Teacher of Bad Film 1: Prologue

The experiences of cinema and psychoanalysis. Wartime. The mechanical ear of the analyst. Bion dreaming, buffalo running.

JFK watching.
(Photo: Paul Schutzer)

For a film goer to talk about a film they just saw – to truly talk about it: to account for their own experience of a film could be as difficult, or more, as talking in a psychoanalytic session.

Insofar as having an experience means communicating it to others – to oneself, included – can the film goer who, for a reason to be determined, wants to talk about it use an analyst to work him through a film or does he need to be taught how to recount an experience?

“Is there an analyst the filmgoer can see, a class they can take?” means: are analysis – itself, like film-going, a mimetic activity – and pedagogy – too overwhelmed or taken by the conscious and the normative – in a position not to see art as a rival human expression that can or must be spoken away? At their most dogmatic, both propose to cure the mimetic rival. At their most receptive, are they able to not bypass the question of art?

The French director Bruno Dumont says that cinema viewing is about confrontation and identification: it confronts us with ourselves – even though we seem to be taking in a spectacle – because we fill in what we think we, objectively, see. This strikes me as a complex argument but evident, once we allow ourselves to think it through, and, above all, imagine and remember. Our desires, frights, misunderstandings, personal taboos and disgusts construct our experience in the darkened room. I find I look for something in, rather than watch, a film. Our past errors, personal ghosts, hopes and contradictions – our blindness make up what we see. We short-circuit and panic, we pretend we saw something else and later claim we all saw the same film. We see what we interpret – or what we have to see. Cinema, like music, has intimate connections to haunting and obsession. As our creation unfolds there, in the dark, cinema can become terrifying: “a film is a trial – un film, c’est une épreuve,” Dumont claims, “les réactions sont différentes, justement, parce qu’on se voit soi-même, c’est ça ce qui est térrifiant au cinema.” Everyone sees a different film because one sees oneself – this revelation can instill terror. Why am I in this film?

Dumont’s is a radical proposition since we tend to assume that there is an overwhelming empirical basis for what we just saw, and that what is there should be obvious to anyone. Instead we get this: film does not preexist its viewing. A film on its own does not show anything. The film itself, as an object – of study, for instance – holds no value. It does not teach anything. It does not explain anything: it holds no morals, expounds no plots, does not show the lives of other people. It cannot be part of a history, will not be cataloged, cannot be evaluated in good faith, has no aesthetic value. There are no legitimate film experts.

The screen does not represent life as it unfolds in time. I think it is fair to say that most film criticism bypasses the value of this (psychoanalytic) insight: that what “really” happened has little incidence on what we went through.

The best films vacate the most space for the viewer to invest and err in. Some film viewers work hard at this experience and are as precise, or open, as possible in realizing what they see. (The analytic question that follows is then perhaps: for what reason do certain viewers strive to remember and speak, others to forget and pretend the film never happened, meaning it “entertained” them? The same can be said about dreams.)

Furthermore, only a film goer who realizes his partiality has anything to impart to others. Analysis of film in its commonplace, evaluative form – holds no interest.

Dumont is the contemporary filmmaker I know about who worries most openly about reclaiming the film viewer for the cinema – both in interviews and in his cinema. He puts this in an enigmatic pronouncement: the film is a mere “preparation to the development of the viewer.” Development holds two different meanings: like a film is developed, the film unrolls what the viewer is made of, their make-up. But the word also means change. The two implications are at odds: the nightmarish – because open – unraveling of our psyche, lived as a physical (eyes, ears, muscles, nerves) and mechanical (lights out, projection, cuts) event, on the one hand. On the other: change, meaning loss.

In loss I need to invent another me: this takes time and implies discontinuity. Through the two meanings of the word development – the true Kodak moment – the viewer fabricates time, in all its lived – intense – discontinuity.

Monkeys as Judges of Art – Affen als Kunstrichter
(Gabriel von Max, 1889)

This is true mimetic behavior as it brings forth through pretense and fabrication, the conscious and the unconscious.

Film is thus also a transformation, not merely because the real is translated through a mysterious process (to Dumont, exemplified by the chemical process in pre-digital filmmaking) but because, in the viewing experience, the viewer puts selves together in time.

The film goer thereby joins another group: that of the filmmakers.


