Reading Closely with Lacan in the Undergraduate Classroom

by Ian Williams Curtis

In The Pleasure of the Text (1973), Roland Barthes famously celebrated the embodiment of the reader. We not only interpret what we read, we also experience what we read in emotional and even visceral ways. As in the psychoanalytic consulting room, so too in the literature classroom, it is often the affect that accompanies interpretation that leads to insight. As teachers of literature, we have the opportunity to invite our students to recognize and reflect upon their affective and physiological responses, as well as their intellectual and contemplative experiences of reading.

I recently sought to test this proposition with a dozen or so exceptionally thoughtful and curious undergraduate students in my upper-level French literature class (conducted entirely in French) at Kenyon College. We were reading  J. M. G. Le Clézio’s short story, “La Ronde” (1982), in which two adolescent girls respond to a dare. The girls, Martine and Titi, set off on mopeds through an unspecified French city. For the most part, the narrator sticks close to Martine’s point of view, describing her thoughts, emotions, and sensations as she trails behind her friend. Yet, as the girls race through the streets, the narrative focus occasionally shifts away from Martine to a sunburnt woman with a black handbag waiting for a bus and also to a blue moving van that speeds along menacingly. In the end, these three focal points converge: Martine races past the lady at the bus stop, snatching her handbag, and, as Titi escapes on her moped, the blue moving van collides with Martine as she flees the scene of the crime.

I’d asked each of my students to write a post, before class, on our online discussion forum, considering Martine’s motivations for committing her crime, and they’d proposed numerous possible interpretations: Martine has succumbed to peer pressure; she seeks an escape from boredom; she uses theft as an act of protest; etc. One student focused on the repeated references to the blinding sun and to the “deadly gleam” (1982, 24) reflected by the handbag’s clasp, linking “La Ronde” to similar imagery in Albert Camus’s story of a gratuitous crime in The Stranger (1942). No one had trouble finding textual evidence to support their respective interpretations.

In our subsequent class meeting, I asked the students whether, given the diversity of interpretations they’d already proposed on the forum, they could arrive at some sort of group consensus, or whether they thought the text resisted any attempt to establish a motive for Martine’s crime. To facilitate this conversation, I had them work first in pairs, to discuss the narrator’s depiction of Martine’s various affective states. What are we told Martine is feeling physically and emotionally, I asked them, and is there any consistency to these descriptions of her feelings?

In the full-class discussion that followed, some students described Martine as a shy girl who experiences a great deal of anticipatory anxiety as she goes to meet Titi. Her heart starts to pound, they pointed out, because she feels she is going to “an exam, a test” (1982, 14). Other students noted, however, that she relaxes immediately, once she’s taken off on her borrowed moped. One relevant passage details the pleasurable sensations Martine experiences while “weaving between the cars” (1982, 15). Martine also briefly fantasizes that she is seated behind Titi’s brother on his big Moto Guzzi, her arms clasped around his waist as they speed down an empty street.

Other students observed that neither the pleasant bodily sensations nor the erotic fantasy last very long. Indeed, Martine experiences an abrupt return to reality and to a sensation of fear as she realizes that the street is not, in fact, empty but teaming with pedestrians and drivers, all of whom, she imagines, are watching her. Her anxiety becomes intolerable, and she pulls over, closing her eyes in an attempt to regain her calm. When she opens her eyes, the street seems empty again, and she resumes her ride—back, clearly, in the realm of fantasy.

I asked my students whether Martine seems to be in the same affective state as when she imagined she was riding behind Titi’s brother, when the street had first seemed empty. They thought not. In their group work, one student-pair had identified a passage in which “Martine feels an intoxication invade her, as if she had drunk and smoked too much” (1982, 17). This is how she feels when she resumes riding, and there are no more pleasant rocking sensations. It’s in this state of intoxicated feeling and heightened tension that Martine commits her crime and collides with the moving van.

My students had identified the anxiety described at the beginning of the story and its return when Martine is forced to pull over. They had also taken note of Martine’s experience of pleasure at the beginning of her fateful ride. And, finally, they had noticed her feelings of intoxication at the end. This final affective state seemed in some ways to parallel Martine’s pleasure (it is accompanied by the hallucinatory image of an empty street and characterized by other fantasies), and yet it seemed markedly different. What should we call Martine’s affective state as she commits her crime?

