The Unconscious Lies with the Hysteric’s Truth

Testimonials and witnessing are crucial for any accusations and collective action to be rendered against a perpetrator. They are of course crucial determinants for the juridical process for punishing a crime, but they are also crucial in collectively identifying a victim and a perpetrator. They constitute the affective mechanisms for collective retribution, for shaming the perpetrator, for instigating campaigns of solidarity against them and with the victim.  Today, an online confession and testimonial are enough to indict, to accuse, and to “cancel” whomever is alleged to have committed the crime. I don’t mean to question the veracity of confessions and testimonials, nor the need for them as generators of affects in group formations. The point I would like to pursue here is the obverse side of the group or the collective in solidarity: precisely what we hear, as analysts, in the psychoanalytic clinic in the wake of such public testimonials (usually shared via social media). What we hear is generally the analysand’s struggle to maintain their solitude in the face of affective mobilization of the collective, of the group. We sense an intersubjective hystericization of the social bond which is both disruptive and generative. Suddenly, in such moments, the sexual non-relation comes out of the shadow, is no longer disavowed but rather provokes high anxiety in subjects.

The psychoanalytic clinic, as the site of suspension of the collective, cannot escape the life of rumor and image. The clinic is not impervious to all this, and the analyst has to work very hard to maintain an extimate status in regard to the clinical procedure and not get mired in back and forth claims around truth and falsity in the case of public accusations.  In other words, what is on the couch in the clinic is culture and the group, while the negotiations about falsity and truth and their sexualization outside the clinic are the very work of culture.[1]

Outside the clinic, the truth becomes crucial for determining the boundaries of a group (whom it excludes and does not), but inside the clinic, the truth is crucial for determining the desire of the subject. The truth has different subject-effects within the clinic than it does outside. Analysands sometimes do recover a real traumatic event in their past, but it doesn’t always have to be the primal scene of their individuation. At other times, analysands construct a traumatic fantasy, and its “truth” trumps all. But the truth is not All in all the cases, there is always something additional to the truth, more than the truth. Analysts usually hear this in the form of such statements as “but I know this, I know all this, I have gone over it so many times in my head already… is this really it?” The so-called truth effect pushes the subject to retroactively labor, and labor very hard indeed, in order to construct the necessity of truth, moving from its impossibility [it’s not-All character, or the character of there always being something in addition to the truth] to its necessity. Analysis rarely begins from a declaration of obscene truths, with the exception of psychosis of course; it is always a process of recovering why and how the impossible truth has eluded the subject for so long.

An effort must be made to maintain a space for the truth that is not just what circulates in open public confessionals. This means that an effort has to be made to maintain a space for the truth that lies in the guise of fiction, versus its juridical and normative status. The truth can emerge precisely in the moments when it is censored, when it is held back; its effects stick with subjects far longer than the confessional model may allow. The truth is not always about the revelation of a deep dark secret, it is also not just in direct opposition to the lie.

We live in times of an abundance of shameless lies everywhere, and this in itself carries a kernel of truth about our times. It is however not possible to simply fight lies with truths; that is a naïve liberal sentiment with very short-lived sensationalist effects. Alexandre Koyré already noted this in 1945 (“The Political Function of the Modern Lie”) when he claimed that totalitarianism and reactionary politics rely primarily on the primacy of the lie, on the rejection of a nonrelativistic account of truth that is universal.[2] The lie, in contradistinction to the truth, is always addressed to someone. People lie to others and, more crucially, they lie to themselves. There are more political uses for a lie than for truth. The truth introduces a different problem because it is unclear to what use it will be put by those who receive it: the truth breaks apart groups while lies unify them. History is abundant with examples of the misinterpretations of truths, disavowal being one of them. The truth requires a subject capable of retroactively acting on its necessity, i.e. the necessity of truth is only recognized retroactively in an act. Lies can also sustain social bonds much better than truths can, a point that Koyré belabors in his text. Leo Strauss, the author of a text that Lacan mentioned on more than one occasion, Persecution and the Art of Writing, outrightly defended the political uses of the lie, which reactionaries and conservatives continue to promote today (like the apologists for the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, and so on). In this discourse, speaking truth to power is not an act of strength but a sign of weakness: power doesn’t listen and it is lying, in fact, that can help sustain minorities and groups, turning their bond into a secret that has to be removed from sight. The entire logic of enmity and fraternity (segregation and sectarianism) can be drawn according to the distinction between lie and truth: the lie of co-existence is public whereas the truth is internalized, concealed, esoteric and not for all. The truth of the community or group is always the site of the problem, for it is concealed from the Other, an enjoyment that the Other is excluded from.

