Reading French Psychoanalysis - On Psychoanalysis and with Lacan

Psy-Complex in Question: Critical Review In Psychology, Psychoanalysis And Social Theory - Ian Parker 2018

Reading French Psychoanalysis
On Psychoanalysis and with Lacan

Birksted-Breen, D., Flanders, S. and Gibeault, A. (eds.) (2010) Reading French Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge.

The editors of this impressive volume have set themselves a quite specific task which is signalled by the title and returned to time and again in the useful general introduction to the book and in the introductions to sections on the history of psychoanalysis in France, pioneers and their legacy, the setting and process of psychoanalysis, phantasy and representation, the body and the drives, masculine and feminine sexuality and psychosis. No other book in ’The New Library of Psychoanalysis’ series is devoted to psychoanalysis from a specific country, and we have not been invited to puzzle over what defines, say, Italian or Uruguayan psychoanalysis (though in both those cases there are distinctive contributions to our work). One could argue that psychoanalysis is an Enlightenment practice and, as such, universal, breaking free from national peculiarities to provide a space in which the human being is able to articulate their distress as a speaking subject of whatever language. Then the dialectic between its specific cultural roots — Jewish ’origins’ and European ’context’ — as particular dimensions of the enlightenment it proposes is played out on the world stage.

However, the ’Gallic Stage’ of psychoanalysis has already been framed by a history of reading in the English-speaking world which is inevitably mobilised by the appearance of this book. Well-known figures from different traditions in France — André Green, Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel and Julia Kristeva — are included, and there is a careful framing of their contributions as well as convenient summaries which are marked by inset definition boxes and rounded off by a substantial well-referenced glossary. And there is another figure haunting the project which the editors have had to tackle head on, for it quickly becomes apparent that most of this work is constituted, unwillingly or not, in relation to his, Jacques Lacan. One of his early short papers, on ’the mirror stage’, is included and referred to by the editors in their framing narrative in the course of the book (unfortunately in the Alan Sheridan translation), but the forty chapters repeatedly evoke his ’return to Freud’ when they borrow from it and elaborate different elements from its contradictory circuitous history (this is most evident, of course, in the classic pieces by Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis) or when they set themselves against it, explicitly or implicitly.

Rivalry and misrecognition occasionally intrude, as in the misleading claim that criticism of Melanie Klein’s biological approach ’led Lacan to do away with any reference to affects or the body’ (p. 437), but, such potshots aside, there are some good measured assessments of conceptual differences. There is, for example, acknowledgement at one moment that the motif of ’après-coup’ was retrieved by Lacan from Freud’s work and then, at later points, a claim that this motif is something that would help us to define what is ’French’ about these contributions. The book actually poses the question not only in terms of what beneficial and deleterious impact Lacan had on the course of French psychoanalysis but also — of more interest to Lacanians, perhaps — what in the French tradition hampered, and still mars Lacanian psychoanalysis now.

The role of psychiatry in setting the terms of debate over distress is a case in point, and this leads several contributors to pathologise analysands who do not invoke some notion of the unconscious in their speech and so must necessarily, it is assumed, be subject to pathological states such as ’operational thinking’. This kind of move is most evident in the attempts to account for ’psychosomatic’ problems, which we are told in the editorial narrative is one of the characteristic aspects of French psychoanalysis. Another case in point — which accounts rather better for the hostility of feminists to French psychoanalysis than for their enthusiasm — is the appeal to underlying and universal ’femininity’ (and, less so, ’masculinity’) as if it were an indispensable principle of psychoanalysis. A lovely instance is the use of the notion of ’bisexualisation’ not, as one might assume when first glancing at the term, to open up the way we think psychoanalytically about the constitution of sexuality so we might explore how our bodies come to signify our sex and contain our gendered experience of ourselves, but to close it down, with the promise that bisexualisation permits access to ’the male and female universes’ as an alternative to ’androgynous fantasy that is toxic in nature’ (p. 666). There is a deep-grained cultural assumption here about what is termed in that chapter title ’the beautiful differences’ and which gives an alarming essentialising cast to thinking about ’the feminine’ and ’femininity’ that is antithetical to most forms of Western feminism.

Nevertheless, among the more problematic and crass contributions there are some great chapters in this book, and invidious though it might be to rank them, I would like to nominate for third place Benno Rosenberg’s lucid account of erotogenic masochism and the pleasure principle which illuminates some of the other accompanying discussions of this topic. Then, second, could be Joyce McDougall’s ’Plea for a measure of abnormality’ (the final chapter of her already published book in English translation) which cuts against what we think we know about ’pathology’, whether psychiatrically framed or otherwise. A left-field winner is Maria Torok on the illness of mourning and the fantasy of ’the exquisite corpse’, perhaps precisely because (like McDougall’s), it confounds our expectations of what should be ’French’ about all this stuff while (unlike McDougall’s or Rosenberg’s) it also offers clinically-relevant material that overflows with neologisms resonant of the surrealist tradition (a tradition that also fuelled, along with French psychiatry, the early work of Lacan).

It should be noted that the frame ’French psychoanalysis’ is treated, despite the ’history’ and ’pioneers’ narrative-ordering of the chapters, as something that should be grasped synchronically rather than diachronically. There is a very helpful diagram early on in the book of filiations which shows who was analysed by who across five generations of French analysts, though it is a shame that not all the contributors are included. The contents list gives the original publication dates of the chapters, but in the main text these are not included with the chapter titles. The reader wanting to trace a historical trajectory to the arguments could do some detective work, and the volume gives most of the clues. We have here a marvellous source-book for the history both of the Lacanian and non-Lacanian currents of work which could provide the basis for a dialogue based on clinical innovations rather than doctrinal and bureaucratic disputes.