When they poured across the border
I was cautioned to surrender
This I could not do
(Leonard Cohen, The Partisan)
30th May 2020
What Is It That Interprets in Psychoanalysis?
For an analytic session, there is no criterion for success or accuracy: one can only say that it took place. It took place if it produced a certain effect, an effect which is not calculable in advance. Often the analysand leaves the session without the least understanding of what went on or wondering if anything happened. The analyst says nothing, sitting behind the couch outside the analysand’s field of vision, only his breathing indicates his presence. Sometimes another sound can be heard: the creaking of a chair, the clattering of keys on a computer keyboard, a snap of the fingers, a sigh, a yawn… and not a single word. In this strange case, the word is returned to the analysand lying on the couch, invited to say whatever comes to mind.
Indeed, at the beginning of the analysis, many ideas come to mind, but, rather quickly, the analysand comes up against the fact that he can’t say everything. Moreover, he has the impression that he is always talking about something else and that he can’t find the words to say the thing itself. First, he attributes this impossibility to the limited time of the session before he realises that it has to do with the very structure of language and his own speech. He is annoyed that he does not know how long the session will last, not being able to anticipate the moment when the analyst will interrupt it, which is the only act – more often than not – that the analyst performs.
The analysand’s suffering is genuine and he tries to find the right words. He seeks those words which can touch the suffering. In order to “please” his analyst, he seeks the sublime word, stuffed with philosophical-scientific concepts, he seeks the impeccable formulation of his thought in order to speak correctly; he happily brings many dreams, which nourish his speech with “ready-made” material for the session. But the more the analysis progresses, the less the analyst manifests his or her presence. The analyst replies to the analysand’s suffering with an eloquent “hmm”, yawning at the sound of a charming, quasi-scientific tirade, impatiently fidgeting in his armchair as soon as another transparent, well-built dream appears. Finally, his words, so rare, are not heard where they are expected, the expected response never comes. Yet it is thanks to this silence that the analysand makes his way, crosses the abysses of incomprehension, ascends the mountains of his own meaning, and inevitably changes the structure and content of his statements.
Gradually, he begins to hear what he is saying, especially when these utterances escape him, and it is precisely here that the word of the analyst produces its effect. It is only a question of slips or of denegation when, for example, the analysand is recounting a dream, the detail does not escape the attention of the analyst, who sticks to being the guardian of the formations of the unconscious. It turns out that the essential is always within reach, under everyone’s gaze, in the manner of the “purloined letter” of Edgar Allan Poe. So the analyst – it’s his position that allows it at this moment – extracts from the speech of the analysand, from the free flowing of the signifiers, the crucial elements that repeat, which are repeated without the analysand’s knowledge, since he himself does not know who is speaking.
“You say that all women are stupid, they are all beasts – like animals?” says the analyst, finally, in a grouchy tone.
Well, that’s it! The phrase, uttered several times in different contexts, becomes all at once luminous, bright like a neon sign. The astonishment deprives the analysand of his speech, the session is cut on this vibrant silence.
Homonymic equivocation has become possible thanks to the passage from the maternal language to the field of the language of the analytic experience. It blocks the automaton of the speech, all the grandiloquent speech collapses like colourless plumage, and once fallen it allows a framework with ridiculous contents to appear. The woman-stupid [woman-beast] equivalence which has been melded into the orderly chain of signifiers of the mother tongue is henceforth underlined and italicized in the text produced by the unconscious: one can no longer hide it or mask its absurdity behind the signifiers. The astonishing thing about this case is… that the effect is not produced by the encounter with another meaning that would generate happiness, which would signify the reunion of a “true meaning”, of a truth allowing one to say: “Ah! That’s the right answer!” So where does this effect come from?
Before discussing the effects of this intervention, we can ask “what interprets?” “People have probably been too fixated on the analyst’s speech-act”1; one attributes to his rare enunciations the status of a true interpretation, it is assumed that he has a particular knowledge of his analysand. In the present case, if one sticks to the level of meaning, the psychoanalyst only puts linguistic knowledge to work. Let us not draw the false conclusion that the interpretation would be a particular language of the analyst, his metalanguage which would be added to the statements of the analysand.
On the contrary, it is the product of the unconscious which, structured like a language, is at the heart of the work of “alluding, implying, being silent, being the oracle, quoting, being enigmatic, half-saying things, revealing” – in other words, only interpret, cipher and decipher. Such a conception of the unconscious-interpreter can be likened to the workings of delusion when the encounter with a signifier S1, which is enigmatic because it has no pre-established meaning, triggers the search for a signifier S2, that is capable of giving meaning to the first signifier. Well, in this laboratory of knowledge production, the unconscious has no equal; it doesn’t need the other, and that includes the analyst. This is why the analyst’s interventions run the risk of generating a new flow of S2, in the service of the unlimited process of ciphering. Indeed, such a signifier, generously offered by the analyst, could just as well inscribe itself in the well-tuned system of the unconscious, which, in the best case, would engulf it.
But then how, in this perspective, can one put obstacles in the way of the perpetual production of meaning that the unconscious carries out? The speech of the analyst, even if it gives another reading of the interpretation of the unconscious, only expands the web of meanings. If the signifier S2 is unsuitable for drying up the elaboration of meaning, it only remains for the analyst to “withhold S2, and not to bring it in so as to encircle S1. It amounts to bringing the subject back to his properly elementary signifiers, on which he has, in his neurosis, fantasised.” His task thus consists in isolating the signifier from the interpretation produced by the unconscious, in freeing it from all meaning; that is to say, instead of adding meaning, the analyst cuts the relation between S1-S2, an operation that subtracts meaning.
What are the consequences of this subtraction? The flight of meaning is not to be neglected because it allows an encounter with what this meaning locates and defines: jouissance, attached to this unary signifier, which subsists by itself, outside any semantic field. Thus, the aim of the analytical act is not the successful reformulation of unconscious knowledge, but the revelation of this jouissance.
From this point of view, the perplexity that arises following the analyst’s words already allows us to note the cut that has been produced, the result of which was the disengagement of the signifier.
What worked thanks to the analyst’s intervention? Firstly, it puts in doubt the axiom “all women are stupid”; it makes the rooted and unconscious meaning vacillate. In fact, the phrase, coming from the discourse of the parental Other, has been swallowed, whole, raw – and the analysand has made it pass it into his own discourse as original truth.
Secondly, the intervention introduces a cut in the hermetic statement, releasing the S1, “woman,” from the S2, “beast.” In other words, this isolates S1 thanks to the incision of its hollow and pseudo-logical link with S2.
Thirdly, this interpretation does not bring any new semantic signifier in relation to women: it is the same word “beast” that is discovered, grotesque and senseless, in its two meanings in French [bête].
Fourthly, the analyst’s statement aims at and strikes at the jouissance included in this phrase, jouissance hitherto attributed to the Other who would have been its author. The proof of this is that the intervention produces a complex affect at the level of the body, one of shame, indignation, and laughter. Then the analyst makes a second intervention, cutting the session short: another form of cut, an act “leading the subject back to the opacity of his jouissance. This supposes that it is cut before it closes on itself.”
Instead of understanding, for example, the origin of this idea and relaunching, again, the narrative of the contradictions of the discourse of the maternal Other, the analyst cuts the session short. To put it another way, he does not support speech that is likely to inflate the imagination, which offers the subject the possibility of confronting his impasse and non-sense.
Thanks to the incision in the signifying chain, the impasse is discovered, since if the axiom is true, the analysand finds himself before the impossibility of appropriating this signifier – being a beast. Following the severing of this fantasmatic link, relief comes instead of indignation and shame: with the impasse, the sharp operation also indicates the possibility of getting out of it with the use of the signifier woman, deprived of her predicate, woman-…
The Possible Feminine
Extracting this signifier, isolating its particular status, opens up the question of the feminine. The consequence of this is the revival of analytical work, the failure of knowledge having hollowed out an empty space, a gap that makes it necessary to elaborate a new signifier. The signifying chain restarts, with a new elaboration of meaning in order to attempt to bring answers to the place emptied of knowledge – women are “unpredictable”, “tricky”, “complicated”, “don’t understand themselves” and so on – illustrating one of Lacan’s fundamental discoveries about the “not-all” woman, because what’s always lacking is a signifier to designate her. This lack, if it objects to defining its being, to fastening the definition, nevertheless opens up some possibilities. And the analyst is silent again, so that, as in most sessions, the unconscious-interpreter can grasp these possibilities. “Aren’t you going to say anything? Of course. Being silent is the lesser evil here. Because the unconscious has never done anything other than interpret, and it does it better, in general, than the analyst. If the analyst remains silent, it is because the unconscious is interpreting.”
Indeed, the unconscious interprets and its interpretations are autonomous and full of meaning. The formations of the unconscious offered a series of signifiers in place of the S2 that had been removed. Phallic woman, asexual woman, mother woman, woman of man, woman who enjoys, woman who suffers, seductive woman, castrated woman… Every invention of the unconscious claims to be true. Just up until the hazardous encounter with the non-sense of its construction reveals the incompleteness of its truth. Yet its incompleteness does not mean it is false, lying: all these versions of the feminine are true and false at the same time. This makes it possible to use them, provided that you can do without them.
Translated by Janet Haney
This text is to be published in its original language in the next issue of Revue Internationale de Psychanalyse, a journal of the Freudian Field in the Russian language, for which Inga Metreveli is currently coordinating the editorial committee. Originally published in French in Lacan Quotidien, Issue 889, on Saturday 16th May 2020. Avalaible online.
 [TN] In French “bête” as an adjective means “stupid”, and as a noun it means “beast”.
 All quotes are from Miller J.-A., “Interpretation in Reverse”, Psychoanalytical Notebooks, No. 2, 1999, also published in The Later Lacan: An Introduction, ed. Véronique Voruz and Bogdan Wolf, Albany, State University of New York Press, 2007, pp. 3-10. Translations modified.Image credit/Artist: Lennette Newell
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