Monday, June 13, 2011

They Were Sore A-Freud (UPDATE)

[O]n the whole Freud's science has held up just as well as Darwin's. They were both wrong about a number of things and a number of specifics, even a few significant things. But their major findings prevail. In Freud's case, his discovery of the modern notion of the unconscious. Of the activity of the unconscious in dreams. And, yes, the role of aggression in sex, by which he anticipated the discovery of testosterone among other factors. But most grandly that our need for and reception of affection and affirmation when we are children bear terrific weight on who we become sexually, relationally, socially and politically.

Freud compared the ego to a "man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse." For Hartmann and his followers, this image conveys an impression of man's power over nature, whereas Freud clearly intended it as a reminder of man's dependence on nature and of the precariousness of his mastery over natural forces - including his own capacity for destruction, which haunted everything Freud wrote after World War I.
Christopher Lasch, The Minimal Self, p.220.
The unconscious in Freud is therefore one into which something can only be pushed back. Or which at best, as id, surrounds consciousness as if this were a closed ring: a phylogenetic inheritance all around conscious man. 'With the help of the super-ego, the ego draws, in a way that is still obscure to us, on the experiences of prehistory stored up in the id.' The unconscious of psychoanalysis is therefore, as we can see, never a Not-Yet-Conscious, an element of progressions; it consists rather of regressions. Accordingly, even the process of making this unconscious conscious only calrifies What Has Been; i.e., there is nothing new in the Freudian unconscious.
Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, p.56
Just as Kant warned us not to overlook the fact that our perception is subjectively conditioned and must not be regarded as identical with the phenomena perceived but never really discerned, so psycho-analysis bids us not to set conscious perception in the place of the unconscious mental process which is its object. The mental, like the physical, is not necessarily in reality just what it appear to us to be.
Sigmund Freud, "The Unconscious", 1915
Blogs are an interesting medium. By and large, they allow someone who is willing to invest the time, the ability to say one, perhaps two, things with relative succinctness. Anything more, however, risks losing readers, starting yawn-fests, or, worst of all, hurrying through where a bit of time and care - and space - is warranted. An early influence on my own developing style was Arthur Silber, who wrote long, impassioned posts and had, at one time, quite a following among other blog writers whom I held in high regard. Through him and Glenn Greenwald, I discovered it is possible to write intelligent, thought-provoking posts in a medium that is dominated by inheritors of ad copy writing.

All the same, making a clear point on a subject as fraught as one's attitude toward as important a person as Sigmund Freud is difficult in any medium. Doing it on a blog post? Wish me luck.

I would be the last to dispute the seminal importance of Sigmund Freud on everything from how we understand ourselves to how we understand society. Along with Marx and Nietzsche - the latter with whom he shares much in common - he forms a triumvirate of 19th century thinkers who, in a sense, created the template for much of the intellectual life of the first half of the 20th century. Just as all theology is said to be commentary on St. Augustine, so much psychological and social thought ought to be considered commentary on these three men.

Yet, few people read Freud anymore. There are certainly Freudians, just as there are Marxists. The bulk of his work, however, seems to remain the province of specialists. I was fortunate, therefore, that the seminary bookstore where I worked had the five volume "Collected Papers" in English translation, published by Basic Books as parts of The International Psycho-Analytical Library. The papers are shorter works - journal articles, case histories, some prefatory work on a discarded longer work on what Freud called "metapsychology", and occasional writings for popular audiences. Since no one had purchased the set, it went on our discount rack when we were revamping the store, and I got all five volumes in a "Bag Sale", where all the books from the discount rack one could put in a Cokesbury shopping bag were $20. Considering each volume originally retailed at $50, that was, to put it lightly, a deal.

