An Animated Intro to the Ideas of Jacques Lacan, “the Greatest French Psychoanalyst of the 20th Century”

You may still suf­fer from painful mem­o­ries of hav­ing had to read Jacques Lacan in school, but look past all that ver­biage about, say, desire’s “fren­zied mock­ing of the abyss of the infi­nite, the secret col­lu­sion with which it envelops the plea­sure of know­ing and of dom­i­nat­ing with jouis­sance,” and you can find real insights into human­i­ty. The ani­mat­ed primer from Alain de Bot­ton’s School of Life just above will give you a clear sense — a much clear­er sense than any you might get from Lacan’s own prose — of what “the great­est French psy­cho­an­a­lyst of the 20th cen­tu­ry” under­stood about us all.

This video, as well as Lacan’s entry in The Book of Life, breaks the man’s thought down into three parts. First, iden­ti­ty: fol­low­ing his fas­ci­na­tion with the dis­tinc­tive­ly human expe­ri­ence of rec­og­niz­ing one’s own image, Lacan ulti­mate­ly sug­gests that “we accept that oth­er peo­ple sim­ply won’t ever expe­ri­ence us the way we expe­ri­ence our­selves; that we will be almost entire­ly mis­un­der­stood – and will in turn deeply mis­un­der­stand.” Sec­ond, love: though giv­en to grand state­ments such as “Men and women don’t exist,” Lacan com­pre­hend­ed “the extent to which we don’t tru­ly com­pre­hend our lovers and sim­ply peg a range of fan­tasies drawn from child­hood expe­ri­ences to their phys­i­cal forms,” which sup­ports the emi­nent­ly prac­ti­cal advice “not to be upset when we don’t feel a per­fect rap­port with some­one who ini­tial­ly seemed a soul­mate.”

The third part deals with the are­na in which Lacan’s writ­ings remain most often con­sid­ered: pol­i­tics. He came into his own as an inter­na­tion­al “intel­lec­tu­al celebri­ty” in the 1960s, the time of “the sex­u­al rev­o­lu­tion, great inter­est in com­mu­nism, and lots of protests.” But he actu­al­ly took a dim­mer view of all that agi­ta­tion than many, telling those stu­dent pro­test­ers chomp­ing at the bit to remake soci­ety that “What you aspire to as rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies is a new mas­ter. You will get one.” He saw ear­ly on what we still see in every elec­tion cycle: that “we desire to have some­one else in charge who can make every­thing OK, some­one who is, in a sense, an ide­al par­ent – and we bring this pecu­liar-sound­ing bit of our psy­cho­log­i­cal fan­tasies into the way we nav­i­gate pol­i­tics.”

You can watch Lacan engag­ing with one par­tic­u­lar­ly rebel­lious stu­dent in a 1972 video we fea­tured a few years ago, and you can see an hour­long lec­ture he deliv­ered at the Catholic Uni­ver­si­ty of Lou­vain that same year in this video we post­ed before that. Empow­ered by the kind of overview of Lacan’s ideas that the School of Life has put togeth­er, you can bet­ter con­front his famous­ly (or infa­mous­ly) elab­o­rate rhetoric and judge for your­self whether to con­sid­er him a thinker who “made some extreme­ly use­ful addi­tions to our under­stand­ing of our­selves” — or, in the judg­ment of Noam Chom­sky, a mere prac­ti­tion­er of emp­ty “pos­tur­ing.” But then, hav­ing lived a life that, as de Bot­ton puts it, mixed “intel­lec­tu­al truth with world­ly suc­cess,” can’t he be both?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Charis­mat­ic Psy­cho­an­a­lyst Jacques Lacan Gives Pub­lic Lec­ture (1972)

Jacques Lacan’s Con­fronta­tion with a Young Rebel: Clas­sic Moment, 1972

Jacques Lacan Talks About Psy­cho­analy­sis with Panache (1973)

Noam Chom­sky Slams Žižek and Lacan: Emp­ty ‘Pos­tur­ing’

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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