Psychoanalysis and Queer Theory. An Approximation.

Esther Hutfless

Maybe psychoanalysis and Queer Theory (1) are not as different as it seems. Both investigate questions of identification, of subject formation, of adopting a specific gender, and both are dealing with the complexity of sexuality and desire. “Whereas queer theory approaches these ideas via sustained intellectual, political and practical engagement and psychoanalysis privileges the transferential relation between patient and analyst, the goal of delimiting a heterogeneous horizon that queers subjectivity, social relations, power and knowledge in order to challenge normative knowledges, practices, beliefs, identities and the production of new social links is shared.” (2)
Moreover, many ideas and perceptions within Queer Theory, Gender Studies and Feminist Theory were and still are affected by the affirmation and the critical reflection of psychoanalytic approaches.

As Eve Watson emphasizes, psychoanalysis and Queer Theory share a common theoretical starting point: the debate on homosexuality. Freud “was the first to put the quotation marks around the ‘normal’ in matters sexual, places homosexuality at the heart of sexuality and sexuality at the heart of the unconscious.” (3) The approach of psychoanalysis to sexuality in its broadest sense – considering desire, drives, whishes and fantasies, conscious and unconscious aspects – puts the division of normal and pathologic radically into question. Hence it is no wonder that Diego Costa understands psychoanalysis per se as queer: “Its queerness is already there, in its mechanism, its goals, its principles, its language, its flexibility, its history, its ruptures, its multi-valence, and mostly, for its relationship between theory and practice – from the beginning.” (4)

Why then does it seem so important to indicate and call for the queerness and openness of psychoanalysis nowadays?
As Robert Friedman has shown, a very influential pathologizing discourse on homosexuality established during the 50s was based on American psychoanalytic approaches. Freud´s idea of bisexuality was undermined, heterosexuality was set as the norm and homosexuality was understood as “a reparative substitute caused by the fearful avoidance of heterosexuality”. (5)
Based on that, stereotypes have solidified concerning the developments that are assumed to directly lead to homosexuality or to the “defense” of heterosexuality together with specific stereotypical characteristics that are ascribed to humans with alternative sexual orientation or identity.
Of course there had been influential alternative theories at that time – Friedman refers to the Kinsey-Report, where a considerable amount of interviewed persons had indicated to have homosexual experiences; furthermore Friedman refers to the study by Marcel Saghir and Eli Robins at the beginning of the 70s, where no significant differences between homosexual and heterosexual persons could be found concerning their relations to their fathers – a relation that is assumed to be crucial for the sexual orientation within psychoanalytic theory. (6) Nevertheless conservative perceptions seem to have had become more popular and to have influenced further theoretical and clinical developments.

Psychoanalysis had at all times been a theoretical and clinical approach, focused not only on healing but also on continuous research. Sigmund Freud had constantly critically reworked his theoretical ideas as well as his approaches to clinical work. He modified his ideas and concepts, supplemented them or discarded them.
In this spirit I would like to argue for a radical, open and impartial way of doing research as it took place at the beginning and pioneering time of psychoanalysis as well as for a productive dialogue between psychoanalysis and Queer Theory. Both approaches can benefit from each other. Psychoanalysis can benefit from the complexity and openness by which gender, sex, sexual identity and orientation are discussed within Queer Theory, considering social discourses that mark some subjects as normal and others as pathologic; it would be fruitful, on the other hand, for queer approaches to engage with the complex way in which psychoanalysis discusses subject-formation as a phenomenon that exceeds identity and identification, as a process in which unconscious processes are at work and where exclusions and rejections are not exclusively social but also psychic phenomena. Hence Queering does not want to rewrite or overthrow psychoanalysis but to make those aspects productive that have always been queer and subversive within psychoanalysis.

(1) I understand Queer Theory as a non-unifying and non-determinable, mainly inter- and trans-disciplinary set of discourses that radically questions ideas and politics of identity together with sexuality and gender. Besides challenging the dominant order of sexes, queer approaches are also dealing with anti-capitalist, feminist, post-colonial, ethical ideals and are taking up perceptions from Disability-Studies.
(2) Eve Watson: Queering Psychoanalysis/Psychoanalysing Queer. In: Annual Review of Critical Psychology, 7, 2009, p. 118.
(3) Eve Watson: Ibid. p. 126. See also: Theresa de Lauretis: The Practice of Love: Lesbian Sexuality and Perverse Desire. Indiana University Press, Bloomingdale 1994, p. 8.
(4) Diego Costa: Forget Theory. Praise of Psychoanalysis’s Queerness. In: Trans-cripts 2, 2012, p. 223.
(5) Cf. Robert Friedman: The Psychoanalytic Model of Male Homosexuality: A Historical and Theoretical Critique. In: The Psychoanalytic Review, 73D, 1986, p. 86 f.
(6) Cf. ibid. p. 94 f.