Lesson 1 – Disrupt the Imaginary Register…

Before Jacques Lacan became Jacques Lacan, he was a young medical student with an interest in psychiatry, training in Paris. But he kept very good company. He immersed himself in a broad and extremely interdisciplinary world. Surrealists, feminists, abstract painters, and poets… All of these were on an equal pegging as the Freudians for his attention.

Lacan’s work in psychoanalysis begins with a theorisation of the image. And so it seems fitting to start this series of articles on how Lacan practiced – and what we can learn from that practice – with an article about the image.

The image above is from 1944. It shows a young Lacan alongside some of the greatest minds in the Parisian intelligentsia. In this picture are Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus.

lacan and cast, 1944

The only face that isn’t visible in this cast is Lacan’s. Why not? If you were having your photo taken with Picasso you’d want to be visible in it yourself, right? Imagine you meet a celebrity in the street, someone whose work you love and you admire greatly. They agree to pose for a photo with you. You think about how great it will look on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. This is because you, like all of us, are seduced by the imaginary register – the pull of narcissism, the same pull that turned the legendary narcissus into a flower, or pulled Alice through the looking glass. You certainly don’t think about how you are going to erase yourself from this picture.

So why is Lacan’s face not visible? He’s there, but he’s shaking his head so violently from side to side that the camera’s shutter speed isn’t quick enough to capture his image.


Avoiding the capture of the image is something that Lacan then turned into a theory. Indeed, a theoretical project that lasted the rest of his life. And this is a trick that the crafty young Jacques Lacan played throughout his formative years:


Unfortunately, with modern shutter speeds, digital photography and instant production this kind of thing isn’t possible anymore. This fact is satirised in the brilliant and prescient British film Four Lions, about a hapless band of British Muslim jihadi:

Not many accounts of how Lacan practiced in his earlier career have been documented, which is a shame. But later, when Lacan became famous, his former analysands were able to tell their stories. What we find is that, far from being a theoretical adventure of his younger years, a disruption of the imaginary register was a red thread that ran throughout Lacan’s practice right up to his death in 1981.

For those of us who are not Lacan, there is plenty to learn from this for our everyday lives and how we interact with other people. In practical terms, disrupting the imaginary register is perhaps the easiest Lacanian trick. It involves introducing a disturbance in the way that someone sees themselves, or sees you. This puts us in the register that Lacan calls the imaginary, the realm of images and identifications. But the imaginary is not as simple as what you see. The beauty of Lacan’s theory of the imaginary is that it has no clear boundaries – it’s not just about you, and it’s not just about the image.

Let’s take an example from his practice. Like so many in this series of articles, it comes from Jean Allouch’s Les Impromptus de Lacan:

Arriving for her session, an analysand offers Lacan a valuable little statuette.
Lacan takes the gift, demands payment for the session and escorts the analysand out.

Our immediate reaction would be to think that Lacan defrauded his patient, ending the session and demanding payment before it had even begun. Ostensibly, Lacan’s patient did nothing wrong – she just wanted to give him a gift. But wasn’t Lacan’s response exactly what psychoanalytic interpretation should look like? In responding as he did, Lacan disrupted the imaginary register by demonstrating to his patient what the statuette said about how she thought of him.

Naturally we don’t know the full details of the analysis, or what place this occurrence had in it, but even in isolation this little anecdote makes a nice point: that the mode in which the image is presented or framed is a way of saying something without saying it. This is something which, in our everyday lives, we can look out for in our dealings with others.

Let’s take another example of how Lacan disrupted the imaginary register:

What does Judith Miller, Lacan’s daughter, say about the woman who came to see Lacan? That his office “did not correspond to her image of a great psychoanalyst”. What this shows us is that disrupting the imaginary needn’t just be about one’s own image, or that of the other person. In the clip above, Lacan simply rearranged the room, taking out the usual imaginary coordinates that help people orientate themselves in an unfamiliar space. Although all he did was to put the phone on the floor instead of on a table, its effect was to lead his visitor to question what someone would get if they went into an analysis with Lacan. Which was exactly his aim.

If you work in an open-plan office, this trick is probably familiar to you already. Managers like to encourage a more fluid and diverse working environment by hot-desking their staff so that no one has a fixed seat in the office – whenever you walk in you can ‘choose’ where to sit. But the effect of this apparent freedom of choice is actually a very disorientating one. You no longer ‘have a place’ in your office.

When, in 1964, Lacan described the drive as “the working of a dynamo connected up to a gas-tap, a peacock’s feather emerges, and tickles the belly of a pretty woman, who is just lying there looking beautiful”, he is doing the same thing as he did with the phone (Lacan, Seminar XI, p.169). He takes a difficult-to-define concept – that of the drive – and makes us think about it less in terms of the hydraulics that the Freudian conception so often shades into, and more in terms of a surrealist painting: an unnatural, disturbed, compound image, constructed in the same way that the dream constructs a rebus:


If this is all a bit abstract, let’s look at the closer-to-home question of one’s own image with two more accounts from Lacan’s analysands:

The clothes, although she chose them herself that morning, on reflection, do not suit her. At the moment of leaving for her control at Lacan’s, she looks in the mirror, hesitated… But no, she isn’t going to change!
However, she keeps her coat carefully done up. Sitting down in the small armchair, she avoids any unnecessary movements.
– You don’t want to take off your coat?
– N…. no.
– You don’t like your dress?

