Interpreting between Recounted and Recountable Time. An Hermeneutical Approach


A correct “theoretical localization” of the category of “interpretation” is bound to shed light on certain-in particular temporal-aspects which are usually neglected. I will thus provide a profile of a specific place of interpretation.

This place is connected to one of the great problems psychoanalysis shares with philosophy: the problem of the threshold (or “confine”) upon which the “datum” becomes converted into sense, or the problem of the reciprocal constitution of the “given” and of sense. Psychoanalysis should deal with this essentially “critical” problem-and the understanding of this problem appears incompatible with any naive aspiration to being able to observe “from the outside”-to confirm its basic philosophical status and the most authentic sense of its hermeneutic approach.

I will propose a concept of interpretation developed in particular in Warheit und Methode by Hans Georg Gadamer. According to Gadamer, a real understanding of interpretation must be based on the concept of “applicatio” (Anwendung). Interpreting a text does not imply so much deciphering its meaning as rather applying it, doing something with it. This concept of interpretation is valid also in psychoanalysis, and sheds some light on something essential in Freudian thought and on its actual interpretative praxis (which can be grasped in Freud’s most important Clinical Cases).
Secondly, I will make a connection between this concept of interpretation and the narrative order-in fact, one of the decisive ways of analytical “Applicatio” is of a narrative character. In psychoanalysis, interpretation is for the most part making possible the composition of stories. This will further reveal the (not at all immediate) connection between interpretation and temporality. To develop this point, I shall make reference to Paul Ricoeur’s Temps et Récit, from which I have borrowed a few concepts for considering the problem: those of “configuration” of “recounted time” and “re-figuration”. I shall utilize most freely the latter of these concepts-with which Ricoeur intends both the completion of a text in the act of reading and the effects of the sense derived from this.

Freud’s position on the temporal status of interpretation demonstrates a considerable affinity to that of Heidegger in Sein und Zeit. This convergence (unknown to Freud and declined by Heidegger) is perceptible in the concept of “repetition” (Wiederholung), which in Heidegger is always thought as a complex unity whose Freudian equivalent is expressed by two terms, intimately and problematically connected: repetition/re-elaboration (Wiederholung /Durcharbeitung). Here I propose to render perspicuous a distinction between recounted and recountable time, and to orient critical attention on the connection between these two ways of experiencing temporality.

Then I will indicate the specific place of interpretation, and I will demonstrate the opening of this place “between” recounted and recountable time. In this way, it will be possible to include in the sphere of interpretation a specific instance of re-figuration of the temporal experience identifiable precisely in the fact that the interpretative process can restore to the time/given a potentiality such as to render it available to further narrative explorations. On the other hand, when Freud spoke of “unendliche Analyse” (unending analysis), he had in mind just this interplay, this virtuous circle of interpretation and “other stories” which the time/given always has in reserve.

1. Interpretation as “Applicatio”
Gadamer introduces his concept of interpretation as applicatio in the context of a “theory of the hermeneutic experience”. That means that interpretation is not intended as a more or less specialized activity or a methodic discipline, but as one of the essential ways of our way of being: an aptitude for comprehension and self-understanding making up the being we are. This specification sets the limits of the space in which the reflections I would propose demand understanding and discussion. This is a “critical” space, and any intention to discuss it would make no sense, the position of external observer having been reached.

Saying that the status of interpretation is eminently applicative, we place the accent on the productive and responsible aspects of interpreting. Our relationship with the hermeneutic experience is not defined by the reflective comprehension of a text but rather by our being of a mind to complete or integrate the sense of the text and succeeding in applying it to new situations. This is one of the most important meanings of the Gadamerian Wirkungsgeschichte.

