Whose Freud?: The Place of Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Cultureby Peter Brooks, Alex Woloch
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One hundred years after the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud remains the most frequently cited author of our culture-and one of the most controversial. To some he is the presiding genius of modernity, to others the author of its symptomatic illnesses. The current position of psychoanalysis is very much at issue. Is it still valid as a theory of the mind? Have its therapeutic applications been rendered obsolete by drugs? Why does it still figure in debates about sexual identity, despite its rejection by many feminists? How does it contribute to cultural analysis?
This book offers a new assessment of the status of psychoanalysis as a discipline and a discourse in contemporary culture. It brings together an exceptional group of theorists and practitioners, such partisans and critics of Freud as Frederic Crews, Judith Butler, Leo Bersani, Juliet Mitchell, Robert Jay Lifton, Richard Wollheim, Jonathan Lear, and others.
These contributors, who are active in literature, philosophy, film, history, cultural studies, neuroscience, psychotherapy, and other disciplines, debate how psychoanalysis has enriched-and been enriched by-these fields.
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Whose Freud?The Place of Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture
Yale University PressCopyright © 2000 Yale University
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Chapter OnePsychoanalysis and Its Discontents
Our first topic is marked by an immediate and noticeable split. Does the title refer to discontents generated within psychoanalysis or discontent with the psychoanalytic enterprise itself? The section begins oddly-with Frederick Crews's proleptic rebuttal of the arguments he assumes will follow. Alone among the essayists Crews wants to consider not what place psychoanalysis has in contemporary culture but whether it should even have a place. Because his perspective leads him to reject the premises of the volume, he shrewdly uses the essays themselves as examples of the circular reasoning and methodological flaws he considers inherent to psychoanalysis. The speakers Crews anticipates (and then reexamines in an extended postscript) enact, in his view, the very flaws he finds within psychoanalysis itself: "the epistemic circularity of Freud's tradition," as a theory that justifies "itself by appeal to its own contested postulates."
Although the other essays do not revolve around psychoanalysis's validity, the pressure of Crews's interrogation of psychoanalysis is quite relevant to developments within psychoanalysis. Robert Michels, in fact, shares many of Crews's concerns, although he is at pains to draw an important distinction: "I'm not troubled by people who challenge the lack of proof [in psychoanalysis], as long as that challenge is a call for inquiry rather than a disparagement of interesting ideas." Michels is the first of many contributors who try to relocate the questions that Crews raises in order to think through problems from within a psychoanalytic perspective.
Michels focuses on the various discontents of different constituencies: philosophers, psychiatrists, patients, and psychoanalysts themselves. First, he distinguishes between the philosophical critique of psychoanalysis and the clinical one: "the truth of the theories used by psychoanalysts in guiding their clinical work is not that important. Analysts are concerned with helping patients, not with establishing the validity of psychological theories." The test that psychoanalysis cannot fail, in Michels's view, is its developing relation with clinical psychiatry. This has at least three components. First, psychoanalysis must submit to the "reliable and respectable methodology for comparing and evaluating therapies" that the medical community has developed in the past few decades. Second, it must produce more researchers "with the skills necessary to collaborate in sophisticated psychiatric therapy research." Last, it must restructure its system of training to build more viable lines of communication with "the modern research university" and its nexus of "cultural, humanistic, sociological, psychological, and scientific" inquiry.
Judith Butler's essay-a reappraisal of the incest taboo and kinship structure -also begins with the problem of epistemology. Butler suggests that psychoanalysis will always generate evidentiary discontents because of its willingness to consider what cultural theorist Cathy Caruth has called "unclaimable experience": experience constituted through our inability to directly represent or grasp it. Specifically, Butler highlights the problematic event-structure of incest; its occurrence as an actual event is paradoxically registered by the subject's "loss of access to the terms that establish [its] historical veracity." Blurring clear boundaries between external fact and psychic apprehension, and between memory and desire, this unrepresentable event creates discontents within psychoanalysis but also reaffirms the specific nature of psychoanalytic knowledge. Psychoanalysis is uniquely able to comprehend an event under such erasure because it has always shown that "what is constituted as the thinkable realm is predicated on the exclusion (repression or foreclosure) of what remains difficult or impossible to think."
This is only half of Butler's interest. Having established the unrepresentable event-structure of incest, she then shifts attention to the incest taboo and the way this taboo also constitutes a thinkable and unthinkable realm: on one hand, an "idealization and ossification" of heterosexual kinship norms and, on the other, the derealization of alternative kinship structures, such as lesbian and gay forms of parenting. Butler thus uses the optic of psychoanalysis to connect the experiential unintelligibility of incest, as an event, with the kinship structures that are rendered culturally unintelligible, as forms of love, by the incest taboo.
Juliet Mitchell also focuses on the centrality of trauma within psychoanalytic theory, using its "return in the past decade" to raise a classic problem, and discontent, within psychoanalysis: Is it a theory that applies to universal, or only pathological, human experience? Mitchell insists that we situate trauma in a universal (and transcultural) rather than clinical context. As Mitchell writes, "The trauma and its potential cure through the telling of it as a story are likely aspects of the human condition; they are not specifics of particular pathologies." Before the development of the unconscious through repressed desire, the structure of the unconscious is developed by an original, universal trauma: the dread "that the helpless, prematurely born human infant feels when its existence is threatened on the failure of a provision of its needs." This original trauma, in turn, gives rise to what we might call an original story-the "simple mimesis" that a newborn employs to get milk. As Mitchell describes this, "A baby will start to mouth the sucking and dream or 'hallucinate' the breast it needs, an infant will make the faces and sounds of its care-taker." The primary, biological need for the breast, Mitchell suggests, continually manifests itself in two different and related forms: on one hand, this original lack or need sets the form for "the many large and small traumas that everyone experiences"; on the other, the story that the infant tells to the provider becomes the model for transindividual relationships, for processes of "identification with the other's desiring self."
Frederick Crews's essay ends with a "postscript" which-unlike revisions made to other essays in the volume-centers on the conference itself. Using a transcript of the discussions, Crews comments on many of the other speakers-most prominently Robert Michels, Judith Butler, Leo Bersani, Meredith Skura, and Richard Wollheim. One panelist is accused of McCarthyism; another is linked to both witch-burning and the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. In a final flourish, the whole conference is compared with the Titanic!
This rebuttal might have generated a different format for the book-one we considered but ultimately rejected. Crews's heated opposition to other panelists, especially Judith Butler, would seem to merit, or demand, a response. And such a response-probably itself heated-would inevitably prompt a third response from Crews. Such a back-and-forth discussion would fall into a genre perhaps best characterized by the angry letters in the New York Review of Books. This form would suit the content of Crews's position: the repeated dead ends of mutual recrimination that characterize this kind of exchange rhetorically demonstrate the incommensurability of psychoanalysis with discourses outside the discipline. Certainly, Crews is fond of such a form; as he notes in his postscript about Michels: "he and I have crossed swords before, both in person and in print." Such a genre-letters back and forth, the ritualized crossing of swords-might be more important for what it does than for what it says. Although we solicited and still appreciate the polemical content of Crews's perspective, we resisted the incursion of a polemical form onto the manuscript as a whole. For this reason, we denied other panelists an opportunity to respond to Crews's response, allowing the postscript, and the essays, to speak for themselves.
Excerpted from Whose Freud? Copyright © 2000 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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