Getting off on old jouissance: Turning away from negative capability.

by Bruce Scott on November 12, 2011

Thoughts and reflections on Eric Laurent’s clinical examples from his paper: The Symbolic order in the 21st Century: Consequences for the treatment.[1]


Cartel Presentation, 12/11/11


My first thoughts on reading Laurent’s paper were that the two clinical examples given in the paper end on a mode of satisfaction, jouissance, getting off on being the master, the intimidator (on the part of the analysand), and the analyst putting a plug in the treatment of an aberrant analysis, or papering over the cracks of a faulty failing symbolic. These examples made me think of the poet Keats who in a letter to his brother in 1817 wrote:


I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, and at once it struck me, what quality went to form a man of achievement especially in literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously- I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”[2]


The clinical examples also made me think about the value of loosely speaking “negative theological thinking” (especially texts like the Dark Night of the Soul[3], and Sufi texts[4]), which I am struck by, have resonances with the texts of Lacan. Further, if I am not too bold to say so, I have found that Lacan’s near relatives of Derrida[5], Heidegger[6], Wittgenstein[7], and his ancestors, Kierkegaard[8], and way in the distance, Plato[9] and Parmenides[10] seem to echo the spirit of Lacan in many ways. Out of interest, which I think I should mention, it is these characters that brought me into the Lacanian zone; these authors give me the same feeling as my reading of Lacan does. Anyway, a negative theological text I thought of in relation to the two clinical examples is by Idries Shah (loosely speaking-it’s more of a negative teaching or a tool for unlearning commonly used, even today, in the Sufi tradition). I have always found this example has helped me in my own thinking, and has always made me smile especially keeping it in mind when hearing the strained and failing symbolic of the CBT cure, the HPC safeguard, and now the now immanent so-called CHRE utopia.


Anyway, this is Idries Shah’s parable of how and what to understand. This is from Shah’s book, Thinkers of the East: Studies in Experientialism.


“This interchange between the Sufi mystic Simab and a noble-man named Mulakab is preserved in oral transmission as a dialogue often staged by wandering dervishes.


Mulakab: Tell me something of your philosophy, so that I may understand.

Simab: You cannot understand unless you have experienced.

Mulakab: I do not have to understand a cake, to know whether it is bad.

Simab: If you are looking at a good fish and you think that it is a bad cake, you need to understand less and to understand it better, more than you need anything else.

Mulakab: Then why do you not abandon books and lectures, if experience is the necessity?

Simab: Because the outward is the conductor to the inward. Books will teach you something of the outward aspects of the inward and so will lectures. Without them, you would make no progress.

Mulakab: But why should we not be able to do without books?

Simab: For the same reason that you cannot think without words. You have been reared on books, your mind is so altered by books and lectures, by hearing and speaking, that the inward can only speak to you through the outward, whatever you pretend to perceive.

Mulakab: Does this apply to everyone?

Simab: It applies to whom it applies. It applies above all to those who think it does not apply to them!”(Shah, 1982, p109)[11].


I hope these two examples from Keats ‘and Idries Shaw are self-explanatory for our present purposes.


But to link these examples with the idea of getting off on old jouissance reflected in my title and the text in hand, The Symbolic in the 21st Century, I quote Laurent on p22:


“The impossibility of marking out one’s place as the consciousness of the dream makes

of the dreamer a subject that is in the place of no one. This is the inverse of the fixation that the perverse ceremony aims at where the subject attempts by any means possible to maintain himself as the consciousness of jouissance, to maintain a scenario and accomplish it by having written it out right to the last line. The subject tries to avoid finding himself in the zone of “No One Anymore” [Plus Personne]. The fabric of the subject which is thus produced is not representation but its limit, which implies the irreducible of jouissance.”


And further down the page he states:

“Democratic man wants to submit any truth and any decision to his criticism, but at the same time, he is condemned to believe […] millions of things based on the other’s faith. We have never been so assertive of our intellectual autonomy, but at the same time, our judgements depend more and more on the confidence we are forced to have in our fellow man. It is not just a question of scientific research and its increasing specialisation. Scientific and technical progress rapidly renders the organisation of daily life obsolete and, for most of us, goes way beyond our capacities of comprehension. As such, we narrowly depend more than ever on others, whereas we are ceaselessly affirming our irreducible individuality and our absolute right to intellectual autonomy.”


So bearing these ideas and points of discussion in mind, I think the two clinical examples show:

1)    Affirming and reifying our imaginary or irreducible individuality, coupled with narcissism.

2)    Today, nobody wants to be in the place of the “no-one anymore” (Therapist and patient)

3)    And making a stand to hold onto old jouissance and symptoms (on the part of the patients in the clinical examples from Laurent’s paper, and generally in our psycho-therapeutic demanding society).

4)    In essence, Keats’ negative capability is frowned upon in the moves made by the characters in the clinical examples.

5)    Ultimate “fixing” knowledge or the idea of the cure is apparent. Sometimes the cure is that there is no cure.


