Lacan’s My Teaching: A Review

An abridged version of this paper was published in the Annual Review of Critical Psychology, 7: Lacan and Critical Psychology, which is available in full via this link

All quotations refer to Jacques Lacan, My Teaching, Translated by David Macey, Verso:London, 2008, unless otherwise stated

This text is a translation of Mon Enseignement, compiled and edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, Éditions du Seuil, 2005


Lacan’s My Teaching is composed of three addresses given in the late sixties, just after the publication in France of his major work, the Ecrits. As a man rumoured to be suspicious of publication the spoken address was his preferred method of delivery, and indeed the Ecrits themselves are largely polished versions of previously published papers running alongside, and sometimes drawing from, topics raised in his yearly seminar. At the time these three addresses were delivered therefore, Lacan’s work had made its way to a wider public but had not yet been properly digested.

This is Lacan’s chance to expound some of the most important propositions in the just-published Ecrits in front of an uninitiated audience, and in many ways this volume is a microcosm of themes elaborated at greater length in that work. The three addresses provide us with an opportunity to see how Lacan sketches a theory of subjectivity that would distinguish psychoanalysis from a psychology but at the same time retain an adherence to the essence of the Freudian discovery.

There are two core ideas that we find expanded in this collection with respect to subjectivity. Firstly, that the subject is an effect of the signifier, with the implication that there is not only a primacy, but an autonomy, of the signifier. Secondly, and in a related way, that the subject cannot be reduced to a catch-all notion such as the individual, the psyche, or the personality, and that by extension psychoanalysis cannot be reduced to a form of psychology because its object is not the psyche.

Lacan gives the first address the title The Place, Origin and End of My Teaching. The place here refers to the context, specifically the refusal of the psychoanalytic authorities to grant Lacan and his followers affiliation – and by extension the authority to train analysts – an ‘excommunication’ to which Lacan reacted by forming his own school in the mid-sixties. In the ‘origins’ of his teaching however, he is referring neither to his place in psychoanalysis, nor to his background in psychiatry, but to the close connection that he believes Freud discovered between the workings of the unconscious and the way that language is structured. His comments at the start of the first address – that “No one before me seems to have attached the least importance to the fact that, in Freud’s first books… we find one common factor, and it derives from stumbling over words, holes in discourses, wordplay, puns, ambiguities” (p.27) – provide us with an early clue to what he sees as important in giving a place to the subject in psychoanalysis. The key concept here is that of the signifier, which Lacan takes from Saussure, and which can be loosely defined as an element in the structure of language that might be a word or part of a word, but which refers not to a thing outside of that structure, in reality, but only to a network of other elements (or words) within it. Using this concept of the signifier, in the second addresses he gives us a straightforward definition of the subject: “The subject is what I define in the strict sense as an effect of the signifier” (p.79).

Throughout these three addresses Lacan finds various ways to expand on this idea, already advanced at numerous points in the Ecrits. In that work, Lacan tells us that he views it as the task of psychoanalysis to separate the subject from the I (E118), and in both the first and second addresses of this collection he attempts to do so by prising apart two distinct subjects that he finds in the act of speech: the subject of the statement (translated here as the subject of the utterance), and the subject of the enunciation. The subject of the utterance (or of the statement) is I, the mark that designates the one that is speaking. In linguistics this is referred to as the ‘shifter’, a term that denotes the one communicating a message, corresponding in psychoanalytic vocabulary to the ego. But Lacan makes much of the fact that, where this I is lacking in speech, we can nevertheless detect another subject embedded in the speech itself, a subject of the enunciation. This is a distinction which he claims marks him out from the linguists of his day (p.85).

Lacan is especially interested in exploring the implications of this gap between the subject of the utterance on one hand, and the subject of the enunciation – “when it can no longer be grasped in a sentence” (p.36) – on the other. The I of the subject of the utterance is a signifier, but it does not signify the subject (Ecrits, 800), and therefore by extension the subject cannot be identified with the I. What especially interests Lacan is the idea that the subject of the enunciation is “the subject not insofar as it produces discourse but insofar as it is produced [fait], cornered even [fait comme un rat], by discourse” (p.36). When Lacan tells us that the signifier is that which represents the subject for another signifier he is referring to exactly this subject of the enunciation that emerges from the words that are used, but which at the same time is radically different to the I that precedes it. This second subject is a product of the primacy of the signifier itself over what was meant or intended in what was said, and points to a specific place given by Lacan to the subject qua subject of the unconscious.

