What is Lacanianism?


Lacanianism is the study of, and development of, the ideas and theories of the dissident French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Beginning as a commentary on the writings of Freud, Lacanianism developed into a new psychoanalytic theory of humankind, and spawned a worldwide movement of its own.

Fredric Jameson argued that “Lacan’s work must be read as presupposing the entire content of classical Freudianism, otherwise it would simply be another philosophy or intellectual system”.

Lacanianism began as a philosophical/linguistic re-interpretation of Freud’s original teachings. How far it subsequently became an independent body of thought has been, and remains, a matter of debate. Lacan himself famously informed his followers “It is up to you to be Lacanians if you wish. I am a Freudian”.

The wide extent of Lacan’s evolving intellectual stances, and his inability to find a settled institutional framework for his work, has meant that over time the Lacanian movement has been subject to numerous schisms and continuing divisions.

Development of Lacan’s Thought

Lacan considered the human psyche to be framed within the three orders of The Imaginary, The Symbolic and The Real (RSI). The three divisions in their varying emphases also correspond roughly to the development of Lacan’s thought. As he himself put it in Seminar XXII, “I began with the Imaginary, I then had to chew on the story of the Symbolic…and I finished by putting out for you this famous Real”.

Early Lacan

Lacan’s early psychoanalytic period spans the 1930s and 1940s. His contributions from this period centred on the questions of image, identification and unconscious fantasy. Developing Henri Wallon’s concept of infant mirroring, he used the idea of the mirror stage to demonstrate the imaginary nature of the ego, in opposition to the views of ego psychology.

Structuralist Lacan

In the fifties, the focus of Lacan’s interest shifted to the symbolic order of kinship, culture, social structure and roles – all mediated by the acquisition of language – into which each one of us is born and with which we all have to come to terms.

The focus of therapy became that of dealing with disruptions on the part of the Imaginary of the structuring role played by the signifier/Other/Symbolic Order.

Lacan’s approach to psychoanalysis created a dialectic between Freud’s thinking and that of both Structuralist thinkers such as Ferdinand de Saussure, as well as with Heidegger, Hegel and other continental philosophers.

The Real: Poststructuralism

The sixties saw Lacan’s attention increasingly focused on what he termed the Real – not external consensual reality, but rather that unconscious element in the personality, linked to trauma, dream and the drive, which resists signification.

The Real was what was lacking or absent from every totalising structural theory; and in the form of jouissance, and the persistence of the symptom or synthome, marked Lacan’s shifting of psychoanalysis from modernity to postmodernity.

Then Real, together with the Imaginary and the Symbolic came to form a triad of “elementary registers.” Lacan believed these three concepts were inseparably intertwined, and by the 1970s they were an integral part of his thought.


Lacan’s thinking was intimately geared not only to the work of Freud but to that of the most prominent of his psychoanalytic successors – Heinz Hartmann, Melanie Klein, Michael Balint, D.W. Winnicott and more. With Lacan’s break with official psychoanalysis in 1963-1964, however, a tendency developed to look for a pure, self-contained Lacanianism, without psychoanalytic trappings. Jacques-Alain Miller’s index to Ecrits had already written of “the Lacanian epistemology…the analytic experience (in its Lacanian definition…)”; and where the old guard of first-generation disciples like Serge Leclaire continued to stress the importance of the re-reading of Freud, the new recruits of the sixties and seventies favoured instead an ahistorical Lacan, systematised after the event into a rigorous if over-simplified theoretical whole.

Three main phases may be identified in Lacan’s mature work: his Fifties exploration of the Imaginary and the Symbolic; his concern with the Real and the lost object of desire, the objet petit a, during the Sixties; and a final phase highlighting jouissance and the mathematical formulation of psychoanalytic teaching.

As the fifties Lacan developed a distinctive style of teaching based on a linguistic reading of Freud, so too he built up a substantial following within the Société Française de Psychanalyse [SFP], with Serge Leclaire only the first of many French “Lacanians”. It was this phase of his teaching that was memorialised in Écrits, and which first found its way into the English-speaking world, where more Lacanians were thus to be found in English or Philosophy Departments than in clinical practice.

However the very extent of Lacan’s following raised serious criticisms: he was accused both of abusing the positive transference to tie his analysands to himself, and of magnifying their numbers by the use of shortened analytic sessions. The questionable nature of his following was one of the reasons for his failure to gain recognition for his teaching from the International Psychoanalytical Association recognition for the French form of Freudianism that was “Lacanianism” – a failure that led to his founding the École Freudienne de Paris (EFP) in 1964. Many of his closest and most creative followers, such as Jean Laplanche, chose the IPA over Lacan at this point, in the first of many subsequent Lacanian schisms.

