Sunday, 12 February 2012

What is Madness? 1
Is reality partly made from language?

Lacan's theories are not widely known in the academic and clinical circles in which I've found myself. And despite his popularity for the wider public, the Lacanian analyst Darian Leader is not much read in these circles either. Speaking for myself I've tried a few of his books over the years, and got a great deal out of his earlier work (e.g. Freud's Footnotes) whilst increasingly struggling with the number of unanswered questions which too often seem to pose as answers in his later work (e.g. in Why Do People Get Ill?). (The kind of standard rhetorical device used by Leader comes worryingly close to those beloved of historical conspiracy theorists: 'Might it not be that [insert the author's speculation here]...' to which the answer must always be: 'Yes it might - it is after all a logical possibility. Whether it is an empirical likelihood is however something for which we now require evidence or argument.') Leader's latest work however is entitled 'What is Madness?' and in this and subsequent posts I intend to take a critical look at the specifically Lacanian elements of Leader's presentation.


What is Madness? begins with a helpful and interesting revisiting of the idea of 'quiet madness' - of insanity not at all immediately apparent to the observer which may lay sequestered away within the mind for years before - if ever - showing itself. Paranoia too is clearly presented as resulting from the mind's total disowning of unthinkable (because unbearable) thoughts. Something recognisably Lacanian starts to make an appearance in Chapter 2 ('The Basics') when Leader is considering delusions of reference and the psychotic experience of an inanimate world which is 'talking to' the patient (p. 43):

As reality decomposes in certain moments of psychosis, we find clues as to how it has been built up and constructed in the first place. The neighbour's gossip, the allusions in the street, the remarks in the newspapers, the talking neurones and the brick that sends a message all show that the world has started to speak. Everything in that person's reality has become a sign, communicating to them, whispering to them, addressing them: if reality was once silent, now it can't stop talking. And for reality to be able to do this, doesn't it suggest that it is made, in part, from language?

My question concerns the meaning of this last sentence. Leader doesn't tell us what he means by the phrase 'reality is partly made from language'. Clearly this is a hugely ambiguous phrase which could mean many things or nothing depending on the context of its deployment. How are we to employ it here? Leader doesn't tell us, but here is my best guess: What he is talking about is not reality qua tables and teapots being constituted by language, but rather our experience - our comprehending encounter with the teapot - as being constituted by language. The word 'reality', in other words, is being used as we might in phrases such as 'his reality', 'her reality'. Reading it in this way enables us to avoid bizarre thoughts about teapots being made out of words instead of or as well as porcelain or steel. We still need to understand the sense of 'constituted' however. And here is my second suggestion: my experience can be said to be partly constituted by language if the criteria for the apt ascription to me of an experience require that I be able to manifest various linguistic competencies. So: Do I understand what a teapot is? To be said to understand this I must be able to a variety of non-linguistic things - such as reach for it to pour out the tea, but also a variety of linguistic things - such as say what it is, or point to it on hearing your words 'where is the teapot?'

Now we have an intelligible reading, albeit one which Leader does not himself give us, for the idea of reality being partly made from language. So now we can ask ourselves whether an understanding of the significance of this (- of this fact that we are languaged beings for grasping the form our experience takes) itself sheds any light on the fact that the world can be experienced as sending messages to us. I cannot myself see that or how it does. Why should the fact that competencies in talking partly constitute my capacity to experience teapots shed any light on the the preconditions for psychotically imagining a teapot talking to us? If this counts as one thing shedding light on the conditions of possibility for some other thing then light-shedding seems to have become an extraordinarily easy activity in which to engage. Of course, this may not be the right way to read the idea of reality being partly made from language. Whether there is another way to read this will be something I'll keep an eye on in subsequent posts.