Action of the Structure – Then and Now

I recently read a newly-translated text by Jacques-Alain Miller, entitled ‘Action of the Structure’, a translation of which can be found here. The essay has been translated as part of the Concept and Form project, which undertakes to publish seminal papers from the 1960s French journal, Cahiers Pour L’Analyse. (For those interested, the website is a great resource on this obscure chapter of French philosophy).

I draw attention to this text in particular as it situates a certain kind of psychoanalysis – defined here by Miller as relating to structure – against those philosophies and ideologies which privilege the experiential. The outcome of Miller’s exercise is a form of psychoanalysis that is as radical now as then, especially for those in the Anglophone worlds of psychology and psychoanalysis.

The first, fundamental distinction that Miller draws is between the structuring and the structured. The former is an effect of the latter. The latter is where Miller situates subjectivity, and all that goes with it (consciousness, the unconscious, ‘experience’, and so forth). Structure is ‘that which puts in place an experience for the subject it includes’.

Miller follows with some assertions of a topological nature (on torsion and cut), which I won’t delve into here. What is radical in this approach is, as I see it, that the ‘Copernican revolution’ of psychoanalysis is brought closer to completion by the relegation of consciousness as secondary, an effect, an epiphenomenon. At the time of the essay, Miller’s position may have been polemical with respect to existentialism, especially of the Sartrean sort, with its emphasis on the conscious, the ‘authentic’, etc. Now, it applies just as well to any ideology (see mindfulness, for instance, and various other forms of psychotherapy) that purports to take the immediacy of the ‘here-and-now’ as a self-evident. In Miller’s view, the ‘here-and-now’ is never a given; one only arrives at it within the parameters predetermined by structure, with structure itself being an embodiment of past, of history.

In a sense, this position is not altogether new. Hegel advanced some similar notions in the Phenomenology, in the dialectic of the hic et nunc. Also, around the same time that Miller was splitting the subject based on structure, Lacan was (in Seminar XIV), dismantling the Cartesian marriage of convenience between thinking and being. Nevertheless, in Miller’s view, if the thinking subject is an effect from elsewhere, the subject is necessarily founded on a split, and is bound to be perpetually deceived, at least, in so far as s/he seeks for the answers to his/her problems through self-reflection. This deception is méconnaisance, a mis-knowing, or miscognition. As Miller puts it, it is a discourse ‘in the imaginary, of the imaginary’. In other words, a cul-de-sac, and one that in contemporary times does nothing to diminish the vapid, narcissistic cult of the image that predominates discourse at every level of culture. Subjectivity is not regent, but subjected, and nothing of structure changes one iota whether this subjection is accompanied by fair self-regard or foul.

Empirical psychologists, clinical or otherwise, are, on the whole, willing to accept the existence of a pre- or –sub-conscious, but not the existence of a radically unknowable unconscious. Of the minority who can accept this latter, it is likely to be leave no trace on clinical practice, where the focus is always on the next generic strategy to monger, the next self-satisfied retreat into ‘authentic’ perceptual immediacy. To extrapolate Miller’s formulations in this paper, to the extent that such an empirical psychology is ‘scientific’, it must foreclose the knowledge of psychoanalysts of the past hundred or so years, and that of the philosophers for longer. Which is to say, it produces something which is a bit psychotic.

On the other hand, what Miller’s paper shows nicely is that, as a certain connoisseur said of poetry, psychoanalysis is news that stays news.

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