The Big Other, the Symbolic and Death

Syria, the Death Drive

Somewhere in the middle of the Chanel 4 production Brexit: The Uncivil War a woman in her mid 40’s is participating in a focus group on Brexit. Arguing that the UK should leave the European Union at once, she suddenly exclaims “I am sick of feeling like nothing. I have nothing, I know nothing, I am nothing!”. Michael Safi writes in The Guardian that the protests raging today on the streets and cities around the world have varying triggers: stagnating middle classes, stifled democracy, and ‘the bone-deep conviction that things can be different’.

What does this lady mean when she uses the word ‘nothingness’? Can we trace this nothingness back to its origin? Likewise, what relation is there, if any, between protests and the expression ‘the bone-deep conviction that things can be different’? Artistic depictions and journalistic accounts of historical events such as those currently gripping our society today offer a welcome opportunity to articulate in them the structure of their cause.

A good start to begin with may be to look first at why most of us seem to be so consistently busy in our life. Whether preoccupied, worried or in just doing some thinking, if only in dreams, we realize that our mind is constantly dealing with something. For Martin Heidegger and existential philosophy, this frantic busyness can only be symptomatic of some anxious behaviour. If we always make sure that we keep ourselves engaged with something, he asks in Nietzsche’s footsteps, then what could possibly be the reason other than a desperate attempt at covering something up? Only anxiety caused by some existential abyss can explain our compulsive needs to take refuge in things external to us; Heidegger writes ‘Dasein’s absorption in the “they” and its absorption in the ‘world’ of its concern, makes manifest something like a fleeing of Dasein in the face of itself – of itself as an authentic potentiality-for-Being-its-Self‘ (p. 229). Nothingness has a significant place in our everyday lived experience, situated as it is at the center of what it means to be human. If anxiety traps us in ‘pure freedom’ for existentialists or in pure Jouissance for psychoanalysts, what makes us act is less what is in front of us, as Edmond Husserl argued all along, than a desperate need to move away from, that is to say, from some anxiety created by an emptiness at the core of our being.

Now, what in this citation does Heidegger mean by the ‘they’? For him ‘Being-with-one-another dissolves one’s own Dasein completely into the kind of being of the ‘Others’, in such a way, indeed, that the Others, as distinguishable and explicit, vanish more and more. In this inconspicuousness and unascertanibility, the real dictatorship of the ‘they’ is unfolded’ (p.164). Put simply, there exists an ‘Other’ which dictates our everyday thinking and behaving; our place and even our modes of thinking are directly influenced by it. For ‘We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they take pleasure; we read, see, and judge about literature and art as they see and judge […] The “they”, which is nothing definite, and which all are, though not as the sum, prescribes the kind of Being of everydayness’ (p. 164).

Without completely leaving the German philosopher behind, the concept of the Others will help us take our investigation further towards psychoanalysis. We saw that our interpretation of, and place in the world, depends entirely upon this one symbolic entity, ‘the big Other’ as Lacan calls it (Cf. my article on The Name-of-the-Father, Truth &Totalitarian Rhetoric). As a closed differential system, this big Other regroups elements including the law, codes, and more crucially for our discussion here, Language. We will recall that Language is made of basic elements called signifiers; words, morphemes and phonemes, phrases and sentences, even non-linguistic elements such as objects, relationships and symptomatic acts are signifiers (Evans, 186). Crucially for our discussion, it is a differential system in that every element inside it possess one essential characteristic: they are all radically distinct from each other. It is in this precise sense that we should hear what is principally meant by the big Other; a notion that materializes alterity, the radically different. This Other which from the earliest years of infancy in the (m)Other is there to meet our demands is essentially difference. Without it, everything around us would become prone to wild, paranoid interpretation. Ideas of boundaries, separation and distance only make sense in terms of it and the laws found in it. In a hypothetical world where no law is to be found, meaning and significance can have no place. It is there that signification is produced, in the separation or cut between oneself and this big Other.

Having firmly established that it is the big Other – made of language and essentially symbolic in nature – that comes to rescue us from the anxiety created by an unbearable emptiness at the center of our being, it is now time to ask: What impact does this so-called big Other actually have on us? Can we locate in the effects that language has on man the origin of his destructive nature? What can possibly explain his being so hopelessly forgetful of the lessons past, so tirelessly excessive in his behaviour, so predictively destructive in his nature and, in its most blatant illustration with Brexit, so agonizingly nostalgic about a lost harmony?

Again, the big Other and language is nothing if not what shapes us into human subjects. Variously described as a parasite, a drug, the enemy and even in the eyes of some commentators a “malediction”, psychosomatic symptoms have long since shown the extent to which language has an impact on the body and mind. The big Other, that is, taken with a view to those basic units constitutive of language that are signifiers, is the actual material that envelops and confines the existential void at the center of our being. It is in this precise sense that we may able to represent the subject topologically as an articulation between two Others: an Other (a) of Language fading or blending seamlessly into the Other (b) of the flesh.


Subjectivity hinges between two Others: the Symbolic Other and the Other of the un-symbolizable Flesh

Our approach to the exigencies and challenges of life, our place and gender role in society, in its final analysis, is determined by the type of relationship we have with this big Other of the Symbolic.

