Freud described psychoanalysis as being among the three impossible professions (teaching and governance being the other two).  To Lacanian ears, of course, this quip resonates a bit differently, for “impossible”, in Lacanese, signifies “real”.  The Lacanian real refers to a number of things, all of which can be retroactively detected in Freud’s famous statement about the impossibility of analysis.

  1. The Real sometimes signifies that which is impossible to represent.  Certainly the psychoanalytic setting is impossible to represent.  No matter how much Freud, Lacan, and psychoanalytic theory you read; no matter how many case studies you read; what takes place in the clinical setting will not be known to you.  The only way to understand the clinic (and probably the concepts of psychoanalysis) is to go through the clinic.  There’s simply no substitute for the experience of analysis itself and something slips away in every description of analysis.
  2. The Real sometimes signifies that which always returns to its place.  Here, of course, the Real would be the symptom that animates and organizes the subject’s being.  The symptom– at least in neurotics –is that which repeats in a variety of ways throughout their life.  It is the Real of their being.
  3. The real sometimes signifies “impossible”, or formal deadlocks and antagonisms that are at the heart of being and social systems.  Perhaps there is something impossible about psychoanalysis in this sense as well.

What is it that makes psychoanalysis such an impossible art?  Part of it has to do with the position the analyst strives to occupy.  Somewhere or other (the Rome Discourse?), Lacan remarks that the analyst plays dead in the analytic setting.  What could this possibly mean?  Certainly the analyst speaks (on occasion), scands and punctuates the anlaysand’s speech (by going “hmmm” and a variety of other things), opens and terminates sessions, breaths, and occasionally coughs and sneezes.  Her eyes are open and sometimes she even has expressions.

What, then, does it mean to play dead?  It seems to me that the death the good analyst seeks to embody is the death of any personal or individuating characteristics.  The analyst strives for something impossible:  to both be a face and to be completely faceless.  The analyst strives for perfect anonymity and pure faciality.  All signs of desire, inclination, taste, preference, politics, ethics, etc., ought to disappear from the analytic setting, so that the analyst might occupy the position of faciality as such.

This is a truly monstrous ideal.  Imagine would it would entail to be the perfect analyst or the perfect embodiment of this ideal.  First, the perfect analyst would have to be invisible.  The problem with visibility is that clothing, gesture, jewelry, make-up choices, hair choices, body art, etc., all indicate judgments of taste, ideologies, political beliefs, etc.  These features of the analyst’s being might, in their turn, function as lures for the imaginary, functioning as points of identification that foreclose the analysand’s ability to encounter the truth of her own desire and symptom.  “Of course my analyst wants me to be this, just look at how she dresses!”  Similarly, the perfect analysis would never speak in public, nor publish any articles– or certainly wouldn’t do so in ways expressing personal convictions –for these public pronouncements too would get in the way of the analysand encountering the truth of their desire.  On the level of relations to others, the perfect analyst would be someone without a trace; but not only is it impossible to relate to anyone if you’re without a trace, it’s impossible to live this way.  It is impossible to live without a trace of desire.  Everything about us, up to and including the practice of analysis, expresses desire in some form or other.

There are good reasons for this ideal.  At the end of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan writes,

The analyst’s desire is not a pure desire.  It is a desire to obtain absolute difference, a desire which intervenes when, confronted with the primary signifier, the subject is, for the first time, in a position to subject himself to it.

In our day to day interpersonal relations we are poorly situated to determine the desire that animates our being.  It’s always unclear whether our desire is our own or whether it is anothers desire.  Is this my desire or is it theirs?  Is this my affect or is it theirs?  Are they angry at me or am I projecting my own anger onto them.  By fashioning herself into a nonperson or a dead person, the analyst creates a strange sort of mirror.  This mirror is strange for while it is indeed you that’s reflected in this mirror, you encounter yourself as alien and other in this mirror.  You also encounter an other other (repetition intended) in the form of the analyst that embodies the mirror.  Through the attempt to form such a strange mirror the analyst attempts to create a surface through which the absolute difference of the patient might be encountered and known.  The question, however, is how anyone can ever come to occupy this unheimlich space.