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Absence as desire and "presence" as foreclosure: A psychoanalytic exploration of clinical phenomena, contemporary culture, and science fiction films

Dissertation
Author: Banu Kevser Seckin
Abstract:
This dissertation argues that one can witness a trend, both in clinical work and in contemporary culture, which can be characterized as an intolerance of absence and an insistence on presence . The term absence is used to refer to a mental state that is difficult to bear in and of itself, for it implies a real or an imagined lack, loss; an imperfection. One can transform absence into a creative space out of which new meanings and links emerge, or one can deny experiences of absence to ensure its immediate concrete replacement, thus can constantly restore presence. In psychoanalytic theory, the former is seen as an act of meaning making, symbolization, and the latter as the destruction of meaning, an instance of de-symbolization. Through a review of classical and contemporary psychoanalytic theorizing on symbolization, it is first argued that tolerance for experiences of absence is critical for the creation of a symbolizing mind. Then, it is demonstrated how de-symbolization is not only a clinical phenomenon, but a current thread running through the clinical, social, and cultural realms. It is then pointed out how temporal, spatial, and phenomenological experiences of absence are shrinking in the contemporary Western world, which is captured by the characteristics of Postmodernism. The interaction between this ethos and psyche is commented on in an attempt to state the confluence of the primeval unconscious wishes and the demands of current way of life. The vortex of this interaction, recent dramatic changes in technology, especially in terms of how they affect the human body and subjectivity is underlined. Through the discussion of three science fiction films, Blade Runner, Total Recall, and The Matrix, it is posited that characteristics of Postmodernism and the cultural trend of doing away with experiences of absence persist in these fantasized futures as well. Finally, the implications for psychoanalytic theory and practice are discussed.

vii Table of Contents

Abstract iii

Acknowledgments v

On ABSENCE and PRESENCE 1

PART I-WITHIN THE CONSULTING ROOM

The Man Who Does Not Want to Know too Much 5

The Nature of Psychic Reality 8

The Role of Experience of Absence in Symbolization, 10 or in the Access to Psychic Reality

Classical Psychoanalytic Views on Symbolization 15

Contemporary Psychoanalytic Views on Symbolization 35

PART II- BEYOND THE CONSULTING ROOM

Introduction 48

I-The Postmodern World

Postmodernism-a historical evolution 51

Postmodernism -a byproduct of omnipotent media 54

Postmodernism -an imminent possibility 57

Postmodernism -the unconscious housed in a new era 60

On the Interaction between Ethos and Psyche 65

Dilution of Experiences of Absence in an Enhanced World 66

…and Some Pieces of News from the World of Technology 73

viii

II-Tomorrow’s World

Introduction 78

Postmodernism’s Science Fiction 81

A Fantasized Future 83

The “Weaver’s Masterpiece” 85

On Method: Applied Psychoanalysis 87

Blade Runner 90

Total Recall 96

The Matrix 103

PART III- WITHIN AND BEYOND THE CONSULTING ROOM: MAKING ABSENCE MATTER

Where does Tyrell’s Owl Take Us 112

Scanty Subject of Times of Plenty 115

Can Psychoanalysis Stop the Bullets from Within and Without in Mid-Air 120

Psychoanalysis as the Guardian of Absence and Provider of the Psychic Shield 124

Epilogue 130

Appendix 132

Bibliography 134

1

This is why I have tried to think of God in terms of desire, a desire that can not be fulfilled or satisfied…In this sense, our desire for God is without end or term: it is interminable and infinite because God reveals himself as absence rather than presence. Levinas, Ethics and Infinity

Nostalgia carries the desire, less for an unchanging eternity than for always fresh beginnings. Pontalis, Windows

Ah, the knowledge of impermanence, that haunts our days is their very fragrance Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, XXVII

On ABSENCE and PRESENCE

This dissertation argues that one can witness a trend, both in clinical work and in contemporary culture, which can be characterized as an intolerance of absence and an insistence on presence. A psychoanalytic exploration of this issue is found worthwhile with the hope that this conceptualization of absence and presence will constitute a beginning discussion around forming a new psychological language that will shed some light on this intriguing interaction between what is within and what is beyond the consulting room.

2 The term absence is used to refer to a mental state that is difficult to bear in and of itself, for it implies a real or an imagined lack, loss; an imperfection. It is an impingement on, or a disruption of one’s narcissistic equilibrium -that sense of well being, whatever it might be, for a given person. We all, including our patients, want to do away with the painful, anxiety provoking experience of absence all the time. However, there are different ways to survive it. One would be to transform absence into a creative, life-bearing potential space out of which new meanings and links emerge in time. Acknowledgment of one’s desire for what is missing enables this transformation. Alternatively one can deny experiences of absence, or ensure its immediate concrete replacement, thus can constantly restore presence. In this case acknowledgment of desire for what is missing is intolerable. In the framework of psychoanalytic theory, the former is seen as an act of meaning making, symbolization, and the latter as the destruction of meaning, a foreclosure, an instance of de-symbolization. The first argument of this dissertation is a clinical one. In Part I, entitled Within the Consulting Room, using the ideas of several psychoanalytic thinkers and relevant case material, it will be argued that instances of de-symbolization become the dominant mental mode in some of our patients who can’t tolerate experiences of absence. We are living in times of presence. The technological advances of our time, especially in the area of internet communication, enable us to be anywhere, any time, as anyone, and with anybody. This virtual world transcends the constraints of the

3 material world, doing away with a number of instances of absence we might have experienced otherwise. The medical advances, especially in the area of genetics and biotechnology, promise further doing away with any lack, loss, or imperfection. Today’s Zeitgeist of Postmodernism itself opts for a perpetual presence, obviating experiences of absence, through pressing for immediacy, co-existence, multiplicity, blurring now-then, here-there, surface-depth, object-subject, and fantasy-reality distinctions. As an offshoot from these observations, in looking at a snippet of our popular culture, science-fiction films depicting tomorrow’s worlds, one witnesses that experiences of absence are done away with in these “imagined” futures as well. Hence, in Part II, entitled Beyond the Consulting Room, it will be discussed that expelling experiences of absence is a recurrent theme both in our contemporary culture, and in our “projected”/“imagined” cultures of the future as depicted in science-fiction films. The second argument of the dissertation is about the interaction of ethos and psyche. It will be demonstrated from the material discussed in Part I that tolerance of experiences of absence is an important contributor of a symbolizing mind. In Part II it will be pointed out that there is a trend both in contemporary culture and the fantasized future cultures of science fiction towards doing away with experiences of absence. In this light how psyche and culture mutually influence and shape one another will be discussed. One can then hypothesize that this cultural mode of functioning may gradually be refracted in private psyches in time also towards a

4 declining value and utility of symbolizing in the psychoanalytic sense, which is synonymous with looking in and self-reflection. This conjecture will be taken up in Part III, through a discussion of the important implications of such a shift for the fate of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy.

5

PART I WITHIN THE CONSULTING ROOM

The Man Who Does Not Want to Know too Much

In recent years “difficult” patients who psychoanalytic clinicians encounter in their work have become a topic of growing theoretical and clinical interest. Numerous perplexing instances often seem to form the ground out of which various therapeutic difficulties such as impasses, enactments, drop outs, and even premature terminations spring. These moments are described in the literature in terms of a patient’s pervasive mental rigidity, concrete thinking, affective turbulence, somatic complaints, and use of defense mechanisms centering around splitting. Such patients, for whom these issues are dominant, display being bound to external reality to such an extent that the links between external reality and the internal, psychic reality seem to be severed. Despite these patients’ often above average intellectual functioning coupled with strong verbal competence, the therapist’s efforts to draw attention to or comment on the abolished links usually turn out to be futile, leaving her/him with feelings of confusion, frustration, and incompetence. In her panel report on psychic reality Denzler (1996) mentions how Grossman (1996) describes this clinical phenomena as a “perverse attitude to reality”, where these patients avoid testing the reality of their

