A psychotherapy of the right?

In my previous post I began to explore the question of whether psychotherapy in this country is left-wing or at least whether it has left leanings.  I posed this question in the context of the recent UK election and Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise ‘victory’ (he lost but you wouldn’t know it), and the apparent (and very sudden) retreat of the right and an equally apparent and sudden resurgence of the liberal left/social liberalism.   I then went on to explore the history of psychoanalysis/therapy in relation to ‘the left’ and concluded that although there have always been criticisms of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis from the left, and particularly with regards to its tendency to adhere to an ideology of individualism and the often prohibitive cost of therapy, on the whole, and certainly over recent decades, there has been a definite incorporation of left-wing ideas within the discourse of psychotherapy.

However, this has to be immediately qualified insofar that by ‘left-wing’ I am referring to a shift from class to identity politics which can be traced back to the failure of the left in the 1960s to mount a serious challenge to the established economic, social and political order.  Instead there was essentially a ‘retreat into the self’ based around the idea that if you can’t change the system then at least you can change your experience of, and relation to, it.  This was very closely linked to the idea of ‘the personal is political’ which began to gain ground in the early 1970s and which, as I indicated above, eventually morphed into today’s identity politics.  And, of course, psychotherapy is perfectly positioned to engage with questions of personal identity, even if, as is the case with psychoanalytically orientated therapies, the aim is (or should be) to call such identities into question.

The problem with the focus on identity and identity politics, both for politics and psychotherapy, is that it is stuck within the realm of the Lacanian Imaginary, which is also the realm of meaning.  And this gives rise to a rather interesting paradox, especially for Lacanian psychoanalysis, which is always very wary of meaning.  In order to challenge, to deconstruct, meaning, and especially the meanings that individuals give to their lives, psychoanalysis has to develop its own, and very elaborate, system of meaning, its own discourse.  And the end result, as Foucault pointed out long ago, is that rather than ‘deconstructing’ the human subject psychoanalysis simply constructs a new one: the psychoanalytic subject.

This matters, I would argue, because the question of meaning is closely linked to the question of identity.  In fact, meaning equates with identity.  If we go back to the Saussuarian roots of Lacan’s semiotics for a moment the reason for this becomes clear: the signified is the idea, the image, that is produced by the signifier.  So when someone identifies themselves, for example, as being ‘gay’, ‘heterosexual’,  ‘socialist’, or ‘fascist’, each of these identities is based on a set of meanings.

Of course, it is not quite that simple, because identifying oneself  as ‘gay’, ‘heterosexual’, ‘socialist’ or ‘fascist’ is also based on one’s subjective experience of being-in-the-world and being-with-other-people.  And whilst subjectivity is to a large part constructed through language and discourse, there is always something else, something that escapes meaning.  At this point identity politics, and any psychotherapy based upon identity politics, starts to run into difficulties.  A politics and psychotherapy based around meaning and identity will always remain trapped in the Imaginary; and this includes, I would argue, any Lacanian approach to identity and meaning that, however hard it may challenge these concepts, remains caught up within its own discourse of meaning and identity.  In other words, still fixated on the question of the signifier and signification.  What is needed instead, I would argue is a shift from signification to the Real.  Or, to use a terminology I introduced a while back, from the signifier-in-relation to the signifier-in-isolation.

Such a psychoanalysis of the Real does, in principle at least, already exist.  It is in essence the basis of what is often described as the ‘late Lacan’; the clinic of the Borromean Knot, of jouissance, of the sinthome.  Furthermore, that great champion of the Lacanian left (until recently anyway), Slavoj Žižek, has for many years been promoting these theories.  However, I would argue that the full implications of such an approach have yet to be fully realised.

The first crucial point to recognise regarding such a psychoanalysis of the Real is that it is related very closely to Lacan’s 1978 proposition that we are all mad, that is, delusional.  I’ve already touched upon this subject in my post on psychodamnation but I think it’s worth reiterating that this proposition calls into question the concept of the differential clinic.  In other words, the idea that we can still differentiate between psychotic, neurotic and perverse structures.  The Millerian school, which is the main proponent of the ‘late Lacan’, is still (just about) hanging onto the idea of such a differentiation but, in my view at least, is fighting a losing battle of its own making.  It has already completely abandoned, as far as I can tell, the concept of the perverse structure, and with the introduction of the idea of ordinary psychosis is steadily blurring the boundary between neurosis and psychosis ‘proper’.  Having said that, and as I also pointed out in that post, just because we are all mad does not mean we are all psychotic.  The key point here, perhaps, is how different subjects engage with, relate to, their own madness, their own delusions.

