Lately I have been interested in finding links between the work of the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung and the slightly less familiar (in the UK at least) French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Despite being relatively ignored in the UK and US among the bulk of psychotherapists, Lacan is a name that is very influential on the continent and has also left his mark in academia and in the humanities. Jung’s work on the other hand has experienced a rising popularity and not only amongst therapists and analysts. Having bridged the gap between spirituality and psychology in a manner which is easy enough for the layman to understand – the language of his concepts such as ‘archetype’, ‘shadow’ and ‘complex’ have seeped through into popular culture and have often been picked up by those who identify as spiritual.
Although the two men were from different generations of psychoanalytic practitioners, it would be fair to say that they were both rebels
Although the two men were from different generations of psychoanalytic practitioners, it would be fair to say that they were both rebels. Jung’s heresy was to defect from the theory of his mentor Freud, especially around the issue of religion, spirituality and the idea of a collective unconscious. Lacan on the other hand performed a similar defection from the orthodox psychoanalysts in Paris in the 1950’s and was known for his radical revision of psychoanalytic theory.
When looking for similarities or even comparisons between the theories of Jung and Lacan I found very little – and what I did find seemed to be a hand-waving dismissal of the work of one theorist by the followers of the other. Feeling despondent I fortunately stumbled upon a vein of gold in the form of the Jung – Lacan dialogues. This event had been held by the Society of Psychoanalysis in Middlesex University three times previously, where expert speakers from the Jungian or Lacanian perspective engaged in a dialogue on a particular issue. This time they were going to be discussing the concept of the ‘Ego’.
The description of the event provided a brief introduction into Jung and Lacan’s view of the Ego:
“For Lacan, the ego is a mirage, an imaginary construct that should be dismantled, rather than strengthened (in neurotic patients, at least). Not surprisingly, ego-psychology is much maligned in Lacanian circles, and analytical psychology has been criticised for the same reasons. Jung, however, was everything but an ally of the ego, focussing instead on the Self. In this dialogue we aim to find out where the fault lines lie between the two theorists and whether there is common ground to be discovered.”
Speaking at the event were Marcus West (for the Jungians) and Sam Palmer (for the Lacanian perspective). Marcus is a Jungian Psychoanalyst and author of three books which cover a wide range of different subjects: “Feeling, Being and the Sense of Self”, “Understanding Dreams in Clinical Practice”, and “Into the Darkest Places – Early Relational Trauma and Borderline States of Mind. Whereas Sam is a Psychoanalyst who has published a number of articles on Lacanian psychoanalysis.
Training at a college which is Transpersonal in perspective but also integrative, it was quite refreshing to hear from speakers who were experts in single, specific field – a narrow focused lens rather than a broad brush. It gave a better idea of the differences between the theories, rather than give a false impression of unity which can sometimes happen when reviewing theory from an integrative perspective.
Marcus West – Jung and the Ego
Marcus talked first about the view of the Ego in Jungian Analysis. Owing to my experience in transpersonal psychotherapy (and also perhaps to Jung’s work seeping through into mainstream Anglo-Saxon culture more than the ‘continental’ work of Lacan) I found the language and terminology quite accessable and easy to process.
Jung’s view of the ego was described as being similar to Freud’s, however supplemented, if not dwarfed, by the concept of ‘Self’. The ego is described as being narrow and desires to be in charge, whereas the Self is seen as a “more competent judge, which can lead the person into individuation”. The key (as described by Marcus) was a shift in emphasis from ego to self. Rather than falling back onto the familiar position of the ego calling the shots, the aim was to have the Self act as guide, allowing it to inform the ego.
An interesting term Marcus used (that synchronistically fits with this issue) was that of the violence of the Self. This was the idea that the Self can perform a sort of violence or suffering to the ego during the individuation process
An interesting term Marcus used (that synchronistically fits with this issue) was that of the violence of the Self. This was the idea that the Self can perform a sort of violence or suffering to the ego during the individuation process. This is an important concept as the process of individuation has been appropriated somewhat by new age spirituality to mean a sort of ‘constantly blissful’ inner journey. Hearing of the violence of the Self highlighted the drastic and powerful impact that the process of individuation can have on the Ego, not always pleasant or wanted by the person experiencing it.
The metaphor of a wheel was also evoked as an image for the Self – Ego arrangement. The Self was seen as the hole in the centre of the wheel, which the spokes were formed around. The idea was to avoid identifying with the single spokes, and to realize that it was the hole in the centre which made the wheel useful!
