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How to Write a Psychoanalytic Criticism Paper


Psychoanalysis provides an extraordinarily versatile tool for criticism, applicable to just about every genre and media form. The many fields it probes include film, documentaries, novels, academic treatises, art, poetry and politics. Jacques Lacan's development of Freudian theory, in particular, offers a uniquely powerful tool for yielding meanings and truths that a work's creator may not have intended or noticed. By paying close attention to a text, psychoanalysis goes beyond the obvious and locates other potentials ciphered within the consciously intended meanings.

Read as an analyst listens to her patients: Don't hunt for meanings; try to remain emotionally neutral and relaxed, and scan carefully through the whole work waiting for words, phrases or emotional tones to "strike" you. Treat the text or work before you as your psychoanalytic patient. If a word seems odd for the context or if the argument becomes strident or forceful, use a highlighter to note where these occur. The text is becoming "symptomatic" at these points -- stridency or marked authoritativeness usually means the author is trying to block alternate meanings.

Go back to the points in the text that aroused your curiosity or baffled you and let your mind wander freely around these points. Examine what you find yourself picturing or thinking. Give more credence to what you happen to think rather than what you try to think. Make notes of your musings and speculations. Take care to notice what feelings the text has aroused in you at various points and ask yourself why and if you agree or disagree with them. Determine if they elicit feelings of anger, irritation, depression or indifference. Record your responses on your notepad. You're starting to articulate the text's "unconscious" content.

Open closed doors in the text by imagining alternate meanings in your mind. From a psychoanalytic point of view, a "rich" text lends itself to more and more speculation whereas an over-controlled text attempts to shut it down. Use the points of "closure" in the work you're studying -- the sentences that curtail further debate -- as openings for your own free associations. Explore the "other words" the text tries to prevent you from thinking. Remember, psychoanalysis is the art of cultivating the full ambiguity of human expression, even where authoritative tones and phrases are used to discourage free thinking.

Read some psychoanalytic criticism, before you integrate your notes, to show you how hidden meanings apply within and between words. Adam Phillips and Slavoj Zizek provide innumerable examples in their works of excellent psychoanalytic criticism. Language is inherently ambiguous; it always hints at alternative meanings. Prohibitions, for example, invite contemplation of precisely that which they forbid, just as prescriptions encourage speculation about other paths and methods.

Study your notes and speculations and write an alternate account of the text you've studied, focusing on the attempted textual closures, the emotions stirred in you (and why) and the ideas your free speculation has generated in response. The alternative meanings you generate constitute the outcome of psychoanalytic criticism.

References
  • Side Effects; Adam Phillips
  • Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock); Slavoj Zizek
About the Author

Peter Evans previously trained as a physiologist, a teacher and a psychotherapist but now writes full-time. Based in London, he's written for "Spiked!," the health-and-wellness blog UltraFitnessDynamics, ContractingMadeEasy.com and a range of academic journals. Evans holds a Master of Science in socio-psychological studies from the University of London.

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