The Lacanian Clinic

Adam Rosen-Carole

The author establishes what, for Lacan, makes analysis truly analysis, by connecting Lacan’s notions of pathology and therapeutic advance to Lacanian clinical technique. Specific attention is devoted to the clinical implications of the normative ideal governing Lacan’s work: the liberation of desire.

Keywords: Lacan – Clinical Practice – Freud – Desire - Short session, Scansion

Lacanian analysis aims at the revitalization and enhanced symbolic aptitude of analysands who are considered constrained by the mirage of autonomous identity (aided and abetted by ego psychology) and hemmed in by the imaginary contours of interpersonal relations (analyzed and supported by object relations theory). Against such illusory shackles, Lacanian analysis seeks the abdication of fantasies of self-mastery and of harmonious and fully satisfying relations with others, and therewith, the release of the analysand’s desire. Lacan seeks the disintegration and dissemination of the analysand as s/he discovers ever-more profound connections with the transindividual unconscious, that is, with the unconscious as intimate and anonymous, labile and rule-governed (as language is). And he seeks to induce the analysand to take responsibility for, to subjectivize or symbolize, that which fundamentally precedes and exceeds her.

Lacan’s clinical sights are set on returning analysands’ unintended and indelibly enigmatic meanings to them, not primarily to assist in achieving a greater understanding of the meanings returned (though that too), but rather to sediment the experience of one’s speech and deeds as laden with polysemic valences, knotted with associations, and energized by investments that forever evade conscious discernment, let alone subjective appropriation. The aim is to insist into the fore the experience of the subject as irrevocably divided, surprising and strange, organized by unexpected nodal points the significance and force of which will always remain in excess of cognitive, narcissistic mastery. The aim is to promote accommodation to a notion of the subject as decentered, rent by drives, perturbed by the Real, and structured by fantasies that elude full and final discernment or subjective appropriation. Anticipating Foucault, Lacan insists that the subject become a problem to herself. And like Foucault, he conceives this as an impetus to practices of self-formation (what Foucault calls “care of self”) through which freedom and creativity are realized to the greatest possible extent. But what we must not fail to note is that, perhaps for Foucault, and certainly for Lacan, subjectivity is intrinsically inimical to stabilization in univocal identity and is invested by forces that forever elude intentional mastery, thus practices of self-formation must be thought as ongoing and incomplete, yielding self-formations that are always more and less than what was intended.

To the extent that Freudian analysis promotes integration and self-mastery, Lacanian analysis promotes subjective dispersion and abdication of mastery, letting-be as a manner of individuation. To the extent that Freud promotes accommodation to what prevails but is unavowed and unnegotiated, Lacan promotes openness to the unanticipated, the new, openness to the futurities toward which desire bears us and which gain in expanse as our central identifications, fundamental fantasies, and privileged forms of object attachment are unsettled. In Lacanian parlance, the aim is the hystericization of desire.

Thus the Lacanian clinic looks much different than the Freudian clinic. Freud was convinced that the unconscious is the storehouse of objectively present memory-traces and wishes striving for fulfillment but blocked by conflicts with other wishes, commitments to various self-images and the satisfactions they accrue (secondary gain), or anticipations of undesirable consequences.1 Because unavowable wishes have become symptoms, the aim of analysis is avowal, the reversal of repression. To this end, analysis seeks to suspend the client’s moral framework sufficiently for repressed contents to manifest themselves in transference, whence the client can be confronted with them time and again via interpretation, gain some clarity about her motives for defense, and thereby, hopefully, establish a firm conviction in the reality of the wishes she had been repressing and thereby render repression inoperative to some extent.2 The uncanny is revealed as the familiar; what once seemed foreign is found to be at the heart of the self, re-appropriated.

In contrast, Lacan constructs his clinic not so much to expand awareness of repressed content, and surely not to promote its integration into the projects of a professedly autonomous subject, but rather to counteract those tendencies that limit or dampen desire and countervail against the perpetual dislocations of subjectivity effected by desire.

Keeping this in mind, we can clearly see why even when they engage in similar clinical practices, Lacan and Freud are quite far apart. For instance, Lacan, like Freud, seeks to reconnect thoughts and feelings in transference with their sources (persons, situations, relationships, deeply impacting phrases or images from the past, etc.). But in Lacan’s case, this is not in order to reverse repression and thereby disencumber the pleasure principle. As an astute reader of Freud, Lacan recognizes that the pleasure principle promotes de-differentiation, tension discharge, equilibrium. And since, for Lacan, analysis should foster a life lived on the crisp edge of desire, suffused with the tension of becoming, carried forth by the force of the negative, and outside the fantasy of wholeness or equilibrium, the point of reconnecting thoughts and feelings in transference with their historical sources cannot be to reverse repression and thereby facilitate the smooth operation of the pleasure principle. For him, the gesture of reconnecting thought and feeling in transference with their sources is part of a larger project of traversing the fantasy of fulfilling the desire of the Other (i.e., a primary caregiver or subsequent representatives of authority) in order to liberate desire from such constrains. What is eventually revealed by this type of transference interpretation is that the analysand cares so much about the desire of the Other that she has organized her life in accordance with her fantasies about it (what it is, what it would take to satisfy it, specifically what one must do in order to satisfy it, etc.) and thereby inhibited her own most possibilities of desire, of becoming.

