“Being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise.”
October 16, 2017 5:01 PM   Subscribe

How we feel about Freud: Susie Orbach and Frederick Crews debate his legacy [The Guardian] “For a century or more, Sigmund Freud has cast a long shadow not just over the field of psychoanalysis but over the entire way we think of ourselves as human beings. His theory of the unconscious and his work on dreams, in particular, retain a firm grip on the western imagination, shaping the realms of literature and art, politics and everyday conversation, as well as the way patients are analysed in the consulting room. Since Freud’s death in 1939, however, a growing number of dissenting voices have questioned his legacy and distanced themselves from his ideas. Now Freud is viewed less as a great medical scientist than as a powerful storyteller of the human mind whose texts, though lacking in empirical evidence, should be celebrated for their literary value. The following debate, conducted through emails, was prompted by the forthcoming publication of Frederick Crews’s book Freud: The Making of an Illusion, which draws on new research materials to raise fresh questions about Freud’s competence and integrity.” [Previously.]

• The Curious Conundrum of Freud’s Persistent Influence [The New York Times]
“Frederick Crews, the eminent literary critic and perennial Freud censor, opens his new study with an important question: “If Freud’s career and its impact are so well understood, what justification could there be for another lengthy biographical tract?” This question is especially pertinent since, as Crews goes on to note, Freud’s scientific reputation has plummeted over the past generation. Medical authorities have broadly recognized the faulty empirical scaffolding of psychoanalysis and its reliance on outmoded biological models. Mainstream American psychologists moved on decades ago. Yet, confoundingly, Freud “is destined to remain among us as the most influential of 20th-century sages,” Crews writes, claiming that the attention bestowed on him by contemporary scholars and commentators ranks with that accorded Shakespeare and Jesus. Here is a fascinating conundrum: The creator of a scientifically delegitimized blueprint of the human mind and of a largely discontinued psychotherapeutic discipline retains the cultural capital of history’s greatest playwright and the erstwhile Son of God.”
• Why Freud Survives: He’s been debunked again and again—and yet we still can’t give him up. [The New Yorker]
“The arc of Freud’s American reputation tracks the arc of Crews’s career. Psychoanalytic theory reached the peak of its impact in the late fifties, when Crews was switching from history-of-ideas criticism to psychoanalytic criticism, and it began to fade in the late sixties, when Crews was starting to notice a certain circularity in his graduate students’ papers. Part of the decline had to do with social change. Freudianism was a big target for writers associated with the women’s movement; it was attacked as sexist (justifiably) by Betty Friedan in “The Feminine Mystique” and by Kate Millett in “Sexual Politics,” as it had been, more than a decade earlier, by Simone de Beauvoir in “The Second Sex.” Psychoanalysis was also taking a hit within the medical community. Studies suggesting that psychoanalysis had a low cure rate had been around for a while. But the realization that depression and anxiety can be regulated by medication made a mode of therapy whose treatment times reached into the hundreds of billable hours seem, at a minimum, inefficient, and, at worst, a scam.”
• Freud’s Clay Feet [The New York Review of Books]
“He portrays Freud as “aroused” by “envy” of the well-connected young French psychologist Pierre Janet, and claims that Freud simply borrowed Janet’s conceptions of the unconscious and symptom formation. But the Standard Edition of Freud’s writings has sixty references to Janet and his ideas, tracing a sustained argument with him between 1888 and 1925. Freud may want to win the debate, but there is nothing to indicate that he thought his own ideas came to him ex nihilo—as his own notes and countless references to literature ancient and modern suggest. Crews brings a great many, if highly selective, facts to his case. His early Freud is not only a sloppy neurologist but a deluded cocaine addict, a betrayer of friends, homoerotic in his desires (though he may have committed adultery with his sister-in-law), and a doctor who had very few patients on whom to base his ever-changing theories. Those he did have he let down or harmed or falsely suggested ailments to. His only patient was himself. When he didn’t steal his ideas from others, he provided no verifiable evidence for any of his own. He was also neurotic, depressive, and sex-obsessed. The rest is all a giant con. The whole edifice of psychoanalysis, Freud’s insights over many volumes, is a sham—as must, by deduction, be the worldwide institution of psychoanalysis from Brazil to China and its offshoot therapies.”
• Cutting ’Em Down to Size [Slate]
“Crews goes gunning for two distinct Freuds: the doctor/scientist and the man. The former, as Crews acknowledges, has suffered a steep fall in reputation over the past 45 years. The biological model on which psychoanalysis was based has been superseded by newer discoveries, particularly in neurochemistry. Freud published the works that would establish his reputation as a savant of humanity’s unacknowledged inner life in the early 1900s; over the subsequent century, it has become ever harder to ignore the lack of empirical evidence for the effectiveness of psychoanalysis as a therapy. Our growing understanding of the complexity of consciousness and the dizzying variety of human experience makes Freud’s rigidly universal model of the unconscious and its drives—from the Oedipus complex to penis envy—seem laughable, blinkered by his background as a patriarchal, bourgeois 19th-century Viennese. But to Crews’ annoyance, these erosions haven’t done enough to wear down Freud’s reputation as a bold, original thinker who revolutionized our understanding of the human mind. ”
• Finding Freud: Can the founder of psychoanalysis still be relevant today? [The National Post]
“Harsh criticism of Freud has become its own intellectual tradition. Long ago, Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science, questioned Freud’s status as a scientist: Experiments that cannot be replicated do not fall in the category of science, Popper quietly pointed out. After enjoying a great vogue in the middle of the 20th century, psychoanalysis lost its popularity among psychiatrists and their patients. It proved too unreliable and far too expensive. As psychotropic drugs developed, they often proved more efficient. [...] But Freud persists as a great figure not for what he learned in the consulting room but for the insights he drew from life, literature and his patients. By the power of his imagination he became, as W.H. Auden declared in his elegy, “a whole climate of opinion” in which we conduct our lives. Freud told us that sometimes love and hate co-exist. He made us believe that sometimes childhood experiences echo through life. He knew (as few did, or admitted they did) that female sexual desire is as powerful as male. He gave legitimacy to sexual desires that were hated or dealt with in the criminal courts. He taught us that sometimes part of our mental life exists in ways mysterious to us. Even after Crews has done his worst, that legacy remains, still vibrant, still full of meaning, still a challenge to all our most sacred thoughts.”
posted by Fizz (51 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
In the Freud Archives, 1984, by Janet Malcolm [GoodReads] & [archive.org] was essential reading to me in college.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 5:20 PM on October 16 [4 favorites]


