Parapraxes (Freudian Slips)

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A parapraxis (gr: para + praksis, another action) or Freudian slip (originally termed Fehlleistungen, German for “faulty function”) is an error of memory, speech, writing, reading or action that was thought by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) to be due to the interference of repressed thoughts and unconscious feature’s of the individual’s personality (Motley 530) These slips were viewed by Freud to be a window into and proof of the unconscious, an interface or symptomology that would shed light on a latent or hidden state. First articulated in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life in 1901, the concept marks Freud’s focus towards the relocation of identity and selfhood in everyday life, and his blurring of the distinctions which existed between normal states and a pathology.(Gossy 11) This dossier examines the slip as both a mode of mediation used as a starting point used by the analyst to trace the contours of the mind and locate the unconscious. In that sense it primarily looks at the slip from the point of the analyst, and determines its operational structure to argue it is a site of control in which knowledge of the self is carefully constructed and then revealed by the analyst.
Sigmund Freud


Precursors and Re-mediation of Freud's Theory of Slips

Although the terms slips of the tongue, parapraxes, and fehlleistungen were unique to Freud, many of these concepts can be found in his predecessor Schopenhauer, who argued that at the core of mental illness are gaps and interruptions at the level of memory. The difficulties of memory in the psychologically disturbed are due to a repression of traumatic events. (Zenter 372) Although he was a physiologist, Freud was influenced by a neo-Cartesian approach, leading him to create various models of the mind which would account for unconscious mental states. (Livingstone Smith 576) This led to a multiplexing of the mind in which multiple levels were thought to be running in parallel. At this period of time in Freud’s theory, he was working with his theory of the structural unconscious, the topographic theory of mind would not be developed until much later. As Freud’s theory develops, it becomes clear that although the mind as he conceives it is a parallel structure, it is much more complex in that what controls thought can be seen as a struggle for power between different faculties. Although Schopenhauer’s theory is directly related to Freud’s theory of slips, Freud can be thought of as indicative of many different ideas prevalent in the nineteenth century.

Freud’s theory of slips was initially accepted in the physiological community, only to be rebuked, then integrated once again into research in cognitive psychology and linguistics in the 1970s and 1980s. However, the lack of empirical phenomenon and the reliance on anecdotal evidence meant that most were not willing to accept its validity. In the mid 1970s, a direct empirical test was developed, and the concept was transformed into that of “spoonerisms,” however, it was a model of phoneme transference between target speech and error, and was not necessarily regarded as a window into hidden states. (Motley 531) Within Western culture, Freud’s theory was integrated into cinema, self-help literature and advertising, and has been used within literary and textual analysis. This theory was predicated upon his work in On Aphasia (1953) in which he argues cognition is the function of the passage of information through a vast, network of interconnected neurons in the brain, and therefore this theory as indicative of models of memory and cognition contributed to the “connectionist model” of the brain. (Livingstone Smith 577) Most importantly, however, it has been argued that Freud’s theory of slips has been re-mediated into Western culture as a whole in its focus on the pathology of everyday life, through ideas of the ‘wounded’ self which exists in contemporary Western Culture. (Rieff 1966; Zaretsky 2004) Although it is still used within classical psychoanalysis, it could be argued that the continued popularization of the term Freudian slip has included within it a dilution of the original technical meaning and lacks any connection with traditional psychoanalytic thought. For instance, although Freud argued the slips were a function of varied complexes (ex; the family complex), the interpretation of slips of the tongue as Freudian have centred upon those which have sexual content, presumably because of incidence of sexuality within Freud's theory, and his notoriety for this aspect of his theory.

The Mind as Black Box: The Slip as Cypher

The theory of slips is emblematic of the cypher black box, as derived out of the ideas of Karl Marx and his concept of the commodity having “rational kernel and a mystical shell.” (Marx xxx) Analogous to the commodity, slips as being a function of repressed thoughts act as an interface with the unconscious in the form of errors in speech which are nonsensical when considered outside of psychoanalytic theory.

With Freudian analysis, the meaning of the slip is unveiled through the use of free association, pulling away the facade of consciousness, giving access to the latent or unconscious motivations behind the utterance. What once appeared completely irrational, and mystical (the content of the utterance) is thus is a product which is made to have meaning through the ‘rational’ process of analytic treatment. Although the issue of rationality at the level of the unconscious is difficult to argue, as Freud’s narrative was not a linear model but figurative; it was not as mechanistic or causally determined as it is thought to be today.
A representation of a black box with a hole to see inside.