What, then, on Lacan’s account, is an analyst to do? Analysis, if it is truly analysis, involves the following dimensions.

(1) Diagnosis. Certain diagnostic questions are posed to rule out perversion and psychosis. If these structures are found, a different sort of treatment will be offered than the one outlined here.3

(2) Refusal of the demand. Lacan suggests that we tend to enter analysis when our symptoms have reached a crisis point, when they no longer yield an acceptable level of satisfaction. By entering analysis, a client demands, whether or not consciously (usually not), that the analyst restore a workable level of satisfaction, i.e., that s/he correct the client’s malfunctioning pleasure principle. Lacan will offer no such band-aid. Unlike Freud, he does not want the analyst to serve the pleasure principle if this means supporting a fantasy of and efforts to return to equilibrium or homeostasis. Stasis, equilibrium, wholeness, composure, integrity, and harmonious balance are, for Lacan, ultimately unrealizable and self-destructive lures (i.e., features of the Imaginary that are, or bear significantly on, the sources of our suffering), the pursuit of which detracts from the ultimate aims of analysis, namely, (1) affirmation of and accommodation to the truth of subjectivity, that is, to the truth of lack, dissemination, the flux of in(de)finite becoming, and (2) subjectivization, that is, taking responsibility for and making an effort to symbolize the Real,4 which, to the extent that it remains un-symbolized (and it can never be fully symbolized), operates as a impediment or fixation point that limits the liberation of the analysand’s desire and so her potential for becoming otherwise. The analyst must be a paragon of the negative, s/he must refuse the demand to return the client to the normalized, pleasurable-enough psychic status quo that presumably once obtained.

(3) Insistence on the fundamental rule. The implicit promise assumed to govern the analytic contract, namely, that through the analyst’s expertise and care the client’s life will return to the status quo ante, is broken. It is broken by the analyst’s refusal, especially in early stages of the analysis, to affirm or reject the analysand’s self-interpretations, by the short session, and by the analyst’s obscure and enigmatic speech and deeds. For instance, the analyst will sometimes refrain from commenting on the meaning of a particular dream in order to undermine, or at least bring to awareness, the assumption that the analyst Knows, especially when the dream seems to have been produced, or at least recalled, for the sake of the analyst’s interpretive elucidation. The demand is continually refused, the promise broken, but the frustration bound to ensue cannot be endured. The pleasure principle must receive its due; it will not tolerate systematic neglect. And besides, if hope that the analyst will provide a cure is sapped, it is unlikely that the client will proceed with the analysis much longer. The analyst consequently offers a substitute satisfaction: her interest in the analysand’s continuing the course of treatment. Via a blanket interest in the analysand following the fundamental rule of free association, the analyst expresses a desire for the analysis to continue, and since the analysand is presumably yearning to satisfy the analyst’s desire, she readily conforms to, and if the analysis is successful, eventually internalizes, this desire (the point of Lacanian analysis is to render analysis interminable).5 Interest in one’s own analysis develops through or is significantly enhanced by mimesis of the analyst’s interest expressed through insistences that the analysand follow the fundamental rule (and of course through interpretations and interventions). The satisfactions of sustained self-inquiry and “self”-awareness (awareness of one’s self in its emphatic and unmasterable strangeness, its continual outstripping of narrative coherence) substitute for those to which the client expected to return upon the removal of her symptoms. The analyst’s desire is here conceived as the motor force of analysis, as its catalyst or “cause.”6 In Lacanese, the goal is to supplant the relation to demand by the relation to objet a.

(4) Inducing the transference neurosis. Relatively vague anxieties, diffuse difficulties, a broad sense of disconsolation or depression, etc. are channeled through transference and transformed into the isolable symptoms of a transference neurosis.7 Analysis of the transference neurosis aims to reveal, and eventually unsettle, the client’s fundamental fantasy, her basic frame of self- and world-interpretation, insofar as this constrains her desire and conditions her suffering. The assumption is that the analysand is anxiously fleeing the freedom of subjectivity, seeking to evade the complex and ongoing negotiation with the in(de)finite mobility of her own and others’ desirousness. She has become ensnared in a sacrificial fantasy wherein, if only she could correctly read and satisfy the concrete desires of the Other, the Other would be whole again, omniscient and omnipotent, and thus able to satisfy the analysand completely. The analysand has become a supplicant and has achieved a great deal of satisfaction thereby, indeed this has provided the analysand with, minimally, the comforts of a stable world-orientation, but at the cost of the eclipse of the in(de)finite desirousness of both self and other, a negligence of the incessant mobility of desire in both self and other, and so a neglect of the potential for self-realization and relation that proceed on this basis. Because the fundamental fantasy falsifies desire, makes it seem contingent and ultimately eliminable, the strategies of appeasement that follow from it abrade against the truth of subjectivity, and so are not only limited and limiting, they are bound to run awry. But no matter how many failures the analysand runs up against, the basic framework, the fantasy of Symbiotic Satisfaction, remains in place. Failures become a reason to try harder to satisfy the Other, but no matter how conscientious the analysand may be in such endeavors, her efforts are unavailing. The work of analysis, then, is to interrogate and eventually unsettle this fantasy, and transference neurosis facilitates this by providing a forum in which the concretized demands of the Other are projected onto the analyst, becoming subject to mutual exploration.

