‘Reading the Unconscious
New York January 15-16, 2011

From Clinical Study Days 5: “Reading the Unconscious” the following texts by Thomas Svolos and Alicia Arenas were presented at a Roundtable held January 16, 2011, on “The Unconscious in the Contemporary World”

“The Supposed-To Know-To Read-Otherwise” Thomas Svolos

“The Supposed-To Know-To Read-Otherwise.” This signifier that I have chosen for my title is a translation of a word Lacan uttered on December, 20, 1977. Elaborating on the sujet-supposé-savoir, he tweaked the word a bit to come up with “le supposé-savoir-lire-autrement.” Allow me to offer my translation of the passage where this occurs, in Seminar XXV: “There is surely writing in the unconscious, even if only because the dream, the principle of the unconscious–it is what Freud said–the lapsus and even the Witz are defined by being readable. A dream, it happens, one doesn’t know why, and then, apres-coup, it reads itself; a lapsus also and everything that Freud said about Witz are truly notorious for being linked to this economy that is writing, an economy different from speech. The readable, it is in that that knowledge consists. And in the end, it’s not much. That which I said about the transference I timidly advanced as being the subject–a subject is always supposed, it is not of the subject, as expected, it is only the supposed–the supposed to know. And what does that mean? The supposed-to know-to read-otherwise. The otherwise in question, it is truly that which I write, even myself, in the following way: S(/A) [the signifier of the lack in the Other]. Otherwise, what does that mean?”

If the title of these Study Days is “Reading the Unconscious,” and, if the title of this session is “The Unconscious in the Contemporary World,” I wish, then, to make the subtitle of my small contribution here as “Reading the Unconscious in the Contemporary World.” I would like to address this question from the point that Lacan makes here about the transference: of the supposition, of a subject, who is supposed to know how to read something otherwise, to read it differently. Lacan asks: what does it mean to read something otherwise, to read it differently. Well, then, how do we suppose to read something, the unconscious, more specifically, otherwise in the contemporary world?

Let’s look first at Freud, who is not of the contemporary world. What was the Freudian act of reading? Freud’s patients presented themselves to him with their symptoms, their conversion reactions, their obsessions, their phobias, and so forth. And, through the act of listening to these patients, he discovered, he created the notion of the Unconscious, the Other Scene, and he, in the most classical phase of his work, worked by an act of reading these symptoms, and dreams, and Witz, and lapsus, differently. Whereas his patients perhaps believed that there was nothing to be read there, no meaning to be obtained from what we now call these unconscious formations, Freud believed otherwise, believed that they represented an unconscious that could be read. And, Freud’s reading was a rigorous one, one in which he found not only meaning, but a very particular meaning in all his cases–the Oedipus complex.

Freud’s first published comments on the Oedipus complex appear in The Interpretation of Dreams, and I would like to quote here from the translation by Joyce Creek: “In my experience, which is already very extensive, parents play the main parts in the inner life of all children who later become psychoneurotics. Being in love with the one parent and hating the other belong to the indispensable stock of psychical impulses being formed at that time which are so important for the later neurosis. But I do not believe that in this respect psychoneurotics are to be sharply distinguished from other children of Adam with a normal development in their capacity to create something absolutely new and theirs alone. It is far more likely – and this is supported by occasional observations of normal children – that with these loving and hostile wishes towards their parents too, psychoneurotics are only revealing to us, by magnifying it, what goes on less clearly and less intensely in the inner life of most children. In support of this insight, the ancient world has provided us with a legend whose far-reaching and universal power can only be understood if we grant a similar universality to the assumption from child-psychology we have just been discussing.” [1]

From that point in 1900 to the end of his career, Freud retained a belief in the Oedipus complex, which he found at the heart of all his clinical work. Examine the Rat Man and even the Schreber case, and you can see it in the anticipatory function of this complex in schematizing the material he encountered in his clinical work. It can be granted that later in his work, such as in the third chapter of The Ego and the Id, Freud modified this complex with the so-called negative Oedipus complex, but the critical emphasis persisted: the relative positions of rivalry and antagonism with one parent and love for the other, a configuration of positions of Imaginary relations.

For Freud, this complex is universal: to be found in all social and cultural discursive formations. And, in fact, we need to look at his great later speculations such as Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism as further attempts on his part to delineate this complex by establishing its origins. In this regard, the myth of the primal father is merely an extension of the myth of the Oedipus complex: a desire for knowledge of it in the first moment of properly human history. The critical discontinuity of human from primate – this unknowable moment of our history – is explained by Freud not through science, for which the task is impossible, but through the generation of a myth, myth here serving the function it always does according to Levi-Strauss.

Thus, for Freud, the Oedipus complex is the key to how to read the Unconscious. But, this is not the only dimension of the Freudian act of reading. In her presentation during the preparatory video-seminar series for these Study Days on “Reading the Unconscious,” Elisa Alvarenga offered a very nuanced presentation on the interpretation of dreams in psychoanalysis today. [2] She started with a close reading of the foundational dream of psychoanalysis, the dream of Irma’s injection. In her presentation, Alvarenga stated that this dream retains its importance because “it’s a dream where we already have two aspects of the unconscious: on the one hand, its connection to the signifier, to the signifier chain, which connects to the experiences of the subject Freud, his history and his suffering, and so, his truth, and on the other hand, its connection to the letter, something that creates a hole in the meaning constructed by language, and then connects to what Freud has called the navel of the dream, the Unerkannt, which Lacan calls the impossible to recognize. This non-recognized is of the order of something that cannot be said, and belongs to what Freud called the Urverdrängung, the original repression, the proper hole of the symbolic, which represents its closing. It establishes the limit of the readable, on the one hand, and also it’s the index of what doesn’t cease to not write itself.” I agree with Alvarenga’s formulation here, but I would like to note that the emphasis in Freud has always seemed to me to be on this first aspect of the unconscious, that of meaning, with special privilege to the Oedipal meaning. This second aspect, which really is nothing other than what Lacan mathematizes as the signifier of the lack in the Other, is present, but in Freud marks only a limit, a point of impossibility with regard to interpretation and the psychoanalytic act of reading. Indeed, in the dream of Irma’s injection, it appears only as a footnote. And, one might say, it appears only in footnotes or metaphorical references, such as to the rock of castration that the interpretive waves of meaning only crash themselves on. I think it is with Lacan and with our current, what I will call Millerian reading of Lacan, that we have come to fully develop this last aspect, that of a reading, a “reading otherwise” oriented around a signifier not of the Other, but of the lack in the Other.

But: to return to Freud, thus, in my reading, for Freud, to read otherwise, was fundamentally to offer a universal reading, to read the Unconscious through the lens of the Oedipus complex. This was indeed a large part of the scandal of psychoanalysis, subverting many ideals or notions held dearly at that moment in the history of civilization. But, at a certain point, the Freudian message was disseminated through society and culture. One might interpret the crisis in psychoanalysis in the 1920’s as a function of the very success of psychoanalysis itself. Psychoanalytic interpretation seemed to lose its efficacy at this moment, and I think we might understand that from within the very context of this notion of “reading otherwise:” reading unconscious formations through the lens of the Oedipus complex no longer worked at the very moment analysands were themselves reading it in those terms. It no longer functioned as an other, or a different, reading.

I want to jump ahead, now, to the work of Lacan. But, here, I would like to quickly make a different kind of remark–elaborate a different point. When I think of the notion of “reading otherwise” with regard to Lacan, I think it is possible to look at the trajectory of his work as various attempts to do just that, to read the unconscious differently. Of course, first, there is the formulation of the unconscious structured like a language, and the concomitant linguistic reading of the unconscious. With the mathemes, there is a formalized and logifying reading of the unconscious. And, with his interest in geometry, the Moebius band, and the torus and later in knots, we have a topological reading of the unconscious. Jacques-Alain Miller has noted at many points in his teaching the way that Lacan works against Lacan–he constantly reformulates, shifts positions, modifies his approach. I think we can understand that as the way in which Lacan never ceases to read otherwise.

But, what about today? What about our contemporary world, as it was put in the title of this session? In his presentation at Commandatuba, Jacques-Alain Miller provided a stunning description, “A Fantasy” he titles it, of our contemporary world–our so-called postmodernity or hypermodernity. [3] In his presentation, which I will try to summarize quickly here, he noted that now society is no longer organized around a master signifier, an S1, but that our compass–the term he uses–the “dominant place” in our civilization is that of the object a, here no longer the part object of the body, a residue of nature, but industrially produced surplus jouissance, the plus-de-jouir. This plus-de-jouir acts on subjects, which are disoriented, producing an S1, a One of evaluation, the incessant evaluation we find in self-assessment, in the workplace, in contemporary trends in the clinic, and–well, why not–in the explosion of signifiers we find now in the new social media, the constant evaluation in tweets and facebook wall postings, of every aspect and thought and impulse of our lives. And, for Miller, knowledge, S2, then is in the position of the hidden truth (or lie), knowledge now is nothing but a semblant. Well, as you see, this description of the contemporary world is indeed nothing other than the discourse of the analyst. Society today, Miller proposes, in what he calls his fantasy, is structured as the discourse of the analyst.

