The Lacanian Trials

The jur­idical scope of the Lacani­ans’ feuds provides inter­est­ing read­ing with Lacan’s life, his teach­ing and his thought.

Jacques Lacan

The 30th an­niversary of Lacan’s death in September 2011 was marked by an “in­tel­lec­tual dis­pute,” one which was not settled in the sphere of ideas or public aca­demic de­bate, but in a de­fam­a­tion trial in the French crim­inal courts. While a still on-​going war of pe­ti­tions and law­suits is partly in­formed by in­di­vidual rival­ries, the jur­idical scope of the Lacanians’ feuds provides in­ter­esting reading with Lacan’s life, his teaching and his thought.

The will of the dead

In the ini­tial trial of January 11th 2012, the “plaintiffs” were Judith Miller, Lacan’s daughter from his second mar­riage with Sylvia Bataille, and Jacques-​Alain Miller, also known as JAM, Lacan’s son-​in-​law and legal “ex­ecutor” of his (in­tel­lec­tual) prop­erty. The de­fend­ants: Elisabeth Roudinesco, also known as Lacan’s bio­grapher, and Seuil, pub­lisher of Lacan’s work since 1966. Both the bio­grapher and the pub­lisher were found guilty. JAM re­proached the Seuil’s senior editor Olivier Bétourné with in­ten­tion­ally ex­cluding him from pub­li­city events on the oc­ca­sion of the 30th an­niversary of Lacan’s death. The French crim­inal court ruled that “Mrs Roudinesco failed to ob­serve in­tel­lec­tual cau­tion and rigour in her ex­pres­sion,” when she wrote at the end of her an­niversary bio­graphy Lacan en­vers et contre tout, that Lacan “would have wanted a Catholic burial.”

Judith’s lawyer, re­portedly, came un­pre­pared, hands in pockets, with the same at­ti­tude of en­ti­tle­ment and right­eous­ness as his cli­ents. In a short speech, the ag­grieved party’s lawyer de­scribed Roudinesco as an “im­poster” who is not, nor shall ever be, “part of the family,” and that she spent her en­tire ca­reer ob­sessing about an au­thor “who did not have the slightest de­gree of at­tach­ment to­wards her.” Finally, the court was re­minded that Roudinesco is the “con­cu­bine” (the French equi­valent of “partner”) of the Seuil’s editor.

In con­trast with the short state­ment of the plaintiff’s lawyer, the sum­ma­tion of the de­fence was quite lengthy and eru­dite with an ex­hibit list of over a 100 items, in­cluding a de­tailed list of the defendant’s aca­demic pub­lic­a­tions. The Millers were de­scribed as en­vious of the in­ter­na­tional re­pute and in­tel­lec­tual au­thority of Roudinesco. The court was then re­minded that Judith Miller was born out of wed­lock, and that she was not bearer of the name-​of-​the-​father (Lacan) until her 13th year. JAM was de­scribed in the de­fence speech as a “scribe” of Lacan’s sem­inars, someone who never au­thored any sig­ni­ficant con­tri­bu­tion to know­ledge. The defendant’s lawyer, the famed Georges Kiejman, con­cluded that the plaintiffs were too in­tel­lec­tu­ally in­com­petent to un­der­stand the con­cep­tual nature of his client’s work, and as such he situ­ated the dis­pute out­side the au­thority of the crim­inal court.

The jur­idical scope of the Lacanian trials

The nu­merous law­suits brought against Roudinesco and mem­bers of her psy­cho­ana­lytic Society since the an­niversary events, founded their claims on Article 29, Clause 1 of the 1881 law on the freedom of the press. In the French legal system, de­fam­a­tion or libel is a crim­inal rather than a civil offence.

In his sum­ma­tion, Judith’s lawyer claims that “be­traying the will of the dead is a ser­ious crim­inal of­fence… wrongly ac­cusing one of such of­fence is de­fam­atory, and an at­tack on someone’s honour.” In other words, the jury was not in­ter­ested in de­term­ining whether Lacan truly wished to have a Catholic burial or not, nor did it look into the sci­entific ac­curacy of the biographer’s ana­lysis of the theme of paradox in Lacan’s work. The crim­inal court had to as­sess “the de­gree of in­jury” caused to the plaintiff by what she in­ter­preted as a slander against her person. The French de­fam­a­tion laws seem to be ex­tending their reach to everything and any­thing that can be “read” as libellous.

