Tackling the Unconscious

One of the threads that I would like to pick up in this post (and perhaps future posts) is the problem of the unconscious - or, backing up yet again, the question: Is the unconscious a problem?

We need to back up in order to move forward. It seems as though many of the writers I've tackled so far could be said to have called upon a certain access to the unconscious as a way around rationality - whether that unconscious aspect lies in non-syntactical constellations of meaning, as in Stein, or in a more spiritual realm of dreams, as in Anzaldúa. Personally, I am not really sure if I agree with this: there is much to be said for these meanings to be created completely consciously, just along networks or webs that could not be said to be "rational" in the "systematic and orderly" sense.

However, my illustrious psychoanalyst father keeps dropping hints about how Freud makes a strong argument for non-rational systems of thought in his theories of the unconscious (for instance, in The Interpretation of Dreams), so it may be time for me to look down over the great abyss of psychoanalytic criticism and come down on one side or the other.

Sorry, folks, but I am going to evade the question. I am not a psychoanalyst, or engaged at all in psychoanalytic theory, and when pitting myself against such an enormous body of work - and body of criticism - I don't know where to begin.

The sheer volume of writing on the subject makes me think that it is not going to be productive to tackle Freud directly, since that has obviously been done extensively, by both feminists and non-feminists with greater credentials than me. Instead, I want to spend a minute, with the help of Lynne Segal's essay "Cautionary Tales: Between Freud and Feminism," on how Freudian theory has been used and why it is a particularly challenging model for feminists. Segal doesn't directly address rationality and the unconscious, but as a jumping-off point, I hope she will be useful.

In this essay, Segal attempts to address the question of why feminists are so attracted to psychoanalysis, despite its contentious legacy. For the very reason of its emphasis on childhood and unconscious formation of subjectivity (including gender and sexuality roles), psychoanalysis is pessimistic about the possibility of the intellect as a vehicle for change; it is this pessimism (according to Segal) which "produces its own paralyses for those who wish to transform the links it describes (and helps reinscribe) between knowledge and power, sexed identity and social hierarchy" (61).

In other words, if subjectivity is rooted in the unconscious, then we are faced with a series of contradictions which pose problems for a feminist/queer agenda. Since these problems are incredibly complicated, they are clearly best summed up in bullet points.


  • Gender identity is unconscious? That explains the "global tenacity of male domination" and why it is so difficult for feminists to fight (62).

  • Wait. The very unconscious nature of this construction of subjectivity can be used to challenge normative roles by highlighting the "inevitable tensions, uncertainties, and inherent ambivalence at the heart of sexual difference" (62).

  • Wait. If psychoanalysis poses such a challenge to sexual binaries, then why has it been used with such great success by conservatives trying to ascribe certain roles to women on the basis of essential sexual difference?

  • The point is, Freud seems to reduce sexual differentiation to the essential formative moment of a child's development, and to feminists, this is both frustrating (in its reductionism) and attractive (in its room for uncertainty in the process of differentiation).

So, what does this have to do with rationality? Well, as Segal moves to Lacan, we start to get a clue. Lacan's point is
[did I just say that? I mean - the overly reductive use I am making of Lacan is] that femininity is based on a) the lack of a phallus; and b) a "jouissance" (female sexual satisfaction) which is "unique to her, outside symbolization and intelligibility" (65). This is where we start hearing resonances of Kristeva - whom Segal doesn't mention - and of Cixous and Irigaray, whom she does. These theorists attempt to "express the female 'imaginary' in texts characterized by playful excess, disruption, grammatical and syntactic subversion, and other ambiguous games within the 'masculine' Symbolic order" (65). In a sense, Cixous and Irigaray make do with what they haven't got (a phallus) but create a certain indefinable pleasure (jouissance) within that lack.

One problem with this is, of course, the defining feature of femininity being a lack of a phallus, which is to my mind completely arbitrary. (If the early psychoanalysts were women, who knows - maybe masculinity would be qualified by an excess, rather than femininity by a lack. And god forbid you try and fit a transperson into this equation!) Questions of genitalia aside, however, Segal also points out the very practical limit that a focus on the lack of a phallus puts on diversity and conflict:

With the Lacanian gaze focused firmly beyond the individual, forever tracking down further support for its philosophical analysis of desire-as-lack, there is little interest in the particulars of actually conflicting desires, or the possible diversity of subject positions, meanings, and experiences (68).

Anyone else see Lugones and Anzaldúa in a nutshell? It seems to me that they operate on a different plane than the Lacanian lack; in other words, the conflict and moving-between that the two theorists engage with creates an abundance of meaning which seems to go beyond jouissance.

What this is leading me to is a moment to refine my thinking, or to reiterate a way I've been thinking all along. I don't want to suggest that using Freud would be wrong, but that just that psychoanalytic models tread on some uncomfortable ground. It seems to me that the legacy of psychoanalysis is a sometimes painful reliance on a the conscious/unconscious binary, where in truth, I think our experience of reality is tied up too closely to both the conscious and the unconscious - and to the conflicts between the two - to even talk about them as two sides of the same coin. I'd rather talk about the middle of the coin, which would be neither rational or anti-rational, but some mixture which precludes a purely rational approach, but which allows for interplay between the two. I know what my dad will say to this - that psychoanalysis does, in fact, get at that mixture and the interplay that I'm talking about - but I worry that psychoanalytic theory, as applied to literary texts, often misses the point.

I think Anzaldúa starts to get at that amalgam of conscious and unconscious, rational and non-rational. But I still wonder: what would this kind of mixture look like, not only in literary practice, but in scientific or political practice as well? Is it even possible?

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Sophie published on March 13, 2010 6:34 PM.

Lugones and Anzaldúa: Borders, Multiplicity, and the Spirit was the previous entry in this blog.

The Unconscious (and Surrealism), Part Two is the next entry in this blog.

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