The return of the repressed: Freud, psychoanalysis and bisexuality.
Freud is probably one of the most well known theorists on bisexuality and it is to him and psychoanalysis that we turn in Chapter 3 of A History of Bisexuality. Freud’s main factors for subject formation (i.e. identity) and psychosexual development (i.e. sexuality) were the axes of identification (who am i?) and desire (what do I desire?) (62). Angelides proposes that bisexuality was both foundational in Freud’s psycho-science of gender and sexuality, at the same time as not being fully avowed in the present tense, linking back to the conclusion of the previous chapter.
Throughout, I get a sense of Angelides generosity towards Freud, which is sometimes not present in much writing on gender and sexuality. It’s not a total acceptance or embrace of Freud’s thought, but a willingness to recognise how much Freud contributed to the discourse of human sexuality while simultaneously acknowledging that much of his work reinforced a monosexual framework. We’re shown that Freud did have the intention of completing a theory of bisexuality, but it never came to fruition. The reason for this is ambiguous, but Angelides proposes it is because Freud was unable to develop a theory of bisexuality that would be in harmony with his conception of the Oedipus complex.
At the beginning of the chapter there is a short discussion of a quote from Lance Spurr, claiming that ‘bisexuality is a state of mind, not a sexual practice. No one is bisexual at any given moment.’ The idea of sexual desire and gendered desire is separated in this understanding, leading to the belief that ‘in a menage à trois, for example, the two ‘specific sexual desires’ experienced by one person with two opposite gendered objects cannot be experienced simultaneously’ (50). It’s fairly obvious that Angelides wants to put this notion into question, but its presence here at the beginning of the chapter relates to Freud in its resemblance to monosexual desire, rather that the possibility of sexual desire being unrelated to a specific gendered object.
Following this, we’re then given the context in which Freud’s thoughts on sexuality emerged. This begins with the study of biology, zoology, and physiology, following the evolutionary thought of Darwin and Lamarck. A quote from Darwin affirms the primordial theories of bisexuality from the previous chapter are ever present for Freud: ‘some extremely remote progenitor of the whole vertebrate kingdom appears to have been hermaphrodite or androgynous’ (51). A friend and mentor, Wilhelm Fliess, introduced Freud to the idea of biological bisexuality, described as the ‘the new axiomatic concept of hegemonic evolutionism’ (51). Freud states that ‘long-familiar facts of anatomy lead us to suppose that an originally bisexual physical disposition has, in the course of evolution, become modified into a unisexual one, leaving behind a few traces of the sex that has become atrophied’ (52), again showing the idea of a prior biological hermaphroditism, now ‘grown out of‘ after the third month of embryonic life, was crucial to Freud’s thoughts on bisexuality. Freud and Fliess corresponded on the topic, and Fliess seems to have been a huge influence on Freud, until, Angelides writes ‘Freud attempted to transform and distance himself from [biology and Fleiss] in order to claim the independence of psychoanalysis’ (52). Freud seemingly appropriated Fleiss’ thoughts on bisexuality and translated them into psychoanalytic theory, while trying to eradicate the links and influences from elsewhere. Knowing this history is important, as it accentuates that the evolutionary and primordial conception of bisexuality is inherent in Freud’s psychic conception. Indeed, Freud admits himself that ‘Since I became acquainted with the notion of bisexuality…I have regarded it as the decisive factor, and without taking bisexuality into account I think it would scarcely be possible to arrive at an understanding of the sexual manifestations that are actually to be observed in men and women’ leading Angelides to comment that ‘Bisexuality provided the very substratum of psychoanalytic theory’ (53).
Despite this, Freud felt unable to work bisexuality into his theory, admitting ‘I have no idea yet why I cannot yet fit it together [the psychological and the organic]’, and later, ‘The fact of psychological bisexuality…embarrasses all our enquiries into the subject and makes them harder to describe’ (54). It was both presupposed as a biological foundation, and denied: dis/avowed. Thus, according to Angelides, bisexuality was an enigma, or the ‘aporia of Freudian thought’ (54). [Again, this strikes me as another reading which situates bisexuality as a deconstructive term, both present and absent, echoing Derrida’s notion of the supplement and pharmakon.]
Moving on from here, Angelides looks at how Freud relates bisexuality to the Oedipus Complex, of which there is an excellent summary, but I won’t rehash it here – other than to quote a basic description: ‘the triangular relation between mother, father and child, is the manifestation of psychic conflicts arising from the erotic strivings of the child for his parents and the complex interaction of love and competition among them’ (55). In the development of the child, we are shown that through repression of one of your ‘instinctual impulses’ (i.e. sexual attraction to women, and sexual attraction to men apparently, not just sexual desire) (58), bisexuality is overcome and one’s identity becomes stabilised in relation to which gender you are sexually attracted: subject formation and object choice respectively. Via the castration complex, the penis is ‘the decisive factor in both male and female sexuality’ (57) for Freud, demonstrating the heteronormativity implicit in his psychoanalysis. Again, I won’t rehash this detail specifically, but the important factor is how Freud came to see how both male and female children to go through various stages of mother-identification and father-identification, and by way of a myth makes the ‘proper’ outcome of sexual object choice to be a man’s desire for a woman, via killing his father, and a woman’s desire to be with a man, via hating her mother (I said I wouldn’t rehash it, but I have. The book does this in a much more sophisticated manner, while also being less crass.) Thus, the problem of ‘original’ or ‘biological’ bisexuality is introduced into the Oedipus complex and, subsequently dealt with via repression. Freud admits that bisexuality makes the Oedipus complex difficult for him, and claims that ‘the ambivalence displayed in the relations to the parents should be attributed entirely to bisexuality, and that it is not…developed out of identification in consequence of rivalry’ (58). Angelides seems here to get a little frustrated with Freud, who always seems to be pushing things to fit into his schema, and then inserting catch all phrases at the end of his conclusions to ‘cover all bases.’ Angelides says that in ‘moments of theoretical stalemate’ Freud defers to biology, myth, and phylogeny (yes I had to look this up – phylogenesis: the evolutionary development and diversification of a species or group of organisms. My paraphrase, men like women and women like men cos it’s in our nature!) leading to the tidy and helpful conclusion that ‘The elucidation of the mystical masculine and feminine dispositions to which Freud had recourse in order to conceal strategically the arbitrariness of identification, however, remained, as he himself conceded, wholly within the province of biology not psychoanalysis’ (61). It is the closeness and complicity of evolutionary biology with psychoanalysis that is again being pointed to here. Which, leads to the psychoanalytic understanding that the ‘‘normal’ heterosexual child progresses along an evolutionary line from an immature and originally bisexual disposition passing through the (racialized) axis of identification to the apposite form of ‘civilized’, mature, genital sexuality’ (61). If the child does not repress thoroughly enough, then homosexual desire arises i.e. arrested development: missing the full development and progression of human sexuality through to fixation on the opposite sex. Bisexuality was not thought of in these terms because it’s primitive status was too ‘far back’ along evolutionary lines to be a form of arrested development, and thus was erased as a sexuality and conceived of as neurosis, inversion, hysteria or regression.
Bisexuality was thus a problem for Freud, designated as immature, uncivilized, regressive: not the sexual orientation of an fully functioning adult. The desire for both sexes meant that Freud’s theory of identification and desire were disrupted. And if these things were not stable, then, well….call the police! I don’t know what the issue was/is, but it certainly was an issue for Freud. In a heteronormative Victorian society, where heterosexual desire was accepted and anything else was not, even though Freud went a long way to develop sexology via psychoanalysis, he was still enable to disrupt his societal and cultural limitations. [I wonder if Freud ever had bisexual tendencies himself, and if not whether this stopped his theories progressing?] In relation to traditional psychoanalysis, and its emphasis on identification and desire, bisexuality is thought to be ‘slippery’ as it ‘highlights the extent to which the one (identification) does not precede the other (desire), but is made possible by it’, leading Angelides to demonstrate the difficulty more clearly: ‘For to identify is to repress bisexual desire and to desire is to repress bisexual identify; yet to identify and desire is to be pre-disposed bisexually’ (63). This perhaps signals a train of thought that might suggest identification, and identity politics ‘is not the right project’ (to quote a close companion!). It might also suggest that desire is not equatable with identification and vice versa.
Angleides argues that Freud’s point of departure was his point of return: bisexuality. It came up at the beginning in this biological research; through Fleiss; disrupted the Oedipus complex; and could not be accepted as a sexual identity, but rather allowed one to switch between homosexual and heterosexual identification. Bisexuality’s difficulty lead Freud to write at the end of his life that psychological bisexuality ‘embarrasses all our enquiries into the subject’ (65). Bisexuality could ultimately not be resolved, to which Angelides says ‘Freud was forced to learn the most difficult of his own teaching on the unconscious: that in some form or another the repressed always returns’ (68).
In conclusion then, we are told again that ‘Freud, unlike most of his predecessors, certainly offered a far more sophisticated analysis [of human sexuality] through the incorporation of repression, the unconscious, and fantasy…However, he was confronted with the same conundrum that underpinned the work of all the sexologists of the period: the inability, or rather, impossibility, of elucidating the biological bedrock upon which theories of sexuality were grounded’ (68). A quote from Guy Hocquenghem details how the concept of bisexuality divided biology from psychology, and thus nature from culture, body from mind etc, and was therefore complicit in upholding all those other oppressive binaries, hetero/homo, male/female, etc, which often make people not want to go near psychoanalysis with a barge pole. Thus, bisexuality was used as a figure to reproduce (hetero)sexuality and repress other sexualities. This attitude has led to the erasure of two forms of bisexuality, according to Angelides. ‘First, all individuals are precluded, or rather prohibited, from experiencing a form of sexual desire that is not determined by the gender of object choice. Second, it appears to be a structural impossibility to distribute one’s sexual desire over two (or more) gendered objects simultaneously’ (70).
The first point here relates to how bisexuality is always prefigured in gendered terms – and raises the question of why sexual desire always has to be related to a gendered object. Interesting, no? Perhaps this is where a discussion of pansexuality will need to be addressed.
And secondly, I’m excited to see the notion of simultaneity here, as it recalls questions I’ve asked in my thesis, and discussions on Derrida with my supervisor. So it’s nice to see it appearing here in a different context. Maybe I’m getting closer to figuring out why my need for both/and rather than either/or has always been important, even if I’ve resisted this attitude along the way. It also makes me feel like sorting through my personal shit is a good plan for finishing my thesis!
[I know there are some long and convoluted sentences above. I’ll try and re-work some of them later. 🙂 ]