FRAGRANT THEORY: THE SWEET SCENT OF SIGNIFIERS
by Ros Minsky
Psychoanalysis in the academic world
In this paper I'd like to look at what has happened to psychoanalysis in the academic rather than clinical world. I'm thinking particularly of the psychoanalytic theory taught in arts and humanities departments on literary and cultural studies courses rather than those which are oriented towards psychology and the practice of psychotherapy. I want to suggest that although in recent years in academic circles, there has been an intense interest in the body and its cultural construction, the idea that our bodies and our early psycho-somatic experience might have any direct, rather than culturally mediated, effect on our identity and culture, is usually greeted with scepticism or even derision. In this culturalist climate such an idea has been regarded as essentialist and therefore unthinkable. In many university departments psychoanalysis has come to mean mainly Freudian theory and more specifically, Lacan's seductive 'development' of it. People who ally themselves with this linguistic version of psychoanalysis are, like Lacan, often unwilling to contemplate the possibility that bodies and biology have any role to play in the production of who we are. Women's biological capacity to have, feed and perhaps because of their bodily connection, emotionally nurture very young babies in a specially attentive way (what Winnicott calls primary maternal pre-occupation [Winnicott 1975: 302] ) is not considered likely to play any part in the formation of 'femininity' because this idea subverts the notion that gender completely crosses the boundaries of the body so that men can be as 'feminine' as many women and vice-versa. Even the significance of the fact that 'masculine' women can have babies but 'feminine' men cannot often seems to be played down in the interests of our maintaining a sense that we are entirely in control of who we are.
In some ways, the emphasis on culture and a deep suspicion of experience is understandable. Historically, essentialist theories and the idea of experience-based knowledge as the basis for certainty and absolute 'truth' have been and, in some quarters continue to be, used ideologically and oppressively to perpetuate existing power arrangements and prevent political change. At the mass level in the tabloid press, crass biologism and genetic determinism are widely used to explain a wide variety of social and psychical forms of injury. But some academics seem to have entrenched themselves firmly in a position where bodies, biology and personal experience as the basis of, for want of a better word, intuitive wisdom and a certain kind of 'truth' about how to live, have been invalidated. The focus of post-modernist theory generally, including that of the post-modernist theory of Lacan, has been on the cultural representation of experience. In Lacan's theory we speak ourselves into existence through the narratives we create, driven by the movement of our repressed desire for the mother (Lacan 1977a: 259). But although, in Lacan's theory we are connected to the personal, family world by our Oedipal desire, our early pre-Oedipal experiences of emotional intimacy with our mother or both our parents seem to be left out of the account. Experience outside the realm of language and representation is considered entirely delusory.
The sweet scent of control
Lacan's influential development of Freud's theory has been welcomed by many of those in universities because in his theory, the social/cultural world of language and culture has become fused with the personal, sexual world of the unconscious and the child's perception of actual bodies and sexual difference. In Lacan's theory, the penis has been transformed into the cultural sign of the phallus which Lacan conceives of as the blue-print for all the other cultural meanings also based on the idea of difference. By welding together Freud's theory of the unconscious and Saussure's linguistic theory of semiotics, Lacan makes human identity into nothing but an event in language. In fact, Lacan regards the forms of identity which lie outside language and signification, as 'identity' which he regards as false, and reserves the idea of 'subjectivity' for our identity in language, the best we can achieve. What is more, intriguingly, for Lacan, our continual but unfulfillable search for the ultimate 'truth' about ourselves and human existence in language and knowledge is driven by the surging energy of our repressed desire for the mother. In other words, language and knowledge are fuelled by the unconscious, by our unsatisfied, unfulfillable longing for completion and unity with the mother which we all have to give up. So, in Lacan's theory, not only has psychoanalytic theory been made irresistible to some because it is so theoretically coherent and clever, but it has also been made particularly fragrant by the sweet scent of structural lingustics and the possibility of achieving total control of who we are, which is also irresistible to some academics. In contrast, Freud's and Object-relations theory, which offer much less opportunity for control, looks, metaphorically, positively simple-minded and 'smelly'. They both confront us with a psycho-somatic view of gendered identities partly dependent on biology (Freud never rules out the possibility of some 'constitutional' factors) and, in the case of Object-relations theory, focus our attention on the milky, murky, confused, chaotic and, at times, anxiety ridden world of the pre-Oedipal baby and the need for the mother's physical and emotional containment. Freud's theory threaten us with the pain of our exclusion from our mother and father's sexuality, the price of our becoming fully human and, at its best, Object-relations theory threatens some of us with the uncertain horrors of such things as spontaneity, intuitiveness and notions of ways of knowing associated with personal experience and, for want of a better word, wisdom as well as rationality and desire. To some, Object-relations theory, in particular, looks potentially like a biological and psychical quagmire which alarmingly, in emphasising so many things lying outside culture, lies beyond our control.
