19 November 2006

Lars Watch

In Seminar 23, The Sinthome, Lacan remarks that no one is interested in another person's symptom. This moment marks a substantial transition from Lacan's earlier work, a transition that he'd been approaching for a number of years. In earlier seminars, following on the wake of the famous Rome Discourse, Lacan had argued that the symptom could be entirely resolved at the level of the signifier through interpretation. This position was not unlike that of the early Freud, who believed that the neurotics symptom could be entirely eradicated through interpretation. However, just as Freud eventually encountered the death drive or the compulsion to repeat, so too would Lacan discover that there's something that resists over the course of analysis, a remainder that can't be eradicated. In some circumstances, the so-called "negative therapeutic reaction" would take place, and analysis would suddenly take a left-turn for the worse, characterized by extreme hostility towards the analyst. In other cases, the analysand would leave analysis only to have the symptom flare up once again with all the force and drama that it had possessed prior to analysis. Or, as Freud had worried in his late essay Analysis Terminable and Interminable, the work of analysis could go on infinitely, with analysand and analyst (it's always the analysand that does the majority of interpreting in genuine analysis) endlessly interpreting new slips of the tongue, symptoms, dreams, etc.

Lacan would discover this as well-- crushing the happy dream of analysis in confronting an analysis that goes on for years, even decades --leading him to rethink the end of analysis. In Seminar 22, RSI, Lacan will present two options: Either the analysand believes in the symptom (in which case analysis has failed), or the analysand identifies with the symptom. If the first option marks a failure of analysis, then this is because it marks a residue of transference that has not fallen away over the course of analysis. To believe in the symptom is to believe that there is a final signifier, a last interpretant. Yet this is equivalent to believing that the Other exists, that there is an answer to the symptom that could tell us what we are once and for all. On the other hand, identification with the symptom would consist, perhaps, of two things: 1) the subject that identifies with the symptom is the subject that says "I am that", and 2) the subject that identifies with the symptom is the subject that identifies with the process by which symptoms are produced, with the nonsense and the activity of meaning making that is called for in this nonsense. In other words, the late Lacan has carried out a separation of the symptom from the field of meaning, from the field of the Other, which is what will lead him to create the new concept of "sinthome" as a sort of symptom purified of all meaning with respect to the Other, a pure process, such as what we find in the literature of Joyce. I identify with this nonsense at the heart of my being. This is the Lacan that will begin to focus on writing and the letter, in contrast to the signifier and the signified. It is the literality of the letter as opposed to the play of the signifier, and it is a literality that promises the subtraction of a mute jouissance of the letter, no longer caught up in the web of the Other. For more on this, I refer readers to the extraordinary collection of essays edited by Luke Thurston in Re-Inventing the Symptom.

If no one is interested in the symptom of another, then this is because the sinthome is nonsensical, a silent jouissance, a jouissance that has been subtracted from the field of meaning and the Other. Sinthome is symptom that has become drive. I find it impossible to be interested in Joyce, for even when I'm interested in Joyce, I am interested in myself. The jouissance of the letter embodied in Joyce's text functions as a rorschach for my own symptom, which is why interpretations of Joyce are always the pet projects of their authors. One might say something similar of Lacan's reading of Freud or any reading of Lacan. The beauty of any reading of Lacan is that one is singularly responsible for what Lacan will have been. In this regard, Lacan's writing performatively enacts his theory of "oracular interpretation"-- interpretations that can be taken in a variety of different ways --making the reader, like the analysand, responsible for what they find in the text.

