Numéro 7 / octobre 2012

The symptom and the social

I am going to tell you about Robert, a young psychotic who has, since the recent death of his grandmother, been availing himself of our institution in order to try and regain a livable bond with the other, a bond that would not depend on the father1. Currently, our institution is for him a laboratory where he can experiment with the new version of the social bond that he is creating.

Domino Effect

When Robert was three years old – he is now nineteen – his mother committed suicide by defenestration. Her three children, including Robert, were present when it happened, and the fact that it was never again spoken of in the family made her disappearance radically permanent. Afterwards, the paternal grandmother joined the household to help the father in the task of bringing up the children. "She's the one who raised me", Robert would later say. The father was, retroactively (dans l'après-coup), in no way implicated.

This father was nonetheless useful for Robert in a first period, one that lasted until the death of his grandmother. A gardener by training, he worked as a warehouse guard and voluntarily spent his free time patrolling the neighborhood public parks with a dog. Robert, who was living in an institution during the week because, after all, things were not going so well at home, took from his father the signifier "gardener" and signed up for a horticulture class at school. This support that he found in an ordinary paternal signifier was redoubled by a pulsional modeling in which he identified with his father as pure gaze. In the institution he made himself the watchman who walked around, who saw everything, who reported to the director what was out of place and who, in this role of guardian with an imprecise but implacable mission, displayed a very precise spatial mapping. There was, however, one lone scotoma in this transparent world of his, a blind spot which concerned transparency itself: glass did not form a limit and he would occasionally try to grab objects that were behind glass. At other moments the world's opacity concentrated itself in the weight of the other's gaze, at which point he would "lose it".

But Robert more or less got along until the age of 18 thanks to this little coupling to his father, which prevented the violent irruption of his psychosis. The death of his grandmother turned everything upside down. He fell behind at school and when a teacher signaled to him that he would need an "excuse made of concrete"2 to justify his absences, he concluded that they would be waiting for him with a cinder block in order to smash in his skull. His father was not doing much better: he had begun drinking heavily and stopped answering the telephone, which was persecuting him. Note here that Robert's breakdown was less a reaction to the death of his grandmother than an echo or a response to his father's breakdown. The fragile edifice held up by the real presence of his grandmother collapsed in a domino effect. Robert was beaten at home. This was a crucial moment for him: the father, in his role of support for Robert's ideal characteristics, collapsed. He said: "I argued with my father and he hit me. He was drunk...ever since my grandmother died...I don't like anyone who gets down on his hands and knees. He could have done better. Before, he was serious. Now he's not serious anymore...for me, he's become a stranger." And Robert could only radically break any symbolic link he had with him3.


From this moment on, we witnessed a veritable mutation of the social bonds that had tied him to the other (or psychic bonds, which are the same thing). If the disappearance of his father as a possible point of support risked ejecting him into the no man's land of the "outside-discourse", he "re-entered" society "by creating" the "fraternal". His brothers, to whom he had paid little mind before, were raised to the level of partners in a new symbolic bond. "We are on the right path"4, he said, and his father "can stay in his corner and calm down". Note that Robert was once again able to put his father to use: his marginalization allowed the brotherhood to be established in discourse. This transformation5 of the "adelphos", whose bond was purely biological, into "frater", whose bond was symbolic, allowed them, from that moment on, to count (for) each other.

What seems particularly instructive to us is that what sprung up when the grandmother died was not a subjective state or a symptom in the classical sense of the term. Neither was it a state of sadness, of self-reproach or some other avatar of grieving. What sprung up was rather a re-placing, a recasting, a re-handling of the social space as such. The verticalized orientation that was tied to his grandmother's presence collapsed with her disappearance. The father, who until then could maintain himself as symbolically propped up by the speech of his mother, collapsed. For the son, Robert, he became the "drunk idiot on his hands and knees", a brother deposed from the brotherhood.