Since the aim of inducing a transference neurosis is to allow for the sacrifice of sacrifice, that is, the sacrifice of the sacrificial deference to the desire of the Other, the questions that guide the analysis of transference and resistance are the following: What is the analysand’s relationship to the desire of the Other? What does the analysand believe the Other wants? What desires of the Other is the analysand continually trying to satisfy, transgress, or provoke? How have perceptions of and fantasies about the desire of the Other come to organize the analysand’s fundamental fantasy, character structure, symptoms, etc.? Broadly, the aim of interpretation – a practice that for Lacan is composed more of pointed questions and emphases (especially at earlier stages of the analysis) than, as in Freud, disclosing and commenting on the genetic precursors of current symptoms, inhibitions, and anxieties – in this context is fourfold: (1) to strengthen the analytic bond: the attribution of meaning to material that was experienced as meaningless (dreams, parapraxes, word choice, symptoms, etc.) compels the client’s interest, even if, in other moments of the analysis, the analyst insists on the irreducible opacity or even nonsense of the material; (2) to facilitate transference: even if the analyst’s interpretations foreground the enigmatic significance of the material rather than decode its “true meaning,” interpretation, especially in the context of a transference neurosis, positions the analyst as the one who Knows, akin to the omniscient and omnipotent figure from whom one solicits satisfaction, thus making the analyst a viable subject for transference projection; (3) to promote symbolization: interpretation of transference does not aim to reveal transference as resistance to memory, as with Freud, but to encourage the analysand’s symbolization of the material projected in order to set into motion the dialectic of self-creation and discovery that is crucial for the liberation of his or her desire; and (4) to facilitate separation-individuation: the analysand’s relationship to the desire of the Other manifest in the transference neurosis is slowly unsettled through techniques we will discuss in a moment, and thereby her desire is released from its strictures into the free play of creative self-affirmation.

(5) Dialecticization of desire. Once the client is sufficiently invested in her analysis and a transference neurosis has settled in, the analysis can proceed to the dialecticization of desire. The goal here is twofold: (1) to shake up and revivify the client’s desire, i.e., to release it from fixation in fantasy, object attachment, and self-image, and (2) to disintricate desire from entrenched patterns of interpretation. Broadly, at stake here is the de-rigidification of the fundamental fantasy. More concretely, the ambition is to loosen attachments to certain (broadly speaking, sexual) opinions and fantasies, interrupt pathological opinions, and undermine the central identifications that constitute the ego, regulate desire, and function as impediments to free association, symbolization, and creative self-affirmation or relationality.

The client has come to experience her life as a set of problems for which she does not have the solution (e.g., what can I do for the Other?), but the presumption that there are solutions that would yield full and final satisfaction contributes to a neurotic fantasy with in the grip of which the client finds herself forever wanting, and suffering in consequence. This gets to the heart of Lacan’s theory of “pathology.” Because she measures herself against an impossible ideal, the analysand devalues the in(de)finite striving constitutive of her desire, the partial satisfactions onto which it opens, and prospects for relations to others as, likewise, in(de)finite surgings of desire. As much as the client’s symptoms suggest that she is deeply committed to projects, ideals, and relationships that she cannot fully avow, she is a closet nihilist. This presumption of final satisfaction, Lacan suggests, inhibits the client from experiencing herself and others as subjects of the unconscious – in(de)finite surgings of desire, perpetual openings onto unsure horizons – thus it forestalls the complex task of affirming and accommodating one’s truth, of learning to live outside the parameters of mastery. The goal, then, is to dismantle this problem-solution framework and the fantasies and patterns of interpretation with which it is associated. The client is overly integrated, her desire must be granted more free reign.

To this end, again, the analyst seeks to broker an exchange: the client’s residual demands for specific improvements (e.g., the removal of symptoms) are exchanged for the pleasure-pain (jouissance) of revitalized desire, i.e., an expanded capacity to be born by desire, fractured by futurity, on the cusp of horizons and relations that are but faintly beckoning. A fantasy of reconsolidating return is exchanged for the eventful exposure to the new. Sidestepping or refusing demands may allow desire to surge forth, but as the transference neurosis reveals, desire thus liberated is largely channeled and constrained in advance by the fundamental fantasy. The goal is thus the cultivation of a new subjective position, namely, the experience of oneself and others as, essentially, singularly in(de)finite pulsations of desire, ever enigmatic and radically incomplete. Analysis fosters a generalized and sustained sense of wonder: the “ability” to live-in-question. Here, simply insisting on the fundamental rule will be of limited efficacy. The risk of free association alone (a risk enhanced by interpretation) is that the client will believe that her associations are determined by unconscious principles, which they unfold according to a code to which the analyst holds the key. This too quickly sparks seduction and defensive idealization of the analyst as the one who Knows: the expert, the cure-all. Though the maintenance of the transference neurosis requires positioning the analyst as the sujet supposé savoir, and though the belief in unconscious determinism may be in some respects well warranted, against Freud’s focus on repressed content, Lacan emphasizes the intransigently inscrutable dimensions of the unconscious, those that are at least partially other to the order of meaning. It is not simply repressed wishes that fester in the unconscious, but signifiers that bear no definite relation to signifieds.8 Thus what is required is a specific analytic pedagogy, a habituation to the in(de)finite life of desire, the nonsensical dimensions of subjectivity, and so to the in(de)finite possibilities of and insuperable limits to interpretation of both self and other. This accounts for much of what many find so unnerving about the Lacanian clinic.

