Are People Getting More Primitive, or Is Psychoanalysis?
Speculations from the sociology of knowledge
Posted Apr 18, 2013
I doubt very much that people—our patients—are actually getting more aggressive or crazy over time, so this is likely a turn in theory and not in the patients coming to us for analysis. I also doubt very much that these newer “interpretations” about patients attacking their analysts’ minds, or not really having minds capable of symbolic thinking, or otherwise functioning at primitive levels has actually increased the efficacy of analysis, something that might be expected were our understanding of our patients actually any more accurate.
So, what we likely have, instead, is a turn in theory, reflecting, at best, a new appreciation of hitherto underemphasized aspects of mental life, and, at worst, a new language and conceptual apparatus for the same old things that analysts have always seen and worked with. Either way, while possibly of some intellectual interest, I have my doubts about whether such a trend reflects an advance in analytic theory or in its therapeutic efficacy.
My own view is that the emergence of new languages and paradigms like this might be explored more fruitfully from the point of view of the sociology of knowledge. That is, what is happening inside and outside our profession that might make this theoretical turn seem more “correct” and compelling to its practitioners? Professions (notoriously) don’t do very well at looking at themselves as historical or social actors and psychoanalysis is no exception.
So, here are some of my (admittedly speculative) inferences about the sources of the appeal of this renewed interest in the primitivity of mental functioning among some psychoanalysts:
- I wonder if there is a certain drama or excitement evoked in the analyst who feels that he/she’s playing around with crazy and dangerous forces. Perhaps analysts need to avoid what they fear (incorrectly) might be the more prosaic work of traditional analysis, much less supportive forms of psychotherapy
- It makes analysts feel like they’re smart, that they’re even intellectuals, because the language of primitive mental states is often complicated and arcane.
- Rather than figure out why their patients aren’t getting much better, perhaps there’s a temptation to turn inward and keep rearranging the Titanic’s deck chairs.
- Depth seems to be almost fetishized. The deeper the better. We’re “astronauts of the unconscious,” as psychoanalysis Vann Spruell once said. Who doesn’t want to be an astronaut or, more dramatically, who wouldn’t want to be like Dante, using our analytic flashlights probing into deeper and deeper levels of darkness full of the demons of insanity and aggression. It ennobles us.
- It’s a way of holding on to traditional Freudian metapsychology while appearing to go way beyond Freud. There’s still aggression, dangerous forms of sexuality and perversions, but we’re into a pseudo-Kleinian world now of pre-symbolization and impaired alpha-functions. Why not just be Freudians? They’re not so bad. And if we don’t want to be Freudians, let’s be something else, like cognitive therapists, supportive therapists, or even coaches. Let’s heal through love and corrective emotional experiences!
Or let’s not… but why get darker or crazier than Freud?