"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Marxism and Psychoanalysis (I)

Before the month of May--the month of the birth of both Freud (whose usefulness to Christianity I've argued elsewhere), and Marx--passes, let me return to a book I mentioned on here some time ago: David Pavón-Cuéllar's Marxism and Psychoanalysis: In or Against Psychology (Routledge, 2017), 242pp. It is a sharply worded and polemically argued book published late last year. Why this book, and why now? I cannot speak for the author, of course, but if ever we needed irrefutable evidence for the central thesis of this bookwe have it in the rise of Jordan Peterson, about whose execrable tract I wrote at length here.

That thesis is one I have long suspected myself: viz., that too much of contemporary academic psychology, especially in North America, is uninterested in human nature except insofar as it can be turned into a handmaid to advanced capitalism. As Ian Parker (about whom more below) notes in the foreword, "this is a book that meticulously documents how and why psychology is the enemy of both psychoanalysis and Marxism" (x).

This notion of enmity confirms what I have long suspected and seen with my own eyes: academic psychology seems to be populated by, and to produce, nothing more than compliant, well-adjusted but badly formed and intellectually shallow members of the upper-middle class: as Pavon-Cuellar will argue later in the book, "psychology is so powerful among the privileged that it makes them forget the economy" (77). Anyone who has been forced to sit through a workplace seminar on "mindfulness" will immediately recognize this as true. If further proof is needed, then once again look to Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist of dangerously shallow learning (as another clinician and colleague of his makes painfully clear here) who is not at all unrepresentative of others in his guild. His book, as my above-linked review tried to make clear, totally ignores economic factors--indeed, scorns the very introduction of them as a distraction to his mythologizing about the libido dominandi of lobsters.

Even as a mere sophomore in psychology a quarter-century ago now in Canada I was shocked by trying to enter into conversations with my professors thinking they would of course have had basic formation in philosophy, history, literature, theology and much else. They had none. Nothing in my experience since then has led me to alter this view.

Seared into my memory is a conversation with my professor in child developmental psychology for whom I wrote a paper analyzing the then-new reports on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Canada. I titled it "Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me" and footnoted that line to, of course, Mark 10:13. In bright red pen, she circled this and scrawled, deadly earnest: "Who is Mark?" When, discussing the paper with her, I explained it was the name of the gospel writer in, you know, this thing called the Bible she appeared scarcely to have heard of it.

Not long after, in reading Robert Coles' biography, Anna Freud: the Dream of Psychoanalysis, I came across and have since often quoted the distinction that she makes in there and he quotes approvingly: between technicians and healers. Most of my psychology professors were technicians, adept in describing the patterns and apparent thought processes of, e.g., bees; in testing the workings of a sparrow's memory; or breaking down in painful detail the multivariate regression analysis of a study of rats on crack. But they couldn't have cared less about individual human beings, never mind wider cultural questions like economic justice, which would have rocked the boat and threatened their funding lines. So one must look elsewhere than today's "conformist psychology" (Jacoby) to find people who see the revolutionary potential in Freud and the tradition he bequeathed to us.

One such person, from within contemporary British psychology, who sees the revolutionary potential and criticizes the conformism, is Ian Parker, author of the foreword to Pavon-Cueller, and author of his own many works, including Revolution in Psychology: from Alienation to Emancipation. I am part-way through this book, and finding deeply edifying. I will say more about it another time, but for now can tell you it's a very worthwhile book.

He also has a brand new book just out, which I have ordered: Psy-Complex in Question: Critical Review In Psychology, Psychoanalysis And Social Theory.

To be fair, Freud himself was far from a revolutionary or a Marxist in many ways. While having achieved a relatively secure life as a member of the professional classes (he trained as a neurologist), he was nonetheless aware of the revolutionary potential of some of his ideas (recall, e.g., his famed comment to Jung as they are getting off the boat in 1909 in Freud's first and only trip to America: "They don't realize that we are bringing them the plague"!) but he was loathe to see the world rocked more than it had been during and after the Great War. He avoided political commentary and engagement as far as possible, which I find very understandable given that he was aware of the precarious place Jews occupied, especially in inter-war Mitteleuropa. Those who worked out some of the political implications of his thought have done so relatively recently--e.g., Eli Zaretsky, the late Paul Roazen, and perhaps most masterfully, as I showed on here, Todd McGowan.

Sure enough, psychoanalysis took hold in America, but it was, within short order and allowing for a few exceptions such as  Otto Fenichel, a psychoanalysis willingly defanged, domesticated, professionalized, medicalized by its own members; perhaps even worse, it was further largely captured by the rise of American ego psychology, which of course was embedded in the categories and patterns of capitalism. Along the way a few questions were raised about this--by, e.g., Erich Fromm, who saw connections between Marx and Freud--but such voices always remained a minority even during the heyday of psychoanalysis, which has now been over for thirty years, perhaps longer.

Why, then, return to such a tradition and such figures as Marx and Freud, whom Peterson and others gleefully conflate as the source of all evils in the past century? I think there is value in doing so not just to illuminate the conformism of psychology, but more especially because both Marxism and psychoanalysis alike remain powerful critics of conformism and idolatry within Christianity--to say nothing of the wider culture. To Pavon-Cuellar's book, then.

The author, a professor of psychology at the Unisersidad Michoacana de San Nicolas de Hidalgo in Morelia, Mexico, begins by asserting that almost all schools of modern psychology "shroud precisely that which Marxism and psychoanalysis strive to uncover" (6). This shrouding is motivated in part by an abstract idealism which seeks to avoid facing the "concrete material totality" of the body in the world today, especially the body of the worker in the economic conditions of the world today (13).

In his second chapter, Pavon-Cuellar argues that there is an important continuity between Freud and Marx even as they would of course have openly disagreed with one another on certain matters: "both will always be authentic materialists" (36). Both, moreover, recognize the lingering power of history, especially traumatic history, and know that it cannot simply be set aside. But both also assert that we are not prisoners of that past but can begin to liberate ourselves from it if we are willing to stand up and stand apart from that history. Thus both Freud and Marx are anti-conformists.

From here the book reviews various schools of psychology and psychoanalysis, noting that Lacan is the most anti-psychology of all psychoanalytic schools today. It then looks at Marxist psychologies before attempting to reconstruct a critical-practical meta-psychology, as we shall see.


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