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Tuesday, 11 July 2006

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Luther Blissett

Scott, just thought you'd be interested in Michael Wood's review in the LRB on the new editions of Freud's work. It's on line at http://www.lrb.co.uk

forgottenboy

This is what Lambert Strether says about his own life, to a young man in whom he has taken an interest, in Henry James's The Ambassadors:

"The affair-- I mean the affair of life--couldn't, no doubt, have been different for me; for it's at the best a tin mould, either fluted and embossed, with ornamental excrescences, or else smooth and dreadfully plain, into which, a helpless jelly, one's consciousness is poured--so that one 'takes' the form as the great cook says, and is more or less compactly held by it: one lives in fine as one can."

Were I to try to systematize an epistemology and psychology based on James, rather than Freud, this is the sort of quote with which I imagine I would begin. There are two reasons for this. First, in its proper context, it is one of the most moving speeches I have ever encountered. Second, it offers a fairly precise and abstract account of sensibility, accounts for the formation of sensibility, and evaluates the relationship between formative experience and freedom -- all of which could help in the construction of a tentative model of the psyche.

However, this is a speech by Lambert Strether, not Henry James. It is "in character," even where it specifically concerns character, and is a contingent product of Strether's own (invented) life history. Therefore we would not be justified in leaping from this statement to a Jamesian psychology. That would not be fair to Ralph Touchett, who holds a far more optimistic view for the whole of his short life.

Furthermore, it bears a striking resemblance to the Freudian theory of the complex. It is not the same as Freud's theory, at all. For one thing, Strether's "tin mould" is asexual. But it does allow us to speculate that some people may inhabit more Freudian worlds than others; in other words, that the complicated relationship between the form and content of their mental lives produces repressed drives, anxiety, parapraxis, and so on. It is natural that some of these people, when and if they become writers, will produce works of criticism and fiction heavily influenced by Freud.

Along these same lines, I can see critics more sympathetic to Ralph Touchett having more interest in Walter Pater, or Matthew Arnold, than in Freud. The wonderful thing about Henry James is that his fiction is large enough to contain both Strether and Ralph.

Of course, not every critic produces work which is authentic on this level. In your post on an earlier generation being allowed to "discover" postmodern theory, you lamented the crippling effects of professionalization. Undoubtedly, certain graduate students pick up Freud for cynical reasons, under enormous pressure to secure a tenure-track job. Thus Freud tends to wrongfully overshadow other systems which might be valuable: he is granted too much universal explanatory power.

But I would like to offer a view intended to augment Rufo's analysis. I don't think the bitter arguments between theorists are simply the result of different epistemological foundations. I think they are also the result of different experiential foundations. Lacanians dress differently from Deleuzians. They listen to different music. They buy houses in different neighborhoods. (I am thinking of several specific people, on both sides, in my department.) We put them in some bland room, give them a text overflowing with meanings, and expect them to reach consensus even when they are competing for the same jobs.

Even as I am tempted (in my own defense) to assert and prove my independence from Freud, I am equally concerned to present that independence as itself related to my own life, and only meaningful in light of other people whose narrower work has benefited me enormously. It has been useful in this conversation to refer to expansive authors like Joyce. Some other blog finds Kafka, a supreme analyst of the inescapable -- inescapable. That is the circular process by which experience moults into truth.

But this process need not result in stasis. My interest in working with both Deleuze and Lacan pushes me towards methods by which they might be reconciled. Good Lacanian writing tries to go beyond the mirror stage through the immanent process of naming and analyzing it, and good Deleuzian theory tries to go beyond schizophrenia. It is this beyond which could justify what appears at first to be methodological obsession.

Another way of putting this might be, to echo an earlier point, that different interpretative systems often share utopian aspirations towards freedom through the word; despite their passionate differences, they can be ranged alongside one another according to their common hopes. But here I am ashamed to draw so heavily on the work of Ernst Bloch.

Ray Davis

Noted, Luther, but worth a second recommendation.

Over the weekend I came across a string of comments by contemporary researchers in the cognitive sciences acknowledging their respect for and continuing interest in Freud -- as a great innovator in a great direction rather than as a canonical authority; none of them are "Freudians" or "anti-Freudians" any more than they're "Newtonians". I agree with forgottenboy that our greater investment in one thinker more than another reflects personal disposition. Surely the point should not be to deny that -- the point (if one prefers a vigorous intellectual life) is not to rest there, like someone who enjoys their first cheeseburger with bacon and thereafter everlastingly eats nothing but.

