Reading Lacan, Teaching Anxiety

A student recently asked me if I would be willing to work with him on a one-credit directed study of Jacques Lacan’s Anxiety seminar. Though I was and am happy to consent, I have to confess that the idea of reading/teaching Lacan has always given me anxiety. This is not because I shy away from difficult texts. I’ve assigned snippets of Hegel, paired love novels with Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, introduced non-philosophy students to Kant’s three Critiques, and even put Of Grammatology on an undergraduate reading list (see the playlist of my supplementary lectures here).

No, the problem isn’t difficulty itself but, rather, the kind of difficulty one encounters in Lacan. (We shouldn’t assume that difficulty is homogeneous. Each piece of interesting writing constitutes a distinct reading task. The difficulty of James Joyce’s Ulysses engages readers in ways Olive Moore’s Spleen does not. The difficulty of Derrida is wholly unlike the challenge of H.D.) Lacan’s conceptual framework is daunting, no doubt, but I think the real root of my trouble is that I cannot trust him. When I read him, I de-ironize and repeat Buck Mulligan’s tongue-in-cheek accusation of Stephen Dedalus: “There is something sinister in you” (Ulysses 1.94). I anticipate that the effort of being a dutiful reader of Lacan will lead me to a place I do not wish to be.

IMG_0506To what degree this distrust belies a Deleuzian prejudice or a dreadful and embarrassing ignorance of Lacanian thought I leave for another day. For now, I just want to linger with the opening page of Lacan’s first lecture and note how he imbricates his subject matter—anxiety—with his own pedagogic task. He begins:

This year I am going to be speaking to you about anxiety.

Someone who’s not at all remote from me in our circle nevertheless let slip the other day some surprise at my having chosen this subject, which didn’t strike him as having much on offer. I must say that I won’t have any trouble proving to him the contrary. Amidst the mass of what is proposed to us on this subject in the form of questions, I shall have to choose and drastically so. This is why I shall be trying, as of today, to fling you into the thick of it. (3, bold added)

What does this statement tell us about Lacan’s style of teaching and/or theorizing? We learn that he will not—as he claims in his first sentence—be simply speaking about anxiety. Or, if we believe his first sentence, we learn that speaking about anxiety enacts something. It does something audacious. One speaks of anxiety and—in doing so—elicits surprise in others. One makes them anxious. The anecdote of collegial concern—is anxiety really worth Lacan’s effort?—is an anecdote of anxiousness slipping through a veneer of critical objection. To object that anxiety is too mundane or everyday to be Lacan’s subject misses that this everydayness is precisely why anxiety is so fundamental and so difficult. One does not want to hear about anxiety because one is always surrounded by it. The objection to anxiety—it is an improper subject—slips out; the acquaintance’s surprise at anxiety-as-topic protests a bit too much and evinces a greater, unspoken, and phenomenal anxiety at its source. Lacan’s response is funny but also a bit of a taunt: I have no anxiety speaking about anxiety (I won’t have any trouble). I am not worried that I will run out of things to say or to research since so much has already been said about anxiety. Let me show you . . .

Anxiety is already here. Before promising “to fling them into the thick of” anxiety, Lacan has already invited it among his seminarians. He has already stirred it up with a promise. “I am going to be speaking to you about anxiety.” Lacan teaches/theorizes not by slow, progressive steps, then, but with quick strokes that bely an unspoken strategy. We—his readers—and they—his seminarians—will not approach anxiety as if it were a subject at some distance, a subject to which we will draw close in comfort and knowledge. Rather, we all have to deal with anxiety from the start.

Lacan teaches/theorizes by signaling a “mass” or a “thick” entanglement of questions and dropping readers/seminarians in the middle of it all. Can I move? Can I breathe?

One more paragraph:

But this surprise already seemed to me to harbour the trace of some unstemmed naivety, which consists in believing that each year I pick a subject just like that, a subject I would deem fit for teasing out some malarkey. Not so. Anxiety is very precisely the meeting point where everything from my previous disquisition is lying wait for you. You’re going to see how a certain number of terms, which until now may not have appeared adequately linked to one another, can now be connected up. You’re going to see, I think, how in being knotted together on the ground of anxiety each one will fall into place even better. (bold added)

Something (a teaching on anxiety, an encounter with anxiety itself, a key to the relation between all of Lacan’s previous teachings/”disquisitions”) is waiting for us. Anxiety is already here, but it also lies in wait for us. Should we be (more) anxious? How odd it is that Lacan’s attempt to ease his seminarians anxiety—everything I have said before will become clearer once we grasp this ground—is itself a promotion of anxiety. Will we be less anxious by drawing nearer to anxiety? By trying to plant ourselves on this ground of knotted questions, concepts, diagrams, and affects?

The opening page leaves me wondering about the relation between my own teaching and states of anxiety. Do I throw my students “into the thick of it,” especially when I teach texts I know will be difficult? When I enjoin them to rethink familiar terms or ideas in deformative, transformative ways (love, freedom, nature, justice, morality, ethics, complicity…)? Affirm states of discomfort, difficulty, and frustration? What makes me think students should trust me when it might very well appear to them that I seek to make them anxious about things as they (think they) are? When one teaches, how fundamental is anxiety? Does one ever leave it behind once it has been transmuted into curiosity or a love of potentiality?

Question upon question. Reading on . . .

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