The body and intuitive ways of knowing
A reluctance to recognise the possible influence of biology as well as culture on identity and the 'truth' of intuitive, empathic ways of being rules out most of the insights produced by Object-relations theorists like Klein and Winnicott and followers such as Bion, McDougall and Bollas as well as much of Freud's work. Crucially, these writers, unlike Lacan, see identity as a psychosomatic unity. If we don't feel 'real' in our bodies as well as our minds something is the matter. Unlike Lacan, Object-relations theory does not write off early experiences of becoming and relating, what Christopher Bollas calls the baby's personal 'grammar' or idiom of being (Bollas 1991: 36) as only narcissistic delusion. (Lacan says all pre-verbal identity outside culture in the realm of what he calls the Imaginary rather than the Symbolic, is self-reflecting and narcissistic (Lacan 1977a: 1-7). Object-relations approaches highlight and value the pre-Oedipal experience of relating to the mother or both parents and a special, personal way of being with the baby. They emphasise the importance of the intuitive, empathic, spontaneous dimensions of being, knowing and relating which are, ideally, part of the baby's earliest experience of 'good enough' mothering. They also suggest the possibility of achieving what they see as a vital degree of psychical integration without succumbing to the idea that we can achieve absolute wholeness, stability or perfection. (Most psychoanalytic theories recognises that the best we can achieve is a state of living with precariousness creatively). Rather they suggest that a relative degree of integration of both pre-Oedipal and Oedipal experience is both possible and desirable. The capacity to digest and process raw experience and use phantasy, initially as a primitive form of thinking, is considered valuable and vital to development.
The seductiveness of Lacan's theory
Let us look for a little longer at how Lacan's theoretically enticing theory works its magic over some of us. Like Freud, Lacan focuses on unconscious desire, sexuality, the Oedipal crisis, the symbolic father and identity. But he transposes these concepts developed by Freud from the personal, sexual realm of the family to the social realm of language and culture. In this way Lacan makes the long sought connection between sociology and the psychoanalysis, culture and the unconscious. The symbolic father intriguingly becomes the domain of language, no longer the actual father, so that it is language which now sets the boundaries, constrains our phantasies and coerces us into the 'reality' of its established meanings and categories. Lacan argues that the construction of these meanings which depend on difference, stem from our first discovery of sexual difference based on the presence of the phallus, the first sign of meaning based on difference that the small child encounters. The sign of the phallus is a kind of pilot boat signifier which leads us into all the other meanings in language also based on three crucial ideas. These are difference, first based on the sexual difference of 'masculinity' and 'femininity' and later the differences between one word and another, exclusion, first based on our exclusion from our parents sexual relationship and later in words where one meaning excludes others, and absence, first based on our loss of the mother and later the fact that we can refer in words to things in the external world which are absent. But the phallus, re-incarnated as the 'I' in language and all the narratives through which we speak our selves, Lacan reminds us, as well as standing in for male power also stands in for symbolically castrated male power because of the loss of the mother. Although little boys have the kind of body the mother desires they are still defeated by the father who keeps her. The phallus, however, represents mastery, as well as loss, the way we make ourselves feel psychically better about what has happened to us. After the losses of the Oedipal crisis, language picks us up and puts us on our feet, offering us the possibility at least, of the fullness we thought we could never have. However, in contrast with men, women, because they lack the culturally crucial phallic sign, can represent only the lack or absence of meaning and mastery, that is powerlessness, in culture. They enter culture disembodied and have to masquerade as women, that is represent men's phantasies of women, in order to support male desire. But by obtaining male lovers, women both substitute for desiring mothers and gain their own share in the phallus and male power. In this way Lacan's theory can be said to describe the deep structure of patriarchal ideology suggesting that our very thinking processes are gendered 'masculine' and eroticised by the truth-searching movement of desire.
