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Fleshy Memory

Fleshy Memory
Kelly Oliver
Freud conceived of the ego as energetically self-contained,
though formed in relations with the maternal and paternal
figures of the Oedipal situation. In his Hegelian reading of
Freud, Lacan emphasises the relationships that give rise to
(and undermine) a sense of ego identity with his famous
account of the infant’s self-recognition through the other in
the mirror stage. In her latest book, The Interpretation ofthe
Flesh: Freud and Femininity,* Teresa Brennan goes even
further, by suggesting not only that the ego is formed
through its relations with others, but also that it is neither
self-generating nor self-contained in those relations. She
takes Lacan’s statement that ‘the unconscious is the desire
of the other’ literally and proposes a revolutionary
intersubjective theory of the drives. Brennan argues that
this splits the superego and repression so that many of the
contradictions in Freud’s theory of femininity can be
resolved. In addition, she uses her intersubjective theory of
drives to explain how, in general, women experience psychic
repression in relation to their socio-economic oppression.

Her theory has significant consequences for psychoanalytic
theory, feminist theory, and ethical theory. Here I will
develop the implications of Brennan’ s theory of drives for
feminist theory and ethical theory.

Brennan develops Freud’s theory of drives using his
account of excitations from the Project for a Scientific
Psychology and The Interpretation of Dreams. She
emphasises Freud’s theory of excitations, which is modelled on physics, rather than his theory of drives, which is
modelled on biology. Following one Freud and not the
other, Brennan provides descriptions of ego formation,
superego, repression, psychosis, Oedipal resolution and
masculinity and femininity based on a physics that circumscribes energy exchange within a spatio-temporal field
constructed through that exchange. As she explains the
physics of psychic energy, originally the foetus in utero is
literally one with its mother’s body and it is the distance and
delay that result from birth that give rise to a sense of space
and time. Both space and time arise from the exchange
between mother and infant that revolves around the infant’s

* Teresa Brennan, The Interpretation of the Flesh: Freud
and Femininity, London, Routledge, 1992. 224pp., £35.00
hb., £10.99 pb., 0 915 07498 7 hb., 0415 074495 pb.


In utero, there is no or less delay between the sense
of a need and its fulfilment. It is only after birth that
the sense of time is born of the sense of delay. Of
course this hypothesis, especially where it concerns
the origins of delay, relies on the idea of a nonreductionist materialism. It supposes some fleshy
memory of a state in which the delay between need
and fulfilment did not exist or was less, and where
subject and other were not differentiated. But it is
precisely this fleshy memory that the unconscious
construction of spatio-temporal bearings will conceal.

The gap between the need and its fulfilment creates a sense
of space and time, which in turn conceals the ‘fleshy
memory’ of an original psychophysical connection with the
mother’s body. Insofar as there is an intimate connection
between psychic and physical processes evidenced by the
ways in which emotions, traumas, and repression cause
physical’ symptoms’ , then we can suppose that the foetus is
affected by its mother’s psychophysical states since it is part
of her body.

What is striking in Brennan’s analysis is her claim that
this type of in utero psychophysical connection operates ex
utero only at a ‘slower pace’. Human beings exchange
energy through these psychophysical connections. Emotions
and affects migrate between human beings; we can hand
emotions to each other or trade affects. In fact, for Brennan,
it is the exchange of affect in the form of directed energy, or
attention, that gives the ego its coherence and identity. She
concludes that the ego is neither self-contained nor selfgenerating but rather the effect of an interplay of
intersubjective psychic forces.

These psychic forces can be either active or passive.

Brennan argues that the infant’s original identification is
with the mother’s active capacities; it is both passive and
active. The infant very literally identifies with its mother’s
activities and takes them for its own. It passively turns her
action inward. But the direction of this energy must be
reversed if the infant is to act in the world. The infant’s
passive ego must become active. For Brennan it is the
Oedipus complex that divides the passive and active forces
which coexist in the infant before the Oedipal situation.

Also it is in the Oedipal situation that active forces are
‘cemented’ to the masculine and the passive forces to the

Insofar as Brennan rejects Freud’s biological hypotheses
Radical Philosophy 65, Autumn 1993

and insists on a psychical interpretation of the drives, she
avoids biologism in her analysis of masculinity and
femininity. On her account there is a dialectic between the
socio-economic oppression of women and the association
of the feminine position with passivity. The ways in which
little girls are given (conscious or unconscious) attention
determines whether or not they will take up the feminine
position; there is no inherent link between femininity and
females. In fact, Brennan brings into focus that for Freud the
mystery of the riddle of femininity is the appearance of
femininity in men; even for Freud femininity is not restricted
to females, nor masculinity to males.

