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The Radical Implications of Psychoanalysis for a Critical Social Psychology

Tom Goodwin

To include psychoanalysis in a volume dedicated to critical social psychology is not without contention. In its myriad forms from classical Freudianism, through the developments of Melanie Klein, Jacques Lacan and others, to the orthodoxy of ego psychology in the United States, psychoanalysis has itself been subject to pertinent radical critique for, amongst other things, its truth status, its normative clinical function and its political conservativism. In recent iterations of critical psychology, exemplified in Fox, Prilleltensky and Austin’s (2009) collection Critical Psychology: An Introduction, the pervasive notion of a radical project comprises critiques of both individualising and exclusionary tendencies in traditional psychological practice. Here, mainstream psychology connects to regimes of truth in which a model of a White, bourgeois, heterosexual, non-disabled male epitomises normality and pursues goals of self-fulfilment that support and replicate capitalist economic systems. The demise of cooperation between participants and intolerance towards human difference within these regimes places the onus for psychological wellbeing on socially assimilated individuals and pushes those who cannot adapt towards the margins. The response of this strand of critical psychology is, laudably, to highlight the oppression of marginalised groups and effect positive changes in the status and lifestyle of those excluded. Liberation and community psychologies dominate such thinking with an agenda of emancipation

T. Goodwin (*)

Leeds Beckett University, Leeds, UK © The Author(s) 2017

B. Gough (ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Social Psychology, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51018-1_5

and a model of psychological health and well-being that, moving beyond individual concerns, has “psychopolitical validity” (Prilleltensky et al., 2009).

In such a critical model, psychoanalysis is often found wanting. In Freud’s lifetime, for example, his work was criticised for an essential conservativism in the pages of Karl Krauss’s radical newspaper Die Fackel (The Torch), which levelled accusations against the “cult” of psychoanalysis whose practitioners place “their knowledge and skills at the disposal of the ruling classes” (Krauss in Szasz, 1990, p. 135). Krauss similarly denounces Freud’s quietism over issues such as the illegality of homosexuality and the compulsory treatment of the mad, questions that Freud was well placed to challenge. The history of psychoanalysis since Freud’s death also reveals a number of darker faces that question it as a radical enterprise. The complicity of certain psychoanalysts with the military Junta in Argentina during the late 1970s (Levinson, 2003) and the failure of the (mostly Jewish) psychoanalytic community to anticipate and resist the rise of Nazism in Germany and then deal appropriately with its legacy (Frosh, 2005; Landa, 1999) are particular low points. Whilst both these examples demonstrate the extremes of a politically reactionary psychoanalysis, they also highlight a more quotidian spirit of conservativism in the general psychoanalytic project such as the relation between clinical practice and normative processes, its individualised response to trans-individual phenomena and its often inflexible conceptual frame.

Since its inception, however, psychoanalysis has had a major impact on critical thinking in the humanities and social sciences that continues today. Stephen Frosh acknowledges a “cyclical pattern of repudiation and resurrection that psychoanalysis seems to undergo within academic settings” (2010, p. 5), a polarised reception which testifies to uncertainty in what it offers. What Frosh highlights is that neither uncritical acceptance nor outright rejection is an adequate response to psychoanalysis and reflects instead a fundamental tension that Freud places at the heart the human subject. This is a tension, furthermore, that feeds into theory, making psychoanalysis from the outset a necessarily restless discipline built on a foundational conflict. As a result of this, and to the frustration of analysts and critics alike, there is no single and unifying theory of psychoanalysis, and the contemporary landscape reveals a programme that, despite institutional attempts to the contrary, is internally divided and globally dispersed. As Sergio Benvenuto (2009) interestingly notes, unlike other academic and clinical disciplines, psychoanalysis does not have a lingua franca and responds anew to each linguistic and cultural context where it embeds.

