Sexuality, Intimacy, Power (Book Review)

Author:  Dimen, Muriel
Publisher: Hillsdale, NY, 2003
Reviewed By: Jeanne Wolff Bernstein, Winter 2005, pp. 32-34

Right in the middle of Sexuality, Intimacy, Power, Muriel Dimen comes to a halt in her lively discussion about gender and sexuality and takes stock of the huge project she has undertaken in writing a book that she hopes will “…create a space in which multiplicity can play” (p.195). Dimen, I think, brilliantly succeeds at providing this open meeting place where people with diverse opinions from the past and present can come together and find a common ground. Her book reads at times like a heated discussion, or at other times like an intimate conversation, which Dimen conducts about themes that she has passionately cared for all her life. Whether it is the interrelationship between sex and gender, desire and need, masculinity and femininity, psychoanalysis and Marxism, anthropology and sociology, or love and hate, Dimen finds a serious, yet quirky tone to convey her own complex reflections.

Early on in the book Dimen warns that this space of play is not open for binary thinkers but instead invites postmodern thinkers who can argue in terms of dialectics, paradoxes and contingencies. It is her goal to transcend either/or categories and to think in terms of multiplicities and ambiguities, to stay in the knot of not knowing. She argues that, similar to psychoanalysis, her goal is not to offer solutions but to sustain tension and hold the paradox of simultaneity. Dimen writes, “Resolving dualism means neither splitting nor collapsing. Instead it means maintaining possibility: the mobile, dynamic space between binaries yields resolution that in turn give on to new complexity, to the third.” (pp. 59-60)

What thirds does Dimen find? She locates feminism as a third between psychoanalysis and Marxism, desire as a third between need and demand, the clitoris as the third to penis and vagina, and the body as a third between being an object for others and a subject for oneself. For Dimen, the third is not an answer nor a resolution but “just a moment in the process in which new possibilities are generated” (p. 11). Her discussion of desire illustrates particularly well her definition of the indeterminate third as a site of uncertainties and multiplicities. Quoting Levenson, Dimen observes that desire, with its elusiveness and unpredictability, “fills Americans, pragmatists to the core, with dread” (p. 107). A culture that is so saturated with ideals of independence, fortitude, and self-realization has no room for desire, which invokes absence, lack, and longing. Desire cannot be split into two, no matter how you want to slice it. Instead, it is discontinuous, and enigmatic; like, “invisible ink: it won’t show up unless it gets wet.”(p. 107)

Dimen is inspired to return to Freud to retrace the loss of the concept of desire and to decipher why sexuality has disappeared so radically from the psychoanalytic landscape. Once the bread and butter of psychoanalysis, sex has been safely tucked away in good and bad object relationships and lost all its disturbing potency in the field of attachment theories. Dimen embarks on a fascinating detective mission as she searches for clues in Freud’s own writings for the ambiguous stance psychoanalysis has held with regard to pleasure and sexuality. She argues that Freud elected to use the more respectable term “libido” in order to promote a scientific stance towards the controversial topic of childhood sexuality, while sequestering the more passionate and commonly used term Lust to his footnotes. Dimen argues that the word Lust was possibly too ambiguous and too common a concept for Freud since it denotes “both sexual need and its gratification” and in its doubled meaning disturbed the manifest content of Freud’s primary text. Dimen writes, “ I suggest that the slippage between text and footnote corresponds to a doubled movement in sex that Freud senses but, committed to science and simplicity, cannot quite articulate. In making biology the ground for libido by likening libido to hunger, Freud trims his terms, obeying science’s demand for parsimony and consistency. In rejecting the doubleness of Lust, though, he strips sexuality of something vital.” (p. 163)

I think much of Dimen’s inspiration for writing Sexuality, Intimacy, Power comes from her motivation to resurrect the sexiness that went underground in psychoanalysis. Although its founder made sexuality so central to psychoanalytic theory, Freud’s desire for scientific respectability restricted sexual energy to a psychic hydraulic system in which sexual substances were supposed to be discharged much like urine and feces, in order to sustain the psychic health of the individual. With the cathartic model of sexuality, the notion of excitement and suspended excitement as a source of jouissance went unrecognized. Had Freud retained the notion of “lust” in his writing, the passionate, unpredictable nature of desire might not have fallen to the wayside of psychoanalytic literature. It is precisely this intermediate space that the word “lust” provides that suits the current postmodern psychoanalytic practice in which the focus is not so much on cleansing oneself of excessive sexual desires but rather on reinvigorating a sexual desire that has been lost or gone awry. Dimen writes, “If libido fits the classical model of cure, then Lust—the unconsummated moment before—is a signifier more suited to the clinical stance taken today. Think about current metaphors for the space of psychoanalytic work-transitional, potential, intermediate (Winnicott, Ogden, Bromberg)” (p.175)

