Signifier Surfing – or putting a surfboard to the S1 S1 S1 waves by Alastair Kemp


In 1995 I was hospitalised at Barnet General Psychiatric Unit suffering from psychosis and hearing voices. I was diagnosed with schizophrenia and submitted to a regime of medication, then released back into the community. In 2006 whilst studying for a Masters I read Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish, and I recognised in his description of military schools and borstals the physical architecture of the school where I had experienced the trauma I now associate as partly behind my psychosis. But it was in his description of the famous Panopticon1 that I recognised the psychic architecture of my psychosis and voice hearing.

During this time I also started to attend a hearing voices group and got interested in the Hearing Voices Network. This experience together with my understanding of Foucault came to form the basis for a PhD. However within two years of starting my research my daughter was born with Crouzon’s Syndrome and I was in and out of Great Ormond Street hospital; combined with the fact that I had recently managed to withdraw from my medication after 15 years, the stress associated with my daughter’s disability brought on a new psychosis.

This time though, because of my studies, I had new research to hand to understand what was happening. And through this I attempted to regain my autonomy and find new ways of recovering.

This is an attempt to tell a narrative of my new experience of psychosis. The original narrative was written at a time when I was very psychotic. The narrative here is an edited version that is, hopefully, far clearer. As Hemingway said “Write drunk; edit sober”, or as I say ‘Write psychotic, edit stable’.

Signifier Surfing

Many people involved in the hearing voices movement have started to show evidence for a link between traumatic experiences and mental health issues – especially in psychosis. In the first issue of the re-launched Asylum magazine, Marius Romme argued that perhaps voices are emotions.

There is a suggestion that the unconscious may be making a come back. As Nietzsche said Das Es [the Id/Thing/ Unconscious] speaks.

So what can one make of the supposedly psychotic hearing voices experience with regard to the language if the unconscious may be structured as a language as the psychoanalyst Lacan argued? Recently I have been in a few positions that have made me feel powerless, not just bodily, but also with respect to my relation to the world and this has tested my already confused ego’s ability to deal with severely conflicting emotions. Even in situations where I may be receiving positive support, my relation with institutions appears as one of intimidation and alienation.

When there is nothing I can do, or what I can do seems insignificant and dwarf-like it seems better to do something I can feel powerful about elsewhere. And so I write, and when I can’t write, I walk.

Many of my voices come from experiences of engagement with those who vehemently defend the status quo and during my recent stressful experiences they had gained the upper hand, thus making it hard for me to retain my autonomy. Or at least that autonomy I have hitherto been permitted and that I have fought for, in the sense that it seems you are only permitted what you fight for, if you stop, that too is taken away.

You have to fight for the right for your emotions to party, and under section 442, the right to wander freely has been taken away. This is what the philosopher Gilles Deleuze (Deleuze and Guattari 2004) means by taking a line of flight within psychosis. The gate is barred, you have to follow desire paths in another direction: create your own space (survivor movement); re-wire those paths that have been blocked (CBT); sublimate the hell out of it (art therapy); or if you are some of our more assimilated brethren, get a job (recovery as imposed by ATOS3).

To the extent that I have felt powerless, my psychosis has from time to time entered Delphic proportions, in the sense of Sophocles’ tales of Oedipus, I cannot seem to escape the fatal and traumatic path laid out for me, each futile attempt to tread my own path turns out to have been preordained.

So I took up signifier surfing. A signifier relates to the sign by means of the signified, that is that which we have in mind when we are referring to something in the real world. The sign is most often a word and is only understood by the way it relates to another word. On its own a sign is arbitrary.

According to Lacan, the psychotic makes connections between signifiers, S1, S1, S1(Lacan 1993; Lacan and Miller 1998). S/He links up these signifiers by lateral thinking, what would be called apophenia in psychiatry, when the sign gets separated from its meaning. It is the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in to the S1, S1, S1 waves random or meaningless data. When this happens to me I start surfing the signs and the structure of language becomes a surfboard for the waves of my emotions. A bush means someone is upset and liable to scapegoat, a bird’s tweet will suggest superficial gossip, the delivery man’s banter to the baker will be about the coming of the obeah man (and e’s coming to get you cross, hot and cross, unless you are forcibly sacrificed)4. But the obeah man has no power over you if you own your labour, emotions, decisions and truth. He only applies his voodoo to the alienated believers, those with faith in the Protestant Ethic. Gather the multitude.

