This afternoon I had a long discussion with Mel where she directed me to this excellent episode of Radio Lap concerned with cognitive loops. Over the course of the radio show there’s a discussion where a woman has suffered brain damage that still allows her to speak. As I listened to the daughter interview her brain damaged mother, I experienced a growing sense of horror. The mother would ask her daughter a question. The daughter would respond with the answer. The mother would then respond again. And then, after the sequence had completed itself, the mother would ask the same question that initiated the sequence all over. For the mother this exchange seemed like an absolutely new discussion every time it occurred, while for the daughter and the rest of us we could see that the same exchange was simply repeating itself over and over again. The woman here is trapped within a cognitive loop 1) of which she is not aware, and 2) from which she cannot escape. She is doomed to go through the sequence of this loop again and again.

The spectacle of this woman repeating herself in this way without awareness that she’s repeating herself is terrifying enough, but what’s truly horror inducing is the possibility that we are caught in similar loops. The woman’s loop is relatively easy to recognize because of the rote, mechanical nature of her repetition and the short temporal duration through which it cycles. Yet in our own case it’s difficult to imagine that we too live within such loops for these loops, if they do exist, have a greater complexity, subtlety, and temporally elongated cycle. Like language where the grammatical rules of language are finite while nonetheless being able to generate an infinite number of sentences, so-called “normal” loops would have a very simple basic structure while nonetheless generating an indefinite number of variations of this structure. Nonetheless, like this woman, we would be trapped within these loops, unable to see them for ourselves, and tragically destined to repeat them ceaselessly.

This was Lacan’s thesis regarding the symptom. In Seminar 23, RSI, Lacan observes that there is no subject without a symptom. The Lacanian symptom is a form of repetition, an ineradicable structure, that the subject is perhaps doomed to repeat. It is for this reason that Lacan describes psychoanalysis as a tragic discourse. This thesis significantly distinguishes the psychoanalytic conception of the symptom from many psychotherapeutic conceptions of the symptom. A number of psychotherapeutic conceptions of the symptom tend to conceive psychological symptoms on the model of medicine, such that the symptom is a sign of an illness to be removed. The symptom is a deviation from normal functioning. Yet if Lacan is right– and he argues that there are structural reasons that this must be the case –then the relationship between the symptom and the subject is biconditional. That is to say, it has a structure such that “if there is a subject, then there is a symptom and if there is a symptom, then there is a subject.” To eradicate the symptom would be to eradicate the subject. I’ll get to the therapeutic consequences of this in a moment.

read on!

For Lacan, the symptom seems to have a fractal structure. In other words, we ought not confuse the symptom with a repetitive activity like obsessively washing one’s hands. Returning to the example of language, the relationship between the symptom is a bit like the relationship between langue and parole. Where langue is the set of oppositions between phonemes and the formal rules of a language, parole would be the production of a specific sentence within language. The formal grammatical rules governing langue are finite and perhaps quite simple (relatively speaking), while the instances of parole that can be produced in language are infinite.

The claim that the symptom has the structure of a fractal is the claim that the symptom is like langue in that it is structured around a fairly simple algorithm, while a compulsion like repetitively washing your hands is a bit of parole or a particular formation of the unconscious that could embody the same structure throughout any number of variations. All variations of repetitive activity in the subject, while appearing to be quite diverse and distinct, would be variations of the same generative principle. That generative principle would, properly speaking, be the symptom. Thus, for example, while washing one’s hands, checking the lock of the door again and again, counting the number of brush strokes while brushing one’s teeth, etc. seem quite distinct, they’re instances of the same algorithm.

