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  • Freud, My Neighbor
  • Kenneth Reinhard

Civilization and Its Discontents has been the traditional prooftext for reflections on the ethics of psychoanalysis, which have usually located Freud’s contribution to the history and theory of ethics in Civilization’s genealogy of morals, with its powerful Nietzschean critique of the dynamics of guilt, repression, and father-Angst. Yet it is also in Civilization that Freud encounters the face of the neighbor, as he comes up against and fiercely repudiates the injunction to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” In this essay I argue that the figure of the neighbor instantiates an interpretive paradigm and textual complex distinct from the genealogical initiatives for which Civilization has been rightly praised. Three features distinguish the physiognomy of the neighbor in psychoanalysis. First, the neighbor comes into Freud’s texts from the secular vicissitudes of biblical hermeneutics rather than from philosophy or psychology—that is, from Jerusalem, rather than from Athens or Rome. Second, the relation to the neighbor is social rather than familial; the neighbor instantiates both the barest minimum of political association and the impossibility of the actualization or fulfillment of such a relationship. Third, there can be no genealogy of the neighbor, since genealogy is founded, by definition, on familial ties of inheritance and consanguinity, whereas neighbor-hood entails relations of nearness and contiguity that are necessarily arbitrary, accidental, and transient.

In his encounter with the injunction to neighbor-love in its Christian and secular disseminations, Freud speaks from the position of the Jew, excluded from the New Dispensations, without, however, articulating a specifically Jewish origin, meaning, or destiny for the commandment. Indeed, such a meaning only exists in Freud’s text as a remainder of the Christian-secular dialectic that takes Judaism as its cancelled ground. It is this remainder that Lacan isolates by linking the discussion of [End Page 165] the neighbor in Civilization to Freud’s early writings on the Nebenmensch (the “next-person”) and its traumatically singular component, das Ding, “the thing.” In his seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1959–60), Lacan articulates an ethics that would not be opposed to religion as either its philosophical purification in the name of rational autonomy or as its ideological demystification, which would give the lie to any claim of artistic or ethical self-sufficiency by insisting on the interestedness of every subjective position. Rather, Lacan takes up the topos of the neighbor as the primary particle of ethical theory and traumatic experience left over from the dialectics of God’s death into modernity; the neighbor embodies both the remnant of Judaism in its Christian sublation, and of Scripture in its literary and philosophical secularizations. Lacan’s reading of the neighbor separates ethics from both the Kantian autonomy of ethical maxims and the modernist hermeneutics of suspicion that finds all moral systems ideologically compromised. He effects this separation in order to salvage from the discounted sphere of theology a principle of heteronomy, in two senses: it insists both that the law is other, not the autonomous distillation of reason apart from revelation, and that there is something other than the law, a transgressive enjoyment or jouissance in excess of the prohibition that produces it. By tracing the vicissitudes of this jouissance through Freud’s writings on the neighbor, Lacan in turn faces Freud as his neighbor, articulating what is strange in Freud as that which is most proximate to Lacan.

1. Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself

The injunction to “love thy neighbor as thyself” is the hotly contested prooftext and overdetermined figure that Judaism and Christianity have struggled to possess, and around which they have divided into “neighboring” religions, both intimately connected and mutually estranged. The commandment has served both as the locus classicus for Paul’s definition of Christianity against the presumed particularism and literalism of Jewish legal hermeneutics and as the reclaimed birthright through which Judaism has sought to preserve its singularity [End Page 166] in the face of the Christian appropriation of its sacred texts. The parameters of the call to love the neighbor have been the subject of dispute within the rabbinic tradition as well, where questions such as “who counts as my neighbor?” “what exactly is meant...

Additional Information

ISSN
1085-7931
Print ISSN
0065-860X
Pages
pp. 165-195
Launched on MUSE
1997-06-01
Open Access
No
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