To Read Freud

by Oscar Masotta

The symbol is the succulent strawberry that the psychopath omnipotently generates in his internal world, whereas the envied and assailed heart becomes the vilified and worthless object.

– E. Rodrigué, El contexto del proceso analítico

It is Althusser—who reads Marx not without having read Lacan—who suggests the task: to read Freud.[1] But every possible or probable reading of Freud should go through the Procrustean bed of the history and development of psychoanalysis. It is certainly difficult to discern, for historical reasons, Freud’s work from the contemporary development of this conjectural science: hardly ten years mediate between the publication date of The Interpretation of Dreams and the Salzburg Congress. From then on and until his death, Freud will not only see himself freed from that loneliness of the years of the decline of his friendship with Fliess—the time of his neurosis, his panics, and his autoanalysis—but also see his own production as a writer become surrounded by the production of Ferenczi, Abraham, Stekel, Rank. How to decide, then, about that which in other cases poses less doubt, that is, the texts and the order of a reading?[2] What is the value and scope of the theory exposed in those texts? Let us recall the position Stekel formulated early on: even if Freud speaks to a giant, the dwarves on his shoulders saw farther than he did. So much recognition hid a lot of scorn. And from Freud himself apparently no more than the scraps of the last part of his work would remain today: a poorly conceptualized theory of personality, a model of the psychic as conflict, the skeleton of a dynamic conception of illness and cure.[3]

In this way, history has been able to see two histories of psychoanalysis soon constitute themselves: one of them, abundantly written, has been scarcely thought; the other is inscribed in the psychoanalytic establishment (the Argentine Psychoanalytic Society is a good example). This inscription, truly, is nothing more than that of the unconscious signifier, the mnemic trace that memory did not forget because it had never been conscious: Freud’s repression. If the histories are read, everything will, on the surface, remain in order: psychoanalysis begins after the mid-twenties. What did Freud say? If Inhibition, Symptoms, and Anxiety is read, it is simply to verify that, together with the abandon of the first theory of anxiety (mechanic separation of affection and representation), and together with an anxiety now conceived as a failure of the functions of the Ego, Freud maintains the notion of an “a posteriori,”[4] the idea of a temporality that splits repression into two times—and this split constitutes repression as such. A model, in sum, that had already started to be outlined inside the most archaic neurological fictions of “the Project.”[5]

In Freud’s time, when Freud’s neurosis was inseparable from his desire for knowledge about neurosis,[6] when Freud finally drew out his theory from his neurosis and thus eluded his neurosis by the construction of a theory, psychoanalysis was far from being an institution. “Psychoanalysis today” (to use a phrase once celebrated by a book) seems to be doomed to begin by the end. It is essentially about the transmission of a technique, in the best case or, in the worst, about formalizing a theory whose foundations and scopes nobody questions anymore. It’s just not necessary: if it exists in the head of our “giants of the easy-chair,” it is because Power underpins Knowledge. On the other hand, a theory, if it has consensus, turns out to be economic—if nothing else two paragraphs suffice to spell it out. But I am not appealing to metaphors: I am so convinced that what is repressed is Freud that the only way to read some of the books written by Argentinian psychoanalysts is to pay attention to lacunae, to look at them upside-down, like those textiles that can only be understood if looked at from the wrong side.

