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Opinion || May 1968: Through the eyes of Jacques Lacan

“A good lycée is one which teaches patricide.”

– A schoolboy (Bendit 45)

I would like to start by referring to this particular statement made by a schoolboy to point out the particular mood with which the French student Revolution of May 1968 was enveloped and my aim in this paper would be to make a Lacanian analysis of two slogans which were at that particular time used as graffitis. I would specifically like to highlight the word patricide and interpret it to be the destruction or the annihilation of the symbolic order as propounded by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. This bears close resemblance to Lacan’s seminar “The other side of psychoanalysis” where he developed his “four discourses” that of the master, university , hysteric and analyst.

This paper talks about a particular time where the revolution had thousands of School children marching to the slogan: ‘Power is in the street, not in Parliament’. This revolution was not only confined to schoolchildren but also college and university students who allied themselves with workers to protest against the prevalent economic crisis during that time. It was a thirst for liberty at every level of life, an urge to throw off the cramping cant and petty tyranny of fossilized institutions. It was what the French call a ‘crise de structures’- something quite new, perhaps the first student rebellion against the bureaucratic Stalinist regime of De Gaulle and also at the same time against the morbid parasitic decay of Imperialism which according to Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov was the highest stage of capitalism due to the establishment of monopolies, trusts and cartels which would further systematically stop the nature of competition and rule by despotic measures. In this context I would like to mention a certain event in the Life of Jacques Lacan where in one of his seminars he was attacked by student of the revolution and he had formulated that the act was an act against an old order to form a new one. This can be seen in the documentary film “Lacan Parle”1 directed by Francoise Wolff. The student who had attacked Lacan and had disarranged the contents of his table phrased the following words as the justification for his act :

Photography: Bruno Barbey

“I chose this moment to have fun and to be like those guys who expresses themselves authentically”2. When Lacan asked him “by expressing yourself in this way in front of this audience what is it exactly that you wanted to do” , the student was furious and replied that “this is the same question which parents, priests, ideologists, bureaucrats and the cops always ask the growing number of people who act like me. My answer is, I want to do just one thing- make revolution.”

It is clear from this last statement that the student, is revolting against the orders of the state which Louis Althusser terms it as the ideological and repressive state apparatus. So it is evident that the revolution is directed against what Lacan terms as the Symbolic order and very interestingly the student also said that he chose this moment to be like “those guys”. Who are these guys? It is here we have the imaginary order or what Lacan in his “Écrits” defines to be the mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed by Psychoanalytic experience. What is this kind of experience? If we see the documentary by Francoise Wolff we will see that Lacan says that experience shows us that “it is one language- which you have grown up with- received from the family. It brought with it a confused vibrant reality formed by the desires of your parents. So the individual’s upbringing is influenced by the mother, by the maternal language.”3 This is not only a language but the formation of a new discourse which Lacan elucidates in his “The other side of psychoanalysis”. There he tells us that “what is S1 in the master’s discourse can be said to be S2 in the university discourse…” S1 is the master signifier, S2 is knowledge, S  is the barred subject whereas ‘a’ is the objet petit or the surplus jouissance. The formula which Lacan designs for the discourse of the master is S1/S   à S2/a whereas the formula for the discourse of the university is S2/S1 à a/S . The sign in the upper left denotes the speaker of the discourse and the sign on the upper right is what the discourse is addressed to. The sign on the lower right is what the discourse has created. It is the product whereas the sign on the lower left denotes the truth. This is what the discourse attempted to express. Thus we can see that in the discourse of the university the agent is knowledge and this discourse creates a product that is the barred subject but its main aim was to create the discourse of the master. Also included in his concept of the symbolic order is a reference to a phrase in his terminology namely – “nom du pére” or the name of the father. The father is a name because ultimately paternity always involves something beyond the biological reality of the man who gives his sperm , something purely symbolic. There is always this disassociation between the Real side of Paternity and its Fictitious side and it is this symbolic side that was being attacked by the students. Fictitious does not mean illusory or deceptive as such. In Lacan’s seminar “The Ethics of Psychoanalysis” he says that once the separation between the fictitious and the real has been effected, things are no longer situated where one might expect. He further states that The fictitious is not, in effect, in its essence that which deceives, but precisely what he calls the symbolic.

