Politics of the Letter (27)

May 1- May 18, 2020,

in reference to Nestor Braunstein,

« Tampoco el psicoanálisis volverá a ser lo que era »

(Psychoanalysis, too, will never be the same)

Screened Speech is the Foreclosure of the Littoral of the Letter

The “social link” is modified by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. This change affects philia in all its forms: in the family, in love, at work, between friends, in politics, as well as in psychoanalysis. Indeed, the truthful term “social distancing” has produced its effects, despite efforts to cover up its accuracy by the use of more exact terms such as “physical”, indicating a separation of bodies. For, in fact, what has occurred is the disregard of the littoral of bodies, and what prevails is a strictly regulated non-relation.

I have already discussed in this series the anathema cast on littoral of the letter. I have also discussed the real of this anathema in terms of the littoral of bodies – offering or sacrifice.

But a form of relation persists: mediated (telephone, Internet…). Sometimes regrettably. What is feared is direct contact, which disappears – for a time – for the sake of distancing. This means that another littoral is introduced, and that the letter immediately acquires another utility which will become clearer in the future. I believe that from now on what predominates is the political function of the letter – as I hinted by pointing out the prevalence of non-relation over relation (sexual, signifying…), and this is brought about by organising the characteristics found in abundance on the littoral: each subject bears their mark in his body, to the detriment of non mediated relations.

In analysis the transference was affected – because there was no direct contact. Many analysts replaced it with a substitute such as the Internet or the telephone, or suspended analysis altogether (as I chose to do during the confinement).

Does this mean that object a – with its own “littoral character” between abjection and agalma – is transformed in this situation?

1. The pandemic is capitalism; capitalism is pandemic

Must psychoanalysis follow this trend of banishing the littoral of the letter (this banishment is even – if I give the psychiatric terminology a psychoanalytic orientation – a perverse Shonung – in that it is perverse to banish the existential essence of all subjectivation of significance –? When death (whatever the cause: viral pandemic or “socially” determined death in the camps – and I am not confusing the two registers) is presented as taking precedence over the death drive, it is the littoral of life (referred to death, which precedes it – in the interlacing of sex and death) which suffers, because it is a littoral between life and death.[1]

Death, in writing, in the written account of life and death, is political, as political as the letter itself.[2] The spread of SARS-CoV-2 is itself political: boundless capitalism, involving all human activities, is in no way ecological and destroys the planet, or at least the ecological balance necessary to preserve life (that of plants and animals – and soon, we have reason to fear – that of humanity). The Covid-19 pandemic reveals political (as well as social and health-related) failures, and the ecological devastation wrought by capitalism. Indeed, the political governs the life and death of people, their diseases, as well as their subsistence and reproduction, which are tied to material production founded on the workforce (WF) and – if we refer to workforce schemas – on phallic jouissance (PJ):

(WF → (WF → CG))

And (PJ → (PJ → SE*)).

*Lacan’s “surplus-enjoyment”.

All this cannot be strictly biological; it is clearly a biopolitical question.

Indeed, the widest spread is that of the capitalist system; its destruction of the ecological balance appears to have produced the SARS-CoV-2 virus. We can say that the capitalist system produced COVID-19. There is no need for the virus to have escaped from a laboratory. While the pandemic is imperialistic like capitalism, the virus is the real concretisation of a signifier. The world over, deaths result from the destruction of health systems, which facilitated the capitalist and financial takeover of capital gain (CG) redistributed socially through State budgets or the budgets of health-insurance and social security systems (where they exist), created through hard struggle against those who possess the wealth, and their boundless desire for profit.

Thus, the relation to death has changed: it is now much more socialised than in the past. Specifically, death is repressed, mourning is resented by the families of the dead – and death no longer enters the domain of life. Mourning rituals are disappearing. Funeral feasts in France are an example. At the same time, the right to be sad is being taken away, because it interferes with the socially organised desire which sustains an equally boundless rapid consumption bulimia. Small shops are disappearing, to be replaced by department stores. Only some food stores remain, but many traditional French deli shops have been converted into Chinese fast-food shops. Fortunately, there are still bakeries, although those willing to perpetuate this hard craft are mostly from the Maghreb. In the cities (nowhere else), all that is left are convenience-type stores, bakeries first and then clothing stores, with banks figuring third in order of importance. Sadness becomes “depression” (a term also used in political economy, come to think of it!) and calls for the use of medication.

The 35,000 deaths caused by the Hong Kong influenza in France were less distressing than the 28,215 deaths caused by COVID-19 (French Ministry of Health) at the time of this writing. Yet 1969 – after the May 1968 events in France – was already the present era. We can certainly place the start of our era fifty years back.

The problem is the desire to know (if the information is exact and properly transmitted) in real time everything that happens in the world. The media has aired 24 hours a day what is said (everything?) about this single subject of the pandemic, every day for at least three months. And everyone (!) can keep score of the dead everywhere in the world. (Could this be a remnant of recursion (although such self-reference is censured)?)




2. The signifier takes on a different character

The signifier appears simply as the real

-          out of reach of the letter (even when protective restrictions, no doubt justified, are issued in writing); and

-          carrying an affective charge of anxiety, in addition to factual information about what is being done and what should be done to treat as well as to prevent, of course.

For instance, there is the guilt felt by children, universally designated as “healthy carriers”, who therefore feel responsible for the possible death of adults around them, first and foremost the elderly. A good thing for healthcare spending, no doubt. The children’s guilt makes them reluctant to return to school, for fear that they might cause the death of their teachers.