Les Impromptus de Lacan

Second account:

Upon visiting, either for a session or in control with Lacan, each visitor would sit in a little low chair, so low that the knees, if the legs were folded, would raise themselves up higher than the buttocks.
She comes, for her control, decked out in a generously split dress, which, once sat down, offered a view beyond what the fashion of the age, even though strongly liberal, would admit without problem.
– Quelle belle jupe! [What a beautiful dress!], Lacan comments.

Les Impromptus de Lacan

Firstly, let’s heed Lacan’s warning: “Take a leaf out of my book – don’t imitate me’ (Lacan, La Troisieme [The Third], in Lettres de l’École Freudienne, 16, p.183.) Disrupting the imaginary register certainly does not mean attempting to emulate Lacan by being a dick about how someone is dressed or some problem you perceive them to have about their self-image. Certainly, people are insecure about how they look and what they wear. But instead of exploiting that fact, it might be that the best way to disrupt the imaginary register is to pay them a compliment. Many people find it hard to accept a compliment and – what’s more – their response will be a guide as to how to follow through with your next Lacanian move. With his Quelle belle jupe, ‘What a beautiful dress’, Lacan did just that.

dali lacan

A beautiful little example of this kind of play on the image comes from an encounter between Lacan and his lifelong friend, Salvador Dali (the pair are pictured above):

Dali arrives at Lacan’s door one day with a plaster on his nose. Lacan greets him and says nothing.

Who knows whether Dali had an injury and was looking for sympathy… or whether he didn’t and was just trying to play Lacan at his own game. What is amusing is that Lacan utterly ignored it. We all know someone who, every time we meet them, greets us with some kind of imaginary disturbance. Very often it is manifested at the level of the body – trouble eating, a pain in some part of the body, a new tattoo to show off, a different haircut. The above anecdote shows that Lacan was alert to this and knew how to respond… even if his response was silence.

… And Its Support

Disrupting the imaginary register doesn’t just entail a focus on the form of the image. As is clear in Lacan’s distinction between the ideal ego and the ego ideal, an imaginary disruption is effected not by pointing out some facet of the person’s self-image (that it is founded on an identification, for example) but the place from which that identification takes on a value, the thing that sanctions or invests that image.

This can be about how someone sees themselves, or how they believe the other sees them. This is the point at which the imaginary and symbolic intersect – the imaginary is never simply about the image. The next two anecdotes from Lacan’s practice illustrate this:

Coming in order to cure an inferiority complex, the patient protests, indignant about having to lie on the couch, a position, she says, precisely of inferiority.
Rather than saying that it was a feminine protest, he [this woman’s analyst] chooses to talk to Lacan. Lacan’s immediate response:
– But why have you not said to her that she was there precisely in order to speak from that position?

Here, notwithstanding our uncertainty about the direction of the rest of the treatment, we can surmise that Lacan wanted the analyst to indicate to his patient that what she was complaining about was exactly what was of interest itself.

She comes to Lacan in a moment of crisis, things falling apart up to the point where Lacan comes to find her in his waiting room. Under his interrogative gaze, in tears, she responds:
– I’m soon going to be 50
He takes her arm, brings her gently towards the consulting room
– Come along, my dear, come along, it will pass
He himself, at that time, was well over seventy.
Les Impromptus de Lacan

This little gem turns on the term ‘it will pass’, which can be read as ‘the feeling will pass’ or ‘time will pass’ – i.e., ‘you’ll get older, like me.’ While it would be all too easy to respond to this woman with sentimental platitudes, Lacan’s comeback reminds us of why he so eagerly insisted that his students not try to understand what their patients were saying.

There are going to follow a few articles on similar themes. Each of them is going to explore how Lacan worked in his clinical practice and what we can learn from that practice in our own, everyday, minimal ways.

The broader picture here is that psychoanalysis is not just something that happens when someone goes to see a psychoanalyst. Psychoanalysis is something you can do in the classroom, the boardroom, maybe even the men’s room.

Lacan got this. Like the karate dojo, Lacan’s clinic had no walls – the same theatrical style his analysands report in the stories above – and in those to follow – were a feature of the delivery of his teaching. No walls, no rules.

What’s the point of this series of articles?

Some say that you have to be a practicing Lacanian psychoanalyst to appreciate what it means to practice Lacanian psychoanalysis. This is bullshit.

There are two ways to approach Lacan’s teaching – either you believe it’s only relevant in the clinic, or you realise it has no such boundaries. The Lacanian dojo.

We live in a time when Lacanian clinical practice is not even welcomed in the clinics of healthcare institutions like the NHS. We live in a time where those happy few that do practice Lacanian psychoanalysis in such settings practice it covertly with a diminishing band of patients. We live in a time where those interested in Lacan feel that they have to subject themselves to the ritual humiliation that some seem to think a psychoanalytic training entails.

So it’s time to widen the scope, and practice Lacanian psychoanalysis every day.


By Owen Hewitson, LacanOnline.com

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