the naked gaze

politics, theory, and cultural critique

carlos rojas

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Obscene Images (1)

Sigmund Freud, who would have celebrated his 150th birthday on Saturday (one day after Marx’s birthday), began his scientific career, as Benedict Carey noted in the NY Times a couple of weeks ago, dissecting eels:
He examined hundreds of the animals, working long hours amid stench and slime, peering through a microscope at countless tissue samples, in search of an organ that had eluded earlier anatomists -- male testicles.

''Since eels do not keep diaries,'' the investigator, 19-year-old Sigmund Freud, wrote to a friend in the spring of 1876, the only way to determine gender was to cut and slice, ''but in vain, all the eels which I cut open are of the fairer sex.''
He ended the letter by sketching an eel, swimming through the text, its face fixed with a slight, Mona Lisa smile.
As psychoanalyst Mark Solms noted recently on NPR (and repeats again in the exhibit catalogue), this biographical detail is uncannily appropriate: the father of psychoanalysis, whose reputation is closely linked (for better or for worse) in the popular imagination with the notion of castration anxiety, appearing in an adolescent quest to visually confirm the existence of male reproductive organs of eels.

[And furthermore, to state the obvious, eels themselves can be considered quintessential “phallic symbols” (a theme developed in fascinating detail, for instance, in Graham Swift’s 1983 novel Waterland; the subsequent film version of which was directed by Stephen Gyllenhall, 1992)—thereby yielding a paradox similar to that which the more mature Freud will later attribute women, whereby women function as symbols and visual reminders of the possibility of castration, while at the same time themselves standing as phallic symbols or phallic substitutes.]

As intriguing as this account of the adolescent Freud’s compulsively cutting open of figuratively castrated, phallic eels might be, what is perhaps even more intriguing is the description of the Freud’s doodle of an (effeminate?) eel, “swimming through the text” of his handwritten letter to his friend. Dating from the very beginning of Freud’s scientific career, when his focus was more on anatomy and physiology rather than the workings of the psyche, this playful doodle suggests an early attempt to engage with issues located at the limit-point of visual representation—using a visual sketch as a displaced substitute for the invisible (or non-visible) object of investigation.

By the same token, this eel doodle similarly stands at the figurative entry-point into the on-going exhibition of drawings from throughout Freud’s career at the New York Academy of Medicine. The Academy’s press release describes the exhibit in explicitly visual terms:
Freud’s stockpile of must-see scientific drawings and diagrams from throughout his nearly 60-year career has been largely absent from public view. […]

“This is the Freud you don’t know,” said Miriam Mandelbaum, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Academy. “This is Freud as he has not really been presented in popular literature. His scientific training is overlooked.”
In using terms like “must-see,” “absent from public view,” and “overlooked,” the NYAM press release deliberately plays off of the same issues of visibility and invisibility which lie at the heart of the exhibit itself. The exhibit demonstrates the degree to which Freud, who was an accomplished draftsman, systematically moved from illustrations of visible anatomical and neurological structures, to schematic illustrations of inherently "invisible" delocalized mental processes. A similar progression can be seen within the history of psychology itself, from Jean-Martin Charcot’s famous photographic catalogues of hysterics in the 1870s and 80s, to Freud’s eventual use of the “talking cure” to diagnose the non-visible, unconscious foundations of hysteria and other neuroses. In other words, one of the central elements of the Freudian method consists in making visible the non-visible, while the same time stressing the a priori importance of that nonvisiblity in the first place.

Indeed, within Freudian theory in general, the unconscious tends to be described as that which remains buried from view, though Jon from Posthegemony in a very interesting post notes that, in a late essay,
Freud turns this metaphor on its head. In "A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis," ruins stand for what is clearly in view, in front of the analyst's face. And the issue here is why what is so straightforwardly visible, uncompromisingly material, should be strangely denied or disavowed.
That, indeed, is perhaps one of the central paradoxes of the psychoanalytic inquiry--that it purports to reveal that which is, be definition, not visible, though the method of this inquiry is, at the same time, predicated on the conviction that the workings of the unconscious are nevertheless ubiquitously visible, if only one knows how to look for them—a paradox concisely summed up in the tag-line of the X-Files (which Zizek is fond of citing): “The truth is out there.”

