An interview with Marcelo Pakman

This post is also available in: Spanish

Your last book, Palabras que permanecen, palabras por venir, has a double structure. In the second, you base your arguments on different authors but, oddly enough, it’s there when your thesis is most clearly stated.

I did it relatively on purpose. One gets into the heat of writing and gets carried away by what he feels he has to go on saying. It seemed to me it was necessary to argue the concept of poetics in psychotherapy. Above all because the term poetics has many different meanings. That’s why it seemed necessary to quote some authors, even though I didn’t do so in a systematic fashion. What I mean is I don’t follow the one author, I don’t shelter myself in them, be it Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Jacques Derrida. I use them freely, I don’t totally accept them. Which is something that the strict followers of those philosophers won’t like. I allow myself this freedom because I think ideas are made to be thought and rethought about, not to be systematic in the old, militant sense.

You quote Gadamer, who focused on the concept of poiesis -from which you derive your notion of poetics- for many years, but on the other hand you distance yourself from the hermeneutic tradition.

I speak about that tradition, but not from inside. I do it from a critical distance, trying to set myself apart.

You raise the issue of biological and social determinism, which are limiters of freedom, but you give a greater weight to the social one.

Yes, absolutely. I was trying not to make a vacuous claim of freedom, but to see the everyday problem, mostly in psychotherapy, but not only. I was trying to find this spaces for freedom, but inside determinacies which are very powerful. That’s the problem. Otherwise, there would be no problem.

Where does that determinacy come from?

That determinacy emerges, on one hand, from the biological world. We are biology. But it also emerges from the fact that we are immersed in a field of social and political forces, even though they appear to be autonomously mental. One of the great problems in psychotherapy, which I have experienced in a more and more intense way in the 30 years I’ve spent working on it, is the way in which it’s conceived as an autonomous space. As if doing psychotherapy was something that has to do with a mind which is kind of floating. And that has to be with the fact that psychology as a discipline was born while trying to legitimize itself. And how do disciplines become legitimate? By having a clear, definite object; an appropriate methodology, etc. The psychic, the mental, was born as if it was a totally clear and objective object which was in some kind of social context, but that context was studied by those who had a special vocation. It wasn’t something that had to be taken into account. That’s how the “psy” were born, people who could put the social aside, after mentioning it. After saying “of course we are all determined by things like that, but now let’s focus on the mind.” And the mind is not biology, it’s not communication, it’s not only language. And what remains as a mind object is an entity which is totally abstract and disembodied. This is a very serious problem for psychology as a discipline and for psychotherapy as something that came following the tracks of psychology. The problem of this anonymity and abstraction is that it has left very space for the singularity of experience. And when I say singularity I don’t mean individuality. I mean that which eludes the pattern, that which always has a sensual, unique quality; that which is distinctive, original. Without having to subscribe to Hegel’s views, even those of the “psy” who have never heard of Hegel, we are strongly Hegelian, in the sense that we are carrying forward the project of his youth: the abolition of singularity.

You vindicate singularity against stereotype or, if you prefer, individuals against models.

Not of the individual, but of the singularity. Because one of the interestingly micropolitical maneuvers that have happened has been identifying singularity as something which belongs to the individual. But the singularity of experience, that which is unique in our experience, isn’t necessarily something which is an inside which is coincidental with the limits of the individual skin.

And through there you reach a notion of the subject which is related to subjection and the determinacies of knowledge and power. Meaning by power something one exerts, in Michel Foucault’s sense.

Exactly. The Foucaultian project, as I understand it, was to demolish the subject of Philosophy by showing all of its subjections. And his maximal project was to get rid of that subject, but not the was Althusser did. He also wanted to get rid of the subject, but he replaced it with an idealized one, even though it may be paradoxical to say this in Althusser’s case: the social subject, the scientific subject and, finally, the subject of the party.

But that, in Althusser, is a part of the teleological conception of history, of the idea of happiness which has to come necessarily, in order to state the necessity of human action and of will.

Yes. And the question of will is very important because it is a project which is, to a great extent, strong-willed. And in that’s where he ends up having a lot in common with historical projects which have nothing to do with Marxism. For example with the protestant world-view, where will reigns supreme.

You seem to like etymology, but you don’t use it for the notion of subject which refers, originally, to a grammatical category.

