Re: Freud is dead but sexy with it (was: Re: Wobble Wobble)

From: Damien Broderick (
Date: Sat Jan 29 2000 - 22:12:35 MST

At 11:28 PM 29/01/00 -0500, Bob Owen wrote:

>I will restrict myself here to one observation, and wait a bit
>to see if someone else might not do a much better job than
>I can in addressing your subtle question.

My question has subtle implications, but as MMB notes, it was an axe-blow.

Here are some perhaps salient observations from my book THE ARCHITECTURE OF


Humans, in short, evolved as extended phenotypes: each body is as
incomplete outside its cultural setting as a spleen set loose in the
jungle. Being an ambulant organ in a disseminated system is no easy life:
there are many ways to go awry. While much contemporary literary theory
takes it as established that Freudian hermeneutics is the discipline of
choice for unpicking such problems, this is by no means widely accepted
within other traditions which deal with overlapping problematics - least of
all psychology. Consider the careful summary estimate from B. A. Farrell's
The Standing of Psychoanalysis, which I must cite as length to capture the
full spectrum and force of its judgement:

        The central generalisations from the theory of instincts - about death and
aggression and self-preservation - are mistaken, because the whole concept
of instinct embodied in them is a mistake. There is evidence to believe
that the infant goes through certain early stages of bodily interests and
satisfactions. But it runs counter to the state of play in science to
suppose that the infant is sexually driven in going through these stages.
The generalisation about the `Oedipus' and `castration' complexes in boys
is conceptually confused, and, when clarified, of very doubtful adequacy.
The parallel generalisations for girls are either unsupported or
disconfirmed. But when the doubtful aspects of the `Oedipal' story are
cleared away, we seem to be left with what may be important pointers to the
development of the infant in respect of its own body and its early adult
figures. The generalisations about latency and bisexuality are
disconfirmed [while that] about `normal' human sexuality has no scientific
backing at present [nor that for] an anal-sadistic stage. [Evidence
suggests] that the human being may function in the ways outlined by the
mechanisms of repression and displacement [but] that the theory of dreams
and symbolism will not do, and only contains a part of the truth. There is
some evidence to support the concept of the oral character, stronger
evidence to support the concept of an anal one; but insufficient evidence
to support the analytic story of their origins. Nor is there any evidence
to support the analytic account of neurotic disorder or the perversions.
There is some weak support for the analytic account of homosexuality, but
the experimental work about paranoid schizophrenia is of dubious value. ...
                If [this] account of analytic theory and practice ... is anywhere near
the truth, then one thing is clear. The impact of psychoanalysis on the
West cannot be justified on the ground that it contains a body of
reasonably secure or established knowledge about human nature.

                Farrell's case is not limited to the notorious difficulty in finding
substantive evidence for the effectiveness of psychoanalytic therapy, which
he gives only one chapter (though his tape-transcribed case studies from
the consulting room of the psychiatrist Turquet are certainly corrosive:
`the material is perspective-dependent; and it is self-confirmatory and
therefore method-dependent to some degree, and hence artefact-infected').
His main thrust, like poststructuralism's, is hermeneutic: his fourth
chapter is `the argument from intelligibility', his fifth deals with
`psychoanalytic interpretation'.
                An alternative estimate, heavily influenced by Lacanian versions of
Freud, posits that discourse is in a deep sense unintelligible unless we
accept that language has an unconscious, and that psychoanalytic methods
are the most valuable known for `interrogating' that unconscious
speech/writing. As individuals we are interpellated and produced by the
text, and the text of the world, as we produce it (but there is no `we',
only subject-positions).
                But can `language', an abstraction as remote from ontological
instantiation as `the unconscious', `have' anything of the sort? Thought
and speech and writing, in whatever order we chose to list them or place
them in hierarchy, no doubt function at varying levels of accessibility: it
is misleading to reify this truth. Consider a typical poststructural
formulation, the most famous gnome of Lacan's: the unconscious is
structured like a language. Two objections are evident. Firstly, the
entire structuralist project from which Lacan's work springboards was
founded in the grand analogy of all the human sciences with linguistics, in
its Saussurean recension. If by hypothesis everything human is structured
like a language it is hardly informative to be told that the unconscious,
too, is among their number. More precisely, though, it is likely that the
hypothesis is based on a dubious figure. The surmise that the unconscious,
conceived as the source of language, is structured like its manifest output
draws upon such images of isomorphism as stamp and wax or (at the level of
DNA coding) egg and chicken. But there are many quite important ways in
which, for example, an ice-cream machine is not like an ice-cream. That
this analogical step is so readily taken in the absence of compelling
evidence in its favour bespeaks the imposition of authority and power, even
if these are embodied in hegemonically oppositional figures and texts.
`Say it's Oedipus,' in Deleuze and Guattari's parodic demystification, `or
you'll get a slap in the face.'
                A major difficulty for anyone from the `scientific' side of Snow's `two
cultures' dichotomy is the disdain which poststructural psychoanalysis
appears to evince for empirical (and in some cases, as we have seen,
logical) considerations. Consider that notable - and quite central -
theoretical construct of Lacanian thought, the `mirror stage' of infantile
development. Raymond Tallis, in the passage below, points up what is
surely a fairly obvious pragmatic self-refutation (unless the `stage' is
meant to be taken so loosely as to be no more than a metaphoric heuristic,
and a misleading one); that this kind of debunking analysis has evidently
had no effect whatsoever on Lacanians I see as paradigmatic of the failure
of debate between important current theoretical positions:

        As Lemaire expresses it `The Mirror Stage is the advent of coenaesthetic
subjectivity preceded by the feeling that one's own body is in pieces. The
reflection of the body, then, is salutary in that it is unitary and
localised in time and space.' Is the reflection of the body that infants
receive in the mirror thus unified? Is not the image very often only
fragmentary, consisting of part of the body - usually face plus or minus
the neck and shoulders? How often does the child see the whole of its body
in the mirror?...
                If epistemological maturation and the formation of a world picture were
dependent upon catching sight of oneself in a mirror, then the theory would
predict that congenitally blind individuals would lack selfhood and be
unable to enter language, society or the world at large. There is no
evidence whatsoever that this implausible consequence of the theory is
borne out in practice.



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