Panel on What is Psychoanalysis?
February 10, 2019
Introduction: Peter Zimmermann
Dear NPAP community,
I would like to thank you all for coming and showing an interest in our topic: What Is Psychoanalysis? Today we will hear six definitions of psychoanalysis, provided by members of this community. Based on these definitions I hope to stimulate a discussion among all of us about who we are as a psychoanalytic training institute and as a community.
The idea for this panel, rather the need for it, grew out of last year’s panel on Psychoanalytic Education – The Future of an Illusion? It became apparent then that in our community there are different ideas about psychoanalytic education and what we each think is important to teach, and therefore, what we think defines psychoanalysis.
This issue goes to the core of NPAP’s self-definition as a multi-model psychoanalytic training institute. The question before us is: is there still ONE unified/unifying definition of psychoanalysis, and if so, what are the key elements of that definition, or are there mutually exclusive definitions, based on the specific theoretical model that given members subscribe to? To say it differently, does the multi-model philosophy of our institute mean that we uphold incompatible definitions of psychoanalysis or are our definitions describing different parts of the same elephant?
These questions prompted me to organize this panel.
How did we come to these six definitions?
I am a pretty impressive, freshly-minted psychoanalyst, or so I think, when I take my seat in one of the folding chairs ringing a massive room. Balancing a cup of coffee and a white binder, I am gung-ho to start training in a new model of trauma therapy to compliment my psychoanalytic know how. Some 40 psychotherapists – social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists – introduce themselves to the group. I note that I am the only psychoanalyst in the room, which I imagine makes me kind of a big deal. But when it’s my turn, my declaration that I have just graduated from an institute and am now a bonafide psychoanalyst is received not with wonderment and awe, but dead air, slow-nodding and some throat-clearing. Reality checks me later that afternoon when I find myself dodging bullets in a small process group of trainees.
What is psychoanalysis? It is nothing really until we make it into something; our intention is to put forth a “thought experiment,” to imagine a psychoanalysis as a philosophical way of life.
While psychoanalysis can be usefully conceived as a discursive practice that “engages clinically with the suffering of the psyche” (Barratt, 2018, p.32), we honor the fact that psychoanalysis has meant different things to different people, in different places and at different times in its history. How one defines psychoanalysis will differ greatly depending on the assumptions that one starts with and where one is culturally, geographically, and linguistically situated. In a word, “there are many Freuds” (Elliott, 2005 p. 180). Thus, we regard psychoanalysis as a “floating undefined signifier,” a term that signifies that we read psychoanalysis, whatever it means, as historically contingent. What we are suggesting is in this paper is another way to understand psychoanalysis, as a philosophical way of life, one we hope sheds light on important problematics that other approaches may have not focused on or underappreciate.
Almost every psychoanalyst would agree that what makes psychoanalysis unique among the different psychotherapies is that it inquiries into human motivation, in particular, unconscious motivation. Indeed, from the time Sigmund Freud invented this unique discipline, psychoanalysis has sought to understand the unconscious processes that organize conscious actions, thoughts, and feelings.
Of course, to inquire into unconscious motivation means to ask what constitutes the unconscious. While Freud lay the foundation to this question and posited a series of answers, by no means did he have the last word. From the time when Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, in 1900, to this day, the question “What is the unconscious?” has remained hotly debated.
Today, fittingly, I encountered what Jung called synchronicity. I received an email from Arnold Richards, in which he offered a quotation from Simon Sinek, “Leadership is not about the next election, it is about the next generation”, followed by his own observation, “Our obligation is to the next generation of psychoanalysts. What is needed is respect, unfettered communication, tolerance of dissent, and non-hierarchical organizational and training structures —- a science not a cult or a religion.” I wrote back that I fully agreed with him except in one respect – I added one word, the word “art” — “an art and a science, not a cult or a religion”. And I told him, “I emphasize the personal journey, essentially a narrative, because I love stories”. I offer a line from a poem I wrote that may be a way of defining what psychoanalysis is: “Two question marks facing each other create a heart.”
What is psychoanalysis implies how does psychoanalysis work. To my mind, psychoanalysis works by simultaneously combining in different variations two broad ways of working with two very different kinds of emotional problems or psychopathology. The first is the traditional making the unconscious conscious. Or in more significant current terms, working with the internalization of problematic familial relations into the self that interferes with current day relationships. The earlier in childhood this occurs, usually the more severe is the psychopathology. Theoretically, this encompasses both traditional psychoanalysis and object relations theory.
Anna O, one of the early psychoanalytic patients, famously referred to psychoanalysis as the “talking cure”.
I am using this statement as the starting point for my reflections on what defines psychoanalysis.
There are 2 components to the above definition: “talking” and “cure”.
1. Psychoanalysis seeks to CURE human beings of their emotional pain and suffering. This speaks to our responsibility as analysts and the goal of our work. Patients entrust their lives with us with the expectation that our work together will relieve their pain and suffering.
2. Psychoanalysis seeks to achieve this goal through TALKING.
Talking can be thought of in two different ways:
Talking, as in: talking ABOUT something, and talking as in: talking WITH someone.
Entries not Presented at the Panel
A special conversation between two people.
It seems clear that psychoanalysis has lost favor in the United States from the heydays of ego psychology and its alignment with medical psychiatry. Our cultural zeitgeist imbued with the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism has moved towards information-based technology, pharmacological remedies, and evidence-based treatments to address neurotic suffering. In general, psychoanalytic practice has reacted by moving away from the authoritarian stance of ego psychology and towards treatment modalities that aim to be both more mutual and symmetrical, regarding the clinical frame of treatment and the role of the analyst.
Unlike other forms of treatment that are widely supported by insurance agencies and academic research funds, psychoanalysis does not provide topical solutions to problems posed by entrenched forms of cognitive or behavioral pathology. Psychoanalysis is not a managerial strategy, it does not help the subject better to manage his or her destructive thinking or behavior. Psychoanalysis aims instead at the fundamental transformation of the subject him- or herself, and in such a way that less symptomatic and more creative and rewarding forms of thinking and behaving will inevitably follow.
I’d like to discuss Bion’s quote ” Psychoanalysis itself is just a stripe on the coat of the. Tiger – Ultimately it may meet the Tiger – The Thing Itself -” O”. This idea weaves thought W.R. Bion, ‘A MEMOIR OF THE FUTURE’. Bion’s post Kleinian thinking. Stripes and a Tiger. Bion’s Psychoanalysis
Looking at the thing itself, alive in Freud’s system ucs, and available to analyst and patient as stripes in the preconscious and system perception-consciousness, psychoanalysis may be looked at as elements which may bring us in contact with the affective reality of the unknown.
Psychoanalysis is a sensitivity to the feelings moving through the human psyche as motion travels through muscles to facilitate action going in or out. Psychoanalytic theory and techniques are the history of awareness about this sensitivity.