Lee's Lecture on Freudian and Lacanian Theories 2.0

From Lois Tyson and Lee etc.

last updated 1/14/10


Psychoanalytic Critical Theory starts with Sigmund Freud's ideas of what the The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Literature calls the "modernist subject" (xxv), the self no longer cohesive (no longer simply in conflict with "external 'others'"), but divided against itself (in a dream of essentializing structuralism). In other words, you can compare some of Freud's ideas to modernists text or cubism--the flattening and fragmentation of narrative, characters, time, space, faces which was, in literature, a direct critique of 19th century realism (think of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway published in 1925; in art, think of many of Picasso's paintings where faces are flattened; you can also think of Duchamp for the silly and fun part of modernism called dada--he also flattened perspective, time, and created ready made art that most people wouldn't call art like Fountain). Freud first coined the word "psychoanalysis" in 1896 just as the modern era was begining.

A less literary way to think about these ideas is that we are defined by our wounds (and we are all wounded) which Freud said mainly came from the traumas of, to put it simply, growing up. More specifically, the subject passes through certain psychosexual stages that can be traumatically disrupted by dysfunctional family dynamics (perceived or otherwise) leaving us wounded. Since we can't face these wounds, our subjectivity is split up and often "unbalanced" or dysfunctional.

The self divided against itself, or the psyche, is made up of three elements: the Ego, the Superego, and the Id. Lee would say that the major drama from disrupted psychosexual stages plays out in unconscious imbalances between Superego and Id that then are consciously manifested in the damaged Ego, and the cycle of imbalance begins. Psychoanalysis is required to help bring all of this into balance.

Of course, anything you see here can be used to analyze characters, situations, and symbols in any piece of literature (or the literature itself if you are reading the author's psyche via their text, though this is a biographical approach).


Core Issues

(which can also end up functioning as defense mechanisms; often one fear leads to another)

  • fear of intimacy
  • fear of abandonment
  • fear of betrayal
  • low self-esteem
  • insecure or unstable sense of self
  • Oedipal fixations
  • extreme anxiety

Phobias (other inordinant or "illogical" and symbolic manifestation of unconscious wounds)

  • innordinant fear of snakes (what would Freud say?)
  • innordinant fear of water
  • innordinant fear of horses
  • innordinant fear of bread (ha)
  • etc.



The less conscious we are of our wounds and core issues, the more we try to push these traumas into the unconscious with defence mechanisms, the more dysfunctional we will be which will increase anxiety and increase our exposure to core issues and then the increased use of defence mechanisms (it's not that linear, but you get the picture)

Tyson: "anxiety always involves the return of the repressed" (17) via core issues, phobias, and dreams.




Defense Mechanisms

(which the subject uses to avoid manifestations of unconscious wounds; we may not be conscious of these actions, but others can often see us using them)



latent content of the direct unconscious is revised (via displacement and condensatopm) into the surreal/symbolic images of manifest content (primary revision) that we may or may not remember when we wake up (not remembering is called secondary revision)


restrictions, taboos, societal norms, codes, morals, fear of decay/chaos which certainly can thwart libidinal desires or thanatos (the death drive), or self-destructive behaviors--the chaos of self-destruction can be controlled by restrictions (Geneva Conventions which make the chaos of war more gentlemanly? The criminalization of murder or torture or suicide?); but one can also see thanatos as supporting restrictions that could be said to limit life, kill pleasure--see the Id)

The Laws of Patriarchy--feminists work to thwart or deconstruct these gender norms

Postmodern Textual Reference: the Superego is like Donald Barthelme's Old Testament-style father (Father/God) laying down the law about what sons should be in The Dead Father

Lacan: Entrance into The Symbolic--the rules and codes and cultural edicts of Language (Lacan's Name-of-the-Father)


hedonism, sexual energy ("the" libido), pleasure, desires, eros (the sex drive), and all else that seems to go against the taboos and rules of the Superego; thanatos here could be categorized as an unbridled desire to commit lawless violence, and the chaos that ensues that upsets the Superego parts of ourselves/culture




Postmodern Textual Reference: the Id is like Donald Barthelme's antinomian moments in The Dead Father--the repeating desire for the so called golden fleece or sex with the character Julie, or the legalese summary of the porno film the travelors watch; or when the dead father slays everything living and dead including card board trees

  Postmodern Comment: Lee says Master Narratives, and closure, and linearity, and logic are Superego styles   Postmodern comment: Lee says hedonism is simulation (Baudrillard) is Id; simulation being that unreal thing which copies the real thing, but also eventually replaces the real--think New York New York in Las Vegas  


Psychosexual Stages (or the way we are wounded before we can even speak):

