I am very tired this morning as I stayed up far too late watching first season episodes of Dexter and had to get up very early this morning to get blood work done, so hopefully I make some sense in these remarks. For some time now I’ve pondered the issue of what precisely accounts for the efficacy of psychoanalytic treatment. In many instances I have no doubt that Lacanian psychoanalysis does produce substantial transformations in symptoms and, in a closely related vein, the manner in which a person relates to and experiences others. This was certainly true in my own case, and, I believe, in the case of a number of patients I worked with back when I was still practicing.
Setting aside the aim of analysis as traversing the fantasy and identifying with the symptom, the core Lacanian thesis is that the unconscious is structured like a language. Under this model, the symptom, understood from one angle, is a coagulation of unconscious language that speaks, as it were, that which has fallen underneath the bar of repression. As both Freud and Lacan liked to say, there is no repression without a return of the repressed. What is repressed are therefore signifiers. The symptom is a return of those signifiers in disguised form. In the Rome Discourse Lacan remarks that all speech is addressed to someone. Thus the symptom can be seen as a disguised speech to someone.
My favorite example of this from my own analysis comes from my early teaching experience. At Loyola we still used chalk. When I first began teaching I found myself constantly breaking chalk. This little tick became very noticeable, such that not only was I deeply embarrassed by it, but my students began to chuckle over it and even gave me a chalk guard with a declaration from the citizens of “Chalkville” asking that I clothe their citizens in this fine suit of armor so as to put an end to my carnage. While touched by this little gesture, I was also very bothered by the breaking of the chalk. I remember obsessively talking about it one day in analysis, words flying out of my mouth a mile a minute. At one point I said something like “I don’t know what my problem is, I just seem to put too much pressure on the chalk at the board.” My analyst flatly intoned something like “pressure at the board” and I responded with something like “yeah that’s right, too much pressure on the board.” I thought nothing of it at the time and continued rambling. I didn’t notice until a couple weeks later that I had stopped breaking chalk after that session. The breaking of the chalk was a sort of micro-symptom and a rather minor one at that, though certainly linked in with my global or structuring symptom. I encountered the breaking of the chalk as a problem of technique, a mechanical problem, an inability I have to modulate the amount of pressure I put on the chalk. What my analyst did with his monotonic phrase was transform this bungled action into a condensation or a bit of speech, situating it not as a problem of physics, but as a way of speaking the pressure and anxiety I was experiencing at the board. Perhaps this symptom was even a message to the other situating myself as inept, as bungled, as incompetent, so that I could prop up the Other as complete (a role I had played with respect to my father as a child). The point is that in being articulated, the symptom disappeared. It no longer had to manifest itself in my flesh and activity because it had now been articulated.
As convincing as this explanation is, however, I wonder if this is really what is taking place in psychoanalysis. One thing that has always stuck out to me in psychoanalytic literature and Lacan’s essay “Position of the Unconscious” is anxieties as to how interpretations grow stale. Not too long after Freud it began to be noticed that standard Oedipal and sexual interpretations had lost their efficacy. In “Position of the Unconscious”, Lacan suggests that the reason for this is that the unconscious is self-reflexive or sensitive to the unconscious. If we think of the Lacanian Real as that which perpetually displaces itself, then we could say that those interpretations that hit the real or that which repeats also have the effect of displacing the real elsewhere, calling for new strategies of interpretation. As certain interpretations become standard and proliferate throughout culture and cultural knowledge– and everyone is more or less familiar with the Oedipus, sexual symbology, etc. –the unconscious, as it were, marks these interpretations and self-reflexively develops new strategies for disguising itself in symptoms. Standard interpretations thereby lose the ability to hit the real or their mark.
It seems to me that this phenomenon suggests that something different is going on in psychoanalysis than what psychoanalysis itself theorizes by reference to language, sex, family, etc. As I have argued over the last year, there is no transportation of a difference without translation. That is, there is never an instance of one-to-one correlation between a stimulus and the manner in which it is transformed by a system into information. Rather, the system always translates stimuli in its own particular way. In this connection, we can think of psychoanalysis as targeting, in particular, the manner in which the self translates others (what psychoanalysis refers to as “fantasy” or the manner in which the subject attributes a particular set of desires to others). Throughout his work, Luhmann argues that systems are operationally closed in the sense that they constitute their own information according to codes, transforming the data, stimuli, or perturbations they receive from their environment. We could say that psychoanalytic practice aims at the modification of these codes.
But how does one modify a code for an operationally closed system? How does an analyst avoid simply reinforcing the code through which an agent encounters the world and others? Perhaps the efficacy of psychoanalysis is to be found less in the content of the interpretations the analyst provides, than in the form of the interpretations and of the self-other relation in the analytic setting. On the one hand, analysts are rather enigmatic and passive figures. They do not say a whole lot in analysis, and appear “blank”. If you begin a session by asking your analyst how they’re doing, they’ll often just respond with silence. In this respect, the self-other relation in analysis proceeds through a subtraction of stimuli. The analyst provides little in the way of stimuli to reinforce the analysand’s codes. When the analyst does speak, it seldom has anything to do with the content of what you’re saying, but rather plays on the noise in your speech. The analyst focuses on the metaphors, homonyms, metonyms, etc., of what it is that you’re saying, taking your speech in quite different directions than you anticipated. It seems, perhaps, that this is the real key to psychoanalysis. It is not that the analyst’s interpretations are “true” or represent what is going on in the unconscious, but that the transformation of noise into meaning somehow has the effect of redrawing the coded distinctions by which the analysand transforms stimuli into information. As a result, a space is open where it becomes possible to encounter others in a new way. If Freud’s initial interpretations were so efficacious– the Oedipus, the sex, etc. –perhaps this wasn’t because these are the things going on in the unconscious, but because these interpretations were so shocking, so out of left field, that they had the effect of transforming the mechanisms of translation through which the analysand encounters the world… A systems theoretical conception of the dynamics of the symptom, rather than a psychoanalytic conception.