21 January 2007

On The Symptom

In my previous post I spoke of how Lacan's Borromean knot can be mapped on to Adorno's sorting of concepts, remainders, and the whole in terms of the symbolic, the real, and the imaginary, yet I strangely said nothing of the fourth loop in Lacan's Borromean knot. Compare Lacan's original version of the Borromean knot, with the one I presented yesterday... A knot that Lacan somewhere refers to as the "Lacanian knot". If we examine the original version of the Borromean knot depicted on the right, we notice that the three orders are linked together in such a way that if any one of the rings are cut, the other two fall away. This, then, would be a model for psychosis. The cutting of one of the rings leads the structural relations among the orders to fall apart. In yet another poorly drawn depiction of this version of the knot-- I call it poor as it fails to show how the knots are tied together --we see how the Borromean knot can be used to locate the various forms of jouissance that we encounter in the clinic-- JA or the jouissance of the Other, a or surplus-jouissance, and J-phi or phallic jouissance --which allows us to localize the various forms of jouissance involved in the symptom and allows us to devise techniques for properly handling these forms of jouissance.

With the so-called "Lacanian knot", everything changes. As Colette Soler puts it,
[The]... Borromean clinic not only involves a reformulation of traditional clinical issues, but also introduces new categories of symptomatology... These diagnoses relied no only on the three categories of the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real that he already had at his disposal, but also crucially dependend on the three modes of jouissance: the Jouissance of the letter as One [JA], the jouissance in the chain of meaning, and the jouissance which can be said to be Real because it exists as a subtraction from the two preceding ones. In light of these distinctions, it is not enough to say that the symptom is a mode of jouissance; one must define which mode, and thus produce a new declension of grammar of symptoms according to the jouissance that gives them consistency. Then one will be able to speak of Borromean symptoms in the case where the three consistencies and the three jouissances are bound (neurosis and perversion), of symptoms that are not Borromean (psychosis) and others still that simply repair a flaw of the knot. For this last type of symptom, using the example of Joyce, Lacan produced the new category of the sinthome, which he used afterwards in a more general way. (The Cambridge Companion to Lacan, "The Paradoxes of the Symptom in Psychoanalysis", 94)
With the Lacanian knot the first thing we observe is that a new ring has appeared, labelled Sigma, the matheme for the sinthome, and that the three rings of the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real are no longer tied to one another as in the case of the original Borromean knot. Rather, Sigma, the sinthome, supplements the three rings, binding them together despite the fact that they aren't tied, repairing the flaw in original knotting. As Soler notes, an entirely new symptomology opens up as a result of this new knot, for now we can imagine scenerios in which not only the three orders are untied from one another, but where one order is tied to another-- such as the symbolic to the imaginary or the imaginary to the real --while neither are tied to the third. Sigma then intervenes to make up for this deficit, this lack of a tie, and can repair the lack of a relation in a variety of ways. As J.A. Miller notes, the shift from the Borromean knot to the Lacanian knot marks a fundamental shift in Lacan's thought about the symptom, for now we have a generalized theory of the symptom-- A theory where everything, as it were, becomes a symptom, including the name(s)-of-the-father. As a prelude to this development in Seminar 23, The Sinthome, Lacan will declare in Seminar 22, RSI, that "there is no subject without a symptom". This new symptomology is largely unexplored to date and is fertile ground for productive clinical and theoretical work.

Unlike traditional psychotherapeutic approaches, Lacan, like Freud, begins with the thesis that the symptom is a solution and a form of satisfaction. The symptom is not a alien invader preventing the subject from attaining normality, nor is it a disease to be cured through medication. In this regard, there is no "normal" or "healthy" subject, and it is a mistake to believe that the aim of psychoanalysis is to cure someone from their neurosis, perversion, or psychosis. These are fundamental stances of subjectivity defining the relationship of the subject to the Other and jouissance, not diseases.

The question that thus begs to be asked is what leads the analysand to enter analysis at all? If the symptom is a form of satisfaction, if it is a solution, why does the analysand enter analysis? In Negative Dialectics, Adorno remarks that,
If a stroke of undeserved luck has kept the mental composition of some individuals not quite adjusted to the prevailing norms-- a stroke of luck they have often enough to pay for in their relations with their environment --it is up to these individuals to make the moral and, as it were, representative effort to say what most of those for whom they say it cannot see or, to do justice to reality, will not allow themselves to see. Direct communicability to everyone is not a criterion of truth. We must resist the all but universal compulsion to confuse the communication of knowledge with knowledge itself, and to rate it higher, if possible-- whereas at present each communicative step is falsifying truth and selling out. (41)
Here Adorno seems to speak of a sort of privileged experience, a sort of person embodying a failure in the social order, as the place from which critique can emerge. In my brief gloss on the Borromean knot, I did not discuss the forth loop represented by the greek letter "Sigma", which denotes the symptom holding together the other three strings. In psychoanalysis the symptom is that form of sense-laden enjoyment that holds the psychic-system together, compensating for the frustrations that occur as a result of socialization and is a way of attaining satisfaction by other means. For instance, drawing on a favorite example of obsessional jouissance from Freud, rather than masturbating, I wash my hands hundreds of times a day (a form of phallic jouissance, insofar as it's not dependent on the Other). Handwashing comes to serve a dual function-- On the one hand, it functions as a substitute for my masturbatory desire. However, on the other hand, it bows to the punishing demands of the super-ego, by marking the "uncleanliness" of my desire and punishing me for my transgression (my hands become painfully raw and cracked). "But you haven't transgressed if you don't actually masturbate." Recall that the unconscious makes no such distinction, that the primary process knows no difference between reality and fantasy-- I am every bit as guilty of my fantasized acts as I am of my actual acts.