Freud produced two substantive models of the psyche; a first topography or dynamic model based primarily on his model of dreams and a second structural topography in which the psyche is divided into distinct agencies that interact. To suggest a simple progression between models, however, would be a generous reading at best. The various theoretical strands within Freud often rub against one another, producing confusing and often contradictory statements that cannot be ironed over. The post-Freudian context is in many ways defined by groups favouring either the earlier or later work and emphasising different aspects of these. In her examination of radical trends within psychoanalysis, Andrea Hurst notes how Freud’s “texts are not presented as the final ‘writing up’ of a theoretical foundation ... they are, rather, the provisional documentation of theoretical insights that remain open to modification” (2008, pp. 16-17). For many in the mainstream psychological traditions, this poses a problem for coherence and respectability that cannot be ignored.

Rather than seeing the conflicted nature of psychoanalytic discourse as reason for dismissing its insights, however, I will argue that this impasse reveals instead something at the heart of the Freudian project that opens up its radical potential. Whilst the admirable focus on social justice, welfare and emancipation for all individuals is not disputed here, at the heart of any critical social psychology must always be the opportunity for the radical reimagining of ideas and the transformation of frames of understanding and the object or subject to be understood. Each element in the designation “critical social psychology” needs continual interrogation for it to avoid the claims of discursive mastery and expertise, whose exercise in arbitrary power structures it so successfully and highlights the challenges in mainstream psychology. Psychoanalysis provides impetus for this through Freud’s “discovery” of the unconscious and its linking to sexuality, which places ineradicable conflict at the heart of the psyche and produces a decentred subject that is stripped of all prior philosophical assurances. This introduces fluidity into any conception of the individual that allows connections to be drawn between psychological, social and historical realms. Whilst psychoanalysis structures together personal and social domains, Freud’s originary concepts also place their distinction and separation continually under question, allowing for critical reflection in both fields.

Even before the specific theoretical concepts that Freud develops and the challenge that these pose to the scientific and philosophical ideas of his day and ours, there is a radical spirit in his investigations that underpin their formalisation. This spirit is born of the conflict that Freud traces in the human subject and whose understanding he attempts to contain in language and concepts that are never adequate. Psychoanalysis offers critical social psychology a multifaceted consideration of how the self is produced from disparate and often contradictory demands, giving rise to unstable subjectivity. Not only does this enable its programme of individual emancipation and social transformation, but there is also an additional sense of profound resistance to straightforward understanding and interpretation in the object of investigation, which opens up any account to the uncertain ground of its own formulations and assertions. The psychoanalytic enterprise is continually undermined by its object, and any related discipline that draws on or is drawn into its orbit must contend with this disturbance. As I will demonstrate in this chapter, this is not necessarily negative, although it can and has led to defensive measures against dissolution that have produced institutional stasis. Like the individual and social milieu it engages in, cohesion and instability are in constant tension in theory such that the threat posed by its object is also the promise of its future reimagining and survival.

The three motifs of conflict, decentring and resistance that I have identified in this introduction will feed through the remaining consideration of the radical implications of psychoanalysis for critical social psychology. I will first identify the psychoanalytic challenge to traditional psychology and its stubbornly held notion of centred subjectivity which Freud recognised as untenable but that seems inexorably wedded to western understandings of selfhood. Unusually in a volume such as this, the focus of critical attack will not be another type of psychology but a particular North American characterisation of psychoanalysis that shares much common ground with mainstream psychology. A critique of its own internal forms will not only have implications for any psychology predicated on a unified and transparent notion of selfhood but will also demonstrate a problem inherent in psychoanalysis itself that I will trace back to Freud’s work. This problem is the tension between conservative and radical tendencies that psychoanalysis locates in the human subject and which feeds into its own theories and practice. For reasons that I will explore, radical insight too often gives way to a more tempered and culturally assimilable form of psychoanalysis that supports rather than challenges existing psychical and social arrangements. Psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche argues that this is where Freud and his legacy often “goes astray” (1999, p. 82) and misrecognises the significance of its insights. The rebuttal of these reactionary positions is provided in the tensions that inhere in psychoanalytic concepts that become radical as their roots are interrogated. I will focus on what are for many the two exemplary and revolutionary psychoanalytic theories, those of the unconscious and sexuality, and demonstrate how these concepts are founded on radical principles that have profound ramifications for (social) psychological understanding.

 
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