by Chase Dimock
Whenever I “out” myself as a student of Freud, I am inevitably greeted with comments like “Isn’t that the guy who said we all secretly want to have sex with our moms?” or “You know he’s been disproved, right?” It is true that Freud’s work has been diluted with bad pop culture appropriations that have turned his thousands of pages of careful analysis into a couple of slogans to be thrown around at cocktail parties. Yet, it is also a testament to his enduring influence and value in the cultural imaginary. 120 years after his first publications, he is still the most famous and widely recognized psychologist in the world.
To say that Freud has been “disproved” is to ignore the process by which human thought evolves over time and builds on the speculation and observations of the previous generations. Many of Freud’s ideas are in some ways antiquated or incompatible with the direction in which our social values have turned (penis envy comes to mind here). But, Freud himself was open to changing his beliefs over the course of his career. He added footnotes over the years to many of his texts to address new findings that changed his opinions about their subjects. Still, several of the core principles of Freudian thought endure today. Even those most rabidly against psychoanalysis cannot dispute the presence of unconscious associations, the value of putting one’s inner thoughts into narrative (the “talking cure”), and the importance of analyzing the systems of authority and power under which we mature and with which we identify.
Yet, I have no intention of defending Freud as a clinician, a scientist, or as any of the other roles that represent fields in which I have no expertise. Rather, I am interested in maintaining Freud’s relevance to my own field: the study of literature and culture. This is why, when I respond to any of the above questions or challenges to my interest in Freud, I say, “Freud was the greatest mythologist of the 20th century”. By “mythologist” I do not mean myth as a false or fictional idea. Instead, I conceive of Freud’s mythology as one part classical mythology and one part the cultural mythologies described by the French semiotician Roland Barthes. Mythology is not simply a bunch of quaint stories from antiquity, but it is rather an on going process through which cultures communicate their values, ideologies, and desires and grapple with that which is beyond their complete comprehension in the form of easily relatable narratives and archetypes. Mythology simplifies and personifies the “other”. Just as the ancients used the cruelty and petty competitions of the gods to personify the natural and social elements beyond human control and explanation, so too do we today use mythological constructs like “the invisible hand” to explain laissez-faire economics or “maternal instinct” to account for the infinite intimate ways a mother understands her child that have not been put into language. Freud’s great contribution toward personifying the “other” was recognizing that the “other” resided in our selves and in fact is an integral part of self. Freud dramatically and effectively illustrated how the “self” is in of itself a mythology: a split entity made up of an ego, id, and super-ego–all subject to the associations and eruptions of the unconscious.
This then answers the original question of this essay. What’s queer about psychoanalysis is what’s at its very core: the mythology of self. When we navigate away from uncritical assumptions about there being an essential, stable self, we unsettle the very foundations of all other normative assumptions attached to it, including norms about gender, sexuality, race, and any other social constructs that we try to etch post-natal into our DNA. While Freud was no queer theorist, he gave us a model of subjectivity through which the “queer” could be investigated. With the theory of polymorphous perversity, Freud speculated that sexuality in infancy begins with a form of “perversity” in which “the formation of such perversions meets but slight resistance because the psychic dams against sexual excesses, such as shame, loathing and morality—which depend on the age of the child—are not yet erected or are only in the process of formation” (57). Sexuality, according to Freud, begins with an exploration of one’s own body in which activities that adults have been taught to think of as shameful are freely pursued. It is additionally important that sexuality begins with physical pleasure. It is only later in the child’s life that they learn to find other things (people and objects) attractive and to want to derive pleasure from them.Polymorphous perversity thus entails a queer beginning for all sexual and gender identities, implying that the vast majority of the ways in which we construct our gender and sexual identities come from the way we are socialized into relationships of power. This is, of course, not to deny the role of genetics and biology or to say that gender and sexual identity are merely a product of nurture. Rather, this illuminates that the paths toward “normal” expressions of these genders and sexualities are socially influenced. If we all begin in a state of polymorphous perversity, then all standards of “normal” gender and sexuality are not rooted in some essence of the self, but are the products of how we learn to signify normality on our bodies as we repress urges and drives that deviate from this code of conduct.
