The Return to Lacan

May 03, 2013

If controversial French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan famously called for a “return to Freud,” then the renewed interest in his work both inside and outside the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences might be justly called the “return of Lacan.”

According to members of the Vancouver Lacan Salon, Lacan’s investigation of the status of truth, the unconscious, and language in analytic practice remains just as relevant now as it was in 1953, prompting the group to dedicate its 2013 LaConference, titled “Sixty years after Lacan: On the Symbolic Order in the Twenty-First Century,” to exploring how these key concepts of psychoanalytic teaching can be used to understand contemporary discourses and practices.

For the Lacan Salon, the conference is one part of an ongoing project to critically evaluate, adapt and disseminate Lacanian teachings. Founded in 2007 by practicing psychoanalyst Hilda Fernandez and SFU scholars Clint Burnham (English), Paul Kingsbury (Geography) and Jesse Proudfoot (Geography), the group meets biweekly to discuss Lacan’s works. Each term focuses on one of his transcribed seminars or sets of essays, in translation, along with occasional supplementary material from Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein, or other relevant sources.

Whereas Lacan’s teaching receives little attention in contemporary psychology departments, which have moved towards more scientific models of behaviourism, cognitive therapy, and psychopharmacology in the treatment of mental illnesses, his legacy nonetheless continues to be felt in humanities disciplines practiced at SFU and elsewhere. Indeed, the diverse composition of the Lacan Salon, which has seated over 150 members at different times over the past several years, representing fields including literature, philosophy, geography and many others, speaks to the continued significance of Lacanian theory beyond the clinic.

Although the Salon studies the writings of psychoanalysis closely, it does not aim to train clinical analysts (even if some members are already practicing clinicians). Rather, it tries to bring the lessons of Lacan into contact with the broader intellectual world. As founding member Hilda Fernandez explains, the desire to engage a larger community motivated the designation of the group as a ‘Salon.’ “The Salon was a form of gathering during the European Enlightenment that encouraged conversation around intellectual, artistic and political themes. The Lacan Salon, in our modern-day Vancouver, provides an opportunity to share, discuss, and promote the transmission of psychoanalytic discourse through careful reading of the works of Jacques Lacan and Sigmund Freud.”

Lacan’s intellectual trajectory explains his drift from clinical analysis towards broader intellectual issues; a series of splits from established psychological associations and Lacan’s own burgeoning popularity changed the character of his audience in the mid-1960s. Accelerated in response to these changing conditions, his declared “return to Freud” involved reframing the tenets of the discipline through linguistics, ethnography, philosophy, art and literature, which, when combined with opening his seminars to the public, brought Lacan into different spheres of French intellectual life and those spheres into his thought. Following Lacan’s lead, the Salon allows psychoanalysis and other realms of intellectual investigation and social experience to enter into productive conversations with one another.

Fernandez cites the diversity of the Salon as its distinct strength. “We promote a fragmented knowledge that questions the existence of a single truth,” she claims. “There is a constant re-foundation with new people who decide to inject their work and passion into the Salon and this keeps the group alive,” including, she notes, the current co-chairs of LaConference 2013, Chris Dzierzawa and Myka Tucker-Abrahamson, the current webmaster, Kyle Carpenter and the organizing committee of the conference at large.

Although Lacan’s history is dominated by a series of institutional ruptures within the volatile intellectual climate of mid-twentieth century France, the Lacan Salon operates in a more peaceful equilibrium, trying to build an intellectual community that supplements but also opens up the structures of the university.

The relations between psychoanalysis and the university have not always been so amicable. As Clint Burnham, SFU Associate Professor, English and recent author of The Only Poetry that Matters: Rereading the Kootenay School of Writing (a Lacanian take on the KSW poetry collective), argues, “psychoanalysis has had a vexed relationship with the university - from the anti-Semitism that blocked Freud in turn of the century Vienna to Lacan's seminar migrating from hospital to university to law faculty in the 50s and 60s, to offer a few examples.”

Despite this troubled history, however, psychoanalysis has become an important part of SFU intellectual life and through its openness to new perspectives has a great deal to offer the institution. “The Salon is of the university and SFU in particular in that it draws on students and faculty - especially from English - for some of its members,” Burnham explains. “But the Salon also has to keep itself open to members and practices outside the university - be they clinical, activist, or artistic… People approach Lacan with different backgrounds, with different purposes, and with different expectations. The way the Salon works, with different people facilitating the discussion at each session, opens up the texts, not only to different interpretations, but to a room full of knowledge and approaches.”

Sixty years after Lacan, the thinker’s enthusiasm for reframing our perceptions of the world through the interventions of psychoanalysis lives on in the inheritors of his teachings, who seek to uncover unexpected paths to truth, both for patients and for society at large.

The current session of the Vancouver Lacan Salon meets every other Tuesday from 7pm to 9pm in Room 2205 of SFU Woodwards. For more information visitwww.lacansalon.com. LaConference 2013 will take place June 1-2, 2013, featuring a keynote address by Dr. Paul Verhaeghe. Both the Salon and the conference are open to the public.

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