The Short Session
Pierre-Gilles Guéguen

and the question concerning technique with Lacan

Author’s Bio

Of the many ways to define the analyst I’d like to keep to one: the analyst is he who, following Freud or Lacan, knew how to make psychoanalysis happen in his own life. He demonstrates that desire, all together singular, is called “the desire of the analyst”. This assumes that he “perseveres” and that he knows, at the right moment, to not give way on his desire.

Such was the case with Lacan who withstood the pressures fixing to bring him back into the supposed orthodoxy of the IPA, that is a professional practice of consensus. Of course, this led to his eviction, to what he named his “excommunication”, thus echoing Spinoza.

As for the short session, Lacan called it a “chipped stone” (pierre de rebut) [1] in a 1966 note to a page of “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis” (Écrits). As much a “chipped stone”, it was a “cornerstone”, an essential element in his theory of psychoanalysis. A “cornerstone”, Lacan chose the expression carefully, highlighting the central aspect of question concerning the short session in a debate where it was never officially made the object of a rejection: “Whether a chipped stone or a cornerstone my forte is that I haven’t given in on this point”, Lacan declared.

On that page of the “Discours de Rome”, when he’s developing a critique of standard analytic technique, Lacan announces a point of view which, then as ever, consists in substituting for the formalism of “technical rules” a formalization of theory: principles.

In that passage he describes the analyst as “Master of the truth”. He is also a scribe and a depositary, and at the same time, judge of the price of the discourse held by the analysand, a discourse in which meaning is fixed by the analyst’s punctuation. Without fail, the analysand interprets every break in the session as a “punctuation of his progress”. It must be avoided, then, the automatic break of the standard, lest a fixed session length furnish the analysand “pretext for a retaliatory ruse”. Besides, the “benevolent neutrality” of the standard can become an obsession for the analyst and maintain the subject’s connivance, which means as much as avoiding the bien dire.

It is in this context that Lacan pens the expression: “what they call our short sessions” (ce qu’on appelle nos séances courtes). For him, the short session is a means to promote “a precise dialectical meaning in analytic technique”, to seize the coming of the cure and not to make decrees on the rules of interpretation. There, Lacan truly shows himself to be a freudian.

In their canonical form, the standard rules applied to the IPA stem from 5 of Freud’s texts. Ralph Greenson cites them in the introduction to his 1967 work The Technique and Practice of Psychoanalysis, articles entitled: “Recommendations to Physicians Practicing Psycho-Analysis”, “On the Beginning of Treatment”, “The Dynamics of Transference”, “Observations on Transference-Love”, “Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through”, all of them written between 1912 and 1915.

But rereading “On the Beginning of Treatment”, for example, it’s quite obvious that the texts Freud consigned to the modalities of technique (doubtless in the heat of the quarrel with Jung) are first of all, not texts of technique pure, but texts that subordinate the question to the treatment of a theoretical problem. Moreover, Freud’s tone is more conciliatory than prescriptive, that every “rule” is paired with a commentary that effectively modalizes it.

Take for example the rule of the number, and above all, the duration of sessions, disputed so passionately for the way Lacan put it into practice. For years this was the mark of lacanianism, what the IPA psychoanalysts fought against the harshest.

It’s remarkable that Greenson doesn’t so much as mention the rule of number and duration, neither does Etchegoyen. In France, following André Green, the IPA analysts tended to give a theory “of the Framework”, which insists on the value of ritual in analysis and attempts to justify it, but no one dared to put forth the appropriate duration of the session for the good reason that everyone was cutting it short… Etchgoyen, in a piece called “Les fondements de la technique analytique” (“The foundations of Analytic Technique”) approaches the analytic practice of number and duration through the lens of the contract. He distinguishes among analysts (doubtless, according to the numerous tendencies of the IPA) between conservative authoritarian approaches, and more democratic modalities (”liberal” in the American sense of the term) of drafting the terms of said contract. In that light, we can see that he still treats the “framework” as a part of a reality external to the space- time in which analysis happens: the space and the time of the analysis itself. The fixing of the frame is then to be conceived as an element of deontology or social morality; it is measured in terms of respect for the other, reciprocal engagements, and possible breeches of the contract.

