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Thursday, June 02, 2005

Same Senseless Ramblings, Slightly Bigger Stage, or Intellectual Investments in Jolly Corners

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/02/05 at 10:10 AM

First, I’d like to thank John for the invite.  I’m still 100% committed to writing all my usual nonsense at my place, but now I have a venue for some of my more serious prattle, like…

In “Fixed Opinions, or The Hinge of History” (later published as Fixed Ideas) Joan Didion represents the Bush Administration’s justification for what future generations will call the Giant Mess O’Potamia as follows:

“I made up my mind,” [Bush] had said in April, “that Saddam needs to go.” This was one of many curious, almost petulant statements offered in lieu of actually presenting a case. I’ve made up my mind, I’ve said in speech after speech, I’ve made myself clear. The repeated statements became their own reason: “Given all we have said as a leading world power about the necessity for regime change in Iraq,” James R. Schlesinger, who is now a member of Richard Perle’s Defense Policy Board, told The Washington Post in July, “our credibility would be badly damaged if that regime change did not take place."

Ouch.  Didion goes on to discuss the “fixed ideas” responsible for those repeated statements, but that’s not where I’m headed: what I want to do is align academic psychoanalytic thinkers with the Bush administration because it’s 1) counter-intuitive, 2) highly inflammatory and 3) in this extremely limited respect, arguably true.

For the sake of clarity, I should say that I’m talking about the citation of prominent psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic thinkers as authorities and not, for example, scholars who talk about the influence of Freudian thought on American literature in the ‘50s or ‘60s.  The latter scholar points to a historical reality; the former to an unverifiable, unscientific explanation for human behavior.  But I’m not interested in writing another anti-psychoanalysis broadside.  I want to know why, as Frederick Crews argues, “the academic humanities” are one of the “three arenas in which flawed but once modish ideas, secure from the menace of rigorous testing, can be kept indefinitely in play.”

Why would otherwise intelligent people persist in straining their thought through this particular “epistemic sieve”?  One answer, as Didion says, may be that “repeated statements become their own reason.” One can easily imagine scholars who have staked reputations to books and articles founded on psychoanalytic principles saying “Given all I have said as a leading figure in this field...” This not only applies to first-order academic psychoanalysts, i.e. those who cite Freud, Lacan, etc. directly; it also applies to second-, third- and fourth-order academic psychoanalysts, i.e those who cite Althusser, Fanon, Butler, etc.  Logic would seem to dictate that if Freud’s anathema, then so is Lacan; if Lacan’s anathema, so is Althusser, etc.  And if the investment in what’s been said determines what will be said ad infinitum, well, you see where I’m headed: the year 7,349 R.D.E., in which radical academic brains, born in jars and entombed in robotic exoskeletons, discuss the oedipalization issues raised by the latest libro-amniotic sensation.  “I.N.T. 9017240-94189 clearly suffers from organic body envy, defined by Freud of the Embodied Era of Eventual and Inevitable Death as...”

Now, because this isn’t a broadside, I’m not interested in flogging the Freudians/Lacanians/etc. for their continued allegiance to one of the available psychoanalytic methods.  I’d rather estimate the value of the psychoanalysis as a pure analytic--divorced from Popperian claims to science--one which produces more or less insightful readings of literary texts.  As you can tell, I’m inclined to say that for all their complexities these psychoanalytic methods lead to gross oversimplifications of whatever they’re applied to.  Then again, I could be wrong. 

That may be too abstract: What I want to know is whether you think psychoanalysis produces knowledge about literature or only about psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic interpretations of literature.  If it’s the former, I’d want to grade the quality of the literary knowledge produced.  (Before you ask, “quality” is indeed about as loaded as a word can get without endangering innocent bystanders.) If it’s the latter, I’d be indebted to anyone who could justify the value of perpetuating knowledge about psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic interpretations of literature. 

If you’d rather discuss a couple of specific essays that use psychoanalysis in entirely different ways, I could do that too.  Here are some examples drawn from recent articles on Henry James’ “The Jolly Corner" (available through Project Muse):

1.  Eric Savoy’s “The Queer Subject of ‘The Jolly Corner.’" Savoy aims to explicate “the psychoanalytic dimensions of Spencer Brydon’s monstrous other, his prosopopoeia-come-to-life...within the theories of gender regulation and identity formation advanced by Sedgwick and Judith Butler. I want to chart a particular intersection between Sedgwick’s work on homosexual panic and Butler’s exploration of the melancholia of gender which bears on the figurative operations of prosopopoeia, the master-trope of haunting that is crucial in the discursive production of the other in paranoid gothic texts.” The article concludes with this ringer: “the allegorical case history of ‘The Jolly Corner’ demonstrates the strange lucidities of a not-so-jolly coroner when backed into a not-so-jolly corner.”

2.  Mark Goble’s “Delirious Henry James: a Small Boy and New York." Goble argues that “in A Small Boy and Others that James wants desperately to recall--’reckless almost to extravagance’--a different class of American spectacle, along with the urban modernity that it inspires. We might say James is after a modernity that is still at low pitch, still capable of sounding the ‘tone of time,’ like Cornelia herself, and her ‘small sallow carte-de-visite photographs, faithfully framed but spectrally faded’ ("Crapy Cornelia” 839). I am interested in how James makes history out of these artifacts of the modern. A Small Boy and Others seems an ideal place to begin understanding this particular alchemy, because James’s fond and lavish reconstruction of ‘old New York’ seems less an excursion into the past, and more an excavation of the city’s delirious future.”

3.  Shalyn Claggett’s “Narcissim and the Conditions of Self-knowledge in James’s ‘The Jolly Corner.’" Claggett contends that “‘The Jolly Corner’ is a Narcissus narrative with an important difference: Narcissus comprehends his image and dies; Brydon denies his image and survives. Just before encountering the image, Brydon realizes the dangerous nature of the knowledge such a meeting would impart, thinking it ‘would send him straight about to the window he had left open, and by that window . . . he saw himself uncontrollably insanely fatally take his way to the street’ (753). Knowing this, Brydon attempts to avoid his other self at the last moment, and when he cannot help encountering it, he denies it to be him as the only possible means of psychic escape. In so doing, he enables himself to fulfill Narcissus’s alternative fate of living to a ‘well-ripened age’ (347). But James does more than offer a complementary version of the Narcissus myth—he dramatizes the complexities of this dilemma—death or self-knowledge—as fundamental in the subject’s formation of a cohesive self.”


This is a good article to read if you’re interested in the actual scientific status of psychoanalysis.

By Jonathan on 06/02/05 at 12:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve read the Holland before, as well as Seymour Fisher and Roger Greenberg’s The Scientific Credibility of Freud’s Theories and Therapy; but I’ve also read Adolf Grünbaum’s Foundations of Psychoanalysis and Malcolm Macmillan’s Freud Evaluated: The Completed Arc, to name a few, and they make Holland’s attempt to bootstrap psychoanalysis into science look empty.  Holland neglects to mention one significant difference between geology, astronomy, medicine and psychoanalysis; namely, that the first three can produce empirically measurable results, whereas psychoanalysis cannot. Holland confuses the theorizing for practice, equating the theorizing of Lyell, Darwin, etc. with psychoanalytic theorizing, then ignoring the fact that the theories of Lyell, Darwin, etc. could be and in fact were later verified by empirical evidence.  The strongest possible version of Holland’s claim is that psychoanalysis is, right now, as much of a science as geology or evolutionary biology in the 1860s...and that’s not the claim he wants to make.  (As I’ve mentioned before, I entered grad. school a psychoanalytic critic, but I’m leaving an apostate.)

But this isn’t the discussion I wanted to have; I’m less interested in the truth of psychoanalysis in general than its possible utility for literary studies in particular.  Is it possible for psychoanalysis to be utterly wrong about people but eminently useful when addressed to novels/poems/etc.?

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/02/05 at 01:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not sure how you mean “eminently useful when addresses to novels/poems/etc.”

At any rate, I’m not sure that the scientificity or otherwise of psychoanalysis is as unimportant as you state that it is.  Isn’t the point of a science-influenced method of criticizing literature that the science is supposed to reflect something about how people actually behave?  If they don’t, then isn’t that theory much more predisposed to lead you in the wrong direction than an accurate theory would?

Let’s do a thought experiment, and imagine that astronomy was as mysterious to us as psychology now is.  You could have astronomical theories of literature, focussing heavily on any mention of the sun or constellations, or on the characters’ perception of passing time through cues given by light, or perhaps on the analysis of character or of authorial intent through astrological means.  Instead of Narcissus being cited as in your last example, it would be Icarus.  And so on.  And the historical record of literature could be influenced by a period in which authors kept having the moon be cryptically visible over their characters’ shoulders.

So would it make any difference to literary theory in the thought experiment whether the astronomy was accurate or not?  I think it would.  A theory based on astrology or pericycles would elaborate literature based on ideas that have no congruence to what actually goes on in the world.  Therefore they would be essentially arbitrary.  You might luck out and get one that has greater capability for symbolic complexity than another, but eventually, people would realize that nothing was keeping them from using some other critical scheme.

Literary theory based on actual astronomy, however, would restrict the choices that lierary theorists have down to those that you couldn’t convincingly say were replaceable.  Of course, people would find that what astronomy lets you usefully say about literature is very limited, and after a while, no one would bother much with it except in a historical sense.  I think that’s going to be the final fate of psychological literary criticism —with the obvious proviso that psychology, since it concerns the motivation of people, has a lot more connection to literature than astronomy does.  But psychology doesn’t say that much about individuals as individuals, which is most of the literary concern with character.

By on 06/02/05 at 01:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Gellner in the marvelous and delightfully ascerbic Psychoanalytic Movement: The Cunning of Unreason:

Freud did not discover the Unconscious.  What he did do was to endow it with a language, a ritual, and a church.  The general spirit of the language, which conveys that our instinctual needs are central to us, and that they operate in a hidden, devious and cunning manner, seems to me unquestionably sound.  The more specific doctrines articulated in that idiom seem to me questionable, unproven, and above all inherently elusive.

If that’s so, it’s not surprising that psychonalytic literary criticism can provide (albeit at a high cost) genuine insight.  What it offers in this light is an overelaborate methodology for doing systematically what good reading would do anyway--attend to the devious and cunning ways in which writers and/or their characters present themselves and their partially obscured motivations for doing so.

Gellner goes on to say that psychoanlysis isn’t a science but a church--and one that in his account provides solutions to the knottiest problems of human existence in the modern world (problems that he says are consistent with some of the fundamental philosophical puzzles).  Since literature is bound to be concerned with some of the same problems, psychonalytic criticism is well positioned to highlight the overlap and, in keeping with the habits of the faith, to suggest that psychoanalysis has the true answers to the problems with which writers can only grapple.

Glad you’re here, Scott.

By on 06/02/05 at 01:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Astronomy is a very nice analogy:  it’s been suggested that psychoanalysis is like Ptolemaic astronomy, and when its values and premises seem mistaken, its adherents keep adding epicycles.

I think we’re beyond the stage in which lit scholars who use Lacan, Zizek, Althusser, et al have necessarily staked their credibility upon Freud’s claims being true.  If an author has an insight that seems applicable to a specific social or psychological situation, surely one can value it regardless of the author’s theoretical allegiances or influences.

Look at Crews: he says that he originally believed that Freud’s applicability to the works of Hawthorne proved Freud right, and now he realizes that it simply proved both authors share a similar worldview, and that all the valuable insights in Freud had been made by the likes of Shakespeare, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky.  I studied once under a psychoanalytic scholar who suggested that to find the striking parallels in the work of Virginia Woolf to the myth of development and identity set forth by Kristeva was indeed to produce knowledge, and I’m inclined in that direction: i.e., I find it credible to say that, at a certain point in literary history, we begin to see narratives that draw upon the same premises concerning human personality, perception, and interaction that the psychoanalytic scholars sought to explain and systematize, and the use of those scholars’ tools and categories can help us articulate questions and hypotheses about those narratives.

