7 October 2012

Against Empathy

Filed under: First Lines, Psychology — ktismatics @ 11:03 am

The psychoanalyst’s first task is to listen and to listen carefully. Although this has been emphasized by many authors, there are surprisingly few good listeners in the psychotherapeutic world. Why is that? …When someone tells us a story, we think of similar stories (or more extreme stories) we ourselves could tell in turn. We start thinking about things that have happened to us that allow us to “relate to” the other person’s experience, to “know” what it must have been like, or at least to imagine how we ourselves would have felt had we been in the other person’s shoes.

In other words, our usual way of listening is centered to a great degree on ourselves — our own similar life experiences, our own similar feelings, our own perspectives. When we can locate experiences, feelings, and perspectives of our own that resemble the other person’s, we believe that we “relate to” that person. We say things like “I know what you mean,” Yeah,” “I hear you,” “I feel for you,” or “I feel your pain” (perhaps less often “I feel your joy”). As such moments, we feel sympathy, empathy, or pity for this other who seems like us; “That must have been painful (or wonderful) for you,” we say, imagining the pain (or joy) we ourselves would have experienced in such a situation.

When we are unable to locate experiences, feelings, or perspectives that resemble the other person’s, we have the sense that we do not understand that person — indeed, we may find the person strange, if not obtuse or irrational. When someone does not operate in the same way that we do or does not react to situations as we do, we are often baffled, incredulous, or even dumbfounded. We are inclined, in the latter situation, to try to correct the other’s perspectives, to persuade him to see things the way we see them and to feel what we ourselves would feel were we in such a predicament. In more extreme cases, we simply become judgmental. How could anyone, we ask ourselves, believe such a thing or act or feel that way?

Most simply stated, our usual way of listening overlooks or rejects the otherness of the other. We rarely listen to what makes a story as told by another person unique, specific to that person alone; we quickly assimilate it to other stories that we have heard others tell about themselves, or that we could tell about ourselves, overlooking the differences between the story being told and the ones with which we are already familiar. We rush to gloss over the differences and make the stories similar if not identical. In our haste to identify with the other, to have something in common with him, we forcibly equate stories that are often incommensurate, reducing what we are hearing to what we already know. What we find most difficult to hear is what is utterly new and different: thoughts, experiences, and emotions that are quite foreign to our own and even to any we have thus far learned about.

It is often believed that we human beings share many of the same feelings and reactions to the world, which is what allows us to more or less understand each other and constitutes the foundation of our shared humanity… I would propose that the more closely we consider any two people’s thoughts and feelings in a particular situation, the more we are forced to realize that there are greater differences than similarities between them — we are far more different than we tend to think!…

In effect, we can understand precious little of someone’s experience by relating it or assimilating it to our own experience. We may be inclined to think that we can overcome this problem by acquiring much more extensive experience of life… We ourselves may fall into the trap of thinking that we simply need to broaden our horizons, travel far and wide, and learn about other peoples, languages, religions, classes, and cultures in order to better understand a wider variety of analysands. However, if acquiring a fuller knowledge of the world is in fact helpful, it is probably not so much because we have come to understand “how the other half lives” or how other people truly operate, but because we have stopped comparing everyone with ourselves to the same degree…

If our attempts to “understand” ineluctably lead us to reduce what another person is saying to what we think we already know (indeed, that could serve as a pretty fair definition of understanding in general), one of the first steps we must take is to stop trying to understand so quickly.

– Bruce Fink, Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique: A Lacanian Approach for Practitioners (2007), pages 1-4



  1. This is very provocative. I have been wondering if Sontag’s ‘Against Interpretation’ started the continuing vogue in ‘Against…’ articles and posts. At least, the last line says something that resonates, must be the same thing as patience, one of the most difficult virtues for some of us to acquire.


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 7 October 2012 @ 12:49 pm

  2. See that’s another connection I see with Christianity/Orthodoxy. A believer in God must rid himself of any and all pretense that he knows – anything. And put himself in a state which far from being mystical in the sense of losing consciousness, is a heightened awareness, an alertness. Only then can he cope to fathom God, but only on God’s terms that is to say you can’t measure, predict or know if and when God will speak to you.
    Sure you can always remark, but Lacan never believed in God! That’s true. However to what extent is it important that he used the words Ego and Unconscious instead?


