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PSYCHOANALYSIS AND THE PUBLIC SPHERE

by Robert M. Young

In August 1919 Ernest Jones and a companion were the first foreign civilians to reach Vienna after the war. He had not seen Freud for six years. Jones recalls that 'there were, of course, comments on the vast changes in the European situation, and Freud surprised me by saying he had recently had an interview with an ardent communist and had been half converted to Bolshevism, as it was then called. He had been informed that the advent of Bolshevism would result in some years of misery and chaos and that these would be followed by universal peace, prosperity and happiness. Freud added: "I told him I believed the first half" '. (Jones, Freud , III:16).

My second quote is from a haunting remark of Joel Kovel (who I very much wish was here today) He said that the reason that the radical potential of psychoanalysis remains unfulfilled lies first and foremost in the social location of its practitioners.

I start from three premises: first, that psychoanalysis provides the only hope for understanding the subjective aspect of human limitations and human hope; second, that it provides the promise — though not yet much of the substance — of the understanding of group processes; third, that theoretical work is important — or, better, that practice without theory is blind, while theory without practice is empty.

Another way I might begin is to say that psychoanalysis is the last hope and the last refuge of the disappointed radical, subversive and would-be revolutionary, at least in the metropolitan countries. I say this because my own generation (I was a late developer: not a member of the class of '68 but their attentive tutor) found that the problem was not W. H. Auden's — whether or not the centre would hold. The problem was the return of the repressed or the suppressed in left group practice — what our editorial collective came to call 'the psychopathology of every left group'. I say the problem though, of course, we never found that out; we never made it to the barricades and made only a very few steps on that long march through the institutions toward which the German student leader, Rudi Dutschke, pointed us. We were naive, millenarian, utopian in the sense that we thought that once we saw through — once we’d benefited from demystification or consciousness-raising — we were as good as there. 0n the contrary, that’s when our problems really began.

Yes, I am sketching, but there's an element of truth in the essentially Maoist attitude I’m describing — that insight, spirit and will were enough and could prevail. We underestimated the sheer inertia of what we were up against, but more than that, we underestimated our own limitations.

I can clearly remember my astonishment when at the first meeting of a commune two best friends betrayed one another, and within weeks all hell had broken loose, so that one person had slept with everyone in the place while making a secret pact with his lady to do nothing of the sort and another woman's milk had dried up because of all the turmoil. I could go on, but I only want to juxtapose that ultra-libertarian moment and its concomitant: anti-psychiatry and Goffman's critique of the total institution — with what has been painfully learned from decarceration and the failure of so many marvellously well-intentioned projects. What we have learned across many, many practices — clinical, on the streets, and in all sorts of collective and group projects — is something which was spotted and aptly named by feminists in the 1970s: the tyranny of structurelessness.

My own experience and that of people I have worked with, in some cases for just on twenty years, is that we have had to go back to basics. Back to and then behind the writings of Reich, the early Fromm, Marcuse, Schneider and Jacoby to people who were not conceivable bed-fellows in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I mean, of course, Freud, Abraham, Ferenczi, Klein, Winnicott, Fairbairn, and in our time, Searles, Segal, Meltzer, Tustin, Chasseguet-Smirgel, Green. I am not just name dropping. I am confessing to an ever-present sense of scandal: that I sit at the feet of people who — in most cases — share no sense of the political project of libertarian socialism which I and some others I know still see as the Ark of the Covenant, kept safe inside during this horrid and far from ending diaspora.

I cite the psychoanalytic writers to say that in order to go forward politically we are learning that we have to go deeper and deeper to the most primitive thought processes of narcissism, the earliest object relations, splitting, projection, the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions, projective identification, idealisation, transitional objects and transitional phenomena and stay with them and their persistent role in the nominal adult, with autistic cysts and much else, to understand containment, the facilitating environment, the mechanisms of identification with the aggressor, scapegoating, envy and spite and — hopefully — reparation.

I owe much of my own sense of these issues to Barry Richards in the realm of theory. I do not mean just particular theoretical points but also the stubborn and persistent advocacy of the project of going back to basics. To Bob Hinshelwood I owe my clinical sense that we come into the world and into psychoanalysis full of horrid feelings, and the task of the parent, therapist, group, or political movement is not to pretend that they are not there or to provide a corrective emotional experience, but to feel with them, to suffer the truth, to contain and detoxify them and to move from love and hate to knowledge. Beyond this one learns that success can be fatal — instant prey to envy (including self-envy and destructive spite) Though, once again, if the envy is contained and if the ante isn't upped by reverberating mutual and escalating projections, reflection and reparation can occur — just.

What I am saying is that going back to basics begins to tell us what we are really up against in the unconscious processes and relations in the inner world, in interpersonal relationships and groups and in making politics. It tells why we fail and why we can hope — and at what pace and with what setbacks.

I’m sure the theoretical language of what I have said will have struck many of you. It is exclusively object relational. I am unrepentant about that, having found ego psychology as well as structuralist and Lacanian theoretical frameworks unhelpful, the first because of its adjustlve and scientistic pretensions and the second because I found it abstruse and abstract, exactly parallel to my experience as a philosopher in Cambridge in the 196Os where I found that analytic philosophers kept announcing that their analyses were relevant to the things that most concerned me, while never somehow giving me the experience of insight or enlightenment. I am glad to say that the pragmatism of Richard Rorty — my first philosophy teacher — is in vogue now, puncturing the scientistic pretensions of structralist and post-structuralist philosophers, while giving due weight to psychoanalysis.

I'd make the same point about psychoanalysis — that most of those who (in my experience) arrogantly and inaccessibly pronounced the demise of the subject have found their way into middle group or Kleinian analyses, while their journals and treatises have either been wound up or are being made more amenable to understanding.

But there are concepts to which I'd argue we need to relate object relations theory if we are trying to make psychoanalysis helpful to progressive work in the public sphere. Everyone will have her or his own shopping list. Mine is guided by the need to ask in every way I can think of: how can we avoid despair; how can we lift this yoke from our neck, this democratically-elected yoke? Raymond Williams once said with real bewilderment that it had become an axiom for his political generation that the welfare state was in place. The only question was the rate at which it would be extended. They never imagined that it would be dismantled and that that process would be called 'radical', would be done in the name of ’choice’, and that the centre and left would simply not be able to stop it. The centre held in '68, much to our regret, but it has not held in Thatcher Britain, Reagan America, Kohl Germany and Chirac France. Where it failed to give way to the Left twenty years ago, it has indeed given way to the Right in our own time.

So my first candidate for a psychoanalytic rendering is the organisation of consent — Gramsci's concept of hegemony — the organisation of consent without the use of overt force and without the real relations of power becoming apparent. I don't know how to do it. Do you? The feeling I have is exquisitely like that in a session when a patient's projections get into me and make it impossible for me to think. Allied closely to the need for a psychoanalytic reading of hegemony is the need to look at other delusional processes. Here I think we have made more than a beginning in the Marxist psychoanalytic writings of Joel Kovel and especially those of Eugene Victor Wolfenstein (and I'm very glad to have him here), allied closely, as I say, with the concepts of false consciousness, rationalisation and scapegoating, especially as applied to racism. I won't try to spell out their contributions (or that of Fanon), but I do commend to you most heartily Kovel's White Racism and Wolfenstein's breathtaking psychobiography of Malcolm X: The Victims of Democracy. At a conference on psychoanalysis and racism last weekend their ideas really seemed to strike a resonant note and that is heartening. Their examples are primarily American, but their analysis of the underlying unconscious mechanisms and their integration of these with the real history, told in detail, provide models for work in psychoanalysis and the public sphere.

