The Lacanian Trials

by | 6 May 2013

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)

1 Comment

  1. To the author:

    This is a good article, especially as it provides indications for further reading.

    The ending is really on target. Lear and Lacan.


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