Symbolic, Imaginary, Language and Lacan – Freud and Beyond Part 6

Welcome one and all to Part 6 of this series of psychoanalytic blogs inspired by the book Freud and Beyond. While this post covers a few different themes, it is underlined by a particular focus on language and the role of symbolism in the nature of our being. Is language the greatest achievement of humankind – or perhaps the origin of its greatest burdens? Is language simply an incredibly useful tool to help us all get by in life – or has its creation come loaded with a series of inescapable difficulties? Either way, there’s no doubting its significance. From signs and symbols to complex prose, from hidden meanings to layered ideas, subtexts and texts within texts, clearly there is more to language than meets the eye.

Schafer’s special agent

Let’s dive straight in with some of the big guns – beginning with Roy Schafer, the American psychoanalyst. Schafer felt that the language Freud had used to craft his various pioneering ideas had caused problems for future analysts. Schafer believed there wasn’t a clear enough focus and emphasis on the ‘agent’ under scrutiny – the person/patient involved in analysis. Now, this isn’t to say Schafer isn’t as much a disciple of Freud’s as many others in this book, he just felt that there was too much focus on neurotic fantasy and infantile misunderstanding due to the linguistics involved and the way language is used. For Freud, Mitchell and Black tell us, the mind is a vast array of unconscious processes – and our subjective sense of our ‘self’ as an omnipotent agent is an illusion.

Consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg – the person as an agent is dispersed; our conscious sense of agency is illusory and we are merely ‘self puppets’. It is the id, ego and superego that are the dynamic forces which ‘control’ us. Schafer went beyond the likes of Freud, Klein, Fairbairn and Winnicott, who had postulated human beings as “unconscious quasi-agents”, and wrested some of the power back from those classical internalised controlling agents. Schafer “reassembled the dispered subject” as the agent of their own experience. As Mitchell and Black explain, the key question at the heart of all this is – who is doing what to whom?

Schafer highlighted a problem with basic transformations in analysis caused by Freudian methodology – the patient begins by believing all their woes and issues to be ‘true’ from the outset. They’re committed to these beliefs and experiences – and they get safety and control from these secret satisfactions. She HAS BEEN crushed. The world IS dangerous. The affect of Freud‘s impersonal forces leads to a kind of resignation to fate and determinism. It seems to me like the sort of thing that would’ve driven existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre crazy – by not placing enough emphasis on the subject as agent, we appear to cede our sense of responsibility.

Mitchell and Black explain how the language Freud uses describes the mind as if it were a body – and is saturated with neurotic fantasies. Inspired by Wittgenstein, Schafer changed the focus to an “action language” of agents and intentions; instead, he saw the mind as organised according to narratives. In this way, our human behaviour can by studied and explained by drawing on hermeneutics (text interpretation) – psychoanalytic concepts become interpretive storylines. Mitchell and Black suggest that by recontextualising Freud, the “interpretive power to elucidate clinical process is more fully revealed”.

The flaws of language

I find it interesting how one can see the world in so many different ways just by the manner in which they use, consume and interpret language. Language, and the complex communicative skills we’ve built up over time, are amazing achievements for our species – but words and meaning also have a way of being twisted, hidden and skewed – thus creating psychological problems for us, the agent. One only needs to look at the early days of Freud’s career to see this – those patients whose bodies weren’t able to function properly due to issues not with their physiology, but with their minds. Those patients with glove anaesthesia – whose difficulties were not nerve-related but caused by psychological trauma. Freud came to realise that language (words linked to ideas and feelings) could unlock the secrets to these pathological issues; one could get to the root of certain symptoms and address these diseases of the mind simply as a result of ‘talking’.

The French postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida exposes further notions of hidden depths with his deconstruction theory – the idea that there are texts within texts; that any passage of language or a communication of ideas cannot be taken at face value. There are always levels of meaning beyond the words one initially reads – be it the author’s life experiences, personal views, tastes or perhaps different intentions than those that most readers pick up. This also stirs thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche and the manner in which he felt humankind had become hamstrung by its development. Language has helped to bring us closer together in many ways, but it has also given us the power to control one another with notions such as truth and morality. Language allows us to express our feelings – we can tell our significant others how much we love and appreciate them. But it also gives us the power to cause great psychological torment to ourselves and others.

