Lacan and french post-rationalism
Tom Eyers interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Tom Eyers is a continental who thinks all the time about Lacan and the Real, about whether Lacan is fundamental, about why many analytics are allergic to psychoanalysis, about what problem Lacan was trying to answer, about how the symbolic, subjectivity, Narcissism and the Imaginary connect with the Real, about Lacan and film studies, about Lacan and post-Hegelianism, about French post-rationalism, about questioning Foucault’s division in French philosophy, about post-rationalism’s connection to philosophy of science, about the politics of post-rationalism and the recent debates in literary theory and poetics. Out of freakin’ sight funksters…
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Tom Eyers: I don’t think I ever actively chose to become a philosopher, and I’m still unsure whether I am one at all. The particular branch of philosophy that I teach, Continental philosophy of the 20th Century, is fairly marginal in the academy; I was lucky to land at one of the few philosophy departments in the English-speaking world that takes it seriously. It’s much more widely taught in literature departments, and I interviewed for literary as well as philosophical jobs. I say I’m unsure whether I am a philosopher at all because my published work has always been interdisciplinary, in a sense that such a technocratic buzzword doesn’t, nonetheless, properly capture. (Of course, it could be argued that such prevarication over whether one is, in fact, a philosopher is as sure a sign as any that one is, in fact, a philosopher…) My dissertation and my first book concerned the work of a psychoanalyst, my second book explored the interaction of psychoanalysis, Marxism and literary theory in France, and my current book project (‘Speculative Formalism: Literature, Theory and the Critical Present’) is squarely about poetry, poetics and literary theory. So I’m not a philosopher in any canonical sense; I associate myself most closely with that much-derided and amorphous term ‘Theory’, and my scholarly outlook is committedly modernist in its concern for form and formalism, and in its preoccupation with artistic, theoretical and political avant-gardes, broadly conceived. That said, I do identify with the post-Kantian European philosophical tradition, insofar as it cautions against taking philosophy as a stable set of disciplinary norms, and insofar as it promotes critical, political and creative practices of reading.
My academic background is something of a patchwork. I went up to Cambridge initially to read English literature, and I find myself returning more and more to that formative interest. I graduated with a degree in Social Anthropology, a discipline I turned to largely because it was housed in one of the only departments at Cambridge that tolerated my burgeoning interests in psychoanalysis, Marxism and critical social theory. I initially intended to pursue a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology at Cambridge, and I received funding to do so, but I began to realize that my interests would be better suited in a more explicitly theoretical department. I had decided at that point, in 2007, to write my dissertation on Jacques Lacan, a figure I found productively irreducible to any of the intellectual scenes – structuralism, post-structuralism, critical theory, Marxism – that I had explored as an undergraduate. I was lucky enough to receive a scholarship to work with Peter Hallward at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, then based at Middlesex University, and it proved a fantastic place to write and reflect. I graduated with my Ph.D. in 2011, spent two years as a Mellon post-doctoral fellow at Washington University in St. Louis, and I’m now based in the philosophy department at Duquesne University.
3:AM: You’ve written about Lacan and the notion of the ‘Real’. What’s the relationship as you see it between his psychoanalysis and philosophy, in particular, how can philosophy be of clinical importance? I guess this question broadens out into a question as to whether you think analytic philosophy tends towards an epistemic reductionism that largely makes psychoanalysis out of bounds, and whether you think this is why some of the research programs of so-called continentals doesn’t seem to connect with the analytics?