By on 06/02/05 at 02:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment


“Eminently” might have been overstating my case, but I imagine (and given that all three of the essays I cited are very, very recent, I suppose I know) that other intelligent people believe a case for psychoanalysis could be made.  While I agree with you, I don’t want to make the environment here so hostile that people who would defend psychoanalysis under different circumstances are reluctant to reply.  (This is my teacherly mode: open up conversations and let the chips fall where they may, because oftentimes what other people say against your position is far more compelling than what you can muster to defend it.  Then again, sometimes, as was the case in my class yesterday, you end up with conservative Christians defending Didion’s position and you’re forced to defend Bush’s.  You never know, but if you lecture instead of teach, you never will.  I apologize in advance if this sounds condescending, but I’m trying to foster conversation, not encourage shouting matches [not that you’re shouting] and this way works in the classroom; we’ll see if it works online.)

That parenthetical aside, um, aside, I’d agree with your claim that “psychology doesn’t say that much about individuals as individuals, which is most of the literary concern with character.” I’d wonder what the basis for analyzing the individual motives of individual characters would be if it’s not one psychologizing system or another.  I could talk about what the characters believe their motivations to be, but that flattens characters to their understanding of their motivations.  This decision can probably only be made on a case-by-case basis, but should literary scholars care more about what Hamlet thinks he’s doing or what he’s actually doing?  And I realize I’ve flattened another series of distinctions out there, but you have to start somewhere…

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/02/05 at 02:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The key is what you mean by “useful” when it comes to literary analysis.  Has the work of Freud or Lacan led to interesting readings?  Of course, and to say otherwise is to be simply closeminded.  Say what you will about Zizek’s personality, but his Lacan-infused approach to Hitchcock and noir is genuinely stimulating.  Same goes for folks like Laura Mulvey or Kaja Silverman.  In fact, Silverman’s recent book on Lacan and Heidegger is beautifully written and breathtakingly smart about such difficult work.

Another issue is this: I’ll grant that Freud isn’t the last word on even his own theory of mind (as he himself constantly admits in his own work), but has a *better* theory of desire, of erotic attachment, of unconscious motivation been put together?  I’m not familiar with it, in any case (Girard has some great points, but he’s still very much an anthropological version of Freud at heart).  Compare Freud’s work with, say, William James, whose psychology seems to have panned out surprisingly well.  You’ll notice that James has no resources for dealing with the very insideous dynamics of instinctual urges (nor does, say, Beck’s cognitive therapy or medication, for that matter).

But in the final analysis we have to approach psychoanalysis as a methodology like any other methodology: they are all limited.  As Albert Murray has written, such approaches are Uncle-Remus nets for capturing experience, some with broad warp and woof, some with tightly woven threads, and all snare different butterflies.

Most literary scholars still adhere to some form of “close reading” at the heart of their methods, despite the fact that many of the basic assumptions of New Criticism have been challenged, despite the fact that New Critical reading practices work best only for small, “well-cooked” (to use Lowell’s terms) verbal objects.  Try doing a “close reading” of a Fluxus poem or a Jackson Mac Lowe text!  This isn’t to say we should abandon close reading, but that it, like any other approach, has its limitations.

Or take Bakhtin: a brilliant theorist of a certain type of fiction, but he has absolutely nothing to say about the lyric (sort of the inverse of New Criticism).

All approaches are nets, maps, models of how certain verbal forms are assembled and conjure significance.  Of course, a pluralist or pragmatic approach is the best, where the critic can bring to bear on a text whatever will generate the most engaging reading for his or her audience. 

As Greil Marcus writes, “ . . . it leads one to ask not only what goes into a piece of music, but also a more intense version of the same question: what can you hear in it?” Or elsewhere: “ . . . it is not an interpretation at all.  It’s not an attempt to define or decode what a singer meant when he sang what he sang, but a response to a certain provocation.  It is an attempt to catch what the singer took out of the air of a particular time and place, to catch what the singer and the musicians with him put back in the air.”

By on 06/02/05 at 03:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

One last point I forgot to mention:

Only the crudest of critics use psychoanalysis anymore to “psychoanalyze” a character, just as only the crudest of marxian critics try to relate a book’s content immediately to an economic context.

The way film studies has incorporated fetish theory, among other psychoanalytic motifs, into its readings of cinema shows a more complex approach: how do images and audience interact?  How does identification work when engaging images?  How do images negotiate the audience’s own desires?

Or, take Jameson’s work in marxian theory.  Against crude Marxists, Jameson looks at form as a symbolic resolution of real social contradictions.  A similar approach is taken by those of us who draw on certain psychoanalytic concepts in our work: how does a work’s form seem to resolve in symbolic fashion the double binds the Social wraps around the subject?  Of course, such an approach must be culturally and historically contextualized as well. 

Or, to take a fabulous novel *about* psychoanalysis: you can’t crudely psychoanalyze Portnoy as a character.  But you can look at how his verbal performance is just that: a performance.  So rather than exmaining the content of his speech (the sex with liver, the attempted rape of an Israeli woman, etc.), a critic could look at *for whom* is Portnoy performing at any given moment.  This is to use Freud’s distinction between Ego Ideal and Ideal Ego (which Lacan revised thoughtfully): who does Portnoy wish to be?  But more importantly, for whom does he want to be that?  This allows us to use Freudian concepts in a social or culturally-centered way: he “assimilates” in certain ways, but an imagined audience of Jews is his ideal audience (i.e. his blasphemy is a sign of his unacknowledged faith).  But that’s just off the top of my head, so don’t hold me to that reading!

By on 06/02/05 at 03:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

SEK.cephalous: “I’d wonder what the basis for analyzing the individual motives of individual characters would be if it’s not one psychologizing system or another.”

Well, people analyzed motives long before there was a scientistic system for doing so.  Isn’t the desire to have one a remnant of logical positivism?  Of course, if there really is one that meets scientific standards, then it can only help.  I’m actually more confident that elements of psychology are real science than you appear to be, but that’s only my opinion.

“[S]hould literary scholars care more about what Hamlet thinks he’s doing or what he’s actually doing?” Perhaps people sometimes behave like Hamlet in part because culture has taken Hamlet as a model.  The relationship between psychology and literary culture isn’t necessarily all one way.  If so, a psychological explanation for what Hamlet does would have a hidden self-referentiality to it.

Luther Blissett: “Has the work of Freud or Lacan led to interesting readings?  Of course, and to say otherwise is to be simply closeminded.”

But that’s not the point.  I would assume that a literary theorist, being on average a well-read, intelligent, and educated person, could at least sometimes make an interesting reading out of any theory.  I’m sure that astrological analysis has figured in some literary studies, for instance.  But there are hazards.  Once people figure out that any arbitrary system not matching reality is as good as any other, there is a tendency to discredit the reading as meaningless.  And it involves the incorporation of a lot of often poorly understood scientific concepts that may not really be germane to the literature.

By on 06/02/05 at 03:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, as Holland’s paper gives many examples of psychoanalytic claims (not just those in Fisher and Greenberg) being both testable and falsifiable, you misrepresent the content of his paper. Futhermore, although I often find people’s emphatic opinions about the relative merits of books very interesting, they don’t constitute an argument. Neither is the intellectual biography relevant, unless we are to assume that you’ve mastered this body of knowledge and moved on in a way that mirrors the progression of the world-spirit.

By Jonathan on 06/02/05 at 03:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment


You make too many points, all of them worthy of response, but as we live in a universe in which I dissertate in another window, I want to focus on one of them:

The way film studies has incorporated fetish theory, among other psychoanalytic motifs, into its readings of cinema shows a more complex approach: how do images and audience interact?  How does identification work when engaging images?  How do images negotiate the audience’s own desires?

Excellent points all around, but if psychoanalysis is a discourse that speaks only of itself and not to actual human behavior, aren’t the conclusions drawn from this method, interesting as they may be, only going to amount to “how images and audiences would interact were psychoanalytic ‘truths’ true”? 

As to your point about Portnoy’s Complaint, I have no qualms about psychoanalytic accounts of poems/novels/etc. written by authors heavily under the influence...because then you’re likely to produce what, in the end, is as close to a perfect analogue of authorial intent as is possible.

Also, your point about the inherent limitations of all theories is well-taken, but I wonder what the justification of employing one over another would be...because it produces more interesting results?

[And yes, I seem to have run out of words other than “point."]

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/02/05 at 03:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, which are the examples of psychoanalytic claims testable and/or falsifiable?  On a quick scan, I didn’t find them.  What I did see is in fact an effective concession to Gellner’s argument.  Virtually all of what Holland believes lives in psyschonalysis (much of mental life is unconscious; mental processes operate in parallel and in conflict; stable personality forms in childhood and affects adult life; mental representations guide relations with others; personal development involves moving from immature dependency to mature interdependency) can be found in any number of intellectual sources.  They’re not at all special to psychonalysis--which is why Luther’s point makes sense--and, frankly, some of them are banal. 

Gellner really is indispensible in this context.  That book is brilliant. If you haven’t seen it yet, Scott, you’ve gotta check it out.

By on 06/02/05 at 04:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, I’m not misrepresenting the content of his paper.  Holland’s claims for what Masling, Fisher and Greenberg have established aren’t very strong:

1. Much mental life, including thoughts, feelings, and motives is unconscious. Neurology supplies massive evidence of unconscious processes of cognition.

2. Mental processes operate in parallel and, often, in conflict.

3. Stable personality patterns form in childhood and shape later relationships.

4. Mental representations of the self, others, and relationships guide interactions with others and shape symptoms.

5. Personality development is not just learning regulation of sex and aggression (Freud’s theory) but also moving from immature dependency to mature interdependency.

That’s wonderful, but look at how vague, how general they are.  Holland’s argument boils down to “we should take psychoanalysis seriously because we have evidence that people are confused, conflicted, influenced by their childhood, and think about themselves in relation to others.” Granted, Freud said much of this first, but that’s not a reason to stick with his particular interpretive method. 

(And the personal history’s in there to indicate that I’m not shooting from the hip but have actually done the research.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/02/05 at 04:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“how images and audiences would interact were psychoanalytic ‘truths’ true”?

Scott, that was exactly the point I was going to make.

I think pscyhoanalysis in film studies is useful in-so-much-as psychoanalsis and Freudian thought in particular has made its way into the world-view of writers and filmmakers and has been incorporated into the stories, themes, and characters in the work of certain artists (Hitchcock, Lynch, etc).

What I find suspect in film studies is using (especially in an uncritical fashion) psychoanalysis as a basis for a theory of spectatorship; i.e., how spectators interact with a film. So much of contemporary film theorizing assumes the validity of psychoanalytic accounts and proceeds unquestionably from there.

To be fair, I’m a bit of a Bordwellian so....

By on 06/02/05 at 04:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Has the work of Freud or Lacan led to interesting readings?  Of course, and to say otherwise is to be simply closeminded.

Yes, but are they plausible readings? 
“Interesting” and “stimulating” readings are easy--it’s readings we are given good reason to take seriously that are hard to build.

It seems to me that psychoanalysis is--and ought to be--a live resource for literary studies.  And I’m happy to say that some of what gets called psychoanalysis is scientific enough not to be laughed at.  (Lacan and his ilk seem to me dogmatic and obscure, but Wollheim, Lear, etc. are (or in the case of the former, were) capable defenders of the view.)

Of course, insofar as a reading cannot be stated without the language of the psychoanalyst’s extravagant and controversial metaphysics of the mind, we ought to take such readings with a salt lick ready to hand.

By Zehou on 06/02/05 at 04:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Granted, Freud said much of this first . . .

Not.  But he said it convincingly and reassuringly.

By on 06/02/05 at 04:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, “SEK.cephalous”?  Ouch.  How about “Sc.ephalous”?  Or “Scott Ericephalous”?  Nevermind.  Rotten choices all.  (Side note: that’s not a pretentious inclusion of my middle name there.  “Scott Kaufman” is also the name of the designer of “Porn Star” clothing; a popular/despised local attorney; and a local grip/actor.  Lots of phone calls/emails, none of them for me.)

