Although Noam Chomsky called Jacques Lacan “a conscious charlatan,” bookstores in France have stacks of books devoted to the years of weekly seminars Lacan taught in Paris from 1953 until his death in 1981. If you do not already know, Lacan was a post-modern French psychiatrist who taught about consciousness from a primarily philosophical perspective. However, in America, one can only study Lacan academically in comparative literature, critical theory, English, and film departments. There are a handful of Lacanian psychoanalysts in America actively practicing his therapeutic interventions, but the arduous 5-20 year, 4-5 times per week psychoanalytic process is usually found to be ridiculous or impossible by most Americans. I believe it is time to distill – if possible – Lacan’s esoteric and obscure theories about consciousness – such as “le petit autre” and “le grand Autre” – to readily applicable therapeutic interventions that can be practiced by a wide range of psychotherapists and not just a cadre of psychoanalysts.
The remedial understanding of Lacan that I have gleaned hitherto is as follows: babies have no “self” when they are born; they perceive their bodies to be at one with their mothers’ bodies; this oneness is characterized by a sensation of “jouissance” (enjoyment, pleasure, orgasm). Then the individuation process begins and the baby gradually understands that the mother is other (“autre”). Departing from Freud’s antiquated theory of the Oedipal Complex, Lacan proposes that the father does first represent an interloper to the baby being united with its mother, but then – along with societal rules and mores as well as language – creates what Lacan calls “the big Other” (“le grand Autre”). During the individuation process, the subjective individual experience is realized in the baby’s consciousness, the “I” is constructed, the baby learns language and to take pleasure from controlling its bodily functions and desires rather than giving in to them. The cultural paradigm of accepted norms is eventually internalized in the baby’s consciousness and establishes what we refer to as the “ego.” The ego enables self-regulation, delayed gratification, and helps to yield a productive member of society who can embrace our culture’s requisite conventions (schools, meals, bathrooms, beds, marriage, houses, sidewalks, money, employment, sports, shopping, etc.)
As I write in my book “How To Survive Your Childhood Now That You’re An Adult: A Path to Authenticity and Awakening,” parenting is the most difficult job in the world and all parents (save the rare few who are sociopaths) do the best they can with the tools they possess. The ultimate psychological goal of parenting, I believe, is to instill healthy self-discipline and transmute a baby’s amorphous experience into a structured, scheduled life. Babies want to eat when they are hungry, sleep when they are tired, defecate when they need to defecate, and play when they feel playful; if adults did this there would be utter chaos, anarchy. Thus we train babies to eat at feeding times, sleep at night and during delineated nap times, defecate in bathrooms, and play during scheduled playtimes. Curtailing babies’ primal desires causes frustration. For Lacan, the way the individuation process transpires results in babies growing up to be neurotic, psychotic or have various perversions and/or phobias. (Please note that Lacan’s definitions of neurotic and psychotic differ from our contemporary definitions.)
In general, if parents are excessively coddling and enabling, they instill healthy (possibly over-healthy, narcissistic) self-esteem but do not instill adequate self-discipline; if parents are excessively strict, they instill healthy self-discipline usually at the expense of low self-esteem that could lead to debilitating self-doubt and/or lead to myriad afflictions and addictions. Children often subconsciously misinterpret and assimilate parents’ disciplining as an inner-voice stating, “There must be something wrong with me” or “I’m not good-enough.” What I have noticed in my ten years of private practice as a clinical psychotherapist is that many people suffer from imbalances of self-discipline and self-esteem. I have found that it is often this assimilated voice, “I’m not good-enough,” that thirty or forty years later engenders depression and anxiety.
Having watched many documentaries on Lacan, attended many private study groups, and read many of Lacan’s currently available seminars along with Bruce Fink’s, Elisabeth Roudinesco’s, Slavoj Žižek’s, Alain Badiou’s and Ellie Ragland-Sullivan’s critiques and explications, I see a gap that needs to be bridged: all of Lacan’s former patients in the documentaries claim that he was a genius who cured or at least helped them. However, none of them explain HOW he did it, HOW he treated them. And Lacan did not take notes to document his treatments and psychological interventions and their successes or failures.
I imagine that Lacan treated patients who lacked self-esteem with love and indulgence, and treated patients who lacked self-discipline with moral authority; in some cases, Lacan showed up as a mirror (although somewhat rose tinted), while in other cases he reified and reinforced le grand Autre. The arduous 5-20 year, 4-5 times per week psychoanalytic process is outdated and impractical for most Americans, but the therapeutic interventions that Lacan used may be of great importance to psychotherapists working with the growing number of Westerners suffering from depression and anxiety today. According to the Guardian newspaper, more than twenty-two million people take anti-depressant medication every day in America. I believe that Lacan’s insights into the ramifications of our society’s individuation process and how consciousness is formed can provide remedy or succor to many of those people.
Originally published on Quora. Reprinted with permission.
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