U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Low Voice: Psychoanalysis and Usable Pasts

The following guest post is by Brad Baranowski, PhD student, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Never mind how often we repeat (and rightly so) that the human intellect is powerless in comparison with human drives, there remains something special about that weakness; the voice of the intellect is a low one, yet it does not cease until it has gained a hearing. In the end, after countless rejections, it does so. This is one of the few respects in which one may be optimistic for the human race, but as such it is not without importance. Other hopes can be hitched to it. The primacy of the intellect undoubtedly lies in the far, far distant but probably not infinitely distant future.” Sigmund Freud [1]

Joan Scott

Joan Scott

My post is going to come off as a bit old-fashioned. I hope simply to add another voice to this already very interesting discussion on the usable past by drawing from the shelf some old tools to put to working on the issue at hand. Specifically, I want to place on the table a different way of thinking about the usability of the past vis-à-vis the methodological approach necessary in my opinion for this task, one that has hitherto only appeared at the fringes of the discussion. To do so, I invoke a past from within the discipline: the attraction of psychoanalysis for historians. Although contemplating the insights derived from this subject is valuable for more reasons than just framing discussions of the past’s usability, psychoanalysis also contains a language that might further enrich this conversation. Through a renewed—albeit, chastened—encounter with psychoanalysis, historians can both render the past both an object of study and a method for engaging with the present.

Psychohistory largely fell into disrepute years ago for many historians. Partially the product of caricatures of it as searching for causes of the Second World War in Hitler’s underpants, partially the function of its adherents not historicizing their categories of analysis (which did lead to some snooping in the dictator’s drawers), the approach gained the epithet of psycho-history. Who was in need of the couch—history or the historian—critics could not tell. [2]

But the uncanny thing about the repressed is not so much its content as is its propensity to return, again and again, often without much warning, like on a date when you accidently call the person in front of you by a former partner’s name whose attraction had seemed to dissipate long ago. In recent years, a slippage of this sort seems to be becoming more pronounced in history. True, psychohistory’s characteristic childhood, family, and biographical studies have not appeared at the center of any major historiographical discussions. But psychoanalysis does appear poised to take on a larger role in growing debates such as in the fields of the history of emotions and gender history. [3] Some salient aspects of this trend seem captured by the career of its members more exemplar members: Joan Wallach Scott.

Scott is, of course, best known for her 1986 AHR piece, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis.”  There, she considered psychoanalytical approaches to the task of writing gender history only largely to reject them in favor of a constructivist epistemology. What troubled Scott about psychoanalysis was its apparent “exclusive fixation on questions of the individual subject and by the tendency to reify subjectively originating antagonism between males and females as the central fact of gender.” [4] Scott has since departed from this view. She has turned to psychoanalysis out of dissatisfactions with constructivism: namely, its tendency to portray power as the result of complex and multidirectional, but still ultimately rational, decisions. Once more, constructivism has tended to portray discourses as all encompassing, overly determinative, and too calculated in matters of identity. [5]

Scott’s use of psychoanalysis rests largely upon two concepts: the subject and fantasy. In the case of the former, Scott revised her previous view on psychoanalysis’s “fixation” on the subject. Key here is how the subject and fantasies are intertwined. “Fantasy is at play in the articulation of both individual and collective identity;” writes Scott, “it extracts coherence from confusion, reduces multiplicity to singularity, and reconciles illicit desire with the law.” [6] Indeed, identity is itself the product of fantasy, the amalgamation of contradictory and tension-wrought bits of culture, experience, past and present into a seemingly seamless whole. [7] As Scott states: “My points are that power is produced in concrete and particular relationships, that subjects are structured as a function of those relationships, and that these subjects cannot transcend the specificity of their circumstances without the simplification fantasy provides.” [8] In other words, fantasies allow subjects to move from the particular to the universal, from, say, idiosyncrasy to ideology, in spite of the fact that even the former is messy enough to preclude total comprehension, let alone allow for an easy move towards making statements concerning the latter.

Once more, a fantasy can “echo” across time. None of its iterations “sound” exactly like the rest (hence why they are “echoes”); but the resonances of each with the others is audible. The result are analogous fantasies that reverberate from one period to another as different individuals, groups, and societies replay “in time and over generations the process that forms individuals as social and political actors.” Through these reverberations, actors become emotionally invested in the fantasies, eliding “historical differences” and creating “apparent continuities” through repetition. [9] Scott’s investigation of feminism’s history through this lens provides a point of inspiration for intellectual historians interested in the usability of the past.

