Impossible Professions: Teaching Literature and Psychoanalysis

by Emma Lieber

In “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” Freud famously claimed that psychoanalysis is one of the three “impossible professions”—the others being education and government. The recent political environment in America certainly gives us a lens onto the impossibility of the latter, and perhaps what “impossible” means in these contexts, though the high drama of the Trump administration may also obscure what’s at stake. What is the aporia—the irreducible, unassimilable gap—at the heart of these vocations? What are their desires and aims, and what within them challenges, not so much the achievement of those aims, but any conventional notion of what achievement means? In what way do these pursuits underscore what Lacan for one designates as the impossibility of desire? And how might recognizing the impossibility of these endeavors influence the aims and techniques of their practitioners?

I’m writing as someone who has long been a professor of literature, practiced as a psychoanalyst more recently, and, most recently, taught undergraduate courses on psychoanalysis and literature. In certain ways, as a literature professor, I’ve always worked psychoanalytically. That is, I view my task as being not so much to transmit knowledge—about literary history, or about certain writers, or about genre, or about how literature “works,” though all of these things are important—as to attend to the workings of my students’ minds as they attend to the workings of a given text. For me, the work of teaching involves the active investigation of the dynamic relation between readers and what (and who, and with whom) they read: the ever-changing constellations of teachers, students, and the works they study together.

Shoshana Felman writes that the unconscious is “not only that which must be read” but also “that which reads,” and I think that, even before I was consciously engaging psychoanalytic ideas in my teaching, I understood that to study and teach literature meant attending to the unconscious (as Lacan says) as a linguistic effect and that to do so meant opening up space for a certain kind of serious play among participants who can recognize and respond to the various ways in which the unconscious destabilizes easy dichotomies between text and reader, teacher and student, inside and outside, etc.

It may well be the case that the “impossibility” of education is most keenly felt in the literature classroom, since where pedagogy in other fields may hide the mystery of the educational encounter behind pre-made rubrics of accomplishment and knowledge (testing, retention, imitation), to teach literature brings one closer to an encounter with the anxiety of what it means to teach, and to evaluate so-called learning. In psychoanalytic terms, teaching literature brings us closer to the register of castration, that is, to the impossibility of mastery and other totalizing fantasies of knowledge, power, possession, and self-possession. This is also the place at which psychoanalysis—which, at its base, helps us lay down our various forms of protest against what we don’t have, with the understanding that we suffer precisely from this protest—works. This is why I believe psychoanalysis is so necessary in theorizing pedagogy and in thinking through its possibilities, just as I believe that a literary education is the best possible preparation for becoming a psychoanalyst.

Thus, when I began teaching literature and psychoanalysis courses a few years ago, from the position of a practicing analyst, I found that I was already primed to re-think pedagogy in ways that a genuine engagement with psychoanalysis and unconscious experience demands. Psychoanalysis makes us re-think speaking as action: to speak, in psychoanalysis—from both sides of the couch—can be thought of as more performative than constative. That is, as an analyst, I am listening not so much to the content of what a patient is telling me—though of course, I hear this too—as to the fact, contours, and implications of their speaking: what Lacan calls the “saying” rather than the “said.” By the same token, when I speak back, I do so not so much to transmit to a patient some knowledge about themselves (though this might happen), but to get something done through the act of speaking: to apply torsion to whatever has emerged. The impossibility of psychoanalysis is related to the infinite demand that one faces with respect to one’s active responsibility to another person’s words, and to the recognition that both bearing witness and speaking back are themselves events that, in their very occurrence, make something happen (though it is always impossible to know what, until later—if ever).

What would happen if we were to understand education on a similarly grand scale, with a similar attentiveness to the vibrant and wayward life of speaking as such, and with a similar respect for the act of speaking as a scene of bearing witness? What if, in the classroom, we paid as much homage to the saying as to the said? How then would we conceive the aim of the pedagogic encounter—for individual students and for the class as a whole?

Of course, many if not most literature professors—who, given their choice of field, are likely constitutionally inclined to take seriously the complexity of the act of articulation—are already teaching in this way. It is my contention, though, that if this pedagogical vector were more rigorously theorized, with psychoanalysis in mind, broader cultural assumptions about the aims and methods of education might shift. For example, I have recently re-thought many of my evaluative practices in the classroom: I now often ask students to write personally, or to merge reflection on and vignettes about their own lives with textual analysis, not so much to document their “response” to a text or what a text “means” to them, but to give shape to the structure of a life as a textual phenomenon, as something that can be read.

To engage psychoanalysis seriously means to question any easy assumptions about the aims and methods of transmission: to teach psychoanalysis means to teach psychoanalytically, and to teach psychoanalytically means to re-think teaching (just as to write psychoanalytically means to re-thinking writing). From this perspective, to banish entirely personal associations to a text—which is where, inevitably, a text does its work on students—started to seem defensive. It seemed more generative to help students find a rigorous way to express the complex interweavings of text and life as itself a means of articulating both the saying of a particular text and the notion of subjective life as a textual effect, more broadly.

I now understand my role as a teacher to be to help foster students’ curiosity about and surprise at their own unconscious lives as they are pricked by the texts we’re working with, as well as by the classroom encounter itself. Inevitably, this means that the object under investigation shifts as a class discussion or the course as a whole proceeds and that the students, in order to begin to think psychoanalytically, must follow, together, the logic of those shifts. It’s not so much that, in psychoanalysis, everything begs for explanation (this is a vulgarization of psychoanalytic claims—in fact, in psychoanalysis, nothing is ever definitively explained), but that there is no outside: nowhere to step outside of the transferential field that, while always at work, is made by psychoanalysis its essential subject. This means that one reads context as one reads text, and vice versa; that is, that the classroom scene itself, as it is in part determined by or responsive to the text at hand, becomes an object of inquiry in its own right. To give an example: several years ago, when I first taught “Psychoanalysis and Literature” at Eugene Lang college, my students were especially interested in the idea of parapraxis—that is, what Freud referred to as “bungled actions,” or mistakes that have unconscious determinants. On the last day of class, I was horrified to realize that I had forgotten to bring the book we were supposed to be working with that day. So we started off the class by analyzing my parapraxis as a response to the class and to the place of the final text within it, and these interpretations then wove themselves into our analysis of the texts that we had worked with throughout the semester, seen retrospectively through the lens of my parapraxis—such that the entirety of the course became organized under the heading of this terminal event. It was quite the final exam (for me as much as for the students).

I leaned into this pedagogical rhythm this past fall, when I taught “Psychoanalysis and Literature” over Zoom, as the virus raged and the U.S. government threatened to crumble. I didn’t know what I could expect of students in terms of academic work that semester, given the circumstances. So I made clear that I wanted students to use the pedagogical space in whatever ways would be most helpful to them—that, during this difficult time, the classroom could become a place of working through, not because I wanted students to speak about their own lives specifically (though this was never entirely off the table), but because the mere act of allowing oneself to speak spontaneously makes things happen for oneself and for others. I spoke about the anxiety of speaking, both in the classroom and in the consulting room, and communicated to the students that to speak is always a wager: you never know what will come of it, the words will inevitably get away from you, and you’ll generally say something other than or in addition to what you intended. And I assured them that that was the point of the class: to foster a faith in the language that one receives and produces—and that this faith then would be a way of pursuing literature. Essentially, I was preaching the Freudian ethic of free association; if the students got nothing else out of the class, I wanted them to leave with at least some sense that the rich life of signification that one witnesses in literary texts is also, always, at work in them.

