The Spanish flu, Covid-19 and Sigmund Freud

What can we learn from history?

 
Jeanne Wolff Bernstein, chairwoman of the advisory board of the Sigmund Freud Foundation
 

"If we say we are fighting the virus, we will defeat it, we are speaking in war metaphors that actually do not apply to the virus. This shows how abstract the situation is. We don't even have an appropriate language for it.” (Annemarie Pieper, 2020)

What would be an appropriate language and how can we find one in times of Corona, when there is so much human misery and death during global pandemic? Are we not confronting again “a crisis of the imagination” (see Tom Friedman, New York Times, 2001) as on September 11, 2001, when we could not find any suitable words at first to describe the collapse of the “Twin Towers” in New York after a plane flew into both towers and caused them to collapse? Nowadays we are not faced with a brutal terrorist, a politically motivated act that leaves us speechless, but we are faced with an invisible virus that has infected millions of people and claimed tens of thousands of lives worldwide in a devastating and unexpectedly rapid manner.


 

In order to find a language, a symbolic system, to grasp linguistically the Real and to integrate the current catastrophe, I became interested in the question of how Sigmund Freud himself, at the beginning of the last century, might have reacted to the then extremely devastating pandemic of the Spanish flu, and how he might have integrated it into his own writings. The only thing I knew was that Sophie Halberstadt-Freud, his favorite daughter, his "Sunday Child", died on January 25, 1920 of this virus infection and that her death, as well as that of her youngest son, Heinerle, three years later evoked a deep sadness and despair in Freud, which was only later to be recognized. He announced the death of Sophie to his mother Amalia on January 26, 1920 with the following words:

Dear Mother,
I have some sad news for you today. Yesterday morning our dear lovely Sophie died from galloping influenza and pneumonia. We learned of it at noon from a telephone conversation with Minna in Reichenhall. Oli and Ernst have left Berlin to be with Max. Robert and Mathilde are leaving on the twenty-ninth to try and assist the poor bereaved man. Martha is too upset; one couldn’t let her undertake the journey, and in any case she wouldn’t have found Sophie alive.
She is the first of our children we have to outlive. What Max will do, what will happen to the children, we of course don’t know as yet.
I hope you will take it calmly; tragedy after all has to be accepted. But to mourn this splendid, vital girl who was so happy with her husband and children is of course permissible.
 
II greet you fondly.
Your Sigm
 
(Ernst Freud, 1960, pp. 326, 327)
 
 
One day later, Freud writes to Oskar Pfister, his friend, the Swiss pastor:
 
Dear Doctor,
(…) That afternoon we received the news that our sweet Sophie in Hamburg had been snatched away by influential pneumonia, snatched away in the midst of a glowing health, from a full and active life as a competent mother and loving wife, all in four or five days, as though she had never existed. Although we have been worried about her for a couple of days, we had nevertheless been hopeful; it is so difficult to judge from a distance. And this distance must remain distance, we were not able to travel at once, as we had intended, after the first alarming news; there was no train, not even for an emergency. The undisguised brutality of our time is weighing heavily upon us. Tomorrow she is being cremated, our poor Sunday Child! Our daughter Mathilde and her husband are leaving for Hamburg the day after tomorrow, thanks to an unexpected connection with an Entente train; at least our son-in-law was not alone; two of our sons who were in Berlin are already with him, and our friend Eitingon has gone with them.
Sophie leaves two sons, one of six, the other thirteen months, and an inconsolable husband who will have to pay dearly for the happiness of these seven years. The happiness existed exclusively within them; outwardly there was war, conscription, wounds, the depletion of their resources, but they had remained courageous and gay.
I work as much as I can, and am thankful for the diversion. The loss of a child seems to be a serious narcissistic injury; what is known as mourning will probably follow only later.
 
