A Zero Theory

Five weeks ago, an article on this site introduced habitués of Butterflies and Wheels (among whom I enthusiastically count myself) to Le livre noir de la psychanalyse (Éditions des Arènes), a book that has had all of intellectual and therapeutic France in an uproar throughout the fall season. France is one of the few remaining countries whose psychiatric establishment remains committed to Freudian—in this case specifically Lacanian—notions, and until now no critique, most notably Jacques Bénesteau’s powerful but largely boycotted Mensonges freudiens of 2002, could make a dent in the reigning complacency. The ambitious, massive, and well-publicized Livre noir, compiled from original and reprinted contributions by forty authors, has changed all that. The book has already run through three printings and sold about 30,000 copies, and its furious denunciation by Lacanians and their journalistic sympathizers has succeeded only in piquing further interest from a startled public.

Unfortunately, readers of Butterflies and Wheels could have gleaned the erroneous impression that Le livre noir itself has a pro-Lacanian slant and that it perpetuates the censorship of Freud’s early history that characterized the original, highly tendentious, edition of the Freud-Fliess letters. On the contrary, chapters by such uncompromising debunkers of the Freud legend as Frank Cioffi, Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, Allen Esterson, Frank Sulloway, Peter Swales, Sonu Shamdasani, and Han Israëls bring Le livre noir fully up to date with current historical knowledge. Meanwhile, other sections of the book challenge the therapeutic claims of psychoanalysis, demonstrate its theoretical waverings and confusions, attest to the suffering of misdiagnosed patients and their families, and pose therapeutic alternatives that have been objectively shown to be more efficacious for the treatment of specific disorders.

The vehement attacks on Le livre noir in France won’t end anytime soon. In January Éditions du Seuil will publish an Anti-Livre noir de la psychanalyse, edited by Lacan’s son-in-law Jacques-Alain Miller and featuring forty Lacanian authors. Meanwhile, the same publisher is about to issue another book-length riposte, Pourquoi tant de haine?: Anatomie du livre noir, by the most intellectually prominent advocate of Lacanian views, Elisabeth Roudinesco. Her already published comments in the press and on websites sufficiently indicate the tenor of her forthcoming critique: it will be an ad hominem assault on the book’s contributors as neofascists and anti-Semites. The same line of argument has been vigorously advanced by other defenders of the therapeutic status quo. Needless to say, it constitutes a libel on the contributors, some of whom are Jewish and/or members of the political left, and none of whom write about psychoanalysis with a political agenda in mind.

What is totally missing from the discussion thus far is any objective challenge to Le livre noir’s factual assertions about psychoanalysis. From the Freudian/Lacanian side there has been nothing but character assassination. To those of us who have been publicly questioning the Freudian revelation for some time, this baseness hardly comes as a surprise. Freud himself pioneered the tactic of calling his critics crazy or depraved instead of addressing their claims, and such has been the psychoanalytic norm for a full century now.

Why should this be the case? The answer is ludicrously obvious. If Freudians could point to any evidence favoring the reality of the founder’s discoveries and cures, they would surely do so. But his writings contain no independent support for his self-serving anecdotal claims, and the historical researches of Cioffi, Esterson, et al. reveal a lamentable absence of scientific integrity on his part. The institutional history of psychoanalysis has consisted of further evasions and cover-ups, not because the principal players have been inherently dishonest people but because evasions and cover-ups are obligatory when there is nothing objective to be said in favor of one’s ideas.

Although Le livre noir is a vast and miscellaneous volume, it does possess what I consider to be a theoretical heart. This is a brief chapter by Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen—the man chiefly responsible for determining and soliciting the book’s contents—entitled “Une théorie zéro.” The point it makes isn’t entirely new, but it has rarely been stated with such provocative bluntness. My rather free translation of it (vetted by the author) follows:

A Zero Theory
by Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen

Why has psychoanalysis enjoyed such success? The question admits of several possible replies. If you were to ask a defender of the system such as the philosopher Thomas Nagel, you would be told that it’s quite simply because Freud was right. Otherwise, how could one explain the impact his theory has had on Western culture, from our psychiatry and pedagogy through our sexology, philosophy, arts, and literature?

That argument may sound imposing, but it is perfectly hollow. If cultural impact alone were a sign of scientific validity, we would have to count our various religions among the sciences. To be sure, in practice it’s the agreement of experts that assures the public of a theory’s merit. Nevertheless, as we can clearly see when a consensus subsequently falls apart, consensus per se doesn’t constitute proof of validity.

