Lacan: The Absolute Master
By Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen
In Place of an Introduction
So he had to renounce the development of his business, and that was his last attempt to eliminate his idleness. Nothing was left for him but the very emptiness of time. So he tried to see how time was passing, an enterprise as difficult as catching oneself in the act of sleeping. —Raymond Queneau '
In his seminars, Lacan liked to quote Hegel's expression that every man is the "son of his times," and this formula is eminently applicable to Lacan himself. A "son of his times," rooted in his era by every fiber of his being—who more than Jacques Marie Lacan (April 13, 1901—September 9, 1981), psychiatrist, psychoanalyst enamored of philosophy and mathematics, personal friend of Georges Bataille and Martin Heidegger, Salvador Dali and Roman Jakobson, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Claude Levi-Strauss, Alexandre Kojeve, Andre Masson, Raymond Queneau, Michel Leiris, and so many others? Curious about everything, always on the lookout for anything new, Lacan took part in all the battles, all the debates of his times: those of psychoanalysis, of course, but also those of Politzer's "concrete psychology," of Surrealism (through his friendships and his contributions to the review Le Minotaure), of Caillois's and Bataille's sociologie sacree* of Hegelianism and anti-Hegelianism, of (French) Heideggerianism, and, finally, of Structuralism.
In a word, Lacan was an inspired autodidact—that is, a prodigious assimilator, open to every influence, quick to grasp resemblances and analogies among the most diverse fields. He was also incredibly agile at appropriating others' ideas. The autodidact, of course, owes nothing to anyone—not because he owes everything to himself, but because he owes everything to everyone. How, then, accuse him of plagiarism, since he annuls at its root the whole idea of intellectual private property? "The symbol belongs to everyone," Lacan used to say, speaking about a case of phantasmatic plagiarism analyzed by Ernst Kris: "For a psychoanalyst, an approach to the question of plagiarism in the symbolic register must center first on the idea that plagiarism does not exist. There is no such thing as symbolic private property" (1981, 93). It could not be put more clearly: "You believe you are stealing other people's ideas, but it's because you imagine that the other possesses a knowledge he does not have. Understand instead that ideas belong to no one, and no one can ever think by himself: it (qa) thinks, without you."
This thesis must be taken seriously, for it is the basis of the famous Lacanian "style," so consistently citational and allusional. ("The style is the man," Lacan recalls at the beginning of the Ecrits, but he adds, "Shall we accept this formula simply by extending it: 'the man to whom one speaks'? That would simply confirm the principle that we are advancing: in language, our message comes to us from the Other, and—to complete the statement—in an inverted form" [1966,9].
In short, one always writes with the style, the pen, of the Other.) By his own criteria, Lacan—who, as we shall see, never really had a thought of his own—was still no plagiarist; no one could be, since no one could be a (proprietary, original) subject before that "discourse in whose movement his place is already inscribed at birth, if only in the form of his proper name" (1966, 495)- "Jaacques Lacan" (who enjoyed speaking of himself in the third person) was thus deliberately, openly, honestly a plagiarist. He immersed himself in the inexhaustible discourse of others, moved around, was everywhere and nowhere, finally identifying (by way of this interpolated quotation from Paul Valery) with that voice
which knows itself, when it sounds,
To be no one's voice anymore
so much as that of waves and woods.3