Campus & Community

Lacan: Filling in the gaps

6 min read

Workshop, press help penetrate the seemingly impenetrable

In her workshop and press, Judith Gurewich exposes the scaffolding of structuralism. The key, she says, ‘is the notion that structure prevails over content.’ (Staff photo by Rose Lincoln)

For more than a dozen years, Judith Gurewich has been guiding Harvard students and faculty through the intricate terrain of structuralism, post-structuralism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and other daunting regions of contemporary thought.

Gurewich’s workshop on the thought of French psychoanalyst and theoretician Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) meets once a month at the Humanities Center and has attracted a steady stream of students, professors, and interested outsiders aiming to apply the insights of Lacan and his contemporaries to literature, cultural studies, women’s studies, and other fields.

Gurewich, a practicing Lacanian analyst who has studied at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute, began the workshop in 1991. Since then, it has garnered warm praise from participants.

Teaching Lacanian analysis and theory has also inspired Gurewich to start her own press with New York psychoanalyst Michael Moskowitz in order to make crucial texts available to students. Other Press now publishes hundreds of titles in psychology, politics, cultural studies, even fiction and poetry. It recently acquired Karnac Books, a British imprint specializing in psychoanalytic subjects. In addition to publishing books, the company now puts out several journals and operates three bookstores, one in New York and two in London. There is also a fourth bookstore online at

One of those who have participated in Gurewich’s workshop at the Humanities Center is Marjut Ruti, lecturer on women’s studies.

“I really had a very wonderful experience,” she says. “I came from a background of having studied many of these texts, but I found that my understanding deepened. In this country, Lacan is usually studied from a theoretical point of view, but it was tremendously useful to understand his clinical side.”

Ruti adds that even for those participants who were new to the concepts involved, the workshop proved extremely helpful.

“There were a lot of people with no background in Lacan, but Judith made it possible for them to participate. That’s a skill!”

Gurewich’s skill in making Lacan’s difficult concepts understandable to people from a variety of backgrounds is the result of a long personal quest. Born in Canada to Hungarian parents, she grew up in Belgium, then later came to the United States to study, earning a law degree from Columbia University.

Her interest in the workings of society led her to Brandeis to study sociology. It was while working on her Ph.D. dissertation there that she became aware of French structuralism and its importance to social thought, but without anyone to guide her in her search, achieving an adequate grasp of the subject proved difficult.

Fortunately, however, she had a number of things going for her – fluency in French, a pass to Widener Library, and determination.

“I remember sitting on the floor in Widener, voraciously reading articles by French thinkers in the journal Critique, and trying to understand the meaning of structuralism. I was doing the work that most people in France did by attending lectures and taking part in discussions.”

Gurewich’s lonely pursuit finally resulted in understanding. As she explains it now, the key to structuralism is a single insight whose roots go back to the work of sociologist Emile Durkheim, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, and linguist Ferdinand de Saussure.

“It is the notion that structure prevails over content.”

By looking at language and society from this perspective, structuralists were able to see these phenomena as discrete systems obeying their own laws. But as these systems gained in importance, the individuals whom they comprised lost their significance in the formulations of theorists.

“For the structuralists, the structure has an impact on the individual, but the individual has no impact on the structure. The individual doesn’t count at all. He or she is only the effect of the social structure, not its cause.”

This basic insight informed the work of such scholars as Levi-Strauss, who applied it to the study of myth and ritual, and Michel Foucault, who applied it to the study of history.

Lacan’s contribution, Gurewich explains, was to combine structuralism with Sigmund Freud’s theory of the unconscious. The result was to reintroduce the individual, or to use Lacan’s word, “the subject” back into structuralist discourse. This subject is still at the mercy of forces that it cannot comprehend or control, but at least it has a role to play in the process. It is once again integral to the structure, not simply an effect.

In Lacan’s scheme, the infant gains a sense of self through his or her interaction with the mother, a process carried out chiefly through eye contact and verbal expression, both charged with emotional content. It is through this means that the mother begins to convey to the child her fantasy about who she wishes the child to be. The child, in turn, strives to fulfill that fantasy as a means of survival.

“The sense of self doesn’t come from within – it comes from without. Our sense of self is very much informed by the way we’re looked at.”

A crisis comes when the child begins to wonder about the mother’s love and desire.

“Does she love me for me? Does she want me for herself, the way I want her for myself? The child must find a solution to that problem. Its psychic survival is at stake.”

According to Lacan, it is out of that portion of the mother’s wants and desires which the child feels it cannot satisfy, that the child’s own unconscious fantasy is born. The father comes into the picture at this point because it is to him that the child looks for clues about the enigma of the mother’s desires. The child’s unconscious fantasy is the mechanism that then drives the process into the next generation.

Thus, for Lacan, the individual is no longer an insignificant cipher at the mercy of an impersonal structure, but rather the means by which the structure reproduces itself.

In the United States, Lacan’s influence on clinical practice has been minimal, but he has had a major impact on literary and cultural theory.

“It’s impossible to imagine critical theory today without Lacan,” says Ruti. “His ideas have become part of our understanding of selfhood and the world.”

Lacan’s thought has been especially important in discussions of the way identities are constructed, particularly gender.

“It’s a non-biological, non-essentialist way of looking at gender. It can help us to look at ways to loosen up the structure, so everyone has access to a greater range of human potentiality,” Ruti says.