TE: There are multiple links between Lacan and philosophy, connections that should nonetheless be taken for what they are – shared problematics that are not enough to reduce Lacanian theory to philosophy, if we can even specify the latter as a coherent discipline anymore. (There’s that symptomatic prevarication again…) Lacan was, of course, a voracious reader of the European philosophical tradition, and his seminars in particular are a rich source for innovative and surprising readings of philosophy, literature and much more besides. Lacan called himself an ‘anti-philosopher’ on occasion, and I’m a little wary of that designation (not least because it suggests that a coherent thing called ‘philosophy’ exists that one could oppose oneself to), but it does capture his resistance to the recuperative and over-systematizing tendencies of German idealism in particular. If philosophy can be associated wholesale with such a systematizing tendency – and I don’t think it can, at least not entirely – then philosophy cannot be of use to the psychoanalytic clinic; the clinic requires theoretical resources that are receptive to paradox, to incompletion, to formative ambiguity.
While I think Žižek’s restitution of Lacan as a figure worthy of study in the Humanities has been a very good thing indeed, I don’t agree with his suggestions as to the fundamental parity of Hegel and Lacan. Lacan, it seems to me, sought to push theoretical speculation beyond the dialectical closure implied in Hegel’s notion of the Absolute, and in so doing he recognized both the inevitability and impossibility of systematization, the compulsive drive towards but impediments to any full or stable structure, system or identity. In this respect at least, Lacan was a structuralist, at least if we define the latter, as I think we should, as the recent intellectual tradition best aware of this paradox, of the simultaneity of formation and de-formation in language, in politics, and in culture. Lacanian structuralism would then serve to remind philosophy that there are many gradations between positivism on the one hand – and I use the term broadly enough to include most contemporary ‘analytic’ philosophy – and relativism on the other. Lacan was no relativist, and neither were the other major structuralists; they recognized the non-closure of all formal systems (linguistic, unconscious, political) as the truth of those systems.
I think the reasons for analytic philosophers’ allergy to all things psychoanalytic are highly complex, and mediated by institutional and political considerations that I can’t go into here. Nonetheless, the epistemic reductionism that you mention, one that I think is diagnosable as the capitulation of previous forms of rationalism to a much-expanded but impoverished version of Baconian empiricism, makes a concept like the unconscious unthinkable. The unconscious, by definition, cannot be localized; it isn’t a portion of the brain that one can scan, and it doesn’t conform to expectations. It may not be an ‘it’ at all. But this doesn’t mean that it’s entirely ineffable, or unanalyzable. Lacan recognized that there are resources in philosophy and in literature for thinking phenomena that have determinable effects but that aren’t empirically locatable. Such phenomena may even be highly structured, this insight being the spur for the development of what I call ‘post-rationalism’ in mid-20th Century France, the attempt to meld the resources of rationalist philosophy of science, structural Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalysis.
3:AM: Can you say what question Lacan was trying to answer by positing the ‘Real’ as an answer? Why doesn’t he provide us with a succinct definition?
TE: The question would be something like: ‘why do psychic, linguistic and cultural structures persist over time if they are so constitutively unstable?’; or, perhaps, ‘why are psychic, linguistic and cultural structures so prone to collapse, given that they can also be seen to persist despite their inherent instability?’. Lacan shied away from succinct definitions because he feared the illusions of common-sensical recuperation, of the reduction of his ideas to prior paradigms or stock understandings. That said, Lacan is not as baroque as his reputation suggests; his seminars are often funny, frequently clear, and the fear of Lacan’s undoubted difficulty is surely symptomatic of broader political and cultural currents, both inside the academy and outside.
3:AM: I think your claim is that the ‘Real’ was always what Lacan was working out although it wasn’t always obvious. Is that right? Are you disputing the idea that there is any distinctive break in Lacan’s thinking between the early and late Lacan?
TE: Yes, I think Lacan’s project is best understood as a progressive working through of the paradoxes of the Real. That isn’t to say that there were no shifts or turnarounds in what was, after all, a near-50 year intellectual career. But there is a tendency in the literature to rather neatly divide Lacan’s work into three stages: the phenomenological stage of the 1940s and early 1950s, the structuralist/linguistic phase of the 1950s and 1960s, and the Lacan of the Real of the 1970s. That schema is fundamentally false, and it has led to some rather drastically misplaced readings. It is empirically true that there are more references to the Real after 1960 or so, but the problems that the concept addresses were there from the very beginning, and they shaped Lacan’s decision to overhaul Freudianism in the first place.
