Fake Interviews on Lacan: With Sergio Benvenuto
Fake Matt Wolf – What generated your interest in psychoanalysis and Freud and Lacan in particular?
Real Sergio Benvenuto – My interest in psychoanalysis – as usually happens with young people – started during my adolescence, and not just because it deals heavily with sex. I started to read Freud as a teen, because psychoanalysis essentially questions the consistency and the specificity of each subject, and this in fact is the problem of any teenager, boy or girl: “Who actually am I?” When you follow an adult in analysis, at a certain point the teenager comes out, with all the turmoil and the uncertainty about sexual identity. I would say that practising analysis is a way of remaining in the world of adolescence.
I met Lacan for the simple reason that in 1967 I decided to study psychology in Paris, emigrating from my native city, Naples. At the time Lacan was already famous in France. The publication of his Ecrits in 1966 was welcomed as a major cultural event. This is why I attended his Seminars. At that time I’d already decided to become an analyst, but my interests were very broad. I was proud to call myself “a structuralist”. Later Anglo-Americans invented the term “post-structuralism”, which French intellectuals never use. It means that I attended the seminars of almost all the “structuralist” stars of the time in Paris: Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, and others. Structuralism, both in France and in Italy, was perceived as the intellectual avant-garde of the time. The protagonist of Italian structuralism was Umberto Eco, that is before he became a bestselling novelist.
In those years Paris was no longer the sanctuary of artistic avant-garde, that role had already shifted to New York, but for us Paris was the capital of philosophical, theoretical, psychoanalytic, literary and cinema avant-gardes. All cultured young people intensely enjoyed the “nouvelle vague” in French cinema, especially Jean-Luc Godard. In fact, they were exciting years to live in Paris. I was a poor student, but strangely I felt I was living a sort of life of luxury. For a young man like me, interested in philosophy, psychoanalysis, literary criticism and cinema, I felt what might have been felt by a painter living in Paris during the first 30 years of the 20th century. We had the feeling that a revolution – not only a political one, but also an intellectual one – was in progress, and that being in Paris meant that you were at the right place at the right time.
My generation wished to change the world, politically of course, but also intellectually and artistically. It was an illusion, which fed our enthusiasm. We wished to change things radically, even the way people lived, human lifestyles. For people like me, psychoanalysis was not just another medical therapy, but an important tool to change ourselves, i.e. to change the world. From this perspective, Lacan appeared to us as a sort of Picasso of psychoanalysis. We considered his Ecrits something like Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon painted in 1908. I suppose that at that time some people said to themselves “From now on, it will be impossible to paint like in the past!” We thought that from Lacan onwards, it would be impossible to psychoanalyze in the same fashion as was done before him. In our view, psychoanalysis was an avant-garde discipline, and Lacan was the avant-garde of this avant-garde.
Lacan deconstructed the analysand and analyst. Please explain these definitions according to Lacan in more detail.
The idea of “deconstruction” did not come from Lacan, but from Derrida. It is true that Lacan imposed the word “analysand” rather than the usual “patient”, because for Lacan the person who analyses is not the analyst, but the patient. In fact, even though he started his career as a psychiatrist and rose to fame through his MD dissertation on paranoiacs, Lacan tried to effect a complete separation of psychoanalysis from psychiatric medicine. This is why he never talked about “treatment” but about “cure” – they are the same words also in French. Many analysts think that analysis is a kind of psychotherapy, Lacan tried to show that analysis is not at all a psychotherapy, but what he called a special “social bond” or “discourse”.
At the level of analytic technique, his most important innovation was variable-time sessions. Analytic sessions are usually based on astronomical time; 40 or 45 minutes of the watch. Lacan thought that the unconscious has its specific time, which does not coincide with astronomical time. This is why Lacanian analysts reserve the right to cut a session short when they think the analysand has touched something unconscious.
At the same time, he tried to completely separate psychoanalysis from psychology, especially from academic psychology: psychoanalysis as rather a theory of subjectivity, not of the psyche. This does not mean that Lacan despised psychology, as some Lacanians think. In fact, he had great admiration for the Russian school of psychology (Vygotsky, Leontjev) because of its stress on language. He did not like Piaget, for example, but he was very interested in game theory, in the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, in Chomsky. He was not against the “human sciences” (which is the French name for psychology and the social sciences), but he distinguished the “good” human sciences from the “bad ones”. He always preferred a “structural” approach in the human sciences, that is an approach that would put language at the core of humanity.