Sexuality as language
Lacan's theory emphasises the unclosable gap between what we are and what we desire, the lack and 'want to be' that underpins us all which makes us human. He then links this to our drive towards language and knowledge in a continuous search for the unity and completion, what we wanted with our mothers. But at what a cost? In the moment we are seduced by Lacan's theoretical coherence and cleverness, at the same time that we succumb to the powerful embrace of his scented, sexualised and gendered signifiers, in that moment we lose touch with all the experiential sense of the meaning of ourselves, our bodies and culture. We lose our sense of the value of what we make emotionally of personal, lived experience and the wisdom or 'truth' it often produces beyond the realm of rationality and beyond even the satisfaction of the 'feminine' form of desire that Lacan describes as jouissance. This untranslateable french word suggests a form of sexual bliss which for Lacan, is unrelated to phallic forms of sexuality (Lacan 1975: 70-71). For Lacan, sexuality has nothing to do with real bodies. He sees heterosexuality and romantic love generally as the means of satisfying need rather than desire which can only be satisfied in language. (Lacan 1977a: 281-91). Sexuality for him is only to be found in language in the jouissance produced by the play of desire. This involves the freedom involved in symbolising unconscious desire in 'full' rather than 'empty' speech, in free-associating within the endless loops of meaning within language as we speak and write in imaginative, poetic writing which defies the constraints of rational language.
In Lacan's idea of the play of repressed sexual desire in language there is no sense of anything like Winnicott's psycho-somatic 'continuous sense of being alive'. Lacan's idea of the pleasures of jouissance seems very different from the intuitive, embodied playfulness characteristic of Winnicott's concept of the transitional space in which the capacity for artistic creativity and for creative cultural enjoyment take place. At first sight both Lacan's pleasurable symbolisation of repressed desire in language and Winnicott's intuitive negotiation of the relationship between phantasy and reality through play and artistic expression and enjoyment seem to be referring to similar states of being. The difference is perhaps, that Lacan's playful pleasure takes place in a world where bodies and bodily sexuality have been separated off and made much less important than words and language. In fact, for Lacan, heterosexuality has become a sad, misguided farce. The complicated meanings and pleasures of human sexual/emotional relationships have been de-valued and replaced by artistic or literary pleasures within the relative safety of texts. Even though Winnicott's theory focuses much more on relationships than desire, when we play in Winnicott's transitional space it does not entail the de-valuation and giving up on our embodied emotional and sexual relationships. The same is true of Klein's theory; in our creative use of cultural symbols in the depressive position where we also negotiate the gap between our phantasies and reality, our desire for oneness with the mother and our necessary separation, our sexuality in human relationships is not invalidated.
For Lacan, being a subject within the inter-subjectivity which language offers us, driven ever onwards towards an unachievable unity with the other, is the only valuable form of identity and knowing available to us. But, Lacan argues that even this is bogus because the status of the powerful meaning of the phallus is always subverted by the unconscious knowledge of symbolic castration (the father retains the mother, not the little boy). For Lacan, all earlier identities are delusory because they are still fused with the mother. Object-relations theory, however, suggests that these identities contain within them the vital ingredients for reaching a full-blown human identity in language, or not, if the mother's containment has not been 'good enough'.
Most psychoanalytic theories would agree that we can't regard any theory as over-archingly 'true' because words are always arbitrary substitutes for our early losses without any direct relationship to the reality they describe. Building on this idea, Lacan argues that since all meanings and knowledge are based on a phallus which has been symbolically castrated, this must always undermine their cultural power and make them bogus. At some level, it seems, we cannot avoid the idea that language and knowledge must always be illusory. It is therefore suprising that Lacan's post-modern theory is often taught rather as if it were the psychoanalytic equivalent to Einstein's theory of relativity outstripping but also, at some important level, incorporating Newton's mechanical ideas. Lacan's theory in no way encompassess the insights of other psychoanalytic theories; we could argue it either distorts them in the case of Freud's theory or, in the case of Object-relations theory, leaves them out altogether.
