Friday, 24 February 2012

What is Madness? 3
Lacan's Imaginary

In this third post on Leader's book What is Madness? I turn to Lacan's concept of 'the imaginary'. Leader starts (p. 44) by discussing signes du mirroir - psychotic transformations in the relation to one's mirror image. A woman describes feeling how her image had become trapped in the mirror silver. When 'the mirror was moved from her home, she could feel this in her body, as if the mirror contained her.' He also describes cases of Cotard's delusion: 'some psychotic people describe their everyday existence, as if they are already dead, but their body hasn't realised this yet... The image of the body has become prised apart from any idea of conscious possession or control. These examples show how our bodies need to be unified and held together in an image.'

I don't yet follow the last sentence, mainly because I'm not yet sure how the word 'image' is being used, nor what it means for my body to be 'held together in' an image; Leader doesn't tell us. What he does explain is that the whole idea of 'the imaginary' refers (p. 45) to 'the body image'. A question is raised: How do we gain mastery of our motor functions? And an answer is proposed: We do so (p. 46) through identification with our own mirror image, or with 'the image of another child'. A curious example of this is then given: a child may learn to walk quicker if in the company of an older child. I think the idea is that the younger child, with an incomplete body schema, and hence relative lack of confidence and coordination, may unconsciously identify with the older child, thereby 'borrowing' as it were the confidence and motor habits which they have yet to fully integrate.

What isn't explained in any of this is how this amounts to identification with the 'image' of another child. For the most obvious reading of the identification Leader describes is one in which a child identifies simply with the other child, and not with an image of the child. My best guess, though, is that the talk of 'images' here is meant to refer simply to visual experience: it is not that I identify purely with the characterological constitution of the other (since that might not provide the integration I am after); rather I identify with the other under the singular aspect of their visible, integrated and bounded body. And this, presumably, is what bootstraps the development of my own ego identity: my body becomes 'unified and held together in an image'.

The discussion continues with a nice description of the origins of envy: we can at first, we are told, only find our wholeness in the (image of) the other. But this means - if we take our identification not simply from their visually apparent boundedness, but also from their embodied habits and routes of interest - that we will start to want what others want. Seemingly de trop envy of children for one another's having of toys is well known. We are also given a nice description of the pros and cons of this 'mirror phase': we gain greater integration of the body schema at the expense of (p. 47) developing an alienated and aggressive form of relationship with others. 'Identifying with the image promises to unify us, yet never entirely delivers, as the very thing that gives us unity takes it away.' A lovely example of this destructiveness is given: a young pretender gunslinger wants to emulate, but also to destroy, his more established rival, with the result that: 'an intervention from the outside [is necessary] to move beyond this destructive, lethal space where there is only the subject and their mirror image, the image of completeness that they aspire to'.

Later, in this section on the imaginary, Leader's writing slips into a kind of mistaking of co-incidence for causality which I have found so frustrating in his earlier work (p. 48): 'These words [uttered by parents of children] have a determinant power, and may shape lives, even if we remain unaware of their effects. A woman for whom kissing had a massive importance and who chose a career as a singer would remember, with surprise, that all she knew about her birth was the fact that her emergence into the world had been greeted with four words from her father: 'What a beautiful mouth.'' (To this I want to say: put your hand into a bag of marbles, and you may first pull out a red one, and then later on in the procedures pull out a couple more red ones. 'How can this be? But of course it must be because I first pulled out a red one - it must be shaping my later activity'...) Whilst it is surely possible - even perhaps normal - for children to grow unawares into their parents conceptions of them, the example doesn't help us: what we need is something which takes us beyond where we all start - the noticing of such co-incidences - into the causal connection between the parents' words and the child's character formation. A theory of identification would help, along, say, with observations on the subtle rewards that conforming to the desires and hopes of the parents brings.

Leader finishes his section on the imaginary with the claim that it is the symbolic order of words that frees us from the limited and potentially murder-inspiring self-understanding provided by our reflection or the 'image' of our counterparts. If what 'the imaginary' means is still obscure to us, we might gain some comfort now (p. 49) from 'the clearest illustration we could have' of it: Derrick Bird's family's burial of him with the brother he shot, the family who said 'They came into the world together, they'll go out of the world together.' Leader writes that it is 'as if the twins were just mirror images of each other ... Given this equation, the asymmetry opened up around the question of the legacy and the will makes more sense: as a sign of favouring the brother, the mirror relation was put in question. They were no longer equal. And hence all that was left, perhaps, was the murderous space between them.'

This, it seems to me, is really very interesting! Rather than just thinking of Bird as 'simply very angry' or as 'unintelligible because of having gone mad' we are invited to see his action as a result of functioning in a particular mode (somewhat like a Kleinian 'position'): i.e. functioning under the sway of the imaginary order. Bird murders because he is trapped within a frame of mind in which a driving preoccupation with the integrity of his identity is utterly to the fore, and murderous envy is seen as of a piece with this fundamental anxiety. Leader doesn't give us quite enough to start to spell out the scope of the imaginary and to explicate its explanatory value. (For example must identification (of an introjective, rather than an acquisitive projective, sort, for example) always lead to destructive envy? When will, and when won't, it? Are we sure that it is an ever present threat which can only be vitiated by the symbolic order? And why does the psychotic patient's image get trapped in the mirror? For example this looks like a breakdown of the imaginary itself, rather than any kind of failure of its softening by the symbolic.) But my experience now is that the pieces are at least starting to fall into place.

Monday, 13 February 2012

What is Madness? 2
When words and things come apart

To continue with my reading of chapter 2 of What is Madness?: Leader cites Sechehaye's patient Renee:

My eyes met a chair, then a table; they were alive too, asserting their presence. I attempted to escape their hold by calling out their names. I said "Chair, jug, table, it is a chair." But the word echoed hollowly, deprived of all meaning: it had left the object, was divorced from it, so much so that on the one hand it was a living, mocking thing, on the other, a name, robbed of sense, an envelope emptied of content. Nor was I able to bring the two together, but stood rooted there before them, filled with fear and impotence.

After quoting this Leader writes that here (43-4):
The language of reality breaks down, and we are confronted with the gap that separates signifier - Renee's words - and object. ... These examples show how language can ... literally come apart... They suggest that what we tend to take for granted as reality is actually made up of different levels: bricks, newspapers, tables and chairs can all lose their everyday meaning and become enigmatic and threatening. To lose their everyday meaning implies that meaning is not intrinsic to them: they are what we call 'signifiers', and they can become disconnected from their usual meanings, called 'signifieds'. Reality involves a soldering together of signifier and signified, so that we don't perpetually ask what things mean. But in psychosis, at certain moments, these dimensions come apart...
As I read this I'm wondering if it is only I who experience this as almost somewhat thought-disordered in its failure to specify or disambiguate the meaning of phrases such as 'the language of reality', 'the gap that separates signifier and object', etc. I'm also left wondering whether or not 'different levels of reality' mean the same as 'different dimensions of reality', and what these really amount to. The colon suggests to us that bricks, newspapers, tables and chairs are from different 'levels', but this doesn't help us disambiguate 'level' because we don't (well, I don't) naturally experience these objects as being arranged in different dimensions or levels.

(Putting such concerns aside, this passage does at least give us some hermeneutic grounds for our earlier suggestion that Leader's talk of 'reality' is best taken as referring to someone's experience in the same kind of way as we might talk of Henry's 'world', 'existence', 'reality' - to someone's experience of objects rather than to objects experienced or not.)

What puzzles me especially though is the question of what is supposed to be the signifier and what the signified. At the start of the paragraph we have the idea that it is Renee's words ('table', 'chair') which are signifiers, and my assumption was therefore that what the signifieds are are the things to which these terms refer: i.e. the tables and chairs. I imagined, that is, that the problem was going to be described as one of signifiers (terms) coming apart from signifieds (objects). But then later on we are told that it is tables and chairs themselves which are signifiers, and that it is their usual meanings which are the signifieds. So here Leader seems to be saying that the coming apart is of objects and their meanings, not words and their objects. At this point I am completely lost, and unsure how I am supposed to get my bearings. Leader doesn't provide any further disambiguation at this point, providing us with a text which therefore cannot yet be read to be understood.

One way of making what Leader says make sense would be to suppose that he meant to write of 'bricks', 'newspapers', 'tables' and 'chairs', not of bricks, newspapers, tables and chairs. - i.e. he meant to write about the nouns and not about their referents. Then again, perhaps I am too imposing by far in making such free use of distinctions like 'meanings', 'words' and 'things'. Saussure, for example, wrote that "A sign is not a link between a thing and a name, but between a concept and a sound pattern" (Course... p. 66). Reading on further we find him suggesting that "A sound pattern is the hearer's psychological impression of a sound." So here the idea seems to be that signs, which bind together a speaker's psychological impression of patterns of sound (whatever that is supposed to be - I have no clear sense of what this might mean for Saussure) with their meanings/objects (to conflate these two for a moment). This is what happens for Renee, after all: her words became empty envelopes, unable in some or other sense to conjur their objects.

What exactly Renee means by her experience of objects being 'alive', and of her own words (which, note, are the right words for these objects, and so in this sense meaningful) somehow correlatively being sapped of meaning, is somewhat obscure. (Louis Sass has offered us what I find to be the most persuasive reading of Renee's state of mind, but this is a matter for another day.) Whatever she means, however, is not aptly picked up for me by Leader's Saussurian talk of signifiers and signifieds which at worst conflates words and their objects (which are the signifiers?) and at best merely redescribes, without explaining, the psychopathology.


On page 73 Leader is clear that in writing of signifiers he is talking about things - 'a knife, a door, a bottle, etc.' Signifieds are therefore meanings, signifiers are things.

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.