Two directions now offer themselves to us in our investigation. But it is down the path of the Symbolic Order that I want to take the present analysis, for it is there that we shall find the brightest light on the question raised in this paper. However, given the easily misunderstood nature of those impulsions under examination, I will nonetheless give a brief survey of what psychoanalysis sees is taking place on the Imaginary level in the present context. Brilliantly portrayed somewhere in the Brexit drama mentioned earlier, we see Rory Kinnear in the character of the pro-European government communication director Craig Oliver exclaim: “We need to appeal to their heads, numbers, projections, we focus on the facts” – a clear appeal to the Symbolic Order. At the same time Dominic Cummings, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, argues “We should appeal to their heart, their emotional resonance, their dreams, their aspirations, their fears, […] their suspicions”. How not to quote here Freud’s remark: “The interest of work in common would not bring civilization together; instinctual passions are stronger than reasonable interests” (Civilization and its Discontents, 1930:112). Indeed, it is easy to see why, in opposition to Craig Oliver who bets on reason and rationality – the big (rational) Other – Dominic Cummings chooses to place his battle for winning Brexit on the plane of the Imaginary. An appeal to someone’s dark fantasies reminds us how the ego is formed by appropriating to itself and as its own a fictional story vehicled by Language (Cf. my The Mirror Stage or the Birth of Subjectivity). Briefly, the child builds a coherent image of unity by identifying with some carefully selected signifiers handed down by the (m)Other. A process that is, of course, essential, not least because it allows the child to compensate for what is in him, just as in all of us, a hole at the center of our being showing our self as fragmented.

This inherent instability due to this fragmented self means that fears of disintegration can never be far away. It is in this context that aggressiveness and hatred can be seen as defensive reactions deployed towards anyone who dares challenge the integrity of our ego: Freud writes “Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness”; “It is mutual hostility which causes civilized society to be perpetually threatened with disintegration” (Civilization and its Discontents, 1930:111-112).

Attacks on one’s fragile narcissistic ego by stirring up fears of disintegration is enough to swap reason and rationality for some overwhelming feelings having their source in infantile fantasies. The whole theoretical edifice elaborated by the British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein who worked with children is based on the idea that the human psyche oscillates between two separate positions, one of them being the paranoid-schizoid position. Appealing to our natural fears by stimulating our darkest fantasies in an Imaginary way is the easiest but most efficient way to make someone regress into submission. In this instance therefore, man’s destruction results mainly in confrontation with the Other; given that the origin of this aggressiveness and hatred is situated in fantasy this phenomenon belongs in the realm of the Image-inary.

What interests us here, however, is less what takes place on an Imaginary, lawless level, than in the Symbolic register and the part it plays in man’s destructive nature. If man is able to reach the highest summits in the most profound bouts of scientific ingenuity, morality, art and culture, he is also, as we all know, more than willing to destroy, kill, exterminate and annihilate, if only for the fun of it. So how to account for this excessive nature? And where do we locate his tendency to repeat things? Where does psychoanalysis situate in the effects of language the cause of his Dionysian character?

It all begins with an 18-month-old boy innocently playing in his cot. Freud’s grandson had invented a game consisting in throwing a cotton reel out of his cot while exclaiming an ‘Oooooo, before retrieving it with an appreciative ‘Aaaaah’. For Freud the first thing the baby uttered was no doubt a representation of the word ‘Fort’, meaning ‘gone’, while the following utterance stood for ‘Da’, meaning ‘there’. The child used ‘Fort’ and ‘Da’ as signifiers to transcend his immediate experience of appearance and disappearance. Having successfully elevated this experience into an abstract – Symbolic – plane he could henceforth represent any phenomena of presence and absence symbolically. Can anyone dispute the idea, as shown by his desire to repeat the game that the child thoroughly enjoyed killing and murdering the Thing in him – made manifest in the anxiety caused by his mother’s absence – that is, in its primordial and unsymbolized form?

Language kills. The symbol murders the Thing, it is in this sense that we should understand the notion that the Symbolic Order is the realm of Death (D. Evans, p31). As this short extract drawn from Freud’s observations demonstrates universally, we humans like to use language not just to make our needs known, but to murder that Thing alive in us that causes us to feel anxiety – think here of Ridley Scott’s science-fiction horror film Alien. How else can we explain the soothing, if not altogether therapeutic effects of talking therapies? From there to taking pleasure at destroying things external to us, including nature, is only a short step. In the same way that we enjoy a good joke, humour or playing a game such as the one invented by Freud’s grandson, what ultimately is at stake in each instance is the reduction of some sexual tension. We are of course here in the realm of the Pleasure Principle. Regarded by Freud as one of the ‘two principles of mental functioning’, this principle aims exclusively at avoiding unpleasure and obtaining pleasure by reducing tension. It is in this precise sense that we should understand acts of destruction, just like any other acts, as essentially acts of sublimation whereby the Thing in question – in the case of Freud’s grandson the anxiety created by the absence of his mother – is joyfully transformed, negated, and murdered by the symbolic Order. Or is it?

