Through a reflection on the merits of psychoanalysis deployment of literature, Adam Phillips shows that literature and psychoanalysis share the preocupation of interpreting human character through language.
“Just as it became apparent to Freud that sexuality was sexual disorder, we might say something similar about eating. What would it be not to have an eating disorder? Who do we think of as being a normal eater, and what do our criteria, on reflection, seem to be for this reassuring assessment” (288).
This passage occurs in "On Eating, and Preferring Not To” in which Adam Philips return to a critical point of departure via Freud, a return prompted by his work with analysands who refuse to eat. The passage struck me because of its strategic offering of a sophisticated and challenging way of approaching eating and consumption.
In asking the question, "What would it be not to have an eating disorder?," Phillips calls our attention to what is an eating disorder and the ways in which we conceive of that disorder. The juxtaposition of these rhetorical questions in the passage implies that we question the notion of disorder itself. The succession of the words, “eating disorder, normal eater, criteria for reassuring assessment” implicitly hint at the existence of an order of eating, a norm whose criteria can be easily identified. Now the question is how do we draw on the potential within this order to first identify, then classify and finally understand the operation of disorder? The possibility of “criteria for reassuring assessment” suggests that there is a code, a repertoire that enables psychoanalysis and the psychoanalyst to understand what is an eating disorder. Is that repertoire characterized what the psychoanalyst knows about the workings of the analysand’s psyche? Or is it constituted of the social, and if so, does is align, first, the appetite for food with curiosity about life itself, an interest or desire that nourishes the subject, and feeds its love of life itself?
Via this route, one may consider the range of life and death stories subjects tell themselves in eating disorder and normal eating.Phillip’s questions call our attention to think about the ways in which analysands who decide not to eat experience themselves emotionally fed or starved within a social repertoire, or narrative of order. By doing so, they enact, or literalize experiences of emotional starvation or satiation through modifying their eating patterns. For Phillips, the love of life is an appetite for nourishment, and that appetite, in turn, provides the grounds for the workings of desire and imagination to create a real life. Here, my use of the adjective "real" is to be understood as a reality created and constructed when subjects work through the dialectic between what they want and what is there (the material conditions of possibility as well as the material constraints). A reality that works with the internal conflicts, psychic and social.
Phillips’s perspective opens up critical questions about the ways different subjects balance and define their wants and limits in economically workable ways so that they create life-stories, as opposed to death-stories (narratives repeating self-destructive patterns) out of the material conditions of their objective reality, life-stories that make that same brute reality meaningful for them. As such, the flawed diagnostic tool of a supposedly "healthy" respect for the distinctness of the domains of art and life loses its cutting edge through Phillips’ s acuity in pointing to the interdependency of imagination and life-stories that enable subjects to have a life in time. Patterns of eating are just as much nutritional as they are metaphoric for Phillips since for him they are corporeal manifestations of the psyche’s embeddings in the social. Eating, understood in all these ways, is a prime mediator in creating a real life in time. Phillips's perspective loosens the hold of habitual thought processes producing both the categories and narratives of “eating disorders” as matters of common sense. Instead, if the categories and narratives of “eating disorders” have critical interest today, the interest lies not in their function as commonsensical answers to our questions, but rather as historical points of departure, or as questions, that in their own turn, now call for critical re-analysis of the historicity of the categories of order and disorder and their supporting narratives. As such, we must question tendencies to naturalize explanatory narratives about eating disorder by looking at its opposite, normal eating or orderly eating.