Ian Parker – What is the difference between Lacan and Foucault?

Lacan and Foucault


This paper explores the vexed question of the relationship between Lacan and Foucault, going beyond the counter-position of rival arguments that either claim an affinity between the two authors which blurs the contrast between their quite different kinds of work or accentuate differences between the two in order to pit one against the other. The relationship is central to recent attempts to study ‘discourse’ using one or both of these authors in such a way as to attend to both subjectivity and power. I review some of the supposed contrasts between Lacanian and Foucauldian work, and argue that there are strong points of concordance between them, and that it is only by taking seriously these points of concordance that we can appreciate what differences do exist. I focus on ten points: There are some commonalities – concerning representation, suspicious attention to language and refusal of teleology – some false counter-position of their work around the motifs of post-structuralism, fixed identity, postmodernism and theory, and what differences there are, those concerning language, their domain of work and specific research questions, are in some ways complementary, complementary and contradictory. We need to pay close attention to the forms of power that frame psychoanalytic practice and we need an account of the way that power is suffused with subjectivity, and for that conceptual-political task we need both Lacan and Foucault.


Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault have each provided useful radical intellectual resources for examining the interplay of subjectivity, discourse and culture, resources that have been mobilised across the human sciences as conceptual frameworks or methodological instruments. As these different frameworks and instruments have been elaborated, the question of the relationship between Lacan and Foucault has often been difficult to establish, with researchers in different traditions either claiming an affinity between the two which blurs the contrast between their quite different kinds of work (e.g., Sarup, 1988) or accentuating the differences between them in order to pit one against the other (Copjec, 1993). This paper reviews some of the supposed contrasts between Lacanian and Foucauldian work, arguing that there are strong points of concordance between them, and that it is only by taking seriously these points of concordance that we can begin to appreciate what differences do exist.

We can begin with some biographical anchor points. Jacques Lacan was born in 1901, trained as a psychiatrist and then a psychoanalyst, worked and lectured as a psychoanalyst, developed an innovative re-reading of Freud as concerned with the human subject’s relation to language rather than as playing out biologically wired-in behavioural mechanisms, formed his own school of psychoanalysis, and died in 1981 (Roudinesco, 1997). Michel Foucault was born in 1926, trained as a philosopher, worked as a psychologist, and produced a range of historical studies of power and resistance and the way we become human subjects, developed critiques of surveillance and confession, of which psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis are key apparatuses, and died in 1984 (Macey, 1994). There are some clear differences of biography and intellectual trajectory there, but what are the conceptual differences between them? This is an impossible question to answer in the abstract, and in the course of this paper I will explain why. The differences and points of overlap are intimately connected.

Perhaps we could ask what the difference is between Lacan and Foucault for academic researchers, but that more specific question would not really make things much easier because there are many competing agendas in the way we each take up the ideas of these two theorists. I will indicate through the different aspects of this paper the impossibility of answering even that more specific question by way of excuse for a rather kaleidoscopic overview of what I think the key differences are for me, for a researcher who has found Lacan useful for academic and clinical work and Foucault useful for discursive and cultural critique (Parker, 2011, 2015). The question cannot be answered by way of seamless ordered narrative, and perhaps that difficulty itself already expresses some commonality in the way we should approach the two of them; we need to put the accent on heterogeneity, multiplicity and non-linearity in order to grasp what they are each up to. I will approach the question as to what the difference is between Lacan and Foucault through the following ten points: concerning representation, suspicion, history, post-structuralism, consistency, postmodernism, theory, language, practice and research.

1. Representation

There is a shift of attention in both Lacan’s and Foucault’s work to ‘representation’. That is, rather than searching for phenomena beneath the surface of language, language treated as a form of representation, there is an attention to what Lacanians would call the ‘chain of signifiers’ (e.g., Lacan, 2006) and what Foucauldians would call the ‘function of discourse’ (e.g., Foucault, 1969). They provide different ways of characterising what that ‘representation’ amounts to and how it functions.

