Lacanian Dialectice and the Poetics of Interpretation

The following was presentation at the Lacan Circle of Australia’s Cartel Presentation Day on 13/11/21. The theme of the cartel was Lacan’s Seminar XXIV.

Seminar XXIV has many points of interest, but since this presentation isn’t long, I’d like to draw out three points in particular; one methodological, the second theoretical, and the third concerned with praxis.

Methodological Considerations in approaching Lacan’s teaching
The methodological considerations relate to how one might approach Lacan’s teaching. There is a tendency in some quarters to periodise Lacan’s teaching and to give greatest emphasis to that part of the teaching designated as late, as if the teaching itself is on some upward trajectory, with the latest of Lacan’s utterances reaching the highest summit of psychoanalytic truth. This is a phantasmatic engagement with the teaching. There is no logical reason to suppose any upward trajectory on Lacan’s part. Likewise, there is no reason to suppose that a seminar such as 24 should be given greater weight than say, seminars 17 or 20. This is not to suggest that Lacan’s teaching is homogenous, but rather, that it resembles the Möbius strip, in that it has definite twists and reversal, but nonetheless maintains continuity. Given the marked ambivalence that Lacan had for psychoanalysis and its institutions by Seminars 24 and 25, it is questionable whether one could be a psychoanalyst of the late teaching at all.
In reading the seminars and writings, we can see that Lacan refers to the notion of ‘dialectic’ dozens of times across his papers and seminars, and seminar 24 is no exception. I suggest that, as readers of Lacan, we should take this notion seriously, and that is has significant ramifications for interpretations of Lacan’s teaching. What Lacan means by a dialectic might be an open question, but throughout the course of his seminars, he makes explicit reference to this concept as it relates to Chinese philosophy, Plato, Hegel and Marx. I suggest that we can think of Lacan’s presentation as dialectical in a number of ways, including in the sense that each individual element is related to a broader whole, or at least to an other, resulting in a dynamism in and between terms; that determination is not only negation, but this negation is itself determinate; that apparent contradictions can coexist in unity at another level; that he is frequently holding terms as constants or placing them in abeyance for periods in order for their counterparts to emerge forth; and that binary oppositions are frequently subverted. To be clear, I want to affirm that Lacan’s presentation is not dialectical in the sense of constituting a finished ‘system’, or in the sense of taking students on a journey to absolute knowledge, or a perfect synthesis or totality. It is an ensemble rather than a totality. It is precisely for this reason that it is an ‘open’ teaching, a living discourse embedded in its own dialectic with praxis. As we shall see, the failure to engage with the teaching qua dialectic results in interpretations of Lacan that are dogmatic, and dualistic, with these dualisms giving way to hierarchical schemas.
This might be clearer in the light of some examples. We could think of the notion of ‘extimacy’ from Seminar XI as an instance of Lacan subverting what in IPA psychoanalysis is the dogmatic binary between inside and outside. This subversion reappears in Seminar 24 in the very opening passage, in which Lacan critiques the notion of the so-called ‘endo-psychical’, saying that ‘it is not self-evident that the psyche should be endo; it is not self-evident that this endo should be endorsed.’
A more detailed example of Lacan’s dialectical presentation can be found in his treatment of lalangue, on the one hand, and the One, on the other. Lacan remarks that there is a real, imaginary and symbolic body, and this latter, he says, is lalangue (5). The ‘classical’, structuralist take on language involved a disjunction, even a non-rapport, between the signifier and the signified, such that each was, at least in principle, dissociable from the other. From this distinction ensued others, such as the opposition between the signifier and jouissance, and between desire and the real.

