Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects
Fractured Subjectivity in the Face of Cancer
Public Seminar spoke to Lana Lin, author of Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects, about the genesis of the book, psychoanalysis, and art-making.
Q&A with Lana Lin
Public Seminar (PS): Why did you write Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects: Fractured Subjectivity in the Face of Cancer ?
Lana Lin (LL): I had been training to become a psychoanalyst when I decided to enter a doctoral program, one with a wonderfully capacious understanding of media, where I could study and write about psychoanalysis. As I was conceptualizing my dissertation I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Being diagnosed with cancer is all-consuming. I was reading Freud in waiting rooms where one spends a great deal of diagnosis time, and it occurred to me that Freud had cancer, something I had scarcely thought about until I was myself diagnosed. I wrote Freud’s Jaw because I was interested in how a life-threatening illness affects a person at the psychic level. In my research, I discovered that the literal and metaphoric meanings of cancer have completely infiltrated psychoanalytic history, and that they therefore influence many of the ways that we understand how humans respond to their embodied vulnerabilities. I wanted to write an account of the psychically destabilizing effect of life-threatening illness. Within cancer research there is obviously tons of medical literature, and quite a lot of sociological, anthropological, and psychological work. There is the whole field of psycho-oncology, but this does not really attend to the unconscious psychic dimension.
PS: What were the major challenges, personal or otherwise, in writing this book?
LL: All work takes effort, thought, time; it’s the things that are beyond your control or that feel like they are beyond your control that are the most difficult. In that sense, writing this book was certainly not as challenging as having cancer, or many other projects I’ve been involved in for that matter! This doesn’t mean that I didn’t tear my hair out and do A LOT of pacing as I wrestled with the writing process. The comments I received from external reviewers pressed me to reconcile my intentions with their questions. I think there may be a point in any project – writing or otherwise – when the greatest challenge is knowing when to let go, recognizing that what you haven’t said might find a home in another book. There was a way that at the end of the process I felt like I couldn’t really make changes unless I were to start all over and write a different book. This, I guess, is when you realize you are “done,” and you need to honor what you have accomplished by putting it into the world, regardless of what inadequacies you think may still be present. I’ve learned that for me each project is a response to the project or projects I have completed prior, so I am certain that my upcoming work will in some way be my way of speaking back to or in conversation with Freud’s Jaw.
PS: How did the project evolve over time? Did your original idea go through many stages and changes? Can you describe them for us?
LL: It is rare for me to have a title from the outset of a project, and Freud’s Jaw was one of those, so I knew from the beginning that I would start with Freud. I was immediately drawn into the exhaustive record of his thirty-three surgeries and ten prostheses. I recall sitting in McNally’s with Ben Kafka and we came up with the tripartite structure: Freud’s Jaw, Lorde’s breast, and Nancy’s heart. The philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy suffered from cancer as a result of immuno-suppression for his heart transplant. He still makes a cameo in the book, but I don’t dedicate an entire chapter to him. This initial game plan may have also included Paul Schilder, a psychoanalyst who wrote The Image and Appearance of the Human Body, among other things. I think I still have the napkin on which we sketched this out.
It was very important for me as a woman of color to devote a chapter to the poet Audre Lorde. She was the only woman of color I could find who had produced a substantial body of work on her cancer experience, and she framed it not only personally but politically. Her argument against breast prostheses resonated well with Freud’s prosthetic condition. It was really the third figure–a trinity just felt appropriate–that was unknown to me for some time. When I read Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s cancer advice column, “Off My Chest,” I was won over, and very little writing had been done on it.
I also struggled for quite some time over the final chapter. I had written about the Sigmund Freud Museum in Vienna but hadn’t originally conceived of it as belonging to this book. But then it struck me that both the Freud Museums in Vienna and London were differently mourning and memorializing lost objects, and that the Freudian archive, including the Freud Papers at the Library of Congress, were emblematic of the “discohesive” (Sedgwick’s word) effect of cancer, that is, that the Freudian archive itself is an assemblage or disassemblage of part-objects.
PS: How did you, as an artist and filmmaker, become interested and invested in psychoanalysis, as a treatment but also as a way of seeing and understanding the world?
LL: It was actually also as an educator that I became increasingly interested in the practice of psychoanalysis, because I was so frequently encountering students who were asking for a kind of help that I did not feel equipped to give. I undertook psychoanalytic training for three years and quickly came to recognize clinical psychoanalysis as itself an art form in which two people are intimately engaged in the narration of a person’s life. Psychoanalysis and the cinematic arts are centrally concerned with conjuring an imaginary world, often through the process of narrativization. And psychoanalysis, similar to formal film analysis, depends upon symbolic interpretation. Freud uses a distinctly cinematic metaphor to describe the analysand’s task of narrating her life as if viewing scenes through a train window. When I heard an oral case presentation for the first time, I was tremendously drawn to how much an analysis has in common with a film script; we are after all always living out, resisting, inhabiting and revising different scripts throughout our lives.
