The key to the difference between Bourdieu and Deleuze, and so to the specificity of the concept of habitus, consists in Bourdieu’s introduction of the related concepts of “field” and “symbolic capital.” For Bourdieu, habitus is always embedded in a prior social field, which itself is structured by symbolic power. In some ways Bourdieu takes more seriously than Deleuze, then, the notion encapsulated in Deleuze and Guattari’s affirmation that “politics precedes being” (A Thousand Plateaus 203). For if habitus is a set of “structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures” (The Logic of Practice 53), it is not only generative but also generated. It is the product of a given state of power relations: the social field as a whole, and also distinct subfields (such as the artistic field, the journalistic field, the academic field). Hence, in Loïc Wacquant’s words, the relation between habitus, field, and capital is that “a field consists of a set of objective, historical relations between positions anchored in certain forms of power (or capital), while habitus consists of a set of historical relations ‘deposited’ within individual bodies” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology 16). Hence the dispositions of habitus are also depositions, both in the sense that they constitute a record of the state of the field that formed them and (to use now more Deleuzian terminology) that they are the sediments or deposits that form within a particular landscape of power. They are “conditionings associated with a particular class of conditions of existence” (The Logic of Practice 53). And what they therefore generate or structure in turn tends therefore to reproduce the structures that constituted them, in that they generate practices that seem to call those structures into being, that take them for granted without the need of words or discourse.

Each field is structured by a competition for domination and capital. “The structure of the field,” Bourdieu argues, “is determined by the structure of the distribution of the distinct forms of capital that are active in it” (An Introduction to Reflexive Sociology 108). For there are different forms of capital, each of which has a different weight depending upon the field in question. Broadly, for instance, the field of culture is structured in terms of its differential distribution of cultural capital, while it is financial capital that counts in the market for economic goods. Yet Bourdieu downplays the direct influence of financial capital, and is interested above all in the distinct forms of symbolic capital that are subject to struggle in different subfields, and the ways in which the definition of capital (or what is to be accorded value) is at stake in these struggles, as well as the mechanisms by which one form of capital is converted into another. In the end, the most effective power is symbolic: “symbolic” here does not imply either representation or a power that is “merely” symbolic, but refers a mode of domination that achieves legitimacy in that its arbitrariness is misrecognized, so much so that it goes without saying. Bourdieu and Passeron present this as the fundamental axiom grounding their analysis of social reproduction: “every power which manages to impose meanings and to impose them as legitimate by concealing the power relations which are the basis of its force, adds its own specifically symbolic force to those power relations” (Reproduction 4; emphasis in original). What is reproduced through habitus, habitually, is our corporeal assent to the legitimacy of these power relations, and to the unequal distribution of capital that they secure.

Habitus is reflex and relay, product and producer, assuring social continuity by literally incarnating the principles of social order. In Bourdieu’s words, “it ensures the active presence of past experiences, which, deposited in each organism in the form of schemes and perception, thought and action, tend to guarantee the ‘correctness’ of practices and their constancy over time” (The Logic of Practice 54). It ensures that social agents are attuned to their circumstances. It fosters the self-confidence of the “inheritor” who, rich in cultural capital, exhibits a confidence and flair that is rewarded with further social and cultural capital; and it also ensures that those dispossessed of cultural capital assent to their dispossession by rejecting what is culturally consecrated (be it higher education or high art) with the sentiment that it is not for them. Privilege is naturalized as though it were simply a “gift”; and subordination is taken for granted as though social difference were a question of talent or taste. The dispossessed are often the first to admit that they have only themselves to blame. And all this is legitimated and arbitrated by institutions and officials who have no need to be aware of what they are doing, who can be committed or even (increasingly) entirely cynical about the ideals they are upholding. For ideals are not at stake. Academic diplomas, for instance, attest to “gifts” and “merits,” and can do so objectively with no hint of bias, because the real work has been done in the conversion and so dissimulation of privilege as attitude. The source of these dispositions is concealed, all the more effectively in that the habits they generate are second nature. Hence, Bourdieu and Passeron argue, “the supreme privilege” of the privileged is “not seeing themselves as privileged,” which in turn “manages the more easily to convince the disinherited that they owe their scholastic and social destiny to their lack of gifts and merits, because in matters of culture absolute dispossession excludes awareness of being dispossessed” (Reproduction 210). There is no conspiracy because there is no hidden knowledge: the game’s winners as much as the game’s losers, as well as its arbitrators, can all act in perfectly good faith. The judgments that lead to social promotion or exclusion, such as the feeling that “he’s a good chap” or “she’s not one of us,” can be justified by transcendent principles whose legitimacy is assured by the fact that they resonate with immanent habits.


Something I’m working on, and I thought I’d put it up to see what the various Bourdieusians and Deleuzians make of it…

Bourdieu’s concept of “habitus” is, in the first place, central to his intervention into the ongoing debate about structure and agency, “one of the key faultlines that runs through social theory” (Korczynski, Hodson, and Edwards, “Introduction” 12). On the one hand, there are theorists who stress the ways in which social structures constrain and determine individual or social agency. Marxism and psychoanalysis, for instance, in different ways tend to emphasize the ways in which agency is constrained by structures that are, respectively, material and psychic. On the other hand, other theorists stress the fact that agents can resist or overcome these structural determinants. The tendency of cultural studies, for example, is to point to the slippages by which (say) consumers determine their own responses and eke out a measure of agency even within contemporary capitalism. Or as Anthony Giddens (whose theory of structuration is an alternative bid to resolve the debate) puts it, those for whom “structure (in the divergent senses attributed to that concept) has primacy over action, and the constraining qualities of structure are strongly accentuated” are arrayed against those for whom “action and meaning are accorded primacy in the explication of human conduct; structural concepts are not notably prominent, and there is not much talk of constraint” (The Constitution of Society 2). Giddens goes on to characterize this difference as an “imperialism of the social object” facing “an imperialism of the object” (2). In short, these are two competing claims to transcendence; what is at stake, Giddens argues, is as much ontological as it is epistemological, as much about our models of what society is as about conflicting perspectives regarding the same model (2).

Bourdieu’s intervention is therefore also ontological, substituting immanence for the dueling imperial transcendences of structure and agency. He refuses both “mechanism” (an emphasis on structure) and “finalism” (a stress on agency), arguing that the debate between the two is “a false dilemma” (Outline of a Theory of Practice 72). If “it is necessary to abandon all theories which explicitly or implicitly treat practice as a mechanical reaction” shaped by rules or structures alone, equally “rejection of mechanistic theories in no way implies that [. . .] we should reduce the objective intentions and constituted significations of actions and works to the conscious and deliberate intentions of their authors” (73). Mechanism and finalism, structure and agency, are each as reductionist as the other, seeking causes always elsewhere, in some other dimension, either the “transcendent, permanent existence” of objective social constraints and regulations or the “transcendence of the ego” equipped to make its own rules (27, 75). So Bourdieu turns to habit, or “habitus,” an embodied set of dispositions immanent to practice itself. Habitus is a system “of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations” (The Logic of Practice 53). These dispositions are “objectively ‘regulated’ and ‘regular’ without in any way being the product of obedience to rules, objectively adapted to their goals without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends” (Outline 72). Habit, our everyday activity, is therefore the product of a “scheme (or principle) immanent in practice, which [. . .] exists in a practical state in agents’ practice and not in their consciousness, or rather, their discourse” (27; emphasis in original). Regulation and practice are immanent to each other, rather than mediated either by consciousness or by external structures. Habitus is an attitude of the body. It is the unspoken, unspeakable, feel for the social game that generates the positions and actions that agents adopt in given situations, in regular if not fully predictable ways. In short, because it is immanent, habitus is both embedded, and so structured; and it is also generative, an immediate rather than external motor of action.

