In response to a long and interesting thread on Larvatus Prodeo, I think it timely to provide some clarificatory remarks on psychoanalysis, a much-maligned and oft-misunderstood discipline. I will try to be as schematic as possible.
1. Psychoanalysis is radical. The notion of a psychoanalytic unconscious, a part of ourselves that is fundamentally and irreducibly unknowable, beyond any control, and causative of a range of 'symptoms' (from the hysteric's phantom pains, to dreams, to the symptomatic nature of our romantic lives) is radical. Other psychoanalytic notions can make claims of being radical, however, the psychoanalytic unconscious is what gives the discipline its revolutionary character. Whilst Kant, Hartmann, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and others all dipped their toes into the murky waters of a radical unconscious, none were as detachedly systematic, whilst at the same time frighteningly intimate as Freud.
Nonetheless, psychoanalysis is not politically radical, Reich being the obvious exception. Freud rejected Marxist theories of the origins of society, and Lacan too was dismissive of Marxism, at least, until the uprisings in 1968 Paris. It is possible that, being Jewish, many early psychoanalysts thought it impolitic to also be socialist, given the Zeitgeist in which they operated. A strong sense of social justice can be found in psychoanalysis, from Freud's Free Clinics to the low-cost services provided by psychoanalytic schools today. This notwithstanding, Freud, and psychoanalysis is best understood, in 19th Century terms, as neither conservative nor radical, but as liberal-bourgeois.
2. Psychoanalysis is not a science. At least, it is not scientific in the sense by which we understand the term in physics or mathematics. Psychoanalysis is a science of the particular, which means it will never deal in the relatively tidy universals of the 'hard' sciences. All the same, psychoanalysis displays greater rigour, reasoning, and explanatory power than most of the rest of psychology, which is why today's neuroscientists, such as Damasio, or Kendall, are turning to Freud rather than Beck or Skinner.
Those who proffer narrow and dogmatic notions of scientificity (that is, most of academic psychology) will find psychoanalysis wanting. However, psychoanalysis is perfectly 'empirical' - it deals with a series of 'ones' rather than seeking to apply structural equation modelling or alpha-tests to subjects reduced to some kind of statistical totality. Like any of the 'human sciences', psychoanalysis incorporates 'qualitative' methodologies, which, though they eschew statistical methods, nonetheless proceed by way of evidence and reasoned argumentation. Indeed, given the flimsy conceptual foundations of mainstream psychology, the latters' fear and hostility towards psychoanalysis must be explained by means other than a recourse to notions of 'empirical validation'.
3. Psychoanalysis is not an art. The discipline, as least in its clinical guise, is not simply some whimsical expression of its practitioner's fancy. Nonetheless, unlike other 'therapies', true psychoanalysis cannot be 'manualised', that is, broken into a recipe book-style series of prescriptions for a therapist or subject. Psychoanalysis stands closer to the arts than any other of the psychologies, partly because art itself is 'symptomatic' and 'over-determined', but also because psychoanalysis does not suffer from the same knee-jerk rejection of all that is not narrowly scientific that its psychological cousins exhibit.
4. Psychoanalysis is anti-authoritarian. When practised by way of assisting the analysand to interpret his or her own associations, psychoanalysis is far removed from the likes of CBT, and refrains from issuing directives and imperatives. Furthermore, psychoanalysis does not stigmatise and pathologise in the manner of the DSM-IV; after all, in psychoanalysis, neurosis is 'normal', or even a best-case scenario, given that the alternative is psychosis. Clearly, someone like Foucault was not enamoured of psychoanalysis, yet any criticism that he (or Deleuze or Guattari) might have made could be doubly said of the highly authoritarian treatment 'regimes' currently predominating in our healthcare systems
5. There are different schools of psychoanalysis. Few analysts would accept all of Freud's teachings, though virtually all would cite Freud as the founder of their discipline. In the post-Freud era, psychoanalytic schools include the Anna Freudian, ego psychology, Bion's analysis, object relations, Kleinian approaches, Lacanian analysis, and the intersubjective school. In addition, there are various offshoots initially inspired by, but ultimately distinct from psychoanalysis, such as Jungian psychology, the neo-Freudians, and Adler's individual psychology. Whilst some of these approaches differ sharply from each other, there is no more sectarianism that what one would find in any other discipline, and the dominant form of analysis that one learns is often a result of one's time and place, or the orientation of one's school. Still, psychoanalysis is not homogeneous.
6. Psychoanalysis is neither misogynist, nor anti-feminist. Whilst feminism has an uneasy relationship with Freud and psychoanalysis, there is a relationship nonetheless. Freud made several problematic statements in relation to feminine psychology, which can be attributed to 3 basic origins:
- Freud was a (relatively enlightened) product of his times, and consequently gave voice to a number of fairly typical prejudices.
- The exigencies of some of Freud's theories, and the extent to which he took these theories literally, inevitably led him to some odd conceptual formulations. The Oedipus Complex, when applied to females, is among the more notorious of these.