At the moment I encounter a difficulty in my emotional environment that refuses my ability to express my emotions in an Enlightenment approved understanding, a form of rationality based on a denial of the emotions (the passions, demons, obstacles, Satans, complexes, knots). This inability often stems from trauma and failed learning or development with regard to linguistic communication, emotional blocks as a result of say double binds, or shaming.

At such times I fall back on a past understanding of signs triggered by powerful emotions, and in doing so I become estranged from my body, that part of me which communicates my emotions to my cognition. The world around me then communicates with me directly, seemingly from the outside, via emotions that have lost any meaning with regard to what could be regarded as an interpersonal and consensual world view. In this sense I become alienated in my language. The words I hear as voices have no direct meaning with regard to what I am experiencing, but I am caught up in them. The shared discourse, the use of language
as a form of communication by which we try to understand each other and reality, is no longer immediately available to me. The Other becomes as a vampire noumenon5 and the Symbolic its blood-sucking Law (Land, Mackay, and Brassier 2011)and Brassier 2011.

And so I surf the signifiers, trying to find some emotional purchase, until I find a break that allows me to reach the calm waters and sink down into the waves, and return to some sense of shared meaning.

This means that in a hostile environment either vacating the area to a place of safety to allow my body to do its own thing and finally relax, or by breaking the signifier chain. Or finally and most successfully, find someone who will recognise what you are feeling, and empathise with you rather than enslave you. Help you name that sign, that emotion, put a meaning to the feeling. A significant Other to support, guide and befriend you. Recognise you as who you can become and not trap you as they want you to be; someone who can be-inthe- world with you rather than over you.

In his book ‘Nomad Codes’, Erik Davis talks of ‘bardo’; “the insubstantial in between state [the Tibetans claim] that confronts the soul after death, when the contents of the mind return to seduce and terrify the ego’s disorientated after-image as it reverberates into rebirth”. He then adds the following as an idea of the last minutes of electrical activity after death, when, perhaps, our life flashes before our eyes;

“the traditional teachings of bardo navigation may come in handy despite the basic reality of brain death: even if we are riding the last wave of flatline, it pays to know how to surf.”(Davis 2010, 347–348).

When the Real insists on returning to one constantly, denying one’s emotional autonomy, in the form of soul murder as Schreber called it, when one’s life becomes one interminable wave to flatline, what can one do but surf on
the shores of the heart of darkness?

1. The panopticon was a type of building designed by the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. It consisted of a tower surrounded by back-lit cells that allowed the observer in the tower to see all of those in the cells. It was supposed to be a blueprint for prisons, schools, factories and other regimes that
required a particular kind of productivity. Foucault argued that as the beauty of it was that those in the cells had no idea whether they were being observed from the tower. It meant that it was not necessary for someone to be there permanently, just the idea that someone might be was enough.

2. Section 44 refers to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (1994), Section 44 of the Mental Health Act (2007) and Section 44 of the Terrorism Bill (2000). In my madness it refers to the i-Ching number 44: Kou (Coming to Meet)..

3. ATOS: the UK’s leading occupational health (OH) service provider of medical staff for the Employment and Support Allowance assessment which is receiving continued criticism for not being fit for purpose.

4. ‘Coming of the Obeah Man’ Mad Professor – Science and The Witchdoctor (Dub Me Crazy Pt. 9), Ariwa, ARILP 045

5. The noumenon is the idea of the transcendent, that which cannot be known as it lies outside our subjective phenomenological experience.


  • Davis, Erik. 2010. Nomad Codes : Adventures in Modern Esoterica. Portland, OR: Verse Chorus Press.
  • Deleuze, Gilles, and Guattari, Felix. 2004. A Thousand Plateaus : Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London ;New York: Continuum.
  • Lacan, Jacques. 1993. The Psychoses: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book III 1955-1956. London: Routledge.
  • Lacan, Jacques, and Miller, Jacques-Alain. 1998. The Seminar. 11, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. New York [u.a.]: Norton.
  • Land, Nick, Mackay, Robin, and Brassier, Ray. 2011.
  • Fanged Noumena : Collected Writings 1987-2007. Falmouth; New York, NY: Urbanomic ; Sequence Press.

This is a sample article from Asylum 19.2.  To access the latest issue in full,  SUBSCRIBE HERE.