His contention is that wherever there is speech we find ourselves between these two subjects, a point at which, in the Ecrits, Lacan describes as where “the transparency of the classical subject divides, undergoing, as it does, the effects of fading that specify the Freudian subject due to its occultation [eclipse] by an ever purer signifier” (Ecrits, 800-801). If the very words or signifiers we use have an ability to surge forth (in a slip of the tongue, for instance) and suggest another meaning  beyond the one we intended, the subject then becomes something whose existence can be seen as no more than an effect of this movement in the production of signifiers, made possible through speech itself.

Developing this point in the second address, Lacan claims that it compels us to “reconstruct the so-called communications schema a little bit” (p.85). The task of a psychoanalyst becomes not so much to get his patients to lie on the couch and reveal their secrets, which to a greater or lesser extent, the analyst will seek to divine, but rather to allow them to produce signifying material, through speaking freely, that will reveal a meaning or signification that might be surprising, new or alien to them. This is the essence of the unconscious, as Lacan understands it. Although psychoanalysis is a practice based on speech – the speech exchanged between the analyst and the analysand – for Lacan, speech is never simply a matter of communication. Therefore, both in psychoanalysis and outside it, what is at stake in an intersubjective relation is never simply a matter of perfecting a communication. As Lacan puts it, “If there is one thing that has to be called into question, it is the simple function of intersubjectivity, as though it were a simple dual relationship between a sender and a receiver that worked all by itself. It’s not that at all” (p.85).

One of the consequences of such a conception is that speech – of the patient on the couch, for instance – never gives us the precisely articulated meaning we were looking for; what someone means can never be equated to what they say. This is why in the second address Lacan asserts that, “Confusing the subject with the message is one of the great characteristics of all the stupid things that are said about the so-called reduction of language to communication. The communication function has never been the most important aspect of language. That was my starting point” (p.84). This gap between what is said as pure signifying materiality and what was meant is precisely the point at which we find subjectivity; rather than an individual actively transmitting what he means through what he says, the subject is rather a product of this transmission itself. “It is not man who speaks, but in man and through man that it speaks” (E 689). When Lacan gives us the formula that the signifier represents the subject for another signifier, we are therefore obliged to think of subjectivity not simply as suspended between two signifiers, but as something that is produced or manufactured in the gap between signifiers. Lacanians take this as a fundamental implication of his best-known proposition that the unconscious is structured like a language, and it is exactly the model that Lacan gives us in the first address when he tells us that, “The subject is manufactured by a certain number of articulations that have taken place, and falls from the signifying chain in the way that ripe fruit falls. As soon as he comes into the world he falls from a signifying chain” (p.44).

Although it is often thought that such a pronouncement represents the view of subjectivity taken by the more ‘structuralist’ Lacan of the sixties, even by the time of his Encore seminar on sexual difference in the mid-seventies Lacan is able to restate this same view, that “The subject is nothing other than what slides in a chain of signifiers” (SXX, p.50). The kind of subject that is presented by Lacan in My Teaching is therefore an effect of the structure of language, a kind of by-product of the internal dynamics of the elements of the structure itself, a structure animated by the infinite displacement of the signifier along its chains.

Lacan is adamant that such a conception of the subject is implicit in Freud’s work, demonstrable in the areas of research which Freud concerned himself with when he was attempting to prove the reality of the unconscious. For example, Lacan argues that Freud recognises the primacy of the signifier he turns his attention to the analysis of dreams at the very inception of psychoanalysis. The essential element of the dream is precisely this autonomous signifier that we find undermining the model of intersubjective communication:

“Freud describes a dream as a certain knot, an associative network of analysed verbal forms that intersect as such, not because of what they signify, but thanks to a sort of homonymy. It is when you come across a single word at the intersection of three of the ideas that come to the subject that you notice that the important thing is that word and not something else. It is when you have found the word that concentrates around it the greatest number of threads in the mycellum that you know it is the hidden centre of gravity of the desire in question (p.28).

