For decades, Russian Lacanians have had a specific practice of engaging with Jacques Lacan’s texts, called “collective reading.” It is usually carried out in the form of a gathering of specialists who read excerpts from Lacanian texts paragraph by paragraph interspersing them with inviting the attendees to engage in “free speech” about what was read.
The method employed is never reflected upon or defined, except purely ethically, in a negative-calming manner: it is often stated that this type of reading “ensures the horizontality of the procedure” or insures the reading assembly from the emergence of a privileged interpreter who could take on the position of a “subject supposed know (everything)”—a situation psychoanalysts fear to the point of achieving a comic effect, as if there was anyone close to such a figure in their midst.
In practice, this results in the “readers’”—without them realizing it—resorting to a deeply pre-Lacanian (from the perspective of the method’s history) form of engaging with the text, in their practicing “naive hermeneutics,” where all interpretations are equally authorized and untenable. Against this pseudo-democratic background, sooner or later turbulences of repetition inevitably begin, consolidating peculiar twists of understanding, passed from mouth to mouth, from one event to another; while the Master expelled from the procedure returns to it by other means, at the level of knowledge acquired by the participants themselves.
The procedure itself also never evolves depending on the presumed “mastery” of the material. Once the reading group takes on the “fifth” or “eleventh” seminar, it can return to reread it in exactly the same format years later, as if during the first reading nothing happened. Resolutely enduring “hermeneutical sterility,” the readers practically never resort to additional literature, as if there were not hundreds of works devoted to various aspects of the “Seminars,” that would make these melancholic readings at least slightly more productive. In some cases, if the reading group is oriented towards the Millerian school, its members may allow themselves to be offended by some of his comments in respect to the Maitre, but they never go beyond this.
This hermeneutic sterility ultimately results in the complete sterility of the participants themselves: it is impossible to understand why the readings are being held and what their productive outcome is. The results of their practice remain the content of the black box: there are no scientific texts based on their motives, no reports of any research results, no clinical or theoretical hypotheses put forward, no research manifestos issued, and even coherent essays written. It is not even known whether analysts use the fruits of these readings in their clinical practice. Ultimately, they can only be justified applying clinical categories: just as personal analysis allows one to grasp what analysis is as such, only “personal,” independently experienced, “lived” reading of Lacan is supposed to give participants something authentic, inaccessible from the side of the “University discourse” with which Lacanians intimidate their listeners and by which this authenticity can supposedly be irreversibly destroyed.
Freud claimed that not everyone who undergoes analysis becomes an analyst—extending this analogy allows one to come to terms with the fact that not everyone who diligently reads Lacan will become a researcher of his concepts, let alone a continuer of his work. But in the instituted logic of “readings,” no one becomes an “analyst”: the reading never ends—starting in the late 90s in Lacanian circles, it continues in the same form in 2022, departing from the same nonexistent point. Wake a sympathetic observer after decades, and he will confidently bet that Russian Lacanians continue a paragraph-by-paragraph reading of the eleventh seminar on vacant territories, untainted by any scientific research gesture capable of fitting into today’s world of Lacanian theory and its numerous consequences.
At this point, following the analytical tradition laid down by the Maitre, one should ask about the “desire of Lacan himself”—whether there is something in these “readings” that satisfies his hidden perverse side, expressed in the fantasy of creating a peculiar “neatness”—which, as is well known from Marquis de Sade, serves as a formative prelude to an orgy. Or not. Not everyone becomes a libertine either, so there is a risk of everything staying limited to neatness.
Translated from Russian by Ignas Gutauskas