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Monday, August 9, 2010

Meet My Talkative Unconscious: Notes on Lacan’s ‘Mirror Stage’

One of the most influential French cultural theorists of the twentieth century, Jacques Lacan (1901-1980) is responsible for revival of interest in Freud, notably among the feminists who saw Freud as a typical MCP- Male Chauvinist Psychologist. While most of Jacques Lacan’s writing is willfully obscure and irritatingly playful, one can approximately discern the general thrust of his theory.

Lacan’s emphasis is on the anti-humanistic implication of decentered and split human self in Freud’s psychoanalysis.  Freud’s theory replaced the idea of coherent and autonomous human self (which is a humanist idea) with the idea of human ego existing on the fringe of the all powerful Unconscious- the huge area of human self existing outside of human awareness. In Freud’s view, the car of human life is driven from the back seat of Unconscious. Freudian theory, in Lacanian interpretation, is chiefly about decentering or marginality of human self in relation to itself.

This notion of decentering ties up with the similar ideas in Heideggerian existentialism. Heidegger’s remark ‘it is language that speaks, not man’ sums up this position of the decentered human self in relation to language.

Lacan draws attention to the fact that we tend to misconstrue (méconnaissance) ‘I’ of our linguistic utterance (enunciation) - as in “I am going home” (which is grammatically in subject position of enunciation) for the self of the speaker (‘enounce’). This gap between the speaker’s self and the linguistic ‘I’ is due to this decentering of human self in relation to language. Just like the structure of language displaces man by being the real producer of meaning instead of human soul, the unconscious displaces the humanist idea of autonomous coherent self which knows –’the cogito’. 

Lacan also notes that as any use of language assumes the presence of the audience, the ‘self’ and ‘the other’ split is built into language. That is, we always assume the presence of someone when we use the language. This someone may be oneself as when we talk to ourselves or when we write things like diaries for one. This means the use of language (as in thinking) results in the split between the self (the addresser) and the other (addressee) who might be the same person.

It is this conception of decentering and splitting of human self which is expressed by Lacan’s widely quoted dictum, ‘ The Unconscious is structured like language’. It implies that the laws governing the unconscious and the laws governing human language are analogous and that unconscious functions in much the same way as language does.

Lacan draws upon the works of Saussure and Roman Jakobson on the mechanism of language to demonstrate that the mechanism of unconscious also functions on similar lines. For instance, the dream work described by Freud as comprising of mechanisms of displacement, condensation and symbolism is in Lacan’s view, actually ‘language work’. Drawing upon Roman Jakobson’s work on aphasia and poetics, Lacan notes that the mechanisms of dream work like the processes of condensesation, displacement and symbolism are actually analogous to ‘tropes’ of language like metaphor and metonymy.

In Lacan’s view, the splitting of human self and the decentering occurs when human beings acquire the symbolic cultural system represented by language. This system as noted by Saussure is the system of differences based on binarisms like the self and the other, man and woman.  With language acquisition, the human beings position themselves within this system of differences and assume identity and the sense of self and the other.

What is lost in the process of differentiation is the sense of oneness and union with our mothers and we try to regain it in our lives. This is possible only at the level of imagination or the Imaginary where the distinctions and differences are believed to be non-existent. Hence human beings operate on two levels in their lives: the Imaginary and the Symbolic. These levels can only be accessed through human language and hence are seen as ‘registers’ in psychoanalytical theory.

The humans can articulate desire only through language, the Symbolic domain and as Lacan points out the structure of language is the structure of signifiers where one signifier perpetually leads to another signifier. That is, the meaning of one word is another word or another set of words. Consider a dictionary entry on a difficult word.  The entry itself is composed of words whose meanings lay elsewhere. This means that the meaning does not lie ‘in the signifier’ but elsewhere. The signifier ‘lacks’ meaning and it is this ‘lack’ which makes the movement from one signifier to another possible. This movement from one signifier to another driven by ‘lack’ becomes the movement of ‘supplemantarity’ and difference in Derrida’s philosophy.

