autistic themes in lacanian psychoanalysis

The previous post was a response to the idea that autistic people can’t benefit from psychodynamic therapy.

Lacanian psychoanalysis in particular has a mostly-deserved bad reputation concerning autism. I mean, the people in this clip supposedly treat non-verbal autistic children:


Basically…Lacanians look like heartless clowns. It’s real bad.

My stake in the issue: in high school, I had a special interest in Lacan and annoyed my health teacher by doing a project on the mirror stage.


The previous post talks about some of my history with therapy. This post is thinly-veiled complaining about the actual Lacanian therapist I had, and these are my earlier thoughts on what appealed to me about Lacan.

Now, I’m part of the way through getting a formal diagnosis (figuring out my insurance situation). I might’ve never gotten to this point without first going through a Lacan phase. I think the themes are relevant to autism, and the obscurity and almost-making-sense made me a lot more engaged in therapy. I like to obsess over complicated things until I understand them or have an emotional meltdown and transcend them (like koans!). With Lacan, full understanding is delayed forever. Lacan’s writing itself is impenetrable, but he called his writings and seminars the equivalent of doing analysis with him (or something like that). The important thing is the attitude and the secondary literature. Mari Ruti’s The Summons of Love is amazing. I’ve quoted Bruce Fink at various times on this blog. Zizek is fun to watch on YouTube. If Zizek is communist, perhaps my therapist won’t be Tony Attwood. I found a book called The Signifier Pointing at the Moon about Zen and Lacanian psychoanalysis, so there was a convergence of special interests.

This passage from Roudinesco’s Lacan: In Spite of Everything captures what’s interesting about Lacan for me. Notice how his defenders are sheepish about it. The ambivalence is part of it. If you’re smart enough to read about Lacan, you’re smart enough to know better…and yet.

Antigone, tragedy of genocide; Hamlet, tragedy of ‘non-volition’ and the impossible. It is not surprising that both figures reappear periodically: the first when a disaster strikes the world and the second as the truth of modern man faced with an absence of gods.

From this message, which drew an apocalyptic picture of the ghosts haunting a psyche beset by the legacy of a major crime, symbolized by the martyrdom of a woman at once rendered heroic by her act of resistance and destroyed by her intransigence, Lacan deduced that modern psychoanalysis could only construct its ethics on a principle derived from Antigone’s inhumanity: not to give way on one’s desire. The ethics of psychoanalysis, he was saying in substance, is not an arrangement in the service of goods (Creon), but a tragic experience of existence.

In conceiving this commentary, Lacan certainly had in mind the fate of Simone Weil, a philosopher hailing from a family of the intellectual bourgeoisie, who rejected Judaism and Jewishness, and then dedicated herself to serving the proletariat, before finally moving towards Catholic faith without ever converting: between two stories, between two deaths. Having joined the Gaullist Resistance, she let herself die at the age of thirty-four in a sacrificial gesture. A secular mystic, refusing food, infused with a drive which Nazism (she had sensed it) would heat to incandescence, with her insubordination and the rejection it prompted, she strangely resembled the all too human and inhuman Antigone, as revised and corrected by Lacan: neither angel nor demon, but transmitter of truth, transparent to the world by virtue of wasting away, as her friend Georges Bataille underlined.

I confess that I never really subscribed to this ethics of psychoanalysis, whose spokesman Lacan considered himself. Certainly, I regarded as justified the summons not to give way on one’s desire, not to stick to the alleged virtues of the beautiful soul or emotion displayed to excess, and to make the experience of therapy a way of lucidly facing death, anxiety, oneself. However, with the passage of time, and particularly with the procedure of the ‘pass’, introduced by Lacan into his school after the events of May 1968, this ethics no longer had anything in common with the tragedy of the ‘between-two-deaths’, or with the legacy of the Resistance. Alas, it took the form of a commitment that led numerous practitioners from two successive generations to lose interest in subjective suffering: short sessions, silence, inflexible attitude, absence of empathy, frustrations visited on patients, ridiculous interpretations of alleged signifiers, and the use of neologisms instead of clinical discourse.

Those themes relate to my family background, going back generations. It’s a Lacanian theme that your place in the symbolic order is determined before birth. It’s more intuitive for me because I’m mixed-race. I think this blog’s first post was about Lacan and Frantz Fanon. It doesn’t relate to everyone’s family stuff, but it relates to my family stuff.

Because of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it relates even more. My family literally played out Lacan’s version of the Oedipus myth, because of my mom’s religious beliefs. The Name-of-the-Father, which the mother desires more than the child, giver of the Law, foundation of the symbolic order, is Jehovah. My mom was the patriarchal one in the family, and my dad had the social worker job (after he was a drill sergeant). I now know that autism frequently goes with weird gender socialization, but the gender reversals in my parents’ relationship were interesting to think about and did affect my views on the patriarchy. For Lacan, gender is basically equivalent to obsession vs. hysteria, and it’s orthogonal to biological sex.  Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble is where I might’ve first heard of Lacan.  Anyway, I had a problem with Jehovah restricting my jouissance. Problems with authority in general. A rejection of symbolic castration, which is what “psychosis” means within the cult of Lacanians.

The psychotic has a different relationship to the symbolic order than other people. The addict turns away from the Other as a source of jouissance, preferring self-directed repetitive behaviors. In that sense, addiction doesn’t symbolize.

The theme of having a problem with the symbolic order is relevant to both autism and being mixed-race.

The stuff about the mirror stage and identification also isn’t as stupid as it seems on the surface.  If you read literature from the mentalization and attachment theory people, it’s about how the infant learns about its own emotions from maternal mirroring.  See the “still face” video in the previous post.  Eye contact and sense of self are different in autism…

Lacanian psychoanalysis promotes the same kind of self-acceptance as the neurodiversity movement. In the later Lacan, the thing that ties the real, symbolic, and imaginary orders together is the “sinthome”, the core part of the symptom that stays with you even after a successful analysis. At the end of analysis, the analysand “identifies with the sinthome”. Lacanians annoy people by saying “we don’t cure patients,” and Lacan himself said that “Life does not want to be healed”. At the beginning of analysis, the patient wants the symptom to start working again.

the awakening of character can be acutely disorienting. This may be why Lacan asserts that, at the end of a training analysis, the analysand “should know the domain and the level of the experience of absolute disarray (1960, 304)…At this stage, it is enough to observe Lacan’s position, namely that the subject who has completed analysis…should be able to tolerate a relatively high degree of anxiety. Such tolerance, rather than “happiness” in the usual sense of the word, could be said to be the goal of Lacanian analysis. In this way, Lacan, like Lear, invites us to accept unexpected breakdowns as an essential component of our psychic destinies. –Mari Ruti, The Singularity of Being: Lacan and the Immortal Within

Around the time I was getting into Lacan, I was also developing a fascination with mystical experience and “the ineffable”. “The traumatic real” isn’t such a different concept. Therapy consists of attempting to symbolize the real, which is almost another way of saying it’s an attempt at overcoming alexithymia.

I definitely wasn’t used to receiving empathy at the point of starting therapy, and I would’ve had a hard time believing it was possible or genuine. Basically, the year of therapy with a Lacanian got me to the point where I was willing to try empathy.

Based on life experience and, it turns out, neurological differences, I wasn’t expecting to be understood. There were so many life-history reasons for being alienated that autism didn’t even come up until spending significant amounts of time on all that other stuff. In fact, my first therapist didn’t understand me very well at all. It was protective that I had an idea of what I was doing that didn’t depend on being understood. The sessions provided things to work on between the sessions. I improved in some ways long before knowing my “real” diagnosis.

The person didn’t do “short sessions”, but she wasn’t very reliable. Lots of appointments canceled the morning of, or she’d arrive 15 minutes late, etc. Basically, I wouldn’t know until I was heading out the door whether the appointment was actually going to happen. That…was stressful. I had a framework for rationalizing it, though. Getting used to rejection and uncertainty weren’t the worst things, although I’m sure there were better ways.

“The only resistance is the resistance of the analyst” definitely matched my experience.

In Lacanian psychoanalysis, there’s no reality apart from the imaginary. Every way of looking at things is going to involve fantasy and self-justification. Everyone is alone in their own head, and “there are no sexual relationships”. In a sense, people are getting non-complementary things out of their relationships, based on things internal to their heads, which are defined by external circumstances. Desire is desire of the Other, deliberately ambiguous.

Lacan loved to use graphs, charts, and symbols (“mathemes”) that look a lot like neuroanatomical diagrams, when you think about it. There’s the same sense of satisfaction and control that you’re taking something complicated (life) and reducing it to symbols that express all the important relationships. There’s something trippy about the fact that the Four Discourses are related to each other by rotating the symbols.

It’s trippy to think about.

It’s even Lacanian that the meaning of being interested in Lacan is retroactively changed by introducing a new signifier: autistic spectrum disorder.

Going around a circle twice.

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