The Freud Museum

Events Archive

4 August 1991

Freud, Race and Gender

Conference Report

On a glorious summer's day in August, when all the psychotherapists were on holiday and the academic colleges had closed, one hundred and thirty people made a trek to Camden Town to listen to Sander Gilman and Elaine Showalter discourse on the topic of "Freud, Race and Gender". This event marked the beginning of the new public programme of the Freud Museum, which is now under the aegis of the education programme and the direction of Ivan Ward.

One of the far-reaching objectives of the Freud Museum is to heighten public awareness of the applications and ramifications of Sigmund Freud's work, and to do this in as imaginative a way as possible. As Edward Glover put it in 1939: "...his discoveries were not, as is so often the case, divorced from the everyday affairs. They were concerned with the mind of Everyman, with his happiness and more important, his miseries".

The project of enhancing public awareness of Sigmund Freud's work has an important corollary; we must also acknowledge the cultural and political nexus from which these ideas partly arose in the first place. This was the thrust of Sander Gilman's and Elaine Showalter's work which they presented at our summer event.

Sander Gilman began his account by asking us to imagine what it must have been like for a Jewish doctor in 19th century Vienna to be working within a culture of rabid anti-semitism. How do you negotiate the massive cultural projections which are thrown at you, and focused particularly on fantasies around your bodily identity? "What I would like to argue" he said, "is that the ambivalence which Jews in the late 19th century felt toward their bodies - towards their own selves - reflects itself at least in the rhetoric of psychoanalysis, and very specifically in the rhetoric that deals with gender". He then went on to postulate that in the history of Freud's work there is effected a transformation of ideas and fantasies about race into theories about sexuality, using the example of penis envy to illustrate his point. Whether or not one agrees with this view, we are nevertheless presented with an image of Freud as a man not simply 'embedded' in his culture, but as actively engaged in it. Freud is seen to be struggling not only with psychological data but with the unavoidable political, social, and rhetorical conflicts of his time. ("...his discoveries were not, as is so often the case, divorced from the everyday affairs...")

Similarly with the question of hysteria with which Elaine Showalter opened the meeting. Having explored the complexities of 'The Female Malady' in her earlier work, she is now turning her attention to the hidden history of male hysteria. Elaine showed, as in her earlier work, that diagnostic categories are culturally and symbolically inflected. She also emphasized that the physical symptoms of hysteria are subject to a multitude of influences at different times and places. She argues that male hysteria in particular was always labelled in such a way as to differentiate it from 'hysteria' as a woman's affliction. So it was called 'obsessional neurosis', 'shell shock', or 'post traumatic shock syndrome'. There was only one period of time when male hysteria was given a proper diagnostic status, from 1882 - 1893, during Charcot's reign at the Salpetrière. During this time there were over sixty case studies published, some of which she used in her talk to illustrate the intricate web of cultural assumptions and power relations which crystalized around the description of male hysteria.

However, the protean quality of hysteria makes it more and more difficult to define, and this difficulty was highlighted during lengthy discussions after the tea break. Freud himself used the term to describe (1) a clinical entity, (2) a 'normal' mental structure which is reflected in certain cultural productions like 'poetry' and 'art', and (3) a phylogenetic inheritance which has ontogenetic effects (eg. his later theory of 'affect' which he claims is like a 'primal hysterical attack'). One might also add the interpersonal dimension of the problem represented by Freud's notion of 'hysterical identification'. It could be argued that these levels are characteristic of Freud's use of nosological terms.

Each of these talks highlighted a question which is of central concern to the educational work at the Museum. What does it mean to insist that psychoanalysis is a self reflexive science? It is a question which demands our serious consideration, and which was posed forcefully earlier this year on a glorious summer's day in Camden Town.

This website uses cookies to ensure we give you the best experience on our website. If you continue, we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies on this website. Find out more about our cookie policy.