Perhaps people sometimes behave like Hamlet in part because culture has taken Hamlet as a model.  The relationship between psychology and literary culture isn’t necessarily all one way.  If so, a psychological explanation for what Hamlet does would have a hidden self-referentiality to it.

As I told Luther, I’m on board with this explanation of, say, Freud and Roth.  I’m also inclined to agree with Josh’s contention that it may be

credible to say that, at a certain point in literary history, we begin to see narratives that draw upon the same premises concerning human personality, perception, and interaction that the psychoanalytic scholars sought to explain and systematize, and the use of those scholars’ tools and categories can help us articulate questions and hypotheses about those narratives.

My (evolving) position can accommodate direct influence of psychoanalytic theories or a weak version of Geistesgeshichte, maybe.  One of the questions I always stumble over in my own work is how weak those connections can become before they’re entirely my own invention, i.e. am I seeing something here or am I seeing what I expected to find? 

Sean, I own but haven’t read the Gellner yet; I’ve moved it to the top of the stack.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/02/05 at 04:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So, Sean, you’re an advocate of Harold Bloom’s idea that Shakespeare (or is it Hamlet) not only anticipates but encompasses Freud? It’s not hard to find an antecedent to an idea or argument after it has been influentially formulated (the Whitehead effect). That latter bit is the trick, though. Ecclesiastical enforcing seems a rather dreary and resentful exercise.

Freud was a neurologist, it’s worth remembering. Subsequent neurology and cognitive science have confirmed many of his ideas and intuitions. What are we to conclude form this, again?

By Jonathan on 06/02/05 at 04:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You’ll be glad you did, Scott.  It’s witty as hell, and it makes the question you’re wrestling with a lot clearer, I think.

By on 06/02/05 at 04:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I suppose I’d still like to know who these earlier psychologists or philosophers were who posited: (a) a subject at war with itself; (b) a subject without rational control over its most basic choices; (c) that dreams in many cases disguise urges we’re afraid to admit; (d) that there’s a “poetics” of dreams based traceable types of cognitive distorition; (e) that a person’s basic character is formed in her/his first couple of years; (f) that many cultures force the subject to repress “perverse” desires and channel these energies into socially acceptable ways; (g) to challenge such universal or timeless assumptions about social norms; (h) to look for meanings in “everyday practices” like verbal slips, jokes, curses, interjections, etc.  The Kantians, the pragmatists, the idealists, the Marxists, the rationalists, and the positivists don’t cover those ideas, nor did Durkheim, Weber, and the sociologists.

As Freud himself points out, the foundation of his thought rests in poetry and drama (i.e., the fullest expressions of the social rituals he saw played out not just on stage or on the page but in the most common person’s daily life).  And as in drama and poetry, it’s the ec-centric or perverse moments of individual life that Freud shows are the keys to a theory of mind.

And finally: a good reading of a text is one that makes you want to re-read that text.  That’s it.  As Charles Olson said, the critic’s job, like the poet’s, is to take the energy from one verbal machine and keep that energy moving to the reader via another verbal machine.

By on 06/02/05 at 04:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that the astrology / alchemy analogy for psychoanalysis is exact.  You have a tremendously fertile machine for generating interpretations, but no way of deciding between the individual interpretations, and in most cases no way of even telling what an interpretation means, except via a further psychoanalysis. In what I’ve read of Lacan, he seems diligently committed to pumping out new product which makes the previous product obsolete. The Bill Gates of philosophy or whatever it is that he does.

I’ve read books by Nobel scientists which tried diligently, and in some cases successfully, to explain in common-sense terms what their most abstruse theories meant. People in Theory never do that, because being understood is not their game.

I do think that the psychoanalytic stress on the more lurid myths and archetypes has its value, as long as it isn’t used too heavy-hendedly.

It would strike me that Portnoy is more susceptible to psychoanalytic interpretation than almost anyone.

By John Emerson on 06/02/05 at 05:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And finally: a good reading of a text is one that makes you want to re-read that text.

Certainly not every text. There’s also the good reading of the rotten-egg text, which tells you that you do not want to read that one.

To ask whether Freud (d. 1939) contributed anything at all to psychology is not the same as to ask whether contemporary psychoanalytic theory is worthwhile.

By John Emerson on 06/02/05 at 05:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Of course, insofar as a reading cannot be stated without the language of the psychoanalyst’s extravagant and controversial metaphysics of the mind, we ought to take such readings with a salt lick ready to hand.

Zehou, the more I think about this sentence, the more it baffles me.  (Note: “it’s not you, it’s me.") Are you distinguishing psychoanalytic metaphysics from psychoanalytic language and only complaining about the latter’s jargon?  Or is this a case of white-hats and black-hats in which the white-hats’ve been silenced by 100 yrs. of black’s jargogling?

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/02/05 at 05:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Freud was a neurologist, it’s worth remembering. Subsequent neurology and cognitive science have confirmed many of his ideas and intuitions. What are we to conclude form this, again?

Jonathan, calling the Freud who wrote The Interpretation of Dreams a “neurologist” is a stretch, no?  He did some work on cerebral palsy--I think that’s what it was--but it’s no more pertinent to his theories than was his active clinical practice, which is why he eventually turned to metaphor (Ego and Id, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Civ. and Its Discontents, etc.). 

As for why the discussion’s headed in this direction, well, it’s because it has.  I tried to follow that line from our earlier conversation and address its possible utility in literary studies.  But I’m new here, so maybe this is all an elaborate hazing…

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/02/05 at 06:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

He viewed it as a continuation of his earlier work by other (and necessary) means, and he has been at least partially vindicated by subsequent inquiry (and those vindicated ideas are not trivial or old--except in uncharitable hindsight). Because of the pervasive influence of Freud’s ideas, it is very difficult for people to assess them neutrally. Cf. Nietzsche and Marx.

By Jonathan on 06/02/05 at 06:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For many items in that list, Luther, ("H" aside) the question would be: who hasn’t spoken of such things.  But the most obvious and germane (and unacknowledged) predecessor would be Nietzsche.  Daniel N. Robinson’s _Intellectual History of Psychology_ details a long prehistory to pschoanalysis.

Jonathan, I’m still interested to know which are the testable/falsifiable claims or the vindicated ones.  I didn’t see much that Holland’s article talked about very specifically.  I admit, I read quickly, but on your recommendation I looked at the article and I saw one study (Sampson and Weiss) that Holland referred to in depth, and the methodology there--"transcribing the first 100 hours of one patient’s treatment and using scorers and coders to categorize and count the moves and meanings the patient and the analyst were making"--seems to me obviously pretty weak.  (One patient, no control, subjective evaluation.) I’m not sure why pointing that out merits such a heated response.

By on 06/02/05 at 07:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The neurology of 1899 isn’t really a good selling-point for Freud.

In scientific areas of study, schools formed around founders seldom have the long-term influence that they do in less-scientific areas. You do hear of Darwinism and Newtonians, but “Darwinian” is shorthand for “evolutionist” and “Newtonian” mostly refers to people like Voltaire who advocated Newton’s ideas but didn’t work in physics. In science, the founder’s body of work is critically examined, and the weak parts of it are discarded.

If someone’s ideas are still controversial a century later, that’s a fair sign that they’re not scientific.

I am not a positivist, so Freud’s non-scientific status is not so important to me, but there are other problems with psychoanalysis.

By John Emerson on 06/02/05 at 07:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Between Fisher & Greenberg, Westen, and Masling, he cites empirical studies numbering well over a thousand. Are they all meaningless or distorted by blind faith in psychoanalysis? 

The example you point out might be flawed, but I’m not sure that I follow your reasoning. What would be “objective” evaluation in that context? A grading algorithm? Perhaps the NSA could share some of its speech recognition and truth-telling technology for future experiments. And what would constitute a control? A lengthy interrogation?

Here’s a relevant quote:

“In short, Westen plus Masling plus Fisher and Greenberg plus the earlier summarizers of experimental work plus the thousands of experimental studies themselves constitute a very large body of empirical evidence. Yet, as the squibs and squillets fly in the Freud wars, neither psychoanalysis’ detractors nor its supporters often mention these experimental results. Psychoanalysts do not find experiments relevant to their practice. Non-analytic psychologists pay little heed, because this kind of evidence runs counter to the deep-seated prejudice against psychoanalysis among academic psychologists, a prejudice embedded in textbooks and indoctrinated in beginning psychology courses. And psychologists rightly point to the unreliability of clinical evidence.”

I’m not a psychoanalytic critic, myself, and Holland’s work has moved into cognitive and brain science. But his point above seems very clear and convincing to me.

By Jonathan on 06/02/05 at 08:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In short, Westen plus Masling plus Fisher and Greenberg plus the earlier summarizers of experimental work plus the thousands of experimental studies themselves constitute a very large body of empirical evidence.

You’re bulking up the argument. The number of studies doesn’t prove anything.

Even granted this particular point, the utility pf psychoanalysis in criticism would be quite another question. One of the problems I’ve seen with psychoanalysis wherever I’ve seen it is the difficulty in finding out what psychoanalysis says in any given case. It seems to be more a vocabulary of self-expression and writerly performance than a body of agreed-upon truths.

By John Emerson on 06/02/05 at 09:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, Holland’s doing what you accused me of doing; namely, citing references without actually presenting an argument.  Also, the rhetoric of self-marginalization throughout Holland’s article bristles, esp. when his byline identifies him as a professor of English and he’s criticizing the prejudices of “academic psychologists,” by which he presumably means faculty in psychology departments.  But none of this matters.  Look, none of us are E.F. Torrey--who, in Freudian Fraud, famously cites contemporary (c. 1910) reviews of Freud and then leaps to the irrational conclusion that since his contemporaries didn’t believe him, neither should we--and I don’t think we’re trying to be.  That certainly wasn’t the intent of my post (although intellectual honesty demands I acknowledge my own position and I did).  One of my intentions was to address the issue Josh brought up earlier:

I think we’re beyond the stage in which lit scholars who use Lacan, Zizek, Althusser, et al have necessarily staked their credibility upon Freud’s claims being true.

I’m not sure I buy this.  You can’t build a house on a poor foundation and expect it to stand; so if Butler borrows from Lacan borrowing from Freud, I think there will, necessarily, be some problems with Butler’s thought.  That doesn’t make it worthless, only (gulp) problematic.  An example by way of counter-example:

Pretend it turns out that objects actually fall at 33 ft./sec. instead of 32.  All the formulas would be re-adjusted to accommodate the new gravitational constant and the world would go about its business.  The reason I began with the Didion quotation is because I don’t think that’s how the dynamics of a literary studies work out; we’re much more like Bush and Friends, insisting that because we’ve said something repeatedly and for a long time, that it must be true/valuable/what-not.  What’s preventing us from looking at, say, the current state of psychoanalytic thought (which, contrary to Holland, I don’t believe is all that sound) and deciding whether or not to jettison its most untenable tenets?  Then Butler and Bhabha and the like can re-think their theories to fit the new, more (but not ever entirely) scientific view of human development/behavior/interaction? 

Is it because of the position of the academic super-stars in our small slice of the heavens?  Probably.  But if it ain’t going anywhere anytime soon, I think the responsible action isn’t to ignore it entirely--that’ll just create two cultures within one of Snow’s--but to gently persuade it to get with the picture. 


By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/02/05 at 09:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Your first comment here stated that “[Holland] neglects to mention one significant difference between geology, astronomy, medicine and psychoanalysis; namely, that the first three can produce empirically measurable results, whereas psychoanalysis cannot.”

Holland cites several works which present numerous empirical studies of psychoanalysis. They provide evidence for his claim that these studies exist and that they provide measurable empirical data for some of the psychoanalytic claims. Furthermore, the existence of these studies is inconvenient for many--not all, but many--participants in the “Freud Wars.” If you feel that the works he cites do not in fact support his conclusion, you should tell us why. Simply mentioning Gr&uumlnbaum and Macmillan isn’t enough.

