Psychoanalysis - The Rise of Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

The Rise of Literary Theory

Psychoanalysis offers a systematic accounting of the psychic apparatus (especially the unconscious) and a theory of the mind and human psychic development. Sigmund Freud initially theorized a “topographical” relation between the ego and the unconscious; the former encompassed consciousness and the individual’s contact with the external world, while the latter was a quite different space of instinctual drives and repressive mechanisms. In the topographical model, the ego and the unconscious occupied different areas and the problem was to understand how libidi- nal energy moved back and forth between the two. Much of Freud’s early work centered around the analysis of neurotic symptoms (particularly hysteria) which he believed were derivatives of memories that had been repressed and existed only in the unconscious. (Neuroses are psychological disorders with no organic basis and include hysteria, obsessive and compulsive disorders, depression, phobias, and so on; they are the focus of psychoanalysis and can be treated. Psychoses are more serious disorders, often with an organic basis, that are typically not treatable by psychoanalysis. The most common psychoses are schizophrenia and manic depression.) The early case histories - for example, “Dora: A Case of Hysteria” and “History of an Infantile Neurosis (Wolf Man)” - show the development of Freud’s thinking about unconscious processes and the way in which dreams provide insight into the etiology, or cause, of neurotic symptoms. Like the symptom, the dream is an indirect or coded message, the interpretation of which holds the key to resolving the original traumatic memory. Dream interpretation is a complex process involving considerable skill on the part of the analyst; but Freud was confident that proper training would ensure reliable, scientific results.

Freud argues that dreams have two kinds of content, the manifest and the latent. The manifest level is the dream itself, the object of interpretation; the latent level is the actual thought that cannot be known or expressed consciously because it has been repressed or “censored.” “[A] dream is not an intention represented as having been carried out, but a wish represented as having been fulfilled” (SE 7: 85). The distortions that convert wishes into often bizarre and obscure dreams Freud called the dream-work, a process in which unconscious material is allowed a disguised or coded expression during sleep, when the dream-censor relaxes its vigilance. This dream-work entails the primary mechanisms of displacement and condensation by which unconscious material is formed into the manifest content of the dream. In other words, the dream-work performs what many (including Freud) recognize as a literary activity in which metaphor, metonymy, and other figures represent in a disguised form the secret wish that lies hidden in the unconscious. in order to comprehend the manifest content of the dream, the analyst must lead the analysand to the latent level of unconscious, repressed meaning. It is a difficult and time-consuming process, and the analysand very often will resist the analyst's interpretations. The analyst must be a skilled interpreter, able to work back from the dream to the underlying wish. “The dream's interpretation had to disregard everything that served to represent the wishfulfilment and to re-establish distressing latent dreamthoughts from these obscure remaining hints” (SE 15: 225).

Dreams are important because they hold the key to neurotic symptoms that usually originate in an individual's earliest experiences of instinctual satisfaction and repression. For this reason, childhood sexual experiences are fundamentally important. Freud's Three Essays on Sexuality argues that these experiences are structured diphasically, which means that sexual development is interrupted by a latency period that effectively separates it into two distinct phases, pre-genital (oral and anal states) and genital, each incorporating multiple stages and, quite often, regressions to prior stages. Children are polymorphously perverse and can therefore respond along a number of erotic pathways (or “sexual aims”) to a number of “sexual objects” (including the child herself). For Freud, “normal” development entailed the integration of the component “perversions” (scopophilia and exhibitionism, auto-eroticism, sadism and masochism) into a healthy, heterosexual instinct. He was also well aware that normal sexuality and sexual identity were not often achieved, that an individual could fixate at one or another of the early stages; but he strongly believed that this norm was best suited to fulfill the destiny of the human species, to fend off death and produce more life. The pleasure principle, which is the pure and unfettered energy of the sexual instinct, motivates childhood polymorphous perversity. in normal sexual development, particularly during the genital phase and the “dissolution” of the Oedipus complex, the narcissistic pursuit of pleasure associated with early sexual development “comes under the sway of the reproductive function” and the instincts are “organized” more firmly “towards a sexual aim attached to some extraneous sexual object” (SE 7: 197). This form of primary narcissism, which refers to the auto-erotic tendencies of infants, is to be distinguished from secondary narcissism, the unhealthy fixation of the ego on itself at later stages of sexual development. The reality principle keeps individuals from succumbing to the whim of their sexual instincts and forces them either to sublimate some of their libido in non-sexual or non-violent activities (art, religion, philosophy) or to repress the desire for such activities through reaction-formation, the mental forces that come into play to oppose or block perverse impulses (moral reactions like disgust and shame). under the influence of the reality principle, the child learns to direct sexual libido away from the ego (in order to avoid the danger of secondary narcissism) and onto a suitable sexual object.