Lacan (1958-1959) re-reads the discussion of psychical representations in Freud’s meta-psychological writing as being ‘signifiers’, the sound images to which are attached concepts. He borrows from Ferdinand de Saussure (1974) here, but does this in order to argue that even the ‘thing-presentations’ that Freud (1915) described as comprising the unconscious are also ‘signifiers’. Consciousness for Freud comprises thing-presentations linked with word-presentations, and psychoanalysis as a clinical practice facilitates those connections as the ‘analysand’, the patient in analysis, speaks. Lacan is concerned with how those signifiers are linked together, structured in the Symbolic order, the meaningful structured reality that we need to use in order to be able to communicate with each other. This is something Lacan borrows from the structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, and he extends that account to make the Symbolic but one register of human activity, the other two being the Imaginary through which we think we understand each other, and the Real which escapes and disrupts representation (Zafiropoulos, 2010). In practice in psychoanalysis that means that we track the way that the signifiers, what we hear in the speech of the analysand or patient as sound images, are linked to each other, and the analysand is able to make new links.

Foucault characterises the forms of ‘representation’ he is concerned with as discourse, discourse as a system of statements, and again the linkage between statements is what is at stake rather than what they ‘represent’. Foucault will use notions like ‘archive’ to describe how the traces of different discourses are maintained in a culture, and episteme as knowledge-formation at a particular historical period. Foucault’s (1966/1970) The Order of Things will describe how we live in a Modern episteme, with particular assumptions about the nature of knowledge and representation that include psychoanalysis. Foucault will worry over the nature of ‘representation’ that now seems to divide the human subject from something prior to or beneath language. For example, Foucault’s (1961/2009) History of Madness traces the history of a monologue of reason about ‘madness’ without ever pretending to pin down exactly what this ‘madness’ is. He is concerned with the representations of unreason, and the way the demarcation points function to divide what can be spoken about from what cannot.

There are stakes to ‘representation’ and how representation works, and it needs to be taken seriously. So, we sometimes read of the attempt by Lacanians and Foucauldians to speak of ‘signification’ instead of ‘representation’ (Henriques et al., 1984/1998). That attempt is useful both in shifting our attention to the play of language for a particular subject, that’s Lacan’s main concern, and for a particular historical period, that’s Foucault’s main concern, but it doesn’t solve the problem both of them are concerned with. They both study representation because representation matters.

2. Suspicion

They both, Lacan and Foucault, work in the tracks of what the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1970) called ‘the hermeneutics of suspicion’. You see this already in the way they each approach representation. Neither Lacan nor Foucault are engaged in what Ricoeur called the ‘hermeneutics of faith’ in which we fill what we analyse with meaning while we pretend to unearth that meaning. Rather, the hermeneutics of suspicion is an approach to text that works away at language to decode it, to show that it is saying something other than what you think it means. Three key figures in the hermeneutics of suspicion for Ricoeur are Marx, Nietzsche and Freud (Descombes, 1980). History is not what it says it is, for Marx, but must be decoded. For Nietzsche, the metaphors that we live by are parades of lies, they masquerade as truth, concealing what is really going on, will to power, and for Freud, what the subject in analysis says about themselves needs to be treated as a cover story, not to be validated and filled with meaning, but picked apart to find out what the hidden coded processes are that are driving this subject to repeatedly sabotage their attempts to get what they say they want.

Foucault is clear at certain points in his writing that he would like to go with Nietzsche rather than, say, Hegel, Hegel as a philosopher who presents an account of the journey of the ‘world spirit’ from times of contestation to a happy ending of absolute knowledge, and Lacan, of course, opts for Freud. But Freud himself was also profoundly influenced by Nietzsche, perhaps that’s precisely why he doesn’t reference him much, and Lacan turns this hermeneutics of suspicion against psychoanalysis itself in a reflexive move which treats psychoanalysis and the unconscious not as something that Freud ‘discovered’ but, Lacan says, as something that Freud ‘invented’. For Lacan, the human subject is not wholesome and meaningful, but divided, split; we don’t say what we mean. And Foucault is concerned with the historical production of this divided subject, with the effects of particular ‘modern’ forms of representation, something he characterises in The Order of Things as the predicament of the ‘empirico-transcendental doublet’, a divided subject whose speech itself cries out to be decoded.

