Interview with Jamieson Webster on Badiou, psychoanalysis, and the impossibility of closure.
Jamieson Webster, PhD, is a psychoanalyst in New York City. She teaches at Eugene Lang College and New York University. Her work focuses on clinical and theoretical psychoanalysis with an interdisciplinary focus on feminine sexuality, philosophy, and aesthetics. Her recent book Life and Death of Psychoanalysis has been on my radar for a while, and I was particularly intrigued by her critique of Adorno and her use/critique/admiration for Badiou. We discussed Badiou and the state of psychoanalysis in the current.
C. Derick Varn: In reading your Life and Death of Psychoanalysis, I noticed you spend a lot of time on the way in which Badiou enabled you to think about Lacan in a broader sense and broaden a since of inquiry in psychoanalysis. Do you think Badiou has any implications for psychoanalytic practice that are unique to him?
Jamieson Webster: I do think that Badiou has implications for psychoanalytic practice that are unique to him. I’m happy that you see that I wanted to convey what Badiou opens up through his work with Lacan and that he enables something in particular for the practicing analyst. I’m hard on Badiou in the last part of the book. One must always be hard on one’s masters. But I certainly feel guilty about it from time to time and wonder if people can see how I only take apart the one’s I love. Badiou showed me a side of Lacan that was important in ways that I hope we can talk about. And he has an unprecedented, inimitable, at times even uncanny ability to clarify whole trajectories of thought. It is unbelievable what he is able to do in such broad strokes. It is not only Lacan— but of course Lacan for me as a psychoanalyst is the most important— but Deleuze, Sartre, Beckett, Hegel, Marx, Plato, that he contextualizes in terms of the rigor of their philosophical, literary or political projects. Where they stand in relation to the question of truth. It is hard to pull back and get an overview— and I know this is something that I’ve faulted him for from one angle, too much distance— but he gives you this glimpse of the entire philosophical project at the same time that he treats these various constellations with respect and due diligence. He gets in trouble for this systematizing, and not only by me. The Deleuzians were out for blood I hear. But I’ve never been able to see Deleuze’s project so clearly before reading The Clamour of Being. What a great title?
But I’ve evaded your question. As far as clinical practice goes, there was something about Badiou’s notion of the event, the distinction between being and event, and the quality of the event as an event of absolute affirmation in its contingent, subjectivizing, historicity, that hit me like a flash of lightning. That this is what we, as psychoanalysts, listen for day after day. This is what we wait for, silence after silence. And it wasn’t merely as a characterization of what the unconscious event is that this made such an impact, it was also in terms of what I was missing in most of the other philosophies that I was reading at the time, perhaps notably in terms of The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis, in critical theory. I can see lineaments of the event in the thought of Adorno or Benjamin now, but not before having read Badiou, because their work is wrapped in too much negativity and indebtedness to dialectical thinking. The event is a radical break from both, the result of being able to maintain the tension of negativity and dialectical movement, but something that crashes through what I characterize as a kind of melancholic pathos in post-world-war-II philosophy. The event cuts through aporia, dialectical impasse, and infinite regress. It is ephemeral, it doesn’t last, but it has this cutting edge. As a practicing analyst, this is certainly something we face everyday and the work of the analyst is supposed to have the same impact- a cut, punctuation, words stopping you in your tracks, facing up to a truth that surprises and even startles. Important as well, the event is not a moment of synthesis but rather the emergence of something new. While there are syncretic or synthetic aspects to the event, I think Badiou’s stress on newness and the unforeseeable is important for the practicing clinician. Badiou does not emphasize understanding or knowledge, he does not emphasize synthetic-adaptive solutions to conflict or opposing positions (what analysts sometimes call the third). He emphasizes what I think of as closer to the emergence of a signifier from the unconscious, which is closer to a point of non-meaning or the reduction of meaning. The ground is cleared enough for something new to break in and shift ways of understanding, habitual conflicts, and seeming oppositions. And he not only theorizes the event as I’ve just characterized it, he practices it to my mind in his countless books which indeed shake you up and clear the ground.
