The footage above is from an extremely rare – and unexpectedly entertaining – video of the philosopher and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), giving a lecture at The Catholic University of Louvain in 1972. The film is notable for a couple of reasons:
1. In France, Lacan's rock star status owed much to his popular public seminars. The charismatic iconoclast had been giving free public lectures for decades, and those lectures were usually packed with students, colleagues, skeptics, young radicals ... and fans. The video gives you an idea of what the fuss was all about. Even at 70, Lacan still owns the room, and he has the presence of a stage actor, complete with dramatic pauses, ironic self-reflection, and pitch-perfect storms of emotion (see minute 15:07).
2. At minute 21:37, a politically inspired heckler tries to ambush him. It's a moment right out of a comedy show, if the comedy show were chic and grainy and edited by Jean-Luc Goddard. Note the grace with which Lacan neutralizes the poor guy, lights his cigar and then concludes the lecture, even though the fallout from their encounter is still stuck in his hair.
Lacan's ideas have fallen a bit out of fashion in the past two decades, particularly in the U.S., where psychoanalysis has been nudged out of the spotlight by neuroscience and post-structuralism has lost ground to post-colonial studies. But Lacan still has his fans, notably the "Elvis of Philosophy," Slavoj Zizek, who dominates YouTube the way his predecessor once did salons.
You can find Zizek's book How to Read Lacan for free at the Lacan website, along with a treasure trove of videos dedicated to Zizek, Badiou and other Lacan-inspired thinkers. The book explaining how to read Zizek has not yet been written.
Sheerly Avni is a San Francisco-based arts and culture writer. Her work has appeared in Salon, LA Weekly, Variety, Mother Jones, and many other publications. You can follow her on twitter at @sheerly.