“What if our sense that we already know what feminist history is blocks the divine madness, the inspired arousal, that is precisely an encounter with the unknown?” asks Scott. [10] The question is addressed to what Scott sees as a malaise in gender and women’s history. From an insurgent field in the 1970s to an important source of major historiographical discussions today, Scott wonders if gender and women’s history has become too instutionalized, too constrained by disciplinary boundaries to continue to generate innovative visions for the future of feminism.  The reasons behind this are more than just intellectual, thinks Scott. “It is,” she claims, “at least partly the inability to acknowledge directly the affective loss—the passionate idealization of women that drove women’s history and historians of women—that makes it, in [Elizabeth] Faue’s words, ‘so hard to see through the veil that hides the future from the present.’” [11] That is to say, perceptions of feminism’s past as once actually containing a stable subject at its core have caused a form of intellectual depression in the wake of this being revealed to be a fantasy. “Melancholy rests on a fantasy of a home that never really was,” states Scott. As such, it prevents the critical work of analyzing the way visions of feminism’s past limit the possibilities for its future. Too much energy is spent mourning a loss that was never there, not enough spent getting inspired to create what might be. [12]

History is useful for Scott, then, when it confronts the past in the manner of an analyst examining a patient: of fragmentary glimpses into a contradictory and ambivalent world that, for reasons which analysis strives to uncover, hold our minds captive. Understanding the irrational and emotional sources of actions and beliefs is an important supplement to the task of exploring their rational and calculated roots.

To ground all this in the conversation that I entered at the beginning—the disagreement between Jim Livingston and Rivka Maizlish as well as others—on the place of historicism for our discipline, what I have outlined above can be seen as the middle ground between two positions, neither of which fully capture the nuances of these interlocutors. The past is neither an Other (historicism) or just another (anti-historicism) in my account. [13]

Yes, the past does silently structure the lives we live, ever present just below the surface of individual consciousness and cultural patterns. But the past was different in various ways from today and is indeed behind us. Conceptually, from the perspective of psychoanalysis we cannot even fully know the self, let alone its past—let alone the past of many selves. As Scott notes, the idea of a fully self-conscious and autonomous subject is a “fantasy that undermines any notion of psychic immutability or fixed identity, that infuses rational motives with unquenchable desire, that contributes to the actions and events we narrate as history.” [14] Thus full identification with the past is a fantasy just as any other attempt to identify with something fully is. All we can do is to gather the fragments of memories and piece them together in order to help gleam insight into why certain shards have maintained such a fascination over periods of time.

Yes, historians should relate the past to the present and this should be done in the service of illuminating either historical specificity or trends. But the point is to render our times a foreign country, not theirs—to show how we are in time so that we might push against these times. And when I say “how we are in time,” I don’t mean cause the reader to spiral into an existential panic and begin calculating how many days, give or take, they have left on earth before they expire—though this might provoke some interesting book reviews. I mean how we are in time: What are our deep-seated feelings about where the second hands of the universal clock point to as our lives? For that matter, what about the subjects who we study? In Scott’s example, the fantasy that, once upon a time, there was some golden past of organization and activism is self-defeating for feminism, the symptom of a melancholic mourning for something although never in existence, was invested with as much emotional energy as if it had. Are similar hindrances existent elsewhere, like in the subject we each study? Do these resonate through time, echoing from the past to our present?

Whether answering these questions is in service of a Nietzschean summoning forth of greatness or Zinnean call to resist, the point is to underscore the contingency of our contemporary existence so that actors might act in good faith of their goals. Paradoxically, historians might best achieve this effect by showing how the present resonates with echoes of the pasts, true or false. Affective affinities for ideas and techniques are easier to assess when one both has some perspective on them and reason to believe reevaluation is possible. On this point, psychoanalysis is a great tool as it “moves towards the moment—by definition inaccessible to any theoretical knowledge of man, to any continuous apprehension in terms of signification, conflict or function—at which the contents of consciousness articulate themselves, or rather stand gaping, upon man’s finitude.” (For those who, not without justification, fear that a renewed engagement between historians and psychoanalysis will only lead to the reification by the former of categories integral to the latter, those words are neither Scott’s nor Freud’s. They are from the figure most often associated with our current love affair with the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” Michel Foucault.) [15]

