Professor Patricia Gherovici on Psychoanalysis – Response by Samantha Plasencia (English)

[On September 24, 2019 Professor Patricia Gherovici (Psychoanalytic Studies, U Penn) presented a talk on Psychoanalysis as part of the Modern and Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response by Samantha Plasencia (English)]

Lost in Translation: Reclaiming the Past for the Future of Psychoanalysis
Written by Samantha (Sam) Plasencia (English)

In her presentation, Patricia Gherovici claims that the future of psychoanalysis depends on our returning to its political roots—already present in its original entanglement with theories of sexuality and non-normativity. Although this radical social consciousness has been lost in translation, her presentation suggests that by dialectically moving between Freud and Lacan, we might productively and creatively refine and reinvent psychoanalysis for the future.

She organized the first half of her talk around Lacan’s essay “The Situation of Psychoanalysis and Training of Psychoanalysts” (1956), first published in the Journal of Philosophy. By way of introduction, she describes the psychoanalytic situation she encountered upon arriving in the United States. She left Buenos Aries in 1989, then a hot bed of psychoanalytic interest and practice (coffee shops were even named after famous psychoanalysts!). “Forget the idea of practicing psychoanalysis” she was warned by her Argentinian fellows, “Psychoanalysis is dead in the United States, they have killed it.” Fittingly, her arrival coincided with the Freudian wars of the 1990s, which debated whether or not Freud was dead.

Yet according to Lacan’s “The Situation,” it seems that Freud was already dead in the 1950s, when psychoanalysis was at the height of its popularity. For Lacan, moving away from the Freudian corpus and vocabulary renders psychoanalysis an “orthopedics of behavior,” which defies the essence of what psychoanalysis was meant to be: a “conjectural science.” He argues that psychoanalysis would be better served by an education in the arts, literature, philosophy, and the history of myth rather than medical training, which is the worst preparation for an analyst because it alienates them from the signifier. And for Lacan, if analysts don’t work with the materiality of what analysands bring to them in sessions, then they’ll be lost. Only the thread of the signifier can ground analysis, and it is a thread for which there can be no ‘ready’ interpretations.

psychoanalysis Head (1)
Compartmentalizing the Mind

Unlike medical diagnoses, which are drawn from empirical and quantifiable data, psychoanalysis deals with a different kind of knowledge—the truth of the unconscious. This is a revelatory kind of truth that an analyst must be open to discovering. For Gherovici, the futurity of psychoanalysis depends on analysts being open to such surprises. But medical training disables this openness.


Gherovici explained that such training perverts the practice of psychoanalysis as much as its practitioner, the analyst. For Lacan, analysts are created through an act of self “authorization,” not licensure or institutional permission. An analyst comes into being when an analysand decides that they want to be on the other side, and assume a responsibility that exists dialectically between the author (of the word) and authority (having power). This moment does not exist in chronological time. The act of becoming an analyst melds past and future—this is the time of the unconscious, a time of resignification.

Becoming an analyst is also an ethical decision, an affirmation of being that is produced by one’s own experience with analysis. Gherovici offers her life as an example. She was an analysand four times: as a child, an adolescent, a young adult, and again in her late twenties. She came to authorize herself as an analyst in the Northern Philadelphian Puerto Rican barrio, a context in which she was not supposed to exist. She was working in a house that was once a funeral home, in an office that once held wakes, and was surrounded by the death that comes with precarity, poverty, and desperation. Unable to do cognitive or family therapy, she found that she could not stop hearing the unconscious. And yet this population was traditionally thought to be out of reach of the effects of the unconscious. “As though they were too poor to afford an unconscious,” she jokes. It was here that she assumed the ethical task of being an analyst.

After responding to a question about the potential for abuse in the psychoanalytic context, Gherovici explained that ideally, for Lacan, there would be a group that ensures transmission of the ethical position, because “how do you teach an ethical position?” she asks. “How do we transmit psychoanalysis when, as Lacan says, it is a desire that comes from the analysand? How do you institutionalize a desire?” At its core, this is a question of de-institutionalization. Gherovici doesn’t have answers to these questions, but she insists that the future of psychoanalysis depends on our answering them.

For Lacan, psychoanalysis has lost its soul because it has managed to maintain itself without reference to Freud. For Gherovici, this critique remains resoundingly relevant to our current moment. In German, the “psycho” of psychoanalysis is “saɪkəʊ,” meaning “soul.” From its origins, psychoanalysis has been about the soul and not the mind, but that has also been lost in translation. The effects of that loss manifest in an institutionalized field with rigidified diagnoses, and in the creation of analysts through medical training. As it stood for Lacan in the 1950s, and for Gherovici today, psychoanalysis is in a kind of hypnotic state, a sham of life-support that, when removed, will reveal a dead thing. She began her presentation by provocatively suggesting that perhaps something needs to die in order for psychoanalysis to continue. Lacan’s “energizing” conclusion to “The Situation” supports this provocation, she claims, insofar as he demands that we bury psychoanalysis so that a Freudian psychoanalysis can be reborn.

In the second half of Gherovici’s lecture, she demonstrates what a reborn psychoanalysis might look like by moving productively between Freud and Lacan in order to offer a re-reading of Freud’s famous case of female homosexuality, “the young, female homosexual.” Gherovici calls her Sidonie, based on a narrative biography that was written about her. Sidonie was brought to Freud by her father at the age of 18, after a suicide attempt. She was in love with a 28-year-old disreputable baroness and had been commanded to stop seeing her. She ignored her father’s directive and then one day saw him while walking down the street with her lover. Confronted with her failed gesture of defiance, she threw herself over guardrails and onto trolley lines. Freud was tasked with curing her of homosexuality. His analysis followed the thread of the signifier “to fall,” which also describes birthing. He concluded that she wanted to have a child with her father, but since her mother was pregnant with her younger sibling suicide was a way to fall and give birth. Gherovici argues that Freud errs in his oedipal triangulation, and even more so in transference (by which he comes to occupy the position of father), the latter of which keeps him from seeing how Sidonie was lying in her dreams of meeting a man and living happily ever after. Lacan later rereads Freud by focusing on what happens with the transference, namely, that Freud’s presumption of a heteronormative outcome may have caused him to misread Sidonie. Lacan concludes that Sidonie wants to show what love is: to give what one does not have to someone who does not want it.

Gherovici offers her own rereading by rescuing something from each: from Freud she takes the emphasis of Sidonie’s love for her father, and from Lacan she takes the formula for sexuation. She argues that Lacan’s formula for sexuation is useful because it frees us from the phallus and biological destiny. Put differently, it offers us a way out of heteronormativity by positing sexuation as a position that you must declare in order to exist in the world, but which is mobile and can change according to circumstance. In this way, declaring a sexual position is an act of self-authorizing, an ethical declaration of being akin to the act of authorization that makes one an analyst. By dialectically moving between Freud and Lacan, Gherovici suggests that the story of Sidonie might be about love, and her search for the love of a mother who could help her assume a sexual position.


Bathroom Doors
Assume Your Position

Gherovici’s reading of Lacan’s formula for sexuation might appear radically progressive—but her contention is that sexual non-normativity already exists in Freud’s work. For example, she argues that we might read his notion of the drive as queer, which he details in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905). From this vantage, heteronormativity is anti-Freud even if Freud himself fallibly fell into that construction. What was particularly exciting about listening to Gherovici was how she enacted the very dialectic she advocated, thereby bringing into being the futurity of psychoanalysis and capturing us all, momentarily, in the time of the unconscious.



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