This is the transcript of voice interview with Dr Ehsan Azari Stanizai in “Philosopher’s Zone” ABC Radio National Australia aired on 24 September 2011
Doctor Ehsan Azari Stanizai, Adjunct Fellow with the Writing and Society Research Group at the University of Western Sydney also teaches creative writing in Continuing Education at the University of Sydney.
The transcript of the interview is published with permission from Dr Ehsan Azari Stanizai
Alan Saunders: Now, here on The Philosopher’s Zone we like to think of ourselves as pretty fearless. No idea is too arcane or too complex for us to have a crack at it. There is, though, one figure whose thought we have long crouched in terror from: Jacques Marie Emile Lacan, born in 1901, died in 1981, a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who has been called ‘the most controversial psychoanalyst since Freud’.
Hi, I’m Alan Saunders; and my guest this week has said of Lacan: “His unreadable writings and an extensive use of rhetorical devices particularly, puns, allusions, ellipses, pleonasm, hyperbaton, metaphor, catachresis, allegories, metonymies and so on resemble in many ways the speech of the unconscious per se“. Sounds like heavy going.
Ehsan Azari Stanizai: Thank you very much, Alan.
Alan Saunders: Now, Ehsan, Lacan urged what he called ‘a return to Freud’. Of course, there are many Freuds, so what Freud did he think he was returning to?
Ehsan Azari Stanizai: I think Lacan reread Freud creatively, and also he reoriented Freudian psychoanalysis from A to Z. Mainly, Lacan’s contribution is mainly on Freudian psychoanalysis in the light of structural linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure, and also structural linguistics of Jakobson, Russian linguistic, and he also used intensively philosophy, and also mathematics and also topology. In that sense he completely rewrote Freudia in a contemporary and postmodern context.
Alan Saunders: I mean, this is very different from the picture that I have of Freud. I think of Freud really in two senses which might be somewhat at variance with each other; but I think of Freud as a man who wanted to create a science of the mind in fairly classical scientific terms, in almost Darwinian terms. I also think of him as, to some extent, a creative artist, as someone who is writing narratives of people’s lives. This doesn’t quite seem the Freud that Lacan is returning to.
Ehsan Azari Stanizai: I think you are quite right in that sense that Freud wrote: many of his works are like you are reading a novel. And also Freud was pretty much a thinker of his own age. If we look at late 19th Century and also early 20th Century, that was an age of radical science in a way that Western intellectuals thought that science was the only thing that gives us the ultimate truth that we are looking for. In that sense yes. But Freud was in a way ‘saved’by Lacan, because he reinterpreted Freud into our age, that is the age of postmodernity; that we are looking back at metaphysical discourse since Socrates: faulty, in a way; because it created a kind of illusion that we will reach the ultimate truth by means of our reasoning; because Western intellectual tradition was mainly centred on consciousness, so the Western tradition could not understand something outside of consciousness. So this ‘unconscious’ was inconceivable before Freud.
So now Lacan had more at hand, because he had structural linguistics. This was one thing that Freud himself had grappled with, because if you read Freud’s work, almost in every page he is talking about language, he is talking about speech figures, he is always talking about discourses in it, in a way. But Lacan reinterpreted the whole knowledge that was produced by Freud in a new, his own era. And I believe that Freud is still there with Lacan, because Lacan always said ‘what is the meaning of “return to Freud”?’ It means a return to word. Return to word, return to language, because he said that unconscious is structured like language, or by language. But Freud gives us a more or less Darwinian sense of human subjectivity. So I believe that Freud is completely there in Lacan, but unfortunately you are right in one sense that Lacan is inaccessible because of his baroque syntax, and also because of his difficulty and ambiguous or surreal style that he had.
Alan Saunders: Now, as you’ve already said, Lacan developed the Freudian concept of the unconscious with the help of modern linguistics, or what at the time was modern linguistics, particularly the thought of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who died in 1913. What did Saussure have to contribute to Lacan’s thought?
Ehsan Azari Stanizai: Well, for Lacan it was mainly his redefinition of the language itself. Because for Saussure language was beyond being a means of communication: it was a system of signs, and also a system of differences.
Alan Saunders: And he thought that the unconscious was structured like language.
