Lacan and Psychoanalysis: A Conversation between Andrew Stein and James Luchte

Andrew Stein
Andrew Stein
James Luchte
James Luchte

The following documents two conversations between psychoanalyst Andrew Stein and philosopher James Luchte on Lacan and psychoanalysis that took place on 22 May 2014 and 25 September 2014.

The initial conversation was prompted by an invitation by Luchte to Stein to comment on his article, ‘Fatal Repetition: Badiou and the Age of the Poets, with an Appendix: A Psychoanalysis of Alain Badiou.’

Andrew Stein: James, I read your article (‘Fatal Repetition: Badiou and the Age of the Poets with an Appendix: A Psychoanalysis of Alain Badiou’) and liked it a lot. Just a few points. As the article I sent shows Lacan is a critic of ‘the unity of opposites,’ as the notion that there is no sexual relation presents as a formula (Jean Allouch, “How Lacan Invented the Object A,” in Papers of the Freudian School of Melbourne, 19). I would say, again, (this is explicit in what I sent) that Lacan also is a materialist but not a positivist as his development of the varieties of object a’s attests. And finally, that for Lacan how such materialism squares with desire — with the infinite set and grammatical subject- it is here that Lacan becomes interested in Cantor’s Set theory — like topography it allows him to symbolically formalize what is a subjective encounter with the real. That, at any rate, is my opinion.

James Luchte: Hmmm… so it was Lacan who went to Set Theory… but what is the difference between Set Theory and Descartes’ mathematical grid – the grand mathesis that we project to control the world of flux? Moreover, I cannot see how Set Theory would allow for an encounter with the Real, as this would seem to be on its face impossible, and would be merely a projection which in fact covers over and hides the event. I have no reason to decide to embrace this idea, when I can think along with Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Bataille, together with the bits I think are helpful from Lacan – some of it is bullshit though, and I do not think that Lacan holds some kind of intellectual trump card which makes his thought mandatory. I could just as well read Schelling or Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy through Heidegger’s analytic of Dasein, allowing for surrealistic dimensions which Heidegger may have been forced to allow. I still do not know why Set Theory is necessary and why Badiou is so cultishly followed.

Andrew Stein: Everything you write is true. Set theory is not necessary for Lacan. It merely allows one to think (represent) something about infinite desire and the psychic apparatus (the rim) on which the object a moves. Alain Vanier says that while philosophy arguably is about Being, psychoanalysis is about Non-being –about what doesn’t/ can’t/ won’t fit in any knowledge. For this reason, Lacan is using Cantor in a very different, I would say contrary, way to Badiou whose thinking is, as you say, a slave to systems.

James Luchte: OK. That may make sense, especially if you think of the early Wittgenstein and the Mystical or Godel, or the other mathematicians who are open to questions of existence and nothingness. I have just been given an article on Set Theory by a scholar from Cambridge and he seems to think it is the cat’s meow. I will have to think more about this, but this different way you suggest Lacan uses Set Theory is unclear to me. I don’t believe in the Infinite.

Andrew Stein: Neither does Lacan, I suppose, if the infinite is something that does not have a gap in it, that isn’t sutured. There is no sexual relation for him, there always are these remainders and these strange objects signifying the grammatical subject (of the real).

James Luchte: You have said sexual relation twice, once in relation to the ‘unity of opposites’ – what do you mean by this and what is its significance, especially in relation to Heraclitus for instance? For instance, Andrew, what does this mean: ‘… Lacan is a critic of ‘the unity of opposites’ as the notion that there is not sexual relation presents as a formula.’? Indeed, ‘the notion that there is not sexual relation presents as a formula.’ Can you put this into other words?

Andrew Stein: This may be getting too complicated to handle here, but when Lacan says there is no sexual relation, in a simple way this means there is no Concept holding everything together or at least permitting us to dialectically come to the Concept after working through all of the contradictions. What psychoanalysis is interested in is non-Being; and it sees knowledge as ways to cover up and half-communicate an encounter with a remainder or excess to any meaning we arrive at. Being always is an effect of some meaning we place on experience to suture the gap.  I realize that this is inadequate. To explain it I would have to discuss how signifiers represent the [grammatical) subject for other signifiers and do not represent pre-existing signifieds.  That may sound strange but I assure you it is exactly what we find in analysis.

James Luchte: Is the gap death?

Andrew Stein: related to death drive –yes

James Luchte: It is Derrida’s critique of Saussure… which allows for transference to occur, since the signifier is not chained to some signified, but floats like a ghost amidst the play of signifiers… differance…Or, am I understanding you wrongly?

Andrew Stein: Not precisely. Among other things Derrida authorizes writing over speech – a big mistake. It is however linked to Lacan’s inversion of Saussure in that signifiers do not stand for some pre-existing concept (chair) but rather signifieds become like punctuations that come at the end and round out the meaning. What becomes critical is where a signifier is in the chain of signifiers; meaning is an after thought. We see this in analysis; when the analysand talks we do not know what he is saying; he is bringing up signifiers whose meaning is unknown or only partly known. The meaning only comes at the end when there is some kind of stop or punctuation. And the meaning is discerned apres coup, after the fact… if at all, and only provisionally — what finally matters is less the signified meaning but the encounter with the object a.

James Luchte: Yes, but Derrida’s criticism of speech in Saussure was precisely the move which liberated the signifiers from their Promethean captivity to the rock of the signified. Derrida, in Of Grammatology discusses the unconscious as a form of writing, which again liberates the signifier from a signified object. How would Lacan handle this problem?  Would the object a be his answer – phone, gramme, signifier, signified, none of these matter.  The real problem is the object a and our desire? What is the difference between speaking and writing in relation to the practice of psychoanalysis?  The surrealists, for instance, practiced automatic writing to reveal the unconscious.

Andrew Stein: I like Derrida but I think most of the good things he says were not his. For example, in the fifties Lacan already turns Saussure’s matheme on its head and so ‘liberates the signifiers’; also he already says the unconscious is structured like a language that is comprised of chains of signifiers and (by 1962 in the Seminar on Anxiety he already is adding) object a. But remember what Lacan is interested in are the significations of the unconscious ‘writings’ which he says is different for each one of us and that requires speech – and for the same reason that Freud insists we associate to a dream and not write it down. Writing it down is already a work of secondary revision/covering over, where as in speech we begin and do not know where we are and where we are going; it speaks, via our slips, stumblings, jokes, pauses, punctuations! etc in ways that we do not know — that is, speech more than writing (but writing too) allows for the transference – the opening of the unconscious signifiers to appear amidst what Lacan calls ‘blah blah speech!

James Luchte: I will agree with you on Derrida and his questionable originality. Nevertheless, I have one remaining question, since you seemed to have answered my many questions. I understand what you say about speech and how it is not only fraught with contingency but also only establishes meaning when it is completed with a pause. But, Derrida seeks to deconstruct this notion that speech is somehow closer to being, in terms of a metaphysics of presence, that it is the paraousia of the ousia – all of this is merely a prejudice that has not acknowledged either the closure of metaphysics or the fact that speech, historically, is mediated by writing, having lost any purity it may, if ever, had.  Answer this and I will be satisfied.

Andrew Stein: Psychoanalysis is chasing a different quarry. It’s not interested in Being, presence — In fact these concepts are meanings imposed apres coup. What is revealed via the gaps, ruptures, etc is the subjective desire of the unconscious — and this desire is not presence. Presence is only the form desire takes in the imaginary register — it has to do with the mirror stage, narcissism, and our image of our body as whole and seen as whole by the Other. But nonbeing involves this encounter with what is left out of this picture (of our positive experience, concepts, knowledge). Lacan writes this with the letter a; and all the various forms of object a (oral, anal, phallus, voice, gaze) — all of these are objects representing the drive (and desire).

James Luchte: Neither is Derrida, but he is saying that the emphasis on speech is at the end of the day a concern with presence. It is the criteria of truth and credibility that distinguishes it, in your own words, from writing. Or it uniquely reveals the nothing? Logos as breath, spoken words, the soul?

Andrew Stein: In analysis presence is a dream of the imaginary subject – it is not the aim of speech; speech is what allows the opening of the unconscious and desire (which is in the symbolic tied to non-being, lack, castration) not presence — presence is the screen only. Lacan tells a story in Seminar XI of two painters named Zeuxis and Parhessias who competed to see who could paint the most ‘truthful’ image. One painted a tree with fruit so realistic that birds tried to eat them. The other painted a screen and won when his competitor asked to see his painting behinds the screen — that is it Zeuxis and Parhessias– no presence except in our fantasy…but the fantasy is the basis of much of our social bonds.

James Luchte: The fantasy is the Apollonian image of redemption, the lie that becomes convention for a time, merely maya, illusion – the real world is a fable… presence is fantasy… I agree with you. Nevertheless, I guess my only reservation would be the uniqueness accorded to speech, which serves psychoanalysis in its current form quite well. But, I think writing, art, and even behaviour reveal the unconscious, and can imagine an analysis which would incorporate painting, dance, singing, automatic and non-automatic writing as well as the talking cure. You must agree with me. Sometimes talk is just bla-blah-blah…

Andrew Stein: They do as well.


