March 11, 2014, by criticalmoment

Is The Unconscious Historical? (Part 2)

This interview is published in two parts. In Part 1 discussion focused on the origins of psychoanalysis, its historical debt to hysteria and the fall of the ‘Master’. In this second part, the discussion moved onto the symptoms of neoliberalism and the challenges faced by the clinician and the activist.

SG: If hysteria is a symptom of the Master’s discourse, what would be the symptom of the university discourse? 

CW: There isn’t a specific symptom ‘of’. What the example of the hysteric shows is that (if we look at it in its historical context as a fairly narrow historical window) there are fashions in mental disorders. Underlying that from a psychoanalytic point of view is that people reach for a term that allows them to convey their suffering. It is a documented fact that ‘hysteria’ became fashionable in lots of late nineteenth century women—not surprisingly given their social standing—and began to manifest what then became known as hysteria. The category of ‘neurasthenia’ has a related history. So I think that as a term with a history and a fashionable high-point ‘hysteria’ can be considered a phenomenon of the past, but in Lacanian psychoanalysis we hold on to the term to designate a precise structure that can certainly be encountered today. So there is quite a complicated dialectic between the labels that are circulated between mental health discourse and the way individual subjects make use of those labels to try and speak about their own suffering. But if we take the ‘university discourse’ as basically describing neoliberalism then we can talk about a range of fairly new symptoms and they would be things like depression, anxiety, addiction and eating disorders. Jacques-Alain Miller coined the term (a term that was and remains controversial for some psychoanalysts) ‘ordinary psychosis’ and I think that has a lot to do with changes in what Lacan would call ‘the social link’. Increasingly in clinical practice people encounter psychotics much more than they do neurotics. That is certainly my experience, but this may be skewed by working primarily in the field of affiction which seems to attract psychotics. So there do seem to be shifts in how subjects are formed and how people find a way to express their suffering.

SG: Why would there be a psychotic reaction to the university discourse?

CW: It goes back to the historical aspect of Lacan’s work we were discussing before. One of the things he describes over a couple of centuries is what he calls ‘the name of the Father’. In Seminar VII he talks a lot about the decline of ‘the name of the Father’ in relation to the Marquis de Sade. He picks on him because he is interested in the French Revolution. He is interested in those moments when the hysteric’s discourse challenges a previous Master’s discourse (‘The Ancien Régime’). But Lacan is also saying that it is at that point, literally at the point where the King’s head is chopped off, that ‘the name of the Father’ as a means of ordering society begins to decline in its psychic power. The world is turned upside down when you see the King’s head chopped off by the people. One of the things Lacan maps is the sequence: French Revolution, democracy and capitalism. As it advances, there is a kind of globalisation of a flat equality that no longer has a centring or ordering pivot, that no longer has ‘the name of the Father’. So in psychoanalytic clinical practice neurosis is based on ‘the name of the Father’ but as that declines, socially, culturally, psychically, psychosis rises proportionately, because psychosis is that structure in which the ‘name of the Father’ is not operative, not properly inscribed. The decline of paternal authority does cause suffering but the really tricky thing from a Lacanian perspective is to avoid any kind of nostalgia about that. There was an incident in France recently when Lacan’s name was invoked in a very right wing argument against gay marriage on the basis that it is ‘the name of the Father’ that ‘pins us together’ and if we go down the route of gay marriage then ‘we will all wind up a mess’. That is not at all what Lacan is saying, but there is an element in psychoanalysis of keeping up with changes in the ‘social link’. There is an analytical description also of what is happening. In the same way we can lament the fact that Freud comes across as a misogynist we can also recognise that he is describing a patriarchal, misogynistic society. Going back to the example of the right wing employment of Lacan to rail against gay marriage, what psychoanalysis can show us is that that position is really about the enjoyment in excluding people; that they are using ‘the name of the Father’ to exclude people from their ideal community. So the broad answer is that since the late 18th century we have seen a broad decline in societies being ordered ethically around a vertical axis of a limit (what Lacan called ‘the name of the Father’) and an increasing collapse of that and a resulting dispersal of power in a very Foucauldian way that produces new and different symptoms.

