3. The Motor Force of Analysis: Lacan’s Notion of Desire in Clinical Work
Lacan’s notion of desire is relevant not only because clients don’t seem to want to change. Lacan’s notion of desire is relevant because many clients seem ruthlessly caught in the grips of self-subverting behaviors, and they actually seem to enjoy them. How should we make sense of such exhibitions? Lacan stands in a long line of theorists who argue that human beings do not know how to desire. That is, human beings have to be taught how to desire. This means that on the one hand, humans do not spontaneously desire objects, a life changes, to get better, to have or do this, to have or do that, or anything else out of what we might refer to as the individual’s unique subjectivity. On the other hand, objects, life changes, ideals of ‘better’, having or doing this or having and doing that are not in themselves desirable as classical economic theories would tell us. Humans have to be taught what and how to desire. Numerous entailments in fields as diverse as economics, politics, and religion obviously follow from this thesis. But what does this mean clinically? What does Lacan mean by “the analyst’s desire” and what does this mean for the therapeutic relationship?
Bruce Fink’s Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Practice is a welcome guide here. His first chapter “Desire in Analysis” begins with the proverbial joke: “How many psychologists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” “Only one, but the light bulb has to really want to change!” But the joke harbors a rather sinister blame game, does it not? Failed therapies must be the client’s fault. There was a lack of will, effort, drive… a lack of desire to change, and that lack was the client’s.
Lacan’s approach is rather different. “Of course the patient does not really want to change,” writes Fink. Every client’s symptoms are adaptive. Symptoms don’t just emerge out of nowhere. They emerge as the client’s efforts to cope and adapt to their circumstances. In this way, every client has great amounts of energy invested in their symptoms, and the reason the client keeps the symptoms around is simply because those symptoms work for the client! They have a strategic function that is neither neutral or arbitrary. But to conclude that a symptom’s essential feature is how it helps the client cope or adapt is to miss Lacan’s point. After all, the client could have utilized any number of coping or adaptive behaviors, so why this particular one? And why does the client demonstrate such strong resistance to letting this particular behavior go? Moreover, why do they continue to depend on this particular coping or adaptive symptom when the symptom is no longer adaptive, but obviously maladaptive? According to Fink, the essential feature of symptoms is the satisfaction they provide. Symptoms afford a certain kind of enjoyment or satisfaction. The satisfaction they afford may not be obvious to outside observers, or even to the person who enjoys their symptoms (SE XVI, 365-366). But at some level, insists Lacan, the client enjoys their symptoms. It is along these lines that Freud referred to symptoms as substitute satisfactions. Considering that clients find sure means of enjoyment in their symptoms helps clarify why they continue to cling to their symptoms even when those symptoms are clearly maladaptive. Who wants to give up what they enjoy? (SE XVI, 365-371).
Since clients have a great deal invested in maintaining their symptoms, workers, therapists, and other helpers really can’t depend on the client’s genuine will or desire to change. “There is no such thing” as the client’s genuine will or desire to change, writes Fink. Of course patients arrive in therapy because they no longer desire to live, to get out of bed, or put up with their troubled son or daughter. They don’t to make the changes the State, their spouse, their probation worker, or DYFS wants them to make… and that, it seems to me, is precisely Lacan’s point: they are now in front of you because their desire is dying or is dead.
For this reason, Lacan asserts that the “motor force” of the work (analysis, counseling, therapy, etc.) is the analyst’s desire, not the patients.
You know, I often wonder if I should express my desires to the client, or should I try and display myself as neutral? Should I call when a client misses a session, or do I not call and say to myself that I’m respecting the client’s rights by not imposing what I want, which is for them to make up the session?
Of course we must uphold and adhere to all the ethical standards as they are laid out in The Code. And of course we ought to respect every client’s autonomy, even when it is exercised as the right to stop their work. And yes, we ought to seriously consider the many stupid ways that we as workers mess up such that the client doesn’t want to return to the work. Yet Fink is helpful when he reminds that every client’s desire to continue the work must, at times, wane or disappear altogether. And this is because their symptoms are tied up with their desire. That is, if their desire to work doesn’t wane or disappear altogether, then it means the client’s essential conflicts, which are tied up in their symptoms, are not being affected. For these reasons, Lacan asserts the controversial point that “in the majority of cases the patient is looking for an excuse to leave, and virtually any excuse will often do.” In short, clients tend to miss sessions or end their work precisely at those moments when they are being asked to give up or sacrifice what they are not yet ready to give up or sacrifice: their symptoms and the enjoyment they afford.
What is needed, then, is the worker’s desire. The client’s flagging and diminished desire cannot be counted on. The client will feel stuck, unable and unsure of what else to say, to talk about, to work on, they may think and feel that the work is absurd and not what they want, because of course in a significant sense, it isn’t what they want. All sorts of fears, worries, and concerns will emerge for the client, and while little gestures such as “I’ll see you tomorrow” are needed to support them as they wade on, most clients need stronger expressions of the worker’s desire. To overcome the client’s own lack of desire, the client’s own resistance to the work, the client’s own avoidance of the needed sacrifice, the worker will often need to communicate that they want the work to continue, that the worker wants the client to show up on such and such a day, that the worker wants the client to work more often, that the worker wants the client to continue their work with so and so. No doubt, clients will break off when their desire to move on becomes strong enough (and of course if this never happens it means the client became more dependent on the worker rather than more independent). But until the client’s desire to move out on their own in a different way is sufficient, the worker must always express the desire for the client’s continued work.
But if the client’s desire is tied up with their symptoms, what kind of desire does Lacan have in mind when he names the worker’s desire as the “motor force of the work”? Fink clarifies that the worker “is an actor or actress who plays a part which does not necessarily convey his or her ‘true’ feelings. The [worker] is not ‘authentic,’ not communicating his her her deepest beliefs and reactions to the patient as one human being to another.” So the worker might experience the client as annoying, pleasant, interesting, banal, difficult, attractive, or in any number of ways. But the client will not benefit from any such knowledge. In fact, in learning as much the client certainly will react in one way or another. Maybe they’ll leave the work altogether, or maybe if they learn the worker finds them boring, they’ll try impressing the worker, and so on. In any event, they will be distracted from the work, which will be counterproductive indeed! “The worker must maintain a position of desire,” says Fink, and this means a desire for the client to undertake the work they are their to do regardless of any like or dislike for the client on the worker’s part.
Fink observes that most films portray therapists as lonely, vulnerable, and enamored with their patient. Usually the focus is on the therapist’s desire for the patient insofar as it transgresses the limits of the therapeutic relationships. More often than not, the result is some abuse of power in one form or another. I thought of Robin Williams’ performance in Good Will Hunting for example. Every worker is trained to attend to those feelings elicited in them as a result of their interactions with the client (basic counter-transference), and depending on one’s theoretical commitments, to regard those feelings as more or less important indicators. Lacan, however, demands that the worker put these feelings aside. He doesn’t have in mind repression, suppression, disavowal, or anything of the like. Counter- transference are certainly important for the worker’s own work, and maybe even for understanding where the client is situating the worker in the client’s own libidinal economy. But Lacan insists that these feelings not be conveyed or revealed to the client.
For this reason, Lacan’s expression “the analyst’s desire” doesn’t refer to the worker’s desire which emerges within the transference/ counter-transference dynamic. Rather, Lacan has in mind a kind of ‘pure desire’ that is specific to the worker, not as a human being with feelings, but as a function, a role, a part that is played and which can be played by any individual who occupies worker’s seat. Fink writes: “The [worker’s] desire is a desire that focuses on [the work] and only on [the work]. Many therapist tell me they have plans for their patients, that secretly (or not so secretly) they hope one patient will become this, another that, that one will split up with her husband and another will settle down and have children; these wishes have absolutely nothing to do with ‘the [worker’s] desire as Lacan formulates it. The [worker’s] desire is not for the patient to get better, to succeed in life, to be happy, to understand him- herself, to go back to school, to achieve what he or she says he or she wants, or to say something in particular – to say, for example, that the pig in the dream represents her father or that she had something to do with the disaster that occurred in her family when she was eleven. It is an enigmatic desire that does not tell the patient what the analyst wants him or her to say or do. Neurotics are only too eager to figure out what other people want form them so they can fulfill or thwart those other people’s desires…”
My own intuition is that by occupying such a role and in such a way, Lacan envisions that such a dynamic will inevitably generate within the client. Fink indicates that the worker’s desire is therefore a kind of pure desiring that does not alight on any particular subject, topic, end, etc. and which is not shown to the client even though the client will inevitably try to discern and read various desires onto the worker, even into the slightest intervention and interpretation. The worker’s desire is therefore one that works assiduously to articulate any and every manifestation of the unconscious (even when it interrupts what the analyst is personally interested in hearing about or when it doesn’t fit at all the picture the analyst has construed thus far) and so communicates to the client what kind of work is expected of them. It is not the worker’s desired agenda or desire to have the client say or do something in particular. Rather, “It is an unflagging desire for the patient to come to therapy, to put his or her experience, thoughts, fantasies, and dreams into words, and to associate them. It is not a ‘personal’ desire, and it is not the kind of desire that anyone who wants to can maintain without first going through a long period of analysis him-or herself. It is, nevertheless, what Lacan considers the motor force of analysis.”