I don't think I've ever seen a sustained defense of Freud. Obviously he still has influence, and even direct adherents. But, for the last good while, any writing on Freud for a wide audience seems to be a debunking or discrediting. I guess some of the links here undertake to fill that gap.

But so anyway it seems like it is a good time to re-re-assess Freud. Sure he was wrong or not-even-wrong about tons of stuff. But imo so many of the competing models in psychology and psychotherapy have taken a beating lately that critics of Freud's program can no longer plausibly say, "Psychoanalysis was bullshit, we've found the way forward and it's [e.g.] psychopharmacology."
posted by grobstein at 5:21 PM on October 16 [5 favorites]


From Salon, 3.01.2000
Psychoanalysts rival early Christians in their mania for rifts, and while Malcolm may be a fundamentalist herself, she's too adventurous a thinker not to admire a talented apostate and too inveterate a satirist not to savor the stuffiness of the mother church. Masson was a youngish analyst who had penetrated the sanctum sanctorum: With the blessings of Kurt Eissler, who was something like the pontiff of the Freudians, he had been placed in charge of the archives in the Freud house in London, where the great analyst's daughter, Anna Freud, still lived. Access to Freud's unpublished letters and papers, which Eissler and Anna Freud guarded with flaming swords, was a researcher's notion of paradise. Masson immediately started alienating Eissler and his colleagues by attacking their deity. A paper he delivered in New Haven in 1981 was the final straw.

Early on Freud had attributed the sexual hysteria of a number of his patients to childhood sexual abuse; he later came to believe that this abuse had been imagined, and in abandoning the so-called seduction theory he opened the door to the theory of the Oedipus complex and to the whole new field of psychoanalysis.

Masson accused the master of ignoring cases of actual abuse. Shortly after the New Haven talk, he was ousted from his post at the archives, and when Malcolm met him the following year, he was busily engaged in suing his former benefactors.

posted by lazycomputerkids at 5:46 PM on October 16 [4 favorites]


The Masson-Malcolm story rules. I love Janet Malcolm.
posted by grobstein at 6:26 PM on October 16 [1 favorite]


In the intellectual fields I'm most familiar with (the humanities, broadly speaking), it isn't so much a matter of defending Freud as of crediting him, along with a number of other key thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Nietzsche, with helping to raise the unconscious or the irrational to positions of great influence in all facets of humans' individual and collective lives--and Orbach says something similar in that Guardian article. Humanities scholars sometimes make use of Freudian concepts--or maybe metaphors--in their writing, I think that this generally done not to adduce Freud's claims as empirically verifiable statements about human nature, but to re-employ them in areas where they are still capable of generating new ideas. Related to this is the broader issue that humanities scholarship is often (but I hesitate to generalize about such a vast field) not interested in making falsifiable claims, so much as it seeks to expand the range of what we can say or think or imagine.