Lacan points out that the human desire is a combination of ‘the demand’ and ‘the need’. The need which is biological can be gratified, while the demand which can only be articulated through language can never be satisfied. The demand for something (this thing is a signifier) can lead only to another signifier which leads to another signifier ad infinitum. Hence, the Lacanian dictum: ‘All speech is a demand and all demand is a demand for love.’ The demand which can never ever be fulfilled as each signifier ‘lacks’ meaning and links to another signifier.

Lacan notes that desire is a movement from one signifier to another and hence ‘syntagmatic’ or ‘metonymic’ while the movement of neurosis is the movement of substituting one thing for another (‘a symptom’ for an unconscious wish) and hence ‘paradigmatic’ or ‘metaphorical’.

In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the phallus is ‘the privileged signifier’, as language and culture in patriarchy function under the ‘Law of Father’. The Phallus, being a signifier also ‘lacks’ positive meaning. The idea of the phallus as a privileged signifier comes from Lacan’s reinterpretation of Freud’s oedipal phase or phallic phase of psychosexual development (see the entry on Freud).

While most of the ideas discussed above are later development in Lacan’s philosophy, his ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I’ (Ecrits, 1977) is an early essay dealing with question of human identity formation. In contrast to traditional humanistic notion of identity as being innate and organic to human self, Lacan notes that it is formed in the process of identification with something which is not self and something which is outside of self. Lacan’s views on identity formation resemble the Hegelian notion of dialectic between the self and other as expressed in his ‘Master-Servant’ relationship. The Mirror Stage, according to Lacan, results in child’s recognition and discovery of self as a reflection. This misidentification of reflection for self is central to Lacan’s theory.  It implies that ‘identity’ is a product of misidentification and misconstruction (méconnaissance) rather than discovery of ‘true’ or ‘real’ self. Lacan gives instances from neurology and zoology where visual knowledge of similar species is necessary for full biological development of the organism (as in pigeons and locusts). Lacan also points out how this ‘specular I’ contributes to development of motor skills in a child. Hence this méconnaissance is necessary for biological development of an organism.

The notion of mirror stage in Lacan also brings to fore his disagreement with Freud. While Freud sees the oedipal phase or phallic phase as being crucial to identity, including the gender identity, Lacan points out that the processes of identity formation start even earlier at the pre-linguistic and pre-phallic stage of psychological development. This idea in Lacan also prefigures his theorization of ‘the Imaginary’ register in psychoanalysis. The Imaginary is the register where human beings are able to imagine themselves as undifferentiated totality and where the complete intimacy with the other is possible.
There is a huge amount of good quality reference on Lacan available on the Internet. Here are links to a few:

i)                    Excellent annotated guide to the essay on the Essex University website:
ii)                  Very Brief introduction to Lacan:
iii)                Also check out very useful
iv)                At Purdue university website:
v)                  For interesting collection of Lacan quotes at

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

From Oedipus to Anima: Carl Jung’s `Psychology and Literature’

Carl Gustav Jung’s ` Psychology and Literature’ (1930) can be read as a critique of classical Freudian psychoanalytical approach to literary studies. 

The essay is notable for its ambitious attempt to discuss the social role of a creative writer from a psychological and psychoanalytical perspective. It is also remarkable for its similarities with the impersonality theory’ of creative process put forth by TS Eliot in the early part of the twentieth century.

Carl Jung (1875-1961) believes that though the psychologist’s approach to literature varies significantly from that of a literary critic, there is a possibility of an interesting dialogue between the two as all the sciences and arts have a common origin- human psyche.

Jung notes that the primary difference between literary critic’s approach and the psychologist’s approach is that psychologist may be interested in the works which might be of little artistic merit for the critic such as pulp romances or popular detective fiction. For a psychologist, a` psychological novel’ may be the most uninteresting one as most of the elements of fiction like motives or thoughts of the characters are explained and are made explicit by the author. The more interesting novels for a psychologist would be the works where these things are not explained and made explicit by the author and there is a room for interpretation.

