1-2 Psychoanalysis as an art of madness

1-2 Psychoanalysis as an art of madness

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Shannon Kelly

What is psychoanalysis and how does it work—these are my questions. I didn’t realize these questions were ones that needed to be asked at all, that is, until I made the decision to return to graduate school after several years of clinical practice in the southeastern United States. I’d been working from a Lacanian perspective, pursuing a personal analysis, writing and presenting a handful of ideas with a colleague who lived nearby. This said, I was working primarily in solitude, as there are very few analysts of any orientation in the South. I was frustrated with what felt like stagnation, both in my work and in terms of my formation as an analyst, and attributed this stagnation to my inability to be involved in any sort of analytic community. Psychoanalysis has no visible presence in the South; it is considered dead and rarely talked about in the clinical culture. Clinicians and patients don’t have much in the way of overt prejudice towards psychoanalytic ideas, but this is most often because they are wholly unfamiliar. As such, I was excited to move to the northeast and begin school at Duquesne, which, while not overtly psychoanalytic in orientation, has historically conversed with psychoanalysis in interesting ways.

After arriving at Duquesne, I found myself in a different situation than the one I had imagined. Unlike my experience in the South, where most people were silent on the topic of psychoanalysis, here everyone was talking about psychoanalysis all the time. What was both interesting and perplexing to me, however, were the ways that psychoanalysis showed up in the conversations and discussions I was having – both at Duquesne and with clinicians living and working in the Northeast. It seemed to me that psychoanalysis appeared on two sides of the proverbial coin – either portrayed as “the answer” in its sublime status as the “correct” theoretical orientation or, conversely, as an abandoned cultural relic discarded in favor of more scientifically grounded theories that “know better.”

These experiences, though disorienting during my first few weeks in this new place, were helpful in that they forced me to think about what it was that I was hearing—what was being produced in the discourse about psychoanalysis as well as what was missing from that discourse. I realized that psychoanalysis appeared in the conversation only in the position of a science or a philosophy. Whether accepted as true or rejected as an historical relic, it was in relation to its status as a body of knowledge that such claims were made. What seemed to be missing from these conversations, however, were explorations of what generations of thinkers and practitioners have found transformative about psychoanalysis. In other words, while people were talking, and occasionally arguing, about the status of psychoanalysis, no one was really talking about how it works.

So, I started asking myself—what is psychoanalysis…or what is it that I think psychoanalysis is and what does it have to offer? And, most importantly, what does it mean to be a Lacanian analyst and how is that orientation different from other types of psychoanalysis? What I came up with is this: I refuse to believe that psychoanalysis is a technique that can be applied by an expert to a patient, as is the case in CBT or DBT. I do not believe that it is the couch as a psychoanalytic object that makes the treatment effective. I refuse to believe that psychoanalysis can be reduced to an historical relic. My experience of psychoanalysis, both as patient and as clinician, has been transformative, ethical, and creative and my experience has also been that psychoanalysis bears directly on the question of human freedom. My experience personally and clinically reminds me that psychoanalysis requires a know-how rather than a know-what. I think that psychoanalysis is an art in that it works on the subject via an effect outside of meaning. Psychoanalysis is an art that affects madness. Psychoanalysis works artistically via the treatment and is produced as an art—one among many—in response to the madness and suffering of its patients. I think psychoanalysis is an art of madness.

In thinking about how to conceptualize these ideas, there are two things I want to explore, both within the Lacanian paradigm: one is the process of the treatment itself and the relation of that process to an act rather than an application or a philosophy. The other is the way that psychoanalysis gets reproduced as an artistic process insofar as that relates to the formation of analysts.

Linking psychoanalysis with the work of art

To begin it seems important to define, or at least consider, what is meant by art, artistic acts, or creativity. Art is usually thought of in terms of its object of production. An artist produces works of art. It seems to me that what is most intrinsic to the phrase “work of art,” however, is the notion of “work”—art is produced through a working of art or a working through art. Perhaps the easiest way to conceptualize the working of or through art is in contradistinction to the working in science or philosophy. Both science and philosophy are ways of working, yet both presume a meaning or a Truth that can be secured via the Other – meaning that both believe that they are working with a guarantee that meaning or Truth can be produced or located in some (other) place. Art is not usually an attempt to secure a meaning and typically makes no claims to universal truth or knowledge. It works to affect either the artist or the consumer, on some level, but it doesn’t generate meaning in the way of philosophy or science. Art passes through the Symbolic, whether via images, sounds, words, actions, but it surpasses the Symbolic insofar as its materiality exceeds any interpretation that is imposed upon it. Art works without meaning. Put in more Lacanian terms, art works via the letter to produce something new. It provokes an opening in which what is produced exceeds what can be absorbed by the Other. For an analyst, it would seem that such an encounter opens the space of ethics, of the act, and that it would be important to work to hold this space of the encounter open such that the analysand is able to recognize the possibility of a new choice.

