Why Can’t I Read Or Understand Lacan? Introducing A Timeline Of His Writings, Texts, Institutional Papers, and Seminars

Lacanian Topology

Can A Simple Time Line Help Produce a Reading and Writing?

Many complain of not being able to read or understand Lacan, but never take the time to put his work into the context of their production. Lacan was not so much a writer, but an orator adept at de-monumentalizing not only psychoanalysis, but mathematics and logic by re-problematizing their conceptual framework through a discourse. Here, then, before any possible reading of Lacan, it is necessary to determine how his texts are produced in a discourse: What is the difference between a text, writing, institutional paper, or seminar? What determines their interdependence and ordering? By folding the theoretical into the practical aspects of his work, we make room for an intrinsic reading that is more directed to what is real in the material of his writing than what is commonly found in the imaginative and popular Lacanian folklore.  In the  2nd draft full timeline , you will find a compilation of Lacan’s work, which has been subdivided into the categories of: Texts, Writings, Institutional Papers, and Seminars, then colored coded on the timeline. The timeline can also be expanded and magnified. We call:

  • A Writing ( marked in blue on the timeline) a work that proceeds only from a writing and is transmitted in a writing via the publication in a book, journal, newspaper, etc.;
  • A Text  a work that is either a redaction by Lacan himself of an oral transmission (class, seminar, conference, etc.) or a writing by Lacan in view of an oral transmission. In the Instance of the Letter, for example, Lacan presents this text as ‘mi-chemin’ between writing and speech;
  • A Seminar an oral transmission that was redacted by others and set in writing afterwards;
  • An Institutional Paper either a Writing or a Text addressing the procedures and problems of determining a social  connection, whether it be that of a clinic, school, or association.

The Writings, Texts, and Institutional Papers, are the most dependable, since they are reworked by Lacan himself, while the oral Seminars are more readable, but fraught with ambiguity and errors introduced by Lacan’s redactors. Instead of trying to read Lacan or understand his texts for a concept – with the inevitable frustrations such a spiritual reading imposes –  it is proposed here to postpone an understanding until you have gathered together the necessary elements to produce a reading. For instance, before reading a Seminar, it is crucial to go through not only the Writings and Texts of the same year, but to read the Institutional Papers that are correlative to the Seminar. Or in reading a Writing, it is crucial to read those Texts that problematize the more dogmatically stated written propositions, while the Seminars may be used to confirm a reading, gain an insight to a problem or apprehend to what extent the writings have been adequately transmitted, if at all. By situating a reading within the production of a psychoanalytic discourse, those overly facile interpretations where everyone offers their opinions and pathos on the theory and clinic can be better reserved for the movies.

Of course, producing a reading supposes there is a cause – or desire –  to begin in the first place and a way to finish, i.e., a way to confirm you have actually been reading (and not dozed off to sleep somewhere).

Let’s begin with the end point first. A position I take in reading Lacan is that he is misunderstood in the same way a mathematical text is: people do not construct the text or are not prepared to put into their reading the same effort it took to write the text. Yet, if Lacan’s text is truly an Oeuvre, a Work, and not merely a Product to be consumed, then there is no way around this effort. If this is true, then to confirm a reading is to produce a writing which is not simply a passive understanding, but a construction or re-writing. Indeed, some of the most productive readings are those that do not try to understand too quickly or well, but write what is not understood – the mistakes, errors, and equivocations – of a reading.  Before addressing the cause of a reading or cause for continuing to read, let us follow some of the more exemplary mistakes of those attempting to read Lacan in a writing, while showing how the best among them are correctable.

Lacanian Topology

How Not to Read a Text on Mathematics and Analysis: The Exemplary Mistakes of J.C. Milner

J. C. Milner in L’ Oeuvre Claire (1995) makes the distinction between the Scripta and Seminars of Lacan, by assuming the written Scripta are esoteric (interior to) since they are addressed to those in theory, while the oral Seminars are exoteric (exterior to) since they are addressed to the public in speech and infused with doxa. Milner does not, however, make the crucial distinction interior to the Scripta between Text and Writing, so he is left confusing the writing of theory – at the limit, the silent and distilled aspect of a univocal mathematical writing – with the writing of a discourse –  a language which is worked by writing the equivocations of reading. Because Milner’s work constitutes a particularly well received paradigm for reading Lacan’s oeuvre, one that has its roots in the Cahiers pours L’Analyse and the formative group of students, A. Badiou and J.A.Miller, from the L’Ecole Normale in the ’60’s, it may be worthwhile to situate what is at stake.

Briefly, Milner supposes there is a theory of Lacan, or psychoanalysis in general, and that it can be written rigorously in silent mathemes. Then he periodizes this matrix of suppositions into what he calls the Second Classicism of Lacan. Once Milner bolsters his suppositions by various citations and snippets from philosophy like only a well rehearsed French professor can do, he supposes Lacan’s theoretical writing discovers an obstacle of formalization in the knot and the work on the Borromean in particular. Milner then calls this topological period a deconstruction (Chpt. V) of the classical theory of the matheme: ” At the end of this path, the knot has become the undoing of the letter, […] It has become, properly speaking antimathematical” (p.166). Thus, for Milner, the distinction between the exoteric and esoteric, Seminar and Scripta, was merely provisional, since at the end of the day the importance of the orally transmitted Seminars will return when Lacan turns to Joyce and the Sinthome to show why the knot can not be written in mathematics.  If true, such a Milnerian reading would lend credence to the notion that Lacan’s engagement with topology was never really effective and could barely be called mathematics by any stretch of the imagination since all his work in knot theory was “antimathematical”.

