The Intervention of the Other Ethical Subjectivity in Levinas and Lacan (Book Review)

Author:  Fryer, David Ross
Publisher: New York: Other Press, 2005
Reviewed By: David Lichtenstein, Fall 2005, pp. 72-74

David Fryer, an American philosopher, has written an important and useful book on two French thinkers: Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Lacan. The Intervention of the Other addresses ideas that are at the heart of current debates within psychoanalysis related to questions of intersubjectivity. It would enhance these debates were psychoanalysts to use this book as a reference in these matters.

There is a widely held view among American psychoanalysts that a perspective called "postmodernism" threatens our traditional appreciation of the individual human subject.

To evaluate this threat, we need not only to know what we mean by the postmodernist theory of the subject, but also what our supposedly shared traditional understanding of the subject is, that is being threatened. Before debating a postmodern subject, we ought to clarify the relationship between the Enlightenment subject of reason and the displacement of that subject by Freud's "Copernican" revolution. If we accept Freud's view that the conscious subject is no longer master in his own house, then presumably we have already accepted a post-Enlightenment "modernist" [?] subjectivity with a notion of the subject that already incorporates the indeterminate character of the unconscious. It is not clear that we have or need a concept of subjectivity that is radically beyond this modernist view. It may well be that what is called postmodernism is, in truth, an articulation and/or elaboration of certain dimensions of the modernist and psychoanalytic view of the subject that originated with Freud and his contemporaries.

If we reaffirm the principle that the ongoing inquiry into the structure and character of the human subject is the fundamental psychoanalytic endeavor, and that our understanding of the self and of subjectivity should not be taken for granted as though this project is complete, then what is called "postmodern" takes its proper place as the continuing work of the modernist psychoanalytic inquiry. This continuing inquiry into the character of the human subject should be viewed as a source of new life rather than as a threat to an established notion that needs no further elaboration. In other words, it is only when the psychoanalytic inquiry is treated as complete that a call for some thing "post" will arise. When this inquiry into subjectivity leads in surprising and disorienting directions then it is merely following the example established and often commented upon by Freud. Indeed to reject this uncertainty and to posit an already completed project, the psychoanalytic theory of the subject, that now stands as a permanent edifice to be inhabited but no longer worked on is fundamentally at odds with the fundamental principles of psychoanalytic thinking.

The threat of postmodernism is usually seen as taking the Freudian subject toward a degree of indeterminacy that Freud never envisioned or intended. He allowed that the conscious subject was not master of his (her) house but was still the primary tenant with a secure lease. The postmodernists at the gate don't recognize rent laws and threaten the principles of private property. Perhaps. Or perhaps once Freud opened the door to these uncertainties, then a respect for open discourse makes it inevitable that the full spectrum of possibilities would be considered. In this case "traditional" Freudians and "postmodernists" are part of a dialogue about the Freudian or modernist subject, rather than on opposite sides of some real divide.

In the material covered by David Fryer's book, The Intervention of the Other, two major thinkers explore the question of how the human subject is formed. Neither of the two thinkers ever, to my knowledge, identified themselves as postmodernist, although both have been cited as participants in that (illusory) campaign. They share the view that it is through its encounter with something other than the self that the subject comes into being. It is the character of this other, this formative and fundamental non-self, that makes the boundary and hence the existence of the subject possible, that is the focus of their work and of Fryer's study.

That one approaches the matter as a philosopher and the other as a psychoanalyst is another of the themes of this interesting and important book about the work of Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Lacan. Thus it is a book worth reading especially by psychoanalysts concerned about an imaginary threat arising from certain strains in European philosophy. Fryer presents the major principles of each man's work in what can either be a useful or a bit tedious introduction depending upon one's prior familiarity. Also as in any synthesis, one finds points of disagreement in his portrayal of their ideas. However, all in all, it is a careful and respectful presentation of two complex and difficult thinkers and accomplishes its purpose of presenting enough to allow for a comparison.