6 perceptions. According to him, these patients possess a reality sense, but refuse to use it. Denzler adds that analysts like Mc Dougall and Amati-Mehler (1996) conceptualize this refusal to know as motivated by the severe anxiety the painful reality induces, and they view it as an attempt at self-healing. For instance Ellman (1998) in his discussion of enactments gives the following example. “A patient, whose father abandoned her and her mother when she was four and a half, had to leave the session early to avoid my ending the session, which for her had traumatic implications. It took her several years to understand the meaning of this action.” Fonagy, Moran, Edgcumbe, Kennedy, and Target (1991) discuss this phenomenon in terms of “inhibition” of mental processes, where a whole class of mental representations appears to be absent from a patient’s mental functioning. These mental processes often remain “inhibited/unutilized” throughout childhood, and its implications can first be encountered powerfully in adult clinical work. Fonagy et al. conceptualize this inhibition as an attempt of the individual to protect his/her mental functioning from very painful and conflicted mental representations. In other words, these patients try to prevent the mental devastation of unmanageable feelings by disengaging or inhibiting some of their mental processes, which generate such conflicts and affects. Steiner (1993), from a Kleinian perspective, talks about patients who, “habitually, excessively, and indiscriminately” turn to “psychic retreats”, states of mind in which the patient is stuck, cut off, and out of reach. He observes that these patients also display a failure to relinquish omnipotent control of their objects. Steiner

7 thinks a psychic retreat is a defensive organization to avoid intolerable anxiety. According to him these patients are not interested in understanding, and prefer to hold contradictory versions of reality to evade experiences of loss. Steiner says only mourning and acknowledgment of loss can reverse the intense projective identification these patients are engaged in, which denies the differentiation of self and the object. Bach (2002) talks about patients who complain they have difficulties with thinking, emotions, and bodily functioning such as obsessive thoughts, constant confusion, mood irregularities, irregular breathing etc. Bach describes such a patient of his as follows. “…Bob once casually mentioned that as an adolescent whenever he borrowed the family car his father insisted that he never move the seat adjustment. Since the father at that time was a good head taller than Bob, Bob learned to drive while barely able to see over the hood of the car and he continued to drive like that for many years. …In fact it was not until Bob was in analysis and his wife remarked on his peculiar way of driving that this became conscious…Bob’s position of being scrunched down in his driver’s seat was also a model for how he was scrunched down both in his emotional life and in his thinking” (Bach, 2002, p.391-392 ) Bach gives couple of more examples. “... a patient who even as a young child was accustomed to waking, dressing, and feeding herself and then trying to awaken her drunken mother before going to school. It came as a great surprise for her to learn, many years later, that other children didn’t have to shake their mothers awake, but were instead awakened and cared for by their mothers. Similarly, another patient, when asked how

8 he got to sleep as a child insisted that it was just like everyone else. Whenever he happened to feel tired, he went up to his room, turned on the TV, and watched till he fell asleep. When he awoke in the morning, the TV would still be blaring. He was quite surprised to learn that most small children of his background were put to bed by their parents at a regular time, often with a book or a song.” (Bach, 2002, p.402) Bach sees in these adult cases children who couldn’t make sense of their parents’ mental functioning. They in a way “learned” from early on that any questioning of the parents’ attitudes is forbidden, and hence “accepted” a prohibition on thinking about thinking. Several metaphors have been used in the history of our field to describe patients and their unique struggles, such as the guilty man for neurotics and tragic man for character disorders (Kohut, 1977). These days we talk about the “difficult” patient as described above. However, there seems to be a need for a new characterization for these patients, which captures what makes them “difficult”. These patients, who do not want to know too much, are struggling with a particular aspect of mental functioning, the kind of knowing that psychoanalysts call symbolization.

