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Insight and Interpretation

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Insight and interpretation are crucial tools of the psychoanalytic process that have been neglected and misunderstood in recent psychoanalytic literature, where the focus has shifted to the effects of countertransference on the relationship between patient and analyst. Roy Schafer brings these tools back to the forefront of psychoanalytic thinking, integrating them with recent contributions on countertransference to create a more cohesive understanding of the psychoanalytic process. These essays will prove invaluable to analysts trying to maintain an articulated and rounded view of what it takes to bring meaning to their patient's lives through the power of insight and beneficial interpretations.

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1. Insight into Insight

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The landmark contribution by Betty Joseph, “On Understanding and Not Understanding ” (1983), explained and illustrated the value of the analyst’s paying close attention to the meanings that analysands unconsciously ascribe to insight: both their fantasies about the insightful analyst’s position in the clinical relationship and their fantasies about what they are letting themselves in for in that relationship and in their daily lives by possessing insight. For example, owning insight might imply having to give up one’s rights to babyhood in the transference; alternatively, it might mean having become either omnipotent or dangerously dependent on the “knowing ” analyst. Similarly, if the analysand experiences the analyst’s attainment of understanding, however brilliant and convincing it might be, as an exciting and frightening, implicitly sexual invasion or as a moralistic condemnation, and if the analyst does not note and then undertake analysis of this experience, the interpretation’s potential beneficial effects can be nullified, limited, or even needlessly painful and extremely disruptive. Psychoanalytic understanding can also threaten to introduce turmoil into relations with others.

 

2. Insight for Whom?

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Traditionally, insight has been discussed as that which is to be imparted to analysands. It is they who are in need of insight. With-out insight their lives will be cursed with blind repetitions of their painful pasts. In this account, the analyst’s role is to develop insight for them through interpretation. The analyst is the vehicle of under-standing and, of course, the facilitator of those changes that will enable analysands to grasp and use insight adaptively. Facilitating those changes, especially through analysis of defense, itself a work of insight, is an essential part of this process.

I believe that this traditional belief that insight is for the analysand is inexact. Insight must, of course, be imparted to analysands. Without insight, they cannot reorganize their visions of internal and external realities in ways that facilitate adaptation (Schafer 1970). And yet there is a sense in which it is correct and useful to maintain that, primarily, insigjxt is for the analyst. How is this so? The answer comes in several parts.

 

3. Insight: Seeing or Telling?

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Our everyday language and our psychological and philosophical language are saturated with visual-spatial metaphors for thinking, rethinking, understanding, and sometimes even communicating, For example, we say, “I see what you mean, ” “In this perspective, ” “Introspect, ” “Think deeply about it, ” “Reflect on it, ” “Get your point across, ” and “A colorful account of the incident. ” These are not dead metaphors. I will try to show that this is so by giving an account of the influential role they continue to play in psychoanalytic theorizing and clinical interpretation. I will lay out some theoretical implications of our using the term insight to refer to psychoanalytic understanding of our “inner ” and “deeper ” selves and those of other human beings. Additionally, I will detail some of the technical consequences, both advantageous and problematic, of our formulating interpretations in ocular terms.

Here, we are concerned particularly with the metaphor insight. It is so deeply embedded in ordinary language that it may be said to have been naturalized, that is, to be no longer regarded as figurative speech but only as a way of talking plain talk. Now, when modes of discourse have received so much critical attention, it no longer seems self-evident that analysts must continue to depend on metaphors of looking and seeing when discussing psychoanalytic understanding. This being so, one must ask, “What accounts for the lasting appeal of these metaphors? ”

 

4. Remembering in the Countertransference

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In a letter he wrote in 1938, Walter Benjamin said of Franz Kafka, “There is nothing more memorable than the fervor with which Kafka emphasized his failure ” (1969, p. 145), I suggest that in one of its aspects that fervor expressed Kafka’s desire to control his listener’s memory of him, specifically to obliterate any record of Kafka’s positive attributes and achievements. Not a victim; a failure!

Analysts frequently encounter analysands of this sort. After dwelling on their general unhappiness, these analysands zero in on their disappointment in themselves, and in the course of belaboring that feeling, they bring the sense of failure into the transference. Sooner or later they proclaim themselves failures at analysis and re-sign themselves to being disappointments to their analysts. In their role of therapeutic washouts, unconsciously they are trying to make themselves memorably unapproachable.

This chapter is primarily about these analysands. It conceptualizes them as trying to take possession of their analysts’ memories and erase whatever might have been registered therein as hopeful, encouraging, or promising. To ensure the success of their project, they are intolerant of their analysts’ having memories of their own; that is, their being psychically separate and different human beings who are able to remember autonomously. They aim not just at eliminating information they might have given from early on in their analyses about personal resources, achievements, and potentials; also in their sights are experiences they have had in their analyses, some of them recent, some even in the session under way, and anything else that might help their analysts remember them as anything but failures. They require their analysts to be so preoccupied with accounts of failure as to effectively surrender control of this most important ego function: remembering.

 

5. Intimate Neutrality

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Neutrality is no longer a neutral topic. Particularly in recent years, the presumption of the analyst’s neutrality has been boldly challenged. The most consequential challenges have been mounted by members of the relational school of psychoanalysis, some of whom now discredit the idea of neutrality totally. Their conception of psychoanalytic theory and technique, which deviates in many important ways from contemporary versions of the tradition established by Freud, leads them to claim that it is dead wrong to hold neutrality up as an ideal, a principle, or even a human possibility. They regard expression of the analyst’s personality as being inevi-table, which no one would deny, but also inevitably highly consequential in the clinical interaction, and some go on to conclude from this that countertransference is built so deeply into the analytic process and that it would be correct to regard any analytic activity as an enactment (for example, Friedman and Natterson 1999, Renik 1998).

Analysts of other persuasions have had their own problems with this concept, having so often found that they differ among themselves when hearing clinical presentations as to whether the analyst is indeed working in a neutral manner. These differences may be attributed to differences of definition, variations in grasp of theory, specialized clinical experience, and purely personal factors that show up in differing countertransference proclivities.

 

6. Interpreting Sex

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In the early days of psychoanalysis, it was comparatively easy to discuss the interpretation of sex. At that time, so different from our own, the meanings of both sex and interpretation were pretty much taken for granted. Sex, to take that first, was understood to begin with the first three relatively distinct and successive pregenital phases of libidinal organization: the oral, the anal, and the phallic. In the phallic phase, there developed the Oedipus complex and correlative castration anxiety and fantasies, on the resolution of which, under favorable circumstances that promote the formation of superego and the renunciation of oedipal objects, depended the attainment of the fourth phase: the genital phase and normality.

Genitality was considered a relatively conflict-free post-oedipal organization of desire and capacity for heterosexual gratification. The pregenital was believed to survive in sexual foreplay and, through transformation, in sublimation. Genitality was the desirable developmental outcome of the sexual instinctual drive in that, in keeping with Freud’s Darwinian ground plan, it guaranteed the survival of the species. From the beginning, Freud (1905b) had committed himself to a sexual psychology that would guarantee that survival. Consequently, reproductive sexuality became the developmental ideal. Homoerotic and other forms of so-called perverse and arrested sexuality were deviations from this ideal, caused by disruptive constitutional and early developmental factors that promote pregenital fixations. Relative to the implied idealization of heterosexual genitality—the “oughtness of it ”—and in keeping with conventional sexual morality, unmodified expression of these alternatives could not escape being regarded as disturbed outcomes.

 

7. Psychoanalytic Discourse on Male Nonnormative Sexuality and Perversion

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For some time, well-established propositions and forms of argument in the humanities and social sciences have been undergoing critical reappraisal. Strong arguments have been advanced against much of this received wisdom. It is said to be replete with unacknowledged ideological precommitments, cultural narrowness, ahistorical perspectives, unsupported conclusions, and Self-contradiction. Meanwhile, pluralistic arguments and anti-foundational arguments have been gaining in persuasiveness and acceptance.

In many instances, feminists have been showing that pervasive prejudice against women, based on the kind of thinking that is now in serious question, has insinuated itself into the canon in each of these fields of study. As part of this project, they have shown that, in many instances, the traditional and universalized psychoanalytic conceptions of normal and pathological development have been biased in favor of men. As discussed in the preceding chapter, these conceptions sometimes tacitly and sometimes openly endorse conventional ideas of masculinity and femininity organized around reproductive sexuality. Thus, in this major area of human desire, conflict, and forms of human relatedness, not all psychoanalysts have consistently lived up to their ideals of sustained curiosity and open-mindedness. Instead, some or many have mistakenly regarded moral value judgments as facts of nature, objective findings, or inevitable assumptions and conclusions. For them, one is supposed to receive all their prejudiced assertions as though being the beneficiary of sound reality testing, rational inference, and biological sophistication.

 

8. Gender Jokes/Sexual Politics

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Most of the innumerable jokes about relations between the sexes ( “gender jokes ” hereafter) may be approached interpretively as interventions in sexual politics. Far from being value-free, these tales take sides in conflicts over sexual prowess, power, competence, handicaps, and self-esteem. Additionally, these gender jokes may be said to endorse certain distributions of power and claims of integrity. They do so by tolerating or condemning violations of physical and ethical boundaries and by fostering proud, complacent, contemptuous, envious, and self-abasing attitudes. Frequently intermingled with the sexual/political interpretations to be developed here will be inferences bearing on other discriminatory attitudes based on social class, wealth, possessions, and ethnicity. In this chapter, I will detail numerous insights into gender jokes.

There are, of course, other jokes that tell the same kinds of stories about homoerotic and onanistic situations and practices. Although jokes of this sort will not be featured in what follows, I will sometimes note their nameless presence in some of the heterosexual stories.

 

9. Knowing Another Person Psychoanalytically

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This chapter concerns the nature of what we analysts know or believe we know, how we get to know it and justify our knowledge claims, and how to understand the differences among us in the claims we make. Although, at first glance, these topics might seem to those familiar with psychoanalysis so obvious and already well-discussed as to require no extended exposition here, when considered in depth they will be found to be at the center of intellectually demanding and unending controversy, perhaps even confronting us finally with basic issues in our discipline that cannot be resolved. Far from being merely an unnecessary review of well-known aspects of psychoanalytic work, my discussion will include complex and debatable considerations of epistemology, methodology, and system building.

I enter this troubled domain believing that analysts have not yet thought through sufficiently the difficult issues that underlie many familiar and often taken for granted assumptions about psychoanalytic knowledge. I am also aware that these considerations will never reach a final stage owing to the constantly changing contexts of critical thought in which the key concepts of psychoanalysis must be reconsidered and reformulated if our discipline is to remain relevant to a rapidly changing standards of sound, though still controversial, critical thought.

 

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