Wednesday, July 31, 2019

A revelatory slip of the tongue

Themerson 2

Linda A.W. Brakel provides us with an amusing illustration of the dynamic (i.e., psychologically meaningful) unconscious (as one of the three principal assumptions of psychoanalysis): 

“Take a very common sort of slip of the tongue I experienced. I was in the backyard calling my husband whom I saw to be occupied with some yard activity. He did not respond, a fact that did not surprise me as much as the realization that I was using our dog’s name to call him, not my husband’s. I laughed. Now, the names Art and Jet are not dissimilar—and that was a physical cause of the slip; but why would I (a neurologically intact person) confuse my husband’s name with that of our dog’s? This slip of the tongue seems neither psychologically lawful nor determined until we posit a dynamic unconscious cause of this commonplace psychological event. My husband, whom I love, seemed to me as unresponsive as our dog, a canine whom I also love. I was unconsciously angry with him; and unconsciously, but ambivalently, I insulted him—you are no better than our (wonderful, albeit very disobedient) dog. As with this simple example, the assumption of interceding unconscious processes and contents allows psychological determinism [i.e., cause and effect: presumably, therefore, ‘all psychological events—even those that look incoherent—have at least as one of their causes, a psychological cause’] and continuity [psychic continuity takes for granted ‘that all of any agent’s psychological events … are regular/lawful in a particular psychological way for that agent; namely that every psychological event can be understood as psychologically meaningful to that individual’] to be evident generally,* even in those psychological events (such as neurotic symptoms, dream elements, delusions, and hallucinations) seemingly inconsistent to the point of frank bizarreness.” — From the introduction to Brakel’s book, Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and the A-Rational Mind (Oxford University Press, 2009) 

* “The fundamental postulates of psychoanalysis as a general scientific theory of mind consist of three assumptions—psychic continuity, psychic determinism, a dynamic unconscious; one methodological tool—free association; and one corollary—that primary [‘a-rational thought’] as well as secondary process mentation [exemplified by the presumption or norm of rationality, rule following, and logic in general] exists.” 

In psychoanalytic theory and praxis (i.e. psychoanalysis) a “slip of the tongue” is an example of “parapraxis” (lit. faulty action, also called failed action or lapsus: lapse, slip, error), as is, say, going to the wrong address or making a wrong statement. These fall under the category of those acts (be it of memory, speech, or action) that one “is normally able to perform successfully,” thus they do not consist of all failures of memory, speech, or action. Freud explained how forgetting, slips of the tongue and bundled actions were often not merely mistakes or accidents “but determined and meaningful acts due to unconscious desires, motives, and conflicts.” As Laplanche and Pontalis explain, “Freud showed that parapraxes, like symptoms, are compromise-formations resulting from the antagonism between the subject’s conscious intentions and what he has repressed.” According to Ralph E. Roughton, these parapraxes “may be as fruitful for insight as is the analysis of more serious symptoms. Such symptomatic acts usually convey a discrete message about a specific conflict, and they often rather easily yield a hidden message.” As we saw in the passage from Brakel above, parapraxes provide one example of the principle of psychic determinism and, like symptom formations generally, intertwine drive, defense, and adaptation.


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