Psychoanalysis and philosophy have always had an odd and uncertain relationship. Freud once made a point of asserting that he had never read Nietzsche in order to strengthen his claim that the psychoanalytic theory of the unconscious was based upon scientific observation rather than philosophical speculation. This distinction still holds some weight. For example, when contemporary psychoanalysts speak about the relational character of the human subject, they tend to back this up with references to the observational studies of human infants in the "attachment literature" of Ainsworth, Maine, or Stern. The basis for claiming that the human subject from the earliest period in development is formed in a relationship to another subject is the evidence of those relationships objectively gathered, rather than the philosophical justification that the coherent truth value of psychoanalytic principles requires that this assumption be so. Likewise, when psychoanalysts argue as to why this social character of the subject is important they generally appeal to clinical evidence of greater therapeutic efficacy resulting from an approach that takes note of this principle. Thus arguments about the supposedly remote and distant psychoanalyst who fails to recognize the intersubjective or relational dimension of the subject become arguments not that this is an unpleasant approach to psychoanalysis in an aesthetic sense, nor that it operates from an incoherent ontological stance, but rather that it is not clinically effective, that it doesn't work as well in terms of psychoanalytic treatment.

To compare the clinical effectiveness of differing psychoanalytic theories is a prohibitively difficult empirical task. It requires a level of observational reliability about what is going on in the consulting room in relation to what the psychoanalyst claims as his or her theory, as well as outcome measures about what is ultimately effective in psychoanalytic treatment that are notoriously elusive. It is difficult enough to establish outcome measures for psychoanalysis in general. To fine-tune such research to distinguish among treatments based upon different theoretical frameworks may well be impossible. Nevertheless it is a claim made implicitly and sometimes explicitly all the time in the psychoanalytic literature. As with most claims of clinical effectiveness the evidence is largely anecdotal and not very convincing as scientific proof. One must assume that the justification for presenting the empirical claim is that without it, the theoretical assertion would merely be philosophical speculation. In other words psychoanalysts often speak like scientists not because they actually do science but because they don't want to be taken for philosophers.

One of Fryer's implicit themes is that when philosophers and psychoanalysts concern themselves with the same question, the relationship between the disciplines demands a second look. Are the similarities and the differences between the philosophical and psychoanalytic treatments of these questions a result of differences in method or are they instead differences that could be found as well between thinkers operating within the same methodological fields? Thus if one can think of psychoanalysts who operate with a Levinasian theory of the subject, or at least one largely consistent with his positions, and philosophers who operate from something close to a Lacanian view then the latter possibility would seem to be true: the differences between Levinas and Lacan would derive from different basic assumptions rather than differences of method and one could find both clinicians and philosophers on either side of the debate. That Fryer successfully sets up the terms of the debate between these thinkers is therefore very helpful in exploring some basic psychoanalytic assumptions, assumptions that are as much basic philosophical positions as clinical points of view. Indeed it is among the merits of this book that this debate is presented, because as Fryer notes, the two thinkers themselves did not take any significant notice of one another so far as we know. Their ideas rub up against one another but the actual people did not. It is Fryer's contribution to construct a version of that exchange.

It would only be possible to outline important differences between two highly developed bodies of thought such as those of Levinas and Lacan if there are clear and important frameworks that they hold in common. One of these is what Fryer identifies, somewhat awkwardly, as post-humanist ethical subjectivity. Note that Fryer avoids the trap of postmodernism by shifting the term to humanism. This is not trivial wordplay. By a post-humanist view of the subject, Fryer explicitly means a view where the Enlightenment ideal of a self fully knowing and embodying itself is no longer accepted. Freud was among those who threw the humanist subject into doubt. Freud, the modernist, was among those who marked the beginning of the end of the humanist ideal. We may argue that Freud and modernism straddle both humanism and something beyond, but that amounts to saying that the door is opened to something that goes beyond the humanist ideal by psychoanalysis. It is opened as well by certain modern philosophical frameworks such as Hegelian dialectics, the phenomenology of Husserl, and the work of Heidegger, among others. It is once that humanist subject is put into doubt that we enter the time of post-humanism, a time clearly recognized and embraced as an object of study by both Levinas and Lacan.