Bion in 1916

If a filmmaker makes time, or what passes for time in all its discontinuity, so does the viewer. In this, film viewing recalls aspects of the analytical session:

“The patient you see today,” the British psychoanalyst Winfried R. Bion explains to students in the Tavistock Seminars of 1977-1978, ” is not the same as the one you saw yesterday; nor is it the one who started speaking a sentence still the same as the one who finishes it. It is a rather painful business.” (Tavistock, 44)

Why painful? With a different counterpart constantly appearing, the analytic situation keeps dying off. Bion has to pretend the patient is not familiar, again and again. He needs to deny recognition – kinship, friendship, meaning – to the person who comes to lay bare. Having to think afresh is likened to “blowing on the dying embers of a fire … the fire is built up again, although it appeared to be nothing but dead ash.” (44-45)

The patient – in this like the film viewer who works up an intense amount of material to make it through a film, only to come out rearranged – leaves behind mere debris (ash) for the analyst to work with. “We are presented with … the vestiges of what was once a patient,” Bion explains. This is painful – it is like Scottie in Hitchcock’s Vertigo who experiences or knows pain only at the repeated loss of his love. Bion longs to put an end to this, he says, to rely on acquired knowledge, and say “thus far and no further; what I don’t know isn’t knowledge” – but it is in psychoanalysis.

There is as much contradictory analytic “knowledge” in not knowing as there is film “viewing” in making a film up. It is the fire analysis and film-going both keep.

War time: the model for psychoanalysis

Christmas truce 1914. Bion arrived later.

Bion fought in World War I. “I went straight from school into the army and into the tanks because I wanted to see what a tank was. At that time they were still secret. I spent the rest of my time regretting it. It’s very difficult to talk about the regret.” (97) From school into the secret tanks, the young Bion does not even come up for air. And the tank is made of iron and moves mechanically – a mark of indifference, of a lack of differentiation. What is there to find out? What is there to see? Why does the mechanical need to be joined – meaning: how is it experienced? This somewhat obscure or even paradoxical quest – that hinges on the different meanings of the word “secret”, between hidden, forbidden, unreadable and unknown, private – does not end with the war. Institution, mechanical ranks, the straight file, nothing but dead ash: such reminders of normality reoccur in Bion’s later psychoanalytic thinking. To him, we give over to organization and procedure, to institutionalized modes of speaking – we identify with finally unyielding aids. “The shell can be so thick that [people] cannot develop inside it.” (11) Language itself – after all, the medium of psychoanalysis – is less seen as an opportunity for a talking cure than as by now debased (through categories of knowledge, and jargon), inadequate to define the object of psychoanalysis, and holding the patient in a confusing noise. (If I understand correctly, Bion sees this noise forming a “third party” (19-20) in the analytic relation – one that is “watching – always … the analyst is being analysed all the time by this third party.” To me this means that “Bion”, the analyst, is unconsciously explained to the patient through this debased language. “Bion” is thus himself a constantly changing projection, an unreliable, flickering artifact.)

Despite an argument that is kept alive by the intrusion of unruly thoughts, speculative imagination and analytic experience Bion’s thinking finds itself constantly obliged by the familiar instances of the necrotic in life: meaning, it originates in regret. His particular kind of analytical sorrow explains his disbelief in the ultimate usefulness of theories: in regret, there is no progress, no value attached to analytic models. Certainties acquired during the course of a session, a treatment or the whole history of psychoanalysis hold little interest as there was always a more adequate before, and an uncertain after. Illuminations are extraordinary occurrences.

By regret I mean: I am drawn to what I reject. Both: I regret I did that. But also: I regret it, I miss it. It is difficult to talk about the regret because it does not make sense to untangle the different meanings here.

(In fact, writing about Bion is daunting, as I hear him saying: “no, this is not quite what I am saying!” In his essay “Evidence” (1976) he writes that every analyst has to forge “his own language” against “learned nonsense” which would include mine: “… nobody can tell you how you are to speak.” (315) Bion really wants to express himself – which is what a writer means to do, not a scientist, not even an analyst who is to be concerned with his patients, and only indirectly himself. He intends to go beyond psychoanalysis in this respect. Theories to Bion hold meaning only to the one who utters them, not to others and certainly not the same meaning: here we find an autobiographical validation or leaning in his thinking. This is not a weakness.)

Bion’s World War I experience is not only of biographical or anecdotal importance. War time is the model for the analytical session insofar as disappearance is at its center – Bion describes turning away from others (they keep leaving) even while experiencing their presence deeply: “the military is a most peculiar business, because you are with a person only briefly, but you find you get to know him quickly, very well, and in depth. There is nothing like this business of constantly being confronted with the probability of death … I knew individuals very, very well, but I would forget their names because I saw them so briefly. I remember coming across a fellow who wasn’t in my company, but he recognized me. He was an AA scout – one of these people who go about on motorcycles. I recognized his face when he introduced himself to me, but I could not place him. But that’s the kind of thing that helped me to see that I really felt extremely deeply about the people I knew.” (97-98)

Forgetting a name, not knowing where the familiar belongs, death: in such dream-like (or mimetic) encounters the regular marks of the other’s existence vanish. The other’s life does not continue but remains ever present. Without names but intensely felt, these encounters remain strangely speechless.