I sometimes wonder if a world without words would be a happier place? That probably sounds stupid. It’s so impossible to imagine. But so is the relativity of time. Maybe there are advanced species in the universe that communicate without words – like animals on this planet. Maybe they’re happier? Maybe ignorance is bliss? I don’t know. But ask yourself this – would human beings still suffer the same kind of psychological pain and trauma if they weren’t able to think using language and words? If we didn’t have these ideas, narratives and painful memories swelling around in our unconscious tied together by a network of signifiers, might we actually be more contented beings? If you don’t have the faculties to experience complex emotional pain, or just pain beyond the physical sensation generally, does that mean you then can’t still feel joy and love? Try telling that to your dog and his wagging tail!

Loewald, enriched culture and the Taoist child

Hans Loewald, the American psychoanalyst who was a contemporary of Martin Heidegger’s and a deep admirer of Freud, couldn’t reconcile with the latter’s idea that culture was based completely on drives. Mitchell and Black explain how Loewald wasn’t sold on Freud’s notion that symbolism in human life is solely a result of these camouflaged infantile desires – for example, the adult architect who designs big skyscrapers due to some childhood phallic wish to demonstrate his sexual potency to claim his mother as his own. Instead, Loewald (in a manner similar to the way Carl Jung saw culture creation as not directly influenced by the incest wish) viewed symbolism as a process of “mutual transformation”.

He believed that reclaimed infantile experience actually enriches adult experience. “The sea is always there, powering, enhancing, resonating through more complex, higher-level experience, in which it finds new life,” write Mitchell and Black. Freud’s id is an “unchanging biological force clashing with social reality” – whereas Loewald’s id is an “interactional product of adaptation”. Loewald believes our early experiences with love objects are not relinquished, but reworked and recreated as adults. Instead of thinking about our artistic and creative power as solely the result of Freudian sublimation of sexual impulses and a redirection of the libido, Loewald considers the symbol as something that creates a ‘novel experience’.

His ideas give a new enriched life to the symbolised. This makes me think about how we need to appreciate the power our childhood memories and experiences have in shaping culture. It keeps us bright and joyful. We need fun and games and play – we need to treasure and champion the joy and vitality of life to keep it interesting. Rather than let the world drain us of our vigour, we should try to invoke the spirit of the Taoist child. The independent, clear-minded, all-seeing child is highest stage of development. Return to the beginning – become a child again. Children are filled with light and happiness – with minds free of knowledge that we don’t need. Try to tap into your childish side as much as you can – you’ll be happy you did.

Lacan and the primacy of language – Dasein, Genuinity and ultimate meaning

I could’ve written some lengthy blogs on French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan alone, so forgive me if I skirt over his ideas a bit to keep this post at a reasonable (not that reasonable) length. Mitchell and Black illuminate the way Lacan believed Freud tried to scientise his vision of the psyche too much. Before 1905, language played a major part in his ideas – be it Freudian slips, neurotic symptoms or the interpretation of dreams. Lacan insisted that psychoanalysis must ground its understanding in the work of linguists and structuralists like De Saussure, Jakobson and Levi-Strauss. Lacan felt that the determinative dimension in human experience was not the self/ego or our relations with others – it was language.

Lacan believed that language was the key to understanding humanity and the way we work. And this makes sense – I mean, what are we without it? We surely cannot exist without forms of language. And, as mentioned, it has this great capacity to help bring us understanding, as well as distort and misdirect. With language comes truth – with truth come lies (the dialectical counter). With lies comes exploitation. Language and power are inextricably linked. Michel Foucault showed us that. Perhaps language is THE defining characteristic of humanity. Perhaps Heidegger’s state of human being, Dasein, and the thrownness of that being into life, is actually entirely dependent on language and its evolution?