The basis of the imaginary order on the other hand is the formation of the ego in the “mirror stage”. Since the ego is formed by identifying with the counterpart or specular image, “identification” is an important aspect of the imaginary. The relationship whereby the ego is constituted by identification is a locus of “alienation”, which is another feature of the imaginary, and is fundamentally narcissistic. This is precisely the reason why the student said that he chose this moment to have fun and to act specifically like those guys. Basically what he was trying to say is that he had identified an image outside him and this identification was the reason to become that imaginary being. The imaginary, a realm of surface appearances which are deceptive, is structured by the symbolic order. It also involves a linguistic dimension: whereas the signifier is the foundation of the symbolic, the “signified” and “signification” belong to the imaginary. So we must understand that the reason which the boy gives for attacking Lacan when he says he wanted “to have fun” points us towards the role of the pleasure principle. In “The Ethics of Psychoanalysis”, Lacan says that the unconscious is structured as a function of the symbolic, that it is the return of a sign that the pleasure principle makes man seek out, that the pleasurable element in that which directs man in his behaviour without his knowledge because it is a form of euphony. Thus language has both symbolic and imaginary aspects. Based on the specular image, the imaginary is rooted in the subject’s relationship to the body (the image of the body).

Picture 1

In the first picture above we can see the slogan on the wall which translates itself as “be realistic, demand the impossible”. It immediately throws light onto the “Real order” formulated by Lacan. This order is not only opposed to the imaginary but is also located beyond the symbolic. Unlike the latter, which is constituted in terms of oppositions such as “presence” and “absence”, there is no absence in the real. The symbolic opposition between “presence” and “absence” implies the possibility that something may be missing from the symbolic, the real is “always in its place: it carries it glued to its heel, ignorant of what might exile it from there.” If the symbolic is a set of differentiated signifiers, the real is in itself undifferentiated: “it is without fissure”. The symbolic introduces “a cut in the real,” in the process of signification: “it is the world of words that creates the world of things.” Thus the real emerges as that which is outside language: “it is that which resists symbolization absolutely.” The real is impossible because it is impossible to imagine, impossible to integrate into the symbolic order. This character of impossibility and resistance to symbolization lends the real its traumatic quality which is almost similar to the resistance by the students headed by Daniel-Cohn-Bendit who was against the bureaucratic regime of De Gaulle. The character of impossibility however is also in a position of claustrophobia because it is “impossible” from the context of capitalism which is a profit centric system not caring about development of the human race but about the profits of the few bourgeois class. So in this sense the character of impossibility is doubly traumatised.

Picture 2

The second picture above clearly tells us about the reason for this traumatic upheaval by the students. It asks how to think freely in the shadow of a chapel? What is the chapel? The chapel is an institute with its rules and regulations. The chapel should not be read as a literal chapel but a symbolic one just as Lacan mentions that there is a difference between the real or biological father (who gives his sperms) and the symbolic “nom du pére”. How does this symbolic side of the father work or how does it operate? Lacan tells us that the paternal operation is to destroy this game with the mother to signify that the phallus the child wishes to incarnate is lost, that it is out of the child’s reach, that it is missing. This is castration. It is this symbolic castration which led to the formation of “chain gangs”, “action committees” and “student soviets” where Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Rudi Dutschke, Alain Krivine and Jacques Sauvageot were some of the key student figures. This was the reaction due to the symbolic oppression of the chapel. The particular oppression was also noted by the Abbé Charles-Guy de Kérimel who came to believe and said so in public that there was something a little indecent about the sigh of relief which had followed the collapse of the revolution. The Abbé was just one of the many Catholics who knew that the May Revolutions had lessons for the church.

As a conclusion it has to be mentioned that the revolutionary upsurge by the students was steeped in the vocabulary of the worker’s struggle and in the ideal of workers’ brotherhood. From 3rd May onwards, the student leaders had persistently called for a worker’s revolt. They had very clearly understood that since the workers are directly associated with the production process but are alienated from them due to the fundamental contradiction (of capitalism) between production of goods for society and appropriation of the same by the owner. It has to be noted that Stalin’s un-Marxist doctrine of “socialism in one country” had made the vitality of the proletariat suffer from senility. The student revolution tried to awaken the revolutionary zeal of the proletariat which had been long forgotten.

Patrick Seale notes:

It was as if they were trying to revive in the proletariat forgotten traditions of militancy. Who can tell what emotions they awakened? Old workers with memories of past struggles may have been stirred by the combativity of these young intellectuals and young workers, not yet reconciled to the view that life is just the pay-packet, may have thrilled in turn to cry from the Sorbonne. (Seale 153) []


  1. The film can be watched at
  2. This quotation can be seen in the 22nd minute of the film
  3. The above mentioned quote can be seen in the 27th minute of the film

Works Cited :

Daniel, Cohn-Bendit. Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative. Trans. Andre Deutsch. London: Cox and Wyman Ltd.,1969.Print.
Seale, Patrick and Maureen McConville.  French Revolution 1968. London: Penguin Books, 1968.Print.
Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits. Trans. Alan Sheridan.Tavistock: Routledge,2001 Print.
Lacan, Jacques. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. Trans. Dennis Porter. W.W.Norton & Company, Inc.,1992.Print.
Lacan, Jacques. The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. Trans. Russel Grigg. W.W.Norton & Company, Inc.,2007.Print.
Leader Darian & Groves Judy. Introducing Lacan. London: Totem Books,2010.Print.