Freudian Repression - On Psychoanalysis and with Lacan

Psy-Complex in Question: Critical Review In Psychology, Psychoanalysis And Social Theory - Ian Parker 2018

Freudian Repression
On Psychoanalysis and with Lacan

Billig, M. (1999) Freudian Repression: Conversation Creating the Unconscious. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

This book presents an argument for approaches to language which offer conceptual and methodological tools that can be brought to bear on psychoanalysis, specifically on Freud’s writing, with ’repression’ as a key motif but touching on many more besides. And Freud is also rescued from the malign grip of psychologists who misread him and psychoanalysts who render him only as someone as dogmatic and normative as mainstream psychology. At points in the book it seems as if psychoanalysis itself is being retrieved as a tradition that can be reread so that we can now creatively rewrite it and ourselves with it.

Billig admires the creativity of everyday argumentative rhetoric, and his recent writing has been devoted to a celebration of the ’witcraft’ of ordinary folk as well as to a detailed description of the skills that much contemporary ’depopulated’ psychology seems unable to do justice to. Psychoanalysis has always been present in his work, at least from his 1976 first book Social Psychology and Intergroup Relations, which included extended discussion of Freudian and post-Freudian views of group identity as well as their mutation in frustration-aggression theories in social psychology. His empirical studies of present-day fascism in Fascists: A Social Psychological View of the National Front in 1978 and later conceptual work on ideology in Ideology and Social Psychology in 1982 included critical reflection and reformulations of work on authoritarianism from within the Frankfurt School tradition. An important theme there was the way psychoanalytic theory was adapted and distorted to conform to the imperatives of US American culture. Now he explicitly returns to psychoanalysis after a detour through studies of rhetoric and discursive psychology, and so he brings something new to read Freud with. The studies of rhetoric in Arguing and Thinking (which first appeared in 1987 and then as a second edition in 1996) showed how things were opened up and made public. However, Billig now admits that his work there displayed ’a theoretical one-sidedness’ (p. 51) and so this book Freudian Repression shows how things are closed down and made secret. Freud showed it already, and Billig shows us how Freud showed it, and what Freud closed down to show us it in the way he, Freud, wanted to.

The secret here lies in the little words and how we might observe what work they do. This is the human face of conversation analysis. This book is, among other things, an eminently accessible introduction to contemporary approaches to the study of everyday talk. They are approaches that can often appear arid and banal, and conversation analysis sometimes fits all too neatly into the most trivial empiricism that psychologists so often trade in. But Billig knows how to take dull things we usually take for granted, overlook as the commonplaces of a culture, and shine them up so that we notice them and appreciate what they do. There is a lovely example of this in the book where one of the favourite conversational-analytic devices of the ’adjacency pair’ (used to specify how responses in conversational turns follow modes of address such as greetings or questions) is illustrated through a little window into Freud’s ordered life. Freud pointing silently with his fork at an empty chair at lunchtime, Martha’s explanation for the absence of his daughter Anna, and his nod of acknowledgement are opened out and elaborated in a way that the phrase ’two overlapping adjacency pairs’ (p. 87) cannot on its own adequately define. In this example, Freud himself becomes the focus as a ’case’ and, as with the other famous Freudian case studies analysed in the book, we learn not only that all the big stuff is in the little things (a lesson that all forms of discursive psychology take seriously) but that the little things only make sense if we are able to embed these mundane activities in the wider culture.

Billig’s reading of the case of ’Dora’ takes the argument further, and he uses the case to draw attention to the pervasive anti-Semitism that Freud seemed less than interested in as a contextual structuring feature of Jewish existence in fin de siècle Vienna. Dora and Freud were both to end their lives as refugees fleeing Nazism, and already their respective careers as hysteric and psychoanalyst were circumscribed and patterned by anti-Semitism such that this industrialist, Philip Bauer, would take his daughter to be sorted out by this doctor, Freud. And what they avoid speaking about in the fleeting comments about Christmas that pass between the two of them is homed in on by Billig so the comments might serve to speak of that which they cannot. Billig here picks up an argument from feminism and endorses it so that he can open up other questions in Freud’s writing that have been carefully closed down: ’psychoanalytic writers themselves, including Freud, often created a forgetfulness: as the personal unconscious is remembered, so politics is forgotten’ (p. 223). We could say that Billig is also in these examples ’repopulating’ conversation analysis, doing justice to the unceasing repair work carried out by human beings as they try to make contact with others through the medium of language.

The task of ’repopulating’ psychoanalytic case studies is also addressed along the way through a careful discussion of how the pseudonyms which are routinely and unthinkingly applied to Freud’s analysands already frame them as characters marked by certain kinds of preoccupation and pathology. In some cases the substitution of ’Dora’ or ’Elizabeth’ for the real names of these young women is not immediately problematic. (Even here, though, the singular female name ’Dora’ serves to individualise a problem and locate it in the victim, Ida Bauer, in a way that another term for the problem, say ’the Bauer case’ which might include attention to the machinations of father Philip in the family, might not so readily.) In other cases it is important to remember the living human being beneath the label; psychoanalytic shorthand may serve to emphasise the role of rats or wolves in a patient’s internal world at the expense of all of the other things in the world they faced. Freudian Repression demands both that the predicaments of real human beings are made present in forms of creative argumentation and the cultural processes that govern people’s lives are made present in an account of ideology.

A certain ideological stance will always, of course, be betrayed by how one chooses to repopulate texts, and Billig’s admiration for Freud makes him a little partisan here. We are invited to speculate about the perplexing inconsistencies between accounts of a case study, for example, by imagining Freud sitting late at night filling in the gaps (p. 62), and we are treated to letters from Freud to Martha, his betrothed, which already display something of a psychoanalytic as well as bourgeois sensibility to the subtle play of ’unpleasure’ and civilization (p. 213). At times Billig repopulates his text a little too much with Freud at the expense of Martha; the fork pointing vignette could usefully be contextualized by patterns of patriarchy and studied boorishness by the male head of the household, better perhaps than suggesting that this is actually the kind of behaviour Martha would have been content with herself — would recognise these ’codes of politeness’ (p. 87) — and moreover quite understandable because Freud was having a break from ’a hard morning’s listening’ (p. 90) to people on the couch downstairs. Here at least the ideological implications of the analysis are already present for us as readers to contest. The text is thoughtfully constructed so that the steps in the argument are clearly laid out, as well as some alternative tracks we might take in relation to it; it is a superbly clear text, open to disagreement. It is clear throughout the book that a moral-political stance governs the interlacing of textual examination and polemic, what Billig himself chooses to treat and how he frames it. The book is a passionate case for a style of analysis that combines the rigour of conversation analysis with the hermeneutic sensitivity of rhetorical psychology, and he adds to that analysis a cultural-political dimension that is too often studiously avoided by its practitioners.

In Billig’s hands the analysis of conversation, discourse and rhetoric turns into a variety of critical psychology that is inspiring in its scope and style. This book is not only a compelling introduction to conversation analysis and the study of everyday strategies of argumentation as always already culturally and historically contextualized, then, it is also a splendid introduction to psychoanalysis. Not only does it bring Freudian theory to life, it also brings a scholarly eye to psychoanalytic understanding of Freud’s work. For example, there is a close reading of the encounter between Freud and Ernst Lanzer, who was immortalised as the ’Rat Man’ by later psychoanalysts. Billig prefers to call him ’Paul’ (he argues that this is in order to be consistent with choice of names for other cases in the ’Standard Edition’ of Freud’s psychoanalytic writings), and he draws upon the ’process notes’ for the case. The process notes are the first raw record the analyst makes of a case, usually session by session, as soon as possible after a meeting. Not only are the partial process notes from the Standard Edition scrutinized by Billig, he also draws upon the complete process notes for the case which have been published so far only in French and German. Subtle rewording of Freud’s record of what transpired in the different versions are signs of the distinctive ’Freudian repression’ that Billig wants to display.