As nimble as Milner’s periodizations may be, they are straw-man arguments having little to do with the actual topology employed by Lacan himself. Nowhere does Milner actually situate the topology in a construction or attempt to calculate, make a combinatorial proof, or provide a counterexample for why the Borromean would not be a mathematical object.  It is important to not simply critique Milner’s lack of concern for a constructive argument but his assumptions: Does psychoanalysis have or need a ‘theory’ or is it a question of a discourse? Yet, to his credit, it is easy to show how his statements are clear enough to be correctable: just as there is never a one sided opposition between writing and speech in Lacan – the Texts are midway between speech and writing – there is no assumption in Lacan that there can be a purely written theory in mathemes that can not be problematized from the beginning in a reading. Thus, there is no need for there to be a ‘late’ Baroque Lacan that deconstructs his former Classical period.  In fact, there is no supposition by Lacan that the knot makes a mathematization absolutely impossible – whatever that means – rather Lacan merely claims that there is not a mathematical theory that is adequate to the questions that he is posing with the knot: “To this day, there is no mathematical formalization that is applicable to the knot” (R.S.I.). What is clear in Milner’s Oeurvre Claire is that he does not arrive to calculate or deduce anything in Lacan’s work, but by a sort of verbose bad faith claims it is Lacan – not Milner himself – who is not doing mathematics. At this point, there is confusion based upon confusion with him and others who unwittingly adopt this paradigm while settling for writing books and publications on Lacanian Topology describing how the Borromean knot has three rings that fall apart if one is removed.

From the Ashes Came the Phoenix: The Exemplary Mistake of the School

The case  is general, for instance, in referring to one of the last entries on the timeline, The Letter of Dissolution (1980), an institutional text written in the dissolution of Lacan’s school, many of the modern day Lacanian scholars, from A. Badiou and J.A. Miller to E. Roudinesco, can only discover the futility of an enigma based on the mystery of a dereliction. Why would anyone choose to disband their own school if it were not the admission of a defeat? Yet, why would Lacan claim the dissolution was crucial ?  With a second less eschatological reading, a simple response is available: if Lacan was able to dissolve his school, it was only seemingly negative and mysterious, rather it was because the place of the seminars had changed from Normale Superieure to an open forum at the Faculty of Law at the Pantheon. In this change of venue, Lacan had begun to address a new audience who were neither psychiatrists from his early period at the asylum of St. Anne nor the philosophers from his second period at the school of Normale Superieure, but those more technically oriented students from the Hautes Ecoles des Sciences Sociales (HESS) and the everyday person off the street. Indeed, from this point forward, a place for analysis was made room for in a psychoanalysis in extension – a psychoanalysis worked by a topology – in a way that no longer required the membership in a professional club or a school.

A Short Note to A New Generation: The Inherited Mistakes

If the psychoanalysis of Freud and Lacan had needed partisans, by the end of Lacan’s school and life, the partisans had become defunct. And by the sound of it today some of the older generation of Lacanians still do not understand what has happened ( I am often reminded of how stockbrokers still find the birth of bitcoin unimaginable). Indeed, many of the newer readings that are coming out from their students and a younger generation of post-neo Lacanians scholars, especially in the English language, show a discourse caught in the disorienting effects of this dissolution. I would, however, pose such post-neo Lacan commentaries are not at fault, since without anything substantial to hold onto each person is left with simply generalizing their individual opinions onto the work of Lacan. It is difficult for young people today to get beyond the repetitive commentaries seeking to revive dead fathers and old debates, when the generation preceeding them has left things in such a muddle. For instance, look at the official chronology of Lacan’s seminars in French by Seuil and you will notice not only the curious absence of the last seminar of Lacan, Seminar XXVI – Topology and Time, but that many of the diagrams contained in the published editions of other seminars, from R.S.I. to the Sinthome, are unreliable. In such a general malaise not only does it become impossible to comprehend the crucial function of the Generalized Borromean in the Lacanian corpus, but it is impossible to invent or construct anything positive in the field. So much so, many have become resigned to either not being able to work with analysis at all or hopping over to the cognitive sciences and secondary sources such as Zizek and Badiou. Beyond the malaise, this short note and timeline is just one indication of the type of intervention required to make room for a reading and writing closer to the work of Freud and Lacan themselves.

Far from being a dereliction, Lacan’s dissolution of his school followed not only from the address of a different audience, but directly from his position towards modern mathematics: “since Cantor, there is no need for an initiation to mathematics‘. That such a non-initiation and dissolution could be taken for an enigma and not a simple place to rejoice and carry out a work, could only be imagined by someone who has lost the context of Lacan’s oeuvre, who longed for the good old days when mathematics was under the tutelage of philosophy, the esoteric, hazing, and less we forget pedophilia; who would mistake telling stories about a range of conceptual generalities with what it is to work very humbly in a discourse with the material at hand, be it mathematical or psychoanalytic,.

Beyond the grand allegories on the philosophical and scientific tutelage of mathematics, or just short of the small narratives of each individual projecting their pathos onto the work of Lacan, we simply offer here a time line for anyone caring to clarify what is at stake in a more precise manner. The timeline on this page begins to show how Lacan’s topological work never happened late: there were Graphs from 1946 to 1961, there were Surfaces from 1961 to 1971, just as there were Knots from 1971 to 1981.  Far from being a deconstruction, enigma, or dereliction, Lacan’s work in topology was always involved in a discursive movement that attempted to de-dogmatize it out from under the silent writings of a too scholarly, philosophical, or scientific presentation. Of course, all of this is made exceedingly vague by those modern day commentaries on ‘Lacanian Topology’, but our second time line, to follow, will bring out the objects, the Graphs, Surfaces, and Knots according to the development in the work of Lacan and the discourse of the analyst.


Robert T. Groome

Summer 2017

Santa Monica

Lacanian Topology