Annotated Bookshelf: A Non-Oedipal Psychoanalysis?

Van Haute, Philippe, and Tomas Geyskens. A Non-Oedipal Psychoanalysis? A Clinical Anthropology of Hysteria in the Works of Freud and Lacan. Translated by Joey Kok. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2012.

Poor Dora: A century of the couch, and hers remains the originary and central enigma of psychoanalysis, she stands still as the sphinx to the Freudian eddy-fuss. Source of the father’s frustration, Dora poses in fact three questions: On four legs, she begs the analyst to consider what is a hysteric?; on two, she asks as all hysterics do was will das Weib?; on three legs, she raises the issue of Oedipus, and whether or not analysis should be a normative enterprise or a pathoanalytic praxis? While touching on all three riddles, Van Haute and Geyskens take as their principle interest the final issue, arguing that in the latter approach, “[t]he different forms of psychological disorder do not stand over against psychological normality” in some positivist and objective diagnosis, but “on the contrary, they display a specific disposition that is active in normal inner emotional life, yet is expressed in an excessive way in pathology” (17). In this account, which amounts to a clinical anthropology, “[t]he power of sexual desire, oral fixation, bisexual inclination, and disgust of sexual pleasure are all constitutionally determined libidinal factors that determine Dora’s fate as a disposition, i.e., as a cluster of forces that has the potential to express itself in a severe hysterical symptomatology, but can also sublimate itself to religious surrender, feminist militancy, or literary pleasure, sublimations only announced in a crude caricaturist way in the hysterical symptom” (60). This suggests that the highest marks of culture—art, religion, philosophy—are, in principle, structurally in step with Freudian neuropathologies—hysteria, obsessive neurosis, and paranoia—a formal solidarity that makes normative calculation, viewing the former as better, impossible; rather, in their cultural forms, “the various components of the [neurotic] disposition express themselves in a non-symptomatic, powerful and pleasurable way” (71), but in no way healthier than the neuroses per se. Accordingly, a clinical anthropology implies that “human beings live out their existence in a continuous tension between culture and pathology that cannot be resolved” (119), that “[f]undamentally, human existence occurs in an insurmountable, strenuous relationship between misrecognition of lack (frustration) and the acceptance of its structural character,” the former materializing pathologically and the latter culturally (159). Against this position, the Oedipus complex, whether in its tragic Freudian form “as the cord of all neuroses” (78) or in its Lacanian structural re-reading, “immediately implies the possibility and need for a psychogenetic explanation” (84), a developmental interpretation wherein the analysand’s history might have turned out better were it not for some contingent trauma.

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.


Annotated Bookshelf: On the Pleasure Principle in Culture

Pfaller, Robert. On the Pleasure Principle in Culture: Illusions without Owners. Translated by Lisa Rosenblatt. Brooklyn: Verso, 2014.

Through a psychoanalytically inclined account of ideology in line with Žižek’s — though with far greater reference to Freud than to Lacan — cultural critic Pfaller here, in his first major publication in English, thoroughly and extensively elucidates his notion of interpassivity, which is “the illusion of the other” — a symbolic and naïve observer that only perceives and judges a subject’s objective, exterior actions (as opposed to an omniscient and accusatory superego) — that makes up “culture’s sole and adequate pleasure principle” (164). These illusions, subjectively denounced by their actors insofar as the actions are owned/believed in by virtual others, “can be understood as every movement that shifts the consumption [or enjoyment] of a product from the consumer to a delegated consumption agency” (19), such as occurs with canned laughter in a sitcom, or buying desired books as a gift, or ‘Liking’ another person’s exuberant status update. These mechanisms of pseudo-experience are characterized by both a sense of reflexive awareness and compulsiveness: The Catholic interpassive subject knows that lighting a candle is not the same as praying, but nevertheless does so, repeatedly, consistently, and subsequently feels as if they have in fact said the Pater Noster. This process has the form of fetishistic disavowal (Je sais bien…mais quand même…) as described in Mannoni’s account of ritualistic, superstitious belief versus religious faith; as such, contemptuously “knowing better . . . prevents the actors from considering themselves as carriers of the illusion” and so is “the condition for devotion to the illusion” (41), a knowledge that allows for the forgetting of knowledge. The same is the case with play, as outlined by Huizinga: “[P]recisely because the game is ‘nonsense’ in [the subjects’] eyes, a mere game, and because they therefore disdain and hate the game (while [ambivalently] simultaneously loving it, whether for the suspended illusion that is presented in it or for the suspension of that illusion), they fall under its spell” (104). In effect, what makes modern interpassive operations, characterized as they are by contemporary asceticism and strengthening ideological faith, so engaging is a dialectical process wherein:

(a) A subject distances herself from, and with knowledgeable disdain for, originary ritualistic, symbolic practice, such as totemic magic performed for a naïve virtual other (258);

(b) That contempt, as a “symbol of negation[,] thus enables neurotics to transform forbidden object-libido into ego-libido” (152), which pleasurably reinforces narcissistic self-esteem;

(c) Insofar as the initial disavowal of (a) is itself repressed in the obsessional neurosis of (b), “[t]he unconsciously experienced pleasure is defended as a treasure, but experienced manifestly as displeasure” (210).

Unfortunately, Pfaller veers in his final conclusion to suggest a “culture that is capable of recognizing the form in which its illusions exist, eliminating the need to misjudge the principle of their lust” (282) by remaining at the fundamental level of symbolic, interpassive belief — and, as such, renouncing any ideal ego, or the accumulation of ego-libido in narcissistic religious faith.

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.

The Medium Always Arrives @ #MLA16

In 1966, the Beach Boys released the legendary Pet Sounds, Bob Dylan dropped the double album Blonde on Blonde on us, the Fab Four shot Revolver our way, and Jacques Lacan published his collected papers up to that point, Écrits. The various essays and talks are presented in more or less chronological order—and I mean Lacan’s, not Lennon’s, work here—with the exception of the first text, the Seminar on “The Purloined Letter” from 1956, the height of Lacan’s structuralist period and his investigation into the Symbolic register of psychical experience. Lacan himself draws the reader’s attention to this anachronism in an appended introduction to the introductory material—a few prefatory pages which, mind you, are placed after the Seminar text: It’s confusing and temporally convoluted, but, hey, that’s psychoanalysis in general and Lacan was nothing if not performative. He saw in the Seminar the widest ranging and most accessible elucidation of his theory of “intersubjective communication…in which the sender,” to quote Lacan, “receives from the receiver his own message in an inverted form” (30). Isn’t it ironic, then, don’t ya think, that the Seminar on “The Purloined Letter” ends, right before the new beginnings, with what is perhaps Lacan’s most contentious and misunderstood claim: “[W]hat the ‘purloined letter,’ nay, the ‘letter en souffrance,’ means is that a letter always arrives at its destination” (ibid). No doubt, Lacan meant here many things, and chief among them that a letter, a signifier rather than the signified, is beyond the guidance or control of its so-called sender and will arrive where it arrives, when it arrives, by any means of arriving, regardless of whatever conscious intent is behind the letter.

In his extensive account of Poe’s short detective story, Lacan shows that it is the locative instance or syntagmatic contingency of the titular letter that triangulates and transforms the various intersubjective relationships of the narrative, irrespective of what message the letter might in actuality contain. All that matters is the materiality and position of the letter within a signifying chain for it to have a perturbing effect; as such, a letter never need leave a desk to arrive, it never even needs to be opened—hence a letter is no more than an envelope. Knowledge of the mere existence of a letter, the threat that it might reveal something dangerous or the possibility it contains something titillating, is enough for a plot to be thrown into motion, to cause people to act a part. For Lacan, the entirety of a Symbolic network—which consists of the plurality of competing discourses and contexts that make up our subjective environs, and which he also famously calls the unconscious “structured like a language”—can dramatically shift with the unexpected intervention of a letter; the point here being that letters or signifiers, the envelopes that say more than the ink they contain, in their performative materiality are the actual agents motivating and organizing unconscious desires and patterns of thought. In that case, to say that the letter always arrives means simply that a signifier, in a gravitational relationship to itself, defines who is who, the receiver or the sender, rather than the latter the letter; moreover, it is to say that meaning ineluctably, ultimately, is beyond the subject’s attempts at mastery.