- Some of Freud's statements are in fact sexist, and seemingly have no basis in either theoretical or empirical necessity, and cannot be explained away via 19th Century prejudice.
Having established this, it should be remembered that not all feminists are hostile to Freud or psychoanalysis. American analysts such as Nancy Chodorow or Jessica Benjamin are excellent examples of a feminist (and intersubjective) engagement with psychoanalysis.
7. Psychoanalysis is not always encountered in its pure form. Indeed, whilst the neuroscientists and 'cognitive analysts' say that they engage with psychoanalysis, it would be more accurate to describe this engagement as one of colonisation. Psychoanalysis is often subordinate to some other discipline, or else the more radical and subversive aspects of its teaching are neutered. For instance, American ego psychologists, and the CBT practitioners (former analysts) shift the focus from the unconscious to the controllable and knowable conscious. Or take the difficult notion of the death drive, which has been virtually neglected by all post-Freudians other than Klein and Lacan. It is surely no coincidence that psychoanalysis becomes more acceptable, and more 'scientific' to people once it has been stripped of the unconscious, sex, and death.
8. Psychoanalysis is analogous to Marxism. That is to say, as Foucault pointed out, both psychoanalysis and Marxism are discourses that critically interrogate other discourses, often discourses of mastery. In psychoanalysis, discourses of mastery belie the subject of the unconscious, repressing to produce this illusion of 'mastery'. In Marxism, analysis is directed to looking at how class-relations are perpetuated through ideology, and how 'neutral' discourses are often sodden with ideological blindspots. This contributes to both disciplines being 'unacceptable'. Freud's discourse is further unacceptable because it engages meaningfully in those things often presumed to be meaningless, that is, the nonsensical elements of experience normally banished from polite academic company, such as neurotic symptoms, jokes, dreams, and slips of the tongue.
Whilst both psychoanalysis and Marxism undermine discourses of mastery, neither were intended to be applied in a haphazard, reductionist fashion. For instance, whilst a Marxist analysis of 'crime' enable us to observe how class relations and private property underpin our notions of legal transgression, phenomena such as sexual assault can never be exhaustively reduced by an analysis of class relations alone.
9. Psychoanalysis is not post-modern. Despite the protestations of Sokal, and others, there is nothing that Lacan has in common with the likes of Derrida, or Baudrillard, other than a similarly difficult oeuvre. Whilst psychoanalysis is applicable to non-clinical phenomena, there are many examples of what Freud called 'wild analysis' in this field. In addition, Kristeva and Irigary, inspired by analysis, have consciously engaged with the 'post-modern'. It should be remembered, however, that in his New Introductory Lectures, Freud explicitly said that the Weltanschauung of psychoanalysis was scientific and medicinal. All of the major theorists of psychoanalysis have since continued in this tradition, albeit incorporating the concerns of feminism, or linguistics. The struggles of psychoanalysts are not merely confined to obscurantist debates on paper; French analysts, for instance, have documented their battles with an unsympathetic and cynical healthcare system in the journal Lacanian Praxis.
10. Psychoanalysis is not dead. In particular, psychoanalysis thrives in places where Latin languages predominate, from Portugal to Quebec. It is Buenos Aires, and not New York, that actually has the highest per capita amount of psychoanalysts. In fact, psychology in Argentina is taught with mandatory units in philosophy, and does not waste its time with the niceties of statistical analysis. Last year, as I travelled through Europe, it was clear that Freud's 150th birthday was celebrated in London, Berlin, and Vienna. On the other hand, psychoanalysis, as enduring as it is, will never be the dominant paradigm, cumbersome as it is to both the 'normalising' discourse of bureaucratic-medical models, and to consumer capitalism. Historian of psychoanalysis, Eli Zaretsky, said much the same thing in the speeches he gave in Melbourne in 2005.
11. Psychoanalysis is on the side of freedom. This may be paradoxical, given Freud's apparent commitment to a thoroughly determinist model of mental functioning. Nonetheless, if we adopt a notion of freedom that is not simply either/or in nature, we can observe how psychoanalysis helps the analysand obtain freedom by degrees, by replacing ignorance and compulsion with knowledge and awareness.
It is no coincidence that psychoanalysis has been demonised by totalitarian regimes everywhere, from Hitler's Germany, to Stalin's Russia, and is today excluded from authoritarian modes of 'treatment' peddled in consumerist regimes. An anecdote that I heard from an Argentinian Lacanian suggested that Lacan's work found resonance in this latter country precisely because the obscurity of its language kept it from the attention of authorities.
Psychologist have ever but sought to change the human subject, that is, transform him/her into an object, force him/her to identify with a 'therapist', or to become the 'healthy', narcissistic, alienated subject of consumer capitalism.
The point is not to change things, but to interpret them. Through interpreting, change follows in any case, or moreover, analysand interprets for his or her own self. Psychoanalysis teaches the analysand how he or she 'enjoys' his or her symptoms; it does not enjoin the subject to necessarily cease this enjoyment.