Also important for a psychoanalyst- Badiou understands something powerful about love, something that I think I wanted psychoanalysis to have something to say about, but often couldn’t find, and I was floundering around, looking for a way out of the impasse of desire and love that Freud characterized so well. Badiou understands what it means to speak from the place of what he calls the event of love, the affirmation of the impossibility of two, making love this force of desire in the face of the ephemeral nature of love, an act of radical faith. Certainly, as an analyst, I also immediately hear the implications of transference. Serge Leclaire— Lacan’s disciple— said the analyst is someone in the difficult place of welcoming, even inviting, words of love from their patients but who must find a way not to deny them but also not to gratify them, allowing them to be spoken, which painfully, even tragically, only makes the difficulty of saying or having said, even worse— its only ever words.
You can see this clearly in Badiou’s reading of Beckett. He always quotes two sets of passages. One from the beginning and end of, Ill Said, Ill Seen, and another from the end of Beckett’s short story, Enough. The first, he says, is one of the most beautiful texts in French and captures the beauty of a kind of feminine abjection and the easing of that misfortune in the momentary acceptance of the void,
“From where she lies she sees Venus rise. On. From where she lies when the skies are clear she sees Venus rise followed by the sun. Then she rails at the source of all life. On. At evening when the skies are clear she savours its star’s revenge. At the other window. Rigid upright on her old chair. It emerges from out the last rays and sinking ever brighter is engulfed in its turn. On. She sits on erect and rigid in the deepening gloom. Such helplessness to move she cannot help. Heading on foot for a particular point often she freezes on the way. Unable till long after to move on not knowing whither or for what purpose. Down on her knees especially she finds it hard not to remain so forever. Hand resting on hand on some convenient support. Such as the foot of her bed. And on them her head. There then she sits as though turned to stone face to the night. Save for the white of her hair and faintly bluish white of face and hands all is black. For an eye having no need of light to see. All this in the present as had she the misfortune to be still of this world.”
“Decision no sooner reached or rather long after than what is the wrong word? For the last time at last for to end yet again what the wrong word? Than revoked. No but slowly dispelled a little very little like the wisps of day when the curtain closes. Of itself by slow millimetres or drawn by a phantom hand. Farewell to farewell. Then in that perfect dark foreknell darling sound pip for end begun. First last moment. Grant only enough remain to devour all . Moment by glutton moment. Sky, earth, the whole kit and boodle. Not another crumb of carrion left. Lick chops and basta. No. One moment more. One last. Grace to breathe that void. Know happiness.”
And from, Enough,
“This notion of calm comes from him. Without him I would not have had it. Now I’ll wipe out everything but the flowers. No more rain. No more mounds. Nothing but the two of us dragging through the flowers. Enough my old breasts feel his old hand.”
Badiou constanly turns back to these quotations, and if you know his voice, he reads them to you like a lullaby. Such helplessness to move she cannot help. On… One last. Grace to breathe that void… I’ll wipe out everything but the flowers… Enough. Love is not sentimental piety, it is not symbiotic sublime union, it is not utilitarian contractual relations, it is something closer to what Beckett is able to evoke… continuing on despite impossibility, an affirmation of absolute helplessness, dejection sometimes, and yet, miraculously, momentary affirmation, the arousal of a void that brings grace, truth, encounter, and love that drags and grows old, and only when everything has been wiped out, is it finally enough. Maybe I take things too far, but I think you can see in this the profound passage of the analysand in analysis.
C.D.V.: You have mentioned in both your book and interviews that you find Adorno to be too closed off and certain in a pessimistic vein. Do you think he is representative of Freudian Marxism prior to Lacan, or do you think that specific to a few Hegelian Marxist thinkers who have had influence on psychoanalytic theory?