    Comment by cpc — 7 October 2012 @ 12:56 pm

  3. Reblogged this on Behind The Smile and commented:
    I’m sure many people can understand the feeling of frustration when you’re having a difficult time and just need someone to listen, and they say “I understand” or “I’ve been through something similar… blah blah blah *insert their own personal story that really doesn’t relate to yours*”.
    This is an interesting excerpt that this blogger highlighted in a post of their own. Definitely worth taking a look at and thinking about.


    Comment by behindthislyingsmile — 7 October 2012 @ 1:04 pm

  4. I love that it’s from a book about a Lacanian approach. Didn’t he have like one of the highest rates of suicide for his clients? Something about ending the sessions whenever there was an awakening of sorts, which was always at a different amount of time and drove some people mad. In a lot of ways I think he was a genius.
    In terms of that excerpt, wow. It often baffles me how hard it can sometimes be to listen to someone speaking, especially when they are having a hard time. Every inch of my psyche wants to exude “I understand, I hope you feel better, I felt like that too…” and yet I know it is not as meaningful or useful as I want it to be.
    I wonder if this is why its easier to make friends as you go through things together. Some crazy shenanigans allow you both to *feel* the same thing, and after that, there is a more solid connection. If you speak of the event, you both know what it felt like without having to express it, and you share some type of wordless closeness that permeates other situations as well, providing a feeling of “friendship” even without constantly having to create closeness with words alone.
    I feel like this is related to a shortcoming of language itself. I think we *do* feel the same way as people a lot, but we can’t express it clearly with words, and the person doesn’t really need to know that, anyway.


    Comment by Jennifer Stuart — 7 October 2012 @ 1:55 pm

  5. “Against interpretation” is I think a strong corollary to Fink’s viewpoint here. To claim that a novel or movie “really means” something else, informed either by one’s own experience or by whatever Procrustean theoretical rack you might want to use as your analyst’s couch, is to violate the integrity of the work, reducing it to some hidden content to which you claim privileged access. We had some discussion earlier about whether great novelists of the interior like James have a deeper understanding of the human condition than the rest of us, and whether it’s possible to learn about people by reading such novels. I’m skeptical, in part because of what Fink says here: James may project onto his characters features of his own psychological complexities. Fink isn’t going to eschew understanding altogether. He’s just wanting to avoid certain preconceptions based on some presumed visceral or neural connections shared across humans. Let the other speak for himself. On the other hand, I tend to believe that Fink overstates the special-snowflake uniqueness of each individual.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 October 2012 @ 1:55 pm

  6. “a heightened awareness, an alertness”

    Fink, following Freud, encourages the cultivation of a “free-floating awareness” or an “evenly hovering attention.” Not listening for anything in particular, or for what you expect to hear. It is

    “an attentiveness that floats from point to point, from statement to statement, without necessarily trying to draw any conclusions from them, interpret them, put them all together, or sum them all up.

    Presumably this diffuse awareness allows one to concentrate not just on the other person’s intended meaning, but also on unintended meanings, or the way the meaning is conveyed, or what’s left out in the story. That’s an attunement to the unconscious, a discipline to be cultivated, not unlike what some religious adepts try to practice.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 October 2012 @ 2:05 pm

  7. I know exactly how you feel, BTS ;) The place where I impose my own POV on others is in trying to help the person come up with a solution, a plan. This seems pragmatic and useful, but as I think about it now I realize that I’m particularly attuned to the emotion of frustration, of not being able to make something happen. I presume that’s what the other person feels too, so I kick into a mode aimed at reducing the other’s frustration. Plus, to be honest with myself, I find the other person’s dilemma to be a source of my own frustration: why can’t they move on? And I’m concerned about being a source of the other’s ongoing frustration, unable to give that person what they expect from me. So the problem-solving mode shifts something like blame from me back to the other. Not so good.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 October 2012 @ 2:25 pm

  8. Wittgenstein has this idea in Philosophical Investigations of the strangeness of the everyday and that the sense of this is the real beginning of our inquiry. Most people know the difference between ‘I’ve had just that feeling’ as an attempt to colonise and the offering of sympathy. Someone operating out of a theoretical schema will have an awareness of range and type without embracing the epistemically dubious ‘same’. By going to a Lacanian, Jungian or Freudian analyst is one not agreeing to speak in those languages and adopt those metres? Similarly you might take on Zen or Vipassana or atma vichara (who am I) or Prayer of the Heart and these become the net of experience.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 7 October 2012 @ 2:46 pm

