New Lacanian Symptoms in Contemporary Radical Philosophy (Part One)

The New Hysterical Question

Lacanian psychoanalysts necessarily express an interest in at least one of three clinical structures: neuroses, perversions, or psychoses. Typically, analysands come to analysis with a problem which relates to one of the two key neuroses – either hysterical or obsessional. Within this rubric, hysterically neurotic analysands are far more likely to seek out an analyst than obsessional neurotics. This is due primarily to the fact that hysterical analysands have as a part of their symptom a demand for knowledge about themselves. This is a demand made toward the symbolic Other incarnated as the analyst. The strangeness of the hysterical symptom occurs as a consequence of the analysand’s paradoxical refusal of the analyst’s offerings: the analysand demands knowledge from the analyst while simultaneously rejecting all of the knowledge that the analyst might offer. It is for this reason that hysterical analysts are typically motivated toward profound discoveries. Recall Lacan’s claim that hysterics were responsible for Freud’s early discovery of the unconscious, the transference, and the nature of signifiers. Might this explain why hysterics are often well situated within the fields of science and philosophy – and most especially within the university?

The question that I ask is the following: whom, amongst recent noteworthy philosophers within the new fields of radical philosophy, are the philosophical hysterics? To approach an answer to this question requires that one embark upon an eisigesis of the question of hysteria within Lacan’s teachings. This method assumes that there is some continuity or systematization to Lacan’s life-long teaching. It further assumes that a careful reading of Lacan’s texts reveals key themes about the general trajectory and dogma of his teaching. These twin assumptions allow us to formulate a generalized dogma on the question of hysteria. My research in this area has revealed that the phallic function has, within Lacan’s system, the unique responsibility of institutionalizing that which puts all of language into motion for the individual. In other words, the phallic function operates upon the signification of castration or lack – insofar as what is lacking is the phallus – and it returns the function of language cut by objet petit a. We might construct a preliminary matheme for this claim as follows: S2/a←AxΦx. It is the objet petit a (a), as a cut within language (S2), which sets the foundation for the traditional hysterical questions of central import within the Lacanian field: “What am I?,” “What am I for the Other?,” and “Am I a man or am I a woman?” These are the traditional questions that analysis reveals within the hysterical analysand’s latent symbolic relationship to the Other.

The new hysterical questions are similar to the traditional questions in terms of their syntactical form but different in terms of their philosophical form. The new latent questions begin with the assumption that the phallic function, and consequently the assertion that the point of departure for philosophy is always that language is cut by objet petit a, ought not be at the center of philosophical speculation. The new hysterics begin by speculating on things [das Ding] outside of language and then pose the question of language cut by objet petit a. The new hysterical questions are best summed up in the following ways: “What is a Thing?,” “What am I for the Thing?,” and “Am I a Subject or am I a Thing?” These questions are exemplified in the writings of Levi Bryant (e.g., “What am I for the Cow?”), Ian Bogost (e.g., “What am I for the Alien?”), and Alain Badiou (e.g., “Am I an Object or am I a Thing?”). I want to rethink Lacanian dogma according to the discoveries of the new hysterics: is it possible that das Ding is something more than simply a less mature or less developed version of the Lacanian objet petit a? If this is the case then perhaps das Ding offers us a new point of departure for thinking objects in the world and how it is that Subjects appear in the world from Objects. The new hysterical Lacanian question is therefore not what is the Ding for the Subject?, but what is the Subject for the Ding? My research finds that it is possible to be faithful to Lacanian orthodoxy while nonetheless changing the point of departure from the Subject of the phallic function to das Ding.

The New Obsessional Question

In contrast to hysterically neurotic analysands, obsessional neurotics are typically quite difficult to analyze. This is the case for a number of reasons: first, they seldom care to undergo analysis; second, they frequently speak at length without allowing any space for analytical intervention, and; third, they frequently prepare and rehearse their discussion points well in advance so that they do not have any spontaneous associations. This thereby ensures that the parapraxes are scattered widely and scarcely discerned by an analyst. In point of fact, the free speech of the obsessional analysand is almost entirely suspended. If analysts are not careful they could very well spend an entire session listening to the analysand’s rhapsodies. The point of analysis, then, must be to shift the analysand’s discourse from the obsessional framework toward the hysterical framework. In other words, the obsessional analysand must be temporarily hystericized. The analyst must make some effort to ensure that the temporarily hystericized analysand remains within that new framework for an extended period of time; only the hystericized analysand is capable of approaching truth and thereby producing change. This latter point is important because, as I have claimed in project one, only the hysterical analysand is truly aware of the symbolic Other’s presence and desires, only the hystericized analysand is capable of becoming attentive to the analyst’s interventions and calling them into question.

It might be worth distinguishing between hysteria and obsession in the following way: whereas the hysteric’s question is aimed at the cause of his or her desire (i.e., the Other as the cause of her desire), the obsessional analysand’s question is aimed at his or her very being. The hysteric’s question is thereby essentially epistemological because it is directed toward some knowledge about the cause of her desire and the obsessional’s question is essentially existential because it is fixated on the dimension of his or her own being or his or her own death. We might compare the two forms of latent questions, between hysteria and obsession, as follows:

Latent Neurotic Questions



  • What am I?

