“Families, I hate you” – André Gide’s cry in The Fruits of the Earth – keeps on resonating. Family is the best and the worst thing. Family is thus one of the figures of the impossible, that is to say of the real.
It is strange, for an analyst, to start in this way, since Freud, first, but mostly Lacan, then made of it the foundation of the symbolic dimension: Freud in the guise of the Oedipus complex, Lacan in that of the Name of the Father.
I remember my visit to the Tavistock Clinic in London. Between two conversations with colleagues, I had gone to the bathroom. On the door which afforded me the necessary privacy, there was this graffiti: “Incest, a family game”. Of all the conventional exchanges I had had in this high place of psychoanalysis, this is the formula that taught me the most. Yes, that’s precisely it: the family is the condition of possibility of incest, namely, for Freud, of desire insofar as it is anchored in prohibition. No doubt, only the humour of an anonymous English person could circumscribe and reduce to its structure the central mainspring of the subject with such accuracy, and add to it, by using the single word ‘game’, the share of jouissance which lacks in Freud’s Oedipus and which Lacan will unveil years later.
‘Game’, thirty years before Game of Thrones, a great family-centred series: the family is the birthplace of discourse, that is to say of domination. Everything since the beginning of the 21st century attests to it: the calling into question of patriarchy, of present or past slavery, of all unquestionable submission. The father, central figure in the patrilineal family, hitherto the source of all nominations, is weakened as his jouissance is increasingly unveiled as abuse.
Paradoxically, and this attests to the difficulty for speaking beings in doing without this function, which was long the mainstay of meaning, we witness a forceful return of religions. It is particularly the case in populations where the political discourse has been ruined, a point shared by Muslim countries, but also Russia and of course the United States of America. In short, the ruin of the father gives way to chaos in the symbolic order, and the only thing that responds to it is economic power, combined with fascistic populism. In this respect, Trump’s election is an interpretation.
To occupy the vacant place of the father, multinational corporations present themselves as the benefactors of humanity, the suppliers of desired objects. They are the new, anonymous face of domination, which, although it is no longer familial, nonetheless reveals a monopoly over the absurd jouissance of endless accumulation. Freud had already placed the ‘jouissance’ root of family at the centre of the second myth with which he deciphered the structure of the paternal function, in Totem and Taboo. For if there is the Oedipal family, the one which founds both neurosis and desire, there is also the family of jouissance, the one of the father who has the monopoly of all women. We can dream that he is dead. In fact, he is impossible to kill. And this is what was revealed by the elections that brought Trump to power in the land of democracy founded by the Puritans. We no longer elect a figure of the Law, we elect a figure of jouissance to whom the power of making laws is entrusted.
It remains that desire, buried under an avalanche of objects and promises, is destabilised. The cause, which invented itself by way of prohibition, lacks. It follows that the symbolic order, whose basic core was the family, is in complete mutation.
What does the family become? Its function was to establish a link between the reproduction of the life of the species and the social order. It was the operator of this necessary passage for human beings, who are bodies and organisms, but who also speak: hence Lacan’s neologism, parlêtres. Unlike other living beings, the recipe for group life is little regulated by instinct, but must be learnt in childhood through the practice of language, the penetration by a language and the marking effectuated by certain words, heard way before their meaning, and even their signification, can be deciphered.
The environment of speaking subjects is not nature; it is discourse – first, that of the master, then that of knowledges. The family is one of the master signifiers of speaking beings, even for those “without family”, or alone in the world. In fact, language bears the trace of this. There is no other way to designate a child without a family than the terms ‘orphan’, ‘abandoned’, ‘found’, ‘isolated’, ‘runaway’ – all of which are already interpretations that presuppose the family model. No sooner is a child conceived – whether it ends up being born or not – than it belongs to a family, no matter which contingent variation of the model it may be. The family is the first norm of reference, and at the same time the main tool of normativation.
But science took control of the reproduction of life; it replaced the father with the spermatozoid and the mother with the egg. They do not speak; their relation is therefore perfect. The family then shows itself openly as what it is: a discourse, norm or sublimation, rendered necessary by the prematuration of human babies. The cut effected by science enables the invention of new families: from single parent to four parents, same-sex parents…. The traditional family having lost its monopoly over reproduction, its new forms demand a legal status, since in the last analysis this legal – i.e. discursive – status turns out to always have been the only thing that constituted a family. The family, separated in this way from reproduction, having lost the self-evidence it thought to derive from nature, has a bright future ahead of it. Once we could think that it was binding biology to culture. We now know that it binds the arbitrariness of jouissance, which is in no way more natural than language, to the arbitrariness of the Law.
Its order or disorder precedes the child, already tracing a destiny which it will be able to make its own, or not. It is there that psychoanalysis intervenes. Why does a subject who comes to analysis always end up speaking about his family? The answer is: Family Dramas, Family Traumas!
A family is the banality of drama: to have an absent or present father, an absent or present mother, to have a brother or a sister, to have neither, to discover secrets that everybody knew, conflicts, inheritances … it is a microcosm of any social bond.
A family is the locus of trauma, always sexual. So it looks like it is the cause of it. Parents are always traumatic, Lacan said. Let us add that the same can be said of children! How can we account for trauma? A trauma is constituted by the absolute singularity of a foundational body experience, effaced as such and which only endures as a mark, a unary trait which represents the subject with a signifier for another signifier. It is there that the separation between subject and object occurs, the lost object whose sole trace is henceforth the mark. This is what Lacan said in 1966 in Baltimore: when the “subject repeats something particularly significant, you know that the subject is there, in this obscure thing that we call in some cases trauma, and in some cases exquisite pleasure.”
What of family, then? Read this issue and you will know more about its value as imaginary cradle of the fantasy, its symbolic status which delineates the contours of any relation to the Law, and of course its weight as real, as it is just as impossible to be in it as it is to get out of it.
An analysis, by removing from the family its value as destiny, by dissociating drama from trauma in order to name what was specifically traumatic for each subject, by showing that this supposed familial necessity was in fact merely a contingence devoid of sense, gives the initiative of his choices back to the speaking being.
In an analysis, one learns to make do without the family in order to make use of it.