Perhaps a pithier way of saying all this, losing only some of Lacan’s ambiguity and polysemy, is to recall Marshall McLuhan’s maxim that the medium is the message because, as he explained in 1964’s Understanding Media—released the same year Beatlemania hit American shores and that Lacan formed the École freudienne de Paris—“it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action,” while, on the other hand, “[t]he content or uses of such media are as diverse as they are ineffectual in shaping the form of human association and action” (20). As McLuhan would have it, a medium unconsciously prescribes a relational ontology and a system of values through the practice of its material affordances: Prior to written language, for example, it was well-nigh impossible to think in terms of linear cause and effect or, with printing, a self-conscious authorial subject; after cable TV overtook the newspaper as the West’s principle medium, and the home computer soon after that, there has emerged an increasingly neoliberal and apathetic egoism as a result of a media environment algorithmically tailored to individual tastes. In doing this, says McLuhan, “media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage,” and always an extension “of some human faculty—psychic or physical” (MM 26), prosthetically reorienting our perception and expectation of the world, and thereby reflexively redefining our own position within those surroundings. What is written on a page or put on display serves merely to distract and conceal the real work of the medium; it matters less what’s on the screen than the social and subjective situations the viewer assumes in order to see the screen at all.

The Lacanian conception of the signifier, in its performative materialism, thus shares resonances with McLuhanite media theory, particularly in the way that both defer the determination of meaning to external inputs over an easily fooled and misconceived consciousness. It is the medium that signifies, whoever may have signed the letter itself: “Such is the signifier’s answer, beyond all significations,” says Lacan: “You believe you are taking action when [the letter is] the one making you stir at the bidding of the bonds with which [it] weaves your desires” (29). Accordingly, Poe’s letter becomes an impeccable instance of McLuhan’s medium: Whatever state secret or erotic admission the envelope contains is negligible compared to the ability of a letter to be passed around easily and to easily pass notice; to say that a letter always arrives is to say little more than that a letter can be sealed in an envelope, addressed more or less, then sent—and consider what machinery kicks into gear to ensure the letter finds its destination: The stamps to print, the people to outfit, the dogs to muzzle! Moreover, in its function as a medium of long-distance communication, it is forever the possibility of a missive to be missed, such that its inevitable arrival will inevitably come as a surprise—neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night may deter the workers of the U.S. Postal Service, but whether and when the mail appears is as uncertain as the weather. So we check the mailbox, digital or dentable, made of tin or ten thousand lines of code, even if we expect nothing but spam and bills; we swipe down and hit refresh to reassure ourselves that nothing somehow escaped the panoptic server’s notice; or we shove hands into pockets, positive we felt the phone buzz and heard it ring only to find the phantoms are no longer in the machine, but under the skin.


The differences between Gmail or snail mail aside, what our current digital media ecology actualizes even more today than in 1956—the year Elvis struck it big—is Lacan’s claim that “the very notion of the unconscious” is “that the symbolic is located outside of man” (392), in our technological objects as much as in our social context, realized material practice as much as in psychical reality. Such an extimate structure—wherein what is most internal to our psychical operation is a kernel of the exterior world—does not deny the unconscious, but rather reveals the everyday character of the unconscious: The symbolic world that we participate in, participates in us simultaneously, conscribing the limits of our reality both intentionally and automatically, socially and technologically. In Lacanese, this symbolic world that envelops, involves, and invades us is one definition of the big Other—and hence Lacan will claim that “the unconscious is the Other’s discourse” (É 10), structured for us by more names and numbers than we could begin to forget, but which the uncanny machine itself remembers forever: In that it contains these multitudes, the medium is thus also the mass-age. The more ingrained technological devices become in our absentminded routines, the more their algorithms define our desires and practices, and the more our unconscious becomes digitized through a hegemonic culture and instantaneous, distance-defying global medium.

Following Freud’s procedure in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, the logic of what we might call a digital unconscious becomes evident if we look into the cracks in code opened up when technology breaks down—or, at least, breaks up whatever feelings of tranquil consistency and narcissistic mastery that media prosthetically produce. Consider, for instance, the ceaseless frustration of autocorrect software—perpetually changing my outraged outbursts to complain instead about “Donald ducking Trump”—which in its intrusive failures elucidates the overdetermined enframent of our digital symbolic networks, becoming the digital analog of parapraxes, or slips of the tongue; hence we might call these autocorrect overcorrections Freudian typos. Such daffy “ducking” puritanism has been a problem since the first iterations of predictive text in the mid-2000s, and a decade later our smartphones, the primary medium for textual communication today, seem to have failed to learn to swear—just try to get Siri to do it! Linguistic normativity is asserted here with more banality and pervasiveness than it ever was by lexicographers of the past, done so in a manner that sets limits on writing creatively, on exploring new avenues of poetic expression through slang or neologisms; hence a friend’s playfully calling me the nonstandard “hommie” becomes, after autocorrect interference, the yet more absurd “homage”—which might as well be seen as an homage to nothing other than the textual constriction that suggested the replacement in the first place.

