My post on depression got me thinking once again about the difference between the psychoanalytic conception of the symptom and what might be called the psychotherapeutic conception of the symptom. In what I am here calling psychotherapeutic orientations the symptom is an impediment to enjoyment to be eradicated. Here my symptom is something from which I suffer, something alien that plagues me, something that prevents me from attaining satisfaction or that stands in the way of my satisfaction. While it is indeed true that we suffer from our symptoms, within a psychoanalytic framework my symptom is the source of my jouissance or enjoyment, and is constitutive of my being (in the case of neurosis and perversion; remember there is no “normal” for psychoanalysis) as a subject. In this regard, the eradication of my symptom would amount to my destruction, my disappearance, as a subject.

Here it’s necessary to qualify the term “jouissance“. The term “jouissance or enjoyment, in English, has connotations of pleasure. Yet within a psychoanalytic framework, jouissance is radically different than pleasure. Pleasure refers to a release of tension that occurs through some sort of act such as eating. With the attainment of pleasure I no longer repeat. After I have eaten my fill, I no longer wish to eat anymore. By contrast, we know we’re in the presence of jouissance when we encounter endless repetition. We know that eating has become a matter of jouissance not pleasure when we continue to compulsively eat even though we are no longer hungry. We know that sex has departed from the domain of pleasure and entered the domain of jouissance when we compulsively masturbate throughout the day, rather than getting it over in the morning and being done with it. Jouissance is the domain of repetition where we seem to encounter a rise and maintenance of a particular activity rather than its cessation.

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The Symptom is this domain of repetition without release or a diminution of tension. It is a way of producing jouissance, of acquiring jouissance, but is also something we suffer from, but it is also a form of enjoyment. Without jouissance (and I’ll have more to say about this in a moment) our life becomes pale, cold, and meaningless. If there is no subject without a Symptom or to be a subject is to have a Symptom, it follows that the end of analysis cannot consist in the eradication of the Symptom, but must rather consist in a reorientation of our relationship to our Symptom. If analysis is to have any beneficial results at all, it must be possible to reorient our relationship to our Symptom, to live our relationship differently towards our Symptom, in ways that are less productive of abject suffering and misery. As analysts sometimes put it, analysis should aim for a more direct relationship to our jouissance. Yet if this is the case, if it is possible to reorient our relationship to our Symptom, the Symptom must be metastable. That is, there must be a way in which a Symptom can remain structurally identical, that two or more forms of jouissance can remain structurally the same, while the manner in which that jouissance is achieved is variable. Repetition must be repetition with a difference and repetition as capable of difference. As Deleuze somewhere puts it, “how can I live alcoholism while drinking water?” The point would be that alcoholism is a Symptom independent of the material substance of alcohol, capable of arriving at the jouissance of “alcoholism” in a way independent of this substance.

Here we must distinguish between the Symptom and the symptom. The Symptom would be the structure of the unconscious constitutive of the unconscious and would not be entirely different from a mathematical function of the sort “F(x) = 2x + 4”. This function is also a form, but it is a form that admits of an infinity of variations. I plug a number into this function, say “3”, and I get the value “10”. 10 is a variation of this function. Where the Symptom is the function itself, 10 is a variation of this function and thus a symptom (lower case “s”) in the sense that the Symptom is its “transcendental” condition. The Symptom is the repetition that persists throughout variations. Take my own case. I strongly suspect that my Symptom has a strong relationship to the manner in which I was interrogated by my father growing up. I was the oldest child of three. When I would get in trouble my father would sit me on a couch in the living room while he sat on the padded bench of the piano and would ask me “why did you do that?” A long discussion would ensue, sometimes lasting hours, where I would continuously be asked “why?” No matter what I said the result would be the same, often ending with me being painfully whipped and beaten leaving cuts and welts on my back.

Sometimes I feel as if everything about my life is a repetition of this missed encounter. In Seminar XI Lacan defines the Real as a “missed encounter”. The Symbolic predelineated some possibility, some way in which things are supposed to go, that somehow failed to materialize or take place. The Real poked through the grid of the symbolic, bringing about its disintegration. With my father we have the promise of the Symbolic in the form of the request to explain myself: “Why did you do this?” Yet the Symbolic here becomes pathological… No explanation, no justification leads to the termination of the command (“explain yourself”), and regardless of any explanations I give, the ending is always the same: a beating that takes days and sometimes weeks to heal.

