Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Psychoanalysis as the “first great theory and practice of personal life”

Psychoanalysis accorded psychological, moral, and cultural legitimacy to the “experience of having an identity distinct from one’s place in the family, in society, and in the social division of labor.” It therefore built upon the notion of moral autonomy, widening it to encompass the spheres of “creativity, happiness, and love.” By a theory and praxis of personal life, we mean reference to an “historically specific experience of singularity and interiority, one that was sociologically grounded in [processes of modernity]....” It served to free individuals from unconscious images of oppressive authority rooted in the family and gave plausible substance to the notion of a personal unconscious.

“Far from seeking to return a disturbed individual to a preexisting order, as the shaman, healer, or priest did, [Freud] formulated the analytic project as a personal and provisional hermeneutic of self-discovery, one that a psychoanalyst could facilitate but not control. In this way, he gave expression to possibilities of individuality, authenticity, and freedom that had only recently emerged, and opened the way to a new understanding of social life.”

While psychoanalysis was historically liable to suffer through “the familiar Weberian cycle of idealization, rebellion, dissemination, institutionalization, and routinization,” “in its heyday men and women used it to complicate, deepen and radicalize the three emancipatory promises of modernity,” namely, autonomy, woman’s equality, and democracy. These promises were not merely utopian, for capitalism’s contribution to mass culture, leisure time, and the possibilities of a personal life represented the economic and material conditions that enabled their fulfillment even as—then as well as today—“the same historical forces that produced the aspiration toward individuality were undermining its social prerequisites.”

At its best, psychoanalysis consisted of three intertwined threads: “a quasi-therapeutic medical practice, a theory of cultural hermeneutics, and an ethic of personal self-exploration, one that was imbued with the devotion of a calling.” The emancipatory strength of these threads was clearly visible in its continental European birthplace,* while the geo-political conditions and cultural climate that later characterized post-war England and the United States served, generally (thus with exceptions), to unravel, fray and thus weaken the emancipatory character of psychoanalysis, in part as a result of the wholesale professional medicalization of psychotherapy and the ideological psychologization of conventional forms of authority, rendering psychoanalysis prone to exploitation as a tool of social control of one kind or another.—The quoted material is from, and the inspiration for this post provided by, Eli Zaretsky’s Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis (2004).

* As Zaretsky notes, “By 1940, the psychoanalytic community in continental Europe had been wiped out.”


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