The subjective atopia into which the grandmother's death risked dragging her grandson was opposed by a veritable social neo-creation, a mode of fastening the subject to the fraternal bond. The "we" ("on") of the brotherhood became Robert's place of enunciation. This passage of his ego into the brotherhood allowed him to sidestep the foreclosed place of the father. From this moment on, it was from here, this place of fraternal partnership, that he convoked us, the place of "friend" that we absolutely had to accept for the dialogue to be maintained.


That the fraternal relation as a new version of the social can here intervene as "regulating" an abolished parental relation indicates that the social is in no way a given, a destiny, a stage (scène) that determines the limits within which the expression of the symptom must be inscribed. Rather, it is the very place where the symptom is fabricated. The "social fabric" is the material of unconscious knowledge, and this is the reason why Freud considers the very idea of a proper object of sociology to be problematic6.

If the social object is an unconscious object, the place of application as well as implication of the unconscious, let us conceive of it from the point of view of its use-value, its construction-value (valeur d'appareillage). It is the place where the impossible concordance of jouissance and language is deposited in discourse, is sedimented.

Conceiving of the versions of the social according to their use-value has an ethical consequence for the social worker: a refusal of hierarchization, a refusal of the norm, a refusal to subordinate the possible versions to the totemic standard. He must know their value. The Name-of-the-Father effectively does not escape from this notion of use, and its privileged erection in social reality must not mask what this presence owes to myth, not to mention religion It can be argued that psychotics have lost the war in the social in the sense that the dominant social symptom remains neurosis, which condemns them, in a way, to a continuous effort to protect themselves against the injunction to refer themselves to an abolished paternal instance7. It would be cruel to submit psychotic alterity to its norm.

Let us take up that term used so often by Lacan, "psychoticized", which indicates, among other things, that there is no "natural" psychosis; one is psychotic in comparison with something else. Lacan made this “something else” pivot, in 1956, around the Name-of-the-Father, which gave us a negative definition of psychosis -- the psychotic doesn't have this name at his disposal. And, very quickly, a misunderstanding crept into the approach of the psychoticized subject, a misunderstanding that consisted in interpreting the psychotic's distress as a demand for the Name-of-the-Father. Although a negative definition of psychosis (the only universalizable form that Lacan wanted to assign to psychosis) permitted no definition of what was, positively, the organization of the psychotic structure, his approach risked being always referred to the yardstick of castration, to a lack, a deficiency, even a deficit.

Next we had the Lacan of the 70's who, without exploding the structural barrier between neurosis and psychosis, universalized the clinical concept of the delusion. This "delusion" was that artifact that every subject had to create in order to connect himself through speech (s'apparoler) to the apparatus (appareil) of jouissance8, a trans-structural task permitting no hierarchization between standard Name-of-the-Father type knottings and the others. This very promising approach rigorously situates the question of the names-of-the-father at the level of the cause and of their use-value (bricolaging "being") whereas a clinical approach centered on the Name-of-the-Father always introduces whiffs of teleology. This Name-of-the-Father effectively risks functioning as an object through which the social smuggles itself into the clinic and evades judgment.

A certain number of questions that we see come up very often regarding our work with psychotics is indicative of this state of things. These questions resonate, for example, in the discussions about the setting in which the welcome takes place (face-to-face, lying down...) or in the questions about the end-results of the encounter (are we aiming at elaborating the delusion, for example?). These questions, as interesting as they are, nonetheless displace the properly psychoanalytic approach somewhat by introducing questions of identity (what are we vis-a-vis the psychotic? Analysts? Therapists?) or end-result questions (psychosynthetic, in a way).