It is this inability to maintain interest in any other's symptom that leads me to surprise when I read Spurious' diary today. There, in an uncharacteristic vein, Lars writes,
Do you see - I've cursed myself now, and this will be a bad post, I will have confided too much and at too great a length and should lead it home now, like a horse by its nose. Home: you have been out, and now it's time to come home; the Law opens to enclose you. The Law welcomes you back.
Such an astonishing thing to say! I suspect that there's an element of seduction or challenge in such remarks, perhaps even a wish. These fragments that Spurious has been writing lately have less the feel of illumination, than walking into the room of someone you hardly know, a room filled with all sorts of random, yet ordinary things, and wondering what they are all about. In other words, in their very act of confiding, they seem to confide nothing, but only multiply questions. A few months ago, on a beautiful post written by Blah-feme, Lars had responded to some remarks I had made that were quite obviously attempting to display some intellectual muscle (as Blah-feme rightly pointed out over at his blog where I posted the same comment). There I wrote,
What I find myself wondering is how we can get at this materiality at all or how we can even speak of it. It always seems to escape. I believe I referenced Hegel's account of sense-certainty over at your blog. As I'm sure you're aware-- and please forgive my obsessive spelling out of details or "tutorial style", I have a tendency to go into too much detail in responding to anything, as my blog amply demonstrates, not out of any attribution of ignorance --the opening of the Phenomenology begins with sense-certainty or the sensuous-immediacy of the things itself as the ground of knowledge (and clearly you're not talking of knowledge but the thing itself). However, the moment I attempt to *say* this sensuous-immediacy, I find it slips away in the universals of language. I say "this" thing here, but "this" can just as easily be used for something else. I try to fix it with "now", "here", "I", etc., but I find myself in the same dilemma each time. I am thus unable to say sensuous immediacy but always feel to the formal and universal. The materiality thus seems to perpetually elude our attempt to indicate it, always slipping elsewhere. Doesn't precisely the same thing happen in the case of voice? I agree that all of the features you describe (in this and your more recent post) are central to the uncanny phenomenon of voice, yet they slip away in one and the same moment I try to articulate them.

Returning to my pet example of the trauma of the paternal voice that shatters the calm and pleasant world of the young child, this same child, when an analysand years later, tries to articulate the materiality, the trauma, the uncanniness, of those ringing knocks at his bedroom door, or the muffled, stern voice behind the wood, yet encounters himself as frustrated and defeated, unable to quite explain it or convey it. The materiality perpetually eludes him yet it is also perpetually there. How do we escape this Hegelian deadlock?

Very interesting stuff and beautiful writing.
To which Lars responded,
How, as Sinthome puts it, to write about the singular, or (from the perspective of 'Sense Certainity' for Hegel) the immediate without losing the materiality of the voice? By allowing that materiality to carry through into writing - to emphasise, in language, its musical aspects - sonority, rhythm - as it repeats (in Kierkegaard's sense) the thickness of the voice. Without this repetition, there is always the risk of an arid formalism, an endemic problem to philosophy and to philosophical discussions of the voice, of art etc.

I think Blah-Feme is right to suggest that engagement with specific voices is necessary. And I think Blah-Feme is also right to invoke the materiality of the voice in a language that thickens itself.
I will not say that Lars is trying to write the specific, the singular, but rather that his writing is specific. It is for this reason that there can be little or no interest in Lars' writing, though that writing might generate a good deal of interest (here I hope someone gets the double entendre, the homonym). It is a writing that has no small amount of "sinthome" in it.

All of this, I think, poses, in very vague form, a philosophical question I've been revolving about: How is it possible for an analyst to be a philosopher? Lacan, of course, is legendary for his critiques of philosophy. For Lacan philosophy is a discourse of the imaginary, an attempt to totalize the world, a discipline that disavows the constitutive split of the subject. Yet when Lars evokes "specific voices"-- so many of which we find here: Spurious, Blah-feme, Jodi Dean, Yusef, Glen, the Yak, N.Pepperell, K-Punk, $, IT, and so on --there is already a challenge to thought, for a specific voice is precisely that which evades the determination of the conceptual. A few months ago I wrote a post asking whether or not Badiou could be called a materialist. There the argument was that something is added to a mathematical space when it is materially instantiated, and this seems lost in Badiou's onto-logy. The issue is the same with philosophy in general. In the analytic setting you are concerned with the specific voice of the analysand, sans conceptuality... With it's pure materiality, it's saying, and its having been said. Lacanian concepts do not appear in the analytic setting, unless the analysand evokes them. Indeed, it's not unusual to undergo an entire analysis without being told whether you're obsessional, hysteric, psychotic, perverse, phobic, etc. All of this is irrelevant to the analysand's act of saying and to what the analysand says. Yet philosophy, it seems, institutes the regime of the exchangable and the equivalent through its formation of the concept. It effaces the singularity of the event of saying so as to institute that which might be comparable in the said. It seems to me that this is one reason that philosophy must always be at odds with literature, for literature sings the psalm of the remainder, of the materiality of the voice and the event, or of that which cannot be exchanged under the umbrella of a concept. A literary event can only be a spur for thought. What is always lost in philosophy is the event. Is it possible for philosophy to preserve the event?

