Mark Leffert, “New Directions in Clinical Psychoanalysis”

Lit&Mind_Mark Leffert


Mark Leffert joined Literature and the Mind on November 6th to discuss his work on clinical psychoanalysis. Dr. Leffert’s interdisciplinary reformulation of psychoanalytic thought and practice is informed by his ideas concerning postmodernism, complexity, and neuroscience. His discussion of the background of clinical psychoanalysis, different kinds of unconsciousnesses, and the discontinuous self that is always embedded and entangled within its environment led to a group conversation about the role of literature in understanding the self, as a place to learn about and grasp the shifting sense of self-state.


Mark Leffert talk Mark Leffert discussion

Ruth Evans, “Margery Kempe’s Internal Reality”

On October 31st, Literature and the Mind & Medieval Literatures presented a talk by Ruth Evans (Professor of English at St. Louis University) on The Book of Margery Kempe.

Ruth Evans

Here is Evans’s preview of the talk:

“Recognizing that there is such a thing as psychosis … does not mean that we need to buy into the discourse of mental health and illness. Although many people experience unbearable levels of suffering, this does not make them “mentally ill,” as there is simply no such thing as mental health. The more we explore each individual case, the more we find that the seemingly “healthy” person may have delusional beliefs or symptoms that generate no conflict in their lives and hence attract no attention. Each of us faces problems that we tackle in our own unique ways, and what is labelled mental illness may in fact … be an effort to respond to and elaborate these difficulties. Using such labels not only entrenches the false dichotomy of health and illness, but also eclipses the creative, positive aspect of psychotic phenomena.”

—Darian Leader 2011, 7-8


I begin this paper on The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1439) by revisiting the vexed question of Kempe’s “madness,” the question that most medievalists consider, for crucial historical and political reasons, to be strictly off limits. As Jonathan Hsy and Richard Godden remind us, the “inner qualities” of mental states in the Middle Ages “resist easy alignment with modern discourses” (2013, 314). I do not want to argue that Kempe is “mad.” Rather I argue that Kempe’s text reveals distinctive and unique patterns of thinking about her beliefs and experiences, patterns of thinking that need to be distinguished from the fact that those beliefs and experiences were at the time, to invoke an anachronism, cultural norms. The speaking with Jesus, the voicehearing, the sobbing and roaring, the desire to live chastely, the conviction of her own righteousness: these are all features of late medieval devotional practices and of the vitae of the holy women that Kempe strove to emulate. Kempe’s behaviors, excessive as they appeared to some of her fellow-Christians and as they appear to some readers today, are entirely congruent with the beliefs and practices of her day. They are also congruent with the experiences of many people today that we would not consider to be “mad”: voicehearing, for example, is a phenomenon that is experienced not only by those subject to “psychiatric diagnoses” but also by some men and women going about their everyday lives (Saunders and Fernyhough 2017, 210).


Taking my cue from the psychoanalyst and writer Darian Leader, I argue that what is at stake in the Book’s rhetoric is not the content of Kempe’s beliefs and experiences, which are entirely conventional, but the place they occupy in her life: how she articulates what they mean to her. I do not think there has been sufficient attention paid to this dimension of the Book’s textuality. While I acknowledge that the text is a collaborative production, I think we can still read in it Kempe’s permeability to language: how language, the symbolic, enters the real of her body and organizes it for her, for example, in the too-presentness (for her) of the libido. The Book is not only a spiritual autobiography but a text within a tradition of representing what are problematically called “abnormal” states of mind, but which are deeply creative and reparative attempts to structure the world: from Thomas Hoccleve’s account of his disordered mental state in the Complaint to Judge Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903). In attending to the language of the Book as a structuring of internal reality my project is very different from reading Kempe’s text as an artless case study of surface symptoms for which we can propose contemporary psychiatric diagnoses. I nevertheless court the dangers of reductionism, including a reductionism of religious experience, and of deauthorizing Kempe as a female mystic. My paper will address those dangers.

Ruth Evans Ruth Evans Talk

Nicole Seymour, “Awkwardness, Ambivalence, Glee: A Catalogue of Bad Environmental Feelings”

On October 20th, Literature & the Mind joined Literature & the Environment for a presentation by Nicole Seymour (CSU Fullerton) that brought together ecocritical scholarship, affect theory, and film studies. Focusing on “awkwardness,” “ambivalence,” and “glee,” Seymour’s discussion considered “bad” environmental feelings that characterize a particular recent trend in the environmental humanities across film, television, literature, and performance art and show an alternative, often ironic and humorous, approach to environmental activism that diverges from the sincerity and sentimentality often associated with it.

Nicole SeymourSeymour‘s publications include Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination (2013) and Bad Environmentalism: Affect and Dissent in the Ecological Age (forthcoming).

Lit & Mind Opening Reception

On October 2nd, Lit & Mind faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, and researchers from various departments and initiatives gathered together over food and drinks for our opening reception. Kay Young (Director), Chip Badley & Dalia Bolotnikov (Graduate Representatives), and Casey Coffee & Baily Rossi (Undergraduate Representatives) are thrilled to begin a new academic year of exciting events and speakers and to enter the second year of our research topic, “Intersubjectivity.”