Ehsan Azari Stanizai: Yes. That phrase is a little bit contradictory, but if we look at it in a Lacanian sense we can make sense of that phrase. He says that ‘unconscious is a knowledge’. The knowledge that is not available for our consciousness. He thought that this unconscious is always producing its effect in these linguistic tropes and also in the gaps, and also in the lapses in our speaking, or in our written discourse, or in our spoken discourse; those things that we are not talking, or those things that Freud called ‘parapraxis’, or slips of the tongue for example. And if you put it in literary discourse, those gaps, those lacunae in the literary text; this was the place that Lacan enlisted on it as an effect of the unconscious, and Lacan said that when language fails to produce its effect as a communicative means, then that is the eruption of unconscious.
Alan Saunders: He also upended the great 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes – I have to say, a particular favourite philosopher of mine – who famously said ‘I think therefore I am’. And Lacan says it should be ‘I think where I am not; therefore I am where I am not thinking’. What do did he mean by that?
Ehsan Azari Stanizai: Lacan was critical of Descartes because Descartes saw the human subject and the ego as consciousness. So he says that I am walking because I experience walking, therefore I am. So this consciousness for Descartes was an experience first of all… experience. So what Lacan says is that this is incomplete, because Descartes actually forgot about the whole picture of consciousness, because he ignored unconscious. Because, according to Lacan, the human subject, once it enters language… this is – as Lacan famously said – that a human being is caught up between two deaths. One death is entry into language, and the next death is the natural death that we have. He said that Descartes’ talk about consciousness from a position of certainty — so he was certain that ‘I think therefore I am’- so that what Lacan says: ‘I think where I am not’. So this means that there is something else that is out there. So there is two subjects for Lacan. One is speaking subject; and another is subject of unconscious, that is being spoken. So the whole discourses about consciousness, Lacan contradicts; and he is sceptical about Descartes.
Alan Saunders: It seems a bit hard on Descartes. I mean, you say that he’s critical of Descartes because Descartes is proceeding from a position of certainty… In fact, when Descartes says ‘I think therefore I am’, what he’s saying is that is in fact the only thing I can be certain of.
Ehsan Azari Stanizai: Yes, well, that is what I said, because he said there is an appendix in Descartes’Meditations, and he clears up this dictum. In that appendix he says that consciousness or thinking – the cogito – is for me like walking, because this is something that I cannot deny it, and I cannot be sceptical of it. So now Lacan says — this is the first scene of Descartes, that he called him ‘idiot Descartes’, because he says he’s forgotten the real dimension of our subjectivity – because our consciousness is not what is really our consciousness. This is just our speaking that we are talking about ourself. But the origin of that speaking is somewhere else.
Alan Saunders: On ABC Radio National, you’re with The Philosopher’s Zone, and I’m talking to Doctor Ehsan Azari Stanizai from the University of Western Sydney about Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist. Ehsan, for Lacan the genesis of human subjectivity comes with what he calls – in terms of human development – the ‘mirror phase’. What is that?
Ehsan Azari Stanizai: Well, he’s saying that something happens in the infantile life – from when an infant … from six months to sixteen, to eighteen months. So in this period, the human baby does not have the control of its own coordination. It’s like a piece of meat. So once he or she sees her or his image in the mirror – so that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a mirror in front of them; that means when they are looking at their first person – and mother, or father, or whoever it may be – so when he’s looking outside, Lacan says that his or her ego is structured on the basis of a specular image, outside of him. It means that the incoordinate state in a human life, that a human baby is not able to control her motor functions of her body, or his body; so at that time when she’ll see something outside of her– that is the source of her identification, or the source of self-alienation in the meantime as well. So the mirror stage for Lacan, that is now hugely influential in film studies, and also in theory of poetry, that why poets cannot speak anything outside ‘I and you’- ‘I and you’, or ‘you and me’, so they’re always living in this ‘I and you’ kind of discourse– every poet. So that means for Lacan, that preoccupation of infantile life – the ‘I’and the ego was on the basis of an image, on the outside of the human baby. In the meantime that image was a source of jubilation; and in the meantime a source of rivalry, and also even aggression; because the human baby sees that complete image, which is not in a par with her or his own, because there is discrepancy between the situation she or he is in, and also the perfect image outside.
Alan Saunders: What about the ‘Other’? What role does that have to play?
