Academic journal article Contemporary Psychoanalytic Studies

Eight: Applied Art: Driving Psychoanalytic Theory to Distraction

Academic journal article Contemporary Psychoanalytic Studies

Eight: Applied Art: Driving Psychoanalytic Theory to Distraction

Article excerpt

Libido is a fundamental energy, but it must be shaped, and the consequences of this construction are inevitably tragic. (Dimen, 2003, p. 161)


Psychoanalytic metapsychology inevitably gets entangled in problems of origin, of what comes first, what is most essential or central - issues that Derrida (1967) defined as inherendy (centrally, essentially, originally) metaphysical. It is impossible to escape these organizing metaphors, yet necessary to be aware of their potentially deceptive role in discourse.

Freud admitted extra-scientific fallibility when he described the instinctual theory (by which he meant drives [Trieb]) as "our mythology." He grappled all his life with the question of what is primary. In fact, it is difficult to think of another important thinker who was more obsessed with this question of what comes first. This was because he had hit upon the idea of psychological becoming, of mental life in time - not merely as a combinatorial process involving fixed entities or "faculties," such as the faculty of reason, nor as a purely contingent process, as imagined by Locke and the behaviourists, but as an emergent process that is rooted in the human biological organism and yet somehow "transcends" it in the sense that it cannot merely be extrapolated from existing biological knowledge in a linear fashion. He thought he could get a handle on this very complex developmental phenomenon by discerning, in conceptual form, its approximate psychological beginnings.

Psychoanalytic theory starts off with this struggle over what comes first. Was it the father's seduction of his daughter that initiated the hysterical process? This was what Freud first thought must always be the case. Or was the child already imagining seduction in a wishful way? In the end, this question turned out to be a kind of inherently undecidable one, meaning effectively that the determinate cause is secondary to its psychesomatic elaboration (Levin 1987): psychologically, some form of symbolization precedes substance (what "stands under" in causal terms). To make sense of this requires, as Dimen (2003) has argued, an openness to awareness of particularities and contingencies that are often eliminated in the name of theoretical efficiency. Psychoanalytic thinking depends on a constant struggle to maintain the dialectical tension of "both/and," though it leaves us in uncertainty and doubt. The therapeutic aim is to eventually find one's way "beyond doer and done to" (Benjamin, 2004). What is psychologically "primary" is probably a retroactive valuation reflecting the fact that the initial circumstances of the neonate, contingent, heterogeneous, idiosyncratic, and unpredictable, will never be "cathected" in the same way at the outset of any given life (Levin, 1989), making the outcome of the beginning impossible to foretell (except in extreme cases of environmental deprivation or abusive overstimulation). As Winnicott (1962, p. 56) once wisely quipped, the "beginning is always a summation of beginnings."

Drive theory and libido theory, the pleasure /unpleasure principle and the reality principle, primary process and secondary process, object libido and ego libido, the constancy principle, the idea of wish and conflicting defence, or conflict over opposing wishes - these are examples of basic Freudian approximations of what is first or, if not first, then what is central. It is a cliché that for Freud, everything significant is somehow rooted in the sexual. He insisted on this, but fretted over whether libidinal organization began with auto-erotism or primary narcissism, whether narcissism was the secondary result of sexual drive cathexis of the ego, or whether there was an earlier, more profound sense in which the essential makeup of the psyche was grounded in a narcissistic state of being governed not by the sexual but the "self-preservative" instincts. Later these two kinds of instincts were folded together into Eros, and the story goes on. …

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