Thinking With One’s Feet:
Lacanian Theories of Textual Engagement
WILLIAM J. URBAN
In 1975, Jacques Lacan travelled to the United States to deliver a series of lectures and made a memorable stop in Boston to speak to a distinguished audience of mathematicians, linguists and philosophers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was there he first met Roman Jakobson and Noam Chomsky. However, when Chomsky asked the French psychoanalyst a question about the nature of thought, Lacan’s response was taken as deliberately contemptuous of his American audience: ‘We think we think with our brains; personally, I think with my feet. That’s the only way I really come into contact with anything solid.’ (Roudinesco 378–9) Although peppered with brilliant insights, like how humans are set apart from other animals because they alone are encumbered by their own feces, this lecture on the possible search for ‘foundations’ via the topology of knots was generally considered incomprehensible. Lacan managed to thoroughly alienate his audience and in the end simply added to his own growing reputation as an erratic non-systematic thinker or even outright charlatan. In retrospect, the fact that Lacan always eschewed publishing his work and grudgingly only did so at the entreaty of others certainly does not help matters in terms of his legacy. (Fink 1995: 148–9) But once we grasp, for instance, how Lacan’s reference to his own published work as a poubellication1 was part of a general campaign to discourage his students from jumping to conclusions and to frustrate their desire to immediately understand everything at once,2 we begin to see that he profoundly wished his system to remain open and unfixed. Certainly the very nature of his texts testify to his desire to leave behind an anti-system: on the one hand, we must always remember when dealing with his 26 lectures (the majority of which still have yet to be published, even in French) that these were spoken texts and were not originally intended to be inscribed on the page; on the other, there are the notoriously impenetrable Écrits whose difficulty was not lost on Lacan himself for ‘they were not meant to be read.’ (Lacan 1998: 29) As he tells us in the opening lines of ‘The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious’ in a statement equally applicable to the entire Écrits, these texts should be considered as ‘situating [themselves] between writing and speech – [they] will be halfway between the two’ and thus so calculated as to ‘leave the reader no other way out than the way in, which I prefer to be difficult. This, then, will not be a writing in my sense of the term.’ (Lacan 2006: 493) Far from being a hindrance and discouraging us from putting Lacan’s thought to work, the operating assumption we make here is that this open-ended textual legacy is its undeniable strength as it lends itself abundantly to productive and truthful ends. This is particularly the case with respect to a possible ‘application’ of Lacan’s thought to literary criticism.
What we propose to do here is survey Lacan’s long career with the specific aim of discovering what it has to offer regarding strategies of textual interpretation. At once a historical sketch of Lacan’s thought, we organize this endeavor by making use of his distinctions between the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real. These three terms Lacan used early on in his career, however, it was not until his first seminar in 1953 that they were accorded the dignity of their own register, each referring to quite distinct aspects of psychoanalytic experience and was used thereafter as a fundamental classification system around which all of his subsequent theorizing was organized. But however profoundly heterogeneous these registers are, they still refer to just one subject and Lacan formally begins exploring such a paradoxical relationship with the topology of the Borromean knot in 1972 with his Seminar XX. (Lacan 1998: 101, 111–23) Two years later in his seminar RSI, the three-ringed knot is specifically used to illustrate the structural interdependence of the three registers. In privileging these later formulations, we thus underscore how an effort to corral his thought into the readily identifiable stages of the hermeneutics-friendly (Imaginary) Lacan of the 1930s and the academically-popular (Symbolic) Lacan of the 1950s is contingent, informed and over-determined by the lesser-known (Real) Lacan of the 1970s. This goes as well for our thesis that corresponding to each stage is what we call a Lacanian Theory of Textual Engagement: although these three Lacanian theories of engaging with texts will be here presented in their own section, we will endeavor to show their underlying continuity from the vantage point of the later Lacan of the 1970s, for that Lacan of the Real offers us the most promising means to bring hermeneutics as such to its truth.