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Reading the Unconscious
Clinical Study Days 5 Conference of the Lacanian Compass
Miami, FL | January 15 – 16, 2011
Video Image for Reading the Unconscious

Cell (Winter Mimicry 1.0), 2008, MDF hexagon mock-up cells in production

I originally gave this paper as part of a panel discussion at the Museum of Modern Art. I have revised it slightly, and added an after-word, for Clinical Study Days and the theme “Reading the Unconscious.” It concerns a dream I had in April 2008. I had just finished a series of modular sculptures, and since they play a part in the dream, I will show images of them, from idea through exhibition. My self-analysis of the dream, set against images of the sculptures, twines two modes of “production”, artwork and dream-work, and insinuates that the unconscious also reads, not unlike the interchange made by Jacques-Alain Miller, cipher/decipher. Also encoded by the dream are the consequences of my having revealed to others the invention of another work (I am unsure exactly what to call it: Art? Act? Event?), when I announced that I had changed my surname, by a single vowel, from Beck to Buck. This move is what comprises the after-word.

4/20/08 11:37 AM 58˚ while at my father’s house

I am with people heading in the direction of Holy Family church along Liberty Road, going east. For some reason, it is necessary to take an alternate path. Here, we come to a gully or gulch or dry-bed that must be traversed. I am wearing blue desert boots that I got while traveling with my brother out west. I realize if I slide on the soles of the shoes, I can get ahead of the others. Indeed, I slide down one side and gain enough momentum to get to the top of the opposite side. I am thrilled by my agility, amazed that given the rough terrain I am able to coast as far as I did. But now I am stalled, stuck at the crest of the incline. I can see Liberty Road just over the top, and at the place where just a while ago the other path digressed. I could fall from where I am, and struggle to hold my place. To my right, I see two cords that I can grab on to. Unfortunately, the cords are loose, tangled. I pull them, and dirt on the surface, caked mud, comes off to reveal a series of tiles that run the length of the ridge. I try to grab onto them only to find they too are loose. One comes off. I hang on. Now, two young men, apparently experienced in scaling these heights, methodically analyze the situation, weighing their chances of surmounting the crest to Liberty Road.

This morning to my brother as I voiced the dream, I grasped it, gradually, not unlike the two men in it who know better (like envoys for the dream itself). I was inclined to tell him, but not only, as I found out, for the most obvious link: the memory of buying the boots while traveling with him was stirred by seeing yesterday at the Salvation Army a western-style shirt with an “Ely” label, the Nevada town where I got the shoe/boots.

I slide on the shoes, the soles of the boots – don’t dig in my heels. Sliding, nothing is attached, fixed, or named. Like is it a shoe, or a boot? I coast on my soul, my charm, like the black singer did last night, working the room at the restaurant where we celebrated my father’s eighty-eighth birthday.

A conversation my brother and I had yesterday about the meaning of the word “nomenclature” was heard by the dream. We looked the word up in a dictionary, and I read it aloud, “a set or system of names or terms”. My father overheard us, but misheard the words, and then misspoke their meanings – like “fulsome” not “wholesome”, defined by him as a “buxom woman”.

The tiles at the crest are encrusted in mud. Two memories knot crest to crust. First, at the Salvation Army yesterday, I spot an artifact, a framed, gold-plated eagle clutching in its talons arrows and branches, and over its chest a shield, a crest, but blank, un-engraved, not-yet-inscribed. Second, my father admits to my brother, in an exchange I overheard, that he had used the wrong crust for a pie he baked. The dream knows what my brother does, for he too endured the paternal mistakes, the misfortunes, the misjudgments. A father who missteps, mis-names, may be known as, named as, misnomer, amiss.

Accordingly, the two loose cords are useless – yet, however perilous, may be my only escape. The two men have know-how. They know the ledge can be surmounted. The “discords” uncover the tile-cells encrusted along the ledge. My brother related them to tiles that line the edge of a pool. Indeed, the name of our neighborhood pool was Randall Ridge. The dream ciphers the escarpment I struggle to overcome fittingly as nomination itself (like what is it, crest, ridge, edge, ledge?). Pooling here too is the memory of my brother and I as kids eschewing the streets leading to the pool for a break-away path through the middle of the block between the houses. Days earlier, my father said this path was now overgrown with underbrush. So our shortcut, once clear-cut, is now blocked, thwarted, according to my father. Yet the dream excavates a different path, another know ledge – encrusted, discordant, unconscious – since the way of the father was always already hindered, impeded, mistaken.

The dream ciphers my name-for-the-father as the one who fails to properly name. Struggling to hold my place at the edge, ridge, ledge, nomination slips. The crust at the top of the crest is clay, mud, baked-dry. Thus my waking enjoyment at uncovering, like one of the tiles, the dream’s pun: the nature of my name has been en-crested – my name in clay/nature – my nomenclature.

What are these tiles unearthed beneath the crust on the crest, at the edge of an empty pool, ridge, gully, arroyo, if not the interlocking hexagon cells of the cluster sculptures for my upcoming show? Another dream cord: before leaving New York for my father’s an Artforum magazine ad was due, and I informed the gallery in haste, awkwardly, of my nomination to Buck. An act the dream designates as until now unknowable, un-nameable, what will have been, in the crust of the crest, name-in-clay-nature.

The second-hand, Salvation Army shield, crest, unwritten, long encrusted by paternal misnomers at the crest of a ledge, awaits the name I made for myself, one that bucks the father’s with an exchange of vowels, spelled-out by the dreams cunning crisscross of the very same letters e and u in crest and crust. Scaling the ridge of the dream by deciphering it, I ascend to the brink of a liberty road. Miss-nomers, nom-en-clay-nature, crest-in-crust – the dream accords to Buck as my true name, insignia.

