The Couch and the City

Recently I was interviewed by Joris Luyendijk as part of his research for his banking blog in The Guardian.1   Joris did an excellent job in writing up the interview which went ‘live’ last Thursday.2  The focus of the interview was about trying to get an understanding of the incredible amount of anger that his blog has provoked from readers.  As you can see when you read it,  the article itself is a bit provocative, but that was the whole purpose: to elicit a range of responses, in the form of comments, from readers.  And it certainly did that all right!

What particularly struck me when reading the many comments, some of which I responded to, was the way they evolved during the first day and over the next couple of days.   To start with there seemed to a general anger at the fact that I was (apparently) calling people’s legitimate anger at the financial sector into question, i.e. by linking it (possibly) to envy, feelings of powerlessness, feelings of guilt, and even as a form of enjoyment.  However, as time went on and more people joined in the conversation, including people from the financial world, a more focused debate regarding the world of finance and its discontents started to emerge.   It should be said, however, that this debate emerged in parallel to an ongoing questioning of why a (Lacanian) psychoanalyst had taken it upon himself to pass judgement on people’s anger.

And I think this is a fair point.  There is always a danger – and psychoanalysts and psychotherapists tend to have a bad history on this, of trying to ‘psychologise’ what may be perfectly legitimate responses to an unfair and immoral/amoral  system, i.e. the world of finance capitalism.   However, there is also a danger of rushing to the other extreme.  This is to essentially to disregard the fact that, as human beings, we are prone to envy, we often are powerless, we do experience guilt, and we certainly get a great deal of enjoyment out of being angry and blaming other people for our misfortunes.

But it is not a question of either/or.  Either it’s the ‘system’ that’s to blame, the system that turns us into indebted slaves, and therefore only political action will change things.  Or, it’s the individual to blame, the individual who blames others, who fails to see his or her acquiescence in the system, and therefore the only answer is for him or her to go into therapy or analysis for the next ten years.   Of course, there is nothing new in this dichotomy, or in the criticism of psychoanalysis for psychologising political and social experience.  A few years ago Nicolas Rose wrote a very insightful book on the whole question of the way psychological and psychotherapy redefines the nature of human subjectivity.3, and a number of other authors have also written on this subject, often from within a Foucauldian framework.

However, I think this is to miss a critical point, which is often misrecognised by both psychoanalysts and political activists alike: the social and political worlds do not exist apart from human subjectivity, but neither are they reducible to the human subject.   Perhaps another way to express this is to argue that the human subject is both effect and cause: the effect of social and political (and economic and cultural) structures, but also their cause.  Another way to express this is to say that such structures are only realised through human subjects, embodied in them, the word made flesh so to speak.

So it is not a question of trying to ‘trivialise’ or ‘individualise’ a person’s anger or, indeed, their political stance.  Rather, it’s about recognising that politics and political action is always embodied in, and expressed through, the human subject.  This might appear to be stating the obvious, but judging by some of the reactions to both my and previous interviews on Joris’ blog, the obvious is perhaps not always so.

It’s fine to be angry.  The problem is when this gets misrecognised as a political strategy.  Being able to recognise anger in all its different manifestations is more likely to clear a way for such a strategy, rather than circumventing it.


  1. []
  2. []
  3. Rose, N. (1989) Governing the Soul. London, Routledge. []