Category Archives: Book Reviews

SEX AND NOTHING: BRIDGES FROM PSYCHOANALYSIS TO PHILOSOPHY, edited by Alejandro Cerda-Rueda, Review by Will Greenshields


Sex and Nothing: Bridges from Psychoanalysis to Philosophy, edited by Alejandro Cerda-Rueda (London: Karnac Books, 2016).

Review by Will Greenshields

‘That there is no sexual relationship, is essential in what I state.’[1] This line, uttered by Lacan in 1979, marked the conclusion of several decades of research into the nonexistence of a relationship between the sexes. It was a refutation of both the optimism expressed in Seminar XVIII (i.e. that one might, ‘one day’, be able to say of the sexual relationship that ‘“it is written [c’est écrit]”’[2]) and the idea, first mooted in Seminar XXII, that, rather than there not existing a relationship, there existed a non-relationship and that this non-relationship could be written. In the first instance the hope was that the negative axiom (‘there is no sexual relationship’) could somehow be reversed (‘there is a sexual relationship’) while the second more modestly concerned the suggestion that its negativity could be solidified into a concept that had an object, a writable form (‘there is a sexual non-relationship’). For reasons that would take too long to explain here, both efforts failed and, as Guy Le Gaufey writes,

‘There is no sexual relationship’ thus rejoins the other ‘there is no’ produced by Lacan throughout the years: ‘there is no Other of the Other’, ‘there is no metalanguage’. None of them can exhibit the object which would be valid as a proof for all bear witness to facts of internal limitations, which depend on the consistency of the predicated set, and do not depend therefore on any local singularity that can be approached, be exhibited, of which one can ‘make a case’. Each one of these statements nevertheless managed to subvert the operation of the universal and its particular by chipping away at the ‘all’ thanks to which one can lay hold of any special one of its elements, which this ‘all’ encompasses like a mother hen. In consequence, these same statements subvert the natural operation of the concept which calls for these objects, events, individuals to gather together under her protective wings. Thus they go against a whole literature in which the ‘obsessional’ disputes with the ‘jealous person’, who is differentiated or linked to the ‘pervert’, who happily takes the ‘hysteric’ as partner, etc. It opposes this psychopathological bestiary which displays its clinical entities, great consumers of ‘cases’ since these entities are fed by clinical vignettes as so many objects which ‘fall’ under them.[3]

Therefore, there is no ‘there is no sexual relationship’ beyond its own articulation. The axiom that attests to a non-existence has itself a certain nonexistence as a non-concept.

It is around this nothing that Sex and Nothing is organised. As the editor writes, ‘if something emerges from this ensemble of essays[, it] is a discussion around… nothing.’ (xix) The particular way in which this curiously empty ensemble is organised is worth noting: the book is divided into two geographically distinct parts with the first consisting of contributions ‘from Ljubljana’ and the second consisting of contributions from ‘elsewhere’. This is not gratuitous: few have done more than the Slovenian troika (Slavoj Žižek, Alenka Zupančič and Mladen Dolar) to productively examine the existence or nonexistence of a relationship between psychoanalysis and philosophy. As part of the increasingly popular practice of identifying contemporary ‘isms’ and discrete sets and subsets of thinkers, there is an interesting attempt on the part of the editor to organise the history of Ljubljanski thought into three distinct generations with each generation represented by a contributor (e.g. Žižek, Zupančič, Tomšič). Leaving aside the fact that the most celebrated member of the first generation is very much alive and still publishing books at a frantic rate, I’m not convinced that each grouping’s intellectual project is distinct enough to warrant being called a ‘generation of thought’ (xix) without somewhat devaluing the term. In any case, it is perhaps best to let the people who apparently belong to a third wave get on with things for a few decades before burdening them with the title, ‘generation of thought’.


It is, argues Zupančič in the book’s opening essay, only when psychoanalysis and philosophy are thought together, when sex is understood not as a series of perversions, peculiarities and practices that are to be catalogued by a sexologist or dismissed as signs of a deeper issue but instead regarded as a primary, ‘ontological lapse’, that the true import of Freud’s subversion is recognised (14). Sexuality, throughout its various instantiations and acts, retains an irreducible negativity; it is the impossibility of total satisfaction even when there are no barriers to such satisfaction. It persists as an ‘ontological lapse’ or, in Lacan’s terms, an irreducible ‘lack-of-being.’ Zupančič distils her argument into two concise points: ‘Firstly, sexuation is a lapse in being, a point where being itself is not fully being’, a point at which being always fails to be (a unified, lackless whole) (15). ‘Secondly, this lapse of being as the point of sexuation is the very void around which circulate the drives, while they are attached at the same time to this or that partial object. In this precise sense, sexuation (as pure negativity) “precedes” the drives and makes them what they are, that is to say “sexual”.’ (15) The object of the drive is not necessarily sexual in the devolved, everyday sense – as Lacan observes in Seminar VII, a collection of match boxes could do the job just as well as a particular bodily feature. Rather, it is sexual because it serves the function of obscuring the void that the drive repeatedly circumscribes. The entire ‘psychopathological bestiary’ and range of polymorphous perversities that can be found in books such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis owe their status as sexual practices to a primary ontological fault. Finally, ‘sexuality pertains to the very being-there of the unconscious’ not because the subject does not know how to resolve this lapse by finding satisfaction, but because he does not know that he knows that it is an irresolvable and unknowable problem (this, despite all that sexologists and sex therapists think they know) (9):

Animals do not know (that they don’t know). Not completely joking, we could say that sexuality is not problematic for animals because they do not know that it actually is. Now, what distinguishes the human animal is not that it knows (that is, doesn’t know), and that it is conscious or aware of this lack of sexual knowledge in nature, but that it is “unconscious of it”. In other words, with the human animal the “we don’t know” (that we don’t know) is of a slightly different kind, it is in itself twofold or split: It involves not knowing that we know (… that we don’t know). Which is one of the best definitions of the unconscious….