Just such a crumbling of agreement has been occurring in recent decades with regard to psychoanalysis. Indeed, the question of why the theory originally took hold wouldn’t be arising at all if its validity weren’t already a lost cause. And so my initial question might be rephrased to read, How could we have deceived ourselves until now?

The first answer that comes to mind is that, rather than deceiving ourselves, we have been deceived. If so, the blame would fall chiefly on the Great Liar who falsified his clinical data and trumpeted nonexistent cures. Then, too, there is the Great Sophist whose rhetorical tricks made the phantasmal unconscious look like an actual part of the psyche. But that response fails to say why so many people still lend credence to Freudian notions now that those notions stand in scientific disrepute. The factuality of the Freudian legend has long since been exploded, yet psychoanalysts and intellectuals, with a stupefying will to ignorance, keep on reciting that legend as if its truth stood beyond any doubt.

It is tempting, therefore, to turn to any number of psychological or sociological explanations. However erroneous psychoanalytic theory is, we might say, it has satisfied and continues to satisfy very deep needs. There is, for example, the need to justify sexual liberation at a time when patriarchal family authority is in decline. Likewise, we could connect the rise of Freudian theory in the early twentieth century with the spread of Darwinism. We could say that Freud supplied an ideology for modern capitalism and individualism. Or again, we could note how psychoanalysis became a haven for disillusioned Marxists when their system fell apart.

Well, why not? There is merit in all of those explanations. If so, however, that fact in itself raises a more fundamental question. What is there within psychoanalytic theory itself that has enabled the theory to meet such diverse and contradictory needs?

Nothing, I would say—precisely nothing. It’s because the theory is perfectly empty, utterly hollow, that it has proved so adaptable. We don’t have a coherent doctrine here, organized around clearly defined and potentially falsifiable hypotheses. Rather, psychoanalysis is a content-free nebulosity, a perpetually moving target. It is like Lévi-Strauss’s “zero symbol,” a thingamajig that can designate fill-in-the-blank as one sees fit.

What, we may ask, is held in common among Freud’s theory and those of O. Rank, S. Ferenczi, W. Reich, M. Klein, K. Horney, I. Hermann, D. Winnicott, W. Bion, J. Bowlby, H. Kohut, J. Lacan, J. Laplanche, A. Green, S. Zizek, J. Kristeva, J. Mitchell . . . ? For that matter, what is shared by Freud’s 1895 theory of hysteria, his “seduction theory” of 1896-97, his sexual theory just after the turn of the century, his second drive theory of 1914, his second topographic theory and third drive theory of the twenties . . . ? One need only consult any article in Laplanche and Pontalis’s Dictionary of Psychoanalysis to realize that from the outset psychoanalysis has been a theory in constant renovation or wavering and that it has been capable of taking the most unexpected turns.

The only constant feature has been the affirmation of the unconscious, coupled with the psychoanalysts’ claim of being able to interpret its messages. Those two ideas are inseparable. The unconscious, by definition, never presents itself to consciousness; as Freud explains, we can know it only after it has been “translated” in conscious terms. Only a psychoanalytic adept can do the translating, and he alone–since other interested parties of course lack access to their unconscious thoughts–determines that there is something requiring translation in the first place. Hence the analyst can make the unconscious say anything he likes. He needn’t worry about being refuted, because the unconscious speaks only through him, and besides, any contradiction by a patient can be set down to “resistance.”

At the same time, this very freedom accounts for the many conflicts of interpretation that already divided the earliest psychoanalysts. Where Freud said Oedipus, others said Electra; where he said libido, others said aggressive instinct or organ inferiority; where he said father complex, others said mother complex or birth trauma; and so on. How could one decide who was right—who, that is, was the authorized translator of the unconscious? There was nothing to choose among all those divergent concepts. The only means of resolving an argument would be an appeal to authority as it was institutionalized in the so-called teaching analysis. And so, at any given moment, what has been “true” in psychoanalysis is whatever the International Psychoanalytical Association or some other official body has deemed to be the case.

Needless to say, this situation is an epistemological fiasco. Philosophers of science have had an easy time showing the unfalsifiability, and hence the completely inconsistent character, of psychoanalytic theory, which can be made to say anything and its opposite. Yet this very condition, which marks psychoanalysis as a pseudoscience in the eyes of a falsificationist such as Karl Popper, is just the reason for its incredible success. Psychoanalysis is supremely adaptable precisely because it is utterly devoid of stable content.

What happens, we may ask, when one or another aspect of the theory proves to be scarcely defensible or downright embarrassing? Take, for instance, the link that Freud posited between neurasthenia and masturbation, or the penis envy that supposedly governs female sexuality, or the diagnostic labeling of homosexuality as a perversion. Predictably, the analysts just quietly drop the offending notion and pull another theoretical rabbit from the inexhaustible hat of the unconscious.

This is what Freudians are pleased to characterize as psychoanalytic progress, as if each new analyst-explorer, in correcting his predecessors’ errors, were penetrating more deeply into the dark continent of the psyche. In actuality, each psychoanalytic school has its own conception of progress, vigorously disputed by all of the others. And when we consider all of the schools together, it is abundantly clear that no cumulative development whatsoever has occurred. Nothing has changed, from this perspective, since the epic battles between Freud and Adler, Jung, Stekel, Rank, and Ferenczi. What passes for progress is simply fashion, or the choice of those ideas that look most acceptable within a changing institutional, historical, and cultural context.

Freud is often praised—for example, by Clark Glymour and Adolf Grünbaum—for having changed his tenets when he was made aware that they were invalidated by facts. Here, however, I am afraid that opportunism has been mistaken for empirical rigor. No facts could ever refute Freud’s propositions; he just adjusted them, ad hoc, to the objections that looked troublesome at a given moment.

Freud heard complaints on all sides, for example, about his exclusive emphasis on sexuality. How did he respond? Borrowing ideas without acknowledgment from some of his critics (Jung, Adler), he countered with a new, equally arbitrary theory of narcissism and of analysis of the ego. Or again, “shell shock” neuroses from World War I strongly indicated that nonsexual factors could cause hysteria. Not a problem: Freud at once drew from his bag of tricks the doctrines of the repetition compulsion and the death instinct. And so on.

The same opportunism is found in Freud’s successors. When the European emigrés fleeing Hitler arrived in the US, their first maneuver was to turn psychoanalytic theory into an “ego psychology” that would conform better to American developmental theory at that time. Inversely, when Freud’s positivism looked like a hard sell to a European public versed in phenomenology and dialectic, the partisans of “hermeneutic” psychoanalysis (Habermas, Ricoeur) declared that Freud had fallen into a “scientistic self-misunderstanding” that needed only to be rectified by them. So, too, Lacan dropped Freud’s biologism in favor of his own concept of “desire” understood as pure negativity. That alteration was custom made to please readers of Alexandre Kojève and the existentialists of the 1950s. But when structuralism then invaded the human sciences, Lacan mixed all this with ideas from Saussure and Lévi-Strauss.

In America at the present time, the same expediency prevails. Sophisticated postmodern psychoanalysts regard their patients’ stories as expressing merely “narrative truth,” whereas their counterparts in the so-called recovered memory movement, bent on carrying out the predictions of radical feminists from the 1980s, have reverted to Freud’s seduction theory of the 1890s, whereby “repressed” and retrieved memories of childhood sexual abuse are taken to be absolutely reliable. Meanwhile, the shrewdest Freudian theorists of all, taking note of which way the wind is blowing in the twenty-first century, are busy sketching a rapprochement between psychoanalysis and the neurosciences. Plus ça change, . . .

We can hardly be surprised, in these circumstances, that psychoanalysis continues to recruit patients and allies. It makes of the unconscious what each of its clienteles wants to hear, fashioning, in every instance, a little therapeutic universe in which the product is suited to the demand. The multiplicity of these mini-universes and the resultant instability of the theory, far from inconveniencing psychoanalysis, enable the institution to keep propagating itself ad infinitum. Here, then, is the great secret of success, hidden for so long behind the Freudian legend. There has never been any such thing as psychoanalysis. It is everything and whatever—everything, that is, because it is whatever.

‘A Zero Theory’ is translated from Le livre noir de la psychanalyse copyright Editions des Arènes, 2005. There is a mountain of interesting material at their website (in French).

Frederick Crews’s next book, Follies of the Wise: Dissenting Essays, will be published in April by Shoemaker & Hoard. Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen is the author of Remembering Anna O and Folies à plusieurs. De l’hystérie à la dépression, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 2002 (in French).

Comments are closed.