Urgency, History & the Totalitarian Vocation

The following is taken from a presentation at a conference by the Lacan Circle of Australia in Melbourne, 16/2/19. The conference was organised in response to this edition of The Lacanian Review, featuring a new translation of Lacan’s Preface to Seminar XI, and Jacques-Alain Miller’s extensive commentary thereof.


In his Preface to the English edition of Seminar XI, Lacan indicates, almost in passing, as it were, that, ‘as always’, he is ‘caught up in urgent cases while writing this’ (p. 27) . As ever, Lacan puts clinical praxis at the heart of his discourse, and this ‘as always’ is a reminder that, in psychoanalysis, every case is urgent, and this urgency, I argue, is one of the distinguishing features of psychoanalysis. This is the case even when, and perhaps especially when, the patient himself is not convinced of the urgency of his situation.

It is easy enough to speak of urgency, and no doubt most clinical disciplines adopt a similar tone. Let me illustrate something about urgency by giving a counter-example of it. It is from the NHS in the UK, and I offer it because Australian healthcare bears marked resemblances to it. Here I quote from a text from outside of the psychoanalytic world:

[T]o help save lives, the ambulance services were given a target of eight minutes for reaching emergency calls. And for Accident and Emergency departments in hospitals, the Government introduced a target of no more than four hours between registration and treatment. Some beleaguered A & E departments, short of resources, unable to meet the four-hour target, resorted to the strategy of delaying registering those coming for treatment by the device of leaving them in the ambulances, thereby delaying starting the clock. This gave rise to the situation in which ambulances were left waiting on the forecourt of hospitals for lengthy periods. Whilst this strategy enabled the A & E department to meet its target, the ambulance service’s performance suffered, as the shortage of available ambulances meant that they could not meet their eight-minute target. To solve this situation the government introduced yet another target – no more than 15 minutes to transfer the patient from ambulance to registration desk. The way things are set up, each part of the service is actually working against the other…and so inevitably there will be gamesmanship. In some mad way this actually fits with the market paradigm. What works for the benefit of one, is to the detriment of the other. (Dalal, 2018, 91-92).

This is urgency in the age of the discourse of capitalism. It is paranoia. The praxis at stake works against the formation of stable social bonds, and is instead oriented to marketization and quantitative norms. Another point here is that, at the level of the institution, there is official ‘urgency’ embedded into practice via targets, but urgency, properly speaking, must be situated elsewhere, namely, particularised at the level of the specific relationship. Lacan did not provide much reason to believe that he was anything other than sceptical about institutions. One of his final acts was the dissolution of his own school. Whilst an institution may help or hinder the formation of analytic relations, the urgency of the relation itself is not to be found there, and the institutional guarantees to the contrary are, in the last resort, semblants. As an analogy, we could consider the function of ‘care’ in the case of another institution, that of the orphanage. One can operationalise the different instances of ‘care’ for a child – holding it, feeding, clothing, etcetera and have them undertaken by staff working around the clock, but the sum total of these activities will nevertheless be something qualitatively different to a particularised care relation, say, in the form of a parent. Or, to put it differently, demand is not yet desire, and still less is it love. The most valuable documents that the LCA has published, in my opinion, are the various testimonies of the Pass, but in each paper the Pass is dealt with as a transmission of knowledge about the ends of analysis, and not as an institutional procedure. They appear, to me at least, to be an attempt to tell the truth about the real, even if this truth can only ever be half-said.

I raise the problem of the institution for a couple of reasons, and not only to suggest that what is most valuable – most urgent – in psychoanalysis, is not to be found there. First, the NLS has taken an explicitly political turn in recent years, and this turn can hardly be dissociated from institutionality as such. Second, we can detect different treatments of Lacan’s later teachings based  – roughly, at least – on institutional standpoints. This is merely my personal impression, and it may be misguided, but my sense is that, outside of the NLS, those analysts who claim the Lacanian mantle tend to see continuity in his teachings, and even continuity from Lacan’s time to ours. Within the NLS, by contrast, there tends to be an emphasis on the cut, on what has changed, on what is unique in the latter Lacan. Jacques-Alain Miller, in a fairly consistent way, juxtaposes both the continuity and the cut. For instance, in a paper on Lacan’s later teaching (Miller, 2003), he says:

When one is devoted to reason for thirty years, we might suspect that cuts are not significant. It is precisely the continuity that gives his teaching its topological structure…Topology offers configurations of differing evidence, although without discontinuity. The topology allows for Lacan’s theses to be reversed without rupture, without the solution of continuity, without letting us perceive what, from another perspective, would be their inconsistency. An example is the simplest of the topological figures, the strip invented by Mobius which allows passage in continuity to its reverse side. It’s a curious word, solution, which figures in the expression, the solution of continuity. The word solution comes from the Latin solvere. We find the same root in dissolution. Lacan played with this equivocation between solution and dissolution when he dissolved his School.

