The return of psychopolitics

Image: Mariana Montrazi


As if demonstrating that the repressed returns, politics has erupted into the supposedly apolitical world of American psychoanalysis

As if demonstrating that the repressed returns, politics has erupted into the supposedly apolitical world of American psychoanalysis. An advocacy group, Black Psychoanalysts Speak and a documentary, Psychoanalysis in El Barrio, seek to correct the racial and class prejudices of this discipline, analysis. Discomfort, a popular psychoanalytic service, is embroiled in a roiling debate over whether it is necessary to match the analyst's gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation with those of the patient.

The American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA) itself was rocked by political recriminations, purges, dismissals and denunciations. An article by Donald Moss, published in the association's newspaper, provided the catalyst for this to happen. According to its summary: “Whiteness is a condition that is first acquired and, once it is acquired, it becomes a malignant condition, similar to parasitism; Now, “white” people have a particular susceptibility to becoming infected. The condition is fundamental, generating characteristic ways of being in the body, mind and world. Parasitic whiteness makes the appetites of its hosts voracious, insatiable, and perverse.”

Reaction to the article varied widely. Some saw it as a valuable extension of psychoanalytic theory, while others believed it neglected vital determinants of racialization, such as deindustrialization, union discrimination, and housing market inequalities.

In response to the controversy, an internal body, the Holmes Commission, was appointed to “investigate the systemic racism and its underlying determinants embedded in APsaA, as well as to offer solutions to all aspects of identified racism”. Among the repercussions, a debate on anti-Semitism was precipitated by an invitation to a controversial Lebanese therapist to speak to the Association's members, which led to the resignation of its president Kerry Sulkowicz.

These developments are noteworthy in their own right, but they also raise broader questions about the relationship between psychoanalysis and politics. What this surprising politicization of contemporary psychoanalysis consists of and the extent to which it conforms to liberal identitarianism, sometimes called “wokeness”. Prevailing in the broader culture is this current that sees systematic errors, such as racism, as if they emanated from individual psyches. Imputation is similar to the sin model. Now, this trend is a sad deviation from a current of thought that provided a genuine alternative to moralism.

However, the risks are greater than psychoanalysis itself. They concern the perspectives for a XNUMXst century left that can embrace a non-reductionist conception of the relations between the social world and individual psychology. Recent years have also seen a certain resurgence of psychoanalytic thought on the American left.

Sam Adler-Bell, podcast co-host Know your enemy, attributes this to Bernie Sanders’ defeat. “There is a turn inwards”, he speculates: “perhaps this purely materialist analysis of people’s motivations does not give us what we need to make sense of this moment”. A new magazine, Parapraxis, describes itself as a “psychoanalytically oriented supplement to radical criticism and historical materialism”, promising to discover “the psychosocial dimension of our lives”.

To think about this question, we need to consider the intertwined histories of socialism, feminism, and psychoanalysis. The central contribution of socialism was the idea that democracy and individual freedom could not be achieved without combating capitalism in a meaningful way. By uprooting the peasantry and bringing workers together in the cities, industrialization created the foundations for a revolutionary movement. Less frequently it is observed that this same process transformed the family.

Previously, the family had been the main site of production and reproduction in society. Therefore, it was there that the individual's sense of identity was rooted, that is, in the place of both work and family. Industrial capitalism separated paid work from domestic work. The consequences were twofold.

First, the separation helped give rise to a new gender order among the emerging bourgeoisie, based on the cult of true femininity. In other words, women's suffering gave them moral authority. Secondly, separation helped to loosen the ties that bound individuals of both sexes to their place in the family, giving rise to the idea of ​​a personal life – an identity distinct from their place in the family, society and the social division of work.

Understanding that modern capitalist society is based not only on the rise of industry, but also on the withdrawal of production from the family, helps to clarify the contributions and blind spots of these three emancipatory currents. Socialists tended to reduce culture and psychology to economics. Focused on political economy, they left family and personal life for psychoanalysis and feminism. Psychoanalysis and feminism, in turn, focused on the family, neglecting its relationship with the capitalist economy. In the 1960s, a prevailing view on the left was that psychoanalysis was apolitical or “individualistic.”

But in fact it was political in a different way, for it focused not on capital versus labor, but rather on the freedom of the individual from internalized forms of authority, including those targeted by democratic revolutions, such as tradition, master relations, /servant and the church, all of which Freud loosely tied together as paternal law.

Over time, especially in the 1960s, those who were influenced by psychoanalysis turned their attention to other forms of internalized authority, particularly racism and sexism, as well as to forms of shame and guilt specific to capitalism, deference to supposed knowledge scientific, to doxa and, of course, deference to psychoanalysis itself.

