Playing with Lacan

What are we here to witness? Yet another introductory text regarding Lacan? A reformulation of Lacan for a North American, English-speaking audience, formalizing his concepts, cohering an abridged and seamless totality that serves to alienate our esteemed theoretical cousins only further? Gladly, I am able to give a firm NO to all these questions, for Benvenuto’s book is one of the few texts in English on Lacan that dares to PLAY with him, to TOY with him, to take him at his word and then to take it further. A foreplaying, if you will.

Let me be clear, we do not need any more introductory texts on Lacan! We already have too many. If anything, the intense surfeit of introductory texts already in existence speaks a symptom. Like the parletre, the signifying flesh that lays on our couches, this corpus of introductory texts that have arrived on our shores in the last 25 years speaks a suffering, a wanting to be heard. But to be frank, this discourse has often fallen flat in the U.S. It has served, and to be fair, it has been used to disparage the great gifts that a Lacanian approach to clinical work brings. Please note: I am not speaking here of how Lacan can be used to analyze films, fiction, conspiracy theories, Q-Anon, or the political economy of Kansas. I am referring precisely to and only to the import of Lacan for the actual clinical practice of psychoanalysis. The always fraught, vexed, impossible, and hopelessly hopeful ACT, yes ACT, of listening to another’s pained articulation of their truth. 

Of course, many other texts on Lacan (sometimes treated as if he were a stretch of land, conquered and rendered decipherable, mappable, worthy of navigational instruments) have been important. But it has often been the case that their formality, their rush to provide totalizing accounts, has stripped away what is most essential about his thought, the playfulness that provokes, the performance that doubles back on itself to reveal something about you the listener/reader/interlocutor. The end result of this sed ad explicare, this somber rush to provide the exhaustive explanation of his work, has been a certain perceived pompousness coupled with an ecclesiastical fixation on a sequestered and cloistering lingo that has alienated many of our “non-Lacanian” clinical colleagues. Who needs the coronavirus when you have this insufferable version of Lacan to keep us all distanced from each other?

The grand and welcome gift of Benvenuto’s book is that it brings Lacan’s playfulness into our midst, into the English-speaking clinical world. By virtue of its liveliness, it brings our theoretical cousins, the Relational, intersubjective, Kleinian, Bionian, Winnicottian and the “post-all-previous-psychoanalytic-thinkers” crew, into CONVERSATION with the bawdy, mischievous, and yet deadly serious Lacan that we encounter in Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and French. In this way, it is a landmark work. It establishes a Lacan worthy of engagement on our shores. 

But what do I mean by play, playing, toying? For several years, I worked with children in clinical practice. Small children, mind you. They were always ready to do the work. To play. But we regard play with our adult sensibilities, thereby ignoring that the “play” of children is something terribly serious. Something was being worked out, with devastating consequences. To interfere with that was nothing less than deleterious. Their lining up of the little trucks and cars in that particular sequence with that specific color scheme was the quickening of subjectivity made manifest. They were inventing themselves, assembling the elements given by the Other, before my very eyes and ears. I was there as yet another prop, to be toyed with, to be used and then to be spat out. This is what I am getting at, and what Benvenuto does with Lacan. To use him so as to get rid of him, for that is the point. Certainly, not the refusal of invention and thinking disguised as the veneration of a Master that rules so many corners of our field.  January 6th showed us where that attitude can take us. We have no use for mobs in psychoanalysis.

The Anglo-American world of psychoanalysis can benefit richly from these 7 lectures. Funny number that, 7. It is the first number whose pronunciation in English contains more than one syllable, not counting 0. The Pythagoreans found the number particularly noteworthy because it consisted of the union of the physical (number 4) with the spiritual (number 3). In other words, it is grounding, and it takes us beyond the beginning, the 1. Which is exactly what Benvenuto’s book in English does for us now, what it portends for Anglo-American psychoanalysis. It dismisses the unified, reified, systematized, integrated Lacan that has sadly taken hold in North America, and by returning to a return, hands us the polymorphous, riven, differentiated lines of flight version of the voluptuous signifying machine that was Lacan. 

But now that this has been published, what happens? Particularly, when we bear in mind the landscape of institutional psychoanalysis, the psychoanalysis born of “schools”. Where does this book land or find a place? Clearly, it falls outside of the doxa of institutions. It cannot be absorbed. It functions as an outlier, and as such it would seem to signal something grim about the present and future of psychoanalysis, both IPA and Lacanian. Works like this book find no easy place in this terrain. So, is this all we can hope for? Psychoanalysis in a neo-liberal key? The iron law of our time? Beyond this symposium and reviews in leading journals, what is the future of this book and what it brings to life?

It would be all too easy to suppose that psychoanalysis, like seemingly so much else at this time, has taken a dark turn. That we are witnessing the end of this grand experiment initiated by Freud. But I would argue that this prognosis has always been the case. The death of psychoanalysis has been anticipated since its very inception. I suspect that a type of comfort is obtained from that sort of divination. But as I’ve said elsewhere, psychoanalysis thrives not because of psychoanalytic institutions, but in spite of them, which is why we require them. What is essential about psychoanalytic theory and practice is most often conveyed not in psychoanalytic schools (for as much as they are necessary), but via other means, including efforts like this book, that cannot find a place, because to land squarely in a pre-ordained box would spell the end of its sparkle and life. 

So, let us celebrate the fleeting joys of what Benvenuto has brought to us with this book, for it is already dying, like all good and precious things. After all, this is a symposium, a feast! We take our pleasures where we can. The great hope, of course, is that another conveyance will arise and keep the spark alive, a temporal migration that is the veiled grounding of our practice as analysts. 


Fernando Castrillón, Psy.D., is a practicing personal and supervising psychoanalyst, faculty of the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California (PINC), a licensed clinical psychologist, Professor Emeritus at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), and the founder of the Foundation of California Psychoanalysis (FCP). He is also the founding director of CIIS’ The Clinic Without Walls, an innovative psychotherapy clinic serving mostly poor and immigrant communities. Dr. Castrillón is the Editor-in-Chief of the European Journal of Psychoanalysis and a member of the Istituto Elvio Fachinelli ISAP (Institute of Advanced Studies in Psychoanalysis) based in Rome, Italy. He is the co-editor of two books and author of numerous articles in Spanish, German, Italian, Russian and English and is currently writing a multivolume work on psychoanalysis and California. Home page: Phone: (510) 295-4711. []

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis