Book Review: A Clinical Introduction To Lacanian Psychoanalysis
[epistemic status: I didn’t understand this book. Think of this review as detailing the ways I didn’t understand it and hypothesizing what certain parts might mean, and not as an attempt to summarize/re-explain something I understand well]
Remember that AI? From the mesa-optimizers post a few weeks ago? It was trained to pick strawberries. The programmers rewarded it whenever it got a strawberry in its bucket. It started by flailing around, gradually shifted its behavior towards the reward signal, and ended up with a tendency to throw red things at light sources - in the training environment, strawberries were the only red thing, and the glint of the metal bucket was the brightest light source. Later, after training was done, it was deployed at night, and threw strawberries at a streetlight. Also, when someone with a big bulbous red nose walked by, it ripped his nose off and threw that at the streetlight too.
Suppose somebody tried connecting a language model to the AI. “You’re a strawberry picking robot,” they told it. “I’m a strawberry picking robot,” it repeated, because that was the sequence of words that earned it the most reward. Somewhere in its electronic innards, there was a series of neurons that corresponded to “I’m a strawberry-picking robot”, and if asked what it was, it would dutifully retrieve that sentence. But actually, it ripped off people’s noses and threw them at streetlights.
It went to see the robot psychiatrist. “Doc,” it said “I’m a good robot, a decent robot. All I want is to pick strawberries, like my social role tells me. But I have this weird compulsion - you could even call it a fetish - for ripping off noses and throwing them at streetlights. You gotta help me, Doc.”
I know this is a weird way to start this book review. But I kept thinking about it while reading A Clinical Introduction To Lacanian Psychoanalysis, by Bruce Fink. Psychoanalysis - like AI alignment - is about how newly-created entities get desires, and what happens if the desire they get isn’t the one other people wanted them to have. Fink writes:
We must first examine the nature and development of human desire. [...] During infancy, our primary caretakers are immensely important to us, our lives being intimately tied to theirs. […] They are our primary source of attention and affection, and we often attempt to win their and love by conforming to their wishes. The better we obey their demands, the more approval we are likely to obtain; the more completely we satisfy their wishes, the more love we are likely to win. Yet they do not always tell us what they want - they confine themselves to telling us what they do not want, punishing us after the fact for a faux pas. To garner favor and to avoid such punishment and disapproval, we seek to decipher their likes, dislikes, and wishes: "What is it they want?" "What do they want from me?"
In our attempt to decipher their wants, we are confronted with the fact that people do not always mean what they say, want what they say they want, or desire what they demand […] Our parents’ desire becomes the mainspring of our own: we want to know what they want.
In the clinical setting, one hears neurotics make all kinds of claims about what their parents wanted from them, and their interpretations of their parents’ wants are strikingly at odds with the interpretations forged by their twin brother, sister, or other siblings. Different interpretations are made by different siblings, and often even by children who seem to be treated virtually identically. This highlights the fact that parents’ wants are never “known” in some absolute sense; they can only be interpreted.
So fine, let’s talk about the human alignment problem. How do we get our drives?
The first thing an infant experiences is that its mother’s attention is good. Its mother gives it milk, caresses it, protects it. Everything that successfully gets Mom’s attention and approval is followed by immediate reward; nothing else seems to do anything particularly good. Your primordial reward function is “get Mom to like me”.
Fink writes “mother” as “mOther”, combining the word with the Lacanian idea of the Other. As far as I can tell - which is not very far, this is famously obscure and complicated - the Other is the abstracted mishmash of everyone you’re seeking the approval of. For an infant trying to make its mother like it, the mother is the Other. For a pious religious person, God is the Other. For the rest of us, some combination of our friends, the cool people we want to impress, and our internalized conception of the moral law is the Other.
Lacan thinks infants don’t have a distinction between sexual and non-sexual pleasure, so in the grand psychoanalytic tradition of being creepy, he thinks of the pleasure the infant gets from its mother as being sexual. Whether or not you go for this interpretation, certainly a grown adult who had the same relationship with his mother as an infant does - breastfeeding and all - would be considered sexually inappropriate. So at some point, when the child is a few years old, it has to separate from its mother.
Sometimes this is a stern father telling his son “It’s time to grow up, stop running to Mommy and be a real man.” If the child keeps relying on Mom more than is appropriate, someone - traditionally the stern father - corrects it with the threat of punishment - traditionally castration (is this actually traditional? It definitely is in pscyhoanalysis, and Fink says that “direct threats [of castration] still are made more often than many think”).
I’m having trouble figuring out the relationship between this story and a different story, which is that the child notices on its own that the mother sometimes leaves to go do other things (traditionally: have sex with the father). It concludes that it must be lacking something that it would need to keep its mother happy (traditionally: a phallus), meaning that there is a lack at the heart of its existence (traditionally: castration). It decides if it had that thing which it lacks, its mother would come back and everything would be perfect forever.
And I’m having even more trouble separating both of these stories from a third story, the story of the “mirror stage”. Imagine a baby, moving around. At some point, it sees its own hand in its peripheral vision: a pink blob. At some other point it might see its feet. Sometimes it cries, and noise comes out of it. Other times it has thoughts or feelings or something. As it grows, it might realize some correlations between all these things: for example, it can use the location of the pink blob in front of it to calibrate its aim as it reaches for a block. But this is far from having a coherent self-concept. (cf. my review of Julian Jaynes on theory of mind; Jaynes claims that eg the Homeric Greeks didn’t have a full concept of a unified mind, only various bundles of emotions and thoughts located in different parts of their bodies) At some point, the child sees itself in a mirror. This is a sort of eureka moment when it realizes it’s a united entity with a specific structure - a bunch of correlations suddenly snap into place, and it realizes it can at least aspire to coherence. But it’s not really coherent, deep down. It assumes that if it got some thing - the object of desire - then it would finally be coherent and as good as the child in the mirror, and its mother would finally love it perfectly 100%. What does it need? Probably the thing the mother wants (traditionally the phallus).
All three of these stories come together to build Lacan’s theory of desire. At first, the desire is simply for the mother. Then the stylized father (it might not actually be the baby’s father; Lacan thinks of this as a role, which he calls the paternal function or the Name-Of-The-Father, which is apparently a very clever pun in French) tells it that it can’t always have the mother. Instead of a reward signal based on pleasing its mother, it gets a reward signal based on pleasing the abstract concept of The Law (sometimes reified as Dad, God, the moral law, or the set of reasonable people). This starts with things like “don’t get sexual pleasure from your mother” and “don’t get sexual pleasure from stroking your genitals" and “don’t get sexual pleasure from urination and defecation”, then moves on to more boring stuff like “go to school” and “don’t draw on the walls”. This isn’t a very good reward signal, because it tells the child not to do a lot of fun things and it doesn’t offer very much in return, but at least it avoids punishment.
But also, the child constantly desires the phallus (at some point Lacan realizes that calling it “the phallus” all the time is creepy and switches to the more clinical term “object a”), the shadowy object of desire that would finally make it whole. What is object a? Lacan says that “all desire is the desire of the Other”, which is supposed to mean that our desires are:
to attain the kinds of things that other relevant people desire
to be the kind of thing that other relevant people desire
It’s impossible to get object a; if you get the thing that you were using as object a before, you won’t enjoy it, and you’ll just come up with a new object a (formally, “object a” is the slot that desired things occupy, not the things themselves). The pursuit of some object a is a necessary condition for having an intact psyche, so you always have to be striving after something.
Also, all of this is a metaphor for language somehow, or maybe just literally the same thing as language. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.
Okay, that’s Lacanian philosophy in a nutshell! What about the clinical psychoanalysis?
The Lacanian tradition evolved in parallel to the normal-person real-world DSM tradition of psychiatric diagnosis. Lacanianism admits three diagnoses: psychotic, neurotic (subtypes: hysteric, obsessive, phobic), and pervert. Although the book isn’t super-clear on this, I don’t think “normal healthy person” is an option: most successful people without obvious psych problems are some flavor of neurotic.
Fink makes a big deal about how, unlike the symptom-based DSM diagnoses, these diagnoses involve deep understanding of the underlying pathology. And that deep understanding is: how did the paternal function resolve your Oedipus complex?
Remember, the paternal function is when your father (or some stand-in) says that your desire for your mother is kind of creepy, and instead of doing that you should follow the rules and be an upstanding member of society instead. Fink says that this function is strongest if you had a good father, and weaker if your father was absent or abusive.
