If one disregards occasional short texts
(introductions and afterwords, transcribed improvised
interventions and interviews, etc.), Lacan’s oeuvre clearly
falls into two groups: seminars (conducted every week during the
school-year from 1953 till Lacan’s death, in front of an ever
larger public) and é′crits (written theoretical texts).
The paradox pointed out by Jean-Claude Milner is that, in
contrast to the usual way of opposing the secret oral teaching
to the printed publications for the common people, Lacan’s
ecrits are “elitist,” readable only to an inner circle, while
his seminars are destined for the large public and, as such,
much more accessible. It is as if Lacan first directly develops
a certain theoretical line in a straightforward way, with all
oscillations and blind alleys, and then goes on to condense the
result in precise, but compressed ciphers. In fact, Lacan’s
seminars and ecrits relate like analysand’s and analyst’s speech
in the treatment. In seminars, Lacan acts as analysand, he
“freely associates,” improvises, jumps, addressing his public,
which is thus put into the role of a kind of collective analyst.
In comparison, his writings are more condensed, formulaic, and
they throw at the reader unreadable ambiguous propositions which
often appear like oracles, challenging the reader to start
working on them, to translate them into clear theses and provide
examples and logical demonstrations of them. In contrast to the
usual academic procedure, where the author formulates a thesis
and then tries to sustain it through arguments, Lacan not only
more often than not leaves this work to the reader – the reader
has often even to discern what, exactly, is Lacan’s actual
thesis among the multitude of conflicting formulations or the
ambiguity of a single oracle-like formulation. In this precise
sense, Lacan’s écrits are like an analyst’s interventions
whose aim is not to provide the analysand with a ready-made
opinion or statement, but to set the analysand to work.
what and how to read? Écrits or seminars? The only proper
answer is a variation on the old “tea or coffee” joke: yes,
please! One should read both. If you go directly to the
Écrits, you will not get anything, so you should start – but
not stop – with seminars, since, if you read only seminars, you
will also not get it. The impression that the seminars are
clearer and more transparent than the Écrits is deeply
misleading: they often oscillate, experiment with different
approaches. The proper way is to read a seminar and then go on
to read the corresponding écrit to “get the point” of the
seminar. We are dealing here with a temporality of
Nachtraeglichkeit (clumsily translated as “deferred action”)
which is proper to the analytic treatment itself: the Écrits
are clear, they provide precise formulas, but we can only
understand them after reading seminars which provide their
background. Two outstanding cases are the Seminar VII on The
Ethics of Psychoanalysis and the corresponding écrit
as well as the Seminar XI on The Four Fundamental Concepts of
Psycho-Analysis and “The Position of the Unconscious.” Also
significant is Lacan’s opening essay in Écrits,
The Purloined Letter.”
More than half of Lacan’s seminars are now
available in French; the English translations which follow with
a delay of a couple of years are usually of a high quality.
Écrits are now available only in selection (the new
translation by Bruce Fink is much better than the old one).
Lacan himself conferred on Jacques-Alain Miller the task to edit
his seminars for publication, designating him as “the (only) one
who knows to read me” – in this, he was right: Miller’s numerous
writings and his own seminars are by far the best introduction
to Lacan. Miller accomplishes the miracle of rendering an
obscure page from ecrits completely transparent, so that one is
left wondering “how is it that I did not get it myself?”
Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, London:
Routledge 1992, p. 307.
Todd Dufresne, Killing Freud: 20th Century Culture and the
Death of Psychoanalysis, London: Continuum Books 2004.
livre noir du communisme,
Paris: Robert Laffont 2000.
livre noir de la psychanalyse: vivre, penser et aller mieux sans
Paris: Arenes 2005.
Since this book is an introduction to Lacan, focused on some of
his basic concepts, and since this topic is the focus of my work
in the last decades, I couldn’t avoid a degree of
“cannibalization” of my already-published books. As an excuse, I
took great care to give to each of these borrowed passages a new
To follow :
The Purloined Letter.