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It is said that you have to read Lacan five or six times in order to understand a particular passage, let alone the whole oeuvre. Lorenzo Chiesa's Subjectivity and Otherness will save you time. It presents a philosophical reading of Lacan, which is to say the only possible reading if one is to take Lacan not as a master charlatan, nor as "a kind of prophet who should be interpreted in a rhapsodic, semi-possessed manner", but as a serious thinker worthy of intellectual consideration.
Each part of the book elaborates upon an emblematic formula that introduces a moment in Lacanian thought, thematized along the three orders of the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real as they pertain to the relation between the subject and the other. These three moments show a shift in the disciplines mobilized by Lacan and an increase in complexity for the reader.
Lacan refers at first to Kojeve's dictum that "desire is the desire of the other" and adopts his interpretation of Hegel's dialectics. His reading of the mirror stage unfolds a drama of identification and alienation, by which the subject is finally able to recognize the other as other, much like in the rendering by Kojeve of Hegel's text on Lordship and Bondage. In his early work, "not only does Lacan attempts to read Freud's psychoanalytic technique in dialectical terms, he also develops a new psychoanalytic theory that audaciously combines Hegelian philosophy with the evidence drawn from ethological and psychological experiments to provide us with a highly original theory of the subject's psychic development." Any reader with a working knowledge of Hegel will be able to follow Chiesa's exposition of the conceptualizations emblematic of the first Lacan; familiarity with Freud's work is not even a requisite.
In the mid-1950s, Lacan's overall psychoanalytic theory undergoes a radical reformulation which can be summarized by the dictum "The unconscious is structured like a language". The reference here is not so much Hegelian dialectics and has more to do with the dominance of structuralism in linguistics and anthropology (although Chiesa believes that Lacan's "militancy in the structuralist movement is, at best, a heterodox one"). Lacan appropriates Saussure's distinction between the signifier and the signified, and Jakobson's laws of metaphor and metonymy, along with Levi-Strauss' notion that the Symbolic order provides the fundamental Law of society. He also builds upon his own concepts such as the "quilting point" (or retroactive punctuation: "it is only when the sentence is completed that the sense of the first words is determined retroactively"), the Master-Signifier (the empty signifier that fixes the meaning of a symbolic system), the "Name-of-the-Father" (the signifier that confers identity to the subject, naming and positioning the subject within the Symbolic order).
These methods and concepts are combined with a rereading of Freud to create Lacan's original brand of psychoanalysis. The dialectic method is not completely discarded. In Lacan's work, the Oedipus complex unfolds in three logically sequenced stages that each built on the sentiment of a lack (frustration at the absence of the maternal object, privation when the child realize that the mother "doesn't have it", castration as "the symbolic lack of an imaginary object"). Oedipus complex is completely resolved when the child, irrespective of sex, identifies symbolically with the father, internalizes the Law and successfully enters the Symbolic order. In his discussion of Lacan, Chiesa addresses seemingly arcane questions that nonetheless make sense in the context of his argumentation: "What is the difference between conscious-diachronic and unconscious-synchronic metonymy? Why is metaphor also said to represent a vertical quilting point? Is there a way to pinpoint appropriately the distinction between the Name-of-the-Father and the phallus?" As one imagines, there are no easy answers, but readers already versed in Lacanese will follow the discussion with jubilation and excitement.
Placed under the heading that "there is no Other of the Other", the third part deploys Lacanian concepts in full swing. The main focus of Lacan's late research is still directed at the subject of the unconscious, but the unconscious is now to be conceived as not being completely exhausted by the presence of signifiers: there is something real in it which escapes the symbolic, something which renders the symbolic Other "not-all" and, for the same reason, makes it possible precisely as a differential symbolic structure. Lacan names this lack "objet a", a nonspecularizable remainder, a void or hollow that remains at the frontier between the Imaginary and the Real. This last juncture raises the question of jouissance, of a "pleasure in pain" that regulates the unconscious life of the subject and is intimately linked to the order of the Real.
As this collage summary implies, this last part is more like a members-only section, and readers unfamiliar with Lacan's concepts are in for a hard read. A good lexicon of Lacanese terms will be of valuable help, but of course a dictionary or a digest are no substitutes to thinking in action, and the reader will have no other alternative than to progress patiently through the text. But with some backtracking and occasional re-readings of key parts, the whole more or less makes sense. As the author confesses, he has to fill in some gaps in Lacan's text to make it intelligible, and he dropped some parts such as the graphs and references to topology that are totally obscure to non-mathematicians (and mostly nonsensical for scientists). But as Chiese statse in the introduction, intellectual clarity is to be preferred to impressionistic reading or wild interpretations.
The remaining question is: what for? In a revealing passage, Chiesa recalls that "in Seminar XVII Lacan candidly admits that the Oedipus complex is, after all, simply Freud's 'dream', his own myth. On similar lines, we might suggest that the Name-of-the-Father is simply Lacan's own mythical reinterpretation of Freud's own discoveries filtered through the tradition of modern philosophy and the history of science. It must, however, be stressed that, in Lacan's view, the mythical origin of many of the axioms of psychoanalytic theory does not by any means diminish their epistemological validity." Lacan's validity and relevance are ultimately a matter of belief, not reasoning, and we are left with the freedom to call his myths our own.