At the same time though, a world within which ‘we are all mad’, in which we are all delusional, raises a serious question about the aim of psychoanalysis/ therapy.  In his paper on the Two Statuses of the Symptom, Jean-Louis Gault argues that with the neurotic subject, the aim of an analysis is to move from the Symbolic to the Real, in order to decipher the symptom; whereas in the case of a psychotic subject the aim is the reverse, that is, to move from the Real to the Symbolic in order to construct a symptom (or rather, a sinthome).  However, if we also subscribe to the idea that the Name-of-the-Father is itself a sinthome, which Lacan states clearly in his Joyce seminar, then one might start to question why anyone would want to decipher, to deconstruct even, the very thing that’s keeping them anchored in the world, which is essentially the function of the sinthome?

I will come back to the question of the sinthome in moment, but first I want to come back to the question of identity politics in relation to analysis/therapy.  I mentioned earlier the concept of ‘psychodamnation’, which is my own take on the concept of psychosalvation.  This is the idea that psychotherapy can provide the modern and secular version of Christian salvation.  As I highlighted in my post on this subject, this idea became quite prevalent in the late 1960s onwards, and particularly in the field of the humanistic and person-centred therapies.   One of its most (in)famous incarnations is the idea of ‘self-actualisation’: the notion that one can become the person one wants to be, regardless, it would seem, of socio-economic realities, or indeed, any other practical constraints.

However, a modified version of self-actualisation can be found in the form of identity politics, where there is more practical scope to become a particular sort of person, that is, in terms of assuming a particular identity.  This is not to say that there aren’t any constraints here – on the contrary.  For example, in some countries and cultures if you declare yourself to be openly gay there could be severe consequences.  However, and this goes back to the question of being in a socially liberal/liberal left society, in many cultures today it is, at least in principle, possible to be anyone you want to be.  And interestingly enough, of course, such identities can include a whole range of psychopathological ones, for example, bi-polar, borderline, autistic, and so on.

But as I mentioned earlier, the problem with identity politics – and any psychotherapy that incorporates its ideology, is that it is stuck in the Imaginary register.  And this has serious consequences – both political and clinical.   Essentially it becomes impossible to effect any real changes, both in terms of individual subjectivity and in the wider social/political universe.  In order to effect any real changes, one has to move from the Imaginary into the Symbolic and ultimately, I would argue, into the Real.  This is the realm of the Political, as opposed to ‘politics’, which is essentially still stuck in the Imaginary.  The Political is the realm of (real) power, antagonism, contradiction.  ‘Politics’ is the illusion that such contradictions, such fundamental antagonisms, do not really exist, or if they do, they can be overcome.

In clinical terms, the shift from the Imaginary to the Symbolic/Real is essentially a shift from identity and meaning into the world of trauma, in the sense that trauma is the manifestation of the Real.  In fact, we might argue that the Political itself is as much in the realm of trauma as it is the realm of antagonism.  The key point here is that in the realm of trauma what’s at stake for the subject is not to try and establish an identity, a meaning for themselves as an end in itself, but only insofar as this might help them live with/through the trauma.  In this sense meaning and identity function as a sinthome, as a way of anchoring the subject.

At this point I would like to go back to the question of politics and therapy.  Earlier, I argued that ‘left-wing’ nowadays equates closely to the idea of identity politics rather than class politics.  Furthermore, such a politics is very much associated with social liberalism, inclusiveness, universalism, and all the other values that, apparently, the people who voted for Brexit were opposed to.  If there is any credence to the argument that, generally speaking, psychotherapy as a profession subscribes to these same values, then it seems to make sense to talk about psychotherapy being (ideologically) ‘left-wing’, or at least ‘left-leaning’.

This then begs another question: how might we describe, ideologically and politically, an approach to therapy, to analysis, that focused on the Real, rather than on the Imaginary?  In other words, does a shift from identity politics to trauma correspond to a ideological and political shift in some way?  In fact, would it be stretching things too far to suggest that perhaps we might be looking at an approach to analysis/therapy that is of the right rather than of the left…?

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