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Few individuals have had as far-reaching and long-term influence on the humanities as Jacques Lacan. Not only did he change many of the thoughts behind the psychoanalytic movement, but he also had many impacts on French philosophers during their formative academic years. Many of Lacan’s writings explored Sigmund Freud’s discovery of the unconscious. This earned him the nickname of “the French Freud” within certain circles. Lacan’s fundamental concepts include the mirror stage, otherness, and the orders among many others.

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Family and Personal Life

Jacques-Marie-Emile Lacan was born on April 13, 1901, in Paris, France. He was the eldest of three children. His father was a successful oil and soap salesman, and his mother was a devoted Catholic. In his teenage years, he developed an interest in the work of Baruch Spinoza and his views on atheism. This led to some tensions between Lacan and his religious family. Later in his life, Lacan reflected on his familial regrets, stating that he wished he had persuaded his brother not to enter a monastery. Lacan died in Paris on September 9, 1981.

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Professional History

In the early 1920s, the military deemed Lacan too thin to serve, so he instead entered medical school. After completing his studies at the University of Paris, he began to specialize in psychiatry at the Sainte-Anne Hospital. In 1934, Lacan joined the Société psychanalytique de Paris, though the society would disband during Nazi Germany’s occupation of France. During the war, Lacan performed no professional activities. Following the war, he rejoined the society and became an infamous figure in the international psychoanalytic community. The International Psychoanalytic Association would eventually ban him in 1962. The following year, Lacan founded L'École Freudienne de Paris, a school focusing on the training of analysts and teaching Lacan’s methods. After 18 years, he would dissolve his school and then found the Freudian Field Institute.

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Writings and Professional Work

Lacan’s first major publication appeared in 1936. This piece, “On the Mirror Stage as a Formative of the I,” would become one of his most iconic works after a republishing in 1949. Several years later, Lacan inaugurated a seminar series that he would present annually. It was in these seminars that Lacan presented and revised the ideas that would cause him to become one of the most influential psychoanalysts. Many of his students and followers would transcribe and translate his seminars. In 1966, Lacan published a selection of his most important works.

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Mirror Stage

One of Lacan’s earliest professional works, the mirror stage was a critical reinterpretation of Sigmund Freud’s work. Initially, he focused on the behavior of infants between the ages of 6 and 18 months. At this stage of development, children become capable of recognizing themselves in mirrors. The infant identifies with the reflection and begins to associate more than its physical appearance with the mirror image. However, the infant doesn’t associate its physical vulnerabilities or weaknesses with the reflection. In this way, the reflection becomes an ideal self. Lacan stated that the mirror stage proves that Freud’s concept of the ego is dependent on external factors, or “an other,” for validation and change.

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Three Orders

Lacan felt the psyche existed as three major structures that were in control of our lives and desires. The three orders are:

  • The Real is the state of nature that humans abandon once they begin to understand language. It represents the instinctual need for reproduction. Lacan stated that humans tend to dismiss the Real as impossible.
  • The Imaginary Order is similar to the mirror stage in that it marks a person’s movement away from primal needs into demands. Lacan states that the Imaginary was primarily selfish and narcissistic.
  • The Symbolic Order focuses on language and narratives. Once a person accepts the rules of language, they are able to interact with others, and others are able to impact them. If the Real is need and the Imaginary is demand, the Symbolic Order is desire.
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Desire

In Lacan’s works, desire is a permanent and often unconscious thing. Lacan also distinguishes between drives and desire. In his view, desire is a singular force while drives are many manifestations of that force. Lacan argues that a person’s desire is actually a separate person’s desire. Essentially, this means that every desire is a desire for recognition, while also only being a desire because another person also desires it. This is an extension of the mirror image concept. In some of his writings, Lacan describes desire as an incestuous desire for the mother as well as a desire for “something else.”

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Drive

Lacan’s works state that drives differ from biological needs because a person can never actually fulfill their drives. Lacan argues that a drive’s purpose is not to reach a goal, but instead to follow a way to circle around a goal. He identifies four partial drives: the oral drive, the anal drive, the scopic drive, and the invocatory drive. In their most basic form, these drives are the drive to suck, the drive to defecate, the drive to see, and the drive to hear. The first two drives are demands while the last two are desires. Lacan views all drives as sexual and as leading towards death.

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Phallus

Many of Lacan’s theories and concepts of castration and the Phallus appear in feminist works. Some feminists felt that Lacan’s phallocentric ideas and analyses could be useful in understanding both gender biases and the roles that society imposes. Lacan’s feminist critics often accused Lacan of maintaining and elevating sexist traditions in the field of psychoanalysis. A large number of these critics felt that gender had two positive poles rather than an absence and presence like Lacan believed. Annie Rogers, a notable author, and Professor of Psychoanalysis and Clinical Psychology credited Lacanian theory for some insights that helped to treat sexually abused women.

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Variable-Length Sessions

One of the most crucial clinical innovations in psychoanalysis was Lacan’s invention of variable-length psychoanalytic sessions. Lacan adjusted the normal fifty-minute session to anywhere from a few minutes to several hours in length. As a result of this, Lacan was able to view significantly more patients. Additionally, Lacan felt that most psychoanalysis took place in-between sessions rather than during them. By stopping the sessions short, Lacan forced his patients to cease thinking about the length of the sessions and begin thinking about why he would stop them at specific points.

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Lacan’s Legacy

Because of his many seminars, Lacan left a lasting effect on French and Latin American psychoanalysis. However, Lacan’s writings are notoriously difficult. This is due in part to his constant allusions to other thinkers, as well as his wide divergences from typical psychoanalytical theories. Despite the difficulty, his work continues to succeed even outside of the countries where he was most popular. There are many psychoanalytic societies in North America and the United Kingdom that study Lacan’s works.

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