With contemporary media, as much as designers in-scribe their planned uses and expectations for technologies into the final product—hold the phone in this way, write in that way—those technological objects in turn pre-scribe whatever interactions with them and through them users might have. Developers write algorithms that set the rhythm for everyday digital life, rhythms that, as Bruno Latour has convincingly explained, enjoin users “silently and continuously” to “do this, do that, behave this way, don’t go that way, you may do so, be allowed to go there. Such sentences look very much like a programming language” (157), which produce something like a digital unconscious, a structure of desires and injunctions that overdetermine user behavior. We might go so far as to think of this as a form of technical con-scription, a system, as Deleuze wrote at the advent of the Internet age with Nirvana on the airwaves, wherein “perpetual training tends to replace the school, and continuous control to replace the examination,” so that “one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation,” of parapraxial slippage (5). As Freud has taught us, it would be a mistake to write of these social mechanisms of control as entirely exterior to us, as mere distractions disrupting otherwise normal mental functioning; rather, they form a digital unconscious, a rhythm of values and politics and desires set by our media ecology which reframe the relationship between subject and object, self and technology.



To some degree, then, if we push the logic that the medium is the message-slash-massage to its extreme, we would be justified in flipping McLuhan on his head to suggest that humans are the unconscious extensions of their media and that online users might instead be thought of as used online. This is more than merely the simple cinematic trope of a billion-dollar brain pulling strings of code behind the scenes or screens—there is no Other of the Other, Lacan asserted in 1960, the year the Beatles formed and Elvis was discharged; rather, my claim is that the ostensible creativity and imagined anonymity experienced on the screen works to conceal the very symbolic network of institutional algorithms that make the screen work at all. We realize without realizing, we are apprehended without apprehending: Those who have ears will never hear code running and those who have eyes will never see protocol as it functions, only when and if it crashes—no Neo exists among us to see the Matrix in all its furious green glory. Less and less, quantitatively and qualitatively, we are offline; that is to say, we spend more time with computers and put more of ourselves online then we have with any medium previously—with the necessary and necessarily invisible result that the ideological rules of intersubjective language and computer language increasingly coincide. Insofar as social media networking platforms construct in advance affective relationships according to predictive algorithms, represent constricted personality traits over a virtual multiplicity, and increasingly restrict the ability to reimagine history against the archive, the affordances of a digital environment become the limits of subjective experience—which is why we can say, in a seriousness concealed behind laughter, that a new relationship or a new job or that new connection you met at MLA is not official until it’s Facebook official.

Annotated Bookshelf: Group Psychology

Freud, Sigmund. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. NY: Norton, 1990.

If, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud ruminated on the ruinous effect of World War I on individual soldiers suffering from shell shock/PTSD, developing in response a radical new theory of mental structural, in Group Psychology, published the following year, he turned his attention to one possible psychical cause of that traumatic event, that might explain how even whole nations can become swept up in such a stupid fervor of violence. Because “[i]n the individual’s mental life someone else is invariably involved, as a model, as an object, as a helper, as an opponent…from the very first individual psychology, in this extended but entirely justifiable sense of the words, is at the same time social psychology as well” (3). Hence Freud’s little book puts forward the complementary propositions “that the social instinct may not be a primitive one and insusceptible of dissection,” as some Darwinian sociologists might argue, “and that it may be possible to discover the beginnings of its development in a narrower circle, such as that of the family” (5). Freud’s term for such a collective is Masse, and although he acknowledges the possibilities for socially progressive formations, either way “[t]he psychology of such a group, as we know…the dwindling of the conscious individual personality, the focusing of thoughts and feelings into a common direction, the predominance of the affective side of the mind and of unconscious psychical life, the tendency to the immediate carrying out of intentions as they emerge—all this corresponds to a state of regression to a primitive mental activity, of just such a sort as we should be inclined to ascribe to the primal horde” described in Totem and Taboo (70). “A group is an obedient herd,” Freud says a little more pithily, “which could never live without a master” (17), and it is the figure of the primal father that Freud argues is fundamental to mass solidarity, whether in terms of a nation or a race or a religion. In every case, “the essence of a group formation consists in new kinds of libidinal ties among the members of the group” (44), who identify with one another through a mutual love for, sanctioned by, and obedient to their leader—whether a person like Trump or a concept like the right to bear arms—as a stand in for an ideal ego. “From being in love to hypnosis,” however, “is evidently only a short step” (58), for ultimately the power of the master over the group that loves him is that of suggestion, so that “[h]ypnosis is not a good object for comparison with a group formation, because it is truer to say that it is identical with it” (59).