Foucault and Lacan are equally suspicious of tracing meaning to some exterior set of circumstances which can be described exactly as they are or to some interior realm which is supposed to drive the production of language.

3. History

Both Lacan and Foucault refuse a teleological view of historical process. They are both against the view that things are going in a particular direction with an end point, either at the level of the self or of society. There is opposition here to a specific idealist story of history, even though Lacan was influenced by some readings of Hegel (1807/1977) in other respects. There is opposition to Hegelian teleology, to the assumption that the master slave dialectic will be resolved, that we will, at some point of absolute knowledge, resolve the contradictions of the world spirit into itself, so that we will recognise each other as it, the spirit recognises itself (Kojève, 1969). That is an idealist teleological story, and Lacan and Foucault won’t buy that. But they are also reacting against some so-called materialist versions of a teleological view of history in some forms of Marxism, Marxism which forms a conceptual background for both of their work (Bensaïd, 2000). That is why Foucault’s (1975/1979) Discipline and Punish, for example, seems so Marxist, and why Lacan’s (1991/2007) account of the four discourses in Seminar XVII can so easily be made Marxist. In the one, Foucault, we have an account of the concentration and transformation of power with urbanisation, and in the other, Lacan, we have an analysis of the forms of discourse which shift responsibility from a ‘master’ to an anonymous system of rules. In the one, Foucault, there is a shift from sovereign to disciplinary power, and in the other, Lacan, a shift from the fantasy that control is exercised by one individual to pervasive bureacratisation of everyday life. There is no historical ‘progress’ in either picture, and for sure no eschatology, hope or despair at what awaits us at the end of history.

We can see this opposition to teleology in the suspicion of a position of mastery that pretends that it can stand outside the historical process and define exactly what is happening and where things are going. We see this suspicion in Lacan’s (1966/2006) dictum that there is no meta-language; actually he says no meta-language can be spoken, which is slightly different. And we see it in Foucault’s determination to show difference between different historical times, fractures of meaning that can’t be stitched together again with master-concepts which transcend particular circumstances.

There are those who complain that Foucault avoids speaking about the unconscious, and that his history of confession follows in the tracks of popular commonsensical representations of psychoanalysis rather than exploring what psychoanalysis really is, that is, what it really is according to Lacan (Zupančič, 2016). But this complaint, which is one of the many Lacanian rebuttals of Foucault, misses the point, a point that Lacan himself dwells on in Seminar XVII, that psychoanalytic practice is framed by representations of psychoanalysis which then enter into the practice. Neither Lacan nor Foucault would fall into the trap of specifying what an authentic completely pure psychoanalysis would look like that escaped from the history of its production, that would escape from its ‘conditions of possibility’.

These first three points, concerning representation, suspicion of what language seems to refer to and scepticism about teleology are what Foucault and Lacan have in common, but we still need to look at some false leads about that supposed commonality before we are in a better position to look at some of the differences.

4. Post-structuralism

Perhaps this is another point in common, but a negative one; the point is that neither Lacan nor Foucault are ‘post-structuralists’ (Sarup, 1988). This label is a convenient but misleading fiction that groups together these two and a number of other French theorists. But it is a label that was used outside France to make sense of some commonalities, as perceived from outside. Sometimes a comparison is made between the way that ‘post-structuralism’ was used and then only later puzzled away at inside France and ‘film noir’ which was used by French theorists to describe a period of US-American cinema, mysterious themes, manipulative women and so on, and only later taken up in the English-speaking world to reflect on what connected those films (Copjec, 1993).

Each of the many theorists who are grouped together under the label ‘post-structuralist’ trace through epistemological and ontological consequences of Saussure’s (1974) account of language, an account that Saussure himself never defined as structuralist. The refinement of alternative frames of knowledge and specifications of what objects can and cannot be spoken about within those frames is elaborated not so much in the writings of the different ‘post-structuralists’ but in the reinterpretations of their writings, reinterpretations which treats each one as a master while simultaneously often treating them as representative of a school.