3:AM: How do ideas of the Symbolic, Subjectivity, Narcissism and the Imaginary connect with Lacan’s understanding of the ‘Real’?
TE: The Symbolic – broadly speaking, what Lacan understood as language, taken to be the horizon of all human identity and understanding – is complexly interconnected with the Real, just as it is with the Imaginary. The three registers – Symbolic, Imaginary and Real – are, for Lacan, related such that the disappearance or damage of one affects the others in decisive ways. My claim, however, is that it is the Real that overdetermines the other two registers. By this, I mean that the Real, as the simultaneity of formation and de-formation, of the possibility and impossibility proper to all structures, is apparent only within the Symbolic and the Imaginary – it never appears ‘as such’ – but it is identifiable nonetheless as that which motors those other registers, keeps them active and open, prevents them from lapsing into closure. The appearance of the Real in the Symbolic results in the determinative instability of the latter, the fact that there can be no metalanguage that fully accounts for every possible signifier in a chain.
As a crucial aspect of subjectivity, the Real names the contingency of the subject, its evanescence. As prone to the Real, the subject is never master of her destiny, but this measure of contingency is as liberating as it is limiting. If there’s a flaw in my Lacan book (perish the thought!), it may be that I emphasized the limitations of the subject over its possibilities; there’s work to be done, I think, on the positive, progressive political implications of Lacanian theory, a body of work more often tasked with a characteristic Freudian political resignation and quietude.
Narcissism is the primary logic of the Imaginary, so I’ll take the two together. The Imaginary names the aspect of subjectivity defined by images, by the development of a sense of self out of the alienated images of significant others that are our only source for identification. All acts of identification, of the formation of an identity, are narcissistic for Lacan insofar as they involve the attempt to domesticate the image of the other in the terms of one’s own sense of self. The Real-in-the-Imaginary names the tension, aggressivity and self-undoing that results from this narcissistic split in the subject, the self-alienation that results from the necessary routing of one’s own identity through that of another’s. But this tension is as definitional as it is damaging, for it is the only feasible route to a stable sense of self for Lacan; that logic of a simultaneous formation and de-formation, once again.
3:AM: So what is the ‘Real’ in Lacan? You’re keen to stress that it isn’t akin to anything like Kant’s noumenal, and that Lacan isn’t developing a version of Idealism. You also talk about it in terms of an absence that forms ‘the horizon of the complex totality of concepts that he used to revise Freud.’
TE: The Real is the concept that draws together the multifarious but related instances of that simultaneous formation and de-formation, constitutive of all structures for Lacan – subjective, linguistic or cultural. This is very far from Kant’s idea of the noumena, or a realm of unaccessible things-in-themselves. The Real is something that happens and that is irreducible to earlier philosophical attempts to define substance, subject or event. The eventality of the Real, its inherent contingency (and this despite its overdetermining reach, its determinative power), makes it the feature of a style of thought neither straightforwardly idealist nor materialist, at least as those terms have been received in the tradition, and as unstable as those terms clearly are. The Real is also the meta-theoretical horizon under which Lacan’s project coheres; replacing the Real with, say, the Symbolic as the crucial term for Lacan risks falsely rendering the latter a linguistic idealist; a related problem would result if the Imaginary were placed in such a position. Only the Real can do the job.
3:AM: Film studies seems particularly interested in Lacan. Colin MacCabe’s ‘Screen’ uses a deal of Lacanian theory, and Zizek too I guess. Is the ‘Real’ important in this?