  9. I hadn’t heard that about Lacan’s patients having a high suicide rate, Jennifer, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have wanted him as my analyst. It would almost surely piss me off to be cut off mid-session, or even mid-sentence, at the whim of the analyst. Fink defends this practice of the variable-length session, called “scanding.” Stopping at the moment of great insight keeps it fresh in awareness, and it’s ultimately the analysand’s job to self-interpret rather than relying on the analyst. Then there’s this from Fink:

    The fixed-length session gives analysands the false impression that in coming to see the analyst they will be paying for a service like any other, a service whose conditions are regulated by a kind of contractual agreement in which analysands can be sure of getting exactly what they pay for. This allows them to think of themselves as customers or “clients” — a term now consecrated by American psychological usage — who have the right to make specific demands upon the analyst. This opens the door to a fundamental misconception about what they can expect in analysis; virtually all analysts agree that it is important to frustrate many, if not the vast majority, of the analysand’s demands or request.

    Now if the analyst gave me a discount for the short session I’d be more sympathetic to this view. Or perhaps if I could pay the analyst based on what I got out of the sessions. Or maybe set a price based on average session length. Or if sessions were paid for by the state I would have no problem. But this idea of cutting the time short without a discount sounds too easily exploited by the unscrupulous analyst whose analysands are in a vulnerable position, reluctant to confront the analyst for fear of retribution. I know people who are afraid of contradicting or questioning any doctor for fear that they’ll be resented and get bad care in the future.

    I certainly think that empathy is real and that people bond on the basis of shared experiences. At the same time, I find that in the last few years I’ve enjoyed talking to strangers more than to old friends, in part because we don’t have these shared experiences and expectations. Partly this is because not all of those shared experiences are positive ones, and I also have a sense of people using what they know about me as weapons against me, or that they don’t know me as well as I think they should by now. Embittered? Sure, to an extent. With strangers I have no expectations of mutual understanding and support that are going to be disappointed, no weight of the past piled on my shoulders. I feel more relaxed and open in these random encounters.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 October 2012 @ 3:16 pm

  10. “Most people know the difference between ‘I’ve had just that feeling’ as an attempt to colonise and the offering of sympathy.”

    Even less excuse then. I agree though, Michael, that an expression of sympathy is better than indifference, but it might not be better than the “I know what that’s like, let me tell you about me” response. The offerer of sympathy might have the best of intentions, but those intentions aren’t necessarily of importance to the recipient. It’s certainly my experience that people love to go on and on about themselves, that a kind of one-upsmanship gets triggered by the recounting of specific experiences, and so on. But certainly we’re not in a therapeutic or analytic relationship with our friends and acquaintances; this is just the way people tend to talk with each other.

    “Someone operating out of a theoretical schema will have an awareness of range and type without embracing the epistemically dubious ‘same’.”

    I agree, Michael; otherwise we’re trapped in a Borgesian Funes-memory sink where nothing is comparable to anything else. In a Lacanian context I think that the successful outcome of analysis entails becoming a “subject,” not bound up in stereotypic routines and expectations. But if I achieve subjectivity maybe I’m less concerned about demonstrating my difference as the basis for my special and unique value as an individual.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 October 2012 @ 3:33 pm

  11. All this made me remember freshman lessons in (of all places!) cognitive-behavioral learning theory, which was taught by a brilliant guy so anally retentive that he had a visceral disliking of anything arbitrary, and hated not only psychoanalysis but ALL approaches other than CBT. Nevertheless, he was adamant about one crucial point: therapies like psychodrama, Gestalt, transactional analysis, Primal Scream etc all violently interpret the analysand’s discourse with THEIR OWN metaphors – for example, the transactional theory speaks in terms of Greek myths – this is like Antigone, and that is like Oedipus. They don’t let you speak for yourself.


    Comment by cpc — 7 October 2012 @ 3:55 pm

  12. I certainly think that empathy is real and that people bond on the basis of shared experiences.

    I think what you call ”empathy” in Flower generation lingo refers to the Unconscious in psychoanalysis. Although the Unconscious is not ”shared” as in ”collective Unconscious”, it is set up the same way in all people – a chain of free-floating signifiers. This is I think what one can recognize in the other.


