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American Imago 58.3 (2001) 627-647

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On Reason, Discourse, and Fantasy

Stephen Frosh

Reasons (to be thankful)

It hardly needs saying: psychoanalysis radicalizes knowledge by asserting its transformative nature. From the moment of the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams, a book of "science" based on Freud's revelation of his own unconscious world, a new mode of doing "human science" enters into view. It is marked by anxiety, as attested to by the number of Freud's dream interpretations that center on self-justification of the "You see, I have come to something" variety (1900, 216). Indeed, the whole book can be read as built on the tension between the shame of self-exposure (will readers laugh?) and Freud's wish to be shown, like the biblical Joseph with whom he identifies, to be the true master, the one who knows. So from the inauguration of this method, this theory, there is a vivid construction of a way of knowing that leaves everything touched, changes it all: to accept the assertions of The Interpretation of Dreams is not just to acknowledge a good idea, but to vindicate Freud, make his justificatory dreams unnecessary, and change the nature of our own dreams for all time.

Of course, the query over the notion of "science" has haunted psychoanalysis from the word go, despite Freud's own unequivocal view that "Psychoanalysis . . . is a part of science and can adhere to the scientific Weltanschauung" (1933, 181). One unusual feature of psychoanalysis is that knowledge is given the status both of scientific advancement--pursuing understanding of the general functioning of human subjects, of the unconscious, of psychopathology and so on--and also as the route to personal change. A particular kind of psychoanalytic knowledge--"insight"--is even made the central mechanism through which the therapeutic action of psychoanalysis [End Page 627] has its effect. Moreover, the impact of psychoanalytic knowledge is not some add-on application of the theory, equivalent to other attempts to derive scientific "laws" through one mode of investigation and then to apply them in a set of more specific spheres. For psychoanalysis, the transformative capacity of psychoanalytic knowledge is held to be integral to the theory itself. Studying a mental phenomenon "from the outside" will not produce the kind of knowledge that counts as genuinely psychoanalytic, just as reading about psychoanalysis in books is held never to produce a true understanding of it. For instance, take the critique of developmental psychology, even of the kind influenced by psychoanalysis, that is advanced by those (especially adherents of the British Kleinian position) who argue that all attempts at objectivity miss the point of the analytic approach. Writing about Daniel Stern's (1985) work, for example, Roszika Parker notes:

Many writers have commented that this is a world of interpersonal rather than intrapsychic events. Stern's baby does not develop images of the mother mediated by its unconscious phantasy, or archetypal imagery. It seems that Stern's view is that as unconscious conflicts cannot be observed in babies, they cannot be taken into account. (1995, 192)

The problem here, from a psychoanalytic point of view, is almost exactly the opposite of that which would be the concern of empirical psychology. Because Stern relies on observation of behavior without mediating it through the observer's own subjectivity (the area of supposed "error" that is most stringently "controlled" in psychological investigations), he cannot produce an account of the infant's emerging selfhood from the point of view of its psychodynamic--that is, at root, its unconscious--determinants. This is because, Kleinians suggest, the only reliable route into the unconscious of another is through the unconscious of the self, through "unconscious to unconscious communication" (195). Hence the requirement of psychoanalytic infant observation that the observer record not just the child's behavior, but the feelings evoked in the [End Page 628] observer as well. This is not, as might be the case from an empirical position, in order to take into account the "distorting" impact of these feelings on the observer's objectivity; rather, it is because the observer's...


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