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Understanding PsychoanalysisReview - Understanding Psychoanalysis
by Matthew Sharpe and Joanne Faulkner
Acumen, 2008
Review by Daniel Hourigan
Oct 7th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 41)

Understanding Psychoanalysis is a brief introduction to the beginnings and basic operations of psychoanalytic thought. Written by Matthew Sharpe and Joanne Faulkner, the book charts the story of psychoanalysis: from the early case study of 'Anna O.', through the renovations and development of psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud, to the critiques of psychoanalysis and its possible futures. The style is pedagogic, offering key point summaries and revision questions with a clear intent to educate the reader in the psychoanalytic method and history, and its criticisms. Yet the key figure of the entire volume is clearly the progenitor of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, to whom a generous amount of space is allotted early on.

The authors of Understanding Psychoanalysis, Sharpe and Faulkner, are two thinkers to have emerged from the healthy ('continental') philosophy scene in Melbourne, Australia. Aside from this volume, their respective publications hover around a diverse range of thinkers including Agamben, Zizek, Nietzsche, Schmidt, and others. And this scope allows Sharpe and Faulkner to consistently provide a variety of reference points for Freud's developments, which is a necessity for a reader seeking out psychoanalysis in our contemporary era of oceanic information.

The volume itself is part of the 'Understanding Movements in Modern Thought' series edited by Jack Reynolds and published by Acumen Publishing. As one can infer from its series title, Understanding Psychoanalysis is an introduction to psychoanalytic thought and its impact on modern thinking. Thinking of what? More often than not, these types of introductions deal with the most prominent motifs and problems; and Understanding Psychoanalysis is no different in this respect. All of the central topics of psychoanalysis are addressed: from its method to its categorising of the world; and so too are the satellite critiques that orbit these topics: from Freud's 'children' that have derived their intellectual enterprise from psychoanalysis (object relations theory, structural linguistics, and several branches of feminism) to the psychoanalytic neighborhood within other conceptual continents like the critical philosophy of science and neuroscientific research.

The drive of Understanding Psychoanalysis is thus toward the fundamental coordinates of psychoanalytic thought: its history, its historiography, its founding moments, its methodology, its promises, its failures, its clarifications, and its misunderstandings. The book begins by charting the emergence of 'the talking cure' from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century investigations into hysteria and madness, through the previously mentioned case study of 'Anna O.' by Joseph Breuer and his colleague Sigmund Freud, to Freud's own case histories of 'Little Hans', 'the Ratman', 'Dora', 'Elizabeth von R.', and 'Judge Schreber'. This lucidly written retelling of Freud's career pays particular attention to the shifts within Freud's own work, and his constant revisions of his theories, particularly the changes in Freud's understanding of the 'ego' when he encounters psychotics such as Schreber. These early chapters of the volume unfold the metapsychology developed by Freud, and this becomes intimately linked with the discussions of criticisms and incorporations of psychoanalysis in later chapters.

Following this first anchoring part of the book, Understanding Psychoanalysis takes the reader through 'Freud's children': Melanie Klein, Jacques Lacan, and the feminist engagements with psychoanalysis. Sharpe and Faulkner maintain a careful vigil over other figures of psychoanalysis whose theories draw upon and buttress those of Freud and Klein, such as Donald R. Winnicott, Wilfred Bion, and W. R. D. Fairbairn. The brief mentions of these other figures are distillations of their positions and thought with regards to various features of Klein's 'object relations theory' developed from her analysis of children. While this does give the discussion a strong sense of direction it does beg the question of whether the authors tended to paint these psychoanalytic innovators with too large a brush stroke. If anything, the brevity of these summaries reinforces the importance and centrality of Freud in the emergence of the psychoanalytic enterprise. Lacan, on the other hand, stands apart from the nexus of object relations theory.

Although Lacan is treated separately, Sharpe and Faulkner provide a wonderfully comprehendible overview of his work, with particular reference to Lacan's structuralist and linguistic underpinnings. The discussion of Lacan moves the reader on to the vistas of feminism and psychoanalysis. In this sixth chapter of the book, the reader is met with several carefully framed explanations of the tensions and associations between various important feminist theorists and psychoanalysis, including Helene Deutsche, Karen Horney, Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millett, Juliet Mitchell, Luce Irigaray, Sarah Kofman, and, strangely, Julia Kristeva. The strangeness of Kristeva's inclusion in the selection is treated with care by the authors, given that Kristeva has gone to some length to distance herself from the feminist movements. However, the inclusion of Kristeva can be seen as legitimate insofar as it is connected with the précis of Irigaray and Kofman under the banner of 'The French Resistance to Psychoanalysis'.

The final part of Understanding Psychoanalysis deals with the larger questions of civilization, art, religion, and the future and rehabilitations of psychoanalysis. We begin with Freud's discourse on 'the discontents' of civilization is treated to a brief summary that captures the dynamic relation of Eros (life) and Thanatos (aggression) in which civilization is the source of its own discontents. This is returned to in the later discussions of creative sublimation and Freud's somewhat ambivalent analyses of religion.

The final chapter takes up these larger questions as the ground for the future of psychoanalytically engaged movements within science, philosophy, and psychoanalysis itself. To the credit of the authors, this chapter attempts to overcome or at least correct some of the myopic 'Freud bashing' that is especially common among some English-speaking intellectual communities. To this end, the final chapter of Understanding Psychoanalysis delves into the various attempts to reinvigorate psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic method – be that through calling psychoanalysis to account for its method and its claim to scientific repute, the revision of the politics engendered by psychoanalytic theory (which so much of the aforementioned feminist criticism must be praised for doing), or rereading the critical project of psychoanalysis against the backdrop of neuroscience and the philosophy of language. The authors also make a slightly orthodox claim for 'transference' as the blindspot of the incorporative rereadings of psychoanalysis by Habermas and Grunbaum. By the end of the volume the pedagogic tone does begin to wear a little thin, but the arguments are clearly stated and the relevance of the discussions are unmistakable given the elaborations on the politics of modern thought throughout the volume.

Sharpe and Faulkner suggest that Understanding Psychoanalysis appears at a time when psychoanalysis is in retreat from the English-speaking world and contrarily thriving in regions such as France and Argentina. Yet there can be no doubt that even the most passing of engagements with the landscape of modern thought must deal with the psychoanalytic heritage of much of our everyday terminology (anal retentive, neurotic, psychotic, perversion, fixation, identification, wish-fulfillment, etc) and the willingness of Freud to squarely confront the reasonable (wo)man of science with her/his irrational nature. After Freud, it is impossible to say that reason is the master of its own house, and the great virtue of this book is that it addresses the fundamental coordinates of the moment we go awry in the tyranny of rationalization. Overall, the volume is a very pointed introduction to the grounds of psychoanalysis and the place of psychoanalysis in modern thought.

© 2008 Daniel Hourigan

 Daniel Hourigan teaches philosophy, legal theory, sociology, and film studies at Griffith University, Australia. He recently submitted a PhD on Slavoj Zizek and the mystical deadlock of technology.


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