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). 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.” “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”). 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).
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.
 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 ); Ramo?n Saldi?var, Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), 35.
 Christian Lundberg, Lacan in Public: Psychoanalysis and the Science of Rhetoric (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2012).
 Bruce Fink, Lacan to the Letter: Reading Ecrits Closely (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 72.
 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.