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Saint Turing: A Few Reflections on Gay Iconography and Martyrdom on the Occasion of Alan Turing’s 100th Birthday

In film, Freud, Gender Studies, LGBT, Literature, Mythology, Politics, Queer Theory, Sex on February 19, 2015 at 2:47 pm

by Chase Dimock

(This essay was originally published in 2012 on The Qouch in honor of Turing’s 100th birthday. With the resurgence of interest in Turing’s life following the Oscar buzz surrounding The Imitation Game, we wanted to reprint this piece to focus more attention on what Turing’s career, philosophy, and iconic status means for Queer Studies and LGBT politics)

This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of British mathematician Alan Turing’s birth. In celebration of his enormous contributions to the fields of mathematics, computational science, cryptology, and artificial intelligence, the scientific community has dubbed 2012 the “Alan Turing Year”, commemorating the occasion with numerous conferences, museum exhibitions, a series of articles on his life in the Guardian and BBC, a Google doodle, and even a functional model of his famous Turing Machine made of Legos. By his mid 20s Turing developed his theory of the “Universal Machine”, thus ushering in the age of modern computer science. A decade later, Turing devoted his studies in cryptology toward cracking the German naval enigma. By developing machines known as “bombes” that could decrypt the messages the Nazis relayed to their U-boats, Turing’s intelligence gathering re-shaped World War II. Historians have argued that cracking the Nazi code shortened the war by two years and saved millions of lives.

Such accolades coming 58 years after his death evidence not only his importance as a historical figure, but also how his ideas continue to influence contemporary research and debate on computer science in our increasingly digitized society. As the “Father of Artificial Intelligence”, Turing’s 1950 article “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” foresaw how rapid advances in information science would produce a future in which the line between human intelligence and artificial intelligence would become blurred. Asking, “can machines think”, Turing postulated that ultimately the true mark of artificial intelligence would be whether or not one could tell the difference between communication with a human versus a machine. Turing’s standards for evaluating artificial intelligence have not only framed the scholarly and ethical debate in the scientific community for the past six decades, but they have also proven to be a prophesy of daily life in the 21st century. Living amongst automated phone banks, internet chatterboxes, GPS navigators, and Apple’s Siri app, everyday life has become a series of Turing tests as we increasingly rely upon forms of artificial intelligence and speak to it as if it were real.

Yet, less emphasis has been placed on the tragedy of his untimely death. In 1952, Turing was arrested and convicted of gross indecency for a consensual sexual relationship with another man, the same 1885 statute under which Oscar Wilde was imprisoned more than half a century earlier. Instead of serving prison time, Turing chose to undergo an experimental hormonal treatment prescribed by the British government. While this chemical castration via a synthetic oestrogen hormone curbed his sex-drive, it had dire side effects. Turing began to grow breasts and developed a deep depression. His conviction also caused him to lose his security clearance, thus barring him from continuing to work with the British intelligence agencies. The man who did as much from inside a laboratory to defeat the Nazis as any general did on the battlefield was now considered a threat to national security solely by virtue of his sexuality. Two years later, on June 8th, 1954, Turing took a few bites from a cyanide-laced apple–an elaborate end designed to let his mother believe that his suicide was actually an accident due to careless storage of laboratory chemicals. In 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an official apology for Turing’s “appalling” treatment, but a 2011 petition to pardon Turing’s conviction was officially denied by the British Government.

While infinitely more qualified scientific minds have written amazing tributes to Turing’s contributions to computer science and mathematics this year, I am interested in what Turing’s life and legacy mean to gay history and queer thought. I first heard of Alan Turing when I was 14 years old and just starting to reconcile my sexuality with the images and stereotypes of gay men in the media. He was mentioned in Time Magazine’s list of the “100 Persons of the Century” and with just a brief blurb on his life and death my concept of what a gay man could achieve and contribute to the world was forever changed. I came of age in an era of unprecedented gay visibility, but the Elton John and “Will and Grace” imagery of an ostentatious, campy gay world did not seem to fit my shy, nerdy bookishness. Although I never excelled in math and science, Turing became one of my first gay heroes because he proved to me that a gay man—a nerdy man, can change the world through the power of his intellect, invent the future, defeat the Nazis, and stand up for his rights. Read the rest of this entry »

Growing up on the Island of Misfit Toys or: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer as a Queer Allegory

In Art, film, Gender Studies, LGBT, Mythology, Performativity, Politics on December 13, 2013 at 10:27 am

The sixth in our on-going series of articles on “The Screen”

Screen Shot 2013-12-11 at 5.29.52 PM

by Chase Dimock

The Misfit Narrative and Queer Youth

The narrative of the misfit character struggling to find his place in the world is a well-used trope for popular entertainment because it is nearly universally identifiable and it lends itself to a light, yet redeeming moral at the end of the story. Everyone, in some capacity, thinks of himself or herself as a misfit to some degree and everyone is accustomed to, yet never contesting of, the simplistic message of tolerance and treating everyone equally.

