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American Imago 2.2 (2001) 501-524

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Wordly Powers:
A Political Reading of the Rat Man

José Brunner


This essay presents a political reading of one of Freud's case histories, the "Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis," better known as the case of the Rat Man (Freud 1909, 155-249; references to the Rat Man case will be indicated hereafter by page number only). The reading of the Rat Man suggested here is political in that it focuses on the dynamics of domination and the positions of authority in which Freud and his patient placed themselves in relation to one another. It explores the dialectics of control and compliance, subjugation and submission, as they are described by Freud in reference to both the therapeutic setting and the Rat Man's mind. Furthermore, it highlights fantasies and anxieties--again, as they emerge in Freud's case report--that involve influence and omnipotence. In other words, the reading of the Rat Man case proposed here is labeled political since it focuses on manifestations and representations of power in Freud's text. A political reading of this kind complements the economic reading of the case introduced by Lacan in his essay, "The Individual Myth of the Neurotic, or 'Poetry and Truth' in Neurosis," on which John Forrester substantially elaborated and expanded in Truth Games: Lies, Money and Psychoanalysis (Lacan 1979; Forrester 1997, 110-171). Both Lacan and Forrester point to the pivotal role that fantasies and images of money, economic circulation, wealth and poverty, and paid and unpaid debts play throughout the Rat Man case. Such readings differ significantly from the psychoanalytic critique of the Rat Man's case, which tends to focus on questions of transference and countertransference, anality, hidden homosexuality and Freud's deviations from the [End Page 501] analytic technique that he had invented (e.g. Beigler 1975; Grunberger 1966; Kanzer 1980; Langs 1980; Lipton 1979; Mahony 1986; Schneiderman 1986; Schwartz 1998; Weiss 1980; Zetzel 1966). In contrast to such commentary, both political and economic explorations of the Rat Man case seek to reveal elements that, although present in the case history, tend to be neglected by psychoanalytically oriented readers. Hence such readings draw attention to the economic and political unconscious of Freud's clinical practice and its textual representation (see also Brunner 1995, 89-144).

In addition, the political reading presented in this essay inquires into the responses to the Rat Man case study by psychoanalytic commentators from Freud's time up until today. On the one hand, this reading focuses on the way in which subsequent readings of the Rat Man sought to discipline the text, perhaps as a reaction to the analysts' fears of powerlessness in relation to the Rat Man's words. On the other hand, it highlights the manner in which such disciplinary measures reenacted the Rat Man's own politics of words and thoughts, i.e., the way in which the analysts were drawn into his obsessional acts. Finally, this reading of the Rat Man seeks to show that his obsessional neurosis can also be read as a powerful critique of psychoanalytic power games.

Words and Power

According to Freud, obsessional neurosis is to the mind what hysteria is to the body. Hysteria, the pathology with which Freud's work is more generally associated, is an illness that manifests itself in a loss of control over the body and results in somatic symptoms such as trembling, fainting, paralysis, etc. Obsessional neurosis, however, manifests itself in a lack of control over words or ideas, which encroach on one's mind and speech against one's conscious will. According to Freud, there are two constituents to every obsession: a word or idea that forces itself upon the patient and an associated emotional state, such as anxiety, remorse, or anger, which relates anal-sadistic tendencies (A. Freud 1966, 119). [End Page 502]

As shall be demonstrated, Freud's discourse presents obsessional neurosis not only as a disorder of love--as he himself defines it--but also as a disorder of power, evidencing a troubled relationship...


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