Miquel Bassols – The mapping of the brain

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Extract from the discussion following the Miquel Bassols’ conference in Brussels on 23 March 2019 under the title “Unconscious and the speaking being. For a clinic of the stepladder” (1)

Pierre Malengreau: I would like to ask you about the very question of the concept, particularly about the concept of the unconscious. Lacan explicitly states that the unconscious is not reassuring for psychoanalysts and since they need constant reassurance, we try to define concepts. Hence Lacan’s definitions which recur, including that of the unconscious, but which in the end is not very reassuring because we cannot define it. Once we consider the real, we find ourselves with the difficulty of knowing how to name the real at stake without resorting to the concept. We are therefore confronted with the imaginary.

Miquel Bassols: At the Pipol 9 Congress here in Brussels on 13 & 14 July on “The unconscious and the brain, nothing in common”, we will have the opportunity to have a look at this imaginary. When it comes to imagining the unconscious today, it is precisely within the brain. Now there is a current of psychoanalysis, so called neuro-psychoanalysis, which tries to locate the map of the unconscious in the map of the brain. I believe that the brain is the imaginary side of this impossibility of the concept that the unconscious tries to grasp as such.

We must try to determine what logic is driving current neuroscience. Gerald M. Edelman and Giulio Tononi for example, have tried to move beyond this imaginarization of the psyche in the nervous system and have found, in their own way, this dimension of non-concept in the notion of quale; it is precisely what is not localisable in the map of the nervous system and which makes the singularity of the experience of each subject. For example, each of us has an experience of redness that is not transmissible as such.  Redness is for each of us a singular experience, it is the qualitative aspect of the experience. That’s why we called it quale, it’s a non-concept that tries to locate the singularity of the experience of the speaking body that cannot be quantified or categorized by current neuroscience.

We would like to make the brain as an imaginary object, a sacred object of today, the map that would make it possible to locate any singularity of the subject. But the brain ultimately explains nothing and there is always, even in today’s neurosciences, a tendency towards a non-concept to grasp something of the singularity of the experience in the body.

Edelman and G. Tononi in their book A Universe Of Consciousness, after having tried to locate the singular experience of the subject from a very fine analysis of the nervous system, come to the idea that the activation of the whole functioning of the nervous system is only possible through the presence of an other, of another subject, or an Other as language, culture, society. And, they say we cannot make a science of this final point of support, there is no science possible of this point. This puts us in front of a fundamentally clinical dimension, that of the choice of the subject to rely on one point or another to activate the entire functioning of the speaking body.

What is interesting is the point of inconsistency at which all the developments of current neuroscience occur. It is also found in Antonio Damasio’s book, Self Comes to Mind, which in Spanish has been translated by Y el cerebro creó al hombre, “And the brain created man” – it is already putting the brain in the place of God! I mentioned earlier, A. Damasio’s idea of language is that of a cognitive function that the subject has at his disposal to map reality. Language as a representation of a reality already is a very naive concept, but we find it in all psychologies nowadays. Well, A. Damasio tells us that on the eve of each day when he must give a lecture, especially on “psychoanalysis and neuroscience” for which he is often invited, he dreams that he is wearing no shoes; and he is anguished. It is the real, the real unconscious that he cannot include in the mapping, it is the encounter with the Other, and for him this is psychoanalysis. I would say that, for A. Damasio, the real, the trauma, these are the sure things (2) he misses every time he meets psychoanalysis. For me, the interest today is to see how science finds this limit point in a real that cannot be reintegrated into a system, into a map of more or less established boundaries in the speaking body. Here, I believe that we have a dialogue to pursue without expecting anything, without hoping for anything.

Yves Vanderveken: What does not fit into the mapping of the brain is the encounter with the Other of language; perhaps we can say with the Other of the body, or at least an Other dimension. This is a useful precision and not easy to understand because there is a whole dimension of neuroscience now that takes into consideration what they call the effect of the encounter with the environment, with the dimension of trauma that can accompany it. However, in his course “Tout le monde est fou”, Jacques-Alain Miller specifies that psychoanalysis is not interested at all in the encounter of the subject with the environment but that it is interested in this particular encounter with language.

Miquel Bassols: Yes, Lacan already quotes in his thesis a biologist, Jakob von Uexküll, who points out that this idea of environment is an imaginarization of science. It is true, the Other is not the environment. What is in the place of the Other is the body, which is a much more disturbing thing. The boundaries of the environment are always imaginary, based on the speaking being’s experience of his body.

For example, in Little Hans, Lacan identifies the outburst of phobia following two encounters with this Other in different ways: the birth of his little sister and the appearance in his body of the erection of his penis, of which he doesn’t know what to do. These two encounters are what move him from the place of his mother’s imaginary phallus. It’s not the environment!

In fact, the speaking being, as a speaking body, reads the environment from the experience he makes of his body. When the body emerges as an alterity, anguish arises and the need then appears to build a symptom to locate this new jouissance in its map. The horse is this new object in the case of Little Hans. As Lacan says, it functions as a limit, as the border of its environment.

Moreover, some neuroscientists are beginning to question this idea of the environment, along the lines of J. von Uexküll. The boundary between the nervous system, the body and the environment is increasingly difficult to sustain. Roger Bartra for example, a Mexican anthropologist, has begun to talk about the exo-brain, that is to say, an extension of the brain beyond the limits of the body.

Here again, we see that the encounter with the body as Other is the fundamental point, this otherness of the body is irreducible to the mapping of neuroscience. In A. Damasio’s book, we see this point of inconsistency: even if we consider the nervous system as a mapping of reality, the question is: where do we put the mapper of mapping in the map? This is Russell’s paradox in the nervous system: if we put the mapper in the mapping, we must add the mapper of the mapping in the mapping. In this point of inconsistency is situated the moment of contingency of the encounter with the Other as such. I believe that we must open ourselves to this interlocution to establish the place of psychoanalysis in the context of current technosciences.

Translation : Jeroen Sollie
Reviewed by: Caroline Heanue

  1. See also Bassols M., “L’inconscient réel et les chaussures d’Antonio Damasio”, La Cause du Désir, n° 83, January 2013, p. 106-114.
  2. Sure things: in French (choses sures / chaussures – shoes).

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