Part 2: Conversation on Andrew Stein’s ‘Of the Difference between Freud-Lacan and Jung’

The goal then to overcome or heal an original break between subject and object, “I” and “Thou”, partial objects and an identification with a imago of the whole mother etc is the opposite of the goal set forth in psychoanalysis. It is a complete reverse (inversion) of the Freudian and Lacanian attitude (towards intersubjectivity and the cure). There the focus is neither on an original wholeness that has been lost (via alienation) or that is achieved in the first years via the integration of the child’s partial objects but on an original and impossible lack right from the beginning when the subject emerges via language in the (field of) the Other’s desire. Psychoanalysis as Freud and Lacan conceived it is not a return to an original or ideal Mitsein or a Tikkun. Rather, the subject of the unconscious has to separate itself and its own desire from the desire of the Other which at first defines its limits and subjugates it, because a subject is born in language and because it depends on the desires of a (mostly unknowable) Other.

Thus, Jung who views the aim of analysis not as being ‘separation’ but what he call ‘individuation’ (which is not individuation at all but the integration of the unconscious archetypes, a union of sexual (anima and animus) opposites), is in a long tradition that reduces the gap (of difference and desire) which psychoanalysis opens to either an original philosophic or religious ‘intersubjectivity’. This is a ‘secret’ knot binding such apparently dissimilar psychologies as Jung’s and Sartre’s to the same imaginary (ideal ego); for existential psychoanalysis, which will emerge at approximately the same moment as Jungian psychology, also postulates ‘the identity of the doctor-patient relation and an originary being-for-others, an originary Mit-sein, an originary intersubjectivity.’ (Warren Montag, ‘Althusser and His Contemporaries’, Philosophy’s Perpetual War, Duke University Press, 2013)

Andrew Stein

September 25, 2014

James Luchte: Is an identification with the imago of the mother not just the Oedipus Complex fulfilled?

Andrew Stein: No, the Oedipal complex is what allows a gap or space to open between an identification with the Mother; this gap is originally via a prohibition– a no, you must not desire this, etc. Psychosis happens when the Name of the Father (and the Oedipal complex) is foreclosed by the subject.

James Luchte: Sorry, that is what I meant by fulfilled – that the father is rejected and it is the mother which determines identification. Fulfilled in the sense that the desire for the mother is not prohibited.

Andrew Stein: Psychotics cannot tolerate gaps because any gap becomes totally overpowering; it is where the desire of the Other gets through and so when you speak to a psychotic they are certain about everything– everything is connected and has a meaning related to their delusion.

James Luchte: I wonder how this would relate to Levinas’ ethical notion that we must acquiesce to being held captive by the other?

Andrew Stein: Imaginary capture.

James Luchte: Is it psychosis though?

Andrew Stein: No.

James Luchte: Why?

Andrew Stein: Well, one can’t say without an analysis, but I would not say psychosis, but merely caught in the imaginary register (like much thought).

James Luchte: But, the imaginary register could lead to delusion, though, could it not? What is the difference?

Andrew Stein: Intersubjectivity is usually in the imaginary; although, since it depends on words, the imaginary is tied to a symbolic frame provided by language. Delusions are not proof of psychosis. We all have them. Delusions are a symptom. They can appear in any register. Psychosis is a structure.

James Luchte: Sure, but could thinking one is held captive by the other, especially on religious or ethical grounds, be a delusion, and symptomatic of a structure of psychosis? It seems to be a very specific interpretation of inter-subjectivity as with Jung. Freud and Lacan sound more like Heidegger.

Andrew Stein: Symptoms are not structures, they are symptoms– they are the way we have to be in the world; a delusion may be a symptom; it may appear in any structure, including psychosis, but it is not ipso facto a sign of anything. We need to hear the subject’s speech to settle on that. Concerning Heidegger, early Lacan is deeply influenced by Heidegger and Hegel, but more in the direction of influenced so as to critique. He is more directly critical of concepts like Sartre’s.

James Luchte: So, are you saying one of the goals of psychoanalysis is to transform a psychotic structure to a non-psychotic structure? What is the structure, of what is it composed? Or, is that the wrong question?

Andrew Stein: No, a psychotic will remain a psychotic, a neurotic a neurotic; one has one’s symptoms — it is how one has learnt to be in the world; the goal is to make your symptom work for you. One reduces suffering but does not change the structure. What one desires –what one wants from the Other and what one believes one lacks from the Other — is shaped by one’s structure.

James Luchte: Ah! Very interesting! So, is someone born psychotic or does the structure of psychosis coalesce through the (failed) stages of psycho-sexual development, etc.?

