We would like to respond to Richard Wollheim’s review (nlr 93) of Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism. The Left and the women’s movement traditionally reject Freud as a biological determinist. Mitchell’s book sought to redeem him by presenting a social and cultural reading of psychoanalytic theory. The basis of Wollheim’s criticism is that Mitchell overestimates ‘culture’ and ignores ‘biology’. According to him, human psychology is, in essence, biologically determined, and this is the basis of psychoanalytic theory.
Insofar as Mitchell’s book falsely polarizes ‘biology’ and ‘culture’ in an abstract and extreme manner, we agree with Wollheim’s criticism of it. But Wollheim merely reverses this fallacy; to him ‘culture’ has little significance while ‘biology’ is of overwhelming weight. It is clear that neither position is based upon a social theory developed enough to encompass (and integrate) both biological and cultural considerations. But if Mitchell’s account is limited and schematic, it nevertheless moves us in the right direction. Wollheim’s harping on biology leads him away from any study of society, into pre-psychoanalytic conceptions of the mind and, ultimately, into a political approach to sexism that ends up affirming it.
Wollheim’s rejection of the relevance of social factors is clear and explicit in his review. It is clear in his wish for a ‘self-sufficient account of sexual development’ (i.e. one that does not resort to social factors), in his claim that Freudian theory (or any theory seeking to replace it) ‘bases itself on no more than biological considerations and how they are internally represented’ and in his assumption that feminine psychology in the psychoanalytic view derives from introjected sexual organs (i.e. the woman’s mental representation and experience of these organs alone, rather than as aspects of her internalized relationships with others). It is explicit in his totally unargued assertion that any psychological explanation that invokes culturally determined concepts is ‘necessarily less satisfactory or more superficial than a psychological explanation which invokes internal representations of biology’. Less satisfactory for what? For understanding ourselves, our lives and our
Wollheim takes us back to nineteenth-century theories of the sexes. Freud’s discovery that social experience (actual, historically specific object relations and not some vague notion of ‘culture’) determined what we make of our biology and of our sexual needs formed the original and core insight of psychoanalytic theory. This theory studies the complex relationship between biology and its internal representations, a relationship formed in society (the family, in the first instance). Wollheim writes as if this relationship was one of simple determinism, the influence all extending in one direction, rather than being reciprocal and mutually determined. But there is nothing self-evident about biology. How we understand, symbolize and internalize our biology may be shaped by considerations completely apart from biology itself. One example comes from the research on gender identity that suggests that our internal representations of biology develop according to the gender we are labelled, rather than the reproductive organs or genitalia we possess.
Wollheim writes from the point of view of a philosopher basically uninterested in society. He urges us to resort to ‘cultural’ concepts only when biological explanation ‘does not grind fine enough’. We believe it can never grind fine enough. Wollheim forgets that the biological objects that he views as determinant are not just bodily organs, but are attached to real people, every one of whom has a specific historical, gendered and class-based identity. Wollheim’s rather snide equation of social factors with ‘social conveniences’ is revealing. What drops out of Wollheim’s account is not only class, the sexual division of labour, history, production—all that Marxism has to offer any theory of human development—but the family, primary object relations themselves, as well. The ‘biology’ internally represented in the psychoanalytic account consists not only of the infant’s own body but of social objects—mother, father, siblings, peers—all in determinate social relations. Wollheim is concerned to explain the internal mechanisms (e.g. introjection) through which our biology is represented, but these mechanisms operate only in and through social interaction.