To reconsider the relationship between psychoanalysis and the effects of truth, is to work against the immanent problematique of the transformation of psychoanalysis into a clinic of confession and mourning. Here we must recall Foucault’s trenchant rejoinder to psychoanalysis, where he enlists it as an extension of the Catholic model of confession. Psychoanalysis is not a procedure of confession although some psychoanalysts like Jung maintained such a claim. In contradistinction to confession as a revelation of a sin, or secret that burdens the subject, in analysis, the analysand talks, and often talks about more than what they know. The clinic is obverse to the sphere of public circulation of testimonials: it is the other side of knowledge and information circulation.

Recently, a series of such testimonials circulated and affected many of my analysands in the clinic: many of them were involved in solidarity campaigns with a victim and they all travelled in the small social circle within which an incident of rape, which had been exposed in a testimonial, had occured. Everyone was effectively in solidarity with the victim of violence but there was more to the story than was spoken in public. In the analytic session, analysands have the time and space to consider their forms of identification with an-Other. In this case here the small other is the victim who becomes an object of identification that takes on different meanings in different discursive procedures. Melanie Klein, before Lacan, noted the intense asymmetrical feelings of love and hate that emerge in identifying with a victim. The confession of the victim is met with public solidarity but this solidarity, as important as it is in fighting structural sexism and misogyny, should not silence the internal voices that continue to haunt subjects in their declared identification with a victim. The clinic is the space to work through the conflicting affects in identification with a victim.

Klein’s description of this process of identification is relevant here. In the victim-perpetrator dyad, it plays out in the following manner: I identify with a victim by imagining myself as them, as the object of hostile desires that I cannot possibly experience myself. In this moment of identification, I both identify with the victim and disavow the possibility of ever experiencing such hostile desires myself, of ever being a perpetrator myself. The solidarity outside the clinic is in many ways sustained by a collective affect of sharing in the victim’s suffering. This sharing of suffering however is entwined with complicated affects which are allowed to be expressed in the analytic context, where those who are effectively in solidarity are able to voice all kinds of things that are not sanctioned in the public circulation of discourse. In other words: the censor outside of the clinic, in the speech-acts of solidarity, is different from the one at work in full speech inside the clinic. In the clinic, the analysand has to bear witness to the truth in the many lies that the unconscious weaves: “I have been in a similar situation but never said anything”; “I know her, she had it coming anyway”; “I enjoy bondage and have fantasies of rape often”; “Could I be a rapist without knowing?”; “I supported her because I had to, I don’t even really like her”; “What is sex anyway?” and so on…

The discourse of the analyst bears witness to the other scene of truth, to what Samo Tomsic has called the dissolution of the social bond in the contemporary neoliberal ethos that reduces all suffering to moral psychological reasons.[3] The analyst absorbs the conflictual affects, the anxieties analysands exhibit in moments of heightened collective solidarity, which if they were to be uttered in public would risk shaking the solidity of the public affect of togetherness. This process which Klein calls projective identification is one in which the analysand transforms their disavowed feelings into an avowal unto the internalized Other of the analysand: the analyst. What happened in this particular instant that I am referring to here, is that almost all the analysands identified themselves as victims and scrambled to create stories about themselves as undeserving objects of persecution who could never be perpetrators. The desire for identification is so strong in such moments that sometimes the unconscious weaves fantasies of rape retroactively and in the present. “I have always felt like I could have been raped but could never put my finger on it”; “I like violent sex, I like it when someone dominates me: is that bad?” Analysis in such instances becomes witness to the general hystericization of analysands induced by a social context and not by the procedure in the clinic.

