Thursday, 11 February 2010

Freud and the case for the prosecution, part one*

So, in the words of my old school pal, what do I think about the old boy now? Do Freud's thoughts and writings still have anything to offer me or anyone else? Having spent two years reading and discussing an enormous pile of his writings, what do I reckon? What have I learned?

My pal put the counter-case to me about Freud, organising it under headings, all of them starting with a D, the first of which was . . .


My pal wrote, of Freudian thought and practice: 'It can make people think too much of what happened long ago in childhood, and especially in their relationship with parents. Unfortunately, the events are fixed, and it's easy to spend too long blaming one's family and one's upbringing.'

My answer Yes, but.** There are two questions here, I guess. One, do our early years and relationships have long-term, central impact on our adult life? Two, if they do, can we do anything helpful with that knowledge?

One There is, quite clearly, ample evidence of various kinds about the impact of early experience. (Not that I'm excluding genetic factors, of course. There is ample evidence for them, too.)

The clearest, simplest evidence is probably from attachment theory - not Freud, I know, but he didn't quote it, I think, mostly because it wasn't around in his day. There's a thing called the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI).

It's twenty questions and lasts about an hour. Get a pregnant woman to answer it and you can predict with astonishing accuracy the emotional tenor and psychological make-up of her unborn child - as a toddler, anyway. If you want to guess how the child will fare as a teenager, you do the AAI on the prospective father.

Two Yes, but, again. Events are rarely 'fixed' - certainly not in the realms of our inner life. Our memories are many layered things - as experiments of all kinds show. We create and construct our past in much the same way as we create what we think of as our vision - out of the same rag bag of bits of sequential realities, memories, general knowledge, our innate drive to find patterns, our predictions and, of course, our desires. Which is why optical illusions work. They screw not with our eyes but with our perceptual organisational system. Our eyes' eyes, perhaps.

As eyes are not movie cameras, so our past is not a movie. Our pasts have a relationship to reality but it's a complex, tangential one. Freud had a word for this: Nachträglichkeit***. There's no accepted English translation for it. Mine is: afterwardsness****. The past is not so much a foreign country as a collation of reality and layers of memories and constructions - some of which will be based on memories which are themselves constructions.

Confused? We all are. That's the point.

Freud didn't think of analysis as blaming the parents. He wrote something like: neurotics (ie all of us - though more you than me, of course) suffer from memories. Not events, that is, but memories. To him, analysis was a kind of reality-testing endeavour - a matter of challenging the fantasies (and hence symptoms) by which we lead our lives.

So Larkin was wrong. It's not that your mum and dad fucked you up - though they may have. It's your memory of your mum and dad that fucked you up. Johnny Thunders was right, though: you can't put your arms round a memory. Well, best not to. That way, you can change your past*****.

Next up Determination - is there any free will in Freud?

Some light entertainment From an old pied noir 88er.

* There will be at least four parts, maybe more

** Still my default answer to too many things, I know. I try hard to remind myself to say 'Yes, and' instead but I often fail.

*** It sounds like a 50 Crown word but it isn't. It's quite standard German. They just like their words long. It's the way their language works.

**** The fashionable one in London Freudian circles is 'après coup' - borrowed from the French psychoanalysts who have been making a big noise about it since the 1960s. It's a rotten, inaccurate translation even in French, though. Whatever Freud meant it to be, it wasn't 'after shock'.

***** Time travel movies are, to my puckish mind, essentially populist Oedipal wish fulfilments. As action movies allow us to murder and mutilate (in fantasy) so movies like Back To The Future allow our secret inner world to vicariously flirt with the idea of . . . fucking (up) mum and dad.


Lo Jardinier said...

A lot to think about in this one - so while I'm trying to do that, thanks for the music link. I heard about him last year but didn't follow it up - definitely a long way up my street - beautiful. And a six-string bass, following last week's five-string accoustic. Is Charlie Hunter next?

Lo Jardinier said...

