Jacques Lacan — a severe case of obscurantism

17 Sep, 2021 at 12:48 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 12 Comments

This so-called crisis. It does not exist' - Jacques Lacan on Psychoanalysis  in 1974To lure the intended or preferred audience into accepting an assertion or set of assertions, the obscurantist should first of all convince the reader that there is indeed a deep and profound insight lurking underneath the surface of his prima facie incomprehensible statements. The obscurantist’s hope is to persuade the intended reader that the hidden treasure, the true meaning, is indeed so valu able and so revealing that he is willing to invest a huge hermeneutic effort in trying to understand whatever his hermeneutic efforts indicate as the “true meaning” of what Lacan says. As Lacan himself put it in a defiant mood: “L’écrit, ça n’est pas à comprendre. C’est bien pour ça que vous n’êtes pas forcés de comprendre les miens. Si vous ne les comprenez pas, tant mieux, ça vous donnera justement l’occasion de les expliquer” (Lacan, 1975, p. 35). What is in normal conversation extrinsic to understanding – acceptance of what is asserted – now triggers the desire to understand: “these pronouncements contain deep truths about myself that I must accept, so what he says must make sense.”

Filip Buekens & Maarten Boudry

12 Comments

  1. Gilbert said: “Total epistemic relativism is interesting, perhaps, as a destructive intellectual game in academia, but, in practical terms, it is a dead end.”
    .
    Is GPS used more to restrict my freedom than benefit me?
    .
    Henry said “the intellectual rules we have discovered/defined allow us to develop means which enable us to modify our environment and function in all kinds of extraordinary ways (e.g. fly to the moon).”
    .
    Is our physics right, just because we got to the moon? But didn’t epicycles produce predictive practical models (but not for flying to the moon)? What other practical inventions do our current rules forbid but future rules will allow? Why can’t we just adopt those rules now?

  2. I must say I have never had such a thing as a “French period” as Lars’ did. The closest I came to any sort of “period” was having a “Marx Brothers period”. I would say they epitomized social/psychological/epistemic subversion.

    Having read/scanned Buekens and Boudry’s paper, it seems to me they have entirely missed the point that Lacan’s obscurantism is about.
    .
    The only thing of Lacan’s that I have read is the quotation offered by B & B above:
    .
    “L’écrit, ça n’est pas à comprendre. C’est bien pour ça que vous n’êtes pas forcés de comprendre les miens. Si vous ne les comprenez pas, tant mieux, ça vous donnera justement l’occasion de les expliquer”.
    .
    So I am hardly an expert on Lacan but I think B & B have aptly chosen a quote to reveal Lacan’s purpose.
    .
    Lacan was a psychoanalyst in the Freudian mould, so he was interested in the unconscious. He was interested in unlocking the unconscious and gaining access to it.
    .
    The Lacan quoted line above says the the content of his speaking/writing is not relevant. What is relevant is the means that it might provide in unlocking deeper psychological processes and content.
    .
    B&B have, I would say, made the mistake of taking the extrinsic content of Lacan’s message as being the relevant feature whereas in fact it is the means by which the mind can be opened.
    .
    It’s much the same as Marshall McLuhan’s dictum “the medium is the message”. That is, not only is the content of the message of interest but also the way it is delivered and what that might reveal about the message.
    .
    Another analogy might be the use of Zen Koans. Koans are a riddle or puzzle that cannot be solved by normal intellectual rules or processes. They are the means by which the mind can be levered open such as to leave the Zen practitioner in an altered state of consciousness.
    .
    It seems to me that this was Lacan’s motivation.
    .
    So I will rephrase my previous line and say “one man’s bullshit is another man’s epistemic revelation”.

