Post-dated A review of ‘Freud 2000’, edited by Anthony Elliot.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Wilson

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The Interpretation of Dreams — dated 1900 — was actually first published in late 1899: “its title-page was post-dated into the new century” (Freud, 1932, p. 2191). This modern date ‘1900’ has figured prominently in commentary on Freud’s oeuvre; in particular, 1900 canonically marks the birth of psychoanalysis. Freud’s psychological works prior to The Interpretation of Dreams — the early Charcot-influenced papers on hysteria; the interest in hypnotism; the neurologically inclined Project for a Scientific Psychology — are considered to be ‘early’, ‘pre-‘ or ‘proto-‘ psychoanalytic.

Adjudications over scientificity have been one of the central means by which this demarcation of Freud’s work at 1900 has been enacted. For most commentators, The Interpretation of Dreams marks a definitive shift in Freud’s theoretical concerns: a transformation of the early, neurophysiological interests into the psychological questions of the more modern Freud. The power of The Interpretation of Dreams as a canonical text and of 1900 as a canonical moment — not just in conventional Freudian hagiography, but also in the humanities-bound circuits of contemporary critical and cultural studies – lies in no small part in the victory of psyche over neurology and interpretation over scientificity that this text and this date are presumed to deliver.

As we shall see, centennial dating and the status of the scientific in psychoanalysis also play an important role in Anthony Elliot’s edited collection Freud 2000.

Focused, in the main, on the relevance of Freud for contemporary social theory, this collection showcases a wide range of intellectual projects: epistemology (Stephen Frosh); international relations (Jacqueline Rose); violence (C. Fred Alford); feminism (Anthony Elliot); intersubjectivity (Jessica Benjamin); biography and autobiography (Madelon Sprengnether); modernity (Harvie Ferguson); geography (Steve Pile); humanism (Joanne Brown and Barry Richards); and legal theory (David S. Caudill).

Elliot’s introduction positions these essays in the wake of the US-based ‘Freud Wars’ that were incited by Frederick Crews’ 1993 essay in the New York Review of Books and the 1993 Time cover story (‘Is Freud Dead?’), and which reached their greatest intensity over the much publicised Library of Congress Freud exhibition (‘Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture’) that was scheduled for 1996, postponed — according to the Library of Congress–for budgetary reasons, subjected to critical petition by a number of prominent figures (e.g., Oliver Sacks, Gloria Steinem, and Freud’s granddaughter, Sophie Freud) and eventually opened in October 19982.

Many of these critiques of Freudianism have been centrally concerned with the scientific credibility of Freud’s theories3; particularly, the inaccuracy of Freud’s own empirical presumptions and the failure of contemporary Freudian and neo-Freudian therapies to deliver verifiable outcomes. Although the Freud 2000 collection does not directly engage with these debates, the essays are offered nonetheless as an antidote to the prevailing opinion that — to use Crews’ words — Freud’s time has passed. By illustrating the indispensability of Freudian psychoanalysis to theories of social life, this collection endeavours to demonstrate the continuing relevance of Freud in twenty-first century critical and cultural commentary.

Despite its wide reach and informed analyses, this collection is less successful that it could be in demonstrating the ongoing urgency of Freudianism and psychoanalysis to contemporary critical analysis. Paradoxically, the collection’s greatest strengths — its authoritative arguments and established methodologies — turn out to be that which most clearly limits its critical reach. The collection is more faithful to modes of Freudian criticism established in the humanities in the 1970s and 1980s than the post-dated title Freud 2000 might lead the reader to suspect. Respectable as these modes of critique continue to be, they now lack the innovative edge that will be necessary to keep Freud viable into his third century. There is not enough here to challenge the seasoned Freudian commentator (who by now must surely be familiar, indeed overly so, with many of the arguments put here). And likewise, there is not enough to incite the junior Freudian; notable by their absence are the late twentieth century theoretical developments that are drawn from Freud or that contain the potential for highly productive hybridisations with Freudianism: queer theory, post-colonial theory; posthumanism; science studies.

