Literary Theory

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SLMtitle.png Literary Theory:

Freud, Lacan, and the Unconscious

Chapter Outline

1. A brief introduction to Freud
2. Freud's Work
2.a The scope of psychoanalysis
2.b Modelling the human psyche
2.c Important ideas in Freudian theory
3. Freudian criticism in practice
4. The Structuralist movement
5. Post-Freud - Jacques Lacan : A Brief Introduction
6. Structuralist Concepts
6.a The signifier and the signified
7. Language and the unconscious
8. Language and the subject
9. Summing Up

SLMinto.png Introduction

The importance of the ‘unconscious’ in psychoanalytic theories is so obvious that it would hardly need to be mentioned. We are nowadays so over-familiar with the idea of the ‘unconscious’ that we do not even question how the idea came to be accepted. But as we look back to the work of Sigmund Freud and then to the work of Jacques Lacan, we begin to recover the newness of the discovery. Also, as we shall see here, both of them had different conceptions of what the unconscious is. By asking on our own, what and where is the unconscious, we can grasp the extent of the field which the two thinkers were able to clear out with the help of just this concept.

SLMobj.png Learning Objectives
After reading this chapter, you are expected to learn about:

  • discuss the Freudian concept of the 'unconscious'
  • make a brief comparison of Freud's conception of the human psyche with Lacan's
  • show how Lacan connects language with the 'unconscious'

A Brief Introduction to Freud

The ideas of Sigmund Freud have become so familiar to us that, in the words of the famous twentieth-century poet, W.H.Auden, he is "a whole climate of opinion" rather than just a person. Freud was a German Jew who lived and worked in Vienna for most of his life but eventually died in London in 1939 after being exiled by the Nazis. Long before Freud the idea of the "unconscious" had occurred to many thinkers, as among some of the Romantics, for instance. Psychoanalysis takes its modern shape after the work of Freud who developed his ideas through the course of his medical studies and, even more, in association with Josef Breuer, a physician. Freud's work extended over more than one area: he helped to project the 'unconscious' as an "otherness", he showed the importance of dreams and of infantile sexuality, highlighted the importance of repression in individuals, and also brought out the power of the human 'drives'.

Freudian ideas enter into literary criticism with the central notion of the 'unconscious'. Literary critics have since long explored the psychological aspects of literature, from the question of the author's intentions to the effects of any literary text on a reader or of a dramatic performance, or recitation, on an audience. Where the idea crops up that the 'unconscious' is a basic feature of our psyche, the general notion that our 'rational' choices are based upon reason, tends to be disrupted. For the literary critic, this challenges simple notions like the author's intention or the Aristotelian proposition that the effects of drama are based on rational principles. .

Freud's Work

One way of understanding the importance of Freud's work is to first note his training in the medical and the biological sciences, and in neurology in particular. Freud was also bred in the humanist tradition of the classics, German Romantic poetry, German intellectual traditions, Shakespeare, and in the thought of the modern German thinkers like Goethe, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Schiller. Against this background, and with his post-Enlightenment propensity towards scientific principles, Freud's hope was to establish the analysis of mental processes on firmly scientific laws. When he first turned to the study of nervous diseases in the 1880s, he began to build upon his conviction that neuroses originate in the psyche rather than in physiology. In Studies on Hysteria which he published jointly with Josef Breuer in 1895, the stress was on the emotional life of the patient.

Freud's work on questions of language and interpretation such as The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901) and Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1905) were of special interest to Jacques Lacan since he sought to probe the question that if in psychoanalysis we talk about the unconscious, we actually are talking about something that is beyond language itself.

SLMsaq.gif Self-Assessment Questions (SAQs) -1
1. Did thinkers earlier than Freud think of unconscious thoughts as a hidden store of secret dreams ? How did the Romantic writers think of such a secret, inner recess of the human personality?

2. If Freud brought forth the idea that the 'unconscious' is a kind of 'otherness', what does it mean? How does it make the secret, inner recess look different ?

The scope of Psychoanalysis

What is the object of study in psychoanalysis?

  • the human psyche (motivations behind our actions, the different stages in our mental development)
  • origins of neuroses
  • dreams and their relations with the 'unconscious'
  • repression, and the relation with the unconscious
  • the nature of the sexual function
  • human 'drives' and the instincts
  • the therapeutic ends of psychoanalysis

This list is meant to give you just a brief idea of what psychoanalytic studies include. You may be able to find some more topics and sub-topics on your own.

