What makes an economy a ‘libidinal economy’?

The concept of ‘libidinal investment’ has come up before, for example in The Promoted Sibling as an expression of libidinal investment, or in Getting caught ‘inside’ particular forms of Thirdness as an effect of unconscious valency.  The following is a dialogue primarily between Simon Western, Susan Long and myself that revolves around how we are to understand what is meant by a ‘libidinal economy’,  something that arises from emergent patterns in the forms of social organisation that attract libidinal investment:

Simon: Dear all, a few thoughts on the collective unconscious and group unconscious processes that take place in large group settings. This blog on The Collective Unconscious is written for coaches and leaders fairly new to psychoanalysis. However I am wondering where we go with this work which seems to have stalled quite a bit since Bion and Menzies-Lythe…yet is so important. Any thoughts welcome, and I am particularly interested in how collective unconscious processes operate within the libidinal economies of the network society – i.e. ISPSO list serves for example!

The Associative Unconscious
Susan: Maurita Harney and I have written on the associative unconscious as linked to socioanalysis and socioanalytic methods. There are links to Jung’s collective unconscious but differences. We link it to the work of Peirce – the American philosopher. I think this concept opens up the way to new thinking about the links between people in large groups. We say:
Here then is a formulation of the unconscious as a mental network of thoughts, signs, and symbols or signifiers, able to give rise to many feelings, impulses and images. The network is between people, but yet within each of them. The boundary of the unconscious does not co-incide with the boundary of the individual despite the necessity of the boundary of “individual” for other functions, including the functions described by Bion in his theory of thinking: the functions of the thinker, or as we shall discuss later, the functions of the interpretant in Peirce’s philosophy.
The associative unconscious might be conceptualised as a “pool of thoughts” – much as Darwin’s pool of genes, but that is too static. We have used the term “network” but that too readily gives an idea of a combination of “things” in physical space, whereas we conceptualise it as in psychic space. The associative unconscious might be seen as similar to Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious, but there are differences. Jung says:

My thesis then, is as follows: in addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents (Jung 1969 p. 43).

Despite similarities, in contrast to the idea of the collective unconscious, the associative unconscious is not “identical in all individuals” because each individual holds only a part of the vaster whole. A metaphor here is that of a jigsaw puzzle where each individual part is shaped very differently, yet the picture as a whole has its own unique integrity. In this case the whole network is supra-individual with the system-as-a-whole capable of producing, for example, archetypes as system-wide symbols (the whole puzzle put together) that are then able to be introjected by individuals. Hence such symbols may appear in different parts of the system (for instance in individuals, groups or cultures) contemporaneously. The idea of an associative unconscious does refer to shared representations but not necessarily representations that are inherited and held identically in each individual, as with Jung’s collective unconscious. What is in common between individuals is the capacity to symbolise and to co-create meanings not the specific representations that as a result of co-creation are thus held within the culture.[1]

Simon: Thanks Susan, re-reading your chapter is very helpful, especially in differentiating the associative unconscious from Jung: As I understand it in your terms, the jigsaw puzzle is formed by individual unconscious – symbols and signs (pieces of the jigsaw) – coming together to make the whole….. then it is re-introjected by individuals…..
So taking for example Princess Diana’s funeral – individuals felt particular individual forms of sadness, conscious and unconscious, the unconscious aspects pooled to make a whole that created an unexpected collective energy, a jigsaw picture of national loss, that demanded different behaviour from the Royal Family and of the public e.g. public expressions of grief from the royals- and spontaneous applause – clapping the coffin as it was taken through the streets in contrast to the tradition of silence from the public. Each individual then introjected the impact of the outpouring of public grief- and reacted consciously and unconsciously – making meaning in their own way, and also making meaning collectively. (The film – The Queen – is fascinating in its depiction of this. )
In this formulation, how do we account for the unconscious in terms of Drive? And what happens to jigsaw puzzles that do not make whole pictures: either collectively or for individuals? Pooling of unconscious forces that don’t create wholes, or tangible meaning (except retrospectively perhaps)
The jigsaw analogy is very helpful, but is it not also problematic as it conjures up a finished picture, a completion, in Lacan terms full jouissance, that is not attainable? I am wondering how we account for the associative unconscious that creates powerful libidinal economies, stirring affects that are or are not translated into emotions or feelings that we can express in terms of conscious pictures or meanings? Do you or others have thoughts on this?

