Brief and selective notes on:  J Lacan (edited by J-A Miller) (1993)  The Psychoses. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book III 1955-56. Trans with notes Russell Grigg. London: Routledge

Dave Harris

[ I read Deleuze and Guattari before I read any Lacan, and so this highly selective set of notes relates to issues with Lacan as identified by D&G. I am only a casual reader of Lacan and my intention was solely to find out exactly what the problems were with two basic arguments that offend D&G:
  • that the unconscious is 'structured like a language', in particular that the 'subject is a signifier for other signifiers';
  • that language use necessarily exposes us to a patriarchal and hierarchical social order.
I have read Schreber's memoirs, his account of a very well-developed paranoid delusion,variously described as schizophrenia or dementia praecox. I have not taken notes, of course. I have also read Zizek's defence of Lacan against D&G,which, apart from anything else, indicates, as usual, that citing a few extracts can never be decisive in any dispute about what the hell Lacan means -- or D&G for that matter].

IX On nonsense and the structure of God

Schreber reports his symptoms with expressions that will also tell us something about the way his language has developed. The externality of language is recognised in phrases such as ‘the word escapes me’ (113), or by the frequent occurrence of phrases or sayings that seem natural and obvious to us but which have actually been invented. Of course all this language play ‘presupposes first of all that the word exists’.

Schreber was eventually able ‘to put his delusion into words’, but this is not to imply that there is something more primitive some prior lived experience which is incommunicable in the early stages. This is sometimes taken to be totally impenetrable. We find the same assumptions when people talk about intellectualisation. However, delusions are clearly ‘dependent upon the unconscious’ (114) and ‘the unconscious is fundamentally structured, woven, chained, meshed by language. And not only does the signifier players bigger role there is the signifying does, but it plays the fundamental role. In fact what characterises language is the system of signifiers as such… [But]… The relationship between signifier and signified is far from being… One-to-one’. In particular, ‘the signified is not the things in their raw state, already there, given in an order open to meaning. Meaning is human discourse insofar as it always refers to another meaning’.

Saussure argued that there was never a simple relation between signifiers and signified, nor can the relation simply be reduced to words, which are arbitrary to some extent ‘not so unitary’ (115). The system of human meanings involves over time and the signifiers ‘adopt different usages’. ‘A system of signifiers, and language, has certain characteristics that specify the syllables, the usage of words, the locutions into which they are grouped, and this condition is what happens in the unconscious, down to its most original fabric… a pun can in itself be the linchpin that supports a symptom, a pun that doesn’t exist in [another] language. Symptoms might not always be based on puns, but they are ‘always based on the existence of signifiers’.

This is how overdetermination works in Freud. There is a duality of signifier and signified which allows ‘psychoanalytic determinism’. ‘The material linked to the old conflict is preserved in the unconscious as a potential signifier, as a virtual signifier, and then captured in the signified of the current conflict and used by as language, that is as a symptom’. Schreber’s language simply has to be understood ‘in the register of psychoanalysis’ rather than as a verbal elaboration of some primary state. It is a linguistic connection, ‘a continuous and profound solidarity between the signifying elements from the beginning to the end of the delusion’.

We can understand from psychosis how the subject generally ‘is situated in relation to the whole symbolic, original order’ in a distinctive way, ‘distinct from the real environment and from the imaginary dimension’ (116).

‘Like all discourse delusion is to be judged first of all as a field of meaning that has organised a certain signifier’. Good practice involves letting the psychotics speak ‘for as long as possible’, without imposing any theoretical categories or hierarchies. For example, Schreber himself operates with several agents of discourse related to the divine essence, but he does not say that the divine essence organises the others. Schreber’s inner voices are ‘related to what presupposes the continuous discourse which memorises each subject’s conduct for him’. This is actually a common experience in the nonpsychotic as well, often in the form of a verbalisation or a ‘latent discourse… which intervenes at a level of its own’.

Nevertheless, Schreber’s account clearly describes what he himself calls nonsense. The characteristic that interests Lacan is that ‘the [inner] voices never complete their sentences’ (118). Again this is similar to more normal relations between subject speaking concretely and the unconscious subject who is alluded to. We see that any premature attempt to label Schreber’s discourse as psychiatric as premature and will lead to further incomprehension. Normal subjects classically have an internal discourse but they do not take it seriously — ‘the principal difference between you and the insane is perhaps nothing other than this’. The insane serve as a warning to what would happen if we started to take inner voices seriously.

Schreber shows that there is an integrated interlocutor within an apparently unitary subject. His delusion shows us ‘a mode of relationship between the subject and language as a whole’ (119). Schreber shows there is both a plurality of agents and modes but also a unity within him which can maintain continuous discourse. He feels alienated by this discourse. Schreber calls this unity God, but this is a term of ‘universal importance’, and alienating unity is even taken as a proof of his existence. Ordinary subjects find it difficult to spell out the nature of this unity, so it’s not surprising that a delusional might do so as well. Schreber’s own background in a nonreligious family leads him to argue similarly that the experience of God must be real not delusional, a matter of direct proof [I must say this argument, which crops up rather a lot in Schreber’s account, reminds me of the role of surprise in ethnography as guaranteeing the validity of the results]. Schreber also claims that he is otherwise fully capable of perceiving things like sounds to an even more sophisticated extent than most people.

