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Works Reviewed: Alain Badiou and Elisabeth Roudinesco Jacques Lacan Past and Present: A Dialogue. Translated by Jason E. Smith. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. 82 pages.

One does not necessarily expect a book about Jacques Lacan to be compulsively readable. Lacan was an enigmatic thinker; his use of language is alluring, though extremely difficult to follow. The appeal Lacan holds for, at least some, contemporary thinkers is also a cause for reflection, and occasional concern. Accusations of charlatanism hang heavy around Lacan, and, at the very least, an understanding of the relation the French psychoanalyst bears to that body of discourse marked Lacanian would be helpful in understanding its impact and importance. Jacques Lacan Past and Present: A Dialogue presents a multifaceted portrait of Lacan’s life and thought. It traces two distinct encounters with Lacan and his thought and point to the importance of his thought for the problems of our age. And it is compulsively readable.

Alain Badiou and Elisabeth Roudinesco detail their own very different introductions to Lacan, and in these encounters a picture of the master emerges. Lacan is, indeed, a masterful figure for both Badiou and Roudinesco, but the mastery lies in the very tenacity of his thought and his refusal of ideology. That he is a master, moreover, means that his thought inspires enmity as well as discipleship and, perhaps, a certain creativity. This creativity is materialist, in its orientation to science, yet without foreclosing on the real of impossible discovery. The tension between philosophy and psychoanalysis is very much at play in Lacan’s thought; he struggles against philosophy precisely as he seeks to incorporate it into the field of psychoanalysis. There is an openness in his thought which Badiou and Roudinesco find important and compelling. Roudinesco writes that he “opposed every form of identitarian closure that denies the alterity that constitutes us and he opposed the behaviourism and cognitivism that have reduced man to his naturality..”(29) Lacan, and here Badiou echoes her sentiments, would have stood against the stupidity that overwhelms us; the apolitical fetishization of security, the extreme medicalization of the symptoms of human subjects, and the mediatization of communication to the detriment of knowledge.

It is in their commitment to the open character of Lacan’s thought, much more than any position of mastery he might occupy, that brings the intensity that makes this little book so readable. Badiou and Roudinesco are convinced that the fate of Lacan is bound up with the fate of psychoanalysis, which is itself bound up with the fate of civilization itself. “Wanting to eradicate Freud or Lacan”, writes Badiou, “is to go after the very concept of the modern subject. And if that is abolished, the door is open to reactionary ideologies of the worst sort.” (67) Lacan, as the thinker who synthesizes the formula “never compromise your desire” with “do your duty” seems poised as one the few thinkers who might help us think the meaning of authority in the spirit of a free and open inquiry.

Jacques Lacan Past and Present: A Dialogue is part history and part manifesto. It is both biography and apologetics, and makes a powerful case for the continued importance of the Lacanian legacy as a powerful antidote to the foreclosure of thought and the end of science.