Modelling the Human Psyche

Modelling the human psyche You may be familiar in your own culture with traditional conceptions of how the human personality is structured. What are the general explanations of how people think and feel ? If you take up terms like "sanguine", or "choleric", you recall the ancient idea that the human personality is made up of the elements of air, fire, earth, and bile. (Find out the old usage of the word "Humour".)

How does Freud think of the human personality ? Does he think of it as a composite unit with an unconscious core and a conscious surface ? My question here is rhetorical because he actually conceives of the human psyche differently. You should note some important points: human beings are complex, they have diverse experiences and desires, there are different modes of expression in society, the body is closely linked with the brain and the nervous system, and so on. Freudian theory systematically explores all these different aspects of human existence.

Through the years Freud developed more than one model of the psyche. We should see that as he obtained more and more insights through experience and study, he had to keep refining his initial models. It is the 'topographical-structural' model (as critics term it) that has become the most familiar. In this model - at first- the 'unconscious' is made up of things not available to consciousness. These things cannot be made available to consciousness as an act of the will. One way of getting to these things is through dream-analysis and free association. Again, the Unconscious, in this model, has its own laws: it does not respect the constraints of time or of contradictions. It is a chaotic realm of images, forces and energies mixed up together. There is a strict border between the Unconscious and the Pre-conscious. Between the Pre-conscious and the Conscious realm, the border-line is thought to be more permeable.

Combining this topographical model with the 'structural' one, Freud advanced the three-part structure of the Id/-Ego/-Super-Ego. (This happened around the 1920s.) Here, however, the Unconscious is not a noun (a thing or realm) but a quality (an adjective). In this model the Unconscious is no longer a system. The Ego takes care of 'defence mechanisms' directing aggression either towards the world outside or towards the self in accordance with the situation.

A curious paradox that comes up in Freudian theory is that the unconscious can be known only through anxieties and phobias. Being without grammar or the laws of syntax, it cannot be expressed in language. Its effects can be detected only in dreams and jokes, through artistic creations, and through slips of the tongue. The unconscious is detectable when the conscious mind is not alert and does not effectively repress unwanted wishes which then push their way up to the conscious surface.

Important Ideas in Freudian theory

The Id: the realm containing repressed materials and representations of drives. The Ego: mediator between the outside and the inside. The Super-Ego: site of values, ideals, moral judgments.

The mind as developing : the Oedipus complex (Freud used this idea to explain how human beings develop individual subjectivity. This is the stage that occurs when the child is very young. In this stage, the child experiences incestuous desire for the parent. The boy-child desires the mother but sees the father as a threat. The stage is seen by Freud as universal and a necessary step towards growth of personality. After this stage the child develops an independent sense of itself.) Infantile sexuality: Freud theorised that very young infants are bisexual and are therefore autoerotic.Based on his findings, he argued that the sexual function in an individual is the result of a process of sexual development going back into early childhood. The instincts and the drives: the distinction proposed between the instincts and the 'drives' was explained by the argument that whereas an instinct can be met with satisfaction, a 'drive' exerts constant pressure on consciousness. Dreams: the interpretation of dreams was considered to be important by virtue of the fact that dreams provide vital clues to the subject's unconscious

Freudian criticism in practice

Freud himself took recourse to literary texts to illustrate his hypotheses. For instance, he took the examples of the play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, and Shakespeare's Hamlet, to explain the laws of mental life. What he saw in Oedipus was a "universal law", that is, a law of the human psyche. Hamlet's tragedy, he thought, was determined by the Oedipus complex (but later he revised this interpretation). Freud also made a psychological analysis of Leonardo da Vinci's painting "The Madonna and Child with St.Anne". The principle followed by Freud was that a picture of the artist's mental constitution can be assembled by putting together elements from his life and the works. On the subject of art and artistic creativity, Freud's thoughts are elaborated in two interesting papers, "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming" (1907) and "Dostoevsky and Parricide" (1928). In the first of these, Freud gives an extended explanation of the human tendency to phantasize and its relation to the creative 'play' of the artist.

Freud's references to literary texts to support his hypotheses is in keeping with his awareness of the shifting foundations of language. His literary references reveal the notion that the literal meaning of words is not the same as its deeper one which ultimately can be traced back to hidden motivations.

Freud's biographer, Ernest Jones, made use of Freudian psychoanalysis in his book, Hamlet and Oedipus (1948). Critics such as Otto Rank, Ella Freeman Sharpe, and Marie Bonaparte, continued with Freudian psychoanalysis. Other critics like I.A.Richards, William Empson, Edmund Wilson, Kenneth Burke, and Lionel Trilling, though not Freudians, drew upon psychoanalysis in their commentaries on literary texts. Harold Bloom takes the idea of the Oedipus complex to explain the 'anxiety' of literary influence. Novelists like James Joyce and William Faulkner have used Freudian ideas in their depiction of characters in their novels. We can recognise the use of Freudian ideas in studies like Marie Bonaparte's who explains Edgar's Allan Poe's creative work by seeing it as resulting from the loss of his mother that he suffered in childhood.

Psychoanalysis also makes its presence felt in modern literary theory. The reading process has been analysed by critics like Simon Lesser and Norman Holland with the help of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis has also been invoked (with some modifications) by feminist critics like Juliet Mitchell and Julia Kristeva. Some Frankfurt School thinkers like Herbert Marcuse have also made use of Freudian concepts in analysing ideology and mass culture.

The Structuralist movement

Here we turn to take stock of what was happening elsewhere in the literary-critical world. We have already seen in brief what the Freudian movement was doing to the conception of the human psyche. You must have noticed by now that gradually the human mind was being seen as sometimes being at odds with itself. It has been summarized elsewhere that none could any longer think in the same terms as Descartes, the Rationalist philosopher, had done: "I think, therefore, I am." With Freudian psychoanalysis it was becoming evident that our thoughts may not lie in the realm of reason but somewhere in the remote emotional past of childhood! It may even be that the "I" is uttered by any of the three - the id, the ego, or the superego – an idea behind Lacan’s separation of the subject and the ego.

What was happening to the concept of 'literature' and 'language' meanwhile ? At the beginning of the 20th century were the New Critics on both sides of the Atlantic who emphasised the aesthetic dimensions of literary works even to the exclusion of historical aspects. The Russian Formalists, on the other hand, focused on artistic techniques and form and distinguished between poetic and ordinary language. In both these approaches you can see that the artist or the writer is beginning to get a diminished role because if art or literature is independent of history or biography, the writer's psychology cannot be the prime mover of the work of art.

Meanwhile, in other fields like philosophy, there had emerged the idea that language has its own special importance in our perception of and in our construction of reality. In branches of philosophy like phenomenology, it was asserted that language is not the vehicle of meaning. With German idealism came the idea that language and the world did not correspond to each other. We can see traces of such ideas among those of the founder of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 - 1913). Saussure opposed the older idea that language is a naming-process, and that a word has a correspondence with the thing it names. Saussure proposed that a word unites a concept (a signified) and a sound-image (signifier), against the idea that a word unites a thing and a name. Also, he held that the linkage between signifier and signified is arbitrary. This amounts to saying that this linkage is not natural or intrinsic but is imposed through social convention. Meaning, thus, is founded on convention or rules.

How does this give us structuralism ? Before Saussure, it was normal to study language historically and to observe the changes that occurred over time. Language was seen as being composed of separate, discrete units, - words - which had their own meanings. Saussure understood that such a perception of language would not lead to its scientific study. He saw language as a system, a structure that can be taken at any given point of time and thus studied in its totality. From this point of view, language is not simply a system of names for things which exist outside it. It is a system of signifiers arbitrarily related and different from each other. Thus it is pointless to talk of a reality existing independently of language because the relationships are extremely important.The 'structure', so to speak, determines the meaning of a signifier.

How did other thinkers and critics take up this idea ? They extended this concept to other fields of study and spoke of signifying systems. Claude Lévi-Strauss extended this idea to the understanding of myth: a myth makes meaning when its relation to the other myths in the cycle is clarified. A single tale (parole) has a meaning only when its position to other related tales in a cycle (langue) becomes clear. The story of Oedipus makes its meaning clear when its position in the cycle of stories about the city of Thebes is elicited. A similar extension of the concept of structure applies to works of literature whose meanings become clearer when seen against works in the same genre or the corpus of works of the author. In both such cases, it is the signifying system (the langue) that lends the single instance (parole) its meaning. In this sense, fashion, too, can be seen as a signifying system.

A Few Structuralist Concepts

From a scientific point of view it was necessary to discover the elements and rules of language which are simultaneously available to the user. Thus it was essential to view language 'synchronically', and not 'diachronically'. Language consists, then, of signs which cannot refer to phenomena in the external world because this would mean that words have an organic relationship with the objects they represent. What words actually refer to are concepts of things. So if the word 'tree' makes us all think of trees, it means that we are all thinking about different trees. So it is actually the concept of a tree that the word refers to. The linguistic sign thus consists of the signifier (the sound pattern or the written word) and the signified (the concept). Meaning, according to Saussure, emerges from the relationship between the signs in the language system itself. Saussure's point can be understood via the example he used to show that there are no fixed meanings in language but only relations: the 8.25 Geneva to Paris express 'train' does not stand for a fixed material object since it is not the same engine or same carriages, driver or passengers, that run every day. It may even be late, and on exceptional occasions, even consist of other kinds of vehicles. For instance, if there is a break in the rail-lines due to repair-work, then the passengers will be transported by bus. Why, then, is it that this train has its particular identity ? Because it is not the 7.25 'express' or the 9.25 'express train'. Its 'meaning' is therefore relational.

Saussure's conception of language showed that it is arbitrary, and relational, and thus providing a model of a system in which it is the relationships among individual units that constitute the larger structures. Moreover, Saussure used the term 'langue' and 'parole' to point to the system or structure on the one hand, and a specific utterance in the language, on the other, respectively. That is to say, the 'parole' can be understood only if all the rules and conventions governing the 'langue' are already in the possession of the listener (or speaker).

The signifier and the signified

The meaning of a sign does not lie within itself but arises from the relationship it has with other signs in the language system. As language is a system of differences, the meaning of a sign is created by its difference from other signs. Meaning also comes from our selection of the terms we use in addition to the fact that we combine them with other terms prescribed by rules and conventions. The selection of the terms -- such as “bus” and not “train” – is done on the basis of the paradigmatic axis. The combination of terms with other terms, according to prescribed rules of syntax, etc., is on the basis of the syntagmatic axis. Any specific sign thus is not defined by an intrinsic meaning or intrinsic value but on the basis of its relative position within the specific system of signification. Added to this, its meaning arises from the fact that it is different from the other signs of that system. Language, therefore, is a complex network of signs different from but related to each other. We can even see therefore that any signifier does not point to an object in the material world but refers to another sign which again, refers to yet another sign in its turn.

An example may be found in the case of a dictionary. If we look up a term in a dictionary we will be referred to yet another term to know whose meaning we will move on to yet another term and so on. As the process continues, we do not arrive at an actual referent in the real world but get involved in an endless process of signification. The dictionary is, in this sense, a vast repository of terms.

Post-Freud - Jacques Lacan: A Brief Introduction

Jacques Lacan uses the terminology and the ideas of Saussurean linguistics and structuralism to re-read Freud's account of the unconscious. Lacan uses the terminology of linguistics to reformulate Freudian concepts like the Oedipus complex and the unconscious. Lacan was so highly individualistic that his personal relationships and his career were both marked by stormy episodes and phases. He participated in a most memorable conference in 1966 at Johns Hopkins University, a conference also attended by Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Louis Althusser, and other eminent French thinkers and theorists. He published the collection of his essays and articles as Écrits in 1966 thus establishing his reputation.

Lacan's theory of language and the unconscious are to be found in his essay, "The Agency/Insistence of the Letter in the Unconscious". Lacan views the formation of the unconscious differently from Freud. A most famous concept that he desctibes is that of the "mirror-stage" through which the human being passes between the ages of 6 to 18 months. In the pre-Oedipal phase, the child exists in the 'imaginary order' in which the child is unable to distinguish itself as separate from the mother's body or to see itself as separate from other objects around it. This phase is one of unity (unity of child with surroundings) and plenitude, and images. Around this time comes the 'mirror-stage' which takes the child to the 'symbolic' phase.

The 'mirror-stage' is when the child perceives its own mirror-image, the reflection of itself and its environment. A sense of identification, as well as a sense of alienation sets in. What is the 'symbolic order' that the child now enters ? It is the world of language, of symbols, of differences and categories, of its place in the universe. The child enters this phase through language. It now learns that it must refer to itself as "I". The symbolic order is that order into which we have to enter and thus become fully 'human'. We cannot escape it. It is the order of language and it escapes our grasp because it marks the limits of our human universe.

SLMsaq.gif Self-Assessment Questions (SAQs) -2
1. Compare Freud's account of how a human being grows to self-awareness with that of Lacan's.