The singular and revolutionary Freudian notion of the unconscious is thus not simply about not knowing as opposed to knowing. It is about knowing in the form of not-knowing, or about not-knowing as a form of knowing. A knowledge smuggles in, yet knowledge that only exists in the form of its own repression. And – we are thus returning to the initial question – it is this originally repressed knowledge (knowledge that has never existed otherwise but as repressed) that sexualises the enjoyment (the surplus pleasure related to the drives). (12-13)

Readers familiar with Žižek’s work will know what to expect from his contribution – a kinetic tour through a surprising and enlightening series of associative asides (Lars von Trier, the Talmud, haiku poetry, Mallarmé, etc.) – and what a fool’s errand it is to attempt a succinct précis. With Žižek we get sex and nothing (and ‘Gangnam Style’ and New Age philosophy and Stalin…). If Žižek manages to entertainingly add a little bulk to the pure negativity of (the concept of) sex, the great virtue of Dolar’s essay is that it convincingly cuts away at a theoretical mass that secondarily attached itself to, and obscured, this negativity (in particular, the charges of ‘phallocentrism’ and ‘phallogocentrism’).


It is apt that Joan Copjec’s essay opens the collection’s second half since, as an anecdote relayed in the introduction reveals, it was Copjec who first provided Žižek with a bridge ‘from Ljubljana’ (or, more precisely, a Slovenian grouping in Paris) ‘to elsewhere.’ It was also Copjec’s ‘Sex and the Euthanasia of Reason’ (published in 1994 as a chapter in Read my Desire: Lacan against the Historicists) which provided an Anglo-American audience with a first clear account of Lacan’s logic of sexuation – its philosophical stakes and its distance from the Foucauldian caricature (i.e. psychoanalysis as a taxonomising science of sex). In ‘The Sexual Compact’ Copjec echoes the main argument of Zupančič’s essay: citing Shulamith Firestone’s claim that ‘the end goal of the feminist revolution is not just the elimination of male privilege, but of the sex distinction itself’,[4] Copjec argues that the ‘gender theory’ prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s had, by concentrating on the social construction or performativity of gender, ‘not only thrust the term sexual difference out of the limelight, [but also] removed the sex from sex. While gender theorists continued to speak of sexual practices, they ceased to question what constituted the sexual. No longer the subject of serious theoretical inquiry, sex simply reverted to being what it is in common parlance: a secondary characteristic (when applied to the subject) or (when applied to acts) limited to a highly restricted – and naughty – sub-set.’ (108)

One consequence of this dissolution of the sexual into ‘multiple’ and ‘discrete instances’ has been what Copjec calls ‘the Oprah Winfrey distribution of sex: “You get a sex and you get a sex and you get a sex.” (109-110) Far from eliminating ‘the sex distinction’, gender theory has heralded a veritable efflorescence of distinctions but such distinctions concern symptomatic or sublimatory practices (qua individual responses to the void of sexuality – that is, ‘the point at which being is not fully being’) and not the ‘ontological lapse’ itself. As Copjec puts it: ‘Why multiple rather than divided; why not multiple because divided? The former alternative shirks from thinking difference in favour of simply adding another one to a previous one, indefinitely: 1+1+1…’ (110) Of course, when compared to the on-going growth of acronyms, the Lacanian contention that there are two sexes – that is, not two biological organisms but two stances with respect to the void (i.e. one that pre-tends to fill or disavow it and one that does not) – can look terribly old hat and, to cite Judith Butler’s term, ‘heteronormative.’ Nonetheless, Copjec effectively argues why we should avoid attempting to replace sex and nothing with sex and an infinite series of somethings in the name of a well-meaning pluralism (this is, of course, not to deny the existence of any +1).

In response to Lacan’s increasing reliance on mathematical analogies in explaining sexuality, an attendant at the fourteenth seminar (The Logic of Fantasy) is said to have joked that it might be necessary to bring a slide rule to the bedroom.[5] In ‘Mathematics in the Bedroom: Sex, the Signifier and the Smallest Whole Number’ Sigi Jöttkandt treats Lacan’s idiosyncratic deployment of mathematics rather more seriously, providing us with one of the first clear and systematic accounts of Lacan’s earlier (that is, prior to the celebrated logic of sexuation) attempts at formalising sexuality. Once again, Lacan’s preference for logic and mathematics (over and above myths or case studies) is related to the nature of the subject at hand: there is a particular negativity to the (algebraic) letter; it is empty of meaning and symbolism and yet it obeys certain laws that dictate its relationship with other letters. The ‘ontological lapse’ as a structural or formal flaw caused by the signifier would be in danger of resembling an occasional and secondary instance were it presented in the form of case studies or a ‘mother hen’ concept (collecting under its wing all of these secondary instances) were it presented in the form of a universal myth.

In each of the book’s two parts the essays that directly concern sex and nothing are succeeded by essays that branch off in other productive directions (one can, after all, only talk about nothing for so long…). We shall leave the reader to encounter these for himself, save to say that they include the best available account of Lacan’s ‘anti-philosophy’ (from Samo Tomšič), an demonstration of the productive relation between Lacanian psychoanalysis/anti-philosophy and continental philosophy (from Jelica Šumič) and a novel and highly persuasive periodisation of Lacan’s thought (from Gabriel Tupinambá). Alain Badiou is also invoked in several of the articles as a representative of the second side of the bridge between psychoanalysis and philosophy, most notably in Daniel Tutt’s ‘Love, Psychoanalysis and Leftist Political Ontology’. Unfortunately, such is the massive scope of the essay, the complexity of the theoretical systems discussed – Badiou is no easier to wrap one’s head around than Lacan – and the extraordinary amount of stances that Lacan adopted with respect to concepts such as love (Jean Allouch devotes some 600 pages to this subject in L’amour Lacan), one is left with the impression that, while it is an admirable achievement of erudition to summarise and combine in some seventeen pages the theses of Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy, Heidegger, Eric Santner, Žižek, Badiou and Lacan, this sophisticated mélange would perhaps be better suited to the book format – not least because it might allow the author space to provide some more concrete examples of the co-implication of love, psychoanalysis and leftist political ontology beyond the very familiar Žižekian references to St Paul and Antigone.