Andrew Stein: According to Lacan, Joyce is a psychotic who creates what he calls a sinthome to give himself a name (this is what the psychotic lack having foreclosed the Name of the Father, the one who makes the nomination) via his writing and literature.

James Luchte: Does the structure become, come into its configuration in time, or is it set from conception? In other words, why is Joyce a psychotic? Is it because of bad blood, as Rimbaud says about himself, or was it because he was raised the way he was, in the Church, etc.?

Andrew Stein: One ‘gets’ one’s structure from language and the desire of the Other—it is the opposite of something genetic or biological; if there is a pregiven to it, it is the pregiven that we emerge as subjects by being traumatized and confused by the Other’s desire when we are little ones. So what and how those Other’s desire — what their fantasies are about their own place in the symbolic and what they fantasize and desire about you form your structure; we emerge in language as subjects of the desire of Others. That is why family and social identifications are vital.

As for Joyce, in the simplest terms his father was unable to pass on his “Name” to Joyce–being an alcoholic and never-do-well. And, as a result Joyce foreclosed the Name of the Father–what saved him from madness is that he managed to give himself a name “Joyce” through literature.

James Luchte: OK, I see. So the structure is formed. Why can it not be un-formed and re-formed? Why does the structure remain fixed after it is formed? Alchemy ala Jung, ego dissolution, reconstitution through ‘activities’, Reichian work?

Andrew Stein: Not the psychoanalyst’s job; it is unethical (if it can be done); the goal, as I said above, is not to impose the analysts desire or the desire of Society or of some Ideal Good (this is what Ego psychology did). Rather, the goal is to help the subject separate his or her desire from subjugation to the Other’s desire so that one can speak for one’s self; the second goal is to reduce suffering so that the subject can make use of his or her symptom (link it to their juissance) in the least destructive way. But these goals seem to work together.

James Luchte: Why would the attempt to deconstruct and reconstruct the ‘structure’ be unethical if it were chosen by the analysand? I think this notion of structure, if there can be no further change, is de-temporalised, or as Heidegger indicates, un-worlded. My question relates to the temporality of the structure and if it is capable of fundational change after a certain period. Or is it fixed at 5 or 6?

Andrew Stein: When someone comes to an analyst, it is because their structure and their symptom are not working for them. What the analyst does is help the analysand create a new subjective position vis a vis their symptom and structure; so that it works for them better.

What happens when the transference happens is that the analysand consciously or unconsciously treats the analyst as the person who is supposed to know what they desire and how to give them what they want. This forms the conditions of the transference where the analysand starts to bring their unconscious desire into the session. But by the end, the analysand has shifted their relation to the object cause of their desire and no longer look for a Master subject who is supposed to know. If the subject simply identifies with the analyst’s desire he or she has changed nothing; the subject remains subjugated to the Other’s desire and the transference has not been worked through at all.

The cure is falsely linked to the presumption that the analyst knows what the analysand desires, or should want to desire. In reality, the analysst does not know any such thing. Each person’s subjective desire is unique and the belief in the analyst as some Svengali who knows is what has sustained the analysand desire in the position of suffering. The end of analysis instead is linked to the overcoming of this fantasy (that the analyst or ‘someone’ knows what you want and knows how to give it to you). Instead, the analysand has to come to some new attitude about their desire — such as that there are things that they or the Other will never know, that there is no one who knows your desire and can fulfill you, and so on.

James Luchte: Thank you for the conversation.

Andrew Stein: My pleasure.


Andrew Stein is a practicing analyst in New York City where he is attached to Apres Coup, an association of Lacanian analysts in formation and teaches psychoanalysis at The West Chester Institute. He also trained as a Modern (Spotnitz) analysis. On the academic side, he has a Ph.D in Modern European Intellectual History and another Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. His writing includes a book on psychotherapy in Nursing Homes, Longing for Nothingness: Resistance, Denial, and the Place of Death in the Nursing Home (2010), essays on Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Surrealism, Georges Bataille, and Michel Foucault.

James Luchte is an expatriate American philosopher, author and poet based in the United Kingdom. His books include Of the Feral Children: A Mayan Farce (2012), Early Greek Thought: Before the Dawn (2011), The Peacock and the Buffalo: The Poetry of Nietzsche (2010), Pythagoras and the Doctrine of Transmigration: Wandering Souls (2009), Heidegger’s Early Philosophy: The Phenomenology of Ecstatic Temporality (2008), Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra: Before Sunrise (2008), and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (2007) He has also written nearly two dozen articles on various topics in Continental Philosophy.

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