American Psychoanalysis: Ramblings from Russia, with Love
My experience teaching psychoanalysis within several American universities led me twice to flee from the continent. First, I fled to Pune, India, followed by a transition to Mumbai. I discovered that Indian universities were a welcome counterpoint to the prudishness that has characterized many American classrooms. It was a pleasure to once again laugh with my students. Next, I fled to Tyumen, Russia, during a particularly sensitive moment in American-Russian international relations. It was a Russian university that provided me with the possibility of teaching without restriction. Although these decisions to flee from the American continent did not come without their consequences, they nonetheless allowed me to sustain my desire for psychoanalytic work.
Freud, purportedly, on his way to America, as we all know, claimed that they did not realize he was bringing them the plague. What interests me is that it was he who became sick. He complained of digestive problems, suggesting that he was dissatisfied with American styles of cooking. A related situation: recently there was a dialogue between the American and Russian presidents. When Joe Biden looked into the eyes of Vladimir Putin and claimed that he ‘saw a killer,’ Putin’s response was that it was Biden’s own soul reflecting back at him. I can think of no reason why these two examples should not serve to demonstrate manners of rejecting the style or jouissance of others. Hence, Freud rejected the American style of food preparation and Biden rejected Putin’s political style. Eric Laurent (2014) offered a nice formulation: “I reject the person whose jouissance is distinct from my own.”
I return to Lacan’s famous statement that one receives one’s own message in an inverted form. A crucial problem today concerns the way in which we increasingly project aspects of our own inhumanity onto others. For example, when we hastily claim that another person is transphobic, racist, and so on, we sometimes risk missing the position from which we speak. For this reason, I risk the following: the newest social movements in America sometimes seem indistinguishable from official Russian state politics. When a ‘foreign agent’ status is invoked, effectively canceling an individual or organization from within the overarching social group, the accused must publicly declare their externality. Is this not similar, in some instances, to the effects of so-called ‘cancel culture’ in America? In both cases, the aim, it would seem, is to produce a cohesive social group without fissures, a group whose enemies are externally situated.
Lacanian psychoanalysis begins with a different premise concerning the internality of the group: ‘extimacy.’ It was Jacques-Alain Miller who highlighted its importance in Lacan’s teaching, yet, undoubtedly, it is implicit in the work of Freud. For example, without the mature laws of repression, there might exist a figure known as a ‘double.’ Lacan’s claim was that when castration has been foreclosed, that is, when the laws of repression are not operative, it is possible for new threats to appear in the real. In any case, one wonders if an equivalent concept exists also in the American tradition known as ‘post-structuralism,’ and its related theoretical enterprise, ‘queer theory.’ I have isolated a random passage extracted from the writings of Judith Butler: “[t]he Lacanian challenge to Anglo-American accounts of gender [is] to consider the status of ‘sex’ as a linguistic norm” (Butler, 1993, xxix). It seems to me that Butler has placed ‘sex’ on the side of the Name-of-the-Father, without foregrounding its ‘extimate’ status.
A fundamental radicalization of the concept of ‘sex’ occured in the teachings of Lacan after his seminar on the ethics of psychoanalysis. At around that point, sex became a category of concern beyond the laws of repression, beyond a world anchored by the Name-of-the-Father. Increasingly, Lacan became concerned with ‘sex’ in a world without an overarching social bond, that is, without the Name-of-the-Father. I will provide a concrete (though, admittedly, naive) example of what this shift means for gender theory. Once, in America, when one confronted the washroom door there was something like an internal dialogue: ‘am I really this woman or man that the washroom asks me to be?’ It was an expression of doubt vis-a-vis the Other, and it was, put simply, a hysterical question. Today a different concern is frequently brought forward: one remains relatively certain regarding one’s gender, passes through the washroom door, and bumps into the following problem: the Other does not feel the same certainty about my gender.
It was for following this position of ‘generalized foreclosure’ that I was informally labeled by colleagues a “Millerian.” Of course, it was meant as an accusation as well as an insult. The insult was to presume that I harbored problematic transference to Jacques-Alain Miller, and the accusation was that I was guilty (by association) for the same crime as he was guilty of, according to some among the American Lacanian Left. It was decided without discussion for some of them that Jacques-Alain Miller was transphobic. My rebuttal, since it will no doubt be taken as such, was to introduce the neologism ‘Milleria’ (bringing together the words ‘hysteria,’ ‘Miller,’ and ‘malaria’). Against the politicization of psychoanalysis, I fled away from the Lacanian Left, and I did so precisely to sustain my desire for psychoanalytic work. At that time, I rediscovered an obscure formulation from Lacan: “I do not say ‘politics is the unconscious’ but simply ‘the unconscious is politics’”(Lacan, as cited in Miller, 2002). Milleria seems at times as if it were distinctively American. Yet, without a doubt, it has spread across the ocean like the plague.
Incidentally, several years ago I wrote a book titled Jacques Lacan and American Sociology (Rousselle, 2019). My object for writing that book was simple: to convince readers that there was a foreclosure of the Freudian invention in America. I assessed Freud’s first contact with the Americans, and his subsequent influence upon the early sociologists. I claimed that the latter took only what they could use from Freud, leaving the rest (including the four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis). I also highlighted a number of fascinating reversals: if the early American sociologists rejected Freud for being too biological, then the contemporary sociologists often reject him for not being biological enough (e.g., incapable of speaking about trans* identities, and so on). I would not claim that these claims are missing the mark, but what about Lacan?
Well, Lacan, I would claim, went beyond Freud, beyond the Oedipal world, thereby avoiding the problems of indigestion that plagued Freud’s relation to America. Lacan spent more time in America, and he said more accomodating things about Americans. He even found that there was a similar style among some of them. For example, at Columbia University he said:
I can only be very grateful for all the care [somebody] took to clear the way for my arrival in the Americas — but, nonetheless, I am surprised that so many people say certain things that are not so far from what I say . . . a sort of little whirlpool is produced like that in several places, a manner of saying things (de dire) that, me, I call style. I do not have a ‘conception of the world,’ but I have a style, a style that, naturally, is not altogether easy, but this is the whole problem. What is a style? (Lacan, 1975, p. 43).
It seems important that Lacan invoked a notion of ‘style’ when referring to the Americans. It was style that was at stake for Lacan, and not, to put it simply, whether or not the Americans could accept the Freudian unconscious. This requires, fundamentally, a notion of jouissance, which it took Lacan to develop. Beyond the Oedipal world and the Name-of-the-Father, Lacan found jouissance: a mode of enjoyment independent of the Other, of the overarching social bond. It was what led Pierre-Gilles Gueguen to claim — as I have in my book Jacques Lacan and American Sociology — that “Lacan was identifying a defect in the Symbolic [that was] specific to American society”(Gueguen, 2022, p. 19)
When Jacques-Alain Miller gave his first seminar in America, speaking to literature scholars rather than clinicians, he was asked to speak about post-structuralism. It seems to me that there was an effort to group Jacques Lacan into a ‘Jacques trinity,’ a series that begins with Jacques Derrida and proceeds to Jacques Lacan through the intermediary of Jacques-Alain Miller. In some sense, it was Judith Butler, a professor of literature and president of the Modern Language Association, that made the best effort in this direction. She transformed Lacan into — if I may say so — a ‘Jacques strap’ (inasmuch as he became a strap-on for the work of Jacques Derrida). I do not discount the importance of Jacques straps for styles of sexual enjoyment; indeed, I do not at all find it distasteful. However, Lacan cannot be reduced to this trinity, since his was the Symbolic, Imaginary, and Real, as well as the Sinthome.