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.

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