Freud and military sons
Freud and military sons

(Can there be a face without a name? There is an odd loneliness in not remembering the names but feeling strongly for someone. It is not by accident that the emotional core of Bion’s engagement with the non human (unintended, unassenting, mechanical) aspects of the analytic situation are the questions he repeatedly raises of art in the Tavistock Seminars: not placing the familiar is a gesture of art – beyond the idea that art is somehow silent (or symbolic), because it does not explain (or name) itself, lies an apprehension of this uncanny manifestation of its “immediacy”. I will discuss Bion’s constant referral out to art.)

I find it quite striking that we return, in Bion’s understanding of his war time experience, to the “rather painful business” of seeing one’s constantly changing, never the same patient. It is the same person but, then, not. The fallen-still present soldiers and the patients live through these different incarnations.

Mimetic Illness

Bion is not analyzing – in the sense of observing, clarifying, judging – a situation here. Written all over the description of this experience is his personal implication: Bion is one of the soldiers, with them.

Meaning, Bion himself is not an analyst-survivor in this set-up. He does not hold himself apart, and psychoanalysis, with its emphasis on countertransference, seems suited to continue holding onto this paradoxical position of being implicated, of being at both places at the same time, of being one and other, in life and in death. La psychanalyse et le droit à la mort, to misstate Maurice Blanchot’s title: psychoanalysis and the right to death. Countertransference, as another displacement and misappropriation (neither good nor bad), is a constant, not always directly acknowledged, refrain in Bion’s thinking. Some of the difficulties of Bion’s prose or manner of speaking-thinking stem from there: how far am I still implicated in this story? How much do we owe each other? How much can I – my vantage point – distort the lived past (in the published case histories of my patients, in my endeavor to live in the present)? Again, these are not weaknesses of an unfinished argument but acknowledgements of an analytic reality.

Jung (middle) belongs in an August Sander photograph – “Der Psychoanalyst”. Gross looks like himself.

In psychoanalysis, the analyst lives through various, precarious and aleatory incarnations, ghosted, momentary constructs. It seems to me Bion lives this proximity – this substitution of patient and analyst – much stronger than other analyst-writers I am aware of (Freud, for instance). The close proximity Bion has to his patients – an involvement that comes out in his insistent reflections on compromised language – underscores a central recognition: that patient and analyst constantly trade places. That the analytic situation is afflicted with all the marks of the mimetic: reproduction, imitation, usurpation, doubling, rivalry – and, with at its center, disappearance. (It also gives a certain rhythm to the history of psychoanalysis: the great pathos of the Freud-Otto Gross-Jung story originates in the unavoidable affects of the mimetic. Who is at the origin of my words? Who utters the words I hear? Who owns what is being said? In this case, Gross had to disappear.) (See Emmanuel Hurwitz, Otto Gross, 157)

Disappearance: in later comments about or revisits to his case histories – in particular one about the patient/analyst as “imaginary twins” (1950) – Bion, again in a strange inversion of the fellow soldier dynamic, reads his own essay years later and writes that “as it is,” he doesn’t “recognize the patient or myself” (123, Commentary in Second Thoughts).

The following is also connected: after reading Bion for a moment I find it difficult to remember succinctly what he was saying earlier. His writing itself keeps receding as I read: not weakening, or becoming less convincing, but appearing in this difficult-to-hold-onto form. It is speechless, like his fellow-soldiers. “Not remembering a name” in relation to his prose means losing the precise point one took him to be making, whilst remaining affected, convinced, really, by it. His speech is itself a different form of talk-therapy for me, but one that via its emphasis on the depersonalized (its figures keep disappearing) holds a kinship to literature.

Mimesis in or as analysis is not a form of deception and error – another diversion that needs to be cleared up. On the contrary, analysis as a mimetic activity produces the analytic situation-as-conflict that is the hallmark of analytic truth. Or, rather, mimesis is conflict (or how do you distinguish between the two?) and they induce the analytic scene. (Analytic thinking is scenic, tragic thinking – this also explains the autobiographical strengths, and the drama, of much of the best psychoanalytic texts.)

Mimesis stands at the origin and one of the great insights of psychoanalysis – as a further development of theater and literature – is that patients can suffer from authentic mimetic ailments. What is a mimetic illness? How does it affect or determine the cure?

One mark of this illness concerns the position of patient: who is ill in the psychoanalytic situation?

