Transitional discourses and getting (un-)stuck

What happens when our transitional object stick around to long? And could certain discourses serve the role of something like a transitional object in people's lives in the broader process of their becoming?

Transitional discourses and getting (un-)stuck
"Almayer's Folly" by Rene Magritte (1951)

I recently had the pleasure to present at Philosophy Portal's conference "Writing for (a) First Cause" on Jacques Lacan's Écrits. You can watch the presentation here, as well as find the original text of the presentation here.

My presentation is an initial attempt to describe what I'm calling "transitional discourses," which gets at something I've observed wherein people seem to get "stuck" in particular discourses which were helpful at a certain point in their development, but which have since outlived that usefulness and now demand to be surpassed. How do we help others overcome their own paradigms?

I have a strong hunch that I will be continuing to develop this idea throughout the year on this blog and in my podcast, and I'll certainly be adapting this presentation into a chapter in Philosophy Portal's upcoming anthology on Lacan and the Écrits. Below is an adapted version of the presentation. Thanks for reading!

Transitional discourses and getting (un-)stuck


At the end of last year, I had the opportunity to volunteer as a senior leader at a Christian boy's conference. I came away from that experience with a surprising number of questions, especially concerning how the ideas, discourses, and practices which these young men were being inducted didn't differ much from the mindsets that I saw older men using in their own lives. It was like these men had never fully moved past these same regimes which were adapted for young men.

When I set about discussing this vague intuition with others, I started to encounter some interesting tools for thinking through and making sense of this experience. One that stood out to me was the "transitional object" as formulated by the child psychiatrist Donald Winnicott.

Many of us had a blanket or a stuffed animal which we carried around everywhere as kids, and this transitional object facilitated our newfound freedom by providing us with a base level of self-regulation during that time when the child’s self is still developing. The transitional object acts like a prosthetic self, grafted onto the child until they have successfully identified with an ego-object such that they can auto-regulate and master the chaotic drives at work in their body.

Thus, the goal of the transitional object is to fall away. Eventually, the blankie is forgotten, folded up, and tucked away in a closet somewhere. The transitional object has served its role faithfully when it can be left behind, signaling that the child has internalized those functions which the transitional object had to supply externally.

The question becomes though, what happens when our transitional object stick around to long? And could certain discourses and regimes of practice in a religious community serve the role of something like a transitional object in people's lives in the broader process of their becoming more human?

Exoteric and Esoteric

The Christian conference was called "Base Camp," donning a martial theme and bearing the tagline "Life's not complicated; it's just hard." This strikes me as an important message for a young man who is learning to master his mind and body as it's wracked by hormones and powerful desires for attention and recognition. There's an important sense in which these facile discourses of discipline and obedience are vital for the early stages of a young man's development.

To exercise basic agency within the world, a young man needs to be able to get a handle on his emotions, develop an understanding of the physical and mental traps he might face, and learn how to channel his drives towards leadership, service, and achievement, as well as develop some awareness of how his actions can affect others or find their place within the group's broader aims.

The concepts and language which float around in certain Christian circles, especially the Reformed and Presbyterian ones in which I grew up, seem calculated to provide just such an actionable protocol which people can implement in their lives to experience God's blessing – read the Bible, obey the rules which you find there, and you will find be able to find satisfaction in Christ. It would be dishonest to say that there wasn't any nuance to this at all, but I don't think that the caveats alter the fundamental thread which runs through and animates the system.

This would be what we call an "exoteric" way of practicing religion. I've written about this distinction before, and keep finding myself circling back to it, but I'm finding it to be a useful paradigm for sorting through how to relate to certain practices and discourses in both religious communities and other spheres.

What seems to define exoteric discourses is a clarity and a simplicity about how one must learn and practice the essential doctrines in order to enjoy the benefits conferred through obedience. In Christianity, this would look like exhortations to read Scripture faithfully and pattern our lives after its specific commands, often with a high degree of literalism.

The Holy Scriptures in this exoteric tradition would be read as providing a regime for righteousness which one can study and implement. Often, such discourses point to St. Paul's exhortation to Timothy that all of Scripture is God-breathed to "equip the man of God for every good work," concluding from this that the exegesis of Scripture is all that's needed to understand the world and how to live.

