tag: Psychoanalysis

Mar 2008

Freud 101 — the topography

“The modern free market as manifestation of a collective pleasure principle”. That’s an idea that may well feature prominently in my thesis. I’ve got a self-imposed deadline of April 2nd to finalise the title. Right now I’m essentially researching three different thesis topics, which is fascinating and all, but not too efficient. Mind you, I’ve whittled that down from about six. The most recent to fall by the wayside was the idea of writing on Freud’s notion of compulsive repetition, via an analysis of the films of Takeshi Kitano. Sadly, I realised that despite my familiarity with his films, I’m not nearly familiar enough with Japanese culture to really do justice to the subject (though it’s definitely a paper I’d love to read).

But “the modern free market as a manifestation of a collective pleasure principle”? What the hell does that mean, right? Oh, and what’s the pleasure principle again?

Well, last question first I guess; a few paragraphs on Freud’s second topography wouldn’t go amiss.

The ego and the id

During Freud’s early work, he used a theoretical model of the mind / psyche now known as ‘the first topography’. This divided the psyche into three parts / processes; the conscious, the unconscious and the preconscious. However, he later revised this significantly into the second topography. There are still three parts / processes but now they are the id, the ego, and the super-ego*.

The ego is a conflation of the conscious and the preconscious of the first topography. By and large, it’s that part of the mind that we are aware of (though there are elements of the ego of which we are unconscious, confusingly enough). And it’s more than just awareness; the ego, for most of us, is where we locate our identity.

The id relates, more or less, to the unconscious of the first topography. It’s the part of the human psyche that contains the thoughts and memories of which we are currently unaware (including, though not limited to, those which are the subject of repression). Perhaps more importantly, to psychoanalytic theory at least, the id; the unconscious mind; is also home to a cauldron of desires and drives which motivate us as much as, if not more than, those desires and drives of which we are conscious.

In Freudian theory, the ego and the id are generally in conflict. The id is governed by “the pleasure principle” which is regularly misunderstood as being an instinct to seek out pleasure. In fact, Freud pointed out that the drive behind the pleasure principle is at least as much about the desire to avoid “unpleasure”. It’s what drives us to seek food when we are hungry. The ego, on the other hand, is governed by “the reality principle”. This is, in simple terms, an awareness of the appropriate way to interact with the external world.

So, for example, a hungry person who passes a market-stall containing fresh bread will be driven, by the pleasure principle, to consume it and so escape the hunger. The primary biological / unconscious / id imperative is a simple “eat that bread”. An infant in this position will consequently reach out and grab the bread (Freud believed that the ego, and therefore the reality principle, is acquired through development, while the id is innate). Someone who has developed a relatively normal ego, adequately governed by the reality principle, will — on the other hand — understand that the appropriate behaviour is to first buy the bread and then eat it. This is why, in Freudian terms, the primary tool deployed by the reality principle to keep the pleasure principle in check, is known as “postponement”.

The super-ego

Often seen as the poor cousin in Freud’s topography, the super-ego is usually of less interest to Freudians. Probably because they already have their hands full dealing with the id. All the same, it’s a fascinating part of his work and plays a pretty important role in my mapping of Freud’s topography onto groups rather than individuals. I’ve written before that “the super-ego is where culture lives”. I still believe that to be a true statement (albeit at the poetic end of truth), but it’s a very incomplete picture. I wrote it when discussing culture, not the super-ego.

Indeed, because parts of it are conscious and parts unconscious, the Freudian super-ego can be a little hard to pin down. Rycroft writes that the super-ego is that part of the psyche “where self-observation, self-criticism and other reflective activities develop” (guilt is a big weapon in the arsenal of the super-ego). Meanwhile, according to the bible, “Super-ego is the product of an internalisation of, and identification with, parent and parental authority, including prohibitions and values associated with that authority. Insofar as parental authority reflects the broader social context, the super-ego can be seen as the indirect product of the internalisation of society’s demands and values”.

I’m aware that the super-ego sounds a bit like the reality principle. But they are quite distinct, one being a regulatory function of the ego based upon both an awareness of the immediate environment and circumstances as well as an understanding of consequences and appropriate behaviour. The super-ego is — in part — where that “appropriate behaviour” is stored within our psyche. The reality principle is guided both by the ego and the super-ego with the goal of modifying the pleasure principle so that it doesn’t get us into trouble.

Applying this to groups

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, there are problems with trying to scale up Freud’s topography as a tool to analyse groups, organisations or cultures. But at the same time, there can be merit in doing so. Gregory Bateson is my main guide in this territory, and he has explained why this approach is both legitimate and useful. In Morale and National Character (1942), Bateson demonstrates that the relationships between sub-groups within larger groups are subject to analysis, contrast and comparison so that something we could rightfully consider “national character” begins to emerge. It’s worth pointing out that this analysis can be applied not merely to nations, but to any large group that adheres to a specific set of cultural norms.

For the sake of clarity, allow me to pause and provide examples of what I mean by “the relationships between sub-groups within larger groups”. Bateson’s essay is comparing the national character of Germany and England and does so by examining the culturally determined relationships that exist between (for example) men and women, parents and children, upper-class and lower-class, and so on. The essay is not an exhaustive case-study, and is largely about promoting the (at the time heretical) idea that western cultures and civilisations are just as open to anthropological and psycho- analysis as are the “primitive” cultures of Bali and Papua New Guinea where he did revolutionary work. Along the way, however, he convincingly demonstrates how pronounced character traits can emerge within large groups of people due to specific commonalities in their individual development, which are themselves culturally determined by, and specific to, those groups.