Sarah Sutton: How thought-provoking Simon – your ‘stirring affects that are not translated’ made me think of how we talk of stirring music… perhaps there is something about resonance here, in the moment of connection, that is both created and creative in the libidinal economy, in that it stirs towards joint expression.
Your idea Susan of the associative unconscious feels true to me. Maybe the jigsaw is interactively re-assembleable? I agree about the risk of misrepresenting it as static or potentially completable & like the idea of constellations: pulsing, radiant, shifting, pattern-forming networks of associative resonances, greater than the sum of their parts.

The ding is…
Philip: We know that associations can be false, as per Freud’s paper on Negation. But Freud also spoke about how we cover over the gaps in our unconscious associations – what remained lost to us – in terms of dingvorstellung. This ‘covering over’ was like the ‘covering over’ of the blind spot in our visual field, and these unconscious gaps were what Lacan referred to as the ‘objets petit a‘. In our pursuit of jouissance, we weave the imaginary form we give to these objets, i.e. i(a), into the realities supporting our libidinal economy.
These objets, however, are also the objects of the Freudian drive that constellate desire by never wholly covering over the gaps, thus also enabling us to be mindful of the gaps. And in being mindful of these gaps, they act like the attractors in complexity theory, around which swirl pulsing, radiant, shifting, pattern-forming networks of associative creativity.
For those of you who have not traveled underground in London, to “mind the gap” is also a repeated injunction at every stop!

Ruth Silver: An injunction so that ‘a fall’ on to the live wire is avoided…

Philip: Ruth, you are of course right that existential angst unavoidably accompanies ‘being true to desire’…!

Susan: Thanks to all for these comments. I agree that the “jigsaw puzzle” is not complete and Philip’s idea from Lacan of the gaps that are covered over and that are accompanied by existential angst are certainly part of the idea of the associative unconscious and its links to the repressed unconscious of psychoanalysis. Maybe the completed jigsaw is an ideal form – a potentiality for all thought across all time: a possibility to be yearned for at a more spiritual than psychological level. Any one community or organisation has only its incomplete pictures. The example from Diana’s death fits well. I love the idea of the resonances – it fits well with the social dreaming idea of amplification to reach the associative unconscious.

Philip: I like this hypothesis of ‘a yearned-for ideal form in that it supposes this ideal form to be infinitely incomprehensible, even though every hypothesis, as such, supposes its object to be truly conceived in relation to this ideal form’. But I also like Peirce’s concept of vagueness as providing a way of speaking about each individual’s particular way of being in relation to the associative unconscious. To quote from Peirce’s later pragmaticist reading of ‘pragmatism’, this leaves the yearned-for ideal form “as vague yet as true so far as it is definite, and as continually tending to define itself more and more, and without limit”.[2] I guess that means it’s a journey in which we each have to ‘mind the gap’!

Stan Gold: What a fascinating flow of associations. Thank you to all. The only issue that has not been canvassed regarding the “gap” is for me, and those who know me will know where I’m coming from, the gap between the yearned for and necessarily idealised maternal transference object and the reality of the relationship. We would indeed be wise to understand the later significance of that gap, our attempts to cover it over and the desire which emanates from it. Again thanks to you all….

Philip: Ah yes. But the ding is, the gap covered over/revealed by the objet is not the gap between the idealised maternal transference object and the reality of the relationship, but rather the uncanny Aristotelian tuchē that, while disrupting that reality, also creates an opening.

Sophia Ploumaki: Can I ask who is then “perceiving” the opening? Is this a subjective or an a-bjective process ?

Philip: a-bjective in the sense that the uncanny disrupts what the subjective/relational ‘I’ thinks is ‘going on’. The experience is of being subject to something ‘other’ going on, of being subject to the Otherness of being in relation to the unconscious… ‘subject’ as in “wo Es war, soll Ich werden“.

The gap as an encounter with the uncanny Aristotelian tuché
Susan: Philip your comments are usually most apt but often enigmatic. I understand the Aristotelian tuché as those things in human activity that occur by chance rather than by his fourth form of causality – ie the final cause or the cause occurring through our desires. Do you mean the gap is created through that uncanny chance occurrence? Which is really an unconscious desire – Aristotle not having the concept of the unconscious? Can you give us this thought in a less condensed manner?