Note an offspring of the Freudian discourse in the manifest discourse of one of today’s psychoanalysts: “I consider that this silence,” Rodrigué writes, “is an artifice of the technique of interpretation of dreams that Freud used at the beginning of the century. The method of fragmenting dreams into arbitrary links and of requesting, sometimes of pressing, the patient to associate with each item, generates an alteration of dream’s natural plot, where the symbols are related to its text in meaningful ways.”[7] But can we not perceive here, as in the case of the repressed and the symptom, a certain massive appropriation—by antithesis—of a piece of Rodrigué’s discourse by the rigor and the power of Freud’s theory? Let us see what the paragraph says: a) that it is not possible to isolate a sign from its context; b) because the signification is a “natural plot” (this unfortunate expression undoubtedly means that what should be analyzed is what is visible, the image of the dream, for example, and not the words);[8] c) that the signification is only readable in the interior of the actual and global context of the sign or of the symbol. But do we not recognize here the theses of a phenomenology of totality (allied—and this is no less significant—to the perennially pragmatist vocation of the texts of this author) that emphasizes the molar by a blind rejection of the fragmentary, of what is “molecular” in the “parts”? An anxiety that has, after all, already been demolished enough by contemporary linguistics. How could there be signification—both outside and inside psychoanalysis—if the sign did not carry in itself not only its own principle of fragmentation, of isolation from the text and, indeed, from every text (its inherence to the code and its poetic potential),[9] but also its own principle of internal division (the Saussurean bar, which splits the signifier from signified, is neither a discovery of this linguist nor a privilege of the schizophrenic)? How could an “item” be inherent to its context without a signifier, that is, without that materiality of an absolute and an a priori exteriority that defines the materiality of language? In short, how could this be without the possibility of any word (moneme or phrase) to be taken “à la lettre,” as Lacan says, that is, word by word or decomposed to the extreme in its “words”? Without them being easily convertible into its anagram, and without the ability of the molecular products of the deconstructed signification to form new fusions, new links, new chains (by their similarities, formal or sonorous; by their differences), and simultaneously to open and close at once the transit of meaning and signification? What does Rodrigué propose? First of all, an amputation of the Freudian theory of the sign that reduces it to the “problems of symbolism.” That is, he discusses Jones so as not to have to read Freud, while against the archi-Freud he introduces the (secondary?) benefits of Susan Langer’s discovery (!); to this he adds the names (no more than that) of the concepts of Pierce’s tripartite scheme. From then on, a certain genetic, Jacksonian, hierarchized, and (why not?) sufficiently moralizing vision of symbols is assured—if you use “pseudosymbols,” it must be because you have that almost incurable disease. As for the first word pronounced by the autistic child, Rodrigué tells us that “the child did not stumble upon the use of the symbol, but only discovered how to designate an internal object.”[10]

Things happen differently in Freud, they are less certain, more serious, less simple. Rodrigué acknowledges a difference between necessity and … something else; in Freud, something else has a precise name: desire. And if the dream was to be regarded as the Royal Path, it is because it led to the subjacent desire, always evasive but always difficult to fix or to define (though never absent)­ teaches that “I” is an illusion and defines the subject by its position (by its location, it should be said) in a discourse that is at once more true and more deceitful and misleading: the unconscious. It is clear and obvious that the dream of little Anna Freud cannot be reduced to Ferenczi’s example of the goose that dreams about corn or the pig that dreams about acorns; impossible, at any rate, to put aside this difference: that the dream of little Anna is articulated aloud while she sleeps: “Anna F(r)eud, st’awberry, wild st’awberry, om’lette, pap.” In the case of the animal—and if it is, properly speaking, that this creature dreams—there is an elective unity of the satisfaction of the necessity. In Anna’s dream—and this is what will give it an exemplary value before Freud’s eyes—the signifier is present.[11] How? In the repetition of a phonic group, in the scansion that the repetition introduces, in the effect, in short, in the rhetorical ordering and internal and autonomous hierarchization of words and phrases, in the atomization of the meaning of the phrase and in the restitution of the meaning introduced by the same repetition (the “common denominator” says Lacan, pointing out the importance of the parentheses).

But let us see the example of the “signal” issued by Rodrigué’s autistic child: word in question is “/m/(a)/m/(a)”[12] (bars and parentheses are mine). Does the presence here, difficult to separate from the meaning of the word, of a double alliteration, vocalic and consonantal, not make this example homologize with the one of little Anna’s dream? What is meant, then, by the indicative ballast that will not allow the word to “elevate” itself to a symbolic function? Nothing, maybe, or simply to hide the presence of the signifier in every word. The problem is that it is not the use of a symbol that constitutes its efficacy; by and large, when the child or the adult uses the symbol, everything is already settled. The use of the symbol has to be attributed to resistance, if any space is conceded to it at all in the analytic situation, but it can never establish itself as the final, or initial, perspective, in the account of the symbolic order. But when Rualito says “mama,” does he resist? If the referent of the word is nothing other than an “internal object,” would it not be then that the word in Rualito’s mouth would seem least like a red light? The question is further complicated, first, by the fact that it deals with the infans,[13] who hardly resembles a bee or an ant, since the “ecological niche” of the infans is doubly articulated.[14] As for the rest, the child’s entrance into the symbolic is operated all at once, and not because the subject grasps at once and suddenly the complete repertory of terms, rules, and uses of the language. What happens is that from then on those rules and those uses (first and foremost the uses codified by the language) will subject the subject, to use a Lacanian formula. The difference between Freud’s example and Rodrigué’s is that, whereas little Anna produces, with the existing words in the language code, the paranomiae and scansions that reflect her desire (realized in and only through that linguistic articulation), Rodrigué’s child, conversely, finds available in the language code a signifying unit determined and already provided of a similar rhetorical articulation. In other words: what varies from one to the other is the placement of the subject of the discourse (and a word, it is known, can be inserted in a complete discourse) in relation to the language code (it is not excessive to recall: natural) and to the words, whether uttered or not, hallucinated or actually heard. And still in other words: what varies, concomitantly, is the relation of the structure, utterance-enunciation (énonceénonciation).[15] If Rodrigué can so comfortably talk about index, icon, and symbol, it is because he is fascinated by the results of the unconscious elaboration, because he considers these results as a behavior and analyzes them as such, and because, stretching the field of psychoanalytic inquiry, he constantly confuses utterance and enunciation. It is significant that when he has to define Pierce’s terms, he can do it without passing through any reflection at all on the notion of “interpretant,” without which, incidentally, the former terms become absolutely vacuous. Nor is there any reference to the case, foreseen by Pierce, of a symbol whose interpretant is not a feeling, action, affection, or activity, but another symbol—a point that has something more to do with Freud and psychoanalysis.

There is here a behaviorism of signification—which replaces the psychoanalytic analysis of the signifier—that centers its attention on the modes in which the symbol is used and which perhaps is useful for nothing more than to obscure Freud’s true discovery. “Is the symbol a double of the object or does it conjure it?” It is clear: Rodrigué always has—as does desire, according to Sartre—the carrot dangling before his eyes. In Sartre, however, the carrot advances with the donkey. But in Rodrigué, the donkey moves while the carrot, which is made of bronze, remains still (the “total object”). Does the patient respond with a behavior capable of discriminating between the carrot and the movement, between one and the other? We can see to what extent Rodrigué acts like those anthropologists who waste their time discovering, for the umpteenth time, the structure of magic in populations they call primitive, without understanding that the structure was a feature of the category and not of the studied object. And we can see as well, by the same token, how this whole ideological baggage—often condemned, and not without reason—filters into psychoanalytic practice and analysis today.

This defenestration of the meaning that language, the word, the signifier and symbols had for Freud is accompanied by an absolute disinterest in the study of the languages in Freud. Once in a while there is a return to the critique of the economic model, and then it is pointed out that there is an energeticist metaphoric in Freud. With the word metaphor, Freud’s blindness is recalled, or we are told that a metaphor should not be taken seriously, but treated as a fiction. But is it possible to talk, not only of the construction of a scientific theory, but of any language, without fiction?

There is in Freud a neurologic metaphoric in Freud that he eventually abandoned, and an economic metaphoric that he always stuck to. The same is true for the spatial and topical metaphoric. And there is also a linguistic metaphoric, a metaphoric of military struggle, and a metaphoric of speculation and investment, of business operations and trade; and a metaphoric of writing, which he also never disowned: comparisons with pictograms and ideograms, hieroglyphs, the idea of trace and inscription. In short: a geology of language where the system of concepts—always open but never incoherent—is constructed as inseparable from the different languages and their registers, and maybe none of them can ever be set aside without destroying the structure of the whole doctrine.

But was the science that Freud thought out also an anthropology? We know what the word anthropology means in a question like that. Are we allowed to read in Freud the description of a rise towards hominization, the idea of a humanity rediscovered through the biological and constituting itself through different “integrations”? It’s a captious question whose uselessness allows our answer to be both yes and no. But the answer should be no. Here, nature, society, and culture are not moments of a dialectical overcoming, nor are they reading levels. They are the vanished factors of a group of facts of the same type, the very one that make psychoanalysis a science. Because there is no “man” for, or in, psychoanalysis: there is “subject”—or, as Althusser reminds us, “survivors.”­ There is no other way to accept this truth than to devote ourselves to the operations that Freud once bequeathed us and, through a deconstruction of the Freudian myth, open our way to the construction of the facts of Freud’s theory.