Well, this is indeed a striking concept, but, as Miller notes, this immediately creates a problem. If the discourse of the analyst previously worked by acting on the unconscious, which was previously organized as the discourse of the master (which, indeed, is what we saw with Freud–an unconscious reigned over by Oedipus, the master of the unconscious), well, what now? If psychoanalysis is no longer the other side of civilization, as Lacan formulated it in Seminar XVII, and if psychoanalysis is now the same structure as civilization, then what? To pose the question in the terms of these Study Days, how do we “read otherwise” in this setting?

I think we must start with a simple point. If we are going to speak about reading the unconscious, we must first have something to read. In other words, if we are to emphasize that our act as psychoanalysts may not be one of listening, listening to speech, but that of reading, of reading a text, the first imperative is that of creating the text of the unconscious. And, how do we do that, but by taking the words of the analysand and adding punctuation. In several places in their work, Miller and Eric Laurent as well comment on the value of interpretation as punctuation. Of course, Lacan emphasized this first, even in the first phase of his teaching, in his elaboration of the short session, he emphasized that “It is therefore, a propitious punctuation that gives meaning to the subject’s discourse.” [4] The act of the analyst in interpretation is the act of punctuation. An exclamation point might highlight a word or phrase. A question mark introduces equivocation. An ellipsis erases a long stretch of bla bla bla to bring two important words or phrases of the analysand together. The combination of ellipses and commas may create a series, highlighting a repetition. The combination of an ellipsis and a colon may introduce some causality in the relation of two words or phrases. The combination of an ellipsis and a question mark allows the analysands own discourse to answer the question raised elsewhere in the discourse. Spaces allow us to separate words into constituent phonemes that will resonate through the discourse. Quotation marks highlight the fact that in the analysands discourse, he may be quoting an other. And, of course, can we not represent the very end of the session as nothing other than a page break? Our use of punctuation in interpretation should be as extensive as the exhaustive rhetorical tropes that, echoing Quintilian, Lacan, in “The Instance of the Letter,” cites as constituting the defense mechanisms of the unconscious: periphrasis, hyperbaton, ellipsis, suspension, litotes, and so forth. And, indeed, we might even say that it is only with punctuation that the rhetorical character of the unconscious is fully elucidated. For, in the end, this very act of punctuation serves one very clear purpose–it takes the discourse of the analysand, a spoken discourse, and transforms it into a text. To read the unconscious, the unconscious first must be a text. We cannot read the unconscious unless the unconscious is a text, and we provide, as analysts, the punctuation that makes that possible. A subject as a text, indeed, is the very formulation Lacan makes in 1976 in “Preface to the English Language Edition of Seminar XI”: “I am not a poet, but a poem. A poem that is being written, even if it looks like a subject.”

I want to draw your attention again to Miller’s text “A Fantasy.” Towards the end of the talk, in a place where Miller is emphasizing the jouissance value of the symptom, namely the symptom as a place where jouissance appears, instead of where it should appear, so to speak, he emphasizes what we can provide in our interpretations as a certain quilting point on this. He makes some comments about the importance not of the words of the interpretation, but of the tone of voice of the interpretation, noting that when people repeat an interpretation of Lacan’s, they always repeat it in his tone. He states that “one must bring one’s body into play in order for the interpretation to be raised to the power of the symptom.” This resonates well with me, in that in my own practice I have found that the most effective interpretations, or the interpretations most commented on by analysands, take that place not as a function of their meaning content, but something else–yes, it may be the tone of the voice, or some grunt or other vocalization, which might be nothing other than the voice object, the voice as object a; or, perhaps some way of looking at an analysand that is noted, the object a as gaze; or, some other body gesture, slapping my hand on a table has had a notable effect in some sessions. If the object a is the agent of psychoanalytic discourse, as Lacan formulates this in Seminar XVII, one aspect of reading the unconscious is the extent to which we might make the object a operative in a psychoanalytic session. Indeed, when I look back at those moments now, I wonder if the very thing that is operative in the sessions is the way in which the analyst might be, in fact, assuming the position of the object a, the object a as Lacan formulates it in the final stage of his teaching, as a semblant, a semblant of being. [5] In this regard, if we think of the analyst as a parlêtre, a speaking being–why not? this is a possibility–perhaps we ought to place as much care into our act as “being” as our act as “speaking.” Why can’t we literally accept this aspect of our interpretation–the body act of interpretation–as a form of reading otherwise, bringing the body, as Other, into play in a psychoanalysis?

