The burden imposed by the requirements for abstract thought

by Philip Boxer BSc MBA PhD

A colleague of mine, Larry Hirschhorn, had the following to say about his experience of the difficulties of ISPSO members speaking to each other about their differing readings of psychoanalytic doctrine: “The additional piece that continues to fascinate me is the burden imposed emotionally by the requirements for abstract thought...”

My commentary below is on an extract from The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis (pp203-205 from Bruce Fink’s translation of Lacan’s Écrits) that speaks directly to the nature of this burden.  It considers what might be at stake in engaging in abstract thought, which involves being prepared to understand the concepts on which our understanding of psychoanalytic technique is based.[1] In this extract, Lacan formulates what might be at stake in terms of difficulties for how we take up speech.  He does this in terms of the speaker’s relationship to the symbolic, imaginary and real:

In order to home in on the causes of this deterioration of analytic discourse, one may legitimately apply psychoanalytic method to the collectivity that sustains it.

Lacan’s concern in this text was with a deterioration of analytic discourse – a concern that has been voiced from time to time by some ISPSO members about other members’ psychoanalytic understanding![2]

Indeed, to speak of a loss of the meaning of psychoanalytic action is as true and futile as it is to explain a symptom by its meaning as long as the latter is not recognized. But we know that, in the absence of such recognition, analytic action can only be experienced as aggressive at the level at which it is situated;

We have all experienced the aggressivity inherent in having our words ‘interpreted’. The effects of the aggressivity depend on our accepting the weight of the other’s standing within the community to which we belong …

and that, in the absence of the social “resistances” which the psychoanalytic group used to find reassuring, the limits of its tolerance toward its own activity – now “accepted,” if not actually approved of – no longer depend upon anything but the numerical percentage by which its presence in society is measured.

… while we have all, from time to time, drawn comfort from our numbers in the face of the difficulties we experience in taking our practices into the world around us.

These principles suffice to separate out the symbolic, imaginary, and real conditions that determine the defenses we can recognize in the doctrine – isolation, undoing what has been done, denial, and, in general, misrecognition.

Lacan uses the three orders of the symbolic, imaginary and real to think further about these difficulties – symbolic isolation, imaginary denial/undoing what has been done, and misrecognition of the real.

Thus, if the importance of the American group to the psychoanalytic movement is measured by its mass, we can evaluate the conditions one finds there by their weight.

Lacan is speaking about the impact of the American group on the wider (worldwide) psychoanalytic movement.

In the symbolic order, first of all, one cannot neglect the importance of the c factor which, as I noted at the Congress of Psychiatry in 1950, is a constant that is characteristic of a given cultural milieu: the condition, in this case, of ahistoricism, which is widely recognized as the major feature of “communication” in the United States, and which in my view is diametrically opposed to analytic experience. To this must be added a native mindset, known as behaviorism, which so dominates psychological notions in America that it clearly has now altogether topped Freud’s inspiration in psychoanalysis.

The symbolic isolation arises from the influence of the wider American culture, characterized by Lacan in terms of an ahistoricism and a behaviorism, that appears to that wider culture as being so much better and more impressive than Freud’s inspiration.

As for the other two orders, I leave to those concerned the task of assessing what the mechanisms that manifest themselves in the life of the psychoanalytic associations owe to relations of standing within the group and to the effects of their free enterprise felt by the whole of the social body, respectively.

Lacan links the imaginary denial/undoing to the relations of standing within the various psychoanalytic associations making up the American group; and links the misrecognition of the real to the associations’ various readings of the effects of their free enterprise on the world around them.

I also leave to them the task of determining the credence to be lent to a notion emphasized by one of our most lucid representatives— namely, the convergence that occurs between the alien status of a group dominated by immigrants and the distance it is lured into taking from its roots by the function called for by the aforementioned cultural conditions.

He also observes that the alien status of the immigrant majority within the American group makes that majority vulnerable to the need to submit to the influence of the wider American culture in the interests of economic survival… a vulnerability that every diaspora has to deal with.

In any case, it seems indisputable that the conception of psychoanalysis in the United States has been inflected toward the adaptation of the individual to the social environment, the search for behavior patterns, and all the objectification implied in the notion of “human relations”. And the indigenous term “human engineering” strongly implies a privileged position of exclusion with respect to the human object.

Lacan concludes that these influences have resulted in an emphasis on the objectification of human being in the interests of its adaptation to the social environment – the effects of which we might now refer to in terms of neo-liberal ideology…

Indeed, the eclipse in psychoanalysis of the liveliest terms of its experience – the unconscious and sexuality, which will apparently cease before long to be even mentioned – may be attributed to the distance necessary to sustain such a position.

… with its attendant occluding of the subject’s relation to the unconscious and to sexuality.

We need not take sides concerning the formalism and small-time shop mentality, both of which have been noted and decried in the analytic group’s own official documents.

Referring back, now, to the imaginary denial/undoing associated with the maintenance of ‘standing’, and to the misrecognition of the real in the effects of associations’ free enterprise…

Pharisees and shopkeepers interest us only because of their common essence, which is the source of the difficulties both have with speech, particularly when it comes to “talking shop”.

… Lacan invokes the imagery of Pharisees (“an ancient Jewish sect distinguished by their strict observance of the traditional and written law, and by their pretensions to superior sanctity”) and shopkeepers (“those who carry on business in a shop”) to convey something of the difficulties arising from the imaginary and the real orders for the way we take up speech.

The fact is that while incommunicability of motives may sustain a “grand master,” it does not go hand in hand with true mastery – at least not with the mastery teaching requires. This was realized in the past when, in order to sustain one’s preeminence, it was necessary, for form’s sake, to give at least one class.

Referring back, then, to difficulties arising from the symbolic order and the difference between ‘having’ the standing of a master and ‘being’ a master…

This is why the attachment to traditional technique – which is unfailingly reaffirmed by the same camp – after a consideration of the results of the tests carried out in the frontier fields enumerated above, is not unequivocal; the equivocation can be gauged on the basis of the substitution of the term “classic” for “orthodox” that is used to qualify it. One remains true to propriety because one has nothing to say about the doctrine itself.

… Lacan observes that substituting ‘classic’ for ‘orthodox’ in the focus on technique conceals in a past origin the difficulty of speaking in the present about doctrine itself, thus concealing the difficulty in the present of true mastery. Here, then, is the heart of the burden we take up in speaking to each other about our differences of doctrine, the burden of (repeatedly losing) mastery.[3]

For my part, I would assert that the technique cannot be understood, nor therefore correctly applied, if one misunderstands the concepts on which it is based. My task shall be to demonstrate that these concepts take on their full meaning only when oriented in a field of language and ordered in relation to the function of speech.

Difficult though such speaking is, however, Lacan’s point is that no understanding of technique is possible without an understanding of the concepts on which it is based – an understanding that requires of us that we take up the burden.

[1] It is worth bearing in mind that in this text, written in 1953, Lacan is speaking about the relation to the standard treatment, still under discussion at the London Congress in 1953, at which Glover asked the question of what modifications in technique can take place “without forfeiting the right to use the term psycho-analysis”.  See the paper by Darian Leader: Strategy, Tactics and Standard Treatment.
[2] For some background on the interests of ISPSO members, see this blog on The future work of ISPSO.
[3] The problematic nature of the doctrine of science per se is elaborated on by Jacques-Alain Miller in his seminal ‘Action of the Structure‘, in particular its vested interest in covering over the place of the subject in the conduct of science through its very claim to ‘objectivity’. Such a covering over is, of course, inimical to the analytic discourse.

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