Those interested in learning more about the work of Jacques Lacan will wonder how to begin. There are many, many books dedicated to the vulgarisation of Lacan, but they are written with different audiences in mind. Not everyone who’s curious about Lacan is necessarily an academic, so even some of the “introductions” to Lacan will prove discouraging to some readers. And given that Lacan’s writing is hideously difficult, it’s not a good place to start. So here are some of the books I have found the most useful in my own studies.
For the absolute beginner without a background in psychoanalysis, apart from at least a selective reading of Freud’s “minor” texts, it’s essential to look at some of the classic Freudian works: “The Interpretation of Dreams”, “Civilisation and its Discontents”, “Totem and Taboo”, “The Ego and the Id”, etc. These books, if read with care, will make the task of understanding Lacan far easier. Really. Lacan was, in his own way, a committed Freudian. It’s crucial to start here.
In particular, though: be aware of the main phases of Freud’s thought. For instance: You need to be aware that “The Interpretation of Dreams” comes way before, say, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” — and that at the time of the former’s publication, much of what we call “Freudian” thought had not been very much developed, at least not in the form we typically think Freudian thought takes these days.
Speaking of “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”: Read that, and take note of its difficulties. It’s a very tricky text, and you will find it useful to keep it in mind when you read Lacan’s own work on the death drive, and so on.
I’ve also got some articles up on Lacan and Zizek, of which one of the more popular has been an overview of enjoyment (jouissance).
Sean Homer’s “Jacques Lacan” is a short and accessible introduction to Lacan, and it’s also one of the easiest to find. It will scare nobody away. I think, though, that people coming to Lacan because they first read Zizek’s work will find it less useful than those who just want a good overview of some Lacanian themes.
However, Bruce Fink’s “Clinical Introduction” is a much more elaborate but equally accessible work. It’s one of the absolute best texts for an overview of the Lacanian project, and its focus on clinical practice makes it especially interesting — many of the available books on Lacan are very focused on the “theory” so Fink’s contribution is really valuable. If you enjoy Fink’s book, then the obvious next step is to read his other “big” introductory text, “The Lacanian Subject”, which is more philosophical but also very lively. I would not recommend Fink’s “Lacan to the Letter” to those just starting out, because although it’s also an expository work, it deals almost exclusively with Lacan’s own writing, and requires a greater familiarity with Lacanian concepts than the other two books. Finally, his “Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique” will be of little interest to those whose interest lies exclusively in the theoretical side of things, but that’s a shame, since it’s also an excellent book and it stresses the practical nature of analysis. After all, Lacan was an analyst first and foremost.
There are two books I can particularly recommend for people who want to know more about Lacanian ideas about the discourses. The first is Jeanne Lorraine Schroeder’s “The Four Lacanian Discourses” — a work that not only manages to very clearly explain how to make sense out of the discourses examined by Lacan, but also to show, in a jargon-free way, how Lacanian psychoanalysis can be used in legal practice and theory. That, in itself, is worth looking into.
The other book is Mark Bracher’s “Lacan, Discourse and Social Change” and it’s an equally clear, unpretentious work, with a few excellent examples that help to understand Lacanian concepts like the master signifier, the role of fantasy, etc. I find that Bracher’s book sometimes sabotages itself when it “analyses” its own role in the university discourse, a tactic that is interesting but ultimately not as helpful as it could be. However, it’s a good and useful text.
Bracher also co-edited a book called “Lacanian Theory of Discourse” wherein different Lacanians (including Zizek) weigh in on the various uses of Lacanian discourse theory. It’s a good book, but I recommend “Lacan, Discourse and Social Change” first and foremost, because it’s more focused and more pedagogical.
Samuel Weber has an exceptional book called “Return to Freud” in which he explains Lacan in a particularly rigorous way. It is not long, but it is for the already initiated reader. It’s excellent if you’re looking for something challenging and rewarding.
Likewise, “Lacan: The Absolute Master” by Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen and “Jacques Lacan” by Jonathan Scott Lee are great introductions to Lacan but they kind of assume a philosophical background and will not prove satisfying to people who want a clear overview of the whole project. Nevertheless these books are worth discovering.
Malcolm Bowie’s “Lacan” is challenging and, I find, less enlightening than it promises to be. That isn’t to say it isn’t worth reading — Bowie was a particularly good writer and his work on the impossibly difficult Mallarmé clearly prepared him for this book on Lacan. It’s not, however, a good place to start. It has a literary focus and for those interested in the “literary Lacan” it is one of the best I’ve found so far.
A couple of books that I would not recommend: Alain Vanier’s “Lacan” (because it is too general and too short to be of any real help) and “The Lacanian Delusion” by François Roustang. On the latter: although it’s important to consider the many criticisms levelled at Lacan, this book seems too personal — it was written by a former student of Lacan’s, and in that respect it is fascinating, but as a critical work about Lacan fails to engage with his thought on a thorough enough level. At times it reads more like a character assassination than anything else.
Slavoj Zizek wrote “How to Read Lacan” and “Looking Awry” as expositions of Lacan. I consider the former to be very weak and the latter to be of real interest. “How to Read Lacan” is more of a “best of Zizek” in that it consists mostly of material recycled from Zizek’s other books. While it makes for fun reading, it doesn’t do a great job of explaining Lacan, and the Lacan it does present is a decidedly Zizekian one. Instead of that, I recommend “Looking Awry” because it is more careful, more illuminating, and offers better arguments for taking Lacan seriously.
However, I still feel that Zizek’s best “introduction” to his version of Lacan is “The Sublime Object of Ideology” because it shows very interestingly and effectively how you can apply Lacanian ideas to ideological critique. It also features a considerable amount of Hegelian stuff, and since in Zizek’s work these two thinkers (Lacan and Hegel) are never out of dialogue for very long, it makes sense to read this book as a starting point for discovering Zizek — I consider it his best and most consistent work.
An exceptionally useful book for those who want to get into Lacan’s seminar on sexuality (“Encore”) is “Reading Seminar XX”, edited by Suzanne Barnard and Bruce Fink. This is a fantastic resource. It won’t help those who know nothing about Lacan’s work, but for those who have the basics down and who want a good explanation for why feminist critics have found Lacan’s work so useful, there is very little that beats this in English.
Speaking of feminism, I consider “Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction” by Elizabeth Grosz to be really excellent. It will help you even if you don’t think you’re interested in the feminist debate concerning Lacan, because Grosz explains everything very well, very patiently, without condescension. She makes the links to Freud clear, too, where the links are relevant. I recommend this title above almost all the others.
Although there are few very extended commentaries of particular Lacanian texts, have a look at “Against Adaptation: Lacan’s Subversion of the Subject” by Philippe van Haute. It assumes little prior knowledge of Lacanian psychoanalysis and offers a great explanation of that irritatingly tough but important écrit, “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire.”
“Lacan and the Concept of the ‘Real'” by Tom Eyers is excellent. If you want a very rigorous, serious study of the real, this is where you should go. Eyers is a fierce close reader, and he presents his argument about the overall coherence of Lacan’s work on the real with great patience.
Lorenzo Chiesa’s “Subjectivity and Otherness: A Philosophical Reading of Lacan” is difficult, but of serious help to those approaching Lacan from a philosophical perspective. Chiesa is good at finding inconsistencies and contradictions in Lacan, but he’s sympathetic to Lacanian thought and makes many aspects of the “philosophical” Lacan fascinating.
Don’t forget, of course, to read “My Teaching” by Lacan himself. It isn’t a difficult book, and it’s very short and certainly not “canonical” Lacan the way the Ecrits are — but for that reason, it will give a good idea of the better side of Lacan’s style without intimidating anyone.
A note for those who are already acquainted with some of Lacan’s work:
If, like me, you find that as you explore Lacan’s intimidating work some grave doubts begin to appear at the back of your mind, you’re not alone.
