The Emptiness of Meaning in an Exploded Life, Research Time, 22/02/2018

Jean-Claude Polack once wrote a wonderful essay about Félix Guattari. Polack is a French psychiatrist who worked with Guattari at La Borde for more than a decade. His essay in The Guattari Effect volume blends philosophy, psychiatric theory, medical practice, and memoir of an old friend.

My personal favourite in the volume, even more than the essays by Guattari himself. I love Guattari, but I can never expect him to write in a straightforward way.

For that reason, Polack explains a bit better than Guattari what the core principles of their practice were, and why they constituted such a major break from Freudianism.

We are material assemblages all functioning together, and sometimes
those functions can break down or overheat.
Polack describes in very clear terms the experience of working in an indefinite-term, in-patient, live-in communal facility for the most intense psychotics in France. Their patients literally were totally unable to control their minds.

The mainstream schools of psychiatry in France in the 1960s and 70s were shot through with a rationalism that was utterly inadequate to deal with such people as psychotics.

Polack describes Freudian rationalism as the quest for the one true meaning of all the deranged and delusional behaviour a person expresses. If I can put it in the language common to semiotic and postmodern philosophy of the time – because Polack did – it’s a quest for the signifier.

This is why, from this important epistemic perspective, I find a lot of postmodernist philosophy a bit tiring compared to the concepts of Guattari and Gilles Deleuze. The emptiness of the signifier as necessary ground of meaning was a serious philosophical issue to so many – Jacques Lacan, Jean Beaudrillard, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze.

Hang on. Yes, I did just say Gilles Deleuze. The Logic of Sense included a lot of inquiry about the signifier-signified relationship, how solid meaning in language and communication always slips away. In his creative philosophy, I consider Deleuze to have been in danger of slipping into the same lostness that so much postmodernism fell into.

We shouldn't be so afraid to conceive of ourselves as machines. No
matter how scary the prospect might be to us sometimes.
Not much danger, but a danger nonetheless. Then Guattari showed up to demonstrate that none of this signifier stuff was really all that important to the human mind and thought. It fit well with another set of concepts in Deleuze’s work – expression.

Each body has a range of potential activity that you can explore. Some of that activity is productive, helps augment and strengthen a body. But that kind of productive activity depends on restraint – channelling, controlling activity.

A seriously schizophrenic psychotic isn't able to channel her activity at all – she can only act, or follow an obsessive central idea to its endpoint. When that’s the kind of mental illness you're dealing with, a narrative explanatory technique like psychoanalysis isn’t going to work as therapy.

Guattari and Polack – and never forget the contribution of La Borde’s chief, Jean Oury – designed therapy regimens that literally retrained psychotics to control their thoughts, moods, and actions.

The stroll through the clinic gardens built relaxed spaces in experience. The grid – a communally-managed timetable of chores – reintroduced patients to performing tasks, focussing on the practical world, and responsibility to others.

It didn't work for everyone, of course. Some people’s neural systems were too damaged. Guattari often combined these re-socialization therapies with anti-psychotic drug regimens to keep people physically on an even-enough keel to function. But they worked far better on schizophrenics than the “talking cure.”

It was therapy that repaired the machine.

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