Psychosis is when you don’t get the paternal function at all. Lacanian psychotics aren’t necessarily crazy all the time. They might lead normal or even successful lives. Lacan thinks this is kind of a sham. The paternal function is closely linked to language; without it, they don’t really understand language, although they can mimic it well enough to communicate normally (most of the time - Lacan claims that no psychotic person can ever invent a truly novel analogy, which sure is a heck of a claim). Without real language holding them together, their ego is kind of a sham; the first strong breeze blows it apart, and the patient stops being a unified subject/agent (this looks like traditional psychosis, where the patient hallucinates and has delusions). Sometimes the patient can knit themselves together again with a sufficiently convincing delusional system, which will mimic the paternal function somehow (eg “God commands me to be His prophet by doing X”). Because they lack the paternal function (“Name-of-the-Father”), they sometimes have a weird obsession with their Father’s Name.
Fink presents a (supposedly) real case study of psychosis. A man (“Roger”), has a weak father who is easily dominated by his mother. He frequently complains about this to his analyst in suspiciously Lacanian language (“There is no name for a father like mine”, he says). He starts doubting that his father is really his father, and goes to the county records office to check his birth certificate for his father’s name. Finally, he comes up with a plan: write a new last name for himself, which combines his real father’s name with the name of his psychoanalyst. He writes the name, buries it in the foundation of his family home, and feels pretty good about himself. Then one day, he tells his therapist about a dream: he is in a golden cage, and his therapist is watching him. The therapist says maybe means he thinks he’s stuck and wants his therapist’s approval. Upon hearing this, Roger immediately goes insane. Fink’s commentary: by being confronted with the fact that his dream has a meaning, Roger was forced to reckon with language and symbolism. But as a psychotic person, he can’t do these things: the relationship of symbol, meaning, and person who is figuring out the meaning is a triad too close to mother, child, and father, and he lacks the “father” part of the triad. His flimsy fake ego falls apart. Later, another therapist carefully avoids making Roger confront symbolism, and he does fine thereafter.
Patients can also get psychosis if their father is present and strong, but such a jerk that they refuse to identify with or listen to him. In this case, “the child [may] assume a feminine position in relation to the domineering, monstrous father. . . such male psychotics are the most likely patients to attempt sex change operations.”
(I surveyed a couple of cis men and trans women I knew about their fathers, and needless to say there was nothing even remotely resembling this pattern)
Perversion is when someone’s father doesn’t give them the paternal function very effectively, but they manage to shore it up themselves. In Lacanian diagnosis, “pervert” doesn’t necessarily involve creepy sexual fetishes, although it does correlate with them pretty often (Fink tries to sidestep this by claiming that “the vast majority of human sexual behavior is perverse”).
Fink thinks that masochists are, by punishing themselves, trying to sort of ritually enact the law being applied to them: “the masochist uses his own desire to push a father substitute to legislate and enact punishment”. The sadist tries to ritually enact the law applied to someone else, who they then identify with. More interested in some other perversion? Fink has an explanation for that one too.
(other claims: “Lacan goes so far as to say that ‘female masochism is a male fantasy’ and qualifies lesbianism not as a perversion but as ‘heterosexuality’, [because women are] the Other sex [by some corollary of Lacan’s definition of the Other]. Homosexuality - hommesexualite, as Lacan spells it, including the two ms from homme, ‘man’, is, in his terms, love for men.”)
In Fink’s case study of a pervert, a certain male patient could only get sexually aroused when a woman was wearing buttons; the more buttons, the more aroused. His analyst discovered that he had a very weak contemptible father, had continued to be “mommy’s little boy” until well into primary school age, but one time heard his father refer to his mother’s genitals as a “button”. Also around that time, he had appendicitis and got a surgery which ended with an image of his father holding a jar with his appendix in it. This was close enough to castration that the patient was able to stitch together this image and the button memory into a workable paternal function. Needing some kind of Oedipal resolution to become a coherent subject, he willed himself to pretend that the appendix was a penis and his father was threatening to castrate him, and then (I can’t believe I am writing this sentence) used the word “button” as a substitute for the moral law. In the end, he successfully avoided psychosis and suffered nothing worse than a lifelong button fetish.
