Is Psychoanalysis the New Gay?

In the 70s, when I was in high school, people used the word gay to denote something being odd, strange, out-of-step or uncool. For instance, when suggesting to a friend that we go running, she might say, “That’s gay. No thanks.” Or to the teenager who did volunteer work at a nursing home, some kids might say, “That’s gay” too.

The other nite I was speaking to some candidates and analysts at an institute in NYC about the The Time to Treat the Times Campaign and it was there, among analysts, that I started to get the feeling that psychoanalysis has entered the realm of the “that’s gay”.  As I discussed this blog whose first entry title is, “To Preserve and Protect the Unconscious,” I suggested that perhaps an attack on the unconscious could be thought of as a human rights violation.  I also suggested that an attack on psychoanalysis is an attack on a humane way of perceiving the world and its people. I then read some of the letters written to the NYTimes (housed on this blog, “When the Analyst Intervenes”) and the floor opened for comments and discussion.

With some hesitation and yet great conviction, a senior analyst expressed the following (and this is a paraphrase) sentiments: “I take some issue with the language you are using I suppose. There is something about hearing the words psychoanalysis and the unconscious over and over again that I think is offputting. There is a history of psychoanalysis being seen as elite, and the unconscious is just not something people can relate to. ”  She referenced her training and how relieved she was to meet with others who were reading the work of Stephen Mitchell, rather than Freud.  It was as if Freudian ideas had harmed her, and perhaps, of course, in their Hartmann Era, New York Psychoanalytic Institute ego psychological melange, they had.  But she was not critiquing ego psychology and I was talking about the unconscious–not the adaptation to reality or some other conservative formulation.

We sat with her words for a bit when another analyst piped up and said something about how we should be stressing attachment and meaning in lieu of the unconscious.  It was becoming a hot potato.  While of course not everyone in the room was on the same page, there was something in what the senior analyst had articulated that felt familiar to me.  All I know is that as I listened, I found that my mood plummeted, and I felt filled with shame.  I wondered if I was in the midst of an induction?  The cry to make psychoanalysis more easily digestible is perhaps an understandable yet defensive response to its being lambasted as worthless, ridiculous, and laughable, but I think it is a move that should be analyzed and resisted.  It can lead us only into the closet.

I remember many gay men at the beginning of the AIDS crisis being horrified by drag queens who they feared would delegitimize their efforts to capture the attention of Ronald Reagan.  They were what we called at the time, “good gays.”  They died anyway.  The cleaning up of homosexuality will never work: the rectum, as Leo Bersani writes, remains a grave, and to gain rights and responsiveness, it had to be embraced for all it encompasses actually and symbolically.

The wish to water down something that I believe is best left untouched precisely because its potency makes some people uneasy, smacks of an oppressed and frightened mind set.  The work of Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi came to mind–particularly the ideas from The Colonizer and The Colonized.  Is this hegemony at work I wondered?  How is it that intelligent clinicians are internalizing shame about their psychoanalytically informed work?  As I began to wonder about shame and the position of the analyst in America an image came to mind from the early 80s where at the Gay Pride Parade, women with paper bags on their heads walked down the street.  In the midst of all the celebration and openness, they remained frozen in fear of being seen. Some held signs explaining that if they removed the bag, it would cost them their jobs. It was horrifying.

As I thought over reactions to the use of the words unconscious and psychoanalysis, I had the thought that psychoanalysis is just the most queer profession of all. We can never deny that Freud’s work practically began with a focus on the sexual lives of children. What could be more outre or threatening? And the American attempt to sanitize this psychoanalytic sexual morass has been extreme. In fact, perhaps the focus on trauma and sexual abuse largely championed by the American school of Relational Psychoanalysis can be seen as a defensive attempt to move us away from the frightening thoughts that arise in response to infantile sexuality?  So here is a thought:  is it possible that psychoanalysis stands in the last space left of that which is sexual yet unacceptable in the culture?  Should analysts denude psychoanalysis of its power so as to fit into the world of the life coach?  Or should psychoanalysts never back off of our sexual origins, which seem to make people a lot more uncomfortable than gay marriage? Should we accept our new designation in a long line of people who have proudly worn the mantle we now call queer?

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7 thoughts on “Is Psychoanalysis the New Gay?

  1. Wonderful post Tracy. This wishy washy fear of speaking of psychoanalysis or the unconscious is really pathetic. If this is what relational thinking amounts to, is it really any more radical than ego psychology with its accessible and adaptable model of adaptation which is so much easier to “relate” to than all that nonsense about drives and sex. In the meantime, we find someone like Zizek who speaks of object a, Lacan, the unconscious, and psychoanalysis endlessly and is more read and popular than any of the cautious accessible relaters. As Zizek himself would point out, this hesitation is in line with a modern model of multicultural tolerance where it is passe to truly fight or believe in anything. And this today is belief and ideology in its strongest form.

