Thursday, 13 July 2006

On Not Taking the Long-Cut We all take shortcuts. We all have a couple of scholars in our pockets who, in a pinch, we feel comfortable reading what they've written about Thinker X instead of tackling Thinker X herself. Admit it. You and I both know where you learned about Ernst Bloch. There's no shame in it. (Anyway, in Scholar Heaven everyone gets to read all the books they always meant to get around to reading, so why not cut few terrestrial corners?) I say this partly in response to forgottenboy and Adam's comments in defense of Freud on the basis of established utility. As a means to local argumentative ends, i.e. stripped of its universal explanatory power, I could live with the continued presence of psychoanalytic thought in literary studies. I know—and am presently arguing with—people for whom this better-than-squat model enables them to produce incisive work. But I still question its independence. As Ken Rufo recently wrote: The splits that we see at work between so-called modernists and postmodernists, between Lacanians and Deleuzians, between all manner of methodological beasts, are in large part not splits caused by differences in reading for meaning, but rather differences in the methods by which interpretation and the subsequent production of meaning is possible. In other words, the theoretical assumptions that inform the interpretation determine the possibilities and final form that any interpretation will take. That final sentence speaks directly to my concern that even a local psychoanalytic explanation has global effects on the shape and outcome of the argument it assists. The argument may have turned another way—perhaps an equally tendentious one, but differently so—had it not adopted a set of ready-made psychoanalytic concerns. A Jamesian reading may have worked better, but the psychoanalytic has greater appeal. Why? Cultural capital, for one. Tradition, for another. Equally powerful—and equally obvious—is its status as a system of ideas with a built-in fail-safe, what Ernest Gellner calls "a self-maintaining circle of ideas [conveniently] well-equipped with devices for evading falsification." If we're going to take a short-cut, why not take the well-respected, traditional one we can expertly defend? To put it differently: We all turn conservative when we have our hand in the cookie jar. It seems natural to stuff our guilty consciences behind the most heavily fortified position available, and psychoanalysis is it. I understand the motivation, but fear it over-applied. (In some cases, "only-applied.") I'm not knocking strong ideological and philosophical convictions per se. I am, however, questioning the seriousness with which they're held when folks betray little or no awareness of the trap 1) integral to their theoretical druthers which they 2) spring with postal regularity. Why not admit it? Why insist that one is open to new ideas when the very system to which one so rigidly subscribes precludes the possibility of accepting them? If everyone else knows you play a rigged game, shouldn't you?
Psychoanalysis Is Dead! Long Live—Wait, Nevermind. As a science, psychoanalysis is dead. It does not model cognition, nor does it account for individual or group behaviors it has no hand in creating. (About which, more tomorrow.) You can't read Timothy D. Wilson's egregiously judicious Strangers to Ourselves and come to any other conclusion. All the bulwarks Norman Holland built to prevent its obsolescence have failed. Spectacularly. Unlike Frederick Crews or Ernest Gellner, Wilson "attacks" psychoanalysis by recognizing its importance to the field of psychology and citing it accordingly. (Vicious, he is.) While that move may not appear spectacular on its face, it's crucial to undermining the special disciplinary status psychoanalysis acquired by evolving alongside psychology. Fancying themselves scientists, psychologists distanced themselves from psychoanalysis, which they considered Homo neanderthalensis to their Homo sapiens. With H. neanderthalensis evolving alongside them, they could point and laugh at its crudities but they couldn't deny its existence. There it was, matching their pace, refusing to wither under the derisive hail of H. sapiens. Because Wilson apportions psychoanalysis its proper place in the history of psychology—accepting his discipline's unscientific origins instead of shying away—he can christen psychoanalysis Homo habilis and be done with it. He can afford it the same respect granted all other progenitors: a necessary, but from the present perspective, unsophisticated version of the current model. Just as we outstrip our "handy" forefathers, so too does contemporary psychology outstrip psychoanalysis. I realize how strange that argument sounds, what with evolutionary psychology and its reductive models garnering more attention than their cognitive counterparts. That impression owes more to the inflated rhetoric I discussed yesterday than the current state of the field. Given the evidence Wilson marshals, the discipline cares more about how the brain works than how it evolved, thus relegating those objectionable just-so stories to the status of window-dressing on the mansion currently under construction. (While it may be best-selling window-dressing, no one in the profession mistakes it for it a structural element.) The genius of Wilson's decision becomes obvious when defenders of psychoanalysis argue for its contemporary currency. Like Norman Holland. Holland, in an essay someone assured would accurately present "the actual scientific status of psychoanalysis," moves through a series of arguments which Wilson's method renders moot. (Although, in citing patient responses to Rorschach blots, it teeters on the verge of being hilariously moot.) Why? Because all of the psychoanalytic categories which still have purchase do so at the expense of their interpretive uniqueness. Contemporary cognitive science still believes that "much mental life, including thoughts, feelings, and motives is unconscious," but they now have empirical evidence for doing so. Moreover, the evidence gathered shares neither characteristics nor origins with its psychoanalytic correlate—unless by "origins" you mean the equally generic "stable personality patterns form in childhood and shape later relationships." By acknowledging its place in the genealogy of cognitive science, Wilson diffuses debate over whether it constitutes a viable alternative to it. It does ... to the same extent alchemy constitutes a viable alternative to chemistry. Its assumptions have not...

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