Freud's Psychosexual Stages are where things get botched (where we start to splinter ad nauseum; where libido is left behind to fixate on a certain stage in a dysfunctional way), and thus we all have wounds that trouble us forever, that bubble up from the unconscious, and/or are covered up (put back into the unsconscious). Until we try to interpret the meanings of our behavoir (hysteria; intense fears; defense mechanisms), and/or the meanings of our dreams, we are doomed to repeat this cycle ad nauseum.  If we can successfully interpret these meanings, and work to make our wounds more conscious, we will become more balanced (but never "cured"); otherwise one will be forever stuck until one pays thousands of dollars for psychoanalysis. Also see Stevenson's version or changingminds.org's version.

Of course, his theories about hysteria (and other manifest dysfunctions) having sexual causes or coming from damage to erogenous zones was controversial at the turn of the last century, and they are still controversial now. Lee remembers that during her undergraduate carreer in Psychology, these stages (and the divisions of the psyche) were essentialized, or taught as if they were real which certainly can make them most threatening. Freud did back away from much of this, though, as his theories changed over time.


(0-1yr) breast feeding, the pleasure of sucking

  • possible Id wound: the child has to be weened from this pleasure because sucking mother's breast is only acceptable for a certain period of time; pleasure is stifled which might make one go overboard in chaotic ways for oral pleasure later (as in, have an oral fixation like the desire to eat too much or smoke too much or talk too much)
  • possible Superego wound: perhaps mother lets her child continue sucking (maybe she doesn't want the child's pleasure to be inhibited, or she doesn't want to child to be upset); pleasure goes on too long and into tabooed territory which means guilt and oral fixations later on (like the desire to control food, or never talk, or restrict mouth-oriented activities)
  • these wounds about oral pleasure that we have later in life can be seen as regression, or can be accessed via regression (return to our inner child)

(2-3yrs) toilet training, the pleasure of the anus via expulsion (which Lee might associate with the Id and with children who like to spread their feces over walls) or retention (which Lee might associate with literal and figurative constipation or even a refusal to go to the bathroom, a desire to control expulsion)

  • one can end up with an anal fixation like anal retention i.e. be overly fastidious or acquire OCD
  • one can end up with anal expulsion fixation and be messy or have a lack of self control
Urethral a transition stage...
Phallic (3-4yrs) the pleasure of the genitals (ID)

Oedipal Complex--for males; the desire for the mother, but you must kill the father first, or the father will "kill" or castrate you. To avoid this (literally or metaphorically) one must turn one's desire toward a non-taboo female figure (Superego/Taboos/castration fears keep one in line). The binary (taken apart by feminists) of the madonna/whore can certainly come into play here—if you’re searching for your lost mother, and you didn’t make it through the phallic stage in a balanced way, you might search for whatever cliché/fantasy you have of your mother in women you date—they need to be madonnas—perfect, on a pedestal, unable to do wrong, the classic "good girl," nurturing (cooks, cleans, rubs your feet, praises you when you're down; vs. the "bad girl"). But as you repress your desire for your mother, you might only date women who are the opposite of your mother so you can have taboo sex with them without the fear of castration for incest....but in a text like The Dead Father, the D.F. is constantly being figuratively castrated, or stripped of power, as he approaches his grave. There is a good Christopher Plummer version of Oedipus Rex on youtube (what would Freud say about all the repression and denial and anxiety?).

Electra Complex (Carl Jung's term; Freud disagreed with this because it put females in too much of an equal footing with males; see the play for more differences) for females, but not the clearest opposite metaphor for the Oedipal (it's not simply that the female desires the father and wants to kill the mother; it does focus on an obsession with the father, though; in the play, Electra wants revenge on her mother for the murder of her father Agamemnon). Freud's version of this was that the female notices that all girls and women don't have a penis; they blame and hate the mother for what seems like "castration," and you envy/want those who have penises as you search for your missing penis replacement... (by marriage, having a baby, or by purchase?); Here are Plath and Sexton readings using the Electra Complex. Here is Sartre's existential version, The Flies. Here are people chatting about their Electra Complexes.

  • getting stuck in the phallic stage can certainly keep's one playing out the tabooed (sp?) aspects of these narratives
Latency dormancy, after the complexes are resolved (or at least passed through if not very successfully or with balance between Superego and Id needs)
Genital A turn toward heterosexuality, and, if the above stages have been well resolved, toward "normal/healthy" heterosexual relationships and a "balanced" psyche...of course, Freud's views of female sexuality included the idea of subservience and patriarchal gender roles.


Jacques Lacan

Some theorists treat the psychosexual stages more as metaphors for the tensions of aculturation. In the 1960's Jaques Lacan revisits Freud's determinisms/essentialisms and revisits them with a somewhat more linguistic set of lenses (see linguistics, and Saussure).  For instance, Lacan is famous for saying, "the unconscious is structured like a language" (though there are complexities and controversies about this quote--see Johnson; but also see Peter Caws for Lacan's direct connection to structuralism and even post-structuralism).

Lacan's stages are especially focused on language (and could be said to be metaphors for how and when things get botched; when we become wounded or split), or on our entrance into the phallologocentric (patriarchy and logos and law which you could compare to the Superego).

The Imaginary (Tyson actually has The Mirror Stage "first")



birth-6 months

dominated by the mother/origin--at one with her/it--can't differentiate images

a world of images (a fantasy world, at least after we enter The Symbolic; a delusional world, as least from the POV of The Symbolic)

The Mirror Stage (part of the Imaginary)



become aware of ourselves as independent beings, yet still see ourselves in/within our mothers/origins...

we start to see symbols of lack or separation--our feces, mother's voice, mother's breasts (are not us)

The Symbolic dominated by the father/language--cultural norms, laws, rules, ideologies (pop culture)--where subjectivity and gender differentiation happens (or is enforced, Lee says)

early knowledge of fragmentation leads to a complete loss, a separation from the mother, the Imaginary

Lack--a permanent loss of the object of desire or objet petit a--a personal, private loss of the other, the Imaginary, the mother union (or "blanky" union, if you will)

The unconscious is formed when we try to repress this loss, and yet will always seek to fill it via stand-ins (endlessly, without success)--by seeking wealth (Romney and Bain Venture Capital?), by seeking sex (there's never enough), by seeking the fastest car--our lack can never be filled, though (Tyson 30)

The Real

the physical world that we also never have access to without language--materiality--what we primordially will always also lack (not unlike what Baudrillard says about everything being a simulation, but no longer origin)

a realization that what we "have" is made of constructs, of ideologies (the Other); this seems a lot like Plato's allegory of the cave...

can only experience materiality/mother/origin or "know" it via language (thus language separates us from our imaginary connectedness)

fragmentation (the loss of the dream of oneness due to language--which Lee says could also serve as a definition of postmodernism)

According to Lois Tyson in Critical Theory Today, metaphor and metonomy are good examples of our eternal separation from The Real...they stand in for actual objects (though one could say


Dream Analysis

... sometimes "a cigar is just a cigar," but...

...as Tyson suggests, all dreams (according to classical psychoanalysis) are about sex, and all dream characters are stand-in's for you...

When looking at the manifest content of a dream (the images of primary revision), the dream analysis would focus on what those image stand-ins actually represent (the latent content of the unconscious, or the wounds we try to repress). As Tyson says, "think of the dream's manifest content as a kind of dream symbolism that can be interpreted much the way we interpret symbols of any kind" (19).

The meaning of symbols, of course, is culturally and historically specific. In some cultures black can signify death, but in others white signifies death. The Western interpretation of dreams will differ from Islamic interpretations, for instance, or from Vedic interpretations (and Native American interpretations, and so on). There can be different Dictionaries of various sorts (which are also culturally and historically specific) can often cue you in to the possible meanings of symbols that are available to the dreamer.

As Tyson says, if every "character" in our dream is ourselves, then each of those characters stands in for something anxiety producing about me (like if I dream of killers coming after me, this might reveal that I am trying to kill myself through some dysfunctional lifestyle choices).

Of course the more the symbol has sexual connotations, the easier it is to see how it fits with Freud's psychosexual dysfunctions (look up Bagel in the Dream Moods Dictionary, for instance, to see multiple dream connotations; this dictionary is often mostly focused on the symbols of the New Age). But just because there is sexually charged imagery doesn't mean it's always about sex--it is always about the lack of balance between the elements of the psyche.

Tyson also mentions classics like water (can be deep, soothing, dangerous, or a tsunami), and buildings (which can be specific manifestations of the Superego if they are churches or court houses). And don't forget about snakes! And of course, how do these symbols tell us more about our dysfunctions, or the dysfunctions of characters in a text?

Here's a more exhaustive list at Thinkquest, and an even more exhaustive list at Dream Symbols.

Of course, each psychoanalytic theorist also has their own approaches to analyzing dreams. Karl Jung (a contemporary of Freud's), for instance, interpreted repeating dreams among people as a manifestation of the collective unconcious that gives all dreamers access to universal symbols based on just a few archetypes like the Shadow (the repressed ugly aspects of yourself; may manifest in dreams of murderers or, in Lee's case, evil aliens; see Dream Moods for more dime store Jung).