Why is Freud upside down?
Freud’s image is ubiquitous, perhaps overly so, and has come to represent much more than Freud and his work.
His image, featured at the top of this site, is inverted for three reasons.
Firstly, so that we can see Freud differently. If Freud is upside down we are forced to look at him again, to make the effort either to mentally turn him the ‘right way up’ or to accept the inverted perspective and to see him and his work anew. Either way, it forces us to reconsider what we see. Turning Freud upside down aims not only at a repositioning of the image of Freud but, by extension, of psychoanalysis itself insofar as Freud’s image is metonymical for the whole of psychoanalysis.
Secondly, because Lacan’s reading of Freud is a creative mis-reading of Freud. Everyone knows Freud has baggage. As W.H. Auden wrote in his eulogy to Freud, he was not simply a man “but a whole climate of opinion”. Whilst it is all too easy to dig out one of the many ostensibly absurd or objectionable passages in Freud’s work in order to lambaste him, it is another thing to respect the questions that Freud was interested in investigating, and his approach to answering them, even if we might not agree with his conclusions. This is what I believe Lacan’s project is about. Whilst Lacan may not be ‘turning Freud on his head’, his teaching obliges the reader to look at Freud very differently to the way that his contemporaries – and ours, for that matter – present his work. As literary critic Harold Bloom once put it, anyone who has not misread a text has not read it either.
It is certainly possible to look through Freud’s and Lacan’s work and find points of divergence or disagreement. But does this mean Lacan’s ‘mis-reading’ of Freud amounts to a criticism of him? After all, why does Lacan proclaim such loyalty to Freud to the extent that he tells his followers, in the year before his death, “It is up to you to be Lacanians if you wish: I am a Freudian”.
Thirdly, the image of Freud upside down refers to the current state of psychoanalysis – Freud and Lacan’s legacy – especially here in the UK. When a flag is turned upside down it indicates distress. In the UK, psychoanalysis is on the cusp of state regulation that threatens the way it has been practised for over 100 years. In the world at large, psychoanalysis as a talking therapy is buffeted by hostilities from competing theoretical and clinical approaches, leading it to fall out of favour with the state, academia and in the popular mind. Whilst many of these criticisms are warranted and deserving of a response, the key concepts of psychoanalysis – for example, the unconscious or the drive – are gradually being undermined by shorthand replacements like the ‘subconscious’ and ‘instincts’. Theoretical divergences are the hallmark of psychoanalysis and there is no obligation on it to give one uniform response to these incursions. Indeed, within its own ranks, perhaps the only accurate assessment of the history of psychoanalysis is that it has been a history of dispute, division and disharmony. But the current state of psychoanalysis is at least in part testament to the failure of its schools to properly distinguish psychoanalysis and advance what makes it unique; and to overcome the territorialism and dogma that has deprived it of freshness and vivacity.
These were the same circumstances under which Lacan began his ‘return to Freud’.
Psychoanalysis is not in itself important: it is about something important.
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