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Blogger Anthony Paul Smith said...

Lars is a really wonderful writer. I actually was thinking of some bits of his I had read before coming over here. In a review I'm writing I try to make the argument that, and this means no disrespect to you, Continental philosophy's new home will be in the UK. By this I mean that, for some reason, the passion for thinking in the distinctive style that is Continental (always with the historical, political, literary, etc) is very much alive in the UK. I think Lars is part of this.

November 19, 2006 5:43 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Anthony, no offense taken. I think there are institutional reasons for this. As I see it, continental philosophy departments are not very ammenable to doing philosophy in the United States. Our students are trained to do close reading and to be intellectual historians, but not to argue, contest various positions, and develop concepts. This entails that the only way one can practice philosophy in the United States is by engaging with other thinkers and making them say what you would like to say. This problem is exacerbated by continental professional conferences, where the only papers accepted are those dealing with various masters of the tradition, rather than accepting work done by newly emerging independent thinkers. I don't know if such work is promoted in England or not, as I see a lot of commentary going on there as well. Suppose that Badiou, Ranciere, or Deleuze had been born in the United States and did their graduate work at Penn State. Would Being and Event, Disagreement, or Difference and Repetition have been written? Would it be possible for them to be written in England? There's an odd way in which this kind of work seems to be prohibited here in the States in continental journals and departments, though that might just be a fantasy on my part. The alternative seems to be "do commentary and ignore philosophy" or "do analytic philosophy and be facile". A third possibility: blog and forget the entire stinking system.

November 19, 2006 5:52 PM  
Anonymous Lars said...

tThanks as always Sinthome. This is a tangent, so my apologies to the host of this comment thread: Anthony, thanks, and I like the idea that the new home of Continental Philosophy being in the UK, and I hope this is, or becomes the case. I should say, without false modesty, that I'm not part of it at all! Clearly what is going on in and around Middlesex is very exciting, and there are other places, too - Dundee, for one, that are worth watching. And of course isolated individuals all over the place (too isolated ...).

I suppose what I think is vital is that there exist unusual fora in which the work of interesting and emerging voices is supported. For a time, there was a yearly seminar at Marjons in Plymouth where only 3 speakers were invited over 2 full days. Each speaker could invite 5 guests ('ideal interlocutors'), all of whom were fully supported in terms of travel and accommodation. Papers were circulated in advance, and the atmosphere was far removed from that of the usual conferences. Speakers were often barely published, and selected entirely on the basis of their work.

Secondly, it is vital to review at length those books which are attempts to do philosophy. Not simply to support your friends - although this, too, is important - but to foreground interesting work in the field. Of course often the field stretches far beyond philosophy. When this is the case, it is important to alert those trained as philosophers to that work.

Thirdly, genuine collaboration is very important. Not one's own work but that work that is produced between you - or even that is occasioned by a conference or a symposium on a *theme* rather than a philosopher. This is not, of course to say that it isn't it important to hold conferences on themes. I particularly admire those who continue collaborations across disciplinary fields not for one off events but over a series of years.

Fourthly, for me, the use of the internet is all. I cannot understand why journals are not available free of access, via the net. Fortunately, interesting work is being done in its own right on the net - right here at this blog, for example.

I totally agree with your comments, Sinthome. I strongly agree that independent thinkers (of which I am certainly not one) are not supported by conferences and so on whether in the UK or in the US. For the most part, publishers will not touch work in the field which is not on a recognisable name. Thankfully, there are a few who slip by, but then there is the net, which remains pitifully underused. Why aren't electronic copies of books being exchanged here? But apologies again for drawing the discussion away on a tangent.

November 20, 2006 12:34 AM  
Anonymous N. Pepperell said...

Just to pick up very briefly on something that I'd probably need to write on at greater length to have some chance of making sense - your comment: "For Lacan philosophy is a discourse of the imaginary, an attempt to totalize the world, a discipline that disavows the constitutive split of the subject." I understand the worry that informs this kind of critique - but I want to combine it, I think, with a worry from a different direction: that, if we happen to be participating in the creation of a world that, among all its various particularities, also involves something like "real abstractions", then we can disempower ourselves if we are too severe in disavowing conceptual abstraction. The task, I suspect, would be keeping abstractions in their place - using them, not as general principles and still less as normative ideals for thought, but as pragmatic tools that may be required to grasp something quite distinct - something whose specific contingency might be very difficult to capture without them... But this is probably too compressed...

