Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Sandmen

As mentioned in class, Hoffman's story, "The Sandman," has been adapted and used by many other writers and artists. The most well known uses are Offenbach's opera Tales of Hoffman and the ballet Coppelia. More recently, its been the inspiration for the stop-action puppetry work (The Sandman) of British animator Paul Berry (who later went on to work with Tim Burton on The Nightmare Before Christmas) and others like Split Pillow's production of Eye of the Sandman and the above video, "The Sandman," a work in progress by Rich Ragsdale (channeling both Fritz Lang and Gene Simmons, it seems). It also inspired a recent "musical play"/concept album, The Voice of Midnight, by the Residents, the San Francisco-based experimental musical group who have long performed anonymously in the guise of giant eyeballs...

Each one of these adaptations borrows different elements from the story: some focus on the Olympia part of the plot, some emphasize the eye-stealing menace of the monstrous Sandman.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Carnival of the Uncanny

Before we begin our discussion of Freud's essay and the short story embedded in it, E. T. A. Hoffmann's "The Sandman," I wanted to post a jumble of links and thoughts about this subject so we could have some fun, albeit some uneasy, disquieting and dissonant pleasure.

As you know already from the Glossary, the Uncanny refers to "an instance where something can be familiar, yet foreign at the same time, resulting in a feeling of the uncomfortably strange. Because the uncanny is familiar, yet strange, it often creates cognitive dissonance within the experiencing subject due to the paradoxical nature of being attracted to, yet repulsed by an object at the same time. Freud’s discussion of the concept centers on examples of doubling, repetition, seemingly meaningful patterns within coincidence, the experience of deja-vu, and the sometimes ambiguous boundary between life and death, especially in relation to artificial animation." With the Uncanny we enter the realm of dopplegangers, ghosts, indeterminacy, automata, ambiguity, robots, hauntings, synchronicity and pareidolia. Meaning gone strange, everything just slightly, disturbingly, askew.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Introducing The Unconscious

I want to take some time to introduce Freud's concept of the Unconscious. It's important to spend effort on it because the Unconscious is the centerpiece of Freud's work, it's his greatest and most well known "discovery," and for that reason the one most likely to be encountered in simplified and watered-down versions. But if one is going to really find something useful in Freud, something that helps us see anew, then the estranging and challenging aspects of his theory need to emphasized and appreciated.

And instead of beginning my own summary here, I want to start in an indirect manner and through someone else's words (two moves that I hope by now register with you as "classic" Freudian gestures). I want to quote at length from Hugh Haughton's Introduction to our edition of The Uncanny. Haughton's remarks double back to our previous work on dreams, and my previous post on the space shared by psychoanalysis and literature and in the process suggests the place of the Unconscious in this convergence.

"By presenting the dream as riddle, Freud presents himself as solving 'the essential riddles of dreaming.' By the same token, he given a new definition of consciousness in embattled relationship to the larger, more primary and largely unknown phenomenon he called 'the Unconscious.' In fact, dreams are works of art, born of a compromise between the conscious and unconscious. They can only be understood by sustained historical investigation into the imaginative life and memory of the dreamer...

Freud repeatedly represents himself, like Oedipus, as a solver of riddles, a writer faced with an apparently insoluble problem of meaning. The great founding texts of psychoanalysis...tackle human phenomena hitherto resistant to meaningful interpretation---hysterical symptoms, dreams, everyday slips of the tongue, jokes, and so-called sexual aberrations. He interprets all of them as riddling forms of meaning that can be decoded and deciphered. This involves showing that they are analogous to each other. Rather than seeing them as aberrant phenomena, he sees them as products of fundamental, central and normal psychic processes, processes that are 'unconscious.' Freud's theory of aberration seeks to demonstrate that enigmatic areas of language and behavior hitherto classified as being below, above, or beyond significance, are ultimately intelligible. They are subject to interpretation. In doing so, however, he affirms the fundamental ways in which the human mind in general---and not only the 'pathological' or 'abnormal' mind---is unintelligible or unknowable to itself. If psychoanalysis was invented as a hermeneutic as much as a therapeutic practice, it is because it is founded on a double commitment to interpretation and resistance to interpretation. In his bid to make apparently anomalous human behavior intelligible, Freud was led to construct a theory which places unintelligibility at the heart of mental processes. In fact, in an astonishing transformation of the Cartesian project, it made self-unintelligibility the paradoxical cornerstone of psychic identity. ...His master work, The Interpretation of Dreams, turned everyone's dreams into esoteric texts, the unacknowledged poetic masterpieces of everyday life. As Lionel Trilling said in a pioneering lecture, 'of all mental systems, the Freudian psychology is the one which makes poetry indigenous to the very condition of the mind.'" (ix-x)

Haughton's remarks return us to the first day of class where I remarked that Freud reads the human psyche like a poem, with a "literary" attention to the relation between form and content and extended examination of rhetorical tropes like metaphor and metonymy which layer and transform meaning. He also draws attention to the creative aspects of the Unconscious---it produces, in effect, works of art---as well as its character as an ongoing process of subjectivity---he speaks of an "embattled" relation between the conscious and unconscious. Finally, he points out how radically different Freud's "split subject" is to the post-Renaissance notion of the individual which still informs much of way most people think of "the self."

