The problem that this blog post seeks to address is quite simple: what is the rationale for the short session as practiced in Lacanian psychoanalysis? Or to put it in more brutal terms, why would someone pay for a psychoanalysis per session without knowing how much of the analyst’s time they were going to get?

Whilst such frankness would clearly be an overly facile way of raising a question that entails complex problems, in practice it would be absurd to deny that what is known in Lacanian circles as the ‘variable-length session’ is, in fact, in almost all cases a short session. Almost never does a psychoanalytic session with a Lacanian analyst last longer than the traditional 50 minutes; in the vast majority of instances, the session is far shorter.

If we take as our cue in addressing this question the fact that the so-called ‘fundamental rule’ of psychoanalysis dictates that the analysand can bring in whatever material he or she likes – and is indeed obliged to voice associations that come to mind in the course of the session, regardless of content – there appears to be no reason why a session should have any particular length. After all, as Freud tells us in the metapsychological papers, the unconscious itself has no sense of time (SE XIV 187). The first point should be therefore that there is as little justification for the standard 50 minute sesssion as there is for the ‘short’ Lacanian session.

Is it therefore up the analyst’s whim at what point the session is terminated?

The rationale for the termination of a session, in Lacanian terms, is that derived from Lacan’s belief that the work of a psychoanalysis takes place largely between psychoanalytic sessions. With the session ending on the articulation of a crucial question, or the encounter with a contradiction, impossibility, or unresolvable dilemma by the analysand, the time in between sessions is supposedly used as a “time for comprehending” (to use a term Lacan introduces in his paper on ‘logical’ time – Ecrits, 210), a time in which the material raised in the session can be developed, worked on, and re-organised by the analysand themselves.

This has repercussions not just for the length of a particular analytical session but for the whole analysis itself.

As Schniederman notes, “Lacan was critical of therapists who tried to treat one question per session, to attempt to resolve it so as to move on to the next question” (Schneiderman, Jacques Lacan: Death of an Intellectual Hero, p.137). The point of an analytical session is not to achieve a ‘closure’ or resolution to a particular problem. Freud points out, as early as 1896, that what makes his own theory of the mind unique is the fact that different representations, registrations or signifiers are stratified, which each laid down at different topographical ‘levels’ in the psychical apparatus. As he writes to Fliess,

“I am working on the assumption that our psychical mechanism has come into being by a process of stratification: the material present in the form of memory traces being subject from time to time to a re-arrangement in accordance with fresh circumstances – to a re-transcription. Thus what is essentially new about my theory is the thesis that memory is present not once but several times over, that it is laid down in various species of indications.” (Letter to Willhelm Fliess, 6th December 1896).

So if we view the psyche in this way we have to conclude that any psychoanalysis is going to involve a complex process of untangling multiple associative threads, and bringing into question ideas that seem to have a fixed associative bond in the analysand’s mind, as arbitrary as they might be.

Another conclusion would be that a large disclaimer should be attached to psychoanalytic psychotherapy: those seeking a quick alleviation of symptoms will find no quick solutions from psychoanalysis.

Freud’s heavy-hearted admission in his paper Analysis Terminable and Interminable is that there is no way to speed-up an analysis. Indeed, the psychoanalytic process is opposed to the many forms of psychotherapy and life coaching which attempt to address and resolve problems from session to session. A psychoanalysis in fact involves the exact opposite:opening up problems. One of the most striking things that Freud notes in his presentation of the case of the Rat Man is that as the latter gained in confidence in talking about his symptoms, so the symptoms themselves gained in confidence, becoming more vocal and rambunctious in his life. This is a challenge to the popular but simplistic idea that analytic efficacy is premised on the maxim that ‘talking helps’. However, this does not mean making things worse for the analysand before they are made better. Without going into the various psychical phenomena that Freud thinks might produce this effect, we can simply say that it is a necessary effect of questioning or interrogating the problem itself.

We can see then that analysis is a process that extends over the entire time a person is in an analysis – both the sessions themselves and the time between them – rather than a collection of individual sessions in which things are brought up, analysed and then resolved. But if we turn our attention from the length of a psychoanalysis (most often measured in years) to the amount of time given to each analytic session (most often measured in minutes), we could say that what is distinct about the Lacanian short or variable-length session is that it breaks with the tyranny of the clock. This is a tyranny that subjugates both analysts and analysands as much as it does those not in analysis. The clock is our default measure of time and progress. We use the clock to ascertain whether a task has been completed or not. So when we talk about the amount of time spent in analysis it is almost natural to expect it to come in line with the progress of the analysis – the more time we devote to analysis the more progress we should be making.  Is this the right way to look at things, however, at the level of the individual session? If the work of a psychoanalysis takes place between sessions as much if not more than it does in them, the length of the session is determined more by what is said in the session itself than what it says on the clock. The question for the analysand becomes less ‘what time is it?’, or ‘how long have I got?’ but ‘why did my analyst stop me at that particular moment?’ The intention on the part of the analyst is that the analysand asks himself or herself what was heard in what was said to make the analyst end the session at that particular point.

