miscommunicationA leitmotif of Lacan’s earlier seminars was the claim that all communication is miscommunication.  This thesis was so important to him that he made it a fundamental principle of psychoanalytic practice in the clinic.  We must, above all, resist the urge to understand our analysands, he would say.  We must resist the belief that we understand our patients.  Lacan, I think, did not say this out of a desire to be contrarian or paradoxical.  Rather, it was premised on fundamental insights arising out of his engagement with structural linguistics.  Recall that a fundamental Lacanian thesis is that the unconscious is structured like a language.  Although he is careful to emphasize that the unconscious is structured like a language, his claim nonetheless is premised in part on the thesis that the elements that compose the unconscious are characterized by differentiality.  They do not intrinsically possess the signification they have, but rather take on their meaning as a function of their differences from other terms.

fleuve2Consider the following example:  In American English, rivers and streams are distinguished by their size.  A river is larger than a stream.  In French– and I am not a fluent French speaker, so I might be getting this wrong, but it’s the principle that’s important, i.e., other examples could be found to illustrate the point –we might think that translatability between one language and another is a simple matter.  We might think that rivers are to rivières as streams are to fleuves.  Yet this is not how the French language “cuts up” reality.  In French a fleuve is a body of water that flows into the ocean, while a rivière is a body of water that flows into either a fleuve or another rivière.

There’s a sense in which we still speak our native language even when we learn to speak another language because we carry the differential system of our mOther tongue over into the new native language.  We can therefore imagine the following scenario:  we have an American visiting France who does not, of course, speak the French language because he’s a vulgar American, and we have a Frenchman who speaks English but who still speaks French through English (he uses the French system of differentiality when speaking English without realizing it).  Our vulgar American asks him for directions to the historical church a couple miles a way.  The Frenchman responds by telling him to go down the road a ways and take a right at the river before the bridge.  The American, of course, is expecting a large body of flowing water.  Instead he comes across a small body with a bridge across it.  For this reason, rather than taking a right before the bridge, he continues across the bridge expecting to eventually encounter a large body of flowing water with a bridge across it.  The different systems of differentiality belonging to both language have generated miscommunication between these two people.

read on!

The same principle applies in the clinic.  As my wife who majored in communications and, in particular inter-cultural conflict, likes to say, every individual is their own culture.  This is a deeply Lacanian thesis.  Translated into Lacanese, we must exercise caution in the clinic because the differentiality that characterizes the key signifiers that structure the analysand’s unconscious might be quite different than those of the analyst. We see this, for example, in Freud’s extraordinary case of the Rat Man where thee signifiers Spielratte, Ratten, Rate, and even heiraten figure so heavily in the formation of his episode and subsequent obsessional conflict (Freud, SE 210- 215).

It is against the horizon of these principles that I listened to my students with great interest today as we began discussion of Lucretius’s atomistic metaphysics as outlined in De Rerum Natura.  In order to achieve ataraxia or tranquility and freedom from anxiety, we must overcome our two primary sources of anxiety:  fear produced as a result of religion (I think this is a bad translation, as the concept of religion as a distinct domain of human behavior and practice doesn’t really arise until the 17th century), and fear of death.  According to Lucretius, we overcome fear produced by superstition or religion through the study of nature and coming to understand true natural causes (clearly this hasn’t worked as we understand nature better than we have at any time in human history, yet we are no less anxious and are perhaps even more anxious).  At any rate, I asked my students– in four classes, no less! –what we would call this study of nature today and in each class a significant number of them said, not science, but rather biology.

I think my students said something of great significance here.  For them– and I suspect that this is very common –the signifier “nature” is associated with “life”.  In this regard, my students are good Greeks or Aristotelians.  Our English term “nature” descends, by way of Latin, from the Greek word phusis, which is a cognate of phuein meaning “to grow”.  This might seem like a minor thing, however, we can hypothesize some inferences based on the principles of differentiality I outlined above.  If “nature” is associated with that which is alive, that which is living, then, by the principle of substitution we can replace it with the organic, and infer that it’s oppositional or differential terms will be, on the one hand, the inorganic and, on the other hand, techne or the cultural.  There will be, on the one hand, the “natural” or that which arises from itself of its own “nature”– e.g., the acorn that becomes the oak tree –and, on the other hand, the inorganic which has no intrinsic principle of growth and development and techne where things take on form as a result of our agency imposing form upon them, e.g., us transforming the oak into a table or a sculpture.

I won’t expand on this much here as I have a giant pile of grading ahead of me this afternoon, but these distinctions will lead us towards compartmentalization of these different domains.  As a consequence of these largely unconscious distinctions, there will be a tendency to restrict the ecological to the domain of the living, bracketing out the inorganic and the culture.  Yet if we are to truly think ecologically, we cannot cut up the world in this way.  To the same degree that we must see society and culture as embedded within nature– here I do not follow my friend Tim Morton in calling for an ecology without nature, though I am deeply sympathetic to his motives in making such a proposal –we must also understand that ecological transformations pertain as much to rock, soil and water as they do to living beings.  We must come to see the knots and imbrications of all of these things interacting with each other in all sorts of complicated ways, refusing the urge to sort being into sealed containers.  Despite proposals to the contrary, I think we are very unlikely to get rid of the concept of nature anytime soon, regardless of what a mixed and contradictory legacy the term has.  Despite its tendency to generate all sorts of antinomies and contradictory meanings– e.g., nature as something outside of culture vs nature as the totality of what is, including culture –I do think we can do conceptual work that might shift the meaning of this term, leading, in turn, to better practices and ways of living that are more attentive to how the broader world about us is folded into our bodies and societies in all sorts of hyper-complex ways.