Notational, No. 15

Foucault saw psychoanalysis as an essentially sinister moment in the exercise of power in Western history. While psychoanalysis can certainly be shown to have served a massive power strategy of normativizing subjectivity, its very effectiveness in that inglorious role could be said to depend on the accuracy of the psychic profile it has drawn. The language of psychoanalysis has both served and demystified strategies designed to control human subjects. Its invaluable function has been to provide what seems to me a transhistoric account, at least for Western culture, of psychic mechanisms assumed and exploited by strategies of power. Its analytic and classificatory approach to the mind lends itself to both a disciplinary and liberating intentionality. If psychoanalysis has designed a mental map that can guide projects of political mastery, that very same map gives us the terms of a reverse discourse (an aspect of power exercises that interested Foucault very much) that can be used to resist projects of subjection.

♦ Leo Bersani, “The Power of Evil and the Power of Love”

Psychoanalysis emerged from a taxonomic effort that assumed the quantifiable existence of a psychic norm that could be studied as a referential model. Freud surmised that the heterosexual male psyche was the ur-consciousness from which society and culture emerged. It was thus an effort contiguous with the medicalization of the human being, the human being of course being a white man engaged with the direction of his own corner of the universe, however big or small that was, and the process of cataloguing and symptomatizing the aberrants of that being (which included everyone else) was indeed part of a larger process that aimed, consciously or not, at bringing the mental arena into the realm of regulation, diagnosis, and control. This is what a good Foucauldian might see when looking at the formative structures of psychological “exploration.”

Yet a radical decentering also emerged. Psychoanalysis’ central model may have been myopic, but the continued reading and rereading of Freud that has gone on for over a hundred years now has produced a cornucopia of insight, much of which has continued to inform and provoke the assumptions tacitly made about the nature and operation of the human mind. Theories simplified and enshrined as little more than knee-jerk sitcom punchlines in contemporary culture, under closer scrutiny actually disclose a tenacious relevancy when a reader with a little imagination goes back and investigates what exactly was written about the way one individual can come to know another, and in turn come to know about him or herself. The paths Freud cleared were (and are) openly navigable for all manner of quests directed toward self-awareness—and most are quite heterogeneously applicable. The perception that psychoanalysis attempts to produce a master narrative for the race, one that can churn out adequate and reductive assessments of an individual’s nature, and then prescribe adjustments so that that individual might better assimilate to the conditions of the status quo, has more to do with a conflation of the goals of what is now psychiatry and what has become analysis than the content of Freudian methods and perspectives.

By all accounts (some of which are psychoanalytic) subjection emerges from multiple points of origin, but the essential unit of its process is a Self aware of its own limitations, and oftentimes confused. The products of the project of making sense of what it is that we are, how and why we struggle to make meaning in a vast and complex system of interrelations, can and have been used in the service of power. But that which enables our compliance to arbitrary norms can also help us distinguish how they are norms, plural, and that our fundamental commonalities contain within their enumeration unquantifiable opportunities for othering as well as coming to terms with the reality that we are also all individuals, constantly attempting to create our own mould, even as we are shaped by it, so that we might fit into this world.