With this trauma, this missed encounter borne of the failure of the Symbolic to enact its promise, a repetition compulsion emerges. I reenact the event in a multitude of ways. If find ways to perpetually explain myself before the Other: I instigate fights or disputes asking me why I would say something mad like that, I become a philosopher perpetually explaining myself, I teach, I blog publicly, I rely heavily on interpersonal communication to think, I have, throughout my life, tended to forge relationships with people that interrogate me, and so on. Moreover, as some have noted, I am deeply anti-authoritarian, tending to distrust all norms, rules, and figures of authority, no doubt because I see the Symbolic or Other as inherently untrustworthy and sadistic. These are variations of the Symptom. Alternatively, they are examples of symptoms (with a lower case “s”).

The thesis would thus be that these are ways of obtaining repetitive jouissance. The Symptom repeats in an infinite variety of ways, yet the same “jouissance-function” persists beneath all these symptoms. Things could have turned out very differently. When I was younger I tended to be prone to all sorts of trouble and violence. I would get in fist fights at school, in the neighborhood, and at home. I was prone to substance abuse. I did poorly in school up until my second sophomore year. I was constantly challenging my teachers. I skipped classes often landing myself in trouble with both the school and the State, and so on. Everything pointed to an eventual life of crime. My jouissance is haunted by an imp of the perverse, perpetually challenging authority, rules, norms, and laws. This was a way of both challenging the Symbolic which I unconsciously felt both was untrustworthy and sadistic and getting myself in situations where I would be interrogated (“why did you do that? explain yourself!”), repeating once again the trauma that I encountered on that couch and placing myself in a situation where, perhaps this time, I could undo that trauma. Of course, as a missed encounter, as an event that has no place within the Symbolic, the trauma of the Real is infinite in its demand for repetition. It is what I am, perhaps, as a subject.

Yet the Symptom is both regular and metastable. I believe that writing publicly, teaching, having conversations with people, etc., is a far more productive way of obtaining repetitious jouissance than getting in fist fights, breaking things, taking on others, and so on. This might be part of what it means to reorient your relationship to your Symptom. On the one hand, I know longer see the Other as making the demand for me to “explain myself” (fantasy). No, this is my own way of obtaining jouissance (separation). On the other hand, I have found far more productive ways of obtaining this jouissance: writing publicly, teaching, arguing with others.

Repetition and the reorientation of the Symptom is not without its perils. The anti-authoritarian dimension of my jouissance persists. In many respects, my career has been organized around refuting authority (privileging blogging over publication, teaching at a community college rather than a research institution, challenging every authority whether it be religious, Deleuze, Lacan, Kant, or otherwise, etc.). It seems that this refusal of authority is a component of the jouissance that structures my Symptom. Thus, when I find myself attaining academic (“Oedipal”) recognition despite myself, when I get publications and recognition, I fall into periods of deep and black depression where I can hardly get out of bed. My desire here becomes exhausted and it becomes difficult to find new (unconscious) tricks to repeat. It is hard to be a subject, to live as a subject, when the avenues of repetition are snuffed. This, perhaps, is one of the reasons we’ve witnessed the disappearance of hysteria and the rise of anxiety and depressive disorders in late post-industrial capitalism. All avenues through which the Symbolic or the Other might be challenged seem to be preemptively challenged by the Symbolic. There is no place for the subject to be and thus we fall into a state without any ability to be enchanted or engaged. The trick is not to eradicate our Symptom, but to find ways to productively live our Symptom and keep the machine of our Symptom running. There are things I don’t like about my symptoms. I don’t like the abusive relationships I gravitate towards. I don’t like the way I continue to pick fights. I don’t like the depression that accompanies the horrendous “success” of my symptoms. Yet the question is not one of destroying or eradicating the Symptom, but of finding other, more productive, more “pleasurable”, ways of living the Symptom.