Psychoanalysis and Politics: Duane Rousselle Interviews Thomas Svolos
Brief bio — Thomas Svolos, MD, practices psychoanalysis in Omaha, Nebraska. He is a member of Lacanian Compass, the New Lacanian School, and the World Association of Psychoanalysis. He is Professor of Psychiatry and Associate Dean for Strategy and Accreditation at the Creighton University School of Medicine. Published in ten languages, his most recent book is The Aims of Analysis: Miami Seminar on the Late Lacan.
Duane Rousselle: What’s so negative about psychoanalysis?
Thomas Svolos: When I hear or read the word “negative,” its partner concept “positive” comes to mind and evokes for me that we might be in the realm of what Lacan called the Imaginary, which is the home of many binaries. And, indeed, my first response to this question relates to one aspect of the experience of psychoanalysis that is especially important in early parts of this work. An analysand will present with a variety of of “positive” identifications—I am this, or I am that—and so forth. The ego representations or identifications are often disrupted in the early moments of psychoanalysis. It is not so much that there isn’t truth to them, but they are not the absolute truth and, in some ways, sometimes very critical ways, they are a lie, or mistruth. This was very important for Lacan in the earlier stages of his work. You can read a kind of theory of this in his paper on the “Mirror Stage,” and his devaluation (a kind of negation?) of the Imaginary in the name of the Symbolic was important for Lacan through his work in the 1950s and remains important in the analytic experience today (Lacan, 2006a: 75-81).
You can even find this in Lacan’s work less directly connected to the psychoanalytic experience. For example, Freud based his concepts of identity in the relationship of personal identity to social identities—in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1955)—on positive identification of individuals with social institutions, organized through the ego. Lacan (2006b), even early in his work, in “Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty”—created a model for social engagement based on the primacy of hate, or a negative identification. I identify with this group because I don’t want people in this group to recognize me as not in the group and rather recognize me as part of a group that is hated. We have been able to observe the power of hatred, of negative identification, in social and political identifications in the United States and, in fact, globally over the past ten years.
DR: Should one distinguish psychoanalytic experience from social or political analysis?
TS: Ah … so you picked up on the fact that my answer to your first question was in two parts, one addressing the issue of identification from a negative perspective in the psychoanalytic experience and one addressing the same issue from the perspective of social or political negative identification.
This question of yours touches on one of the most critical aspects of the unconscious, or how we experience the unconscious.
A simple clinical observation: it is not uncommon for an analysand to talk about how much they hate some trait or belief or behavior in another person. Equally not uncommon, that particular thing that they hate in the other person is some trait or attribute or belief or behavior that they themselves hold without recognizing it. This is but one minor example of a particularly unusual characteristic of the unconscious. It has the property of being both inside of and outside of a person at the same time.
This is evident at a number of moments in Lacan’s work. Lacan adopted the notion of the Other as a name for the unconscious from Freud’s (I recall the phrase was originally from Fechner) use of the phrase “the Other Scene” to describe the unconscious. In the 1950s, it is the Other as symbolic Other—the “treasure trove of signifiers”—that are determinate for the subject, as a structure in a kind of Leví-Straussian fashion (Lacan, 2006c: 692). But, what is interesting about this Other is that it is filled up with, as it were, signifiers from the outside world. Lacan described, for example, in his reading of the Rat Man Case, how the Rat Man’s suffering, his symptom, and his complicated relationships with women and the whole complex quandary of paying for the glasses, were determined by what his parents went through in their courtship, the father’s choice of a wife, and in the father’s own way of handling or mishandling responsibilities. All of this, which was “outside” of the Rat Man in both space and time, was captured in the signifiers that made up the Rat Man’s unconscious and were determinate for him, were at the heart of what is most personal, what is deep “inside” him.  Thus, we might see how this Other is Other both outside of and inside of a person at the same time. Jacques-Alain Miller used the term “extimacy,” a neologism combining intimacy and exterior, to capture this. What might be at the heart of our personal experience, the kernel of our sense of ourselves, might be directly connected to things outside of us (Miller, 1988).
So, I would suggest one conclusion that we might draw from the existence of the unconscious is an odd type of continuity between the personal and the socio-political. In most contemporary discourse, people like to draw a distinction or a boundary between the personal—that which is mine—and the socio-political. I think one lesson from psychoanalysis is that that boundary does not exist in the way that we imagine and that the personal is political and social through and through. As Lacan famously stated, “the unconscious is politics” (2022; author modified translation).
DR: I wonder how we might orient ourselves in relation to the complete statement made by Lacan, as you know, during his 1966 seminar: “I do not say that ‘politics is the unconscious,’ but simply ‘the unconscious is politics.’” In other words, what do you make of the first half of the statement in relation to the last? Related to this question: are negative social/political identifications ‘denials’ of this “odd type of continuity”?