I suggested one possible response to this question by introducing my students to Juan David Nasio’s definition of Lacanian jouissance. On the subject of jouissance, Nasio evokes “the experience of feeling an intolerable tension, a mixture of intoxication and uncanniness” (1998, 38). To help them understand the distinction between pleasure and jouissance, I projected the following quotation (in French), asking one of my students to read it aloud:

Let us take the example of the child’s game. There is jouissance in that child who, surrounded by friends, climbs on a steep roof, and is intoxicated by the risk of falling. This qualifies as a challenge [défi]. He undergoes jouissance not only from challenging his friends, but from the fact of testing his own limits. Pleasure is quite different. Suppose the same child, now relaxed, is soothed by the comforting movement of a swing. He is completely relaxed and at rest. But if by swinging, he is taken suddenly by the urge to know the limit he could reach before taking the risk of falling, it is then that jouissance surges again. (1998, 38)

Nasio’s analogy falls short of a thorough and theoretically rigorous definition of jouissance. However, it provides a particularly accessible first encounter with certain insights that Lacanian theory can offer to the study of literature. It was a useful definition in this context, in that it allowed students to begin to grasp something that first struck them as an enigma or inconsistency.

I asked each student to discuss the Nasio passage with a new partner—to try to make sense of it and to give their opinion as to whether it might help us understand Martine’s crime as a form of play. My students compared Martine to the child in Nasio’s example, who, in play, can quickly go from feeling soothed to experiencing acute tension. Martine’s approach to the crime is playful, they observed, in that, for example, it involves a great deal of imagination.

My students seemed able to relate to the experience. Though I wasn’t going to ask them what kinds of risky behaviors they themselves enjoyed, I did share with them that, as a young rider with my own Moto Guzzi, I’d made a number of rather poor decisions not entirely unlike Martine’s (though not involving theft!). This admission prompted several voluntary student contributions along the same lines, which helped us to recognize in one another the existence of the urge to seek limits.

Reading and discussing Le Clézio’s representation of jouissance helped us to reflect on our own experiences of venturing (to use Freud’s term) “beyond the pleasure principle”—of transgressing the limits of “pleasure,” like the child in Nasio’s example. Later in the semester, when I asked students to write their own short stories, I was not entirely surprised to receive a good number of pastiches of “La Ronde.” Clearly, the text struck a chord and led many of them to recall or to fantasize experiences like Martine’s. The story connected with some of them, at least, both on an intellectual and a visceral level, allowing them to explore their own experience of jouissance.

Reading “La Ronde” together in this way helped us respond to a challenge posed by psychoanalyst Bruce Fink, in an essay on jouissance: “While psychoanalysts obviously have to grapple with the heterogeneity of the subject, it seems to me that many other fields in the humanities and social sciences have to come to terms with these two faces of the subject in theory building and praxis” (2004, 147; emphasis in original). As teachers of literature, we can help students better appreciate the “pleasure of the text” and also invite them to consider the ways in which such texts confront us with the more disquieting experience of jouissance—recognizing ourselves as fully embodied, affective readers rather than merely abstract linguistic subjects.


Works cited

Barthes, Roland. 1973. Le plaisir du texte. Pairs: Seuil.

Camus, Albert. 1942. L’étranger. Paris: Gallimard.

Le Clézio, J. M. G. 1982. La ronde et autres faits divers. Paris: Gallimard.

Fink, Bruce. 2004. Lacan to the Letter: Reading Écrits Closely. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Nasio, Juan-David. 1998. Five Lessons on the Psychoanalytic Theory of Jacques Lacan. Tr. David Pettigrew and François Raffoul. Albany: State University of New York Press.

How Far Would You Go?

by Leonardo Niro

In 2015, my department at the University of Essex launched its BA program in Psychosocial and Psychoanalytic Studies, the only undergraduate degree of its kind in the UK, and one of only a handful of courses in Europe to be focused on psychoanalysis. I spent a number of years spearheading the program: from curricular design to directing the program in its initial years. Ultimately, I believe the BA has proven highly successful, as evidenced by student enrollment, student satisfaction, and employability after completion.

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The University and its Discontents

by Adam Sitze

Today the university is the object of critique from almost every conceivable angle. One side blames it for infantilizing students with overprotectiveness (accusing the university, in effect, of being a suffocating mother). Another side accuses it of indoctrinating students with dogmas designed to destroy faith in American democracy (renewing, in the process, ancient hysterias about teachers who corrupt the youth of the nation).  Yet another side holds it responsible for fomenting polarization and division. College students themselves report record levels of depression and anxiety, while increasing numbers of their peers choose not to enroll in college at all. Those who study the matter, meanwhile, seem to agree that the corporatization of the university has left it undone, corrupt, dying out, and altogether dark.

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Psyche on Campus Wins APsaA 2022 Journalism Award

I’m delighted to share the news that Psyche on Campus is the recipient of the American Psychoanalytic Association’s 2022 Award for Excellence in Journalism.

