Solitude, poetry, and herd psychoanalysis

Apparently, in about 3-4 months, the psychoanalytic group of which I am a member will feature a debate or discussion on the topic of Jacques-Alain Miller and his followers’ contributions to Lacanian discourse: the ‘One-all-alone’, the real unconscious, the ‘autism’ of jouissance, generalised foreclosure, the limits of meaning, the non-existence of the Other, the non-existence of symbolic paternity in particular, etc. Without dismissing JAM’s contributions in toto, I’m not likely to be on the pro-JAM side of the aisle. The practical effects of JAM’s positions are not entirely benign. They include racism, homophobia and transphobia, a blindness to colonialism, paranoia as an institutional imperative, and the abolition of the Freudian unconscious, as well as sublimation. I’ll turn to some of these another time.

What I believe is that JAM and his most loyal followers have indeed made some of the most brilliant exegeses of Lacanian theory, and in addition to deducing the logic of Lacan’s work, they’ve also added innovations of their own. This should be praised: if Lacan’s teaching is conceived as a closed totality, then it is also a dead doctrine.

On the other hand, I also claim that amidst some of the best takes on Lacanian psychoanalysis that anyone will find, one can also find, shoehorned into the discourse in an entirely unexamined way, a variety of opinions that amount to no more than political prejudice and personal pathology. The sorts of things that reveal much more about their author’s age and social position than they do about psychoanalysis. Here is a brilliant formula for perversion: there is a misapplication of it to all homosexuals. Here is a piercing insight into sexual impasses and the sexual non-rapport; there, a bizarrely antiquated view of gender relations. Curiously, all this passes through entire schools of learned analysts without ever being questioned. Friends tell friends when their fly is unzipped, or when a big piece of spinach is stuck between their teeth. Why aren’t JAM’s friends more friendly to him?

With the foregoing in mind, one should read Miller the way that Lenin read Hegel: here, underlining a brilliant formulation, there, noting the senile bigotry passing itself off as authoritative Lacanianism.

There are many examples, but one worthy of note is the concept of the One-all-alone. It derives from JAM’s final seminar, which takes the later teachings of Lacan as its point of departure. From Lacan’s Seminar XIX in particular, there are no shortage of complex propositions to be found on the One, the Other, Parmenides, and related terms.

The One-all-alone, JAM tells us, can be produced via the isolation of the master signifier as part of the procedure of psychoanalysis. The master signifier is a signifier-all-alone. At this point – sure, why not. No major problems here. Then, for reasons that neither JAM nor his followers have ever explained (to the best of my knowledge), this isolated signifier is expanded to encompass an entire isolated subject. From there, this subject-all-alone is not merely an artefact of the analytic process, but retroactively presumed to be the general ontological and sociological status of the subject as such. If, perhaps, I am unfairly representing JAM’s arguments somehow, then I am at least accurately portraying the views of his followers. For them, this One-all-alone is not just a by-product of analytic treatment or the isolation of the signifier, but a vague designation that captures the ‘subjectivity of the times’. This latter is best embodied in the form of a nebulous, atomised individual, unconsciously oriented to an Otherless (‘autistic’) enjoyment. These sociological and ontological claims tend to be blandly asserted rather than demonstrated by way of rigorous analysis (or indeed, any analysis).

For now, I’ll pass by the fact that this One-all-alone coincides very precisely with Miller’s own avowed political positions (that of ‘cynical’, anti-left liberalism: think of Guizot, and his ‘enrichissezvous’, explicitly quoted by JAM). I’ll put aside, also, that this subject of enjoyment coincides pretty closely with the subject dreamt of by technocratic economists under the neoliberal stage of capitalism. Instead, it may be best to respond poetically, the more so since the Millerian turn, politically and psychoanalytically, rests on the suppression of the Other, from which follows the suppression of meaning, and rejection and complete silence with respect to the later Lacan’s many remarks about poetics.

What does this position rest on as its foundation? On the one hand, a complex, detailed, but ultimately highly dubious reading of Lacan’s later writings and seminars, when Lacan himself was at his most ambivalent with respect to psychoanalysis. On the other hand, its justification derives from an absolutely wild sociology which makes sweeping, false claims about entire nations and epochs, and which is about as rigorous as your drunken aunt/uncle’s Facebook posts.[1]

One of the most common justifications for Miller’s approach is that it emphasises singularity, the ‘one at a time’ approach that distinguishes Lacanian psychoanalysis from cognate disciplines. The isolation of the S1, the master signifier, is the isolation of that which is unique of a subject. But, hypothetically – and not just hypothetically – it is entirely possible for two different subjects to have the same S1. The arguments from singularity would then be rendered moot, unless one were to re-situate the respective master signifiers relative to their subjects’ histories (i.e. the totality, open and incomplete as it may be, of signifiers in their treasury). Which is to say that singularity itself would need to be buttressed by meaning, the Other, the social setting, and all of the things that Miller wants to relegate to the status of mere semblant.

