The following is the first part in a three-part installment.
In 1975, Jacques Lacan travelled to the United States to deliver a series of lectures and made a memorable stop in Boston to speak to a distinguished audience of mathematicians, linguists and philosophers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was there he first met Roman Jakobson and Noam Chomsky. However, when Chomsky asked the French psychoanalyst a question about the nature of thought, Lacan’s response was taken as deliberately contemptuous of his American audience: “We think we think with our brains; personally, I think with my feet. That’s the only way I really come into contact with anything solid.” 
Although peppered with brilliant insights, like how humans are set apart from other animals because they alone are encumbered by their own feces, this lecture on the possible search for “foundations” via the topology of knots was generally considered incomprehensible. Lacan managed to thoroughly alienate his audience and in the end simply added to his own growing reputation as an erratic non-systematic thinker or even outright charlatan. In retrospect, the fact that Lacan always eschewed publishing his work and grudgingly only did so at the entreaty of others certainly does not help matters in terms of his legacy. 
But once we grasp, for instance, how Lacan’s reference to his own published work as a poubellication  was part of a general campaign to discourage his students from jumping to conclusions and to frustrate their desire to immediately understand everything at once, we begin to see that he profoundly wished his system to remain open and unfixed. Certainly the very nature of his texts testify to his desire to leave behind an anti-system: on the one hand, we must always remember when dealing with his 26 lectures (the majority of which still have yet to be published, even in French) that these were spoken texts and were not originally intended to be inscribed on the page; on the other, there are the notoriously impenetrable Écrits whose difficulty was not lost on Lacan himself for “they were not meant to be read.” 
As he tells us in the opening lines of “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious” in a statement equally applicable to the entire Écrits, these texts should be considered as “situating [themselves] between writing and speech – [they] will be halfway between the two” and thus so calculated as to “leave the reader no other way out than the way in, which I prefer to be difficult. This, then, will not be a writing in my sense of the term.”  Far from being a hindrance and discouraging us from putting Lacan’s thought to work, the operating assumption we make here is that this open-ended textual legacy is its undeniable strength as it lends itself abundantly to productive and truthful ends. This is particularly the case with respect to a possible “application” of Lacan’s thought to literary criticism.
What we propose to do here is survey Lacan’s long career with the specific aim of discovering what it has to offer regarding strategies of textual interpretation. At once a historical sketch of Lacan’s thought, we organize this endeavor by making use of his distinctions between the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real. These three terms Lacan used early on in his career; however, it was not until his first seminar in 1953 that they were accorded the dignity of their own register, each referring to quite distinct aspects of psychoanalytic experience and was used thereafter as a fundamental classification system around which all of his subsequent theorizing was organized.
But however profoundly heterogeneous these registers are, they still refer to just one subject. Lacan formally begins exploring such a paradoxical relationship with the topology of the Borromean knot in 1972 with his Seminar XX.  Two years later in his seminar RSI, the three-ringed knot is specifically used to illustrate the structural interdependence of the three registers. In privileging these later formulations, we thus underscore how an effort to corral his thought into the readily identifiable stages of the hermeneutics-friendly (Imaginary) Lacan of the 1930s and the academically-popular (Symbolic) Lacan of the 1950s is contingent, informed and over-determined by the lesser-known (Real) Lacan of the 1970s. This goes as well for our thesis that corresponding to each stage is what we call a Lacanian Theory of Textual Engagement: although these three Lacanian theories of engaging with texts will be here presented in their own section, we will endeavor to show their underlying continuity from the vantage point of the later Lacan of the 1970s, for that Lacan of the Real offers us the most promising means to bring hermeneutics as such to its truth.
The Imaginary Lacan: Signification of Texts
Theorizing ways of reading texts certainly was not Lacan’s primary concern, but the possibility of using his work for such purposes is not entirely absent from his thought. On the contrary as he explicitly tells us in Seminar I: “Commenting on a text is like doing an analysis.”  This seems reasonable when we recall that Lacan is the great reader and “translator” of Freud into French and stressed early in his career of the absolute necessity to return to the writings of the founding father of psychoanalysis. Indeed, he devotes his first two seminars on Freud’s texts, as their titles suggest. 
Perhaps more importantly, as a clinician Lacan was daily confronted with the spoken texts of his analysands who verbally confided in him their intimate desires and recounted their nightly dreams in hopes of a cure through a learned interpretation. This intellectual emersion in Freud’s psychoanalytic texts coupled with an intense clinical praxis forms the crucial context for Lacan’s first critical theoretical break: a reformulation of the ego. We will initially examine his “mirror stage theory” as it appears in its 1949 Écrits version. 
The opening sentence makes reference to the fact that Lacan introduced this paper thirteen years previously when he attended his first International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA) conference held in 1936. In a later écrit Lacan gives us in bitter detail his experience at this conference: apparently ten minutes into delivering his mirror stage paper, Ernest Jones cut him short in mid-sentence and did not allow him to continue.  The fact that Lacan makes mention of this episode numerous times throughout the rest of his career might lead us to suspect that the Master’s ego was rather fragile, almost as if he did not quite learn the lesson of the very paper he was delivering which – as one can see from its full title: “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience”– is all about a radically new theory on how the ego is formed.