TS: Well, I do not know what Lacan intended with this sentence, from Seminar 14 if I recall correctly, that you have quoted. My reading of it is that this phrase “politics is the unconscious” does not make sense, to me at least. Whose unconscious? It would seem, to me, to imply some sort of social unconscious, maybe something along the lines of what Jung proposed with the notion of the collective unconscious. Lacan, following Freud (who nonetheless had his phylogenetic fantasy—published posthumously), linked the unconscious to a subject, a speaking being. It is singular for that subject. The unconscious must be approached one by one.
The social and political dimensions of that singular unconscious are a result of the “apprenticeship,” as Jacques-Alain Miller (2022) emphasizes, of the speaking being in taking on language and is a kind of after-effect of that. In “learning” language, something above and beyond the rules of grammar and syntax is woven into the unconscious—something social and something political.
As for your second question—I am not sure one can formulate a general rule here. But, let me propose a hypothetical way it might be connected to this. A male subject might have some unconscious superegoic demand woven into his unconscious as a child learning to speak that he must be as “manly” as possible. As a subject, he might define man as not “woman,” an identity that he comes to hate. Being a man thus means, above all else, not being womanly, which he hates. One might imagine this could lead, as an adult, to a political identification against a politician or party that supports feminism or any politics perceived as threatening to men. This is a way in which his political identity is formed negatively, in response to a hatred.
Having said that, let me add one further point. I don’t believe Freud shared this perspective from Lacan and Miller that I speak of here. Freud’s Oedipal complex is a kind of fantasy, a fantasy of a universal structure, that does itself carry with it some political dimension. So, I will add here that for Freud, some of the political is unconscious, in as much as he hypothesized a universal structure for the unconscious that has political implications.
DR: It makes me wonder if the clinic of psychosis has anything to teach us about the contemporary social-political conjuncture. In other words, what happens to this ‘odd type of continuity’ when one has ‘cancelled one’s subscription to the unconscious’? Could the personal become uncoupled from the social-political field?
TS: These three sentences—one statement and two questions—each deserve response in their own right.
You first introduce the issue of the clinic of psychosis. I think one of the most significant developments in the Millerian world today has been the work done, since the 1990s in the École de la cause freudienne, that has led to the development of the concept of ordinary psychosis. In my reading of this, Miller laid some groundwork for this in his reading of the Wolfman case in the 1980s, with the attempt to situate or construct the case using Schema R, from Lacan’s Schreber paper. A number of hypotheses there were advanced, including that of an autonomous state of the imaginary with regard to the symbolic and the possibility of foreclosure in the symbolic (name-of-the-father) independent of foreclosure in the imaginary (the phallus) and vice versa. One might say this was an exploration of what Lacan would later develop as the Borromean clinic using the theoretical language of mathemes. In any case, these theoretical or conceptual elaborations were a response to what analysts around the world were experiencing in their practices. As I have written in my books, this way of grappling with a clinical exigency was one of the things that drew me to the WAP. So, I would suggest that half a century ago, we had a clinic of psychosis that was oriented around the domination of the name-of-the-father (and the symbolic order as such) and the status of psychosis as a state of exception—extraordinary psychosis (that can be configured with the classical psychiatric categories of schizophrenia, paranoia and mania/melancholia). Today, there is a state of universal or generalized foreclosure (of the real as such—in the sense in which, as Lacan said at the end of his work, we are all mad) and the expansion of this new category of ordinary psychosis.  This has a lot to say, as I read it, about the contemporary social world. So, recall, I read Lacan’s fascination with topology (Moebius strip, Klein bottle) as an index of the fact that for the speaking being, our quotidian concept of the world “out there” and my mind or psyche or soul “inside” my body does not figure it properly. There is a continuity between the social world and my innermost mind, thoughts, emotions and so forth—Miller’s extimacy. So, with that in mind, I would suggest that what we psychoanalysts (and analysands!) are finding in the unconscious today—our constructions, concepts, theories, and so forth—are at the same time an index of what is happening in the social experience. I am not a sociologist or political scientist, but my observations are that it would be fair to say we have moved away from universalism and a domination of the name-of-the-father in social and political formations. The imaginary is no longer subservient to the symbolic but has developed an autonomy of its own (which is how we might read the force of identity in our social and political world, whose massive impact can be observed in so many domains of social and political life). Furthermore, there is a lot about contemporary politics (particularly, but not exclusively on the right) that was theorized before its time by the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt (2007) that can be understood as his proposition that, in Lacanian terms, the imaginary can be linked to the real without any symbolic mediation—no universalism or rule of law, but a direct link of identity with libido.