Lalangue upends these distinctions. As the substrate of language proper, which is now mere linguisterie, it is verbalisation as tied to the body. In contrast to the signifier of old, it is not opposed to jouissance, but rather, is a crystallisation of jouissance. In a sense it is jouissance. When Lacan introduces his audience to his first detailed formulation of the real in Seminar VII, he draws upon Freud’s early models in the Entwurf, in which the primary and secondary processes, and the reality and pleasure principles, in this account, depend the Other for their installation and functioning. The real arises in and through the symbolic, and this point is reaffirmed repeatedly in Seminar 24. The two registers, whilst radically-heterogeneous, nonetheless share a great intimacy. From my reading of Lacan, I do not believe that we can give one or the other primacy. A drive in the psychoanalytic sense is defined by Lacan as the human body deranged by the effects of language. The instincts refer the human organism back to the pleasure principle, whilst the drive, with jouissance as its aim, involves the compulsion to repeat beyond mere pleasure. This is how Lacan presents things in Seminar 7, and this is how he continues up to the last seminars, in which the symbolic insists, and the imaginary consists. It is true, that the drive changes over the course of time in Lacan, moving from a symbolic construction to something more embodied (by the time of Seminar X, for instance). In any case, by Seminar XXIV, the three registers are equiprimordial, and Lacan himself does not give any particular register primacy, either in logical, temporal, structural or clinical terms, and in any case, a term such as lalangue would subvert any such primacy. If we wish to search Seminar 24 for Lacan’s thoughts on the One, locked in non-relation at the level of the real, the One who ‘dialogues all alone’, a dialectical reading of this would note that this One is accompanied by Lacan’s claim that psychoanalysis is not an ‘autism á deux’, and that lalangue, for all the singularity of its effects, is a ‘common affair’.

Theoretical Implications
There are several theoretical implications that arise from this method of reading Lacan, and I will touch on a few here. The death of the Other which seems to characterise a number of orientations proceeding, supposedly, from the late Lacan must be revisited. The Other qua totality, the Other as guarantor, are indeed relics to be consigned to history, but the Other as such persists in Lacan right up until his final years. The Lacanian subject is many things, but socially atomised is not one of them, except merely contingently. Moreover, when Lacan speaks of the One of the enjoying body, the One of the sexual non-rapport that never unifies a two, we should respect the non-self-identical and contradictory nature of this One rather than shoehorn it into the One of contemporary liberal capitalist individualism.
Consequently, when we encounter distinctions such as that between a ‘real’ and ‘transferential’ unconscious, it is clear that a non-dialectical treatment of the distinction leads to a mere dualism, in which the real unconscious is the proper aim of psychoanalysis, whereas the transferential unconscious is facile, merely symbolic and imaginary, sublimatory or what-not, depending on the author. In fact, one doesn’t have the one without the other, and it is far from clear that anything like a ‘real’ unconscious could exist outside of the transferential dimensions of analysis, or that these transferential dimensions fully yield as illusory at the end of analysis. Dualisms can be found with frequency in the secondary literature, along the lines of ‘real unconscious’ good, the proper aim of analysis; transferential unconscious, bad, facile deceptive; or – jouissance as the proper aim of analysis, and everything else relegated to mere semblant. The dualisms betray a hierarchy that shatters the relativisation of the registers, and Lacan’s dialectical presentation.

As far as jouissance itself is concerned, its partitioning into several famous ‘paradigms’ according to a periodisation of Lacan’s teaching covers over the notion that jouissance is not a transhistorical phenomenon. Rather, it is historically determinate, which in psychoanalytic jargon implies that it is also discursively determinant, and Lacan himself says as much repeatedly. The Master of Aristotelian ethics is not the Master of the Hegelian master-slave dialectic, and this latter is turn markedly different to the discourse of capitalism, and each of these corresponds accordingly to different regimes of satisfaction. It is not that so many commentators are explicitly avowing the existence of a transhistorical jouissance, but rather, more subtly, the concept of jouissance often get mired in ideological mystification arising from a one-sided approach to Lacan’s dialectic. A case in point is the notion of jouissance as always and intrinsically ‘autistic’, a formulation that mystifies jouissance just as commodity fetishism in Marxism describes the mystification of social relations. Indeed, whilst jouissance is necessarily auto-erotic and narcissistic, this in no way implies Otherlessness. The clinic is a guide here, and addiction, for instance, is not an ‘autistic’ moide of enjoyment so much as it is the paradigmatic form of jouissance under the present stage of capitalism. It involves both an Other and a fantasy, however minimal, and, like the drive itself, can become attached to almost any conceivable object. The mystificatory approach seeks to situate jouissance as an ontotheological term in a system in which every other element is relegated, dualistically, to the status of mere semblant, despite these supposed semblants being that which point toward the overcoming – however partial – of a given regime of jouissance. Or, to put it differently, psychoanalysis must treat with the signifier that which the signifier hath wrought. Drives – as distinct from instincts – are inaugurated by lalangue, and irrespective of their supposed ‘opacity’ are alterable via this very function. Naturally, not every psychoanalysis involves the overthrow of a given regime of jouissance, but it happens, now and then.