What makes these debates so unsatisifying in the end is that the people being targeted don't participate and wouldn't learn anything if they did. Instead, people who say we shouldn't be smug parrots of orthodoxy "argue" with people who say we should be able to enjoy and deploy what interests us.

Kenneth Rufo

Screw all of you. I want orthodoxy.

Kenneth Rufo

And world peace.

forgottenboy

This is what Lambert Strether says about his own life, to a young man in whom he has taken an interest, in Henry James's The Ambassadors:

"The affair-- I mean the affair of life--couldn't, no doubt, have been different for me; for it's at the best a tin mould, either fluted and embossed, with ornamental excrescences, or else smooth and dreadfully plain, into which, a helpless jelly, one's consciousness is poured--so that one 'takes' the form as the great cook says, and is more or less compactly held by it: one lives in fine as one can."

Were I to try to systematize an epistemology and psychology based on James, rather than Freud, this is the sort of quote with which I imagine I would begin. There are two reasons for this. First, in its proper context, it is one of the most moving speeches I have ever encountered. Second, it offers a fairly precise and abstract account of sensibility, accounts for the formation of sensibility, and evaluates the relationship between formative experience and freedom -- all of which could help in the construction of a tentative model of the psyche.

However, this is a speech by Lambert Strether, not Henry James. It is "in character," even where it specifically concerns character, and is a contingent product of Strether's own (invented) life history. Therefore we would not be justified in leaping from this statement to a Jamesian psychology. That would not be fair to Ralph Touchett, who holds a far more optimistic view for the whole of his short life.

Furthermore, it bears a striking resemblance to the Freudian theory of the complex. It is not the same as Freud's theory, at all. For one thing, Strether's "tin mould" is asexual. But it does allow us to speculate that some people may inhabit more Freudian worlds than others; in other words, that the complicated relationship between the form and content of their mental lives produces repressed drives, anxiety, parapraxis, and so on. It is natural that some of these people, when and if they become writers, will produce works of criticism and fiction heavily influenced by Freud.

Along these same lines, I can see critics more sympathetic to Ralph Touchett having more interest in Walter Pater, or Matthew Arnold, than in Freud. The wonderful thing about Henry James is that his fiction is large enough to contain both Strether and Ralph.

Of course, not every critic produces work which is authentic on this level. In your post on an earlier generation being allowed to "discover" postmodern theory, you lamented the crippling effects of professionalization. Undoubtedly, certain graduate students pick up Freud for cynical reasons, under enormous pressure to secure a tenure-track job. Thus Freud tends to wrongfully overshadow other systems which might be valuable: he is granted too much universal explanatory power.

But I would like to offer a view intended to augment Rufo's analysis. I don't think the bitter arguments between theorists are simply the result of different epistemological foundations. I think they are also the result of different experiential foundations. Lacanians dress differently from Deleuzians. They listen to different music. They buy houses in different neighborhoods. (I am thinking of several specific people, on both sides, in my department.) We put them in some bland room, give them a text overflowing with meanings, and expect them to reach consensus even when they are competing for the same jobs.

Even as I am tempted (in my own defense) to assert and prove my independence from Freud, I am equally concerned to present that independence as itself related to my own life, and only meaningful in light of other people whose narrower work has benefited me enormously. It has been useful in this conversation to refer to expansive authors like Joyce. Some other blog finds Kafka, a supreme analyst of the inescapable -- inescapable. That is the circular process by which experience moults into truth.

But this process need not result in stasis. My interest in working with both Deleuze and Lacan pushes me towards methods by which they might be reconciled. Good Lacanian writing tries to go beyond the mirror stage through the immanent process of naming and analyzing it, and good Deleuzian theory tries to go beyond schizophrenia. It is this beyond which could justify what appears at first to be methodological obsession.

Another way of putting this might be, to echo an earlier point, that different interpretative systems often share utopian aspirations towards freedom through the word; despite their passionate differences, they can be ranged alongside one another according to their common hopes. But here I am ashamed to draw so heavily on the work of Ernst Bloch.

Ray Davis

Noted, Luther, but worth a second recommendation.

