massoncover b&w

Andre Masson, drawing after Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (1866).

In 1955, Lacan and his second wife Sylvia purchased Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde to hang in their country house at Guitrancourt. Because it is so explicitly genital, they felt compelled to conceal it behind a drawing. They hung Origine in a cabinet and commissioned Silvia’s brother-in-law, the surrealist painter and traumatised WW1 veteran André Masson to draw Origine upon its wooden door. Courbet’s painting shows the languid torso of a naked woman with her legs spread across an unmade bed. No head. Masson’s line drawing looks like a landscape. It hovers between the picturesque and the arabesque, an enigmatic writing, somewhere between bush and glyph. Silvia’s sister Rose was married to Masson. Silvia had been married to Lacan’s colleague, the surrealist writer critic pornographer and librarian Georges Bataille. Bataille had earlier commissioned Masson’s drawing of the headless victim of self-sacrifice, for the cover of the first issue of his review Acephale (1936). Lacan and Sylvia had a daughter Judith in 1941 and finally married in 1953. Until the early 1950s, Judith went by the name Bataille. Neither Judith nor Lacan’s children by Marie-Louise his first wife – Caroline (1937) Thibaut (1939) and Sibylle (1940) – knew that Lacan was her father. It is not clear if Bataille’s other/older daughter Laurence (1930) knew.

Lacan had a double family that seemed to complicate the already agonistic relation between his speech and writing. Entangled in this narrative are a number of threads about concealing and revealing desire, the dialogue between image and text, and the role of names, family names or otherwise. Origine is an innocuous name for what is essentially a ‘money shot’ [Lacan paid 1.5 million francs for it]. Both the Bataille daughters, Judith and Laurence, became psychoanalysts like père Lacan. Judith married Jacques-Allain Miller who is today the leading Lacanian analyst and executor of Lacan’s literary estate.

Lacan’s two principle outputs, not including the analysts he trained, were papers published in psychoanalytic journals, a collection of which was published during his lifetime as Ecrits (1966), and the book-length Seminars. For almost 30 years Lacan gave a weekly seminar, each year a different theme. Lacan was known for his theatrical delivery. There is a film on Lacan that includes a lecture at Université Catholique de Louvain. Lacan speaks in trajectories preceded by silences. The words emerge from his body fully gestured as if his speech is born on the internal pressure of language. His gaze moves restlessly around the room as if he reads that which comes from within, in the space around him. He speaks without a text. Apparently it was difficult for Lacan to commit the seminars to print and in her biography of Lacan, Roudinesco suggests that it was only when he became concerned about safeguarding his legacy later in life that he was driven to publish them. It is easy to understand why. There is the inevitable flattening effect of print when so much of the significance of his speech was carried on its trajectory. We all also know the horror of having what you said inscribed in the world for all to scrutinize. Speech holds a central position in Lacan’s theory and practice. We can assume that he was loved his own speech, that he returned to it like an object of affection, that it oriented him. Theoretically, speech was critical to Lacan as a mode of being. We exist by speaking: he coined the term parlêtre [speak-being] for the speaking subject. Psychoanalysis is called the talking cure, because it is through speech that the subject positions him/herself in relation to the field of Others.

Speech and writing have always had a problematic relationship. Plato argued that speech is the guarantor of writing because meaning is present in the living breath of the speaker, and writing is a poor replacement. At best writing falsifies, at worst, it kills speech. My speech is mine, until I give it away as writing. Derrida, contra Plato, argues that speech is not privileged. It has no claim of priority on writing; my precious meaning is no more fully present in my speech than in the writing that I subsequently conceal it with; if meaning is deferred in writing, it is equally deferred in speech.