In general, psychoanalysis did not directly confront institutions, but rather acted indirectly, through their effects on individuals. It thus reflected the new experience of personal life, presupposed by Freud in the theory of the unconscious. According to this theory, the ideas or stimuli that reached the individual from society or culture were not registered directly, but were dissolved and reconstituted internally in order to give them personal, even peculiar, meanings.

As a result, the inner lives of modern men and women have been organized through symbols and narratives that have become personal or even idiosyncratic; psychic life could be interpreted, but not reintegrated into a previously existing whole. In this view, a person's race, gender, or nationality does not simply translate into their intrapsychic world, but is refracted through the contingencies of their personal life. This meant that politics entered the practice in terms of its meaning for the individual patient – ​​rather than in the service of a political agenda. Far from being defined by any political ideas, psychoanalytic practice was open, non-utilitarian and unpredictable.

For several decades, psychoanalysis' potential contribution to radical politics was not widely appreciated. One reason is that psychoanalysis was not oriented toward an identifiable sociological group, such as the working class, but rather toward historically specific new possibilities for personal emancipation, which capitalism promised but failed to deliver. The limits of psychoanalytic politics also reflected the psychic or cultural reductionism embedded in the separation between family and economy.

This separation gave rise to new ways of thinking about history and politics centered on the role of psychology in understanding both individuals and groups or masses, but these tended to be discussed in and of themselves rather than as part of a broader social theory. broad. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the rebellions of the 1960s – in which women and personal life issues were central – played a fundamental role in redefining the politics of psychoanalysis.

This shift began with black intellectuals who turned to psychoanalysis to elucidate the personal costs of racism. Sociologist Horace Cayton, describing his own psychoanalysis, wrote that although he began with the idea that race was a “piece of the thing,” a rationalization for personal inadequacy, he eventually came to understand that race “ran to the core of my personality”, “having formed the central focus of my insecurity”. "I must have gotten drunk on my mother's milk," he added.

Richard Wright, deeply shaped by psychoanalysis, stated: “what was considered by our emotional strength were our negative confusions, our escapes, our fears, our frenzy under pressure”. Fanon, a Freudian psychiatrist, wrote: “I was assaulted by drums, cannibalism, intellectual disability, fetishism, racial defects… I turned away from my own presence… What else could it be for me but an amputation, an excision, a hemorrhage that spattered all over my body with black blood? I marry white culture, white beauty, white whiteness.”

Such works were never intended to replace the analyzes of segregation and the plantation system, but rather to complement, deepen and complicate them. The result was Freudo-Marxism, a current of thought in which individual psychology and social theory each received their place. Other efforts to achieve this balance included the reinterpretation of the Reformation (Erik Erickson, Norman O. Brown, Erich Fromm) and work on mass society and culture (Wilhelm Reich, Theodor Adorno, Christopher Lasch, Richard Hofstadter, Herbert Marcuse) .

The efforts of the 1960s to produce a non-reductionist understanding of the relations between the social and the psychic were short-circuited. Although the cult of true femininity was long dead, many women remained suspended between two different approaches to the family: first, because the family and personal relationships in general were the special – and moral – domain of women; for a second reason because sexual and personal emancipation required freedom from the family. The result was a profound ambivalence toward psychoanalysis, which had at least as many attitude-forming consequences as the very real sexism of American psychoanalysts.

What won was feminists' frank expression of the extent of women's suffering and the deep sense of the injustice of a male-dominated society. The result was that the ambivalence was resolved negatively. This resolution informed two books that, in 1970, heralded the birth of second-wave feminism: Sexual Politics, by Kate Millett, and Dialectics of Sex, by Shulamith Firestone.

For Millett, Freud was the leader of a counterrevolution against feminism, fought under the banner of penis envy. Firestone redefined penis envy as power envy and replaced Marx and Engels' idea of ​​a dialectic of class with a dialectic of sex, according to which men's dominance over women and children was the driving force of history. Both books sought to replace psychoanalysis with feminism. Gayle Rubin called psychoanalysis “feminism manqué".

Psychoanalysis and feminism (1974), by Juliet Mitchell, marked a new turning point in the encounter between feminism and psychoanalysis. Juliet Mitchell was a socialist – and editor of the NLR – influenced by Fanon and the existential psychoanalysis of David Cooper and Richard D. Laing. The question that concerned her was how women live in their “heads and hearts a self-definition that is, at bottom, a definition of oppression”.

In 2017, she recalled: My fascination with the rabid anti-Freud stance of early American feminists in the second half of the 1960s made me go to the British Museum library to read Freud's five articles on women. Instead, I read without stopping the twenty-three volumes of his work translated into English. The book Psychoanalysis and feminism was the result. I had found what I wanted – somehow it was possible to think about the issue of women's oppression.

Her book criticized second-wave feminism for “getting rid of mental life.” To them, she lamented: “In everything that actually happens… no other type of reality prevails than social reality.”

In the late seventies and eighties, some feminists, gays, and to a lesser extent people of color became psychiatric analysts, therapists, or social workers. However, for the most part, they did not join Mitchell in returning to Freud. Instead, they transformed psychoanalysis into the so-called relational paradigm, which focused not on the individual unconscious but on interpersonal relationships. Based on the famous preview Winnicott's “there is no baby” – that is, the mother is always present – ​​relational psychoanalysis became a committed formation, combining a mother-centered paradigm, practical introspection, and a new code of behavior.

Feminists who adopted psychoanalysis replaced “sex” with “gender,” thus discarding the psychoanalytic theory of motivation without putting another in its place. Melanie Klein's theory of unconscious object relations, largely if not entirely consistent with Freud, has been misrepresented as interpersonal or relational. Nancy Chodorow and Jessica Benjamin prioritized gender difference and idealized attunement and other interpersonal skills associated with women. For others, the unconscious disappeared into a phenomenology of intimate relationships, such as flirting, kissing, tickling, and being bored, or into a microsociology of insults and injuries.

The relational turn replaced the unconscious with an ethical theory of interpersonal relationships. This contributed to what is now known as “wokeness" (awakening). What occurs in the absence of a theory of the unconscious is projection. All evil and everything that is wrong is seen as coming from outside. The penis envy theory was unpleasant, hurtful, and even wrong, but its very structure included an effort to elucidate why women mobilized their aggression against themselves.

When individuals lack even the concept of intrapsychic life, much less access to it, they will project their aggression and other “bad” feelings outwards, generating the need for warnings, moral judgments posted next to pictures and paintings. Deans and directors play the role of police officers, conforming a definition of the university – and the New Left – as a place of rape culture.

This idea that aggression comes from outside works very well with the liberal and market paradigm, which is based on a model of equilibrium and which denies that there is an inherent aggressiveness in the market system and that, consequently, any problems must be external – they must have come from the State, monopolies or even China. The denial of aggression leads to moralism, based on the idea – which arises from the cult of true femininity – that victimization confers moral authority. Here, the intrinsically dubious structure of capitalism shows itself in the domain of morality.

The demand for recognition can be read as the political counterpart of the relational turn. Feminists' overwhelmingly negative reaction to Culture of narcissism (1979), by Christopher Lasch, signaled the triumph of a newly created Hegelian “theory of recognition” over Freudian self-reflection. In this book, Christopher Lasch saw the demand for recognition as a symptom of a society based on attention, in which processes of mirroring and idealization prevailed.

However, to his feminist critics, he was a defender of an outdated ideal of autonomy, as well as “masculinist” – and that was all. However, responding not to feminism but to the German trauma of the Nazi years, Jürgen Habermas rejected Adorno and Horkheimer's attempts to combine Freud and Marx in favor of a paradigm based on intersubjectivity, democratic dialogue and communicative action, rooted in pragmatism and in American social psychology. These currents were related to feminism by Axel Honneth, who argued that the demand for recognition, in the Hegelian sense of recognition, is the master key to justice. The result was a new notion of “critical theory,” which replaced Freudo-Marxism: Winnicott replaced Freud and Talcott Parsons replaced Marx.

Let us now return to our roots in the XNUMXth century, when the withdrawal of production from the family created the modern demand for personal freedom, understood as something beyond the economy. Certainly Marx, who read everything and embraced the work of non-socialist thinkers like Charles Darwin and Lewis Henry Morgan, as well as monarchists like Honoré de Balzac, would have been fascinated by Freud, Fanon and Mitchell, among others.

As we learn from postcolonialism about the nation, we need to think of the family in terms of combined and uneven development. By introducing the most backward elements of society into this institution, as well as the most visionary possibilities, family politics becomes fuel.

The forced separation between forms of personal emancipation, such as women's liberation, anti-racism and identity politics, on the one hand, and socialism, on the other, occurred in the 1960s, when the three emancipatory currents – socialism, feminism and psychoanalysis – were closer to having come together.

The alternative to a state of alert, finally, is not the abstract and liberal separation between the individual and the political, but rather the interdependence between the individual and the collective. All human beings have basic material and social needs that can only be met collectively. This is what socialists have historically understood. But individual needs cannot be reduced to the collective; they are also in the psyche, in personal psychological problems. Hence the logic behind the idea that psychoanalysis should be something complementary to socialism.

A revitalized psychoanalysis, galvanized by the rediscovery of the personal character of the unconscious, would greatly deepen our explorations of human freedom – in psychotherapy, in the arts, and in public discourse. She would be a natural ally of a revitalized socialist politics. However, there is always room for moral reform, even under socialism – but not within psychoanalysis.

*Eli Zaretsky is professor of history at The New School for Social Research. Author, among other books, of Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis (Vintage).

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published on blog Sidecar da New Left Review.

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