A response to Nomi Maya Stolzenberg's book essay, "Law, Gender, and the Liberal Project in American Psychoanalytic Thought" (JAPA 68/3).
This essay considers Jennifer Fox’s largely autobiographical feature film The Tale from the vantage point of the #MeToo movement, which coincided with and contextualized its release. Fox’s fidelity to an actual story she wrote at age 13 enlists the viewer in deconstructing the binaries of unambiguous victim/perpetrator, victim/survivor, truth–fiction, memory–desire; omnipotence–agency; coercion–consent; then–now; psyche–soma; fantasy–reality; and patriarchal privilege–women’s voices. The film reveals the intersubjective dimension of truth as a contestation between desire and destruction of knowing (oneself, the other). It refuses any dichotomy between childhood fantasy and traumatic seduction, insisting on the perplexing reality and persistent effects of their ensnarement. Most powerfully, the film bears witness to the power and therapeutic action of (female) agency, and attests to the après-coup or afterwardsness of truth, as we witness the protagonist—between a voice of now and a voice of then—imaginatively rewrite her experience of the past in the present.
Our introduction is to a panel that considers two films, The Tale and Leaving Neverland. Both films feature adult protagonists reclaiming memories of their disavowed childhood sexual abuse, and both were released amid #MeToo and a proliferation of other films, TV shows, and memoirs depicting seduction trauma in the context of a family romance plotline. Together, they suggest features of a universally taboo story (of childhood sexual abuse), compounded by psychoanalysis’s primal taboo: incestuous desire. It is argued that though psychoanalysis recognizes the reality of sexual abuse, it nonetheless seems to discount, as did Freud, its ubiquity, and, too, may leave underexplored the incidence of pedophiliac fantasy. Further, and ironically in light of psychoanalysis’s history, it underestimates the survivor’s investment in her romantic fantasy, and its identification itself with her aggressor’s “grooming,” as a force that denies the real of her trauma. Both films depict the ongoing therapeutic action of après-coup, in the quest to (re)tell truth between memory–desire, omnipotence–agency, truth–fiction, and reparation–(imaginative) apology.
Farley and Kennedy’s incisive and challenging essay unpacking the controversy surrounding “rapid onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD) draws upon psychoanalysis to examine the complicated interplay among freedom of speech, truth, power, privilege, and transgender rights and desire. My response frames theirs within the intersecting gaps that psychoanalysis reveals—between materiality and gender, between materiality and speech, between speech and desire—in order both to highlight how freedom of speech and transgender issues are inevitably vulnerable to collision and to guide intervention: We must insistently pry open the seemingly seamless order between biology and gender, and between gendered desire and speech. Absent such dedicated intervention, I fear, the transgender subject will be left to bear this onto-ethical burden for all of us. We need to engender—and perhaps also to transgender—robust radically inclusive “spaces between” for all gendered subjects and for the disruptive, vibrational motions of desire, its freedom of speech.
The novel coronavirus, followed by en masse antiracist uprisings, has interpellated the global public into something of a social psychoanalysis, characterized both by dismantling and psychic conditioning. Signage of the “weird” and the “strange,” and the uncanny call of marginalized subjects and unconscious archaic pasts and elemental futures have jolted us (white and privileged especially) from the repetitive orbit of self-same certainties into precarity and tumult. Widespread calls for anticapitalist, antiracist collective renewal, issuing, via apres coup, from an encounter with previously repressed, even “unthinkable” ancestral racialized legacies, implicate psychoanalysis. This essay challenges psychoanalysis to reckon with its validity as a so-called emancipatory, healing praxis and to inscribe in its theory a new “position”, a radical democratic imaginary that affirms individual-collective inseparability. This new conceptual space opens onto novel paradoxes and strange temporalities as the insistence of the Real disorients both patient and analyst. Operating between splitting and mourning/reparation, this new imaginary is marked by a vivid contestation between life and death drives. It is constituted by the catalyzing action of revolt, the disruption of the plague of the incestuous familiar, by a democratizing, deconstructive praxis, and by the vitalizing, unruly motions of desire and its truthful, erotic telos.
Alexander Stein’s essay, a provocative and performative appeal to psychoanalysts, challenges us to move beyond both our jargon-filled literature and our self-abnegating professional stance by intervening in the public realm, especially through writing. I share Stein’s appeal but also suggest that, actually, many psychoanalysts have already taken up his call, and that we are witnessing a renaissance of the public psychoanalytic essay, along with the birth of psychoanalytic podcasting. Further, beyond the solutions-focused genre of psychoanalytic writing that Stein specifically advocates, I suggest that we cultivate both scholarly and eccentric writing which aims to dislocate, by speaking not only from the mantle of power and authorized leaders but from the margins. Only then will we truly perform psychoanalysis as Freud’s plague—i.e., the “disruptive innovation” it is. Such performative interventions are urgently needed in a world reeling from its own destructive creations. These may have the added benefit of resuscitating the public perception of our field as discredited, and our own flagging and too long dispirited professional self-esteem.
In Rendering Unconscious, edited by Vanessa Sinclair. Stockholm: Trapart Press, pp. 128-135.
Beneath Donald Trump’s repudiation of democratic values and practically all vestiges of Obama’s legacy (which has spurred a clamor to repudiate Trump) lies a repudiation of the feminine. It underwrites Trump’s cult of hypermasculinity and enables his exploitation of masculine insecurity, along with the gutting of climate protections and reproductive rights. Freud believed the repudiation of femininity was “psychological bedrock” (for both sexes); this article argues that, on the contrary, we have no fundamental need to repudiate the feminine. In fact, to embrace the feminine, in both material and symbolic ways, would be to open an important space for a more democratic polity. But claiming the feminine is so threatening that some, perhaps most, would prefer to lock it up and deny its vast and elemental erotic power and democratizing possibility. #MeToo unleashes the feminine potential for an emancipatory politics beyond patriarchy.
This essay traces the unfolding of vaginal and vulvic expressive topography from the Women’s March, through the grassroots strikes on International Women’s Day, to #ShePersisted, and, most momentously, to the emergence of #MeToo and the eruptive feminine. At the same time, it traces the movement from semiotic confinement to the emergence of a space, a third, for the porous elemental feminine to resist, and to allure, by virtue of her inappropriable freedom. The vaginal symbolic is a quintessential marker of that postbinary, elusive, enigmatic “space between,” a borderspace that operates beyond patriarchy. As the unconscious is untamable, this space is beyond domestication. It is not accidental that the Trump era is characterized by a preoccupation with borders, immigrants, walls, reproductive surveillance, and a general fear of feminine space. #MeToo’s survival and revolutionary and emancipatory potential lie in its opening of this lawful vaginality, and in erecting a postpatriarchal phallic symbol.
There is a growing consensus among political analysts examining the relative roles of race, gender, class, and economic anxiety in the 2016 presidential contest: the race was about race. But the plot of Trump's delivery to the White House thickens when read through a psychoanalytic lens, with an eye to the primal scene and to anatomical difference. One key thread of the plot is the birtherism narrative and its chain of signifiers, which I argue form a complex of various “isms,” including classism, nationalism, fundamentalism, climate denialism, racism, and sexism. This complex is centered around our literal birthplace—the vagina—but it is an obscured center. I suggest that the vagina operated as a secret key to both the presidential campaign and to the Trump presidency. Though ignored in conventional analysis, this key provides crucial insight into Trump's obliviousness to reality and truth, his misogynistic actions to dismantle women's (reproductive) rights and environmental protections, and his inability to concede to the reality that he and a black man, Barack Obama, shared a common birthplace and birthright.
Psychoanalysis achieves its results through a definitvely human, nontechnological practice of talking freely—of free association. Its essential validity for a symbolic species is inherent in its design. In this profound mechanism, psychoanalysis’s contributions to the democratic dream of shared, equal, and inclusive speech are real. Both psychoanalysis and democracy find mutual resonance, sustenance, and relevance in their signature practices, free association and free speech. But one point of departure is most intriguing: While psychoanalysis struggles to remain relevant to the culture at large, democracy’s survival (despite sometimes striking bruises) seems assured; it claims an enduring relevance and comparative advantage over other forms of government. The sheer survival of the word “democracy” as a master signifier signifies its semiotic ascendancy, which both results from and validates (free) speech’s democratizing action. Speech, as psychoanalysis reveals, illuminates the contagious, reverberating, and transformational flow of desire and its symbols. The therapeutic action of free association and free speech lies in liberating desire’s democratic impulse.
This essay explores the idea that relationships of attachment security are simultaneously relationships of mutual desire. Seen through this lens, separation and reunion behavior become increasingly psychologically charged: Infant and mother as well as patient and analyst, must revisit their willingness to expose their desire in each encounter. By recognizing that personal agency is vital to both healthy attachment and romantic desire, we can begin to appreciate the dawning of romantic desire not so much as promoting “separation-individuation” as often conceived, but as exerting a gravitational pull to revisit an original love— one that is now erotically reconceived. We reclaim an original love but now in a relational context between mother and the Other, the pre-oedipal and the oedipal, the familiar and the stranger.