Then we will discover that the truth of a subject without man intertwines with the object of psychoanalysis: that lunar scenery made of sounds heard, of glimpsed images and phantasmagoric scenes, of inscriptions and traces, of the translations of those traces, of traces and clues, of paths traversed now and again by a meaning that is, simultaneously, signification and energy. In sum, that archaeological and geological rebus that contains the secret of that redundant fish of the unconscious which men call mute because it speaks even while they sleep.”[16]

Translated by Zilkia Janer, with corrections and emmendations for this edition by Emiliano Battista

Published with permission from the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, University of Michigan.

  • 1. Lacan's work, which undertakes a precise interpretation and a (hard) reading of Freud's texts, grants them their true dimension; while that may facilitate the project, it doesn’t resolve the task.
  • 2. The problem is how to decide about the meaning of the development of his work. Should we read Interpretation, Psychopathology, and Wit from a perspective in which the "linguistic" preoccupation is to be understood as surpassed by the arrival of the "structural" (?) theory of instances? What is the order of implication that marks the relationship between the second topology, the last theory of instincts, the theory of qualities, and the doctrine of dreams? As we see it, Freud himself indicated in his “Scheme” of 1938 the order and ranking of the reasons that unite the history of the concepts and their relevance to the System. We shall return to this elsewhere.
  • 3. A fleeting vision of Freud, but no less disheartening: P.J. Van der Leeuw, "Sobre el desarrollo de la teoría freudiana." A meaningful example to the extent that it appears in the issue of Revista de Psicoanálisis (July-December, 1968) devoted to celebrate the journal's twenty-fifth anniversary!
  • 4. Psychoanalytic theory had to wait for Lacan to recuperate the Nachträglichkeit (afterwardness) without which it is impossible to understand the Freudian theory of repression.
  • 5. See Moustafa Safouan, “De la structure en psychoanalyse,” in Qu’est-ce que c’est le structuralisme, ed. François Wahl (Paris: Seuil, 1973).
  • 6. See Serge Leclaire's remarks about of the dreams of Irma’s injection and the botany monograph, in Psychanalyser (Paris: Seuil, 1968).
  • 7. E. Rodrigué, El contexto del proceso analítico (Buenos Aires: Paidós, 1966), p. 82.
  • 8. Exactly the opposite of what Freud postulated.
  • 9. A poetic materiality, it should be said, to emphasize the Lacanian notions of the effect of the metaphor and of the word. We use the word "poetic" in the strict sense that it has in Jakobson's model: a relationship between the function of selection and the combination by which the equivalences that constitute the former are projected on the contiguity axis that constitutes the latter. See Roman Jakobson Essais de linguistique générale (Paris: Minuit, 1963), p. 220. As an example of Jakobson's definition and of its concrete applicability to the structural analysis in poetry, see Samuel R. Levin, Linguistic Structures in Poetry (The Hague: Mouton, 1964). See also Lacan’s "The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious.”
  • 10. Rodrigué, El contexto, p. 47.
  • 11. Jacques Lacan, Desire and Its Interpretation, Seminar VI, trans. Cormac Gallagher, lesson from 3 December 1958, p. 46. See:
  • 12. See Roman Jakobson, "Why Papa and Mama," in Studies in Child Language and Aphasia (The Hague: Mouton, 1971), pp. 21-30.
  • 13. The child that does not speak yet, in the expression Lacan uses in Desire and Its Interpretation.
  • 14. I am referring, simply, to the two articulations in Martinet.
  • 15. See Roman Jakobson, “Shifters, Verbal Categories, and the Russian Verb," in Selected Writings: Word and Language (The Hague: Mouton, 1971), pp. 130-147.
  • 16. Louis Althusser, “Freud and Lacan,” in Writings on Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan, ed. Olivier Corpet and François Matheron (New York: Columbian University Press, 1996), p. 16.