Levi R. Bryant

The Democracy of Objects

    4. The Interior of Objects 4. The Interior of Objects > 4.5. Autopoietic Asphyxiation: The Case of the Lacanian Clinic

    4.5. Autopoietic Asphyxiation: The Case of the Lacanian Clinic

    To illustrate these points about the nature of translation and the closure of objects, I now turn briefly to some schematic remarks about the ontological foundations of the Lacanian clinic. My aim here is twofold. On the one hand, my aim is to schematically outline why Lacanian analysts conduct themselves as they do with respect to the treatment of their analysands. On the other hand, I wish to head off the criticism that object-oriented ontology ignores humans or the subject. As discussed in the introduction, the thesis of onticology and object-oriented philosophy is not that we should ignore subjects and focus instead on objects, but rather that being is composed entirely of objects or substances. In this respect, subjects are not other than objects, but rather are a particular type of object that relates to the world in a specific way. Far from excluding subjects, onticology is completely able to integrate various theories of the subject. What onticology and object-oriented philosophy object to is thus not the category of the subject, but rather the modernist conception of the subject in which the object is always coupled to the subject or culture in some form or another. Onticology, by contrast, seeks to think a subjectless object or an object that is not merely a correlate of a subject.

    The account of autopoietic systems and operational closure developed in the foregoing turns out to be quite consonant with Lacanian psychoanalysis. In many respects, this comes as no surprise for, as a brief glance at the index to Seminar II indicates, Lacan was well aware of cybernetics which is, in turn, deeply related to autopoietic theory. [219] One of the features that marks Lacan's account of the subject is that it is thoroughly “intersubjective”. The subject is both constituted in the field of the Other and is a perpetual relation with the Other. This is reflected both in Lacan's theory of the various subject-structures (neurosis, psychosis, and perversion) and how analysis is conducted.

    Speaking strictly in the context of neurosis, it is ordinarily a symptom that brings a person to analysis. Setting aside the intricacies and transformations Lacan's theory of the symptom undergoes over the course of his teaching, it is important to note that Lacan's conception of the psychoanalytic symptom is not that of an underlying pathology arising from organic causes—for example, a chemical imbalance—but rather of the expression of a repressed desire and a relation to the Other. In this respect, the symptom is a form of speech, an address to the Other, that speaks without speaking. For example, my breaking of the chalk was saying something to my students. In this regard, Lacan remarks “that symptoms can be entirely resolved in an analysis of language, because a symptom is itself structured like a language: a symptom is language from which speech must be delivered”. [220] The symptom, in short, is a way of speaking or addressing the Other while simultaneously not speaking.

    Yet the symptom is also an expression of desire. However, here we must recall that for Lacan “desire is the desire of the Other”. As we saw in the last section, this can entail that desire desires the Other, that desire desires to be desired by the Other, and that desire desires as the Other desires. In each instance, desire marks an intersubjective relation to the Other or a way of relating to the Other. In the case of neurosis, the desire that underlies the symptom is a repressed desire that the analysand, for whatever reason, cannot acknowledge or embrace. In this connection, it is crucial to note that the aim of analysis is not to treat the symptom, but to transform the analysand's relationship to both their own desire and the Other. While psychoanalytic treatment can, indeed, dissolve many symptoms—I ceased, for example, breaking chalk after that session—those symptoms that are dissolved come to be replaced by other symptoms. This is because, in the case of neurosis, the subject very much is its desire. What Lacan aims for rather is an avowal of desire and a separation from the Other.

    In many respects, the symptom can be seen as a way of responding to the enigma of the Other's desire. In Seminar X, Lacan asks us to imagine standing before a female praying mantis without knowing whether or not we are wearing the mask of a male or female praying mantis. [221] As is well known, the female praying mantis devours the male praying mantis after mating with him. This perfectly embodies the dilemma of desire. Insofar as we don’t know which mask we are wearing, we don’t know what we are for the female praying mantis. The symptom can thus be thought as a way of surmounting or filling out this enigma by forming a hypothesis of what the Other desires. Desire, it could be said, embodies our non-knowledge with respect to the Other's desire. Embodied in all intersubjective relations is the sense that despite the fact that we are being addressed by the Other, we nonetheless do not know why the Other is addressing us. Put differently, we do not know the desire that animates the Other's relation to us. In this regard, the desire of the Other closely mirrors the phenomenon of operational closure with respect to systems. The Other perturbs us in a variety of ways, but we are unable to determine what intentions lie behind the Other's interaction with us.

