The Queer Psychoanalysis Society

Psychoanalysis and Feminism: The Bathetic Sorrow of One Woman’s Attempt at Commingling!

In Feminism, Freud, Gender Studies, Masquerade, Mythology, Politics on May 21, 2012 at 9:33 am

by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch

It’s true! I am that woman! A woman with a dream… a dream that has been realized so many times before… of combining my two favorite philosophical frameworks: feminism and psychoanalysis. Who has yet realized this dream? Nancy Chodorow, Laura S. Brown, the good people at York University, that lady who wrote Feminism and its Discontents: A Century of Struggle With Psychoanalysis (I really should read that already) and all those on-top-of-the-game social psychologists. Still, in my humdrum daily life, I find the attempt at synthesis terribly demoralizing.

I wrote a note to self during my Gender Studies course this year: “Under the necessary guise of social inquiry and challenge to gender essentialism, my ultimate interest is in personalities.”

I mean, really. People interest me in a way ‘movements’ and ‘masses’ do not, but movements and masses create the “reality” that people accept and I don’t like what passes for “reality” (when it’s male-or-female, us-or-them dichotomies and arrogant non-relativism) so I have to fight my little fight to change it. Meanwhile, my interest in individual psychologies lays low on the sidelines, waiting for the world to get some better sex ed., empathetic humility and stop displacing all its shame and self-hatred onto countless innocents and grow up already! Down with the oppression! So I can psychoanalyze without guilt that I should have been agitating for revolution!

Whenever I’m with lay (non-psych) folks whose conversations lead me to believe they’re unconsciously buying in to all the mainstream media defamation of that weird, “unknowable” category ‘woman,’ (atop gay, black, old, what have you) I find it a political, staving-off-killing-myself necessity to talk about feminism. But whenever I’m with cool, collected, hip-to-the-jive feminists with their unassailably agenda-justifying facts and stats, all I want to talk about is their childhood traumas and unrealized dreams. It’s so much more interesting… If only I lived in an utterly equitable world, then I would have the luxury to do what I really want to do: Psychoanalyze! To the extent that I have the ability!

But psychologically plumbing the depths is so dissatisfying on its own. Divorced from social context, without accounting for institutionalized sexism, homophobia, elitism, etc. inherited from Freud-era psychoanalysis, the psychoanalysis we get (and the psychoanalysis recognized as such by my feminist colleagues) is your basic benighted biological reductionism. No wonder so many modern young politicos think psychoanalysis is oppressive. There aren’t enough visibly politically engaged psychoanalysts (though Ken Corbett comes to mind: So Awesome) to upend the regressive stereotype.

But I hate because I care. I love the tenets of psychoanalytic theory so much that my disappointment with little lapses of investigative integrity accumulate easily into intense anger! If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t expend the energy to hate. But I hate because I love its potential and realization (when Freud + his successors stick to focusing on internal processes, defenses and coping mechanisms, the many variations on secure and insecure attachment, childhood development and its innumerable roadblocks, sexual fixations unrelieved) that all the stupid pockets of egregiously unrecognized sexism/heterosexism/racism/classism/entitled thoughtlessness boils my blood! How could you, psychoanalysis! When you’re great, you’re great! When you’re stupid, you’re like a brainlessly unquestioning (though potentially well-meaning) right-winger!

I just wish I could focus all of my energy on grilling my brain and exploring my fantasies but it’s hard to justify when I think of how little access the vast majority of the population has to this kind of luxurious self-inquiry. But this is a bad world and feminism problematizes simplistic hierarchies and essentialistic dualisms of power. I need feminism because it verbalizes the wordless frustration of injustice, but I don’t love it—it’s necessary. It shouldn’t be. I wish I lived in a world where it wasn’t.

I tell myself psychoanalysis is a much weightier endeavor, a much more frightening, fascinating and noble exercise—to have the guts to look into the hypocrisies, desires, needs and hatreds within your own psyche. What ho! But I can’t sensuously revel in it guiltlessly for long as so many people who need it either have no way of accessing it, are afraid of self-examination or aren’t even aware such a discipline exists (and as we know, so many assholes in power need psychoanalysis to ideally stop their killing/raping/enacting blindly hypocritical legislation/insert your oppression here).

Here’s my angry part: Psychoanalysis is a foolishly exclusive ruling class (historically Jewish-male) bastion of rarefied and beautifully necessary self-investigation. And here’s my self-righteous corollary: Feminism is for everyone. Because everyone is in some way oppressed.

But everyone is also in some way oppressed by one’s own inner demons, socially-abetted in creation but individually one’s own. We are all afflicted by shame and self-abnegation or what have you and these things aren’t isolated in their origin. We are who we are internally based on what we experience and learn externally. You can’t separate them! We are not isolated brains in jars or soulless political actors. We have psychic processes that develop from external stimuli. Prejudice, stereotypes, cultural mythology, we’re taught lies about the essentialism of gender and race, lies about upward mobility of class and educational opportunity. All these lies and distortions affect our understandings of ourselves. We deserve to understand ourselves; we cannot do it solely through political engagement and theorizing!

Nor can psychoanalytic understandings ever explain who we are without respect for the outside world. The best child development books I’ve read still effectively place all blame on the mother, as if the father’s role solely is financial and the mother’s solely and requisitely emotional. Growing baby boys and girls are treated with heartbreaking(ly basic) deference and compassion, but fathers are overlooked and tired, overworked mothers are exclusively taken to task for any imperfections. As much as I appreciated the humanism in a recent examination of the work of John Bowlby, it was still abundantly clear that the cold, emotionally inattentive ward nurses and bad ‘mothering’ (parenting, people; parenting!) that seriously traumatizes children is always the fault of a female caregiver, never male.

