Monday, July 16, 2007

Izenberg and Jameson

I have just read two more texts which, from very different disciplinary perspectives, explore the possibilities of psychoanalytic approaches to various ‘non-clinical’ problems. I read Frederic Jameson’s essay, “Imaginary and Symbolic in Lacan” (1978), first, and then a methodological piece by the noted (at least where I come from) historian Gerald Izenberg, “Psychohistory and Intellectual History” (1975). I’ll talk about them in temporal order, though from the vantage point of 2007 they are nearly contemporary.

Izenberg is basically concerned to defend the use of psychoanalytic techniques in history, especially intellectual history, by setting some limits to their place and explanatory power. This involves making a distinction between rational and irrational acts, such as the signing of a treaty by a monarch and extending this to beliefs, for instance the development of Freud’s own theories. Izenberg no doubt correctly prefers rational/irrational to right/wrong, or true/false, though he treats all these as possible axes along which one might evaluate historical fact. Rational/irrational depends on what we would now call contextual factors. Ptolemaic astronomy is wrong, but it is rational. For the historian to decide if an action was rational, she needs to gather all the information that the actor had, and make an intelligent judgment. If a monarch (this is the easiest example), made a decisions against all advice, and apparently for no reason that could be explained by anyone, this may be said to be an irrational act. Then, and only then, may psychohistory enter the picture, and try thus to arrive at depth-psychological explanatory factor.

This essay is from the 1970s, and the examples before Izenberg, or, anyway, the ones he cites, are Leopold III, Luther, Hitler...we’re clearly in the realm of history-as-biography. He mentions Erich Fromm and even the Frankfurt school’s sociological psychoanalysis, but this is not his main interest. More on this from Jameson, who mentions Adorno, but of course not Erich Fromm. (See this essay about the eclipse of Fromm, which is for me in a box with other sociological treatments of intellectuals, for instance, Michele Lamont's "How to Become a Famous French Philosopher," about Derrida and Neil Gross, "Becoming a Pragmatist Philosopher").

Izenberg argues that the irrational/rational distinction can be made with belief systems as well, even of sophisticated, self-reflective intellectuals. Interestingly, his main example here is the development of psychoanalysis itself. Was Freud’s theory developed suddenly, a leap of genius? Or did it make sense as an unfolding of previous ideas and clinical results? Izenberg argues strongly that it was the latter, that Freud’s theory was rationally developed, and therefore does not, itself, call for a psychoanalytic explanation.

There are some very clear flaws here. It is perhaps safe to say that among my contemporaries irrationality is an article of faith. All systems of thought contain contradiction, rupture, whatever you like to call it. Indeed, curiously enough, Izenberg seems to feel that irrationality remains irrational in filling a social function, where I suspect that many people would proceed under the assumption that a successfully filled social function is inherently rational, even part of a definition of rationality. Similarly, Izenberg is enough of a social-scientist that, rather than seeing history as stuffed, bursting at the seams with meaning, he seeks only ‘sufficient’ cause. There is surely a tendency today to over-reading the historical record, rather than under-reading. (Ours is a hermeneutic of suspicion?)

The area in which Izenberg is most assertive about the explanatory power of psychoanalysis for intellectual history is not so much in blind-spots, repressed possibilities, and the like, as it is in originary choices. This is discussed on the final pages of the essay, taking Max Weber, but first William James as test cases. The point here is that psychoanalysis does have something to say about why some people are interested in some things and not in other things. He says, “It will always be legitimate to ask why some area was a problem or research interest for someone, and at a basic level there will almost always be an answer in terms of identity needs or basic psychic conflict” (155). This I find quite curious. Just a page earlier, Izenberg quotes Sartre from Search for a Method. Sartre’s own psychoanalytic analyses pick up the question ‘why this, and not this other?’ in a totally different fashion. For Sartre, there is always a radically contingent original choice that lies at the center of a biography—for Baudelaire or Genet, for everyone. This choice is not that which is explained by psychoanalytic investigation, but the irrationality (in the sense of senselessness) which necessarily lies at the center of all human experience. Clearly we’re talking about two different things here, but I still find Izenberg’s attitude that from the ‘seething cauldron’ of the unconscious, something may come of social-science explanatory power, frankly amazing. I’m also surprised by the similarity of his ambition to the claims Randall Collins makes for his sociology of philosophies. Collins takes almost the opposite approach—seeking explanation for intellectual choices in external, network causes, rather than individualist, even infra-individual ones.

Now, Jameson’s essay is quite different. It meanders; it does not follow an argument so much as talk around a subject. Jameson discusses Lacan, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary. I will start with one fundamental difference between Jameson and Izenberg, which I suppose is what makes the latter an historian and the former not: Jameson isn’t interested in causality. Writ large, he is a Marxist, and in this sense, his causality is taken care of. Writ small, he is a literary critic, and in this sense it is taken care of also. Also interesting, at least in the texts here, Jameson is more concerned than Izenberg with tying the individual/text into the larger social world. Jameson starts with some of the same examples of psychobiography (Erikson’s treatment of Luther, mainly) as does Izenberg. He is, of course, more committed to Sartre. The psychoanalytic approach to biography (Jameson isn’t concerned, here at least, with historical understand as such) replaces the biographer’s ‘intuition’ and ‘sympathy’ with context and situation—which is of course the technical existentialist term. Useful for all the difficulties it pastes over.

After a series of apparent digressions, which, I think, have the function of getting all the pieces of the Lacanian puzzle in place, Jameson makes his central suggestion for the literary use of the Lacanian system. It is best understood as a continuation of Freud’s own practice in reading literary texts, for instance his analysis of The Sandman. The narrative, somehow, illustrates a certain ‘pre-set’ psychic drama, trauma to neurosis, crisis, and resolution (no doubt this is an unacceptable formulation of said movement). Lacan offers a more sophisticated and diversified set of such given psychic narrative structures, each with different meanings. These are represented by the four permutations of the Lacanian formula Jameson reprints for us.

Finally, though, and this was published in 1978, what Jameson really wants is to use Lacan’s framework in order to articulate a cultural and political criticism, rather than a literary one. Of the various subject positions Lacan articulates, Jameson thinks that of the analyst is most useful. I quote the bulk of the last paragraph in the essay:

The ‘discourse of the analyst,’ finally, is the subject position that our current political languages seem least qualified to articulate. Like the ‘discourse of the hysteric,’ this position also involves an absolute commitment to desire as such at the same time that it opens a certain listening distance from it and suspends the latter’s existential urgencies—the illusion of conscious experience—in a fashion dialectical rather than ironic. The ‘discourse of the analyst,’ then, which seeks to distinguish the nature of the object of desire itself from the passions and immediacies of the experience of desire’s subject, suggests a demanding and self-effacing political equivalent in which the structure of Utopian desire itself is attended to through the chaotic rhythms of collective discourse and fantasy of all kinds (including those that pass through our own heads). This is not, unlike the discourse of the master, a position of authority...rather, it is a position of articulated receptivity, of deep listening (L’écoute), of some attention beyond the self or the ego, but one that may need to use those bracketed personal functions as instruments for hearing the Other’s desire.

From where I stand, at any rate, this is certainly a recipe, in all its profundity (that is, real and imagined) for the surprisingly narrow array of individuals who have arrived at the position of academic cultural critics. Then there is the last sentence, which I know is supposed to be a rhetorical flourish, and I think may be only that:

The active and theoretical passivity, the rigorous and committed self-denial, of this final subject position, which acknowledges collective desire at the same moment that it tracks its spoors and traces, may well have lessons for cultural intellectuals as well as politicians and psychoanalysts.

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