Composition and the Irrational: Some Lacanian Concepts

Lacanian Doge
Lacanian Doge

Note: The picture above represents an internet meme called “Doge.” This is related to the LOL Cats meme, but Doge must feature a picture of a shiba inu dog (a Japanese dog, very active and smart, I have known one), several ungrammatical phrases, usually two words, starting with “very,” “so,” “much,” “many,” or “such,” rendered in fluorescent comic sans font. See this article for more information.

Last quarter I taught a Composition Theory seminar that was heavily invested in Lacan. We began with James Berlin’s Rhetoric, Poetics, and Cultures, an exposition of an unabashedly Marxist cultural studies pedagogy aimed at teaching students to recognize the insidious influence of a capitalist/consumerist ideology and to resist hegemonic discourses. In the past I have followed this book with Thomas Rickert’s Acts of Enjoyment: Rhetoric, Žižek, and the Return of the Subject.

Rickert’s book begins as a critique of Berlin’s pedagogy. On the first page he writes, “Sometime deep in the sixth inning of the 1990s, teaching my latest version of a cultural studies-oriented composition class, it struck me that something was awry. In retrospect, my unit on advertising seems particularly suspect. My students were becoming adept at picking apart ads and identifying their most pernicious features: the inducement to buy unnecessary, expensive items; the achievement of identity and modes of being through products; the reification of unjust class, race and gender roles; and so forth” (1). He reports that he faced little resistance from his students, and that they wrote competent, even excellent papers. Beyond that, there was little change other than growing cynicism, and they still bought the $75 jeans. He asks why “training students to be attentive critics of texts, culture, and ideology so seldom induces real transformation in their lives?” (3).

Rickert’s questions are important. Should composition instruction change not only the student’s writing strategies, but also his or her behavior? What if instruction in perceiving and understanding rhetorical appeals, instead of helping students make better choices, simply makes them cynical about all discourse? Rickert argues that what is needed is “a contemporary rhetoric that builds on the social dimension opened up by cultural studies while taking full account of the nonrational, affective, and unconscious factors that shape human conduct” (5).

Rickert does a good job of raising these questions and developing, mostly through Slavoj Žižek, a set of Lacanian terms that are very useful in theorizing these pedagogical issues. (A colleague of mine said recently “Lacan is great as long as you don’t have to deal with actual Lacan.”) However, he does not deliver a pedagogy suitable for addressing these issues. For that reason, in this seminar, I chose to assign Changing the Subject in English Class: Discourse and the Construction of Desire by Marshall W. Alcorn Jr.

Alcorn says, “The central argument of this book is that in changing the subject matter we teach, in order to change the human subject we teach, we have come to adopt an insufficiently complex understanding of subjectivity ” (2). This statement echoes the pun on the two meanings of “subject” in the title of the book. Alcorn then points to a fundamental contradiction in Berlin, that Berlin’s theoretical subject is a postmodern subject constructed by ideology and discourse, but that his pedagogy appears to depend on a traditional humanist subject free to critique ideology. This is a crucial point that addresses Rickert’s concern that students are unchanged in their behavior by his cultural studies course. Alcorn argues

The postmodernist subject, unlike the humanist subject, is essentially a structure of discourse conflict; it has no mechanism or motivation for being anything other than such a structure of conflict. A teacher could never hope to change the structure of, or resolve the conflict in, a subject by merely adding more discourse or more conflict to the subject. (19)

And later Alcorn argues

Logical argumentation of the sort that Berlin wants to develop in the classroom typically does not address the real binding effects of ideology. Too often, logical and informative arguments have no effect on the commitments students have to ideology. This is true because the real binding effects between subjectivity and discourse are not made in relation to linguistic representations but in relation to structural patterns of identity that are mapped out libidinally in the body. The body operates as the deep structure for much of language, the space where adhesive attachments to discourse are made. (25)

For example, I once taught a composition class in which I assigned a piece by Kate Millet called “Manifesto for a Sexual Revolution.” Millet argued, among other things, that marriage was simply another form of prostitution. A student from Texas came up to me after class and said that his head could understand her arguments, but that his heart, and the way he was brought up, said they were wrong. This is exactly what Alcorn is talking about here.

Before the class read Alcorn, however, I wanted to introduce some basic Lacanian concepts. We read Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture by Slavoj Žižek. Žižek is a big fan of popular culture, especially movies and especially Alfred Hitchcock movies. Žižek illustrates Lacanian concepts with scenes from science fiction novels, short stories, plays, movies, and historical events. At times, it is hard to tell whether Lacan, or the cultural artifacts are the real focus, but the book is an enjoyable and informative read.