Only the eleventh seminar, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (1973), was published before Lacan’s death in 1981. Lacan placed son-in-law Miller in charge of transcribing the seminars, and preparing them for publication. They continue to be published as books whose texts are compiled from Lacan’s notes, stenographers notes, the seminar notes of his students, some tape recordings, and memories, even. There are as many versions as there were students, bootlegs, concordances; they are open to correction, interpretation, and exegesis. Miller has gone to court to successfully quash attempts to publish counter versions, and even to open up the notes to other interpretations, despite protest from the scholarly community that he has imposed his own. What is at stake is the difference between speech and writing. There is a question of who is the author of the Seminars (Lacan or Miller), or whether there is a difference between author (Lacan) and transcriber (Miller). The scholarly community claims that there is an originary text by Lacan (a seminar) compiled from verbal and written sources and transcribed/assembled by Miller, whose transcription should be open to revision in order to be faithful to Lacan’s original voice. Miller claims the original is a book authored by Lacan, all copies of which must be protected by law.

Why would architects read Lacan? Psychoanalysis is primarily about understanding and positioning the self, not knowledge, although sometimes understanding and position lead to knowledge. What would psychoanalysis help architects to understand about their position in the field of Others, that would help them in the pursuit of their practice?

1. Reality

In a practice such as architecture that prides itself on its close attachment to a materialist reality, it might help us in our pursuit of architecture as a critical practice, to appreciate just how tenuous, how constructed the status of reality is. [see Research]

2. Speech

In a practice that depends so much upon briefing, upon the capacity of a client to speak, it might help if we could understand more fully just how alienated the speaking subject is from his/her own language. Your client will be so alienated from language that s/he will struggle to articulate what s/he wants. The architect is in the position to create the stage upon which desire plays itself out. Let me show you how to live. Let me show you how to desire.

3. Desire

In a practice whose front line is an encounter between the desire of two subjects, yours and your clients, it might help us to realise just how labyrinthine the path to desire is. Shigeru Ban said that architecture is desire spatialised. The client gives the architect a brief, which is a wish list, and the architect is supposed to satisfy them with a space [for you Lacanians: the subject supposed to satisfy, the subject supposed to spacify]. We pretend desire is simple and stable. But the advertising industry is predicated upon the mutability of desire. And anyone who has ever had children knows that we usually want what we cannot have, or what someone else has, or what someone else wants, or what is not good for us, or what – when we get it – we realise we didn’t want after all. We forget that desire is always dissembled [repressed]. It is disguised and pressed into pathways both labyrinthine and continuous that extend to the far corners of the world; such that it is immediately understandable – even if reprehensible – how it was impossible for Frank Lloyd Wright to build a house without having an affair.

4. Subject

Anyone interested in the question of who the subject of architecture is and how to think about it, in other words, in answering the question of who architecture is for, may want to glance sideways at psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is the most systematic account of the subject, an account that is both ruthlessly empirical and highly theorised. As Gandelsonas has argued, once architecture is theorized as a closed system with a structure, in the way that language is theorised in linguistics, it becomes possible to speak about subject and object in architecture. They emerge together in structure. Gandelsonas was referring to what Eisenman was able to do with his early House Projects. The architectural avant-garde of the 1960s 70s and 80s [Rossi, Eisenman, et al.] was ripe for an exploration of subjectivity. Arguably, the two philosophies to which the avant-garde aligned itself, deconstruction and phenomenology, failed to provide an adequate theory of the subject, and without it, the critique of modernism slumped into an uncritical embrasure [sic] of style. Psychoanalysis assumes that subject-other and subject-object are constructed relations. As architects, used to the idea of assembly drawings, let us speak about the assembled self. You are not a ReadyMade, not to yourself, not to others, or at least not a simple one.