What’s the difference between subject and psyche? Grasping this difference is the essential condition for entering the Lacanian Wonderland. We can say that the psyche is an object of knowledge – for psychological knowledge, neuro-scientific knowledge, today we say cognitive sciences. The subject is rather the adolescent who asks himself or herself, “Who am I?” The subject cannot be an object of knowledge because that would be my alienation, what we know ourselves to be is not what we are. When we believe that we know ourselves, what we in fact know is a mirror image of ourselves. Lacan began his analytic career talking about a “mirror stage” in childhood. A subject is “barred”, Lacan says, that is, it is not an object we can describe, but something that shows itself. Only later did I understand that in philosophy Wittgenstein had said something similar, in his Philosophical Investigations, where he talks about “the private”: my private, my subjectivity, is something that expresses itself but cannot know itself. The cognitive sciences can be great, but they lack this dimension of subjectivity.
Lacan, like Freud before him, addressed the transference in a number of different ways through the development of his theoretical work. How Lacan defines transference, countertransference and how both Lacan and Freud differ in their definitions of both terms?
Often people ask me “How does Lacan differ from Freud?” But in fact Lacan never stressed his differences from Freud. Significantly, he proclaimed, in the 1950s and 1960s, a “Return to Freud”, in contrast with American Ego-psychology (which was actually German too). Lacan thought that he was the analyst who was most faithful to Freud, even if in fact he re-interpreted the entire Freudian system according to his own key, which is essentially “the unconscious is structured as a language”. Lacan’s oeuvre marks not a correction of Freud’s legacy, but a re-interpretation après-coup, as one says in French, an afterwards, of Freud. This is true also for transference. In his seminar on “The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis”, Lacan lists transference as one of these Fab Four, with the unconscious, the drive (not instinct!) and repetition. Is there a difference with the Freudian concept? We should place Lacan in the general historical movement of psychoanalysis.
After Freud, there has been a general shift by analysts of the second and third generation towards the “other”. This trend includes the so-called object-relations theory, where the “object” is in fact the other, primarily the mother. Some have spoken of psychoanalysis as a “two-person psychology”. In this frame Kleinians focused on counter-transference, on the fact that it’s not only the analysands who have a transference towards the analyst, but the analysts have their own transference too, as a response to the analysand’s. In mainstream psychoanalysis today the most fashionable trend is “relationism”, which re-formulates most of the classical Freudian concepts as “relational concepts”. But already in Winnicott the child-mother link becomes essential in order to understand the process of a separation from a dyadic being.
I think that this general shift in psychoanalysis is better expressed by Jean Laplanche, who was initially a pupil of Lacan’s and later became his opponent. Laplanche created a sort of slogan: “the primacy of the other in psychoanalysis”. This means that our individual unconscious is always the response that we find to something that the other (mainly the adults) wish from us and for us. Our unconscious is the effect of a sort of seduction (of which the adult is generally unaware, but that in certain cases becomes explicit) of us by the adult. The unconscious would then be our interpretation of what the other desires of us. Can we say that Lacan follows this general warping toward the primacy of the other, or not at all? I would say that in a certain sense Lacan radicalizes this curvature, in another sense not at all.
For example, Lacan does not use the concept of counter-transference, because according to him transference is not just the feelings the analysand has towards the analyst, but is a general process that includes both analyst and analysand. Counter-transference implies the idea that first the analysand has some feelings (love, admiration, hatred, contempt, etc.) in relation to the analyst and then the analyst responds with her/his own feelings, and a loop process starts. But for Lacanians analysts are not just reactive psyches, they are bound in the transference themselves. I remember a Kleinian analyst who was falling in love with an analysand and said “This is my countertransference, because my analysand is very seductive.” The cause was his analysand’s desire for seduction, not the fact that he was attracted to her as a man.
In his seminar on Transference, Lacan develops a long-running commentary on Plato’s Symposium, where the topic is Eros, desire (and not love in general). Lacan thinks that the relationship which bound Socrates to his young, beautiful and brilliant pupil Alcibiades was a transference relationship. Which is to say, in a certain sense, Socrates called philosophy something that was already a sort of psychoanalysis. Socrates was a pederast, which means that he wasn’t at all indifferent to Alcibiades’ beauty, but to the young man’s great surprise (and chagrin), Socrates refuses sex with him. Even if Socrates elsewhere (in Alcibiades I) declares himself to be in love with Alcibiades, but his desire is not just desire for sex. He wishes some thing other from Alcibiades. But in any case Socrates is taken in by the transference, because Alcibiades says that Socrates attracts teenagers – we would say today – with something he has inside himself, an agalma, which was a sort of Greek ‘Russian doll’, in which a radiant image of a god was hidden inside the ugly doll of a satyr. Socrates was ugly in fact, but inside he had something divine and bright. Lacan says that the analyst binds the analysand through this agalma, a sort of seducing, captivating object, but the analyst contains this seducing object because she desires something special. What? The desire to analyse. The analysand is seduced by the analyst’s desire to analyse. The analyst does not just react through his unconscious to the patient’s passions (according to the countertransference model), but is herself a desiring subject. Transference is the interweaving of desires.
I would say that, like Socrates, the analyst is ugly, even if she’s a beautiful woman, in the sense that the analyst is quite a banal person, with no special charisma, but she functions as an analyst when she’s able to raise this special agalma, the desire to analyse. And I am often struck how certain analysts, despite having quite poor theoretical equipment, can function very well as analysts, because they instinctively possess this capacity to create a transference bond with their analysands.
Bion, a post-Kleinian analyst, said that the analyst should abandon any memory and desire with analysands. I am sure Lacan wouldn’t have agreed. First, because Lacan thinks that desire is the essence of human beings (as Spinoza said), and abandoning desire would mean to abandon humanity. But also because the analyst captures her analysand, like Socrates with Alcibiades, by her desire. Desire of something other than love and hatred, other than ignorance, something other which triggers analysis.
Coming back to the general psychoanalytic trend towards the primacy of the other, Lacan in fact said that “the unconscious is the discourse of the Other”, “the desire of human beings is the desire of the Other”, etc. But, in contrast to Laplanche, he writes Other with a capital O. This distinctive orthography is capital. Because the Other is not another person, it is we would say our neighbour, firstly our nurse. “The Other does not exist”, Lacan says, because it is a position, not a specific neighbour. The Other is just like the line of the horizon, for example, which does not exist. This subtle difference separates Lacan from any kind of “relationism”. The mother, the nurse, is so important, according to Lacan because she occupies the place of the Other in relation to the child. If the mother fails to occupy this position, the mother-child relation risks being what others call a “symbiotic relation”, in which subjectivity fails to emerge. Others see the analyst as a sort of new mother for the analysand, but Lacan would say that both a mother and an analyst can produce subjectivity, if they are able to occupy the position of the Other, with a big O. If relationships are dual ones, when there is no third party in the game (the Other), all psychic catastrophes are possible. We are well acquainted with the dangers of single mothers living with only one child, especially if this child is a girl. Often (not always!) it can engender a psychotic couple, folie à deux. One says: “The paternal figure is important for the development of a child”. What’s important is for the Other – a symbolic instance, according to Lacan – to separate both the mother and the child from their tango. And if the analyst is able to occupy the place of the Other, she can help her subject finally separate from his enmeshment with his family figures, from what Lacan calls his phantasm.
How does sexuality affect the mental states of people according to Lacan? (Please in some detail)
After Freud, less and less analysts stressed the role of sexuality, which more and more became “affects”, “emotions”, “(mutual) feelings”. Sexual drives became more and more variations of the affective part of the psyche. Psychoanalysis is more and more perceived as a “cure of affects” in a general sense. It is true that Freud never clearly defined what was “sexual” from his point of view; everything can be ‘sexual’ in a Freudian perspective. Lacan, “returning to Freud”, wished to remain faithful to this primacy of sexuality, even if he himself softened the rough, non-refined, stubborn focus on sexuality in Freud. He transcended the Freudian sexual key into something more linguistic, more symbolic. This is why he insisted on the phallus, which is not just the penis, but a signifier. According to Lacan, being male or female is not just a matter of anatomy – even modern psychiatry, for example in DSM-5, says that a gender is “assumed”, in a certain sense chosen – but a matter of symbolic exchange concerning the phallus. This is why a male can be psychically a woman and a female can be psychically a man. According to Lacan, we are all potentially transgender, “gender dysphoric”.
This centrality of the phallus – and also of its lack, which is castration – irritated many feminists, but in the end Lacan became a master for many scholars of Women’s Studies. I would say that Lacan became one of the maîtres-à-penser of feminist philosophy (like Judith Butler, for example). Because in fact Lacan said something impressive, thought-provoking, about women, even if his statements seem weird to a tough rational mind. All Lacanian discourse is always on the edge of paradox and even non-sense, like in Max Ernst’s paintings, for example, or Oscar Wilde’s aphorisms. In Ernst, you never know exactly what you are seeing, whether something is a figure or something abstract. You need a sort of intellectual sixth sense to understand (and enjoy) Lacan. For example, his famous statement, “loving is giving something one does not have to somebody who does not want it”. To a very rational mind this is nonsense, but it says an awful lot to many people who have actually fallen in love.
So, Lacan said “the Woman does not exist”, only women – a plurality – exist. What does this mean? In fact many well-read women loved this slogan, which met their questions about “what is a woman?” We can interpret this in many ways, like we could interpret the oracle of Delphi in ancient Greece or the Cumaean Sybil in many ways. I know that many Lacanians think Lacan’s thought can be systematized in a consistent theory you can pack into a manual and hand to university students. Many Lacanians published excellent manuals, but most betray what is essential in Lacan: his style of thinking. And to grasp his thinking you need a certain intellectual ear, like having a special ear for music. In order to enjoy Lacan, you need an equivalent of the absolute or perfect pitch in music. Some readers will never understand Lacan, not because they are stupid, by no means. Often they can be rather intelligent, too much so in fact. This is true also about the way Lacan thinks about sexuality.
Lacan is very Freudian in the sense that, beyond any symbolic setting of our psyche, human beings are essentially beings of desire and enjoyment. Even a neurotic or psychotic symptom, or a perverse fantasy, are ways a subject finds to enjoy himself. The position of genres in relation to desire and enjoyment (jouissance) varies, but it is always a matter of desire and enjoyment. The point is that women’s enjoyment is more complicated, I would say more baroque (in contrast masculine sexuality is quite dull, rough, except in sexual perverts). Because a woman has access to phallic enjoyment (i.e., she’s not frigid) but also to the enjoyment of the Other, which is something quite complicated. In some ecstatic experiences – especially those of certain mystical women – the subject is drenched by the enjoyment of the Other.
By his strange logic, Lacan can help us better understand the illogical way we live our sex lives.
We can see ambiguity and paradox are fittingly used as narrative tropes in modern literature to examine the complexities of the psyche. Please explain.
Your question raises problems which go even beyond Lacan’s approach and beyond psychoanalysis.
I think the fact that Lacan actually ended his career with his XXIIIrd Seminar on James Joyce is very significant. He opened his Ecrits with a seminar on Poe’s The Purloined Letter. I would say that ideally he opened and ended his discourse with two English language authors, a fact which refutes the cliché of a “very French Lacan” hostile especially to American culture. He identified with Joyce, in the sense that he thought he did with psychoanalysis a little of what Joyce did with literature: exploiting to the maximum the possibilities of the signifier. Is Lacan’s oeuvre a sort of psychoanalytic Finnegans Wake?
Lacan would in a way say the opposite of what you said: that the human psyche is so complex because of the ambiguity and paradox of language. It is no coincidence that Lacan stressed the importance of a book by Freud which mainstream analysts generally consider a minor Freudian divertissement: The Joke and its Relation with the Unconscious. Here Freud shows that the unconscious is not only the realm of the repressed, of the thoughts refused by the Ego, in short a threat for our mental consistency, but also and above all a source of creativity: jokes, humours, puns and of course literature, art. Thanks to the unconscious, we are able to produce art and literature. Lacan would say that a certain kind of modern literature has made clear an ambiguity and paradoxicality which is always present in poetry, novels and plays, even the most ancient ones. Great literature has always described human beings as strange, irrational, unpredictable, “complex”, as you say. Consider the literary heroes Lacan evoked in his seminars: Sophocles’ Antigone, Plautus’ Amphitryon, Hamlet, the characters of the Marquis de Sade, the adolescents in Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, Duras’ Lol von Stein, Joyce’s protagonists. Aren’t they all more or less nuts, “ambiguous” as you say, all driven by unconscious urges? In classical literature the unconscious appears inside the heroes, in modern literature the unconscious spreads out into the language and the plots of the stories themselves.
