Who is ‘allowed’ to tell your story? Are you and you alone the only one that can represent your unique experience, past, and identity? Or is it sometimes okay – perhaps even better – for someone else to do this in your place?

This month marks the 50th anniversary of a radical answer to these questions by Lacan. The proposal, a procedure which he called the ‘Pass’, also answered the question of how to end a psychoanalysis and authorise someone as a psychoanalyst.

But the Pass was an idea that fundamentally split the School he created and led many of his followers to abandon him. Its use is contentious even today.

Fifty years later this topic is more pertinent than ever in society at large. When we ask whether only minority actors should portray minority characters, or if only a black trans woman can tell the story of a black trans woman, we are dealing with the same issues that were at the heart of the debate in Lacan’s School fifty years ago.

This is the story of two competing ideas on those questions.

The first, Lacan’s, encapsulated in the Pass, which was introduced in his ‘Proposition of 9th October, 1967’.

The second, represented by one of his former students, Shoshana Felman. It was at Felman’s invitation that Lacan visited Yale in the 1970s, and it was from her position at Yale that Felman became one of the first people to introduce Lacan to American academia. Her later work in the 1990s and 2000s, on the importance of personal testimony among survivors of traumatic experiences, presented a model that appears opposed to the one suggested by Lacan with the Pass.

Paris, 1967

To tell this story, let’s go back a bit.

Lacan had always been a divisive character in the psychoanalytic establishment. But in 1963 the International Psychoanalytic Association had had enough of him. It removed him from the position of training analyst, depriving him of the authority that the association Freud had founded bestowed.

Rather dramatically – and probably in homage to his intellectual hero, Spinoza – Lacan called this his ‘Excommunication’. The following year he went it alone – “as alone as I have always been in my relation to the psychoanalytic cause” – and founded his own School, L’Ecole Française de Psychanalyse.

By 1967 all seemed to be going well. Lacan’s dominance in his School, and French psychoanalysis in general, was well-established. But France was on the cusp of social upheaval. Authority of all kinds, in particular the hierarchy of the established order, was about to be radically opposed.

In May 1968 a massive wave of demonstrations and general strikes began. The universities that were Lacan’s powerbase were occupied.

Perhaps Lacan saw this coming. Likely not. But with the Proposition of 9th October 1967 he seemed to anticipate the problems so pertinent to France a few months later.

For his students at least, it offered an answer to a question that still bedevils the Lacanian world today: how to avoid the ‘cult of Lacan’.

If Lacan was going to run a psychoanalytic training programme on his own terms, there had to be a way to prevent it churning out “little Lacanians by the assembly line”, as Sherry Turkle puts it in her memory of Lacan’s School at that time (Psychoanalytic Politics, p.123). The design of the Pass would, Lacan thought, circumvent all the problems of institutionalised hierarchy and dogma that he had so opposed in the IPA.

What is the ‘Pass’?

The Pass is a mechanism by which someone can give a testimony of what has happened in their psychoanalysis when they feel it has reached its end. It was also a way for someone to transition from the role of psychoanalysand to psychoanalyst and be recognised as such by the School.

But when we hear the term ‘Pass’ we shouldn’t think of the opposition pass/fail, but instead of a relay. As in, ‘to pass something across’, or ‘to allow the passage of something’ from one place or person to another.

As Roudinesco notes, a passeur, in French, is a ferryman, someone who guides another across difficult terrain (Jacques Lacan, p.338). As a device for training and authorising psychoanalysts at the end point of their analyses, we might also think of the phrase ‘rites of passage’ as carrying a similar meaning. One makes a Pass rather than achieves a Pass.

The Pass works like this:

  • When someone feels their analysis is coming to an end, they get in touch with two other people at roughly the same point in their own analyses.
  • These people are the ‘Passers’. The candidate for the Pass tells them the story of their psychoanalysis, their testimony. They say why they think it is over, and why they want to become a psychoanalyst.
  • The Passers then relay this to a jury of the School’s analysts, who in turn decide whether what they have heard is enough to grant the position of AE, or Analyst of the School, to the candidate.

