Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Gang That Couldn't Think Straight

Psychoanalysis is moribund, but still people are defending it. This time, one Damon Linker writes a spirited defense of psychoanalysis in a magazine called The Week.

A brief search about Linker reveals that he is a devotee of Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger. As I have suggested, and as Jacques Lacan argued extensively, Freud and Heidegger have much in common. Linker has been blinded to the obvious, so he does not much care that that Heidegger was a Nazi, or that the philosopher refused to recant his views after the truth about the Holocaust was revealed.

Thereby he attests that if psychoanalysis teaches you anything, it teaches you the art of denial. Heidegger’s Nazism, Linker declares, is not his business.

Anyway, to defend psychoanalysis Linker wrote an essay attesting to what he has gained from his years on the couch. The title of the essay is: What I've learned from my years on the couch.

But, Linker continues, “years on the couch” does not mean “years on the couch.” One has read enough Slavoj Zizek to learn that people who spend too much time in psychoanalysis end up as masters of the art of double talk. On that score Linker does not disappoint.

Linker defends his experience of psychoanalysis while explaining that he had not undergone psychoanalysis. A neat Freudian trick, like speaking out of both sides of your mouth.

Allow him to explain:

I've been on the couch for nine years, more or less.

Well, not literally on the couch. I've never been in strict Freudian psychoanalysis, which to this day encourages patients to recline on a sofa faced away from the analyst in order to facilitate free association and the uninhibited exploration of emotions, dreams, fantasies, and fears.

Most of my experience with therapy has been with psychodynamic psychotherapists who've had psychoanalytic training but who tend to sit face-to-face with their patients, talking things through an hour at a time, once or twice a week, for months or years on end.

It’s always easier to defend an experience you did not have.

Inadvertently, Linker has exposed one of the major problems with so-called contemporary post-Freudian psychoanalysis. It is intellectually incoherent.

Freud wanted to isolate the mind, the better to get in touch with its unconscious component. He wanted to do so  by removing other people from the equation. In particular, he wanted his patients to speak as though they had no interlocutor, no other living, breathing human presence that might induce them to tailor their language to connect with another person. Psychoanalysis thus precluded, and had to preclude face-to-face interaction. Linker is thus correct to say that he has not undergone psychoanalysis.

He has experienced a hybridized and bastardized version, one that adds a crucial and prospectively beneficial element: conversation, or talking things through.

If his treatment produced a benefit, we cannot know whether the benefit was produced by the conversational connection between patient and analyst—connection that is proscribed in real psychoanalysis—or whether it was produced by the patient’s indoctrination in Freudian ideology.

It’s about form and content. If the form of the treatment is at variance with the content of the thought communicated, one cannot say which one is providing a therapeutic benefit.

Freud understood well that the human presence of the psychoanalyst--as opposed to the seemingly disembodied and oracular voice that tells you how much you want to copulate with your mother-- can only be an obstacle to your discovering what you really, really want. As soon as you begin to tailor your verbal offerings to fit them into a conversation, you have, Freud believed, merely found a better and more effective way to repress your desire. For Freud your true desire was anti-social and criminal. You cannot get in touch with it while trying to be a congenial conversationalist. If your desire was not so horrific you would not have to repress it.

Moreover, conversation cannot take place at the same time as free association. According to Freud, you cannot allow your unconscious mind to express itself if you are speaking in declarative sentences that are designed to communicate with another human being. You will never get in touch with your unconscious desires while you are engaging in normal social activity.

Throw away the couch and free association and you have undoubtedly made progress from a therapeutic standpoint, but you are no longer doing psychoanalysis.

Whether Freud was right or wrong, he was a great thinker. His theories are coherent; they are consistent with the practice he invented. True enough, he was talking about fictional beings and creating a fictional world for them to inhabit, but he did it well. Those who have followed him and who have tinkered with the fiction or the practice, with the content or the form, have merely shown that they do not understand his thought.

