This is the first of four articles on subjectivity. Or more precisely, the first on four ‘shades’ of subjectivity because, with so much Lacanian ink having already been spilt on this topic, attempting a comprehensive treatment of subjectivity would cover too much familiar ground and present too little that is new. The aim of these articles is far more modest – to present just a handful of different ways in which the notion of subjectivity can be examined through a Lacanian lens.


By way of introduction then, we can give an equally modest definition of subjectivity that goes something like this: subjectivity means nothing other than that each and every one has the chance to tell their own story. Lacan has a concise way of expressing this – referring to human beings as parles-etre, literally, ‘speaking-beings’. A psychoanalysis itself is a particular approach to the integration of one’s history, the telling of one’s own story. This is essentially all that happens in a psychoanalysis, which I have called elsewhere the purest practice of free speech. There then comes the point of making sense of what is said, of making sense of one’s life, a demand for which likely brings someone to the psychoanalyst in the first place.  


An equally rudimentary definition of subjectivity can be found in Lacan’s work. Subjectivity refers to the “sentiment de la vie chez le sujet”, translated by Bruce Fink as “the subject’s sense of life” (Écrits, 558). This definition has the advantage of being much more serviceable and easily graspable than those that drag the full weight of Lacanian jargon in their trail. Something which, as always with Lacan’s work, should be especially welcome.


As well as being an essentially contested concept even in the small world of Lacanian studies, ‘subjectivity’ is not a term that is very frequently used in reference to the human experience, even within the psy- field, the field of talking therapies. Freud doesn’t use the term subjectivity as a concept – the index of the Standard Edition contains no reference to the term used in this sense – but we can certainly say that the question is an imperative implicit in both his clinical and theoretical work, even if the term is not used to articulate it as such.


The lack of attention paid to subjectivity is perhaps a consequence of this contestation around the term itself rather than an indication of its serviceability as a concept. Indeed, there are various definitions of subjectivity, concordant with the fact that for Lacan there are different modes of subjectivity according to the particular structure by way of which the subject has found a place for him- or herself in the registers of the real, imaginary and symbolic. But what is common to all of these structures is the way that the subject is able to constitute, negotiate a position in regards to certain fundamental questions. These questions are universal, characterised by discordant elements that resist meaning. The particular response to each will constitute a subjectivity in the sense of a sentiment de la vie, to use Lacan’s phrase again. Amongst these questions are:


  • The question of origins (where do I come from, of which the Oedipal question is the articulation par excellence);

  • The question of death (we are reminded of the Lacan’s formulation of the classical obsessional question, am I alive or dead, but this question is perhaps equally pertinent in melancholia and depression);

  • The question of knowledge or meaning (the epistemic question, one which often brings people to psychoanalysis itself);

  • The question of the body (the way in which the subject negotiates a corporeal unity, a bodily integrity)


With these introductory remarks in mind, let’s now look at the first ‘shade’ of subjectivity, which explores its difference to objectivity.


Shades of Subjectivity – I


In common parlance subjectivity is often held to be the antonym of objectivity, the latter being used to refer to the side of facts, reason, measurability and – ultimately – control. But in the psychoanalytic use of the term subjectivity is not opposed to objectivity. ‘Subjectivity’ in psychoanalysis does not imply a relativism but rather an ontology. Psychoanalysis is a practice which insists on the absolute specificity of each individual’s experience, meaning that subjectivity escapes all attempts at objectification. As the Edinburgh Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis defines it, subjectivity is “The subjective experience of the individual person which can never be reduced to objectivity” (p.442)


Without falling into the trap of ‘psychoanalytic exceptionism’, this understanding of subjectivity goes very much against the grain of the current climate in the psy- field and in other specialist fields. In these, ‘objectivity’ is increasingly valourised as being equivalent to the demonstrable, whilst ‘subjectivity’ is equated with a lack of rigour or specificity. Indeed, this is perhaps how the two terms are understood in everyday parlance.


This has several consequences in the psy- field. Let’s look at a couple of examples.


The first is in the use of randomised control trials (RCTs) as determinants of clinical accuracy. Their applicability to certain branches of medicine notwithstanding, a psychotherapy demands that the analyst or therapist respect the absolute specificity of an individual’s experience for the very simple reason that a particular symptom may indicate a very different problem for two different people, or for the same person at different times in their life. RCT’s, by their nature, require the lumping into groups of patients assumed to present with precisely the same characteristics – a control group, for instance. The logic of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) here in the UK seems to be that if RCTs did not do so they would not be effective – the fact that they do means they must be effective and so proposed treatments be measured against the outcomes they purport to reveal. The strangeness of this logic has not gone unchallenged. The Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy in the UK recently intervened in a letter to the Times Higher Education supplement to point out that RCTs are not applicable to a psychotherapeutic clinic where the question to be answered is rather how to respond best to a unique individual who makes a demand for help.


Another consequence of the facile equation objective-real/subjectivity-indefinite-or-imprecise is the seemingly pervasive idea that there has to be a physical correlate to something in the mind in order for a subjective experience to be ‘real’. Subjectivity is completely experiential. Simply understanding chemical processes in the brain that lead to it does not make it any more or less real, and nor can it provide an explanation of that subjective experience. Author of Bad Science Dr Ben Goldacre has written eloquently about what he cites as this ‘neuro-realism’:


“All mental states have physical correlates, if you believe that the physical activity of the brain is what underlies our sensations, beliefs and experiences: so while different mental states will be associated with different physical states, that doesn’t tell you which caused which…. But far stranger is the idea that a subjective experience must be shown to have a measurable physical correlate in the brain before we can agree that the subjective experience is real, even for matters that are plainly experiential. If someone is complaining of persistent low sex drive, then they have persistent low sex drive, and even if you could find no physical correlate in the brain whatsoever, that wouldn’t matter, they do still have low sex drive. It’s a slightly strange world when a scan of blood flow in the brain is taken as vindication of a subjective mental state, and a way to validate our experience of the world.” (source)


The reality that is at stake here is no less real for it being subjective in nature. We often see an inability to appreciate this point coming from within the psy- field as well as from outside it, a point not lost on Lacan during his lifetime. In 1964 Lacan gave a warning very pertinent for the contemporary understanding of subjectivity in reference to a reality:


“In analytic practice, mapping the subject in relation to reality, such as it is supposed to constitute us, and not in relation to the signifier, amounts to falling already into the degradation of the psychological constitution of the subject” (Seminar XI, p.142).


It is worth remembering here that Lacan had very little respect for psychology and saw the object of its study as different from that of the that of the subject as conceived through psychoanalysis. More on this elsewhere on this site. That is not to say that psychoanalysis is the sole guardian of subjectivity, but it does mean that a certain insensitivity to a person’s subjectivity, resulting from an overly-zelous commitment to ‘objectivity’ as a supposed alternative to the relativism of ‘subjectivity’, is unwise, at least as far as psy- practices go.


A nice example of this is given in a vignette related by Lacanian analyst Darian Leader. It illustrates the folly that popular current therapies such as CBT are founded on – simply aiming to correct a person’s mistaken beliefs by convincing them that what they think is not in accordance with reality:


“A woman convinced that she emits an unpleasant smell is persuaded to travel around on public transport with a portion of fish and chips to monitor how people react to her. This will allow her to assess the “evidence”: she will realise that there is a difference between times when she is the bearer of a strong smell and when she is not, and this will help her to “correct” her beliefs


“After her strange sojourn on the tube, the woman with the fish and chips would meet her therapist and discuss the events of the day. If she realised that people in fact reacted to her less when she didn’t have the malodorous meal, then she might be able to change her thought pattern, to see her life in a more positive way. She would learn that her symptom was an incorrect interpretation of reality and hopefully come to see the world as everyone else does.

But why did she suffer from this olfactory symptom in the first place? What function did it have in her life? If she was certain about it, what role did certainty play for her? Could it have been a solution to some other, less obvious problem? And if so, what would be the consequences of trying to remove it?” (source)


The approach of psychoanalysis to the truly human, subjective experience is to interrogate how it is that something a subject relates about him or herself  – an element of their story, their history, however fragmentary or arbitrary – has come to be invested with a particular meaning. This meaning is always very personal, and its resonance for that subject cannot be responded to – or intervened on – except with respect for these particularities.


Ways in which this is smothered or ignored are many – sometimes by prescribing a pill, sometimes by offering advice, sometimes by offering the subject the label of a particular symptom or behavioural disorder – but what they all do is ignore the absolute specificity on which subjectivity insists. Rather than dealing with a symptom in a way that seeks to eliminate its mode of expression (the problem someone complains about) it is better to see it as telling some truth about the nature of that person’s subjectivity itself. This is nothing new. Four hundred years before Christ, Hippocrates wrote of how  “It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.”


To illustrate these points about subjectivity we can borrow from an analogous and perhaps related field, that of studies into the nature of consciousness. The answer to the question ‘what is consciousness?’ is certainly one of the great philosophical debates yet to be settled. That Freud did not consider himself equal to the task of writing a metapsychological paper on consciousness alongside his others in 1914-15 can be taken as an indication of the respect with which we should treat this subject and the utility we can find in the considerations that animate it.


The argument so far has been that whenever we try to use objective means to understand subjectivity there is always something that appears to get left out, to be amiss. This problem has been articulated by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel with the question that forms the title of his famous paper ‘What is it like to be a bat?’. Nagel was writing about consciousness but his argument is apt for our purposes in examining subjectivity. His proposal is that when we think about consciousness we have to think about subjective experiences, specifically the ‘what is it like’-ness of something. When we talk about a subjective experience like pain or love there is often a tendency to account for it by appealing to objective coordinates, just like the researchers cited by Goldacre above did. But the two cannot be so easily conflated. We might think that we can understand what it is like to be a bat because we know so much objectively about how bats sense and perceive their environment through echo-location, but this does not answer the question of what it feels like to be a bat. It only gives us an idea of what it would be like for us humans to live as bats. We can know all we want about the bat’s brain and its physiology but not what it feels like to be a bat.


Last month in London we saw an example of one of the common ways in which this dimension is completely elided in Dr Allen Frances’ address as the 2013 Freud Memorial Lecture. The topic of his talk was Freud’s legacy, and he focused his critique of Freud’s thought on what he saw as the latter’s incorrect conceptualisation of human nature. Perhaps he was right, as he suggested, that Freud created a “Procrustean bed” for himself in how he saw the subject, stretching his theory so far as to be meaningless. But Frances simply traded one Procrustean bed for another. Freud “Developed a metaphor but the wrong metaphor”, he argued. For Frances, Freud saw the mind as working on the model of a steam engine whereas Frances countered that it is well-known nowadays that “the brain is not a powerplant, it’s a computer”. As one of the bullet points in his Powerpoint presentation confidently declared, the correct metaphor was that of “Information processing, not engines”, and “Symptoms [were the] result of hardware and software malfunction”.


What is wrong with this? We can see that it falls into the same trap highlighted by Goldacre above. To say that the brain is just a computer does not tell us anything about subjectivity, a topic at the heart of Freud’s project – indeed, perhaps a reason for his abandonment of neurology – even if Freud does not use the term itself. As the Australian philosopher David Chalmers notes, as adept as we may be in pinpointing causal roles and physical realisations in the physiology or brain chemistry of human beings, we can say the same for inanimate objects like robots or computers. The need to explain phenomenal consciousness, or subjectivity, remains.


Chalmers’ point can be seen as a modern version of an argument made by Leibniz, in his Monadology (1840):


“Suppose that there be a machine, the structure of which produces thinking, feeling and perceiving; imagine this machine enlarged, but preserving the same proportion, so that you could enter it as if it were a mill. This being supposed, you might visit it inside; but what would you observe there? Nothing but parts which push and move each other, and never anything that could explain perception.” (Leibniz. Monadology. Section 17. 1714. Paul Schrecher and Anne Martin Schrecher, trans. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965. 150.)


If humans are just machines, if the brain is just a computer, we still need to answer the riddle of subjectivity – a question different to that of the workings of these physical mechanisms. In other words, if the brain is just a computer, we need to explain how what we experience as subjectivity – indeed, the mind itself – is just an epiphenomenon of the brain, emitting puffs of subjective smoke from the steam engine of the brain (to borrow Frances’ caricature of Freud’s metaphor).


Another nice apologue that illustrates this point can be found in Frank Jackson’s famous thought experiment known as Mary’s Room. Mary, a neuroscientist in the future, knows everything there is to know about human vision and colour perception. Having studied this subject for years she has an expert knowledge of the objective, measurable, physiological workings of colour perception. Yet, tragically, she has never herself seen any colours herself. But one days she walks out into the street and there she sees a red rose for the first time. At that moment, Jackson claims, her knowledge changes. She understands not just the physical qualities of colour and how it is perceived, but also the subjective experience – what it feels like – to see colour. This knowledge is additional to her academic knowledge but, as Jackson argues, constitutes a crucial phenomenal, experiential, subjective adjunct. Subjectivity here is in an entirely new register to that of what we could call the material or physical.


Although Frances credits Freud with pointing out that humans are not rational animals – something that people win the Nobel Prize for nowadays – Frances’ view of subjectivity has very little psychoanalytical theory left in it, and he makes no bones about crediting Darwin as the true innovator of human psychology. In his Freud Memorial Lecture he raised the question of where we can recognise the subject of natural selection, but offered the very odd answer that a woman chooses a man with qualities she wants in her children. It is so rare that the choice of sexual partner conforms to this logic that even purely anecdotal knowledge would be enough to dispel this idea. Although in many ways his recent book ‘Saving Normal’ has done so much to counter the absurdities of the DSM-V, the clue is in the title – Frances believes in the category of ‘normal’.


With this first article setting the scene by referencing current treatments of the idea of subjectivity, In the second article in this series we will look at subjectivity with reference to Freud and Lacan’s work. We will look at what sort of a subject Freud’s work implies, how Lacan build on this to elevate subjectivity to a place of prime importance in psychoanalysis, and how his ideas have been interpreted by post-Lacanians.


By Owen Hewitson,

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