Is it actually our ability to communicate on these various complex plains, with all these layers of meaning and understanding, that actually defines our sense of humanity? Does our ability to forge these deep and meaningful connections through language actually give human beings the exalted status that philosophers like Heidegger felt we deserved over animals and other creatures on this planet? Perhaps the meaning of human life is language, communication and the deep connections we are able to make. Maybe this is where my own ideas on Genuinity come to the fore – without language, would we even have the capacity to experience genuine love? Is the love and understanding between, say, a pair of birds or some dolphins or a couple of dogs and their offspring, the same as that which a human couple experiences?

Can animals feel the way same about their love objects/sexual partners/romantic partners as we humans do? Can they experience the same complexity of feelings about their babies? Surely not. Is it not language that allows us to be able to actually think clearly and deeply about the nature of those feelings. Heidegger believed that only a being with Dasein (our sense of human being) is actually capable of reflecting upon its own Dasein. Surely the levels of experience between humans and animal differ greatly? Is it not language that allows us to feel this range of emotions and experience this rich closeness with other human beings? Or does it merely give us the tools with which to express those sentiments? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Lacan, desire of the (m)other and the completion of parenthood

I’ve written a lot now previously on desire in various blogs – and the way Lacan believed we wished to be the object of desire for the mother (or (m)other); to be the completing object. Mitchell and Black explain how Lacan’s mirror stage is this “powerful transformative experience” – where an infant captures its own image in a mirror around the age of six months. Prior to this, the child’s experience is fragmented and disjointed. Suddenly, they become an “integrated whole coordinated image”. But this is an idealised version of oneself – thus the ego is built around various images and illusions, which become the become basis for Lacan’s image(inary); this narcissism, punctuated by feelings of alienation, by which we create fantasy images of both ourselves and our ideal objects of desire.

He thus suggests that the second grounding of development of the imaginary is desire. Now, desire is different from genuine needs. Mitchell and Black tell us that desire is the “wellspring of passion” – the child wishes to be totally captivating; to be everything for the mother/(m)other. The child wishes to embody everything the other desires. It leads me to wonder there is an argument that, by having children, a mother (and father) can address an element of the lack they suffer post-mirror stage. Do we gain a form of completion (acquisition of the object of desire) when we have children of our own? Are they able to fill that existence-defining gap – or does it remain prevalent?

Are a combination of a love object partner and a child/children (and the family dynamic) enough to bring a contentment and satisfaction contrary to the longing brought on by the imaginary split? Is this perhaps just an imaginary ideal – the very notion of family life? Or is it something more concrete? I guess I don’t really have any answers here. The first thing I would point out, is that I don’t personally believe that anyone who doesn’t have children can’t have as happy, contented and fulfilled a life as someone who does. That’s still not to say that either can ever shake the desire for completion that one yearns for as soon as they enter the symbolic order and recognise themselves as a separate person.

But I do think the value of family and kinship generally is vitally important. The simple fact is that if you are born into this world, you have a mother. And probably a father. And are or were part of a family network. And the most contented, settled and fulfilled people I know are those who are part of these safe, loving, protective family networks. Whether that’s blood relatives or just friends, we all need a little support, shelter and love sometimes. And often, those types of close relationships mimic the form of parents and their offspring – the wise, experienced, knowledgeable, caretakers who offer support and advice to their, perhaps, younger companions.

Or less experienced friends. Or more naive chums. Or more vulnerable pals. It isn’t even necessarily related to age or experience – it’s more a case of just having people close to you who you can go to when you need them. People you love and trust. I love my son with all my heart, but I’m not sure if his arrival has necessarily led to me feeling more complete as a being. What it has done, is increase my capacity for feeling love, strengthened my sense of familial closeness and brought this indescribably valuable new element to my existence. If it’s possible to recreate that relationship in any other in any fashion, I would encourage you all to do so. It might not complete you, but it will make you happier.

