Emma Campbell

title.none: Labbie, Lacan's Medievalism (Emma Campbell)

identifier.other: baj9928.0812.005 08.12.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Emma Campbell, University of Warwick,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Labbie, Erin Felicia. Lacan's Medievalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Pp. xi, 264. ISBN: $25.00 978-0-8166-4516-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.12.05

Labbie, Erin Felicia. Lacan's Medievalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Pp. xi, 264. ISBN: $25.00 978-0-8166-4516-7.

Reviewed by:

Emma Campbell
University of Warwick

Lacan's Medievalism participates in a relatively new strand of medievalist criticism that explores the connections between key contemporary thinkers and medieval culture with a view to better appreciating the reciprocal connections between modern philosophy and medieval studies. As such, it is comparable to recent research by scholars such as Bruce Holsinger and Amy Hollywood. [1] The exclusive focus on Lacanian psychoanalysis in Labbie's book nonetheless sets it apart from those other studies and associates it with a now well- established tradition of psychoanalytic criticism within medieval literary disciplines. Where Lacan's Medievalism differs in turn from some of this psychoanalytic research is in attempting what Labbie describes (following Felman) as an "implicated" approach. [2] What this means in practice is that, rather than using psychoanalysis as a tool to be applied to the medieval texts referenced explicitly by Lacan, the book instead seeks to explore the way both text and psyche are equally important to understanding the unconscious. Labbie's analysis thus moves between readings of medieval texts and investigations of how Lacan's thinking on desire and the unconscious engages with medieval literature and philosophy. In this sense, Labbie refuses the historical segregationism of epistemological breaks that would separate Lacanian thought from the Middle Ages with a view to reconfiguring our understanding of both psychoanalysis and the medieval period.

Each of the five chapters is focused on its numerical equivalent as this relates to Lacan's thinking on desire, resulting in an exploration of the evolution of his thinking on singularity, duality, dialectics and knots. Part of Labbie's purpose in so doing is to consider how Lacan's thinking consistently explores questions that also had a central importance in the medieval quarrel over universals, which was similarly concerned with distinctions between singularity, multiplicity and universality. Indeed, one of the aims of the book is to examine how psychoanalysis participates in the realism/nominalism debate at the centre of the quarrel over universals by examining the realist underpinnings of Lacan's philosophy as this relates to the unconscious.

Chapter One, "Singularity, Sovereignty and the One," begins with Lacan's reference to Chaucer as father of the trope of the fool in Seminar VII, which illustrates the connection between sovereignty, ideological power, and the impossibility of singularity. Labbie suggests that Lacan thus invites an exploration of how Chaucer's role as a realist who disguises himself as a nominalist assists in the development of his own realism. This connection is made through a reading of the "Clerk's Tale," which addresses the relationship between dialectics, the quarrel of universals and the process of desire as it is predicated on the possibility of singularity and universality. Labbie also addresses Lacan's relationship to scholastic philosophy and the Platonism of Boethius in the course of her discussion in this chapter.

Chapter Two, "Duality, Ambivalence, and Animality of Desire," looks at the way in which ambivalence expresses desire for singularity in trying to manage what is seen as a conflict between competing elements of the self--a conflict represented as a struggle between the animal and the human. Freud's case studies of "the Rat Man" and "the Wolf Man" provide examples of ambivalence: each patient struggles with his desire to balance animality with the rationality of the human. Labbie's discussion of Lacan's position on the ethical question of the relationship between man and animal draws on Heidegger, Agamben and Derrida. She then analyses "Bisclavret" (one of Marie de France's lais) as a text which represents the ambivalence of animality within the human, and which, in so doing, participates in the debate over universals. Labbie's second medieval example is the considerably later Roman de Mélusine by Jean d'Arras which, she argues, like "Bisclavret," represents through its protagonist the horror of the presence of the phallus as animal drive. The final part of the chapter looks at Lacan's discussion of courtly love in Seminar VII, where (in connection with a reading of a poem by Arnaut Daniel) he suggests that animality is present in humanity through the surplus and excess of the female body. Labbie suggests that there seems to be an inherent connection between the struggle for humanity and the expression of desire as a courtly phenomenon in all of the medieval texts she has explored.

