The Inherent Cultural Criticism of Psychoanalysis

It is often assumed that psychoanalysis or clinical psychiatry is in the business of “curing” individuals. Their main function is to restore those who are “sick” to normalcy and reintegrate them back into society. In this sense they are in service of the state by keeping its citizens in line with preestablished standards of normalcy. But while psychology certainly does function in this capacity it also extends beyond this limited framework.

What Freud undertook, and psychoanalysis after him, was to interpret civilization and culture as a whole. In doing so he was not going beyond the limits of psychoanalysis but, on the contrary, was manifesting its ultimate intention to be a general hermeneutics of culture. In other words, psychoanalysis is not only a therapeutic branch of psychiatry but also seeks to analyze how culture makes us ill. This is particularly acute in our (post-) industrial society in which there seems to be many factors that make us sick. The analyst is not only working to interpret and change his/her patient but to also transform the world by interpreting it. What makes the viewpoint of psychoanalysis unique however is that it interprets humanity as a whole from a narrow yet rigorous topographical model of the unconscious. By doing so it touches on the essentials of existence as a result of its single pont of view. Let me explain.

Freud grasped the whole phenomenon of culture as a means to exorcise us of our internal and external conflicts. Interpreted by Ricoeur reading Freud, “Culture is indeed made up of all the procedures by which man escapes in the imaginary mode from the unresolvable situation where desires can be neither suppressed nor satisfied.” The most famous example is that culture creates gods to sublimate our suffering and substitute it with divine and hopeful illusions. Of course this does not completely provide a refuge from the cruel world but merely covers it up. This does not matter much to civilization because it has easily appropriated it for utilitarian use in taming aggressiveness and reinforcing feelings of guilt when our “anticulture” instincts manifest themselves. By “curing” us of our natural “illness” professional psychology is most decidedly in league and in service of the established order of society. This is precisely why Deleuze and Guattari are Anti-Oedipus!

The other option, as mentioned above, is to think of psychoanalysis less as a technique in therapeutics leading to a cure and more as a nontechnique that is after truth. In our technical world of domination, manipulation, and control classical psychiatry would hope to tame and direct our desires. Psychoanalysis as antitechnique on the other hand is a “public iconoclasm”, a method of veracity and not of technology. “What is at stake in analysis is access to true discourse, and that is quite different from adaptation, the tactic by which the scandal of psychoanalysis has been hastily undermined and rendered socially acceptable.” For Ricoeur, who is quoted above, psychoanalysis can do better but he can not yet see how its full consequences might be played out. He simply knows that its sociopolitical implications are lurking there—something Žižek has popularized today. At the very least for Ricoeur it belongs to the enterprise of self-knowledge and concerns the loss of humanity’s most cherished pretensions.


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