To take “reading otherwise today” from a different approach, it is worth noting that in “A Fantasy,” Miller addresses this question of interpretation in the contemporary world more directly at one point in his text. He states that each of the four terms (or elements, of discourse–a, S1, S2, and $) are “disjointed from the others within civilization. On the one hand, the surplus-jouissance commands; on the other, the subject works; and on again another, identifications fall and are replaced by the homogenous evaluation of capacities, and this while knowledge of different sorts is actively telling lies and nevertheless progressing. We might say that, in civilization, these different elements are scattered and that it is only in psychoanalysis, in pure psychoanalysis, that these terms are organized into a discourse.” We might say, then, that a psychoanalysis, taken to its conclusion, is a kind of articulation of the discourse itself, and the act of reading here is perhaps akin to the function of highlighters that I see students using now when they read, the analyst highlighting these four terms or elements within the discourse of the analysand.

I want to conclude this inquiry with a reference to a type of work particular to us Lacanians, a Testimony of the Pass given by one of those psychoanalysts who have taken their analysis as far as it could go and have given testimony to this experience. In particular, I want to take up a point that our president Leonardo Gorostiza made in the Testimony he offered at the Congress of the New Lacanian School in Paris. [6] He had just described the consulting room dream when he was abruptly seen by a helicopter while watching a woman who allowed herself to be seen by him. The dream led to a shift, which had various repercussions, including a significant shift in his practice. Gorostiaza said it marked a significant conclusion with therapeutic effects, which he theorized along the lines of Lacan’s statements that at the end of analysis, the analysand may recognize that he is pure lack, or pure object a. But, Gorotstiza pushed further, in the end, and he did not end his analysis at what seemed a reasonable end. In what became the final moment of his analysis, he emphasizes a neologistic phrase that he elaborated and with which he identified, that he was the “shoehorn-without-measure.” This new signifier, which led to what he defined as his identification with the symptom, is described as coming out of a void, a void that was uncovered when “lying truth” vanished. Gorostiza highlights in the Testimony at this point–echoing a superb short theoretical text prepared for the last Congress of the WAP on this theme–the incommensurability between the Truth and the Real, which, for him, came to light in another dream–rather amusing, with a colleague of the WAP yelling “I am the Truth” at him, and he replying “I am the Real!” I think that we must further draw the conclusion that this new signifier “shoehorn-without-measure” is nothing other than the Signifier of the Lack in the Other, a signifier of the “void” or of the incommensurability of the Truth and the Real, to emphasize the two readings that Gorostiza makes. I wish to quote Gorostiza here: “This creation is not of the ‘Ego,’ but of the subject, who arrived at confronting himself with his absolute difference. A subject who is no longer ‘poem,’ that is to say, he is no longer represented by a signifier–the signifier ‘shoehorn’–before the signifying Other. It is a new subject, ‘poet,’ having invented a new signifier which, like the real, does not have any sort of meaning.” At the beginning of this talk, I offered a quote from Lacan relating to reading, a definition of the transference as a supposed-to know-to read-otherwise. At that moment, Lacan stated that the Otherwise in question is that of the Signifier of the Lack in the Other, which is also named by Alvarenga as that second aspect of the Unconscious. Well, I think that that is precisely what Gorostiza achieved at this moment, the moment of the passage of analysand to analyst, in the elaboration of this ‘shoehorn-without-measure,’ which indeed is a Signifier of a lack, a void, an incommensurability, in the Other. But, surely we must note that this elaboration is not really a Reading of the Unconscious. Indeed, Gorostiza notes that a new subject, a poet–a psychoanalyst, we might say–is born at this point. Perhaps, at the very end of analysis, it is less a question, then, of Reading the Unconscious, but rather of Writing the Unconscious.

[1] Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. Joyce Crick, Oxford, page 201
[2] Elisa Alvarenga, “What’s the Importance of Dreams in Psychoanalysis Today,” unpublished
[3] Jacques-Alain Miller, “A Fantasy,” Lacanian Praxis #2
[4] Jacques Lacan, “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis,” Écrits
[5] Jacques Lacan, Seminar XX
[6] Leonardo Gorostiza, “From the Instant of the Fantasy to the Desire of the Psychoanalyst,” Hurly-Burly #4