Jenna Balfe, Object of Touch, 2018. Single-channel digital video. 10 minutes.
I first interviewed the clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster about Figure Out, her epistolary book co-written with psychoanalyst Marcus Coelen, a year ago. It was unfinished then, this collection of notes mostly about dreams, and I was drawn to a particular passage, its tone resonant and authorship unknown—Coelen and Webster do not delineate who wrote which email or text; in fact, they eventually rewrote each other’s, tweaking until they became blurred. It reads: “Touch is always departure, and if felt, it brings with it the palpable separation or loss. When touched, I am the object for the other, and I lose myself. Soon after, I lose the other also. What is left?”
That connection brings with it longing, that touch brings with it its very absence—I told Webster I’d felt this since I was young. “Lullabies made me sad; they made me cry, and so did dancing,” I told her, allowing our Skype interview to lapse into a space more typically occupied, I’m sure, by Webster and her patients. “My alarm clock, when I was little, played ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ the saddest song in the world,” she said. “I think children have a very palpable sense of that. As adults, we lose a sense of ephemerality. That melancholic undertone—melancholy and enthusiasm are on a very thin line with each other, Jacques Lacan said. You can’t unsolder them from each other.”
In the completed version of Figure Out (forthcoming from Heinzfeller Nileisist), on the page following that text, there’s now a doodle of a big, fat sun, its rays extending like leaves. I doubt there’s any connection to our conversation, but I interpret it as such. Interpretation, as its own experience, is the crux of psychoanalysis, and it is the guiding theme of Emergency Contacts, an exhibition co-curated by Webster and Placeholder Gallery in Miami. A group of artists have responded to Figure Out’s musings on intimacy, mourning, and dreams—though it’s hard to say which texts are the reveries of dreams and which are based on waking life (in the realm of analysis, the two communicate like a conversation, responding to each other like friends). The show’s artists were invited to do as a psychoanalyst would: hone in on details, leave out others, adopt emotions, and interpret the text as a kind of affect or an action. “It turns out I had written your number down as an emergency contact,” it says somewhere in the book, alluding to so much by saying little.
I spoke to Webster again, this time with Coelen, to learn more.
Monica Uszerowicz How is dream interpretation a collaborative process between the analyst and patient?
Marcus Coelen Interpretation, as it’s normally understood, means giving a different meaning to something that seems to already have one—something that’s not immediately apparent. The interpretation that happens in psychoanalysis is—if you want to force things a bit—more on the side of disillusion than on the side of “adding” meaning. In the analytic session, you add more meaning to something when you speak about it, and the analyst might also add some interpretation. But at a certain moment, this completely veers into its opposite. The whole work and construction dissolves. Something happens in the order of liberation, or an insight, or laughter, where everything becomes extremely funny or very sad. An intense affect comes into play and that is the moment of interpretation. It’s not an added meaning. It’s more of an experience—an event of change.
Jamieson Webster That it’s an affective experience or disillusion is not the analyst prescribing a meaning, but something that takes place between the two people.
Jamieson Webster and Marcus Coelen, Figure Out, 2018. Page spread.
MU How did the show’s artists interpret this book and your dreams therein? Was it in any way similar to what happens between the analyst and the patient?
JW I think it’s incredibly similar to the extent that some people might have latched on to particular images they then rendered in their own way. There’s a very strong affective feeling to all of the works that really captures something in the book—something more than any kind of narrative. There were very few pieces of work that did any straight pulling from the images provided in the book itself.
MC It’s a bit similar in two ways. Most of them picked a particular detail, and sometimes it’s surprising to us—a detail that wasn’t a central element. Taking this detail out of context and transforming it into something completely different creates an enigma, a second way this is similar to psychoanalysis. For us, the text becomes more enigmatic by the fact that there are objects and pictures saying something about it that we, of course, never thought of. You get your message in a very enigmatic way. It’s enriching, and surprising, and very beautiful—but still, it’s an estrangement of one’s own language that happens with this consternation.
MU There’s some emphasis on tenderness and touch in the book, elements that are often absent in the patient-analyst relationship. Can you talk about this?
MC In psychoanalytic therapy, there is a certain paradox that’s forced. Sigmund Freud writes in his text on transference that both parties agree that the transference—love and also hate—that emerges in the relationship of the patient to the therapist is a product of this artificial situation, but that it happens automatically. He says if you have this setup, love will happen. It’s both highly artificial and there is no reason for Freud to deny this love and its actual value or existence. It’s real love—real emergency contact. And, on the other hand, it’s not. It’s not the same love you’d have outside of analysis. It’s a very specific construction.
It’s like a piece of art—you feel what it gives you, but it remains an artwork. We accept these things more with art, because it’s on the level of representation and has to do with objects we can see. On the level of affect and existence, it is very disturbing.
JW And the fact that it’s with a real person—that’s very disturbing. The prohibition against touching in therapy is also paradoxical to the extent that it increases the intimacy. Part of the trouble in real relationships is that touching, or access to the other person’s body, can somehow detract from the intimacy—and also what’s required in intimacy, with respect to the feeling of loss. I think something of that is at play: you put yourself in an artificial situation in therapy in order to experience a very powerful feeling of love and tenderness. In the experience of that, there’s a lot of sadness. This can also happen in a museum—you go there to feel something.
Annie Blazejack and Geddes Levenson, How to Metabolize Space and Time, 2018. Oil on canvas. 43 x 78 inches.
MU Did you intend for this correspondence on such ideas to become a book?
JW We didn’t. There are some elements that are fictional. Some are drawn from an actual correspondence, but we went back and semi-fictionalized it. In that way, it became literature, which was surprising. We didn’t want it to be an actual correspondence—he rewrote some of mine; I rewrote some of his. The blurring between us happens at a certain point in the book. Friends swear they can tell which one of us wrote each piece, and they’re always wrong.
MC Even I’m confused. I’m not sure anymore who wrote it.
JW That’s true in analysis, too. At a certain point, you no longer know what came from whom. The meaning of transference is to move something from one place to another.
Alan Reid, Cantilevered Camouflage, 2018. Acrylic on canvas in frame. 64 x 48 inches. Photo by Charles Benton.
MU What is the state of psychoanalysis now? The landscape of mental health is so geared toward “wellness” and quick fixes.
JW You mean the new, commitment-phobic contemporary landscape? It’s really important to both of us to push psychoanalysis back into the places where it had a really incredible existence. We’re currently in a very flat psychological landscape. Some of what you see out there is terrifying. Things like: “I will teach you about intimacy and insight, and I wrote about this in a book.” I think that is the discourse people have. They stay in it and don’t really know how to get out of it—although I think they want to. I don’t think they want life coaches. I don’t think they want quick fixes.
MC That to which psychoanalysis reacted—the specific invention of sexuality or suffering—cannot be dominated. It will always make its appearance. Psychoanalysis did not invent or imitate it, it just reacted to it, and that to which it reacts will always be there. It would take a lot of fascism to destroy what’s innate, given society’s tendency toward that for which psychoanalysis provides an answer or a solution. In that sense, psychoanalysis is a good indicator of society. I think psychoanalysis will have a great future.
Emergency Contacts is on view at Placeholder Gallery in Miami through October 10.