Psychoanalysis and Negative Dialectics
Philip Pilkington

Vladimir Arkhipov


What follows is an essay on the practice of psychoanalysis as seen through the prism of Adorno’s late dialectic; specifically that dialectic found in his major treatise on aesthetics[1]. Adorno’s was a dialectic which completely exceeded that of his predecessors, his contemporaries and probably those who followed. His was perhaps the most powerful dialectic ever put forward by any philosopher. At once lightly playful and fiercely logical, Adorno’s dialectic was both as breezy as light summer clothes and as taut as the fibres in a boatman’s rope.

Adorno’s dialectic, like Lacan’s, is not deployed in order to discern within the material scrutinised the patterns it has itself put there.

“It is no accidental failing on the part of individual thinkers… that today philosophical interpretations… fail to penetrate the construction of the material to be interpreted and instead prefer to work them up as an arena for philosophical theses: Applied philosophy, a priori fatal, reads out of material that it has invested with an air of concretion nothing but its own theses.” (Adorno, TW. 1997. P. 446 – 447)

This opening onto experience – this ‘auto-formalisation’ – is what makes both so obscure. Adorno’s philosophy and psychoanalytic theory have much to learn from each other. Both share many features which I will try to highlight below. The movement of Adorno’s negative dialectic is, I contend, identical to the movement which takes place in psychoanalytic practice. In facilitating a meeting between the two I hope that they might learn from one another.

In reverence to Adorno, however, I do feel it necessary to justify this synthesis of his thought with psychoanalytic practice. After all Adorno himself thought that psychoanalytic practice was as a bourgeois institution, rapidly becoming redundant in the face of a rising narcissistic, herdish individualism that was liquidating the independent, rational individual it claimed to work with.

First of all, I must justify that Adorno was wrong on this count. I believe that personal political disappointment mixed with knowledge of the developments taking place in ego-psychology during the period in which he was writing led him to suppose that psychoanalysis was becoming redundant as anything but a means of social control. With the latter in mind we can see that there is a strong possibility that Adorno’s critique was similar to that of Lacan.

Secondly I must justify the unusual form this essay is to take. I hold Adorno’s thought – like the practice of psychoanalysis itself – to be almost wholly about a fluidity of movement and development. Everything else is subordinated to this – even meaning[2]. Whenever Adorno references a concept, a theory or an aesthetic from another writer or artist this concept, theory or aesthetic becomes caught up in the rhythm of Adorno’s dialectic; in this it becomes something non-identical to what it was previously. It becomes something other – but something other that, at some level, it already was. This is the essence of Adorno’s dialectic (and it is this that dull philistines and skittish charlatans pejoratively refer to as ‘modern’ or ‘totalising’ in his work). Throughout what follows I have taken the same liberty with Adorno’s text (Adorno might argue that this is the essence of liberty). One term will be substituted for another as I see fit: “object” may become “ego”, “aesthetics” may become “psychoanalytic practice”, “spirit” may become “unconscious” etc.

I do so in total and assured knowledge that this is the truth of all reading and writing. The subject and the object – and indeed the concepts used to refer to each – are always formed in and through each other. This is the fundamental lesson gleaned from both Adorno’s dialectic and psychoanalytic practice. In truth the only way to distort the thoughts, intentions and works of another is to misrecognise this fundamental fact[3]. Adorno himself heightened this into a dialectical maxim. In speaking of Hegel’s texts he says:

“No one can read any more than he puts in… The content itself contains, as a law of its form, the expectation of productive imagination on the part of the one reading. Whatever experience the reader may register has to be thought out on the basis of the reader’s own experience.” (Adorno, TW. 1993. P. 139)

Or to quote another master dialectician who perhaps, in not speaking of his master’s text but of his love object, comes even closer still to the practice of psychoanalysis. “Then insofar as I may have any formative influence upon her, it is by teaching her again and again what I have learned from her”[4].

I ask the reader to be patient with the layout of the essay. The first two sections may appear rather unfamiliar. In these terms are used that are alien to psychoanalysis. To make their reading a little easier I can only promise that when first introduced these terms mean nothing more than they mean in common parlance. “Expression” is the expression of a pop-psychology or a lowbrow art-class. “Harmony” is the harmony of the pop-singer or the interior decorator and so on. I can promise that there is no qualification other than reading English needed to understand what these terms mean[5]. I am afraid as far as their applicability to psychoanalysis goes I can only rely on the readers own imagination.

The third and fourth sections are, perhaps, less disarming to the eye – less dissonant – but I have tried to make up for this with a clarity which, I must admit, when the subject matter is considered, vexes me somewhat.

I hope that, by the end of the essay, the necessity of this presentational strategy will be clear. For the latter sections I apologise; for the former I do not. If in the latter there is something to learn; in the former there is something to teach.
Harmony and Expression

“The emancipation from the concept of harmony has revealed itself to be a revolt against semblance.” (Adorno, TW. 1997. P. 133)

Emancipation from the concept of harmony? Does this not grate on the ears of modern man? How on earth can one become emancipated from harmony? Surely this is an oxymoron? We all want harmony after all – without harmony there is nothing but chaos. Right?

Wholeness – whether stretching oneself into the “crane-position” or worshipping at the pagan altar of environmental ideology, it is wholeness that is sought. Harmony – in every pop-ballad and every dietary plan is the ideal. An easily offended ear; an easily upset stomach. Equilibrium – of both the spirit and of economy; but no need to balance one’s workload or one’s bank balance, meditation and low-interest credit will take care of all that, especially when each supplements the other – for a while, at least. Where is this revolt against harmony that Adorno speaks of? Everywhere we look we encounter imbalances saturated in ideology; dissonance sugar-coated with half-truths and outright lies.

What a dangerous concept, this harmony; as toxic as any narcotic. Harmony is a purely egoic force, a truly imaginary construction; and one so fraught with hazard. The quest for harmony is nothing but an attempt to inject a semblance of order into a world that daily increases in disorder. How on earth can this ever work out? And, more importantly, what happens when it all goes awry?

Perhaps harmony is found with a lover; what beautiful music we make together, this violin and this drum. Perhaps semblance arises in a Weltanschauung carefully constructed; a wonderful, yet fragile view of the world, as meticulously assembled and as prone to collapse as a house of cards. But soon those strings on the lover snap and our card-house is blown away by the pressing winds of reality. The world as tragedy; the world as chaos. And what now?

The ego – so necessary, yet so deadly! Like a vital organ that has improperly evolved; a desperate man’s drug, his last release. The ego – locked in a constant battle with its own disintegration; a fight with a death drive on which it relies for its own existence.

Is there any way to truly become emancipated from this harmony today? Can we turn down the artificially sweetened ballad and tune in to the clamour of something more dissonant? Or in doing so are we swimming in waters with currents more dangerous?

The revolt against harmony often takes the form of irony. For what is irony if not the suicide of the whole; the ego cracking up in a furious cackle of mad laughter? But in irony we evade something fundamental: expression.

In a certain sense irony may circumvent semblance and harmony: irony shatters semblance by shaking it from within itself; irony disturbs harmony by using its own notes against it. Perhaps, however, it does so only at the expense of expression; semblance crumbles and harmony disintegrates, but only by barring access to the most authentic subjective aspects of the self. Irony is like a prison-guard, who, as he binds our freedom also keeps the murderous mob gathered outside at bay. Irony – the subject barred; safe behind bars.

Perhaps then irony shares more with harmony than a similar phonetic construction. Irony is undoubtedly an egoic function – one tied to the unconscious, certainly; perhaps even the ego’s highest function – but an egoic function all the same (alas! one knows only too well the low boiling point of an ego without irony!).

So what of emancipation from both irony and harmony? What could possibly give us the strength and the cunning necessary to trick the guard and fight our way through the mob; to open air, to freedom? Reality, perhaps? The real? That which lurks at night in the backdrop of the dream; that which spends its days hiding away in the depths of fantasy?

Certainly, the real contains no harmony; nor does it tolerate irony. The real – the dissonant crash of the cymbal across the soothing melody of the cello; the splash of glossy red paint against the lush greens and pacifying yellows of the summer meadow. Is this real not so much more powerful, so much more evocative than the knowing wink implicit in the hipster’s ironic nod; or the can of beans painted like an advertisement and hung in an art gallery?

True, irony is closer to the real than is harmony – the groans of the Velvet Underground can be heard in the background as Warhol sets himself up a safe distance from the world – but it is nowhere near as honest; nowhere near as true. Irony is well told lie, a campfire tale; nothing more.

We are impelled to mediate ourselves through our ego. Semblance, harmony, even irony, these are all discursive tactics, defence mechanisms. But must this injunction be absolute? These egos are alienations, things, mannequins, frozen moments of ourselves that stand in for ourselves; but with expression we challenge these egos through themselves and on their own terms.

“If the unconscoius is no longer able to speak directly, then at least it should speak through things, through their alienated and mutilated form.” (Adorno, TW. 1997. P. 154)

The emancipation from harmony is a revolt against semblance; but this revolt is an emancipation, this emancipation a revolt. Expression – a permanent revolution.
Expression and Dissonance

We must get rid of harmony. To fight the ego dissonance is needed. “According to its internal constitution the ego dissolves everything that is heterogeneous to its form even though it is form only in relation to what it would like to make vanish. It impedes what seeks to appear in it according to its own apriori. It must conceal it, a concealment that its idea of truth imposes until it rejects harmony” (Adorno, TW. 1997. P. 144). So it is clear; in order to break the ego out of its worn associative grooves, we must reject harmony.

Until the ego refuses harmony it necessarily refuses the truth of its own existence. To refuse this truth can only end badly; like a dancer, so entranced by the music that she fails to notice the flames engulfing the hall around her. So, what of this dissonance? Or, more importantly, what can we say of this dissonance? For it would not be hard to trip up the dancer, we would merely stick out our leg; but to trip up the ego? That is altogether a more difficult task.

First we must recognise from where dissonance emerges; in doing so we might find ourselves surprised. Dissonance emerges out of dissatisfaction with harmony; hence dissonance itself is born from the quest for harmony. We know the dissatisfaction of the ego only too well: “I want this… no, that… no, that… no…”. We are more than aware of what it seeks: wholeness, completion… harmony. But should it not seem strange that out of this desire for harmony emerges dissonance? Why is it that it is precisely when mapping out its own wholeness the ego comes across a crack; a crack that gets bigger and bigger, until…

No, our logic is sound. Egoic harmony in its own inherent insatiability always already contains a veritable desire for dissonance. The ego might deny this; it might try to evade this but such will only lead to peril. Eventually the ego’s fate will make itself known and it will be forced to tread this inevitable path; “Aha!” it will say, “I am not whole precisely because harmony itself relies for its foundations on dissonance!”

Now that we recognise from where dissonance emerges we must again ask the question: what is dissonance? Dissonance is, first and foremost, expression. Dissonance is true expression; expression cleared of its imaginary lies. Dissonance is truth. Grinding away beneath those sweet harmonies is a plethora of dissonant notes and rhythms. The slick music producer may, like the cognitivist, use computer software to try and eliminate these micrological truths, but this makes him nothing but a fibber. In the best case he will fail, beaten by the truth of dissonance; in the worst, he will succeed in eliminating any and all music from the phonic material he works with. Where there is expression there is necessarily dissonance and where there is dissonance there is necessarily expression.

This is not simply true of music; everywhere we look we find this sublime truth. What is the meteorologist searching for as he obsessively scrutinises every flap of the butterfly’s wings, but dissonance? There is no way to escape this dimension of being; it will always catch up with us. The ego and its social equivalent can always try to keep it behind closed doors; Schoenberg is kept in the musical academies where he belongs; chaos theorists should do as they are told, we, the public, want only completed theories: candy-floss and pop-music for all!

But dissonance will always make itself felt, heard, seen, tasted, smelt; whether in the financial markets, the eco-system or on the analyst’s couch. In turn new means will be manufactured to keep it down and shut up; egoic harmony will reign, we will all become homo egoicus. But the dance will forever continue; Eros with its graceful moves, Thanatos with its spasmodic contortions.

The great music therapist Schreber realised the power of dissonance. His own poor soul was nothing if not dissonant and those around him insisted that he put into it some order. But such order was devastating to Screber’s innermost nature – a nature we all share, but that some of us are better able to handle. From time to time Schreber would give his discordant soul some relief; not through psychoanalysis, but through a more direct form of personal expression:

“He develops other strategies that achieve the same effect, such as hammering at the piano in a ‘disturbing manner’, reciting poetry or counting, swearing out loud or simply bellowing like a maniac: all these facilitate the blessed ‘not-thinking-of-anything-thought’ and grant him (if not those around him) a little respite. What he is combating through all these practices is the signifying power of the words, and the demand he interpret, understand — despite his awareness of their total redundancy. His strategies all involve fleeing signification, whether through the nonsignifying activities of playing the piano or counting, to repeating the phrases himself till he is no longer bothered by their meanings.” (McClure, B. 2001. Part 2 n 29)

Schreber found his own means of expression and we can be sure that his psychiatrists – intent on socialising him – found it counterproductive. But for Schreber, unable to express himself in his speech, such tomfoolery allowed him to escape for a moment from his almost constant torments.

Schreber did not sit down at the piano to strike a few chords or to play something to ‘relax’ himself. Such would only serve to re-enforce the ego which we can guess he found so alienating. Instead he hammered at the keys discordantly, lending a voice to his struggles. Schreber – early atonalist and pioneer of musical therapy.
The Logic, Form and Meaning of Expression

The aim of psychoanalysis is to give rise to expression. In doing so it encounters two major problems.

The first of these is illustrated by the mortifying deadlocks of rationalistic ego-psychology. In ego-psychology expression is either, in the worst of cases, repressed, or, in the best of cases, forced into static, pre-determined channels. At the expense of expression the ego is enforced and – for good reason using a term borrowed from behaviourism – reinforced; this is nothing but an act of rationalistic domination.

The second major problem is illustrated by the opposite extreme: that of so-called schizoanalysis[6]. Schizoanalysis deploys an incoherent logic that rests on the assumption that the unconscious should be allowed complete free-reign; one might say, referencing the schizophrenic Artaud, in this practice the anarchy of the unconscious is crowned and made sovereign. The problem with this type of analysis is obvious: it is impossible. As we know it is not desirable to induce a psychosis in someone who is not structured in such a way (if we were to try we could imagine that the sensible person would simply leave the room). In fact we could go further still and assert that this type of analysis is nothing but a fantasy of a total liberation which is absolutely impossible to achieve; a oneness with the world that can never be realised and that only ends up instilling guilt and mourning in those who desperately try to achieve it. In short, by trying desperately to realise a total dissonance we find ourselves trapped under harmony’s heavy shadow; in such a set of circumstances expression is distorted and evaded in favour of a spectre of liberation.

In Adorno we find a solution to these problems. In Adorno we find a logicality that allows for liberation from the dominating rationale of the ego without lapsing into incoherence. In order to discuss this we must think at the level of form; specifically, what form expression must take.

As we have known since Kant the most primordial self-reflective form we encounter as humans is the form of by time and space. Ego-psychology wishes for time and space to be carefully and rationally structured; distortions are undesirable and are to be avoided at all costs. On the other hand schizoanalysis wishes that any stable form assumed by time and space disintegrated and turned into the horrifying flux of Joycean ‘chaosmos’. Distortions become absolute and desire has no means to fix itself to any object. Adorno offers us something entirely different:

“As psychoanalysis compresses time and folds spaces into one another, so the possibility is concretized that the world can be other than it is. Space, time, and causality are maintained, their power is not denied, but they are divested of their compulsiveness.” (Adorno, TW. 1997. P. 182)

Here Adorno grasps the crux of the issue. Both ego-psychology and schizoanalysis display a sort of compulsive quality when approaching the memories and affective states encountered in analysis. In them an ideal is posited and is then compulsively applied to the unconscious. Both practices emphasise the empirical and demand that the unconscious comply with it; ego-psychology does so by demanding compliance with the immediately existing empirical world, while schizoanalysis insists on the impossible task that the ego should erase itself in the face of the total and unmediated empirical flux gushing forth from the unconscious. Instead psychoanalysis should insist that the empirical world become subservient to the forms imposed on it by the unconscious; specifically those forms we find articulated so eloquently in Freud and Lacan (Oedipus, castration etc.).

“Paradoxically, it is precisely to the extent that the unconscious is released from the empirical world by its formal constituents that it is less illusory, less deluded by the ego’s dictated lawfulness, than is empirical knowledge or experience.” (Adorno TW. 1997. P. 182)

This is a logic that, in evading both an imposed consistency – that of ego-psychology – and an imposed inconsistency – that of schizoanalysis – generates a consistency of its own; a consistency born of the unconscious itself. A consistency in some ways similar to that of discursive, egoic or Cartesian knowledge, but never identical to it.

“That the logic of the unconscious is derivative of discursive logic and not identical with it, is evident in that unconscious logic – and here the unconscious converges with dialectical thought – suspends its own rigor and is ultimately able to make this suspension its idea; this is the aim of the many forms of disruption in psychoanalysis.” (Adorno, TW. 1997. P. 183)

The logic that takes hold in psychoanalysis is, of course, the logic of desire. In psychoanalysis unconscious desire moulds and sculpts itself into a form; preferably a form with little interest in compulsive domination. What takes place does so “as a result of the implicit critique of the unconscious-dominating ego, whose rigid determinations psychoanalysis sets in motion by modifying them.” (Adorno, TW. 1997. P. 183). It is neither to the detriment of reason that the unconscious is liberated from the chains of the alienating ego; nor to the detriment of unconscious expression through appeal to the ‘reality principle’ of the ego. Instead the ego is encouraged to rationally integrate this expression and change its own rationale in accordance with it. “It is not through the abstract negation of the ego, nor through the mysterious, immediate eidetic vision of reality, that psychoanalysis seeks justice for the repressed, but rather by revoking the violent act of rationality by emancipating rationality from what it holds to be its inalienable material in the empirical world. Psychoanalysis is not synthesis; rather it shreds synthesis by the same force that affects synthesis.” (Adorno, TW. 1997. P. 183 – 184).

While today’s Lacanian psychoanalysts are very careful to avoid the sin of an over-bearing egoism, they are less cautious when it comes to theorising psychoanalysis in terms of the irrational. They seem to be pressed in by a war on two fronts in which they are less inclined to protect their rear where the shock-troops of schizoanalysis rally. Analysts should be more cautious when it comes to this most formidable enemy. I have often heard analysts – most likely due to their philosophical or literary training and always without their even recognising it – slip into the logic of schizoanalysis. Schizoanalysis is the enemy within.

As we have pointed out, the main problem with schizoanalysts is that in attacking unity so forcefully they necessarily find themselves coming full circle and once more embracing unity.

“Schizoanalysts would like to do away with unity altogether, though with the irony that those theories that are supposedly open and incomplete necessarily regain something comparable to unity insofar as this openness is planned.” (Adorno, TW. 1997. P. 186)

If we slip into this irrationalism – one so shot through with self-denial – we encounter nothing but a horrifying repetition; a stultifying and compulsive movement symptomatic of the death drive.

“Even in those theories most diffuse and hostile to repetition, similarities are involved, that many parts correspond with others in terms of shared, distinguishing characteristics, and that it is only through the relation of these elements of identity that the sought-after non-identity is achieved; without sameness of any sort, chaos itself would prevail as something ever-same.” (Adorno, TW. 1997. P. 186)

What we get is not liberation, but a wretched, lonely convalescent despairing in the face of the concept of the eternal return. The convalescent embraces, with a barbarous zest, all that lives within his memory that is most horrific. Directed only by his own aggresitivity he resurrects these long-dead, zombie-like signifiers and deploys them against himself and others. This is the true meaning fascism. Deleuze and Guatteri constantly and obsessively speak of fascism only because they pursue the same aggressive irrationalism that is found therein. Unable to recognise the fascism residing deep within their own theories they accuse Freud, Oedipus and whatever else they can get their hands on, of fascism. Their fascism is externalised and projected onto their ‘bourgeois’ enemies.

We cannot provide a panacea. But while the schizoanalysts and their compatriots dream of absolute difference coupled with absolute affirmation we admit that such is impossible. In order for an ego to come into being fragments of the real must be rejected. The formation of an ego – even of a liberated ego – is bound up with negation and rejection.

“Without rejection the ego can have no form, and this prolongs guilty domination in psychoanalysis, of which it would like to free; form is it’s amorality. It does injustice to form by following it… It makes incisions in the living in order to help it to language and thus mutilates it.” (Adorno, TW. P. 190)

Such mutilation through the imposition of the self-positing form of the unconscious in its relation to the ego is castration; psychoanalysis’ guilty conscience. Psychoanalysis recognises the simple fact that Man can only take so much difference and variation and that ultimately he will have to reject and repress certain elements in order to constitute himself. This realisation always entails guilt. But this guilt is surely better than the disingenuous babble of pure difference (a babble, incidentally, which, due to being based on an impossibility, imposes far more guilt upon Man due to his not being able to realise this ideal). We might say, then, that whereas schizoanalysis burdens itself with guilt that it will not recognise, psychoanalysis recognises guilt with which it does not burden itself.

In compensation the process of rejection and negation is perpetual and so always guarantees us something of the new. Since the real can never be truly captured by the signifier, the desire of the unconscious, mediated through the re-formed ego, continues in its perpetual metonymy.

“If a gapless and unforced unity of form and the formed succeeded, as is intended by the idea of form, this would amount to the achievement of the identity of the identical and the non-identical. But it is vis-a-vis the fact that this has not been achieved and that the ego and the unconscious are never wholly reconciled, that even after analysis the ego is still motivated to wall itself up in the imaginary confines of an identity that is merely for-itself.” (Adorno, TW. 1997. P. 192)

In a sense then, psychoanalysis fails to live up to the ideal that it’s practice necessarily gives rise to. Freud realised this in his “Analysis: Terminable or Interminable”. But such a failure is not truly failure; for the ideal is itself an illusion that only a fool would take seriously and chase.

We should be careful not to confuse the concept of form with the imposition of a fixed meaning. Form, at its most basic level – which is precisely that of the unconscious – does not aim at meaning; the liberated ego is not an entity over-concerned with the establishment of meaning (this can be left to the positivists and the psychotics)[7]. Instead the liberated ego swims along in the lukewarm stream of desire gushing forth from the unconscious.

“For the liberated ego meaning is only legitimate insofar as it is objectively more than the ego’s own meaning. In that psychoanalysis relentlessly chips away at the nexus in which meaning is founded, it turns against this nexus and against meaning altogether.” (Adorno, TW. 1997. P. 200 – 201)

The form of the liberated ego is not to be thought of as either an aggressive fixation of meaning or an equally aggressive insistence on meaning’s own suicide. Rather the liberated ego sutures together meaning at certain conjunctures, then tears these apart and sutures them together again at different conjunctures. To try to evade that the ego “is semblance in that, in the midst of meaninglessness, it is unable to escape the suggestion of meaning” is completely ridiculous and wholly evasive of the human condition (Adorno, TW. 1997. P. 202).

Form and expression are dialectically dependent upon one another. Dissonance relies for its existence on the imaginary harmony of the liberated ego. Dissonance does not dissolve the rigid, harmonious ego into a shifting sea of differences; instead it re-forms it.

“Although the liberated ego revolts against its neutralization as an object of contemplation, insisting on the most extreme incoherence and dissonance, these elements are those of unity; without this unity they would not even be dissonant.” (Adorno, TW. 1997. P. 206)

The ego, due to its nature, will always try to terrorize expression with closed forms and fixed meanings. It is the ethic of both psychoanalysis and the liberated ego to try as best they can to avoid this. An authentic expression here; a shot of dissonance there – this is the task of psychoanalysis and its new ego.
The Liberation of the Ego as Object

So how are we to liberate the ego? The basic problem with the ego is that, by its very structure it possesses an object-like quality. The ego is basically an object; like a table, a chair or a lectern. This is why the ego is so apt to be treated as an object by some analysts and theorists. The aim of psychoanalysis, however, is to refashion the ego in order to accommodate the unconscious as subject. However, whenever this process is discussed it is usually explained only vaguely. Reference is made to ‘traversing the fantasy’ and ‘taking up a new subject position’; but these well-worn phrases do not really provide us with a description.

This problem goes right back to Freud and gives psychoanalysis a certain hermetic and cult-like quality. Analysts say things like “Oh, well you have to have undergone the experience in order to understand it”. Would we be inclined to accept such avowals of incommunicability if they were to come from a Mormon or a Moonie? Of course not. Instead we must insist that the process is describable and then endeavour to provide the best description we possibly can. We will sketch it here.

The crux of the issue is simple: how does the ego as object incorporate new aspects of the unconscious as subject? We must remember that the ego and the unconscious are dialectically related: the unconscious cannot appear without the mediating presence of the ego, while the ego relies for its entire constitution on the unconscious. There is little point in engaging in the pseudo-genetic game of the chicken and the egg here; we must merely assert that this is the state of affairs encountered in the clinic. This is a question of epistemological primacy; not a question of poultry.

Although we cannot assert that the ego and the unconscious are, or probably ever will be, identical, we can follow Adorno in saying that “in psychoanalysis the subject is neither the observer nor the creator nor the absolute unconscious, but instead the unconscious bound up with, preformed and mediated by the object of desire” (Adorno, TW. 1997. P. 218). The ego is the locus through which the unconscious must pass in order to come into contact with its object. It is thus not merely that the ego is preformed by unconscious, pre-egoic identifications, but also that in psychoanalytic practice the ego itself predetermines in what manner and context the unconscious is to appear. Take as an example a slip of the tongue. The slip will be reliant on the conscious signifiers being articulated by the ego prior to the slip taking place. The unconscious, then, cannot find expression except in and through the ego.

Here we see one of the most common means by which expression takes place.

“Expression, objectivated in the ego and objective in itself, enters as a subjective impulse; form, if it is not to have a mechanical relationship to what is formed, must be produced subjectively according to the demands of the object of desire.” (Adorno, TW. 1997. P. 218)

We also see that Lacan’s attacks on the ego were, at the time and even today, a necessary strategy in order to bring psychoanalysis back into contact with the unconscious proper, but that, now that this critique has been registered, it is perhaps time to recognise once more the important role played by the ego in mental life. For the ego is like a hydra; no matter how many of its heads we sever, two more grow in their place. Psychoanalysis is concerned with allowing subjective expression to take place; but this must necessarily be done in and through the ego-as-object.

“Subjectivation, though it is the condition through which successful psychoanalysis takes place, is not such until it becomes this through objectivation in the ego; to this extent subjectivity in psychoanalysis is self-alienated and concealed.” (Adorno, TW. 1997. P. 223)

As we have said: analysis is no panacea; it will not break the spell of alienation; but it will certainly allow expression to take place in and through this alienation.

Unconscious fantasy – most especially the primal fantasy – plays an extremely important role in psychoanalysis. Fantasies are those flashes of the unconscious which take place in the ego. They are generally dissonant to the ego in the extreme and must necessarily remain so. Psychoanalysis seems less a process through which the ego and the fantasy are reconciled and more a process in which the ego tolerates this dissonance which it finds at its own heart.

“As the capacity to discover approaches and solutions in psychoanalysis, fantasy may be defined as the differential of freedom in the midst of determination.” (Adorno, TW. 1997. P. 229)

The expression of unconscious fantasy is the essence of freedom; a dissonant and disturbing freedom.

This is the task of psychoanalysis: to allow the ego its existence – without which there would be nothing but schizophrenic chaos – but to ensure that it’s thing-like quality is minimised and the dissonance of unconscious desires are allowed their turn to speak.

“The totally objectivated ego would congeal into a mere thing, whereas if it altogether evaded objectivation it would regress to an impotently powerless subjective impulse and flounder in the empirical world.” (Adorno, TW. 1997. P. 230)


[1] Adorno, TW, 1997.

[2] For a brilliant exposition of why such obscurity of meaning is necessary I would urge the reader to enquire into the final essay in Adorno’s “Hegel: Three Studies”. Entitled “Skoteinos or How to Read Hegel” the essay offers remarkable insight into the reading of both Adorno and Hegel – I would also argue that it offers brilliant insights into reading Lacan (Adorno, TW. 1993. P. 89 – 149).

Anyone who has ever stood back for a moment from any of these thinkers and thought to themselves, “What if there is no reason for this obscurantism? What if it is pure charlatanism and sophisticated logical trickery?” – and I only hope that every student of these thinkers has had the rational sense to ask themselves this at least once – will find their worries assuaged in this wonderful piece of writing.

Yet more evidence of the relevance of Adorno for Lacan scholars; and vice versa. Speaking against clarity Adorno writes:

“Clarity can be demanded of all knowledge only when it has been determined that the objects under investigation are free of all dynamic qualities that would cause them to elude the gaze that tries to capture them and hole them unambiguously.” (ibid. P. 98)

[3] With some reluctance I have provided reference for all the material quoted from Adorno’s text. The suspicious reader is welcome to look up these references in order to see which terms have been replaced – which, I assure them, have not been chosen arbitrarily. Before their doing so, however, I would only appeal to their higher sensibilities and ask them to remove their academician’s cloak and gown for a moment and see if the essay itself reads well.

[4] Kierkegaard, S. 1987, p. 391.

[5] “Better would be an approach that carefully avoided definitions as mere stipulations and modeled concepts as faithfully as possible on what they say in language, making them virtually names” (Adorno, TW. 1993. P. 106).

[6] Deleuze and Guattari’s work is often used by the incoherent to excuse their logical failings. Deleuze – being far too logical to adhere to the ideology that has sprung up around his work – had a far more nuanced attitude to harmony:

“The preparation of dissonance means integrating the half-pains that have been accompanying pleasure, in such a way that the next pain will not occur ‘contrary to all expectations’. Thus the dog was musical when it knew how to integrate the almost imperceptible approach of the enemy, the faint hostile odor and the silent raising of the stick just prior to receiving the blow. The resolution of dissonance is tantamount to displacing pain, to searching for the major accord with which it is consonant, just as the martyr knows how to do it at the highest point and, in that way, not suppress pain itself, but suppress resonance or resentment, by pursuing the effort to suppress causes, even if the martyr’s force of opposition is not attained. All of Leibniz’s theory of evil is a method to prepare for and to resolve dissonances in a ‘universal harmony’. (Deleuze, G. 2006  P. 151)

[7] “We do not make someone so normal that they will end up psychotics.” (Lacan quoted in Badiou, A. 2009. P. 143)


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