Kaspar Hauser (Kreul, 1830):
Patient Zero

Patients – a category that now must include the analyst – can be deemed somewhat “unmündig” (a significant word Kant uses in his 1784 essay on Enlightenment), meaning not adult, not accountable, not responsible, but literally without mouth, with a non (un)-mouth: speechless. This representation of the patient tells us that authority – under the guise of its representatives: doctor-judge, doctor-intellectual, doctor-scientist and so forth – that the authoritarian impulse finds itself implicated and compromised in the mimetic exchange and intends to react. Authoritarian writing is here simply the claim to have settled mimesis for the time being. It does so by distancing itself from what it perceives as the patient’s weak (speechless) “identity”: where and who are they?

In Bion patients hold a valid double-position, however. Here is a definition of his patient’s status: “I recognized his face when he introduced himself to me, but I could not place him” (98): we can now say that in analysis, the patient-analyst talks to an analyst who will not place him or her. This failure of recognition (one that seeks to avoid the false assurances of the authoritarian character and, with it, the psychological category of “identity”), this forgetting provides the uncertain rhythm of the encounter. “Toute âme est un noeud rythmique,” Mallarmé has written in Crise de vers – the soul is a rhythmic knot. Analyst-patient-analyst: imaginary twins, never placed in a good order. (But art, to Bion, has a unique rhythm. Again, I will come back to it.)

It is here where psychoanalysis becomes relevant to the filmgoer (and not through psychoanalytic modes of reading, through types or themes.)

Face off – analysis and cinema

Watching films is, even superficially, more akin to the face off in the analytic session, defined by Masud Khan as an in-between deep sleep and consciousness, with all the confrontation and the brutal confusion (Who is talking? Who is the other in front of me? How many people are in the room with us?) it entails.

In analysis, patient and analyst have nothing to say to each other. This communication-as-struggle revolves instead around a constant disappearing, a mimetic play of vanishing identities. By comparison, what we see in the cinema is our unraveling instead of the film.

I believe cinema asks pressing questions not because of the subject matter of a film, or even its modes of delivery, but because the film viewer produces or creates – does something that remains inaccessible, disavowed. Cinema going is not about the aesthetic, pleasurable and therapeutic pursuit of taking in someone else’s production, of appreciation and evaluation, of “watching”, but the feverish construction of a reality different from and a rival to the film. (That the filmgoer also brings into play personal and hence elements that seem anterior to the viewing experience, only heightens the sense of rivalry to the film: who comes first here?) This working-up is revelatory only once we dismiss the film itself. A filmgoer is a “peeper” only in that what is being shown says all about her or him and nothing about the film or its makers. Cinema in this respect is not a distraction from real life (“entertainment”) but each time an intense distraction from its subject matter. The viewer rearranges the orderless state of the film – to him or her, the film does not show anything complete – into another aleatory state. This can demand a clarification – utter a demand such as the one experienced in the talking cure.

Pasolini – Oedipus/king (1967)

Film going is by nature an undertaking the meaning of which we cannot agree on, or come together over. Psychoanalysis allows us to think of activities that run parallel to societal life – cinema going, analysis itself – not as substitutes, diminished and secondary to life but as activities for which there is no norm: not as immature occupations but as self-imposed tasks that function as a dream-like avoidance of condemnation by normality. In other words, they are alternatives to being rendered “unmündig“.

Oedipal activities. This scene means anything you want it to mean.

They say: what the norm means can finally only be settled by each and every one of us individually. This is a modern form of Enlightenment.

Psychoanalysis attempts to verbalize such experiences.

This is its chance but in Bion, at least, analysis does not gain from it an intuition of its sovereignty. Instead it perceives itself as not only undermined by its origins in the mimetic conflict, but also as running alongside art and bound to the question of art. The ill-defined boundary is reflected in Bion’s worried querying of art throughout the Tavistock seminars: what can art bring psychoanalysis? To Bion art is the true sovereign – a model analysis could never emulate: “I can’t show my patients movies; I have to resort to verbal communication” (31). Still, Bion keeps asking and we have to wonder what he sees in art, that he finds lacking in analysis.

What is the nature of the prestige psychoanalysis accords to art?

Walter Benjamin in a 1923 essay on translation (that seems to meditate on Hölderlin’s translations of Sophocles’ Oedipus and Antigone) sees art as both human and indifferent to us. Art, he writes, posits our bodily and spiritual being, but our attention (Aufmerksamkeit) in none of its works: “no poem is intended for the reader, no image for the beholder, no symphony for the audience. – So setzt auch die Kunst selbst dessen [des Menschen] leibliches und geistiges Wesen voraus – seine Aufmerksamkeit aber in keinem ihrer Werke. Denn kein Gedicht gilt dem Leser, kein Bild dem Beschauer, keine Symphonie der Hörerschaft.” (The Task of the Translator, first paragraph)

Aufmerksamkeit has been translated as “response” (Harry Zohn), but the word has a number of more direct meanings to me, like attention or attentiveness, that point to the emotional, lived side of our reaction to art. “Responses”, by contrast, can be intellectualized. Since art seems to come to life only in human interactions we are condemned to imagine it, in one way or another, as human – and to enter into the mimetic game that is the topic of this entry. (The same goes for texts, for when I read texts.) So let me do that now.

