Speech and understanding

Today, there is a great concern for us to understand. But does a psychoanalysis take understanding as its aim?

The standard definition of understanding given in the dictionaries is “to perceive the intended meaning” of something or someone. There are some aspects of this that can be developed further. The first of these is that, given such a definition, it can be said that understanding is a matter of something that moves from one place to another. It consists of two points and a direction, like a vector. Something is sent from point A and, if all goes well, it is received at point B, such that ‘understanding’ is defined as the successful reception at point B of what was sent from point A. The idea is a familiar one because it is the basic model of communication. When we communicate, we send a message to someone and we intend for them to receive the meaning of our message. Understanding therefore has everything to do with communication. It is the measure of communication’s success. To understand is to receive, to a greater or lesser degree, some kind of meaningful message. Even when this message is not understood, it is still nonetheless recognised as meaning something to someone. For example, when someone speaks to us in a language that is not our own it may not be possible to understand what is being said but it is possible to recognise that there is an intention for something to be understood. An intended meaning is sent with a receiver in mind.

In a clinical setting, the medium of communication is speech. In the end, a patient’s speech is the only material that an analyst has to work with. As Lacan writes in 1953, “the obviousness of this fact is no excuse for ignoring it.” [1] This means that the point from which a meaning is sent is always a speaker and the point to which a meaning is sent is always a listener.

Understanding, in the context of the clinic, thus refers to a particular kind of speaking relationship. In everyday conversation, this is usually taken for granted because the relationship is more or less symmetrical. When two people have a conversation, they usually take turns being the speaker and then being the listener. Some clinical approaches are modelled on this principle of understanding, seeking to refine an exchange of intended meanings between therapist and patient. But for psychoanalysis in the Lacanian orientation, it is not a question of understanding, neither on the side of the analyst nor on the side of the patient. Naturally, it can be deeply satisfying to be felt to be understood. The act of speaking, to a listener that understands, holds a certain therapeutic value on its own. But as Bruce Fink indicates, perhaps the simplest and surest measure of success for an analysis is not understanding but change.

Analysis brings out a kind of antinomy between change, on the one hand, and understanding, on the other. This distinction is made clearer by the fact that the only material of analysis is the patient’s speech. In a speaking relationship, the changes that speech can effect are changes in meaning. So, the aim of analytic work is to bring about changes in meaning for the patient, for the one who speaks. But by definition, insofar as the speaker is understood, insofar as she communicates successfully to her listener, the meaning of her message remains exactly as she intended. This is the reason that conversational speech is not suited for the purposes of analysis. A speaking relationship that is grounded on a principle of understanding ensures that the speaker’s meaning does not change. This leads us to draw a strange conclusion: in order for a speaker’s meaning to change, she must say something that she does not mean.

It is precisely this phenomenon to which so much of Freud’s early work is dedicated. He looks at the points where, in one way or another, the conveyance of meaning fails. The most familiar examples of these phenomena can be found in the form of the joke. Freud writes at great length about jokes and witticisms in his 1905 book ‘Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious’. Here is one of the many Jewish jokes he includes [2]:

Two Jews met in the neighbourhood of the bath-house.

“Have you taken a bath?” asked one of them.

“What?” asked the other in return, “is there one missing?”

The joke is what Freud calls a “comical misunderstanding”. It rests on the two possible meanings of the word ‘taken’ in connection with the word ‘bath’. The first meaning of ‘taken a bath’, the one the speaker intends to convey, is ‘bathed’. The second meaning is ‘stolen’. An otherwise unremarkable exchange becomes a joke by way of the shift between these two meanings, which causes a surprise. This shift is brought about by the listener’s reply; “the joke lies not in the question but in the answer”, as Freud points out. It is insofar as the listener misunderstands the intention of the speaker that he is able to respond in such a way that changes the meaning of what the speaker says. Here, then, is a case of a speaker who says something that he does not mean. The listener’s reply transforms the speaker’s original message, returning back to him a message in his own words of which he was not aware.

A second example, even simpler, of someone saying something that they do not mean is the spoken mistake or the 'slip of the tongue', which has long held a unique place in the history of psychoanalysis. Freud examines a great number of such mistakes in his 1901 book, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. He writes of disturbances of speech [3], in which a word is pronounced incorrectly, or a different word is put in place of the word the speaker intended to say. The spoken mistake may not appear at first to adhere to the same form as the joke. In normal speech, an error of this kind remains simply an error, a brief interruption in the flow of conversation. As such, it is quickly disregarded in order that a successful exchange of meanings can resume. Strictly speaking, mistakes in conversation are meaningless. They are meaningless, that is, insofar as the listener chooses to presume, to understand, what the speaker must have meant, or accepts the speaker’s intention when she corrects herself. But the spoken mistake is susceptible to the same laws of the speaking relationship as the joke. Whether or not the speaker’s mistake is given a meaning depends entirely on the listener’s reply. By interpreting the slips that he discusses in his book, Freud makes himself into a different kind of listener. He becomes a listener that does not accept the meaninglessness of the speaker’s mistake. His response, from the position of this listener, changes the meaning of spoken sounds that had appeared incidental, outside of meaning.

What can be seen here is that when we speak, our words are given meaning in some other place than where they are spoken. In speech that is characterised by its communicative function, this relation between speaker and listener is largely obscured. It can be an uncomfortable experience to be made aware of it. The joke and the spoken mistake are examples of a kind of speech that seems not to fulfil its communicative function. Rather than successful exchanges of meaning, they appear as disturbances in meaning. They might also be seen as points at which another meaning breaks through, a kind of breach. These speech phenomena are not so much characterised by communication as by revelation. Freud writes of the “revelation of the slip” [4]. Insofar as there is a listener to receive the speaker’s message in a different way, a new meaning can be revealed in what the speaker says. This new meaning, hidden to the speaker herself, appears in the place of an other. Analysis makes use of this fact of the speaking relationship. In analysis, the roles of speaker and listener are not evenly balanced as they are in normal conversation. The patient is primarily the speaker, and the analyst is primarily the listener. This difference exaggerates the dependency of the speaker’s message on the listener’s response. And the analyst does not respond as a normal listener, a partner in conversation. In an analysis, the place in which a new meaning for the speaker is revealed, the place of this other, comes to be embodied by the analyst. The analyst becomes an other listener.

This other listener has a counterpart. It is more precise to say that in the forms of the joke and the spoken mistake, what changes is not so much the meaning of the speaker’s words but the speaker herself. A new speaker appears. The other listener, the one that misunderstands, is able to introduce an other speaker. This is what analytic technique begins with. For this reason, it does not aim at understanding a patient’s intended meaning. Insofar as the analyst is able to position herself as this other listener, then by acting on points of ambiguity in the meaning of the patient’s words, by intervening in ways that redirect the meaning of what is being said, the analyst is able to, in a sense, bring this other speaker to life, this speaker whose intentions perhaps lie in conflict with the patient’s, but who is nonetheless spoken through her. The patient, as speaker, is split in two.

Analysis concerns itself with trying to draw out this other speaker, to introduce to the patient the possibility that there is something more in what they are saying than what they mean to say. In the Lacanian field, this other speaker is called the subject of the unconscious.

1. Jacques Lacan. 'The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis' in Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, p 206.
2. Sigmund Freud. Jokes and their Relation to their Unconscious, SE VIII, p. 49.
3. Sigmund Freud. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, SE VI, p. 56.
4. Ibid, p. 83.

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