Saving Freud from himself

I just got through a couple weeks of teaching Freud, which was a lot of fun. It was particularly interesting to do as I’ve been spending so much time with Lacan lately — it seems to me that the basic Lacanian interpretative strategies and emphases really “work” in the classroom setting, though by this I don’t mean much more than highlighting the “linguistic” element. We did a handful of his introductory lectures along with the case of Elizabeth von R. from Studies in Hysteria, and with regard to the latter, I feel like in discussion I stumbled across a really evocative way of putting the problem of hysteria: what kind of beings must we humans be if we can get sick from a pun?

That case study also includes the kind of thing that always disappoints me in Freud, namely, his desire to bring things back to some kind of biological origin. In his concluding reflections on the function of metaphor in hysteria, he brings in Darwin’s theory of the origin of the emotions (also quoted by James, by the way!), and things really fall flat for me at that point. There’s something similar skewing his theory of feminine sexuality, it seems to me — many of my students felt frankly betrayed after reading “Femininity” from the New Introductory Lectures, and I think it’s the gravitational pull of the idea of a “natural” biological outcome that produces all the well-known contradictions and slippages in his argumentation here. (And to their credit, my students engaged more in authentic critique than in extrinsic criticism, as Freud had built up enough good will in their minds in previous readings that they tried to stay with him for as long as they could.)

I know I’m not saying anything original, but it’s striking to see how this unfolds among students approaching Freud for the first time — and to juxtapose it with my current work with Lacan, so that I can see so clearly the ways in which Lacan might, from a certain perspective, be “saving Freud from himself,” bringing forward his most authentic and radical insights and freeing them of the gravitational pull of naturalistic reductionism.

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4 Responses to “Saving Freud from himself”

  1. kai Says:

    i think calling it “naturalistic reductionism” misses what both freud and darwin were up to and i guess i have the opposite feeling, that “the biological Freud is much more interesting than most of his readers realize, and much more than the linguistic Lacan allowed…” as elizabeth grosz argues in this interview… http://web.gc.cuny.edu/csctw/found_object/text/grosz.htm

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m not saying he’s directly guilty of “naturalistic reductionism,” I’m saying that he’s continually tempted to pull things in that direction.

  3. Jeremy Says:

    I also get the impression reading Freud that he felt the need to justify his theory (from beyond the clinic) by grasping for some biological or extra-therapeutic evidence to buttress his theory.

    The medicalization of psychoanalysis and its proper place as a natural science continues to be a debate today. Some have all but abandoned this notion, favoring a hermeneutic psychoanalysis while another tendency is attempting to validate psychoanalysis (and correct it) based on the current research in developmental psychology and, in particular, neuroscience.

    [Side note - It's really fascinating that students in the humanities (interested in psychoanalysis) basically only read Freud and Lacan while students (at least in the States) who pursue training in psychoanalytic psychology, social work or psychiatry read everyone in psychoanalysis but Freud and Lacan. I wonder how students in the humanities would react to psychoanalytic thinkers other than Freud and Lacan]

  4. Ariel Sheen Says:

    I’m currently studying somatic therapy, bioenergetics, formative therapy and other off-shoots of Freudianism that are based primarily on the body instead of the psyche. Considering, as you stated, that Freud himself was always trying to bring things back to a biological origin, this seems to me to be a manner of reconciling what you see as a failing of his. The academic overlooking of these forms of therapy and responses to Freud seems to me to be understandable: The texts aren’t written with the same sort of attention to language that one finds in psychoanalysis, making them at times quite dull and redundant, and they require a general knowledge of physiology and biology, realms of knowledge not usually used in the humanities.


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