Encryption and Interiority, and the Loss of the Cypher

The utterance itself is encrypted, in numerous ways. Freud argued that faulty recollection or temporary forgetting is the result of a disturbance from either the beginning or after an association has been formed between the concerned utterance and the error which is produced. (Freud 1901: 18) This can also be through “artificial means” through superficial or outside associations. The forgotten or distorted material has either been disturbed through its initial encoding, or in its retrieval; either way the material has been connected “through some associative road with an unconscious stream of thought, which gives rise to the influence that comes to light as forgetting.” (Freud 1901: 15) Freud argues that speech disturbance may be influenced by another component of same speech, through a “fore-sound or echo,” which would disturb the process of retrieval; his concept of speech coming from his theory of networked pathways within the brain, meant that it was possible to stimulate a connected path to the desired utterance. (Miller 161)

Yet this early neural network theory does not entail a view of the mind as a function black box, as Freud held that there could be access to the unconscious content of these networked processes through the symptoms presented in the form of errors of utterances (amongst other phenomenon such as dreams). Although he concentrates on what are surface characteristics of the black box in the form of manifest content, there is a presumption that he can reveal its contents without destruction. The problem with the mind as a cypher black box is that the notion of the ‘unconscious’ can never become actual; it is only a shadow viewed in the periphery, when one turns to look it disappears, an idea eventually recognized by followers of Freud. To some extent, the focus upon surface characteristics and the denial of any internal states which is indicative of the ‘function black box’ as takes place during behaviourism, is the point of break boundary or reversal of the system; the denial of interiority done initially through theorists such as Watson and Pavlov, and then extended significantly by B.F. Skinner indicates a transformation of the way in which the medium of the mind was viewed. Contemporary cognitive psychology is a movement back toward interiority, while retaining the importance of surface characteristics gained through behaviorism.
Freud and his networked brain

Decoding the Utterance through Symbolic Associations

The utterance is thus the expression of an analog function; it is a sign of overall reduced efficiency in the apparatus of cognition as a whole, arguing against an extreme cerebral localization of function that was argued for in phrenology, while maintaining the existence of speech centres that were discovered within the nineteenth century (Wernicke’s and Broca’s). (Miller 160) What interests Freud are the symbolic associations, or the analogies that can be made between the surface content which is produced and that which exists below or hidden the manifest content. The analyst acts as a decoder in the discovery and removal of neurotic symptoms, through free association, a process through which the patient says whatever comes to the surface of the mind. One is reminded of the concept of lists as discussed by Cornelia Vismann.(2008) The free associations are not subject to any fixed meaning, meaning arises from the agreement between the patient and the analyst in a similar way as the “ethnologist and his informant that the communicated signs constitute information.” (Vismann 3) The signs or meanings of the associations produced are not fixed and could individually be seen as functionally nonsensical; the meaning is produced in the serial production of speech until the analyst has discovered the true meaning of the slip. The speech which is produced is seemingly discrete or digital, yet has meaning when considered in relation to the other information produced. Kittler argues that once these “pictures,” or words emerge from the patient’s memory, it becomes fragmentary and obscure as the patient proceeds to describe. At the level of the Lacanian symbolic, the patient enters into language in an attempt to gain access to the images in the unconscious, and dislodge the fixations which exist on the imaginary level. (Kittler 141) Kittler argues that psychoanalysis imitates the doppelganger film by translating it into words; through the chopping up of the internal ‘film’ of the imaginary into the symbolic indicates the emergence of another part of personhood or space which the subject is then confronted with through the talking cure. (Kittler 142) The slip which is produced, as well as the subsequent free associations act as a way in which Freud can interface with the black box of the mind.

Through a process similar to that done by Hermes, the analyst both guides and interprets the information which is given through the utterance and the products of free association. Freud would interpret the messages while being guided by his own theories of repression acting as the chaperone of the message, relaying information produced by the unconscious to the conscious patient. Necessarily in Freud’s theory, there is a symbolic layer which remains separate from the material substrate of the unconscious, however, the utterance produced by the patient functions in a similar manner to Iris; the message is contained within the mind of the patient. This also can be seen in terms of a differentiation between the sample and the program; the utterance which is produced is nonsense unless analyzed making e analyst acts as interpreter. While the Freudian slip is the imperfect execution of a symbolic system, existing at the level of the program, it requires a great deal of analysis and understanding of context to discover its meaning. When Freud "unlocks" these images, this is not done to store their content, but to decode their signifiers. (Kittler 141) According to Kittler, the translation of the pathology into the symbolic is also indicative of nonverbal storage technologies emerging in 1900, such as the film.

Analyst as Gatekeeper

The analysand acts as a gatekeeper to the unconscious. Vismann speaks about the category of cancellari, those who control public access who not only control the opening but also the deletion of information. (Vismann 17-8) The analyst has control over not only the meaning which is eventually deduced from the utterance, but the cancellation of the repression through its retrieval. Once the content of the utterance is thought to be retrieved and made conscious, the repression is thought to no longer exist. In the psychotherapeutic procedure, which is the discovery and removal of neurotic symptoms, Freud argues the analyst is charged with “the task of discovering from the accidental utterances of the patient the thought content, which though striving for concealment, nevertheless intentionally betray themselves.” (Freud 1901: 31) Kittler in reference to Freud says that once a picture emerges from the patient’s memory, “the patient is getting rid of it by turning it into words.” (Kittler 141)The emphasis Freud placed on psychoanalysis as an intervention results in a loss of agency in terms of the patient, serving to separate the patient from the unconscious elements which are thought to emerge, rather than integrate. It is in this way, as well, that the analyst constitutes private empotions as something to be exposed; and guides its emergence into the public.

Nothing Wasted, Nothing Lost

Vilém Flusser argues that psychoanalysis is a branch of knowledge that is concerned with studying waste, surrounding the human being with not only two worlds (nature/nurture) but with three: nature, culture and waste. (Flusser 90) Indeed, the Freudian Slip is indicative of Freud’s deterministic view that nothing is ever lost in the mind nor is it an accidental occurrence; forgetting is at once both automatic and directed, the influence of repression exists as a motive which interrupts the communication of thought. (Freud 1901 5) Freud’s determinism, however, attempts not to contradict a notion of free will (a revival of the concept of the soul/spirit in German Idealism). The multiplexing of the brain means that one can retain the conviction or feeling of free will, while still being determined uninterruptedly in the psychic realm. (Freud 1901 91) Arguing through an analysis of the neurotic, he claims that nothing is lost, not even sensory experience; the difference between the neurotic and the normal person being that the neurotic both perceives something that escapes the normal person and it is expressed. (Freud 1901 92) Freud believes there is the possibility that something can only occur psychically, in mental life, which can by chance be brought to surface by external events, while not being accidental at the level of the unconscious.

The Expression of Feedback and the Unconscious

Kittler compares the Freudian mind to the phonograph, arguing that backflow or feedback “comes as close to perfect hallucinatory wish fulfulfillment as Freud’s project for a Scientific Psychology does to technological media.” (Kittler 34) Thus that which exists as a pop or hiss for the phonograph is that for the unconscious; if everything is inscribed onto the unconscious, then the noise from the world is as well. The content of the slip could therefore be from anything, the combination of auditory, visual and motor memories, could result in an encoding and decoding which lacks the rationality that Freud argues exists. It is lack of attention in the process of retrieval which is of issue in the phenomenon of parapraxes, not attention in encoding, and one can frequently be led astray in analysis due to the noise which exists at the level of the unconscious.

The Slip as Trace

Freud’s use of the tablet as a model of the psyche is indicative of the deeper traces of memory which remain on the lower wax layers which can be deciphered when held under light. (Vismann 55) The ‘mystic writing pad,’ a model which was conceived for the mind much later in Freud’s scholarship, was already present in his theory on slips. Even through the removal of repression through analysis, the information is not lost it is made conscious. The conscious mind is a layer of celluloid which acts as a protective shield against stimuli; however it does not mean these traces are not written on the unconscious, it simply allows for legibility/the removal of noise at the conscious level. The slip, for Freud, is proof of the unconscious material which lies 'below' consciousness, and is indicative of its interference within the world of the symbolic. The notion that this is somehow more real is expressed by Freud, as being more "honest," and "true," the temporary removal of the mask which separates this content from the symbolic realm. (Freud 1901: 32)

The Paradox of Automaticity and Attention in Freud's Theory of Slips

The role of automaticity in Freud’s theory can therefore be seen both at the level of perception or encoding, as well as in the act of slip and free association. Freud’s view that slips occur more frequently when “conditions are favoured by exhaustion, circulatory disturbances and intoxication,” and his view that inattention can produce errors in speech or writing demonstrates that the processes of the mind are both automatic and individually motivated in Freud’s theory. (Freud 1901: 25) This paradox, however, illustrates a notion that acts of writing and speech require an attention on the part of the conscious subject, however errors can occur automatically, in a somnambulistic state which will enable parts of the unconscious to come through. (Gitelman 195) The lack of concentrated attention is an articulation of mental process which questioned "the resemblance between motor and mental habits" and divided types of attention. (Gitelman 196) However, when the contents of the unconscious which are contained within the mind begin to interfere with speech and writing it can be seen as a case of when writing ceases “not to write itself,” and the expression and storing (in errors in writing) of errors means that it has begun to write something else, the unconscious. (Kittler 3) Therefore according to Freud’s theory, all mental life and its expression would be a result of the cake-mix effect, the combination of the automaticity at the levels of mental life: unconscious motivation and conscious attention. It also indicates that the good weather for making Freudian slips are fatigue and inattention.

The Emergence of the Other through the Slip: The Case of Women

Mary S. Gossy argues in Freudian Slips: Woman, Writing and the Foreign Tongue (1995) that The Psychopathology of Everyday Life demonstrates the manner by which the bodies of women “slip through theoretical discourse and make their own impractical, parapractic” sense. (Gossy 9) The existence of a symbolic system of language which makes it difficult to identify with the oppressed other, means this must occur at the level of the imaginary or unconscious. She identifies the repressed thought with the repressed female body, and suggests the slip is a way of freeing rather than sacrificing the bodies of female. While not suggesting that the female body is of a language that is ungrammatical or irrational, she argues that the female body “can make the discourses of patriarchy and masculinity ungrammatical” and cause error. (Gossy 47) This is argued through both the natures of the slips presented by Freud in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (which is overwhelmingly on the subject of females, however, not exclusively) as well as through other signifiers which she argues is indicative of the female body and formerly unwritable data flows. This perhaps could almost be the obvious in Freud’s theory of slips; the language of the repressed is necessarily that which cannot be expressed or desired through the symbolic language existing in Freud’s period in Vienna, the female form. Eva Illouz also argues for a feminist analysis of Freudian slips, in that they placed an unprecedented amount of significance upon everyday life (the realm of domesticity and femininity). (Illouz 37)
Caricature of Freud in a woman's slip

References and Works Cited

Gitelman, Lisa. Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999. Print.

Gossy, Mary S. Freudian Slips: Woman, Writing, the Foreign Tongue. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995. Print.

Flusser, Vilém. The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design. London: Reaktion Books, 1999. Print.

Freud, S. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Trans A.A. Brill, 1901.Web/Pdf.

Freud, S. On Aphasia: A Critical Study. London, Imago Publishing Co., 1953. Print.

Illouz, E. Saving the Modern Soul. Los Angeles, CA: UC Regents. 2008. Print.

Kittler, Fredrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford University Press, 1999.

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production. Ed. Frederick Engels. Trans. Samuel Moore. Edward Aveling. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1904. Print.

Motley, M. “Theory of Slips” in Encyclopaedia of Freud. Edited by S. Gendin, L. Leiman, and J. Walkup. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Livingstone Smith, D. “The Uncosncious” in Encyclopaedia of Freud. Edited by S. Gendin, L. Leiman, and J. Walkup. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Miller, L. Freud’s Brain: Neuropsychodynamic Foundations of Psychoanalysis. New York: The Guilford Press, 1991. Print.

Nunberg, Herman. Principles of Psychoanalysis: Their Application to the Neuroses. Trans. Madlyn Kahr. Sidney Kahr. New York: International Universities Press, 1962. Print.

Rieff, P. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. New York, NY: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc 1966. Print.

Vismann, Cornelia. Files: Law and Media Technology. Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008. Print.

Zaretsky, E. The Personal Unconscious. From Secrets of the Soul. NY: Vintage,2004. Print.

Zentner, M. “Nineteenth-Century Precursor’s of Freud” in Encyclopaedia of Freud. Edited by S. Gendin, L. Leiman, and J. Walkup. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.

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