U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Scand and Deliver: On Lacan, Rhetoric, History, Etc.

I suggested in a comment on Robert’s recent (excellent) post on the historiography of slavery that my post today might speak to complementary concern… that work needs to simmer a little bit longer, I think. In the meantime, I am going to do something different.


All the same, what we look at here is not unconnected to the questions Robert asks, not unconnected to our long-running inquiry into the politics of interruption, and not unconnected to the material we considered last week, relating to Eric Cazdyn’s book The Already Dead.

Here, I return to the politics of interruption and the Chicana/o aesthetic tradition, focusing upon Américo Paredes’s With His Pistol In His Hand, a study of the corrido (Texas-Mexico border ballad) hero Gregorio Cortez (who, it turns out, incidentally, is a classical example of an “already dead” narrative protagonist).[1] This will be a two-part essay. This week’s installment will do some psychoanalytic work; next week will turn to a close reading of With His Pistol In His Hand.


I am going to try to play a bit with some ideas from the clinical side of the psychoanalytic tradition: looking at Paredes and Cortez as engaging in a certain procedure that Lacan calls “scander ” (“scansion,” “scanning”), what Bruce Fink translates as “scanding.”

“Scanding” is the work of strategic “punctuation” of the free- associative speech of the patient (or, in Lacanian terminology, the “analysand”) by the attentive, open-eared therapist.

Lacan described this essentially interruptive activity thusly: “The psychoanalyst is a rhetor.”[2] “Scanding,” in other words, is a key component of psychoanalysis as rhetorical activity. Like classical rhetoric, psychoanalysis is a science of public speech based on how we learn (or fail to learn) to “speak well,” according to the rules of a given language game; a discourse about how virtue is mapped on to certain tendencies in oral expression, and how language mediates the power of the state.

In this way, Lacan reads Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory as textbooks of a sort of proto-Freudian analytic discipline.

Interruption is key to this marriage of psychoanalysis and rhetoric.

Let’s think of an ordinary description of a certain kind of interruption (maybe the one we have in mind in thinking that interruption in verbal communication has a politics): an act meant to force a break or pause or caesura in another’s speech. Often this is figured as a breach in etiquette. As with most such transgressions at the level of “manners,” interruption carries great political (and infra-political) weight. Consider what it is for a more powerful person to interrupt a less powerful one, mid-question. Consider the inverse situation. Think of that great proletarian trickster Bugs Bunny.

This is a good starting point, but we all know that language is more complicated than that.

What is lacking in such a preliminary definition is the capacity to categorize the many varieties of interruption that might punctuate a given rhetorical situation, including, especially, the ways in which we interrupt ourselves while we are speaking (or fall silent).

These interruptions are exaggerated in the psychoanalytic clinic, which encourages a certain kind of associative, discursive speech on the part of the patient and a certain kind of free-floating, ambient attention on the part of the analyst. From such a laboratory, Freud, and later Lacan, were able to observe the rhetorical character of neurotic defense mechanisms, and thus to diagram what it is we do when we get too close to certain falsehoods that make us crazy, or too proximate to certain truths that make us nervous.

Fink elaborates upon these themes in an essay on a particularly inscrutable section of Lacan’s Écrits (“The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious”).[3] Lacan, Fink writes, insists that the discursive field that matters most to psychoanalysis is neither “pure writing,” nor “pure speech,” but the “halfway between” writing and speech.

As Fink explains, if we were to transcribe on paper the discourse of the patient, “we would lose all the hesitations, intonations, risings and fallings in volume, and increases and decreases in speed.” We would lose a great deal that is essential to the meaning of speech.

But to analyze the patient’s speech as “pure speech” without “interference from the writing of the unconscious”––the library of texts that undergird our sense of what is normal and what is aberrant, how one should think and how one should not, the linguistic formulae and clichés in which so much of our self-knowledge presents itself to us for our consideration––would also guarantee chronic misinterpretation.

Lacan observes that over the course of psychoanalysis, the analysand comes to grasp “the difference between the mirage of the monologue whose accommodating fancies once animated his bombast, and the forced labor of a discourse that leaves one no way out on which psychologists (not without humor) and therapists (not without cunning) have bestowed the name ‘free association.’”