Jung goes on to make a distinction between ` psychological’ literature and ` visionary literature’. Jung points out that as a psychologist, he would hardly be interested in ` psychological literature’ which primary deals with the material drawn from conscious mind. `Visionary literature’ draws its imagery, content from materials drawn from unconscious mind and hence is of great interest to a psychologist.
Jung points out that the first part of Goethe’s Faust is an example of `psychological literature’ while the second part is `visionary’ in nature.

Jung critiques Freudian emphasis on the personality of the author in interpretation of the text by stating that author’s personality is not the most important aspect of a literary work as the writer usually has to transcend the personal and the subjective in order to make his work appealing to others. Freudian approach which hardly goes beyond deriving the work from author’s neurosis, fails to explain why not all neurotics are authors. Moreover, such an approach cannot understand the function of a creative writer in the society.

Jung notes that the contents and materials of `visionary’ literature are not just drawn from the author’s psychosexual history as Freudians would insist, but are also from `racial memory’ or the collective unconscious of the entire human race. Such images, figures and symbols are primordial and not specific either to an individual or even to a culture. Such contents of `collective unconscious’ are called `archetypes’ by Jung. He gives an example of the figure of cross which becomes a sacred symbol among the Christians as well as other pagan cultures (like `swastika’ among Hindus). Archetypes manifest themselves not just in mythology, folklore or `visionary literature’ but they affect human behavior deeply.

Some of the most important archetypes in Jungian psychoanalysis are the persona, the shadow, the anima and the wise old man. The goal of human life, Jungian theory is `individuation’ of the becoming complete and whole by synthesizing the varied fragments of our being.

The persona is the mask which human beings carry around all the time and when it drops, they have to encounter their dark repellent side- their shadow. As the process of individuation continues, one comes across the anima or the creative and feminine aspect of our unconscious self. In Jung’s scheme of things visionary creative writing is often a manifestation of this feminine component of our self. The archetype of the wise old man is the archetype of guiding higher wisdom which leads us towards completion of our individuation. Individuation is often represented archetypally as closed geometric figures like the mandalas.

The function of creative artist, according to Jung, is to express the contents of collective unconscious in a society which is gradually losing its touch with this side of its personality due to the processes of modernization and secularization. A work of art, thus in Jung’s scheme would lead to man’s reconnection with the collective unconscious thus assisting him in the process of individuation.

Shifting of the focus of psychoanalysis from the personal psychosexual history to collective spiritual history in Jungian `analytical theory’ made it extremely influential among the writers and critics. However, Jungian theory fell out of favour with more materialistic oriented and relativist cultural theorists along with scientific psychologist due to its universalizing and idealistic notions and its preoccupation with vaguely spiritual orientation.

Freud himself criticized Jung of compromising with the basic principles of scientific psychoanalysis in order to make it more palatable to large section of public by reducing its emphasis on infantile sexuality and neurosis. As a doctor, Freud probably thought, giving sugar coated pills was ok but distributing sugar was definitely a form of deception and a compromise with the basic ethics of medical practice!!

However, Jung’s ideas have greatly influenced ` Myth and Archetypal’ theorist of literature like Northrop Frye and Maud Bodkins. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dostoevsky the Oedipus: Freud’s Dostoevsky and Parricide

Sigmund Freud’s `Dostoevsky and Parricide’ (1927) is an excellent example of application of Classical Psychoanalysis to literature. The essay is significant because it contains Freud’s classic exposition of the Oedipus Complex and its relation to literary texts. The essay can be read together with Freud’s other famous and insightful essays on literature like `The Uncanny’ (1919), `Creative Writers and Day Dreaming’ (1908) and `The Theme of Three Caskets’ (1913). That Freud should write extensively on literature is not surprising as he considers psychoanalysis as being ` art of interpretation’ and that many of his ideas are drawn from literary texts.
Freud is fascinated by complex and rich personality of Dostoevsky. He points out four facets of Dostoevsky’s personality, viz., the creative artist, the neurotic, the moralist and the sinner. Freud, characteristically, declares ` before the problem of creative artist, analysis must, alas, lay down its arms.’ Freud is more interested in Dostoevsky the neurotic and the causes of his neurosis.