My next candidate for closer scrutiny in psychoanalytic terms is the concept taken up by the Frankfurt School about which Russell Jacoby has written — but not enough. That concept is second nature. I maintain that this is the basic conception to place at the foundations of the human sciences. It raises the question of how amenable to change is human nature and how we can bring about more humane human relations. First nature is the biologically given — a domain whose boundaries have themselves never been clearly drawn and are now quite open as a result of the phenomena of pharmacology, biofeedback (in its traditional and modern forms) and genetic engineering. But without pushing those boundaries between the voluntary and the involuntary nervous systems and between mere inheritance and manipulated inheritance, we have a large scope for deep reflection and serious practice. Second nature is history experienced as if it was unmodifiable — as though it was not amenable to change through praxis and enlightenment. Belief in the ability to learn through practical experience is the sine qua non of a progressive and critical human science, however onerous and slow the process of change. Neurosis is a perfect example of second nature. On a larger scale so is racism. On a still larger scale so are capitalism and East European socialism. Beyond these in degree of generality lie hierarchy and patriarchy. The concept of second nature sticks stubbornly to the historicity of human nature as an ensemble of social relations. It draws our attention to the relative refractoriness of different degrees of embedding of the social, deeply sedimented in cultures and in the socialisation of individuals. It is also the last ditch stand against biologistic reductionism. The integration of political and psychoanalytic versions of this concept seems to me an important desideratum. It addresses the psychology and metapsychology of negativity and of change.

I think I might be able to get a fair measure of agreement to the foregoing list. Beyond it, I suppose opinions will diverge, but that's okay with me. The next tack I'd take is the close scrutiny from a left perspective of small and large group processes. I know that this has been made into an excessively adjustive technology in some quarters in what is called 'the growth movement'. I don't think this should deter us from developing our own kit bag of insights into group processes which may help us to be less self-sabotaging in our own projects. Group pathology too often leaves people bewildered and stunned — poleaxed from behind or below, unable to explain how a work group fell apart and became a basic assumption group — crazy. (New books on group processes by Bob Hinshelwood and Claire Baron shed a flood of light on these questions.)

I know this is excessively schematic, but what can one do in twenty minutes? My hope is that the sense of project will take hold — that, as I said this morning, this is the first of an ongoing series of conferences and related activities in the psychoanalysis of culture and the culture of psychoanalysis.

My mind divides at this point into advocating and supporting the teaching of the relevant economic, political and theoretical concepts from Marxism and the sociology of knowledge, along with racism and cultural studies, in the analytic and psychotherapy training. In this country, as far as I know, there are practically no such courses or forms of apprenticeship. It is parallel to scientific and medical education. The trainees are blinkered and bracketed off from the things they need to know most about the articulation between the substance and context of their professions.

Then I’d turn to psychoanalytic criticism of film, for example, ’Chinatown’, where the most rapacious capitalism in gaining control over the water rights surrounding Los Angeles has its secrets meet with those of decadence and the breaking of the incest taboo — the strange fruits meet violently in the unfathomable, inscrutable labyrinth of Chinatown, with the nose of the man the patriarch (John Huston) keeps calling ‘Mr Gidds’ (Jack Nicholson) cut open for poking itself where it doesn’t belong — the place where polymorphous perversity, huge wealth and great power over nature’s resources coalesce. In my own pantheon ’Heaven’s Gate’, ’The Deer Hunter’, ‘Cool Hand Luke’, ’The Heart is a Lonely Hunter’ and ’The Last Picture Show’ are just as rich in psychoanalytic potential as, indeed, are the biographies of Howard Hughes, Emily Dickinson, Lyndon Johnson, Ingrid Bergman and Woody Guthrie, among others.