Yet, the story of Rudolph as a misfit takes on a different dimension for the 50 years worth of queer American children who grew up watching the holiday classic every year on television. While these stories about kindly treating those different from us and not being afraid to be different were commonplace in the American classroom with their examples of not being ashamed to wear glasses, have freckles, stuttering, etc., the narrative of tolerating difference resonates differently for queer youth. Unlike the child with glasses who knows he is the same as other children beneath the glasses, queer youth often feel an intrinsic difference—that they inhabit a different kind of body or gender—almost another species of being. The queer youth is looking for more than a little hope that they will be tolerated and accepted; they are also looking for a subject model to emulate, a guide on how to live as a misfit.

For most of the past 50 years, lgbt youth have had to look for subject models in the abstract. Until the past decade, there were few, if any, lgbt identified characters in the media that their family consumed. Unlike today where lgbt youth have a character on Glee or Modern Family to point to in order to navigate their subject position, children of previous generations (including myself) had to look elsewhere for characters and subject models who mirrored their queerness in non-explicitly gendered or sexual forms. Coming into one’s gay identity meant identifying across a variety of different kinds of queerness and cobbling together a sense of how to think and live in a marginalized subject position by observing and learning from other forms of outsider status, like racial minorities, the disabled, immigrants, the poor—pretty much any oppressed class of people who would have some representation in the media.

In a certain way, maturing into my gay subjectivity by identifying through the similar outsider subject positions of others was beneficial because I saw my gayness as united with other disadvantaged segments of the population. It allowed me to see that some of the challenges facing the lgbt world come not simply from sexual or gender difference, but also from how society defines and polices otherness. Read the rest of this entry »

What’s Queer About Psychoanalysis?

In Freud, Gender Studies, Lacan, LGBT, Literature, Mythology, Politics, Polymorphous Perversity on July 24, 2012 at 5:38 pm

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Magic and the Link Compliment of the Borromean Rings in America

In Freud, Instinct for Research, Lacan, Mythology, Politics on July 16, 2012 at 8:00 am

by Albert Herter

A salvo

The Lacanian want-to-be-analyst in America is not unlike John the Baptist who when asked to identify himself said ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness…’  There is a wildness in the cry of those who cannot be but amateurs (in the sense of lovers and without financial benefit) but on the other slope we have the fate of a tamed and harnessed Lacan, in the stable with all the other thinkers waiting to become usable in American universities, servicing the humanities.  One receives a credential with a sigh of defeat.  But despite this wildness the amateurs would like to contribute to the edifice being constructed across the Atlantic, and in South America.  Eventually we would like to build on New York bedrock.

Marie-Hélène Brousse, during the Paris-USA Lacan Seminar at Barnard College this past September, said that when Lacanian analysis comes to the States it falls flat.  Only in the Arts, specifically directors such as the Coen Brothers, Tarantino, etc., is Lacanian analysis alive and well.  It is alive in so much as it is ‘subversive’ and ‘creative’.  This is in fact my own history, coming from an arts background and education, I found Lacan through a gallery.  I now belong to a reading group that is currently reading Miller’s address to the congress and the group consists primarily of musicians.  There is a dearth of ‘men of letters’ here, no symbolic fortress to support us.  As Lacan already noted during his sojourn in the States – there is a deficiency in the symbolic.  We are adrift in a soup of imaginary phosphorescence, bursting, oozing, continually reconfigured.  No wonder the Health Care Industry compensates with an obsessive reliance on statistics and categories- that makes everything appear impossible.  So this is the field one wishes to practice Lacanian analysis on.  An amorphous threat of litigation is pervasive.  As far as I understand, the bare minimum in order to practice legally is a two-year social worker program.  In some senses two years is not a long time, but in terms of an ethics of desire it is a very long time.  Presumably one learns more than how to call the police if the patient mentions suicide but still.  I considered making analysis my art practice.  At one point I investigated what sort of credential a fortune-teller requires. Perhaps we are the new magicians. W.H. Auden wrote ‘To believe that a world of nature exists, i.e. of things which happen of themselves, is not however invariably made.  Magicians do not make it. ” Just as the Imaginary after the Symbolic is not the same, Magic after Science would not be the same.  One need only conjure up the image of CERN, the 27 km circumference circular tunnel located 100 metres underground with its 2,400 full-time employees searching for the God particle to get a sense of the desperate need to make nature cough up another signifier.

There is a magician in England named Derren Brown who is ‘a performer who combines magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship in order to seemingly predict and control human behaviour, as well as performing mind-bending feats of mentalism’.  He is essentially a cognitive behavioralist suggesting actions to weak-willed volunteers.  In addition to his stage show he has a series where he exposes frauds who claim to speak to the dead or heal the sick.  He keeps company with men like Richard Dawkins.  What I would call the missionaries of science- Brian Greene, Daniel Dennett.  The prevalent magic of today is the magic of suggestion, hypnotism, nudges. Algorithmic magic. Everyone knows that the birth of psychoanalysis was tied to the renunciation of hypnosis.

Rogue analysis, Black Market analysis

The practice of Lacanian analysis in America is irredeemably political, at least for the foreseeable future.

Ego psychology fit very well within the American program of forging individuals, harnessing their desires to the wagon of capitalist growth. A positivism and naivité which wanted to know nothing of lack or castration.  The New Yorker reports that Freud has finally landed on Chinese soil and will hopefully work the same magic, to reinvigorate the engine of endless expansion.  The article asks ‘Does psychoanalysis have a future in an authoritarian state?’  It tells about the suicides of workers at Foxconn factories, which make iPhones and other electronics, and a series of murderous attacks on young children by middle-aged men. According to The Lancet, nearly one-in-five-adults in China has a mental disorder, as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  As regards the USA, perhaps Lacanian analysis has no relevance to a country that has not yet experienced a sort of ‘historical narcissistic disaster’.  Which has not yet been truly occupied.  And it may yet be awhile before the ground is fully prepared.

Read the rest of this entry »

Saint Turing: A Few Reflections on Gay Iconography and Martyrdom on the Occasion of Alan Turing’s 100th Birthday

In Gender Studies, LGBT, Mythology, Politics, Queer Theory on June 23, 2012 at 3:25 am

by Chase Dimock

This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of British mathematician Alan Turing’s birth. In celebration of his enormous contributions to the fields of mathematics, computational science, cryptology, and artificial intelligence, the scientific community has dubbed 2012 the “Alan Turing Year”, commemorating the occasion with numerous conferences, museum exhibitions, a series of articles on his life in the Guardian and BBC, a Google doodle, and even a functional model of his famous Turing Machine made of Legos. By his mid 20s Turing developed his theory of the “Universal Machine”, thus ushering in the age of modern computer science. A decade later, Turing devoted his studies in cryptology toward cracking the German naval enigma. By developing machines known as “bombes” that could decrypt the messages the Nazis relayed to their U-boats, Turing’s intelligence gathering re-shaped World War II. Historians have argued that cracking the Nazi code shortened the war by two years and saved millions of lives.

Such accolades coming 58 years after his death evidence not only his importance as a historical figure, but also how his ideas continue to influence contemporary research and debate on computer science in our increasingly digitized society. As the “Father of Artificial Intelligence”, Turing’s 1950 article “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” foresaw how rapid advances in information science would produce a future in which the line between human intelligence and artificial intelligence would become blurred. Asking, “can machines think”, Turing postulated that ultimately the true mark of artificial intelligence would be whether or not one could tell the difference between communication with a human versus a machine. Turing’s standards for evaluating artificial intelligence have not only framed the scholarly and ethical debate in the scientific community for the past six decades, but they have also proven to be a prophesy of daily life in the 21st century. Living amongst automated phone banks, internet chatterboxes, GPS navigators, and Apple’s Siri app, everyday life has become a series of Turing tests as we increasingly rely upon forms of artificial intelligence and speak to it as if it were real.