The point I wanted to raise by linking to the Holland article is that you shouldn’t overgeneralize about psychoanalysis. People talk about Freud far more than they read him, and I’m not sure if even Marx or Nietzsche’s ideas are as distorted in the popular imagination. Even among psychoanalytic literary scholars, much of the relevant evidence about Freud’s scientific legacy has been ignored or deemed a priori irrelevant.

I’m not sure if your original question was a call for the justification of future psychoanalytic approaches or all psychoanalytic literary criticism. I assume the former, as the latter would be cartoonishly arrogant and ignorant.

By Jonathan on 06/02/05 at 10:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"objective evaluation in that context? A grading algorithm? Perhaps the NSA could share some of its speech recognition and truth-telling technology for future experiments. And what would constitute a control? A lengthy interrogation?”

Well, there probably isn’t objective evaluation possible in that context.  It’s not obvious at first glance to me how you could codify the conversational tactics that show up in an analytic session.  Perhaps it can be done; Holland doesn’t give any details, apart from mentioning something in fact like grading algorithms.  It’s also not obvious how you could establish a control so that you could be sure that the results weren’t shaped by the interests of the observers. (Maybe by having multiple groups of independent observers each blind to the purposes of the study.  Maybe they did this, but we don’t know from this article.) But that’s all reason to doubt the rigor of the study more than it is for sarcasm toward reasonable questions about it.  At the very least, it’s obvious that a study of one analysand can tell us nothing at all about general theories of mental functioning.

What makes this all particularly damaging is not only that, as Scott says, Holland doesn’t actually discuss any other study in detail, but also that he says the study “showed that it is possible to test hypotheses about psychoanalytic therapy . . . in ways that are more subtle and particular than simply counting how many treatments achieved a measure of success and how many did not.” In other words, Holland quite clearly says that the promise of this study is that it seems to allow defenders of pscyhoanalysis to step around what was once its major claim to legitimacy and that has know had to be abandoned--success in therapy.  That’s an awful lot to hang on a study of one analysand. That this is the major example is not encouraging. 

When Holland says “non-analytic psychologists pay little heed, because this kind of evidence runs counter to the deep-seated prejudice against psychoanalysis among academic psychologists, a prejudice embedded in textbooks and indoctrinated in beginning psychology courses,” he comes very near to practicing the basic tactic that Freudians have been using with great success from the earliest days--saying that doubt about their claims is only a sign of resistance and thus a mark of the theory’s truth. This, of course, means that only the already converted can legitimately evaluate the theory.  I think that’s more consistent with ecclesiastical attitudes than the questions Scott and others have raised.

By on 06/02/05 at 10:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There seems to be a weird shell game going on here.  If someone mentions good Freudian criticism, the reply is, “But where’s the empirical evidence for Freud’s ideas?  Where’s the science?” And if someone gives evidence of such evidence (or questions science’s ability to do with psychology what it does with rocks and cells), the reply is: “But even if Freud’s ideas pan out, what use are they to criticism?”

The burden of proof needs to be on those who would throw out, say, Butler or Zizek because they don’t believe Freud’s ideas are scientifically sound.  Let’s see the critique of Butler first.  I’d argue that her major insight—the performativity of gender—in no way relies on Freudian or Lacanian crutches.

Let’s also remember the importance of Freud’s ideas to Du Bois, who saw the limitations of a positivist social science of race by the 1920s.  Freud’s work opened up research to the unconscious nature of racial hatred, forcing many liberals and progressives to acknowledging that “empirical proof” of black humanity is not enough to counter racism.  Let’s also remember the important work done by scholars like Hortense Spillers on race and psychoanalysis, continuing Du Bois’s brave tradition.

Let’s remember that Freud singlehandedly altered the Western world’s attitude toward the mentally ill.  Although “scientific” approaches to mental health would continue to use torture and forced surgery as “cures,” Freud’s deep humanism led him to trust in a social, “talking cure.” I don’t want to ignore the important advances in psychotropic medication, but more therapy, and less medication, is clearly necessary today.

And beyond medication, what great advances have we seen in psychology?  Cognitive therapy is merely James on habits without Freud’s deep insight into the pleasures we get from self-destructive behavior.  Undergoing cognitive therapy myself, I recall the transparently silly attempts by Beck’s doctors to quantify my emotional life: “Are you feeling a 6 or a 7 today?”

I suppose I’d like to see people either offer a coherent critique of Freud’s essential ideas; or offer a coherent critique of those who use psychoanalysis to study literature.  People like me, who find much heuristic value in the ideas of Freud and Lacan, will never be able to change the minds of those here who clearly are resistant to those ideas.  So until someone here actually posits a real critique of psychoanalytic criticism beyond appeals to scientific rigor, I’ll happily continue to read and learn from Freud.

By on 06/02/05 at 11:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Again, I forget a point:

Melanie Klein.  Founder of the play therapy technique to help children.  Founder of Object Theory.  Perhaps, with Winnicott, the most important influence still today on child psychology.  And a Freudian.  Any attempt to kill Freud on the rack of science will need to acknowledge Klein and Co.’s rigorous scientific research (before anti-Freud scares made it difficult for any scholar to study children’s behavior).

By on 06/02/05 at 11:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, would at least be fair that Holland might know what he’s talking about w/r/t psychoanalysis and its place in academic psychology? Do you have any reason to doubt it? It is awfully uncharitable to tar that obvious truth with the “resistance to theory” gambit.

And by “Ecclesiastical,” I was referring to “nothing new under the sun,” etc.

It is not required of the argument he’s making to reproduce in toto those of his sources. That’s kind of a good thing, as I see it. Papers might get even more tedious to read.

And, if it’s obvious that the one analysand can’t tell us anything about the mind, that takes out a lot of our fancy philosophy, doesn’t it? Perhaps resident philosopher Holbo can comment on the elimination of introspection as a legitimate method of philosophical inquiry.

I wasn’t being sarcastic about the experiment, exactly, but trying to point to some of the difficulties you address in performing these types of experiments with human subjects.

By Jonathan on 06/02/05 at 11:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan: “I’m not sure if your original question was a call for the justification of future psychoanalytic approaches or all psychoanalytic literary criticism. I assume the former, as the latter would be cartoonishly arrogant and ignorant.”

Slick.  What was that you wrote before about being aggressive, not passive-aggressive?  It’s clear that SEK meant the latter, and your formulation above lets you sneak through an insult that wouldn’t sound as good if you just disparaged SEK directly.

At any rate, no one here is going to settle the scientific worth of psychoanalysis as a field by quoting Holland or any other reviewer, unless someone here is a hot-shot scientist in a related field instead of, or in addition to, being a literary studies person.  SEK gave us his views, but didn’t pretend to settle the issue, he only asked whether psychoanalysis was useful within literary criticism.  I guess that this is one of those questions that you can’t even ask without being arrogant and ignorant.  Good for arrogance and ignorance, then.  Saying that you can’t question the use of psychoanalysis within literary criticism because doing so would be arrogant and ignorant is just another way of saying that the academic humanities are one of the “three arenas in which flawed but once modish ideas, secure from the menace of rigorous testing, can be kept indefinitely in play.”

By on 06/03/05 at 12:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Questioning psychoanalytic criticism is one thing. Justifying its continued value is another. Asking for a justification of all psychoanalytic criticism is, to my mind, foolish. I doubt that’s what Scott intended, but he makes some strong statements; and I wasn’t sure.

Your comment seems unusually peevish. And that’s fine.

By Jonathan on 06/03/05 at 12:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I just read the Goble essay (he’s at Irvine, why not ask him to comment?), and I didn’t see any psychoanalytic method in it. A mention of Benjamin and Freud.

By Jonathan on 06/03/05 at 01:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Given Taggett’s subject, not using the psychoanalytic literature would be an aberration. I thought it was well argued.

My very quick impression of Savoy is that the references to Freud were apt and logical.

I know that’s not much, but I guess it’s closer to what you were looking for in the original post than Freud-bashing and counter-bashing.

By Jonathan on 06/03/05 at 02:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m happy Luther Blissett mentioned Klein and Winnicott, since the main thing I wished to say is that there is a great deal more to psychoanalysis than Freud/Lacan etc.  The object relations school is fundamentally different from classical Freudian analysis in that the emphasis is on the relation between subjects as the sphere where the deepest, most significant human activity takes place, rather than all concentrated within the monadic, separate self.  Winnicott was a paediatrician first and analyst second, and his clinical insights are always grounded in close and detailed observation - does that count as scientific?  it ought to.  Winnicott’s account of transitional objects and transitional phenomena provides the most convincing, useful, and interesting account of the nature of creativity and ‘reading’, understood as a catchall term, that i’ve encountered anywhere

By Laura on 06/03/05 at 03:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, I understand that you weren’t being sarcastic about the experiment but toward my raising questions about it.  You’ve now accused me of being dreary and resentful and Rich of being unusually peevish, and you’ve implied that Scott might be cartoonishly arrogant and ignorant.  That’s all over the top. 

I don’t think I’ve been especially uncharitable to Holland.  I’ve made an effort to take his paper seriously, but there is in fact reason to scrutinize his arguments carefully.  The essay is an entry in a polemic, and it establishes its own polemical intentions quite clearly from the start.  By casting critics of psychoanalysis as “bashers” who repeat their views as “mantra,” it puts a discount on criticism of psychoanalysis that it would be very hard for any argument to rise above.  (Everything will seem like more bashing and mantra, as this thread bears out.) It also suggests quite clearly that Freud critics are simply scientifically ignorant. 

Those implications raise high expectations for the essay that will follow.  I don’t think the essay meets them.  And given that Holland has positioned himself as a polemical entrant in a highly contentious debate, there’s no reason that I should simply accede to the argument from authority (“that Holland might know what he’s talking about w/r/t psychoanalysis and its place in academic psychology”).  In that context, I see it as quite damaging that the one study Holland mentions at length has obvious methodological flaws.  (You’re right, of course, that, similar questions might be raised about any introspective evidence, and, yes, that might be damaging to some “fancy philosophy”—if the argument was being made that its claims were empirically testable.  The title of Holland’s essay is “psychoanalysis as science.” There’s nothing unfair about holding the author to the standards he invokes himself.) The Freudian theories he claims that have been verified, btw--in the third paragraph of the section “Experimental Evidence”--don’t add up to a very robust defense of psychonalysis.  If what he lists in that paragraph were all that were to survive of Freud, it wouldn’t amount to very much. 

Luther, I don’t doubt that psychoanalysis has heuristic value.  That it does, but at a high cost, was my original point.  As a method for tracking out the unconscious cunning of the desiring self (including, say, the pleasures of self-destructive behavior), it has (like Nietzsche) a lot to be said for it.  And, agreed, there’s lots more that’s interesting as well.  So long as it’s being defended as a science, though, appeals to scientific rigor will be completely appropriate.  So long, too, as Freud is invoked as someone with a uniquely or particularly authoritative account of human pscyhology, it will be fair to doubt that that’s true.  And so long as reasonable doubt about psychoanalysis is cast as “resistance,” it will be fair for critics to note that the playing field is being tilted.

By on 06/03/05 at 07:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Reading over the thread, I see that a couple of people have agreed with an analogy of psychoanalysis to astrology.  As the first person within the thread to bring up something like this, I should clarify that it’s not exactly what I meant.  I was analogizing psychoanalysis to early astronomy, with the implicit suggestion that as knowledge increased, some parts of it would be found true (but would be elaborated extensively with better theories) and some parts of it would be found to be false.  I don’t know much about psychoanalysis, but it was my impression that there aren’t many Freudians left.  Of course it’s possible for intellectual fashions to change without scientific knowledge being gained; I don’t know enough to guess whether this is occuring in this case or not.

I don’t think it’s really valuable to obsess over whether Freud was right, or whether literary theorists who “descend” from Freud are wrong because of that descent.  No founding member of any branch of scientific inquiry is expected to remain current.  Whatever they discovered is expected to be replaced by or at least modified by later work.  So if you think that the scientific status of psychoanalysis is important to literary theory, the question is not whether Freud was right, it’s whether the psychoanalysis that literary theorists now use has any connection to modern psychoanalysis.  Does it reflect any new information now thought to be true, and has it successfully dropped those parts now thought to be false?  (Please, no philosophy of knowledge quibbles about what “true” and “false” mean; I know that I’m using them casually.)