J.W.: I recently read Dream Notes, which is Adorno’s dream journal that he kept between 1932 and 1969. The dreams are horrifying. There are a special few that exude charm and wit— a little humor— but mostly they are an unending series of impasses and executions and sexual humiliations and homoerotic rivalries and bodily disintegration. I could go on and on. Adorno wakes up terrified and nauseated on many occasions. It felt like the modernist post World-War-II cul-de-sac of critical theory condensed into a series of visual images. And I so wanted him to find a way out, and maybe this isn’t fair, but I don’t think he did. I think he could only turn round a certain set of problems regarding authority and desire. The object of desire is ultimately buried beneath the weight of an impossible anxiety in Adorno and if it tears him apart at night in his dream life, in his work-life I think it amounted to a kind of closed certainty— one that is, by the way, very appealing to anxious graduate students who probably also suffer from an unending series of nightmares. Adorno writes down that his wife asked him why he makes fun of himself in his dreams and he said, without thinking: ‘to fend off paranoia’. Lacan begins with paranoia through his work as a psychiatrist, and he develops the concept of the paranoiac structure of the ego, especially as a critique of knowledge. No one is more certain than a paranoiac, and also less funny. The psychoanalyst, Francois Roustang, has this great book called How To Make A Paranoid Laugh. Desire is the antidote for Lacan, something he learned not from his paranoid patients, but from the hysterics.
I don’t know if I would characterize this as a pre-Lacanian psychoanalytic Marxism. There are so many kinds from Marcuse and Fromm, to Reich and Sartre. I don’t know if this kind elitist melancholia is particular to Marxist Freudianism, which can certainly be quite utopian. Marcuse, for example, is a great deal less pessimistic either about social change or psychoanalysis. I had forgotten how good Eros and Civilization is. What Marcuse does with repressive de-sublimation, the idea that society allows us to let-off a little steam in order to keep repressive forces functioning, against the transformation of Eros as sublimation that would, in his view, undermine the forces of repression, is certainly a theme I tried to pick up in Adorno with regard to the revolutionary potential of art. I linked this to Lacan’s concept of the ethics of psychoanalysis. Lacan and Adorno are of course great readers of Hegel and Marx. I certainly learned Hegel through Adorno and was able to follow Lacan’s way of mapping Hegel onto the psychoanalytic terrain thanks to him. And I was prejudiced against Heidegger because I felt close to Adorno’s arguments in The Jargon of Authenticity (another great title). But, the dialectical vision is one of opposites collapsing into the same thing and what was originally one being irrevocably divided, which if it doesn’t amount to the grand synthesis and self-revelation that Hegel had dreamed up, then what are you left with? In a comment appended to a dream in Adorno’s Dream Notes, he wrote, “our dreams are linked with each other not just because they are ‘ours’, but because they form a continuum, they belong to a unified world, just as, for example, all of Kafka’s stories inhabit the ‘same world’.” One might see here not just a theory of the Other but the possibility of a unified world that isn’t only simply a delusion or a nightmare. It is certainly a wish, but isn’t it interesting that wishes exist in a continuum that forms a unity in a being that is otherwise described after modernity as rent. That being said, Adorno did write down his dreams, intended for publication. We do not know what he wanted to say with them since they were only published after his death and without whatever introduction he may have written. But certainly the importance of uselessness in a radically utilitarian capitalistic world puts dreams and art on the same footing. Psychoanalysis takes what is useless, dream-life, and makes it utterly useful, if not subversive.
C.D.V.: What do you make of the Slavoj Zizek’s use of Lacan which seems quite different from your take and almost in a vein more similar to Adorno’s than Badiou’s thinking?
