Frederick Crews Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Criticism and the Empirical Attitude: Conversation with Frederick Crews, Professor Emeritus of English, UC Berkeley; 8/24/99 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Dissent in the Academy

Now, let's talk a little about the academy during your career and whether the principles that you just enunciated retain their vitality in the humanities. I guess you would conclude that they didn't. What are the strengths and the weaknesses of the university insofar as it tolerates dissent and creates a discourse which is rational?

Well of course, the university exists to court differences of opinion, but principled differences of opinion. What's happened in the humanities is a general assault on the idea of the empirical, the very idea of the rational, which is now associated with such social evils as racism, patriarchy, and so forth. And in the vacuum that is created by this denigration of the empirical, nothing is left but cliquishness, nothing is left but power. And this can all be put very concretely in terms of tenure decisions. A person submits a body of work for evaluation so that he or she can be retained for the rest of the career or fired. On what basis is this work to be evaluated? Well, if there isn't a critical mass of tenured people who believe in the empirical attitude, then the work can only be evaluated according to whom it pleases, whose interests it pleases. And then it's a question of what clique you belong to and what kinds of fashionable references you're willing to make. And I must say that in my thirty-six years of teaching at Berkeley, I saw a changing of the guard in this direction that was very disturbing to me.

So the university then creates systems that don't handle dissent very well, you seem to be saying.

I think the prevalence of originality and individuality in the university has always been somewhat exaggerated -- in any era. There's always a lot more conformism among these people who regard themselves as unique than they're willing to admit. But I think there's been a qualitative leap in the wrong direction in the last twenty years.

Now how do we account for that? book cover In Skeptical Engagements you suggest that in addition to the exercise of power and the gratification that comes with choices associated with power, what was also at work was a surfeit of graduate students and a concern about what is there to study. Hasn't it all been studied ?


This sounds very cynical, but I sincerely believe that the economic crisis of the academic profession, especially in the humanities, has had a powerful methodological effect. If there are fewer and fewer places for graduate students to occupy in the profession, if there are more and more graduate students pursuing fewer and fewer places, a premium has to be placed on the sheer production of discourse. A general, unspoken fear comes over everyone that discourse is being used up, that the things that are worth saying have been said. And what this does is to place a premium on methodology that will loosen the constraints upon discourse. And certainly this is what psychoanalysis is largely about in the university. Psychoanalysis is a beautiful system of seeming "rules" which are actually licenses to arrive at prearranged conclusions in multiple ways. There are multiple paths to a conclusion one has already reached, but at no point are there constraints which threaten to decertify one's a priori belief. So the methodology acquires a value in and of itself as a free-for-all, as a hermeneutic free-for-all. And that's why empirically based objections to such a system of thought fall on deaf ears in the humanities.

And you suggest, in looking at Freudianism, and I think you're also suggesting at some point in your comments about graduate programs in English, book cover that this fits very nicely with the need to perpetuate the movement or the subfield within the discipline.

I'm not quite sure I know what you mean by "the movement."

Well, in other words, in the case of Freud, the self-validation, the closed system, contributes to what the movement achieves which is its own perpetuation, not as a scientific study but rather as a validation of Freudian psychoanalysis.

I do agree with that. And I would generalize it to characterize psychoanalysis itself. That is to say, psychoanalysis, under the guise of curing people of mental ailments, has been essentially a movement that replicates itself and whose central purpose is to replicate itself. Or as I once put it, it produces more converts than cures.

Let's talk a little about Freud, we keep coming back to that. Help us understand better how and why your thinking about him changed. At one point you say in one of your books, "I know for myself, however, that my disillusionment with psychoanalysis occurred in minute stages over many years." You've given us a sense of that, but is there anything that you would like to add?

Well, sure.

In the academic year 1965-66, I had a handsome fellowship. I had an ACLS (American Council of Learned Societies) grant and I also had a residency at the Social Sciences think tank in Palo Alto. And allegedly I was broadening and deepening my acquaintance with psychoanalysis. But what actually happened is that I came up against a lot of very sharp people, most of whom were not believers in psychoanalysis, and some of whom very helpfully sent me out to read dissenting opinions about it. And I did that reading, and I would like to be able to say that a light bulb went on and I said, "Oh God, this has been a terrible mistake." Instead I went back and started teaching my graduate seminar. That's what I did, as soon as I returned from Stanford. But in the back of my mind these doubts nagged at me and they continued to grow for about four or five years. After 1970, I couldn't offer that seminar any more. I had too many reservations. But even so, if you read the things that I wrote in the early seventies, you'll see that I was still struggling to hang onto something, something in the psychoanalytic vision. And it wasn't until 1980 that I completely washed my hands of the last hope of that kind. I think for me personally this is an important fact, that it took me so long. Because what's said about me in psychoanalytic circles is that I had the kind of sudden conversion that characterized Stalinists who then became Cold Warriors. No, it wasn't like that at all.

A lot of your reading [at Stanford] dealt with the philosophy of science? Or had you done that in an earlier period?

No, I had not done nearly enough of it in an earlier period. People like Karl Popper, who was extremely important to me, Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook, a few others -- I remember in particular an article by Nagel in a book that Hook had edited, I think, 1957 or 1959, I don't remember the date. It was just a methodological critique, no more than ten or fifteen pages, but it was absolutely unanswerable. Since it was unanswerable, I tried to turn my back on it. And then I found that I couldn't.