By on 06/03/05 at 09:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, if your defense of Freud is that some of his insights have been confirmed and extended by the contemporary neurosciences, shouldn’t those critics who cite him be paying more attention to the contemporary neurosciences and less to their very out-of-date and thoroughly unrigorous precursor? (I would recommend the effort even to non-Freudians, by the way.)

Obviously what appeals about Freud and Lacan is not their scientific validity but their offering a very evocative system which can generate critical labor. Given a system, for every artwork we have the job of showing how it fits into that system. After again re-justifying the system, we’re done.

But that appeal isn’t peculiar to psychoanalytic systems. In the past, we’ve seen similar criticism similarly generated by theological and political systems, and even by the celebratory system of art-as-self-help. ("Here’s how Proust can make you happy. Now we’re done.") Art is art for being not-quite-what’s-necessary, and so it’ll always stir an itch in the systematic: this must be assimilated. Or, to put it more sympathetically: the critic is supposed to explain; here is an explanation.

To some extent, I agree with Josh’s urbane attitude. We can extract Freudian notions from a Henry James novel, and that doesn’t mean Freud explains away Henry James. It means Henry James noticed some of the same things as Freud. I can conceive of an astrologically or alchemically based interpretation which does, willy nilly, provide pleasure and insight, just as I’ve derived pleasure and insight from Christian or utilitarian or Marxist or Lacanian readings.

Unfortunately, I often derive neither pleasure nor insight.

Yes, a sign of loss can be substituted in a formula for loss. The question is whether you gain anything by making the substitution. How often is “castration” or “phallus” a symbolic substitute that lets something interesting in the original work slip the Lacanian net? “Rage against the splitting of the dick” seems less emotionally to the point than the original “dying of the light” and less politically engaged than would be “cutting of the clit”.

What’s most often offensive about critics of orthodoxy, though, is their boorish, bullying tone, as if their triumphant application of an artificially restricted vocabulary somehow won a debate with the artwork—which, of course, is conveniently incapable of arguing back. “What’s the matter, Leonardo? Vulture got your tongue?” Psychiatrists and theorists typically seem motivated by an unsavory mix of unconsolable pain and insatiable craving for authority, but that doesn’t invalidate their achievements.

At its most insulting, this is criticism as Hollywood movie therapy: having revealed the source of the trauma, the author’s illness (that is, the work) will obligingly vanish. Instead, the artwork is more like a California therapy patient: staying a miserable jerk, year after year, decade after decade, through school after school of surefire transcendance.

I guess I’d like for the explain-it-all type of critic to at least convey some anguished futility, sort of like what I feel after I convincingly refute George W. Bush.

By Ray Davis on 06/03/05 at 10:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, I’m off to teach, so more on this later, but 1) Goble’s interested in the Benjaminian borrowings from late Freud (one of the uses of psychoanalysis I mentioned above) and 2) I already invited him to come along (but I think he’s helping set up Monday’s Americanist symposium, so I’m not sure if he’ll have the time).

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/03/05 at 10:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean--I said that Scott’s claim could be interpreted that way. I doubt he meant it, but the point could be made clearer. Scott does express himself strongly. The claim about Freud’s ideas not being “new” is interesting in a materialist history of ideas context but not as the apparently decisive criticism you make it out to be (and as an intellectual activity motivated not by curiosity, it would be resentful and dreary). And Rich’s comment is peevish.

You fail to distinguish, as Holland does, Freud’s critics (of which Holland and many are) and those to whom Freud was nothing but a fraud. The latter are usually called “bashers” because of the connotation of senseless destruction.

You can’t call a truism an “argument from authority.” Freud has found no place at all in academic psychology. Are you disputing this? Holland argues that his theory of mind is, in many ways, quite compatible with empirical findings. Thus, there is better explanation having to do with disciplinary formation (the role of behaviorism in American academic psychology--a host of things), rather than simply that Freud’s ideas have no scientific merit (like, for instance, behaviorism). Acceptance into an academic hierarchy in the social sciences and scientific validity are not the same things.

The study itself is one, out of very many in his sources, that he uses to illustrate his point--which is that many of these studies exist and that there are relevant to the debate. I don’t agree, as I wrote above, with your asssessment of its methodological validity. Too much of your dismissal relies upon its perceived flaws and not the larger claims and context of the (yes, polemical) essay.

Again, Holland’s essays distinguishes between what has been found to be false or unsupported in Freud’s thought (many, many things) and that which has not. You ignore this aspect in what seems to me to be an overly hasty dismissal of anything associated with psychoanalysis. Your repeated invocation of the “resistance to theory” trope is yet another instance of this unwarranted suspicion.

By Jonathan on 06/03/05 at 10:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ray, in your response to your first question, yes. That’s exactly Holland’s attitude (though with the caveat that Freud’s theory of mind is compatible to a large extent with the cognitive sciences).

By Jonathan on 06/03/05 at 10:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, individual layperson reactions are bound to differ, but I’ve found contemporary cognitive sciences more congruent with Nietzsche than with Freud. (And no, I’m not proposing Nietzschean readings of literature!)

By Ray Davis on 06/03/05 at 11:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

On re-reading my account, I find it fair but unbalanced.

Start with the sole critical dictum Pay Attention! A new or revived theoretical system has the benefit of helping us attend to what we otherwise might have missed. Every system is, if nothing else, a reminder of the limits of other systems, at least some of which we may more or less subscribe to. Freud’s notions of sexual development may have been idiosyncratic, but they at least helped prompt open attention to sexual development. If I’m not a Marxist or Adornoesque critic myself, I can still profit from material circumstances, production constraints, and power struggles having been made decorous topics of discussion.

A follower of Bloom or Bennett might have sought and not found, in my list of critical “ism"s, feminism. That’s because the goal of feminist criticism, broadly defined, is simply to pay more attention to women. Not much to argue against there, especially when the results take up so much of my shelves. (Criticism as a search for the ideally feminine écriture, however....)

By Ray Davis on 06/03/05 at 11:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The reason why the critique of Freud has been so devastating is that it has taken several fronts.  (1) Philosophical.  (2) Biographical and historical.  (3) Scientific.  The epistemological underpinnings have eroded.  Biographical research into Freud’s method show that he often simply made up his evidence to fit what he wanted to find, and often acted unethically.  Finally, modern neuro-science has simply gone its own way with little reference to Freud. 

You can see this in the notorious debate between Crews and Freud’s defenders in the NYRB.  The analysts basically were saying, “well, we don’t really believe in the Oedipus complex anymore, but Freud is a genius.” In other words, all specifically FREUDIAN claims were abandoned, and all that left were banal assertions that we aren’t always conscious of our own motivations.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 06/03/05 at 12:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, you asked: “would [it] at least be fair that Holland might know what he’s talking about w/r/t psychoanalysis and its place in academic psychology?” I took you to be saying that I should defer to Holland’s judgment because I should presume he has some expertise about the question.  That is an argument from authority.  If that’s not what you meant, my apologies. 

Is it a truism that psychoanalysis has found no place in academic psychology?  Frankly, I don’t know.  I was under the impression that there was a postwar heyday where psychoanalysis did receive respectful treatment in academic psychology.  But it doesn’t seem to me particularly germane to this discussion whether or not that’s the case.

Similarly, I’m not sure why it’s important for me to distinguish between Freud bashers and Freud critics if my point is that Holland himself doesn’t acknowledge a distinction.  I didn’t say there weren’t bashers.  I did suggest, however, that Holland sees all critics as bashers and that this highly polemical frame gives us reason to scrutinize his claims carefully.  What’s wrong with that?

You say the study I criticized is “one, out of very many in his sources, that he uses to illustrate his point.” But that’s not quite so.  It’s the only source that he discusses in any depth.  Since it looks dodgy to me, I have good reason to wonder how impressive the other studies will be.  I’m open to hearing more, and began this discussion by asking you for more details.  So far, all I have is Holland’s claim that there are lots of studies and his description of one weak example.  You suggest that I’m wrong to see that one study as dodgy and that my “assessment of its methodological validity” is offbase.  Could be so.  But you haven’t really explained to me why.  I tried to explain my reasons for thinking that the study can’t show very much; you gave me snark in return.  (Just so I’m clear about this: yes, it’s hard to do empirical verification with human subjects, but it’s not impossible.  If it was, there’d be no point at all to Holland’s essay, and no reason to worry whether psychoanalysis was a science or not.  Many protocols have been developed to try and make research with human subjects as reliable as possible.  It doesn’t look to me like Weiss and Sampson follow any of them with much rigor.  Maybe I’m wrong, but before getting all sarcastic you could tell me why.)

You say, “Holland’s essay distinguishes between what has been found to be false or unsupported in Freud’s thought (many, many things) and that which has not” and you charge me with “ignor[ing] this aspect in what seems to me to be an overly hasty dismissal of anything associated with psychoanalysis.” That’s just not true, on two points I think.  One, I twice referred to the aspects of Freud’s thought that Holland says have been empirically verified, noting (as Scott did also) that they don’t actually salvage very much of Freud.  Two, I specifically agreed with Luther that psychoanalysis has heuristic value, adding only that it comes with a high cost.  In the effort to cast me as overly hasty, you’ve simply mischaracterized what I said.

Has Rich been peevish, have I been resentful and dreary?  I’d like to think not.  (I don’t see where I make out Freud having predecessors as a “decisive criticism.”) But I don’t know.  I do know this, that you’re quite right when you say “people’s emphatic opinions,” while potentially interesting, “don’t constitute an argument.” Calling people peevish or resentful is emphatic opinion.  You give a lot of it in this thread.  As an example, you say I make “repeated invocation of the ‘resistance to theory’ trope” and that this “is yet another instance of . . . unwarranted suspicion.” But look, Holland makes the resistance argument himself by referring to the “mantra” of critics of psychoanalysis (i.e., their complaints aren’t rational but ritual), and Luther very directly invokes it.  (“People like me, who find much heuristic value in the ideas of Freud and Lacan, will never be able to change the minds of those here who clearly are resistant to those ideas.”) By claiming that merely to notice this is to give evidence of my “unwarranted suspicion,” you invoke the tactic yet again.  The suggestion, of course, is that even a position that disagrees with Holland and says yes, psychoanalysis does have some heuristic value but it is not a science that generates verifiable or testable claims must reflect an illegitimate bias.  There’s no basis for that.

By on 06/03/05 at 12:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I am under the impression that the distinction between astrology and early astronomy, and alchemy and early chemistry, is a very fuzzy one. But I confess that I am not well-informed and the history of those fields.

Incidentally, this analogy could be used to salvage quite a bit of Freud, though not Freudianism per se. Modern science just took the useful parts from earlier stuff. (I specifically remember Descartes and Galileo talking about Bruno, who was on the astrological/ mystical side, and deciding to ignore major aspects of his work.

The mystic Swedenborg, who influenced Blake, Emerson, Baudelaire, Nerval, and many others, was a working scientist in matallurgy, minerology, mining engineering, and crystallography. Whether he merged the two enterprises I don’t know, though I’d suspect that he did with the crystallography.

By John Emerson on 06/03/05 at 12:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Part of the distinction between astrology and early astronomy is that the second includes the first.  We now know that astrology is bogus, while the early astronomers did not.  The early astronomers had a number of techniques, theories, and data, some of which turned out to be OK, and some of which didn’t.  For instance, Kepler did astrology in addition to discovering the laws of planetary motion.  That’s very different from someone doing astrology now.

By on 06/03/05 at 01:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

An argument from authority is when the force of the authority substitutes for facts and logic. Perhaps at Wesleyan, the average student enters having done a Fulbright year in Vienna reading Freud in German, but in most educational contexts, Freud is treated contemptously in introductory academic psychology classes. So it was in mine, and in every introduction to the subject I’ve looked at. Since it was difficult to understand why you questioned this seeming truism, I took it that you were doubting Holland’s ethos gratuitously. Holland has written many influential books and articles on psychoanalytic criticism. I studied Freud and psychoanalytic literary theory with him. He knows the material well, I think it’s fair to say. That doesn’t mean you have to agree, of course, but it probably means that his argument deserves to be judged on what it actually says.

It is germane to the discussion because it shows how Freud’s ideas have been treated. What he was right about is trivialized or ignored at the expense of his wrongs. Reasons for this have much to do with Freud’s cultural legacy and gravity, and often little with disinterested assessment of his ideas. That is the “polemical” content of Holland’s argument. As he accepts that Freud was spectacularly wrong about feminine sexuality, inter alia, you can’t justly say that he ignores Freud’s critics. It certainly wasn’t worshippers who demonstrated that.

As to the matter of sources, the studies he cites describe the results of the empirical investigation of psychoanalysis. He gives the details of one out of thousands detailed in those books. Fisher & Greenberg provide summaries and analysis of experimental confirmation and disconfirmation of the classical Freudian theory. Weston’s results include modern developments in psychoanalysis, including object relations theory. Holland reads Weston’s results as providing further evidence that Freud’s theory of mind is compatible with the best (cognitive) psychology we have. I don’t think that’s trivial in terms of result or as of a percentage of his output, really. Little of the contemporaneous work has survived as well. Behaviorism, again, is worth considering in that context.

Holland’s ideas about holism and scientific method compose the bulk of his argument. In my view, Weiss and Sampson did as good of a job as could be done with what they were attempting to measure. I’m not sure how the protocols you mention could be better implemented, except through not yet existing technology. But it’s a tangential issue, essentially.

Rich speculates in near-Brucian fashion about my supposed ill-intent, and I will continue to describe that as peevish, thanks. The business of discounting Freud because you could find his ideas anticipated in various forms considerably after the fact also continues to strike me as a dreary and resentful exercise, characteristic of you only insofar as you would endorse it, which I read your earlier comment as doing at least in part.

If people persistently ignore a relevant aspect of a debate, it’s quite fair to accuse of them groupthink. You can claim that critics have not in fact ignored it or it’s not relevant, but you can’t fairly claim that Holland’s argument relies upon people’s unconscious recognition of an uncomfortable truth.

By Jonathan on 06/03/05 at 01:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, why don’t you repeat “peevish” a few more times?  And add some more hostile characterization of what I write, while you’re at it.

This kind of thing is a staple of Jonathan Goodwin’s online style.  His technique is to peck away with plausibly deniable insults until someone says something in return.  Then it’s all “oh, were you offended that I called you cartoonishly arrogant and ignorant?  Poor little me, for being so misunderstood.” By then, the stock characters who haven’t yet noticed that he’s gratuitously insulted three different people in this thread alone are sure to jump in, asking why people can’t be nice to each other, and blaming everyone involved for incivility.

I am mystified as to why he was made an author here.  He’s prolific, but half of his posts are of the type which he links to a contentious article and writes two paragraphs about it, then blames people in the comment thread for agreeing with it on the basis of reading the article alone.

By on 06/03/05 at 02:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m glad you like my stuff, Rich.

By Jonathan on 06/03/05 at 02:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, I don’t doubt Holland’s knowledge of psychoanalytic literature.  Nor do I doubt that he has strong feelings about its academic reception and powerful motivations to redress what he explicitly casts as prejudice against it.  What I doubt is that he has yet shown convincing evidence that psychoanalysis delivers empirically testable or verifiable results.  Because of the study he talks about in depth, I also doubt his judgment about studies that he does not describe.  Why?  Weiss and Sampson’s goal was to ask who’s right: the early Freud or the late Freud?  Do “indications of pleasure and pain regulate the patients’ defenses automatically, leaving the patients no control over, say, their repressions?  Or does a patient have “some control over repressions (through unconscious ego).” Their method for addressing this question was to have teams review 100 hours of one patient’s therapy.  What else was involved, we don’t know, but presumably, the evaluators needed to know what the patient was repressing and when he or she felt pleasure or pain.  (How were they to do this? I can’t guess.) Could there have been a more rigorous method?  Well, possibly there might have been more than one test subject.  But you’re right, there’s probably no way to do a study of this sort and have it be very rigorous.  That’s my point.  If this is Holland’s idea of science, I don’t trust his judgment about the other material he discusses. 

The holism discussion is similar.  Here’s a summary paragraph from the discussion of “Holistic Method”:

“Obviously, this procedure risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Freudians will see Freudian patterns, Jungians Jungian, Reichians Reichian, and so on. Theory will drive interpretation (although it is well to remember that theory drives experiment, too). Here, as in other sciences, good results rest on the integrity of the scientist. Holistic researchers need to keep their minds as free of theory as possible when gathering data. They need simply to be open to the facts. And in all the subsequent stages, holists need to let that data talk to them rather than impose a theory on it. This is not easy, particularly in a clinical setting, but it is possible. If one does holistic research well, the final thematic interpretation will add to existing theories rather than merely parrot them.”

Unless I misunderstand, there’s a basic problem here.  It is right to worry that a holistic method will be self-fulfilling because Freudians see Freudians patterns, etc., but that problem can be avoided so long as researchers “keep their minds free.” In other words, during an analytic session, Freudians can suspend their Freudianism and just see what turns up.

From any perspective, I think this would be an astonishingly naïve idea, but especially so for someone who takes Freud seriously.  Does Holland really believe that people with professional and theoretical commitments can arrive at reliable interpretive results simply by keeping their minds open?  As I mentioned before, I don’t doubt that Freud wrote powerfully about important ideas that were taken up by other thinkers, including perhaps cognitive scientists.  If any one of those ideas matter, surely it’s that people have unconscious motivations that they conceal from themselves and others.  Holland either does not understand that, or believes that analysts can will themselves out of the problem.  He also does not acknowledge that “other sciences” address the problem by seeking not to rely on the integrity of the scientist alone. 

I think we should agree to try to put our judgments about our personal motivations, failings, or tone aside as far as possible.

By on 06/03/05 at 03:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Do you think that the study could produce no relevant evidence? Think of all those babies that’d be left shivering in the yard.

Don’t we all have to act as if that were true to do anything, particularly engage in humanistic inquiry? It seems to be a question of ideology.

There was a recent article in BBS about one psychologist’s detailed self-experiments that might provide a useful methodological parallel here.

I’d also recommend this article re matters of tone.

By Jonathan on 06/03/05 at 03:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

the point of the debate in your phrase is “the actual scientific status of psychoanalysis.” Humanistic inquiry, not necessarily scientific.

By on 06/03/05 at 03:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A correction: I never meant to echo the old chestnut about resistance to Freudian theory being itself an instance of the very psychodynamics of resistance and denial.

Instead, I was simply suggesting that these sorts of “debates” never actually change anyone’s minds, in part because what’s at issue is more (and other) than the soundness of Freudian psychology.  What’s at stake seems to be the typical boring old culture war baloney:

European vs. Anglo-Saxon
“Imaginative” vs. “empirical” thinking
Theory vs. science

No one here has presented any sort of case *against* Freud’s theories.  Which isn’t to say a case couldn’t be easily made.  Instead, the absence of anything other than polemic suggests that no one here is really interested in doing anything more than either: (a) preaching to a choir to solidify The Valve’s group dynamics: (b) playing a silly shell game with those who would admit both the uses, abuses, and limitations of Freudian theory in order to, once again, rally the Valve around a common scapegoat.

Let’s see the real, penetrating, intellectual critiques of Zizek, Butler, Silverman, Mulvey, Spillers, and others who bring smarts and imagination to their work with psychoanalysis. 

Otherwise, why not posit an ALTERNATIVE to psychoanalysis or Marxism or raceclassgender studies?  Why not construct a pragmatic approach to literature that moves beyond New Criticism as well, while paying rigorous attention to literary form?  Why beat up a Freudian straw man (except as some sort of party game or pinata exercise)? 

This is what always amazes me about these “back to the future” movements among humanities scholars.  They spend more energy attacking Freud or Marx than they do constructing more fruitful models for literary analysis.  Meanwhile, scholars like, say, Franco Moretti actually do advance formal and generic criticism by taking theory seriously and not wasting time on straw-man argumentation.

By on 06/03/05 at 03:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, part of what I’ve been trying to do in these comments is prevent a “rallying around a common scapegoat.” I share your opinion of the insipidness of “culture war” debates, and, curiously enough, I was actually thinking about posting something about Moretti.

By Jonathan on 06/03/05 at 04:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, I think that amounts to a distinction without a very substantial difference (now those of us who are non-Freudian are just lacking in imagination) and is really quite unfair.  I have no opposition to humanistic inquiry or to seeing Freud as a useful heuristic--though one, I’ll repeat, that has high costs, some of which have been apparent in this discussion.  A main reason for wanting to emphasize the point by my lights is precisely to avoid conflating literary scholarship with science.  Holland makes an attempt to rescue “psychoanalysis as science.” In my view, it’s lame.  But if psychoanalysis has no special scientific authority and is merely the heuristic that Holland specifically disavows, then it’s one that has no essential authority superior to say Aristotle or Augustine or Nietzsche or whatever.  Scott began this discussion by asking, given that premise, how and why might it still serve valuable purposes for literary criticism?  The conversation got derailed, but if it did so, it’s because Scott’s critics were as eager to engage culture war debates as anyone else.

By on 06/03/05 at 04:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have read and briefly commented on the three essays Scott linked to. I’d like for Scott, or anyone else so inclined, to discuss their use of psychoanalytic method. In my view, it was in one case very limited (and entirely appropriate as a matter of intellectual history) and in the other two cogent and well deployed. I get the impression, perhaps wrongly, that Scott thinks otherwise ("gross oversimplifications,” etc.)

Another point I’d like to bring up is that it’s not easy to publish articles. The overproduction arguments tend to gloss over this. And what does get published does not, in my view, tend to be bad, oversimplified, what have you.

By Jonathan on 06/03/05 at 04:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, there’s a huge difference between these two views: (a) critics of Freud are merely in denial about their own repressed sexuality; and (b) certain critics of Freud are as closed-minded as certain supporters of Freud.  In the former, Freudian analysis is a master narrative; in the latter, we’re dealing with basic human nature.  And I didn’t mean to imply that critics of Freud lack imagination—just that the binary implied by empiricism suggests “idealism” or “imagination” or “fancy” as its other term.  There’s no monopoly on imagination among the schools of criticism.

And if Scott’s main point was to wonder why Freud should be or has been elevated above, say, Augustine or Aristotle, I have nothing to add.  No single discourse or narrative can capture the totality of existence and experience, and Aristotelians like Frye have contributed a great deal to our understanding of literature (I don’t know any Augustinian critics of late, but hey, if s/he makes an interesting argument about a poem, I’m happy to read it). 

My concern is your claim (or Scott’s) that a discourse must have some “essential authority” and “superiority” to other discourses in order to be of use.  Chemistry is a powerful discourse, but it offers nothing to literary criticism.  Freud offered a powerful discourse that many have found of use.  Hayles finds use in scientific theories out of Einstein, chaos theory, etc., but not because, for her, science is essentially superior to another discourse.

This search for a “superior discourse” sounds creepy to me.  To riff off Bob Perelman, a “master discourse” is a discourse with aircraft carriers.  I’m not saying we should be totally relativistic.  Instead, we need a means/ends equation here: what discourses once generated or continue to generate interesting readings of literary texts?  Lacan on Poe is brilliant; Derrida on Plato is brilliant; Zizek on Hitchcock is brilliant; Burke on Keats is brilliant; Marcus on Bob Dylan is brilliant; Gates on Ishmael Reed is brilliant; Jameson on Conrad is brilliant.  To repeat an idea from Marcus: it’s not just what an artist brings to a piece of art, but it’s also what a critic brings to the artwork.  With that in mind, I don’t think we can speak of “essentially superior” methodologies.

By on 06/03/05 at 05:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A couple hours in the office and…

Jonathan, as for you indicating that I’m potentially “cartoonishly arrogant and ignorant,” I mean, c’mon: I have thicker skin, and I know you can do better than that.  I think these conversations succeed or fail based on how much benefit of the doubt’s ladled out.  I’m all for a liberal ladlin’...even if, at times, doing so requires ignoring what may be perceived as slights (personal or intellectual). 