Some biologists today think that language was invented by humans not essentially for communication, for carrying information about the world, but that it was first invented for fun, for playing with sounds and words, as we see in toddlers. Only later, language was exapted, that is, was tinkered in order to be used as a communication tool. The unconscious is made of this primal, I would say ludic, language. And in fact Lacan in his seminars and writings extremely enjoys playing with words, with etymologies, riddles and conundrums. This is a reason why he’s not taken seriously by very staid analysts. Another paradox: reading Lacan is very hard work because his way of thinking is very complex, but at the same time it is funny, because of his sense of humour, his hyper-sensitivity to the richness of language. This is why he’s considered by many to be, more than an important psychoanalyst, but also a great writer.
To Lacan, both the analysand and the analyst are sick and need to be cured. Please explain.
I am sorry, but Lacan never said that both analysand and analyst are sick, for the very simple reason that “sick”, talking about suffering subjects, was not part of Lacan’s vocabulary. In a certain sense, because we have an unconscious, we are all potentially “sick”, in the sense that we can bear, at a certain point, a neurotic symptom. According to Lacan there are essentially three subjective structures: neurosis, psychosis and perversions. But you can have a psychotic structure, and never become a nut – this was the case of Joyce, according to Lacan. Joyce cured himself through writing, he found in his writing the “ring” he lacked. And perverts don’t consider themselves sick, because they extremely enjoy their perverse acts or fantasies.
But Lacan thinks that Freud broke with psychiatric discourse, because for mainstream psychiatry – today represented by DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – symptoms are signs of a “disorder” (the politically correct rechristening of ‘disease’), instead for an analyst symptoms express a way found by a subject to enjoy. Symptoms tell the truth about a subject, they are not just traces of an illness. This is because Lacan said, laughing, “love your symptom like yourself”. Of course, if a symptom creates inhibition and anxiety it has to be analysed in order to tune up a subject with his way of enjoying. Psychoanalysis is basically not anti-psychiatric, but non-psychiatric.
What is true, and shared even by analysts of other schools, is that analysts continue their own analysis through analysing others. The unconscious is a bottomless well, fortunately, in the sense that you can never drain the unconscious. Because the unconscious is not considered, as many post-Freudians considered it, only the repressed side of the human being, but also a source of creativity and enjoyment, as I already mentioned.
What does Lacan mean by “subjective rectification”?
He adds: “…in relation to the Real”. It means that Lacan does not believe that analysis can change the psychic structure of a subject, but it can manage his/her drives in order to deal with the Real in a better way. As he says sometimes, analysis is a “patchwork”, a sort of prosthesis which helps to tolerate an essential rift in the human being. He does not think that analysis changes a personality, but analysis makes it possible for a subject to face its Real.
One of the four of the fundamental concepts of Lacan is the discourse of analyst. Please summarize it briefly.
Lacan describes the “Discourse of the Analyst” as one of the Four Discourses he articulates in structural terms, by permutation of the same elements. The other three: Discourse of the Master, of University, of Hysterics. He calls these four Discourses also “social bonds”. This means that an analyst is something very distinct from a teacher, a master and a neurotic.
What does Lacan mean by “there is no sexual relationship” and “the woman does not exist”?
In fact, some Lacanian statements sound cryptic, like the responses of ancient oracles. What he did mean was that in the unconscious there is no signifier for “sexual relationship”. Freud said (in Lacanian terms) that there is no signifier for death (unconsciously we all think we’re immortal), Lacan added that there is no signifier for sexual relationship. But these words sound like abstractions. What does it actually mean that unconsciously we don’t believe in sexual relationship?