TE: I would say that other aspects of the Lacanian theoretical edifice, especially the ‘mirror stage’, the theory of specularity inherent to the Imaginary, and the Lacanian theory of language, have been more influential on film studies than the Real. Žižek is the exception, of course, and he has been followed by excellent Lacanian film scholars such as Todd McGowan and Matthew Flisfeder. Their recognition of the power of the theory of the Real for film criticism is well taken. Nonetheless, I’m a little resistant to the notion of ‘Lacanian interpretation’. The danger is that the cultural object in question, whether it’s a film, a novel or a poem, gets lost in the effort to impose upon it an exterior conceptual framework. In my current book, I’m attempting to develop a theory of literary form that arises immanently from literary texts themselves, that grants to literary objects their own measure of speculative, constructive possibility. Such a theory would be informed by Lacan among many other theoretical sources, but it surely won’t be defined by them. In this sense, I’m no ‘Lacanian’.
3:AM: How does it connect with post-Hegelian phenomenology?
TE: There are important connections between Lacanian theory and phenomenology of all stripes, and one would be gravely mistaken to imagine that they’re entirely incompatible. Nonetheless, the two traditions begin from roughly opposed standpoints. Phenomenology, in its widely varying ways, begins from consciousness and its experiences; Lacanian psychoanalysis begins from a critique of the very notion of experience and the consciousness that is said to receive it. Lacan and Heidegger were, of course, interlocutors for a time, and there is a pronounced influence of the latter upon the former, most obviously in Lacan’s insistence on finitude as the leitmotif of the subject and in his appreciation of the world-forming and world-destroying capacities of language. (One of my favorite quotes of Lacan comes from the third seminar: “Man is the subject captured and tortured by language”). But one would do well to avoid drawing too many resemblances between Lacan and Heidegger. This is one of the weaknesses of some of the early books on Lacan in English, and the temptation should be avoided, if only because the language of Being that Heidegger trades in is anathema to the minimal and progressively formalized conceptual armature that Lacan deployed.
3:AM: In your latest book Lacan remains a big presence in your thinking, but he’s joined by some other key figures in post-war continental philosophy such as Bachelard, Althusser, Derrida, Badiou, Deleuze, Milner, Miller and Canguilhem. Characterizing this tradition you resist the terms structuralism and post-structuralism and use the label ‘post rationalism’ instead. Why?
TE: I did so largely to avoid the misunderstandings and simplifications that have accompanied the conscription of French thinkers into structuralist and post-structuralist boxes. It is one of the more tiresome habits of scholars to constantly propose and then contest these sorts of designations, and such distinctions are often useful for the purposes of intellectual history, but now, at least, I think structuralism and post-structuralism as terms have lost their constructive power, a power that at one point surely superseded mere intellectual history. Parenthetically, there is far too much straight historical ‘commentary’ in Continental philosophy, and I hope that I have always read historical philosophers with the aim, not of getting them ‘right’ empirically, but of reactivating and redeploying their speculative possibilities; Deleuze is very good on this point. ‘Speculative realists’ and the like have made the error of assuming that the only alternative to deferential historical commentary is a kind of sci-fi, pre-Kantian speculation that brushes away the paradoxes of language, ignoring the fact that theoretical modernism was all about finding the new in the old, the points at which word and world alike persist in their very incompletion. I worry that the enthusiasm among graduate students for these new metaphysicians is leading to a kind of ‘parochialism of the present’, or an arms race where the wildest speculation wins. The choice isn’t between historically sensitive work and ungrounded fantasy.
At any rate, my book Post-Rationalism highlights the important and often overlooked reliance of the thinkers of the French 1960s – Lacan, Althusser, Derrida, and their students, Alain Badiou, Jean-Claude Milner, Pierre Macherey – on an earlier seam of French philosophy of science, embodied by the likes of Gaston Bachelard, Jean Cavaillès and Georges Canguilhem. The post-rationalists both adopted and transformed the anti-empiricist, anti-positivist tenets of those thinkers, in ways that I think are salutary even today.