Freud argues that Dostoevsky’s epileptic attacks, compulsive gambling, his latent homosexuality and his submissive attitude to religious and state authorities are manifestations of his neurosis resulting from his `Oedipus Complex’.

The Oedipus complex is an essential concept in Freudian psychoanalysis. According to the theory, during the `phallic phase’ (the phase where child’s phallus is the centre of his erotic interest –his love object) of psychosexual development of a child, the child recognizes that he is not a sole object of his mother’s love and sees father as his sexual rival. He is jealous and directs his aggression towards his father.

During the Oedipal phase, the child wants to take place of his father and thus become the object of his mother’s love. This requires identification on the part of the child with his father to obtain his mother’s love. Freud points out that the child identifies with the father to an extent that the father becomes the part of child’s personality. This part of child’s personality formed by identification with parents is called `Superego’ by Freud.

However, during this based on his knowledge of girl’s genitals, the child develops the anxiety of losing his prized possession, of being castrated and losing his masculinity. His aggression towards his father, the desire to kill him has to be repressed or driven away beyond his conscious mind into the unconscious part of his psyche out of the fear of father and father’s power to castrate him. Freud also points out the `ambivalence’ towards father in the mind of child where there is distinct love and tenderness for the father along with the desire to kill him. This gives rise to deep guilt in the mind of the child.
In Dostoevsky’s case, Freud argues, this emotional crisis arising in his phallic phase is unresolved and gives rise to his neurosis. Dostoevsky has identified with his father and hence the wish to kill his father is also a desire to kill oneself. This unresolved and unrepressed conflict results in `epileptic attacks’ which resemble the experience of dying for Dostoevsky.

The guilt arising from his unconscious parricidal desire manifests itself in self-punishing attitudes in Dostoevsky. This severe guilt and desire for self punishment, according to Freud, is at the back of Dostoevsky’s compulsive gambling, which Freud sees as a self punishing activity. As Dostoevsky’s internalized father, his superego, Freud says, is sadistic and Dostoevsky’s ego is masochistic in its desire for self punishment.

Freud also says that gambling which is a form of play is also a substitute for masturbation and hence a cause for guilt for Dostoevsky.

Freud remarks that the three masterpieces of literature Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Dostoevsky’s Brother Karamazov should deal with parricide carried out of sexual rivalry for a woman is not an instance of coincidence. In the light of his theory, all literature embodies neurotic conflicts and unconscious instincts in a disguised and indirect ways so as to make them acceptable. 

The writers employ literary devices to make these unconscious sexual and socially unacceptable contents of psyche acceptable to people. In Oedipus Rex, the hero kills his father unintentionally, in Hamlet, it is carried out by someone else and in Brothers Karamazov the deed is carried out by the brother of the protagonist Dmitri. Freud also draws attention to a scene in Brothers Karamazov where Father Zossima bows down at the feet of Dmitri when he learns Dmitri is planning to kill his father.

Freud seems to imply that creative writing is similar to dreaming or neurotic symptoms which he sees as camouflaged and indirect expressions of conflicts arising from early sexual development of the child and unconscious instinctual wishes. This is obviously very `reductive’ view of literature which is a far more complex artifact. Freud himself does not seem to be entirely unaware of this limitation.

Another problem with such an approach is that too preoccupied with ` origins’ of work of art instead of its structure and meaning –critics term as originological fallacy or genetic fallacy. Hence, the obsession with biographical details and personal neurosis of the author.

As Jung (1930) points out the man who suffers and the man who creates are not identical and personal history of the artist is not very useful for understanding the works of art because the artist has to transcend himself in order to create so that he may reach out to the entire humanity. But, remember what Freud has said about `analysis…laying down its arms in front of creative artist’ in the beginning of the essay.

