Gender as Soft Assembly

By Fogel, Gerald I. | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, August 2006 | Go to article overview

Gender as Soft Assembly

Fogel, Gerald I., International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Gender as soft assembly by Adrienne Harris Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press (Relational Perspectives Book Series, Vol. 25). 2005. 320 p. Reviewed by Gerald I. Fogel, 2250 NW Flanders, Suite 300, Portland, OR 97210, USA -

This remarkable book is an original and creatively organized treasure trove of information for those seeking a scholarly and approachable synthesis of the important subjects of gender, developmental psychology, and relational theory and their significance for contemporary psychoanalysis. The author's depth of background and ability to synthesize the many complexities and controversies surrounding these subjects into a clear, unified psychoanalytic voice contributes substantially to the book's unique quality. Harris's primary target audience is clinical psychoanalysts, and lively and impressive clinical vignettes appear throughout the book. But her clinical sensibility and even-handed approach is a tangible presence, whatever her subject, so that practicing psychoanalysts will find all of the book experience-near.

Harris clarifies early on that hers is an interdisciplinary work, immersed in an important larger context. She wants her psychoanalytic readers to absorb a crucially important climate of opinion-new ways of thinking about dynamic processes that include the human mind, but also play out in all of human life and the natural world. Throughout her work, she particularly stresses the power and constraints of binary thinking and categorical reduction when it comes to human meaning and theory making. One useful and important theoretical approach that provides interesting perspectives on binaries is nonlinear dynamic systems theory, also known as chaos or complexity theory, and the author's rich use of this theory is also original. Complexity theory is of particular use in Harris's overall approach to gender issues, as well as to other important aspects of contemporary psychoanalysis, such as relational and identity issues, and growth and development. Complexity theory creates opportunities for integration among these areas.

An appreciation of the value of nonlinear dynamic systems theory in supplying novel and useful perspectives appears to be emerging from formerly disparate fields of study. Some of these disciplines have already been applied within psychoanalysis, and Harris is knowledgeable about all of them-gender theory, of course, but also attachment theory, infant development and research, cognitive science, language theory, and neuroscience. Psychic processes in the clinical setting take on additional significance viewed from these new perspectives. Today's patients embody postmodern subjective worlds and relationships and an array of novel, complex, and multifaceted developmental challenges and potentials. Familiar guidelines long taken for granted are tested or overturned. Harris wants to bring some of these worlds together. From her introduction:

I want to engage in a cross-disciplinary dialogue about the development of a 'relational' subject and to make this dialogue meaningful to clinical psychoanalysts. The developmental story I want to tell is one that braids bodily and intrapsychic life with historical and social forces. My interlocutors come from academic developmental psychology, from the cognitive sciences, from linguistics and philosophy of mind, and from the wide-ranging practices of gender theory, feminism, and queer theory. (p. 1)

Harris argues that, while organizing binaries are both necessary and ubiquitous, they are inevitably also constraining and inherently unstable and unsatisfying. When binaries are deconstructed, creative potential is released. New constructions may result in more complex and flexible, as well as unique and sturdy human beings. Some binaries are clearly related to gender, masculine-feminine, mom-dad, boy-girl, and gay-straight, for example. Others are ubiquitous and inherently gender neutral, but frequently saturated with gender meanings.

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