Historicism and its counterpart are both half-right, then. The past and present are, as Maizlish notes, intimately connected. What connects the present to the past, however, is the deep, transtemporally shared uncertainty and instability about what constitutes the landscape of motives driving human actions in both their totality and particularity. What makes the past useful for the present is that, as Livingston notes, it provides an other’s perspective on our collective tics. Differences between past and present must be recognized in order for the former to give us a viewpoint that we did not already possess. But these perspectives would not be effective if we did not project our own anxieties and ambivalences about the instability of ourselves and uncertainty of our times onto the other and then try parse what is what. The trick is to get readers to peer into the past and ask: Am I this? Do I act like that? Are we like them? Do we really believe that? It gets trickier because this does not mean having the text quickly follow up with a yes or no answer. Therapists are not ventriloquists. The patient needs to do the talking for his- or herself.

This means that the exact usability of the past also remains uncertain. Undergoing analysis is never a straightforward matter. The outcome is never assured. Indeed, this situation has been well known to practitioners and enthusiasts alike. Freud lamented near the end of his life, and Jacques Lacan later celebrated, therapy might be an indeterminable affair. The same can be said of the task of relating past to present. As Michel de Certeau says of confronting this issue, we are brought  “back to the ambiguity of the word ‘history,’ an unstable word that fluctuates between a ‘legend’ (a received text, a law that must be read, a society’s profit) and a ‘becoming other’ (a taking of the risk of self-affirmation, though ourselves assuring our own existences). The analyst [and the historian, for that matter] does not escape this ambivalence.” [16]

Results vary. Side effects of applying psychoanalysis may include restlessness and doubt as well as a newfound confidence. You might even learn to get along with Dad.  “From this point of view,” Certeau continues, “analytical practice is always an act of risk. It never eliminates a surprise. It cannot be identified with the accomplishment of a norm. The ambiguity of a set of words could never be brought forward solely by the ‘application’ of a law. Knowledge never guarantees this ‘benefit.’” [17] Back to fantasy, psychoanalysis challenges the greatest fantasy that creeps into historical writing: that of its own end. [18] Back to Scott, “To rest content with any identity—even one we have helped produce—is to give up the work of critique” as well as forget the instability of the subject. [19] Insofar finding usable pasts (in whatever realm that may be) is a critical project, it is also a continual one.

Even if psychoanalysis only supplies us with metaphors, which is not to say that it is only capable of this, the methods of interrogating the past these heuristics provide can at least remind us that the irrational as much as the rational structure our present, echoing from a time that is both distant and immediate. Tracing how passions and irrationalities have underpinned and/or reinforced the development so-called rational cultural logics can help us understand the continued power of these rationales. (Think of the ideological force of rational-choice theory in particular and economic arguments in general for examples.) Intellectual life is not reducible to its emotional counterpart, but neither are the two separable. This perspective might lead us to craft better arguments against or for positions we revile or cherish in the present—arguments that take fantasy and other irrational aspects of life not as four-letter words but simply as aspects of the world that must be grappled with, whether these echo through a deep or thin slice of time. Since psychoanalysis as Scott deploys it assumes that there is no self, total identification with either the past or present is impossible. But it is precisely this impossibility that links us with the past and renders the connection “usable.”

The anxieties and tensions, pleasures and excitements of history echo—not replicate or repeat—through time in the form of analogous fantasies of identification. Experiences from the past are non-transferable through time, but effects are. The task of the historian interested in rendering his or her subject matter “usable” is to uncover the emotional affinities that reinforce rational inclinations, and to figure out why so many intellectuals and others in their various contexts have come to find a sense of fulfillment or joy or frustration or despair in advocating or critiquing things as varied as the return of “laissez-faire,” the meaning of multiculturalism, the political goals of feminism, what constitutes beauty, or even what is worthy of calling “history.” Placing all this under the critical gaze of the historian-cum-analyst does not mean forcing the reader to give up all of his or her fantasies about life. After all, historians-cum-humans probably aren’t ready (or able) to do this on their own time.

This does mean, however, guiding readers through an interrogation of fantasies about the past: the most salient being that we are wholly determined by the past and that we can totally separate ourselves from the past.  Historians contribute to these realizations and others by showing what is at stake (emotionally, intellectually, etc.) in accepting a past as “ours,” how we might go about “accepting it” (always a partial and continual process), and what resources this or that acceptance provides us for living a life that is cognizant of the past without feeling indebted to it. Maybe then we would be in a better position to listen to that quiet voice Freud cautiously described and hitch our pasts to a more hopeful future in the present.


[1] Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion (New York: Penguin Books,

[2] See, Peter Loewenberg, “Psychohistory: An Overview of the Field,” Decoding the Past: The Psychohistorical Approach (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), 14-41.

[3] Gender studies have never been without their psychoanalytically inclined thinkers. Feminists influenced by Jacques Lacan have long placed the psychic issues raised by symbolic construction of sexual difference at the center of their analyses. But as Scott notes, in history the trend has been towards constructivist approaches that look at invocations of sexual difference as representation to be probed for their sociological roots rather than an analytical tool to aid in their explorations. Scott, The Fantasy of Feminist History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 6.

[4] Joan Wallach Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” Gender and the Politics of History, (New York: Columbia, 1988), 39.

[5] Scott, The Fantasy of Feminist History, 8-15. Scott’s critique of this position is that it does not capture the total complexity—its chaotic, continual, and even passionate nature—involved in identity formation. “Normative categories seek to bring subjects’ fantasies in line with cultural myth and social organization,” she writes, “but they never entirely succeed.” Ibid., 20.

[6] Ibid., 51.

[7] Scott’s theorizing of the subject and fantasy rests on the Lacanian notion of the “real”—that which is beyond representation and source of continual frustration of coherence due to its perpetual upsetting of meaning. The only time subjects experience the real directly is prior to their acquiring subjectivity à la the entrance into language. After that, the real is experienced as a lack, an absence that can at best be triangulated. Desire is a symptom of this condition as subjects crave to restore a sense of completeness by escaping language through brief moments of intense pleasure and/or pain (“jouissance”). Likewise, the total fulfillment and end of desire is impossible since the only way to totally exit language once within it is death. The subject, in this view, can never come to experience his- or herself as whole since to do so would require escaping language and reverting back to substance, that is, lacking consciousness of meaning as such.  Ibid., 13, 46-52. See also Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1981); Sean Homer, Jacques Lacan (New York: Routledge, 2005),  81-94.

[8] Fantasy of Feminist History, 65. Italics added.

[9] Ibid., 52-54, 66.

[10] Ibid., 33.

[11] Ibid., 32.

[12] Ibid., 37.

[13] The deployment of these two terms is not meant to capture the rich histories of each concept. As used here, they merely point to two logical poles that Livingston and Maizlish respectively gravitate towards. Neither author wholly occupies either position, but the thrust of each of their pieces bend towards these ends. Indeed, as recent comments between and by the two show, their positions are not anywhere near the extremes. Livingston does not think that there are no connections between the past and present and Maizlish does not assume identification of the two. Indeed, her invocation of the concept of “presence” as theorized by Eelco Runia seems to guard against such a problematic position. Still, the disagreement between the two is more interesting when you stress the points where they pull apart rather than come together.

[14] Scott, 5. See also Slavoj Zizek, “Beyond Discourse Analysis,” Interrogating the Real ed. Rex Butler and Scott Stephens (London: Continuum, 2006), 249-261 for a succinct exploration of how the Lacanian notions of the subject and fantasy intersect, especially when analyzing ideology.

[15] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage, 1994), 374.

[16] Michel de Certeau, “What Freud Makes of History: ‘A Seventeenth-Century Demonological Neurosis,” The Writing of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 304.

[17] Ibid.

[18] On the impulse to provide complete narrative in the face of uncertainty—in this case, death—see Freud, “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death” (1915), Civilization, War and Death ed. John Rickman (London: Hogarth Press, 1968), 1-25.

[19] Fantasy of Feminist History, 40.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Delighted to see such a serious and passionate brief for psychoanalysis as a living discourse with tools for the practicing historian.

    I came out as a Freudian (well, a Marxist-Freudian) at a recent labor history conference where such talk is not standard, talking about desire and death drive as active forces within the evolution of 20th century capitalism, and was surprised by the lack of push-back (although I am not sure folks not already interested in Freud became any more interested in him). But I was amazed at how scary it was–if I had invoked Foucault or even Marcuse it wouldn’t have been a big deal. Something about Freud…

    Where I would want to push the analysis is in two directions. First, I think that for the purposes you engage in this piece, Dominick La Capra on “working-through” is absolutely crucial–it’s the link between psychoanalysis and usable past, and dovetails with Scott’s profound writings on fantasy and echoes.

    I think other names–Joel Kovel, Samuel Weber, Zizek on racism in the Balkans in the 1990s, Jonathan Lear, Joan Copjec, Tim Dean on the AIDS crisis and psychosis, and James Livingston–could be added to your discussion to give a more “applied” supplement to your excellent theoretical scaffolding.

    Second, I want to be a bit pedantic about ‘fantasy.” “Fantasy” can mean a lot of things, and even Freudians and Lacanians often use it in a very general, enveloping way, but it is worth reserving for “fantasy”–as opposed to something like “fundamental fantasy” or structuring myth, which is more what Scott is talking about, I think– a special structural location within the network of psychic processes.

    Here, the argument would be organized around this matrix of texts–“A Child Is Being Beaten,” Lacan on fantasy and objet a, Laplache and Pontalis, Judith Butler on Jesse Helms, Mladen Dolar on the voice, Jack Halberstam’s Skin Shows… What emerges from this reading of “fantasy” are several unique features: fantasy is fundamentally about mobility within an imaginary scene (its essence, if we can call it that, is the movement between aggressor and victim and bystander in scenes of violence); it is a provisional sewing up of logical loose ends that the subject (paradigmatically, the little kid) performs to make sense of (again, paradigmatically) strange and troubling aural (or other non-visual) sensations (parents fighting, lovemaking, etc), it thus maps out a special temporal zone different from vulgar workaday time (what Freud called, and Dollar highlights, as the “time of understanding”).

    The “real story” is retroactively reimposed on the original trauma (the overheard noise), but the fantasy material doesn’t go anywhere. So, Kierkegaard’s famous quote about living forward but thinking backward is right, but the “thinking backward” should be seen as the looping motion of a hand with a sewing needle and thread, retroactively (and incompletely) tying things up.

    If the strange stories and images forged in the “time of understanding” don’t go anywhere, however, that means that they pile up, like ruins from different time periods in an ancient city, or like layers of a palimpsest. This accretion of fantasy images and memories, accompanying the always-retroactive and ever changing rational meaning-making (so that’s what it was! no, that’s what it was!) provides a much closer picture, to my mind, of what it is like to think historically as a human than most other alternatives.

    Finally–if Scott is talking about a “fundamental fantasy,” and we are still concerned with a “usable past,” perhaps the ethical imperative of historians is the same as the ethical imperative of analysands—to “traverse the fantasy.” Lacan changed his mind about this a few times, but it seems like there is a lot of value and wisdom in the notion that the conclusion of analysis comes when the analysand can say, “I believed that the universe was conspiring against me to make sure I always fail at relationships, but now I realize that not only is the universe not doing that, but my very image of a ‘universe’ capable of dooming a person in this specific way is in fact a fiction that I invented, likely at a very young age, to ward off danger, and I have been arranging my life to confirm this fiction ever since.”

    Traversing the fantasy changes nothing, but it does offer relief. Ethically speaking, that’s not a bad goal–for therapy, or for history.

  2. Brad: Thanks for taking the time to put this together and submit it to USIH. I’m still thinking about the role of psychology (esp. Freudian) in my theoretical approach to historical matters, so I have nothing substantial to contribute to your write-up. But the fact that I’m even thinking about it is an evolution from 5-6 years ago when I rejected *all* psychohistory as irrational and too lacking in empiricism/evidence.

    Thanks also to Kurt for the long, engaging comment. I especially value the Kierkegaard reference.
    Also, being a former dabbler in feminist theory, I’m pleased to hear about this evolution in the thinking of J.S. Scott (though I always appreciated her rationalist approach to power and gender!). – TL

  3. Kurt: Thank you for the detailed feedback! Ultimately, I would tend towards wanting historians to aid in the process of “traversing the fantasy” as well since narrating the past in different ways can raise unconformable questions for the reader that might unsettle destructive mental habits. Anyway, I am going to look into some of the names you suggested. I also find it interesting how historians interested in psychoanalysis must themselves speak in a low voice as it were. Happy to see another intellectual historian interested in the approach.

    Tim: My pleasure! It is always a pleasure to contribute to this blog. Plus, I am pondering over how to a psychoanalytical approach might enrich my own work so this was helpful. No final answer yet on the issue–which would likely just be a fantasy in itself. But I am interested to hear how your thinking on this topic develops especially considering your past views on the matter.

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