On a related note, what is with the recent biographies seeking to debunk the key intellectual figures of the last century? First there was Gareth Stedman Jones's Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion, now there is Freud: The Making of an Illusion. I'd speculate that Nietzsche: The Will to Illusion would be next, but that would require a shift of target audience, as the recent post here about Nietzsche and the alt-right indicates.
posted by a certain Sysoi Pafnut'evich at 6:44 PM on October 16 [16 favorites]


I don't even know anymore whether I'm interested in Freud the actual thinker or Freud the recurring character in the works of Janet Malcolm, the greatest American essayist.
posted by escabeche at 7:53 PM on October 16 [3 favorites]


lazycomputerkids: "In the Freud Archives, 1984, by Janet Malcolm [GoodReads] & [archive.org] was essential reading to me in college."

Agree, it's good.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:04 PM on October 16


As a contrarian, I want to stand up for Freud. But that is pretty badly just my id talking.
posted by vorpal bunny at 8:32 PM on October 16 [2 favorites]


His dated flaws are now glaring and obvious, but his shifting the big frame of perspective regarding consciousness is now taken for granted by everyone. Freud might have thought of himself as a scientist, but I view him more as a philosopher.
posted by ovvl at 8:37 PM on October 16 [5 favorites]


Freud::Neuroscience as Aristotle::Physics
posted by storybored at 8:41 PM on October 16 [8 favorites]


@storyboard: In the sense that getting this on a scientific basis started by realizing the old assertions didn't withstand scrutiny, it's a good analogy. But one difference is that Aristotle's reputation is not built on physics. You still have the ethics, logic and other contributions.

If you say Freud's understanding of the human mind was much like Aristotle's was of physics I'm not sure what you have left. Maybe as a literary critic and writer?
posted by mark k at 10:29 PM on October 16 [2 favorites]


It's worth noting that Fred and psychoanalysis in general have "held on" in America much more than other places.

As therapy, I think the evidence for both is damning and their continued is existence as treatment modalities borders on unethical if not crossing into it. As a kind of interpretative lens, the hermeneutics of Freud if you will, I think can be interesting in the broadest sense of repression, strong desires, people at war with themselves, etc. The idea - not the reality, the metaphor - of an id is compelling.

Pushing beyond this though I think is folly.
posted by smoke at 10:54 PM on October 16 [2 favorites]


I think there were some worthwhile aspects to his practices which had nothing to do with his theories. For me, the worthwhile aspects were covered in Disciplines of Attention: Buddhist Insight Meditation, the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, Classical Psychoanalysis.
posted by Coventry at 11:21 PM on October 16 [1 favorite]


This is pretty interesting. A couple months ago, I was making some kind of id/ego joke about Trump and wondered how Freud's reputation had held up, and ended up down a rabbit hole of actual clinical trials and broad reviews where the big debate seemed to be whether he was monstrously bad or just amazingly terrible.

The whole Crews/Orbach dialogue seems to boil down to Crews being incensed that not everyone thinks Freud is ridiculous shit, and Orback countering that there's plenty of corn in the shit so why not eat it?
posted by klangklangston at 12:27 AM on October 17 [5 favorites]


It's worth noting that Fred and psychoanalysis in general have "held on" in America much more than other places.

This is somewhat the opposite of my impression but I'm not in the psych field and perhaps it depends on which other places you're thinking of.
posted by atoxyl at 1:51 AM on October 17 [4 favorites]


I'm not in the psych field either, I should hasten to add, but it certainly was the case when I was writing and researching about it in the late nineties/early 2000s when I was at uni. I kind of see it as an extension of the relative popularity of talk therapy in the states, in some ways, but now you've got me wondering!
posted by smoke at 2:05 AM on October 17


ctrl-F "Jung"
no results here or there

That's rather glaring as omissions go. Jung was quite critical of Freud and Janet wasn't the only student Freud liberally "borrowed" from.
While Jung worked on his Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido (Psychology of the Unconscious), tensions became manifest between him and Freud because of their disagreements over the nature of libido and religion. Jung de-emphasized the importance of sexual development and focused on the collective unconscious: the part of the unconscious that contains memories and ideas that Jung believed were inherited from ancestors. While he did think that libido was an important source for personal growth, unlike Freud, Jung did not believe that libido alone was responsible for the formation of the core personality. Jung believed his personal development was influenced by factors he felt were unrelated to sexuality.
Jung has very pointed criticisms of him that clearly point towards what he viewed as Freud's intellectual dishonesty and his use of sexualized psychology as a way to cover up his own abusive behavior. "My libido made me do it" so to speak. We are indeed still paying for that Freudian conception of libido.

Jung's work has of course been subjected to a lot of critique as well, and yet his work has managed to spur new growth rather than withering on its own: Post-Jungians are a thing and well worth looking into for those curious.
posted by fraula at 2:29 AM on October 17 [3 favorites]


Jung's work has of course been subjected to a lot of critique as well, and yet his work has managed to spur new growth rather than withering on its own

Freud's influence, however one may view it, certainly didn't wither on its own. Writers like Lacan and Kristeva, just to name two major figures, have made dramatic use of it in their own works. They're views are modified from Freud's own of course, but his writings make up a strong base for their investigations, which is true for a wide swath of others as well. That work still has relevance to the humanities, even as Many of Freud's faults are noted and brought into discussion too.

From my perspective, being outside the psych field, I'd long thought Freud's influence was more notable in the humanities than the sciences for helping provide perspectives and metaphors through which one can better discuss emotional perceptions of exterior phenomenon. Pharmacology and the sciences may do better with treating mental illness, but we don't understand our perceptions of the world through body chemistry, we need language for that. Freud, along with other writers, artists, and philosophers gave us a better path to addressing complexities of emotional states and communicating them, where the surface and interior states may not align.

We are indeed still paying for that Freudian conception of libido.

Freud's descriptions of mental states, flawed as they certainly are, are attempts to explain what is mysterious, so I'm not sure how one goes from an attempted description to blame as if that somehow created actions. Freud's view was undoubtedly sexist, but he didn't create that worldview, he was caught up in it like most others and failed to see, or saw and didn't believe, evidence that could have led him on a different path. That's no credit to him, but it isn't something one can attribute to just his legacy.
posted by gusottertrout at 3:19 AM on October 17 [4 favorites]


I've been a fan of Frederick Crews' work since reading "The Memory Wars" as an undergraduate (first in the NYRB, later as a book). It's still one of the best demolitions of the then-popular practice of recovered memory therapy, which was responsible for a lot of harm. I don't think I'll read the new biography, mainly because I don't need any more convincing that Freud's theories are for the most part without empirical foundations and that his clinical practice was grotesquely improper.

It might be worth adding, though, the the psychotherapist and essayist Adam Phillips wrote a short book, "Becoming Freud" (2014), which attempts to pick out the aspects of Freud's thought that are still useful from their surrounding matrix of pseudoscience. [New Yorker review; NYT review] As Phillips points out, one of Freud's great strengths (paradoxically) is as a debunker of our illusions about ourselves: our narratives of who we are and how we came to be, and our larger cultural narratives about religion and human nature more broadly. Freud had a lot of theories about how and why we construct our elaborate confabulatory schemes of self-justification, and many of them are wrong, but the basic attitude of mistrust towards these most cherished and comforting narratives is a valuable component of what we now think of as modernity. It wasn't uniquely Freudian, of course, which is why Freud is often paired with Nietzsche in this regard.

Finally, as a certain Sysoi Pafnut'evich notes, in some humanistic circles Freud is still widely cited. In art history and visual studies you can hardly avoid either him or Lacan, although my sense is that their influence is slowly waning. It's fair to say that they are not used mainly because people believe Freudian theory is true, but because they provide an interesting set of concepts and a framework for interpreting creative works. And there are some artistic movements such as surrealism that can't be understood without their explicit appeals to Freudian doctrines. (As an aside, art history's adoption of psychoanalytic and literary theories--and now neuroscience--strikes me as mostly a form of appropriation or "creative misuse".)
posted by informavore at 3:35 AM on October 17 [6 favorites]


I used to be severely arachnophobic and came across Freud’s ideas about that condition being rooted in repressed fear of your own mother and probably spent years down that dumb rabbit hole. Eventually I realized the real root cause of my fear: I had an embarrassing moment in elementary school where I overreacted in class when I felt an itch on the back of my head, went to scratch it expecting it to be just an ordinary random itch, and felt a big spider on my head instead. I freaked out and jumped up from my desk I was so surprised to find a spider on my head and all the other kids in the class, having no way to know what prompted my sudden reaction, started laughing at me. It took many years longer than it might have otherwise to pin down that moment and that experience as the beginning of my arachnophobia, but eventually, I realized it was. Freud’s nonsense idea made me waste years on self reflection and self analysis that now seem completely pointless and wasteful so fuck that guy.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:11 AM on October 17 [3 favorites]


I think the problem is that Crews, while basically right, is arguing with his younger self, the naive Freudian, and what he wants from later, less naive Freudians is something they're just not going to be able to give him, namely an admission that they've made a deep personal and intellectual and professional investment in a body of thought that has its origins in pseudoscience.