Yet, less emphasis has been placed on the tragedy of his untimely death. In 1952, Turing was arrested and convicted of gross indecency for a consensual sexual relationship with another man, the same 1885 statute under which Oscar Wilde was imprisoned more than half a century earlier. Instead of serving prison time, Turing chose to undergo an experimental hormonal treatment prescribed by the British government. While this chemical castration via a synthetic oestrogen hormone curbed his sex-drive, it had dire side effects. Turing began to grow breasts and developed a deep depression. His conviction also caused him to lose his security clearance, thus barring him from continuing to work with the British intelligence agencies. The man who did as much from inside a laboratory to defeat the Nazis as any general did on the battlefield was now considered a threat to national security solely by virtue of his sexuality. Two years later, on June 8th, 1954, Turing took a few bites from a cyanide-laced apple–an elaborate end designed to let his mother believe that his suicide was actually an accident due to careless storage of laboratory chemicals. In 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an official apology for Turing’s “appalling” treatment, but a 2011 petition to pardon Turing’s conviction was officially denied by the British Government.

While infinitely more qualified scientific minds have written amazing tributes to Turing’s contributions to computer science and mathematics this year, I am interested in what Turing’s life and legacy mean to gay history and queer thought. I first heard of Alan Turing when I was 14 years old and just starting to reconcile my sexuality with the images and stereotypes of gay men in the media. He was mentioned in Time Magazine’s list of the “100 Persons of the Century” and with just a brief blurb on his life and death my concept of what a gay man could achieve and contribute to the world was forever changed. I came of age in an era of unprecedented gay visibility, but the Elton John and “Will and Grace” imagery of an ostentatious, campy gay world did not seem to fit my shy, nerdy bookishness. Although I never excelled in math and science, Turing became one of my first gay heroes because he proved to me that a gay man—a nerdy man, can change the world through the power of his intellect, invent the future, defeat the Nazis, and stand up for his rights.

This brings me to the first of my appeals for Turing’s importance to the modern gay rights movement: Gay nerds deserve a gay icon. In this month of June, the month of LGBT pride I am reminded of our community’s production of iconography. From Mae West to Lady Gaga, we have been inspired by strong, sexually transgressive women that challenge gender roles and have supported their gay followers. Entertainers have Freddie Mercury, Ian McKellen, and a new generation of young talent like Neil Patrick Harris to look up to. Literary gays like me have Oscar Wilde. Gus Van Sant’s film Milk sold Hollywood on the idea that Harvey Milk was the gay Martin Luther King Jr. and Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign has launched him as the digital gay guidance counselor for queer teenagers. Yet, no place in the world of gay iconography has been carved for Alan Turing. Read the rest of this entry »

A Brief Chronicle of the Long Life of a Nobody

In Art, Gender Studies, LGBT, Literature, Mythology, Poetry, Uncategorized on May 29, 2012 at 11:30 am

by Jim Elledge

Internationally-recognized, self-taught artist Henry Darger lived in utter poverty his entire life. Not long after he was born in Chicago (April 12, 1892), his impoverished parents moved out of the respectable, blue-collar neighborhood in which they had lived for several years into a coach-house apartment behind 165 West Adams just west of the Loop. That address was at the threshold of Chicago’s most notorious vice district, called West Madison Street after its chief thoroughfare.

Henry’s father went into a tailspin after a string of tragedies blind-sided him. His second son, Arthur, born a year and a half after Henry, died when he was only five months old, and then his wife Rosa died giving birth to their third child, a daughter. Almost sixty years old, too old (he felt) to be taking care of both an infant and a toddler, he immediately put his daughter up for adoption. The loss of his wife and children was too much for him, and he abandoned himself to drink and Henry to the dark streets—and even darker denizens—of West Madison Street.

Henry’s experiences during his earliest days in the vice district were, in a word, horrific as his autobiography, The History of My Life, reveals. He purposely knocked down children younger than he; sliced his teacher’s face and arms with a knife he carried when she punished him for an infraction; flung ashes into the eyes of a little neighborhood girl; committed arson to get even with a neighbor man; was nearly kidnapped by a homeless man; had a relationship with a night watchman; and was removed from his father’s house by authorities who institutionalized him in Dunning among the insane, indigent, and mentally ill—all before he was eight years old. Henry’s anger, violent behavior, and early sexual activities are symptomatic of child sexual abuse. Small for his age, Henry was an easy target.

In 1900, embarrassed by his eight-year-old son’s conduct and unable to cope with him, Henry’s father pawned the boy off on the priests who ran the Mission of Our Lady of Mercy, where he would live for the next four years. After more behavioral problems, which included being involved sexually with at least three other boys at the Mission, the priests told Henry’s father that Henry had to go. By then, his father was living in St. Augustine’s Home for the Aged, had no money with which to help his son, and had no room to take him in. Instead, he contacted a doctor, told him that Henry had been masturbating since he was six years old (another symptom of sexual abuse), and asked him to examine the boy. After meeting with Henry on two separate occasions, Dr. Otto Schmidt helped Henry’s father to fill out the form that would allow them to exile the now twelve-year-old to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, IL. On Thanksgiving Day 1904, Tim Rooney took Henry by train to the Asylum.

