My first online session was indeed an analytic experience. Even though I consider myself very literate in all kinds of media, I was somehow skeptical about a virtual psychoanalytical session. I’ve been using technology since I was a young child, thanks to my mother, who studied Computer Science in the 1970s. Computer as a communication device entered my life in the early 1990s when I was still a teenager and used mIRC to chat with people from other places. Living far from home since an early age, when Skype – and then smartphones – began to offer the possibility of video calls, I quickly adopted them. And then came Zoom. And then came the pandemic.
Online psychoanalysis became the only way for many. There were and still are many opinions, controversies, debates around this topic. Is it psychoanalysis? Can someone reach the body and the real through the screen? I was glad, though, that I didn’t have to use this resource through the worst and long months of the pandemic. Until I fell ill and could not come as usual to my analysis. It was when I decided to propose an online session.
I have some experience on the couch and a bit of experience sitting face to face. But this one on the screen was completely new in its setting. When you are on the couch, you see the ceiling or whatever is in front of you – sometimes a wall, a bookshelf, with a bit of luck, a window through which you can see the sky. When you are sitting, you see the analyst and most of the room. It is much more of a conversation that takes place, and sometimes it just feels right to have some exchange at this level. The couch helps to keep the productive silence working and the free associations flowing. But what about the screen?
It is a presence without presence. And it is a presence in “close-up.” In filmmaking, we use close-ups to show details, to accentuate an expression, to point out something important. If you keep your camera on during your online analysis, you will see the face of your analyst on full screen. And he will see yours. The background plays a minimal role in completing the frame. In real life, you never talk this close to your analyst. It is not a natural vision. The human eye may be comparable to a 50mm lens. That’s the proximity and depth that we are used to. On the screen, it seems like we are using a telephoto lens or getting very close to a 35mm. In both cases, the effect is that of a close-up. Everything is big on the screen. Everything is important. There is a high degree of exposure on both sides. As if we looked at each other with magnifying glasses – first the gaze, and then the words.
We cannot forget that this different array of lenses and simulations of proximity/distance is used in films or photography to tell stories – fictional or real. It means they are ways of creating a representation: the representation of a story, of a narrative. Ceci n’est pas une pipe also applies to documentaries or what we call real stories. On the screen, soon you are caught up in a representation of yourself in your own story. One may argue that when we tell these stories in person, there is already a certain degree of representation and a way of building identity through narrative. Sure, but on the screen, you are creating it and seeing it at the same time, being in and out of the story. I don’t see my reactions when I’m not in front of this inverted mirror. I become the creator and the actress of my story. But I’m not somehow directing the scene. The choice of lenses and framing are not mine. It is given by the device. If one doesn’t get caught up in the performance, it might be that the artificiality of the narrative stands out. One may be able to grasp that in the stories of our metonymic chain there is a level of fictionality. In this way, the simulacrum of the virtual encounter – and the close-up or even a black screen – may be productive.
The screen reinforces not only the representational facet of the encounter but also that we are alone. The close-up simulates proximity. This physical closeness does not exist. We are indeed very far away. Here is where the “presence without presence” enters the scene. There is an insurmountable distance that words cannot bridge. There are only pixels. The bodies are inhabiting other spaces, outside the frame, out of reach. Words might not be enough to fill – or to enlarge – this gap. The distance in the real world accentuates the lack of proximity that was disguised as the close-up. It is an experience of extreme closeness and unbridgeable distance. A paradox.
Whether an online session works or not depends on the transference, as always. There are many things that only love can bridge. It may be strong enough to pierce the famous dictum by McLuhan “The medium is the message” and reach beyond it. And sometimes, it may also fail. Psychoanalysis is flexible enough to use whatever medium is available to produce new effects. It depends on how open we are to trying out new possibilities and creating new solutions.