We have now reached the moment in our exposé where it is finally the time to introduce the concept of the drive. The drive is this mythical object in psychoanalysis commonly experienced as a compelling force that makes us do things not just once, but repeatedly. Entering into a full examination of the drive here would take too much space, and so I will instead refer the reader to Freud’s book Beyond the Pleasure Principle where the concept is fully articulated. But the game that Freud’s grandson invented can still help us identify the components at work in it. As we saw, the goal of the game was to destroy the Thing, source of anxiety caused by the absence of the child’s mother. But it didn’t stop there, it went beyond the simple pleasure of contentment, it compelled the child to repeat it. Who can doubt the enjoyment felt here by the child is dependent on the signifiers – Fort and Da – used to symbolize his experience? The surplus enjoyment – object a – produced by this game of destruction is nothing if not altogether the cause of his desire to repeat it over again and again. No matter how many signifiers we throw at our experience, there will always be left something unsaid to kill. This unsymbolized leftover, along with the enjoyment produced by our trying again and again to murder the Thing, is at the origin of our instinct for destruction. In the same way that it became Nietzsche’s lifelong project, we can now finally account for this ‘bone-deep conviction that things can be different’ referred to in the introduction.

Once the signifiers have done their jobs of murdering the Thing alive in us, the death drive, clothed as it is in the symbolic Order, aims at what has been left between the lines, beyond the signifiers. But as the Matrix sequel has made perfectly clear, the mission of the Symbolic order is never completely successful. For in truth the satisfaction of the drive is not to attain its goal and leave us content and satiated. Quite the contrary, its aim is to produce a form of live enjoyment – Jouissance – which often borders on suffering. Repetition is evidence of the enjoyment we find in it, which by the same token explains why symptoms are so difficult to eradicate.

It is easy to see in the context of our investigation the impact of not being heard, to have no Other recognize our signifiers. To exist and not be just alive depends on an Other who is present at the time and is capable of seeing us. For people’s signifiers not to be somehow received and legitimized can only invite for more of them, for more symptomatic acts. In a letter to The Guardian Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, Mary Beard writes: “Those of us who have been the beneficiaries of New Europe must face the uncomfortable fact that we are partly to blame for the vote going, in our terms, so badly wrong. Because we didn’t stop, or we didn’t stop long enough, to think of those who are on the other side of the cultural divide.”

Introductory Lectures, Part One and Two

Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis Part1&2

Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, Part_One_and_Two is where Freud gathers his insights collected from his work on dreams, as well as being seen as an introduction to his developments on the neurosis and, of course, the unconscious. For Freud indeed posits that his research on dreams, and more specifically on the dreamwork itself has given him the key to understanding the mechanisms of repression that form the unconscious. Early in his work he writes: “The obscurity in which the centre of our being is veiled from our knowledge and the obscurity surrounding the origin of dreams tally too well not to be brought into relation with each other(Freud, 1900:36)

For Freud dreams are first of all the means by which the mind handles a stimulus and the risk it may cause in interrupting that sleep. Something is irritating the sleeper who deals with it by producing a dream and thereby continue sleeping. One way to view this irritation experienced as a stimulus is effectively as a wish that needs to be rid of for the dreamer to continue sleeping. Of course the most radical and efficient way to get rid of a wish is to fulfil it. And so a dream for Freud is seen simply as a wish that the dream represents as having been fulfilled. Now it is also the case that different kinds of wishes may be fulfilled by the dream. The sailor who as been away for too long will surely be satisfied in his dream as he is enjoying himself with a sumptuous meal. But in his Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, Part_One_and_Two Freud makes a point in explaining that not all dreams as so easily enjoyable. More disturbing and ‘evil’ wishes as he calls them most often find their ways into a dream by way of using the day’s residues. Those wishes, for instance the desire to murder one’s father or sleep with one’s sibling, are not admissible for the adult person. Sill, wishes such as those are still expressed and fulfilled in the dream, but in a way which is necessarily unintelligible to the dreamer who would otherwise wake up panic-stricken (the nightmare).

In his Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, Part_One_and_Two Freud helps us make a clear distinction between the different parts forming a dream. There is the manifest content of the dream, the dream as remembered on waking up and produced by the actual dreamwork from the latent dream-thoughts that are not necessarily conscious before the dream. The dreamwork can be understood as the transformation the censorship operates in order for the wish to be acceptable and avoid anxiety to the sleeper. The mechanisms at work in the dreamwork are of only two characters: each elements forming the latent thought can be either displaced or condensed. Lacan will later assimilate those as the work of metonymy and metaphor respectively. But we also discover that the dream-work can easily make use of contraries to signify the same idea, adding to the complexity of interpreting dreams.


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  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Classics; New Ed edition (20 Sept. 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099426684
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099426684

Enjoy Your Symptom! (now) – Žižek

Zizek - Enjoy your symptom!

Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out from the psychoanalyst and philosopher Zslavoj Zizek exposes a number of psychoanalytic principles via Zizek’s analysis of carefully selected hollywood films. Those briefly include:

  • Death and Sublimation
  • The Imaginary, Symbolic and Real
  • Woman as a Symptom of Man – Suicide, Freedom, the Sacrifice
  • The Lacanian Act and Repetition – Identity and Authority
  • The Phallus – The Real, The Synthom, The Thing, The Anal Father
  • The Humiliated Father
  • Multiple Reality – The Gaze, Perversion

Enjoy your Symptom! has for me been surprisingly helpful in clarifying those Lacanian theoretical concepts listed above. Zizek is obviously so comfortable and at home with psychoanalysis and philosophy that those analysis he offers in his book seem almost unimpeachable. Zizek’s way of illustrating his chosen psychoanalytical concepts makes those readers already versed in Lacan (that still needs to be said) go “So this is what Lacan meant!”. To use Lacan himself it would be appropriate here to evoke the notion of so many ‘points-de-capiton’ anchoring a particular concept  to its corresponding signifier (say, Sublimation, the Real, etc). I, for one, was most impressed by Zizek’s analysis about Sacrifice, and how tragic it may be for some to choose a life in which the Other has almost taken complete predominance, but also the bigger price for rejecting the sacrifice of alienation.