Ernst Lanzer, in Billig’s reading, is able to say ’but’ as a ’defensive formula’, but he is unable to follow this ’but’ with something that would successfully direct attention away from what he really wants to avoid (p. 61). Billig’s reframing of ’Paul’s’ problem does not only pertain to the patient, but also to what Freud is doing when he accounts for what his patient is doing. Billig points out that Freud’s case history is able to direct our attention away from aspects of the case he does not want to focus upon — the actual activity that his patient engages in to ward off unpleasant ideas — precisely because it directs our attention somewhere else, towards the cause that Freud has already identified. Freud succeeds where Ernst Lanzer does not. This analysis exemplifies a key argument running through the book about the nature of ’repression’; that is, that the ’discursive approach, if stretched a little, can provide the basis for understanding repression’ (p. 39), and repression is thus recast as part of the routine work of opening up and closing down topics that is necessary for polite talk to occur. A close examination of the way Mr and Mrs Graf instruct their son Herbert (who is the ’Little Hans’ who suffers a father jealous of the attention his wife bestows on their son, a father who is keen to employ psychoanalytic interpretation as a weapon to bring the family into line). Hans is instructed in how to avoid being ’rude’, and by the same token to learn what rudeness is in this cultural context. This is the setting for a claim as grand as psychoanalytic claims but much more reasonable; that ’dialogic repression is universal’ (p. 140). It is a claim that is much more reasonable than psychoanalysis.

At some points Billig himself is a tougher analyst than his hero, notwithstanding his modest measure of himself as but a child in comparison to the giant Freud in the last all too brief chapter on ’ideological implications’ of the book (p. 253). Unlike Freud, he will not let slip by a pause in Dora’s faltering account of why she stood admiring a painting of the Madonna. Billig comes across as a little reproving, and his disapproval of Dora as a young Jewish woman being transfixed by, identifying with, a Christian icon is at least as harsh as Freud’s insistence that she should speak about who she loves: ’If she has obtained such complete gratification — if she sees the image as so blameless and morally superior — why cannot she say so?’ (p. 245). Psychoanalytic moralising about sexuality is displaced by, replaced with an attention to cultural identity and themes of ethnic betrayal. We could take this as one index of a key move that Billig makes in other parts of the book, from an argument for an analysis that might complement Freud to an argument against psychoanalysis (and so for something better, of course). As we might expect if we have taken Billig seriously, the move is present in the little words.

A case in point is the way the word ’however’ operates in Billig’s consideration of feminist criticisms of Freud’s handling of ’Dora’ (that he overlooked the behaviour of her father who had brought her to Freud to be put right): ’There is much that can be said to support such a general picture. However, something crucial is being omitted’ (p. 221). Billig then goes on to flesh out what is routinely missing from psychoanalytic accounts of the case (and from feminist critiques of it), which is the constitution of Sigmund Freud and the Bauers as racialized as well as gendered subjects, that is as subject to anti-Semitism and as ’repressing’ their Jewish identity in their talk (and in Freud’s writing about the talk). The bulk of this chapter of the book works quite well with an interpretation of ’however’ as having the sense of ’and’, but Dora’s identification with the Madonna is the cue for something else. Billig glosses Freud’s own phrase for the image of the Madonna at the time, ’a favourite counter-idea’, in a way that adds a slightly different sense so that it is now as if it is being treated by Freud in the case as ’a socially acceptable image’ (p. 242). Psychoanalytically speaking, of course, something that is a favourite counter-idea is not at all the same as a socially acceptable image, quite the opposite. Now Billig switches to an account which invites us to remember his ’however’ as a ’but’, and despite his own reference to the key psychoanalytic concept of ’overdetermination’ as meaning that ’one set of connections does not rule out others’ (pp. 247—248) he now seems to counterpose his own analysis to other analyses which may focus on sexuality (as Freud’s did, incompletely) or gender (as feminist readings do, incompletely).

Perhaps there is a logic, a form of dialogic repression demanded by our use of language, which demands this kind of counterposition. After all, as Billig shows in his analysis of the ’Rat Man’ case, the patient ’Paul’ is unable to do what Freud can do because he lacks the skill to follow his ’but’ with something else. It is necessary that something else ’replace’ what is to be avoided, and when something is expressed something else will be ’repressed’. Perhaps the slip from ’and’ to ’but’, and the consequent ’repression’ of the possibilities that ’and’ can still offer to our understanding, is of a piece with this dialogical process. But, and this is a big but, such a logic of dialogical counterposition itself calls for a different kind of psychology than that suggested by psychoanalysis. We might imagine a cognitive analytic therapist, perhaps one savvy with Bakhtin, diagnosing the way that all Paul does ’is to indicate discontinuity — to signal a dialogical move away without a replacement topic towards’ (p. 64), and they may then develop a dialogical training package which would bring Paul up to speed on ’witcraft’. This certainly looks like an understanding of the problem which is compatible with the way a psychologist would understand it, but it also starts to look a little different from the way a psychoanalyst would see things.

So, is this book for or against psychoanalysis, is it psychoanalytic Freudian repression or repression of Freudian psychoanalysis? Perhaps things should not be posed in that stark way, but Billig does manage his relation to psychoanalysis in that way in the course of the book; at one moment presenting something which adds to our understanding of Freud, at another moment contrasting his reading with that of Freud. At some points in the book, then, it seems as if Billig is doing something quite different to psychoanalysis. This is where the conversation analysis kicks in and picks up turn-by-turn aspects of sense making that psychoanalysis fails to attend to.

At other points in the book it seems as if Billig wants to develop a genuinely Freudian argument, something that would be in the spirit of psychoanalysis and as a contribution to psychoanalytic theory. Freudian Repression is, indeed, a book that should be read by psychoanalysts, for it brings an argument to bear on the key texts; it illuminates and enlivens them. It is a project that deserves to be taken further, but it may be that some of the theoretical alliances Billig has made in this book and some of the resources he refuses to acknowledge need to be looked at carefully, and then need to be ’repressed’ and ’expressed’ respectively.

The key task that Billig sets out to accomplish is to shift psychoanalysis from the biologically based account that is present in many of Freud’s own writings to a discursively saturated account. As Billig comments, ’Probably the biggest difference between the present notion of dialogic repression and Freud’s original concept concerns the relations between psychology and biology’ (p. 253). What follows from this? Rather than appeal to inherited dispositions to account for why we experience Oedipal conflicts with our parents or to wired-in stages of development to explain why some parts of our bodies become ’rude’ when we grow up, we need to unravel how particular forms of language constitute particular forms of subjectivity. This is not at all to say that internalised mental processes in each individual could then be read off from general cultural tropes, but that the shared and singular development of consciousness, and what is avoided each time consciousness is displayed and remade, should be understood as discursively constituted. This sounds familiar, of course. It is uncannily close to the attempts by so-called ’post-structuralist’ theorists of subjectivity in literary theory and then critical psychology to ’change the subject’.

Billig actually does the job better as far as the conceptual groundwork in Freud’s own writing is concerned. Varieties of discourse analysis in psychology informed by post-structuralist theory were fine for tackling the discursive constitution of subjectivity in the matrices of power/knowledge and the psy-complex. Billig knows this, but makes it clear that this is not a route he wants to retread. There are even signs he wants to avoid those theoretical reference points. So, for example, when he argues that nowadays we are expected to talk about sex rather than keep away from the topic (p. 255) a reference to Foucault is conspicuous by its absence; Foucault, as an historian and theorist of the role of psychoanalysis as a form of confession, is actually shut out of the book altogether. However, Billig is also avoiding something, or rather someone else. He knows he is and precisely because of that he is able to weave his way through the book around what he wants to avoid all the more effectively. Billig says early on — and why not, after all ’anticipation’ is viewed as a mature defence by mainstream US American ego psychology — that he ’did not want the book to develop into a running battle with Lacan’ (p. 6). Later he declares that ’both the style and theoretical position of Lacanian psychology are avoided here’ (p. 82). Would that things were that simply settled. Perhaps, paradoxically (and perhaps dialectically rather than merely dialogically), ’style’ and ’theoretical position’ indicate something of the distance and proximity that Billig stands in with respect to psychoanalysis and Lacan.

Perhaps the question of style does indicate something about Lacan, but perhaps Lacan’s style conveys something that is necessarily psychoanalytic as well as something of his ’intellectual arrogance’ (p. 7). Billig seems worried when an argument in the book ’seems to be slipping gently off the path of reasonableness’ (p. 141), and it is certainly one of the virtues of Freudian Repression most of the time that it steers itself between ’bluff reasonableness’ (p. 142) and the path of reasonableness, avoiding at all costs a style which is ’convoluted’, as Lacan’s undoubtedly is (p. 7). The problem is that psychoanalysis is not really reasonable at all. It is profoundly unreasonable, and it stares into horrible bizarre thoughts that quite outstrip what might be covered by the term ’rudeness’. When Billig makes repression into a dialogical process which pushes away what is ’rude’ he confines the scope of what is actually constituted and shut away as the price of speaking to what ’the path of reasonableness’ can encompass. He accuses Lacanians of having reached ’the grotesque extreme’ (p. 36) of style, but perhaps it is not possible to elaborate an account which in any way reaches what is most grotesque and extreme about human thinking, understood discursively here still, without pushing out beyond the limits that language draws around what we are permitted to speak and think. Perhaps it is only an insistence on what is grotesque and extreme that will keep us close to psychoanalysis.

In this respect, then, Billig’s own account is quite distant from psychoanalysis, and it is not so surprising to find him claiming at one point in the book that it is necessary ’to draw upon concepts and empirical findings from modern psychological research’ (p. 142). After a step away from psychology into studies of rhetoric he steps into psychoanalysis, but psychoanalysis is not a psychology and Billig has taken a step back here, back into the discipline he so lucidly questions elsewhere.

As far as ’theoretical position’ is concerned, Billig is actually closer to Lacan than he first appears. Lacan would seem to be, for many readers, an obvious reference point for a discursive understanding of subjectivity in place of a psychologistic one. Billig acknowledges this, and he does take pains to give Lacan his due at some points in the book where it is clear that Lacan has said something fairly sensible about Freud which chimes with Billig’s argument. But the very obviousness of the relevance of Lacan which arises from what some critical psychologists already know about him actually serves to obscure how much more relevant he actually is here. Notwithstanding his attempt to avoid the lures of commonsense or academic understanding, Lacan has been subject to the defence mechanism of ’intellectualisation’ in which an acceptable ’understanding’ of something that is repressed serves to repress it all the more efficiently. Lacan has been ill served so far by ’critical’ literary theorists who have been tempted to mimic his style (and so to fall prey to exactly the kind of identification with a master that Lacan tried to disrupt) or ’critical’ psychologists who only read and misread him through literary theory.

Lacan is one of the few psychoanalysts not ’to assume that ordinary, conscious thinking is unproblematic’ (p. 39), to argue that ’objects of repression’ are themselves ’formed in language’ and that language ’demands repression’ (p. 71), that ’the objects of repression’ are not ’emotional impulses’ (p. 184), that ’the secrets of the parents’ are ’relevant to uncovering the secrets of the child’s mental life’ (p. 111), that ’the key lies in the moral voices that the child has been hearing’ (p. 108), that ’the Oedipal situation, as described by Freud, is not culturally universal’ (p. 139), that analysis should not focus on trying to ’overcome the patient’s resistance’ (p. 171), that ’the analyst’s desires’ are crucial in psychoanalysis (p. 210), that we should not search ’for the real memory of lost infancy’ (p. 183) and that we should not look to ’the earliest moments of infancy’ for the causes of trauma (p. 146). We would need a little jiggling of the wording in some of these position statements by Billig to turn them into talk of signifiers, the desire of the other and suchlike, to make them properly Lacanian. Then we would have a psychoanalytic path to exactly the issues that Billig has raised.

But then, if we were going to do that we might as well read another book about Lacan. What Billig does is to give us something more stimulating. Freudian Repression is an astonishing book that will probably serve to bring a psychology audience closer to psychoanalysis than they would like, and closer to Lacan than Billig would like. It is a path-breaking review of key conceptual problems in human psychology, a restatement of why an understanding of discourse is crucial to any account of subjectivity, and the elaboration of a position in the discipline against which we should argue for many years.