Let me outline some of these concepts.

The Real

Lacan distinguishes between “reality,” the social world constructed in discourse that we all live in, and “the Real,” the uncaring physical universe that cannot be fully represented and tends to erupt into our reality at unpredictable and inopportune times. There is always a gap between the word and the thing, an insight that goes back to the sophist Gorgias. Žižek says that the emergence of language opens up a hole in reality (13). He says, “The role of the Lacanian real is, however, radically ambiguous: true, it erupts in the form of a traumatic return, derailing the balance of our daily lives, but it serves at the same time as a support of this very balance. What would our daily lives be without some support in an answer of the real?” (29)

For example, as I write this a Santa Ana wind is raging outside. In this area, the winds are strong enough to pick up plastic trash cans and lawn furniture and carry them over fences into neighboring yards. However, I am protected from the wind by a comfortable two-story house with thick walls, double-paned windows, tables and chairs, photographs, artwork, musical instruments, and shelves lined with books. My house is designed to accommodate human needs and I am surrounded by objects that have social meaning. The wind rages outside, but even in choosing that verb I am imputing to the wind an emotion it cannot have as part of the Real. Imagine that suddenly there is an earthquake that splits the house in two, and the wind intrudes. Am I being punished for neglecting to buy earthquake insurance? Has the wind “intruded” or is it simply flowing mindlessly where it can go? The Real erupts, but we immediately begin trying to make sense of it in reality.

The Symbolic Order is the order of signifiers, of words, of values, and ideology. This is where we live, but the Real exists. Rickert notes that nothing is lacking in the Real, but symbolization introduces a lack which extends into all of human affairs (55). The Symbolic bars us from the Real. This lack, or gap, is the price we pay for being language and symbol users. Rickert, following Žižek, says the Real “is distinguished from reality by the fact that it cannot be represented. In this sense the Real is foreclosed from direct apprehension in reality. But continuing further, Žižek reminds us that what is foreclosed always returns, just not in any direct form of representation. The Real returns in the form of gaps, errors, symptoms, slips, and other behavior idioms” (31). Language fails to capture the Real. There is always a surplus.

Often when we talk about teaching “critical thinking” we mean something like casting aside superstition, cultural beliefs, personal opinion, and appeals to pathos and ethos in favor of logos, some kind of rational, logical argument, grounded in reality. This distinction between reality and the Real makes it clear that this definition of “critical thinking” is either impossible or insufficient.  Language and arguments exist in the Symbolic Order.


We all live in a fantasy, a necessary story we construct about who we are, what we are doing, and where we are going. When this fantasy is disrupted by an eruption of the Real (the uncaring physical universe that cannot be completely represented in the symbolic) we ironically feel that the world has become “unreal.” Thus a death, a natural disaster, an illness, can dissolve our fantasy and make us uncertain about how to go on until we create a new fantasy.


Lacan says, “Desire is always the desire of the other.” This means that what we desire, we desire not for ourselves, but for how it makes us appear to others. In a classroom, this often translates into a desire to please the teacher. For learning to take place, clearly there must be desire. Alcorn says that teaching is necessarily, “a training of desire” (58).

The Big Other

Part of living in a society is a desire to please the “big Other,” which is the Symbolic Order, the language system and all of the cultural values and attitudes encoded and enforced in it. The English teacher is a representative of the big Other.

Libidinal Attachments

Alcorn says, “My central argument is that the rhetoric of discourse is libidinal” (26). He argues that some discourses are libidinal for us, eliciting strong attention and response, while others are “inert representations that we handle like packages.” Of course “libidinal” here is used in a Freudian sense in which the sex drive underlies all other drives. In this view, people have libidinal attachments to ideas, worldviews, practices, rituals, routines, etc., and are very resistant to giving them up, especially on rational or logical grounds. We could say that these things are “loved ones.” Part of teaching is breaking these attachments and encouraging the formation of new ones. However, when people break libidinal attachments, they must go through a period of mourning. This will necessarily take place in the classroom too.

Alcorn devotes a whole section of his book to mourning. He says,

All changes in deeply held beliefs involve and experience of loss or mourning. If writing teachers are to help in this activity of changing deeply invested feelings, they would do well to understand the mourning process. Too often, we consider thought as a process that can effortlessly move the elements of signification in all possible logical permutations. Changes in meaning, however, are not the effect of instant change in signification. Important changes in meaning require significant changes in feeling. These changes are not instant permutations in relationships of signifiers; they require slow changes in libidinal investments. (112)


People experience “jouissance” (a French word that means something like “enjoyment”) when they are doing things according to the way of being to which they have libidinal attachments. Rickert notes that strict ascetics who appear to renounce all pleasure have instead “merely redistributed their pleasures, setting up an alternative libidinal economy whereby they come to enjoy—obtain jouissance from—their renouncements” (3). Students should feel jouissance when doing classroom assignments, or they will not be engaged.