You have referenced, in your second sentence, Lacan’s formulation of Joyce, that he cancelled his subscription to the unconscious (Lacan, 2016: 144). I have long found this idea of Lacan’s a little baffling for me. Just now, pondering your question, I had an idea of an approach to it that makes some sense to me. I think that we need to bring into play this distinction made by Miller between the transferential unconscious and the real unconscious. With that in mind, I would add the qualifier—that Lacan was saying that Joyce cancelled his subscription to the transferential unconscious. For Joyce, there was not a subject supposed to know out there to bring himself to. He was not so troubled with the domain of meaning. But, I would venture that he was “subscribed” to his real unconscious, and his works are a testimony to that. But, while what was to Lacan interesting about Joyce, a very exceptional status of his relationship to his unconscious, was indeed exceptional a century ago, this type of relationship to the unconscious is quite common now, and this is the change I just described in response to your first statement.
As for your final question—I think that it is impossible to uncouple the personal from what you call the social and political field. This is because of the very nature of the topological relationship between what you call the personal and social and political field that I described earlier in the interview. The nature of the relationship can change, and I have tried to sketch out just now a very simple way to describe what I think is a significant change, but not break. I would add, though, that the very notion of it being uncoupled is itself an interesting phenomenon to interpret in its own right.
DR: This point that you have now made about the “direct link of identity with libido” is clear and helpful. I returned recently to Freud’s obscure essay “Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety.” It seems to me that he discusses precisely this: the ego, which promotes the principles of organization and consistency, allies with the libido through the symptom. There is no need of the superego, or even of repression, since it is ultimately, in my reading of the text, the result of a failure in repression.
Okay, I understand that you were close with Fredric Jameson, which shows in, for example, Twenty-First Century Psychoanalysis. You may not see yourself primarily as a sociologist, yet, there is what Jacques-Alain Miller somewhere called “Lacan’s Sociology.” I wonder if this distinction you make between the universality of the law and the identity-libido link can be located at a particular social historical conjuncture. For example, some people might claim that there was a social shift during the Reagan years.
TS: Your reference to “Lacan’s Sociology” is very pertinent here. It is from Miller’s (2022) seminar, The Very Last Lacan, in the session where he discusses Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” Miller has a remark there that stands out to me: “What emerges for me from reading and editing is that Lacan emphasizes the fact that the human being is essentially social. The topology, so apparent in its Borromean and toric splendor, is incessantly lined by a sociology.”
And, yes, your reference to Fredric Jameson is also pertinent. I studied with Jameson in college, and he is my mentor in matters literary, cultural, theoretical, and historical.
As for your question here, it evokes two theoretical constructs that I will draw from Jameson’s work. The first is that of the relative autonomy of various levels or structures within society. He develops this in the first chapter, “On Interpretation,” in his The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Jameson, 1981). This argument is based on his reading of Althusser, and Jameson discusses the relationship between different domains of social existence—economics, politics, culture, family institutions, and so forth. It is an old problematic in Marxism, based in its most simple form, on the relationship of the base and superstructure. Jameson argues for some relative autonomy of each level (and makes an argument that at certain decisive historical moments, the economic asserts its dominance).
I bring this up, as I want to raise the question of how to connect a subject’s unconscious, a subject’s Other, to the social world. Namely, what social world to connect it to? To the family institutions, the words from the subject’s caregivers that surrounded it in its youth? In the Miller seminar noted above, Miller emphasizes the importance of the “mother tongue” that surrounds the subject in its youth. Or, is the subject connected to some broader social or cultural phenomena? Althusser felt that institutions like the family served some sort of function as ideological state apparatus. And, we find a similar argument even going back to Sartre, who argued, in Search for a Method, that the social contradictions of his family served as a “class apprenticeship” for Gustave Flaubert (Sartre, 1963: 53). Or, is the connection with political phenomena, such as your allusion to the rise of neo-liberalism with the Reagan years in the United States (or the Thatcher years in Great Britain)?
I am going to assert that there probably is no single answer to your question, but rather that the answer for each subject is singular—each subject having had a distinctive set of exposures. But, having said all that, I do think there have been changes that would be interesting to explore. For example—perhaps five generations ago (from my vantage point), in the United States at least, babies and infants were surrounded by their mother tongue—by immediate family, extended family or paid caregivers who drew on whatever references they drew on, but probably many passed down through families, in their care of the child. Perhaps two generations ago, the radio came into play, bringing new sound images into the picture and bringing the outside world into the life of a child in a different way. In my generation, it was the introduction of the television, and in the generation after me, that of the internet and smartphone. This brings a cultural world, often a corporate produced cultural world, into the lives of babies and infants—this is a very different mother tongue than that of the traditional setting of a mother singing songs (ones that she herself might have heard, as a child) for her infant. (And, I think these had their effects—in a large set of music of Johnny Cash published posthumously, Unearthed, you can hear about a dozen songs, gospel songs he learned from his mother as a child). In my reading, this is what Lacan made reference to with his notion of the lathouses in Seminar 17, and also what Fred Jameson references when he states that with postmodernity, capitalism has entered one of the last enclaves not yet conquered, that of the Unconscious (the other one is that of Nature—the presence of microplastics making rainwater unsafe to drink should be some indicator that that barrier has also been broken) (Lacan, 2007: 162).
