Towards a productive concept of misreading: Reflections upon the psychoanalytic procedure

The specificity of psychoanalytic theory and practice seems to be its focus on interpretation, with the main role of the analyst in a session being that of intervening at certain moments in the produced discourse to cause precise subjective effects in the analysand’s psyche. Or, at least that is the story I’ve come to learn about the analytic experience, while not practicing it myself. The role of the psychoanalyst would thus seem to be nothing more than to interpret the form of the material as presented by the analysand in question, who is at the time undergoing what’s called a free-association type of speech activity. The analyst is supposed to interrupt this seeming free-flow of ideas, making the subject reflect upon what was just being said, and all of this would be the shortest possible synopsis of what an analytic setting is supposed to look like.

If done right, the analytic intervention produces a real change in the analysand’s libidinal disposition, for example bringing to light some repressed trauma of that particular individual, something he or she has been unaware of up to that point. Thus, the analyst focuses not so much on the content of the speech produced, but on the way the speech activity itself is marked by certain oscillations, of how certain terms get repeated over the various sessions, etc. . . and the efficiency of these interventions depend on the analytic skill and ability of the psychoanalyst. Contrary to the idea that an analyst’s role is mainly to listen to complaints or to act as some sort of a blank screen, the psychoanalyst ideally has to be rigorously educated in very different topics and areas of life in order to be able to intervene in a proper way, to be able to produce truth-effects at all. This is at least my estimation of what the purpose of all of the countless various existing psychoanalytic literature out there is describing. Let’s just note in passing that both Freud and Lacan were deeply involved with philosophy throughout their life, something which might seem surprising due to their main role as clinicians.

It has also often been claimed that literature itself can be approached in a psychoanalytic fashion. What this means is basically that different texts can be approached with the interpretative tools otherwise developed by psychoanalysts for their profession of the ‘talking cure’. It means that notions like the unconscious or the precise way dream material was approached by Freud can be put into productive use in the study of literature. This homology between literature and psychoanalysis has been there from the very beginning of its conception, since Freud himself could be considered to have been a very good literary author in his own regard, even when the clinical considerations are put aside. If nothing else, he was through his work in the clinic inventing completely new concepts, ideas people have never heard about and which very often they did not like to hear. His focus on human sexuality and how that relates to the development of the psyche could be said not to have been completely taken into account even up to today.

Insofar as it could be said that the main task and procedure is that of interpretation, the obvious question of misreading arises almost immediately. How can the analyst be completely sure when and how to intervene? Is he understanding his patient in the right way? What if how he decides to respond will trigger some kind of a reaction with completely unintended negative consequences? What if the analyst is simply misreading whatever is being said?


Today I’ve spent a relatively short amount of time searching online and inside of various literary works I’ve got at hand under the search term of misreading, as I will try to develop a more theoretically defined concept of it on the long run. What I’m aiming for is a very basic and naive idea that a) the notion of interpretation, especially as that concerning the analytic technique, and the notion of misreading are intimately intertwined and connected and b) that from this it follows that a positive, productive concept of misreading can thus be developed and outlined. What my brief search revealed is that the term misreading is usually and most commonly used to denote an error in the interpretation of some major author. Thus we can for example find in a book discussing fascism and Nietzsche the idea that all of those horrible far-right ideologists who took him as his own were seriously misreading him and his intentions in writing.

What I’ve also noticed up until now is that two specific areas of literary activity seem to be especially concerned with various types of misreading: poetry and scripture. It is certainly of no surprise to find the biggest difficulty among readers whenever the point that is trying to be made by a certain piece of text seems to remain obscure: it allows for varying amount of the plurality of different interpretations, with the main problem arising when those are mutually incompatible and exclusive. The term misreading is then mostly used to denote those other people who simply don’t get it, as opposed to those of us among the readers who seem to be comparably more enlightened than the rest.

The work of Harold Bloom, the author of The Anxiety of Influence and A Map of Misreading also appears when trying to find more refined accounts already existing in literature concerning the topic of misreading. But his own work might not exactly fit what I’m trying to get at, because it seems to be dealing with the specificities of the relations between different literary authors, precursors and contemporaries and how those influence upon another. It also seems to mostly focus on the work of poets, an area not exactly of my interest here.

To be continued . . .

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