Over the weekend I came across a string of comments by contemporary researchers in the cognitive sciences acknowledging their respect for and continuing interest in Freud -- as a great innovator in a great direction rather than as a canonical authority; none of them are "Freudians" or "anti-Freudians" any more than they're "Newtonians". I agree with forgottenboy that our greater investment in one thinker more than another reflects personal disposition. Surely the point should not be to deny that -- the point (if one prefers a vigorous intellectual life) is not to rest there, like someone who enjoys their first cheeseburger with bacon and thereafter everlastingly eats nothing but.

What makes these debates so unsatisifying in the end is that the people being targeted don't participate and wouldn't learn anything if they did. Instead, people who say we shouldn't be smug parrots of orthodoxy "argue" with people who say we should be able to enjoy and deploy what interests us.

Ken Rufo

Screw all of you. I want orthodoxy.

Ken Rufo

And world peace.

Ray Davis

Regarding the cognitive sciences' "demolishing" of Freud, here's a starting point for that neurosciences thread I mentioned in my other comment this morning.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Ray and LB, I meant to say a little something about the Wood article earlier, because with the exception of the discussion of the translations problem toward the end, one could read that article without realizing that the disorders in question are developmental and/or traumatic. I find the mind Freud described far more compelling than his account of how it got there, but anything more serious than an appreciation of Freud requires that account be invoked.

And Ray, thanks for the links to those on-going Scienceblogs discussions. Fascinating, to say the least. I followed the links, finished with a tab open to MetaFilter, and found this interesting comment, from a party I didn't realize I was a party to. Er, you know what I mean. (Before I saw who'd written it, I'd mentally noted that I didn't expect to see the word "farrago" on MF.)

forgottenboy, brilliant stuff, that is. I'd intended William James, but you've raised the stakes. Before addressing them, a few notes:

Undoubtedly, certain graduate students pick up Freud for cynical reasons, under enormous pressure to secure a tenure-track job.

I didn't intend to make those who adopt Freud sound mercenary so much as, well, pressured. Were I to pick up Freud at this point, irresponsibly use an argument of his to bridge a gap in my work, that would be mercenary. (Although, I feel obliged to note that the longer this conversation continues, the more I'm convinced that my own position is the intellectually poorer. I've even ordered a couple of books on the "cogntive" or "adaptive" unconscious.) But I think scholars move to Freud more for the comfort than anything else: the knowledge that you possess the knowledge; that your methodology, if not sound, can be defended. The former is the appeal to a foundational psychoanalytic model, the latter to a local one. I'm increasingly convinced that the latter possesses real utility, esp. for a non-scientific discipline like literature. But at this point in the discipline's history, I encounter the former much more frequently.

My reason for invoking James was to point to a rough contemporary of Freud with a different but equally extendable theory of cognition. We still see Jamesian readings of turn-of-the-century literature—egads! I recently wrote one—but I include James for the same reason I'd include Freudian concepts in any work I did on American literature written after 1920: Freud is a central figure in the cultural history of that moment, people understood themselves in Freudian terms, wrote Freudian novels, &c.

Another way to say that: I believe Freud an evocative writer in and about a particular cultural moment, but I think of his work as belonging to that moment. I mentioned my affinity for Benjamin earlier, and linked it to questions, themes which seem consonant, to my mind, with Kafka and Julis Knipl. Now, I can justify my intuition of consonance there, both historically and by appeal to literary tradition. Despite the argument being ahistorical, I still think a particular mode of thought best describes for us the issues raised in a book written in the '90s. That appeal to literary tradition contains power, allows you to leapfrog decades, but it's not unlimited or universal. It doesn't allow me to apply ;any theory to any literary work, only those to which it shares some fundamental something.

For example: I'm writing about turn-of-the-century evolutionary theory. I'm using it to describe problems in the works of turn-of-the-century authors. My decision to apply invalid theories of human development to explicate literary works raises no eyebrows. Were I to apply those theories to contemporary literature, say, Y - The Last Man, I'd have to justify why I did so. What is it about those books that warrants my applying a long discredited theory of human development to a series which, on its face, demands to be read with an eye to contemporary genetics?

I grant Freud the same indulgence I do James Mark Baldwin, and I do so gladly. Thus, your example of the similarities beteween the Stretherian asexual tin mould and the Freudian complex strikes me as potentially relevant, so long as you can demonstrate that they were both working with what was in the water.

