Archives for posts with tag: Psychoanalysis

In university classrooms across the United States, clinical psychology professors teach very little about Freudian or other types of psychoanalysis. These disciplines are claimed to be obsolete, since they are too imprecise or impossible to measure scientifically. What colleges do teach are the various types of treatment proven to show results (by HMO standards). Now, the question is, what kinds of results are these? The answer is to be found in the very name given to the broad category of mainstream treatments. That is, they are all called ‘therapies,’ whereas psychoanalysis is just that – analysis, not therapy.

The difference between the two terms is crucial. A therapy is a method of resolving a health problem. This means that a trained practitioner should aim to ‘heal’ the patient’s ‘wound.’ Analysis, however, is the breaking apart of a structure in order to understand it more thoroughly (from the Greek: ana = ‘total’ or ‘thorough’; lysis = ‘loosening’). Psychoanalysis is, as a favorite philosophy professor of mine has said, “a controlled deconstruction of the ego,” whereas the goal of psychotherapy is to (falsely) shore up a weak ego.

The therapist works with the patient to make life better, to make it more livable. So, the depressive, the neurotic, the hysteric, or what have you, look to the therapist for advice. More often than not, therapy sessions revolve around the patient’s disclosure of various aspects of his or her life; this is ‘talk therapy,’ in which the patient rattles off all of his or her problems, and the therapist has very little input, simply nodding as an indication of the therapist’s understanding, and every now and then asking a question, such as, “Why do you think you did that?,” or, “What do you think of that? How does that make you feel?”. When they do get more involved, as is the case in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), therapists try to show the patient why a particular way of thinking or behaving is flawed or illogical.

What it comes down to is this: talk therapies leave in place the psychic problems of the patient; they only aim to give the patient relief from a difficult state of being. This is the same kind of therapy that goes on at the psychiatrist’s office: the patient describes her symptoms, and the doctor gives her medicine to make it feel better. Standard procedure for psychotherapy in the United States rarely calls for anything beyond giving out periodic doses of medicine (whether a verbal affirmation or a pill). These therapies are often necessary. The problem is that therapy only goes on until the patient stops complaining of symptoms. It therefore stops short of the promise of psychoanalysis: to give the patient the freedom to understand his or her relation to the symptom, to desire, language, perception, society, etc.

The problem with the talk-therapy and cognitive-behavioral methods is that they fail to ask why the patient experiences her symptoms. There is no concern with the root cause, because this is presumed to be a simultaneous malfunction of neurotransmitter activity and/or thought processes. And since there are easy remedies for both of these problems – medication and CBT – the practitioner simply follows these two methods and asks nothing more of herself or of the patient. Today’s therapist focuses on the symptom, not the cause; consequently, therapy offers a treatment, not a cure.

Therapists typically ask either very general questions meant to evoke the patient’s own interpretation (functioning like a mirror or a soundboard), or, when using CBT, they give the patient a virtually unquestionable answer (this is just an assumption built into the clinical situation). Note that this isn’t always an ‘easy’ answer; the patient does have to work. However, the whole approach takes for granted at least three things: that (1) the patient can directly state her symptoms, rather than, alternatively, revealing the symptoms as an epiphenomenon of the series of contents and forms of her statements and actions; that, therefore, (2) the particular content of the patient’s speech is enough to go on – what the patient says has enough merit to deserve a direct response in the form of a predictable answer or rebuttal; and also (3) the therapist has the correct, or at least the better, answers; i.e., there is a one-to-one correspondence between the patient’s statement and the therapist’s proper response, as if the conversation could be read like a dialogue based on the contents of a diagnostic manual. The therapist simply interprets what the patient says, showing the patient how to correct the problems, as a teacher would a student.

Psychoanalysis is different. The analyst is not a teacher in the ordinary sense of the word. She doesn’t presume to know what the patient should do, and she doesn’t ‘interpret’ the patient’s problems. But neither does she allow the patient to continue any way he wants during the session. Analysts ask a range of questions which may or may not seem to relate to one another. As such, their questions don’t necessarily appear to follow a linear or predictable progression of thought. But they are strategic. Analysts take two major steps during a session: they (1) provoke conflicts and antagonisms within the patient’s own thoughts and feelings, disrupting the normally unimpeded operation of the patient’s self-interpretation, in order to (2) open up space for the patient’s own discoveries and interventions. The first part is analysis proper, the breaking apart of stale modes of being. The second is the end of analysis: the patient, now seeing details of the broader structure of the psyche, the functions of desire and language in his life (thanks to the analyst’s strategic questions), is forced to re-collect his thoughts, establish a new Master-Signifier, and therefore gain control of his life, at least temporarily.

The shame of the academy’s obsession with the neurosciences is that they offer us only one piece of the puzzle, yet many believe they show it all. The psyche is complicated. It is irretrievably entangled in social life. But even behavioral therapies miss the point: it’s not simply about my own behavior, but about the functions of society and societal institutions. Theoretical psychoanalysis is the only discipline that seeks to understand, and to develop a universal structure to describe, how the logic of society and the logic of the psyche intertwine. Anthropology studies the logic of particular societies and cultures; sociology studies particular segments of a population, or particular phenomena, such as poverty or status, as they operate at the individual and societal levels; the behavioral sciences, including today’s psychology,  seek to understand the biological and cognitive mechanisms behind behavior, and the way that these mechanisms both affect and are affected by society.