I’ve recently read Junot Diaz’s essay in The New Yorker about the legacy of his childhood sexual trauma.* It brought back to me why I wanted to practice psychoanalysis. He describes his therapist as that person who stood next to him as he unmade his world, and who wouldn’t let go until he made it anew. The relation between an analyst and analysand can provide a holding environment that enables reparation.
PS: What’s next? What other projects are in the works?
LL: As a scholar, I am trying to put together an anthology of some of Sedgwick’s writing, but I don’t want to say more about this since it is still very much in the works. This summer I will complete a film inspired by Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals. It is a critical commentary and poetic reflection on the politicized, public sphere of illness through the voices of twenty-six health care advocates, artists, writers, activists, and current and former patients. The project is prompted by the question of what it means to “re-vision” this seminal text, “re-vision” in the sense Adrienne Rich prescribes when she says that to re-vision critical texts can be for women of color a strategy of survival. I am also in the final stages of a mixed media installation in collaboration with H. Lan Thao Lam, who teaches in Fine Arts at Parsons. We shot the video component of the installation back in 2012 at the Vienna Freud Museum, following in the footsteps of Edmund Engelman who took the well-known photographs of Freud’s home and offices at Berggasse 19 on the eve of Freud’s exile from Austria. We are currently working on sculptural mash-ups composed of figurines modeled on Freud’s favorite statues from his massive antiquity collection and Transformer toy parts. They are kind of like prosthetic gods for the present moment.
*The sexual assault allegations against Diaz that have emerged after his essay, and this conversation with Public Seminar, were published underscore the pressing need for victims of trauma to seek therapy lest they risk repeating and inflicting the trauma upon others.
An excerpt from Chapter 3
Object-Love in the Later Writings of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
In her primer on living with advanced breast cancer, literary critic and queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick tells a perplexing joke that she has brooded over increasingly as she gets deeper into her own cancer experience. Someone asks a farmer about his pig’s wooden leg. The farmer goes into a long story with many examples of how the pig saved his son’s life, his daughter’s and her boyfriend’s, and his own with progressively extraordinary feats of ingenuity that far exceed anything a pig would be capable of. But despite reciting the details of the pig’s heroism, the farmer never explains why it has a wooden leg. Finally, the inquiring man beseeches the farmer to speak more directly, and the farmer says he thinks it should be obvious: You don’t eat a pig like that all at once. This odd tale can be seen as an analogy for living with cancer as a process of attrition in which corporeal wholeness is gradually eroded.
The allegory of the pig whose life and bodily integrity are subject to both danger and conservation encapsulates the major themes of this chapter. It supplies an open-ended instruction on survival, it ruminates upon death through gallows humor, it involves prosthetic part-objects, it grimly delights in the disassembling of the body into fragments, and unexpectedly it has to do with love. Who loves whom and how that love is shown is put into question.
Sedgwick was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1991. She lived with cancer for eighteen years before succumbing to it in 2009. As in the case of Audre Lorde, her cancer supplied the occasion to reﬂect upon what is entailed in continued survival in the face of loss. Sedgwick’s later writing mediates her relation to loss and mortality and demonstrates how she learns to come to terms with enduring an illness without cure. In addressing her attitudes toward “living on” as a slow process of dying, she formulates a pedagogy of love in such writings as her contributions to MAMM, a magazine for “women, cancer, and community,” and A Dialogue on Love, a memoir of her therapy. These two bodies of writing deal explicitly with illness and are arguably the least studied of her oeuvre — at least this is the case for the MAMM articles. Sedgwick’s “cancer journalism” and Dialogue represent a public discourse on love, which is intended to be used as “good pedagogy” to counteract the “bad pedagogy” of received knowledges from which threatened groups (queer, disabled, racially othered, poor, diversely shaped, to name a few) do not proﬁt. In her later writings, Sedgwick learns how to grasp what sustains her by paradoxically letting go. One can view this as letting go of a desire for wholeness by embracing her own dissolution. By disseminating pieces of herself in her published works Sedgwick strives to serve as an instrument for good pedagogy. Detaching herself from the need to be the sole author of her experience, she mobilizes the destruction of cancer and its treatment into a process of collective reparative work — with her therapist and with her readers. These reparative labors are acts of impersonal and anonymous love. Through a generalized care for the world, Sedgwick learns to care for herself as an object of love.
