Academic journal article Contemporary Psychoanalytic Studies

Three: The Language of Narcissism: Terms and Conditions

Academic journal article Contemporary Psychoanalytic Studies

Three: The Language of Narcissism: Terms and Conditions

Article excerpt

Psychoanalysis is the mother tongue of our modernity and ... the important issues of our time are scarcely articulable outside the concepts it has forged . . . the truth is that we have not yet caught up with its most revolutionary insights. (Copjec, 2002, p. 10)


Psychoanalysis has put us into contact with narcissism as a powerful unconscious force in psychic life, but the "discovery" of narcissism remains incomplete. This is partly due to narcissism itself, which endlessly and artfully conceals itself behind the need, itself narcissistically driven, to rationalize our behaviour and our experience of the world. It is just too tempting for psychoanalysis to deal with the question of narcissism by treating it as a clinical problem. Thus, Freud's essential discoveries, which led him to a critique of civilization, have been difficult to sustain in their original form. Although Freud (1 926) tried to resist American pressure to medicalize psychoanalysis, it was impossible to maintain the independence of psychoanalytic thought from the bureaucratic health agenda of contemporary civilization. The result has been a marked tendency within the profession to misapprehend the origin of psychoanalytic ideas, such as in the fantasy that they come from something called "clinical observation." Thus to a certain extent psychoanalysis has made itself unsuited for the investigation of its own discoveries, especially in nonclinical contexts of experience.

The job of carrying the investigation of narcissism further has been taken up by art in the offertorium, including art as seen retrospectively through the offertorial lens. Though it is seldom declared officially as a part of art ideology (interesting exceptions are Bersani, 1977; Silverman, 1996; Jones, 1998), this "project" is written everywhere between the lines. The point of convergence has not been any specific psychological doctrine in psychoanalysis; it seems just to emerge implicidy from the rather unusual form of symbiosis that developed after Freud's thought gained notoriety. In this interdependent relationship, it has never been clear who is the "host" and who the "parasite." The art world has been frank in its appeal to psychoanalytic inspiration and very deferential in acknowledgment of psychoanalysis as a teacher. In return, however, psychoanalysis rarely admits that it has learned anything from art. It treats art as a narcissistic extension of itself and of its supposed clinical truths, which it then reads back out of the art it chooses to acknowledge (see chapter nine). Nevertheless, the relationship of these two peculiar realms has been a fruitful one, nourished by deep connections inspired by shared ambivalence toward the dynamics of civilization.

Pondering the relationship between psychoanalysis and art, Jacqueline Rose (1986) has tried to describe the "historical moment" when the two disciplines converged, centring on Freud's (1910) study of Leonardo, in particular his comments on an anatomically somewhat confusing drawing, attributed to Leonardo, of the heterosexual act of intercourse.

An artistic practice which sets itself the dual task of disrupting visual form and questioning the sexual certainties and stereotypes of our culture can fairly return to this historical moment (historical analytically as well as artistically, since the reference to Leonardo is now overlaid with the reference to the beginnings of psychoanalysis itself), (p. 226)

These archaic moments of disturbed visual representation, these troubled scenes, which expressed and unsettled our groping knowledge in the past, can now [thanks to psychoanalysis] be used as theoretical prototypes to unsettle our certainties once again . . . one of the chief drives of an art which today addresses the presence of the sexual in representation [is] to expose the fixed nature of sexual identity and, in the same gesture, to trouble, break up, or rupture the visual field before our eyes. …

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