Some 15 years after writing this, Miller (2018) suggests something that seems to me rather similar: ‘One must not think of the first and final Lacan as one theory trumping the other’ (p. 91). The two theories – or two terms – in question, are those of history, on the one hand, with its resonances with hysteria, its reference to truth, its presumption of a structuralist unconscious, and that of the real, on the other, with its links to lalangue and to phenomena such as hallucination, which do not necessarily presuppose an Other. It is the late Lacan juxtaposed with the Lacan of the Rome discourse, the one who said that ‘The unconscious is the chapter of my history that is marked by a blank or occupied by a lie: it is the censored chapter. But the truth can be refound; most often it has already been written elsewhere.’ (Lacan, 2006, p. 215).

Truth is not a concept that is treated uncritically over the course of Lacan’s teaching, as Miller tells us. According to him, Lacan’s project was one of ‘discrediting truth’, of reducing truth to mere ‘truth effects’, to semblance. (Miller 2018b, p. 67). The product of the analytic discourse is the S1, ‘disconnected’ from S2, ‘as knowledge that has no value as real but only as a positional truth value’ (69). In this regard, Miller invokes the figure of the Wolfman, and this is not coincidental since, if one affirms the category of ordinary psychosis, Sergei Pankejeff is arguably its first exemplar. This is because his foreclosure is not quite like that which we find in the ‘classical’ account of Lacan (ie. In the 1950s), namely, the foreclosure of the Name of the Father, but is instead a pas-tout foreclosure in which it is castration which is excluded from the symbolic field, and which returns in the real by way of Otherless visual hallucinations. For Miller, ‘Grasping the phenomenon of hallucinations in this way is designed to direct one toward the other pole, which is the pole of the real’ (p. 77).

The ‘pole of the real’, however, necessarily implies an axis and another pole, so we are not out of the realm of the truth altogether. As Lacan (1990) said in Television, he always speaks the truth, except that ‘saying it all is literally impossible’ (p. 3). These two poles arise also in Seminar XXIII in which Lacan meditated at length on the distinction between truth and the real (p. 62-63, Lacan, 2016). The former is on the side of speech, and the latter, writing. Since the clinical praxis of analysis revolves around speech, the blablabla of the subject, there is no getting around the dimension of truth. In the background of all of this, but not explicitly indicated, is the work of Derrida from Of Grammatology, in which structuralism and the speech/writing hierarchy are overturned. The hierarchy and the relative primacy of its terms is a fundamental question to which Lacan returned in his late work, and it is one revisited by Miller also. For historicisation to be primary, as it is in the Rome report, it must first be preceded by symbolisation, and this might tend to lead us toward a neurotocentric clinic (p. 93). Miller’s deployment of the term ‘ordinary psychosis’ constitutes a research paradigm aimed precisely at upending this neurotocentrism, and of making of neurosis one particular sinthome, or configuration of sinthomes within a Borromean structure.

All the same, it is difficult to read Seminar VII, for instance, and to hold to any notion of a ‘pre-symbolic real’, since the real and symbolic are forged together, and that remains the case even if the unconscious is a lucubration of knowledge about lalangue. History is the domain of dialectics but is also itself in a dialectic relation with the real. Conjoining the real to the pole of truth opens new possibilities for psychoanalysis, particularly at the level of interpretation, but also new dangers as far as ethics and politics are concerned, especially if one jettisons one half of the axis. History may well be a nightmare from which some psychoanalysts are trying to escape, but I do not think that we can read Lacan or Miller, as positing a Fukuyamist ‘end of history’ style thesis. This is a delicate point, as Miller’s musings on the Preface demonstrate a certain ethical scepticism toward the ‘structuralist’ Lacan, his caveats notwithstanding. ‘History’, he says, ‘has a totalitarian vocation, since it assumes the overcoming of the discontinuities of slips and bungled actions, of the nonsensical in dreams, or of the meaning that surprises, in order to obtain continuity in relation to the Other’, as if endless exegesis could ‘thereby overcome the break, the space of a lapsus’ (p. 93). I can see why Miller takes this view, insofar as Lacan, in the Rome report, speaks of ‘teaching’ and ‘assisting’ the subject. For Miller, this view implies a subject supposed to be perfectible if only they are sufficiently analysed. Whilst I can see where Miller is coming from, I myself do not believe that Lacan was as ‘totalitarian’ as all that. I do not have time for a detailed reading of the Rome report here, but already one can discern in it significant critique of ego psychology and the object relations school, precisely for the naïve optimism with which these schools approached the aims and ethics of analysis. If one considers, for instance, the ‘Presentation on Transference’ in the Ecrits, Lacan argues for dialecticising Dora’s position as belle âme, through historicisation, and this recommendation loses none of its pertinence even in an age when references to the real predominate.