The analysands, one after the other, fixated on identifying with the victim of the hostility and proceeded to seek affirmation of their good intentions in their acts of solidarity, demanding that the analyst act as a subject supposed to know, to affirm both their actual and potential victimhood in relation to their object of identification. Nobody wants to be the aggressor but aggression here is inescapable in the dialectic of identification with an object of collective love and solidarity. The victim, whether we like it or not, in the moment of coalescing of the group around her, gets elevated into a sublime thing on whose imaginary body countless fantasies are projected. The victim has to be objectified here for the collective solidarity to become a subjective force. The hystericization of the social bond induced by testimonials and solidarity campaigns intervenes in discourse: it questions structures of inequality, but it transforms immediately into an affect. Rather than dismiss #MeToo as mass hysteria, should we not ask why the hystericization induced by its current format is short-lived? The symptom here is of course systemic violence against women: rape, harassment, and molestation, and the knowledge that is called forth has the structure of the question: “Tell me why?” But the hystericization involved in #MeToo solidarity shifts all too quickly from “What do you desire from me?” to “Who are you to question my desire?” Knowledge and truth are interchangeable for the hysteric precisely because they already have the truth: the Other doesn’t really know, the Other cannot know better.

Freud and Lacan both maintained that the unconscious lies. It is not a minor detail that they built this assertion around hysteria, which as we all know was reserved for a long time solely for women. Men were obsessional neurotics, and women hysterics. If only things were that simple.

What is intriguing about hysteria, a category that has fallen out of any psychological diagnostics since the mid-twentieth century, is that it is the only discourse that really ignites the interest of the analyst and moves them in the game of transference. The hysteric demands an answer to the question “What am I? What do you desire from me?” only to resist and reject any answer to that question. The hysteric demands from the analyst that they act as a subject supposed to know, only to then shoot them down, expose them like all the others… What is so unique about the hysteric’s discourse is that they in fact know before the apres coup of analysis that the Other lacks, that the Other is not-All and does not really know their desire. It is this very lack in the Other that the hysteric comes to occupy, in order to ironically serve the Other, forfeit themselves for the desire of the Other who does not exist. This delicate dance around the lack in the Other is a way for hysteria to protect itself from castration: “There where the other is castrated, I shall be” is the motto for this operation. Hysteria results from the traumatic confusion that results not only from an external attack on the subject but from the way this attack is dealt with by guilt-ridden adults around them.

It is not surprising then that the #MeToo movement has been called a mass-hysteria in public discourse. We should in retort defend hysteria as a symptom of the malaise of our cultural sphere and the repercussions of culture’s sexualization of sexuality.[4] Hysteria is the motor of change, whether we like it or not, it puts into question the social bond and we should hear its demand for the production of knowledge around the truths that we labor to disavow. If we read the #MeToo demand in these terms, we can gather that it is not addressed to an Other (simply the juridical normative Other, even if that is its site of response) but rather that it is addressed to discourse, to the social bond, to other subjects who get interpolated by the call only to question their own desires in the process.


[1] Alenka Zupancic has a close reading of this “Lying on the Couch”, Problemi International, 1: 2017, 99-116.


[2] Frank Ruda has an interesting commentary on Koyre’s text in “(From the Lie in the Closed World to) Lying in An Infinite Universe”, Alenka Zupancic, Adrian Johnston and Bostjan Nedoh (ed.), Objective Fictions (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020), 217-232.


[3] I am referring here to an unpublished manuscript of Samo Tomsic.


[4] The reference here is to our contemporary moment where there is a profusion of discourse on sexual violence and sexuality, an incitement to discourse, to borrow from Foucault, which comes at the expense of engaging with the systemic structures of violence that allow for these subjective acts to take place.


Nadia Bou Ali is Associate Professor and Director of the Civilization Studies Program at the American University of Beirut. Her research is focused on modern Arab thought and literature, critical theory, and psychoanalysis. She is the author of Hall of Mirrors: Psychoanalysis and the Love of Arabic (Edinburgh University Press, 2020).

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis