Passion for the Human Subject: A Psychoanalytical Approach Between Drives and Signifiers

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Each one of us has to be born "inter urinas et faeces", as St. Augustine so strikingly put it. More recently, Freud's 1915 discovery of 'instincts' - that is, 'drives' - and their 'viscitudes' leads us further to envision a human subjectivity that would have nothing mataphysical about it. The baby's "feeling of himself" first arises in the midst of the earliest interactions with his parental partner, establishing his 'drive monatges' whose acomplishment forms a circuit latching on to something in the first other.In the course of these early interactions, the 'new subject' evoked by Freud will gradually take on its own qualities, accoridng to the signifcations that it can grasp in the primordial partner's messages, responding to the baby's manifestation of needs. One of Lacan's key ideas is that 'signifiers' are percieved first of all in the Other. The Freudian subject may then be defined as 'an agent of corporeal energy caught up in a signifying relation with his parental other (already a subject)'. As a conseqeuence of the newborn's 'prematurity and subjection', the incomparable development of human subjectivity occurs through a sort of passion - the same passion that must be revisited in every psychoanalytic treatment. And what could be more 'passionately'engaging than the precariousness of this complex function? The preconditions for it appear most clearly when the psychoanalysis runs up against its own limits - for example, when dealing with grave problems of 'subjectivisation' in the adolescent.

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1 The drive circuit as generator of subjectivation

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One day we're going to have to accept that the most subversive part of Freud's thought is that it upsets the theory of subjectivity by placing at its origin the myth of the drive, by making the subject into the subject of the drive … at times leading the drive, at other times being lead by it.

André Green (1989)

If Freud generally avoided the use of the term “subject” in his work, it is probably because he was wary of its established usage in philosophy to designate a supposedly pre-eminent instance of the psyche-that very same conscious ego that has been dethroned by Freud's attempt at decentralizing the psychic apparatus, which is the foundation of his metapsychology.

There is, however, one remarkable exception to Freud's avoidance of this term. In “Instincts1 and Their Vicissitudes” (Freud, 1915c), he repeatedly and systematically refers to the notion of subject when evoking a certain kind of destiny (vicissitude) of basic pairs of drives: that in which the turning around upon oneself (upon one's own body) combines with reversal into its opposite. This is a reversal of the aim of the drive-that is, the satisfaction sought in an active or a passive way. Freud also mentions here another kind of reversal, of content, found in the single instance of the transformation of love into hate-which he will later examine separately.

 

2 Oral drive functioning and subjection

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Ayoung woman, whom I will call Vera, was afflicted with an oral drive destiny that took the form of bulimic episodes: an auto-erotic short-circuiting, no doubt aimed at staving off some unbearable subjective suffering. Any search for satisfaction in a passive mode seemed only to precipitate her into unconditional and degrading dependency. I came to suppose (in the sense of constructions in analysis) that a strong need for control on the part of her mother—a horror of passivation in the latter—might have given their drive exchanges a destructive character from the outset, mortgaging the development of Vera’s oral libido. This patient had come to exercise her oral drive activity in a defensive way (autistically), falsely battening it down over the de-metaphorized object of alimentary need. Unable to access a reversibility in her partner (other) that would allow for a more subjectively enriching drive trajectory, she seemed to have maintained herself in a form of restrictive submission in relation to her first drive interactions.

 

3 “A Child Is Being Beaten”: the three stages of the subjectivation of fantasy

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In Freud’s 1919 study “A Child Is Being Beaten” (1919e), he clearly continues the development of his theorization of drive destinies (1915c). Proposing to shed light on the origin of perversions, Freud will raise, I think, the question of the ways in which fantasy is subjectivated; and he will depict this subjectiva-tion as taking place through the positional turning around of drive destiny. More precisely, he will pinpoint the stage of passivation— the reversal of the drive’s aim into a passive one—as essential to the subjective appropriation of personal enjoyment. Although the term subject does not appear as such in this text, Freud here attempts to describe the steps by which a drive representative (a sadomasochistic one in this case) may be subjectively appropriated in fantasy.

It is striking to note that this text is constructed according to the same scheme as “Instincts [drives] and Their Vicissitudes [destinies]” (1915c). In the first part (Chaps. 1 to 3), Freud attempts to describe the three successive positional configurations of the protagonists of the beating scenario, in such a way as to arrive at a generally applicable model. In a second part (Chap. 4), he examines this same process from the perspective of the libidinal economy, with the demand for love that can come into play there. Finally, a third part (Chaps. 5 and 6) develops his preoccupation with the origin of perversions. Here I shall focus only on the first part, the one that describes the succession of the subjective positions in question.

 

4 The misfortunes of Sophie, or the bad subject to come

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Nowadays we frequently have to deal with so-called borderline cases with pathological behaviours that give the impression of a drama being replayed indefinitely. With many adolescents in particular, we suspect the presence of some psychic determinism that the youngster in question may be unable to subjectivate into a personal discourse, and which therefore takes the form of acts. The psychoanalyst finds him/herself in the paradoxical position of not being able to rely on the youngster’s own speech to provide the keys to understanding the alienation from which he or she is so obviously suffering.

Here the ordinary spoken encounter between patient and analyst proves unsuited at the outset as an aid to recovery. This is the case with those common problems that are lumped under the heading of academic phobia, and which usually lead the teenager to serve up a vaguely rationalizing or fabricating discourse, without given any effective clue as to what is actually hampering him as a subject.

