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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This item is taken from PN Review 62, Volume 14 Number 6, July - August 1988.

Letters
DEAR EDITORS: I am sorry my review of Fleur Adcock's The Faber Book of Twentieth-Century Women's Poetry caused Laura (Riding) Jackson so much ire. Clearly I am the villain of the piece unlike the 'good' and 'kindly' person at Faber who takes such pains to please all poets. My account of omissions from the anthology was not meant to be comprehensive; nor did I omit Laura (Riding) Jackson's name through malice or ignorance, as her letter seems to imply. No slight on the quality of her work or her established reputation was intended. Some of the omissions - because they were unexplained - invited speculation on the editor's policy; Laura (Riding) Jackson's did not because the exclusion was of her own making, not the editor's. In the pre-publication review copy which I received, Fleur Adcock praises Marianne Moore in the preface as a gifted experimentalist. She then comments: 'Laura Riding is another authentic innovator but unfortunately her work cannot be shown in the context of this anthology'. From this, it seemed perfectly clear to me that Laura (Riding) Jackson had refused permission for her work to appear in the Faber selection. I assumed readers of the anthology would respect, and draw their own conclusions about, such a decision. The preface in my copy contains no reference to Laura (Riding) Jackson as one who objects 'to gender differentiation in literary selections of collections', presumably because I received the Faber review copy before final revisions were made. I can hardly be expected to discuss what I have not seen. Nor did I feel that there was room in such a short review-article for a full discussion of the role of gender in reading, writing and publication.
Avril Horner

DEAR SIR: The essay by Raymond Tallis, 'The Strange Case of Jacques L.', (PNR 60) should not be allowed to pass unchallenged. I would make four points, three regarding its substance and one, the most serious, regarding its style and assumptions.

1. Lacan's account of the construction of the subject as an effect in the mirror stage (see Ecrits 1977, pp.1-7) does not assume that such a fundamental aspect of infant development depends "upon the accident of catching sight of oneself in a mirror". As Lacan states unequivocally, the idea of a literal mirror is only an illustration, exhibiting "in an exemplary situation (my italics)" how the infant's identity is actually constituted as it is reflected by other people ("There's good little boy, then - finish up your din-dins" etc).

2. The essay is perfectly correct to claim that any idea of the ego recognising itself would presume just what needs to be explained. In an essay published in 1976 and reprinted in Law and Ideology (1979) Paul Hirst pointed out with reference to the Lacanian theory that "recognition presupposes a point of cognition prior to the recognition". He also pointed out that Lacan's is not a theory of recognition. It does not assume "that the infant recognizes itself in the mirror" (as Tallis says) or in the identities provided for it by other people but rather misrecognises itself in them (which is why Lacan writes of "the méconnaissances that constitute the ego", p.6).

3. Lacan's account of how the I is brought about as an effect may import all kinds of difficulties. But the essay does not consider the even greater difficulties faced by alternative theories of (1) the ego as bodily (2) the I as acquired cognitively from an external social identity. If (1) the I is something we are born with, why don't feral chickens develop egos? If (2) the I is what we internalise from our social roles, what exactly is the process of this (uneven) internalisation? The very currency gained by the psychoanalytic account especially as developed in Lacan is itself evidence for its plausibility and usefulness.

4. Anyone can be wrong, though being this wrong evidences a reading of Lacan so casual it must be symptomatic. 'The Strange Case of Jacques L.' instances once again a certain very English mode of discourse (see 'The Politicisation of English', PNR 40). This assumes (a) that the only reason for writing or thinking at all is self-advancement (so Lacan worked to win praise from the "true Lacanians", among whom Malcom Bowie is "a Lacanian fellow-traveller"); (b) that everything can be settled - is always already settled - by 'common sense' (so Lacan is self-evidently an "old charlatan" because he believes identity depends on "the accident of catching sight of oneself in a mirror"); and (c) that error is so obvious it is met most appropriately with ironic or facetious dismissal (so Lacan is referred to throughout as "the Master" and the Ecrits as the Scriptures"; it is not fanciful here to detect a version of xenophobic Protestantism - thus the opposite of good old English Protestant common sense is foreign Popery represented by a "Parisian intellectual", "the Chosen One" who demands "unquestioning belief").