There are many overlaps between Bourdieu’s habitus and Deleuze’s conception of the “virtual.” Both are immanent and productive, intensive and affective, corporeal and immediate. The relation between habitus and practice is not unlike that between the virtual and the actual: an unfolding or differentiation that takes place in the event of an encounter with other bodies. Habitus and the virtual alike describe an ontology that underlies but is of a different order from the realm of representation, discourse, and ideology. Habitus, Bourdieu tells us, is like the work of art in that it “always contains something ineffable, not by excess [. . .] but by default, something which communicates, so to speak, from body to body, i.e. on the hither side of words and concepts” (Outline 2; emphasis in original), while the virtual, Brian Massumi explains, is “the unsaid of the statement, the unthought of thought” (A User’s Guide 46; emphasis in original). Hence both theorists’ distaste for ideology: for Deleuze and Guattari, “there is no ideology and never has been” (A Thousand Plateaus 4); for Bourdieu, more measured, “I have little by little come to shun the use of the word ‘ideology’” (Pascalian Meditations 181). And yet, despite these manifold similarities, the tenor of Bourdieu’s work differs markedly from Deleuze’s. Where Deleuze emphasizes escape, and a flight towards the immanent virtuality of affect as an empowering realization of what the body can do, for Bourdieu the immanence of habitus is characterized above all by inertia. Bourdieu shows how habit enables social reproduction and works against radical social change, so much so that (as Bourdieu and Wacquant note) some even accuse him of “a politically sterile hyperfunctionalism” (An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology 52). Though his “functionalist tenor” (Lane, Bourdieu’s Politics 116) does not exhaust Bourdieu’s account of habit, the contrast with the voluntarist tenor of Deleuze’s theorization of affect is dramatic. Yet the difference is not, as Massumi claims, that habitus is an “ideological notion” whereas Deleuze’s account “emphasizes that [habit] belongs as much to the organic stratum, to the productive, physiological capacities of the flesh” (“Introduction” xxxvii). Bourdieu’s habitus is fully as corporeal as Deleuze’s affect. Rather, we might almost say that the structure and agency debate is replicated in the difference between Deleuze and Bourdieu, but now as a contest between two immanences.


Via Left Turns? (and also my colleague Max Cameron), an interesting article on “democracy promotion,” and specifically Canada’s role supporting and providing an alibi for US “overt operations” in Latin America: “Canada’s Contribution to ‘Democracy Promotion'”.

democracy cartoonWith a particular focus on FOCAL, the Canadian Foundation for the Americas, Anthony Fenton describes Canada’s role as a National Endowment for Democracy “proxy” in “this new genre of political intervention into the affairs of the nations of the Global South.”

The article is of special interest to me in part because (along with Max) the other day I met up with Carlo Dade, a former World Bank employee who is described here as “a FOCAL senior advisor” and “the main point person for FOCAL’s ‘Canada and the Rebuilding of Haiti’ program.” Dade is quoted quite unabashedly arguing for Canada’s proxy role in support of US policy objectives in Latin America:

The U.S. would welcome Canadian involvement and Canada’s taking the lead in Haiti. The administration in Washington has its hands more than full with Afghanistan, Iraq. . . This is a chance for Canada to step up and provide that sort of focused attention and leadership, and the administration would welcome this.

Dade was a nice enough guy to have a beer with, but it was indeed quickly apparent that his version of “democracy” was unashamedly tied to free markets and private sector interests.

Canada’s role in these overt operations, to push a particular formula of social governance on Latin America, is legitimized by the linguistic slip that ties the country’s self-image of itself as a “civil society” (in the sense of peaceable and polite) to the concept of civil society, or Hegel’s “bürgerliche Gesellschaft” (bourgeois society), as a bulwark against authoritarian states and radical social movements alike.


Marguerite Feitlowitz’s A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture examines the relation between language and state violence. In some ways it’s a companion piece to Diana Taylor’s Disappearing Acts, which analyzes a similar connection between performance and terror, also focussing on Argentina.

The New York Times has an online version of the book’s first chapter, whose title is likewise “A Lexicon of Terror”, and where we find her most sustained examination of the role of language under Argentina’s military regime of 1976 to 1983.

War is PeaceSince Orwell at least, we’ve been familiar with the concept that authoritarianism impacts language, bending it out of shape and introducing a whole series of figures and double meanings that violate common sense: war is peace; freedom is slavery; ignorance is strength. Doublespeak. And in “Politics and the English Language”, for instance, Orwell insists upon linguistic clarity as a remedy to political obfuscation: in so far as “the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language [. . .] one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy.”

But as Feitlowitz observes, while the Argentine junta made use of language’s slipperiness precisely in the service of something like Orwellian doublespeak (e.g., in a distortion of human rights discourse, “We Argentines are human, we Argentines are right”), they were also quite self-conscious and wary about the sign’s inherently arbitrary relation to its referent. In the words of Admiral Emilio Massera, with which Feitlowitz opens her chapter, “Unfaithful to their meanings, words perturb our powers of reason” (19).

So in that “the whole regime was intensely verbal,” as Feitlowitz contends, with its “constant torrent of speeches, proclamations, and interviews” such that “Argentinians lived in an echo chamber” (20), not only did the junta remake language, it also opened up the possibility that its own language could be turned against it. Indeed, this was (as Taylor argues) something that the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo realized: that they could take the regime’s rhetoric about the centrality of the family and women’s role as nurturers and guardians, and turn it against the practices that separated mother from child through kidnap and torture.

There are two possible positions: one insists on clarity and common sense against the obfuscations and euphemisms of overweening power; the other thrives on the fact that even the most powerful cannot fully control their language (or anybody else’s).

The problem is that Feitlowitz never fully chooses either one of these possibilities. And as such, she constantly falls prey to the worst of all worlds. Consider her chapter’s conclusion:

The repression lives on in [. . .] aberrations of the language, in the scars it left on the language. When a people’s very words have been wounded, the society cannot fully recover until the language has been healed. [. . .] When, like skin, the language is bruised, punctured, or mutilated, that boundary [between inner self and the outside world] breaks down. [. . .]

We must pay attention to this dis-ease, we must document its signs. We must make an artifact of this Lexicon of Terror, so that it will no longer be a living language. (62)

Here is a denunciation of language’s aberration expressed in the most aberrant of language. Is it not, after all, a form of “doublespeak” to use such a richly figural, metaphoric mode of expression as to refer to language’s “scars,” its bruises, punctures, and wounds? And while we’re at it, why does this linguistic cure depend upon killing a “living language”?

How far, after all, are we from the Argentine junta’s own metaphorical analogies, condemned by Feitlowitz, to the “cleanliness and health” that they propose to bring to an Argentina purged of political aberration (33)? If Massera is wrong to appropriate what Feitlowitz terms “Neo-Nazi ‘germ theory'” when he declares that “we must cleanse the country of subversion” (33), is it not equally problematic to portray language itself as a body whose sickness is to be cured or as a life that is to be euthanized . . . especially when it is metaphorical aberration that is to be purged, linguistic excess to be eliminated?

In other words, Feitlowitz uses metaphor to argue for de-metaphorization.

We should either use metaphor or denounce it. And if it turns out that we cannot rid our language of figures, then perhaps there’s a limit to the political blame we can pin on figuration per se. All the more so when we’ve borrowed our most powerful figures from those we claim to be condemning.

(Paul de Man’s “Semiology and Rhetoric” [JSTOR access required] has something to say about this, too.)


Princess Diana in AfricaI had the good fortune this week to read a wonderful book proposal about development work, and more specifically the “desire for development,” particularly among white women in the North.

The focus is on Canadian aid workers in sub-Saharan Africa, and the ways in which their investment in their work (and even their resistance) enables their self-constitution as moral subjects. The manuscript includes the following marvellous quotation about the ways in which the assumption of global difference constructs and confirms a sense of moral purpose in Canada above all:

A Canadian today knows herself or himself as someone who comes from the nicest place on earth, as someone from a peacekeeping nation, and as a modest, self-deprecating individual who is able to gently teach Third World Others about civility. (Sherene Razack, Dark Threats and White Knights 9)

This is another approach to the problems I’ve mentioned before inherent in the self-proclaimed mission to teach “global citizenship”.

The manuscript also notes something that surprised me, but probably shouldn’t have, that “there are likely more expatriate development workers operating in Africa at this point than there were ever colonialists in the era of empire” (cf R L Stirrat, “Cultures of Consultancy,” Critique of Anthropology 20.1 [2000]: 31-46).


I’ve been reading a couple of things sent me by my friend Susana Draper. They’re mostly about the Punta Carretas mall in Montevideo.

Punta Carretas mallPunta Carretas is interesting not least because what is now a mall was once a prison, notorious for the incarceration and torture of political prisoners during the 1970s and 1980s. One could hardly wish for a better image of neoliberal transition: a marketplace founded on the site (and in the very building) of what was once an institution of state discipline.

Recycled in this way, the building is a place both of (perhaps unwelcome) memory, especially for its former prisoners, and also of collective amnesia, for the busy shopper. It presents a somewhat uneasy combination of these two temporalities–neoliberal present and dictatorial past–which are also two ways of thinking temporality, the scars of political memory or the eternal “now” of the commodity.

Susana is particularly interested in a famous escape from Punta Carretas prison when, in September 1971, over a hundred imprisoned Tupamaro guerrillas tunneled their way to freedom. Moreover, the escape unfolded another temporal doubling, as those burrowing their way out suddenly came across the tunnel that had been dug in the 1930s by anarchist prisoners, also seeking escape. Here, however, this resonance (or “dejà vu” as Susana observes, following Paolo Virno) between two different historical moments is felt as an empowerment, a potentialization, rather than a cancelling out.

There is much more than can be said here about lines of flight, immanence, exodus, creativity, the search for freedom, and so on–and Susana says much of it.

The fact, however, that much of her account is based on a reading of Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro’s book La fuga de Punta Carretas made me realize that the prison escape memoir constitutes an entire sub-genre of Latin American testimonial literature.

For instance, there is also Claribel Alegría and DJ Flakoll’s Tunnel to Canto Grande, about an MRTA escape from a Peruvian prison, and Ricardo Palma Salamanca’s El gran rescate, about a helicopter rescue undertaken by Chile’s FPMR.

(Meanwhile, the 1997 “Chavín de Huantar” operation, in which Peruvian special forces tunnelled in to the MRTA-held Japanese ambassador’s residence, offers a kind of inverse movement.)

The only English-language comparison that immediately comes to mind would be the wealth of narratives about WWII escapes from German prisoner-of-war camps–such as Eric Williams’s The Wooden Horse or the Steve McQueen vehicle The Great Escape. These stories are very different: they are mostly about stiff-upper-lip Englishness and fair play, though of course the “Great Escape” has now been adopted by England football fans.

But it might be worth doing a fuller survey of such escape literature to think further through the theme and the different possible modalities of flight, tunnelling, going underground. Or even jumping fences…

Steve McQueen in The Great Escape

tears revisited

My friend Susana notes that it would be better to describe The Take as emotional, rather than affective. And it’s certainly true that what we see is affect captured: affect given a subject and object. In Brian Massumi’s terms, this is emotion.

So these Argentine men define their subjectivity through the emotions that they express: their pain at failing to fulfil their duties as a husband or father in fact underlines the sense that their proper role is as pater familias; their pleasure in labour confirms and justifies their identity as workers.

Likewise, their emotions have very specific objects: sentiment ties them to other people (wives, fathers) and things (machines, commodities).

In short, the emotions that the film projects upon its human subjects define it as melodrama, a hackneyed tale of the desire for work and social integration, rather than the social disintegration that a more (self-)critical approach would demand.

And yet, because emotion is affect captured, we can still read back affect through emotion. There is always something that goes beyond or escapes.

Indeed, the very fact that the film’s attention to male affect is so excessive already troubles its attempts at a neat liberal resolution. The film takes too much pleasure in the men’s tears on which its cameras linger. There’s something improper about its attention, so often willing the men to cry, that we might wonder about the limits of propriety itself.

And so it is perhaps that this somewhat disturbing excess offers a line of flight along which we could imagine other forms of community, other forms of solidarity.


The Take posterIn Southern California for a conference, I finally got around to seeing Avi Lewis’s and Naomi Klein’s film The Take (official website here), which champions the Argentine movement to take over and recuperate abandoned factories.

Before the screening, I joked with some friends that the movie would most likely say more about Canada than about Argentina. But so indeed it turned out.

The Take gives us the Canadian dream: young, idealistic do gooders, who tell us they have for years lived with “tear gas by day, theory by night,” spreading the word that an alternative is possible. Nothing revolutionary, mind you: merely the small difference of a slightly kinder, slightly more gentle capitalism.

Lewis and KIein are blithely unconcerned by the fact that the justification for the factory takeovers is presented very much in line with neoliberal rationality itself. We are told that worker-run businesses are more “efficient,” because their workings are more transparent and because they have been cleansed of the corruption of their former owners. The state is warned not to intervene against the enterprising former workers, who show magnificent entrepreneurship as they lovingly care for and reactivate their sadly abandoned machines.

Obviously, no viewer can resist the banal liberal point that we’d rather see the workers Freddy and Lalo in charge of the plant than the Montgomery Burns style caricature of a former owner. But precisely the irresistability of this point is problematic.

And what’s most striking is how much this is a film about affect, motivated by affect. You’d struggle hard to find a movie with more shots of men crying. The camera lingers on the tears rolling down their tough porteño cheeks. The men cry with nostalgia when they tour the ruined factory. They cry with joy when the provincial legislature gives them the legal right to return. They cry with frustration that their sense of self and masculine dignity has been humilliated, now they can no longer provide for their family (the wife’s make up, the children’s happy meals).

But finally, the film’s closing sequence is a long montage of workers smiling, beaming, laughing in their pride and satisfaction as they joyfully invest their labour power into the production of value.

Simone Weil would have been pleased.

For they all worked happily ever after.

Forja workes celebrate
Update: tears revisited.


buddiesAfter so much enmity in the blogosphere (if sometimes of a semi-affectionate nature), and given that this form seems particularly prone to dispute, occasionally ironized or celebrated as “snark,” it’s refreshing to see some reflections on friendship.

Angela is perhaps shy to mention it, but she’s put up some interesting thoughts on mateship, in the wake of the mining melodrama in Beaconsfield. Glen responds.

I wonder how nationally circumscribed that discussion is, the “mate” as Australian icon of a rather particular type. Indeed, that’s partly what’s at issue in the disagreement between Angela and Glen.

Meanwhile, over on Charlotte Street, Mark Kaplan continues an ongoing series of meditations on friendship, most recently with reference to Blanchot, Benjamin and Brecht, and Nietzsche.

Now, however much my friends are important, I’ve mentioned before I’m also keen on the limits to friendship, the indifference of what Alberto Moreiras terms the “non-friend,” who can in some ways be equated with the subaltern. At issue here is the challenge of living together beyond like or dislike.

It’s the question of community and exclusiveness. And then there’s love.

Perhaps all of this will return when we start reading Schmitt.

Cross-posted from Long Sunday.


FreudIt was Marx’s 188th birthday yesterday, as s0metim3s, carlos rojas, and Steven Shaviro, among others, note. I hope to write up something apropos before long.

But it is Freud’s today. And old Sigismund would be 150 were he still alive, which is quite a milestone by anybody’s standards.

Moreover, I have returned to thinking about ruins, one of Freud’s many obsessions. Freud took a keen interest in archaeology, and his home in Hampstead was filled with a collection of over 2,000 curios that had been excavated from the Ancient World: no wonder the London Freud Museum should comment that, surrounded by his antiquities, Freud “worked in a museum of his own creation”. (See also The Vienna Freud Museum.)

As the museum further indicates, these curios were prized for more than their aesthetic value alone. Freud believed they told something of the truth of pyschoanalysis and its theories of the unconscious:

One example of this is Freud’s explanation to a patient that conscious material “wears away” while what is unconscious is relatively unchanging: “I illustrated my remarks by pointing to the antique objects about my room. They were, in fact, I said, only objects found in a tomb, and their burial had been their preservation.”

Freud often compared the unconscious to buried ruins, and the task of the analyst to that of the archaeologist, uncovering ever deeper strata for the prizes hidden in the depths, clues to the ways of life only dimly discerned from mere surface inspection.

But in a late essay, Freud turns this metaphor on its head. In “A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis,” ruins stand for what is clearly in view, in front of the analyst’s face. And the issue here is why what is so straightforwardly visible, uncompromisingly material, should be strangely denied or disavowed.

Written in 1936, “A Disturbance of Memory” is in fact a kind of birthday present, dedicated to the Nobel Prize-winning writer Romain Rolland “on the occasion of his seventieth birthday.” And age, old age, is a constant theme. Freud notes that he himself is “ten years older” than Rolland, and that his “powers of production are at an end” (On Metapsychology 447). There is, therefore, from the outset a melancholy note sounded, a lament for times past and fading strength.

The essay’s topic is a recollection from 1904 (“a generation ago” [447]) that has “kept on recurring to [his] mind.” It concerns a trip Freud took with his brother, a holiday south to the Mediterranean, first to Trieste, with the intention of continuing on to Corfu. In Trieste, however, the brothers’ plans changed. A business acquaintance advises against Corfu and strongly suggests that the two sail for Athens, instead. For some reason, this suggestion provokes in the two travellers “a discontented and irresolute state of mind” (448). Yet, almost unconsciously (“as though it were a matter of course”) they book a passage for Athens, and soon enough set out to see the sights.

