"The Feudal Unconscious:
Capitalism and the Family Romance"

October 159 (Winter 2017)
MIT Press

Now Available

Portuguese translation of THE MYTH OF POPULAR CULTURE (Blackwell Manifestos, 2010) now available from Tinta Negra (Rio de Janeiro, 2015)


O renomado crítico cultural americano Perry Meisel detona as noções convencionais sobre a divisão entre “alta” e “baixa” cultura.

O autor transita pela provocante teoria de que a cultura pop experimentou ritmos dialéticos. A hábil análise que o livro apresenta de três tradições culturais duradouras – o romance norte-americano, Hollywood, e o rock inglês e americano – nos leva a um ciclo histórico da cultura pop que tem Dante como ponto de partida e revisita ícones como Wahrol, Melville, Hemingway, Twain, Eisenstein, Benjamin, Scorsese e Sinatra.


The Myth of Popular Culture discusses the dialectic of "highbrow" and "lowbrow" in popular culture through an examination of literature, film, and popular music. With topics ranging from John Keats to John Ford, the book responds to Adorno's theory that popular culture is not dialectical by showing that it is.

Available as eBooks

COURSE IN GENERAL LINGUISTICS. Trans. Wade Baskin. Co-ed. with Haun Saussy. By Ferdinand de Saussure (Columbia University Press, 2011)

THE LITERARY FREUD (Routledge, 2007)




Reinventing Freud

by Perry Meisel

Freud: Biologist of the Mind: Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend. By Frank J. Sulloway. Basic Books. $23.50.

Although Frank Sulloway takes Wilhelm Fliess as the real hero of Freud's early development, his sociobiological perspective raises the questions that Fliess's theory of genetic bisexuality only implied: that gender must be different from sexuality; that genetically keyed regression cannot account for the technicalities of individual desire; that, above all, the assumption of innate developmental timetables is prescriptive. This liberal critique of genetics is reaffirmed and extended in its analogy in poetics - a realm Sulloway dismisses from both Freud's speculations and his own, ignoring Burke's and Trilling's insistence that Freud maps the mind as a receptacle of social symbols rather than as a physiological reflex. By implication, Freud's apparently scientific texts are themselves elaborate symbolic documents that are to be read figuratively, just as the mind itself is to be read as an apparatus designed by the symbolic laws of culture and history
The biogenetic Sulloway, however, announces that Freud meant his biological metaphors "literally," thereby linking his own methodological commitment to the physiological with what he takes to be a crude referentiality in Freud himself. Sulloway reduces even the allegorical Totem and Taboo by taking it at its word, as though the events Freud purports to describe there - the killing of the father by the fraternal horde, Freud's originary myth for the birth of civilization - actually took place. "Freud fully believed," says Sulloway, "that some such prehistoric drama had to have occurred if his various psychoanalytic claims about repression, sexuality, and neurosis were to possess universal truth."
But these assumptions about the epistemological status of both texts and people have political consequences. Does language, for instance, whether in Freud's text or in the world at large, refer simply to natural facts, to a world of natural law beyond culture? Or does it refer instead to the symbolic machinery of culture itself, which produces and situates the mind in its web, just as the symbolic machinery of language produces and situates Freud's writing? The implausibility of Sulloway's alternative becomes especially apparent when we see that by taking Totem and Taboo literally - by assuming it simply names things - Sulloway reconstitutes the mistake of the original seduction theory: that something had really happened in the past to set later events in motion. Indeed, if the "repressed impulses" that "generate phantasy" - for example, of seduction as an infant - are really the "spontaneous" recapitulation in the individual of the history of the race as a whole, Sulloway has only succeeded in asking us to believe in the reality of something even more remote than what Freud's patients had reported in their own lives. Sulloway's assertion that Freud saw a difference between what he calls "truth" and "charged fiction" in the original seduction theory already shows how unaware Sulloway is of the real change: Freud's acceptance of "charged fiction" as itself the "truth" of a psychic, not an objective, reality. Thus Sulloway's attempt to biologize Freud is largely antipathetic to the very factor that distinguishes psychoanalysis from the start: its conviction that soma is a consequence of psyche, not, as Sulloway proposes, its cause. "Freud," wrote Philip Rieff more than twenty years ago, "puts language before body."
To be sure, objections will inevitably arise that state the case for real reference even apart from genetics. One example is Freud's Schreber, whose hallucinations Morton Schatzman's Soul Murder has shown to have the "real" referents that a Laingian epistemology requires. But what we witness in such argumentation is less a real debate than an active demonstration of the bifurcated possibilities that Freud's work has always possessed. It is in fact the generative dissonance in Freud himself that allows Sulloway, like his ironic bedfellow Jung, to find as much evidence for his position as he does, and that also allows the sociological Freudians to find the rival evidence that positions them against the literal-minded reductionists. It is, however, precisely the overdetermined structure of both Freud and his legacy that Sulloway does not wish to see despite his duties as a cultural historian. Like dreams, and neurotic symptoms, Freud's writings can hardly be said to be irreducible in their sources or their meanings whatever a given researcher's skill or perseverance. The overdeterminations that allow symptoms to develop in Freud's view of the mind are akin in structure to the overdeterminations that situate Freud's work within the honeycomb of intellectual history, and that make it available to a variety of persuasive readings at once, depending on the selective key - biology, linguistics, Romanticism, modernism - by which the historian organizes it. Sulloway so little understands overdetermination that the influences his scholarship has unearthed make him wonder aloud (recalling Norman Fruman and the case of Coleridge) whether Freud should be called a plagiarist. That any writer or movement would be defensive in the self-image it presents strikes Sulloway as somehow odd, and sets him in a realm altogether apart from psychoanalysis.
Even more puzzling, however, is Sulloway's anxiety that the demonstration of exact influences upon Freud may seem to belittle him - more, it should be added in the author's eyes than in the reader's. Why Sulloway grows guilty about the apparent success of his manifest intention may have more to do with an uneasiness that he has no theory of influence subtle enough to suit his subject than with any concern about the kind of Romantic originality that his genetic presuppositions implicitly require him to reject. But perhaps what unconsciously frightens Sulloway after all is the same failing that links his politics with his poetics, a fear that the very categories and aims of his own study - those of texts, ideas, of human history and intellectual achievement - are to be dismissed by the genetic biology in whose service he writes. To deny the symbolic dimension of psychoanalysis, as Sulloway does, is to deny the symbolic status of culture itself.

Originally published in Partisan Review 3, 1983