J.W.: Oh, the Slavoj question! I spoke with him at length in Spain a few years back and he asked me, ‘How can you stand listening to patients all day? It seems like it would be so boring.’ That kind of sums it up for me. Psychoanalysis is a kind of game for him and the fact that it is born out of a rigorous practice that us psychoanalysts do is of little interest to him. So it vaguely offends me when the Pervert’s Guide to Cinema lists him as a psychoanalyst. Lacan said he was speaking to psychoanalysts about psychoanalysis, from the standpoint of the unique experience of being in analysis, and what I think he learned from his patients. I think he was an extraordinary listener. As for Adorno and Badiou in relation to Zizek, he certainly has the same flair as Adorno for dragging everything into a magnificent dialectical impasse. And they have the same taste for finding consolation in classical music. People are rather poor substitutes for that pleasure. Politically I think Zizek has more of a taste or tolerance for authority than poor Adorno. I don’t think Adorno cared as much for Christian theology as Zizek and may on the whole be more pessimistic, especially with regard to the usefulness of popular culture that Zizek filters through his Lacanian sieve. Of course, you have to appreciate Zizek and what he is able to do with Lacan, how he has been able to disseminate his thinking to the next generation. But I hope one moves through the Zizekian world-view, not getting too stuck there. Maybe that means moving closer to Badiou for me who is certainly more affirmative and loving.
C.D.V.: In your essay, “Love and Shame,” published in the Cardozo Law Review, that “a symptom is a passion for ignorance” can be applied to the increasing isolation that psychoanalysts have from the academe, even the academe which is using psychoanalytic categories? How deep do you think this symptom goes in regards to way Lacan is seems, in America at least, primarily used for cultural criticism?
J.W.: I think the best way to answer this question is from two directions: from the academy and its relation to psychoanalysis and from psychoanalysis and its relation to the academy. Perhaps easiest would be to start with the academy where psychoanalysis is used in literature, philosophy, cultural studies, film studies, philosophy, whatnot. I find that there are those who respect the fact that psychoanalysis is a very particular discipline whose knowledge stems from its clinical practice. This doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with applied psychoanalysis, but I believe that we have to be careful. Some thinkers I know care very much about psychoanalysis as a clinical discipline, are interested in hearing from psychoanalysts about psychoanalysis, and in their use of analysis stay very close to the phenomenological base of psychoanalytic experience and know-how. Judith Butler is one of those thinkers who pays particularly close attention to psychoanalysis as a clinical act. In fact, it is the more formal aspects of the praxis of psychoanalysis that undergirds her notion of the performative dimension of speech and the subversive character of the repetition of a signifier. And hers is a brilliant critical reading of Freud and Lacan. Badiou, in the talk you mention from Cardozo, is also someone who I clearly feel stays close to the experience of psychoanalysis even if he doesn’t acknowledge psychoanalysis all that much. That’s fine with me— credit is overrated— as long as what is crucial is transmitted in thought. The passion for ignorance on the other hand is a kind of neglect of psychoanalysis in its most crucial dimensions that have bearing on its ‘cure’. And I think it is a kind of symptom in so far as what happens is the exact opposite— psychoanalysis becomes a kind of game, or a scientific enterprise, or a psychological parlor trick, even an interpretive method that reduces everything to a pre-fabricated grid. Psychoanalysis is not a Weltanschauung as Freud was so anxious to point out. From the other angle, and it is important because psychoanalysis itself is saturated with this symptomatic passion for ignorance, psychoanalysis has become more and more separated from the academy and seemingly more and more ignorant of its current developments. All of which is a disaster as far as I’m concerned. The psychoanalytic institution is a real horror for me as a seemingly infinite series of isolated little bubbles of analysts ignorant not only of one another but of the greater spheres of knowledge at play in the international scene. It has a lot to do with the professionalization of the field— being an analyst doesn’t mean being responsible as a public intellectual but someone who clocks in everyday at the office, pays dues to some local and perhaps national organization, and goes to a conference every once in awhile to network and to perhaps get credit for the upkeep of one’s license. It’s a sad state of affairs. They hardly ever talk to academics, which contribute to the academy’s lack of interest in the discipline as a clinical field; and if the analysts do speak with academics they are often so intellectually threatened, conversation is impossible. I am really quite pessimistic at the moment about the future of psychoanalysis as an organized body. I believe people are doing incredible work with patients but in my experience the best are exhausted with the institutional scene and they tend to marginalize themselves. It’s really very sad, but the history of psychoanalysis as an institution has been nothing short of tragic, if not comical, and Lacan, who was very critical of it, was nonetheless not successful in his experiments. I still don’t know what to make of that fact, something in him, some flavor for the authoritarian, lingered and was transmitted. The Lacanians ironically are some of the worst, living in provincial fiefdoms fifty strong in Paris each taking their turn to go impress the South Americans. And while this goes on, the real commerce of ideas among analysts and between psychoanalysis and the academy dwindles to nothing. I’m sorry to be so negative. In any case, Freud suspected there would be resistance to psychoanalysis, no matter what, and perhaps he didn’t know that it would come the most strongly form the inside.