SG: We always have to figure the subject in a social context…

CW: Quite. The subject always emerges in relation to an ‘Other’, the ‘big social Other’, and the reason that it changes is that it is social, it changes with history. But the subject and the Other are not the same. There is a gap and a lack between them. And also what later Lacan becomes interested in is allowing the analysand to discover and live with their own singularity. There is something singular about the way each individual finds a way to exist with this ‘big social Other’ so it is not a matter of structural determination, but of what escapes it. What Lacan likes to ask is ‘what is this subject’s mode of jouissance?’, What is the way they enjoy themselves? And that is dramatized in the symptom which can cause suffering but it is also theirs alone. So the last thing you would want to do is to eradicate that little extra bit that doesn’t fit with wider social norms. That is the things that analysis gives you. Even if it is about castration, and isn’t about empowering you, or feeling better, it does at least allow the subject to recognise that they did produce something creative that isn’t commodifiable, that doesn’t offer itself to exchange. So that is quite an important difference for me. When Lacan insists on the subject—in a very unfashionable way in the French context of the 1950s and 1960s—he does so because the subject is something separate from pure individuation. Psychoanalysis has always had to theorize processes of socialisation but what it is trying to get at is the remainder that is left over, that doesn’t belong, that doesn’t fit.

The neoliberal subject is very different from the psychoanalytic subject. The neoliberal subject would be relentlessly efficient, productive, rational in a self-managing way, and of course if they become ill then what they need is to be fixed and so we have forms of intervention that are effectively psychic plasters and the therapeutic measure would be getting them back to work, making them productive, rendering them, once again, an object. So the neoliberal subject is really an object that responds to that kind of micromanagement. The psychoanalytic subject is stubborn and not like that.

SG: In terms of political praxis there is something very useful about ‘the name of the Father’ and the ‘Master’s discourse’ for mobilising political energy; in terms of focusing on an enemy and so on. It can claim a number of political successes as well, from the French Revolution going onto the emancipatory projects in the 19th and 20th Century. The ‘university discourse’on the other hand is more difficult to mobilise against because it doesn’t focus on an enemy

CW: There is no one’s head to chop off. It’s not even many-headed and that does make it very difficult. One of the things that psychoanalysis would try to do would be to intervene at the level of the relationship to knowledge itself. So one of the reasons that the ‘university discourse’ works is its relationship to knowledge, a relationship that we might want to displace in some way. For example I am engaged in teaching and it is very, very noticeable that today’s students tend to relate to knowledge as information. If you set them an essay question they see themselves as people who are gathering information and presenting it. And it is very difficult to try and explain that thought isn’t the same as gathering and presenting information. This is a culturally embedded relationship to knowledge that has something to do with its material supports. The information age is closely linked to the ‘university discourse’. So unplugging from that is important. In the end in psychoanalysis one of the things the ‘unconscious’ does is make you recognise your own knowledge as not Masterful.

SG: …which is what the hysteric’s discourse does. In which case how does the hysteric’s discourse differ from the ‘analytic discourse’?

CW: There is a structural difference between the hysteric’s discourse and the ‘analytic discourse’. That is, yes, the hysteric does critique the Master’s knowledge, she does point out the Master’s desire, but she does so because she wants a better Master. So the problem with the hysteric is she is continually in search of the really potent man, particularly the man who can tell her what it means to be a woman. In that sense she is rather trapped and what she is trying to produce is, as Lacan puts it, an S1—a Master Signifier—from the rather pathetic person she sees in front of her. She critiques the Master in search of a better Master. So it is a problem, and maybe it is a problem of critique for critique’s own sake. It’s when critique gets too close to a conspiracy theory model where you critique formulations of the truth because you want to unveil the true truth behind it. And the really worrying thing is that just isn’t the way things work and there isn’t that true truth. That is what ‘analytic discourse’ is better able to capture because what it produces is singular ways of ordering that are new. One of the things that distinguishes psychoanalysis from other therapeutic approaches is the idea of creating something new. That what you create over the course of an analysis would be unthinkable beforehand and that it has, or can, reconfigure the coordinates of your experience of reality so one can conduct oneself differently in the world. As I said, psychoanalysis owes its existence to the hysterics historically, but it is also able to show why it is a bit of a deadlock in itself. Critique is great and necessary, but when it is not coupled with political activism, it is obviously not enough on its own. It must be conjoined with that.

