Jump to content

Recommended Posts

This sounds really interesting to me. Freud is always lurking around the back of my thinking about human subjectivity, in that I contend that it's very difficult for anyone in the contemporary world to think what consciousness is without a Freudian framework (i.e we are the product of unconscious forces that affect us in ways we don't fully understand).

This helps me get Robinson's critique a bit more. I also couldn't figure out why she spent so much time on Freud, since I've barely read any of him. But it could be that he helped set the groundwork for contemporary neo-Darwinian materialist reductionism or whatever it's called, yes?

I mean, who doesn't believe that we are the product of all kinds of unconscious forces, even if we don't use that language? Even conservative Christians have come around to believing that, say, childhood trauma has a major effect on us. The underlying notion that was concretized in Freud is so prevalent, I don't think we have come to grips with its impact. i.e. PTSD, or even some modern understandings of how sin affects us, seem to me to be fuelled by underlying Freudian assumptions.

I guess I would say it's more than just the groundwork for "contemporary neo-Darwinian materialist reductionism". Freud is in some respects a product of the Enlightenment, along with Marx and Darwin, but I also believe he challenged that Enlightenment certainty, which I think is best characterized in someone like Descartes. I believe that you can see how Freud's ideas helped to work a radical rearrangement of knowledge about the human in relation, for Marx, economy, for Darwin, our place in the biological chain, and for Freud, in relation to ourselves. This is why, having not read the essay by Robinson yet, I'm interested in seeing her put him into dialogue with Descartes. The tension in our contemporary society is one of simultaneously believing Descartes, that we can think our own subjectivity and anchor ourselves in self-evident truths ("I think therefore I am.") vs. Freud, or at least the outcome of Freud articulated in folks like Lacan, which is that I can't think myself fully; I am the product of dialogic forces outside my own control and centred on an absence that I try to repress.

Freud's genius was in allegorizing and selling a fundamental change in the way we understand human subjectivity, even if we reject the exact structure that he proposed for such mechanisms. See for example, his re-formulation in Lacan, Althusser, etc. I think this is why Freud is today read more in English departments and cultural studies programs. It's not that the humanities are seeking to ground their work in outdated "science" per se, but that so much cultural production is informed by it (there I go with an almost Freudian assumption that cultural production has an unconscious element).

Here's a short piece I did a couple years ago for my (mostly abandoned) Tumblr on Freud's essay on "The Uncanny":

Sigmund Freud’s essay on “The Uncanny” is of particular note as it is one of the few instances where Freud directly does something of a literary analysis. In the piece he offers an analysis of E.T.A. Hoffman’s short-story, “The Sand-Man,” and in the process offers one of his few investigations of an aesthetic question: namely, what is “the uncanny”? What explains its presence in both literature and in life?

Freud begins with a lengthy examination of the various definitions of the word culled from German dictionaries and elsewhere. The German word for “uncanny,” unheimlich, has its root in the word heimlich, or “homely.” Freud notes that the various definitions and uses of heimlich are such that somewhere along the line (about where heimlich is translated as “mysterious” or “secret”) it merges with the definition of unheimlich. The result is Freud’s hypothesis that the uncanny is “something familiar [heimlich] that has been repressed and reappears” as unheimlich.

His conclusion:

“the uncanny element we know from experience arises either when repressed childhood complexes are revived by some impression, or when primitive beliefs that have been surmounted appear to be once again confirmed.” (155)

This seemingly simple observation has a couple of interesting effects. One, the uncanny is “a paradoxical mark of modernity” (xlix). One must have a particularly modern relation to the beliefs of the past in order to experience the specifically uncanny effect of the confirmation of “primitive beliefs.” Thus, this explains why fairy tales and other such tales of magic, etc. fail to produce uncanny effects. Much like Freud’s psychoanalysis itself, the uncanny posits a particular relationship to unconscious beliefs. In literature, this is a result of an author seemingly “leading us on.” There is a cognitive dimension at work, wherein what we are being told is happening (a character sees a double of her or himself, or a person returns from the dead) seems to clash with the world that is apparently being presented (a rational, Enlightenment view of the world).

Secondly, this blurring of the boundary between fantasy and reality (see Guillermo Del Toro’s El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) (2006) for a particularly good example of the uncanny in film) occurs, as Freud says, “when we are faced with the reality of something that we have until now considered imaginary, when a symbol takes on the full function and significance of what it symbolizes” (150). Thus, the uncanny is further a function of the modern in the sense that it requires us to understand the Saussurean distinction between signified and signifier, though perhaps Freud is a bit condescending in his view of the past.

