PMC Logo

  1. In his seminar of 1966-67 on the logic of fantasy, Jacques Lacan reported to his audience that he had recently been asked what need, what exigency drove him to theorize the objet a as object/cause of desire. According to the transcripts of this unpublished seminar, Lacan also passed along his answer: it was about time. This witty response discloses an important insight into Lacan's re-reading of Freud: psychoanalysis, in its metapsychology and its clinical orientation, is fundamentally a theory of temporality and history. When we speak of sexuality or the unconscious, for instance, we are essentially just euphemizing the past. And although psychoanalysis is obsessed with the past, it also, in the Lacanian approach, demands that we reject memory and our common experiences of the past. In its place, we are offered retroaction or Nachträglichkeit, deferred action: a system whereby future events control the meaning of ones in the past. To put all of this a slightly different way: within psychoanalysis, effects frequently determine their causes, rather than the other way around. This way of thinking, I want to suggest, is psychoanalysis's most original interpretive contribution, and recalling its structure may be helpful to humanists and psychoanalysts alike. For, culturally as in the clinic, the best interpretations arise from a proper understanding of retroaction.
  2. If "everyone knows" that Lacan emphasizes deferred action, nonetheless it is the case that the peculiar mode of causality this implies is still far from understood. Joël Dor has argued that the problem with so-called "wild" analysis--and, implicitly, the sociocultural or literary application of psychoanalysis--is its application of a positivistic causal model to psychoanalytic theory (5-6). And as I will show, even sophisticated versions of political analysis often fall on the side of memory or reminiscence rather than history, properly (or, at any rate, psychoanalytically) speaking. The bizarre temporal logic of Lacanian psychoanalysis, in other words, potentially clarifies the stakes of social and cultural psychoanalysis, especially as such a project seeks to grapple with the "mutual foundering of the subjective and the social" (Jones, "Revisiting" 29).
  3. I. Two Sides of the Ahistorical Coin

  4. Before turning to the particulars of this argument, I want briefly to acknowledge two widely held criticisms of psychoanalysis, both founded on the idea that it is either ahistorical or aggressively hostile to history. We can call these criticisms "universalist" and "deterministic."
  5. Many people of course reject psychoanalysis for purporting to discover universal traits, such as the Oedipus complex, the fact of castration, or even the unconscious. In this argument, universal traits are supposed to be outside of history, present in all cultures and across all times. Some people accept that universal traits are in principle possible, but claim that Freud's "discoveries" are unverifiable. For others--and perhaps this route has been more common in the humanities over the past two decades--universality itself has come under suspicion, generally as a masquerade for power.[1] Whatever the particular objection, critics who lament psychoanalysis's universalism typically point to the variety of human sexual and familial relations as a prima facie disproof of Freud. The best response to these objections has come from writers such as Joan Copjec, Charles Shepherdson, and Slavoj Zizek, who, each in their different ways, observe that the universalist argument misses the point: rather than prescribing a single model of development for everyone, psychoanalysis instead sets itself the task of explaining why sexuality and identity are not natural.[2] Freud himself puts this well in the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), explaining that "the sexual instinct and the sexual object are merely soldered together," which means that every person's sexual choices warrant explanation, rather than being self-evident or only biological (148). The florid variance of sexual and familial dispositions, and their shifts over time, confirm psychoanalysis rather than contradict it. In fact, we could turn the universalist criticism around: psychoanalysis would be at a loss to interpret a symptom-free society with static family and sexual arrangements. Psychoanalysis explains how we can experience history at all, complete with a distinct past, present, and future, as opposed to a ceaseless and cyclical natural rhythm, where temporality is not in question.
  6. While the universalist view is now espoused mainly (though not exclusively) by psychoanalysis's critics, the determinist view is, as it were, analysts' and theoreticians' in-house way of denying history. There is of course a grain of truth in the popular notion that psychoanalysts always blame childhood wishes and conflicts for adults' suffering. According to the cliché, the analyst begins by asking the analysand to "tell me about your mother"--suggesting that the root of one's problems is to be discovered in the history of the mother's misdeeds. But of course if suffering stems from infantile desires, then we are essentially saying that, in some basic way, people never grow up: we are, in effect, denying the operative force of history. Any theory of history has to be able to accommodate change, and, in too many versions of psychoanalysis, change is essentially ruled out. And though I will return to this point in some detail later, let me say briefly that developmental versions of psychoanalysis reproduce this difficulty in a more putatively scientific form. By taking the fables and mythologies of psychoanalysis literally, rather than as logical explications of fantasy, developmental accounts of psychoanalysis tend to deny the contingency of events in favor of a schematic, and therefore nonhistorical, approach to the past. A more insidious version of determinism arises when we conceive of the restoration of the past as an important goal of analysis--when we try, as the expression goes, to make the telling fit the experience--rather than conceiving of that restoration as merely an early step to be overcome. This mode of analysis depends on the coercive demands of shared reality and on the tyranny of the past. Moreover--and this is a point I will return to soon--it assumes that the subject "fits" the world.
  7. This version of determinism is, as I have said, insidious, because it's nearly impossible to avoid. I can illustrate this difficulty with a recent example. In "The Direction of the Treatment and the Principles of Its Power" (1958), Jacques Lacan dismisses the recuperative powers of memory. Here's how Bruce Fink renders the passage in his new re-translation:

