Sunday, April 6, 2014

on therapeutic utility

In a rather astonishing passage in The Writing of Disaster (trans. Ann Smock, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), Blanchot discusses Serge Leclaire’s and D.W. Winnicott’s “child,” the dead child, the child who is “always already dead.” The discussion takes place in his reflections on “impossible necessary death,” and the death of the child is understood as the first death; in contrast to “organic” death, the second death. One of the remarkable things about the passage is that Blanchot identifies the object of one’s destructiveness in a way that Winnicott himself does not quite get to. This object is “the dead child”; “what we strive thus to kill is the dead child: not only the one who would have for his function to sustain and maintain death in life, but the one for whom the ‘confusion’ of the two deaths has been unable not to obtain and who, therefore, does not ever authorize us to ‘lift’ this confusion” (69, italics mine). This child is perhaps really two: the child, like Leclaire’s infans, whose death is the instance of our being able to speak and to live; and the child for whom the first and the second deaths remain confused (double negative: unable not to obtain), which for Blanchot signals the “the infinite passivity of dying” (70). That child who is the condition of individuality (who is in this sense a “me”), is also not an individual, is a “not-me.” Both of these “children” are dead; they are “confused,” on this basis.

What I find worth noting about the passage is the way that Blanchot qualifies psychoanalysis. He does so, first, by noting that Winnicott’s explanation, which is “fictive,” is perhaps “therapeutically useful”: 

Or rather, this explanation of Winnicott’s is only an explanation, albeit impressive—a fictive application designed to individualize that which cannot be individualized or to furnish a representation for the unrepresentable: to allow the belief that one can, with the help of transference, fix in the present of a memory (that is, in a present experience) the passivity of the immemorial unknown. The introduction of a such a detour is perhaps therapeutically useful, to the extent that, through a kind of Platonism, it permits him who lives haunted by the imminent collapse to say: this will not happen, it has already happened; I know, I remember. It allows him to restore, in other words, a knowledge which is relation to truth, and a common, linear temporality (66).

As Blanchot describes, Winnicott’s “primitive agonies” entail a state in which the child is not yet a subject, and the function of this state, the unintegrated state, is to allow the adult individual to have a narrative in which organic death, the “immemorial unknown” can be known as a memory that refers back to this primary state, a state of primary nonintegration. It’s perhaps precisely because it’s “fictive,” or “therapeutically useful,” that Winnicott’s explanation functions as the obverse to Leclaire’s assertion that “one lives and speaks only by killing the infans in oneself (in others also)” (67). The condition of living and speaking is the death of the child, not just of the child, but of the “dead child.”

Thus, one of the dead children is “therapeutically useful” insofar as she allows the lifting of confusion, to return to knowledge, to establish a linear temporality. I think Blanchot is right about this utility, and in identifying it, he points to something that is perhaps obvious but that might seem too much so. It’s one of the aspects of Winnicott’s writing that I think others, including Michael D. Snediker, in Queer Optimism, have highlighted, which is the terrific metaphorical capaciousness of Winnicott’s writing. What Blanchot underscores is that this “fictive” or metaphorical capacity is its therapeutic utility.

Blanchot goes further. In a parenthetical comment in the next paragraph, he claims that psychoanalytic vocabulary should be used only by analysts: “only those who practice psychoanalysis can use—only those, that is, for whom analysis is a risk, an extreme danger, a daily test—for otherwise it is only the convenient language of established culture” (67). Only the analyst, perhaps, writes and speaks and lives these terms through their practice, terms that would otherwise merely describe “established culture.” Winnicott’s position as an analyst allows him to function in a realm in which the metaphorical aspect of language is therapeutically useful because it does not have a correlate with social experience; it “has not been experienced.” To turn the language of psychoanalysis over to ordinary language implies that this metaphorical dimension will be lost. This is the dimension of language that is at work in representation.

The dead dead child—this means not just that we kill “the marvelous (terrifying) child which we have been in the dreams and desires of those who were present at our birth (parents, society in general),” but that we kill the identification of the child with “primary narcissistic representation,” a representation that “has the status of an ever-unconscious, and consequently, forever indelible, representation” (67). The “indelible ever-unconscious representation” is the impossible necessary death, and it’s this that we seek to destroy (and that in destroying gives us the ability to live, to speak). Blanchot writes: “Whence the literally ‘maddening’ difficulty: in order not to remain in the limbo of the infans, on the near side of desire, one must destroy the indestructible and even finish off (not at one blow, but constantly) that to which one has not now, nor has one ever had, nor will one ever have, access: impossible, necessary death” (67). We destroy the representation itself, though we want (hence the limbo) to maintain it. This, among other things, getting to the end, leaves us confused…

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