November 20, 2006 12:39 AM  
Blogger Anthony Paul Smith said...


I feel the effects of being trained to read a text closely and it can be paralyzing. However, I wonder if you don't make too sharp a distinction between working through figures and "doing philosophy". I think there is a subtle difference between Difference and Repetition and Being and Event, both of which go about constructing their philosophy by engagement with figures and texts, and the commentary industry. This is why I included Lars in this, though he's always far too modest about himself. In so far as Blanchot does belong to the tradition we call philosophy who can say that his two books are merely commentaries? They are engagement and they show a real mind at work behind the writing. I worry that ontology is getting too much pride of place in the attempt to revitalize Continental philosophy, and I hope we don't leave out this kind of literary philosophy as well. I mean, isn't Lars a kind of virtual Kierkegaard (Apologies for speaking as if you weren't here)? Maybe I define philosophy too broadly, I've been accused of this before and I'm not sure they were wrong.

November 20, 2006 1:00 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

N.P., I think that's a very good point. We don't want to go in the opposite direction of being paralyzed or incapable of making any affirmative statement by virtue of the thesis that it is only a statement within one contingent world. It seems to me that a good deal of deconstruction and some variants of postmodern theory have gone this route.

November 20, 2006 10:43 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Anthony, I don't disagree. I recognize that all philosophical texts are produced within a dialogical network. I've occasionally described philosophical texts as very slow conversations on this blog. I also recognize works such as Derrida's Speech and Phenomena, Dissemination, Of Grammatology, Heidegger's lectures on Kant, Plato, Leibniz, Aristotle, etc., and the works of Blanchot as philosophical texts.

On the one hand, I'm arguing that continental philosophy in the States is subject to certain institutional constraints that actually inhibit philosophical work and promote commentary alone. In my view, just about the only genuine philosophy being done in the States (and perhaps England as well) is Anglo-American. Even Ed Casey, who does original phenomenological work, must filter those phenomenological analyses through commentaries on other phenomenologists. About the closest thing we have to philosophers in the United States are figures such as Judith Butler, and various feminist and queer theorists, who enjoy a greater degree of conceptual freedom due to the relative newness of their field. In short, I think the issue here is one of the signature. If you are a continentalist in the States than your signature is largely under erasure. None of this is to denigrate commentary or hermeneutics.

On the other hand, I think much of this has to do with how philosophy is taught in continental programs. One of the things that I've found in my experience is that everything comes to be driven by textual hermeneutics, and that there's something scandalous in arguing against one of the great masters or contesting a claim made by the master. Again and again these sorts of arguments are responded to with the claim that the disputant is "misinterpreting" the work, that they need to go back and look more carefully, etc. That is, engagement with another thinker is reduced to questions of *interpretation* rather than questions of the legitimacy of claims. We're taught to *understand* texts, not to question whether they're true or false, sound or unsound. This generates blank stares when someone does, in fact, dispute a text. Indeed, it seems to me that if you're not practicing Anglo-American philosophy, the only thinkers entitled to make truth claims and argue against other thinkers are the French and Germans. French and German philosophers make truth claims and the rest get busy interpreting these claims, writing commentaries on these claims, applying these claims in a variety of ways, etc. Once again, this is not to dispute the importance of good interpretation, just to point to a rather bizarre phenomenon.

November 20, 2006 10:56 AM  
Anonymous N. Pepperell said...

I wouldn't have thought to generalise from my experiences, but what you're saying certainly matches them: I was told quite explicitly that, given my interests, I had to become an intellectual historian and, in practice, could only ever get projects approved that were commentary-based. I was constantly having to fend off questions whose premise seemed to be, essentially, that one would be an acolyte of a particular tradition: "whose" was I? I had thought this was an idiosyncracy of my US university - it's a bit depressing to hear that it might be more general (although it does make sense of certain aspects of what seems to be published...).