This leads to Lacan’s remarks on psychoanalytic praxis in Seminar 24. Here – and we should keep the preceding seminar on Joyce and the sinthome in mind also – Lacan suggests that psychoanalysis must look to artists, and above all to the poets for its praxis. In particular, Lacan makes a link between Chinese poetic writing and psychoanalytic interpretation. The idea is to produce an effect in psychoanalysis – whether this emerges via the analyst or analysand is unspecified – that avoids the soporific tendencies of mere ‘understanding’. For this purpose, Lacan refers to the creative potential of the equivocque, the Witz, and to re-purposed signifiers after Duchamp’s ‘ready-mades’.
‘Poetry is imaginarily symbolic’ (103), Lacan says, and as art, ‘it is verbal to the power of two’. It can also, sometimes, at least, have the effect of an anti-soporific. That which in poetry eludes translation is precisely that which is on the edge of meaning effects, by which I mean the paralinguistic elements of poetry. This is poetry in its closest relation to the body. That which is translatable can have its function also, and this is where Lacan turns to the work of Franćois Cheng, with whom he studied Chinese for several years. As Lacan said in Seminar XVIII, ‘perhaps I’m only Lacanian because I did some Chinese back in the day’.
Cheng specialised in translating and expounding on Chinese poetry of the T’and Dynasty era, in which the aim of poetry of this period was to aim at ‘the Image beyond images’, which we can perhaps take to suggest a linking of representation to the real. Poetry of the T’ang period was traditionally sung, but Lacan is interested in its written qualities in this seminar. Informed by Taoism and Chan Buddhism, the poetry emerges against the backdrop of and incorporates a constitutive void. I lack the time to enter into the finer points of it here, but at its purest, T’ang poetry consists of works of the most extreme compression. As one commentator puts it, it involves ‘the reconstructive capability of the human mind’ because the poetry is open to such broad interpretation. For instance, a poem typically involves lines, if not the entire piece, in which no subject is clearly delineated. Chinese verbs lack conjugation, and the question of perspective is endlessly open. Some poems banish ‘empty words’ from their construction, namely, personal pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, particles, etc, but not always. As Cheng puts it, ‘The purpose is, as always, the insertion of the empty into the full, but here the method is substitution rather than simply deletion’. The symbolic and imaginary are deployed as a gesture to the void.
With some modification, I think that this is a model for psychoanalytic interpretation in general, and with psychotic subjects in particular. I say a model, not the model. In particular, if we think of the ‘fullness’ in question as that of trauma, Chinese poetic writing illustrates a possible method for reducing those modes of jouissance that induce suffering. Adrian Price, in examining Lacan’s references to Chinese poetic writing, notes that the spoken qualities of poetry tend toward the soporific, and that it is the written which has the capacity to articulate those truths which wake us up. Chinese is a language of relative phonetic poverty, but its classical ideograms contain a visual etymology and a complex system of meanings which, when deployed by the poets, unfold a codified logic of sexuation but which do not exhaust this logic. There is always the gesture back to the void, the non-rapport, in which the symptom resides as something fundamentally substitutive.
It is easy to criticise meaning in psychoanalysis, but difficult to put it to any good use. This is perhaps the reason that Lacan turns to poetry, because, as he says in this seminar, ‘poetry…is a sense effect, but also a hole-effect’ (with an h, not a w). This is less a production of knowledge than it is a binding of registers through creation. The real does not disappear in this act of creation, but a void is restored to it. Going back to the unfashionable early seminars of Lacan, such as the one on the psychoses, there are things which for all subjects cannot be assimilated as the level of that which Plato called logos. In this regard, Lacan refers specifically to procreation and death, two themes which are the wellspring of the psychoses, as well as to hysteria and obsessional neurosis respectively. But that which cannot be addressed via logos can nonetheless be approached via mythos, which is limited in terms of its truth-effects, but nonetheless not the same as truthlessness.

All references are to Seminar XXIV correspond to the Cormac Gallagher translation, to be found here.

The other references are as follows:

François Cheng (1982). Chinese Poetic Writing. (Trans. D. A. Riggs & J. P. Seaton). New York: NYRB

Adrian Price (2009). ‘On Lacan’s Remarks on Chinese Poetry in Seminar XXIV’. Hurley Burly, 2.


