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Friday, August 31, 2012

'Studies in Hysteria' by Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer; 'The Unconcious' by Sigmund Freud

The Studies in Hysteria contains several of Freud's earliest case histories, and would be worth reading for that alone (their tentative and evolving format can be contrasted with the later case histories collected in the Penguin volume named after The Wolfman). The Studies are also the earliest attempt to theorise the 'talking cure' that Freud developed in collaboration with Joseph Breuer. This book is therefore the foundational text of psychoanalysis, although many of its ideas were later abandoned (for example, Freud is still using hypnosis for the earlier cases, and also ... massage!)

The collection of essays on The Unconscious includes later elaborations of some of the ideas introduced in the Studies. These essays are more concise and focused than the Studies; but they are also more abstract.

Freudian theory is often presumed to validate the concept of a fugue state: that is a split consciousness, which was a common symptom of hysteria. In fact, Freud's work opposed the prevailing view that Hysteria is a form of mental disintegration characterized by the tendency to to a permanent and complete split of the personality (this formulation is from Pierre Janet, The Mental State of Hystericals, 1894).

Even so, in the Studies, Freud and Breuer do repeat the then-accepted dictum that hypnosis is artificial hysteria (SiH, p. 15); and that, during a hysterical attack, a hypnoid consciousness has taken hold of the subject’s entire existence (SiH, p. 18). The therapeutic value of hypnosis was therefore due to a principle of resemblance between illness and cure. With the patient under hypnosis, the psychologist could communicate directly with her illness.

After 1900, as Freud developed both his theory of the unconscious and the therapeutic method of free association, he grew increasingly sceptical, not only of hypnosis, but of the whole concept of a double conscience. What we have within us, he argued, is not a second consciousness, but psychic acts that are devoid of consciousness (TU, p. 54). Thus the known cases of ‘double conscience’ (split consciousness) can most accurately be described as cases of a splitting of psychic activity into two groups, with the same consciousness alternating between the two sites (TU, p. 54). Similarly, in 'A Note on the Unconscious in Psychoanalysis' (1912), Freud again asserted that:

If philosophers find difficulties in accepting the existence of unconscious ideas, the existence of an unconscious consciousness seems to me even more objectionable. The cases described as splitting of consciousness ... might better be described as shifting of consciousness, - that function – or whatever it be – oscillating between the two psychical complexes which become conscious and unconscious in alternation.

Even in the Studies, while Breuer is confident that hypnoid states are the cause and condition of many, indeed most, of the major and complex hysterias, Freud is reluctant to concede full agency (that is, a truly independent existence) to unconscious ideas, which do not, therefore, 'belong' to an independent consciousness, but rather are removed from consciousness, as in this account of the influence of such ideas on Fräulein Elisabeth von R. (p. 168):

the love for her brother-in-law was present as a kind of foreign body in her consciousness, which had not entered into any relation with the rest of her ideational life. What presented itself, as regards this inclination, was the peculiar state of at once knowing and not knowing, that is, the state of the detached psychical group. This is all that is meant when we assert that this inclination was not ‘clearly conscious’ to her; it is not meant to indicate an inferior quality or a lesser degree of consciousness, but rather a detachment from any free associative traffic of thought with the ideational content.

The question of fugue states remains important in medicine today because of multiple personality disorder, a diagnosis that dates back to the heyday of hysteria, but has increased greatly in frequency in recent years, especially in America. In the Studies, Freud was exploring the idea that hysteria derives from repressed memories of sexual abuse. This is now thought to be an essential precondition for multiple personality disorder too. The later Freud seems to have abandoned (or at least ceased to emphasise) this presumed connection between sexual abuse and dissociation.

My new novel Reciprocity Failure features several actions carried out in a fugue state, although in the novel, these states are chemically-induced: that is, they are blackouts caused by alcohol and / or Stilnox / Ambien (which is in fact classified as a ‘hypnotic’ drug). In a blackout, the affected person performs actions of which they later retain no memory. In cases of extreme intoxication, there also may be considerable impairment of motor functions and perception, and observable personality changes. Oddly, there is very little theoretical discussion of such chemical blackouts (even though they are a well-attested phenomenon). In particular, the available discussion rarely relates blackouts to psychoanalytic theory. Perhaps this is because blackouts are treated as examples of short-term memory loss rather than dissociation; or perhaps it is because they have an identifiable physiological cause, and are always temporary. They therefore require no theoretical explanation.

Interestingly, the foundational literary account of multiple personality disorder - that is, Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (on which, more soon) - also attributes the protagonist's transformation to chemical manipulation rather than hysterical dissociation.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Friday, August 24, 2012

'The Psychopathology of Everyday Life' by Sigmund Freud

I have been reading a lot of Freud recently, in the new Penguin translations. The previous, so-called ‘standard edition’, created under the direction of James Strachey, was much concerned with the status of psychoanalysis as a scientific discipline, and Strachey sought to promote this status by coining several technical neologisms, where Freud had preferred to adapt idiomatic German terms. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in (arguably) Freud’s most popular book The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, which, even on the title page, is making a far-reaching argument: that the insights gained from treating neurotic and hysteric patients could be applied to a general theory of mind. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life is also famous for introducing us to the idea of the Freudian slip, for which Strachey coined the ugly word 'parapraxis'.