    But that, of course, is no more than a misconception: one does not get better because one remembers. One remembers because one gets better. Since this formulation was found, there has no longer been any question regarding the reproduction of symptoms, but only regarding the reproduction of analysts; the reproduction of patients has been resolved. (249)[3]

    Fink glosses this paragraph with a footnote: "this entire paragraph seems to be ironic, Lacan clearly agreeing with Freud that one gets better because one remembers" ("Direction" Fink 345n). What's notable about this footnote is the way that a moment of doubt--registered by seems--is immediately braced into certainty by a foregone conclusion of what Lacan must mean--registered by clearly (and when has it ever been safe to describe the Écrits as "clear"?). But Fink's certainty is arguably too hasty. This paragraph from "The Direction of the Treatment" is consistent, for example, with Lacan's explicit insistence, in Seminar I: Freud's Papers on Technique (1953-54), that "it is less a matter of remembering than rewriting history" (Seminar I 14/Le séminaire I 20). In an analysis, Lacan emphasizes, it is rewriting history that makes one better, and which then allows one to "remember" more. As I will be arguing throughout this essay, the crucial thing to keep in mind is that Lacan means this point about rewriting history literally: it's not a question of making one's contemporary telling fit the past experience; instead, it's a matter of changing the past experience--or, perhaps more precisely, of changing its structural inscription in the signifying chain--such that it corresponds with one's contemporary telling. The paradox of psychoanalysis is that this historical writing is undertaken in the name of futurity, not revisionism. Indeed, the first two seminars carefully distinguish between the everyday experience of memory, which Lacan deprecates as reminiscence, and the structuring effects of symbolic memory, which he often calls rememoration. His disdain for reminiscence persists throughout the decades of the seminar. In the passage from "The Direction of the Treatment," Lacan means that the efflorescence of memory that accompanies a successful interpretation reflects rather than produces the rewriting of the symbolic necessary to an effective treatment. Rather than being "ironic" in this passage, Lacan is stating his point in plain speech: interpretation provides meaning and truth to otherwise senseless events.
  8. One need not be especially adept in either psychoanalysis or literary criticism to recognize that such precipitous certainty suggests anxious defense. (Especially Fink, in The Lacanian Subject [1995], afforded such painstaking and enlightening scrutiny to Lacan's claims about symbolic memory from the first two seminars and "Direction.") The cherished dogma, in this instance, is that the truth--represented by memory--will set us free. The claim that remembering makes one better salves the ego, and serves as a palliative to those anxious about psychoanalysis's status as a science or therapeutic practice. The analyst makes a pact with the analysand's ego, saying, in effect, "Come with me, and I will help you discover the truth about your past, and how you have come to be what you are. It may be difficult, and you will have to overcome resistances, but ultimately you will conquer the unconscious's fantasmatic version of reality. You will soon learn that you and reality are not in conflict, but fundamentally in accord." And that means psychoanalysis is really and truly a science, because it is oriented toward reality, appealing constantly to it as the guarantor of psychic health. While of course most analysts have--and certainly Bruce Fink has--a more complex view of how analysis works, I think it's fair to characterize this view as the unacknowledged or unconscious fantasy of analysis itself, and to say that it constantly threatens to override psychoanalysis's distinctive approach to causality and the past.
  9. Despite my criticisms of the determinist view, I want to acknowledge that psychoanalysis does accept a certain determinism, albeit an inverted determinism according to which the future determines the past. For the time of psychoanalysis is neither developmental nor experiential, but retroactive. Freud ceases to be a psychologist and becomes the inventor of psychoanalysis when he rethinks the etiology of hysteria: in Studies on Hysteria (1895), Freud maintained that "hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences" (7)--which means that they suffer from their past--while in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900 [1899]) he shifts ground, arguing "hysterical symptoms are not attached to actual memories, but to phantasies erected on the basis of memories" (529-30)--which means that their unconscious has literally changed their past. Instead of suggesting that psychoanalysis aims to recover the past, then, I want to suggest that its sense of the past is logical, not experiential. Its temporality emerges in phrases like Freud's claim that every finding of an object is in fact a re-finding (Three 222); in Jean Laplanche's observation that sexuality and the unconscious lean upon the biological order (15-18); and in Lacan's mathemes and topological fever-dreams. The point is that causality and history work retroactively, belatedly--in a word, according to Nachträglichkeit. On the one hand, this is a point obvious to anyone who has read Freud or Lacan. Lacan's discovery, in Freud's text, of deferred action ought incessantly to remind us of the doubtful relevance of what we usually think of as memory, and of what we normally think of as the past.
  10. II. The Picture of the Past

