Thursday, 8 March 2012

What is Madness? 5
Lacan’s Name of the Father

‘Through language, the symbolic enters the real of our bodies and organises them for us. It inscribes the law within us, providing a principle of mediation.’ (p. 52)

I'll begin this fifth post on Leader's What is Madness by asking what to make of the above? Think of the ways in which the infant’s habits and desires are shaped – how their body is ‘organised’ – as they grow up. What do we normally think does this? Well, we think of the character of the attachment relationship, especially the emotional connection between mother and child, and then later father, mother and child, in the context of a particular culture. Language is a part of this, but the shaping of desire is not in any obvious way primarily organised by language. So, in reading the above 'charitably' we must take it to refer not to what gives shape to our embodied experience, but only to the way that the symbolic order gives shape to this experience. What is supposed to be mediating what (the ‘principle of mediation’) is not spelled out by Leader, so we must wait for it to emerge from the text to follow. But perhaps the mediation is between an individual’s instinctive desire and the interpersonal social world in which they become embedded?

Leader tells us that Lacan thought that there was a ‘privileged representative of this principle’ which with Heideggerian hyphenation he called the ‘Name-of-the-Father’. But when he tries to tell us what this amounts to, all we are given are a range of highly ambiguous descriptors with no clear rules of deployment or disambiguation. ‘Primitive’ people tended to attribute pregnancy to a woman’s encounter with a spirit at some sacred rock or spring rather than to coitus. Why?:

this ‘primitive’ lack of understanding in fact reveals for Lacan the true structure of paternity: that there is a difference between the real progenitor and the symbolic function of paternity that must frame reproduction. The spirit and the sacred space form part of the symbolic context of reproduction, necessary to symbolize it, to make it part of that person’s world. Without such a context, it is hardly possible for a human being to understand that they are at the origin of a biological process.

Yet without the specification of a context to help disambiguate the meaning of this necessary symbolism it is hardly possible for us to understand what the 'name-of-the-father' amounts to. Leader goes on to talk about the father as a symbolic being without which we are unable to 'situate' or 'organise' or 'make sense of' the reproductive act and its consequences. I am left feeling that there is something very important being talked about here, but as yet have no feel for what it is.

Freud and Little Hans
But perhaps an example will help. Leader first chooses Freud's case study of Little Hans and his dramatic horse phobia (p. 54). Hans, we are told, had a horse phobia from three and a half. In his preoccupation with the horse it either could or could not bite, fall down or remain upright, be attached to carriages etc. 'Hans was creating a system to reorder his world, creating prohibitions as to what he could or could not do, where he could go or not go, through the phobic object - the horse - that he was using as his instrument' (p.54). The idea appears to be that the boy was living in an anxiogenically rule-less world, and so unconsciously invented a phobic stimulus to provide a kind of order to bind his anxiety.

Why had he done this? Leader, following Lacan, singles out Hans' first erections mocked gently by his mother, and the birth of his little sister - both of which events disrupted his relations with his mother. In order to revise his relationship with his mother, the little boy needs his father's help. This father, however, was rather useless, and so the boy invents a father substitute - the horse - to reorder his world. Hans is 'busy appealing to the Name-of-the-Father, accessing the latter's function in order to move through the Oedipal involvement with the mother and to situate the new and disturbing bodily changes present in the erections.'

This, it seems to me, helps a great deal. Whether or not a real father is physically present, what Lacan is calling the paternal function is one of instilling order, rule, determinacy, and disruption of emotional symbiosis. What this has to do with language, per se, is not obviously clear to me. However when we think of how young children relate to language, sometimes obsessively categorising objects, needing to know what things are called, the powerful organising effects of language become clear. (When I was young I remember being obsessed with collecting stamps ('Oh it will improve his Geography': wrong,  I didn't give a damn where they came from), cataloguing words in lists, ordering knowledge in filing cabinets, collecting other neatly classifiable objects. The emotional wellsprings of the Victorian naturalist start to become apparent.) This in turn allows us to go back and interpret what Leader is on about when discussing how 'primitives' would attribute pregnancy to an encounter between a woman and a spirit at a sacred rock or spring rahter than to coitus. The 'symbolic function of paternity that must frame reproduction' is preparatory for the power of the paternal object, necessary for the child to develop and grow, and become himself, in the context of his family life.