General Introduction to Psychoanalysis

PSYCHOANALYTICAL CRITICISM aims to show that a literary or cultural work is always structured by complex and often contradictory human desires. Whereas New Historicism and Marx-inspired Cultural Materialism analyze public power structures from, respectively, the top and bottom in terms of the culture as a whole, psychoanalysis analyzes microstructures of power within the individual and within small-scale domestic environments. That is, it analyzes the interiority of the self and of the self's kinship systems. By analyzing the formation of the individual, however, psychoanalysis also helps us to understand the formation of ideology at large—and can therefore be extended to the analysis of various cultural and societal phenomena. Indeed, for this reason, psychoanalysis has been especially influential over the last two decades in culture studies and film analysis.

Psychoanalysis is complicated by the fact that it has undergone numerous transformations at the hands of highly influential individual psychoanalysts. It is therefore necessary, as with many of the theories currently influencing scholarship and teaching, to differentiate between individual thinkers. For the purposes of studying literature and culture, the most influential theorists today are Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), and Julia Kristeva (1941-?). The links on the left will lead you to modules explaining in more detail specific concepts by these individual thinkers; however, you might like to begin with a quick overview:


Most people are familiar with at least some of FREUD's ideas given the important influence he has had on the literature and culture of the twentieth century. Indeed, many of Freud's key terms have now entered common parlance, terms such as repression, libido, superego, fetishism, and so on; for this very reason, however, it is important to take the popular definitions of such terms with a grain of salt, which is to say that the terms were often much more complex in Freud's thinking than pop culture tends to acknowledge.

LACAN has proven to be an important influence on contemporary scholarship as well, particularly for feminists, film theorists, and cultural critics. Although Lacan used some of the general premises of Freudian psychoanalysis, he re-thought elements of Freudian theory and also came up with his own terms and ideas to explain various psychiatric phenomena. Whereas Freud tended to hew closely to issues of sexuality in a biological sense, Lacan argued that "the unconscious is structured like a language." For this reason, he eschewed terms that suggested a "natural" or "essential" reason for psychic processes (EEG, instincts, appetites) and opted instead for terms that underlined how psychic processes are always artificially constructed, like language or ideology. Following this general premise, Lacan broke from the Freudian school and established his own complex set of structures to explain the functioning of ideology and thought in general.

KRISTEVA began her own studies under Roland Barthes and was heavily influenced by the structuralists associated with the Tel Quel group (including Michel Foucault, Philippe Sollers, and Roland Barthes himself). Her interest in psychoanalysis was also inspired by Jacques Lacan's structuralist re-interpretation of Freud, although Kristeva has also carefully distinguished her own ideas from those of Lacan. Kristeva was particularly critical of what she saw as an inherent misogyny in Lacan's and Freud's theories; her own system of thinking therefore attempts to rethink sexual development in such a way as to value the importance of the feminine. For this reason, she has been especially influential on theories of gender and sex. Each individual book by Kristeva has tended to concentrate on and rethink a specific concept and has thus often influenced critical understandings of the terms under discussion. The concepts that she has been most influential in rethinking include horror and the abject; mourning and melancholia; and the understanding of faith.




Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino."General Introduction to Psychoanalysis." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Date of last update, which you can find on the home page. Purdue U. Date you accessed the site. <>.








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