And since the dream occurred after the gallery took unfavorably the news of my self-naming, is it not the force of the event itself that affectively carves out the U-shaped dream-terrain – gully, gulch, gorge – upon which it takes place? The letter u re-assigned by me imparts an impasse. By crossing the geography of u, the letter, I grasp the ciphers of my self-nomination, nomenclature, encrusted in clay, the mud-shit-caked-crust heralding my true name-crest as encrusted. For as long as cake-crust-mud-shit was my only crest, the pun remained encrested.

It bears repeating: what uncanny dream cunning to copy cat my vowel movement, sliding e from Beck to slip in u for Buck, crisscross, crest crust. Excising an e by any other name is to push it out. I pushed it out, which the dream tricks-out as a trait, master signifier. Push the e, “pushy”, the word by which my willfulness was then called, and the name shit in my father’s house retained – push, e, production, waste, it falls.

Too soon to know what follows this bucking, dislodging, for the canny dream conclusion is a cliffhanger! Although suspended, I am “onto something”. Nom-de-plume. I am not crestfallen!

What u pushes from the father’s name, as an act-know-ledge-meant of a misnomer, is another letter, e, push e, no longer retained, it drops, a remainder, but not wasted – self-nomination as this being its first but not final sign, for there’s no going Back.

"Acting Out"?

Almost two years after having deciphered the dream, I woke to the disquieting possibility that the exchange of vowels could be construe as an “acting out”, and that it too went unheard by my analyst. Over time, as Buck continued to ramify in unexpected, challenging, and discouraging ways, I was forced to reflect on the reality of my transference, and the counter-transference. Exactly what branch of the tree were my doctor and I sitting on? Leaving aside my artistic convictions – I believe my invention is commensurate with the evolution of my art – it pained me to consider that I had not acted “alone”, that the unconscious, via the transference, had been my unnamed accomplice. Due to the self-doubt and hardship I’ve sustained since the “name changer”, yet cognizant this also betrayed a critical ciphering of it – proper to my “nomenclature” – I was loath to recognize that my act might bear the name of an other “father”, my analyst, whose surname begins with an E and who I often refer to, as does he, as “Dr. E.” Was this the letter “e” I pushed out?

I have seen Dr. E. on and off since I was a freshman in college, thirty years ago. He is a Freudian, and will defer to me for a Lacanian take on things. Yet as my knowledge of Lacan has grown, my faith in Dr. E. has faltered. Around the time of my re-naming, I had the impulse to lie down, something I had done years ago. This attitude did not last long, and I again sat up. Dr. E. interpreted this as a regressive wish, suggesting we had moved on, and were now more like equals. Was this resistance? Not long after this, I was motivated to stop our meetings, maybe find another analyst, but my travails proved to be too tough, I needed the “railing”, and returned.

I did not ask for permission to make a name for myself, and told no one, neither Dr. E. nor, more disastrously, my art dealers. I felt as if I had gotten away with something, but timing as they say is everything. While I conceived of Buck earlier, I acted on it after my first American museum exhibition and a critically well-received and sold-out drawing show at my New York gallery – prophetically titled “How Am I to Sign Myself”, a question Joyce posed to Nora Barnacle in the close of a letter. At the time, this link was lost on me. In the aftermath of the damage done to my market, my standing, and my finances, I had to recognize my new signature – how I went about it – for what it might be, a bungled action. My suspicions were stirred when reading in Seminar III that what helped to trigger Schreber’s psychosis was not a lack of success but its fulfillment. Was I too without a signifier to withstand my achievements? If not, why was I unable to grasp them as real? Had I succeeded my father? How did this play out across the transference? A father to me, deaf to me, did Dr. E. too lapse, misstep, fail?

Was there also in my case “a push to the woman”? In 2005, R., a friend, tells me she is thinking of changing her name. We were exceptionally close without being lovers, at work on a script together, and referred to one another in “more than” terms. My reaction to her whim is swift, vociferous, even confrontational. I retaliate with words like castration and betrayal. Yet aware I protest too much, doubts come, and ruminations ensue.

Later, I make anagrams of my own name, though none “work”. But in August of 2007, I make the discovery. I am sitting on the bed watching R. pack to leave our western retreat, a small hunting cabin on the southwestern edge of Zion National Park in Utah. It’s raining. We’re both sad to be leaving this Eden. I’m thumbing through a second-hand book she bought, a volume in a series, “The Old West”. As I look upon rows of vintage photographs of cowboys reproduced in a two-page spread, “fate presto”: Robert Buck! I could change the letter of my name! As an alias, an artwork, it appeals immediately to me for its economy and associations – stag, cash, son, dislodge.

It was difficult yet ethical for me to concede that how I bucked my father’s name could be interpreted as a blunder, yet self-evident as the only way available to me – my crest. As one and the same thing, bungled action and self-realization, form and content, had I memorialized the father by murdering him? While in the discourse of the analyst it is one thing, as an invention in the realm of art it remains to be seen as something else. With reference to Yves Klein, it was a leap into the void.

I have since confronted Dr. E. with my Lacanian appraisal, and discussed the chance that his iteration of my “push to the woman” – impossible to un-say something, like “when a man finds a girl like R. he should marry her”, although he did try – allowed me no room to re-make of it my own desire. (I had had relationships with women as a young man.) And by killing the father as only I was able to, by the same stroke, I crowned him.

Regardless, for “One can do without the Name-of-the-Father on condition one makes use of it", and he goes by many names!

Robert Buck © 2011


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