Difficulties with the use of Lacan in Susan Long’s ‘The Perverse Organisation’

Susan Long, in her chapter on trauma as cause and effect of perverse organizational process [1], refers to Lacan [2] in stating that “many psychoanalytic schools of thought consider perversion as a specific set of symptoms, primarily including sadism.” (p48) How does she make use of Lacan? Here is her account of the way an individual is divided from himself or herself through the effects of his or her relation to the Lacanian (big-S) Symbolic:

Lacan refers to socially required subjugation as “symbolic castration”. In being subject to culture, primarily through language, one is subject to the Symbolic field. This is what Lacan also terms the big “Other”. In this process of symbolic castration, much jouissance is given over to repression and the Other. The subjection (symbolic castration) that creates subjectivity, forever divides the human subject from his or her primal nature, because the world of symbols can only represent reality, not replicate it. [3]p93

This captures the division of the subject, but to refer to that which is ‘lost’ as the subject’s “primal nature” is to accord an essentialism to the subject that is not in Lacan. This difficulty continues in the following description of the subject’s experience of his or her own ‘Otherness’, my additions in square brackets indicating where I see this difficulty to lie:

Hence, the subject in the[ir] world of symbolisation, language and all that they imply [i.e. (small-s) symbolisation and language], will lack something. This is the part [of their own experience of being themselves] that cannot be represented; the part that can never become part of the[ir relation to the] symbolic world wherein we [all] mostly live. This part lies within [their experience of their relation to] the register of the Real. Experience registered in [relation to] the Real cannot be represented in our normal everyday world. It is ineffable [but only in the OED sense of not being able to be expressed or described in language – not as “transcending expression”]. [3]p93

For the subject, an encounter with the Real always has the quality of the unheimlich – an irruption of an impossibility defying the particular subject’s understanding of their ‘reality’. For the subject to render this experience transcendent is to try and ‘recapture’ the Real within their relation to the (big-S) Symbolic. The difficulty with this implied essentialism continues with reference to jouissance:

So, in one sense, for the civilised person, jouissance is [not] personally lost [but situated in their experience of their own Otherness. In this relation to their own Otherness] and [to jouissance] is [the experience of being] lacking. In another sense, it [i.e. their relation to lack] becomes [extimate, manifesting itself as] part of the psychodynamics of community – linked into [the relation to] language and culture as well as into our [individual] sense of the ineffable or unknown [understood as an immanent rather than transcendent ineffability], with all its awesome, wonder-full and terrifying characteristics. In the perverse position, symbolic castration has [not so much] failed [as the subject is trying to defend himself or herself against his or her experience of their own Otherness through replacing it by their relation to an object]. [3]p93

Understood in this way, perversity denies the other’s Otherness through a reduction of the other to being nothing but an object:

Pleasure is gained through, not with the other. This is the complex face of perversity, that while linked to the [relation to drive formulated as] death instincts in its [i.e. the drive’s] cyclical repetition, its destructivity [comes from this reduction of the other to being an object, which] is also linked to sexual excitation and built around what Lacan calls jouissance. Jouissance is that pleasure/pain derived through satisfaction of what one is unconsciously driven to do; that which is at the core of character [in the sense of ‘character’ being the particular individual’s way of structuring their relation to drive]. [3]p90

Perversity is thus a particular way of dealing with a relation to the other that the subject anticipates as being traumatic – trauma as not only the cause, but also as having a traumatising effect on the other. But this is the narcissistic defence that underlies envy – a defence that is not in itself the operation of the ‘death instinct’, but rather a defence against an unbearable relation to drive:

There is always attraction in destructivity and its place within and alongside the life forces [i.e. alongside the workings of the pleasure principle in the modulating of pleasure/unpleasure], if only the attraction of the hope that we might get a better grip on knowing its nature and understanding its insidious grasp; its jouissance as the Lacanians would say. [3]p150

The destructivity is a narcissistic defence against the other’s Otherness – the other experienced as symptom of their relation to the big Other. The big ‘O’ is about the other’s relation to the (big-S) Symbolic, with which comes the other’s unconscious relation to their own ‘lack’ and to jouissance. In the child, this rightly implicates the Otherness made present through the primary relation to the mother.
But this narcissistic defence is also a defence against desire – the relation to that which stands in the place of the relation to ‘lack’, or objet petit a. The desire of the Other is made present for the subject through the particular form taken for them by this objet petit a. The defence may therefore be against the other per se as much as against the other’s relation to its objects of desire:

Moreover, it is a moot point as to whether rivalry grows because the other has what we want, or, desire for a possession grows because it is a rival who holds it. [3]p95

In the following, the loss of this distinction between the small ‘o’ (objet petit a) or big ‘O’ introduces a confusion over the nature of desire:

Although, Lacan’s idea (namely, that desire is the desire of the [this should be big ‘O’] other) means that our very nature is determined by the powerful desire of the [again should be big ‘O’] other [i.e. by the way in which, as divided subjects, our relation to desire is constituted by our being situated within the defiles of the signifier – by the desire of the Other], it is argued here that what is at stake in envy is the growth of rivalry and malice towards the powerful and envied [Otherness of the] other. This rivalrous malice brings with it a destructive jouissance. [3]p95

So what is being lost here is the impact of the subject’s relation to the Other on his or her relation to the other. This elision of the Otherness of the other appears elsewhere. For example, the subject’s relation to the Other becomes in the following a subjective position within a system in relation to other subjectivities:

The intersubjective approach implicitly recognizes system and role. Subjectivity is not synonymous with individuality but a position within a system (Lacan, 1977) in relation to other subjectivities. [4]p286