The move that Miller made in the late 1990s, taking the schizophrenic subject as his point of departure, was a very interesting and valuable one, the more so since a large portion of psychoanalysis privileges the neurotic over the psychotic position in theory. One could view Miller’s move as a necessary corrective. Unfortunately, however, Miller’s valorisation of the schizophrenic subject is because this latter is supposedly the one who rejects all social bonds as mere illusions. The schizophrenic is the ultimate ‘One-all-Alone’, the paragon of the Millerian paradigm. It is true that one can find some schizophrenics like this, but it is also true that one can find others. If we are to move beyond a cheap and easy postmodernism, we need to do better on this point. Social bonds, and the discourses that encase them, have indeed eroded in the neoliberal era, but they have not disappeared altogether. At the level of political resistance specifically, they have become fragmented and weak, and trade unions and communist movements within the imperial core are not particularly known for their efficacy. Nonetheless, capitalism continues to produce its own resistances, even when ‘official’ resistance is largely impotent, but it takes on a fragmented, and atomised character. Miller theorises largely via his own imaginary, so in interviews, he argues that Lacan would have recanted his critique of capitalism via the formulation of the capitalist discourse. Perhaps. But in some other imaginary, Lacan might also have been inclined to read contemporary clinical symptoms as responses to the supposed ubiquity and supremacy of capital.

In any case, the supposed solitude of the contemporary subject, which for Miller and his followers, is not merely limited to political matters, but is all-encompassing, raises more general questions about the ontology of aloneness. For Heidegger, alienation and loneliness were specific modes of relation to the Other, not proof that the Other didn’t exist. Miller, in his contemporary writings, rejects dialectics, but if he didn’t he might be able to make the case that the refusal of the Other can have a defensive, symptomatic character. It can indicate an obsessional defence against the anguishing over-proximity of the Other, for instance, or, more profoundly, conceal a difficulty in separating from this Other. The dialectical correlate of Miller’s ‘autistic jouissance’ is a lack of separation from the Other. The one who is isolated, ‘all-alone’, is at least sometimes the One who has too much of the Other to contend with, who requires separation. This is a neurotocentric view, admittedly, but the refusal of dialectics produces dogma.

I am also reminded here of a recent text by the academic Jason Read on ‘transindividuality’, in which the individual/society opposition is dialecticised and collapsed. Psychoanalytically and dialectically, the most ‘individual’ subject is the one who is also the most ‘social’, the one who has passed, via the Other, to a position of separation. The Millerian alternative to this process cannot properly be called ‘individualistic’ so much as that of an isolated herd subject, whose (supposedly) all-important singularity is reminiscent of that of the barcode.

I’ll give a literary example here, namely that of Giacomo Leopardi, the great poet of loneliness (at least from a 19th Century Italian perspective). In his views on pleasure and suffering, he is proto-Freudian. Many of his poems are worthy of discussion, but I am thinking of his ’Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia’. It concerns a shepherd – Kirghiz, I believe, who, in his loneliness, addresses the moon, asking questions that will never be answered, positing nature as a source of cosmic indifference. (Parenthetically, if Leopardi felt this way about his century, God knows what he would have felt about ours).

A Millerian reading of the poem could be clearly enivsiaged. The shepherd needs to construct an Other as defence. Like paranoiacs on Twitter who, feeling persecuted, delete their accounts, only to re-open them shortly after in search of an Other, our Kirghiz shepherd needs someone to talk to. Yet even here, there is always a third. Someone – the poet does not specify who – may benefit from his wanderings, his sufferings. If we read this via Millerian cynicism, then this too may be a defence, but I do not believe that this accounts for everything. The first-person voice that is expressed in this verse is not that of an imbecile. He knows perfectly well that the moon is not an ordinary interlocutor. He knows that his questions are not dissimilar to those emerging from the silence of the analytic session, or from the ex nihilo of the blank page. Miller’s thesis is that sublimation is the subject sweating for the Other’s enjoyment, but with this particular subject, we need not subscribe to this particularly paranoiac zero-sum game. The subject who sublimates also sublimates for himself, the more so when that is all that is left to him. All this is only possible because the Lacanian Real is not some entity that pre-dates, and is incidental to the symbolic order, but because this Real, and the jouissance to be found within it, emerges in the context of a symbolic and imaginary order, and the Other who delivers these orders is constitutive of subjectivity, irrespective of Miller’s herd-liberal individualism. Perhaps all of this boils down to age and social position, since no shepherds, no matter how cosmic or poetical, could ever afford Miller’s fees.

It is not Kyrgyzstan, admittedly, but the loneliness of vast Central Asia and its endless steppe is pre-conditioned on the basis of what one expects from the Other.

Likewise, a chance encounter in my case through a Napoli grotto led to me finding the resting place of two poets, Leopardi and Virgil.


One doesn’t need to idealise poetry to see it has little place in the world of the One-all-Alone, but that it also stands as a non-utopian repudiation of that world. But some woul rather Pass than parse.

[1] I have a paper looking at this in more detail to be published in the coming months.

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