Whereas previously the thinking was that man adapts himself to reality, Lacan’s thesis essentially reverses things and in a gesture strictly homologous to Kant’s transcendental idealist revolution in metaphysics, he proclaims that it is man who adapts reality to himself. More specifically, the ego creates a new adaptation to “reality” and the subject then tries to maintain cohesion with this double. It is Lacan’s emphasis on the nature of this double as an image or “imago” that permits us to characterize the Lacan of the 1930s the Imaginary Lacan, for he is quite literally concerned with the imaginary identification aspect of ego-formation. Lacan further refers to the appearance of these doubles and object-projections as hallucinatory and dream-like in order to underscore the role that the mirror plays in presenting a whole yet fictional image for the fragmented child. 
We can readily understand this process by considering the image Lacan himself asks us to consider. The human child is born pre-mature and must be cared for and up to the age of eighteen months the child has immense difficulty with motor coordination and is outdone by the chimpanzee in intelligence. But while both are able to recognize their images in a mirror, it is only the child that remains fascinated with its specular image as the chimpanzee quickly loses interest. Here we have the elementary imaginary dyad: the fragmented child anticipates himself when looking into the mirror, but is ever uncertain, so he turns to his mother, who offers a confirmation. “Yes, that’s you!” she says and he is swept up in a wave of jubilation which attends to this phantasmatic experience of self-mastery. In this way, the child is compensated with a whole image of himself and this is an image that he will carry with him for the rest of his life. This image is what Lacan calls the Ideal-ego. 
From this, we can make an analogy to psychoanalysis in general and from there to a strategy of textual engagement. As we noted above, in his clinical practice Lacan was daily confronted with raw, primordial texts. The texts were in the form of dreams and, like Freud, Lacan accomplished the not so easy break with the appearance to which the dream-text is nothing but a meaningless confusion that has nothing whatsoever to do with signification. So, the first critical step he took was to conceive of dreams as meaningful phenomena that transmit repressed messages in need of an interpretive procedure. By accomplishing this step, Lacan entered his first stage, becoming what we might call a hermeneutical phenomenologist.
The domain of psychoanalysis thus becomes the domain of meaning. Just as the goal of psychoanalytic treatment is to integrate traumatic symptoms into the patient’s life in a meaningful way, the goal of textual interpretation is likewise to integrate disturbing elements of the text into an overall, cohesive narrative. Here, the text is like the fragmented child and the goal is to provide an interpretation to accommodate the fragmented text into an imaginary wholeness much like what the child encounters in the mirror. Any gaps encountered in the text index interpretive failure and must be resolved. What the later Lacan might call the gaze of the text would be precisely the phenomenal experience by which such gaps peer out to the reader from the distortions of the text. Such disturbances are what the hermeneutical inter-subjective approach endeavors to neutralize at any price, since it impedes the text’s full integration into the hermeneutical universe of deep meaning.
To briefly illustrate this we might recall Roman Jakobson’s phatic function of language, the notion of which he introduces in a seminal paper.  Confronted with the distortion this notion marks for the reader in as much as it is not readily understandable, one immediately sets to work to more fully integrate it into Jakobson’s overall theoretical universe since on a first approach such an element certainly sticks out of his text and calls for special attention. At a different level, the text of Lacan’s own life can be effectively read using his method of hermeneutical phenomenology. That is, we can interpret Lacan’s frequent allusions to his interruption by Jones at the 1936 IPA Congress as so many (failed) attempts to come to terms with the disturbance this episode wrought to the overall cohesive narrative of his life.
Moreover, that Lacan may have been endeavoring to re-integrate this traumatic symptom back into his life in a meaningful way due to his initial interpretive failure to make sense of it at the time is indexed by the fact that Lacan continually reworked the mirror stage theory throughout the remainder of his career.  We will examine one major reworking in the section immediately following. But let us note in passing how someone like Habermas in effect critiques Lacan’s first approach (laden as it is with hermeneutics), assuming as he does that distortions in texts have meaning as such. As Žižek notes, however, what Habermas overlooks is that meaning as such results from a certain distortion and that the very emergence of meaning is based on the disavowal of some primordially repressed element.  We will examine the logic underlying this latter possibility in the two remaining sections.
William J. Urban holds an MA and PhD in Humanities from York University, as well as a BA and MA in Economics from St. John Fisher College and the University of Toronto. He is the author of Lacan and Meaning: Sexuation, Discourse Theory, and Topology in the Age of Hermeneutics, published in 2015.
Featured image from Reyhaneh boloori, Wikimedia Commons.
 Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 148-49.
 His translator notes how Lacan’s neologism is “a condensation of poubelle, garbage can (or dustbin), and publication, publication” in Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge, Book XX, Encore 1972-1973, eds. Jacques-Alain Miller and trans. with notes by Bruce Fink (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998), 29. All references to Lacan’s work in this paper will be made to the marginal French pagination found in most translations.
 Indeed for Lacan, understanding is a form of defense and when confronted with something new, he feels students endeavor to bring everything back to what they already know since “what they understand is a bit precipitate.” Lacan, Seminar XX, 65.
 Lacan, Seminar XX, 29.
 Lacan, Seminar XX, 101, 111-23.
 Freud’s Papers on Technique and The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis.
 This is the earliest version available as the original 1936 paper was never handed in for publication; Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan, 513.
 Lacan, Écrits, 184.
 Of course, an actual mirror need not be present. Another child or even adult can act as that other who lends its whole image to foster a sense of wholeness for the fragmented child.
 Lacan, Écrits, 93-95.
 Roman Jakobson, selections from “Linguistics and Poetics” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, First Edition, Gen. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), 1263.
 See Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan, 113-14 for additional details on this 1936 episode and how it may have impacted Lacan.
 Slavoj Žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Woman and Causality (London: Verso, 1994), 27.