Sincere thanks to the blog’s many contributors, who share in APsaA’s recognition for helping to sustain and enrich what the award citation calls “a public forum for teaching about psychoanalysis in the college classroom and beyond–to an interdisciplinary audience of over 10,000 readers in over two dozen countries–and demonstrating the breadth and value of the psychoanalytic perspective today.”

Sincere thanks as well to the blog’s many readers–more of whom, I hope, will become contributors themselves!

Psychoanalysis and Medical Ethics

by Rachel C. Conrad

On the first day of both my undergraduate (premed) and med school courses on medical ethics, I present a case without a clear answer: “We have one liver and two dying patients. How do we decide who should get the liver?”

I want them to linger with a common dilemma in medical practice—one that doesn’t have a simple answer. I want to open up space for them to acknowledge, both to themselves and to one another, that they can’t always know the “right” answer—that they have to accept ambiguity and allow themselves to feel the irreconcilable tensions that, unfortunately, their education as doctors doesn’t ordinarily acknowledge.

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Announcement: APsaA Conference Externship Program

Calling all undergraduate juniors and seniors and graduate students…in all disciplines!

Applications are now being accepted for an expenses-paid externship to the next Annual Meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA): January 31 – February 5, 2023
Hilton Midtown Hotel, New York City

Professors: Let your students know about this fantastic opportunity!

Application deadline: November 10, 2022.

Please open this pdf document for further details and application instructions:
APsaA 2023 Externship

Teaching 𝑎𝑏𝑜𝑢𝑡 Psychoanalysis and Teaching 𝑤𝑖𝑡ℎ Psychoanalysis; or, Contemporary Undergraduate Psychoanalytic Education and the Future of Transferential Pedagogy

by Max Cavitch

Launched three years ago, the “Psyche on Campus” blog has continued to be extremely fortunate in its contributors—including academics, clinicians, and students from many colleges and universities in the U.S. and the U.K.—and extremely fortunate in its readers. In fact, the blog now has well over 10,000 readers in dozens of different countries. And in 2022, for the second year in a row, “Psyche on Campus” has been selected by FeedSpot as one of the “15 Best Psychoanalysis Blogs and Websites.” Posts continue to be published every 6-10 weeks, and readers can anticipate forthcoming posts by Jane Abrams, Gila Ashtor, Rachel Conrad, Brian Connolly, Marcia Dobson, and Nicholas Ray, among others. (If you have an idea for a post of your own, please let me know!) And our “Syllabus Archive” continues to grow. (Again, relevant syllabi from your own courses are very welcome!)

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Psychoanalysis through a Psychosocial Lens

by Stephen Frosh

Forty years ago, I wrote and published a short paper—one of my very first—in the Bulletin of the British Psychological Society (now known as The Psychologist). It was called “Teaching Freud to Psychology Students” and was all of two pages long. I don’t remember fully what it said (I’m not even sure if I still have a copy), but I do recall that some of my academic colleagues were irritated by what they took to be my complaint that there was insufficient attention paid to psychoanalysis in the psychology curriculum.

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“Grief Garden”: Rites of Private and Public Mourning

by David L. Eng

March 16, 2022 marked the one-year anniversary of the Atlanta Spa Shootings. Six of the eight victims were Asian American women. That same week, in my course, “Introduction to Asian American Literature and Culture,” I asked my students if they could name even one Atlanta victim. They could not. Nor, for that matter, could I. So we did our research, and I will name them here:

The victims at Young’s Asian Massage were:
Daoyou Feng, age 44
Paul Andre Michels, age 54
Xiaojie Tan, age 49
Delaina Ashley Yaun, age 33

The victims at the Gold Spa were:
Hyun Jung Grant, age 51
Suncha Kim, age 69
Soon Chung Park, age 74

The victim at Aromatherapy Spa was:
Yong Ae Yue, age 63

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Psychoanalytic Psychology and the Academy: Identifying and Addressing the Growing Crisis

by David Ramirez

Among those contemporary college students who seek counseling—and despite their heterogeneity along lines of class, culture, race, gender identity, and sexual orientation—most share similar experiences of discomfort, distress, and a desire for relief. Something’s not right in their life, and it’s taking a toll: interfering with simple pleasures; undermining productivity; compromising functioning; obstructing relationships; causing, in some cases, thoughts of suicide and/or self-destructive behaviors like heavy alcohol- or drug-use and cutting. Moreover, many of them tend to perseverate on certain existential questions: What am I doing? Why am I here? Whose life am I leading? How do I know what I really want?

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