In the masculine Oedipus complex, the mother’s active
executive capacities, having been turned inward to form the
ego ideal or superego, are taken over by the masculine
position and redirected outward, while in the feminine
Oedipus complex the direction of energy remains inward:

If it is accepted that the superego predates the Oedipus
complex, the ideal resolution ofthe masculine Oedipus
complex can be read as a forging, a union of capacities
that were hitherto identified with the mother and
original superego, but come to belong to the masculine
ego. In this process, the early superego changes its
character. Before the Oedipus complex, the active
and passive experience of these executive or subjective
capacities was a fluid one; the subject was still
finding its sexual bearings. The Oedipus complex
cements the active deployment of these capacities to
the masculine position. But in the feminine case, the
capacities for attempting to and acting on reality are
reversed back to their original passive state. Femininity constitutes a passive overlay on an originally
passive experience, and this passive overlay is not
restricted to the female sex.

The difference between femininity and masculinity is the
direction of energy. The masculine directs energy outward
and is thereby able to act in the world. The feminine, on the
other hand, directs energy inward and is thereby unable to
act in the world. Brennan maintains that the direction the
drives take during the Oedipal situation is dependent upon
the attention the infant is given. Attention, directed energy,
from an external source is necessary for redirecting energy
outward and for constructing and sustaining a self-image.

Brennan describes this external attention as a kind of
support for the ego and its actions. Without this support the
ego must try to produce its own support through daydreams
and hallucinations that ultimately absorb more energy than
they produce and thereby render the subject unable to act in
the world; energy turned inward in these kinds of selfsustaining endeavours at its limit becomes self-destructive.

Brennan argues that the feminine ego gives ‘living
attention’ that provides an active self-image to the masculine
ego. Other feminist theorists have pointed out many of the
ways in which women – mothers, wives and lovers – have
traditionally performed most of the emotional labour that
supports men in their careers and public lives. Brennan’s
argument is more radical. She maintains that the feminine
Radical Philosophy 65, Autumn 1993

ego becomes a kind of receptacle for disabling affects
projected out of the masculine ego. In an aggressive but
unconscious act the masculine ego dumps its hostility and
disabling emotions onto the other and then forgets that it has
done so. In this way the feminine other contains masculine
anxiety so that he can be productive. The masculine drives
‘make the other an anchor by depositing unwanted affects
in her, and thereby secure a surplus of living attention’.

Brennan suggests that in order for a woman to ‘overcome
femininity’ she needs to reconnect ‘words to affects in a
way that preserves her identity while it facilitates acting on
reality’. This is extremely difficult if she has an inwardturned image of herself and is constantly confronted with
this image in patriarchal culture. Insofar as she takes on the
desire of the other she cannot overcome femininity on her
own. Brennan ends The Interpretation of the Flesh with a
call to action, but she does not provide any specific account
of how we can overcome femininity and become productive.

Her theory, however, provides a model for reconceiving the
fundamental relationship between self and other in such a
way that we can at least imagine the transformation of the
asymmetrical relation between masculine and feminine
egos into a reciprocal exchange between two human beings
who are both active and passive.

Brennan’s claim that the superego originates with the
mother’s executive capacities suggests that the mother
provides not only the satisfaction of physical needs, but also
a precursor to the Law of the Father. Brennan’ s suggestion
is similar to Kristeva’s notion of a law that operates within
the mother’s body. This maternal law before the law sets up
the Law of the Father and the infant’s entrance into language.

Kristeva maintains that this maternal law is·a material law
and that the logic of language operates within the body.

Brennan presents a similar argument when she concludes
that it is the in utero communication code used between
maternal body and foetus, and the infant’s fleshy memory
of this code, that set up the possibility of language. In
addition to bringing the maternal function into the centre of
psychoanalytic theory, this argument provides a new way to
conceive of the primary relation between subject and object.

Brennan, like Kristeva and Lacan, believes that a third
party is necessary in order to propel the subject into language.

Something needs to break up the infant’s dyadic dependence
on the mother. If the mother possesses this executive
function then the third term is already operating within the
dyad; the dyad is already/also a triad. This means that we
can take the relationship between the maternal body and the
foetus/infant as a model for a subject-object relationship.

The motivation for preferring this model over the HegelianLacanian one of a fight to the death is that it might help us
to imagine a relationship where identity does not require the
death or repression of the other.

In an interview with Luce Irigaray the biologist H6lene
Rouch discusses the role of the placenta as a medium of
communication within the maternal body:

It plays a mediating role on two levels. On the one
hand, it’s the mediating space between mother and
fetus, which means that there’s never a fusion of

maternal and embryonic tissues. On the other hand,
it constitutes a system regulating exchanges between
two organisms, not merely quantitatively regulating
the exchanges (nutritious substances from mother to
fetus, waste matter in the other direction), but also
modifying the maternal metabolism: transforming, ‘

storing, and redistributing maternal substances for
both her own and the fetus’ benefit. It thus establishes
a relationship between mother and fetus, enabling the
latter to grow without exhausting the mother in the
process, and yet not simply being a means for obtaining nutritious substances.