After the first few thrilling experiments with the “freedom” to say whatever one wants, that is, the demand to keep talking soon becomes something else: an object lesson in all of the blockages and defense mechanisms that get in the way of attempts to exercise our ostensible “freedom of speech.” It is this both comical and painful situation that triggers in Lacan a return to Aristotle and Quintilian: the ancient rhetorical categories seem to line up, one to one, with the varieties of modern parapraxis: “periphrasis, hyper-baton, ellipsis, suspension, anticipation, retraction, negation, digression, and irony” (Quintillian’s figurae sententiarum); catachresis, litotes, antonomasia, and hypotyposis” (the most psychoanalytically relevant of classical rhetoric’s tropes).[4]

The analysand speaks “freely”; there are no “texts” in sight. At the same time, “texts” abound (in this way, the unconscious is structured like a language). “Halfway between” speech and writing seems to be where a particular politics of the voice lurks. What we have in this development by Lacan and Fink of a rhetorical theory of psychoanalytic speech is a refurbishment of the ideas that Freud developed in The Interpretation of Dreams (with its notion of condensation and displacement as defense mechanism, and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, with its provocations regarding ordinary slips of the tongue and bungled chatter).

This rhetorical focus explains the role assigned to “scanding” in the psychoanalytic clinic. As Fink writes, the analysand “spontaneously employs well-known rhetorical figures to keep from saying certain things and to keep certain ideas from surfacing.” What makes the encounter with the analyst productive is that, finally, he or she will eventually fail: “things do slip out, and the analyst, trained to detect these rhetorical ploys, learns where to intervene in order to undo them.” This is “scanding.”

If one was on the lookout for ever-better definitions of the work that falls to culture, in the manner that we are, this phrase “the analyst, trained to detect these rhetorical ploys, learns where to intervene in order to undo them” would immediately jump out as a long wished-for solution to a difficult problem. We have long been skeptical of the claim that what cultural workers do is attempt to discover the “truth” and deliver it to their communities. We have been equally skeptical that cultural workers straightforwardly rouse up collective affect and make political revolutions. Perhaps what cultural workers do is learn (and teach) to detect certain “rhetorical ploys” and “where to intervene in order to undo them.” This is the link that would take us from Lacan to With His Pistol In His Hand and the case of Gregorio Cortez.

Before turning to that example, however, it is useful to review, briefly, Fink’s taxonomy of the “rhetorical ploys”—mostly modes of “self-interruption” (and sometimes interruption of others) that seem to be shared between the classical rhetor’s forum and the psychoanalytic clinic. It has sometimes seemed to me that a whole new field of intellectual history might be opened up by applying, seriously, this Fink/Lacan work on the rhetoric of the defense mechanisms.

Some simple examples, for your consideration. Catachresis—mixing a metaphor—often comes about because something is being avoided. Litotes (understatement) often indicates guilt or conflicting desires: for example, the sentence, often preceded by a slight pause: “I don’t find her unattractive,” about a friend’s spouse. Ellipsis, where some portion of a description or phrase is left out, is one of the most common ways in which we interrupt our own flow of thoughts (it is extraordinary how much “ellipsis” one begins to notice on cable news when one starts listening for it). The disavowal or avoidance at work in this trope seems to be related to thoughts that are feared to be inappropriate or overly revealing. Periphrasis, or circumlocution, is the bread and butter of neurotic political speech (Chris Christie’s recent marathon press conference was a treasury of periphrasis). Equally central is digression, or attempting to change the subject without anyone noticing (this is a kind of avoidance at which children are often very skilled).

Rarely heard in mediatic or political speech, but extremely common in everyday communication is retraction: “I hate him… I don’t know, he’s okay.” This trope is deeply connected to the often politically neutralizing or reactionary business of rationalization. The most dangerous of all tropes is irony, where, for myriad reasons, we choose to say what we mean by saying the opposite. Modes of irony are deeply historical, and provide historians with some of the most difficult challenges of interpretation.

To return to the question of “scanding”: what the analyst listens for, as we babble on, is the intrusion of one of these tropic strategies of avoidance (as well as silences, tonal changes, nervous coughing, etc.). To “scand” is to interrupt these evasions, by means of punctuation, and thus to call attention to them. The point is not to learn to avoid the avoidances— on the contrary: the analyst would want to encourage them, and then to intervene. This is, in essence, the pedagogy of the psychoanalytic clinic.

Underlying this theory of “scanding” and rhetoric is the premise that has always worried people most about high theory, deconstruction, poststructuralism—the punch lines of David Lodge novels, the idea that authors don’t write novels, but novels write authors, that language speaks us, that we are but props in a linguistic structure.

What I would want to affirm here is that this we take the side of the subjects of these jokes. Language does speak us. We may have a lot of choice about what we say (in many cases, we may not), but there is no getting around the fact that we don’t choose our defense mechanisms, our slips of the tongue, our “ummms” and “ahhs.” We might be truly self-made persons and still blurt out an “as Marx said”; we might be fully autonomous homunculi and still laugh nervously when a situation gets awkward. Because this seems to be a more or less universal position, however, “scanding” is always a two-way street. That’s where its politics opens up.

[1] As Ramón Saldívar summarizes Paredes: “The hero is always the peaceful man, finally goaded into violence by the rinches (the Texas Rangers) and rising in his wrath to kill great numbers of his enemy. His defeat is assured; at the best he can escape across the border, and often he is killed or captured. But whatever his fate, he has stood up for his right.” Américo Paredes ‘With a Pistol In His Hand’: a border ballad and its hero (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988 [1958]); Ramo?n Saldi?var, Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), 35.

[2] Christian Lundberg, Lacan in Public: Psychoanalysis and the Science of Rhetoric (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2012).

[3] Bruce Fink, Lacan to the Letter: Reading Ecrits Closely (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 72.

[4] Some definitions. Periphrasis=circumlocution, using more words than necessary; hyper-baton=transposition of the usual order of words in a sentence; ellipsis=omission of one or more words from a clause, without nullifying the clause’s meaning; suspension=; anticipation (also called procatalepsis)=predicting an objection that will be made and attempting to refute it; retraction (or epanorthosis)=purposefully correcting something one has previously said; catachresis=misuse of a word or mixing of a metaphor; litotes=understatement; antonomasia=the use of an epithet instead of a proper name; hypotyposis=the use of vivid imagery to illustrate a point.

25 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Kurt, I just want to thank you for these “theory” posts. “Theory” is not something I feel very adept at thinking about, much less thinking with. So I can’t exactly offer an expert opinion here, but speaking as an “educated general reader,” it seems to me that in these posts you do a very good job of explaining theory and then applying it in your posts. It’s educational for me, and I very much appreciate your willingness to speak in another language here so that others (or maybe just this other!) can learn something new. Thanks.

    • I particularly feel this way with psychoanalytic theory—even after having a graduate course that covered, in part, psychoanalytic feminist theory! We didn’t discuss Lacan very much, so this is helpful. I especially liked the para and footnote on terminology. – TL

  2. I’m going to come back to this post. Today has been a long day, but I want to read this with fresh eyes and a clear mind. But I know it’ll be a treat, and I already have some idea of how it relates back to my post.

    To echo LD’s comments, I’m definitely glad to get more theory on the blog. However, that’s another reason I need more time to think about this! Glad to give my brain a theory workout.

  3. Kurt,
    It perhaps goes without saying that this is a thought-provoking post and what follows should not detract from all that I find eminently worthwhile and suggestive.

    Leaving aside my views on Lacan, which are far less sympathetic with regard to their relation to (or interpretation of) Freudian or post-Freudian psychoanalysis, I do want to question the statement that “psychoanalysis is a science of public speech based on how we learn (or fail to learn) to ‘speak well,’ according to the rules of a given language game.” I think the “speech,” such that it is, in the dialogic setting of the analyst and analysand, is decidedly not “public” but intimate and decidedly idiosyncratic, deviating in many significant ways from speech that is public, hence this peculiar science of subjectivity (Marcia Cavell reminds us that it is not subjective in the sense that ‘truth is up for grabs,’ or a matter of individual opinion, or that all narratives are on equal footing). Public speech is undoubtedly a presupposition, a necessary condition of this intimate speech (we might even want to say the latter is parasitic upon the former, however, and with Richard Wollheim, it bears noting that while intentionality is revealed by language, that does not necessarily demonstrate or entail the proposition that intentionality is ‘dependent on the possession of language by the person to whom the mental phenomena belong’). And of course both fora rely on folk psychological narratives, but the psychoanalytic situation represents an extension and deepening of such narratives in a manner inaccessible (I’m tempted to say ‘by definition’) in many respects outside the therapeutic setting of the clinic. This convivial setting allows or permits and indeed encourages the analysand to come to a self-knowledge regarding her peculiar motivations for irrational thoughts and behavior in a manner not systematically or reliably available outside the therapeutic session.

    And I think it is precisely because the unconscious is NOT structured like a language, that the therapeutic encounter is decidedly different from the terms and conditions of rhetoric and public speech, as its pre-propositional (and in some sense ‘para-propositional’) character is in the form of wishes, phantasies, dreams, what have you, hence their their often iconic character as symbols or symbolism rather than (the rules of) language (more ‘showing’ than ‘telling’ if you will). The non-public, intimate character of the therapeutic setting comes to the fore in the fact that, for Freud at least, the grounds for determining processes of symbolic substitution are located as far as possible in the orbit of individual experience and life history, as in the case of repression which, while experienced in the present, is all about the past, about a past (mental) object, in the words of Sebastian Gardner, “without the object’s being represented AS past, and without the experience’s representing itself AS memory.” While the diachronic character of the “inner world” is amenable to narrative, its synchronic character as distinct “internal objects” seem rather distant from the rules of any language game, literally or figuratively, hence the infantile character or origins of phantasy. To the extent that this inner world defines the symptoms of the analysand (as domination, say, by preservative and destructive instincts or drives), it is utterly bereft of the conditions of and is not conductive to stable individual (self-)identity, that is, the “stable representations of re-identifiable individuals” intrinsic to the sundry loci and fora of public speech. Unintegrated sub-sets of the person, at once unconscious, pre-conscious, and conscious, substitute or stand-in for the person in toto (wherein the sub-sets or various ‘selves’ are integrated into and thus transcended in the ‘holistic’ person). The phenomenological properties of unconscious states in psychoanalysis are experienced as hedonic states, and this too signals a break from the model of speech or language, hence the assumption of the primacy of conative over cognitive causes in psychoanalytic explanation. The “private meaning” of psychological phenomena in the clinical situation go against the grain of Wittgenstein’s argument for the incoherence of the very idea of a “private language” (although there is much in Wittgenstein’s argument that speaks to the nature of the mental, as when Marcia Cavell reminds us that ‘there is a sense in which the mind is inherently interpersonal in its very nature’).

    • I second Patrick’s criticism here. I also think that the very skepticism that makes us question “the claim that what cultural workers do is attempt to discover the “truth” and deliver it to their communities” should also make us question the idealist proposition that “language speaks us” or that we are “but props in a linguistic structure,” or at least not take them as givens. There’s much secondary literature friendly to high theory, literary, and cultural studies, that has pointed these issues out.

      Having gone through many semesters of readings by and on Lacan, I confess I am more interested in the idea of historicizing Lacan and Lacanian psychoanalytical practices. This should help us in hashing it out its specificity, especially it we are to grasp a particular politics in Lacan’s project (which does not coincide necessarily with other French theorists of the period; also it is important to distinguish b/w the early Lacan that is alluded to in the post, which owes much to the Hegelian idealism that Kojeve made fashionable, and the later Lacan that focuses on the category of jouissance). In terms of other voices in psychoanalysis, I think of course about Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of Lacan, but also Kleinian, Winicottian, and feminist responses to Lacan.

      I really look forward to the next post and I would like to underline how much i enjoy these posts. I do wonder if reading Lacan necessarily adds something to Paredes, a question that I always ask myself in my work when using theory–if literature can produce the ideas, why then apply the theory, unless there is a specificity that links them, cultural, ideological, historical…

      • Thanks for this response. Maybe we disagree, too. Again, nothing wrong with that.

        Has historicizing Lacan *proven* anything, though? Has complicating our understanding of language and structure beyond Lacan displaced Lacan entirely? I don’t think so. That was certainly not what D and G wanted to do, or were up to. They were not saying: “burn all of Lacan’s books and stop reading him at once!” The Anti-Oedipus Papers are very clear on this.

        As far as the object relations school, etc.– again, these are disputes sort of like between neo-Keynesians and Austrians. They all agree on a certain “let’s pretend as if” and then hash things out without getting to the fundamental problems. In this case–without wishing to dis Winnicott, Klein, or their followers–much of what goes on in that world has already conceded too much to Anglo-American ego psychology to be really put in conversation with the sort of thing I am pursuing here. In this way, I am very Lacanian–I am very very against Anglo-American ego psychology, and think of it as a “wrong turn.”

        And, re: Paredes–I look very forward to your thoughts.

        Please be unsparing in your criticism if my piece isn’t good.

        But I disagree about the “why put X with Z?” sentiment.

        Paredes can’t fill in all the Lacan parts of his study, because he is busy being Paredes. Vice versa. Why not put them in conversation?

        (If the answer is: “well because Lacan is philosophy, and Paredes worked in a less prestigious field, so you are secretly giving in to a hierarchical congratulation of Bourdieuan distinctions…” I don’t have time for that kind of paranoia. I don’t think Lacan is automatically better than Paredes, and if anyone else does, I feel bad for them).

  4. Patrick, thanks for this comment, very much.

    I think we might disagree, which is a healthy thing. I am not sure I understand the precise nature of our disagreement.

    Maybe we can pursue that?

    It seems that you do not like Lacan. Nothing wrong with that.
    I basically like Lacan. So that might be a disagreement.

    I would insist, however, that Lacan’s model of the relation between language in the clinic and language outside is classically Freudian. It is at the heart of the notion of “transference” in both F and L.

    We agree that the clinic is an exaggerated, unrealistic space in which certain dynamics are amplified and other muted… but what is the “cash value” of your stronger presentation of this premise? Are slips of the tongue in “the real world” qualitatively different, say, than slips of the tongue on the couch? I don’t see why that would be so…

    Where we perhaps really disagree is in regard to the notion that public speech (including the kind about which Aristotle and Quintilian advised) is *not* suffused with “wishes, phantasies, dreams, what have you,” or, if I am using your term correctly, “pre-propositional content.” I say–it is.

    I mean, very little of what we say is ever subject to external verification, right? We move along on credit… (which is to say, wishes, dreams, phantasies, phobias, etc)… and then there’s power. Between the fantasies and the power relations–the “order words”–that’s like 99 percent of public speech.

    In terms of the infant/fantasy stuff, this is where we differ most, maybe. To my mind, the traumas of being a baby and coming into language don’t matter much, except to the degree that they shape our relation to future traumas, which matter much more. If that makes me a bad Lacanian, so be it. Freudians and Lacanians spend far too much time thinking about babies, and not nearly enough time thinking about adults.

    The notion that Freud speaks to a hyper-internal and hyper-individual drama of trauma and recovery is, I think, a warrant for a complete depoliticization of psychoanalysis. I want a political psychoanalysis. So maybe that’s a disagreement?

    Our problem is how people get along in groups. Does Freud have all the answers to this problem. No. Some of them? Yes.

    Thanks for this, and hoping dearly I have not misunderstood you. Please respond to correct my undoubtedly crude take on your very sophisticated response.

  5. Kurt,
    My disagreement was in the first instance limited to the claim that “psychoanalysis is a science of public speech based on how we learn (or fail to learn) to ‘speak well,’ according to the rules of a given language game.” And secondarily, but axiomatic for Lacan, the belief that the unconscious is structured like a language, a claim I find, on balance, unhelpful if not downright misleading. And while it is true that I’m not too fond of Lacan, I have nothing whatsoever against the endeavor to apply psychoanalytic insights and concepts outside the clinic in the wider world, bearing in mind that there is something unique to the dyadic dialogue in the clinic, including perhaps most of all, transference dynamics, that resist any such extension. Owing to my distaste of Lacan, not unrelated to my preference for Sartre and Beauvoir over the French thinkers, predominantly post-structuralists, that succeeded them (although I confess to finding room for Foucault and Kristeva), I refrained from commenting on any of the other material in your post, and in principle (and for what it’s worth), I admire the attempt.

    Let me note for now that Freud himself had in some respects, if not always well understood by him, a “political psychoanalysis,” as confirmed by his early colleagues and those who immediately followed him (the ‘depoliticization’ took place on this side of the pond), hence, for example, Elizabeth Ann Danto’s Freud’s Free Clinics: Psychoanalysis and Social Justice, 1918-1938 (Columbia University Press, 2005), or much that remains ill-appreciated in the work of Erich Fromm.

    I never claimed nor would I now that public speech “is *not* suffused with wishes, phantasies, dreams, what have you.” However, the role of same, and how to understand and interpret such phenomena is not a straightforward or transparent undertaking when the therapeutic practices of the clinic and the analyst are not applicable outside that setting in the wider world (the understanding of such phenomena is notoriously difficult enough in the carefully constructed ‘realities’ in the clinic). The inferences we make, the meanings we ascribe, the interpretations we favor, will be wildly speculative if not simply analogical or metaphorical in an ambiguous or vague way without, for instance, the patient and arduous process denoted by the term “working through” in psychotherapy (Ernst Bloch had much to say on such phenomena that seems ignored or forgotten). Explanation in the social sciences is difficult enough (here I follow much of what Jon Elster has to say in his book, Explaining Social Behavior…, 2007), but to take on sub-unconscious and unconscious phenomena makes things that much more difficult.

    To be sure, both cognitive psychology (which relies on experiments, even if those are sometimes accorded inordinate value in the greater scheme of things) and philosophy, in spite of what I find to be questionable philosophical premises about the brain and mind, has made some headway with regard to cognitive biases and such phenomena as states of denial, wishful thinking, and self-deception, although its scope does not include the sort of mental pathologies, individual or collective, that are the subject matter of psychoanalysis and psychotherapies more broadly. I share Fromm’s belief, and yours as well if I’m not mistaken, that just as there is or can be a folie à deux, there is folie à millions or, in Fromm’s locution, a “pathology of normalcy” (an idea that, as noted by Daniel Burston, is as old as philosophy itself, both East and West). Although he sometimes unfairly bypassed material in the Freudian corpus, Fromm’s work on “social character” and false consciousness has much to recommend it, although I suspect it does not carry the cultural and academic cache that invocations of Lacan do these days. There remains much in both Freud and Fromm, and not a few other psychoanalysts, like Jonathan Lear or Sudhir Kakar or R.D. Hinshelwood (…) that can help us patiently acquire the methodological tools and conceptual language essential for a “political psychoanalysis” of sorts. I suspect (and hope!) our aims and interests align in this regard, although the way we approach them, how we might get there, appears in this case to differ. For me, it remains a project that essentially dialectically integrates the work of both Freud and Marx without fear of going beyond them (for you, that means Lacan, for me, someone else), a project that others have begun (like Richard Lichtman, the late and great Eugene Victor Wolfenstein, Issac D. Balbus, and in, to a lesser extent, C. Fred Alford) and we might build on. So by all means, press on…!

    Oh, one last thing: I would hope we have a clear understanding of what constitutes mental health and well-being, happiness even, while undertaking such endeavors: often much is assumed or taken for granted on this score and that, I firmly believe, is a profound mistake. See, for instance, Daniel M. Haybron’s essential work, The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being (Oxford University Press, 2008).

    I may address other things in your reply later.

  6. Patrick, thanks for this extended comment.

    There’s a lot to chew on, here, definitely, and I don’t want to rush to close up any points of tension, so I will try to sit with the critique rather than push back.

    A few notes:

    Would this modification help anything?– “psychoanalysis is–among other things, and not exclusively–a science of public speech based on how we learn (or fail to learn) to ‘speak well,’ according to the rules of a given language game.”

    Re: the claim that the “unconscious is structured like a language”–as unhelpful/misleading: unhelpful, sure, I get that, it’s subjective–but on what terms, I wonder, is it “misleading”?

    “there is something unique to the dyadic dialogue in the clinic, including perhaps most of all, transference dynamics, that resist any such extension.”

    Granted. The question I have here is–let’s bracket art and culture, maybe that’s too far a stretch–what about the classroom? Isn’t the classroom quite a lot like the clinic in many ways?

    And let me affirm, again: Lacan is not an easy figure to love, for all sorts of reasons. I think it is very reasonable to be skeptical/critical of the Lacanian project.

    Like everything else, one finds oneself thinking with Lacan, though, and then what do you do? If it starts working on you, the only option, really, is to work with it.

    I would not disagree with the notion that the application of psychoanalytic ideas to political speech is not a “straightforward or transparent undertaking.” On the contrary– it is a tortuous and opaque undertaking. But that doesn’t make it impossible.

    I’m thinking of this Freud quote:

    “In the individual’s mental life someone else is invariably involved, as a model, as an object, as a helper, as an opponent, and so from the very first individual psychology, in this extended but entirely justifiable sense of the words, is at the same time a social psychology as well” (Group Psychology, 1921).

    “I share Fromm’s belief, and yours as well if I’m not mistaken, that just as there is or can be a folie à deux, there is folie à millions or, in Fromm’s locution, a “pathology of normalcy” (an idea that, as noted by Daniel Burston, is as old as philosophy itself, both East and West).”

    Yes. Here is precisely a place, though, where the notion of the unconscious structured as a language helps!–differentiating between what Tim Dean calls “social psychosis” (and what clinicians now call “ordinary psychosis”), which involves a certain relation to language (symbolic foreclosure, extrojection), as distinct from “social” or “ordinary” neurosis. (In the Lacanian nosological triad, there would also be a third category, “social perversion,” which seems to particularly related to certain forms of religious fundamentalism).

    “I suspect (and hope!) our aims and interests align in this regard…” Yes. For sure.

    “Oh, one last thing: I would hope we have a clear understanding of what constitutes mental health and well-being, happiness even, while undertaking such endeavors: often much is assumed or taken for granted on this score and that, I firmly believe, is a profound mistake.”

    Excellent point. My feeling is that everyone’s nuts.

    • Re: (1) the proposed modification, and (2) why the notion “the unconscious is structured like a language” is misleading

      Kurt, I prefer not to answer (1): why? Well, what first came to mind was the role of the innocent man in the dock being asked by the prosecutor: “Have you stopped beating your wife?” (Or, to draw from another tradition, when the Buddha was asked to answer a group of metaphysical questions by a devotee regarding such topics as the ‘eternality’ of the world, body-soul identity and so forth, he replied that these questions ‘do not tend toward edification,’ stating in their stead that the more urgent concern should be centered on the pragmatic and immediate relief of suffering.) In saying this, I don’t mean to imply that you are in the role of the prosecutor(!) (or that you do not care about the relief of suffering!), but only to get across the idea that the question involves a host of presuppositions and assumptions I would need to address before I answered in the negative (here the analogy with the Buddha’s case breaks down, for he did not believe the questions as posed should be met with a positive or negative answer). I simply don’t see what benefits follow from conceiving of psychoanalysis, in addition to whatever else it is, as a (normative) science of public speech. If I’m wrong, the proof will have to be in the pudding. I hope this is sufficient reason to forgive or at least tolerate my evasion.