From the second to the third addresses of this volume we find Lacan outlining a further implication that follows from this idea of the subject as an effect of the signifier: that the subject is not the same as the psyche. Again, Lacan claims fidelity to Freud and believes such a notion to be embedded in his work. He asks his audience, “Why have I introduced the function of the subject as something distinct from anything to do with the psyche? I cannot really give you a theoretical explanation, but I can show you how this has to do with the subject’s function in language, and that is a double function” (p.35). Although at first glance it might appear that what Lacan considers subjective is very far removed from what Freud might have meant by that term, in the second address Lacan answers this criticism with a direct response: “They ask me why I talk about the subject, why I supposedly add that to Freud. That is all that gets talked about in Freud. But it gets talked about in a brutal, imperative way.” (p.87). What kind of subject, he asks us, is supposed by Freud’s theory of dreams, or by a revealing slip of the tongue? He is adamant that it cannot be a subject of consciousness or anything that might be situated in the realm of personality; indeed, the subject “has nothing to do with what we call the subjective in the vague sense, in a sense that muddles everything up, and nor does it have anything to do with the individual. The subject is what I define in the strict sense as an effect of the signifier” (p.79).

Despite this, one criticism that has seemed to have stuck in the popular understanding of Lacan’s work is that his adherence to Freud is only partial, insofar as he pays little attention to Freud’s so-called second topography, a revised model of the psychical apparatus that Freud formulated in his later work and that is usually taken to refer to the tripartite structure of ego, id and superego. This is not an entirely justified reproach however, and in the second and third addresses Lacan attempts to locate the subject in this model, as if he were repeating the assertion that the subject is something essential to which Freud returns throughout his work. His focus here is on Freud’s famous formulation from the New Introductory Lectures, “Wo Es war, soll Ich werden” (Freud, SE XXII, p.80). For Lacan, this das Es represents the subject: “What is this”, he asks, “if not a certain way of defining the subject?” (p.83). The subject is “already at home at the level of the Es” (p.83). Although Freud’s Es is literally translatable as It, it is rendered into English as the id in the Standard Edition of his work. However it is telling that Lacan chooses to keep to the German. Taken as a signifier itself, the homonymic value of this Es gives it the same pronunciation as S, the letter which stands for the subject in Lacan’s writing (later with a bar through it) and Lacan is again very precise in highlighting its subjective value: “It [ca/Es] dreams, it fails, and it laughs. And are those three things subjective, or are they not, I ask you? (p.79).

Indeed, we can note the fact that in giving this Es the dignity of the upper case (stripped of the need for a definite article) Freud’s German also has the effect of giving It a strange or uncanny connotation. If Lacan is justified in believing the apparently minor or marginal phenomena in which Freud sees such importance – jokes, dreams, slips – tell us something about the nature of subjectivity, it is nonetheless a subjectivity that appears alien or foreign to us.

Lacan’s view of the unconscious then stands in stark contrast to our popular, psychologised view of the unconscious – a view to which many contemporary psychoanalysts subscribed – which tends to equate it with a sub-consciousness, or simply another kind of consciousness of which we are unaware. For Lacan however, the unconscious is fundamentally not of the psyche. It is not a realm of darkness where feelings or emotions bubble just under the surface and which might dramatically erupt at any moment. “The Freudian unconscious”, he is eager to point out, “has absolutely nothing to do with what was called the ‘unconscious’ before Freud” (p.11). If the unconscious is structured like a language, what is important for Lacan is not making the unconscious conscious, but making the unconscious speak.

So if the unconscious is something that we will experience as radically other to our sense of self, how can it still be does it make sense to label it subjective? For Lacan, the unconscious is realised in what he calls the field of the Other, his choice of using the upper case designating that it is radically Other, rather than just an other (another person, someone with whom you have more or less in common, for example). In its simplest sense, Lacan’s well-known maxim that the unconscious is the discourse of the Other  refers to the experience of the Otherness of one’s own speech. This Other, he tells us in the first address, is the site or locus of speech, “not where speech is uttered, but where it takes on the value of speech, or in other words where it inaugurates the dimension of truth. It is absolutely indispensable to the workings of what we are talking about” (p.37). Although Lacan’s notion of the Other is often (and not wrongly) connected to Hegelian influences on his thought, it is not difficult to see the closeness of the connection to Freud’s das Es if we understand the latter as the It that Freud chooses to name it literally – something radically alien and invasive to our sense of self. Again, it is a marker of Lacan’s faithfulness to Freud’s work, at least in its most essential concerns.

But to be fully Freudian, it is also important to note that Lacan extends this Otherness to the realm of our desires. An uninitiated member of Lacan’s audience might well think that Freud deals with desire and only with desire, and it is true that even today this is a part of the psychoanalytical corpus that the popular understanding of Freud’s work fixates on. However, under Lacan’s treatment, rather than being simply something that you want, seek or yearn for desire becomes something that is a property of the play of signifiers, in other words, something that is manufactured in their production, through speech. Desire for Lacan thus has very little relation to the ordinary sense of the term as a yearning or pining for something, an itch that needs to be scratched; rather,“Desire is always what is inscribed as a repercussion of the articulation of language at the level of the Other” (p.38).