Does all this matter? I believe it does, not only because the consequence of the article is to reaffirm traditional belief in the autonomy of the self against the threat of strange new ideas ('The Strange Case of...'), but because this mode of discourse - facetiously complacent, commonsensically uncritical, intimately traditional - is part of the nightmare that weighs on the brain of those living in England now. In cultural terms this is the equivalent of 'the English disease' in the economic domain; PNR should not help to spread it.

Antony Easthope

RAYMOND TALLIS replies:

I shall deal with each of Easthope's claims in turn.

1. That I have misunderstood the nature of the theory of the mirror stage.

The core of Easthope's argument is that Lacan's theory is not an empirical theory at all, rather a metaphor, and that the child's catching sight of itself in a mirror merely symbolises the larger process by which it arrives at its identity through seeing itself reflected in others. This reading of Lacan won't wash.

Lacan's original paper repeatedly appeals to empirical evidence about the behaviour of infants confronted with mirrors and the quite different behaviour of non-human infants confronted with mirrors. These (inaccurate) 'observations' are in turn connected with other (inaccurate) 'observations' about the different neuroanatomical development of human and non-human infants. Moreover, Lacan gives the mirror stage precise (but inconsistent) dates and makes precise (though factually inaccurate) assertions about other related matters. So the theory must be judged an empirical one about, or based on, what happens when actual infants confront actual mirrors. And this is how I judge it and where I consider that it most signally fails. Though it also fails, as my article shows, to be consistent, plausible, or to have any explanatory power.

When it is pointed out that Lacan got his facts wrong, Lacanians, like Easthope, often adopt the tactic of saying that the whole theory is only a myth or a metaphor or 'a diachronic myth of a synchronic process'. The advantage of having your theory empirically while eating it metaphorically is that you can enjoy the authority of the specialist (the white-coated expert) while not being exposed to the kinds of tests (e.g. of empirical truth) that a specialist must expect if he wishes his theories to be accepted.

Many Lacanians do appear to take the theory literally rather than metaphorically and to rely on it for planning specific therapeutic interventions as well as for the development of theories of visual perception and of film reception (see, for example, the contributions to Colin McCabe's The Talking Cure, Macmillan 1981, and Screen passim). Now Easthope may argue that mainstream Lacanians, too, have misunderstood Lacan. This would then go to support my case that wherever there are two Lacanians there are two splinter groups.

2. That I have misunderstood the central claim of the theory.

According to Easthope, I say that the infant recognises itself in the mirror, whereas Lacan says that the infant misrecognises itself in the mirror. What Easthope ignores in his letter is the second paragraph of my article which makes very clear how, according to Lacan, the child's self-recognition is misrecognition:


This visual gestalt, which the child can recognise from about six months, represents an ideal unity, stability, or totality not afforded by the uncomfortable chaos of immediate self-awareness. By identifying with the image, which affords an escape from the intense distress arising out of 'motor incapacity and nursling dependence', the child acquires a pre-linguistic, even a pre-social, I. This I, however, is other than the child; and so the ego of the mirror stage is a hollow fiction. It also prepares the way for the formation of the equally fictional I of the Symbolic realm, when the child, entering language, fall under the domination of the signifier.


Of course, as I also point out in my article, the problem by-passed in this 'account' of infant development (which depends on a very specific empirical claim about the relative rates of motor and perceptual development) is how the infant comes consistently to identify, appropriately or otherwise, with this image that is presented in so many different ways, with different degrees of completeness, on different surfaces, in different lighting conditions. Consistent mis-recognition and mis-identification depend, just as much as valid recognition, valid identification, on a stabilising intuition of the self that Lacan leaves totally unexplained - and yet his theory requires just such an explanation if it is to have any explanatory force.

3. That I fail to consider the difficulties encountered by non-Lacanian theories of infant development, ego acquisition etc.

I should have been happy to have considered these difficulties, but I had limited space at my disposal. In my more extensive critique of Lacan (in Not Saussure, Macmillan, 1988) I discuss in more detail the problems that beset genetic epistemology - whether it is Lacanian, Piagetian, Chomskeian, Augustinian, Woodfieldian or Skinnerian. I conclude that, until we overcome the fundamental conceptual uncertainties, we shall not make progress in this supremely challenging field. In the meantime, we are not obliged to believe absolutely any old crackpot theory that happens to be going. I have no reliable information about what happens to me when I die; but I don't think this is a good argument for accepting the pronouncements of L. Ron Hubbard.