Ehsan Azari Stanizai: That ‘Other’– with capital ‘O’. That is now a buzzword in almost all branches of humanities. If you go to culture studies, English, in philosophy department, they will always talking about ‘Other’. The ‘Other’ for Lacan was what symbolised that lack, that absence; so that absence that happens after our entry, or our ‘fall’ into language, that object that we had in pre-linguistic period that is no more available. So now this ‘Other’ with a big ‘O’is a kind of signifier; it is a signifier that signifies that lost object.
Alan Saunders: What sort of lost object is it? I mean, presumably it is not an object to which we can give any sort of linguistic expression, or description.
Ehsan Azari Stanizai: Well, we can have expressions, but symbolically. Because that object does not lend itself to symbolisation. That is not available in language for us. We cannot present it as it is, just we symbolically… or we can have a kind of allusion towards that lost object. But there is another ‘other’ as well, with the lower case ‘o’, which we sometimes… Lacan calls it ‘object a’ or ‘object petite a’. And that object for Lacan was the residue of that lost object; or that residue of that pre-ontological state of being. The object of my desire; in the meantime I am seeking it; a general name for the object that we are seeking in our life. And that is the residue of that lost object, according to Lacan and epistemology.
Alan Saunders: Is it through my desires for this ‘other’ that I can come to know my unconsciousness; I can understand what my unconsciousness is doing?
Ehsan Azari Stanizai: If you follow Lacan… of course, Lacan himself claimed that when he is speaking he is producing an unconscious discourse, because that is why he said ‘I am not concerned to be understood’, as he always said, ‘because I want to recreate unconscious.’ But desire alone is a very tough, very difficult concept. For instance, we have needs; all kinds of needs. For instance, I am hungry, I need food. I am thirsty, I need water. So this water, these kinds of objects are needs, not desire. According to Lacan, desire will never be satisfied. It is insatiable, that is that we can never have access to it because that has gone already; that when we come to the world of language, we lost our basic — our source is gone, because we were alienated: we come into a different world, which is the world of language. And that language is pre-existing us; because that was before our coming into life, that was already there, in currency, that language.
Alan Saunders: You said that in his writing – because Lacan was trying, to as it were, recreate the unconscious – he was not concerned to be understood. There are some writers, and certainly some philosophers – and Immanuel Kant springs to mind here – Kant is really, really difficult to read. But he’s difficult to read because he was dealing with very intractable material and trying to make it as understandable as he could; and the result was still very, very difficult, but it wasn’t for the want of trying on his part. Are you suggesting that Lacan is not trying to do this, he’s actually not trying to be comprehensible?
Ehsan Azari Stanizai: Well, there is two things that I have to answer this question. First, although Lacan claims that ‘I am producing unconscious’, but in the meantime Lacan also says that style… ‘style is human being’, ‘I am my style.’So I am identified better not by anything – by my clothes, by my look – but by my style. This is in a tradition, particularly in contemporary French theory: all thinkers are like that, more or less difficult to understand. Derrida is another example. But for Lacan, difficulty is the concept.
I give you an example: when I was doing my degrees at Macquarie University, when I started reading Shakespeare, because one chapter of my thesis was on Shakespeare to find out – Hamlet, for instance – my supervisor told me, since Hamlet is very difficult even for native speakers, so what will be … so I told to my supervisor, that ‘you have the right to laugh at me, and you have every right to laugh at me, but I will tell you one thing: when I stopped reading Lacan, and then started reading Shakespeare, then Shakespeare becomes like a children’s book to me.’ And he laughed, because in Shakespeare the difficulty is the phrases, vocabularies, and some concepts. But with Lacan, difficulty is a whole bunch of concepts. So he is giving you the whole bunch of concepts, that each is correlated with every concept that he is talking about. So this is the most important thing that Lacan says.
But to come back to your point: Yes, I agree that Lacan to some extent might try to create a kind of unconscious discourse; but at the bottom of it, if we look at it I think Lacan… that was his style. Because he couldn’t help it. Because this was… he was torturing his readers. And sometimes his readings give you a good dizziness after reading it, because he does not share his knowledge with his readers. So he is always bombarding his readers with too many concepts, that all concepts are correlated with each other. So this is not only for readers of Lacan, but even for those people who are oriented… even specialists of Lacan have the same problem. Because that is why now there is different interpretations of Lacan; and there’s lots of controversies, and there is factionalism even among the Lacanians as well.