Freud's understanding of object choice dynamics led to the central event in psychoanalysis: the working out of the Oedipus complex, which allows the individual to overcome “incestuous phantasies” and permits “one of the most painful, psychical achievements of the pubertal period … detachment from parental authority” (SE 7: 227). The young boy must not desire his mother, but this prohibition throws up defenses against the father, who is perceived as a threat to the boy's bond with his mother. Freud believed that a point is reached when the mother or a caregiver, less often the father, notices the child's curiosity about his own genitals and issues a warning that his penis will be cut off if he does not leave it alone. This threat of castration is made all the more real when the young boy happens to see a young girl undressing or his own mother in bed with his father and realizes that women have already suffered castration. A “normal” dissolution of the Oedipus complex would involve the child repudiating his mother, with whom he was closely identified and to whom he was most attracted, and identifying with his father. His desire must now find another object. For young girls, this process is slightly different. First, the threat of castration is a past event, her own body is evidence of its terrible effects; second, while the boy is free to find a female substitute for his mother, the girl is absolutely prohibited from finding another female object of desire and is also separated from the very person with whom she would “normally” attach herself. These events lead little girls to experience a loss or lack which they attempt to alleviate by having a baby, a phallic gift from the father. The Oedipal process for girls (sometimes called the Electra complex) thus begins with a double imperative :

preserve life through heterosexual object choices and repudiate the most natural bond of attachment (the mother), which would entail an identification with the father. For boys and girls, the oedipus complex installs repression as a means by which to manage prohibited desires; it involves “the transformation into affects, and especially into anxiety, of the mental energy belonging to the instincts” (SE 14: 153). The onset of repression is simultaneously the destruction of the oedipus complex. subsequent repressions are made under the aegis of the super-ego that emerges as a result of a successful Oedipal experience. The super-ego is thus “the heir of the Oedipus complex” (SE 19: 36).

The importance of the Oedipus complex in psychoanalysis is hard to underestimate. it is the basis of the “family romances” in which “the young phantasy-builder” (SE 9: 240) replaces his family with one of a higher rank or rescues his mother from an abusive father. it guarantees the structural integrity of the nuclear family and, in a broader cultural context, could be regarded as the foundation of civilization. In Totem and Taboo, Freud suggests that “[t]he beginnings of religion, morals, society and art converge in the Oedipus complex” (SE 13: 156). He speculates that there existed a primal moment in humankind's early development when the brothers in the “primal horde” murder the father in order to gain freedom and women. A totem system emerges, one that reduplicates the crime but also puts in place prohibitions against the crime itself as well as the possession of women that made it necessary. From the primal horde emerged the “fraternal clan,” and from this clan there ultimately emerged complex PATRIARCHAL social structures, religion, and morality. In Civilization and Its Discontents, one of his late works on the origins of civilization, Freud admits that “[w]e cannot get away from the assumption that man's sense of guilt springs from the Oedipus complex and was acquired at the killing of the father by the brothers banded together” (SE 21: 131).

it is only through psychoanalytic therapy that problems arising from sexual development, especially the oedipus complex, can be brought to light. There can be complications, of course, including the analysand's resistance to the uncovering of repressed material and the process of transference, in which the patient rearticulates the structure of neurotic symptoms in terms of the analytical situation itself. in transference, libidinal investments in a repressed object (which is known at fi rst only in terms of its displacement onto dream images or symptoms) are transferred to the analyst himself, who is then in a position to draw out, through association, the latent wish or desire that is at the root of the original neurosis. As Freud put it in the famous case history of Dora, transferences are “new editions or facsimiles of the impulses and phantasies which are aroused and made conscious during the progress of the analysis; but they have this peculiarity, which is characteristic for their species, that they replace some earlier person by the person of the physician” (SE 7: 116). This potentially problematic interaction between analyst and analysand is, in a sense, the goal of the analytical process itself, the point at which the analysand can be led to recognize his own repressed desires and confront them at the level of consciousness. Once confronted, these desires are no longer repressed and can no longer interfere with mental or bodily health by manifesting themselves as injurious symptoms.

As he developed the theory of the ego, especially in such controversial later works as Beyond the Pleasure Principle and The Ego and the Id, Freud formulated a “structural” theory of the mind, one in which the ego, the super-ego, and the id signified certain kinds of relationships between conscious and unconscious elements of the ego. According to this structural model, significant portions of the ego are unknown; in a sense, then, the subject is internally split and displaced. Fundamentally linked to the structural theory of the ego is the theory of instincts or drives. In the earlier topographical model, there were two primary instincts: sexual, linked to fantasy, wish fulfillment, and the pleasure principle; and ego, linked to consciousness and the reality principle. The revised theory of instincts offered in Beyond the Pleasure Principle subsumes the ego and sexual instincts into a single sexual instinct towards self-preservation (Eros) and offers a new category, the death instinct (Thanatos), which is dedicated to the paradoxical quest of short-circuiting the sexual instinct and ending life. “[A]n instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things which the living entity has been obliged to abandon under the pressure of external disturbing forces; that is, it is a kind of organic elasticity, or, to put it another way, the expression of the inertia inherent in organic life.” The death instinct seeks to return to an original inorganic state: “the aim of all life is death” (SE 18: 36, 38). The pleasure principle, because it seeks the repetition of desires and wishes that could bring harm to the individual, appears to be in the service of the death instinct. Because instincts constitute the limit of what can be studied scientifically, the aim of Psychoanalysis is restricted to “demonstrating the connection along the path of instinctual activity between a person's external experiences and his reactions” (SE 11: 136).

Though his later work, especially Civilization and Its Discontents and Moses and Monotheism, was highly speculative and dealt with the origins of civilization and religion rather than individual psychology, Freud believed that Psychoanalysis was a science. But not everyone agreed on the importance of key concepts (especially the oedipus and castration complexes). Almost as soon as it became a legitimate field of study within the medical establishment (that is, around the time of the First World War), Psychoanalysis experienced schisms and factional movements that reduced Freud's centralizing authority and made Psychoanalysis more varied, more popular, and more accessible. Carl Jung's break with Freud in 1913 was due mainly to their divergent views on sexuality and the unconscious; because it occurred early in the development of Psychoanalysis, Jung's own subsequent work in “analytical psychology” is not usually regarded as revisionist Freudianism. The more serious threat to Freud's theoretical hegemony came from ego psychologists, like his daughter Anna, and object relations theorists like D. W. Winnicott, otto Rank, and Melanie Klein. Ego psychologists tend to focus on the dynamic qualities of the ego, rather than on the id and the unconscious, while object relations theorists reject the priority of the oedipus complex and emphasize instead the mother-child relationship. object relations theory has been particularly influential. other theorists attempted to regain the whole ego through a purging of the divided self, especially in the “self psychology” of R. D. Laing and Heinz Kohut. Jacques Lacan was critical of some of these developments, especially ego psychology, which for him had become distracted by the “sociological poem of the ’autonomous ego' ” (Ecrit 162). For this and other reasons, he encouraged a “return to Freud,” specifically to fundamental concepts like the oedipus complex and the unconscious.

Lacan's revolutionary rethinking of the SUBJECT and the construction of SUBJECTIVITY began with his theory of the “mirror stage” of childhood development. He argued that children at a certain age think they see themselves as an entire being, fully present before themselves (as in a mirror), disconnected from the oceanic unity of the maternal body. However, the image children see is not a true image, it obscures the figure of the mother-as-prop (or prosthesis), so that the image becomes a fantasy of the self. The mirror stage is a mise-en-scene of misrecognition

(meconnaissance) that inaugurates the IMAGINARY order, a narcissistic realm of fantasy and imagination. Ultimately, the child will ascend to the SYMBOLIC order where he opens himself to language and the discourse of the OTHER and is allowed to hear from the Other what he recognizes as his desire. This ascension entails a transition from demand, associated with the imaginary, to desire, where “lack” supersedes the dissatisfaction following upon unmet demands. For Lacan, lack, and the economies and structures of desire that attempt to fulfill it, defines human subjectivity. He also posits an order of the REAL, a domain of primal needs and the unattainable materiality of experience (as opposed to Symbolic or Imaginary representations of it). The Real designates all that falls outside the precincts of the Symbolic and the imaginary. it is not a “thing-in-itself” in the Kantian sense, but a domain of experience; its inaccessibility has nothing to do with its ideal nature but rather with the opposite: it is the realm of the unideal, the raw materiality of things before they have gotten a name or a purpose. Lacan, in the seminar on Freudian technique, describes the Real as that which “resists symbolization absolutely. In the end, doesn't the feeling of the real reach its high point in the pressing manifestation of an unreal, hallucinatory reality?” (Seminar 66). Even Lacans attempts at defining the Real slip into the Symbolic register. “Drawing a clear line between the real and the symbolic,” writes Slavoj Zizek, “is a symbolic operation par excellen ce… . [W]hat Lacan calls ’the real' is nothing beyond the symbolic, it's merely the inherent inconsistency of the symbolic order itself” (“Postscript” 41).

Lacan's poststructuralist revision of Freud, influenced by Saussurean linguistics and Levi-Strauss's structuralist anthropology, revealed that the unconscious functioned like a language. For Lacan, the “letter” of the unconscious, like Edgar Allan Poe's “purloined letter,” is manifest rather than latent, always in plain sight. The constitution of the subject in language takes place along a path of signification: “only signifier-to- signifier correlations provide the standard for any and every search for signification” (Ecrits 145). Because only the signifier, the letter, is available to us, the signified effectively disappears beneath the signifier (hence Lacan's algorithm, S/s, in which the signified rests beneath the Signifier). “The notion of an incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier thus comes to the fore” (Ecrits 145). This “signifying structure,” which Lacan also finds in the symptom, signals “the omnipresence for human beings of the symbolic function stamped on the flesh” (Ecrits 119). The symbolic function is itself symbolized by the PHALLUS. For Freud, the phallus was significant primarily for the role it played in the oedipus and castration complexes. Lacan recognizes this important role, so much so that he equates the concept of the phallus with the concept of the TRANSCENDENTAL SIGNIFIER of authority, rationality (logos), and power. The phallus is not a fantasy, nor an object, nor an organ: For it is the signifier that is destined to designate meaning effects as a whole, insofar as the signifier conditions them by its presences as signifier” (Ecrits 275). JOUISSANCE offers the only possible escape from the symbolic function. According to Madan Sarup, jouissance creates a space in which “the human subject is confronted by the unconscious which is striving to express what is really forbidden to the speaking subject - jouissance and death” (99). Jouissance takes the subject outside of subjectivity and language, that is, outside the Symbolic order of the phallus. Or, perhaps more accurately, jouissance enables the illusion of this stepping outside of language, for as some theorists have argued, jouissance is merely an instance of the Imaginary misrecognizing the Symbolic for the Real.

The role of woman (or, as Lacan puts it in Feminine Sexuality, Woman) is to constitute and verify men, to serve as the other (petit a; lower case o) through which man constitutes himself in the Other (the unconscious). Lacan argues that the “I” (je; I) speaks only in order to secure an answer that validates, in the Symbolic order, what the self (moi; me) imagines itself as being; it seeks to elicit messages from the other (through, for example, woman-as-other [petit a]) that the “paranoid” moi (the imaginary conception of the self) needs to hear in order to believe in his existence. “The Other is, therefore, the locus in which is constituted the I who speaks along with he who hears, what is said by the one being already the reply, the other deciding, in hearing [entendre] it, whether the one has spoken or not” (Ecrits 133). Woman is a symptom, a screen for the projection of lack, but also a space of desire fulfilled, the space of the Other/other in which man finds his identity and being. “What constitutes the symptom - that something which dallies with the unconscious - is that one believes in it… . [I]n the life of a man, a woman is something he believes in. He believes there is one, or at times two or three, but the interesting thing is that, unable to believe only in one, he believes in a species, rather like sylphs or water-sprites” (Feminine 168).

Many Feminists, including Juliet Mitchell, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, and Jane Gallop, were strongly influenced by Lacan's writings on female sexuality. of crucial importance for Lacanian or post-Lacanian feminists was a reconsideration of the Oedipus complex and the role of the mother in pre-genital phases of development and object relations. The general tendency away from the Oedipus complex, especially in Kristeva, signals a repudiation of patriarchy and PHALLOGOCENTRIC thought and a privileging of the maternal body. In “Stabat Mater,” Kristeva asks “[i]f it is not possible to say of a woman what she is (without running the risk of abolishing her difference), would it perhaps be different concerning the mother, since that is the only function of the ’other sex' to which we can definitely attribute existence?” (Tales 234). The problem with this argument is that it confuses the distinction between real experience and fantasy formations based on it; even for feminists this confusion leads to the rejection of motherhood as a model for feminine identity. Irigaray points to one reason why women and women's bodies are “excluded by the nature of things,” as Lacan claimed. If they are associated with the material ground of existence, the non-essential ESSENCE that grounds male subjectivity, they cannot reflect (for) themselves. This would make woman a mere “speculum” or mirror for the production of male subjectivity. Irigaray asks, “Is [woman] the indispensable condition whereby the living entity retains and maintains and perfects himself in his self-likeness?” (Speculum 165).

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have mounted a similar attack against the centrality of the oedipus complex. in Anti-Oedipus Deleuze and Guattari argue that the “oedipalized subject” is an imperialized subject, the perfect victim of capitalist and fascist states. “The Oedipal triangle [“mommy, daddy and me”] is the personal and private territoriality that corresponds to all of capitalism's efforts at social RETERRITO- RIALIZATION. Oedipus was always the displaced limit for every social formation, since it is the displaced represented of desire” (Anti-Oedipus 266). In other words, the mechanisms of repression and conscience that are unleashed by the oedipus complex are perfectly suited to those of capitalism: both destroy traditional structures and both create new pathways and economies of desire. The emphasis on desire as the expression of lack found in both Freud and Lacan distracts us from the true nature of desire, which is not to be located in the feelings or experiences of the “oedipalized subject” but rather in a circulating flow of “intensities.”

Human desire is only one kind of “desiring machine” that springs up spontaneously and without centralization, all over the social body. “if desire produces, its product is real. If desire is productive, it can be productive only in the real world and can produce only reality… . Desire and its object are one and the same thing: the machine, as a machine of a machine. Desire is a machine, and the object of desire is another machine connected to it” (26). The schizophrenic is especially sensitive to this conception of desire, and for this reason Deleuze and Guattari use the “schizo” rather than the neurotic as the basis for their critique of Psychoanalysis and its complicity with capitalism.

More recent critical interventions are no less idiosyncratic than AntiOedipus and also no less influential. Of particular interest is the adaptation of Lacanian ideas in critical and social theory. A good example is the Lacanian concept point de capiton, which refers to the points or nodes that connect the subject to a signifying economy. In Judith Butler's formulation, it refers to the situation in which “an arbitrary sign not only appears essential to what it signifies, but actively organizes the thing under the sign itself” (Butler et al. 26). Ernesto Laclau elaborates on the concept in terms of “the contingent imposition of limits or partial fixations” (Butler et al. 66) and the usefulness of such limits in a critique of hegemonic formations, while Zizek notes that the shark in Jaws serves just such a function in organizing free-floating fear and anxiety. Zizek has famously applied Lacanian theory to everything from Kant to Hitchcock and has developed a unique perspective on European nationalism indebted to Lacan's theory of lack and the relation of lack to the Symbolic order. His study of Lacan and Hollywood, Enjoy Your Symptom! (1992), has had an invigorating effect on how film is interpreted, especially with reference to the Lacanian concepts of the “gaze,” repetition, and the Other.

Note. For more on Lacan, see Poststructuralism; on irigaray, see Feminism; on Deleuze and Guattari, see Postmodernism; on Butler, Zizek, and Laclau, see Postmodernism and Critical Theory.


Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Zizek. Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. London and New York: Verso, 2000.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. 1977. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

Freud, Sigmund. Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. James Strachey. 24 vols. London: Hogarth, 1953 -74.

Kristeva, Julia. Tales of Love. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gilliam C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York: Norton, 2002.

---- . Feminine Sexuality, by Jacques Lacan and the Ecole Freudienne. Eds. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose. New York: Norton, 1982.

---- . The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Vol. 1. Trans. John Forrester. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Sarup, Madan. Jacques Lacan. New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992.

^izek, Slavoj. “Postscript.” Interview. In A Critical Sense: Interviews with Intellectuals. Ed. Peter Osborne. London: Routledge, 1996. 36-44.