- Unspeakable Secrets and the Psychoanalysis of Culture
As its title suggests, Esther Rashkin's new book is in many ways a sequel to Family Secrets and the Psychoanalysis of Narrative (1992). Like her earlier work, Unspeakable Secrets draws heavily on the pathbreaking theories of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok (1987). For many in the English-speaking world, Rashkin's first book was a wonderfully lucid introduction to the French psychoanalysts' theory of the phantom. In it she not only explains how a phantom is formed when a shameful, unspeakable secret is unwittingly transmitted, through cryptic language and behavior, transgenerationally from one family member to another, but also brilliantly demonstrates through meticulous close readings of French, English, and American texts the productiveness of this new approach for the study of narrative literature.
While the first book was addressed primarily to academic literary critics, Rashkin—now a practicing psychotherapist as well as a professor of literary and cultural studies—has written Unspeakable Secrets for a broader audience. This highly ambitious new work seeks to make a greater place for psychoanalysis within the field of cultural studies, endeavoring to show how the uncovering of unspeakable, potentially pathogenic secrets may reveal powerful and too-often-overlooked engagements between works of literature and film and specific cultural and ideological constellations. But being equally mindful of her readers who are mental health professionals, Rashkin is concerned throughout with the therapeutic implications of her analyses.
With regard to cultural studies, the book takes issue with a number of recent trends. As Rashkin writes:
Scholarship's intensive exploration of all dimensions of cultural production during the last fifteen years has dealt with psychoanalysis in only two ways: either it has [End Page 383] ignored it (as a glance at cultural studies journal contents, anthologies and conference programs reveals); or it has understood psychoanalysis to mean Freudian and Lacanian theory. When cultural studies does deploy Freud and Lacan in the service of ideological critique, they are primarily confined to support status. Freud's theory of "identification," for example, may be called upon to bolster a sociopolitical analysis of how race, class, or gender constructs public space. Lacan's concepts of the "phallus" and "the Other" may serve to reinforce a materialist critique of rap music marketing or gender inequities in public education.(2)
In response to these trends, Rashkin argues for a redeployment and reinvention of psychoanalytic theory within the field of cultural studies. Not only does she oppose the relegation of psychoanalysis to a secondary and supportive role, but the theory on which sociopolitical analysis and materialist critiques draw has, in her view, itself calcified into an established core of recognizable—and all-too-serviceable—concepts. At stake for her, then, is not only the caricature of psychoanalysis presented by others but its own missed opportunities, its failure to renew itself from within by making contact with its own "unthought."
For Rashkin, this "unthought," this still unexplored unconscious potential of analytic theory, lies in two directions: first, in a greater, more thorough engagement with the pioneering work of Abraham and Torok; and second, in applying that work to the exploration and uncovering of the secrets by which we are kept and which we in turn, unwittingly and perilously, keep passing on to future generations. Rashkin seeks to rework both psychoanalysis and cultural studies from within, opening each to its own self-difference, to its own constitutive blindspots, doing so in the hope that such reworkings might in turn open our tongue-tied and compulsively driven cultures to other possible futures. Through her relentlessly probing and endlessly surprising close readings of literature, film, and the cultural rituals that sometimes accompany them—rituals such as the dinner parties and restaurant events organized in emulation of the climactic scene of Babette's Feast discussed in her first chapter, "Devouring Loss"—Rashkin makes a powerfully compelling case for the [End Page 384] emergence of psychoanalysis from its erstwhile confinement to "support status" and its assumption of a more central role in...