America's Founding Fathers Meet the Father of Psychoanalysis
Or, how I learned to stop worrying about Freud and love free association.
Posted Jun 21, 2016
Psychoanalyst Jill Gentile has a new book out called Feminine Law: Freud, Free Speech, and the Voice of Desire (Karnac, 2016). Feminine Law is so bold as to suggest that valuing free association, as Freud did, holds promise for the future of democracy. And valuing democracy, as the founding fathers did, holds promise for the future of desire.
Jill is on faculty at New York University’s Postdoctoral Program in Psychoanalysis. She is Corresponding Editor at Contemporary Psychoanalysis, and is on the editorial board of the International Journal of Psychoanalytic Self Psychology. Her clinical work has spanned child, adolescent, and adult populations, and she has worked in day, residential, and inpatient settings. Currently, she maintains an independent practice in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis in New York City and in Highland Park, NJ.
In May I attended a panel presentation in New York City at The Ferenczi Center at the New School, where Jill discussed Feminine Law. Her colleagues, both the feminists among them and those eager to declare psychoanalysis’s relevance to political life, seemed thrilled at the contributions the book represents.
It’s no small matter to weave Sigmund Freud and Alexander Hamilton together into one argument and to end it with a rousing nod to personal agency and independence for men and women equally—and with another nod to the vagina as a metaphor for a “space” where outlaw political and social ideas can vibrate into life. And so, as you'll see, when I interviewed Jill I started our discussion with my skeptical antennae held very high.
Jill, I have a bone to pick. Right up front (in your Preface, no less) you claim that “psychoanalysis is central to our political and cultural life” and that it “has much to contribute to a theory of democracy.” Now, I know that Freud considered psychoanalysis a science. But many would argue that psychoanalysis is now a marginalized science, at least in America, and that even the use of the term “science” in relation to psychoanalysis is stretching a point. If the intelligent lay person no longer pays much attention to psychoanalysis at all, how could its influence on democracy be central?
Those are complex questions, and they signal the book’s intricate terrain. Both Freud and the founding fathers of the American constitution were influenced by Enlightenment thought. As such, they were profoundly drawn to the idea of scientific experimentation. And however different their paths, they all became fascinated by experimentation with free speech. Freud wanted to locate psychoanalysis within the empirical sciences, but as much as Freud wanted psychoanalysis to be considered a bona fide science, it doesn’t fit our society’s definition of one. Its elusive terrain—personal agency, desire, self-determination, and the like—doesn’t have easily captured data points. And so psychoanalysis eludes easy definition, and that’s contributed to its increasing marginalization, especially in America.
And yet it is precisely because human freedom, self-determination, personal agency, and desire are its areas of interest that psychoanalysis resonates with democracy’s calling and with the intentions of America’s founding fathers. This is also why it is newly relevant to a culture in crisis And this profound relevance is related to one experimental path that proved extraordinarily productive for Freud: though his quest to locate psychoanalysis as a science eluded him, we might say that he discovered, or intuited, the (scientific) “laws of speech.”
Let me explain. Psychoanalysis, the “talking cure,” operates through discourse, and quintessentially through free association. It’s how patients gain voice and, ultimately, a say in their own self-rule, in how life goes for them. This process operates within a certain ethical relationship between speaker and hearer. So, here’s the parallel: The analytic relationship depends on speaking and on being heard by the analyst. Speaking and being heard by fellow voters and by elected officials are the core of the democratic process as the Constitution’s framers envisioned it. Free association is what Freud protected. Speech is what the First Amendment protects.
Mind you, for all the lip service our politicians pay to free speech, as a society we take no coherent approach to supporting it. The psychoanalytic concept of free association—and what it has discovered about how to enlist patients to become empowered speaking agents—may offer one.
What do you mean by "Feminine Law" in your title?
You’re going to have to bear with me for a moment on this answer. Because as phallocentric as Freud was, I’m going to suggest that his invention—psychoanalysis—operates by means of an essentially feminine “fundamental rule” or method. I’m also going to suggest that the fundamental rule of the US Constitution, its First Amendment, can be seen in that light, as well. Let’s start with it.