3:AM: How far do you dispute Foucault’s division of French philosophy of the period into the two camps – one kind of phenomenological (Bergson, Deleuze) and the other philosophy of science (Bachelard, Canguilhem, Levi-Strauss, Lacan)? You seem more interested in the latter.
TE: Part of the aim of my Post-Rationalism book is to place that division into question, although, again, I recognize the occasional uses for those kinds of categorization. As general trends, albeit from a very distant scholarly perspective, the two types exist. But the most interesting French philosophy of the 20th Century blurred the distinction in productive ways. Take, for instance, the work of Georges Canguilhem. Canguilhem was a philosopher of biology who insisted, in a manner sometimes close to vitalism, on the primacy of ‘life’ as the distinctive object of biological inquiry, irreducible as the latter was for Canguilhem to the analytical rubrics of the physical sciences. In this respect, Canguilhem was a kind of phenomenologist – he concerned himself with the modes of experience that life affords different species situated in different ‘milieu’. At one and the same time, Canguilhem was a rationalist; indeed, he foregrounded the conceptual structure of scientific understanding consistently above the empirical or the experimental. The two hold together in Canguilhem in ways that should make us wary of taking Foucault’s characterization – written, ironically enough, as part of the preface to a reissue of Canguilhem’s The Normal and the Pathological – too seriously.
3:AM: Why do you think the approach to philosophy of science of these french post-rationalists is of importance? It would be rare, I guess, to find Anglo-American university philosophy of science paying much attention to it wouldn’t it? They’d ask, why should we? But one of the key elements in post-rationalism as defined by you as post-Lacanian and post-Althussarian is the erasure of the Cartesian self or ‘subject’. It seems an area where there is a link with some areas of philosophy done elsewhere – for instance work by Schwitzgebel and Carruthers and Dennett where for some the role of introspection is problematized and elsewhere the self is an illusion. Can you say something about this and whether you think post-rationalism brings new resources – like the concept of ‘suture’ – the stitching of the subject to the signifier – and new perspectives to the table?
3:AM: Post-Rationalism, including both the earlier work of Bachelard, Koyré and Canguilhem and the later writings of Althusser, Lacan, Milner, Miller, approached the problem of scientific knowledge in highly distinctive ways that have much to tell us today. For one, it was uninterested in any sharp division between what is called, in Anglophone philosophy of science, the ‘context of discovery’ and the ‘context of verification’. The former names the contingent historical details that lead to a discovery while the latter details the empirical and rational reasons given for our taking it as true. For post-rationalism, the two are not easily separated, and to do so is to impoverish our sense of the labor of science, our sense of its productive, rather than simply descriptive, capacities. The latter idea is one of the most controversial aspects of, say, Althusser’s epistemology, borrowed more or less from Bachelard. This is the idea that, when working on an object, the scientist as much reproduces that object anew as she passively receives its content. Knee-jerks in the Anglophone context would immediately catch a whiff of relativism here, but this isn’t the case: in producing a new object, the scientist also produces their science as something distinct from common-sense or ideology. But key to this is the notion that such a process is never over; the scientific object is never entirely purified of its empirical or ideological trappings. If it were to be, the labor of science would be over, ideology forever banished. This is as ludicrous a proposition for Althusser as it is for Bachelard or Cavaillès. While you’re right that there are interesting parallels to be found in the work of Dennett et. al., I don’t think you’ll find this constructive account of science in much contemporary Anglophone philosophy, and it isn’t especially similar either to the ‘science studies’ tradition of Bruno Latour, Isabelle Stengers etc. The principal merit of the post-rationalist approach, in my eyes, is its ability to capaciously widen the parameters of what can count as scientific – historical materialism equally as much as chemistry, literary criticism along with psychoanalysis. There’s a danger, of course, that one widens the definition of science so far that more or less anything could count, but when read seriously the epistemological reflections of Bachelard, Althusser and Lacan don’t lead to that point.
3:AM: What is the political stance of post-rationalism. Are Ranciere and late Badiou the key figures?
