- Cultural Psychoanalysis, or Theory, Resurrected
Introduction: Cultural Psychoanalysis
There is a question that is today everywhere asked, if only implicitly and rarely directly addressed: what is ‘cultural psychoanalysis’?
It is an impossible question, to be sure, involving a Real continually circled around; but it is, perhaps, a productively — or even seductively — impossible question. Are we merely circling around the old problematic of the embeddedness of certain psychoanalytic terms within culture, the way in which, as every analyst knows, patients come into their sessions hyper-aware of the very terms of the treatment, attempting to impress the analyst (as subject-supposed-to-know) with their knowledge? To some extent, surely. But is there not a larger dynamic, wherein culture could be said to be self-analysing, both before and after Freud? If so, what then is the role of the ‘cultural psychoanalyst’? Perhaps it is but to draw out and make explicit culture’s use and subjection to the Real of its horizon, the way, in fact, culture often masks its most traumatic kernel(s) in its very gestures of self-analysis.
Shoshana Felman writes that in the encounter of Lacan and Freud a two-way return is effected that is itself constitutive of truth, so that the truth is correlative with the discrepancy that conditions and necessitates the return. This dialogue is analytical in that it is not equal to its parts; in it, the unconscious reads. In this reading, Lacan tries to restate the momentousness of Freud’s discovery in contemporary terms1. Lacan is faithful to Freud precisely by renewing contact with his strangeness and his question(ing); Lacan is a unique disciple insofar as he doesn’t simply follow Freud but instead radically believes in his ignorance. In the process of reading Freud and being read ‘by’ him, in this two-way translation, Freud’s corpus is transformed. Every reading, we all know (and forget), is overdetermined by the present; when Lacan reads Freud, he is concurrently being “taught” from his patients. Freud is read from Lacan’s cultural context; in a way, it’s Lacan’s patients who are the readers of Freud.
As Felman notes, Jacques Lacan employed three methods: his practice or clinic; concept or theory; and metaphor or literature2. Slavoj Zizek drops the first method, or perhaps, one could argue with some difficulty, that his clinic becomes the world. His discourse is a psychoanalytic one, utilizing examples from the politico-ideological realm. Lacan would likely not recognize this approach, as for him “my patients told me their dreams and so taught me”3. Zizek no longer deals with individual patients, and yet, might leaving the clinic and the individual patient behind be something that is intrinsic to Lacan’s own corpus? What, in short, legitimizes Zizek’s move away from the clinic (while claiming to remain faithful to Lacan’s project)?
To begin to answer this question, we should consider Lacan’s two ‘periods’ of thought and the larger society and culture of which they were a part. For the early Lacan his subject is one whose desire is always the desire of the Other (where the ‘of’ should be read in its double genitive sense), and whom always takes up a place in a Symbolic structure that goes far beyond h/im. The symptom of the analysand is here read as a calling-out to the Other, and the goal of treatment is then to enable the subject to recognize h/is own message to the Other (and to thereby Realize the Other’s non-existence). For the later Lacan, the symptom (now sinthome) loses some of this Symbolic calling-out, and instead aligns itself more closely with the subject’s imaginary relation with enjoyment — and yet, this imaginary enjoyment is still minimally social. The end of analysis is now seen as identification with the sinthome.
All the effort of Lacan’s last years is directed at breaking through this field of communication qua meaning. After establishing the definitive, logically purified structure of communication, of the social bond, via the matrix of the four discourses, Lacan undertook to delineate the outlines of a certain “free-floating...