Also his more ad hominem arguments, which usually get most play in journalistic debate around this, let Freudians imply that he has a personal animus and say 'So what if Freud might have slept with his sister-in-law? Newton believed in astrology but that doesn't disprove gravity.' And the first point distracts you from the bogus analogy in the second.

It's also a bit like he's trying to prove by reasoning that God probably doesn't exist to a religious person who's more invested in the social institutions and practices of religion than in the existence or not of a God, so they end up talking past each other.
posted by Mocata at 5:39 AM on October 17 [4 favorites]


all the other kids in the class, having no way to know what prompted my sudden reaction, started laughing at me

They were taking pleasure in your humiliation; they didn't care what had caused it. Children are the worst.

in some humanistic circles Freud is still widely cited. In art history and visual studies you can hardly avoid either him or Lacan, although my sense is that their influence is slowly waning. It's fair to say that they are not used mainly because people believe Freudian theory is true, but because they provide an interesting set of concepts and a framework for interpreting creative works.

Why Lacan then? Lots of things could provide an interesting set of concepts and a framework for interpretation. Why not demand that academic work on films be understood in terms of Heidegger, or the hexagrams of the I Ching? If the question of the soundness of "theory", or its relevance to anything outside itself, is off-limits, doesn't that leave the discipline in a state of arbitrary, dogmatic dilettantism?
posted by thelonius at 5:51 AM on October 17 [1 favorite]


The place I see Freudianism in popular culture is on the left-- gun control advocates who describe guns as penis substitutes.

The Brain that Changes Itself has what I'd call sane Freudianism-- a careful search for patterns of thought rather than flying leaps with authoritarian claims.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 6:30 AM on October 17


"I readily admit my dependence on Spinoza's doctrine," Freud once wrote, and Spinoza summarized his own position by affirming that, "the soul acts according to fixed laws; and is, as it were, a spiritual automaton (automatum spirituale). Thus it can be maintained that Freud's work was established, however imperfectly, on a sound scientific foundation.
posted by No Robots at 6:48 AM on October 17


I mean I think the idea of bringing things up from the depths is important. Likewise for thinking about mythology, family dynamics, and dreams as part of every day life. And the fact that Freud was completely deluded as a person makes it better in my opinion - it showed how open-ended the whole enterprise is.
posted by karmachameleon at 6:57 AM on October 17


As therapy, I think the evidence for both is damning and their continued is existence as treatment modalities borders on unethical if not crossing into it.

Huh? Given, I don't think there's any controlled evidence for psychoanalysis per se, but there's plenty of evidence for psychodynamic therapies—therapies deriving from the Freudian seed, focusing on affect (and its avoidance), the way in which we use psychological defenses, conflicts between different feelings or desires, traces of earlier interpersonal experiences, meaning-making, attachment relationships, et cetera—in treating many psychiatric conditions as compared to control groups and other treatments like CBT. And there's also evidence for many core propositions of dynamic therapies, such as the fact that improvements in how we use defense mechanisms herald stable, long-term changes in symptoms and functioning.
posted by Keter at 7:29 AM on October 17 [2 favorites]


It's fair to say that they are not used mainly because people believe Freudian theory is true, but because they provide an interesting set of concepts and a framework for interpreting creative works.

This matches with my exposure to Freud. I was introduced to his works through literary criticism. A Freudian reading of Shakespeare's King Lear in particular. I'm not sure how much I bought into all of his theories, but it made for writing some really interesting papers during undergrad.
posted by Fizz at 7:38 AM on October 17


Why Lacan then? Lots of things could provide an interesting set of concepts and a framework for interpretation. Why not demand that academic work on films be understood in terms of Heidegger, or the hexagrams of the I Ching? If the question of the soundness of "theory", or its relevance to anything outside itself, is off-limits, doesn't that leave the discipline in a state of arbitrary, dogmatic dilettantism?

It isn't that Lacan or Freud are used as single lens through which to understand art, their use tends to be placed in a context with a wide variety of sources all of which can shed light on the subject.

The literary theory book I"m currently reading is divided into sections that correspond to some major influences on the field that more or less fit with other branches of art history and criticism. Formalism, Structuralism, Marxism, Psychoanalysis, Post-Structuralism, Feminism, Historicism, Gender Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Cultural Studies with different sub-categories that capture the early thoughts and later developments and critiques of the fields. Some of the authors of the included essays or excerpts include Freud, Lacan, Heidegger, Kant, Irigaray, Said, DuBois, Sedgwick, Foucault, and on and on.

