For those who are interested Jeremy Safran has presented an overview of the history and development of psychoanalysis, in Europe and America.
The title of his article gives the game away. It is called: “Is Freud Still Dead?”
This tells us, first, that, for his cult followers Freud is a god. After all, the phrase echoes Nietzsche’s statement: God is dead.
It also tells us, as I suspected, that psychoanalysts are in the business of raising the dead. Dead souls, of course, not dead bodies. But surely one understands that the technique owes far more to religion than it does to science.
As it happens, Safran’s rendering coincides well with the version I presented in The Last Psychoanalyst. In particular, he sees Freudian psychoanalysis as a politically and culturally radical movement that the first psychoanalysts did not want to limit as a clinical practice.
Freud and many of the early analysts came from medical backgrounds. Nevertheless, Freud came to feel strongly that psychoanalysis should not become a medical subspecialty and in fact prized the cultural and intellectual breadth that could be brought to the field by analysts with diverse educational backgrounds and intellectual interests.
He adds, tellingly, that American analysts in particular have covered up the political and cultural radicalism by pretending that theirs was an empirical discipline that could easily become an effective mental health treatment. They even presented themselves as conservatives.
However you choose to interpret the facts, psychoanalysis has recently undergone a serious decline in America. It is not news. With the advent of new medical treatments for mental illness and the discovery of cognitive therapy psychoanalysis was revealed to be something other than a scientific discipline.
Physicians and scientists have thus been avoiding psychoanalysis, so the slack was taken up by culturally leftist thinkers.
In many ways their rendering of psychoanalysis was more accurate than the medicalized version that American analysts had been peddling. For a comprehensive account of the cultural implications of Freudian theory see Eli Turetsky’s Secrets of the Soul.
Safran describes today’s psychoanalysis:
Another important factor is that many of today’s leading analysts came of age during the turbulent 1960’s - a time when traditional social norms and sources of authority were being challenged. In addition a number of prominent feminist psychoanalytic thinkers have challenged many of the patriarchal assumptions implicit in traditional psychoanalytic theory, raised important questions about the dynamics of power in the therapeutic relationship, and reformulated psychoanalytic thinking about gender. Another influence has been a postmodern sensibility that challenges the assumption that we can ever come to know reality objectively, maintains a skeptical attitude towards universalizing truth claims, and emphasizes the importance of theoretical pluralism.
The problems is, this sounds like trendy leftist politics. Good luck with that. If you throw out the patriarchal assumptions in, say, the myth of the primal horde or the Oedipus complex you are no longer doing Freudian psychoanalysis. Again, if you neuter Freud’s theories of gender you are no longer doing psychoanalysis.
Where past psychoanalysts erred in thinking that Freud was a physician offering a way to treat mental illness, today’s psychoanalysts, while understanding that Freud’s theories lie on the radical left, err in thinking that any old leftist thought can be thrown into the theory without confusing the issues.
Calling such a mish-mosh Freudian psychoanalysis stretches credulity.
The problem lies in the lack of theoretical sophistication. American psychoanalytic theory went awry because in the beginning a group of physicians got together to do metaphysics. One should have known that the results would not be very inspiring. Today’s psychoanalysts know more about theory, but their attachment to the lame notions of political correctness has rendered their work empty.
Young intellectuals who seek out radical thought are not going to be attracted to what passes for today’s version of psychoanalytic thought. They are more likely to be drawn to Slavoj Zizek and Judith Butler.
Admittedly, both of these are seriously overrated as thinkers, but they retain a veneer of intellectual sophistication that is enormously appealing to graduate students. After all, they quote Hegel and Heidegger ad nauseam… and graduate students who do not know any better come to think that the work is cutting edge.
By injecting large doses of political correctness into Freud, today’s analysts have denatured his message. Like it or not, Freud was a great thinker. His thought should not be mutilated to make it fit the biases of today’s trendy intellectuals.
Safran asks whether Freud is still dead. The answer is that if Freud is alive he is alive in name only.