Read an ExcerptTIME DRIVEN
Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive
By Adrian Johnston
Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 2005
Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Temporal Repressed in Freudian Psychoanalysis
1 Time and the Freudian Unconscious
A common portrayal of Freud in terms of his philosophical significance-and one which he himself encourages-is as a psychological Copernicus. In postulating the existence of forces foreign to the territory of reflective consciousness-these forces, while lying outside the sphere of the ego, nonetheless dominate its activity-Freud inaugurates a mental decentering of the human subject analogous to Copernicus' heliocentric displacement of Ptolemaic astronomy. As often noted, after Freud's dethroning of the self-transparent, rational subject, "man is no longer master in his own house." The constitutive blind spots inherent to consciousness become the new sources of significance for human thought.
Is Freud's century-old "revolution," so called through the comparison with Copernicus, still revolutionary in the present? Once a radical rupture in the history of ideas has been distilled into a condensed set of formulas-"Wo Es war, soll Ich werden," "the ego is an object," "the finding of an object is a re-finding of it," and so on-can it remain as unsettling as during its initial genesis? All revolutions naturally appear novel when contrasted with the status quo against which they react. However, at the same time, all revolutions also contain the seeds of their own destruction. If successful in overthrowing the previous theoretical regime, a revolutionary theory immediately runs the risk of becoming as complacent as its predecessor. Although this observation is itself practically a truism, the revolutionaries frequently become the new tyrants.
How can this stagnation be avoided in psychoanalytic theory? What is needed to prevent the comfortable reabsorption of the "ex-centricity" of the unconscious? In 1953, less than fifteen years after Freud's death, Jacques Lacan perceived the necessity of revivifying the scandalous nature of the unconscious-an unconscious in danger of being hastily defanged, rendered tame, manageable, and impotent in the face of the socially adaptive ego. In large part, Lacan's "return to Freud" consists in asking: "Why is the Freudian unconscious revolutionary?" In the shadow of Lacan, the question merits being posed once again.
The psychoanalytic decentering of the subject is brought about in a very specific manner: The field of present consciousness is always-already overdetermined by an unconscious past. In effect, Freud participates in what Derrida later identifies as an assault upon the "metaphysics of presence." The immediacy of self-consciousness is unwittingly shaped by the background noise of an "other scene," a scene whose very alterity is intimately connected with its being out of joint with the present theater of what could provisionally be called a "now consciousness"-namely, the awareness of ongoing cognition. For the psychoanalytic hermeneutics of suspicion, the present (that is, the temporal space most familiar to the ego), instead of being an experience whose meaning is readily legible via conscious reflection, is invariably stained by indelible-yet-veiled traces of the past. The "return of the repressed" designates precisely this intrusion of the past within the confines of the present. Thus, an essential facet of Freud's discovery of the unconscious is a decisive reconception of the subject's relation to time. Ironically, although Freud's work undeniably carries this consequence for the human experience of time-what phenomenologists baptize as "temporality"-Freud seemingly dismisses the issue of time as irrelevant concerning the unconscious qua proper object of psychoanalysis. However, as Derrida insightfully cautions, "The timelessness of the unconscious is no doubt determined only in opposition to a common concept of time ... the unconscious is no doubt timeless only from the standpoint of a certain vulgar conception of time" (Derrida 1978b, 215).
In formulating his metapsychological principles, Freud expels time from the unconscious-"The processes of the system Ucs. are timeless; i.e., they are not ordered temporally, are not altered by the passage of time; they have no reference to time at all" (SE 14: 187). This declaration licenses a subsequent neglect of temporal questions in analytic theory:
Psychoanalysts have always been unconcerned with problems of temporality. For them, this philosophical category brings with it the limitations of formalism and abstraction. Let us talk about time, fine. But whose time will it be and for what? The 'primary process' of dreams does not admit this concept while the 'secondary process' of the waking I has received it through social channels ... Time is never dealt with explicitly as an issue or problem. (Abraham 1995, 111)
Although the timeless character of the unconscious is formulaically proclaimed as a general tenant of analysis in 1915, it results from a long line of observations and ideas found throughout Freud's oeuvre: The indestructibility of infantile wishes (1900); the persistence of "polymorphously perverse" libidinal activities through sublimation (1905); the mechanisms of transferential object-choice in neurosis (1915); and the guiding presupposition that simple forgetting is impossible-repression is a necessary consequence of the "mystic writing pad" model of the unconscious. Perhaps Freud is concerned that any temporalization of the unconscious would result in a loss of explanatory power with respect to such phenomena. And yet, in arguing for the hegemony of earlier experiences over later ones, isn't a certain chronological bias still operative regarding the "timeless" unconscious?
