The Base-Superstructure Homology in Psychoanalysis

The following was excerpted from a response to a case presentation with the Lacan Circle of Australia, on 11th March, 2023:

In general terms, we can hear that the case discussed today has been presented (and treated) via the paradigm of Millerian psychoanalysis. At the risk of oversimplification, I would say that Miller’s fundamental teaching from the period of the late 1990s onward has been to minimise the place of the Other. From this, a number of things follow. For instance, if you’re seeking to minimise the place of the Other, then it stands to reason that a symptom will be approached principally as a mode of jouissance and not as something with a hidden meaning, addressed to the Other, waiting to be deciphered by an analyst. And, whatever one thinks of this position, it remains absolutely true that one can find subjects in the clinic who are attached to their own modes of jouissance, and for whom no interpretation is likely to make any difference. There are exceptions, of course, especially when disavowal or self-deception is involved in a mode of jouissance. A subject gets feedback that they are engaged in something destructive – it needn’t come from an analyst – the Other tells them that they are hurt, they receive an adverse blood test result maybe – and this can sometimes dislodge a mode of jouissance. But all of this is extremely haphazard, and one can see the limits of a meaning-based interpretive approach to analysis.

Lacan makes what he calls a homology between his concept of surplus-jouissance and Marx’s surplus value. If we follow this homology, we could say that the production of the surplus – jouissance or value – is what Marxists call the base. What is called the superstructure – ideology and ideological state apparatuses in Marxism, and fantasy in psychoanalysis – can be understood as a support for the former. Sometimes, the support-like nature of fantasy is extremely obvious. The addict who attends a 12-step program will tell the story of their relapse, and give the immediate reasons for it, but of course, the reasons are never the reasons, the reasons are merely a fantasmatic support that could conceivably be modified without necessarily changing the jouissance at stake. What is true for some, however, isn’t true for all, and there’s nothing in Freud, Lacan, Miller or Marx for that matter that suggests that one must treat base and superstructure as radically distinct, hierarchical, and in a relation of non-rapport. If a Marxist truly thought that any intervention in politics at the level of the superstructure was an anti-materialist waste of time, they would have just theorised themselves out of the revolution, and the same would apply to any analysis that considered a subject’s unconscious position in fantasy to be mere fluff belonging to the transferential unconscious, and that is somehow always opposed to the ‘real’ unconscious which is the proper object of analysis.

This is a tricky point, and again, at the risk of oversimplification, we could follow Jean-Claude Milner’s periodisation of Lacan’s teaching into two distinct, paradigmatic phases. The first is that of the logic of the signifier, in which the signifier and jouissance stand in inverse relation. The more there is of the one, the less there is of the other, and thus the signifier, via interpretation, is a treatment of jouissance. The second paradigm belongs to the late period of Lacan, in which lalangue has primacy over the signifier, and knots language to jouissance. Given that this knotting functions as a point of fixation, traditional interpretation cannot dislodge the jouissance as there is no place for it to be dislodged to. We have then a question about what analytic work looks like under this paradigm, beyond the function of the analyst being a supportive listener and naming things. Whilst the two paradigms do not harmonise, neither are they mutually exclusive, in my opinion, at least.

With this in mind, I think we need to treat Miller’s cautionary remarks against analysts endlessly producing meaning effects with some important caveats. Steering away from meaning effects is a very different analytic strategy in the case of somebody who has been in analysis for years and is complaining about the same thing for the 500th time,for example, than, say, an analysand who is relatively new to analysis and presenting with acute difficulties. Lalangue does not eliminate the Other-facing dimension of the symptom. Look at Daniel Roy’s paper, for instance, on the ‘Note on the Child’, in which he says pretty much what we’d expect every analyst to say: namely, that the child’s symptom needs to be situated in the broader context of the family symptom. It cannot be approached except with at least some reference to the Other. If a child analyst were to claim that a child’s symptoms were weirdly Otherless, devoid of meaning, and that the aim of analysis is simply to point out the senseless opacity of them, I would encourage the family to seek re-referral.

Roy, D. ‘The child and his objects’. Psychoanalytical Notebooks, 28. 


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