  3. I’d never heard of Lacan etc. until I read Lars’ post. I am a complete dummy when it comes to these kinds of matters. But it seems to me that Lars, Chomsky, etc, are engaging in a form of epistemic fascism and in Lars’ case is more than likely related to his critical reality leanings.
    .
    We are prepared to accept (well most of us would I imagine) abstract art as a valid art form. Whether we like it or not is another matter. Abstract art seemingly breaks all the rules of reality. And it can open up new ways of looking at things, expand our consciousness. Then there’s the less extreme version of abstract art, impressionism, which is even more acceptable I would think than abstract art. It is not a facsimile of reality, of how we actually see things, but many of us delight in it. The same could be said of different forms of music which don’t conform to classical rules.
    .
    Perhaps it’s the same with the words, ideas and means of so-called obscurantism. Why not see it as an art form, a means of opening up new intellectual vistas, expansion of consciousness, breaking down the rules that limit our consciousness, the ways we see ourselves.
    .
    Isn’t it about the perennial question, what is truth, what is reality?. Who decides? How? On what basis? These are the obvious questions.
    .
    How much of what we think and the way we think is given by society? It could be said society is just a bunch of rules that permit individuals to function in large groups. These rules also help us to deal with fear and uncertainty. But of course without rules society would devolve into chaos. But it is more than that. These rules come to define who we are. They confine the way we think about ourselves and who we are.
    .
    Perhaps even something like time is a social construct. Without time we would not know when to turn up to work so that we can keep our bosses happy. Without time we would not know when to turn on the TV to watch the news. Time also permits us to excuse ourselves when we can’t complete a task – “sorry, just ran out of time”.
    .
    These days were are as a society prepared to accept gender re-assignments. The way we think about these matters has changed.
    .
    Perhaps there are no epistemic absolutes.
    .
    Who’s to know what we will discover about ourselves. We may actually come to know who we truly are and not how society (the epistemic fascists) defines us. Who knows what new worlds of knowing and being are awaiting discovery.
    .
    One man’s bullshit is another man’s truth. Perhaps that is the message to be taken from the obscurantists.
    .

    • Hi Henry. You might want to have a look at Lacan and the others. I think there are a few ideas buried in the acres of prose. The question you raise is a central one, of course. Is there any difference between truth and falsehood, and is there any way to distinguish between a true proposition and a false one? And, related to that is an even more elusive question: is there any way to distinguish a meaningful proposition or argument from a proposition or argument that has little or no meaningful content. The postmodernists – I am generalizing ferociously here – basically argue that there are no criteria to distinguish truth from falsehood and there are no criteria to distinguish nonsense from sense, and so, anything goes. An alchemist is just as good as a chemist and an astrologer is just as useful as an astronomer. Everything comes down, in this view of things, to power. Who has the power to impose epistemological standards? While power certainly plays a role, I think that such a totally relativistic view is self-contradictory and it is nonsense. We can now operate GPS, invent vaccines, land a space vehicle on Mars or on an asteroid, and so on. And, strangely, it turns out that internal combustion engines and telephones and microwaves work. Total epistemic relativism is interesting, perhaps, as a destructive intellectual game in academia, but, in practical terms, it is a dead end. And, strangely, those who profess such epistemic relativism – leading exponents, often, of “cancel culture” – appear to be the most dogmatic, intolerant, and self-righteous of all intellectuals. Weird, huh? Their relativism is relative, I suspect, and is merely a rhetorical device used – cynically – to attack other people’s theories, hypotheses, methods, or beliefs. And, aside from being a rather devious rhetorical device, it also appears, in some or many, to be, basically, a dogmatic religion, and the absolute opposite of open-mindedness. Cheers, Gilbert Reid

    • Gilbert,
      .
      You make very interesting points and the telling one is that the intellectual rules we have discovered/defined allow us to develop means which enable us to modify our environment and function in all kinds of extraordinary ways (e.g. fly to the moon). And I have to accept to a degree that weakens the notion there are no epistemic absolutes. Something to think about.
      .
      However, I think you have wandered into critiquing general post modernist territory and away from Lacan.
      .
      As I have suggested in another subsequent comment above, Lacan’s purpose may not have been to impart information/knowledge/opinion/understanding but to open up minds.

