Who said Psychoanalysis is dead? Psychoanalysis, politics and culture in the twenty first century – Part I

In this interview, Carmen Gallano, an experienced psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, analyses the relevance of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytical philosophy in contemporary politics and culture.

The interview was originally conducted in Spanish (to read Part I in Spanish click here).

Read Part II here.

4 April, 2012

This interview was conducted at the private practice of Ms Carmen Gallano in Madrid, Spain, in early March. Ms Gallano studied medicine and psychiatry and worked several years in hospitals and mental institutions before training in psychoanalysis at the Paris School of Jacques Lacan. She is a member of the International School of Psychoanalysis of the Forums of the Lacanian Field (EPFCL), and she has worked many years in her private practice in Madrid. Ms Gallano further combines her work with teaching and she has published extensively in Spain and abroad including two books titled “The feminine alterity” and “Desire, texts and conferences” (available only in Spanish: “La Alteridad Femenina” and “Deseo, textos y conferencias”). Photographs included in these series are courtesy of Ms Gallano.

Q. Good Morning Ms Gallano and welcome to a conversation with InPEC. People often portray psychoanalysis as a product of the past. Is that really the case or is psychoanalysis very much alive in the twenty first century?

A. First of all, I am glad to learn that InPEC is interested in psychoanalysis and it is a great pleasure to talk to you today. I am well aware of your work at the forefront of SCRAP’s project on global disarmament and I have read your thesis on the presence of apocalyptic rhetoric in twenty first century international relations. Hence, I can only be grateful to you for searching in the work of Freud and the ethics of psychoanalytical discourse the energy necessary to combat pervasive discourses of war that serve as justification for the existence of massive arsenals of weapons and in particular of nuclear weapons.

Anyone reading Freud’s Thoughts for the Times on War and Death and his correspondence exchange with Einstein during the early thirties, titled Why War?, will realize that most of Freud’s thoughts on the origins and roots of war are still applicable today. Psychoanalytical practice remains in many countries an effective tool in the treatment of neuroses found in contemporary individuals. It is not coincidental that psychoanalysis is forbidden in non-democratic countries as psychoanalysis is the experience of freeing the speech. “Express whatever comes first to your mind” is what analysts will tell their analysands in their first encounter, a premise that runs counter to totalitarian regimes that do not want individuals to think freely.

Something which deserves our immediate attention as you rightly point out is the popular belief found in Western democracies that psychoanalysis has become obsolete as a result of the scientific progress of the second half of the twentieth century. Such idea somehow derives from the notion that through science and technology we can learn all about the functioning and dysfunctions of our mind and body. However, this is not supported by scientists; in fact the large majority of scientists find no interest in human subjectivity and are instead only interested in the real biology of living organisms. Hence, scorning and condemning psychoanalysis is the result of pervasive ideologies found in psychiatrists and psychologists made hostages to neo-liberal thinking: under this logic, psychiatric treatments are reduced to systemically providing patients with psycho-drugs, thus reporting millions in benefits to pharmaceutical companies. It also results in psychological treatments being systematically reduced to cognitive behavioural therapy promoted by powerful university lobbies.

As a practice, psychoanalysis doesn’t quite fit with the current pervasive “mercantilisation” of practices that automatically discard any form of knowledge lacking immediate economic profitability. Likewise, it does not fit with policies seeking to homogenize individuals and which result in an increasing mass consumption of psychotherapies designed to eradicate subjective anomalies found in individuals that allegedly fail to adapt to dominant social norms. Hence, the same neurotics studied and treated by Freud are today portrayed by dominant ideologies as individuals with “low self-esteem” and a “weak ego”, thus needing reparation. Further, psychotics are mostly seen as ill individuals with brain anomalies capable of cure only through the prescription of antipsychotics or neuroleptics.

Why then is psychoanalysis still very much alive, both in terms of practice and transmission of knowledge through teaching and publications? On the face of the above, is psychoanalysis doomed to disappear? Will it end up being fully absorbed by market therapies? Very simply, psychoanalysis will not disappear or be absorbed by market therapies. This will not be the case today or tomorrow and it was not the case in times of Freud where he never ceased to further the psychoanalytical cause despite widespread rejection by his contemporaries. Psychoanalysis has never been officially accepted. Put shortly, ways of ignoring and scorning it have varied according to changes in the pervasive and dominant discourses. Psychoanalysis will never disappear because the symptoms presented by individuals in analysis are a reflection of their social discomfort and rejection of dominant structures. That is why the psychoanalytical treatment of symptoms will always run counter to dominant social discourses. But psychoanalysis is not ‘anti-system’. If anything, psychoanalytical treatment allows individuals to become aware of the failures of the system –through the discourse of the Other in Lacanian terms. Accordingly, a successful psychoanalytical treatment will help the analysand find a new destination for his or her symptomatic dissident nucleus by allowing it to engage in new projects now free of social and systemic imperatives.

Q. Glad to hear that psychoanalysis is as alive as it ever was. But let’s discuss more about Freud himself. Popular circles usually reduce his legacy to stories like the Oedipus complex or his work on the interpretation of dreams. Further, Freud the man is often portrayed as obsessed with the “dark side” of the human psyche. What is your opinion of this pervasive view of Freud and his work?

A. Psychoanalysts themselves, starting with Freud’s students, are amongst the main responsible for the degradation of psychoanalysis. For they have greatly influenced public opinion. This is so because they were the first to reduce Freud’s theories to the works you mention and to other study areas such as “sexual repression” as a cause for neurosis. Freud’s writings on infantile sexuality and the death drive were received with wide criticism at a time, the Victorian era, where discussing those issues in public life was unacceptable. Today, however, things are different and society at large, in Western democracies at least, accepts the practice of sexuality without the social constraints of other epochs.

Whether accepted or not, Freudian psychoanalysis has had an impact in the subjective thinking and life style of the twenty first century. However, as rightly noted by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in his “return to Freud” of the fifties Freud’s work suffered from serious deficiencies: “The Oedipus complex cannot run indefinitely in forms of society that are more and more losing the sense of tragedy”. Indeed, Freud´s recourse to the myth of Oedipus was his way of synthesizing the neuroses of his times. Those where extremely rooted in patriarchal modes of family whereas contemporary neuroses are rooted in families which are, except in few cases, rarely patriarchal.

That which in popular circles is known as the “dark side” of the human psyche is what Freud called the “death drive”. Freud did not develop this theory until late in his life, not strangely from the 1930s and in particular after 1936 in Germany when his work took a rather pessimistic tone as he sensed what was approaching. It is worth noting that his pessimism and theory of a destructive drive capable of dominating humanity were confirmed time and again with the wars and genocides of the twentieth century. His students on the other hand refused his pessimism on the belief that psychoanalytical treatment would help shape an “ego” akin to the Ideals of civilization. But to insist on this point, this was not what Freud believed. In an interview conceded to G. Viereck Sylvester in 1926, at a time where Freud was already very sick with cancer, Freud stated that whereas animal cruelty is driven by an instinct of survival, meanness in man is much worse: “They [beasts] do not suffer from a divided personality, from the disintegration of the ego, that arises from man’s attempt to adapt himself to standards of civilization too high for his intellectual and psychic mechanism”.

Let me ask you a direct question. You who are so aware of the destructive nature of weapons justified and promoted by governments, would you venture to negate the difficulty of eradicating death drives from human condition? Destructive drives are today more than ever reflected in how the financial markets behave including their devastation of the environment and employment as well as their devastation of the life conditions of millions of people in “developed” countries, where before they created misery in so called “third world” countries. Indeed, capitalism deviates destructive drives to economics. However, unfettered economic growth differs much from that envisaged by Keynes who rightly warned of the dangers of the “inextinguishable thirst” and “morbid desire” for funds found in investors whose inertia to generate financial capital fluxes result in the enrichment of a few in detriment of the masses.

What we see today is a dissociation originated in the capitalist discourse. On the one hand we see governments, corporations and individuals publicly defending human rights, while on the other hand, literally and cynically, they sponsor all sorts of violations based on the pursuit of economic interests. I recently watched a documentary on the billions of dollars and euros obtained by Western governments with the sale and transfer of arms. Not surprisingly those same governments have for some time adopted the humanitarian discourse. The UN too recently revealed a terrifying statistic: the most profitable business in the world following the transfer and sale of arms and drugs is the traffic of women and children for sexual exploitation. In light of all this, would anyone dare negating the existence of a residue called “death drive”, hidden behind the sexual drive, and which is reflected in the dissident pleasures of human rights violations and health degradation including the reduction of subjects* to objects of consumption, pleasure, and violence?

