Psychoanalysis and film: an exchange

In JUMP CUT 4 Julia Lesage critiqued the way some Freudian concepts were used in the special Brecht issue of Screen (15:2, Summer 1974). Lesage’s article, “The Human Subject—You, He, or Me? (Or, the Case of the Missing Penis),” was reprinted in the Summer 1975 issue of Screen, on psychoanalysis and cinema, followed by a “Comment” from the authors of the articles Lesage criticized: Ben Brewster, Stephen Heath, and Cohn MacCabe. We are pleased to extend the discussion by reprinting the “Comment.” It is followed by Chuck Kleinhans’ response to Brewster, Heath, and MacCabe.  —eds.


by Ben Brewster, Stephen Heath, and
Colin MacCabe

from Jump Cut, no. 9, 1975, pp. 27-28

Julia Lesage’s critique of the Screen special number on Brecht can be divided into three main areas of emphasis: 1. the proposal of orthodox ‘Freudianism’ as the trap into which contributors to that number have fallen; 2. the identification of a fundamental distortion of Barthes’ S/Z in a previous editorial; 3. the objection to the use of the concept of fetishism in the course of discussions concerning representation. In what follows, an attempt will be made to look at these points of criticism in the interests of an understanding of the issues they raise, leaving aside the element of attack so pronounced in the overall development of the critique. If there are errors in our work, it may be that they stem from significant problems which, however inadequately for the moment, we are trying to resolve and which more ‘rage’ is unlikely to help us to clarify. Not primarily a ‘reply,’ the real ambition of this comment is thus the demonstration of these problems and hence of our theoretical tasks, of the situation of the work we are doing.

It is certain that Screen contributors refer to Freud and that this reference has been increasingly important over the last few numbers (as it will be, doubtless, over those to come). What is much less certain is the characterization of the reference in conjunction with the idea of a monolithic ‘orthodox Freudianism.’ Evidently, the context and orthodoxy of psychoanalysis differ widely from continent to continent, from country to country; Lesage’s American experience is not ours: in Britain, psychoanalysis has never known that massive socio-ideological expansion-in-exploitation and the initial intellectual enthusiasm for Freud lapsed after the war into stolid resistance broken occasionally by bursts of violent dismissal, psychoanalysis coming to represent, in every sense of the word, the unspeakable. More relevantly here, orthodoxy varies from school to school and from Association to Association (as well as within them): it is, in fact, precisely the current activity of the theoretical debate that is a major factor in our reference to psychoanalysis. The idea of the ‘Freudian orthodoxy’ is for us far from helpful (unless, the orthodoxy once having been specified as the social exploitation in ideology of ‘vulgarized Freudian concepts,’ its relations to Freud’s scientific constructions are carefully examined—from which examination can then be posed the difficulties with regard to the implications of the former in the latter, the difficulties of the ideological investment in science, not simply in its use but also in its discourse) and appears to operate finally as a straight rejection of any practical consideration of Freud and psychoanalysis (which is to avoid the problems of investment and cast Freudian analysis as totally ideological, as furnishing no hold of knowledge).

As was said, we refer to Freud, to Freudian concepts, and it is here that those questions emerge which are central for the intelligibility of our work: why do we make this reference? what do we understand by psychoanalysis? The questions come together into one, and any answer at this stage can only be offered in acknowledging with Althusser that

“whoever wishes today to comprehend Freud’s revolutionary discovery, at once recognize its existence and grasp its meaning, must, at the cost of great critical and theoretical effort, cross the vast terrain of ideological prejudice which separates us from Freud.”

The contours of that terrain are made dear in Lesage’s critique and its pitfalls can no doubt be seen in the articles on Brecht: there is no ready way into some purity of discourse—only, as best we are able, critical and theoretical effort.