SG: Does the ‘ordinary psychotic’ have a truth to impart?

CW: We could say a lot about what truth is in psychoanalysis, as opposed to, say, philosophy. But what I would like to do is take what is already there circulating in dominant discourse and work with it. If we take depression I would like to take what is a terribly normative discourse around depression, which is massively driven by the DSM and all its entanglements with the pharmaceutical industry—which again relates to that neoliberal model of what will respond to manipulation. Depression in the psychiatric sense has been massively objectified as that which will respond to this, that, or the other pill. There are enormous problems in the epidemic of depression related to its driving forces, i.e. capital. We can and should critique all that. But I am also interested in the fact that subjects still use the category of depression (unconsciously perhaps) to find a voice for their own suffering which I think is a different kind of suffering that perhaps suggests there are some limits, psychological limits, to capital’s exploitation of people. So I am very interested in each of those categories—depression, addiction, eating disorders—in trying to understand, maybe through clinical work, what in those disorders does not simply fitting under the pigeon hole of the label, but says something singular about this person’s experience of suffering at the hands of capital. There is a sense in which depression can be a protest, even if it is an unconscious one.

SG: Could whatever is singularly relevant to an individual person resonate with a lot of people. Could it be a mobilising force for resistance?

CW: I think you would have to be very careful from a clinical point of view. Once we have grounded psychoanalysis in its clinical practice we must be very reluctant to reduce people to types; even if it is the type of an unconscious protester against capitalism. One would want to stay very close to what is unique to this person. But I think there is a sense in which the very fact that their suffering is articulated in these terms—whether it would be depression, or addiction, or eating disorders—is telling about the nature of contemporary consumer culture. I don’t think it is a coincidence that eating disorders are so clearly a contemporary symptom. It has something to do with consumerism and this ubiquitous demand, articulated in discursive but also visual forms, to consume without cease, so that food becomes the site of refusing to meet that demand. This is not to suggest that this particular form of suffering is heroic at all. But I suppose my question would be—why that? Why eating disorders? Or why depression? Well one reason might be that depression is the opposite of the dynamic, creative, networking neoliberal subject. It’s very difficult to do that when you really can’t face getting out of bed in the morning! I think there is something very important in addiction too, almost as an over identification or exaggerated performance of precisely the kind of consumption that consumer culture enjoins us super-egoically to indulge in at every turn. Addiction makes total sense if we felt we lived in a society without limits. If everybody can have everything, why not go straight to source and inject enjoyment into your veins? Addiction is almost a performance of the inner logic of consumer capital: that only pleasure on a very dumb level is important, and that the market constantly meets your demand before you have even articulated it as a question of desire.

SG: In your own work you want to focus more on the clinical than academic?