Freud’s ideas have been received very skeptically and often with hostility ever since their statement. Critics have pointed out that they cannot be proved rigorously and scientifically.  Other critics have also pointed out the deep seated gender bias in his theory especially his ideas like `penis envy’ which is feminine counterpart to man’s `castration anxiety’. However, Freud has always been very influential thinker whose influence is felt not just in literary criticism but also on the creative writers themselves.

Freud’s ideas regained prominence in literary theory in the twentieth century largely due to Jacques Lacan’s semiotic and structuralist reading of Freud. 

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Before the Law: Jacques Derrida and Kafka

Jacques Derrida‘s “Before the Law” was first given as a lecture to the Royal Philosophical Society in London in 1982. An English translation by Avital Ronell was published as “Devant la Loi” in Kafka and the Contemporary Critical Performance: Centenary Readings. Ed. Alan Udoff (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987). The following text is from Derek Attridge (ed.) Acts of Literature, Jacques Derrida, N.Y, London, Routledge, 1992.

The importance of Derrida’s essay lies not just in his `deconstructive’ questioning of the autonomous status of the literary and the legal discourses, but also because of his autobiographical asides regarding his own recent Kafkaesques experiences of arrest and interrogation in Prague on the charges of drug trafficking.

The discursive categories of the `literature’ and the `law’, here, conceived as broadly as possible, are usually perceived to be distinct and autonomous domains of discourses. Often the literary is conceived as being fictitious, while the legal domain is seen to more `secular’, `pragmatic’ and having `truth-value’. In fact, they can even be seen conventionally as `binaries’.

Derrida reads Kafka’s parable of “Before the Law” to put into question the conventional distinction between the literary discourse and the legal discourse by pointing at the problematic interrelationship between the two. What is identified and classified as `literary’, often depends on the legal discourse of authorship and `legal’ category of `literature’. At the same time, Derrida also demonstrates the dependence of legal discourses on narratives which are usually classified as `the literary’ like the myth, fable and fiction.

Derrida, in a typical deconstructive mode, reads Kafka’s literary parable (or allegory) AS the parable (or allegory) of literature and about the relationship between law and literature. As in Paul de Man, ` the act of reading of an allegory” becomes an “allegory of the act of reading.”The Kafka’s parable also becomes the parable of undecidable aspects of literature. 

In a typical Derridian gesture, Derrida DRAMATIZES the parable (“Stages the parable”) and discusses the multiple ( often contradictory) implications of his deconstructive reading for the literary theory and legal theory.

Strategically,he focuses on the topology or the metaphor of place as well as the metaphor of space in the parable.

The Law becomes a place which the man from countryside wants to enter but is prevented from entering by the door keeper. The doorkeeper does not prevent the man directly.

This place where the Law which is supposed to exist is believed to be open for all but is actually guarded by a series of doors and doorkeepers (each more powerful than the first one). This means that the Law can never be accessed- it is promised but at the same time deferred.

The accused is summoned `before’ the law and by extension of the topological metaphor, the metaphor of place, the accused is `outside’ (and hence outlaw) of the space of law but then so is the doorkeeper. The guardians (the judges, the state, the police, and the doorkeepers) have their backs turned to the Law and consequently have no more access to the Law as the countryman or the accused.  By implication, the guardians of the `law of literature’, the people who decides what is literature and who should judge it (critics, publishers, teachers, reviewers etc) too have no access to the very law by which they determine what is literature and who judges it and by what `laws’ can the judge it.

Derrida also notes that the word `before’, also means PRIOR, something that comes before something else in a temporal sequence.  So `before the law’ also implies something which comes into existence PRIOR to the Law. In Derrida’s view what comes `prior’ to the Law is `difference’: the structure of differences and deferrals, which postpones the presence of the law indefinitely at the same times is the condition for its existence. It is this structure of `differance’, which constitutes and at the same time postpones the existence of the Law.  It is this structure of differance which creates the deconstructive aporiartic existence the heart of both leagal and the literary discourses.