What happens when we do pay attention to art?

Aufmerksamkeit. Art is not information, feeding me what I lack. Nor can it satisfy my expectations, become a repetition of what I have in mind. Art is indifferent to who I am, or how I receive it. At best, art seems to perform as if on empty squares, at worst it turns away from us – confusing us as to its role. Who abandons whom when attention is not posited? The list of possible expectations that art thwarts can go on, since the issue of paying attention highlights the emotional investment we bring to art, our need to create when confronted with art. It is a tragic need, in the sense that we think we take in (that we are given) what we have to, in effect, put there. Call it the drama of the gifted child. The German word for imagination and representation (for what we think we are doing, or do: it’s unclear to me) – Vorstellung – captures what I mean. Vorstellung means putting-to-the-fore, presentation. It means offering up, giving, fronting, a gamut of ambiguity in the active-passive range.

It cannot really be called a response to a specific work since the spectator’s creation is as untied to the original art work, as it is to us, Leser, Beschauer, Hörer. An unexpected deficit stands between the two. Here is a sign of the peculiar indifference of art: both art and its recipient can be seen as suffering under a lack of attention.

Art itself is disquieting, because it mixes elements we identify (with) and those that turn us away. We imagine ourselves attracted and repulsed. In the encounter with art, no one is there to differentiate between what art properly is, and what the spectator uniquely does. At the same time, they cannot be disentangled, even if both face away. This heightens the sense of crisis.

Mechanical inventions
Étienne-Jules Marey (around 1882)
Marey’s Gun

Voraussetzen. By positing our humanity, but not our attention art actually prevents Vorstellung, meaning here a kind of sublimation of the artistic conflict into a meaning. Film, with its dream of showing anything, its dream of projection (also Vorstellung) that is interrupted (or continued) by film viewing and its particular kind of blindness seduces us to believe otherwise. Its operating mode, from its mixed origins in exciting science exhibits and on fair grounds, is to lead us astray (verführen, to continue in German), to seduce us, thereby only enhancing the showy indifference art has for its recipient. Cinema, like the machine it comes out of, dramatizes the attention deficit that characterizes the encounter with art.

Phenakistoscope (Eadweard Muybridge, 1893)
What it means to be an analyst could come down to determining who pays attention in the analytic relationship.

Aufmerksamkeit. Paying attention is central to psychoanalysis (and problematic to Bion, unsure as he is as to the identity of his patient). In psychoanalytic theory to pay attention to the other can mean anything from being intent on exploring to caring for. Aufmerksam sein sabotages the construction of the best theories and makes the quiet, withdrawn space of reflection practically impossible. Psychoanalytic listening could be the paradoxical attempt to have it both ways: to care by reflecting on. Either that or it is the space of creation, of a fate reserved to the spectator of art.

I read The Tavistock Seminars to state that, sometimes, Bion would wish to have the capacity of indifference of art. On an obscure level, this brings to mind the tanks of Bion’s late childhood.

Mechanical ear, wish fulfillment: the experience of psychoanalysis

Rough Sea at Dover (Birt Acres, 1895

Träume sind Schäume.

Dreams are froth.

(German proverb, cited by Freud)

It would be a mistake to reduce experience to what we consciously undergo: replicable experience, familiar or recognizable in time and in space. This readily imagined experience can function as the best defense against, in particular, any psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic notions of experience may well only start when normative (or any) representation no longer functions: unconscious processes have their dramatic effects outside of the instantly shareable. By contrast, what can be represented can easily monopolize communication such as the one between patient and analyst, define it, and make analytic talk finally impossible.