At some stage I mention the idea of a the subject as a substance and how, even as the concept held, the qualities of that substance got progressively diluted. But the subject of philosophy, which is the subject of psychoanalysis, is the one that reigns in psychotherapy, it’s like a secular version of the unknown transcendent God. It’s always in some corner, ruling over everything that happens.

What I was referring to was the grammatical character, that first moment in which God and language become confused.

It’s true that I start from some etymologies, but in the case of the concept of a subject, I was more interested in the dissolution of the divine. The way in which the concept of a subject goes forward, just as the concept of God declines. While God is dying, the concept of a the subject becomes healthier and healthier. It grows. In parallel to the temporal rule of Man, in capital letters. There still was no feminism back then.

This would be the subject of knowledge, which expels God from biology, astronomy, history. An epistemological subject.

Indeed, an epistemological subject. I also make reference to a precedent of the subject, still without that name. It’s the importance that Saint Thomas attached to the idea of the soul having to possess an identity. Identity was very important, because it was that which allowed something to be saved. There would be nothing to save if there wasn’t a clearly defined identity.

Following that path, where does free will stand?

Free will is something which has been progressively -and justly- put aside in the field of psychotherapy. It is easy to see, by the way we “psy” people speak, that we have been turning into educators or people who speak of mental phenomena as some kind of emanation from the brain, of which we “psy” people don’t necessarily know much. But the need to legitimize our field is so strong that we constantly mention the biological substrate. There’s also the permanent need to find some way of interpreting things. And this has lead us -Susan Sontag makes a clear case in her book Against interpretation– to a climate of social interpretation, where the surface of things is less important than what they mean. We will find, of course, that what “psy” people tend to find is always much more uniform than the surface of things. The surface, with its variability, its singularity, progressively disappears and the uniformity of interpretation becomes prominent. A pretty boring world, where we know what the story will mean before even listening to it.

You remind me of the Catalan philosopher Xavier Rubert de Ventós, who complained that people interpreted what happened, instead of telling him.

We have all been socialized into doing this. And psychology and psychotherapy have added arguments to do so. That’s why, in some way, Palabras que permanecen is a return to the surface of things in psychotherapy.

The surface of things: isn’t the role of science to transcend that surface?

Well, it’s the objective of science, of hermeneutics. But I am not starting a crusade against science or against method, Feyerabend style, but reminding people that things are still there, in the surface. And that we can find a way which breaks with the permanent taming of repeated interpretation, of repeated reading, of the way to live.

Does that imply going beyond the barrier of language?

No, no. Not of language in its totality. This is about transcending language as a signification system to speak about this and that or as if it was just a semiotic system where, if we are interpreters, we can entertain ourselves by finding many meanings. There is another dimension of language: what language is in its root for people that have thought about it, a dimension which is covered by semiotics, but which it is important to find again. Why is it so hard to find again? Because we are very socialized, above all when we are “psy” professionals, to not do it, to place ourselves immediately as interpreters of what has already been said. “That has already been said.” We are some kind of experts in doing an autopsy of language. It is not living language which is constantly being said, beating in new things. “That which has already been said,” all the language has been concentrated on that. People who go to psychological athenaeums to listen to case presentations will see that very often that presentation can be summarized as saying that the patient, who is x years old and is male or female, said so and so. And, once he or she said that, we can throw away the rest and deal with the autopsy of what they said. We can interpret, play with it. This and that. It’s a very limited vision of what human beings are.

So what you suggest is, going back to Althuser, assuming there are other ways of looking, that each individual’s is necessarily limited by social and biological aspects, unless we accept from the start the partial character of our observation.

Yes, even though Althusser was not interested in the infinite variability of the unique. He claimed to have a different perspective, but that perspective was highly univocal and scientific. Scientific in the sense that it had to be expressed in universal terms.

And you claim precisely the opposite, that each case is something more than the universal explanation.

It is interesting that you mentioned the word “case” because, when we think about the clinic in one case, we are already placed inside the micropolitics which distinguish the situations as clearly defined and determined objects.

What would be the appropriate world for “case”?

We need to come out of there entirely. There are no cases. There are conversations, people talking, situations which are happening. That’s all there is. It’s the world Deleuze made reference to, which he tried to recover, and he was so careful in his awareness that it was a difficult task that he kept changing the concepts in which he tried to talk about it. In this sense, one of the worst things that could happen with my book would be for my concept of poetics to turn into something solid: then we would be counting poetic moments and attending the research of how many poetic moments there were in the session.