C.D.V.: Do you see this as a kind of over-privileging of the diagnostic functions of psychoanalysis over the curative ones in addition from a alienation from the clinical context?
J.W.: That’s certainly part of it. The whole crisis around the DSM has certainly taken its toll. Psychoanalysts don’t know whether or not to pander to the demands of the DSM, the insurance companies, psychopharmacology, all of which exists in a delirium of diagnosis. So psychoanalysis hasn’t represented itself well in these debates, coming across as defensive and threatened, while wavering on its own ethical principles when it kowtows to the industry. There are these amazing internal criteria for diagnoses in Freud that is in part theoretical and in part ethical. It is marvelously simple. Theoretically he divides the field in terms of the neuroses and narcissistic neuroses based on an idea of desire that is either able to reach outwards into the world and objects in it, essentially creating that world, against the withdrawal and stagnation of desire inward. So you have hysteria, phobia, and obsessionality on the one hand (with varying degrees of anxiety), and you have mania, depression, and psychosis on the other. There is a partial withdrawal of libido from the world in neurosis— namely into fantasy— but it is never as radical of an inward turn as it is in the more ‘narcissistic’ neuroses. Is the symptom in the body, displaced into thought, contained in anxiety, is the ego megalomanic, depressive, fragmented, or paranoid? From this one can then envision the direction of the cure without predicting how that cure will take shape or progress. But there is a direction. Ethically, Freud shows that each of these diagnostic categories is universal; it is based on functions and structures that are present in each and every one of us. For example in the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud shows that while there are people whose sexual disposition could be seen as primarily perverse— pedophilia, bestiality, extreme fetishism— perversion is a universal part of sexuality and reveals something important about the transformation of the drives in each and every one of us. So what you can see in this is that no diagnosis is a discreet category, nothing will be chocked up to a simple matter of genetics, and the program of psychoanalysis is not an investigation of the aberrant or degenerate. I think this is why psychoanalysis at its best always seeks to work to cure the most severe mental illnesses from autism to schizophrenia. It is becoming more and more rare, but there is a long history of this kind of work. The problem is that no one cares about cure right now, especially the psychopharmacology industry that dominates everything. Maybe that will change? There has been some backlash recently and people seem to be getting wise to the problems with medication. If the psychoanalysts could be more creative they might be able to show that with this kind of long-term in-depth treatment neurotic patients will be healthier, and for the more severely ill their repetitive lives in-and-out of the hospital and in various partial hospitalization systems will prove more stable over time with this kind of cure. I believe that it is possible to make this case.
C.D.V.: Do you you think that the turning of psychoanalysis into critical theory is a means of avoiding the focus on neurology that is common in the larger culture?