Part of the enduring genius of the First Amendment lies in its brevity. It says,“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The same barely elaborated brevity is in Freud’s set-up for free association. His fundamental rule for his patients was that they must agree to an ethic of unreserved candor, honesty, to say whatever came to mind.
I have come to think of both Freud and the Founding Fathers as unusual men because both free association and the First Amendment are unlike the usual dicta of men. They are not prohibitive (like totemic law); nor are they inscribed (like Mosaic law). Instead, they are laws of “no rule.” They grant primacy to space itself, to a space that cannot be colonized, appropriated, or controlled, and that may reveal unruly tensions and novel, explosive ideas. And in both cases the space is governed by what can be called "feminine law," which is to say that it nurtures open discourse. Metaphorically, it is more vaginal or womb-like than phallic. Ideas are not immediately slashed and burnt. They are able to ripen, to flow freely in speech.
"Feminine law" feels important to me as a concept, especially to counter Freud’s and psychoanalysis’s embarrassing history of obscuring the feminine, and of cloaking it in shame, envy, and defeat. I also hope that the title Feminine Law helps to counter democracy’s subjugation of the feminine and its exclusions of female voice, body, desire, economic power, and reproductive choices.
For a very long time, psychoanalysis has not been the exclusive purview of Sigmund Freud. Which is to say the term has little consistent meaning any more. The same is true of the term “democracy,” for it is practiced differently around the world. Do you see any important similarities in the life-cycle narratives of psychoanalysis and democracy? Do you see any similarities in their probable futures?
I am fascinated by the shared (and also divergent) narratives of psychoanalysis and democracy. Obviously, democracy has been around for much longer. But, for starters, both democracy and psychoanalysis have dramatic stories of rise and fall. Both have taken on many forms (some false) over time. Both are, by and large, pursued by people seeking liberation and “self rule.” Because psychoanalysis is often associated with patriarchy, authoritarianism, and elitism, it can be a far harder sell than democracy. In Feminine Law I try to show that psychoanalysis’s true calling is to democratize desire—to unchain desire from servility, to liberate desire to speak freely. And so, its story, like that of democracy, depends on freedom of speech and expression.
How has writing your book about free speech, democracy, and desire informed your opinion of the current political season?
That is a terrific question. This political season has captured the imagination and fears of most Americans, and much of the world beyond. It has been exciting and terrifying. I think of this period in political life as analogous to periods of turbulence in a given patient’s treatment, when splitting—all or nothing thinking—is perhaps at its most intense, and when the road is very rocky. When in turmoil like this we often fall prey to the collapse of feminine space (and law), to a phallocentric usurping of control and knowledge that fails to honor free and truthful discourse. We allow unnecessary, phallic control in a pseudo-democratic process, one that may slide into both greater fear, and greater tyranny. Right now when I hear Obama’s calm, reflective, inspirational rhetoric—especially apparent in contrast to Trump’s—I’m reminded of the need for protected free speech. The stakes can’t get much higher.
I suspect that even though the book is complete, you’re not “done” with these topics. Do you have a follow-up project in mind?
You are right. Feminine Law is part of a vibrant zeitgeist in psychoanalysis right now. There’s a renewed interest in the status of the feminine. Freud, in what I see as a barely veiled admission of intellectual defeat, came to believe that we are all defended against our need to repudiate femininity. (“What do women want?” he famously wondered. Which is to say that he recognized that the mystery of female desire was one that he was not equipped to solve.) So questions about links between the repression of the feminine and repression of democratic free speech are ones that psychoanalysis is now poised to contemplate. What I’d hoped to do with Feminine Law is to open a conversation about psychoanalysis and democracy. I wanted to do so by centering on what is fundamental to both discourses: free speech. The voice of desire is so incessant that, once we start thinking about feminine law, many new conversations may be born. I want to keep talking and listening, reading and writing.
Feminine Law: Freud, Free Speech, and the Voice of Desire by Jill Gentile with Michael Macrone. Karnac (2016)