Freud’s reaction to the ancient ruins of which he has heard so much is, he admits, decidedly curious:

When, finally, on the afternoon after our arrival, I stood on the Acropolis and cast my eyes around the landscape, a surprising thought suddenly entered my mind: “So all this really does exist, just as we learnt at school!” To describe the situation more accurately, the person who gave expression to the remark was divided, far more sharply than was usually noticeable, from another person who took cognizance of the remark; and both were astonished, though not by the same thing. The first behaved as though he were obliged, under the impact of an unequivocal observation, to believe in something the reality of which had hitherto seemed doubtful. [. . .] The second person, on the other hand, was justifiably astonished, because he had been unaware that the real existence of Athens, the Acropolis, and the landscape around it had ever been objects of doubt. What he had been expecting was rather some expression of delight or admiration. (449)

The ruins are an instance of what is incontrovertible, plainly in front of Freud’s face, but whose reality for some reason some part of him chooses to doubt. What should be a source of affirmation (“delight or admiration”) becomes instead the occasion for a deep scission within the self. And Freud goes on to describe this as “a ‘feeling of derealization’ [‘Entfremdungsgefühl’]” (453).

This derealization is itself, of course, another mode of denial, of repression. And Freud notes that it is the mirror image of the fantasy, or the “hallucinations,” more readily associated with psychic disturbance, and indeed with Freudian theory. Where a fantasy conjures up the unreal, the delusion, its counterpart derealization conjures away what is plainly real. And if fantasies are always images of possession, of incorporation, “in the derealizations we are anxious to keep something out of us” (453); “they aim at keeping something away from the ego, at disavowing it” (454).

Interestingly, Freud takes as a prime example of derealization the famous “moor’s last sigh,” when the last ruler of Muslim Andalucía, Boabdil, reacted to news of the fall of Alhama:

He feels that this loss means the end of his rule. But he will not “let it be true,” he determines to treat the news as non arrivé. The verse runs:

“Cartas le fueron venidas
que Alhama era ganada:
las cartas echó en el fuego,
y al mensajero matara”

[“Letters had reached him telling that Alhama was taken. He threw the letter in the fire and killed the messenger.”] (454-455)

But Freud observes that what is “truly paradoxical” about his own behaviour on the Acropolis is that, far from denying or repressing a trauma or displeasure, his defence mechanism serves to ward off “something which, on the contrary, promises to bring a high degree of pleasure.” At last, a dream attained: why deny it, as though it were “too good to be true” (450)?

And Freud’s explanation takes recourse in the concept of the super ego. Rather than warding off an external threat, derealization is symptom of an internal frustration, which “commands [the sufferer] to cling to the external one”; and the internal frustration itself is “a residue of the punitive agency of our childhood” (451).

So back further in time Freud goes: beyond the scene of writing as an eighty year old in 1936; beyond his recollections of a trip undertaken at the age of forty-eight, in 1904; back to his childhood, to his schooldays in the 1860s, and back (but of course) to the familial scene, to the figure he refers to, refracted through an anecdote in which he compares himself to Napoleon, in the strangely distanced, formal and foreign, turn of phrase “Monsieur nôtre Père” (456).

It is not, then–and this at last is the “disturbance of memory” signalled in the essay’s title–that at school the young Freud had doubted the Acropolis’s existence. Rather:

It seemed to me beyond the realms of possibility that I should travel so far–that I should “go such a long way.” This was linked up with the limitations and poverty of our conditions of life in my youth.

[. . .]

But here we come upon the solution of the little problem of why it was that already at Trieste we interfered with our enjoyment of the voyage to Athens. It must be that a sense of guilt was attached to the satisfaction in having gone such a long way; there was something about it that was wrong, that from earliest times had been forbidden. It was something to do with a child’s criticism of his father, with the undervaluation which took the place of the overvaluation of earlier childhood. It seems as though the essence of success was to have got further than one’s father, and as though to excel one’s father was still something forbidden. (455, 456)

No surprises here, then. In a caricature of pop cult images of pyschoanalysis, the whole incident with the ruins comes to revolve around an Oedipal anxiety: the desire to supersede the father, and the attendant feelings of guilt. The short-cut to interpretation, as always, being to intone in heavily accented English: “Tell me about your father.”