In other words, we are witnessing a time when the mainstream academy has restricted the scope of its inquiry into causes and effects to include only particular societies, particular phenomena, or particular mechanisms. Psychoanalysis, however, employs the broadest possible scope of cause and effect, developing and applying a structure with which to critique – in the clinic or in the academy – all spheres of life; and yet, despite all of this depth and breadth, it remains cogent and effective, providing us with real insights. This isn’t to say it’s immediately clear or easy to understand; but little important knowledge is. Incidentally, because theoretical psychoanalysis takes up the challenge of developing universal, abstract categories and logics, it works well as a philosophical theory; hence the appropriation of psychoanalysis in nineteenth- and twentieth-century continental philosophy.

*Disclaimer and disclosure: I’m not a therapist. I’m also not an authority on this stuff, just a fairly knowledgeable student. I have a B.A. in psychology (and philosophy), with a concentration in neuroscience, and I’ve done extensive lab work in cognitive science at a major research university. I also have extensive personal experience in clinical psychology settings, as a patient.

What does ‘repression’ mean today?

According to traditional Freudian psychoanalysis, repression is the Ego’s denial of the drives of the Id, which then remain latent in the unconscious. Sublimation, on the other hand, is the product of repression; it is what the Ego accomplishes in the act of repression – namely, culture. Here is Žižek’s description, from Metastases of Enjoyment:

In an alienated [i.e., modern] society, the domain of ‘culture’ is founded upon the violent exclusion (‘repression’) of man’s libidinal kernel which then assumes the form of a quasi-‘nature’: ‘second nature’ [i.e., the unconscious] is the petrified evidence of the price paid for ‘cultural progress’, the barbarity [i.e., exclusion/repression] inherent to ‘culture’ itself (11).

But because the key characteristic of both repression and sublimation is the Ego’s diverting its attention away from the immediate satisfaction of a drive, it is impossible to distinguish “in a theoretically relevant way between the repression of a drive and its sublimation” (11); the distinction is always arbitrary.

Žižek explains the consequences of this fact for psychoanalytic practice and hence for ideological critique:

[E]very sublimation (every psychic act that does not aim at the immediate satisfaction of a drive) is necessarily affected by the stigma of pathological, or at least pathogenic, repression. There is thus a radical and constitutive indecision which pertains to the fundamental intention of psychoanalytic theory and practice: it is split between the ‘liberating’ gesture of setting free repressed libidinal potential and the ‘resigned conservatism’ of accepting repression as the necessary price of the progress of civilization (12).

But because Freud thought that this ‘standard’ form of the Ego’s splitting by the Id and Superego – where the Superego (social pressure) condemns the Id (drives) – was an anthropological constant, he could not predict, says Žižek, the

paradoxical condition actualized in our century: that of the ‘repressive desublimation’, characteristic of ‘post-liberal’ societies in which ‘the triumphant archaic urges, the victory of the Id over the Ego, live in harmony with the triumph of the society over the individual’* (Metastases, 16; Žižek citing Adorno, “Zum Verhältnis,” p. 133).

That is, Žižek’s wager is that we live in a society in which Id and Superego coincide, breaking the traditional model of psychoanalytic theory:

In post-liberal societies […] the agency of social repression no longer acts in the guise of an internalized Law or Prohibition that requires renunciation and self-control; instead, it assumes the form of a hypnotic agency that imposes the attitude of ‘yielding to temptation’ – that is to say, its injunction amounts to a command: ‘Enjoy yourself!’. Such an idiotic enjoyment is dictated by the social environment which includes the Anglo-Saxon psychoanalyst whose main goal is to render the patient capable of ‘normal’, ‘healthy’ pleasures.

Society requires us to fall asleep, into a hypnotic trance, usually under the guise of just the opposite command: ‘The Nazi battle cry of “Germany awake,” hides its very opposite.’ Adorno interprets the formation of the ‘masses’ in the same sense of this ‘regression’ of the Ego towards automatic and compulsive behavior (Metastases, 17; Žižek citing Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, London: Routledge, 1991, p. 132).

The superego (culture, society) represses non-Id enjoyment; sublimation becomes repression: one is told that one must enjoy to one’s full capacity. Indeed, frequently there is the explicit injunction to directly express the (would-be) Id, to fully actualize one’s wildest fantasies and most urgent impulses, since the alternative would be a ‘repressive’ existence unacceptable to society.

I’ll end with one of Žižek’s anecdotes that illustrates the way this repression of non-enjoyment works. The following is from First as Tragedy, Then as Farce:

On the information sheet in a New York hotel, I recently read: ‘Dear guest! To guarantee that you will fully enjoy your stay with us, this hotel is totally smoke-free. For any infringement of this regulation, you will be charged $200.’ The beauty of this formulation, taken literally, is that you are to be punished for refusing to fully enjoy your stay (58).

*A note on the accuracy of society’s self-conscious gesture of admitting its mission to “liberate” the subject from the superego: crucially, once the subject is “liberated” from repression, the Id (drives) are no longer unconscious… as such, they are no longer drives. Thus what society posits as the “liberated drives” are actually pseudo-natural human constructs; they are merely the sublimation of the actual drives, i.e., the unconscious, which can’t ever be put into social circulation but rather takes the form of the unarticulated “symptom” that the analyst (ideological critic) must uncover.

Conan struggles to make this speech. His feeling is obviously not bittersweet, but rather just sad; he really, really doesn’t want to leave, but thinks he should try to look on the ‘bright side.’

This form of optimism should be seen for what it is; it is not some ‘greater’ Cause that he chooses to believe in, but, rather, the obscene superego of social norms, weighing on his conscience, forcing him to feel a particular way about his situation.

(The parallels with workers going through massive layoffs should be obvious: we are told to think of being fired not as an affront to human dignity executed by huge corporations, but rather as a gift, a chance to develop a new skill, take up a new hobby, etc.).

What is meant by ‘superego’? In contrast to the ego-ideal (i.e., the Law, the explicitly stated, socially acknowledged ‘correct way’ of doing things), the superego is the unstated, a-legal or even illegal form of the law, the paradoxical supplement to the Law without which the Law could not operate, but which the Law ignores or even explicitly disavows.

Žižek explains this psychoanalytic notion in Metastases of Enjoyment:

Superego emerges where the Law […] fails; at this point of failure, the public Law is compelled to search for support in an illegal enjoyment. Superego is the obscene ‘nightly’ law that necessarily redoubles and accompanies, as its shadow, the ‘public’ Law. This inherent and constitutive splitting in the Law is the subject of Rob Reiner’s film A Few Good Men, the court-martial drama about two Marines accused of murdering one of their fellow-soldiers.

The military prosecutor claims that the two Marines’ act was a deliberate murder, whereas the defence succeeds in proving that the defendants simply followed the so-called ‘Code Red’, which authorizes the clandestine night-time beating of a fellow-soldier who, in the opinion of his peers or the superior officer, has broken the ethical code of the Marines.

[….’Code Red’] condones an act of transgression — illegal punishment of a fellow-soldier — yet at the same time it reaffirms the cohesion of the group — it calls for an act of supreme identification with group values. Such a code must remain under cover of night, unacknowledged, unutterable — in public, everybody pretends to know nothing about it, or even actively denies its existence. It represents the ‘spirit of the community’ at its purest, exerting the strongest pressure on the individual to comply with its mandate of group identification. Yet, simultaneously, it violates the explicit rules of community life.

[Therefore] what ‘holds together’ a community most deeply is not so much identification with the Law that regulates the community’s ‘normal’ everyday circuit, but rather identification with a specific form of transgression of the Law, of the Law’s suspension (in psychoanalytic terms, with a specific form of enjoyment).

….the opposition of symbolic Law and superego points towards the tension between ideological meaning and enjoyment: symbolic Law guarantees meaning, whereas superego provides enjoyment which serves as the unacknowledged support of meaning” (54-56).

So back to Conan: he appears to break with the norm by choosing the ‘nobler’ or more ‘classy’ way of signing off of the show, but this behavior is merely the necessary underside – obverse, inversion, supplement – of the symbolic, stated Law of “you can say whatever you want;” the point is that he can enjoy (along with the crowd) ‘rebelling’ against the established way of doing things, only because this rebellion itself is already taken into account by the Law.

This ‘classiness’ is nothing other than a violent social injunction to enjoy a situation that is fundamentally alienating for him, a situation in which he is ultimately given a forced choice – it may appear that he is choosing to look on the bright side, but this choice is already decided for him; he only chooses it because it is the only option that society will allow him – everyone would hate him if he didn’t do the ‘classy’ thing.

So what looks like an exception (his ‘class’) is actually the norm. When we call him noble or kind, we are only encouraging the same kind of malicious ideology to be perpetuated in the next person who has to sacrifice in front of the crowd. What are they sacrificing?

The void of free choice, the freedom to walk off the stage, to shout out in anger – think of the scene from Network, in which the newscaster begins to chant, “I want you to get mad… I want you to say ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”

That is what Conan wants to do: he jokes that, “even if we have to do it in a 7-11 parking lot,” the show will go on – and then immediately says in an understated, regretful, and even desperate way “I really don’t want to do it in a 7-11 parking lot!”.

This last exclamation is the sad truth of the entire show. It is the cry for escape from the social demand. This understated voice is what opposes his self-deception at the hands of the superego. But over all this superego-induced self-deception, the injunction to enjoy despite the traumatic excess of the imposition of the Law, is accomplished, and Conan himself buys into it, immaturely accepting the superego underside of the Law, even claiming it as his own, ‘classy’ gesture.

*Note: obviously it’s a bit absurd to worry about Conan’s dismissal, since his ‘desperate’ situation isn’t desperate at all; however, because of Conan’s popularity, and the publicity of the show, I think it makes sense to use it as an example.