Enormously Strong Feelings About Completely Inconsequential Things

That phrase could’ve described my entire graduate career, from beginning to end.

Let it be known that the subtitle of this post (this series) is: Go Fuck Yourself, Freud.

What could be more postmodern than learning to love ambivalence? The only problem with that, however, is that throughout my grad school career (what there was of it), I longed to express potent and unadulterated feelings with my newly informed intelligence instead of being whipsawed by what often seemed to be a more fancy way of saying, “love-hate/attraction-repulsion.” Why should we rescue a nugget of something interesting or desirable at the core of something that should more properly be abandoned? I mean, we had Madonna Studies, but do we need Britney Spears studies? (Yeah yeah yeah, one person’s Asian American studies is another person’s Madonna Studies, it all depends whose ox is being gored, blah blah–I’m not a neo-conservative Harold Bloom decrying the closing of the American mind.)

Maybe much of what passes for postmodern culture (like traditional Chinese culture) is disposable and shitty and needs no revisiting. Or intellectual burnishing with the often coarse-grained sandpaper of academic analysis. And I often found the fetish for ambivalence in the humanities politically disenabling. It seemed too easy to cop an attitude of neutered paralysis.

Did Gandhi feel ambivalent about non-violence? I’m sure he had a nuanced and battle-tested view of it, but if he didn’t feel passionate, wholehearted commitment to non-violence, then how could he have devoted his entire life to it?

Maybe ultimately that’s the cold and disaffecting flaw at the heart of progressive-left politics as it exists in the academy: it’s intellectually satisfying in its ability to articulate complexity, but emotionally unsustaining to any kind of lived politics.

What was sustaining for me, what allowed me to finish my dissertation and get the hell out, was an abiding loathing for Freud. That hatred powered my David-like attempts to throw my little rock at Freudian-based psychoanalytic theory in all its gargantuan forms. For example, just reading this article about Freud’s declining influence stirs up strong feelings of disdain and more than a little schadenfreude in me.

And sometimes I like to bitchslap major icons of western civ in a PMS-y hormone-driven spree, just for the fun of it. (I guess fred crews cannot make the same excuse for his spree.)

When I was in graduate school at Berkeley, psychoanalytic feminist criticism was de rigeur and there seemed to be no other way of being a feminist. Materialist, marxist, culturalist, or womanist feminisms obviously lacked the elite cachet that ritual incantations of Lacan or other french continental theorists evoked. And as time wore on, it was clear that at my major research university the way to flaunt your intellectual rigor–and ensure your placement at a desirable and comparable research university after getting your sheepskin–was to speak the secret language of the anointed. Otherwise, god forbid, you could be looking at a posting at a community college in Kansas. Which we were all taught to regard with horror.

Freudian and post-Freudian psychoanalytic feminisms seemed like a pretty pure form of white maternalism to me–a way to be simultaneously condescended to, erased, and defined on someone else’s terms. I remember being encouraged to “make Freud my own,” to bring my tools and add onto the glorious many-chambered Chateau de Freud so that I too could live there.

How very shades of Patty Hearst. Listen lady, just because YOU started identifying with your kidnapper doesn’t mean I should. (Master’s tools, master’s house–Audre Lorde, anybody? How about Freud’s retreat from his female patients’ attempts to tell him they were freaking neurotic because they had been sexually abused by male friends of the family or relatives, or in some cases by MEN WHO FREUD KNEW? These course notes are helpful, I find, for an outline of the famous case on female hysteria to which I refer, Dora.)

Never once an acknowledgement that racial and cultural gendered difference might require its own theoretical apparatuses. That other fields, such as adoption studies, anthropology (Chinese kin naming systems, in particular), materialist feminist discourses, or transnational feminisms might have something to offer. Never an acknowledgement that plenty of women of color had created scholarship that was useful and constituted a valid intellectual genealogy. That it was an entire body of work worthy of extending.

Now it seems the only place where Freud’s theories have any currency is in humanities departments. As clinical practice, Freudian theory is quaint and amusingly antique.

Good. Fuck you, Freud. Hope your followers in the humanities catch on too–that you’ve had your moment but we’ve discovered the earth’s round and moves around the sun now, in spite of your efforts to have us believe otherwise.

If only we could reduce our co-dependency on Freud to describe our emotional lives. I’ve never liked the circular reasoning and empiricism-free way you and your cultists–I mean, acolytes–roll. So I’m glad practicing psychologists have done the equivalent of popping a cap in your ass.

I have no use for your so-called universal, trans-historical claims having to do with individuation, sexuality, or gender differentiation. Tell me, fool, just what kind of primal scene do millions of children in the third world experience when they sleep in the same rooms as their obviously still-copulating parents? We know co-sleeping is pervasive in non-western, non-developed countries. Am I saying it’s right or a desirable situation? No, but are you Freudians willing to say that the entire third world suffers from some kind of lingering psychological trauma as a result of seeing mom & dad get it on? Oh, is THAT why there’s rampant poverty in the undeveloped world…too much primal scene?

Thought so, biatch. Now the Oedipus complex. Explain to me WHY this metaphor of the parent-child triad is so powerful that it exists in a reality-free zone (much like Shrubya, and look how much good that did us) where sibling influence, the caretaking provided by an early twentieth century viennese nanny, wet nursing, polygamy and cognate kin fostering, and extended families are all null and void in having any impact? Oh, that’s right. Because the Oedipal triangle is the all-powerful metaphor that should not be questioned by the likes of simplistic, reductive, literalist intellectual dwarfs like me. Who fail to genuflect before the master.

Only dolts like myself who see major exceptions to your all-encompassing rules, and the psychologists who actually have to attempt to help actual people with mental illnesses, have dared question why we cling to Freudian and post-Freudian orthodoxy. Silly us.

From that NYT article:

[a] study, which is to appear in the June 2008 issue of The Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Assocation, is the latest evidence of the field’s existential crisis. For decades now, critics engaged in the Freud Wars have pummeled the good doctor’s theories for being sexist, fraudulent, unscientific, or just plain wrong. In their eyes, psychoanalysis belongs with discarded practices like leeching.

Leeching…that’s about right. At least it’s more beneficial than grinding mercury into a fresh wound. Do I want the brave new world of mental health to be underwritten by Big Pharma? No. But neither do I think adhering to the imaginative speculations–very much rooted in the particulars of Freud’s late-victorian, bourgeois Austrian society–of one man who assiduously nourished his cult of personality over seeking cures for his patients is productive, au courant, or applicable to the ways we live now.

Here’s one powerful example of how the empirical is never allowed to intrude on the closed system of Freudian/post-Freudian thought: if the “family romance” is all about the child’s fantasy that she or he is a foundling from a noble family who somehow ended up the child of the yobs currently known as mom and dad, what do you do with adoption and how that circumstance is the nightmare inverse version of the “family romance,” with often upsetting questions of origins, abandonment, and re-attachment?

Let’s face it: Freud, you were a useful Cro-magnon phase in our ongoing evolution to enlightened humanity. You helped us move away from the cruel bedlams of yesteryear, when the mentally ill were chained up, abused, and kept in abysmal conditions. Humankind harbored some whack ideas about the mentally ill and about debilitating mental illnesses that were not as devastating as outright insanity. (We still do.) And so by comparison, Freud’s ideas that our lives are powerfully shaped by narratives we’re both aware of and hardly dare recognize was a useful one. But his other concepts–the primal scene, the oedipal triangle, the family romance, so-called “seduction theory”–aren’t the be-all or end-all, and certainly aren’t universal, transhistorical, or otherwise applicable in the same way in every instance.

Even as metaphor, Freud has limits. Why? Because metaphor has to have some relationship to a measurable, empirical world in order to have power. Freudian orthodoxy is allergic to empricism. And sad to say, so is a lot of psychoanalytic feminism built on that edifice.

Alice Eagly, the chairwoman of the psychology department at Northwestern University, explained why: Psychoanalysis is “not the mainstream anymore” and so “we give it less weight.”

The primary reason it became marginalized, Ms. Eagly, said, is that while most disciplines in psychology began putting greater emphasis on testing the validity of their approaches scientifically, “psychoanalysts haven’t developed the same evidence-based grounding.” [emphasis mine] As a result, most psychology departments don’t pay as much attention to psychoanalysis.

Scott Lilienfeld, a professor in the psychology department at Emory University, said, “I don’t think psychoanalysis is going to survive unless there is more of an appreciation for empirical rigor and testing.”

Empiricism, so sniffily dismissed by Freudian and post-Freudian cultists (who get uptight when their closed system is threatened by the “reality-based world”–again, shades of Shrubya!), is a necessary check on the metaphor’s ability to define reality–to shape norms.

This is the fine line where I felt then and feel now that Freud’s ideas began to lose descriptive power and take on prescriptive power. That prescriptive power, combined with the hermetically sealed Freudian system of meanings, and the ability to define normative versus pathological, together make me extremely leery of both clinical practice and literary critical applications of Freud’s ideas.

A literature professor claims that Freud is used critically and judiciously:

To Mr. Lilienfeld, much of postmodern theorizing has harmed psychoanalysis, saying it has “rendered claims even more fuzzy and more difficult to assess.”

But Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia and the author of “The Death of Sigmund Freud,” said, “Freud to me is a writer comparable to Montaigne and Samuel Johnson and Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, writers who take on the really big questions of love, justice, good government and death.”

Scholars in the humanities, he said, use Freud “skeptically and provisionally and don’t think of him as scientist at all, but as an interpreter.”

They may say they do, but the political reality of the situation is that Freud is still fashionable and lends one’s work an undeniable cachet. Even , or especially, in refuting him, you become entrapped by his flypaper ideology and are co-opted. The political economy of the ivory tower is such that if you don’t speak one of several elite languages, you won’t have an upwardly mobile academic career; might as well be part of the lucrative Freud/taking-issue-with-Freud machine.

Scholars in the liberal arts have tended to use Freud as a springboard to examine issues and ideas never dreamt of in his philosophy — like gender studies, post-colonial studies, French postmodernism, Queer theory and so on.

“American clinical psychoanalysis, and analysis as represented in academe, are at risk to become two ships that pass in the night,” the report said. As an example, the report points to a course on psychoanalysis and colonialism, two terms most clinically based analysts would never have imagined in a single sentence.

I am all for postcolonial critique, feminisms/gender studies, queer theory, and studies of postmodern culture. But I am against the narrowing of theory so that all objects begin to look like a nail when you have your Freudian hammer at the ready.

And I am against the uses of theory for theory’s sake, completely unmoored to and not responsible to “the real.” There is a certain amount of self-referential chatter the chattering classes generate, but there is the risk of becoming so fond of one’s own voice, sung to the backing track of Freud, that you have no idea what you’re talking about and nor do you care what its connection may be to the world you live in.

Witness the Sokal hoax, where a physics professor salted a lot of postmodern hoo-ha with impressive-sounding but false math and physics hoo-ha, and had it accepted and published by a literary journal. The book-length argument appears in Sokal’s Fashionable Nonsense, with lively and interesting discussion in the reader comments to the Amazon book sale site. Sokal goes on to eviscerate several popular French (feminist) theorists who use–or should I say, misuse–scientific concepts and metaphors in sketching out their grand theories. I especially enjoyed knowing that someone took the time to shoot down Lacan and his damned ‘topos’/'mobius’. (Ha ha, fucker.)

But what do we make of academicians who still rely heavily on those discredited, mostly French, high theorists? I think humanities scholars have a lot to answer for in addressing this credibility gap. Obviously when a person has sunk her entire career in a school of thought that is dubiously founded in scientific-sounding concepts, and those concepts are unmasked as poorly grounded and badly or completely incorrectly explained, it would seem impossible to retreat from that material. Yet if one’s to have any intellectual honesty (or integrity), isn’t that exactly what one should do?

Maybe the Berkeley English department could at least keep their boots off the necks of people who DO want to do something different.

Next I’ll outline how a feminist theory can arise from a specific cultural discourse, one that I believe is more applicable to Chinese Americans (and perhaps other Asian Americans.) Because I kinda hate it when a theory has no way of accounting for me and others like me. And if that’s narcissistic to demand that a theory of mind, individuation, gender differentation, or anything else Freudian/neo-Freudian thought is rumored to explain is relevant to me, then how is that any different from the narcisissism of those who believe Freud DOES pertain to them and find it inconceivable that it’s not all-encompassing? I came to graduate school in part looking for ways to discern greater meaning from things that were consequential to me, knowing that if they mattered to me those ideas would probably matter to others like me. I didn’t come to graduate school to be made to feel I was even more inconsequential. And by someone else’s head trip, thankyouverymuch.

Instead, freud, I have to declare YOU the irrelevant one. Because the inner reality you describe doesn’t match mine, nor is it one I aspire to.

(I know, aren’t you just leaping up and down with excitement and clapping your hands with happy anticipation? Kinda wish the photo-heavy posts would come back, eh?)

Next on Oprah: bastards, polygamy, and deadly queen bees.

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2 thoughts on “Enormously Strong Feelings About Completely Inconsequential Things

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