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The abrogation of subjectivity in the psychiatric courtroom: Toward a psychoanalytic semiotic analysis

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We examined, on a cursory and suggestive level, the role of desire in the psychiatric courtroom. Employing selected conceptualizations from Lacan's semiosis, we demonstrated how this desire is essentially quashed and silenced by the clinicolegal community. Put another way, given the opinion inBoggs, we see how the essential being and way of knowing for diverse mentally ill citizens, are repressed by the psycholegal establishment. Indeed, followingBoggs, the only knowledge claims embraced by the court were those articulations uttered by experts, and others similarly situated, who spoke the jargon of psychiatric justice. Not only does this decision making deny and invalidate the disparate voices of psychiatric consumers, it limits prospects for developing new and alternative sign meanings in law that more fully represent the experiences of the differently abled and other disenfranchised groups. Thus, regrettably,Boggs symbolizes not only the loss of agency for disordered subjects in the clinicolegal system but, more generally, the law's failure to promote emancipatory justice.

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  1. 1

    B. Arrigo,The Contours of Psychiatric Justice: A Postmodern Critique of Mental Illness, Criminal Insanity, and the Law (New York: Garland, 1996).

  2. 2.

    E.g. see B. Arrigo, “Transcarceration: Notes on a Psychoanalytically-informed Theory of Social Practice in the Criminal Justice and Mental Health Systems”,Crime, Law, and Social Change: An International Journal 27/1 (1997), 31–48; B. Arrigo, “Desire in the Psychiatric Courtroom: On Lacan and the Dialectics of Linguistic Oppression”,Current Perspectives in Social Theory 16 (1996), 159–187; B. Arrigo, “Toward a Theory of Punishment in the Psychiatric Courtroom: On Language, Law, and Lacan”,Journal of Crime and Justice 19/1 (1996), 15–32.

  3. 3

    B. Arrigo & T.R. Young, “Theories of Crime and Crimes of Theorists: On the Topological Construction of Criminological Reality”,Theory and Psychology 8/2 (1998), 219–252, at 227.

  4. 4

    Ibid., B. Arrigo, “Legal Discourse and the Disordered Criminal Defendant: Contributions From Psychoanalytic Semiotics and Chaos Theory”,Legal Studies Forum 18/1 (1994), 93–112.

  5. 5

    B. Arrigo, “Insanity Defense Reform and the sign of abolition: Re-visiting Montana's experience”,International Journal for the Semiotics of Law 10/29 (1997), 191–211, at 201.

  6. 6

    Jacques Lacan,Ecrits: A Selection trld. A. Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977).

  7. 7

    Ibid., at 166.

  8. 8

    Supra n.5, at 205; M. Bowie,Lacan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 77–78.

  9. 9

    D. Milovanovic,A Primer in the Sociology of Law (Albany, New York: Harrow and Heston, 1994, 2nd ed.), 158.

  10. 10

    Arrigo,supra n.5, at 205.

  11. 11

    Milovanovic,supra n.9, at 158.

  12. 12

    J. Lacan,The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (New York: Norton, 1981); Arrigo,supra n.3, at 226.

  13. 13

    Arrigo,supra n.3 at 226; B. Fink,The Lacanian Subject (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).

  14. 14

    Milovanovic,supra n.9, at 159.

  15. 15

    The desiring subject is depicted in Lacan's Schema L and Graphs of Desire: Lacan,supra n.6, at 193–194, 303–316; for a concise overview of Lacan's Schema L, see, e.g., Milovanovic,supra n.9, at 158–59.

  16. 16

    Lacan presents this relationship as: $ <> a, where the divided subject ($) “disappears into the signifiers [the objects of desire- a] that represent it in discourse” while the objects of desire provide an illusory (i.e. mirror) basis for the subject's being. Thus, a two-way process is always active in the subject's relation to discourse. Milovanovic,supra, n.9, at 160.

  17. 17

    For more on the interactive effects of being and meaning in the constitution of Lacanian desire see E. Beneveniste,Problems in General Linguistics (Coral Gables, Fla: University of Miami Press, 1971); D. Milovanovic,Postmodern Law and Disorder: Psychoanalytic Semiotics, Chaos Theory, and Juridic Exegeses (Liverpool, UK: Deborah Charles Publications, 1992).

  18. 18

    Boggs was a 40 year old woman living on a public sidewalk in New York County. For the past year, this was her bedroom, toilet, and living room. Boggs was identified by authorities as in need of emergency psychiatric services. It was felt that she posed a danger to herself and/or to others. Based on the recommendations of the attending psychiatrist, Billie Boggs was involuntarily confined. For more background on the case seeBoggs v.N.Y. City Health and Hospital Corp., 132 A.D. 2d 340, 523 N.Y.S. 2d 71 (1987).

  19. 19

    Ibid., Boggs A.D. 2d at 343.

  20. 20

    Ibid., at 340.

  21. 21

    Humphrey v.Cady, 405 U.S. 504 (1972), at 509.

  22. 22

    O'Connor v.Donaldson, 422 U.S. 563 (1975), at 575.

  23. 23

    Ibid., at 576.

  24. 24

    Addington v.Texas, 441 U.S. 418 (1979), established “clear and convincing” evidence as the standard of proof in matters of civil confinement.

  25. 25

    Supra n.18, at 342.

  26. 26

    This reaffirmation and reproduction of prevailing ideological notions in law and psychiatry is represented by Lacan's discourse of the master. This discourse essentially directs courtroom proceedings by situating subjects within the system's pre-existing linguistic coordinates. Thus, by turning to the clinicolegal apparatus for legal redress, psychiatric citizens unwittingly endorse those signifiers and sign meanings consistent with that subjectivity reflecting the knowledge and truth claims of the overlapping and interdependent legal and psychiatric communities. For the disordered subject in law, this psycho-semiotic process results in linguistic hegemony and reification. See, e.g., Arrigo,supra n.1, at 166–173;supra n.3, at 228–232.

  27. 27

    See also B. Arrigo,Madness, Language, and the Law (New York: Harrow and Heston, 1993), 108–121, for a postmodern semiotic analysis of the Billie Boggs case.

  28. 28

    Lacan presents master signifiers (S1) as words or phrases that convey particular meanings. Such words/phrases can be described as illusory ideals or principal beliefs and attitudes which help constitute our identity and regard for others and events. B. Arrigo, “The Behavior of Law and Psychiatry: Rethinking Knowledge Construction and the Guilty-But-Mentally-Ill Verdict”,Criminal Justice and Behavior 23/4 (1996), 572–592, at 582. They appear as universal, i.e. “shared” meanings that represent collective values. In law, master signifiers such as “due process,” “fairness,” “dangerousness,” etc., retain a certain power when employed in discourse. Thus, master signifiers are signifiers that constitute powerful values and subsequently ascribe meaning to a message. Further, master signifiers, as opposed to other challengeable messages, are “accepted as having a value or validity that goes without saying.” M. Bracher,Lacan, Discourse, and Social Change: A Psychoanalytic Cultural Criticism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 25.

  29. 29

    Arrigo,supra n.27;supra n.1.

  30. 30

    Additionally, we can appreciate the inauguration of the “expert” through Lacan's concept of the “law-of-the-father,” or “Name-of-the-Father.” Lacan refers here to the assignation of the father's name to a child. In doing so, uncertainty about the identity of the father is foregone. Thus, it is the Law which establishes an identity for the child, much akin to the established courtroom “expert” establishing an identity for the psychiatric citizen. See, e.g., D. Caudill, “‘Name-of-the-Father’ and the Logic of Psychosis: Lacan's Law and Ours”,Legal Studies Forum 16/4 (1992), 20–41. D. Caudill,Lacan and the Subject of Law (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1993), 101–115.

  31. 31

    Supra n.18, at 352.

  32. 32

    Ibid., at 353.

  33. 33

    Ibid., at 347.

  34. 34

    Ibid., at 341.

  35. 35

    Ibid., at 342.

  36. 36

    Ibid., at 350.

  37. 37

    Ibid., at 344.

  38. 38

    Ibid., at 354.

  39. 39

    Ibid., at 351.

  40. 40

    B. Fink,The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), 56.

  41. 41

    Ibid.,, at 25.

  42. 42

    On the notion of the interpellated subject, see L. Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, inLenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trld. B. Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 170–177.

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Williams, C.R. The abrogation of subjectivity in the psychiatric courtroom: Toward a psychoanalytic semiotic analysis. Int J Semiot Law 11, 181–192 (1998).

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