In summary, this collection serves as the perfect foil to 2016’s other book on Lacan and sex (Lorenzo Chiesa’s more focussed and forensic The Not-Two: Logic and God in Lacan) and provides a welcome reminder of the importance and distinctiveness of the psychoanalytic conceptualisation (or non-conceptualisation) of sex as neither a matter of biological essentialism nor post-structuralist gender theory.


[1] Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XXVI: La topologie et le temps, 1978-1979, unpublished, 9/1/79.

[2] Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XVIII: On a Discourse that might not be a Semblant, 1970-1971, trans. Cormac Gallagher from unedited manuscripts, session 7, p. 20.

[3] Guy Le Gaufey, ‘The Scholion: A Misuse of Metaphor’, trans. Cormac Gallagher in The Letter: Irish Journal for Lacanian Psychoanalysis, 47 (Dublin: 2011), pp. 81-82.

[4] Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (New York: Bantam, 1972), pp. 10-11.

[5] This is relayed by Cormac Gallagher in ‘Sexual Difference in The Logic of Phantasy’ in The Letter: Lacanian Perspectives on Psychoanalysis, 17 (Dublin: 1999), p. 7.


Psychoanalytic Filiations: Mapping the Psychoanalytic Movement by Ernst Falzeder (London: Karnac Books, 2015)

Review Harriet Barratt Dorling, CHASE-funded PhD student (University of Sussex)

In 1902, Freud invited selected colleagues to join him to debate key questions around the emerging field of psychoanalysis. The conclusions of both this early ‘Wednesday Club’ and the later ‘Secret Committee’ (formed in 1912-13) remained largely behind closed doors, but shaped and defined the first kernels out of which psychoanalysis went on to bloom. With Psychoanalytic Filiations, Ernst Falzeder (UCL) undertakes to map the earliest relationships (both within and outside of this group), influences, and intellectual legacies which formed psychoanalysis. In this book, which takes the form of a collection of essays originally published by Falzeder between 1991 and 2012, he convincingly presents these obscured or forgotten interactions as inextricable from the theoretical developments of the movement.

Falzeder’s scholarship is impeccable: he manages to tread the line between informed analysis and factual evidence without falling into sensationalist speculation. This is easier said than done, given the subject matter. Falzeder clearly demonstrates how the theoretical developments put forward by the growing psychoanalytic circle were intertwined with families and friendships, with case studies based on the analysis of colleagues, their children and spouses, and with the ensuing fallings out, gossip and defamation (Ernest Jones does not come off well on this point).

The focus of the essays is multi-dimensional, ranging from theory to biography to the advent of analytic training. This is as much a history of the ethical approach a new movement must construct along the way as a mapping of its theoretical developments; at least one analysand, Frau Hirschfeld, has ‘no chances of getting cured’, but Freud tells Jung that ‘at least psychoanalysis should learn from her case and profit by her’, and Oskar Pfister that it is ‘her duty to sacrifice herself to science’ (p. 37).

As such, the collection does much more than present a mapping of the psychoanalytic movement and its key players. It engages with a series of tensions and concerns which arise in relation to the emergence of a movement so dependent on personalities and their own lived experiences. This is particularly fruitful in discussions of how and why disciples or colleagues such as Ferenczi, Jung and Bleuler diverged from or actively rejected Freud’s (and each other’s) own thinking, or, in turn, how the originality of Karl Abraham’s work takes him beyond the popular image as someone who merely elaborated upon Freud’s theories.

For example, Sándor Ferenczi’s own troubled analytic relationship with Freud, his mentor, is shown as central to his thinking about the role of transference and counter-transference within an analysis. Falzeder traces their differences back to the key split between Freud’s one-person theory of mind, in which the analyst’s own personality is almost incidental, and Ferenczi’s two-person approach, whereby the outcome of an analysis is wholly dependent on the affective interaction between the analyst and the analysand; a ‘social process’, a ‘social phenomenon’ (p.260). It is clear on which side Ernst Falzeder’s own allegiance falls; as he says, ‘Every analyst who considers analysis as an interaction, implying a high degree of personal involvement and explicit awareness of it, is heir to the pioneering work of Sándor Ferenczi’ (p. 18).

He also posits that Freud’s split with Eugen Bleuler, the chair for psychiatry at Zurich University, was just as crucial to the development of psychoanalysis as Jung’s ‘defection’. In distancing himself from what he saw as the inward-looking, exclusive approach of the key psychoanalysts of the early 1910s, Bleuler retracted what could have been a game-changing partnership between the worlds of analysis and higher education. Yet Falzeder is scrupulously fair in his treatment of the clashes of such crucial individuals, and selects evidence with a light and judicious touch to back up his assertions.

The sections which allude to the role of biographical material in discussions of theory and technique are particularly interesting. For example, Falzeder points to the impact of Freud’s preference for one of Ferenczi’s mistresses over another on his analytic advice to Ferenczi (p. 253) – the two being, in fact, mother and daughter. The consideration of both strands together allows Falzeder to respond to his own suggestion that ‘perhaps the time has come to investigate […] the connection between the private lives and experiences of the pioneers and the theories springing from them, to investigate the connection between their experiences […] and insights’ (p. 74). These biographical details are certainly eye-opening, such as the revelation that Freud gave Little Hans – he of the horse phobia – a rocking horse to celebrate his progress (p. 164), or that he invited on holiday an analysand who had detailed her sexual phantasies about him in great detail (p. 264).

Falzeder’s understanding that the personal is inseparable from the theoretical in this field sits in contrast to the early editors of Freud’s correspondence (including his son Ernst), who asserted that ‘omissions and cuts have been made […] to avoid unimportant personal details about the writers and their families, which do not contribute to the knowledge and understanding of their personalities and of their scientific work’ (p. 133). While this may seem reasonable at first glance, Falzeder’s painstaking, microscopic comparison of both early and later editions with the original correspondence uncovers multiple examples where the textual meaning has been altered by injudicious editorial decisions. There is an excellent chapter which focuses on the importance of this history of the published texts, and it is possible to detect its importance in the wider movement’s myth-making impulse (itself documented throughout the book). As Falzeder points out, ‘each of the parties or camps seems to have construed a ‘Freud’ of its own. Thus for some he is the hero of a legend, for other, the villain of the piece’ (p. 172).

