- 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unpublished seminar, Lacan also passed along his answer: it was about time.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.
- 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).
I. Two Sides of the Ahistorical Coin
- 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"
- 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. 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. 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.
- 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.
- 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)
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.
- 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 , 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.
- 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 ) 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.
II. The Picture of the Past
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.) In other words, a founding axiom of
Freudian technique is that anything the analysand says during this "detailed account" will
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
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.
- 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.
- 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
(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.
- 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.
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
- 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
assertion that restoring meaning to the analytic session is what makes authentic regression
- 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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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)
- 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
- 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
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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
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
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
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
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
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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