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misdelivered mail

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A story:

1) Receive a text on Saturday from the porter in our old building saying that a “large envelope” has arrived for me. We moved away last October, had our mail forwarded changed address on all the relevant accounts.

2) I proceed to worry because:

a) mail, in today’s day and age, has become an ominous matter. One used to receive so many things, and many of them good (papers and magazines, correspondence) by post. Now it seems like the only thing one gets are epistles bringing bad news – a tax that was left unpaid and that now is in arrears, a legal notice of some sort, a bill on an account that hasn’t been paid etc. That and loads of junk mail – which the porter wouldn’t have called us about. I simply can’t think of what it might be – which only makes the fear grow stronger that it is something awful indeed.

b) I am terrible at not worrying about things that I can’t take care of immediately. Because I found out Saturday at noon, and the porter stops working around noon, I wouldn’t be able to resolve the issue by finding out what was in the mysterious package until Monday morning. My first thought: “this is going to taint the rest of my weekend, not knowing, not being able to act on what ever it is. We’re warned against the “fear of fear itself” – quite reasonably, as it might well be the most frustrating and disabling form of fear – but I can’t seem to help myself.

3) Looking for books to shift from my house to my office, as I had a bit of spare room in my bag this morning and I’m trying to keep the house especially tidy of late, I locate something I recently purchased and had meant to read immediately but had forgotten about. It’s the new book that Coetzee has co-authored with the psychoanalysis Arabella Kurtz, The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy.


I decide to bring it along for me to read on the commute.

4) I read the first 15 pages or so of the book on the bus and then during the one stop on the Underground it takes to reach my old apartment building. As I do, I think about how relevant some of it is to an essay that I have coming out in an American academic anthology on “therapeutic culture.” (I wrote a piece for it on “blogging.”) I wonder momentarily if it’s too late for me to add some of it in – and then remember that the book is already probably in production. Proofs appeared months ago. I also think of the fact that just last week I completed an article for another anthology I was meant to appear in. Unfortunately I completed the essay approximately 6 months late. The afternoon that I finished it, I had a drink with one of the other contributors to the volume. “Do you think it’s too late for me to submit it?” I asked. He clicked at his computer in response and produced a pdf of the full proofs of the edition, which had arrived to him via email that day. Alas.

As I read, I also think about my problematic anxiety about the package – and all the instances of problematically useless worrying that I do all the time. I wonder this book will encourage me to consider therapeutic treatment for this. I also wonder what is at the bottom, psychologically speaking, of such worry.

5) My anxiety mounts as I approach my building, ring the buzzer for the porter, who lets me in and hands me the package in question. The return address is a university press. I still cannot guess what it is – though my heart is now at ease as it’s clear it’s not some sort of terrible message of financial mismanagement or the like.

Outside I open the envelope. It’s a finished and final copy of the selfsame collection on therapeutic culture in which my essay appears, the very one that I had considered attempting to edit just now on the underground. And of course, this revelation – one is tempted to call it an epiphany – leads seconds later to a sort of quiet marvelling at the little helix of psychoanalytically-loaded stuff that had just happened this morning.

6. Had my seemingly accidental re-discovery of Coetzee’s book this morning – and the haphazard decision to bring it along on my trip to work (with a detour to confront this anxiety-inducing envelope) been not so accidental and random after all? Had I, on some level, “known” that the only possible thing that could have arrived in such a package was this book – and thus was some back bit of my mind trying to send a irony-laden to the front bits of my mind by giving me a sort of “hiding in plain sight” clue as to the contents of the envelope? And further, the fact that all of this happened via two books on psychoanalysis itself does seem like a bit of a pirouette on the part of my unconscious mind.

7. Or, on the other hand, is this simply the type of story that we love to tell ourselves – the story of a coincidence that can be congealed into the shape of a narrative, or even of a conspiracy (in this case a conspiracy between my unconscious mind and a set of objects – two books.) There are many other details of my morning that I’ve left out that would have contributed nothing to this story: the coffee that I made myself this morning that turned out to have been made with spoiled milk, the painfully large withdrawal I had to make from the bank to pay for a summer holiday and a tax bill, the huge shit that one of the neighbourhood cats left front and centre in my garden last night.