For an example of how difficult it is to break with the notion of a "whole" self, consider the the classic "iceberg" model of the unconscious:

While alluding to Freud's topographic metaphor, this visualization unfortunately suggests that these psychic layers are just parts of the same whole. The unconscious may be submerged but it is still essentially connected to and part of the same overall structure. Now contrast that image with this:

In his biography of Freud, Peter Gay references the above drawing by Austrian Expressionist Alfred Kubin. Titled Selbstbetrachtung (Self-Observation), Gay finds it an apt illustration of the violently disorienting idea of the self which Freud created in The Interpretation of Dreams: a subject not just split, but seemingly severed from illusions (dreams) of wholeness and unity.

There are three aspects of Freud's model of the Unconscious that I think are the most fundamental to think about at this point:

  • What is the Unconscious and what is its function? This is basically a question of definition, but a tricky one because its hard to find a perfect metaphor or analogy for all the various characteristics Freud attributes to the Unconscious. Conventionally, it's usually described as a "place" a kind of "dumping ground" of traumatic memories or experiences, or a space "underneath" the conscious mind (a "sub" conscious). This, however, makes the Unconscious appear to be static, when in fact it is active. What makes it hard to produce a simple model is that the Unconscious is both "place" and "process." It is "where" traces of our past reside, but it is also the process through which our past desires and experiences come to shape our everyday lives (through processes of repression, sublimation and return). Its relation to the conscious mind is also paradoxical: although the two are intimately connected, they have no direct access to each other.

  • How does the Unconscious come to be? We have briefly begun talking about Freud's theories of how a child acquires a "self," how it learns to be a social subject. One feature that distinguishes human beings from other animals is that we are born almost entirely helpless and dependent. We have very few "instincts;" in a sense we have to learn not just how to survive but how to be human. Freud is interested in the way the infant is born with a nearly limitless potential for bodily pleasure and the way that pleasures (desires) overlap, spring up with, or break off from, the satisfaction of needs (the oral pleasure of sucking is discovered while satisfying the need for nourishment, for example). For Freud, part of becoming a social subject involves the child learning to control and reign in an ever-growing assortment of desires, in effect learning to obey restrictions and limits and learning his place in the scheme of things. But what happens to those frustrated desires? All that excess "energy"? They are not only "stored" in the Unconscious, but acted upon by it: they are repressed (kept in check) or sublimated (channeled into socially acceptable activities).

  • What are the consequences of the Unconscious? In other words what does it suggest about "the human mind" and what other ways of thinking about the human self does it challenge? As indicated in Haughton's remarks, the Freudian "split subject," the "de-centered self" challenges the traditional notion of a more or less stable and coherent self, the idea of a self-knowing consciousness. The impact of this is far-reaching, but for our purposes, I want to stress the way that Freud's theory puts signification, the act of producing our relations to the world via systems of symbolic representation, at the heart of human experience and civilization. It makes mankind's most essential identity that of Reader. And not just any reader, but a reader of Riddles, a reader of the ambiguous, the indirect, the puzzling...the uncanny....

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Essential dreaming...

In reading Freud's text, On Dreams, I ask students to pay attention to not only what Freud says, but how he says it. In other words, to think about how this text offers not just an explanation and interpretation of dreams, but a theory of interpretation, of reading itself. For Freud, psychoanalysis is reading. All the various components of the psyche constitute a text: a series of signs that need to be assembled into a meaningful coherence or order, in other words, a narrative.

One of the distinctive features of Freud's text is its repetitive structure. Rather than organizing his argument in a linear fashion, Freud seemed to favor a logic of narrative return. I think this is significant, because as we read further and "unpack" more concepts we'll see a Freudian fascination with repetition, with structures of return, with repetition as a basic organizing principle of both experience and how we make sense of it.

A relation between reading and repetition is illustrated in Freud's approach to dream analysis. The specimen dream (the "table d'hote" dream) is narrated, various associations (of similar experiences or situations) are recounted and then "returned" to the specimen dream and "re-narrated" into it. The process is then repeated with incremental progression--greater and greater understanding--upon each return. Thus, repetition doesn't necessarily signal stasis (staying in the same place, saying the same thing over and over again), but can also aid movement and progress.

What are the basic terms and concepts put forth in On Dreams?

First, Freud asserts that dreams have a relation to waking life, they thus have meaning and significance. Broadly speaking, all dreams function as symbolic wish fulfillment. Dreams somehow provide us a satisfaction reality denies us. But wish fulfillment is not as simple as it sounds. Some dreams are quite obvious in their meaning: Freud's example of the dreams of children illustrates simple desires frustrated in waking life fulfilled or "completed" by the dream narrative. One of his examples is the child who was not allowed to eat strawberries actually verbalizing her dream of gorging on them in baby talk: a clear night time fantasy that alleviates a day time frustration.

Other dreams however are not so transparent and even if they have an overall coherence, they don't seem connected with waking life and conscious desires (I dreamed my uncle died of a terrible illness, I saw it all, his sickness, his death, the funeral---but I love my uncle! And he's never been sick a day in his life? Why did I dream of this?) or seem to lack a coherent meaning or narrative structure (I was traveling through Manhattan, but it was somehow also San Francisco because I saw the Bay Bridge, and the Empire State building. My car kept falling apart, a door fell off, then a tire, but wait, it was my Dad's car! A snowstorm. Oh yeah, I left my car in the other parking lot. The snow parking lot. Where you park when it snows. Did I pay rent this month?)

Freud responds to these last two kinds with a model of the dream: dreams consist of both manifest and latent content. Manifest content refers to the details we remember of the dream when we wake--what we would consciously describe when recalling the dream. For Freud, the dream's complete meaning is not found in the manifest details. The manifest content is only a trace of the latent content, the multiple, possibly contradictory or complex wishes, desires, anxieties, frustrations that are represented in partial, "coded" or disguised form by the manifest dream. (But why should desires need to be "disguised"? Why is the latent meaning presented so indirectly and obscurely? More on this later when we take up the concept of repression and more completely make sense of Freud's notion of the Unconscious).

The process by which the latent content is transformed into manifest content is what Freud terms the "dream work." The primary mechanisms of the dream work are:
  • Condensation: the enormous work of compression carried out by the transformation of a great deal of latent content into a handful of manifest imagery. Two or more ideas, experiences, desires, situations, etc., are compressed into one, made to overlap by finding one or more traits that they share. Freud uses the example of photo superimposition to illustrate this, referring to geneticist Francis Galton's "composite photographs" which layer photographic images in order to produce a combined image that stresses the shared or similar features of all the individuals represented. (While Galton's work is an early example of superimposition, it should be noted that he used these images as "evidence" for rather questionable notions of racial or criminal "types." Students may find the Galton-inspired work of contemporary photography Nancy Burson a richer and more provocative use of composite photography. Her work not only references Galton's technique, but is a critique of the racist conclustions he drew from it. See for example, "Mankind" a composite of Asian, Caucasian, and Black, weighted according to current population statistics, or her interactive project, "The Human Race Machine.") Condensation is essentially the rhetorical trope of metaphor: meaning is created via (multiple) comparisons.
  • Displacement: the replacement of a particular element in the latent content by some other, peripherally related image in the manifest dream, often also coupled with an inversion of relative value or importance. Displacement can signal a shift in the importance of a thought or element in a dream when shifted from the latent to the manifest content. The trivial can become significant, and the significant trivial: a kind of transvaluation. Displacement is essentially the rhetorical trope of metonymy: a figure of speech in which one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is closely associated (such as "crown" for "royalty"). Both metaphor and metonymy involve the principle of substitution: one thing represents another. In metaphor, this substitution is based on similarity, while in metonymy, the substitution is based on contiguity.
There is of course, more that Freud says about things in On Dreams (the preponderence of visual images and symbols, the rebus-like fusions of images and language, the free-association technique used to tease out latent associations, the role of the dream instigator/residue of the day) but this summary gives us the basis for beginning to look at Freud's method as a theory of narrative and reading. Some things to think more on:
  • how Freud reads the dream like a literary text, paying more attention to figurative meaning (metaphor, metonymy) than literal meaning
  • how meaning is produced through structures of repetition and substitution
  • how what is absent (latent) is as, or more, important than what is present (manifest); Freud reads what the dream "doesn't say" as well as what it "does say."

Thursday, September 10, 2015

What we're doing here

I thought it might be helpful to put into writing my remarks on the aims of this course. I hope keeping these things in mind will be helpful as you investigate and encounter a series of sometimes dense, sometimes confusing material.

We are looking at the overlap between "psychoanalysis" and "literature," what both domains share in common and illuminate about each other. This is a productive enterprise because at a foundational level both subjects focus on the same things: signification, symbolic representation, narrative, interpretation---in other words issues of meaning, intelligibility, and reading.

There are several ways to approach the convergence of "psychoanalysis and literature." One way, a very common way, is to make a "Freudian" reading of literature along the lines of the application his ideas which Freud criticized in his essay, "Wild Psychoanalysis." Freud was appalled that some therapists calling themselves "Freudian" were peddling a crude, simplistic and misunderstood psychoanalysis which reduced it to a set of pat answers to be applied in every situation--i.e. "psychoanalysis says everything is about sex, so if you have a problem it's because you're not getting enough."

This disturbed Freud; not only was it an oversimplified and crudely literal understanding of his ideas, but the patient was "treated" without tact. In his essay, Freud takes "tact" to mean not just a good bedside manner but an overall attitude that allows for the possibility of error, a position of uncertainty towards a final and absolute Truth:

" may sometimes make a wrong surmise, and one is never in a position to discover the whole truth..."

What might be a literary version of "wild" psychoanalysis, then? The quite common practice of using Freud's work to provide simple answers and one-dimensional interpretations by either recording obvious "Freudian symbols" (inevitably phallic) or by trying to psychoanalyze a literary text's characters. In other words, paying attention only to the level of "content" in a text (what it means) and ignoring issues of its structure (how it means). Or to put it another way, regarding psychoanalysis itself as a method of answering instead of as a method of questioning, a method of opening up meaning rather than closing it down.

So, in our class we are referring to Freud's work not as an authoritative body of theoretical knowledge, but as a remarkably rich and complex method of reading whose value lies in what it suggests, in what questions it opens up for us. While it is important to have a good sense of the basic theoretical concepts Freud developed, that is not the only, or even the most significant, level on which to approach his work. Remember, there is no final exam where you have to reproduce in perfect exactness any list of technical terms. Work through psychoanalytic categories for what they enable: what (new) ways of reading or seeing do they make possible?

More on language and representation...

We covered a great deal of material very quickly in our last class. While we will always take time to "unpack" and discuss difficult or unfamiliar concepts in later classes, I also wanted to give you some follow up on the blog that may help as you reflect on the argument that systems of representation (languages) mediate our experience of the world. One of the most vivid examples of how central language is to our relation to the world is found in the strikingly different ways various languages conceptualize and divide the colour spectrum.

Quite possibly you have heard the old chestnut that the Eskimo (Inuit) "have hundreds of words for snow." This is not exactly true: Eskimo-Aleut languages have the same number of separate terms for snow as English, but languages in this group express a wide variety of differences in kind through the addition of suffixes. This allows for a single word to capture what is rendered in complete phrases in languages like English. Another polar group, the European Sami People, do however, have hundreds of words for snow.

"Hues and Views," an article published by the American Psychological Association, discusses recent work on colour and culture among the Himba tribe of Namibia. Researchers compared the acquisition of terms for colour among Himba and British children:

Across cultures, the children acquired color terms the same way: They gradually and with some effort moved from an uncategorized organization of color, based on a continuum of perceptual similarity, to structured categories that varied across languages and cultures. Over time, language wielded increasing influence on how children categorized and remembered colors.

In short, the range of stimuli that for Himba speakers comes to be categorized as "serandu" would be categorized in English as red, orange or pink. As another example, Himba children come to use one word, "zoozu," to embrace a variety of dark colors that English speakers would call dark blue, dark green, dark brown, dark purple, dark red or black.

In a test, Himba were able to very quickly point out the standout color below:

(Click here to see the RGB value for each square.)

However, the Himba had a much harder time pointing out the square that English speakers would categorize as a shade of blue:

This is only one example, but as we proceed to inquire into Freudian concepts, we will continue to examine the fundamental role of representational systems--narratives--in human consciousness and experience.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

On Intelligibility

The following is a brief compilation of theories of language and meaning drawn from the work of Saussure, Gramsci, Lacan, and Barthes, among others…

Language and Meaning:

Much of what is usually referred to as "postmodern theory" derives from, or in response to, Ferdinand de Saussure's work in linguistics. His theories have had enormous influence because of the way they challenge fundamental assumptions about the production of meaning and the relationship between language and the world.

Saussure conceives of language as a system of different signs. A sign consists of a relation between a signifier (the material aspect of a sign) and a signified (the concept). He argued that their relation is "arbitrary," in the sense that it is a matter of cultural convention. There is no natural or inherent reason the signifier "blue" is coupled with the particular signified that it is in English. In this way, he challenged the commonsensical view of the relation between language and "reality:" that "reality" is meaningful in itself and all language does is give the meaningful entities of the world names. In other words, that language is simply a nomenclature, a set of labels placed on pre-existing phenomena. If this were true, however, then all languages of the world could be easily translated into one another because they are really nothing more than different labels for the "same thing"---the world "out there" is presumed to be the same in all cultures. But, as Saussure points out, languages are not readily translated into one another. In fact, some of their differences are not even translatable at all. Languages don't just differ over minor "shades" of meaning, a comparative study reveals sharp differences in the world they articulate. The most revolutionary element in Saussure's work is his insistence that languages don’t produce different versions of the same reality, they in effect produce different realities.

That different languages conceptualize the world in significantly different ways is demonstrated by the fact that even such "physical" or "natural" phenomena as colours are not "the same" in different languages. Russian does not have a term for blue. The words goluboi and sinij which are usually translated as "light blue" and "dark blue" refer to what are in Russian distinct colours not different shades of the same colour. The English word brown has no equivalent in French. It is translated into brun, marron, or even jeune depending on the context. In Welsh the colour glas, though often translated as "blue," contains elements which English would identify as "green" or "grey." Because the boundaries are placed differently in the two languages the Welsh equivalent of the English "grey" might be glas or llwyd:

The differences we readily experience as independent of language are in fact constructed by it. This does not mean that language creates "actuality" (that is, trees, rocks, buildings, people) but that language turns undifferentiated, meaningless nature into a differentiated, meaningful cultural reality. The most significant feature of Saussure's work is the argument that language precedes experience. We have no direct access to the world; our relationship to it is always mediated by, and dependent on, language.

Semiotics and Codes:

Saussure's conclusions about spoken and written language have been extended to the study of all forms of cultural signification. The idea that meaning is not natural, but cultural, not universal (unchanging), but historical (changing), is the basis of semiotics, the study of signification, or how things mean. In semiotic terms, all the artifacts of a culture constitute "texts"--- photographs, novels, clothing, film, food, architecture, body language, and so on. Whenever we understand a phenomenon, we do so because we know the culturally appropriate codes through which that phenomenon could be made intelligible. A dream, for instance, has no meaning in itself. We can interpret it (give it meaning) only when we place it in a grid of codes: we can understand it in terms of pre-modern codes, in which case dreams are seen as visitations of the gods or prophetic pronouncements, or interpret it in terms of codes of Freudian psychoanalysis according to which dreams are expressions of thoughts and emotions repressed in the unconscious. Which codes are taken to produce the "correct" or "true" meaning can have great historical and cultural variance. Depending on time and place, we use different sets of codes to understand "femininity" or "masculinity," "fashionable" or "dowdy," "responsible" or "self indulgent". None of these categories are universal or timeless.

Language and Subjectivity:

Saussure's notion of the fundamental role of language in human society---as the medium which structures our access to reality---has influenced a wide range of disciplines: linguistics, anthropology, film theory, history, sociology, political theory, literary studies, aesthetic theory, philosophy and psychoanalysis. The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's work addresses the relation between language and consciousness. Subjectivity is produced in language; there is no part of human experience that is completely outside of, or free from, it. At the moment we take our first breath, we are inserted into language, into a signifying system of differences. "It's a boy," or "it’s a girl" positions us differently within the culturally meaningful. And which position we occupy within Gender, in turn, has determining effects on which other positions/meanings are available or unavailable to us. Identity, then, is a matter of social intelligibility: the subject must learn to make sense of "the world," as well as become intelligible to it.

According to Lacan, language not only structures the relation between the self and the world "outside" it, it is the precondition for consciousness itself. Prior to acquiring language, the infant experiences only undifferentiated sensations, a boundary-less world with no distinction between "self" and anything else. Only when the infant learns to grasp the concept of language does consciousness begin, because language provides the means to differentiate. In Lacan's example, the first "division" is between the infant and its mother. The infant becomes capable of distinguishing "mother" as something separate from itself, when it can recognize the basic logic of signification: that one particular sound means "mother," and a different one means "baby." It is this ability to differentiate between "self" and "(m)other" that enables the most basic condition of consciousness: an awareness of oneself as a distinct entity.

Monday, September 7, 2015

A short glossary of Freudian terms

Anal Character: one fixed at the anal level of psychosexual development. People stuck at this early stage are regarded as obstinate, hoarding, and perfectionistic.

Anxiety: Freud discusses three types of anxiety: reality (rational/practical fears about the external world), normal or moral (anxiety about the superego's punishing parental and social shoulds and oughts), and neurotic (irrational fear and worry caused by repressed wishes and experiences).

Cathartic Method: the name Freud and Joseph Breuer gave to their method of allowing patients to get relief by talking out their previously repressed emotions. Freud quickly realized that this relief was only temporary and did not produce lasting personality changes.

Castration: Freud’s concept centers on the fantasies of children regarding the riddle of anatomical difference. For children, the difference between boy and girl implies either the presence or lack of a penis. Thus for boys, girls are seen as inferior because they lack something. The castration complex also refers to the Oedipal narrative, where the (male) child both fears castration from the father and identifies with him (so as not to be a “castrated body” like his mother).

Compulsion Neurosis: a disorder whose symptoms are either prohibitions, atonements or symbolic substitute gratifications.

Condensation: the dream's tendency to combine several themes into one dream symbol. In this way the symbol can stand for several different thoughts, feelings, wishes, ideas.

Conscious: the actual contents of awareness; i.e., what one is conscious of at a given moment.

Death Drive: the drive towards death, destruction and non-existence. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud defines it as "an urge inherent in all organic life to restore an earlier state of things". The death drive (Thanatos) opposes Eros, the tendency towards cohesion and unity. (Some English translations of Freud’s work have confused two terms that are different in German, instinkt (instinct) and trieb (drive), often translating both as instinct. For Freud, a drive is a force that is not essential to the life of an organism (unlike an instinct) and tends to denature it or make it behave in ways that are sometimes counter-intuitive).

Defense Mechanism: a maneuver employed by the ego to protect itself against anxiety raised by intolerable impulses.

Denial: a defense mechanism in which what is true is intellectually denied.

Displacement: the dream's transfer of emotions, desires and anxieties from one object to another, often the displacement of something more serious onto less important or jarring symbols and material. Displacement can also refers to the tendency of libido to invest itself in objects other than the original object of its aim.

Dreamwork: the mental activity that translates the latent unconscious material into the manifest imagery that disguises it.

Ego (das Ich, literally, the “I”): a rational, organized agency distilled gradually out of the drives of the id as it encounters reality.

Electra Complex
: the feminine equivalent of the male Oedipal Complex. While the Oedipal Complex demands a clear shift of a male child’s identification away from the mother and onto the father, the fate of the female child is more complex as she must simultaneously identify with the mother (in terms of her bodily “lack” and the cultural role mapped onto it) as well as the father (in terms of the “power” associated with his cultural role as possessor of a penis). It is this identificatory conflict that Freud conceptualized as “penis envy:” the desire of the female for the power, privilege and opportunities granted to men in a patriarchal society. In both conceptualizing and naming this complex, Freud drew on the myth of Electra as expressed in the Greek tragedies of Sophocles and Euripedes.

Erogenous Zones: those areas of the body most liable to sexual stimulation--namely, the mouth, anus, and penis, although Freud regarded the entire body as an erogenous zone.

Eros: one of the two basic sources of all the drives. Eros, whose name comes from the Greek god of love, is the principle of life; it binds together and is most clearly seen in love. Its drives tend to be more plastic and displaceable than those of its opponent, Thanatos, the death drive. Freud saw psychic life as an interplay of these two ever-interpenetrating forces, Life and Death.

Family Romance: Freud used this term to talk about the conflicts between parents and children as the child necessarily grows up and grows away from his family. The “family romance” is a conscious fantasy, later repressed, in which a child imagines that their birth parents are not actual but adoptive parents. Typically, the fantasy parents are of noble lineage, or at least of a higher social class than the real parents.

Freud theorized that a denigration of ones parents replaces an early overestimation of them and that such feelings and desires are not only part of a “healthy” transition to adulthood, but are actually less about “hating” ones parents than “an expression of the child’s longing for the happy, vanished days when his father seemed to him the noblest and strongest of men and mother the dearest and loveliest of women. He is turning away from the father whom he knows to-day to the father in whom he believed in the earlier years of his childhood; and his phantasy is no more than the expression of a regret that those happy days have gone...” The fantasy also addresses the child’s question, “who am I?” and expresses an attempt to place oneself in a broader social history. Thus, the “family romance,” touches on issues of social relations and relations between extra-familial generations as well issues of aging and the passage of time.