5. Consistency

A further problem is that, just as there is no one ‘post-structuralism’, there is no one Lacan and no one Foucault. There isn’t one Lacanian theory which is hermetically sealed, in which we can say exactly what Lacan meant, and neither is there one Foucault. This is another point in common. There are attempts to break Lacan into specific periods, an early Lacan before the impact of Saussure’s work and the turn to language in a rereading of Freud, a Lacan of the Symbolic and a Lacan concerned more with the Real, and with what escapes language, escapes representation, impossible enjoyment, jouissance (Voruz and Wolf, 2007). But these are rather unsatisfactory and schematic representations of his work. And it is equally unsatisfactory to break Foucault’s work into a period of ‘archaeology’ in, say, The Order of Things and a period of ‘genealogy’ in, say, the first volume of his History of Sexuality (Foucault, 1976/1981).

Just as there is no exterior system of rules that would give to Foucault and Lacan a shared identity, as ‘post-structuralist’ say, there is no internal system of mental representations that can be divined as defining what each separate individual wants to say. Remember that both are intensely suspicious about such claims to uncover the exterior or interior forms, whether assumed to be material reality or psychical stuff, that would explain away why representation operates as it does. The logic of their work is quite independent of what each of them would say about it; neither Foucault nor Lacan pretend to spell out what such logic is as if they had complete conscious control over what they were writing.

6. Postmodernism

There is another aspect of the mischaracterisation of Lacan and Foucault as ‘post-structuralists’ that we should note, which is the shift that is made, sometimes even an elision between ‘post-structuralism’ and ‘postmodernism’. This is evident in some of the representations of Lacan as being a ‘postmodern’ psychoanalyst because there is a shift from underlying meanings to the surface of language in his work. And it is evident in some of the claims that Foucault’s description of a ‘modern’ age in which we are divided by dominant forms of representation, entails, even requires a description of what happens 150 years after the modern age began, that is what happens around 1950, and the speculations that we have now moved into a ‘postmodern’ age. This is the way that Foucault is sometimes framed, through a reading of Jean-François Lyotard’s (1979/1984) diagnoses of The Postmodern Condition in which there are now fluid ‘language games’ rather than fixed structures of meaning and power.

This is an idealist trap, the fantasy that the old structures are dissolved and we are now free. Both Lacan and Foucault refuse that tempting option. In Lacan there is an enduring concern with forms of representation that are handed to us to repeat them; there is no such thing as ‘free association’, for example. In Foucault there is an enduring concern with forms of power that constrain us, and in both there is exploration of what the fantasy of ‘freedom’ entails, how it operates to lock us in place all the more efficiently; that’s what the ‘repressive hypothesis’ is about.

7. Theory

There is another aspect of the mischaracterisation of the different positions of Lacan and Foucault that we should also note, which is that although both of them are usually described as ‘theorists’, sometimes as ‘French theorists’, sometimes as ‘French post-structuralist theorists’, they were actually practitioners and activists. Both had an ambiguous relationship with forms of university knowledge which would divide ‘theory’ from ‘practice’. In the case of Lacan this is explicit in his account of the bureaucratic ‘discourse of the university’ which pretends to give an exhaustive single-point account of reality, and in the case of Foucault we can see the problem worried away at in his discussions of what it is to be a ‘specific intellectual’, something that is of a piece with the often-quoted claim that his work presents a ‘tool box’ for others to take and use as they see fit. The point here is that the elaboration of a ‘theoretical framework’ that will capture what Lacan or Foucault were up to will also confine them, reify the different kinds of analytic and research practice they were involved in.

An example of this reification in the service of academic knowledge is in the way that Lacan, for example, is seen as a resource for the development of something called ‘Lacanian Discourse Analysis’ which could then be pitted against another framework called ‘Foucauldian Discourse Analysis’ (Parker and Pavón Cuéllar, 2013). Lacan’s interest in discourse analysis was, if anything, in the way that the analysand analyses their own speech as they speak it, and Foucault’s (1969/1972) discussions of ‘discourse’ in his Archaeology of Knowledge were in relation to the specific historical tasks he had approached in The Order of Things. In different ways, off-the-shelf specifications of Lacanian or Foucauldian ‘discourse analysis’ serves to discourage academics from having the courage to think for themselves, something in different ways that Lacan and Foucault were concerned with.