(Ernst Freud, 1960, pp. 327, 328)
 
 
And a few days later, on February 4, 1920, Freud writes to Sandor Ferenczi:
 
Dear Friend
Please don’t worry about me. Apart from feeling rather more tired I am the same. The death, painful as it is, does not affect my attitude toward life. For years I was prepared for the loss of our sons; now it is our daughter; as a confirmed unbeliever I have no one to accuse and realize that there is no place where I could lodge a complaint. (…) Deep down I sense a bitter, irreparable narcissistic injury. My wife and Annerl are profoundly affected in a more human way.”
 
(Ernst Freud, 1960, p. 328)
 

The mourning came later, but what did not come was a look back at the effects of the Spanish influenza upon his own work and the traces that the Spanish pandemic had left on the other family members. Thanks to the correspondence with Karl Abraham, however, we can learn that Freud's wife Martha had already contracted "flu pneumonia" in May 1919. "My wife now has a real flu pneumonia, but it seems to be going well, we are advised not to worry" (Freud/Abraham, 2009, p. 620). However, through a footnote by Ernst Falzeder and Ludger Hermanns, we learn that “Martha Freud was not to recover from this flu for months. From 1918 to 1919 the so-called Spanish flu raged, which killed more people than during the First World War, including Freud's daughter Sophie (died January 25, 1920)” (Freud / Abraham, 2009, p. 621). After her recovery, Martha decides to go to a sanatorium in Parsch, near Salzburg and Freud and his sister-in-law Minna drive to a somewhat more expensive sanatorium in Bad Gastein, which prompted him to write the following words to Karl Abraham on July 6, 1919:

My wife is, I can say, completely recovered. She travels to the Parsch sanatorium near Salzburg on the 15th of the month, at the same time as I drive with my sister-in-law to Gastein. Her doctor insists on trying a high-altitude climate with a very calm life. My daughter is trying to enter Bavaria near Reichenhall together with a friend (Margarete Rie, note JWB). Do not be surprised that we choose such expensive stays during these times. Everything near Vienna is even more expensive, almost unaffordable, most summer holidays are blocked, everything related to traveling abroad is still unbearable drudgery. And you don't want to completely miss out on refreshment while it's warm. Who knows how many of us will survive the next winter, from which evil can be expected. Also, the security of material doom as a result of our state situation does not encourage any thrift economy. (ibid., p. 624, emphasis JWB)

In addition to the nonchalance with which Freud informs his colleague Abraham that he is going to the more expensive sanatorium with Minna instead of with his wife Martha to Parsch near Salzburg, we also learn elsewhere that three more Freud children had been suffering from the influenza, they were: Anna, Ernst and Mathilde. There is hardly any mention of their illnesses, because Freud keeps a low profile towards his friends and colleagues with regard to these illnesses. In addition, Freud's concern for his son Martin, who is still in captivity at the end of the war, hovers also rather silently in the background. On December 2, 1918, Freud writes to his friend Abraham that his son Martin had not yet returned, "(...) all information indicates that his entire troop was captured without a fight, so that would not be the worst thing; no news about his personal fate since October 25th. Ernst is in Munich, Oli, unrobed at home. The restrictions are bad with us, the uncertainties are large, practice is of course marginal.” (ibid, p. 604, emphasis JWB) Two weeks later, Freud still does not know where Martin is being held, and “this contributes to the depressed mood of these times.” (ibid., p. 607) It was only on January 19, 1919, three months after the first information about his arrest, that Freud learns that Martin had been arrested in Genoa. In July, at the time when Martha, Minna and Freud were going to separate sanatoriums, Martin was released from captivity and returned to Vienna.

In contrast to today's Covid-19 pandemic, Freud seems to have viewed the Spanish influenza as a difficult, but less prominent “side-show” (Nebenschauplatz) in light of all the other hardships and fatalities he had had to endure. By reading his various letters at a time when he had also written such major texts as, "The Taboo of Virginity" (1918), "The Uncanny" (1919) and "A Child is Being Beaten" (1919), we gain a picture of Freud as a man who was faced almost daily with food and heating costs as well as other economic restrictions of all kinds. "The restrictions are bad for us, the uncertainties are great, clinical practice is of course low" and "it is bitterly cold in the room", he writes to Abraham on December 2, 1918 and then again on February 9, 1919 (ibid., p. 604, p. 610).

The Spanish flu - called "Spanish" because Spain had no press restrictions and could thus freely report about the spread of the disease worldwide – thus, the so-called "Spanish" viruses, were actually brought along from the USA (Haskell County, Kansas State) from the American soldiers who had entered Europe to help its allies in World War I. The Spanish flu was thus intricately linked with the war in Europe, because it actually arrived with the invasion of the US soldiers on French soil who thereby unknowingly brought with themselves an even bigger "killer" to Europe. What was seen as support and assistance from the Allies later turned out to be the more violent, deadly factor.

There are innumerable parallels between the Spanish influenza and today's pandemic, starting with the symptoms (dry cough, high fever, chills, pneumonia) and the course of the disease (if the inflammation did not get better, death usually occurred after nine to ten days, the survivors complained of severe fatigue and subsequent depression); to the first rumors about the origins of the virus - "fake news" - about the course and spread of the disease (the flu was imported from Spain by canned food and these were in turn poisoned by the Germans); to being totally overwhelmed by the large number of deaths - despite quarantine measures taken, the number of dead rose from 2,800 in August, 1919 to 12,000 in September of the same year in the United States alone.

And yet the historian Elisabeth Dietrich-Daum, from the University of Innsbruck, warns not to compare haphazardly the two epidemics. She takes the view that the world war and the aims of the war always remained in the foreground of the world scene: “Soldiers were bundled up and shipped in trains and ships, and if one of them fell ill, he infected the entire force. The quarantine and isolation measures that governments across Europe have taken to contain the corona pandemic were not possible in the First World War.” (Dietrich-Daum, 2020).

A look back into the past may help us to evaluate better the current Covid-19 pandemic and to (re-)integrate it eventually into a symbolic system. It seems likely that we will have to prepare ourselves for several stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, as the Spanish flu also lasted two years, from 1918 to 1920, and reverberated through three successive waves worldwide. We can also learn a lot from the differences between these two pandemics, which are almost a hundred years apart. In contrast to Covid-19, mainly young people (20-40-year-old) died of the Spanish flu and through the First World War the influenza spread again and in the end claimed almost 50 million fatalities, another 500 million were infected. In contrast to the “lung plague” at the time, we have no major wars to fight outside the African continent. At the same time, Europe does not even consider itself able to help the few thousands of refugees who have to remain in Greek refugee camps to flee the Syrian war. We are not fighting famine (yet), our chances of survival are far higher than in the 1920’s thanks to newly acquired safety measures and to newly found medicines and vaccinations which may be on their way in the coming year.

However, the question of why Sigmund Freud hardly mentions the Spanish influenza in his writings is probably due to his close involvement with the "everyday" war events that the First World War brought about. The enormous difference between the number of war victims and those of Spanish influenza only became known in retrospect due to the information and news situation, so that during Freud's lifetime the difference between those who died in the pandemic and those who died in the war could hardly be distinguished. In addition, human-staged death - like a war that could be avoided - would require a more complex analysis of human lust/unwillingness to use violence, in contrast to the consequences of an invisible pandemic, which renders one relatively helpless and frightenend by the unknown.

Nevertheless, we should keep reminding ourselves of the words of Sigmund Freud, which reach us today like an echo from a distance:

"Si vis vitam, para mortem - If you want to endure life, prepare yourself for death." (Freud, 1915, p. 355).
 
As already indicated, Freud could only surrender to his deep grief when his young grandson Heinerle, Sophie's youngest son, (the younger brother of Ernst who provided him with the key to the structure of language through his “Fort/Da” game) died on June 19, 1923. Three years later, on October 15, 1926, Freud wrote the following lines to Ludwig Binswanger:

“This child has taken the place of all of my other children and grandchildren for me, and since then, since Heinele's death, I no longer take care of my other grandchildren and no longer feel any desire to live. That is also the secret of my indifference - what has been called courage - considering the threat to my own life."