Fetishism: the displacement of desire from the original object (say, a woman) to a part of her body (say, a foot) or other associated object (women’s shoes, for example). The term arose from the general concept of fetishism: an object thought to have supernatural powers, or an object created by humans that has power over other humans.

Fixation: when something libidinal is arrested in its development even though the rest of the personality keeps on growing up.

Freudian Slip: a mistake, usually of speech, made due to the collision of conscious and unconscious conflicts.

Id (das Es, literally, the “It”): the permanently unconscious motivational wellspring of the mind. From the id originate all the drives that impel psychic life.

Freud borrowed this term from Georg Groddeck's (1923) The Book of the It. Groddeck wrote: “I hold the view that man is animated by the Unknown, that there is within him an “It,” some wondrous force which directs both what he himself does, and what happens to him. The affirmation “I live” is only conditionally correct, it expresses only a small and superficial part of the fundamental principles.”

The notion that we experience as other, rather than as self, our own deepest drives and motives -- and their linkage to memory images, to the flow of speech and action, and to the general tone of our personality -- is one of the most provocative and radical elements of the Freudian “split subject.”

Identification: an attachment to an object which results in incorporating some of its aspects into oneself.

Latent Content: the true thoughts below the manifest imagery of the dream. Psychoanalysis seeks to translate the “disguised” manifest content into the true latent, and therefore repressed, wishes of the dreamer.

Libido: the name Freud gives to basic, somewhat biologic, drives. While sometimes the term is used to refer to all instinctual urges, the term libidinal usually refers to sexual instincts.

Manifest Content: what we usually think of as the dream itself, and what Freudians see as surface, a disguise of the true latent dream material.

Masochism: masochism and sadism describe feelings of sexual pleasure or gratification derived from inflicting suffering or having it inflicted. Freud made masochism and -- to a lesser degree -- sadism core parts of psychoanalysis. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality he called the tendency to inflict and receive pain during sex “the most common and important of all perversions.” Freud developed and changed his theories of sadism and masochism repeatedly sometimes conceptualizing them as gendered “disorders” (women as masochistic, men, sadistic) and sometimes using the terms to discuss more broad tendencies in human sexuality and behavior in general.

Narcissism: the investment of libido into oneself. The libidinal equivalent of egotism. In “On Narcissism” Freud wrote that normal development means transferring more and more attention and interest onto other people and thereby decreasing one's original or primary state of narcissism. Primary narcissism is the self-involvement all infants start out with; secondary narcissism is a turning of libido away from objects back to the ego, as with what we now call the narcissistic personality.

Neurosis: a conflict between ego and id that produces symptoms of psychological discomfort. Neuroses are the result of the constant, painful, and sometimes unsuccessful efforts of the ego to block the intrusion of libidinal desires repressed in the unconscious. Analysis seeks to uncover and to relieve the hidden causes of this internal conflict (However, for Freud, and later psychoanalytic theorists like Lacan, a complete and total cure can never be effected since to some degree neurosis is a necessary component of the societies we live in which require for their cohesion a renunciation of libidinal drives).

Oedipal Complex: Freud’s well known concept was inspired by the Greek legend of Oedipus Rex, especially as it is expressed in Sophocles's play, a man who unknowingly marries his mother and kills his father. The Oedipus complex is way of talking about both the erotic and destructive components of the child’s (especially the male child’s) relation with its parents.

The standard narrative is that the (male) child desires his mother, the father interferes and prevents this union, the son detects his own sexual difference from his mother (her lack of a phallus), and adjusts to this reality by identifying with the father whose power also threatens to castrate him.

Phobias: in Freudian theory, phobias are a defense against anxiety produced by repressed impulses. Anxiety is moved to an object or situation and then becomes the phobic stimulus. In order to not deal with the repressed conflict, the person tries to avoid the object or situation.

Pleasure Principle: the drive to seek pleasure and to avoid pain. Its counterpart is the reality principle which defers gratification when necessary. The id follows the pleasure principle which rules early life, but as one matures, one begins to learn the need to sometimes endure pain and defer gratification because of the obstacles of reality.

Polymorphous Perversity: the young child's tendency to get sexual gratification from anything, regardless of its gender or nature. As a result of psychosexual development, this tendency is usually replaced by “normal” heterosexuality.

Preconscious: the entire set of contents of the mind accessible to consciousness but not in awareness at the moment; i.e., what is descriptively unconscious but not blocked from access by repression or other psychological defenses.

Primal Scene: the child’s viewing of parental lovemaking. For Freud this could be literal or imagined, what is important is that the child's experience or (mis)understanding of his parents as sexual beings usually triggers an apprehension of them as having a life totally separate from the child.

Projection: a defense mechanism in which one attributes one’s own unacceptable or unwanted thoughts or/and emotions to others. Projection reduces anxiety by allowing the expression of the unwanted unconscious impulses/desires without letting the conscious mind recognize them.

Psychodynamic: the perspective that personality is constituted by interacting and sometimes conflicting psychological forces.

Reality Principle: the ego's sense of realistic and rational adaptive expectations. This principle evolves from and governs the heedless hedonism of the pleasure principle.

Regression: a return, temporary or chronic, to an earlier level of psychological development.

Repetition Compulsion: the psychological phenomenon in which a person repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again. This includes reenacting the event or putting oneself in situations that have a high probability of the event occurring again. This "re-living" can also take the form of dreams, symbolic actions, repeating the story of what happened, and even hallucination.

Freud developed this idea in Beyond the Pleasure Principle where he meditated on several examples of people repeating or revisiting traumatic experiences and memories in an unconscious effort to gain mastery and control over them. One of his observations is of a child who has created a game for himself: he throws a spool with a string attached to it over the side of his bed so it is out of view, saying “fort!” (go) He then reels the spool back, exclaiming “da!” (there [it is]) when it reappears. To Freud, the child’s fort/da game has creatively given him a way to deal with the idea of loss. His mother may not always come when he calls, but the child can now defuse his frustration and exert control over his outer world through his repetitive ritual of dis- and re-appearance.

In this essay, Freud also discusses the way in which soldiers traumatized by violence in the First World War and other accident victims keep revisiting in hallucinations, dreams and other compulsive behavior, the very experiences which give them pain. Freud theorizes that the “repetition compulsion” is the outcome of the ego’s need to retain coherence and mastery in the face of deep and real threat.

Repression: a mechanism of psychological defense, which conceals certain drives deep within the unconscious mind. The ego's ridding itself of unacceptable desires and ideas by dumping them into unconsciousness.

Resistance: the patient's effort to remain unconscious of what is repressed. Common forms of resistance include arguing with the therapist, “forgetting” to show up for a session and deploying other defense mechanisms in order to remain unaware of unconscious material.

Scopophilia: the term for pleasure in looking, in both the sense of seeing and being seen. Freud distinguished between two forms of this drive: one active, “voyeurism,” and the other passive, “exhibitionism,” which are often taken to be gendered (men make women into objects of their gaze, women learn to perform as such).

Screen Memories: memory fragments that cover a child's earliest and forgotten experiences and fantasies.

Self-Analysis: Freud conducted a long analysis of himself during the time he formulated the first psychoanalytic concepts. He believed much could be learned by analyzing oneself, however being analyzed by someone else was absolutely necessary due to the many resistances and blind spots that occur in the course of self-observation.

Sublimation: when the energy of unconscious (sexual/death) drives are channeled into socially acceptable activities. Civilization, Freud argues, is premised on this process. His favorite examples of sublimation are art and religion.

Superego: (das ├╝berich: the “over-I”) the largely unconscious part of the personality responsible for moral self-control -- roughly, the “conscience.”

Symptom: the visible sign of an invisible (because repressed or unconscious) anxiety. Symptom and cause never share a simple or obvious one-to-one relation, in fact symptoms usually have multiple causes.

Transference: in the process of analysis, a specific type of projection in which extra-analytical conflicts and relationships are re-experienced with the therapist, whose job is to interpret them back to the patient. Transference can also refer to any distortion of a present relationship because of unresolved (and mostly unconscious) issues left over from early relationships, especially with the parents in childhood. All distortion of the interaction between doctor and patient (or boss and worker, teacher and student, or any hierarchical relationship) by the needs and behaviors that were most meaningful in childhood are forms of transference.

The Uncanny: (das Unheimliche, literally, “un-home-ly”) an instance where something can be familiar yet foreign at the same time, resulting in a feeling of the uncomfortably strange. Because the uncanny is familiar, yet strange, it often creates cognitive dissonance within the experiencing subject due to the paradoxical nature of being both attracted to and repulsed by an object at the same time. Freud’s discussion of the concept centers on examples of doubling, repetition, seemingly meaningful patterns within coincidence, the experience of deja-vu, and the sometimes ambiguous boundary between life and death, especially in relation to artificial animation.

Unconscious: mental processes not accessible to consciousness by direct means, i.e., by turning our own attention to them. Their existence must thus be inferred through examination of their symptoms: the gaps and traces they in consciousness, dreams, and other activities.


A New Age

So an age ended, and its last deliverer died
In bed, grown idle and unhappy; they were safe:
The sudden shadow of a giant's enormous calf
Would fall no more at dusk across their lawns outside.

They slept in peace: in marshes here and there no doubt
A sterile dragon lingered to a natural death,
But in a year the spoor had vanished from the heath:
A kobold's knocking in the mountain petered out.

Only the sculptors and the poets were half sad,
And the pert retinue from the magician's house
Grumbled and went elsewhere. The vanished powers were glad

To be invisible and free; without remorse
Struck down the sons who strayed in their course,
And ravished the daughters, and drove the fathers mad.

---W. H. Auden

From its very beginning, psychoanalysis has given a privileged place to literature. In developing some of the foundational concepts of psychoanalysis, Freud drew on literary examples and readings; the Oedipus complex, narcissism, and the Uncanny, for example, not only reference literature in their terminology but grew out of Freud’s creative and insightful re-reading and interpretation of literary works. This is partly because, as Freud once wrote to a friend, “the poets were there before me,” and partly because Freud conceptualized psychoanalysis itself as a deeply narrative process. This course focuses on the relationship between literature and psychoanalysis. Instead of “applying” psychoanalysis to literature, we will consider the ways in which literature and psychoanalysis are involved with each other, discussing Freudian and post-Freudian psychoanalytic theories of language, narrative and reading.

Psychoanalysis is a “talking cure:” language and narrative are fundamental to its project. In his work, Freud conceived of the psyche itself as a kind of writing machine, an “author” that produces fictional narratives which structure the subject’s sense of self and his or her relation to the world. In this sense, psychoanalytic therapy involves the re-narratization of a person's life. And, as an interpretive practice, psychoanalysis is grounded in a rhetoric of suspicion: the idea that motives and meanings are often disguised by and work through other means.