Outside France

Lacan’s 1973 Letter to the Italians, nominated Muriel Drazien, Giacomo Contri and Armando Verdiglione to carry his teaching in Italy.

As a body of thought, Lacanianism began to make its way into the English-speaking world from the sixties onwards, influencing film theory, feminist thought, queer theory, and psychoanalytic criticism, as well as politics and social sciences, primarily through the concepts of the Imaginary and the Symbolic. As the role of the real and of jouissance in opposing structure became more widely recognised, however, so too Lacanianism developed as a tool for the exploration of the divided subject of postmodernity.

Since Lacan’s death, however, much of the public attention focused on his work began to decline. Lacan had always been criticised for an obscurantist writing style; and many of his disciples simply replicated the mystificatory elements in his work (in a sort of transferential identification) without his freshness.

Where interest in Lacanianism did revive in the 21st century, it was in large part the work of figures like Slavoj Žižek who have been able to use Lacan’s thought for their own intellectual ends, without the sometimes stifling orthodoxy of many of the formal Lacanian traditions. The continued influence of Lacanianism is thus paradoxically strongest in those who seem to have embraced Malcolm Bowie’s recommendation: “learn to unlearn the Lacanian idiom in the way Lacan unlearns the Freudian idiom”.

Lacanian Movement

During Lacan’s Lifetime

Élisabeth Roudinesco has suggested that, after the founding of the EFP “the history of psychoanalysis in France became subordinate to that of Lacanianism…the Lacanian movement occupied thereafter the motor position in relation to which the other movements were obliged to determine their course'”. There was certainly a large expansion in the numbers of the school, if arguably at the expense of quantity over quality, as a flood of psychologists submerged the analysts who had come with him from the SFP. Protests against the new regime reached a head with the introduction of the self-certifying ‘passe’ to analytic status, and old comrades such as François Perrier broke away in the bitter schism of 1968 to found the Quatrieme Groupe.

However, major divisions remained within the EDF underwent another painful split over the question of analytic qualifications. There remained within the movement a broad division between the old guard of first generation Lacanians’, focused on the symbolic – on the study of Freud through the structural linguistic tools of the fifties – and the younger group of mathematicians and philosophers centred on Jacques-Alain Miller, who favoured a self-contained Lacanianism, formalised and free of its Freudian roots.

As the seventies Lacan spoke of the mathematicisation of psychoanalysis and coined the term ‘matheme’ to describe its formulaic abstraction, so Leclaire brusquely dismissed the new formulas as “graffiti” Nevertheless, despite these and other tensions, the EDF held together under the charisma of their Master, until (despairing of his followers) Lacan himself dissolved the school in 1980 the year before his death.


Frederick Crews writes that when Deleuze and Guattari “indicted Lacanian psychoanalysis as a capitalist disorder” and “pilloried analysts as the most sinister priest-manipulators of a psychotic society” in Anti-Oedipus, their “demonstration was widely regarded as unanswerable” and “devastated the already shrinking Lacanian camp in Paris.”


The start of the eighties saw the Lacanian movement dissolve into a plethora of new organisations, of which the Millerite Ecole de la Cause freudienne (ECF, 273 members) and the Centre de formation et de recherches psychoanalytiques (CFRP, 390 members) are perhaps the most important. By 1993 another fourteen associations had grown out of the former EDF; nor did the process stop there. Early resignations and splits from the ECF were followed in the late 1990s by a massive exodus of analysts worldwide from Miller’s organisation under allegations of misuse of authority.

Attempts were made to re-unite the various factions, Leclaire arguing that Lacanianism was “becoming ossifed, stiffening into a kind of war of religion, into theoretical debates that no longer contribute anything new”. But with French Lacanianism (in particular) haunted by a past of betrayals and conflict – by faction after faction claiming their segment of Lacanian thought as the only genuine one – reunification of any kind has proven very problematic; and Roudinesco was perhaps correct to conclude that “‘Lacanianism, born of subversion and a wish to transgress, is essentially doomed to fragility and dispersal”.


Three main divisions can be made in contemporary Lacanianism.

  • In one form, the academic reading of a de-clinicalised Lacan has become a pursuit in itself.
  • The (self-styled) legitimatism of the ECF, developed into an international movement with strong Spanish support as well as Latin American roots, set itself up as a rival challenge to the IPA.
  • The third form is a plural Lacanianism, best epitomised in the moderate CFRP, with its abandonment of the passe and openness to traditional psychoanalysis, and (after the 1995 dissolution) in its two successors.

Attempts to rejoin the IPA remain problematic, however, not least due to the persistence of the ‘short session’ and of Lacan’s rejection of countertransference as a therapeutic tool.

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