Freud? Really? And how does psychoanalysis fit into the lexicon of ‘The Test Drive? Is there any canvas that Ronell’s broad brush-strokes will leave untainted? But wait a minute. We’re in overdrive. Let’s back up a bit. In fact let’s reverse all the way to the last century. Didn’t Freud himself resolutely practice an experimental psychoanalysis? But psychoanalysis didn’t start with Freud, you argue. True, and that’s the whole point. It didn’t. It has always been part of the culture Avital Ronell teaches us to befriend in this book, the culture of experimentation. The canvas was always tainted. In her own words, “Psychoanalysis proceeds by refining the conceptual probity of acts of testing.” In psychoanalytical terms, testing uses two axioms, the first of which involves an internal control apparatus; the second postulates a community of double-checkers. Freud himself introduces a third area of testing that provides a particularly potent kind of psychic probe: the reality-test. “None of these controls exclude the possibility of further innovation, for the test site is at each point reconfigured to include ‘every one’.” “Everyone has a hand in the Freudian experiment.” Freud is the first to implicate us in this venture, when he boldly claims that ‘no one who wishes to shirk’ the preparatory labor involved in investigating the problems of dreams, has the ‘smallest prospect of advancing even a few steps into this region of knowledge’. Here he invokes the simple aphorism that we’re often reminded of: “The surest way to fail is not to try at all.”
Freud sees the analysis of dreams as an indispensable pathway to understanding the mental processes of hysteria and neurosis. The lessons of psychoanalysis cannot be learnt from outside the ring. One must be part of the game, one must turn oneself into a scientific laboratory. To borrow Rheinberger’s rich ethnographic imagery for the experimental sciences, the practice of psychoanalysis must differentially reproduce, it must constantly produce new models based on older stabilized ones. But are the older models ever really stabilized? Perhaps not. But that is part of what psychoanalysis constantly does: it cataclysmically overthrows some of its asserted solutions. Critics invoke Popper’s refutability criterion on Freud’s psychoanalysis to conclude that the limitation on its predictability (or testability) is tantamount to generic nonpredictability or, to use the double negative, its nondisconformability. Grunbaum turns this critique on its head and says that neo-Baconian inductivism is too insensitive to reveal the genuinely troublesome epistemic defects that plague clinical psychoanalysis. His aim is not to defend psychoanalysis outright, but to get at Freudian inadequacy from another angle, to expose its cognitive deficits, which he hopes to do in a more sensitive way. He emerges from his own analysis with the conclusion that Freud’s case was ‘probatively parasitic on an extraclinical finding’. It is another matter that Grunbaum’s own argument is bound within clinical and analytical limitations. The point is that his concern, and that of fellow critics, shows the extent to which the fate of psychoanalysis, as a scientific endeavor, is seen to hinge on questions of ‘testability’.
How does psychoanalysis evince a textual experimental set-up? Ronell points out that much of what Freud writes is set up according to the principles of controlled experiment. He works and establishes his thought within an unprecedented vocabulary of doubt. His analytical sessions with patients are set up as all but controlled experiments. They depend for their unfolding on testing, examination, failed conjectures and repeated hypothetical positing. The patient’s initial evaluation with the analyst takes on the contours of a test. She is, from the start, a test case. It would appear that all is well with the procedure. But Freud has a complaint. The patient passes her tests too quickly, her lessons are too quickly learned, she recovers too precipitously, leaving her analyst bereft on two counts: first, that he is losing his patient, and second, that this case has violated a hypothetical principle of psychoanalysis – that the experiment is interminable, that the trial never ends. This experiment appears to have ended with the recovery of the patient. Therefore, its very success is its failure.
Freud then sets up his probe in a different way. He issues a warning against any overestimation of the value of conclusions and drops all claims to the general validity of his conclusions. He writes the book ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, which he abruptly ends upon receiving a ‘painful blow’. He wishes to call a halt, postpone further enquiry, break off every line of questioning before it is completed. The book disrupts itself even as it starts. It cannot take hold – it becomes a scientific trial without finality. The essay mourns its own passing. In Ronell’s words, “Without staying power, it prepares from the start to depart, to leave the scientific observer bereft of an object, abandoned in the end to a state of uncurtained epistemological deficiency.”