To put it slightly differently, I think that history and historicisation are not only possible but necessary, and can proceed without the totalitarianism. Moreover, the risk of totalitarianism comes from the other pole also, and I will approach this point shortly. What I think the Rome report illustrates, as the most comprehensive example of Lacan’s structuralist phase, is the orientation of psychoanalysis to desire. In this particular case, the desire in question is largely presumed to ensue from within neurotic structure, and therefore does not address the possibility of psychotic desire, or the impact of trauma, for instance. Lacan presented the paper 7 years before the seminar on ethics, and the version of desire it works with is essentially tragic, from which emerges the famous formations of the unconscious. The question is what becomes of psychoanalysis when neurosis is no longer at the centre of things, and when the tragic aspect of desire has receded into the background of the discourse of capitalism, as opposed to that of a traditional master. It may be worth recalling a remark by Miller (2001) from an earlier time, in which ‘desire is a defence…against the real of jouissance’ (p. 19). The truth of desire needs to be set against any form of management of jouissance, and the historical contingencies of each must be brought to bear. The one-all-alone, for instance, may seem to be the natural habitat for jouissance, but it would be remiss to decouple this phenomenon from the workings of contemporary capitalism and biopolitics. Likewise, whilst Freud and Lacan noted that it was not the analyst’s job to patch up civilizational discontent, it is nonetheless possible for the analyst to detect that it is precisely at this level that desire is to be found, and, going further, even the fraternity of which Lacan spoke in Seminar XIX. Desire is relational, and it is not limited to neurosis.

One text that I would like to consider next to the Preface is the Propos sur l’hysterie, the remarks on hysteria, which can be found in bilingual form via Jack Stone. Like the Preface, the text is brief, and, written as it was in 1977, it arose from a similar period to the Preface, albeit, slightly later. In it, Lacan explicitly returns to the question of both hysteria and history, asking, ‘What replaces those hysteric symptoms of old? Is not hysteria displaced in the social field? Would not psychoanalytic craziness (loufoquerie) have replaced it? ’ Lacan asks, further, whether Freud is an ‘historical event’, answering in the negative, and stating that psychoanalysis is an escroquerie, a swindle, which amounts to the same thing as a Πρῶτον ψεῦδος. Lacan concludes by referring to Freud’s notion of a ‘successful paranoia’, and cautions against making the psychotic subject more ‘normal’.

This position is continuous with Lacan’s ethics across his teaching, whether we consider the other psy-disciplines, of which Lacan (2006b, p. 730) says, in ‘Science and truth’, that they provide ‘services to the technocracy…like a toboggan from the Pantheon to the Prefecture of Police.’ In his ‘Founding Act’, Lacan denounced IPA psychoanalysis as ‘conformist in its aims, barbarous in its doctrine’ (Lacan, 1990, p. 103). We must keep these remarks in mind when considering the two poles identified by Miller, whether the truth-history end of the axis or the real-jouissance end of the axis, because if we privilege the latter at the expense of the former, we replace a positive task – that of constructing a history – with a negative one, and in the process, run the risk of taking the aforementioned toboggan to the prefecture of police. When the aim of analysis is the regulation, pacification or ordinarisation of jouissance, one is already halfway there, as Marie-Helene Brousse (2009) indicated in her paper on ordinary psychosis, likening the ordinarisation of psychosis to Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’. It is not a comparison which suggests that ordinarisation is a good thing, and that position is the one compatible with Lacan’s own ethics. Banality, too, speaks against urgency. At the same time that every psychoanalytic case is an urgent one, it is nonetheless necessary that the analytic procedure does not proceed to directly attempt to abolish symptoms. To do so is to lapse into the discourse of science, or perhaps that of the master, but in any case to fall into authoritarianism. The crux of Lacan’s teaching is to shake analysts from the complacency of knowing best, irrespective of the analyst’s intellectual credentials or institutional guarantees.