So when Bateson’s work is read in the context of Hostadter and Dennett’s theories about “mind” emerging from organised complexity, and even Jung’s theories of the collective unconscious, it doesn’t seem illegitimate to suggest that large groups can indeed by “psychoanalysed” (to use the term in it’s most broad sense) despite the apparent lack of an identifiable “psyche”.

The modern free market as manifestation of a collective pleasure principle

So let’s return to the original theme, and answer the first of those questions: “The modern free market as manifestation of a collective pleasure principle”… what the hell does that mean?

Well, a part of my hypothesis is the idea that there now exists a global civilisation that transcends national borders** but which can be defined largely by American cultural and economic influence. I’m not suggesting that this civilisation originated in America, merely that those cultural norms which have historically been embraced and promoted by American society, help define it. And thanks to US (and US-influenced) mass-media as well as global movements like feminism, the equal rights initiatives and multiculturalism, we have entered a period where the developmental experiences of American, Irish, British, German, Greek or Australian individuals are becoming far less distinct, opening the way for a collective analysis.

As part of that analysis, it is my suggestion that… you guessed it… the modern free market is a manifestation of our collective pleasure principle. It represents the demands (quite literally) of the collective. When those demands are repugnant or unreasonable then the market gets modified and restricted by laws (the passing of such laws being an example of our collective reality principle at work).

To take an unambiguous example, upon which I suspect we can all agree that a level of market intervention is required; much to our dismay, there exists a demand for — and market in — child pornography. Leaving aside the abstractions of “simulated child pornography” (as clearly there is a demand specifically for the non-simulated variety), we have passed laws making the sale or possession of such material illegal. This is noteworthy, because we have done so despite already having laws that outlaw its production. As a culture, we have understood that the market for this material is in itself problematic. We work, therefore, not merely at outlawing supply but also at attempting to curtail demand.

The basic analogy

An individual who allows their behaviour to be guided by an unregulated pleasure principle is likely to be both destructive to himself and his immediate environment (along with anyone who shares that environment with them). It is clear that we, as a civilisation, are capable of regulating our demands of the world. We possess the tools to do so. I would suggest, however, that we are guilty of significantly under-using those tools, and that the almost-unregulated demand for natural resources is resulting in behaviour both destructive to ourselves and to our immediate environment.

* It’s an interesting historical note that Freud did not use those words, and they are in our common lexicon thanks to his translators. In the original German, the id, ego and super-ego are the es, ich and über-ich, or literally, the it, I and over-I. It was his translators who decided to latinise them.

** This isn’t to suggest that individual nations do not still retain a national character, though I believe that an increasing homogenity is making them less prominent.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Feb 2008

The efficacy of anti-depressants

As most people will have heard by now (it’s been pretty widely reported), a recent study by a British University (Hull) suggests that…

… compared with placebo, the new-generation antidepressants do not produce clinically significant improvements in depression in patients who initially have moderate or even very severe depression, but show significant effects only in the most severely depressed patients. The findings also show that the effect for these patients seems to be due to decreased responsiveness to placebo, rather than increased responsiveness to medication. Given these results, the researchers conclude that there is little reason to prescribe new-generation antidepressant medications to any but the most severely depressed patients unless alternative treatments have been ineffective.

I’ve just finished reading the actual study (link above). It’s a statistical analysis of the available data, not a psychiatric / medical study in itself, so it was tough going and rather dull stuff for someone like me with no formal training in statistics. All the same, if this study is confirmed (and it’s important to note that it has only just been opened up to the peer-review process, so we shouldn’t leap to any conclusions until this has been done) then it’s a damning indictment not only of the pharmaceutical companies (who, after all, we kind of expect this kind of behaviour from anyway) but more importantly of the regulatory bodies all over the world who have approved this medication.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that the findings come as something of a surprise to me. Some years ago I was diagnosed with clinical depression (on the severe side, but not within the “most severe” category… I did not require hospitalisation, though it was considered at one stage) and prescribed extremely high doses of one of the SSRIs investigated by the Hull analysis. I’m no longer taking them — I’m very glad to say, as I wasn’t a fan of the side-effects — but I do attribute my recovery in part to the medication. Needless to say, I’m rather intrigued by the possibility that I’d have gotten roughly the same benefit from a placebo.

Indeed, if anything, this seems to be another justification for my current belief that psychoanalytic psychotherapy (incorporating, though not restricted to, some of the techniques of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) is the best treatment for depression. It probably goes without saying, that particular belief is one of the primary reasons I’m studying what I’m studying (mind you, that’s a far longer article).

Because of the enthusiastic approval of anti-depressants by official regulators, doctors see it as a simple and efficient way of treating an increasingly common illness. Unfortunately, if — as it appears — the bloody things don’t actually work, then it means we’re flushing an awful lot of public money down the drain (or rather, we’re meekly handing it over to large corporations) which has an actively damaging effect on public health, as we’re underfunding other therapies which do have a clinically significant effect above and beyond that produced by a placebo.

As I say, we half-expect large corporations to fudge the figures in search of profit, but the regulatory bodies are supposed to be on our side. We employ them to root-out these kinds of false claims, but if this study is confirmed, it would appear that the FDA (and the others who followed suit) are guilty either of dangerous incompetence, or of deliberately putting corporate profits before the mental health of the public.

UPDATE 16:35 I was chatting with a friend today. His girlfriend was on the same antidepressants as I was prescribed (Venlafaxine) and like me, she found them helpful but is glad to be off them. He said, mischievously but rather perceptively, “aren’t you lucky you were taking them while they still worked?”

7 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2008

Organ donation, grief and a question of tone

I may be wrong here, but I’m fairly certain that an historic first was recently marked. Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, actually made a half-decent proposal. I believe it’s his first since taking office, but I’m open to correction on that.

