Jamieson Webster is a psychoanalyst practicing in NYC. Her work brings the psychoanalytic tradition into the everyday, crossing over into aesthetics, philosophy, politics, and literature. Her 2011 book The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis applies the fundamental principles of psychoanalysis to the institution itself, and explores where psychoanalysis finds itself in the larger culture. Led by her dreams and plagued by the ever precarious and existential position of psychoanalysis, Webster’s work reads as much like poetry as it does scholarship.
Writer and psychotherapist Cassandra Seltman spoke with Webster about her new book, Conversion Disorder: Listening to the Body in Psychoanalysis in which she offers radical new ways of understanding the psychosoma. Never shying from the personal, Webster offers a brave investigation of the many pains and pleasures of a body in analysis.
CASSANDRA SELTMAN: Conversion Disorder throws the value of psychoanalysis into question. You make clear that what is at stake in this text is how psychoanalysis creates change. There is a rejection of the typical theories that therapeutic actions such as the cognitive goal to correct disordered thinking, the relational idea of having reparative interpersonal experiences, or even the Freudian concept of the insight focused cure — although you’re Freudian by way of Lacan. Behavioral therapy, mindfulness and medications are also off the table. If we are to enter into, and ask others to enter into this uncertain kind of treatment, what can we do with our strong desire for a corrective?
JAMIESON WEBSTER: What do I put on the table, if I have taken all of these things off?
I think you have respect for the frame, protecting the frame while you’re reading the patient’s speech. You draw on attachment theory. That’s still on the table.
Transformation through transference. Conversion.
Conversion is on the table, as are dreams.
I actually don’t think I pay enough heed to the question of change explicitly in the book because the book is invested in reading certain figures that were important to me at the time that I was thinking these questions through. But I’ve just been recently circling back to the idea of transformation through transference, which is ultimately what I mean when I talk about reawakening the pathogenic nucleus in the body, as Freud spoke about it in The Project for a Scientific Psychology, which is waking it up through transference and in the process of analysis. I think there is an important caveat here that this not about “insight” into the past, but actually this action of waking something up and working through it, even enacting it. In this way it is more of a creation then a going back into the past. This is probably why I ended up using Agamben a lot, because he kind of contests the idea of insight and looks at any latency or trauma as something that makes what could have (or even should have) happened available again, not necessarily what did happen.
So it’s funny, I didn’t think of all the things I was throwing away, but it seems that I’m throwing away a whole lot. Something that surprised me in the writing was the idea that this re-evocation of trauma has the force of separation, not just between then and now, but in general for a person. It shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did. It’s a very kind of standard Lacanian idea and also obviously an idea related to attachment theory. Conversion marks a moment that says, “this is what was past, and this is what’s now,” which I think we have a really hard time with.
One question I have about separation involves your own relationship to Lacan. In some ways you’re even more loyal to Lacan than Lacan is to Freud. So I’m wondering if there’s any points at which you diverge from Lacan, and if if your relationship to him is your refusal of separation.
I feel very separate from Lacanians who I actually don’t know that well, to be honest. I know Lacan, but there’s a lot, obviously, that’s gone on since his time. And people I know are people who read the Lacanian theory and I realized that I actually don’t really read this stuff. And when I listened to what many Lacanians do clinically, I realized that we are in very, very different places.
So I’ve been trying to think about what in Lacan spurns a clinical theory that I otherwise don’t identify with and probably when I talk about what I do clinically they think I’m bananas, just some American idiot. There is a kind of fidelity to Lacan throughout the text that I feel is against what took place in his own wake, which I somewhat reject.
So there’s something, you don’t know what it is, in Lacan, that is generating these clinicians who are practicing very differently from you?
I guess the question would be, is there a system of Lacanianism throughout the book or why is it based on Lacan? I feel that he has taught me the most clinically. Also because the book is so much about the patients. I am trying to show how Lacan helps me as a clinician.