Before we proceed to the next dimension, articulating a few details of this pedagogy will show in more fine relief what, for Lacan, makes analysis truly analysis. The analyst habituates the analysand to the inevitability of non-reciprocity and misrecognition because the desire for and presumption of reciprocity and recognition are bound up with fantasies of harmony and completeness that must be divested if desire, creative self-exploration, and symbolization/subjectification (which, in a way, all name the same) are to flourish and make possible new forms of relationality. To this end, the analyst occasionally makes it clear that her attention is directed elsewhere, or expresses boredom or even exasperation, or expresses interest in and directs the analysand to topics, words, phrases, etc. that seem altogether irrelevant to the material at the forefront of the session. Or the analyst may act as if she fails to comprehend what the analysand expects she has full well understood – perhaps could not but. Or she refuses to interpret where interpretation is expected or solicited, or in some other way surprises the analysand. What is suggested thereby is that communication and mutual recognition are impossible ideals, as impossible as the unencumbered, perfect pleasure the analysand unconsciously expects them to yield, and that these ideals and the practices to which they give rise should be, at least, critically investigated rather than unreflectively assumed. The enigmas of the analyst provoke a questioning attitude.

More precisely, what is made clear is that the analyst’s desire cannot be decoded, and because it remains intractably illegible, cannot be satisfied. The analyst attempts to break the cycle of demand-compliance/transgression (the Oedipal configuration) by always being elsewhere, always wanting something else, always seeing matters otherwise. The analyst figures into the fore the obdurate opacity of the Other. The goal is to disrupt and subject to interrogation the client’s propensity to act on the basis of perceived demands to the point where the analysand will be able to notice herself constructing/concretizing these demands and thus may ask after her reasons for doing so and what the value of not doing so may be. What compelling futures might life outside the prevailing fundamental fantasy hold out? Why is it that one makes oneself unavailable to possibilities of self-realization and relation that are ever abounding, if only in fledgling form? Once the transference neurosis is established, “[t]he analyst is considered to want from . . . [the client] the same thing the parents wanted, whether that was blood, solace, pity or whatever. The analysand’s notion of what the Other wants is projected and re-projected, but the analyst continually shatters it or shakes it up by not being where the analysand expects him or her to be” (Fink 1999, p. 57). Thus misunderstanding is not the sadistic, perverse mantra that some accuse Lacan of promoting. If this tactic is successful, the client comes to sense the impossibility of satisfying the Other (in this case, the analyst), and so may begin to see that it is not the analyst’s desire that is at stake, nor anyone else’s – it is her own. At stake is the vivification of the client’s desire and the liberation of her capacities for in(de)finite self-exploration, for self-exploration – though a relational dialectic of self-creation and discovery – as an in(de)finite subject of desire.

What must be made inescapably clear is precisely what we are highly motivated to forget: that misrecognition of the other and of oneself is not contingent because both are subjects of the unconscious. Learning to live with, at most, partial intelligibility and the inevitably of misreading is, for Lacan, integral to accommodating the truth of subjectivity as in(de)finite lack, as always elsewhere and otherwise. By refusing to conform to the protocols of intersubjective communication, by being somewhat aloof and “on a different page,” the analyst induces the sense that what both she and the analysand says or does signifies in ways that cannot be fully comprehended, let alone controlled.

Of great import, then, is the success of the analyst in attuning the analysand to her unintended meanings and eventually to the indeterminacy, the spontaneity and surprise, of signification as such. For thereby, the analyst establishes the utter impossibility of uncompromised self-awareness and self-mastery, and implicitly, the impossibility of fully knowing and controlling the Other. This is accomplished, for instance, through drawing attention to the complex blends of determinacy and indeterminacy, meaning and nonsense, manifest in dreams, fantasies, garbled speech, hesitations, word choices, idiomatic quirks, obscure and fleeting impressions and thoughts, out of context affect or thought, slips, and parapraxes. Of paramount value will be anything that surprises the analysand. The material upon which Lacan focuses is thus somewhat different than that to which Freud is drawn. As much as Freud looks for hidden consistencies and patterns, Lacan focuses on surprises and seeks points of obdurate obscurity – intermixtures of meaning and non-meaning. The point is to induce a lasting sense of oneself and others as subjects of the unconscious, forever foreign to ourselves and to each other, not to reveal the unfamiliar as the familiar. Or through a particular practice of interpretation called “scansion,” the analyst emphasizes something surprising or puzzling that was quickly glossed over by or was insufficiently troubling to the analysand. As the analysand considers this material and is unable to discover a coherent and unified narrative or conceptual-deductive sequence through which its meaning is given – guided by the Lacanian analyst, s/he confronts more and more resonances of the material, never its absolute meaning – she learns to live with her insuperable opacity, with the simultaneity of sense and nonsense, coherence and diffusion.9

