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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 8.1 (2001) 13-15

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Social World and the Internal Woman

Juliet Mitchell

This is a nicely presented argument--as far as it goes, but is that far enough? The problems of a reconciliation between psychoanalytic and feminist-social explanations of anorexia seem to me greater than this account allows. Social pressures and intra-family dynamics and innate mental characteristics doubtless all play a part and can perfectly well co-exist side-by-side--that is, anorexia (or whatever else) will be a product of all three. The question is: Do these three dimensions need to interact in such a way that each is transformed by the interaction? By using Kleinian notions of phantasy (unconscious), Sarah Richmond is able to propose a reconciliation with social theory that is reminiscent for me of John Bowlby's work in, say, vol. 3 of his trilogy, Attachment and Loss (1969-73). There is nothing wrong with this--indeed, it must be right, but I think it misses the difficulty. The difficulty can, perhaps, best be addressed if we look not at phantasy but at the symptom. If a phantasy is truly unconscious, its form will not bear a recognizable relationship to what it is about--it will need to be deduced from the "free associations" as with a dream. If it is recognizable, it is almost certainly preconscious and can be made conscious without any intervening association or interpretation--it will look like what it in fact represents.

With phantasy a slippage between unconscious and preconscious is common. The unconscious phantasy latent in anorexia may be envy of the mother's fertility and, at the same time, a preconscious refusal of the secondary status accorded in Western society to motherhood (Choderow 1978)--it can be both, as Sarah Richmond says, but the unconscious envy will be distorted. An unconscious envious phantasy about the mother might attack the full "womanly" maternal body--it is more likely to do so in a disguised form. The preconscious hostile response to social pressure to become a mother will attack this body probably in an undisguised form.

The "true" anorexic sees a grossly fat person where there is a grotesquely thin one. The "real" is transformed and "unrecognizable." Why is there a delusion at the center of anorexia and what are the features and meanings of this delusion? In phantasy, the line between unconscious and preconscious is often not drawn. This cannot be the case with the symptom. A symptom is always a distortion. The same is the case with a delusion--by definition a delusion has transformed "reality."

A second characteristic of a symptom is its driven, compulsive quality: The anorexic cannot stop even though she may want to. Clearly, social theory doesn't touch this--but nor does invoking unconscious phantasy per se because here the "unconscious" is often, technically, preconscious; that is to say, available to consciousness without translation.

I have not myself made any proper study of anorexia. The following suggestions are just [End Page 13] that--suggestions. I have studied hysteria (Mitchell 2000), and anorexia was once considered an expression of hysteria rather than a discrete illness. The relationship of unconscious symptom or preconscious phantasy in the two conditions are, I suggest, the same. In Hystories, Elaine Showalter (who also considers anorexia to be hysterical) cites a nineteenth-century case of a man with pendulum spasms and suggests that, the man being poor and inarticulate, his spasms may have indicated his hatred of his job. He was a watchmaker (1997). If so, this would be what I am calling preconscious--unconsciously, we cannot know what it means without associations. We can make a guess that shows the process, however. The sort of meaning it might have had is that the watchmaker could possibly have had forbidden grandiose desires that had been repressed but inadequately so; hence, these desires would have returned in the conflictual form of the compulsive, bizarre symptom. The symptomatic expression of his forbidden desire, I playfully suggested, might have been modeled on Voltaire's well...


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