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.

Annotated Bookshelf: From Death Instinct to Attachment Theory

Van Haute, Philippe and Tomas Geyskens. From Death Instinct to Attachment Theory: The Primacy of the Child in Freud, Klein, and Hermann. NY: Other Press, 2007.

The middle child in a trilogy aiming to reevaluate the role of sexuality in Freud and the descendants of drive theory—this book is set between Confession of Tongues and A Non-Oedipal Psychoanalysis?, neither of which I own/both of which I want—Van Haute and Geyskens provide here a clear and comprehensive account of the classical Todestrieb and its subsequent theoretical complications. For the authors, both the Freudian and the Kleinian definitions of the “death instinct” in effect remain “cosmological or biological myth[s], the clinical relevance of which can hardly be demonstrated” (138)—though that they retain the problematic albeit traditional translation of Trieb, rather than the more flexible “drive,” is worth noting in terms of their dismissal. Regardless of its utility, the suggestion of the Todestreib does at least point to the far more productive “idea of an infantile helplessness that later in life repeats itself as a trauma to which the subject cannot but relate in order to resist its own decline into radical passivity” (136). Even though Freud and especially Klein argued for a primacy of the earliest childhood experience, the authors suggest that classical drive theory ultimately reduces the born-too-early subject to its needs and hence ignores the child’s primal attachment to her mother. Yet against the overly simple and normalizing biologism of a critic like John Bowlby, which suggests that repetition compulsions arise from failed attachments, Van Haute and Geyskens turn to the work of Imre Hermann to suggest a clinical anthropology that shifts from an existential Hilflosigkeit (helplessness to satisfy or control one’s own drives) at the core of the subject’s emergence to “a universal experience of insecurity (Haltlosigkeit—lack of a hold, having nothing to hold on to)” (130). In this light, the Freudian duality of Eros and Todestrieb, both of which trap the child within a self-relation, is replaced by an Anklammerungstrieb—an attachment instinct that aims for “clinging and searching”—and “a reaction formation, the tendency to detach oneself from the primal object” (127), which is the mother; thus, “the most basic anxiety is consequently not the fear of the tension of needs (Freud) or the fear of the death instinct [Klein’s schizoid position], but the fear of being abandoned by others. The primal catastrophe according to Hermann is not a question of hunger, but the traumatic separation from the mother to whom we cling, and who holds us tight” (130)—a position which, we should add, offers to a new resonance to the Lacanian mirror stage.

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.

Annotated Bookshelf: Écrits

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. ­Translated by Alan Sheridan. NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1977.

With one foot a year into either side of the 1950s, these nine select writings exemplify the period of Lacan’s first major Kehre, as he shifted his attention from the subject’s formation in the Imaginary order, which finds its paradigm in the mirror stage and narcissistic aggressivity of identification, to the linguistic structuralism of the Symbolic order. With increasing reference to his unique algebra of mathemes and recourse to schematic or graphic representations, Lacan emphasizes the Saussure-influenced “passion of the signifier [which] now becomes a new dimension of the human condition in that it is not only man who speaks, but that in man and through man it speaks (ça parle), that his nature is woven by effects in which is to be found the structure of language, of which he becomes the material, and that therefore there resounds in him, beyond what could be conceived of by a psychology of ideas, the relation of speech” (284). By “it” Lacan means the chain of signifiers, the Symbolic discourse, that makes the unconscious “structured in the most radical way like a language, [in] that a material operates in it according to certain laws, which are the same laws as those discovered in the study of actual languages, languages that are or were actually spoken” (234). As such, in Freud, to whom Lacan is constantly returning, this would be the meaning behind “Wo Es war” and in Descartes, it equals the cogito: “It thinks rather badly, but it does think” (193) — thinking without the subject, within the subject, prior to and beyond the subject. For Lacan, then, psychoanalysis poses “not a question of knowing whether I speak of myself in a way that conforms to what I am, but rather of knowing whether I am the same as that of which I speak” (165); in other words, opposing the notion of a ineffable unique ego beyond words, in (always already) dialogical and full speech, “subjectivity yields up its true structure, the structure in which what is analysed is identical with what is articulated” (216).

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.