A Public Discourse of Love
MAMM was conceived by Sean Strub, founder of POZ, a publication targeted to an HIV-positive or AIDS demographic. The ﬁrst consumer magazine geared to people affected by breast and gynecologic cancers hit newsstands in October 1997 and was discontinued in 2009. Survival was an issue for MAMM since its inception. Initially its subtitle was “Courage, Respect and Survival” before it was changed to “Women, Cancer and Community.” Cynthia Ryan titles her ethnographic study of editorial practices at MAMM “Struggling to Survive,” foregrounding the rhetoric of survival that perennially attends cancer discourse and placing it within the ﬁnancial constraints of a periodical that seeks to uphold high standards of medical journalism, while retaining advertising loyalty. MAMM’s predicted viability was initially favorable, given the one in eight women in this country to which it would presumably appeal, but its advertising base quickly and steadily declined soon after its initial publication. Despite the fact that both magazines jointly won the Village Voice best health/lifestyle award in 2002, POZ , initiated four years earlier than MAMM, has outlived its sister publication and continues to this day.
In its June/July 1998 issue, MAMM published Sandy Fernandez’s history of the pink ribbon that has now become synonymous with breast cancer culture. Fernandez traces the pink ribbon initially to the yellow ribbons that signaled hope for the safe return of Iranian hostages, then to the iconic red AIDS ribbons, and last to a conﬂuence of Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation’s distribution of pink ribbons at its 1991 New York City Race for the Cure and a collaboration between Self magazine and Estée Lauder that resulted in 1.5 million pink ribbons being distributed at cosmetic counters across the country. This was the beginning of a mass mediatization of breast cancer culture in North America where malls and websites ﬂood potential consumers with sneakers (Lace Up for the Cure), food processors (Cook for the Cure), and even toilet paper graced with pink ribbons to beneﬁt the irreproachable cause of “breast cancer awareness.” As Gayle Sulik succinctly puts it in Pink Ribbon Blues, “breast cancer is an illness that now functions as a concept brand.” In an inﬂuential 2001 Harpers article, Barbara Ehrenreich lambasts what she calls the “cult of pink kitsch.” She underscores the infantilization of women who are offered pink teddy bears upon diagnosis with her often quoted, pithy retort: “Certainly men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not receive gifts of Matchbox cars.” In league with Ehrenreich, Marita Sturken identiﬁes the teddy bear as the poster child of “comfort culture.” Situated at the intersection of trauma and consumerism, the teddy bear has a depoliticizing function meant to reinforce the idea that hardships need only be endured — rather than actively interrogated as an impetus for change — with the help of a product that will make them “bearable.”
Not long after Ehrenreich’s critique of what she would later label the ideology of positive thinking, Breast Cancer Action (BCA), an activist organization based in San Francisco, launched its “Think Before You Pink” campaign. BCA coined the term “pinkwashing” to refer to the hypocrisy of corporations that prey upon consumer’s charitable feelings to market products whose manufacture either cause cancer or are linked to the disease. Pink buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Estée Lauder’s pink ribbon cosmetics are two of the worst culprits. Sulik woefully summarizes the depleted discourse that circulates in contemporary breast cancer culture: “Courage. Strength. Goodness. Hope. Fight. Survive. Win. . . . The war on breast cancer when united with pink femininity leaves few other words from which to choose, and we speak with the words we have.”
Although Ehrenreich cites MAMM as complicit in the compulsory optimism of breast cancer culture, Ryan argues that MAMM’s staff explicitly attempts to counter the “traditional restitution narrative.” Instead, their mission is one that Sedgwick would share as a contributing editor, to produce a manual for surviving with cancer, one that does not portray the cancer “survivor” as necessarily restored to an ideal of wholeness but as struggling with the disruptions of living with a chronic disease. The original editor, Regan Solmo, announced in its ﬁrst issue that MAMM was a “guide to life. For anyone living with or affected by cancer.” This is an apt description of Sedgwick’s goals in “Off My Chest,” which performs love as a public discourse within a scene of identiﬁcation and instruction.
In a review for the Lesbian and Gay Studies Newsletter, Sedgwick recounts how the medical editor of a local daily newspaper in Durham County, North Carolina, phoned her because he wanted a human angle on his piece and had heard that she was public about her diagnosis. Her conversation with the reporter suggests some of her motivations for undertaking her own cancer journalism. They spar for a bit:
REPORTER: So tell me, I know it isn’t lucky to have cancer, but do you feel you’re lucky that your cancer was detected early?
EKS: It wasn’t detected early. And even “early” isn’t early. According to current understandings of breast cancer, by the time it’s detectable on a mammogram or by touch, it’s already systemic.
REPORTER: But they got it all?
EKS: What part of the word “systemic” don’t you understand?
The reporter then asks if Sedgwick has any advice for other women. Sedgwick replies that she has lots of advice for women diagnosed with cancer. But the reporter corrects her, saying he was looking for advice for the “average woman.” Sedgwick responds that she hasn’t any except to avoid growing up ﬁve blocks from a major toxic incinerator.