So, with those false leads about post-structuralism, fixed identity of the author, postmodernism and the role of theory out the way, now perhaps we are in a better position to look at some of the differences. In context, those differences aren’t as sharp as they might first seem.

8. Language

One difference concerns the role of language and the beyond of language. Lacan is concerned primarily with representation in language, even though the Symbolic as a structured system of meanings is the space of language in its very broadest sense, to include images, music, architecture, and so on. This is primarily because the focus of psychoanalysis as the ‘talking cure’ is ostensibly about putting things into words or, as Lacan would have it, ‘speaking well’, to be there as subject of enunciation rather than subject of the statement. Human beings are ‘parlêtres’, speaking beings. Foucault’s conception of language is of it as one of the weapons of war, of a battle, one form of representation among others, and language is locked into those other forms of representation, and assuming a privileged place as symbolic representation at a certain point in history.

In both Foucault and Lacan there is an attempt to specify what there is beyond language, articulated differently, but each refusing to fall into the trap of pretending to describe things exactly as they are. In Foucault we find, for example, attempts to speak of madness as that which is beyond reason, but by tracing the contours of the reason which speaks about madness, attempts later to work with limit experiences, appeals to ‘the body and its pleasures’ and admiration for those who would seek, as the Iranian people did against the Shah, to resist power with, as he puts it, ‘their own bare hands’ (Ghamari-Tabrizi, 2016). Lacan’s theorisation of this beyond of language, something that continues from the flirtation with surrealism and the motif of ‘convulsive beauty’ to the ecstatic ‘other jouissance’ that we see glimmers of in his comments on Bernini’s representation of Saint Teresa, is equally suspicious of direct immediate connection with that beyond; insofar it is ‘beyond’ it is also beyond the pleasure principle, touching death (Macey, 1988).

We find some consequent differences over the treatment of gender, with a tendency to idealise feminine ‘other jouissance’ in Lacan’s (1975/1998) Seminar XX as opposed to a surprising blindness to gender in much of Foucault’s work. Perhaps that is to do with Lacan’s grounding in psychoanalysis and Foucault’s historical excavation of that ground. One does find differences and convergences over the question of what lies beyond language in both Lacan and Foucault in different stages of their work, in conceptions of the ‘use of pleasure’ in the later Foucault, and of ‘the act’ and ‘touching the real’ in the later Lacan, for example. But there have also been surprising convergences recently with the psychoanalytic international of Jacques-Alain Miller (2015) effectively endorsing the idea that psychoanalysis is queer, queer inspired by Foucault and Judith Butler (1990), implicitly acknowledging an argument made for some time by the psychoanalyst Jean Allouch (2010) who combines elements of Lacan and Foucault.

9. Practice

Another difference, one that is connected to some differences over the place given to language, turns around the space of their practice. So, this is not so much a conceptual difference, one that can be abstracted out to divide them, as a difference of focus. Lacan never stops insisting that his seminars are for psychoanalysts, for the training of psychoanalysts, and most of the time his reading of Freud aims at work in the clinic. The question is what conceptualisation of psychoanalysis will best assist the analyst in enabling the analysand to speak well. Foucault’s domain of research, on the other hand, is the broader historical canvas, and theoretical specification of power and resistance is designed to open up social phenomena, social relations as structured by capillary power outside the clinic. So, it is the difference of domain of application of theory rather than the theory itself that is paramount.

10. Research

Finally, each of them, Lacan and Foucault, are actually, despite their suspicion of the discourse of the university, the best of research scholars in the sense that they adapt and transform theoretical concepts in order to carry out specific kinds of work around specific kinds of question. Their questions are different. This means that even when they puzzle over the same phenomenon, there are complementary and contradictory aspects to each of their work, and some overlap of perspective. We can see this, for example, in Lacan’s (1965-1966) Seminar XIII where Lacan speaks about the Valezquez painting Las Meninas after he has read the proofs of Foucault’s book The Order of Things in which the painting becomes the centre-point of the Classical episteme concerned with classification, measurement and representation of the subject. This opens up a question about the relationship between Foucault and Lacan in such a way as to reflect, with each, on the emergence of psychoanalysis rather than rather hopelessly pitting them against each other (Schuster, 2015). The question for both of them is how this new space of representation opens a position for the subject, a new historically significant position.