That said, I think “gross oversimplifications” was, in fact, poor diction on my part; incomplete, actually, because what I wanted to say was “gross oversimplifications"--by which I mean horrible ‘50s “criticism” of, for example, the trials of K. and his assistants in The Castle as the heartwarming journey of one penis and two testicles in a coherent, family-friendly Freudian allegory--and “unnecessary complexities.” I think the Savoy essay falls into the latter category because it only discusses the “issues” it’s created by virtue of bringing psychoanalysis to bear. 

I’m imputing this to Savoy because, in my experience, most psychoanalytic scholars don’t employ psychoanalytic concepts pragmatically, as some have suggested here.  They encounter a work and read into it what they’d read into any other; that is, their approach pre-determines what they’ll say about whatever they’re writing.  (Savoy may be doing this; I don’t know, thus the invite.)

I suppose what I wanted to hear were intelligent dissenting arguments, and I’ve heard a few.  (That I’ve heard more hear in the past 24 hours than I have in three deca...my “time” in graduate school is another post altogether.) Luther’s spoken eloquently in favor of the “toolbox” approach to theory, and I now think there’s more merit to that than I did before this conversation began...which is only to say that I think even contentious debates can be productive for all involved (so long as toes are stepped on lightly and in the spirit of, uh, gentile, considerate toe-stepping).  Also, Luther nailed my original intent on the head:

This is what always amazes me about these “back to the future” movements among humanities scholars.  They spend more energy attacking Freud or Marx than they do constructing more fruitful models for literary analysis.

I don’t want to spend time talking about what’s wrong with academic psychoanalysis; I wrestled those angels long enough to earn my nickname--"Isra’lacan"--and didn’t want to hit the mat again.

To address Luther and Laura’s comments about Klein and Winnicott: I’d say that in a general discussion of the utility of psychoanalysis, they’d be worth including; but unless I’m mistaken, the majority of academic psychoanalysts followed the Freudian faction of the Klein/Freud split, which would (I think) make their introduction into literary studies a different issue.  Then again, the criteria for exclusion of something from the “toolbox” implies the criteria for inclusion, so I probably think incorrectly.  (It may, however, be too much for one thread to handle.)

Also, I didn’t mean “jettison” to apply to psychoanalytic theory in its entirety, only the parts Jonathan and Holland already agreed should go...by which I mean I’ve found this conversation quite instructive so far, and I think it can continue to be productive so long as we don our thickest skin and assume no one means us offense.  (I’ve also got a lot more to say, but it’ll take me some time to work it up, so this’ll have to suffice for now.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/03/05 at 06:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My point was that I was unsure of what you were arguing or asking, not that I thought you were making the claim fairly described.

When you write things like “grade the quality of the literary knowledge produced,” it, to my mind, tilts the discussion in an unproductive angle. Same with “justify the value of perpetuating knowledge about psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic interpretations of literature.”

By Jonathan on 06/03/05 at 07:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I just completed a decisive counter-missive which would’ve proven each and every one of you, irrespective of the position you’ve taken in this debate, Sacramento-is-the-capital-of-Massachusetts wrong...but it’s been eaten by the Valve.  Some of the highlights included:

1.  If I wanted to spark a Culture Skirmish, I’d have quoted Grunbaum: “[D]oes a psychoanalytic explanation of Hitler’s behavior actually have far better warrant than, say, the diagnosis given by an exorcist who invokes literal Satanic possession?” (308).  In the interest of civil discourse (and as a firm believer in Godwin’s Law), I didn’t.

2.  Seymour and Greenberg’s study only defends Freud’s work: “It was our decision to confine assessments entirely to Freud’s constructs...the diversity of the secondary elaborations of Freud’s ideas is so Babel-like as to defy the derivation of sensible deductions that can be put to empirical test.” That the proliferation of second-order psychoanalytic theories makes empirical verification practically impossible is a problem for both sides in this discussion.  Once the first-order constructs were proven/disproven, the second-order ones would need vetting; once they were vetted, it’d be the third-order’s turn; etc.  This need only necessarily apply to actual psychoanalytic theory and practice; whether the aetiologic, developmental, psychodynamic and therapeutic hypotheses of psychoanalytic theory are correct need not, necessarily, bear on whether or not they’re adopted by literary theory.  (Theories of literature have never had empirical standards before; why should it necessarily have them now?)

3.  Grunbaum, in a rare moment of open civility, argues: “As is clear from Robert Merton’s studies of self-fulfilling and self-defeating predictions in the social sciences, identifiable alterations of the presumed initial conditions, rather than mere theory-ladenness, generate phenomena that furnish demonstrably spurious confirmations and disconfirmations.  The occurence of just such alterations of the presumed initial conditions has been tellingly demonstrated experimentally in studies of the purportedly ‘free’ associations produced by patients in analysis.  These associations were shown to depend on the more or less subtle communication of the therapist’s expectations.”

An analogous situation may be the core of my complaint about psychoanalytically-inclined literary critics: is it fair to say that claims to unaltered initial conditions by academic psychoanalytic critics are unfounded?  I.e. is it fair to say that the theory-ladenness of these critics leads them to alter the presumed initial conditions such that a psychoanalytic approach appears to be the best in the “toolbox”?

All of this--esp. in the abbreviated form I’m able to produce here--probably complicates more than it clears up.  But what I’d like to do is muddle my way toward a nuanced perspective on the value of psychoanalytic theory.  I’m equally unsatisfied with babies and bathwater at this point...but maybe I’m the only one.

What?  You thought my willingness to brook “cartoonishly ignorant” just a gesture?

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/03/05 at 07:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther: My concern is your claim (or Scott’s) that a discourse must have some “essential authority” and “superiority” to other discourses in order to be of use.

No, no, that’s not the point at all!  And no one cam close to saying that, I think.  The point is that there is no such discourse as far as literature is concerned and cannot be.  But there have certainly been potent and influential claims that psychoanalysis might provide such a special authority.  And there are still critics who take Freud to provide a uniquely valuable account of human psychology.

By on 06/03/05 at 08:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther: “Instead, we need a means/ends equation here: what discourses once generated or continue to generate interesting readings of literary texts?  [...] With that in mind, I don’t think we can speak of “essentially superior” methodologies.”

Well, are “interesting readings” the sum total of literary criticism’s responsibility to the reader?  Imagine that astrology became an often used tool in your toolbox of methods, perhaps because of some brilliant theorist and critic who publicized it.  I don’t find it difficult to imagine that this might contribute to the popularity of astrology within wider society.  Intellectual fashions do sometimes do that.  Would it really be good for literary theorists to keep using a method that popularizes an unfortunate form of predation on superstitious people, when other methods by your own assertion would probably work just as well?

Of course the case with psychoanalysis isn’t so clear cut.  It appears to be about as useful (though much more expensive) as other methods of treating people for certain problems.  However, assuming that it is in some way part of an actual science (which is my opinion) brings up other problems.  The psychoanalysis used in literary theory will always be behind the times, because literary theorists aren’t psychoanalysts (in general), and because real sciences generally progress.  There is the danger of literary theory calcifying the idea of psychoanalysis that the public has into some version of Freudianism, even as psychoanalysts themselves have passed Freudianism by.  (This is under the assumption that more people are likely to read book or movie reviews influenced by literary theory than they are to read psychoanalysis popularizations, because of the general popularity of fictional narrative.)

In short, if all methods are equally part of the toolbox, isn’t it better to stay away from those methods that involve implicit assertions of truth that you can’t really substantiate?

By on 06/03/05 at 09:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott: To address Luther and Laura’s comments about Klein and Winnicott: I’d say that in a general discussion of the utility of psychoanalysis, they’d be worth including; but unless I’m mistaken, the majority of academic psychoanalysts followed the Freudian faction of the Klein/Freud split, which would (I think) make their introduction into literary studies a different issue.
That they did, but there have been applications of attachment theory I’ve come across at one time or another in Lit. Crit. (Bonnie Honig’s reading of the Book of Ruth, for example. Political Theory, February, 1997. She brings up some interesting points, ultimately going beyond Kristeva’s better-known reading of that work (one branch of psychoanalytic theory critiquing another?)

By James Stevenson on 06/03/05 at 09:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, I hate to say something like this, and I’ve looked (and can’t find) written confirmation of this, so you’ll have to take my word for it, but…

Hayles finds use in scientific theories out of Einstein, chaos theory, etc., but not because, for her, science is essentially superior to another discourse.

Hayles “disowned” Chaos and Order because it fails to present science as a superior discourse; that failure led her to mistake the banal for the profound and vice versa.  I know this because she mentioned it daily, nay, hourly in her “Big Books” seminar a few years back (hence the lack of substantiation).  She shuddered when she had to allow applications of chaos theory to Gravity’s Rainbow into the discussion because, to her mind, chaos theory explains almost everything without really saying anything.  Her concern was that the leveling of discourses encouraged the unnecessary incorporation of scientific theories into otherwise sound theoretical models.  (She’s also, I should add, quite humble and hard on herself for what she considers her intellectual errors.)

I say this not to refute your general point, but because her intellectual honesty bucks the “because I said it” genealogy of literary theory...and I wonder if it’s a coincidence that she has an M.S. in Chemistry, i.e. if her time in the culture of the sciences stripped her from her any illusions of necessary intellectual progression.  Because I think that’s a major issue here, at least as concerns the status of psychoanalysis in literary studies; also important is that she didn’t, a la Crews and some of the NY Intellectuals, renounce her entire belief system, only modify it to fit what she now believes the facts to be.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/03/05 at 10:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott wrote, re the putuative sidelining of the object relations school of psychoanalysis, and psychoanalytic criticism:

“the majority of academic psychoanalysts followed the Freudian faction of the Klein/Freud split, which would (I think) make their introduction into literary studies a different issue.”

My sense is this is far truer for the United States than for the rest of the world, Scott.  Possibly this has something to do with which people went to what country when Europe fell to pieces.  English literary studies in particular is well acquainted with the sophistication and usefulness of object relations theory.  And personally I find Winnicott really suggestive and useful.  Hopefully this doesn’t make my critical practice irrelevant.  Not that I’d care too much if anyone thought it did. 

A tiny quibble: “academic psychoanalysts” isn’t a good description for practitioners of psychoanalytically-inflected lit crit.  Unless they are also practicing clinical analysts, that is.

By Laura on 06/04/05 at 12:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, Sean, then we agree that no literary methodology can claim to be “above” all others.  That some critics still believe that psychoanalysis is a master discourse is a shame, but no more a shame than those who would like to return to the Edens of New Criticism, intentional criticism, old historicism, or pure aesthetics. 

And what’s with the fascination with astrology?  Reducing psychoanalysis to “astrology” or “alchemy” sounds like know-nothingism to me, given the fact that Freud, however misguided some of his ideas may be today, changed the way we treat the mentally ill forever and for the better.  Most therapists I know still care about transference, still care about cathexsis, still care about displacement and sublimiation, still ask about dreams, still take fantasy seriously.  As I’ve said before, cognitive therapy is really just a rip-off of Freud’s own tropes of mental distortion, only with lots of extra paperwork that poorly simulates an “empirical” and quantitative scenario. 