I’m afraid he didn’t surrender himself to the International Court of Human Rights for his involvement in the illegal invasion of Iraq. No, what he did was a little less dramatic, but a good idea all the same; he backed a radical change in the way organ donation works in the UK.

As it stands now, and this is the case in Ireland too, a person must place their name on the organ donation registry if their organs are to be eligible for use in transplant surgery post mortem. Brown appears to be pushing towards a system of “presumed consent” whereby your organs are automatically considered available unless you place your name on an “opt-out” registry, or unless your next of kin lodges an objection at the time of your death.

This is a great idea. Over the course of a decade it will save ten thousand people from a painful and premature death and will relieve the suffering of more than a hundred thousand others. In my view, Gordon Brown should be strongly supported on this issue (at the very least, wait until he’s talking about something else before you throw those eggs). It represents a positive step for British society and, like one or two other social policies which have been running successfully for years in the Netherlands, should really be adopted here in Ireland and elsewhere around the world.

Naturally, there are those who object. And seeing as how I’m usually on the side of the objectors when it comes to the plans of British Prime Ministers, I’m willing to listen to those objections and see if maybe there’s something I’ve missed. There doesn’t appear to be.

The Libertarian Position

What we do have is an incoherent libertarian position regarding ownership of the body. By “presuming consent”, the state is essentially asserting ownership of a person’s body; an assertion that must be denied. I believe that’s the essence of the libertarian objection, though I’m willing to be corrected on that should a libertarian pass through.

The trouble is, the objection is based upon two fundamental misconceptions.

The first is that ownership extends beyond death. It clearly doesn’t. Upon death, all ownership is transferred. It’s called “inheritance” and we’ve developed all manner of complicated rules by which it occurs. While a person is alive, I believe they should indeed be considered the “owner” of their body (in whatever sense that might mean in this context). This is one of the reasons I feel, for example, that drug prohibition should be opposed, though that’s a subject most right-wing libertarians find it politically expedient to ignore. But once a person is dead…? Well, it is simply not possible for a dead person to own anything. Not even their own body.

The people who are considered legal owners of the body, one supposes, are the next of kin. And rather conveniently, the policy proposes to leave the decision in their hands. They may insist that the body remain intact if that is what they wish. This right is not removed, the next of kin may still assert absolute “ownership” if they choose. And the opt-out registry, just like a will, provides a legal facility to those who may not trust their next of kin (for instance). The libertarian argument is bunk.

And that’s without getting to the second fundamental misconception. Which is, that “the state” is taking ownership of the organs. It’s not. At least, not in any sense that matters. But because “the state” is the big bad wolf of libertarianism, it tends to be crowbarred into a lot of arguments where it doesn’t really belong. It’s a symbol of evil. A rallying point. As such, the emotional power it carries as a symbol is worth deploying even when it lessens the coherence of the argument.

All the same, that’s exactly what it does.

The state is not asserting any ownership at all. It is merely setting the rules by which ownership is transferred. By passing laws, it acts as arbitrator, just as it does in all cases where inheritance laws are complied with.

What I do concede is that right now, the shortage of suitable organs means that a selection process must be undertaken, and in that sense the organs are “allocated” by the state (or a state agency). A side-benefit of this new policy, however, would be to eliminate even that element of “state” intervention. Essentially it would have the practical effect of further liberating the transplant process from politics. You’d imagine that’s the kind of thing that would surely be applauded by libertarians.

Different voices

A successful organ transplant can, in essence, take an organ that was otherwise destined to rot in the ground and instead use it to give life to a dying person. This is about as uncontroversially positive a thing as I can think of. Sure, we can get all abstract about the demographic dangers of medical advancement, and we can question the cost:benefit ratio of transplants as compared with other medical programmes. We can do those things. But when all’s said and done, transplant cases usually boil down to taking an individual whose daily life is characterised by significant physical pain; and relieving them of that pain.

I mean, it’s just your basic Good Thing, and if we can afford it but aren’t doing it because of a shortage of organs, then we need to change that immediately. A system of presumed consent in tandem with the aforementioned opt-outs would be a simple, effective and socially just method of achieving this.

What has frustrated me a little about the debate on this issue, however, hasn’t been the libertarian objection. Instead it’s been the tone of some of those who actually support the policy change. “Living people matter. When you’re dead, you’re dead” was probably the worst offender (unsurprisingly it came from the rather silly, and mystifyingly well-regarded by some, Polly Toynbee) but even the good guys got in on the action as Justin illustrates in “Monkeys and the organ minder“.

Both articles are guilty of one of the cardinal sins of social policy debate. And they’re symptomatic of a wider trend on this issue. They propose (or in this case, support) a policy without giving any real thought to the impact of the policy on those directly affected. Indeed, they go so far as to caricature and trivialise them. I find this problematic.

We’re dealing here with a significant shift in social policy that will have an impact on two groups of people. Firstly and most obviously, those in need of transplanted organs. The policy is essentially (and rightfully so) tailored to them and is primarily aimed at serving their interests. However the second group of people who will be routinely and significantly affected by this policy is the recently bereaved. This is problematic because we’re talking about a group of people who will be under great stress and prone to irrationality. People who are potentially experiencing the worst trauma of their life. We need to place a sensitivity to this fact right at the core of our thinking on this issue. And those who fail to do this are, to be honest, speaking in a voice unpleasant to my ears.