Though the analyst may at times interpret in the classical Freudian sense, this will be counterbalanced by various insistences on the nonsensical, the insistently indeterminate and/or overdetermined, on those elements that are only partly available to or altogether elude intelligibility. At their best, interpretations provide words for which the analysand is searching in order to make sense of her difficulties and experiences while conveying the obstinate obscurity of the material encountered. This is a tenuous balancing act to be sure. However, because, Lacan assumes, the analysand is a glutton for meaning, for clear and coherent narratives and the identities they underwrite, these sorts of interpretations are to be made infrequently, especially in earlier stages of the analysis. Out of a recognition of these limits, and because scansion and other such techniques are sometimes insufficient to break the analysand from her fantasy of fully satisfying mutual recognition, the Lacanian clinic has recourse to the short session and oracular interpretation.10 The analyst may “punctuate” the session by stopping it short. Like scansion, this punctuation is designed to indicate that something has emerged that warrants consideration and has been all too quickly passed over by the analysand. By ending the session on that note, with that turn of phrase, or in the midst of what seemed well-worn ground, the analyst seeks to give her client something to ponder, something with which to become preoccupied. Bruce Fink puts the point in the following terms:

When the analyst suddenly ends a session, he or she may accentuate surprise the analysand has just been expressing, or introduce the element of surprise through scansion, leaving the analysand wondering what it was the analyst heard that he or she had not heard, wondering what unconscious thought had been manifesting itself. This element of surprise is important in ensuring that analysis does not become routine, such that, for example, the analysand goes in every day, recounts his or her dreams and fantasies forty-five or fifty minutes, and goes home, nothing being shaken up, nothing bothering or preoccupying him or her all day and night. Lacanian analysis seeks to keep the analysand off guard and off balance, so that any manifestation of the unconscious can have its full import. (1999, p. 18)

Shaking things up this way, the analyst forestalls the defense against analysis that routinization can be – a defense ever so difficult to disrupt once it gets going because, to a certain extent, it looks exactly like a well functioning analysis.11 Though it seems that the analysand is engaged to the utmost in introspective association and is working through difficult material throughout the session, each instance of unconcealment effectively insulates and conceals important material that emerges, if at all, only at the very end of the session. Ideally, the short session will not allow the unconscious to wait until the last moments of the session to open up because the session can end at any minute.

The short session is also important, especially when it seems arbitrary, in countervailing against the idealization of the analyst as the one who Knows and thus can cure. As much as interpreting or directing the analysand to topics the analyst is interested in positions the analyst as the sujet supposé savoir, the short session may contribute to undermining this positioning. Of course, calling a precipitous end to the session may accentuate the analyst’s seductively authoritative mystique; it may effectively cloak the analyst in the garb of the clairvoyant who acts on the basis of mystical inspiration inscrutable to us lay folk. But the short session may also intimate – depending upon how subsequent sessions are conducted – that the analyst knows no more, or at least little more, than that something significant has been said or done that warrants further consideration. Or it may show that even if the analyst does have a sense of what this material means, this is not all that is important. Equally if not more important is that the analysand continues to pursue the dialectic of self-creation and discovery promoted by analysis and therewith, the liberation of desire.

Also, by cutting the session short, the analyst may be able – via negativa – to expose the analysand’s expectations about what analysis should be and thus to foreground the conventionality of analysis. This too leads to a denaturalization of the analyst’s authority and contributes to Lacan’s goal of promoting reflection on whatever seems natural or given as a historical product subject to transformation. What is made clear by obliquely exhibiting the conventionality of analysis – and such exhibition must be oblique if the analysand is not to become caught up in distracting and perhaps defensively intellectualizing considerations of the particular style of her analysis – is that analysis can proceed in many ways, none of which are assured to cure, and all of which are subject to critical scrutiny. What is made clear, hopefully, is that analysis is utterly conventional, historical and power laden, a product of all too human efforts to help one another, and so liable to err or even produce iatrogenic side-effects. In this way, a soft suspicion of analysis and of one’s analyst can build. If the analysand understands the activity in which s/he is engaged not as a tested and true methodology that requires but proficient execution to cure, but rather as a complex set of practices inhabited and transformed by each analyst, perhaps even by each analytic pair, and that may bring some relief from suffering, then s/he may be less inclined to idealize the analyst.

