Before I get to these questions, it should be noted that the things I’ve been writing about under the title of “borromean critical theory” have little to no relationship to Lacanian work with the borromean knot. There I use the borromean knot merely as an organizational and heuristic device to encourage myself and other like-minded critical theorists to think about the interplay and interrelation of semiotic and discursive phenomena (the symbolic), phenomenological phenomena (the imaginary), and material phenomena (the real). My thesis is that we’ve done a good job with the first two, but that statistically dominant strains of critical theory have given the third short shrift, even while using the term “materiality”.
In this post, I would like to open a discussion of the borromean knot as it functions in Lacanian psychoanalysis (not the above), and, in particular, how this strange contraption is actually put to work in the clinic. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes people speak up when I write interrogative posts such as this, at other times they just roll down the page without comment. I hope that doesn’t happen this time. I would like to emphasize that I’m interested in seeing how this apparatus is linked concretely to the clinic. In other words, I’m not interested in a series of abstractions about the subject ($) as such, the real, jouissance, and so on that isn’t related back to clinical or worldly examples. In other words, let’s avoid “Lacanian mumblespeak” or “Planet Borromeo” in our discussions of this. As an aside, I’m not particularly interested in what other strains of psychoanalysis might contribute to our understanding of the knot. Before even broaching those questions, I feel we first have to get clear on how this apparatus works within a Lacanian framework.
I’ve been obsessed with the borromean topology for years now, but sadly I’ve yet to encounter anything in the secondary literature that’s really illuminating or that spells things out. That’s what I want… Things spelled out. Before that, why am I even interested in the borromean clinic? Is it just a re-articulation of Lacan’s earlier teachings prior to 1972-1973? If so, we could safely dispense with this crazy contraption altogether. I don’t, however, think this is the case.
1) Lacan and Lacanians also refer to the borromean clinic as the clinic of foreclosure. If I’ve understood this thesis correctly, this is the claim that all psychic structure is ultimately based on foreclosure. Think about this for a moment. This would mean that all subjectivity is, at root, psychotic. Where, in the earlier clinic, we distinguished between neurosis and psychosis on the basis of whether or not the name-of-the-father is operative, we are now being told that neurosis is a subspecies or variant of psychosis. This is a radical departure from the earlier models and has profound implications for how we think about subjectivity and the clinic. [As an aside, if this is true, isn’t Lacan basically conceding that Deleuze and Guattari were right– in general terms, not details –in Anti-Oedipus?]
2) Lacan and Lacanians also refer to the borromean clinic as the “clinic of supplementarity”. The three orders, Lacan argues, always (?) require a supplement– which he denotes with the symbol Σ –to hold together. While this had been hinted at for years, it had never before been made this explicit. This has consequences for how we think the of the aims of treatment, as well as the outcome of treatment.
3) Lacan and Lacanians have hinted that the borromean knot implies an entirely new diagnostic universe. In short, the clinic of foreclosure would perhaps introduce new diagnostic categories beyond neurosis (obsession, hysteria, and phobia), psychosis (paranoia and schizophrenia), and perversion. This would be of great interest to the clinic.
4) The borromean clinic perhaps offers us a political opening. If it is true that psychosis is the root structure of all subjectivity, if it is true that foreclosure is the “law of the land”, and if it is true that despite this, there are many forms of psychosis that are “high functioning” and that don’t fall into the painful and horrifying universe of figures such as Schreber, then this would suggest that it is possible to conceive social orders that aren’t organized in an Oedipal, masculine (in Lacan’s sense), fashion. As Lacan puts it in Seminar XXIII, “one can get by without the name-of-the-father so long as one knows how to make use of it”. In other words, perhaps here we’re given the resources to think a universe that is defined by “post-mastery” and beyond phallic logic. Lacan will go so far as to argue that the Oedipus is the symptom of the neurotic and is only one possible way– very common, but increasingly less so –of knotting the three orders together. Think about how radical that claim is from the standpoint of traditional Lacanianism.
So I would like to begin with truly stupid, almost idiotic questions and hope that others will constructively help me to think about them.
