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BORN ASTRIDE THE GRAVE: THE BODY OF CASTRATION IN TRAUMA AND THE SIGNIFIER

Clearly the subject needs a body to function, and psychoanalysis requires a body, preferably in the room, for an analysis to take place. That is the relationship between these two entities at its most simplistic. But there is, of course, much more. Psychoanalysis was born from the attempt to treat the mysterious connection between the body, what Lacan calls the organism, and the living being.

The two are different, but not in the sense that Descartes implied when he imagined the body as a machine, and the mind as a thinking substance. This ghost in the machine – or Cartesian dualism-left just one way to know oneself and that was via introspection. For Lacan such an attempt is “futile”. As Colette Soler points out it points to the body escaping the signifier. Freud put it even more succinctly: you cannot think your way out of neurosis. Something else is required.

That something else is the content and work of analysis. It began with words, the speech that names and marks the body, but more precisely, it is signifiers – and something more than that too, the unconscious real of the body. I am going to think of this in terms, not of the love of beginnings that’s been associated with analysis, but an acceptance of endings. There is an inevitable end to the body – we are – as Beckett, someone not unfamiliar with psychoanalysis – noted, born astride the grave. The line is from Waiting for Godot. “They give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more”. Beckett’s point is that birth is the beginning of death. It could be seen as a confronting truism – though Freud’s maxim – carpe diem – suggests that it’s a truth able to prompt desire, and action.

This has significance, not only in marking an ending, but also on how and when that ending arrives. Language kills as effectively as heredity. I was struck, watching the SBS series The Secret Life of Death on how precisely a woman with breast cancer obeyed the words of her doctor. He told her she would not see Christmas, and dutifully she died in mid December. This is not to say cancer can be pigeon- holed as psychosomatic. Rather, it is to acknowledge that, because people suffer as a result of not having access to the truth that speaks them, psychosomatic illness has little to do with genetic transmission. Truth, or the real, is at the heart of the relation between mental and physical health.

In this it’s not just a matter of being born or achieving what you might call a state of being, or subjectivity; it’s a matter, to use a phrase from Winnicott, of going-on-being. He explains it in terms of surviving early trauma and gives the example of a young child exposed to ongoing maternal anxiety or depression. Forced into a reactive mode, he says, the child removes herself from her own experience, forcing her to cope prematurely with the needs of another.

This interrupts her own continuity creating gaps or breaks that Winnicott called “threats of annihilation”. Such a child, he felt, is never given enough room to develop a sense of on-going-ness, her going-on-being. Bion finds something similar with his container and contained. For Winnicott, it was, as the title of his relevant paper, Ego Integration in Child Development, makes clear, a matter of ego stability.

While Lacan disputed the notion of the ego ever being integrated or continuous, he did ponder what might anchor a subject – as opposed to an ego – and how subjects might accommodate to what concerned Winnicott – early trauma.

Lacan’s frame arises out of his Mirror Stage and the idea that the body is the imaginary realm, not of cognition, but of re-cognition – a realm that marks the already seen (The Agency of the Letter, or Reason in the Unconscious Since Freud). Implicit here, seems to be the notion that an infant cannot identify with others, or its mirror image, if it’s not able to do so against the backdrop of a welcoming gaze.

This is not, however, biological. To achieve a sense of being by identifying with an image of the body as coherent occurs before any biological causality, and depends on an experience of alienation. That is what the Mirror Stage is.

Loss is at the forefront of this process, one that we might call some-body-making. It is not, however loss due to a psychic or physical separation, as Winnicott and Object Relations theorists, held. Rather, the loss is of an image, the effect of a cut. Ultimately, it arises because we are born into a body, which means being born into jouissance.

Why jouissance? Well, that is the outcome of having a body upon which the signifier will engender early trauma. While this isn’t the same as death, it can have mortifying implications. The evidence for this is in the clinic – as Lacan explored – especially in his later work, when he re-thought the place of the signifier in regard to jouissance.

Rather than tending to separate the body and the subject, as he did in his earlier work, the later Lacan suggests that the subject is not equivalent to the symbolic. Returning to Freud’s notion of the drive and re-evaluating the idea of the body, he turns to the notion that what the signifying chain conveys is jouissance. The signifier, in this formula, limits jouissance and causes it, which raises a question: What might be an effective barrier to jouissance, and how is the body implicated in this enjoyment and its prohibition. These are matters along with the role of desire and the law that I’ll address; but first jouissance and the signifier.

