Book Review: Alain Badiou and Élisabeth Roudinesco (2014). Jacques Lacan: Past and Present – A Dialogue, translated by Jason E. Smith


Shiva Kumar Srinivasan,Ph.D.
IIPM Chennai

This book is in the form of a dialogue between two important French thinkers who explain what the Lacanian doctrine means to them, and the part that it has played in their intellectual formation. It is a common enough practice for French thinkers to construct a genealogy for their own thought if they are philosophers; or somebody else’s thought, if they are historians of ideas. In this book, we have an interesting combination of perspectives on the work of Jacques Marie Émile Lacan, the French psychoanalyst, from a philosopher and a historian of psychoanalysis. The book is not an attempt at a theoretical exposition – i.e. it does not explain Lacan’s work either briefly or in its entirety to those who have no previous acquaintance with it. It presupposes that the reader is a Lacanian; and proceeds to situate what Badiou’s and Roudinesco’s positive transference to Lacan means within the history of psychoanalysis in France. It also situates the importance of the Lacanian doctrine and some aspects of Lacan’s personality in the context of what it means to be a public intellectual in the French system. It therefore invokes, if only in passing, those thinkers who were of consequence in Lacan’s time in French academia like Louis Althusser, Gilles Deleuze, and Jacques Derrida, and explores what Lacan’s transference to Freud means not only within the discourse of psychoanalysis; but also, more personally, for Jacques Lacan himself. It also argues that the tradition of psychoanalysis in France is intertwined with that of French philosophy; and, therefore, it is not uncommon for French philosophers and psychoanalysts to explore the meaning of each other’s work though that may not be the case elsewhere in the world where philosophers try to avoid psychoanalysis.

The Return to Freud
An interesting question in this context that the dialogues explore is the fact that Lacan did not meet Sigmund Freud as often as the reader might think that he did (even though he got a chance to do so). In fact, it appears that Lacan was reluctant to meet Freud in person. It is almost as though his transference was not to Freud as a person but to the Freudian doctrine as such. Lacan felt that Freud himself and some of his followers were not always true to the implications of the Freudian doctrine in the way in which Lacan was, or at least aspired to be, as a young clinician in France. This, I think, is one of the more important points in this book, but it is not adequately explored in the dialogue between Badiou and Roudinesco. I use this idea as my point of entry into this review because the transmission of psychoanalysis as a medical doctrine has not been as secular, as most believe (given the Freudian antipathy to religion which he felt was an ‘illusion’), but is structured – whether we know it or not – through genealogies of the transference. It is therefore not irrelevant to ask, as the historian of psychoanalysis John Forrester does in his work, who was analyzed by whom, and with what effect, in the history of psychoanalysis (Forrester, 1991). So, as these dialogues point out, psychoanalysis is not as secular as, say, sociology, where the doctrines of a great sociologist like Émile Durkheim can be subsumed within the discourse of academia. Durkheim’s work, needless to say, doesn’t belong to anybody; it is also not necessarily the case that sociologists have a positive transference to the work of Durkheim, and that they spend their life working-through the transference, and so on, as most Freudian scholars do. That is however not the case in the context of the history of psychoanalysis, where the transmission of ideas from one generation to another is mediated by the state of the positive transference. This is probably why a great deal of psychoanalytic theory has happened in analytic schools and institutes rather than in traditional university departments. So, the main takeaway, for me – in terms of the transmission of ideas in psychoanalysis – is to wonder what the methodological differences might be between a secular and a non-secular model of transmission in the history of psychoanalytic ideas. Or, to put it even more directly, the relevant question here is: Is there such a thing as a secular transmission of ideas in the history of psychoanalysis?

Inside/Outside Psychoanalysis
The inside/outside problem in the transmission of psychoanalytic doctrines and ideas in the history of psychoanalysis is related precisely to this problem. It is possible for a sociologist to maintain that he likes sociology, or works in sociological theory, but dislikes Durkheim thoroughly as a person, or is totally indifferent to what Durkheim might have been like as a person. It is less likely – though not impossible – that a psychoanalyst will claim to be interested in psychoanalysis if he dislikes Freud, Lacan, or any other analyst to whose school of thought he subscribes. Why is this often the case? The answer is that the motor force of the clinical analysis, or even an academic analysis, on psychoanalytic themes, is based on the transferential assumption of the ‘subject presumed to know’. The question that readers of these dialogues – especially philosophers and historians of psychoanalysis – must take up in the near future then is this. Is psychoanalysis necessarily stuck in a non-secular method of analysis? If yes, is this something that we must worry about it if we are to make an effective case for the relevance of psychoanalysis in the public realm? Or, is it rather the case, that as Michel Foucault pointed out, that Freud is an inventor of not just a form of clinical practice but above all of a discourse, and that any attempt to found a discourse from the locus of an author is necessarily bound to unleash transferential responses – so it does not matter whether the transmission of psychoanalysis is secular or non-secular given that there is bound to be a difference between being a secular sociologist and a non-secular Durkheim scholar. While a sociologist can make the claim of being secular, it is not the case that somebody can pursue the vocation of being a Durkheim scholar without putting Durkheim in the locus of the subject presumed to know. So, in that sense, it is not only psychoanalysis, but – truth be told – all discourses that have to invoke a charismatic founder in the locus of the ‘subject presumed to know’. What the problems of transmission in the history of psychoanalysis demonstrate is a much greater level of transferential honesty than is, in fact, the case, in most ‘secular’ discourses. What psychoanalysts bring out relentlessly in both the history of psychoanalysis and the history of discourses is the fact that most discourses are not as secular as they would like them to be, and are usually in ‘scientistic’ denial about the transferential implications of their ideas, and belief systems. It is therefore important to differentiate between secular ideals and not-so-secular practices that constitute the ground reality of the history of ideas.

The Two Dialogues
There are two dialogues in this book and an introduction by Jason Smith of Cornell University. The introduction focuses mainly on the ‘late Lacan’, who is best known for his work on the topology of the unconscious, the structure of mathemes in psychoanalysis, and a preoccupation with questions of method in the intergenerational transmission of ideas. It would not be too far-fetched to say that Lacan himself was wondering whether a secular transmission of ideas is possible, and whether those who don’t like him personally, or found him to be a bit idiosyncratic, would be willing to work with his ideas. This is also the Lacan who experimented with the so-called ‘variable session’ (which is widely misconstrued as short sessions) in order to precipitate the disclosures of the unconscious, and addresses important questions on how psychoanalysis should relate to ancillary discourses like medicine, psychiatry, and psychology. It is important to remember that psychoanalysis is being subject to much more regulation now than was the case in Lacan’s time, and a number of discourses like psychology have become a part of the training program for budding analysts, especially if they wish to work in hospitals. So there is an attempt to either medicalize or psychologize psychoanalysis; this was not much of a problem in Lacan’s lifetime, but is the emerging reality of analytic practice in contemporary France and England. These then are some of the questions that Badiou and Roudinesco take up because they know that the incorporation of medicine and psychology will change the fabric of analytic theory and practice in the years to come. It is important to remember that the psychiatric input in analytic theory has always been much more than that of conventional psychology and medicine, and Lacan was himself trained as a psychiatrist. It would have however been equally interesting if Badiou and Roudinesco had also explored the part played by psychopharmacology in contemporary psychiatry given that even analysts like Julia Kristeva have attempted to combine psychiatry with psychoanalysis.

