Why a ‘Lacanian’ reading of the unconscious?

by Philip Boxer

The double challenge of holding three asymmetries

The double challenge (Boxer 2004) is like a doubling of Harold Bridger’s double task (Bridger 1990). The value-creating relation to the demand-side (parallel to the ‘external task-related’) has to be balanced with the value-capturing behaviors of the supply-side (parallel to the ‘personal and role-related’) (Boxer 2013b). Meeting this double challenge under competitive conditions brings us to the edges of an organization (Boxer and Veryard 2006). Here leadership encounters the otherness of the client-as-other – demands that are asymmetric – and the opportunities that emerge from balancing the creation of value for the client with capturing of value as a supplier (Boxer 2012).  A focus on primary task has to be balanced with a focus on primary risk (Hirschhorn 1999), the risk that demand itself has not been well understood in an approach that is essentially relational.

A characteristic of a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment is that this relational balancing becomes increasingly dynamic, a characteristic that is intensified by the effects of digitalization. Under these conditions, leadership has to be engendering in the way it balances being the one-and-only (in a corporate sense) and a one-in-the-other (in support of realizing others’ demands) (Boxer 2021a). This raises the bar on how individuals may ‘use’ an organization to support their identifications (Boxer 2011). Their identifications have to remain open to otherness, going to the client situation in which value-creation is needed, not just resting on the current identities on offer. An organization can no longer afford to serve primarily as a defense against anxiety for those in its employment (Boxer 2015). It must also participate as a ‘good citizen’ in the larger ecosystem of which it is a part, continually being asked by its clients to work beyond the pale of its current know-how in response to demands that are increasingly multi-sided (Boxer 2021b). Under these conditions, it becomes problematic to know what forms of data are relevant to balancing primary risk and primary task. The domain of relevant data can no longer be an a priori given.

If we recognize these three asymmetries of primary task, primary risk and domain of relevance, what understanding of the relation to the unconscious helps us understand how an organization holds them in relation to each other? Can it account for organization’s resistance to change in its existing ways of holding this relation in its behaviors, as if by an immune system (Kegan and Lahey 2009)?

The relation to the unconscious as double subjection

The relation to the unconscious as understood by Lacan becomes important to how these three asymmetries are held, reflected in the need for a third epoch (Boxer 2017).

“The first epoch refers to an approach to organizations in which clinical know-how is applied to ‘psychoanalyzing organizations’, an approach subject to the metaphor that an enterprise can be approached as being like an individual. This first epoch brings together Bion’s explorations of group mentality, Eric Trist’s socio-technical breakthrough, Fred Emery’s introduction of open system theory, Ken Rice’s development of the concept of primary task, and Elliott Jaques’ and Isabel Menzies’ account of social systems as a defense against anxiety (Armstrong 2012).

[…] The second epoch refers to an approach that emerged within university and research environments, where psychoanalytic understanding was brought into dialogue with the social sciences, philosophy, discourse analysis, literary criticism and rhetoric. This approach is one in which psychoanalytic language is applied to the way enterprises are themselves organized and to the place of the individual within them. This second epoch places particular emphasis on the use of critical and interpretive approaches to the effects of language, its major characteristic being the central importance it gives to subjectivity and inter-subjectivity (Arnaud 2012).” (Boxer 2017)

This need arises in distinguishing a 3rd epoch approach from 1st epoch approaches that ‘psychoanalyse organizations’ and 2nd epoch approaches that only ‘use psychoanalytic language’ (Gabriel 2016). The institutional form of the 1st epoch is based on a psychoanalytic body of knowledge, the professional status of its members resting on having been trained as clinicians. The authority of the 2nd epoch, in contrast, rests on its institutions’ invocation of the practice of science itself, a practice that excludes the relation to the unconscious through its insistence that ‘truth’ be established in ways that are independent of the speaking subject (Lacan 2002[1996]-b). For a Lacanian understanding of the unconscious to serve the interests of a 3rd epoch relational approach, it needs to be able to give an account of ‘truth’ that does not rest on 1st epoch professional or 2nd epoch scientific understandings:

“The a priori status of the sovereign corporate entity leads to the unconscious being referred to as descriptively unconscious, ‘below the surface’ of the inter-subjectively shared consciousness of the enterprise (Obholzer and Roberts 1994; Boxer 1999). The implication is that what lies repressed ‘below the surface’ can in principle be brought to consciousness. Freud distinguished this repressed unconscious, however, from the wider compass of the unconscious, which was radically unconscious:

“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 1957).

The new developments in neuroscience underpin the distinct nature and influence of this radically unconscious (Solms and Panksepp 2012), a distinction lost by referring to the unconscious only descriptively as ‘below the surface’ of consciousness. Without this distinction between the repressed and the radically unconscious, there can be no basis on which to establish a ‘beyond’ of the libidinally-invested-in identifications (Freud 1955) supported by the existing way in which the enterprise is organized.” (Boxer 2017)

A Lacanian understanding of the unconscious, then, starts from Freud’s three-way distinction between the conscious, the descriptively unconscious (a ‘below-the-surface’) and a radically unconscious. The individual is doubly subjected to both the social (small-o) other and to the individual’s singular relation to the radically unconscious:

“The distinction between the relation of consciousness to the repressed and to the radically unconscious is fundamental to Lacan’s reading of Freud, for example, in the relation between the lower and upper levels of his ‘graph of desire’ (Lacan 2002[1996]-c). Its lower level describes sense-making within the (small-s) symbolic domain of inter-subjectivity, where we use language to build shared realities and our subjective place within them.  Its upper level indicates that something else is always going on under cover of the sense-making at the lower level, something that renders us also subject to the structurally distinct effects of the relation to the radically unconscious (big-S) Symbolic and its lack (Lacan 2016[2005]). In these terms, we are doubly subjected (Boxer 2013a).” (Boxer 2017)

The significance of this double subjection becomes apparent through Lacan’s four discourses (Lacan 2007[1969-70]). Each one provides a different way of taking up this double subjection, in which the relation to the radically unconscious is understood as being to a (big-O) Other that is itself structurally lacking. This relation to lack is to the lack of the object of object-relating (Lacan 2021[1956-57]), taking the different forms of the four partial drives (Lacan 2014[2004]). The Lacanian four discourses, then, are constitutive of ‘truth’ in a 3rd epoch relational understanding through the way each one organizes this relation to lack (Lacan 1970).  The immune system of an organization becomes an expression of the dynamic relations between the ways these discourses are taken up, taking the form of a libidinal economy of discourses.

Why then a Lacanian reading?

It makes sense to say that the object-relating ‘below-the-surface’ of consciousness is structured like a language is structured: “a symptom is itself structured like a language: a symptom is language from which speech must be delivered” (Lacan 2002[1996]-a). But it also makes sense to say that the relation of this object-relating to the lack of the radically unconscious is a Borromean knotting of experienced Real, Symbolic and Imaginary registers (Lacan 2011[1974/5]).

With this understanding, the forms of sovereignty in pursuing primary task definitions of an organization are extended to an understanding of an organization as a particular knotting of the way it breaks three symmetries (Tupinambá 2021).  This knotting is held in place by a Libidinal Economy of Discourses (LEoD) that both constrains the way supporting platforms and forms of governance may be used and at the same time acts like an immune system that limits what forms of change and adaptation are acceptable. The professional 1st epoch, scientific 2nd epoch and relational 3rd epoch thus each reflect different organizations of the LEoD to which their members have become attached.


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