Compare that to the Lacan’s rigorous formulation in “The Direction of the Treatment and the Principles of its Power”: “The direction of the treatment…consists, first of all, in getting the subject to apply the fundamental rule of psychoanalysis, that is, the directives whose presence at the heart of what is called ‘the analytic situation’ cannot be neglected, under the pretext that the subject would best apply them without thinking about it. These directives are initially laid out to the patient in the form of instructions which, however little the analyst comments on them, convey, even in the very inflections of his statement of them, the doctrine the analyst himself has arrived at.” (Écrits 490)

Note the contrast between the flimsy position of the IPA (the contract) and the rigidity that accompanies that position when it comes to applying the rules to the session, and the austere rigor in which Lacan announces what goes and what doesn’t, the principles unfolding with the understanding that the practice works on a case by case basis, crafted entirely on flexibility, with attention to the particular.

Where Freud outlined the rules he was nuanced (except for the fundamental rule of free association) and he gave a reason: “When the sessions are too far apart, one runs the risk of falling out of step with the real incidents of the patient’s life, of seeing the analysis lose touch with reality and getting off track.” (TP 1913)

In contrast to the IPA approach, it’s clear that Freud won’t allow himself to separate out the analysis, the patient’s life, and the manifestations of the concrete desire to undergo analysis, whereas, according to Greenson, the framework is made to encourage regression, to make the patient feel secure in the framework of “the working alliance” (l’alliance de travail). We can grasp Freud’s concern when he indicates, for example, that analysts will prefer to take on patients who are disposed to invest the time and money necessary for their treatment.

Lacan takes hold of the spirit of the freudian approach, whereas the post-freudians have tended to apply it to the letter. For Lacan, as for Freud, far from separating the session and the patient’s life, it’ll be about getting psychoanalysis to happen in the patient’s life. That means, among other things, that nothing in the patient’s life can be left aside. Psychoanalysis enters into relation with the whole signifying system in which the analysand moves. Lacan says as much in the 1967 text “On psychoanalysis in its Relations with Reality”: “… the interpretation that carries out the psychoanalytic mutation bears on that reality, on that which cuts it up to be inscribed in the form of the signifier”.

From that standpoint, the session isn’t a space reserved for psychoanalysis, inscribed in the daily timetable as an intellectual or recreational activity. On the contrary, the session is an element in the signifying series out of which the patient is inscribed into reality. The mutation comes to fruition once the signifier that delivers the session enters into a gödelian rapport with the others, when it becomes “extime”.

The lacanian session is not a space that invites regression. On the contrary, it is the occasion for a tuché of an encounter. There’s a paradox in the session that Lacan describes: in effect, it enters into a series with “a quasi-bureaucratic regularity” (“De la psychanalyse dans ses rapports avec la realité”) [2] but, fundamentally, the session is tuché, which means interpretation, surprise.

The lacanian subversion of the session time, the heart of it, finds rhyme and reason insofar as it requires that the analyst pay with his words and his character, with “what is essential in his most intimate judgement” to quote Lacan in “The Direction of the Treatment” (490). Hence, the “quasi-beauracratic regularity” is nothing but a base out from which the analysis becomes, in itself, the analyst’s interpretive tool and which, if necessary and on a case by case basis, the analyst might find fit to vary, in terms of number, duration, even price. The sole principle that must be respected is that the analyst cannot respond to the demand, he can’t find himself in a position of connivance with the patient.

Over the years, analysis in the IPA developed according to a model where the act referenced is the doctor’s, the therapeutic. Over and against that, we submit the analytic act, from which Lacan derived the principle of action of the analyst and his conception of the session. The setting thus demanded, on the part of the patient as on the part of the analyst, goes well beyond the therapeutic and the aspects of care which always lie, on one side or another of charity. If there is a principle of charity in analysis, it’s in the sense that the logician Davidson understands the term, that is, the analyst and the analysand are both situated on the same side of the Other, the same in whom the patient’s got to grasp the operating logic, the Other that’s led his life thus far. In that way, the analysis, and so the analytic session, takes part in the patient’s life at the same time that it’s the lever he can pull on to change it.

Here, Lacan has succeeded where the post-freudians failed: he put the frame into the picture, a topological operation that makes of the lacanian session now and forever something more than an IPA session cut short, it’s a new objet, an inventive object in touch with the finalities of a psychoanalytic discourse in the world.


[1] Translator note: “Chipped stone” follows Bruce Fink’s translation of the term in Écrits. Rebut, in French, means rubbish, discard, scrap, and ultimately, in the sense that Guéguen develops the term “what is unfit, what is rejected.”

[2] Conference at the Institut Français de Milan, December 18, 1967; in Scilicet 1, pp. 51-59, Paris: Seuil, 1968.