The Psychoanalytic Position

In 1917 Sigmund Freud published Mourning and Melancholia (it can be found in Volume 14 of the Complete Works). It’s a landmark paper and represents the culmination of two years working towards an understanding of grief and depression (to use modern terminology). Despite its age, however, I contest that it is as good an explanation of the grieving process as exists…

It is also well worth notice that, although mourning involves grave departures from the normal attitude to life, it never occurs to us to regard it as a pathological condition and to refer it to medical treatment. We rely on its being overcome after a certain lapse of time, and we look upon any interference with it as useless or even harmful.
In what, now, does the work which mourning performs consist? I do not think there is anything far-fetched in presenting it in the following way. Reality-testing has shown that the loved object no longer exists, and it proceeds to demand that all libido shall be withdrawn from its attachments to that object. This demand arouses understandable opposition — it is a matter of general observation that people never willingly abandon a libidinal position, not even, indeed, when a substitute is already beckoning to them. This opposition can be so intense that a turning away from reality takes place and a clinging to the object through the medium of a hallucinatory wishful psychosis. Normally, respect for reality gains the day. Nevertheless its orders cannot be obeyed at once. They are carried out bit by bit, at great expense of time and cathectic energy, and in the meantime the existence of the lost object is psychically prolonged. Each single one of the memories and expectations in which the libido is bound to the object is brought up and hypercathected, and detachment of the libido is accomplished in respect of it. Why this compromise by which the command of reality is carried out piecemeal should be so extraordinarily painful is not at all easy to explain in terms of economics. It is remarkable that this painful unpleasure is taken as a matter of course by us. The fact is, however, that when the work of mourning is completed the ego becomes free and uninhibited again.

Sigmund Freud | Mourning and Melancholia

We can quibble about the details and about the terminology (I take a much more Jungian view of libido, for instance, than many psychoanalysts) but ultimately it’s a pretty damn accurate description of the grieving process, as I feel certain anyone who has gone through it will attest. We deny the death. Initially it may be quite overt… “No, you’ve got that wrong. I don’t believe you!” even though we have no reason in the world to doubt the news we’ve been given. Usually that overt denial passes quite rapidly. In Freud’s words, “respect for reality gains the day”. Beyond that, it can take a long time to ‘carry out the work of mourning’. Our unconscious may be filled with memories of the deceased, and each one requires re-evaluation based on this new information. Much of this is indeed unconscious, but plenty of it isn’t. We experience it as dreams of the person, and as a tendency to “think about them” a lot in the immediate aftermath of their death. Notably, as time passes, those thoughts become less painful.

This is how we grieve, and any social policy designed to deal with grieving people needs to take it into account. If it doesn’t, then it runs the risk of being a monstrous attack on the vulnerable. What’s vital to take away from this account of the grieving process is that there is a very real period during which a recently bereaved person will overtly deny the death. In most people it lasts mere seconds… long enough to say “I don’t believe it…” then Bang! it hits you. But in others it can drag on. This isn’t a choice they make, and it doesn’t make them ‘perverse’ or ‘weird’ in the words of one commentator. It’s how grief works in some people. Polly Toynbee talks about the forces of superstition and reaction and about overcoming them with the “spirit of enlightenment”. What? Overcoming human grief? What’s next? A war on terror?

The point is that a grieving person may well suffer a total failure in reality-testing. This happens often enough that we consider it a natural reaction to bereavement, albeit at the extreme end of such reactions. Such people may — and often do — fixate upon the integrity of the body and insist that the dead person will soon awaken. This period may continue beyond the time at which organ harvest becomes impossible. And an attempt to interfere with this process could well be needlessly* traumatic for the already traumatised person.

Now, nobody is suggesting that these people be deprived of the right to “opt-out”. I’m not trying to build a straw man here. I’m merely suggesting that those who speak in tones close to contempt about the irrational behaviour of the recently bereaved are failing to demonstrate the sort of basic compassion that should inform any discussion of social policy in this area.

* I say “needlessly” because it bears mentioning that a system which presumes consent will see the total number of available organs rise dramatically, thereby lessening the impact of each individual opt-out.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Dec 2007

Anatomy of an uninspiring essay

Bunch of arse quite frankly.

The essay has been submitted, but I’m not at all satisfied with it. There’s something very interesting to be said about the Schreber case, dear reader, and you’ll not find it in my essay.

In my defence, the reason the essay is so devoid of anything resembling genuine insight or worth is as much down to the restriction on word-count as any deficiency on the part of the writer. Though of course, I would say that.

All the same, just because I failed to do justice to Schreber this time round doesn’t mean I never will. I may well write my thesis on the case, if — and these are big ifs — (a) I can find an approach that appeals to me*; and (b) something else doesn’t capture my imagination before I start work on it.

So what went wrong this time round?

Well firstly, I came to the subject late. Having already mooched around the Existential Critique essay, and for weeks had a fair idea of what I was going to say, I made the decision to write on Schreber based on a single read-through of Freud’s analysis and with only two weeks before the deadline.

That was a big mistake, as I failed to realise that the subject was far bigger than two weeks research would allow. Even if I narrowed the scope radically. Even if I didn’t sleep very much. Which I did. And didn’t.

It’s never a good idea to decide to write to a deadline on a subject whose surface you’ve only scratched. When I started work I simply had no idea that the paper inspired damn-near an entire subgenre of literature. Nor that it would be so bloody interesting.

The second problem, linked to the first, is the simple fact that nothing interesting can be said about Schreber in less than 10,000 words. I’m a verbose writer at the best of times. I know that, and I try to curtail the worst excesses of this tendency. But all the same, it’s just not possible to provide a useful summation just of the basic facts of the case (including the contents of Schreber’s delusions) in less than 5000 words. And then there’s the analysis and observations which, let’s face it, you’d hope would be the bulk of the content.

So there I was three nights ago, 5000 words into a 3000 word essay, and I’d not even got to discussing Freud’s interpretation let alone my own. Twenty pages of scrawled longhand observations as yet untyped.

So I started afresh. I hacked the 5000 word exposition down to 2000, stripping out anything remotely poetic or beautiful, leaving only stunted prose and a sense of missed opportunity. I jettisoned the bulk of the really interesting stuff, concerning the actual content of Schreber’s delusions. Then I pared down the essence of Freud’s analysis to two specific insights; (a) that paranoid psychosis is a result of repressed homosexuality, and (b) that the agents of persecution in the delusions of paranoiacs are projections of childhood relationships.

Let me point out that those are hardly the only two assertions made by Freud, but they are the central ones. And it’s safe to say that they’re not without controversy.

Unfortunately given the limitations of space I was unable to investigate those controversies, nor delve into the numerous other readings of Schreber’s Memoirs, nor examine the implications that Schreber’s construction of a personal mythology has for our understanding of how the rest of us do the same. I didn’t even have space to examine the actual mechanisms by which Freud states the repression and projection take place.

I set the scene, but the plug was pulled before I could shout “action!”

As I say, bunch of arse.

* By this I mean, an approach that provides an opportunity to say something on the case that hasn’t been said before. The Schreber case has had a lot written about it, but far from everything. And I’m convinced there’s still something worthwhile that hasn’t been covered in the existing literature (mind you, I’ve not read it all yet, so perhaps I’m speaking too soon).

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Nov 2007

Immersed in Schreber

Apologies for the lack of posting, but there’s coursework afoot. The M.Phil is conferred (or not) entirely on the basis of the final thesis, but we’re also required to write a couple of short essays (2-3,000 words) and one of them is due this week.

Originally I decided simply to tackle the default topic, “The Existential Critique of Freud” and wrote a couple of thousand words of deeply uninspiring dross on the subject. I had two major problems with the topic; firstly, I’ve not read nearly enough Freud yet to be capable of making my own critique of his work, so how can I really judge someone else’s with confidence? Secondly, it felt too much like commentating on an activity rather than engaging in it… explaining the views of others rather than expressing my own.

So, irritated by the thought of submitting a lifeless piece of writing, I began casting around for an alternative essay topic. The idea of tackling one of Freud’s short but controversial papers appealed to me, and as luck would have it we started reading just such a paper in our Metapsychology Seminars; Psycho-analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides) (more commonly known as ‘The Schreber Case History’). It’s a remarkable paper that — within the course of 80 pages — succeeds in showing Freud at his brilliant best and his infuriating worst.

But it was a can of worms. My essay title, “Sigmund Freud and the Case History of Schreber” (I’m considering giving Conan-Doyle-esque titles to all my academic work) could easily stretch to a book. Probably not a real page-turner, I grant you, but a book nonetheless. Trying to limit the scope of my research became next to impossible simply because of how interesting and, frankly, bizarre the case is. For instance, we learn from Freud’s paper that the subject of his analysis (Dr. Daniel Paul Schreber) had an extremely authoritarian father. But a bit of research unearths the fact that Schreber’s father so opposed masturbation that he “sought to invent a mechanical device which would prevent it in adolescents”.

None of us get to have a perfect childhood. But imagine growing up in that house!

Anyway Schreber’s sister suffered from hysteria, his elder brother committed suicide, but he himself appeared to have escaped whatever weirdness went on in his childhood. He was a successful lawyer, happily married, apparently well-liked by those who met him, and by his early forties succeeded in being appointed to the bench and was serving as a judge. He had active interests in the world around him, read extensively, attended cultural events. Dr. D.P. Schreber was outwardly (and by his own account, so far as he was aware, inwardly) the epitome of a well-rounded, civilised man.

In his early 40s however he had a nervous breakdown* and was diagnosed with Severe Hypochondria. Sounds to me like he was suffering from stress and nervous exhaustion and there’s nothing particularly unusual about that. He recovered after a few months and returned to work, picking up where he left off, and eventually getting appointed Senate President of Dresden (the highest legal position in his district). His marriage remained happy and he and his wife appear to have been devoted to one another. So far, so good. Then comes the interesting bit.

Upon receiving his promotion to Senate President, Dr. Schreber went completely bonkers**.

He spent the next nine years in institutions where he turned his mind to the problem of his own insanity. This is what takes the case beyond the mundane; Dr. Schreber was a highly intelligent, well-read and erudite man whose sharp mind had in no way been dulled by his madness. He wrote a detailed and explicit account of his delusions, hallucinations and the intricate “personal mythology” he wove in order to explain them as a coherent system rather than the chaotic insanity they appeared to be. He then edited this together with a selection of the medical and diagnostic notes that had been made by his doctors and published his Memoirs of a Nerve Patient.

And it’s mad. Utterly, breath-takingly mad.

So yeah, I’ve been trying to whittle this thesis-sized project down to something resembling an essay. And I’m wondering whether I shouldn’t have chosen a slightly less controversial and considerably less weird paper of Freud’s to produce my first piece of coursework on. But I’ll let you be the judge of that when I’m finally finished (I’ll put up a link to it when it’s done). And with that, I shall sign off and return to my essay.

* Modern jargon alert! Nervous breakdown, nervous exhaustion, paranoid psychosis, and others… these are not words ever applied to Schreber by Freud simply because the case predates them.

** There’s some dispute as to whether Freud ever used that specific term (translations between languages are notoriously tricksy when it comes to colloquialisms), but to put it bluntly, that’s what happened. He was diagnosed with Dementia Paranoides, or Paranoia. Today we’d describe him as suffering from a paranoid psychosis.

7 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Nov 2007

What is psychoanalysis?

As my regular readers will be aware, I’m currently studying for a Masters degree in Psychoanalytic Studies.

But what does that mean exactly? It’s probably fair to say that the popular view of psychoanalysis; both its’ theories and practices; isn’t entirely accurate. This hardly makes it unique amongst academic disciplines of course, and given the anti-intellectualism that currently dominates our culture I doubt there’s a huge amount that can be done about that. We live in a society where academics and intellectuals are often viewed with suspicion and even denigrated for “not doing a real job”. Yet that same society fêtes Z-list celebrities and the participants of vacuous reality* television programmes, while lauding the accomplishments of entrepreneurs whose primary skill is an ability to coax a gullible public into hedonistic acts of meaningless consumerism (often using tools supplied to them by the psychoanalytic community, but that’s another blog post).

[Aside: Speaking of “Reality TV”, a recent episode of “America’s Next Top Model” dedicated itself to producing a series of images that consciously eroticise extreme violence towards women. One hardly needs a psychoanalyst to explain what that says about contemporary western culture.] (link via Smokewriting)

So, in the unlikely event that this piece will be read by someone other than my four regular (and already supremely knowledgeable) readers, allow me to provide a short explanation of psychoanalysis and the aims it pursues.


OK, the first thing that needs to be clarified is that psychoanalysis is not the same as psychotherapy. Which is not to say that psychoanalysis has no therapeutic value. Indeed long-term psychoanalysis can, in fact, be considered a form of psychotherapy. Nonetheless, the term “psychotherapy” is a far broader and more expansive one than “psychoanalysis” and encompasses a whole range of so-called “talking cures”. At the same time, psychoanalysis is not merely a therapy, but is also an attempt to generate a body of knowledge about mental processes, how they work and what function they play.

I should also make it clear from the outset that even within the field itself, psychoanalysis can have both a broad and a narrow definition. Narrowly (arguably “accurately”) psychoanalysis is the specific set of theories and techniques developed by Sigmund Freud to scientifically study the mind — in particular the unconscious mind — and to explain and treat neuroses.

Latterly however, it has been expanded to include a huge subsequent body of work by a whole range of individuals who have built upon — or altered — Freud’s theories and techniques. So the work of Carl Jung, for example, is not psychoanalysis under the strict definition as it bears significant differences to Freud. Jungians are instead known as “analytic psychologists”. Nonetheless, it is not unusual for Jung to be studied under the heading of psychoanalysis. Similarly, Adlerians describe themselves as “individual psychologists”, and there are numerous other subdivisions of the field.

In general, however, I shall use a broader definition of the term on this blog unless otherwise specified. I beg the forgiveness of outraged Jungians, Adlerians and existential psychotherapists everywhere but while unacceptable in an academic thesis, a certain looseness of language is probably appropriate for a weblog that aims to explain the field to those outside it. So when I use the term psychoanalysis, I will be using it to mean…

… 1) the investigation of mental processes which are almost inaccessible in any other way, especially inner experiences such as thoughts, feelings, emotions, fantasies and dreams;

2) a method (based upon that investigation) for the treatment of neurotic disorders;

3) a systematic accumulation of a body of knowledge about the mind, obtained along these lines, which is gradually turning into a new scientific discipline.

Encyclopedia Britannica

Rumblings beneath the surface

The above definitions of psychoanalysis contain at least two words that themselves require further explanation; the first of these I’ll tackle is “neuroses”. What are neuroses?

Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity– Sigmund Freud

Popular culture has absorbed numerous words, phrases and concepts from psychoanalysis. Yet despite their prevalence within our common lexicon, if pressed, many — perhaps most — of us would admit to only a vague understanding of them. So if a person were to describe a friend as “a good bloke, but a bit neurotic”, we’d know roughly what they meant, but in all likelihood would be unable to nail down a precise meaning. Similarly, we know what we mean when we reproach someone with the phrase “stop being so anal”, yet paradoxically would probably admit to having only a vague understanding, strictly speaking, of what “anal retentiveness” actually means.

The word “neurosis” has an interesting history; starting out meaning one thing and later being redefined to mean almost the opposite. It began life in the 18th century when Scottish physician, William Cullen, used the phrase “neurotic illness” to mean “a disease of the nerves”. A little later it was refined to mean “a functional disorder of the nervous system whose organic component cannot be identified”. But it was Sigmund Freud who provided us with the modern definition. As a medical student (studying under Ernst Brücke in Vienna) Freud began research into the condition known as “hysteria” and soon came to the conclusion that it was a personality disorder rather than a nervous one. Since then, the word “neurosis” has come to mean…

… precisely those mental disorders which are not diseases of the nervous system– Charles Rycroft, Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis

There are a number of different types of neurosis — traumatic neurosis, infantile neurosis, anxiety neurosis and so on. Complicating matters, however, is the notion of “psychosis”. Sometimes psychosis is considered an entirely separate phenomenon to neurosis, and sometimes it is considered a form of neurosis (known as “narcissistic neurosis”). Given that certain psychoses — unlike neuroses — can have an organic component (i.e. are created by identifiable organic damage due to disease or physical trauma), and given that psychosis — again unlike neurosis — often involves a demonstrable loss of contact with reality which can render the sufferer mentally incompetent (legally insane) I tend towards considering them entirely separate classifications of disorders. However, this isn’t entirely straight-forward and recent research into “borderline personality disorder” (BPD) would seem to suggest a certain blurred edge between the definitions. But more about BPD in another post.

The important thing to bear in mind regarding the distinction is that, by and large, psychoanalysis can only be used to treat a neurosis and not a psychosis (though some have tried and claim a certain level of success, and while I’m not discounting their work, it is pretty controversial and exists right on the fringes of the discipline). And so we come finally to the definition of neurosis which I’ll be employing. A neurosis is a non-transitory mental disorder which causes suffering and is recognised as problematic by the sufferer, but which involves neither an organic component nor a loss of contact with reality.

The “non-transitory” part of the definition is important. As Freud discusses in one of his most important papers (“Mourning and Melancholia”), it would not be accurate to describe mourning as a neurosis, despite it sharing most of the symptoms and almost all of the behavioural characteristics** of melancholia (more commonly known today as “depression”) which is a neurosis. Indeed he points out that mourning is clearly a natural and healthy reaction to significant loss, and should not be interfered with; an interruption of the mourning process can be damaging in the long term.

It is also well worth notice that, although mourning involves grave departures from the normal attitude to life, it never occurs to us to regard it as a pathological condition and to refer it to medical treatment. We rely on it being overcome after a certain lapse of time, and we look upon any interference with it as useless or even harmful.

Sigmund Freud | Mourning and Melancholia

Sigmund Freud was arguably the first person in history to approach the subject of mental illness in the same systematic fashion that physical illness had been treated for centuries previously. Difficult though it may be for us to imagine today, this was extremely controversial at the time and it is one of his (several) great contributions to the sphere of human knowledge that he persisted in this work despite the hostility with which he was greeted (hostility compounded in no small part by the anti-semitism he faced).

The Ocean of the Unsayable

In my view, Freud’s greatest contribution of all, however, was his investigation of the unconscious mind. He wasn’t, of course, the first to propose that the mind had both a conscious and an unconscious component. Socrates suggested as much (via Plato) and he was himself elaborating on those who had come before. So it’s an idea that has been around since almost the beginning of history. But Freud is by far the most significant figure in the history of the field, and we have him to thank for liberating the unconscious from the realms of art and philosophy, and bringing it into the mainstream of human knowledge.

Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me– Sigmund Freud

So what is “the unconscious”? And why is it so important?

Simply put, “unconscious” refers to those mental processes of which a person is unaware. This is a straight-forward enough idea and is no longer very controversial. And while there is still some resistance to the idea of unconscious mental processes in certain quarters, I am personally satisfied that there is ample evidence that this resistance is unreasonable. Gregory Bateson in his seminal essay “Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art” has this to say on the subject:

Quantitative Limits of Consciousness

A very brief consideration of the problem shows that it is not conceivably possible for any system to be totally conscious. Suppose that on the screen of consciousness there are reports from many parts of the total mind, and consider the addition to consciousness of those reports necessary to cover what is, at a given stage of evolution, not already covered. This addition will involve a very great increase in the circuit structure of the brain but still will not achieve total coverage. The next step will be to cover the processes and events occurring in the circuit structure we have just added. And so on.

Clearly, the problem is insoluble, and every next step in the approach to total consciousness will involve a great increase in the circuitry required.

It follows that all organisms must be content with rather little consciousness, and that if consciousness has any useful functions whatever (which has never been demonstrated but is probably true), then economy in consciousness will be of the first importance. No organism can afford to be conscious of matters with which it could deal at unconscious levels.

This is the economy achieved by habit formation.

Gregory Bateson | Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art

[The next section of the essay is entitled Qualitative Limits of Consciousness and provides further demonstration of the necessity of unconscious mental processes.]

The kind of unconscious processes being described by Bateson in this essay are what we’d call “descriptively unconscious” (also known as “pre-conscious”). It’s the ability to catch a thrown ball despite being consciously unable to carry out the complex trigonometric calculations required to ascertain where the ball will be at any given moment. It’s the vast store of memories carried around by all of us and which can be called to the conscious mind at will, but which clearly do not reside there permanently. Remember your first kiss? That memory wasn’t part of your consciousness a couple of seconds ago. Now it is. Descriptively unconscious processes are those which can be made conscious with ease.

The other kind of unconscious process, and the one that psychoanalysis is most interested in, is what’s known as a “dynamically unconscious” process. These are processes (memories, phantasies***, wishes) which have become the object of repression and which cannot be easily rendered conscious. One of the primary goals of psychoanalysis is to remove the resistance that the patient has to rendering these processes conscious and thereby freeing them of the repression which is keeping them unconscious.

“I have done that”, says my memory. “I cannot have done that”, says my pride, and remains adamant. At last — memory yields.

Friederich Nietzsche | Beyond Good and Evil (section 68)

The reason psychoanalysis attempts to do this illustrates one of the foundations of Freud’s theory of the unconscious; namely that merely because something is unconscious does not mean it has no influence over us. Indeed, it is Freud’s view that those memories, wishes and phantasies that comprise the dynamic unconscious exert a massive influence over us; far greater in fact than even the influence exerted by our conscious mind. Therefore, until we have removed the resistance which keeps these processes repressed, and cast them onto the screen of consciousness, we will remain forever ignorant of the true motivations behind our own behaviour.

The essential nature of psychoanalysis therefore is twofold. First it seeks a greater (and — as far as possible — a scientific) understanding of mental processes, in particular those of the dynamic unconscious. Second it seeks to use that knowledge, and the techniques with which it was gathered, to treat those who are suffering due to a negative influence being cast on their lives by the contents of their personal dynamic unconscious.

* While I admit to having a far from in-depth knowledge of the genre, can I just point out that the little “reality” television I have seen bears absolutely no similarity to any version of reality I’ve yet encountered (and I’ve encountered a few in my time).