But this perhaps is going a little too fast. Zizek takes us first through the mechanisms of dialectic and how something and its opposite (its antagonism) is effectively constitutive of reality. One is defined in relation to the other and simply cannot exists without it. Enjoy Your Symptom! then takes us on an exploration of the Real and as a result produces something coherent and consistent, if not a little bit felt as a challenge to grapple with at first. Reading Enjoy you Symptom! may take you by surprised by its depth and steepness, but it also presented for me something of a riddle I felt the urge to crack. The reader can feel the desire of the author all throughout the pages. Just like a mountain the climber has scaled through sheer resilience to finally enjoy a well earned view, Enjoy your Symptom! may just be this invitation (an injunction, rather) from Zizek for his readers to effectively enjoy their symptom, the symptomatic act of not simply resting content with not knowing, but to enjoy the heap of transformative phallic Jouissance his analysis offer.

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  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge; 1 edition (3 Sept. 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780415772594
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415772594

Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, Part3

Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, Part 3 - the unconscious

Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, Part 3 is an essential part in the analyst’s arsenal. Written some 17 years after his Interpretation of Dreams (1900) and following up on his first Introductory Lecture on Dreams, Part 1&2 (Volume 15) Freud summarizes here for us his theoretical researches on:

  • the sense of symptoms
  • fixation to traumas, the unconscious
  • resistance and repression
  • the sexual life of human beings
  • the development of the libido and the sexual organizations
  • thoughts on development and regression – aetiology
  • the path to the formation of symptoms
  • the common neurotic state
  • anxiety
  • the libido theory and narcissism
  • transference
  • analytic therapy

Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, Part 3 (volume 16) is of significant help to those readers, analysts and therapists who wish to get to Freud’s foundational ideas and principles directly. If Freud had already began to develop most of those themes in his previous works, this is not to say that in this volume those subjetcs are not even more polished and consolidated. Freud’s writing is as always most illuminating to read. Reading Freud is already enough to be able to feel as if the effects of psychoanalysis are at play in the reader – transformative reading.

Each subjects treated in this Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, Part 3 form the foundation of a Freudian practice. It would become the base upon which all the following psychoanalytic shools of thoughts would be built. In reaction to what eventually became a misguided use of his ideas, Lacan even declared his work was effectively a return to Freud. A brief glance suggests the bulk of Freud’s theoretical preoccupations centres around the notion of the symptom, its formation, aetiology, regression, the fixation and a regression of the libido to those traumatic moments that were psychically overwhelming for the subject. Lacan would later expand on what he called the order of the Real in his theoretical work on anxiety.

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  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Classics; New Ed edition (20 Sept. 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099426692
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099426691


Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Group Psychology

English French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Freud Pleasure Principle Group Psychology

Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Group Psychology and Other works (v18) left me with a deep impression, not only because those texts are nothing less than landmark writings in Freud’s work – which part of his work can be considered as secondary – but because of Freud’s style of writing. Perhaps this may explain why Freud was nominated for a noble price, in literature. Deciding not to read Freud is not based on a reputation for producing such vertical phrasings as to put anyone off from delving into it. The reason for avoiding Freud in the first place may just turn out to be more connected with what the reader is going to ultimately discover about himself, or herself; reading Freud is (almost) psychoanalysis in practice already.

Freud, in my experience as a reader, reassures, put the reader at ease, lead him by the hand, intuitively knows when to go back to some of what may have been misunderstood or felt to be confusing. In his Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud is alive, so rigorous yet honest that I would on occasions burst with laughter – how can anyone resist when, after a relatively lengthy and exhaustive description of a dream a woman had shared with him in connection with the subject of telepathy, he had remarked after her being so astonished about the fortune teller’s words ‘this man predicted you would be having a child by the age of 31, you are now 45’.

Again, it would be quite redundant here to use this space to simply emphasize the value of reading Freud. Any so-called therapists whose practice he claims to be psychoanalytical even though he has not read Freud if only to find errors, deserve to be legitimately questioned. Freud’s theoretical elaborations on the Death drive, Identification amongst group psychology based on his libido theory and his case of a homosexual woman will be found inside this specific volume.

Of the many insights Freud left me with after reading his ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ the following one has stayed with me in particular. Contrary to what some may seek in a fortune-teller, however mechanistic and materialistic some other may wish to view psychoanalysis, it will never predict anything in the future for you. It can only try to retrace and somehow make sense of the present. The reason is mind-bogglingly simple: it is impossible to know the extent to which we have invested ourselves in one thing or another.