It is precisely this deficiency in the verbal exchange that makes it advisable to approach such youngsters within an institutional setting. But what kind of setting is best suited to fostering the advent of true speech, working towards the emergence of the “bad subject” (Lacan, 1959)1 within them, giving them the means to subjectivate their behaviours and make them capable of rendering an account of them? Experience with so-called behavioural pathologies teaches the psychoanalyst the usefulness of buttressing his/her practice with a framework set up to fulfil two essential conditions:

 

5 Adolescence of the Freudian subject

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What this book has to say about the emergence of the subject function as related to drive is fed by clinical work with adolescents in particular. Indeed, adolescence is inaugurated precisely by what I propose to call a change in the drive system—that is, the phenomenon of the pubertaire (Gutton, 1991), which consecrates the manifest rupture with childhood.

In practice, it is by means of this pubertaire step (which is first a physiological one) that the entry into adolescence is ordinarily determined; however, at the other extreme, at the exit from adolescence, it will be mainly social criteria that will allow us to determine whether a young person has attained adult status. It is interesting to note that each term of this double boundary that delineates adolescence has the characteristic of being situated outside the area proper to psychology! But the psychoanalyst will be able to find in this observation evidence confirming the swaying between, on the one hand, the putting into play of drive renewal in its real dimension and, on the other hand, the emergence from the subject of new symbolic exchanges.

 

6 Foreclosure of signification and the suffering subject

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The existence of established fantasy, a constructed scenario in the psychic apparatus, should not be taken for granted; it is not a natural given. Freud calls our attention to this in the first phase of “A Child Is Being Beaten” (1919e), as we saw in chapter 3. In our analytic practice, whether in our private office or in an institution, we are not always faced with a fantasy transference (more usually called object transference) in the patient. The phenomenon of displacement [Übertragung] of the past into the present which makes up the transference can in fact take place in very different registers; so that the gamut of said transferences constitutes a wide qualitative spectrum, based on the degree of symbolization and more basically the extent to which they can be represented in images in the patient’s psyche.

This should remind us of the importance of the real as a psychic category (Lacan). This may be conceived of as a register of perceptive imprints that fall short of the possibility of being put into images in the psyche, and also as a residue of the process of sym-bolization. It is a register of the psychic apparatus, which should not as such be equated with the world’s brute reality, which is the object of physicists, nor can it be limited to biological elements.

 

7 The key role of the phallus signifier in the subjectivation of sexuality

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The phallus1 (representation of the erect male organ) has had, throughout all times and in many different cultures, the function of representing human desire. But this representation is in itself the vehicle for a sort of intrinsic paradox whose economic incidence is illustrated by the case Freud reports of certain adults fixated on the imaginary representation of “the woman with a penis”. There is a kind of freeze-frame effect in those who have the typical dream, wherein, Freud says (1908c): “the dreamer, in a state of nocturnal sexual excitation, will throw a woman down, strip her and prepare for intercourse—and then, in place of the female genitals, he beholds a well-developed penis and breaks off the dream and the excitation” (p. 216). Here the dreamer’s awakening is a punishment for the dream’s failure to provide a solution in terms of libidinal economy; it is as if the appearance of the erect penis was in itself traumatic, stopping dead the pursuit of the sexual aim and the search for drive satisfaction.

 

8 Sublimation, latency, and subjectivation

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Growth at puberty is preceded by what psychoanalysts, following Freud’s lead, still refer to as a latency period, supposed to extend from around 7 to 11 years of age. This notion of “putting into latency” is mainly intended to designate a state wherein the direct modes of drive satisfaction—that is, modes of release (pleasure)—are temporarily renounced. Freud, regarding the development of the psychic apparatus from a genetic perspective, situated this latency period between two “hot” periods: the so-called oedipal period, around 4 to 5 years, and the awakening of puberty—periods when the quest for satisfaction-release, notably through masturbation, tends to be heightened. Interestingly, the intermediary period called latency usually proves to be a decisive time for the acquisition of capacities to sublimation. This conjunction between latency and sublimation is not surprising if we consider, as Freud did, that sublimation is precisely a way of achieving drive satisfaction without release. We shall return to this idea.

 

9 Unexpected drive subjects in the session

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It frequently happens during a session of psychoanalytic cure that something incongruous arises in the course of the analy-sand’s speech, and goes on recurring in an insistent way. In the context of the imaginary relationship that had been established with that patient, such an expression will attract our attention, insofar as it seems rather strange, as if coming from elsewhere— from that “other scene” of which Freud speaks in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), the stage on which are unfurled the unconscious significations primarily linked with the drive representatives.

When a speech element of this order attracts our attention during a session, we perceive it as odd, displaced, even as we suppose it to be bearing, in some confused way, through its very insistence, a particular charge of signification, which it transports—rather like the “smugglers” of the Unconscious, in Freud’s favourite image. And in fact, if we can only give this intruder the right to move freely about in the treatment, it will often prove to have a highly meaningful drive potential.

 

10 The logical stages of subjectivation

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The ideas brought together in this last chapter are only meant to provide a sketch, the first steps towards a better psychoanalytic theorization of subjectivation. Since we have conceived of it as emerging between drive activity and signification, let us now try to get a better understanding of the process itself.

It is important to see how such subjective development must at every step be carried out in two concurrent registers. On the one hand, there is the synchronic relation between “reciprocal subjects” (Lacan, 1945, p. 170), the basic relation with the other-subject, the prototype of which is, of course, the mother–child interaction. But on the other hand, we have the diachronic revisiting of the personal history, a temporal path made up of discontinuous “leaps”. This second, diachronic register was specifically highlighted by Jacques Lacan when he introduced his notion of temporal scansion in the mid-1940s.1 This new path is thrown into relief in relation to the earlier model, that of the mirror stage, suggested by Lacan before the war and taken up again by him in 1949. In fact, with the notion of scansion, Lacan means to introduce something of the register of specifically temporal succession into what he had until then presented as a model of an imaginary structuring relation (i.e., the subject’s corporal confrontation with his early parent within the specularity of the “mirror”).

 

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