As Rouch describes it, the placenta plays the kind of
mediating role that Brennan identifies as the fleshy code
that sets up the possibility of language. The placenta is the
medium of communication between the maternal body and
the foetus. Yet at the same time these two are neither
autonomous nor identical. Within the maternal body we
have a relationship that is neither an identity nor an absolute
separation. The placenta protects the foetus from the maternal
body’s defence mechanisms; it communicates to the maternal body that the foetus is not an alien other.

When the relation between self and other becomes
ambiguous, when identity is an exchange between self and
other, then we can begin to talk about ethics. Ethics requires
a relationship between two that are neither identical nor
completely autonomous. For if they are identical there is no
relationship and therefore no ethics. And if they are
completely autonomous then there is only external law to
bind two individuals together and ground obligations to the

At this point, taking off from Brennan’s intersubjective
theory of drives and weaving it together with my reading of
the ethical implications of Irigaray’ sand Kristeva’ s notions
of maternity, I want to suggest an alternative model for the
primary ethical relation between self and other. Both Kristeva
and Irigaray begin a call to reconceptualise maternity in
~uch a way that the infant’s identity with the maternal body
IS no longer seen as a threat to sociality. Brennan also
implies that sociality is founded in, and not threatened by,
the maternal body.

For Irigaray, identification with the mother is a threat to
the infant’s identity only because it is seen as an identification
with nature. In The Ethics ofSexual Difference she says that
the mother is a threat to sociality because she is denied a
desiring body; hers is an anti-social body without the
relationship to a third term which is necessary for sociality.

Only if the mother’s body is a desiring body can an
identification with it be the beginning of a social relation a renewed social relation – rather than a threat to the social.

For Irigaray, it is only when the mother comes to be seen
as a speaking, loving, desiring human being that ethics will
be possible. When the primary relationship is seen as a
relationship with a speaking desiring being it will provide
a model for subsequent relationships in which the ground
~or our relations to each other is intrinsic to the relationship
Itself. Only then can we talk about reciprocal exchange.


Irigaray’s ethics of sexual difference requires a re articulation
of maternity that resuscitates the mother from the patriarchal
association with nature/death and makes of her instead the
meeting of body and culture.

Kristeva also calls for a new ethics based on a reconceived
maternity that is the knot between nature and culture.

‘Herethics’ , as she calls it in ‘Stabat Mater’ , is founded ‘on
a daughter’s love for, and identification with, her mother
during her own experience of motherhood. Like Irigaray,
Kristeva proposes a new notion of alterity within the maternal
body. For Kristeva, the maternal body is the most obvious
example of alterity within the body, but every-body is full
of alterity. The social relation with an other is already
operating on the material and psychic level within everyone;
and the social relation is interior to the psyche. For Kristeva,
the ethical relation should be modelled on an embrace of the
return of the repressed other within ourselves. Ethics is
based on the love of the other within yourself and only when
you learn to love the other within can you learn to love

Although the ethical implications of Brennan’ s theory
complement those of both lrigaray’s and Kristeva’s theory,
the intersubjective theory of drives gives us the language
with which to talk about Irigaray’ s vision of reciprocal
exchange between subject and other and embrace Kristeva’ s
other within. On this model the primary relationship is not
one in which the subject takes identity only by annihilating
difference or the other. Rather, the SUbject’s very identity is
sustained by virtue of an ongoing exchange with the other.

When the maternal body is taken as the model of this
relationship then the exchange can be seen as loving rather
than threatening. While within contemporary patriarchal
culture the psychophysical exchange of energy works to
women’s detriment, if we can reconceive of the primary
relation with the mother then we can also conceive the
psychophysical exchange of energy as reciprocal and supportive of active self-images even for women.

As Brennan describes it communication already takes
place in an in utero psychophysical exchange. Within the
maternal body the codes of the communication and the very
foundation of social relations are already operating. On this
model, we are not the autonomous agents of Kantian ethics.

Rather we are fundamentally and intrinsically dependent on
each other for the generation and maintenance of our
identities. And we are dependent on each other not just on
a conscious level, but on an unconscious level as well.

Bre.nnan’s intersubjective theory of drives challenges any
notIOn of autonomy on an ontological level. This is why, as
Kristeva or Irigaray might say, we have to work on the level
of the imaginary in order to change our very image of
relationships. Brennan provides us with a new image of
relationship, a more fluid and potentially reciprocal
relationship. The Interpretation of the Flesh provides a
revolutionary vision of human relationships that promises
to change not only the way in which we read Freud and our
notion of femininity but also our conception of our ethical
obligations to each other.

Radical Philosophy 65, Autumn 1993

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