CW: Yes. In a neat way that brings us back to the opening question about the historical nature of the unconscious, because my sense within academia is that psychoanalytic theory has been frozen in time. The version you get in academia is Freudianism of the 1920s and then Lacanian of the 1950s and it is as if nothing else has really happened in the last 60 years. And it’s because it’s operating as a ‘university discourse’. In other words it is providing a kind of hermeneutic machine that churns out cultural readings of stuff that happens. And you go to conferences where Lacanian vocabulary is used, but there is really nothing happening from my point of view – apart from people trying to look very clever by using mathemes and diagrams and the like. I find that it is rather dead, and it’s rather bad for psychoanalysis (although I am grateful that the university is a place where I get to teach Lacan) because it has been so absorbed as a social currency that its language has become a part of everyday life. People talk of being ‘introverts’ or ‘extroverts’, or complain about somebody being ‘anal’. There is this strong Freudian legacy—some of it good, some of it not so good. But it is not at all helpful for clinical analysis. Just because people talk about the unconscious, doesn’t mean that the unconscious is ‘happening’. Freud himself discovered this. In the very early days of psychoanalysis he kept having these miraculous therapeutic results. But precisely when his work and Freudianism became famous and well known and taken on by the elite, when it became fashionable, he found its effects diminished rapidly. And it was partly because people turned up to analysis saying “So—about my Oedipus Complex…”. They articulated their problems through a psychoanalytic language because it had become a form of knowledge but such knowlege is incompatible with the unconscious itself. One of the reasons I want to get back to clinical work is because it doesn’t allow you that little hermeneutic machine that produces readings. Also because I think the politics of health are very important in a neoliberal context. The politics of health are pretty scary at the moment, so working clinically in a Lacanian way for me is finding a way to work against the grain that otherwise fundamentally fixes slightly broken neoliberal subjects.

SG: It’s also a quick fix. One of the ways in which psychoanalysis differs from other clinical approaches is that it seeks explanation beyond description which obviously takes longer to elicit. The DSM doesn’t. There is barely any distinction made between symptoms and diagnosis. For example ‘social anxiety disorder’ manifests itself in social anxiety.

CW: You’re right that the DSM tends to proceed with lists (quite long lists actually), so for each disorder you only need to tick three or so boxes and there are loads of them—and it’s a documented fact that many psychiatric diagnoses are made within minutes, but also that different psychiatrists seeing the same person reporting the same complaints are very capable of coming up with quite distinct diagnoses using the DSM.

SG: Meanwhile the psychiatrist need not take responsibility for their diagnoses. They are a box ticker.

CW: That goes back to one’s relationship to knowledge actually. Some psychiatrists, and this is very true with CBT as well, know what your problem is before you come into the room, sometimes already with the referral. They also know what the solution is—all the psychiatrist and patient need to do is agree how to impart that knowledge to the patient over a short period of time. The difficulty there is there is no conceptual or temporal space for the subject. There is no discussion with the person who has this very specific experience which should be intrinsically valid and invaluable. So institutionally the spaces available for that kind of work which is more vague, takes longer, can be more expensive, are disappearing quite quickly. One therefore needs to find little crevices in which to work. But that is important because the alternative of keeping hold of this pure, ideal vision of psychoanalysis—the kind of classic analysand on the couch situation—threatens to become a very elite pursuit. Psychoanalysis has historically been the privilege of a certain class. So what I think psychoanalysis needs to do is to think about how it can work within the constraints of the dominant forces in our world, to give people that space in which to be subjects of their own unconscious knowledge rather than objects of an external, technical knowledge. What is problematically reassuring on both sides, let’s say with CBT, is that there is a knowledge, a technique, it’s already there. It is clear that the CBT practitioner knows something already and is able to pass it on. So the masterful relationship to knowledge is there. But it is also disembodied. It’s not, as you say, about their authoritarian relationship to that knowledge. They are just its relays. Psychoanalysis is much more demanding. The point is neither the analysand nor the analyst know anything really before it begins. And each one has to be treated as one. And that is much harder. It is harder because you don’t have the pre-given safety net of knowledge that can orient you through that. But the benefit of that is that you produce something new that is useful for that subject. Going back to your distinction between description and structural diagnoses—CBT tends to treat the descriptions, the kind of symptoms that can be dealt with quite quickly—and it’s not useless to do that at all. But in the end if you are interested in why you do certain things, the ‘why’ question is never addressed by this approach. And for me the ‘why’ question has always had a political dimension. It’s never neatly yours because there is no unique ‘you’—you have emerged from a context.

SG: If the analyst isn’t the master—what are they?

