12 Questions about Psychoanalysis: Answers by Sergio Benvenuto



I – As a philosopher, what is it that interests you in psychoanalysis, and why? 

The reasons why psychoanalysis has fascinated so many philosophers whilst others rejected it (from Adorno to Deleuze) are not very different from those why it led to a fascination or rejection in non-philosophers.  Wittgenstein said that the main difficulty of Freud’s theory lay not so much in the resistances it provokes, but rather the great seduction it produces in so many (including himself).  The seduction psychoanalysis has exerted in over a century is that of an anthropology and an ethics that representus, and of which we should clarify the basic paradigm.

This anthropology is based on a fundamental choice, largely contained in the German term die Lust, which at once means desire, longing (libido, Freud said) and pleasure, enjoymentjouissance, which is at once life drive and death drive.  Lacan, following the French translation, distinguished between pleasure and jouissance, but Lustis a two-sided coin: one side regards the Wunsch, wish or desire, and the other the Genuß, pleasure/jouissance.  Like every great anthropology, Freud aims at an essential truth about the human being, which had substantially been already perfectly set out in his Project for a Scientific Psychology (1895): the human being is a desiring being that aims at enjoyment.  It is not (only) Iwho desires and enjoys pleasure, It (es)desires and enjoys pleasure.  We should say “it’s desiring today” or “it was enjoying yesterday” in the same way as we say “it’s raining today” or “it was snowing yesterday.” This was Freud’s great bet.  Desire and enjoyment mutually imply each other, one desires to enjoy and one enjoys in desiring.  But this essential truth escapes human beings – escapes their ego, Freud said – and it is therefore unconscious, and it is necessary to make it manifest.  Other psychologies too consider desire the driving force of human actions – in the cognitivist vision, action is the way humans try to satisfy their desires on the basis of their beliefs – but they do not acknowledge the unconscious, i.e. that every subject’s own truth, which is Lust, desiring and enjoying, is veiled to them.

Psychoanalysis seduces with its interpretative hubris(even though many analysts today reject analytical interpretations), reason why it was possible for it to be mistaken for a form of hermeneutics (something I will discuss in my answer to question 8).  But the fundamental bearings of Freudian interpretation are based on reconstructing how the human subject tries, unconsciously, to enjoy.  In other words, the unconscious is itself an interpretation, and analytic interpretation – for example of a dream – is always a dis-interpretation of unconscious interpretation.  So I consider analytic interpretation a form of deconstruction rather than a hermeneutics.  It is an interpretation aimed at unraveling, not at tying knots.

Freud’s bold challenge was to construct strategies of enjoyment even when subjects seem, in most disturbing ways, to be doing everything they can to suffer.  Angst itself is an enjoyment that abuses the Ego as something lethal.  Freud even tried to explain melancholia – perhaps the most devastating of human experiences – as enjoyment; i.e. as a sadistic enjoyment by the Super-Ego or Beyond-the-Ego (Über-Ich).  Indeed, the idea of unconscious revolves round the fact that the essential truth of humans is desire/enjoyment, even when the subject tries to escape it, which in this way imposes itself as desire/enjoyment of the Other.  Whether it is I or the Other, esstillsomehowgenießt.

Even though I haven’t described it in a particularly fascinating way here, it is evident that this anthropology—an archeology that places Lustas an arche—fascinates.  Even more so because it seems to open a third path between two that are well known to us: that of science, which is always mechanistic, and that of hermeneutics, which is always spiritualistic. (Believing that science is not mechanistic is equivalent to mistaking one’s desires for reality: we’ve moved on from a classical mechanics to a quantum mechanics, but it remains a mechanics.  Science is not Bergsonian).  Psychoanalysis convinces us as a form of materialism not reduced to a description of determinable mechanisms.  Many analysts feel it is their duty to claim for psychoanalysis the status of science, but what we call science today has taken a different direction from psychoanalysis, which is not a science, even if it seduces us because it is an anthropology flourished in an era dominated by science and technology.  Psychoanalysis is a direction(in the sense of leadership) that in other eras belonged to religion, philosophy or political ideals: it is a vision and ethics suitable for humans dominated by science, technology and market democracy. Proof of this is that in countries where there is no democracy or freedom of expression, or where capitalism hasn’t taken off, analytic practice finds it difficult to assert itself.

The practice Freud introduced – the analytic cure – enjoyed a huge success, even a popular success (despite the limited number of people who actually decide to undertake an analysis), one proof of this being that we see psychoanalytic sessions in a vast number of films, even today. Where does this attraction for the ritual scene of a person lying on a couch with a man or woman listening to them derive from? This setting is found to be impressive because of the ethics it expresses: our ethical success is due to a “care of the self” (as Foucault called it, talking of the ancient Greeks), to a reconstruction of one’s personal history in a verbal relationship with someone who listens without acting.  In fact there are many ways to look at the best ethosfor the women or men living in the age of science, technology, pluralistic democracy and capitalism.  We can see ethics as a set of regulatory norms for our relationships with others, a list of what we can and cannot do with regard to our fellow humans.  We can consider it each person’s strategy to be happy.  We can consider it a way to approach universal Good.  But the ethics of psychoanalysis bets on the fact that we have to reconstruct and construct our singular desire.  The task of modern men and women is neither an unsociable sociability, as Kant said, nor a search for the Highest Good, but to become what one is, as Nietzsche said.

Psychoanalysis confronts itself with the rival anthropologies that dominate our consciousness: in particular with Darwinism (not Charles Darwin, but the adaptive model known today as Darwinism), with the Marxist anthropology of emancipation, with the phenomenological vision of Erlebnißand with the liberal anthropology of the maximization of human capital.  Many have tried to betroth, so-to-speak, psychoanalysis with some of these rival anthropologies, but I prefer a celibate psychoanalysis.

On the other hand, psychoanalysis can help philosophy carry out a self-analysis, a self-deconstruction: philosophers must begin to question themselves, question their propositions (énoncés), as well as their enunciations (énonciations).  And enunciations are related to the strategies of enjoyment.  No one seriously believes that a philosophy can convince someone because of its arguments! We need to understand from time to time what type of enjoyment presents itself through the various philosophical enunciations.  In what way do we try to find enjoyment through philosophy? However, I think this is the aspect of psychoanalysis that has so far been least acknowledged by philosophers.

What I like about psychoanalysis is the fact it tears to shreds so many illusions, even psychoanalytic ones.


II – What is the most significant contribution that philosophy has made to psychoanalysis, at least from your personal approach to psychoanalysis? 

Paradoxically, among the most useful contributions to understand Freud I include texts that appear severely critical of him.  What Wittgenstein said and noted about Freud particularly made me think.  Many Wittgensteinians took these criticisms literally and piled it on.  In fact, Wittgenstein’s attitude towards psychoanalysis was very ambivalent, considering he declared himself a “disciple of Freud” and even considered practicing psychoanalysis by becoming a psychiatrist.  Now, I think this ambivalence of Wittgenstein’s towards psychoanalysis should not be resolved in one sense or the other, but should instead be accepted and upheld.  I too am ambivalent towards psychoanalysis.

Can one be a practicing analyst and be ambivalent towards analysis? Of course.  I would go as far as saying that it is necessary. Because it is clear – as Wittgenstein has shown – that psychoanalytic theoriesare myths, that they are based on anthropological assumptions that do not lend themselves to scientific validation.  The Oedipus, the libidinal phases, the primal scene, projective identification, the alpha and beta elements, foreclosure, and so on, are all myths.  Myths that if used with foresight and irony are an extraordinary insight into the unconscious. The theoretical apparatuses of the main psychoanalysts – excluding Freud, Ferenczi, M. Klein, Anna Freud, Winnicott, Lacan and a few others – are rather fragile as theories, but very powerful as tools to capture aspects that no other psychology (today referred to as cognitive) manages to capture.  Freud succeeded in giving us a representation of subjectivity no less perspicuous(übersichtlich, Wittgenstein said) than those that once came to us from Plato (SymposiumPhaedrusAlcibiades I), Aristotle, Augustine (Confessions), Montaigne, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche…

I think the most important contribution to psychoanalysis actually came from Wittgenstein when he established the essential difference between saying andshowing.  In other words, certain things cannot be said, but they are shown.  Every analyst takes an interest in saying (propositions) insofar as something other (enunciations) shows itself.  The drama of both philosophers and psychoanalysts begins when they want to saythat which is shown.  Because what counts in saying what is shown is what, not saidneither psychoanalytically or philosophically, shows itself…

This means that psychoanalysis does not lead to what is naively called “self-awareness.” After years of analysis most analysand will say “I’ve understood lots of things!” But if they’re asked what exactly, they don’t know what to say… The awareness reached with analysis is a paradoxical unconscious awareness.

It may sound strange that another philosopher who influenced me was someone extremely different from Wittgenstein, Jacques Derrida.  In 1982 in Florence I took part in a conference on psychoanalysis with him.  After his contribution, I remarked in public that some of the things he said sounded like statements by Wittgenstein.  Derrida replied that in fact others too had made the same remark, but he could not say anything about it because he had never read Wittgenstein.  “I have a neurotic inhibition about reading Wittgenstein,” he confessed.  However, I think that he later overcame this inhibition because he began quoting Wittgenstein, and in favorable terms. It must also be said that Derrida’s thinking is the most influenced by psychoanalysis in 20thcentury philosophy.  After all, he identified his “deconstruction” (in the sense of unraveling) with the analytic work of psychoanalysis.  In fact, I think my attitude towards Freud is far more lay, let’s say laid-back, than Derrida’s.  Though in many aspects I am distant from him, it must be said that he somehow tried to (psycho)-analyze philosophy, Freud included.  Philosophical texts are no longer taken literally, on the aspect of their propositions: when philosophers take a metaphysical option, what do they want to say deep down to themselves and to others?  Usually philosophers don’t know what they’re saying, not too differently from analyzands: it is necessary to make their text say what it shows without saying it.  I think all my reading of Freud over the decades has been a work of deconstruction; I have attempted a (psycho)analysis of psychoanalysis.  And not to confute it.  Derrida only deconstructed texts he admired, the texts of his masters, for this reason his is actually a self-deconstruction.  One in which we capture that beneficial ambivalence I already highlighted in Wittgenstein.  In the same way, I like to deconstruct Freud because – as Wittgenstein said – he is one of the few who has something to say. It is a deconstructive piety.  But deep down, mine is also a deconstruction.

Deconstructing a psychoanalytical text doesn’t mean (only) reading that text in the light of its author’s biography and personal problems.  It means dissecting its anthropological, metaphysical, ethical/political premises and the paradigms squatting in the depths of its discourse.  Not necessarily to distance oneself, but to clarify them, precisely as premises laid before any saying.

What impresses me in Jean-Luc Nancy is his idea that the fundamental concept in Freud is that of Trieb, translated as drive.  The master tendency today is that of reducing psychoanalysis to intersubjectivity, to a relation between subjects, appealing to a sort of popularized phenomenology – empathy has become the inescapablekeyword among many analysts too.  Instead, those who think philosophically know that the greatness of Freud lies precisely in the role he attributes to drives – and, I would precise, to die Lust; to desire and enjoyment. Intersubjectivism trivializes psychoanalysis.  Even though the unconscious should be thought out in relation to the Other – but, I stress, in relation to the Other, not the others.

My formation also includes philosophers that never dealt with psychoanalysis – or who dealt with it limitedly and inadequately.  In particular the Kant-Heidegger line.  I stress that my reading of Wittgenstein is not in the sense of “analytic philosophy” – I find that most of the latter is a misunderstanding of what Wittgenstein wanted to say/do.  And I’m indebted to Foucault, for the way he applied Nietzsche to the analysis of society, knowledge and history.

I always had, on the other hand, a sort of allergy to the neo-Marxism of the Frankfurt school.  I do not appreciate the so-called “critical philosophies,” which result in a grumbling condemnation of our times.  Sure, we should criticize the times we live in, but knowing that they are our times, in the same way as our life is ours: it may give us endless sorrows, but it remains ours, we do not have any spare ones.  The Frankfurters are beautiful souls in the Hegelian sense: they condemn the social forms of which they are an important part.  We cannot criticize our times as a whole, because otherwise criticism becomes the night in which all cows are black: it blinds us to the most conspicuous distortions of our era, those to which we could find a remedy.



III – Apart from Freud, what other psychoanalyst, according to you, has contributed significantly to a philosophical reflection on psychoanalysis?

My main master in psychoanalytic theory was Jacques Lacan, while my master in clinical psychoanalysis was Elvio Fachinelli, for psychotherapy in the broad sense Diego Napolitani.  Now, I have tried to follow Lacan’s prescription when he told his pupils “do as I do: do not imitate me.” This prescription is an authentic double bind, which according to Gregory Bateson is the origin of psychotic issue.  Today most agree that the double bind, the pragmatic paradox, is an integral part of our social life; we are all doubly bound to paradoxes.  Fachinelli did not found any type of school either, there is no Fachinellian doctrine, but he had a particular writing style and an ethical style. So, in contradiction, I imitate my masters: I no longer have any masters.

My friends and colleagues who have other masters, on the other hand – whether Klein, Winnicott, Bion, Kohut, Laplanche, Green, etc. – are always surprised by the fact that when philosophers or essayists deal with psychoanalysis, they usually only deal with Freud.  If we want to confront ourselves with psychoanalysis, dealing with Freud is not only necessary, but also sufficient.  Only two other analysts other than Freud really attract the attention of philosophers and writers: Jung and Lacan.  Is the fact that intellectuals are relatively ignorant about the history of psychoanalysis to blame for this?  No, because Freud, Jung and Lacan all said something that was original; the others, even if brilliant, appear more as ramifications.

Yet Freud and Lacan – and I suppose something similar applies to Jung – are read in completely different ways by each philosopher or scholar who is not an analyst.  Which is quite normal: in how many different ways have Plato, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche… been read?  Great thinkers are not trees, there is no solid shared trunk that branches off.  Every thinker is an enigma that commentator or pupils will try to solve each in their own way, like Zen pupils who must solve their kōan, the problem with no solution.

In fact, what is there in common between the readings of Freud, and hence of psychoanalysis, by Wittgenstein, Breton, Marcuse, Ricoeur, Lacan, Laplanche-Pontalis and Lyotard?  We could ask ourselves whether they all actually spoke about the same author.

I was struck by something Heidegger said; that each truly great thinker thinks only one thought.  Is a great psychoanalyst also someone who thinks only one thought?  I already mentioned what seems to me to be Freud’s only thought.  Of Lacan I would say that his essential thought was the question “how does language allow us to touch a real?”  Winnicott’s was “how can we access the creative possibilities of play?”  And what was the essential thought of the others?

I am also struck by the fact that philosophers and scientists who underwent analysis usually do not write about it, whilst my impression is that those who never underwent one tend to talk about psychoanalysis at length.  And usually, reading them, it’s quite obvious they did not undergo analysis.  There are also many exceptions, but I think that those who do undergo an analysis, one that yields some results, don’t know what to say about it, as I said in reply to question 2.  The effects of analysis challenge the theoretical and scientific setup in which a theorist will have usually grown up in.  This is certainly an advantage of psychoanalysis over any non-psychoanalytic theory.

In a published conversation with me, André Green complained that at the time many French intellectuals underwent analysis but in their production, particularly in their philosophical works, failed to mention it.  He thought this was a form of repression.  I entirely disagree.  The truth is that many of those who underwent analysis seriously, precisely because they did undergo it, don’t know what to say about it.  For example, Oliver Sacks was in analysis for over 46 with the same analyst, Leonard Shengold; but to my knowledge his books rarely mention psychoanalysis. Was this because he was ashamed of talking about something so scarcely ‘scientific’ like psychoanalysis? No, because he respected it, I would say. He realized that to saysomething about psychoanalysis – perhaps even trying to combine it with the neurosciences – would have trivialized it, that he would have ended up falling into the jargon of those intellectuals who amuse themselves with clichés.  Sayingwhat showsitself in an analysis was beyond even a brilliant writer such as Sacks.


IV – If you have undertaken psychoanalytic training, or if you are a practicing psychoanalyst, might we ask how you view what transpires in a clinical analytic practice? In other words, what is it that really happens during a cure? 

I began to practice as an analyst late in life, after paths with analysts of various schools, through my choice: Kleinian, Lacanian, Foulkesian, Kohutian.  This plurality reveals my impatience in identifying with a particular school.

Freud’s masterpiece consisted in creating a setting that produces specific effects independently of the metapsychology of the analyst.  Some pupils of mine tell me they don’t understand why their patients keep coming back to see them for months or years or why they have visible improvements.  “Yet I didn’t do anything special,” they say. It’s just that they were able to notdestroy the transference.  They let the setting do the work.

The psychoanalyst Giovanni Zapparoli said that if we leave someone under a street lamp for two days, something is bound to happen… The same goes for analysis.  The analogy between standing still under a street lamp and the analytic setting is that in both cases subjects have no distractions: sooner or later they will have to question themselves on their desire. It is the non-action of both the analyst and the analysand, the invitation to a free use of words, which will allow some unconscious to emerge in any case.  A similar apparatus – with no couch or street lamp – is also used by non-analysts, and it works.  What many analysts mistake for their own clinical genius, is actually the genius of the setting.  In psychoanalysis, the word shouldn’t be performative (the analyst does not prescribe, does not give advice or judge), so as to make the analytic social relation performative. And the physical peculiarities of the setting are important too.  There’s a hypnotic dimension in analysis that cannot be eliminated.  Hypnotic too are the furnishings of the consulting room, the way the analyst dresses, his social prestige…

I qualify my own approach as minimalist, in the sense that I consider it essential to maintain an underlying analytical position.  The theories or metapsychologies that each analyst uses are indeed interesting, but they are not the essential feature of the analytical act.

Each analyst is driven to making generalizations on their practice, and each sees the generalities that interest them.  For example, I could say that all the people I’ve followed have a fundamental problem: having been incapable of separating from a system of childish relationships, remaining tied to their parents, even if they’re dead.  It’s a trivial conclusion.  It’s something Freud already said when he talked of regression of the libido and its fixation on infantile stages.  The analytical cure, therefore, when it works, allows subjects to leave the infantile script and establish themselves as subjects oriented towards their own “thing.” This has authorized generation of analysts to describe analysis as “maturation,” “growth,” “self-empowerment” and so on.  Some schools abhor this “maturative” language and prefer what I would call a Dionysian vision of the cure. But even if they don’t preach maturation, I wonder whether it’s not just what these Dionysian analysts are hinting at. (Even Lacanians, when they want to prove an analysand’s progress, end up describing them as better-adapted, in their private and public lives.  A discrepancy emerges here between theoretical narrativeand concrete practice.) Instead I talk rather of a repositioning with regard to the world of our objects and identifications.  The analyst should do nothing to push the analysand to “maturation”: the important thing is for the analyst to be there.  Analysts are catalyst, and the setting they propose, if they don’t give it up, produces a form of catalysis: the overcoming of archaic modes of being-in-the-world.

I wouldn’t say that analysis leads to a conversion, to a metanoia, as Saint Paul said. Instead, I would say that it achieves, when it works, a reconversion, like when an agricultural zone is reconverted to industrial uses, for example.  Which, perhaps, is a different way of saying what Lacan said: that analysis leads to a correction of the subject’s relation to the real.

A much-discussed issue among analysts is the question of what to do with one’s countertransference.  Lacanians don’t deal with countertransference, they think it’s connected to the unanalyzed aspects of the analyst and hence that it should be solved with one’s own analyst.  For other schools, on the other hand, countertransference is a fundamental tool that the analyst should use to penetrate the patient’s unconscious.  Therefore, in clinical discussions the ritual question always emerges: “So, what do you feeltowards this patient?” If, for example, the patient says something that irritates me, I have to use this reaction of mine to understand that the subject wants to make me angry. This, however, leads to an abuse: bringing onto the patient affective impulses that are actually the analyst’s.

Relationismis a development of the theory of countertransference as a work tool: analysis is an interaction between two subjects considered on an equal footing.  The point, however, is that usually countertransference is confused with the analyst’s consciousreaction, whilst authentic countertransference is unconscious.  Psychoanalysis ends up being confused with the importance of affectivity, whilst the authentic breakthrough of psychoanalysis was seeing the unconscious processes behind affective reactions.   I agree with Lacan when he said that there is no transference of the analysand or countertransference of the analyst, but that transference is an unconscious relation that engages both.  Is this a relationist statement? No, because the transferential relationship is unconscious. For the analyst an analysis is therefore always a self-analysis.  Behind sexual desire for an analysand, for example, the analyst’s idealizing identification with the woman in question could emerge.  Whilst the habitual reaction today is to say “I desire that patient because she is seductive.” At source there’s not just the analysand’s unconscious, there’s also the analyst’s.  This is why Fachinelli thought we shouldn’t talk about countertransference but about the analyst’s transference.

I don’t share the therapeutic pessimism of certain analysts; I think that someone who has gone through an analysis to the end overcomes inhibitions, symptoms and anxieties.  If I thought analysis was incapable of curing, I would find it immoral to suggest it to someone who seeks help to feel better. It’s true that analysts don’t promise to cure anything, but if they do, there’s the indicator of a good analysis.  It’s not true that the symptoms are not dissolved; sometimes they’re the first to capitulate.  It’s also true, however, that for many people undergoing analysis is a pleasure in itself and some do analysis for analysis’ sake, like art for art’s sake. I quoted the case of Oliver Sacks and Leonard Shengold.  But this endless pleasure of transference must not be an excuse for the analyst to think “the patient fancies he will feel better.”

Of course a certain number of people do come out of analysis disappointed.  But there’s a also a good percentage of people who say “I found it useful,” and another percentage of people who are enthusiastic.  It strikes me that many people who are unhappy with their analysis berate psychoanalysis, but then start a new analysis with someone else.  Is there an addictionto analysis? And is their criticism of psychoanalysis an attempt to free themselves from this addiction? It wouldn’t surprise me if I discovered that one of the most inflexible critics of psychoanalysis, Frederick Crews, has been in analysis for years.

We speak of our analyses in the same way as we speak about our relationships or marriages: some last many years, others are short-lived, with some ex-partners we remain friends with others we break all ties.  Attacking psychoanalysis is like criticizing couples or marriages.

I think that psychoanalysis is waiting for its Machiavelli, someone who will reconstruct what is really done in an analysis. Before Machiavelli various political theories existed, but the Florentine was the first to turn politics into a “science,” to describe political action beyond the model of Good Government.  There are some extremely acute reconstructions of analytical practice, but these usually remain within the metapsychology of analysts.  I’m waiting for the psychoanalytical equivalent of The Prince.


VI – From its start, psychoanalysis—including Fenichel, Bernfeld, Reich, Fromm, and others—developed a Freudian-Marxist current among both analysts and philosophers, which still flourishes today. How should we view today the relation amongst Marx, Marxists, and psychoanalysis?

The Freudian-Marxist or Marxist-Freudian temptation was born precociously; already with the French surrealists.  A Freudian-Marxist current still prospers today and includes successful authors like Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou.  But another wing of Marxism has taken on markedly anti-psychoanalytic positions.  In Italy we had Franco Basaglia, a Marxist who accused psychoanalysis of being a cure “technique” like so many others aimed at the privileged classes. Part of the Frankfurt school bore a grudge against Freud.  In short, Freud lacerated Marxism.

Of course, an analogy between Marxism and Freudianism stands out: both claim to be analyses that denounce “a false consciousness.” For Marxism this false consciousness is “ideology,” i.e. the theories we construe to avoid seeing reality, the division of society into classes.  For Freudianism it is ego rationalizations, narcissistic constructions, the entire defense system we build to evade the truth of our Lust.  Significantly, Paul Ricoeur found the connection between Marx, Nietzsche and Freud as “thinkers of suspicion,” in their own different ways: being suspicious of our “good conscience” and deconstructing it.  So, for example, there are uncountable analyses that stress the correspondence between the Marxian theory of “commodity fetishism” and the Freudian one of sexual fetishism – practically a commonplace in Freudian-Marxist literature.  I fear, however, that in this way one often risks what President Schreber in his delirium called “falling into the trap of assonances.”

Freudian-Marxism flourished despite the fact that Freud detested Bolshevism. And, above all, there’s a fundamental blunder: Freud didn’t believe in progress, whilst Marxism is unconceivable without a progressive project (significantly, when a left-wing political party or coalition wants to find an all-embracing name, this is likely to be progressive.) For Freud we have technological progress, but no spiritual progress, nor do we become happier and happier.  As for Lacan, he never believed in the Marxist Revolution, something that never prevented many Lacanians, even today, from being Marxist-Freudian-Lacanians.  So, were the masters (Freud, Lacan) blind to their profound affinity with Marx, while the disciples saw what the masters did not? Or did the disciples want to put into one basket things that are actually if not incompatible, at least incommensurable?

I would go for the second hypothesis.  I think that, beyond the analogies, Marxism and Freudianism – both being doctrines of emancipation – are alternative anthropologies.  The last century’s profound need to tie Marx and Freud – and perhaps even Nietzsche, Heidegger, Benjamin… – in a sort of Borromean knot should in turn be deconstructed.  It’s as if each of the “hopes” promised by each of these thinkers – Communism, the acceptance of the will to power, the end of suppression, authenticity and so on – were perceived as insufficient.  Putting together thinkers and doctrines that never loved each other is an attempt to turn a set of partial hopes into one Great Hope.  I think the time has come for the era of disenchantment from Hope, and the definitive exit from the Freudian-Marxist illusion.

I don’t think that any reading of today’s historical distress can extract much from Marxism.  Žižek said that the class struggle in the Marxist sense is the Hegelian “concrete universal,” i.e. the ultimate key to understanding the world. Instead it’s the one way to avoid understanding it at all. I don’t believe in the concrete universal.  The signifiers for which we die and kill – including Socialism – are by no means concrete universals.  True concreteness, for me, is the singularity that avoids the universal, that belies it, because the universal is the fully “sayable,” it is “said for all,” whilst analytical practice puts us into contact with a continuous avoidance of the “like everyone.”

Following the irony of Umberto Eco, I abolished the term ideologyfrom my vocabulary precisely to evade its Marxist sense; ideology as false consciousness.  Like saying: “my theory is truly scientific, yours is only ideology.” This is pure posing. Today we no longer talk of ideology, but of narrative.  I think that all theories (apart from specifically scientific ones) are narratives, including Marxism.  It’s only by coming out of theories that we can come out of narratives.  Even if it’s indispensable to build theories – but always with the awareness that they are only useful narratives to use in order to bet on something.

Having said this, we should also distinguish Marxism from Karl Marx, who in his time made some very important statements.  In a sense I am a Marxian, and much more so than many Marxists (in the same way as I feel more pro-Darwin than many Darwinists).  Marx understood the essential importance of material life, of the systems of production, of the decisive role of technology.  And he understood the systematic nature of the economy – i.e. that the economy creates a system – which is quite something, and he understood the tendency of capitalism, which will sooner or later become apparent, to dissipate itself.  He sensed that the world’s economic system, which today is capitalist, is like the scheme put in to practice in the 1920s by Charles Ponzi, and it’s quite likely that sooner or later it will end up like him.

But Marxism has become a form of idealism; it has dulled down on Hegel.  Marx ought to be freed from the majority of Marxists, in the same way as Freud ought to be freed from the many legions, too many, of Freudians.


VII – Do you believe that psychoanalysis can be a useful tool for interpreting political and social phenomena and customs today? And especially for interpreting gender issues and sexual orientations debate? And if yes, in what way?

The separation between Marxism and psychoanalysis that I proposed in the previous reply does not imply that a psychoanalytic outlook on political and social matters isn’t possible, quite the opposite.  I think that very few have managed to use psychoanalysis as a tool to understand the social world. If we abandoned the clichés of Marxism, liberalism and democratism – i.e. of the three dominant theories/ideologies today in the West – there would finally be room for a comprehension of reality to which psychoanalysis could contribute.

I don’t think, however, that psychoanalysis is of any use when we apply some of its explicit concepts to the social.  Psychoanalysis has a very simple advantage on much of political science and sociology: it has helped us understand the strength of the signifier.  Psychoanalysis should make evident to us the fact that the most extreme conflicts are not the product of material disputes (not only of those, in any case) but of signifying oppositions.  All the “identities,” which are mostly oppositional, are arbitrary: Scottish/English, Padanian/Italian, Jugoslav/Croatian-Slovenian, Catalan/Spanish, Tutsi/Hutu, Muslim/Hindu, Shiite/Sunni, Socialist/Neo-liberal, and so on.  The constant massacres that punctuate history are more the effect of the game of signifiers than economic conflicts.  There’s a competitive dimension in history, almost like in sports, but taken too seriously, and it’s about time to recognize this.

Psychoanalysis could also train us to see in political life the dimension of the will to power.  One will say that the promotion of the Wille zur Machtas the key to understanding social processes also comes from Nietzsche and not from Freud.  Yet Freud talked about Bemächtigung, the maneuvers of empowerment that are essential to symbolization processes.  It’s naive to want to see behind pure power struggles – in the sense in which Hegel spoke of the fight to the death for pure prestige – economic, political or even sexual “foundations.”

If we read Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego and Freud’s other “social” texts carefully, we will clearly understand that Freud describes everyMasse– group, collective or society – as a fascist congregation.  And he said it before fascism and nazism affirmed themselves.  According to Freud every Massefounds itself on a fundamental alienation to the Führer, the chief: every individual’s Ideal, instead of remaining a pure ideal, is colonized, so to speak, by an external object, which is always the Dux.  Every social passion demands what Lacan would call the Maître-signifier (the master and boss) that is in turn incarnated by a concrete heroic figure.  Every social order, Freud says, is a cult of the hero.  Freud sees no space for a society that is not alienated in monumental statues.  The only outlet is a sort of subjective secession of the individual, a carefree detachment from society, a sociable unsociability (the opposite of Kant’s unsocial sociability).  An aristocratic, quite non-Marxist, vision.  Note, however, that Freud’s analysis is also applied to psychoanalytical associations, which like every association also work on the basis of alienations.

If a social doctrine of psychoanalysis – if we want to call it that – does exist, it consists precisely in this: psychoanalysis is interested in (and cures) the ratésof every collective, in other words the rejects of fascism, with regard to the “hot” societies, but it is also interested in the rejects of the “cold” societies, i.e. those of the capitalist and liberal market.  Rejectsas the French écart, which means reject and also difference, dodging, swerving: psychoanalysis bets on the irreducibility of subjectivity to Social Wellbeing.  This is why, as already mentioned, it only prospers in capitalist societies with a pluralistic democracy: in the former the subjective reject is, so to speak, institutionalized.

I also tried to use psychoanalysis to explain the success of today’s so-called populism. The theory that opposes those “at the bottom” to those “at the top,” the latter identified mainly with the politicians (and the intellectuals too, as time will make clearer).  What does psychoanalysis have to say about the fact that the powerfulare no longer identified, as in Marxism, with the capitalists, the rich, but with people we elect ourselves? The loathsome men and women of power are those to whom we ourselves gave power through our own free choice.

And I think that psychoanalysis could give a non-trivial contribution to the analysis of the various forms of xenophobia.  To me it seems evident that today’s xenophobia, due to immigration, conceals what I call pauper-phobia, the fear and hatred of the poor.  The persecuted ethnicities and immigrants are practically always the poorest.  Underlying this, there’s the unconscious belief that poverty is contagious, that the poor are like a dangerous virus.  In other words, racism and xenophobia have nothing to do with the color of the skin, and not even with metaphysical or religious differences.  They have to do with “the smell of the poor,” with the viral nature of this smell.  Xenophobia and racism are anal fixations, as the good old Freud would say.


VIII – A part of philosophical phenomenology has dealt with psychoanalysis.  Even those in Heidegger’s and hermeneutics’ wake have often theorized on psychoanalysis.  How do you feel about this phenomenological “appropriation” of psychoanalysis?

Phenomenology has always had an ambivalent relationship with psychoanalysis. In phenomenology I also include hermeneutics, called “weak thought” in Italy, which is substantially the way phenomenology has taken into account the linguistic turnin philosophy and beyond.  And in phenomenology I include Heidegger, perhaps the most influential philosopher in psychoanalysis.  Yet Heidegger rejected psychoanalysis as a naturalistic science, confusing in this way the propositions of psychoanalysis and its enunciations.  Others, like Merleau-Ponty, somehow legitimized it as a first approximation to a phenomenological vision of subjectivity, even though still “soiled” with scientistic determinism.  Phenomenology has always aimed at a sort of purificationof psychoanalysis, completely disengaging it from the scientific premises of causality and determinism.

Psychoanalysis has always sailed between Scylla and Charybdis: between integration as a psychological science (something achieved by the psychoanalytically-derived attachment theory) on the one hand, and reform as a hermeneutics on the other. My opinion, however, is that by opting for either one or the other would lead to it being devoured.

The betrothal between psychoanalysis and hermeneutics was celebrated on the basis of the fact that both practice interpretations.  For the most radical nihilist form of hermeneutics “there are no facts, only interpretations.” This is an episode of the recursive claim to human freedom: there are no limits to the interpretative freedom of human beings. However, there’s a deep misunderstanding on what psychoanalysis and hermeneutics call interpretation: the former calls it Deutungand the latter Auslegung.  For hermeneutics we all interpret and hence create our world and our history.  For psychoanalysis, on the other hand, interpretation is always the interpretation of an interpretative impasse, it is dis-interpretation.

Hermeneutics aims at what it calls truth, psychoanalysis at what it calls the real.  In many analytical schools this real is referred to as a trauma.  A trauma is overcome insofar as “you come to terms with it,” but analysis deals with the non-overcome trauma, with the trauma that repeats itself as such, the non-“realized” trauma, in the sense in which we say “I still haven’t realized what I’ve lost.”

Despite its often extenuating attempts to colonize the unconscious, phenomenology remains a philosophy of the primacy of consciousness, even if transcendental, i.e. it is always the consciousness-of-something.  Perhaps of affective consciousness, but it is still consciousness.  Indeed, what of the Freudian unconscious will always remain inassimilable to any phenomenological reduction? In other words, how to think out the unconscious philosophically? Sartre, quite mockingly, wanted to assimilate it to “bad conscience.” Instead, I think the unconscious is, paraphrasing Pascal, about the fact that le cul a ses raisons que la Raison ne connaît pas. Phenomenology, even with the best will in the world, will never manage to make the raisons du culemerge.  Put less vulgarly: the reasons of the flesh, the fact that the flesh “thinks” through our thinking and our body.  Every relationship with others and the Other is always carved out within these reasons of the flesh.

Some say, with good reason, that phenomenology and its derivations aim at sense, at the fact that our being-in-the-world is always a giving of sense, whilst psychoanalysis – at least in its Lacanian après-coup– aims not at sense but at signifiers.  We shouldn’t forget, however, that signifiers always produce halos of sense, and that the signifier, with or without a signified, is still part of signifying.  But psychoanalytic “signifying” is different from phenomenological or hermeneutical signifying, because it is the way Lust manifests itself, i.e. it is its pleasure-taking in signifying itself, and insofar as it signifies itself it insists in being a desire.

Phenomenology was in my opinion the West’s first systematically anti-scientific philosophy, in the sense that it challenged the “European sciences” (as Husserl called them), putting up against them its transcendental reduction.  Significantly, from the historical point of view, phenomenology flourished in the age of the most undisputed dominion of science and technology: it should be interpreted as the philosophical shadow that the techno-scientific hegemony of the last century and a half has been projecting on the screen of thought.  Hence many phenomenologies resolve themselves in a project of great Reform of the intellect in opposition to “calculative” thinking, as it calls scientific operating (not thinking, but operating: for the phenomenologies science does not think); hence its more or less provisional alliances with the “critical” forms of thinking, with Marxism, with Nietzschean anarchism, with certain types of psychoanalysis.  Psychoanalysis has no interest in taking sides in this challenge.  Psychoanalysis is no a science, true, but it takes part in ideas and forms of thought typical of the era of the predominance of science and technology.  A phenomenological psychoanalysis would end up reducing itself to an alliance with a losing backlash.

I could describe my intellectual path as a long goodbye to phenomenology. Saying farewell to a philosophy that wants to compete with science on a foundational basis, on a Grund, starting from evidence that is allegedly certain for everyone.  From the evidence of Erlebnis, of lived experience ofthe world and inthe world.  I don’t think that the function of philosophy is founding something – from knowledge to politics.  Any foundational claim is destined to an impasse, is fated to produce some kind of monster.  I’m geared instead towards a thinking that places at its center the double bind that every philosophical reflection inhabits.  A double bind – but this would take quite some time to prove – very similar to the double bind in which suffering subjects are stuck in, in particular in neurotic suffering, and that drives them to the potentially endless work of analysis.


IX – Starting with Popper, over the past decades a trend of radical criticism of psychoanalysis has developed that denies its scientific plausibility, comparing it to a mythology, and contesting any validity of the analytic practice. Where do you fit in this debate, if you do at all? 

The teaching of psychoanalysis has now been removed not only from psychiatry courses but even from psychology courses.  Good thing? Students in both disciplines are taught that psychoanalysis is an obsolete theory.  Today psychoanalysis is studied not in Psychology courses but in Philosophy faculties, in Comparative Literature and Art History courses… And this is a result of the dominant conviction that the theory and practice of psychoanalysis belongs to the Humanities, not to the Sciences.

I think that the question of the scientificness of psychoanalysis is completely ill-posed, as it appears evident to me that psychoanalysis is not a scienceas science is intended today. But there are many other true and important things that are not sciences.  It’s what Freud himself said, in a way, by affirming that there are three impossible professions: governing, educating and psychoanalyzing.  Impossible professions, but inevitable ones (psychoanalyzing too is inevitable): we cannot do without governing our societies or educating our children and pupils.  Now, can we say that someone is a great politician because they’re scientific? Or can we say that the Montessori schools, for example, are so widespread around the world because the Montessori method is the most scientific? Of course, it’s a good thing if politicians or educators study the sciences that can help them in their work thoroughly.  Analysts do well if they become acquainted with theories and research relevant to their practice.  Yet psychoanalysis is not a technique that derives from a scientific theory like nuclear technology, for example, derives from theoretical physics.  When we deal with human beings, things become far more complicated.  Psychoanalysis is rather a psycho-prudence, a phronesis; a practice to cure subjects, inspired from theories of course, but not scientific theories.  It is more an empiria, I would say, than a science.  An empirialike being able to sail a boat, for example.

Referring to T.S. Kuhn, we can say that psychoanalysis isn’t considered a science because it never entered a normal phase.  A science is “normal” when an entire scientific community accepts a paradigm and solves puzzles related to that paradigm.  Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, has always remained a “temporary science”; an ongoing fundamental debate on its paradigms without ever choosing one in particular.  But according to Kuhn it features scientific progress because it has long phases of being a normal science.

Many politicians are inspired by theories, for example liberal, Marxist or Keynesian ones.  But can we say that these are more scientific than Freud’s theories? I don’t think so. They’re grand theories, but they do not have a universal consensus.  Educators too are inspired by the theories of Rousseau, Freud or Piaget… What determines a politician, educator or psychoanalyst’s choice of theory is the degree of plausibility it has for them.  I may find Marxism to be the most plausible theory and someone else German Ordoliberalism or Christian Solidarism … But the plausibility that directs praxis is not the same plausibility Popper describes for scientific theories (besides, Popper’s Falsificationism was falsified long ago).  It is a plausibility inseparable from an ethical position.  For this reason political, educational and psychoanalytical techniques are not just techniques, but they are also ethically oriented action.

For example, do we accept homosexuality today because a new scientific theory has proved that being homosexual is absolutely normal?  No, there is no universally accepted theory on homosexuality. Of course, a great deal of research tends to prove that homosexuals are not “sick,” but “scientific” research often tends to sustain our ethical tropisms.  Today we have decided that homosexuality should be considered a normal orientation.  Our fundamental ethical choices do of course have a halo of knowledgeability; they arrange what we know about other human beings in ways that try to be coherent.  But coherence is not science.  In fact, even if we’re scientists by profession, few of the beliefs we hold have a real scientific basis.

And this also goes for research aimed at verifying whether a psychotherapy is more effective than another.  Lester Luborsky came to the conclusion that alltherapies are almost equally effective – in short, some form of treatment is always better than no treatment.  But this field research seems to me largely biased: it doesn’t take into account the incommensurability between the various cures.  An example: a woman comes to me with the problem that she is incapable of learning English.  Everyone in her family speaks the language, but she doesn’t.  After a couple of session, the reason for this inhibition emerges: her difficult relationship with her parents… The analysis continues and a year later the patient no longer even remembers that she originally came to me with the problem concerning the English language, a problem that has now left her horizon.  I would imagine that a cognitivist psychotherapist, for example, would have focused on that one symptom and probably, after months of struggles, the patient would have started speaking some English.  Instead, with analysis the symptom left the stage.  Which of the two cures was more effective? It’s obvious that we are dealing with two answers that are incommensurable to what a patient brings as a symptom.  There are serious symptoms that disappear after one or two analytic sessions: does this mean that the analysis had a magical effectiveness? No, the symptom was simply concealing something deeper down, reason why the subject continues the analysis even if the symptom has disappeared.  If we fail to take into account this heterogeneity of ethical approaches, carrying out comparative research on the effectiveness of treatment will be like asking whether it’s better to go to Syria to fight for the Jihad or to dedicate oneself intensively to dancing tango.

Yet I’m grateful to the important critiques of psychoanalysis – from Wittgenstein’s to  Deleuze’s, from Timpanaro’s to Borch-Jacobsen’s – because they changed my way of being an analyst and have therefore been very useful.  Confuting the confutations of psychoanalysis is not the essential point; the important thing is to have assimilated them to relocate the sense of analytical practice today.  And to exit the fluctuation between therapeutic pessimism and megalomaniacal triumphalism.  The more serious psychoanalysis is not the type that ignores the more perspicuous critiques of psychoanalysis – because they are not philosophically chic – nor is it the type that tries to adapt psychoanalysis to scientific protocols in order to avoid criticism, but the type that has absorbed and metabolized these critiques.

I am by no means anathematizing the attempts to establish an evidence based psychotherapy.  Wanting to apply the experimental method to analytical practice is an ambitious project. What makes most of this research irrelevant, however, is the fact that it’s not enough to follow the experimental method to practice science! All the great scientific theories of recent centuries were born out of bold counter-intuitive hazarded hypotheses, not meticulous experimentation on particular phenomena.  The inductivist illusion – “scientific theories are derived from experimentations according to the protocols” – is a diehard one, especially among psychologists.

So, the analyst is in the position of Captain Quinlan in the Orson Welles film Touch of Evil,a man who comes across as loathsome because he manufactures fake evidence to accuse murder suspects.  Only by the end of the film do we find out that he effectivelyknows who the culprit is, he just can’t prove it: hence his recourse to manipulations.  The good analyst is precisely like Quinlan: he understands things much better than the “scientific” psychotherapists, but doesn’t know how to prove it.  It’s as if the psychoanalyst inherited the results of the Gödel theorem in mathematics: there is no coincidence between the provable and the truth.


X – Do you find it important that psychoanalysis today confronts itself with biological knowledge (evolutionary sciences, neuroscience), and with science in general?

The founding fathers of psychoanalysis were not against the sciences or the psychiatry of their time.  As far as I know, Freud, Jung, Klein, Winnicott or Lacan never ranted against, for example, neurobiology, today known as neurosciences.  Because they felt part of the scientific project in the broad sense. Alas, in recent decades many analysts see themselves as the coryphaei of the “psyche” against the sciences of the “brain,” a sort of derby between teams of the mind.  An opposition deriving from the old Cartesian dualism and that marks the obscurantist drift of psychoanalysis.  I am struck by the fact that many analysts loathe the sciences and believe in various superstitions ranging from homeopathy to dubious mystical therapies. I think, in contrast, that if psychoanalysis doesn’t sooner or later confront itself with some of the serious neuroscientific theories it will end up being reduced to a recreational activity for those literati who excel in denouncing the world.

Yet, rereading Lacan’s seminar V, The Formations of the Unconscious, when he talks about the comical, and therefore of laughter, I am struck by the fact that he clearly says that studies of experimental psychology are required on such themes… How many Lacanians today would dare to say that any enlightenment could come from experimental psychology?

Several very important neuroscientists are inspired by Freud, at least in part. For example the Nobel prize Eric Kandel, Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team in Parma, Italy, who discovered mirror neurons, Gerald Edelman and his ‘neural Darwinism,’ Francisco Varela… Let me point out that Edelman’s reentrytheory is also an attempt to explain in terms of brain matter a notion that is crucial in psychoanalysis, that of nachträglich, or après-coup.  Some neuroscientists have developed very sophisticated considerations on the mind and on signification, while others explicitly adopt a Husserlian, as well as Neo-Freudian, paradigm to oppose to the predominant positivism of the sciences.  Analysts should not cut themselves out completely from this debate. In short, I would like psychoanalysis to remain in the domain of the seriousdisciplines, which are not just the scientific ones, and not enter the realm of superstitions.

Psychoanalysis can find nourishment from various sciences.  It is not a science in itself, but, I repeat, it operates with subjects who live in a world steeped in the scientific vision and the technologies it produces.  And modern science is mechanistic, even the human organism is considered a machine the mechanism of which needs to be described.  A machine that serves no purpose, but a machine in any case.  The problem is: what relationship is there between biological mechanisms and the processes psychoanalysis deals with, desire and enjoyment?

Undoubtedly, Freud based himself on a non-Darwinian anthropological paradigm (expressed by authors such as Dawkins and Dennett, for example).  Freud never asks himself “what (adaptive) function does this behavior, this psychic trait, fulfill?” Instead he asks “what historyproduced this behavior, this psychic trait?” It’s a question similar to the one asked by the lightDarwinian evolutionary sciences, or, frankly, also by the non-Darwinian ones (because serious non-Darwinian scholars do exist!). By lightDarwinism I mean approaches like those of Gould, Eldredge, Vrba, Lewontin…, and in Italy of Telmo Pievani, for whom the history of life is not entirely written by Darwinian mutation and selection mechanisms.  That there are, in short, more things in the history of life than in Darwinism as a whole.

Freud based his entire doctrine on a non-Darwinian archeologicalprinciple: the human organisms aims at pleasure, with no care for its adaptive sense.  To reach pleasure, it is even prepared to swamp into hallucination and every kind of neurotic or psychotic (and political) delusion.  The human being adapts to reality not to maximize the transmission of its genes, but to obtain pleasure.  Freud called this ultimate goal of pleasure death drive.  Both the death drive and the life drive are ways of bringing together everything in human beings that is not adaptive.

Now, paradoxically, it is a section of biology that situates the field of psychoanalysis in the scope of knowledge of life on life.  Because we should never forget that biology is knowledge oflife onlife.  One of the most crucial challenges, for philosophy too, comes from the biologist Jacob von Uexküll, a pupil of Heidegger.  Von Uexküll’s Kantian act consists in distinguishing rigorously between Umwelt(environment) and Welt(world).  Being Homo sapiens, the human being cannot leave the ontic prison of its environment, but the use of language informs him that there is a world – which I would rather call the Real – beyond our environments.  This is certainly a biological way of setting forth a problem – I would call it a double bind – that philosophy has always set itself in different terms (the difference between the knowledge it is possible for man to have and the reality we must suppose to be independent from this knowledge; or, if we prefer, the difference between senseand being), but that I think also situates the specific place of psychoanalytic discourse: I would say that Freud has always questioned himself on the relation between the real and the environment.  This is something that emerged with his notion of Nachträglichkeit, which Lacan dragged out from a suppression on behalf of analysts and called it après-coup.  A term as yet without an official translation in English (except the unfortunate term “afterwardness”).  We can view the aprèscoupin Uexküllian terms, as the way human beings environmentalize a primal experience that is realprecisely because it has no sense for them.

We are all familiar with the appeal mathematics has always had for analysts. Does this express a psychoanalytical Bovarism, in the sense that today a discipline requires mathematical instruments if it wants to calls itself scientific and be taken seriously? But perhaps there’s a deeper affinity between the mathematical method of construction and psychoanalytical re-construction; one I’ve personally tried to illustrate in earlier writings.

Ultimately, I think psychoanalysis should reconcile itself with the sciences, even more so if it admits to not being a science and is therefore not in competition with them.  It is important for an analyst to be acquainted with the history of the sciences, or their epistemological reconstruction, precisely to avoid construing pseudo-scientific theories and aping unconvincingly the modes of reasoning of today’s scientific communities.  Psychoanalysis can regain its credibility notagainstthe sciences, nor by imitatingthem, but by finding its specificity in a world hegemonized by the sciences, despite Trump and the various reactionaries around the world.


XI – Today, psychoanalysis compares itself with rival psychotherapies and theories—behavioral and/or cognitive psychotherapy, systemic-relational psychotherapy, and an assortment of other types of cures.  Where do you situate psychoanalysis in all of this? And in particular, can we say that psychoanalysis is a psychotherapy, and if it is, in what sense?

Two ideas are quite widespread today.  One is that psychoanalysis is simply oneof the many psychotherapies available; the oldest and best-known, but still just one of many.  The other is that psychoanalysis is something completely different from the psychotherapies, which follow a medical, fundamentally rehabilitative model in which patients are adapted to the social functions they’re intended for; whilst psychoanalysis is a far nobler non-adaptive and non-medical practice, aimed purely at the emergence of the unconscious.  Both ideas are wrong.

By psychotherapies I mean the logo-therapies, i.e. interventions entirely based on speech (so we could question whether practices based on prescribing behaviors, like the systemic/family therapies, can be classified as psychotherapies, as they imply specific actions on behalf of patients). Like Jacques-Alain Miller, I will overturn the point of view according to which psychoanalysis is one of the psychotherapies and say that all psychotherapies are somehow psychoanalytic; what differentiates psychoanalysis strictly speaking is that it goes beyondthe normal psychotherapies.  There’s something of the psychoanalytical in all psychotherapies.

On the other hand, those who say that psychoanalysis has nothing to do with psychotherapy obviously don’t know how an analysis actually takes place: it begins like a psychotherapy, somehow.  If an analyst wanted to make analyses before establishing a solid transference, he or she would come up against some bitter disappointments.  There’s a curingdimension in the encounter that can become analytical, a dimension that absolutely cannot be eliminated.  Even analysts who theorize that it should be eliminated practice it if they want to carry on being analysts.

As psychotherapies have multiplied in the last century, this has obviously also led to their stratification.  The same thing happens in the arts, in literature, in non-fictional writing, and even in philosophy: works are produced for diversified social and cultural ranks.  The high ranks read James Joyce, the low ranks read Nicholas Sparks.  The high ranks listen to Arvo Part, the low to American Idol stars.  Basically, today there are psychotherapies for all budgets, for all qualifications, tastes and superstitions.  Most say that psychoanalysis in the strictest sense remains a logo-therapy for the more sophisticated élites, by which I don’t necessarily mean the best-off, as many analysands are actually quite poor; let’s call them the spiritual élite.  Psychoanalysis, therefore, is still today the most prestigious logo-therapy, and for this very reason it is scoffed at by those who cannot afford it because they aim at fast patch-ups.

But we shouldn’t believe that psychoanalysis itself is not a patch-up.  At a meeting in Milan, Lacan said that analysis is a rapiéçage, a darn, like the pieces of fabric sewn on the elbows of jackets.  By no means did he have a sublime anti-psychotherapeutic idea of analysis. Let’s say that analysis is a long and elaborate patching up, as well as being a slow magic (as Freud called it).

This does not mean that a psychoanalytical form of listening hasn’t penetrated other contexts too, for example in psychiatry or education.  There’s a psychoanalytical listening beyond the classic psychoanalytical setting.  And we should seriously ask whether, and if so to what extent, this psychoanalytical listening has modified approaches to mental suffering, pedagogic approaches to young people, and so on.  But the classic psychoanalytical cure will always remain a practice for the minority, and this is quite normal, in the same way as Proust or Musil will always be read by a minority and not by the masses.  Because the masses, probably in all ages, aim at immediacy, at verifiable effects at a glance – of the type “give me that pill and let’s see if I stop getting panic attacks” – that are in contrast with the slowness of the analytic path.  Not an astronomical slowness: a good analysis may even just last a few months and yet still be slow, in the sense that its “logical time” (Lacan would say) can be extremely long.

I’m not making an aristocratic assumption here; or else it would be an aristocratic ideological proposition to say that there are only a few great scientists or great writers.  No one accuses high mathematics of being aristocratic because few follow it or understand it.  Yet we all use the products of sophisticated mathematics, computers for example.  Psychoanalysis also reaches the masses via the sidelines, insofar as it partakes indirectly in changes of mentality.  I doubt the revolution in mores of the last decades – the acceptation of non-orthodox sexual orientations, gender equality, the end of patriarchal authority, tolerant attitudes towards children, and so on – would have been possible without psychoanalysis.  And I also wonder whether universal suffrage democracy itself could survive without the oxygen psychoanalysis creates for it.  And this despite the fact that many psychoanalysts had and have conservative opinions: the individual psychoanalyst may even be a reactionary, but psychoanalysis as a whole has taken part in world changes – unconsciously, as it’s most fitting for it.

I think the tendency of some, particularly philosophers, to put forward the ethical gold of psychoanalysis against the moralistic brass of the psychotherapies derives from the heritage of a classic division in Western thought that puts in contrast the physical (medicine, therapy) against the spiritual (psychoanalysis, metanoia).  What concerns the body is mean, what concerns the soul (even if based on the drives and sexual) is noble.  But an analysis may contain trivial therapeutic elements in the same way as the psychotherapies furthest from the analytic approach may feature intuitions on the unconscious, even though it is not given that name.  This obviously doesn’t take away the fact that there are makeshift trivial therapies, which can, however, also produce effects if a transference is somehow established with the therapist.

And I shall not say “you can be treated with various psychotherapies, but you can only be healed in the Freudian way.” That would be an arrogant dogmatism.  It’s as if a Christian said to a Muslim, a Jew or a Hindu that he can believe in his own god, but at the end of the day it’s the Christian God one believes in.  That’s an ethnocentric aberration.  It’s about time to reread Lessing’s Nathan the Wise.


XII – Many philosophers are particularly interested in the thought of Jacques Lacan.  What value or meaning do you attribute to the Lacanian après-coup?

As a young man I followed the seminars of Lacan, I underwent analysis with a Lacanian, translated into Italian one of Lacan’s seminars (Encore), and so on.  But I don’t belong to any organization that calls itself Lacanian and haven’t done so for a long time.  I believe I was lucky to have had this Lacanian background, Lacan is a great maître, but I think I’ve overgrown the transference towards him.  In Lacan’s own terms: I no longer suppose he knows (according to Lacan, transference is based on the subject who is supposed to know). In contrast to others who are still in full transference with his thought, I do not attempt to prove, above all to myself and at any cost, that everything he said or wrote is a revelation even when it’s something that seems untenable.  I still read Lacan, but as a layman; as a lay-canian.  And there are, of course, many lay Lacanians.  I appreciate the scholarly work many Lacanian friends carry out.  But I still prefer afterschool activities and in my early teens I would often skive off school.

I think that with Lacan it is necessary to say what Jean Laplanche said about Freud; that we shouldn’t deprive authors of their limits.  Even because it’s from these limits that we can begin to authentically understand them.  Let’s say that I consider Lacan’s intuitions case by case.  Freud and Lacan are too important as authors to make any allowances for them.

Analysts who have had a real master can be divided into two types.  Some remain pupils forever, they simply stay in their School for life.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but they risk limiting themselves to what is called academismin art: drawing or sculpting as the Master prescribes, never erring from the rules of the School.  Those of the second type, instead, put an end to their school phase and take their own path. These pupils leave the “paternal” home and open their own school, but they too will have to resign themselves to being sooner or later abandoned by their pupils, most often the best ones.

Recently, giving an introductive lesson to Lacan’s thought to a group of psychologists who weren’t well acquainted with it, an Italian girl said “with Lacan you always have to switch.” That’s precisely the case: you have to switch, invert, divert, shift.  I think one of Lacan’s historical merits was to switch from Freud.  He affirmed a Return to Freud, true, and proposed himself as Freud’s legitimate heir, but it is also true that Lacan’s thought is the furthestfrom Freud’sletter. And this is absolutely his great merit.  In a way, among all the post-Freudians, Lacan is the most unfaithful to Freud.  On the other hand, many others who think they’ve gone beyond Freud, seem to me still trapped in Freud’s explicitconceptual system; they haven’t accomplished the faithful infidelity of resituating the master’s thought within another horizon. At first this new horizon was Lacan’s great bet: “the unconscious is structured like a language.” A risky idea that in any case drastically identifies the unconscious with human reality, as for Lacan the human being is essentially parlêtre.  In Lacan we find an underlying logo-centric humanism that many philosophers, even those who sympathize with him, criticized.  But I think that Lacan’s bet of closely tying the unconscious to language was his way of allowing psychoanalysis to undergo the same revolution that late 19thcentury western art underwent: putting the signifier in the foreground.  We could say that Lacan is to Freud what Picasso and Braque are to Cézanne: a continuity that is also a breaking point.  Because the cubists, though inspired by Cézanne, mark the materiality of painting: with blots of paint.  Psychoanalysis with words.

I think, however, that we ought to deal with Lacan in the same way as Lacan dealt with Freud: we ought to apply the switch.  Hence I feel uncomfortable when Lacan’s thought is applied “scholastically.” Of course, Lacan has said very important things that encourage us to think, but he also said a lot of nonsense, like anyone; I re-think the important things he said outsidethe Lacanian scheme.  In contrast to what Lacan did with Freud, however, I do not propose a Return to Lacan. Because, as I said, a Return is always a betrayal.  About Returns we should say what Lacan himself said about the object of desire: that what we aim at is never the object that originally caused the desire. A switch occurs with objects of desire too.

It’s natural that many analysts say that Lacan’s theory is above all a clinical instrument, whilst many philosophers say that it’s above all a philosophy; everyone sees what they want to see.  I think that in Lacan philosophy, psychoanalytical theory and clinical practice are linked like Borromean rings: if we take one away, we lose the other two.  Lacan’s thought is the specificity of this bind. Because in actual fact Lacan abuses the individual rings – psychoanalytic theory, philosophy and clinical practice too (his famously short sessions…) – which only find their gleam when connected.

The particular Lacanian combination between what Pascal called esprit de finesseandesprit de géométrie is very seductive.  Lacan had a passion for topology and logic.  But in contrast to analytical philosophers, Lacan is also heir to the surrealism and avant-gardes of the last century: his rationality is ironic because it de-scribes something irrational like the unconscious.  Hence his proposal of a paradoxical discipline, the “Logics of the Signifier,” which is reminiscent of Jarry’s Pataphysics.  Therefore, Lacan has both the sense of structure and the sense of giddiness.  In Freud he saw something many don’t see: that psychoanalytical concepts have something of the fluctuating, they’re like objects placed between two mirrors, and that psychoanalytic conceptualization is always a mise en abyme.

Paradoxically, I think Lacan marks a crisis point of psychoanalysis, even though his influence seems to have given it new impetus.  With Lacan psychoanalysis renounces scientific respectability without acquiring a hermeneutic or intersubjectivistic wreath: he returns it to its nature as a theory and practice at the limits of the conceptual abyss. Hence the temptation of a conventionalist interpretation of Lacan, the attempt to adapt him to the mentality of physicians and psychologists defusing his critical charge towards psychoanalysis itself.  Many Lacanians often, without meaning to, seal up the béanceLacan opened in psychoanalysis.  Besides, precisely because Lacan’s theory marks a period of crisis for psychoanalysis, it can present itself convincingly as the righttheory to save psychoanalysis.  Perhaps Lacan was the Luther or Calvin of psychoanalysis: after all, Protestantism became so successful precisely because it presented itself as an answer to the religious crisis, which was later to manifest itself clearly.  For Luther, like for Augustine, few, very few, can be saved.  If one goes as far as saying “no one shall be saved,” one goes beyond Christianity.

Can we appreciate Lacan without necessarily assuming as a certainty the assumption that the unconscious is structured like a language? I think we can, if we do away with a whole anthropocentric halo, with the Heideggerian suppression of animality, which Lacan breathed and that still conditions his bet. I insist: a bet, not an acquired heritage.  The importance of Lacan is still entirely to be, if not proved, at least testified.



Sergio Benvenuto is a researcher in psychology and philosophy at the National Research Council (CNR) in Rome, Italy, and a psychoanalyst. He is an editor of the European Journal of Psychoanalysis and member of the Editorial Board of American Imago and Psychoanalytic Discourse (PSYAD). He teaches psychoanalysis at the International Institute of the Psychology of Depth in Kiev and at Esculapio Specialization in Psychotherapy in Naples. He was or is a contributor to cultural and scientific journals such as Lettre InternationaleL’évolution psychiatrique, DIVISION/Review. His publications in English include: ‘Wittgenstein and Lacan Reading Freud’, Journal for Lacanian Studies, vol. 4, nr. 1, 2006, pp. 99–20, https://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/wittgenstein-and-lacan-reading-freud1/. « Perversion and charity : an ethical approach », in D. Nobus & L. Downing eds., Perversion. Psychoanalytic Perspectives / Perspectives on Psychoanalysis (London : Karnac, 2006). With A. Molino, In Freud’s Tracks (New York: Aronson, 2008) nominated for Gradiva Award. “The Monsters Next Door”, American Imago. Psychoanalysis and Human Sciences, 69, 2012, 4. “The Gaze of the Blind. Notes on Cézanne and Cubism”, American Imago, vol. 70, 3, Fall 2013. “Does Perversion Need the Law?”, W. Müller-Funk, I. Scholz-Strasser, H. Westerink, Psychoanalysis, Monotheism and Morality (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2013). “Ethics, Wonder and Real in Wittgenstein”, in Y. Gustafsson, C. Kronqvist, H. Nykänen, eds., Ethics and the Philosophy of Culture: Wittgensteinian Approaches, 2013, Cambridge Scholar Publishing.  What are Perversions? (London: Karnac, 2016). Conversations with Lacan. Seven Lectures for Understanding Lacan (London: Routledge, 2020). He contributed to the volume Coronavirus, Psychoanalysis, and Philosophy Conversations on Pandemics, Politics and Society, edited By Fernando Castrillón & Thomas Marchevsky (London: Routledge, 2021). [eu.jou.psy@gmail.com]

Publication Date:

September 2, 2018

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis