Roudinesco, in spite of everything

When it comes to Roudinesco’s latest work – a kind of condensed life and times of Lacan – I have some reservations, as with the other of her works that I have read. Nevertheless, three points in particular stood out to me.

First, as Roudinesco tells it, Lacan ‘rejected the idea of describing symptoms separately from the subjective lived experience of insanity’ (p. 25). This idea remains radical, and within the clinical realm, is almost (though not totally) unique to psychoanalysis. One of the implicit assumptions of prevailing diagnostic systems is that one’s symptoms are more or less incidental to one’s life, and one’s subjectivity. This is turn justifies the peddling of dubious medications and generic ‘techniques’ for self-management.

Second, the following passage is worth mentioning:

‘Far from being the result of a conscious decision, freedom thus pertains to an imperative logic, unconscious in kind, which alone can break the subject’s adhesion to the imago of its servitude. In other words, in order to be free, it is necessary to be capable of assessing the determinations imposed on subjectivity by the unconscious’.  (p. 38).

In this account, psychoanalysis can be understood as upholding an ethic of freedom, albeit, by degrees, notwithstanding the structural determinism that some reduce it to. It is a very specific kind of freedom – far removed from Sartre’s conception of it, for instance – and has a number of clinical, philosophical and political implications. It is one of the reasons why Lacanian psychoanalysis is incompatible with tyranny.

Finally, Roudinesco upbraids the followers of Lacan who lapsed into total silence and apoliticism. Indeed, there remains a popular misconception that Lacanian treatment involves silence in the clinic, and silence in the world. Obviously, any analytic intervention must be carefully chosen, and silence may be a reasonable tactical manoeuvre at times, but responsiveness – whether in the clinic, or in the world – involves taking a position. There is no prudence in silence when one’s country (in my case, Australia) practices cruel forms of biopolitics over subject populations (there are many, but asylum seekers and Aborigines are perhaps the most egregious examples), or when one’s discipline (in my case, psychology) is complicit in a range of unethical activity, from Guantanamo torture and workfare (as I have observed elsewhere), to imposing norms of compliance under the cover of pseudoscience.

Roudinesco reminds us that psychoanalysis offers a praxis with something to say about human psychology, politics and freedom, and in this, it is unique among the psy-disciplines, and its discourse is all the more urgent for its being increasingly suppressed and marginalised.


Psychology & Science: Reflections on a Discipline in Crisis

What is visible within a science, the sorts of statements it can make and encompass, the discursive strategies it deploys – these are all contingent upon some prior condition, at least, according to a disparate range of modern philosophers. For Heidegger, Gestell (enframing) provides the precondition for something to be made present. For Foucault, drawing from the latter, an episteme is the condition of possibility of knowledge. In Kuhn’s philosophy of science, paradigms provide the boundaries within which ‘normal science’ can occur, and Wittgenstein wrote of the rules of language games.

Whilst these concepts are not straightforwardly equivalent, what they share is the idea that there are a priori assumptions that precede scientific research, and that the products of such research will be contingent upon these assumptions in various ways. The assumptions ordain in advance what can be seen, and what can be said, and what simply makes no sense within a given perspective. This point seems to be forgotten by those who are most enthusiastic about the notion of psychology as a ‘science’ (as opposed to say, psychology as a branch of metaphysics, or as a subset of psychoanalysis).

What psychology makes visible, and what it articulates, within its particular framework, is principally devoted to the statistical study of hypothetical constructs (diagnoses, ‘traits’, states, ‘behaviours’, etc). What is rendered invisible, or unsayable in this approach? First, and most obviously there is no proper consideration of ontology, no thorough or coherent analysis of the sort of being to whom one is appending all these statistical artifices. Secondly, there is a refusal of the qualitative dimensions of empiricism, as if anything that cannot be assigned a number is essentially non-existent. Thirdly, there is very largely a repudiation of the social and linguistic dimensions of human life – despite their conceptual contiguity, sociology, history and linguistic perspectives are sidelined in an Anglophone psychology that is fundamentally atomistic, with socio-linguistic ‘’factors’ tacked on as a kind of ontological afterthought. This accounts, for instance, for the ludicrous lengthiness of the tired nature-nurture debacle, as if something like human ‘nature’ could wander about unmediated by social bonds, laws and language. No such nature exists, except, perhaps, in mythology, yet to question these untenable assumptions, or others (‘temperament’ comes to mind, as does the notion of ‘cognition’) is to situate oneself outside of respectable scientific discourse, as currently conceived. There are the two options from which to choose, it seems to me – either a narrow, quantitative, pettyfogging ‘science’ of psychology, that ignores the most vital aspects of human life in pursuit of concepts that are as degraded as they are ridiculous; or, something altogether different to science itself, but which replaces rigour with statistical fetishism.

Of course, within a science (or paradigm, or framework) like psychology, there can only ever be a limited contest of ideas. Mostly, there is a contest of power, more or less independent of ideas. Authorities determine what is scientific or ‘evidenced-based’. To dare to observe flaws in the ‘science’ of psychology is to risk accusations of unprofessionalism or scientific nihilism. Students and would-be practitioners must obey their masters if they want a Masters.

And these issues are not merely theoretical. If an entire discipline construes human subjects as mere bundles of data, from which ‘information’ is to be extracted as efficiently as possible, one might expect this to be reflected in clinical practice, and it is (often). The individuals, institutions and systems that treatment people thus can regard themselves ‘scientific’.