It is this beyond which could justify what appears at first to be methodological obsession.

But do you think it a "beyond which" often achieved? Or is it not, typically, the endgame one wanted to advance all along. And on another track—the tired disciplinary complaint, actually—are literary scholars the people who ought to press beyond the mirror stage? The answer depends on the status you accord Lacan—literary critic, scientist, philosopher—but even that depends on clarifying what you think the stakes of your argument are. If you believe that a certain response to the mirror stage creates criminial psychopaths, do you have a larger obligation to do something more than write about it in obscure literary theoretic journals? Should you not, then, inform the scientific wing of the psychoanalytic community of your discovery, lobby for updating the DMV, &c. Because if you grant it the status of a science, your discovery should warrant that response. If you think him a philosopher, not so much. But oft entimes those who invoke Lacan do so ambiguously, appropriating the authority of science while not even considering the responsibility it entails. (Not that you do this. Actually, not that any of my readers do this.)

Alex Leibowitz

I dunno -- there's an article up on that most beloved website about the literary aspects of Marx's Das Kapital.

I think "literature" is where thought goes to die before finally becoming fossilized in "philology".

Adam Kotsko

Has anyone ever come across those who seem to think that directly engaging with primary texts is a guaranteed way not to understand them -- that trusting other scholars is literally the only way to go?

(The problem with this view, of course, is that it does not give an adequate account of how the secondary text arose in the first place.)

Scott Eric Kaufman

I certainly have. No one recommended I tackle Lacan before first reading The Sublime Object of Ideology, Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight and Reading Lacan. Then, and only then, was I prepared to delve into Ecrits. Actually, not Ecrits, which was still too complicated—from there I was to read eleventh seminar (The Four Fundamental Concepts), then the first (On Freud's Technique), then the third (Psychoses). Then, and only then, was I prepared to delve into Ecrts. (For real, this time.)

Which, all in all, alludes to adequate account of how the secondary texts arose: they're either transcribed or written by people who probably witnessed the transcription. Talk about your metaphysics of presence.

Alex Leibowitz

Scott -- I think one of the main reasons I dislike science is that it's much harder to think about science, to really criticize science. I feel like I have to take the pronouncements of science at face value: because of advanced and often specialized mathematics and high-cost research, I can't subject the findings of science to a personal analysis -- or so some supporters of science *claim*.

Alex Leibowitz

Also (I'm sorry my comments tend to come in two's and three's -- but I'll say something, then think of something else; and then I always get so heated when discussing 'opinions' -- which is so regrettable! Though perhaps too a sign of genuine interest...) I have a couple questions:

1. On Freud being 'unfalsifiable': are there *no* mechanisms at all by which Freudian thought distinguishes between claims in its own tradition (among Freudians)? Suppose you answered, "According to the authority of Freud" -- but still, this is an authority we have to interpret (think again of Biblical Hermeneutics) -- really in order to figure out how Freudian thought proceeds, we have to unearth what a Freudian hermeneutics is, I think...

2. Could you say a little bit about what you think is the value of studying history? It seems the work you do does tend more towards the historical, and it seems knowledge is not 'historical' in the same way it is 'scientific'. Why do you study literature?

I hope by taking this (more humble) tenor I can contribute more to and get more out of this discussion, which interests but also disturbs me.

Alex Leibowitz

Finally (three) -- it isn't just that I feel science condemns itself, at least from my own perspective, to the 'unscientific' -- i.e., if science did come into the domain of my own experience, I would be happy with it. What bothers me about the advance of science is what bothers me about being wrong:

Say I am Freud, and I've devoted my entire life to this bunk theory of consciousness and psychology, but I really believed that what I was doing was not only right, but also moral. When science comes and tears out the foundations from under me, how can I help but conclude that all the 'thinking' and 'research' and 'interest' I put into my field was worthless? Science calls this 'cognitive dissonance', I suppose -- but that itself seems just another name for 'resistance', maybe?

I want to believe that intellectual work -- studying and making some sense (perhaps not a sense everyone will like) of Heidegger and Derrida, to make my sense -- is worthwhile even if it doesn't acquire 'truth'. What I don't like about science is that it feels to me like it devalues all work that doesn't finally end up in 'truth'. I understand you might reply, "Well you have to set yourself to a high-standard -- you have to continually aim at truth" -- but I suppose I have some sympathy for the continental philosophers, the irrationalists, the mystics, and the religious. I don't want to think that what they've devoted their lives to is 'inferior' to science tout court. Of course, I don't want to stray into a feel-good pluralism, either -- but I suppose I tend to think that nothing is entirely true or entirely false. Rather we have to keep going through everything because there's no thought that hasn't hit on something somehow -- or at least that doesn't point the way to a hit.

Imagine, for instance, if after 10 years studying postmodernism suddenly and with an amazing zeal I were to turn to physics and that something I had read in Derrida inspired a new and correct unified theory. I'm not saying that this will happen, nor am I saying that postmodernism holds the key to unlocking modern mysteries -- I'm just saying that the course of knowledge -- precisely because we in some sense don't know it -- is not guaranteed to unfold according to our current certainties. Further, even though I have taken up and rejected countless theories already in 22 years of living, just because I have rejected something (like Orthodox Judaism) doesn't mean that I have done so rightly. I suppose what I'm advocating is a kind of universal fallibalism.

Tom Hitchner

Alex, I think you're relying on a scientific straw man here. Do you have any examples of scientists *claim*ing that you have no choice but to take science at face value? Do you have any examples of Freud being described as "worthless"--that is, as not even having led to any worthwhile advances or lines of inquiry? I don't think even Scott has taken that position. (I'll grant that some vehement anti-Freudians probably do take that stance, but I don't think anyone takes them to be the scientific majority.) Science, as several people have pointed out, relies on and honors plenty of foundational thinkers who everyone acknowledges were wrong a lot of the time. I think that at least in its ideal, and to a large extent in practice, science is far more interested in advancing knowledge than in mocking those who don't understand or who got it wrong centuries ago.

I don't agree that science is an impregnable cabal. In fact, I think that science, though obviously requiring a lot of specialized knowledge (and I'm speaking as someone with no aptitude for science or math), has a strong claim to being much more transparent than many of its opponents. When Galileo proposed that the earth moves around the sun, he had evidence that he was anxious to share. When evolution advocates, or believers in global warming, argue their case, they have evidence that they're anxious to share. In all of these cases, the retorts, which are founded on religion or instinct or the specious claim that "science can't explain everything," are far more arcane.

Alex Leibowitz

I agree with you that not all, perhaps no scientists would claim that science is to be taken at face value -- but I also think it is very difficult and sometimes impossible to separate a scientific theory from its philosophical implications. We're very apt to confuse what we observe (the data) with its meaning -- that is, we're constantly making data into montstranta. I really do think the two are separate and that if we confuse the two, we lose something very important. We can always engage with the meaning of a theory, even if the evidence supporting it is lacking -- that is, we take Aristotle's physics and we say, "What does it mean to say that matter seeks its natural resting place? How in this argument is 'matter', etc..."

What bothers me about Crews is that he doesn't seem to allow for any such separation. Freud's theory can be reduced to the facts it relies on, and to the extent that the conjunction of these facts is false, the theory is also false.

Rich Puchalsky

Alex: "When science comes and tears out the foundations from under me, how can I help but conclude that all the 'thinking' and 'research' and 'interest' I put into my field was worthless? [stated as if Freud]"

Well, you don't really understand what science is about. Scientists are almost always eventually found to be wrong about something -- perhaps even everything that they worked on. But you still can't get to contemporary science without people having worked on historical science. Slagging Freud for falsifying data is fair, slagging him for being wrong is pointless. Slagging people for continuing to use Freud now that he's pretty much known to be largely wrong is fair. Of course that last applies most stringently to scientists, and it's not clear whether it really should matter for literary studies. But the reasons that people have given for this continued use seem to come down to things like convenience, tradition, and nostalgia, none of which sound like very good reasons within the context of academia to me.

Also, wrongness is a matter of degree. Newton is now wrong, but his laws are perfectly good for most uses. What I've been trying to get at with comments about folk psychology and history of observation and fire-earth-air-water and so on is that many of the parts of Freudianism that are still largely used refer to rules of thumb that may not go away even if cognitive science works out what's really going on nerve by nerve. So there may really be an argument for continuing to use the most commonsensical elements of it even though it's wrong.

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