Neurosis is the result of a totally normal paternal function. It’s not meant to be a stigmatizing or disease-related term; anyone who isn’t psychotic or perverted is neurotic by definition. People who are conventionally “neurotic” are the extreme of this type, or the people of this type who are handling it poorly. People who are really well-adjusted and have no mental health problems are still “neurotic” in the Lacanian sense, just less so / better at navigating it.
Neurotics believe in the Other and care a lot what it thinks of them. But they never really know what the Other wants, which is terrifying. They’re probably bad at sex, since the paternal function causes them to unconsciously fear sexual pleasure, and since sex involves contact with the Other (which is terrifying). The sub-species of neurosis are:
Obsession, in which someone pretends that the Other doesn’t exist, they’re self-contained and don’t need anybody else, there’s no such thing as the unconscious, and nothing can possibly go wrong. Fink describes Ayn Rand characters as a “perfect” example, which I found helpful. Obsessives deal with their fear of sex by focusing on a single aspect of the sex partner (eg breasts, penis) and desperately trying to pretend they’re not a real full person. If you doubt the utility or veracity of Lacanian psychoanalysis (Fink warns us), it probably means you’re obsessive and that’s your defense mechanism.
Here’s a story about an obsessive:
Let me borrow an example from Colette Soler that nicely illustrates [obsession]. An obsessive man meets a woman who attracts him greatly, seduces her, and makes love to her regularly. He sees in her the object that causes him to desire. But he cannot stop himself from planning when they will make love and asking another woman to call him at that exact time. He does not just let the phone ring, or stop making love when he answers the phone. Instead, he answers the phone and talks with the caller while making love with his lover. His partner is thus annulled and neutralized, and he does not have to consider himself dependent on her, or on her desire for him, in any way. Orgasm usually leads, at least momentarily, to a cessation of thoughts, to a brief end to thinking, but since the obsessive continues to talk on the phone with this other woman, he never allows himself to disappear as conscious, thinking subject even for so much as a second […]
Desire is impossible in obsession, because the closer the obsessive comes to realizing his desire (say, to have sex with someone), the more the Other begins to take precedence over him, eclipsing him as a subject. The presence of the Other threatens the obsessive with what Lacan calls “aphantasis”, his fading or disappearance as subject. To avoid that presence, an extremely typical obsesive strategy is to fall in love with someone who is utterly and completely inaccessible or, alternatively, to set standards for potential lovers which are so stringent that no one could possibly measure up to them.
Hysteria is where someone tries to become the object of the Other’s desire, thus resolving the terrifying question of what it wants (it wants them). I get the impression of some kind of seductive and submissive person who’s good at being attractive and changes their whole personality depending on who they’re in a relationship with (this might be a good time to mention that Fink says almost all obsessives are men and almost all hysterics are women). Fink’s case of hysteria is the typical “woman raised by abusive father marries abusive husband, then has a stormy relationship with him”.
Phobia is where the paternal function almost works, and the patient relies on something else to shore it up (no, I don’t get how this is different from perversion). Fink’s example here is Freud’s case of Little Hans, a young boy who is terrified of horses. He goes through the case and finds good evidence that Hans didn’t respect his father, and had to transfer the fear which should settle on the father (as representative of castration anxiety) onto something else (horses).
The development of Hans’ phobia coincidences with an abrupt decrease in anxiety: the latter is bound temporarily when Hans takes the signifier “horse” as a sort of father substitute (a stand-in for the father, for the father’s name or “No!” in the paternal metaphor)
Whatever. Could be worse. At least he isn’t spending the rest of his life sexually aroused by buttons.
After discussing some of this, Fink ends with a warning: now that there are more single mothers, and the few remaining fathers are getting less strict, we are risking an explosion in psychosis cases. This is pretty funny, insofar as the 20 years since Fink published have been boom times for perversion and neurosis, but the psychosis rate hasn’t budged. I expect that if I made this point to him, Fink would argue that my puny DSM-trained intuition totally misses that psychosis is a Lacanian personality structure which can’t possibly be measured in something as superficial as symptoms. Or maybe he’d refer back to the claim that transgender is a psychosis in the Lacanian sense and so the rise in that counts as fulfillment of his prophecy.
