Numéro 4 / mai 2012

Creating a new genus*

Raphael's first behavioral troubles, most notably the fact that he called himself by his older brother's name rather than by his own, appeared at the age of six.

His ninth year was marked by a physical degradation connected with a depressive episode treated by drugs and a psychotherapy that was quickly terminated by his mother with the pretext that she "didn't have the time". That same year, Raphael indicated the emergence of a first transformation that indicated a moment of fundamental rupture: "I fainted for the first time and afterwards I became intelligent." After that his physical and psychic state continued to degrade heavily until a new fainting spell at the age of fifteen, after which he was hospitalized: "I woke up too fast and I fainted."

At ten he "knew how to read", he says. For Raphael one is necessarily smarter at ten than at nine.

During the second semester of his first year of junior high, his grades dropped or became impossible to evaluate because Raphael refused all communication and all work. He remained prostrate in his chair or facing the wall. He was occasionally violent when someone else threatened to cross his territorial limits. He was also the object of catatonic episodes.

The district attorney was signaled in order that therapy might be begun anew. His admission to a Medico-Psychological Center was followed by a small improvement. He became less mute but, on the other hand, he became more violent with others and acted violently towards himself by mutilating himself with a compass.

The beginning of seventh grade was unbearable for Raphael, who immured himself in a ferocious mutism. His classmates designated him as "the crazy one who doesn't talk." In addition, Raphael refused to submit to academic work. He declared that he had stopped school in order to better devote himself to his personal interests.

When his mother was convoked by the educative team regarding the state of her son, she said, "at home, everything is fine. Raphael says that junior high stinks and that he doesn't respond so as not to burst out laughing." The next day, the psychiatrist called the house and, to her surprise, Raphael answered and addressed himself to her in a perfectly audible fashion. This telephone conversation appeared as a living demonstration that an intense followup in an adapted context – not necessarily pedagogical on account of the figure of the Master who possesses a knowledge that is unbearable for him – could help him to leave his mutism.

A subject at work

Raphael arrived at the institute at the age of fourteen. He had not been in school for six months. He remained in a position of mute refusal. He spent his time in his room, avoided all contact with residents, and ate his meals away from the group, which he judged to be too noisy. Nonetheless, in calm moments Raphael would solicit each educator in order to verify whether or not he shared his interest for nature and for animals. He established activities with a few educators in which he brought to the table a knowledge about outside objects (objet tiers).

Two conditions were required to become Raphael's partner: not being in a position of knowledge and accepting his irony. He put himself to work and deployed a delusional construction that had as its central theme "inventing the new", with animals and plants as its essential support and hybridization as its procedure. His reproductions of a new genus aimed at responding to the enigma of life and death through an attempt to create an absolute hybrid through mutations and transformations, one capable of changing genders and passing from life to death and vice versa. Raphael presented his own body as a hybrid situated on a continuum that escaped the question of sexual difference.

The psychotic subject does not have access to the symbolic tool that would permit him to situate himself as man or woman, living or dead, one that would give the world a meaning that he could share with his semblables. The delusional work constitutes an attempt to invent this tool.

From then on the work at the institute consisted in leaving a space open in which Raphael could elaborate the delusion that allowed him not to refuse the Other while simultaneously framing and attempting to logify this Other that is always in excess. "I prefer being alone, I play like a god. As soon as you arrive I mess everything up." Any positioning of the Other rubs out his presence, causing him to either retreat into mutism or remove himself from this Other's gaze. When he erases himself, it is the subject that disappears from the world. It is thus important to pay particular attention to the delusional constructions of Raphael when he emerges from his mute retreat to teach us what he knows.

Today Raphael engages in a labor of classification, researching the common traits belonging to a well-defined family, and he seeks less to explain a certain knowledge to us. Rather, he explains to us his way of organizing the world via animals and plants, which is to say through an interest that he shares with his mother. In addition, Raphael maintains that his last name, transmitted by his mother, is the translation of "nature", made up of plants and animals. He is nature when he says, for example, "as a grasshopper I get cut up alive by ants." A step is made when he dreams of becoming a "trapper", which he defines as being a "hermit living alone in a reservation that no one would ever set foot in."

In relation to what does Raphael locate himself? In relation to trees, to vegetation, or to the sun to estimate the exact time. "I'm never wrong", he says, and yet he wears a watch. His rituals and his spatio-temporal landmarks seem very fragile, however. A schedule change effectively disturbs the organization of his day and he no longer remembers the colors associated with each day of the week. Riding the bus on the side to which he is not accustomed, which means having a different view out the window, and thus “changing countrysides”, brings him to an unknown city.

When Raphael encounters an unknown plant species he picks a leaf, a flower or a fruit that he shows to his mother, who most often has the answer to the enigma. The maternal figure appears here as a complete, all-powerful Other: she knows everything and wants to know everything. Raphael once let slip: "My master... mother." Raphael treats this limitless maternal jouissance to which he is constantly exposed in his own way and with the signifiers that he has at his disposal. His mother requires also of him the donation of small pieces of his body such as his nails and his hair, called "phaneres"1, which mark the impossible separation between him and his mother. Here, Raphael delivers to her a piece of nature rather than a piece of his body.

"My mother wanted a girl"

Raphael declares himself to be "bi". Indeed, his gender position oscillates according to the sex of his partner. With men, Raphael seems to occupy a passive, feminine position. He opposes no resistance to the bodily approaches of another boy and invites him to call him "my pet". He tells the story of a "cute" younger boy's attempt to seduce him, which he ignored, not interested but finding the scene "funny." On the other hand, around girls, Raphael says things that he himself qualifies as "sexist": "I can't lose against a girl... I didn't know that girls had the right to complain." He recounts with humor a very short relationship with a young lady that was limited to the TV room: "It was like that, just to see. We just kissed some. We had a good time. I want to be single, love doesn't interest me. I need to have my freedom." If the other manifests any affection for him, Raphael either renders this speech non-signifying – "I don't understand anything" – or shows a mordant irony by saying with a big smile to the young lady, for example, "Aren't you going to ask me your usual question? Did I miss you? Well, no!" On the other hand, he accords a certain importance to the signifier "compatibility" that is more a question of coincidence than of magical thinking: "We think the same thing at the same time so we're compatible... I think of you and by chance you arrive." Raphael is aware of the similarities that he might share with women: the same mimics, the same speech. Sometimes he uses a high-pitched and mannered voice when he puts on his "woman's coat". Without irony he arrived one day wearing this same coat and uttered: "I'm ready." In this Push-to-the-Woman, Raphael reproduces the maternal desire to have a daughter.

Raphael insisted one day in showing me the portrait of an educator: "He looks like a woman. He looks like my mother. He has a deep voice." The voice-object transforms man into woman and animal into man. Raphael explained to me that if the vocal cords of chimpanzees were to tighten this race of monkeys would become the equal of man, even surpass and enslave him. "Nature evolves every day," he says. Sometimes he uses peculiar voices. In fact, it happens sometimes that he uses a high-pitched voice to make his announcements over the intercom; he even plans to use his grandmother's voice. Instead of coming to ask me in person to make a cake with him he calls me anonymously on the loudspeaker or goes through the voice of someone else who becomes his spokesperson.

His relationship with beauty

It was while walking along an avenue lined with the trees whose Latin root he had looked up (nearly unpronounceable and non-signifying for him) and whose genus he had attempted to situate via the the shape and the color of the trunk and the leaves that he spoke to me for the first and last time of his father: "I'm grand [tall] and beau [handsome]. My mother told me. My father is short and ugly. He has a beard. My mother showed me a photo. I saw him once when I was twelve years old but I don't remember anything about him anymore."

One day, while deciphering the license plate numbers that marked the identity of the vehicles, Raphael reduced the bond that united his family to the systematic presence of the letter "i" in the first name of each of the family members, a bond that excluded his "real father", he specified2.

Raphael seems reduced to the signifier "beau” transmitted by his mother but his search for le beau [abstract beauty], even his encounters with the beautiful, testify to the work, the displacement that he realizes on objects. He likes to write beautiful letters like those that he learns at school. He would like to have a macaw, a parrot that is grand [big] and beau [beautiful] like him and who does not speak, above all who does not speak. More precisely, he affirms that he creates "beautiful things."

Raphael "raises" nearly dead plants that have not been cared for to bring them back to life and goes through the oversized garbage3 in the goal of recuperating abandoned objects in order to return their natural beauty to them. The letting-go of an object is an enigma for him: "I don't understand why they don't want them anymore; they're beautiful [beau] all the same." The visible defects do not alter his certitude that the objects are beautiful. He said one day: "I find lots of objects. I'm lucky. My mother says that Libras find lots of things. She's right." Raphael fulfills the words of his mother that push him to pick up these objects in the street, objects that, as soon as they appear to him, constitute a sign. Does not the restoration [restauration] of objects abandoned despite their beauty represent the restoration of the enigma of the paternal function? Here is a hypothetical reformulation: "I don't understand why he doesn't want me anymore when I'm still beau."

Raphael feeds [il restaure] the others by having them taste his culinary creations, his intriguing fat-free, sugar-free, original concoctions: "Taste and guess what's inside!" What counts for him is taking a recipe – which one matters little – and modifying it by replacing one ingredient with another: flour for bread, milk for crême fraîche or yogurt... For Raphael, everything is of equal value. It must only be "beau et nature” like him4.

Raphael makes "beautiful drawings". The female body fascinates him. What interests him in women is being able to draw them. When I ask what his drawing specialty is he responds categorically: "breasts". They are drawn imposingly in the image. The representation of women evolves noticeably in his practice and appears as an ideal to attain: from mermaids, mythical beings with fish tails, he moves on to women with the eyes of fish, and then to women whose bodies are represented entirely, better and better proportioned. He said: "It took me at least a year to draw a woman like I wanted to. I didn't have the technique. Ah, women are complicated!" In the passage from the animal register to the human it is the gaze with the eyes of fish that persists. Faced with a book exposing the techniques for representing the male body, Raphael stares at the intimate parts and says: "I've never succeeded in drawing a man, especially the back." He immediately takes refuge in works illustrating fish, which seems to reassure him: "This is super easy."

At the pool, Raphael sometimes complains about his heart, which “hurts and makes the noise of a fish”. Like a fish in the water, Raphael slides from one identification to another following the signifiers that present themselves to him. Speech that is too heavily loaded with signification finds its index in his body. Raphael looks continually for links of cause and effect. A burn on his wrist justifies the fact that he no longer drinks water. Chocolate suppresses all of his anxieties. Garlic repels vampires and sickness. Every problem has its solution. Alone, faced with the real, Raphael seizes a word, a signifier that slips metonymically and inscribes itself in his body.

A knowledge that can be exchanged

How are we to help Raphael assure himself of some continuity when enigmas irrupt in the real? By presenting oneself as an “incomplete” partner deprived of absolute knowledge and by looking with him for a possible response to these enigmas and by appealing to an external reference object such as a book, a documentary, or the internet, which empties out the enunciative presence5.

His knowledge of nature and his love of beauty come to him from his mother. But the particular usage that Raphael makes of them, such as his etymological research or the transformation and invention of objects unique in their genus, displaces and disperses these determinant maternal signifiers onto objects of all sorts which create a social bond. Indeed, workshop participation and the establishment of outside activities pluralize the points of address and ensure the exchange of a knowledge that can come from an Other, a knowledge that can be transmitted to the other through a third object that regulates, in turn, the circulation of his body.


* The French word “genre” can signify either “genus”, “gender”, or “genre”, depending on the context.




1Phanere” is a French word which refers to any visible epidermic protrusion, such as hair, feathers, nails, or teeth. In the unconscious, the penis has the status of a phanere.

2Raphael is not his real name.

3In France, large trash such as old furniture is separated from normal trash and put out on a designated day.

4Raphael is conflating two different meanings of the French adjective "nature", which means “earthy” or “natural” when describing a person and "unflavored" or "plain" when describing food, as in "riz nature" for "white rice".

5In other words, authority is shunted away from the massive presence of the educator and towards an abstract Symbolic Other.