The essays are arranged in a non-chronological manner according to loose themes which are not always clearly defined. As a newcomer to the field of psychoanalytic theory, I felt that the book might have benefitted from a reworking into one linear narrative, complete with a little more contextualisation. For example, the Epilogue, a mapping of Freud’s hatreds, offers an additional take on Freud where it might have brought together the various strands introduced in earlier pages. However, such a restructuring would mean that more experienced readers would lose the beauty of the book’s attempt to trace its own archaeological research process, offering as it does an overview of both Falzeder’s own development of thought and of his new archival discoveries.

Falzeder’s attempt to map the relations between key figures in the early psychoanalytic movement visually, via a fold-out, hand-drawn map at the back of the book, is impressive, though the density of the diagram’s hundreds of arrows may induce severe queasiness in the belly of a newcomer (see image). It will be a useful tool to refer to in checking individual queries; as an overview of the field it serves to underline the complexity and three-dimensional nature of the relationships which formed the movement.

Psychoanalytic Filiations is an invaluable guide to the early years of the psychoanalytic movement, with meticulous references and a clear and incisive style. It is an engaging read from start to finish in its own right, but also serves well as a go-to resource for a wealth of summaries of, and signposts to, both primary and secondary literature. It is a triumph of archival research, and deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone with an interest in the early days of the psychoanalytic movement.

Falzeder map


Transcribing Lacan’s Seminars – Memoirs of a Disgruntled Keybasher Turned Psychoanalyst by Marie Pierrakos (London: Free Association Books, 2006).

Reviewed by Will Greenshields

In 1971-1972 Lacan gave a series of lectures at the Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital where he had begun his teaching in 1953 before being ‘excommunicated’ by the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1964. His intention was to deliver a more digestible complement to the abstruse séminaire that was to continue at the Panthéon (Seminar XIX: …oupire).[1] Hoping for a different audience to the throng of philosophers and logicians that attended his seminars, Lacan began his first lecture by asking those who were interns at the hospital to raise their hands. He was to be disappointed: an unexpectedly large showing by the usual crowd had left the psychiatrists and psychoanalysts in the minority. Undeterred, Lacan managed to maintain a certain lightness of tone and topic for the first few lectures before the quasi-mathematical scribblings that had become a feature of the seminars began to dominate proceedings. Lacan’s final lecture concluded with the presentation of a nightmarish Greimasian square and a comic dialogue between the deaf and the belligerent:

Greenshields review1

Lacan – Voilà! I think I’ve done enough for this evening, I do not want to finish on a sensational peroration, but the question that, yes, it is well enough written. Necessary, impossible…

X – We can’t hear anything!

Lacan – Huh? Necessary, impossible, possible and contingent.

X – We can’t hear anything.

Lacan – I don’t give a damn! Voilà! This is a way of opening things up.[2]

Transcribing this example of Lacan’s peculiar brand of unaccommodating pedagogy would have been Maria Pierrakos, and it was surely scenes such as this that contributed to the disillusionment and ‘wrath’[3] to which she so artfully testifies in Memoirs of a Disgruntled Keybasher. As far as Pierrakos is concerned, this style of presentation – wherein an obscure compound of letters and jargon is succeeded by a perfunctory ‘voilà!’, as if to suggest that what’s at stake is supremely obvious – is most assuredly not ‘a way of opening things up.’ It is a contention that Pierrakos shares with the numerous critics of Lacan’s ‘dire mastery’[4] who have preceded her: there is a familiar periodization of Lacan’s output – a plaintive reference to the ‘Glory Days’ of theoretical ingenuity and intellectual excitement that followed in the wake of early écrits is succeeded by the observation that, during the 1970s, ‘things start[ed] to go off the rails’ (MK: 15). Beyond veiled references to ‘the Son-in-Law’ (i.e. Jacques-Alain Miller) and ‘power struggles’ (MK: 8-9), Pierrakos says little about the institutional turbulence that Élisabeth Roudinesco has so exhaustively documented:[5] her subject is instead a particular attitude, an irresponsible and uncaring intellectualism, ‘a certain dryness, disdain, absolutism, a sense of the derisory’ that Lacan stands accused of exemplifying and cultivating (MK: 43). For Pierrakos, ‘I don’t give a damn!’ is every bit as Lacanian a statement as ‘il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel’; indeed, it is her thesis that the former is the ultimate consequence of a discourse that promotes the latter.

Pierrakos is perhaps at her most incisive when discussing the pathetic mock-epics that accompanied Lacan’s later performances like so many symptoms of a greater malaise:

On the podium sat the chosen few. So much drama enacted on that stage! For example the comic-ballet The Coat Resplendent: who would have the privilege of helping the Master into his coat this week? Or the tragedy of The Lover Spurned: I once saw a much-loved disciple literally glowing with His light come to sit at the right hand of the Father. Soon, however, the sun’s rays shone elsewhere, and before my very eyes he withered away; destructured, destroyed within a few weeks; meanwhile another satellite ascended into the firmament. (MK: 9)

Where the author is less convincing is in her interrogation of the malaise itself. This is chiefly due to the book’s brevity: sixty-six pages is simply not sufficient space for a persuasive criticism of a highly complex enterprise that, as Jonathan Scott Lee puts it, by blending ‘formal mathematical proof (or at least construction), psychoanalytic theory, and even poetry’, offered ‘something unique in the history not only of psychoanalytic theory but of theoretical writing in general.’[6] For Pierrakos, the poetry (i.e. the neologistic puns with which Lacan peppered his speech) was narcissistic drivel that, far from being a harmless indulgence, was employed with the aim of achieving domination over the ‘dumbfounded’ and ‘naive disciple’ whilst the mathematical constructions are the products of a ‘megalomania’ that served only to reduce psychoanalytic theory to a series of abstract axioms (MK: 26-27).        However, rather than offering a detailed critique of this discourse, assessing the function of the puns in each text, Pierrakos rips these constructions from their context and lists them: ‘Punning, spoonerisms, play on words, quips, punctuate the discourse of Lacan. Take the famous “poubellication”… [or] siberianetics for the cold logic of cybernetics; Lacan also enjoys talking about looterature [lituraterre]’ (MK: 24). Presented in this way, the puns naturally appear undermotivated and silly.

The problem is that Pierrakos sets herself very narrow confines: despite arriving at conclusions about theory and practice, both of these domains are – as far as discussion is concerned – off limits:

Lacan’s theories as such will not concern me here. (MK: 10).

I do not intend to discuss Lacan the psychoanalyst: I was neither in analysis nor in control analysis with him, nor did I personally know any of his patients. (MK: 12)

Pierrakos’ subject matter – a certain psychoanalytic zeitgeist or attitude propagated by Lacan and his pupils – becomes slightly ephemeral and difficult to grasp or pin down when the theory and practice (with which this attitude is associated) has been evacuated. The ‘careful but excoriating criticism of the Lacanian system’ promised by the book’s blurb is replaced by literary analogies[7] and a compendium of individual and collective tics (such as the audience’s ‘orgasmic murmurs greeting the witticisms of the great man’ [MK: 17]). Pierrakos provides only a summary dismissal and a conclusion that, because it is supported by such a threadbare argument, boarders on the platitudinous: ‘What is at stake is the ethics of our profession, the respect of our fellow human beings. The arrogance of certitude is tantamount to violence towards our analysands’ (MK: 66).

It’s worth briefly assessing the two styles that Pierrakos criticises – the Joycean poetics and the idiosyncratic mathematics – in order to see if it really is a disciple’s certitude that they encourage and inspire. Returning to the 1971-1972 lectures at Sainte-Anne, it is noteworthy that, within the space of a month, Lacan introduced the two names of these styles: lalangue and matheme. The former refers to the non-sense that is produced when the materiality of the letter disrupts and complicates signification. Lacan was constantly exploiting homophonic equivocations in order to show how the communication of intentional meaning falters, arguing that, rather than existing in the certitude of a hidden truth or final meaning, the unconscious instead presents itself to be read in these uncertain and unpredictable slips.‘[R]eading in no way obliges you to understand. You have to read first.’[8] One can only understand what one already knows: the task of the analyst does not lie in the application of knowledge; he must instead learn how to read something that he cannot understand or, to put it another way, to read without understanding, without imposing a synthetic coherence that would erase the unconscious. This is precisely what Lacan, especially in his later seminars, imposes upon us: the experience of reading first, of reading in the absence of understanding. Therefore, what Lacan presents in these seminars is not so much a consolidated body of knowledge as it is a method or attitude, an ethical stance that analyst must adopt with respect to radical uncertainty: ‘A knowledge that is able for nothing, the knowledge of impotence… this is what the psychoanalyst may convey.’[9] If ‘it happens that people express themselves in this way that they do not… have the feeling of understanding’ then so much the better: it is only when one is confronted with something that one does not already know that ‘this word’ becomes a genuine ‘teaching word.’[10]

In her 1999 preface to Gender Trouble, Judith Butler proffered an interesting defence of her own infamously difficult style. Observing that Nixon prefaced a lie by stating ‘let me make one thing perfectly clear’, Butler notes that the ‘demand for lucidity forgets the ruses that motivate the ostensibly “clear” view’ and asks a series of pertinent questions: ‘what would be the price of failing to deploy a certain critical suspicion when the arrival of lucidity is announced? Who devises the protocols of “clarity” and whose interests do they serve? What is foreclosed by the insistence on parochial standards of transparency as requisite for all communication? What does “transparency” keep obscure?’[11] We might compare these to the questions Pierakkos raises: Lacanians are, apparently, ‘bewitzched by the Witz. And what does this pleasure consist of? What are these tongue-twisters replacing? What is concealed by this desire to dazzle, to captivate, to hypnotise?’ (MK: 25) For Lacan, the ‘demand for lucidity’ would obscure the unconscious. It is the desire of the ego psychologist, who, as an ideal model of psychical health, ‘devises the protocols of “clarity”’ in the absence of any ‘critical suspicion’ or self-doubt. Whilst the ego psychologist understands you and promises to bring one to the point of understanding and self-mastery, the analyst proceeds on the basis that ‘the subject of the unconscious… can learn how to read.’[12] Lacan’s style is not the result of a malign intent to dominate dumbstruck epigones or inspire in them the ‘arrogance of certitude’, on the contrary, it aggressively erodes the reader’s belief in the very possibility of attaining to a position of intellectual dominance or certitude.

Certainly, the task of reading Lacan is a difficult one; the reader ‘must pay the price with elbow grease.’[13] Much of Pierrakos’ irritation with Lacan’s style appears to stem from the frustration of her efforts, as a transcriber, to:

vicariously absorb this super-concentrated course of psychoanalytical theory through osmosis. “I can’t believe it”, I thought, “something will happen, I’m bound to learn something from these formulae and discourses, from the Borromean knots, the mathemes, because I not only heard them spoken by Lacan but listened to these words of the Seminars once again on the tape recorder… Yet this teaching remained a dead letter for me. (MK: 33-34)

Lacan was determined that his work should not be vulnerable to over-hasty comprehension and lazy reduction, that his ‘return to Freud’ should not sink beneath a tide of received ideas and banal anecdotage (“Oh yeah – Freud. Isn’t he the guy that says all guys secretly want to have sex with their mother and that girls have penis envy…”). Reading Lacan takes considerable mental effort, ten years of it according to the man himself.[14] Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Claude Lévi-Strauss both agreed that whilst there might be something interesting and worthwhile about Lacan’s work, neither had the time to find out.[15] This is a perfectly legitimate position to adopt: just think of all the wonderful texts one could be discovering in the time spent poring over Lacan! However, polemical criticism, particularly that of the flippant variety indulged in by Chomsky,[16] lacks credibility when it is not supported by a thorough knowledge of Lacan’s works acquired through ‘elbow grease.’