Gadamer illustrates this crucial aspect of interpretation with the example of juridical hermeneutics, in which the interpretation of a law text actually (wirklich) takes the form of producing a new text (comment or, even more perspicuously, the grounds of the judgment). “When the jurist feels justified in completing the original sense of a legal text-writes Gadamer-he is simply exercising that which occurs in any type of interpretation and comprehension […] The aspect of applicatio which occurs in any form of interpretation is thus clarified. Applicatio is not at all a fortuitous or additional application of a general principle, which would at first be understood in itself, to a concrete case, but represents the true comprehension of the universal itself, which, for us, is the text taken on to be interpreted.

Interpretation is thus revealed to be a form of determination of effects (Wirkung) and as such recognizes itself.”
We stress here the elaborative aspect of interpreting as Wirkung: the understanding of a text is not reflective but, as it were, performative and, literally, responsible. One interpreting a text places oneself in the condition of answering for it. And the response is a new text.

I point out the close affinity between this hermeneutic experience and the interpretative praxis of psychoanalysis. Freud also defined certain basic concepts to express the same principle: in particular, the concepts of “working-through” (Durcharbeitung) and “construction” (Konstruktion). It is a matter of questioning the relationship Freud establishes between these applicative concepts and interpretation, if it is not licit to refer in its entirety the latter back to these, and viceversa.

This apparent difficulty actually is an excellent beginning to consider applicatively the specific place of interpretation: the working-through is prevalently the patient’s task and construction is the analyst’s task. This interplay of roles defines an interesting zone-or “field”-in which events of sense appear which do not require being placed in question beginning from a constituent subjectivity. To the contrary, what appears evident or exemplary in this situation is the fact that we depend on traces of sense which we have never been given as something of which we could dispose as if they were actually texts. Rather-and here we have the hermeneutic exemplariness of analysis-we are given situations in which this dependence is such as to be organized as a process which, at the same time: a) experiments possible criteria of textual coherence (the constructive aspect), and; b) proposes possible instructions for the use of those constructions (the working-through aspect).

Interpretation begins to emerge as the assumption of the complementarity of these two aspects: as the assumption of the oneness of the analytical scene (or “field”). But this can be said only in that interpretation is already considered under the profile of its essential applicative destination.

Freud placed the accent clearly and energetically on the complementarity of these two outcomes (both of which are essentially applicative) of interpretation. We would not know what do do with a meaningful and even apparently conclusive construction if the patient failed to utilize it, that is, did not perceive it as something to which he must and can respond working through it.

Both Freud and Gadamer converge in the assumption that the Applicatio is our essential dependence on something which is always already given and never possessed. This condition of belonging and Geworfenheit (“throwness”) does not only serve to confirm the ontological (non-technical and non-methodical) character of interpretation, its being, in fact, a constituent aspect of the being we are. It also places this feature in the centre of a crucial relationship between something which already holds us and a capacity, or a destiny to have to in any case do something with it.

At this point the question of the temporality of interpretation should be made explicit. I will question the applicative nature of interpretation, with the help of Ricoeur’s reflections in Temps et récit.

2. The Narrative Character of the “Applicatio”

For Gadamer the completion of interpretation (that is, the figure which dates back the applicatio to a more original condition) is the “fusion of the horizons” of the text handed down and the interpreter. However, “texts” analytically interpreted tend to dissimulate scrupulously the very horizon of sense and at times even demonstrate lacking one altogether.

For psychoanalytical hermeneutics, circumscribing and qualifying from time to time this horizon becomes a salient problem and a real difficulty. Consequently, although the speech of the patient depends on a horizon of sense, the texts he produces appear in general as a collection of disparate enunciations which must be submitted to the test of possible criteria of coherence.

I shall assume here-as the Freudian and well-known post-Freudian texts assumed-that one of these criteria, if not precisely the criteria par excellence, is a principle of a narrative character, and that one of the decisive methods of interpretation intended as applicatio consists of mediating the production of a text possessing a narrative coherence.
The simplicity of this thesis can deceive us. In fact, the question of what kind of story might result from an achieved analysis calls up an infinity of problems. For example, would it be a sort of an autobiography or a fiction? A “factual” reconstruction, or an interplay of affects? Will this story be completed or will it remain unfinished? And, from what point of view-internal or external-does the narrator tell the story? And if it is internal, in what way and to what degree can he distance himself from this?