The core idea here is that of the double-relay, the process of entrusting your testimony to outsiders, and entrusting them in turn to represent it to a committee on your behalf.

This, Lacan thought, would bring out what is most essential in someone’s psychoanalysis and avoid the caprice, favouritism, and prejudices that characterised an institutionalised psychoanalytic training. Lacan said he was attempting to prise apart a hierarchy from what he called the ‘gradus’: a simple classification of analysts from non-analysts, or analysts from analysands.

Lacan’s rationale for this was rooted in two things he believes happened at the end of a psychoanalysis:

  1. Subjective destitution – in the simplest sense, this is the feeling of being alien to yourself, of your very thoughts and desires being foreign. It is the effect of bringing forth unconscious material. “Subjective destitution is written on the entry ticket”, Lacan says about a psychoanalysis. So, what does it matter that someone else, the ‘Passers’, bear witness to your story instead of you?
  2. Traversal of the fantasy – not just any old fantasy but the fantasy of becoming a psychoanalyst. Rather than identifying with your psychoanalyst as a ‘subject-supposed-to-know’, Lacan argued that the end of an analysis entails a falling apart of this position. Part of the job of the ‘passers’ as semi-anonymous figures with no stake in the analysis, and no authority to make you a psychoanalyst, is to help identify what’s leftover.

The Pass – the Controversies

When Lacan’s students of the time looked back on the introduction of the Pass in the years that followed their opinions were very much mixed.

“The institution of the pass caused more conflict and violence than anything except Lacan’s invention of the short session”, wrote Stuart Schneiderman, one of the few Americans to travel to Paris in the 1970s to train with Lacan (Schneiderman, Jacques Lacan: Death of an Intellectual Hero, p.66).

For Jacques-Alain Miller though, “However difficult its implementation may be in analytic groups (the École Freudienne certainly did everything possible to pervert its procedure), the pass is and remains one of Lacan’s major advances. It confirms and sums up the fundamentals of his teaching.” (Miller, ‘Another Lacan’).

So what were the problems with it?

The first and most obvious was that you couldn’t speak for yourself. By entering the Pass you were entrusting total strangers to give a testimony of what was most personal to you.

This didn’t mean you were under any obligation to offer up the most intimate details of your life. “It is not obvious to me that this procedure should be intrinsically horrifying”, Schneiderman remembers. After all, our lives are shaped by people and events beyond our control. But, he admits, “Nevertheless it was” (Schneiderman, p.68).

Sherry Turkle, these days an MIT Professor (above), joined Lacan’s School in the 1970s and in her account of that time lists broader concerns about how the Pass was supposed to be used to certify psychoanalysts (p.124-126):

  • What would the training committee, which received the testimony from the Passers, be looking for in order to pronounce the candidate a ‘psychoanalyst’? How would this be any different from the judgement of ‘fitness to practice’ espoused by the IPA?
  • What about the Passers themselves? They were chosen by the candidate’s analyst from a pool of analysands, and then selected at random by the candidate him- or herself. (Incidentally, Turkle says that Passers were three other members of the School (p.123); Schneiderman “always two” (p.67)). They were intended to be “ambassadors”, as Miller calls them (Miller, ‘The Second Pass’).
  • But if you were selected as a possible Passer by your analyst should you feel privileged? Was it a sign that you were a ‘successful’ analysand? Perhaps it meant you were a good listener… but the job of the analysand is not to listen but to talk.
  • And what if you didn’t want to do the Pass? The alternative on offer was the status of AME – Analyst Member of the School. But this was often taken as showing an unwillingness or unreadiness to participate in the full theoretical life of the School, a sign that you lacked a wholehearted commitment to psychoanalysis itself (what Miller would later label ‘The Second Pass’).

Turkle summed it up by saying that the Pass muddied the waters by “making the implicit explicit” (p.124). It seemed to usher in hierarchy by the back door – the very thing it was designed to avoid.

But for some the real problem was Lacan himself.

Lacan’s School was supposed to have a structure in which the President served a five-year term, working alongside a five-member Directorate. Yet it was never proposed that anyone other than Lacan would be President. When the Directorate one by one resigned, it left Lacan in de facto control (Turkle, p.126).