The Nature of Psychic Reality

Symbolization is a mental activity that facilitates a particular type of knowing. It refers to the mind’s capacities to link, to reflect, and make meaning towards the

9 mentalization of lived experience. Symbolization enables access to the inner world, to the world of psychic reality. Psychic reality is a representation of our experience in ordinary/material reality. It is closely linked to the concept of symbolization in the sense that representation means letting go, momentarily, the thing of which it is a representation of. Psychoanalysis is a discipline that studies psychic reality and its relation to material reality. According to Etchegoyen (1996) when Freud wrote in his September 21 letter (1897) that “there are no indications of reality in the unconscious, so that one can not distinguish between truth and fiction that is cathected with affect” (Etchegoyen, 1996, p.1) this idea paved the way to the concept of psychic reality and was followed by the theory of infantile sexuality, and together with the notions of unconscious, repetition, and transference constituted the foundations of psychoanalysis. Etchegoyen first quotes Bernstein’s 1995 definition of psychic reality as “a set of experiences, emotions, and unconscious representations, personified as objects, which the ego feels to be internal and real” (Etchegoyen, 1996, p.2) and then gives his own succinct definition that “psychic reality is the theory the patient has about himself and others” (Etchegoyen, 1996, p.9) This is indeed how we understand the psychic reality of a patient’s communication, where we put aside the ordinary reality of its surface meaning. Parsons (1996) gives the following example. “A patient once told me that she would wake in the night and tell her father that she was afraid of burglars, or of dying, or of nuclear war. His angry reassurances would make her more agitated, not less”

10 (Parsons, 1996, p. 97) Parsons explains this mismatch by the father’s failing to meet her on the level, not of ordinary, but of psychic reality, where her fears have substance. He adds that psychoanalysts negate an ordinary way of thinking, and psychic reality is the level at which the work is done. Thereby, psychoanalytic efforts don’t dwell on whether burglars exist, or if nuclear war is an imminent danger or not, but on what these terrors or fears mean for the person. In this sense, psychic reality is defined by the absence of external reality, letting go of the tenacious hold on the literal or the thing in itself, which opens up the possibility to explore psychic reality.

The Role of Experience of Absence in Symbolization, or in the Access to Psychic Reality

Symbolization is about developing a creative relationship with the world. A symbol refers to the original object, however, its symbolic function depends on its being detached from it. For a child, a teddy bear is and is not the mother at the same time. Winnicott (1971) talked about this in terms of the “transitional object”, the “first possession” of the child, which is neither internal nor external, and requires an acceptance of the paradoxical coexistence of both similarity and difference. Tustin (1984) says “autistic objects” need to be differentiated from “transitional objects”. She claims “autistic objects” arise from self-induced bodily sensations (hard faeces, hard snot, insides of the cheek), or from equating the body with a hard object (a small car held tightly in the palm of the hand inseparable from the body). They are auto-

11 sensuous, allow only for “me centered” manipulations, always available, and function to avoid experiences of asymmetry, contraries, differences, lack of fit, and loss of control over the object. Fonagy and Target (1996) claim that a young child initially uses two forms of psychic reality; “psychic equivalence”, where ideas are direct replicas of reality, and believed to be always true, with no distinction between internal and external, and the “pretend mode”, facilitated by play, where ideas come to represent reality. This dual mode later integrates into a singular “reflective, mentalising” mode, where the child understands that people have different feelings and thoughts about the same external reality. They see ideas as ideas, not as facts, and can play with different points of view. Fonagy and Target state that this integration happens as a result of the child’s mental states being thought about by the parent in a reality oriented perspective. Hence, the parent serves as a scaffolding to enhance this mental development by being a step ahead of the child’s experience of his/her mind. Auerbach and Blatt (2002) state that the empirical infant research of people like Stern (1985), Gergely and Watson (1996) suggest that sharing of affective states in the process of psychological differentiation between the parent and the infant is effective insofar the parent’s responses are contingent on the infant’s affective displays, but are not exact replicas of them. They claim that the dialectic central to psychological development is the oscillation between “gratifying involvements” and “experiences of incompatibility.” It seems that the psychological attainment of having a separate mind of one’s own, thus tolerating the absence of sameness between minds, places limits