A parapraxis is a meaningful mistake, through which we reveal something unintentionally. In it, we carry out an unconscious intention, which manifests itself as [a] disturbance to other, intentional actions (p. 183); the consequence (in, for example, the variant of this process involving a memory lapse, which affects a neutral thought, but one that is linked symbolically to a repressed idea) is that my act of volition failed to find its target, and I unintentionally forgot one idea while I intentionally meant to forget the other (p. 8).

The word Freud coins in German for this double or divided action is Fehlleistung, which, as Paul Keegan points out in his introduction, simultaneously suggests achievement or accomplishment (Leistung) and failure, errance (fehl-) (p. xxxviii). Keegan goes on to quote Bruno Bettelheim on the semantic connotations of this compound word:

When we think of a mistake we feel that something has gone wrong, and when we refer to an accomplishment we approve of it. In Fehlleistung, the two responses become somehow merged: we both approve and disapprove. Fehlleistung is much more than an abstract concept: it’s a term that gives German readers an immediate, intuitive feeling of admiration for the cleverness and ingenuity of the unconscious processes, without the reader’s losing sight of the fact that the end result of those processes is a mistake. For example, when we make an error in talking we frequently feel that what is said is right, though we also somehow know it is wrong. When we forget an appointment, we know that forgetting it was an error, but also feel that somehow we probably wanted to avoid keeping the appointment. Perhaps the best rendering of Fehlleistung would be ‘faulty achievement’. [Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (London, 1983), pp. 85ff.]

Elsewhere, I have seen 'faulty achievement’ rendered as ‘mischievement’, which fortuitously suggests ‘mischief’ as well as ‘mistake’. The only problem in the new Penguin edition is that the translator, Andrea Bell, having excluded the option of using the word 'parapraxis', has made it difficult to determine when Freud is using Fehlleistung, and when he is using some other construction.

I am reading Freud as research for my novel, Reciprocity Failure, which is concerned (among other things) with two modernist theories of consciousness (I know, I know, it sounds like a bestseller already). The first  is that of phenomenology, which identifies the essential aspects of consciousness as ‘intentionality’ (consciousness is always directed towards something, and is therefore always ‘full of’ something) and ‘givenness’ (we should take seriously how things present themselves directly to consciousness: that is, we should take appearance seriously); the second is that of psychoanalysis, which, famously, posits the existence of an unconscious, to which we do not have direct access. Phenomenology is very much in the Cartesian tradition (as is existentialism, to which it is closely related); and for Descartes, consciousness is self-evidently transparent to itself, and is an independent realm of being. Freud offers us a radical critique of this model of the self, even if Freud’s theory of perception is oddly indebted to Descartes (for example, in the premise that perception happens in the mind).

Keegan’s excellent introductory essay to the Penguin edition of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life is both a consummate exercise in epigrammatic style (e.g. The this-world of the parapraxis offers only fugitive scenarios of the possible, and Everyday Life is a host of walk-ons: here comes everybody [p. xxiii]) and an attempt to restore Freud’s text to its immediate historical context in turn of the century bourgeois Vienna (in the process implicitly denying the text’s claims to universality). Thus Keegan points out that the public settings of Freud’s anecdotes are train carriages, health spas, doctors’ waiting rooms, and parlours. However, since I am interested in Freud as a modernist, I take him at his own estimation, not as a product of a particular historical moment, but as the creator of a general model of consciousness.

Freud's is a modernist theory, but it is also, in a sense, the origin of the postmodern strategies of deconstruction, whose methods are certainly derived from those of psychoanalysis. For example, it was Freud who infamously determined that whenever a patient says one thing, this may be taken by the analyst to mean the exact opposite. So one obvious interpretive move for texts written by Freud is to hoist them on their own petard and deconstruct them.

With this in mind, I am particularly interested in the question of agency in Freud. Where is agency located in the split intention of a Freudian slip, or, to put this differently, how is it possible to make a mistake deliberately? On p. 139 of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud concludes that A structure of multiple stratified agencies can be seen as the architectonic principle of the mental apparatus [emphasis in the original], alluding to the unconscious, but this merely defers the need for an explanation. If there is a split between the conscious and unconscious, who mediates between the two, and determines what belongs to the territory of each? Someone must be doing it, and that someone must of necessity have access to both realms.

In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, the question of who commits the slip is obfuscated or answered with circumlocutions. For example, on p. 212, writing about substitutions when reading a text aloud, Freud observes that Co-operation on the part of the verbal material alone both facilitates and limits determination of the mistake: here, therefore, agency lies partly in the text that the slipper misreads or mispronounces, which thereby 'assists' his hidden intention. But, cooperation with who?

Elsewhere, Freud refers to a mysterious 'censor', who is not, I think, identical with either the unconscious or the superego. Who is the censor? Who is censoring? Freud's answer might be: The question is a category error. The censor is not a person - not a 'someone' who wields agency.

So Freud doesn’t dispose of agency; he displaces it, or perhaps misplaces it, as in the Freudian slip itself.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Forthcoming Posts

I'll shortly begin a series of posts on works I've been reading recently. I aim to post one or two such entries a week over the coming months.