An eclectic approach
If we really want to see what light psychoanalysis can shed on the cultural issues which confront us, it seems necessary that we should try to use psychoanalytic ideas eclectically and make creative links between them, for example between some of Lacan's ideas about language and rationality as desire, a 'want to be' and the Object-relations view that our very entry into language and cultural identity depends on the quality of our earliest psycho-somatic experiences within what Christopher Bollas calls our first transformative relationship with the mother. It is here that we can find the basis for what Peter Lomas calls our wisdom, or intuitive sense of morality, meaning morality in the Greek sense of having a feeling based on experience, about the best way to live. (Lomas 1994: 10) As Bion and Bollas suggest, ideally, our early experience with our mothers is about the mothers capacity to contain the baby's earliest potentially overwhelming feelings of helplessness, anxiety, conflicting emotions and instinctual sensations. This means the baby is then able to emotionally contain and intuitively organise these for itself and take this primitive organising capacity, the psychical ingredients necessary for development, into the symbolic which offers new opportunities for unravelling experience. As such, pre-verbal experiences cannot be simply written off as delusions, what Lacan calls Imaginary, self-reflecting misrecognitions. They may be narcissistic in the sense that the baby's being is still fused with the mother but at the same time they contain a crucial potential for something else that has grown out of the texture of the intuitive, empathic maternal relationship.
The feminist writer, Julia Kristeva, has developed her own theory out of some of Lacan's ideas about language but she is critical of his exclusion of the pre-Oedipal mother's role in the construction of meaning and culture. But, although she emphasises the importance of the pre-Oedipal mother, she describes the baby's early experience mainly in terms of a pre-Oedipal patterning process made up of the play of oral and anal drives which eventually emerge in language as what she calls the semiotic, a symbolising force which both contributes to the rythmns and music of language but also continually challenges and disrupts its meanings and any identities based on it. However, although she is mainly interested in the early organising effects of infantile drives rather than emotional containment, she also warns that we should not forget that the child's love for the mother pre-exists its desire.
In his idea of the 'mirror stage' Lacan gives us the image of the mother holding the baby up to the mirror so that the baby suddenly takes itself to be coherent and whole, to be something that looks convincingly like a 'self' even though it still feels physically and psychically all over the place. But Lacan argues, the baby misrecognises itself because it is looking only at a reflection, an illusion of itself (Lacan 1977a: 1-7). This contradicts Winnicott's idea that the mother's crucial role is to mirror or reflect an identity back to the baby which it internalises as, ideally, a good object or self (Winnicott 1971: 111-18). It is the emotional quality of the mother's reflections or responses to the baby - the containment in her mind as well as her arms, gaze, utterances which gives the baby an authentic sense of itself as lovable, valuable, a pleasure to itself and others, or not. This is an experience which Object-relations theory argues is real, not delusory. It cannot be adequately summed up in the idea of narcissism. The mother or both parents give the baby a form of non-representational knowledge, an existential knowledge of 'being' which involves its capacity to relate to itself and others emotionally and spontaneously which it will take into language and all its future relationships. This is what Bollas calls the form rather than the content of the part of the unconscious which is a part of what he sees as our ego or identity which exists right from the beginining (Bollas 1991:7-10). Here, it seems, the unconscious represents both emotional intimacy with and desire for the mother.
So, unlike Lacan, Object-relations theory suggests that pre-Oedipal experiences potentially constitute some of the essential stuff of what we are; in fact, they make a significant and dramatic difference to whether we are 'ordinarily' precarious because of the repression of our unconscious Oedipal loss of the mother or much more seriously precarious because we refuse the reality of the loss of our mother to the father and lack the emotional, empathic repertoire that we need for a creative, relatively autonomous, integrated life which can draw on intuitive as well as theoretical insight.
Anxiety and the rejection of biology and experience
If practising psychotherapists and analysts can use Object-relations approaches eclectically and successfully, in combination with Freud's ideas, I wonder why it is difficult for some academics to use the same kind of eclectic approach in the knowledge that no theory is perfect - we are never going to get a perfect theory because we ourselves can never be perfect. This is surely at the core of post-modern views on theory. What then might be emotionally at stake in some academic circles, in the rejection of biological factors, bodily sexuality and personal experience, in the sense of personal wisdom as a source of a certain kind of 'truth'. Why do some academics even baulk at the possibility of a tangled web of biological, cultural and unconscious elements which produce at least three ways of knowing: intuitively knowing how to make sense of 'being', knowing how to represent the world rationally and the capacity to represent the world poetically or imaginatively through the play of desire?
I wonder if the answer may be that the crucial difference between psychotherapists and many academics who use psychoanalytic theory is that most psychotherapists have had psychoanalytic therapy as part of their training whereas many academics have not. This means that therapists are more likely to be psychically relatively comfortable with themselves, more able to work eclectically, to put theories in their place intuitively and more able to rely on their empathic experience of ordinary, spontaneous relating and living. They are therefore more likely to feel able sometimes to take some thoughtful risks without provoking too much anxiety in themselves as a result of doing so. For many academics, the concepts of identity and experience might be more emotionally troubling than subjectivity and language because they may refer more directly to what Bollas calls the unthought, unknown of early, unremembered experience. Certainly, eclectic psychoanalytic clinical practice considers the empathic, intuitive texture of the relationship between therapist and patient to be at least as important in the successful outcome as theoretical rigour and clever interpretation.
I wonder, therefore, if, in some academic circles, a retreat from the dimension of personal experience as a valuable source of wisdom or 'truth' to cultural representation and the denial of the basis for any kind of 'truth', and a retreat from the biological body and embodied forms of sexuality may be based on a high degree of anxiety and denial. This involves the fear of the return of painful feelings associated with Oedipal and very early pre-Oedipal experience and the need for theories which allow us to feel that we, and not uncontrollable forces such as biology, embodied Oedipal desires or early psycho-somatic experiences, are in control of our destiny and mortality. I want to suggest that the distaste for the idea that there may be some biological factors in the construction of identity, for the concept of identity rather than subjectivity, for the idea of desiring bodies as well as desiring words, and for the notion of personal, intuitive ways of knowing which are not adequately expressed in the idea of the free-play of desire, springs from anxiety and lingering omnipotent phantasies of control. If we acknowledge the possibility that our biology and our complicated personal, bodily as well as culturally mediated experience are both extremely likely to have some bearing on who we turn out to be, we cannot, at the same time, escape a confrontation with three major aspects of reality. These are the painful reality of sexual difference whether we turn the meaning of the penis into an empty, arbitrary signifier or not, the certainty that we shall die, that we are not omnipotent, and the disturbing resonances often provoked by pre-oedipal unthought and therefore consciously unknown experience.
Freud as well as Lacan, in different a way, tells us that intellectual activity can be a cultural substitution for the mother, a defensive form of mastery and control of painful Oedipal emotions and Object-relations approaches also suggest that rationality and theory may often be a flight from early painful experience, from what Winnicott calls a break in a our continous sense of 'going on being'. If the need for knowledge as a form of control inevitably involves unresolved phantasies of omnipotence associated with difficulty in making the transition from phantasy to reality, these omnipotent denials must surely further threaten the integrity and therefore value of any theoretical knowledge we may produce. However inherently precarious all theories might be because of their roots in unconscious loss, some degree of emotional integrity is surely a necessary component to knowledge which can comfortably engage with a range of crucial but different elements of reality. These are: biology that reminds us that we are going to die and that sexual difference exists, identity (rather than subjectivity) that reminds us that our parents sexual relationship excluded us and that we may have lacked a'good enough' mother with whom we could learn intuitive, empathic ways of being and knowing and, linked with this, early pre-Oedipal, unthought experience. Such reminders of certain aspects of reality may be so disturbing that they have forced some of us into a retreat into the reassuring arms of the particular theoretical perspectives and affiliations which can best protect us from this pain. From this point of view, the theoretical unity and coherence of Lacan's post-modernist theory, once we've overcome the difficulty of his writing, looks rather defensive and omnipotent. It seems to have split off everything which is unacceptable like experience and suffering and real bodies that makes it seriously rather than 'routinely' precarious, on to modernism and humanistic theory.