This understanding of “position within a system” is not in Lacan. Rather, what is being spoken of here are the Imaginary relations between subjects – Schema L in the Ecrits [2]p193 – which is along an axis that is orthogonal to that of the subject’s relation to the Other. Certainly, we can ask what is the nature of the “system” within which these imaginary relations are taken up:

In everyday terms this means that for each role we take up in a system there are role counterparts. For a doctor there must be a patient (and perhaps a hospital administrator, or a government health provider, depending on the system); for a teacher, a student, educational bureaucrats, parents, and so on. [4]p286

But to the extent that we try to articulate the nature of this “system”, we are attempting to articulate a relation to a (small-s) symbolic order, and not to the (big-S) Symbolic order itself. To the extent that this articulation of a (small-s) symbolic ensemble, network or mental matrix is lacking, it will be constitutive of the desire of the Other that the subjects doing the articulating will encounter in the form of imaginarised forms of objets petit a. Thus unconsciousness will not be found in the (small-s) symbolic ensemble, network or mental matrix itself, but rather in the subject’s relation to the (big-S) Symbolic implicit in the place they assume within the ensemble, network or mental matrix.

And, if unconsciousness is found [by the subject] in the [course of their taking up a relation to the (small-s) symbolic] ensemble or the network – [to] the mental matrix or [ultimately to the (big-S)] Symbolic order – perverse organisational dynamics must be understood as operating through [the way the subject takes up their relation to] this unconsciousness. [3]p154

Lacan formulated the four discourses in order to think about the way the subject took up a relation to the other subject to their relation to the radically uncosncious[5]. What distinguishes this formulation was the way it situated the subject within a social formation in relation to the other that was also constituted in a particular relation to the big Other and its jouissance, and to the plus-de-jouir (through a ‘quadripod’ structure itself derived from a reading of Freud’s Project for a Scientific Psychology[6], the Project itself not being published until 1950).

The more we move from ideas of the personal [relation to the] unconscious toward ideas of a level of cultural[ly constituted relation to the] unconscious, such as formulated in the Lacanian ideas of [discourse making present the subject’s relation to the Imaginary, the Real and] the Symbolic, the more we require conceptions that understand social and cultural mores and “agreements” as serving actively defensive as well as simply tacit functions. For Lacan, the paradox of the individual[‘s] dynamic [relation to the] unconscious in Psychoanalysis is implicitly embedded in a broader [constituting of the relation to the imaginary other through particular ways of linking together the relation to the Imaginary, Real and] Symbolic field[s]. [The relation to] Unconscious process occurs not simply in a social context but forms the [very warp around which the] fabric of social [(small-s)] symbolic processes [are woven]. [4]p290

So what can I say in conclusion about the way Susan Long makes use of Lacan? The additions in square brackets are a symptom of what I see to be lacking in her reading, which I summarise as follows:

  1. Attributing to the subject a kind of essentialism (primal nature) not present in a Lacanian reading of Freud, and situating jouissance in the psychodynamics of the community itself as well as in that of the individual, in what appears to be an extension of this essentialism to the community per se. [Understanding the subject as a relationship to lack opens up a different understanding of ‘being’ that is the counterpoint to the perverse, in which the object defines the subject… the ‘perverse organisation’ thus becomes a way of referring to the use of organisation as a defence against experiencing being as lacking.]
  2. Conflating the imaginary relation to the ‘other’ with the ‘Otherness’ of the relation to the (big-S) Symbolic in speaking about desire, so that the objet petit a ‘cause of desire’ is conflated with the desire of the Other. [The Other is structurally lacking, but the particular other takes up a relation to the lack of this Other in a particular way as the object petit a. Separating these two out brings us to the Lacanian understanding of discourse as the way the formation of the subject emerges from this relation to the lack of the Other.]
  3. Conflating the relation to the drive (qua operation of the death instinct) with the narcissistic defences against that which is unbearable in the relation to the drive. This treatment of drive reduces the constituting of the subject’s relation to the other in (the Lacanian formulation of) discourse to a relation between subjectivities taking up roles within a system. [Including the relation to the drive in the formation of the subject per se creates a much richer way of understanding an ‘organisation’ as a particular complex of inter-related ways of supporting identification.  This allows us to see how some of these ways of supporting identification are repressed, if not foreclosed.  This leads us to understand the ‘perverse’ as a side-effect of this repression and/or foreclosure.]
  4. Attributing unconsciousness to the (small-s) symbolic field itself, as if there were an Other of the Other, which is again not present in Lacan. The essentialism is thus extended to the (small-s) symbolic field considered as a thing-in-itself. In Lacan, the relation to the unconscious is an effect of the subject’s relation to the (big-S) Symbolic, inextricably bound up with his or her relation to the Imaginary and to the Real (a binding spoken of in later Lacan in terms of the sinthome and of a Borromean linking). [The relation to the unconscious is thus particular to  the way the Imaginary, Symbolic and Real are bound together, a particular binding together being a particular way of being a subject. The relation to the unconscious thus becomes the particular site of generativity, of innovation as well as of angst!]

[1] Long, S., Trauma as cause and effect of perverse organizational process, in Trauma and Organizations, E. Hopper, Editor. 2012, Karnac: London. p. 45-64.
[2] Lacan, J., Ecrits. 1977 [1966], London: Tavistock Publications.
[3] Long, S., The Perverse Organisation and its Deadly Sins. 2008, London: Karnac.
[4] Long, S., Organizational Defenses Against Anxiety: What Has Happened SInce the 1995 Jaques Paper? International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 2006. 3(4): p. 279-295.
[5] Lacan, J., The Other Side of Psychoanalysis: Book XVII. The Seminar of Jacques lacan, ed. J.-A. Miller. 2007 [1969-70], New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
[6] Freud, S., Project for a Scientific Psychology, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. 1950 [1895], The Hogarth Press: London. p. 283-397.

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