To say that Freud is a necessary person through whom anyone serious about understanding human beings and society must work is only the first sentence. The second sentence, of course, is to recognize that so much of his work has been revised - often by Freud himself as he changed his mind - criticized, altered in emphasis (sometimes by students, such as Adler and Jung), and quite simply superseded. Not least of this last is the change in neuropsychology wrought by revolutionary technologies. In his 1915 article, "The Unconscious", Freud explicitly writes that he is neither competent nor interested in writing about the physiological roots of his subject. While granting that brain pride of place as the seat of what he called consciousness, as well as the preconscious and the unconscious, his was a systematic work on the operations of the human mind, rather than an investigation into the physical etiology of brain function, because, as he rightly notes, the relationship between brain function and various psychological processes was unknown.
[I]t is clear that the question - whether the latent states of mental life, whose existence is undeniable, are to be conceived of as unconscious mental states or as physical ones - threatens to resolve itself into a war of words. We shall therefore be better advides to give prominence to what we know with certainty of the nature of the debatable states. Now, as far as their physical characteristics are concerned, they are totally inaccessible to us: no physiological conception nor chemical process can give us any notion of their nature. ("The Unconscious", 1915)
The past couple decades alone, however, has brought a revolution in the technology by which we can understand the physiological roots of what we consider "consciousness" or "mind" without ever believing we have bridged the gap between these physical conditions and their reality as mental states. Just an example, which I recorded here, from Daniel Levitin's This Is Your Brain On Music, p.191:
Listening to music caused a cascade of brain regions to become activated in a particular order: first, auditory cortex for initial processing of the components of the sound. Then the frontal regions, such as BA44 and BA47, that we had previously identified as being involved in processing musical structure and expectations. Finally, a network of regions - the mesolimbic system - involved in arousal, pleasure, and the transmission of opioids and the production of dopamine, culminating in activation in the nucleus accumbens. And the cerebellum and basal ganglia were active throughout, presumably supporting the processing of rhythm and meter. The rewarding and reinforcing aspects of listening to music seem, then, to be mediated by increasing dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens, and by the cerebellum's cotribution to regulating emotion through its connections to the frontal lobe and the limbic system. Current neuropsychological theories associate positive mood and affect with increased dopamine levels, one the reasons that many of the newer antidepressants act on the dopaminergic system. Music is clearly a means for improving people's moods. Now we think we know why.
Another example, more directly related to researches in the connection between subjects near and dear to the heart of Freud - sex and aggression - is this from Scientific American:
To understand which other areas might be implicated in violent behavior, Lin and Anderson's team exposed male mice to consecutive encounters with other intruding male and female mice. They then examined the brain areas activated by the encounters by labeling brain cells with a fluorescent tag that can distinguish recently active neurons. Surprisingly, neurons within a region called the ventromedial hypothalamus (VMH) snapped into action during fights--but also during sex.

Perplexed, the team implanted male mice with electrodes capable of measuring single cells in this area of the brain and watched what happened when mice fought or mated. Most of the neurons fired specifically during sex or bouts of violence, but a handful fired during both of these seemingly opposing behaviors.
Does this mean we no longer need look at the specifics of an individual's history in order to understand how and why a person acts in such-and-such a way? Actually, it is just to note that the ability to investigate brain activity is becoming more and more refined, including the ability of researchers to investigate how the brain functions during activities that were once the province of psychologists investigating what Freud called, variously, the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious (as systems, rather than any actual "thing"), or, later, the id, the superego, and the ego.

As to "discovering" the unconscious, it is far better to say that Freud created the unconscious. Like Kant's ding-an-sich - to which he refers specifically - the unconscious is a marvelous invention, allowing Freud to say all sorts of things about human behavior, including abnormal behavior, without actually saying anything instructive. His argument is a kind of via negativa. Reading the article "The Unconscious", one finds that, in essence, his argument seems to be that the unconscious has to exist because evidence from clinical studies suggest that human beings act on impulses, or display some other affect, without being able to identify the source of these acts. Sometimes, the subject may not even be aware he or she is displaying a particular affect.

In other words, Freud offered the unconscious as a space on the human mental map that could be labeled, not without reason, "Here There Be Monsters."

As an explanatory tool, however, the unconscious leaves much to be desired. Like phlogiston or the luminiferous ether, or dark matter and energy, it is a way of explaining that for which current scientific theories are incapable, without offering a serious, detailed definition or understanding of what, exactly, we are talking about. It is useful, to be sure, but hardly illuminating.

Furthermore, a reading of even a few of Freud's case histories reveals an interesting (to me at any rate) innate belief that Freud understood what his patients were thinking far more than they themselves did, or even could. In "Contributions to the Psychology of Love: A Special Type of Choice of Object made by Men" (1910), Freud sets out to explain two seemingly unrelated phenomena - the attraction some men seem to have for, on the one hand women already involved in relationships with other men, and men whose preference is for women best described as "of loose morals" - as related, in the end, to the relationship between the men in question and their mothers. While certainly not doubting that an individual's relationship with his mother is important for understanding how he may relate to women in the future, these two phenomena may well have other explanations, not the least of them being, on the one hand, being a cad, and on the other simply preferring women of questionable reputations for a variety of factors unrelated to whether or not she is freer with her sexual favors than what is considered the norm.