Alan Saunders: You’ve mentioned Shakespeare, so let’s talk about art and literature. What role does art have to play in Lacan’s view of the unconscious?
Ehsan Azari Stanizai: Lacan was pretty much in dialogue with art, and also with literature, with painting and all form of art. And he saw in art, in literature, a kind of parallelism. He said that in literature, for instance in poetry, there is a hidden knowledge, and that hidden knowledge which the writer, and a poet, and an artist articulated in his own ways; that is raw material for psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis brings them into a coordinated epistemology; or to bring it to a kind of knowledge. But that knowledge is always there. For Lacan, literature and art was a great source of not only inspiration, but he himself developed most of his concepts on the basis of art and literature. For instance, I give an example: his theory of desire and interpretation of desire was based deeply in Hamlet, in Shakespeare. His theory of ‘gaze’was deeply based in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, Also there is a 17th Century painting called Ambassadors…
Alan Saunders: This is the one by Holbein…
Ehsan Azari Stanizai: Yes. You know… and in that picture there is two French ambassadors to England. But in the meantime, at the bottom of that painting there is a skull… so, the skull is looking at you back! So what Lacan says that – his theory of gaze is that there is a discrepancy there is a contradiction between the eyes and ‘looking’. What he says… ‘when I am looking for instance to an object of art; I enjoyed it and I looked at it. But in the meantime, the object is looking back at me.’So the gaze for Lacan was looking back, not my own gaze. The object itself is gazing back to me, like the painting which is called The Ambassadors.
Alan Saunders: So The Ambassadorsserves, for him, in the way that Velasquez’ great painting Las Meninas did for Foucault.
Ehsan Azari Stanizai: Yes, yes … and that is not the only painting; there is quite a lot of — for instance, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, that was another example for Lacan…
Alan Saunders: This is the Bernini…
Ehsan Azari Stanizai: Yes, that was another example of when Lacan was speaking to his audience abou jouissance – the theory of jouissance, that is a kind of … most translators leave that word in English as well; that’s a French word which means, jouissance, it is close to something … enjoyment; so that is a kind of — for Lacan a kind of unconscious enjoyment, that is a mixture of pleasure and unpleasure, so that is a kind of transcendental, kind of ecstatic enjoyment. So Lacan says that if you want to go to a room and see that statue… because she is in a moment of mystical ecstasy. Lacan was very much… for instance, you can name it. I cannot see any great work of art that Lacan does not concentrate on it, or that there is no philosopher or philosophy that Lacan was not taking it.
Alan Saunders: Well just finally, then, what do you think was Lacan’s relationship with philosophy. You’ve mentioned that he was influenced by Merleau-Ponty, the great French philosopher; we also know he thought Descartes was an idiot; but how did he stand in general in his relationship to philosophical thinking?
Ehsan Azari Stanizai: Although Lacan had a very ambivalent relationship with philosophy – he called himself ‘anti-philosopher’ in many places – but in the meantime his discourses… his writing is so much embedded philosophy. So he is criticising philosophy because of this love of knowledge, or that ‘ultimate truth’ that philosophy claims. That is illusion for Lacan. That is a kind of mirage for Lacan. Lacan think that obsession of philosophers, to go for… to find out that truth, is a kind of paranoia for Lacan. But in the meantime Lacan also psychoanalysed philosophical epistemology. He on the one hand developed his own concept on the basis of philosophers, and on the other hand he is also correcting philosophers. For instance, he speaks about Plato’s theory of forms: Lacan says that theory of forms that Plato describes as something invisible, something divine, something ultimate truth that one’s ‘soul’ was in contact with before it was imprisoned in the body – so that form that was origin of knowledge, for Plato, Lacan says that is unconscious knowledge. That is, a knowledge that is unavailable for us. So that is why he corrects Plato.
Alan Saunders: Well, if you want to tackle a bit of Lacan yourself, check out our website, abc.net.au/rn/philosopherszone. I’ve been discussing Lacan’s thought with Doctor Ehsan Azari Stanizai, adjunct fellow with the Writing and Society Research Group at the University of Western Sydney. Ehsan, thank you very much for being with us today.
Ehsan Azari Stanizai: Thank you very much for being here.