I have more freedom in Australia - at the cost of an intellectual community (I'm not making generalisations about Australian scholarship as a whole here - this may be a function of the institution where I'm currently working, which I value because it trusts me enough to leave me alone to do my work, but which has a very strong policy and practice orientation).

An orientation to truth claims is still very unfashionable everywhere - this, though, it seems to me is more of an historical issue, and has, I think, been in the process of breaking for the past several years now: you can feel in the work of graduate students coming up through the ranks, for example, a much greater comfort level with these kinds of questions - perhaps not enough to make this a dominant orientation, but enough to make it much easier to find other people here and there with whom you can speak... I think this is also visible in some more practically-oriented social movements... Perhaps a byproduct of increasing familiarity with recent transformations, which no longer seem so reality-shattering in their implications... Not sure...

November 20, 2006 1:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Levi, I was going to pick up on your dichotomy of philosophy as focusing on the general (or conceptual) and literature as pursuing the singular. Could you elaborate what exactly you mean by that? I was going to say some Rortian stupidity that Nietzsche is as much of a poet as Mallarme but this is too trivial. Over the time, I've come to see the literature-philosophy split in purely formal terms, per Kripe, as a result of a "primal baptism". That is, I suspect that once upon a time in the ancient Greece, something went horribly wrong and someone had a good ideological or whichever other reason to believe that that the kind of things Plato is writing is really different from poetry. Poetry was of course always part of the official political machine due to being institutionalized in ancient Greece much sooner, rhapsodic excesses being the necessary obscene complement of the official culture. Every social formation needs a poet to justify its existence. But which nation needs a philosopher? What then interests me is this moment in time when philosophy splits off from the official literature. It's like Freud's seeking the primal crime of killing the father of the primordial horde. You know there never was one, empirically, but you still sense that the cultural norms, along with the much celebrated philosophy-literature distinction, are somehow arbitrary, they've got to be based on some primal act of foundation.

November 23, 2006 12:29 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Anon, I'm not sure that I have a sophisticated theoretical account of the distinction between literature and philosophy. My point was just that when I deal with the narrative of an analysand, what is important is the events that have populated their life and the style of their language, rather than the way in which they exemplify a set of concepts or can be treated as equivalent to others. There's a reason psychoanalysts write case studies: every analysis is singular. By contrast, I take it that the concept institutes the regime of exchangability, where two things can be seen as equivalent to one another in terms of the intension of the conception. Historically philosophy has sought to ignore the individual differences of things, treating them as irrelevant to the conceptual comprehension of a *type* of thing. This has begun to change somewhat, but not much. By contrast, it seems to me that literature is focused on precisely these individual differences or differences that escape conceptual comprehension. I wasn't trying to defend a Platonic perspective on this difference, though I might have inadvertantly ended up doing so. Plato used this distinction as a way of dismissing the poetic, whereas I was doing precisely the opposite.

November 23, 2006 9:06 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Or take the Lacanian practice of not revealing diagnoses over the course of analysis. This is one way in which analysis is radically different from therapy. In therapy you go to your therapist, often take a test or answer a series of questions, and the therapist comes back and tells you that you're suffering from depression, are borderline psychotic, are schizoid, etc. Of course, all of this is for the sake of insurance companies. Therapy unfolds under a medical model, and aims at subsuming the patient under a general concept such as "depression", that then renders the patient equivalent as an instant of a concept.

In analysis you'll never hear any of this. Indeed, analysts don't have patients at all, nor are they dealing with illnesses, but rather have "analysands" and deal with *solutions*. For an analyst a symptom isn't a sickness, but a solution. You will never hear your analyst give you a diagnosis because the diagnostic categories are irrelevant to the process of analysis (and are even counter-productive as they position the analyst as master that *names* the analysand, whereas the aim is for the analysand to name himself). Nor will you hear your analyst say "this is objet a", "this is repression", "this is identification", etc. All the analyst says is "talk", and the rule is that the analyst can only intervene in and through what the *analysand* has introduced into discourse. In this regard, analysis is radically anti-conceptual and attends only to the fabric of the analysand's discourse, the singular events that populate the analysand's life, and the style that the analysand's speech embodies and enacts. This is the opposite of philosophy, where individual events and narratives tend to disappear altogether in favor of the pristine concept. One need only read Hegel's Science of Logic side by side with Freud's case study on Dora to discern this difference.

November 23, 2006 9:15 AM  
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