Misconceptions about psychoanalysis. Part 3: The teachings of psychoanalysis have not been assimilated

One often finds, when reading certain contemporary apologias for psychoanalysis, expressions of the sort: ‘Psychoanalysis was founded by Freud, but has since moved beyond him’. Or: ‘Psychoanalysis is becoming scientific through the use of neuroscience and empirical methods’. Or: ‘Freud’s pioneering speculations about sexuality and death have given way to established theories of attachment and trauma’. It is as if psychoanalysis is permissible on the condition that it is assimilated into pre-existing scientific discourses, with the indecent elements suppressed.

I say, in contrast to this, that psychoanalysis is to be affirmed because of its scandalous elements, not in spite of them. Further, many of the basic teachings of Freud and Lacan remain radical and unassimilated, even if the influence of psychoanalysis on mainstream psy-disciplines remains incontestable in other respects. There are several examples that one could cite in favour of this thesis, and here a but a few:

1. Psychoanalysis is not a standardised treatment. I have indicated elsewhere that free association is, in and of itself, a radical form of speech in an era of hyper-efficiency. It is true that Otto Kernberg and his colleagues (among others) have attempted to produce treatment manuals for so-called borderline personality disorder, but these are as removed from Freudo-Lacanian analysis as life coaching and homeopathy.

The clinical interview and the majority of psychotherapies operate by way of a disciplining of speech. In CBT and REBT, this is absolutely explicit, since the subject is coached to express herself only in the form of refutable propositions, allowing the clinician to attack the ‘distorted cognitions’.

Just as psychoanalysis refuses standardisation, so must it refuse the Calvinist ideals of efficiency and thrift. Like the unconscious itself, undertaking an analysis is sometimes disruptive and inconvenient. There is no fixed time for an analysis, nor is there a ‘quickie’ analysis. Practitioners who argue against psychoanalysis on the grounds of cost have already accepted the neoliberal logic of scarcity that it destroying public health in the Anglophone world, and have become the unwitting advocates of austerity, whatever their official political leanings. The psychoanalytic clinic is oriented around desire and jouissance, and not production-consumption.

3. Psychoanalysis takes sexuality seriously. This is not out of prurience, but rather, because of the implication of sexuality in aetiology. Nobody today would doubt the influence of early childhood on ‘mental health’, yet even early childhood is a time of erogeneity and satisfaction. This latter is not just the domain of Rolling Stones songs, but is a central concept in psychoanalysis where, under the name of jouissance, it can be distinguished from pleasure. Psychoanalysis is not a promotion of jouissance – there are plenty of other doctrines for that –  but rather, an attempt to understand how it works for each subject. More broadly, psychoanalysis is a means by which subjects can construct modes of jouissance which are compatible with life.

One can contrast this with mainstream psychotherapy, which actively promotes the ‘pleasant activity schedule’, the psychological equivalent of the corporate picnic. This approach is not so much an ethic of self-care as it is the subordination of such an ethic to the imperatives of capitalism. One takes rest and leisure in order to be a better worker. One takes SSRIs for depression, often sacrificing sexual function in the process, in order to resume one’s place in the chain of production and consumption. The ‘pleasant activity’ is of a different nature and intensity to jouissance, which always involves the body, and always contains a narcissistic component. It isn’t even the same sport, to quote a famous movie scene which illustrates this distinction rather well. The focus on enjoyment in psychoanalysis – and indeed, of enjoyment in suffering, among other things – is diametrically opposed to the blithe advancement of the gentrified and ‘pleasant’, and remains outside of mainstream psy-discourse, including many of those which purport to be ‘psychodynamic’. In a sense, there are two very different strands of 19th century thought at the heart of this non-assimilation. You have Poe, Baudelaire, Leopardi and Dostoevsky, for whom there can be deliberate suffering. Then you have naive positivism, which posits suffering as a consequence of ignorance and stupidity. The one approach is bound to analyse desire and satisfaction; the other, condemned to mere didacticism.

3. The death drive is a concept which seems to have embarrassed even some psychoanalysts, and has been taken seriously mainly by Jacques Lacan and Melanie Klein. Freud himself admitted the notion was speculative, yet, as Lacan puts it in ‘The Subversion of the Subject’, ‘to evade the death instinct in his [Freud’s] doctrine is not to know his doctrine at all’.

The compulsion to repeat, the tendency toward destruction and aggression, and the will to inorganicity are at the heart of psychoanalysis, and duly neglected by the rest of the psy-disciplines. (Some existential theorists – mainly the European ones – are an exception).