1) Is there such a thing as a well tied borromean knot, or do all structures of subjectivity require a fourth ring to bind the three orders together? The “classical borromean knot” is one in which no two rings are directly linked together, but rather they are only held together through the medium of a third ring. As a consequence, if you sever any of the rings, the other two will fall away and will no longer be attached to one another. Do we ever find a subject in the clinic that has this structure? Lacan seems to suggest not, for somewhere in Seminar 22, he says that “there is no subject without a symptom [Σ].” A symptom is a fourth ring that knots the other three together and that is required insofar as the rings aren’t properly linked. However, suppose that there are subjects who’s psychological structure is that of a classical borromean knot (without a supplement or fourth ring), what clinical phenomena would allow us to recognize this?
2) In his investigation of Joyce in Seminar XXIII, Lacan argues that the order of imaginary in Joyce isn’t tied to the symbolic and the real. As he puts it, “it slips away”. His “clinical evidence” for this is that when Joyce is being whipped one day at school, he feels as if he’s a sort of husk that’s being peeled. In other words– if I understand Lacan properly –he doesn’t identify with his body (the Imaginary) or experience this as happening to his body. From this, we can infer that the orders can slip away. According to Lacan, Joyce used his symptom (a fourth ring that Lacan calls, in this instance, the Sinthome) as a way of fastening the three orders together (the diagram at the top of this post on the right). Three questions follow from this:
a) How exactly does this fourth ring fasten the imaginary to the rings of the symbolic and the real for Joyce? Here I’m not asking a question about rings of string, but questions of how this really works in Joyce’s own psychic universe.
b) Presumably you can have subject-structures where the real slips away and the imaginary and the symbolic are tied together or where the symbolic slips away and the real and imaginary are tied together. What sort of clinical phenomena would allow us to infer this?
c) Given that Joyce was a psychotic (or maybe not), is any knotting of the orders where one order slips away a form of psychosis? If so, what might we name these different psychoses?
3) Is it possible for all three orders to be unknotted or to slip away? A friend of mine recently suggested that the structure of subjectivity where none of the orders are linked to one another is perversion. My reaction to this was shock. Wouldn’t a structure of subjectivity where none of the orders are knotted to one another be absolute madness? It seems more probable to me that perversion is a structure where the imaginary and real are knotted together and where the symbolic has slipped away. Why? Because the pervert– according to earlier Lacan; and we must remember that all of earlier Lacan has to be revised in terms of the borromean knot so this might not hold any longer –is the one who disavows the name-of-the-father or castration which is an operation of the symbolic. The pervert, according to Lacan, believes the phallus exists and that jouissance is possible. This is what we’d expect from a knotting of the real and imaginary together where the symbolic (the “hole”) has slipped away. The perverse operation then consists in relating to the Other in such a way that the Other then enacts castration on their behalf– says “No!” at some point –as we see clearly in the case of the masochist who brings his torturer to an unbearable point of refusing to go further so that castration might be enacted and he can attain the status of a subject. The perverse ritual would then, perhaps, be the fourth ring that knits the symbolic to the other two. Yet if this is the case, then how do we distinguish the pervert from the psychotic?
4) The broader question is just how we use the borromean knot and its variants for diagnosis at all? Lacanians describe the borromean clinic as an exploration of how the subject weaves its knot. What exactly does that mean? How do we distinguish the knotting of a hysteric from the knotting of an obsessional from the knotting of a phobic from the knotting of a pervert from the knotting of an extraordinary psychotic and so on? What do these knots look like? How could we represent them? In the case of hysteria, for example, can the knots be structured in different ways for different types of hysterics?
5) This question arises for psychosis as well. If psychosis or foreclosure is the root structure of all subjectivity, if there is generalized psychosis in the world and everyone is a bit mad, how do we distinguish between “ordinary psychotics” (as the Millerian school is calling it) and “extraordinary psychotics” like Schreber or Artaud? How do their knots differ from one another? If psychosis is generalized, why isn’t a psychotic like Dora or the Rat Man– we must understand them as forms of psychosis now –a psychotic like Schreber or Artaud? How did the former attain some sort of stability, social relation to others, and functionality in the world while the latter did not?
6) Lacan and Lacanians describe the psychoanalytic act in the clinic as an act of cutting, gluing, and tying rings of string. This, they claim, is what interpretation does. What, however, does this mean in the clinic when we’re working with speech and people, not rings of string? How does an interpretation cut a ring of string or tie two orders together? What are some examples we might think about here?
That’s enough for now.