    It is this non-knowledge with respect to the desire of the Other that generates the fantasy and the symptom. Within the Lacanian framework, the fantasy is not so much a wish for something we lack, but is rather an answer to the enigma of the Other's desire. Fantasy, we could say, is a hypothesis as to what the Other desires. Through fantasy, the anxiety the subject encounters in the face of the enigma of the Other's desire is thereby minimized. Even where the fantasy is rather grim (“the Other wants to beat and exploit me!”), the answer to the enigma of the Other's desire is nonetheless preferable to the anxiety-provoking non-knowledge of that desire. With the answer provided by the unconscious fantasy, the analysand can now set about either thwarting or satisfying what they unconsciously believe to be the Other's demand, while also providing themselves with a schema for understanding what the Other wants from her.

    Within a Luhmannian framework, we can already see that fantasy serves a function deeply analogous to the role of distinction in the continuing operations of a system. Here it will be recalled that distinction is a necessary condition for indication. If a system is to be capable of indicating anything within its environment, then it must first draw a distinction. However, distinction embodies two blind spots. On the one hand, every distinction contains a blind spot in the form of its unmarked state or what falls outside of the distinction. On the other hand, the distinction itself embodies a blind spot insofar as in the use of the distinction to make indications, the distinction itself becomes invisible, disguising the manner in which it renders indication possible. Just as Lewis Carroll said that you can eat your food or talk to your food but not eat your food and talk to your food, distinction is such that you can use your distinctions to make indications or observe your distinctions, but you can't observe your distinctions and use your distinctions. As a consequence, the use or operation of distinctions in making indications or observations produces a “reality effect” where what is observed or indicated appears to be a direct property of the indicated itself, rather than an effect of the distinction that renders the indication possible. So it is with fantasy as well. The fantasy is that which recedes in the background while structuring relations to the Other. As such, fantasy creates an effect whereby the manner in which fantasy transforms perturbations from the Other into information appears to directly result from the Other or to be a property of the Other itself. As Žižek puts it, “[t]he role of fantasy [is to] mediate between the formal symbolic structure and the positivity of objects we encounter in reality—that is to say, it provides a 'schema' according to which certain positive objects in reality can function as objects of desire, filling in the empty places opened up by the formal symbolic structure”. [222] However, it is not simply the holes in the symbolic structure that are at stake here, but the opacity of the Other in our relations to the Other that fantasy fills. In this regard, it can be seen that fantasy is a direct response to the withdrawal of objects or others, to their constitutive opacity borne out of the operational closure of other persons and the social field as a whole.

    The operational closure of subjects and the role played by the fantasy pose special challenges in the analytic setting. If fantasy structures the analysand's interpersonal relations in such a way as to pre-interpret perturbations from others in a particular way, how can the analyst intervene in the psychic economy of the analysand without merely reinforcing the analysand's fantasy and confirming their unconscious conception of the Other? Already we see that this question is a question of how it is possible to relate to operationally closed objects that cannot be dominated or controlled. Expressed a bit differently, the point here revolves around the status of information as it functions in psychic systems. One psychotherapeutic approach might have it that information is something that can be exchanged between therapist and patient such that it retains its identity or the meaning of the message. This seems to have been the premise of Freud's early treatments where he would didactically explain the dreams of his patients and their symptoms as, for example, in the case of Dora. However, as Freud quickly learned, not only did such didactic explanations have little impact on the symptom or in transforming the relationship of the subject to the Other, but in certain instances, such as in the case of Dora, it actually led patients to flee the analytic setting. Somehow a practice had to be devised that allowed the analysands to arrive at these discoveries for themselves, and the reason for this revolves around how information functions in closed systems.

    In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan argues that the end of analysis consists in traversing the fantasy and separating from the desire of the Other. In light of the foregoing, we are now in a position to understand what Lacan is getting at with these proposals. Traversing the fantasy consists in a shift in perspective from relating to the Other in terms of first-order observation through the fantasy to second-order observation of the fantasy. The analysand shifts from making indications based on the distinctions drawn by the fantasy, to observing how he or she observes; that is, observing the fantasy itself. Accompanying this shift is a realization of the contingency of the manner in which the fantasy has drawn distinctions or how the analysand might be mistaken about the Other's desire. In other words, the analysand is confronted with the enigma of the Other's desire and thereby freed from the unconscious belief that the Other is making a specific demand of the subject. Accompanying this shift is a separation from the desire of the Other. Where first-order observation based on fantasy creates the impression that it is the Other itself that is making a specific demand, the shift towards second-order observation reveals the manner in which the subject's fantasy formatted perturbations from the Other in such a way as to transform them into a specific demand. Like Harry Angel in Alan Parker's Angel Heart, the analysand discovers that what he took to be the Other's demand was his desire all along. [223] At this point, the analysand is in a position to avow his desire, which, in turn, is often accompanied by a quite significant shift in how the subject relates to his or her symptom.