12 on the illusions of omnipotence and fusion, which in return enables transitional fantasy. A symbol is at first one with the object, but symbolization is really about being able to point to the object and move away from it as it exists in ordinary reality. Without this movement, there is no symbolization. The absence created by this movement motivates one’s desire for the restitution of what is missing -whether it is an aspect of self, an object, or an experience-, which then results in a revival of what is missing through symbolization. What makes symbolization possible is first the ability to mentally move away from the original experience and/or object in external reality, and then to be able to establish a link with a new experience and/or an object to re-present the former. For example, there is first the tolerance for the absence of the mother, and then a creative linking of the mother with the teddy bear for it to re- present the mother. However, what is described is just the initial step. In symbolization proper, this effort is not just a “symbolism” -just coming up with the teddy bear. It entails further elaboration and reflection on the absent. It is the ability to “use” the teddy bear to represent the mother in the Winnicottian sense. It is to be able display the affective component of this representation, to both cuddle and punch, as opposed to the teddy bear being just a toy. Usually the “difficult” patient falls short of symbolization proper as such, and is stuck with symbolisms. An example of this would be a patient who describes her mother as a wounded lion, but is unable to talk about why she uses this metaphor and what is its emotional significance for her.

13 Rene Magritte, a Belgian surrealist painter, often questions the validity and superiority of representational seeing in his paintings. His works emphasize equivalence in the visualization of thoughts, which speak to how these patients mostly engage with the world. Magritte’s 1964 drawing, Evening Falls, is a literal depiction of a sunset. As the evening falls, it crashes and shatters a window and the fragments of the landscape re-appear on the broken bits of glass unchanged. Please see Appendix. This painting captures these patients’ strong sense of the literal, often veiled by surface use of metaphors. This mental mode of psychic equivalence harbors strong raw negative affect and its associated thoughts that are potentially self- shattering, yet safely sealed in the concreteness of thinking. Wrye (1993) talks about patients who suffer from “disturbances in spatial experiencing.” She says these patients experience space “ as inhospitable and dangerous, feel alienated, disconnected, and distrustful. For them, the notion of potential space as an inviting playground in the presence of the other is utterly incomprehensible. Often, they attempt to fill physical and temporal space with activity and part objects to stave off the terrible void; however, whatever they use to compulsively fill space has a dead quality” (Wrye, 1993, p. 105-106) She adds that as linking is a threatening mental activity for these patients, symbols and metaphors are not used towards abstraction, hence the patients’ experience remains concrete. Wrye says these patients fight understanding symbolic meanings of their acts and concretely attack the therapeutic frame like missing sessions and refusing to pay.

14 She sees the major challenge in the work is to be able to transform the experience of the “hollow”, or absence if you will, from “deadspace” to “playspace”. It can be argued that to be able to create symbolization proper of one’s experiences, one needs to be able to move away, to disengage from holding on to external reality in a concrete manner. In other words, being able to tolerate experiences of absence really involves tolerating negative affects and being able to acknowledge one’s desire for what is missing. This acknowledgment gives one the mental space to revive what is missing in a manner open to elaboration and further meaning making. It is thus this creation of a tolerable experience of absence that fosters imagination and symbolization. In the next section first classical and then contemporary psychoanalytic views on the process of symbolization and what accounts for its failure for these “difficult” patients will be reviewed. The specific emphasis throughout this review will be to try to demonstrate how, despite the differences in their terminology, all theorists in their own ways draw attention to the importance of tolerating experiences of absence for the development of symbolization proper. Relevant case material will be included to illustrate the theoretical points.