Contradictorily, psychoanalysts so aware of and sensitive to internal processes recreate the white supremacist-patriarchal model by either preaching of or failing to challenge long-held biases like Eurocentrism, female inferiority and mandated motherhood, homosexual illness, male immunity and innate ‘normalcy’ rather than psychoanalytically questioning themselves. It makes sense, of course (according to psychoanalytic theory): When you’re loath to recognize something in yourself, you project it onto someone else. For example, womb envy is the obvious complement to penis envy since it speaks to a universal envy of what one does not possess. But it’s only when sexuality is made mysterious and rigidly referred to heterosexually that cultivated male womb envy is transmogrified into fear of birth and menstruation which transmogrifies into misogyny; hatred serving as an obvious mask for fear. But this fear, like all psychoanalytic issues, is not isolated biological proof of the inferiority of “unknowableness” of women but rather a personally psychological and culturally sociological prejudice to be gently understood, interpreted and ultimately eradicated.

Psychoanalysis needs feminism, otherwise respect is only paid the educated classes, non-white patients get specifically referred to as non-white patients (the assumption of white normalcy further marginalizing people of color) and responsibility is divested from fathers. But it’s complicated–How can we truly understand the effect of a mother’s neglect on a child who grows up to be an affect-starved sadist if we don’t take into account the injustice of the mother’s having to raise a child by herself in the first place? It’s awful that a poor child grows up without love! It’s also awful that the conditions of our society are such that a mother is effectively divested of her capacity to love! Feminism and psychoanalysis need each other.

And so I guiltily say: If only all forces of oppression could just be instantly eradicated, all people miraculously cured of their bigotry, all psychoanalysts media-literate enough to see past the superficiality and get down to that trenchant introspective wisdom I so admire, then maybe I could justify immersing myself in psychoanalytic theory. If all abused children and narcissistic parents and megalomaniac dictators had access to safe, subsidized therapy and loving, helpful, shockingly intelligent therapists, I fantasize we wouldn’t need feminism in the first place!

But I can’t get fully behind a women’s/sexual/gender/human rights coalition that doesn’t take into account the connections between individual childhood trauma and subjective experiences of empathy, mirroring and other modes of mental safekeeping with large-scale oppressions.

To vastly oversimplify, I find sometimes I prefer the connections forged with psychologically-inclined people and actual topics of conversation with sociologically-inclined people. Or am I? I’m interested in the content of sociological phenomena but much prefer the attitudes and self-awareness of psychologically-oriented people. But wait! Again, you can’t have one without the other! No real change in society can be wrought without change in individuals. The mythical cure is not “common unhappiness” as Freud, that awesome, delightful wordsmith of a context-abetted sexist and homophobe put it, but psychological self-awareness and self-comfort (with internal inconsistencies and contradictions in sexual desires, fears, redirections of discomfort into misguided hatred) that breeds real kinds of knowledge, and acceptance of others that would actually have a chance of eradicating all manner of intersecting social oppressions.

In an oversimplified nutshell, I believe psychoanalysis is a philosophy that seeks to find caring, intellectual-emotional ways to explore, in a safe environment, the unacknowledged pain that inspires repetition compulsions that conflates past with present, fear of pain with past experiences of pain. It creates space for real growth and character change, but in doing so, I find, non-feminist psychoanalysis tends to retreat into justifying the worst parts of the status quo, helping analysands conform instead of transcending or bypassing traditionally accepted roles and patriarchal functions on the road from ‘hysterical misery to common unhappiness.’ Its practitioners are skeptical-sweet, lyrically warm and exhibit a smart, culturally liberal-Jewish-cynical loving frisson of anticlimaxes and acceptance of reality (empathy, passivity, intelligence!). I believe feminism is a philosophy that seeks to find smart, shrewdly intellectual ways to extricate all people from the matrix of intersecting oppressions and remake a corrupt system by exposing its inherent prejudices and economic monopolization—not necessarily with full emotional understanding but plenty of historical/material awareness. Its practitioners have the tools, confidence, political/downright statistical understanding to create a new reality (action, strategy, context!).

And so I’ve got to find a way to combine psychoanalysis and feminism in my own life—so I can be subjectivity aware of my own history (psychological) while connecting it to a larger historical history (sociological) and propelling that causative understanding of individual self-to-social self toward a sense of action and forward motion (feminism). The goal should be to accept oneself, but not the “reality” of the world’s injustices or you give injustice the credit of being “inevitable” and useless to fight. The goal should be to construct a new “reality” that correlates to the one people actually inhabit—not the one we’ve been sold. My dream of psychoanalytic feminism is one where fluidity stems from self-knowledge; where self-acceptance and self-possession function to aid in the health of the communal whole. Selfishness doesn’t stem from self-respect but self-hatred.

Psychoanalytic feminism represents the normalization of bodies and diverse sexualities not restricted by outmoded ideals of ‘proper’ behavior which amounts to the subjugation of female bodies for reproduction and curtailing of gender identities and sexual preferences for the maintenance of the gendered work unit. To integrate fears, broaden the concept of identity beyond ‘male’ and ‘female’ boxed in by (mostly) male homophobia and across-the-board misogyny… what a world that would be. A world that is possible!

About the Author:  

Rebecca Katherine Hirsch is a hustler-writer amalgam and Human Sexuality Education student at Widener. She informally specializes in parroting psychoanalytic theories of development and forcefully injecting them with hefty, unequal doses of critical feminist theory, queer theory and oomph! Quotidian research topics include the relationship between identity and orientation and herself and her cat. She co-creates the making of videos (http://vimeo.com/user4315393), blogs (http://ducttapedance.wordpress.com) and has written for Feministe, Persephone, Hollaback! and The Good Men Project.

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