One cannot hope to passively soak up Lacan’s ‘sibylline utterances’ (MK: 26) in the way that the characters of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World receive their hyponopaedic messages. These aphorisms – there is no sexual relation, the woman does not exist, etc. – are, according to Pierrakos, evidence of Lacan’s ‘arrogan[t]’ attempts to bully and dominate, to assume ‘the place of the god’, to be ‘at once Oracle and High Priest who both states and resolves the enigma’ (MK: 26). The aphorisms confront the reader with absolute obscurity whilst also appearing to promise absolute knowledge, the ultimate satisfaction of epistemological desire. However, I’m not convinced that Lacan had either of these outcomes in mind. Indeed, with respect to the second potential outcome, Lacan demands that we refuse what he is offering because it is not ‘that.’[17] In his 2011 documentary, Rendez-vous chez Lacan, Gérard Miller asked one of the most skilful interpreters of Lacan’s work, Jean-Claude Milner, whether, ‘in his teaching’, Lacan was ‘clear or obscure’. In reply, Milner stated that:

Generally, writers are said to be clear when they are clear locally. Take one sentence, and it’s clear. With Lacan, clarity operates in a network. From the reader’s point of view, clarity is a journey. One must travel the network, and since there are several networks, different journeys produce different insights.[18]

The aphorisms are not immediately clear; indeed, on first appearance they often strike one as being utter gibberish. They must instead be read as elements of a dense palimpsest – elements that are often repeated but with minimal variations or in different contexts. Reading the Lacanian rebus schools one in the psychoanalytic method: ‘The function of the structure of the network, the way in which the lines – of association, precisely – come to overlap one another, to cross-check with one another, to converge at elective points from which they depart again electively, this is what is indicated by Freud.’[19] What appears to be at stake here is less a transmission of knowledge and more a familiarisation with a methodology – or, to put it another way, an intertwining of theory and practice which means that access to the former necessarily requires an adoption of the latter (thus challenging the usual development that sees practice follow the comprehension of theory).

Pierrakos appears to want to have her cake and eat it: on the one hand, Lacan is declared to be utterly incomprehensible – ‘abstruse… convoluted… dizzying…. labyrinthine’ (MK 19-20) – and on the other, the Lacanian phenomenon can be definitively summed up in a few words: ‘Why couldn’t I simply imbibe, like all those around me, the theoretical constructs explained throughout the Seminars? Today I believe it is because the processes of seduction and control were the first thing I noticed’ (MK: 17-18). The work and discourse are not worth analysing in and of themselves – they are simply the tools of mastery. The main purpose of Lacan’s ‘increasingly perfected system of telling, of irrefutable paradoxes, of paralysingly paradoxical imperatives and of clever demonstrations’ was to ‘spellbind his audience’ (MK: 19). Seduction and control are not an unwitting side-effect; they are instead the end with respect to which the entirety of Lacan’s seminar is the means. Never mind the humdrum business of reading and interpreting the discourse itself, Pierrakos has ascended to a higher plane of understanding; she has seen the wood for the trees, the over-arching power struggle with respect to which the theory is a mere sideshow, the means to a malevolent end. Pierrakos, as what Lacan would refer to as a ‘non-dupe’, knows what all of this is really about.

I am reminded here of David Shrigley’s Those who get it – Pierrakos appears to occupy the point of intersection between ‘those who do not get it’ and ‘those who realise there is nothing to get’:

Greenshields review2

This is, of course, an untenable position – the two statements (‘there exists something I am not getting’ and ‘the something that I am not getting does not exist’) can only co-exist in a sort of kettle logic – but it is one that frustrated critics often adopt with respect to Lacan’s work.[20]

A book review is not the place to attempt a convincing defence of Lacan’s deployment of topology and ‘mathemes’ (a neologism comprising Lévi-Strauss’ ‘mytheme’ and the Greek ‘mathêma [μάθημα]’, meaning ‘lesson’). Outside of the variable length session, this is perhaps the most controversial aspect of Lacan’s teaching and, because he produced so many conflicting statements and experienced as many failures as he did successes, it is also one of the most complex. I will, therefore, restrict myself to two (by no means exhaustive) statements on the matter – made specifically in reference to Pierrakos’ argument that the mathemes necessarily result in ‘the arrogance of certitude’. Firstly, they do not amount to a metalanguage: quite the contrary, they instead perfectly demonstrate the impossibility of metalanguage. In order to make the mathemes comprehensible Lacan must re-present them, he must employ a language riddled with precisely the same ambiguities that the unequivocal mathemes were supposed to eradicate: ‘Mathematical formalization consists of what is written, but it only subsists if I employ, in presenting it, the language I make use of. Therein lies the objection: no formalization of language is transmissible without the use of language itself.’[21]

Secondly, Lacan was not attempting to resolve the enigmas of subjectivity through formalization, to ‘go to the end of infinity and back, and return unscathed, having wrapped it all up in a few… algebraic formulae’ (MK: 27). He was instead interested in the point at which logical systems falter on an internal contradiction or inconsistency (he frequently referred to Gödel’s incompleteness theorem), the point at which they fail to ‘wrap it all up’, observing that ‘[t]he real can only be inscribed on the basis of an impasse of formalization.’[22] There can be no perfectly self-reflexive, autonomous and totalised organisation of knowledge. Most of his mathemes ($, a, Φ, etc.) denote an irresolvable structural paradox that topological figures were called upon to materialise and demonstrate.

When Pierrakos does, briefly, turn her attention to the theory itself (as opposed to the style in which the theory was presented), she repeats well-worn critiques. Quoting Didier Anzieu’s assertion that ‘Lacanian ideas “don’t stand up well to the test of practice”’, Pierrakos argues that:

On the continuum of mental life ranging from the most fusional bodily sensations to the most sophisticated forms of sublimation, Lacan traced the limits above and below which the analytical field should not be envisaged. He expresses this view with his customary sarcasm. Below these limits, in his own words: ‘No doubt that, on this path, sniffing one another becomes the nec plus ultra of the transference reaction’. And beyond these limits, it is a matter of ‘excluding the tender feelings of the fine soul’. So, on the one hand, the pre-verbal is excluded – that is, the most animal, archaic aspects of the body – and on the other, the affective, the aesthetic and the idealising aspects of the imaginary. This leaves only an extremely narrow, desiccated field! What kind of strange flowers can possibly grow there?