15 Classical Psychoanalytic Views on Symbolization

Freud:

In his monumental work, “Interpretation of Dreams” (1900), where Freud outlines his model of the mind and mental functioning, he argues that the infant’s first psychic activity is wish fulfillment. He says that the infant hallucinates and produces a “perceptual identity”, which is a repetition of the perception that was linked with the satisfaction of the need. However, Freud continues to say that hallucination does not bring complete satisfaction, thus the infant turns towards the external world. At this moment he starts thinking in addition to wishing. Freud will continue to see the wish as the prime mover, not just in the formation of dreams, symptoms, and defenses, which are mostly emphasized in the literature, but also in the formation of thoughts. What is a wish? A wish -whether conscious or unconscious- emerges within absence. After all, if it was there, there would be no wishing. Wishes make one invest, or cathect to use the Freudian terminology, for their realization. In his paper, “The Unconscious” (1915), Freud says that the system Ucs contains the thing-cathexes of the objects, and the system Pcs originates in a hyper- cathexis of this concrete idea by linking it up with the words that correspond to it. It is this hyper-cathexes, Freud says that brings about a higher organization in the mind and makes it possible for the secondary process to succeed and dominate the primary process.

16 For Freud the distinction between thing and word presentation was important. It demonstrated the (topographical) transformation of mental representations that are exclusively perceptual, sensational, and motoric (system Ucs) into mental representations that are conceptual (system Pcs-Cs). This is the Freudian description of moving away from being experience bound towards what that experience stands for. It is interesting to note that Freud arrived at this distinction while discussing symptom formation in schizophrenics (concrete patient par excellence) versus neurotics. He gives the example of Tausk’s schizophrenic patient who took hours to dress. The patient was obsessed with pulling his socks properly because he was worried about drawing apart the knitted stitches i.e. creating holes. Freud also gave an example of one of his patients obsessed with squeezing blackheads on his face and then reproaching himself for ruining his face, leaving cavities. Freud’s interpretation as to what made these patients so anxious in both cases centered around the threat of castration (holes/cavities). For our purposes, it is important to pay attention to what Freud says for how these patients think. He says “a hole is a hole” is literally true for them whether it is squeezing out of a blackhead or an ejaculation from the penis. Later in Neurosis and Psychosis (1924) Freud would conceptualize psychosis as a disturbance in the relation between the ego and its environment, where the distinction between the inner and outer world is abolished and the inner reality takes over the outer reality.

Full document contains 153 pages
Abstract: This dissertation argues that one can witness a trend, both in clinical work and in contemporary culture, which can be characterized as an intolerance of absence and an insistence on presence . The term absence is used to refer to a mental state that is difficult to bear in and of itself, for it implies a real or an imagined lack, loss; an imperfection. One can transform absence into a creative space out of which new meanings and links emerge, or one can deny experiences of absence to ensure its immediate concrete replacement, thus can constantly restore presence. In psychoanalytic theory, the former is seen as an act of meaning making, symbolization, and the latter as the destruction of meaning, an instance of de-symbolization. Through a review of classical and contemporary psychoanalytic theorizing on symbolization, it is first argued that tolerance for experiences of absence is critical for the creation of a symbolizing mind. Then, it is demonstrated how de-symbolization is not only a clinical phenomenon, but a current thread running through the clinical, social, and cultural realms. It is then pointed out how temporal, spatial, and phenomenological experiences of absence are shrinking in the contemporary Western world, which is captured by the characteristics of Postmodernism. The interaction between this ethos and psyche is commented on in an attempt to state the confluence of the primeval unconscious wishes and the demands of current way of life. The vortex of this interaction, recent dramatic changes in technology, especially in terms of how they affect the human body and subjectivity is underlined. Through the discussion of three science fiction films, Blade Runner, Total Recall, and The Matrix, it is posited that characteristics of Postmodernism and the cultural trend of doing away with experiences of absence persist in these fantasized futures as well. Finally, the implications for psychoanalytic theory and practice are discussed.