Which is funny because the stereotype is that he’s not very clinical at all.
Yeah, which really angers me because it’s not true in the slightest. I understand that he drives people crazy in terms of-why does he have to talk like this? Why does he have to theorize like this? Why is he making up his own language? Why does he insists on this jargon? And yet I find that when I read him, it changes the way I listen clinically more than anybody else. There’s something about engaging with his way of moving through material that helps me listen to my patient.
Since we’re talking about stereotypes of Lacanians, another is that they want to reveal the hidden pleasure in everything. Is analysis simply a way of mapping the excitement of the body, or is this too simplistic?
When you say they want to reveal the hidden pleasures, it’s often with this idea that there’s something bad there. The idea of jouissance is, “the thing that you complain about is really the thing that you’re enjoying.” And the analyst is going to kind of catch you out. I do think that there’s a confrontation with the way that a patient needs their symptom, let’s say. But I think that this idea that everyone is secretly getting off on terrible things is not a very good way to approach a patient at all.
There might be certain patients in which you have to deal with masochism in some forceful way, but as a general rule, I don’t think that this is an interesting nor a very nice way of treating something that I actually take very seriously. Which is that, there are pleasures. There are also pleasures that have been deeply inhibited and there’s sites of the body that come awake in the treatment, and we are mapping this, we are listening to this. We are exacerbating it to a certain extent. And we are bringing it to the foreground, and if we did all of this simply in order to shove it in your face that you secretly enjoy terrible things, that would be a travesty.
Are we making the body erogenous in all the places it wasn’t before?
Yes, we could bring to light the hidden erogeneity of the body. This was my book. The book starts with the book that I can’t write, which would be to really write about patients erogenous body, and I realized nothing would be more exposing.
Yes. And I don’t think that it would be good for someone to ever read about themselves this way. So then I can’t write it even though I actually feel nothing else should be written except for this, for us analysts. And I went through the moments in Freud, very quickly in the appendix of the book, that this caused a lot of problems. So when Freud talks about Dora touching her belt in a certain way and he says, “Oh, this is her masturbating,” it’s too humiliating for her to have read that. And the Wolf Man and his love of asses and his defecating in bed when he saw his parents doing it a tergo. The Wolf Man had to be the Wolf Man forever because what else can you do at that point? Either you have to reject this thing in its entirety, or you have to become it. And I think Little Hans was furious with Freud. The story was that he didn’t want to hear anything about this analysis, even though we now know that his sister committed suicide and that his mother left shortly after the treatment ended, but that Little Hans actually did okay in the end. Maybe it was easier for him since he only had to read about himself as a child.
A lot of what you talk about in the book is the analyst’s body as well as the patient’s and it seems that conversion happens on the level of the analyst’s body first and foremost. I’m curious regarding conversion what is happening at the level of fantasy and if a fantasy is traversed in conversion or if the symptoms are simply shifting.
That’s interesting. I was going to say that the fantasy was separate from what’s taking place through the analyst’s body but I actually think that it’s at the moment that the analyst’s body is the most imbricated in the transference that you’re actually at the point of fantasy, and the traversal of the fantasy. And it’s something about the moment that there’s that crossing. This is something I found in Lacan that I didn’t see anyone picking up on. It comes up at various points when he talks about the fact that the patient does something with the analyst’s bodies around the analyst as their object. For example, he says at the end of the cure “the analyst is flushed down the toilet like feces.” There’s some enactment of a fantasy, but there’s also some kind of shifting of the symptom that leads to and takes place via the end of analysis. So, I was trying to bring that point out more.
Do you think that the analyst’s body has to go through a conversion in order for the patient’s fantasy to be crossed?