In this course we will limit our investigation of psychoanalysis to the foundational work of Sigmund Freud and the post-Freudian theories of Jacques Lacan since they provide the most useful and provocative ideas for a discussion of language and narrative. We will begin with a quick overview of basic ideas in the work of Freud and Lacan as well as some related theories of language, meaning and reading. The course is organized around three groups of related ideas and readings: The Uncanny, Screen Memory, and the Family Romance.

While psychoanalysis can be understood as a theory of narrative, it can also be conceptualized as a pedagogic practice: broadly understood, the project of psychoanalysis is to teach the patient see the world differently. The analyst then, like a teacher, is interested in enlarging upon and countering previous interpretations of the world: most importantly challenging those assumptions which seem so “obvious” and “natural” as to be beyond question.

The Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci called these kind of beliefs and ideas, the cultural common sense: those largely unconscious assumptions about the way things are that have come to seem natural or eternal, rather than the products of a particular time and place. And though our apprehension of the world may seem immediate, it is in fact mediated: we understand “reality” only through the various narratives (interpretations) of it to which we have access. One of the goals of this course is to make those prior interpretations visible to students, to enable them see the taken-for-granted assumptions that shape not only their understanding of literature, but also the world.

Papers and assignments

The format of the course consists of reading, writing, class discussion and lectures. Students will complete three graded papers and occasional ungraded reading logs. The graded papers will be formal, typed, critical analysis papers where students present the results of their reading and thinking. The logs, however, provide a different, less formal space for students to work through the implications of their reading and class discussion.

The logs are a space where students can begin to critically reflect on their practices as readers, as students, and as human subjects. They provide a place to work through discussion and reading, and thus deepen your understanding of class work without having to worry about a polished format or a grade. Throughout the semester, I will occasionally assign a reading log based on the works we’ve been reading and discussing in class. I will give you a topic to write a short response on and the parameters of each log (length, due date) will be decided at that time.


The ability to simply reproduce “main ideas” is not the end goal of this class. Instead, the focus is on learning how to make use of ideas and concepts. That's why there are no conventional tests or quizzes in this class. That's also why regular participation in class discussion is a course requirement. Regular attendance is necessary to produce the classroom as a genuine public space marked by the active participation of all its members—not just the teacher.

The final grade is based on class participation, (15% of grade), in-class assignments and reading logs (35% of grade), and the three papers (50% of grade). More than 3 unexcused absences will result in failing the course. All assignments must be turned in to pass the course.

Email and Blog

At the top of this blog you will find my email. Use it to contact me outside of class, but do NOT email your papers or assignments unless you have made prior arrangements. The class blog should be thought of as one of the texts of the course and so reading it is a course requirement. You can also ask me questions directly on the blog by posting comments under specific blog posts. I will be posting further information or links to things of interest to the course, so check back regularly.


Academic and Classroom Policies

It is the official policy of the college that more than 3 unexcused absences results in an F for the course.

Plagiarism is a serious academic infraction. Turning in plagiarized work results not only in failing the course, but also in possible academic suspension.

Turn off all cell phones upon entering the classroom. The first time one rings, the student will be given a warning. The second time, the student will be dropped from the class.


(all material on the class blog should be considered one of the primary texts of the course)

"On Intelligibility" (posted on the blog)
"On Dreams" -- Sigmund Freud
"The Unconscious" -- Sigmund Freud
The Uncanny -- Sigmund Freud (purchase)
"Screen Memories" (in the Uncanny)
"Family Romances" (in the Uncanny)
"The Uncanny" (in the Uncanny)
"The Sandman," E. T. A. Hoffman
The Turn of the Screw -- Henry James (purchase)
"Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly," from Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque, Joyce Carol Oates
H -- Elizabeth Shepard (purchase)
Fun Home -- Alison Bechdel (purchase)

Course Calendar (always check the blog for updates to the calendar)


M 7 No Class Labor Day
T 8 (Class meets on a Monday schedule) Introduction and course overview
W 9 Introduction to Freud: background, basic concepts, theory of interpretation and the “split subject.”

M 14 No Class
W 16 Read and discuss "On Dreams." Freud as narrative theorist/reader

M 21 continue discussion, read and discuss "The Unconscious"
W 23 No Class

M 28 ----The Uncanny-----Read and discuss “The Uncanny,” and “The Sandman”
W 30 continue discussion


M 5 Continue discussion of "The Uncanny" and "The Sandman"
W 7 Continue discussion

M 12 Read and discuss The Turn of the Screw
W 14 continue discussion

M 19 continue discussion
W 21 continue discussion

M 26 continue discussion, "Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly"
W 28 continue discussion


M 2 -----Screen Memory----Read and discuss “Screen Memories,” and H. First Paper Due
W 4 continue discussion

M 9 continue discussion
T 10 (day classes meet on a Wednesday schedule) continue discussion
W 11 No Class

M 16 continue discussion
W 18 continue discussion

M 23 ----The Family Romance---- Read and discuss Fun Home, “Family Romances”
W 25 continue discussion  Second Paper Due

M 30 continue discussion


W 2 continue discussion

M 7 continue discussion
W 9 continue discussion

M 14 continue discussion
W 16 continue discussion

M 21 Last day of class -- Final Paper Due
T 22 Semester Ends