UCL European Institute


Siblings in Psychoanalysis

29 February 2016, 12:00 am

Siblings in Psychoanalysis

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The psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell will deliver a keynote at the conference on Siblings and Psychoanalysis. Here, she examines the oft-neglected role that siblings play in psychoanalytic enquiry and argues that an understanding and exploration of this lateral axis of relationships is vital.
29 February 2016
Juliet Mitchell

Siblings and Psychoanalysis has at its core the question: are siblings and their heirs mere inheritors from [CEL1] parents when it comes to unconscious processes and the structures of the mind? The question is crucial; the answer is not so easy. Psychoanalysis is not alone when, in making a shibboleth of the Oedipus complex, it is obeying a cultural tendency to assign everything to a schema that we can call the vertical axis - relationships that go up and down between mothers and babies, children and fathers. Vertical relations are clearly crucial, but siblings, sisters and brothers, among themselves clearly operate along a horizontal axis of lateral not lineal relations. What, if any, are the implications of this distinction? What effect does the distinction have (or not have) on psychoanalytical clinical practice and its theory? In turn what might psychoanalysis be able to tell us about siblings and their heirs that would help us to understand better our individual and collective psychic and social world?

We need first to consider the object of psychoanalytic enquiry: the unconscious mind. We know that what is unconscious determines much of how we psychically exist as human beings; we know for instance that the way we think in dreams is not at all the same as the way we think consciously or even as the way we might think about something we have forgotten but that if we try hard we can remember. Remembering a dream does not explain what it might mean. Freud, as did Darwin or Einstein in other fields, started a new field of knowledge of what and how we can learn about these unconscious processes. If we are to consider what might be an addition to the field, it helps to go back to Freud's work so that the argument can start from the same agreed basis as other changes and developments that have been made since his time.

Freud was a successful practitioner in the so-called 'hard-sciences'. These were to be his model for psychoanalysis; this meant first and foremost an empirical and observational context from which to develop its theories. The emerging practice and theory developed together and, when necessary, added, subtracted, or shifted prominence of key aspects. Freud gave a place to siblings but it was one that has been neither developed nor challenged.

This place is that in the clinical context of individual analysis, once the Oedipus complex is demolished by the castration complex, the son or daughter will follow (in the adult future) in the respective positions of father and mother, the vertical axis. However, in a mythology that was one way of creating an explanatory theory, Freud proposed that these sons and daughters, or more particularly the sons, were also brothers and together they made a contract which was the start of social life - this social life must be on the horizontal axis. Yet necessarily and correctly for the whole theory and practice, Freud also claimed that the individual and the social mind were one and the same thing. Clearly there is something here to investigate.

The story of Oedipus is that, unbeknownst to himself, the ancient Greek hero slew his father and married his mother with whom he then had children. Transposing to psychoanalysis, 'not knowing' is the story-telling equivalent of something being 'unconscious'. To become the social human species we are, we must have some things in common however variously they may be expressed. In fact all societies have some sexual relations and some acts of killing which they prohibit. Having reproductive sex with who - or whatever - represents the mother and killing who - or whatever - represents the father, would seem to be prohibited in all societies. The wish to have this illicit sex and carry out the murder is the Oedipus complex. The prohibition is the castration complex. From the position of the father (who claims sexual/reproductive rights in the mother) comes the threat to castrate any child that enacts its Oedipal wishes. The Oedipal wish together with the prohibition are repressed and internalised into our psychic unconscious so that we more-or-less obey without consciously thinking about it. We take none of this seriously until the otherwise ridiculous threat of castration suddenly and traumatically is seen as a possibility when it is recognised that the mother does not have a penis. From here what is described as 'sexual difference' is supposed to divide the female and male sexes. All this happens unconsciously among lineal relations on the vertical axis.

The story that Freud tells to match the murder of the father with the sexual desire for the mother is a myth he constructs largely from his reading in anthropology and Darwin's 'Descent of Man'. The Greek dramatists gave him Oedipus to explain his clinical discoveries; hypotheses of pre-history provide the Ur-father who kept all the women for himself and the sons who became brothers to murder him. As brothers they inaugurate society with a contract forbidding any brother either to have incest with his sister or murder his brother. This contract is about lateral relations on a horizontal axis.

The 'sibling trauma' and its other side 'the separation [from the mother] trauma' is the nuclear relationship on the long march towards the social that always surrounds us. When, at around the age of two, newly walking and talking, a human being discovers that it is no longer the one and only baby, it is forced from pre-social infancy into social childhood - whether or not it has older siblings it becomes part of a series sometimes as a unique one among unique others, sometimes as anyone among any others. The new baby replaces and thus 'annihilates' the old baby; the mother sends the old baby to play (or work) with other children - its lateral peers. Siblings expand into peers, affines, friends and, on the other side, enemies: lateral relationships for better and worse.

In psychoanalytic understanding, a psychogenic trauma such as the double whammy the toddler suffers, has both a violence from outside that breaks through any defences and from the depths inside a rising of dangerous illicit desires - incest and murder. A soldier at war (like all of us, once a toddler) will not only have the traumatising terror of imminent annihilation but he will want to rape the person who should be his sister and murder the person who should be his brother. On the creative side, respecting the mother's prohibition of sibling incest and murder - the sister with marry her brother's friend: another key conjunction on the horizontal axis that constructs our social world.

Event Information: Siblings in Psychoanalysis

Juliet Mitchell is a Professorial Research Associate and Founder Director of the MPhil/PhD Programme in Psychoanalytic Studies at UCL Psychoanalysis Unit. She is also the Founder Director of the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge, a Research Fellow at the Department of Human Geography, University of Cambridge and Fellow Emeritus of Jesus College, University of Cambridge. She is a Fellow of the British and International Psychoanalytical Societies and a Fellow of the British Academy.

(1085 words Juliet Mitchell. Cambridge Feb 2016)