Yes. I think the case at the very end of the book, in a way, tried to talk about this place where, via the question of my patient losing her child and what was coming up in the treatment, and a series of dreams that I was having at the same time, led to some things that I said to her, that might have sounded cruel, but ended up becoming very important. I wanted to show how these two bodily stories come together. And there’s something important about the way that you let all kinds of things happen in a treatment, and this is why I also say I feel very protective of the frame; the frame is there so that strange things can happen between patient and analyst within a context that can be worked through. This isn’t an excuse for the analyst to just fly off the handle and do whatever. But, Lacan says that you have to become a dupe of the patient, to a certain extent.
There’s this common reaction to an enactment — “an enactment is happening, it has to be analyzed!” But it sounds like you’re saying it has to crystallize and it has to come to fruition. You can’t just halt it immediately.
Absolutely. I think you let it go on for a long time. You don’t just stop it in its tracks. But this has a lot to do with what’s important to me about the direction of the treatment, which is probably one of my main fidelities to Lacan. This is what the Freudians talk about, when they speak about the phases of analysis, beginning phase to mid-phase, the termination phase. And these all have different characteristics that you’re always orienting yourself within. You can’t just let an enactment happen in the first phase of therapy because you’re just getting to know each other. Neither person can know what any of it means right off the bat. So there you’re trying to keep things going in terms of the speaking — to the point where the patient can say what their question is. It’s only in mid phase analysis, once you start to feel the transference gaining traction, that you need to push something to crystallize, between you and the patient in response to their question.
First you’re just trying to keep the treatment from being destroyed.
Yes, absolutely. And then you can try to crystallize something or many things once the treatment has a hold over both of you, and then bring it to conclusion. They’re not all that neat, but…
You’ve got a whole jar of crystals.
The special object that an analysis isolates, Lacan, he talks about as a shiny object. He called it the agalma. It is something that he says is inside the analyst and it’s what keeps the patient speaking and attached to the process and persisting despite a lot of suffering. Because the analytic process is not easy.
Are they storing it, or building it inside the analyst?
The way that he puts it is that they’re building it in the analyst. I think they hook into something new and probably the few Lacanians that I’ve read that I’ve gotten very attached to are also really interested in this point because it’s what touches your unconscious configuration. It’s touching your analysis. It’s touching your symptomatology. It’s touching your pleasure.
I feel that happening in a consultation. They’re trying to get a sense of whether there’s something in you that can eventually be hooked into. Sometimes there is and sometimes there isn’t.
That period is really important insofar as both of you are trying to figure that out.
Another question about the kind of architecture of conversion. There are a lot of sewing metaphors in the book. You utilize in the text sewing, suturing, stitching, quilting, which kind of evokes this movement of appearance/disappearance. And, as you say, the linking of nothing to nothing. Is conversion just the length of a stitch?
Probably more a tapestry. But I did really get taken with the stitch metaphor; also the image of Penelope who is stitching and unstitching at the same time. Lacan talks about the fact that inside the cave, at its deepest point, is where many cave drawings are found. It’s not where you can easily see them. And it’s something about marking the space that can’t be seen. So it’s not the stitches closing something together, but the stitch is something that marks absence, in a way. So I wanted to be wary of the healing metaphor of the stitching and try to find a different model for it. I think that the other image in the book that the stitching is maybe in competition with is fire.
There’s the whole chapter based around the dream “Father, can’t you see that I’m burning?” I have this whole chapter on fire and the scientist and philosopher Bachelard. There is also the patient who got burned by fire. So I realized that it comes up a lot and it’s this question of harnessing the destructive impulses, rather than being about Eros which is more the stitching of things together, the synthetic kind of binding qualities. So, maybe it’s more of a life drive and death drive dynamic in the book.
It’s rhythmic. Also, there’s a little gap between stitches while the fabric is being crossed from one side to the other.
It’s very Moebius-like in that way, too, in that you’re flipping between the sides which maybe does something to the question of where the edges are, or even the question of what is inside or what is outside. It starts to weave them differently. Another thing that happens in the book is lots of folding metaphors. It’s not only stitching clothing, but it is this question of constructing the clothing.