In the only published session of Lacan’s seminar “The Moment to Conclude,” Lacan (1977) says, “Psychoanalysis must be taken seriously even though it is not a science…It’s a practice, a practice that will either endure, or not” (p. 78). He goes on to say, “What has to happen is that analysis, by a supposition, undoes with language what is done with language” (p. 80) and he calls the psychoanalyst a rhetorician – an artist of language. Despite the archeological metaphors attributed to psychoanalysis throughout the last 100 years and even the hyper-focus on Lacan’s early notions of significance and signification, it seems that, at least for Lacan, psychoanalysis has more to offer than another way of creating or uncovering meaning. While it, too, may need to pass through the Symbolic, Lacanian psychoanalysis is not merely about creating meaning or uncovering hidden meaning. For Lacan, particularly in his later work, the notion of needing to make sense of a symptom gave way to the idea that the desire to understand (by both patient and analyst) amounted to fantasy that only served to preserve the symptomatic structure. While one must work through the Symbolic, it is not with the intent of creating understanding about the symptom, but instead about creating a sinthome that one can stand. For the later Lacan, then, the focus was on an exploration of the Real and of jouissance with the intention of situating psychoanalysis as a praxis that is able to leverage the Symbolic in order to treat the Real. He says:

I’d like to get you to see that what we call rationality is a fantasy. That’s perfectly obvious in the origin of science. Euclidian geometry has all the characteristics of a fantasy. A fantasy isn’t a dream, it’s an aspiration. The idea of a straight line, for example, is obviously a fantasy. Luckily, they started out from that—topology restored what might be called weaving (tissage). The idea of a neighborhood is simply the idea of consistency, if such is what allows one to give body to the word idea.

It’s not easy. There are nevertheless some Greek philosophers who tried to give body to ideas. An idea has a body, namely, the word that represents it. The word has this rather curious property—it makes the thing (fait la chose).” (p. 79)

The move through the Symbolic to the Real: From meaning to jouissance

In his earlier work, Lacan was focused on understanding and explaining his conceptualization of the three registers of the Symbolic, Imaginary, and Real and, in his later work, of articulating their linking through the topology of the Borromean Knot. Lacan’s conceptualization of the Borromean knot was a way of articulating the manner in which these registers are linked and interdependent in the subject’s functioning. The topography of the knot – three rings linked together such that a cut or breaking of any ring would dissolve the knot completely – allowed him to show how the registers work together, but also allowed him to provide a conceptualization of the Real that could not be accommodated through his earlier schemas. To make use of a knot, rather than a drawing or other two dimensional schema, is a way of bringing to the fore both the complexity of the relations between the registers as well as the materiality of the knot itself – one can understand how a knot is formed, but that is a different thing than to create a knot or to change one that is already constructed. Lacan used knots to show how understanding alone, at least in psychoanalysis, isn’t enough to make changes at the level of the Real. What he wanted to illuminate is the failure of a treatment that stops at meaning-making. In psychoanalysis, one cannot get to Truth via meaning because that requires a belief in an Other that has the answer. If that is a fantasy that psychoanalysis rejects, as Lacan believes is should, than the question becomes about finding a way to access particular truth rather than shared meaning. For Lacan, accessing a truth that is particular, or unique, to the subject means to work beyond the machinations of the Symbolic and Imaginary to the jouissance of the body in the Real. His question was – how do we get there? And the answer that he proposed was to work through language rather than work in meaning.

In his 21st Seminar (1973-1974), Lacan begins to address what he sees as the difference between working through language and working in meaning with a discussion of the distinction between the dimension of meaning and the dimension of happening. What he is pointing to is how the dimension of meaning, in an elucidation of the Borromean knot, manages to make a system of knowledge of the registers that make up the knot rather than attend to the saying of the knot. For Lacan, who makes very clear in this Seminar that we “get to” the Real via the modes of the Symbolic and Imaginary in saying and imagining the knot, the saying of the knot implicates the Real insofar as it is a happening or an event that points to a spatial relationship between the nodes of the knot. In order to understand how Lacan elaborates this point, it is important to consider his articulation of the difference between the conceptualization of the knot – what it means – and the materiality of the knot – how it works.