We see that God is a presence, revealed in ‘the speaking mode’ (120). It is also common to argue that some evidence for his presence is that our own aims are not always achieved. However, this is not Schreber’s argument. Instead, his ‘divine erotomania is [possibly] to be immediately inscribed in the register of the superego’ (121). Instead, God is always talking but never saying anything. Schreber describes relations with his early therapists in the same way. This can explain the different stages of the delusion, where Schreber fears rape at first and then complains about gods excessive voluptuousness: the link is that Schreber faces ‘the greatest of atrocities, that he is going to be forsaken’. This explains the ambivalence that Schreber has with his various interlocutors: he must maintain a relationship with them even if it is painful or troublesome, and a break in relations produces ‘variously intolerable internal phenomena of tearing apart’.

Schreber’s God knows nothing about the specifics of being human, including Schreber’s reactions to God’s withdrawal. ‘He hypothesises and argues in ways that wouldn’t be out of place in a properly theological discussion’ (122). [God learns about human beings only in a very indirect way, usually after they have died. His more direct intervention in Schreber is the cause of mistakes and excesses]. What we can see here is ‘an extraordinarily innocent development… Whose motor is the subjects disturbed relationship to something that affects the total functioning of language, the symbolic order, and discourse’. The question of whether God is omniscient, for example, is discussed in terms of whether he can predict the results of a lottery. The only difference between the tokens in a lottery is a symbolic one — at the level of reality they are identical — so God must enter the discourse. Schreber is reproducing the distinction between the symbolic the imaginary and the real.

However there must be some disturbance at work because God allows unintended consequences to happen, applies half measures, engages in tormenting Schreber.

Chapter X On the signifier in the real and the bellowing-miracle

For Schreber, God is discourse. His actions are mysterious at the junction between the symbolic and the real, in particular how symbolic oppositions are introduced into the real. This can be found in other dilemmas for normal subjects where there is a difference ‘between language as symbolic and his own permanent internal dialogue… The subject experiences as foreign and as revealing a presence to him [a case when language] itself asks the questions and itself gives the answers’ (125). Schreber was unprepared for his subsequent belief in God and this made him question reality.

Schreber identifies two spheres of language use and these are different. We have to see that this is common in language where terms are distinguished only by their oppositions, such as plus and minus signs, regardless of any real coordinates — ‘a game of symbolic alternation’ (126). Here we cannot rely on experience or facts in the real to choose between them. There seems to be an a priori law.

Psychoanalysis has long recognised that patients are not cured by appealing to the healthy parts of their ego. Often this was connected with an explanation of some imaginary force limiting reason and strengthening delusions which are otherwise rational and coherent. Psychoanalysis is different because it sees delusions as examples of ‘the discourse of the unconscious’ (127), although this is still almost impossible to disentangle, affected as it is by matters like inversion or negation. In this way, ‘the psychotic is a martyr of the unconscious’ in the sense of being a witness, but the testimony has to be deciphered. Psychotics operate with a closed discourse.

We find such discourses in normal life as well. For example slavery is deplored but it has not been abolished, that modern exploitation resembles a relation of bondage, that a ‘master slave duality’ is widespread. The situation has arisen following the spread of a particular discourse, ‘the message of brotherhood’, serving as a message of liberation somehow subsisting with repression. The discourse of freedom by contrast features a contradiction: it is ‘by definition not only ineffectual but also profoundly alienated from its aim and object’. It persists nevertheless as a deep commitment to individual autonomy.

This can be compared to a delusional discourse — ‘it’s one itself’. Claims to autonomy are clearly individualised rather than connected to those of other people. We encounter problems as soon as we attempt to apply it to the conduct of others or their discourse. The result is a necessary ‘coming to terms with what everyone  effectively contributes [actually] resigned abandonment to reality’ (128). Schreber has to do the same, despite his delusion that he is the sole survivor of the destruction of the world. That there is an external reality is certain notwithstanding his own inner convictions, and he must resign himself to it. Similarly, we have to abandon what we take to be an essential internal discourse about autonomy as soon as we consider the rights of others.

Again this is not reducing thought to some elementary reality. We constantly think about these notions of internal freedom and how they are manifested. Social reality itself ‘is essentially going round in circles’, so we always come back to personal actions which are seen as problematic when applied. This is how we think of ‘an insoluble contradiction between discourse that is at a certain level always necessary and reality to which, both in principle and in a way proved by experience, we fail to adjust’. We should see that analysis ‘is deeply bound up with’ a doubled subject…the ego of every modern man’ (129).