There are even other parallel stories that I am eliding – potentially more interesting ones: I was bothered by the fact that the stopoff at my old place would require me to take the slower of the two underground lines available to me (Piccadilly rather than Victoria). When I reached the station, there were announcements that the latter (my usual, faster route) was almost completely suspended due to a “person under a train.” Which led me at first, for a second, to feel relief – at least I would have been taking the slow train no matter what. And then to feel slightly ashamed of myself for such a ridiculously callous response to a horrific accident.

8. And what is there, further, to make of the fact, that amidst all of this – a non-trivial portion of which has at least something to do with late submissions – further seemed to me, by the time I made it to my office, to stand as good material for a blogpost. A blogpost that I’m writing right now instead of finishing yet another late article for yet another academic anthology.


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July 13, 2015 at 11:44 am

the talking cure: ads that speak back

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I remember, as a kid, having several books of BASIC programs, mostly games, that I could dutifully type into my IBM PC, save on a a floppy to play again and again. One of them, which I remember intrigued me at the time, was called Eliza, which according to Wikipedia, is

a computer program and an early example of primitive natural language processing. ELIZA operated by processing users’ responses to scripts, the most famous of which was DOCTOR, a simulation of a Rogerian psychotherapist. Using almost no information about human thought or emotion, DOCTOR sometimes provided a startlingly human-like interaction. ELIZA was written at MIT by Joseph Weizenbaumbetween 1964 and 1966.

The outcome would look something like this:

The implicit joke at work with Eliza is that one of the easiest conversational models to simulate would be that of the classic psychoanalyst, the content of whose speech is (proverbially) meant to be meaningless. Rather it’s only the reflective form of the speech (“Can you elaborate on that?” “What do you mean by that?”) that matters. The therapist turns every statement of the patient’s into an opportunity to ask another question – and in particular meta-questions about the meaning of the meaning. (“Do you like talking about yourself?”)

The video at the top of the post is a pitch from a company called Nuance, best known for its Dragon speech-recognition software, to develop voice-recognition and -response driven ads for mobile devices. Of course, most of us are all too-familiar with this sort of mechanical conversation from dealing with our banks and utilities, as installing a robot to hear and respond to us, find us the department that we need to be in touch with (or, more often it seems to me, find a way of confusing us away from the proper department).

But what seems to me interesting, however, about all of this is the way that the things I’ve posted above relate to one another. (Of course, there are several famous episodes in the history of advertising that render the relationshop between it and psychoanalysis rather clear, starting with the fact that the “father of modern public relations,” Edward Bernays, was Sigmund Freud’s nephew, and certainly wasn’t afraid to bring his uncle’s ideas to bear upon his own work.) Listen to the Nuance video again. It seems to me significant – even (we might almost say) psychoanalytically significant – that in both of the “sample” applications of their software, the computer-driven voice digresses into pseudo-therapeutic responses on its way to the delivery of the product message. In the case of the florist ad, it’s the “Of course you don’t!” as an answer to the revelation of the husband’s ignorance, whereas in the deodorant pitch, it’s the bizarrely chirpy wish-fulfilment about “This is America.”

What else, in the end, is a computer going to do as it makes conversation with us, other than provide a pseudo-therapeutic sounding board? But given that that’s the “selling point” of the technology on offer, it’s almost as if the ultimate point of the ad – the delivery of the commercial message – comes as a non sequitur interruption, rather than the other way around, as is especially clear in the deodorant ad above (“And while you’re at it…”). After all, it’s not the ability to deliver the product pitch that the company is selling as an innovation. It’s the calming but uncanny banter that is meant to disinhibit the potential consumer, to get her or him to “open up” the mind and ultimately the wallet.

It’s hard not to see Nuance’s sample responses, driven we might imagine by conversational algorithms not vastly more complicated than ELIZA’s, as subtly demonstrating the deep formal relationship between the two modes of discourse at play. So, on the one hand, the computerized conversations above gesture towards the sort of content-free “idle talk” that characterises certain versions of therapeutic discourse. On the other – and of more interest to me – the form of the Nuance exercise also reflects the deep affinities of advertising with psychoanalysis, as both quest for a) an understanding of what the patient/customer “really wants” and b) a means to spur the patient/customer on to the fulfilment of that want.

At any rate, as some of you might guess, I am going to try to get some work done this summer on my long-deferred “advertising” project. True to this post, what is of most interest to me is the strange relationship between the functional and aesthetic aspects of advertising –  i.e. an analysis of the parts of advertising that aren’t the direct product pitch, the announcement of details / utility / price. In a sense, we’re used to moving in the other direction in our considerations of the “aesthetic.” That is, we find a case of it and then we work to show the material underpinnings of its emergence. Advertising forces us to work the other way around. We take the functionality of the work as primary, but then its all of the supplementary, ostensibly not-directly-functional elements that stand as a mysterious remainder. (As you might further guess, the project would be reflexively anti-Adornoian from the start. Or maybe that’s not the right way to put it. It’s bound up with this thinking, put attempts to walk the path in the other direction. Or perhaps in the same direction, but backwards…) We intuitively understand, in other words, that they want to sell us deodorant. The question is why they and we need the conversation with the computer in order for them to do that. 

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April 29, 2013 at 11:13 am

hell 1: the end of therapy

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Infamously, there’s no appropriate time to quit psychoanalysis. Like heaven, there’s no polite means of egress: you either just keep going with it or you fall out of it through an act of disobedience.

The crisis that brought you to it in the first place has subsided, in part due to the work on the couch and in part because time passes and the world and you move on, but there you are, sitting on the self-same couch with ever less to say. On the way there for your morning sessions, you read novels on the train, say Peter Handke’s On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House, and you get blissfully caught up in the idea of rewriting Madame Bovary, except through the eyes of Homais, which seems to be in some part what Handke’s doing. The small town pharmacist and his everyday life, this time in Austria instead of Normandy but that only makes it better. And now it’s the pharmacist, rather than the randy wife of his neighbour, who is addicted to obsolescent romances.

You think the phrase: Madame Bovary, c’est Homais, aujourdhui. And admire, as the Circle Line pulls into Baker Street Station, both Flaubert and Handke immensely. You have found a new friend in the latter, and that is something, that is rare.

But then, in the five minutes that you have to walk from the station to the flat where your analyst has his office, you have to come up with something to say, some fodder for the 50 minutes. This week has been going well so far sounds, within the therapeutic context, like a lie and an incredible waste of money at once. It sounds like a lie because, within the therapeutic context, as is well known, everything’s OK, OK enough is even more deeply redolent of dysfunctional repression than, say, admitting to sniffing your mother’s high heels or having recurrent disturbing dreams about wolves sitting on the tree outside your bedroom.

You wish that you could just stop at a coffee place and give yourself another hour with the Handke. Instead, you ring the bell with nothing prepared, sit on the couch, and begin: This week has been going well, by and large…

Now, and here’s why I’m thinking I’ll quit, therapy, perhaps the most unnatural thing in the world, shares one trait with its verdant antagonist: it, too, abhors a vacuum. And so you dither around for a bit, wandering around the woods of your week of OKness, searching for half-hints of the older problems, the tailhook of crisis and fear. And of course, of course, eventually you find it and there you are back again conversationally reanimating the affective power of something that you’ve spent time and money and unpleasant thought neutralising.

Psychoanalysis, in this sense, suffers from the same infernal logic as narrative prose itself. Handke’s novel stays stuck in housewandering routines of its pharmacist for a bravely long time…. But then something happens, a crash and then the arrival of the fantastic or the projective. It happens, according to the mandates of form – the mandate that time gets formed into instants and events laden with significance – just as my sessions dive away from the depredations of the quotidian and back to my childhood home, the evental break points of adolescence and afterward.

The memoir that therapy would coauthor will accommodate chaos in the present and of course the miserable, belated epiphanies of childhood. But it has no page space for the soft depredations of the static present, of thoughtless animal scavenge, of the softly catastrophic status-quo.

