Psychoanalysis – towards a century of relationship?

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)

D-day – a cynical view

A friend, commenting on the D day anniversary, wrote “As we remember D-Day, let us not forget that World War 2 was the product of nation-first, white supremacy, uncritical populist, and racist ideologies and that the war was one through global cooperation, the globalism that has keep the peace for over 70 years, our Alliances with Europe (NATO), the Marshall Plan of recovery after the war, helping our enemies recover (Germany and Japan), and the belief that America’s leadership is moral, involves sacrifices on our part, and a willingness to support other nations.”

I really like the sentiment, and completely endorse the observation about Hitler’s Germany. I am, indeed, seriously worried that similar forces seem to be at work in the Europe of today, as witness (among many others) the success of Marine LePen’s National Rally party (formerly the National Front) in France and the election of significant numbers of Alternative für Deutschland MEPs (AfD is essentially a neo-Nazi party) in recent European elections, and the complexion of Victor Orban’s Hungary. Also, of course, our newly formed Brexit party, which won an alarming number of seats. Athough it claims to be a single issue party (at least, so far), all the same tendencies seem to be operative in very many of its supporters, and its forebear, UKIP, is now clearly a party of the far right.

However, my sceptical and cycnial side forbids me from regarding the US intervention in World War II as pure gift, and expressing the degree of gratitude which many Americans seem to think is appropriate. In point of fact, the US managed to keep out of the war until in December 1941 Pearl Harbour left it with no real alternative (though there had been an effective war at sea going on with Germany in the Atlantic for some months prior to that – again, prompted by the Germans sinking American ships). By that time, the UK and its then empire and dominions (such as Canada and Australia) had been at war since 1st September 1939, and the USA had been selling weapons to us (and also to Russia and China) throughout, offering credit terms when we basically ran out of money. We finally managed to pay off that debt in the 1980s. The USA managed to keep out of WWI even longer…

This article gives a view of the US involvement in both world wars which rather differs from the “America saves the day!” message which Americans often wish to claim as truth. Extracting figures from this source seems to indicate that pre-WWI, the US had around 18.9% of world GDP while the UK (including British India but excluding other colonies and dominions) had 19.7% (of which the UK proper was around 9%). By 1950 (India having become independent, in part due to the effective bankruptcy of the UK, in part because promises had been made in order to avoid India siding with the Japanese in WWII), the US had 27.3% and the UK had 6.5%.

It seems rather evident that, at least in terms of GDP, the two world wars seriously damaged the UK economy (leaving the country massively in debt to the US into the bargain) but seriously advantaged the US economy.

As the article points out in relation to WWI, “The trouble was that by 1916, the U.S. commitment to Britain and France had grown—to borrow a phrase from the future—too big to fail.” The same might well be said of World War II (and, indeed, there is an argument that both World Wars were fundamentally one conflict, divided by 20 years of truce – certainly, it is very arguable that the draconian terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles which were imposed on Germany made something like the rise of Hitler and his foreign policy inevitable).

The cynic in me says that America looked at the European situation together with the fairly dominant trading position of the British Empire and the rapid rise of industry and technology in Germany, realised that its most valuable markets were in Europe, so it needed to avoid the rise of a Germany which would dominate that market, but that by delaying it could bleed dry it’s main worldwide competitor, Britain, and still see Germany defeated – and so acted entirely in the best interests of the US (some evidence indicates that US interests were also supplying Germany…). Seen as an effective trade war against Britain, this was a master-stroke – and wildly successful. My view is strengthened by the US sabotage of Britain and France over Suez in 1956, which inclined Britain to ask how good an ally the US actually was…

Much the same consideration on the part of the British government also punctures the British myth that we entered into the war in 1939 out of the goodness of our hearts and a desire to curb tyrrany. Neville Chamberlain has said of the annexation of Czechoslovakia that it was a ‘quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing’, and in conscience, Poland was in much the same position. However, with Poland, the writing was on the wall, and it was clear that Hitler was going to go on expanding in Europe until stopped. Britain did have significant trade with Western Europe, but was divided from Europe by the English Channel, had the bulk of its foreign trade with the world outside Europe and could conceivably have sat there and left Europe to its own devices. A substantial proportion of the population would have been entirely happy with that. In Britain’s case, however, the danger was not only of losing Western Europe as a market, but also of Germany breaking out of being a merely European power and challenging Britain’s world trade…

Where nation states are involved, I tend not to believe legends that their actions are altruistic – there are almost always clear advantages for their own narrow interests which are quite sufficient to explain their actions.

Thinking even further about D-day, hindsight tells me that, in all probability, it was not necessary in order to defeat Hitler. He was already losing the war badly due to the Eastern Front, and in particular the disaster of Stalingrad. The Italian front should have been enough… the Allies (by this time including the USA) could have afforded to wait it out.

There, too, the actual reason was probably not the reason which was presented. In that case, the danger was the potential rolling of Russian forces all the way to the North Sea, taking all of Germany, Austria and possibly even the Low Countries, France and Scandinavia into the Russian sphere of influence. D-day was a proxy action, in effect, against Russia, the first battle of the Cold War. I may not go quite so far as this article, but it is clear that by mid-1944, the end was in sight – but without the landings in France, it would have probably produced a largely Soviet Europe, thus demolishing the market for both the USA and Britain. The Western powers’ effort stopped at the dividing line between East and West Germany which obtained until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany – but it seems that Churchill, at least, was willing to go further than that. Clearly, for him, the defeat of Hitler was by no means the whole story.

Do I thus undermine the immense sacrifices made by US, British and Canadian troops (in particular) on D-day? Not at all. They were emphatically in the best interests of our respective countries at the time. But we should maybe restrain ourselves from expecting unqualified gratitude from those who were liberated from German rule as a result…

Variations on a theme of Barry Taylor

Day three of the Wake festival in April saw a talk by Barry Taylor called “Everything I learned about the Bible I learned from prostitutes”. With that as a title (possibly the ultimate clickbait…) this was an unmissable occasion.

What follows is in part a brief account of what Barry talked about, in part some excursions which occurred to me during the talk, and, at the end, an extended meditation which the talk prompted me to think about after it ended.

It was somewhat autobiographical, in that one of the instances Barry used was a brush with the “Children of God” (whose successors are called “The Family International”) and their much-publicised technique of sending out wives to attract new members via sex (their founder stated that God was love and love was sex); these were called “hookers”. Barry was at the time touring the USA with AC/DC; his bio also includes partaking in a religious revival in Russia, doing music for porn movies and teaching at a fairly conservative Christian seminary, leading to the suggestion in the programme that “Barry could well be the most interesting man in the world”.

Being asked, mid coitus, to pause to pray is something which he found surprising. I think, in that, he is probably typical… but clearly possessed of a sangfroid greater than anything I could muster in that he apparently followed through – and was then introduced to her husband in the morning, a second moment of amazement.

Barry also used two other examples of “prostitutes”; Annabella in “Tis pity she’s a whore”, a 1633 play by John Ford (the title of which is also a track on Bowie’s “Blackstar” LP, which was the way Barry was led to the play), who is persuaded into a relationship with her brother and then stabbed by him when she marries another in order to justify her pregnancy. The play closes with the cardinal (who has confiscated the property of most of the dramatis personae on the basis that they are guilty of something) saying “who could not say, ‘Tis pity she’s a whore?”. The second is the woman who washes Jesus’ feet at a meal in a Pharisee’s house in all four gospels (though other details differ), one of the few incidents from the synoptics which also appears in the Fourth Gospel.

Barry quoted several notable theologians on prostitution, including Aquinas, who said that they were like a cesspool in a palace – it may be distasteful, but take it away, and the whole palace will stink, and Chesterton, who said that everyone who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.

In all three stories, the excluded, disavowed individual is calling into question the whole ethos on which society is based. In the Biblical story, Jesus goes on to tell a parable about indebtedness, and asks who is more grateful, he who has been forgiven little or he who has been forgiven much? But then, I noted, though it wasn’t the direction the talk went in, Jesus was regularly companionable with those who society considered beyond the pale (and, in the Jewish conception of the time, frequently ritually unclean and capable of contaminating those around them). Tax collectors (read “Quislings”) and sinners. Members of the Jews’ greatest enemies, the Phoenicians, Samaritans and Romans. Children (who were non-persons until they were 14). And, of course, women, even those with a continuous discharge (a major contamination in Jewish eyes – Lev. 15:19-33). Lepers. The dead… He must have been seen by Pharisees in particular as quite shockingly transgressive.

One lesson I personally learn from Jesus’ inclusivity is to judge a society by how they treat the least privileged among them, and I think of the list in Matthew 25; the hungry and thirsty, the stranger (foreigner/immigrant), those without adequate clothing, the sick and the imprisoned. And, I suppose, the prostitutes… On that basis, my own society stands condemned, having moved away from all those principles since Margaret Thatcher was elected. My friends in the States may, I suspect, have similar feelings, substituting Reagan for Thatcher…

Barry also drew out a theme of being converted by the intrusion of the excluded – the Pharisee, for instance, was forced to concede that he who was forgiven most was the most grateful, and that was also a deconversion, from the perspective which was previously taken; all conversion, he said, involves deconversion from something which precedes it and promises deconversion later from what is converted to. Sometimes, however, a label prevents conversion… such as “whore”.


After the talk ended, I went on musing. I don’t have much experience of prostitutes, I thought – but then I paused. Prostitution is often called “the oldest profession”, and my former profession, Law, is sometimes called the second oldest. I did think, when going into Law, that it was a respectable occupation with a reasonable social status – and so, at the time, it was, at least in England. Some years later a friend in the States sent me a copy of the “1000 best lawyer jokes”, including “What’s the difference between a dead lawyer on the freeway and a dead cat on the freeway? The cat has skid marks in front of it” – but by that time I was already beginning to appreciate that, in the States at least, lawyers are one of the most hated and despised professions (possibly only eclipsed by politicians in the States, but I was also a local politician…).

There is, perhaps, a closer correspondence than just the “despised profession” or the antiquity of the occupation. Prostitutes sell the use of their bodies, while Lawyers sell the use of their minds. OK, there are a very few lawyers who go to work for, for instance, the Council for Civil Liberties or various Law Centres around the country who are more donating than they are selling, but in general terms, lawyers are mercenaries, “guns for hire” if those guns spout words rather than bullets. Another lawyer joke runs “Someone came to see me and asked ‘What is the truth of this situation?’, so first I negotiated a fee, then I asked him what he wanted the truth of it to be”. To a great extent, in law, the truth is what a lawyer can persuade a judge (and/or jury) to believe it to be, and one result is that we tend to get the best justice we can afford (tempered to some extent by the many lawyers who take on “pro bono” cases or work for a fee unconnected with whether they win or lose).

I’ll grant that the “mind for hire” allegation could be levelled at a wide range of other professions involving words, including to my deep regret some scientists who are lured into fields like climate-change denialism or the long hard fight (happily now lost) against the link between smoking and cancer. Don’t get me started on politicians, who seem increasingly to have lost touch with anything remotely resembling truth.

I have to say that the vast majority of lawyers I’ve known do not actually tailor what “truth” they argue for entirely to the wishes of the client; for a start, in the UK, professional ethics demand that they do not argue a position they know to be false, though that can lead to some very careful avoidance of clients admitting guilt directly to their lawyers; nonetheless, there are in most court proceedings two sides, each with lawyers arguing opposing positions – and only one of those (as a maximum) can be right.

I did my share of advocacy in court. Contra the impression given by courtroom dramas like “Perry Mason”, results are rarely obtained by breaking down witnesses under questioning so that they admit they were lying or, even better, admit guilt, they are more often obtained by finding an interpretation of the evidence actually given which founds innocence or guilt, depending on whether defending or prosecuting. Defending is easier in criminal cases, as you don’t need to demonstrate that your interpretation is the most likely one, just that it’s sufficiently plausible to put doubt in people’s minds as to another interpretation.

I did much more work drafting and amending contracts. There, part of the secret is to pull back from what you know the text is supposed to convey, and ask yourself what other meaning it could possibly have, if argued over in the future by a pair of clever lawyers. You then adjust the wording so as to exclude, so far as possible, any such misinterpretation – admittedly, sometimes in competition with a lawyer acting for the other side who actually wants that interpretation to be open. You also need to envisage situations in which the wording might not give a clear answer, or any answer, and so far as possible plug those gaps. The exercise does produce an ability to see second, third and fourth meanings in sets of words, which gets ingrained after many years doing it.

That, of course, is something which I now bring to interpreting scripture, having retired from doing anything connected with the law, at least so far as I can manage. I can see secondary readings of passages which people may miss, and perspectives which others may not think of (for example, my dumfounding of a small group by suggesting looking at the parable of the prodigal son from the perspective of the fatted calf… I’d already heard all the conventional perspectives being canvassed that week). Yes, some of those may be regarded as less likely interpretations for the writer to have intended, but as long as the words actually used open up the possibility, who are we to say that they weren’t intended to mean more than one thing, or even that what we now percieve as less likely wasn’t, from the author’s point of view, exactly what was the intention?

We don’t, of course, have the authors of scripture available to interrogate as to whether they also meant c,d, and e as well as a, or whether they actually only meant d… and even if we did, a modern interpreter could well say “ah, but that must have been at least in your subconscious, otherwise why would you pick those words…”. Indeed, that’s been done to me in the past, by an English Literature student interpreting some poetry I wrote – I denied having intended some of the meanings she extracted from it, and she made that argument, plus the rather more postmodern argument that the meaning of everything is created by the reader as much as by the writer, and the “death of the author” school of thought elevates that to a guiding principle. Those are the words, now shut up and let us interpret them – which is, I note with some amusement, the main moral of the Jewish story of the Oven of Akhnai, relating exactly to the interpretation of scripture. For my more conservative readers, you might like to note that the story takes a very high view of scripture – the Torah – as, in effect, divine dictation, but still supports variant interpretations.

I’m now in the happy position of being free to do this job of supplying reinterpretations and variant readings both in my writing and when editing others without any financial motive – or, indeed, for the most part any other compelling pressure. I don’t need to earn extra money any more; I’m largely retired, and have enough provision in retirement to be able to say “no” to almost any offer made to me. I am, however, perhaps more sensitive than most to the fact that I have let money dictate what I did with my mind in the past (that was, in essence, the nature of the job of a lawyer) – and that makes it impossible for me to be condemnatory towards those who let money dictate what they do with their bodies (i.e. prostitutes).

So I go to the inevitable question which I think we should all ask ourselves – what is our price? How much would it take to persuade us to do something which we think is reprehensible (such as myself defending criminals and assisting them to avoid conviction and punishment)? Maybe we wouldn’t do it for £100, but what about £100,000 or £100,000,000? Or maybe in non-money terms – what would we be prepared to do to save our child’s life, for instance?

That is something which I may need to come back to in another post. In the meanting, though, we might note that Barry presented a text – verbally, of course, and I found unexplored avenues in it and built off it in a major way, which rather illustrates my point about the value of thinking of variant interpretations.