In the re­lated con­text of the French lois mé­mor­i­elles, or his­tor­ical memory laws, the JAM-​Roudinesco dis­putes un­der­score a grey area where the polit­ical (en­dorsed by the State) in­ter­venes to im­ple­ment a jur­idical in­ter­pret­a­tion of “memory” even if this in­ter­pret­a­tion clashes with the sci­entific or aca­demic find­ings of an au­thor of at least three vo­lu­minous works on the his­tory of French psy­cho­ana­lysis. The Roudinesco-​JAM dis­pute re­veals in one of its as­pects, that the jur­idical in­ter­pret­a­tion of aca­demic work over­rides the meaning it could have when lim­ited to its sci­entific context.

In Alexandre Kojève’s 1943 study on the phe­nomen­o­logy of right, the jur­idical sphere is defined, in its es­sence, by its autonomy in re­la­tion to other spheres, namely the polit­ical and the re­li­gious. When the sphere of the jur­idical per­meates every other sphere, there is little chance for the syn­thetic form of “equit­able” justice, which alone is ad­equate to the con­cep­tual figure of the “cit­izen”, to be real­ised. In Kojève’s un­der­standing, this still un­real­ised con­di­tion would be equal to the end of right as such, in the sense of its dis­ap­pear­ance as a (jur­idical) form in ab­so­lute co­in­cid­ence with its real­ised con­tent (of justice). However, the his­tor­ical con­di­tions Kojève ob­served at the time, did not seem to be tending to­wards a syn­thetic justice of the cit­izen, but rather to­wards a jur­idical limbo, a com­plex ma­chine of various com­bin­a­tions of the “ar­is­to­cratic right of equality” (de­duced from his concept of Struggle) and the “bour­geois right of equi­val­ence” (de­duced from the second an­thro­po­genic founding ac­tion: Work). In other words, the phe­nomen­o­logy of his­tory was not pointing to­wards the end of right, but to­wards the hor­ri­fying per­spective of its ab­so­lute hegemony.

Later in the mid 50s, Kojève will re­it­erate this vision of an “er­ro­neous” post-​historical con­di­tion which is still “in­ad­equate” to the con­cep­tual and hy­po­thet­ical frame of the end of his­tory as de­veloped in his still largely un­known and mis­read philo­sophy. To re­main human in the “er­ro­neous” post-​historical con­di­tion, “Satisfaction”, which in the con­text of Kojève’s philo­sophy must be de­duced from the de­sire for re­cog­ni­tion, is re­placed with “con­ten­ted­ness” de­rived from pure “snob­bery”, a de­sire for re­cog­ni­tion emp­tied from its his­tor­ical con­tent and its polit­ical value. The snob of pseudo-​post his­tor­ical ex­ist­ence will neither en­gage in a Kojevean struggle, nor in work that trans­forms the nat­ural into a cultural-​technological and then his­tor­ical world. The snob would have to be con­tended with struggles without “risk”, and en­gage in work that “trans­forms” nothing. When Judith Miller evokes “olden days when mat­ters of honour were settled by a duel to the death,” as when JAM in­vites Badiou in an open letter to en­gage in a duel with him; of course what the Millers have in mind is not the ar­is­to­cratic justice of equality, as the im­agery of du­elling may sug­gest, but rather the slavish bour­geois justice of equity where dis­putes are settled by the sym­bolic Euro in the crim­inal courts.

The jur­idical frame within which the Lacanian trials are defined clash with the scope of his teaching and thought. When one thinks that each and every as­pect of Lacan’s bio­graphy, es­pe­cially his re­la­tion with his “three daugh­ters” is in­scribed in, and defines his psy­cho­ana­lytic theory, it is al­most in­con­ceiv­able to even use the name-​of-​the-​father Lacan without being caught up in the rails of the sym­bolic di­men­sion of the French de­fam­a­tion laws or memory laws.

In the af­ter­math of May 68, Lacan re­flected on how the polit­ical eco­nomy of “sa­voir” is en­tangled in a com­plex in­sti­tu­tional ma­chine whose ma­na­gerial un­con­scious is yet to be un­der­stood and in­vest­ig­ated in a more sys­tem­atic way. In the con­text of Lacan’s teaching, the four lit­ig­ants in “his” January 2012 trial, are not strictly speaking legal en­tities, but sig­ni­fiers in the pro­cess of the pro­duc­tion of know­ledge from the Executor (S1) to the Publisher (S2). This pro­cess is sup­ported by the “de-​nominators” Daughter ($) and Biographer (a). In its ori­ginal form, and with each ro­ta­tion of this bi­polar re­la­tion, Lacan de­duces the dis­courses of the Master, the University, the Hysteric and that of the Analyst. The four dis­courses were un­can­nily gathered on the eve of the 30th an­niversary of his death to read out from his work.