2 The Temporal Instances of the Freudian System
In Freud's own writings, the supposedly necessary disjunction between time and the unconscious is nonetheless dubious. For instance, in The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud identifies two sources of material vital to the construction of every dream-infantile wishes and "day-residues." In order for an infantile wish to noticeably inscribe itself through the medium of a dream, it must attach itself to fragments of the dreamer's recent waking experiences. Correlative to the distinction between manifest and latent dream-texts, fresh mnemic traces behave like a Trojan horse for repressed childhood desires. Day-residues form the apparent, manifest materials of dreams; they are the present disguise necessary for the emergence of past wishes. The rebus-like manifest dream-text distorts these archaic desires just enough for them to elude the censorship of the half-slumbering ego. At the same time, this text leaves enough hints "between the lines" to allow for an analytic interpretation of the latent, libidinal significance stemming from the repressed past.
However, to say that day-residues are nothing more than supplementary points of attachment for infantile wishes is to miss the admitted fact that such wishes are powerless, on their own, to enter the space of dreaming. Although Freud clearly gives the dominant role in dream-processes to early desires, these desires rely on a catalyst, a trigger-mechanism-the recent waking life of the individual. This is indeed a strange form of domination; the past overdetermines the present only insofar as the present inadvertently provides the past with certain opportune openings, namely, materials possessing associational connections to repressed contents. By itself, the unconscious past is incapable of direct expression owing to the psychical function of censorship charged with the responsibility for maintaining repression. In light of this, the famous comparison of the manifest dream-text to a picture puzzle (a rebus) has a relevance extending beyond Freud's employment of this metaphor.
The day-residues are like an arrangement of various jigsaw puzzle pieces already assembled to form the peripheral, bordering edge of the yet-to-be-completed puzzle picture. The rest of the picture, whose empty middle (surrounded by the enveloping border of already-assembled pieces) remains to be filled in, consists of puzzle pieces that can be placed inside the outer frame of pieces exclusively on condition that they fit with the already-laid pieces. This vacant space framed by the outer pieces is like the unconscious field of repression, being an invisibility that is apprehended only through the negative outline/relief of it sketched by the thin edge of consciousness. In other words, the day-residues, as the initially available puzzle pieces from which both the dream and its interpretation depart (as manifest fragments from the individual's present), predetermine both the order of emergence as well as the overall arrangement of the puzzle as a whole (the conjunction of manifest and latent dream-texts, the wish and its articulation, the past and the present). The chronological hierarchy generally suggested by Freudian dream interpretation can be sustained only by a grotesque abstraction from the subtleties of dream-processes.
One year prior to the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams, in a short paper containing a disguised fragment of his self-analysis, Freud discusses a phenomenon that brings to the fore the interaction already high-lighted between past wishes and present day-residues-screen memories. Through the careful examination of an alleged childhood memory of his own (a scene centered around himself and a friend snatching flowers from a little girl), Freud realizes that, despite his conscious sense of certainty that the visual traces composing the recalled scene reflect an actual experience from earlier life, this might be a fabricated or partially fabricated memory. The present impulses as well as the unconscious fantasies of the adult Freud conspire to express a disavowed desire via the channel of a mnemic construct whose apparent facticity allows it to circumvent repression.
Why are screen memories significant in this discussion of time and the unconscious? What differentiates them from the day-residues of the dream-work? In the conclusion of his essay on this special class of memories, Freud states:
It may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhood: memories relating to our childhood may be all that we possess. Our childhood memories show us our earliest years not as they were but as they appeared at the later periods when the memories were aroused. In these periods of arousal, the childhood memories did not, as people are accustomed to say, emerge; they were formed at that time. And a number of motives, with no concern for historical accuracy, had a part in forming them, as well as in the selection of the memories themselves. (SE 3: 322)
The "periods of arousal" mentioned by Freud are analogous to the day-residues of the dream-work. Certain circumstances, events, and/or motives operative in the recent experience of the individual activate earlier wishes and their corresponding repressed representatives. However, through the deliberate contrasts established by Freud between "from"-"relating to" and "emerge"-"formed," a significant difference in the treatment of cathected representations between screen memories and the dream-work is clear: Dreams are interpreted as reflecting the dominance of infantile experience over adult life, while screen memories express a dialecticization of the psychical relationship between past and present-that is to say, the past is only ever recovered in an indirect, distorted fashion within the sublating framework of the present. Put differently, the trajectory of influence in screen memories is bi-directional. As in dreams, the repressed past resurfaces in the manifest text of consciously accessible material-that is, the past shapes the present. But, simultaneously, the contextual parameters of the subject's present retroactively alter the very past which supposedly influences this same present (the basic structure of this second, distinctive dynamic in screen memories is also visible in the phenomenon of "deferred action"). This explains why, for example, Freud replaces the unidirectionality of the "from" of memory-memories originate solely within an earlier chronological period-with the notion of memory as a "relating" between past and present. The actual content of memory is plastic and malleable when placed in the hands of a mental apparatus obeying its conflictual masters-the pleasure and reality principles. As a result, a metapsychological theory of memory is left with the unfulfilled task of delineating the structure of the (temporal) processes whereby such contents are shaped.
The immediate objection to this conclusion drawn from screen memories is that Freud is describing conscious recollection. Although preconscious and conscious memories are sometimes retroactive distortions of an ego-centered "backwards glance"-an après-coup by which the ego blindly and unwittingly rewrites its past-the relevant repressed nuclei remain unchanged. Screen memories are fabricated precisely in order to aid in stifling unconscious contents. But even if Freud himself is reluctant to extend the psychical scope of the temporal dynamic of screen memories beyond the status of being a conscious handmaiden for defense mechanisms, nothing should prevent a theoretical development in this direction. In fact, two significant motifs within Freud's own thought, despite the unresolved tension between them, suggest such an extension: On the one hand, the permanent influence of earlier experience upon the present; and, on the other hand, the constant capacity for re-transcribing the significance of the past vis-à-vis the après-coup of deferred action. How can one rectify this underlying discrepancy? Moreover, this unresolved tension internal to Freud's understanding of the temporality of the psychical subject is the key to unlocking numerous enigmas plaguing psychoanalysis at both the therapeutic and theoretical levels. Perhaps what is timeless about memory is not anything like its determinate content, but merely the motility of the processes through which content is altered in decisive fashions. Screen memories and deferred action indicate that the very value/significance of unconscious materials is caught in the deferrals of meaning introduced by the always-possible retroactive revision stimulated by the accumulation of ever more materials over the time of the subject's lived history. Of course, originally, the indefinite series of retroactively effectuated displacements operating between past and present departs from certain chronological coordinates in the early stages of the individual's life. However, these origins are best considered as always-already lost, since, once they are caught in the defiles of psychical temporality, the suspension of their definitive meaning renders uncompromised access to them impossible. Furthermore, the discoveries of both deferred action-first glimpsed in the 1894 Studies on Hysteria co-authored with Josef Breuer-and screen memories closely precede the 1900 publication of The Interpretation of Dreams. This alone makes any attempt to separate the psychology of the dream-processes from the retroactivity of memory suspect. Additionally, the inspection of the function of day-residues reveals the same mutual dependency of (unconscious) past and (conscious) present. The theme of the unrivaled hegemony of the past in psychoanalysis is the result of a hasty abstraction from the crucial details of psychoanalytic evidence, an abstraction to which Freud too occasionally succumbs.
Excerpted from TIME DRIVEN by Adrian Johnston
Copyright © 2005 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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