The notion of "ethical subjectivity" grows out of the assertion of a post-humanist subject. For the humanist, the subject and its ethical principles are both knowable and complete. Ethics transcend the subject and exist independently as a priori principles of the good life. However, so the argument goes, once the known (humanist) subject is put into doubt, the ground for ethical certainty is likewise shaken. Instead, the principles of the good life (ethics) are tied to how the actual individual subject comes to be, that is, the subject's gradual and never complete self-realization are a part of its ethical truth. This idea is recognized in psychoanalysis and is at the core of the psychoanalytic principle that the analyst does not succeed by telling the analysand how to live but by supporting the conditions whereby the analysand comes to see something about how to determine that for him or herself. Indeed we don't tell the analysand how to live because, in truth, we don't know how he/she should live. We only know how to help the subject come to realize his/her own truth. Fryer's book opens a world of philosophical thought that in effect shares this clinical principle. Levinas stands in a tradition where this uncertainty of the subject leads to the search for a new ethical ground that doesn't collapse into relativity in the face of this uncertainty.

In truth, it is ethical relativity that is the bogeyman of the supposed postmodern threat. If the subject and his/her ethics are indeterminate, then anything goes. If the ideals of reason, objective truth, and a priori ethical principles are put into doubt, then what is the ground upon which the subject stands? Fryer demonstrates that it is the concept of the Other that puts a halt to ethical relativism for both Levinas and Lacan. What is lost in the demise of humanist ideals is replaced by a defining encounter with something beyond the subject that serves to limit it. Something on the order of a determinate social dimension comes to rescue the indeterminate contemporary subject from ethical chaos. It is this determinate and defining social dimension that is called the other.

Here things get particularly interesting, because although both Levinas and Lacan establish their post-humanist ethical subjectivity on the encounter with the other, they mean something quite different by the term. It is a difference that is subtle and sometimes difficult to grasp but one that is present as well in contrasting psychoanalytic views, and indeed one that is central to certain current debates within psychoanalysis. I hesitate to abbreviate what is a rich and valuable explication in Fryer's book, but one way to think about the difference is that for Levinas the other is more or less on the order of another subject equivalent to the self, but encountered in a distinctly formative moment, whereas for Lacan the Other (with a capital "O") is an unconscious construct, based upon the acts of other human subjects, but ultimately of a different order than the manifest social other. Thus Lacan distinguishes between the Other and the other, the former representing the unconscious construct, the latter another person. While this abbreviated account does not do justice to the richness of either theories, and I recommend Fryer's book to introduce anyone to that richness, it serves to illustrate why all of this may be important to psychoanalysts: clarifying what we mean by the self and the subject, by the other as a person and the other as a fantasy (conscious and/or unconscious), by a relation, an encounter, an intervention (as in Fryer's title), etc., is at the heart of the current debates in psychoanalysis. One thing philosophical thought is especially good for is to challenge us to use concepts carefully and rigorously.

The field is full of debates these days about intersubjectivity, the analytic third, the relational self, etc. As I suggested above, claims of clinical verification to the contrary, these are issues sorted out on both philosophical as well as practical terms. To know what we really mean by any of these notions requires the kind of thorough work that Fryer does and describes. To talk about intersubjectivity without having a clear idea of what we mean by "the subject", to talk about relational psychoanalysis without making it clear what is the conceptual status of the entities in that relation is to assume a naive position on matters that are far too important for that. To put it bluntly, if psychoanalysis did, as Freud claimed, put the accepted idea of the human subject in doubt, then to think of psychoanalysis along the lines of a transparent relationship between two people would be to revert to a pre-Freudian subject. Thinkers like Levinas and Lacan, each in their own way and in spite of their many differences, make it clear that what takes place between two people is never transparent. It touches the most profound ethical dimension of our subjectivity and requires deep and rigorous thought to be appreciated.

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