In the beginning sections of the seminar, Lacan refers to Freud’s work in The Interpretation of Dreams and his distinction between material and psychical reality. In this discussion, Lacan is articulating how the borders of interpretation function in such a way as to point to the material or spatial dimension of the Real rather than to the Symbolic or Imaginary meanings that one may make via the interpretation. In particular, he looks to Freud’s method of interpreting the dream – his insistence that there is no one-to-one correlation between the dream and waking life – to point out that the deciphering of the dream also points to what the dream pulls in addition to its possible meaning. Lacan relates this to the enjoyment contained within the dream, which he suggests is part of the structure of the dream itself. He suggests that the dream is a process of encoding enjoyment or, as he calls it, jouissance, and that it is the encoding, rather than the deciphering that should be the focus of the interpretation. The deciphering of the dream is a working through of meaning(s) and of course, in one way, the interpretation is aimed at deciphering the meaning contained in the dream. What he points to, however, is that the interpretation, as a mechanism of deciphering, has a symbolic limit – it stops. This limit is the limit of meaning –it is the point where meaning is exhausted. Lacan is interested, then, in what cannot be exhausted, or even touched, by meaning. Lacan uses this notion of the limit of interpretation to point to what cannot be captured by meaning – what he calls “that which never stops not being written” – as indicating the Real of the subject’s enjoyment. He goes on to suggest that the interpretation has effects outside of meaning and that these “incalculable effects” are effects on the subject’s enjoyment. It is these effects, their working so to speak, that he is interested in outlining via a new way of looking at the topography of the Borromean knot – a way that would not fall prey to understanding or systemization, but would instead be focused on a happening or an event that hits the Real and is thus able to impact the jouissance of the subject.

Lacan elaborates his new topological understanding via a painstaking process of laying out the difference between an understanding of the Borromean knot only in terms of its registers (i.e. what do we mean when we say Symbolic, Imaginary, Real; how do the registers function separately and together, etc.) and an understanding of the knot as a material thing that is created in space and where, strictly speaking, the “strings” of the Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real that create the knot are equivalent. Lacan suggests that masculine knowledge, which he equates with scientific knowledge, is the string itself, believing itself as One, unaware of the knot around which it is organized and around which it is able to make its circles. If we think of this in terms of Lacan’s general criticisms of other schools of psychoanalysis, it is the focus on the meaning of the strings rather than on the structure around which the meaning is created that gets one into trouble as an analyst. Instead, Lacan is suggesting that we, as analysts, attend to another way of accessing unconscious knowledge through the jouissance effects of the interpretations rather than through the meaning that they uncover. Lacan is asserting that what is at stake in a psychoanalytic interpretation is its ability to serve as an intervention in the Real as that is what will allow the subject to make a change at the level of enjoyment. Lacan is working here to locate a different kind of truth, one not linked to a body of knowledge but to a human body – a body that enjoys. In doing so, he finds himself developing a praxis that is not that of science but more akin to art, I think, in terms of its process and its ends.

Moving beyond the meaning-making fantasy

Lacan recognized that there is something that remains after the meaning of the symptom has been analyzed – the meaning has been exhausted, but that which required the production of the symptom remains. In Lacanian terms, the S2’s are exhausted and we begin dealing with S1’s – with letters that hold the subject but which, in the symbolic, are meaningless. There are ways that one could imagine an analysis completed at this point: The symbolic meaning of the symptom has been analyzed, the fundamental fantasy revealed; however, what Lacan notes is that, structurally, the subject remains the same. Remaining the same means that the motor of repetition remains in place and the subject will continue to search for meaning in the Other, albeit in perhaps a way with less misery. For Lacan, however, the ends of analysis require that we move beyond this point to a place where the subject is able to cease attempting to locate meaning in the Other and instead locate truth in jouissance.

In his 6th Seminar (1958-1959) Lacan declared “there is no Other of the Other,” indicating that there is no Other that can answer for the lack in the primary Other. – there is no Other who can provide the final answer to the question of the subject’s being. He says,

This is the great secret: there is no Other of the Other. In other words for the subject of traditional philosophy, this subject subjectivises himself indefinitely. If I am in everything I think, I am in so far as I think that I am, and so on, this has no reason to stop. The truth is that analysis teaches us something quite different. The fact is that it has already been glimpsed that it is not so sure that I am in so far as I think, and that one can only be sure of one thing, which is that I am in so far as I think that I am. Certainly that. Only what analysis teaches us is that I am not the one who precisely is in the process of thinking that I am, for the simple reason that because of the fact that I think that I am, I think in the locus of the Other; I am different to the one who thinks that I am.