(6) Interpretation. Lacanian interpretations temper clarification via emphasis on the multiple meanings and ambiguous qualities of the material interpreted. They tend to highlight the polyvalent and enigmatic dimensions of the analysand’s speech and deeds, openly exhibiting these qualities through an oracular style, in order to arouse curiosity, incite associations, and habituate the analysand to the irreducible opacity of self and other, the abrasiveness of the human to all strategies of mastery. Through oracular interpretation, the analyst figures forth the equivocity and enigma of the unconscious, seeking to habituate the analysand to living with equivocity and enigma in their irreducibility: at certain moments of the therapy, the analyst disappears as a concrete individual, not in the sense of fusing with the transference projection, but in the sense of becoming “a more abstract other, the other that seems to speak inadvertently, in the slips and cracks in the analysand’s discourse. In a word, he or she must stand in for . . . the Other [the unconscious] . . . that which the analysand considers to be radically foreign, strange, ‘not me’” (Fink 1999, p. 31-2). This manner of interpretation does not design to dictate the truth of the analysand’s repressed wishes to her, for such clear communication of content, on Lacan’s view, tends to generate either agreement or revolt (the Oedipal configuration mentioned above), both of which (1) might be considered resistances, for instance, resistances to one’s budding freedom, one’s increasing independence from the desire of the Other as the fundamental reference point of one’s world-orientation, and (2) prop up the belief in stable and univocal meaning, associated with the standpoint of the ego, that the analysis otherwise attempts to undermine.12 Rather, this manner of interpretation aims to resonate with the unconscious, to speak to multiple sectors of material, and thus to incite new material, new connections between topics already considered, new associations, or new projections, all of which facilitate the ongoing self-exploration of the analysand, who, by symbolizing heretofore un-symbolized material or symbolizing old material anew (in Lacanese, this is called metaphorization or subjectivization), engages in a practice of simultaneous self-discovery and self-creation. To this end, as noted, Lacanian interpretation tends to be oracular – condensed and enigmatic, suggestive but obscure, something over which to puzzle, a provocation. For instance, an interpretation may incorporate words, sounds, or names that have been identified as important to the analysand in order to suggest connections or provoke associations and reflection, even if this means phrasing the interpretation in a way that is not, on face, illuminative, and may even involve a knowing distortion of the material under consideration.13

Confronted by oracular interpretations, it is hoped that the analysand will ask: What could that mean? Why would the analyst say that? Their perplexing quality allows these interpretations to mitigate the formidable risk that the analysand will glean a sense of how the analyst perceives her from his/her interpretations and will attempt to adjust herself to this image in order to appease the desire of the Other. Whether the analysand consciously expresses agreement or disagreement with the interpretation, she unconsciously affirms the images of herself projected through the interpretation as who she must become. This is assimilation as resistance.

And though oracular interpretations cannot but sound strange, when effective, they sound “right” at the level of the unconscious, in the sense that they hit on something significant. At best, such interpretations hit the Real; they touch that around which the analysand’s Symbolic and Imaginary life are turning, sparking symbolizations and associations that were previously foreclosed. In order to do so, however, the ego must be circumvented; otherwise, it may insist on the dismissal of the interpretation as mere gibberish or “poetry.” This is why the equivocity of the interpretation is crucial to its efficacy. Oracular interpretation is equivocal not only in the sense that it seeks to resonate in a variety of ways with multiple sectors of material and makes itself available to a number of interpretations by the analysand, but also in the sense that it allows the ego to catch the drift of one level of meaning so that another can slip by. Just like a joke – which can sometimes function as an interpretation. Oracular interpretations speak through resistances.

(7) Late stages. Toward very late stages of the analysis, interpretations may become more classical in the sense of univocal, specific, and knowing because the position of the sujet supposé savoir has been largely debunked and divested. If the analysand is not so prone to idealize the analyst or conform to the images of herself projected through the analyst’s interpretations, she can receive interpretations as suggestions to be reckoned with. In the late stages, the analytic pair, having investigated a large amount of diverse material, will search for key signifiers (“master signifiers”) out of which symptoms, relations to one’s body, and fundamental fantasies are constructed. The goal now is to allow for alternative forms of life that are less dominated by these master signifiers to emerge. Again, the aim of analysis is the liberation of desire. To be sure, attunement to surprise, forever in jeopardy of being eclipsed by commitments to the forms of life one is developing, is never surpassed as an analytic ambition. Thus in these late stages scansion is employed to highlight jouissance where it is least expected. The analysand is continually confronted with his or her disavowed jouissance and enjoined to take responsibility for it, to affirm it in his or her ongoing dialectic of (self-)creation and discovery.

In the Lacanian clinic, what we find exaggerated are (1) the urgency of and focus on liberating the fracturing insurgence of desirousness in excess of any particular configuration of desire, (2) more specifically, the imperative to cultivate an openness to the unanticipated, the new, the futurities and relational possibilities towards which our desire may yet bear us, (3) the pathogenic status of the central identifications, fundamental fantasies, and forms of object attachment associated with fantasies of mastery, mutual recognition, and harmonious completion, and (4) the emphasis on the intransigently inscrutable and utterly enigmatic, perhaps even flatly nonsensical dimensions of the unconscious. What we find deflated are (1) the urgency of social accommodation and self-integration, (2) the curative power of content-based self-awareness, and (3) concern with reducing suffering.



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to Freud, ed. Feldstein, Fink, and Janus, Albany: SUNY Press, pp. 241-247, 1996

Lacan, J.:

- Le séminaire, Livre IV: La relation d'objet et les structures freudiennes, Paris: Seuil, 1994.

