Samuel Weber

Second Edition, with a new Introduction


Excerpt from the new Introduction ©1999 Stanford University Press

The three essays that composed the first edition of The Legend of Freud, written some twenty-five years ago, sought to explore the ramifications of a single suspicion: that the hallmark of Freud's texts, which has both fascinated and infuriated readers (and non-readers) from their initial publication until today, is the manner in which they allow themselves to be implicated or caught up in what most 'scientific' or 'scholarly' texts seek to keep at a distance, objectify, thematize, in order better to master it. Such mastery is constantly called into question by the movement of the Freudian text, by its style of writing, which is also a style of thinking. Ever since Kant, at least, the notion of 'thought' has been carefully and problematically distinguished from that of 'knowledge'. In a footnote to his Preface to the Second Edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant explains this distinction as follows:

In order to know an object, I must be able to prove its possibility, either from its reality, as attested by experience, or a priori by means of reason. But I can think whatever I please, provided only I do not contradict myself, that is, provided my conception is a possible thought, though I may be unable to answer for the existence of a corresponding object in the sum total of all possibilities.

To qualify as 'thinking', a thought must not necessarily have "a corresponding object" in reality, but rather only not contradict itself. On this basis Kant will argue that an idea such as 'freedom' can be thought, but not 'known' theoretically, in the sense of being identified with a determinable entity or action determinable in terms of space and time. Freedom can, however, he will conclude, be known 'practically', but not 'theoretically'.

The distinction between 'knowing' and 'thinking' thus implies, in Kant, a distinction within knowing itself, between the theoretical knowledge of an object that is determinable in spatial-temporal terms, and a practical knowledge of things that elude such determination, but that insofar as they can be shown to be intrinsically non-contradictory, nevertheless qualify as 'thoughts', and as necessary ones at that.

Compare with the Kantian remark, the following observation of Freud's, written on the threshold of his invention of 'psychoanalysis'--from his discussion of 'Miss Lucy R.' in the Studies on Hysteria:

FREUD If you knew that you were in love with the Director, why didn't you tell me that?
LUCY I didn't know it or rather, I didn't want to know it, I wanted to get it out of my head, never to think about it again...

And Freud glosses this remark of Lucy's in the following note:

Another and better depiction of the peculiar condition in which one both knows something and at the same time doesn't know it I could never obtain. This can apparently be understood only by those who have at some time found themselves in such a state. I have a very conspicuous memory of this sort, one which stands vividly before my eyes. If I try to remember what went on in me at the time, the result is disappointing. I saw something at the time that didn't fit in with my expectation, and not in the least did I allow my expectation (Absicht) to be shaken, even though it should have been eliminated by this perception. I was not aware of the contradiction nor did I take any more note of the affect of repudiation (Affekt der Abstoßung) that doubtless was responsible for the fact that this perception did not have any influence on my psyche. I was struck by that 'blindness with seeing eyes' (Blindheit bei sehenden Augen) that is so admired in mothers with respect to their daughters, men with respect to their wives, rulers with respect to their favorites.

Lucy "knew" something about herself, about her amorous feelings for "the Director," without knowing that she knew it, or rather, without wanting "to think about it"--to make it an object of self-consciousness, to dwell on its ramifications. Or, put more positively, she wanted to "get it out of [her] head," a gesture of "repudiation" that Freud will later study in a variety of forms including above all, of course, repression, but also denial, disavowal, isolation. All of these forms of 'knowing without knowing' challenge what from Descartes through Kant, and probably until today, has been the hallmark of Western subjectivity: the notion of self-consciousness and the 'law' of non-contradiction. A thought is legitimate qua thought if it doesn't contradict itself, Kant argues. It need not correspond with reality, it can dwell on possibility, but that possibility must be internally consistent, coherent, unifiable. When it is not unifiable, it does not deserve to be called 'thought'. A subject can be considered to exist so long as it represents itself thinking in a non-contradictory manner. Cogito me cogitare is the formula in which Heidegger interprets the Cartesian cogito: I think myself thinking. The present participle designates a process that may be indeterminable, open-ended with respect to its 'object', but which is nevertheless consistent with itself, self-identical and thus understandable as a mode of the present indicative: cogito me cogitans, ergo sum.

What Freud 'understands', through Miss Lucy R., is however something that he could only 'understand' because he already knew it: that strange "'blindness with seeing eyes'" in which the 'evidence' of one's senses is made to agree with the expectations of one's desires, fears or hopes. It is a strange and yet familiar experience, and above all a "peculiarly singular" (eigentümlichen Zustand) situation, in which "one knows something and at the same time doesn't know." This split, duplicitous state which appears to defy the laws of ordinary understanding therefore requires a disposition to remember, and to remember an involvement. The evidence of one's 'own two eyes' cannot be the criterion here, any more than the law of the non-contradiction of mental representations. One is confronted with something that is so familiar that it is, strangely enough, generally inaccessible to ordinary consciousness.

The experience Freud here discovers--or rather, re-discovers--is therefore closely related to what he later will describe as the uncanny. It is the experience of a repetition, a recognition that does not fit in with one's expectations, and yet that refuses simply to be put aside, dismissed or ignored, because, in a certain sense, one already knows it, known it without knowing that one knows, without thinking about it. To think about the unconscious, then, is to think the unthinkable: that which defies the principles of meaningful thought, the principle of non-contradiction, of identity, of the excluded other. According to such principles, it is impossible to 'think' anything that would be both itself and at the same time something else, just as a body cannot be (reasonably) thought as occupying more than one place at a time, nor a place occupied by more than one body at one time. It is the unity and sameness of time and space, of body and place, then, that this strange knowing and not-knowing, thinking and not-thinking puts into question, and with it, the certitude of a self-identical subject itself, occupying a stable and proper place. It is this certitude, perhaps, that above all is called into question by the psychoanalytic discovery of a knowledge that is possible, active, that produces effects, but that is not itself accessible to self-consciousness, that cannot be transformed into knowledge of itself, into self-knowledge.

It is surely not entirely fortuitous that when Freud's first stumbles upon this strange kind of knowing and thinking, he feels impelled to appeal to those "who have already found themselves in such a state," and first and foremost, to his own past experience. For nothing less than a certain involvement can make plausible, what seems to violate the laws of good sense, if not of reality itself. And yet, such 'involvement' becomes quite complex and enigmatic when what it involves is a knowledge that is, in principle, not merely a step or stage on the way to self-knowledge, to self-consciousness. Given the established tendency, at least since Descartes, to see reflexivity as the ground of all certitude, the appeal to such prior experience can only involve a great deal of uncertainty.

Such is expressed in what would seem to be a contradiction. On the one hand, Freud notes, on the one hand, that he "disposes over a very conspicuous memory of this sort, which stands vividly before my eyes." On the other hand, however, he immediately acknowledges, that when he "makes the effort to remember, what went on in me at that time, the result is disappointing." What he remembers, or at least, what he recounts here, is the confrontation with a "perception" that did not "fit in" with his "expectation" and that instead of leading him to revise the latter, caused him to reject the former. But not only did he reject the evidence of his own two eyes--he also remained unaware of what the "contradiction" involved in what he was doing. It is this latter dimension that will later earn the name of the 'unconscious': not merely a lack of consciousness, but an absence of consciousness to its 'own' activity. What I have translated as "affect of repudiation" entails not a conscious act, in the sense of an act that can be made an object of consciousness, but rather an acting of consciousness--the repudiation of a perception - that, in order to effective, precisely cannot become transparent to itself.

This in turn suggests that the movement of "Abstoßung" encompasses not merely the 'perception' qua object, but the agent as well, which is repelled in repelling, displaced in and through the process of rejecting the unexpected, unassimilable 'perception'. In short, the movement works both ways, re-moving the 'perception' but also moving the subject. And not just moving it to another place, but splitting it off from itself, moving it into more than one place at one time insofar as it has to cut itself off from what it is doing--denying a perception--in order to do it.

Far from being primarily informed by the goal of restoring such identity, then, as therapeutic practice, Freudian thinking involves the questioning of such identity therapies seek only to heal, and most theories, to comprehend. This is precisely why I insisted on the word 'thinking': not to perpetuate the dichotomy between 'theory' and 'practice' but to mark the distinction, which has emerged at least since Kant, between theoretical knowledge and a mode of thought that is presupposed by cognition but is not identical with it, it seems only to describe or to comprehend, its distinctive medium is a mode of thinking which is both very familiar and yet irreducibly strange. It is very familiar insofar as it goes on all the time; but it remains irreducibly strange because, going on all the time, it eludes our conscious control. To seek to appropriate it for our conscious thought is, in a very profound sense, to participate in self-dissimulation: its as well as ours. The paradox that results, of course, is that to attempt to think about psychoanalysis, to thematize it as an object, is to risk missing it entirely. And yet there is no simple alternative. For not to think about it, its themes and motifs, does not allow us, conversely, to come to terms with the problems it raises.

Indeed, what can it mean to 'come to terms' with processes whose very nature, perhaps, is to be in(de)terminable? The furious effort to portray Freud's 'seduction theory' as an apologetic legitimization of (historically contingent) patriarchal domination has at least the virtue of indicating, symptomatically, what might be at stake in this 'coming to terms'. Against the dissimulation of a desire that can never say outright what is driving it, the ostensibly innocent and transparent discourse of victimized children is invoked as a language that can say directly what was and is, once and for all. The notion of a self-same, identical reality that can thus be stated directly implies, structurally, a certain victimization: the child can say the 'truth' about the event of seduction to the extent that it, he or she, is separate from that event, which it endures passively. Separation and passivity are the sine qua non of this conception of the relation of subject and object, of subject to subject. They are presupposed, axiomatically, as givens of the world.

It is precisely this presupposition that the writings of Freud--which, it seems, are read less and less, or at least less and less intensively--continue solicit, challenge, question. Nowhere, however, is this questioning more intense, and more suggestive, than in his writings on the uncanny. Perhaps this explains why so little has been written on this subject, at least 'within' psychoanalysis itself. The Uncanny, das Unheimliche, remains as abseitig, as marginal a topic as it was when Freud first wrote on it. Perhaps, because it is not simply a 'topic', much less a 'concept', but rather a very particular kind of scene: one which would call into question the separation of subject and object generally held to be indispensable to scientific and scholarly inquiry, experimentation and cognition.

It perhaps explains why the notion [of Freud's Uncanny--Das Unheimliche] has remained marginal even to psychoanalysis itself. For psychoanalysis, today as to the time of Freud, has always sought to establish itself in stable institutions, grounded both in a practice and in a theory that rarely question the criteria of truth and value that dominate the societies in which it is situated. Such criteria presuppose the kind of observation that the young Nathanael [in E.T.A. Hoffman's 'The Sandman'] seeks to practice and is forced to abandon, under the impact of the spectacle he is called upon first to witness, and then to enter. In taking the plunge, however involuntarily, he abandons a distance that has never really protected or prevented him from participating in the scene. What changes, with his position, is his role. And it is this, perhaps, that makes the subject of the uncanny itself so uncanny: so familiar, banal and yet so elusive and unmanageable. As Freud himself was forced to acknowledge, however implicitly, the uncanny indeed involves 'intellectual uncertainty': not merely about the ability to make judgments and to distinguish: animate from inanimate, for instance, or human spontaneity from machinelike automaticity, but uncertainty about the very positioning of the subject, its relation to its surroundings, its world and above all, to itself. Ever since Descartes, 'certitude' has been the one of the driving forces and concern in the effort of the modern, Western subject to define itself. It is the direction in which that effort moves, as well as its goals, that is altered in the scenario we have just discussed. Whereas for Descartes, the essential condition for the subject's attaining certitude about itself and its world was a certain withdrawal and distance from a world that could no longer be taken for granted, it is precisely the discovery that such distance is a fata morgana, an unsustainable construct, that informs the mis-recognition that constitutes the Uncanny.

It is, therefore, at best only marginally suited to be an object of theory. A search on the Internet, or in the libraries, even today will reveal that the word survives above all in popular fiction, far more at any rate than in scholarly literature, psychoanalytic, critical or other.


See also Samuel Weber,
  1. 'Blindness of the Seeing Eye', Samuel Weber, Institution and Interpretation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1987, 73-84.
  2. 'Einmal ist Keinmal: Das Wiederholbare und das Singuläre', Gerhard Neumann, ed.: Poststrukturalismus. DFG-Symposion 1995. Stuttgart/Weimar: Metzler (1997), 434-48.
  3. 'Un-Translatability'. In Samuel Weber, Benjamin's -abilities (forthcoming). German version: 'Un-Übersetzbarkeit', Die Sprache der Anderen. Ed. Anselm Haverkamp. Frankfurt/M: Fischer ZeitSchriften (1997), 121-46.


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