    Comment by cpc — 7 October 2012 @ 3:59 pm

  13. Sympathy is often expressed in a formulaic way which can respect the sufferer without drawing attention to the great powers of fellow feeling of the person expressing that sympathy. It can be a nod of the head or eye contact as much as verbal. It allows the other to go on. Someone may tell you they are mortally ill or that their son got killed in an accident or that they killed someone in an accident. It’s a trust and not a springboard to an opera of your own.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 7 October 2012 @ 4:56 pm

  14. “But certainly we’re not in a therapeutic or analytic relationship with our friends and acquaintances; this is just the way people tend to talk with each other.”

    But we are. Not to think so is actually to proclaim some agreement with the environments and rules of the analyst. I have always managed to short-circuit this, only to find that the matters of decent personal treatment–frustrating or gratifying wishes of a patient–have recently been used upon me by two physicians. They were both good doctors, but one was practising the non-gratification of the analyst, so that healing became more difficult; it was as though he didn’t really want it to fully occur, and he did try to keep coming up with more follow-up visits that were not necessary, so he could collect. I was sent there by my Primary Care Physician, is the polar opposite, and who understood my complaints about the dermatologist, who was only a good technician. In many ways, he was odious, and had been conditioned by his many spoiled women who come for endless cosmetic surgery. In my two experiences with actual psychologists (I suppose I’ve never been to a bona fide ‘psychoanalyst’, because you have already accepted their terms if you get there), they are not unlike what you describe as analyst and analysand, and they all, with few exceptions, as my G.P. above, try to take you in and do not try to prevent obviously unnecessary visits, which is where you stand alone and tell them them thank you and fuck you, but no, you’ve finished. The SPOILAGE of person in deep therapy so often shocks me that you wonder how they espouse leftist political views at all. It is the most pampering, silly lot of shit imaginable so much of the time, and they become ‘friends’, and quit charging so they can remain in sexual power of the analysand, the born masochist so many times. D. has spent almost all her life in analysis and thinks that it is the true secret, except that it’s never improved her personality one iota. Prozac, when she finally started it a few years ago, actually did more. Recently, when Christian thought I was in serious danger after my surgery, but on the verge of a real nervous breakdown, wanted me to check in to some psychiatric treatment thing or other. To avoid this, I got my G.P. to prescribe 2 anti-depressants one after the other, both of which I’ve stopped taking after their side effects convinced me they weren’t worth tolerating. BUT–during the time I took them, they gave me a sense of security that I was going to be able to get real benefit from them, i.e., long enough for me to actually calm down although I took neither of them long enough for them to have their beneficial effects. I had never taken one before, and I find it incredible how different they are from anti-anxiety drugs, which are straightforward at least, and act within a relatively short time. These are strange in that you are supposed to accept that it always takes 3-4 weeks for the beneficial effects to take place. But they don’t tell you that you pick up the side effects very quickly, and decide whether they are worth putting up with to get to that ‘promised land’. I found they were not, the one caused total loss of libido, the second stimulated the libido and caused insomnia and nervousness and sweating and even ‘burnt-rubber smells’, as one Welbutrin user described them. Nobody thought I was clkinically depressed, but that an ADP would help me. In fact, they did, just by keeping me away from psychiatric units and imagining I would get better. When I stopped both ADP’s, I felt immediatelly better. Which doesn’t mean I might not try the welbutrine, at least, again, while I have the prescription, but its use for the moment was excellent. I doubt most have used them that way though, and things like loss of libido are easily overlooked by those who must be in near-suicidal states (I thought I was, but must not have been.) In any case, I think there is trickle-down economics from this analyst-analysand dynamic by now, literally everywhere.

    It may boil down to a matter of taste, for all I know. I didn’t even like the two psychologists, but I remember getting ‘infected’ by a friend who was doing ‘deep analysis’, by one of his dreams that his shrink ‘analyzed’, and it took the longest time for me to get HIS analysis out of my head, but I finally did, wondering what the hell had got that going. I also noticed a masklike look among many New York anger-types who were analysands. It was quite striking, and I’m sure it comes from being in those hideous rooms which are always surreally different from other places, along with the clock ticking. You are supposed to be trapped, such disorienting furniture and atmosphere seem to say. They wait awhile until they start begging you to stay: The first one said ‘Is it something I said?’ as though I just didn’t need him anymore. The second was much more canny, and even tried to practice on me some 15 years later in a public library, pressenting himself as a stranger, but still acting as though we were in his office, with him having no name. I reported his crazed behaviour to the librarians, who took his side, so I scared the Head Librarian by looking up his home address in the phone book, and writing him flirtatious letters. She’s never been the same since, and as of this summer, has taken to wearing beehive hairdos.


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 7 October 2012 @ 5:06 pm

  15. I’d say that empathy is unconscious, that it doesn’t rely on conscious intentionality as the basis for an emotional connection between people. Fink regards empathy as an obstacle to the analyst’s ability to recognize the more idiosyncratic movements of the unconscious in the analysand. It is a good question whether this visceral responsiveness to the other really ought to be set aside in certain kinds of relations or, per Michael’s view, whether it should serve as a foundation of mutual respect.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 October 2012 @ 8:43 pm

  16. I wonder what percentage of practicing US analysts are in New York. In my experience most psychiatrists don’t do much more than prescribe meds and supervise therapy provided by the less expensive short-term therapy practitioners covered by health insurance. Analysis seems like such a luxury service, taking so much time and money. I believe I was a more introspective person when younger, and maybe then I’d have valued the opportunity to explore my inner workings for an hour or two a week over a long duration. Now I think it would just make me nervous and impatient. Maybe my neuroses have coalesced into personality disorders over time, which are less amenable to the talking cure. Lacan said “It is often more important to sustain the problem than to solve it.” I’m sure the rationale is that people are motivated by symptoms to get to the deeper roots of their problems, but it sounds suspiciously like a crass strategy to keep the meter running.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 October 2012 @ 8:58 pm

  17. I guess the wise-ass would tell Fink that he’s done too much “understanding” of how people do their understanding.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 7 October 2012 @ 9:23 pm

  18. “It is often more important to sustain the problem than to solve it.”

    But if he said that, he probably meant ‘usually’. I would agree with the statement superficially, but of course it’s not always the case, problems usually need to be solved–unless one things pain is fashionable, and therefore desirable, because problems are problems partially because they are undesirable and need untangling. Lacan certainly knew how to sustain his own neuroses, and therein lies much of the significance. He kept the most beastly aspects of himself intact, and I have a certain degree of sympathy for that, but he was obviously a monster.

    Probably a huge percentage in NYC and LA, because these are the sybaritic cities of the U.S., and are famous for insanity and neurosis. They exist here all right too. People totally into it seem to have no problem with the conflict between the secret world of their analysis and their ridiculous performances in real life.

    I’ve noticed the same thing about neurosis to personality disorder, the latter of which are respected and can be sustained with profit from time to time, whereas neurosis is unstable and wobbly, like Obama ‘throwing like a girl’ the other night. That was neurotic.


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 7 October 2012 @ 9:46 pm

  19. You think maybe Fink is projecting, Asher? Or that he’s in denial about the importance of empathy in establishing a good relationship with anyone, including a psychoanalytic relation? I can never quite decide whether I lack understanding of others, whether I understand what they don’t understand about themselves, or whether they’re being duplicitous to throw me off the track. I’ve not gotten far in Fink’s book, but I suspect that eventually he’ll assert that it’s not important for the analyst to understand the analysand; what’s important is to know thyself. And that’s fair enough. I would find it manipulative and condescending if the analyst knew about me but withheld that knowledge because I wasn’t ready to hear it.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 October 2012 @ 10:31 pm

  20. From this essay written in response to a Lacan biography:

    IN THE AUTUMN OF 1975 Jacques Lacan, the French structuralist psychoanalyst, paid a rare visit to the United States. Convinced that he was world famous, he announced on his arrival in New York that he wanted to make a private visit to the Metropolitan Opera House. ‘Tell them I am Lacan,’ he said. His academic hosts were momentarily nonplussed but, knowing the perils of crossing their guest, rapidly found a solution to the problem. They phoned the director of the Metropolitan and told him that Jean-Paul Sartre wanted to visit incognito. Flattered, the director agreed at once. Having been warned not to address the philosopher by name, he received his distinguished French visitor graciously and a memorable day ensued. Lacan was delighted by his welcome.