It’s interesting to think that it’s also about marking. The way you would mark something with a stitch. Which is an unusual thing to mark something with.
Like seams! There’s something funny about seams. The clothes obviously have to be constructed with them, but it’s a stitching that’s also about hiding something, or creating a seam. Why do you need to mark that edge? What’s the point of showing the edge of the fabric in that way?
This is also the question of the edge, which goes back to fire because fire, through destructive force, is trying to search for the furthest most edge of something, the point at which you can stop. So much of the book is working towards this limit, even with this idea of the kind of crystallization of the conversion, as trying to find the limit point. That’s also this moment that you’re talking about with the symptom, with the body of the analyst and the body of the patient, where some symptomatic resonance is trying to find a limit point.
Conversion wants to relieve suffering in some way, or change suffering. We’re begging for it.
Please, please, please give me a conversion. And let it not be fundamentalism.
I’d say that your main nemesis in this book is knowledge. You write at one point that writing is the disordering of knowledge. And so it got me thinking about what is the place, if any, of writing in a talking cure?
I think that it’s very important. For some people maybe more than others. But there’s a question of what counts as writing. There’s the writing one produces. But I think other things can be written, one can move differently throughout the world. And that’s a different kind of writing. Or one can be with one’s family in a way that has a quality in which you’re writing something into existence. And I’m distinguishing this from knowing to the extent that it’s not a perspective from the outside. It’s not insight oriented. It’s being able to put things down in a way that moves the pieces around differently. So I think it’s incredibly important and I think that you do see it happen as these conversion experiences start to intensify and accelerate.
The book discusses the institution of psychoanalysis as much as the architecture of an individual analysis. If the transmission of knowledge should be neither the goal of training nor of analysis, what separates the two? And is it only a formal separation?
It’s funny because it’s the architecture of the symptom, the architecture of the analysis, and then the architecture of the psychoanalytic institution. And I think all of them, at least in the way that I’m kind of constructing them, are are really anti-knowledge. This theme was in the first book. I suppose it’s there in the Hamlet book since he’s the one who knows. This is also something that I’ve taken from Lacan, but in this book in particular, rather than just say, “Oh, non-knowledge,” it’s trying to show how embedded it is in these three layering structures. And I read an early paper of Lacan’s, “The Variations on The Standard Treatment,” which is on the question of the institution; and I also look at that late paper by Freud, “The Subtleties of a Faulty Action.” Both show that this question of the transmission of psychoanalysis needs to take place beyond the spheres of knowing. And Lacan in that paper says that if an analyst does not have some experience at the limits of knowledge that he will only ever be a mediocre analyst. It’s a neat and nasty pronouncement. He’s very strict about it in showing its deep importance in what we understand about the speaking subject, what we understand about the unconscious, what we understand about the process of analysis, what we understand about the problems with the institution and power, more generally. A lot of this is coming from my deepest disappointment with the institution of psychoanalysis and political institutions in so far as its been an experience of people who think they know.
Is there a conversion that happens in both the analysis and the training?
Well, what happens for a patient is something on an individual level with respect to their own history and lived body. In training, this is obviously about not just someone who’s trying to live, but someone who is now trying to live as a psychoanalyst. There’s a conversion into being a psychoanalyst that may or may not correspond with the conversion in the treatment, and need not necessarily. It might happen in supervision, it might happen at some point with a certain patient.
It is a transmission, but not necessarily of knowledge or rather, information…your book — it did affect my dreams.
Oh, good. Tell me.
You want to work for free right now?
For the readers.
Oh, for the readers. Well, in the dream I was doing a chemistry experiment. There was a circular test tube I was heating up with a flame. Then I put on my mother’s engagement ring. I could see the ring clearly, two diamonds separated by the band between them. I was putting it on each finger and it was too loose on all the fingers. I ended up putting it on the middle finger.
It’s funny, it’s about fire.
Right, there’s fire in it, and then there is there’s also the chemistry tube. So there’s these round things — ring and tube, and fire, and the separation built into the ring.
I don’t mean for this to be silly Jungianism but even with the whole tube, the fire, the spark. It’s a conception scene, just in the basic sexuality of fire, which is obviously there with the question of the engagement ring. It’s about the scene of your birth. Which you can say “fuck you” to. Maybe that’s the separation as well. You push the Oedipal wish into a new form.
I’d like to contextualize the book in the contemporary a bit by asking how the psychic economy of desire adapts or dissociates itself from the marketplace, especially in this neoliberal age of continuous consumption? Does the analytic session have to work with or against the force of reification? We might be in Žižek territory here.
I think it works against it. I stopped shopping because of my analysis.
Yeah. I don’t need to buy stuff. No, really it was huge, an impulse tied to my mother, who is a shopper, and her conditions of shopping are interesting. It’s the stuff of immigrants, nouveau riche, but also needing something from one another. So, shopping to shop at her, shop with her, be her. And separating from this. But I also felt it as a real economic change. I didn’t feel that need. There’s other things now that are satisfying to me which wasn’t present before the analysis at a certain point. Like writing.
And I think that Neoliberalism is working with the symptomatically stuck economies, and the fact that people aren’t able to enjoy. This problem of the erogenous body — here we have to think of iPhones, shopping for goods and now internet shopping on our iPhones, etc. Which isn’t to say that I don’t think it’s nice to want to buy something nice. But I think it’s a question of the access to pleasure, rather than the attempt to find a pleasure through consumerism that really needs to be found in another way. So I think analysis can work against neoliberalism, though to take one person out of the economy isn’t going to do much, sadly. Let’s add up how many patients that you can get to this place. And what are you doing? You’re helping how many people in a life and career as an analyst? It’s a lot on the one hand, if you make, 40 people’s lives different. On the other hand, that’s just 40 people out of nine billion. Something has to shake a person.
The consumption of course makes us feel both more and less lonely at once. Your chapter on coitus interruptus made me wonder about how tech innovations affect our relationship to loneliness, attachment, separation, and anxiety. What happens to the lost objects and can there even be lost objects, when all is immediate, social and recorded?
I think we don’t understand yet. We’ll understand something, at some point soon. I think everyone is having a very hard time with separation. I think it’s part of the wider stuckness and inhibition.
Stuck, inhibited, and anxious.
Yes! Separation isn’t a once and for all, it’s something that you have to do over and over and over again, and the immediacy and recorded social life is making that a more enigmatic experience. Lacan has this joke that while it’s a reality, we are separate, it’s still an achievement, meaning we have to realize something that’s a fundamental reality that we have all of these ways of covering over. That was the joke about coitus interruptus, which is that he said it’s Freud’s most brilliant interpretation of the problem of anxiety. And of course the biggest joke of Freud’s etiology of anxieties, because people were using condoms for stopping their orgasm. But he points to the moment when we think in our imagination that we are overcoming separation, when we’re having union with the other person, we suddenly realize that they aren’t having an orgasm, and this is causing outbreaks of anxiety because it’s forcing people into the knowledge of the separation that they don’t want to know about at the moment they most don’t want to know about it. With technology it’s all mutual, simulated orgasm.
There are no barriers.
That’s right. There’s this massive increase in loneliness at the same time that everyone’s more connected than ever. It’s also why the couch is so hard. I have patients that I work with, trying to help them be on the couch, and they will say, “I can’t be. I can’t feel this alone in here.” They get back up and they go in the chair. It’s interesting to me because there are real protests against the couch, more than just resistance. They’re basically telling me they’re not ready to be alone in their head. They can’t do it; it’s freaking them out. So I let them go back up. I think that makes the work of analysis very interesting and very necessary. This is why, in my view, there’s a resurgence of interest in psychoanalysis. You can’t help but think of what it costs, the capacity to be alone.