  11. Psychoanalysis, Lacan always says, has no tools at its disposal but speech. Psychoanalysis speaks to the subject of enunciation--of speaking as such--rather than the subject of the enunciated--of the particular thing that is said: "there is no unconscious except for the speaking being" (Television 5). This focus emphasizes two temporal dimensions of analysis. First, an abyss of time yawns between the beginning and ending of an utterance: in that abyss, and in no other time or place, can you find the subject. Second, by focusing on speech, Lacan emphasizes a retroaction proper to subjectivity: the end of the utterance completes the meaning of the beginning, and in some instances radically revises it. But Lacan also means that what the subject says is a bit of a ruse, a lure, a trick. The subject is always saying one thing and unknowingly meaning another. This is commonly misunderstood: it's not so much that the subject's speech is a kind of double entendre in its content; rather, the point is that there's a structural double entendre inherent to speech. The hysteric's symptoms and refusals amount to a kind of question: che vuoi? Why am I what you say that I am? No matter what the content of the speech, the message is always elsewhere, on that Other stage.
  12. The point of dwelling on this aspect of analysis is that the subject's speech is so frequently obsessed with the past. In five texts from the 1950s--Seminar I (1953-1954), Seminar II: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis (1954-55), "The Freudian Thing" (1955), "The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious, or, Reason since Freud" (1957), and "The Direction of the Treatment" (1958), Lacan repeatedly makes the same two arguments: if you think you understand what the analysand is saying, you're wrong; and you're never more wrong than when the analysand is speaking of the past. He argues that in most analyses, the analyst and analysand make the same mistake: both believe in the truth of what they are saying about the patient's past, symptoms, and "cure." Perhaps more precisely, they are alike deluded by the emotional verisimilitude of the analysand's memories.
  13. For the seductiveness of the past constitutes the engine and the risk of analysis--a Janus-faced reality that emerges immediately whenever Freud writes on technique. Consider, for instance, this remarkable description of psychoanalytic progress from "The Future Prospects of Psycho-Analytic Therapy" (1910):

    At its beginning psycho-analytic treatment was inexorable and exhausting. The patient had to say everything himself, and the physician's activity consisted of urging him on incessantly. To-day things have a more friendly air. The treatment is made up of two parts--what the physician infers and tells the patient, and the patient's working-over of what he has heard. (141)