The Talking Cure
Will psychoanalysis be able to retain its purity as ‘a talking cure’ in the years to come? Or will it become just another eclectic combination of approaches? What would the part of the transference be in such a model of analysis? These questions, I think, should be a part of these dialogues since these points will have implications for the question of the transmission of analytic ideas in the years to come. There is, to put it mildly, a certain amount of ambivalence on the status of psychoanalysis and psychoanalysts in France. If analysts withdraw completely from the public realm, and concentrate on clinical work – like they do for most part in England – is that the model of success that analysts in France should aspire to? Or is it rather the case that French analysts want to be in the public realm, and find that they ‘can’t let go’ of the public dimensions of Lacanian discourse? One way of understanding this difference is to note that psychoanalytic theory in English psychoanalysis inspired by Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicot, and Wilfred Bion, or the Cambridge psychoanalysts like Charles Myers, W. R. H. Rivers, and John MacCurdy is more of interest to practicing analysts rather than to academics involved in discourse analysis; the only exception to such a list of British psychoanalysts is perhaps Ernest Jones who was preoccupied with the extra-mural applications of psychoanalysis (Forrester, 2002; Forrester, 2008; Forrester, 2010; Jones, 1948). Those who read these analysts will discover soon enough that while their work has interesting applications for academic work, they have been under-utilized by literary theorists, film theorists, cultural theorists, and so on. The main grouse that theorists have against the clinicians mentioned above is that they are not well-known outside the clinic; and that they are mainly invoked by historians to understand what their doctrinal differences are from those analysts whom discourse analysts really like – Freud and Lacan – given the scope of their extra-mural applications in the humanities (Leupin, 1981). French psychoanalysis, going forward, must now make a choice. Should it continue to remain like French analysis? Or should it become more like English analysis? The English model of success necessarily comes with a form of professional anonymity, and preoccupation with clinical matters to the exclusion of the socio-cultural applications of psychoanalysis. So while psychoanalysts have high levels of social status in England and France, English analysts do not concern themselves with non-clinical matters. In order to help readers appreciate the difference between these two traditions of analysis, I am fond of invoking the example of Michael Brearley, the former captain of the English cricket team. Brearley is a fairly successful psychoanalyst in England, but not many even know that to be the case (given especially the enormous fame and renown that he must have enjoyed as the captain of the English cricket team). Brearley’s success as a clinician is related not only to his willingness to work quietly within the English model, but the enormous stability that model demands of its practitioners. Too much success in non-clinical areas, or the ability to apply psychoanalysis to a number of socio-cultural phenomena, is not expected of analysts in England, and could even be counter-productive within the English clinical model. That then is the choice that confronts analysts in France as well. The constant increase in regulations is making French analysis more like English or American analysis with less emphasis on analytic and discourse theory and more on clinical practice.

French Psychoanalysis
What will French analysts do now? In which direction should they turn? This is where the give-and–take between French academia and the French clinic is relevant. The reason that French analysts prefer theory (albeit one that is grounded in practice) is that it gives them a chance to shape the analytic movement in not only France, but throughout the French-speaking world. This is not the case in England. While Lacan himself had taken the trouble to read the leading English analysts of his time, these English analysts simply did not attempt to export English analysis round the world. They did not even try to make large-scale in-roads into British academia as happens to be the case in France. There is an excessive reserve, modesty, and unwillingness to discuss psychoanalysis in public that characterizes the English model of psychoanalysis. When psychoanalysis does go public in England, it is always accompanied by the discourse of medicine and clinical psychology rather than through forms of theory that habitual readers of Lacan will expect. Many of the political, cultural, and social questions posed in this dialogue between Badiou and Roudinesco will strike English readers as beside the point though that is not the case from the French point of view. The French are haunted by the idea that giving up on psychoanalysis as a form of discourse analysis or ideological critique is to lose out on its status as a public discourse; it may even be akin to buying into the bourgeois model of normality. We must be clear on the cultural differences between these two approaches. English psychoanalysis is preoccupied with the clinical; French psychoanalysis is preoccupied with the ethical. While an English analyst who studied the classics as an undergraduate might know of the differences between the Greek plays Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus, it is not something that he will want to invoke in his analytic practice. Those who don’t know the difference between these plays or the ethical positioning of Oedipus and Antigone in the Theban cycle of Sophocles will have simply no chance of making it in French psychoanalysis (Lacan, 1986, 1992). These cultural differences then should give readers some idea of what is at stake in the English and French forms of psychoanalysis, and why the Lacanian project of a ‘return to Freud’ is synonymous with the ‘poetics of the Freudian corpus’ (Rabaté, 2003).