    Yet how is this shift accomplished within the psychoanalytic setting? This shift is brought about by the manner in which the analyst conducts herself. As has often been remarked, the analyst is an enigmatic and impassive figure who seldom responds to the analysand. Lacan goes so far as to compare the position of the analyst with playing dead. As Lacan remarks, “the analyst concretely intervenes in the dialectic of analysis by playing dead—by 'cadaverizing' his position, as the Chinese say—either by his silence where he is the Other with a capital O, or by canceling out his own resistance where he is the other with a lowercase o”. [224] This activity of playing dead serves the important function of confronting the analysand with the enigma of the Other's desire. Where the analysand expects the analyst to say something, thereby giving him a framework by which to transform this enigma of the Other's desire into a specific demand that the analysand can then satisfy or thwart, the analyst instead presents the analysand with a blank screen, thereby bringing the analysand before an inscrutable desire or a question: What does the Other want? In the early sessions of my own analysis, for example, I recall asking my analyst how he was doing at the beginning of my sessions or would inquire about some aspect of an article that he had recently published. My analyst would respond with utter silence that would then be punctuated with a drawn out “so?” inviting me to begin free associating. In this way, the analyst gave me no foothold to transform his desire into a demand. Whatever I began talking about issued from me and me alone rather than taking place as a response to a demand. This impassivity of the analyst's position thus gradually brings the analysand before the manner in which he or she projects certain demands on to the Other. Insofar as the analyst makes no specific demands beyond the demand to free associate, the analysand increasingly becomes aware of the manner in which the Other makes a specific demand of him issues from himself rather than the Other. In this way, he gradually traverses the fantasy, coming to see how he throws the net of fantasy over the Other as a way of transforming the enigma of desire into demand.

    However, it would be a mistake to suppose that the analyst merely sits there quietly. The analyst does ask questions and make remarks. Yet the remarks that the analyst makes are generally of an enigmatic and polysemous nature, amenable to a variety of different interpretations. Lacanian interpretation does not tell an analysand what such and such means, but is rather an enigmatic and polysemous speech-act on the part of the analyst wherein the analysand or the patient creates the meaning. In this respect, one way of understanding Lacanian interpretation is as systematic misinterpretation. A properly psychoanalytic interpretation does not register that the analyst has understood—this would reinforce the belief that information is transmitted between closed systems—but rather works on the statements of the analysand in a surprising way that creates new meaning. Returning to the example from the last section, when my analyst intoned “pressure at the board”, this statement systematically misinterpreted my discourse and upset my anticipations by taking the discourse I was articulating around physiology and physics (placing too much pressure on the chalk) and formulated a polysemous statement that simultaneously articulated these points about physics and physiology while also transforming the meaning in such a way as to indicate my pressure and anxiety at the board.

    This particular form or practice of interpretation serves two important functions within the clinical setting. On the one hand, insofar as the interpretation is never quite what the analysand expects and insofar as it always slightly misinterprets what the analysand is saying, it becomes an event capable of producing information or resonance within the analysand. That is, it functions as an event capable of selecting new system-states. Where an interpretation that merely indicates the analyst has understood produces no new information (information repeated is no longer information), the minimal surprise embodied in a psychoanalytic interpretation carries the possibility of generating new meaning and redrawing distinctions that structure the analysand's experience of the world. As such, it becomes possible to shift the symptom into new basins of attraction that might be far less painful for the subject. On the other hand, insofar as the interpretation seems to misunderstand the analysand, it systematically undermines the analysand's deeply held belief that he has access to the Other, thereby assisting in the process of separation from the Other.

    This brief gloss on Lacanian practice hardly does justice to the depth and complexity of Lacanian theory. I have, for example, said nothing about the objet a, jouissance, the various subject-structures, the imaginary, symbolic, and the real, and so on. However, my point is that if Lacan is right, then the quandaries the neurotic subject finds himself in follow directly from the ontological withdrawal of objects and their operational closure as systems. The quandaries of the neurotic subject are quandaries that emerge when psychic systems are coupled to other operationally closed systems such as the social system into which they are born and relations to other people. The subject wonders what their place is in the social system, what they are for the social system, and what they are for other people. Yet because systems are operationally closed, because psychic systems are both outside other psychic systems and exist only in the environment of the social system, there is no univocal answer to these questions. The symptom and the fantasy are ways in which this dilemma is navigated. This is true even where the symptom has an organic foundation in, for example, the neurology of the analysand, for the psychic system must still give these perturbations coming from within its own internal environment a meaning. Lacanian theory and practice gives us insight into just what is entailed by the withdrawal of objects, how this withdrawal is organized, and the reality effect produced as a function of the way in which objects construct their openness to their environment.


    1. Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book II: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, trans. Sylvana Tomaselli (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1988). return to text
    2. Lacan, Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006) p. 223. return to text
    3. Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Seminar X: Anxiety (1962–1963), trans. Cormac Gallagher (Unpublished) lesson of 14 November 1962. return to text
    4. Slavoj Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies (New York: Verso, 1997) p. 7. return to text
    5. Cf. Žižek, Tarrying With the Negative, pp. 9–12. return to text
    6. Jacques Lacan, Écrits, p. 357. return to text