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Is Oedipus Online?Review - Is Oedipus Online?
Siting Freud after Freud
by Jerry Aline Flieger
MIT Press, 2005
Review by Jackie Leach Scully, Ph.D.
Aug 8th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 32)

I should start by being upfront: I think this is an interesting, but profoundly disappointing book. Jerry Aline Flieger's Is Oedipus Online is published in the Short Circuits series, edited by Slavoj Zizek. In an introduction, Zizek explains the use of the "shock of short-circuiting" as a metaphor for a critical reading of classic texts, using Lacanian psychoanalysis as the "privileged instrument" for doing so. In Flieger's case, the texts themselves are Freudian. What Flieger wants to do in this volume is "refute the assumption that we are living in a post-oedipal world where Freud's founding paradigm no longer has purchase" by suggesting a "Freudian take" on the "seismic shifts...of twenty-first century thought" (p. 4). She notes perceptively that although Freud may be under attack in the academy, "even when his speculations are outlandish, Freud is never simply wrong: many of the cutting-edge works that purport to be anti-Freud or post-Freud are in fact deeply indebted to Freud's insights." (p. 9)

Part One of the book first focuses on "resiting Oedipus" through a consideration of major contemporary theorists, among them Zizek himself, Deleuze and Baudrillard, while Part Two turns more generally to Freud in contemporary thought. Flieger starts out in chapter 1 by examining the relevance of oedipal theory in an age that, according to Zizek and others, no longer has need of it to account for the emergence of social beings with an awareness of boundaries between self and other or between genders (and indeed, where novel technologies can permit those boundaries to be relatively easily breached). Chapter 2 examines Zizek's own work on cyberinteractions, while in chapter 3, "The Listening Eye", Flieger engages with texts by Baudrillard, Zizek again and Lyotard that reflect on the potentially anti-humanistic effects of technology. In Chapter 4 she re-examines the reputation of Gilles Deleuze as an anti-Freudian (a not very surprising reputation given that he coauthored a book entitled Anti-Oedipus). Nevertheless, Flieger shows skillfully that Deleuze is less anti-Freudian than appearances suggest, and indeed that "the Deleuzian critique of Oedipus is applicable only to the most rigidly construed Freudian orthodoxy" (p. 102). Flieger returns to Deleuze and Freud in chapter 6, this time through a consideration of the emergence and self-organization of organisms and psyches, and specifically in the organization of gender.

Much about this book is valuable, especially up to this point. The two chapters in which she gives a critical reading of Deleuze are insightful, and for many readers the book will be worth the cover price for that alone. It's in the second part that things begin to unravel, and I will be going into this in some detail because I think that what goes wrong is symptomatic of a common, and flawed, idea of what is demanded of cross- or interdisciplinary engagement. In the second half Flieger attempts to connect science (knot theory, topography, fractals, and the occasional fashionable nod to genetic modification) with Freudian thinking. Undoubtedly, Flieger's project is to dissolve or at least make permeable some of the disciplinary boundaries between science and the humanities; this is a valuable endeavor, and one for which psychoanalysis, uncomfortably located as it is somewhere between fictionalized neurology and medicalized fairy tale, would seem perfectly suited.

The trouble is that in order to pull off this kind of interdisciplinary conversation you need to be much more secure in both disciplines than Flieger is in science. Flieger makes a good job of summarizing knot theory, for example, or fractals, and these sections are interesting to read in themselves. But despite her avowed intention to show the relevance of modern technological culture to Freudian or oedipal models, the connections are simply too superficially discussed, or use too facile a reading of the science, to be convincing. Over and over again, connections are sketched out and then abruptly dropped: occasionally they are returned to later, but often that's the last we hear of them. It may well be that Flieger intended consciously to adopt what she describes as the "rhizomatic" structure of hypertext over the linearity of text, but the price is an overall impression of intriguing ideas thinly worked out. (One can't help feeling that Freud would have approved of it as free association but have been less happy about the lack of working-through.)

Where she makes apparent bloopers in the science, the superficiality of the discussion generally makes it impossible to tell if these are due to drastic, and hence misleading, oversimplification, or to a genuine lack of understanding. To give one example: discussing self-organizing systems, so that she can later draw an analogy with psychic development, she describes (p. 112) "matter-energy...moving in the field of opposing attractors (like an Olympic snowboarder swooping back and forth between valleys and peaks)". This is confusing because it sounds as if she thinks the peak and the valley represent two attractors, rather than what is actually going on, which is the dissipation of energy and momentum around the single attractor of gravity. To compound the problem, too often it's impossible to clarify or amplify a statement by turning to the original literature, because -- outside of psychoanalytic, and particularly Lacanian, works -- the book is under-referenced. Claims are sometimes made, and even authors' work cited, with no references at all, while there are some others to websites that are no longer accessible, and at one place to a Discovery channel program.

Although Flieger clearly knows a lot about topology and nonlinearity, outside these areas there is a disquieting sloppiness. Discussing Lacan's "fractal" model of subjectivity (p. 205) she claims that "...even our DNA code may be studied as a version of [complex Borromean knots]. As a spiraling helix of linked structures, our own material blueprint might instantiate Lacan's version of subjectivity".  I really don't know what to make of this statement. Some, very specialized, forms of DNA do take up shapes that can be studied mathematically as Borromean knots; but the structure of DNA is not equivalent to a code; and few biologists today would allow DNA the status of a straightforward blueprint. (And being really picky, I've not yet met a helix that didn't spiral.) Lack of attention to accuracy and to detail like this makes no convincing case for the putative link between Lacanian subjectivity and DNA molecule being anything more than a metaphor, and a strained one at that.

These might seem unbearably pedantic points, and in writing this part of me does feel like the worst type of science philistine, swatting down innovative thought with my slide rule. But another part of me finds Flieger's lapses profoundly discourteous to those other disciplines, the science and technology that she is implicating in this Lacanian conversation. I feel compelled in fairness here to note that another reviewer found Oedipus to be "an exemplary work of interdisciplinary scholarship". My own opinion, for what it's worth, is exactly the opposite: it's the kind of work that gives interdisciplinarity a bad name. Written with the best of intentions, it also undermines the efforts some of us make to convince our skeptical colleagues that psychoanalysis has anything worth saying to, and about, science.


© 2006 Jackie Leach Scully


Jackie Leach Scully is a bioethicist at the Universities of Basel, Switzerland, and Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom, with a professional interest in moral psychology and psychoanalysis. In a previous incarnation she was a molecular biologist.


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