… Let us try to imagine (yes, imagine!) the man described by Lacan: the negative, X-ray image of a man: no living matter is visible: here we have a disembodied, devitalised man, a puppet whose strings are pulled by the signifier, a parlêtre/ speakbeing. Is such a being, a parlêtre, anything other than speech? (MK: 52-53)

The notion that, to cite André Green’s erroneous appraisal, ‘affect has no place in’ Lacan’s work,[23] had, even in Lacan’s own lifetime, become such a prevalent canard that he felt it necessary to directly address it in his 1973 television interview: ‘Affect… befalls a body whose essence it is said to dwell in language… [without] finding dwelling-room, at least not to its taste.’[24] Far from eradicating affect, language causes it.[25] Strictly speaking, Pierrakos is correct in observing that Lacan did not discuss the ‘pre-verbal’[26] – however, it does not necessarily follow that the ‘parlêtre’ is ‘disembodied’. Whilst, for Lacan, there is no such thing as a subject prior to the introduction of language, it remains the case that he devoted much of his work to a conceptualisation of the extra-discursive or the post-verbal, the corporeal jouissance that is the consequence of language. For an example of this, see my second entry in the ‘Speaking Lacanese’ series. The subject that approaches the clinic is always post-verbal – that is, affected by language.

Where Pierrakos does hit upon something very pertinent is in her suggestion that the schizophrenic split between Lacan-the-teacher and Lacan-the-analyst, between the ‘cynical, cold face’ shown in public and the ‘warmth and emotion’ to which Lacan’s former analysands testify in Gérard Miller’s film, between the man who didn’t give a damn and the man who did, could not fail to trouble (or, in her words, trap in an ‘eternally unresolved transference’) those who were being both taught and analysed by the master (MK: 28-29).[27] Whilst the problems caused by the irreconcilability between the teacher and the analyst are probably at their most pronounced and affective when the teacher and the analyst are the same person, problems still arise even when they are not. When, in Seminar XVII, Lacan presented what he called the four discourses (which meant concretely distinguishing between the discourse of the university and the discourse of the analyst), he formally announced his interest in an antagonism that he would never satisfactorily resolve. In a short report detailing his observations on the progress of the Department of Psychoanalysis at Vincennes, Lacan wrote that ‘[t]here are four discourses. Each one thinks it is the truth. The only exception is the analytic discourse… [T]his discourse excludes domination; in other words it teaches nothing. There is nothing universal about it, which is precisely why it cannot be taught. How does one go about teaching what cannot be taught?’[28] It is my intention to return to this statement in the next entry in the ‘Speaking Lacanese’ series – which will necessarily entail returning to Pierrakos’ argument that the ultimate effect of Lacan’s work was, despite his protestations to the contrary, domination.

Memoirs of a Disgruntled Keybasher is, for the most part, a critical response to Lacan’s attempts to propagate the analyst’s discourse from within the university, to hit upon a workable compromise between the universality of a transmissible and comprehensible knowledge and the incomprehensible singularity of the patient. In this respect, it raises, with great eloquence and conviction, questions that concern nothing less that the future of (institutional) psychoanalysis and the status of psychoanalytic knowledge. It is a shame, then, that these questions are granted so little space.



[1] Specifically, he talks of presenting things at an ‘elementary level’. Jacques Lacan, The Knowledge of the Psychoanalyst, 1971-1972, unofficial trans. by Cormac Gallagher (London: Karnac, n.d.), session 2, p. 2.

[2] Lacan, The Knowledge of the Psychoanalyst, session 7, p. 27.

[3] Marie Pierrakos, Transcribing Lacan’s Seminars – Memoirs of a Disgruntled Keybasher Turned Psychoanalyst, trans. by Angela M. Brewer (London: Free Association Books, 2006), p. 8. Hereafter referred to as MK.

[4] This is a reference to François Roustang’s Dire Mastery: Discipleship from Freud to Lacan, trans. by Ned Lukacher (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982).

[5] See Élisabeth Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan & Co. A History of Psychoanalysis in France, 1925-1985, trans. by Jeffrey Mehlman (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990).

[6] Jonathan Scott Lee, Jacques Lacan (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1991), p. 197.

[7] These include The Emperor’s New Clothes, Alice Through the Looking Glass and Bridge over the River Kwai (MK: 16).

[8] Jacques Lacan, Seminar Book XX : Encore, 1972-1973, trans. by Bruce Fink (New York: Norton, 1998), p. 65.

[9] Lacan, The Knowledge of the Psychoanalyst, session 1, p. 12

[10] Ibid., session 2, p. 2.

[11] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 2007), p. xx.

[12] Lacan, Seminar XX, p. 37.

[13] Jacques Lacan, Écrits, trans. by Bruce Fink (New York: Norton, 2006), p. 5.

[14] Jacques Lacan, Television/ A Challenge to the Psychoanalytic Establishment, trans. by Denis Hollier, Rosalind Krauss, Jeffrey Mehlman and Annette Michelson (New York: Norton, 1990), p. 45.

[15] See Élisabeth Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan: An Outline of a Life and a History of a System of Thought, trans. by Barbara Bray (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997), p. 209.

[16] See:

[17] I am depending upon the Kantian revelation here – i.e. that the epistemological lack is necessarily an ontological lack.

[18] Rendez-vous chez Lacan, directed by Gérard Miller (Editions Montparnasse, 2011), DVD.

[19] Jacques Lacan, Seminar Book XIV: The Logic of Phantasy, 1966-1967, unofficial trans. by Cormac Gallagher (London: Karnac, n.d.), session 4, p. 4.

[20] We would have to introduce an additional circle to account for Lévi-Strauss and Merleau-Ponty’s position (as those who do not get it but realise that there is something to get).

[21] Lacan, Seminar XX, p. 119.

[22] Ibid., p. 93.

[23] André Green, The Fabric of Affect in the Psychoanalytic Discourse, trans. by Alan Sheridan (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 99.

[24] Lacan, Television, pp. 23-24.

[25] For an extensive and clear account of Lacanian affects see:

[26] I should add an important nuance here: Lacan does not discuss the pure ‘pre-verbal’. The imaginary is always to be considered in terms of its interaction with the other two categories (i.e. the real and the symbolic).

[27] For a collection of testimonies regarding Lacan-the analyst, see: Hurly Burly No. 3 (London: NLS, 2010).