Speaking, however, of talking cures and adolescent angst, Freud’s eel doodle brings to mind the recent brouhaha over “Harvard sophomore” Kaavya Viswanathan’s alleged plagiarism in her debut novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life (for which she signed the half a million dollar book contract two years ago at the age of 17—coincidentally the same age as Freud at the time of the doodle). Joining a growing list of memoirs which turn out to be not what they claim (see James Frey and JT Leroy), Viswanathan ultimately defended herself by claiming that “I wasn’t aware of how much I may have internalized Ms. McCafferty’s words...Any phrasing similarities between her works and mine were completely unintentional and unconscious.” Although subsequent commentators have been openly skeptical about the truth value of this claim, most nevertheless appear to accept the inherent intelligibility of the terms of the explanation itself. As the Harvard Independent remarked, for instance,
Viswanathan’s explanation certainly sounds reasonable — what young writer hasn’t been inspired, perhaps to the point of slavish imitation, by the work of a particularly affecting role model? But was McCafferty truly such a figure for Viswanathan? [emphases added]
What is perhaps most interesting here, therefore, is not so much the question of whether Viswanathan did or did not “unintentional[ly] and unconscious[ly] adopt other writers’ words, but rather what the incident reveals about the status of psychoanalytic concepts and terminology within contemporary culture. That is, even in an intellectual climate in which Freud is routinely mocked for his over-reliance on sexual explanations (a caricature I like to refer to as “vulgar Freudianism”), concepts such as that of the unconscious (a foundational element of modern psychoanalysis) have by and large been successfully naturalized and internalized by contemporary American culture.

On a similar note, the same NY Times article further observed that
Some of the plagiarism may have happened because she has a photographic memory, Ms. Viswanathan said. ''I remember by reading,'' she said. ''I never take notes.''
Although the Times doesn’t explicitly attribute the phrase “photographic memory” to Viswanathan, the choice of words here is revealing. To begin with, it would appear that the term “photographic memory” is being used here in a very colloquial sense, rather than necessarily implying a precise analogy with workings of a camera. Indeed, Viswanathan’s claim of unconscious appropriation would appear to closely mirror Helen Keller’s similar explanation that she had internalized (though, we may safely assume, not in a “photographic” way) Margaret Canby's "The Frost Fairies" in her story "The Frost King":
I have ever since been tortured by the fear that what I write is not my own. For a long time, when I wrote a letter, even to my mother, I was seized with a sudden feeling, and I would spell the sentences over and over, to make sure that I had not read them in a book. It is certain that I cannot always distinguish my own thoughts from those I read, because what I read become the very substance and texture of my mind.
[In Slate, Joshua Foer uses the Viswanathan incident as a pretext for unleashing a detailed critique of the whole notion of “photographic memory”—a term which he rather mysteriously insists on interpreting very literally (in the sense of the mind functioning like a high-resolution camera) though it is not at all clear that Viswanathan or anyone else was using it in that way].

Like the “unintentional and unconscious” phrase, however, what is most interesting about the reference to “photographic memory” is perhaps not so what it says about Viswanathan, but rather what it reveals about contemporary culture. More specifically, the impulse to think of memory as operating photographically is arguably a symptom of a more general phenomenon which Walter Benjamin, in his essay “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction,” famously referred to as the “optical unconscious” ("The camera introduces us to unconscious optics…."), or the degree to which visual technologies such as the camera have come to inform the ways in which we perceive the world.

If Freud’s eel doodle as a 17 year old can be viewed as a figurative entry-point into his subsequent engagement with the non-visible during his professional career, another, much more famous, image (or rather, a pair of images) marks one symbolic end-point of that same trajectory. The image in question is a famous portrait which Salvador Dalí sketched of Freud when he was 82. On July 19th, 1938, Sefan Zweig introduced Salvador Dalí to Freud, during which meeting Dalí made a surreptitious sketch of Freud, which subsequently provided the basis for ominously morbid pen and ink drawing. Zweig, however, refused to allow either sketch or drawing to be shown to Freud, on the grounds that the sketch revealed Freud’s imminent death (Freud passed away a year later, on Sept. 23, 1939). Like the eel doodle, therefore, the Dalí sketch similarly uses visual images to represent that which effectively lies beyond the reach of the gaze (i.e., the eel gonads, and Freud’s deadly cancer. From the non-visible to the visible, from eros and thanatos, these twin images nicely encapsulate one component of Freud’s legacy.
(Part 1 of 3)


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