Why is Lacan’s approach to literary theory no accident?

Literature provides fertile ground to explore the inherent ambiguity of traditional psychological constructs, and Lacan’s approach to literary theory is no accident. What does this mean?

We have learnt from literary theory that what it is to be an author is not so clear.  There is always a gap between what a writer thought s/he meant and the meaning given by others’ readings of her or his works.  Every act of reading authors meaning to some degree, as does a listener in making sense of what a person is saying. This first kind of gap is between the different ways in which individuals make sense.  Thus if the effects of Caxton and Gutenberg were about emancipating reading, the effects of social media have been about emancipating authoring.

Another kind of gap emerges, however, in the process of writing. It always brings some degree of surprise to the writer, as if the process has more to say than the thought that gave rise to it. So it is too with speaking. We can surprise ourselves with what we end up saying. This second kind of gap is between what we ‘know’ consciously and what ‘unthought known’ becomes apparent in our behaviours. To judge what a person says as being vague is thus to judge that it makes no sense independently of the speaker. For psychology to declare itself a ‘science’ is therefore to claim that it can assert truths about a person that are not vague. Regardless of what ends up being written in the name of science, however, an individual continues to experience both kinds of gap, so that resistance to ‘right’ ways of reading can morph into objecting to ‘experts’ knowing better. 

Lacan’s focus as a clinician involved addressing these two kinds of gap in the course of addressing a third kind. This was a gap between what an individual could come to know as ‘true’ for themselves and her or his relation to desire, desire here in the special sense of there always remaining a ‘more’, experienced as a residual wanting or lacking. Desire in this sense could only come to be known as evidenced indirectly by an individual’s behaviours in their pursuit of what was yet to be realised. Literary theory addressed itself to these first two kinds of gap, so that it is no surprise that Lacan’s works as a clinician should make a contribution to it. It is worth bearing in mind how Lacan’s works went further, however, in order to place this contribution within the context of his works.

We can read two major shifts in the trajectory of Lacan’s works. To begin with they were addressed to clinicians and were engaged in a re-reading of Freud. The first shift came as his audience grew beyond clinicians to include the post-modern and structuralist thinkers of the 1960’s. During this second phase, he addressed questions of ethics and of the place of psychoanalysis, formulating a way of understanding discourses that was congruent with that place. It is these first two phases for which Lacan became best known in the world of critical studies. The second shift came at the beginning of the 1970’s. During the third phase, Lacan engaged with questions of sexuation and topology as a way of approaching an individual’s relation to a radically unconscious as distinct from an unthought known.  This third phase went beyond challenging the political to address the place of innovation within the political per se.

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