The other day, I was at the airport in Madrid, lurking around a bookstore trying to find something to read on the long flight home. The store had a well-sized English language section, but it was stocked mostly with crime and romance novels. It didn't have any of the history or pop science that you see in larger American airports. Usually, I settle for one of those. I bought my copies of Blink and Freakonomics in airports. They are just the sort of reading that I like after a long gig.. books of ideas that really don't have anything to do with software development, although I often end up relating them back to development out of habit.
I kept looking and I eventually ran across a set of five paperback novels by a writer named Paul Auster. I'd never heard of him before, but I was tempted to buy all of them. Each of the books had a back page description that intrigued me, and the reviewer comments looked great also. I thought it over. Five books was a bit much, so I settled for two and read one, Oracle Night, on the flight home.
Oracle Night is the tale of a writer, who after a near-death experience, buys a notebook and starts to write a story about a man who decides to abandon his life and start a new one after a similar experience. As he writes in his notebook, his own life becomes stranger and eventually starts to shift out of control in counterpoint with the story that he is writing.
The book was great. It had all of the elements that I've been looking for in fiction lately. A complicated plot, crisp writing, mystery and a philosophical edge. When I got home, I looked up Paul Auster in wikipedia and this sentence leapt out at me "Two strong elements in Paul Auster's writing are Jacques Lacan's psychoanalysis and the American transcendentalism of the early to middle 19th century.."
It was then that I realized that something nutty was going on. This was the fourth time over the past few weeks, that I'd discovered that this guy, Jacques Lacan, was tied into something that I'd seen.
Before I'd gone off to Madrid, I caught a few minutes of a documentary about a man named Slavoj Žižek. Slavoj is a contemporary Solvenian post-modernist and cultural critic. In the documentary, he said some interesting things about world affairs, things about the resurgence of nationalism and racism that we see in various parts of the world now that some of the older programs of the 20th century have lost their punch (communism) or succeeded (global capitalism). He tied it back to a world view that he claimed came from Lacan. Out of curiosity, I ordered a few books by Žižek and Lacan from Amazon.
The third Lacan connection is a bit weirder. On reddit, I'd run across a reference to a painting called L'Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World) by Gustave Coubert. Be careful about googling that one. L'Origine du Monde is a graphically sexual painting that scandalized France in the 19th century. And, it turns out, that before it found its final resting place in a French museum, it was owned by Lacan.
The last connection came when I started flipping through a book about Lacan. It turns out that he had worked with a psychoanalyst named W.R. Bion who'd done some of the earliest work on group dynamics.
So, I have to figure out who this Lacan character is and why I keep running into him. What I've read of his work so far is interesting. Lacan extended the ideas of Freud, making the case that the unconscious is structured like a language. We form our identity in a strange dynamic between the symbols that we use, our ideas about them, and our experience. He saw psychosis and neurosis as breakdowns in the mind's ability to accept or utilize certain symbols.
There's nothing quite like reading the work of psychoanalysts. Freud, Jung, Lacan, Bion, etc. Many people claim that what they were doing was too soft to be science, and I think they have a point. But, on the other hand, if you take the point of view that they were doing something very difficult, trying to understand the basis of emotional experience and motivation in much the same way as physicists try to find elementary particles, it's easier to appreciate what they were doing. Physicists have tools. They can measure. The things that these early psychoanalysts were interested in weren't measurable. All they had was observation and inference. It's like the tale of the blind men and the elephant. Every blind man tells you something different about what what he's felt, but if you stand back, you might get a sense of the whole elephant.
Anyway, for me this dive into Lacan is interesting. It gets me out of the binary. There are thousands of views of human nature. There's truth in all of them, yet none of them are true. That's tough to deal with if you want certainty. But, really, what's fun about certainty?