Jamieson Webster is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City. She is the author of The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis (2011) and Conversion Disorder: Listening to the Body in Psychoanalysis (2018); she also co-wrote, with Simon Critchley, Stay, Illusion! The Hamlet Doctrine (2013). She teaches at the New School and supervises doctoral students in clinical psychology at the City University of New York. (November 2018)
I helped a man to see his father on a ventilator using WhatsApp on my phone since he couldn’t figure out how to use the Zoom system on the hospital tablets. The son was in Haiti. He was told that his father was “crashing” —a word used in the hospital now for when the lungs are giving out. Computers crash, stock markets crash, cars crash. Now lungs crash. There was a strange and unexpected intimacy in seeing the son seeing his father. I can’t get the look of serenity on his face out of my mind. Some greet fate with such grace.
I don’t like patients in my ear on headphones—I don’t use visual technology; it’s a Lacanian thing—I like listening to them in a room as two bodies. I like the ritual: the greeting, the opening and closing of doors. I miss them, even though I will speak with them. That I would have to attend to them now via the very same device that was contaminating my life with “words, words, words” (as Hamlet says to Polonius prior to murdering him) was making me feel psychotic.
Read anything about Lacan’s life and you will find it punctuated by stories about cars and driving. Both Lacan’s son-in-law, Jacques-Alain Miller, and his patient and lover Catherine Millot considered Lacan’s way of driving as part of his ethical stance: one had to follow one’s desire and not give way to inhibitions or norms. If one had to stop, make it a choice; do not yield to an anonymous law or the whims of the other’s demand. This is always the story that one encounters about Lacan, part of the mythology of the courageous, disobedient, relentless man. But after 1968, the car completely disappeared from his teaching—and in his late seminars, Lacan’s thinking changed direction.
Modern psychopharmacology goes hand in hand with a psychiatric diagnostic system that has, over time, been redefined to rely on medicating symptoms away rather than looking at the structure of the mind and its complex permutations in order to work with a patient in a deeply engaged way over the long haul. Modern psychiatry is hailed as a scientific success story, and drug companies have profited from the fact that talking therapies are often thought to take too long, their results frequently dismissed as unverifiable. I question, though, whether we should demand verified results when it comes to our mental life: Do you believe someone who promises you happiness in a pill?