One of the most common polemics against Lacan’s teaching concerns his style. And indeed, there are many things to say about Lacan’s pedagogical approach. One thing is that its performativity makes reading the transcription of Lacan’s seminars very difficult. When sitting in his seminar, a smile, a shout, a hand gesture, all could contextualize what is said in such a way that is not reproducible in textual form. In this context, Lacan often uses word plays, stretching his use of language to the phonemic, semantic, and syntactic level. Consequently, one thing that many English-speaking readers of Lacan occasionally miss out on is his use of phonemic word plays as jokes that lead him to an unrelated conclusion.
Here’s an example from a passage we read at the weekly seminar I guide:
I shall indicate in passing the following term, which I believe to be seldom used in German… it is the relation that Freud indicates, when anxiety is involved, using the word Libidohaushalt. Here we are dealing with a word that lies between Aushaltung, which would indicate something along the lines of interruption or lifting, and Inhalt, which would be the content. It’s neither one nor the other. It is the sustaining of libido. To spell it out, this relation to the object that I’ve been discussing with you today allows for a synthesis between anxiety’s signal function and its relation with something that we may call an interruption in the sustaining of libido.(Lacan, Seminar X, p. 103)
In this paragraph Lacan talks about the translation of a German word from Freud’s text “Vorlesung Angst und Triebleben” (1933) and uses phonemic word play in order to stress his point. The German word Haushalt literally translates to the English word “Household”. However, in German, Haushalt could also mean “budget” or “balance”. Accordingly, in the English and French translations of Freud’s text, the word Libidohaushalt is translated into “libidinal economics”. In the passage presented above, Lacan challenges this translation and argues that the word Libidohaushalt should be translated into “sustaining of libido” (in French: soutiens de la libido). In order to stress this point, Lacan breaks the term Libidohaushalt into pieces. The German Libido remains “libido”. However, the German Haushalt goes through several transformations. First, Lacan stresses that the meaning of Haushalt lies between Aushaltung and Inhalt. Aushaltung is not an actual word in the German dictionary (as Lacan indicates) but is a combination of the prefix aus and the word Haltung. The first sometimes comes to designate coming out of a situation or stoping something. The second literally means a “stance”, a “posture”, or a “bearing”. This is why Lacan argues that, when they are put together, they come to mean an “interruption” or “lifting” or, in other words, coming out or stoping one’s bearing. In contrast, Lacan proposes Inhalt, which translates into “content”. Aus and In are two prefixes that are commonly used as oppositions in German. Therefore, Lacan suggests that Haushalt, being situated in between Aus-haltung and In-halt, should be understood as the sustaining of libidinal charge—the content of which anxiety interrupts.
A question is posed at this point: why does Lacan even bother to invent the word Aushaltung in German in the first place when he investigates the meaning of the word Haushalt? These are two completely different words from the perspective of the German language that only share the root halt—which is not much. Well, a talk with a good friend of mine, who is a professional translator from German (thank you D.D.!) provided me with a possible answer: the French do not pronounce the “ha”! In French Haushalt and Aushalt would pretty much sound the same. Lacan strictly relies on the phonemic value of these two words as they are pronounced by a French audience in his word play. This type of word play is called Janusism: the use of phonemics to create a humorous word. Through this januism, Lacan brings us from Haushalt to a sustainable happy middle between Aushaltung and Inhalt. One might note in passing that it might be the case that Lacan just does not know the difference between Haushalt and Aushaltung in German. But I wouldn’t put my money on it. After all, Lacan makes an explicit distinction between Aushaltung, which he associated with “interruption” or “lifting”, while Haushalt is translated as “sustaining”.
Are we seeing here a meticulous etymological study of the German language? Absolutely not. We are seeing a joke in the making, one that brings Lacan to the right conclusion in a wrong way. It’s a pedagogical maneuver that surprisingly leads the student to the correct answer with no proactive explanation. The same friend (thanks again D.D.!) told me a joke that stresses this point quite accurately:
A scientist is researching a cricket in a lab. He asks the cricket to jump after-which the cricket jumps to the right. He marks a checkbox in his notepad and then plucks out one of the cricket’s legs. He proceeds to ask the cricket to jump and the cricket jumps to the left. Marking another checkbox, the scientist plucks another leg and then asks the cricket to jump again. The cricket musters his remaining legs and jumps. This goes on until the cricket is left with no legs. At this point, the scientist asks the cricket to jump but the cricket remains in its place. The scientist asks again, a bit louder, “please jump”, but the cricket does not jump. Summarizing the experiment in his notepad, the scientist writes: “The cricket is obviously deaf”.
What we see above is a funny and brutal joke. However, it also carries an important lesson. Some of you might know that a cricket’s ears are really situated on its legs, just below the knees. Therefore (in a manner that is even funnier than expected), the scientist reaches the right conclusion in his experiment in a totally wrong way. Telling you this joke, in addition to this interesting fact, helps me make my point, which is that, many times in his seminars, Lacan leads his interlocutors to the right conclusion in the same way. That is, being psychoanalytic in presenting non-analytic arguments.
The emphasis on the phonemic value of words should not surprise us when reading Lacan. After all, from its inception, Lacan’s psychoanalysis diverted its focus from the level of the signified to the level of the signifier. Namely, directed analysts not to engage with the meanings elaborated in the analysand’s speech but with the relationship between sound-images and associations. From his early teaching, Lacan avidly remarked that the signifier represents the subject for another signifier and, in this sense, the material of analysis should be sought out in this direction.
Recently I’ve stumbled upon a Facebook ad for The Complete Adult Psychotherapy Treatment Planner: With DSM-5 Updates. The planner promises to deliver “all the elements necessary to quickly and easily develop formal treatment plans that satisfy the demands of HMOs, managed care companies, third-party payors, and state and federal agencies”. This books is a product of the mental-health discourse; a discourse that presumes that, when one sets on a treatment, there are necessary predetermined ways that must be taken. I believe that psychoanalysis couldn’t be more different than that. A fundamental psychoanalytic axiom is that no analysis is the same and that the analyst knows absolutely nothing about the subject when initially directing the treatment. Moreover, I would venture to argue that it is exactly by taking the wrong way—the unfamiliar road not usually taken by the subject—that one is able to betray the logic of formal plans for demand and progress, allowing the analysis to reach its destination. These unexpected twists and turns should not be forcefully reduced to the frameworks and structures that shape our conscious knowledge. Correspondingly, in Lacan’s seminars, one is guided by many jokes that rely on the sound of words rather than on their internal logic. This is why, the reading of Lacan’s seminars, especially those translated into different languages, should be done in a light hearted manner. It is important to laugh when reading Lacan, not necessarily in the hysterical sense—of dethroning the master—more from a position that traverses the fantasy of mastery in general. After all, as we clearly saw, laughter can sometimes lead you to the right answer in the wrong way.