Lacan's Practice of Variable-length Sessions and his Theory of Temporality

Ph.D. Thesis, Institute for the History of Medicine, Freie Universität Berlin, 2004

The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) broke the rule that psychoanalytic sessions need to last 50 minutes. This regulation had been established by the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA) in the late 1920s in order to standardize the quality of therapies and training analyses. Lacan considered it a mere formality: he believed that as a talking cure, psychoanalysis should depend on the discourse of the patient, not on the clock. Hence, from 1947 onwards, when ending a session Lacan took his cue from what the analysand said replacing the formal criterion of time by one based on content. This led to fierce disputes between French psychoanalysts, culminating in two institutional ruptures in 1953 and 1963. Lacan and his supporters paid dearly for his unwillingness to give up his practice of variable-length sessions: the IPA refused them recognition and legitimation. 

This dissertation aims at a reconstruction of the theoretical background of Lacan’s position through which Lacan’s practice becomes intelligible and broadly contextualizes this subject matter within the history of medicine and the history of ideas. For this purpose, the two traditions in which Lacan, as a medical student in the 1920s and 1930s, came across the question of temporality as a problem of psychopathology are discussed: the sciences of memory (including psychoanalysis) and phenomenological psychiatry and philosophy. It is demonstrated that Lacan took up the “primacy of the future” as proposed by Heidegger and Minkowski, which prompted him to dissociate himself from the sciences of memory in this respect: in contrast to Freud, he did not regard the unconscious as the medium of determination by the past, but as an inexhaustible source of novelty in life. Lacan’s reinterpretation of psychoanalysis following the linguistic turn is discussed in so far as Lacan regarded the termination of the session as a meaningful “punctuation” of the discourse of the analysand. In the context of his notion of the unconscious as a symbolic machine, it will be examined which impulses he received from information theory, cybernetics, and computer technology  since he considered memory as analogous to digital memory devices.  This model served as the basis of Lacan’s assumption that the history of the patient, including his traumatic memories, could be rewritten by helping him to interpret his past anew in looking forward. However, by emphasizing an orientation toward the future, Lacan stressed a dimension of temporality that he deemed characteristic of human subjectivity. The other specifically human aspect in Lacan’s model is inherent in the intersubjective process unfolding between analyst and patient in the course of the analysis. In Lacan’s eyes, the progress of treatment was based on the dynamics of this so-called transference relationship and not, as in Freud, on the completion of the anamnesis. The purposes of Lacan’s analysis are explicated. In contrast to Freud, Lacan did not aim at helping his patients to obtain normality, i.e. health, but authenticity. The author proposes that the way in which Lacan dealt with the overall length of the analysis was complementary to his way of handling the duration of single sessions: the individual session was terminated by the analyst, but the analysis as a whole was brought to a conclusion by the analysand himself. In both cases, the choice of the right moment to end the analysis was based on its content and not on the clock or the calendar. Lacan’s practice of variable-length sessions, which is described on the basis of reports of Lacan’s former analysands and which is contextualized by the history of psychoanalysis, is made intelligible and available to critical discussion within its theoretical framework.