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.

 

Constancy

There is always something to be said when the business of everyday experience converges with that of thinking; when the outer systems we navigate and encounter manage to connect with figurative inner tracks—to the less spatialized components that complicate the production of living. This is the time of the year when things change, and three-dimensional reality forces some recognition of the fourth-dimension’s incessant advance into familiar but unknown territories. The world seems to tilt. Time springs forward. The hues of nature tint and inch their ways towards the sky.

This also happens to be the end of a particularly significant term for me, and these past few weeks I’ve been facing the inalterable crux of a forked path, where each direction leads to a different way forward: both futures appealing but radically different. My inner life has been stirred up into a restrained but inexorable tumult as I contend with unavoidable outer demands. I’ve had to put my foot down—foot forward. I’ve had to commit.

The motivations that impel our actions do not seem to emanate from a void, from some mysterious state of blind genesis. We follow our ways back to understand the how and why of whom we are. This is not a new strategy, but it has come to be more formalized in the past century. The great-grandtheory of self-awareness, psychoanalysis, relies upon the implication that there is a narrative structure to a life. Freud recognized a central thread running through seemingly unrelated patches of activity (within and without) and stitched them all together. The details of that centrality—such as what it is that dives the libido, or the clarity of the pleasure principle—has, most definitely, benefited from further extrapolation. The students of the unconscious, post-Freud, have elaborated more nuanced diagnostics of the psyche; raw sexual motivations need not dominate the story in quite the way the author of the Oedipus complex set forth. There have been moves to suggest that the energy driving us may be more abstract. The connection that is there for exploration, for analysis—with the proviso that nothing that we do happens without a reason—is multifarious and open to interpretation. It may be that we are contingent in the sense that we respond to our often-unpredictable environment, but psychoanalysis posits that we are deterministic in our choices, in the tenor and the tone of our replies to events.

Freud himself came to admit that the process he pioneered was a more effective and therapeutic tool when caring for the minds of relatively healthy individuals. Working out a structure of meaning, accounting for and defining an interpretive frame to apply to life, is ultimately upkeep for the soul. Not accurately a science, despite its clinical and research component, and not quite a philosophy or a spiritual dogma, psychoanalysis is more of an atheist narrative of cause and effect, an analytical blueprint for understanding the ineffable. To function it requires complicity between all participants in the project: one has to acquiesce to a standard psychic cosmology, a common lexicography, and the premise that vast reaches of one’s personality operate anterior to active awareness; but there’s something there, in the resultant care for the incorporeal aggregate one calls the self.

My narrative, like many other’s, seems hopelessly disparate at times, but these past four years have established an arc of progress that I find reassuring, and the interest that I have been developing during that time in exploring the mechanics and techniques of analysis has had a large part to play in solidifying strategies for the next stage of the journey. Change has a significant part to play in making sense of what I am up to on the whole during this journey. The makings of a deeper understanding, which I can choose to accept, come from a long, hard process of acknowledging that there is a center; even if that center is constituted by a radical instability.

Confidence owes a great deal to the tacit acceptance of mystery.