On psychoanalysing organisations and using psychoanalytic language: are we entering a third epoch?

by Philip Boxer BSc MBA PhD
Yiannis Gabriel has written a paper on psychoanalysis and organisation studies.[1] He usefully distinguishes two epochs:

  • A first epoch, defined by the practice of clinicians ‘psychoanalysing organisations’ through the metaphor of an organization or group being like an individual. Systems psychodynamics are included in this epoch.[2] Socio-analysis too appears largely rooted in the first epoch although it bridges to the second epoch through the importance it gives to the social Other and its effects on inter-subjectivity.[3]
  • A second epoch, defined within university and research environments by the application of psychoanalytic understanding to the study of organisations through critical and interpretive approaches to the effects of language. The major characteristic of this epoch is the central importance given to subjectivity, to language and to the power/knowledge structures governing the way subjectivities are formed through the effects of language.[4]

In distinguishing these epochs, Yiannis raises questions concerning the way we understand the practices of science itself, given that science constrains the ways in which we may understand the subject’s relation to the unconscious. In concluding, Yiannis expresses the hope that new developments in neuroscience may provide further possibilities for understanding and points out the growing interest in Lacanian approaches.[5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10] A closer look at some of these readings of Lacan suggests how they might also be constrained in this way.

The first and second epochs sustains a criticism of each other. The second epoch lacks the underpinning of clinical experience, thus not addressing the problematics of the relation to the unconscious per se. The first epoch applies the metaphor of the sovereign/autonomous ego to the way it thinks of the enterprise, not addressing organisations themselves as a distinct kind of entity supporting the subject’s relation to the unconscious.[11] Both critiques are valid.  In taking up the challenge of these criticisms, I ask if we are entering a third epoch.

Why should we care about tackling a third epoch?
The first and second epochs address the ways in which the individual takes up a role within the life of an organization. A third epoch, however, has to be able to address the ways in which organizations can be enabled to take up a role in the lives of its citizen-clients.

Both the first and second epochs are predicated upon the prior existence of a sovereign/autonomous entity, analogous to the ego defending itself against anxiety in seeking to sustain its sovereign autonomy. The issue raised by highly-networked turbulent environments, however, is that no such sovereignty is possible, the enterprise needing to innovate continuously to sustain its dynamic alignment with the demands arising within the larger ecosystem in which it is embedded.[12] The consequences of this need for one-by-one dynamic alignment of the enterprise’s behaviors in relation to its citizen-clients are that it must define itself not in terms of its boundaries but in terms of each relationship.[13] A third epoch has to address how individuals are to sustain their identifications with such organizations that are themselves innovating continuously ‘under their feet’.

Distinguishing the (small-s) symbolic domain of language from the radically unconscious (big-S) Symbolic of Lacan
A closer examination of the papers referred to by Yiannis help us to see how they might still be sitting within the second epoch.  The common thread running through them is that they meet the criticisms of the first epoch, but, in order to do so, they rely on using the Foucauldian notions of discourse that provide the currency for critical management studies within the academic domain.  The result is a glossing of the distinction between the (small-s) symbolic domain of language and the structural notions of the subject’s relation to a radically unconscious in Freud’s and Lacan’s work, referred to in the latter’s work as the relation to the (big-S) Symbolic.

It is interesting to read a paper in which there is no need to make the distinction between (small-s) symbolic and (big-S) Symbolic in order to make its point, for example Vidaillet’s paper on envy.[10] It is nevertheless useful to add these distinctions that are implicit in the text but easily misread. For example the distinctions between an Imaginary Other versus a radically unconscious Other, or a Symbolic lack (aka absence of an anticipated presence) versus a Real lack (aka presence of an absence).  Some of the difficulties arising from the effects of these implicit distinctions are noted below.[6, 9, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18]

The small-s/big-S structural distinction is also not apparent in the paper by Driver[7] concerning “organisational identity discourse”. The paper references Lacanian discourses, but without the double subjection of being subject to social constructions of reality AND to the radically unconscious. As a consequence, the subject appears subjected only to the power/knowledge formations of a Foucauldian understanding of discourse. There is no structural notion of the Real lack (aka the lack of the big-S Symbolic Other) most apparent in the last topological phase of Lacan’s oeuvre. It is not that the issue of the nature of the Real lack is not taken up in the paper, but that it is taken up as a “lack or loss due to the existence of the Real i.e. the physical, bodily, undifferentiated primal subject prior to language”. This reading of Lacan does not address this structural notion of the Real lack.

Requirements for a third epoch
A third epoch would require that we work with a structural notion of the Real lack.  With this it becomes possible to make sense of identifications of the third kind arising in the form of an alliance to a ‘social object’ and thereby to make sense of the organisation as itself an extimate symptom of the subjects whose identifications it supports. It is these social objects that are the Imaginary form of the objet petit a, cause of Arnaud’s big-D Desire,[14] and cause, therefore, of a new way of approaching the ethics of organisation.

The challenge, then, is to find ways of making this structural thinking apparent, with its topological corollaries.[19]

[1] Gabriel, Y. (2016). Psychoanalysis and the study of organization. The Routledge Companion to Philosophy in Organization Studies. R. Mir, H. Willmott and M. Greenwood. London, Routledge: 212-225.
[2] On some of the issues facing this paradigm, see What is happening to ‘Boundaries’, ‘Authority’ and ‘Containment’?. Also, What might make translation difficult from a Lacanian to a Kleinain reading of Freud?.
[3] See for example socio-analysis. For some of the issues relating to the use of the social big Other, see Difficulties with the use of Lacan in Susan Long’s ‘The Perverse Organisation’.
[4] The European Group for Organizational Studies is one place where it is possible to see this encounter of social sciences with philosophy, discourse analysis, literary criticism and rhetoric. This approach seems most apparent in papers drawing on Lacan’s earlier work, for example in Arnaud’s The organisation and the symbolic referenced in [5].
[5] Arnaud, G. (2002). “The organisation and the symbolic: Organisational dynamics viewed from a Lacanian perspective.” Human Relations 55(6): 691-715.
[6] Arnaud, G. and S. Vanheule (2007). “The division of the subject and the organization: a Lacanian approach to subjectivity at work.” Journal of Organizational Change Management 20(3): 359-369.
The absence of the small-s/big-S distinction is apparent in this paper. The argument for fundamentally different HR practices is a good one, but the difficulties of distinguishing the (small-s) symbolic characteristics of language from the effects of a radically uncosncious (big-S) Symbolic (structured like a language is structured) create a difficulty in taking the argument further.
[7] Driver, M. (2009). “Struggling with Lack: A Lacanian Perspective on Organizational Identity.” Organization Studies 30(1): 55-72.
[8] Fay, E. (2008). “Derision and Management.” Organization 15(6): 831-850.
[9] Harding, N. (2007). “On Lacan and the ‘Becoming-ness’ of organizations/selves.” Organization Studies 28(11): 1761-1773.
The absence of a clear distinction between the different forms of ‘Other’ is apparent in this paper: between the Imaginary Other as embodied by (for example) ‘the system’, as distinct from the Real lack of the (radically unconscious) big-S Symbolic Other.
[10] Vidaillet, B. (2007). “Lacanian theory’s contribution to the study of workplace envy.” Human Relations 60(11): 1669-1700.
[11] I would say that the 1st Epoch only deals with the relation to ‘below the surface’ i.e. to the descriptively unconscious. For this distinction to the ‘wider compass’ of the unconscious per se, see: “Everything that is repressed must remain unconscious; but let us state at the very outset that the repressed does not cover everything that is unconscious. The unconscious has the wider compass: the repressed is a part of the unconscious.” Freud, S., The Unconscious, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. 1957[1915]a, Hogarth Press: London.
[12] Boxer, P. J. (2014). Defences against innovation: the conservation of vagueness. Defences Against Anxiety: Explorations in a Paradigm. D. Armstrong and M. Rustin. London, Karnac.
[13] Boxer, P. J. (2014b). “Leading Organisations Without Boundaries: ‘Quantum’ Organisation and the Work of Making Meaning.” Organizational and Social Dynamics 14(1): 130-153.
[14] Arnaud, G. (2013). “Is there desire for work?” Research in Management Economics and Finance, 2015.
The small-s/big-S distinction is not apparent in this paper, even though the issue it is addressing at the end is the subject’s relation to the Real. Thus the paper nicely positions the issue of the relation to the drive, but, in speaking of “the unconscious and structural Desire brought about by language”, it loses the small-s/big-S structural distinction necessary to an understanding of (big-D) Desire per se as arising in relation to the lack of the big-S Symbolic.
[15] Guinchard, R. (1998). “Absenteeism and phantasy.” Journal of Managerial Psychology 13(7): 485-497.
The absence of a distinction between small-s symbolic and big-S Symbolic is apparent in this paper, but the paper very usefully opens up the whole issue of the subject’s relation to phantasy supported by the structurings of the enterprise. Its argument ultimately relies, however, on the absence of this distinction when it states: “desire is an effect of language. We are but attributes ‘of desire’, of the desire that is manifested in language.”
[16] Vanheule, S. (2002). “Caring and its Impossibilities.” Organisational & Social Dynamics 2(2): 264-284.
This paper is an excellent account of the ways in which Imaginary and Symbolic identifications (identifications of the first and second kinds) lead to impossibilities in caring processes. By relying on only two kinds of identification, however, an opportunity is lost for raising the ethical challenge of addressing another kind of impossibility, namely the relation to the Real lack, apparent implicitly if not explicitly in identifications of the third kind.
[17] Vanheule, S., A. Lievrouw and P. Verhaeghe (2003). “Burnout and Intersubjectivity: A psychoanalytical study from a Lacanian perspective.” Human Relations 56(3): 321-334.
This is a very interesting paper that works with the imaginary-symbolic-real distinction, albeit in a way that is organized around the subject’s relation to a Foucauldian understanding of discourse. The difficulty with this is that no distinction is made between the social/inter-subjective small-s symbolic, and the radically unconscious relation to the big-S Symbolic. In a sense, burnout is a consequence of the alienating effects of subjection solely to the intersubjective.
[18] Van Roy, K., A. Marché-Paillé, F. Geerardyn and S. Vanheule (2016). “Reading Balint group work through Lacan’s theory of the four discourses.” Health (London): 1-8.
The absence of the small-s/big-S structural distinction presents very particular difficulties in this paper on the four discourses. These discourses use the Lacanian understanding of discourse, which addresses the double subjection of the subject. Thus while the account of the individual discourses is okay, a difficulty emerges when the paper addresses the relations between the discourses, these being described only in terms of rotations rather than in terms of the transformations these rotations reflect in the subject’s relation to the partial drives. This, in turn, makes it impossible to account for the 4 perverse forms of the discourses (capitalism, science, movement, politics) and their relation to the discourses of the hysteric, master, university, and analyst.  This makes it difficult to account for the circulation of discourses (described in Radiophonie by Lacan), and for the ways in which this circulation can become blocked.
[19] These are issues being taken up by Robert Groome, founding member of PLACE in Santa Monica,CA. This blog begins to clarify the nature of the challenges raised in the future work of the ISPSO in the psychoanalytic study of organisations.

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