Either way, “The Uncanny” shows the power of the unconscious to evoke literary effects. The “uncanny” comes about through the effect of the past (whether in primitive cultures or our own childhood) upon the present, thus illustrating the uncanny power of psychoanalysis itself.

Perhaps this is too much off topic, if so, perhaps we can start a thread on Freud and his writing here in Literature section. I know NBooth has some interest in Lacan/Zizek, etc.

Edited by Anders

"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

Twitter.
Letterboxd.

Reviews and essays at Three Brothers Film.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Freud's genius was in allegorizing and selling a fundamental change in the way we understand human subjectivity, even if we reject the exact structure that he proposed for such mechanisms. See for example, his re-formulation in Lacan, Althusser, etc. I think this is why Freud is today read more in English departments and cultural studies programs. It's not that the humanities are seeking to ground their work in outdated "science" per se, but that so much cultural production is informed by it (there I go with an almost Freudian assumption that cultural production has an unconscious element).

Absolutely agreed. I'm of the opinion that, for most of the 20th (and the first bit of the 21st C), pretty much everyone in the West has been a Freudian, even if they don't admit it. The radical change in terms of the subjective self that Freudianism worked on Europe and America cannot be overstated. Not to mention the fact that our language bears the indelible mark of Freud and his translators (unconsciously; we talk of people being "repressed" or "anal" and we never really bother to connect the dots back to Freudian psychoanalysis).

[Of course, I also think Freud is useful just because he gives us a set of tools that, when used properly, can produce interesting effects. Then again, I'm very much aware of Henry Bond's complaint in Lacan at the Scene that the Humanities routinely use Freudian language without properly understanding/using the Freudian concept of the "unconscious". That's a criticism I came across a little while back, and I'm still trying to suss it out.]

Here's a short piece I did a couple years ago for my (mostly abandoned) Tumblr on Freud's essay on "The Uncanny":

Either way, “The Uncanny” shows the power of the unconscious to evoke literary effects. The “uncanny” comes about through the effect of the past (whether in primitive cultures or our own childhood) upon the present, thus illustrating the uncanny power of psychoanalysis itself.

Oh, I like that. I've been reading some Adam Phillips lately, and he's got an interesting understanding of psychoanalysis as not getting at truth in some sort of "now we understand everything" way (the way that Freud's theories were promulgated for years) but as a kind of joint fiction between the analyst and the analysand. I'm not sure how far that aligns with the reading you've presented here, but I do like the idea of the psychoanalytic session partaking of the same sort of fantasy/uncanny that we see in del Toro.

Perhaps this is too much off topic, if so, perhaps we can start a thread on Freud and his writing here in Literature section. I know NBooth has some interest in Lacan/Zizek, etc.

I'd be up for that.

Edited by NBooth
Link to post
Share on other sites

You guys should go for it. I know I'd learn a lot. Sadly I can't hack it with anything that has ultimately made its way into literary theory, even though intuitively I feel a need to defend the notion of human subjectivity against naive scientism, which I think is essentially Robinson's point, too. Critical/literary theory would probably help me back up my knee-jerk groan every time I hear the world 'neuroscience,' but I sadly don't have time to read it. (My theory guys are Bakhtin, Vygotsky, and Bourdieu, mostly.) It is interesting to me that Robinson isn't informed by Theory per se in her arguments -- I read her as wanting to spin out the implications of taking the humanities and religion (and what they claim to do) seriously.

Link to post
Share on other sites

I read her as wanting to spin out the implications of taking the humanities and religion (and what they claim to do) seriously.

Which is what I see the best theory doing.

"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

Twitter.
Letterboxd.

Reviews and essays at Three Brothers Film.

Link to post
Share on other sites

I read her as wanting to spin out the implications of taking the humanities and religion (and what they claim to do) seriously.

Which is what I see the best theory doing.

Indeed. While I remain a bit fuzzy on the boundaries of "Theory" and more generalized philosophy (how much of Zizek is Theory? How about Alain Badiou, whose Being and Event I just picked up on Amazon?), the basic assumption of Theory is that the humanities and religion are desperately important, and that is why they can't always be taken at face value (which is one of the reasons I do remain fascinated by Zizek and his appropriation of Christian imagery into a Marxest/Hegelian/Lacanian framework. He's explicitly not discounting religious belief, even if he doesn't accept it in its orthodox forms; rather, he's attempting to push it and see where it gives and where it refuses to give. My understanding is that Badiou does the same with his use of Paul. And, of course, Terry (After Theory) Eagleton does much the same thing).

I guess I should really refrain from commenting further in this thread until I've read Absence of Mind. But there's my wholly-unversed-in-Robinson two cents.

Link to post
Share on other sites

I read her as wanting to spin out the implications of taking the humanities and religion (and what they claim to do) seriously.

Which is what I see the best theory doing.

Indeed. While I remain a bit fuzzy on the boundaries of "Theory" and more generalized philosophy ...

I'm tracking with both y'all on this. Again, I don't read literary theory because it isn't particularly relevant to my discipline, but I've also been fuzzy about this for a long time, and it's difficult for me to see why certain people are 'theorists' and others aren't, outside of how we refer to things according to disciplinary boundaries. I glance at the shelf behind me and in my "theory" section I have Bakhtin, Vygotsky, Paolo Freire, and some others, because I'm working in language education. I've got other shelves full of people I need to cite if my work is going to make sense in the research tradition I've chosen. But I've also got a shelf with Marilynne Robinson, Wendell Berry, and Walker Percy, all of whom have ideas that haunt me, and whose thought influences and challenges my work, too -- but I could never write a paper for a mainstream journal in my field where I use Walker Percy's ideas about semiotics.

Robinson teaches at the Iowa Writer's Workshop , and I've always thought that MFA people seemed to swim in a sea of actual literature rather than theory, like lit/cultural studies people -- and of course rhet/comp people often work with different theories -- and sometimes popular science writers wade into philosophy and sociology with almost no training or reading in those disciplines, with predictable results.

All of this is to say that I've always found it perplexing that we need to delimit who is influencing our thought, and that the rules of how and why we do this seem so unclear. It's one reason why I often find myself more attracted to 'popular' / 'literary' essayists (such as Robinson & Berry) rather than academic theorists -- the entry point feels easier, somehow. (Which actually not always true, since Robinson cites a rather esoteric bunch of writers.)

Edited by Joel
Link to post
Share on other sites

Freud is always lurking around the back of my thinking about human subjectivity, in that I contend that it's very difficult for anyone in the contemporary world to think what consciousness is without a Freudian framework (i.e., we are the product of unconscious forces that affect us in ways we don't fully understand).

Well, it's not quite as difficult if you anchor your ideas of human consciousness and free will in thought that is far older than Freud's. The end result often leads to questioning the very idea of your subconscious doing things without your control (things that, if conscious, would be against your will) as well as distinguishing between environmental effects that determine your character and environmental effects that merely influence your character. I think Robinson is arguing that, in a sense, this sort of thinking cheapens the dimensions of the human mind.

This helps me get Robinson's critique a bit more. I also couldn't figure out why she spent so much time on Freud, since I've barely read any of him. But it could be that he helped set the groundwork for contemporary neo-Darwinian materialist reductionism or whatever it's called, yes?

One the major points is that Freudian thought is, with obvious contemporary adjustments, still widely and commonly accepted. She finds this ironic due to the fact that many of his arguments were designed to counter other thinking that was culturally and historically specific to his day and age in Vienna.

I mean, who doesn't believe that we are the product of all kinds of unconscious forces, even if we don't use that language? Even conservative Christians have come around to believing that, say, childhood trauma has a major effect on us. The underlying notion that was concretized in Freud is so prevalent, I don't think we have come to grips with its impact. i.e. PTSD, or even some modern understandings of how sin affects us, seem to me to be fuelled by underlying Freudian assumptions.

... Freud's genius was in allegorizing and selling a fundamental change in the way we understand human subjectivity, even if we reject the exact structure that he proposed for such mechanisms. See for example, his re-formulation in Lacan, Althusser, etc. I think this is why Freud is today read more in English departments and cultural studies programs. It's not that the humanities are seeking to ground their work in outdated "science" per se, but that so much cultural production is informed by it (there I go with an almost Freudian assumption that cultural production has an unconscious element).

It's pretty important what exactly you mean by "product of unconscious forces." From what I've read of Freud (which is little), I don't think he was a determinist. The idea that our environment and upbringing influences us heavily is one thing - something discussed hundreds of years before Christ in Ancient Greece. The idea that we have identities which are primarily built from a mass of unconscious forces beyond our control is another. I think you're right though, that sometimes some of Freud's ideas work much better in terms of society and culture, rather than necessarily in terms of individual persons. There is absolutely a sense in which cultural production has unintended consequences that shape civilization.

I'm of the opinion that, for most of the 20th (and the first bit of the 21st C), pretty much everyone in the West has been a Freudian, even if they don't admit it. The radical change in terms of the subjective self that Freudianism worked on Europe and America cannot be overstated. Not to mention the fact that our language bears the indelible mark of Freud and his translators (unconsciously; we talk of people being "repressed" or "anal" and we never really bother to connect the dots back to Freudian psychoanalysis).

Just curious, but have you read Philip Rieff's The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud?

Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

×
×
  • Create New...