The cult of Lacan:

The career of Jacques Lacan is one of the most remarkable phenomena in twentieth century intellectual history. Until 1966, when, at the age of 65, he published his Ecrits, very few people outside a small group of Parisian intellectuals were aware of his existence. Even within the psychoanalytic movement he was very much a minor figure, an eccentric psychiatrist with a taste for surrealism who had made no significant contribution to psychoanalytic theory and who was known, if he was known at all, for his stubborn refusal to conform to the therapeutic guidelines laid down by Freud.

During the 1960s, however, Lacan emerged from obscurity and began to be lionised by a number of French literary intellectuals. Although he remained virtually unrecognised by analysts outside France, his theories became immensely fashionable in university literature departments. By the 1980s Lacanian theory had become all but synonymous with psychoanalysis in countless humanities departments throughout Europe and America. In such academic departments Freud was studied, if he was studied at all, not so much because he was the originator of psychoanalysis but because he was the precursor of Lacan. Lacanian theory was regarded as the only modern and ideologically correct form of psychoanalysis and Freud was treated either as the inventor of a crude prototype or as a God who was to be revered in principle but ignored in practice. So massive was the prestige which Lacan had achieved outside the psychoanalytic movement by the time of his death in 1981 that psychoanalysts, who for a long time had continued to treat him as a marginal figure, were all but compelled to recognise his importance. For many literary intellectuals Lacan remains one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century. By some others the rise of Lacan is regarded as a shameful indictment of the intellectual standards which prevail in American and European universities and an affront both to science and reason.

I’ve always loved someone who can proclaim loudly how naked the emperor is, especially when I agree. I studied Lacan’s works as part of my training and thought I was simple because I could only grasp a few concepts in his whole body of theory — and found them trivial. As the essayist points out, this was often the experience of those who did not come under his electrifying spell by seeing him lecture ‘live.’ Should his ideas be coherent as they stand on their own in writing? Ultimately, I came to see most adherents as tragically misled or ridiculously pompous for the depths they imagine they saw in Lacanian theory. Freudian theory works this way too — or, I should say, works or does not work. Its value is not its truth but its nonfalsifiability. If the Freudian or the Lacanian can bring someone under their spell and enlist them in sharing their reality, the beliefs become self-fulfilling. Often this depends on the charisma of the theoretician. The beauty of this is that it turns the searching, doubting distress of the seeker into utter certainty that they have made, and will continue to make, coherent sense of their world. I suppose, when it does not work, there is a certain appeal to the idea that the theory may succeed in making utter nonsense of the world…