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Whose Freud?Review - Whose Freud?
The Place of Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture
by Peter Brooks, Alex Woloch (Editors)
Yale University Press, 2000
Review by Adrian Johnston, Ph.D.
Mar 1st 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 9)

            Whose Freud?:  The Place of Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture is a collection of papers from a conference held at the Whitney Humanities Center of Yale University in April 1998.  The conference consisted of twenty-three papers, divided into six panels.  Each panel addresses a different aspect of contemporary psychoanalysis:  debates over the overall epistemological and clinical legitimacy of Freudian theory, psychoanalysis’ straddling of the line between therapeutic-clinical and hermeneutic-academic endeavors, the nature of analysis’ contributions to an understanding of human sexuality, the utility of analytic theory for socio-historical investigations, the evolving relationship between analysis and neurology, and, finally, psychoanalysis’ impact on philosophical conceptions of truth.  The diversity of topics is equally reflected by the backgrounds of the participants; the conference included clinicians, philosophers, neurologists, historians, literary experts, and cultural theorists.

            The volume nicely preserves the lively atmosphere of the conference.  The papers are, for the most part, relatively brief; they generally tend to be between four to twelve pages long.  The editors of the book (Peter Brooks and Alex Woloch) include, following each set of papers from each panel, the discussion that ensues between the panelists as well as some of the questions posed by audience members.  Often, the most illuminating passages are to be found in these exchanges between the conference participants.  Overall, the papers are of a high quality; they provide the reader with an accurate sense of the diverse fates of Freud’s legacy in the intellectual status quo.  However, five papers in particular merit being explicitly mentioned—the price of the book is worth it for just these pieces alone.

            First, in “The Vortex Beneath the Story,” Juliet Mitchell returns to Freud’s descriptions of infantile prematuration.  In the space of a mere four pages, Mitchell convincingly demonstrates that the fundamental substratum of the unconscious (as established via “primary repression,” a notion left in a state of complete vagueness by Freud himself) is best conceived as constructed on the basis of defenses against the child’s early state of prolonged helplessness and dependency (i.e., hallucinations of gratifying objects as well as early identifications with others).  The infant’s body bombards it with needs, demands, and negative affects, which it itself is unable to quell, satisfy, or master on its own (as Freud, Lacan, and others observe, this passivity of the human being in the face of its corporal condition propels it into a network of social relations grounded by an original dependency on “the Other”).  Mitchell’s insight into the connections between infantile prematuration, hallucinatory defense mechanisms, and primary repression permits understanding that Freud’s work doesn’t ultimately amount to some crude form of pan-sexualism, to the problematic, ungrounded assertion that “sexuality” must simply be assumed to be inherently traumatic without further theoretical justification.

            Second, Toril Moi, in her paper “Is Anatomy Destiny?  Freud and Biological Determinism,” does a fantastic job of demolishing any lingering suspicions about Freud indulging himself in a biological reductionist stance.  The problems with this interpretation of Freud are well known; numerous commentators have already exhibited the serious flaws in this superficial gesture of dismissal.  However, as Moi shows, critics of Freud (often operating in a feminist vein) latch onto Freud’s paraphrase of Napoleon’s “politics is destiny”:  “Anatomy is destiny.”  These critics take this, if nothing else, to be clear evidence of Freud’s tendency to oversimplify human nature by basing it on a matter of whether or not individuals possess a dangling little piece of flesh between their legs.  Moi’s essay reinterprets this Freudian proclamation, carefully examining the contexts in which it appears in Freud’s writings.  As she shows, neither Freud’s German (the full nuances of the word Schicksal are inadequately rendered by the English “destiny”) nor the conceptual frameworks within which the textual occurrences of this proclamation are embedded support the verdict that Freud literally reduces psychological development to anatomical fate.  Furthermore, Moi uses this interpretation of Freud to challenge what she diagnoses as a recurring fallacy in feminist reasoning:  the feminist critiques of Freud often speak as if the opposite of “equality” is “difference”—in other words, Freud, by arguing for a fundamental psychological difference-in-kind between the sexes, undermines the socio-political cause of equality between the sexes—when, in fact, the true opposite of equality is, simply enough, inequality.  Moi is correct that equivocating between “difference” and “inequality” is frequently responsible for the misfiring of various critiques of the Freudian handling of sexual difference.

            The third noteworthy essay is Kaja Silverman’s “The Language of Care.”  Silverman contends that the Oedipus complex, as scaffolding for the structuration of the subject’s libidinal life, is far from being a model in which mother and father could be simply said, in any straightforward sense, to be the ultimate reference points of desire.  Silverman explains how the family unit itself is a point of convergence for a diverse series of symbolic trajectories, a microcosm that reflects more than the positions of its members alone (with the desiring subject of psychoanalysis, one could say that, for example, mother is never simply mother—in Lacanese, the parental figures come to contain something “in them more than themselves”).  Furthermore, she argues that the intrinsic flexibility in a psychoanalytic account for the understanding of amorous histories (especially as refined vis-à-vis the structuralist recasting of Freud) permits ascertaining the idiosyncratic vicissitudes of the subject’s constantly evolving libidinal economy, rather than obscuring the particularities of the individual beneath the sweeping generalizations of theory.

            Fourth, Dominick LaCapra’s “Reflections on Trauma, Absence, and Loss” provides contemporary trauma theory (and debates tangentially related to this area) with a much-needed distinction.  LaCapra differentiates between “absence” and “loss.”  The former refers to a constitutive, inherent impasse or deadlock that forms a necessary background for the historico-contingent dimensions of subjectivity (i.e., a “transcendental” trauma, along the lines of the Lacanian Real); the latter, on the other hand, is a traumatic occurrence arising as a contingency within the field of the subject’s history.  Loss, unlike absence, isn’t necessary, constitutive, or transcendental.  LaCapra accuses many contemporary theorists of blurring this difference between absence and loss.  The usual mistake, as he sees it, is to treat properly historical traumas (i.e., losses) as if they were indicative of a structural, trans-historical trauma (i.e., an absence). LaCapra’s intervention offers a possible means of reconciling the disputes between those who place an emphasis on certain inherent features of subjectivity and those who wish to stress the historicity of the psychoanalytic subject, a reconciliation that doesn’t force an undesirable all-or-nothing choice between these two levels.

            The fifth and final remarkable piece in this collection is “Truth in Psychoanalysis” by Jonathan Lear.  Taking examples from his own clinical practice, Lear shows how analysands, trapped by their own unconscious “cunning of psychical reason” (to borrow and modify a phrase from Hegel), can transform the analyst’s search for historical truth into an accomplice of neurotic defense tactics.  One of his most striking illustrations of this phenomenon is the case of a homosexual man in his late twenties.  This patient finally came to analysis after struggling with his long-denied homosexuality.  His own goal in the therapy was to uncover a traumatic memory of what he was convinced had to have been an actual childhood seduction scenario.  Lear grants that such an event may well have occurred (although there’s little evidence for it in the case description).  But, as he aptly notes, this isn’t so much what is at issue.  Lear insists that the analyst misses something if he/she fails to ask, “Why does this patient desire to uncover this particular ‘truth?’”  Lear maintains that, in the example of this male analysand, he wanted to be personally absolved of his homosexuality; he sought after an external historical cause for his sexual orientation that would relieve him of his “guilt” for being gay.  For this patient, such a factual truth would permit him to continue to maintain a sort of detached distance from his sexuality (although Lear doesn’t mention this, one hears echoes of Lacan’s notion of “lying in the guise of truth”).

            Apart from the above-mentioned individual papers, the panel on psychoanalysis and neurology is quite fascinating.  The participants thoroughly debunk a false impression—this erroneous assumption is held by both those working in the natural sciences as well as those in the humanities and various branches of psychology—that the Freudian and neurological models of mind are mutually exclusive.  In fact, there are calls for an explicit alliance between these two fields:  neurology is capable of providing analysis with the empirical research tools for testing competing theoretical models, while psychoanalysis often offers neurologists a conceptual template permitting the organization and interpretation of neurological evidence that otherwise risks remaining poorly understood.  Both disciplines promise to be transformed by such cooperation.  Sadly, as is pointed out, few specialists in either neurology or analysis have yet appeared who would be both willing and able to work at the crossroads between these approaches; this panel is a call to arms, so to speak.  For anyone fascinated by Freud’s continued relevance to contemporary investigations into human nature, Whose Freud? is a written record of a timely conference, an event not to be missed.


Adrian Johnston recently completed a Ph.D. in Philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook.  His dissertation was Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive.


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