06 January 2010

MCT: Lacan (and how not to do it)

Somewhere in this house there is a copy of Écrits by Jacques Lacan - yes, in French. I must have been feeling ever so clever and optimistic to buy it and needless to say I've scarcely opened it. Lacan, like Derrida, is often considered to be the point at which French critical theory went bonkers. He was a Freudian psychotherapist, and applied some of Jakobson's thinking (on metaphor and metonymy) to the analysis of the unconscious.

The essay in MCT, "On the insistence of the letter in the unconscious", begins with a gentle refutation of Saussure's description of the relationship of the signifier to the signified. Reasonably, he says that meaning can't exist only in that relationship. It also lives in the surrounding signs (horizontally) and (vertically) in the alternatives that aren't used.

So at some point he says that symptoms are metaphors. I understand that bit, but not much else. It is, above all, an essay on psychology, on psychoanalytic theory, and although I've read loads of Freud in the past, this is very post-Freudian. (Lacan was kicked out by orthodox Freudians, although he clearly thinks he is preserving the true Freud in his writing.) Almost certainly what happened is that bits of his thinking were appropriated into criticism, and may have been misunderstood in the process. It's not just the background that makes it difficult: he writes in a discursive, sorry to say donnish, style, and the translation often seems clumsy (I've a feeling en effet is often translated as in fact or in effect, which are often false friends.)

And as for how not to do it? In the editor's introduction, the editor says "the present editor certainly does not claim fully to understand everything in this essay". That's comforting, but it's a contorted avoidance of a "split infinitive". But it's not as bad as the example from Dickens.

In Bleak House the guiding principle of the Circumlocution Office is to work out "how not to do it". In modern English most people would read this, on its own, as meaning "how to do it wrong". Dickens intended, and presumably his readers would have taken to mean "how to avoid doing it". Maybe we do need to have some idea of the author's intention, or maybe Steiner was right, and we need to be sure we know what contemporary readers would have understood.

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