Philip: Tuché is contrasted with automaton: the automaton is the deterministic, that which can be predicted by past conditions, in contrast to which tuché is an encounter with that which cannot be predicted, with that which appears to be by chance. This is the sense in which the uncanny, or unheimlich, is that about a situation that does not fit, shouldn’t be there, was not predicted. So a matrix of thought is implied here (aka relation to thirdness) within which the pre-diction is made, and the validity of which is put into question by the encounter with tuché. Understood in this way, the tuché presents the matrix of thought (aka mental model) with a ‘gap’ in its ability to pre-dict.
So yes, the ‘being by chance’ may be read as revealing some pre-destined state (aka subject to a final cause), like an omen might be read to fortell imminent good fortune, the experience of ‘being by chance’ excluding the material, formal or efficient causes. And yes, in such a situation, the person attributing the status of an omen to the encounter would certainly be engaging in wishful thinking, thus revealing something about his or her desire in the situation.
The attribution of final cause would, therefore, reveal something about the person’s desire, in the sense that the imaginary form i(a) given to an objet petit a would reveal something of a person’s relation to an unconscious lack. The gap is only “created through that uncanny chance occurrence”, however, in the sense that the tuché is the person’s experience of a gap in the way he or she anticipates what-is-going-on. In the case of attributing the status of an omen to the encounter, then, the person would be exhibiting a transference to the situation in the sense of relating to it as if ‘it’ knew what it was that he or she wanted.  An ISPSO question would then be concerned with how to work with this transference…

Examining the ‘networked’ or ‘associative’ unconscious from a Lacanian perspective
Simon: Philip, sometimes tuchē is translated simply as luck, but this is not what I understand you are saying is it? Can you also say something about the ‘collective unconscious or networked unconscious or associative unconscious in Lacan’s work? Did he work with this and how?

Philip: Simon, here goes!
On the relation between the ‘collective’ and ‘networked’ or ‘associative’ unconscious, Susan and Maurita distinguish Jung’s collective unconscious from the associative unconscious, pointing out that the associative unconscious is not “identical in all individuals” as Jung holds is true for the collective unconscious. Rather, each individual holds only a part of the vaster whole, “like a jigsaw puzzle where each individual part is shaped very differently, yet the picture as a whole has its own unique integrity”, the whole network being ‘supra-individual’.
To relate the ‘networked’ or ‘associative’ unconscious to Lacan’s work we need to look more closely at the use made of Peirce by Susan and Maurita:

Their associative unconscious is formulated as “a mental network of thoughts, signs, and symbols or signifiers, able to give rise to many feelings, impulse and images”. This network is both between people and within each of them, the boundary of this network not coinciding with the boundary of the individual. The boundary of “individual” is nevertheless necessary for other functions, “including the functions described by Bion in his theory of thinking: the functions of the thinker, or the functions of the interpretant in Peirce’s philosophy”.

