In the soul of the animal

Analyzing the behavior of animals, Florence Burgat brilliantly explores a continent left unexplored by Freudianism: animal interiority. But is psychoanalysis the appropriate reference??

In his Abstract of psychoanalysisFreud admitted the existence of a superego wherever, as in man, the being has to undergo, in childhood, a fairly long dependence. This hypothesis constitutes the starting point and the common thread of an original exploration of the abysses of animal interiority in Unconscious of animals, which Florence Burgat has just published. The very ligible bold Freudian proposition are the higher animals. Let us therefore not expect any revelation on the me from a bug or the has from an oysterthe philosopher laughs.

To understand the inner world of animals, we will not have to rely on language. It follows that the vast bibliography of the work, which honors by name the classics of psychoanalysis (Klein, Laplanche, Rank) ignores Jacques Lacan. Indeed, the animal unconscious, covered in non-verbal representations, cannot reveal its whims through couch soliloquies. Moreover, the primacy usually given to the verb for the analysis of psychic facts is not subject to doubt even in our species, deplores the author, as the mastery of the language and its refinement vary?

A phenomenological perspective

Florence Burgat adopts the phenomenological perspective that is dear to her and accepts as such the mystery of close communication between two heterogeneous substances, the soul and the body. Apprehend the dark side of animal existence from a Freudian perspective leads it to oust behaviorism (behavioralist and objectifying approach which emphasizes the effect of rewards and punishments on psychological life) and to reject conceptions tinged with Cartesianism which cannot conceive of the animal other than in a private way, as an a-conscious being. We are also invited to free ourselves from the speciesist contempt which leads us to see in the animal unconscious only the primitive reservoir of the vilest human inclinations, a animal part that it would be necessary to curb side by side.

Accessing the unconscious of animals means recognizing in them, through phenomenology, a geological life long rejected by the canons of epistemological reductionism. These, by imposing an impoverished approach to the psychic life of animals and by too often atomizing the study of their behavior in artificial contexts, have been the most faithful accomplices in the scientific instrumentalization of animals. Discreet here, but constant in the work of Florence Burgat, the denunciation of animal objectification joins her analytical theme when she recalls that Freud himself contested the idea that the goal of animal life would be to serve man. Incidentally, it was the same instrumentalization of animals that made it possible to demonstrate that traumatic experiences inflicted on rodents after their birth disrupted their emotional life or their learning abilities. But this form of biopsychological unconscious, which has nothing Freudian about it, does not find its place in the reflection of the philosopher, who does not draw on the knowledge of affective neuroscience. However, contemporary work devoted to the psychology of emotions, which explores internal states ranging from non-conscious to conscious and their contextual or biographical determinants, would not have been incidental.

A contribution to animal ontology

The work fleshes out the vital psychobiological reality uniting large mammals with their conspecific and natural environment. It shows that they have an intimate psychic biography, experience a non-verbal subjectivity, or even are endowed with a dreamlike life. We discover that they experience internal conflicts and sometimes also the melancholy dejection of mourning. Occasionally, they deviate from the criteria of normality and adaptation of their species, deviations evidenced by veterinary psychiatry. Animals in fact know post-traumatic stress disorder; hyperattachment; acute or chronic depression; involution depressions; phobias; compulsive disorders; dissociative syndromes (comprising phases of loss of contact with reality, hallucinations, strotypes); skin diseases of psychological origin; self-harm; pica (ingestion of inedible substances (). These inappropriate ways of being, which are in no way unique to man, allow Florence Burgat to expand her contribution to animal ontology. This is not limited to intrapsychic phenomena: animal cultures are also matrices of transmission of unconscious phenomena which make living beings act together and leave their marks from one generation to the next.

Phnomnology of the unconscious

For Florence Burgat, psychoanalysis is a phenomenology applied to the unconscious, starting from the symptom. This deciphering is also revealed in animals through observable, authentic behaviors ambassadors of interiority as proposed by the naturalist and founder of comparative psychology, Georges Romanes in Animal Intelligence (Felix Alcan, 1887) But what source of observations must be clarified? Isn't one of the obstacles the excessive plasticity that psychoanalysis confers on facts despite the positivism professed by the Austrian neurologist?? Since it is animals that are in question here, should we remember that the two psychoanalytic showcases that are the famous cases of the wolf man and of the rat man have been widely arrange to correspond to the Freudian vision, as shown by the philosopher Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, the historian of science Frank Sulloway, the psychologist Jacques van Rillaer? Are we required to follow Florence Burgat when she refers, albeit briefly, to the work of the Austro-British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, who believes that the child is habituated by the most diverse murderous tendencies and that he derives pleasure from cruelty or reminds us with Ferenczi that the penis in the vagina, the child in the maternal womb or even the fish in the water would express the same know unconscious phylogenetic linked to the origins of aquatic life that any animal, including man, would seek to find?

Only a Freudian unconscious would allow, for the author, to open the way to a psychology of the depths of the animal psyche. But can Freud's theory succeed with animals what it failed with humans?? Freudianism continues to disappear from university departments around the world because the unconscious, the fundamental idea associated with Freud's work, not only largely existed before him, but manifests itself in much richer modalities than those he imagined. The work takes up entire sections of a theory that the recent history of psychoanalysis and the human sciences has nevertheless largely dismantled. Without mentioning here the well-documented therapeutic wreck of the treatment of autism, let us simply cite (since the author endorses them) the concepts of the death drive, or Freud's revival of Haeckel's recapitulationism, which would have it that the development of an organism passes through the stages representing its ancestral species. Let us also point out that the therapy of humans or animals is not the subject of the book by Florence Burgat, for whom Freudianism is an epistemological base allowing to shed light on the psychic life of animals.

One of the captivating passages in Florence Burgat's book addresses the psychological functions of the ritualized behaviors in which many animals, human or not, indulge. Ritual, by opposing discursive thought in a crude but meaningful way, by the behavioral accentuation it manifests and by its anxiolytic functions, stands out as a remarkable integral phenomenon where trans-specific psychological systems manifest their common part. This fruitful idea, and so many others, the elegance of the writing and the fascinating narration that Florence Burgat sketches of the animal interior are enough to make Unconscious of animals an important book. However, to achieve this, to sacrifice to Freudianism, this very French intellectual rite (as the historian of ideas Sherry Turkle shows) was it a necessity??