2. What are the prominent differences between the two accounts?

3. To what extent would Lacan's stress on language have been the result of the influence of structuralism ?

Language and the unconscious

It would be useful to see just how Lacan relates language with the unconscious. In the article named above ("The Agency of the Letter"), Lacan says that "the whole structure of language" can be discovered in the unconscious through psychoanalysis. He disagrees with the idea that the unconscious is the site - purely - of instinct and desire. He talks of the 'letter' as the "material support that concrete discourse borrows from language". (You will find this puzzling - a quality that seems to specially characterize Lacan ! The experience of reading Lacan can be one of excruciating difficulty. In this particular essay he asserts the point that he does not wish to make it easy for the reader !) Possibly, one way of understanding the concept of the 'letter' is to view it in concrete terms, as a shape visible to the eye, and therefore culturally determined.

To understand just how closely Lacan relates the unconscious to language, we can refer to his famous statement, "the unconscious is structured like a language". For Lacan the unconscious is determined by the rules of the signifier since the signifier has primacy over the signified. Here we have to turn to the work of the anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, who borrowed from Saussure the idea of ‘structure’. For Saussure the two halves of the sign (signified over signifier) were indivisible. But Lévi-Strauss recognised that the symbolic is autonomous and this is what Lacan uses to assert that the sign is not indivisible. He gives a famous example to establish the primacy of the signifier : two identical doors at a railway station are distinguished from each other only by virtue of the labels above them, “Ladies” and “Gentlemen”. The meaning of each door is thus decided by the signifier and not the signified. For Lacan, the signfier stands above the signified separated by a ‘bar’.

The signifier, as a part of language, is the mechansim which translates sensory images into structure. Since we can only know through speech and language the nature of the unconscious, similar relationships as characterize forms of language also characterize the relationships between unconscious elements. The unconscious thus has its own structure and it constitutes itself like a language. It is like language. It speaks through us rather than through the language we speak.

What is it that speaks through us ? - The unconscious, or the discourse of the Other. This 'big' Other is language or the symbolic order. It is an 'otherness' and can never be integrated with the subject. But it forms the base of our unconscious. The big Other is that foreign language into which we are born and which we must learn to speak in order to voice our desire. From the Lacanian perspective the unconscious is not individual but is the effect of a trans-individual symbolic order on the subject. (If you are encountering these ideas for the first time, you will begin to think that these are assorted ideas simply strung together. But what you should note here is that we are looking at the properties of language and of the unconscious.) Below we have named the next section as "Language and the subject", meaning the connection between language and the individual. We shall explain what is meant by the 'subject' later but at this point some features become clear.

You can see here that the unconscious cannot be seen as an inner recess in our personalities. It is not chaotic; it is structured. It is a language. It consists of signifying material. It is a process of meaning-creation which is beyond our control. It is beyond language. It is the 'discourse' of an Other.

Language and the subject

Lacan induces us to move away from the idea that language is simple tool with which we express oneself. As we have seen above, language precedes us. It is the symbolic order. We are subjected to the symbolic order to take our rightful place in the world. Lacan places language at the centre of the development of subjectivity. Subjectivity is the product of language. There is nothing beyond language. Before the acquisition of language in childhood, the subject is in the Imaginary stage where there is plenitude as the child does not differentiate between itself and mother, male and female, or inside and outside. At the mirror stage, the child identifies with its apparently unified and autonomous mirror-image. It obtains a sense of gratifying wholeness. The Imaginary order breaks up when the child enters the world of language. This is the Symbolic order of laws, and institutions, categories, and sexual difference. We must note that in both phases of the Imaginary and the Symbolic, subjectivity is grounded in four elements: division, alientation, fiction and mis-recognition.

In the 1950s Lacan's effort was to explain how we understand the world through symbols. (He did not mean to propose that everything can be reduced to the symbolic, that everything is understandable only through its symbol.) He meant that since symbols are important everything is structured through these symbols and the laws of the symbolic. The unconscious and human subjectivity, too, are also to be understood in terms of the laws of the symbolic. There cannot be an unconscious without the symbolic order. The unconscious emerges from the encounter of the subject with the trans-individual symbolic order. The unconscious manifests itself in the symbolic order.

The subject takes up a position within the symbolic order and is thus able to act. Only by taking up a position in relation to the desire of the Other can one become a subject. Keeping in mind the fact that the subject of the unconscious is not an individual human being but something rising at the gap between signifier and signified, the subject is the subject of the signifier.

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SLMgloss1.png Glossary

SLMtest1.png Practice Test

SLMfeedb.png Answers to SAQs

SLMref.png References and Further Readings