Desire for the Other: “Together and Separately”
New York University, 4 November 2011
“Desire for the Other: Critical Theory and Psychoanalysis In Conversation” was the latest in a series of collaborations between the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, NYU’s Post-Doctoral Program in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, and the journal Studies in Gender and Sexuality, with additional support from the NYU Humanities Initiative: Interdisciplinary Freud Reading Group. The series brings together clinicians and critical theorists, in order to “create shared conversations about, and against, psychoanalysis, as well as productively unsettle… received notions of what it means to be given into and by discourse,” according to CSGS director Ann Pellegrini, who introduced the event. The roundtable was organized around the recent volume With Culture In Mind: Psychoanalytic Stories, and the evening was moderated by Muriel Dimen, the book’s editor. Two contributors, Orna Guralnik and Eyal Rozmarin, presented selections from the volume, followed by responses from NYU faculty members Ben Kafka and Amber Musser.
Dimen described the decades-long development of the project, which had its roots in the mid-80s in a seminar at the NY Institute for the Humanities: as she said, “we are finally having the cross-disciplinary conversation we have always wanted to have, and it has taken this long to do it.” The essays in the collection “come out of a common history of research” in the joint between psychic and social theories of psychoanalysis, with a desire to develop a common vocabulary “between the clinical world and the academic world.” Many contributors to the volume traffic in both, with clinical and academic training.
Orna Guralnik started the roundtable with an excerpt from With Culture In Mind, in which she described a pivotal moment in a session with a patient, Grace. During the session, Grace wondered aloud “maybe I’m not really gay,” a question prompted by her ambivalent response to being hit on inappropriately by her straight male friend Joe. While Grace was flattered by Joe’s attention, Guralnik understood Joe’s actions to be unconsciously homophobic, his attempt to “straighten out the situation” and interpellate Grace into socially legible heterosexuality. Guralnik called this “one of those moments” in analysis, a “point of urgency,” in which analysts must make a choice with “profound implications” for their patient. In this particular moment, Guralnik described her choice as deliberately political, informed more by Judith Butler’s description of the “social death of delegitimization” than Freud’s theories of disassociation. She concluded with the sentiment: “in our offices we try to crack open new conditions of possibility,” a statement that also speaks to the evening’s organizing principle.
Eyal Rozmarin began his remarks “with Deleuze and Guattari in mind,” as he considered questions of kinship, real and imagined, particularly in an Israeli context haunted by the spectre of the Holocaust: how much influence do parents have on the choices their children make, and should parents try to persuade children against army service? These questions followed a session in which Rozmarin, as a “transferential father,” was confronted with one of the “realities of parenting,” namely, that social belonging or group identity often takes precedence over familial influence. In the session he discussed, which was also the focus of one of his essays in the volume, his patient, Asaf, whose grandfather survived Auschwitz and who himself joined the Israeli army as a teenager, expressed his support for and identification with the Israeli army. This exchange happened in January 2009, and, as Rozmarin noted, “Israel had just attacked Gaza.” This prompted an argument between Rozmarin and his patient Asaf (both of them Israelis who live in New York) about war, which ended with Asaf calling Rozmarin “crazy”—not an ideal transferential relationship. Reflecting on this session, Rozmarin argued that Asaf was “a hostage of ideology,” a state in which “to be means to belong,” and which lets us “avoid the crisis of identity without resolution.” Rozmarin acknowledged the loss and disorientation to be found outside of that belonging, while also arguing that such a feeling of belonging is perhaps what haunts us, as we search for the elusive “fantasy of personal happiness.” He ended with the provocation: “What might our lives be like if we are not the victims of our own history?”
Amber Musser took up the thread of kinship and belonging in her response, with the question, “how does kinship work with subjectivity?,” and presented the work of Frantz Fanon “as part of a lineage of thinking queer kinship,” in line with recent work by queer cultural theorists David Eng and Elizabeth Freeman. She argued that Fanon “allows us to theorize kinship as a feeling.” This is a move with both clinical and political utility, as it allows us to think about kinship outside of the bounds of nation and family and consider “subjectivity and pleasure” as “the stakes of belonging.” Musser’s presentation added a new question to Rozmarin’s: how we might “enlarge the possibilities” for other histories, other futures?
In the most contentious presentation of the evening, Ben Kafka confessed his critical attitude about With Culture in Mind’s championing of “the new psychoanalysis.” As he said, he is “not yet ready to abandon the old psychoanalysis.” He elaborated this with a championing of Freud, both broadly—“without Freud, no Adorno; no Lacan, no Althusser, no Foucault, no Badiou, no Butler”—and particularly in relation to ideology and interpellation. While he expressed his admiration and respect for the book’s project, agreeing that a conversation between theory and practice is crucial— “critical theory only becomes critical when it encounters psychoanalysis,” and it “only remains critical” so long as it continues to do so, he provocatively suggested—he also insisted that “psychoanalysis is at its best when it preserves the specificity of its object,” namely, the unconscious and its effects. He argued that interpellation is a function of the preconscious—Freud’s term—which is the “grey area” between conscious and unconscious, and “in which we can locate that place in us that is ready to respond to interpellation’s call.”
The roundtable concluded with a heated but productive disagreement between the panelists over the stakes of these terms, which Guralnik called a “territorial battle over the unconscious.” Guralnik responded to Kafka’s distinction between interpellation as unconscious or preconscious by arguing that “the claim that certain things belong to the domain of the unconscious” but that the sociopolitical belongs to the realm of the preconscious is “a little bit of a power move by psychoanalysis.” In other words, she understood Kafka’s reading of Freudian psychoanalysis as stating: “that’s not the unconscious hence that’s not our business.” Kafka responded that he didn’t consider this a power play, but rather an attempt to home in on “what’s true about the truth” of ideology and interpellation.
The fine points of the ensuing discussion took the better part of an hour, and involved all four panelists, Dimen, and several articulate audience members. As the clock ticked the end of the extended session for the forum, the disagreement was ultimately left tantalizingly unresolved, demonstrating both the difficulty of coming to a common conversation between theory and practices of psychoanalysis, and also the richness to be had in continued attempts.
Julia DeLeon is a PhD student in Performance Studies at NYU.