Poetics is used here as opposed to praxis.


The process associated to creation, to art. But today art is on its way to stop being a singular event.

Absolutely. This is a bit the history of Aesthetics as a discipline: to try to tame art, to make sure it doesn’t escape universality. It’s permanent process, something which the cybernetics have always understood well, in which we are constantly biting our own tail. Like the uroboros, the snake that eats itself. There is no rest in the process of going through the havoc that abstract reason, extreme universality can cause on the process of singularity.

In your book you tell a great number of real stories, but you also use literature, accepting the fact that fiction also describes the world.

The term I use most is to imagine: imagination. It’s a tradition which, as I say, is a little Averroist.

You make use of Averroes very freely, omitting his theory of double truth, one for religion, one for science and philosophy.

People who obsess about a subject often tend to do that. It’s the subject that makes you take different aspects from several authors that have said something about it, without taking into consideration the rest of their works.

In the second part you quote Susan Sontag, discussing the difference between what man is and what he does. But there are also references to Sartre, who claimed that humans are nothing but their acts. For example in Huis clos.

For me, the point of contact with the Sartrian point of view is that Sartre was very worried about objectivation. From there I go the idea that the only perfect object is the finished one. That finished object is the object of what has already been said, which I mentioned before and in which the “psy” people have specialized. The job of poetics is the continued discovery of that which opens up the objects, which removes their perfection, resurrects them from that finished essential moment, that dead moment Sartre spoke about. That’s the real therapeutic job.

It seems like the therapist tries to help the speaker reach what he wasn’t aware of, that is, consciousness. But it’s not clear whether it’s conscience or consciousness.

In therapy we should always keep away from the Sartrian Huis clos. Any therapeutic session is a Huis clos. And that’s the challenge of therapy: to be constantly trying to find that which we are, beyond that which we officially are. Every therapy session happens as if it was a rehearsal for a theater play, where the patient comes with his script and says: “Doctor, please, read your part.” And we also come with a similar script including the patient’s part. And sometimes those parts coincide fantastically and what happens is called psychotherapy, but it’s a totally programmatic psychotherapy, a huis clos psychotherapy. Everything makes sense, but nothing new is going to happen. We are simply going to recreate scripts. What’s interesting happens when one finds a way to turn down his assigned role in the script. That’s what I call effective criticism: not to enter that role which is already determined, and see where it leads us. It’s not true that, without it, we only have the void. What we have is the singularity of poetics: something full of things. Ordinary things, not extraordinary. What makes us think they are extraordinary is the menace from the micropolitical forces in which we function, which keep warning us: “careful with deviating from your method. You must follow the method. You must be scientific. You need to enter the universal, everything else is disreputable and leads nowhere, it has no evidence.” A fundamental word nowadays. Fundamental, also, in analytic philosophy: evidence. These are the forces that make finding the unique, poetics, worth it as the critical challenge nowadays.

It would be like the Stanislavski method, in which the actor is asked to reconstruct what is not written.

That method would be interesting because it points to a territory which is no completely alien to what I’m talking about, with a different terminology and a different meaning. What happens is that Stanislavski was quickly embraced by American culture, which processes things like finding the real self, the real oneself, behind the apparent oneself. And it closes the issue again right there. American culture is very good at adopting things and taming then. It quickly transformed what Stanislavski was pointing at, which is close to what I’m saying, turning it into “we must come out of the huis clos of our apparent self in order to find the real one.” And then we just relax and return to the huis clos.

There is a moment in which you talk about love and you state that it is “a scandal”, for reason, of course.

There are lots of books about love that explain what it is from different perspectives. There is a worry about love, about finding the way to handcuff it. To control it. Precisely because it’s a scandal. The need for nothing to escape the method, which was also the need of the aesthetic discipline to tame art, can be noticed particularly well in the case of love. In marriages people say very interesting things, because they are like little doors towards undetermined aspects, which are the ones I look for in psychotherapy, because they are the ones which depart from the method, with universality. In the rites of marriage the officer always asks whether there is someone who opposes the union and that, if they do, they should “speak now or forever hold their peace.” It’s fascinating. Why do they ask that? They do because there’s always someone who is against it. And that’s fantastic. Marriages are totally ritualized: there’s a whole industry, from the organizing of the party to the clothing, even the psychological preparation. Everything is determined. But there are always those strange elements which are difficult to manage and which are part of the human process, which becomes much more complex when sexuality is involved, as in the case of love. When in couples therapy, which I conducted for a while, I used to start by asking: “did you get married?” “Yes.” “And, in the wedding, did they ask whether there was somebody against it?” “Yes.” “And was there somebody who was?” “Yes, of course.” Nobody ever said no. And what happened to the person who was against it? Why were they against it? And here the story is fascinating, because it doesn’t enter the ritual of how things ought to be at all.