In the Tavistock seminars, Bion advances his argument not by theorizing about psychoanalysis (theory is a form of representation), or by explaining texts deemed authoritative, but by looking back on his experience in the analytical session. He talks like analysis is something that happened to him. (He thus keeps relating the emotions associated with it: instead of feelings of confirmation and certainty – or of its even more stubborn twin: ignorance – he talks of wonderment and of being stunned, for instance.) It is thus not entirely a technique: psychoanalysis is a carry-over from having been through something. In this respect he calls analysis “violent”: “it took me a very long time to realize that the actual experience of being psychoanalyzed was a traumatic one and it takes a long time before one recovers from it … I was introduced to the kind of idea that violence is not done to you by psychoanalysis … that doesn’t seem to me to fit in at all.” (1) By saying what comes to your mind, you get cured in time – how can it be violent? Bion explains as if speaking out of a session even if his it took me a long time suggests hindsight: to him, the talking cure disorients, brings off course. Language is lost, a never-ending search – and a lack of capacity – for a suitable language has begun. What do you do individually in a situation where you feel completely lost? Bion asks. All these are possible answers to the question: how can analysis be violent? especially if one assumes that language was ever fully “gained” or that one’s life was previously in one’s grasp. Instead of such a reliable language we get realizations that do not fit our life, indeed tear it open, revealing estranged pieces of us.

“BION: I remember the corpse in the shell-hole that sheltered us both – his bluey-green skin stretched tight over the bones of his face, his mouth pulled open by the contraction of death. MYSELF: I renewed the acquaintance in the dissecting room.” (War Memories)
BION is MYSELF’s younger self.
But Bion opens a further, less direct, less conscious, more involuntary aspect of his thought when he characteristically compares analysis to “physical medicine”, to the “violence that has been done to you physically.” (1) Surgery is a blind (manual) cousin of analysis, but not completely distinguishable from it in various undercurrents of Bion’s prose: school, tanks, thick shell, surgery, analysis. All tragically useable.


Violence itself is both intense – lived – and mechanical. This is one central modern enigma: that we feel we experienced most when a nonhuman element intervenes, when we face indirectly, when aided by props, contraptions and instruments, by what we take to be mere tools. In our thinking, if not our feeling, we go back to childhood, to the last time we really lived, when playing with toys.

An older and a younger man, a doll: In treatment.
(ETA Hoffmann, Sandmann. Illustration by Paul Gavarni, 1843)

If art, for instance, is mechanical – a puppet-like thing without offspring, as Paul Celan, following Büchner, underlines in his 1960 Meridian speech – so are language or dreams, and we can intuit an underground connection, present in Bion, between the secret tanks of his youth and the later violent talks in session, between the voiceless mechanical and psychoanalysis.

Predictable and explainable, calculable in reality, the mechanical has a paradoxical separate existence in our imagination. Here, the mechanical moves on its own. It does not need to follow (our) time. This confers upon the mechanical its mythical force: it seems to exist in an anterior world, where human action was not yet relevant.

Here is how the mechanical can affect a reader, and our memory of a reading experience: take Bion’s War Memories (1921), written a few years after Bion’s 1917-18 participation in the war, as a twenty year old tank commander. The diary left me a little stunned, or disoriented. It is directly addressed to his parents: “Mother” is appealed to at least twice. It recounts in great detail the brutal slaughter of men, the killing of animals, the death of civilization, the destruction of nature. The addressee and the subject matter are established. But I am still not sure what I was reading. For instance, I could not answer a question that kept coming up throughout the reading: does Bion ever admit to causing the death of enemy soldiers, an endeavour he is describing openly? My sense says: he must have – he must have killed and he must have written so. Did I read this or not? In other words, I still kept wondering what he was doing there, a version of why did he join the tanks? I allude to earlier in this entry. Did Bion kill anyone? The text “lacks an answer”, I want to say – meaning I may have overlooked all these passages. This leaves a hole in my reading experience, especially since it involves desire, mine to know and his. It makes me wonder whether I read and forgot, or not. I realize that this is because the Memories really recount the death of everything through the mechanical logic of tanks, exploding shells, military drills. Life disappears as a result of machines, velocity, malfunctioning hardware, chemical reactions, and so forth. Bion provides us with his photographs and his detailed drawings. They show him in the midst of the destructive folly of war, but his understanding only through his acquaintance with machines, the physical world, and its effects.

The older, now psychoanalyst Bion revisited his War Memories many years later, and rewrote the part about the slaughter at Amiens. In this later version, he writes about himself in the third person: he, Bion. For instance, instead of a shell splinter tearing off the left side of a soldier (“my runner”) named Sweeting, we get more of a sense of Bion trading places with the comrade next to him:

“Bion bent his head so that his ear came as near as possible to Sweeting’s mouth.

Mother, Mother, write to my mother, sir, won’t you?


Write to my mother, mother, mother. Why can’t I cough, sir?


Never have I known a bombardment like this, never, never – Mother, Mother, Mother – never have I known a bombardment like this, he thought. I wish he would shut up. I wish he would die. Why can’t he die? Surely he can’t go on living with a great hole torn in his side like that.” (255-256)

In other words: Bion’s sense of experience went from the mechanical logic of the tank to the mimetic existence of the psychoanalyst. From/to: the notion of healing, of progressing, of following one’s own narrative, seems particularly problematic in analysis. In how far can it be said that Bion was healed? Did (his) suffering not remain mimetic? What does it mean to become an analyst, as opposed to staying a patient?

I ask myself: can an automaton pay attention, be an analytic listener? It is not a frivolous question to me: it is one I experience as I read Bion. After all, to me, Bion exists only in a text I read, as a fabricated (projected: posited) being, not as my analyst or my friend. He is not there, but I place him there as I ask about myself, my own (reading) cure, about the way the best psychoanalytical texts offer the illusion of insight, of working-through for the reading me.

Bion himself was attuned to his after-life in texts. In the Seminars he initally wonders about how to respond, how to speak in sessions – already a question of delay, of storing. He then worries repeatedly about case histories, about the survival of sessions he has with patients, how to keep them in writing (see the “Commentary” in Second Thoughts, for instance). If art has a capability analysis lacks, could it truly hold them? In the end, Bion arrives at a tragic effect of both representation and violent psychoanalysis: I do not recognize myself or the patient. I myself find it difficult to disentangle mimesis from automatism, presentation from replication – and to tell one from the other. I similarly struggle to differentiate between the tanks Bion seeks out in his youth and the art he celebrates much later in the Tavistock Seminars. May be Bion did, too. (If this sounds critical of Bion, it is not meant to be: I admire the ability of his prose to make me associate.)

Here is a possible way out, one that Bion may be took himself: Paul Celan uses the word Atemwende (a turn of breath) to distinguish “poetry” or the poem from the mechanical puppet of art. Poetry is the turn of breath of art, meaning a non-moment where art ends and takes up again, a time-less incident within an automatic spectacle, a non-existent difference that nevertheless is, Celan hopes. The closest psychoanalysis has to the art/poetry difference are Freud’s notions of unconscious processes as they open up in the analytic session.

Freud’s unconscious challenges the rational idea that what is can be represented, that the proven can and must appear, and reappear identically. In other words: the unconscious may well fall outside our understanding of what can be represented and, by extension, of our conscious bias of what therefore simply is, should be, has to be. By contrast, unconscious processes – said by Freud to be widerspruchslos, beweglich, zeitlos, psychisch – appear not accountable – childish, Georges Bataille might say. After all, a childhood wish, what makes the child, is to not be tied by anything (nor time, nor space) and anyone: in play, we like to keep it contradiction free, to take on shifting identities, to not be bound by time, and to pay no heed to reality – positive, playful Greek tragedies. A world that in its will to be true, suffers no representation.

(Freud imagines an unconscious that interrupts its representation. Theory will not approach the unconscious, since it needs to imagine it. This makes conflict, as opposed to a consensual meaning rational coming together in the session, inevitable. The hope of Sophocles’ tragic art is to achieve an end to strife, but without becoming authoritarian. Its links to the world and wishes of the child are inescapable.)

You would think the tank would come out of anything.
Bion, War Memories

Freud’s unconscious belongs in the before-time world of the child, and, more specifically, of play, of the toy, of mechanical imaginings that are primeval wishes, but its indifference to anything else inspires a great amount of adult anxiety.

What do the indifference of art and the anteriority of the child mean for our notion of experience?

Bion dreaming

Masud Khan suggests that experience in the analytic session is synonymous with dreaming. The interpretation of dreams is also the analytical model for curing mimesis: the verbalization of dreams.

In Bion’s approach to dreaming, the patient is asked to relate his experience the previous night while asleep, not his dream. In this the patient is encouraged to emulate or take the place of the analyst Bion who, as we saw, recounts his experiences as a way to elaborate or accede to a theory. Here is how this works: instead of tell me your dreams

I sometimes ask patients, “Where were you last night? What did you see? Where did you go?” I don’t accept the answer that they didn’t go anywhere, they simply went to bed and went to sleep. But I still think they went somewhere and saw something. (46)


If I say to the patient, “Where did you go last night and what did you see?”, he may be very anxious to insist that he went to bed and went to sleep. I say, “I don’t mind what you did with your body. Where did you go and what did you see?” (18)

Bion wants to hear what the patient knows. The question tell me your dreams would imply that the dream is over, that we learned how to distinguish night and day: “there are very few individuals who have any respect whatsoever for the continuation of their dreams when they are wide awake.” (7)

When do we sleep?

In Bion’s analytic gesture, the daytime anxiety of living – I went to bed and went to sleep – is really an extension of dreaming. My dreams continue when I am wide awake. Conversely it also means nighttime dreaming can no longer be viewed as a mere expression, secondary to the script of the day, a representation that follows closely the day’s events, but can be understood as filling our daytime, mixing with it, determining it to an unknown degree.

Am I the dreamer or the protagonist in the dream, the analyst or the patient, the parent or the child?

It is a predicament: telling one’s dreams relies on the end of dreaming. It means to have learned how to recount our dreams, how to tell a story, which parts to leave out (credit to psychoanalysis to not ask the patient to relate only meaningful – relevant, meaning authoritative – stories). The dream text thus needs a good amount of uniformity, the science and pedagogy of dreams. Certain questions can no longer be asked of it.

Ulysses Analyst.
(John William Waterhouse, 1891)

Bion, by contrast, does not accept answers – more precisely, he automatically discounts the obvious answer. This automatism stems from a need to hear but not necessarily listen (it is the nature of any critique of the generally accepted to be like Ulysses to the sirens). In the same way he needs to pretend he does not recognize his patient, who truly is never the same person, he does not accept the patient’s simple reply. This automatism of pretense can seem genuinely artificial but it is a condition for Bion’s dream analysis. “I don’t mind what you did with your body”: listening psychoanalytically implies mechanically not “minding” the obvious, the conscious, the learned.

This mechanical element remains thereby woven into the analytical experience – and into the representation of desire. Here is how I see it: in Bion’s formulation, “where did you go and what did you see? “, the dream state brackets the question “Why did you go there?” (It doesn’t ask the patient to justify him or herself.) Or, more accurately, the dreaming experience simply translates it – without accounting for it. Why were you there – in the dream, dreaming? If you look again at the questions Bion asks his dreaming patients you might read them as incarnations, as opposed to obvious statements, of the question why?

“Vous ne m’écoutez jamais.”
Charcot and his patient Augustine.
(Film, Alice Winocour, 2012)

This question why? central also to the enigmatic status of art – finds its human incarnation in desire. To Freud a dream is a wish fulfillment: der Traum ist eine Wunscherfüllung. A dream is not “about” wishes or their fulfillment. It does not have as a “theme” a wish. It is, after all, not a conscious activity. Let me understand this literally, “textually”, which yields the most potent interpretation: a dream does not represent but is a fulfillment of a wish. The difficulty of seizing the difference between theme or “content” and expression – and of seeing expression outside of content as a viable means of communication – replicates the laws of our understanding, or representation of desire.

Desire does not answer why? with because since it cannot explain itself. Any dream comes in disguise: one has to resist the urge to have the dream appear in its adult, meaning censored form, and look for its content. (Here is a typical dream: a machine gives a good answer to the question why? Upon awakening, I cannot remember what it said.)

Why? is a question that has the ability not to expect answers. As opposed to the injunction to recount the content of one’s dream why? is finally the least censorious approach. Why? is all question, no answer. It is thereby also a machine-like question: why? why? why?

Dreams. Unconscious processes are “not ordered temporally, not altered by the passage of time, holding no relation whatsoever with time.” (Freud)
(Muybridge, Buffalo, 1887. Animation: Waugsberg)

I feel it is a question Bion does not want to openly ask a patient, besides issues of analytic technique. It is may be too mechanical and too personal?

But it is actually impossible to imagine motives in texts (they are similar to dreams). In any case, what would the content of Bion’s mechanical wishes be?

Being indifferent to desire could allow irreconcilable differences to co-exist. In Bion’s mimetic sessions, it would be a way of not dividing ghosts and momentary constructs. But one senses that his sessions do not live any longer, in a way : when tank commander Bion states I do not mind what you did with your body it becomes clear that Bion’s type of analysis lives through an after-life.

Why can’t he die?

Bion got out of the tanks only to finally enter psychoanalysis. May be Bion’s seduction by art was a way to ask a question about this trajectory, that analysis could not answer from the inside, so to speak, because analysis shares a kinship with art – so Bion kept pointing at art.

But speculating about motivations, and creating personal narratives, is little more than imputing the motives of the art monkey.

Eva Mattes, Dieter Augustin, unknown | Behind the scenes
Die Kunst! Art/monkey.
(Werner Herzog, Woyzeck, 1979)

To be continued …

(Part 2 of Teacher of Bad Film is here.)


Wilfried Bion, The Tavistock Seminars (1976-79, edited 2005)

“Imaginary Twin” (1950) and “Commentary” (1967) in Seconds Thoughts (1984)

“Evidence” (1976) in Clinical Seminars and Other Works (2000)

Sigmund Freud, Die Traumdeutung (1900), Das Unbewusste (1915), Jenseits des Lustprinzips (1920)

Walter Benjamin, Die Aufgabe des Ubersetzers (1923), The Task of the Translator (trans. Harry Zohn)

Paul Celan, Der Meridian (1960)

Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, “L’écho du sujet” (1975-76) in Le sujet de la philosophie (1979)

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