In the School’s official journal – Scilicet – all the articles were written anonymously… except Lacan’s. As one follower joked, “How else are the rest of us supposed to know what to think?” (Turkle, p.127).

In his position as head of the training committee, it was also Lacan who had the final say on who got to be a psychoanalyst. Would he abuse this position to keep an eye on analysands that might threaten him?

The paradox was that the ‘Return to Freud’ seemed to be turning into a fastening to Lacan. Whatever else it did, the Pass was certainly not a success in dislodging the ‘Cult of Lacan’.

In January 1969, the School voted on Lacan’s Proposition of 9th October 1967. Lacan gave no ground. Ten of his closest followers split and formed the so-called Quatrième Groupe, “Lacanians without Lacan”, as Turkle calls them (p.129, 260-261). Lacan himself continued but increasingly surrounded himself with non-analysts – mostly philosophers and mathematicians – until his death in 1981.

1975 – Enter Felman

Shoshana Felman first heard about Lacan while completing her PhD in France in 1970. Her initial encounters with his work are described in amusing terms in her book, Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight.

By 1975 she had a position at Yale, and invited Lacan to give a couple of lectures there during his trip to the United States. Robert Jay Lifton, one of the people Lacan had dinner with during his visit (and, incidentally, one of the few people about whom Lacan was very complimentary – “Je suis Liftonian!”, he declared), described Felman as Lacan’s “right-hand woman of the time” (interviewed in Listening to Trauma, p.21).

Although strongly influenced by Lacanian psychoanalysis, in the 1990s Felman became very interested in the notion of testimony, and what it means to tell one’s story.

Her book Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History, co-authored with psychoanalyst Dori Laub, appeared in 1992. It was followed by The Juridical Unconscious: Trials and Traumas in the Twentieth Century ten years later.

Felman makes a comparison to the judicial process. To testify is to take the witness stand. Like in a courtroom, providing testimony means taking responsibility for the truth of something that happened, to make a commitment of one’s own narrative (Listening to Trauma, p.322). And also like in a courtroom, the crucial factor is that this testimony be addressed to others, received by them even if not fully understood by them. To testify is “always a use of memory or of one’s own experience in order to address another” (ibid, her emphasis). And so she believes it is important that this testimony be absorbed into the wider culture and even into a kind of collective memory.

However, even if a personal testimony has resonances “beyond the personal towards the public or the general or the universal”, Felman maintains that “there is only one specific person, one specific subject who can bear witness to what he/she has experienced, and no one else can report what this particular subject has lived and narrated” (ibid). To testify is what she calls the “performative utterance” of one person.

This is very different from the model Lacan had proposed with the Pass, a situation in which one’s personal testimony can be given by others.

Where did Felman get her ideas?

The Holocaust Survivors Film Project

On the evening of 2nd May 1979 a film crew from WTNH-TV-Channel 8 in New Haven, Connecticut met with Felman’s later co-author, Dori Laub, and for more than six hours videotaped Laub’s testimony of being a childhood survivor of the Holocaust. The filmmakers immediately realised that what they had was a unique historical – but at the same time deeply personal – record of survivor experience.

They decided to set about collecting as many personal testimonies as they could, spreading to the rest of the United States and then to Israel. The result was the incredibly powerful Holocaust Survivors Film Project (HSFP).

This is the Laurel Fox Vlock, the Project’s visionary, recounting its origins:

In 1981, the original tapes of 183 interviews were transferred to Yale University and have been housed there ever since. Steven Spielberg got involved in 1994 following the release of his film Schindler’s List, and provided funding that allowed the collection to balloon. Today it is known as the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies and has served as the model for similar projects in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

The Pass vs The Trial

Through her work with Laub in the 1990s, and her position at Yale between 1970 to 2004, Felman was very familiar with the Holocaust Testimonies Project.

By later developing the analogy with the judicial process she echoed the language that Lacan had employed in his 1967 proposal on the Pass, even if her conclusions were very different.