Any to all of these perspectives can be useful in looking at a text in pulling different meanings from it that fit our experience with the work as it relates to our understanding of the world. Art, unlike science, isn't concerned with something being "true" in the sense of it relying on sceintific falsifiability, its more concerned with "truths" in the sense of perceptual understanding and emotional response.

As such any given work can contain multiple dissonant or even contradictory "truths" as befitting the complexity of the human condition. That is part of why Freudian influenced thought can be so useful. Freud's work on analyzing dreams sets both an example of how one can "read" an artwork, even if one eschews his specific symbolism, and shows how multiplicity of meaning can be found in a given "work". His writings on things like narcissism, the uncanny or the the pleasure principle provide organizing concepts to looking at motivations and responses that provide a discursive frame for critiquing works.

It's not as if art criticism is stuck only doing Freudian analyses of art and certainly not treating art as a human analysand. Freud was brilliant and some of his thinking is of great use to the field of art criticism but he isn't the only influence seeding that field.
posted by gusottertrout at 7:41 AM on October 17 [3 favorites]


Until GPS practical world wide navigation used (and continues to use) a pre-Copernican world view. Effectively. some space ship navigation may use equations essentially ancient. Old obsolete scientific models can continue to be effective tools. At least that's what my Id tells my superego.
posted by sammyo at 7:49 AM on October 17


Twelve things Freud got right.

In hindsight, Freud's 19th-century scientific posture helped legitimize his deep criticism of religion, civilization, family, and especially humans, at a time when those institutions were protected by neurotic sentiments. His methods still freely lend themselves to art and culture, where people are encouraged to dream stuff up and expect to be taken seriously for it. So at some point the medium of psychoanalysis became the message.
posted by Brian B. at 7:51 AM on October 17 [4 favorites]


Any to all of these perspectives can be useful in looking at a text in pulling different meanings from it that fit our experience with the work as it relates to our understanding of the world. Art, unlike science, isn't concerned with something being "true" in the sense of it relying on sceintific falsifiability, its more concerned with "truths" in the sense of perceptual understanding and emotional response.

I've heard all these bromides before, and, I'm sorry, but I'm not that impressed by them.
posted by thelonius at 7:54 AM on October 17


I've heard all these bromides before, and, I'm sorry, but I'm not that impressed by them.

That's fine, but out of curiosity, what is it you attribute to the depth of response some people have to art then that covers the blockbuster/popular stuff and the "arty"?
posted by gusottertrout at 8:18 AM on October 17 [2 favorites]


As a licensed psychoanalyst, I need to bear witness in this thread.

Freud's ideas were of his time. He predicted and hoped that psychopharmacology would replace his form of treatment. His libido theory comes from Darwinian theory--he wanted to make human motivation about survival and procreation, he wanted to reduce culture to the rationalizations of animals trying to escape from their beasthood. He saw religion as a particularly virulent symptom of that denial. He saw people as often in the throws of self-delusion and tried to figure out how to break the bad news to them. When he discovered that people didn't want to hear about their delusions he developed theories of resistance. He so feared that the resistance to the truth of our animal nature would end up distorting psychoanalysis (especially attempts to take the sexual aspects out of it), that he walled it off from others into its own private cult. He excommunicated heretics like Jung and Adler for this reason. A side effect of this isolation was to mire psychoanalysis in the past and led to it becoming rigid and dogmatic. For example, when people like Bowlby tried to inform psychoanalytic theory with his theory of attachment in the 50s, he was told he wasn't a psychoanalyst. (Nowadays, psychoanalysts LOVE Bowlby).

The idea that a radical theory will be perverted isn't in itself so peculiar. Look at how Christianity took ideas like Thou Shalt Not Kill and used them to start wars. And Freud was somewhat radical in his ideas about sexuality and women and religion and the treatment of the "insane" (except when he wasn't.)

Freud's attempt to keep psychoanalysis pure also made his name become attached to the product. There's no person's name attached to other disciplines like chemistry. ("Newtonian" physics is a back-formation to distinguish it from what followed.) Most practice today is more like Suzie Orbach than like anything recognizably "Freudian." Freud's "authoritarian" stance was that of the medical profession of his time. Lacan's "return to Freud" actually returns mainly to early Freud and its influence in the humanities sometimes makes Freud look more wacky than he ultimately was.

Sturgeon's law, commonly cited as "ninety percent of everything is crap" accounts for their being a lot of practitioners out there who aren't particularly skilled but their incompetence is not an indictment of psychoanalysis. At the same time, there are those who believe they are following strict Freudian principles who manage to do good work in spite of it.