But what does Lacan make of the supposed major preoccupation of Freud, namely, with sexual desire? It might surprise us to see that, like Freud, Lacan retains the use of the term ‘castration complex’, but does not believe that if it is truly something fundamental and universal, as Freud believed it was, it can hang on something as contingent as the threat by the caregiver of the loss of the penis. Instead, Lacan proposes that it is because our desire is never something that we can have – that is, something we can call our own or that might reveal something about our psychology – that is precisely the reason we need this castration myth. Castration inaugurates what he calls the phallus, for him a signifier of lack, desire, and the sexual relation, and he speculates that the reason why Freud was so attached to this castration myth might be because he sensed its importance in giving the subject access to desire, that “the organ serves, perhaps, a purpose that functions at the level of desire. It is the lost object because it stands in for the subject qua desire” (p.42). Castration becomes therefore a subjective operation which gives a sexual status to the subject, a means through which the sexed subject can appear. As he suggests,  “When man enters the field of his own desire insofar as it is sexual desire, he can do so only through the medium of a symbol that represents the loss of an organ insofar as it takes on, in the circumstances, a signifying function, the function of the lost object” (p.41).

However, it is nonetheless an operation that divides the subject and fixes his desire as forever a property of the signifier. Just as desire cannot be thought of as the individual’s state of longing for any given object, so the organ that is threatened with castration stands in for the subject, representing him as a signifier for another signifier. It is as if all the ambiguities of sexuality – what Lacan later calls the ‘non-rapport’ – have the same status of the subject of the enunciation. Hence sexuality has a place that does not fit with the one we reserve for the psyche. As he tells us in the first address, “What is within reach is the fact that sexuality makes a hole in truth…. It is not a hole in a jacket, it is the negative aspect that appears in anything to do with the sexual, namely its inability to aver. That is what a psychoanalysis is all about” (p.21 – 22). The subject is therefore ‘de-centred’ in the sense that it does not overlap with the ego, with consciousness, or even with the sexuality of being.

Lacan’s reference to Freud’s Es highlights what we might call its extra-psychological character. The important point for Lacan is that if it is structured like a language, is not reducible to being simply the negative of consciousness, a sub-consciousness, or the repository of everything that is pushed out of consciousness and which we refuse to admit to ourselves. It operates according to totally different rules from that of consciousness (which Freud calls the primary processes), with the implication that we find are confronted with a subjectivity that exceeds our psychology.

Lacan devotes much of the third address elaborating this distinction between the subject and the psyche from the angle of thought. He sees first Descartes and then Freud as representing fundamental breaks in the way that thought itself is thought about. The unconscious becomes this ‘it’ that thinks where we do not think that we are thinking. What Freud demonstrated is that thought is not simply indivisibly transparent to itself, but that “It thinks, in other words, at a level where it does not grasp itself as thought at all” (p.103). Whilst he undoubtedly believes the unconscious to be composed of thoughts, Lacan is careful to distinguish the unconscious from a Cartesian consciousness of which we are conscious. What separates Lacan from Descartes is that the latter does not believe that the essence of thought is “being self-transparent and knowing that it is thought” (p.107). Before Freud, thought was considered as “something that was able to grasp itself as conscious” (p.108); after Freud, we are left with “a thought of which it can always be asked who is thinking it” (p.110). Again, the subject is unhinged from the psyche, or anything that might be considered an individual’s psychology.

By way of conclusion, what My Teaching demonstrates is Lacan’s insistence in locating the place of the subject in psychoanalysis where previously it had not been part of psychoanalytic vocabulary (even Freud’s). If we agree with Lacan that a concern with subjectivity is implicit in Freud’s work, we nevertheless have to recognise the particular meaning that Lacan gives it. Famously fond of puns, Lacan advocates a playfulness of orthography (p.18), a playfulness that can extended to the use of the term ‘subject’ itself. For him, the ‘subject’ refers not to the individual nor his psychology, but that which is subjected to the play of the signifier. “Psychoanalysis should be the science of language inhabited by the subject”, he writes in the mid-fifties. “From the Freudian point of view man is the subject captured and tortured by language” (The Psychoses, p.243).

By Owen Hewitson,

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