The texts against Freud and Freudianism from within the women’s movement that Lesage cites may be legitimate protests against the oppression of women and its ideological justification by certain currents of Freudian thought, to be found even within Freud’s own writing: but the quotations and references she assembles are beside the point. It makes no difference whether or no there is a homology between little boys’ fantasies and certain concepts of psychoanalytic theory; a critique of that theory can only be based on an examination of how those concepts work within it. It was not Freud’s intention to prescribe recipes for the maximum of sexual pleasure or to judge between the capacities of men and women, the different erotogenic zones or the various types of object choice in this respect. ‘The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman’ (Standard Edition, Vol. XVIII, pp. 14572) shows this clearly; it also shows that, without lapsing into notions of ‘intersubjectivity,’ Freud was quite capable of taking his patients’ families and other social relations into account, both insofar as patients bring them into analysis directly, and insofar as special issues are raised when it is the patients’ families’ desires rather than the patients’ own that lead them into analysis in the first place. All these arguments have been more than adequately dealt with by Juliet Mitchell in her Psychoanalysis and Feminism (now available as a Pelican paperback). Here we need only concentrate on two points. First, the incompatibility of the different authorities she cites. Various kinds of Freudian revisionism, the ‘existentialist psychoanalysis ‘ of Laing, already much more remote from the psychoanalytic tradition, and the ‘sexology’ of Masters and Johnson cannot be synthesized into any coherent position from which it would be possible to move from a protest against oppression to the knowledge of that oppression which is also. a precondition (but not the only or the first one) of its removal. Second, the position that does tie together this assemblage of contradictory anti-Freudianisms, and also Lesage’s refusal of one of the central theses of the Brecht issue of Screen which she so ably summarizes, is the desire for a social practice that will give as much sanction to the ‘ feminine’ as it does to the ‘masculine.’ But her formulation of the desire presupposes the natural pre-existence of masculine and feminine subjects: what she really rejects in Freud is the thesis of bisexuality. As one of us wrote in a related connection in Screen 16:1, Spring 1975, p. 133, this formulation

“entails the position that there is a definitely defined male sexuality which can simply find expression and also an already existent female sexuality which simply lacks expression.”

She presumes that the oppression of women, or rather of ‘femininity.’ is only the secondary ‘conditioning’ of the feminine subject by discriminatory law and education reinforced by ideological institutions such as psychoanalytic practice, and even film criticism. Our articles in the Brecht issue and since may argue that this oppression is more deeply rooted, but this implies neither that we assume a monolithic masculine subject, nor that we are reconciled to an ineradicable inferiority of women.

In this connection, a note might be inserted here in respect of the linguistic sexism of Screen contributors as manifested in the use made of ‘he’ as the pronoun for the term ‘subject.’ The criticism as made is both right and wrong: right, because language weighs with a pressure that only the vigilance of others can help us to” determine; wrong, because the problem is more complex than the expression it receives: all that is achieved by substituting ‘people’ for ‘he’ is a collapse into an essentialism of the person (the expunging, that is, of the whole reality of the psychoanalytic intervention); in fact, what is probably needed in English is a movement between ‘it,’ the subject in psychoanalysis, male and female (remember the importance of the thesis of bisexuality), and the subject defined as exchange value in the ideological assignation of discourse in so far as this is the positioning of a ‘masculinity’ in which ‘femininity’ is placed and displaced’(‘masculinity’ and femininity,’ and this is precisely that importance of the bisexuality thesis, being the blocking opposition of a process that escapes it on the ‘body of each individual); such positioning is effective in the structures of representation with which the Brecht articles dealt—whence the tendency towards ‘he’ (more correctly, therefore,'[s]he’).

Let us come back to the questions of the reference to psychoanalysis. By psychoanalysis, we understand a science whose specific object is the unconscious and its formations, and which, as such, is a necessary component of historical materialism in the knowledge it produces of the construction of the subject:

  “the unconscious is a concept forged on the trail of what operates to constitute the subject” (Jacques Lacan, Ecrits, Paris 1966; all subsequent quotations are from this work).

The orthodoxy’ to which we refer is thus that which can be grasped in Freud’s writings in this perspective and this perspective has been focused above all in Lacan’s restitution of Freudian analysis as ‘materialist theory of language,’ of the ‘talking cure’ (Anna O’s description of the treatment Breuer created with her and which Freud was so radically to develop) as the attention brought to bear on the positions of the subject in the symbolic. To refuse to pose the instance of the subject is to fall into idealism (the unity of consciousness as the founding disposition of the world) or its crude ‘materialist’ counterpart (the subject-atom). Hence our attempt to think this instanced to articulate the process of the subject within historical materialism, and our reference to psychoanalysis as science of this articulation.

What does all this have to do with film? As a step towards an answer, two things may be stressed. Firstly, there is a need to mark out a distance from traditional notions of ‘applying’ psychoanalysis to film: as science psychoanalysis is not to be applied ‘from outside,’ so to speak, to accepted fields of interest: it cuts across, largely and differently, those fields, constituting new ‘objects,’ new points of interrogation. The problem is to understand the terms of the construction of the subject and the modalities of the replacement of this construction in specific signifying practices, where ‘replacement’ means not merely the repetition of the place of that construction but also, more difficultly, the supplacement—the overplacing: supplementation or, in certain circumstances, supplantation (critical interruption)—of that construction in the place of its repetition. For example (an example which extends a remark made in another context by Christian Metz in his article): there is a relation between mirror phase and cinematic institution that should be examined. yet the condition of such an examination is exactly the non-reduction of the relation: nothing is to be gained by describing cinema as the mirror-phase, the crux is the relation, that is, the difference, the supplacement—refiguration of a subject-spectator who has already completed the mirror-phase; it is the figure of the subject as turning-point (circulation) between image and industry (poles of the cinematic institution) which demands study. Our hypothesis, therefore, is that a crucial—determining—part of the functioning of ideological systems is the establishment of a series of machines (institutions) which move—placing of desire—the subject (‘sender’ and ‘receiver’) in an appropriation of the symbolic into the imaginary (the definition of miscognition). When we talked of representation (the exhaustion of the heterogeneity of the process of the subject in the symbolic) and used the concept of fetishism (the denial of work: that is, of heterogeneity and process) to identify its mechanism, we were tentatively beginning to explore this hypothesis, offering a point from which it could be formulated.

Secondly, as was briefly indicated above, the justification of a materialist theory of language is its attention to the passage of the subject in the symbolic, a subject radically excentric to the chain in which it never ceases to insist in the intermittence of the signifying elements—thus

“a signifier represents a subject for another signifier” (p. 840).

Linguistically, this slide can be seized in the disjunction of the sujet de l'énoncé, and the sujet de l'énonciation. In the utterance ‘I am lying,’ for example, it is evident that the subject of the proposition is not one with the subject of the enunciation of the proposition and vice versa; the ‘I’ cannot lie on both planes at once (dream, lapsus and joke are so many disorders of the regulation of these planes, of the exchange between subject and signifier). From here (and Freud himself alludes to this turning division when he compares the multiple appearance of the ego in a dream with anaphoric pronominalisation in such sentences as “When I think what I've done to this man”), the question can be posed as to the foundation of knowledge in the homogeneity of the self-reflexive consciousness, a question to which the discovery of the unconscious replies by the demonstration of division, of a work, of the constitutive impossibility of a cohesion between enoncé and énonciation as the simple identity of the subject:

“The only homogenous function of consciousness is the imaginary capture of the ego by its specular reflection and the function of miscognition which rests attached to it” (p. 832).

Question and reply are vital for what is at stake is the opening of theory to the very force of the articulation of desire: the unconscious is not there as the term of some primitive desire or instinct trying to break through into the higher level of consciousness; rather it is desire that is the term of the unconscious, of the entry into the symbolic, into language which escapes the subject in its structure and effects, something in language which is beyond consciousness and where the function of desire can be located. Divided in the passage into and in language (nothing to do with the existential anguish of the ‘divided self’: the division is formative; not to recognize this is, precisely, fetishism), the subject moves across the discursive play of consciousness and unconscious, image and letter (‘material support that discourse borrows from language’), according to the determination of the lack (castration) in which it, the subject, is introduced, which it introduces the manque-à-être (‘lack-in-being’)—in which desire is inscribed: at the same time that the discourse figures the subject, the subject indexes the discourse as lack, the turning of desire:

“the drama of the subject in language is the experience of this manque-à-être ... it is because it fends off this moment of lack that an image takes up the position of bearing the whole cost of desire: projection, function of the imaginary ... against this is set up in the very core of l'être, to indicate the gap, an index: introjection, relation to the symbolic ...” (p 655).

The basis of the psychoanalytic discovery is the articulation of the construction of the subject with regard to sexuality through the division of the entry into the symbolic and the disposition of real, imaginary and symbolic in this process. Crucial here is then the phallus:

“the phallus ... is the signifier of the very loss that the subject suffers by the discontinuity of the signifying” (p 715);

“it is at the moment when the subject passes from being to having in the quest for the phallus that is inscribed the Spaltung [splitting] by which the subject is jointed with the logos” (p 642).

In other words, the phallus is the signifier on which hinges the dependence of the access to genital sexuality with regard to a movement received as exclusion (from being the phallus):

“analysis reveals that the phallus has the function of the signifier of the manque-à-être which determines the subject’s relation to the signifying” (p 710).