Fortunately, and this is the great delight with Freud, he leaves himself open to another interpretation altogether: one that is right in front of his face, if only he’d see it.

For again, the essay ends as it had started, with a lament as to the analyst’s own declining powers, a nostalgic sigh from one old man to another, on the occasion of the somewhat younger man’s birthday:

And now you will no longer wonder that the recollection of this incident on the Acropolis should have troubled me so often since I myself have grown old and stand in need of forbearance and can travel no longer. (456)

Freud admits that he himself is now needy and dependent. He lacks the mobility of his youth. He can easily be overtaken. Is not the issue then less his own father, than his position as father, literal and metaphorical, of the movement that he started but can no longer keep up with?

Sigmund and Anna FreudLiteral in that (“Tell me about your daughter”?) Freud has already referred to his daughter, Anna, precisely at the moment that he introduced the theme of ego defences:

An investigation is at this moment being carried on close at hand which is devoted to the study of these methods of defence: my daughter, the child analyst, is writing a book upon them. (454)

Surely there are some revealing turns of phrase here, though one would have also to examine the original German text.

The “child analyst,” in English at least, might suggest both that she analyzes children, and that she is herself still (to Freud) but a child, if only in terms of analysis. But is there not some anxiety in the assurance that Anna remains “close at hand”: close because he now needs her close by, to continue his legacy; too close to comfort because it is she who is the future author, catching up on Freud while his own “powers of production are at an end”; perhaps too likely to stray, close now but soon distant, superseding or betraying her father?

And metaphorical in that… Well, can we not read this whole tale, and the birthday essay that has accreted around it, as a metaphor for the fate of psychoanalysis itself? Is not the split subject that gazes at the old, split rocks of the Parthenon the split subject of pyschoanalysis?

Though Freud starts to discuss “the extraordinary condition of ‘double conscience‘” as a means to understand this condition (453), all too soon he disavows this very concept: “But all of this is so obscure and has been so little mastered scientifically that I must refrain from talking about it any more to you” (454). Freud the little Napoleon chooses silence, repression, because of an anxiety patently about the possibility of losing mastery, about the limits of a method he would like to convince us is in some way scientific.

And yet it is precisely this double consciousness that is most startling, most plainly in view in the entire anecdote! Indeed, the entire story would be impossible were it not for the “second person,” whose astonishment at the “first person”‘s derealization functions to insist that his denial is indeed in some way pathological. This second person is on the side of reality, of affirmation, of a literal reading of what stares the analyst straight in the face.

And is not this second person, found within the analyst, and enabling his melancholy remembrance, his sad intepretations, the hint of a psychoanalysis that would not be bound to the super ego, to the childhood traumas imposed by a fading father figure? Doesn’t this second person, the other side of Freud’s double consciousness, hold the keys to a schizoanalysis? A schizoanalysis that begins with the “split personality” (453-454) that so shakes Freud and his illusion of scientific mastery that he has to guard his silence and return (oh, once again) to the old mournful tale of fathers and sons, itself only a cover for a still more pathetic anxiety over fathers and daughters?

ErosIt is double consciousness, which includes the wild, unscientific analysis so feared by Freud, that makes the entire procedure productive, that gives the lie to Freud’s own self-pitying complaint that production is “at an end.” If only it were at an end, thinks Freud; if only he could put a stop to it. It’s so evidently in his face. And yet it is this other side to pyschoanalysis that he is most anxious to disavow.

Despite himself, Freud let a genii out of the bottle that still, 150 years after his birth, returns to enliven but also (affirmatively, joyfully, impiously, youthfully playing among the ruins) traduce and betray, supersede and go beyond, the psychoanalytic enterprise that our birthday boy set in motion. Why deny it?

Cross-posted to Long Sunday.

For more, check out the naked gaze’s “Obscene Images (1)”.

And for other birthday tributes, see Harold Bloom’s “Why Freud Matters”, Paul Broks’s “The Ego Trip”, Will Hutton’s “A time to celebrate, not denigrate, Freud”, or Christina Patterson’s “A Freud for all seasons”. MotherPie offers some feminist commentary and a whole series of links. And here’s Freud’s last living patient.

Plus a site dedicated to the anniversary.