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The Power of FeelingsReview - The Power of Feelings
Personal Meaning in Psychoanalysis, Gender, and Culture
by Nancy J. Chodorow
Yale University Press, 1999
Review by Pawel Kawalec, Ph.D.
Dec 18th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 51)

The book discusses foundational issues in theoretical psychoanalysis. Nancy J. Chodorow claims that the starting place for developing a theoretical stance is the psychoanalytical encounter. In consequence, a new theory of meaning is proposed which accounts for a unique perspective of an individual. The personal meaning is thus fully appreciated and should not, it is argued, be eliminated - as traditionally assumed - by the pragmatic or objective meaning. Gender and culture - two recurrent themes in psychoanalysis - are elucidated accordingly as reflecting a psychic reality of an individual rather than constituting objective categories which would biologically or socially determine the individual. This book may inspire other contributions that will study how to work out the details of Chodorow's proposal.

Psychoanalytical theory, and not feelings, is the focus of the book. So, you should read it if you are interested in the cutting-edge proposals in the foundations of theoretical psychoanalysis, especially if you are familiar with Kleinian theories. However, if you want to know more about feelings - just read another book.

Feelings are 'powerful' insofar as they are the only means, as Nancy J. Chodorow argues throughout the text, to elaborate the psychoanalytical theory which would integrate the subjective and objective aspects of the self. In order to appreciate the novelty of this claim you have to contrast it with Freud's idea of gender and culture as objective and exterior determinants of the psychic reality of an individual. Much of that prevails in the subsequent theoretical developments of psychoanalysis as reveal the feminist and postmodernist criticisms discussed by Chodorow. The author persuasively demonstrates that this paradigm of theoretical psychoanalysis has also been undermined from within by Melanie Klein and her followers.

The alternative is to elaborate a new theory of meaning which dispenses with universal and essentialist categories replacing them with concepts sensitive to an individual's subjective way of perceiving the world, her own culture and history. The task is essentially accomplished in the first part of the book titled Psychoanalysis, where the central claim is that it is the psychoanalytic encounter reveals how the personal meaning is constructed and expressed through transference, projection and introjection as well as countertransference. Although the encounter is an intersubjective reality, the author confines her discussion to the intrapersonal aspect of the encounter. It is the emphasis of the personal meaning of subject's past and present that allow Chodorow to claim the coherence of subject's self - past and present. The author avoids thus the dichotomy of the present-and-conscious and the past-and-unconscious.

In consequence, the emphasis on personal meaning leads Chodorow to re-read the concept of gender and culture - two recurrent themes in the psychoanalytical literature. In part 2 she argues that gender is an individual's construction. In her argument Chodorow draws upon the role of the psychoanalytic encounter as well as upon feminist arguments. The latter, however, seem to deprive the individual of the personal meaning claiming that gender, as other universal categories, is primarily a political, cultural or linguistic construction. On the grounds of her own experiential studies the author claims that gender is neither determined biologically nor socially. For even two subjects who have been exposed to similar gender discrimination may still differ in their personal and emotional reaction and construction of gender. Moreover, the statistically correlated traits may not correspond to the personal construction of gender.

Similarly, in part 3 Chodorow criticizes the view of culture as an objective category which exists independently of individuals and which determines an individual from without. On the other hand, the role of culture has often been unjustly neglected in the psychoanalytical encounter. The author proposes to integrate the two stances and to develop the concept of culture as both social and personal construction

The principal questions and doubt's about Chodorow's book concern the details. She does not provide a substantial theory, but a skeleton drawing upon the key issues. However, to fully assess the merits of this contribution it would be necessary to see its detailed application to case studies, which hopefully will be accomplished in a follow-up volume.


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