It is this function and determination for which the Oedipus provides a description.

It is this problem of description, of course, which causes all the difficulties of which the Lesage critique is one form of expression. Without in any sense entering into the detail of these difficulties. even less pretending to resolve them, it may be worthwhile making one or two remarks concerning their levels of pertinence since it is not always dear that these are grasped in their formulation Thus, much confusion is created by the conflation of ‘phallus’ and ‘penis’ where the former is precisely the signifier of the term of the relation between mother and infant (boy or girl) which the Oedipus remodels in its translation from being to having the phallus. a translation potentially available in a plurality of modes notwithstanding the blockage that the necessary interarticulation with a given set of social definitions may operate. The crux of psychoanalysis is not this or that definition but the difficult dialectic between being and having in the movement of need, demand and desire. If ‘phallic’ is simply made to mean ‘masculine’ and hence ‘repressive,’ and then pushed back onto psychoanalysis as a monolithic orthodoxy, it will be easy to dismiss Freud, but what gets dismissed along with this is, again, the whole question of the process of the subject. Nothing stops you criticizing Freudian constructions for example, the notion of ‘penis-envy’but it is essential that in so doing the real issues should be seen—the issue of the desire of the mother in the register of being, the modalities of its conversion in a structure that may return the position of a ‘penis-envy.’ In this respect, the introduction of the idea of fetishism in the discussion of representation was exactly the exploration of a form of positionality; the effect of the argument was not to identify cinema and fetishism (so that the question is not one of endowing representations with penises) but to examine the positioning of object and subject in a pattern of disavowal, a certain structural security (even if the terms of the objection were to be accepted, its formulation would, therefore, still be wrong: it is the representation itself which is the endowment of the penis). This structure does not make us subjects, it places subjectivity: it effects an assignation of the subject in the imaginary, captures the subject in the coherence of an image, and the ‘knowledge’ of narrative is the mirror of that subject-image, the speculation of cinema. What remains unclear is the determination of the structure, the pull between the construction of the subject and the sociohistorical articulation of that construction (it is this determination that can be seen at work in the description of representation through fetishism as a masculine structure: woman has no place she is indeed the blind spot—other than as the object of this structure or as the assumption of the place of its subject (Sylvia Scarlett cutting off her own tresses to become the hero of Cukor’s film)—which again is the confirmation of her objectality: the subject, male and female, is held in the distance of the structure, the aim of which is precisely the fixing of ‘male’ and ‘female’ as the full terms of a system of exchange, the reduction of difference in each individual into the straight social opposition ‘masculine'/ ‘feminine’). We touch with this unclarity on a fundamental area of research which is only now beginning to be posed correctly; as Althusser puts it:

“How are we to think rigorously the relation between the formal structure of language, condition of the absolute possibility of the existence and intelligibility of the unconscious, the concrete structures of kinship and, finally, the concrete ideological formations through which are lived the specific functions (fatherhood, motherhood, childhood) implied in the kinship structures? can we conceive the historical variation of these last structures (kinship, ideology) as visibly affecting this or that aspect of the instance isolated by Freud?”

If we have no immediate answer, we are convinced nonetheless that the immediate dismissal of Freudian analysis is simply the foreclosure of these questions which it must be our critical and theoretical effort to re-find across the specific terms of our field of study: cinema. The discussion of representation was merely a start; it remains to develop the problems of that discussion—break down the notion of representation historically, pose in consequence the relations of language and positionality and its articulations, and from there the notion of a new language (that is, of a new practice of language), define the situation of cinema as superstructural institution, which may be, in the understanding of the metapsychological functioning of that institution (the relation between cinematic machine and construction of the subject—the supplacement), to come back critically on the use of the infrastructure/ superstructure model, examine cinematic practice in the play between image and text, its contradictions, its movement, its process, the computerization of the subject. Perhaps it can be added, as a coda, that this was the importance for us of Barthes’ S/Z in its analysis of a classic text. Balzac’s story Sarrasine, in which the symbolic irrupts into the imaginary ‘figures’ in the movement of the text (hence the panic, the disruption of the fixed positions of exchange, of the given images). The symbolic is here the overturning of representation, from theatre to the other scene of its production, the loss of the ease of fetishism (in Balzac, to buy a theatre ticket is to buy a woman’s body). S/Z seemed—and seems—to us a fundamental attention (an analytic patience) to this and the redefinition of ‘theory and method of literary analysis’ accordingly.