The Ecole Normale Superieure hosted a com­mem­or­ative event or­gan­ised by Catherine Clément, during which em­inent guests were in­vited to read se­lected pas­sages from Lacan’s Seminars in the very same room (Dussane hall) where the de­ceased de­livered his teaching in the 1960s. While Badiou read from Lacan’s 1955 con­fer­ence paper “La Chose Freudienne”, pas­sages which will later be­come the found­a­tion of the hysteric’s dis­course in its re­la­tion to “truth”, Roudinesco and her partner read from Lacan’s re­flec­tion on Antigone. The gathered party held its breath as to whether JAM would ac­cept or de­cline to join the Lacanian epi­gones. In the manner of Mallarme’s Igitur, on the stroke of mid­night, JAM made a dra­matic en­trance. “From this day on,” JAM shouted at the astounded gath­ering, “there are two Lacans staring stonily at each other… a Lacan who is now studied through his legacy… and a second Lacan, one who lives on […] one to whom I de­voted a major part of my life. If some are in­tent on erasing my name from book­shops, news­pa­pers and magazines… I have now de­cided to de­fend my name!” He then read from Lacan’s Seminar D’un Autre à l’autre (March 1969) on the polit­ical meaning of resignation.

The three de­lu­sions of dis­course: love, hate and ignorance

Lacan’s well known four dis­courses provide one pos­sible reading of the Lacanian trials well beyond the lim­ited scope of their jur­idical im­plic­a­tions. However, the theme of the three de­lu­sions of dis­course in re­la­tion to the “dead father,” re­mains to this day a less known as­pect of Lacan’s thought, des­pite the fact that it was de­veloped with great con­sist­ency in his work, from Écrits to the last seminars.

The widely re­ported court-​room drama of the January trial when Lacan’s “other for­gotten daughter” Sybille faced her half-​sister and her father’s bio­grapher would make little sense out­side the con­text of Lacan’s reading of the Freudian “Theme of the Three Caskets.” In dif­ferent vari­ations on the theme of a man’s choice between three fig­ures of woman, Freud ex­am­ines a set of mean­ings which are often as­so­ci­ated with the “si­lent” one among them. The third woman, in the manner of a Cordelia, may not get a share of the father’s kingdom, but her dis­avowal by the father brings about his ruin and the ob­lit­er­a­tion of his name and legacy.

In Lacan’s reading of this ominous theme, every dis­course is in its es­sence a half-​truth, a figure of “noth­ing­ness” in re­la­tion to “Being”, that is to say, in re­la­tion to an “im­possible” knot where the ima­ginary, the sym­bolic and the real co­alesce in the po­s­i­tion of the “dead father”. In that sense, Lacan defines three dis­courses, or three fig­ures of noth­ing­ness: a de­lu­sion of hate at the junc­tion of the real and ima­ginary, a de­lu­sion of love at the junc­tion of the sym­bolic and the ima­ginary, and a de­lu­sion of ig­nor­ance at the junc­tion of the sym­bolic and the real. The three de­lu­sions would be ad­dressed at the dead father’s “being” as a hateful de­mand for the Symbolic, a loving ha­gi­o­graphy for the “real” and an ig­norant re­la­tion to the “imaginary”.

The cent­rality of this theme in Lacan’s life and thought was partly re­vealed in un­canny ways in the three bio­graphies au­thored between 1987 and 1994 by his two bio­lo­gical daugh­ters Sybille Lacan and Judith Miller, and by his step-​daughter, ana­lyst Laurence Bataille. Although it may be dif­fi­cult to ex­plain suc­cinctly how the de­lu­sion of hate can be in­ferred from Sybille’s “puzzle of the odd father”, or the de­lu­sion of love from Judith’s ad­oring ode to “faces of her father,” it is Laurence Bataille’s bio­graphy of the ana­lyst which best por­trays the de­lu­sion of ig­nor­ance that ex­plains the po­s­i­tion of Roudinesco in the Lacanian family drama.