The absence, in contexts other than the “household” (INSEE-style terminology), of directly addressed speech modifies the signifier (S2) by modifying the meaning (S1) carried by speech, presumably used to convey the truth. This differs greatly from many false narratives produced nowadays to pacify.

The confinement provided no protection beyond the period when it was maintained: 4% of the French population (based on a Pasteur Institute survey) and up to 10% of the population in the Paris region were infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This falls well short of the 60% “heard immunity” needed statistically to stop the progression of the pandemic. Thus, at the end of the confinement things are as before for most people. At best, the lockdown made it possible to relieve the burden on hospitals. But – let us stay hopeful – there is no sign of a “new wave” of infections. So far, so good; but we have more to learn about the dynamics of coronavirus infections.

The silence of public authorities about many collective and social aspects of the pandemic is not comparably to silence in psychoanalysis. The latter only acquires meaning in the session, with both people present, not over the telephone. This is so because, over the telephone, any real communication (in which speech conveys truth) is itself cut (crosswise) by mechanical distancing – and loses some of its ambiguity ( which promotes significant poetic production), revealing only the realistic aspects of things, with their fantasmatic substrate left untouched. This is why I find that telephone or video analytic sessions – or in the absence of the voice, the use of written discourse – acquire ipso facto a “merely” psychotherapeutic character.

A real void (Lacan’s forclusive hole in the real, more than object lack, which remains ambiguous) takes the place of the symbolic void.

For instance, the breath of the analysand (or the analyst) is heard differently than in a session “in person”.

The impossible character of the non-relation dominates, without the intervention of the third person who transmits speech directly. This speech is productive thanks to the littoral transcription of non-relation (each letter/ character is distinct from another, with no possible connection between them except vocal or written expression) in the signifying relation.



  1. Subject




                                                                                    Third person


In the non-relation (without the “poetic” production of speech), the impossible traps the subject in a psychosis-precipitating sideration – in which, knowingly or unknowingly, each person found himself thrown during the confinement. The problem this created was generalized – we might say social – anxiety, although it did not affect everyone. Such a change in the status of anxiety underscores the altered function attributed to Freudian representation (even significance): its metonymic transformation into a communicable virus, replacing speech (which, needs no media – and not being a medium itself – no offense to Lacan –, is truly existential) embodies the real where the symbolic is demolished by politico-economic agencies, and more generally, we might say, by the pan-liberal civilisation.

But not everyone is overwhelmed by anxiety, everyone is not equally vulnerable to this forclusion. The problem is that the spread of SARS-CoV-2 – which is not an object a[3]– introduces a transformation of objects a: they are no longer actual lacks apprehended as objects, or understood transactions (including intrinsically, and this is an amazing feat, since the apprehension of extensions of meaning is by definition extrinsic), but only substitutes for objects a, grafted in stunted form on the autism displayed by our leaders. The duality of the object, at once the object of desire and its cause (given the impredicative definition of the predicative quality of objects), is restrained by the impossibility of establishing a dialectical relation between the intention of speech and an extensional world. Speech becomes misleading; it is used as an instrument of enslavement (this is not new) and no longer requires – as it would if it were truthful – its immeasurable transcription in this object a, which is both cause and rejection of desire.

In my opinion, psychoanalysts must refuse screens, because their name spells out the truth very clearly: machines put up a screen, and speech (from the Divine Word to the human word) does not accept being machined, that is, – in Victor Tausk’s terms – becoming an influencing machine. The politics of all the proponents of neoliberalism, including Macron, have led to this health crisis, with its lack of hospital beds and ventilators; with masks, white coats, hair nets and gloves in such short supply that they were unavailable to the general public; and drugs proven effective – at least when symptoms are detected early – that were (and are) prohibited and cannot be prescribed by general practitioners.


3. Questions raised by the pandemic[4]

Two questions come to mind, one concerning COVID-19 and the other psychoanalysis.

I ask myself, concerning the pandemic and its status (its “value”) as a signifier, but also concerning capitalism: how can we all be (this is also “pandemic”) so indifferent to the news about the deaths caused by hunger in the world: 25,000 a DAY (latest figures from the FAO and other United Nations agencies). This is the daily equivalent of all the deaths from COVID-19 in France over a period of two (let’s say three) months.

As for analysis conducted using a screen, I do not think it is some sort of “fate” of the modern world. I think it is a choice and a kind of deviation comparable to Lacan’s observations in the 1950s concerning certain aspects of the American way of life.

We cannot hide behind COVID-19 to justify the perpetuation of this practice in the future, because there are consequences… Analysts must be careful not to betray the fundamental principles of psychoanalysis. Indeed, we must not slip from a justified practice (admitting that it is) in certain conditions – those of the pandemic – at an exceptional time, into a practice that becomes “normalized” without any underlying justification.



Translated from the French by Agnès Jacob


[1] See part 4 of this series.

[2]Lew, R. (2015) Politique du corps et de l’écriture (Lysimaque).

[3] In fact, an object a, a fortiori surplus-enjoyment, cannot be transmitted as such (it is impossible to let someone else enjoy it, or to lose it to someone else who takes it away. In order to be transmitted, it must first be transcribed as a (unary) signifier, and it was for this very reason that the pass was introduced.

[4]My reformulation of remarks made by Ana-Claudia Delgado.

Published by I.S.A.P. - ISSN 2284-1059