Angela Woods

in The Sublime Object of Psychiatry

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print August 2011 | ISBN: 9780199583959
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754692 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry


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As we have seen, schizophrenia occupies a central position in psychiatric discourse: framed as an opaque and bizarre disorder of unknown or unknowable aetiology, it exceeds and thus marks disciplinary limits as a form of unreason which can be neither adequately represented nor analytically mastered. Although psychiatry is unquestionably the dominant clinical discourse on schizophrenia today, the influence of psychoanalytic accounts of schizophrenia on the critical and popular imaginaries is indisputable, even though dementia praecox, paranoia, paraphrenia, and psychosis are the terms privileged in psychoanalysis.1 So, what is the status of schizophrenia in key psychoanalytic texts? Do psychoanalytic accounts of psychosis relate schizophrenia to the sublime; and if so, how? And how can an analysis of schizophrenia and sublimity in psychoanalytic writing better equip us to identify and interpret the subsequent appropriation, adaptation, and rejection of psychoanalytic concepts in cultural theory?

It is not the aim of this chapter to provide a comprehensive chronological survey of a century of psychoanalytic writing on schizophrenia. Nor is it to provide a detailed comparative study of psychiatric and psychoanalytic clinical practice. My concern is rather with the broad theoretical and methodological differences between the disciplines that centre on questions of the aetiology and content of schizophrenic symptoms. Extending my inquiry into the status of schizophrenia in clinical theory along these axes, in this chapter I consider how the ‘disciplinary sublime’ of psychiatry is reconfigured as what I call a ‘textual sublime’ by psychoanalysis. Privileging the analysis of psychotic speech over somatic symptom or genetic make-up, psychoanalysis, I will argue, approaches schizophrenia as a disorder of signification, and the schizophrenic patient as a text. The goal of the psychoanalytic treatment of hysteria is to uncover and translate the repressed psychosexual origin of neurotic symptoms, effectively relieving them. In the case of schizophrenia, however, there is no intrinsic connection between the hermeneutic reading of the schizophrenic symptom and the therapeutic treatment of the patient. It is through a process of ‘textualization’, an implicit division between speech and patient, that psychoanalysis simultaneously dispels and perpetuates the aura of sublimity around schizophrenia. Schizophrenic signification can be rendered intelligible and analytically mastered; however, the person diagnosed with schizophrenia is deemed, at least for Freud, to be beyond dialogue, incapable of transference, and hence inaccessible to psychoanalytic treatment. The double, paradoxical gesture of the textual sublime is to tackle that which is bizarre or unknowable about schizophrenia—to ‘rescue’ through interpretation schizophrenic signification—while at the same time preserving the essential enigma of the disorder itself. Like psychiatry’s disciplinary sublime, the ongoing operation of the textual sublime is ensured by the fact that no limit can be imposed on (re)interpretations of the schizophrenic text because no criteria of therapeutic success can be mobilized to arbitrate between them. As this chapter endeavours to demonstrate, the psychoanalytic construction of schizophrenia as a sublime text is nowhere more apparent than in the case of Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1955), an autobiographical account of paranoid schizophrenia central to the accounts of psychosis advanced by Freud (1981), Lacan (1993), and innumerable psychoanalytic, or psychoanalytically engaged, commentators.

Chapter.  26811 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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