You devote part of your book to analyzing the changes in psychotherapy after the fall of the Berlin wall.

In many parts of the book there are discussions in which I show how the macropolitical is not only part of a context which is far from fields such as psychotherapy, but is also a constituent part of what happens in the room where psychotherapy is being conducted. The changes that have happened in the last 20 years, from the fall of the Berlin wall, in the field of psychotherapy, have been fascinating and terrifying at the same time. They are coincidental with the decade of the brain, where the idea that mental illnesses are brain illnesses takes root, with huge consequences that I have explored. And during this years therapy becomes a technique, a technology, be it a problem resolution technology or an interpretative one.

And in the field of philosophy, analytic philosophy reigns supreme. Maybe both events are related.

I think so, I think they have a lot in common. Maybe we are being a bit unfair because there are developments in analytic philosophy which, as Derrida would put it, are deconstructed from within. Despite their intention. They deconstruct themselves and end up reaching limits to their own project. Some people accept them, but in general it’s true that the academic triumph of analytic philosophy happened in parallel to the process I’ve described in psychotherapy. And from that perspective the so-called continental philosophy is slated from the American academia as the prototype of uselessness. The worst one can say about something: being useless.

At the same time, they accuse it of living with their backs against reality.

Exactly. I think I restrained myself at times in order to avoid controversy, but I was tempted to say that what can really facilitate the recovery of the singularity of the human condition in psychotherapy is to start considering the fact that it deals precisely with what’s useless. Psychotherapy is not about what can be measured in terms of benefits, even though that’s not its most extended mode.

If a patient overcomes bulimia and suicidal tendencies, there must be something useful in psychotherapy.

Of course, but in general what happens is that, in order to do that, we need togo beyond a world where everything has to me measured in terms of benefits. The trip around what’s useless, through useless aspects which lie beyond what can be measured, weighed, commercialized, is necessary even in the most dramatic cases.

In fact what you criticize is the administrative vision of psychotherapy, rather than psychotherapy iself.

The notion of what’s useful, exactly. Since the so-called manage care -administrative cares spread all over the world- appeared in the USA, there’s a strong tendency to weigh, measure, to find evidence. And not everything that’s fundamental in psychotherapy can be seen in those terms.

Does this tendency to measure, using commercial criteria, include humankind?

Absolutely yes. The fundamental point, the foundation of this book, is to counter-weigh and legitimize the notion that the existence of what’s singular, what’s sensual, what escapes radical reason, lies on the surface of things, in life. When I speak of poetics I’m not making a call to writing poetry in psychotherapy, but a call to recover the dimension which will allow us to go beyond constantly creating scripts which are preformed in life.

What is, then, life?

The worst thing we could do in this conversation would be to end it with a definition. One of the strongest ways in which we are oriented in reality… because we are oriented in reality as if we were pieces of metal, we are all in a magnetic field which, before we even realize, orients us in a given direction. For example, towards the need to give clear and distinct definitions of things. I think it’s better to keep a certain ambiguity in things even as fundamental as life. We know life isn’t only what biology says. We know it’s not only what systems theory says. We know it’s more than that. When asked about such things, Bateason used to say something very beautiful: “to think systemically is always something else.”

You vindicate singularity, in opposition to constructivism.

Well, we’d have to specify the constructivism we’re talking about.

The one you quote in your book: Bateson, Von Foerster, for example.

Bateson and Von Foerster were very important in the field of systemic psychotherapy. And they were because they pointed out, even though they didn’t explore it the same way I do, but they did point out a territory which has some affinities to my worries. When you told me about Philosophy To Go before, you said they ask questions nobody asks anymore. It’s a nice way of defining psychotherapy. The job of psychotherapy is this, to ask what Heinz von Foerster used to call “the legitimate questions.” That is, the ones without an answer.

See this author’s biography

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