Though this journalist did not seek her advice, Sedgwick was eager to offer it to the people whom she thought she could help, those who suffered from cancer. Her advice column, “Off My Chest,” appeared in MAMM from February 1998 until January 2003. The recurrent illustration that accompanied her column was the image of a telephone, as if Sedgwick were waiting for a call from someone unlike the aforementioned journalist for whom she could be of use. Much like the psychoanalyst whom Freud compared to a telephone receiver, positioned to hear the patient’s messages, Sedgwick might have symbolically embodied the telephone. On the other hand, she may very well have used the column as a forum in which to work through her own confusions and fears regarding her cancer which had metastasized by the time she began contributing to the magazine. In an interview that took place in January 2000, she confessed to making up all the letters because, much as she wished for correspondents, no one wrote in for advice. Composed in a populist, highly accessible and humorous style that skillfully reproduces the advice column genre, “Off My Chest” lands somewhere between talking to herself and talking to another. It has its ambiguity of voices in common with Dialogue, which I will elaborate upon later in this chapter. In her MAMM articles, Sedgwick gets to play both roles at once, the distraught, complaining, or bewildered questioner and the more settled, stable, sage advisor. Interestingly this multiplicity of selves materializes in her advice column moniker, email@example.com, which reads as many Eves inviting you to “get it off your chest.”
Advice is by deﬁnition proffered at the onset of a problem. Sedgwick-as-Eve positions herself (or the team of Eves position themselves) as problem solver(s). The problem is how to survive a grave illness. Cynthia Franklin argues that Dialogue “extends to readers a form of impersonal intimacy, one that allows for forms of identiﬁcation that make useful the narcissistic impulse of the therapy and one that provides provocative crossings between the private and the public, the personal and the political, the intimate and the public.”
Sedgwick’s contributions to MAMM function similarly, albeit through a distinctly different style and format. By virtue of the shared narcissistic injury of cancer diagnosis she prompts identiﬁcations that move across the private and public, the personal and the political, stimulating their interpenetrations. When she ﬁrst publicly disclosed her diagnosis, she maintained that her purpose was to be available for identiﬁcation. “It’s as though there were transformative political work to be done just by being available to be identiﬁed with in the very grain of one’s illness.” Additionally, Sedgwick regarded it her task to make people smarter, as she describes it in Dialogue.
These two persistent goals — identiﬁcation and instruction — are entwined and come under the rubric of “love.” Identiﬁcation, a necessary step toward the capacity for object-love, is a mode of learning. Freud connects love as identiﬁcation to education, which helps us to both differentiate ourselves from and bind ourselves to sociality. He makes this connection through the ﬁgure of the poet, a ﬁgure to which Sedgwick had a life-long devotion. The poet, for Freud, submits himself as the ﬁrst ego ideal, much like Sedgwick aspired to in setting herself up as a model for identiﬁcation. Through his invention of heroic myth, the poet hands out imaginative advice on the nature of living and loving. Through her invention of “Eves,” an alter ego ideal who alternately takes the position of heroic leader and supplicant, Sedgwick doles out instructions on how to care for ourselves by identifying with her, which is to say, by loving her.
To understand identiﬁcation as a form of love, it is useful to examine how Freud came to view identiﬁcation as foundational to the formation of the ego. In his most extensive rumination on identiﬁcation, which tellingly appears in his commentary on group psychology, Freud states more than once that identiﬁcation is “the earliest expression of an emotional tie with another person,” or “the original form of emotional tie with an object.” Referring to his thesis that in cases of melancholia the attachment to a lost loved object takes an inward turn toward the self and is replaced by an identiﬁcation, he asserts: “To the ego . . . living means the same as being loved.” By this account, life consists of the love of others who have been taken into the self. And this does not only apply to those suffering melancholia. In The Ego and the Id, Freud realizes that replacing a lost object with an identiﬁcation is, in fact, typical, and furthermore, that it may be the very means by which the ego is built, providing, as Deborah Britzman says, the “raw material for character.” The process by which a love object that is lost or abandoned becomes a part of the ego resembles something of a love story itself. As Freud narrates it, “When the ego assumes the features of the object [that is, when it undergoes a process of identiﬁcation] it is forcing itself . . . upon the id as a love-object and is trying to make good the id’s loss by saying: ‘Look, you can love me too — I am so like the object.’” Not only is this a transcript of love, but it is also one of reparation.
Permission to excerpt from Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects: Fractured Subjectivity in the Face of Cancer was provided by Fordham University Press.
Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects: Fractured Subjectivity in the Face of Cancer, published by Fordham University Press, can be purchased online here.
Lana Lin is a writer, artist, filmmaker, and Associate Professor in the School of Media Studies, The New School, whose research and creative practice addresses how psychic life is inflected by race, gender, and disability.