But the question is that I have no guarantee of any kind that this Other, through what there is in his system, can give me if I may express myself in this way, what I gave him: his being and his essence as truth. There is no, I have told you, Other of the Other. There is not in the Other, any signifier which is able on this occasion to answer for what I am. And to say things in a transformed way, this hopeless truth that I spoke to you about a while ago, this truth which is the one that we encounter at the level of the unconscious, is a faceless truth, is a closed truth, is a truth which can be bent in every direction. We only know it too well. It is a truthless truth. (p. 206)

It seems that what Lacan is referring to here, in Seminar Six, is the notion of a truth in the Real –the truth of the subject’s enjoyment, his or her jouissance -t – – hat will occupy his later seminars and become linked with art and the ends of analysis.

When the signifiers come to a place where their meaning(s) have been exhausted and one begins to deal only with letters, the lack in the Other becomes exceedingly apparent – and the subject must make a choice either to continue to fill the lack with more meaning (to sustain the fantasy that there is an Other for the Other) or accept the lack and find a way to identify with the symptom rather than with the lack in the Other. More prosaically one comes to terms with one’s own life as itself not being tethered to anything but the choices one has made. Perhaps choices made under duress, but choices nonetheless. For Lacan, this means that the subject works to accept his or her truth insofar as it is the truth of his or her own particular jouissance. In his formulation, this identification with the symptom produces a new subjective configuration – as the letters that emerged in the symbolic have been tied up in the real via the sinthome. Paul Verhaeghe (2002) nicely describes this process:

This neosubject is a creation of the analytic process: it becomes a possibility once the analysand has reached the point where the interpretations have revealed the final non-sense of his symptoms. The condition for this is that both the analyst and the analysand “fall” from their belief in the Other. It is this process that Lacan constantly tries to grasp from Seminar XI onward, with expressions such as “separation,” the “traversal” of the phantasm, or “subjective destitution.” As a creation, it is indeed a creation ex nihilo, that is, one not based on any previous identity, which in one way or another would be tributary to the Other. (p. 11)

It is at this point in his theorizing that Lacan most explicitly addresses the differences between science and psychoanalysis insofar as he is seeking to show how psychoanalysis, as a praxis, cannot fail to renounce the fantasy of a transcendent Other and instead must rely on a different way of knowing. One that would perhaps be linked with this earlier formulation of “truthless truth.”

Lacan was faced with at least two difficulties in this formulation. The first was a difficulty in conceptualizing the way that one could articulate the move from producing understanding via analysis to subjective constitution via non-sense, or perhaps more aptly called un-sense. The second was the manner in which one could talk about the experience of this process. In both instances, he relied on metaphors of artistic and creative processes to attempt to get close to the articulation, not just of an encounter with the Real, but an encounter that creates a tie or a binding between the registers.

The psychoanalytic act as a work of art

Whereas previously, the registers were organized around the object that stood in for the lack in the Other, in his later work Lacan was forced to reconceptualize how one imagines a move that allows the object to fall without also causing the subject to disappear. In other words, he wanted to conceptualize the moment of movement when the object falls and yet something we may call a “one” of the subject remains via the sinthome. In his elaboration, what is left of the subject as sinthome returns via a creation, a working of art that moves through the Symbolic to the Real.

In reconceptualizing the ends of analysis in this way, Lacan moves the process of psychoanalysis away from that of science – as science ultimately aims towards objects – to an art that treats the Real. For Lacan, it seems, the end of analysis is the moment that a subject becomes a subject of jouissance rather than a subject who is ultimately fending off and sublimating his place as object of the drive—or a being subjected to the drive. Although somewhat imprecise, another way to conceptualize this is to imagine the end of analysis as the moment that the subject is able to assume responsibility for the particularity of his or her modes of enjoyment as located in the Real, rather than in the Other. Lacan talks about this end of analysis as identification with the sinthome—the sinthome being that which organizes the subject’s jouissance in the Real. For Lacan, the sinthome works as a signifying formation, but one that is not a formation of meaning but rather a formation of function. In other words, it “works” as a tie or knotting that binds, but it does not “mean”. It is, to quote Lacan again, “a supposition [that] undoes with language what is done by language.”