But to answer your question, Rich, I’d have to say that if a critic used a concept from astrology to get at some hitherto unseen aspect of a text, I’d be fine with it.  This is essentially what Jung did with alchemy: revealed it not as bad science but as a series of powerful metaphors for mental processes.  In fact, Emerson and Baudelaire and Whitman and Mallarme and the Romantics all share the theory of correspondances with astrology and alchemy: as above, so below.  The main problem with most psychoanalytic criticism is that it often simply translates a text into its own discourse.  Take the gothic: it took Freud to see that gothic literature was really a map of certain mental processes, a symbolic strategy for living (as Burke might say).  But then to read gothic literature as simply an example of “the uncanny” is only to translate Freud’s narrative back into a gothic narrative (and vice versa).  The important question is what social ritual work the narrative of the uncanny performs and why it arises at certain moments in different culture’s histories (Gordimer’s political uncanny in South Africa, Morrison’s racial uncanny in *Beloved*, Faulkner’s regional uncanny in *Absalom*, and so on).  So Freud’s work gives us useful metaphors, narratives, rhythms and dynamics, but then we need to move on to other discourses to get at their meanings.  Same would go for “chaos theory” or any other discourse that lit scholars have appropriated as metaphors; such ideas are simply additions to classical typologies of narrative patterns: to Hayden White’s comedy, tragedy, irony, and romance (is that it?), we might then add the uncanny, the chaotic, the traumatic (esp as we move into modernist, postmodernist, and avant-garde literature, we need new metaphorical patterns to describe what’s going on in a text). 

And yes, Rich, “interesting readings” are all a literary scholar can hope for, with the exception of those writing critical biographies (and even there, some fictive concept of self-formation is going to mediate evidence and narrative, so that an interesting reading of an author’s biography will trump a boring, factual, empirical “chronicle” of the author’s life).

What is “truth” in literary interpretation?  If one were to take literature as communication and examine a text from the perspective of each point on the commuication model (sender, receiver, context, code, message, etc.), one would not have a harmonized totality.  Instead, the sum of one’s analysis would probably look like a Picasso painting.  Formal patterns will clash with historical context, biographical detail will juxtapose with reception, and, as Barthes showed, at the semiotic level, the text will spark multiple, perhaps contradictory, meanings.

But I’ll say it again: let’s see the rigorous critique of a recent critical essay using psychoanalysis (say, for example, Hortense Spillers’ “All the Things You Could Be by Now if Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Momma: Psychoanalysis and Race"). 

And I’ll say this again: what is being proposed here as an alternative to “theory”?  Looking through *Theory’s Empire* today, I was struck by the sheer lack of imagination in the collection.  Anyone can poke holes in others’ thinking (as I teach in my rhet/comp class: find the assumptions and go for the kneecaps).  Not one of the essays I read offered a new or interesting alternative way of reading (or writing, for that matter).

By on 06/04/05 at 12:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Laura, I suppose my view of the history of psychoanalysis is too heavily influenced by its history in America.  I would be more than happy for an account of the more enthusiastic reception of object relations in the rest of the world.  That sounded glib, but I don’t mean it to.  If you think I have an unnecessarily parochial view of psychoanalytic history, I’m open to re-education.  (Alright, that also sounded glib, but I hope you see that my words belie my intentions.)

And for the record, I’m using the phrase “academic psychoanalysts” reluctantly; I quoted Crews saying it, so for the sake of consistency, I’ve tried to throw it back in there.  I prefer, as you seem to, something more like “psychoanalytically-inclined literary critics.” I must admit that, at this point, I’d be more than happy if someone could fling an acceptable abbreviation out there for general consumption…

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 06/04/05 at 01:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, Scott, it’s nice of you to take it like that. 
If you’re really interested, a good place to begin might be with Adam Phillips’s book on Winnicott.  Or perhaps the 1998 issue of Diacritics on trauma theory - the essays on Winnicott and Bion in particular.

By Laura on 06/04/05 at 08:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther: “And yes, Rich, “interesting readings” are all a literary scholar can hope for [...]”

Well, this gets to the heart of a lot of complaints about literary theory.  If you really have no obligations to the truth, but only to the interest of the reader, then you may be an artist but you’re not a scholar.

As John Holbo has previously written, this is part of a two-step strategy: 1) claim that Theory incorporates science and that Theorists can come up with ideas that are in some sense true (c.f. Luther’s previous assertion that Butler’s “performativity of gender” was a major insight), 2) when challenged on this, say that they’re doing art.  Thus those who ask questions are depicted as both unfamiliar with science and unqualified to critique Theory for that reason *and* as positivistic outsiders trying to impose a framework on art.

Well, if all one wants is an interesting reading, why do you need a critic?  Artists don’t need critics in order to make their work interesting.  In fact, contemporary criticism is generally jargon-laden and notoriously *un*interesting.  Why not just read the novel/poem/whatever directly?  (Yes, I realize that this paragraph depends on amphiboly on the meaning of “reading”.)

You have repeatedly in this thread written something like “what is being proposed here as an alternative to “theory”?” Why do critics need to have a counterproposal?  This is a blog; if anyone really was going to develop a pragmatic new theory of interpretation, they wouldn’t do it here.  But in general, this “what is your proposal?” bit is a dodge; you hear it all the time when one criticizes governmental policy or some industry’s union-busting or pollution.  For instance, one doesn’t need to have an alternative plan for governing Iraq to say that we shouldn’t have invaded that country and that we shouldn’t keep torturing its inhabitants.

By on 06/04/05 at 08:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I never said literary criticism is an art.  There is a huge difference between producing “an interesting reading” and producing “an interesting writing.” Some critics, like Pater, have tried to bridge that divide, but his criticism always struck me more as ekphrastic art and less as interpretation or analysis.

An interesting reading is still one that recognizes a pattern, provides evidence that this pattern exists, and then speculates on the significance of that pattern.  But none of that establishes “the truth” in some technical or scientific sense.  A literary critic does nothing more than provide an approximate model and map and Uncle-Remus-net for snagging the experience of a certain limited aspect of a work of literature. 

Still, this doesn’t mean that critics can’t have major insights—just that these insights are speculative.  (And don’t screw around with categories: I’m concerned with literary criticism, not “theory”—so Butler’s work is not what I’m really interested in here.) You can’t “test” criticism, you can’t “repeat” its “experiments,” and you can’t set up control or experimental groups in criticism.  Uncovering the patterns might be empirical at some level, but once the critic does the real work of interpreting the significance of those patterns, s/he is outside the realm in which technical-rationalism is useful (or “true"). 

So, Rich, if you disagree with me, you’d have to articulate what the “truth” of literary criticism is.  You can’t just criticize my notion that “truth” isn’t the relevant concern; you have to establish that “truth” is.  What are the conditions of possibility for truth in literary criticism?

Same goes for criticizing theory versus proposing new approaches.  My point was this: the problems people uncover regarding, say, Freudian criticism are in many cases true for New Criticism, historicism, New Historicism, various aesthetic theories, reader-response, and so on.  Criticizing *anything* implies that there’s a better vantagepoint from which one is criticizing (unless one’s a mere sophist or Devil’s Advocate).  I just want to know what the “better” critical perspectives are, what methodologies aren’t flawed in and of themselves. 

Or better yet: what are the better readings, who are better critics?  Because, simply put, criticism isn’t about method or approach, but rather good critics and good critical writings.

By on 06/04/05 at 10:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther: “So, Rich, if you disagree with me, you’d have to articulate what the “truth” of literary criticism is.  You can’t just criticize my notion that “truth” isn’t the relevant concern; you have to establish that “truth” is.  What are the conditions of possibility for truth in literary criticism?”

Ouch.  Rather a difficult task, isn’t that?  But OK, I’ll rush in where angels fear to tread.

A literary criticism is “true” if:
a) It doesn’t contradict something explicitly stated in the text, i.e. get established details
of plot, description, word choice, or characterization wrong;
b) It doesn’t contradict what is known about
the author’s biography or history, if those are brought up within the criticism;
c) It doesn’t contradict what we know about
reality, i.e., a literary criticism that treats alchemy as fact rather than as an organizing metaphor is untrue.

Naturally I expect all three of these to be contested in some fashion.  And of course none of them say whether a particular criticism or critic is good; you can have a perfectly true criticism that no one wants to read.

But I do think that if you call yourself a scholar rather than an artist, it is a necessary requirement that your criticism be true in the sense above.  Thus the problems with introducing psychoanalysis, in which it is very difficult to judge what we actually know about the subject and in which the people writing the criticism don’t really know the current state of the field.  Basically I think that this is a problem with any literary criticism that uses science concepts.  Not an insuperable one, necessarily.

“Or better yet: what are the better readings, who are better critics?” Why derail a discussion of the appropriateness of a type of overall theory (which is what this started out as) into a set of opinions about individual readings and critics?

By on 06/04/05 at 11:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If the dormouse may pop its head out again, the catchword “interesting” is used in analytic philosophy, in Theory, and in the more abstruse areas of mathematical economics to disqualify in advance all possible criticisms of academic writing on grounds of significance, relevance, or truth. There’s usually an implicit or explicit comparison to pure math and the more extravagent areas of theoretical physics, which often develop hypothetical concepts whose relevance to reality is not immediately apparent.

I don’t think that the analogy is strong enough to be that effective. And the effect is to favor the most elaborate and far-fetched (and thus most “interesting") interpretations.

I do this too, but I’m trying to be funny mostly. See my URL.

By John Emerson on 06/04/05 at 12:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Your conditions of truth are interesting, and I agree with them.  But notice how general they are.  Getting the details of a text right is paramount, but rarely do we come across a major work of criticism that gets such “empirical” data wrong.  Contradicting the author’s biography and history is more awkward.  Wallace Stevens, for instance, never references any of the cultural events of his time in his poetry, but to find correspondences between his poetry and the cultural history of modernism seems to be totally valid.  Katherine Mansfield may state that “The Garden Party” is about how life won’t stop for the protagonist, but this musn’t stop a critic from interrogating the class assumptiong behinds the characters’ actions in the story (that is to say, biographical statements can’t contradict interpretation, as they are interpretations themselves).

And I *do* want to derail this conversation into commentary on specific critics and writings.  Just because a certain methodology has poor, cookie-cutter adherents doesn’t invalidate the methodology.  The fashion of deconstructionist readings in the 80s doesn’t invalidate Derrida’s insights, anymore than the late 19th century social Darwinists invalidate Darwin’s theories.

Finally, we must ask: what do we know with certainty about reality, beyond certain technical aspects of physics, chemistry, and biology.  Most everything else --anthropology, sociology, historical causation—is open to interpretation.

And to answer John: I’m in no way appealing to pure mathetimatics or theoretical physics in my discourse on “interesting readings.” I’m simply saying that it’s more about readings that make us re-think literature than it is about some correspondence theory to empirical reality.

By on 06/05/05 at 01:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sure, I didn’t mean to imply that authorial interpretations of their work had automatic truthfulness (or even insight).  Nor do I think that it’s invalid to find influences from events in an author’s time, even if they aren’t explicitly mentioned in the work.  I just meant that if you say that an author was influenced by historical events, you should get the historical events right.

It’s true (for all that I know) that major criticism rarely gets empirical data wrong.  But you should take credit for that, right?  That’s one of the basic things that makes criticism scholarship.

For the “what do we really know about reality” question—sure, the sciences are open to interpretation.  But perhaps I phrased that part badly.  Even if we know nothing about reality, we do know what the current state of a particular science is.  When Sokal used all those science terms in his hoax, what he was making fun of was the use of science terms in ways that contradicted or were irrelevant to the real meanings of those terms.  Because the terms have real meanings, even if the science is provisional.  And when someone writes using a Freudian framework, they are implicitly supporting outmoded science, unless it’s clear that they are using the concepts as a metaphorical tool.  In which case why not just find another metaphorical outline that doesn’t have the science baggage?

With regard to the “who did this method well” question—I don’t know enough critics’ work to asnwer it.  But I would guess that the ones who did psychoanalytic criticism well were the ones who wrote when psychoanalysis was new.  That was the period in which you could write about it and really know about as much about it as psychoanalysts did.

By on 06/05/05 at 07:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther—I wasn’t making a statement about what you said or meant, but about how the term “interesting” has functioned in methodology debates in three fields over the last 3-5 decades—one of the key uses of the word in public discourse.

When I hear the word “interesting” I take out my gun—when people say that my site is interesting, I have to correct them.

By John Emerson on 06/05/05 at 11:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Even if we know nothing about reality, we do know what the current state of a particular science is.”

Actually, if we know what the current state of a science is, we know something about reality, in a non trival sense. I don’t see that the methods we use to learn about the state of science are any different to the methods of science itself, both use induction, occam’s razor etc.

By on 02/10/06 at 03:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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