IN The Other Side of Psychoanalysis Lacan argues that the master signifier – the signifier that represents a subject for all other signifiers-is a “commemoration of an outbreak of jouissance” (77). In this sense, the reminiscences from which we suffer are not just a matter of memory, realising a scene, they are also a return of jouissance. Think of the infant old Wolf Man glimpsing his parents’ coitus a tergo. It is from this that Lacan derives the term, an “event of the body” – that is – a new definition of the hysterical symptom.

It is an event of the body because the body is implicated. It must be, because, in treatment, the necessary process of recollection involves a patient tracing the master signifiers of his or her life, which of necessity, will touch on trauma.

In writing this paper I wondered how such a scene might relate to the imaginary body, wherein lies the infant’s hope of internal wholeness. The answer, I think, is in endings, and the way that these revolve around castration. You could think of this as the law that requires jouissance to be refused in order for a subject to realise their desire.

Castration is an ending, one that impacts body and mind. Freud thought as such, framing it as an exit from Oedipus – acceptance of limits, which, paradoxically perhaps, also spells a beginning, an entry into subjectivity. So we have an exit, that is, an ending, and an entry, a beginning, but not just as we might like it. The price we pay for becoming a subject is another sort of castration – what Freud called not being the master of one’s own house. It means we are not consciously aware that what we know, “knowledge”, is not natural. Rather, and perhaps surprisingly, knowledge arises from the particularity of our own signifying chains.

Lacan knew this but he went further, seeing castration not as a fantasy about a castrating father or supposed liaison with the opposite sex. His emphasis was on an operation of language set off by the master signifier. In the system of Lacan, it’s an operation that involves a symbolic lack of an imaginary object, one, which arises from a confrontation between the signifier and jouissance.
In Lacan, the body seen as imaginary – an imaginary unity that gives the infant hope of totalising wholeness – shifts to the idea of the body linked to the symbolic. This move brings the body to the fore in a way that focuses on the relationship between jouissance and the drive. So, rather than being purely imaginary, the body becomes linked to the symbolic. It comes about when Lacan separates the subject from the symbolic. Why? Well, as Luis Izcovitch explains, while it points to the place of a subject, the symbolic doesn’t declare what it is that’s specific about the subject. It is with this thought, Izcovitch argues, that Lacan returns to Freud’s idea of the drive and rethinks the body, which means reworking his notion of the subject.

FREUD noted that no-one willingly gives-up a position of libidinal satisfaction, and thus the challenge of analysis is finding ways in which jouissance may be substituted. In this, refusal of castration is the problem. We’re not talking about impossible total castration, but what maybe possible for a neurotic, one who tends to defend against the lack in the Other by repressing any awareness of castration.

As Lacan says in Ecrtis:
What the neurotic does not want and what he strenuously refuses to do right up until the end of his analysis, is to sacrifice his castration to the Other’s jouissance allowing it to serve the Other,

Failure of castration then allows and accelerates suffering – in body and mind. It’s the limit imposed by what Lacan, moving on from Freud‘s Oedipus, calls paternal metaphor, the barrier to invasive jouissance and its’ mental anguish. This metaphor, which substitutes the Name of the Father for the mother’s desire, is an end: A dead end. The subject renounces his attempt to be the object of mother’s desire, her phallus, and in so doing, gives up a jouissance he will never regain.

It is a tough ask, a necessary loss – the primary effect of the signifier being the repression of the cancellation of the thing where we imagine full jouissance to be. This means, as Soler points out, that the condition for Freud’s libido is also an ending, a loss. In Lacan’s exposition, the libido, which drives us, is a force searching for a separated part of itself – much like the myth of Aristophanes – and this is only possible if something’s already been lost, subtracted.

It’s from this subtraction that libido, which in Lacan can be thought of as another name of desire, arises. For Soler the subtraction is castration, (Position of the Unconscious, Ecrits). She puts in this way: “This subtraction which founds the libido as a vector towards the object is identified with the subtraction of castration (-phi).” But this is not the end of jouissance. Slivers remain and are redistributed – in line with the signifying cut – to points outside the body. This is the jouissance of the drive and it goes to places, such as the anus – anatomical rims – where signifiers inscribe the demand of the other. Such inscription of signifiers aligns jouissance according to an object that corresponds to it, an object Lacan will end up calling object a. None of this is surprising when you think of the speaking-being as he or she who speaks with and through the body, rendering the organism a symptomatic body, animated by the drive. The body, we are saying, is transformed by signifiers, by the cut they make on the body-the effect of language on libido.

This is for neurotics. For psychotics, jouissance is in the place of the Other, a fraught situation bought about, as we know, by the failure of the Name of the Father. Soler sums it up nicely: “If it is the Name of the Father which, via the operation of castration, empties the body of its jouissance, we can expect that if there is a flaw, it will not be emptied”.

In psychosis, castration is foreclosed and lack is neither accepted nor borne. Freud called it repudiation. The place of lack is lacking and castration returns in the real, as with hallucination. Neurotics, however, as Lacan argued, going beyond what Freud saw as a limit, have other options. The subject has the possibility of separating from object a-and encountering the point where the fantasy becomes the drive, a point of recognizing his or her own castration.

Castration, as Lacan explained, means that jouissance must be refused so that it can be reached on the inverted ladder of the Law of Desire, desire here being a defence against going beyond the limit of jouissance.  This means that what is at stake in desire, in so far as it is subject to the Law, is to keep the real at bay; a real that none the less continues to secretly haunt this desire. This is also a way of saying that desire is a defence against the drive.

Freud, however, saw the impossibility of educating the drives. It seemed to be linked to loss – especially what infants experience as the lost love of the loved object. In Civilization and Its Discontents, it is the fear of losing such love that forges the superego – the agency through which desire is sidestepped in favour of jouissance; this perhaps explains why reason has no purchase on neurosis.

These threads and their significance for the place of the body in psychoanalysis emerge in the way that Lacan re-thought the notion of trauma. As mentioned earlier, his idea was to see the signifier as the cause of jouissance – itself the location of trauma. Thus, the master signifier is not just a necessary step for what is thought of as “normality”, but a repetition engendered by early trauma.

It’s interesting then that the suffering arising from such mysteries of the speaking body are seen as biological and or social dysfunction, when they can be more correctly be seen as new forms of discontent treated by modes which aim to elide the unconscious. In this sense, not much has changed in the century or so that has passed since the Wolf Man records that psychiatrists sought redress for the mental and emotional from the physical – and sought to persuade the patient his trouble was due to a functional disorder of the nervous system. Psychiatry, the Wolf Man writes, derives everything from the physical, the somatic, not the unconscious. This is what the idea of the Paternal Metaphor corrects – by moving from anthropological myth to metaphoric process, we are squarely within the field of the unconscious. The unconscious, in a sense, is soma.

The terrain though is complicated, not just by the newer forms of gender identification literally marking the body but also by what Soler calls body techniques. She cites primal scream, gymnastics and yoga, pointing out that they are techniques of the signifier whose essence is to make you get in step, make the body fit to an order. Psychoanalysis, however, while it is in a physical therapy, it’s not one that makes one get in step that is, unless you see giving up the self-deception that is excess jouissance as getting in step.

The step that is required, at least for neurotics, is to stop fooling yourself. Or, as Zizek puts it, stop enjoying your symptom. This involves giving up jouissance; tricky when you consider that while the Law (jouissance is prohibited to he who speaks) appears to be the foundation for such a step, “it’s not the law itself that bars access to jouissance”.

It is pleasure that forms a barrier to jouissance, an almost natural barrier because, in her desire, the subject remains attached to what is agreeable. She does this by observing the limit to the excess in pleasure that constitutes said jouissance, a dimension whose pleasure includes horror, a horror signalled in particular by an upsurge in anxiety.

We hear a lot about anxiety today. For Lacan, it was the only emotion that didn’t lie. Why? Because it signals something in the real, something that wends its way into the symbolic – into inter-diction, what is said in the interval between the signifiers that form the symbolic chain.

In one of the many letters he wrote to his second analyst, Ruth Mack Brunswick, the Wolf Man captures the dilemma which still characterising the body-mind divide in mental health: “Is one,” he says, “not at times somehow forced to act contrary to the reality principle so as to escape from the overwhelming pressure of the unconscious? I mean, one says to oneself: Is it better to transform an inner conflict into an outer one since it is sometimes easier to master a difficult real situation than to keep repressing certain unconscious complexes”. American writer William Maxwell puts it even more directly. Identifying memory as a form of inventive story-telling, he says: “Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to re-arrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past, we lie with every breath we draw.”

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    BORN ASTRIDE THE GRAVE: THE BODY OF CASTRATION IN TRAUMA AND THE SIGNIFIER