H20: Suture In Obsessionality

Jacques-Alain Miller


Clinical psychoanalysis does not consist in a mere collection of facts — or case histories — classified according to types of symptoms. Rather, it is a set of constructions varying with the given subjective positions that structure psychoanalytic experience. This is what we analysts agree on whose major reference is Lacan's teaching. This reference goes beyond simple quotation. The symbols created by Lacan have weight in the Real, determining a structure on the basis of which the phenomena are registered and ordered. Thus, the subjective principles of psychoanalytic experience are given in a discourse without words, closing in on the formula of analytic discourse. The enactment of analytic discourse supposes a certain hysterization of the Subject. I don't think I'd be going too far in assuming here something of a consensus: hysterization provides the Subjective condition for the enactment of the unconscious in analysis. The entire array of neurotic disorders must be accounted for on this basis. We therefore cannot shirk the task of establishing the precise significance of hysteria for every form of neurosis.

The problem can be divided into two questions. The first is specifically clinical. It involves what may be called the hysterical 'nucleus' of neurosis (I use this somewhat improper term to distinguish our clinical practice from that of other analytic persuasions). The second question is more technical, concerning the direction of the cure. It bears upon the hysterical moment that occurs in every cure.

The obsessional symptom proposes itself as providing access to this general problematic. It is characterized by phenomenal evidence of Zwang, i.e. phenomena of constraint and compulsion manifested in the subject's thoughts and acts. Though Freud never said that the unconscious is structured like a language, he nevertheless suggested that it is structured like an idiom. If, following his indication, we accept that obsessionality is a derivative of hysteria, we must look for a formula which would show the one to be a transformation of the other. The title I have chosen for the present contribution, the ironic acronym H2O, serves as a stand-in for this formula, which remains to be found.

In the seminal case history of the Rat Man (Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis, S. E., X, pp. 153-249) — celebrated by Lacan in 1969 when he wrote that everything we know about obsessional neurosis comes from this text — Freud distinguished between hysteria and obsessionality in the following terms:

What regularly occurs in hysteria is that a compromise is arrived at which enables both the opposing tendencies to find expression simultaneously — which kills two birds with one stone; whereas here (in obsessional neurosis) each of the two opposing tendencies finds satisfaction singly, first one and then the other, though naturally an attempt is made to establish some sort of logical connection (often in defiance of all logic) between the antagonists (p. 194).

Freud's remark comports an implicit formalization: hysteria is said to involve a compromise, that is, a mode of expressing two in one. Obsessionality is characterized in similar terms, but is said to involve something that contrasts with hysterical compromise, namely Zwang, constraint without compromise, which derives its compulsory nature from the temporal deployment of contraries. This concatenation of contraries constitutes the essence of Freud's Zwang, differing, as it does, from the condensation typical for hysterical compromise. This implicit formalization may well correspond with Lacan's paired signifiers S1 and S2, a couple which conceals the third it nevertheless includes, namely the interval which separates them. Freud's 'logical connection' appears to refer to the function of this interval. The correlative opposition between the two modes of repression, assigned elsewhere by Freud to the two neuroses, can be understood on this basis. We recognize in his characterization of hysteria — one term is repressed by amnesia, the other represents, both — the schema of alienation which, according to Lacan, consist in the repression of S1, the primal signifier. In obsessionality, says Freud, the mechanism is much simpler:

The subject strips the trauma of its affective cathexis; so that what remains in consciousness is nothing but its ideational content, which is perfectly colorless and is judged to be unimportant (p. 196).

We can understand this the following way: in obsessionality, S, and S2 remain opposed and explicit, but at the cost of producing non-sense (the phenomenology of the compulsion regularly manifests a feeling of absurdity that coexists with the compulsion. From this point of view (which is Freud's), hysteria and obsession can be seen as the two modes of the subject's internal division — first, the division of two in one in hysteria; and, second, the division by splitting (derived from the former) in obsessionality. Hysteria presents the divided subject at its purest. Such a subject assumes its division. The obsessional, on the contrary, conceals this division, tries to mop it up, attempts to annul it in tacking S1, and S2 together "in defiance of all logic." This is evidenced by the prevalence of stereotyped thinking in the phenomenology of the compulsion. Though not always as zestful as those presented by Freud in the Rat Man, quasi-ritual formulas are a recurrent feature in our experience with obsessional patients.

In this regard, the compulsion can be understood as an attempt to suture the subject. Suturing would appear as the specifically obsessional mode of repression. The part of the subject thus salvaged emerges in the signifying chain in the form of an internal dialogue. (1) The subject speaks with itself and not to another, i.e. the signifier imposes itself on the subject as voice. (2) This voice is all the more disconcerting as its attribution remains strictly subjective, i.e. it does not usually erupt in the Real. (3) But it disturbs the subject by inserting speech particles into the signifying chain which belie the speaker's conscious intention. For example, the Rat Man utters the formulaic prayer: "May God protect her!" (p. 195). A not, a negation, is irrepressibly evoked. It manifests the return of the subject in the form of a Wunsch made explicit. (4) Compulsion turns into doubt, Zwang into Zweifel, as Freud first observed in the case of the Rat Man: the forced passage to the act ends with inexorable doubts.