The text, as its title indicates, elaborates two principle types of mourning. Freud asks: “In what, now, does the work which mourning performs consist? …. Reality-testing has shown that the loved object no longer exists, and it proceeds to demand that all libido be withdrawn from its attachment to that object…. Normally respect for reality gains the day.” Freud conceptualizes the idea that there are two kinds of tests that establish our sense of reality: those that regard reality and those that regard immediacy. He describes how the functions of inhibition and delay are crucial in judging whether things are real or not. He uses the term ‘reality-check’ at the same time that he repudiates the function of consciousness. He says that what is real is not present in the psyche but depends on test probes that send back a delayed signal of what can be constructed to have happened. This is where he makes a link between the human unconscious and the ego. He attributes the work of reality-testing to the ego-ideal. Reality-testing is now firmly ascribed to the ego. “It is as if the ego needed to send out an envoy of surveyors and examiners for the purposes of establishing reliable measures of its relation to what lies outside its domain. The messengers reassure the ego of its place or indeed create the space for the ego to connect to the coordinates of an outside.” Over time, ego begins to play an increasingly central role in Freud’s interests. In the end, he begins to describe reality-testing as the ego’s reaction to an intolerable external reality.
In this conception, reality-testing becomes a source of self-assurance for the ego. In the best of worlds, the test results should confirm the ego’s wishes but at the same time place the self at risk. They should settle and mildly unsettle. If hallucination is thought of as a state in which the ego becomes endlessly and positively self-reinforcing, then testing may be thought of as that which constructs the difference between hallucination and external reality, since reality does not always back up the idea put forth by self. Without the apparatus of reality-testing the self exists in a state of flimsy hypothesis, it is happy, free-floating and on its own ground. The self braves reality as an act of mourning: test results may often imply loss of ground even as the ego itself swells. It would seem that ego should not bother to venture out with its test probes if it is comfortable in its smugness. But it is precisely because it is insecure and requires conformation from outside that the ego must venture forth to test external reality. Even in its most hallucinatory self-aggrandizing phases, the ego senses that something is missing. Thus it becomes unsettled and must start up the machinery of testing. Here Freud’s analogy reminds us of Rheinberger’s experimental systems, which must be unsettled even as they begin to settle, always differentially reproducing to produce new knowledge. In the same vein, the ego must be destabilized every time it shows signs of settling down, if it wishes to avoid the hallucinatory state, while keeping reality checks and external feedback mechanisms alive.
Ronell points out that the process of reality-building may be seen as resembling the development of moral consciousness. Reality must be respected but such respect can only be gained after struggle and surrender. Reality can make demands on the ego, obliging it to submit to the law. These struggles and tussles may be compared with those that occur between the agents in an experimental system. However, there are times when the ego retaliates. It kills the messenger. It cuts away the external feedback loop. In Freud’s own description: “…we can learn from pathology the way in which reality-testing may be done away with or put out of action – more clearly in the wishful psychosis of amentia than in that of dreams. Amentia is the reaction to a loss which reality affirms, but which the ego has to deny, since it finds it insupportable. Thereupon the ego breaks off its relation to reality. With this turning from reality, reality testing is gotten rid of.” The ego, in its self-satisfied state, reminds us of Rheinberger’s stabilized test systems, which produce endless replicas of themselves without generating any new states. (The only point of difference is that the self-satisfied ego does not conjure up images of stability.)
Therefore, testing, in psychoanalytical terms, is linked with the ego’s experience of establishing connections with the external world. It involves a stepping out or venturing forth on the part of the ego, signaling a break from deluded self-satisfaction. “The test calls for the disruption of blissful certainty.” It calls for a mettlesome, venturesome, ‘always transitory’, ‘always emergent’ state of being. (If ‘being’ is the word I want. Quick!! Avital Ronell to the rescue!!)