11 thoughts on “Lacanian Dialectice and the Poetics of Interpretation

    • The reddit piece is interesting, but I do not believe in the dream of psychology/psychotherapy in an ‘integrated’ system of treatment, and I especially do not believe that psychoanalysis and behaviourism can be blended without one being subordinate to the other.
      The aims and ethics of each (‘ordinary unhappinass’ for Freud, ‘predict and control’ for Skinner), the methods (free association vs ‘direct observation’) and the respective concepts of each paradigm are, IMHO, utterly incompatible.
      Maybe there could be fragments of overlap. Perhaps, if someone in analysis is speaking of their trauma in such a way that it carries less intensity thereafter, we could consider this a sort of exposure therapy, at a stretch. But what the reddit piece shows is that the behaviourist paradigm rests on a certain theory of knowledge, and that the subject it presupposes is undivided and rational. A patient seemingly seeking out trauma, in this view, has simply mislearnt something.
      In psychoanalysis, satisfaction trumps knowledge, and the compulsion to repeat, even when this repetition is traumatic, arises from sources other than mislearning.

    • I haven’t read enough of Jung to have an informed opinion, but I suspect I’d lean closer to Freud on the centrality of sexuality to human subjectivity. As for TA, I studied it many years ago as part of psychology training. It definitely seems like an improvement over CBT, but if one is undergoing a process to demarcate an ‘inner-parent’ or ‘inner-child’, why not take things further and seek an analysis outright?

    • The movie sounds interesting, and on your critique, a couple of brief points come to mind.
      Lacan definitely changed his mind about different things at different times, and I encourage caution in concluding that a statement from any given period is his definitive take on anything. For example, in Lacan’s later seminars, especially concerning the Borromean knot, he definitely returns to the imaginary in a positive way. This is not in order to revive ego psychology, but to give the imaginary a place in sustaining the subject’s structural consistency. It’s also questionable whether Lacan, in any period, would have advised analysts to take a sledgehammer to the imaginary identifications of psychotic patients.
      I think that in psychoanalysis identity =/= identification, and the latter has both symbolic and imaginary dimensions. These can zig and zag in different directions at times.
      The famous ‘subjective destitution’ that one supposedly arrives at at the terminus of analysis seems to me more a topic of conversation for people outside of clinical settings. One effect of analysis, in my opinion, is that without the analyst necessarily doing any critique or deconstruction, gaps emerge between the different elements of discourse, and, among other things, a barred subject can emerge as distinct from an S1. nThis doesn’t mean the disappearance of the S1, but rather, that it can be carried a little more lightly. It may be worth reading the testimonies of those who say they’ve completed analysis to see how this plays out in specific cases.

  1. Very simply, I would say that identification is a psychoanalytic term in which a subject takes on the trait of another. The crucial definition can be found in Freud’s paper on group psychology, in which he distinguishes 3 types of identification. In Lacanian jargon, identification can be extended to mean the position from which a subject desires (for example).
    ‘Identity’ is not really a psychoanalytic concept, though it obviously is extremely prevalent today, especially in online discourse. I don’t have a good definition of it myself, but roughly I’d suggest that it is an amalgam of imaginary and symbolic elements that functions as both a construction of the ego and an insignia for the subject in public life.

  2. I wrote a post about a metaphorical explanation of the Oedipus complex:

    I’m curious what you think of it, as a Lacanian, since I know that Lacan did not really take Freud’s Oedipus complex literally, as he introduced the imaginary and symbolic registers of experience, explaining how the phallus is not actually the “real penis” and how symbolic castration is not actually literal fear of literal castration, etc.

    • It’s worth keeping in mind, in my opinion, that in both Freud and Lacan’s work the Oedipus isn’t just ‘attraction to same sex parent’ but rather a vast constellation of elements – repression, aggression, perversion, identification, etc – that take on different configurations at different moments.
      As an example, we could take Freud’s paper on debasement in men’s sexual object choices, in which (neurotic) men, via repression, create a split between love objects (going back to maternal associations) and sexual objects, which must be kept away from the former by various means. For these subjects, we would expect them to choose sexual partners who are the opposite of maternal figures, precisely for Oedipal reasons.
      For Lacan, the Name of the Father is a metaphor for the desire of the mother. In Seminar 17, he likens the mother to a crocodile with gaping jaws, and the father is an intermediary protecting the child from being engulfed by these jaws. The Oedipal father is not merely prohibitive, but also protective and productive in certain ways.
      Inasmuch as a subject might find partners with similar ‘traits’, I think that psychoanalysts would situate these traits at the level of the signifier, and not as actual physical resemblances. See for instance Freud’s paper on fetishism in which the thing that fascinates a particular subject about partners is based on a verbal construction primarily, and only secondarily is something to be found in the actual physicality of a partner.

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