Furthermore, as the emphasis upon primal relationships - with one's parents; with primal sexual fantasies as well as instances of precocious sexual behavior - indicates, throughout Freud's writings, either in case histories or more general writings, he approaches these subjects with a thick cover of moral presuppositions that beg as many questions as they answer. Freud sees sexual dysfunction in adult masturbation, in anal eroticism, in a variety of sexual activity that one would be hard pressed, today, to consider outside any "norm" of sexual activity. All of which begs many questions, not the least of them being the goal of psychoanalysis in seeking to bring to consciousness all these unconscious drives rooted in behaviors and experiences an individual would seek to suppress.

Here, for me, there is an irony. In the course of comments below, I am accused of being "ameliorative" - in what way, I can't precisely understand in the context of the comment - when it is precisely Freud whose entire goal was ameliorative. While insisting that much of the causes of psychological disturbance was rooted in primal relationships and the sexualization of these relationships, it is clear he never once questions the moral approbation attached to most sexual acts outside intercourse between a man and a woman. Along with a kind of assumption of a moral code that, by and large, would be difficult to defend today, there is the goal of psychoanalysis as one of making subjects less uncomfortable within the broader confines of bourgeois society - including bourgeois sexual morality - without ever calling the assumptions of that society in to question.

The Marxist critique of Freud - for example, throughout his revery on human psychology, The Principle of Hope, Ernst Bloch refers to Freud as "the bourgeois Freud", just as he refers to Carl Jung as "the fascist Jung" - I find far more compelling than many others. Rather than draw attention to what was, in essence, a struggle between an individual's desires and the censoring mechanisms that he later termed "the superego", an individualized expression of the moral code of what is and is not acceptable, Freud assumed the goal of psychoanalysis was not overthrowing this mechanism of control - however it functioned, whatever its name and source - but rather overcoming it in specific instances, bringing awareness of its function in order to realign it. The whole purpose of psychoanalysis is not "curing", or even "making aware". Rather, it is, according to these critics, accommodating the individual to the needs of capitalist society, including the moral codes it deems necessary.

To repeat: None of this is to dismiss Freud, or to say that others should either take him lightly (if at all). A banal, but important, point is that, writing a hundred and more years ago, much of Freud has been supplanted by later developments, a greater understanding of the interplay between the individual and society, as well as better techniques for investigating the relationship between the human brain and psychological states. These latter we should take seriously, for Freud was not, by his own lights, a philosopher, but a scientist, and one should always be aware when scientific revolutions change the very nature of the subject under study. Even so, it is important to go through Freud in order to get where we are now.

I know this is too long already, but one final note - on the comparison of how Freud "holds up", using Darwin as a canon. The reality is the theory of evolution is far different from that proposed in 1859's The Origin of Species (another one of those books everyone talks about but too few read). As Ernst Mayr makes clear in two volumes, Toward a New Philosophy of Biology, and The Growth of Biological Thought, only after Mendelian genetics was integrated in to the theory of evolution in the years immediately following the Second World War did the contradictory theories of genetics (whose biochemical roots were still under investigation at the time) and evolution by natural selection become possible. Key to this was making clear that evolution occurs both at the individual level - variation - and at the level of populations - population genetics. Understanding the interactions between them is necessary, a point Darwin could not have made because he did not have Mendel's original work (not having been done yet). To say that Darwin's theory, or Freud's, has held up well, is a bit like saying that Newton's physics has held up well.

UPDATE: As if this weren't too long . . .

I downloaded and am reading the article referred to here. It's 55 pages long, dense, complex, and interesting. One point relevant, however, to this discussion, is the authors' description of what they call "inference." Specifically, they describe the process of "unconscious", yet note further down that, in fact, the process of inference has been mapped in the brain by cognitive science. In other words, it isn't "unconscious" in any sense Freud has or would understand. Rather, the word here means "a physical process identifiable within the brain that is not under voluntary control, as in the case of argumentative reasoning." Since "the unconscious" in Freud bears no relation to any physical location within the human body, let alone the brain, as he specifically states, using the word "unconscious" to describe a specifically located physical process within the human anatomy redefines the term beyond (original) recognition.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More