To that end, I also asked students to keep dream journals throughout the semester, since dreams are the places where we most clearly witness at work the literary genius inside all of us. At the beginning of every class we started off by analyzing some of these dreams, with all of the discretion involved in analyzing, as a collective, the dream of a group member. It was a remarkably effective way to approach the work. Inevitably, we would find a way to connect the dream dynamics with that day’s assigned literary or psychoanalytic text. It also helped foster a group spirit while working remotely. I remember one class that ended up centering on a dream that one of the students had about being in therapy and that hinged on the signifier “kidman,” which appeared in the dream. The class reached an interpretation of the dream collectively: one student happened to know that Nicole Kidman had played a therapist in a certain television show, while another knew she had played a therapy patient in a different show. This allowed us to start formulating ideas about what the dream was doing with questions of signification, the unconscious, maturation, and gender—a discussion that worked its way into our examination of the assigned text. The dreamer was generous enough to allow her dream to be taken up in this way, as a text to be worked on and associated to, all while keeping at play the delicate question of whose unconscious was at stake in the work we were doing.

Several students reported having major realizations about their life histories within the context of the course—not because we were discussing their lives in detail, but because its methods opened up an associative space for them and because witnessing something of another’s unconscious life sets one’s own into motion. Certainly, the global crisis that we were immersed in helped determine the urgency of this project and the students’ ability to make use of it, and I give enormous credit to the students for taking seriously my call to use the class as an opportunity to do psychic work. But, to the extent that confronting the unconscious is always a crisis, I was left wondering how teaching during this distinctly devastating moment might help us reframe education more generally and what the aims, assumptions, and methods of pedagogy would look like if we were, on a much more comprehensive scale, to take seriously the disruptions and possibilities of unconscious desire and unconscious life and to give them a more central place in our classrooms.


Works Cited

Felman, Shoshana. 1977. “To Open the Question,” in Literature and Psychoanalysis: The Question of Reading, Otherwise. Ed. Shoshana Felman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Freud, Sigmund. 1964. “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXIII. Tr. James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press, 209-53. Originally published as “Die Endliche und die Unendliche Analyse,” Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse 23.2: 209-40.

The Use of a (Cinematic) Object: Emotional Experience with Film

by Kelli Fuery

Psychoanalysis and the field of cinema and media studies have shared a long, if turbulent, history. From the mid 1970s to the late 1980s, both Freudian and Lacanian approaches contributed to the method that became known as psychoanalytic film theory, serving as the cornerstone of cinematic apparatus theory as developed by Jean-Louis Baudry (1974) and Christian Metz (1974, 1982). Cinematic apparatus theory sought specifically to examine the interrelated structures of cinematic space, screen, and spectacle within the predominantly linguistic frame of Lacanian psychoanalysis. During the same period, psychoanalytic film theory expanded to include theories of spectatorship, feminist film theory (de Lauretis 1984, 1987; Doane, 1987, 1991; Mulvey 1975; Penley 1989), and cinematic textual analysis.

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How Psychoanalysis Helped Me Rethink Police Brutality

by H. N.

This article addresses sensitive political matters regarding the Hong Kong/mainland China relationship. The author has decided to not provide their full name or contact information to avoid running afoul of Beijing’s national security law for Hong Kong.

“Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time!” “Five demands, not one less!” “Corrupted cops, may your whole family die!” These chants of protestors penetrated me as I marched with a million peaceful demonstrators. I was initially hesitant to join in the cursing of the families of corrupted cops, wondering how spreading further hatred could be helpful at all. But the urgent cries for justice brought back images of police brutality; rage seemed to infiltrate and spur me, and I found myself, too, chanting fiercely the words of hatred: “Corrupted cops, may your whole family die!”

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War Neuroses on the Twenty-First-Century College Campus

by Michael McAndrew

The United States has been engaged in the “Long War” of post-9/11 conflicts for eighteen years. If that war were a person, it might be getting ready to go to college. Indeed, many of the almost three million veterans who have served in the post-9/11 conflicts are also returning to college—though many may be significantly older than eighteen, as they now begin or continue their college educations.

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Race and Psychoanalysis: Some Resources for Undergraduate Education and Counseling

by Max Cavitch, Ph.D.

Note: There are terrific posts by Kelli Fuery, Michael McAndrew, H.N., and others awaiting publication—please be on the lookout for them in the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, given our extraordinary present circumstances and—as educators, students, and clinicians—our need to adapt to them as we prepare for an uncertain new academic year, it seems important to jump the queue with this selected bibliography of resources—to which readers are welcome and encouraged to contribute in the “Comment” section.

Many of us will be spending the summer preparing to resume teaching in a world transformed, not only by Covid-19, but also by the revitalized struggle against systemic assaults on black bodies and minds. The psychic fallout of state-sponsored violence—including racially motivated police brutality and the extrajudicial murder of black men, women, and transgender folk—has scarcely begun to be calculated, much less adequately addressed, by the psychoanalytic community. How might those of us who teach psychoanalysis at the undergraduate level, or provide psychodynamic therapy to college students, do a better job of centering black lives—and matters of race even more broadly—in our classrooms and counseling facilities?

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Psychoanalysis and the Pre-Med

by Harris Avgousti

As a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, I study biology and chemistry, and I plan to pursue a medical degree after graduation. Throughout my education, I’ve been very STEM-focused, doing research in radiation oncology, tutoring for organic chemistry and physics, and so on. But a recent course on psychoanalysis helped me begin thinking in new ways about what I’m learning now and how I might someday practice medicine.

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When the “Enemy” Inside Meets the “Enemy” Outside: Therapy in the Context of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

by Keren Friedman-Peleg

Entering a bustling shopping mall on the west side of Manhattan after a beautiful walk on the High Line, I was struck by the sight of a large, multicolored mural (by the artist Jamilla Okubo). It featured a woman looking into a mirror, but, instead of seeing her face, she saw the words: “When there is no enemy within, the enemy outside cannot hurt you.” I was surprised and fascinated to find, in the middle of a vast urban shopping mall, a message addressing the intimate life of the passerby as a psychological being rather than merely a consumer. For days afterward I thought about its message and about the ubiquity of such pop-psychological encouragements to think of oneself as a vessel carrying an “inner self”—a notion that still has a great deal of currency in mainstream psychological thought: the notion that this “inner self” is the principal source of our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors; the place where secret, internal enemies accumulate and thrive, threatening to harm us and daring us to conquer them.

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Teaching Freud To Both Undergraduates and Analytic Candidates*

by Lawrence Blum, M.D.

Teaching Freud, for me, is always part of a larger project of teaching psychoanalysis. My inclination, perhaps informed by students’ impressions of Freud as a mere historical footnote, and psychoanalysis as a famous cadaver, has been to emphasize how fully alive Freud’s ideas are now, in our culture and in contemporary psychoanalysis. I offer an approach that honors Freud’s ideas by showing students not only how those ideas continue to influence us but also how other, more recent thinkers have helped transmit and transform them.

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Recovering Race

by Susan Adelman, Ph.D.

“I could have told you that,” said the student I’ll call “Jamila.”

In our course, “Introduction to Psychoanalysis: History, Theory, Practice” (the informal “core” course for the undergraduate minor in Psychoanalytic Studies at Penn), we were discussing the final pages of Avgi Saketopoulou’s wonderful essay, “Minding the Gap” (2011), about her rageful, wonderful, and gender-variant preadolescent African American patient, DeShawn—a child struggling mightily with her and even more profoundly with his own gender and racial identities. From DeShawn, Avgi comes to learn that “for black boys racial identification trumps gender anytime” (202). It was then that Jamila, one of our African American students, spoke up.

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The ABCs of Polymorphous Perversity

by Max Cavitch, Ph.D.

In 1905, Sigmund Freud declared war on childhood.

More accurately, Freud set out—in the first edition of his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality—to dismantle widespread and tenacious 19th-century cultural fantasies about the “innocence” of children. As Dr. Susan Adelman and I explained to our students last week, in our team-taught course, “Psychoanalysis: History, Theory, Practice,” infants and prepubertal children, in particular, were, during the era of Freud’s own childhood, commonly idealized as “pure” beings, not yet tainted by erotic impulses. Earlier Calvinistic images of little devils steeped in “original sin” had largely been displaced by figures of tiny angels bathed in the refracted sunbeams of Romantic sentiment. “Heaven,” wrote William Wordsworth, “lies about us in our infancy” (525).

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