Madelon Sprengnether’s essay is exemplary in this regard. It is a stylish and authoritative piece that examines two parts of Freud’s early correspondence: Freud’s letters to his friend Eduard Silberstein (a correspondence that began when Freud was fifteen and continued until he was twenty-five) and Freud’s letters to Martha Bernays during the long years of their engagement. Sprengnether’s aim is to contest Freud’s “artfully constructed [public] self-portrait” (p. 147) by examining the “relatively private” (p. 147) material contained in these letters. In the Silberstein correspondence, Sprengnether focuses on Freud’s “desire for an almost encyclopedic exchange of information” (p. 148) between himself and his friend. It is with some ardour that Freud pursues this intimacy: “Our evening saunters and nocturnal visits have so accustomed me to communication that I find it hard to do without it now” (p. 148); “I trust you do not show my letters to anyone … because I want to be able to write with complete candour and about whatever comes into my head” (p. 148); “I really believe that we shall never be rid of each other” (p. 149). In the context of these declarations, Sprengnether notes that Freud reprimands Silberstein when Silberstein does not disclose his thoughts and actions as fully as Freud himself has done, and that correspondingly Freud is “moved” by Silberstein’s “affectionate words” (p. 148).

In the wake of the literature on Freud’s intense, affectionate and often troubled attachments to other men (see, for example, Boyarin or Edelman4) it seems peculiar that Sprengnether effectively disregards the intense, affectionate and often troubled nature of Freud’s attachment to Silberstein. For Sprengnether, Freud’s “first experience of romantic love” (p. 149) is described in these letters (seemingly, an attraction to a young woman, Gisela Fluss) rather than enacted by them. Sprengnether’s analysis of Freud’s rather speedy transfer of affection from Gisela Fluss to Frau Fluss (her mother) and Freud’s interference in Silberstein’s own romance with a young woman is entirely enclosed within a logic of heterosexually determined love relations. Knowledgeable and engaging as Sprengnether’s account of this correspondence is, it is too faithful to a certain narrative of sexual aims and objects that Freud himself (both in theory and in person), and his recent queer adherents, have so persuasively put into question.

Similarly, Elliot’s own essay on feminism and psychoanalysis neglects the recent scholarship that has moved this alliance passed the theoretical and political parameters established in the 1970s and 1980s. Elliot’s essay is a defence of the theoretical utility of psychoanalysis for feminism: “This is less a matter of trying to judge how well, and in what ways, psychoanalysis has been linked to feminism than it is a matter of deploying Freud to think the advances and deadlocks of new feminist discourses” (p. 89, my emphasis). This defence is substantiated by a comparative analysis of Naomi Wolf and Jacqueline Rose. Wolf’s political naivet√© is perhaps too easy a target for such analysis, and it is unclear to what extent her work could be usefully described as ‘new feminist discourse’–at least as far as the likely audience of this text (humanities trained academics and students) would be concerned. Moreover the rich field of current scholarship in psychoanalysis and feminism (e.g., Butler, Fuss, Sedgwick–to offer three prominent examples5) has been circumscribed in Elliot’s account. This renders the argument pedestrian for the reader already familiar with and actively involved in the field, and somewhat colourless for the reader unaware of Freud’s utility for feminism. Feminist theory as it approaches 2000 has already diversified, evolved and specialised in ways that make its alliances with psychoanalysis more productive and more precarious than Elliot’s Wolf vs. Rose schematic allows5.

The analysis of scientificity perhaps best demonstrates the methodological containment of this collection. The text is bookended by 2 essays that directly address the question of psychoanalysis and science. Freud 2000 opens with Stephen Frosh’s review (and, by and large, there is too much reviewing in many of these essays) of the arguments concerning Freud’s scientificity and the epistemological reliability of his claims. The text closes with David Caudill’s review and discussion of the scientificity of Lacanian theory (in the context of legal theory): “Setting aside the question of whether Lacanian theory is in accord with cutting-edge neuroscience, we might ask whether Lacanian theory is in accord with social science research concerning the myths and stereotypes that judges, lawyers and juries hold” (p. 280).

It seems to me, however, that this essay, and the collection as a whole, would be more vibrant and more true to its post-dated ambitions if ‘the question of cutting-edge neuroscience’ (to take but one example) were not put aside. That is, Freud 2000 needs to speak (as Freud 1900 did) to the specifics of the contemporary scientific world — the human genome project; Dolly; microbial life on Mars. Essays that can enact these kinds of strange alliances between Freud and science will surprise the Freud veteran and, I suspect, readily entice the emerging generation of post-2000 scholars who are being trained after the heady days of 1970s and 1980s Freudianism. This is not an issue peculiar to either this book or to psychoanalytic theory; the question of the scientific has emerged as a uniquely urgent one in social, critical and cultural theory in general. It is not clear how much longer these theories can remain politically and analytically viable if they continue to treat scientific theories and models as outside their purview and as largely irrelevant to (or beneath) the finesse of their methodologies.

Freud’s own work often ingeniously weaves together the scientific and the interpretive in ways eschew the blithe disregard of scientific endeavours in so much ‘Freudian’ social, cultural and critical commentary. The final chapter of The Interpretation of Dreams and chapter VI of Beyond the Pleasure Principleare two brilliant examples of a mode of critical analysis — as yet underdeveloped in the contemporary scene — in which scientificity is indispensable to innovative interpretation.

As I understand it, the Y2K computer problem involves an inability (initially on behalf on the early programmers, and now instantiated in the software itself) to recognise the turn of the century. At the end of 31.12.99, rather than switching forward to 1.1.2000, it is thought that many computers — unable to comprehend the millennial shift — will switch back to 1.1.1900. Freud 2000 has the same pre-programmed difficulty: it is governed by a certain logic of twentieth century Freudianism that despite its analytic/computational sophistication is unable to make the decisive epistemological shift that the twenty-first century already demands. On the evidence presented here, I suspect that in 1899 Freud was better equipped to make the centennial transition than some of his most ardent champions are in 1999.

Elizabeth A. Wilson is a research fellow in the Department of Gender Studies, University of Sydney. She is the author of Neural Geographies: Feminism and the Microstructure of Cognition and editor of a special issue of Australian Feminist Studies (no. 29, forthcoming, 1999) on feminist science studies.

Freud 2000, edited by Anthony Elliot was published by Melbourne University Press in 1998.

1. Crews, Frederick ‘The Unknown Freud’ New York Review of Books (November 18, 1993), pp. 53-66; Time, November 29 (no. 48), 1993; The Library of Congress Freud exhibition can be previewed at
2. Goodheart, Eugene ‘Freud on Trial’ Dissent (Spring, 1995), pp. 263-243.
3. Boyarin, Daniel (1995) ‘Freud’s Baby, Fliess’s Maybe: Homophobia, Anti-Semitism, and the Invention of Oedipus’ GLQ, 2 (1&2), 115-147. Edelman, Lee (1995) ‘Piss Elegant: Freud, Hitchcock and the Micturating Penis’ GLQ, 2 (1&2), 149-177.
4. Butler, Judith (1993) Bodies That Matter. New York: Routledge. Fuss, Diana (1995). Identification Papers. New York: Routledge. Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (1993). Tendencies. Durham: Duke University Press.
5. The influential scholarship (in English) on psychoanalysis and feminism of Brennan, Braidotti, Chodorow, Copjec, Flax, Gallop, Gilligan, Grosz, Keller, de Lauretis, Moi, Ragland-Sullivan, Schor, Silverman, Spivak and Wright demonstrates the diverse and contested nature of this field.

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