But these are philosophers, which is to say, big game hunters; and low-bullshit anglos that scrutinize each other’s work rather than align with or try to found “schools” — have you heard the joke about the third-world philosophy who “uses Derrida” like I would use Windows 95? If we haven’t “used” any anglos in our project it’s because they spell bad news. Namely: each “thought experimenter” ends up coughing up a different “empirical metapsychology” — maybe hoping at a convergence at the metaphysical level, maybe just willy-nilly trying to publish papers. This doesn’t help us — it doesn’t help me — at all; the structural problem at the center of our project is the nature of theory,
Now: the standout quote from Lacan’s seminary we gave a few paragraphs back could be talking about progress in understanding metapsychology. Jacques’s promise would be then to show us catégories nouvelles — not qualia nor faculties, new shit — that introduce distinctions essentielles in metapsychology. The catégories uvelles would be a novel theory of theories of subjectivity — the unifying structure that makes all “empirical metapsychologies” coalesce.
But how? This is where the historical connection with psychoanalysis begins to make sense. Fundamentally, psychoanalysis in the sense advanced by Freud and Lacan is a system where (1) there exist known unknowns, mental states not apparent in the observable functional organization of the mind — by any means: brain imaging will never locate the Imaginary order — and (2) more importantly, there exist unknown knows that add up to an unobservable functional organization of the mind. That is how a cacophony of “empirical metapsychologies” can be reconciled: the incoherence of ‘thought experiments” is heard at the analyst’s couch not as a wound (as Icarus after getting too close to the sun) but as a narrative (the dream of flight, the heroic, foolish attempt, the weight of the Law). In the mode most specific to Lacan, this is taken to its last consequences: we defocus significance and give first dignity to the signifier; therefore, we open a world of theoretical meaning that without refuting realism exceeds it.
One of Don DeLilo’s characters says in a novel — talent is more erotic when it’s wasted. If this latter thesis — that from Seminar I — is true, Lacan wants to teach us a theory about psychological theory (rather than merely explain the fallen human soul) is true, that should be the motto for the culture of theory; it should be stamped on our flags and coats of arms. In one level, it’s regrettable that Lacan would misspend the surplus value of his highly theoretical effort on psychology — which hasn’t yielded any fundamental results as a science. That the brand of psychology implied by his complex metapsychology has been bogus from the start is really unimportant in this case — les non-dupes errent.
But how much has the world lost by not having Jacques Lacan involved in fashion design? He did start by studying mirrors; step by step, Lacanian theory can be recast as a deep theory of fashion. Both the fashionable and the unfashionable understand that most of looking the part is “owning it”, becoming the quilting point that ties the signifying chain of your outfit together. But it’s not enough to make a “metafashion science” where Lacan explicitly tried to make a “metapsychology”; that would be a fine doctoral thesis, but wouldn’t sell more clothes.
Instead, we need to read Lacan as an epic Icarus narrative, and take inspiration and courage from him. And put our theoretical minds to work on theory, dammit.