Anthropogenèse, Uncategorized

Times in therapy : attention to social and moral spaces as fields of (im)possibilities

Text in pdf : Clémence Ortega Douville – Times in therapy


We would like now to adress another issue that was merely implied in our earlier work. We talked then about the moral laws and how our learning them drives us to adapt to our social environment. The latter is based on a network of significations. It is rule-based and it is effective on every level of the constitution of our identity as human beings.

In his book about psychosis What is madness ?, psychoanalyst Darian Leader evokes anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’ assumption that language induces a system of division and contrast, of difference, that shapes humans’ experience. Yet it also then ‘impoverishes’ our empirical reality.

This happens ‘in the sense that the reality was broken down into units and sets of units that could be conceived as distinct’.1 Instead of a continuous flow of experience, we evolve through a perception of time and space that is marked. We are surrounded by objects that are symbolically charged.

It supposes that this symbolic order introduces a negativity in our experience of reality, a distance from its supposed immediacy. Then, ‘entering the symbolic means accepting the rules and conventions of society, together with the prohibitions and limits necessary for it to function, which will have effects on the body itself’.

If Sigmund Freud himself referred to libido as the sexual energy of the body when adressing these prohibitions, we are much more interested here in the connections it could share with the paradox of our theoretical research. That is the paradox of the impossible identification to the hands that are both myself and the objet I intend to act toward at the same time.

Introducing Jacques Lacan’s work on the ‘imaginary identification’ with the infant’s own body, Darian Leader reminds us of the idea that the unity of this image had first to be found outside themselves. It is perceived through the body of another person, should it be another child’s or their own reflection in a mirror.

In fact, according to psychologist James Baldwin’s statement, ‘the constitution of the human ego is simultaneously the constitution of the alter ego. We are both lost and found in the mirror image. […] Identifying with the image promises to unify us, yet never entirely delivers, as the very thing that gives us unity takes it away.’2

The risk of being stuck in the duality of the mirror image is to annul and autodestruct both parties. That is why Jacques Lacan introduced the idea of a Third Party, which generally is the mother’s eye. The fascination of me seeing myself in the mirror is counterbalanced by a meaning given to the existence of my body by this third party. For example, my mother saying that I have ‘my grand-father’s eyes’. It relates the fragmented elements of my body to a symbolic network formed by my family and social environment.

The fascination for the image is moved onto this connection to the others. Then I learn to make my body’s existence and behaviour acceptable to them and to the moral rules they pertain to.

The connection we make with our theory here is that one paradox like the impossibility of being the hand I see and the hand that does at the same time lead the subject to consider another object : the hand that acts. In the sense that it opened a scene to action, into spaces that became dependent on what I can do. The imaginary action, phantasised, then comes to preceed the feasable action and its achievement.

Hence, if anything happens to appear impossible for me to do because I’m prevented from doing it by an external force, what happens to those spaces ? How does the authority of something or someone else than me have an impact on me and on my doing ? And how space as well as the possibility of my action inside it are marked by the trauma of this impact ?

The issue we would like to tackle here is that then space is not neutral. There are several spaces that are interconnected because they share a common cultural affiliation. But they imply different possibilities and laws that rule what is acceptable as a behavior for the individual in society. Altogether, they give form to a general personal landscape that is shaped by the acceptation of what is possible or impossible for me to do in each of these social spaces.

I won’t be likely to behave the same way at home with my family, than at work or in the street toward people who are not intimate to me. To an extreme extent in most cases of psychosis for example, those intimate to me may not even be aware of the obsessive ideas that are prominent in my life. In the case of quiet psychosis, their delusional system of thinking doesn’t always impair the person’s ability to maintain stability in everyday life, and often goes unnoticed.

Yet in the cases of psychosis, it seems that this mental landscape we were talking about had narrowed itself down. It came to the point that to the person every one of these spaces tend to respond to the same general rule : that it might be a source of aggression toward them. Then the person has to prevent this narrowing symbolic environment to shrink onto them and absorb them.

The capacity to introduce a distance between them and this image of themselves hasn’t proved strong enough to stop the confusion between the two, assimilating the world to their phantasy at the same time. However by doing so, it still happens that they try to give meaning to this delusional relationship to their environment.

We won’t enter further here into the question of psychosis in itself, for which we refer to Darian Leader’s work you would find more details of in his book. But we would like to linger on the connection between those spaces we talked about and the time of therapy, as well as the times in therapy.

If those spaces are marked with traumas, whatever are their force, they may act like blockers, black spots on this landscape of possibilities the individual might be able to work with. There are times in therapy as well as there are most of those spaces to absorb and eventually, to let go of if they don’t prove sound to the person. Those spaces and their social constitution may happen to be a source of violence, that is always connected to an impossibility to express what needs to be free to express.

To be on a crowed underground train, even if people around you are not likely to attack, may remind you how much you feel unconfortable with intimacy and the possibility of being touched by somebody else. At the same time, your capacity to fully engage in life and to take decisions toward other people may be impaired by the fear of authority. And the latter may take its source in your anguishing over a split in the relationship with your father if you ever come to confront him with a divergent opinion.

Then, fear is symbolic and locates in the small details. Your whole environment is penetrated with, for example, this interpration that to get to be touched by someone on your body is going to cause damage to your relationship with your father. Because you’re afraid of being parted from the source of authority he represents, and because being touched by someone else would be a divergent opinion of him not being the center of your moral world.

This is an example to say that social spaces are penetrated by the same fears that prevent the individual from having a better relationship with their reality. Those spaces are not neutral. Most of them are even not that sane and most of them are inherently violent because our societies are violent. The capacity to create spaces that are sanctuaries to the person, that allow them to be safe, secured, and then to extend the circles of these spaces may be capital to therapy.

And that is why there are times in therapy, because each space of one’s personal landscape of possibilities, of secure being, of liberty that is a moral and mutual liberty with the others in these spaces, has to be confronted to in the first place.

A trauma may be easier to confront then in time when these spaces stop being invaded by the delusional ideas it generates. But then again, it is a reciprocal process, an in-and-out dynamics that implicates the moral debts formed between the person and their surrounding.

Violence strangulates us where we are most vulnerable. In accord with Darian Leader’s idea (also expressed in their time by psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott and ethnopsychoanalyst George Devereux), one should respect the attempt of the person to protect this never communicated space they hold within, and to encourage its safe release later on.

1In Darian Leader, What is madness ?, Penguin Edition, 2011, p. 51 (Kindle Edition)

2Ibid., p. 46


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