Institutionalizing children for “self-abuse” (the term that was most often used for masturbation) was entirely legal and ubiquitous at the time. Physicians across the country supported institutionalization, and some even went so far as to recommend castration. Henry wasn’t the only boy sent to the Asylum for self-abuse. In fact, four other boys—three, twelve, thirteen, and nineteen years old—were admitted within of a month of the day when Henry arrived, each because of self-abuse.

As it turned out, the Asylum was a hellhole. While attendants had many techniques that they used to control the boys in their care, they were fond of strangling boys until they were close to blacking out, their tongues protruding and their faces turning blue. In such a condition, the boys were unable or unwilling to resist whatever the adult had in mind for them. At the same time, the prisons in Illinois had been filled to capacity, and the courts decided to send the overflow of male criminals to live—and sleep—among the boys at the Asylum. The smaller, weaker boys were at the mercy of the larger, stronger boys and men in the beds beside them.

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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).

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The Newborn Aestheticization of Brazilian Misery

In film, Mythology, Polymorphous Perversity, Primitive Traumas on January 15, 2012 at 11:08 pm

                       Image

by Diego Costa

The film is “Vidas Secas”, or “Barren Lives.” The director is Nelson Pereira dos Santos and it’s 1963. The black-and-white film stock seems to crackle along with the drought-stricken land on which the characters step. They are a family searching for water, food, maybe even work. The dog is a barely animate sliver of flesh, the children not that much different. They make their way through the arid backlands of Northeastern Brazil as if obeying some kind of ontological compass one would reach if all of the ideological and historical gunk could be physically deconstructed. A kind of desperate drive stuck on the last bit of brittle bone before whatever humanity was left melted back into the earth. This isn’t the allegorical “becoming animal” borne out of the kind of existential wretchedness in the last scene of Béla Tarr’s “Damnation” (1988), when a man in a suit in the middle of nowhere ends up getting down on all fours and barking back at a stray communist doomsday dog in some kind of recoupling. The scenes also bear none of the spent humanity-cum-figurative bestiality of the horny garbage man in a rubber cat-suit finding solace in a no-man’s-land garbage dump in Joao Pedro Rodrigues’ “O Fantasma” (2000). This is misery so de facto that representing it requires a good bit of perversity. The kind of misery that is as abundant in certain corners of the world as it is perennially projected into an elsewhere that “Africa,” “Haiti,” or “developing world,” seem increasingly unfit to single-handedly contain.

ImageAt the same time “Barren Lives” was being made a brand new city, Brasília, was being built from scratch (with a manmade lake and all) in the middle of Brazil. The parallels couldn’t be more contrasting: the frail bodies of the Northeasterners headed to some elsewhere/nowhere and the modernist edification of large phallic structures for the new Brazilian capital. The irony seems more narrative-friendly once so many of the hungry travellers end up electing Brasília as the promise-land and populating not the city itself, but the slew of unaccounted-for slum-like “satellite cities” surrounding it.Who could have known, then, that five decades later, the city spawned as artificially as the Northeasterners’ misery was thought to be “natural,” would be home to Mangai. A branch of a restaurant that already exists in the Brazilian Northeast itself, Mangai is nothing short of a spectacle normally reserved to countries whose ethos is more imbricated in artifice. Mangai is outrageous bad taste of the Americana sort, a cartoonish appropriation akin to Mall of America’s Rainforest Café in which servers introduce themselves as tour guides of the amazing “adventure” patrons are about to embark in. Located in a new development by the (manmade) lake Paranoá, alongside several extravagant restaurants and the popular food kiosks selling hot dogs and corn-on-the-cob that such things beget, one has to climb a few flights of stairs to arrive at Mangai’s entrance. There one finds a collection of hammocks, as if the thematic substitutes of comfy couches for waiting or a babysitting-like McDonald’s playground. Read the rest of this entry »

What’s Queer About Psychoanalysis?

In Barthes, Freud, Lacan, LGBT, Mythology, Queer Theory, Stockton on November 21, 2011 at 11:47 pm

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. Read the rest of this entry »