Face to Face with the Real


/1/ – The Faceless on the Couch

Setting aside the clotted German accent, the experience of the Freudian analysis is best mentally congealed in the image of the couch. Contrary to the simple brown leather that is usually portrayed in caricatures, Freud’s couch looked as if it belonged more in a harem than in a professional office. The visual reduction of the couch, besides for ease, may have to do with the accentuation of coldness in the session. This is not a complete falsification – the psychoanalytic session does move forward with the analysand turned away from the analyst. The function of a ‘faceless’ analyst is not a simple distanciation, an emotional rabbet, but is pivotal to the end of the analysand’s treatment.

As Bruce Fink points out in his text A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique it is important that the patient meet the practitioner face to face at first so that the analyst is seen as just another person so that they feel the initial trust in order to speak to them (p. 14). However, this sense of recognition cannot last or else the analysand will see the analyst as having no authority. The analyst must carefully remain in a kind of engaged face to face position, while acting in such a way that designates them as ‘le sujet suppose savoir’ (the subject supposed to know).

As Fink points out there are several techniques for doing this. The first being the idea of punctuation – the analyst can simple repeat slips of the tongue and odd noises in order to constructively irk the patient. The other strategy is that of scansion and in particular Lacan’s controversial use of the variable session (p. 15). The analyst can end the session either at a particular point in order to punctuate a particular word or concept that the analysand has spoken in order to maintain the focus of the session (scansion) or they can simply end the session abruptly in order to leave the analysand with a feeling of uncertainty. These techniques allow the analyst to move into an empty position, one that is simply a place holder, or void that the patient will eventually try to stop either understanding or desperately fill. And it is this which brings us back to the face – why does the patient want to read the face – how is it both deep and flat?

/2/ – The terrible flatness of the face

One of the characters from Alan Moore’s wonderful graphic novel Watchmen is the morally objective anti-hero Rorschach (named after the Rorschach inkblot test). Rorschach’s mask (which he refers to as his face) is two layers of synthetic material with two non-mixing liquids so that it constantly changes shape. (Interestingly, though not discussed in the story or controlled by Rorschach, the design on his ‘face’ changes to fit the particular emotion he is feeling at the moment.

When Rorschach is arrested he is put in a psych ward and an analyst subjects him to several inkblots. The cheerful confident psychoanalyst believes that Rorschach is doing better as he lies to the doctor about what he sees in the inkblots. Mal, the doctor, embodies the kind of naive ego psychology that Lacan so disdained. The ego psychological branch of psychoanalysis focuses on strengthening the ego which in essence leads to a push towards asserting a dominant mental status quo. To put it most simply the ego psychologists seemed to ignore the imaginary dimension, the falseness of the imago.

In Watchmen this is evident when, because the mask is referred to as face, Rorschach’s doctor asks what it was like when he first put on the mask and became Rorschach. Rorschach calls him stupid and points out that at that point he was simply Kovacs (his last name) pretending to be Rorschach. To be Rorschach ‘takes a certain kind of insight’ he states. Rorschach then goes on to completely take over the session leaving the doctor in complete disarray. The doctor, mentally destitute, stares at one of the inkblots and says “The horror is this: in the end, it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness. We are alone. There is nothing else.” The doctor’s assertion is correct in that there is nothing else but us, but the social and that any substance to that is essentially nothing.”

As Lacan suggests in the closing pages of the 11th seminar – the relationship between the analyst and the analysand is one of brutal love, where the analysand must give themselves to the analyst as gift, and yet, at the same time, recognize that all they have to give is essentially nothing, all they have to give is precisely shit (p. 268).

Let’s take a brief look then at the step ‘beyond’ the flatness of the face.

/3/ – Ethics of the face or Punch thy neighbor

In Slavoj Žižek’s contribution to The Neighbor: Three Inquires into Political Theology entitled “Neighbors and Other Monsters”:

“The face is thus the ultimate fetish, the object which fills in (obfuscates) the big Other’s “castration” (inconsistency, lack) the abyss of its circularity. At a different level, this fetishization — or rather, fetishist disavowal — is discernible also in our daily relating to another person’s face. This disavowal does not primarily concern the raw reality of flesh (“I know very well that beneath the face there is just the Real of the raw flesh, bones and blood, but I nonetheless act as if the face is a window into the mysterious interiority on the soul”), but rather, at a more radical level, the abyss/void of the Other: the human face “gentrifies” the terrifying Thing that is the ultimate reality of our neighbor” (p. 146) and goes on to state that ‘the true ethical step is one beyond the face’ – in contrast to Levinas (p. 183).

One should refuse to be drawn into a trance by the face, but should ‘smash the neighbor’s face’ and go one step beyond the other to an unverifiable third. This relates to analysis in that it is not enough that the symptom of the patient be broken through in relation to the other (here the importance of the face) but that the patient understand the very non-existence of the other. This is evident in the popular Lacanian joke where a patient comes to his doctor believing he is a grain of corn. After months of treatment the patient is convinced he’s human and goes off on his merry way. He returns a month later in a panic telling the doctor ‘I met a hen and I think she wants to eat me!’ The doctor tries to calm the patient saying ‘But you know you’re not a kernel of corn!’ The patient responds: ‘But does the hen know?’

At the same time, to go beyond validating the other’s belief (here the hen) one cannot simply place the analyst as serving a larger kind of other, the other of the other or big Other. Beyond Žižek’s dismissal of the face as fetish, however, the face retains a deceptiveness that is not completely deceptive. The truth, that Rorschach’s doctor sees, is that the depth to the face, is nothingness but not simply a nothingness that means surrender but one that forces us to confront the horrible site of the truth of our being – a meaningful nothingness.

/4/ – Erotics of the face or ‘I know it is just a face but still…’

The photographer Philippe Halsman, who is perhaps best known for the melancholy photograph of Albert Einstein (that decorated Time Magazine and eventually became a postage stamp) did a series of jump photographs where he had taken photographs of the well to do in mid air, people such as Marilyn Monroe, Richard Nixon, Alfred Hitchcock and the like.

Halsman created a book of his works and argued that:

“The urge of an ordinary person to find out our innermost secrets is called nosiness and is despicable. When it is done scientifically by a person with an appropriate college degree it is called psychology and is admirable. Psychologists have devised many methods to find out what we are hiding under our masks. They use psychoanalysis or hypnotism or a truth serum; they apply tests like the Rorschach test, associations, etc. To this arsenal the author is adding a new psychological tool – the jump.” He calls this new branch of science “jumpology.” “In a jump the subject, in a sudden burst of energy, overcomes gravity. He cannot simultaneously control his expressions, his facial and his limb muscles. The mask falls. The real self becomes visible. One has only to snap it with the camera. While the previous psychological methods were lengthy and costly, the jump is rapid and economical.”

The ‘real self’ is exactly the self that Rorschach knows is there, the self of nothing, of shit, the stupid face of the real, the kind of realness that emerges in the facial ticks during sex, the strange non-meaning of the enamored twitch. Or put another way – the very lust for the face seems to be for the tension of control and uncontrollability. Almost a case study of this fact could be found at the pornographic (or is it porn?) site Beautiful Agony. The site features videos of volunteers orgasming from the shoulders up. This exhibition of unconscious face making is the sort of nudity beyond nudity – perhaps more pornographic then nudity itself. (On on a kind of aside – doesn’t the facial tic during sex exemplify the Lacanian sinthome – the atom of enjoyment – the minimal combination of language and enjoyment?)

There’s a kind of movement from the unmade to the made face which is evident in many spy thrillers. In the fictional form it is common that one of the characters dons a mask of another one of the characters as part of an important deception pivotal to the story. When the con is inevitably revealed there is always the odd moment where the mask is pulled off and we see the limp hanging plastic of the mask which could have never been the realistic impostor face, which of course, had been another actor. The apogee of such movement may be when the famous luchadore Santo finally unveiled his face to the public only to die a few days later. At an even further extreme there is the much talked about face transplant of late as well as the idea of the self fashioned face found in films such as Darkman, Face/Off, and Les Yeux sans Visage as well texts such as Cecile Peneda’s Face and The Face of Another.

Of course this is a conscious movement which reveals the very flatness of the face as opposed to the facial tick which displays is emptiness.

/5/ – Saving face…

So how to bring this together? To return to the picture of Einstein above – Žižek has pointed out a relation between Einstein’s change in perspective regarding matter and Freud’s change regarding trauma. Einstein’s shift from matter curving space to matter being the curvature of space is compared to Freud’s view of trauma as shifting from a particular event to a way of perceiving existence due to an event that may not have occurred. A past event is elevated to the status encounter in order to fill in the gaps of meaning, to understand why something bothers us like it does.

The Real of the face then is that its whole existence is essentially an emotional curvature – the depth of the face, which is emptiness, is nothing, is highlighted by the unconsciousness of the tick as well as the intensity of the entire face itself (as mask, as making a face). The face, in one way or another, gives us away and what it gives away is that which we don’t have – they very worthless substance of our being – the thing which comes closest to the concept of our ‘true’ or ‘real self’ as Halsman put it.

Even the total lack of facial expression, exemplified in the schlocky Faces of Death on one end of the spectrum and by the Victorian daguerreotype of the dead on the other. And of course the aforementioned memento mori and the sexual tic are brought together, in a kind of Hegelian ‘coincidence of opposites’, in the well known French saying ‘la petite mort’ (the little death) which is of course referring to post-coital exhaustion as well as the orgasm (and incidentally appears after the name at the Beautiful Agony website).

The face of the analyst, to return to the beginning, is the third beyond the play of face as showing the various visages of nothingness, of the relation of love in that, apropos Lacan, In love we give away what we don’t have to someone who doesn’t exist (or doesn’t want it). The analyst remains the purely formal object whereas in love (and even friendship) one loses the critical distance to the face, the real of the face – where even the blank face, the unmade face, elicits the question ‘what is that face?’

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