In This Issue

The body in question

Contemporary psychoanalytic theories often privilege the social and interpersonal side of psychotherapeutic work, but the subject remains an embodied being and the bodily dimension of psychological processes cannot be ignored

By David Lichtenstein

As a practical matter, psychoanalysis is concerned with bodies that speak.

This statement of the obvious touches a nodal point for much significant debate in the theory and practice of our field. It takes some reflection on the two elements of this relation, the Body and Speech, to see why this is so.

How the body enters a psychoanalyst's consulting room is not primarily an architectural problem. Although the organic being arrives wrapped in countless garments and a therapy of the psyche does not suggest that they ought to be removed, much of our discourse presumes that we see beneath them.

This was certainly the case for Freud. The drive in his formulation is a "demand made upon the mind for work in consequence of its connection with the body" (Freud, 1915, p.122). Thus any derivative or representative of the drive encountered in the discourse of analysis was connected in turn to this connection. This is the biological, but perhaps better put, bodily link in classical Freudian drive theory, and it has often been cited as the reason for the rejection of that theory by subsequent schools of psychoanalysis arguing for a more social and/or interpersonal approach to motivation.

However, that there are two degrees of separation between the representatives of the drive that appear in analysis and the body as such, and that it is here, in the double linking of symbol to drive and drive to body, that the social world takes hold of corporeal being suggests that drive theory is far less reductive than it may first appear to be.

The fact remains that the role of the body in its relationship to the social and interpersonal world of the subject was recognized as a difficult question from the start and the source of much debate since the earliest days of the field. The paradoxical character of the embodied subject poses an inherent challenge to the psychoanalytic endeavor. This is why, for all contemporary schools, even those that take the most socially based and/or interpersonal of approaches, the body inevitably returns. And indeed, there have been notable recent efforts addressing the bodily dimension of the relational field (Anderson, 2008; Knoblauch, 2012).

In Jessica Benjamin's (2004) thorough articulation of a socially grounded and relational intersubjectivity, there is a bedrock appeal to the bodily based rhythms of arousal and attunement that constitute the earliest dyadic exchanges. That root developmental role of bodily experience is so determinative of the earliest social links that its effects, its symbolic derivatives, are never absent from subsequent interpersonal encounters.

The regard for the body in the phenomenology of perception, as articulated by Merleau-Ponty (1945) or in the experience of "being-in-the-world" (Heidegger, 1962) makes it inevitable that those approaches to psychoanalytic self psychology that rest on the phenomenology of the intersubjective field deeply respect the essentially embodied character of the self. The role of profoundly felt emotion, of passion and of suffering, in the work of writers like Atwood, Brandchaft, Orange, and Stolorow is the point where the link to the body may be found. For it is only an embodied being that feels passion.

All psychoanalytic theories concerned with the regulation, dissociation, and integration of "self states," whether linked to attachment history or other interpersonal processes of attunement and self-regulation, are theories of an embodied self, for where else are these states registered, recorded, and sustained (however partially) but in some form of bodily inscription?

Even Lacan, famous for his linguistic turn and theories of symbolic structure, theories that are generally faulted for being overly intellectual and disconnected from the passions of lived experience, devoted much of his later research to considerations of the bodily dimension of subjectivity, and the central function of jouissance in discursive relations. He returned to a consideration of the drive in his later work and reworked his ideas about the Real (the third register, along with the Symbolic and Imaginary) in terms of the drive's bodily links.

Of course, the body is at issue in other ways as well whenever there is a reference to neurotransmitters as the underlying guarantee of the therapeutic process. Indeed as soon as we rely upon a brain-based correlate to our intersubjective endeavor, the body has entered the consulting room. The "synaptic self" (LeDoux, 2002) is a bodily self, for whatever the mix of nature and nurture that has built that network of gaps and transmissions, it has left its inscription on the body in the form of circuits and pathways.

Whatever disagreements psychoanalysts may have with Freud's drive theory, it seems that they cannot logically be attributed to the importance he gave to the bodily link in subjective experience. If it is not the fact that the body is of central importance that is in question, then it must rather be the way that the body is called into play by the social interaction of a consulting room.

Here enters the other term of our simple statement about bodies that speak. Speech and the structuring system of language, with all that it conveys about culture, history, and human society, reflects a link to something other than bodily being. Speech, although uttered by a mouth for another's ear, nevertheless relies on a cultural tool that exists on its own with a degree of independence from the bodies that invent and convey it. That tool is language and the cultural history that accompanies it. As there is a record of personal experience, however partial, inscribed in the body, so there is a record of cultural history in the language of a society.

Although the processes by which the embodied self comes to create and be created by language may seem like a remote concern to the practice of psychotherapy, it is in fact at the core of the psychoanalytic endeavor. Although the register of culture may function independently of the passion experienced by any given individual, it cannot be indifferent to that embodied experience without losing its currency. Although it is in the very nature of the speech act that a range of cultural practices and formations come into play, they do so in relation to the felt experience of the speakers. As formal as the structures of culture and language may be, when they are put into play in any moment of interactive discourse, the speaking body is present, and with it the particular range of problems that such a presence poses for the subject of discourse. These problems are the reason for a clinical psychoanalysis. It is the gaps and fissures that open simultaneously in the bodily experience of passion and pain and the cultural and intersubjective context in which meaning arises that shape the inhibitions, symptoms, and anxiety of psychoanalytic work. No cultural formation ever successfully encompasses the disruptive potential of individual passion even if that passion only ever draws meaning from its cultural milieu.

The occasion for these thoughts about the speaking body is the featured discussion in this fourth issue of DIVISION/Review. Muriel Dimen has edited a collection of psychoanalytic stories entitled With Culture in Mind (2011). D/R has invited four writers to comment on the book and on the questions it raises about the social and cultural framework of subjectivity and of psychotherapeutic work informed by these questions. The reviewers, from their four different points of view, address these stories about working with the embodied self in its social and cultural context.

In effectively evoking the cultural context of subjective being, the stories in Dimen's collection also alert us to the passionate beings whose embodied desire both breathes life into that culture and often pushes beyond its frame. As culture calls us into being, it does so as passionate subjects who both find and subvert our place in that structure.


Anderson, F. S. (2008). Bodies in treatment: The unspoken dimension (Relational perspectives book series). New York, NY: Taylor and Francis.

Benjamin, J. (2004). Beyond doer and done to: An intersubjective view of thirdness. Psychoanalitic Quarterly, 73, 5–46.

Dimen, M. (Ed.) (2011). With culture in mind: Psychoanalytic stories. New York, NY: Routledge.

Freud, S. (1957). Instincts and their vicissitudes. In The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 14). London, UK: Hogarth Press.

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time. (J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans.). New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Knoblauch, S. (2012). Body rhythms and the unconscious: Expanding clinical attention with the polyrhythmic weave. Relational Psychoanalysis (Vol. 5). New York, NY: Routledge.

LeDoux, J. E. (2002). Synaptic self: How our brains become who we are. New York, NY: Penguin.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1978). Phenomenology of perception. (C. Smith, Trans.). London, UK: Routledge.