We could go on ad infinitum, and precipitate into this narrative hypothesis all the classic problems of theories of the story, complicated further by the anomalous status of a recounting which must be attributed to a stratified agency in which various “voices” are superimposed and confused.

I shall avoid this mass of problems, and be content with the apparently simple idea that the analytical experience is similar to that of one who reaches the point of telling a story to himself about himself. Instead I shall clarify a single point making use of some of Ricoeur’s reflections in Temps et récit.

In that work, Ricoeur assumes that the narrative activity is a “poietic” response to apories (or paradoxes) entangled in which is inevitably every attempt to theoretically dominate the experience of time. The story, for Ricoeur, is a means of “configuring” the paradoxes of time; that is, of comprehending them or narratively composing them. According to Ricoeur, our experience of a “recounted time” (for example, while reading a great novel) “re-represents” our relationship with temporality and our very comprehension of ourselves as temporal (finite, mortal) beings.

In this prospective, the narrative application in which much of the interpretive work of analysis is resolved can be investigated as the configuration or as recounted time and secondly (albeit most importantly) as the particular effects of the refiguration derived.

Take Freud’s Wolfman Case. The supporting structure of the case, in fact, is an admirable work of configuration of the temporal paradoxes produced by the relationship which the primal scene maintains with the dream of wolves and the pathogenic effects of the repression operated by the dream.

Less obvious is the matter of the effects of refiguration encountered by this configured time-we know today that the Wolfman’s work extended in fact well beyond the experience with Freud in other analyses, as well as in various autobiographical texts.

3. Temporal Status of Interpretation

We have to clarify the relationship between configuration and refiguration in the analytical experience.

Freud maintained that the unconscious excludes time from its drive scene: the repetition of the identical is its law, which does not tolerate violations. However, this thesis would be completely misunderstood if it were treated as a “scientific” statement, as a thesis aspiring to define a process by placing itself outside its performance. Actually, we see not only how Freud violated continuously the postulate of the intemporality of the unconscious in the midst of interpretative practice, but also that he could not do otherwise: the same installation of the drive scene and repetition compulsion can be grasped only through their effects of sense and-even more relevant-revealed only on the condition of an essential temporal reintegration. That is, not only as events which administer to a temporality-albeit the perverse temporality of the repetition compulsion-but also, and above all, as events which have had to evolve according to an internal temporal process.

But Freud says clearly that in the Wolfman’s dream a previous trace, an impression registered and stored as a meaningless one (a trace which is not yet a signifier nor a “datum” in the full sense, although nonetheless already-given) is submitted to a “deferred elaboration” (nachträgliche Bearbeitung) during the dream. This elaboration gives a sense to the trace (more or less as follows: “In order to satisfy the father sexually, it is necessary to have an open wound in the place of the penis”), and at the same time represses this sense, which the narcissistic ego perceives as being intolerable.
The interplay of times created by the dream of wolves is an extremely complex one. Then I underline only this point: repressing the threat of castration bound to the homosexual option, the unconscious has absorbed a temporal elaboration (the recovery and the deferred semantization of the trace) in the installation of a non-temporal effect (the pathogenic result of the repression, source of repetition compulsion and of suffering).

And the interpretation of the dream-here entirely constructive-has rendered intelligible the work of the primary process, temporalizing and configuring it. The same project of non-temporality of the unconscious has become comprehensible according to temporal conditions.

Put otherwise: the interpretation of the dream has shown that among the conditions of the non-temporality of the unconscious, there was a temporal nachträgliche Bearbeitung. However, the interpretation could do so only in that it narratively configured that original aporetic regime. It is entirely the result of configuration, that the relationship between primary scene and dream could be composed as a perspicuous and meaningful sequence. Furthermore, assumed within the sphere of a narrative intepretation (that is, observed from the inside, “critically”), the very non-temporality of the unconscious has already taken once more place in a play of configuration and appears now as a recounted time.
We are now able to improve on the thesis on the temporal status of interpretation: the configurative act for which analysis takes the responsibility (that is, one of the applicative dimensions of interpretation) not only re-fluidifies the contents which the unconscious has sequestered in its non-temporal scene, but also re-temporalizes the scene itself, to show that in it there had been time which can be articulated and further configured.

This work coincides with the conversion of the repetition compulsion into elaboration and the determining factor, the authentic mediator of this conversion, is a configured time. And the time configured by analysis never ceases to proceed in parallel with a particular elaborating dimension of the refiguration, which consists of the discovery-which is not fortuitous but constituent of the process we are describing-that the recounted story is not by any means completed (it is not a story in the full sense) and that there is something else to be recounted, a recountable time which is already given but which has not yet authentically and in every sense begun. The repetition of this time can by now actually coincide with a possible resumption and with a new beginning.

From Ricoeur’s terminology we have slipped into that of Heidegger. What is in play is repetition which appears as resumption, a “given” which appears as possible sense. Furthermore, what is in play is precisely the opening of a space-time where the reciprocal position of given and sense is at stake.

The concept of “repetition” (Wiederholung) which Freud and Heidegger share hints to the same order of problems. In both authors, something which already holds us and has already marked us is considered in relationship to our tendency or our destiny to repeat it as a story which must still have its very beginning, which can and must still be recounted. A story, therefore, which is already ours, but which takes us by surprise: that makes us feel disoriented at home.

4. The “Betweeness” of Interpretation

The last point: the interpretation would be collocated “between” a recounted and a recountable time.

I have said that interpreting is not the cognitive and methodic appropriation of contents, but a responsible application, a real increase of semiosis. In psychoanalysis this application involves a narrative process which poses peculiar problems. It is on time that analysis employs interpretation in a process of configuration which even reveals the hidden temporal conditions of the very non-temporality of the unconscious. The shreds of an incoherent text assume the form of a recounted time, that which was sequestered in the non-temporality of the repetition compulsion is converted into another way of repeating, which is equivalent to a resumption, appropriating working-through. Repetition thus becomes discovery and surprise of other stories, kept in reserve and now open to a recountable time; something which already held us and to which we already belonged, now takes us by surprise and places us in a time of initiative. This surprise is precisely the effect of refiguration attributable to the applicative and narrative dimension of interpretation.
Is everything therefore going in the right direction?

Certainly, the picture is a comforting one, but there is a more troubling aspect, which concerns the peculiar and perhaps unexpected position assumed by interpretation.

As applicatio, it has produced a narrative configuration, a recounted time. However, it has rather constituted the conditions to open up the recounted time to a recountable time-to understand the re-figuration of which Ricoeur spoke of essentially as a motivated opening to other stories.

But an eminently constructive activity aimed at narratively composing disparate enunciations making of it a coherent and configured text demonstrates how its most authentic stake is actually the sacrifice of that text in the interests of a text to come-already given, but yet to begin. Refiguring time, as psychoanalysis teaches us, means placing ourselves on an interpreting threshold which permits us to be surprised by our own past (or, more radically, to be surprised by the “given”), to recognize in it other stories to be recounted, a time which can and must still have literally its beginning.
Then, the specific place of interpretation is always bound to be reconstituted upon this threshold and its task-its ethical commitment, its responsibility-would appear to be that of reorienting the sense on a recountable time, assuming that one will never succeed in crowning it with a completion.

Put in other words, if the stories which I can and must recount about myself because they have already marked me, do not tell me who I am (are not completed in an identification), but rather the never seizable dislocation of that “who”, its surprising always and solely in the very midst of this recounting and recounting again, then the interpretation takes on the responsibility of the practicality of this diastasis, to make of it the place in which one can and must always, once more responsibly, instruct a temporal experience of truth.

Translated from Italian by Joan Tambureno

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis