Belatedness and Psychoanalysis

Belatedness and Psychoanalysis
The graph of desire, developed by Jacques Lacan to explain the phenomenon of retroactive signification, or belatedness. 

A further formal-rhetorical patterning of secrecy is belatedness (or retroaction), which accounts for rhetoric’s ability to rearrange common perceptions of the past. Rather than a search for hidden content or depth, this kind of secret exists out in the open, and its hidden significance is only ever apprehended after repeated encounters with it.

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From Repetition to Retroaction

Repetition is a key component of psychoanalysis, dating back to Freud. Freud, for instance, coins the phrase “repetition compulsion” (or “compulsion to repeat”) and the concept appears in a variety of places in psychoanalytic theory. In a general way, “the repressed seeks to ‘return’ in the present, whether in the form of dreams, symptoms, or acting-out: … a thing which has not been understood inevitably reappears; like an unlaid ghost, it cannot rest until the mystery has been solved and the spell broken.”  When unpleasant experiences or representations are repeated without the person knowing why they are repeated, Freud saw this as satisfying a function of consciousness, namely, the fulfillment of a repressed idea or wish.

There are two very important parts to the concept of “repetition” as “retroaction.” The first regards signification, which is closely wedded to the idea of truth. The second regards the social aspect of repetition, which is related to the idea of historical meaning-making. Let’s start by talking about Lacan’s “graph of desire,” which offers a visualization of repetition-as-retroaction. Then let’s look at examples of individual repetition compulsion and the shared, social function of repetition in history.  

The graph of desire. This is Lacan’s “graph of desire” which represents retroaction as two lines, one crossing from left to right, and the other starting at the bottom right, looping up, crossing the first line twice, and ending at the bottom left of the screen. Let’s talk through each of the symbols and what the different lines mean.

  • S (on the left-hand side) represents the signifier in the first instance. It is the signifier “in the first instance” because it has not yet had a chance to retroactively signify. We can’t know what “S” means because it is the first and only instance in which we have seen, heard, or come across it. It is *just* a signifier, either without signification or with a meaning that the subject takes for granted.
  • S’ (on the right-hand side) is the same signifier, just repeated some number of times. It is the second occurrence of the signifier, and the moment or point of reference that allows a retroactive signification to come into existence. S’ exists at a later moment in time, at some distance, putting the same signifier S and S’ into a relationship with itself.
  • Delta (or the small triangle) is the starting point of signification and loops back through the forward-moving, chronological sequence of events. It is a return to the past, the subject before they know the retroactive meaning of their words. They cross at a point that is closer to S’, indicating that the signifier has been repeated, and the subject is coming to grips with how they have been using this signifier. At an arbitrary point, earlier in the repetition sequence, the line dips back down below the chronological sequence of signification.
  • Finally, $ (the dollar-sign symbol) which is Lacan’s symbol for the “barred subject” is where signification ends up. It is where it becomes apparent to the subject that they have been keeping secrets from themselves; that they have not been sufficiently attentive to the weight of their own words. They realize, after the fact, that how they or others around them are speaking signified something entirely other than what they thought they were saying.

Altogether, the graph of desire describes how we routinely come to grips with the meaning of words after the fact, belatedly. If you’ve ever read something the first time and wondered “what did that say? What did that even mean?” but at a later point, in light of new data, suddenly a “flashbulb” goes off that suddenly makes the old, nonsensical thing make sense, that is retroaction. It is a belated meaning, meaning that comes too late or later than we would expect, it is the making sense of the signifier well after we first encountered it.

The individual idea of the “repetition compulsion” is a way of talking about how the patient in a psychoanalytic session comes to therapy ‘just repeating’ the same words or behavior. Therapy is coming to grips with signification; a recognition of the weight that the patient is attaching to their words. In that respect, the freedom granted by psychoanalysis is freedom from mere repetition, from being stuck in the same slog, the same habits, the same compulsive actions that cause them stress, anxiety, and harm.

This is also why psychoanalysis is traditionally affiliated with the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” When a patient comes to an analysis, the analyst does not assume that either they or the patient know what the things they are saying mean. Meaning in a session isn’t stable, or generalizable, it means for exactly one subject or individual. It is the fact that the individual is giving them a specific force, without realizing it, that is significant. Psychoanalysis consists in figuring out what the force of the word is for the one person who utters it, and how their own emotional investments are tangled up in the saying of that word or phrase. The only way to know what that force is to have the word repeated. When the word recurs, it becomes a sign of something unconscious, something that the patient has invested in. Discovering the true meaning of that signifier for a patient can only happen after the fact, after it has been repeated some number of times. It is only through repetition that the meaning of that word which is true for that one person can stabilize and become knowable. That is retroaction: the fixing of signification -- by and for a singular subject – by repeating a signifier.


Let’s consider some examples of this process. You may notice that a professor you know is behaving strangely. They pick up small sticks off of the ground before going into the office and ask you if you have any paper cups you might be able to give them. It seems like your professor is attracted to trash, they can't get enough of it. One day, you notice a bag of alfalfa or wood chips sitting on the corner of one of the desks of their office, and some stray pellets on the floor. Putting the pieces together, you figure out that the “trash” isn’t just “trash,” it’s actually bedding for the secret hamster that they are keeping in their office. In this case, “S” would be the trash, which signifies “trash.” “S’” would be the fact that the trash is actually bedding for the pet hamster. You would start by standing at “delta,” first recognizing the pellets and the wood chips, and then, reflecting on the earlier moments where you saw the professor collecting trash. In the end, the trash signifies differently, and you end up at the dollar sign or barred subject, where you would realize that you didn’t know the full story in the first instance.

Another example is the following scenario, more germane to psychoanalysis, is one in which a patient is “in therapy” and can’t seem to hear the force and signification of the words that they are using. One way to think about retroaction is as the punchline to ‘a joke’ that the patient heard and which cannot stop telling -- and this even though they can neither remember the punchline nor the reason why the joke is funny.  In fact, that they cannot stop themselves from telling the ‘joke’ is a sign that it is a point of deep personal investment. The joke isn’t funny, perhaps it is even offensive. When the patient says it out loud, they do not seem to ‘hear’ it in this way though, in fact, they can’t seem to stop telling it. That is compulsive repetition (Freud) or repetition automatism (Lacan). The analyst’s job would be to show how the act of retelling over and over again – repeatedly -- fulfills a purpose for the patient (e.g. Look at how funny I am! Pay attention to me!) beyond the joke which, again, is not funny.

Analysis consists in remembering why they felt the need to tell this joke in the first place, and why they can’t get out of the pattern of telling it, over and over again. The purpose would be to show the patient how the joke’s signification is structured for them specifically and to break them free of ‘merely’ repeating it. This is what makes the joke retroactive: it doesn’t truly mean until after its been told to death, repeated several times over and over again. Meaning only occurs to us after the fact, after the second, third, and fourth telling reveal why the punchline ever meant something – namely, why the joke was ever important to the patient in the first place. The joke in the “first” instance is S, and the recognition of its offensiveness is S’. The patient starts at delta, and only after some number of sessions and repetitions of the joke can come to grips with how it has meant in the various social contexts where they have rehearsed it.

The last example is The Sixth Sense and fair warning, big-time spoiler alert, although the film was made in 1999. In the film, the main character is a child psychologist who notices that things are off in his life during the period of rising action. His spouse will not speak to him and is visibly upset each time he approaches her. Any time he tries to access his home office, it is always locked. He starts therapy with a young child, who claims to see ghosts and begins counseling. At the end of the film, watching his spouse sleep, he sees her drop his ring – which he suddenly recognizes to no longer be on his hand.  After this crucial piece of information is revealed, the therapist begins to recognize the signs from earlier in the film, as shown in the following clip. This sequence shows the therapist confronted with the signifiers “in the past,” when they also appeared to movie watchers as insignificant, as inconspicuous details rather than parts of a larger puzzle.

This is repetition as retroaction. Many of the shots we are seeing are recollections from earlier in the film -- this is “S,” the signifier means something that is taken for granted, inconspicuous, or is otherwise meaningless to the therapist. He recalls his patient confessing that he sees the dead, which is only significant now because now, at S’, he realizes that he is dead. He recalls, for instance, his office knob always being locked, which now makes sense because his grieving spouse was seeking to keep his memories locked away. He sees the single dinner setting at the table, a recurring feature of the film, and realizes that there is only one person to set the table for. He recalls his partner’s quickness to grab the check during a scene at a restaurant, now, he realizes, because she couldn’t hear his “lets get back together” speech. All of these are “signifiers” like the joke, which at an earlier point in time, the therapist did not and could not “get.” But retroaction changes the meaning of signifiers and brings their symbolic order to light. At that moment, the main character recalls his death from the opening moments of the film, when a burglar is shown entering his home. Until that point in the film, it is presumed that the character is alive, just recovering from – presumably – the fact of having been burgled. Now, we find out, that the true meaning of all of these signifiers is far different from that. Retroactively, the object of the sentence “I see dead people” is illocutionary, and not just a fantasy:  the child is addressing his ghost-therapist specifically in that moment, not his wild imagination.

Two Take-Aways on Retroactive Signification

  1. Retroactive signification or repetition-as-retroaction is when signifier recurs, with a minimal difference that transforms the meaning of the word. This transformation, in turn, generates a secret, one that a person may be keeping from themselves, or alternatively, which others are keeping from them. As the signifier passes from S to S’, the subject can only transform by interpreting words, images, or symbols from an earlier time in light of this belatedly discovered meaning, and thereby dramatically changes the subject’s relationship to these symbols and the system that organizes them. At the very least, we become subjects who know we aren’t in the know; who know that some part of consciousness and meaning remains inaccessible to us.
  2. Retroaction is also a collective, social, and historical phenomenon. To this point all of the examples that we have considered have been about individuals: the secret hamster-owning professor, the secret joke telling patient, the therapist in The Sixth Sense who discovers the secret of his own death too late. But the idea that the unconscious is on the outside means that retroactive significations also work on publics. We'll consider just one more example before moving on, which Slavoj Zizek describes as repetition in history, or the way that narratives of historical decline among nations and empires become cemented within the popular imagination.

Repetition in history is less an account of history as it really happens and more an explanation of certain events that become especially significant over time. Zizek’s example is the fall of Rome, which starts with the signifier “Julius Caesar” and is repeated with the rise of “Caesarism.” This repetition creates a retroactive signification that solidifies the story of Rome’s “fall.” It helps to think of Caesar in terms of a historical “first” instance and the emergence of the title “Caesar” and the idea of “Caesarism” as the repetition.

In the first instance, there is the rise and fall of Caesar himself. When Caesar consolidated his personal power and strengthened it to imperial proportions, he acted [according to what he thought was] historically necessary. The Republican form was losing its validity, the only form of government that could save the unity of the Roman state was monarchy, a state-based upon the will of a single individual. But until Caesar took power, it was still the republic that prevailed formally. As Hegel quite literally puts it, the Republic ‘was still alive only because she forgot that she was already dead.’ In this moment, moreover, Caesar’s acts seemed arbitrary, as if it could have gone another way. It also seemed like if Caesar could be removed, that would end the issue, and the Republic would return to its former state. And so the familiar story occurs: Brutus, Cassius, and others murder Caesar.

That would have been the end of the story. But then repetition in history happens. The first actual “Caesar” of Rome, Augustus, is throned. Killing Caesar actually created the thing that the conspirators didn’t want: more Caesars, more monarchy, more imperial governance. Caesar is quite literally repeated – first as a given name, then as an inherited title. When the name repeats, then the demise of the Republic and the rise of imperial Rome becomes intelligible as “historically necessary.” It is as if the rise of Caesarism confirms that Caesar himself was the beginning of the end. “The crucial point here is the changed symbolic status of an event: when it erupts for the first time it is experienced as a contingent trauma, as an intrusion of a certain non-Symbolized Real; only through repetition is this event recognized in its symbolic necessity – it finds its place in the symbolic network; it is realized in the symbolic order.” (Zizek, Sublime Object of Ideology 64).

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