The circumcision cure? Jordan Osserman on Circumcision on the Couch

By | April 20, 2022

Circumcision on the Couch, by Jordan Osserman, is out now

How would you describe your book in one sentence?

A book that uses psychoanalysis to better understand the history and opposed stances surrounding male circumcision; and that uses male circumcision to reassess the history and theory of psychoanalysis.

What drew you to writing about this project?

As I write in the book’s introduction, it all began when I first encountered ‘intactivists’ – anti-circumcision activists who want penises to be kept ‘intact’ – as a high school student at a human rights conference. Although I was, and remain, sceptical of their arguments, the determined fury of these men (they’re mostly men) intrigued me and caused me to question my own history and beliefs. Many years later I developed an interest in the field of psychoanalysis, and I was compelled to see what the conjunction of these two terms, “circumcision” and “psychoanalysis”, might produce. The result is this project.

How long have you been researching it?

In some ways you could say I’ve been researching it my whole life, or at least since that fateful high school encounter. On a less poetic level, the academic research began while I was a master’s student, continued through my PhD, and concluded during my postdoctoral work – about eight years. After all this time I am very pleased to take the project off my desktop and place it out in the world!

What does your book focus on that hasn’t been explored elsewhere?

One of the things I’m most proud of in the book was my discovery, through archival research, of the unusual parallels between the work of nineteenth century advocates for medical circumcision, and Sigmund Freud’s early research into hysterical illness. Early medical circumcision advocates mobilised a now forgotten theory of the “reflex neurosis” to argue that circumcision could cure or prevent a surprisingly large range of medical problems, from paralysis to bed-wetting. Freud worked with the same theories surrounding nervous illness yet, because of his attention to the human subject’s unique relationship to memory as articulated in speech, reached very different conclusions about medical treatment – what I call “the circumcision cure versus the talking cure”.

Readers less excited by psychoanalytic medical history might find the final chapter’s critical examination of contemporary stances for and against male circumcision more interesting. As far as I know, I’m the first to analyse the unusual pathos around male circumcision today in relation to the Lacanian/Žižekian notion of the “injunction to Enjoy!”

What initially drew you to studying psychoanalysis?

As an undergraduate in Women’s and Gender Studies, I kept encountering references to Freud in works of queer and feminist theory, and thinking: “Why are they even discussing this old white guy whose work has been debunked?” Conversations with a close friend sympathetic to psychoanalysis led me to actually read and discuss Freud’s work, and my opinion shifted dramatically, primarily because the ideas I encountered resonated with my own life experiences and struggles. Perhaps somewhat unlike other humanities scholars – although I have a sense this is changing – I have been equally invested in the clinical practice of psychoanalysis, foremost through my own analysis, and this influences my thinking and writing.  

Have you read any Bloomsbury Literary Study books? Which are your favourites, and why?

I loved Mari Ruti and Amy Allen’s Critical Theory Between Klein and Lacan, which involves the two authors engaging in a sustained dialogue over the course of a few days about Klein and Lacan – their differences and points of convergence. The conversation is full of scholarly rigour, generosity, and openness to new ideas and the revision of old ones, all while remaining impressively accessible to readers who lack familiarity with Kleinian or Lacanian concepts. I ended up interviewing the authors about the book on the podcast I host, New Books in Psychoanalysis [https://newbooksnetwork.com/amy-allen-and-mari-ruti-critical-theory-between-klein-and-lacan-a-dialogue-bloomsbury-academic-2019].

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