Introduction to Lacan's psychoanalysis

Lee Justin Rondina

Lacanian Psychoanalysis has always been a peculiar and fascinating subject especially in the world of psychology, yet hides behind the shadows of the “giant” figures such as Freud, Skinner, Pavlov, and many such others. Nevertheless, it had not failed to pique the interest of a common man such as myself. And as such, with this article, I shall try to give even just the slightest peek of this extremely complex world of Lacan, in the hopes of enlightenment for others the same way as it had for me.

Psychology is a science, but what is science? Science is the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment (Wilson, 1999). It is the embodiment of all empirical and scientific human knowledge and consists of innumerable branches that cover different areas of studies. As aforementioned already, one such well-known branch of science is psychology. Psychology by its etymology, is derived from Greek roots, psychē and logos, which would collectively mean “the study of the mind”. [6] To define it further, psychology is the “science of behavior and mind”. It seeks to understand and explain how and why people think, act, and feel. [7]

Psychological science has a development, a history. During the development, various theories emerged about explaining human behavior and experience.

The history of psychology as a scholarly study of the mind and behavior dates back to the Ancient Greeks. There is also evidence of psychological thought in ancient Egypt. Psychology was a branch of the domain of philosophy until the 1870s, when it developed as an independent scientific discipline in Germany. Psychology as a self-conscious field of experimental study began in 1879, in Leipzig Germany, when Wilhelm Wundt founded the first laboratory dedicated exclusively to psychological research in Germany. [8]

This is when the debate over how to describe and explain the human mind and behavior began. As such, Wilhelm Wundt advocated the first school of thought, structuralism. Almost immediately, other theories began to emerge and vie for dominance in psychology [9]

An incredibly influential school of thought in psychology, psychoanalysis, was founded by Sigmund Freud. This school of thought emphasized the influence of the unconscious mind on behavior. [9] Other major figures of psychoanalysis include Anna Freud, Carl Jung, and Erik Erikson.

Another school of psychology is the behaviorism. Based upon the works of John B. Watson, Ivan Pavlov, B.F. Skinner, Behaviorism suggests that all behavior can be explained by environmental causes rather than by internal forces focusing on observable behavior. [9]

Psychoanalysis and behaviorism paved the way to another school of psychology, the humanistic psychology. Humanistic psychology developed as a response to psychoanalysis and behaviorism. Humanistic psychology instead focused on individual free will, personal growth and the concept of self-actualization. While early schools of thought were primarily centered on abnormal human behavior, humanistic psychology differed considerably in its emphasis on helping people achieve and fulfill their potential. Major figures of this school of psychology include Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. [9]

Now, moving back to psychoanalysis, this where Lacan comes in. Jacques Marie Émile Lacan (1901 – 1981) was intimately influenced by Sigmund Freud (1856 –1939) and by other psychoanalysts like Melanie Klein, D.H. Winnicott following Freud. Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, a clinical method for treating psychopathology through dialogue between a patient and a psychoanalyst. [10] Freud was born to Galician Jewish parents in the Moravian town of Freiberg, in the Austrian Empire. He qualified as a doctor of medicine in 1881 at the University of Vienna and came in contact with a well-known psychiatrist, working there Dr. Breuer. He got patients from Dr. Breuer and treated them by Hypnosis, what was very common and actual at that time. He went to Charcot in Paris to study Hypnosis. He found out that patients under hypnosis could speak about their Traumata and after the awake the symptoms were gone. Later he found that only speaking about Traumata and combined feelings is enough. You didn’t need hypnosis. He called it free association. And that was the point where he developed the theory about the unconscious.

If people have experienced trauma, they very often cannot process the associated feelings in their everyday life. If the feelings are very disturbing and hurtful, they are very often shifted from consciousness to unconscious and are therefore no longer present. They remain active in the unconscious and change into different manifestations and can then reappear as such in consciousness. Manifestations of the unconscious repressed feelings appear in the mind as symptoms. Symptoms have a connection to the unconscious repressed motives. In hypnosis and later in the free association, these connections between the symptom and the unconscious repressed motives are re-established. When repressed motifs can be found and experienced and lived through, the symptoms that appeared disappear.   The repressing of emotions is no longer necessary after processing in consciousness. Sigmund Freud found different ways of accessing the unconscious motifs. He wrote about a fundamental treatise 1900: “The interpretation of dreams”. The interpretation of dreams was his “royal route” to the unconscious. Other ways were the free association and the interpretation of so-called mistakes: embarrassing things, making a slip of the tongue, write something wrong.

Freud suggests that the human mind is structured into two main parts: the conscious and unconscious mind. The conscious mind includes all the things we are aware of or can easily bring into awareness. The unconscious mind, on the other hand, includes all of the things outside of our awareness—all of the wishes, desires, hopes, urge, and memories that lie outside of awareness yet continue to influence behavior. [8]

Freud lived and worked in Vienna, having set up his clinical practice there in 1886. In 1938, Freud left Austria to escape the Nazis. He died in exile in the United Kingdom in 1939. (Forsythe & Sheehy, 2004)

Freud had significant impacts to how Lacan created his own psychoanalytic theories. The Lacanian psychoanalysis is similar to Freud’s theory in that it recognizes the psyche as being split between the conscious and unconscious elements. In addition, both theories emphasize subjective experiences. However, Lacanian theory differs from Freudian theory in terms of the psyche’s dynamics and its impact on identity formation. Lacan seeks to explain that the lack occurs in the misrecognition of an objective being (Rumboll, 1996) as a whole. It is not primarily driven by the bodily needs and instincts. For example, the objective woman and man do not exist but are, in fact, “lacking” (nonexistent or absent) beings (because of the loss of the Real). According to Lacan, no subject exists in its totality, only the endless desire motivated by this lacking (Fink, 1995). Desire exists, but the ‘unity of wo/man’ does not (Rumboll, 1996). In other words, Lacanian identity is a product of desire. Although Lacan seeks to revive some of Freud’s theory, his interpretation of desire is based on transference of a lacking being with symbolic identification (e.g., desire is always transference of something onto something else), which differs from Freud’s idea of biological and sexual needs governing one’s entire adult identity and civilization.

Lacanian theory views identity formation as a function of “lack” or “desire.” In the early stages of development in particular (i.e., the Imaginary/Mirror stage), identity is formed based on the unconscious perception of the chasm between how one perceives oneself to be and how one wishes to be seen by others. The “self that reflects how one wants to be” is in turn based on the Real—in other words, one’s whole self. Although one may unconsciously perceive that he or she is lacking 34 something specific, such as power or beauty, Lacan would state that ultimately what is really lacking is the unified sense of wholeness with which one is born—the state of oneness (self and other). (Ragland-Sullivan, 1996) An individual’s identity formation, or identification, can be interpreted through the three Lacanian registers: the Real, the Imaginary/Mirror, and the Symbolic. It is too simplistic to say that these aspects of identity rise and fall in a chronological developmental process. Rather, the context for one’s identity formation depends on every individual’s “developmental stage” at any given time. For Lacan, even after one developmental stage is complete, the Real, the Imaginary/Mirror, and the Symbolic aspects continue to coexist within an individual, with each aspect playing a dominant role at various times.