Okay, I admit it, Ian’s post riffing on my last post royally pissed me off. And I say this, of course, in the background of my good friendship with Ian. Nonetheless, I’m led to wonder what, exactly, someone means when they make the claim “I am not the Marxist”. In the spirit of my last post, however, I’m forced to engage in second-order observation, wondering what distinctions might organize Ian’s indications in the world and thereby recognizing the contingency of my own distinctions. And when I engage in this, I think there’s a grain of truth in what Ian is saying, though I desperately wish he would express himself differently.

Reflecting on Ian’s post, I suspect that implicit in his remarks is a distinction between what might be called “rote theory” versus “theoretical practice“. This distinction can, I think, best be articulated in terms of the psychoanalytic clinic. In the psychoanalytic clinic, like anywhere else, there’s good practice and dismal practice. Bruce Fink nicely sums up the difference of the Lacanian clinic with the thesis that the analyst is an advocate of the analysand’s desire. Translating this into concrete practice, we can say that the psychoanalytic clinic is radically anti-normative and begins with each new analysand or patient on the premise that all of psychoanalysis will have to be recreated.

We can think about this in terms of Aristotlean logics of the relationship between the universal and the particular. Many other pyscho-therapeutic practices begin with diagnostic categories and immediately strive to subsume every new patient under these categories. These categories, of course, also come with causal claims or presuppositions as to why the patient has the symptom they have. In this respect, many other psycho-therapies treat symptoms as signs, much like a sniffly nose is a sign standing for a particular virus or microbe.

read on!

Psychoanalytic practice, at its best, begins with the premise that the symptom that brings an analysand to the clinic shares no univocal indexical relation to whatever might have generated the symptom. Here the symptom stands for no particular diagnostic category (both hysterics and obsessionals, for example, can repetitively wash their hands) and, moreover, the symptom can have a variety of different “causes”. The symptom is thus not an index (“where there is smoke there is a smoker!”) of a particular cause. The only premise that the analyst begins with is that the symptom, if the analysand is neurotic, is a substitute form of satisfaction or a repressed expression of desire.

When I say that psychoanalysis is radically anti-normative, that the analyst is an advocate of the analysand’s desire, and that each new case holds the possibility of totally rewriting all of psychoanalytic theory, I am claiming that ideally the analyst does not begin with a set of criteria or rules as to what is good for the analysand or what the outcome of analysis should be. The analyst does not wish for the analysand to save their relationship, job, to be successful, to be brilliant, to be a good person, etc. In many respects, it was these sorts of criteria that led to the symptom in the first place. As an advocate for the analysand’s desire, the analyst aims for nothing more than that the analysand avow their [repressed] desire, even if that means ultimately rejecting that desire. The question of whether to embrace the desire or structure one’s life around the exclusion of that desire is ultimately up to the analysand. In this respect, analysis is an an-archic space that begins without a criteria as to what is good for the analysand. Analysis promises not a cure, but an encounter with desire. And an encounter with desire can indeed complicate life to a great degree. The symptom, after all, would not have emerged in the first place were not the desire complicating.

If, in ideal circumstances, analytic practice holds open the possibility of rewriting all of psychoanalytic theory, then this is because analysis does not begin from the premise that the structures of subjectivity are essential and fixed for all eternity, but that, rather, the unconscious can take a variety of forms. Here we encounter one of the major differences between real and applied psychoanalysis. Applied psychoanalysis simply subsumes a particular phenomena under existing psychoanalytic categories, whereas real psychoanalysis generates new theory on the basis of an encounter with the phenomena. It is not by mistake that nearly all of Freud’s published case studies were failed analyses. These analyses were not simply reports of how some poor soul like Dora conformed to psychoanalytic categories and concepts, but were, rather, self-referential analyses of psychoanalysis where psychoanalysis had to rework itself in response to precisely that which did not fit with existing theory. And, in this respect, if engagement with an empirical material is simply subsuming that material under existing diagnostic categories and concepts there’s little point in writing about this material.

The critique of bad or rote psychoanalysis is similar to the critique of bad or rote Marxism. At its best, Marxism is less a theory of how the social field is structured, than a theory of how to discover how the social field is structured. Good Marxism does not begin with a theory of how the social field is structured, but rather this is the outcome of investigation. Moreover, good Marxism does not begin with a theory of how to change the social field (a proletarian revolution, for example), but instead looks for those lines of flight within the social field where change is taking place. Finally, good Marxism does not begin with a set of predefined normative criteria as to what is good for the social field, but like the Lacanian analyst that is an advocate for the analysand’s desire, instead looks for those new sets of values and ideals that are emerging within the social field as it “thinks” through what is good for it. In its commitment to immanence, good Marxism looks to the social field itself to define its new forms of life and ways of collectively living. This, perhaps, is disappointing to the theorist that would like to provide The Answer, but the social and political theorist who has a Marxist temperament already recognizes that she herself is a part of this social field and therefore is reflective of the various values that populate this field. What the good Marxist hopes for is not providing The Answer or in sharing a secret, gnostic insight that all the poor fools in the social field cannot themselves see. No. What the good Marxist hopes for is an intensification of these lines of flight immanent already in the social sphere.

I hope that rote theory is something along the lines that Bogost is referring to. Here the charge would be that rote theory prevents us from seeing what is right there before us, and, like rote psychoanalysis, prevents us from hearing. The rote psychoanalysist already knows that everything, including the analysand’s relationship to the analyst, is ultimately an “expression” of the patient’s relationship to his or her parents. And in “knowing this” the analyst becomes incapable of hearing what the patient is saying because everything has already been fed through a transcendent interpretation machine that thoroughly obscures the relations immanent in the analysand’s own speech. Likewise with bad Marxism that wishes to know before it knows. Really listening and seeing might sound like it is impossible, but it is not for nothing that Freud described psychoanalysis as being among the impossible professions.