During some of my down time this past summer at GHP, I began to work with something I’m going to call A Talisman, constructed using an ordinary Scrabble board and set of tiles. The adventure of constructing a Talisman is in sympathy, I’m going to claim, with some of the experiences of an analysand in psychoanalysis. It’s in no way the equivalent of a psychoanalytic journey, but I’m claiming it is an entertaining way to undergo an encounter with one’s desire through the agency of letters, words, and signifiers. It’s a subjective experience with some of Lacan’s concepts, a quasi-psychoanalytic encounter with the “desire of the Other.” Consider it an opportunity to have a private adventure of “self-discovery” tinged with a psychoanalytic flavor.
You need not construct your Talisman all in one sitting. My first attempt took shape over a number of days. To begin the process, set out the Scrabble board and place all of the tiles face down and close by.
Turn over one tile.
It’s a letter (if it’s blank, discard and turn over another, I’ve chosen not to use the blanks for this exercise). It has made its appearance randomly. You place it on the board anywhere you choose. At this point in the adventure, it’s simply there to remind you that the letters were already there before “you” were. You existed as a signifier, a unit of meaning, a “letter”, for others before you began to acquire meanings for yourself. Letters, the stuff of meaning, come first, and many contingent encounters with them will take place before your “choice” enters into the picture. The unconscious is already at play. Eventually you will make some word around the letter you’ve place on the board and assure that the word links with all of the other words, but you don’t have to do that right away.
Turn over three tiles. The method for constructing the Talisman is as follows. You want to fill up the Scrabble board with as many interlinking words as possible. When you are done, all words in the Talisman have to be attached to another like a crossword puzzle, but unlike Scrabble proper, you do not have to link words as you go. You can place an un-linked word on the board as long as you find a way to link it before you end your work on the completed Talisman. If you cannot link the word eventually, you must remove it. The first letter you turned over must wind up in a word constructed around it at its location on the board, and that word must link to another by the time you complete your work. You can build a word around the letter and link at any time.
The crossword-like linking of letters and words is meant to evoke the chains of signifiers which exist in the unconscious. The demands of language forge certain links, others can come about through association, accident, assonance, metaphorical relations, and some come about through multiple combinations of all of those processes and others. Our subjective experiences of memory and thinking are two phenomena contoured in part by these chains of signification. These chained signifiers also hold a great deal of emotional and bodily experience.
At this point in your work on the Talisman, you can only have three tiles turned up at a time.To reveal other letters, you will have to return upturned tiles to their face-down positions.Only three letters can be revealed at any one time.
You want to fill the board with powerful words. “Powerful” in whatever sense has meaning for you. You can also spell out people’s names. You can use any language (but try sticking to commonly recognized languages). No one else will see the words, so try and assemble words which evoke honestly powerful responses. The words can consist of any number of letters. You can only see three letters upturned at any given time, however, as you go about assembling. You must use memory as you search through tiles for the letters you want. Remember, too, that all the words you assemble have to link up by the completion of your work. One final, possibly controversial, guideline: the words do not necessarily have to be spelled correctly; if it evokes the word through pronouncing related sounds (tayl instead of tail, for instance, or witnis instead of witness), that’s fine. I’ll offer my explanation for this freedom a bit further on in these instructions.
As you proceed you will discover that, yes, the process becomes a combination of deliberation, accident, and expedience. Now then, give yourself some time to work this exercise before you read further in these instructions. Try to pay attention to your actual ordeal. Note where you decide upon words and begin to search for the completing letters. Note your compromises and disappointments. Note your triumphs. Note the associations the words themselves begin to trigger. Note where you do debate over use of proper spelling. Note how placing words in close proximity can also lead to associations, memories, stories, feelings, etc. Seriously, stop and take some time with the exercise; I don’t want my promptings to work like “suggestions.” It needs to be a personal and subjective experience.
Another guideline to take into account. When you feel that you have gone as far as you can go overturning only three letters at a time, you can begin to turn over five at a time. Note when and how you decide to move to this “lessened restriction.” Note, too, that in order to proceed you may have to start studying the place on the board where the total number of each letter is listed. Stay aware of your triumphs and compromises. Note how you are interpreting “powerful.”
Before you call the Talisman completed, you may turn up seven letters at a time if you wish. How do you feel about the words assembled with the “three tile” method when you compare them with the “five tile” words and the “seven tile” words?
I want to liken the process of assembling the Talisman to the experience of encountering one’s desire in the psychoanalytic sense. Lacan might say that desire exists in the Symbolic. In other words, desire is something shaped through law and restriction. We can only pursue that which can be “signified” in some way. And in the Symbolic we can only find those things which, ultimately, the letter is going to allow us to find. This is not just about our experiences of frustration, though part of desiring involves the experience of something being not quite it. Often we can be surprised by what the signifiers are holding together for us, particularly as we move away from our controlled conscious awareness and into other chainings and links at work under the radar. Think about those moments of anticipation and frustration as you began furiously flipping through the tiles (if you had such moments). So much excitement over a few letters. Think about the little games you played with yourself as you decided upon which words to pursue.
Read through your completed Talisman. How do you as a reader begin to play with the words? Do any surprising juxtapositions lead to unexpected thoughts? Or do you find yourself nodding in verification over every connection? What’s it like to think of other phrases or sentences implied by the contiguity of words? Do “rude” words ever collide with “idealistic” words or people’s names?
Why don’t I insist on proper spelling? To avoid having your first experience of making a Talisman compromised by my ruminations and opinions, hold off on reading the rest of this paragraph until your first Talisman is complete. Didn’t I say desire involves our experiences with laws and restrictions and how we accommodate them? Why not insist on proper spelling to impose another set of limits and frustrations? Part of the psychoanalytic wager contains the belief that our earliest experiences with language are primarily shaped by what we hear, that we build up sonic associations before we begin to link them to letters. (For those earliest experiences we are at the mercy of what others do with letters.) It’s interesting, I think, to have to negotiate the pursuit of a word with the pressure to respect spelling. Does the disregard of spelling constitute “giving in” to some other priority? Or is it an attempt to access a more primordial state of being, a more fundamental encounter with one’s “mother tongue?” I want to liken it to an analysand’s experience with the question of what can or can’t be said to the analyst. Often, too, an analysand’s work with a particular word or signifier may turn on a pun or a likeness shared among vowels, consonants, or within some other aural association. Certain common sounds might evoke a whole cluster of meanings. You might even try reading your Talisman with an “ear” toward hearing certain repeating sounds, vowels, consonants. Might such sounds have significance?
But I don’t want to neglect the eye. Obviously some of your words will inspire images as will some of the juxtapositions of those words. Contained, too, in the psychoanalytic wager, is the belief that the learning of letters is linked with a child’s attempts to understand some of the mysteries he or she has encountered in early childhood experiences. Yes, one might even go so far as to assert that a particular letter’s shape can tell a child something about a parent’s strange or inexplicable actions, etc. As an objective notion, it’s pretty far-fetched, but as a possible subjective and imaginative experience, it certainly can happen. And not just in the mind of a child.
Keep your completed Talisman on hand for a few days. Return to it from time to time. Read it. Let it read you. At some point, if you wish to pursue further creative games which I will include here in the future, write the words down somewhere.