By viewing attachment theory in terms of its implicit semiotics of desire, we discover an avenue for reconciliation between attachment theory and contemporary psychoanalysis. My discussants, Ringstrom and Slavin, both affirm this quest, joining in articulating a dialectical conception of how attachment and desire, relationship and drive, mutually constitute each other. Ringstrom elaborates my thesis particularly in relation to his own signature theorizing on couples’ treatment, and calls attention to the conundrum of insistent demand and the “Pandora’s box” of mutuality of desire. Slavin contextualizes my call within a larger existential framework, linking exploratory probings to mortal terrors. Both discussants highlight how high the stakes are in any genuine encounter between the known and the still unknown. Yet, by encompassing the erotics of the Oedipal triangle and its dialectics of the familiar-stranger, a more robust conception of attachment security emerges situated in a third space between drive and attachment, existential dread and relational connection, desire and reunion, even as we discover their inextricable union.
Freud sustained a commitment to his scientific dream for psychoanalysis, but remained more conflicted about his “liberal” dream, his quest for individual emancipation born of truth-seeking discourse. Yet both dreams drew inspiration from an Enlightenment ethos of experimentation, with a quintessentially human ingredent: free speech. The American Founding Fathers, prior to Freud but similarly influenced by Enlightenment roots, also sustained an ethos of experimentation with free speech—the exercise of which was seen as essential to human (individual and collective) liberty.
While most arguments defending the special status of speech appeal to the tenets of Enlightenment philosophy, neither psychoanalysis nor democracy has a well-articulated theory of why speech is accorded a privileged status. But both did establish fundamental rules that instantiated a bounded space of ambiguity for the unbounded exercise of free speech and truthful discourse. By so doing, psychoanalysis and democracy, by enabling the primacy of speech, both joined experimental and hermeneutic aspects, scientific and liberal dreams, and empiricist and emancipatory truths; and both remain mutually relevant despite having seldom been treated as such.
In this essay, I explore acts of naming, their fundamental status for psychoanalysis, and the powerful effect that naming a hidden body part can have. I hope to show that once we are able to name and speak of the female genital, it becomes metaphorically approachable, enabling free association and its expressive correlate, free speech. Further, by metaphorizing the female genital, we also name the woman. No longer subjugated as a condition of the unsignifiable, she gains status in the symbolic realm of shared discourse. From this new vantage point, the female genital (in name and as metaphor), far from signifying lack or inferiority (as is so often suggested in the psychoanalytic literature) gains status as that primordial signifier for the entire project of human symbolization. The feminine metaphor marks the unknown, the as-yet-to-be-signified, and also the unsignifiable. Only by naming a “feminine law”—desire’s law—do we glimpse the primacy of space: the space that free speech requires.
The essay ponders the growing appreciation for, and ubiquity of, metaphors of space in contemporary psychoanalytic thought and suggests that these metaphors might be understood as feminine signifiers. Psychoanalysis has historically privileged the phallic symbol, while keeping a feminine one obscured and unnamed. It is only by recognizing the sexual somethingness of vaginal space that we appreciate how vital it is to phallic potency, both metaphorically and actually. True personal agency and true phallic achievement, as with all of cultural and symbolic life, are predicated on a spatial foundation both real and metaphorical. An (in)ability to face the ultimate carnality of sexual symbols and to explicitly signify the female genital has consequences for free association as an encounter between the known and the novel, and for democratic free speech in the public sphere.
Sigmund Freud, after experimenting with hypnosis, began working instead in the familiar but also radical terrain of human speech, and wandered into uncanny territory. It wasn’t only the unconscious that compelled his attention, but also the peculiar signage of unconscious terrain. He named this signage “infantile sexuality” and he recognized it as both utterly normal and utterly perverse. But how was the infant’s sexuality to be revealed? Infants, by definition, are without language (in-fantem). What Freud intuited early on was the need for a space of speech and the power of an enlightened speaking subject. He glimpsed but never realized the power of psychoanalysis to grant human beings their natural and inalienable rights to own their sexuality, libido, and free speech privilege. The once meek—and vioceless— shall inherit the earth through a dedicated practice of speaking desire—democratizing desire. A truly egalitarian model that Marx and the communist manifesto might wish to claim! Equality (and nobility, according to Tocqueville) borne of translating the infant’s mute sexual curiosity and natural “perverse” desire into a talking that cures.