Sam Palmer – Lacan (and Freud’s) view of the Ego
We next moved on to Lacan’s views on the Ego presented by Sam – or rather Freud’s views on the ego. Sam elaborated that Lacan’s perspective developed from Freud’s work (Lacan described it as a “Return to Freud”), so he felt it would be useful to review the Freudian model and look at how different branches of analysis built upon its original form. Sam’s style of speaking I found incredibly engaging and slightly tricky, posing questions which challenged my way of thinking about the subjects he presented. I admit that at some points I was lost by the infamous Lacanian diagrams, however I feel that I am probably not the first or last to suffer trying to wrap my head around this particular part of Lacan’s work.
Freuds tripartite model of Id, Ego and Superego was brought in to remind us of where the concepts had developed from. We then heard about the different ways in which analysts following him had adapted this framework to their own theories. Sam drew attention to the fact that Anna Freud and the post Freudians had allied themselves to the Ego in the tripartite model. Lacan railed against this – feeling that the ego was something ambiguous and in conflict, rather than the centrepiece.
Sam reflected that the ego for Freud was something that was built, rather than present at birth. It was seen as a great reservoir of libido which flowed out to some objects and was absorbed from others. We then moved on to looking at the important ‘mirror stage’ of Lacanian analysis – the idea that the child at some point sees itself reflected back as a whole, coherent unit. This caused confusion with a bunch of Psychotherapists obviously into their Winnicott, who started bringing in their own concepts of mirroring. Sam described that for Lacan it is not the mother-child dyad that creates the ego, but the child and an image of itself as complete. It was useful to have it pointed out that Lacan and Winnicott both use the term ‘mirroring’ and ‘holding’ in completely different ways: For Lacan ‘holding’ is what stops a child from becoming emeshed in a psychotic, symbiotic relationship. It is about what comes BETWEEN the mother and child, rather than the mother ‘holding’ emotions for the child in the Winnicottian sense. Holding is done by the ‘Father’ (the big Other) in Lacan, disrupting the child/mother dyad.
Discussion – Marcus West
For the second part of the talk we only had a small helping from Marcus, however it was informative. He provided us with a schema of four broad experiences of analysis for Jungians. These were:
1) Getting a person in touch with their shadow
2) the client’s ego wanting to remain in control of their life situation – questions like ‘what should I do?’
3) a client with a borderline personality structure – not being loved in infancy these people have instead formed a traumatic complex. They have to be idealized in relationship and will reject experiences which are not ideal. Their ego is driven by this central traumatic complex and their responses to reality are problematic. Marcus emphasised that Jungian analysis often draws on Kleinian work in dealing with this type of client
4) A ‘vertical’ or transpersonal experience – the client will submit to who they are. They give up idealized expectations and experience feelings of death and dying as they give up control and submit. This is the realm of spiritual experience.
This was a useful map of the therapuetic process to hear from an experienced Jungian practitioner. Although I would have liked to have had more expansion on each of the stages than we were actually given during the speech, I realise that would have taken us away from the purpose of the talk – the focus on the Ego.
Sam Palmer – Discussion
In contrast Sam talked in depth and concisely highlighted the differences between Lacanian and Jungian theory, engaging with some of the questions thrown in by the audience. This was alas also the moment in which the Lacanian diagrams were once again thrown into the mix which I admit flummoxed me.
Next we had descriptions of the method of Lacanian analysis. Sam talked about the way in which Lacan questioned the need to be an idealized other and instead would retain some distance between (or even frustrate) the goals of the ego (whether unconscious or conscious). In this way the therapist would highlight what he saw as the fundamental question that frames the therapy – “Who am I for you?”. Lacanian therapist even employ strategies of inconsistency – they are not there to contain and be empathetic but to bring up and frustrate this question. There were a few shocked looks and mumbles from some of the crowd at the description of this technique. I personally felt it was very interesting – that Lacan believed you should be aware of how you were being placed in a relationship and position yourself to deliberately frustrate the ego’s expectations!
Nearing the end of the three hour talk it was interesting that there was not actually that many similarities between the two perspectives
Nearing the end of the three hour talk it was interesting that there was not actually that many similarities between the two perspectives. I had enjoyed both presentations and felt glad that there wasn’t any attempt to create a sort of half-baked synthesis and glossing over differences to show how well everybody was getting along. We were left with a sort of statement of how Lacan and Jung saw therapy. According to Sam and Marcus, for Lacan the aim was to drain off the poisionous enjoyments of the ego, whereas for Jung there was something about moving beyond into something else. I will be attending the next event and recommend it for all trainee or qualified psychotherapists.
please see the website for the Jung – Lacan Research Network for more information on upcoming talks and take advantage of this free event!