1. Lacan Gives Birth to a Mosquito
There is an old joke told by Lacanian psychoanalysts that goes: “Knock, knock,” “Who is there?” “Amos.” “Amos who?” “Amos Quito!” What I like about this joke is its properly Hegelian structure: there is the thesis – Amos –, and then the anti-thesis – Quito. Once the anti-thesis is delivered, both it and the thesis are sublimated and a new concept appears altogether: A Mosquito. Another way of saying this is that the subject and the predicate never harmonize. Instead, the predicate retroactively dislodges and subverts the subject in such a way that something altogether new emerges. Along these lines, shouldn’t Bruce Fink’s clinical appropriation of Lacan be merged with Slavoj Zizek’s social appropriation of Lacan so as to produce something that is much more fitting to both clinical psychoanalysis and social theory altogether: a Lacanian approach Clinical Social Work?
Y2K marked the 100th anniversary of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. Slavoj Zizek observes that numerous triumphalist assertions attended this millennial tribute, assertions that proclaimed the death of psychoanalysis: the so-called brain sciences have finally re-located psychoanalysis to the “lumber-room of pre-scientific obscurantist search for hidden meanings, alongside religious confessors and dream-readers,” where it has always belonged. Todd Dufresne  said of Freud that “no figure in the history of human thought was more wrong about all its fundamentals” – with the exception of Marx, some would add. Then in 2005, the infamous The Black Book of Communism, which presents a list of Communist crimes,  was followed by The Black Book of Psychoanalysis, which listed all the mistaken, absurd theoretical axioms and debacles inaugurated by Freud and psychoanalysis . At least the profound solidarity of Marxism and psychoanalysis is now displayed for all to see. And by extension, so also their solidarity with social work.
Freud contributed to the demise of the sovereign subject. That is, he contributed to the humanity’s humiliation, or narcissistic illneses, as he called them. First, Copernicus showed that it is not humans but rather the sun that occupies the universe’s center: we are not masters of the universe. Second, Darwin demonstrated that humans originated from arbitrary chance: we are not masters of the earth. And then, as Freud rendered visible the predominant role of the unconscious in psychic processes it became clear that we are not even masters in our own house. Even so, Zizek points out that “a hundred years later, a more extreme picture is emerging: the latest scientific breakthroughs seem to add a whole series of further humiliations to the narcissistic image of man: our mind itself is merely a computing machine for data-processing, our sense of freedom and autonomy is merely the user’s illusion of this machine.” Consequently, today’s brain sciences claim to show that psychoanalysis itself is not subversive but rather belongs to the traditional humanist field threatened by the latest humiliations.
So, psychoanalysis seems outdated on three interconnected levels: “(1) that of scientific knowledge, where the cognitivist-neurolobiologist model of the human mind appears to supersede the Freudian model; (2) that of psychiatric clinic, where psyhoanalytic treatment is rapidly losing ground against pills and behavioral therapy; (3) that of the social context, where the image of a society, of social norms, which repress the individual’s sexual drives, no longer appears valid with regard to today’s predominant hedonistic permissiveness. Nonetheless, in the case of psychoanalysis, the memorial service is perhaps a little bit too hasty, commemorating a patient who still has a long life ahead.”
While my disdain for Zizek’s Hegelianism is sure, his point here is relevant. Why should we submit to the “evident” truths propounded by Freud’s critics? But whereas he is interested in reading Freud through Lacan, and Lacan through Hegel, I am interested in reading social work into Lacan and Lacan into social work. Lacan’s, and more generally psychoanalysis’, key insights are most visible in their true dimension when Lacan and the social work profession are paired together. No less so, social work as a profession can become much more effective when paired with Lacan’s version of psychoanalysis. We are not interested in a return to what Freud or Lacan intended, but in the core of the Freudian and Lacanian revolutions of which neither Freud or Lacan may have been aware.
The Princeton psychiatrist, David Nathan, recently voiced the most common denigration of psychoanalysis when in a lecture he joked that the unconscious is the ‘cauldron of irrational drives’, something opposed to the rational, conscious self. Lacan considered this notion of the unconscious a fiction: it belongs to the Romantic Lebensphilosophie (philosophy of life) and has nothing to do with Freud and yet much to do with those who haven’t read him. Lacan read Freud’s entire psychoanalytic edifice linguistically and concluded with his perhaps single best known formula: “the unconscious is structured as a language.” The Freudian unconscious wasn’t scandalous because it claimed that the rational self is governed by a much more disturbing cauldron of blind irrational instincts. The Freudian scandal was that the unconscious itself obeys its own grammar and logic: the unconscious talks and thinks, and it has something rather disturbing to say. The unconscious is not a reservoir of irrational drives that the rational self (ego) must conquer and tame. Rather, it is the site from which a traumatic truth speaks. As Lacan indicates, Freud’s motto for the unconscious – “where it was, I shall become” – should not be understood as the site of unconscious drives wherein the ego should conquer the id, but rather as,“I should dare to approach the site of my truth.” What awaits me “there” in the unconscious is not a deep Truth I am supposed to identify with and heal through analysis, but rather an unbearable truth I must to learn to live with.
