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  • The Time of Interpretation: Psychoanalysis and the Past
  • Jason B. Jones (bio)

Though “deferred action” has entered the theoretical lexicon of the humanities, Lacan’s theory of causality is still poorly understood, as are its implications for interpretation. This essay argues that the return to Freud reveals psychoanalysis to be in the first instance a theory of temporality and history. Against conventional understandings of psychoanalysis as a recovery of the past—the view that the “cure” works because one remembers what “really happened”—Lacan proposes that interpretation works by depleting the analysand’s putative knowledge of the past. Paradoxically, by draining the past of meaning, Lacanian analysis binds us to the work of history. The essay offers a systematic reading of Lacan’s 1950s works on technique, connecting these with later developments to clarify the anti-narrative emphasis in psychoanalytic theory. —jbj

In his seminar of 1966–67 on the logic of fantasy, Jacques Lacan reported to his audience that he had recently been asked what need, what exigency drove him to theorize the objet a as object/cause of desire. According to the transcripts of this unpublished seminar, Lacan also passed along his answer: it was about time. This witty response discloses an important insight into Lacan’s re-reading of Freud: psychoanalysis, in its metapsychology and its clinical orientation, is fundamentally a theory of temporality and history. When we speak of sexuality or the unconscious, for instance, we are essentially just euphemizing the past. And although psychoanalysis is obsessed with the past, it also, in the Lacanian approach, demands that we reject memory and our common experiences of the past. In its place, we are offered retroaction or Nachträglichkeit, deferred action: a system whereby future events control the meaning of ones in the past. To put all of this a slightly different way: within psychoanalysis, effects frequently determine their causes, rather than the other way around. This way of thinking, I want to suggest, is psychoanalysis’s most original interpretive contribution, and recalling its structure may be helpful to humanists and psychoanalysts alike. For, culturally as in the clinic, the best interpretations arise from a proper understanding of retroaction.

If “everyone knows” that Lacan emphasizes deferred action, nonetheless it is the case that the peculiar mode of causality this implies is still far from understood. Joël Dor has argued that the problem with so-called “wild” analysis—and, implicitly, the sociocultural or literary application of psychoanalysis—is its application of a positivistic causal model to psychoanalytic theory (5–6). And as I will show, even sophisticated versions of political analysis often fall on the side of memory or reminiscence rather than history, properly (or, at any rate, psychoanalytically) speaking. The bizarre temporal logic of Lacanian psychoanalysis, in other words, potentially clarifies the stakes of social and cultural psychoanalysis, especially as such a project seeks to grapple with the “mutual foundering of the subjective and the social” (Jones, “Revisiting” 29).

I. Two Sides of the Ahistorical Coin

Before turning to the particulars of this argument, I want briefly to acknowledge two widely held criticisms of psychoanalysis, both founded on the idea that it is either ahistorical or aggressively hostile to history. We can call these criticisms “universalist” and “deterministic.”

Many people of course reject psychoanalysis for purporting to discover universal traits, such as the Oedipus complex, the fact of castration, or even the unconscious. In this argument, universal traits are supposed to be outside of history, present in all cultures and across all times. Some people accept that universal traits are in principle possible, but claim that Freud’s “discoveries” are unverifiable. For others—and perhaps this route has been more common in the humanities over the past two decades—universality itself has come under suspicion, generally as a masquerade for power.1 Whatever the particular objection, critics who lament psychoanalysis’s universalism typically point to the variety of human sexual and familial relations as a prima facie disproof of Freud. The best response to these objections has come from writers such as Joan Copjec, Charles Shepherdson, and Slavoj Zizek, who, each in their different ways, observe that the universalist argument misses the point: rather than...

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