Lacan’s Discourse Theory
Another important point that comes up in the context of these dialogues is the notion of discourse theory. The export of analytic habits of thought in France to both the French academy and Lacanian schools throughout the world is a heady combination of French rationalism and Lacanian discourse theory. It is mainly through discourse theory and the linguistic model of the unconscious that Lacan made headway into the public realm. There is however no such thing as discourse theory at all in English analysis. While English analysts do participate in providing in-put to policy makers on the left and the right in matters pertaining to the regulation of not only their profession; but on social forms of legislation in a range of areas like sexual behavior, they do not invoke theories to justify their positions but invoke the consensus in the analytic profession at a particular point in time. That is why historians of psychoanalysis in England don’t talk about anthropologists, linguists, sociologists, and philosophers like their French counterparts do all the time. They restrict the conversation to clinicians who exchange notes on technique on the basis of their actual clinical practice. It is important to understand that since an important motif in these dialogues is the ‘figure of Lacan’. It is highly unlikely that the figure of an analyst should warrant so much discussion within English traditions of analysis. Another way of understanding this is to define the English model of the transference as something ‘personal’; which English analysts prize as a part of their professional formation; they would however consider it to be in ‘bad-form’ to go public with it. The main reason that I have done a quick compare-and-contrast on some – though not all the points raised in these wonderful dialogues – is to give readers, who are not experts in Lacanian analysis, a feel for what is really at stake in these analytic dialogues. A straight-forward account of the themes covered in these dialogues would not make it possible for the bulk of the readers, who will have no exposure to French analysis, to make sense of why Badiou and Roudinesco even invoke certain themes – let alone worry about the differences between secular and non-secular forms of psychoanalysis. Now that the prospective readers of this book have some sense of the differences between the French and English approaches to analysis; we will be able to analyze why the English resist discourse analysis, and why that is important to these dialogues.

It is precisely discourse analysis and the theory of the subject implicit within such forms of analysis that makes a non-secular form of transmission difficult in the history of psychoanalytic ideas. English analysts therefore restrict the positive transference to something personal between them and their training analysts; it could take the form of a clinical affirmation or even clinical ambivalence, but it is not something that should be construed as a full-fledged theory of the transference with which the analyst can go public. It is again something that cannot be openly articulated as a ‘doctrine’ since that would be reminiscent of the Thomism of the mediaeval schoolmen rather than be construed as forms of actual clinical intervention to help the patient get on with it. It should now become easier to understand why Badiou and Roudinesco spend so much effort to understand the later Lacan in this dialogue. The topological approach to studying the structure of the unconscious and the invocation of mathemes as forms of doctrinal transmission is an attempt to pose – if not answer the question – that is at the heart of this dialogue, and indeed of this engaging book. Can psychoanalysis be transmitted without the transference?

Forrester, John (1991). ‘Who is in Analysis with Whom? Freud, Lacan, Derrida, The Seductions of Psychoanalysis: Freud, Lacan, Derrida (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 221-242, Cambridge Studies in French.

Forrester, John (2002).’Freud in Cambridge’, Critical Quarterly, 46:2, 1-26.

Forrester, John (2008). ‘1919: Psychology and Psychoanalysis, Cambridge and London – Myers, Jones, and MacCurdy’, Psychoanalysis and History, 10:1, 37-94
Forrester, John (2010). ‘The Psychoanalytic Passion of J.D. Bernal in 1920s Cambridge’, British Journal of Psychotherapy, 26:4, 397-404.

Jones, Ernest (1948). What is Psychoanalysis? (New York: International Universities Press).

Lacan, Jacques (1986, 1992). The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book VII, translated by Porter, Dennis and edited by Miller, Jacques-Alain (London and New York: Tavistock/Routledge).

Leupin, Alexandre (1981). Lacan and the Human Sciences (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press).

Rabaté, Jean-Michel (2003). ‘Lacan’s Turn to Freud’, The Cambridge Companion to Lacan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1-24.


Shiva Kumar Srinivasan has a PhD in English Literature and Psychoanalysis from Cardiff University, Wales. His PhD thesis was titled ‘Oedipus Redux: D.H. Lawrence in the Freudian Field’ (1996). He has served as a faculty at Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur; Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi; Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad; Xavier Labor Relations Institute, Jamshedpur; Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode; and International Institute of Planning and Management, Chennai.