    Later Lacan scandalised everyone during a lecture at the Massachusetts Instititute of Technology by the way he answered a question about thought put to him by Noam Chomsky. ‘We think we think with our brains,’ said Lacan. ‘But personally I think with my feet. That’s the only way I really come into contact with anything solid. I do occasionally think with my forehead, when I bang into something. But I’ve seen enough electroencephalograms to know there’s not the slightest trace of a thought in the brain.’ When he heard this, Chomsky concluded that the lecturer must be a madman…

    During his lifetime Lacan became notorious not only for the obscurity of his prose but also for the shortness of his treatment sessions. Latterly these sessions lasted between three and ten minutes with one of Lacan’s patients paying £110 for a session which lasted barely a minute and was conducted at the entrance of his apartment through a door barely ajar.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 October 2012 @ 10:42 pm

  21. If his definition of understanding is correct, then he is by definition projecting if he thinks he understands how other people do their understanding. He’s specifically talking about how the analyst’s mind is supposedly operating, so isn’t he in a way committing the sin he wants the analyst to avoid?

    If not – if one can say things about how another’s mind works, without reducing it to what we think we already know – then his definition is incorrect.

    My impression is that he wants to make his ideas seem dramatic. He could have as easily said that the analyst should be wary of the way empathy can limit our understanding, without defining understanding itself as something reductive. In that way he sounds kind of French to me.

    But it also sounds like his basic idea might have some value. Setting aside the conceptual drama, it seems like he’s just saying that it can be misleading to relate someone else’s experience to one’s own. In terms of very basic experiences (hunger, maybe, or physical pain), it’s probably not all that misleading. But for more complex, social experiences (shame, honor, hierarchies of drives and moral priorities), it definitely could be a problem.

    I do think we *always* understand things in terms of other things. It’s simply how our minds work. To conceptualize is to be metaphorical, or at least isomorphic.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 8 October 2012 @ 1:52 am

  22. I can never quite decide whether I lack understanding of others, whether I understand what they don’t understand about themselves, or whether they’re being duplicitous to throw me off the track.

    So it sounds like you’re a realist. Even people who earnestly try to understand themselves engage in self-deception and confabulation. For all but the simplest actions, the question, “Why did you do that?” is a rabbit-hole. To really say I understood myself, would I need an elaborate and accurate theory of mind?

    Maybe Fink will end up saying that we should stop understanding ourselves as well.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 8 October 2012 @ 2:04 am

  23. “he is by definition projecting if he thinks he understands how other people do their understanding.”

    Fink might not disagree, Asher. It’s paradoxical to me that Fink presents in clear intentional language a system based on disregarding or working around clear intentional language. He’s trying to describe from the outside a practice that can only be experienced from the inside. It’s why he insists that the analyst’s own analysis is the most important aspect of his training.

    Lacan discounts what Goffman called “the presentation of self” as a kind of orchestrated performance, deceiving not just the audience but also the self. And so the analyst is going to listen not for what the analysand intends to convey about himself, but for what gets hidden behind the curtain. Slips, elisions, “on the one hand” without ever getting to the other hand, choices of particular metaphors as descriptive aids — it’s only through the gaps in ordinary discourse, the Lacanian lacunae, that the Real can be glimpsed. It’s a kind of discipline the analyst imposes on himself to “defer understanding” so that he can tune in to these other registers and overtones. I think that Fink is expressing similar skepticism about empathy; i.e., that this source of interpersonal connection is predicated not on the Real but on the Image. For Fink as for Lacan, finding commonalities between the self and the other always turns also into comparison, comparison into competition, competition into the doubling of the self in the other — into a loss of differentiation in the subject. So a Lacanian will attempt to break down the orchestrated self, to “deconstruct” it I suppose, to open more cracks in the armor for the real to come through.

    I have some respect for this position. But I’m less skeptical about the ability of language to point toward the Real, or even to represent it. Obviously the word “tree” isn’t the same as the thing it’s meant to describe, but that doesn’t mean that the tree is nonexistent or that it’s completely different from my perception or description of it. So too my description of my anger or self-doubt or whatever: the words aren’t the same thing as what they describe, but they’re not completely disconnected from it either. What would the “real” tree be, or “real” anger? Lacan isn’t prepared to say. This I think is a point of contact with the object-oriented crowd by the way: the essence of everything real always withdraws from human conscious understanding. But for me there’s something cultic about breaking down the analysand’s discourse and personal self-representation in order to build it up again according to someone else’s understanding of the “real self.”