Lacan was very fond of ending sessions abruptly to produce this questioning effect. Indeed, it is perhaps the main justification for the practice of a short session – that it produces a dramatic analytic effect which would be hard to achieve through other means. It is important to note that this is not the same as providing an interpretation in the sense of ‘this means that’. If the analyst ends a session by telling the person what they meant this can have the effect of ‘closing down’ the meaning the analysand attributes to the material that has been raised. In effect, it ties up and seals all too neatly the material of the session into a digestible fifty-minute package. The adverse effect is then that the associative flow that should have been worked on between sessions dries up and is not subjected to the process of questioning that brings into play the stratified connections of ideas that we saw Freud refer to in his letter to Fliess quoted above. What Lacan was doing in using the short or variable-length session was attempting to get the analysand to hear for themselves a new meaning in his or her own words.

Let’s take a nice anecdote from Lacan’s practice to illustrate this, one that happens to be from an ultra-short session. On arriving for the session the analysand presents Lacan with a expensive-looking statuette. Lacan takes the gift, asks for the money for the session and escorts the analysand out (as told by Jean Allouch in his Les Impromptus de Lacan, EPEL, Paris, 1998, p.54).

Whilst we don’t know the details of this case, Lacan’s aim in ending the session before it had even begun was clearly to get the analysand thinking about the gift of a statuette and why he had chosen to give it to Lacan. Perhaps the statuette was the ‘little man’ that the analysand to make Lacan? Who knows. But what we see in this vignette is that Lacan seizes the opportunity to make his analytic move, rather than subjecting himself to the tyranny of the clock and waiting fifty minutes before ‘summing up’ the session and handing his patient a ready-made interpretation that the analysand can tell himself he has got good value for money for.

This curt example might horrify people who do expect to ‘get what they pay for’ in an analysis. Indeed, Lacan’s practice of such ultra-short sessions did not go unquestioned by his followers, as the former Lacanian analyst and pupil of Lacan’s school, Stuart Schneiderman, points out:

“Lacan’s short session was the technique that was most contested by those who knew about it. Lacan did not encourage others to follow exactly the same technique, and few other Parisian analysts, even Lacanians, had sessions as short as his. The principles involved in short sessions are also operative in longer sessions. This means that the most relevant associations are not likely to be the ones produced within the session but the ones produced between the sessions” (Schneiderman, Jacques Lacan: Death of an Intellectual Hero, p.138).

Schneiderman’s testimony is evidence that Lacanians should not treat the idea of the ‘short’ or ‘variable-length’ session as dogma. We can in fact surmise from this that the short or ultra-short session was an idiosyncrasy of Lacan’s himself. Whilst this raises the question of what justification Lacan might have had for it, it would indicate that we should nonetheless be suspicious of analysts who ape Lacan’s clinic all too closely, or who model their own practices on the stories often banded around about Lacan’s method of working.

Assuming he was not simply greedy for the wealth analysis generated him (he was, by his death, an extremely wealthy man!), and assuming he was not using analysis to build a larger school of devotees or sycophants (again, a contention not to be rejected out of hand) we can ask what might have led Lacan to use time in such a specific way in the session.

An anecdote about the young Lacan related by Jean Allouch might provide a clue. In 1932 Lacan is defending his psychiatric thesis. He concludes by saying, “In sum, sir, we cannot forget that madness is a phenomena of thought”, at which point his examiner interrupts him (this story is also related by Lacan himself in his paper on Psychical Causality, Ecrits, 162). When Lacan makes his entrance on the psychoanalytic scene with his presentation to the Marienbad conference in 1936 he finds himself interrupted again, after only 10 minutes, by the chair Ernest Jones. That same evening, according to Allouch (Jean Allouch in his Les Impromptus de Lacan, EPEL, Paris, 1998, p.224-225) Lacan goes back to his hotel room and writes up his paper ‘Beyond the ‘Reality Principle”, but leaves it unfinished. Then, against the advice of the eminent analysts also in attendance, he decamps the conference early to watch the Nazi Olympics that are taking place in Berlin at the time.

Do these multiple instances of interrupted speech provide a clue as to why Lacan introduced the variable length session, sessions in which after all the analysand is made to experience precisely the same interrupted speech?

By Owen Hewitson,

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