Death is an unpleasant phenomenon for much of psychology, and where it cannot be ignored altogether, it is transformed into something to be managed. Finitude is replaced by ‘growth’, ‘positivity’ and ‘self-actualisation’, as existential concepts are reduced to the caricatures of Californian gurus. It could be said as an aside that, for much of Anglophone psychology, it is as if the twentieth century never occurred, either historically or conceptually  (but for the exception of correlational statistics). Facultyism and subjective unity remain hallmarks of the dominant paradigms, and neither Nazism nor Stalinism give many psy-practitioners pause for thought about the significance of death and its drives, or about the role of scientific ideology in destruction. ‘Biopower’ remains largely unheard of, and medical and managerial approaches to ‘mental health’ are regarded as intrinsically altruistic. Reason itself  – or at least diminished versions thereof – is treated with unconditional positive regard, as if it is on some other side of death and destruction, rather than part and parcel of it. You end up with a glaring contradiction in a place such as Australia: on the one hand, an official doctrine espoused by politicians and the media oriented around ‘growth’, ‘laid-back’ culture, ‘fairness’, tolerance, etc, and on the other, individuals working (and drinking, and eating) themselves to death, and a biopolitics of systematised violence and governmentality (toward Aboriginals, asylum seekers, the unemployed, the environment etc). Ideology speaks of life, precisely at the same time as (and because of) practicing death.

Some might see the ‘speculative’ nature of Freud’s concept here as the reason for the neglect of the death instinct in the mainstream. This explanation is not satisfactory, however, when one considers that other, even more speculative concepts find widespread acceptance (‘learned helplessness’ is a clear example). As with the refusal to contemplate jouissance seriously,  the unassimilable nature of the  death drive shows that it poses something awkward for the doctrines of health and productivity, and not merely at the level of epistemology.

4. Finally, the unconscious itself, with all of its ethical and epistemological implications, remains an utterly radical concept for psychology and for those who wish to make psychoanalysis ‘respectable’. I think where I am not, and I am where I do not think. To be sure, virtually everybody nowadays acknowledges that an unconscious exists, whether in sociology, neuroscience, or cognitive science, but, perversely, everybody acts as if it does not. As with the other teachings of Freud and Lacan, the unconscious can be admitted entry, as long as it is not a psychoanalytic unconscious. Thus, virtually every psychotherapy (and much psycho-pharmacotherapy) is today reducible to either a manipulation of affect or a militarisation of the conscious elements of the ego. Discourse on a range of topics, from the aetiology of crime, to sexual preferences, has devolved into interminable and idiotic debates about nature versus nurture.

To the limited extent that an unconscious is admitted into theory, and treated as though it exists, it is generally on the condition that its implications are strictly limited. Yet an unconscious which is structured like a language is not merely an individual phenomenon any more than language itself is an individual phenomenon. The unconscious is disruptive, and its effects are singular – it is, after all, the ‘blank chapter’ of my history, and not somebody else’s. Nonetheless, an unconscious cannot exist in a relational vacuum, and it is surely no coincidence that for people with the most radical forms of individualism (such as in profound cases of autism), the unconscious is at its least functional. In a sense, Adler has succeeded over Freud on this matter, in that his version of the unconscious is the one that predominates today. The Adlerian unconscious is essentially a continuation of   conscious thought, just a bit ‘deeper’, as opposed to the Freudian unconsciou,s which is irreducibly other to the ‘I’ of consciousness, and therefore divisive or antithetical to conscious life.

This leads to an interesting question regarding the relations between psychoanalysis and neuroscience (or the attempt at rapprochement through’ neuropsychoanalysis’). Is a working alliance possible between neuro-researchers and analysts?

To answer this question, I would begin with the affirmation that the neuroscientists are generally not among the enemies of subjectivity that one finds practicing biopower (in psychology, psychiatry and elsewhere). Neither are neuroscientists, in my opinion, particularly hostile to psychoanalysis. Moreover, the researches of neuroscience must be carefully distinguished from their abusive appropriations derived in the popular media and the neurohucksters of psychology. There is thus no reason, as far as I can see, for any psychoanalyst to fear or object to the work of neuroscience in elucidating the function of the brain. Nonetheless, anybody who thinks that neuroscience can or should ‘verify’ the findings of psychoanalysis has grasped nothing of either discipline. (One can only wonder why attachment theorists, for example, find such vindication for their teachings in neuroscience, when only the most inveterate and dogmatic of behaviourists ever thought that early childhood was clinically irrelevant in the first place).


Functional MRIs cannot yield a more ‘scientific’ version of psychoanalysis, unless one abandons free association, the linguistic and ontological unconscious, the supremacy of the signifier, etc. Which is to say, one would have to abandon psychoanalysis itself to make a discipline that conformed to the requirements of neuroscientific rigour, since there exist ‘substrates’ beyond those hypothesised to exist in the brain. Even at that, the findings would be clinically useless, since all psy-disciplines operate via signifiers, and not neuroanatomy or neurochemistry. As ever, to need vindication for one’s approach – from fMRIs, in this case – is, in effect an admission of error from the outset.


2 thoughts on “Misconceptions about psychoanalysis. Part 3: The teachings of psychoanalysis have not been assimilated

  1. Hello
    Your critique or should I rather say evaluation of neuropsychoanalysis is very good, in the sense that it proves that you understand what neuropsychoanalysis is about and what it is not about. What I usually read on similar blogs from psychoanalysists about neuropsychoanalysis is just bullshit. Mostly people have a weird hate towards brain sciences as such, as if it where the brain science as a theory which attacks psychoanalysis and makes one blind for psychoanalytic theory.

    I consider myself to be future neuropsychoanalyst, which is basically just a term for saying that I try to be psychoanalyst and neuroscientist at the same time. You are perfectly right to say that it is wrong to assume that neuroscience will make psychoanalysis more scientific or base psychoanalysis on biological ground. You already explained why the former is wrong and to come to the latter: conceptually psychoanalysis (at least the Freudian theory) always was based in biology and neurology. It simply did not obey the idiotic ideology of neurohucksters or people who think it is possible to understand subjectivity from an objective understanding of the brain, which has nothing whatsover to do with scientific understanding of the brain.
    I also want to stress the point you are making, that neuroscience can not absorb or make more scientificly psychoanalysis. As I said to be a neuropsychoanalyst can mean basically three things: 1. you are a neuroscientist open for psychoanalytic theories and ready to let you guide by them in your research. 2. you are a psychoanalyst ready to learn from neurology and neuroscience and/or to treat neurological patients psychoanalytically 3. you are someone who is a psychoanalyst and a neursoscientist at the same time. Only the second and third level is actually the level where someone can really claim that he is a neuropsychoanalyst in a professional sense. Yet one should not discard the first category as they are important allies within neuroscience where cognitive-psychologists and positivists are right now very dominant. In any case the important thing is that in order to be a neuropsychoanalyst you have to be to other things (psychoanalyst and neuroscientist) which conceptually contradict each other in the sense that there methodology is inconmensurable. What the psychoanalytic methodology (free-association, interpretation of subjectivity and so on) focuses on is exactly what the neuroscientific approach tries to get rid off (not necessarily theoretically but methodologically). A neurobiologist needs to do so when he wants to study the brain as an biological object. This does not necessarily mean that he is blind for subjectivity just as it does not mean that a psychoanalyst is blind for organic bases of the psychic apparatus or psychic phenomena.
    Now it is precisely this methodological tension in front of the background of the materialistic assumption that there is a form of ontological unity (Einheit) in Hegel’s sense between the brain as object of neuroscientific research and the psychic apparatus and phenomena as object of psychoanalytic research which holds neuropsychoanalysis together and let’s it move forward. Here it is important to stress that someone is exactly then a successfull neuropsychoanalyst when he or she succeeds in both fields. To understand why this is so is quite easy: As brainfunctions ultimately manifest themselves in our subjective experience the theory of human subjectivity is the theory which guides a neuroscientist in the best way if he wishes to understand something more as how perception, movement or basic psychic mechanisms work one can observe directly through consciousness. On the other hand knowledge about brainfunctions is ultimately a helpfull tool for improving psychoanalytic theory (improving not replacing!) as it describes the biological bases of our psychic apparatus in a more refined way then Freud was able to built on and therefore calrifiyng some theoretical problems. To give an example a Lacanian might be glad to hear: I originally had as a Freudian little sympathy for the concept of Lacan that the unconscious is organised like a language. Since I heard and read about the newest research of how the cortex produces spoken language and how it seems to work, I understood how Lacans thesis could be understood and that it could in the end make some sense (I can not go into detail and the details are not decisive here). Since then I started to approach Lacans thesis in a different way and I think that it is now that I start getting what he actually means. So neuroscience helped me to clarify a theoretical misunderstanding within psychoanalytic theory.
    Basically neuropsychoanalysis is about disproving the ideology of idiocy which says that the way of succeeding in science is to specialize oneself on one field. Especially in Experimental Psychology, which claims today to be the only Psychology there is, you can see a perverse level of specialisation, when people specialise on a little subtopic of a subtopic of a branch of what could be Psychology. In the end it is about showing that knowledge as lond as it is critically developed and one knows its boundaries is always helpfull.

    • Many thanks for your comment. I wonder if the hostility for neuroscience in some quarters may be an over-reaction to the bioreductionist tendencies in psychiatry. As you point out, the aims of neuroscience are very different.

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