And in 1929 he answered Ludwig Binswanger on April 12 (which would have been his daughter Sophie's 36th birthday):

“Although you know that after such a loss the acute state of mourning will subside, we also know we shall remain inconsolable and never find a substitute. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else.. And actually this is how it should be. It's the only way of perpetuating that love which we don't want to relinquish. (...) (Ernst Freud, 1960, p. 386).

These are amazing words from a man who speaks in his theoretical writings as in "Mourning and Melancholia" (1915/1917) that mourning is a limited process that, when accomplished, allows new love to be linked to new objects, and who claims that any ongoing mourning is a sign of melancholy in which the subject incorporates the lost object, which then turns against the ego and overwhelms it with complaints and reproaches which allows him never to give up the lost object. "We see with him (the melancholic, JWB) how one part of the ego sets itself over against the other, judges it critically, and as it were, takes it as its object." (Freud, 1915/1917, p. 247)

The idea that a loss leaves an ongoing, open wound that cannot be replaced by a new object and that this could be the proof of an existing and lasting love can no longer be found in his later theoretical work. However, Freud's late realization of an inconsolable love and an ongoing mourning process may indicate that an initially "abstract situation" (Annemarie Pieper) or impossible situation, as Lacan describes the Real in Seminar XI, may be translated into a symbolic, affective language, because even in a traumatic event like the Covid-19 pandemic "it is about an appointment to which we are always called with a real that eludes us." (Lacan, 1973/1981, p. 53)

What can initially only be captured with numbers, statistics, graphs and "facts” - since the facts are overwhelming and unimaginable - may only be able to find a hold in a changed language afterwards, which not only registers, informs and excites, but also offers one a symbolic space in which the emotional losses can take shape and resonate.
 
 
Jeanne Wolff Bernstein is chairwoman of the advisory board of the Sigmund Freud Foundation. She lives as a psychoanalyst in Vienna and New York.

_____

Literature:

Dietrich-Daum, Elisabeth (2020), "Not comparable with historical epidemics", available online at: https://www.uibk.ac.at/newsroom/nicht-mit-historischen-seuchen-vergleichbar.html.de

Freud, Sigmund (1915/1917), “Mourning and Melancholia”, SE XIV, 237-260

Freud, Sigmund (1915), “Thoughts for the Times of War and Death”, SE, Volume XIV, 273-302

Freud, Ernst (1960), Letters of Sigmund Freud, selected and edited by Ernst Freud 1873-1939, New York, Dover Publications

Sigmund Freud / Karl Abraham, Briefwechsel 1907-1925, Complete Edition, Edited by Ernst Falzeder & Lidger M. Hermanns, 2009, Turia and Kant

Sigmund Freud / Sandor Ferenczi correspondence, edited by Ernst Falzeder & Eva, 1996, Böhlau, Vienna

Lacan, Jacques, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Seminar XI, (1973), translated by Alan Sheridan, W.W. Norton Company, New York, 1981

Lohl, Jan, (2016) "But mourning is a great mystery to psychologists." Reflections on Freud's theories of mourning and its social context, lecture, SFU University, October 2016, Vienna

Pieper, Annemarie, (2020), Interview with Annemarie Pieper, Tagblatt, March 25

Spanish flu on Wikipedia

 


 

Frei Sprechen - Speak Freely

Haim Steinbach, AHA!, 1997

 

Monika Pessler, Director

The activities of the Sigmund Freud Museum will explore the leitmotif SPEAK FREELY in the years 2021–2025. Inherent in the ambiguity of this topic are two aspects that are just as relevant to modern discourse as they were to the early historical development of psychoanalysis: On the one hand, it recalls Josef Breuer’s “cathartic method,” which preceded psychoanalysis and was intended to allow patients to SPEAK FREELY, to free themselves of their (unconscious) concerns (for which reason the future women’s rights activist Bertha Pappenheim also spoke of “chimney-sweeping”). On the other hand, the call to SPEAK FREELY forms the foundation and the objective of every psychotherapeutic dialogue. Jointly developed by Freud and his patients, the aim of this “talking cure” was and is to identify the causes of the symptoms and behaviors that complicate or even endanger individual or social existence. Only on the basis of insights gained through constant communication and in-depth analysis can as yet unknown ways to deal with crises be discovered and tested.


Another reason for looking at the tasks, projects, and series of talks at the Sigmund Freud Museum from the perspective of the leitmotif SPEAK FREELY can be found in psychoanalytic cultural theory. In numerous texts,[1] Freud focused on topics that still shape our society (or societies) today: the issue of identity and freedom, which is becoming ever more volatile due to social and economic divides, the propensity for paranoia and denial, which have been intensified by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as aggressions and defense mechanisms motivated by religion, racism, sexism, or homophobia.

The importance of long-established value systems—as formulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and ratified by 171 member states of the United Nations in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action in 1993—seems to be diminishing. Contrary to the teachings we once tried to learn from history, not only are the debasement and violation of fundamental human rights as a result of national and/or pan-European exclusion policies increasing but the demand for authoritarian systems of government is also growing louder.

In an attempt to find, revise, and work toward constructive responses to these virulent issues of our age, another factor that has always been intrinsic to psychoanalytical communication strategies proves helpful: its inter- or rather transdisciplinarity. Since its very beginnings, psychoanalysis has been an inherently interdisciplinary enterprise, as Freud said: “Any estimate of psycho-analysis would be incomplete if it failed to make clear that, alone among the medical disciplines, it has the most extensive relations with the mental sciences, and that it is in a position to play a part of the same importance in the studies of religious and cultural history and in the sciences of mythology and literature as it is in psychiatry.”[2]

Just as other disciplines avail themselves of psychoanalytical explanatory models, so too does psychoanalysis continue to benefit from the expertise of various branches of knowledge and integrates approaches and hypotheses from the natural and social sciences and the humanities in its own research agenda. Simply think of Freud’s use of “archeological metaphors” whose “architectural dimension” also helped Freud to arrive at the “representative form of psychic reality,” the topography of the “psychic apparatus.”[3]

Therefore, in both theory and practice the psychological dialogue calls for a continuous change in perspective to which inestimable importance is attached for the success of reality reconstruction and its interpretation—as not least the phenomenon of “transference and countertransference” so impressively proves.

From a psychoanalytical viewpoint, the correlating relationship between the individual and the collective psyche is also based primarily on a change in perspective, because the “contrast” between individual and social psychology only seems significant at first glance, writes Freud as early as 1921, and “loses a great deal of its sharpness when it is examined more closely,” as “[i]n the individual’s mental life someone else is invariably involved, as a model, as an object, as a helper, as an opponent; and so from the very first individual psychology, in its extended but entirely justifiable sense of the words, is at the same time social psychology as well.”[4]

Consequently, psychoanalytical concepts can also soon be found in social science analyses and descriptions: in the reformative social pedagogy of the 1920s or contemporary art movements like Dadaism and Surrealism.

The subsequent developments in the second half of the twentieth century may have been encouraged by Freud himself as a result of his description of the relationship and interaction between the analysist and analysand in his late work as a process of “transformation”—an assessment that calls to mind more recent disciplines in the history of psychosocial sciences.

 

In numerous disciplines, methodically engaging in dialogue and the act of transformation it launches and accompanies evolves into a preferred procedural step: from the mid-1940s in group dynamics, for example, for which Kurt Lewin had already created the foundations with his experimental social psychology in the 1930s.

From the 1950s Ruth Cohn, the daughter of an assimilated Jewish family in Germany who emigrated from Switzerland to the USA as a student in 1941, went from psychoanalysis to theme-centered interaction[5]: "I became a psychoanalyst at a time when humane values fell victim to a ‘philosophy of exclusivity.’ What resulted from this has happened again and again in the course of history and is still happening today,” writes Cohn in the foreword to her collection of texts in 1975. She responds to the past and contemporary developments she describes with an extended process of psychodynamic dialogue, which focuses on a balanced and "deepened understanding of the individual, group, and thematic task and their mutual relationships.”[6]

In the late 1960s Gregory Bateson’s and Heinz von Foerster’s considerations led to a broader questioning of self-organized, biological, and social systems—which can mean both the human system and a system animated by people, like an organization.[7]

Foerster bases his epistemological and communication theoretical analyses on, among other things, the observational method and calls for a “second-order observation” in addition to conventional observation: the observation of the observer. As every way of seeing and explaining depends on the perceiver, their experiences and prejudices, the understanding of the cybernetician and the constructivist, just like the psychoanalyst, is based on there being no “objective reality.” Yet in a dialogue on the observed and the observer, the factors can at least be voiced that underlie their respective assessments and analyses—the construction of the status quo.

Dirk Baecker, a sociologist and cultural theorist, says of second-order observers that in our society it is predominantly “intellectuals, critics, psychoanalysts, and now increasingly artists who are surprised by what others find self-evident […].”[8]


In recent decades, the growing technologization and globalization of financial and commercial markets have given rise to ever-more complex labor and production conditions, which could not fail to have an impact on the structures of their systems. Therefore, from the 1990s the increase in resilience has become vacant not only in the realm of private living conditions but also for operational systems. It is futhermore necessary to research the “nature” of operational structures in professionalized management, to observe and strengthen their communication skills and responsiveness.

If Niklas Luhmann takes another, closer look at Foerster’s cybernetics in reference to the work of the neurobiologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela and describes systems as strictly separate units defined by the distinction between system and environment alone, then in line with transdisciplinarity SPEAK FREELY keeps in sight the evidence of the mutual conditionality of individual and society above all.

For this reason, the attempt will once more be made at Vienna’s Berggasse 19 to establish a connection between the historical and current significance of this place and to recall those aspects that have proven to be “history in a fruitful sense” (Ernst Bloch).

Instead of conceiving of the symptoms of our society as merely “adjustment disorders,” they will be granted “individual knowledge, almost a character”[9] and the “other” (Jacques Lacan) will be given a voice in order to establish a meaningful and shared narrative.

In the SPEAK FREELY format, the criteria that characterize the psychoanalytical dialogue according to Joachim Küchenhoff can be taken into consideration alongside "the way that words can move us, but also the productivity of a conversation, which not only reproduces previous considerations but is also productive.”[10]

Just as the provision of such a “speaking space” is one of the most important tasks of psychoanalysis according to André Michels and Claus Dieter Roth, so too is it essential in the educational work of the Sigmund Freud Museum: here the content likewise shapes the form—and vice versa.

Not as an exclusive community of psychoanalysts but with them and with others, SPEAK FREELY additionally promotes the multiple perspectives cultivated in the arts in support of a system-wide dialogue. Because what applies to systems theory has long applied to psychoanalysis and the museum housed in its birthplace: It “does not lend itself to forbidding others from speaking. In contrast, there is nothing about which it is more curious than hearing others speak.”[11]

 

Literature:

 

[1] Sigmund Freud, “On Narcissism” (1914); Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921); Civilization and Its Discontents (1930); and his correspondence with Albert Einstein Why War? (1933).

[2] Sigmund Freud, "Two Encyclopaedia Articles (1923 [1922]): (A) Psycho-Analysis," in The Standard Edition of the Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 18, edited and translated by J. Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, (1955) 2001, 235–254.