Obsessionality could thus be seen as a refusal of alienation. Here the clinical motivations of Lacan's logic of alienation appear in their purest form. Lacan defines alienation as a "forced choice," i.e. Zwang and Zweifel combined. His point is that, the obsessional's efforts notwithstanding, one cannot have it both ways. It's one or none. Thus the obsessional subject falls prey to a double alienation (the one isolated by Lacan as "I am not thinking.")

The suture characteristic of obsessionality results in a rejection of the unconscious; the involuntary appearance of the negative speech parts mentioned above testifies to this rejection. Forced to choose, the one or the other, the obsessional does not want to lose either. Analysts have often noted the affinity of obsessionality with retention, relating thrift and greed to anal eroticism. But despite all efforts to deny it, the obsessional cannot escape the forced choice. The necessity of loss hits the subject with particular virulence: rather than losing something, the subject sacrifices itself. In his addendum to the Rat Man case (S.E., X, pp. 253-318), Freud is aware of this paradox. The patient repeatedly addresses prohibitory statements to himself in the form: "What sacrifice am I prepared to make in order to . . . ?" (p. 271). It could not be more succinctly expressed that the suture of the subject demands the sacrifice of jouissance. Greed and austerity paradoxically concur for him who is willing to forego his jouissance for the sake of vindicating the signifier. This attitude qualifies the alienation denoted as "I am not thinking." It implies a rejection of the unconscious that can be expressed as "I am counting." Lacan followed Freud's text verbatim when reading the signifier "rat" as jouissance written off to the signifier: the obsessional posts his jouissance like cash to the ledger.

This is why the obsessionality provides a special version of the alienation illustrated by Lacan with the common expressions: "Your money or your life!", and "Liberty or death!" The choice is in fact impossible. The obsessional embodies this impossibility by reading the forced choice as: "Your money and your life!" After all, the subject's death does not change the balance on his account. An otherworldly realm opens up in which the subject manages its resources as though he were already dead. Life and freedom can be renounced, but the signifier must last. The original bind between Zwang and death comes into focus. At the same time, light is shed on the obsessional's Other. He doubts this Other, and rightly so, as the Other does not exist. Already the early Lacan emphasized that the obsessional makes do with the dead in the place of the Other. "A dead man feels no pain," says the adage. It should be added that a dead man feels no pleasure either, and that is why the Other of the obsessional is dead. Jouissance is a property of life, it qualifies the living. The dead do not experience pleasure, but this does not prevent them from existing in our memories, reduced as they are to the status of signifiers — a life between-two-deaths. The obsessional aspires to this condition by prosecuting any impulse that might escape the signifier's might. His hatred seeks out what appears to insult the ideal he holds dear because it shields the unspeakable object. The insult, says Lacan, hits the Real.

The obsessional whom we meet in the clinic wants the Other jouissance-free. He devotes himself to this office. Freud notes that retention of affect is characteristic in obsessionality. The withdrawal of affect severs the causal relation, he writes in a dazzling passage on the Rat Man. The relation of cause and effect is sundered. In our language, the cause is the objet a, and the effect is desire. Causality defaults as a consequence of the soldered signifiers that suture the obsessional subject. What Freud calls superstition and omnipotent thought in obsessionality is another consequence of this suture. Even if only whimsically, the obsessional cannot help thinking that coincidences are not coincidences. Nothing is accidental for him, everything fits a plot. So-called superstition, or omnipotent thought, makes use of the signifier to compensate for the discovery that causes are not signifiers, or, if you prefer, that there is no signifier 'cause' in the Other. In the history of thought, this discovery is associated with the name of Hume. To his astonished contemporaries, Hume demonstrated that causes are not reducible to signifiers. This gap kindles a process of infinite verification. "What holds today may be falsified tomorrow." Karl Popper deduced an epistemology on this basis and used it to disqualify psychoanalysis. He was duped, we dare-say by his phantasm.

The obsessional subject must ascertain that all jouissance be accounted for; all must be signified. This means that all jouissance is dead. An unforgettable hieratic scene in the Rat Man demonstrates this point. It occurs in different versions in every case of obsessional neurosis. Freud reports it as coinciding with the appearance of the patient's symptoms:

He was working for an examination and toying with his favorite phantasy that his father was still alive and might at any moment reappear. He used to arrange that his working hours would be as late as possible in the night. Between twelve and one o'clock at night he would interrupt his work, and open the front door of the flat as though his father were standing outside; then, coming back into the hall, he would take out his penis and look at it in the looking-glass (pp. 205-6).

A short complementary passage in the "Original Record of the Case" (of which Lacan was unaware when he commented on the text) points out that the subject had "some degree of erection" (p. 302). In this context, Freud refers to "a lacuna in the knowable." The nightly scene purely and simply means the presentation of the signifier of jouissance to the dead Father. It is hieratic because it enacts a holy marriage — a man's wedding his organ. One might say it exhibits the mirror phase of the phallus. Within this scene, the Name-of-the-Father is appealed to in an obviously delirious, though non-psychotic manner. The subject hears someone knocking at the door (this detail is provided in the "Original Record"). He opens — to a father who is not there but whose signifier appears in the gaping door — and exhibits the signification of the phallus. This phallus neither serves the owner - the patient has been abstaining from masturbation at that time - nor a sexual partner. The boundary between psychosis and obsessional neurosis is clearly drawn.

Exhibiting the insignia of virility to the dead Other occurs in every case of obsessional neurosis. It shows the typical conjunction of jouissance, "Your money!", and death, "Your life!", in obsessionality. It also indicates that while the obsessional can be friends with death, he has trouble with love — not because he cannot give what he has, but because giving what he does not have is a problem for him.

The keystone in the edifice of obsessional neurosis is the confusion of the ego ideal with the Other. It triggers the crisis which leads the Rat Man into analysis with Freud. What spurred this step? A quandary which repeats a dilemma in which his father was caught. The subject owes money to someone, and a gap appears in the signifier. Why is it money that plays this role? The existence of the debt is revealed by a figure known among analysts as the Cruel Captain. He represents the disjunction of the ideal and the Other, of I and 0. The separation occurs as the subject imagines his dead father in a very base condition indeed. The Captain's cruelty triggers the obsessional trance in which Freud finds the patient at the onset of the analysis.

The dramatic entrance of an obsessional subject into analysis is often due to an encounter with an Other who, unlike the dead father, does not renounce his pleasure. The patient's face uncannily reflects the jouissance of that unruly Other. Not satisfied with the ostentation of an embalmed phallus, the Other takes his pleasure, and viciously so. The obsessional subject would, of course, sacrifice himself — that is essentially his position — but only on the condition that no one benefit from it. Castration is no inconvenience as long as no living Other has the advantage of it. Of the obsessional it is especially true what Lacan has stated for the neurotic: he does not want to sacrifice his castration to the jouissance of the Other. The intrusion of an Other not quite as dead as wished for was prefigured to the Rat Man one day when he visited his father's grave: he thought he saw a rat scurry by. The delusion returned after the Captains story: the ground warped before him as though there were a rat beneath. This rat cannot be accounted for. The jouissance for which it stands is illicit under the signifier.

It is this transferential trance that regularly prompts obsessionals to seek treatment; it determines their search for an other capable of embodying the subject-supposed-to-know. But the subject supposed to know cannot operate unless the other becomes the Other. The Other in obsessional neurosis is one — the One that counts. This Other must be-related to the objet a. The decisive factor is the encounter with someone who, like the Cruel Captain, indulges in his pleasure. Since obsessionality is only the sutured signification of the subject-supposed-to-know, the encounter with the jouissance of the Other unravels the suture of the subject. But precisely because it is the jouissance of the Other that has this effect, the refinding of jouissance takes a quasi-paranoiac aspect resulting from the identification of jouissance with the place of the Other.

It would be interesting henceforth to study cases in which the transferential crisis is spurred either by the mischievous pleasure of a woman or by the jouissance of a master. The double question of what are the nucleus and the fertile moment of hysteria can be approached on this basis.

(From the discussion following the presentation of the paper):

The fusion between the Other and the ego ideal (i.e. the Other and the One) breaks apart as a result of the intrusion of that unruly jouissance which so upsets the obsessional subject. Does this break occur only once? The subject-supposed-to-know removes, or at least alleviates, the obsessional symptom (Freud considered his patient restored after eleven months.) This possibility is blocked as long as the subject interprets himself. The passage from "May God protect her!" to "May God not protect her!" has the value of an interpretation and is represented as such in the signifying chain. The Zwang eases off when the subject is supported by a true Other. The subject 'verbalizes' a part of the symptom, and this causes relief. It should be noted, however, that the analytic discourse dispenses a jouissance of its own. This could reinforce the obsessional's bent toward self-sacrifice, i.e. his tendency to signify the totality of his jouissance. The disjunction a//S1 would then be of paramount importance. In any case, the analyst's position is decisive. The fact that analysis relieves the patient from bothering symptoms boost the signification of sacrifice. This explains why some authors erroneously associate obsessionality with masochism.