Theorizing the ‘As If’: Origin Stories in Psychoanalysis

 Western civilization has long been occupied with origin stories. From the ancient Greek myths to the big bang, these stories derive their value not from observation of the events they entail, but from their ability to explain occurrences that have been observed. No matter how far back in time human understanding reaches, there remains the question of what came before. For astrophysics, this Holy Grail is the origin of the universe. For psychoanalysis, it is the origin of the subject.

Freud and his successors, working in clinical and academic settings, espoused an epistemology based on unknowable origins. This method of knowledge acquisition acknowledges the impossibility of observing the unconscious, the privileging of successful metaphors over exact representations in conceptual models, and the equal importance of fantasy and reality to mental life.

In the preface to Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud describes his psychoanalytic method as “distant . . . from the reality which it is its business to discover” (xxix). This reality is the unconscious. Because the unconscious hides from the subject whose mind it occupies, notwithstanding the psychotherapist, it manifests only through “superficial associations,” Freud writes in The Interpretation of Dreams. “When I instruct a patient to abandon reflection of any kind and to tell me whatever comes into his head, I am relying firmly on the presumption that he will not be able to abandon it” (570). Though a goal of therapy is to make the unconscious conscious, this meant not revealing a pre-existing unconscious in some original form, but converting inaccessible motivations for behaviors into articulable thoughts.

Freud formulated the unconscious not as a thing out there in the world, but as a model that allows for a greater understanding of accessible mental activity and explains otherwise inexplicable behaviors. He displays no pretenses that the structures he discusses — the ego, id, and superego, as well as the conscious and unconscious — have real-world correlates matching his descriptions. One can probe the brain with a microscope and never find them, and Freud did not believe they were out there to be found. This is evident in his creation of multiple, incommensurable models of the mind, such as the topographic and economic models (Wilson, “Another Neurological Scene”). Their lack of consilience does not bother him because he is not trying to create a singular map of reality. Elizabeth Wilson argues that, because Freud and by extension psychoanalysis, “is not so much reaching for a completed theory of mind as he is experimenting with epistemological space,” the attempt to integrate psychoanalysis and neuroscience will never work. Neuroscience aims at mapping psychological phenomena onto the brain, while psychoanalysis is interested in phenomenological, rather than physiological, accuracy. The unification of data into one neat theory is the ideal result of neuroscientific research, while “there can be no consilient psychoanalytic account of mind: a psychoanalytic theory of mind can only be disarticulate” (Wilson).

Psychoanalyst Francois Dolto refers to this same nature of psychoanalytical theories as models when she says, “What people call my ‘theory,’ I don’t believe is a theory, I believe ‘everything happens as if”‘ (Dolto quoted in Weed 7).  The goal of psychoanalysis is to produce “not an empirical recording of what happens in the clinic, but an accounting that situates itself in the register of the “as if” (Weed 7), just as the goal of astrophysics is not to study redshift and galactic expansion for their own sake but to uncover the origin to which this evidence points. Kristeva, from whom I borrowed the big bang analogy, emphasizes the importance of this as-if register in her discussion of the role of fantasy:

“As presupposition for the ‘primal scene’, the castration fantasy and its correlative (penis envy) are hypotheses, a priori suppositions intrinsic to the theory itself, in the sense that these are not the ideological fantasies of their inventor but, rather, logical necessities to be placed at the ‘origin’ in order to explain what unceasingly functions in neurotic discourse […] [which] can only be understood in terms of its own logic when its fundamental causes are admitted as the fantasies of the primal scene and castration, even it (as may be the case) nothing renders them present in reality itself” (“Women’s Time” 197).

Kristeva distinguishes between two types of theory: the theory that the observer creates to explain the patient’s behavior, and the theory that the patient creates to explain his perception of reality. She illustrates these theories, respectively, with castration anxiety, an origin story the analyst tells to explain the patient’s neurosis, and the actual threat of castration, an origin story the patient tells to give intelligibility to his unconscious fears.

It is this distinction that allows for the distinction between scientific inference and fantasy. Myths, from the Greek tragedies to the imagined castration threat, are important to psychoanalysis because they reveal the psychic phenomena that those myths were created to explain, and because fantasies “are of great importance in the origin of many symptoms” (Freud, Three Essays 92). Freud recognized  “close relations existing between these [psychosexual] phantasies and myths” (ibid.). Inference-based theories, from the big bang to castration anxiety, allowed Freud to consider himself a scientist rather than a mere storyteller, though he considered fantasies and real events equally important in psychic development.  

But it is not always so easy to differentiate between a big-bang-type theory and a Greek-mythological type. Freud admitted to misinterpreting patients’ fantasies of incest as actual events in their lives. Irigaray makes a further accusation: that Freud mistook the male fantasy of infantile oneness with the mother for an actual sense of fusion during the pre-Oedipal period. In an interview in Irigaray’s Je, Tu, Nous, biologist Helene Rouch explains that psychoanalysis “justifies the imaginary fusion between a child and its mother by the undeveloped state of the child at birth and by its absolute need of the other, its mother. It’s this fusion, implicitly presented as an extension of the organic fusion during pregnancy, which, it would seem, simply has to be broken in order for the child to be constituted as a subject. The rupture of this fusion by a third term — whether it’s called the father, law, Name of the Father, or something else — should facilitate entry into the symbolic and access to language” (Rouch quoted in Irigaray 42).

Because of the primary placental economy of respect for the other, intrusion of the father into the inseparable mother-son dyad is as much a myth as expulsion from the garden of eden. Under this interpretation, describing the child’s original lack of differentiation from the mother is like describing the father’s threat to castrate the little boy (which happened in some cases but was not necessary for the inception of castration anxiety).

Wendy Brown points out in “Neoliberalized Knowledge” that because there are no immediate economic benefits to critical thinking, knowledge that doesn’t purport to map onto reality is considered overly abstract and unproductive. Though all scientific concepts are collections of aptly chosen metaphors, the closer purported relationship to physical reality a field claims, the more funding and support it gets. This also explains why psychoanalysis’s popularity has declined in favor of behavioristic quick fixes like cognitive behavior therapy and psychotropic medication.

Despite pressures to conform to an empiricist notion of what is real, models of unconscious life are best left understood as theoretical tools rather than definitive answers to the question of what I was before “I” was – what the subject was before he or she became a subject — a “before” which is inherently incommunicable because it does not speak the language of conscious mental life. Copjec’s warning against stabilizing “sex” applies to subjectivity in general: “While guaranteeing that perceptions designate some objective, independent reality, the negative judgment maintains — must maintain — this reality as ungraspable, for if it were to assume a phenomenal form, it would become merely another perception” (Euthanasia of Reason 234). Psychoanalytic knowing at its best, then, is “a knowing that can only know through effects and that never fully knows what it does and does not know” (Weed, “Francois Dalto and the Unconscious Body Image” 7).


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