J.W.: The question of neuroscience is difficult because I think you have to separate the science, which most of the neuroscientists admit is in its infancy, from the ideology of the brain that saturates popular culture. Neuroscience is often the first of the ‘harder’ sciences to admit that Freud is indispensable to them. However, the fetish for the brain and MRI machine images is something else entirely. As Badiou put it in his Second Manifesto for Philosophy, the problem for philosophy was originally its disappearance. Now, twenty years after his first manifesto, it is its dialectical opposite, namely an excess of philosophy in the form of crass positivism, counterfeit moralities, and vacuous spiritualities. The task of philosophy is to find a way to challenge these ‘sophistries’ and de-moralize philosophy. Popular neuroscience fits all three of these criteria for a 21st century sophistry— it is always touted as objective, hard, evidence thereby satisfying a craze for concreteness and justification, it participates in new mind/body dualisms you may have once thought philosophy had worked so hard to get past, it is saturated with westernized morality (the brain proves the intrinsic nature of democracy, free will, and the special empathy of human beings), and is sutured to all kinds of spiritualities from the Dalai Lama getting an MRI to the value of meditation as proved by brain imaging. As well, it is perfectly in line with market capitalism to the extent that it justifies all kinds of uses of psychopharmacology. So I do think that if psychoanalysis could become more critical it might find a way to comment on this contemporary phenomenon. However, once again, it panders to contemporary ideology believing that it will rescue psychoanalysis from the dust-bin they allowed themselves to fall into. It could have stood on its own two feet with respect to the findings of neuroscience. What is neuroscience about besides the embodied mind, the unconscious, the organization of the drive. Interestingly— and I don’t know how true this is, I should really find out from some friends, but in any case its a thought— I heard that MRI machines can only map the brain as you are thinking, not when you are speaking out loud. Even though thinking and speaking have a lot in common, psychoanalysis is predicated on the difference between the two. In any case, what amazes me is that people want to be told who they are through a science of the brain— the synaptic self, everything you wanted to know about Proust but were afraid to ask neuroscience. It is so fundamentally objectifying. In Lacan’s article ‘The Neurotic’s Individual Myth’ he says that what he loves about psychoanalysis is that it harkens back to the old liberal arts which wasn’t so distinct from science once upon a time. He says,
Psychoanalysis, I must recall by way of preface, is a discipline which, among the sciences, appears to us in a truly singular position. It is often said that psychoanalysis is not, strictly speaking, a science, which seems to imply by contrast that it is quite simply an art. That is erroneous if one takes it to mean that psychoanalysis is only a technique, an operational method, an aggregate of formulas. But it is not erroneous if you use this word art in the sense in which it was used in the Middle Ages to speak of the liberal arts—that series going from astronomy to dialectic by way of arithmetic, geometry, music, and grammar.
It is most assuredly difficult for us to comprehend today the function and implications of these so-called liberal arts in the lives and thought of the medieval masters. Nevertheless, it is certain that what characterizes these arts and distinguishes them from the sciences that are supposed to have emerged from them is the fact that they maintain in the foreground what might be called a fundamental relation to human proportion. At the present time, psychoanalysis is perhaps the only discipline comparable to those liberal arts, inasmuch as it preserves something of this proportional relation of man to himself—an internal relation, closed on itself, inexhaustible, cyclical, and implied pre-eminently in the use of speech.
It is in this respect that analytic experience is not definitively objectifiable. It always implies within itself the emergence of a truth that cannot be said, since what constitutes truth is speech, and then you would have in some way to say speech itself which is exactly what cannot be said in its function as speech.
This idea of retaining the difficult proportion of the human being in relation to itself, that the emergence of truth is a process, that truth is a function of speech and mythic imagination, goes completely against the trend of neuroscience that reduces the human being to a brain and has this brain tell us what thinking is and what to think about thinking. Could anything be more delirious.
C.D.V.: What do you make in the antagonism implied in Badiou’s naming of Lacan as an antiphilosopher to whom philosophy must answer?