“From where then could a fair testimony on whoever goes through this pass to be expected, if not from another who, like him, is still in this pass?”, Lacan asked in 1967. As both peers and ambassadors of this testimony, Lacan thought the experience of the Passers themselves was a crucial to what was relayed to the committee. “The testimony that they will be able to receive from the quick of their own past will be of a kind that no committee ever picks up”, he argued. “The decision of such a committee will therefore be illuminated by this, these witnesses of course not being judges” (Lacan, my emphasis).

What both Felman and Lacan’s comparison to judicial proceedings share however is the notion that a testimony needs to be heard. That is, they both highlight the importance of the appeal to the other, an element present in both the Pass and on the witness stand. Whilst it might be pointed out that an appeal to the other is the not the same as a deferral to the other, both the judicial process and the Pass are mechanisms by which personal testimony is used as part of a process to determine – via one’s peers – an outcome that is one step removed from personal testimony.

But there is a problem with these legal analogies.

Even if personal testimony may form part of a legal trial, it is not the suffering of the victims but the acts of the perpetrators that are the focus for judicial proceedings. This is a very different context to that of Yale’s Holocaust testimonies archive.

Eichmann In Jerusalem

The paradigmatic case of how personal testimony can conflict with legal protocol is the trial of Adolph Eichmann by Israel in 1961, most famously chronicled and theorised by Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Arendt thought there was a failure in the trial precisely because of its use of survivor testimony. For her, it was a show trial which for political reasons laid more emphasis on the suffering of victims than the question of Eichmann’s guilt. When it is the perpetrator on trial, it would be wrong to focus on the victims’ testimonies, thought Arendt. This provoked a furious response and a barrage of accusations of victim-blaming. To characterise Eichmann as a petty bureaucrat exemplifying the ‘banality of evil’ was to diminish the effect of his crimes, some thought.

For Felman however the trial was a “groundbreaking narrative event”. It gave the victims the voice they were denied at the Nuremberg trials. Whereas Arendt criticised the theatricality of the Eichmann trial, Felman saw this element allowing a “legal process of translation” that condensed what had been the private, secret traumas of the Holocaust to “one collective, public, and communally acknowledged” experience (p.207). Those who testified against Eichmann were made the subjects, not the objects, of testimony. For Felman this meant that “the Eichmann trial created a new language by converting the victims into witnesses” (p.330).

But whose testimony was being given? Notice that, on this model, testifying is not simply a matter of giving a personal account of one’s own, unique experience.

Holocaust survivors often say they are not simply telling their own story but keeping an oath to those who did not survive, to relay something of theirs too. There is a difference between, on one hand, fulfilling an oath to testify about an experience common to a group of people on their behalf; and on the other, testifying to your own experience in its singularity.

But for Felman, to bear witness is always to offer one’s own testimony as one’s own. She quotes the Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel – “If someone else could have written my stories, I would not have written them” (p.322).

The opposite is true in the Pass. There, the condition of giving your own testimony is abandoned. There is a deferral to the ‘Passers’ to do so on your behalf, a deferral which is more than just an appeal to the other for recognition.

The problem with extending the judicial analogy is that Felman expects the legal process to do two things at once: to provide a forum for the recognition of a collective, communal experience; but also to acknowledge the subjective suffering singular to each individual.

But, as Arendt would argue, this is not really the point of a trial. “There is a chorus of testimonies; everybody tells a fragment, but then a total picture emerges”, Felman believes (p.331). While this may be true of the Pass, a trial is a process designed to establish facts in a way that they can be judged against the law, not primarily a way of giving the victim a voice. As Cathy Caruth points out, there is a difference between the legal idiom and the idiom of personal experience (p.336).

Caracas, 1980 – Back to the Pass

So what about the Pass? Does it offer a solution to this problem of separating historical truth, as in the judicial process, from personal truth, the narrative of one’s own testimony?

After the dust had somewhat settled on the debate over the Pass, the remaining Lacanians gathered in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1980. Although Lacan was present, it was his son-in-law, Jacques-Alain Miller, who dared to tackle the issue of the Pass head on in a presentation he called ‘Another Lacan’.

Here is a particularly interesting passage from his talk:

“The existence of a master of truth may be argued on the basis of the semantic retroaction of S2 on S1. So considered, S2 becomes the master-signifier of truth. However, the notation S1 —> S2 implies the contrary as well in that there is no signified master of truth, since any signification depends on a subsequent signifier. Signification essentially shifts along the signifying chain; its metonymy accounts for the impossibility of all the truth being said.” – Miller, ‘Another Lacan’.

This is a tricky passage, but we can explain it by relating it to the problem of separating this clumsily-labelled ‘historical’ truth from ‘personal’ truth.

Let’s say we have an historical event, perhaps a traumatic experience or encounter – ‘S2’ in Miller’s terms here. We want to testify to this, to bear witness to a truth, as it were. Miller’s point is quite simply that making this testimony – the “performance utterance” Felman described (p.322) – will have an effect on the signification of the event. This effect is one of retroaction – ‘afterwardsness’ as Laplanche has called it. It is a consequence of the fact that meaning or signification is never fixed in one point. “Any signification depends on a subsequent signifier”, as Miller puts it in this passage.

Psychoanalytic efficacy, the very curative effect of a psychotherapy, depends on the operation of this effect. We alter the meaning of an event by talking about it, in the same way that we would alter the meaning of a sentence by a different punctuation, or the meaning of a word by following it with another word.

The counter to this idea seems simple – doesn’t this just lead to a kind of hopelessly relativist, even nihilist, predicament? That there is no history, there is no event, just the testimony of it at a certain moment, interpretable however we choose, and constantly subject to change and resignification?

Miller’s riposte to this objection is that the difference between personal testimony and historical record does not depend on our ability to fix a signification, or on an appeal to the other, but fixation to the object a.

The problem in a psychoanalysis, as in testifying to a traumatic event, is the same – why can’t we simply create a new signification at will? It’s not so easy to ‘move on’ in the way a chain of signifiers supposedly moves on.

So what stops this? Miller thinks that the subject is “tethered to a fixed point, to a stake about which it drifts in a circle”. This fixed point is the object a. Whatever might be said about the object a, it is not the other person – whether the here-today-gone-tomorrow partner, the subject’s peers in a jury, the ‘Passers’ in Lacan’s procedure, or the ‘desiring other’ that Laplanche privileges his account of the ‘afterwardness’ effect.

The name that Lacanian analysis gives to the relation of the subject to the object a is fantasy. (Though not meant in the usual sense that we understand ‘fantasy’). The Pass is a method that attempts to pull out the fantasy from the analytic situation, to isolate and interrogate the object a that conditions it.

“The pass”, Miller said in Caracas, “is Lacan’s name for the disjunction of the subject and object brought about by the analytic experience, for the fracturing or breaking of the fantasy.”

So the difference between the ‘historical’ and ‘personal’ truth of an event in testimony can be represented as the difference between:

S1 > S2


$ > a

This does not mean that historical truth (whether someone underwent terrible things during the Holocaust, for example) doesn’t matter. Simply that the form of their testimony will bear the mark of the relation to object a, which in turn governs the terms of the fantasy.

The Easy Lacan and the Hard Lacan

Nevertheless, the implications of this idea aren’t easy to swallow. The title of Miller’s Caracas paper – ‘Another Lacan’ – refers to the Lacan that isn’t just about the endless passage and rewriting of the signifier. “When the so-called “influence” of Lacan is used solely to endorse the play of signifiers”, Miller suggested, “it has the effect of completely disorienting the analytic experience.”

His somewhat cheeky suggestion in concluding is that those who got so worked up about the Pass in the late sixties simply preferred the ‘easy’ Lacan of the signifier. Less so the tougher, later Lacan who was more concerned with how to address, unpick, or re-wire the fantasy.

This is the ‘hard problem’ for Lacanians. Indeed for all practitioners who aim at bringing about a change in someone’s life, whether they be psychotherapists, life coaches or self-help vloggers on YouTube.

By Owen Hewitson, LacanOnline.com


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