CW: What is in the position of agency is not knowledge but enjoyment. The analyst has to occupy a position, you may have read that Lacan says the analyst must occupy the position of ‘the subject supposed to know’, at least with the neurotic, and in part analysis is the process by which the analysand eventually learns that the analyst doesn’t know at all! But it is important to occupy that position temporarily in as far as psychoanalysis begins very often with a demand ‘I’m broken, fix me, sort it out quick’—and this is understandable. But if there is a question underlying that then one can elicit something more. But to do that what you must not be is the recipient of that demand. So the ‘subject supposed to know’ has to fall at some point so that the subject becomes interested in their own knowledge; knowledge that they produce themselves from their own unconscious and that’s what governs analysis. Strictly speaking you wouldn’t talk about a symptom as such until it’s constructed within analysis with an analyst. But that is a joint construction, a kind of joint production which doesn’t rest on some pre-given knowledge on either side.

SG: If it is knowledge that the subject produces themselves, it must break cycles of repetition that presumably come from the subject’s ‘conscious’:

CW: Repetition would be one of the key concepts to connect to, maybe not the symptoms, but the problems which that person has that led them to psychoanalysis. It’s something that is a repetitive pattern that has been terrible enough in its consequences that it led them to seek some help. So symptoms are definitely related to repetition. But also connected to frustration; there is something about repetition that frustrates massively and one of the purposes of analysis would be to produce something new, and that would involve dealing with some of the imaginary fantasies  that the person has invested in to write the story of themselves. ‘I am this kind of person, therefore I do this’. The purpose of analysis would be to try and disrupt that by saying something new and for people to recognise that they are invested in the thing of which they complain by a kind of subjective implication. To recognise that at some level all these terrible things that have happened, have been caused, to some extent, by the way the subject chooses to conduct their own life. In Seminar 11 Lacan explores two different models of causality. He talks about automata—which would be a kind of mechanical repetition; the kind that is stuck in a rut, frustrating, symptomatic repetition. And then there is what he calls ‘tychic repetition’ which has to do with something new. So he talks about the unconscious in those terms; as an encounter with something unexpected that if you choose to, has subjective consequences and you make them subjective by incorporating them.

SG: From a political perspective that seems like something important, after years and years of repetitive losing. I think the left does take a certain enjoyment out of losing; as if there is some kind of link between losing and truth. You see it particularly in identity politics.

CW: Yes, it’s the worthy victim and the cost of that is that to remain worthy one must also remain a victim. So you are choosing the position of the victim to keep that sense of your being. Even though you say you want to turn the world upside down, that you would like to topple those in power, what you are actually invested in is the position that victimhood gives you because that is your relation to the Other. Freud spoke about ‘moral masochism’ in something like these terms. Hegel before him spoke of the problem of the ‘beautiful soul’.

The theme of ‘left melancholy’ dates back to Walter Benjamin, but has been taken up recently by Jodi Dean.  I think she raises some important points. But my little, not so much objection as a suggested supplement, to Jodi Dean’s work is an attempt to make a closer link to the clinical aspects of psychoanalysis because my feeling is that anxiety would take on political importance if that were followed through on. Some of my concerns around the enthusiasm about the so-called Idea of Communism is that it is precisely that, an enthusiasm based on not that much—a couple of high profile academic conferences does not a revolution make. In some way Lacan’s response to the May ’68 students feels like it is still relevant. He said ‘I’m with you, but you are looking for a new master’, and some of this enthusiasm for the Idea of Communism today has that ring about it. In my view the political implementation of the Communist idea has to involve some anxiety and uncertainty and the cleaving to something more disturbing. Going back to your point about identity—If you’re letting go of that identity position it is an anxious thing, and if you’re not theorising that anxiety, it probably means that you are re-inscribing that identity position. That way, no novelty lies.


About the Authors

Colin Wright is Lecturer in Critical Theory and C o-Director of the Centre for Critical Theory at The University of Nottingham. His research interests include French critical theory, postcolonialism and psychoanalysis. He is also a trainee Lacanian psychoanalyst with the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research, and works clinically primarily in the field of addiction.

Samuel Grove is an independent researcher and writer.  He is an editor of, a website covering Latin America and related issues such as politics, media and also works at Alborada Films.  He has a PhD in Critical Theory from the University of Nottingham.

Posted in Centre for Critical TheoryLacan Reading GroupNeoliberalism