Aesthetic Conflicts in Psychoanalysis and (Novel) Education

Novel Education

Deborah P. Britzman, Novel Education: Psychoanalytic Studies of Learning and Not Learning

What is the relationship between psychoanalysis and education? Why does Britzman connect or arrange in parallel these two (or more) ways of presentation in terms of storytelling – whether novel or narration? Who narrates and who invites one to be a narrator? Why is the psychoanalytic studies of learning and not learning deeply related with the aesthetic conflict, and how? These questions are, as Britzman says, coming from the ambivalent zone where the boundaries between what resists telling the story and what urges one to narrate(1). Perhaps this blurred area might be where both psychoanalysis and education find a common principle.

Confronting the invitation to psychoanalysis, analysands are allowed to say whatever is in one’s mind. Freud’s fundamental method of free association was in itself groundbreaking, because it allowed people to talk freely so that the analyst could understand what was hiding behind analysand’s consciousness and then interpret the psychical mechanism, with the help of language. In the psychoanalytic process, however, there are two moments when the narrating is obstructed: when the analysand begins to talk about the inner condition of the psychical, he even does not know what to say, he has nothing to say, or he does not want to say anything; and when the patient narrates his psychical life or his illness in the form of symptoms to the analyst, even when this speaking is working as therapeutic action, what the analyst confronts is his own tension, called counter-transference, in narrating his observation in the form of interpretation or meta-psychological theory.

However, this kind of conflict is not limited to the problem of psychological presentation. In education, the same process of communication repeats. The teacher learns knowledge in the form of text before she teaches in order to teach, but all is not clearly learned – or nothing can be learned. While she constructs curriculum and teaches in the form of education, there is also sort of resistance in learning. Especially, in the education in writing, what has to be learned cannot be taught. While the teacher invites students to the world of narration, they cannot express freely what is in their mind. There is nothing they can narrate. Something resists.

Why in every moment of communication does this kind of resistance or break appear? What is it which frustrates and disrupts the narration or the presentation of mind? What Britzman calls “aesthetic conflict” is at the heart of the limit of psychoanalysis and ignorance or not learning in education as well. Whether psychoanalysis, education, or literature, the aesthetic conflict designates something which invites one to the narration but at the same time denies to be narrated. For example, it is a contrary feeling experienced as the sublime, “where thought encounters its limits and becomes groundlessness, thereby alienating its perception”(7). To put it another way, aesthetic conflict refers to the gap or discrepancy between what is designated and what designates, object and language, experience and interpretation, and knowledge and affect.

It is “aesthetic” not only because psychoanalytic discussions and writings depend upon art and literary works, but also because psychoanalysis and its narrative forms are occupied “within the crisis of representation as sublime knowledge”(5). In other words, meaning which is believed to contain the truth in it is only generated from this incongruity in representation. It is significant that affect animates meaning. More precisely, meaning comes from the ruin of representation within which phantasy creates its fictitious space. That is to say, there is not meaning and knowledge at the outset, and they are the effect and result of the affect, what de Certeau calls “the return of the passions”(21). The creative thought requires emotional excitement beforehand.

Thus, aesthetic conflict, or inconsistency between the self and the Other, does not make signification and interpretation impossible and then it does not just lead psychoanalysis and writing to the impossible projects. But, rather it is the indispensible condition which enables, invites, and even forces the subject to think. This is the point where Britzman understands psychoanalytic thought get involved in a “novel understanding of its own education”(20). The concept of “aesthetic conflict” functions like a conceptual hinge between psychoanalysis and education. Thus education is not a project of enlightenment in Kantian sense as “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity”(69), but what “would come to mean something more accidental, an altercation of a system through affect”(20).

In Kleinian psychoanalytic theory, “aesthetic conflict, or the doubts that will be raised in relation to the exquisite meaning of the Other’s love, … supposes that inner objects want to know their own beauty,” while “the first aesthetic object is the mother, whose beauty is mesmerizing to the infant” (23). According to Britzman, “The aesthetic conflict is personal and archaic when one wonders if external and internal beauty correspond. The aesthetic conflict is animated by the desire for this ineffable knowledge – a poetic truth – where the self wants to know if its insides are as beautiful as the outside”(23). Possibly, is it not “play,” accepted by Klein as her method, where the aesthetic conflict reveal itself the most as the gap between desire and knowledge, and at the same time, as the bridge between reason and imagination? Play blurs the boundaries between learning and not learning or non-learning. Play invites the subject to the contradictory situation, only in which the player finds himself learning the rule but at the same time he cannot learn but must play.


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