This equating of the interpretant with the functions of the thinker follows Hanna Segal’s three-term relation between the object, the sign-vehicle and the ego-as-interpretant in her ‘Notes on Symbol Formation’.[3] For Segal, the object is “the thing symbolized”, the sign-vehicle is “the thing functioning as a symbol”, and the interpretant is the ego for which “the one represents the other”. In these terms, symbolic equation arises when sign-vehicles “are not felt by the ego to be symbols or substitutes but to be the original object itself”. Freedom in the use of symbols arises through a fully articulated triadic relation being available to the subject: “The capacity to experience loss and the wish to re-create the object within oneself gives the individual the unconscious freedom in the use of symbols. And as the symbol is acknowledged as a creation of the subject, unlike the symbolic equation, it can be freely used by the subject”.
To relate this thinking to that of Lacan, we must return to Segal’s use of a 1938 text by C.W. Morris, ‘Foundations of the Theory of Signs’,[3] as the source of her three-term relation. In Morris’s text, the three term relation is actually a four-term relation. The example that Morris uses is of a dog (the interpreter) responding to a certain sound (the sign-vehicle) by the type of behavior (the interpretant) involved in the hunting of chipmunks (the object). The object-relating behavior (the interpretant) that puts the sign-vehicle in a particular relation to the object is Segal’s triadic relation, but one that is particular to the subject (the interpreter). This triadic relation is the relation of thirdness of which Peirce speaks. In Lacan, this triadic relation is in the way the signifying ‘bar’ (aka interpretant) puts the signifier ‘S’ (the sign-vehicle) in relation to the signified ‘s’ (the object), written as S/s but to be read differently to Saussure.
Understanding S/s in this way, when I am speaking, I am creating a forward-moving chain of ‘S’ signifiers that you, as a listener, may make some sense of (or not!) through the way you establish a triadic relation to those ‘S’ signifiers. To do this, you will have to take some part of this chain and, against the backcloth of all the possible signifiers ‘A’ that could have been said, make some particular sense s(A), i.e. through a triadic process of attributing meaning, you place the ‘S’ signifiers in some relation to ‘s’ signifieds for you:
Lacan refers to all the possible signifiers ‘A’ that could have been said as a “treasury of signifiers” (in ‘The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious’[5]). What gets produced by the retroactive attribution of meaning s(A) is produced in relation to the subject. The s(A) is therefore the sense that the subject makes, corresponding to a piece of a jigsaw…
Understood in this way, Lacan’s ‘treasury of signifiers’ corresponds to the “mental network of thoughts, signs, and symbols or signifiers, able to give rise to many feelings, impulse and images” of Susan and Maurita. The triadic relation taken up to this treasury of signifiers by a subject, in which particular associative constructions are placed on the chaining of signifiers, is the retroactive attribution of meaning s(A).
Lacan follows Freud in arguing that the subject is doubly subjected in the sense of being subject both to the reality principle and to the pleasure principle, i.e. the retroactive attribution of meaning is both subject to ‘social’ constructions of meaning, and also subject to unconscious attribution. To conclude, then:

  • To speak of the associative unconscious is to turn into a noun what is actually a process of unconscious attribution by the subject.
  • To speak of a libidinal economy is to speak of the ways in which s(A) is supported by unconscious attribution aka jouissance.
  • To speak of the libidinal economies of the network society, you must be speaking of some new ways in which s(A) is being produced…

Susan: Thanks Philip. I agree that the term associative unconscious makes it sound like a noun whereby we actually refer to a process – just as to speak of the unconscious at all is to make a noun out of a process (the system uncs as Freud put it). It makes me think though of the wave and particle difference in physics. The network of signs and signifiers or the ‘treasury of signifiers’ might be both noun and verb depending on how we approach it as interpreters and create our behaviour in relation to it (interpretant). By making a noun out of a process we are able to understand by ‘holding’ a moment of time or a ‘slice of the universe’ long enough for understanding to take place. Then once again we become lost in the flux of process and the not knowing that might allow a surprising fact to emerge.

The relation between a network economy and the libidinal economy of a network

Simon: Susan, “By making a noun out of a process we are able to understand by ‘holding’ a moment of time or a ‘slice of the universe’ long enough for understanding to take place”. This also sounds like Lacan’s idea of a point de caption or quilting point.. holding thoughts/knowledge together enough, in order to act…?
Philip, what I don’t understand is how a libidinal economy (by its very nature a collective or networked phenomena) is reduced to being a subject’s interpretation of a ‘treasury of signifiers’; albeit one that goes through ‘double subjection of social construction of meaning and unconscious attribution’. This accounts for the subject’s way of making sense of something but not of how wider phenomena I am trying to understand? For example, how does a subject’s retro attribution of meaning, s(A) become or address the libidinal economy of a network of healthcare for example?

Philip: Another difficult question. So here goes…!
On the point de capiton, yes – the diagram above “articulates the point de capiton by which the signifier stops the otherwise indefinite sliding of signification….”[6]
On the question of the relation between the subject’s way of making sense and the libidinal economy, the relationship is less direct than the one you imply in asking “how a libidinal economy is reduced to being a subject’s interpretation of a ‘treasury of signifiers’”.
The function of the first intersection, labeled A, “is the locus of the treasure trove of signifiers, which does not mean of the code, for the one-to-one correspondence between a sign and a thing is not preserved here, the signifier being constituted on the basis of a synchronic and countable collection in which none of the elements is sustained except through its opposition to each of the others.” This treasure trove is a trove of distinctions that may be made.
The second, labeled s(A), is what may be called the punctuation, in which signification ends up as a finished product.” Here is where sense is made, but also where something is covered over. “Observe the dissymmetry between the one, which is a locus (a place, rather than a space), and the other, which is a moment (a scansion, rather than a duration). Both are related to the offer to the signifier that is constituted by the hole in the real, the one as a hollow for concealment, the other as drilling toward a way out.” The ‘holes in the real’ are the gaps that the signifiers offer to cover over, the particular way they are used to cover over being the ‘drilling toward a way out’. The sense-making is subject to the modes of social construction, but is also subject to the unconscious in the particular ways in which it covers over – like decking covers over what lies underneath.
The relation to this ‘underneath’ is like the outline of a question mark planted in the capital A, with two parts to the question:

