How I learned to stop worrying and love being a symptom

by zunguzungu

I realized this morning why I’ve been increasingly attracted to Freudian dream interpretation as a model for critical practice (even without having read much Freud). While Freud firmly (often hilariously) establishes the critical observer as the site of all knowledge, in ways that are deeply problematic and symptomatic in their own right, this kind of approach gives us a way to think about how imaginative texts can come into existence without having to employ romantic notions of the genius artist. After all, since we all dream, we all produce texts whose internal logics articulate and re-fashion both the anxieties and desires under which we labor, and express the contradictions between them, but we don’t do so consciously. While a “great artist” is so often — in the romantic genius model — seen as a highly conscious creator, a thinker making a statement on reality or arguing a specific point which he or she consciously understands, dreams are definitionally subconscious: our dreams “know” things about us that our conscious minds do not.

I like this because it helps make sense both of why artists and writers are so often such terrible critics of their own work and also why some of the most interesting things that have been thought and written have been done so by manifestly sub-genius minds. Theodore Roosevelt was a muddled thinker and wrote all manner of terrible books, but I think it would be difficult to name another American whose imaginative dream world has come to so pervasively characterize the texture of American cultural life (I do believe that the answer to most of the most pressing questions in American studies is him, at least partially). But you can observe this kind of thing in all manner of people who I don’t happen to be writing my dissertation about, poets and writers who came up with ideas, images, and visions and then went to their graves without having ever consciously understood the significance of what they said and wrote.

It also helps me rationalize why I so vigorously over-read pop-cultural texts like the Apatow movies, or even The Wire, why I feel justified in making claims about those texts which their own creators would not make, and with which, in fact, they might actively disagree. In fact, it might be precisely because pop cultural texts tend to be so much more dialogic and collaborative that their meanings seem to so rarely inhere in the articulate thought of a single conscious mind: while poetry is written in tranquil solitude or whatever, tracing out the tangled web of authorship in a movie or TV show is hopelessly vexed by the fact that so many different hands have been stirring that pot: a novel becomes a screenplay, gets re-written by a host of producers, embedded in images by cinematographers, and delivered by actors directed by a director (and then creatively mis-seen and misremembered by viewers). In fact, as Andrew cogently pointed out in comments yesterday, even an absent figure like Apatow in Observe and Report can be considered to be a determinative influence when we talk about a Seth Rogen movie, given the extent to which Judd has shaped Rogen’s career.

In this sense, it’s wrong to say that a text says something or to personify a text as a singular consciousness (it reminds me of the time a professor gently teased me for using the phrases “imperialism wants to do X and Y”), but it’s a useful fiction: just as psychoanalysis only textualizes and renders conscious and explicit what was implicit and subconscious by transforming it, we do transform a text by pretending that Knocked Up is a reactionary argument for traditional values or whatever. The reality is more complicated, and by articulating what is originally inarticulate, we remove an important aspect of what was originally there. We shouldn’t forget that; we shouldn’t forget that an important aspect of any text is the extent to which its ambiguities and ambivalences contradict the clarity and articulation we impose when we do a “reading.” But, as with psychoanalysis, we do so because doing so is useful.

To take this a step farther, I wonder if this way an untruth becomes useful isn’t related to the ways psychoanalysis works by rendering readings as practice, something I’ve been mulling ever since I stopped by Phoenix Complex‘s place to appropriate some leftover yogurt and she tossed some pearls before my swinish imagination. After all, while many forms of critical practice situate their readings in the texts themselves as basically static — a text means what it means always and forever — psychoanalysis “reads” a dream both as an analysis of a dynamic self-transformative process (the mind’s effort to fix itself), but within the context of therapy the things that are thought and said and dreamed are significant only by reference to that larger dialogic process of change and recovery. A dream (unlike a Great Work of Art) therefore signifies only as a function of how it can make us better. And that, as if it was what I was looking for in the first place, is as good a rationale as any for a kind of criticism that is unapologetically politically motivated, as interested in what texts could mean as by what they do: precisely because we read a cultural text not to discover what it is, but to understand better how it reads itself and is read en route to making it read better, can it be useful to transform it by misreading it?