The problem of relinquishing this ethics has been clear in some of the psychoanalytic responses to the ‘yellow vests’ phenomenon, responsible for protests recently in France. Some analysts, in their commentary, regarding the uprising primarily as an explosion of aggressive, proto-fascist jouissance, most likely arising at the instigation of Vladimir Putin. What happens when one takes the real as one vantage point to the almost absolute exclusion of the true? Since it becomes a matter of regulating jouissance, the commentators in question lend their uncritical support to Macron and to the French police, notorious for their racism and brutality, and in stark and literal contrast with Lacan’s warnings of a few decades ago. The nomination of the protesters’ jouissance as sadistic and proto-fascist has the effect of homogenising what is essentially a disunity. And in supporting the unloved technocratic capitalist Macron, the commentators in question are almost certainly supporting, if inadvertently, the very conditions most likely to promote the fascism they purport to oppose. The psychoanalytic principle of taking things one subject at a time is not so antithetical to the discourse of the capitalist as it is that of the master, and the challenge at the present time is for psychoanalysis to resist co-option by either discourse. This is the meaning that I take from a recent paper by Eric Laurent (2018), namely, ‘that although psychoanalysis takes subjects one by one, it is not liberal in its political model. We do not have the idea that the social link is the aggregation of isolated individuals’ (p. 159). It may not have been Laurent’s intention, but I think that it is possible to hear in this remark an echo of Marx’s sentiments from The Eighteenth Brumaire, wherein Marx analyses the support of the downtrodden peasants for a reactionary, Bonapartist coup. What he says of the peasants arguably is more pertinent to the subjects of contemporary advanced capitalism the ones all alone, namely, that they constitute an aggregate rather than a class, ‘formed by the simple addition of units of corresponding size, much as many potatoes in a sack make up a sack of potatoes’ (p. 312, Marx, 1983). The alternative is that psychoanalysis is left to the merely negative and unethical tasks of adaptation and pacification, and the praxis itself becomes one more activity transformed from care into ‘self-care’. You go to your yoga class, you drink your organic juice, and then you see you analyst. But ‘progress’ in analysis must not be determined by the extent of adherence to orthodoxy or assimilation of the unofficial house style. In Marxist terms, this is not psychoanalysis but potato analysis, an aggregation. Reading the Rome discourse via the Preface is one way to sharpen our senses in the face of these dangers, but a broader project is required, one which reads and revisits the seminar on ethics by way of the late teaching of Lacan, in which desire is neither tragic nor inherently neurotic in its structure.





Brousse, M-H. (2009). Ordinary Psychosis In The Light Of Lacan’s Theory Of Discourse. (Trans. A. Price). Psychoanalytical Notebooks, 19.

Dalal, F. (2018). CBT: The cognitive-behavioural tsunami. Managerialism, politics and the corruptions of science. Oxford: Routledge.

Lacan, J. (1977). Propos sur l’hysterie. (Trans. J. Stone). https://www.freud2lacan.com/docs/Propos_sur_l’hysterie-bilingual.pdf

Lacan, J. (1990). Television: A challenge to the psychoanalytic establishment. (Trans. D. Hollier, R. Krauss & A. Michelson). New York, NY: Norton.

Lacan, J. (2006). The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis. Écrits. (Trans. B. Fink). New York, NY: Norton.

Lacan, J. (2006b). Science and truth. 726–745. Écrits. (Trans. B. Fink). New York, NY:


Lacan, J. (2016). The sinthome. The seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book XXIII. (Trans. A. Price). Cambridge: Polity.

Lacan, J. (2018). Preface to the English edition of Seminar XI. (Trans. R. Grigg). The Lacanian Review, 6.

Laurent, E. (2018). Decided desires and joyful passions in democracy. (Trans. B. Wolf, J. Haney & P. Dravers). Psychoanalytical Notebooks, 32.

Marx, L. (1983). The portable Karl Marx. (Trans. E. Kamenka). New York, NY: Penguin..

Miller, J-A. (2001). Ironic clinic. (Trans. V. Voruz & B. Wolf). Psychoanalytical Notebooks, 7.

Miller, J-A. (2003). Lacan’s later teaching. (Trans. B. Fulks). Lacanian Ink, 21.

Miller, J-A. (2018). The space of a hallucination. (Trans. R. Grigg). The Lacanian Review, 6.

Miller, J-A. (2018). The space of a lapsus. (Trans. R. Grigg). The Lacanian Review, 6.


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