No one feels at home with current relations between human beings. Most of us experience a contradiction between our principles and these relations. The meaning of these relations must remain open and this is why we feel unable to offer specific prescriptions for action or to give specific answers. Psychoanalysis sees this as a positive refusal to take sides, to focus instead on a specialist discourse of specific kinds of individual suffering. However, Schreber’s case will get as close to understanding ‘what the ego really signifies’. It is necessarily enigmatic, with Schreber’s discourse clearly linked to the normal discourses experienced by everyone as soon as we try to think of ourselves as an autonomous individual.

Schreber was always hard to label in the classic terms of psychoanalysis, and he resented being categorised or having his own words interpreted. This appeared as the imposition of another external world which he had already rejected. Is this an hallucination? The usual view is that hallucinations are false perceptions somehow forced on us from the external world, so they are located in the real. But this implies that discourse is a mere superstructure simply referencing reality. The ambiguities of verbal hallucinations show us something different, especially the subject’s role. The issue arises because subjects who speak also hear themselves, and this needs to be explored. If you overattend to the discourse of another, you are imposing an additional form of understanding, sometimes to the exclusion of understanding them. The crucial thing is to attend to meaning. When a subject speaks, he intends a meaning for himself. For the internal listener, meaning can take shape over time, but this also involves increasingly the effects of language itself and how signifiers convey meaning: ‘to listen to words, to give them one's hearing, is already more or less to obey them’ (131). Sense is always heading towards something, ‘towards the closure of meaning’, but this may be endlessly deferred. This is only a problem if we think that discourse aims to end with pointing at a thing. The fundamental reference of discourse instead is ‘being’.

To take a homely example, after a stressful day, we can experience what might be called ‘the peace of the evening’. To call it that adds something to the simple phenomenal experience of the close of day. It’s quite possible to think that other languages might have quite different expressions and different distinctions among the times of day. If it is an expression that we have uttered we will get a different experience than if it comes from someone outside — this latter can generate surprise, appearing as ‘a manifestation of discourse in so far as it barely belongs to us’. Generally speaking, the less we articulate the expression the more effective it can be on our mood.  The expression is a signifier, an arbitrary one, and we can be open to it or closed. The more closed we are, the more surprising and effective it becomes. This cannot be predicted in advance, there is no automatic connection between the signifier and the real. So what we can find with Schreber is that he senses things but does not know them, and is externally affected by signifiers, although they are not recognised as signifiers.

These external effects act as a sort of test of Schreber’s capacities, but they also produce an experience of a potential rupture with the outside absolute Other [who seems to be understood, and not just by Schreber as an ‘interlocutory who has emptied the universe of any authentic presence’] (133). How does this account for the accompanying ‘ineffable voluptuousness’?

The experienced relations to God are painful but they can be understood as ‘four connotations of a linguistic order’ (134). These are first the bellowing, a form of speech ‘which is combined with an absolutely a-signifying vocal function and which nevertheless contains all possible signifiers’ just like ‘what it is that makes a shiver in a dog’s baying at the moon’. Second is the call for help from the divine nerves and souls. Unlike the pure signifier of the bellowing, the call for help has an elementary meaning. Thirdly there are external noises which are seen as the result of miracles and therefore which have a human meaning. They are real noises but they are designed for him. There are other [so this is the fourth?]  miracles as well like the singing birds or the insects. For Lacan, the links between bellowing and the call for help can be understood as ‘traces of the passage of the subject absorbed in an undeniably eroticised link. The connotations are there – this is a male–female relationship’ (135).

There is a whole ‘nonsensical field of eroticised meanings’. For Schreber it’s necessary to be linked to the activities of God, however humiliating or absurd, by trying to understand the fundamental language for example. Whenever he is able to get outside these obsessions, something happens in the external world which appears as an illumination once it has gone through ‘all the component elements of language in a dissociated form’. There is vocal activity producing something like a sense of shame or disarray. These can also be seen as calls for help. Schreber always recognises them as internal speech.

Even the idea of the mysterious penetrating rays can be seen as taking place ‘in a trans-space linked to the structure of the signifier and of meaning’, existing before the familiar dualisation of language in the subject. This has implications for Schreber’s notion of reality. No longer underpinned by internal dialogue [maybe], reality has to be underpinned by something else. To the extent that hallucinations transform reality this is what they do, ‘if we are to preserve any coherence for our language’. The normal borders around the real are not the usual ones, and this can produce a sense of unreality and of novelty in the real.

Hallucinations offer different sorts of reciprocal contrasts and oppositions. The subject himself is the best one to point these out. They play the same role in subjective organisation as with normal subjects. They develop over time. Schreber’s constant awareness of surprise but of mystery ‘is located in the order of his relations with language, of these language phenomena that the subject remains attached to by a very special compulsion’.

We learn that ‘there is a subjective typology’[a special one in psychotics]. This arises from the presence of an unconscious signifier, appearing to be external to the subject but in a specially exterior way. The subject is attached to it ‘through an erotic fixation’. It seems as if space speaks as such, that reality is also affected and also signifying.