      As to (2), my answer replicates roughly my earlier comments: the unconscious is the realm of the irrational, of sub-intentional mental activity (or intention in an attenuated sense: action with a teleology but caused non-rationally), of pre-propositional thought, or what Wollheim termed “proto-beliefs.” In Freud’s language, it is the locus of “primary process thinking,” by way of contrast to the more rational realm of conscious thought or awareness, dubbed “secondary process thinking.” It is the latter, and conspicuously not the former, that is often related to the rules of logic and grammar (and is characterized by propositional thinking) or Wittgensteinian language games. The former is characterized by a mangling of tenses, so much so that the past, present, and future lose their logical relation to each other, hence the unconscious is often referred to as “timeless.” The analyst attempts to make inferences regarding unconscious motivation, and it is this endeavor that brings coherence and sense to otherwise incoherent and nonsensical behavioral and mental phenomena. And this clinical therapy involves the idiosyncratic life history of the analysand, so the meaning that comes to be attributed to such phenomena has a marked dependency upon an individual life narrative that lacks any clear or elucidatory analogue in language as such. The analyst’s interpretive and explanatory task arises because of failures of communication and understanding. Therapeutic success thus entails enhancement in the capacity to communicate and understand, owing to an expansion in the domain of consciousness and an increase in self-knowledge. The “symbolic” or iconic language (involving ‘objects’), so to speak, of the unconscious is NOT linguistic, indeed, to the extent that there is a “pre-symbolic” unconscious (wherein there is a lack of stable mental representation) as might apply to such experiences as anxiety, dread, or angst, we are even further removed from the orbit of language. As one psychoanalyst has said, “From the perspective of the reasoned and sequential mode of thought of the conscious mind, the cognitive methods of the unconscious mind seem like an insane mockery of our fragile strivings after logic.” In short, to the extent that the conscious mind is rational or logical, the unconscious is comparatively non-logical, illogical or, at best (say, as in intuition or some dreams), para-logical, as the “sense” and “reference” of language have gone awry or amok (the extreme case of course being psychosis, in which secondary process thinking becomes rather elusive, thereby severing the intrinsic ties between language—or language games—and our shared conceptions of reality). I fail to see how looking at the unconscious as structured like a language can be of any help here: indeed, it’s rather the converse (i.e., a simile or analogy between conscious thought and language, as in the ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy and much early analytic philosophy of language, is more obvious and compelling), and that is why it is misleading.

      Mental representations in the unconscious take the form of “enactments” and “encodings” which are only, and later, accidentally, occasionally, or haphazardly, “linguistic,” hence the ubiquity of homologous, symmetrical, and pre-linguistic (and pre-propositional) thinking often correctly termed “primitive” or “infantile.” Such thinking cannot be articulated in the linguistic form that accords rational or pragmatic centrality to the result of belief-desire propositions. The mental mechanisms or processes of this primitive, primary process thinking create iconic or symbolic meanings that involve arbitrary connections between ideas and (mental) objects based on idiosyncratic life histories: this is far from the relatively fixed and shared meanings of language. I should note here—and despite my appreciation of her work—that I’m rejecting Marcia Cavell’s (Davidsionian-inspired) contention that the normative criteria for “the mental” are in the first instance “externalist” and intersubjective, involving induction into a linguistic community. I subscribe instead to the Freudian and Kleinian position that in the first instance the criterion for the mental, as evidenced in infancy, is intra-subjective or “internal,” as seen most vividly in the notion of unconscious phantasy (consisting as it does for Kleinians in the mind’s relation to ‘internal objects,’ almost exclusively involving images of the body, including its functions, processes, products, and elementary actions). (Apart from Melanie Klein herself and avowed Kleinians like R.D. Hinshelwood, for details on this score see works by David Snelling, Sebastian Gardner, and the late Richard Wollheim.) To be sure, phantasies of the child and adult alike can be described in detailed propositional language by the analyst by way of conveying their complex representational content, but these self-same phantasies are NOT represented propositionally or linguistically in the mind of the analysand. The unconscious feelings and desires of the analysand are first-person privileged: no one else can lay claim or be privy to them, further evidenced when the acknowledgement and realization of same (in one sense, taking responsibility for them) in the clinic is a prerequisite to therapeutic progress: when, that is, what is unconscious becomes conscious, prompting meaningful change in the analysand’s manner of living or mode of being, “so that for instance he stops going on in certain ways, lets himself go in other ways” (Ilham Dilman), thereby enlarging the ego’s sphere of autonomy. It is only then, I think, that the comparison with language finds some resonance.

      • Mental representations in the unconscious take the form of “enactments” and “encodings” which are only, and later, accidentally, occasionally, or haphazardly, “linguistic,” hence the ubiquity of homologous, symmetrical, and pre-linguistic (and pre-propositional) thinking often correctly termed “primitive” or “infantile.”


  7. Kurt,
    My apologies if my impatience with Lacan hasn’t let me be as generous as I should be here. My main issues with your post are essentially what Patrick explains with much clarity in his last response: the use of public speech and the idea of the unconscious as a language. You essentially frame these elements as if they were givens, and they are not. In the end, I shy away from psychoanalytical vocabulary because it tends to pathologize–or produce a diagnosis–the other from an Occidentalist perspective, without taking into account the myriad specific elements, ranging from the cultural to the economic, that are in play. Categories such as psychosis, trauma, and neurosis in my view do not help to clear out what goes on at the level of subjectivity, especially self-representation. When one begins to analyze collectives as if they were actual subjects, utilizing such language, one easily falls into the reductive field of speculation. Which is fine, we should speculate after all, and let loose to debating our speculations without any pretension to establishing a scientific hard truth. But the problem I find with Lacanians is their faith in their discourse (this happens with Deleuzeans too, I find; also I am not suggesting you do have this kind of faith). I do recognize the value of work of scholars like Antonio Viego, who has appropriated Lacan productively to grasp the specificity of Latina/o communities.

    In the end, I do not propose to transcend Lacan and leave him out of our field of theoretical inquiry, by the way. You can find a bit of Lacan (and yes, Zizek) in my work if you read carefully. At the present, I am more interested in thinking through questions of affect, without going down the opaque abyss of the social unconscious. But i will give you this, affect theory cannot be disconnected completely from psychoanalytical theory (a theme for another post, perhaps?). I also was expressing my personal interest in seeing what a historical framework to his ideas would yield. And by this I don’t mean just a narrative of how those ideas developed within the isolated bubble of the clinic, but how said ideas and the clinic itself inserted itself in particular cultural and historical coordinates, social and economic structures, etc.

    I am glad you think Lacan and Paredes are on equal terms, that would be the ideal way to put them in dialogue (and I say hell no to Bourdieuian paranoia). Dialogue is much better than applied theory.

    • To wit:

      Your behavior has hurt me, and I have asked you to leave me alone. You have returned. You must go away, and stay away. This will become a legal matter if you do not.

  8. I want to second Kurt’s rebuke to Tom Van Dyke.

    Tom, your comments consistently make no meaningful contribution to discussions at the blog. They add nothing, they offer nothing. They seek not connection or engagement, but attention and derailment. Indeed, your comments seem to be part of a strategy — or at least a habit — of bullying and harassment, as I have already made clear:


    Your utter lack of respect for this online community is apparent. You need to go elsewhere.

    • Lora, you and your “little blog” were so much more patronized, minimized and disrespected by Prof. Corey Robin here


      One of my first thoughts in reading Kristof’s piece was not myself or my close friends — all of us have had our work recognized and rewarded in the public sphere, so we have no cause for complaint — but little blogs like this one. Blogs that do two things: First, bring the news to a wider, non-academic, reading public; second, engage in and reflect on vital public questions of the day.

      If I was defensive on anyone’s behalf, it was on behalf of grad students like LD or Andrew or Kurt or Robert, all of whom write in very public ways — ways that I never did in grad school.

      Thank him very much.

      • Tom,

        As an online community member, I’m incredibly old-fashioned in my webiquette (if that’s possible at this point). This means that my response to trolls is always and everywhere not to feed them.

        But on this blog, I am not only a user but also a proprietor…though one committed to having as open a dialogue as possible. So I don’t come out of the woodwork much in this capacity.

        As a result of these two habits — one personal, the other a matter of blog policy — I have not weighed in on your behavior. But I now feel that I have to.

        You are harassing two of our authors, who happen also to be among the more junior members of our community. Your behavior, never good, has become really unacceptable. Please stop.

        This blog has never had a banning policy. That is likely to change in the near future. But for the moment, all I can do is issue a harshly-worded (by my old-fashioned standards) comment.

        This is it.

  9. Great post Kurt, and thanks for citing me! It is always nice to be taken up in a conversation outside of one’s own field. I’ll definitely check back in on this site–it looks like there are great conversations going on here.

    • Thanks so much! What a thrill to have you comment here–your book is fantastic, and I learned a huge amount from it. Its discussion is directly relevant to the work that intellectual historians do, and really should be read by them; I will definitely assign it when/if I get to teach a “history/theory” seminar.

      And, please, be unsparing in any criticism you might have from a rhetoric or Lacanian psychoanalysis perspective–I’m sure I would learn a ton from such challenges!

  10. Tom, in the third uninvited email you sent me, you said, “I’m not stalking you.” Your behavior suggests otherwise. Your comments here are pure harassment. You need to move on.

Comments are closed.