** The distinction I make between symptoms and behavioural characteristics is a vital one to psychoanalysis. Although many of the symptoms of a neurosis will be evident in the behaviour of the sufferer, there will be some symptoms which can only be discovered by listening to the sufferer describe them.

*** “Phantasies” are not synonymous with “fantasies” though they share many of the same characteristics. More on phantasies at a later date.

12 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Oct 2007

Freud reclaimed

Aye, it’s been a fine few weeks and no mistake. The M.Phil is going very well, I’m happy to report. Lots of very interesting reading and discussion. And the people all seem pretty groovy. Actually, the seminars are currently a bit “exposition by tutor with brief comments by the rest of us” as opposed to genuine discussion… but that’ll change as the weeks go on (as indeed it has already begun to). The topics for the first semester are Existentialism & Psychoanalysis, Jung, The Interpretation of Dreams, Klein, and Metapsychology. Initially, if I’m honest, I expected all of them to interest me with the exception of the Klein stuff (though I was still eager to study her work as part of an overall view of the subject). But as I’ve started to learn a bit more about Melanie Klein, I’m beginning to feel my initial fears were unjustified. Whatever one may think about her theories and methods (Klein, for those who are unaware, focussed her psychoanalysis on children and infants), the last word I’d use to describe her is “uninteresting”. Controversial, fascinating, discomforting and puzzling. Those would be better ones.

However having, thus far, only read a solitary paper by Klein (Psychological Principles of Infant Analysis), I’ll hold off on saying much more about her for now. Except that if even half her theory is correct, it’s nigh miraculous that any of us make it through childhood.

One thing that’s struck me most about the course in general is the attitude towards Freud. Or rather, I’ve been struck by how slanted my own attitude is. Though I’m pleased to say I’m overcoming my preconceptions. Merely recognising your own biases is not enough to negate them, but it’s a good first step.

You see, my view of Freud was formed in a rather specific academic environment. Back in the early 90s in the University of North London the philosophy degree was probably amongst the best anywhere. It’s never been recognised as such, of course, but having now gained enough distance to be semi-objective about it, I honestly believe that to be true (and I’ve been known to go on at some length about why that’s the case so I’ll try not to get started on that subject). However, if it had a flaw, it was the radical feminist slant that seeped into certain subjects. Which, as slants go, isn’t as bad as most others incidentally but, it’s probably fair to say that the radical feminist reading of Freud is somewhat less flattering than most.

Over the years I’ve had people tell me that perhaps I wasn’t being altogether fair (most notably Gyrus who convinced me that I probably didn’t have the most balanced view of Freud), but it’s only now that I’ve really gotten round to reading his work (rather than that of commentators) in any depth and I’ve discovered that — just as I’d been told — he’s not the faintly preposterous dogmatist that I’d been led to believe. Far from it.

Rarely, for instance, will you ever read anything like the equivocation expressed in the opening paragraph of Mourning and Melancholia (the text of which I’d like to link to, but can’t*). The second sentence of the text reads “… we must begin by making an admission, as a warning against any over-estimation of the value of our conclusions.” And a little later he informs the reader, “We shall, therefore, from the outset drop all claim to general validity for our conclusions, and we shall console ourselves by reflecting that, with the means of investigation at our disposal today, we could hardly discover anything that was not typical, if not of a whole class of disorders, at least of a small group of them.”

Of course, it’s been pointed out that this equivocation was almost certainly as much an attempt to seduce and disarm the critical reader as it was an attempt to downplay the significance of the work. Freud, after all, is nothing if not a fine writer and has more than enough skill to induce a sympathetic attitude in his readers. Nonetheless, he does seem to have been aware that he was a pioneer in a new and exciting field, and that — as such — some, if not much, of his work would eventually be superseded. After all, Freud was a scientist and was attempting to work in a scientific fashion. So he was obviously aware that from an historical perspective scientific theories constantly evolve and eventually get incorporated into more complete theories (or replaced entirely).

No fairer destiny could be alloted to any […] theory, than that it should of itself point out the way to the introduction of a more comprehensive theory, in which it lives on as a limiting case.

Albert Einstein | Relativity (Chapter XXII, Inferences)

I’ve been told that there’s a great deal of wry humour in the original German, much of which fails to come across in the English translation. Nonetheless, I can only applaud the translators who have rendered what I assume is Freud’s beautifully written German into beautifully written English.

[Aside: while reading Freud I was struck again by something that I’ve noticed in the past. Of the writers I’d say I’ve read fairly extensively, two of them originally wrote in German; Nietzsche and Einstein; and I’ve always perceived a strange similarity in their writing styles which — knowing how radically different in disposition they were — I attributed to some peculiarity in the way German translates into English. Freud goes a little further in confirming this hypothesis.]

Next: What exactly IS psychoanalysis?

* Can I just point out that it’s an absolute outrage that Freud’s papers are not archived online. I’m not interested in getting into the whole “copyright” / “intellectual property” debate here. What I’m talking about is on is a whole ‘nother level, as the man said. There are certain individuals whose writing is simply too damn important not to be freely available to everyone who wants it. Sigmund Freud is one of those individuals. If some philanthropist wants to do the world a real favour, then buy the publishing rights to the works of Freud (and a few others while you’re at it. I’ve got a list…) and bequeath them into the public domain. Set up a website and make them available for download in every format under the sun.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Sep 2007

Psychoanalytic Studies

I’ve been admitted to the M.Phil course at Trinity and will be starting in a week or so. My first lecture is — I think — Tuesday 9th October, and will be on “Existentialism and psychoanalysis”. It appears that my disastrous interview didn’t sink me after all.

This is good news.

6 comments  |  Posted in: Announcements