[3] Karl Stockreiter, “Am Rand der Aufklärungsmetapher. Korrespondenzen zwischen Archäologie und Psychoanalyse,” in: Lydia Marinelli / Sigmund Freud Museum (eds.): “Meine alten und dreckigen Götter” – Aus Sigmund Freuds Sammlung. Frankfurt am Main: Stromfeld Verlag 1998, 81–93, 81 ff.

[4] Sigmund Freud, "Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” in The Standard Edition of the Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 18, edited and translated by J. Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, (1955) 2001, 69–144.

[5] Ruth Cohn, Von der Psychoanalyse zur Themenzentrierten Interaktion (1st ed. 1975), Klett-Cotta, 2009.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Cf. Heinz von Foerster, “On Self-Organizing Systems and Their Environments,” in: M. C. Yovits and S. Cameron (eds.), Self-Organizing Systems, Pergamon Press, London 1960. Heinz von Foerster, “On Constructing a Reality,” in: F. E. Preiser (ed.), Environmental Design Research, vol. 2, Stroudberg: Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross 1973.

[8] Dirk Baecker, Form der Kultur [Form of Culture], https://www.spacetime-publishing.de/luhmann/FormDerKultur2003.pdf, S.7

[9] Moritz Senarclens de Grancy: Claus Dieter Rath, Der Rede Wert. Psychoanalyse als Kulturarbeit (Turia + Kant, Wien 2013), Rezension, in: Psyche – Z Psychoanal 69, 2015, 293-294.

[10] Joachim Küchenhoff, “Das analytische Gespräch auf der Suche nach dem Sinn,” in: Der Sinn im Nein und die Gabe des Gesprächs. Psychoanalytisches Verstehen zwischen Philosophie und Klinik, Weilerswist: Velbrück Wissenschaft 2013, 88.

[11] Dirk Baecker, Schlüsselwerke der Systemtheorie (2nd ed.), Springer Verlag 2016, 7.

 

Meet Jennifer Friedlander

Since 1999, the Sigmund Freud Foundation and the Austrian Fulbright Commission invite American scientists for a study visit which is combined with a visiting professorship on a university in Vienna. We introduce you to this year's grantee Jennifer Friedlander, who arrived in March and took office in Berggasse 19. Upon arrival, we asked her some questions:

 
What does it mean to you, working at Berggasse 19?
 
Even though I arrived with already high anticipation of how it might feel to work at this most special address, I must admit that I was surprised by how deeply moved I was to actually inhabit the space.  I was struck by a palpable, almost overwhelming, presence of lack. The space is profoundly evocative of the richness of both Freud's life and work, but it also resonates as a monument of excruciating loss. A piercing emptiness is left by Freud's escape and the building's testiment to the names of subsequent inhabitants who lost their lives under Nazism. The space, in an almost Freudian sense, seems to call fittingly upon its vistors to thus produce - to "construct."
 
We know it is not your first stay in Vienna – what makes this city special to you?
 
I have been very fortunate to be able to consider Vienna an ocassional home of sorts for the last ten years, due to the wonderful friends and intellectual connections that I have made here. I could (and often do) go on at lengths extolling the wonders of this extraorodinary city--especially the eclectic and vibrant intermingling of Vienna's classical and contemporary culture and art, the way history lives in, among, and through the present. And this is not to mention the urban parks, Cafe houses, and fantastic public transportation system (which, having lived in Southern California for almost the last twenty years, occupies a top spot on my long Things-I-Love-about-Vienna list).  But for me what is most special is somehow the more quotidian dimensions of Vienna daily life - something about the rhythms of the city.  There is something distinctive about the way the creative sphere penetrates the mundane - the sense of possibility that I feel, for instance, when encountering a temporary art installation or pop-up music festival on my way to the laundromat or grocery store - is like nowhere else.
 
Why did you apply for the Fulbright-Freud Scholarship?
 
The possibility of spending my sabbatical working at the Freud Museum drew me immediately to apply for the Fulbright. My interest was further piqued by learning that I would also have the opportunity to teach a seminar on my research project. Throughout my career at my home institution, Pomona College, I have learned how valuable it is to cultivate a dynamic relationship between research and teaching.
 
How do you feel about teaching at the University in this very special (pandemic) situation?
 
I am very much looking forward to the start of teaching next week and the opportunity to work through texts related to my research with Master’s students at the Institut für Theater-, Film- und Medienwissenschaft (TFM) at Universität Wien, who I expect will push my thinking in unexpected and necessary ways.  Even though we will be holding classes via Zoom, the faculty and staff at TFM have already created a strong sense of community and have made me feel very welcomed.   
 
Can you tell us more about the research project you are pursuing during your stay?
 
My research project, “Powers of Pleasure: The Psychopolitics of Enjoyment,” aims to disrupt a key premise of racist logic: that external obstacles (often embodied by the figure of the immigrant/other) are responsible for socio-cultural disharmony.  This racist logic depends upon a fantasy of society as an ideal totality, marred only by unwelcome intrusion from outside - a fantasy that works by protecting subjects from encounters with the threatening enjoyment (jouissance) of the Other. Through psychoanalytic accounts of examples from contemporary art, film, and politics, I explore possibilities for stripping back symbolic resources for regulating one’s proximity to jouissance, thereby exposing that the social order is inherently—not contingently - lacking. I wager that such encounters may pose both a challenge to racist structures and an opportunity for subjects to experience freedom “beyond the pleasure principle.“ 
 
Please let us know more about your general fields of interest as a scholar.
 
My scholarly interests are heavily informed by Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, critical theory, and the work of Roland Barthes. I have recently thought a lot about contemporary forms of "realist" art and media that play with different modes of deception. This project, which culminated in my book, Real Deceptions: The Contemporary Reinvention of Realism, tries to develop an approach to a radical aesthetic politics by arguing that rather than aiming to see beyond deceptions that distort reality, we should take seriously the reality that lies within the deceptions themselves. Before that, I worked in the area of feminist film theory. This project, Feminine Look: Sexuation, Spectatorship, Subversion, sought to intervene in traditional Film Studies accounts of female spectatorship, tracing a different path through the work of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan upon which scholarship in this area has developed.  By contrast with dominant strands of feminist film theory scholarship, which tend to ask how spectatorship is influenced by sexual difference, I explored the question of how particular spectatorial encounters may facilitate different “sexuated” responses.My current project on pleasure builds in some ways upon these previous interests. It extends my thinking in the area of feminist film theory in attempting to resuscitate the category of pleasure, which has played an often villianous role in traditional scholarship in this area.  Rather than see pleasure as the lure for abiding hegemonic narratives, I look for pleasure’s transgressive potential. In this sense, I aim to subject pleasure to a procedure similar to my earlier treatment of realism by investigating its potential for both undermine damaging systems of power and for consolidating communal social bonds. 
 
 
Jennifer Friedlander is the Edgar E. and Elizabeth S. Pankey Professor of Media Studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California. She is the author of Moving Pictures: Where the Police, the Press, and the Art Image Meet (Sheffield Hallam University Press, 1998); Feminine Look: Sexuation, Spectatorship, and Subversion (State University of New York Press, 2008); and Real Deceptions: The Contemporary Reinvention of Realism (Oxford University Press, 2017). Her work has appeared in Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture; CiNéMAS: Journal of Film Studies; Subjectivity; (Re)-turn: A Journal of Lacanian Studies; Journal for Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society; Subjectivity; and International Journal of Žižek Studies and in several edited volumes. She is a founding and central committee member of LACK, an organization devoted to the promotion and development of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory.  As the 2021 Fulbright-Freud Visiting Scholar, she will work on a new monograph, “Powers of Pleasure: The Psychopolitics of Enjoyment in Media and Popular Culture” and will teach a Master’s seminar in the Institut für Theater-, Film- und Medienwissenschaft at Universität Wien on this research topic. 
 

 

The Writing of Dr. Indra