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August 9, 2009 at 7:26 pm

in treatment: genre and psychoanalysis

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Gaby Wood a little while ago in the Observer on In Treatment:

The American series has been such a success that all the major TV buyers around the world have taken it up, with one prominent exception: Britain. (It will be screened at the Edinburgh Festival, though, this summer.) France, Portugal, eastern Europe, Sweden… Levi begins to reel off the countries that have bought it, and interrupts himself, mystified. “What do you think? What’s different about England? Maybe the British are too discreet for this.”

“Too repressed,” I suggest.

“Well,” he sighs, “that’s another way to put it.”

Ha! That’s something, isn’t it. When basically every country in the world shows the thing, except this one, the diagnosis slips from “just not interested” to “please, seriously, I don’t want to, I can’t, see that.” Anyway, enough for now on that line…

We loved the first season, chez Ads, and are currently twenty half-hour episodes into the season currently showing back home. (Thank god, really really, for bittorrent…) It’s a softly terrific show, humanely soft, and nicely written throughout. Unlike The Sopranos, which certain American therapists got hoodwinked into thinking was saying something positive about their line of work, In Treatment is, I think, an advertisement for the practice and value of therapy. *

But there’s something interesting about what it has to negotiate in order to be this. Almost all workplace narratives shown on television, whether of a dramatic or comedic turn, depend upon sexualization of said workplace in order to function as entertainment. And further, the particular form that this sexualization takes when inserted into the workplace might be called the erotics of hierarchy. Doctors sleep with nurses, patients, and other doctors. Ad men sleep with their secretaries. Partners at law firms sleep with junior attornies. It’s a tic of the genre, but admittedly the interplay of power and desire does make for interesting drama. (This is probably why no one’s ever made a good TV show about academia – showing teachers sleeping with students would probably be titilating but a bit too disturbing, even for HBO…. I am a bit surprised Showtime hasn’t taken up the concept yet… **)

But the funny thing about it, in the case of In Treatment, is the fact that unlike the law firm or the hospital, sex and its prohibition are actually the defining characteristics of the workplace in question. Hospitals aren’t built to keep doctors from fucking nurses, but as Adam Phillips has said (quoted here, which I found via this),”psychoanalysis is about what two people can say to each other if they agree not to have sex.” It’s an astoundingly smart description, though it tempts one to wonder if the formula is reversible: when people talk after agreeing not to have sex – happens all the time I imagine – is it automatically psychoanalysis? Hmmm…. Perhaps you need to sign a contract, or maybe it’s a question of the couch, the carafe of water positioned just out of reach, the tissues on the table.

On the other hand, as we all know, the prohibition of contact propagates – as prohibitions will do, psychoanalytically speaking – the very desire that they aim at countering. Thus transference and counter-transference and all the rest. So sex, according to the conventional wisdom of the business, is all over the place but also nowhere, held off on the sidelines – everywhere present but nowhere manifest, as long as things proceed as they should.

So we end up with a situation, when we’re thinking about In Treatment, where something interesting happens vis a vis genre and theme/scene. In its terminal reliance upon the sexual tension between analyst and analysand, a reliance that comes at once of the genre (sexualized workplace fiction) and the predispositions and market awareness of the means of distribution (think: mandatory Bada Bing scene in every episode of the Sopranos), the show ends up speaking some sort of secret but not-so-secret truth about the scenario that it’s taken up.

Every once in awhile, the interference of form is in fact the key to a sort of distorted realism – and revelatory distortion is always what was meant by the word realism right from the start. And furthermore (and sorry to be so telegraphic, but I’m getting tired) this relationship probably tells us even more about the genre of psychoanalysis itself, the sort of story it tells and it tells itself its telling, than it does about HBO programming and the anglo-telenovela.

* Can somebody explain to me what happened to Big Love? It’s our filler when we run out of In Treatments to watch, and while it was never a great show like the others, it was at least watchable. Now, jesus, not so much. A shame, really….

** Actually, you know, it’s not like I haven’t thought about writing up the made-for-cable campus dramocomedy. In fact, I talked to some colleagues about this, who have media connections, and perhaps another drink and we all would have started writing the pilot. Still, their connections are British, so the damn thing’d end up on the BBC, and thus likely in period costume and with all too many significant pauses and general overacting… Ah me.

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May 4, 2009 at 10:52 pm

Posted in psychoanalysis, teevee