Yet the claim that the symptom is structured like a fractal is not just a claim about patterns that are structurally identical while appearing to be distinct at the level of content, but is also a claim about scale. A fractal is a pattern that repeats at all levels of scale (whether that scale be temporal or spatial). The tree depicted at the beginning of this post is a beautiful example of a fractal. The generative principle by which the form of the tree is produced repeats at all levels of scale. Branches are differentiated from the trunk through splitting. Twigs are differentiated from branches through a process of splitting. Leaves are differentiated from twigs through a process of splitting. And the vein pattern of the leaves is again differentiated from arteries through splitting. No matter how far we telescope out or in we find one and the same repetitive pattern.

And this is how it is with the symptom. Lacan also argues that symptoms are interpersonal, such that they pertain to a relationship between the subject and the Other. In this regard, the symptom, as strange as it sounds, would be our basic way of both comprehending and relating to the Other. My relations with the various people in my life might appear to be quite distinct, yet again and again I would be repeating one and the same algorithm or pattern in these relationships.

And this is where things get quite horrifying, for like the woman who has the same discussion over and over again without realizing that she’s repeating the same discussion, we would tragically repeat the same symptom over and over again without repeating it. In this respect, our relations with others and ourselves would be a bit like ants walking along a mobius strip. From the perspective of the ants as they traverse the mobius strip, there’s no sense that 1) the mobius strip is embedded in a higher-dimensional, three-dimensional space, and 2) that they’re even covering the same ground over and over again. No, for the ants it seems as if they are traversing an infinite space and as if that space is a flat, one-dimensional plane.

In a very different context, this is what Metzinger has in mind with his unfortunate term “transparency”. For Metzinger, “transparency” does not mean that we have immediate access to the contents of our own minds, but exactly the reverse: that despite the fact that our experience of ourselves, others, and the world consists of representations we’re doomed to experience these contents in such a way as to be naive realists, concluding that these experiences really are experiences of the world, others, and our selves rather than solely being experiences of our own brains (I take it that autopoietic theory and OOO both come to this same conclusion). In other words, according to Metzinger, the representativity of our representations is opaque and this gives rise to the illusion that we share a direct, non-withdrawn relation to things independent of us. And so it is in the case of the Lacanian symptom. Like the ants trapped on the mobius strip and Metzinger’s operationally closed brain, we are perhaps doomed to experiencing the effects of our symptoms as being transparent indicators of the desires of others, when they are, in fact, products of our own unconscious structuration.

This, of course, begs the question of what the therapeutic outcome of Lacanian psychoanalysis is supposed to be. Are we doomed to live like the ants, endlessly traversing the strip without ever escaping the strip? Lacan does not seem to reach this conclusion. Rather, Lacan seems to oscillate between two heterogeneous possibilities, both of which pertain to arriving at a state where we become capable of encountering the representativity of our representations or their inherently self-reflexive nature (that they arise from us, not from the others they seem to indicate in the world independent of us). The first of these options, developed by Lacan up to Seminar 7 or 8, is that the psychoanalytic clinic is a controlled traversal of the mobius strip constituting our unconscious, such that we don’t simply walk about the mobius strip of our symptom like the ants, believing ourselves to be traversing an infinite space rather than a closed loops; but rather, in going through this controlled traversal of the mobius strip of our symptom, we discover the representativity of our representational space and thereby discover– like Johnny Angel in Angel Heart –that it was really us all along. This would be the tragic Lacan, where we are doomed to endlessly traverse the mobius strip of our symptom but that we now do so heroically insofar as we know that this mobius strip is the essence of what we are (we no longer blame it on the Other or the world). Here the therapeutic value of traversing the mobius strip is not that my symptom disappears, but rather that I perhaps find more effective ways of attaining the jouissance that my symptom embodies. For example, the man that repetitively washes his hands mind instead just go ahead and start masturbating, given that he’s now realized that he, not the Other, was always-already giving these prohibitions to himself.