See also The Interpretation of Dreams

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Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism – M. Sarup

English French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism

An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism by Madan Sarup brings thinkers including Freud, Lacan but also philosophers such as Derrida, Foucault, Nietzsche and Hegel in a debate around the question of what it means to be a human subject. Sarup’s introduction helps therapists, analysts, students or passionate in psychoanalysis and philosophy to situate the work of Lacan in particular in relation to the diverse philosophical trends that were emerging at the time, that is, in the middle of the 20th century in France.

In this fascinating and most concise account Sarup retraces the paths and articulations between existentialism – which regarded the subject as ‘only’ a conscious and a responsible being who, following Descartes, thought rationally and therefore was unable to conceive of a self whose choices could be dictated by any other force than freedom, phenomenology which was the new philosophy born in Germany and which made ontology its study (still articulated with the subject at its centre), and finaly Post-modernism as a blend of structuralism and Post-structuralism. As its name indicates post-structuralism brings in the notion of structure that one finds in society, but also to begin with that which is at the centre of language.

Sarup’s Introduction was essential to my qualitative research found here

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  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Longman; 2 edition (1 Mar. 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780745013602
  • ISBN-13: 978-0745013602

Post-Modernism for Psychotherapists – D. Loewenthal

English French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy post-modernism for psychotherapists

If the Modern was a time in culture which saw man as the centre of his thoughts, bringing to mind Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’, and in this context ushering in various philosophical schools such as existentialism, humanism and phenomenology, post-modernism – along with post-structuralism – may be described as the last attack on man’s narcissism. The reader may recognise here an expression first used by the inventor of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, arguably the first scientist and writer to establish what in effect post-modernism is all about: a decentering of man’s orbit of potency in his ‘being subject to’.

Just like Darwin before who himself had followed on Galileo’s scientific findings, Freud made us realise that man doesn’t stand at the centre of his choices as a conscious being; he is not the master of his thoughts and destiny but rather subjected to social influences such as Language (Lacan), the Other and Difference (Levinas), Oower and Knowledge relationships (Foucault), Undecidability and a constant deferral of Meaning (Derrida), or finally to the strange and disruptive (Kristeva).

Post-modern texts from post-modern writers are essential reading for analysts and psychotherapists alike; they contribute to an understanding of what the Subject is. Although not a post-modern thinker himself but a phenomenologist existentialist, Martin Heidegger can still be included in a post-modern context and quoted as saying ‘man is a question‘. This line of approach towards human beings is post-modern. A question essentially calls for some opening, shows the lack for a satisfying answer which would otherwise close off something in us. In the footstep of the Deutsh philosopher B. Spinoza Lacan would take on Heidegger’s view and himself declare that a questioning attitude equally dictates that man’s destiny to life. Indeed, for Lacan ‘Desire is a Question‘.

Post-modernism and its thinkers including Freud, Lacan, Levinas, Derrida and others invite us to wonder, question and challenge, starting with theory itself. This mental attitude, the scientist would argue, is a necessary condition for science (itself a hysterical discourse). In this sense post-modernism may be seen to refer to this idea of becoming – what Lacanians would express in terms of being a subject for one signifier in relation to another signifier (Cf my short introduction on the signifier).

Post-Modernism for Psychotherapists by D. Loewenthal and R. Snell has contributed significantly in my writing of my master thesis (conducted under prof D. Loewenthal at the University of Roehampton) and can be found here.

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  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge; 1 edition (28 Aug. 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1583911014
  • ISBN-13: 978-1583911013

Language of Psychoanalysis – Laplanche & Pontalis

English French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Language Psychoanalysis

Laplanche and Pontalis’s Language of Psychoanalysis should evidently not be absent from any psychoanalysts who claims oneslelf to be one.  For rather obvious reasons this book is essential to own preciously. It is essentialy nothing other than a dictionary of concepts in psychoanalysis, from the birth of psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud, but not only. We find in it also concepts and notions from other writers, including Melanie Klein, Jacques Lacan. The definitions are concise, with a succint but clear summary of the history of the concept in question.

Unsurprisingly enough concepts have a life on their own. They somethimes evolve into something one may find difficult to retrace with confidence, leaving us instead with the risk of not having properly understood what is ultimately at stake. The Language of Psychoanalysis by Laplanche & Pontalis is essential to own because its aim is to make the foundations of psychoanalysis robust, something which allow for psychoanalytical research to be solidly built upon. It is an instant authority in itself.

Jean Laplanche (1924 – 2012) was described by the journal ‘Radical Philosophy’ as “the most original and philosophically informed psychoanalytic theorist of his day.” Studying philosophy under Hyppolite, Bachelard, and Merleau-Ponty, he became an active member of the French Resistance under the Vichy regime. Under the influence (and treatment) of Jacques Lacan, Laplanche came to earn a doctorate in medicine and was certified as a psychoanalyst. He eventually broke ties with Lacan and began regularly publishing influential contributions to psychoanalytic theory, his first volume appearing in 1961. In 1967 he published, with his colleague J.-B. Pontalis, the celebrated encyclopaedia ‘The Language of Psychoanalysis’. A member of the International Psychoanalytical Association, co-founder of the Association Psychanalytique de France, emeritus professor and founder of the Center for Psychoanalytic Research at the Universite de Paris VII, and assistant professor at the Sorbonne, he also oversaw, as scientific director, the translation of Freud’s complete oeuvre into French for the Presses Universitaires de France.


Language of Psychoanalysis by Laplanche & Pontalis seats at the foundation of my clinical practice

The book may be found here

See also my Short Introductions in Psychoanalysis here


Book details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge; 1 edition (31 Dec. 1988)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0946439494
  • ISBN-13: 978-0946439492

English French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy dreams Freud

Subjectivity and Otherness – Lorenzo Chiesa

English French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Subjectivity Otherness

Subjectivity and Otherness: A Philosophical Reading of Lacan by Lorenzo Chiesa was my point of entry in the work of Jacques Lacan, simultaneously with Heidegger’s Being and Time and Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle; perhaps not such a bad combination, given the title of this book. For indeed, however Freudian Lacan claims he is – “you may call me a Lacanian if you want to, but I consider myself a Freudian, first and foremost”, he later declared, Lacan’s oeuvre nevertheless inscribes itself in time. A time which was rich in intellectual insights at the time, in fact, Lacan had invited Heidegger and his wife on holidays to his home near Paris. It transpired that despite Lacan’s efforts to befriend Heidegger it is understood that the latter could not follow him, and was not so much interested in his work.

Beside this little anecdote, Chiesa’s book is indeed worth talking about here for its efforts to clarify the main concepts developed by Lacan, if not where they originate with their relation with Philosophy. On the back of the actual book, it is remarked that the author describes Lacan’s work as “a consistent philosophical system”. In my opinion I am not entirely sure that Lacan himself would have approved his work being described as a ‘philosophical system’, for it is crucial to remember that the whole of Psychoanalysis, let alone Lacan’s career, is centred around the notion of the unconscious, subjectivity and otherness, whereas philosophy may be seen as still somewhat in the grip of the transcendental subject – it indeed was in the middle of the 20th century – If it true that Lacan was in the habit to taking bits here and there from the philosophy of his time (without much acknowledging who he had borrowed some of his ideas from) it remains crucial to draw a clear distinction between Philosophy and Psychoanalysis.

Chiesa’s important book is, in my eyes, necessary to read because it does indeed expose for us the key concepts of Lacan, including the subject, subjectivity, the big other or otherness, in a way that preserves something of what makes Lacan’s writing: it asks the reader to work hard. If you are anywhere a bit like me, you will read, re-read and re-read Chiesa’s Subjectivity and Otherness again. Just (just like the work of Lacan) fascinating.

Cf. My Short Introduction on The Name-of-the-Father, At the Beginning was the Signifier, the Mirror Stage, Metonymy and Metaphors

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Book details


  • Paperback: 244 pages
  • Publisher: MIT Press; 1 edition (28 Sept. 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9781420044874
  • ISBN-13: 978-1420044874


At the Beginning Was the Signifier

English French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Signifier

At the beginning was the word. An obvious start in the realm of the talking cures would naturally have us look at what is effectively heard during sessions: words. At the time, Freud had already made an all-important distinction between a word, say the word ‘t-a-b-l-e’, and the actual concept of the thing itself – a piece of furniture with a flat top and one or more legs, providing a level surface for eating, writing, or working at, etc. However, Freud did not continue in this direction and try to explore further the implications those linguistic rules bore upon his patients’ experiences. In his study of dreams, whose function he argued is to fulfil the dreamers’ forbidden wishes, and to do so in a more or less distorted fashion so as to allow the sleeper to carry on sleeping undisturbed, Freud saw his clinical work with dreams as mainly one of interpreting – in effect, adding more meaning to what was already being said. Still though, Freud’s experience would show him that it was the words people used which carried an ’emotional load’, and less the meanings of what they actually said. This may come as a surprise, for do we not usually feel that what marks us in someone’s speech is what he or she signifies, what he or she actually means?

The lure towards meaning rather than towards words turned out to be so irresistibly fascinating to writers and thinkers alike as to almost bring the progress of human sciences and psychoanalysis to a grinding halt. Why is that? The fault may, in fact, be partly due to Freud himself. The founder of psychoanalysis had ended his scientific career by concluding that what needed to be reinforced in the work of psychoanalysis was, in its final analysis, the patient’s ego. As seen in my short introduction on the Mirror Stage, the reader may recall that the ego maybe understood to have been born at the time when the baby identifies with the image his mother had somehow mapped onto him, that is, when they both caught their reflections in a mirror. It is understood that this unique moment in the baby’s psychical development – which should be more appropriately called the ‘birth of the subject‘ – has, and Freud would never really depart from this idea, an adaptive function. Adopting an image provided much-needed stability to the child whose otherwise fragmented world of incoherence and inconsistency brought him massive anxiety. Although he would of course never have put it in those terms, Freud would finally conclude that is this sense the ego is a good thing. As a matter of fact, it may be possible for today’s readers of Freud to sense a kind of tension in his last writings. The impression is that Freud himself seemed somehow to struggle against his own very conclusions, that is, with regard to which direction the work of analysis should take. The reason is simple: if it is this organised part of the psyche which defends the subject against his own instinctual impulses in the act of repression, then what is at the heart of the problem of neurosis must also be this same ego. In retrospect, his patients had all along been telling him their symptoms stemmed from too strong an ego of theirs, not the lack of having enough of it! But of course, there is hardly anything easier to do than ridicule Freud’s conclusions with today’s eyes.

The nature of the relationship between words and meanings, which the notions of ‘signifiers’ and ‘signifieds’ respectively include but are not restricted to, and the rules they follow in language, would forever and radically re-define the core concept of the Freudian unconscious and thus the whole field of psychoanalysis.

And the reason is this: Ferdinand De Saussure (1857 – 1913), a Swiss linguist, argued that language was essentially composed of basic units called signs. It is on the basis that those signs can be discerned from one another in sound and writing that a thing in the world represents something for someone. Now, given that the newborn baby first gets to hear bits of words, words, phrases and sentences (all signifiers) before understanding what they mean (the signified), it makes sense to posit that the signifier takes precedence over the signified. Put differently, signifiers are there before the signified. Hence, in contrast to Saussure, for Lacan signs will be written as:


capital S (the signifier) over small s (the signified) with a bar separating the two

English French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Sign

Hopefully, this way of looking at signs will allow us to see how meaning is produced. The act of signification – creating meaning – takes place between at least two signifiers and involves something only humans are capable of doing: crossing the bar in S/s. This ‘crossing of the bar’ relates to the notion of the paternal metaphor (the subject of which will form another short introduction) which constructs meaning via the two linguistic tropes of metonymy and metaphor, as seen in my short introduction on metonymies and metaphors. For instance, if I invite the reader to ponder on the words ‘grass’ and ‘sun’, it would be safe to assume that a multitude of meanings would emerge from those two signifiers. Perhaps one individual will find himself dreaming about those holidays he has been looking forward to for some time; another may be reminiscing about the age-old philosophical debate of nurture versus nature, etc.

The meaning generated by and in between signifiers is arbitrary, and in this sense may be regarded as being completely unreliable objectively. In fact, meanings are not random; they are motivated by social conventions. Indeed, if it is agreed that a bunch of flowers will be called “flowers” in the English language, it will have been decided otherwise in another society, such as being called “fleurs” in French. Natural language is inherently opaque and ambiguous. The picture below may be a fair depiction of how signified and signifiers interact with each other in language – the signifiers (represented by A) floats above a sea of meanings (represented by B) which slides underneath it and stabilised or fixed to signifiers only by those vertical lines (fig 1), otherwise named Points-de-capitons (fig 2).

English French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy SlidingEnglish French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Point de Capiton


It is in this very debate between meanings and signifiers that lies the fundamental distinction between the work of psychoanalysis on the one hand, and psychotherapy and counselling on the other. The last two clinical approach focus on what the patient means – the signified – whilst (Lacanian) psychoanalysis is concerned mostly with what was there from the first for the newborn: in its final analysis a material element which means nothing, yet is indestructible and taking its value only from its difference with the next signifier, representing the subject only in reference to another signifier.

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Metonymy and Metaphor in the Thinking Process

English French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Metonymy and Metaphor in the Thinking Process

In his studies on dreams published in the year 1900 Freud discovered what would later turn out to be nothing less than revolutionary in our understanding of how human beings actually think. The strangeness of dreams, the distortions and fantastic productions found in them would eventually shed an unprecedented amount of light on questions such as how does our thinking process work? How do we go about communicating our intentions? Why do we think what we think? On its journey to formulating those questions the study of dreams would forever after problematize the notion of consciousness (ask sceptics about the unconscious to explain dreams and hypnosis) and in the same movement propose a psychoanalytic theory of the human psyche which still stand today.

Nobody in our western culture and society before Freud was really interested in dreams, let alone in trying to understand them. Yet history of human science would eventually show they have a key role in understanding how we actually form our thoughts. The aim of the present short paper is to introduce the reader to the two main primary processes at the basis of thinking in general, first discovered by Freud before being taken over by J. Lacan. Hopefully this quick summary will inspire the reader to want to explore more and deepen his or her understanding of how we think.

The action of thinking, or the forming of thoughts in general, is based on only two (ultimately linguistic) processes. One process allows the other to take place and is called ‘displacement’, the other is named ‘condensation’ and will be examined next. Everyone of our thoughts, ideas, feelings (besides anxiety), considerations and reflections, everything that our mind care to construct, whether one lives in the UK or in the remotest part on the planet, obey the laws laid down by those two processes only.

So, what do we mean by displacement? Its definition suggests that something is moving or displaced from an original place to a new position.

A → B

It may be useful to represent displacement as what takes place when an electrical current passes through a wire, say, from a battery to a light bulb. A similar phenomena is at at work in our mind: an electrical energy passes from one idea to another (neuroscientists would say from one synapse to another).

In his study of dreams Freud realised that this unique psychical ability to detach the emotion of an idea to attach it to another (displacement) enables us to do something extremely useful: to bypass our critical judgement and carry-on sleeping. After all, is this not true that we don’t usually allow what appears to us as small and secondary to pass as unworthy of our attention because irrelevant or superfluous? The devil is in the details popular language warns us. Following on Freud’s footsteps the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would later posit that what is bypassed in dreams is in fact the fulfilment of our deepest desire. A nightmare wakes the sleeper up when he’s come too close to the Thing, or perhaps more appropriately a no-Thing, a hole whose job it was for desire to circle around only, to never fulfil it completely.

In those cases when convention forces us to pay attention to it, we recognise this process as a ‘metonymy’. A metonymy is a linguistic trope whereby an element is put in place as a representation for something else, that is, by way of its being a part of it or contiguous with it.

To illustrate this concept via an example, in politic circles we all understand implicitly that besides indicating an actual house number, ‘number 10’ has very little to do with a number 10 (try and ask directly the most ‘artificially intelligent’ computer today what it has to say about the latest news from number 10) but stands as a symbolic representation for the government in office as a whole.

Things become even more complicated to decode when we realise that, under the same principle of displacement, that is, with the view to escaping anxiety, a significant emotion can itself turn into something of small significance and therefore appearing irrelevant.

A    →    b.   with b belonging to A

Thus the process of displacement teaches us that as part of our thinking process, one singular element may be chosen from an original idea and singled out as a specific symbol whose job it is to represent this idea (Cf. my short introduction on The Mirror Stage and the Birth of Subjectivity). If things were not complicated enough, dreams show us that once selected an element can be the result of several displacements. Several seemingly disconnected thoughts (they are less disconnected than being different versions of the same thought) can all point to the same one small chosen element.

A  →  b  ←  C     with A equivalent to C and b belonging to A, C

If we accept that, as dreams tell us, an emotional charge is able to move from the general representation of an idea onto a small and thereby seemingly less conspicuous detail belonging to it, it could be rather baffling to hear how emotionally significant the number 10 may be for someone in his dream. As it turns out, upon his freely associating with number 10, we learn that the dreamer had not simply lost his father when he was 10 years of age but his uncle who had taken in his charge to raise him happened to be working as a staff in Downing street as well.

The work of metaphorization forms the second primary process at the basis of our thinking. Unlike metonymies which are, as we’ve seen, symbolic elements more or less directly related to the original thought, metaphors are figures of speech that have almost completely lost their relatedness with the original – if unconscious – ideational thought. Taking the well known metaphor ‘A star is born’ as an example, we all implicitly assume this expression refers to an individual whose talent is now recognised, and not the actual celestial body itself. This other primary process which dreams taught us is at work in the production of thoughts in general is essentially a process of substitution. Owing to the inherent impossibility to perfectly describe it in language, the Real is only referred to obliquely or more or less poetically only. Metaphors maybe regarded as so many (successfully failed) attempts to tell how things really are. It is easy to understand how useful metaphors can be as a way for the mind to bypass disturbing ideas such as those we harbour most secretly in ourselves. For as we have seen above, it is not generally recommended that we completely attain our object of desire – on the other hand not enough satisfaction creates symptoms. It is here important to remind ourselves that if this metaphorical process may first strikes us as being capable of yielding more creative solutions in its efforts to grasp the Real, this process would not be possible if it wasn’t carried forward in some (metonymic) movement, that is, as instigated by the process of displacement. Schematically we may describe the combination of the two primary processes at the basis of thought formation thus:

Metonymy and Metaphor picture

The implications that result from the elucidation of those two processes of metonymy and metaphor may strike some readers as not immediately obvious in their significance. But soon enough it dawns on us that if indeed it is true that those two processes are effectively at play in constructing each and every one of our every thoughts then does this not ultimately suggest that almost everything someone says or claims he is suffering from as in the case of having symptoms, are not to be taken at face value? What we want and ultimately possess is never really it, but always something else. If to think as human means being inescapably caught in an endless motion from one thought or idea to another, then what can we say about our identity and who we actually are?

See also my Short Introduction on Metonymies and Metaphors

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The Interpretation of Dreams – Sigmund Freud

English French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Dreams IV Freud

The Interpretations of Dreams by Sigmund Freud,  published in 1900, forms the traditional psychoanalyst’s understanding of how unconscious processes work generally. Freud was the first scientist to take dreams seriously enough to want to devote himself to a thorough examination of them. In this fascinating, if not altogether essential account of the nature of dreams the reader is taken through a journey in which a theory describing their work will gradually form.

First of all, Freud argues that, given that every human beings, that is, irrespective of whether they are mentally sick or not, dream, then whatever those dreams reveal about the human psyche may be deemed a universal and valid rule in everyone. If philosophers couldn’t be bothered to look into them properly and preferred dismissing them as some insignificant quirkiness in us, Freud would still invite them to offer some rational explanation. Why did they appear so strange and distorted? What did they mean? Why do we have them all together?

Freud would eventually realise that dreams invariably follow an exact set of rules. Three broad components would be seen time and again when looking at dreams. The dreamer’s initial report of his dream may be named the manifest content of the dream, but this story is a distorted version of another, an original version whose content is understood by Freud to be inadmissible. At the time of his practice Freud would offer an interpretation of his patient’s dreams as the realisation of wish fulfilment of a hidden and secret thought, too disturbing to the dreamer not to need to distort it along the way. And so finally, the last component Freud entering into the formation of dreams would be this distorting effect in between the original or latent thought – what was never consciously acknowledged – and the manifest thought which is remembered upon waking up.

  • If the validity of an interpretation of a dream can be legitimately questioned, Freud’s research is primordial in its revealing the mechanism in dreams, the ‘dream work’. We are here, of course, referring to the notions of displacement and condensation, the same processes of which can be noticed in linguistics with metonymies and metaphors (see my short introduction)
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Book details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Classics; New Ed edition (20 Sept. 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099426552
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099426554

English French Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy dreams Freud