This essay explores the semiotic mystery tour at the heart of psychoanalytic free association. Its quest is to contemplate what remains unspoken and unsymbolized by our patients’ claims of “having no thoughts.” The author follows associations in the psychoanalytic literature that reveal an often hidden link between having “nothing” to say and the missing presence of an obscured, if not invisible, female genital. Naming “the gaps” in free association is how we conceive and know unspeakable truths, an otherwise inconceivable reality. The “gap” or “space” in free association obscures and points to the unsignified female genital. Situated between physical actuality and spatial abstraction, the female genital is essential to free association’s path and must be named. The author proposes a “feminine law,” affirming the primacy of this generative, vaginal space as signifying the mysteries of female power and of unconscious knowledge.
I read the discussions by Pellegrini and Harris in light of my interest in tracking associations that tell the story of the missing, unsignified female genital. Both discussants offer rich associative trails inspired by my essay’s exploration of the silences, the gaps, the “nothing,” that psychoanalytic free association and its literature reveals. Pellegrini’s telling of the story by which Freud came to project unwanted associations of a castrated Jewish male onto female sexuality further illuminates the female genital’s obscured story. But Pellegrini also shifts her gaze from it, by reminding us of a more familiar symbol, the castrated phallus; and she shifts the focus from the female genital’s obscured symbolic status to the obscuration of the Jewish female. Harris suggests lines of division in our thinking and offers cautionary notes. However, we actually share many concerns regarding the symbol’s inevitable links with female bodily materiality and with enduring cultural signifying baggage. Metaphorizing the female genital offers us a possibility of moving beyond trading in binaries by opening a symbolic space between what is material and immaterial, accessible and inaccessible.
This essay explores the mostly unexamined analogy of psychoanalytic free association to democratic free speech. The author turns back to a time when free speech was a matter of considerable discussion: the classical period of the Athenian constitution and its experiment with parrhesia. Ordinarily translated into English as “free speech,” parrhesia is startlingly relevant to psychoanalysis. The Athenian stage—in particular, Hippolytus (Euripides, 5th century BCE)—illustrates this point. Euripides's tragic tale anticipates Freud's inquiries, exploring the fundamental link between free speech and female embodiment. The author suggests that psychoanalysis should claim its own conception of a polis as a mediated and ethical space between private and public spheres, between body and mind, and between speaking and listening communities.
Jonathan Slavin interprets agency as a matter of mattering to an Other, proposing that agency, rather than memory, is “the glue of psychic integrity.” I suggest that Slavin, in making this argument, restores the often obscured dimension of matter and physical reality to contemporary psychoanalytic thinking. He links the concept of agency to ideas of memory as inscribed in the body (“hysterical reminiscences”). This perspective, perhaps surprisingly, recasts memory in Winnicottian terms: Memory emerges as transitional phenomena, located between history and imagination, between discovery and creation, between subjectivity and reality. This recasting also elucidates the paradoxical nature of Freud's concept of nachträglichkeit. By linking agency to memory, we also link what is past (and remembered) to the creation of a future. By extension, I claim that memory and agency, past and future, are reciprocally constituted, and that each is fundamental to the experience of the other.
What is at stake in psychoanalytic practice when we attempt to open a (symbolic) space for play, intimacy, desire, and erotic life? This essay approaches that question by considering emblematic and reverberating childhood games and rituals, such as “Truth or Dare” and “Show and Tell.” Drawing on Jody Davies’ “Love in the Afternoon” (1994) and the author’s own clinical illustration, we explore how an evolving dialogue of desire, grounded (in part) in somatic experience and the physical realm, has characteristics reminiscent of childhood play. Each facilitates growth from enactment to personal ownership and agency; each is constitutive of and constituted by symbolic life. Grounded and buoyed by its relational and its material dimensions, symbolic space functions both as an ethical third and as “a playground” for the communication of conflicted desires and the quest for intersubjective truth.
Using Kundera's metaphor of “weeds on the ruins” to examine the impact of organized destruction of memory on the survival of a people, this paper explores the role of symptoms in negotiating a relational “compromise formation” by tracing their evolution as signifiers of previously dissociated intersubjective knowledge. It suggests that recent theorizing on the mutual constitution of agency and intersubjectivity creates the possibility of resurrecting the dramatic tension that characterized dual drive theory by relocating that tension between the desire to know (oneself, the Other) and the destruction of that desire. To do so, the paper contemplates an internally consistent lens for reconciling the terrain of deficit and dissociation with that of conflict by offering a process-oriented view of agency as “drive” that is rooted between subjective and material contexts. Finally, the paper explores the quest for intersubjective truth as offering a means of living beyond the ubiquity of compromise formation.
Elaborating upon Winnicott's seminal contributions on the transitional object, the author proposes a conception of a transitional subject in which the patient comes into being simultaneously between private and public, subjective creation and material life, me and not-me. By anchoring subjective creation in the real world (including the body), the patient creates a basis for authentic psychesoma as well as for both personal and symbolic contributions to the world beyond omnipotence, including the world of other subjects. In this sense, intersubjective life is seen as predicated upon transitionality, with the patient seen as simultaneously coming into being as a distinctly personal subject and, in part, as a symbol. Clinical phenomenology is described and is interpreted with respect to the need within psychoanalysis itself for a third, and for a realm of meaning-creation that lies beyond privacy, omnipotence, and the dyad.
Reprinted in L. Aron & A. Harris (Eds.), Relational Psychoanalysis, Vol 4: Expansion of Theory. London: Routledge.
Recent theories of intersubjectivity attach primacy to the creation of meaning between subjects, obscuring the role of the material world to which both Freud and Winnicott attached significance. Yet, as this article argues, intersubjectivity itself is predicated upon a transitional space between subjective creation and material life. After considering Winnicott's conceptions of psychesoma and transitionality, the author examines the developmental literature for precursors in the encounter with matter that set the stage for the emergence both of symbolic life and of an embodied “transitional subject” to come into being. Clinical illustrations are provided.
My Patient was a fifteen-year-old, pretty, coy, often sullen girl. I also consulted with her parents: her mother sexy, brash, fun; her father earnest and humorless. One day, I said to my young patient, “You and your mother are so close. But you also seem like strangers.” “Yes,” she replied matter-of-factly and with an unusual directness, “Close but no cigar.”
I had the sense that my patient had communicated in a pithy, brilliant way (the significance of which eluded her) the essence of the problem with which so many patients wrestle and with which contemporary psychoanalytic theory also wrestles: the problem of a closed dyadic process that precludes an entry into the terrain of intersubjectivity (Benjamin, 1995, 1998; Ogden, 1994) and dialectical experience (Bromberg, 1996; Ghent, 1989; Hoffman, 1998; Pizer, 1998). There is increasing consensus that to be known as a subject and to experience oneself as an agent requires a space beyond a dyadic “twoness” (see Benjamin, 2001; Ogden, 1994; Muller, 1996). This space is often conceived as intersubjective space or the space of thirdness.
Agency, conceived herein as a wellspring of spontaneous gesture and personal impact, guides therapeutic action toward—and simultaneously requires—the space of thirdness for its developmental realization. Yet, when a closed dyadic process prevails, instead of impelling therapeutic action toward thirdness and intcrsubjectivity, agency gets mired in ....
In recent years, psychoanalysts have been wrestling with the changes in theory and practice accompanying shifts toward what is variously called a “relational” (Mitchell, 1988), an “intersubjective” (Atwood & Stolorow, 1984), or a “dyadic systems” paradigm (Beebe, Jaffe & Lachmann, 1992). In tandem with this transformation, psychoanalysis is now widely conceived as a hermeneutic enterprise, preoccupied with the particularity of personal experience arising within a uniquely constituted intersubjective context. A postmodernist impulse, which values pluralism and multiple truths (Elliott & Spezzano, 1996) and rejects the idea of universals and “grand narratives” (Lyotard, 1984), has contributed to and become entangled with the changing identity of psychoanalysis.
This article revisits the idea of universals by contemplating the idea of a psychological deep structure. It proposes that recent shifts within psychoanalysis toward a relational paradigm and hermeneutic epistemology may provide the means for “discovering” patterns to the evolution of personal experience that may be evidence for a universal and foundational deep structure. Clinical examples of such experiential phenomena as they emerge in the evolving psychoanalytic process are described. If the hypothesis of a deep structure is accepted, psychoanalysis may be able to recover, rather than repudiate, Freud's original mission of searching for universal truths.
This study addressed the role of deficits in the organization of the self, or narcissistic pathology, among widows who evidenced depressive outcomes following the loss of their husbands. The significance of object representations and self-regulatory capacities (introjects) within the self-representation in predicting psychiatric status in a sample of 77 widows 1 year after spousal loss was examined. In addition, the link between functional deficits within the self and observable state markers of such deficits as they related to depression was investigated. A combination of projective and self-report measures were used to assess self and object representation.