[28] Jacques Lacan, ‘There are Four Discourses’, trans. by Adrian Price and Russell Grigg in Jacques-Alain Miller and Maire Jaanus (eds), Culture/ Clinic 1: Applied Lacanian Psychoanalysis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), p. 3.

THE STUDIO: A PSYCHOANALYTIC LEGACY by Gill Gregory, Reviewed by Janet Sayers

The Studio: A Psychoanalytic Legacy  by Gill Gregory (London: Free Association Books, 2015)

Reviewed By Janet Sayers [1]

There are many ways of combining art and psychoanalysis. Freud notoriously combined them in illustrating his wish-fulfilling theory of dreams in terms of the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci. Lacan combined them in seeking to demonstrate the captivating effect of the external world on the life of the mind. And the art critic, Adrian Stokes, combined them to highlight the centrality of the physical form of art in achieving its psychological effect.

Now in The Studio, poet and university lecturer, Gill Gregory, combines free associations about members of her family evoked in her by various works of art and by quotes from the edition of Freud which her father once owned. To these free associations she adds details about the creators of these works of art and about members of her family informed by what she has learned from years of psychoanalytic treatment beginning after her father’s death several decades ago.

‘Children have no scruples over allowing animals to rank as their full equals,’ she quotes from Freud’s book, Totem and Taboo, in going on to link this with a painting by Edwin Landseer. Not his famous picture of a stag, Monarch of the Glen (1851), but his picture, The Arab Tent (1866), including a mare and her foal which she equates with her mother and Andrew. It reminds her of their family home in Surrey where tea-time was regularly interrupted by Andrew’s petit mal epileptic seizures – ‘his poor body rigid and jerking’ – after which he returned to normality when it seemed to Gregory that his life depended on the family resuming eating and wiping their plates clean. She also tells us how such interruptions have made it difficult for her to achieve a ‘connected sense of the world’; and how, as his illness worsened, Andrew believed he was the messiah, planned to go to Jerusalem but was prevented by a grand mal seizure, after which he made himself a coffin in which he sat playing a guitar ‘beaming with dark, surreal humour’.

She precedes this with the story of Landseer’s insanity, and with a chapter which takes its message from Freud’s approval of science. She links this with praise of the anatomical detail of George Stubbs’s painting, Zebra (1762-63), and with her admiration of, love for, and regret that her father’s psychiatric work at Horton Hospital in Epsom, his psychoanalytic training, and his directorship of the Paddington Day Hospital in London took him away from her and their family in Surrey when she was a child.

Particularly engaging, however, is a chapter which starts with Freud’s reflections about the derivation of the word ‘material’ from the Latin word for mother, and with the cover of Stokes’s book featuring Cézanne’s painting, The Gardener Vallier (c.1906), depicting Vallier sitting on a wooden chair. It reminds Gregory of her therapist’s comfortable looking chair with wooden arms; and of her psychiatrist father’s ten year psychoanalytic treatment by Paula Heimann helping him keep going during the ‘stultifying depression’ that followed his divorce from Gregory’s mother after Andrew’s death aged twenty-six in 1977. This painting also reminds Gregory of a colleague of her father describing him as a ‘stoic’, this evoking an image of him sitting Vallier-like on a wooden chair.

Cézanne’s Vallier painting also brings to mind in Gregory her archive-based discoveries about her art collector relative, Frank Stoop, and his bequest of this painting and of other works of art to the Tate Gallery in London. Together with Freud saying ‘Humour is not resigned; it is rebellious … against the unkindness of real circumstances’, these discoveries remind Gregory of her mother, despite the problems posed by Andrew, smiling to herself as though ‘enjoying a joke her family will never understand’. To this Gregory links another item in the Stoop bequest, Cézanne’s painting, Still Life with Water Jug (c.1892-93). Reproduced on the cover of The Studio, it evokes in Gregory an image of her mother laying lunch – ‘bread and cheese and apples, jugs of water and wine to wash them down’.

Gregory follows this with Freud’s observations about a sculpture, Gradiva; with Stoop’s gift to the Tate of a sculpture, Red Stone Dancer (c.1913), by Gaudier-Brzeska: and with free associations they evoke in her. She then regales us with Freud’s account of his patient Sergei Pankieff’s dream about wolves; with Stoop’s bequest to the Tate of Gaudier-Brzeska’s sketches of animals; and with the story of Van Gogh and his painting, The Oise at Auvers (1890) – a painting she links with Van Gogh’s sunflower pictures and with Freud’s account of ‘[t]he Lernaean hydra with its countless flickering serpent’s heads’.

More amusing is Gregory’s quote from Freud’s dream of himself with his brother seeing a ‘breakfast-ship’ and her imagining her Russian émigré grandfather, Alexis Chodak-Gregory, on board. This leads her into telling his story. It includes the sale in 1949 at Sotheby’s of his collection of paintings by Constable, Gainsborough, Girton, and Turner. She ends, however, with the story of the modern artist, Christopher Nevinson, which she links with Freud describing a bridge as a symbol of ‘transitions or change’, and with the change symbolised for her by Nevinson’s painting, A Studio in Montparnasse (1926), shown in 2013 at an exhibition in the Dulwich Picture Gallery near where she now lives.

Unlike other combinations of art and psychoanalysis with which I began the combinations for which Gregory opts can seem overly haphazard relying as she does on what her free associations tell her. Nevertheless, through thereby tracing and movingly recounting the stories not only of artists but also those of her brother, father, and mother, and of her art collector relatives, Gregory provides an intriguing family saga akin to that tracked down by the potter, Edmund de Waal, in association to a tiny sculptured Japanese netsuke object in his book, The Hare with Amber Eyes.



[1] The Studio was published by Free Association Books in September 2015. Its author, Gill Gregory, is a poet and lecturer at University of Notre Dame in London. Its reviewer, Janet Sayers, is emeritus professor of psychoanalytic psychology at the University of Kent in Canterbury where she works as a clinical psychologist for the NHS. Her most recent book, Art, Psychoanalysis, and Adrian Stokes: A Biography, was published by Karnac in July 2015.