Fantasy and imaginary and me

I constantly fantasise – about women, sex, what my life could be like, partying, boozing, sporting prowess, success generally, being a rock star – and just generally being the object of desire of others. I live in what seems like a permanent state of fantasy and visualisation. I like to think of the latter as my own Heideggerian futural temporality at work – imagining what I might do later that day, week, month and so on, and then attempting to fulfil as many of those wishes and expectations as possible. Continuing from the previous section inspired by Lacan, all this imaginary living makes me ponder – where does genuine contentment actually come from – and is it possible to achieve? Family? Partner love? Children? Friendships? Achievements? Success? Sex? Money? Fame? Wealth?

Does our imaginary experience (and thus desire) mean we are always seeking a fulfilment we can simply never achieve. My own philosophy is that one’s Genuinity – and the love and meaningful connections that come from that life-affirming, feminine, childish essence of our true self – may offer something of an answer. And yet I cannot be certain that this is not simply a means to softening the blow that this imaginary pursuit has us locked into – until the inertia that comes with death and the end of desire and longing. Do you fantasise much, dear reader? I find it often gives me a kind of dreamy purpose. It’s not that I necessarily want all of the things I fantasise about to happen, I just like basking in the potential of what the experience would feel like if they did.

Lacan, Jung, Persona and Imaginary

I’d like to end this post by thinking, again, about truth, the way that we all live in constant illusory states and explore the notion that we, perhaps, don’t even really know our ‘true’ selves as much as we think we do. I realise this notion might appear to run contrary to my own ideas on Genuinity and our truest and most genuine, compassionate, loving inner core, but I’m also of the opinion that the unconscious is a grand mixture of both negative, hateful and aggressive feelings as well as positive, loving, nurturing ones. Mitchell and Black explicate Lacan’s ideas on the imaginary quite beautifully – telling us how, as social creations, we are like a “hall of mirrors organised around mirages”.

Human beings are constructed out of reflections of the perspectives of others. Lacan believes that we strive to be characters we are not – with needs in relation to others who are also not their ‘true selves’. No wonder so many of us often feel a bit rudderless and struggle to cope in this landscape of false representations. This “unself-conscious” alienated Lacanian world of images and illusions is nothing but reflections of reflections. And Lacan felt this was a major problem with contemporary psychoanalysis – it was taking the imaginary to be real. He saw the ego as a “mirage mistaken for a reality”. Or, as Mitchell and Black describe Lacan’s view of psychoanalysis – a “psychology of interpersonal fictions”.

Anyway, all these different ideas lead me to questioning where truth actually resides for each of us? If we live in this Lacanian imaginary realm and adopt these Jungian personas constantly, how do we actually get to the root of who we truly are? It seems as though subjectivity is almost nothing to do with the subject – it’s a mirage. We are constantly donning these masks. One of the key areas of expansion for Lacan was Freud’s discovery of this linguistic unconscious beneath everything. He felt that our subjectivity needs to be subverted. Or as this famous Lacanian quote explains: “The only truly subjective experience emanates in the unconscious.”

Lacan wanted to see a shift from psychic reality to true reality – he felt the analytic process should allow a more ‘authentic voice’ to be heard. That authentic voice is the truth that resides in our unconscious. How much one is prepared to unlock and share with others, and how helpful that might be, is debatable. But there is certainly a part of me that cannot reconcile with the feeling that we are all wearing these Jungian Persona masks so much of the time that we rarely get to know this huge part of ourselves. We spend so much time dwelling in the imaginary, immersed in fantasy and locked in illusory exchanges, it’s no wonder we all feel a little alienated or uncanny sometimes. It’s no wonder that life is so hard. Maybe we all need to make more of an effort to somehow explore the unconscious side of our being. It might be murky at times – and there might be things about yourself that you find hard to come to terms with but, perhaps, we might all feel lighter, more centred and (dare I say it…) happier once we start to open up a bit more about who we truly are? Just a thought.

4 thoughts on “Symbolic, Imaginary, Language and Lacan – Freud and Beyond Part 6

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