Chapter Three, "Dialectics, Courtly Love and the Trinity'," investigates the implication of courtly love in areas where medieval studies and psychoanalysis overlap, most notably in relation to the troubadour lyric. Labbie considers in this chapter both Lacan's diagrammatic representations of his theory of desire and his engagement with (and difference from) Hegel. Reading Arnaut Daniel's scatological poem in the context of depictions of courtly love in poems of a similar type, Labbie examines the substitution of the unconscious for God in Lacan's system of desire. She also points to the way Lacan moves from a triangulated structure of desire to one represented by a knot.

Chapter Four, "Quadrangle, Hard Sciences," builds on this by examining Lacan's interest in mathemes in his attempt to explain (and justify scientifically) his theory of the unconscious. Lacan's interest in mathematics followed on from his interest in knots and was part of his attempt to find a properly universal language in which to convey his ideas. Here, Labbie returns to Chaucer as a medieval figure who shares some of Lacan's concerns in thinking about the properly scientific. The examples of the quasi-sciences given in Chaucer's Treatise on the Astrolabe and in Lacan's thought place their work in the context of the medieval quarrel over universals and contribute to their understandings of the limitations and intersections between realism and nominalism. Lacan's graph of desire, his idealisation of mathematics and his interest in the matheme as perfect signifier run up against his awareness of the impossibility of the formalism he seeks. Similarly, Labbie suggests, Chaucer writes a scientific treatise that combines references to astronomy, astrology, mathematics and alchemy to explore the potential for science to solve or create human problems.

Chapter Five, "The Pentangle and the Resistant Knot," explores the overlapping structure of the desire to resist desire seen in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and in the memoirs of Daniel Paul Schreber. Just as Gawain's attempts to come to terms with the unconscious as real leads him to seek the repression of his unconscious, Schreber's attempt to deceive God constitutes a paranoid attempt to manipulate the world through control of the unconscious. These two examples reflect the way in which the unconscious emerges as a real while also demonstrating how hysteria, paranoia and mysticism are bound together in the discourse of analysis. Both cases also stage an overt resistance to courtly love, demonstrating thereby the impenetrability of the navel at the core of the analytical knot.

This is an ambitious and intellectually engaging book that provides some interesting new angles on Lacan's medievalism, as well as arguments for reconsidering other, non medieval aspects of his theories in the context of his engagement with medieval culture (notably his use of Antigone). Labbie's engagement with Lacanian psychoanalysis is thorough and often illuminating; where the book is weaker, in my view, is in some of its readings of medieval texts. This might have been remedied by a greater level of explicit reference to other medievalist critics in the readings Labbie proposes. As it is, there is on occasion a surprising lack of engagement with secondary material that may have helped to sharpen the contours of Labbie's arguments and articulate more precisely the originality of her own views. Readings of troubadour poetry were a case in point, but this also extends to texts such as "Bisclavret," where Labbie might have usefully considered some of the bibliography on the lai (such as Milena Mikhaïlova's chapter on the story in Le présent de Marie) [3].

I was also left somewhat unclear about Labbie's intended readership. The density of the argument and a sometimes difficult prose style make this a challenging book for even the theoretically literate reader and would significantly reduce opportunities for using it in undergraduate teaching. These features also make it a more exigent prospect for medievalists without some grounding in psychoanalysis. Labbie's claim that Lacan's Medievalism is partly intended for those medievalists who continue to resist psychoanalysis because it is ahistorical or transhistorical in this respect seems a little optimistic. Having said this, those medievalists with interests in psychoanalytic theory, as well as non-medievalists working on Lacan, will doubtless find this study repays careful reading. There is much here to stimulate both reflection and debate.

-------- Notes:

1. Bruce Holsinger, The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory (University of Chicago Press, 2005); Amy Hollywood, Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference and the Demands of History (University of Chicago Press, 2002).

2. Lacan's Medievalism, pp. 6-10.

3. Milena Mikhaïlova, Le présent de Marie (Paris: Diderot, 1996).