Cross-communication between followers of Foucault and Lacan – either pressing them together to make a specious argument about the relativity of truth on the grounds that they are both concerned with the irremediable mediating force of language on human experience, or dividing them from each other in order to buttress different distinct schools of work with enclosed coteries of researchers plotting out a career path in line with what they claim a ‘Foucauldian’ or ‘Lacanian’ position to really look like – has important consequences. There are institutional consequences for the way that we debate with each other and combine insights from different theorists, and personal consequences for those who passionately attach themselves to one particular theoretical framework which then functions as a worldview. Both Foucault and Lacan had interesting things to say about such consequences for the context and experience of academic language.

The ramifications of the attempt to compare and contrast Foucault and Lacan as an academic exercise go far beyond these two writers, framing the way that we then read writers within the so-called ‘post-structuralist’ canon like Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in such a way that they are positioned on one side or other of the supposed divide between Foucauldians and Lacanians rather than operating as bridging points. Far from Deleuze and Guattari’s (1972/1977) classic text Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia representing a definitive break with Lacanian psychoanalysis, for example, it was actually an internal critique very much in line with the radical logic of Lacan’s own unravelling of hegemonic psychoanalytic categories, as Foucault recognised. And far from Foucault’s (1984-1986) Care of the Self representing a continuation of the anti-psychoanalytic argument launched in the first volume of his history of sexuality, it actually deepened his account of the historical framing of psychoanalysis, as is recognised by Lacanian psychoanalysts who take the title of Foucault’s third volume, ‘care of the self’, as leitmotif for their own practice.

We need to pay close attention to the forms of power that frame psychoanalytic practice and that lead to the emergence of what Robert Castel (1973) called ‘psychoanalysm’, a particular twist on psychologisation prevalent in neoliberal capitalist society, and here Foucault is essential to understanding how society works its way into the internal mental lives of citizens, whether they are analysands or analysts or activists. And we need an account of the way that power is suffused with subjectivity such that institutions take on peculiar pathological self-destructive shapes, including the alternative institutions – groups, movements and political parties – that claim to change rather than simply interpret the world, and here Lacan is essential to an understanding of what lies beyond our conscious rational intellectualised and self-serving explanations of what is going on. An attention to both subjectivity and power is crucial to any attempt to retrieve and rework a Marxist theoretical account of exploitation and oppression, something that the splitting of Foucault from Lacan hinders as a peculiar version in the academic world of the sectarian squabbles that riddle the world of left political struggle. The task is how not to stitch them up while stitching them together.

This way of approaching Foucault and Lacan provides some more fruitful ways of developing theories of discourse and theory for discourse analysis, including arguments about the ‘symmetrical’ analysis of systems of true and false claims about the world (Angermuller, 2018a) and about the accumulation of academic capital (Angermuller, 2018b). That second problematic, the accumulation of academic capital is largely what is at stake in the attempts by researchers to carve out separate ‘Foucauldian’ and ‘Lacanian’ domains of work in which they can claim authority, ownership even. The first problematic, the symmetrical analysis of true and false claims about the world is something that takes us back to the first point I made in this paper concerning the role of representation. Foucault’s suspicion of representation does not mean that ‘anything goes’, the fear voiced by those who dislike relativism, rather that ‘nothing goes’, and Lacan works on this basis in the clinic, rigorously questioning and facilitating the self-questioning of the subject about the forms of sexuality they would like to take for granted as ‘normal’ as well as those that they would like to break their attachment to because they view them as ‘abnormal’.

So, there are some commonalities – concerning representation, suspicious attention to language and refusal of teleology – some false counter-position of their work around the motifs of post-structuralism, fixed identity, postmodernism and theory, and what differences there are, those concerning language, their domain of work and specific research questions, are in some ways complementary, complementary and contradictory. There are distinctions to be made, but I am not sure that the most important distinctions are between the two men, Lacan and Foucault, as such. Those distinctions are misleading. Maybe asking ‘what the difference’ is as such betrays, in a fundamental way, both their work.


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