But what if we were to conceive of polymorphous perversity not as a mess of parts to be assembled into an optimal self, but as a paradise lost? What if we tried to recover a sense of our bodies and their sensual capacities before they became inscribed with the language of disgust, shame, and impropriety that estrange us from the body’s organic state as a vessel of nerves and affects? This, is to think queerly. Now, it would be impossible to try to revert to some prediscursive state of being. As we know from Lacan, once we enter the symbolic order, we are destined to remain forever in it. Thus, the only way to recover the body is to fight discourse with more discourse—to engage in a semiotic remapping of the body and to reevaluate the language and practice of repression. Complete sexual liberation is of course impossible, and in reality, undesirable. The human body and psyche crave discipline and delayed gratification—it is in fact through these mechanisms that the erotic thrives. Rather, we need to reevaluate what kinds of repression, discipline, and delay are productive and which “perversity” best suit individuals.
This is where I return to the mythological capacities of psychoanalytic discourse. Polymorphous Perversity is just one of several psychoanalytic tools to conceptualize and narrate human experience. While the LGBT community has created a widely rich vocabulary and culture of desires and practices for which we have archetypes (Bears, Dykes, Queens, etc) and mythologies (Stonewall Riots, The Closet, etc), there are certain areas of our existence that lack conceptual models and narratives. Perhaps most glaring is the lack of an understanding of queer youth. This has been a widely taboo subject that, with the exception of the “It Gets Better Project” and a few “very special” episodes of Glee, has largely been repressed from discussion. Queer theorists partially inspired by the discourse of psychoanalysis such as Kathryn Bond Stockton with her book The Queer Child have begun to theorize models of queer childhood, such as the idea of “growing sideways”. Freud’s work on infantile sexuality in the Three Essays on Sexuality was notoriously controversial, scandalizing a Victorian society that would just as soon ignore the idea that children had any form of sexuality (with the exception of some scary anti-masturbation devices). For a subject like queer sexuality, Freud’s intrepid analysis and introduction of language such as polymorphous perversity and mythology like the Oedipal Complex can serve as an inspiration. It is my hope to put psychoanalytic theory, narrative, and mythology into the service of formulating new ways of analyzing and conceptualizing all things queer and teasing out the queer core of all things that have the audacity to brand themselves “normal” How can we adapt the murder and deification of the father in Totem and Taboo to discuss queer revolution(s), the Occupy Movement, and LGBT politics? What light can Civilization and Its Discontents shine on the repression of queer desires in society and how did this practice of repression help develop the invention of the “queer” as the dangerous “other” who jeopardizes society by pursuing his or her desires? Is the Death Drive really just an impulse toward pure destruction and non-being, or is it somehow signaling some deep aversion to the heteronormative conventions of work-production and sexual reproduction that define Eros and domesticate the life drive in modern civilization?
About the Author:
Chase Dimock is a PhD candidate in Comparative and World Literature at the University of Illinois. He specializes in 20th century American, French, and German literature with an emphasis in Queer Theory, Feminism, Psychoanalysis and Marxism. As a Graduate Assistant, he has taught courses on western literature spanning the ancients to the existentialists as well as courses on gender studies, erotic literature, and representations of the Holocaust. He is currently working on a dissertation tentatively titled “The American Sexual Diaspora in France: Queer Itinerancies and the Birth of the Gay Modernist Subject.” His research is devoted to exploring interwar queer sexualities in the works of lost and forgotten American expatriate authors and how the established French canon of gay authors and French gay culture influenced the construction of an American queer subject. Chase Dimock is also a regular contributor to the arts and politics magazine As It Ought To Be, Lambda Literary, and his poetry has been published in Polari Journal.