After an overview of the 2017-2018 schedule of events, Kay Young discussed the meaning of intersubjectivity and turned to a passage from Daniel Stern’s The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life , one of the selections from our first reading group meeting last year:

Our nervous systems are constructed to be captured by the nervous systems of others, so that we can experience others as if from within their skin, as well as from within our own. A sort of direct feeling route into the other person is potentially open and we resonate with and participate in their experiences, and they in ours. (I will give the evidence that supports this view shortly.)


Other people are not just other objects but are immediately recognized as special kinds of objects, objects like us, available for sharing inner states. In fact, our minds naturally work to seek out the experiences in others that we can resonate with. We naturally parse others’ behavior in terms of the inner states that we can grasp, feel, participate in, and thus share.


This must be seen in the light of our being highly social animals who probably spend the majority of our lives in the presence of others, real or imagined. Sometimes our imagined companions are vivid presences; at other times, they are vague background figures or audiences or witnesses that float in and out of our awareness. But they are there nonetheless.


When we put all this together, a certain intersubjective world emerges. We no longer see our minds as so independent, separate, and isolated. We are no longer the sole owners, masters, and guardians of our subjectivity. The boundaries between self and others remain clear but more permeable. In fact, a differentiated self is a condition of intersubjectivity. Without it there would be only fusion (Rochat & Morgan, 1995; Stern, 1985).


Opening Reception

With Stern guiding much of our understanding of how we function as intersubjective beings, we have had a successful and illuminating year of exploring intersubjectivity. We now look forward both to hosting scholars who discuss literature together with intersubjectivity and to showcasing and celebrating the intersubjective work in literary studies done by scholars in our own program. Our two-year series will culminate in a spring conference, “Intersubjectivity and Literature at UCSB,” which will feature the work of our university’s faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students, with Aranye Fradenburg as our keynote speaker.

Thank you to all who joined us for a great opening event. We can’t wait to see what this year will bring!

Opening Reception

Jessica Benjamin and Donna Orange – Workshops & Public Lectures

In Winter 2017, Literature and the Mind was thrilled to host Jessica Benjamin and Donna Orange, two of the most important intersubjective thinkers and psychoanalysts today.


On February 22nd, Jessica Benjamin led a workshop on intersubjective psychoanalysis. Ahead of time, we read “Beyond Doer and Done to: An Intersubjective View of Thirdness,” which explained the concept of a co-created or shared intersubjective thirdness and proposed a restoration of recognition through surrender. On February 23rd, Benjamin gave an IHC public lecture titled “The Discarded and The Dignified—The Politics of the Fear that ‘Only One Can Live’” for the “Community Matters” series. Benjamin discussed the zero-sum conversations about suffering that presume a denial of “the Other,” arguing for the need to consider suffering not oppositionally, but through thirdness. This attachment to a social third leads us out of revenge, out of the binary of “deserving” and “discarded,” and into reparation. Both the harmers and the harmed need the moral third to repair the world where only one can live – with the knowledge that all can live. A failure to witness the suffering of the other breaks the bonds of social attachment in the world and can lead to monstrous action. In Benjamin’s words, “disgust happens when the horror from which we want to dissociate floods into us too quickly.” Click here for a description and recording of the talk.

Jessica Benjamin

On March 6th, Donna Orange led a workshop on ethics, humanitarianism, and intersubjective psychoanalysis. Ahead of time, we read “My Other’s Keeper: From Intersubjective Systems Theory to the Ethical Turn in Psychoanalysis,” which carried us from Orange’s background as an intersubjective systems theorist to her work on ethics of responsibility and the “suffering strangers,” both those in the consulting room and those harmed by climate crisis and poverty. Intersubjective systems psychoanalysis focuses on the relational field created by multiple unique, unrepeatable subjective worlds of experience – an individual can be understood only within these organic psychological systems. Orange writes that the ethical turn to responsibility and solidarity easily follows this emphasis on the irreplaceable, irreducible other who must be treated dialogically. On March 7th, Orange gave an IHC public lecture for the “Community Matters” series titled “My Other’s Keeper: Radical Ethics and Visions of Community.” Orange discussed the meaning of radical ethics in community – how do we enable our imaginations to affiliate with “all” rather than “some”? Click here for a description and recording of the talk.

Donna Orange

Narrative Complexity in Contemporary Cinema: A Cognitive Approach

willemsen talkOn January 23rd, Literature and the Mind celebrated a book launch by Steven Willemsen, our visiting research scholar in cognitive film studies from the University of Groningen. Willemsen’s presentation focused on his new book, Impossible Puzzle Films: A Cognitive Approach to Contemporary Complex Cinema, which looks into the relation between complex storytelling and the mind.

willemsen talk Willemsen’s book reconceptualizes narrative complexity by focusing on its effect on the viewer. Despite the impossible structures of complex films, people are driven to approach them as if they operate as traditional narratives: the puzzle films that Willemsen discussed make us expect and seek rational explanations when there are none to be found. Willemsen’s presentation and book question the ways in which impossible puzzle films create complexity, the methods through which their narratives strategically keep viewers in the loop of sense-making, and the reasons for the evident appeal of such dissonant narrative experiences.

willemsen_with book