Lacan’s pedagogy

Earlier this week, Stephen Keating and I discussed the second half of Seminar III as part of our ongoing study of Lacan. We both agreed that things were becoming much clearer as the seminar proceeded, but Stephen asked with some incredulity, “But would you ever teach like that?!”

I’ve actually been giving a lot of thought to what a “Lacanian pedagogy” might look like and the extent to which Lacan’s own approach in the seminars might match up with the pedagogical concepts one could draw from his work. My reason for this is that in many ways, a broadly “psychoanalytic” pedagogy seems to go well with what we try to do at Shimer College — to somehow put the students in a position to do the work themselves, to create a situation favorable to helping them work through the texts and concepts and (above all, at least for me) problems presented in the curriculum.

On the surface, it seems that nothing could be more different from Shimer’s democratic discussion-centered method and Lacan’s practice in the seminars. First of all, Lacan is the ultimate “sage on stage,” mobilizing an aura of authority drawn from his privileged position as the interpreter of an authoritative text (Freud). At the same time, his approach is indirect, sometimes maddeningly so.

How do we square the fact that the authoritative teacher seems to be hiding his teaching? It’s possible, of course, that he’s simply faking it — for instance, Rob Horning recently compared Lacan to cult leaders like L. Ron Hubbard. I don’t think that theory is especially interesting, though, nor can it account for the fact that Lacan proved to be such an exceptionally fertile point of reference for an entire generation of French intellectuals. I think it’s more interesting to take his word for it that he’s doing it on purpose. For instance, take this quote from Seminar III (164/185):

But that is not the only reason that I’m not surprised that my discourse may have created a certain margin of misunderstanding. This is because in addition, if one is to be consistent in practice with one’s own ideas, if all valid discourse has to be judged precisely according to its own principles, I would say that it is with a deliberate, if not entirely deliberated, intention that I pursue this discourse in such a way as to offer you the opportunity to not quite understand. This margin enables you yourselves to say that you think you follow me, that you remain in a problematic position, which always leaves the door open to a progressive rectification.

In other words, if I were to try to make myself very easily understood, so that you were completely certain that you followed, then according to my presmises concerning interhuman discourse the misunderstanding woudl be irremediable. On the contrary, given the way I think that I have to approach problems, you always have the possibility of what is said being open to revision, in a way that is made all the easier by the fact that it will fall back on me entirely if you haven’t been following sooner–you can hold me responsible.

This is a weirdly self-undermining model of authority. Even though something like “Lacan’s teaching” is what’s in question here, the students winds up taking all the credit for their own understanding, and any misunderstanding is the fault of Lacan himself.

And isn’t this exactly the anti-authoritarian model of analysis that he counterposes to the ego-centric model he never stops attacking? In place of ego-psychology’s remodelling of the patient’s ego based on the analyst, Lacan calls for a self-effacing analyst who occupies the position of the imaginary other simply to empty out that position as much as possible and make room for the analysand to do his or her own work of interpretation.

The reference to the teacher/analyst remains indispensible — entering into this strange relationship is a condition of possibility for the kind of work that happens. Yet the work is set in motion by the teacher/analyst without being for the teacher/analyst. Unlike in ego psychology or traditional pedagogy’s master-slave dialectic, then, the student/analysand’s labor remains unalienated.

7 thoughts on “Lacan’s pedagogy

  1. Very interesting thoughts on “Lacans pedagogy”. For what in my view is the best discussions about Lacans special type of pedagogy, I would recommend Shoshana Flemans (1982) Psychoanalysis and Education: Teaching Terminable and Interminable. Her basic points in that article is the same as yours, but she also shows how Lacan is taking on himself Freuds “pedagogical paradox” from his Introductury Lectures on Psychoanalysis – that it is impossible to teach and educate psychoanalysts. But the question Felman adresses is then why both Freud and Lacan did it anyway, and why they still believed in the education of analysts. I think Felman thinks that Lacan found somthing in Freud that made it possible to teach the impossibe and that Lacans special pedagogic discourse stems from this insight.

  2. Psychoanalysis is so peculiar—I pay my analyst so that I can do all the work myself while my analyst assumes all responsibility for what goes on in our session. Still can’t get my head around that concept.

  3. Lacan’s pedagogy is almost certainly a form of maieutic, c’est-à-dire, a carthartic, only one more appropriate to both its time and its subject matter than the Socratic. (When everyone knows so much, when the world is so full of facts, it is more difficult to act as if one knows nothing at all—better to act as if one knows everything there is, and better to give facets of a Kantian Idea than glimpses at a Platonic eidos). What is it a maieusis of? It brings out the little analyst we are all pregnant with. Lacan’s style of writing, even more than his seminars, is a mimesis of the way the unconscious speaks in a dream, and calls the for the same interpretive methods called for in the everyday analysis of a patient. And like the analysis of the dreams and associations of an analysand, the process is always interminable, and sometimes runs across against lacunae, “the dark navel of the unconscious”, where interpretation becomes hopeless…

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