I was quite taken recently with comments Chomsky made about Lacan. I originally came to Lacan through Žižek, as the intriguing way in which Slavoj deftly weaved Lacanian ideas into discussions of film piqued my curiosity. So I bought Žižek’s book about Lacan. Five years on I cannot for the life of me remember anything about this book – or find it on my shelves – but it must have been reasonably interesting, as it then prompted me to go and buy the Écrits. A few hours of engaging with this ungainly tome and my nascent enthusiasm for Lacan had been quashed. I continued to be vaguely interested in Lacan’s ideas but it’s unlikely, though not impossible, that I’ll ever bother to put the effort in to decipher Écrits. Particularly now that I’ve read a short book I stumbled across on Friday. My Teachingcollects three lectures given by Lacan to ‘non-specialist’ audiences. Having now encountered Lacan in plain-speaking mode, what allure he possessed in my mind has pretty much completely deserted him. Nonetheless, a few points stood out, not least of all this:
It is primarily for that reason, I suppose, that, if we approach them from a different angle, we can agree to consider these Écrits unreadable; people at least pretend to read them, or to have read them. Not, naturally, the people who supposedly do that for a living, or in other words the critics. Reading them would force them to prove their worth by writing something that might at least have something to do with what I am advancing, but at that point they become suspicious. As you may have noticed, this book has not had many reviews. Probably because it is very thick, difficult to read, obscure. It is not designed for everyday consumption at all. You might say to me that that remark might suggest I’m making excuses. It might mean that I’m saying I should have produced a book for everyday consumption, or even that I’m going to. Yes, it is possible. I might try to. But I am not used to that. And it is by no means certain that it would be a success. Perhaps it would be better if I did not try to force my talent. And I do not find it particularly desirable in itself, because what I teach will indeed eventually become common currency. There will be people who will get down to it, who will put it about. That is obviously not quite the same thing, and it will be a bit distorted. They’ll try to introduce it into the hubbub. They will do all they can to reposition it in relation to a certain number of those very solid convictions that suit everyone in this society, as in any society.
– Jacques Lacan, My Teaching, Pg 62
I found this a remarkably strange extract. Perhaps also an extremely revealing one. Lacan complains that critics do not read or review his writing. He emphatically suggests that this is a failing on their part, reflecting an unwillingness to engage with what he is actually saying. Yet he immediately acknowledges that the book is “difficult to read” and “obscure”. There is a bizarre dichotomy underpinning this: books for “everyday consumption” vs books that are “very thick, difficult to read, obscure”. In doing so he excludes the possibility that his ideas can be expressed clearly without simplification (with the latter presumably necessary to produce a book for “everyday consumption”). That this dichotomy seems axiomatic for him points to the esoteric nature of his work (or his ‘doctrine’ as he later refers to it) and perhaps helps explain the influence he sustained over his adherents. On such a view, the simplification necessary for “everyday consumption” should surely be anathema and yet he considers precisely this but worries that “it would not be a success” (jarring with the self-confident esotericism of a man who can implicitly see it as a point of pride that his book is ”very thick, difficult to read, obscure”). Not to worry though, his work will be popularised throughout the land nonetheless (it will become “common currency” no less) though, unfortunately, it will inevitably get fucked up in the process. So probably best to stick to books that are ”very thick, difficult to read, obscure”.
I guess there are two points I’m trying to make it. One is the excluded middle in Lacan’s assumption about the nature of writing i.e. that work is either esoteric and obscure or popularised and simplistic. This excludes the possibility of writing that is clear without being simplistic. This assumption is far from unique to Lacan and this frustrating esotericism pervades continental philosophy. Suggesting this does not entail the view that writing that is clear without being simplistic can therefore be understood by anyone. Clearly, it cannot and that’s rather the point – the notion that writing is either for ‘us’ and is obscure or for ‘them’ and thus simplified really annoys me. My other point is how insecure Lacan seems in this extract, with its heady mixture of frustration, grandeur and anxiety. It leaves me feeling that Chomsky and Wright Mills are both onto something in their suggestion that intellectual insecurity drives theoretical obscurantism. If one is self-confident about one’s ideas then surely the most natural thing to do would be to communicate them clearly…!?
Categories: Outflanking Platitudes