A Therapy of Things? Materiality and Psychoanalysis in Literature and the Visual Arts

deadline for submissions: 
April 30, 2021
full name / name of organization: 
Department of German Studies/English and American Studies, Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf

A Therapy of Things? Materiality and Psychoanalysis in Literature and the Visual Arts
Workshop at the Department of German Studies/English and American Studies, Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf

03.12.2021 & 10.12.2021 (online)

Psychoanalysis has a long, if sometimes troubled, history of being literary theory’s ally and accomplice (Felman). In the wake, however, of work in new materialism, literary theory and criticism have recently tried to move beyond such constants as ‘the symbolic’ or ‘the human subject’ (Clarke and Rossini; Herman). These constants – or so the story goes – are precisely the staples of psychoanalysis, thus apparently making psychoanalysis vulnerable to the new materialist critique of being blindly centered and premised on the human subject: compare Bruno Latour’s remark about how “the very violence” with which the Moderns “strip invisible beings of all external existence and insist on locating them only in the twists and turns of the self, the unconscious, or the neurons” reveals “a deep discomfort,” an “intense anxiety” (185). Can we approach psychoanalysis in such a way that it does contribute to a non-anthropocentric approach to literature, after all? And can we, for this purpose, rethink some of the key terms and ideas of psychoanalysis in their material dimension?

New materialism, arguably, changes our view on many of the traditional connecting points between literature and psychoanalysis: not only the subject (and the object), but also imagination and the imaginary, the unconscious, interpretation, fantasy, signification. At the same time, to say that the material world has no role to play in psychoanalysis is rather a misdiagnosis. The history of psychoanalysis abounds with iconic objects: Freud’s Wunderblock (Freud), Lacan’s blackboard or his cybernetic door (Lacan; Siegert), Guattari’s tape recorder (Schmidgen), ‘the couch’ (the therapist’s [Marinelli] as well as “the couch of the poor”: the cinema seat [Guattari]). The whole apparatus – if one may call it that – of psychoanalysis includes a media-technological arrangement of speaking-writing-recording that is hardly reducible to the conventional framing of speaking, writing and listening as forms of strictly human agency. Do technological devices and material objects have agency, do they help to produce those very subjectivities which supposedly handle and master them, do they participate in the therapeutic process? From this point of view, a complex ecology of the interior becomes visible that cautions us not to dismiss psychoanalysis all too quickly when it comes to deconstructing anthropocentrism or correlationism (Meillassoux), in literature and elsewhere. In fact, psychoanalysis argues that it has always gone beyond what Derrida calls “anthropologism” (97) – that it provides, in fact, more radical and ethically more sophisticated approaches beyond the mastery of the human subject than new materialism can (Sbriglia/Zizek).

How do literature, theatre, film, or visual arts discuss the relation between materiality and psychoanalysis? What about, say, the sound of the skull that Rainer Maria Rilke imagines in “Ur-Geräusch” (“Primal-Sound”) as an instance of the materiality of the unconscious? What about the significance of technical objects such as HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; or fetish objects as displayed in the art of Monica Bonvicini? Do surrealist programs of writing engage with materiality and psychoanalysis? What about cybernetics? – To list just a few examples of potential intersections.

Can we, through such investigations, ultimately update our understanding of both psychoanalysis and materialism/materiality? And how does literature (in the widest sense; or art) appear in the light of such readings – as meaning-making exercise of human subjects, or as something more inclusive?

We invite contributions theoretical and practical to further explore this field of tension, not only from literary and film studies but likewise from related fields in the humanities, such as media, science, cultural or art studies. These contributions might address – but need not be limited to – the following issues:

  • Materiality of the unconscious: Concepts of matter, materiality, things and objects in psychoanalysis, or generally aspects and terms of psychoanalysis that have interesting material implications, e.g. the other, drive, objet a, barring, the fetish, bodies, organisms (neurons), (media-)technological setups; but also dreams, parapraxes, and jokes.
  • Unconscious materiality: The relation of psychoanalysis to (new) materialism; possibilities for dialogue, investigations regarding not only the role and constitution of ‘subjects’ and ‘objects,’ but also a ‘therapy’ of things in relation to the symbolic and language.
  • Case studies that put psychoanalysis and/or new materialism to the test in non-anthropocentric readings of literature, theatre, film or visual arts; for instance where those texts deal with non-human actors (animals, cyborgs, machines, plants, things) or show up the material dimensions of what we are used to conceptualizing as abstract/subjective entities.

The event will take place online on two Fridays in December (Dec 3rd and Dec 10th, 2021) via zoom. We invite abstracts in English or German (max. 300 words) with bio-bibliographical information (max. 150 words) by April 30th, 2021 to the following address:
martin.bartelmus@hhu.de, friederike.danebrock@hhu.de


Clarke, Bruce and Manuela Rossini (eds.). The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Posthuman. Cambridge UP, 2016.
Derrida, Jacques. Resistances of Psychoanalysis. Stanford UP, 1998.
Felman, Shoshana. Literature and Psychoanalysis. The Question of Reading: Otherwise. Yale French Studies, no. 55/56, 1977.
Freud, Sigmund. “Notiz über den Wunderblock.” Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse, XI./1, 1925, pp. 1–5.
Guattari Félix. Die Couch des Armen. b_books, 2011.
Herman, David. Narratology Beyond the Human. Storytelling and Animal Life. Oxford UP, 2018.
Lacan, Jacques. “The Freudian Thing, or the Meaning of the Return to Freud in Psychoanalysis.” Écrits. A selection, Routledge, 2005, pp. 87-110.
Latour, Bruno. An Inquiry into the Modes of Existence. An Anthropology of the Moderns. Harvard UP, 2013.
Marinelli, Lydia. “Vorstellungen eines Möbels.” Die Couch. Vom Denken im Liegen, Prestel, 2006, pp. 7-30.
Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude. Continuum, 2008.
Sbriglia, Russell and Slavoj Žižek. “Introduction: Subject Matters.” Subject Lessons. Hegel, Lacan, and the Future of Materialism, Northwestern UP, 2020, pp. 3-30.
Schmidgen, Henning. Die Guattari-Tapes. Merve, 2019.
Siegert, Bernhart. Cultural Techniques: Grids, Doors, and Other Articulations of the Real. Fordham UP, 2015.