Well, Rea, you’ve saved me saying some things – but since I’m neither a scientist nor a healer. I’ll take a position between these two. As your aforementioned old pal , Pete, I’ve got to try to remember why I wrote those questions – I’ve got to really think about what I think.
One problem psychoanalysis created for itself was insisting it was a science. This may be due to the pressures on Freud and other analysts to make a living: Freud needed to be recognised as a Privatdozent by the University, and eventually an honorary Professor to attract clients (they weren’t salaried posts). A model which fits its practice better might be as a craft or profession such as teaching or nursing (healing was Freud’s third ‘impossible profession’). Scientific verification of any of these three practices is bedevilled with problems – but that does not mean they are not worth pursuing. First and foremost: to test a falsifiable hypothesis properly needs a controlled experiment, especially to establish probable cause and effect. No other method will do – but almost all experiments one could devise to test a theory of emotional health would
involve exposing a child to parenting we suspect may be harmful and thus be unethical.
This isn’t the only difficulty. To mention but a few others: the ‘It depends what you mean by…(healthy, repressed etc)’ problems of definition and measurement; practical difficulties of funding and running very long follow-up studies; proper control of other variables such as heredity; and the reliability of subjective reporting. Let’s take an example.
OK, granted attachment is a real and important process in children (and Anna Freud was one of the first to study it), however what we know about it is limited by the methods we can use to study it. For example, Mary Ainsworth’s fascinating and imaginative work included detailed first hand observation (a big plus), but the connection between child’s attachment style and parental behaviour is a correlation i.e. not a proof of cause (which would require an experiment whose design would be unethical), and it is difficult to exclude inherited or other constitutional factors. Let’s take an infant whose emotional thermostat is set naturally to ‘timid’: his theme song is Born to be Mild (as is his mother’s)*. He’s clocked by Ainsworth as ‘anxious – insecure’, put down to his Mum’s ambivalence. As an adult, he ‘constructs’, ‘spins’ (in all senses) memories and explanations which spring from and tend to justify his timidity. Does he suffer from memory, or from picking up the wrong bits of psycho-Meccano in constructing himself?
In fact these ideas of ‘narration’ and ‘construction’ are not only intuitively valid, but cut the ropes tying psychoanalysis to the track as the train loaded with scientific objections bears down.
In looking up Maurice el Medioni, I found this quote by Khaled:
‘In Algeria, people who have a shadow in their soul, we say their angels are very heavy." He laughs. "Maurice's angels are very light." Is this theory of personality really any less valid than Freud’s?
Nachträglichkeit – how about this song title for a translation:

* Luckily, pretty well all research shows there are lots of ‘happy thermostats’ too: children who grow up OK whatever happens.

Peter Silverton said...

i (deliberately) didn't use the word 'scientific' in what i wrote . . .

why? i was trying to avoid this discussion — not because i don't have views or (possible) answers but because . . .

1. it can get really technical and abstract (and thus risk being offputting etc to many)

2. and because i have also come to the conclusion that it's a red herring in some ways (not that i am in anyway suggesting it's not a valid question) in that it immediately side-steps what evidence there is

3. answering it involves me really scratching my head and laying out the arguments — about what constitutes scientific method and proof

now it's been raised, though, i'll not drop it but i will approach it in a bitty way — so as to avoid big hunks of off-puttingness

so, for now a few little points . . .

1. popper's views are now generally not accepted as a good description of the scientific process — even, i understand, at his alma mater, the lse

2. scientific theories do not necessarily involve experimentation and falsifiability — darwin's theory of evolution is the classic example here — no scientist would deny its status as a scientific theory yet it does not depend on experimentation

3. quantum mechanics theory and relativity theory can not be both true yet we live and work all the time with that fact (in daily life) and nearly all the time (in scientific life) — in fact in daily life, we get by with a newtonian universe

4. there is nothing wrong with correlations as proof — doll's detailing of the link between smoking and lung cancer was entirely based on correlations — what understanding we have of exactly how smoking causes lung cancer is recent but that doesn't undermine the scientific basis of the original observations — epidemiology is a science of correlations

more in future blogs

Lo Jardinier said...

OK, moving swiftly on...not so much zurück to the future as vorwaerts to nachträglichkeit. I don’t know whether that concept also embraces transference? That’s seen as a long shadow cast by childhood relationships. But in counselling situations - not analysis - I have sat in both helper and client chairs, and I remember there was usually so much enlivening energy in the here-and-now immediate relationship, less in talking of the past. So might we not take the present as primary? Freud started with a trauma theory, and maybe he was reluctant to let that go entirely (it is probably truer for those who endured real trauma). For the majority with good-enough parenting (like me), it might be the theory which casts the shadow, not the repressed wishes of childhood.