Fall Reading Group: Freud’s Psychologie des Unbewußten

71rJO8twa0LI’m eager to undertake a reading project in order to consolidate my German skills and have decided upon Freud’s Psychologie des Unbewußten (Amazon link). There are two potential options for this reading group: Online via Google Hangouts (or some other medium), or somewhere local in Manhattan/Brooklyn. The group would probably meet every other week beginning in September, but we can be flexible based on what the participants decide.

If you’re interested, let me know in the comments.

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Living Thought Book Event: Other “Italians”?

Roberto Esposito’s Living Thought is a strange hybrid of a book. On the one hand, it’s an extremely erudite and yet readable history of Italian philosophy, but on the other hand, it’s also a creative and constructive work of philosophy. The burden of the argument is that there is something about the Italian experience of the late and never fully constituted arrival of a nation-state that allowed for the development of a style of thought that sits askew relative to the mainstream discourses of modernity — and that this is the reason for the contemporary success of Italian thought under the conditions of globalized late capital. He proceeds by pointing to a series of distinguishing traits that mark the tradition of Italian thought from its beginnings in Bruno, Vico, and Machiavelli: an ambiguous relationship to the question of “origin,” resulting in a curiously bi-directional concept of history; a mutual “contamination” of philosophy with other discourses and practices; and an emphasis on immanence and life.

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Drives and Drive-Fates

One of the most valuable parts of my summer seminar (which just ended yesterday) was that it gave me a chance to really work through Freud’s key texts on the drives. The one that has stayed with me the most is Triebe und Triebschicksale (Drives and Drive-Fates), which is normally translated “Instincts and their Vicissitudes.” The inappropriateness of “instinct” as a translation for Trieb is widely acknowledged, but what about “vicissitudes” for the puzzling “drive-fates”? As Eric Santner observed, “vicissitudes” has etymological roots in the area of the “vicarious,” and Freud does talk about how drives can substitute for each other, so basically there’s some justification — but at the end of the day, Freud seemingly uses “Schicksal” (in the meta-psychological writings and elsewhere) as a technical term for what one might call the “outcome” of drive-dynamics, and I think that “vicissitude” just doesn’t work for that usage. More importantly, though, really dwelling on the notion of “fate” has helped me to understand better what’s going on with drives, and the English translation, by covering up the systematic usage of “Schicksal,” likely never would have led me to the same insights.

To get at Freud’s concept of fate, we should look to Freud’s own favored point of reference in Greek tragedy: Oedipus Rex. Read the rest of this entry »

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Ontogeny and phylogeny in Freud

One thing that has jumped out at me in my recent study of Freud is his interest in the relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny. He really wants to be able to extrapolate from the personal histories of his patients to the origin of the human race — and in fact, he even attempts to go back to the origin of life itself in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. I had always had the impression that Totem and Taboo was a later work, more or less marginal to his project, but it was actually published in 1913, toward the beginning of his period of greatest theoretical productivity. What’s more, he cites it near-obsessively in the later works.

Sometimes it can seem as though he believes that the fate of drives that was formed after the murder of the primal father is more or less “directly” passed down in some kind of quasi-biological way. The more “sensible” hypothesis would be that the structure is passed along through the process of socialization, yet the inheritance can seem just as unavoidable. And then of course there’s the matter of how the project of Moses and Monotheism fits in here — if all human culture is structured in this way, why can it make a difference that the Jews in particular repeated it in their own particular history?

Consider this an open thread. What do you think is going on with the relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny in Freud?

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Notes on the death drive

Yesterday in the DAAD seminar led by Eric Santner that I’ve been participating in, we talked about Triebe und Triebschicksale and Jenseits des Lustprinzips. Prof. Santner emphasized the fact that the concept of “drive” is more the name of a problem than a solution and the fact that the concept of “death drive” seems particularly problematic and confusing — even down to the name itself. As we turned to the (bizarre!) sections of the text that deal with speculative cellular biology, I shared that I had found it somehow funny that Freud pictured the first living being coming into existence and experiencing it as a huge imposition: “This sucks! I want to go back to being primordial soup!” But once you start down that road, it seems as though there’s no reason not to push the point further. Perhaps consistent matter resented its condition and wanted to go back to being indeterminate quarks, for instance. Then Prof. Santner had a brilliant and hilarious insight: the idea that the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” could be put forward not as an occasion of wonder, but as a complaint.

It seems that more than death (because after all, the inorganic matter to which the living being wants to return is precisely not “dead”), what’s at stake in the death drive is a kind of persistent refusal, an inert “no” that must constantly be overcome. Zizek of course puts this refusal forward as the only possible ground of political change, and it seems that there is justification in Freud’s text insofar as he associates the death drive with the Wiederholungszwang or repetition compulsion that pushes neurotic patients to relive the painful experience that has (mis)shaped them — but it’s all in order ultimately to refuse that particular vicious cycle and shape themselves differently.