  • What am I for the Other?

  • Am I a man or am I a woman?

    Ethical Question:

  • To be a man or to be a woman?

  • Am I?

  • What am I vis-a-vis my Death?

  • Am I alive or Am I dead?

    Ethical Question:

  • To be or not to be?

Another way to frame the discussion is to focus on the difference between the masculine and feminine formulae of sexuation in Lacan’s work from the 1970s. Recall that Lacan believed that hysterical neuroses are essentially feminine in structure and that obsessional neuroses are essentially masculine in structure. In this way the obsessional structure, like masculine sexuation, is focused on the universal affirmative dimension: only one human animal exists outside of language, the rest of us are entirely submitted to language and the phallic function. The obsessional neurotic has being as his problematic because he is entirely submitted to and alienated by the phallic function. Consider, for example, the fact that, on the masculine side of the Lacanian formulae of sexuation, there is the $ (s-barred). This means that the Subject must choose between thinking, or language, and being itself. The problem is therefore one of being or not being. We know that there exists one whom is not submitted to the phallic function (e.g., God, the father of the primal horde, and so on); that is, there exists one whose objet a is not barred by language. However, it is precisely on this condition that the rest of us, universally, are barred by language and the phallic function ($). On the other hand, the hysterical structure, like feminine sexuation, is focused on the universal negative dimension: not all human animals are submitted to language and the phallic function. In this way, hysterics are not entirely alienated by the phallic function and by language. Because they are free, to some degree, of the phallic function, they essentially ask the question of the phallic function itself: what signifies?, what qualifies as truth?, and so on. The obsessional man is thereby troubled by existential alienation and the hysterical woman is troubled by epistemological or moral alienation.

In some ways, the obsessional analysand is to the clinical situation what the conservative is to the political field: the obsessional does not desire change of any kind. The obsessional finds himself not under the condition of lack but under the condition of abundance. That is to say, the obsessional believes that he has severed all attachments to the Other, to the unconscious, and to language itself, and can produce freely and spontaneously. In this way, the obsessional political actor believes himself to be (capable of being) absolutely autonomous from the field of power. We can find many examples of this position within the contemporary political Left – they are both the most dangerous positions and the most seductive: they preach self-mastery, absolute autonomy, spontaneous decision-making, and so on. Whereas the traditional obsessional questions were “Am I dead or alive?,” “Why do I exist?,” “To be or not to be?,” the new obsessional questions in the field of political philosophy are: “Do I have any political power?,” “Why does the State exist?,” “To be a communist or not to be a communist?” The distinction between the hysterical questions and the obsessional questions are subtle but important: whereas the hysterical political actor makes new discoveries – I thereby designate the hysterical political actor as fundamentally progressive, reforming, and revolutionary – the obsessional political actor (perhaps unknowingly) prefers to embark upon repetitions in thinking. Moreover, while the hysterical political actor prefers to make claims about (or critically investigate into) reality, identity, knowledge, and morals, the obsessional political actor prefers to offer ostensibly innovative speculations on the nature of power itself but precisely through a latent conservatism which ensures that the system, and his place within the system, continues to function without any significant changes.

Obsessional tendencies within the political field are often diagnosed, in non-clinical terms, by the New Lacanian Communists. This is a position that the new communists rightly won over the anarchists; in fact, my research demonstrate that their accusations about the problematic tendencies of contemporary anarchism are mostly correct and that post-anarchism, as a case in point, has indeed suffered from obsessional tendencies. For example, post-anarchism has as its point of departure, the naïve belief that it can produce something outside of power, or, rather, that it can produce tactical zones of autonomy outside of the influence of any hegemonic political forms. However, one should keep in mind Lacan’s point that obsessional symptoms do not always reveal obsessional structures. My research problem is thus: is post-anarchism necessarily obsessional by design? Or, is there, harbored within it, a more foundational hysterical structure? Is it possible to hystericize post-anarchism? I proclaim, with great optimism, that contemporary anarchist philosophy, with post-anarchism as its exemplary form, has the potential to become hystericized.

The New Perverts

While perversion and obsession are two different clinical structures they nonetheless share a similar political effect. It might be the case that the symptomatic behaviors are more engrained for the pervert than for the obsessional neurotic. This is due to the fact that perversions are often thought to be “stuck” within an earlier stage of psychical development – a stage that that occurs – temporally and logically speaking – earlier than (or before) the higher level neuroses have a chance to develop. Thus, perversion often occurs within the repetitive circuit of the drive rather than the goal-oriented trajectory of neurotic desire. The clinical task is therefore to have the perverted analysand advance toward a more purely neurotic symptom (and then, if possible, toward a traversal of the neurotic fantasy). It is important to point out that each of the three clinical structures (neurosis, perversion, and psychosis) involve different primary operations: repression in the case of neuroses, disavowal in the case of perversions, and foreclosure in the case of psychoses. These primary operations are helpful for understanding what is at stake in each of the structures: the neurotic’s problem relates to the coordinates of the symbolic Other (the hysterical carries the Other’s desire around wherever she goes, like gum to the heel of her shoes, and the obsessional refuses the Other’s advancements wherever he goes); the pervert’s relationship to the Other is much more tenuous – whereas the neurotic’s relationship to the Other is repressed because the Other is embedded deep within the unconscious, the pervert’s relationship to the Other is disavowed because it is there within the conscious structure of perception itself.

In my own work I tend to follow Bruce Fink’s thinking about the nature of perversion which reveals that the pervert disavows his understanding of his perceptions of external reality. I discovered, with a little help from the new hysterics, the centrality of the phallic function for all psychoanalytic thinking. I find this insight crucial in understanding perversion as a clinical structure precisely because all perverts – like all neurotics – pass through the phallic function and have thereby been properly submitted to language. However, we shall see that the new psychotics have an entirely different relationship to the phallic function. In any case, the point is that neurotics have as their problem separation vis-a-vis the Other (I have demonstrated that hysterics manage that problem in a different way than obsessionals), and perverts have as their problem an inability to properly separate. We can therefore amend our previous claim about the pervert’s relationship to the phallic function (and hence language) by stating that the pervert is stuck somewhere in the middle of the phallic function: he can speak language and yet can not adequately separate himself from reality and the law. If the pervert does not believe his eyes, disavows material reality, then it is because he still requires an Other to define the boundaries or laws that separate him from this reality. In other words, the pervert disavows reality because reality is not clearly delimited for him by an Other. The Other must be either provoked into spelling out the rules/law as in the case of masochist perversions or else the Other must observe the analysand himself defining the law as in the case of sadist perversions.

Thus, for the pervert we do not find a latent question but rather something closer to a qualifying statement in the form of “I know very well …, but …” In other words, the pervert knows that the reality or law of the situation is problematic, but he makes himself the instrument of the law of the situation anyway. For example, the perverted anarchist might know that the police arrest trouble-makers and yet he might continue to press the police to pronounce or articulate that law anyway. A much more interesting case – especially with respect to Jodi Dean’s recent analysis of public protests (in her Parallax article, “Politics without Politics” – occurs in relation to the scopophilic drive. I name the scopophilic dimension of politics, scopophilic activism: the scopophilic activist is the one who enjoys making his or her protest into an exhibition on display for other people to watch from the sidelines. I believe that Kierkegaard was the first to diagnose this political position when he wrote:

Nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere. In the present age a rebellion is […] the most unthinkable. […] A political virtuoso […] might write a manifesto suggesting a general assembly at which people should decide upon a rebellion, and it would be so carefully worded that even the censor would let it pass. At the meeting itself he would be able to create the impression that his audience had rebelled after which they would all go quietly home – having spent a very pleasant evening.

This is perversion at the scopic level insofar as the circuit of the drive operates in such a way that vision becomes the primary domain within which the perverse acts are repetitively played out. (It is important to point out that Lacan distinguished between perverse acts and perverse structures. A perverse act might be engaged in by non-perverse analysands, but perverse structures remain in place long after the acts have completed.) In all cases, the pervert becomes the instrument or object of the other’s enjoyment and disavows all responsibility for his or her actions: either the pervert enjoys purely for the Other or, somewhat like the obsessional neurotic, the pervert enjoys purely for himself. If the pervert enjoys for the Other then it is because he has not yet been properly separated from the Other and strives toward that destiny. To bring the perverted analysand toward his proper neuroses implies that the analyst introduce this separation for the analysand. Separation can be introduced by way of symbolization, that is, the analysand can achieve a level of separation through symbolic abstraction. It is by symbolizing the pervert’s enjoyment that the analysand is effectively separated from the Other and prohibited from enjoying. This is an inherently difficult task for the analyst because, in many respects, the pervert attempts to become the objet a of the analyst, the instrument of the analyst’s enjoyment. Thus, the pervert enjoys having the analyst, as Other, enjoy him. However, what the pervert does not realize, and what the analyst must come to make the analysand realize, is that the pervert is actually striving to bring the Other to exist as a separate entity through his perverse actions. Perversion thereby occurs essentially at the level of the phallic function itself – it is the inability of the phallic function to go all the way and produce language cut by objet a. This is what I mean when I suggest that the pervert is between or in the middle of the phallic function.

In the political field, disavowal might be understood as a putting out of mind that the police are winning, that the repressive state apparatus continues to have the upper hand, that the revolution is not happening, that one’s political practices are working in the interests of the state, and so on. Black bloc anarchists continue to push against the forces of the state and find themselves scattered across the geography of protest zones and city-scapes, they find themselves continually locked up and prohibited from further political activity, they find themselves repeating the political failures of the Spanish Revolution, and so on. Perverted symptoms in post-anarchist discourse imply that, for political actors, “seeing is not believing”: anarchists often see that they are losing but they continue to act as if if they are not. It is as if they get off on failing to some extent. The perverted anarchist desires that the state produce boundaries, enjoy his body by beating it and placing it in prison, and so on.


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