Freud and Lacan
If we take a distinctively Freudian approach to Lacan's ideas, then in Lacan's theory Freud's idea of human bodily sexuality, and what we make of it, has been radically disconnected from desire and relegated to what Lacan sees as the much more mundane level of the satisfaction of need. In this demotion of the status of what Freud described as the central 'primal scene', that is the sexual scene between our parents, the psychical impact of this idea and the painful recognition of it we all have to make to become fully human, can be defused. Lacan achieves this by substituting the potentially devastating reality of bodily sexuality with a linguistic 'reality' in which poetic language from which none are excluded, the linguistic rather than bodily celebration of our 'want to be', becomes not just the superior, but the only form of human sexuality. In what looks like Lacan's attack on the meaning of the primal scene, words and thinking replace rather than stand in for bodily sexuality and jouissance replaces orgasm. By placing all desire and the 'feminine' within language, we can have the mother to ourselves whenever we feel like poetically throwing over the constraints of rationality re-defined as the place of the father in Lacan's theory. The symbolisation of unconscious desire seems to have been replaced by an 'acting out' within language so that the free play of signifiers becomes the only form of sexuality. In his theory there is a strong sense of the narcissistic one-ness of the mother's body and identity in which the child is incorporated rather than the two-ness of the mother and child who have managed to separate. Even though Lacan makes the idea of the child's symbolic castration, the failure to split up the parents, conceptually so central, his theory seems unconsciously, to represent a refusal of the primal scene of the sexual relationship between the mother and father. The conversion of the actual penis as the bodily sign of sexual difference into the cultural sign of the phallus, with all that follows from this, even though this symbolises loss as well as power and mastery, has the unconscious flavour of a narcissistic or manic refusal of the reality of sexual difference and the symbolic castration this must mean to the child. From this Freudian perspective, Lacan's conceptual focus on the idea of the lack and symbolic castration looks like a powerful, unconscious reaction formation which conceals the attack on both these 'realities' which seems to lie at the heart of Lacan's theory, in the spaces between the words.
Lacan's post-modernist ideas, and developments of them (for example in the work of Cixous, Kristeva, Irigaray and Derrida), are fascinating and illuminating in many ways in that they make us challenge assumptions and suggest new ways of looking at aspects of identity, representation and culture. But theories can often be very interesting and illuminating on the way to being wrong or inadequate in important ways. If we look away from language conceived of as signifiers alone, ordinary language is permeated with metaphors drawn from bodily, conscious and unconscious experience. These continually span the space between the word and biology, language and the body. The concrete of ordinary, material living and bodily experience and perception has been turned into language in a wealth of expressions such as someone getting under our skin, elbowing us out, cold shouldering us, getting up our nose, making our ears burn, not putting a foot wrong, putting their foot in it, not being able to see beyond the end of their nose, getting it off their chest, having their fingers in every pie, chancing their arm, putting their shoulder to the wheel, having their back to the wall, having to knuckle under, putting their nose to the grindstone, making us sick. We see people as nosey, tongue in cheek, a pain in the neck, headstrong, skin deep, brass-necked, lippy, iron fisted, tight-fisted or tight arsed, all fingers and thumbs. All language and metaphor has its roots in perceptual and unconscious 'truth' and the experience of embodied living.
Despite its emphasis on the precariousness and lack of unity of all identity and knowledge, the seduction of Lacan's theory is that once we manage to understand it, it is parodoxically remarkably stable and coherent only, as I have suggested, because of what it excludes. It denies or subtracts a huge part of our experience from consideration, both bodily sexuality and the pre-Oedipal emotional intimacy associated with the mother. But all this is concealed in the apparent but illusory totality of Lacan's all-encompassing world of language and signification, what he makes into the linguistic place of the father. There are no loose ends in Lacan's theory because, as unpalatable Oedipal and pre-Oedipal psychosomatic experience, they have been projected elsewhere onto the 'other' of Object-relations theory. Only by doing this can Lacan's theory cut such a dashing figure in the theoretical arena.