The other Jameson theoretical reference your question about social and historical conjecture brings to mind is that of periodization, which Jameson addresses throughout his work, from “Periodizing the 60s” to his many works that tackle the questions of the history of modernity and postmodernity (Jameson, 1989: 178-202). I would like to make a remark about the link of this to a social shift you identified in the Reagan years. If the signal change in the psyche is the decline of the symbolic as the dominant domain and the decentering or overthrow of the name-of-the-father as universal, the corollary for that in the social world is certainly the decline in dominance of universalism and, in the West, the church, in particular, and authorities and traditions, in general. My historical reading is that this was the work of the 60s. Cultural and religious institutions were toppled, however successively or not, by the counter-cultural and political phenomena of the 60s. This in turn set the stage for neoliberalism in all of its forms, including Reagan. In my reading, traditional religious, social, and cultural institutions formed limits on the expansion of capitalism, limits whose force was limited in the 60s—fewer traditional limits to the flow of capital or labor.
DR: It is fascinating to me that the development and expansion of the concept of ‘ordinary psychosis’ helped to draw you toward the WAP. In fact, I recall you mentioning this to me by telephone several years ago. If memory serves me, it seems to have oriented you beyond certain impasses in clinical practice. I wonder if you can discuss how it is that the generalization of the concept of foreclosure can orient one’s clinical practice?
TS: I will answer this based on a periodization of Lacan into two clinics, that of the early Lacan and the late Lacan. You can get much more interesting and elaborate with this, as Jacques-Alain Miller (1997) did with his Six Paradigms of Jouissance—probably the greatest periodization of Lacan’s work I know of, but I will keep it simple here. In the clinic of the name-of-the-father, there is a universal structure (with exceptions—the extraordinary psychoses) that define how the psyche is structure, how libido or jouissance is handled. There is neurosis, where the name-of-the-father is repressed, and psychosis, where it is refused, foreclosed. The name-of-the-father organizes the psyche, is a grounding point for the imaginary, and the real or libido is relegated to residues. Cases in this clinic had certain forms: one could talk of the clinic of hysteria, for example. With the clinic of generalized foreclosure, each case must be approached one by one, in its singularity. The forms or structures that oriented the first clinic (foreclosure of the name-of-the-father as the form of psychosis; or, the structures of hysteria or obsessional neurosis that Lacan elaborated in his first ten or so seminars) are not universal. The symbolic is no longer dominant. The symbolic and the real can articulate in different ways. The imaginary can be articulated with the real without symbolic mediation. Psychosis takes on a great variety of forms. So, how is an analyst to orient, to use your word, one’s clinical practice?
In my second book The Aims of Analysis, I make the argument that the analyst must be oriented to the real, and that that is the point that Lacan arrives at in the last stage of his work. I would like to suggest that would be my answer. If generalized foreclosure is the foreclosure of the real, the analyst must be alert to the opportunities to catch hold of the real. How does a symptom function for a subject to touch the real? How might a structure of meaning for a subject allow it to defend against a certain real? How does repression function to defend against a real? For a fantasy for a given subject, how does that touch the real for that subject? I am going to suggest, with this oversimplified answer, that this is what at stake in psychoanalysis now. The psychoanalyst today must be alert to what I might call the very creative psyche of the subject today with regard to the real, as the subject’s response to the real is less subject to universal paradigms.
In Six Paradigms noted above, Miller comments that in the sixth paradigm, the one I am describing, the psychoanalytic act is about pragmatics and making connections. Furthermore, elsewhere, Miller notes that the sinthome is the social link for the subject, it connects the subject to the Other (Miller, 2005; for an extended development of this argument, see chapter 10 of Svolos, 2017). How do we identify that connection? In “A Fantasy,” Miller talks about how the psyche of the subject today is modeled after the discourse of the analyst, except that the elements are not connected. How do we make those connections? But, even in the simplest Freudian models, for a given subject—how is thought and meaning connected with affect (which often carries a bit of the real), and how do we make the connection when it is not? In issues associated with the imaginary, in what way is the libido or jouissance implicated for the subject—with or without symbolic mediation? For each of these, there is some piece of the Real at stake, and that is how we must orient ourselves in practice.