A Lacanian Theory of Literary Style


This post will begin, perhaps unsurprisingly, with a disclaimer. Any attempt to conclusively map Jacques Lacan’s theoretical network of the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic onto my own notion of textual ontology, is likely to fall short, or fall to the kind of failure that Louis Althusser’s attempts to hybridise Marxist theory and Lacan’s psychoanalytic framework was prone to. Althusser incidentally neglected to take account of the Real, perhaps because of the difficulty involved in understanding it. But this is to perhaps miss the point, none of these categories can be expected to give a full account of themselves, let alone phenomena that they could be mapped to. As Malcolm Bowie puts it:

each of these three orders is singularly ill-equipped to be a guarantor or even a responsible custodian of Truth. The would-be truth-seeker will find that the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real are an unholy trinity whose members could as easily be called Fraud, Absence and Impossibility.

This is not because Lacan’s theories are incomprehensible, I don’t believe that they are. But if they’re not, they’re just about to cross that boundary. The difficulty of applying these to the act of literary criticism, let alone the apprehension of literary style, has to pass over, to some extent, the degree to which Lacan was engaged in formulating a particular mode of clinical practice. Most of his seminars and lectures, as they appear in the collection Écrits at least, are motivated by the act of analysing a particular patient, partially subverting the popular notion of these French theorists fecklessly knocking back the absinthe while stewing themselves on the divan.

As the polemic aspects of his seminars make clear, Lacan was acutely aware of what we might call the Californian School, which had taken Sigmund Freud’s writings, in a commercial, lifestyle-oriented direction, which aimed to ‘heal’ the subject, de-fragment their psyches and ‘cure’ them of their neuroses. Lacan was horrified by the anti-intellectual tendencies of this school, as well as its simplistic ideation of ‘the ego,’ the actualisation of which the Californian school, and some other French analysts who should know better, took to be the aim of the psychoanalyst. Lacan’s writings, if we could treat them monolithically, therefore aim to complicate the notion of the ego, and undermine our sense of ourselves as a single, complete, individual subject.

The irony of this is that what is probably Lacan’s most well-known contribution to psychoanalysis, the mirror stage, has come to represent this very same tendency of egocentric psychoanalytic thought. The mirror stage is the point at which the human subject, in their first or second year of life, will understand themselves, in simplistic terms, as a singular being, or an autonomous self. It should be noted that no actual mirror is required for this to take place, it can occur in as simple a gesture of the baby moving their arm or something. Some might mistake this moment as something to be celebrated, the moment of the subject declaring itself, or developing a sense of mastery over its own body, but this would be an error. Instead, the mirror stage inscribes the tragic condition of the human subject, as it is not the ego that they identify with, but an ego-effect or Imaginary of the self, which now exerts power over them. In his words:

What is involved in the triumph of assuming…the image of one’s body in the mirror is the most evanescent of objects, since it only appears there in the margins.

This identification is a prelude to the subject’s fall into the Symbolic, an ever-extending network of exchanged meanings in consistent flux. This Symbolic order functions in much the same way as Ferdinand de Saussure’s theories regarding differential economies of signification. As we all know, no signifier (word or image) can be said to truly mean anything. If they do convey sense, it is in the distinction that exists between them and other signifiers, i.e. a tree is a tree because it is not a cat. This ego-effect instantiated at the mirror stage plays much the same role, and as a result it is fragmented, indecipherable and unknowable, as it is wrought out of milieu composed of everything that we understand it not be; it is how we, and our desires, remain mysterious and imperceptible, even to ourselves.

So, how can we make these theories, an amalgam of psychoanalytic discourse and theoretical linguistics pertinent to the reading of a literary text? Well, if we elaborate embroider our sense of the position of the reader somewhat, and transpose it into Lacan’s terms, we might be able to make something productive of the model. He saw the unconscious as not only constructed through language, but by the laws that govern our understanding of language, which explains his dependence on linguistics. We might quarrel with Lacan’s somewhat reductionistic take on the mind’s processes, and many did. The dead end that structuralist linguistics presented was too much for some, and Jacques Derrida gave him a sidelong rebuke once or twice but thereafter both remained too proud to overtly respond to the other. One could at least accept the fact that even if the unconscious isn’t structurally analogous to language, it must be outlined in these terms in the therapeutic encounter. Thereby, the repressions and other operations of the mind remain literary and rhetorical tropes.

One of Lacan’s concern in egocentric psychology was that the analysand was being overwhelmed and projected onto by the ego of the analyst, who, Lacan also believed, was insufficiently analysed themselves in the process. The myopia of both patient and analyst should be equally subject to these techniques, making the therapeutic process truly dialectical:

He communicates to the analyst the outline of his image through his imploring, imprecations, insinuations, provocations and ruses…as these intentions become more explicit in the discourse, they interweave with the accounts with which the subject supports them, gives them consistency…the analyst, who witnesses a moment of that behaviour, finds in it…the very image that he sees emerge from the subject’s current behaviour is actually involved in all of his behaviour.

In the apprehension of a literary text, I think, we see a similar process. Any given reader is driven to exert mastery over the textual materials; as we run our eyes over every word, we wish to understand them, to make them submit or yield themselves up to us. When they do not, we become frustrated. In pursuit of meaning, we also bring our own preconceptions, the discourses of which we are composed of and determined by; only very specific segments of the text’s meaning will be accessible to any given reader. To give an example, a reader of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway who is familiar with London’s topography, will come away with an acute sense of the novel’s landscape, and substantially more detail about Mrs. Dalloway’s position in the social hierarchy of the society of her time than someone who is not. This latter reader, from Paris say, who is familiar with impressionist painting, might notice a certain tendency in Woolf’s prose, to emulate the impressionist style of ambiguous expression, distorted subject and object relations and the use of interior sensibilities to depict reality. In this way, both readers are reading the same book, but very different ones at the same time.

And of course, both these readings develop their own momentum, and move irrevocably towards a certain conclusion. We notice phenomena that accord with our perspective, and gloss over material that contradicts it, especially when outlining an argument in a paper or blog post, as these media require demonstrative examples, rather than lengthy quotations. In this way, we come to identify with a textual imaginary, reminiscent of the ego imago of the mirror stage. Unbeknownst to us, the text is readily circulating through the Symbolic, iterating diffuse and infinitely referential meanings which are created and disbarred in our act of reading. In this schema, the Real would correspond with the unread sections of the text, that which is inaccessible or missed in the act of reading. It is important to say that the Real does not correspond to reality, Lacan means two very different things when he uses these words. In this case, I cannot give a direct example, as this would be antithetical to the notion; it’s slightly impossible to literalise as a phenomenon.

As a prose stylist in his own right, Lacan favoured digression, paradox and wordplay. Incoherence, excess, wordplay, these compose the lexicon of the experimental psychoanalyst.  He praised James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake for its supposed capacity to access the language of pure signification, without offering any footholds for the reader; in apprehending his style we are confronted with the impossibility of tracing the turning over of signifiers. This is perhaps a simplistic view of the Wake, but it nevertheless allows us to develop an idea of what we should be looking for when we interpret our novels, not merely pursuing similarity, or seeking in it our own reflections; such is the role of the naive positivist; not the serious interpreter. A unified textual style or meaning is therefore a consolatory myth, one which we erect as a buttress agains the impossible, overwhelming quantity of meaning which confronts us when we read a novel. But this is perhaps the point. Lacan’s sense of the ego depends on paranoiac knowledge and networks based on exclusion. Our very ‘selves’ are just images; our personalities alienated responses to indifferent forces.


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