Returning next to academic work — but work with profound congruences in the public sphere — I'd like to advocate a psychoanalytic rendering of two of the historical manifestations that made modern science possible and thereby gave us the ability to conceive and bring into being things like napalm, plastic pellet bombs, nuclear weapons and Star Wars. The two processes I have in mind are that of splitting of mind and body and of the concomitant split of the Aristotelian causal schema in which formal, final, material and efficient causes were always treated together, to the modern scheme in which the purpose, goal, telos or use value was always split off — providing us with technological rationality on the one hand and what Whitehead called 'the fallacy of misplaced concreteness' on the other. Only in a franmewiork where purposes and uses are separated from the material aspect could a professor of chemistry at Harvard (I studied his textbook on organic chemistry) imagine a special form of gasoline which has the property of sticking to skin as it burns: napalm. What Lukács had to say about reification and what the Kleinians and Fairbairnians say about split-off part objects, need to be made into parts of a single account applicable to scientific and technological rationality as developed from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to now and applied to fifth generation computers, genetic engineering and the Strategic Defence Initiative. Once again, psychoanalytic concepts are relevant to the analysis of public phenomena, e.g., isolation of affect, projection, intellectualisation, rationalisation, denial. The power of the evocative and emotive remain and remain efficacious in adult life as in knowledge, but their true role is split off and obscured. It is exactly parallel to positivism, whereby facts are separated from values and the substance of knowledge from the constitutive forces which evoke it. The positivism of genesis is as pernicious and reactionary as the positivism of context.

Something similar can be said of the Marxist and the psychoanalytic concepts of fetishism. I have applied the Marxist concept to science, and Winnicott and Wolff have brought it into relation to the development of the child, of culture and of scientific creativity: transitional objects and transitional phenomena. We need more of this.

All this is open to the charge of reductionism. I am comforted whenever I feel prone to this charge (the legitimate criticism of much psychohistory) by Wolfenstein's gloss on Harold Lasswell's formula. Lasswell and a whole generation of idealist political scientists drew attention to the projection of private needs onto the public sphere. But Wolfenstein draws our attention to the historicity of the unconscious and shows from whence they came as they found their way into the private sphere. This is the side of the dialectic that we have thought least about. Having got some of the basics of primitive mechanisms for not changing, we need to look more closely at how we first learned to be good citizens in a bad system. How do we conceptualise what Barry Richards calls the anchorage that capitalism has in inner repression? There is too large a gap between psychoanalysis and metapsychology on the one hand and social and political reality on the other. My agenda for these conferences, for Free Associations and for Free Association Books is to try and fill that gap, issue by issue, con by con, and primitive mechanism by primitive mechanism. Only thus can we effect real change.

I'd like to close by reverting to the question of returning to basics. In my view the agenda for a politicised psychoanalysis (actually it was always politicised — for a politicised psychoanalysis which is socialist) — that agenda needs to remain in integration with the best analytic work on what I call, in my paper for tomorrow, a psychosexual genetic epistemology, including the epistemology as science — the problem that is at the heart of the beast but disguised as progressive and value neutral, while obscuring the repressive values it supports. Few epistemologists of science have grasped this, but a few (very few) psychoanalysts have. In the Summer 1986 issue of the British Journal of Psychotherapy, Donald Meltzer writes that 'Bion took the bull by the horns. It was pretty clear that just as Freudian psychoanalysis had lacked a useful theory of affects and values which Mrs Klein's work was supplying, Kleinian psychoanalysis lacked a theory of thinking. It was widely assumed that this was the realm of philosophy and that such people as Russell, Whitehead, Wittgenstein, Langer and Cassirer would soon present us with a philosophy of mind, language and symbol formation in due time for use in our consulting rooms. Bion's formulations Theory of Thinking flies in the face of academic philosophical thought in placing at the very heart of thinking processes' (p. 301). In his editorial to that issue, Hinshelwood writes (in a way I would like to think owes something to our collaborative work) that work on the nature of the mental is 'too difficult to be left to philosophers. When it comes to discovering the origins of mind itself, and the nature of the mind-body problem, the initiative seems to have passed to the clinicians... Philosophers must now come to our consulting rooms for philosophical research which can no longer be done in their armchairs — though of course not many of them yet realise this'. (p. 254) But nor can it all be done from the analysts' couches and armchairs. The public sphere has its own legitimacy and poses its own agenda for psychoanalytic work.

This is the revised text of a paper delivered to the first conference on Psychoanalysis and the Public Sphere, Polytechnic of East London, October, 1987.

© The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ

robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk

 


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