Sigmund Freud: Logical Phalluses

Sometimes a Fraud is just a FraudThe Greatest Intellectual Fraud in the History of Psychology

LPA fair critique of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis demands the eloquence and intellectual rigour of The Master himself, but unfortunately I can’t fart that loud – and even if I could it would be difficult to convey the full impression over the internet. Instead, I’ll have to fall back on reasoned argument and evidence, concepts alien to Freud and his disciples.

While real psychologists point at psychoanalysts and laugh, psychoanalysis dominates media representations of psychologists. A stereotypical ‘psychologist’ will have an Viennese accent and a dinky beard. Freud himself has entered popular culture, being played by Montgomery Clift in in John Huston‘s biographical film Freud: The Secret Passion (1962), and appearing alongside Sherlock Holmes in Herbert Ross‘s 1976 film version of Nicholas Meyer‘s novel  The Seven-Percent Solution (1974).

More troublingly, psychoanalysis forms the basis of the psychological theories that dominate much of literary theory, film theory and cultural studies, where it is often combined with Saussurian linguistics. Freud might not necessarily be referenced directly – more often you’ll find references to those who continued his work, like Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott, above all others, Jacques Lacan – but the ideas originate with him: indeed, Lacan has characterised his own work as a ‘return to Freud‘.

More often still, psychoanalysis provides the enthymemes upon which other theories are built, such as the Structural Marxism of Louis Althusser and the psychoanalytical feminism of Juliet Mitchell. Althusser’s political theory of overdetermination, for instance, combines Freudian ideas outlined in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) with those of mass murderer Mao Zedong. In Film Studies, Jean-Louis Baudry’s model of the ‘Cinematic Apparatus’, Christian Metz‘s semiotic theory of the ‘imaginary signifier’ and Laura Mulvey‘s influential theory of the ‘male gaze‘ (see my essay on her Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema) are drawn from psychoanalysis. Even apparently ‘common sense’ concepts like identification, which are now as much part of everyday discourse as that of academia, originate in psychoanalysis, and, as such, their usefulness and validity rests or falls on the validity of psychoanalysis itself.

As I’ve set myself the task of writing about popular culture using cognitive psychology rather than psychoanalysis, just as I aim to use Chomskyan linguistics rather that of Saussure, I should first set out the case against Freud. As we’ll see Freud’s work is not merely inadequate or outdated, as in the case of Saussure: it is more of a crank religion than a ‘science’, and rests upon evidence which is flimsy at best, and at worst, downright fraudulent; and what’s more it has contributed to the abuse of women and children despite being championed by ‘feminists’ like Juliet Mitchell.

Quack Therapy

When the history of bullshit is written Freud will tower above mere dabblers like L.Ron Hubbard.

Freud’s theories claim legitimacy based upon their alleged ‘effectivenes’ but analysis of recovery among patients of psychoanalysis by Hans Eyesenck as far back as 1952 shows that recovery rates were no greater than those attributable to spontaneous remission. Neuroses are largely self-terminating disorders which generally clear up within two years with or without therapy, much as a cold will disappear in a few days irrespective of whether you take anything for it. Psychoanalysists and their patients may claim their therapy is effective but such evidence is always anecdotal, with no establishe base-line against which to measure this effectiveness.

The connection between the infantile and the hysterical amnesias is really more than a mere play of wit. The hysterical amnesia which serves the repression can only be explained by the fact that the individual already possesses a sum of recollections which have been withdrawn from conscious disposal and which by associative connection now seize that which is acted upon by the repelling forces of the repression emanating from consciousness. We may say that without infantile amnesia there would be no hysterical amnesia.

– Sigmund Freud, The Infantile Sexuality

So, what exactly are these theories Freudians claim are so effective?

The Psychosexual Development of the Child

Just as many modern theories of the mind use computing as a metaphor, Freud’s analogies draw upon the then-cutting edge technology of hydrolics, with energy – or libido – exerting pressure of being diverted into one part of the psyche to another. Freud’s theories about neuroses are supported by a psychosexual theory about the development of the child. As we’ll see, there’s little or no evidence which supports these theories but they are taken as self-evident.

It’s worth examining Freud’s theories of  psychosexual development and their relationship to neuroses in some detail to get some idea of the shear scope of unfounded speculation psychanalysis embodies.

According to Freud, the child passed through five stages of  psychosexual development: (1) the Oral stage, (2) the Anal stage, (3) the Phallic stage, (4) the Latent stage, and finally (5) the Genital stage.

(1) The Oral stage is characterised by thumb sucking.

Pleasure-sucking is often combined with a rubbing contact with certain sensitive parts of the body, such as the breast and external genitals. It is by this road that many children go from thumb-sucking to masturbation…

I believe that the association of the manifestations into which we gained an insight through psychoanalytic investigation justify us in claiming thumbsucking as a sexual activity and in studying through it the essential features of the infantile sexual activity.

– Sigmund Freud, The Infantile Sexuality

Freud refers to the Oral stage as essentially ‘cannibalistic’:

Here the sexual activity is not yet separated from the taking of nourishment, and the contrasts within the same not yet differentiated. The object of the one activity is also that of the other, the sexual aim consists in the incorporating into one’s own body of the object, it is the prototype of that which later plays such an important psychic rôle as identification.

– Sigmund Freud, The Infantile Sexuality

I’ll be devoting an entire essay to the concept of identification at a later date as it forms the basis of most psychoanalytical theories about the media, and has also entered popular discourse to the extent it is regarded as ‘common sense’ – despite the fact that it has no theoretical validity whatsoever.

(2) During the Anal stage the primary erogenous zone is, not surprisingly, the anus:

Children utilizing the erogenous sensitiveness of the anal zone can be recognized by their holding back of fecal masses until through accumulation there result violent muscular contractions; the passage of these masses through the anus is apt to produce a marked irritation of the mucus membrane. Besides the pain this must produce also a sensation of pleasure…The content of the bowel which is an exciting object to the sexually sensitive surface of mucous membrane behaves like the precursor of another organ which does not become active until after the phase of childhood. In addition it has other important meanings to the nursling. It is evidently treated as an additional part of the body, it represents the first “donation,” the disposal of which expresses the pliability while the retention of it can express the spite of the little being towards its environment. From the idea of “donation” he later gains the meaning of the “babe” which according to one of the infantile sexual theories is acquired through eating and is born through the bowel.

The retention of fecal masses, which is at first intentional in order to utilize them, as it were, for masturbatic excitation of the anal zone, is at least one of the roots of constipation so frequent in neuropaths.

– Sigmund Freud, The Infantile Sexuality

For Freud, an anal fixation is essentially sadistic:

(3) It is during the Phallic stage that the boy is said to experience the Oedipus complex. The young boy, according to Freud’s theory, has an innate desire to have intercourse with his mother, but fear of catration by the father, whom the boy acknowledges has prior rights to the mother, causes him to ‘repress’ his desires and identify with the father. This castration anxiety is triggered by the boy’s recognition that his sister has no penis.

Freud initially called the female version of the Oedipus complex, in which the girls is sexually attracted to the father, the feminine Oedipus attitude or the negative Oedipus complex: it was actually Carl Jung who called it the Electra complex.

The substitutive formations of this lost penis of the woman play a great part in the formation of many perversions.

The assumption of the same (male) genital in all persons is the first of the remarkable and consequential infantile sexual theories. It is of little help to the child when biological science agrees with his preconceptions and recognizes the feminine clitoris as the real substitute for the penis. The little girl does not react with similar refusals when she sees the differently formed genital of the boy. She is immediately prepared to recognize it, and soon becomes envious of the penis; this envy reaches its highest point in the consequentially important wish that she also should be a boy.

– Sigmund Freud, The Infantile Sexuality

It’s worth remembering here that this deeply misogynistic theory is replicated in the ostensibly ‘feminist’ psychoanalysis of Juliet Mitchell and Laura Mulvey.

(4) the Latent stage

(5) the Genital stage

Freud claimed these stages were characteristic of children in general, not just nutters, and are empirically verifyable:

I can point with satisfaction to the fact that direct observation has fully confirmed the conclusion drawn from psychoanalysis, and thus furnishes good evidence for the reliability of the latter method of investigation.

– Sigmund Freud, The Infantile Sexuality

It is toward this ‘direct observation’ and alleged ‘good evidence’ that I now turn.

Little Hans

Freud presented ‘confirmation’ of his theories in one of his best known essays concerning a young boy he called Little Hans. It was standard practice for Freud to change names or personal details to provide his clients with anonymity, but as we shall see this was something he abused.

Examination of Freud’s interpretations will show that he typically proceeds by beginning with whatever content his theoretical preconceptions compell him to maintain underlies the symptoms, and then, by working back and forth between it and the explanandum, constructing persuasive but spurious links between them. It is this which enables him to find allusions to the father’s coital breathing in attacks of dyspnoea, fellatio in a tussis nervosa, defloration in migraine, orgasm in a hysterical loss of consciousness, birth pangs in appendicitis, pregnancy wishes in hysterical vomiting, pregnancy fears in anorexia, an acchouchement in a suicidal leap, castration fears in an obsessive preoccupation with hat tipping, masturbation in the practice of squeezing blackheads, the anal theory of birth in an hysterical constipation, parturition in a falling cart-horse, nocturnal emmissions in bed-wetting, unwed motherhood in a limp, guilt over the practice of seducing pubescent girls in the compulsion to sterilize banknotes before passing them on, etc.

– Frank Cioffi,‘Freud and the Idea of Pseudo-Science”

The Interpretation of Dreams

Unconscious wishes are always active and ready for expression whenever they find an opportunity to unite themselves with an emotion from conscious life, and that they transfer their greater intensity to the lesser intensity of the latter.

– Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams 

Jean-Paul Sartre has argued against the concept of unconscious repression: the unconscious would have to know what is to be repressed in order to repress it, and must know what material is appropriate for such repression – but if it knows both these things it must be conscious of this material first so repression cannot therefore be unconscious.

The dimension of the future appears not to exist for psychoanalysis insofar as acts seem to be constituted by the past….Human reality loses one of its ekstases and must be interpreted soley by a regression toward the past from the standpoint of the present. At the same time the fundamental structures of the subject, which are signified by its acts, are not so signified for him but for an objective witness who uses discursive methods to make these meanings explicit….His acts are only a result of the past, which is on principle out of reach, instead of seeking to inscribe their goal on the future.”

– Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (p.458-9)

Literary theory and Cultural Studies

While psychoanalyis hasn’t been considered part of mainstream psychology since the early Sixties, it has, like Saussurian linguistics, found an afterlife in the Literature, Film Studies and Cultural Studies departments of academia.

Tony Bennett and Jane Woollacott’s outstanding Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero (1987) features an entirely superfluous chapter on Lacanian psychoanalysis, as does John Fiske’s Television Culture (1987). Matt Hills’ otherwise excellent Fan Cultures (2002) draws upon the psychoanalytical theories of Donald Winnicott.

For an assessment of the contribution of Jacques Lacan to cultural theory see my own And Don’t Get Me Started on Lacan) and for a discussion on Laura Mulvey’s psychoanalytical approach to cinema see my essay on Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.

‘Recovered’ Memory

Though Freudians have not attained the bodycount of Marxists or fascists there have, nevertheless, been thousands if not millions of casualties:

It is hard to form even a rough idea of the number of persuaded clients, because most of them take no publicly recorded action against the accused, but a conservative guess would be a million persons since 1988 alone.

– Frederick C Crewes, ”The revenge of the repressed” (1994)

Satanic Ritual Abuse and the return of seduction theory – just in case you though Freudians were harmless cranks.



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