By way of analogy, my mind turns to the exoteric and the esoteric within Buddhism, which has a long tradition of using this distinction (the doctrine of "skillful means"). Kūkai, the founder of the esoteric Japanese Buddhist sect Shingon, describes the exoteric teachings of the Buddha as those which are "apparent, simplified, adapted to the needs of the time and to the capacity of the listeners," thus claiming that the historical Buddha's sermons were shaped by his particular diagnosis of the diseases of the moment, making them provisional and aimed at people of all different capacities.

Kūkai contrasts this provisional and adapted way of speaking with esoteric practice, instructing his listeners to realize the illusoriness of the plain-faced teachings of the Buddha, and to instead seek out the esoteric teachings which are contained within the sutras. Beyond the teachings of karma and hell lies only the experience of enlightenment in the realization of absolute nothingness, which Kūkai emphasized could be attained in this life.

Such a journey requires a transversal of the exoteric field into the domain of the esoteric, from the provisional to the ultimate, from illusion to liberation. But how to affect such a radical transformation in another person? If these exoteric discourses are ultimately provisional and adapted to the listener, how do we avoid getting trapped in them and clinging to this vanishing mediator which exists to facilitate our passage to esoteric understanding? 

We must "kick away the ladder," so to speak, but how do we do this?

The need for an analyst

I wager that the transition from exoteric discourse to esoteric discourse typically must involve a relationship with a person. This person must provoke us, draw us out, and by their presence catalyze within us a process of discovery and (re-)creation. To pass from the exoteric to the esoteric, we need a psychoanalyst.

In his piece "Beyond the Reality Principle" in the Écrits, Jacques Lacan describes for us the precise role of the analyst in the process of psychoanalysis, and in his extended description we can begin to see the outlines of the stance one must take towards the exoteric practitioner if they are attempting to help them make this transition into the esoteric.

Lacan describes the analytic encounter in this way –the patient speaks to the analyst freely and without inhibition, but the analyst refuses to respond or to become an interlocutor. The strange space opened up by this refusal to engage with the patient's speech causes the patient's speech to slowly take the shape of what they are truly addressing their speech to when they are talking.

He points out the principle that speech, prior to signifying something, signifies to someone. Thus, Lacan contends, as the analyst refuses to play their role of becoming an interlocutor who picks up the other half of the conversation, the creation of this void draws out the patient's speech, causing them to naturally tend towards what wants to be said.

We see the first principle here of why one needs an analyst, and also how one can act like an analyst in a conversation with an exoteric person – the exoteric practitioner needs someone to bring them into a confrontation with their desire, and the analyst can do this by refusing to play the game which the exoteric practitioner is playing.

We can see this in Jesus' responses to various people in the Gospel of John – where they ask one question, but he ignores it and answers a different question –the question they should have asked. For instance, he takes the questions of the religious leader Nicodemus who has come to him under cover of night, and by offering cryptic answers Jesus moves from the conversation from the level of "take sides in theoretical debates about the Jewish law" to "how one may surpass the law by being personally transformed by the Spirit of God." Nicodemus is still playing the exoteric game of the other Pharisees in their obsession with rule-following and legal disputation, but Jesus wants him to have an esoteric insight into the emptiness of this striving and the reality of God's love coming into the world.

However, secondly, Lacan continues, pointing out how the analyst's becoming a blank canvas for the patient's desire reveals "the image he has replaced him with." (pg 67) This is crucial for Lacan, because there is an image at work in all of the patient's behavior and which will gradually come into view for the analyst as they listen to the patient the longer they go on. This image, for Lacan, explains the patient's behavior, especially why similar patterns, slips, and gaps begin to appear, both in the patient's life and in their speech about their life.

So, the one seeking to induce enlightenment in another, to help them pass from exoteric realm to the esoteric realm, must draw out the image which the exoteric practitioner is projecting and which is forming the basis of their behavior and repetitions. How can we draw out this image which the exoteric practitioner defines themselves in relation to unconsciously?

Lacan demurs from getting into more specifics beyond this mechanism, for his primary aim in this essay is not necessarily to lay out the entirety of how analysis works but rather to analyze Freud's insight into the reality of fantasy or the efficacy of the image. However, he does say that the analyst can work with the patient's desire and their projected image with (1) interpretation and (2) transference. This signals for us two powerful tools which the one who works with exoteric individuals has at their disposal in this work of inducing enlightenment. 

Finally, he notes that both of these tools must be moderated by a "tact" which adjusts their application based on the subject's reactions to certain interventions and the rhythm of the patient's reactions. 

