February 13, 2014, by criticalmoment

Is the Unconscious Historical?: Conversations on the Origin of Psychoanalysis and its Clinical and Political Relevance Today (Part 1)

This interview will appear in two parts. In Part 1, the discussion focused on the origins of psychoanalysis, its historical debt to hysteria, and the fall of the ‘Master’ …

Samuel Grove: In my own work I am interested in the consilience between Darwin, Marx and Freud. Darwin and Marx were incontrovertibly historical thinkers. In what sense, if at all, was Freud historical?

Colin Wright: One way Freud ended up appealing to history was in the form of myth. So what you find in Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism is this absurd appeal to a primordial past in order to try and explain what he was seeing in a clinical situation and describing as the ‘unconscious’. So it is historical but not in the way historians would recognise. And yet Freud was very much a figure of his time so there is something very interesting about his appeal to science leading him to appeal to myth. It seems that this attempt to ground the unconscious in some kind of scientific paradigm and establish psychoanalysis as a scientific practice ended up pointing him in the direction of myth. 

SG: Why would a scientific route guide Freud to myth?

CW: It’s a very unusual trajectory and I think it has to do with the fact that Freud partially appeals to a kind of scientific method and partially departs from it. He is aware that psychoanalysis cannot survive if it is simply lumped in together with, say, psychiatry. Psychoanalysis was trying to be scientific but not in the same way as psychiatry which was actually dominated by a fairly biological model in Freud’s own day. And so you find in writings like Questions of Lay Analysis, this insistence on psychoanalysis being outside the institutions that are the loci of scientific power, but at the same time he is trying to justify his new discovery on the basis of a kind of enlightenment model of science. So I think there is already a tension between an ‘Enlightenment’ understanding of science, which is much more about discovery and invention, and science as a sociological force with institutional backing.

Lacan’s explanation for why Freud ends up talking about myth is that he is forced in that direction by the structure of the unconscious itself; that he ends up describing a myth because it’s his only way of understanding what is actually a structure rather than something that can be historicised in a linear fashion. Lacan had the benefit of a different understanding of myth, which he got from the structuralist anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, who approached myths as symbolic systems that cleave together fundamental contradictions. But where Lévi-Strauss’s approach suspended questions of the historical ‘truth’ of myths and related notions of origins, Freud seemed to half-believe in his. So Lacan talks about Oedipus as “Freud’s silly little dream” and is quite critical of Freud at that point. It’s as if as a 19th Century thinker (and of course the 19th Century is the century that is quite strongly determined by explanations from origins) Freud couldn’t quite let go of that approach. And so he ended up describing the unconscious in an archaeological metaphor—in terms of a psychic-sedimentation of the past of the species, a view that Jung would take very far indeed.

SG: Was it metaphorical?

CW: I think it was a hypothesis. Metaphorical would suggest it was a colourful way of presenting an argument, but I think there was something more intrinsic to the way Freud developed the idea of the ‘unconscious’ that pointed him in the direction of myth. And what is very useful about Lacan is that he cleans all of that up by saying that the appeal to origins can be located if one thinks of the ‘unconscious’ as a structure. And to understand the way Lacan reads Freud is to already understand that he is intervening in the history of psychoanalysis since Freud. So at no point can we talk about a fixed idea of the unconscious as simply ahistorical. We can locate a series of arguments about that and Lacan was arguing that there had been an enormous deviation from Freud, so in the name of Freudianism Lacan said let’s get back to Freud; away from other psychoanalysts who had gone in a direction that Lacan felt was quite wrong. And it was in the direction of a version of the unconscious that you mentioned—the ahistorical unconscious, the instinctual unconscious, the biological unconscious. Lacan was already intervening into what psychoanalysts had become since Freud’s death. So there is a polemical aspect to Lacan which attacks the idea of the ‘biological unconscious’ because it had started to perform a sort of ideological function—because when you drain history away from something it tends to have that natural ideologising function. I think Lacan’s re-reading of Freud through structuralism was a way of trying to foreground that naturalised biological unconscious as a political deviation from the Freudian discovery.

SG: Isn’t Freud, at least unwittingly, always already an historical intervention? His focus on dreams and madness (which are the two areas that Descartes dismisses in order to found the rational subject) suggests that his formulation of the unconscious itself might have emerged from a critique of the Cartesian subject.

CW: Freud described himself as constitutionally incapable of doing philosophy and he claimed not to have engaged with philosophy that much (although I would be surprised if he hadn’t read Schopenhauer). But it was also clear that psychoanalysis was rather dangerous and met with quite a strong reaction from those philosophical investments in the idea and the ideal of a rational subject because that is the one upon which the Enlightenment project was built. So the fact that Freud received a vitriolic reception—he understood it was a challenge to that whole set of ideas. He wasn’t averse to describing himself in colourful terms. You will know the self-description of him as following in the wake of the Copernican, and Darwinian revolutions—each one being a displacement of human beings as the perceived centre of the universe. So he very much identified psychoanalysis as another step in the direction of the humbling of the rational human subject.

Regarding Descartes, that becomes much clearer in Lacan who never stops talking about Descartes—critically, and affirmatively. One of the things Lacan does with Descartes is to say that the Cogito Ergo Sum principle conflates the signifier and the signified. The idea that thinking is equivalent to being is a conflation of the signifier and the signified as if they were just a sign. So there is a postulate of self-identical rationality which is the basis of the ego. What Lacan introduces into that is the unconscious—as he says, structured like a language. In other words the ‘thinking’ and the ‘being’ do not coincide. That there is something of a bar between them, and that has to do with the fact that even Descartes had to assert his doubt. He needed an axiom. His first principle was still a principle of speech and so Descartes’ egoic subject remains one that is forced to speak. Lacan recognises that there is both a self-identical ego in Descartes which is made possible by a benevolent God who doesn’t deceive. But there is also a very valuable scientific process which is the method of radical doubt—that whittles things down to the pure subject of speech. So that Lacan says that it’s only Modern subjects (that is post-Cartesian subjects) who end up going to analysis. Psychoanalysis wouldn’t have been possible without that ‘Cartesian moment’ because it is that Modern subject, that doubts itself and is thrown back on its own speech, that finds itself going to analysis. There is a very close connection between Modern science as he would understand it and what psychoanalysis does, or rather the subject that psychoanalysis works with. As always with Lacan then the critique is two-sided.

SG: So for Lacan the Cartesian subject is a split subject?

CW: Yes.

SG: Because elsewhere Lacan talks about science being the hysteric’s discourse

CW: Yes. And that is a good thing. He is saying that the role of the hysteric is to question the Master and we owe psychoanalysis to the hysterics because they were the one’s Freud listened to in the late 19th Century, they are the ones that told him what psychoanalysis could be. He was naïve enough sometimes to believe that he was the ‘Master’ and on occasion this made him look quite stupid. I’m thinking of the Dora case when Freud was still at the stage of trying to explain everything to his patients. Dora was having none of it and walked out. And you can’t blame her when you read back on that case study. But the point is that in the late 19th Century hysteria was already there as a psychiatric category and in fact Freud was really influenced by Jean-Martin Charcot. Charcot was also working with hysterics and so there is an interesting historical dimension to hysteria: it was a latter half of the nineteenth century/early part of the 20th century phenomena for psychiatry, and then the term falls away. But in psychoanalysis we hold onto that concept. It’s not part of psychiatric discourse today, but it is in Lacanian psychoanalysis. And one of the reasons is partly to do with acknowledging the historical debt to hysteria in the formation of psychoanalysis. And so when Lacan talks of science as the hysterical discourse he is talking about the capacity to critique and question masterful discourses that present themselves as all-knowing dogma. So he sometimes uses the idea of the hysteric’s discourse in a very historical way to talk about revolutionary moments. And that is when it is clear that Lacan is a very historical thinker. Your original question is an interesting one because the academic assumption about structuralism is that it is just intrinsically ahistorical. If you bracket everything out and just work with a structure then there is no time, there is no temporality—that isn’t the way Lacan views structuralism at all. So he finds ways of thinking about shifts in structural functions to describe massive changes in historical processes.

SG: Is there still a place for hysterical interventions in Modern knowledge?

CW: I absolutely believe so because for me it stands in place for the necessity of critique. One of the things I find very useful in Lacan, particularly Seminar 17, where he talks about science and also revolution as being triggered by the hysteric’s discourse, is that he identifies the university discourse. And that is where knowledge has taken the place of the position formerly occupied by the Master—the Master’s discourse, which for Lacan would broadly describe the feudal social arrangement. But he is recognising that in Late Capital there is an automatic technical knowledge that sometimes has a depersonalized agency in the world—in terms of structuring it. So you get both arguments. You get the pompous Cartesian certainty about what our science can tell the rest of the world. That position of mastery, where somebody knows and some people don’t, is still very important in contemporary science because you have to do a lot of work to try and climb those ramparts and be able to engage with that discourse. There is also the university discourse (which is basically neoliberalism as I understand it)—a disembodied knowledge which functions in a structuring way but which doesn’t seem to belong to anybody in particular and is all the more effective for that reason. Emails, spreadsheets, data analysis, have an enormous impact on the way people conduct their lives and relate to one another. They don’t necessarily seem to belong to anybody, but are a part of the often invisible and increasingly digital infrastructure. You could also think about finance markets being driven by software. These are forms of knowledge that don’t quite seem to belong to anybody in the same way as older notions of expertise.

SG: But they aren’t neutral

CW: Not at all. One of the things that is very valuable in what Lacan says about the hysteric’s discourse, (and also analytic discourse, which is distinct for him)—one of the things the hysteric does is that she (I am going to say ‘she’ although there are male hysterics) knows something about the Master’s desire. She can point something out to him that he deliberately did not want to know about. So it might be something to do with an irrational investment in this knowledge that he has and commands the world with. In the end it’s about his enjoyment in that position of mastery that has nothing to do, directly, with the knowledge itself. Psychoanalysis does something similar. It recognises where the enjoyment is in other discourses, including science. And I think that is a really important role for it because going back to the Cartesian Enlightenment understanding of science, this idea that science is without desire, that science is neutral, that it is unfolding thanks to a logic that we must all bow down to, is one of its most powerful ideological weapons.

SG: Quite. Historically one of the powerful ideological weapons we have to resist these logics is to point out who these logics serve. But in the university discourse it isn’t clear they are serving anybody?

CW: It’s a situation in which everyone is doing what they are told. But no one is telling anyone to do anything. It’s a bit like what Mark Fisher talks about in Capitalist Realism when he talks about managers who say ‘I’m really sorry about this new policy, I agree with you it is really stupid—anyway do it!’. That to me is a quintessential university discourse. 

SG: Right. But that is just a veneer right? The task of critique is partly to show who these policies actually serve. The simplest definition Marx comes up with for ‘capital’ is ‘the command over unpaid labour’. In my experience middle managers sometimes resent what they are doing, but generally really get off imposing their will on people.

CW: ‘Will’ is a slightly awkward term from the perspective of psychoanalysis. The image of the cabal doing evil things from the top becomes a bit cumbersome. But if you look at the ‘will’ as potentially unconscious—as in, they don’t know what they are doing, but what they are doing has enjoyment lodged into it—that is a different way of looking at the same phenomenon. It is important we do factor in that enjoyment because I think it does explain why people do what they do and treat other people the way they do. Without that it is very difficult to understand the contemporary workplace. It isn’t that ‘the will’ belongs to anybody, but it’s something that circulates, something that these policies carry with them because, after all, capital is still parasitic on human beings.

About the Authors

Colin Wright is Lecturer in Critical Theory and C o-Director of the Centre for Critical Theory at The University of Nottingham. His research interests include French critical theory, postcolonialism and psychoanalysis. He is also a trainee Lacanian psychoanalyst with the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research, and works clinically primarily in the field of addiction.

 Samuel Grove is an independent researcher and writer.  He is an editor of www.alborada.net, a website covering Latin America and related issues such as politics, media and also works at Alborada Films.  He has a PhD in Critical Theory from the University of Nottingham.

Posted in Centre for Critical TheoryLacan Reading GroupNeoliberalism