Dimen brings equal fervor to her clinical practice and is courageous enough to discuss clinical themes, which are traditionally left out of the canon of psychoanalytic case presentations. In her chapter on “The Body as a Rorschach,” Dimen provides an intimate case account of one of her male patients smelling his analyst’s’ (Dimen’s) shit in the bathroom. Initially mortified by her patient’s olfactory discovery, she overcomes her shame and provides her patient with a space in which he can eventually express his closeness to her, as well as his momentary pleasure at being the mocking adult treating his analyst as the helpless, weak child who had left behind a foul odor. Through this case example, Dimen illustrates to her patient, as well as to the reader, her unabashed readiness to use her own body as a site for symbolic representation and communicative capacity. Rather than backing away and hiding behind a shield of anonymity, Dimen claims her messy body and in so doing, allows her patient to explore his own intolerable phantasies about his bodily functions and impairments. She intimates that psychoanalysis cannot remain alive if sex, desire, and the body just remain empty concepts of a by-gone time; they need to be brought back to life in the consulting room between the analyst and the patient. For Dimen, the body is not just “a body that thinks but a body that also sometimes stinks” (p.132). She boldly argues that these abject and excess pleasures need to be reintegrated into the analytic dialogue as a site of intersubjectivity in which the analyst’s body can intersect with the patient’s body as carriers of unsymbolizable affects.

As expected, Dimen argues forcefully for a deconstruction of gender, not as a realm of duality into masculinity and femininity but as a space in-between. Gender is not transparent, it is not “an essence but as a set of relations.” According to Dimen, gender becomes a complex third. “Contemplating this third reveals “gender” to be less a determinate category than something resembling a force field. Much like the atom, once thought of as substance but now construed as a set of interacting forces, so gender looks to consist not of essences but of complex and shifting relations among multiple contrasts or differences”(pp. 182-183).

More unexpected is Dimen’s sensitive discussion of need and desire. She warns that her chapter on “Power, Sexuality and Intimacy” had been condemned by one of her readers who considered it outdated and worthy of the trashcan. However, other colleagues encouraged her to include this chapter and thus we are fortunate to be able to read Dimen’s early ideas about the relationship between need and desire. Dimen draws a distinction between need, an expression of helpless dependency, and desire, an expression of active will. She explains that need and particularly its unpleasant subsidiary “neediness” has bad connotations, particularly in intimate relationships. Once one partner in a couple—usually the woman—is identified as needy, a whole world of disgust opens up. Hardly any other language is filled with as much contempt as English when it pronounces the word “needy.” Dimen creatively deconstructs this “gendered divorce of want from need” by identifying “want” as belonging to active will and masculinity, and identifying “need” as belonging to passive dependency and femininity. Need, Dimen argues, is always disquieting because it evokes in everyone unconscious memories of helplessness. When satisfaction is anticipated, need is not so bad, but when frustration is foreseen, “…the feeling of need threatens to become a state of neediness, and therefore dangerous…As need goes, so does desire. When social conditions render the gratification of adult needs uncertain, besmirch dependency, and thwart realization of wants, wanting can come to feel like needing; depending on others for satisfaction becomes unwelcome; consequently longing seems altogether unpleasant. As political and unconscious forces spiral downward together, we try to get a grip on things. We try to want without needing. But, having pulled in our psychological belts, we find instead that we have diminished what we were trying to preserve—desire—and with it sex, hope and intimacy. When yearnings for the Other arise nonetheless, they seem too complicated to acknowledge. As soon as such ambiguity emerges, John Wayne gets on his horse and rides off into the sunset” (p. 213).

In the aftermath of the 2004 presidential election, I think that Dimen’s words, originally written in 1982, resonate and hold out the possibility of explaining, in part, the current massive turn to religion in this country. In the face of economic uncertainty and national insecurity, more than half of the American voters seem to have chosen an Other who disavows ambiguity, derides careful reflection as flip-flopping, and invokes himself as the steady commander of an otherwise troubled world. Instead of riding off into the sunset as John Wayne did, this new icon in the form of G.W. Bush offers only one other bigger Other besides himself into whom Americans are encouraged to place their own anxieties and needs without risking to lose face. Dimen’s careful analysis of desire as something Americans abhor because it spells unpredictability, as well as her sensitive discussion of the negative experience of feeling needy, might help explain the degree to which this newly elected government has turned against others at any sign of weakness and instability. The show of military might—at least at the beginning of the Iraq war—and of fanatical faith in God has given the larger segment of the American population a massive defensive shield behind which they can deny their needs and conceal their desires.

Dimen has written a courageous and politically timely book in which she consistently looks through a postmodern lens at power, sexuality, and various themes of intimacy, keeping ambiguity and paradox in play. My only reservation is that I think that there are many moments in the political, social, individual, and clinical sphere in which “the standing in spaces” or the “holding of tension” becomes counterproductive and does not lead to new solutions. In Sexuality, Intimacy and Power, Dimen seeks to replace certainty and authority with contingency. I believe that there is a place for certainty as long as it is not confused with arrogance and denial, and that there is a need for authority, as long as the authority is not abused and corrupted. Authority and certainty do not need to be replaced by contingency and multiplicity but instead can be thought of existing in a dialectical relationship with one another. In the end, I can only state with some authority and no ambiguity that Dimen’s book is a powerful contribution to a critical discussion that we urgently need to continue developing at this time.

Reviewer Note

Jeanne Wolff Bernstein is a personal and supervising analyst at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California (PINC). She is on the faculty at PINC, NCSPP and at The Wright Institute, Berkeley, Calif. She is on the Editorial Board of Studies in Gender and Sexuality, Contemporary Psychoanalysis and a contributing editor to Psychoanalytic Dialogues.

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