I can explain what I understand by this. Consider the shame we feel showing our genitals, or with a display of our sexual acts. In the Bible, Adam and Eve become ashamed of their genitals immediately after the original sin, that is, when they become human. According to Lacan, this shame is linked to the fact that humans have language (are some animals ashamed of their genitals? In any case, they are not ashamed to show themselves in sexual acts). Why this shame? In fact coitus is the most natural, pleasurable and customary act in our lives. In no culture are people ashamed to show themselves eating, for example. This is not rational, this means that it has unconscious reasons. We conceive of coitus, the sexual relationship, as something transgressive! Even after 20 years of marriage, we can enjoy sex if we conceive it as a transgression. If it is not, we have no wish to have sex. It may sound absurd, but what makes it so exciting for men to court women is the fact that, unconsciously, men are convinced that “women are not made for sex”. In nature it is the opposite, males and females seem made for having sex. But Homo sapiens is a very strange animal: it needs “lust”, which is one of the seven deadly sins. Men can have erections and women can have arousals if they believe, deep down, that coitus is a transgression, because it is not inscribed as something “holy”, i.e. as a major signifier.
You can object that sometimes people have orgies, where sexual intercourse is displayed in public. But orgies are so funny because they are a transgression of a transgression (that of hiding sexual intercourse), in any case a transgression.
“The Woman [with a capital W] does not exist” is another Lacanian provocation. Only women exist, they don’t constitute an essence. When he was alive many feminists protested. But significantly “feminism” is called exactly that and not “womanism”, because there is the unconscious conviction that the Woman does not exist. “Feminism” relates to the animal difference between females and males, not to the “woman”, which cannot be reduced to being female.
But why do so many women say (I am not a woman) that they are very impressed by what Lacan says about womanhood? Lacan was a better analyst of women, and he said that generally women are better analysts than men. You have to understand his statement with a third ear, with the unconscious ear. Lacanians say that in the unconscious there is not a signifier for “Woman”. Freud spoke about a “phallic stage” which is the same for boys and girls. “Phallus” is a signifier, not “woman”, nor “man”. According to Lacan, a man defines his manhood in relation to castration: he’s always afraid of losing his penis. Also in his professional and social life, he’s afraid of being castrated. According to Lacan, the unconscious wish of men is to have sex with ALL women, like Don Juan; the unconscious wish of women is to find the Ideal Man, a perfect man (who does not exist). But they look for an Ideal Man because they want to understand what it means, for them, to be a woman, and not just a female.
Freud called women who cannot understand what being a woman means hysterics, because they think that the Woman exists. In psychoanalysis only having or not having the phallus, being or having the phallus, exist. But how can a woman be defined just in relation to the phallus? Nobody can believe that being a woman means to be a castrated man! This is why being a woman is so problematic for many women.
Does all this make sense? For many it doesn’t at all. Psychoanalysis in general, not only the Lacanian version, does not make sense to many. But Lacan expresses in his theory his practice of the unconscious, he strives to find the right words to describe his analytic experience with men and women. Like you, as a critic, strive to find the right words to express something which cannot be expressed in words, the aesthetical experience. Through strange statements Lacan tried to utter the weird poetry of the unconscious.
Identification with the analysand?
According to Lacan, no identification with the analysand, if you want to be a good analyst. According to other analysts, the aim of the cure is to push the patient to identifying with the ego of the analyst, but not for Lacan. For Lacan the analyst is by no means an object of idealization (as a political or religious leader has to be) but an object which pushes an analysand to analyse. Lacan thinks that deep down all analysands feel contempt for their analysts, but this despicable object gives subjects the opportunity to rectify their position in relation to the real.
According to Kleinians, aggression is what is meant by Freud as “death drive”. But according to Freud aggression is still a vital impulse; it is not death yet. Aggression is a useful quality, as everybody knows; in one’s profession one often needs to be “aggressive”.
But Lacan dealt with aggression in paranoiacs, especially in persecution paranoia. According to him, the aggressive persecutor is a mirror image of the subject himself, just like in Poe’s “William Wilson”. Aggression is often aggression not against oneself, but against the alienated image of oneself. As a Chinese proverb says, “if you don’t know your enemy, you don’t know yourself”.