5. Critique

Anyone interested in how architectural creation may be extended as a critical activity, may be interested in how the talking cure was made systematic in the post-structural thinking and practice of Lacan. [see Subject]

6. Research

Anyone interested in how architectural creation may be extended as research, may be interested in collaboration, in particular the collaboration of words and images. Words and images collaborate to think what they cannot think alone. Collaboration is a form of research. I concluded Brunelleschi Lacan Le Corbusier (2010) by arguing that there is a divide between words and images that needs to be sutured, the one direction going toward narrative, sequence, impregnation, the temporal; the other towards vision, surface, the instant, a glittering self-captivation that only spectacle can produce [we glimpse this captivation every time we ‘stage’ ourselves in a mirror]. In order to make space we need both. We are always already suturing, a kind of back and forth process. We construct space: this is what it means to be in it as spatial beings. Space is not a simple given, it is not the origine of our world. We don’t find ourselves in space, as if it were a matter of opening our eyes to passive experience. It is hard to imagine what kind of gaping horror vacui would remain without the suturing of word and image, of thought and perception, into the world of spatial experience. It would not include us. To Lacanians, this knotting is familiar. It is a version of Lacan’s tripartite framework – the Symbolic the Imaginary and the Real – without which, Lacan insisted time and again, it is impossible to understand psychoanalytic experience. What most of us would regard as normal material reality is constituted of the Symbolic and Imaginary registers of experience; what Lacan calls the Real, no one has ever heard of. [see Reality]

Mario Gandelsonas, ‘From Structure to Subject: The Formation of an Architectural Language’ in Oppositions (1978) pp6-29.               Elisabeth Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan: an outline of a life and a history of a system of thought (Columbia University Press, 1997) translated by Barbara Bray. Cf. chapter 16 ‘A Double Life’ pp179-190 and chapter 31 ‘History of the Seminar’ pp413-27. This is the authoritative biography of Lacan to date.                                                                                                                                              For the film, see Francoise Wolff, director, Jacques Lacan parle (Jacques Lacan speaks) production RTBF, 1982. You can find it on YouTube.


The subject of architecture

st louis in two acts small (scene of crime)

Psychoanalytic theory, as it is articulated in the text of Freud and Lacan, is the most systematic, extended, and closely observed account of the human subject. It is a spatial subject. To cite a few examples. Freud referred to the discovery of the unconscious as his Copernican revolution because it decentred the subject from its conscious world. Desire after Lacan is about position, the position of an object with respect to a subject. And Lacan argued that Freud’s detail, Wo Es war, soll Ich werden, is about where? not who?

Arguably, the problem with the architectural avant-garde – the critique that emerged in the 1970s in response to modernism – is that it was not able to articulate a sufficiently resilient account of its subject, the subject of architecture and the city. Deconstruction (predominant in America) and phenomenology (UK), both of which philosophies were drafted in by architects to theorise their architecture and urban practices, are inadequate to the task. In 1978, Mario Gandelsonas asks who/what is the subject of architecture, ‘the subject as origin and determinant of the architectural object….’ In structuralism, the subject is a function of structure. The linguistic subject is made possible by the systematic structuring of language by Saussure. Gandelsonas again: ‘At the point when this object [i.e. architecture, urbanism] becomes clearly, and almost autonomously, defined in its systematic internal, formal relations then does the subject take on a clear configuration. In linguistic terms the definition of an organisation as a normative system, which in architecture would be the constitutive rules of the object, implies at the same time its subject.’ Arguably, Eisenman’s syntactical project made it possible to articulate an architectural subject.

It is unclear why Gandelsonas’ question is never clearly taken up, never given more currency in architecture.

It is unclear why Eisenman and Tschumi flirt with, but never engage with Lacan, in the way that they collaborated with Derrida.

One of the strengths of psychoanalysis is that it does not lead so easily to form the way Deconstruction could lead so quickly to plan fragmentation (the enjoyment of a problematic unity) and phenomenology to touchy feely surface treatment (the comforts of interior design). The consequences for architecture of the desiring decentred subject is never worked through.

Long before the IAUS folded in the early 1980s, the post-structuralist critique of the modern object had collapsed into the stylistic post-modernism we recognise in plasterboard Il Redentores.

Perhaps this po-mo is an instance of the repression of the unconscious by the ego.

Mario Gandelsonas, ‘From Structure to Subject: The Formation of an Architectural Language’ in Oppositions 17 (1978) pp6-29. Lorens Holm, photomontage, Beckett in St. Louis, 1990.