    Comment by ktismatics — 8 October 2012 @ 8:04 am

  24. The story about the Met Opera and Sartre is fantastic. I suppose Lacan never found out. But it’s hard to know how much such overt vanity would cause harm in certain fields but not in others. In a field where you have patients, this kind of fee for a minute visit probably just shows the logical outcome of Lacan’s persona. He clearly had no empahy at all, so he’d be the perfect example for anyone who thinks empathy is always misplaced. I don’t find it at all convincing that ‘coldest is always best’. It goes well beyond ‘tough-love’ and into an obvious sadism. I’m sometimes attracted to this sort until I’m sure that’s all it is, and then I am sure that its use has been exhausted.


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 8 October 2012 @ 11:41 am

  25. “Slips, elisions, “on the one hand” without ever getting to the other hand, choices of particular metaphors as descriptive aids — it’s only through the gaps in ordinary discourse, the Lacanian lacunae, that the Real can be glimpsed. It’s a kind of discipline the analyst imposes on himself to “defer understanding” so that he can tune in to these other registers and overtones”

    I have a certain amount of sympathy for that view. But I do think it requires some kind of formal theory to even work. Even the idea that slips and elisions mean something implies a theory that “communalizes” mental processes, even if it insists that my slip means something different than yours.

    I agree with you about language and the “real”. What may seem a really dramatic idea for an OO person (ontological withdrawal) is almost a truism for a physical monist like me with a strong bent toward embodied cognition.

    And I agree with Patrick that the Met story was fantastic. I am only slightly ashamed to say that a story in which Lacan is presented as a buffoon gives me a warm feeling inside.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 8 October 2012 @ 1:37 pm

  26. I’ll have to try Lacan’s ploy next time I want a table at a crowded restaurant: “Tell them I am Doyle.” His acolytes shouldn’t have spared the Master’s vanity — surely it was his unspoken and unconscious desire to be subjected to public humiliation.


    Comment by ktismatics — 8 October 2012 @ 2:15 pm

  27. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/oct/25/empathy-caravaggio/

    Just saw this, no time to read it yet, it seems to be about Caravaggio. i’m going to get to it in the next few days.


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 8 October 2012 @ 6:56 pm

  28. I’m off to visit my father in South Carolina for a week — I might send a dispatch or two from that remote location.


    Comment by ktismatics — 9 October 2012 @ 3:55 am

  29. Nothing could be finah than a be in Carolina i a maw-aw-nin… as sung by Al Jolson.


    Comment by lafayettesennacherib — 9 October 2012 @ 9:43 am

  30. Free wifi at the Dallas airport, where I’m presently sitting in what one of the group of Texas ladies seated near me playing cards calls a “big-ass chair” — padded leather-upholstered comfort. Do you know the obscene lyrics to this song, L? Think of an alternative rhyme to “finah” and you’re well on your way.


    Comment by ktismatics — 9 October 2012 @ 11:07 am

  31. This is great. Of course I can’t help but think of my own current post and its commentary. ;-)

    I think I remember Watzlawick somewhere talking about what made Erickson (Milton, not Erik) such a great therapist, and it was his delight to encounter the genuinely unfamiliar. They were kingpins of the ‘brief therapy’ movement, the idea roughly being that problems are best dissolved rather than solved and that the brain best learns new tricks quickly, before the defenses and buffers can kick in.

    I do a little with Goffman and Lacan, via Zizek, in Rachel’s paper. Openly strip-mining them for conceptual value rather than trying to do each theoretical complex justice, which is a very different project. Anyhoo, I’d disagree with Lacan’s take on Goffman, although I don’t know what work it was doing for him at the time. But I think Goffman is in general very poorly understood, in part because he yielded up quotable aphorisms that are so easy to take issue with out of context.


    Comment by CarlD — 9 October 2012 @ 12:49 pm

  32. I just free-associated Goffman when thinking about Lacan’s regarding intentional self-presentation as being a matter of Image and thus inevitably a distortion of the Real. I.e., I was invoking G’s title as a quotable aphorism. The likelihood of L having read G is remote, bit there would surely be something fruitful to be gained by exploring the association more substantively. I might have something to say about your theoretical elaboration on Rachel’s project in a day or two, after I’ve reached my destination and had a chance to read your post without my battery zeroing out on me.


    Comment by ktismatics — 9 October 2012 @ 1:09 pm

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