- Le séminaire, Livre X: L'angoisse, Paris: Seuil, 2004

- Le séminaire, Livre XVIII: D'un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant, unpublished

Schaetzel, J-C.:

  • “Bronzehelmet, or the Itinerary of the Psychotherapy of a Psychotic,” in How Lacan’s Ideas are

Used in Clinical Practice, ed. Schneiderman, Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, pp. 184-194, 1994

  • Clinique différentielle des psychoses, Paris: Navarin, 1988

Shürmann, R. Heidegger on Being and Acting: From Principles to Anarchy, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990


1 To be more precise, for Freud, unconscious memory-traces and wishes are mutually transformative, and further subject to transformation according to the logics and imperatives of unconscious metabolism; hence they are, in principle, objectively present but not stably present.

2 This is why Freud says in “Constructions in Analysis” that sometimes the analysand need not find the analyst’s interpretations true in her own experience and memory so long as s/he really believes them to be true.

3 For an account of the Lacanian treatment of perversion and psychosis, see Bruce Fink (1999, Chapters 7 and 9), Jacques-Alain Miller (1996) and Jean-Claude Schaetzel (1994) . Also of note is the Lacanian-Winnicottian account of psychosis by Piera Aulagnier (2001).

4 The Real is, I believe, a red herring in the literature on Lacan. Though it is surely important to Lacan’s theory (especially in the later years) and technique, it is far less so than most commentators presume. Consequently, though no account of the Lacanian clinic would be complete without some commentary on the Real, I will confine this commentary to a footnote in order to counterbalance the stress that most commentators place on it.

The Real is the dimension of the ineffable that lines the Symbolic and the Imaginary, causing them to tremble yet serving as the impetus for their perpetual reconsolidation or transfiguration. More precisely, it is not the Real per se that motivates the reconsolidation or transfiguration of the Symbolic and the Imaginary, for the Real is not an agency, rather, it is an excess that overwhelms us and in response to which we are both thrown off balance and motivated to reestablish our bearings. The encounter with the Real is the spur of the form-giving impulse: its motivation and limit, its irritant and impasse, that which gives rise to the “activation energy” of symbolization as well as the jagged rocks upon which symbolization founders. It is the “hard kernel” that cannot be metabolized by our efforts of schematization or psychic processing, yet that in response to which they are propelled yet again.

Though the Real names a general principle of material resistance or excess, speaking at this level of generality misses something crucial: the notional structure of the Real is utterly idiosyncratic; what the Real “is” is a question for each individual. This is to say, the Real is registered in each individual’s tendency to repeatedly return to certain scenes (behaviors, fantasies, word choices, forms of object relation, etc.) without knowing why and often without even realizing that one is doing so. The Real is registered in the compulsive and unreflective quality of certain things particular individuals do almost despite themselves, e.g., in those actions or activities that seem motivated (driven) by principles that forever elude understanding and often seem contrary to self-interest. The Real is the inexplicable, the limit to rational self-comprehension (Seminar IV, p. 67). In terms of subjective experience, the Real names a sense of being here, yet again . . . and yet not knowing what one has gotten oneself into. The Real cannot be decoded into determinate contents; it is not subject to analytic deciphering as repressed desires, fundamental fantasies, or even core signifiers may be. It is both under- and over-determined, as under- and over-determined as the core signifiers around which turn and out of which are organized the associational networks structuring each individual psyche. (Because of this, in Lacan’s lexicon “the Real” sometimes names certain relatively well-structured impasses – say, those turning around the unconsciously transmitted affects or jouissance of parents or previous generations – more than a principle of excess that shuts down our capacity for structured experience as such. In this sense, the Real names a relatively determinate unconscious content or pattern, but only insofar as this content or pattern articulates an impasse and remains ineffable, that is, only insofar as it exceeds our capacities to assimilate it, to make sense of it and move on.) The Real is endogenous yet inimical to the order of meaning, it is the ex-timate kernel of representation and self-representation, that which must be excluded in order for one’s images of self and world to maintain their consistency, and so that which, if confronted, generates therapeutically significant destabilizing effects.

In one sense, then, the Real names our split-ness, our inhabitation by an “other scene” that is constitutively nontransparent. But the Real is not the unconscious. It is a name for our emphatic passivity, a passivity beyond passivity, a passivity that cannot be converted into any form of self-directed activity. Such conversion precisely marks one’s distance from the Real or the subsiding of its sublime force. Though we may learn to avow various unconscious impulses, fantasies, and maybe to some extent even our desire itself, the Real cannot be so avowed. There are no ways to accommodate ourselves to it or cultivate forms of acknowledgment appropriate to it. “It” is the floodgate that must remain for the most part closed if our cognitive maps, projects, self-representations, and world-orientations are to remain stable enough for us to gain our bearings. Hence it is that which, if partially confronted, produces therapeutically important effects of dislocation and disorientation, of psycho-symbolic rupture. But again, this encounter must be limited, for fully opening onto the Real would throw us into a limbo from which there would be no foreseeable return. Full accession to the Real – allowing the full force of the Real to be felt – would overwhelm us, cause our worlds to crumble. The Real is the limit, the indigestible kernel that cannot be psychically metabolized without unraveling the psyche entirely.