I wonder if we can make a connection to the Heideggerian being-toward-death here. What drives Heidegger to investigate the phenomenon of death, at least in my reading, is not so much that death is the “end” and therefore “completion” of a human life, but rather that death as such is a potentiality that always necessarily remains potential, that can never be actualized. After all, once “my” death occurs, “I” no longer exist. The problem with a human life in progress, from Heidegger’s ontological perspective, isn’t so much that it’s “not over yet” as that it contains potentiality, which is a distinct mode of being that the classical ontological categories have a particularly hard time grappling with. Being-toward-death is his way of articulating and grasping that potentiality so as to get a complete grasp of Dasein’s peculiar mode of being (as actuality and potentiality). Just as with Freud’s death drive, the emphasis on death as such may be partially misleading or distracting, but there’s a moment of truth insofar as “death” names a radical negativity in human life. For both Freud and Heidegger, then, it would be this negativity that gives us access to the potentiality to do something other than our automatic daily routines of neurosis or everydayness.

A rant on neuroscience and philosophy

Neuroscience has given rise to one of the most absurd and pathetic versions of reductionism ever seen, one that purports to “explain” one of the most complex realities we know — the subjective experience of consciousness — simply by pointing to physical phenomena that seem to accompany it. It’s like saying that cheese tastes good because it’s made of atoms. Far be it from me, of course, to disparage the idea that cheese is made of atoms or that the brain is the seat of consciousness, but it seems like this approach not only doesn’t answer, but actively blocks the asking of the most important and interesting question: how did the observed complex phenomenon arise out of the physical process?

The attempt to “explain” subjective experience by reference to the physical processes of neurons and hormones consists essentially in trying to explain what we already basically know (I feel sad) by what we can never directly experience (my hormones are acting up). In many cases, the “explanation” is simply a translation of typical descriptions of subjective experience into the terms of neuroscience. A great example of this is a New Yorker profile of the Churchlands from a few years ago, which portrayed them doing just that in their everyday life. Instead of saying that they were exhausted from work, they would describe the chemical process at work. It struck me as pathetic and sad that they would think further information was being added in this process.

People were able to learn a lot of interesting things about matter without knowing that the level of chemistry was grounded in the level of sub-atomic particles — indeed, without knowing what “atoms” were at all. They were able to learn a lot about evolution without knowing about the genetic vehicle, and in fact scientists still don’t really know precisely how genes give rise to traits. It’d be insane to say, “Well, now that we know about quarks, all the questions of chemistry are answered,” or, “Now that we know about genes, there’s no need to study actual animals anymore.” Doubtless more information about the “lower” or more “foundational” level would contribute to the study of the “higher” or “phenomenal” level, but not if the study of the lower level leads you to believe the study of the higher level is already redundant.

It is probably the case that an account of the connective tissue between the brain and the subject — the “dream-work,” if you will — is going to have to be much more speculative than most contemporary philosophers would really be comfortable with. It would probably look a lot more like Freud’s metapsychological writings or Beyond the Pleasure Principle than like a work of “proper” science or philosophy. I honestly wouldn’t even know where to begin. But unless people are willing to do that kind of work, it seems to me that just bracketing the brain and reflecting directly on the experience of consciousness is going to be a lot more useful than any direct reference to neuroscience could ever be under present circumstances.

A Freud question

In his essay on “Fetischismus” (Studienausgabe, vol. III, pg. 383), Freud’s first example is a puzzling one:

Am merkwürdigsten erschien ein Fall, in dem ein junger Mann einen gweissen “Glanz auf der Nase” zur fetischistischen Bedingung erhoben hatte. Das fand seine überraschende Aufklärung durch die Tatsache, daß der Patient eine englische Kinderstube gehabt hatte, dann aber nach Deutschland gekommen war, wo er seine Muttersprache fast vollkommen vergaß. Der aus den ersten Kinderzeiten stammende Fetisch war nicht deutsch, sondern englisch zu lesen, der “Glanz auf der Nase” war eigentlich ein “Blick auf die Nase” (glance = Blick), die Nase war also der Fetisch, dem er übrigens nach seinem Belieben jenes besondere Glanzlicht verlieh, das andere nicht wahrnehmen konnten.

He seems to be citing it only because of the weirdness of the cross-linguistic pun — which surely is weird and interesting! And yet there are other weird things going on here. Does he have a fetish for… shiny noses? How could that have originated out of “glancing up the nose”? He never returns to this example, so I’m kind of lost at sea here. Any ideas?

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