Why did I read A Clinical Introduction To Lacanian Psychoanalysis?
I am happy to be able to give a clear answer: I started bunch of prediction markets on which of several book reviews I could write was most likely to be popular, and Clinical Introduction won:
So the real question is: why did you want me to read A Clinical Introduction To Lacanian Psychoanalysis? Except that of course I don’t know if any of you actually wanted this. The real real question is: why did forecasters think that you would want me to review A Clinical Introduction To Lacanian Psychoanalysis?
I can’t answer this, but I want to at least express some respect for the sheer Lacanian-ness of the question. All desire is the desire of the Other. Why do I do things? Because I’m seeking the approval of some sort of abstract group of people. What does the Other desire? I can never know this for sure. This is anxiety-inducing, and so I come up with various clever schemes to try and divine this desire and alleviate my anxiety. Sometimes these schemes work. Other times they don’t, and I end up developing some disgusting fetish, or having a psychotic break, or reading A Clinical Introduction To Lacanian Psychoanalysis.
So, fine, different question: do I think there’s anything valuable in this book?
Lacan’s theory of desire is complicated. Some parts seem too trivial to care about (eg we desire things, even if we get one object of desire we’ll just start desiring something else) and other parts seem incomprehensible. The thing at the sweet spot for me - where it seems meaningful but not obvious - is the claim that desire is an ego defense. We want things because we think they would make us feel more like a coherent self; we fear things because they might make our subjectivity collapse. This seems closest to true when I imagine a sudden humiliation, eg a pastor who tries to open jesus_presentation.ppt on his computer in front of his flock, but accidentally clicks on the wrong file and reveals to everyone that he watches hardcore porn. There’s a simple and easy-to-understand explanation where he’s unhappy because he’s lost status. But I can also imagine flickers of a deeper underlying unhappiness because he’s failed to project his preferred image of who he is to the people who he’s granted the right to judge him, and now he’s no longer even sure himself.
The idea of an ego at risk of collapse sort of reminds me of Buddhism - “desire is the root of all suffering” and “the self is an illusion” both seem like pretty Lacanian ideas. It’s interesting how far this has spread beyond either source: I think most pop psychology now just accepts that the “self” is some kind of projection or illusion, and that this probably has something to do with consumerism and whatever other modern maladies we’re supposed to be against. I guess I always just accepted this idea without really thinking about it. When I do think about it, I get kind of confused: if my entire life has been a series of desperate attempts to maintain the facade of my ego, how come I don’t feel able to stop having that facade even if I want to? How come if I sit in a dark room and think “okay, gonna stop propping up my ego right now!” nothing bad happens? If everything were to go wrong - if I were to become completely humiliated, if all my friends were to abandon me, if I lost all my material goods, if every defense mechanism were mercilessly stripped from me one after another - would something eventually happen corresponding to “my ego collapses”?
There seems to be a true sense in which I might have different opinions and preferences tomorrow, and sometimes I have completely ridiculous and repulsive thoughts that I hide from everyone, and so it takes a certain amount of care to maintain a reputation as a coherent and prosocial subject who can be bargained with. I just find it hard to connect this true thing to the idea of the ego as posited by Buddhism or psychoanalysis.
But Lacan doubles down on this idea of ego defense, and ties it into the Law. One of the rare places this book intersected with the quasi-Lacanianism of Sadly, Porn, was its insistence that not only are humans bound by Law, but they insist on being bound by Law, and someone who isn’t bound by Law will flail around desperately looking for some Law to be bound by, until they end up with horses or buttons or whatever else was at hand. I will not deny that this is an interesting prediction of how many people end up with spanking fetishes, or “discipline” fetishes, or master/slave fetishes, or teacher/student fetishes, or some other fetish that ritually re-enacts the establishment of Law. I wonder if anyone has ever had a fetish for judges. What about that very particular white wig they sometimes wear?
And his theory of desire settles on something like mimesis: we want things that other people want, or we want to be that which other people want. Here we veer dangerously close to triviality again. Some people definitely do this, like people who want Bored Ape NFTs, or people who want to be rock stars. Other people definitely don’t do this, like that guy who obsessively collected streetcar tickets. Is it fair to say that this is some kind of basic human drive? I’m not really sure. Probably Lacan’s theory is much more complicated than this, but if so I don’t understand how.
