Psychoanalysis through a Psychosocial Lens

by Stephen Frosh

Forty years ago, I wrote and published a short paper—one of my very first—in the Bulletin of the British Psychological Society (now known as The Psychologist). It was called “Teaching Freud to Psychology Students” and was all of two pages long. I don’t remember fully what it said (I’m not even sure if I still have a copy), but I do recall that some of my academic colleagues were irritated by what they took to be my complaint that there was insufficient attention paid to psychoanalysis in the psychology curriculum.

They might have been right to be annoyed; after all, I had already been teaching Freud to my psychology students, and I’ve continued to teach psychoanalysis to students in psychology and other fields ever since. My complaint that there was no space to teach something I was already teaching was slightly disingenuous on my part, and I probably made some outrageous claims about psychoanalysis as a discipline that could speak to students’ concerns much more powerfully than the arid discourses of psychology, such as behaviourism, statistics, cognitive psychology, biological psychology, and so on. Attacking my colleagues for what they were teaching was not a great way to endear myself to them, let alone advance my argument that psychoanalysis might be a richer and more ethical approach to understanding ourselves and the questions we have about our relation to others.

Anyway, forty years later, it occurs to me that much of my academic career has been devoted to working out what psychoanalysis might have to say to students who want their studies to challenge them and also speak directly to their experience of the world. This has fuelled my own allegiance to the development of “Psychosocial Studies,” by which I mean an approach to understanding the human subject as a kind of meeting-point for “external” (or social) and “internal” (or subjective) forces—though of course this internal/external distinction is an oversimplification.

Psychosocial Studies is a transdisciplinary approach that aims to disrupt the tendency in more traditional social-science disciplines to separate the social from the personal and to make claims for “objective” knowledge over and against the “subjective” forms of knowledge cultivated in the humanities. Psychoanalysis becomes relevant here because it insists that processing all knowledge through subjective experience is the only legitimate way to be “objective”—that is, as both Freud and Lacan insisted, psychoanalytic understanding has to be experienced and not just learnt from the outside or, indeed, from books.

But exactly what sort of knowledge does psychoanalysis have to offer university students? Psychoanalysis is certainly not free, even today, from various colonialist, racist, and sexist tendencies. Indeed, historically, it has often been more conservative than progressive, and it remains burdened by various assumptions about gender, sexual identities, and cultural difference that can be made to collude with forces of oppression. In places such as Nazi Germany or the Brazil and Argentina of the late twentieth-century dictatorships, this resulted in a considerable degree of conforming with authoritarian rule that undermines the expectation that psychoanalysis might always be socially progressive. It is also, in its professional guise, largely privatised and very expensive, accessible mainly to wealthy, white patrons, even though there is also a long history of free and low-cost clinics offering psychodynamic treatment to disadvantaged populations. Moreover, psychoanalytic training institutes have often operated as closed shops, recruiting from a narrow range of candidates and sustaining themselves through exclusionary practices that encourage conformity. None of this necessarily promotes a sense of psychoanalysis as a living discipline that can speak to the searching concerns of students who want to find critical leverage on the damage being done by the unequal societies in which they live, from racist policing to sexist legislation to global warming, neo-colonialist violence, and war.

Yet psychoanalysis can offer students critical insights into psychosocial issues and new and rich perspectives on ethics as such. This can be seen especially clearly in the enduring radical tradition within psychoanalysis—a tradition that is often much more familiar to cultural and social critics than to psychoanalysts themselves. In my own work, I have linked this tradition with certain currents in Jewish thought—just one example of an interdisciplinary approach that can help students see how psychoanalysis is best understood as a mode of ethical relationality, in which what matters most is the approach to the Other. This includes encounters with those who might be one’s “neighbours”—that is, those with whom (to allude to Judith Butler’s work on Hannah Arendt) one shares a certain world.

What I try to show my students at Birkbeck, University of London, is that psychoanalysis promotes an openness to otherness by helping us to map the complexity of psychic life, including the ways in which it’s both conditioned and disrupted by affective, often conflictual, engagements with those to whom and for whom we are responsible. I try to show them how the pursuit of clarity and rationality is always conditioned by the murk and mystery of our relations with others and by our own largely unconscious experience.

Many students find it difficult at first to accept the concept of the unconscious—that our relationships with ourselves and with others are mediated by impulses, wishes, and desires of which we’re not consciously aware or that seem to come from “somewhere else,” somewhere that is “not-me” yet deeply inscribed in my psyche. Many others are relieved and excited to recognise their own emotionally complex experiences in the “academic” literature. I also try to help them understand that—whatever “constitutional” elements there might be to the unconscious, such as those posited by classical drive theory—our relational or intersubjective encounters, and the social and linguistic structures that shape them, actually constitute our supposedly “internal” sense of reality. Through our readings and discussions, students see that this model of self-other relations is broadly accepted across a wide range of contemporary psychoanalytic schools, including object-relational and interpersonal/relational schools, as well as in various Lacanian reformulations of drive theory, seduction theory, and gender theory.

Above all, what I hope my students will come away with is an understanding of the ways in which otherness has found a primary place in contemporary psychoanalytic thought and practice and that they can use their psychoanalytic education to help them link the immediacy and delicacy of their sense of “inner” selfhood with the aspects of social and political life they see around them. Against the caricatured view of psychoanalysis as “self-absorbed,” this approach to Psychosocial Studies reveals how closely the ethics of psychoanalytic treatment—that every individual subject is worthy of attention and care—is bound up with social critique.