English French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Borromean Knot

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Object a: Where to stop? How to begin?

English French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Lacan object a

The process of beginning something necessarily marks the end of what was there before, puts a stop to it. Indeed, to change and begin something in earnest always comes after ending something else: there is no other way but stop what one is doing, or not doing, before really beginning something new. How we change, or what stops us from doing so is related to a mysterious object: object a.

The first free association that comes to mind regarding the issue of stopping is smoking. But the same argument may of course equally apply to, say, drinking: when and how to stop smoking, drinking, arguing with one’s partner, procrastinating, putting a stop to climate change, etc… Clearly, there can hardly be any question of beginning anything at all, a new chapter in life, a career, a course, a hobby, a relationship, a new diet etc… before one has truly grappled with the question of stopping. In the clinic, a patient who boldly undertakes a psychoanalytical psychotherapy is someone who presents a situation that may be broadly described as one of grappling with what, ultimately, is a question about object a: that which doesn’t allow him or her from stopping something from happening, be it suffering, feeling sad, guilty, worrying or repeating something detrimental to him or to herself.

I offer to address the question of stopping in terms of a situation where ‘a person is caught in something that ‘insists’ or ‘resists’ change’. Speaking of what makes an analytic treatment successful Freud writes that it is obtained and remains thus, not as a result of the patient being spoon-fed suggestions by his physician but for it having managed to overcome the patient’s internal resistances and having produced some ‘internal change’ in him (Freud : Volume XVI, p453). In other words, for a situation to stop repeating itself something has to change within the patient. At this point the Freud’s reader will remind us that any outcome in psychoanalytic psychotherapy deemed successful is inseparable from the positive regard or transference that the patient formed towards his/her analyst. An Other seems to be a key factor for change to happen. This Other is spelled with a capital O so as to emphasize the dimension of alterity in it. In terms of things remaining the same Freud writes: “No one who has any experience of the rifts which so often divide a family will, if he is an analyst, be surprised to find that the patient’s closest relatives sometimes betray less interest in his recovering than in his remaining as he is [..] and you will guess, of course, how much the prospects of a treatment are determined by the patient’s social milieu and the cultural level of his family” (Freud : Volume XVI, p459-461). Operating upon some deep and long lasting changes in oneself often implies that those significant others in the patient’s life may be prepared to change too!

Can we describe the structure at the heart of an individual’s (in)capacity for change? Psychoanalysis tells us that a situation which somehow resists changing is of two distinct natures: either the situation has always remained the same, or it somehow repeats the same. If by S1 and S2 we name the start and end respectively of any one situation, we could describe both cases as follows:

English French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Same

English French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Repeat

It is easy here to see the structural difference between the two cases. A situation that repeats itself is ‘marked’, determined or framed by two elements: S1 and S2; whereas no such determinants exist in a situation which always remains more or less the same.

To take our analysis further it is now necessary to make a quick incursion into the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). For Saussure language is composed of basic units called signs. Each sign is composed of two elements: a signifier noted capital S, and a signified noted small italicized s. Any situation is intelligible when taking the time to have a close look at the signifiers and signifieds making up its narrative. Recall that signifiers are meaningless material elements. They can be words or things smaller than words such as morphemes and phonemes. They can also be larger than words such as in phrases and sentences. In fact, signifiers can even be non-linguistics objects such as relationships or symptomatic acts (such as smoking or arguing). The crucial point to bear in mind here is that signifiers make up the unconscious. Assembled together in signifying chains they persist on ‘another Scene’ (Žižek, Enjoy your Symptom!: 11) and as such ultimately determine all of the subject’s actions. A sign is defined a follows:

English French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Sign

Another way to say that the subject – always of the unconscious – is an effect of language and its signifiers is to say that the subject is that which is represented by a signifier for another signifier. So in terms of the signifiers S1 and S2 we now have:

English French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Lacanian Subject

The above equation describes nothing if not the general structure behind the curing process of all talking cures, including psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Language is intrinsic to the subject who is in effect a ‘product’ of it. The subject is situated ‘between the lines’, S1 and S2. In the sentence “I am good at playing guitar” the subject is not immediately discernible because there is only an S1. Rather, the subject is that which for reasons that would need to be elucidated – the S2′s in the equation – pushed this person to utter that particular statement.

Now if it was simply an exercise of digging up those S2‘s from a cooperating patient then it would be reasonably fair to expect that, according to the equation given above, success should eventually crown most psychical issues (that is, providing S1 and S2 do exist). Weighed down by his symptom(s) the patient would only have to go and open up to an analyst who in turn would help him articulate enough of what presents itself in the situation to make things change. If only! Analysis, remembering and somehow being able to associate freely on the couch is not the whole story behind the process of change. As Freud himself discovered in his clinic to his surprise, symptoms do insist; the patient offers resistance. He writes “Psychoanalytic treatment finds its limits in the lack of mobility of the libido, which may refuse to leave its objects, and the rigidity of narcissism, which will not allow transference on to objects to increase beyond certain bounds” (Freud : Volume XVI, p455). In other words there is a limit to what articulating and exploring one’s own experience using language can achieve: something always remains beyond the grasp of language. We are here of course referring to the famous object a.

Divided and alienated from his own very being by language the subject will never be able to know himself completely. Object a is what is left unsaid due to the limit of the symbolic; just like a traumatic kernel, there is simply no words to describe the experience. As a product of language object a corresponds to what in the body remains un-symbolised. If so the above equation can now be rewritten thus:

English French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Lacanian Subject Full

Just like above the (always) unconscious subject $ is represented by a signifier S1 for another signifier S2. But now the equation shows two more things: as an effect of language the subject is barred or ‘split’ from himself, now noted $ to account for the presence of the unconscious.

And language produces an object a: a forever un-symbolizable Real element situated at the heart of what drives a person to want to change, or to not want to. As a product of the effect of language upon a person, object a is the driving force that lay behind any action whatsoever, including his or her desire to unearth more S2’s. Object a essentially sits at the centre of what causes a desire for change. Almost all of a person’s choices, habits, views and general attitude in life hinges on the object a. Object a can be any of those objects which sets desire in motion. For instance make-up products may be seen as so many object a in a person who wants to look pretty and desirable in the eyes of society. This expensive shiny car showing through a window may equally well be seen as an object a driving a man to work long hours and choose a type of crowd as part of his chosen lifestyle, etc. Simply put,it is what makes someone’s life narrative significant.

As a consequence of the effect of language on the actual body object a represents from a form of loss. As seen above this created lack will in turn either generates a desire to feel whole again, that is, providing there is some form of love involved (the positive transference) or anxiety, also named Jouissance. Thus we have:

English French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Lacanian Object a

Unless the situation is one where S1 and S2 don’t exist, object a is the unavoidable product of the effect of language in each one of us as speaking beings. As the graph above tries to show, object a is in itself what decides whether change is possible or not. It is the object our drives tend towards without ever reaching it. Counter intuitively perhaps, this also means that if we do completely fulfil each one of our desires or dreams it is possible to find ourselves in a situation where lack may be lacking, leaving the door open for anxiety.

If change is possible at all it will have to come from expanding one’s horizon through a desire to explore as we let go of our narcissism. Put this way changing and becoming one’s own author cannot happen without being directly confronted with the question ‘who am I?’ This requires one to quietly withstand the anxiety attached to the idea of losing some part of one’s body in the act of symbolization (otherwise named castration). Only Love for the discovery of the unknown and the Other as that which represents Alterity can help us separate from the comfortable but deadly zone of the familiar, and embrace change.

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