An Interpretation that Makes Sense: The Elementary Point of View
A concept of analytical interpretation is proposed here, that works with meaning as if it were sculpture, by “removing” (whereas in painting one “adds”). Apart from the metaphor, analytical interpretation confers being with no meaning, as in hermeneutic interpretation, but produces meaning to then remove it; to burn it, so that the same ash (that is, the constitutional lack of each language, its incapability to say all) emerges, each time in a different way.
Having got out of the way the structural lack-a typical example of which lies in the difference between orders of infinities, the numerical and the other of numerical properties (which are not numerable, while natural numbers are)-our discussion leads the work of interpretation back to the work itself of desire (or of drive), focusing on the lack that establishes the subject as failing-to-be.
Of this circular and empty structure a model is given, inspired by the first two cantos of Lucretius’s De rerum natura. It posits the signifying chain as a bundle of parallel straight lines, and interpretation as the possibility to pass from one bundle to another, that is as declination (clinamen). Since this model introduces interpretation as a change in direction, passing from one signifying band to another, it interprets interpretation as a syntactic metaphor, that is as the substitution of one signifier to another along the linguistic path that represents the drive construct. In this respect Democritus’s and Epicurus’s materialism is so well represented in Lucretius’s poem that it seems to herald the “linguistic” materialism making up the weft of the Freudian unconscious.
The language in which psychoanalysis has its roots, German, has two ways of saying interpretation: Deutung and Auslegung. Since I do not share Chomsky’s faith in the existence of a universal metalanguage that establishes the sense of all the expressions in all languages, I am not able to cover all the subtleties of meaning that a native German speaker understands regarding the two terms. It would be easier to establish the element in common, which in this case is Erklärung, or clarification, as opposed to Verstehen, or understanding.
In the shared part of the two terms, or Begriffe, two sides may be discerned: that of subjective clarification (of ideas), to which Auslegung applies, and that of objective clarification (of facts), the province of Deutung. Clarifying confused or erroneous ideas, applying the Cartesian or equivalent methods, is done with Auslegung. Shedding light on facts that are complicated or incomprehensible because at the limits of human knowledge is done with Deutung. With reference to Kuhn’s epistemology, we say that Auslegung operates on epistemic paradigms to deepen our understanding of them and to articulate them, while Deutung works toward solving the puzzles generated by paradigms.
In any case, language-even German-is not mathematics. So we find Auslegung applied to the exegesis of the Holy Scripture, which, being divine, represents the height of objectivity, as well as to the interpretation of civil law, which, being intersubjective, is no less objective than the former. On the other hand, Deutung seems well suited to dreams, which, for all appearances private, represent the height of subjectivity.
Nietzsche and Heidegger use Auslegung, Freud Deutung. What is the meaning of this oscillation? We need… an interpretation. And the circle closes at a peak of uncertainty that makes it all the more necessary to clarify the concept of interpretation, at least in analysis, starting with our initial question, “why interpret?”
Freud himself at the beginning of chapter IV in his Traumdeutung asks: Wozu bedarf es aber überhaupt einer Deutung?, “what is the need for a Deutung?” Warum sagt der Traum nicht direkt, was er bedeutet? , “why does the dream not say directly what it means?” Freud answers with a myth. He speaks of defense (Abwehr) and censure (Zensur), which the ego mounts against unconscious desire (Wunsch), perceived as alien (although in Freud there is no theory of alienation) and, therefore, to actively keep away from the conscious mind through deformations (Verdrängung durch Enstellung) that make it unrecognizable. The analytic interpretation finds justification as the inverse of repression: it recognizes desire behind its deformation, just as the investigator recognizes the murderer through how he covers his tracks. Myths, or at most, detective stories.
I prefer the Freudian mythology to the Jungian one, because the first one is so well written, also at the semantic level, and the search for meaning is conducted in a calm and orderly fashion. It is quite a different thing from the noisy, if not dyspnoeic, way of the Swiss authors (Hermann Hesse is representative), who want to explain too much of everything. In the second place, I appreciate Freud’s care to let the truth speak, even when the structure of knowledge (in Freud conceived in line with the scientific discourse) has not yet developed all the epistemic tools needed to record new, often subversive ideas.
Following Lacan’s observations, we can say that Freud intended to establish a new science-the science of the subject. It was not such a crazy idea since it was based on the extension of-as well as in contrast with-Galileo’s science of the object. In fact, structural and historical reasons, and Freud’s standing in the history of ideas, explain the advent of psychoanalysis.
Speaking après-coup (that is, in the present), we can say that, structurally, with psychoanalysis, a shadow science took form, one that though conceived together with Galileo’s, did not come to light with Galileo: the science of the subject who makes science. It is a science of the subject’s desire, therefore closer to an ethic than thermodynamics. Freud situates it at the seam between truth and knowledge from which all revolutions spring (Lacan). This is where that Northwest Passage opens up, which permits the crossing from the certainty of chronological time formulated by Galileo in the laws of falling bodies to the logical time of certainty that emerges with the invention of the unconscious and the recognition of its formations: these make possible not only contemplating but also practicing the area of knowledge up to that point unexplored, although the consequences were well known: dreams, lapsus and human passions. Of course, hints of Freud’s accomplishment were in the air. We find them in the few philosophers who were more interested in epistemology than ontology, from Descartes to Spinoza and culminating in Wittgenstein (From whence do I know?). But because of factors that we cannot analyze here (the Jewish culture, the rabbinical linguistic tradition, the father’s religion), only in Freud could the premises be fulfilled.
The division between the two sciences-objective and subjective-opens up an epistemic field where interpretation finds a need. Objective science, no less than subjective science, needs interpretation. It is an instrumental need. To interpret, for objective science, is to find models of the structure. A model serves to derive theorems about the structure more comfortably than in another. On the other hand, in subjective (or “human”) science, the need is structural. Interpretation is essential if it is true that the subject “lives” more or less at length, more or less easily, in the logical time of interpretation, on the condition that with his own knowledge he interprets the truth which concerns him.
Freud experienced the division between the two sciences in a symptomatic way. The scientific argument was the symptom in Freud that in a certain sense compromised the analytic argument. Like all symptoms, this one was also a compromise between truth, expressed in an allusive and mythological way, and knowledge, partially articulated in metapsychological terms about drives and their fate. Like all symptoms, a failing. Proof of this is offered by the ruin of the great psychoanalytic institutions that, in the name of conservation (lobbistic and academic by turn) of the Freudian corpus, acritically adopted the founder’s symptom and now do not know how to revive the demand for analysis. In a certain sense, we, too, are proof: the analysts of 1997 who still insist on talking of the unconscious as a linguistic structure rather than as myth, thus representing the return of the repression of the Freudian symptom.
But, since symptoms other than Freud’s animate our research (although we perceive ourselves as sons of science, we do not perceive any affinity with cognitivism), we shall attempt here to provide Freud’s Deutung with a more sophisticated theory than Freud’s theory of the container and the content (where the former, the so-called manifest content of dreams [manifester Trauminhalt] is said to contain the latter, mythical latent content [latenter Trauminhalt])(1). We are convinced that the unconscious says directly, at the right time and in the right place, whatever it wishes to say. One simply must know how to listen, that is to be at the right moment in the place where it is speaking and not to miss the opportunity to record it. The analyst’s skill lies entirely in this; in respecting the alternating rhythm of knowledge and truth. Nothing else is asked of him. He is not asked, for example, to make sense of the world, because the analyst-the one who should have already “deconstructed” the notion of universal-should not have a conception of the world. He is asked instead to suspend attention in order to grasp the shifts in meaning: when the old sense degenerates into non-sense, when a new sense emerges from the rubble of an old argument.
But what is meant by interpretation if the indirect discourse is replaced by the direct one? This is the problem we will be dealing with here. Anticipating the evolution that follows, I will say that my purpose is to demonstrate that it still makes sense to speak of interpretation, perhaps even admitting, in a reversal of Lacan’s statement, that interpretation is desire itself(2).
There is more truth between heaven and earth than in your knowledge, Horace (Hamlet). The theory of numbers contains more truths than knowledge. It was born with Diophantus in the Alexandrine age when Greek knowledge was erased with the burning of the famous library. This theory was reborn with Fermat in baroque times, when science took the first steps toward a kind of knowledge that was to become the religion of modern man. But the theory of numbers, or some substitute, will always be there (Freud’s unconscious, if it survives, could perform the same function), to remind man in his epistemic presumption, infatuated by his own knowledge, that in language there is always more truth than one can establish within any grammatical code or epistemic function(3). There is no need to drag in the theories of the incompleteness of systems formulated in arithmetic to be convinced of this. History suffices. The baroque theory of numbers, before Euler and Gauss tidied it up, is a mass of conjectures, or undemonstrated truths. Some still elude proof. Goldbach’s conjecture that every even number is the sum of two primes can only be approached in probability. Only a long geometric and analytic detour brings us close to Fermat’s last theorem. And the leopard does not change its spots. Modern conjectures are no less fascinating than ancient ones: is it true that starting from a given number, all numbers are either prime or the sum of a square and a prime? Is it true that the series of squares plus one contains infinite prime numbers? In conjectures, as shown by these few examples, the truth interrogates knowledge (benevolently? mockingly?).
Is this the indomitable spirit of mathematics that will not bend to formalization? This is an anthropomorphic explanation that would please many latter-day Siddharthas; it is a standard-bearer of some sort of mannered antiscientism. It is an explanation that we reject as mythological, also because we are aware of the true structural reason, which is almost banal. It can be formulated intuitively by saying that the properties of numbers are more numerous than the numbers themselves. They are not denumerable. If numbers are infinite, their properties are more than infinite. Their number, Cantor demonstrates, is an infinity of a higher order than the numerable.
The proof, very simple, may be obtained with the (relatively) new proof method devised by Cantor, the diagonal method. This represents the coming of age of self-referencing that, in the adolescence of humanity, served for the most part to play with paradoxes-those statements that rehash the tale about all Cretans being liars. In fact, it is demonstrated that, supposing we can list all the properties of numbers, one can use them to construct a new property that is not included in the list, something like Donn’Anna who is not in Leporello’s list (and when she does finally end up there it spells trouble for Don Giovanni). Once the infinite properties are listed, a property may be constructed that is true for the n-th number if the n-th property is false, and false should that not be the case. (The diagonality lies in the intersection of the two n-ths.) Obviously, this property is different from all those listed, at least for one number, proving, with the contradiction, that the list of all properties of numbers does not exist.
The procedure is general. The point of interest for our discussion is that any symbolic system worthy of the name, one so rich as to make the truth speak and so articulate as to assimilate the command of moral law, is structurally, even before the origin, not complete, partial, wanting-losing. But not because it is a deficiency that precedes every loss and which no addition can compensate. Indeed, we could add to the list of all the numerical properties the one we have proved to be lacking. But even for this property, the same deficiency as before is recreated in the new list, and it is the consequence not of a loss, but, if anything, of an acquisition which reveals it as statu nascenti.
It is here that we can find, at the same time, a structural, not mythological, answer to Freud’s question: why interpret? Because every symbolic system worthy of the name must bear more truth than it can express. This makes it essentially ambiguous, since each of its messages must transmit more truth than the information channel can bear. Hence, the need for interpretation as an operation of ambiguation or recognition of all the truths packed into the same message. This operation is the opposite of the disambiguation of modern information theory which, by reducing truth to knowledge, can only see a multiplicity of truths as an error that corrupts the text of the message, to disambiguate, precisely, with reference to a correct original text. (We shall see how analytic interpretation does without this original supposition.)
What name should be given to this lack, this epistemic deficiency so charged with truth, not to mention subjectivity? Lacan points out that the linguistic symbolic system, made up of signifiers-although lacking with respect to the truth in the sense just described-does not lack the signifier for indicating this lack. It is a special signifier, he continues, that cannot be pronounced but only written. It is, in a certain sense, a metalinguistic signifier. However, he says that it makes no sense to speak of metalanguage since the lack in question concerns precisely this: that the metalanguage in which one can speak of language as an object is lacking.
This observation would suggest a commonly used name for the lack of the Other, as Lacan calls it. We propose elementary lack (to avoid repeating structural). A justification of the term lies in the formalization of the theory of sets developed by von Neumann and modified by Gödel and Bernays. Von Neumann discusses things that are arguments and things that are functions, admitting that some functions, not all, may be arguments of other functions. Gödel and Bernays discuss classes and distinguish between sets, which are small, and proper classes, which are large. Sets are what they are because they can be elements of other classes. Proper classes are what they are because they cannot be elements of other classes. The characteristic lack of proper classes is elementary in the sense that a proper class lacks the possibility to be reduced to an element of another class. Von Neumann would say that they are functions that cannot become the argument of other functions. They can be said only partially.
The same concept of elementary lack may be expressed in many other ways: that there is no metasystem; that the symbolic system is not all; that it is not a one, that it can only and always be discussed partially; that there is no characteristic property representing it as a clear and distinct idea, and so forth. These alternative ways, especilly the argument of the lack of the One, lend themselves to proving this fundamental theory of the symbolic register, and that is that once the elementary lack has been sutured, in mathematics the antinomies appear, and in psychoanalysis… disappear. The elementary lack is practically a founding principle of psychoanalysis, in the sense that if it is lacking everything collapses, but at the same time it cannot be defined, because then it vanishes. Using Lacan’s terms, let us say that the basic lack is that tip of reality that breaks into the symbolic as that which does not cease to not write itself. Freud would say the navel, setting us on the right track for recognizing the desire at work in the Other.
The discourse here concludes its first round. Having set out from interpretation, we have arrived at the lack underlying desire. Are we now able to provide a better answer to Freud’s question about interpretation? Perhaps. Interpretare necesse est. Interpret one must, but not to find something that is there but hidden. Interpretation does not work toward unveiling (a-lanthano) an ontological direction as for example in hermeneutics-a direction that, though hidden, was already written, as the Western religious tradition of the Book demands. But one must interpret to bring out what was not there, the infinity-plus-one property that was not on the list and that interpretation causes to be-analytic interpretation makes sense, it does not give sense. It brings into being, brings to light, a new sense to eliminate it, perhaps as nonsense, good for nursery rhymes or witty remarks.
For this reason, the sexual and even more so the phallic lends itself so well-better than the ontological-to animating the analyst’s interpretation. Because the sexual is the privileged site of lack (Freud spoke of castration). To work on and around the sexual, like Freud with the unconscious, means to work “a togliere”-removing essences, significances and ultimate senses-like Michelangelo. The unconscious, whose material is the language of sexuality, produces formations that need interpretation, that is, they need to be read in this peculiar sense-in the sense, that is, that their text, like the complete list of all the numerical properties, does not exist prior to the reading, but undoes itself in the process of being read. This technique of a reading in dissolution is called psychoanalysis. When it is the psyche that dissolves, therapeutic effects are obtained.
Interpretation as a commutation of sense
What remains now is to complete the second round, one, starting from desire, and ending up with interpretation not so much as a point of arrival, but rather as the process itself, through or around the elementary lack. To do this, we must make use of a model that has noble origins. Lucretius’s De rerum natura is no stranger to it. Of Lucretius we do not accept the full/empty dualism: the full of his semina rerum contrasted with the void of the space in which they move.
Instead, we look to the idea of clinamen, which in modern terms may be defined as the tangent of the path of the elementary particles. In Lucretius’s mythology, the clinamen is the minimal deviation from the vertical that leads the atoms, or elements, in their fall toward the deep void (inane profundum), to cross paths and crash and join up like the letters of a word. The linguistic metaphor is Lucretius’s and recurs in several points of the poem’s first two cantos, until clinamen is reformulated as declinatio. Then, the operation we are proposing-to transpose the materialist conception of the universe into a linguistic system-is not completely alien to the text from which it is drawn. Indeed, it is precisely the text of Lucretius’s poem that justifies our elementary point of view, which is that of the elementa, that is of the letters and their vicissitudes.
They, the literal signifiers, are the material supports of our discussion. They, the letters, the solid, indivisible principia (usually, clumsily translated as atoms), represent, as Lacan would say, the essentially localized structure of the signifier(4). Their paths are our linguistic chains that grow metonymically, signifier after signifier. The clinamen or declinatio is the drive that prompts the subject to break away from the Thing, the inane profundum, toward which it would fall, sliding from one signifier to another. The clinamen is the device that permits the commutation-almost as if it were a railway switch-from one chain of signifiers to another. We propose calling interpretation this change of subject or of chain of signifiers.
Geometrically, the model consists of stars made up of straight lines originating from each point of ordinary space, filling it in every direction. Space may then be crossed along portions of line, switching occasionally to other intersecting lines. The path along a given line represents a succession of signifiers. Switching to other lines represents the changing, or substitution, of signifiers. (Alternatively, and more in keeping with Lucretius’s vision, the same model may be represented as a set of bundles of parallel lines that fill space in all directions.)
Before moving on to the results that the model provides, just a few words on methods of using models. Any model, considered individually and as unique, must not be overrated, nor should it be thought to coincide with the structure. A model may be evaluated by how it presents the structure. There are models and models. Some present the structure better than others in some respects, worse in others. Once the job of presenting (incomplete and tainted) of the structure is done, the model may be shelved. At another time, in another context, it may be used again. Left there, on the work table, besides hampering subsequent research, it could deteriorate into orthodoxy-a risk to be avoided if theory is not to become scholasticism.
Once established that among the weaknesses of the Lucretian model is a distinct lack of anthropomorphism (but for our purposes, this is a strength), we consider the use of this model interesting because it treats the elementary lack in a politically correct way. By removing something? No, as we have seen, the true lack appears with addition. Our model, in fact, introduces in every point of ordinary space a vectorial space of unitary vectors, the tangent space (so called as it can describe the tangent of a curve at every point). Apart from the interest in treating vectorially the phenomenon of transfer, understood as translation, the crucial issue here is that the introduction of vectorial functions is the correct way to introduce the lack. In fact the number of functions is always greater than the number of points in space. If the latter make up the power of the continuum, the set of functions has a power of a higher order. (The demonstration is the same as that for properties of numbers.) Therefore the elementary lack appears, with this model, as the impossibility of including all the vectorial constructions in an “effective”-that is, elementary-overall super-construction.
The first result of this model justifies the fact that, if for the subject of desire a drive analysis may be given, the reason must be sought in the existence of a linguistic inclination. And, we should add (to distinguish ourselves from the phenomenological positions that treat subjectivity in a different way) that in this context, the inclinations are not intentional, but rather, in some respects, mechanical, or, better still, structural, that is, linked to the linguistic mechanisms of the selection and combination of signifiers, identified by Jakobson. In fact, we are moving within a theoretical context in which the signifier, inasmuch as it can potentially be substituted, functions as an anticipator of meaning-the meaning that the interpretation, inasmuch as effective substitution, renders, so that it may overtake it in another anticipation. Dialectically.
At the intuitive level, the elementary model interprets interpretation as the commutation from one chain of signifiers to another, as if by means of a railway switch-the metaphor is Freud’s(5)-which leads from one value of inclination to another; that is, it makes the path of the signifier change direction. There may be more than one commutation and therefore interpretation. Lucretius insists on the function of the multiplicity of interpretations, first pointed out by Epicurus. We would add that plurality does not mean vagueness. The series of interpretations may take a path that closes in on itself after circumscribing once or repeatedly a portion of empty space. Moving from paths to their derivatives or tangents, it results, for example through the simulation of the calculator model, that there are definite times within which the path, if it does not exactly close in on itself, returns to the inclination it had at the outset. In Poincaré’s theory of Chaos, there are theorems that establish the minimum conditions for the first return to the origin of the state of a system of differential equations. These are all theorems that abstractly, but also playfully, may be reformulated thus: All that is not impossible, even if improbable, sooner or later happens. (Cf., for example, Kroneker’s theory of the approximation of irrational numbers by means of rationals, to return to the theory of numbers.) All told, Freud’s eternal return of the identical is not a myth but the range of the structure. Perhaps, but here we can only proclaim without proving the thing, a consequence of its elementary lack.
Interpreting the interpretation more geometrico (that is, as a change of direction), the model shows its metaphorical nature.
The semantic theory of the metaphor as analogy or similitude is well known, from Aristotle to Perelman. For example, in the phrase Old age is the evening of life, man’s age is compared to the day, the sunset to old age and, what is essential, a sort of equivalence, or analogy, is established between the two terms. We do not wish to challenge this theory, which has its merits. In fact, it presents a way of conceiving, through topological transformations, the analogical or specular functioning of the imaginary register of the meaning, where certain symmetries, certain mind sets (especially the interchangeability between the self and its fellows), certain elementary invariants are linked to the assembly of the image of the body from its fragments found in the other.
Anyway, in Aristotle there is a second theory of the metaphor. It is a syntactic, not semantic, theory that is particularly suited for moving among the discontinuities of the symbolic register, or of the signifiers. Aristotle states in his Poetics (21, 1457b): metaforà d’estin onòmatos allotriou epiforà. This is usually translated as: The metaphor consists in transferring to an object a name belonging to another. In the translation, apart from the intrusion of the object, for which there is no logical need, the epiforà is much more than the simple transfer of meaning from the tema to the forum (Perelman). The metaphor, from the symbolic point of view, is much more than a translated meaning. It is epiforà, that is the imposition of the name of the other (onòmatos allotriou). It is, as we said, alienation (cf. p. 2). Proton pseudos, primal lie, Freud would say. Less a theft of the subject’s properties, of its objects, than of its very being. Metaphor is the old-fashioned name for that subjective experience, ineffable because it precedes even the constitution of the subject, which in analysis the subject sometimes succeeds in reconstructing in a sort of experimentum mentis. It is often the story of a child who, called into being by the signifier in the mother tongue, disappears even before being born-this is the meaning of Oedipus’s invocation: never to have been born; this is the basis of Freud’s trauma theory-disappears, I was saying, because in his place appears a substitute signifier that, from then on, shifts the subject’s truth to another linguistic chain: call it, if you like, unconscious.
The alienation one experiences in language and that takes place through the substitution of one signifier for another (Lacan) may be described either as evanescence of the subject (at a prevalently metaphorical level) or as the change in direction of the subject’s reasoning, motivated by the desire of the other (at a prevalently metonymic level). Our elementary model realizes the possibility of unifying the two senses, subjective and objective, of the subject’s alienation: of his being and of his desire, as a change in direction of the path along which the subject moves. In the synchronism of the ever possible commutations, the two phases of cause and effect-of desire and of interpretation, of interpretation and of desire-coincide.
Thus, we can justify the choice of our model with the fact that the adoption of a syntactic prospective makes it possible to keep at bay certain dualisms, such as Frege’s pairings of intension and extension, sense and signification, connotation and denotation, to return to and rearticulate, possibly, in a theoretical sphere that is not too conditioned by the logical binarism of thought and reality, true and false, real and imaginary.
Interpretation is desire itself. We now see it as the argument’s change in direction. It as the discursive drift, as Verdiglione taught. The changes, the turns, may be multiple. Although their multiplicity, as it is not part of the theory of sets, cannot be summarized in a single universal meaning, their succession may explore the entire range of possibilities, all the shades of drive instinctuality until it lands upon a turn that has already been explored, or a direction already taken. Then the signifying circle closes in on itself. Self-closure is typical of the drive dynamic, which is linguistic before it is biological. Inasmuch as it is a linguistic matter, Freudian drive does not take hold of the object of need, but circumscribes the lack from which the desire emerges. It is the lack that proves a posteriori to be the motor of continuous deviations, of drive (Lucretius uses the verb depellere in the sense of going off course, almost to go off one’s rocker), that lead the signifying path, from cross-reference to cross-reference, to close in on itself.
In conclusion, the meaning of analytic interpretation is to close in on itself in a circular construction that has no other sense than its own poverty of meaning, which is what remains after having explored the richness of the range of meanings possible. Freudian constructions in analysis-so criticized by contemporary scientism and its schematic epistemology, which only appreciates final results (preferably if in binary form: useful/useless; applicable/inapplicable; right/wrong), without considering the path followed to obtain them (perhaps because the path contains the subject)-appear in this model as the effect of the accumulation of many small, precise deviations, which, for some mysterious reason-this is the mystery of the talking body, that is, of the unconscious-do not cancel one another, but add up to a positive number, the subject’s number. As regards this, we might mention the winding drive number as a topological invariant that analysis deciphers. But this would constitute another interpretation of my discourse and would be better left to another occasion.
Translated from Italian by Carol Lee Rathmann