It is important to note that the sinthome, for Lacan, is always a creation, insofar as it ex-ists outside of Symbolic and Imaginary coordinates, and that it is always particular to the individual subject. According to Verhaeghe (2002):

Lacan specifies that this new signifier, just like the Real, has no sense (sens), which implies that it cannot be exchanged with other subjects. Not only would it not ‘fit’ another subject, worse still, this new signifier cannot be formalised. It belongs to the field of the orthodox: it is a particular way of handling a particular jouissance. In our reading, this explains why Lacan in his last seminars repeatedly returns to the idea of creation and the act. In this, the accent is not so much on the result of the creation than on the fact that creation is highly individual, particular (p. 16).

It seems to me that it could only be via an art or an artistic process that a treatment of the Real via the creation of a unique binding that would organize the subject’s jouissance could occur. Science may offer many tools but prohibits itself from an acceptance of its genesis—thus it remains solely in a discourse about objects.

So, the question then arises, how does one conceptualize a treatment, a psychoanalysis, that aims at artistry rather than science. Lacan took up this question in earnest in his 23rd Seminar on James Joyce (1975-1976). He says:

In as much as the sinthome makes a false hole with the Symbolic that there is some kind of praxis. Namely, something which is related to saying, to what I will call moreover on this occasion the art of saying, indeed which slides toward ardour.

Joyce, to end, did not know that he was making the sinthome. I mean that he simulated it. He was unconscious of it. And it is by this fact that he is a pure artificer, that he is a man of know-how. Namely, what is called moreover an artist. (p 44)

Joyce was an artist who produced a sinthome and Lacan was able to trace the creation of his sinthome through attention to the action of Joyce’s writing rather than through the writing itself. Rather than attend to its meaning, Lacan attended to its work.

Lacan notes that Joyce knew what to do with his symptom, which is also how Lacan formulates the ends of an analysis as well as the formation of an analyst. Psychoanalysis is a knowing-how rather than a knowing-what. Certainly, Lacan was referring to the ends of analysis for the patient, but insofar as it is the patients of psychoanalysis that ultimately become its practitioners, it may be important to think about how the difference between working toward understanding versus working toward a creation or an artistic act impact the discipline as a whole.

In Seminar 23, Lacan says that the analyst is a sinthome, meaning that the analyst is, in some respects, one who has been able to construct a sinthome to regulate his/her particular relationship to jouissance, thus making him/her able to provoke and sustain a similar encounter with the patient. But there is another sense in which those words can be taken, insofar as they relate to psychoanalysis proper. Inasmuch as the analyst is a production of psychoanalysis as well as s/he who produces psychoanalysis, we need to ask whether psychoanalysis is producing its praxis via symptoms that work to sustain the fantasy of a chain of meaning that could be secured, or if it is producing its praxis via sinthomes that are able to move past the lure of science and the fantasy of a transcendent One to create something like an art of the Real.

Such an art, which Lacan links with the ability to work in a way that allows the production of a new signifier in the Real rather than a new chain of signifiers in the Symbolic, is one that affects rather than means. It is a way of working that suggests an ability to work through rather than to work in. I think that Lacan showed us this way of knowing-how rather than knowing-what in the working modes of his seminars. In his seminars, we listen as Lacan works – while he works through the texts of psychoanalysis, philosophy, and science rather than working in them. There is a way his seminars were, themselves, moments of an analysis of psychoanalysis that provoked, for some, an encounter that produced an effect. Lacan says “Psychoanalysis must be taken seriously even though it is not a science” and he links it to the analyst as an artist of language. What seems important, at this point, is to avoid the trap of turning psychoanalysis into a ‘science of art.’ Instead perhaps the imperative should be to think through the possibilities for psychoanalysis to take itself seriously as something like an art of madness both at the level of the treatment and of the discipline.

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About the author:

has research interests that include Lacanian psychoanalysis, gender, and clinical ethics and she has presented and co-authored several papers and book chapters in these areas, most recently “Beyond Objectivity to Extimité: Feminist Epistemology and psychoanalysis” in Re(con)figuring psychoanalysis: Juxtapositions of the philosophical, the sociohistorical, and the political and “Leverage of the letter in the emergence of desire: A case of addiction” published in Lacan and Addiction: An Anthology. Her current research is aimed at exploring the ways that cultural studies and critical psychology can inform psychoanalytic practice.


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