The second possibility is that explored by Lacan between seminars 10 to 16, where the traversal of the mobius strip is accompanied by the collapse of the big Other or the discovery that “the discovery that the big Other” does not exist. As in the first possibility, we traverse the mobius strip and come to represent our own representativity, but the twist here is that in representing our own representativity the Other (for us) now collapses because we discover that we don’t, in fact, know what the Other wants, that the Other is an engima, and that it was us all along. This collapse or disintegration of the Other is then accompanied by a disintegration of the subject, because it was belief in the Other that sustained the existence of the subject. This is what Lacan refers to as “subjective destitution”. This point is initially hard to see, so a concrete example might help. Why is it that a collapse of the Other entails a collapse or destitution of the subject?

The reason for this is that the existence of the subject is sustained by the gaze of the Other. In other words, topologically, the existence of the subject is not a relation from inside (you) to outside (Other), but from outside (Other) to inside (the subject). Recall Foucault’s famous discussion of Las Meninas in The Order of Things, or Lacan’s discussion of Holbein’s The Ambassadors in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. In perspective paintings the painting can only be seen from a certain angle or perspective. Now our initial supposition is that the perspective from which the paintings can be seen– or in the case of Holbein’s painting, from which the floating skull in the foreground can be seen –is that this perspective is that of the subject. But for Lacan, the situation is precisely the reverse. What is depicted in the painting is the subject, while the gaze from which the painting must be viewed is the Other. It is the Other that sustains the coherence of the subject, not the reverse. Take away that gaze and the subject disintegrates.

Now let’s look at how this would concretely play out in the therapeutic setting. Suppose we’re dealing with a patient that is a medical doctor. She’s successful in her career, having excelled in her training, having earned the respect of her colleagues, and doing amazing things in healing her patients. Nonetheless she’s absolutely miserable in her life and does things like steal morphine from the pharmacy, abuse alcohol, beats herself up in all sorts of ways, etc (basically the plot of House). She sees these things as the problem and enters analysis to heal them. Over the course of analysis it comes out that she experienced her parents (instances of the Other) as demanding that she become a doctor, when she herself wanted to be a folk musician. In this first stage of analysis, she narrates her history such that her “symptoms” are acts of unconscious rebellion and rejection of the demand of her parents. She’s doing all of these things to herself as both an act of revenge against the sacrifice of desire she made on behalf of her parents and as a marker of her own repressed desire.

But this is only an initial stage of analysis. The real action in the analytic setting is the gradual discover that her parents’ demands were far from obvious. In other words, as her analysis proceeds she discovers that what she took to be her parents’ demand was in fact riddled with all sorts of contradictions, ambiguities, paradoxes, unspoken suggestions, etc. To be sure, her parents constantly encouraged her to become a doctor, but through a variety of other statements, actions, and the way they lived their own lives, they also suggested that they themselves didn’t know what they wanted, as well as a host of other possibilities as to what they wanted. In other words, she gradually discovers that she doesn’t know what her parents desired, that their desire was opaque even to them; or, as Lacan dramatically puts it, that “the big Other doesn’t exist” (that the Other doesn’t mark any consistent set).

This realization is the moment of subjective destitution Lacan speaks of as accompanying traversing the fantasy. Like the images in Valezqueze’s and Holbein’s paintings, this woman’s actions were only coherent as staged for the gaze of her parents. She had lived her life both as to provide a pleasing spectacle for their gaze (becoming a successful doctor) and in reproach of that gaze (all of the suffering she was causing herself). But in the encounter with the opacity of her parents’ desire, the entire audience for whom her status as subject was constructed collapses. She no longer knows who she is because the audience for whom her status as subject was constructed like a star in an elliptical orbit around another star has collapsed.

With this second possibility, the question arises of just what an agent (I won’t say subject) might be following subjective destitution. I don’t have any answers here. The point is that there’s a way in which both options seem catastrophic. In the first instance we’re doomed to perpetually traverse the mobius strip of our symptom, while now doing so with knowledge of our tragic condition. In the second instance we collapse as a subject because we no longer have the gaze that sustains us as a subject. Perhaps this is why Lacan, following Sophocles in Oedipus at Colonus, suggests that it is better never to have been born.