What role does psychoanalysis play in today’s world? This month, Freud’s last living grandchild, Sophie Freud, a professor and psychiatric social worker who fled Vienna as a child to escape the Nazis, died at the age of 97 at her home in Lincoln, Mass. In a 2002 interview with the Boston Globe, Sophie Freud told the newspaper that, despite her interest in psychology, she viewed psychoanalysis as a “narcissistic indulgence.” Many share that opinion, of course; if not relegated to unreadable academic texts, psychoanalysis is for the wealthy and neurotic, the latter likely because of the former.
Yet psychoanalysis has much to offer our identity-obsessed moment—provided analysts themselves are prepared to retain their critical distance from the ideological hysteria sweeping our institutions.
In Argentina, many people regard seeing an analyst as a matter of routine. In the United States, though, psychoanalysis is on the wane, and suffered a largely lukewarm reception for much of the 20th century, being subsumed under the medicalized perspective of psychiatry. This, even though the insights of psychoanalysis permeated the general culture and came to be indirectly deployed by corporate America and the US security apparatus. Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew, infamously manipulated the “unconscious desires” of the masses, selling cigarettes to suffragettes as “torches of freedom” in the 1920s and assisting a CIA-backed coup in Guatemala in 1954, following his successful campaign for United Fruit Company to make bananas attractive to the American public.
Today, more than 13 percent of Americans take antidepressants (it’s 17 percent in Britain), and spending on mental-health care reached $225 billion in the United States in 2019. The lockdowns worsened mental health in already badly off groups, and there was great concern for the well-being of children in particular. Almost 21 million Americans suffer from at least one addiction, with drug-overdose deaths tripling since 1990. Major Western cities are perfumed by the smell of cannabis, while delivery and streaming services cater to a permanently stoned populace. So much for the counterculture’s promise of mind-expansion.
Adverts for therapy pop up everywhere on social media and public transport, and you can even access an AI therapist via an app on your smartphone. Millions of people tune into YouTube psychologists of varying quality to gain insight into “personality disorders” and other pathologies. “Men would rather X than go to therapy” became a popular meme, gently mocking the male resistance to “self-care,” while implying that talking to a stranger about your private misery is somehow a contemporary urban necessity, up there with spin classes and increasingly expensive coffee.
There is a strong sense in which medicated and monitored misery is the price we pay for living in liberal modernity. The best you can do is pop some pills and pour your heart out (if you can afford it). But what account of the human person underlies this vision? Undoubtedly, it is a depressing, mechanical image, without depth. Religion persists, in places, but it is the gloomy secular that dominates. People want to be “happy,” forgetting that the word happiness itself comes from the word for luck—and there isn’t really a damned thing you can do about your fate, other than embrace it. The Greeks, among others, understood this. But today, we lack a sense of tragedy while meekly accepting misery without meaning.
Psychoanalysis, with its idea of the unconscious harboring desires unknown to us which stumble out in reveries and linguistic slips, seems like the dream of an earlier, literary age. It is impossible for us to imagine today just how revolutionary Freud’s “rediscovery” of the unconscious was at the time. So what has changed? Now everything is out in the open. There is no unconscious. No soul. The unrepressed id just oozes out everywhere, finding its jigsaw-like object in widely available online pornography. We live in a see-through era, when everything—preferences, privacy, opinions—is transparent. And we have freely put it all out there. As the philosopher Byung-Chul Han has put it, “transparency makes the human being glassy.” Han argues that we have voluntarily submitted to the digital society of control via “voluntary self-illumination and self-exposure.” We behave as if nothing is hidden and everything is known to us, including our own desires.
Psychoanalysis proceeds otherwise, finding in parapraxes such as slips of the tongue, or in dreams, evidence of a psychic realm that isn’t immediately amenable to our rational, upright, carefully curated and controlled social selves. Furthermore, and this perhaps is its brilliance, psychoanalysis won’t make you happy, promising only to turn hysterical misery into common unhappiness, as Freud put it. Having spent five years in analysis, I can attest to this. Thanks to analysis, I now have a strong sense of the ways I’m negatively constituted, with the concomitant realization that there’s little I can do about it, other than to try to not indulge my bad tendencies. Paradoxically, this realisation is extremely comforting. We might note that, despite the dependency on chemicals and therapeutic cures, one of the most celebrated figures of our age is Jordan Peterson, who blends Jungian insights with readings of the Bible and an emphasis on getting one’s life in order. Not everyone, it seems, wants to blame external “structures” such as capitalism or patriarchy for their own private suffering. This is perhaps the nub of the matter—where do we begin to understand what ails us, when it does?
As one of Freud’s great commentators, Bruno Bettelheim, put it in 1983’s Freud and Man’s Soul: “The purpose of Freud’s lifelong struggle was to help us understand ourselves, so that we would no longer be propelled, by forces unknown to us, to live lives of discontent, or perhaps outright misery, and to make others miserable, very much to our own detriment.” The kind of analysis and self-analysis proposed by Freud, which he carried out on himself above all, is at odds with some dominant cultural tendencies today, which have in turn affected the current state of the discipline.
Psychoanalysis today is under the same pressures as every other institution, namely to give people what they say they want, whether it is good for them or not. The logic of identity—I am whatever I say I am, as the great thinker Eminem almost put it—is key to this liberal consumerist demand. As Bettelheim prophesied, the Delphic command “Know thyself” has become “Do whatever you please.” Great Satanists of the 20th century embraced this idea, too: Aleister Crowley’s edict “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” is fundamental to understanding the contemporary fusion of individual desire with consumerism—desire is to be indulged, not understood and tempered.
Today, analysts are increasingly compelled to take what patients say about themselves at face-value, yet this betrays one of the core ideas at work in psychoanalysis. As Compact contributing editor Slavoj Žižek told me recently, “the lesson of psychoanalysis is that a gap always separates what we want from what we desire. It may happen that I not only desire something, but want to get it without explicitly asking for it, pretending that it was imposed on me—demanding it directly would ruin it all. And inversely, I may want something, dream about it, but I don’t desire to get it—my entire subjective consistency depends on this not-getting-it: Directly getting-it would lead to the collapse of my subjectivity.”
Psychoanalysis dwells in the realm of ambivalence and ambiguity. It seeks to uncover, via metaphor and free association, hidden reasons for our desires and behaviour. It understands that coming to grips with how we are constituted via our relation to language and to our parents, takes a long time to understand, and there are not necessarily any easy answers. In this way, it is radically opposed to today’s dominant idea that we know who we are and what we want, and that society should recognise and even forcibly celebrate these desires. Predictably, this tension within the discipline is playing out first and foremost over questions of sexuality and sexual identity.
Jacques-Alain Miller, living heir to the legacy of Jacques Lacan (and his son-in-law) recently courted controversy with his 2021 text “DOCILE TO TRANS,” which, in allusive and playful terms, draws attention to some aspects of the trans movement. He writes: “Surfing on the demographic euphoria generated by the exponential growth in the number of trans people … the leaders of the trans-emancipation movement now tend to make statements that sometimes take the form of what could be described as trans-suprematism.”
For some analysts, such as Darian Leader, one of the founders of the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research, the current dominance of transgenderism is a positive thing. He told me recently that “psychoanalysts should be open to learning from the current debates on gender and sexuality, rather than assuming that they know everything already.” Leader is gratified that this has meant for some “an unveiling of deeply conservative positions and prejudices and for others a demonstration of sensitivity and real engagement with how discourse shapes lives.”
There are others, though, such as Joan Copjec, professor of modern culture and media at Brown University, who told me that Lacan’s famous quip about political economy and sexuality—“the first thing capitalism does is get rid of sex”—“hasn’t lost its urgent tone.” She fears what she calls the “new nominalism,” warning that it is only on the basis of sexual difference that the “possibility of an anonymous ‘common’ of shared existence is conceivable.” By contrast, “the new nominalism turns identity into an entirely external affair, a point of identification on a searchable map.”
Copjec is right. Psychoanalysis can’t give itself over to the assertion of identity, and to the elimination of sexual difference manifested by our culture, without fundamentally losing itself. It cannot accept that what people say they are isn’t open to deeper interrogation, either by oneself or with the help of another.
What religion and psychoanalysis have in common, despite Freud’s criticism of biblical faith in 1929’s Civilization and Its Discontents, is the understanding that each individual’s life and soul matters, that we are constituted by our difference from one another, at the level of our sex, and at the level of our individual and singular being. And that the fact that we have a choice about how to live with ourselves and with others, however difficult at times this might be, is an extraordinary and beautiful thing.