Similarly we can speak of social-symptoms as serving a like role, such as the Jew in anti-Semitism serving the function of marking the place of failed utopian aspirations and the overcoming of antagonism, while allowing the social order to maintain itself and reproduce its identity by maintaining extant social relations through persecuting the Jew rather than directly targeting the social system itself. My social space is riddled with contradictions and conflicts. An ideology or community never delivers exactly what it promises, but always brings with it disappointment and requires sacrifice on my part. I cannot live among others and act directly on my jouissance, but must either defer jouissance as can be seen in the crass example of toilet training where I no longer go immediately, or sacrifice certain forms of jouissance altogether. Of course, jouissance itself is indestructable, which means that sacrifice is impossible and the sacrificed jouissance will always return in some other form. The point is that even though I experience frustration and antagonism with regard to whatever social field I identify, my very identity, my very being, is nonetheless dependent on this identification. Consequently, there is little choice to surrender these identifications. The figure of the Jew thus functions as the supplement that allows me to exercise (in both the literal sense of "act" and the figurative religious sense of an exorcism) my antagonism to the social order. I simultaneously punish myself for the jouissance I possess through my persecution of the Jew (I covertly identify with the Jew as with myself, attributing my own disavowed jouissance to him), fantasize that somewhere someone enjoys (the Jew is seen as enjoying what I have sacrificed), fantasize that my social order that I resent is persecuted by this foreign invader thereby providing myself with the enjoyment I would like to possess in attacking that order, and treat the Jew as a figure that would allow my social order complete enjoyment were I to destroy him. The symptom is an overdetermined supplement that renders my relation to this order tolerable.

Another glaring example would be Mel Gibson's pornographic film The Passion. It is not difficult to notice that Gibson is just a bit too fascinated with the suffering of the Christ, that the focus on Christ's torture has the status of a snuff film, as if compensating for the overly repressive dimension of Pauline Christianity, and covertly taking revenge on this body of doxa and these attitudes towards sexuality nowhere genuinely present in the Gospels themselves or the "red script" of Jesus, by imagining the worst possible suffering descending upon He who is responsible for this. Perhaps proof of this is the fact that the content of the Gospels, Christ's actual words and teachings, strangely fall under the bar of repression and are notably absent, as if Christ's death, not his life, were all that mattered. Such a fantasy simultaneously allows one to exact their pound of flesh or revenge for their sacrifice in entering the Catholic church or the Pauline community, while also reaffirming their commitment to the very community that is the source of their dissatisfaction, through the guilt they seek to overcome in enjoying the spectacle of this suffering.

When an analysis begins it is always of vital importance to determine what precipitated the person's entrance into analysis. From a normal psycho-therapeutic perspective this is paradoxical, as we normally think of therapy as aiming at "curing the symptoms". Under this view, one seeks treatment for their symptom. However, from the analytic perspective, a person enters analysis precisely at that point where their symptom fails, where it no longer provides the "satisfaction" it once provided (even if a painful satisfaction), when the person encounters the real that the symptom was designed to clothe and "metabolize". Adorno here seems to speak of something similar at the social level... The critic, as maladjusted individual, is that one who has had an encounter beyond the social symptom, where the symptom allowing individuals to maintain their relations has collapsed and something other has peaked through, revealing that the social system is "not-all", pas-tout, riddled by underlying antagonisms that ideology and symptoms struggle to hide from view and gentrify. Analysis begins where the symptom fails. This too would be the case with social and philosophical analysis. Is it a mistake that social theorists and philosophers have so often come from the interstices, the gaps, and the non-places of various empires? In this case, the thinker would be the real of the symptom embodied.

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7 Comments:

Blogger foucaultisdead said...

An excellent exposition.

Do you have any thoughts on the relationship between the symptom and the contemporary emergence of disorders of the imagination such as Asperger's syndrome? Although many people with AS are talented artists etc, psychiatry seems to view it as a disorder of the imagination. I have often thought that there could be more interesting things to say about the imaginary and AS if we ditched psychiatry for a Lacanian approach.

Apologies if this is too off-topic.

January 22, 2007 12:31 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

I've never worked with anyone who has AS, but diagnostically it does sound like there's some sort of unlinking of the imaginary and the symbolic. The literalism of those with AS also sounds reminiscent of psychosis, where the capacity to produce metaphors are absent. In your comment you refer to a "contemporary emergence". Is there something about the contemporary situation and the symbolic that you see as being linked to this particular structure?

January 22, 2007 4:47 AM  
Blogger foucaultisdead said...

I was thinking specifically of Zizek's thesis (in chapter 3 of The Metastases of Enjoyment) that in today's "society of spectacle, the overgrowth of imaginary realistic presentations leaves less and less space open for symbolic fiction".

So instead of talking about AS (which is inadequately historically situated by psychiatry), we should speak instead of the overgrowth of the imaginary which subsequently results in a disordering of the subject's imagination. It seems to me that this would be a good Lacanian intervention into debates over AS in the mainstream media, as it is pretty easy for even lay people to understand.

January 22, 2007 3:27 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

"It seems to me that this would be a good Lacanian intervention into debates over AS in the mainstream media, as it is pretty easy for even lay people to understand."

I tend to be a bit more pessimistic about what is easy from the standpoint of the mainstream media and lay people, as it seems to me that a good deal of the contemporary constellation in the United States where therapy is concerned is premised on the complete eradication of the subject from discourse. From the side of the various therapeutic orientations, not only do we have the vested economic interests of insurance companies that would like to see the minimization of lengthy costly treatment through medication and a set number of consultations (usually around twelve, sometimes more though at a frequency of every two weeks to every month), but also the rise of the predominance of the discourse of the university where every patient must be neatly subsumable in a diagnostic category in advance such that there are no surprises (hence the DSM-IV, which is largely for the benefit of insurance companies, not practitioners).

On the side of those seeking treatment, the growing collapse of various identities due to globalization in economics and media technologies and the continued crumbling of the big Other, has led to a corresponding increase in symptoms of hysteria such as anxiety disorders, as well as omnipresent depression (what's being mourned here?). As a result, rather than a discovery of oneself as a subject as in analysis, therapy-- which I always distinguish from analysis --has precipitated the search for a master capable of naming the subject, thereby guaranteeing a minimal ontological substantiality. The new names of the subject are strange indeed: Borderline, depressive, schizoid, dissociative, panic, etc. In being given these names-- the name of the symptom here always comes from the guru therapist, and is not an act of self-naming with respect to the symptom as in the case of analysis... One wonders why the therapist feels compelled to diagnose at all --the patient assumes a minimal identity.

Although they have no idea what they are in their day to day interpersonal relations (how could they in a world where there are layoffs every couple of years, where family relations continously crumble, where relationships are virtual, and where ethnic and national identities progressively recede) their new name as "depressive", "anxious", "dissociative", "borderline", etc gives them an identity, a *knowledge* (in the imaginary), of who they are that then serves both as a self-reinforcing feedback loop (the patient must enact the identity and begins to read up on their "disorder" in the self-help section to play the role and disover who they are), and a new set of rights and protocols surrounding victimhood in their interpersonal relations. These are unheard of nominations that have come to replace the older and failing nominations like family names, national names (American, German, French, English, etc), and ethnic names (Jew, Catholic, and so on...), and therefore provide the new ideal ego (for the ego ideal of the therapist's gaze) of a very peculiar sort.

All of this functions as a massive defense formation against the void and singularity of their unconscious and the way in which life in contemporary capital calls for us to give way on our desire. The focus on the subject has always been what has guaranteed psychoanalysis the status of a "ghetto science" and has always invited a sense of defensive horror. "What, no master to name me or university to categorize me? What, an auto-elective nomination? Gasp!" As Kurtz says at the end of Apocalypse Now, "The Horror! The Horror!"

January 22, 2007 4:24 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

"In being given these names-- the name of the symptom here always comes from the guru therapist, and is not an act of self-naming with respect to the symptom as in the case of analysis... One wonders why the therapist feels compelled to diagnose at all --the patient assumes a minimal identity."

Or to put it a bit differently, one wonders why it isn't more widely recognized and thought about that nomination or diagnosis is not simply descriptive of a pathology, but also is performatively formative of identity for the patient that then identifies with the nomination and takes it as a descriptor of his being. Addiction becomes all the more powerful in *nominating* myself as an addict, for instance; and, of course, we can recognize the performative and ritual aspects of this performativity in 12 Step programs where the first step is "admitting you have a problem", i.e., agreeing to nominate yourself and bring a certain identity into being, thereby positing the Other or making it exist at one and the same time (it's not a mistake that one of the steps consists in placing oneself in the hands of a higher power).

January 22, 2007 4:32 PM  
Blogger foucaultisdead said...

I agree with your comments about performativity and the symbolic. How long can it be until we start hearing about a Deleuzian-inspired "becoming-aspie"?

And, yes, I do have a tendency to be far too optomistic about the mainstream media and lay people. Although Zizek recently got his own three-part documentary on national television in the UK - and that can only be a move in a good direction.

Thanks for your thoughts on this topic. I myself have a diagnosis of AS, so it was very interesting to discuss it with you.

January 23, 2007 10:33 AM  
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