In many respects, the study of Lacanian psychoanalysis is fascinating, infuriating, and even character-forming. An understanding of his work doesn’t happen quickly. There’s a learning curve, and it can feel so steep (for example, when you tackle some of his most famous and inscrutable Ecrits) that the whole thing feels pointless. Why bother? What could possibly be hidden behind the opacity of his writing? What precious gem of superior intelligence am I after, anyway?
There’s a famous book by Dylan Evans that many English-language Lacan initiates turn to: “An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis” published in 1996, boasting an endorsement by Slavoj Zizek for anyone who might be swayed by such gimmicks, and apparently useful to most of its readers. I didn’t include it on the list because I always found the book a bit of a struggle. It’s likely a personal quirk about which I don’t have much insight, but the fact is I never got as much out of it as many other people. I’ve found struggling with longer, more discursive introductions more helpful. That’s all.
However, Evans is very interesting to me for a quite different reason. He has, since the publication of that book, entirely renounced the Lacanian project. If you want to read his own account of this, it’s available on his website.
A revealing passage that captures some of the questions that pop up in a smart head like Evans’s when dealing with Lacan:
I wanted to conduct an in-depth and rigorous philosophical analysis of Lacan’s work, to see if I could resolve my nagging doubts about the apparent inconsistencies and fallacies I was increasingly discovering in it.
I soon discovered that such an approach did not fit in well with the academic atmosphere in Buffalo. Neither the graduate students there, nor my supervisor, seemed particularly concerned to enquire whether Lacan’s views were consistent or correct. To them, that was a vulgar question, demonstrating a naive misunderstanding of the Lacanian ouevre. To them, it was as ridiculous to worry about the factual accuracy of Lacan’s work as it was to worry about the factual accuracy of a poem, or a symphony. The value of Lacan’s work lay not in any ability to describe the facts, but in its power to produce novel ways of interpreting literary texts. For scholars steeped in literary theory, this was I suppose a natural response, but to me it seemed clearly at odds with the whole thrust of Lacan’s life and work. For Lacan was not a literary critic, but a practising psychoanalyst.
People react to Lacan’s work in many ways, because his work “works” in many ways. He’s either a great post-Freudian hindrance to feminism or its theoretical savior (it depends on how you understand “the phallus). He’s a literary critic’s best friend, or, in the Althusserian tradition, a bold new way of understanding how ideology works. He’s a tool for art theory and film analysis. Whatever you want. Maybe he’s even a psychoanalyst, a reference for clinicians.
But this abundance of interpretations has always troubled me a little bit. To me, the issue is still ill-defined. It lies somewhere in the relationship between the brilliance of Lacan’s theoretical synthesis of many traditions and the simple fluidity of living in this world, in this body, in the flux of time. Something — I still struggle even to formulate it — feels off. Evans focuses a good deal on the intellectual and scientific problems in Lacan. I can’t contribute much to that discussion. But no matter how helpful and invigorating I’ve found the Lacanian enterprise, I still stumble at the link between some of its building blocks and the reality of my experience when I’m not being a fancy brainiac: when I wake up having had a vivid dream, or when I go through an emotionally turbulent few days with my family.
I’m not talking about self-analysis. It’s not just “me and my own psychoanalysis” that bugs me. Dylan thinks there are some problems in Lacan’s view of human nature, which Dylan finds misguided. My problem is not so much with human nature but with a general feeling of incompletion in the whole thing — and not in the sense that “all systems are inherently incomplete” and “there is no metalanguage” and so on. In what sense, then? I dunno, is my answer. I do have a clue, but I want to think it through much more before I talk about it on a page meant to introduce Lacan.
At any rate, psychoanalysis is not simply a waste of time. I regret absolutely nothing and I continue to grapple with it for many other reasons than mere pursuit of knowledge. I want only to mention, for the benefit of those in a position similar to mine, that these doubts come up from time to time, and they nag, then they go away and come back differently expressed.