Doing psychoanalysis: who does and who doesn’t?

I first became interested in Lacan whilst studying for my Masters in sociology.  One of the courses that I attended during this time was on social theory, and this included looking at the ideas of the structuralists , post-structuralists, and, interestingly enough, the French feminists inspired (both positively and negatively) by psychoanalysis.  And needless to say, Lacan cast a shadow over all of these writers and theorists.

However, this was by no means my first foray into the world of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy; by this time I had probably been involved in and around this world for over ten years – both in terms of my reading, and also in terms of my own therapy and working in the mental health field.

Soon after finishing my Masters I ‘discovered’ Slavoj Žižek, through reading what I still consider to be his best work, The Sublime Object of Ideology.  This was one of the those rare books (another for me was R.D. Laing’s The Divided Self), which stopped me dead in my tracks and made me think ‘wow!’  The ‘wow factor’ in Žižek’s case was that I thought I had finally found a resolution to a problem that I had been struggling with for a number of years.  This was how to situate psychoanalysis within a truly social (and political) context; and by this I am not referring to the politics of psychoanalysis (fascinating though it is in its own right), but rather to the way psychoanalysis can be applied to social and political questions.

Of course, there is nothing new in this type of ‘applied psychoanalysis’: Freud himself wrote a number of papers on this subject, for example Civilization and its Discontents, Totem and Taboo, and Moses and Monotheism); and writers such as Marcuse, and members of the Frankfurt School used psychoanalytic ideas as part of their critique of capitalist society.  However, what struck me about Žižek was that he seemed to be doing something different from these other writers (whose work I was already familiar with).  In fact, at the time I thought that this was not simply a case of Žižek ‘applying’ psychoanalysis to the question of ideology, but that, in some way, this actually was psychoanalysis, albeit in a quite radical form.  In other words, for me Žižek was doing psychoanalysis.

Now, for anyone who has been in analysis or who practices as an analyst, this might seem a rather peculiar idea (assuming of course they also have at least some familiarity with the work of Žižek).  After all, isn’t psychoanalysis all about baring one’s soul in the privacy of the analyst’s consulting room, rather than engaging in abstract theorising about the nature of ideology or other social and political processes?  Of course, there is nothing to stop both analyst and analysand engaging in such abstract theorising, but surely this is something completely different from the lived experience of the analytic relationship?

In one sense I would agree – and yet……….  I think that the question of whether Žižek is or is not ‘doing’ psychoanalysis raises a whole set of fundamental questions about the nature of the analytic process and what it means to ‘do’ psychoanalysis.  In turn this raises the question about who can or cannot call themselves a ‘psychoanalyst’.  Certainly, the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA) didn’t think Lacan was ‘doing’ psychoanalysis, which implies that they didn’t think he should call himself a ‘psychoanalyst’ either.  This has serious implications, bearing in mind that of the total number of practicing analysts in the world, something like half work within the Lacanian tradition.  Of course, we are now entering the politics of psychoanalysis itself, which might suggest that the question of who ‘does’ psychoanalysis (and who doesn’t) is more a question of politics than any theoretical or clinical considerations.

If we assume, just for a moment, that the question of who is ‘doing’ psychoanalysis (and, therefore, who is not) is a question of politics, then could we use psychoanalysis to ‘deconstruct’ this political process?  We certainly could, and we might start with Žižek’s theory of ideology to help us.  We might look at the ideology of psychoanalytic organisations as a social fantasy, which is essentially an attempt to ‘stitch together’ (suture) a set of impossibilities, a set of contradictions that can never be resolved.  We might also bear in mind that the history of psychoanalysis is the history of splits, schisms, intolerance, conflict.  However, we might also bear in mind that in this sense, the history of psychoanalysis is not much different from, say, the history of Marxism, or even of capitalism itself, which survives through constant mutation.

We might even go further and consider how a neurosis could be seen as a attempt to ‘stitch together’ a set of irresolvable contradictions………

None of this, of course, means that Žižek is ‘doing’ psychoanalysis; but it does prepare the way for exploring who is and who is not.