My response to your question starts, then, from how that-which-is-covered-over is structured, and how the subject keeps this aligned with their social sense-making. The unconscious leaves gaps, being structured like a language is structured, and jouissance comes with the particular ways the subject has of being in relation to these gaps (aka phantasy, understood as what covers over the impossibility in the relation between the two parts to the question). The alignment of that-which-is-covered-over to the subject’s sense-making is therefore particular to the subject, as in ‘wo Es war, soll Ich werden’.
The pursuit of (ego) sovereignty by the subject, however, leads to adopting ideologies (aka social constructions) that only appear to align things, sort of. (It is the ‘vagueness’ in these ideologies that conceals the ways in which they fail.[7]) Hence the struggle for emancipation is always a struggle between ready-baked ways-of-aligning and a subject’s gradually-built alignment emerging from an ongoing process of ‘minding the gap’.
The economy of the network is a particular form of social organization that is emerging from the internal contradictions of 20th century capitalism (one that is more ‘horizontally’ linked than ‘vertically’ accountable, pursuing economies of alignment more than economies of scale and/or scope). It becomes a libidinal economy of a network only to the extent that this social organization supports forms of emancipation that promise not a ‘full jouissance’ but rather offers ways-of-being in which gaps may be minded, sort of!
It is thus not that the libidinal economy of a healthcare network is reduced to the subject’s phantasy. Rather it is that there are particular forms of emancipatory (gap-minding) phantasy that receive good-enough support from the economy of the healthcare network.[8]

We are living during a period of transition from one dominant ideology in the West to another.  I would express this transition as something like a transition  from the neoliberal ideology born of the aesthetic critique of the social-democratic ideology, to the network ideology born of the gap-minding critique of the neoliberal ideology.[9]

[1] This is from their chapter in Long, S (ed) 2013 Socioanalytic Methods, Karnac.
[2] Peirce’s break with the pragmatics attributed to him came in Peirce, C. S. (1905). “Issues of Pragmaticism.” The Monist XV(4): 481-499. The text between single quotes here is a paraphrasing of his later development of the implications of vagueness in Peirce, C. S. (1908). “A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God.” The Hibbert Journal 7(October): 90-112. “The hypothesis of God is a peculiar one, in that it supposes an infinitely incomprehensible object, although every hypothesis, as such, supposes its object to be truly conceived in the hypothesis. This leaves the hypothesis but one way of understanding itself; namely, as vague yet as true so far as it is definite, and as continually tending to define itself more and more, and without limit.” It is this understanding of vagueness that led Peter Ochs to write about irredeemable vagueness in Ochs, P. (1998). Peirce, pragmatism and the logic of scripture, Cambridge University Press.
[3] Segal, H. (1986[1957]). Notes on Symbol Formation. The Work of Hanna Segal: A Kleinian Approach to Clinical Practice. London, Free Association Books.
[4] Morris, C. W. (1955[1938]). Foundations of the Theory of Signs. International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. O. Neurath and R. Carnap. University of Chicago Press.
[5] Lacan, J. (2006[1966]b). The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious. Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. New York, W.W. Norton & Company: 671-702.
[6] This and the subsequent quotes in italics are taken from Lacan, J. (2006[1966]b). The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious. Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. New York, W.W. Norton & Company: 671-702.
[7] See forthcoming paper, submitted for publication: ‘Defences against Innovation: the Conservation of Vagueness
[8] Juliet Mitchell, in her 2014 paper on ‘Siblings and the Psychosocial’ on Organisational & Social Dynamics 14(1) pp1-12, excellently outlines the ‘horizontal’ dimension of phantasy formation so necessary to understanding these forms of libidinal investment.
[9] Borrowing from Boltanski, L. and E. Chiapello (2005). The New Spirit of Capitalism. London, Verso.

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