TE: I don’t think there’s a single ‘political stance’ of post-rationalism. Here, I would want to compare the thinkers I wrote about it in that book to the literary figures associated with modernism. The latter, as a movement, was as often associated with fascism as it was with the Left. That’s not true empirically for post-rationalism – most of the later figures I write about in the book were or became revolutionary socialists of various stripes, although Lacan was no Marxist – but I don’t think there’s anything inevitable about the Leftism of this style of thought. Its general association with the Left was as much to do with broader political and cultural shifts in Europe in the 1960s as it was with specific elements of the philosophical work in question. Like modernism, post-rationalism places its bets on the new, the experimental, the unforeseen, and in that sense it’s about taking risks – and such leaps can be as catastrophic as they can be liberatory. As a Marxist, my sense is that socialism as a political project requires not the agreement of various philosophical movements, but the creative reinvention of Marx’s ideas themselves, and, most importantly, their actualization and modification in political practice. That said, the emphasis on the necessity of contingency that courses through much French philosophy of the 1960s lent itself very well to the de-Stalinization of French Marxism (despite, of course, Althusser’s undying adherence to the politics of the PCF) and to the sense of creative possibility that May 1968 left in its wake. Badiou is crucial to this, and he has been admirably staunch in his fidelity to the commitments and consequences of May 68, although his theoretical ideas have changed considerably since the 60s, not least in his recognition that the question of the subject, condemned as an irrelevance at least to the problem of science in his Cahiers pour l’Analyse articles, is in fact crucial across the board. Rancière was a co-author of Althusser’s Reading Capital project, but he violently rejected the rationalism of his masters after 1968. He’s a rather singular figure in my reading, and not quite explainable within the terms of post-rationalism as I’ve developed them. His writings on art have proved salutary for my newest book project, although I find his division of art history into ‘ethical’, ‘representational’ and ‘aesthetic’ regimes to be far less innovative than it is intended to be.
3:AM: Many of the thinkers you’re looking at were big in the sixties. How much of their work then was rooted in that particular milieu and do you think it carries resonance for contemporary thinking? I guess the question is whether these are just interesting as historical figures, or whether the program is still live?
TE: This is true for my first two books, but it doesn’t hold for my new book, to see the light next year. That new project updates my understanding of some of the conceptual issues explored in the first two books in the context of recent debates in literary theory and in poetics, to my mind the most fecund domain for theoretical production today. Theoretically, I engage with Fredric Jameson, Terry Eagleton, Caroline Levine, Franco Moretti, the ‘language’ poets, while I offer close readings of poets that both predate the 60s – Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Wallace Stevens – and that postdate the 60s – Ron Silliman, Bruce Andrews, Susan Howe, Lyn Hejinian. It is true that post-rationalism founds its conceptual maturity in the 1960s, and the political and cultural energy of that period was formative to that project, but as I demonstrate in the ‘Post-Rationalism’ book, the inception of that project is to be found in epistemological reflections written as early as the 1930s. The 1960s didn’t occur in a vacuum and, as Benjamin might have said, history has a habit of offering up its resources for contemporary reactualization. If my books can contribute in any small way to that process of renovation, the work will have been worth it.
3:AM: And for the readers here at 3:AM, which five books other than your own could you recommend to us to help us understand further your philosophical world.
TE: Given that this interview has focused so much on Lacan and my first two books, I thought I’d list texts that have had a major influence on my third book, ‘Speculative Formalism: Literature, Theory and the Critical Present’, due out next year.
1. Stephane Mallarmé, ‘Divagations’. (1897).
2. Fredric Jameson, ‘The Political Unconscious’. (1981).
3. Peter Osborne, ‘Anywhere Or Not At All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art’. (2013).
4. Paul de Man, ‘The Rhetoric of Romanticism’. (1984).
5. Francis Ponge, ‘The Nature of Things’. (1942).
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 20th, 2014.