The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Overdetermined: In psychoanalysis, a term referring to the concept of multiple causation for symptoms, dreams, and behavioral or emotional reactions; in literary criticism, a term used to describe texts or textual elements involving multiple causal factors that give rise to two or more plausible, coexisting interpretations. Things that are overdetermined are hard to explain without reference to various factors, rendering meaning indeterminate in the sense that no one meaning or interpretation can be said to be definitive.

The term overdetermined (überdeterminiert or überbestimmt) was introduced in Studien über Hysterie (Studies on Hysteria) (1895), in which Austrian physician Josef Breuer and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud argued that hysterical symptoms often have more than one provoking cause and that the onset of such symptoms may be delayed, triggered not by an initial traumatic event but by some later, similar trauma. Breuer attributed the term to Freud, who, describing the psychotherapy of hysteria, asserted that the genesis of neuroses such as hysteria “is as a rule overdetermined, that several factors must come together to produce this result.”

Freud also applied the concept of multiple causation to dreams, arguing in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) that “each of the elements of the dream’s content turns out to have been ’overdetermined’ — to have been represented in the dream-thoughts many times over.” In the absence of a single, determinative element or source thereof, multiple interpretations “are not mutually contradictory, but cover the same ground; they are a good instance of the fact that dreams, like all other psychological structures, regularly have more than one meaning.”

French Marxist Louis Althusser subsequently applied the term overdetermined to the analysis of certain historical events. In his essay “Contradiction et surdétermination” (“Contradiction and Overdetermination”) (1962), Althusser argued that events resulting from multiple or conflicting factors are overdetermined and cannot be explained adequately by reference to principles of economic determinism (the belief that human events and choices result primarily from economic causes). By combining this insight with preexisting understandings of overdetermination, several post-Althusserian Marxist critics and cultural critics have analyzed, or “unpacked,” textual sites marked by the confluence of economic, historical, literary, and psychological forces.

Other literary critics have used the term overdetermined primarily to discuss the nature and function of symbols. Symbols are overdetermined insofar as they are metaphors in which the vehicle — the image, activity, or concept used to describe the tenor, or subject — refers to a variety of things. For instance, the sea, a common symbol in literary works, may represent hope or despair; vastness, emptiness, or endless possibilities. It may be all-encompassing or isolating, the means of sustaining life or ending it, or any and all of these things at once.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: The character of Edgar in William Shakespeare’s play King Lear (1606) is overdetermined. Lear’s description of Edgar as a “learned Theban” suggests he is a skeptical, materialist philosopher. But seen from the perspective of English social history, he looks like a “Bedlam” or “Poor Tom” figure, a wandering beggar dispossessed by sixteenth-century laws that allowed landowners to privatize semipublic lands. And viewed in light of literary history, he exemplifies the “trickster” who turns out to be the bearer of truth.

In an essay entitled “Introduction to the Danse Macabre: Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” (1989), psychoanalytic critic Frederick Karl treated Joseph Conrad’s depiction of the jungle in his novella Heart of Darkness as overdetermined, pointing out that the jungle symbolizes both what people fear and what they destroy. Similarly, in an essay entitled “Is Morrison Also Among the Prophets?: ’Psychoanalytic’ Strategies in Beloved” (1994), Iyunolu Osagie described Beloved, who may be a ghost-child or a flesh-and-blood escapee from a slave ship, as “an overdetermined character.”