The Age of Bartlebies: Lacanian Family Therapy and Refusing Adolescents
Janne Kurki


In my paper, I will introduce the basic concepts of Lacanian theory in regard to family therapy. I will show how Lacan’s theory on signification in 1950’s leads logically to his theory on four discourses in the end of 1960’s. From this perspective, I will claim that refusing children and adolescents have similar function and position in our contemporary Western culture as hysteric women had in Sigmund Freud’s Vienna. Contemporary adolescents who do not co-operate say no to master’s and university discourses in a similar way to hysteric women of Freud’s times.

The basic concepts introduced include signifier, signified, master’s discourse, university discourse, hysteric’s discourse, analyst’s discourse and subject supposed to know. With these basic concepts, I will show how Lacanian psychoanalytic tradition runs parallel directions with some classical family therapy schools some decades later. What is more, Lacanian basic concepts articulate well the contemporary everyday situations we encounter in our daily work with children and adolescents and their families.


In his short story, Bartleby, the Scrivener, Herman Melville (1819–1891) presents a disturbing figure, Bartleby. This figure embodies an absolute refusal of social interaction, crystallized in Bartleby’s famous phrase: “I would prefer not to.”

Bartleby’s figure has puzzled new and new generations of readers and interpreters, including philosophers like Gilles Deleuze and Slavoj Žižek. In this presentation, it is not this philosophical reception tradition of this piece of literature as such that I am interested in. What I am going to pay my attention to is the ethical and cultural dimension of this kind of absolute refusal in the clinic.

Namely, in our everyday work with today’s children and adolescents, we encounter these kinds of Bartlebies daily. Of course, the “I would prefer not to” of the end of the 19th century hears now “Fuck You!” or total absence of the child, but the phenomenon as such resembles in an amazing way Melville’s Bartleby. As if our adolescents had read Melville’s short story and then acted out the figure of Bartleby in their own context: I would prefer not to go to school, I would prefer not to go out away from my room, and, what is most disturbing to us professionals, I would prefer not to come to your clinic, I would prefer not to talk to you doctors, psychologists or therapists. I would prefer not to interact with the social world of adults around me at all.

What is at stage here, in this refusal to come together and to communicate? How should we understand these refusing children or their refusal to co-operate? It is these questions in my mind when I move to the obligatory theoretical part of my presentation. This theoretical part might sound boring and too foreign and abstract to our practical work, but the price stands in the end as the treasure in the end of a rainbow: by giving some time and effort to the conceptual framework we can gain some new insights to these often difficult and even irritating phenomena of our waiting for our Godots to arrive. Who would not have felt that there could be better things to do than wait the 15 years old Godot? Paradoxically maybe, I claim that this waiting has deeper importance, so far so, that I would call it the advent of the future.

In fact, facing a refusing adolescent is the ethical aporia of clinical child and adolescent psychiatry. It is through such aporias that clinical work develops into new dimensions and directions. I do not know what these dimensions and directions will look like, but it seems to me inevitable to articulate their openings in Lacanian theory.

Lacan’s theory on signification

Jacques Lacan’s theory on signification is built on Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory on signification. Thus, I will introduce de Saussure’s model of sign first and then juxtapose it with Lacan’s theory. This does not imply that they are models of the same thing, but this way of comparing the two models highlights the essentials in Lacan’s model.

In de Saussure’s model, we see a closed oval divided in two:


Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 7.58.26 AM

Picture 1: de Saussure’s model of a sign

In this model, we can see that a sign has two sides, signified and signifier, which are tightly connected. This tight connection is marked by the oval around these two sides and by two arrows on both sides of the sign. Signified and signifier are tied together, and there is no other without the other. They are like two sides of the same paper. What is more, the signified is on the upper position, marking the primary role of the signified, that is, of meaning. De Saussure’s model of sign presupposes the ruling position of meaning in communication: signs are used for transporting meanings.

We can juxtapose Lacan’s model of the relationship between signifier (S) and signified (s) with de Saussure’s model:

Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 8.00.13 AM

Picture 2: Lacan’s model of the relationship between signifier (S) and signified (s

In Lacan’s model, there is a big S, for the signifier, on the top and small s, for the signified, under it:



Picture 3: Lacan’s model as written open

Here we see easily that the oval around the two dimensions of a sign has disappeared, as the arrows on the both sides of a sign have disappeared, too. This change is the kernel of my presentation and, on the practical level, it can be found in the radical refusal of Bartlebies at the clinic. This small change in the model of a sign has tremendous clinical meaning.

We can see also that the positions of signified and signifier have been exchanged: in de Saussure’s model the signified is on the top – meaning its primary position in de Saussure’s theory – whereas in Lacan’s model the primacy of signifier is central.

When the oval and the arrows disappear, as they do in Lacan’s model, what are left are the three elements of a sign: signifier, signified and the bar between them. For Lacan, it is this bar between signifier and signified that Freud has given us a lesson or two, namely, it, and nothing else, is the repression.

In its minimalistic way, Lacan’s model captures what is essential for speaking being: every act of signifying has its collective side (signifier) and its individual side (signified), and even if these sides affect on each other different ways, there is an abyss, impossibility, between them, and there is no straight bridge over this abyss. An individual will never be fused with the collective. In other words, the fusion between an individual and the collective is impossible. There have been societies which have tried this fusion with catastrophic consequences. The Bartlebies we encounter in our daily work should remind us about these catastrophes. What Hitler, Stalin and Kim Jong-un have not managed to do, we should not even try to do.

I elaborate this a bit. Namely, when the oval around signified and signifier has been taken away, a sign does not form anymore a solid whole. In Lacan’s model, signifier and signified are not the permanent same two sides of the same paper always tied together. On the contrary, signifier and signified can and will move in regard to each other. In the act of signification, they “touch” somehow on each other, but the bar between them keeps them separated all the time. No fusion of signifier and signified occurs for that is impossible.

This leads to the never-ending change within signification: the meaning of what is said and written is not and will never be fixed or secured. Fixing of meaning has been and will be tried again and again, but it is always a question of power and force. A fixed meaning is an illusion produced by power. In this way, Lacan’s theory on signification leads logically to his theory of discourses, for the discourse is exactly where the power of and on signification is realised.

Lacan’s theory on discourses

Lacan’s theory on discourses presents how the impossibility which separates signifiers from signifieds is dealt with within four different discourses. So, if we were stuck on a Saussurean theory on signification, Lacan’s theory on discourses would seem to us to be totally incomprehensible. This means that in order to grasp Lacan’s theory on discourses you have to have some basic idea on Lacan’s theory on signification. Logically, the theory on discourses is the further development of the theory on signification.

The basic discourse, a kind of starting point of human psyche, is formed by master’s discourse:

S1 → S2

$       a

Picture 4: Master’s discourse

Due to omnipresent lack of time and space, I can bring forth only the most important things in regard to our topic. In master’s discourse, the master signifier (S1) dictates all the other signifiers (S2). This is our psyches’ basic orientation in the world: it structures our world and makes it somehow liveable. Without this base, everyday life would be intolerable. In families without the basic structures of everyday life, children suffer – often, if not always – unexplainable anxiety. In these families, the master’s discourse has not been constructed well enough to support the children through their everyday life. “Well enough” implies here many dimensions and, thus, can be broken in many different ways.

As implied by its name, master’s discourse relies on power: behind or within the structured world, there is always power. We can easily see that master’s discourse and power are not, as such, good or bad. In fact, Lacan’s theory on discourses implies a different ethics than simple dichotomy between good and bad.

The result of master’s discourse can be found under the master signifier (S1): master’s discourse results in divided subject ($) and the lost object of desire (a). As such, this is how the “normal” neurotic subject is formed in Lacanian theory.

The information society of our times challenges every master’s discourse. This has been the case, at least, since the birth of written language: writing questions the discourses ruled by the present master. In our times of internet and individual media, master’s discourse is challenged more than ever. Thus, master’s discourse has been supported more and more by a kind of master’s servant discourse, namely, university discourse. The main task of university discourse is to support master’s discourse:


S1       $

Picture 5: University discourse

In university discourse, knowledge as a set of signifiers (S2) takes the ruling position (left upper level). Whereas in master’s discourse master’s word was enough, university discourse produces knowledge on knowledge basing is propositions on the knowledge it has about some knowledge. However, underneath knowledge there is always the master signifier (S1) whose only explanation and legalization is that and what it is. University discourse is built on master’s discourse which it is summoned to save and legalize it again and again. This is easy to see if you watch everyday news on TV: those who are interviewed and, especially, those whose words are taken as the factual interpretation of situations are rich people, politicians and university experts, masters and their academic servants.

Against this power constellation of masters and university, there stands the discourse of hysteric women:

$ → S1

a      S2

Picture 6: Hysteric’s discourse

Hysteric women brought out and into the open the divided subject ($) who challenges the master (→S1). It is this divided subject not reducible to anything which is the result of signifiers and which challenges the orders and knowledge of masters and academics: what does it got to do with me…?

In Lacan’s interpretation, it was this hysteric revolution that opened room for psychoanalysis: psychoanalysis was born as response to hysteric initiative. What is more, the task of psychoanalysis was not to silence this hysteric attack, but to maintain this hysteric movement within discourse. In psychoanalysis, the analyst takes the position of the obscure object of desire (a) supporting thus hysteric questioning to the very end (this is called, for example, “traversing the fantasy”):


S2  S1

Picture 7: Analyst’s discourse

In analyst’s discourse, the master and knowledge can be found underneath the bar, not in the ruling position. In analysis, the analyst as the not-defined object of desire addresses the divided subject (a$). This act keeps the hysteric movement going on long enough for the change to take place in the subject. The analyst does not take the place of the one who knows but the place of emptiness. It is in this way that the agency stays with the subject.

Thus, we can introduce one more Lacanian concept: the subject supposed to know. The subject supposed to know is, from the beginning to the end, in the client. In fact, this is what Freud’s concept of unconsciousness implied: there is somewhere within the patient the knowledge needed for the cure. When a client, no matter if the client is a family or an individual, walks into your consulting room, there is within the client a subject supposed to know. This supposition opens up the room for psychotherapeutic process.

Through this short view on Lacan’s theory on discourses, we can see that when signifier and signified do not form a solid unite but are separated from each other, the mode of discourse implies always the positions of power, knowledge and agency, and that these positions differ from one discourse to another. The uniqueness of psychoanalysis – and, from my point of view, of family therapy – is explained by the positions power, knowledge and agency take in it. Saying this makes it possible for us to formulate the challenge we have with Bartlebies: how can we – from our position as educated masters (doctors, psychologists, social workers etc.) – ensure Bartlebies that we offer them something totally different from master’s and university discourse. This is the challenge and, as you can see from my way of putting it, a contradiction: a master from a university discourse claims that she is not acting as a master or as an academic.

Discourse of Bartlebies

Now, it is time to draw some conclusions from the theoretical considerations above. The adolescent Bartlebies take a similar position in our society as hysteric women did in Freud’s Vienna: both the adolescent Bartlebies and hysteric women refused to be integrated into the society within which they did not find a place for themselves. In both cases, this refusal seems to be insane, if you estimate it from the point of view of society. However, from the point of view of the refusing subject, it seems to be the only way the subject can keep some kind of agency for itself.

There are some essential differences, however, between the adolescent Bartlebies and hysteric women. First of all, if hysteric women of Freud’s times brought forth the abyss between different genders, the refusing adolescents bring forth the abyss between different generations. Many thinkers have considered the gender difference to be the problem of all thinking, but, needless to say, I claim the generation difference to be the problem of our times.

Secondly, even if Freud’s hysteric patients had sometimes very intensive symptoms with some self-destructive phenomena, they can hardly be compared to the self-destructiveness we see in today’s adolescent Bartlebies. Theoretically, this may be only a small change in the emphasis of the symptoms, but what it comes to clinical practice it makes a big difference: with hysteric women, Freud had time for processing what is going on, but with adolescent Bartlebies every weekend can be the last weekend. Time for processing hardly exists. And for clinical work, time means everything. Thus, the challenge of adolescent Bartlebies requires us to work in totally different pace and ways as the challenge of hysteric women.

Thirdly, and partly because of these two differences mentioned above, it is often vain and totally impossible to approach an adolescent Bartleby alone: the refusal of an adolescent Bartleby is often so total that the only way to approach her is through her family and other people around her. This is the area of family therapy. And, to be frank, there are already some openings to this direction, but as such, these openings are certainly not enough.

In short, we need theory and practices which can articulate the age of Bartlebies and answer the problems of adolescent Bartlebies without neglecting the ethical and, even, political dimensions of Bartlebies’ challenge. Bartlebies challenge society, and often with good reasons. Even if the words they give to their challenge are often pretty childish, the actual message can be read between or beyond the words: the world you give to us is not for us; it is adults’ world for adults, not a world for the children to come. As such, the discourse of Bartlebies articulates new revolution for which Bartlebies do not have words. Revolution without words is always destructive.

This is where we therapist might be helpful: as Freud did with hysteric women, we might be able to help adolescent Bartlebies to find their words for their experiences. How to do it, that is the question of the future. However, some sketches of the future can be predicted by what we know now. Not so surprisingly, these sketches return us to the basics of family therapy.

Namely, the refusal of Bartlebies includes knowledge. For them, knowledge is synonymous to master’s and university discourses – and thus something to be refused. As such, Bartlebies function as mirrors of our times showing us how things stand today: today, knowledge is seen as the privilege of universities. If you want knowledge, you either go to university or interview somebody from a university.

This implies a radical difference in regard to many revolutionary movements in the history of human kind. Namely, natural sciences were born when the subject supposed to know was moved from the Bible to scientific discourses. Feminist movements, as well, are all based on the idea that there is the subject supposed to know within the female human beings. Queer movements imply a similar expectation of the subject supposed to know within sexual minorities. Again, Freud’s psychoanalysis supposes the subject supposed to know within the analysand. And before Freud, Marx articulated a theory in which the subject supposed to know lies in the proletariat – and it is this thought on which the so called Nordic welfare State was based. Again and again, the historically important changes imply the subject supposed to know, and in none of these cases knowledge belongs to universities. Even in the case of natural sciences, this was not the case, for universities were ruled by theology.

But the Bartlebies refuse knowledge and the subject supposed to know. Bartlebies do not act as subjects on the level of representations; they do not acknowledge knowledge nor representational agency. What is left to them is the acting out against master’s and university discourses. Thus, they have only a negative agency in regard to representations, but – because there is no representation for their negation of representation – they cannot represent this to themselves nor acknowledge their role in the “play”.

This leads to a situation where Bartlebies can see themselves only as victims – for they can only see agency outside of themselves. Somebody has to be blamed, but because Bartlebies cannot recognize themselves as agencies, somebody blamed has to be, always and categorically, outside themselves. And, from a certain point of view, they are right: they did not decide where and when to born, how to be treated and mistreated; they did decide hardly anything. But the representatives of society see it otherwise: Bartlebies drink alcohol and smoke cannabis, Bartlebies do not go to school nor to work, Bartlebies act violently and break the rules of society.

So, what is the position of family therapy in all this: does it stand as the representative of society or the representative of a Bartleby? Neither, of course. Here, again, the basic rule of classical family therapy schools shows its value: the position of family therapy is that of the uttermost neutrality. If a family therapy process loses its neutral position, it loses everything. Thus, the simple sounding “join and keep your neutrality” is, in the end, all you need. In practice, it names the direction, for nobody can be totally neutral in the situations in which we find ourselves.

However, what I have said above, gives as a third rule of thumb for family therapy, namely that we have to suppose that there is the subject supposed to know within the family we meet. It is only through acknowledging knowledge that Bartleby’s acting our can be turned into acts with representations. Bartlebies do not acknowledge your knowledge, for you are only a representative of master’s and university discourses, but they might recognize knowledge, not about, but within and from their family. Thus the simple, but always so difficult guide lines for Lacanian family therapist would be:

1) Join.

2) Keep your neutrality.

3) Suppose the subject supposed to know within the family.

In the end, what we are doing is not rocket science: in the complex situations in which we find ourselves, only simple principles work. The task is to recognize them in the chaos of everyday life.


Facebook Comments