Both in the 1993 bio­graphy and in its 2011 abridged ver­sion, Roudinesco por­trays Lacan as a per­plexing and very con­tra­dictory char­acter. The more Roudinesco talks about Lacan, the more un­grasp­able he be­comes, and the fur­ther he is en­gulfed in an aura of mys­tery. In the last chapters of the 2011 bio­graphy, Roudinesco draws a list of what she calls “La grande liste” a list of “lost ob­jects” of a fantasy Lacan archive. Those ob­jects, highly valu­able and highly col­lect­ible are di­vided between Lacan’s chil­dren, but most of the enu­mer­ated items, namely his couch, are lost or un­ac­counted for. In many ways, there is a great sim­il­arity between the bio­graphy of Lacan by his step-​daughter, Laurence Bataille, and that of Roudinesco. Both bio­graphies are for­mu­lated from the po­s­i­tion of the ana­lyst (a).

Laurence relates the “navel of her dream” to be­come ana­lyst to her father’s ob­scure and in­com­pre­hens­ible char­acter (Georges Bataille), to the towering and op­pressive figure of her mother Sylvia Bataille, and to the sym­bolic sig­ni­fic­ance of Lacan in her life. It was thanks to Lacan that Laurence be­comes the ana­lyst who oc­cu­pies the po­s­i­tion of empti­ness in the mirror, so to speak, a po­s­i­tion which has no re­flected image and from which nothing comes back to the sub­ject (him/​her­self). In this con­text, it may be worth noting that Lacan’s Seminar on the Ethics of Psychoanalysis where he de­velops his reading of the tragedy of Antigone was in fact ded­ic­ated to Laurence Bataille who was sent to prison in 1960 due to her anti-​colonial polit­ical act­ivism in the con­text of the Algerian war of independence.

There are two prom­inent and em­phat­ic­ally re­cur­rent im­ages in Roudinesco’s re­cent bio­graphy of Lacan (and to a cer­tain ex­tent of her­self): the ref­er­ence to Courbet’s painting “L’Origine du monde” (which is one of the most famous ob­jects in Lacan’s col­lec­tion of paint­ings), and the con­tinuous re­turn to the char­acter of Antigone and its sig­ni­fic­ance in Lacan’s work. It seems to me that Roudinesco’s new bio­graphy Lacan, en­vers et contre tout, whose title is a quote from Lacan’s 1959 – 60 Seminar on the Ethics of Psychoanalysis, as­pires to oc­cupy the same po­s­i­tion as Laurence Bataille’s bio­graphy, that is to say, the “de­lu­sion of ig­nor­ance” in re­la­tion to the “dead father” which defines the ana­lyst as such.

Seen from the per­spective of this neg­lected theme in Lacan’s psy­cho­ana­lytic theory, and within the scope of the three de­lu­sions of dis­course, JAM or the Seuil’s editor were not the main actors in the Lacanian trials. The four lit­ig­ants were three daugh­ters and a father.

Hager Weslati, Kingston University & the London Graduate School


—Laurence Bataille, L’Ombilic du rêve (Seuil, 1987)
—Sigmund Freud, “The Theme of the Three Caskets” (1913) in Complete Works, Vol. XII, pp. 289 – 302
—Jacques Lacan, Écrits (W.W. Norton, 2007)
—Sibylle Lacan, Un Père : puzzle (Gallimard, 1994)
—Alexandre Kojève, Outline of a Phenomenology of Right (Gallimard, 1981)
—Judith Miller, Visages de mon père (Seuil, 1991)
—Elisabeth Roudinesco, Lacan, en­vers et contre Tout (Seuil, 2011. Forthcoming with Verso 2014)
—Hager Weslati, “Jacques Lacan in Love, Hatred and in Ignorance” (Anamorphosis, n. 3, 2000)

Cited sources on the Lacan trials

—“Héritage Lacan: le jour ou Jacques Alain Miller a déclare la guerre” Nouvel Observateur (10 September 2011)
—“La tribu Lacan au tribunal” Le Nouvel Observateur (17 November 2011)
—“‘Le Mur’, docu qui dérange des psys français” Rue89 (4 November 2011)
—“Procès Lacan, quer­elle de chapelle.” L’Express on­line (17 November 2011)
—“Judith Miller, in­ter­view” Le Point (8 September 2010)
—“Lacan, L’Eglise et l’imparfait du sub­jonctif” Nouvel Observateur (17 November 2011)
—“Judith Miller et sa sœur oubliée: Sibylle Lacan.” Mediapart (17 November 2011)
—“Miller la cen­sure, Miller le plaideur. ” Mediapart (4 April 2013)
—“Procès Lacan : Roudinesco et le Seuil con­damnés”, L’Express on­line (12 January 2012)

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