That Freud was ambitious and sometimes less than scrupulous seems to be true of pioneers in general--at least those who succeeded to the point that you've heard of them. I recently read The Disappearing Spoon and came away horrified by how horrible many well known scientists were in their dealings with others.

Some ideas from psychoanalysis that I use:
a) Much of how we approach the world is patterned and motivated and we can learn to be more aware of this if we wish to.
b) Most often we don't wish to. (The idea of "resistance")
c) That the present is the result of the past is true in mental life just as it is in the material world.
d) That a) b) and c) applies to how we relate to other people. (This is the idea of "transference.")
e) Dreams are personal and reflect how we feel about ourselves and the world.
f) Talking about things to someone who is non-judgmental and has no agenda of their own is therapeutic.
g) Being non-judgmental and having no agenda is something that requires training and discipline and one can be further helped to do this by having some rules to follow.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:06 AM on October 17 [17 favorites]


someone who is non-judgmental and has no agenda of their own is therapeutic.

Does this mean someone who is not hostile or manipulative in their discernments, and has your well-being as their agenda?

I always find this confusing, because it seems to me that effective psychotherapy would take place with some kind of specific therapeutic goal, and there are better and worse styles of reasoning, perceptions and approaches to life.
posted by Coventry at 10:04 AM on October 17


Different people need different approaches. There are those who think others should choose their goal for them. They need to learn to trust themselves but find it too scary. There are those who unconsciously want to rebel against goals, or prove they can never achieve them, or use them in a power struggle. Then there are those who (unconsciously) believe that meeting a goal will mean the therapist will abandon them since there's no longer an excuse for a relationship. The one-size fits-all approach is partly what makes dogmatic Freudian interpretations problematic.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:27 AM on October 17 [2 favorites]


Obscure Reference, thanks for these contributions. I think it's important to disentangle talk therapy as a humanistic practice from intellectual arguments with Freudian dogma, and I get the impression that Crews would agree to some extent (see what he says about Paul Dubois in the Guardian piece) as long as no one mentioned the F-word in his presence...
posted by Mocata at 12:16 PM on October 17 [2 favorites]


Huh? Given, I don't think there's any controlled evidence for psychoanalysis per se

I feel like psychodynamic stuff is a far cry from Freud, regardless of antecedent.
posted by smoke at 3:03 PM on October 17


Freud's attempt to keep psychoanalysis pure

For a guy so allegedly invested in scientific purity and intellectual integrity, he sure did falsify and embellish a lot of his clinical data.
posted by saulgoodman at 3:20 PM on October 17


Different people need different approaches.

People go to a therapist due to pain or disorder in their lives, though, right? Isn't the ultimate agenda always to correct that?
posted by Coventry at 7:37 PM on October 17


That then begs the question of "what does 'correct' look like?" That too varies from person to person.
posted by obliterati at 8:05 PM on October 17


""I readily admit my dependence on Spinoza's doctrine," Freud once wrote, and Spinoza summarized his own position by affirming that, "the soul acts according to fixed laws; and is, as it were, a spiritual automaton (automatum spirituale). Thus it can be maintained that Freud's work was established, however imperfectly, on a sound scientific foundation."

Sure, just like homeopathy.
posted by klangklangston at 8:19 PM on October 17 [1 favorite]


"what does 'correct' look like?"

The agenda might not be precise, but I would say there is one.
posted by Coventry at 11:27 PM on October 17


Of course. It's just at that level of specificity, it's about as helpful as an agenda of "get food" for someone who's starving. What's true of therapy generally, beyond psychoanalysis/psychodynamic therapy, is that it provides collaborative guidance for how to enact such a broad agenda in a way that accounts for the specific contours of a person's life and learning history. One aspect that gets people into therapy is not being very skilled at contacting, or even noticing, these aspects of themselves. If they were able to recognize or understand or act on good advice, they would have already done so in most cases; there's plenty of good advice out there. But there's some psychological obstacle(s) in the way, and so there they show up (hopefully).
posted by obliterati at 4:20 AM on October 18


It's worth noting that Freud and psychoanalysis in general have "held on" in America much more than other places.

This is very wrong. Europe and South America have much larger current practices of psychoanalysis, and have since probably the 1980s. I'm not sure what gave you the impression that Freud was particularly well-preserved in American clinical work. If anything, the US has always had a much more conflicted relationship with Freud than many other countries. But I do think it's worth noting that WWII caused a diaspora of European psychoanalysts. It's not clear what the geopolitical history of psychoanalysis would look like if WWII/the Shoah had not occurred.