This last idea relates to my experience of analysis (that I discovered to my happy shock that there was no cure). This idea is in accord with both Keats’ and Idries Shaw’s ideas on experience (or impossibility inherent in it from a symbolic standpoint) and Lacan’s notion of the pass.


The opposite of Keats’ and Shah’s ideas are reflected by Laurent (page 23) which exemplify the clinical examples in his paper, but also much of the “demands that we are all faced with; politically and clinically by our patients and/or the social oil that lubricates our interactions:


“The path of contemporary egalitarianism, with its demands for transparency, has especially afflicted the status of the subject supposed to know in the experience of psychoanalysis. Faced with competition from the cognitive behavioural model reducing the therapist to a technician who is at the service of the treatment of his “client”, American psychoanalysis wants to renew the semblants of psychoanalysis by proposing a strictly democratic, reciprocal treatment, freed from any supposed authority.”


The danger in this scenario, “renewing the semblants of psychoanalysis….”, as Laurent describes, creates the unreal real, or Simulacra, as Baudrillard[12] describes; the fate of those left alone in Plato’s cave[13]; festering in illusion.


Laurent’s reference to “being freed from any supposed authority” creates the nightmarish scenario where, if I may be so bold to say, where the master signifier becomes the “I” or “Self”. There is no master apart from oneself; not in a good, existential Sartrean way[14], but more in a capitalist, productive way; cosmetic psychology, be whatever you want, “because you’re worth it” (as from a popular womans hair product advertisement).


Now some specific points on the clinical examples. Laurent writes in reference to the first clinical example, page 24.


“The construction of a symbolic order is achieved on the basis of an explicit

knowledge confirmed by an experience of jouissance. The gain in knowledge is in continuity with surplus jouissance. The analyst interprets a childhood memory for his chronically depressed analysand, as “unnecessarily self-critical and pessimistic in her interpretation of social interactions, and underestimates people’s interest in her”. He explains to her the reasons for his interpretation, which she criticises. The analyst is like her father, “unable to respect her point of view, needing to be right”. The analyst contests the analysand’s interpretation and asks her if she “really” thinks this even though he “consider[s] her the expert on her childhood” and not him.


I think a big mistake or cover up has been made here, which much of the CBT movement, as well as IAPT ideology use for its fuel. As Ian Parker[15] states this way of working:


“…….bring(s) about some form of harmonisation between aspects of the

self serves to cover over the contradictions that make someone into a human subject

in the first place. Instead of trying to make the unconscious consistent with

consciousness or, worse, trying to wipe it out altogether, Lacanian psychoanalysis

attends to the ways in which each subject deals with their own points of impossibility.”


And of course, this impossibility relates to Keats’s notion of getting to grips with negative capability; getting used to one’s impossibility, not getting off on one’s imaginary (or one’s symbolic discourse?) or reification of the self/identity/and world as I like to say.


The first clinical example continues on page 24 of Laurent’s paper:


The analyst and analysand then discuss this point: who is the expert? The analysand is sarcastic, says she doesn’t really feel like talking and stops talking.”


What I see going on here, and in relation to the reinforcement/placating of the patients imaginary/symbolic, ties in nicely to what Lacan has to say about aggressivity in psychoanalysis in Ecrits. Lacan talks about a hypothetical situation where the slavery of a person to his own rhetoric or discourse results in frustration, the person wanting to keep his symbolic intact, but which is essentially a death wish of someone not wanting to live free from their false safety of their symbolic discourse, unable to try another discourse, or deconstruct an old one into nothing, or to die before you die as Rumi says. Many people cannot face this as it is painful, thus death wishing ensues; a more authentic self cannot emerge and the false self kills the true self (e.g., Laing)[16]. As Lacan writes in Ecrits[17], p250 from the chapter, The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis:


“Thus we can see how this aggressiveness may respond to any intervention which, by exposing the imaginary intentions of the subject’s discourse, dismantles the object the subject has constructed to satisfy them. This is in effect, what is referred to as the analysis of resistances, and we can immediately see the danger that lies therein.”


In other words, when the patient’s discourse is challenged, and not reinforced, all hell can potentially be let loose. Just look at some HPC fitness to practice complaints[18].


Ok. That is the first clinical example. I think the second is more troubling, well it made me more troubled, and angry. I have come across patients like this who gave me a very hard time, but they were reluctant to see that giving me a hard time was just like their old times, was not the start of new times, and to be frank, when patients were like this me, I felt that they we getting off on their own selves/imaginary idea of themselves/symbolic discourse which was failing, but what brought them into therapy, which they were demanding me to fix. Miller writes in the second example on page 24.


“The analyst says to her: “I’m confused. What gives you the impression that your way of talking turned your husband off?” Ann responded, with slight irritation, ‘’I don’t think you’re confused, Owen. I think you have a view of what’s going on. Why don’t you just say what you think?” […] My hypothesis was that Ann had once more felt the need to criticize herself instead of her husband […]. She considered.: “That makes sense”, she said. “I understand where you were coming from. But why didn’t you just explain your concerns? Instead, you presented yourself as confused, and that wasn’t really true – not to mention that it goes against your policy, which you’ve explained to me, of making your thinking explicit so that we can discuss it if we need to. Not that it’s such a big deal about it, but why did you bullshit like that?”[…] The next day, Ann began by saying how useful the previous session had been […] the really interesting thing to her, the more she thought about it, was that I had been, in a way, intimidated by her – sufficiently concerned about her disapproval to even misrepresent myself a bit. […] Ann continued to elaborate how useful it had been for her to recognize that she could inadvertently intimidate other people […] She and her

husband had gone on to have a very long talk about it last night, and afterward they’d made love more intimately and passionately than they had in years.”


Miller continues on page 25:

“This example also ends on a satisfaction. We can clearly see the aspect of imaginary exchanges. The “empowerment” of the subject is verified by an experience of satisfaction.”


The woman got off on herself (own idea of self, her master discourse), a common symptom today; getting off on oneself.


Miller continues on page 25:

“From this point of view, the subject supposed to know no less ceases to exist. It is lived like a subject supposed to know how to maximise better the predicaments of her relation to jouissance.”


This example and of what Miller writes brings me back to Lacan, what he said in 1953 in Ecrits (p304; italics in brackets & bold is my addition). What he said is alarmingly relevant to our predicament today in our IAPT/NHS/CBT world.


“Indeed, it couldn’t be better put. Analysis is becoming the relation of two bodies between which a fantasmic communication is established in which the analyst teaches the subject to apprehend himself as an object. Subjectivity is admitted into analysis only as long as it bracketed as an illusion, and speech is excluded from a search for a lived experience that becomes its supreme aim; but its dialectically necessary result appears in the fact that since the analyst’s (and patient’s) subjectivity is freed (delivree) from all restraint, this leaves the subject (analyst) at the mercy (livre) of every summons of the analyst’s (patient’s) speech.”


And as Lacan say’s later on:

“…..this process (or praxis) crushes every possibility of reversing the aberrant effects of an analysis by sanctioning the mirage of the patient’s symbolic discourse.”


So what has not occurred here (in these two clinical examples) as could equally have been stated by Shah or Keats’, is described by Lacan in Ecrits, p618:


“In any case, the most acute sense of his presence (the analyst) is tied to a moment at which the subject can only remain silent-that is when he backs away from even the shadow of demand. Thus the analyst is he who sustains demand, not, as people say, to frustrate the subject, but in order to allow, the signifiers with which the latter’s frustration is bound to reappear.”


I feel that at the very least frustration did appear in the two clinical examples described by Laurent, but the process of dealing with this was aborted by the reestablishment of the mirage of the subject’s (patient’s) discourse. There was no negative capability going on here.


This turning away from negative capability is occurring today in the guise of the HPC’s ideology, CBT, IAPT, and CHRE utopian vision and contemporary ideas of what constitutes (what many people call) mental illness. Have things have gone awry? Do we need to go back to our great old books (and new great books) and actually contemplate what is written in them instead of what is taken today by many people as psycho-therapeutic education? Have we forgotten how to die before we die as Rumi or Socrates put it?



[1] Laurent, E. The Symbolic order in the 21st Century: Consequences for the treatment. Text presented in July 2010 and available here.


[2] Gittings, R. (1966). Selected Poems and Letters of Keats. Heinmann Educational Books Ltd.


[3] Dark Night of the Soul, by St John of the Cross. Dover Publications Inc, 2003.


[4] Rumi, J. (1973). The Masnavi by Rumi. Translated and Edited by E.H. Whitfield. London, Octagon Press.


[5] Almond, I. (2004). Sufism and Deconstruction: A comparative study of Derrida and Ibn ‘Arabi. New York, Routledge.


[6] Heidegger, M. (2001). Zollikon Seminars. Protocols-conversations-letters. M. Boss (Ed.). Translated by F. Mayer & R. Askay. USA: Northwestern University Press.


[7] Wittgenstein, L. (1980). Remarks on the philosophy of psychology: Volume 2. Translated by C.G. Luckhardt and M.A.E. Aue. Oxford, Blackwell.


[8] Kierkegaard, S. (1975). Philosophical fragments. Edited and translated by H.V. and E.H. Hong. Princeton, Princeton University Press.


[9] Plato: The Complete works. (1997) Edited by J.M. Cooper. Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing Company Inc.

[10] Geldard, R.G. (2007). Parmenides and the way of truth. New York. Monkfish Publishing Company.


[11] Shah, I. (1982). Thinkers of the East: Studies in Experientialism. London, Octagon Press Limited.


[12] Baudrillard, G (1994). Simulacra and simulation. Michigan, University of Michigan press.


[13] Plato: The Complete works: Republic. (1997) Edited by J.M. Cooper. Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing Company Inc.


[14] Sartre, J. P. (1969). Being and Nothingness: An essay on phenomenological ontology. London, Methuen & Co Ltd.


[15] Parker, I. Psychotherapy as a problem: Nine points of refusal. Available here.


[16] Laing, R.D. (1960). The divided self. An existential study in sanity and madness. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Penguin Books.


[17] Lacan, J. (2006). Ecrits. New York, W.W. Norton.