    Even granting the Rotary Club atmosphere of this particular essay, in which Freud tries to recruit more adherents to the psychoanalytic movement, there is something a little disquieting about a description in which the only person who speaks is the analyst! A more typical view--and one that is often quoted--is found in "Constructions in Analysis" (1937), where he claims that "what we are in search of is a picture of the patient's forgotten years that shall be alike trustworthy and in all essential respects complete" (258). What I will be claiming throughout this section is that this view of analysis is a sort of trick. Certainly, there is an attempt to attain a complete version of the past, but not because it is valuable in itself. Narratives about the past turn out to be a sort of royal road to the unconscious, better even than dreams, because the constant disruptions of the "picture [...] in all essential respects complete" force the analysand into a dawning recognition that language speaks us.
  14. This emphasis on the self-estrangement of historical narrative emerges early in Freud's descriptions of technique. In a short, eponymous encyclopedia article, called "Freud's Psycho-Analytic Procedure" (1904), he declares that, after explaining the analytic rule to his analysands, he immediately asks for a "detailed account of their case history" (251). At first glance, this seems trivial and self-evident: of course the doctor will want to know his patient's history. But surely if the idea of repression means anything it means this: that analysands are constitutively incapable of delivering the goods when it comes to their own illness. It is not only that they will have forgotten or confused key details, but that the story they want to tell is almost certainly not the story that they should be telling, at least not if they want to improve. (And, for that matter, there is no reason to trust that the analysand will want to improve--after all, the subject has a passion for ignorance, and if improvement were simply a matter of wanting to, psychoanalysis would just be an especially trite form of self-help.)[4] In other words, a founding axiom of Freudian technique is that anything the analysand says during this "detailed account" will be misleading.
  15. Misleading, at least, at the level of content. Freud declares in this encyclopedia article that asking for a history of the case has a pragmatic benefit: the analysand's historical narrative will produce a useful number of "associations," which Freud defines as "the involuntary thoughts (most frequently regarded as disturbing elements and therefore ordinarily pushed aside) which so often break across the continuity of a consecutive narrative" (251). In other words, Freud asks for a narrative because he knows he will not get one. If analysands follows the analytic rule, then their narratives will always be interrupted. The claim here is not that the associations are the "true" history, or that they inadvertently provide relevant facts that the analysand has forgotten. Instead, Freud calls our attention to their meaningless disruptiveness. Put another way, it is the disruption that is the meaning, insofar as it signifies the existence of an Other speaker. Lacan characterizes this emphasis on disruption thus: "following the thread of analytic discourse goes in the direction of nothing less than breaking up anew, inflecting, marking with its own camber--a camber that could not even be sustained as that of lines of force--that which produces the break or discontinuity" (Seminar XX 44/ Le séminaire XX 44). The analyst must, on the one hand, inflect the analysand's discourse otherwise, in order to note moments of disruption, but as he says here, this marking cannot be sustained--it cannot, in other words, support a new narrative. In a Lacanian analysis, this point is embodied in the technique of punctuation, which enables the analysand to see that, to a certain degree, even the purportedly consecutive narrative is in fact a failure to master speech. As Lacan succinctly explains in "The Function and Field of Speech in Psychoanalysis" (1953), "punctuation, once inserted, establishes the meaning; changing the punctuation renews or upsets it; and incorrect punctuation distorts it" (96/"Fonction" 313-14). In other words, in the course of their narratives, analysands will naturally lend emphasis to certain words or phrases, an emphasis that is as much a part of their meaning as any lexical definition. The analyst tries to shift that emphasis in a variety of ways--by ending the session, by a request to repeat a word, or even by a well-timed "Hmm?" The effect, Lacan asserts, is to reveal to the analysand that there is an unconscious: "in order to free the subject's speech, we introduce him to the language of his desire, that is, to the primary language in which--beyond what he tells us of himself--he is already speaking to us unbeknown to himself, first and foremost, in the symbols of his symptom" (80/"Fonction" 293). This amounts to a lesson in non-mastery: that the stories analysands want to tell about their past are not the whole story. During the first months of an analysis, the analyst's interventions may well be confined simply to punctuating the analysand's speech in this fashion. In section three, we will reconsider punctuation and its relation to what is called regression; for now it is enough to note that for both Freud and Lacan, what is punctuated, early in the analysis, is analysands' narratives about the past.
  16. Why does the past need to be punctuated so aggressively? What is it about analysands' narratives of their past that cries out for resignification? To answer these questions, Lacan distinguishes two kinds of memory, reminiscence and rememoration. In effect, reminiscence is our everyday experience of memory, the historical narrative offered up by the analysand; as I will show in section three, rememoration is Lacan's name for the work of symbolic memory, the structural history of the subject, which organizes its existence but which cannot be brought forward into consciousness.
  17. The first two seminars, and many of the early écrits, devote themselves to Lacan's critique of aiming at reminiscences as an analytic end in themselves. He claims, in Seminar II, that "reminiscence properly speaking [...] is the passage into the imaginary" (320/Le séminaire II 369). The argument here is obviously not that the memories are false, though that may be the case. Instead, Lacan wants us to see that reminiscences buttress, or, at the bare minimum, refuse to challenge, our self-image. The specificity of psychoanalysis's approach to memory emerges when we recall that even traumatic memories are imaginary in this way. Freud repudiates the seduction hypothesis in 1897, when he decides that his patients are at least sometimes not remembering actual events of abuse, but rather reporting fantasies that enact unacknowledged desires. Psychoanalysis begins with the observation that sometimes it is more comforting to imagine oneself a victim than to acknowledge experiencing certain desires.
  18. Lacan's point is not merely that reminiscences can bolster the self-esteem of analysands. The term imaginary designates also the structuring fantasy of a unified body--that is, it refers to our psychic picture of our bodily unity, a unity that often clashes with our experience of our bodily life. It is this imaginary unity that justifies Freud's claim that the ego is a bodily ego. In "The Freudian Thing," Lacan observes that reminiscences will always be voiced in relation to this unity:

    It is not because of some mystery concerning the indestructibility of certain childhood desires that the laws of the unconscious determine analyzable symptoms. The subject's imaginary shaping by his desires--which are more or less fixated or regressed in relation to the object--is too inadequate and partial to provide the key. (133/"La chose freudienne" 431)

    What persists from childhood is less a particular wish or desire that could be recalled to mind than a structuring outlook on the world, a tendency to assume that a present-day desire means one thing and not another, or at any rate, that it can be alleviated or satisfied one way and not another. Lacan instead wants to emphasize memory's signifying structure, and the metaphorical transformations through which trauma becomes represented in the psyche.
  19. Lacan also claims that reminiscences mistake the subject's relationship to objects. Freud said that every object is in fact a re-found one. As we have just seen, a reminiscence associates a particular object with a recollected desire--that is, it specifies a particular object as the source of satisfaction or trauma. Viewed this way, the history offered by the analysand will be the story of innumerable inadequate substitutes for the one real loss. But such a perspective misunderstands the relationships of objects out there in the world to the subject's objects:

    Freud distinguishes two completely different structurations of human experience--one which, along with Kierkegaard, I called ancient, based on reminiscence, presupposing agreement, harmony between man and the world of his objects, which means that he recognizes them, because in some way, he has always known them--and, on the contrary, the conquest, the structuration of the world through the effort of labour, along the path of repetition [...]. The object is encountered and is structured along the path of a repetition--to find the object again, to repeat the object. Except, it is never the same object which the subject encounters. In other words, he never ceases generating substitutive objects. (Seminar II 100/Le séminaire II 124-25)

    The proximate target of this argument is, of course, Plato's theory of reminiscence, which holds that the soul recognizes truth in the world because it has always known it (in the eternal forms). The analogy is explicit: if every finding is a re-finding, as Freud says, then this must mean that objects in the world elicit desire because they correspond with some lost object that once provided satisfaction. Memory, on this reading, consists of the more-or-less passive reception of impressions from the world.
  20. Lacan rejects this view utterly, arguing that we are constantly making the world, including the world of desire. Every new object substitutes for an object that was primally lost, not thanks to a putative correspondence, but because of the structure of signification. In "The Instance of the Letter," Lacan writes that only because remembering can be "rooted in the signifier" that it "resolves the Platonic aporias of reminscence" (158/"L'instance" 519), a point he glosses in the seminar this way: "the object of the human quest is never an object of rediscovery in the sense of reminiscence. The subject doesn't rediscover the preformed tracks of his natural relation to the external world. The human object always constitutes itself through the intermediary of a first loss. Nothing fruitful takes place in man save through the intermediary of a loss of an object" (Seminar II 136/Le séminaire II 165). Two things are worth emphasizing here: the first is that the subject does not so much remember the past as recreate it, in part because what the subject remembers is the wrong thing: "in man, it is the wrong form which prevails" (Seminar II 86/Le séminaire II 109). The second point is that conceptualizing analysis as the restoration of the past is wrongheaded. If the restoration of the original object were even possible, it would spell the death of desire. As Lacan will argue in the seminar on anxiety, "the subject must fail, necessarily, so that its desire is not suffocated" (Harari 99). Every object is a re-found object, but happily, not the original one.
  21. Like Freud, Lacan claims that an analysis progresses toward the past: "the path of restitution of the subject's history takes the form of a quest for the restitution of the past" (Seminar I 12/Le séminaire I 19). The key words here are "history" and "takes the form of," since at those moments Lacan distinguishes between what analysands believe they are being asked to produce--that is, memories in the form of reminiscence--and the level at which the analysis is intervening--that is, history and rememoration. You cannot simply explain to the analysand that what is unfolding is imaginary, because, of course, this would elicit aggression. In other words, as he declared in the seminar on "The Names-of-the-Father," "the praxis of analysis is obliged to advance toward a conquest of the truth via the pathways of deception" ("Names" 95). Or, somewhat less provocatively: "what is involved is a reading, a qualified and skilled translation of the cryptogram representing what the subject is conscious of at the moment" (Seminar I 13-14/Le séminaire I 20). The shift from "a picture of the past [...] essentially complete" to a "cryptogram" of the analysand's consciousness during a session gestures beyond the imaginary, to the symbolic rewriting of history that characterizes a Lacanian analysis.
  22. III. "Making the Telling Fit the Experience"

    Ni du côté de la nature, de sa splendour ou de sa méchanceté, ni du côté du destin, la psychanalyse ne fait de l'interprétation une herméneutique, une conaissance, d'aucune façon, illuminante ou transformante.

    --Lacan, "De la psychanalyse dans ses rapports avec la réalité" (352)[5]

  23. Some of the issues I have been raising may come into clearer focus if I acknowledge one of the meanings of my title: a chief "time of interpretation" is, of course, the notorious Lacanian principle of the variable-length session, derisively referred to as the "short session" by Lacan's critics. By varying the length of sessions, Lacan is able to make the temporal experience of a session meaningful; what's most relevant here is his corollary assertion that restoring meaning to the analytic session is what makes authentic regression possible.
  24. Lacan's argument for the variable-length session can be found most clearly in "The Function and Field of Speech" (1953):

    It is [...] a propitious punctuation that gives meaning to the subject's discourse. This is why the ending of the session--which current technique makes into an interruption that is determined purely by the clock and, as such, takes no account of the thread of the subject's discourse--plays the part of a scansion which has the full value of an intervention by the analyst that is designed to precipitate concluding moments. Thus we must free the ending from its routine framework and employ it for all the useful aims of analytic technique. (44/"Fonction" 252)

    If the session is over at the analyst's discretion, rather than at the end of the fifty minutes, then the analysand is always left to consider why the session ended at that time: was it because something important was said, or because nothing at all had been said, and I was wasting time? Did the analyst have someplace to be? It stirs up the analysand's discourse, making it more productive and responsive, if perhaps less comfortable. This provocation turns out to facilitate the reworking of symbolic history.
  25. When that has occurred, Lacan goes on to say in his next sentence, authentic regression can come into being:

    This is how regression can occur, regression being but the bringing into the present in the subject's discourse of the fantasmatic relations discharged by an ego at each stage in the decomposition of its structure. After all, the regression is not real; even in language it manifests itself only by inflections, turns of phrase, and 'stumblings so slight' that even in the extreme case they cannot go beyond the artifice of 'baby talk' engaged in by adults. Imputing to regression the reality of a current relation to the object amounts to projecting the subject into an alienating illusion that merely echoes one of the analyst's own alibis. (44/"Fonction" 252)

    As always, Lacan emphasizes here the gap between the act of utterance and what is being said. As we have seen, the subject's speech, especially the narrative he tells of his history, is fundamentally imaginary: consistent with the ego and with the subject's self-image. When variable-length sessions stir the subject up, they can potentially change the frame of such narratives, "decomposing" the ego that otherwise strives for unity. It is only as the subject recognizes the extent to which the ego's tale is not the full story of his desire that some sort of change could be effected. And as Lacan suggests, inferring from the subject's narrative that relations with the object are currently regressed is a kind of causalist myth of the type that he derided earlier.
  26. The variable-length session interferes with the analysand's attempt to maintain the self-consistency of her discourse. In this sense, it echoes Freud's advice from "On Beginning the Treatment" (1913), where he claims that a "systematic narrative should never be expected and nothing should be done to encourage it. Every detail of the story will have to be told afresh later on, and it is only with these repetitions that additional material will appear" (136). A systematic narrative should not be encouraged, of course, because that violates the analytic rule and impedes associations, as I discussed in the previous section. The argument here is not only that additional material will come into consciousness--though Freud partly means this; instead, the repetition of the narrative continually presses against the ego's attempt at self-mastery. Since such imaginary unity is simply not possible, ever more material becomes available. The silent common ground between this early essay by Freud and Lacan's controversial variable-length session is, simply, surprise: they alike emphasize ways of artificially disrupting the routine of everyday speech and narrative, in the name of a higher end: the truth.
  27. Truth has nothing to do with historical fact. Truth has nothing to with "what really happened." Truth in analysis is an interpretation that functions as a cause, one that effects change. The analyst cannot know whether an interpretation will yield truth, because, as Lacan writes, the subject receives from interpretation "the meaning that makes this act an act of his history and gives it its truth" ("Function" 50/"Fonction" 259). In other words, an interpretation works because of the subject, not because of anything inherent in the offered interpretation. Again, the example of the variable-length session illustrates this nicely: if ending a session quickly produces a change in the analysand, it is not because the "message" from the analyst got through. It is because the meaning the analysand attributed to that interpretive act changed her approach to the analysis. And in Seminar IV, Lacan claims that all successful interpretation depends on misunderstanding: "C'est la façon dont il faut s'attendre à ce qu'elle se développe, c'est la moins anormale qui soit, et c'est justement dans la béance de ce malentendu que se développera autre chose qui aura sa fécondité" (341).[6] Or, as he would put it a decade later, "an interpretation whose effects are understood is not a psychoanalytic interpretation" ("Responses" 114/"Réponses" 211). As we saw earlier, failure is crucial to the maintenance of desire; from a Lacanian point of view, analysis is partially about pushing a particular failed narrative until it has to be abandoned, leaving a space for a more tolerable narrative to emerge.
  28. In keeping with Freud's notion of the association, the Lacanian re-reading of psychoanalysis uses fantasy and imaginary narrative at cross-purposes. Lacan famously begins his video Television with just this point: "I always speak the truth. Not the whole truth, because there's no way, to say it all. Saying it all is literally impossible: words fail. Yet it's through this very impossibility that the truth holds onto the real" (3/"Télévision" 509). What Lacan means here is that the failure of words to refer adequately to their meanings leaves a space for the subject to come into being. Because arriving at a final meaning is impossible, the subject has to commit itself to one meaning over others, and must suffer the consequences of that commitment. Viewed from this perspective, the gaps in the analysand's narrative have an importance as gaps--as spaces of possibility for a different understanding--rather than simply as holes that would ideally be filled up.
  29. Psychoanalysis is therefore not a hermeneutics. It is not a question of uncovering hidden or secret meanings, but, rather, a question of making possible the discovery of truth. This discovery begins, as I have been insisting, when the subject accepts that imaginary unity is not the whole, or even the most interesting, story:

    In the course of analysis, as I have pointed out to you, it is when the traumatic elements--grounded in an image which has never been integrated--draw near that holes, points of fracture appear in the unification, the synthesis, of the subject's history. I have pointed out how it is in starting from these holes that the subject can realign himself within the different symbolic determinations which make him a subject with a history. Well, in the same way, for every human being, everything personal which can happen to him is located in the relation to the law to which he is bound. His history is unified by the law, by his symbolic universe, which is not the same for everyone. (Seminar I 197/Le séminaire I 222)

    This passage's otherwise exemplary clarity is blurred by the use of "subject" to refer both to the person in analysis and the virtual subject on whose behalf an analysis typically is directed. Lacan here foregrounds the distinction between the "unification, the synthesis of the subject's history"--that is, the imaginary narrative that the analysand wants to tell--and the "symbolic determinations" that give the subject a history. The trauma is "impossible" or unintegrated at the level of the imaginary (at the level of the ego), all the while registering itself in the subject's symbolic history.
  30. This symbolic history is rememoration, and refers to the idea that the syntax or grammar of the psyche is itself a mode of memory--in fact, it is the only efficacious memory in an analysis, despite the fact that it cannot be invoked directly. Lacan sees the role of this rememoration as a way of negotiating the ego's imaginary demands for unity and the traumatic "impossible" of the real. In Seminar XI (1964), he describes it this way: "When the subject tells his story, something acts, in a latent way, that governs this syntax and makes it more and more condensed" (68/Le séminaire XI 66). It is this syntax that an interpretation aims at, because it is what keeps the subject at a specified distance from the real. This is described in the Ethics seminar (1959-1960) through the notion of das Ding, the extimate arbiter of symbolic efficacy: "there is not a good and a bad object; there is good and bad, and then there is the Thing. The good and the bad already belong to the order of the Vorstellung; they exist there as clues to that which orients the position of the subject according to the pleasure principle" (63/Le séminaire VII 78). As we saw earlier, Lacan observes that the subject emerges against the backdrop of a primal loss, a loss that allows its desire to come into being and, indeed, which allows the existence of the subject itself. In the Ethics seminar, that lost item is das Ding, and the job of the pleasure principle and the various unconscious representations (Vorstellungen) is to remember precisely where that object was lost, so that it will not be directly refound. Instead, the symbolic order ceaselessly throws up substitutive objects that provide satisfactions at the level of Vorstellung, without threatening to approach too close to das Ding. An analysand will present for analysis because something at this level has gotten "jammed." The task of interpretation is to "hit the real," ideally allowing the subject to come unstuck.
  31. Symbolic memory is what functions according to the combinatory of metaphor and metonymy. Metonymy names, for Lacan, the sliding of desire from substitute object to substitute object. Metaphor, by contrast, "is the very mechanism by which symptoms [...] are determined. Between the enigmatic signifier of sexual trauma and the term it comes to replace in a current signifying chain, a spark flies that fixes in a symptom--a metaphor in which flesh or function is taken as a signifying element--the signification, that is inaccessible to the conscious subject, by which the symptom may be dissolved" ("Instance" 158/" L'instance" 518). We should not be confused by the reference to "enigmatic signifier": in contrast to Jean Laplanche, Lacan is not claiming that there is an original message to be deciphered. Instead, the signifier is enigmatic because it is both lost and remembered--lost, primally lost, but registered all the same within the symbolic. Metaphor names the process by which that signifier annexes others to itself. And because, as Lacan observes, a symptom is just an interpretation that doesn't work, interpretation has to aim beyond the symbolic, trying to shift or uncouple das Ding from its formal representations. Symbolic memory is thus at a wholly other level than reminiscence, "even if the elements organized by the former as signifiers are borrowed from the material to which the latter give signification" ("Freudian Thing" 133/"La chose freudienne" 431). In other words, of course it is true that the signifiers that hold off das Ding are drawn from the subject's experience. Yet they serve so different a purpose in the symbolic--being organized entirely in reference to an object that never existed in experience--that they are finally incommensurate with the subject's own account of its life.
  32. This incommensurateness is, at the end of the day, the good news. Because there is only a metaphorical connection between the traumatic real and the experienced events of a person's life, there is always an opportunity for new metaphors to emerge that will enable the analysand to find new sources for pleasure, new chances for satisfaction. And indeed, because symptoms work according to a process of signification and metaphor, their meaning is always deferred--including, paradoxically, the question of whether or not they are actually symptoms! The inference Lacan draws is that the future determines the past:

    The past and the future correspond precisely to one another. And not any old how--not in the sense that you might believe that analysis indicates, namely from the past to the future. On the contrary, precisely in analysis, because its technique works, it happens in the right order--from the future to the past. You may think that you are engaged in looking for the patient's past in a dustbin, whereas on the contrary, it is as a function of the fact that the patient has a future that you can move in the regressive sense. (Seminar I 157/Le séminaire I 180)

    Psychoanalytic interpretation creates a past for the analysand. On the one hand, as Dany Nobus has argued, this makes Lacanian analysis "less deterministic, for including more radical options of freedom, less historical, for [being] strictly future-orientated, and less restrictive, for also accommodating psychotic patients" (88). Yet it does not turn psychoanalysis into voluntarism, for the exact same reason that the "cure" works at all. You can't make an efficacious intervention by simply repeating the truths of psychoanalysis: "Do not give way on your desire!" "There is no guarantor of virtue!" and so forth. After all, words fail. They fail because of the subject's commitment to its imaginary narrative, but they also fail because history is real--because its thorny perdurability cleaves the subject's discourse, resisting assimilation to either symbolic or imaginary memories.[7]
  33. IV. Time for Concluding

    People do History precisely in order to make us believe that it has some sort of meaning. On the contrary, the first thing we must do is begin from the following: we are confronted with a saying, the saying of another person who recounts his stupidities, embarrassments, inhibitions, and emotions. What is it that we must read therein? Nothing but the effects of those instances of saying. We see in what sense these effects agitate, stir things up, and bother speaking beings. Of course, for that to lead to something, it must serve them, and it does serve them, by God, in working things out, accommodating themselves, and managing all the same--in a bumbling, stumbling sort of way--to give a shadow of life to the feeling known as love.

