Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

  • Mood:
  • Music:

The Utility of Post-Lacanian Psychoanalytic Concepts

My friend Joe Lockard sent a message to our Bad Subjects editorial list this morning, responding to last week's entry in which I quoted a long passage from Kaja Silverman's World Spectators. He has given me permission to quote it in full here:
Charlie's post reminded me to go check his blog. This is not one of my busy schedule days. I'm sorry we're not going to see each other at the Narrative Conference, Charlie. A music conference in Seattle sounds like much better duty than delivering a paper at 8am in a small Vermont city (and Burlington will always be small, even as a 'city') after having driven up from Boston (another conference) the night before.

But what struck me in your blog, Charlie, was the distance between your engagement with Kaja Silverman and the interpretive possibilities I'm searching for in/with my own work. For concrete example, at the New England Slavery conference in Boston I'm giving a paper on Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story and his putative antislavery conscience, as contradicted by an 1842 decision he wrote to enforce the Fugitive Slave clause of the constitution. I found myself searching through the narratological work of Gerald Prince in order to explain how Story invokes slavery to achieve a (false) moral diegesis. But I'm hard-pressed to think how I would employ that psycho-phenomenology of Lacan and Silverman to elaborate distinctions between 'empty' and 'full' speech in Story's rhetoric. Actually, Jonathan's colleague Marcus Rediker was very helpful when I asked him for direction towards 'piracy theory,' not knowing if that exists (it does). When I think of 'empty' in the context of my current writing I tend to think of the 'empty rhetoric' of conservative antislavery. One of the difficulties, I think, is that the Silverman discussion you cite emerges from and is directed at private speech acts that voice desire, and is rather less useful towards dissecting public rhetoric on race, class, and alignments of social power. Joseph Story's legal texts serve poorly to convert him into an analysand in the grave.

Silverman's rehearsal of 'empty speech' and its conditions sounds closely proximate to the political theory of 'false consciousness.' Since the latter is not a concept that says much and has been used quite oppressively, I'm wondering whether Silverman's definitional distinction can bear good fruit.

A glaring gap between rhetoric and phenomenology seems to be what we're talking about in much of the above.

Joe, who had a great trip up to the Mogollan Rim this past weekend
Not able to address the specific text by Story that Joe refers to here, I drafted a reply drawing on my experience reading slave narratives -- an experience, though not inconsequential, that falls absurdly short of Joe's -- in which I imagine how someone might go about using the concept of empty speech in a nineteenth-century context:
Thanks for the thoughful provocation, Joe. I was going to be at the Narrative Conference, but just can't afford the time or money it would take.

It's interesting that you can't see any point of connection between your work on anti-slavery literature and the sort of post-Lacanian psychoanalysis that informs my own work on the autobiographical mode. I haven't given the matter much thought, but my instincts tell me that I could make the leap.

Silverman is talking ABOUT Lacan talking ABOUT the analytic situation in the long passage I quoted. The context is very important. We aren't, as you point out, discussing public rhetoric here.

The question, then, is whether it might be possible to transpose the notion of "empty speech" to a less private situation with less specific constraints on communication.

From my perspective, the concept of "empty speech" is a promising tool -- and one of many, from a wide variety of discourses -- for coming to terms with the compulsion to believe in a fixed identity that exists outside the stream of time.

Since slave narratives typically focus on the coming-into-subjectivity that accompanies the passage into self-ownership, they highlight precisely the contingent underpinnings of personal identity that Lacan and Silverman wish to emphasize, albeit from a very, very different angle.

To the extent that slave narratives were also, in large measure, the product of a negotiation between the former slave coming into subjectivity and the patrons and audiences interested in making her or his story public, they demonstrate -- in extreme form -- a quality that I would argue is inherent to ALL autobiography, namely the fact that "auto" biography is never as autonomous as it appears.

I make that point polemically and provocatively, knowing that you will surely have a powerful comeback, Joe. But I'm willing to make it because I wish to hold out for an old-school understanding of communication that enables the application of lessons learned in one domain to others that are pretty far afield.

And, yes, I do note that "psycho-phenomenology" is a bit of an insult. . . :-)


It's funny. I never think of myself as a dyed-in-the-wool psychoanalytic critic. But I sometimes appear that way to others. What would Freud say?

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.