Politics and Psychoanalysis: A troubling relationship

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Psychoanalysis and Politics

22 March 2023

Time: 18:00 - 19:30

Price: £28 - and £15 for artists, freelancers and students

Location: online


Part of the Psychoanalysis and Politics series Crises and Transmission

In a meeting of our Psychoanalysis and Politics Group someone rightly observed that we should not assume psychoanalysts are progressive in their politics. Some will be Trump supporters, it was said, or maybe implied. I was reminded of the uneasy historical relationship between psychoanalysis and progressive politics, and indeed the question of whether psychoanalysis should concern itself much with politics at all. Freud was inconsistent on the subject even though he wrote insightfully and provocatively on culture, psychoanalysis and politics. Clearly, however, he primarily wanted psychoanalysis to be recognised as a respectable clinical science, in which the troubling messiness of politics, war and culture would be secondary to the messy psychic world of sexual drives and innate capacity for destructiveness.

Notwithstanding many psychoanalysts, from the outset, questioned this more conservative framing. There were early movements to establish psychoanalytic clinics in marginalised communities, as there continue to be to this day. However, in general, the world of politics and culture has been absent from the preoccupations of the training world, although more radical political impulses never went away. Nowadays radicalism is often linked to feminism and gender, or critical theory and post-colonialist perspectives. Colleagues have sought to illuminate the hyper defensive psychosocial formations (or performances) of masculinity, colonialism, racism and or Islamic fundamentalism. The boundary between inner and outer, politics and psyche, gets troubled and breached.

Academics and psychoanalysts like Paul Verhaeghe, for instance, have chronicled and theorised the effects of neo-liberal political economy on psychic health. Drawing on clinical experience, he suggests a profound relationship between the neo-liberal experiment of the small state, unfettered market forces, privatization, individualism and precarity on mental well-being. Dependence, he suggests, has been seen as spineless, and individuals are imagined as one-person enterprises. The effects in many older working class ‘post-industrial’ or rust belt communities have been profound, as manufacturing industries and sources of male identity (primarily) have disappeared and working class self-help traditions have weakened.

I have chronicled aspects of the above in auto/biographical narrative research. (Auto, in bringing the researcher’s subjectivity and biography into play when researching others’ lives. Biographical, in the focus on lives, and the stories tell about them. Narrative in a concern for story, and how the good, more inclusive, authentic narrative truth emerges). Stories of abandonment by the body politic, of denigration in mass and social media, of the individualisation of responsibility and rhetorical abuse by particular politicians. All of which can lead to individual, family and community crises and, in some instances, the deeply defensive formations of racism and Islamism. There can be a lack of recognition of other people’s suffering here – towards the migrant, for instance, in the absence of recognition of one’s own suffering. ‘Only one can suffer or is a victim’, in the language of New York Jewish analyst and academic Jessica Benjamin. Her work on the Israeli Jewish/Palestinian conflict informs my own writing.

Benjamin’s perspectives provocatively trouble distinctions between politics and psyche (maybe over rationalist political theorising too). She is a relational psychoanalyst who brings clinical sensibilities into considering the political world. She complements, I suggest, the more philosophically informed ideas of Axel Honneth, the sociologist and critical theorist, who, along with Donald Winnicott, Klein and John Dewey has shaped my own thinking on the centrality of recognition or misrecognition in human relationships. Benjamin’s ideas are influenced by involvement in in the Acknowledgement Project, in Gaza, over some 10 years.

In the complex, good enough dynamics of recognition and acknowledgement of the other, paradox can be tolerated, and a ‘Third’ emerges: this is a dimension more than self and other. It gets created in the capacity to be able to work together, interpsychically and intersubjectively, in good enough space and growing solidarity. It encompasses the idea of a moral or lawful Third: of a wider notion of law, or normalising frame, which recognises the legitimacy of all suffering, including the harm we may do to another.

What is being alluded to is the capacity for an embodied appreciation of the other’s suffering. It can be difficult, among many Israeli Jews, for instance, given their experience of being remorselessly discarded in the Holocaust. It is hard to remediate remorselessness towards others when a collective historical self has been desecrated and feels perpetually threatened. Al Nakba, or the Palestinian catastrophe, whether in 1948 or now, becomes difficult to acknowledge. Acknowledgement threatens some unique claim to victimhood on which collective political identity may be built.

There were glimpses of a Third in the sharing of stories in auto/biographical narrative work that a colleague and I did among Israeli Jewish and Palestinian educators: in a small group of 4, including a Palestinian woman educator whose family was ethnically cleansed in the 1948 war, and an Israeli Jewish male educator who was able to talk about abuse in the Israeli military, and of abuse in his own family. A visceral quality of storytelling emerged which might mirror aspects of clinical work: where recognition can be forged, in the deepest of mutual anxiety, when a patient is able to share dark, dangerous and murderous self secrets, with an analyst who has learned to listen and survive the terror and potential for awful violence in a patient’s psyche.

Such acknowledgement of the interplay of psyches – analyst and analysand, researcher and researched – troubles old-style distinctions between the blank-screen analyst, or the objectivist researcher of others’ lives. We enter profoundly relational, embodied as well as unconscious territory, in which new life, the Third, enables and embodies life affirming dynamics of self/other recognition even in the most unpropitious of circumstances.

Dr Linden West is Professor Emeritus at Canterbury Christ Church University in the United Kingdom, where he was previously Professor of Education. He is a practising psychoanalytic psychotherapist and a renowned author and researcher in the broad field of lifelong learning, adult and higher education, drawing on ‘psychosocial’ perspectives. He has been Visiting Professor at Université de Paris Nanterre, Milano Bicocca and most recently at Michigan State.

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