I feel like psychodynamic stuff is a far cry from Freud, regardless of antecedent.

This is also wrong. Psychodynamics isn't preceded by Freud as a contingency of history, current psychodynamic therapies are directly tied to the ideas that Freud and earlier Freudians developed. The concept of psychodynamics itself, that is, a structure to the mind that both hides and allows to be revealed in a continual process the motivations that shape emotional and mental life, is profoundly Freudian as understood therapeutically.

There are many ways to criticize Freud, but the fashion for criticizing his therapeutic framework is misplaced, I think. The evidence is pretty clear that all therapeutic talk therapy approaches work about as well as each other, and that variations among clinicians and patients are much larger than variations among modalities. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a darling with MeFi, for reasons that have everything to do with the self-selection of MeFi members. CBT is also very well studied, and does well in many situations*, but there are structural reasons why it is so well studied. When we study other methods, and we have, they perform as well. (You can read Bruce Wampold and Michael Lambert on this.) There are plenty of reasons why someone might not want to enter into analysis, but I don't think that "it doesn't work" holds up as a reason anymore, not among people familiar with the research and without an agenda.

I also think that transference is one of the best explanatory tools we have for understanding interpersonal relationships (both real and fantasy), particularly with people in power and particularly with therapists.

*People who make big claims for the evidence that CBT works, and it does, but they do not caveat those claims adequately. If a study says CBT works for people suffering from phobias, that's all that study says. You cannot both claim the scientificity of the study and generalize it to other situations. If you have a phobia, and are also depressed, say, and there is no study proving the efficacy of CBT for that diagnosis cluster, then, unless you are willing to look at the same meta-analyses that say that all modalities work, you can't claim that CBT works for it.
posted by OmieWise at 6:30 AM on October 18 [8 favorites]


Thank you, Obscure Reference.
posted by marycatherine at 8:01 AM on October 18


It's just at that level of specificity, it's about as helpful as an agenda of "get food" for someone who's starving.

I'm just trying to understand what "no agenda" means.
posted by Coventry at 8:23 AM on October 18


> If anything, the US has always had a much more conflicted relationship with Freud than many other countries.

Quite.

Also, comprehension of Piaget's theory of "cognitive" developmental phases ("reasoning") and especially design of experiments with subject groups and individuals to test hypotheses in controlled and field settings. Documentation of this research is exacting, contrary to popular digests available to US readers, then and now, where it is received as abstruse or "inaccessible".

Historically, US American interest in psychology inter alia is limited to its instrumentality, or applications, to conditioning behavior that optimizes political economy, production output, and "management science", e.g. Durkheim, Turner, Skinner.
posted by marycatherine at 8:40 AM on October 18


Sure, just like homeopathy.

Yes, indeed, homeopathy starts from Spinozist principles regarding the spiritual and physical unity of the whole of nature. To find fault in the implementations is not to discredit the principles.
posted by No Robots at 10:48 AM on October 18


Thanks Omiewise and obscure reference. I wonder if my assumption was based on the humanities analysis I was engaging in more fully at the time.

I enjoyed this piece be mefis own Oliver Burkeman about the debate within the discipline.

I can see what you mean about the therapeutic framework, but I guess I feel like, is Freud still Freud without all the bullshit? Or has it become something else when we're not talking id and super ego, penis envy etc? Kinda like klang's paraphrase about corn above.
posted by smoke at 1:19 PM on October 18


I'm just trying to understand what "no agenda" means.

As a therapist, my "no agenda" generally means I'm trying to help my clients discover and achieve the type of life they want. I'm going to have some moral boundaries in there, but they're fairly broad -- I'm not going to support someone deciding and becoming a serial killer, for instance -- and I try not to impose my preferences on my clients. Therapy's not about giving advice, or training the client to do what the therapist thinks they should do. It's a process of helping the client discover what would be fulfilling and sustaining for themselves and going out and doing that.

So my agenda is always "I would like this client to be happy and healthy and balanced and fulfilled," and my training and personal experience certainly shapes what I think that looks like, but it shapes it in ways like "This person is easily able to access and regulate their emotions" and "This person understands their inner motivations most of the time" and "This person has mutually fulfilling relationships" and "This person feels a profound connection to the world around them" and "This person has work, hobbies, or other activities that bring them joy and a sense of meaning." It's not about "This person should be working X job and in a relationship with Y person and choosing to solve their problems using Z techniques." Does that make sense?
posted by lazuli at 8:53 AM on October 22 [1 favorite]


Yes. Thanks, lazuli.
posted by Coventry at 9:06 AM on October 22 [1 favorite]


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