What emerges when we replace Zizek’s emphasis on psychoanalysis with Lacan + Social Work? That is, what emerges when add Lacan and Social work together, and then ask how the result differs from the dominant psychoanalytic/ social work schools of thought and even from Freud himself? Zizek nearly answers the question for me: “[Lacan + Social Work] is at its most fundamental not a theory and technique of treating psychic disturbances, but a theory and practice which confronts individuals with the most radical dimension of human existence. [Lacan + Social Work] does not show an individual the way to accommodate him- or herself to the demands of social reality; it explains how something like “reality” constitutes itself in the first place. [Lacan + Social work] does not merely enable a human being to accept the repressed truth about him- or herself; it explains how the dimension of truth emerges in human reality. In [Lacan + Social Work], pathological formations like neuroses, psychoses and perversions, have the dignity of fundamental philosophical attitudes towards reality: When I suffer obsessional neurosis, this ‘illness’ colours my entire relationship to reality and defines the global structure of my personality. [Lacan + Social Work’s] main critique of other psychoanalytic [and social work] orientations concerns their clinical orientation: for [Lacan + Social Work], the goal of treatment is not the patient’s well-being or successful social life or personal self-fulfilment, but to bring the patient to confront the elementary coordinates and deadlocks of his or her desire.” Simply take this last sentence and read, “the goal of treatment is not the patient’s well-being or successful life or personal self-fulfillment, but to bring the patient to confront the cause of their self-subverting behavior” and you’ll have in one sentence my inquiry. The goal of social work isn’t to do therapy or manage cases for any of the first reasons mentioned above, or to get persons the services they need so they can get back in line and capitulate to the social order’s demands. Rather, the goal is to help every client transgress the cause of their self-subverting behavior so that they can not only stop self- subverting but also resist the social order’s demands even as they work to change it.
It is rather difficult to pigeonhole Lacan. His ideas disturbed progressives, including critical Marxists and feminists. Although he is usually taught as one among many cohorts under the index of postmodernism or deconstruction, he is not reducible to these labels. He eluded nearly every label attached to his name: phenomenologist, Hegelian, Heideggerian, structuralist, poststructuralist, and even eventually, psychoanalyst. The most outstanding feature of his teaching not only links him to the great Western philosophical tradition, it links him to the social work profession insofar as it is willing to be honestly self-reflective and honest.
While it is true that Lacan was first and foremost a clinician, and clinical concerns permeate everything he wrote and did, Lacan understands that the clinic is everywhere: one can’t erase it, locate it, limit it, or circumscribe it. It affects everything, everywhere. Although Lacan reads Plato, Aquinas, Hegel, or Kierkegaard so as to elucidate a precise clinical problem, the all-pervasiveness of the clinic is what allows us to exclude Plato, Aquinas, Hegel, or Kierkegaard. The clinic is no longer only where we meet the client, the clinic is the social order as such.
These posts are not concerned with Lacan’s historical or theoretical context. Rather, these posts will hopefully further the articulation of social work’s own predicament as a profession: its failure to provide strong policy alternatives and non-normalizing clinical services due to its service to dominant ideologies. Since there is no impartial judgment or reading, no objectivity, our reading will be guided by the clinician, Bruce Fink, and the social-political theorist, Slavoj Zizek, who relays that Lacan himself exemplifies such a partial approach: “In his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, T.S. Eliot remarks that there are moments when the only choice is the one between sectarianism and non-belief, i.e., when the only way to keep a religion alive is to perform a sectarian split from its main corpse. The Lacanian sectarian split detached Lacan from the decaying corpse of the International Psycho-Analytic Association . Hopefully these posts will revive the corpse that is becoming social work.
In every class I’ve taken and in almost every text I’ve read, social work reproaches psychoanalysis as nothing more than a theory of individual pathological disturbances. For this reason, it is often argued that applying psychoanalysis to other social or cultural phenomena is theoretically illegitimate. One lacanian social theorist provides a corrective, however, when he observes that psychoanalysis is actually asking the same question asked by social work: what has to happen for the individual to function normally in the social body? “Psychoanalysis asks in what ways you as an individual have to relate to the social field… not just in the sense of other people but in the sense of the anonymous social as such to exist as a person! You are a ‘normal individual person’ only insofar as you are able to relate to some anonymous social field. So what is to be interpreted and what not? Everything is to be interpreted. That is to say, when Freud says ‘Civilization and its Discontents” – more literally the un-easyness in culture – he means not just that most of us are normal, we socialize ourselves normally, some idiots didn’t make it, they fell out, and they have to be normalized. No, he means culture as such, in order to establish itself as normal, what appears as normal, involves a whole series of pathological cuts, distortions, and so on… there is a kind of un-easiness… we are out of joint and not at home in culture. Which means, again, that there is no normal culture as such. Culture itself has to be interpreted.”
There certainly is an un-easiness in culture, and the un-easiness is owing to the fact that the smooth functioning of society and the smooth functioning of individuals who participate ‘normally’ in that society happens only through a series of cuts and castrations.
We are not looking to shore up commitments that seek to heal persons’ pathologies by normalizing them, that is, by helping them learn to more effectively submit to the social order’s demands… We are looking to forge new commitments that work to change the social order as such so that the social order, its demands, and the pathologies it requires are no longer seen as ‘normal.’