Labbie book reframes work of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan

A new book by Dr. Erin Felicia Labbie, English, examines the work of famed Freudian psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Among his theoretical and analytical explorations, Lacan studied medieval courtly love texts in developing his theory of the centrality of desire to philosophy. Published in 2006 by the University of Minnesota, Lacan’s Medievalism has been nominated for the First Book Award of the Modern Language Association.

It is Labbie’s claim that, in his methods and in his choice of research material, Lacan can be called a medievalist. Like medieval writers, who attempted to apply reason and temporal evidence to explain matters of faith and other “unknowables,” Lacan examined medieval texts on courtly love, mysticism, philosophy and the hard sciences to help explain the relationship of the unconscious to our perception of the real. Labbie writes that “ . . . Lacan’s work fits precisely into the medieval search for the real.”

It is hard for us in the post-Freudian world to imagine life without awareness of the unconscious, so deeply ingrained in our understanding of the human mind has it become. But for many medievalist scholars, who believe in a nominalist view of the social order, the unconscious simply did not exist until it was named by Freud (even though the concept had been alluded to as far back as Aristotle), Labbie says. For Lacan and other psychoanalytical thinkers, central to the unconscious is desire—that which drives our thinking and often our actions, whether we are aware of it or not.

Yet, according to Lacan, historians of philosophy have missed a crucial element in their analysis of the development of thought that is displayed prominently in medieval literature. That is the history of desire, which Lacan asserted has inevitably informed all philosophies. He made it part of his life’s work to locate desire within philosophy.

Drawing upon some familiar literary and canonical texts as well as less familiar philosophical and theoretical works in her analysis of Lacan’s theories,Labbie explores the relationship between language, knowledge and desire. She also contributes to a related debate that has been going on for about 10 years among scholars in the fields of critical theory and medieval studies about whether the subjects in medieval literature had an unconscious. Lacan’s Medievalism “intervenes in the conversations in both fields,” said the author, and makes the case that strict boundaries, or epistemological cuts, are not realistic. “The past is not compartmentalized,” Labbie said.

According to Alexandre Luepin, author of Lacan Today: Psychoanalysis, Science, Religion, “Lacan’s Medievalism is a landmark in medieval-Renaissance studies in this country, a book that will serve as a reference and incite further scholarship in the field.”

Based on Lacan’s Medievalism, she is completing two book chapters for collections and is at work on several articles. A 2006-07 faculty associate at BGSU’s Institute for the Study of Culture and Society, she teaches undergraduate and graduate introduction to theory courses, British literature survey and Chaucer classes, and gives focused seminars. In spring 2008, she will offer a new graduate course, “The History of the Gaze,” and is co-organizing, with Dr. Allie Terry, art history, “Beholding Violence: A Conference on Medieval and Early Modern Representation and Culture.”

Also next year, she will chair a panel at the 2008 New Chaucer Society meeting in England, on “Interpretation of Dreams and Dream Visions.” She will also present a paper on the current state of medieval studies and psychoanalysis at the same conference.

Labbie has taught at BGSU since 2000. She received her Ph.D. in English, with a specialization in cultural and medieval studies, from the University of Minnesota; her master’s degree from Bucknell and her bachelor’s degree from Miami University.

September 4, 2007