    --Lacan, Seminar XX, Encore (45-46/Le séminaire XX 45)

  34. By way of conclusion, I want briefly to note the value of reframing Lacanian concepts in their clinical orientation. A couple of different kinds of advantages accrue. The first is that this optic corrects a series of difficulties in the American reception of Lacan, including the pervasive judgment that Lacan is more interested in philosophy than in the clinic. As Charles Shepherdson's Vital Signs explains, until we start to understand the conceptual specificity of the Lacanian field, we can't understand the projects of writers like Kristeva, Irigaray, and Foucault. Further, we will be encouraged to remember that Lacan is not a poststructuralist in the American sense--not, in other words, interested in the free play of the signifier, but rather the opposite of this: obsessed with why signifiers get "stuck" for a particular subject. We come closer to the real praxis of psychoanalysis when we insist on the clinical dimension of these texts. When we strip away Lacan's concepts from their clinical dimension, we are oriented toward the empty speech of imaginary narratives.
  35. A second reason to think about the Lacanian clinic is that it will help us do our humanistic business. We better understand the complex structure of, say, Jameson's "political unconscious" when we read his claim that "it is in detecting the traces of that uninterrupted narrative, in restoring to the surface of the text the repressed and buried reality of this fundamental history, that the doctrine of a political unconscious finds its function and necessity" (20). We can better understand the limits of traditional applied psychoanalysis, and renounce the practice of "psychoanalyzing" authors--or, at least, we can recognize this practice as a kind of folk psychology, fully responsive to the interpretive demands neither of psychoanalysis nor of literary criticism. It also reminds us of the privileged relationship--for both Freud and Lacan--between literature and analysis. Not only in the sense that Freud and Lacan both insisted that the preponderance of psychoanalytic training should involve a wide and deep reading in literature, either. According to Serge André, in Seminar XXIV: The Non-Known (1976-77), Lacan argues that "in contrast to the fraudulence of meaning, [...] there is poetry, which can accomplish the feat of making a meaning absent. He invites his audience to find in poetry what psychoanalytic interpretation can hope to be [...]. 'Only poetry [...] permits interpretation'" (327). Literature offers a field in which we can learn to break up the congealed meanings impeding our own psychic life. The analogy between an interpretation and, say, a poem is helpful: the "point" of an interpretation or a poem--whatever paraphrase of their meaning we could develop--is far removed from the material effects of their language. Tracking the effects of the signifier in language gives us the opportunity to watch our assumptions about the world fail: an aesthetic and ethical opportunity alive to the specificity alike of psychoanalysis and literature, and binding them both to the world.

    Department of English
    Central Connecticut State University

    Talk Back




    I would like to thank several people for their comments on earlier versions of this essay: Kate Briggs, Kate Brown, Stephanie Cherolis, Dan Collins, Angela Hunter, Walter Kalaidjian, Howard Kushner, Gaurav Majumdar, Kareen Malone, Elissa Marder, and especially Adrian Johnston and Aimee Pozorski. Christopher Lane and Robert A. Paul also guided its development.

    1. Sometimes even psychoanalysts make this criticism--see, for instance, the introduction to the recent collection Bringing the Plague, which argues that "from a poststructuralist standpoint, the classical psychoanalytic notion of a psychic apparatus wholly or largely unformed by the multiple contingencies of a specific place, time, and society serves to naturalize and reinforce the privilege of those who hold power in the dominant culture of the West" (18).

    2. See Copjec, Shepherdson, and Zizek Sublime. I discuss Shepherdson's argument in more detail in "Sexuality's Failure." Also relevant is the distinction Eric Santner draws between "universal" and "global" approaches to difference, in the opening pages of On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life (1-8).

    3. Fink's translation here is essentially the same as Sheridan's (see Sheridan 260). The French provides no insight as to the putative irony: "Mais ce n'est là bien entendu qu'une maldonne: on ne guérit pas parce qu'on se remémore. On se remémore parce qu'on guérit. Depuis qu'on a trouvé cette formule, la reproduction des symptoms n'est plus une question, mais seulement la reproduction des analystes; celle des patients est résolue" ("La direction" 624).

    4. See "Direction" Fink 252 ("La direction 627).

    5. Dany Nobus translates this passage thus: "neither on the side of nature, its splendour or evil, nor on the side of destiny, psychoanalysis does not make interpretation into a hermeneutics, a knowledge in no way illuminating or transformative" (176).

    6. In Nobus's translation: "this is the way one has to expect interpretation to develop, it is the least abnormal of all, and it is precisely in the gap of this misunderstanding that something else will develop, that will have its fecundity" (160).

    7. The argument that history is real is of course associated with Slavoj Zizek. Space precludes a full discussion of his multifaceted approach to historicity, which argues simultaneous that the real is a meaningless kernel and that certain apocalyptic events come to stand in for the real. For my purposes, the first version--the historical real as unsymbolizable kernel--is most useful (see Sublime 119-20 and "Class" 110-11).

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