Where the Wild Things Are

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This Friday, June 24, the Association for Psychoanalytic Thought presents Where the Wild Things Are, directed by Spike Jonze based on Maurice Sendak’s book. The screening will be followed by discussion about grief in a dramatic dreamscape by Rachel Zlatkin, Professor of English at NKU, and Alla Baskakova, psychiatrist at VA Medical Center.

Wine and cheese at 6:30. Program starts at 7pm.

Location: Cincinnati Psychoanalytic Institute, 3001 Highland Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45219

Please RSVP: Norman Hirsch, hirschnorman@gmail.com or 513-515-6836.

Psi episode 4, “Believing in the Afterlife”

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On Friday, January 22nd, the Association for Psychoanalytic Thought screened an episode of the Brazilian television series, Psi, about a psychoanalyst, Carlo Antonini, his family, and his practice in São Paulo. The series is co-written by Contardo Calligaris, a well-known Italian psychoanalyst, novelist, and playwright who lives and works in Brazil. The episode screened involved a patient, Milton, who believes his dead wife is communicating with him from beyond the grave. Leading discussion of the episode were Dr. Natalia Jacovkis, Associate Professor of Spanish at Xavier University and specialist in film and media studies, and Dr. Karl Stuckenberg, Chair of Xavier’s School of Psychology.

Dr. Jacovkis introduced the screening by explaining the production environment for television in Brazil, where big-budgets and leading actors contribute to quality television programming, outshining even film production. This was well-evidenced with Psi, which is a finely-crafted, thought-provoking, and superbly-written piece of entertainment. Much of the narrative impact of the episode is created by several subplots that are tightly-integrated with the main storyline, one following Antonini’s sessions with another patient whose brother and nephew died in a car crash and a second focused on the death of his daughter’s dog. The multiple storylines involving death and mourning work together to create a thematic unity missing in much mainstream American television.

The loneliness and isolation characters experience in the metropolis of São Paulo is another striking aspect of the series, pointed out by Dr. Jacovkis. The severe, austerely-depicted city provides Dr. Antonini with a steady clientele of troubled psychoanalytic patients, but he, too, is troubled. He maintains a predominantly sterile and clinical demeanor in his interpersonal relationships, not only with clients, but also with his ex-wife and children. However, he is warm and genial with his colleagues, showing a likable side to the good doctor. In general, all the characters are complex and multidimensional, important to a series concerned with the human psyche.

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It is toward that human psyche that Dr. Stuckenberg steered the discussion after the screening, when he invoked Freud’s essay on “Mourning and Melancholia” as a lens through which to understand Milton’s delusions. Overwhelming guilt and anger are attendant with his grief, but when Milton confesses to having killed his wife’s dogs, Dr. Antonini identifies his confession as too detailed, too rehearsed. This causes Milton to erupt in an uncalculated tirade involving everything that he hated about his wife, from her telling pointless stories to smelling bad “down there.” By the end of the episode, the purgation of Milton’s feelings of anger and hatred toward his dead wife provides him with some relief, but there is still much work to be done. Ultimately, as noted by Dr. Stuckenberg in closing the discussion, it matters not whether the ghosts of our loved ones are real or imagined; we must still process our own conscious and repressed feelings toward those loved ones in order to exorcise their spirits.

A Story about Psicanálise (Psychoanalysis) in Latin America

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Please consider attending the next event sponsored by the Association for Psychoanalytic Thought on Friday, January 22nd, 2016:

A Story about Psicanálise (Psychoanalysis) in Latin America

The Association for Psychoanalytic Thought (APT) is pleased to present a viewing of an episode of the HBO Latin America Channel series, Psi about a psychoanalyst living and practicing in Saõ Paulo, Brazil, based on the writings of Brazilian psychoanalyst Contardo Calligaris. Calligaris trained in Switzerland and France and moved to Brazil. He is a columnist as well as a clinician and has written several psychoanalytically oriented novels. He is the creator of the series.

The viewing will be followed by a discussion by Natalia Jakovkis, professor of Modern Languages at Xavier University, and Karl Stukenberg, professor and chairman of Psychology at Xavier University and a CPI faculty member.

The event will be held in the Kapp Memorial Library of the Cincinnati Psychoanalytic Institute, 3001 Highland Ave., Suite C, Cincinnati, Ohio 45219. The event begins at 6:30 pm with wine and cheese and the program begins at 7 pm. Admission is $5.00.

Please RSVP early by calling 513-515-6836 or by emailing hirschnorman@gmail.com

Psychoanalysis and Non-Western Art

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Yoshitoshi’s Banchō Sarayashiki

At last night’s December meeting of the Association for Psychoanalytic Thought, I had the pleasure of speaking as part of a round-table discussion titled, “Psychoanalysis and Culture: Psychoanalytic Concepts in the College Classroom.” The other two presenters were Norman Finkelstein, Professor of English at Xavier University, and Rachel Zlatkin, Honors Professor at Northern Kentucky University. Dr. Zlatkin began the discussion with readings of quite different versions of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale as cautionary tales about young women’s sexuality. I then spoke about the “return of the repressed” in horror films and sublimation in film noir. Dr. Finkelstein ended the discussion with readings of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley.

As Norman Hirsch, president of the APT noted, while the influence of psychoanalysis has waned in departments of psychology and psychiatry in American universities, it has seen a resurgence in the humanities. The three of us provided examples of how we use psychoanalytic theory in our research and in our college-level pedagogy. A psychoanalytic approach is but one hermeneutic we use in the classroom to help students make meaning of texts, but a still-important one, nonetheless. An interimplication of psychoanalytic theory and the products of popular culture is fruitful to the understanding of both, and I hope that the examples we three shared gave evidence to that effect.

Discussion afterwards was heated, as usual. An audience member noted that each of us only referred to Western texts, implying that psychoanalysis may not be a universal lens through which to examine texts from other cultures. A critical cultural theorist in the audience responded that the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss shows the presence of universal structural elements in the mythologies of various cultures that can be accessible to psychoanalytic theory, regardless of cultural context. The speakers were in agreement with her.

I must admit, however, that I have been reticent to apply psychoanalysis to the texts of non-Western cultures in my own work.  Just how much of the Oedipus, for example, can be attributed to the universal nature of the human unconscious, and how much to family structures and child-rearing practices particular to the West? I believe that a work of art cues us as to how we might read it, which hermeneutics might be appropriate in its interpretation, and I have sought to look for theories originating in the cultures in which the art was produced. My interests in Japanese art and film and in psychoanalytic theory have led me to the wish to find some psychoanalytic entrée into the interpretation of Japanese art. And yet, in the back of my mind echoes Lacan’s infamous statement that the Japanese are unanalyzable. But what of their art?

In seeking some means of applying psychoanalytic theory to Japanese art, I’ve researched broadly the place of psychoanalysis and Japan; read of the concept of amae, the asaje complex, and the “don’t look” prohibition; and tried my best to find ways of utilizing distinctly Japanese psychoanalytic theory. Still, this is beyond my comfort level and I’ve not been successful in these endeavors. The Japanese psyche seems to me to be guided as much by Shinto, Buddhism, and distinct social practices as by Freudian, Kleinian, or Lacanian theories of the unconscious, desire, and subjectivity. Does this mean that employing psychoanalytic theory to analyze Japanese art would be misguided, a misapplication of that theory?

I’ve not settled on an answer, but I certainly think it’s worth investigating further.

Hermia’s Desire

The audience at September’s meeting of the Association for Psychoanalytic Thought took part in a true clash of fundamental ideological positions on empathy: philosophical and psychoanalytical.

Heidi Maibom, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cincinnati and editor of the recent book Morality and Empathy, delivered a paper examining Hermia’s relationship with her father, Egeus, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in terms of empathy regarding her desire to marry Lysander against her father’s wishes.

A professor of Shakespeare from NKU offered another source of desire in the play, “They are all at one point or another on drugs thanks to Puck’s potions.”

John Hall, former director of the Cincinnati Psychoanalytic Institute and respondent to Maibom’s paper added, “and the drugs can just be seen as allowing them free expression of their unconscious desires.”

“You see, you don’t think the unconscious, the unconscious thinks you,” explained a critical cultural theorist from UC, trying to force the speaker’s logic against the limits of the Cartesan cogito, to the “Thing-that-thinks.”

“I don’t know what that means,” was Maibom’s honest reply.

We’re reminded that Freud’s great contribution to Western thought was not the invention of Psychoanalysis, but the discovery of the unconscious. The discovery is one of Copernican proportions, a radical de-centering of the human subject from the place of the ego to the place of the unconscious. As Lacan writes in “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire”: “This is what the subject is missing in thinking he is exhaustively accounted for by his cogito– he is missing what is unthinkable about him” (E 304).  Philosophy rarely takes us into this territory, that which is unthinkable about us, which is the realm of psychoanalysis.

In Lacanian terms, Hermia’s desire is not for Lysander, but for a lost object, a lack that is always already unattainable. Lysander is a substitutionary object, the objet petit a, an object Hermia hopes will fill that lack. The sexual relationship, according to Lacan, is impossible because the partner is always a substitutionary object of desire. We are forever looking for the satisfaction of our desire in something that can never fill the Real lack in ourselves. Therefore, if Hermia’s conscious wish to be with Lysander is fulfilled, it cannot assure her happiness. Lysander is just an objet petit a in what may become a lengthy chain of objet petit a, b, c… Desire is always for a void that moves away from us as we chase it. As soon as we think we have it in our grasp, what we desire changes coordinates.

Maibom’s paper prompted some interesting responses by the clinicians in the audience, who took the conversation in the direction of the role of empathy in the transference and the limits of empathy in one’s relationship with a patient or client. It’s this sort of clinical evidence that is missing from most interimplication of psychoanalytic theory and cultural production. This meeting of the Association for Psychoanalytic Thought brought together theory, praxis, and culture in a way that created fruitful dialogue between clinicians, academics, and critical cultural theorists. Dialogue of this sort informs the work of those of us doing cultural critique through a psychoanalytic lens and helps to ground the work in the findings of clinical practice.

The Uncanny

The screening and discussion at the last meeting of the Association for Psychoanalytical Thought (APT) prompted a debate between a professor of Greek philosophy and a psychoanalytic literary theorist, the central question of which, distilled, was:

Is the uncanny a cathartic moment, a recognition and release, or

Does the uncanny defy release, stick with you?

This APT meeting involved a screening of an Indian horror film released in 1984, Purana Mandir (“The Old Temple,” dir. The Ramsay Brothers), which prompted laughs and groans from the group of psychotherapists, psychiatrists, academes, clinicians, and theoreticians gathered there. A Ph.D. student in South Asian Religions delivered a paper drawing an analogy between the narrative of the film and the historico-political context of Indira Gandhi’s government. This was followed by insights by the professor of Greek philosophy on Freud’s oft-quoted essay from 1919, “Das Unheimliche” (“The Uncanny”), and then discussion ensued.

In order to help me come to terms with Lacanian ideas of subjectivity and the Real, to satisfy my own egoistic drive, I have recast the question as: What is the relation of the uncanny to the Real? And, what can an understanding of this relation add to the debate?

If, as according to Žižek via Lacan, the irreducible definition of the Real is that which resists symbolization, and if the uncanny is a result of our encounter with the wound of the Real opening up in the Imaginary and Symbolic orders, perhaps the uncanny reflects the feeling of our inability to explain what we have just experienced. Our attempts to negotiate the experience, to explain away to ourselves in thought and language that which prompted the uncanny feeling are all met with failure. The Real is irresoluble, and so when we try to cope with what prompted the uncanny feeling, we can only find that nothing explains it. Nothing can knit it comfortably into our Imaginary and Symbolic orders, our known reality. It remains unabsorbed in our psyche, extrudes, sticks.

The Babadook
“I am the parent and you are the child, so take the pill.”

The film starts in kid-as-monster territory, from Amelia’s narrative perspective. The camera primarily follows her.

We know from the beginning that it’s her story, her shifting constellation of relationships: with Sam, with her sister, with her neighbor, with her dead husband. So, it should come as no surprise that the monster emerges not from Sam’s psyche, but from his mother’s.

The film’s eponymous, standard-return-of-repressed monster, is a condensation of nightmare associations that someone in her subjective position might have formed– conventions absorbed from films of the horror genre we might assume belong to her generation and social class. These include elongated, blade-talons ala Freddy Kruger and a tall tophat like that of Dr. Caligari and so many evil heads to follow. We are visually reminded of other horror movie conventions by the shots and clips popping up repeatedly on the television in the family house.

Amelia’s narration becomes exponentially unreliable, and the audience becomes increasingly detached from her perspective. The film then movies-on deep into mother-as-psychological-monster territory.  While the film never fully mirrors Sam’s subjective position, it comes closest when he employs his own probable heroic associations to contain his mother: Home Alone and Jonathan Swift. Yet, I don’t think the film ever strays too far from Amelia’s narration. Indeed, if the film’s diegesis is tied to her narrative position, then the film’s varying narrative reliability is correlative of the character’s psychological state. This variation is presented so overtly in the movie that the reliability of the entire narration is called into question.

My inability to identify too closely with Amelia, tied to narrative unreliability, puts me at bay as a spectator on the story world and holds me there, prevents me from suturing myself to her perspective, and keeps me from going away from The Babadook with any feeling of the uncanny.  The suspension of disbelief I have negotiated with the movie is strong enough to allow me entertainment, but not the uncanny.

The Babadook on IMDb

NEXT: It Follows.