What were your other referents? You began reading extensively materials on Freud that were increasingly critical of the way he had practiced as a physician and a psychoanalyst.

Well as it happens, the so called "revisionist" movement in Freud studies began right around 1969-1970 with works by Paul Roazen, Henri Ellenberger, Frank Cioffi. And this movement grew to be something really quite spectacular, in my opinion. For example, Frank Sulloway's major book of 1979, Freud: Biologist of the Mind, Adolf Grünbaum's The Foundations of Psychoanalysis (1984), and then of course the publication of the uncensored Freud - Fliess letters of 1985. The implications of these studies are still just beginning to be felt, but they are quite revolutionary, and that's why the last book that I did was an anthology of revisionist Freud studies, to try to give the general literate public a sampling of this absolutely stunning new knowledge of the difference, the gap, between Freud's claims and what he was actually experiencing and doing at the time that his claims cover.

And so it was more than that he was a bad scientist. In some ways, he was a charlatan.

He was a charlatan. In 1896 he published three papers on the ideology of hysteria claiming that he had cured X number of patients. First it was thirteen and then it was eighteen. And he had cured them all by presenting them, or rather by obliging them to remember, that they had been sexually abused as children. In 1897 he lost faith in this theory, but he'd told his colleagues that this was the way to cure hysteria. So he had a scientific obligation to tell people about his change of mind. But he didn't. He didn't even hint at it until 1905, and even then he wasn't clear. Meanwhile, where were the thirteen patients? Where were the eighteen patients? You read the Freud - Fleiss letters and you find that Freud's patients were leaving at the time. By 1897 he didn't have any patients worth mentioning, and he hadn't cured any of them, and he knew it perfectly well. Well, if a scientist did that today, of course he would be stripped of his job. He would be stripped of his research funds. He would be disgraced for life. But Freud was so brilliant at controlling his own legend that people can hear charges like this, and even admit that they're true, and yet not have their faith in the system of thought affected in any way.

So what is the way that he succeeded, then?

He succeeded in presenting himself to the public -- through a highly organized propaganda machine, by the way, which is what he turned the International Psychoanalytic Association into -- he succeeded in presenting himself as the personification of a certain kind of Nietzschean courage combined with scientific rigor, an ascetic responsibility that was attuned to the spirit of the times, namely anti-Victorianism. The Western world was ready to overthrow a very tired-looking, Christianizing moral order and to give more sway to the instinctual side of life, sex in particular. And Freud portrayed himself as a person who reluctantly but courageously faced the twin demons of sex and aggression and, like Prometheus or like some other Greek god who goes into the underworld, he came back to Earth with these pieces of dangerous knowledge and he tamed them and made them accessible to us so that we can now be cured of our neurotic ailments, thanks to him. He turned himself into a god, a kind of man-god, and people fell for it, and at a certain point I fell for it.

But there were particular ways and instruments by which he even moved beyond the power that came from being suitable for the times, so to speak. I mean, he established a small group that would put out disinformation about those who opposed his theories.

That's right. The group was called The Committee, and it consisted of his closest associates, people like [Sandor] Ferenczi and [Ernest] Jones, just a handful of people. They had a secret ring. They had a kind of blood oath. And their mission was to propagate Freud's ideas, but specifically whatever ideas Freud felt were proper at the time. So as Freud's views changed, their views changed. And what they did was to slander his enemies and to prevent them from having access to the relevant journals. Jung, I think, was the very first victim of this movement, because it was formed in response to the threat that Freud perceived from Jung's dissidence from him around 1912. The whole thing went on until about 1926 in complete secrecy, and its existence was not acknowledged until about 1940. But it was a propaganda apparatus, and a very, very successful one.

So that in many ways, and you point this out in Skeptical Engagements, there are similarities between Freud's movement and the Communist movement.

There certainly are similarities, and it goes pretty deep, because ultimately Freud and Marx are twin theorists of the unconscious. For Marx, we are unconscious of the interests that shape our consciousness. We think we have these ethical values, but what we really have are our class interests based on our position in the structure of manufacturing and ownership. For Freud, the unconscious is that which harbors our shameful, instinctual life. And so our conscious life is a compromise between these feelings that we can't acknowledge and all of the influence of the superego which tries to deny it. Well, if you take these two views of the unconscious, you'll find that both of them cast ordinary people in a very belittling light. Ordinary people are not aware of what's truly motivating them. They need to be told what's motivating them, which means they need to be ruled. And if you read Civilization and its Discontents, which is, I think, the most overrated book ever written, you will find Freud talking about America and its democracy and how what it really needs is a strong, central leader. The people seem to think that they know what they want, but of course they don't. They can't rule themselves; it's an unruly country. I find it fascinating that Freud's politics lean toward this authoritarianism that is ultimately implicit in the theory itself.

You speak of your notion of learning as involving "keen debate, not reverence for great books, historical consciousness and self-reflection, not supposedly timeless values, and continual expansion of our national canon." You're talking about American literature, but the very things you just described about Marx and Freud go against that, really. They're trying to stifle debate as they offer this narcotic about the forces that are gripping either the mind or the world.

Well, I think that's absolutely right, even though Freud and Marx both were cultivated people who enjoyed and appreciated the arts. So the primary influence of their authoritarianism wasn't exercised in the field of commentary about the arts.

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