This properly psychoanalytic approach consists, and I cite Freud, in studying, in approaching "die psychischen Vorgänger bei ihrer Entstehung", the psychic processes on the level of their irruption. This level of irruption, place of the disintrication of drive, is obviously very far from everything that would be on the order of integration, adaptation, synthesis, an order that Freud excludes from the domain of the psychoanalyst. He poses here a veritable limit on the field of psychoanalytic action. Thus he writes to Pfister: "You are looking for synthesis without a previous analysis. In the psychoanalytic technique, there is no need for a special work of synthesis; as to that, the individual sees to it better than we can"9. Beyond the question that the subject poses regarding the causality of the symptom, the analyst has to abstain [from answering], has to leave the subject his liberty in the orientation of his desires. This ethical principal of neutrality – said to be benevolent, even though this qualification appears nowhere in Freud, even though Freud refuses to claim that he wants what is best for the patient – prohibits any vectorization of the work and knots the cause of the subject to the desire of the analyst, inasmuch as it is a "desire of obtaining absolute difference"10

This principal guides our action in the neurotic's cure. What about for the psychoses? Let us state, in effect, that the work regularly crosses the limit of a neutrality emptied of any position taken. The situation of the psychotic subject – always close to a sucking hole11 – sometimes necessitates that we take a strong position, issue the clearest warnings, even set the most determined of limits. It would, however, be false to confuse these acts of cutting-out – they are always of the order of a subtraction, of a "less" aimed at producing a field for the subject rather than incitements – with an operation of synthesis; it is separation and not integration or adaptation that is operated and aimed for.


To conclude, I would like to return to what the work of Robert teaches us. It demonstrates that there is an incontestable social newness in psychosis. Faced with the psychotic who "works on the social" and who cannot content himself with a mythical, paternal response to the question of jouissance, the social worker must demonstrate a certain modesty, a modesty that does not found itself so much on a rationalist, democratic position advocating a generalized relativism but one that is the sign of that availability to which he accedes when he has isolated how his own values and norms serve and concern a jouissance, one that is not generalizable. What the reference to the Good obscures is the dimension of the use of the Name-of-the-Father to make of it, quite simply and with the best intentions in the world, the natural but thus ferociously imperialistic benchmark of any human edifice.





1This expose was presented at the colloquium on "The Ferocity of the Social", Journées de L'EaT, April 23, 1999.

2Translator's note: “an excuse made of concrete” is a common French euphemism for “a valid excuse”. I have translated it literally because this is how Robert hears it.

3We specify that this is not the moment his psychosis declared itself, situated well earlier. What is at question here is a rejection of the father as support for those traits compensating for the foreclosure of his Name.

4Translator's note: "Nous, on est droit/trois dans le chemin" – there is a near homophony between the words "straight/right" and "three". This sentence thus means, at the same time, "there are three of us on the path" and "we are on the right path".

5A purely discursive transformation: Robert in no way increased contact with his brothers, which was already very slight before their promotion in his speech.

6See Freud: "Sociology, which deals with the behavior of men in society, can be nothing other than an applied psychology. Strictly speaking, there are only two sciences: psychology, pure and applied, and physics". (New Introductory Lectures in Psychoanalysis, lecture XXXV) This citation shows that for Freud, the real of the unconscious is at play the for the entire field that falls outside of the real in the physical sense. The social or the family does not thus receive a hybrid or intermediary status between "reality" and the unconscious, nor that of "decor" in which the genesis of the subject finds a stage, but is the very place of the unconscious, of its application and implication. That "there is no originary, indivisible, social drive" (Freud) is a position that is shared by certain sociologists (such as R. Aron, "On the historic condition of sociology, Inaugural lesson at the College de France, given on December 1, 1970", NRF Gallimard, 1971, p. 34: "As long as the psychologist or the philosopher has not defined the nature of man, socialization (...) remains a neutral concept, descriptive of an observable process.")

7C. Calligaris, Pour une clinique differentielle des psychoses, Point Hors Ligne, 1991, p. 32.

8J. Lacan, Le Seminaire, Livre XVII, L'Envers de la psychanalyse, Seuil, 1991, p. 57.

9S. Freud, "Psychoanalysis and Faith: the Letters of Sigmund Freud and Otto Pfister", Basic, 1963.

10J. Lacan, Les quatres concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse, Seuil, 1973, p. 248.

11We are here thinking of the "panic hole" (Ecrits, p. 564) of foreclosure, a hole that Lacan, around 1956, thinks of as a funnel-shaped hole, such the maelstrom of Edgar Allan Poe.