4. (a) That I believe the only reason for writing or thinking at all is self-advancement.

No, I do not believe this, though I think there are certain unscrupulous intellectual entrepreneurs (Jacques Lacan, L. Ron Hubbard etc) who develop 'ideas' for purposes other than arriving at the truth. I think Bowie is deluded (and honestly so) but not unscrupulous. Fellow-travellers can be sincere; their means of travel is not always a gravy train.

4. (b) That I believe that everything can be settled by common sense.

Just because I am opposed to the unfounded, inconsistent, poorly argued and explanatorily weak ideas of a particular writer whose views also outrage common sense, it does not follow that I believe that common sense has the last word on everything, or indeed anything. As one with a background in science and an amateur interest in particle physics, I am hardly likely to believe this.

4. (c) That my hostility to Lacan is symptomatic of an 'English disease' which has two elements: (i) xenophobia; and (ii) a hostility to 'strange new ideas'.

(i) Xenophobia

This is a grave assertion: it amounts to a charge of intellectual racism, and implies that I am opposed to Lacan's ideas because of a more general antipathy to ideas emanating from funny foreigners. This sort of argument is intellectually (and morally) derelict but it does not come as a total surprise to me; indeed I anticipated Easthope's slur in Not Saussure, where I commented that anyone who dissents from the views of post-Saussurean theorists 'runs the risk not only of being branded an aesthetic and political reactionary but of being accused of exhibiting a characteristically insular suspicion of nasty foreign ideas'. If Easthope learnt that I detested Gobineau's repulsive theories, would he conclude that I was Francophobic? Would he impute anti-German sentiments to me if I attacked the ideas in Mein Kampf? Of course not; he would assume that I had judged these writers on their merits. The truth is, I do not patronise writers from abroad by demanding lower standards than I would of English thinkers. And for this reason, I yield to none in my admiration for Wittgenstein, Husserl, Kant, Godel. Or is this because I am under the impression that they are, in some Pickwickian sense, English, even Mancunians?

My background in science has accustomed me to judging ideas on their merits and not by their provenance. I should have thought this is not something totally incomprehensible to Easthope. Or perhaps science is so effortlessly international it does not even notice how free of xenophobia it is. If I have any intellectual phobia, it is directed against writers who have scant regard for the truth and who present theories for which they can provide neither arguments nor evidence. To this defect I gladly confess.

(ii) Hostility to strange new ideas.

Lacan's ideas are hardly strange to a generation born long after Freud's death and they are hardly terribly new. In contrast, my sympathetic reading of recent fundamental physics requires a hospitable attitude to ideas that really are strange as well as new. I am thinking in particular of the ideas that have been developed following Alain Aspect's great series of experiments in 1982. (Aspect, by coincidence, is a Parisian). So Easthope has mistaken his target there; and he is particularly unfortunate in his final imputation - that I am concerned 'to reaffirm traditional beliefs in the autonomy of the self against the threat of strange new ideas'. My central intellectual project since 1981, the novel qualia, has been concerned precisely with the implications for the concept of the autonomous self of the ideas, experiments and thought experiments of Parfit, Davidson, Libet, Kripke, Wiggins and Williams. These ideas are certainly strange (indeed they are terrifying) but they are also rigorously argued.

So my dissent from Lacan is not on the ground that he is non-British or that he advanced strange and threatening new ideas but that he conducted himself in a manner that was rarely rigorous, usually confused and often downright dishonest. If there is 'a nightmare weighing on the brains of those living in England now' it is that there are reasonably well-educated people so impressed by thinkers they are not able to evaluate critically that they attribute any attempt to carry out such an evaluation as being due to insularity. As for 'those living in England now' I suspect he means by these a few disaffected teachers in Arts Departments in institutes of higher education who believe that they are the torch-bearers of truth through philistine darkness: a comfortable delusion, founded at least as much upon ignorance of what many great contemporary innovators (molecular biologists, cognitive psychologists, mathematicians, cosmologists, linguists, poets, novelists, particle physicists, philosophers) are thinking and doing as upon privileged access to the arcana or, God help us, to the truth.

This item is taken from PN Review 62, Volume 14 Number 6, July - August 1988.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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