J.W.: In a way, I’ve made peace with Badiou’s categorization of Lacan as an anti-philosopher, along with Wittgenstein and Nietzsche and others. Why not? As with all categorizations, it is both true and not true. It is true that Lacan takes philosophy to task for dreaming of systematizing everything, filling in the gaps, being in the position of the subject supposed to know, banishing the body, and so on and so forth. In this he follows Freud for whom the philosophers are at best obsessional, and at worst psychotic. But of course once you say something like this, you have to remember that Freud said that where the paranoiac fails, he succeeds, and went on to ruthlessly plagiarize Nietzsche. And Lacan as well said he wished he was more psychotic and of course what other psychoanalyst is as steeped in philosophy as Lacan. One could get into all kinds of arguments about Lacan as a figure in line with the pre-Socratics (Heraclitus, as Badiou claims) or the Socratics (given his infamous Seminar), Lacan as a philosopher of science, existentialist, linguist, phenomenologist, structuralist, post-structuralist, conservative reactionary, Marxist, what have you. I think these questions- and the great many books on them- have their place, and the scholarly effort to find Lacan’s position on a great many philosophical figures is very important. But when this research turns into claims, and those claims are a claiming of Lacan, I often start to feel very desperate, lost in the labyrinth of academia. It is why the book I wrote was less of a series of claims and more of a process of investigating the fluxuation of desire in the process of reading, in particular the pull for identification, the desire for rejection, the wish for a master, disappointment with masters, and always of course the confrontation with the impossibility of desire pure and simple. In a way, I guess I wanted to make obvious the kind of question I would ask of these authors, which is contained in the question you are asking me about Badiou. Why does he want to put his self-proclaimed master into the category of anti-philosophy with which he does not identify but to which he says philosophy should answer? What is Badiou’s desire? Of course one could speculate about this, one could even go ask the master himself, which I did and which is never very satisfying. But, it is not Badiou’s responsibility to speak about his desire. It is up to him to do so if he pleases. And of course also if one is Lacanian one is only asking questions that already have some kind of answer, so I wrote the book that answers the question about desire that in essence cannot be asked and that I can only answer to myself. Is this anti-philosophy (if I allow myself to speak for psychoanalysis)? Yes, maybe perhaps it is and that is the right thing to call it.
C.D.V.: This brings me to a question about the form of your book, “The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis,” which is largely rooted in dreams and moves away from both the standard clinical literature and the formalization of philosophy. Do you think an honest book rooted in the questions you were raising about dreams and the development of psychoanalysis almost necessitates such a “anti-philosophical” form?
J.W.: The questions that I was asking certainly necessitated a new form for me; in general, I don’t know. I’m hard pressed to say yes because what is an exigency for me- so I’ve found out- isn’t always or even usually one for someone else. However, there is something of an anti-philosophical form in psychoanalysis going back to Freud. What a strange book The Interpretation of Dreams is! I speak in the beginning of The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis about how this book collapses in on itself in the most marvelous way: the book about dreams by Freud who dreams about writing the book about dreams. So if one sees this book not just as a formalization of the meaning of dreams (certainly there is that), or the beginning of a model of mind to be used to understand psychopathology (there is that also), but rather this wild, radical, experiment, a discovery by Freud in relation to his desire to find the meaning of dreams that felt to him (and you can see this in the letters with Fliess) to be transgressive, dangerous, and subversive. He felt he was risking all the authority he had gained as a medical doctor and researcher and yet, he too, felt this kind of exigency, one that sprung up in relation to his self-analysis and exploration of his own unconscious life. For me, this exists in Lacan as well. You feel some kind of necessity behind his work, especially in his rhetoric, which is absolutely wild. I was just reading the end of Aggression in Psychoanalysis. It’s stunning. It takes a real force of desire to keep teaching for 28 years in the way that he did; all of which (his writing and his seminar), for me, amounts to a new form. And Lacan, in constructing the procedure of the pass for analysts, recognized the necessity of speaking about what one has learned from one’s analysis and how that forms the desire to be an analyst. My book, in its content and in its form, is also situated there. I wanted to show that being an analyst isn’t some mystical ordination by an authorizing body but something very intimate and extraordinary, but that also has the unusual consequence of re-inventing the field and ground of psychoanalysis again and again through the particularities of each person, whether they become analysts or not. It is for this reason that one is, for Lacan, only an analyst after this accounting rather than when an institute says, or after so many hours of seeing a training case. And I just wished that the literature in the field was more alive, more immediate, and less staid and professional. Philosophy, which I was reading a lot of at the time I wrote the book, exploded in the 60s and I was in awe of their formal experiments. The same of course is true of literature but going much further back, to the very beginning. The Greek tragedies are delightfully weird if you look at them closely. And I am someone who turns constantly to Melville, Proust, Joyce, Beckett, Gaddis, Celan, for whom the questions that inform their work determine the form of their novel, especially the way in which they break with tradition. When you’ve lost that as a project, to my mind, you’ve given up in some way. Even Badiou’s formalized system is an anti-philosophical experiment in form, by the way. One can think of his crazy systematizing of everything— including art, literature, film, politics, math, philosophy continental and analytic— as a break with a tradition that would never cast such a wide net… Deleuze and set theory and modern dance?! In any case, for me the most risky move in The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis was speaking about my dreams and using them as a way of ciphering a certain kind of loving erotic transference to philosophy, to Adorno and Badiou in particular. There is so much that is horrifically personal in the book that it is still hard for me to speak about. I more or less pretend that it doesn’t exist on most days.
C.D.V.: What advice to you give to non-analysts and non-analysants to avoiding the “any fantasy of closure” in regards to their own psychological narrative?
J.W.: It’s funny that you ask me this question after I told you that I more or less use serious denial with regard to what is painfully open in my book and feels slightly shameful! What is my advice!? Do you really think a psychoanalyst gives advice!? Go into analysis… Psychoanalysis is fun, I mean it’s a total hell, but life is hell, so why not go head first into the surreal hell of your own making in an analysis in order to find the sliver of ground that allows you to get out. And despite this, or with and because of it, it is actually really a unique joy. That being said, I don’t think that psychoanalysis is the only way to get out of a ‘closed fantasy’ and even in itself there is no guarantee. So you just have to stretch yourself and your idea of yourself as much as possible, and to be aware of inevitable closure so that you can work against it. You have to find the way to take risks, real risks, one’s that aren’t life threatening, but feel so. It has to be a matter of life and death, or in the space between two deaths, as Lacan put it in his Ethics Seminar. I’m worried, for example, about where I’m going to go next. I’m worried about being complacent. I’m worried that it was so hard the first time around with The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis that I can’t even bring myself to approach a place that feels that precarious. For what came out of it that was difficult, but also for what was good. The good, in so far as it is about approaching the object of desire, can be even harder to tolerate than what is bad. Even if I appreciate formalization, I don’t want to turn what I’ve done into a formula, which is the danger of trying to repeat a certain kind of satisfaction that was achieved. If something works then you are really left in the lurch! What now? Again? So, I’ve written a book with Simon Critchley on Hamlet that takes off from the short chapter on Hamlet in The Life and Death as a second project. It was great to take the pressure off that exists from being entirely alone in one’s work through collaboration, to sort of ease my super-ego through having the responsibility distributed between two people. But, I don’t want that ease to be a cop out. I try to remember that the project was very pure to the extent that we had no sense of audience, no sense of what publisher or editor would want it, no genre that we were trying to fit into, and it was a kind of work of love, in particular between philosophy and psychoanalysis— which are more pitted against one another in The Life and Death. We joked the entire time that we could beg the local art publisher to produce it as a conceptual piece. Now that’s its finished and going into production, I’m thinking of writing by myself again and what feels hard about it. I really want to take that on. I don’t know that I feel completely ready… which is the right feeling to have since it means that I’m approaching something new and that always feels dangerous. You’ll never be prepared for it, you’ll never feel ready. So my advice is to go towards what you feel the least prepared for but which you know that you’ve spent your lifetime trying to impossibly prepare yourself for. On.
C.D.V.: So to avoid closure here, how would you like to complicate anything you’ve said about Badiou in our conversation?
J.W.: I think, after some thought about your question, that I will opt for silence. Analysis, rather than complicating anything as a way of avoiding closure, tries to cut away this torsion of meaning to a point of sometimes terrifying silence. Hopefully, finally, it is a place of respite, enough having been said.