Psychoanalysis – towards a century of relationship?

June 23rd, 2019
by Chris

For the last four weeks, I have been in a reading group run by Barry Taylor (an old friend of Peter Rollins, regular at the Wake festival, and about whose Wake talk this year I weaved a meditation recently). We’ve been reading and trying to get our heads round Jamieson Webster’s book on psychoanalysis“Conversion Disorder” (she also gave a talk and participated in a forum discussion at Wake this year), and I’d hoped to generate some posts out of that process.

However, having done the reading and spent four hours (one per week) talking about it, I have very few clear insights. I haven’t done much reading in psychoanalysis previously (it’s one of the few psychological disciplines I’ve not experienced) and Jamieson weaves her narrative together with readings of Benjamin, Foucault and Agamben (all writers in the general field of postmodern philosophy) as well as the notoriously difficult Jacques Lacan.

Barry has also linked recently to a series of documentaries by Adam Curtis (a BBC series shown in 2002) called “The Century of the Self”. This was, for me, easy watching in one sense (it is admirably well constructed and clear), but difficult in other senses – for one, it’s nearly four hours of watching, for another it paints a very depressing picture of how psychoanalytic techniques have been used in propaganda, marketing and public relations to manipulate the public. Its conclusion is that, in the name of individualism, we are all being selectively marketed to (big business is not concerned what our views really are as long as they involve buying stuff we don’t really need as a result of marketing exciting desires or pretending that what they produce somehow expresses desires we already have), and while politics has become a far more individualistic affair (we are persuaded that politicians are only there to satisfy our selfish desires), at root, those desires are being formed by the marketers and public relations executives.

In other words, (and this is a brief version of the end point of the documentary series) we have been induced to think of ourselves as markedly free, while being subtly controlled.

I have written previously about free market capitalism (as “the System of Satan”) and about marketing (as “the Devil’s Evangelism”), and commented on an article which seeks to establish neoliberalism as a religion (“A Satanic Theology”), so regular readers will not be surprised to learn that I found Curtis’ documentary both disturbing (in the extent to which it portrays this tinkering with our heads as pervasive) and as confirming what I already thought.

I am probably something of a nightmare from the point of view of the marketers and PR people. I instinctively consider that the more something is marketed to me, the more I am paying for that marketing and the less for the actual quality of the goods involved. I hate buying anything which is “throw away” or which embodies “planned obsolescence” or which is “in fashion”. Preferably, anything I buy which is not a consumable should be something which can be mended. And, if anyone invites me to participate in a marketing questionnaire or focus group, I let them know that I would be delighted to assist them at the very modest rate of £3 per minute (minimum one hour). Strangely, marketers seem not to want to engage my help… their loss!

This is also a feature of a significant amount of Peter Rollins’ work – consumer items are the things which can fill the lack which Peter thinks is ubiquitous in humanity (and that includes consumer systems – self-help seminars, some aspects of religion and some psychological therapies being among them). I am not so sure that such a lack is so fundamental to humanity – let’s face it, if it were, it would not be necessary for advertisers to spend so much time and effort trying to persuade us that we lack the very product they are attempting to sell us. Oh, OK, I do lack most of the things they are trying to sell me, but it isn’t a lack I have any wish to fill, and it certainly doesn’t correspond to any deep-seated inadequacy I have. I have plenty of deep seated inadequacies, but (as I’m in the happy position of having the bottom three levels of Maslow’s hierarchy fulfilled, at least for the time being, and don’t generally feel much lack of the fourth) those aren’t things which the expenditure of money can be expected to correct. A Twelve Step programme is much more likely to do that – and that is free in money terms, though it does require time and energy.

Jamieson Webster is emphatically not the kind of psychoananalyst who is the focus of Curtis’ documentary, the kind who sells themselves to commerce in order to help commerce to get us to buy. She is trying to do something which will, perhaps, improve the lives of clients. It is not abundantly clear from reading the book how, exactly, that is supposed to happen – that may just be a part of the psychoanalytic literature which is not explicitly quoted by her, but she does seem very tentative in suggesting that there actually is a clear objective – and that offends my own analytic tendencies. I like my tasks to be SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time limited, and psychoanalysis seems to tick none of those boxes.

What she does do is voyage through a set of specific cases, those of the classic Psychoanalysts such as Freud and some of her own, picking up motifs which she then plays with, in conversation with philosophers and, of course, Freud and Lacan. The overwhelming impression I got was how different various cases were, how they had completely varying associations – and in that respect, when she fixed on some wordplay in Freud which was considered significant, she touched a nerve with myself. I do a lot of wordplay myself, and form associations based on that rather than on any real-world connection between the things signified by those words. I see a firing squad portrayed on the TV, for instance, and think “ri-fol, ri-fol, fother diddle di-fol” (nonsense words appearing in various English folk songs, and having nothing to do with the rifle or musket – to which I then add “and Oman”).

There seems a part of my mind which works in that way, and I was delighted to find that a part of Freud’s worked similarly (though his was bilingual in English and German; mine tends to French and Italian as pun-partners for my English). In the same way, particular incidents have huge significance in a particular analysand’s mind (for instance, suffering serious burns), whereas the associations of fire for another might be entirely different. I smell bad drains and immediately think of Venice in August, for instance, an association which would mean nothing to someone who hadn’t actually been there (and loved the experience, despite the pervasive smell of drains).

It seems that she is seeing a very particularly individual constellation of associations in analysands, which are not nearly so “analysable” as I might have thought before reading the book – and yet, rather than trying to fit everything into a single template (and make people conform to normality, whatever that is – the marketers can probably tell us), this is dealt with in a relationship. Admittedly, the psychoanalytic relationship is a very odd one, in which there is very little to and fro – the analyst, ideally, contributes nothing. However, the fact of that relationship (one which is inevitably ultimately limited in time, even if that timing cannot be predicted) is the absolute key to psychoanalysis.

There, I see a glimmer of hope for the possibility of a next century, not of self, but of relationship. Maslow, who created the hierarchy of needs, is mentioned in Curtis’ film – he puts “self actualisation” at the top of the pyramid, as befits a member of the psychoanalytic establishment which gave us modern marketing. Even then, however, the theory of the pyramid is that you can’t attend adequately to one of the higher levels if the lower levels are not adequately provided for, and two levels down is “love and belonging”. There is a lesson there – we are never going to be able to achieve the self-actualisation we may desire in the absence of love, and that implies relationship. The atomic individualism of the “Century of the Self” is doomed to failure. “No man is an island”, as John Locke put it.

And, of course, from a Christian point of view, love should possibly be at the top of the pyramid as well as in the middle. One’s highest self-actualisation is in loving others.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. ” (I Cor. 14:4-7)

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