Master Signifiers

Language is a heterogeneous mass of signifiers that comes into alignment with the emergence of a Master Signifier. Mark Bracher, in Lacan, Discourse and Social Change: A Psychoanalytic Cultural Criticism, links Master Signifiers to identification. Bracher says that “when an identification becomes established as our identity, it functions to repress all desires that are incongruent with this identity,” as when a male who wants to be seen as “masculine” avoids wearing pink, drinking white zinfandel, or eating tea sandwiches. Master Signifiers are identity-bearing words, such as “strong,” “smart,” “American” or “freedom-loving” that organize other signifiers under them. Bracher says, “The way in which such signifiers function as bearers of our identity can easily be seen from our reactions when someone attempts either to damage one of our identity-bearing signifiers (e.g., disparages a signifier bearing our familial, national, ethnic, racial, or sexual identity) or to deprive us of one of these signifiers (e.g., by calling us a girl if we are a boy or vice versa)” (25).

What Does All This Mean for Teaching?

James Berlin’s approach could be seen as the unmasking of Master Signifiers through a process of rational, logical argument. We can see that this does not usually produce change in the student subject, as in the case of my student who understood Millet’s arguments about marriage and prostitution, but could not accept them as part of his belief system. If teaching necessarily involves breaking libidinal attachments and forming new ones, simply making logical arguments and supporting them with evidence will be ineffective. This is clearly illustrated in our current political discourse about climate change, gay marriage, or even Christmas. Alcorn puts this well, saying, “Rational truth claims can be changed by knowledge, but symptomatic beliefs cannot” (39).

This fact alone is enough to make us consider teaching, as Rickert suggests, a rhetoric that takes into account nonrational, affective, and unconscious factors. Perhaps even a small step in this direction will result in less student resistance to teaching, and fewer cynical non-resisters. It’s worth a try.

Works Cited

Alcorn, Marshall W. Jr. Changing the Subject in English Class: Discourse and the Constructions of Desire. Carbondale: Southern Ill. Univ. Press, 2002. Print.

Berlin, James. Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures: Refiguring College English Studies. Lauer Series in Rhetoric and Composition. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press 2003. Print.

Bracher, Mark. Lacan, Discourse, and Social Change: A Psychoanalytic Cultural Criticism. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1993. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991. Print.

2 thoughts on “Composition and the Irrational: Some Lacanian Concepts

  1. This gave me many things to think about and I enjoyed it very much. One thing it confirmed in me is what I thought all along during my graduate education, that the academy has suffered (and continues to suffer) from a form of gnosticism, a denial of the body and the belief in disembodied knowledge. It’s funny to me to read Alcorn’s earnest (condescending?) pronouncements about “breaking” “libidinal attachments” in students, as if he himself is not a slave to his own embodied commitments, who is also in need of having them broken. Indeed, I wonder if he is able or willing to state explicitly what they are. Thanks for the post.

  2. Perhaps the academy is gnostic but it is most certainly Cartesian.

    On the point about Alcorn, Mark Bracher argues in _The Writing Cure_ that psychoanalysis avoids unethical indoctrination because it works by “setting in motion a process of internal self criticism” and by helping people “own parts of themselves that they have rejected” (14). Well, maybe. But I think the point is that students are in a teacher’s classroom to learn, to learn is to be changed, and that a teacher must consider a student’s identifications and attachments for learning to occur. That is certainly true for teachers as well. I myself was quite resistant to psychological approaches to composition, which I saw as a form of expressionism, before reading the Rickert book. Rickert was raising issues about teaching that had been nagging at me for some time. It is easy to teach stuff, it is hard to teach students. The Aristotelian and Burkean approaches I favored had become teaching stuff for me, which is ironic because both actually deal with the psychology of the audience in their own ways. I need to rethink a bit. Especially, I need to re-think Burke. For example, in presenting Dramatism and the pentad, I don’t remember Burke talking about the AUDIENCE for the act. Who is the act performed for? To what extent does motivation flow from the audience? And thus, desire enters into it. Perhaps the big Other, in Burkean terms, is a kind of scene-act ratio? Lots of work to do here.

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