The Real is the figure of inadmissibility in Lacan’s thinking. Its admission would unravel the structures of admission and exclusion by which experience is structured and in every way overwhelm the principles of selectivity through which the world comes into focus. The Real is the shadow of agency and identity. So, while various figures of abject life (psychosis, criminality, homo sacer, etc.) may serve as cultural placeholders for the Real, their very figurability bespeaks their distance from the Real. The Real is the name of the paradoxical principle (arch?) of an-archy that is held at bay in order for the ordering operations – the patterning and structuring – of experience to take hold. Admitting what were once abject forms of life into the fold may transform the structures of inclusion/exclusion around which a particular individual or community is organized in incredibly important ways (this is often a matter of life and death), but insofar as the individual or community can reorganize itself, it has not fully admitted the Real.

The Real can be figured as the upsurge of phenomenalization prior to and forever in excess schematization – it is the constitutive outside, the exception or excess that must be excluded if reality is to maintain a sense of consistency. Again, the configuration of an individual or cultural order may change significantly once it alters its practices of constitutive exclusion, but to admit that against which or those against whom individual or collective identity has been negatively defined is not to utterly shut down the very possibility of experience, which is what the full admission of the Real would entail. The Real is a principle of massive, insurmountable inconsistency, of utter ambiguity, of ravishing chaos. If one insists on framing it as a form of experience, it could be said to be akin to that of le corps morcelé, i.e., the experience of each organ or zone, barely defined in itself, striving for its own satisfaction outside the framework of corporeal integrity.

To put one final gloss on it: our sense of reality may admit of a great degree of latency, but the admission of the Real would amount to the utter breakdown of our capacities for selective perception through which latencies come into view as the possible horizons of our life courses. In the face of the Real, one can no longer say “I.” And this is why it is so important in the Lacanian clinic. The Real names the radically impossible – that which cannot be extrapolated as the potential fate of the self or world we have come to know. The Real is both “too much” and “not enough”: it is the elemental upsurge of life irreducible to its anthropocentric registration; it is that which cannot be contained within the bounds of possible experience. A dangerous yet fecund resource.

5 Though it is inevitable that more will be read into the insistence that the client follow the fundamental rule, and through more may be there, the analyst must work to thwart the analysand’s conviction that s/he has successfully decoded the analyst’s privileged image of happiness or the good life, what the analyst considers worthwhile ambitions (ends of the treatment) or a more felicitous manner of negotiating with the material with which the client is struggling. This is because the analysand’s engrossment with the question of the other’s desire is deemed to bear significantly on her suffering and self-limitation. Basically, the Lacanian clinic is organized to undermine the analysand’s fundamental fantasy that if the other’s desire could be fully known and fulfilled, an all but forgotten state of bliss would return.

6 Scare quotes are used here because this “cause” does not initiate or determine a predictable sequence of effects; quite to the contrary, for Lacan, such a “cause” is the wellspring of a certain efficacy that cannot be comprehended as an instance of a given rule or law, as the activation point for the mechanical unfolding of a possible sequence. This “cause” is not a principle. On Lacan’s account, the sciences are mistaken and insufficient to psychoanalysis insofar as they reduce causality to the starting point of a fully intelligible, mechanical sequence of law-governed effects. Rather than construe the cause as the origin of an unbroken chain held together by the force of law, Lacan thinks causality as interruption, beginning, that from which the future in its unpredictability will have arisen, or, in other words, as the activation of capacities for development that will have interrupted the facile functioning of a normalized, lawful or law-like state of affairs. “Cause” in this sense bespeaks resistance to calculability, life outside law, or in Reiner Shürmann’s terms, “life without why.” For an elaboration of Lacan’s notion of causality, see Bruce Fink’s The Lacanian Subject pp. 138-141.

7 See Seminar X; June 12, 1963.

8 For instance, signifiers such as words, phrases, or images may be inscribed early on, before one has any sense of what they might mean, and yet are felt to be profoundly, indeed overwhelmingly important, so important, in fact, that they are subject to primal repression for the sake of evading their terrifying (in)significance. Such Master Signifiers are subsequently resistant to symbolization – they manifest in deadlocks and impediments to free association – yet in their very resistance to symbolization they incite efforts of symbolization that turn around them. Thus foreclosed, Master Signifiers give meaning but are themselves without meaning, they are the kernel of the Real on which we choke (out meaning).

9 Of course, scansion, oracular speech, and other such techniques may reinforce the client’s assumption that the analyst knows the truth about her. See Joël Dor (1994, Chapters 2 and 3).

10 On Lacan’s oracular interpretation, see his “D’un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant” (Seminar XVIII, Jan 13, 1971).

11 Implicitly, Lacan suggests that Freudian, and for that matter any other version of analysis, may routinely support pathology due to its uncritical attitude toward routine.

12 Consequently, in addition to acting as a stand-in for the Other, the analyst will often position herself as ever more of a blank screen; for, if Imaginary rivalry leads to resistance to interpretation through false and placating agreement with an idealized rival or through rebellious attempts to become the true authority vis-à-vis a hated rival (you, the analyst, know nothing, I am the one who Knows), then inhabiting the position of the blank screen both facilitates projection and diminishes rivalry and thus resistance.

13 Such intentionally inaccurate interpretations, just to say the obvious, are far from viable subjects for validation according to standard scientific protocols.