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Affect: It's The Real Thing

The Letter, Issue 11, Autumn 1997, Pages 83 - 97


Aisling Campbell

Anyone who teaches psychoanalysis will have had to attempt to answer the commonplace criticism of Lacan that he neglects the question of affect. Lacan's apparent intellectualism further compounds his crime. His emphasis on the signifier is often seen as somehow distancing analysis from some real beyond of the subject - that real that is the affective life of the subject, as though affect were a 'tip of the iceberg' hinting at some pure raw state underneath. For many critics of Lacan one gets the impression that affect is, like Coca Cola, 'the real thing'; if direct access to the source of affect could be gained, one could get in touch with some ectoplasmic material rather like the aura seen in Kirlian photography which bears testament to what Lacan ironically calls the magic of psychoanalysis.[1] Certainly in many forms of psychotherapy it is affect rather than speech which is seen as the royal road to the unconscious and the aims of such therapies may be formulated as attempting a type of affective reallocation. The assumption is that if the patient were aligned with his true feelings his actions would have some kind of guarantee. It is as though if affects could only be reallocated to their original ideas a subject of knowledge could be established. Analysis does not approach the problem in this way however, although it may involve connections between ideas and affects. It seems to me that we cannot think about affect without a notion of the subjectivity as structured by the signifier. The unconscious within this framework is a very specific one, which does not presume an ontologically consistent 'real thing' beyond the subject, taking us away from the concept of affect as a primaeval feeling state that somehow predates the subject.

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