Q. Psychoanalysis can therefore in principle help us better grasp political and cultural life and realities. That said, there are several schools of psychoanalysis: Freudians, Lacanians, Kleinians, Jungians, etc., which differ one from another in their understanding of the human psyche, and by extension of society. This is somehow surprising for a science supposedly based on clinical practice. Can you please help us better understand psychoanalysis as a social analytical tool? Is psychoanalysis closer to the natural sciences or to social sciences such as philosophy, sociology, and anthropology?

A. If psychoanalysis were a science it would be impossible to explain the fragmentation you just pointed out and which ensued, sometimes with violence, after Freud’s death. But psychoanalysis is not a science. If anything it falls within the so called sciences of culture (a term coined by Lacan to refer to what otherwise is known as social sciences). All psychoanalysts, regardless of their affiliation, develop their theories and know-how from clinical practice and observation: that is from symptoms and discomforts found in subjects, in other words that which subjects find subjectively unbearable. Each school of thought, however, has developed theories that provide differing explanations to clinical phenomena. Psychoanalysts explore clinical phenomena in the subjective suffering of the subject, in their mind, body, affections, and language, in search for unconscious processes and signifiers. The analyst therefore takes active part in the analytical process of the analysand through interventions and silences. This in turn produces a series of effects on the analysand thus gradually helping him make sense of his words and focus on particular points of which he previously ignored the relevance and meaning.

The question of how a particular theoretical orientation is transmitted from analysts to analysands, who then become psychoanalysts, is a complex and deeply contingent matter, for the process does not guarantee the transmission of knowledge and know-how in an equally effective manner. Freud made it clear that each case is unique. He also made clear that with each new case psychoanalysts should test the theory/ies they have previously developed and incorporated. Sadly, the fragmentation and sectarianism of psychoanalytical schools, as well as their fixed routines, evidences that not many psychoanalysts are willing to take the risk of exploring the unexplored, as suggested by Freud. Indeed, the vast majority of psychoanalysts prefer to follow quasi-dogmatic practices therefore avoiding the adventure which results from listening to their analysands with no other safety net than what the latter express and with no other compass than the logics of the unconscious that the analysands gradually unfold.

Q. That was a sincere and very insightful answer. I am sure though that our readers will want to know more about how psychoanalysis fits in contemporary politics and culture. You have touched upon some points before but I want to explore this further. In your recent work you analyse the place of the individual in the global capitalist society and claim that the dilemmas we confront today are not the same as those confronted by the neurotics in times of Freud. You have in a previous question advanced that neuroses are contingent to the social and historical context in which individuals find themselves in. Does this challenge core views and policies, especially found in the US but rapidly spreading in Europe as you pointed earlier, that posit the individual in isolation of the context in which he/she operates and which treat neuroses as personality disorders rather than dilemmas originated in the individual’s interaction with the outer world?

A. Amongst the various schools of psychoanalysis, the Lacanian school is the one that has spent more time seeking to explore and understand how the pathologies of subjects are influenced and affected by changes in the political and cultural landscapes of the twenty first century. As a young psychiatrist, only Lacan’s teachings provided answers to my socio-cultural concerns. This helped me understand the psychotic patients in the various mental institutions I worked in. It also helped me better understand woman’s sexuality as first developed by Freud. Lacan was mostly unknown in Spain during the seventies and we only became aware of his work through Althusser –that is for those of us previously involved in Marxism, and through the English anti-psychiatry school of Laing and its mixture with the Italian school of Basaglia. These names won’t probably ring a bell to InPEC readers but their work was highly influential for a whole generation of young “psy” in Europe, also influenced by the movements resulting from May 1968. Who I am sure they will be familiar with is Lacan, given the continued impact and influence of his work in great thinkers of the twenty first century, not only in the field of psychoanalysis.

