[These materials have been excerpted by the author from Jerome Bump, "The Family Dynamics of the Reception of Art," Style 31.2 (1997): 328-350]

Decorative Initial In our verbal accounts of how we read literature, see a work of art, or hear music, usually the first thing that happens is that the "we" disappears and is replaced by an "I": the focus shifts to the individual apprehending the work of art in isolation. This shift occurs despite our increasing sense of language as a social act and the postmodern critique of the concept of the autonomous self. Bakhtin's concept of heteroglossia, for example, implies a polyphonic self, a dialogue with internalized others that complicates the concept of the single, unitary response traditionally ascribed to the one who apprehends the work of art. However, Derrida's definition of the self as merely a position in language and Foucault's sense of the self as only an effect of discourse have obscured the fact that the self is not only fictive, it is also social, located in particular relationships as well as textual conventions (Flax 232-3). Ironically, if even postmodernist arguments must assume some notion of an actual self, it tends to be, as in Foucault's case, a "socially isolated and individualistic view of the self" which "precludes the possibility of enduring attachments or responsibilities to another," and is thus incompatible with "the care of children or with participation in a political community" (Flax 217, 231).

This postmodernist blind spot about particular relationships pervades academic psychoanalysis because the chief authorities, Freud and Lacan, usually assume a relatively isolated individual in conflict with frustrating Others. Because of this orientation to individual consciousness Otto Rank conceded that in the twentieth century "psychology is the individual ideology par excellence" (389): social psychology, rarely integrated with literary study, remains preoccupied with society as a whole rather than families and small groups. In Freud's early theories, if the individual could maintain his psychic equilibrium by himself, apparently he would have little need for other people; indeed Freud suggests that as civilization develops, family ties and emotions must be sacrificed (Civilization 50-1). Admittedly, Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex does acknowledge the importance of some familial interaction (though it minimizes that of the preoedipal and of the feminine generally), and his later theories do acknowledge the lengthy period of dependence of children and a role for culture and relationships in the superego and the id (Ego25, 19, 38). Inspired by Levi-Strauss, Lacan also concedes the importance of elementary kinship structures.

Family Dynamics and the Limitations of Psychoanalytic and Postmodern Conceptions of Self

Charlotte Brontë Anne Brontë Thomas Hardy/

Last modified 1999