The Centre for Philosophy and Critical Thought, Goldsmiths University of London

Research Centre run jointly between the Departments of Sociology and English and Comparative Literature at Goldsmiths University, London

Introduction: The Time of Neurosis — Benjamin Noys (Neurosis, Poetry, and the Present, 18 March 2017)

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The following text was first presented at Neurosis, Poetry, and the Present, a workshop organized by Daniel Katz and Benjamin Noys at CPCT on 18 March 2017. 


The Time of Neurosis

Benjamin Noys (2017)

Noys fig 1

The term neurosis was first coined by the Scottish doctor William Cullen in his work of 1777 First Lines of the Practice of Physic. Discussing ‘Neurosis or Nervous Diseases’ Cullen deals with what we would call mental illness but also with diseases we would characterise as organic, such as dyspepsia, cardiac palpitations and colic. This form of confusion, at least from our point of view, persisted in the nosology of neurosis. In their very useful entry on ‘Neurosis’ in The Language of Psycho-Analysis, from which I’ve already been drawing, [1] Jean Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis detail how this classification of disease of the nervous system in the nineteenth century continued to group together disorders we would differentiate as psychosomatic, neurological, and neurosis ‘proper’. This ‘original amalgam’, as they put it, was progressively differentiated over time. Freud also belongs to this lineage in gradually differentiating between ‘actual neuroses’, which result from somatic disorders in sexuality, and ‘psychoneuroses’, in which psychical conflict is the source. Freud would eventually distinguish between actual neuroses, neuroses, narcissistic neuroses, and psychoses. The field, however, remains in a tension between defining neuroses by symptoms and by structure. Laplanche and Pontalis conclude:

The task of trying to define neurosis, as revealed by clinical experience, in terms of the comprehension of the concept of neurosis, tends to become indistinguishable from the psycho-analytic theory itself, in that this theory was basically constituted as a theory of neurotic conflict and its modes. (269; emphasis in original)

So, perhaps not particularly helpfully, the elaboration of neurosis comes to overlap with the elaboration of psychoanalysis.

Noys fig 2

Certainly it is worth noting that in regard to the formalisation of psychoanalysis by Lacan and his followers perversion, with the mechanism of disavowal (‘I know very well [the mother has no penis], but all the same [here is a fetish that stands in for that]), and psychosis, with the mechanism of foreclosure (the rejection of the Name-of-the-Father from the Symbolic returns in the Real), seem to have a sounder structural definition that neurosis, with the more general mechanism of repression. Neurotic symptoms would be the result of the ‘failure’ of repression (for Freud no repression can, by definition, be entirely successful), which means conflicts of early infantile experiences of sexuality re-emerge and conflict with the ego and so over-determine our current behaviour. [2] This is the famous mechanism of ‘deferred action’, in which a ‘second trauma’ reactivates a ‘first trauma’, and so scrambles linear temporalities. Part of our interest in neurosis is out of this fracturing of temporality. The neurotic is the one who suffers from what returns and what returns is a rupture in the field of sexuality.

Noys fig 3

We could risk a characterisation of neurosis based on Lacan’s notion of the ethics of psychoanalysis as ‘not giving way on desire’ and suggesting that the neurotic ‘gives way on their desire’. Wrapped in conflict with their desire, the neurotic delays and prevaricates, expressing symptoms in the form that express these desires in compromise formations. Enjoyment, which is to say sexual enjoyment or jouissance, is then taken in the symptom, in the very delays and prevarications that ‘prevent’ the fulfilment of the desire. This, at least, would be an initial sketch of the clinical picture. Our re-use of the notion of neurosis, one we are not alone in (to our surprise), [3] draws on this occlusion of neurosis by other, usually more florid, disorders. It is noticeable that in the extension of mental disorders to cultural diagnosis that perversion, schizophrenia and depression have been the disorders of choice, with neurosis usually getting some look in via its most extreme form, hysteria. In part our return to neurosis is motivated by a suspicion about this tendency to extremity and, even in the mode of critique, valorisation of extreme psychic states. Neurosis, as what we might call the absent centre, seemed to us to offer a more complex potential mapping of the disordered state of the subject. It also seemed to us to involve an attention to mediations and their discontents that more extreme characterisations tended to deliberately dissolve in ‘molecular’ or other fluxes of desire or libido. That said, we are well aware that we might merely add to the tendency to ascribe yet another pathology to contemporary life and, in the process, intensify a pathological characterisation of subjectivity.

Noys fig 4

This risk is probably compounded by the conjunction with poetry. We do not want to re-open the old debate concerning the sanity or madness of the artist, with the poet as exemplary figure (Hölderlin to Rimbaud to Artaud, etc.). Rather, I guess, we had something in mind of the ‘neurotic’ concern of poetry with language as a mediating function. We might add, borrowing and adapting Alain Badiou’s point re Marxism, that to practice poetry today is to practice a weakness. So, this unlikely and problematic conjunction speaks to us, although even we do not agree on exactly how, of the problems of subjectivity and mediation that tend today, which I think we would agree, to get collapsed. These collapsings take various forms: from the voiding of subjectivity in the various materialisms and realisms, new and speculative respectively, to those political historicisations, Jamesonian or communising, which also void the subject except as subject of the structure or historical passage to communism. To insist on neurosis and poetry, thought together, is to resist that collapse. Such resistance may, certainly, remains gestural and even obdurate or negative. At the same time, we also hope to open something with and through neurosis. This might not be to simply remain with neurosis or valorise the neurotic, but rather to see neurosis as one possible key to problems of temporality, language, and experience.


[1] Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London: Karnac Books, 1988), pp.266-269. Further page references in text.

[2] Sigmund Freud, ‘The Neuroses of Defence (A Christmas Fairy Tale)’, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Volume 1 (1886–1899), trans. James Strachey (London: Vintage, 2001).

[3] See the forthcoming collection The Neurotic Turn, ed. Charles Johns (Repeater 2017).

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