Linker goes on to explain and, of course, to denounce cognitive-behavioral therapy, because it is too superficial and does not last long enough. One notes, with some chagrin, that many of those who are defending psychoanalysis have a very serious investment, of time and money, in the process. They have a vested interest in declaring that they are not fools and have not wasted their money.

Until they examine that motivation, their views need to be taken with some skepticism.

Moreover, people who have serious mental health problems—doubtless this does not include Linker—tend to do very poorly with long term psychodynamic psychotherapy. They tend to do much better with more cognitively based therapies. See the cases of Will Lippincott and Gordon Marino, written up in the New York Times and on this blog.

Here, Linker describes his form of non-psychoanalytic psychoanalysis.

Unlike CBT, the psychodynamic approach to therapy sees human beings as strangers to themselves — unsure of what they want, self-subversive in their actions, and opaque in their motives. It therefore presumes that the obstacles to achieving rationality and happiness — which involves determining what we truly want and taking reasonable action to get it — are far greater than CBT presumes.

This means that psychodynamic therapy involves not simply listing problems and troubleshooting solutions, but making a concerted effort to achieve self-understanding — a process that takes time and often an enormous amount of work (and courage). Only then can we know what the true problems are and determine what kind of enduring solutions might be possible.

Linker does not want to do anything quite as simple as solving his problems. He wasn’t to find out what he really, really wants and he imagines that this will open the way to happiness. He does not seem to know that when you do not deal with your problems today, they tend to fester… becoming worse and more intractable.

He does not seem to know that Freud himself declared that the goal of psychoanalysis is to transform misery into unhappiness. If life is a Greek tragedy, then there are no happy endings.

As for discovering what he really, really wants, one must note, as Lacan often did, that your desire can never be known as a fact. The reason: you can only desire something that you do not have. Preferably, in Freudian theory, you will desire something that is forbidden to you.

But then, how can you convince yourself that you really, really want to copulate with your mother. You cannot. You will need to become a true believing Freudian and hold that you must desire your mother because she is forbidden and because you do not have her.

In any event, Linker joins other psychoanalysts in accepting Freud’s model of the mind. And in accepting it uncritically. One must note that this model of the mind is nothing more than a philosopher’s fiction.

Linker writes:

Though few psychodynamic psychotherapists these days accept Freud's conclusions in all (or even most) of their details, they do affirm his overall model of the mind as containing sedimented layers of thinking, including a subconscious teeming with repressed images, desires, fantasies, hopes, and fears that can affect conscious thinking, acting, and feeling in strange, unpredictable ways. The mind does this by way of pre-rational forms of archaic thinking that take shape in childhood.

As I have had occasion to point out, this model of the mind disembarasses you of your freedom, your free will and your freedom to choose. It assumes that you are being directed by forces out of your control, but that since you can never succeed at repressing them, the best you can do is to understand them. This does not really change very much, but it is something of a consolation.

Linker continues and offers a more modern view of transference:

One example is transference, the process whereby the mind transfers associations connected with one person to another, usually of the same gender. The classic example is the tendency to experience emotions and act out unresolved conflicts from childhood over and over again with men and women who take on the roles of vicarious fathers and mothers. Depending on the nature and intensity of the emotions and the character of the conflicts, this can result in confusing feelings, skewed judgment, and fraught relationships.


Transference and other forms of archaic thinking can't be changed or stopped just by pointing to surface-level behavior and feelings and labeling them "irrational." The only way to change them is by working through the subconscious associations, emotions, and conflicts over and over again at the conscious level — in conversation with an analyst trained to look for clues of archaic thinking at work below the surface.

In the Freudian sense, transference is not archaic thinking, but it manifests the influence of archaic thinking on present day decisions. But, why quibble?

Like a good quasi-psychoanalytic patient, Linker is trapped in his mind. While you can always to construct a story that explains away your current mishaps, your faults and foibles, even your symptoms, in terms of a past events, traumatic or otherwise, no one has ever demonstrated our fictional explanation is really what caused your current problems.

As Wittgenstein once said, just because you can construct a chain of associations that appears to explain whatever, this is not a reason to believe that the very same chain produced whatever. As one knows from the history of psychoanalysis, you can certainly construct a fiction explaining why you caught the flu or even why it is snowing today, but that pseudo-explanation will have no effect on the flu or the weather.

Psychoanalysis failed because it was mired in a fiction: the fiction whereby the mind was expressing itself through bad behavior and that understanding what the unconscious mind was trying to say would make the bad behavior or the symptoms disappear magically.

Unfortunately, it never happened.

Lacan, a far more sophisticated theorist, was led to say that insight would never suffice. He argued that one needed to allow the unconscious to speak through one’s language and one’s behaviors. This will not cure you in any normal sense of the word. It will make you dysfunctional and asocial… but after all, that is the best that one can do.

Evidently, Linker has learned a few snippets of psychoanalytic theory. He sees himself as a member in good standing of the international cult it has formed. If he and his friends want to understand psychoanalysis they should read a book entitled: The Last Psychoanalyst.


Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: He does not seem to know that Freud himself declared that the goal of psychoanalysis is to transform misery into unhappiness. If life is a Greek tragedy, then there are no happy endings.

I was curious and I found the quote for that assertion from Freud. It doesn't look like a "goal", but simple humility to show progress can be made despite a lack of complete control. A doctor can't promise your external enemies will roll over and die just because you face them more honestly.
“When I have promised my patients help or improvement by means of the cathartic treatment I have often been faced by this objection: ‘Why, you tell me yourself that my illness is probably connected with my circumstances and the events of my life. You cannot alter these in any way. How do you propose to help me then?’ And I have been able to make this reply: ‘No doubt fate would find it easier than I do to relieve you of your illness. But you will be able to convince yourself that much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness.” –Sigmund Freud­, Studies on Hysteria (1895)

So the context is the predicament of inner versus outer, there are facts and circumstances we can't change, but some can be made easier to bear, if we understand our own participation in our enslavement or our compulsions.

Much like the serenity prayer from AA around 1930's, a bit after Freud's attempts.
O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed,
The courage to change what can be changed,
and the wisdom to know the one from the other

If misery in part come from our escapism to avoid what we can deal with, out of despair in our powerlessness of what we can't change, then Freud's claim (or AA's version) seems a sensible middle ground.

NOT DRINKING will not promise end unhappiness, but it will reduce self-inflicted misery that follows by this escapism.

Or like Scott Peck and Jung talked about "neurotic suffering" versus "legitimate suffering".
Carl Jung identified two forms of suffering: meaningless and meaningful. Meaningless suffering is everywhere, being part of the human condition, as the Buddha recognized.

This existential suffering is the result of our trying to avoid pain, by denial and repression. None of us wants pain. We naturally shun it. But doing so is like the spleen refusing to do its job. It leads to big trouble, dis-ease, and real problems. In the realm of the psyche, these are called “neuroses.” Jung identified the long-term habit of repression (our “stuffing” unpleasant feelings, facts, etc. within) as the cause of neuroses.

Because we all do this, we are all “neurotic” to one degree or another. This is “meaningless” suffering because it makes no sense, has no significance, and gives us no benefit. This form of suffering, in other words, is not a gift.

The form of suffering that is meaningful comes when we stop repressing and take up our moral task as humans to deal consciously with our pain. In this process, we take up the pain that is endemic to living and work with it, in the knowledge that pain has a purpose. It is a warning, with an intrinsic message. We need to listen to our inner voices to learn this message.

Well, a very tricky distinction, but it beats new age positivism.

Rambillicus said...

Ares, if you want anyone to read your comments, you are going to have to shorten them considerably. Most people don't have the time or patience to wade through them. I quit bothering reading them months ago.