An example

I would briefly share one example. The conference was run by a Christian boy's camp that I had attended and counseled at when I was in high school. At the conference, I had an opportunity to talk to a young man to whom I had been a counselor 10 or 12 years ago. He was now in college (talk about a strange experience!), so I took a little bit of time to catch up with home over lunch.

We got into some light banter as we were catching up, and he asked me whether I held to "the doctrines of grace." He's asking if I'm a Calvinist, whether I profess things like predestination, original sin, irresistible grace, etc… While I'm strongly influenced by Calvin's theology, I decided that this was a chance to unsettle his thinking a little bit. I chose to not engage at the level he was hoping that I would, either to heartily agree or to offer disagreement.

I said that Scripture teaches multiple contradictory angles on this point –it tells us that we are responsible to believe on God, and yet it tells us that we cannot do this in our own power –how do we reconcile these things? We don't. We maintain them in their contradiction, and instead we say what each moment demands most. If I think that someone needs to hear about the power of God to change their hearts, I will emphasize that part of Christian teaching. If I feel that someone is being passive or lazy in their faith, I will emphasize the opposite tendency in Scripture which exhorts us to take responsibility.

I could tell that this response caught him off-guard, and as we talked, it was clear that he was really thinking about what I was saying. I'm not sure when I'll see him again, but I do know that I will remember our interaction for a long time to come. I see so much in him of my own zeal for knowledge and debate which I exhibited at his age, and which has slowly burned off and changed as I've lived my life, met different people, and considered radically contradictory ideas.



So far in this piece I've been wrestling with how certain discourses can serve crucial development purposes for us in the process of becoming, but that these vanishing mediators can become detrimental if they stick around longer than intended.

If we take this approach, we may come to find that many people are "stuck" in a discourse (and a corresponding subjective stance) which may have worked well for them at some point in their life, but which has become an identity, a habit, even a crutch, which prevents them from embarking on the dangerous journey of traversing their current fantasy in order to discover what lies on the other side.

As we progressively experience the unveiling of the emptiness of speech, the indeterminacy of any theoretical system, and the dynamism of the One's process of becoming, we might start to characterize this as a sort of esoteric insight. This esoteric insight breaks up the usual ways of seeing things, making us unable to engage un-critically in old patterns or discourses, and sets us adrift into a new world of suffering and creation in which we do not experience the transcendental guarantee of the big Other that our labor will be worth it or produce anything of value. We do not truly know what we are doing.

The way that such an esoteric individual can work with the exoteric individuals in their life is to take the standpoint of the analyst in conversation, that is, by refusing to become the interlocutor which they desire, thus forcing them to begin to project through their speech and behavior who their speech is truly addressed to. In this way, the desire which runs through their seemingly self-assured and objective code of commandments will begin to rise to the surface.

Through an ongoing relationship with the exoteric individual, someone who has glimpsed esoteric insights can begin provide the opportunity for a transference to take place, and they may consider tactful interventions, either through speech or action.

These interventions are aimed at encouraging the exoteric person to keep going, to keep exploring, to resist the temptation to fall back into the comfort of old thought-patterns which promise an end to the pain of striving. As an exoteric person works with the contradictions in their life, they may eventually arrive at esoteric insight as well.

Where to next?

In my mind, we have only just begun to treat this question of how one may "induce" enlightenment in another, such that they pass from the exoteric realm of rule-following and knowledge to the esoteric realm of intervention and truth. The figure of the analyst which Lacan describes points us towards the ways that an esoteric individual can approach the work of being in the lives of others such that they too can gain that essential esoteric insight which is at once so terrifying and liberating.

However, we have left unaddressed another closely related problem, which is how an esoteric person can enact an exoteric intervention. You might remember that Kūkai says that the Buddha adapted his teaching to the times and the ability of the listeners –how does the esoteric individual perform exoteric actions which will simultaneously capture the desire of the exoteric individual while also leading them deeper into the problems of that discourse? 

The problem being raised here is –How does an esoteric person live amongst exoteric people? How does an esoteric person become exoteric again?

Let us take this crucial question as the departure point for future investigations.

I recommend that you check out the recordings of the rest of the presentations from the conference. Also, I would encourage you to follow the work at PhilosophyPortal, as the organizer Cadell Last is a great guy who has managed to draw together a vibrant community of thinkers working on interesting and original projects together.

Thanks for reading, and I hope that my writing will spark new reflections and a new lens for observing your own life. May we approach ourselves and others with a graceful spirit that accepts where we're at, but which also doesn't despair of the power for little nudges to move us towards a higher movement of development.

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