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To think differently: Michel Foucault and the status of psychoanalytic theory

The Letter, Issue 23, Autumn 2001, Pages 96 - 108



Olga Cox-Cameron

In the extreme, life is what is capable of error. Error is at the root of what makes human thought and its history. The opposition of true and false, the values we attribute to both, the effects of power that different societies and different institutions link to this division - even all this is perhaps only the latest response to this possibility of error which is intrinsic to life. If the history of science is discontinuous, that is if it can be analyzed only as a series of 'corrections', as a new distribution of true and false which never finally once and for all liberates the truth, it is because there, too, 'error' constitutes not overlooking or delaying a truth but the dimension proper to the life of man and to the time of the species.[1]

Almost a year ago, Cormac Gallagher took as a starting point for an overview of Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality the anonymous, unattributed assertion that Foucault had cut the ground from under psychoanalysis.[2] This assertion was not contexrualized, and was neither proven nor disproved by the article, which went on in an interesting manner to outline the central arguments of this remarkable but unfinished work. At the end of the overview, the author returns to the original, anonymous and unsubstantiated assertion and opines not unreasonably that he can find no evidence for it in the book in question. The reader is left wondering what such a statement might mean, or where in the rich body of Foucault's published work this effective demolition of psychoanalysis has taken place. Should one go sleuthing for it? One would certainly find a cogent critique of the relative impotence of psychoanalysis vis-a-vis madness in The Order of Things; one would also find a far more brilliant reading of the relations between paranoia and language in the 1962 preface to Rousseau's Dialogues than that offered by Lacan in his commentary on Rousseau in his doctoral thesis, and one would find in the introduction to The Use of Pleasure a penetrating examination of the modalities of desire and subjectivity which subtend psychoanalytic theory; but one would also find a constant underlay of psychoanalytic thought in this enormous body of writing which taken as a whole, constitutes a series of dazzling and illuminating forays into what George Canguilhem has called 'the unconscious of realms of knowledge'. Foucault's stated project in The Order of Things was to inquire whether, in the history of knowledge, 'errors (and truth), the practice of old beliefs, including not only genuine discoveries, but also the most naive notions, obeyed at a given moment, the laws of a certain code of knowledge'; whether it might be possible to reveal 'a positive unconscious of knowledge: a level that eludes the consciousness of the scientist and yet is part of scientific discourse'.[3] More pertinently then, and closer to the heart of the Foucauldian enterprise, one might re-phrase the question at the beginning of Cormac Gallagher's article and ask if in fact it is possible to cut the ground from under psychoanalysis. If the answer is no we are in a very bizarre position indeed, although we will at least have brought to a halt the unseemly scramble to establish psychoanalysis as a science. Clearly it cannot be science if its central tenets are beyond question.

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