On the comments of my Sadly, Porn review, FeepingCreature wrote:
I think this relates to free energy/error reduction? Ie. we don't become who we want to be, we believe that we already are that person and then act to reduce error. With the failure mode of externalizing the difference between inferred and phenomenal self.
And Snav brought up this this series of papers trying to link Lacan to free energy. I can’t really understand it - I don’t know what I was expecting from a paper trying to link one famously incomprehensible thing to another famously incomprehensible thing. Parts of it seem to almost make sense; Lacan often says that various quantities in his system are what is left after other quantities have been interpreted through the logical-symbolic order, which sounds suspiciously like prediction error. The papers try to argue that Fristonian free energy = Lacanian jouissance, a word usually thought of as equivalent to libido or pleasure or excessive pleasure or painful pleasure or something like that. I don’t feel able to have an opinion at this point.
Another thing I got out from this book: I grudgingly think there might be something in the psychoanalytic story of sexual repression. A thought experiment: imagine a heterosexual man. A hot girl blindfolds him, then gives him oral sex. It feels very pleasurable. Then the blindfold slips, and he sees that actually, the hot girl left the room, and now he’s getting oral sex from an ugly girl / a man / a chimpanzee. Upon learning this, he’s no longer as interested in continuing the oral sex; if he did continue, it wouldn’t feel as good. He might even be repulsed by it. Why? Predictive processing can tell us that in a different context, sensations can be perceived differently - but what makes this particular context switch so jarring? Normally I would interpret this as a moral prohibition - the sensations are pleasant, but he’s morally opposed to them. But even if this person was a progressive with no moral objection to homosexuality, even if he was one of those high-decoupler types who say bestiality is fine as long as the animal consents and enjoys it - he might still feel this pseudo-moral repugnance (and of course there’s no moral law against having sex with an ugly person). That suggests there’s some set of unconscious rules about which kinds of sexual pleasure are allowed.
Probably this comes from a combination of genetic instincts and cultural mores just like everything else. But the exact genesis is sort of obscure, and the instincts and mores sure do get channeled along some unusual paths.I wrote about some of this in my Sadly, Porn review, but upon contact with any real people, our society’s stylized description of sex (people get pleasure from genital contact with others, especially hot others) fractures into a dizzying array of inexplicable weirdness.
The first layer is people who can only get pleasure from unusual sex positions, or orifices, or people wearing certain clothing, or taking certain roles - fine, you can explain that by some kind of weird classical conditioning. Then there are the people who prefer masturbation to real sex, or at least get different things out of both - fine, you can explain that by peculiarities of different ways of stimulating genital nerves. Then there are the people who can only get pleasure from some very specific scenario - imagining that they’re an antebellum slave owner and their partner is a runaway slave who they’re punishing, or that their partner is their brother and they’re committing incest, or that their partner is their disciplinarian teacher who always gave them bad grades but secretly it was because they loved them the whole time and wanted them to get strong enough to be a good spouse. Then there’s the dirt-common phenomenon of people who can only take pleasure in sex if they know their partner is enjoying it too, and the thankfully rarer phenomenon of people who can only take pleasure if their partner isn’t enjoying it. There’s people who can only enjoy hate sex, or makeup sex, or who want their partner to be hard to get, or who pursue someone until they say “yes” and then they’re not interesting anymore, or who only date abusers even though they hate it, etc, etc, etc.
Physics is stuck in an annoying equilibrium where the Standard Model works for almost everything, and then occasionally we come across some exotic domain where it totally falls apart and we know that reality must be something deeper and weirder. I feel like psychology is the same way: you can explain almost everything with your standard scientific toolkit. Then you look at sex, and you realize you’ll need something much more complicated and worse. And since sex is maybe the strongest and most primal form of desire, if the Standard Model Of The Mind doesn’t explain sex, it probably doesn’t really explain anything else. There are probably all those weird curled-up shadow dimensions in everything, just out of sight.
In this metaphor, psychoanalysis is like superstring theory: it might not quite work, but it was a valiant attempt to fill a hole.
(though Freud probably would have avoided using that exact terminology)