In the fifties, Lacan started elaborating his theory of the subject, essential if we want to understand how the subjectivity of an epoch is produced. A subject, with his characteristics, is marked by the effects of the signifiers that divide him as well as by the language which he encounters since childhood. A subject is formed and completed through the interaction with an “Other”, which in his early stages takes the form of the messages of his parents. The “Other” is thus the symbolic scenario where words form a discourse and determine that which is “representative” of a place in a subject in relation with his environment. There can be no subject but through a dialectic with a discursive “Other”. As such, a subject is inherently social, and his identifications are the result of his interactions with the social discourse in which he is born and raised. After May ‘68, Lacan proposed that discourses be understood as social bonds. He also located the radical transformation of the discourse of the master (proposed by Freud) in the capitalist discourse which blows up the existing structure of the social bond thus leaving the subject disconnected from the knowledge and identity provided by a system of oriented signifiers. Thus, in a capitalist discourse a subject does not have a fixed position: he oscillates in the social scene, giving preference to his own interests, as agent of discourse and subject of free enterprise conditioned by objects of enjoyment offered by the system. Hence his double status in the capitalist discourse as both producer and consumer.

With the advent of World War II large groups of psychoanalysts migrated to the USA where they embraced liberal ideas grounded in the individual, especially influential after the Great Depression. Those ideas rested on the concept of the “self-made man”, and psychoanalysis turned into an “ego-psychology” unable to distinguish between the structure of the signifier of the subject and the formation of the “ego”. But as noted above, the individual is not an island isolated from the context in which he develops. He is not just an “ego” or the “want-to-be” over the “be” as diagnosed by G. Debord in his work the Society of the Spectacle. In capitalist societies individuals are reduced to statistical units and as subjects they are “plugged” into objects of pleasure that provide them with consistency in order to compensate for the emptiness resulting from not knowing what they are. As such, they require objects of pleasure so as to acquire a value and be recognized in the desire of the “Other”. Today, those objects are the objects of consumption that capitalism requires to survive while it consumes subjects and renders them greedy and unsatisfied. It is therefore not surprising that the prime pathologies of our times are those resulting from the dissatisfaction of consumption: bulimia, addictions, depression, and anorexia.

The societal forms that Freud discussed in his work Civilization and its Discontents produced neuroses that reflected the division and conflict between identifications resulting from the demands of society and the family and the emergencies of libidinal pleasure which society rejected. As such, Freudian psychoanalytical treatment had liberating effects for subjects who found in psychoanalysis a new way of shaping their libidinal economy.

In contemporary Western societies, on the other hand, individuals suffer from a breach of social bonds caused by the impact of capitalism in their daily lives. Those social breaches produce in turn a subjectivity dominated by a series of paradoxical scenarios: the anguish of the consumer turns into the anguish of the consumer who is being consumed, and the anguish of the producer turns into the anguish of a producer that doesn’t know whether he will be recycled or trashed in the labour market. These breaches have different manifestations in hysteric or obsessive neuroses: in hysteric neuroses, anguish translates into physical anxiety and symptoms are mostly consumption-related. In obsessive neuroses, anguish takes the form of mental symptoms translating into a culture of panic-attack and work addiction. Neuroses have not vanished from our societies but take different forms as a result of accelerated changes introduced in later stages of capitalism. Psychoses too are changing: whereas delusions were previously the dominant form of psychosis, contemporary psychoses have seen an increase in schizophrenias with no associated delusions, and in serious psychotic acts, mostly destructive and without subjective meaning.

Official US psychiatry rejects the psychoanalytical notion of neurosis and imposes a DSM classification where mental disorders are defined as “personality disorders”. Within that classification “personality” relates to patterns of conduct, thought, and affection that describe subjects in conformity with a particular cultural and ethnic group. Hence, “personality disorders” relate to anomalous variants within such group. As a result, DSM approaches to “personality disorders” (otherwise known in psychoanalysis as neuroses) establish a series of therapeutic guidelines that seek to “readapt” an individual to an alleged normal life therefore ignoring the entire structure of the symptom and impeding the suffering subject to formulate questions and subjectify his symptoms.

Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, provides subjects with the opportunity to ask “what does this symptom mean?”. This, in turn, allows them to explore their unconscious and discover how those symptoms reflect what is missing in their relationship with others as well as in relation with their own history: this includes questions relating to love, desire, enjoyment, and more increasingly questions relating to the difficulty of forming an identity capable of giving them a place in relation to others and become someone in their professional and social lives. When desire vanishes, individuals find life unbearable and become depressed. To crave for objects of consumption inevitably leads to a (consumption of) permanent frustration and as soon as love goes missing we see an emergence of anguish. Today, neurotics no longer seek psychoanalysis as a means of liberating themselves from the restrictions imposed by the family –as such restrictions are increasingly disappearing. Instead, neurotics seek psychoanalysis as a means of alleviating the discomfort found in the enjoyment imposed by the system, as well as the suffering resulting from not finding solid bonds in the family or otherwise, therefore making them feel alone and without truly knowing how to conduct a life with others.

Thank you very much, Ms Gallano, for taking the time to answer our questions.

*There is no equivalent in the English language for Jacques Lacan’s French term ‘sujet’. All official translations use ‘subject’ even if it has a different meaning in English.


7 thoughts on “Who said Psychoanalysis is dead? Psychoanalysis, politics and culture in the twenty first century – Part I

  1. The following conversation took place under a post of this article in a Facebook group named Nirmukta Politics:

    RR: Serge Moscovici, Henri Tajfel, John Turner, Mick Billig, Stephen Reicher.

    Fergus! http://nirmukta.com/2011/11/07/derren-brown%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%98crowd-experiment%E2%80%99-a-response-from-two-social-psychologists/

    (Psychologists dispute Derren Brown’s crowd experiment The Gameshow which aired on Channel 4 on 28/10/11, in which he attempts to test his theory that people behave badly when they are anonymous.)

    P. Swami Carmen Gallano, if I understand the interview correctly, aruges that the attack on psychoanalysts “somehow derives from the notion that through science and technology we can learn all about the functioning and dysfunctions of our mind and body”. Even assuming this to be ture (i.e., by leaving aside the large body of feminist criticism of Freud, which has nothing to do with these questions) I can’t understand why this idea is flawed. Isn’t this idea the foundation of all rational enquiry? Also, Gallano says “… the large majority of scientists find no interest in human subjectivity and are instead only interested in the real biology of living organisms”. Is this really true? I can’t think of any serious neuroscientists or psychiatrists who fit this description.

    A. Iyer: ‎‎//Also, Gallano says “… the large majority of scientists find no interest in human subjectivity and are instead only interested in the real biology of living organisms”. Is this really true? //

    Mainstream neuroscience does operate within the framework of eliminative materialism and hence Gallano seems justified in making that assertion. A culture war of the proportions of the Creationism vs Evolution ‘controversy’ is foreseeable between the ‘Soul’ camp and the ‘Mind-is-some-things-the-brain-does’ camp in the Indian context, when materialistic understanding of cognitive processes becomes more mainstream.

    P. Swami: ‎I think where what I really find perplexing is Gallano’s calim that “scientists find no interest in human subjectivity”, and the further assertion that subjectivity is somehow outside the domain of material scrutiny. It seems to me entire disciplines like teratology are focussed around understanding the material basis of human exceptionality; certainly, for both psychiatrists and neuroscientists, its a critical concern.

    A. Iyer I guess there are some politically charged usages in scientific circles on what sort of researchers count as ‘scientists’ and what disciplines count as sciences in their own right. Ever so often, No True Scotsman fallacies are committed by those who make statements like ‘A real scientist would never study that!’ and perhaps Gallano’s use of the word must be interpreted keeping this in mind.

    The question of whether subjectivity is within the domain of material scrutiny, can in a manner of speaking be viewed as a statement of the Hard Problem of Consciousness. The quest for Neuronal Correlates of Consciousness (NCC), which constitutes the bulk (or perhaps the entirety) of neuroscientific effort to provide a reductionist account of subjective states, itself may not yield a solution to the Hard Problem (because ‘neural correlates’ does not necessarily mean ‘neural causes’).

    Since much of the writing about the Hard Problem continues to come from the departments of Philosophy, Neurophilosophy if you will, one might say in a manner of speaking that most practising ‘scientists’ don’t directly study subjectivity. This is not to disparage researchers addressing the question currently.


  2. Pingback: Who said Psychoanalysis is dead? Psychoanalysis, politics and culture in the twenty first century « InPEC | Troubleddays's Blog

  3. Pingback: Prison Planet.com » Press 1 For English: Is America Destined To Become A Multilingual Nation? « CITIZEN.BLOGGER.1984+ GUNNY.G BLOG.EMAIL

  4. Pingback: Who said Psychoanalysis is dead? Psychoanalysis, politics and culture in the twenty first century – Part II « InPEC

  5. Pingback: Prison Planet.com » Psychoanalyst Says Western Society Is Sick And Heading For Collapse « CITIZEN.BLOGGER.1984+ GUNNY.G BLOG.EMAIL

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