Temporality in Theories

Psychoanalytic theory places sexuality and gender among the most important dimensions of human development. How this should be understood has been the target of heated debates ever since Freud first formulated his theory about the Oedipal phase, where the incest taboo installs masculinity and femininity as complementary psychological structures based on the identification with the same-sex parent and love of the opposite-sex parent. As is well known, this model has been heavily criticised for its inherent biologism, universalism, binarity, phallocentrism and hetero- normativity. Later theories have challenged the Freudian idea that psychological gender differences are non-existent before the Oedipal phase and argue that differences in heterosexual masculine and feminine personalities are better explained by early object-relations and the ways in which gender arrangements frame processes of separation-individuation for girls and boys (Dinnerstein 1976; Chodorow 1978; Benjamin 1988). Newer gender theories have questioned the binary opposition between desire and identification and have argued that both fathers and mothers alike may be ‘love objects’ and ‘like subjects’ for the child (Benjamin 1995; Chodorow 1999). The different models have emerged as theoretical alternatives in academic debates about psychoanalysis and gender, and the latest one is more in tune with recent relational thinking as well as with recent gender theory. However, one important point to notice in the context of a generational study is that different models of gender development have been formulated at different historical points in time. To what extent do different theories of psychological gender match different and historically delimited patterns of feelings? May psychological theories (and other theories about the social world) be seen and used as historical formations, not only in the sense that they reveal the cultural, normative and theoretical assumptions of their time, but also as sources of information about empirical patterns that later disappeared or became less poignant?[1] Psychological theories are made not only for internal academic use, but also as tools to describe clinical situations. Hence, theoretical models of gender and heterosexual development can also be seen as attempts to describe different figurations of gender that emerged in different historical and familial contexts. Such figurations represent what in the context of this book I call differently historically shaped ‘structures of feeling’ connected to gender. Maybe gender identities were, in fact, more binary and less fluid if we go back half a century? Is it the theoretical idea of stable identities that is wrong or have such identities simply become less frequent?[2] Because the childhoods of the three generations in our study took place in the same span of time as when these psychoanalytical models of gender development were formulated, criticised and dismissed, these questions beg to be asked.

I will return to the question of the possible connections between psychology, history and theory in Chap. 9, where I present some of the most influential theories of psychoanalysis and gender conceived in the historical period of our three generations, and see to what degree they fit the changes and continuities in psychological gender that emerge from our study. In raising these questions I am neither saying that we should assume that all theories will always be empirically true during the period in which they were conceived, nor that theoretical and normative critique is redundant or worthless. Rather, I am arguing that it may be useful to include historical perspectives in the ongoing theoretical, philosophical and normative debates. The current focus in feminist theory on the situatedness of knowledge that emphasises the importance of place, space and variation quite often appears to be oblivious to the dimension of temporality. Without historical framing, critiques of universalism and essentialism, for instance, may become universalist and essentialist themselves.

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  • [1] See also Layton (2002) on this experience of how ‘outdated’ theories may fit some patients in theclinical setting well.
  • [2] Stable identities are not the same as coherent identities, which no psychoanalytic theory wouldassume. It was Freud who with his concept of the unconscious was the first to argue that the humanpsyche is internally contradictory. Thus, the self will always be in discord with itself in more or lesspainful ways.
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