      • You are right, I think, at least in part, about Lacan’s purpose. One of my friends was analyzed, briefly, by the Great Man himself, and she tells some amusing anecdotes about it, and several other people I knew in Italy – where I lived for many years – were analyzed by Lacanian analysts. And another friend of a friend – a French scholar and analyst – has written a book about Lacan if I remember correctly. So, perhaps, in analysis, Lacan was being Zen, and by paradox and silence luring his patience into self-discovery and self-revelation. But Lacan also wrote – some very fat books – and he did claim to have theories as well as practice. So, in a sense, we are aiming at two different targets. In the end, much about life is ineffable, so I will certainly give Lacan that, and the inexpressibility of his thought and ever-fleeing nature of his prose – hinting always at something transcendent – was part of his charm. I broadened the “discourse” because I think Lars was not just talking about Lacan but about a broader question of which Lacan was a part or, if you will, a symptom. I certainly spent a fair bit of time reading Lacan and the others and musing and thinking about them, and, though I generally think their influence has been catastrophic – particularly on the humanities and particularly in the English-speaking world – I am still occasionally entranced by the siren songs of obscurity – much of this, of course, comes from Heidegger to which Lacan and others added some ideas from the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure who argued that linguistic signs, among others, were arbitrary – having no necessary relation to the concepts or things that they “represent” – and that signs only have meaning as part of a system, that is, they get their meaning from the other terms active in that semantic field. I am working from memory, so may have some things here wrong. Lacan then concluded that the subconscious consisted, as it were, of a chain of signs, trailing off infinitely, and that one should try to reconstitute the chain of signs, as it were; and I think, too, he concluded that the self is an imaginary construct, and that our sense of identity is an unanchored abstraction, much as nations are imagined communities. So, there are a few ideas lurking in them there hills. Whether those ideas are true or not, I don’t know. The unfortunate thing is this: The prose style and cult of obscurity were catching – lots of people who were not analyzing anybody and who had very little to say found a cheap and easy way to bamboozle their colleagues and college administrators and waste the time and pollute the language of their students. So, on the whole, though Lacan can be considered fascinating as a performer, his influence, and that of the other postmodernist French crowd – don’t get me wrong, I adore France and have lived and worked there – has been a very bad influence indeed. In any case, this is an interesting discussion and you have made some very nice points Oh, and my impression of Lacanian analysis, from the few people I knew who underwent it, is that it didn’t work. Cheers, Gilbert gilbertreid.com

      • Gilbert,
        .
        Interesting commentary. Thanks.
        .
        Having read only a handful of Lacan’s words I may have extrapolated excessively. But on the basis of those words I see him as a subversive. You mentioned the power of imposing epistemological standards. I think his was an attempt to subvert these power structures but not by attacking them directly but by enticing, almost compelling, the individual to dissect/vivisect his internal mental processes such that he frees himself from the psychological confinements that society has imposed upon him.

      • “Oh, and my impression of Lacanian analysis, from the few people I knew who underwent it, is that it didn’t work.”
        .
        Does any form of psychoanalysis work? 🙂

        • “Does any form of psychoanalysis work?” Good point. The testability of psychoanalysis and of the results of therapy has always been moot – or questionable. Popper has fun, as I remember it, with this. That said, I find the theories of Freud and in particular of Melanie Klein and the English object relations school fascinating and enlightening when used in an introspective way. Introspection is of course unscientific. But, then, consciousness, as an experience, is unscientific too, and on the whole, unmeasurable, except via proxies, and unobservable, except by the person who is, ostensibly, the conscious subject. This is the crack into which phenomenology snuck – how do I experience that umbrella pine shimmering darkly against the sea in the setting sun? Generally, I doubt that psychoanalysis “works” – but, then, how would one define and measure what “works”? David Lynch, the film director, decided not to undergo analysis when he was told it might impact his creativity. Maybe it is best to let our demons, some of them at least, do their dance.

  4. Why single out obscurantists for scorn, rather than hone your own story, and sell it? Are you criticizing motes in others’ eyes, forgetting the log in your own?

  5. Thanks for linking to this video. I wasted a fair bit of time reading French theorists – Lacan, Derrida, etc – in French in the 1970s on a beach in Sicily – I lived there for six years. I totally agree with Chomsky. Lacan + Zizek + Etc = 99% posturing. I think there were – or are – a very few, largely derivative & rather simple, ideas hidden in the vast mountain of clownish obscurantist BS. Of course, postmodernism derives, in large part, from these charlatans, and has continued the tradition of Posturing Writ Large. Gesture politics is part of the circus and is a lamentable distraction from real efforts to solve real problems. And gesture politics – Wokeism for example – besides being deeply obscurantist and thuggishly against freedom of expression, speech, and thought – feeds polarization and provides fuel to the thugs on the far right.

    • Can’t but agree. I had my “French” period in the 80s, but at last, started to ask myself why on earth I kept on reading things that were nothing but incomprehensible Glasperlenspiel with words and decided my life was too short to waste on that kind of bullshit.


Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and Comments feeds.