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The dream of Irma’s Covid test

14. Juli 2022,20:00

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Clint Burnham
Lecture at 8p.m, Hybrid event
at the PsyBi and via Zoom
Registration for online participation:

In this paper I read Freud’s “Dream of Irma’s Injection”, the inaugural dream of psychoanalysis, in light of present day plague discourses, and, specifically, Covid19 self-administered tests (but also our racial reckoning after George Floyd and Eric Garner, captured in their utterance “I can’t breathe”).
The 1895 dream, reported in The Interpretation of Dreams, is well-known: at a party in his summer residence, Freud examines a patient, looking down her throat, worried he misdiagnosed her or injected her with a dirty syringe; he sees some white growths in her throat, and colleagues, standing around, offer their own opinions, with chemical formulae appearing in the air.

Lacan, commenting on the dream in Seminar II, divides it into two parts, with the white growths in her throat representing the Real, against which the medical diagnoses serve as a bulwark. Copjec, in her discussion of Freud and Lacan in Read my Desire, and “the gasping for breath that evidences the presence of the real,” draws our attention to an attendee of the Seminar, “Mme X” (she calls her “Mme Historicist”), who adds the cultural information of how constricting corsets were in the day.

My argument then is made up of the following three parts: first, that when we swab around our nostrils and throat for a self-administered Covid19 test we are, like Freud self-analyzing his dream, inaugurating our status as subjects of the plague, just as he inaugurated the psychoanalytic subject, the split subject. He is both analyst and analysand – making us think of the joke that a lawyer who represents himself has an idiot for a client – that is, the split of the subject at the level of the ego (the sujet de l’énoncé), and at the level of the Symbolic qua unconscious (the sujet de l’enunciation). Second, the very negation or Verneinung of the real via the apparatus of Covid19 tests, like the medical consultations in Freud’s dream or Mme X in Lacan, not only can only take place following Bejahung or affirmation (yes, I have the virus!), but itself inaugurates the Real. It seems to me that the idea that Mme X (in Copjec’s reading of the dream in Lacan) offers a comforting turn to the symbolic qua historicism is a similar process to what Butler criticizes Žižek for. I’m thinking here of Rex Butler’s criticism of Žižek’s earlier readings of the Real, where he takes Žižek to task for making the claim that the symbolic emerges as a mollifying defence against the Real. As Butler points out in Live Theory, the Real does not ontologically precede the symbolic, “the void does not exist prior to being filled in.” Butler’s charge, here, that Žižek is in danger of being a Kantian, can then be read alongside the Lacanian anti-historicist camp (Žižek, Copjec, McGowan), in their complicated relation with historicism. Third, that is, in this reading of the dream avec Covid19, I want to think of Irma’s (or our Covid19) throat as a non-orientable object (Klein bottle perhaps?), whereby the historicist threat – Mme X, Black Lives Matter, the plague – is not simply external to or after the void qua spatialized Real, but arrives perhaps simultaneously, or indeed the Real arrives retroactively, the Real and the historical occupy the same space, the non-orientable space that is the Covid19, psychoanalytic, subject.

Clint Burnham is Professor of English, Simon Fraser University and President of the Lacan Salon. He lives in Vancouver and works on psychoanalysis, Marxist theory, Indigenous literature, and digital culture. His most recent book is Does the Internet have an Unconscious? Slavoj Žižek and Digital Culture (Bloomsbury, 2018), and with Paul Kingsbury, he co-edited a collection of essays on Lacan and the Environment (Palgrave, 2021).


14. Juli 2022,

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