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What's in play

Play and psychoanalysis have one thing in common: they entail freely choosing a discourse constrained by rules that is intended to produce something new

By David Lichtenstein

The party game Truth or Dare reflects a principle that is at work in all forms of play. It is the paradoxical act of freely choosing a condition of constraint. If one person asks, “truth or dare?” and the other replies by affirming either of those two conditions, then what follows is a discursive structure in which what is liberating is the same thing as what is constraining. The Mobius strip of constraint and freedom is the essential character of play and it permeates all cultural discourse.

In Truth or Dare, ordinary speech rules are subordinated to a fundamental rule, and the ordinary right to refuse either an indelicate question or command is freely suspended for as long as one is playing. The paradoxical structure of play is that freely choosing a binding rule generates a new form of freedom, with characteristics determined by the particular rule.

The principle of subordinating subsequent speech acts to a fundamental rule is shared by psychoanalysis. Indeed, although psychoanalytic treatment is not in fact an instance of play, since it is intended for a purpose other than the enjoyment of the act itself, it does draw significantly from the structure of play. The logic of play and game theory is deeply woven into the fabric of the psychoanalytic act, as has been noted by many analysts.

A defining feature of the psychoanalytic rule is the constraint to speak without constraints. One is bound by the rule to speak without boundary. And, the player who accepts this rule is bound to an impossible task. No one can “say everything that comes to mind” without selecting or censoring, and in that impossibility, indeed in choosing to play by that impossible rule, a process is set in motion that generates the effects that have proven so useful and illuminating in our clinical endeavor. To play well is to fully engage this impossible rule and to thereby derive the maximum benefit from the encounter.

Of course there are two players in the psychoanalytic game. The analyst is bound by a different rule albeit one tied to the fundamental rule, and indeed it too is a rule that reference is impossible to follow absolutely. The rule for the analyst is: using no other means than speech, act in such a way as to facilitate the other player’s adherence to the fundamental rule of speaking without constraint. The analyst is constrained to act in a way that facilitates the other player’s freedom to speak, and nothing else. The rules for both players are based upon the supposition that the therapeutic benefits derive from the game itself and thus it should be faithfully played. This of course is the pure form of the psychoanalytic game, and like all pure forms exists only virtually as a point of. It is another distinctive feature of psychoanalysis that the real benefits derive not only from playing the game but also from the moments when this pure form breaks down, as it inevitably does. Playing the game well means that the breakdowns are successfully incorporated in the play.

Several pieces in this issue of D/R address this question regarding the unique characteristics and fundamental rules of the psychoanalytic encounter. Ona Nierenberg in her review of Michael Miller’s book Lacanian Psychotherapy discusses how far the rules can be stretched before the game changes into another form, a game of a different type, related perhaps to psychoanalysis but not, in fact psychoanalysis.

Donald Moss and Alan Bass consider the speech of the analyst according to the rule of neutrality and discover that if neutrality is defined as that quality of speech in the analyst that affords the greatest degree of freedom to the other player, then it has some surprising characteristics. Characteristics that they identify as erotic, a quality not usually consider neutral, and one that invites us to consider the relationship between Eros and Play.

In an interview, Wilfred Bion once answered a question about whether all that took place in an analysis was talk. He said, “No, we are also silent”(see Reiner in this issue of D/R). Bion in his characteristically evocative way was effectively pointing to the way that speech works not only in terms of what is said but also by how, and when, it is deployed. And thus that silence is an expressive act in the psychoanalytic dialogue.

In this issue, we present a roundtable on silence with pieces from five psychoanalysts from differing orientations. They take on one of the best known but often-misunderstood aspects of the psychoanalytic playing field, namely, the analyst’s silence. They address the silence of the analysand as well, and in so doing, alert us to an important truth: the fundamental rule, to say whatever comes to mind, can also be followed by expressing silence. One is always also free to say nothing.

The wager when one sits down to play chess is that by strictly following the rules new possibilities emerge, and they always do. It is true as well in artistic creation. As Henry Seiden has shown in these pages, poets work in a given form even as they strain its bounds, as they inevitably do. Painters chose a canvas of a given size and proportion, a palette of a certain range, brushes and other tools of a certain kind, and then make something new from those constraints. The wager of psychoanalysis is likewise that something new emerges play-like from a constraining formal structure.

About the Author

David Lichtenstein is the editor of the DIVISION/Review.