Engaging with complexity
In the context of what has formed the subject of this paper, it seems a matter for concern that students in some university arts and humanities departments, may be largely unaware of certain areas of psychoanalytic theory because many of those teaching and writing about psychoanalysis for the purposes of analysing culture find Lacanian theory more psychically comfortable than specifically Freudian or Object-relations approaches. This is not a very good situation for many students who may not encounter psychoanalytic ideas again at close quarters. It cuts them off from the richness, diversity and complexity of psychoanalytic ideas and gives a distorted view of their potential, used eclectically, for the purposes of analysing ourselves and cultural phenomena. This is, of course, in combination with historical, social and cultural approaches. It may also put them off the idea of psychoanalytic therapy should they ever consider having it and encourages them to invalidate their own personal, intuitive knowledge or wisdom derived from their experience. Perhaps most importantly, by theoretically over-simplifying, which may sound an odd thing to say about Lacan's conceptually difficult work, it cuts them off fom the appreciation of the complexity of the factors which produce ourselves and human culture. Although Lacan is conceptually very coherent, complex and clever, by denying the validity, value and meaning of bodily sexuality and early psycho-somatic experience and identity usually associated with the mother, his work can be seen as lacking an important dimension of emotional and therefore theoretical integrity. Like the narcissistic patient, it lacks the aspect of complexity which hangs on a respect for personal embodied experience and intuitive ways of knowing as well as on rationality and the play of desire in language. We need to be able to cope with complexity and difference in theories as well as in other areas of life rather than denying them by creating them as 'others', in order to engage with the massive problems which confront us.
An exclusively culturalist view is often accompanied by the idea that theories must incorporate the possibility of change. Of course it is more comfortable to work with the political possibility that we can change oppressive meanings and systems but it is also dangerous if this blinds us to those things we may not be able to change and therefore prevents us from finding the most creative ways of preventing them being exploited oppressively. If we are tempted to use knowledge as a form of mastery and denial of painful emotion we may be prone to this way of thinking. It is highly likely that identity is neither exclusively culturally, unconsciously nor biologically determined but a complex and shifting product of all of these. In the context of the widespread popularity of Lacan's theory, it is as if for some people, the body and the unconscious need to be metaphorically shampooed and deodorised through the medium of modern linguistics before they can be theoretically handled without fear of contamination or emotional pain. In this metaphorical climate of fragrance and smells which I find difficult to resist in writing this paper, it is perhaps significant that smell is one of the most primitive senses. One of the main ways very young babies can differentiate between their mother and others is through their sense of smell. It is also interesting that sometimes patients in psychotherapy may begin to give off body odours when they become very anxious. We may not be able to speak our primitive anxieties but we can 'make a stink'. Signifiers, in offering us distance from potentially disturbing Oedipal and pre-Oedipal feelings, seem to offer the possibility of a cultural deodorant, keeping us 'sweet', 'good' objects for ourselves.
Faced with an infinitely complex world, it seems unwise to throw away anything that can be of use to us in addressing this complexity. We need to be able to allow ourselves eclectic access to a range of psychoanalytic insights, not only those which it could be argued, have been made conceptually fragrant to distance us from some of their meanings and make them acceptable to those of us who work in academic institutions who may, for our own unconscious reasons, prefer signifiers and abstract notions of desire to desiring bodies and a notion of knowledge,'truth' and morality derived from embodied personal experience.
copyright Ros Minsky November 1996
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Ros Minsky is a lecturer in the Department of Arts and Letters at Anglia Polytechnic University in Cambridge where she teaches psychoanalytic theory to a wide variety of arts and humanities under-graduate and post-graduate students. She has recently published a book 'Psychoanalysis and Gender' and is currently working on a book which explores the unconscious aspects of other areas of contemporary culture.
The Human Nature Review © Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM