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How to read Lacan

On Reading Lacan

If one disregards occasional short texts (introductions and afterwords, transcribed improvised interventions and interviews, etc.), Lacan’s oeuvre clearly falls into two groups: seminars (conducted every week during the school-year from 1953 till Lacan’s death, in front of an ever larger public) and é′crits (written theoretical texts). The paradox pointed out by Jean-Claude Milner is that, in contrast to the usual way of opposing the secret oral teaching to the printed publications for the common people, Lacan’s ecrits are “elitist,” readable only to an inner circle, while his seminars are destined for the large public and, as such, much more accessible. It is as if Lacan first directly develops a certain theoretical line in a straightforward way, with all oscillations and blind alleys, and then goes on to condense the result in precise, but compressed ciphers. In fact, Lacan’s seminars and ecrits relate like analysand’s and analyst’s speech in the treatment. In seminars, Lacan acts as analysand, he “freely associates,” improvises, jumps, addressing his public, which is thus put into the role of a kind of collective analyst. In comparison, his writings are more condensed, formulaic, and they throw at the reader unreadable ambiguous propositions which often appear like oracles, challenging the reader to start working on them, to translate them into clear theses and provide examples and logical demonstrations of them. In contrast to the usual academic procedure, where the author formulates a thesis and then tries to sustain it through arguments, Lacan not only more often than not leaves this work to the reader – the reader has often even to discern what, exactly, is Lacan’s actual thesis among the multitude of conflicting formulations or the ambiguity of a single oracle-like formulation. In this precise sense, Lacan’s écrits are like an analyst’s interventions whose aim is not to provide the analysand with a ready-made opinion or statement, but to set the analysand to work.

So what and how to read? Écrits or seminars? The only proper answer is a variation on the old “tea or coffee” joke: yes, please! One should read both. If you go directly to the Écrits, you will not get anything, so you should start – but not stop – with seminars, since, if you read only seminars, you will also not get it. The impression that the seminars are clearer and more transparent than the Écrits is deeply misleading: they often oscillate, experiment with different approaches. The proper way is to read a seminar and then go on to read the corresponding écrit to “get the point” of the seminar. We are dealing here with a temporality of Nachtraeglichkeit (clumsily translated as “deferred action”) which is proper to the analytic treatment itself: the Écrits are clear, they provide precise formulas, but we can only understand them after reading seminars which provide their background. Two outstanding cases are the Seminar VII on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis and the corresponding écrit Kant avec Sade,” as well as the Seminar XI on The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis and “The Position of the Unconscious.” Also significant is Lacan’s opening essay in Écrits, The Seminar on The Purloined Letter.”

More than half of Lacan’s seminars are now available in French; the English translations which follow with a delay of a couple of years are usually of a high quality. Écrits are now available only in selection (the new translation by Bruce Fink is much better than the old one). Lacan himself conferred on Jacques-Alain Miller the task to edit his seminars for publication, designating him as “the (only) one who knows to read me” – in this, he was right: Miller’s numerous writings and his own seminars are by far the best introduction to Lacan. Miller accomplishes the miracle of rendering an obscure page from ecrits completely transparent, so that one is left wondering “how is it that I did not get it myself?”


[1] Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, London: Routledge 1992, p. 307.

[2] Todd Dufresne, Killing Freud: 20th Century Culture and the Death of Psychoanalysis, London: Continuum Books 2004.

[3] Le livre noir du communisme, Paris: Robert Laffont 2000.

[4] Le livre noir de la psychanalyse: vivre, penser et aller mieux sans Freud, Paris: Arenes 2005.

[5] Since this book is an introduction to Lacan, focused on some of his basic concepts, and since this topic is the focus of my work in the last decades, I couldn’t avoid a degree of “cannibalization” of my already-published books. As an excuse, I took great care to give to each of these borrowed passages a new twist here.