    • At the Freudian School of Quebec, it is not without reason that analysts differentiate psychoanalysis from psychotherapy in terms of the latter being anything which does not deal with precisely the Freudian unconscious. I appreciate your post, Tracy, but would only add that I have no shame in knowing myself – and having others know me – as a Freudian psychoanalyst. And indeed there IS something elite about that, insofar as “elite” points to our holding an open space for that which our society mindlessly closes off. If the only psychoanalysts were those whose thinking and being had become comfortable to the hegemonic forces that be, it would be no psychoanalysis at all.

    • just read your blog post. Well done.
      It strikes me that we always need a new “gay.”
      Or rather someone or group to serve as the bottom of the totem pole.
      And because gays aren’t really “gay” anymore which mostly means they are desexualized because they have to be in order for the rest of the world to be ok with them getting married… seems like we need a new group that pivots around sexual desires or behavior or something like that. Your post makes me think of the last 30 years of “sex panics” including satanic ritual abuse, repressed memory, and more contemporarily the exaggerated fear of “stranger danger” and teenage sex trafficking.

      • It is an interesting response, that psychoanalysts are the “new gay” because they are the pariahs who represent the excessive irrational of sexuality. And while most analysts these days fall over themselves with pride at the new found tolerance of sexual diversity, real consideration of sexuality (and maybe actual death drive) poses a dividing line between new gay analysts who hold firm to the queerness of concepts such as infantile sexuality, death drive, castration and the psychosis of everyday life vs. the new non gay who want to sweep all that sexual embarrassment under the carpet and assure the public that it is all about bonding, nurturing, attachment and relationship.

  2. i think we are coining a new term here–the queered analyst–the one who is less interested in civilization (and so less about relating and bonding) and more interested in the unbidden and the excessive and those urges to, in plain anglais, fuck and kill. the return to the pre-oedipal need not lead us to the pastoral. infants bite. mothers hate. hunger is not always object seeking–and sex is not always about relating. in fact, under that model, perhaps people who prefer sex with strangers, outside of marriage, never knowing the name of the one they enter/let enter them, are at risk of being pathologized, regardless of the objects they choose. But certainly analysts interested in those who do not relate, who express disinterest in sociability, and altogether turn eyes wide shut towards mutuality or recognition, are working with the old fashioned “id” in its fullest formation, no?

  3. Just read the following, by Charles Levin and I think it relates to the blog post and the thread that follows it. This from Charles Levin, “Given the power of splitting and projection to produce social solidarity when it is needed, all societies must in principle have a tendency to become totalitarian, even as they evolve, change, and attempt further democratization. Democratization can itself be transformed into an instrument of repression, to the extent that it confuses the purely formal equality required for the cultivation of individual freedom with the concrete equality of sameness and literal identity. Any “space” within society that cultivates a challenge to identifications will be suspected of undermining social cohesion and convention; any “space” that invites the retrieval of projections and encourages the critical examination of moral assumptions and idealizing fantasies will inevitably be treated with suspicion, because it will threaten the group identification with the archaic superego. So there will always be social pressure on psychotherapeutic space, even in the democratic cultures that make psychoanalysis possible in the first place. The systematic exploration of the unconscious will always tend to be driven underground by the uneasiness it provokes in the group.

    This social pressure is so strong that in recent decades it has been difficult for psychoanalytic therapists to remain in touch with the instinctual life of the body, especially in North America, where the relative affluence of middle-class suburban life has fostered the illusion that irrationality is not a significant factor in human life, that the unconscious is a quaint myth (like the traditional and primitive societies from which it devolved), and that all our human problems can be solved through benign supportive relationships, food, shelter, warmth, intersubjectivity, and the gleam in the mother’s eye. Of course, we all want these things, and we suffer when we are deprived of them. But their abundant supply will not make the unconscious go away, especially when the supply itself depends on nothing deeper, from a social point of view, after the collapse of traditional symbolic authority, than the professional aspirations of the friendly neighbourhood therapist and the conflicting commitments of the increasingly isolated nuclear family.”

    I think he is onto something.

    • Yes very much related to the discussion. In a listserv discussion with other analysts, someone suggested that the Colorado killing points out the gaps in mental health coverage. We need better mental health programs in all the schools. I pointed out that it is unlikely that the killer had any lack of access to mental health services in a time when kids trade Ritalin along with Starbursts. This line of reasoning perfectly matches a column by a Fox news psychiatrist who also believes that the killings have nothing to do with the ready supply of military grade ammunition and weapons on the internet but rather suggests that schools should have mandatory psychiatric testing as part of routine physical exams. While this is not to say that strong mental health supports are valuable in schools, this kind of reaction short circuits psychoanalytic thinking in favor of traditional social work ideals. The unspoken analytic dimension of the killings reveals a hidden fascination and desire for such catastrophes, fed by a media news entertainment industry that feeds on the jouissance of violence and horror. For analysts to ignore this dimension and become one more interest group lining up to get their fair share of the profits along with the gun makers, drug makers and media mavens suggests a lack of actual psychoanalytic thinking.

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